Live-Blogging The SOTU 2014

Andrew Sullivan’s excellent live-blog of the State Of The Union 2014 speech delivered by President Obama. My own thoughts and reaction to follow.

The Dish


10.22 pm. The metaphor of the soldier slowly, relentlessly, grindingly putting his life back together was a powerful one for America – and Obama pulled off that analogy with what seemed to me like real passion. One aspect of his personality and his presidency is sometimes overlooked – and that is persistence. He’s been hailed as a hero and dismissed as irrelevant many times. But when you take a step back and assess what he has done – from ending wars to rescuing the economy to cementing a civil rights revolution to shifting the entire landscape on healthcare – you can see why he believes in persistence. Because it works. It may not win every news cycle; but it keeps coming back.

If he persists on healthcare and persists on Iran and persists on grappling, as best we can, with the forces creating such large disparities in wealth, he will…

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On Expectations

Two very interesting pieces from the New York Times on the expectations we place on our young people, on those who educate and nurture them, and on our governments. The statistics and minutiae relate to the United States, but the underlying themes and sentiments are, I think, equally relevant to the United Kingdom.

The first is by Thomas Friedman, who lays bare two oft-neglected reasons why educational outcomes in the United States are falling behind those of other countries – the fact that American children are much less willing than they were even in recent decades to put in the work to achieve at high levels, and the fact that their parents demand too little (or demand the wrong things) of the schools to which they are sent. Friedman quotes Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s recent speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders:

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

Imagine that. It would be wonderful to face a problem such as that faced by South Korea here in Britain. A nation full of parents – of all socioeconomic groups – so anxious for their children to succeed, to learn foreign languages, to get ahead from day one, that not only do they actively help their children to succeed academically, but also punish politicians who are perceived to stand in the way of that progress. In Britain, it seems that almost the opposite has taken place – government has rushed with great eagerness to throw money at the education system, with spending doubling in a relatively short period of time, while parents sit back and expect the entire job to be done for them. And those parents who do take a particularly active interest are looked down on by the rest and labelled “pushy parents”, while supposedly serious think tanks propose charging the richer and more astute parents to send their children to the same state schools that other children attend for free.

Friedman asks the following question, one which he hopes President Obama will take up in his upcoming State of the Union address:

Are we falling behind as a country in education not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?

Ultimately, it is not all about government. It isn’t all about paying our taxes and sitting back and expecting the rest to fall into place automatically. It is difficult in Britain, because the tax burden is so heavy and the state so large that it is almost right to expect miraculous things from the government in all areas. But as a nation I believe we urgently need to dis-enthrall ourselves from the idea that government spending and government policy are the only lever available to improve educational outcomes.

He may have many powers, but he can't make your kids smarter.
He may have many powers, but he can’t make your kids smarter.

A revolution in personal responsibility and self-motivation would go such a long way. But who will have the courage to lead such a revolution, when the Conservative-led government, supposedly the champions of individual liberty and personal responsibility, is more inclined to protect parents from the potential consequences of their lazy parenting by erecting a pornography filter on the internet than to risk offending them by suggesting that they are derelict in allowing television and the internet to raise their children unsupervised?


The second article is depressing in quite another way, and concerns parents who suspect that their child might be gifted. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes that an analysis of Google searches reveals that parents in the United States are much more likely to suspect their sons of being intellectually gifted than their daughters, and are more likely to worry about the weight of their daughters than their sons. In other words, even if children were to be magically shielded from the weight of expectations and stereotypes in society at large, some of the most pervasive and damaging ones – that girls should be pretty and slim, and boys intelligent – originate from much closer to home.

To wit:

Start with intelligence. It’s hardly surprising that parents of young children are often excited at the thought that their child may be gifted. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old,” the most common next word is “gifted.” But this question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Parents show a similar bias when using other phrases related to intelligence that they may shy away from saying aloud, like, “Is my son a genius?”

And this:

What concerns do parents disproportionately have for their daughters? Primarily, anything related to appearance. Consider questions about a child’s weight. Parents Google “Is my daughter overweight?” roughly twice as frequently as they Google “Is my son overweight?” Just as with giftedness, this gender bias is not grounded in reality. About 30 percent of girls are overweight, while 33 percent of boys are. Even though scales measure more overweight boys than girls, parents see — or worry about — overweight girls much more often than overweight boys.

Parents are about twice as likely to ask how to get their daughters to lose weight as they are to ask how to get their sons to do the same. Google search data also tell us that mothers and fathers are more likely to wonder whether their daughter is “beautiful” or “ugly.”

If she's gifted then that's a bonus, but the real question is whether or not she is overweight.
If she’s gifted then that’s a bonus, but the real question is whether or not she is overweight.

Apparently these biases transcend socioeconomic group and political affiliation, and so the results cannot be neatly explained away along these lines.

While I probably should not be surprised at these findings, they still make for fairly sobering reading. Stephens-Davidowitz wonders whether there might be a measurable change in the statistics once a woman is elected president and that the eyes of the holdouts might then finally be opened to the intellectual equality of women, but I fear that just as the Obama presidency failed to usher in the post-racial American era, so the first woman president will struggle to overcome the inertia of this weight of expectation.

Two pieces on expectations. The expectations we hold for ourselves, our children and our government. Some food for thought as the weekend draws to a close.

Treading Water On NSA Surveillance, Ctd.

Evidently given prior notice of the dissatisfaction that was certain to fall on his head should he fail to announce any substantive changes to the bulk telephony data collection programme that flourished under his administration, President Obama triangulated and managed  to set out a plan that included the illusion of substantive changes. It may prove enough to fool the trusting and the credulous, but there are precious few of those sorts of people left to be fobbed off.

He listens. He gets it.
He listens. He gets it.

The New York Times gives a good overview:

President Obama, declaring that advances in technology had made it harder “to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” announced carefully calculated changes to surveillance policies on Friday, saying he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to telephone data, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But Mr. Obama left in place significant elements of the broad surveillance net assembled by the National Security Agency, and left the implementation of many of his changes up to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves.

The one announcement not earlier anticipated by the New York Times was the fact that the president may be slightly more amenable to the idea of telecommunications companies or as-yet unspecified third parties holding the unconstitutionally-gotten telephony metadata, rather than the NSA itself. The Times reports:

On the question of which entity will hold the storehouse of phone metadata, the president said Mr. Holder would make recommendations in 60 days. Privacy advocates have called for telecommunications providers to keep the data, though many of the companies are resisting it.

And resist they should. Due to the sensitive and highly politically charged nature of the data being held, why would a private firm wish to open itself to potential liability from lawsuits by hosting the data? Furthermore, unsavoury and unconstitutional though it may be for the government to be collating this data, it is probably more secure in the hands of the paranoid and capable people at the NSA than it would be in some corporate data centre.

But all of this is beside the point – it is not the question of where the data is hosted that upsets civil libertarians. If someone robbed banks for a living, the main concern of the public would not be where the robber is hiding the stolen cash before laundering it, it would be the fact that he is robbing banks in the first place. Similarly, the point of contention here is not whether the US government or private telecommunications companies holds vast troves of data about the telephone calls made by US and foreign citizens – it is the fact that the government seeks to monitor and check this information without a warrant to do so in the first place.

It is hard to listen to anything that Obama says on the issue of national security and privacy without remembering that he wouldn’t be saying anything at all had his clandestine spying apparatus not been revealed to the world by Edward Snowden, and that the debate that he now seeks to claim credit for starting would, if he had his way, be held only between competing interests in government, well out of the view or input of the public.

Glenn Greenwald is of the same viewpoint, seeing right through the sham:

The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are “serious questions that have been raised”. They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.

And how cosmetic these proposed “reforms” really are. Caught in the act of carrying out unconstitutional searches and intrusions into the private communications of US citizens, the president’s response is not to admit any fault, but to utter meaningless platitudes about the importance of “America’s values” while changing nothing of any substance at all:

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. “Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress,” he gushed with an impressively straight face. “One thing I’m certain of, this debate will make us stronger,” he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is this: “I believe we need a new approach.”

I have just finished reading the excellent essay by George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”. As well as helping me to realise just how pretentious and cumbersome my own writing can sometimes be on this blog (for which I can only apologise and pledge to try harder), it furnished me with this gem, this eternal truth:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And this one:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphamism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers … Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

President Obama, justifying the intrustive actions of the NSA and seeking to cast his proposed cosmetic reforms in a favourable light, and himself as a champion of individual liberty, said this:

“In an extraordinarily difficult job — one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic — the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people,” he declared. “What sustains those who work at NSA and our other intelligence agencies through all these pressures is the knowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of our nation.”

And this:

And yet, in our rush to respond to very real and novel threats, the risks of government overreach – the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security – became more pronounced. We saw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values. As a Senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.

Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight, and adjustments by the previous Administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties.

The “worst excesses” to which Obama refers? Torture. Extraordinary rendition. Illegal search and invasion of privacy. But “techniques that contradicted our values” sounds so much better, so much more clinical and so much less descriptive of what happened.

This isn’t good, is it?


The blogger MyKeyStrokes writes an excellent piece trying to dissect the American right wing’s newfound, fruitless obsession with the idea of impeaching President Obama.

Yeah, that's not going to happen.
Yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Essentially, those elected GOP officials and conservative pundits who peddle this impeachment talk know that there is zero chance of making this outcome a reality – but of course, that was never their aim:

Sometimes politics is like high-stakes poker. If you look around the table after a few hands and you can’t tell who’s the pigeon, citizen, chances are it’s you: the guy who plunked down $26.95 for a book called Impeachable Offenses: The Case for Removing Barack Obama from Office.

Yeah, you with the “Impeach Obama” bumpersticker on your car. The guy standing on a freeway overpass waving a “Honk for Impeachment” sign. You may as well go around in a little bird’s nest hat, like Donald Duck’s eccentric friend Gyro Gearloose.

Because it not only ain’t going to happen, but the people peddling this nonsense don’t even want it to happen. Not really. They’re just making a buck off people who can’t count and running a classic misdirection play.

Yes. Making a quick buck by whipping scared people into a furious rage, and then either selling them products that help to reinforce their End Times beliefs (Obama wants to destroy America! We are now a socialist country!) or leveraging their support to achieve higher political office.

As MyKeyStrokes sees it, however, this is potentially good news for any centrist or Democratic-leaning voter, because the more preoccupied the GOP becomes with the alluring mirage of seeing President Obama impeached, the more they inadvertently reveal that they have given up hope of passing any of their agenda (see the 40 pointless votes to repeal ObamaCare in the House of Representatives as just one shining example):

Like it or not, the possibility of repealing “Obamacare” ended when the Supreme Court found it Constitutional and the president won re-election. You’d think after 40 — count ’em, 40 — fruitless votes to abort the law, that message might start to sink in. We still have majority rule in this country.

But no, it hasn’t sunk in at all. Like a baseball team demanding to play the eighth game of the World Series, GOP hardliners have come up with yet another plan to force the president’s hand. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has called for something he infelicitously called a “grassroots tsunami” to make Obama relent.

Whether the GOP’s current malaise is a good or bad thing largely depends on one’s own political leanings, or the importance that one attaches to having a functioning two-party system where neither party is beholden to an intractable, crazy political base. Personally, as someone who advocates for smaller government and empowering the citizen over the state (and consequently very much against the recent assaults on the First and Fourth Amendments by the Bush and Obama administrations), I find it disheartening to find myself frequently having to side with Democrats because the other side are, more often than not, acting in a totally nihilistic, immature manner.

It was bad enough when this childish behaviour (“I didn’t get my way, so now I’m taking my toys and leaving, and refusing to cooperate or compromise in the business of government”) was limited to the House of Representatives, but now we see this reality-denial infecting the Senate as well. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are rising stars in the GOP, and both have some degree of promise. Certainly neither of them are stupid. And yet they both seek to burnish their conservative credentials by playing chicken with the US debt ceiling again, and failing to call out the crazies from among their supporters who have persuaded themselves to believe that a twice-elected president pursuing his political agenda is somehow akin to “high crimes and misdemeanors” worthy of impeachment:

At a recent town hall meeting in Muskogee, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, ostensibly a personal friend of the president’s, answered a constituent’s question about impeachment by allowing as how “those are serious things, but we’re in serious times. And I don’t have the legal background to know if that rises to ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ but I think you’re getting perilously close.”

Campaigning in Texas, Senator Cruz responded to a constituent who asked, “Why don’t we impeach him?” by saying, “It’s a good question.”

No. It isn’t a good question. It’s a dumb question. Ted Cruz graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and assuming he wasn’t high during his constitutional law lectures, understands perfectly well that Obama has not committed any impeachable offense any more than have the previous eight or so presidents.


But impeachment is not the goal. The business of governing through compromise is not the goal. Even the full enactment of their declared conservative agenda is not the goal (Republicans will rail against dependence on government but would never risk the wrath of the AARP by voting to abolish the socialised medicine that is MediCare). So what is the goal?

Money and/or Political Power.

And all of those saps “honking to impeach” Obama are playing right into their hands.

Best Thing Of The Day

The satirical newspaper and website The Onion can be somewhat hit-and-miss these days, but the other day they posted one of their best articles in years. In terms of sheer whimsy and surrealism, I don’t think it can be beaten, at least not since the hilarious George W. Bush pieces that they posted in the waxing days of his presidency.

In their latest piece, The Onion report that Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, has been sworn in as the nation’s first female, and 45th president of the United States, after President Obama, Joe Biden and the next six in line to the presidency were killed in a tragic hot air balloon disaster.

I quote at length:

WASHINGTON—Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell was sworn in today as the 45th president of the United States, reciting the oath of office in a brief ceremony at the White House and expressing her continued disbelief that the president, vice president, House speaker, president pro tempore of the Senate, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, and attorney general were all in that hot-air balloon together.

Speaking to citizens in a short inaugural address, Jewell, a 57-year-old Seattle businesswoman who was confirmed as Interior Secretary less than three weeks ago, acknowledged the challenges ahead for the nation and noted how “really quite strange” it was that Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Boehner, Patrick Leahy, John Kerry, Jacob Lew, Chuck Hagel, and Eric Holder mutually agreed to take the day off and rent a hot-air balloon for the afternoon.

“It is with both humility and gratitude that I assume this office, while extending my deepest condolences to the families of Barack Obama and the seven government officials directly before me in the presidential line of succession, who, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, decided to drive together to a fairground outside Washington and take a two-hour hot-air balloon tour of the Virginia countryside,” Jewell said in her speech, delivered less than a day after the country’s top politicians reportedly agreed on a whim that a communal balloon ride would be “a lot of fun.” “I never expected to be in this position, especially not under circumstances in which our nation’s highest leaders died on the same day in an accident involving a hot-air balloon, which, for some reason, all eight of them willingly piled into even though it was clearly posted that the maximum occupancy was four. You have to admit, it’s very bizarre.”

The Onion's Fictitious Hot Air Balloon Disaster
The Onion’s Fictitious Hot Air Balloon Disaster

And what a great feat of photoshopping too. The article continues:

According to Jewell, adding to her bewilderment was the fact that the men were neither barred from the outing nor even moderately discouraged by aides or Secret Service agents. Rather, reports indicate that members of the officials’ security details simply smiled and happily waved to the two highest officeholders of the executive branch, the two leading figures in Congress, and four top cabinet members as they crowded into the balloon’s basket and began to ascend.

“What’s particularly odd is that these officials weren’t even ordered into the balloon by President Obama; it was Chuck Hagel’s idea, and everyone else readily went along with it of their own will,” said President Jewell in front of framed portraits of the deceased men. “And given that the president and vice president aren’t even allowed to fly in the same plane for safety reasons, it’s truly shocking that, instead of reconsidering their actions when John Kerry had a brief moment of trepidation before stepping aboard, they all just said, ‘It’s fine! You’re going to love it!’”

“And the next thing you know, there they are, rising to 500 feet in that cramped, bulging basket, smiling and laughing without a concern in the world,” Jewell added. “Looking at it now, it all seems incredibly foolhardy, if not almost entirely improbable.”

This stuff is just priceless. The Onion and The Daily Mash continue to be two of the best, most amusing websites in existence today.