Wednesday, December 31, 2008

the honorable thing

Last week R. Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, a French hedge fund manager working in New York, tabulated his losses: 1.6 billion dollars, his own money and that of his clients, poured down Bernard Madoff’s bottomless cavity. He called one important Parisian client and confessed his anguish; he had “betrayed” those who trusted his acumen. He tried but failed to recover the money. That night, he asked the cleaning staff to leave early, so that he might work late in peace. When morning came, according to the New York Times:

Security officers discovered the body of Mr. de la Villehuchet, a co-founder of Access International Advisors, in a chair, with one of his legs propped on his desk. His wrists and his left biceps were slashed, said Paul J. Browne, a New York police spokesman. A wastebasket had been placed under his bleeding biceps, Mr. Browne said.

smirking Madoff - dailymailIt is possible to see de la Villehuchet’s suicide not as cowardice or comeuppance, but as an expression of deep moral courage. He had made a drastic mistake, an act of inexcusable negligence resulting in terrible consequences for a great many people whose vulnerability was a direct result of the trust they granted him. There was absolutely no way for him to repair the damage, and nothing in his power could possibly achieve suitable contrition. Facing an unthinkably large debt of guilt, he surrendered his only comparable asset – his entire universe.

In Victorian England, this was “doing the honorable thing”. Were you fully disgraced, your friends and colleagues would leave a bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver in your study, and you knew what was yours to do. Your end, achieved in privacy and dignity, would eventuate a sort of clearing of the moral air for everyone involved, most of all yourself. Under appropriate circumstances, this was understood to be obligatory on your part, although no one else would be justified in bringing about the desired end were you discovered uncouthly alive.

blagojevich - nytimesThese cases are importantly different from suicide prompted by despondency or fear. People like de la Villehuchet might very well wish to go on living, apart from their moral guilt. Nor are these cases of martyrdom; nothing positive is accomplished. No – these are deaths for the sole purpose of salvaging honor. By these lights, an honorable suicide is merited once one has irrevocably destroyed one’s social status in life. Honor might be recaptured for one’s legacy (and perhaps for the sake of one’s heirs) with a suitably monumental display of regret. But anything else will forfeit honor eternally.

In 1912 the Emperor Meiji died of cancer. As his funeral procession passed through Tokyo, General Nogi Maresuke and his wife drank some sake, put on fresh linens, and then carefully disemboweled themselves. Nogi thereby completed the ancient (but by then illegal) samurai ritual of junshi, the following of a vassal upon his master’s death. In his suicide note, Nogi pleaded culpability for mistakes made while commanding in the Russo-Japanese war. Given these failings, it would have been dishonorable for the general to remain alive once the emperor had passed. (That Nogi’s wife should also die, despite bearing no recognizable personal blame, was a separate tenet of what was even then deeply archaic samurai lore.)

seppuku - wikicommonsNogi’s seppuku divided Japanese public attention. It was an act of supreme loyalty and, in a sense, beauty. Samurai death rituals possess intricate, highly symbolic structure, including the composition of delicate jisei (death poetry) and a tightly prescribed sequence of blade movements. The act plainly requires extraordinary discipline, especially when, like Nogi, one has no assistant to deliver swift decapitation and must instead die slowly from the stomach wound. At the same time, Nogi’s seppuku marked an abominable encroachment of primitive custom on the rapidly modernizing Japanese culture. It was embarrassingly crude for a people rushing toward industrialism and democracy. There emerged agreement that such things must cease – and so they did, until a brief upsurge in interest among the military caste in 1945.

I wonder if the Apocalypse Lite flavor of today’s economic climate encourages actions like de la Villehuchet’s suicide, just as the epoch-making death of Meiji Tenno did for Japanese a century ago. As the global order sputters and staggers, does it seem more appropriate to balance one’s own moral accounts in a suitably conclusive manner? Can this really be the honorable thing to do?

I have mixed views about honor. The concept seems deservedly obsolescent, suggesting a desperate grip on the fraying tail of Romanticism, and carrying the faded but unmistakable odor of feudal patriarchy. Suicide for honor looks like a perfect example of just so much self-important insanity. Really, honestly, exactly what is accomplished by this sort of death? The end of de la Villehuchet’s life undoes exactly none of his mistakes; it leaves absolutely no one better off. The only result is that a human life, an irreplaceable singularity, a still-glittering prospect of extraordinary redemption, is no more. That, for this archaic vagary, this half-digested pseudo-virtue, this ‘honor’?

And yet. There is something admirable in a person’s saying through conduct: ‘This is my mistake. I own it, absolutely and permanently. There will be no equivocation, no blame-ducking. I deserve the consequences that I can’t prevent from falling on others. And with this act, all discussion is closed.’ Silly and romantic it might be, but such an unreluctant embrace of personal responsibility seems, for lack of a better word, noble. If nothing else, while Bernie Madoff smirks his way home and Rod Blagojevich names his own senator, one can’t help but wonder if they might have learned a thing about honor from Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet.

The Master of the World
has passed away--
and after him,
eager to serve my lord,
go I.

Nogi Maresuke, death poem

Monday, December 29, 2008

surprises and expectations

Here, in its entirety, is a story from Reuters:

”What are you doing here?”: man asks wife in brothel

WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish man got the shock of his life when he visited a brothel and spotted his wife among the establishment's employees.

Polish tabloid Super Express said the woman had been making some extra money on the side while telling her husband she worked at a store in a nearby town.

"I was dumfounded. I thought I was dreaming," the husband told the newspaper on Wednesday.

The couple, married for 14 years, are now divorcing, the newspaper reported.

Here’s what I want to know: was the woman surprised to see her husband in the brothel? And why doesn’t the article address that question?

Advanced primates that we may be, we’re still wired to notice the unusual or unexpected. What seems to be unusual or unexpected here (both to the man and to us) is that someone’s wife happened to be working in a brothel. It is not unusual or unexpected that someone’s husband happened to be frequenting a brothel. The man’s behavior is (relatively) normal; the woman’s is not.

Can you imagine this article having been written from the other perspective: ‘brothel employee surprised to see husband as client’? I don’t think we’ll ever see such an article. It’s too hard for us (and for the reporter, our proxy) to identify with this abnormal creature, the brothel employee who is also a wife. But we recognize familiarity in the brothel customer who is also a husband. It’s not that we’re necessarily any more similar to him. It’s just that we’re used to him. And so the story gets told from his angle.

There’s an interesting reinforcing mechanism at work here. The story treats the wife’s presence at the brothel as the surprising factor, because it is the part of the story that surprises us. And it surprises us because of articles like this.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Madam Secretary

The appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton as Obama's Secretary of State is interesting in all sorts of ways, but one seems especially durable. When Clinton takes office, it will be the case that three of the last four Secretaries of State are women.

This matters. Secretary of State is an immensely prestigious position. Thomas Jefferson was the nation's first; John Marshall and James Madison followed soon thereafter. The Secretary of State is fourth in the presidential order of succession, highest of all cabinet positions. Most cabinet secretaries are unknown to foreign leaders and the domestic population alike, but the Secretary of State is extraordinarily visible.

But the real point here is that the position of Secretary of State has traditionally been viewed as one possessing hard power. It requires competence with international realpolitik and a perceived willingness to make threats and compel obedience. Only two generations ago, it was common sense that no woman could occupy such a role. Now Clinton's appointment is remarkable solely because of her primary challenge to Obama; her gender is quite beside the point. The inclusion of women at almost the highest reaches of power has become normalized.

So Hillary Clinton did not get to be the first female president. But in a rather different way, she is part of the process that will eventually make it unremarkable for women to hold that position as well.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

here kitty kitty

If you've ever been trapped in a car or at a dinner table with cat people for very long, you know that we like to engage in casually speculative feline psychology. "Cats do such weird things!" we observe tirelessly. "Why do they do such weird things?" Then we proceed to document for one another the special weird things that our particular cats do, offering evolutionary or developmental guessplanations for these profoundly enigmatic behaviors. "Princess Fluffy always dips her left paw into the toilet water, never her right paw! She must have fallen into the toilet on her right side when she was a kitten!"

I've come to appreciate the inverse corollary to this practice. I like to think that cats are similarly watching us, acquiring data to support shaky conjectures about causal origins of our own bizarre activities. My roommate's cats watch me constantly. Wendy the cat will sit motionless at the foot of my bed for thirty minutes straight, staring as I read a book. (This can be extraordinarily creepy at night, especially when she maintains exactly that pose after I've turned off the lights.)

Jake, Wendy's brother, loves to watch me get dressed, prepare food, put on makeup, comb my hair, or do any other bit of morning maintenance that has no precise analog in the feline world. (Jake's own morning ritual involves yowling until he's fed and then licking himself.) He is especially obsessed with precise motor behavior involving repetitious employment of a small instrument, such as the brushing of teeth or the application of mascara.

I imagine that when I'm at work Jake and Wendy sit around discussing my behavior, and arguing about its underlying import. "Isn't it weird that she puts on jeans one leg at a time, rather than just jumping into both at once? She must have had an accident as a child." "Why does she always react so readily when that alarm clock makes noise? Humans must have been prey to gigantic buzzing digital displays in their ancestral environment!"

This is perhaps a part of the attraction of cats. Something about them - their panopticon eyes, their ability to purr contentedly in your arms mere seconds before violently and inexplicably perforating several square inches of your epidermis - suggests an intelligence keen enough to engage in something like psychological theorizing and a sentiment alien enough to motivate perplexed curiosity as to the ways of hairless bipedal apes.

A cat's unbroken gaze invites you to see yourself from the outside, to wonder how your own behaviors might appear to someone suitably distanced from your own point of view. Dogs, as wonderful as they are, seem to accept our actions enthusiastically and uncritically. "If Human is doing X, then there must be some darn good reason to do X!" No one takes cats to go hunting in the woods; they wouldn't stand for it.

Cats are living mirrors whose observant presence reminds us that there are other ways of seeing, and other ways of being. Sometimes that is enough to put obstacles in front of a rampant ego. And sometimes it is enough to remind the abstractly rambling subject that it is also a curiously concrete object.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

primary results

I heard someone (I think it was Jeff Zeleny of the NYT, speaking on PBS's 'Washington Week') make an interesting point about the election. Part of Obama's victory is due to his campaign's deliberate attempt to win across the country, even in states traditionally assumed to be Republican (such as Indiana and North Carolina). Part of that, we know, is a credit to Howard Dean's 50-state strategy for the DNC.

But part of it is also due (this is Zeleny or whoever's point) to the punishingly long Democratic primary season. Obama did so well in the general election because he put together campaign offices in states where Democrats don't normally bother, and he did this because the results in those states actually did matter during the primaries.

Consider: Obama won the Democratic primaries/caucuses in states like Montana, Virginia, Idaho, Colorado, and yes, North Carolina. The Clinton campaign notoriously failed to set up offices in several of these states, expecting the primary season to end on Super Tuesday, and lacking the logistical resources to adapt thereafter. Further, the Clinton strategy was based upon banking delegate in large states (like California and New York) that traditionally vote Democratic anyway, while the Obama strategy relied upon a slow accumulation of delegates from every state.

Arguably, it was the length of the primary season that induced Obama to be active - early and aggressively - across the country. Imagine that he had won all of the first several primary contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. Suppose Hillary had dropped out before or immediately after Super Tuesday. Surely then Obama would have done much less to create a campaign apparatus in traditionally Republican states - why bother at that point? But as it happened, North Carolina and Indiana held their primaries on the same day, May 6, three months after Super Tuesday. Surely Obama's intense efforts to win those primaries (he got NC by 15% and lost Indiana by 1%) contributed heavily to his later general election results there.

So it is likely that Barack Obama owes his victory - at least in part - to the tenacity of Hillary Clinton's opposition early this year. That is something that the Party should keep in mind when it gets to work revising the crazy primary rules. Maybe those rules are just as they should be.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Federal Government to Insure American Relationships

WASHINGTON (AP - filed 09:32 EST 10/10/08) – In the latest measure to combat growing uncertainty amid the global economic crisis, Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt announced that his department will launch a program to guarantee Americans’ investment in their personal relationships. The new program, called the Federal Relationship Insurance Yenta (FRIY), will provide free matchmaking services to any American citizen who has been abandoned by his or her romantic partner.

“Personal relationships are a foundation of American economic stability,” Leavitt told reporters at a press conference early Friday morning. “If people can’t be sure that they will have someone to come home to, they might not go to work at all.”

Laura H. Steinberg, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School and expert in relationship psychology, praised the federal initiative. “Research has shown that people who fear loneliness will frequently preemptively flee relationships they think are unstable, so that they can be the ‘dumper’ and not the ‘dumpee’. We call these cases ‘break up runs’, and they are a major source of domestic instability.”

Steinberg expressed confidence that a federal guarantee of partner replacement would make Americans less anxious about their current partnerships, and so less likely to leave the relationships they already have.

This logic is modeled on thinking behind recent expansion of FDIC coverage from the first $100,000 customers hold in insured bank accounts to $250,000. Economic policymakers are currently weighing a plan to extend coverage to all domestic deposits, regardless of size. Such measures are thought to ward off mass withdrawals from retail banks.

Other federal departments have instituted similar programs to reassure frightened Americans. Starting next academic year, the Department of Education guarantees that all college students who attend at least 75% of class sessions will receive no worse than a ‘C’ grade. The Commerce Department’s new Federal Reimbursement of Experimentation Entitlement (FREE) will provide refunds to restaurant diners who try new dishes and are not satisfied.

The FRIY program will face some difficulties in gaining congressional approval, largely concerning difficulties in defining ‘relationship’. Leavitt insists that coverage will extend at least to those who are going steady, but could not provide a more precise characterization.

“This program is too unclear to be workable,” complained House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI). “For instance, will the program include Americans with an established pattern of booty calls? What about friends with benefits?”

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the architect of the federal government’s guarantee program rollout, dismisses such criticisms. “In these times of uncertainty, we must do everything we can to eliminate the perception of risk. It’s important for every American to understand that no matter how bad things might get, nothing bad will ever happen to you personally.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

start bailing

Suppose you and a recent acquaintance rob a bank together. The cops now have you both in separate interrogation rooms. You’ve figured out that they don’t have enough evidence to get you on the robbery charge, but can probably put you away for a couple years on some minor count. The swarthy interrogator waddles into the room and glares at you. “Look,” he says, “we know you two did it. But if you agree to testify that your accomplice was the real perpetrator, we’ll let you go free.”

At first you hesitate, unsure if you should take the deal and condemn your accomplice to a much longer term than would be assigned if you stay quiet. But then you realize that they’re probably right now offering the exact same deal to your accomplice – and if your accomplice takes the deal and you don’t, then you will be the one going away for many years. But, oh yeah, if you both rat each other out, then that will give the cops enough evidence to put you both away for at least a few years.

As many readers know, what I’ve just described is the quintessential prisoner’s dilemma. This structure is common to many social problems. The basic idea is that if all members of a group cooperate, they will achieve some mutually beneficial end. However, a member who defects from the group can expect to achieve a much greater personal benefit, at the expense of the group as a whole. There is then a very strong incentive to not be the sucker who gets left holding the bag when a defector ruins the cooperative project. But if everyone defects, then things turn out pretty badly for everyone. Still, given the expected payoffs, it is usually rational for any individual member to defect.

Today’s failure of the economic bailout bill was a result of prisoner’s dilemma psychology. This prison has 435 inmates, each of whom will face her or his constituents in a few short weeks. Here’s what happened. The bailout bill is extremely unpopular; apparently constituent calls to congressional offices have run 100-to-1 against it. If you’re an incumbent congresscritter facing a tough reelection bid, you really don’t want to be caught voting for this bill. You can just imagine your opponent’s TV ads already: “The incumbent voted to give $700 billion of your money to greedy Wall Street pigs who have already spent it on hookers and blow. Think of how many celebrity magazines you could have bought with that $700 billion! Vote Opponent!” This would be a disaster.

On the other hand, if everyone in Congress votes against the bill and it fails, then the economy will collapse – which is also not a great thing to have on your record while running for reelection. Even if you do win, your congressional pension will be of limited use in our Mad Max future, with its barter economy and roving bands of glassy-eyed marauders.

Of course, what you really want is to be a lone defector, or at least among a small group of defectors. See, you want the bill to pass, so that there is still an economy next week. But you also want to vote against the bill, so that you can tell your constituents you hate rich people as much as they do. An ideal solution is that enough of your idiot colleagues vote for the bill to ensure its passage, while you run against it in your home district. And above all, you don’t want to be the stupid sap who votes for the bill when you could have gotten away with opposing it! What are you, a moron?

Hence the bill’s failure today: too many defectors, not enough cooperators. Want some empirical confirmation of the prisoner’s dilemma explanation? Of the 15 incumbent House members on the Washington Post’s ‘most threatened seats’ list, two-thirds voted against the bill. And among the 27 House members who are running unopposed this year? The exact opposite: two-thirds voted for the bailout. (Among unchallenged incumbent Republicans, Ron Paul is here the sole grumpy exception that proves the rule.)

But all is not lost. There will be another vote later this week, in which we will see the power of the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. This is a variant in which the dilemma is repeated – but only after the cooperators have some chance to punish those who defected the first time round. Expect to see Nancy Pelosi taking away lucrative committee seats from uncooperative Democrats. Who knows what horrors John Boehner may have in store for his recalcitrant partisans. The bill will pass. This economy is too big to fail!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ant and Grasshoper: a Modern Fable

Ant lived in a sunny little meadow. All through the summer, he worked dawn to dusk, sawing twigs and cutting leaves, building for himself a modest but sturdy house. What little spare time he had he spent constructing furniture sets, which he sold to the other bugs in the meadow for a few scraps of food, which he then put into storage. Ant’s work was humble, but it was honest. His family – his father, his grandfather, and his 17,000 uncles – had done the same kind of work as far back as anyone could remember.

Next door to Ant lived Grasshopper. Ant did not understand exactly what Grasshopper did all day; she seemed to spend most of her time chatting with visitors lounging in her leaf hammocks (which Ant had made for her, and on which she still owed several delinquent payments). Ant had once heard her offering her visitor some “great returns on sapling-backed securities!”, but his head hurt when he tried to understand these words. Mostly Ant noticed that Grasshopper had lots of fancy stuff.

One night Ant returned home exhausted, after a long day cutting shards of leaf in the forest, and had barely climbed into bed when a shrieking calamity rattled his walls. He rushed out the front door and immediately noticed a five-piece cicada band in full swing outside Grasshopper’s house. Her yard was full of partygoers, bugs of all shapes and sizes, some of whom were plainly not from the sunny meadow. Grasshopper, seeing him staring, leapt over to the twig fence between their yards.

“Hey Ant!” she chirped. “Come on over! I had some nectar flown in from the hive upstream. It’s absolutely vintage. Come meet some of my clients!”

Ant shook his head. “I’m sorry, I need to sleep. I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

Grasshopper looked confused, but didn’t press him. “Okay then,” she offered, “good luck with that.”

She gathered her legs to leap away, but suddenly Ant stopped her. “Wait, Grasshopper,” he said. “Can you… would you mind… can you tell me just what it is that you do? I mean, I’m sorry, I know it’s a rude question… but I just can’t figure out how you know all these bugs, and what it is you do for them, you know?”

“Oh, no, of course,” laughed Grasshopper. “It’s not a rude question. To some people all this looks like magic! No, you see, Ant, I offer financial products to investors. I lend leaves and twigs to other bugs for their projects, and they promise to pay me back a little extra later on.”

“Where do you get the leaves and twigs?” Ant asked, still not getting it.

“Oh, well, other bugs lend those to me, because I promise to give them back even more later. You see, Ant, you might say that I bundle together all the twig-and-leaf loans and sell those loans to bugs who have some extra green lying around. I’ve even got a few big institutional investors on board now, like the Termite Union Pension Fund, and the Hive University Capital Campaign.”

“But,” worried Ant, feeling stupid, “what is it that you do?”

“Do?” Grasshopper said, her eyes already back on the party. “I already told you. I bundle the loans and I sell them… and I keep a little for myself.” She winked, nodding her head slightly toward the new palm frond speedboat sitting in her driveway. Then she hopped away, back to a group of giggling mayflies staggering around the nectar pot.


Fall came to the sunny little meadow, and Ant worked even harder to complete a dining room set on order for the Cricket family down the road. But he often found his peaceful work interrupted by shouts from Grasshopper’s yard, as she paced about screaming into her mobile phone. Ant didn’t understand most of it, of course, but it was obvious that she was not happy.

One morning she spent at least three hours arguing with some unseen bug. “Just what are you telling me, Moth?” she growled. “You said I’d have three percent back on the principal by season’s end! You said Old Stump Condos was a sure thing! And you haven’t sold half of the units you’ve bothered to get ready for the market. What the hell are you trying to do to me?”

Ant waited until Grasshopper’s house had been quiet for some time before knocking on the front door. She appeared after a few minutes, compound eyes bloodshot and antennae drooping. “Oh, you,” she sighed. “What do you want?”

Ant stammered slightly. “It’s just… I mean… well, would you happen to have some of the twigs you owe for the hammocks? I’m just trying to balance my accounts before the winter, and you know…”

Grasshopper was looking over him, not at him. “Hammocks? What the hell are you talking about? I owe twenty thou- to Butterfly. The Hive hired Mosquito and Tick, LLP, to go after my assets. You don’t even want to know what the Termite Union has threatened to do to me. And you’re here with something about fucking hammocks?!” She slammed the door before he had time to scuttle out of the way.


At the first frost, Ant began bringing the remainder of his leaf stockpiles into his shed. With each trip by the twig fence, he watched the toys and trinkets in Grasshopper’s yard disappearing, dragged away by wasps from the collections agency. One morning he found the leaf hammocks crumpled in a pile on his front step. Ant had not seen his neighbor for weeks, but he’d heard a rumor that she spent a lot of time at a seedy nectar joint down in the old stump roots.

Ant had worked away most of the afternoon, performing some final winter preparations on his house, when loud thumps echoed from the front door. He opened it to find two enormous beetles looking down on him. One flashed a badge while the other began to read from a crumpled leaf in his left forelimb.

“By order of the Sunny Valley Economic Authority, all landowners are hereby required to lend a minimum of one-third of annual twig-and-leaf income to Grasshopper, effective immediately. Agents of the Authority have license to confiscate said income in the event of noncompliance.” Beetle Number One pronounced this without stopping to breathe or blink.

“But.. -” sputtered Ant, his mandibles agape. “A loan? She’ll never be able to pay it back!”

Beetle Number Two, the (slightly) smaller one, shrugged. “Whatever. Open the shed.”

For the first time in his entire life, Ant thought that maybe, perhaps, the authorities might be getting it wrong. “But I worked so hard all year. I earned all of this. I didn’t take any silly risks! This isn’t – this isn’t fair!”

Beetle Number Two made a face as if someone had just asked what was really so bad about spiders. “Are you a moron?” he inquired, apparently rhetorically. “This is nothing about ‘fair’. At least a half dozen downmeadow leaf banks bought major bundled loans from Grasshopper. Do you want to see thousands of bugs lose their accounts overnight? Should the twig industry just close up shop? Here’s ‘fair’ for you, idiot: Grasshopper is just too big to fail. Now open the fucking shed.”


It was a hard, long winter that year, but the sunny little meadow made it through, just as it always did. On a gorgeous spring morning Ant emerged from his house, feeling a little bit hungry, but otherwise ready to start on a new season’s labors. This year, he decided, he would start building rocking chairs.

But Ant had barely passed the twig fence before discovering an incredible sight. There was Grasshopper, sitting in her front yard with a small cadre of aphids. As he drew closer he heard Grasshopper wrapping up an important discussion. “Right, good,” she declared. “So ten-per on the first yield, twenty-per on the second. I’ll float the interest for two months, but after that it goes compound. Agreed?” The aphids nodded their tiny heads in unison.

“Hey, Ant!” Grasshopper said, turning to him. “Come join us, come have some sprouts – they’re fresh from the ground!”

Ant immediately thought that the sprouts could have grown into large, rich plants if they’d been left alone. He thought about all the climbing he needed to do today, seeing as how only the higher leaves would have appeared this early in the season. “I’m sorry,” he explained, “work…”

Grasshopper looked hurt. “Oh, come on Ant, you can spare a few minutes.”

Ant thought about the long climb up the tree trunk. He thought about his empty shed. He thought about the way Beetle Number One had shoved him out of the way after he unlocked the door. Then Ant sat down with Grasshopper and her aphid guests.

“Awesome,” said Grasshopper. “Have some sprouts!” The sprouts were indeed fresh and juicy, straight out of the ground. “Oh, hey, Ant, I have an opportunity for you, courtesy of these fine aphid folks. Now did you know that potato buds are edible? And tasty too! We’re going to open up a whole patch…”

Several hours later, the business meeting had morphed into a minor but persistent party. Nectar appeared from somewhere; the aphids were dancing with some lice. Grasshopper sat at the center of it all, trading gossip and jokes with bugs of every shape, size, and degree of fiscal solvency.

Ant felt slightly giddy, for he’d had just a little nectar. So he didn’t notice Grasshopper approaching until she stood right beside him, looking back over the swaying party.

“Hey Ant,” Grasshopper started. “You know, I think it’s great that you’re loosening up a bit, really.” She looked away for a moment, then kept her eyes on the ground. “But, well, if you’re here with us, well, who is out harvesting the twigs and leaves?”

Ant thought for a moment, glancing up into the shiny spring sun’s warm effluence. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Someone else.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why I don't read political blogs anymore

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

-Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

September and leaves are already falling, only slightly less rapidly than the standards of civic decency.

Something unusual has happened recently: I’ve stopped enjoying politics. For someone who began watching C-SPAN at age 12, this is a bit of a traumatic self-discovery. Admittedly, my political enthusiasm has always been tempered with a lumpy dose of irritated cynicism, but lately this has flared into actual distress. Especially on the internets: it’s gotten so that I need only glimpse the name ‘McCain’ or (especially) ‘Palin’ anywhere in a blog post and I begin cringing in anticipatory revulsion.

Let’s be utterly clear about what I’m now to say: I fully acknowledge that the haters of Obama et al. are just as capable of vomiting clouds of uncharitable abuse into the aether. But I don’t know those people. I don’t read their diatribes, half-truths, their hooded jeremiads. Doubtlessly I would find their claptrap equally disturbing, if not more so, were I to encounter it. But I don’t run in those circles.

Instead I read insinuations that John McCain has lost higher cognitive function, that Sarah Palin is a ruthless moron, that anyone who would even consider voting Republican cannot be anything but the most foolish, vile, degenerate specimen of proto-human. Political discussions seem nothing more than contests amongst ideological clones to offer the most nastily emotive expression of hatred for their mutual enemy, a great echo chamber for badly-informed belligerent self-righteousness.

Living as I do on the great blue isle of Manhattan, my encounters with such attitudes are not confined to the web. At a picnic a couple weeks ago, one guest laughingly remarked of McCain that “crashing your plane on your very first mission doesn’t qualify you to be president!” The audience chuckled, but I did not: “After that plane crashed, McCain was stomped, beaten, and stabbed by the locals, was handed over to guards who systematically tortured him for years, and refused early release out of fear for how this would affect those left behind. No matter what you think of John McCain, you do not mock him for anything even remotely connected to this incident.” I didn’t say quite all that, being insufficiently spontaneously punchy. But I said some of it, and wish I’d said all.

Demonizing conservatives has become one of the few expressions of prejudice still acceptable in tolerant communities. Yet it’s still nothing more than the ancient ritual of ostracism, the union of a group of people through their mutual effort to pointedly deny even the signifiers of simple decency to a ceremonially designated Other. Justifications will be proffered, reasons frantically thrust forward, rhetorical covers drawn over the ugly primal motives thundering below. Fine. But when you write that you “hate Republicans” and enjoy the approving comments, bear in mind the spiritual kinship that verb forms between you and earlier groups who have bonded by hating those outside the bond.

The right has been a bit too gleeful in its seizure of Barack Obama’s unwise statement about “bitter” middle American voters who “cling to guns or religion”. Yet there is something of substance here. Obama’s comment reveals a disturbing myopia (in himself and his liberal San Francisco audience), a smug inability to appreciate that others’ refusal to share one’s views may be motivated by anything beyond the most base or foolish instincts. Republican voters are not grimy caricatures or hoodwinked yokels. They are real people with real concerns, real values, real perspectives on a world that can bear the weight of more than one conception of human existence. If you find yourself completely incapable of empathizing with them, then that is your failing, not theirs.

In the end much of the offensive materials could be explained by a few concepts from psychology: confirmation bias, ‘my side’ bias, correspondence bias. Over and over, when I see blog posts enthusiastically declaring that the latest McCain gaffe or Palin revelation shows the Republicans to be indubitably unfit for office, I just know that these same bloggers would dismiss as irrelevant these same mishaps, had they been committed by Obama or Biden. Perhaps what most pains me is watching this election season reduce otherwise fair and nuanced observers to binary detectors whose tunnel vision is sensitive only to the variable of party affiliation.

All that said, I don’t expect anyone to cease the partisan gesticulation on my account. Whatever it is – catharsis, distraction, social totem – it plainly has a purpose for its authors. But my reserves of effortful indifference and prudent selective illiteracy are approaching their end; I cannot read much more. And it is only September.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Oh, I've been meaning to write this before Obama announces his VP choice.

There has been much talk about the crucial factors the candidate must weigh in choosing his running mate. Will the VP-pick make up for Obama's experience gap? Appeal to Clinton voters? Be consilient with the message of reform? Carry the south? Not be discovered to have once received electroconvulsive therapy?

But this misses the crucial question. Does the prospective running mate have a surname that can be stuck between 'Obama' and '2008' without yielding a bumper sticker that people are ashamed to put on their cars?

This is more difficult that you might think. Consider the options.

Obama/Biden sounds like the colloquial way of expressing a state of languid anticipation in some backcountry dialect. "The old mule, she been obamabiden' out by the barn all week."

Obama/Kaine sounds like the unrefined base crop for a hallucinogenic narcotic. "Under a new agreement with the Peruvian government, the Drug Enforcement Agency will soon begin spraying the obamakaine fields with herbicide."

Obama/Sebelius sounds like a new species of terrifying disease. "Federal authorities have imposed a quarantine on the city of Toledo until it is determined how the Obama-Sebelius strain is transmitted."

Obama/Nunn sounds like an inscrutable expression of frustration, probably coined by Catholic school students. "I dropped it! Oh, bomb a nun!"

Obama/Dodd is something a 10-month old would say. "Baababba oma babadoba obamadod dababa..."

Obama/Reed sounds like the name of an earth-killer comet. "Scientists say there is a 25% chance that Obama-Reed will strike the planet in 2053 with a force greater than the asteroid that ended the dinosaurs."

And Obama/Clinton? That sounds like the clinical name for a psychological condition characterized by unrelenting struggle between two strong personalities, resulting in the patient's inability to accomplish anything at all. "The four years I had untreated Obama-Clinton were the most confusing and traumatic of my life."

Thursday, August 7, 2008


I realized today which election the present one most resembles. Not the ones the candidates (and media) would like. Obama, of course, aspires to be Kennedy: young, hip, demographically historic, and unimaginably popular. McCain protrays himself as Reagan - old only in an experienced, reliable way, and a sunny Conservative you can feel good about. But these are superficial comparisons that miss the importance of the relationship between opposed candidates.

I think there is a more revealing analogy between the 2008 election and the 1952 election. The country is/was wobbling, about a decade after suffering a major attack at home, now trapped in a grinding distant foreign war apparently unrelated to the original fight, tired of the policies and practices of the long-dominant outgoing administration.

Barack Obama is Adlai Stevenson. Professorial, worldly, just slightly effete. A liberal internationalist concerned to wrap American power in diplomatic respectability. Incredibly intelligent, probably a bit naive. Perceived as stronger on domestic affairs than in confronting international threats. Deeply rooted in urban Chicago politics.

John McCain is Dwight Eisenhower. Famous for his military service and perceived as most prepared to confront hostile foreign threats. Older, more folksy, with a reputation for plain dealing. Smart, but by no means an intellectual. A bit removed from changing social mores, but uncomfortable with the reactionary wing of his party.

These observations extend, I think, to a further point. Like Stevenson and Eisenhower, both McCain and Obama are fundamentally decent, competent people. Unlike a range of 1950s and 2000s politicians (Johnson, Nixon, Mitt Romney, John Edwards) none of these seem to be hyper-mercenary narcissists bent irrevocably on the acquisition of power. My overall point, I suppose, is that 2008, like 1952 - and unlike 2000 or 1968 - is ultimately a safe election. Neither of the candidates is likely to be a disastrous president.

One thing's for certain. The results of 1952 do not map predictively onto 2008. Stevenson was decisively and absolutely crushed by Eisenhower, winning only 18% of Electoral College votes. He carried only the southern states, in those days before Johnson's singular bravery and Nixon's repulsive calculation turned the white-dominated south into unchallenged Republican territory. Stevenson ran against Eisenhower again in 1956, losing by an even broader margin. He wanted to try a third time in 1960 (now facing Eisenhower's veep Nixon), but was blocked by a conspiracy of panicked Party elders, his declining health, and the mischief of the Kennedy clan.

The factors behind Stevenson's aysmal performance were plainly unique to those years. The public had simply grown bored with 20 years of Roosevelt/Truman Democratic dominance. And for all the genuine strength of character shown in McCain's years of POW captivity, that is plainly not the same thing as being Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the slayer of Hitler. If McCain does win this election, it will be by a very narrow margin.

Still, the Stevenson/Obama parallel remains helpful. I can see in Obama some of the same traits that make Stevenson one of my personal political heroes: the lively intelligence, the urgent desire to lead America to a more modest and viable position in the international system. And I also see some of the same traits that made Stevenson unpalatable to most Americans: the unmistakable whiff of elitism, the sense that underneath the global celebrity lurks a peevish egghead. Those Stevensonian traits may yet bring Obama defeat.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

America the aesthetically unobjectionable

Today we Americans celebrated our common heritage by charring the entrails of hoofed mammals and blowing up quadrants of the sky. As ritual sacrifice goes, it’s all a bit solipsistic and gluttonous, but then so is the nation thus aptly signified.

On Monday, Barack Obama gave his ‘what patriotism means to me’ speech, cleverly completing his long-delayed 4th grade social studies project while simultaneously reassuring heartland America that he is neither a black separatist nor John Kerry. The precise content of this speech wasn’t particularly important, provided the audience understood that Barack Obama loves apple pie, his grandma, puppy dogs, and you, my fellow Americans, you. So put down the pitchfork.

Patriotism, somewhat trivially, means love and loyalty to one’s nation. But this is often far from trivial in the individual case. Is a patriotic citizen of Montreal loyal to Quebec, to Canada – or even to the global Francophony? Where belong the loyalties of refugees in the permanent camps across the river from the West Bank? To the perpetually zygotic Palestinian state? The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan? The Dar al-Islam?

Most Americans enjoy the conceptual luxury of having been born, raised, and indoctrinated within and by the same fairly discrete political entity. But even this doesn’t quite solve the problem. To what, exactly, is a patriotic American loyal? To the government? To a myriad of federal bureaucrats, to a clutch of vain ephemeral politicians, to some monstrously scenic granite forewalls in Washington DC? Or to the history? To George Washington’s wooden teeth, to the pocket contents of Lincoln’s fatal theater jacket, to the hot tub where Franklin Delano Roosevelt expired in a most agreeably patrician manner?

The certified correct answer, of course, is that a patriotic American is loyal to American ideals, just as a patriotic __________ is loyal to __________ ideals. So said Obama on Monday: “patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it's also loyalty to America's ideals, ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion.”

The mildly Socratic among you have already formulated the next step: what, exactly, are American ideals? Celebrity worship? Cheap gasoline? Equal rights for all, so long as it doesn’t mean that I have to live next door to those people? At this point in the dialectic, serious politicians bleat safely vacant platitudes about freedom, family, and fortune.

And this is all we really expect of our candidates; except for the tin foil hat constituency, none of us really worry that the next president will decide, free-agent style, to go home with the other team at the big diplomatic summit. In political practice, affirmations of patriotism are ultimately about non-weirdness. Obama’s patriotic avowals aren’t promises to avoid defecting to Pakistan or Sweden. They are signals to Middle America that he won’t personally officiate at gay marriages in San Francisco or gleefully pass out bricks at the next big-city race riot.

So for politicians, patriotism actually has little to do with love of country, and everything to do with exhibiting the dispositional profile of your standard Midwestern bank teller. But what about the rest of us? We whose aspirations do not necessitate the adulation of throngs or the sweaty-palmed groping of the levers of power, might patriotism mean anything more to us? Should it? Those are difficult questions. Let’s go have a beer and watch the public shaming of the stars’ obsolete monochromatic twinkle.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

the lecture of my dreams

That was really weird.

I'll be lecturing on personal identity this afternoon. I've taught this material twice before, although it's been about a year since the last time. So the prep consists basically of straining to remember how I presented it before (since most of my lecture notes were lost in the Great Harddrive Failure of 2007). As I fell sleep last night, I had started to think about this...

So in my last dream of the night, I was walking into the lecture hall. This itself is odd, since the class only has 10 students. But in my dream, there were now several hundred people in a two-tiered lecture hall. And apparently I hadn't done any preparation. So I had to give the lecture off the top of my head.

This is where it just gets fascinating. I actually did a half-decent job for awhile. I was genuinely giving this lecture, in my dreams. But all of a sudden I could not remember some technical terms ('numerical identity' was one) and I could actually feel myself mentally straining to recover the words. Even odder, I announced the name of some important Principle, but then couldn't remember what it actually says. (It had something to do with Parfit. But now I can't remember what the name was, and I suspect it doesn't actually exist.) Gradually the focus of the dream narrowed from the giant lecture hall to a sheet of paper on the lectern, where I repeatedly tried and failed to write down the forgotten concepts.

Then the cats woke me up, demanding breakfast. Immediately upon waking, I thought numerical identity! and a few other answers. Very quickly, a rough sketch of the lecture structure popped into my mind.

I find this incredibly interesting. I think I actually got to watch my brain recover explicit memories!

Friday, May 2, 2008

the american entrepreneurial spirit

Suppose you are 21 year old man living in Fort Worth Texas and want to start your own record company. But you don't have any money. What do you do?

Answer: you go to your girlfriend's house and steal her mother's checkbook. Then you write out a check to yourself for 360 billion dollars. Because that's probably enough to start a record company, right? Then you go to the bank and cash the check!

Also, when you go to the bank to cash your forged check (worth about 3% of the entire US GDP), make sure that you bring along your gun and your marijuana.

the full story at MSN

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

what the hell??

I'm putting together a powerpoint for a talk I'm giving next week, and I needed images of a few philosophers. So to Google Image Search I turned. And amongst the results appeared the following:

Yeah. That is Immanuel Kant and a Ford Pinto. What? The image context doesn't help: a car-nut message board topic concerning the "Meanest Looking Car Ever in History". Is the Ford Pinto made more mean-looking by the presence of Kant's gigantic glowering head?

A bit of procrastinatory web searching turns up several plagiarism websites offering "The Ford Pinto and Kant's Categorical Imperative" essays. So here's my hypothesis: some business ethics textbook somewhere uses the Ford Pinto as a case study, and includes this image. (By the way - oh my goodness, do I hope to someday catch an ethics student turning in a plagiarized essay. Oh, I can't imagine what fun I'll have with such a student!)

Does anyone have any better theories about this image? I mean, I know that the Ford Pinto only acted from maxims that could be rationally willed universal, but there must be something more to it. Noumena?

Monday, April 7, 2008

no dandies please, we're american

Well, at least we know that Homeland Security has its priorities in order. If Osama bin Laden shows up in Newark wearing a top hat, he will not be permitted to enter the country!

Last month Sebastian Horsley, a British "dandy" attempting to promote his drugs-and-prostitutes memoir, was denied entry to the United States on grounds of "moral turpitude". Evidently his self-confessed past drug abuse disqualifies him from participation in the visa-less entry program between the United States and United Kingdom.

Or perhaps it's because he says things like this: "Add the platform shoes I sometimes wear, and I’m well over 7 feet tall. I figure most people are born to be talked down to.” (NYT)

Or maybe it's because he decided to commemorate the 2000th anniversary of Christ's death on the cross by travelling to the Philippines and having himself crucified - without anesthetic - and then posting the video on youtube.

Or, possibly, it's because when explaining the difference between himself and Oscar Wilde, he says, "Wilde was an aesthete. Unlike dandies, aesthetes care about food and wine. And they breed. The only place a dandy would push a pram is into the river." (globe and mail)

Whatever the reason, the entire thing is quite ridiculous. To me, he sounds like an irritatingly self-absorbed and useless person. (Which, so far as I can tell, is precisely how he wants to be perceived.) But this hardly seems a reason to deny him entry to the United States. Americans allow Silvio Berlusconi to come and go all the time!

Whatever you think of Horsley, you have to acknowledge the supreme Wildean wit in this, his declaration to Customs officials while being directed to his deportation flight: "I am the only thing of value in your country, and I am removing myself immediately!"

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

It's 3am. Do you know where your demagogue is?

One bad thing about being in Paris: I'm six hours ahead of EST, so I'll be asleep by the time today's primary results come in. I have to wait until tomorrow morning to find out who won!

But, still, it's a fascinating day. According to Bill Clinton, Hillary is out unless she wins both Ohio and Texas. According to other Clinton campaign surrogates, Obama is out unless he wins all four states (Rhode Island and Vermont are also voting). The Clinton campaign appears to have decided that the best way to win the expectations game is to expect absolutely every possible state of affairs to transpire, simultaneously. Soon we'll hear Howard Wolfson declaring that Obama can only win if Grover Cleveland wins the Pennsylvania primary. (At which point, of course, Cleveland will win the Pennsylvania primary, but the Clintons will sue to block the results on the grounds that his geographic last name gave him an unfair advantage.)

At this point, it seems unlikely that Clinton will drop out, unless she loses both Ohio and Texas by wide margins. Personally, my patience for her has begun to run out. I started off the year unsure of my vote, then I somewhat reluctantly voted for Obama. Now I'm confident I made the right choice. Honestly, the decisive evidence for me is below.

Bush/Cheney 2004 ad

Clinton 2008 ad

Thursday, February 14, 2008

delegating responsibility

Evidently Hillary Clinton will now insist that the Michigan and Florida delegates be seated to vote at the Democratic convention. She needs their votes, as they are big states, and she won both by large margins.

The problem is that the party decided long ago - with the agreement of all the candidates, including Clinton - not to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, because these states violated rules governing the timing of primaries. Officials in Michigan and Florida were warned not to hold their primaries before February 5, but they went ahead anyway. (These rules were in place to stop the primary season from drifting inexorably earlier - without them, we might have had Iowa and New Hampshire before Christmas.) As punishment, the party took away all their delegates, and got the candidates (except Dennis Kucinich) to agree not to campaign in the states.

In Michigan, Clinton was the only major candidate whose name even appeared on the ballot (Edwards and Obama had theirs removed). She won 55% of the vote. In Florida, she flirted with campaigning, despite her pledge not to. She beat Obama by 17% there. Now she wants the Michigan and Florida delegates to be allowed into the convention after all. Michigan would have 128 delegates and Florida 185 delegates. Large majorities of each would be assigned to Clinton (Obama, whose name was not on the ballot in Michigan, would receive none at all from that state). This may be enough to tip the delegate count in Clinton's favor, despite Obama's current lead.

Here's what I'll say. If Obama continues to hold the delegate lead, and if Clinton ultimately secures the nomination by getting the Michigan and Florida delegates seated, then I will not vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election. Claiming the delegates from illegitimate elections - elections with only one candidate on the ballot, or in which voters had every reason not to vote - is a shameless abuse of democracy. If the Clinton campaign is willing to do this to win, then I do not want them in the White House.

I agree that the Michigan and Florida delegates should have been counted. But once all of the candidates agreed to these rules and the elections were run, it stopped being appropriate to fiddle with the process. If Clinton wants the delegates from Michigan and Florida to count, she should encourage these states to run their primaries (or caucuses) again, now that the Feb 5 rule has passed. Of course, it's extremely unlikely that she would do quite so well again in both states. But it's about the principle, right?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

it happened at the South Carolina debate

It is not widely known that CNN recorded an additional segment to Monday evening’s South Carolina Democratic debate. For alleged national security reasons, this segment was never aired. Below is the transcript.

Joe JOHNS: Welcome back to the CNN South Carolina Democratic debate. This is the 47th Democratic debate this year, and the last before next week’s first Iowa debate among the 2012 candidates. We remind the candidates on the stage here that they will have only 30 seconds to respond to each question, and that this limit will be strictly enforced. If a candidate exceeds his or her time, we will call that candidate’s mother and tell her not to let the candidate have any dessert. We would like to take a moment to stress this matter to Governor Bill Richardson, whom we understand remains in the auditorium of our December New Hampshire debate, answering a question about Iran. Governor, your family misses you.

Wolf BLITZER: Senator Clinton, lately you’ve been criticized for suggesting that the work of Martin Luther King Jr. would have been less effective without the efforts of Lyndon Johnson. In comparing yourself to Johnson, did you intend to diminish the importance of King’s legacy?

Hillary CLINTON: Of course not Wolf! But we all need to understand that having an inspiring message is not enough for social change. We must have effective, experienced leadership as well. Think about Jesus Christ. Yes, he had an inspiring message, but what good would that have done without the reaction of the Roman authorities to make him a martyr? If Pontius Pilate had not ordered him crucified, many fewer people would have learned about his message.

BLITZER: Senator Clinton, I’m not sure I understand. Are you comparing yourself to Pontius Pilate, and Senator Obama to Jesus Christ?

CLINTON: Yes Wolf, I am. I have the experience necessary to lead our country. Americans wants as a president someone who knows how to deal with insurrection, not someone they’d have as a drinking buddy, or their personal savior.

JOHNS: Senator Obama, how do you respond?

Barack OBAMA: Well, I think that the Aramaic community will not appreciate Senator Clinton’s slurring Christ’s legacy. But I think we should use a different historical analogy. I think I am more like Ronald Reagan, and Hillary is more like the Soviet Union. Or perhaps I’m Ronald Reagan and Hillary is economic recession. Or I’m Reagan and Hillary is the environment. You know what I mean, right Democrats? Ronald Reagan is awesome!

BLITZER: Senator Obama, your critics allege that your use of racial identity in this campaign may be destructive to the Democratic Party. Do you think that your recent attacks on Senator Clinton regarding her statements on race will be alienating to white or Latino votes?

OBAMA: No, Wolf, because America understands that I am just like everyone. You see, Wolf, my mother is from Kansas and my father is from Kenya. I grew up in Indonesia. Not only that, I make really good enchiladas. You can ask my wife! In college, I went to two sessions of an Arabic class before dropping it. I once shook hands with Jackie Chan. In fact, my advisors have determined that the only ethnic group to which I have no connection is Indian, so next week a team of scientists will insert DNA extracted from a man named Sundarshan Devaraja into my genetic code. You see, Wolf, Americans support me because I embody the unity of America.

CLINTON: Look Wolf, this is why you can’t trust Senator Obama! I have here in my hands a paper Senator Obama wrote in 1st grade, saying that he hates Jackie Chan movies!

OBAMA: Oh, wait, Wolf, I forgot one. You’re all invited to my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah next week!

JOHNS: Senator Edwards, I’ve just noticed that you’re on the stage for some reason. In our first debate, you were hiding in a thicket of white men. Now you’re the only one remaining. What do you have to say for yourself?

John EDWARDS: You see Joe, there are two Americas. And I’m here to represent both of those Americas. I represent the America that has no health insurance, and the America that spends $400 on haircuts. I represent the America that loses its home to foreclosure, and the America that invests in the hedge funds owning those foreclosed mortgages. I represent the America that cannot feed its children, and the America that can take 6 years off of work to run for president. I represent Americans, because I am America – both of its faces.

JOHNS: Thank you Senator Edwards, that was very moving.

EDWARDS: Thanks, Joe. See you in Iowa next week.

BLITZER: Senator Clinton, our next question comes from a viewer, and will be read by CNN’s own Suzanne Malveaux. Suzanne?

Suzanne MALVEAUX: This email is from Edith Crubblenocker of East Mildew, New Jersey. She writes: ‘Every time I see Hillary Clinton on television, I am so disgusted that I projectively vomit up to seven feet. When I hear her voice, scabs break out on my lower legs and ooze greenish pus onto the floor. I once came within a mile of a campaign appearance, and afterwards I had diarrhea continuously for four days. I am an undecided voter, but I will probably not vote for Hillary Clinton.’ Senator Clinton, what do you say to voters who find you nauseating?

CLINTON; Well, Suzanne, that hurts my feelings. (laughs) But I think that when Americans go out to vote, they’ll vote for the candidate who has the most experience and leadership potential. And my campaign staff will be on hand with barf bags and ear plugs for any voter who needs assistance.

OBAMA: Oh, Hillary, I think that you’re sanitary enough. (smirks and laughs)

JOHNS: Now that we’ve covered the important identity politics, let’s turn to some substantive issues. Senator Obama, if you were an animal, what kind of animal would –

(a loud crash interrupts. A man comes stumbling onto the stage, wearing boxer shorts, a cape, and half of a goalie mask.)

CLINTON: It’s the Phantom of the South Carolina Democratic debate!

OBAMA: No, it’s Dennis Kucinich!

EDWARDS: See Joe, this is the type of bickering America doesn’t need. ‘Oh it’s the Phantom!’ ‘No, it’s Dennis Kucinich!’ How many American children are going unfed while we stander here arguing about this? You see, Joe, as the son of a mill-worker, I–

(Kucinich clubs Edwards with a shillelagh. Edwards crumples to the floor.)

Dennis KUCINICH: Hee hee hee! Hah hah hah! You thought you could keep me out of the debates, did you? But no! I’m here to spread the message of love. America needs love! And Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups! (begins prowling erratically around the stage, muttering to self)

CLINTON: You see, Wolf, under Barack’s health care plan, without universal coverage, John wouldn’t be able to get medical attention for that shillelagh wound.

KUCINICH: … end George Bush’s war …

OBAMA: That’s not true Wolf! Hillary knows very well that my plan has full coverage for all injuries incurred from staves or staff-like implements. But you should ask her about her plan’s exceptions for go-cart accidents!

KUCINICH: … wind power by 2016 …

BLITZER: I think we should return to the substantive issues that Americans really care about. Senator Clinton, boxers or –

(a crashing sound from above. The ceiling is torn open, and an enormous metallic saucer descends into the auditorium, lights flashing along its exterior.)

KUCINICH: I told you! Now you see! I feel a sense of enormous peace washing over this place. There will be love, America! There will be love.

(a circle on the hovering craft opens, emitting a beam of light that surrounds Kucinich. The beam then disappears, along with Kucinich. The metallic craft disappears upward at amazing speed.)

JOHNS: I’m sorry, candidates, but we’re out of time. Next on CNN, Larry King will interview Lynne Spears to ask how she feels about becoming a grandma! Stay tuned to CNN, the most trusted name in news.