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May. 11 2010 — 1:18 pm | 139 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Caution and Elena Kagan

I have to admit that I’m actually quite confused about the criticisms David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan are airing about Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Brooks writes:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.

If you listen to people talk about Elena Kagan, it is striking how closely their descriptions hew to this personality type.

and summarizes thusly:

There’s about to be a backlash against the Ivy League lock on the court. I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

Unless I’m missing something, one of the core complaints that conservative commentators and legislators offer about “liberal” nominees for SCOTUS is that they are “judicial activists”; meaning that they will often find reasons not related to the letter of the law to justify their rulings. Now, I understand that there have been several recent Supreme Court justices that have disappointed conservatives by adjudicating in a more moderate or liberal way than their confirmation hearings may have indicated (David Souter comes to mind), but Kagan – a moderate liberal by most accounts – seems to actually fit the mold of what a conservative would want on the court (as far as they could stomach a liberal); indeed, Brooks indicates that he thinks Kagan would be a “prudential” rather than an emotional justice. Aren’t the use of good judgment and common sense positive traits for a justice? Wouldn’t conservatives favor a justice who is more deferential to precedent and established norms than one who was willing to discover rights that weren’t clearly enumerated?

Here’s Sullivan:

Where is the struggle in her life story that could possibly equate with Sotomayor’s? The NYT is very keen to let us know that the Upper West Side where she grew up was not as tony as it is today. Er, that’s about it. Michael Waldman hilariously cites her real world experience as part of the Clinton domestic policy apparatus. Not a single anecdote in her life-story would be out of place in a Rhodes Scholar application – and I mean that as damning. Every one is just quirky enough – but equally framed to show she represents no conceivable threat to any conceivable liberal interest or authority.

Should every justice have the same background? I fully agree that the court is overstocked with Harvard and Yale grads, but whose fault it that? Even Sotomayor, whom Sullivan seems to make a benchmark of comparison for some sort of requisite background test, is a Yale Law grad. You can dislike Kagan’s relentless careerism all you want, but we (as a society) have fostered this kind of behavior. We often say that people should strive to go to the best schools and those who don’t rock the boat are often rewarded more than those who do. Kagan followed that path to a T and it seems odd now to attack her for merely doing what we expect successful people in our society to do.

Also think about the confirmation process as it currently stands. While it’s true that Kagan herself has argued for more open and forthcoming confirmation hearings, she has just as much incentive to play down her “actual” feelings as any other recent nominee. Given that the hearings are part dog-and-pony show and part witch hunt, there’s almost no reason for a potential justice to do anything but offer banal statements and general support for the rule of law and the role of precedent. Here’s Michael Tomasky in the Guardian:

I think we have here in Kagan an extreme case from which we should be careful to make general statements. As Brooks notes elsewhere, she apparently knew from the time she was quite young that she wanted to be a judge, and comported herself accordingly, never saying anything remotely controversial or, probably, interesting.

Maybe this confluence of facts – a ridiculous process that everyone knows is ridiculous, brought to its logical endpoint of ridiculousness by the presence of a nominee who has been planning for this moment for decades by saying as little as she could – will result in this being the last time we go through this charade in just this way.

Influential commentators needs to think about their role in the confirmation process. Perhaps if they changed their approach to talking about the hearings, they may force nominees to express themselves in a more frank matter. Given that our political discourse at the moment doesn’t reward the open exchange of ideas or allow for the simple notion that reasonable people can disagree, I don’t expect this to happen.

And finally, not every SCOTUS justice needs to be some sort of intellectual titan. While it’s true that liberals often pine for their own version of Antonin Scalia to be nominated, there’s a case to be made for a judge who can accommodate and influence his or her more malleable colleagues without towering over them. Though it may be an overstatement that votes on the court are up for sale, so to speak, it’s also worth noting that a quality now being decried in Kagan (consensus building) was considered a virtue for another potential nominee with a more liberal pedigree. As Glenn Greenwald (an outspoken critic of Kagan) wrote in support of his favored nominee, Diane Wood:

Wood’s ability to craft legal opinions to induce conservative judges to join her opinions is renowned, as is the respect she commands from them through unparalleled diligence and force of intellect.

Again, make the the argument for as long as you want that a former Dean of the Harvard Law School isn’t intellectual enough, but Kagan appears to be both diligent and able to bring disparate tribes together under one banner.

I’m not saying that Kagan is perfect by any means and her hearings may indeed give reasons for pause. But slamming Kagan for approaching her career in such a way that it would place her on the precipice of the job she’s wanted all her life doesn’t seem like it’s her fault. It’s ours.

May. 4 2010 — 2:03 pm | 1,499 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

The UVa Lacrosse Tragedy and the Need for Better Editing

While the details are still coming out in the tragic investigation into the death of Yeardley Love, a 22-year-old University of Virginia lacrosse player, who was apparently murdered by her sometime boyfriend George Huguely, also 22 and a lax player at UVa, I actually want to address something I’ve already seen in a lot of the coverage of the case that I think is misguided.

The Washington Post, ESPN, ABC, the Associated Press, CNNSI, and the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix blog all made mention of the infamous Duke lacrosse rape case from 2007.

One the one hand, I see that there is reference point in the fact that Huguely attended the Landon School in Bethesda, Md., where he was a teammate of one of the accused players in the Duke case. Furthermore, Huguely defended the legal process when asked about the case, saying that the Duke players should be viewed as innocent until proven guilty. In the long run, of course, the players were vindicated.

However, outside of the coincidence that Huguely attended Landon and made statements supportive of his friend and teammate, I don’t see why the Duke case has been mentioned at all. To me, it seems like a comparison based on sophistry and it’s an instance where editors should have used their discretion a bit more. Besides the obvious differences in the circumstances (a murder versus an accusation of rape; the near-immediate filing of charges due to what seems to be considerable evidence of guilt vs. the very convoluted situation at Duke*,etc.) the only other connection seems to be that a horrible crime was committed and that a lacrosse player was involved, which means the cases are equal somehow or that they should at least be mentioned in the same breath.

This situation, frankly, isn’t about lacrosse and it isn’t about Duke. Just because there was a prominent recent case that involved players in the same sport doesn’t mean these things should be related in the public consciousness. Mentioning a tangentially-related matter draws attention away from the central fact of this case: a young life was needlessly ended in a horrible fashion for reasons that will almost certainly prove to be meaningless.

* Let it be said that George Huguely deserves the same consideration as all other accused criminals: innocent until proven guilty.

Apr. 22 2010 — 2:30 pm | 1,190 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Is Toby Gerhart’s Draft Status Being Affected by Race?

With the 2010 NFL Draft just hours away, Mediate highlights an exchange that took place on Sean Hannity’s show last night between Spencer Tillman and Stephen A. Smith in regards to whether or not Stanford running back Toby Gerhart’s draft status was being affected by the fact that he’s a white player at a position dominated by black athletes. Smith claims that Gerhart is hurt more by what he deems a sub-standard time in the 40 yard dash time (4.53 seconds) than by race, whereas Tillman worried that a NFL team might actually pass on Gerhart because he was white.

In a rare occurrence, I’m actually going side with Stephen A. Smith on this point. For anyone who is a fan of the NFL or who plays fantasy football seriously, it’s well-known how much scouts and team executives fall in love with “measurables”: the forty times, the number of times a guy can bench 225 pounds, how many yards a quarterback can fling the ball down field. These are things that teams stake their reputations on because it’s much harder to sometimes figure out intangibles like intelligence (which teams attempt to measure with the Wonderlic test, an imperfect device at best), desire and work ethic.

At the current moment, NFL teams are enamored with running backs who have game-breaking speed and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Think Houston’s Steve Slaton, San Diego’s Darren Sproles or New Orleans’ Reggie Bush. The recent prototype would, of course be the man who kept Sproles on the Chargers bench for years, LaDanian Tomlinson. Each of those players have the ability to make one cut out of the backfield and possibly make a long trot to the endzone. These hybrid backs are also terrors to defend because they give the offense an extra dimension and create match-up problems (you don’t want to have a situation where a lumbering, 250 pound linebacker has to try to cover a 5, 8” running back with speed in the open field).

If you’ve seen Gerhart play, you know that’s not his game. And that’s ok! He’s a big, bruising, between the tackles runner (similar to the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs). He doesn’t shy away from contact; hell, in some cases he seems to seek it out. He can catch the ball, but not especially well. In many ways, Gerhart is a throwback to different era, a power back in a league that doesn’t feature many of them any more.

In his most recent book, Eating the Dinosaur, author Chuck Klosterman has a long rumination about football and its evolution. I want to quote two passages at length because, setting aside the political commentary therein, Klosterman, I think, gets at the heart of why Gerhart probably won’t be a first rounder:

As of this moment in 2008, the read option is by far the most pervasive offensive play in college football and an increasingly popular gadget play in pro football, especially for the Miami Dolphins (who run it by moving quarterback Chad Pennington to wide receiver and using running back Ronnie Brown at QB, a formation commonly called the Wildcat). If somebody makes a movie about American life a hundred years from now and wants to show a fictionalized image of what football looked like, this is the play they should try to cinematically replicate1. Every week of autumn, I watch between nine and fifteen hours of football; depending on who’s playing, I probably see this play eighty to a hundred and fifty times a weekend. Michigan has just run it three times in succession. This play defines the relationship between football and modernity; it’s What Interesting Football Teams Are Doing Now. And it’s helped me rethink the relationship between football and conservatism, a premise I had long conceded but never adequately questioned.

2. Okay … Let me begin by recognizing that you — the reader of this book — might not know much about football. In fact, you might hate football, and you might be annoyed that it’s even included in this collection. I’m guessing at least fifty potential buyers flipped through the pages of this book inside a store, noticed there was a diagram of a football play on page 125, and decided not to buy it. This is a problem I have always had to manage: Roughly 60 percent of the people who read my books have a near-expert understanding of sports, but the remaining 40 percent have no interest whatsoever. As such, I will understand if you skip to the next essay, which is about ABBA. But before you give up, let me abridge the essence of the previous paragraph: The aforementioned “read option” is an extremely simple play. The main fellow for the offense (this would be the quarterback, whom you might remember as a popular guy from high school who dated lots of girls with bleached hair) receives the ball deep in the backfield and “reads” the weakside defensive end (“read” is the football term for “looks at and considers,” while “weakside” refers to whatever side of the field has fewer offensive players). If the defensive player attacks upfield, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs it himself, essentially attacking where the defensive end used to be (and where a running lane now exists). If the defensive end “stays home” (which is the football term for “remains cautious and orthodox”), there’s usually no running lane for the quarterback, so the QB hands the ball to the running back moving in the opposite direction (which is generally the strong side). Basically, the read option is just the quarterback making a choice based on the circumstance — he either runs the ball himself in one direction, or he hands the ball off in the opposing direction.

Now, why should this matter to you (or anyone)? Here is the simplest answer: Twenty-five years ago, the read option didn’t exist. Coaches would have given a dozen reasons why it couldn’t be used. Ten years ago, it was a play of mild desperation, most often used by teams who couldn’t compete physically. But now almost everyone uses it. It’s the vortex of an offensive scheme that has become dominant. But ten years from now — or even less, probably — this play will have disappeared completely. In 2018, no one will run it, because every team will be running something else. It will have been replaced with new thinking. And this is football’s interesting contradiction: It feels like a conservative game. It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values. But in tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have — it constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology2, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal. If football was a politician, it would be some kind of reverse libertarian: staunchly conservative on social issues, but freethinking on anything related to policy. So the current upsurge of the read option is symbolic of something unrelated to the practice of football; it’s symbolic of the nature of football and how that idea is misinterpreted because of its iconography.

The bolded section above gets at one reason Gerhart’s stock might slip; he’s an anachronism. In the late 1970s and early 80s, nobody would have blinked at seeing a guy like Gerhart, what with big guys like Franco Harris and John Riggins blowing up defenders. Now, though, teams are looking for elusive, smaller players. That’s the groupthink mentality of the league right now: small and fast trumps big and slow(ish).

Here’s the second passage:

3a. Right now, the most interesting coach in America is Mike Leach of Texas Tech, a former lawyer who’s obsessed with pirates and UFOs and grizzly bears. He never played football at the college level and barely played in high school. But his offensive attack at Texas Tech is annually the best in the country, and it seems to be the best no matter who his players happen to be. The Red Raiders play football the way eleven-year-old boys play Xbox: They throw on almost every down, they only punt when the situation is desperate, and they’ll call the same play over and over and over again. The Texas Tech linemen use unnaturally wide line splits and the quarterback lines up in the shotgun, even when the offense is inside the five-yard line. If you describe the Red Raiders’ style of play to any traditional football follower without mentioning the team’s name, they reflexively scoff. But Texas Tech hammers people. Over the past five years they’ve outscored opponents by an average score of 39.4 to 24.8 while outgaining them by over nine thousand yards, despite the fact that Tech is forced to recruit second-tier high school players who are overlooked by Texas and Oklahoma. Everywhere Leach has gone, he’s had success — as an assistant at the University of Kentucky, he found ways to turn an ungifted quarterback (Tim Couch) into a Heisman candidate who passed for 8,400 yards and was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Browns. In a single season assisting at Oklahoma, he designed the offense that would ultimately win a national championship. So how did he do it? What is the secret to his brilliance?

“There’s two ways to make it more complex for the defense,” Leach told journalist Michael Lewis, writing for The New York Times Magazine. “One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that’s no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays run out of lots of different formations. That way, you don’t have to teach a guy a new thing to do. You just have to teach him new places to stand.”

It’s easy to overlook the significance of this kind of quote, mostly because it seems obvious and casual and reductionist. But it’s none of those things. It’s an almost perfect description of how thinking slightly differently can have an exponential consequence, particularly when applied to an activity that’s assumed to be inflexible. There is this inherent myth about football that suggests offensive success comes in one of two ways: You can run a handful of plays with extreme precision, or you can run a multitude of different plays in the hope of keeping defenses confused. The Green Bay Packers of the Lombardi era embraced the former philosophy (they rarely used more than fifteen different plays in the course of any game, but the fifteen they ran were disciplined and flawless), as did the straightforward running attack of USC during the 1970s and early ’80s4. Two modern coaches (Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer) have both found success at the talent-rich University of Florida, seemingly by never running the same play twice. But the inverted thinking of Mike Leach allows Texas Tech to do both: If Texas Tech focuses on only fifteen different plays — but runs them all out of twenty different formations — they’re instantly drawing from a pool of three hundred options, all of which could still be executed with the repetitive exactitude of the Packers’ power sweep. It wasn’t that Leach out-thought everybody else; it was merely that he thought differently. Instead of working within the assumed parameters of football, he decided to expand what those parameters were. For a while, that made him seem like a crazy person. But this is how football always evolves: Progressive ideas are introduced by weirdos and mocked by the world, and then everybody else adopts and refines those ideas ten years later.

Here again, a similar idea: if a team drafts Gerhart and has success deploying him, don’t be shocked if you start to see more big backs being drafted and incorporated into offensive schemes. At present, many teams just aren’t using backs with his set of abilities.

Now Klosterman doesn’t mention race here at all and it’s mostly because he doesn’t need to. Yes, white running backs and receivers are somewhat novel in the NFL but my guess is that the path to a position for any given player obviously starts much earlier in their development (middle and high school) and has more to do with the expressed desires of what the player wants to be and what his physical talents are as opposed to what a coach feels like player should be because of the color of his skin. The NFL has more or less moved passed things like whether or not blacks can be good quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s a bunch of coaches out there in America who won’t let a white kid be a running back if he has the skill set for it. Coaches, by and large, want to win and they’ll slot a Martian at tight end if they think that will get them a victory. Toby Gerhart is a victim of trend, not of any sort of institutional bias related to race, reverse or otherwise.

Apr. 20 2010 — 12:20 pm | 193 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Why Race Still Hurts the Right

Fellow True/Slant label mate Conor Friedersdorf, riffing off Charles Blow’s op-ed about the lack of diversity at the tea parties, feels like the right is getting an unfair shake when it comes to dealing with race:

It’s this kind of piece that causes people on the right to think that on matters of race, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t — if they don’t make efforts to include non-whites they’re unenlightened propagators of privilege, and if they do make those efforts they’re the cynical managers of a minstrel show, but either way, race is used as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.

I understand why Conor would be frustrated by this type of thing. I don’t know him personally, but any honest reading of his work would lead one to the conclusion that he’s a truly principled conservative who is open to diversity because he finds real value in it both as a concept and a reality, rather than paying it lip service because it’s a cultural buzzword.

That said, I think Conor is missing the point. In responding to Conor’s post, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes:

The sense among some white liberals that they were “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” was part of the work. The sense among some blacks that white liberals didn’t actually get it, and were just rebelling against Daddy, (or some such) was part of the work. In a modern context, many of us who supported Obama thought that Bill Clinton’s Jesse Jackson riff was appalling and low. And many of us who supported Hillary thought that, while liberals had an eye out for any whiff of racism, sexism was basically yawned at.

And yet through it all, blacks have allied themselves, in the main, with liberals. They haven’t done this because they support the entire liberal agenda, or because they think liberalism is an implicit cure-all for racism. They’ve done it because because reconciling the country to its own diversity is at the core of modern liberalism–it’s the foundation to the house, not the paint-job. This is about history. Lyndon Johnson didn’t simply look for black people to window-dress existing policy, he expanded existing policy in a way that showed a policy commitment–at great political cost–to healing the country’s oldest wound, and, in the process, he purged the party of people who had vested interest in jabbing at the wound.

I understand that Conor is talking about something slightly different–the negative effect of what he sees as bad faith criticism of any right-wing efforts to diversify. But the point I’m making is that diversity–for lack of a better word–is a long-term, ongoing process, one that rarely includes merit badges from your friends or foes.

This is the central point and I’m surprised that Conor seems to have either disregarded or overlooked it. One reason liberals often get the benefit of the doubt from African-Americans is that, as TNC points out, when the time came to put the cards on the table and show your hand, LBJ and other Democrats of the Civil Rights era laid it all down in service of extending rights to a group that had been historically denied them. You may say it was cynical or that it was merely politics, but what matters is that they actually did something to advance what they saw as a greater good and a moral obligation. The party fractured in the wake of those battles and the racial resentments borne out of them eventually helped to form the backbone of the modern conservative movement, with those Dixiecrats eventually becoming Republicans dedicated to preserving “state’s rights” and the like.

Of course, the problem for young, modern-day conservatives like Conor is that they are continually lumped in with the Tea Party crowd, who, as the now famous (infamous?) New York Times/CBS News poll are whiter, more wealthy and better educated than the general public. To a certain extent, these people are the sons and daughters of the Southerners who fought, and largely lost, those Civil Rights battles in the 1960s and now those same people are the head and face of the GOP and the conservative movement.

It’s not going to be easy for conservatives to change the perception that they hold retrograde views on race when the governor of Virginia, a self-described moderate, decides to celebrate a “Confederate History Month” and not mention slavery. You’re not going to win black voters by having former Congressmen speaking at Tea Party rallies saying that the president should be sent back to his “home land” of Kenya. Minority voters aren’t going to flock to your banner when Asian-American representatives have threatening faxes sent to their office. And you certainly aren’t going to win a lot of minority votes when you oppose policies that would enfranchise a city with a large black voting population.

So is race a cudgel used against the right? Maybe, though conservatives would do well to figure out that sometimes they’re swinging that club against themselves.

P.S.: I also disagree with Conor that race isn’t used to discredit the left. Of course it is. That liberals are beholden to, or exploit, groups like the NAACP, or black people more generally, has been a central plank of the racial grievance politics that some on the right have engaged in for years. Conservatives often wonder aloud about the ways they can engage a certain strain of black conservatism that has long been on display. One way would be to do the work of actually building bridges to the community, not trotting out Juan Williams, J.C. Watts and Thomas Sowell in an effort to show that you’re “diverse”. I wouldn’t call these men “minstrels”, as I suspect Charles Blow would, but in a political movement that is largely made up of old, white men, they’re certainly outliers. It’s up to conservatives to understand why.

Apr. 7 2010 — 10:13 pm | 26 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

What You Should Be Reading Now

Here’s the weekly roundup of good links and reads from across the web:

Groove out with Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” until next week:

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