Monday, August 30, 2010

Leaving Iraq

In 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I sat in an East Coast hotel room watching the Academy Awards telecast. As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences presented Michael Moore with an Oscar for Bowling for Columbine, he took the stage and delivered the most impassioned speech against the invasion I had heard up until that point. The next morning as I continued my tour of this nation's monuments and historic sites, I thought about my classmates and what waging two wars would mean for my generation. Last week as I watched the last American combat brigade cross the border out of Iraq and into Kuwait, I was once again reminded of the immense cost of war in Iraq that fell to my generation.

A young soldier leaving Iraq last week was asked by NBC News about his service as his brigade made its way into Kuwait. He had served a tour in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan, had volunteered for service after 9/11 and felt it was his duty to serve in Afghanistan. He didn't elaborate on his views about Iraq, but I suspect he felt Iraq was the right thing when it was tied, wrongly so, to 9/11. This young soldier was no older than I am.

The spring of 2003 was a stormy time in my young life, with plenty of unpleasant memories attached, yet the things I remember most about March of 2003 center on the war in Iraq.

President Bush's prime time address regarding the invasion was watched in the home of the Marine I was dating, alongside his veteran father and with his active-duty Army brother in our thoughts. That evening we thought of our generation immediately, but what we didn't know then was how long the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would go on, threatening to cost our younger brothers' generations as much as the wars would eventually cost our own. When President Bush addressed the nation that evening, my younger brother was far from my thoughts as I worried for my classmates and those closest to me who already had pledged their service to the United States military.

Seven years later, our brothers are signing up with the Selective Service.

Tuesday night when President Obama addresses this nation, we can be sure to hear of the role the United States will continue to play in the safety and sovereignty of Iraq. Though U.S. combat operations will have ended, a long road lies ahead of the Iraqi people with the support of its American ally. Though this time line was arranged by his predecessor, President Obama will be expected to speak to his administration's continued efforts in the region.

When the deficit hawks of today were the war hawks of yesterday, it is hard not to remember the cost of the last seven years and the two that preceded them in Afghanistan. And yet, while people are screaming at each other on the streets of New York City over where a community center should or shouldn't be built, we forget that fear and a great deal of hatred for the Muslim world led us blindly into Iraq. We too easily forget the cost of blind following and too frequently mistake demagoguery for leadership.

I thank God that in the past seven years I have not lost a single classmate or close friend to a war we never should have been waging. I thank God that seven years after we invaded Iraq we are ending combat operations there. I thank God that my younger brother will not have to fight in what Michael Moore called a "fictitious war" before the rest of us knew it was, in fact, fictitious. I thank God for this because I know that the sister of Capt. Alan Rowe, USMC, can't.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Strasburg Saga

(Editor's Note: My new setup with a single, weekly post will be scheduled to appear on Mondays whenever possible from this point forward.)

Update 8/27: The Washington Nationals are saying that Stephen Strasburg will need Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow. Traditionally, Tommy John surgery takes 12-18 months to recover and for a hard thrower like Strasburg, will probably require another year of pitching on top of that before the velocity and command returns. I don't imagine I'm the only fan of baseball today that woke up to disappointment (and that was before I found out that Albert Pujols will be at the Glenn Beck rally tomorrow in D.C.). Maybe we should have expected this.

If you would have told me a year ago that I would write two posts this baseball season about rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg (here's the first), I would have laughed in your face.

First of all, why would I, lover of most things baseball, have laughed in your face? Believe it or not, what I perceive to be my growing interest in the Strasburg saga has nothing to do with the fact that I am a devoted Atlanta Braves fan and therefore follower of all things NL East (the National League's Eastern Division, for those of you who are not up on baseball terminology). So, prior to Strasburg making his debut this season, the main reason why I would have perceived Strasburg as a non-issue in the time I spent thinking about baseball would have come down to this: Pitching has never been the most interesting thing about baseball to me. Yes, I know... I was a catcher, but what I'm talking about is pitching in Major League Baseball.

Prior to the Washington Nationals placing Strasburg on their active roster this season and him striking out fourteen batters in his first game in the big leagues, Strasburg wasn't really even on my radar. Sure, I knew that he was the first player picked in last year's draft by the perennial last-place Washington Nationals. Sure, I knew that his signing with said Nationals broke the record for the highest paid player in the history of his particular draft. Sure, I had heard about his brilliant pitching under the tutelage of hall-of-famer Tony Gwynn at San Diego State. I'd heard everything about Strasburg, but I hadn't actually seen Strasburg.

You don't have to have the privilege of seeing Strasburg pitch in person, though I'm sure it adds to the legend of Strasburg, to be amazed at what Strasburg can do. Even on television, there is no limit to the amazement that comes with watching Strasburg pitch. He throws as hard as Sandy Koufax, he can place a pitch just as well as Greg Maddux and he's in his first season. In his Major League debut, he threw 34 pitches at or above 98 mph. He has a 5-3 win-loss record thus far with a team that doesn't put up much in terms of run support (the Nats are 25th in runs scored among the 30 major league teams). His stats don't say enough about him, unfortunately.

When Strasburg signed his $15.1 million contract with the Nationals, little did he and the rest of the nation know that his arm would be under more pressure than any other arm in all of baseball. He's been hyped, not something I would dare describe as over-hyped, and he has been under the pressure of a losing team who needs nothing more than they do a reliable arm they can send the mound every fifth day. And in his first three starts he took to the hill and lived up to every bit of that hype. Even after that third start he continued to pitch better than anyone in Washington's rotation has all season and everyone was buying a ticket to see him pitch. The pressure on this young man is extreme, the like of which has probably never been seen in professional baseball before.

The pressure, stress and hype have not come without a price and the young phenom is headed to the DL (disabled list) for the second time in his young, professional career.

While everyone has been keeping tabs on Strasburg and hoping for the best, the Washington media seems hell-bent on prescribing a course for the Nats pitcher. After Strasburg reeled in pain after an unusual pitch the other night, some have called him weak and some have pleaded with the Nationals to bench him for the sake of his arm and their franchise. There are those who say that the Nationals are handling him with kid gloves and overreacting to the drama, but what you will not hear from the chorus of critics is an inkling of denial in his talent. Nobody thinks Strasburg is without talent and everyone seems to think his arm is worth preserving.

When you hear people talk about Stephen Strasburg's health, a name you will often hear is that of Kerry Wood. I have watched Kerry Wood since he made his much-hyped debut in baseball and I have watched, sadly, as he has made fourteen trips to the DL. It is always awful to watch when a player with pure, raw talent is on and off the DL. Dodgers fans see it daily with Manny Ramirez in L.A. Cubs fans watched the revolving door with Kerry Wood for far too long. As a Braves fan, I have watched this with Chipper Jones in recent years. It happens too often.

Fans of the sport will often mention the Baseball Gods. If they do exist, may they smile on the arm of Strasburg, if not for the sake of a young man who could have quite a career in the game, for the sake of the game itself that has been frequently tarnished in recent years by those who cheated both the game and the fans.
(Here's two bonus links unrelated to Strasburg: First, Marc Johnson sums up Lou Piniella's career nicely...without Lou and Bobby Cox, where are we to look for genuine, on-field hissy fits? The bases are certainly safe in the ground, now. Second, "Could Omar Infante Win the NL Batting Title?" I don't know, but he sure deserves a prize for keeping my fantasy team afloat.)

Friday, August 13, 2010

The End of an Era in Atlanta

When I was a kid, my next door neighbors were all boys. There were four boys next door and they were all Atlanta Braves fans. I may have been a Giants fan early on, in the pre-Bonds age when Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell headlined the Giants' roster, but as a kid I just wanted to be one of the boys and being one of the boys meant being a Braves fan. That was twenty-some years ago and as I write this I remain a Braves fan.

Hank Aaron had retired more than a decade before I was introduced to the Braves and Dale Murphy was in his final seasons in Atlanta. Two young guns were coming up with the Braves, guys named Glavine and Smoltz, and there was still a Braves affiliate in Idaho Falls. In those early years of my Atlanta devotion, Terry Pendleton, David Justice and Deion Sanders were on the roster. I didn't know much about baseball in those early years, other than the fact that I sure loved to play baseball. My recognition of David Justice, Atlanta's high profile outfielder, had more to do with a rendition of the "Ballad of Davy Crockett" that replaced Davy Crockett with the name of Davy Justice that the neighbor boys had made up, than it did with Justice's stats. And then 1993 happened.

In 1993, a young shortstop came up through Atlanta's farm system. A young shortstop who would eventually become Atlanta's starting third baseman. A young shortstop with the talent to play three positions and then some. That young man was Chipper Jones. In 1995, Chipper's first full season in Major League Baseball, the rookie finished 2nd in National League Rookie of the Year balloting and played in the World Series. He would go on to play in the 1996 and 1999 World Series. He was the 1999 National League MVP, was selected to the All Star team six times, won two Silver Slugger awards, and 2008's National League batting champion. His career batting average is .306, he has hit 436 home runs, has nearly 1,500 career RBIs and 2,497 hits. Chipper has had 8 consecutive 100+ RBI seasons, has the third-most home runs for a switch hitter in Major League Baseball behind Eddie Murray and Mickey Mantle), and holds the Major League record for most consecutive games with an extra-base hit (with 14). In addition to phenomenal stats, stats that would be all the better had he not been hurt as many times as he has been, Chipper is the Atlanta Braves' all-time RBI leader, surpassing Atlanta hall of fame outfielder Dale Murphy. Chipper is also the Braves' all-time hits leader, surpassing MLB hall of fame slugger Hank Aaron. This week, Chipper Jones reminded those of us who watched him in his prime of what an amazing athlete Chipper has been. In the span of six games, Chipper hit two home runs, 4 doubles, averaged a .413 slugging percentage, and had 11 total hits. It was a great six games for a guy whose season was mediocre, at best, hitting .265 with 10 home runs and a great deal of speculation if he would retire with his long-time manager Bobby Cox at the end of the 2010 season. He was finally bouncing back from a rough start to the season and it looked like the Braves' chances of being in the playoffs were high.

Then Tuesday happened.

On a play that most of us haven't seen Chipper attempt, much less make, in years, Chipper went into the hole, jumped, and threw mid-air to first base. The play was amazing and the runner was out by a step or two, but while we were watching to see if Chipper hit his target, Chipper came down on his left leg awkwardly and crumbled to the ground in a heap of pain.Watching from the stands, Chipper's father looked on with complete worry on his face. Those of us who know Chipper know that he is susceptible to injury, more so than most, and this wouldn't be the first knee injury of his career. On Thursday, after the Braves sent him for an MRI, it was announced that, like his missed 1994 season, Chipper suffered a torn ACL. His season is over and this could be the end of the thirty-eight year old's career.

While Braves fans are praying Chipper gets through surgery and recovery in one piece, fans aren't blind to the fact that the chances of coming back from this injury at his age are slim. We might hope he'll be back come spring training, we're well aware that this truly could be the end of an era in Atlanta.

One of the stats that reflects a type of player that is no longer a major part of the game in the 21st century is the distinction of having the most home runs to begin a career playing under one manager, that manager being Bobby Cox. Back when there was speculation about Chipper retiring at the end of the season, back before the injury and before he turned his season around, conventional wisdom was that he would retire rather than play for a new manager. Now that he's hurt, that conventional wisdom has reared its head once again. It is, of course, the end of an era in Atlanta simply with the retirement of long-time manager Bobby Cox, but it becomes a much greater eventuality should Chipper Jones go with Cox.

Just recently the Atlanta Braves retired the number of Tommy Glavine. Just last year they retired the number of Greg Maddux and we can assume that the number of John Smoltz will be close behind. The glory days of the Atlanta Braves are long over, despite their lead in the NL East this season. We may never again see the caliber of talent on one roster that we did when guys like Jones, Smoltz, Glavine, Maddux, Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, Eddie Perez (who came up through Idaho Falls), Jordan, Andres Gallaraga, Rafael Furcal, and Jason Marquis. Never again.

If the most difficult thing I've had to swallow as a Braves fan is the trade that sent David Justice to the Yankees, I am much better off a Braves fan than I ever would have been a Barry Bonds-loving Giants fan. And I have guys like Chipper Jones to thank for that.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Six Years

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the creation of this blog and the beginning of a new era in its administration.

In 1895, Lord John Dalberg-Acton wrote in The Study of History, that one should "[l]earn as much by writing as by reading." The practice of writing in a public forum has been as useful and knowledge-yielding for me as my avid reading habits. The list of things I have learned in the past six years is long, some of those things immensely personal.

Six years is a long time in many senses and not very long at all in others. The people I have met through this blog make the years seem far too short. I've met former Marines and former Republicans; I've had the privilege of working with journalists and politicians; I've encountered Idahoans and Ohioans, Texans and Arkansans; and, most of all, I've become much more acquainted with who I am and what I believe.

Let me quote another blogger (and one I am going to miss dearly in the blogosphere), P.M. Carpenter, before I go any further:
"Opinion columns, unsurprisingly, should reflect the columnist's opinions. I hadn't been hired to act as the captain of a booster club or to cheerlead the latest in progressive conventional thought or to rack up a wall-full of blue ribbons for online popularity. A columnist should work to stir and stimulate, not soothe."
In the past year I have learned exactly what P.M. Carpenter is pointing out in his farewell column. Which causes, progressive or otherwise, that I choose to support in this space are entirely of my discretion. It is not my responsibility to sing the praises of any one party, my own included, unless I feel such praise is called for. It is not my responsibility to support candidates of my own party simply because of their party affiliation. It is, however, my responsibility to put words to the things that truly matter, even if they are things that only matter to me.

I like to write, beginning to end, in one sitting. In fact, spurts of writing that result in that beginning-to-end finished product tend to be my best work. Writing, for me at least, has always been very fluid. I have always adapted to writing pressures, cranking out the pieces I feel are warranted and abandoning the topics that aren't worth the effort it would take to write about them. I've blogged through eighteen-credit semesters, numerous health battles and the biggest professional project of my young life.

It has been six long years of writing posts multiple times per week, at times multiple posts per day. There is so much in my life yet to do. I have many a research project to continue, many an academic article to write, a thesis in my future and books stacked to the ceiling I would like to read. So, from here on out, The Political Game will be a one column per week blog. Hopefully this will allow for better research, better writing and a lot less stress on my part. Hopefully this will save this blog from ending prematurely. Whatever is premature about six years.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Informed Political Opinion

Editor's Note: The following article was submitted to the Idaho State Journal for publication by a former colleague of mine in Pocatello. It was rejected. I hope to further elaborate on the points he has made here that I couldn't possibly agree more with. However, with a two-day trip back to Pocatello at the end of the week and my blogiversary tomorrow, I may not get to it right away. This column appears here with the permission of the author.

By Leonard Hitchcock

Most of us who write regularly about politics in these op-ed pages are amateurs. We are neither politicians, who possess first-hand knowledge of the political arena, nor are we professionally engaged in the study and elucidation of the subject. We are, instead, businesspersons, doctors, physics professors, artists and retired librarians. We are not, moreover, disinterested observers of the political scene. Quite the contrary: we are gladiators in the political arena. We step onto the battlefield armed with sets of firm, often unshakable, convictions, and a lively hostility to one or another political party. For many of us, those convictions are, to put it politely, rather remote from mainstream opinion. Consequently, we tend to produce opinion pieces that are, for some portion of the newspaper’s readers, outrageous.

One might well wonder, given that collectively we have no real credentials, and could be justifiably categorized as biased zealots, why it is that our writings are published. Why doesn’t the newspaper recruit, or pay for, columnists who can actually lay claim to some expertise and objectivity with regard to political issues? Why doesn’t it publish opinion pieces by political science professors, or professional journalists who have experience, expertise and inside knowledge of the political process? Is being opinionated and possessing a minimal competence in expressing those opinions all that is really wanted? I cannot answer that question. I’m just another combatant, albeit an uncomfortable one, in this op-ed’s Roman circus.

I can, however, try to justify my columns by reporting to you occasionally about what genuinely knowledgeable students of politics have discovered. In today’s column, I’d like to introduce you to Bob Altemeyer, a Canadian professor of psychology who has spent over thirty years studying a personality type that is known, to psychologists, as “authoritarian.” The term is, unfortunately, misleading, for it refers not to those who seek to gain authority over others, but rather those who readily follow the directives of those in authority. Study of this trait began after WWII, when the Holocaust was fresh in everyone’s minds and Eichmann was put on trial. The question was: What sort of person would obey orders unquestioningly when those orders entailed participating in genocide?

The seminal work on the subject was published in 1950, by a group of Berkeley professors. Its explanation of how such personalities come into being was based upon Freudian theory and proved to be unsupported by the evidence. Thirty years later, Altemeyer approached the subject from a different theoretical perspective and explored in great detail not only the authoritarian trait itself but the correlations of that trait with others. He has created numerous “scales”, as they are called, i.e. survey instruments that measure attitudes by asking people to respond with degrees of agreement or disagreement to a set of statements. Essentially, the scale he uses to distinguish authoritarians from non-authoritarians reveals that authoritarian types exhibit three characteristics: a disposition to obey those whom they regard as having legitimate authority; a tendency to be aggressively hostile toward minorities when that aggression is sanctioned by such authorities; and a dedication to conventional standards of morality and behavior.

When one compares this scale with others measuring other traits, such as religious beliefs, political convictions, and ethnocentrism (degrees of intolerance or prejudice), it turns out that it is probable that those who score high on the authoritarianism scale will also turn out to regard their religion as an important determinate of their identity, to belong to a Protestant sect, especially one that takes a fundamentalist viewpoint, to be highly confident of the truth of their religious and moral beliefs and their personal righteousness, to exhibit more than the usual level of prejudice, and to be politically conservative.

Altemeyer has also compared those who score high on the authoritarianism scale with those who score high on a scale that measures what we usually mean by “authoritarian”, i.e. the desire to be socially or politically dominant. It might seem, intuitively, that authoritarian personalities, who are submissive to authority, would not be inclined to seek power and authority over others. And that is largely the case. Most authoritarian types score very low on the social dominance scale. Yet there is a small percentage of people who score high on both scales. These “double highs”, as Altemeyer calls them, are an extraordinarily interesting personality type. They are also, in Altemeyer’s opinion, an extraordinarily dangerous one.

In my next column, I will take a closer and more detailed look at Altemeyer’s findings, especially those pertaining to “double highs.” My readers might find it diverting to make a list of past and present political figures who might qualify for membership in that elite group.