Who, us? Racist?

I love it when newspaper editors lecture, especially when they can’t punctuate:

Humor can be a dangerous thing as the line between funny and offensive can be a moving target as was certainly the case in this presidential campaign. In Sunday’s column Mr. Lewis pushed past that line, but only, I honestly and fully believe, in the pursuit of humor.

OK, your call: Did this push past the line between funny and offensive?

“Well we’re movin’ on up,
To Washington, D.C.
To a deee-luxe pimp pad,
Painted whiiiite.
Yeah we’re movin’ on up,
To the White House.
I’ll be jetting with P. Diddy cross the sky.

To be sure, the editor of the Murfreesboro Post (“giving a voice to Tennessee’s most dynamic city”) notes that author Stephen Lewis, identified as a columnist, “is not a journalist but a citizen of the community who writes a weekly column, again in his case a humor column.”

When you’re in a hole? Stop digging.

Oh, well. You can read the rest of it at the link above. Rush Limbaugh used to use “The Jeffersons” theme for his regular Carol Moseley Braun updates, so I guess it’s not without precedent.

The NYT reminds us that in the most recent election, most of Tennessee went even redder than it did in 2004. Enjoy cultural exile, Murfreesboro. And learn to use the comma.

I said yesterday I wanted to turn my thoughts to art in this post-election period. Well, OK. Here are the conditions insisted upon by a certain celebrity mother, on the occasion of her sons’ visit to their father on the other side of the Atlantic:

mom's rules

If I were running a newspaper I would strive for content like this every day.

Speaking of commas and punctuation and writing, I made a Wordle the other day. A Wordle is a word cloud; it analyzes text and makes a graphic representation of the words used, with the size of each word determined by its frequency in the text. Here’s one for Obama’s acceptance speech on election night, to give you an idea what they look like; I’m not going to bother screen-capturing a Java Applet thingie when you can make one yourself. Of course I used the text from the index page you’re looking at, and there in the middle was a big fat hulking JUST. Oy. It’s a word I use too much, a potato-chip word, one that I’m always stuffing into the cracks in my sentences. Just because I like it so much. But it’s wrong to use it so much. So I’m starting a campaign called Kill the Just, for my own writing alone.

Make your own Wordle, and find out what your darlings are. Then kill them.

I have work to do, and not enough time to do it. So have a good day, and I’ll be back later.

Posted at 9:35 am in Current events, Same ol' same ol' |

35 responses to “Who, us? Racist?”

  1. Suzi said on November 11, 2008 at 9:51 am

    *And make sure the boys watch Mummie’s Like a Virgin video every day before nappies.
    I think we can look forward to reading Madonna Dearest in a few years.

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  2. Julie Robinson said on November 11, 2008 at 10:04 am

    Humor column? I nominate Madonna.

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  3. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on November 11, 2008 at 10:05 am

    I tried exactly that experiment, Nancy, and the word “Licking” showed up huge and in the middle of the cloud.

    What to do, what to do . . .

    (Actually, ellipses are my ailment, orthographically. And i need to eschew obtuse verbiage.)

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  4. Jason T. said on November 11, 2008 at 10:08 am

    Let’s not just pick on Tennessee. Several counties in Western Pennsylvania also went redder in this election.

    Hmm, in 2004, the Democrats ran a liberal northern senator, and this year, the Democrats ran a liberal midwestern senator, but we shifted sharply toward the Republican candidate. I wonder what was different this year?

    Ooh — maybe we’ve got a bias against Illinois, but we love them rich Massachusetts liberals! That must be it!

    Oh, and you know who was out of touch? John Murtha!

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  5. jcburns said on November 11, 2008 at 10:18 am

    But what amazes me is that Mercer County, PA, home of Greenville, PA, (which is the NW Pennsylvania town where my Grandfather owned Burns Auto Parts by the way)…went for McCain by two votes. Two. That’s amazing, considering.

    Yeah, that streak of increasing redness (on the NYT ‘voting shift’ map) from east Oklahoma, across Arkansas, Across almost through all of Tennessee, and up the Apppalachians from there…I don’t get that THEY don’t get how screwed they were by Republican policies.

    So be it.

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  6. coozledad said on November 11, 2008 at 10:23 am

    The humor piece reminds me of something some astute person (whose name I’ve washed out of my head with drink) wrote about Bush: His base admired him for his animal cunning and unreflective nature above all else.
    Tasteless jokes are only funny if they remind you how big an asshole you are. This guy isn’t selling irony. He’s reaffirming the grotesque value system of the dead enders.
    To paraphrase Johnny Mercer, there are busloads of people who could eat alphabet soup and shit better jokes than Stephen Lewis.

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  7. Jolene said on November 11, 2008 at 10:25 am

    Just listened to Gov. Strickland speaking about the DHL layoffs in Wilmington, OH and the “dislocation” that workers there will suffer. Seven thousand layoffs in a town of 12,000. Ay yi yi!

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  8. mark said on November 11, 2008 at 10:28 am

    Oh yeah. That “humor” clearly crossed the line to offensive.

    I like parody, edgy humor and even partisan humor. But I can think of nothing in Obama’s acts, words, rhetoric, history, etc. that would sugest the use of the reference made for any purpose other than an attempt at ridicule on the basis of race.

    I’m not familiar with what Rush said about Braun and, thankfully, I haven’t followed Ms. Braun’s career in a long while. I suppose there are people who, by virtue of acts, rhetoric or misdeed, might be parodied in this fashion. Obama isn’t one of them.

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  9. James said on November 11, 2008 at 10:51 am

    One thing I noticed is that the states that went for McCain/Palin seemed to match up with those lists of states performing poorest on standardized tests…

    Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas…

    Not to be elitist, but… could it be that the dumb people voted for them?

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  10. Gasman said on November 11, 2008 at 10:53 am

    I’ve long since crossed my personal Rubicon when it comes to tolerating “humor” that is nothing more than bigoted tripe. You know the type, “Oh come on. Admit it. Xxxxxx jokes are just plain funny.” The last two months of the Republican mob was an embarrassing spectacle of ignorance. It continues.

    The only way to counter such profound intolerance is to call it as such loudly and very publicly. If they can’t be compelled to feel even vestigial empathy, maybe they can be shamed into silence.

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  11. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on November 11, 2008 at 10:54 am

    In Flanders Fields

    In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.

    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.

    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

    Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (1872-1918)
    (He’s one of yours, Whitebeard! I’d forgotten that.)

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  12. Jolene said on November 11, 2008 at 11:00 am

    As a matter of fact, James, that’s pretty much what happened. Here, again*, is that paragraph from David Brooks re political contributions from educated professionals:

    The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it’s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.

    Also, Barack won among college-educated voters.

    *I’ve linked to this op-ed a tiresome number of times, but those numbers seem worthy of substantial attention. Brooks is, in fact, the only commentator that I’ve seen talking about this issue in a serious way, and it seems to me that it ought to be important to all the people who are talking about what the Republican party must do to rebuild. I know there are more mail carriers than there are high-tech executives, but it’s hard to see how you can be a modern party w/ ideas about how to govern society if you can’t attract the people who are, in fact, contemporary leaders in fields that are important to the economy and the society more generally.

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  13. nancy said on November 11, 2008 at 11:17 am

    That is quite the paraphrase, C’dad. I’m stealing it for my own.

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  14. mark said on November 11, 2008 at 11:28 am

    Hmmm, in these difficult times it seems there might still be an opportunity to make money in the counterfeit Kabbalah water business. Particularly if maketed in containers containing no man made fibers, like macrobiotic dried gourds raised in Kabbalah blessed dirt.

    Oh what an ethical dilemma.

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  15. Rana said on November 11, 2008 at 11:40 am

    The problem with the “humor” excuse (and it’s almost always an excuse – people who are genuinely appalled to learn that what they wrote or said was racist typically react with horror and apologies, not excuses) is that it rests on the assumption that racism must perforce be intentional.

    Racism does not have to be intentional.

    Racism is not simply individual prejudice or dislike or even hatred – racism is that prejudice backed up by social, political and legal institutions. Fifty years ago if a white person said something negative about black people as a group, they might at most have faced personal censure. If a black person did the same about whites, they faced being beat up or denied a loan or housing. A hundred years ago, they probably would have been lynched; a 150 years ago, beaten or lynched or sold.

    Racism is the manifestation of those structural inequalities and societal support for the abuse of black people as a group and as individuals. That that support and those inequalities have diminished in the last decades does not mean that they have ceased to exist – and even if they vanished overnight, that history would still entail a weight for black Americans that white Americans do not have to carry.

    To sum up – even if your intentions are as pure as could be wished, if you do or say something that invokes all those long years of oppression, something which is or was tacitly supported by a society that saw black people as lesser beings and wrote that perception into law – what you say or do is racist.

    How you react when called on it is what defines YOU, however. If your reaction is unhappiness or shock or shame, and a mental note to never do it again, you are not a racist; you are a person who lives with the burden of a racist history and a racist society that is trying to do better.

    If your reaction is defensiveness or excuses, on the other hand, and your dismay comes more from being scolded than being morally wrong – I would consider you _A_ racist, a person who would express those views and take those actions freely and proudly if society let you get away with it.

    Being occasionally racist in this society is inevitable if you are white; being a racist is not.

    (In other words, I think those people offering the weak excuse of “humor” are racists.)

    Stepping off my soapbox, now….

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  16. Jolene said on November 11, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Dick Cheney is speaking at a Veteran’s Day ceremony at Arlington. He does not look well, and his voice doesn’t sound strong either. His face looks somewhat gaunt too.

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  17. Kirk said on November 11, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Sounds as though he needs a new battery.

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  18. mark said on November 11, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    OK jolene-

    You have linked to that article a few times, so I’ll rise to the bait and offer a few comments.

    First, I think Brooks is referring to dollar contribution ratios, not a head count. His article isn’t particularly clear, but I confirmed from other sources that the 4 to 1 ratio for lawyers is the democratic-republican dollar ratio. I can’t say that it doesn’t represent a headcount ratio as well, but if it does that would make lawyers a monolithic voting block second only to blacks.

    With lawyers, the big bucks have overwhelmingly gone to the democratic party for decades. This is almost solely due to ATLA (Assoc. of Trial Lawyers of America). This is the contingency fee, plaintiffs’ lawyer group and, as I recall, one of if not the biggest lobbying/campaign finance donating groups in the country.

    ATLA has a very direct financial interest in promoting candidates who keep litigation strong and oppose restrictions on attorney fee awards. The republican party has been the party of tort reform. I don’t fault ATLA and its members for voting and donating twith their pocketbooks, but their donations are way, way disproportionate to their numbers. The average Jane lawyer, doing wills and trusts, criminal law, business law, etc. doesn’t have nearly the financial stake in elections.

    Doctors, I don’t know. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that they are increasingly attracted to democratic health care proposals, particularly since none of those proposals in the last decade have included caps on doctor fees or incomes, or proposals to expand the number of doctors. I’m sure the average doctor would like to see everybody get all of the medical treatment they might require, regardless of cost. I’m equally sure the average doctor woulld like the expanded income from every person gettin all that treatment. A lot of lawyers would be in favor of everybody going to a lawyer whenever it might be beneficial and the government paying the bill.

    Tech executives. I don’t even know how that is defined so I can’t comment.

    Investment bankers. Do any of them live anywhere other than NY or NJ? Are these the same guys who helped destroy the lending markets and are currently getting hundreds of billions in bailouts, begging for more, and planning big year end bonuses at meetings being held in posh resorts? I’d prefer if this particular segment of the “best and brightest” were kept out of the political process completely. They have left a big enough mark already.

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  19. brian stouder said on November 11, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Rana – agreed. I’d extend it further and say we are all racist, inasmuch as we all have fears of the unknown. Once, leaving Chicago, I needed gasoline and thought the prices were too high, and proceeded southeastward….and saw no gasoline at all! Exiting the expressway, I discovered what the “skyway” heedlessly goes over. East Chicago looked like the end of the world, and I was somewhat fearful. We pulled into the first gas station I saw (and I’d have paid $10.00/gallon at that point), and several folks were just milling around as we completed our transaction and went on our way. The thought occurs that a black family stopping for gas in some God-foresaken little Appalachian town would have just the same apprehensiveness, and with better reason (all things considered)

    Jolene – that Brooks column is indeed good stuff.

    Kirk – Made me laugh out loud! Maybe we should just ‘jump’ him!

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  20. Gasman said on November 11, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    You’ve given an eloquent account of racism, however, I do not think that being white means you are bound to be occasionally racist. You can do so unintentionally, but you are not predestined to do so. Adults are free to shake off those fetters of intolerance, even if our upbringing and our society makes it easy to succumb to prejudice.

    When I saw Cheney’s endorsement of McCain a week ago last Saturday, I thought he looked like he already had one foot in the grave and he was preparing for that next step. I’m willing to bet that he doesn’t survive 2009. I can’t imagine that the immediate future will be enjoyable for him as the facts begin to emerge as to his calumny in this administration. His already subterranean approval ratings will inevitably sink even lower. Even a cold blooded reptile like Cheney must have some concern for his place in history. Being loathed cannot help his health.

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  21. Rana said on November 11, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    Once, leaving Chicago, I needed gasoline and thought the prices were too high, and proceeded southeastward….and saw no gasoline at all! Exiting the expressway, I discovered what the “skyway” heedlessly goes over. East Chicago looked like the end of the world, and I was somewhat fearful.

    This brought back memories of one family road trip when I was doing the map-reading and suggested going through the South Side of Chicago to reach the on-ramp. The skyway does indeed never touch ground – and both my parents kept checking the locks on the rental Explorer’s doors.

    You’ve given an eloquent account of racism, however, I do not think that being white means you are bound to be occasionally racist. You can do so unintentionally, but you are not predestined to do so.

    Well, okay, I don’t think it’s an absolute, iron-clad guarantee – but I figure that the odds are overwhelmingly good that, at some point in the 70+ years each of us gets on average, we’ll say or do something racist – not because we are bad people but because our society has racism embedded in it and it gets passed on. “Cotton pickin'” is racist, but I didn’t know that until a few months ago. Ditto “calling a spade a spade.” Ditto feeling uncomfortable in the presence of a black person because they are black – and that includes the “I’m going to smile at that black child so that she knows that not all white people hate her” thought that passes through your mind that doesn’t pass through when you see a white child.

    It’s pervasive, and at this point, for most of us (who are white at least), subtle. But it’s there, and it’s unlikely that any of us, white or black, is going to go seven decades without stepping in it at least once.

    The point is to avoid stepping in the same part of the shit heap more than once, and to avoid adding to it.

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  22. nancy said on November 11, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Eh. “Call a spade a spade” predates the racial slur by several centuries, and as for cotton-pickin’ minutes, I’d say they’ve been so far removed from whatever vaguely racist origins they have, the question is moot.

    See, this sort of language policing drives me nuts, because it impedes honesty in favor of the sort of hair-splitting caution that does no one any good. For example: A few years ago my alma mater started a summer program designed to boost minority presence in newsrooms. What they did was take bright, motivated minority college grads and put them through a crash course in reporting and editing, basically distilling j-school to three months. Inevitably, this came to be called “journalism boot camp,” until some very sensitive soul found a book somewhere that listed “boot” as an antique racial slur, and everyone was instructed to stop using this terribly insensitive term. I’m well-read and think I’ve heard every racial slur under the sun, but that one escaped me.

    My point: You have to consider intent. If the Diversity Club had a meeting and decided to serve cheese and crackers, I don’t think anyone would insist they call it cheese and crisp breads. At some point we have to relax.

    That said, I thought your major point was sound. We all are guilty of prejudice from time to time. It’s the human condition.

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  23. Gasman said on November 11, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    Rana & Nancy,
    Agreed; we are all tribal. It can be all too easy to act in an unthinking manner regarding those tribal impulses. Nancy, you saved me from having to make the spade correction. I never did think that particular old saw had any racial connection. We would lose huge swaths of our vocabulary if we had to expunge any word that was ever used in the service of bigotry.

    The same is true for visual symbols. Take the swastika, for example. It was a symbol of native American peoples for centuries before Hitler and his goons swiped it for their nefarious uses.

    As to “cotton pickin’ ” I have a deep respect for anyone who has actually performed that hellish task. I happened upon a field of cotton years ago when I was a temporary Texan. The outer hull of the boll is so damn hard and sharp that it would be impossible to not suffer severe wounds picking that crop by hand. I now understand the photos of the gnarled and scarred hands field hand slaves. No wonder the pussified white overlords didn’t want to do that work.

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  24. brian stouder said on November 11, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    You have to consider intent. If the Diversity Club had a meeting and decided to serve cheese and crackers, I don’t think anyone would insist they call it cheese and crisp breads.

    True enough. And if a guest speaker was going to give a talk to the Diversity Club titled “How to avoid being gyped at the bookstore” – one would hope that the title was purposely provocative, and not unthinkingly prejudiced.

    (And ditto if the guest speaker recounted how he skillfully jewed down the price on a particular text book)

    PS – speaking of guest speakers, David Baldacci is going to give a talk Friday at IPFW (the latest in the Ominbus Series of lectures). I’ve no idea whether he’ll be interesting, but with a name like that, the idea of attending is one I cannot refuse

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  25. Dexter said on November 11, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    Lohan is happy with our new “colored president”….


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  26. Rana said on November 11, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Fair point, Nancy. fwiw, I do think that intent is important – that’s why I make a distinction between being “racist” (influenced by race-based prejudice, usually cultural and institutional, often unknowingly) and being “a racist” (being aware of that prejudice and not wanting to do anything about it).

    I’m not very fond of “language policing” – but, at the same time, I think it’s a useful exercise when not taken to ridiculous extremes. It helps to raise awareness of the way that subtle, small things contribute to a larger overall trend, and the ways that we can unknowingly reinforce attitudes and beliefs that we’d otherwise condemn.

    In other words, for me this is less about playing gotcha games with others, and more about self-awareness and learning sensitivity to context.

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  27. Michael said on November 11, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    I have enjoyed the comments, but would anyone like to recap prior instances of this.

    I remember, John Bloom at the hold Dallas Times Herald and his work in “We are the Weird”. I thought John was a great columnist, and a nice enough guy the few times we met, but he was out the door within days of that “satire”

    Someone more savvy than I will have to find a link to the original, or maybe it has been wiped clean off the world wide interwebs.

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  28. Dexter said on November 11, 2008 at 5:31 pm

    Being someone who has hung around many big cities , walking along the avenues and boulevards, I have occasionally run into a celebrity…but this takes the cake:

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  29. Stephanie said on November 11, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    Love the wordle. Did it with a bunch of my stories.

    “Like” seems to be my Kill word.

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  30. Gasman said on November 11, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    I think that it is ultimately unfair to hold people from previous eras to modern standards concerning racial issues and attitudes. Our view backwards through history is clouded by the many recent changes which have occurred and this perspective tends to warp our perspective of individuals within the context of their own time.

    Abraham Lincoln made statements about blacks, which in today’s society would seem hopelessly bigoted and racist. Lincoln, however, was one of the most progressive voices on the national stage when it came to the subject of race and how likely – or unlikely – it was for blacks and whites to live as fellow countrymen and equals in a post slavery U.S.

    Remember the example of Al Campanis, who was fired from his job as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers after his racially insensitive remarks on ABC’s “Nightline” April 6, 1987. I watched it live and I knew the moment that I heard those words come out of his mouth that his career in baseball was over. However, I also knew that from his perspective, Campanis’ remarks were not indicative of any hatred toward black players, merely an insensitivity that was instilled in him as part of his upbringing during a far less enlightened time. He was a teammate of Jackie Robinson’s on the Dodgers and was probably closer to Robinson than most of his other white teammates. There is every indication that he was one of the more accepting and progressive white players of his era.

    My concern with the recent eruptions of racism in response to President Elect Obama is that they have come from not from people who make these utterances out of racial insensitivity, but those who do so largely from a position of obdurate intolerance and hatred.

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  31. joodyb said on November 11, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    nn, can i have a post in your new Kill the Just cabinet?
    it is one of my pet peeves. “in just 3 days” indicates the writer thinks 3 days isn’t a very long time, as opposed to saying “in 3 days” – why not let the reader decide? “that is just ridiculous” is different form “that is ridiculous” how? i rarely find justification for the use of just. it is more of a Cheeto in that way.

    i have to come down on the side of not reading my racist ancestry into the phrase “cotton-pickin.” such affectations are regional, on top of everything else, and even if i heard my mom say it, i wouldn’t have had the historical perspective to hear it as a slur and at the age of 4-5 would have repeated it. colloquialisms are neutered over time; it goes to schooled and precise (adult) speech. what does that descriptor conjure? as a little kid, i thought of Q-tips. though grandpa might have known full well what his dad meant by it.

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  32. Jolene said on November 12, 2008 at 2:21 am

    A belated response, mark: I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure Brooks was talking about numbers of people, not amount of contributions. It’s OK to dismiss these contributors as acting on the basis of self-interest (and I acknowledge that the ATLA is deep in the Democratic tank), but isn’t that generally why people vote? Also, there’s the point re more college-educated people voting for Obama.

    I don’t want to argue about this a lot more. My general point was that the Republican party is bleeding voters in pretty much every conceivable way (They’re losing the most educated voters, they are less appealing to women, and they are less appealing to Hispanics, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S.) and that someone at a high level of the party should be thinking about whether another capital gains tax cut is really going to reverse these trends.

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  33. moe99 said on November 12, 2008 at 2:34 am

    I”m on a private list serv with a bunch of lawyers from around the nation; we formed it when Steven Brill’s Counsel Connect went the way of the inter tubes and folded in 1999. Not one of us on the Politics thread voted for McCain this time out. Everyone to a member voted for Obama and this includes at least 10% long term Republicans. They just could not take the mendacity any longer.

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  34. alex said on November 12, 2008 at 7:41 am

    Jeff TMMO, the NYT chick pea salad was fantastic. I gave it a tad more ginger and skipped the cilantro because we had none, but it was so good I’m about to have some for breakfast.

    Anyone catch the PBS Frontline on Lee Atwater last night? Let’s hope this election tolls the death of his legacy.

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  35. Jolene said on November 12, 2008 at 8:03 am

    I saw it, Alex. It was a great film, and I had the same thought. Thank God for the end of that. People who missed it can find it online at the PBS site. Very much worth watching.

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