November 01, 2008

Voting for Al

In my last post, I talked about the many excellent reasons to vote against Norm Coleman for senator. The fact that his third-party challenger has drawn down Coleman's poll numbers while leaving Franken's untouched suggests that lots of people agree with me on that. What I have trouble understanding is why more of them aren't voting for Al. I'm excited just to have the chance.

One note of disclosure before I start: I haven't always been an Al Franken fan. Saturday Night Live was okay when he was writing for them, but I really despised Stuart Smalley. It's a Minnesota thing. To really understand, you have to deal with in-your-face meekness and drive past Hazelden every time you visit your family.

No, my love affair with Al Franken started in 1996 when I heard he'd put out Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I loved that he didn't merely look shocked and ask, "How can all these conservative mouthpieces lie like that and get away with it?" as so many others were doing. No, he took the blowhards' own schtick and skewered them with it. That he used their tactics to be much funnier than they were was a bonus.

It was Franken's next book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right that made me take Franken seriously. In this book, he dropped the schtick for an emphasis on research. He demonstrated, clearly (while still being funny), that policy should not be made on the basis of what one thinks should be the truth, especially not when the truth is available. For what was largely sold as satire, that book is one of the most thoroughly researched documents I've seen.

That wasn't the only thing Franken did in Lies. He's the first writer I've seen talk about his research staff (whom he worked with while a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) in the text of his book, rather than relegating them to the acknowledgments. That impressed the hell out of me. He didn't have to do it, just like lawmakers don't have to recognize that their staffers play a huge role in governing our country, but he did. That makes a difference in the quality and loyalty of one's staff, as I can attest after having seen them at Franken HQ and the get out the vote campaign.

Lies was also where I discovered that Franken was a huge Paul Wellstone fan and supporter. Franken had been living in New York for twenty years. He didn't need to follow Minnesota politics then, but he did that too. As a Wellstone fan myself, that means a lot to me.

Shortly after the book came out, around the time his radio show started up to combat the right-wing noise machine, a local magazine ran the cover story, "Why Not Al?" It suggested--in 2004--that a 2008 senate run wouldn't be such a strange or unwelcome thing. I agreed completely. A progressive, evidence-based senator? Hell, yes! That's exactly what I wanted then and what I want now.

But what about his temper, I hear? A couple of thing, actually. Have you ever noticed that the video clips of Franken's "scary" temper are usually about 20 seconds long? I'll let Al add the context they're missing:

I think the [ad] you're probably referring to is of me being "angry" right? And there's one in which I swear and I talk about the shamelessness of somebody in it and this was when Fox in August of 2003 said that our soldiers in Iraq were safer than residents of California. They were trying to trivialize the danger that our troops were in order to serve a political agenda, which is to say that the war was going well. Britt Hume made the point, he said Iraq is the same size as California and yet we're losing only 1.7 troops a day while six people died every day in California. Well, there are 300 times more people in California. When this was pointed out to Brit Hume, instead of apologizing to our troops and the families of our troops, he said: 'Well admittedly it's a crude comparison, but it's illustrative of something.'

My response when I heard that was, "Yeah, it illustrative of something. It's illustrative of what a jerk he is." But instead of jerk I used a different word and I'm not happy with my reaction to that, and it wasn't a comedy routine. It was just me being angry that they had trivialized the danger that our troops were operating under. I've been on seven USO tours. I see how magnificent our troops are. I don't apologize for being outraged when Fox News deliberately trivializes the danger that our troops are operating under. I don't like the way I did it and I don't like that it's on tape.

There's also another thing they've done. I tell the story about Paul Wellstone running alongside his son David Wellstone when David was in cross country track. It's a pretty funny story because Paul would run alongside him on this two and a half or three mile race and at the end of the race he would go, "You can do it. Keep going. Take this guy." And I do this impression of Paul. Well, they have taken a tape of me and sped it up to make me look like I'm crazy. And it's all this distortion and they just want to distract from the real serious issues that Melvin was referring to. We have issues regarding education, regarding health care, regarding jobs. My goodness we're seeing the economy collapse and there's no credibility. We have no leadership anymore.

There's a lot to be angry about at the moment. Personally, I want a representative who doesn't shrug these things off. And Franken has demonstrated, with his books and his radio show, that being angry doesn't make him less effective.

As for the rape joke, um, so what? Yes, rape jokes are going to be painful to rape victims. The world's funniest joke is going to be painful to those who lost someone to gun violence. Every (good) joke is going to be painful to someone. If you want to judge Franken's views toward women, evaluate him when he's being serious.

And whatever your views on pornography, don't whine that he wrote about it in Playboy. Really. I want a politician who isn't afraid to talk about sex. I want one who is perfectly clear that abstinence-only sex education is a failure and who is more concerned about the quality of justice that our country provides than about whether her marble breasts are covered. Enough with the squeamish Puritans, already.

Speaking about policy positions, I love Franken's policy pages on his campaign site. Some politicians tell you why an issue is important. Some tell you what steps they want to take. Franken does both. For example, from his education page:

In addition to funding issues, I believe that the No Child Left Behind law must be dramatically reformed or scrapped altogether. I'm for accountability, but I'm not for the deeply-flawed NCLB system. I once read about something called McNamara's Fallacy. It goes like this:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't easily be measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist.


-- Reading comprehension and math skills tests only measure reading comprehension and math skills (and, I suppose, test-taking skills). We should measure critical thinking, teamwork, creativity, and other important skills. And we have to reverse the narrowing of our curriculum that has de-emphasized science, art, civic, and physical education.

-- Stop duplicative testing. My daughter taught third grade in a public school for three years, and she was constantly frustrated by the amount of classroom time that had to be devoted to testing and test preparation. While we need to measure student progress, too many districts have overlapping district, state, and federal tests. We should audit tests at the district, state, and federal level to ensure that this doesn't happen.

-- Instead of punishing low-performing schools, use research-based interventions to help them improve. Give them the resources to hire, develop, and retain the best teachers by offering increased pay, safe working conditions, and sufficient support staff and facilities.

Whereas Coleman doesn't say what he wants to do for us. Instead he tells us what he did before. He doesn't have a general education policy page (seriously), but this is from his college costs page:

-- Senator Coleman introduced bipartisan legislation with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the College Textbook Affordability Act of 2007, to reduce the astronomical cost of college textbooks. The recently passed Higher Education Reauthorization bill included language nearly identical to this proposal by Senator Coleman. As every student and parent of a college student knows, there is an enormous discrepancy between the price of books at regular book sellers and those at college bookstores. The Coleman legislation would help bridge this gap..

-- This year, Senator Coleman joined with Republican and Democratic colleagues in a bipartisan effort to ensure that funding for the Perkins Loans program, a vital source of reduced interest loans for students from low income families, remains at $65.4 million and is not cut.

-- In May 2008, legislation was passed into law that would ensure students have federal loans available to them no matter the status of the private loan student market.

Actually, from the way it's written, I'm not sure he did the third one. Either way, I much prefer Franken's thoughtfulness and his enthusiasm for meaningful change.

What do I want from my next senator? I want someone with a passion for the truth. I want someone who looks at the evidence in setting policy. I want someone who collects and keeps good minds around him. I want someone who doesn't forget where he came from even as he succeeds somewhere else. I want someone who will be a voice for the people who are left voiceless. I want someone looking forward, not backward.

I want Al Franken.


Will Shetterly said...

People don't like subtle distinctions in politics, but that isn't a joke about rape. It's a joke about Mickey Rooney having a bottle of sedatives in his desk. It attempts to create humor by coming up with a ludicrously extreme example of why. It is nothing at all like, say, McCain's rape joke. In Franken's, the joke suggests Mickey Rooney is a twisted creep. In McCain's, the joke suggests women like being raped.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Will, one of the things I've always liked about you--one of the reasons I voted for you, in fact--is that you're willing to tackle those subtle distinctions. I was pretty sure that if I tried, I'd be inviting argument over a distracting detail. You? You nailed it.

Will Shetterly said...

Aw! Thank you!

Becca said...

People don't like nuance... and so they justify what they already like.
That's not evidence based.

Dumb rape jokes are not made less offensive for targeting Mickey Rooney.
Believing you are righteous in your indignation does not make it socially acceptable to loose your temper and swear at people.

Now, I would probably vote for Al Franken if I lived in Minnesota. But I would do so knowing he has a first class political mind- and a third class political temperment.

Will Shetterly said...

Sorry about the Andy/Mickey typos in my comment--I had just read the article saying it was Andy, but my brain must like Mickey better.

Becca, there was a time when people admired and expected righteous indignation--it meant you cared. It may be that wrath-of-god preachers have soured many people on that kind of passion.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Becca, there are multiple kinds of political temperaments. One of the few redeeming features of Senator Robert Byrd has been his righteous indignation over the actions of the current administration, and if you don't think he's been swearing in his speeches on the subject, your definition of swearing could be expanded. I am definitely in the mood for more righteous indignation. No, I don't want Franken as president or ambassador, but that's not what he's running for.

As for the jokes, bear with me as I theorize about humor. This kind of humor relies on the audience being surprised with an uncomfortable truth. All three parts--surprise, discomfort and truth--are necessary for the joke to work.

In Franken's joke, people are surprised by Rooney's confession and uncomfortable because our society doesn't like to acknowledge that rapists and victims can come from the privileged elites. Norm MacDonald's follow-up joke is funnier because we really don't want to talk about male rape victims.

In both cases, the comedian will lose the part of their audience that isn't surprised (a small group) and the part for whom the topic generate more than mere discomfort (a larger group). However, everyone else has just gotten a little dose of uncomfortable truth. They've had to face something they didn't want to, and I think that's a good thing.

The McCain joke, by contrast, is only funny to someone who believes that women like being raped (and that gorillas have large penises). There's a good joke in there somewhere about a presidential wannabe who would tell that kind of joke, but it won't work until we start being surprised by that sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

The book that sealed the deal for me on Franken was also "Lying Liars." I was never surprised, though that he stayed interested in Minnesota politics and was a friend to Paul Wellstone. Despite Dean Barkley's slam against "two guys from New York," Al has always kept his childhood home close in his thoughts.

As for the jokes, he has a pointed humor. As Heinlein pointed out in A Stranger in a Strange Land we laugh because it hurts.

I agree, Stephanie, I want a Senator who will get angry and outraged when something is very wrong.

Becca said...

The question becomes, in part, whether the role of a leader is to serve as a figurehead to represent our own feelings... or as someone who can actually bring people together and, ya know, lead.
There is definitely a place for both roles, but when I send one sort of politician to Washington, I expect more to get done.

Will Shetterly- it is not just the Elmer Gantries but also the Buzz Windrips that have soured me on righteous indignation. Though perhaps I am just bitter over being told to contain my own righteous indignation too many times.

Stephanie- I don't care if the joke "works" (which, incidently, it does for me) if it delivers a valuble truth. But I see the truth as a higher aim than the humor. Andy Rooney's creepiness, or his use of sedatives, or whatever, is simply not a truth that warrents that joke. It's not particularly pointed, nor particularly humorous. Sometimes a bad joke is just a bad joke.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Becca, I think we need both kinds of politicians in our legislative bodies. We need the sort who will gather everyone together and iron out differences to form consensus (and I think Franken's ability to work with people he disagrees with has been understated--dude was a collaborative writer for decades), and we need the sort who will stand up occasionally and say, "Folks, this is not an academic exercise. These are people's lives we're talking about."

On the joke, I don't think I'm arguing with you so much as I am with some of Franken's other critics on the subject. Sorry about that.