Saturday, December 30, 2006

The One About Keith Ellison

It was interesting to read the various reactions to incoming U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) announcing that he would take his oath of office on the Koran. Interesting, because even a number of responses in favor of Ellison's announcement seemed to have very little understanding of the background behind the whole brouhaha.

You see, I voted for Keith Ellison in the 2006 general election, even though I didn't vote for him in the primary election.

In March of 2006, long-time Representative Martin Olaf Sabo announced that he would not seek re-election as the represenative of the Minnesota Fifth Congressional District. Upon his announcement, a flurry of vaguely-to-fairly well-known politicos, at least by Minnesota standards, announced they would seek the nomination to replace Sabo as the district's representative. Two things you should know about Minnesota politics:

1. The city of Minneapolis, which is wholly contained within the Fifth Congressional District, is considered one of the most liberal cities in America. Its previous mayor was a black woman, Sharon Sayles Belton, while its current mayor, R.T. Rybak, is a former liberal activist. The Minneapolis City Council seats no Republicans, and three members of the Green Party. Based on this tradition, it was reasonable for a politician to assume that if he or she managed to win the party nomination for the seat, he or she would not only be the favorite to win the seat, but to be able to hold the seat as long as he or she chooses to - Sabo himself had been the district's representative since 1978 and had never faced serious opposition.

2. The Democratic Party, as a 'brand name', does not exist in Minnesota per se; rather, a union of the state's Democratic Party with the Depression-era Farmer-Labor Party during World War II created what is known in the state as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, usually shortened to "DFL" by locals. Though with the transition of agriculture from a family to a corporate concern, 'farmer' issues are often addressed by state Republicans as well as Democrats, and though the political power of unions is declining in Minnesota just as it is in other parts of the United States, the simple history of the DFL has kept it a more left-leaning and progressive party than the national Democratic Party, especially in the past ten to fifteen years. (This should surprise no one who is a student of American political history; after all, Robert LaFollette's Progressive Party was born in neighboring Wisconsin at about the same time as the Farmor-Labor Party came into existence in Minnesota.)

During the spring of 2006, most folks I spoke with seemed to prefer former state Senator Ember Reichgott Junge over Ellison for the DFL nomination; meanwhile, Sabo himself backed his former House Chief of Staff Mike Erlandson for the nomination. Ellison seemed mired in discussions about unpaid parking tickets and other supposed flaws. This wouldn't last. Ellison campaigned hard in grass-roots style, motivated supporters, and went to the convention with a solid bloc of support; he parlayed that support into the DFL nomination, on the fourth ballot. Nevertheless, Minnesota does not automatically award its party slots in the general election to winners of the party caucuses - Ellison would have to defend his nomination in a primary election, and both Reichgott Junge and Erlandson remained in the race to contend against him.

Meanwhile, the Republicans had nominated former U of M Business School professor and entrepreneur Alan Fine for the seat, without opposition. While the DFLers squabbled during the primary, Fine maintained a position above the fray, with a very high-minded and tolerant tone that won plenty of attention from moderate voters. Even the allegedly liberal Minneapolis Star-Tribune complimented Fine for his pre-primary carriage (the linked story appears to be unavailable now, unfortunately). Even though Ellison was considered advantaged by the party nomination, most observers expected either Erlandson or Reichgott Junge to emerge from the primary as the DFL's official candidate.

Ellison, still working hard, beat them both, by sizable margins - he captured over 40% of the primary vote in a tough three-way race. And it was at this point that Alan Fine, apparently having set himself up as a moderate in the event of a contest against Erlandson or Reichgott Junge, abandoned his moderation and went on the attack. Despite attacks on Ellison's 'character' having had no effect on his popularity in the primary election, Fine apparently followed some political handler's script and pit-bulled his way out of the race. By the time the election was held, Fine ended up polling almost identically to Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, far behind Ellison's 56% of the vote.

I hadn't voted for Ellison in the primary, though this was largely because I really didn't feel I knew him very well - though he'd been serving as the representative for District 58B, comprising much of the city of Minneapolis, in the Minnesota State House since 2002, I'd been unaware of his positions or achievements, because they hadn't made headlines. In addition, I thought similarly to what Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee eventually said during the campaign itself; that it seemed a sizable portion of Ellison's candidacy was novelty-driven, giving Minnesotans the chance to elect the first-ever Muslim to national political office.

During the course of the general election campaign, I got to know Ellison a bit better - not personally, but at least by proxy. I watched one televised debate and attended another, and was stunned in particular at the degree to which Fine's candidacy appeared to boil down to arguments that he simply wasn't Ellison. Nevertheless, every one of Fine's attacks was dutifully repeated as 'news' in the local media; even Lee's comment above was magnified into an accusation that Ellison was simply a 'novelty candidate', which was not at all what Lee was suggesting. Only the local alt-weekly, the City Pages maintained some degree of objectivity surrounding Ellison's record, thanks largely to the work of local writer Britt Robson; even then, Robson's essays were frequently attacked in letters-to-the-editor by conservatives for being 'too pro-Ellison'. Through it all, Ellison stayed above the fray (though clearly it wasn't always easy for him) and refused to descend to cheap-shots and a campaign of tit-for-tat attacks. Meanwhile, Ellison continued to work the political 'ground game', especially among the immigrant Somali community; this combination of factors helped him to his easy Election Day victory.

I learned two things from watching Ellison's campaign in 2006:

1. Ellison himself is smart, disciplined, and extremely tough. He also is not afraid or uninterested in doing the kind of political scut-work that seldom gets headlines, but does result in good public policy. He's going to be a great representative for me and the other folks in his district.

2. Much of what passes for political news coverage these days, even among local news providers, is nearly indistinguishable from sports coverage; stories about Fine's attacks on Ellison were carried with the same breathlessness as the sniping between former teammates Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, while discussions about the race itself focused far less on the candidates' positions on issues and much more on the horse-race aspects of the political race, as if voters had no other interest than watching the scoreboard and wondering who would eventually be crowned 'champion'. (Granted, this isn't an original insight on my part, but until this election, I had no idea how far local news had gone down this trail, as national political coverage has done long since.)

Ellison, as I mentioned, is smart. So he had to be aware that his announcement that he was going to take his oath of office on the Koran was going to draw fire. And predictably enough, it did, from two different sources:

- Conservative writer Dennis Prager, wrote a now infamous essay entitled America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book a congressman takes his oath on.

- Representative Virgil Goode (R - VA) sent a letter to his constituents in response to the Prager article apparently attacking Ellison for simply being Muslim; his letter contained the equally infamous phrase, "..if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran."

In addition, in the midst of the fray, Ellison was invited onto conservative radio host Glenn Beck's show and asked, point-blank, "What I feel like saying is, 'Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies'," and in which Beck also asked Ellison if he thought Goode was a bigot.

I don't blame any of these guys for thinking they'd be able to get a rise out of Ellison for their attacks; after all, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, when he was staring out, never seemed to hear a criticism he wasn't willing to go off against. Again, though, this simply shows that all these guys are responding, not to Ellison himself, but to their own prejudices and pre-conceptions of what Ellison is and what he supposedly represents.

Ellison's responses, unsurprising to anyone who actually watched him during the 2006 election, were uniformly calm, intelligent, and understandable; his interview with Wolf Blitzer pretty much covers the entire spectrum of his critics, and Ellison deflects those critics with polish and aplomb.

And of course, when Ellison spoke before a group of Muslims at a convention of two different Muslim organizations, he put the whole thing into perspective:

Muslims, you're up to bat right now. . . How do you know that you were not brought right here to this place to learn how to make this world better? How do you know that Allah, sallalahu aleyhi wasallam, did not bring you here so that you could understand how to teach people what tolerance was, what justice was? ... How do you know that you're not here to teach this country?

We had faith in Allah, and we patiently endured this adversity. And facing adversity bravely and with patience in the faith in Allah is an Islamic value. . . . That's what it means to be a Muslim.

I am damned glad I voted for Keith Ellison as my representative in Congress.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Romantic comedies are a strange animal.

For starters, they're inherently unrealistic, in that they have to end with the main characters in love, with obstacles overcome, and all signs pointing toward 'happily ever after'. That's what makes them popular stories. Yet the sign of a good romantic comedy is the degree to which, other than the basic tropes of the genre, the story manages to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. We have to believe the main characters are real people before we can accept that they've fallen into a wonderland where their personal crises will be overcome with a simple push from the rolling boulder of 'love conquers all'.

They also tend to deconstruct their own premise, which is that the two main characters are somehow 'made for each other'; that the characters very seldom if ever know each other prior to their first meeting actually suggests that any two people that meet could become lovers, even True Lovers, and thus it's not so much that the story teaches you that, if you persevere, you'll find that One Person Meant For You, but rather than anyone you meet could prove to be that One True Person - in other words, anybody can fall in love with anybody.

Part of the reason I'm thinking about this subject is that I've just come from seeing The Vacation; though the selling point was one friend suggesting that any time you get to see Cameron Diaz in a motion picture is a decent way to pass the time, within the first ten minutes of the film I found myself leaning in to another friend and whispering that Kate Winslet is now my favorite actress, period.

Winslet's character has an amazing monologue at the start of the movie on the topic of love, and I wish I could remember it and quote it here, because the part about unrequited love is absolutely spot-on.

The other reason I'm thinking about this subject is that I've got that old friend from a previous post on the brain - still. Yes, I know I said in that post that I was cutting her out of my life forever, and I didn't mean to lie, exactly. It's just not that easy (unless you've watched a series of old movies with heroines with 'gumption', but I digress...)

The good news is that, while I still think about her multiple times per day, those thoughts are no longer accompanied by a crippling desire to contact her and let her know that's what I'm thinking about. In fact, I've moved on from pathetic hanger-on-her-every-memory into full-fledged Martin Briley mode. (The song, man, listen to the song - it should be obvious in a heartbeat, at least if you lived through the 1980s.)

There were a couple of things that reminded me of her yesterday, though not in a good way; one of them was this Order of the Stick online comic. In my defense, I met her at an 'adult' chat site, and she's never been shy about projecting a persona of smoldering sensuality - one of her favorite pastimes was putting sexual double-entendres in her Yahoo Messenger away messages. In her defense, she tried to make it clear that she was not the same as her online persona, and was frequently irritated at the number of men who assumed, just because she would freely and easily talk about sex, that she was therefore also free and easy. There's really no need to document the other thing; it was much along the same lines, though with respect to her politics rather than her sexuality.

Here's where these two threads tie back together: in a romantic comedy, the two people having a problem are either the main characters, who will find a way past the problem to win their happily-ever-after moment, or they are one main character and a pre-existing relationship character, which is meant to serve as the reminder of how crappy the main character's romantic life was before the other main character entered her life

Well, you don't need me to tell you that real life doesn't work by the rules of the romantic comedy genre, so that's not the issue. The problem is that there isn't a genre for what happens when two people meet, become friends, and then one person subsequently falls over the unspoken line of friendship into something more complicated, then bolts and refuses to discuss the topic while trying desperately to purge the transgression from his mind. Probably because it wouldn't make for a very salable Hollywood story, for starters. So as much as Kate Winslet kicked ass in "The Vacation", and as much as I felt I identified with her character's situation and motivations, I really can't use anything that happened to her character to help myself in my current situation.

So what do I do? Good damned question.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that this isn't the first time I've had this kind of unrequited and silent crush on someone, and the good news is that those previous occurrences did, eventually, dissipate simply through the passage of time. Time, it seems, really does heal all wounds. The typical time-to-heal, however, runs about fifteen years from crushing emotional pain to occasional fleeting and completely emotionless recollection.

Two months down, one hundred and seventy-eight to go.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Welcome to the Bandwagon

When I was young, and I mean pre-teen young here, I was a rabid sports fan. The best way I can think of to convince you of this is to tell you a story:

It's around Christmas-time 1980, and I'm too sick to travel to the extended family gathering. Instead, I stay home, wrapped up in a blanket and with soup handy and watch the Minnesota Vikings take on the Cleveland Browns. The Vikings were 8-6 at the time, and needed to win at least one of their final two games to clinch a playoff spot. Since the second of the two games was in Houston against the then-strong Oilers, one of the best defensive teams in the NFL that year and featuring All-Pro running back Earl Campbell on offense, it didn't seem likely the club would get the win if they had to rely on that one game, so the home game against Cleveland was considered key. The Browns, however, scored late to take a 23-21 lead in what looked like a game-clincher. Vikings start near their own 20 yard line.

Folks who watched the game and have solid memories can tell you that the first play from scrimmage was a pass from "Two Minute" Tommy Kramer over the middle to tight end Joe Senser, who immediately flipped the ball back to trailing running back Ted Brown in a perfect hook-and-ladder play, then went to ground at his defender's knees to take him out of the play. The Browns were in a prevent defense, though, and Senser's defender was not the last man between Brown and the end zone, so Brown scurried out of bounds near midfield to stop the clock with only a few seconds left.

Most folks who are long-time Viking fans can recall the next play: a hail-mary pass from Kramer toward the end-zone, tipped up into the air by a Cleveland defender, then caught by receiver Ahmad Rashad one-handed while falling backward into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Granted, those are both memorable plays, so I wouldn't have had to be a rabid fan in order to have remembered them over 25 years after the fact. The part of the story that counts, though, is that the telephone rang within moments of the play's end. It was my mother. The first words out of her mouth were a question: "Is the house still standing?" She knew I was a crazy-mad sports fan to the point where even being sick to the point of vomiting wouldn't stop me from whooping and hollering at the playoff-clinching win.

(Of course, the Vikings lost their first playoff game that year to the Super-Bowl bound Philadelphia Eagles, and I had to look that one up to verify who the Vikings had even played. So much for the mojo from the last-second win, and the memories that it kindled. Though keep this in mind, because it will become relevant later.)

It goes without saying that these days I'm not nearly as rabid a fan as I was back then. The best way to convince you of that is to report my performance in fantasy football the past three years: seventh out of eight teams, ninth out of ten teams, and eighth out of ten teams. So, no, I haven't kept up my NFL fandom. I can't even use the 'stadium argument', as I do for my loss of fandom for the Twins. I suppose I could try to spin the whole thing as a maturation process - there's a reason women tend to avoid guys who talk about sports a great deal, unless they actually are professional athletes, and sometimes not even then. Unfortunately, that argument fails when I explain that, instead of being a sports fan, I play with little plastic men in a game store on the weekends. Real adult, huh?

But that's how I figured out I'm not all that big on sports anymore. I tried putting together a last-second gathering of my fellow minis-players for this past weekend, though only one other person showed up. Of all the reasons I heard for not attending, the oddest to my ears was that there was a chance that rookie Tarvaris Jackson might start the Vikings game against the Lions.

Now I understand the reasoning behind this thinking: one of the Holy Grails of sports fandom is to be able to say, once a player has achieved 'greatness' and is about to be enshrined in the appropriate Hall of Fame that, "I saw his first-ever start!" Such a comment generally scores major points in sports fandom circles. Of course, if you go back and look, most first-ever starts by Hall-of-Fame football quarterbacks weren't all that impressive, not to mention the argument that Tarvaris Jackson probably isn't going to end up in the Hall of Fame anyway, but to a 'true sports fan', those things don't really matter.

So by realizing this, I realize I'm no longer a 'true sports fan'.

'True sports fans', by the way, have a word for folks who barely follow the local team unless they're winning: bandwagon fans. They live in blissful ignorance of the depth of suck the local team sinks to from time-to-time, until they recover enough to compete for the post-season, at which point a bunch of bandwagon fans come out of the woodwork to cheer the club on. This irritates 'true sports fans' to no end; in their eyes, if you weren't around to cheer on Scott Stahoviak in 1997, you have no business calling yourself a Twins fan in 2006.

Now granted, back when I was a rabid sports fan, I rooted for some pretty poor clubs; the Vikings were still good, at the tail end of their Super Bowl years, though by 1984 they'd sunk into the cyclopean depths of the NFL under the tutelage of former Marine Les Steckel. The Twins, meanwhile, were notoriously bad in those same years, during which time owner Cal Griffith simply refused to spend major money on these new-fangled free agents. The 1982 Twins opened their new ballpark, the Metrodome, by promptly losing 100 games.

Nevertheless, 'true fans' will argue that there's good reason to follow a team when it's bad; only then do you find the players to root for that become heroes when the team gets good again. Take the 1982 Twins as an example: five men who were regulars on that roster were still regulars five years later when the Twins won the World Series (though interestingly, Kirby Puckett was not among them). Nevertheless, just because sometimes a team can develop young players into playoff performers, that doesn't mean they do so all the time. As a counterexample, take the 1997 Twins, mentioned above for the performance of Scott Stahoviak. Only one regular on that team, pitcher Brad Radke, was still playing for the club in 2006, and Radke in 2006 was a broken-down veteran trying to reach the end of the season so that he could retire.

In other words, most if not all of the players you're rooting for when the team sucks won't be around when the team gets good, so why waste effort rooting for them? Ah, but that's bandwagon fan thinking, not 'true fan' thinking.

Meanwhile, 'true fans' wonder how the Twins come-from-behind finish in 2006 will impact their fan following in 2007. Well, given that the Twins were humiliatingly swept out of the playoffs in the opening round, I can say that, if the club stumbles coming out of the gate in 2007, most folks will likely stay away in droves, just as they've done over the past couple of years for the local NBA franchise, once just two games from the NBA finals, and only now looking as though they might escape the draft lottery for the first time in two years. Again, the 'true fans' will hem and haw, and wonder how it can be that more people don't recognize the talent and dedication of the local sports teams. Why don't more people care?

I used to, until it finally sunk in that sports teams don't exist to make me happy; they win games in the regular season and then lose them in the playoffs, they trade popular players to bring in 'proven winners', and they simply can't overcome the statistical reality that, in a 28-to-30 team league, it's difficult for a team to win consistently, and nearly impossible for them to win it all consistently.

So now, my butt is firmly planted on the bandwagon. I've got other things to do.