My Brow-Beating Techniques

So David Axelrod once again insists that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is definitely off limits. Whew! That means we won’t have to suffer through tedious Washington Post articles that try to make a 150-year-old massacre a campaign issue, or listen to Obama’s biggest SuperPAC donor’s claim that Mitt spent two years “trying to brow-beat Frenchmen into joining his cult.”

As one who spent two years in the UK brow-beating Scotsmen to join the same cult, I can honestly say that Mormon missionaries are more often the brow-beaten than the brow-beaters. I shall never forget that dreary morning in Livingston, Scotland, when a three-year-old urchin kicked me in the shins repeatedly and told me to “get a @&$ing job.” Believe me, it’s not as cute as it sounds.

The fact is that our main brow-beating technique was to knock on a door, announce ourselves as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and smile wanly as the door slammed shut in our face.

In order to avoid this scenario, we spent several months conducting “a survey about religious issues.” It was all very scientific, and it very often got us in the door, only to be kicked out when we hamhandedly segued from opinion polling to proselytizing.

Unfortunately, it was also kind of dishonest.

Many of us would raise that issue in group meetings, only to be told that there was nothing wrong with it, until the Area Presidency got wind of this ploy and told us to cut it out because, yes, it was dishonest.

I wasn’t especially sad to see this particular technique abandoned, because getting access to some of these homes wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Publicly subsidized “council houses” in some of the poorer areas of Scotland were home to some of the most rancid stenches humanity has ever produced, some of which could actually inflict lasting physical damage on the human nostril. Particularly noteworthy was what was later dubbed the “Wall of Stink Incident” in Thurso, Scotland in the autumn of 1988, when a door opened and unleashed an almost tangible barrier of fetid vapors devoid of breathable oxygen particles, instead consisting primarily of gaseous remnants of barbecued dog hair, vinegar, carrion, unwashed gym socks from 1954, and disembodied armpits, all marinated in a vat of used diapers and sour milk. Even thinking about it two decades later causes my nose to start bleeding anew.

Once, when we were conducting our deceptive little questionnaire, nobody answered the door at first. We were driving from farmhouse to farmhouse, so we had gotten in the car to leave, only to be chased down by the homeowner who asked to get into the vehicle in order to complete our survey. When we noticed a swarm of ants climbing from his hand up into his shirt sleeves, we quickly informed him that the Law of Tithing would require him to pay 10% of all of his money to the Mormons. And thus it was that the Scottish Farmer and his Assembly of Ants was warded off from our back seat.

Of course, if the ants had gotten in, we could have taken care of them with a quick game of Spider Yo-Yo, which was a favorite pastime on rainy days inside of Glaswegian tenements, where hordes of big, gnarly arachnids infest the untended hallways. If you take your umbrella and poke any one of the zillions of webs up in the hallway corners, one of the spiders will crawl on to the metal tip, and you can fling the spider downward, watching the creepy thing cast a line to save itself. The spider then crawls back up, but you cast it down again, leading to hours and hours of by-yourself enjoyment. (Yes, sometimes Spider Yo-Yo sessions were interrupted by someone actually trying to talk to you, but not as often as you might think.)

There was also the game where your missionary companion assigned you a random word that you had to work into your door approach – words like “scuba” or “lunchmeat.” My first instinct was to just shout the secret word as the door was opening, but that violated the rules. You had to use it in an appropriate context; make it fit into a natural discussion. “Well, I realize you’re not interested, but just allow me to leave you with one of our pamphlets – oh, wait, not that one, it’s got lunchmeat on it…”

Occasionally, in true brow-beating style, we would have a little bit of fun at the expense of some of our more hapless proselytizing targets. During my mission, Mormon scholar Truman Madsen’s recorded lectures about the life of Joseph Smith were very popular listening material during mealtimes, and missionaries loved to mock Madsen’s rather Shatnerian speech delivery. According to Madsen, Joseph Smith, on one occasion, told someone how much they looked like Adam and Eve’s son, Seth.

“You look more like SETH… thananymanI’veeverseen!”

In moments of frustration and desperation, I’ve told at least a dozen clueless Scotsmen the same thing, in the same style. Madsen quoted Joseph Smith taunting some rough men by saying, “if you do not leave us alone, we will send both you… and your men… to HELL!”  That was probably very powerful when Joseph was facing down an angry mob and defending religious liberty. It was less so when Elder Wilks said the same thing to an Inverness McDonalds clerk who was being pokey about bringing him his Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

I sat next to Truman Madsen at a family banquet in honor of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, just three days after returning home from my mission. I told him all about how missionaries all over Scotland – and probably all over the world – were using his words in vain. He was a good sport about it. And why shouldn’t he be? He looks more like Seth than any man I’ve ever seen.

In my defense, I think there was a point to all this when I started writing it.

1980, Part Deux?

The incumbent was facing serious economic challenges, but everyone assumed he’d pull it out in the general election. He was facing what the Conventional Wisdom determined was a weak candidate, a man the intelligentsia deemed too outside the mainstream to win the White House. The president led comfortably in all the polls leading up to the election, when all the undecided broke for the “extremist,” and thus Jimmy Carter became a one-term president until Barack Obama decided to fill in as proxy for his second term. And now he faces an electoral landscape similar to that of his ideological soulmate, only the challenger is doing a lot better than Reagan was doing in May of 1980.

Looking back at 1980, I’m becoming increasingly bullish about Mitt Romney’s chances.

Everyone seems to assume that this election is going to look and feel a whole lot like the past three elections. Even 2008, when Obama became the first Democrat to win a majority of voters since Carter, was tight enough that the red state/blue state from 2000 still meant something. But in 1980, only six states were blue. (Actually, I think for that election, they were using the color red for Democratic wins. They used to alternate the colors with every election. It’s only since the Bush squeaker in 2000 that the partisan colors have solidified.)

In 1984, Walter Mondale carried only one state – his home state of Minnesota, which rejected him in 2002. (Mondale holds the dubious distinction of being the only politician to lose a statewide election in all fifty states.) That year, even Massachusetts went for the Gipper. The rigid electoral polarization of this country is presumed to be a permanent fixture of American politics, but, like all such political axioms, this one will be true only up to and including the point when it isn’t.

It’s becoming increasingly likely that 2012 will look a whole lot more like 1980 than 2008.

I thought about this as Mick Jagger performed a really weird political blues satire on Saturday Night Live this weekend. Watch out for a fecal vulgarity that the NBC censors missed:

Nice of Mick to note that Romney “always says his prayers,” as if that’s a bad thing. I suppose that’s a condescending reminder that Romney’s a Mormon religious zealot, but it’s not as if Mick can get more specific, as he lacks, shall we say, a certain credibility in making the case for traditional religion or morality. Thus he has to come up with something else for the money line: “Don’t let him cut your hair.”

Really? That’s the best anti-Romney weapon in his arsenal?

The bully story has frayed around the edges since it first ran – the family of the alleged victim has called it “factually inaccurate” and the Washington Post bungled a critical detail about one of Romney’s classmates – but the reality is that few, if any, voters will change their minds based on a fifty-year-old high school incident.

This election will be about the economy, and the bipartisan consensus is that the economy stinks.

It’s not the only thing that stinks, though. The Obama reelection campaign isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. They can’t conjure up any leftover hope and change from the previous election, so they’re churning out blame and fear. Yes, the economy stinks, they concede, but it’s Bush’s fault. And look! Romney’s a financial predator/weirdo/extremist/flip flopper/woman hater/bully. Don’t let him cut the nation’s hair!

They want to make this election a referendum on Republicans and Mitt Romney, as opposed to a referendum on the incumbent, which such electoral contests almost invariably are. There are exceptions, of course. You’ve got Goldwater, McGovern, and Kerry as shining examples of candidates that troubled incumbents were able to paint as unacceptable alternatives, but Romney doesn’t fit their mold. He’s not a wild-eyed ideologue like Goldwater or McGovern, and, although he shares geography and wealth with Kerry, the similarities between the two candidates and their electability end there.

In 2004, three years after 9/11, the focus was on the War on Terror, not the economy, and Kerry was seen as too weak or indecisive to prosecute the war effectively. But as much as Obama would like this to be about bin Laden’s death, gay marriage, contraception, or involuntary haircuts, it’s not going to be. It’s going to be about the economy, and Obama making the case that Romney can’t handle that as well as he can is just not going to sell to non-ideological voters. That could well mean that the red/blue divide won’t be nearly as stark as it has been this past decade.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not yet willing to bet good money on a 1980 outcome. But I would advise the Obama supporters on Intrade to start hedging their bets.

Mitt Romney and Doo-Ball

A gay friend of mind posted a link to this article on Facebook wherein Mitt Romney is castigated for bullying a gay student back in his high school days. My friend added the following comment:

I’ve had good friends tell me that people who bullied me in high school and called me faggot and put me in trash cans and locked me in lockers and gave me fatigue squad for ‘being effeminate” are “now really nice guys and they were just young”. I will never accept youth as an excuse… and i won’t accept it from him. They are called ‘formative years” because they form us into the adult we will become.

Mitt claims not to remember the incident, but he does acknowledge that he did “dumb things” in high school and offered a blanket apology for them. That’s standard operating procedure for dismissing the sins of the past, although I’m not sure why. No one is satisfied by “if I did something wrong, I apologize” apologies, because they’re too weaselly to accept any real responsibility. Mitt’s classmates who helped him pin the kid down and cut his hair remember the incident clearly. Which is worse – that Mitt is lying about what he remembers, or that he genuinely doesn’t remember something so blatantly cruel?

Perhaps some embarrassing personal reminiscences might help.

I was bullied rather extensively during my elementary and middle school years. In the parlance of the day, I was “asking for it.” That is, I was a loudmouth, a weirdo, and a provocateur. I could run verbal circles around my more thuggish schoolmates, and they didn’t appreciate it. Worse, I didn’t back down from fights when I really should have. I remember getting pummeled by a neighbor kid who lived about five houses down, storming back home, and then getting so mad that I’d let him get the best of me that I’d walk right back and challenge him again, only to be smacked down even harder. I think this went on until I could barely stand.

The one incident of bullying that haunts me to this day, however, was the kid who used to lie in wait for me as I walked home from the bus stop. Later in life, he was branded with the nickname “Doo-Ball,” which, even though it didn’t come from me, was a name I felt he richly deserved. Doo-Ball always had two or three brutish friends with him, just to make sure it was never a fair fight. I would try to fend them off by swinging my ample French horn case at them, but the whole thing  always ended with me pinned face down in the grass as a rain of fists came pouring down on my all-but-defenseless stick figure body. Doo-Ball eventually let me wriggle free and run home sobbing, laughing behind me as I went. I can still taste the blood and dirt in my mouth as I think about this today, over three decades later.

I had no recourse. I do remember once coming home, screaming, and grabbing a butcher knife from the drawer as I tried to run out and seek revenge, only to have my sensible mother restrain me. She tried to help by bringing this to the attention of the bully’s parents and the school, but it didn’t end. For two years, I walked a mile or so out of my way to use a different, Doo-Ball-free bus stop every day.  Thankfully, by the time I’d gotten to high school, the bully lost interest.

I remember this with painful clarity, and there’s no doubt that the experience had a powerful impact on me. But did it have as powerful an impact on Doo-Ball? Does he remember pounding on me as vividly as I remember being pounded upon?

Early in this blog’s history, I recounted an incident where I mercilessly teased Sheila, a young woman, because of her public displays of affection. I wasn’t violent, but I was a jerk. And, let’s face it, I was a bully. Odds are, others could come forward with tales of my nastiness, but I can’t think of who they would be off the top of my head. I do remember such incidents when they’re brought to my attention, but they aren’t burned into my memory the way they are burned into hers. In other words, to expand on my friend’s comments from the opening of this post, my nastiness was much more formative for her than it was for me. That’s unfair, but it unfortunately seems to be the way the world works. I like to think that such unkindness is behind me, and that I’ve grown up considerably since then. Certainly I can’t imagine treating anyone as cruelly today as I treated her decades ago.

Should I be judged today by what adolescent Stallion did to Sheila? I really, really hope not.

I don’t know how much this will affect Mitt’s chances, and I don’t want to excuse what he did. I just think that anyone that wants to castigate him for boorish behavior ought to take a moment to consider whether they, themselves, at any time provided a “formative” experience for someone else that they would just as soon forget.

If you’re troubled by this, ask yourself: Is this a standard by which I could be judged and come away guiltless?

I saw Doo-Ball about five years ago at my 20th high school reunion. I thought about going up to him and saying hello. I didn’t. And I would never vote for him for president, even though I don’t think our high school sins should weigh against him. But come on! Would you vote for a guy named Doo-Ball for president?

UPDATE: One of my former teachers tried to guess Doo-Ball’s real-world identity, and, while he came close, didn’t quite make it. I’ll be happy to email interested parties offline if you’re curious.

Undecided? Barack Beware!

People pay far more attention to polls at this stage in the game then they should, but there’s one piece of them that isn’t getting the attention they deserve. You’ll notice, for instance, that the poll numbers never add up to 100% at this point in the game. That’s because there’s still a significant chunk of voters who remain undecided – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re up for grabs.

In presidential elections, undecideds almost always break for the challenger, not the incumbent.

If you think about it, it makes sense. We’ve all seen Barack Obama up close and personal for the past three years, so if someone is still undecided about him, then chances are they don’t necessarily like what they see. So why aren’t they in Mitt’s column? Well, they haven’t had the same kind of prolonged exposure to the challenger that they’ve had to the guy in the White House, so they’re probably still assessing whether or not the new guy is an acceptable alternative.

I hate to agree with the execrable – and usually wrong – Dick Morris, but this time, the guy has the facts on his side. Review his analysis of every presidential race since 1964:

Six of eight presidents seeking reelection performed worse than the final Gallup poll predicted, while one finished the same (Reagan in 1984) and one gained votes (Bush in 2004). Seven of the nine insurgent candidates did better than the final Gallup survey predicted.
• In 1964, Johnson lost 3 points to Goldwater at the end.

• In 1972, Nixon lost 1 point to a third-party candidate.

• In 1976, there was a 4-point swing to Carter.

• In 1980, there was a 3-point swing to Reagan or Anderson.

• In 1984, there was no change between the final poll and the results.

• In 1992, there was a 1-point shift away from Bush. In that contest, there was also a 5-point swing away from Clinton to Perot at the end.

• In 1996, there was a 5-point swing away from Clinton and to Dole or Perot.

• Only Bush in 2004 ran better in the result than in the final poll, by 
2 points.
In other words, of the total of 
19 points that shifted between the final poll and the election results, 17 points or 89 percent went to the challenger.

He also adds that ” predictions of a close election are all based on polling of registered voters — not likely voters — and fail to account for the shift in votes against the incumbent that has been the norm of the past presidential contests.”

Registered voter polls also tend to lean more Democratic than likely voter polls. Yet, as of today, Romney is ahead among registered voters in both the Gallup – 46 to 45 – and Rasmussen – 47 – 45 – general election polls. That leaves 8 to 9 percent undecided. If past trends hold true, that’s a landslide Romney victory in the making.

The Electoral College complicates the equation, but not by much. State-by-state polling has Romney in equally tight races among registered voters – he’s a point or two ahead in Ohio and Florida, and within striking distance in Virginia. And if you assign the bulk of the undecideds to Romney, he wins the swing states easily.

The Conventional Wisdom, which used to include yours truly, was that Obama has every reason to be confident. In fact, that’s the thesis of a Mark Halperin piece out today in Time Magazine, titled, appropriately, “Why the Obama Campaign Is So Confident.” They claim Romney is a weak candidate, that he’s too right-wing(!), and that the Electoral College map still works in their favor. They hope to define Romney as an unacceptable alternative – too fringe, too boring, too “weird” (code for “Mormon”), too extreme, too unprincipled, too rich, too square, too bad.

The problem is that the epithets they hurl contradict each other.

How can you, for example, be too boring and too weird at the same time? Weird people are many things, but boring isn’t one of them. The campaign ad that complains that Romney wouldn’t have ordered the bin Laden raid is a case in point. Does anyone really believe that Romney will sit on his hands when given the opportunity to take out the most wanted man in the world? Surely Obama doesn’t believe that. The fact that he’s even trying to make that case is prime facie evidence that he’s going to throw anything and everything against the wall in this race and hope that something sticks.

The reality, though, is that this election is not going to be a referendum on Mitt Romney. He hasn’t been president for the past three and a half years. And with only six months to go before he faces the voters again, the guy who has been president still hasn’t been able to close the deal with an undecided voter bloc that constitutes nearly ten percent of the electorate. His approval rating can’t break 50%; the jobs numbers remain terrible, and he kicked off his campaign in a stadium littered with empty seats.

Such photos do not inspire confidence.

Yes, I know – my initial election prediction was that Mitt Romney would win the GOP nomination only to go down in flames against Obama in November.

Well, now chalk me up as “undecided.”

Avenge Me!

Took the fam to the Avengers tonight. Loved every minute of it. There’s nothing more to say about the film that hasn’t already been said numerous times, especially how it’s amazing that they were able to balance the backstories, screentime, and egos of four different tentpole franchises and not have anyone get lost in the shuffle. In a rational universe, this is a film that shouldn’t exist. And on the off chance that it were to exist, there’s no way it should be this good. And yet it’s here; it rocks, and it provides tangible cinematic evidence that there is a God – and not a puny god, to paraphrase one of the more particularly memorable moments of this geek fantasy improbably brought to fruition.

There will be SPOILERS from here on out, although there’s really no way to spoil this movie. You already know the plot – a big baddie wants to take over the world, so a bunch of bickering superheroes finally band together to stop him. There are no real surprises in terms of the journey from Point A to Point B, where the Avengers kick butt and walk away winners. (Spoiler! The Avengers don’t all die in a fiery train wreck.) The beauty of this film is all in the delivery, and I don’t understand how anyone could watch this movie and walk away disappointed, unless they thought they were watching the twenty-year-old debacle with the same name starring Ralph Fiennes and Sean Connery and were really hankering for something that sucked.

To sum up: Joss Whedon’s a genius; everyone gets their moment; the Hulk steals the show and even managed to get into a pair of purple pants; Iron Man’s chest is a circle again and not a triangle, and there was really no reason to have Gwyneth Paltrow instead of Natalie Portman in this thing. That’s not a complaint, but rather an attempt to point out that I still have my wits about me after seeing as fine a superhero romp as has ever been put to film.

But as long as I’m quibbling…

1. Why does Joss Whedon have to kill someone in everything he does? It adds a certain amount of dramatic weight to the proceedings, yes, but it also eliminates said character from all future cinematic forays, and the characters he kills aren’t just Trekkie red shirts. I still haven’t forgiven him for bumping off Wash in Serenity, and there was really no need to off Agent Coulson, who has been a pleasant link between the various franchises lo these past four years. There has been internet speculation that Coulson will return as the android Vision, who is a staple of the Avengers comics, and if they can make that work, I’ll be more than happy to see that, but as it stands, I have one more grudge against Joss Whedon: Fictional Serial Killer.

2. Where was Rhodey? Remember him? The guy who flew off at the end of Iron Man 2 with a silver Iron Man suit all his own? Could he not be bothered to show up as New York gets pummeled by flying metal serpents? And did everyone else in Asgard just not notice that their former king was trying to maul an entire planet?

3. Just how tough are these Asgardians? It’s implied that Thor wouldn’t have been able to survive the impact of the plummeting Hulk cage, but when Hulk tosses Loki around like he’s Raggedy Andy, he gets up moments later like Wile E. Coyote a few minutes after falling off a cliff. Consistency, please.

4. How does the whole Asgardian mind control thing work, exactly? Both Hawkeye and Professor Norwegian Dude still retain their personalities as they do the evil bidding of their new master, and Dr. Norway even comments at the end that he was conscious enough to build a failsafe into the portal opening thingee. So what part of their brain was hijacked? It would have made more sense if they were completely possessed by some external, controlling intelligence, not just conveniently “evilized.”

5. Can someone explain why it’s in any way efficient, necessary, or desirable to have an aircraft carrier that flies? It’s not like it was going anywhere specific. Wouldn’t it have been safer, and less vulnerable to engine failure/Norse God sabotage to keep the massive thing in the water?

With the exception of the needless Coulson slaughter, these things detracted from the overall enterprise not at all. It’s just much more fun to write a critical review than it is to write one filled with slobbering fanboy praise. I mean, how many different ways are there to say “It was %$&ing awesome” without using a thesaurus? And it’s not like anything I write is going to persuade you to see or not see this thing. If you read this blog regularly, you’re going to see the Avengers. You fit the geek profile.

If you’re not going to see it, then you have no geek heart. And shame on you for reading this blog, Mr. Geekless. You’re like the guy in the bathroom after the movie who thought that Thanos was the Red Skull.