Archive for May, 2005

C.S. Lewis, Aristotle, and Bill Frist: One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

May 31, 2005

In the introduction to his book, Studies in Words, C.S. Lewis comments on a phenomenon he calls “verbicide.” Verbicide is the act of killing a word by reducing its meaning to the same thing as an already existing word. According to Lewis, the 2 words that most murdered words get reduced to are “good” and “bad.” The word “quality,” for example, has been reduced to mean the same thing as “good.” A man who owns a shoe store will advertise his business like so: “Quality shoes at low prices.” And we’ll all understand his intended meaning — that his is the shop for “good” shoes at low prices, even though that’s not what the ad says. If we didn’t kill the word “quality” by reducing its meaning to “good,” his ad would be nonsense. All it really says, if we let “quality” live as a word with its own meaning, is that his shop sells shoes with some quality (some property) or other. What quality? “Durable” and “water soluble” are both qualities; which quality do his shoes possess?

So, according to Lewis, words tend over time to be reduced to meaning “good” or “bad.” Why? On Lewis’s view, it’s because people prefer simple “evaluative” thinking to complex “descriptive” thinking. In other words, we prefer to talk in terms of a thing’s value rather than its properties. Words are the objects we think with, so if we tend to reduce our words to simple “good” or “bad,” it suggests we like to reduce our thinking to simple “good” or “bad,” too. Absolutes are convenient and require the minimum of mental effort. If a thing is good, it’s good; if it’s bad, it’s bad. The elimination of mixed states greatly simplifies our mental life. So we tend to drive our language toward the Absolutes: good or bad, nothing in-between.

What does all this have to do with politics?

As Aristotle noted, politics is a subcategory of ethics. This seems very counterintuitive, given that 99.999% of politicians are strangers to the notion of ethics. What Aristotle meant, though, is that ethics is concerned with how one ought to live, and politics is concerned with how one ought to live in society with others; thus, it’s a subset of ethics. My point is, politics is fundamentally about values. It is about questions of how we ought to live as a society. Because politics is an arena of value judgments, we are particularly susceptible in the realm of politics to the kind of reductive “evaluative” thinking Lewis describes.

So, when politicians want the public to support their position on an issue, what do they do? They use rhetorical sleight of hand to impress their position on the public’s mind as simply “good.” If necessary, they’ll use similar sleight of hand to impress their opponents’ position on the public’s mind as simply “bad.” They commit verbicide. They identify the respective positions with an Absolute: their own with “good,” their opponents’ with “bad.” Thus, they take all the thinking out of the issue for the public. People no longer have to look closely at the issue and at the various positions on it and see which of the various partly-good-partly-bad things is better and which is worse.

In American politics, the Absolute Good is our Constitution. If you want the public to support a position, call it the “constitutional” position. If you want them to oppose a position, call it “unconstitutional.” It doesn’t matter if the 2 positions in question have nothing to do with the Constitution, per se. The Constitution could be completely silent on the subject. That’s irrelevant. The point is to identify one position with Absolute Good, and the other with Absolute Bad. It’s political verbicide.

That’s what’s going on when something hitherto known as “the nuclear option” gets redubbed “the constitutional option.” Does the Constitution have anything to say on the subject of judicial filibusters? Nope. The Constitution couldn’t be less interested. But if the side that opposes them can get the public to mentally reduce that side’s position to a constitutional requirement, it creates an impression on the mind: opposing judicial filibusters is Absolute Good. This rhetorical trick is pandering, of course. It simultaneously panders to the moral reflexes of “values voters,” and to the mental tendency of all people to reduce all things to “good” or “bad.” That’s where the shift in language gets its power, and that’s why politicians do it.

The judicial filibuster is a mixed bag. It’s good in some ways, and bad in some ways. If we want to make an intelligent decision on whether to keep it or destroy it, we must take both its good aspects and its bad aspects into account. We can’t just absolutize it by couching it in constitutional language (or accepting the efforts of others to do so), make a snap judgment about it, then dust off our hands and say with a sigh of [false] moral satisfaction, “Well, good for me. I’m on the side of the angels, again.”

On most issues, political or otherwise, the responsibility of any adult person is to deal with messy reality without, for convenience or self-reassurance, pretending it isn’t messy. Whatever one may believe about the Ultimate sources of good and evil, the fact is that life in the present world rarely, if ever, presents us with pure goods or pure evils. The only responsible thing to do — the only moral thing to do — is to accept that, do one’s best, and learn to live with the uncertainty.

Sunday Thoughts

May 29, 2005

by Al Sturgeon
(published each week in Desperate Houseflies)


I’m not on the cutting edge of the movie scene, so I’m a newcomer to Hotel Rwanda. Nonetheless, it is a powerful movie that brings the horror of genocide to our living rooms through the true story of Paul Rusesabagina.

Rusesabagina, portrayed by actor Don Cheadle, was the manager of a European-owned hotel in Rwanda in 1994 when the Hutus unleashed their atrocious rampage against the Tutsis. In essence, Rusesabagina, faced with his own death, turned his hotel into a refugee camp (it would be inaccurate to call it a safe haven at the time) that eventually saved over a thousand lives in the genocide that murdered approximately one million Rwandans.

Ty Burr of the Boston Globe reviewed the movie and said, “The twofold agenda in Hotel Rwanda is to commemorate what Paul Rusesabagina did and to shame each and every Westerner who sees the movie. On both of those counts it is successful.” I’d have to agree. I was definitely ashamed.

At one point in the movie, an American journalist risked his life to get raw footage of the massacres and sneak the video back home. Rusesabagina rejoiced, claiming, “When they see the atrocities, they will help!” To which the journalist replied cynically, “No. When they see this, they will say ‘That’s horrible.’ And then go back to their dinners.” Does that condemn anyone else? Or is it just me?

I’ve come to understand “compassion” – as defined by the Bible – to be pity punctuated by action. In other words, “to hurt so badly for someone that you can’t help but do something about it.” Think Good Samaritan. Better yet, think Jesus. Whatever you do, don’t think me. At least not yet. But who’s to say that the group I worship with in Ocean Springs, a group that claims Christ as our model, cannot become a place known for it’s compassion. That is, after all, the example lived by our life model. Plus, it took Paul Rusesabagina a while to catch on, too.

I remember a different Paul Rusesabagina early in the movie. He was a good man, but a hotel manager who worried when the refugees began arriving, saying, “I have no room!” There is a different Paul that marches toward freedom at the movie’s end, surrounded by children, answering a question on where he would find room for them with joyful confidence, saying, “There is always room!” That’s much more like Jesus. Much more like Jesus than me.

If You’re Being Run Out of Town, Get Out Front and Try to Make It Look Like a Parade

May 24, 2005

Picking up on last week’s topic, the Senate today avoided a showdown over the filibuster of judicial nominees. How? As usual, by the Democrats deciding to give in rather than actually stand for something.

Under the agreement, brokered by a group of moderates from both parties, 3 of the disputed judges will be guaranteed a vote — which is to say, given the Republican majority, they have been guaranteed approval — 2 others will be left to face the possibility of filibuster, the Republicans promise not to change the Senate rules on filibusters, and the Democrats promise not to use the filibuster on judicial nominees in the future except in “extraordinary circumstances.”

In other words, the Republican majority will allow the Senate to keep the filibuster, so long as the Democrats promise never to use it. Can somebody explain to me how that’s a compromise? The filibuster is just as unavailable as if the rules had been changed. The right-wing interest groups get 3 of their most prized darlings — Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, and Bill Pryor — confirmed for certain, and possibly 2 others. And the ground is now leveled and paved for President Bush to get absolutely anyone he wants appointed to fill the 2 or possibly 3 Supreme Court seats that will become vacant before he leaves office.

So what is it, exactly, that the Democrats got out of this “compromise”?

In a word, nothing.

Well, almost nothing. In essense, they got a commitment from the Republicans to call this thing a “compromise” rather than hooting about their total victory. The main thing the Dems got, however, is that they don’t have to stand up and actually fight for a principle, and that seems to be more valuable to the Democratic leadership these days than anything else. This was an issue where the Democrats actually had the moral high ground. The Republican majority was wrong to try to change the rules; especially the way they were going to do it. And according to all the polls, Americans didn’t want it to happen. But the Dems saw that Americans also thought all judicial nominees should get an up or down vote. Rather than taking on the task of standing up for a good principle and educating the American people on the fact that it has never been the case that all judicial nominees get an up or down vote, they caved in. The Dems were also correct in opposing these particular judges. Pryor is a tougher call, but from what I know of Brown’s and Owen’s records, neither of them has any business at all on the federal bench.

Yet the Democrats caved utterly. This “compromise” is an unmitigated disaster. It is no compromise at all, but an unconditional surrender. Once again, the Democratic Party has failed the country. But, hey, at least they don’t have to stand up for that, either, since the Republicans have agreed to let them off the hook by calling this a “compromise.”

Days like this are why I am not a Democrat.

A True Conversion

May 23, 2005

I have to admit that I’m a bit worn out from all of the political spin during the past week. Whether it was about Newsweek, prison abuse, filibustering, or “nucular” options, I found it all exhausting by Sunday. That’s why I was so refreshed by this piece I stumbled across while surfing the ‘net today. It’s one former liberal’s story of how he gradually grew from a 60’s progressive and 80’s “card-carrying” liberal into a 2005 conservative. Please don’t get turned off by the word “simpering” in the sub-title of the piece. Take a few minutes to read the whole article and comment. It’s great stuff.

I’m heading off on vacation starting at the end of this week, so I don’t think I’ll be posting on Monday for the next two weeks. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to have a late lunch with Dejon this Friday as I swing through AZ on the way to TX. I’m looking forward to catching a few bass, eating some good brisket, and watching the Astros lose to the Reds on Memorial Day. Unfortunately, I won’t be making it any farther east than Houston during this trip, so I’ll miss the gang in MS.

If you are somehow misguided enough that you feel you may miss my weekly posts, I suggest you take the next two weeks to read the debate that followed from the “Newsweak” posting last Monday. It will probably take you at least two weeks to get through it all.

Sunday Thoughts

May 22, 2005

by Al Sturgeon
(published each week in Desperate Houseflies)

Okay, I’m warped enough to deal with the fact that nobody reads DH on my day by telling myself that everyone waits until Monday to catch up on their blogs. And I go on to fool myself into thinking that I rarely get any comments because I have yet to refer to Abu Ghraib, Newsweek, or certain important parts of a whale’s anatomy.

But since I just did refer to all those things, maybe all of you who happen to notice this when you get back to work on Monday will humor me this time by adding your comments at least this once.

It worries me that my repeated references to Eugene Peterson may be annoying some folks, so with that in mind, I choose this time not to care. You’re getting Peterson anyway.

If you would, please add your thoughts to the following four-paragraph excerpt from Peterson’s new book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. I’ll be very interested.

[AL’S SET-UP: Peterson has been pointing out that there are striking similarites between the two-volume set from Dr. Luke found in the New Testament. At present, he is noticing the trials of both Jesus and Paul found near the conclusions of both books. Read on…]

…The striking thing about the two trials is that neither Jesus nor Paul makes much of an impression on the “powers.” It is quite extraordinary, really. First Jesus and then Paul have the attention, even if briefly, of the most important leaders in that part of the world and fail to convert them, fail to bring them to their knees, fail even to get taken seriously by them. But it seems the indifference was mutual; Jesus and Paul didn’t take very seriously the courts in which they were being tried, either.

These trials force us, if we are to stay true to the story we are reading, to give up the notion that the Christian community, rightly and obediently lived, can somehow, if we just put our minds to it, be tarted up sufficiently to catch the admiring eye of the world. We have ample documentation by now to disabuse us of such stuff. Eighteen hundred years or so of Hebrew history capped by a full exposition in Jesus Christ tell us that God’s revelation of himself is rejected far more often than it is accepted, is dismissed by far more people than embrace it, and has been either attacked or ignored by every major culture or civilization in which it has given its witness: magnificent Egypt, fierce Assyria, beautiful Babylon, artistic Greece, political Rome, Enlightenment France, Nazi Germany, Renaissance Italy, Marxist Russia, Maoist China, and pursuit-of-happiness America. The community of God’s people has survived in all of these cultures and civilizations but always as a minority, always marginal to the mainstream, never statistically significant. Paul was acerbically brief: “not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth…God chose what is low and despised in the world” (1 Cor. 1:26-28).

It gives us pause. If we, as the continuing company of Jesus, seem to have achieved an easy accomodation with our society and culture, how did we pull off what Jesus and the community of Jesus failed to accomplish? How has it come to pass that after twenty centuries of rejection, North American Christians assume that acclaim by numbers is a certificate of divine approval?

The significance of the church has never been in King Number. Its message has seldom (hardly ever, in fact) been embraced by the mighty and powerful. Strategies are introduced from time to time to target “important” leaders, men and women in high places in government, business, or the media, for conversion. It is not a practice backed by biblical precedent. There are, of course, Christians in high places politically and prominent in the celebrity pantheon, but their position and standing doesn’t seem to mean anything strategically significant in terms of God’s kingdom. To suppose that if we can just “place” Christian men and women in prominent positions of leadership, we are going to improve the efficacy of the community in its worship, missions, or evangelism, has no warrant in Scripture or history.

Faith: shout for it or against it … but for God’s sake, don’t live it

May 21, 2005

Call me a homer, but the news from the Air Force Academy (a.k.a. the DoD’s center for media scandals) caught my eye. It appears the premier military academy has gone from a breeding ground for sexual assault to a stronghold of religious intolerance.

However these thoughts from Sally Jenkins (Football’s Religious Kick) seem to cut to what seems a more prevalent issue. Is the issue the religious right V. liberal freedom?

…The battle for a theocracy or the battle for the right to practice personal religion?

Since I’m on vacation, I’ll submit my opinion and be done with it.

U.S. society as a whole lacks the spiritual depth to demonstrate, tolerate or, sadly, discuss matters of faith. Yet we dress up our shallow nature and call it “diversity.” When one takes American society as a whole, we are actually spiritually homogenous.

Does it really matter? I say this spiritual indifference (not just Newsweek) is the true reason for the ubiquitous anti-American mindset.

The Curse of OCD

May 18, 2005

The problem with having Obssessive-Compulsive disorder is…umm…well, kind of obvious. My obssessions aren’t too bad–the typical obssessions with locks and washing hands and making sure the stove is turned off (I don’t even cook all that much, so I’m really just checking to see if my roommates turned the oven off). The up-side of it is that this is actually a convenient disorder for a graduate student. See, you get obssessed with an idea or topic, and next thing you know, you’ve read a few books on that topic. The down-side, as you’ll soon see, is that you read a couple of books and then can’t do anything but write about them even if you’ve not exactly formulated your thoughts in any way whatsoever. Don’t go a-looking for a point in this post, as you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Unfortunately for you, I’ve been reading some disturbing books lately. Not intentionally, mind you, it just kind of happened. So now I’m a) trying to make sense of them, and b) trying to learn more about the topic. Which right now is huge (actually, it’s a couple of different topics that I’m trying to make sense of at the same time). A brief preface before you continue on: I’m not trying to make a political point, even though I will briefly mention President Bush. It just so happened that I read the following two quotations from two different books within about a ten minute period and for whatever reason, my mind has been spiralling since then and I’m afraid they’re going to have to hook up electrodes to my head ala Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I understand the two statements take place under different circumstances and come from people with different responsibilities. I’m not saying one response is better or worse than the other, I’m just saying they got me thinking. I’m more interested in the emotional response each of them gives on a personal level than on a political level.

The first quotation is from The 9/11 Commission Report and is President Bush’s initial response to hearing about the attacks on the WTC (I think it was his initial response–it might have been his second or third, but it is one of the first things he said):

“Somebody’s going to pay for this!” [And by the way, liberal as I am, I don’t think this is an irrational response at all, and I think someone should pay for it as well.]

The second quotation is from Hans Nossack’s book The End, and it is his initial response to seeing his home destroyed and learning that many of his friends had been killed by bombs and his neighbors had been burned alive in their cellar (this is kind of long, so apologies):

“Woe to us if the powerful should take revenge some day for this contempt! But I believe they didn’t even understand it. And another thing: I have not heard a single person curse the enemies or blame them for the destruction. When the newspapers published epithets like ‘pirates of the air’ and ‘criminal arsenists,’ we had no ears for that. A much deeper insight forbade us to think of an enemy who was supposed to have caused all this: for us, he, too, was at most an instrument of unknowable forces that sought to annihilate us. I have not met even a single person who comforted himself with the thought of revenge. On the contrary, what was commonly said or thought was: Why should others be destroyed as well? I have been told that a man who was prattling about revenge and about exterminating the enemy with gas was beaten to a pulp. I was not present, but if it did happen, it was in order to silence a blasphemous stupidity.”

I realize these two situations are completely different. I don’t know the significance of Hamburg to the Nazis in WWII, so I’m not sure why the whole city was destroyed, and I know that the Nazis were doing horrific things to Jews, and others, in Europe at the time. And I know that Bush was reacting to hearing about something that was unimaginable for most of us. I really didn’t even want to use his quote because I didn’t want to post the third political column on this blog this week. So you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it was just reading these two things in a short period of time that got me thinking about how and why I respond to situations and people the way I do.

As with all graduate students who become interested in some topic or other, I quickly realized that I don’t know very much. I’ve started reading more about war in general, trying to understand that level of violence (specifically, The Peloponnesian War, by Donald Kagan, as a place to start, since that was maybe the first war between a democratic state and a non-democratic state), as well as a couple of books about emotions and how to control them (most notably Destructive Emotions, by Daniel Goleman). And this reading has led me to the understanding that I know even less than I thought I might know.

What I do know: There are a handful of people that I have to actively work at not hating. I have to work at it every single day, and I don’t always succeed. I think they did me wrong in some way or another. It doesn’t matter, though, if I was right or wrong in my dealings with them. Thinking I’m the injured person doesn’t help me sleep better at night. The reason I love the Nossack quote above is because it doesn’t matter to him who was right or wrong. He’d lost everything and nothing could change that. I’m sure he was angry, but he chose to channel that anger into something positive. That same spirit is the reason that Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heroes. Dr. King was angry. He’s known for dreaming, but he was also angry. But he chose to use that anger to do good. He didn’t let the anger overwhelm him.

If I were to write a seminar paper on this topic right now, I’d fail the seminar. I’m not even sure what questions to ask. I’ve already mentioned two different levels of violence and emotional responses. One political, one personal. Wars are at times necessary, so I need to understand better a bit more about wars historically (of which I know nothing). Emotions on a personal level, however, are connected to politics. Our emotions as people generate the politcal atmosphere of our different nations (at least, in democratic nations). So, if I were to begin writing a research paper on this, I’d probably start by trying to make some sort of connection between those two.

But I won’t ever write this paper, hopefully. In addition to my OCD, I’m also extremely fickle, and usually five or six books on a topic burns me out and/or leads me into some other direction. So, luckily for you, you probably won’t have to hear much more from me about emotional responses and violence. And hopefully they won’t have to hook up the electrodes.

Currently listening to (while reading and writing incomprehensible posts): 10,000 Years, by Honeydogs. In Between Dreams, by Jack Johnson. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, by Bright Eyes. Rooney, by Rooney.

Author’s note: While trying, in vain, to compose my thoughts about this post, I was sitting on my deck this morning and noticed that something had turned over my trashcan and scattered a week’s worth of trash over my yard and driveway. A few moments later, I noticed a suspicious looking cat and picked up the nearest object, which in this case was a shoe, and threw it at the cat and yelled “you think it’s fun to play in my trash?!” So maybe I will read some more about emotional responses.

The Ghost of Denny

May 18, 2005

Before we get into the real stuff, a couple random deals.

1. Have you seen the new commercial for the i-Pod or portable music device of some sort with “Why can’t we be friends?” playing in the background? The whole premise is there’s these fans of rival teams (Yankees-Red Sox and Dodgers-Giants) who decide they can set aside their differences because they both use the same mp3 player. What’s weird is in part of the commercial this Angels fan glares at Cal Ripken wearing his Orioles uniform before they get all chummy due to their peacemaking accessories. Did I somehow miss out on the great Angels-Oriolez rivalry? What’s this all about? Is there bad blood over the haloes picking up Bobby Grich and Doug Decinces in the early 80’s? That’s just odd.

2. There seems to be a perception, perhaps due to the Jim Rome show, that sports fans can’t also be sci fi geeks, but I intend to debunk that Wednesday at midnight to see the opening of Revenge of the Sith. And yes, I was also at the midnight premiere of Return of the King a couple of Christmases ago. If it makes me uncool, so be it, Jedi.

On with the Chlorophyll . . .

What’s the most unbreakable single season record in baseball? The one that probably comes to mind most readily is DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, for a few reasons. 1) We all know about it and 2) it’s stood for over 60 years, and 3) every so often some guy gets around 30 games, thus bringing the record back into our consciousness. This record is very close to unbreakable, but I would give someone like Ichiro an outside shot, if they caught the right breaks.

Some other notable records:
Avg. Hugh Duffy .440; Nap Lajoie .427
OBP. Barry Bonds .609
SLG. Barry Bonds .863
Runs Billy Hamilton 192 Babe Ruth 177
Hits Ichiro Suzuki 262
2B Earl Webb 67
3B Chief Wilson 36
HR Barry Bonds 73
RBI Hack Wilson 191
SB Hugh Nichol 138 Rickey Henderson 130
ERA Tim Keefe 0.85 Dutch Leonard 0.96
WHIP Pedro Martinez 0.74
Saves Bobby Thigpen 57
K Matt Kilroy 513 Nolan Ryan 313

The stats with two names listed indicate a 19th century record and the later 20th century record. Most historians agree the 20th century game is a more mature version, and so you’ll get some anomalies in the 19th century like Kilroy’s 513 strikeouts. My favorite of these is probably Chief Wilson’s 36 triples. Cristian Guzman had 20 in 2000, but no one’s seriously threatened this record in some time. I doubt it’ll be broken in our lifetime, but if Willy Taveras can learn to hit it in the gap in Minute Maid . . . well, a guy can dream.

However, all the most unbreakable single season records in baseball history belong to 19th century pitchers. All the rest of these are cute, but my all time champion is Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s record of 59 games won in 1884. (He also completed 73 games that year, just shy of Will White’s record of 75). “Old Hoss” has to get my vote as the most understated nickname in history; I’m not sure what they’d call him nowadays, other than sir. Kind of like Albert “Decent” Pujols or something.

59 games won. This is, by the way, undoubtedly the most valuable season anyone has had ever — pitcher, hitter, whatever. The top 24 spots on the list for games won in a season all belong to 19th century guys, mainly because they were all working in two-man rotations and there were no real relief pitchers. As you ease into the 20th century you get some remarkable perfomances here and there, but most of these are also really old — Jack Chesbro won 41 in 1904, Ed Walsh won 40 in 1908. Again, these guys were working in a different era, three man rotations, lots of complete games; so it’s probably not fair to compare today’s pitcher with these ancient ones.

The standard that does loom for pitchers is the 31 games won by Denny McLain in 1968. This was still a different era than our own; we’d made it up to four-man rotations and there was more relief work but nothing like the extensive 6- or 7-man bullpens that prevail in today’s game. Still, this is a number that is, yes, daunting, but at least conceivable; if somebody got the right breaks and had an excellent bullpen and was absolutely dealing all year, well it seems conceivable that somebody could chase down 30 wins.

This standard is like DiMaggio’s or maybe more properly like Ted Williams’ .406 in ’41. Every few years some pitcher will cruise into an All-Star break with 15 or 16 wins and people begin to wonder if 30 is a possibility. I remember a few years back Pedro started 14-1 or something and people started to talk. And, of course there was the year Smoltz won 24. Bob Welch won 27 as recently as 1990.

This year, Jon Garland and Dontrelle Willis are off to red-hot starts, stirring thoughts in the mind that well, maybe . . . Garland is 8 for 8 in his starts; Dontrelle finally dropped one, but is 7 for 8. Adding to the speculation is the fact that these guys are completing a few games, thus ensuring they get the decision in their starts. Sure, these probably aren’t the guys you would have expected, but who would have picked Denny McLain before ’68?

What odds are these guys facing to get to the 30 win mark? Pretty steep. The main obstacle is the five-man rotation, which limits a pitcher to 35 or 36 starts a year. Thus, to get to 30 wins, they would have to win either 83 or 85% of their starts, depending on if they got 35 or 36. It’s important to distinguish that it’s 83% of their starts, not their decisions, which wouldn’t be all that unusual.

Well, how difficult is this? Let’s look at some of the great pitching years in history and see:

Yr Pitcher W GS %
99 Pedro 29 23 79
’02 Unit 24 35 69
’95 Maddux 19 28 68
’96 Smoltz 24 35 69
’90 Welch 27 35 77
’86 Clemens 24 33 73
’85 Gooden 24 35 69
’84 Sutcliffe 16 20 80 (Cubs only)
’72 Carlton 27 41 66
’69 Seaver 25 36 69
’68 Gibson 22 34 65
’68 McLain 31 41 76
’66 Koufax 27 41 66
’61 Ford 25 39 64
’53 Spahn 23 32 72
’44 Newhouser 29 34 85
’30 Grove 28 32 88
’16 Alexander 33 45 73
’13 W. Johnson 36 36 100 (Holy Smokes! did have 12 relief appearances)
’08 3-Finger 29 31 94 (!)
’08 Mathewson 37 44 84
’08 Ed Walsh 40 49 82
’95 Cy Young 35 40 88
’84 Radbourn 59 73 81

Well, that’s more than enough to be getting on with. I’ll have to admit I wasn’t sure what I’d find before I ran these numbers. I halfway expected to see that even the ancient legends didn’t win at high enough a clip to get 30 wins in the modern era. I certainly didn’t expect too see the Big Train at 100%. To be fair, this is somewhat misleading, since Johnson didn’t literally win 100% of his starts; I’m sure some of them came in relief. Also, until 1920, baseball was heavily pitching dominated, so results of this kind are a little less surprising. Still, these guys did some astonishing things.

I think the key thing that let these guys put up these huge percentages is how deep they pitched into games. Johnson pitched 29 complete games in 1913, thus ensuring he would get a decision in those games. It’s not the losses that hurt a modern starter’s chances at 30 wins; it’s the no-decisions. Wins are already a fairly luck-driven stat, but you only pitch six innings, you not only have to rely on your offense to help you get the victory, but also two or three other pitchers of lesser quality than you.

The random nature of wins can be seen in two recent years for very different lefthanded pitchers. In 2003, Jeriome Robertson pitched rather poorly for the Astros, with a 5.10 ERA, averaging just over 5 innings a start but still wound up with a 15-9 record thanks to tremendous run support and an unholy bullpen featuring Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel, and Billy Wagner. Last year, Randy Johnson pitched brilliantly with a 2.60 ERA, 290 K’s, and an average of 7 innings a start (with a perfect game mixed in), yet went 16-14 because the team behind him couldn’t hit or field, and the bullpen wasn’t reliable.

So, the most encouraging development in the quest for 30 may be that pitchers are finishing games more this year. It remains to be seen if managers hold to this philosophy in the dog days of July and August, but if pitchers start getting more decisions, then perhaps a pitcher with the right combination of brilliance, health and run support can get to this goal. It wasn’t long ago when 60 home runs seemed an unassailable mark, but certain shifts in the game made it attainable. Now, the game may be trending away from that, though it’s dangerous to declare trends based on six weeks of a season. Such a trend could create the right environment for a 30-win season. It will be difficult, but Welch’s 27-win season provides encouragement. In ’90, Welch was far from the most dominant pitcher in baseball; he was 6th in the league in ERA and no where on the leaderboard for K’s. He was very good, no doubt, but he also played for the best team in baseball, and was very lucky even for that. So, one of these years the Yankees will sign the right free agent pitcher who’ll pitch brilliantly enough and deep enough into games that the Yankees will provide all the luck he needs to get 30 wins.

Meanwhile, Denny waits.

A Little Centrism Here, Please

May 17, 2005

Unless you’ve been busy preparing for the new Star Wars movie for the past several weeks (it’s hard to see or hear the news when you’re wearing a Darth Vader helmet), you’re probably aware that Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans are having a wee bit of a rhubarb these days over judges. Imagine “Sweet” Lou Piniella vs. Larry “The Cat” Bowa in a Celebrity Death Match, and you begin to get the idea. Even Robert “Kid Pothole” Byrd has thrown a few shaky roundhouse rights at the ears of the Majority Leader. Watching C-SPAN2, one expects to see the Clantons and the Earps come storming from the Senate cloak rooms at any minute.

Republicans are angry that Democrats plan to filibuster ten Bush nominees for the federal bench, rather than let the Senate vote on them. Democrats are angry that President Bush has re-nominated several of these people, despite the fact that the Senate has already rejected them once, and they’re angry that the Senate Republicans are threatening to use the so-called “nuclear option” (or, as it’s sometimes called, the “nuke-u-lar” option) — change the Senate rules so that the filibuster is not allowed when a judicial nominee is under consideration.

One has to wonder: how did we get here? This government has been in existence for about 215 years. The rules for getting federal judges appointed have been essentially the same for all of those years. And somehow, the government managed to get judges appointed under those rules for 200 of those years; most of the time, with at least 75% approval in the Senate. What happened? Where did we go off the rails?

Republicans argue that what’s changed is the Democrats’ use of the filibuster. The filibuster never used to be used on judicial nominees, they say; it was an unwritten rule, one of the many such customs and traditions of the Senate. And they’re right. Sort of. That was the tradition. But Democrats aren’t the first to violate it. In March of 2000, Sen. Robert C. Smith, Republican of New Hampshire, filibustered President Clinton’s nominee to the 9th Circuit, Richard Paez. Sen. Smith was joined in his effort by a certain Senator from Tennessee. That’s right. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), the man now saying the filibuster has never been used to block the appointment of a federal judge, used the filibuster to block the appointment of a federal judge only 5 years ago.

Republicans and right-wing interest groups complain that the Democrats are doing something unprecedented in holding up President Bush’s nominees. They make it sound as if the Democrats are holding up scads of the President’s judicial nominees. In fact, of 215 judicial nominees President Bush has sent to the Senate, 205 have been approved. That leaves 10 who’ve been rejected. Care to know how many of President Clinton’s judicial nominees were being held up by Senate Republicans when Clinton left office? 34.

Another claim being made by Republicans and right-wing interest groups is that “thousands of people” are unable to have their cases heard in court because Senate Democrats are blocking so many of President Bush’s judicial nominees, and that others are having their cases delayed for the same reason. Let’s unpack that claim a bit. For starters, according to the Administrative Office of the U. S. Courts, cases are moving more quickly through the courts today than they did in 1999. Second, just how many empty courtrooms are there? Well, there are 46 vacant judicial seats. So the onerous Democrats must be blocking 46 Bush nominees, thus slowing justice for people with cases pending, right? Actually, no. President Bush hasn’t even nominated anybody for 30 of those 46 seats.

How about at the end of the Clinton administration? Well, there were 67 vacant judicial seats in December of 1999, 34 of which Clinton had nominated people to fill, but those nominees were being blocked by Senate Republicans. If holding up 16 judges is a disaster affecting “thousands of people,” what would holding up over twice as many be? If Republicans are so concerned about the damage done to the American people by 46 empty courtrooms, where was their concern when there were 67? And why don’t they pressure their President to nominate enough judges to fill more than a third of the currently vacant seats?

The fact is, the behavior of the Senate regarding judicial nominees hasn’t changed much. When Republicans are in the minority, they use the rules to try to block nominees they don’t like. When Democrats are in the minority, they use the rules to try to block nominees they don’t like. Is there anything really new about Democrats’ use of the filibuster on judicial nominees? No. They’re probably using it more than it was used previously, but that’s largely because the Republicans have removed several of the rules they themselves used to use to block nominees.

So what has changed in the judicial confirmation process?

A couple of things, I think. For one, the atmosphere in the Senate has grown more and more poisonous over the past 15 years. Senators no longer trust one another as much as they once did, they don’t trust the leadership as much as they once did, and they aren’t as deferential to one another as they once were. It used to be the case that if a judicial nominee had the support of both Senators from his or her home state, that carried a tremendous amount of weight. It no longer does. (It also used to be the case that a Senator could block any nominee from his or her home state from even coming before the Judiciary Committee. That’s one of the rules that the Republicans have changed.)

Another thing that has changed is that the country has become more closely divided in terms of party identification, and each side has become more bitter in its opposition to the other. Senators feel that pressure when it comes time to vote. Republicans feel it from the social fundamentalists like James Dobson, and from tax fundamentalists like Grover Norquist. If you don’t believe me, just ask Arlen Specter. Democrats feel the pressure from interest groups like labor unions, minorities, and People for the American Way. The party base on both sides has taken a no-compromise position, and they’re holding their representatives’ feet to the fire. That means that when their party holds the White House, they demand that the judicial nominees be true-believers like themselves. And it means that when their party is the minority, they demand that anybody who looks like a true-believer from the other side be firebombed. As a result, we get less mainstream nominees and more flammable confirmation debates.

And that brings me full circle. Why does the use of the filibuster even matter when it comes to judicial nominees? Because it’s hard to get 60 votes for a nominee anymore. As I’ve already said, for most of our history, the great majority of judicial nominees have been approved with 75% of the vote or better. With support like that, the filibuster would be completely irrelevant. So the solution, ISTM, is for the President — any president — to make sure his or her nominees are not out of the mainstream. A qualified, centrist nominee is going to be approved, even over a filibuster, a large majority of the time, even in the current poisonous atmosphere (to wit: literally 95% of President Bush’s nominees have been confirmed). A nominee who is a nod to the extremists in the party base (either party base) is DOA. The more bitter the country’s political divisions, the more centrist judicial nominees have to be. The less bitter the divisions, the more a president’s nominees can vary from the center (to wit: Antonin Scalia was approved 98-0).

In the end, judicious nominees make harmonious confirmations.


May 16, 2005

I wanted to write about something else. Really, I did. I try to stay away from the stuff that’s plastered all over the headlines. There are plenty of people discussing the hot topic of the day. Why add my insignificant voice to the din?

Of course I am talking about today’s revelation that Newsweek printed a shoddily researched and indefensible story that has incited deadly violence in Afghanistan. In case you are unfamiliar with the gist of the story, last week Newsweek printed an “expose” about U.S. run terrorist prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The most inflammatory charge in this story was that U.S. interrogators tried to unsettle prisoners by flushing pages of the Koran down a toilet.

A cursory study of Islam reveals that Muslims treat the Koran itself as a holy item. It must be stored on the highest shelf in the house with no other books above it. It must never be allowed to touch the ground. To a Muslim, the very idea that the Koran would even be in a bathroom, much less flushed down a toilet is absolute sacrilege.

It is no wonder that the charges in the Newsweek article provoked the response that they did in the Muslim world. We bristle at the image of Muslim protesters burning an American flag. How much more would we be incensed by the same crowd burning a Holy Bible? Don’t you think we’d see some heavy protesting at the embassies of the countries where the desecration took place?

As soon as the May 9th issue of Newsweek hit the stands last Tuesday, spontaneous protests materialized around government buildings and foreign relief agencies in Kabul, Afghanistan. The crowds grew in number and in fervor until government security forces resorted to the use of deadly force in efforts to control them. Over the past six days, 15 people have been killed in Afghanistan. All because of a news article.

Anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan is at its highest level since the fall of the Taliban. The Abu Ghraib scandal pales in comparison to this. At Abu Ghraib, followers of Allah were abused and desecrated. The charges in the Newsweek article are nothing short of abuse and desecration of Allah himself. If the charges in the article were true, the efforts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world would be doomed to failure. The damage to our relationship with Muslims would be irreparable.

Now it seems that Newsweek may not have its story straight. Here’s an excerpt from Newsweek’s editorial response to questions about the article:

Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur’an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them “not credible.” Our original source later said he couldn’t be certain about reading of the alleged Qur’an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.

The problem here is that this toothpaste is already out of the tube. Newsweek can’t just take it back. Any efforts to do so will be viewed as cover-up in the Muslim world. The fact that the article has been discredited is minor damage control. The hope is that cooler heads in the Muslim world will prevail and that this tailspin of anti-Americanism might prove to be recoverable. Either way, the tough road to winning the hearts and minds of Muslims just got a whole lot tougher.

My big question is this. What if the charges had been substantiated? What was Newsweek hoping to accomplish by printing what they knew be such inflammatory accusations?

The only answer that I can come to is that this has got to be one of the most egregious examples of “gotcha” journalism that I have witnessed. Newsweek published this article with the sole purpose of scooping other news organizations with a swipe at the Bush administration. And it was all in the name of selling more magazines. I doubt that at anytime during the decision process leading up to publishing this article that anyone at Newsweek really considered the far-reaching effects of these accusations.

We have become a nation of ball hogs, ignoring the team effort. The media wants to drive to the hoop and score with the slam dunk big story. Hollywood takes the long range three pointer by spending millions on an epic about the Crusades, one of the most sensitive issues in Christian/Muslim relations. All the while, Coach Bush is courtside trying to remind us that we’ve got the lead, slow down the pace, pass the ball, and take the open shot. Instead, we thump our chests after scoring a routine basket, argue about who gets to call the next plays, and constantly campaign for who gets to be MVP at the next election.