Artur Davis Raises The Speech Bar

The speeches at the Republican National Convention have gotten more compelling as the evening has worn on.

The story line behind the speech of Artur Davis is particularly interesting.  Davis is a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as a Democratic Congressman from Alabama for four terms.  He was one of the first significant politicians to endorse Barack Obama for the presidency, and he made one of the nominating speeches at the 2008 Democratic convention.  But Davis, a moderate, became concerned about the direction of the country under the President.  He voted against the Affordable Care Act — the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to do so — and then ran, unsuccessfully, for the Democratic nomination for the governorship of Alabama.

Davis later moved to Virginia, and began rethinking his political affiliations.  Tonight he came to the Republican convention and declared that he is a Republican . . . and then gave a speech about why he has changed his mind about who to support for the presidency.  With practiced cadence and strong imagery, Davis sought to rise above what he called the cacophony of angry voices and speak directly to those who are undecided, or wavering in their support for President Obama, and convince them to join him.

I’m not sure whether the comments of a person who has so recently changed parties will be persuasive — time will tell, I suppose — but Kish and I both thought it was the most interesting speech so far.

Watching The Convention On C-SPAN

Kish and I are watching the Republican Convention tonight, on C-SPAN.  It’s great TV, largely because it’s completely unfiltered — just the convention feed itself, with no talking heads to interpret or spin things for us.

What do you learn if you watch a political convention in real time?  For one thing, the United States is still a regional country.  Every speaker we’ve seen tonight has displayed their own unique accent, from the tongues of New England, to those of the Midwest, to the those of the rolling Plains states.  And, even with the continuing growth of the federal government, we’re still a country of individual states.  Every political speaker so far tonight has boasted of the accomplishments of their state and cited the stories of individuals and businesses from their states to illustrate their criticisms of the Obama Administration.

We’ve heard a number of speeches so far, and we also can attest to one other thing:  there aren’t that many great political orators out there — or for that matter, many great speechwriters.  Still, it’s an interesting exercise.  If you want to learn about what Republicans and Democrats really think is important, what better way to do so than watch the conventions those parties have scripted so carefully, seeing those conventions as the delegates themselves do?

Confirming The Stoner Effect

A study of about 1,000 New Zealanders has concluded that individuals who began smoking marijuana before age 18, and then smoked it for years, experienced a drop in IQ — a drop that persisted even if the individual quit.

This is one of those studies that draws awfully broad conclusions, and is a bit disturbing, besides.  The researchers began assessing the study participants, a group from Dunedin, New Zealand, when they were children, before they started smoking, and then interviewed them regularly about their pot-smoking habits, and other activities, for more than 20 years.  The researchers took the resulting data and sought to screen for other factors, including use of alcohol and other drugs, as well as education levels.  They concluded that persistent marijuana smokers — defined as someone who smoked at least four times a week, year after year, into their 20s and 30s — experienced noticeable drops in IQ, with the amount of marijuana consumption correlating to the amount of IQ loss.  The study found that persistent marijuana use over 20 years is associated with neuropsychological decline and that the drug may have neurotoxic effects in adolescents.

There’s no real surprise in these conclusions.  Many of us know people who never moved past the heavy stoner lifestyle and ended up sapped of energy and ambition, not doing much of anything with their lives except listening to Dark Side of the Moon and complaining about their latest bad break.  If you go to any college town, you’ll likely see some of them, scraping by somehow.

What’s disturbing about the study is that the scientists seem to have treated real people like lab rats, testing and interviewing and assessing them as they continued a habit that apparently was producing irrevocable mental decline.  There’s no indication in the article linked above that researchers did anything to try to convince participants to stop their use — even in the case of adolescents.  What are the ethical obligations of researchers under such circumstances?  When should a scientist stop being a neutral observer and recorder of clinical facts, and start being a person who tries to help a kid avoid a permanent downward spiral?

David Brooks, “The Real Romney”

David Brooks is the only New York Times columnist I always make a point of reading, even though his politics don’t accord with mine. I like his insight and the way he strives for moderation. I like how he seeks out unusual topics for his columns when every other columnist lazily picks partisan themes.

Last week, he wrote a column in which he declared his support for Romney/Ryan because he thinks they will do something to halt the growth of Medicare. Yet, in the same column, he criticizes them for being unwilling to raise taxes. In his next column, he criticized Ryan for not voting for the Simpson/Bowles deficit-reduction plan. This sort of independent-mindedness and appreciation for nuance is the most important quality of a columnist.

Brooks doesn’t usually tickle my funny bone – the tone of his columns is usually as serious as he looks in his picture – but he did with today’s column, which made me laugh out loud more than once. It is top-notch political satire worthy of The Onion or MAD Magazine in its prime, poking fun at the way both parties distort a candidate’s history to inflame their bases.

Brooks has changed his tone radically for this column. Instead of reasoning about politics, he’s lampooning it. But he’s kept his independent perspective.

Dealing With The Overly Intrusive Waiter

Yesterday I went to lunch with a group of friends.  Shortly after we sat down we all realized, with a groan, that we had been cursed with an overly intrusive waiter.

It wasn’t difficult to reach that conclusion.  He would hang around our table, clearly eavesdropping on our conversation, and then offer his extended and thoroughly unwelcome comments about whatever we were discussing — be it music, or weddings, or whether the restaurant in question would be a good place for a first date.  After the third or fourth such incident, I felt like checking under the table or looking behind nearby chairs to confirm that the waiter wasn’t lurking nearby, ready to spring up and offer another lame joke or awkward self-reference.

I’m sure he thought his trenchant observations and amusing anecdotes culled from the rich tapestry of his life were adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of our meal.  We, on the other hand, came to dread his presence and windy comments like the people of the Middle Ages came to dread the bubonic plague.

I suppose there’s a well-mannered way to tell the overly intrusive waiter that he’s ruining the meal, but I don’t know how.  So we all sat, listening politely as he talked, and talked, and talked, and hoped that our lack of affirmation or follow-up questions would send an obvious message that we weren’t interested in what he had to say.  Unfortunately, the waiter utterly lacked the sensitivity to pick up on those signals.  And every second we had to listen to the blatherings of this complete stranger cost us a second of each other’s company.

I used to be a waiter and still admire those in the food-service industry, but there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed.  Waiters should be friendly, sure . . . but mostly they should be responsive and ready to serve.  Tell us the daily specials, keep the drink glasses filled, take our orders, and bring us our food and, eventually, the check — but otherwise please leave us alone!