Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Does this paradigm make me look fat?

I am coming towards the end of the philosophy of religion tape series I've been listening to, and we're starting to delve into the more subtle dimensions of religious discourse. Dr. Hall has laid out the notion of paradigms as Thomas Kuhn described them in The Stucture of Scientific Revolutions, and the notion of incommeasurability -- that no paradigm can be understood or criticized by a different paradigm's language and rules. That line of thinking is particularly handy for many religious thinkers, who would maintain that religion and logical positivism are simply separate paradigms that shouldn't have much to say about each other.

Hall goes on to give a resounding rejection of incommeasurability and the seeming relativism that it entails. He declares that paradigms can be evaluated, based on all the same criteria normally invoked to prefer one argument over another: parsimony, simplicity, elegance, consistency, flexibility, rigor, etc.

What I find most fascinating about these criteria for evaluating paradigms is that they are subjective and immediate. Like Pirsig's "Quality," they are properties difficult to quantify but immediately recognizable. They are properties so basic to human thought that they challenge language to contain them. A logical positivist might think that he is grounded in something tangible and firm, but the bedrock of his whole worldview rests in something as intangible, intuitive, and indescribable as the average mystical experience.

It's yet another vindication for the primacy of self-knowledge. No matter what paradigm you are operating in, wisdom begins in recognizing why you believe what you believe.


Teaching violence, teaching control

I heard on NPR the other day that a program was doing a "violent-toy exchange," in which kids brought in their toy guns and violent video games and exchanged them for constructive or cooperative games: craft kits, puzzles, sporting equipment.

For all of my familiarity with Attachment Parenting and our continuous committment to shield our children from media as long as possible, I still feel a strange ambivalence about these sorts of events. True, I am convinced that the popular culture has immersed itself in extreme violence, and that such constant exposure to ever-more-graphic displays will have an inevitable corrosive affect on sensitivity and sensibility of developing minds. But I also feel like the counter-culture, the anti-violence activists, have yet to come up with a coherent philosophy to handle the reality of violence in human nature and in life.

This local event, at least, had the right idea to emphasize the alternatives to violence. Most of our political and social problems in the world are one long, unending quest to get people to consider alternatives to violence. And it is perfectly rational to say: "Look, building things with Legos is every bit as 'boy' as running around with guns." And so it is. But once the building is done, it is every bit as "boy" to explode the Lego buildings with Richochet Racer mortar fire. While they encourage the constructive, pro-social elements of human nature, they fail to acknowledge the aspects of violence that are built into human nature itself. Boys are not "infected" with violence from outside entities; they only fail to develop the capacities to control and channel violent impulses that were always there to begin with.

Recently, when I was wrestling with my two small sons, I spontaneously started to show them some basics of aikido. I encouraged them to experiment with different ways to push me over, and showed them what worked and what didn't. I showed them some ways to roll and fall without getting hurt. That they enjoyed it was not surprising; but I was shocked at how much they paid attention. Usually slow and casual in responding to my requests, Aidan was obedient to the point of being crisp. His violent impulses, thus far only finding release in playground stick fights, was now getting official sanction and direction. He loved it. More importantly, I think he was ready for it. He needed it.

I do not believe we can take all the violence out of our kids, nor even that that is a worthwhile goal. I believe it needs to be channelled, schooled, and controlled. The pro-social-non-violent moms might be shocked when I call, not only for more Legos, but for boxing, wrestling, martial arts, archery, and hunting. Our children will be schooled in violence. Our only choice is whether we will do the schooling, and incorporate principles of restraint, discipline, respect, sportsmanship, and honor -- or whether we will let their schooling come from Grand Theft Auto and The Sopranos.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Politics & Philanthropy don't mix

I got a direct mail piece from Oxfam USA last week. Because my wife and I have previously given to a variety of standard causes (e.g. CARE) and not-so-standard causes (e.g. Family at Home Network, the monks of Mepkin Abbey), we tend to wind up on everyone's solicitation list, especially for the year-end holiday appeals.

Many such appeals go straight in the trash, but Oxfam got a second look because it featured prominently in a philosophy lecture I've given several times over the years, about the nature of moral imperatives. I prep the students with a book review from The New Yorker, which poses a classic moral conundrum: if you see a child drowning in a wading pool, and you do nothing to stop it, you would be morally culpable in her death, yes? But you could just as easily save a life by giving some money to Oxfam . . . and yet you haven't. Shouldn't that make you equally morally culpable? The book review discusses some attempts to answer the question, but my point with the lecture is to make it as personal as possible for the audience: "I'm not talking about, 'Why don't people give to Oxfam?' I'm asking, 'Why haven't you given to Oxfam?' Because I'm also asking myself, 'Why haven't I given to Oxfam?' "

So, lo and behold, after invoking their name in a few lectures, I got an actual appeal from Oxfam last year. "It must be a sign," I thought. I was prepared to give them some money. But then I started reading the brochure, and what I read was a typical liberal-minded rant against the War on Terror. Somehow the Oxfam development officer had gotten it in his head that outrage over our recent wars would propel people to greater generosity. I didn't given them any money. It wasn't that I necessarily disagreed with them about the war; what offended me was the thoughtless assumption that anyone who is kind and generous must be a liberal.

(Side-note: even Law and Order has noticed this "kindness=liberal" assumption. Detective Munch asks his partner Fin (played by Ice-T), "Surely you have some dark personal secret your hiding." Fin replies, "Yeah. I'm a Republican." )

This year, I got almost the identical mailpiece from Oxfam. This time, the politics were gone. If anything, they had refocused on a conservative-minded take on their work: "This isn't a hand-out. We help the poor help themselves." Especially in light of the recent research that shows that conservatives give more to charity than their liberal counterparts (which I wrote about earlier), I found this switch remarkable. It makes me wonder if they actually have two different letters going out, and someone had set the conservative flag to "No" on my record by mistake last year.

In any case, I gave them some money. Dollar votes, baby.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Life of Gifts

A Chinese maxim states: "If you are angry at someone, give them a gift. It is impossible to be angry while being generous." I have, empirically, found this to be true; an act of generosity, even undertaken mechanically, will often change they way you feel. Because it is freely undertaken, a gift has a life of its own, above and beyond the mere transfer of property or service, a psychic significance for both giver and recipient. A dun letter from my kid's school put it quite well: "Paying for things is how meet our needs and obligations . . . but giving is what gives us meaning."

I heard on the news this morning that the incoming Congress is taking a more serious look at limiting gifts to lawmakers, especially in the wake of a party change-over after a series of scandals. I thought about the whole practice of gift-giving in our plutocratic . . . aHEM I mean democratic system. It always struck me as odd that the Washington power-elite were so scrutinized for pocketing gifts on the order of hundreds or thousands of dollars, while the captains of industry were swallowing spoils that were orders of magnitude greater. If politicians were so powerful, why weren't they getting richer at the public trough?

To understand it, you have to understand the psychology of gift-receiving. The Washington fatcats did not set about acquiring power to get money. Usually, it's the opposite -- they traffick in money to acquire power. And the psychic measure of power is in how many people need you, and how much they need you. A senator might not be richest man in the world, but he is the best friend of everyone he meets. Rich men usually pay for the privilege to be so sought after, through their philanthropy.

And hence the gifts. Lawmakers are swayed by gifts, but not just by the material value. It's the psychic payoff that gives it punch. It doesn't even matter if it's just a lobbyist picking up the lunch tab -- for just a moment, that lawmaker is a King, receiving tribute.

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Tipping . . . the other way

Last year (or maybe it was the year before . . . or the year before that . . . I'm old enough now that it starts to blend together), around the holidays, NPR did a little human interest story on tipping service people during the holidays. They interviewed a number of New York doormen to see just how generous the tips were in the Big Apple. They were reported to be considerable -- some were pulling in ten to fifteen G's in December alone. It was a generally upbeat piece, marvelling at the fiscal generosity of a city otherwise not disposed to kindness to strangers.

This year, on American Public Media's Marketplace Morning Report, I heard them start into a tipping-during-the-holidays-in-New-York segment. "Jeez," I thought. "That was a tight news cycle, especially for public radio. Didn't they do the same story last year?" But this time it was a little different. They interviewed the people who gave the tips, just like they did the year before, and they said much of the same things: "When somebody has been here for a really very long time, you do have a kind of a family feeling, a rapport with each other. . . "

But then they went fishing for the dark side: "Are there some people you don't want to tip?" "Oh yeah, absolutely! We have a superintendent, who doesn't earn his tip. But it's almost like you tip just in case. You tip so that he doesn't do something evil. You tip as protection."

And the doormen were a little more forthcoming, too: yes, some guys who go the extra mile can make up to 15 grand in tips, but really that only makes up for what they're not making the rest of the year. And they definitely are not treated like family: "Twenty-six years here, family no, help yes."

* * *

I had a few thoughts about the piece. My first reaction was, "How very American Public Media." Marketplace is ferociously liberal, especially for a business news program, and it doesn't surprise me that they let the servants get the last word. And it seems especially vicious to take something as seemingly good as freely-given-gifts and turn it into a nexus for class warfare.

On the other hand . . . it was well done. It's not often that you have a reporter get on both sides of a transaction to show how both sides are seeing it. News often bifurcates coverage into "both sides of the story", but usually that's either two openly opposing camps who have marked out their positions, or two cooperating parties that have tightly scripted talking points. Some candid reactions to a daily ritual . . . that is actually something to think about. It made me start to think about myself . . . how am I perceived, when I toss down a dollar next to my Waffle House plate?

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I Heart Trans Fat

New York City recently announced it would be banning trans-fat from all its restaurants. I have all kinds of reasons for not liking this sort of policy: the dubious health benefits relative to its costs, the shaky track record of government prohibitions against things that are "bad for us", and especially the perported political motivations behind it (giving the tort bar another fat -- pardon the pun -- target for class action liability claims).

But what troubles me the most is what this sort of decision says about human nature. Do we really believe that can't hold the individual responsible for controlling their own diet? Do we have to have executive mandates banning certain foods, because we can't trust the public to eat them in moderation?

I'm afraid of the answer, no matter which way it goes. I want to believe in the individual's responsibilty, autonomy, and freedom to choose what is in their best interests. Certainly I think I can be trusted with trans-fat foods. But that philosophy is faced with an emperical challenge: we have all these freakin' fat people. I am inclined to be understanding of those poor souls who were born with, shall we say, large-ish bodies and who must struggle to keep themselves fit. But when the majority of people are overweight, and one in five are obese (which is a clinic term indicating a body mass index of 30 or greater, or, in layman's terms, dude-you-are-freakin'-huge), we have an inconvenient truth to contend with.

Either adult people are not to be trusted with looking after their best interests, and we need to tighten legislation to protect them from themselves . . . or we are a nation of fat slobs with no self-control. Either option is, um, unappetising. I find it discouraging that most of the public has opted for the former interpretation and not even considered the later. Why don't we have headlines reading: "The lack-of-self-control epidemic in the U.S."?

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Armored Vampires

When I was a freshman in college, my best friend from high school handed me worn paperback and said, "Read this. It's the best science fiction story you will ever read." The book was Armor, by John Steakley, and it lived up to its billing. Like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, its portrait of war and warriors was so vivid that it got lots of cross-over readership and stayed on shelves a long time, until it started being referred to as a "classic." (Of course, any sci-fi paperback that continues to sell for more than ten years probably qualifies, in book marketing lingo, as a "classic.") Armor became one of the few books that I tried to "turn people on" to, something I enjoyed and could usually intuit that other people would enjoy.

So imagine my surprise when, twenty years later, I see the name "John Steakley" on another book at Barnes & Noble. I was in a headlong charge to the bathroom at the time, but I caught it out of the corner of my eye and had to back up five paces to see it again. And it was, of all things, a vampire novel. Ok, I think, I'm hip to vampires, and it's been three years since I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and at least a twenty years since I touched an Anne Rice novel, so maybe I'm overdue for a dose of slayage. So I bought Vampire$ after three seconds of deliberation.

It was good, but not Armor good. I read it in about a week, which is pretty fast in my current lifestyle. The pace is fast, the mood palpable, the heroes well-developed and thoroughly likeable, the vampires creepy and genuinely scary, even to someone inoculated with lots of vampire lore. For one, these vampires are tough -- no stake-through-the-heart, explode-into-dust routine will do here. More like: dynamite their lair in the middle of the day, hit them with half a dozen harpoons when they crawl out of the rubble, and let the sunlight burn them for several minutes. This book will teach you to fear the coming of night. And the book is full of witty one-liners that would transition well into a Hollywood movie. At one point, the heroes encounter a burly torpedo of a priest guarding the Pope, and one quips, "So, what is the Church's position on steroids?"

So what's not to like? Start with the fact that the main characters, Jack Crow and Felix, have exactly the same names as the main characters as Armor, although they are clearly different people in different times. WTF? There are a few theories to explain why someone would ever do such a thing:
  1. He's so thoroughly invested in these characters that he can't let go of them, can't find it in him to write any others, and so he just carries on with them, hoping no one will notice or care that he's recycling the same names again.
  2. He's so insecure about his ability as a writer that he needs to constantly remind the audience, "Hey, remember, I'm the guy who wrote Armor, ok? You really liked Felix then, right? Ok, trust me on this one, you'll enjoy this."
  3. Some editor commissioned another book about Felix and Jack Crow, and John Steakley wrote a vampire book instead, and the only way he could get out of his contract was to use the same names again.

If all these excuses sound lame, well, yeah, that's the point. Something is out of joint here, which makes it a lot harder to surrender completely to the spell of the book.

Character names are not the only thing that gets recycled. The theme of the book -- the absolute soul-crushing fatigue of constant warfare -- is an imprint taken directly from Armor. But authors can be forgiven for reprising their themes; that's a part of what gives them their style, and if they have anything worth saying, odds are good they will say it more than once. He gets some new ideas in as well. He shows how the burden of war is magnified by the burden of leadership, and the agony of leading others into the teeth of a hopeless battle.

There are a few other flaws . . . the book starts with the sense that the heroes are gritty, worldly mercenaries who kill vampires for money, but somewhere in the middle they morph without explanation into Church-sponsored crusaders who are the ultimate in die-for-the-cause martyrs. Either angle is interesting, but could we please stick to just one? The ending happens just a little too fast and with too much irrelevance to what has come before, in a Stephen King had-a-good-ride-but-now-I-need-to-end-this-somehow kind of way. While the characters are drawn well, their transformations are somewhat unconvincing. But in the end, I still enjoyed myself. B-minus.


Monday, December 11, 2006

The (not-so-thrilling) conclusion of Buffy

One of the greatest joys in life is turning one of your best friends on to something that you really, really like. I managed to do that a few years ago, when I convinced my friend Kenny to check out Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After years of dedicatedly absorbing the DVDs, he finally came to the end of the series. Here were his comments, and my response.

* * *

Well, we have arrived at the end of Buffy. Still a fair amount of Angel to go...still, it's the end of an era.
I have to say, I found the last episode both puzzling and disappointing.
Let me start out by saying what I was *not* disappointed by. Buffy didn't die. No one really died, I suppose, except Anya and Spike: the original Scooby crew made it out alive. That was pretty cool if only because it was so totally unexpected.
My biggest disappointment is the hardest to articulate: it just wasn't great. When Joss Whedon listed the top ten episodes, the last episode didn't make the list; it probably would not make most people's lists.
I can also say that the idea of turning every potential slayer into a real slayer is problematic in all sorts of ways. First, if it was that easy, why didn't they do it centuries ago? (Here I can imagine Joss Whedon holding up a picture of a ghostly-white Willow and saying "You call that easy?" Well, yeah.) Second, with no Watchers left, who is going to train all these suddenly super-powered girls; do they amount to a new super-race with no guidance and no reason to suppose they won't go all Kahn Noonian Singh on the rest of us, etc? Third, it turned out in the end to be irrelevant. Everything they did--the slayage, the super-weapon, all of it--turned out to be irrelevant.
All that mattered was Angel showing up and saying "Here's a pretty cool amulet, if Spike wears it it will wipe out all of Sunnyvale."
I looked at all the special features on the DVD (which I never do) hoping to find Whedon talking about the last episode, explaining it in more detail, but nothing. Does he have any writings on the subject?
I feel like it needs a whole lot of explanation.
Anyway, just so I don't end on a grumpy note, I can certainly say that it was one of the strongest TV series I have ever, ever, ever watched.
It was powerful and interesting and I'm going to miss it.

* * *

My response:

The only thing that I recall ever hearing Joss say about the last episode is that he liked the idea of empowering lots of young women -- it was a good bookend to how the series began, with the supposedly "helpless young woman"suddenly being the superhero. In terms of the plot arc, it was essential that Buffy no longer be THE Chosen One, just one of many, so she can free from the burden of being the sole saviour of the world. She has a chance at a somewhat normal life now, which seemed to be the only way she could escape the usual Slayer fate of burning out and dying young.
I was slightly troubled by the last-minute, out-of-nowhere conclusion as well. Only slightly, though, because I knew that Spike had to die, and he had earned the right to have a really spectacular hero's death, and burning up in a pillar of fire that wipes out all your enemies is pretty freakin' spectacular. Spike remains my all-time favorite TV character.


Conservatives give more

I just heard of some research that established that conservatives, by and large, give more money and time to charitable causes than their liberal counterparts, at all socioeconomic levels. The whole "compassion conservative" label took a beating in the last few years, mostly because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the concept still has some currency in American politics because it's true. When push comes to shove, the conservatives are doing more material good to help others than the liberals are.

Why? I haven't read the research, but I could guess:
  • Conservatives believe individual actions, not government programs, are the best way to address social ills. Conservatives are not likely to sit around saying, "The government should have a program to address that," because they don't want more government. They would rather use a free market of charitable causes, competing with each other for charitable dollars, to address the issues about which they have the strongest opinion.
  • Liberals judge themselves according to their intentions, while conservatives judge themselves according to their results. In the liberal mindset, the most important thing is to have the right opinions, the right "stands on the issues." They have a very noble dedication to wanting the best for all people . . . but the philosophy seems a little weak on actually getting things done. It tends to generate a lot of "activists" who "raise awareness," but not the kind of rank-and-file generosity that does what it can to help those who need it, especially close to home.
  • Religious conservatives have an explicit moral obligation to fiscal generosity. Christians and Muslims (and perhaps Jews, too, I'm not sure on this) are explicitly commanded to give to the poor. A tradition of tithing -- giving up a percentage of one's income for the good of others -- is well established in Christian society. Not all religious people are conservatives, but they tend to be. Not all liberals are non-religious, but they tend to be.
  • Conservatives are better people. Well, no, this isn't an argument, so much as an opinion. But ask yourself: if you had to come up with an objective standard for who good people would be, what would it include? Don't you think material generosity with time and money would be on the list? And is there anything the liberals are especially good at that could trump that?


Deus Caritas Est

The latest issue of First Things also had a commentary on Pope Benedict's first encyclical letter, "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"). When you hear about the pope speaking ex cathedra, as the absolute authority of the Church on matters of theology, this is what they are talking about. The encyclical letters are the vehicle for the pope to explore certain questions of theology. Reading them is not unlike reading a Supreme Court ruling -- while full of certain technical jargon, they are nonetheless generally readable and try to use philosophic principles to guide matters of real relevance in the world. (Yes, I like to read Supreme Court rulings, too. It restores my faith in government when I see important matters decided, not by sound bites and opinion polls, but by rational argument and fundamental principles.) I first got interested in the encyclicals when someone turned me on to Pope John Paul's "Fides et Ratio" ("Faith and Reason"), the last pontiff's attempt to describe the proper role of rationality within spiritual life.

There is a certain irony here. Benedict is generally viewed as a cold, prickly kinda guy, but his first theological publication as pope is all about the passionate, involved nature of God's love. (In contrast, John Paul II was the rock-star of warm fuzzies, but wrote about reason and "the splendor of the truth.") There might be some political calculus going on -- perhaps Benedict is aware of his image problem and wants to bring attention to his genuine love for the church and its people.

I've not read the entire encyclical yet, but I'm glad that Benedict decided to write it. I think the question of Love is the most important topic in Christian theology to address, since it is at the very center of the faith and is so radical in its nature that it sets it apart from other religions and philosophies. As Kierkegaard pointed out, other philosophies had recognized the importance of loving one's family and friends . . . but to love one's enemies . . . that was (and still is) radical stuff.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dicing Dennett

For a couple years now I've been subscribing to First Things, a highly intellectual conservative Catholic publication. I think it was the very first time I responded immediately to a direct-mail campaign. I had never heard of it before, but I liked their pitch and signed on. Sometimes my eyes glaze over from subtle analyses of authors I've never heard of about authors I've never heard of . . . but other times I get the most hilarious, cutting, clever critiques I've ever read. Think Slate for people who know the meaning of "apophatic."

The most recent issue had a critique of Daniel Dennett's latest pro-atheist, anti-religion tract, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena. David B. Hart compared the book, quite effectively, with Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark. Dennett tries to build a case that religion evolved originally as a meme with survival value for the human species, but that eventually became a parasite that forwards its own survival to the detriment of its host. Hart's most telling criticism was that these two theses -- that religion had survival value, but now it doesn't -- are essentially contradictory and render his hypothesis unfalsifiable. Dennett does not for a moment want to suggest that religion might actually be a force for good -- that would undermine his whole agenda. But he can't propose a sociobiological origin of religion without acknowledging that at some point it had some survival value. So he splits the difference, trying to have his evolutionary cake and eat it, too.

Hart also calls out Dennett's totalitarian social agenda -- to essentially outlaw religious instruction. Evidently he, along with Richard Dawkins, believe they would be doing the world a great service by trying to "protect" children from the superstitions of their parents. While Hart didn't say it, I crying out from the peanut gallery: "Oh, of course, because we all know what a shining example of moral decency came out of the last attempt of a state to institutionalize atheism." Do I come across too red-blooded, to yell "communist!" in a crowded theater?

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Republicans for Barack Obama?

NPR aired a story last night on the political phenom Barack Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois who is swiftly gaining support as a "dream candidate" for the 2008 presidential election. I've been watching Obama for a while, now, ever since he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I was not the only one to notice that he sounded like a Republican. In fact, he sounded an awful lot like the Republicans who have become disillusioned with their leadership and who, while not exactly deserting the cause, sat on their hands and let the Dems retake Congress. That is to say, he sounded a lot like me.

When I read Obama's public rhetoric, I am increasingly impressed for both his subtlety and his candor. At some celebrity roast, Obama said something to the effect of, "Democrats have been criticized for standing for nothing. That, of course, is not true. Democrats will stand for anything." I cannot for the life of me remember another Democrat who was willing to publicly lampoon his own party, on exactly the points that are so sensitive to them, and do it so lightly and with such confidence. It was a play straight from George W., who was always willing to laugh at his own gaffes, infuriating the Democrats who could not for the life of themselves understand why he wasn't more ashamed.

Obama also gets props for talking openly about his religious faith, which will carry him farther with the Red states than most Democrats are willing to admit. He has not done so with much fanfare, either, which conveys his absolute sincerity. The Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson (sarcasm dripping from the titles) never evinced as much honest faith in God as this man. He is undermining the very religious and racial divisions so many Democrats labored to create for their own advantage.

So, without reservation, I can say: I like the guy. The only remaining question is: what kind of president would he be? His legislative record is light, probably deliberately so. Everyone agrees that, for Presidential aspirants, it's best to have all the authority of public office without the baggage of real hard-fought positions. And I would hate to be seduced by a politician strictly for his charm and grace, as so many were with Bill Clinton. But if his record bears scrutiny, I would be willing to get behind him. I might even register as a Democrat, just to have one more opportunity to vote against Hillary Clinton.

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