Hard News by Russell Brown

It's the science, stupid

It will come as no surprise that, like most of the rest of the world, I am saying a secular prayer that John Kerry wins the US Presidential election. But some readers might be surprised to know that what really turns my stomach about the Bush administration isn't its blinded and inept foreign policy, but its four-year war on the integrity of American science, in which is embodied the key to what is really wrong with these people.

Every dumb decision, every obfuscation, every outright lie can be traced back to the White House position on empirical reality, as expressed in its war on American science. Back in February, 60 leading scientists (including 20 Nobel Laureates) issued a statement calling for action to "restore scientific integrity to federal policymaking":

They say President George W. Bush has suppressed and distorted scientific analysis from federal agencies, subjected government scientists to "censorship and political oversight," and taken actions that have undermined the quality of scientific advisory panels.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has more on the statement, to which more than 5000 American scientists have now signed their names.

Scientific American made its strongest statement in a widely-quoted June editorial titled Faith-Based Reasoning. And "father of the Internet" Vint Cerf (who has effectively worked for the military for most of his professional life) is amongst those behind Scientists and Engineers for Change, whose assessment of the Bush record on science concludes with this:

President George W. Bush's economic policies have severely harmed prospects for utilizing the Federal R&D portfolio as a tool for enhancing American economic competitiveness. Not surprisingly from a President who said during his campaign that "the jury is still out on evolution", this administration's politicization and misuse of science have made it increasingly difficult for science to play its rightful role in public policy making. This situation will not change until the American people elect a leader who respects the value and integrity of science more than the self-interest of his political allies and special interest backers.

This does not only affect the American people, but all of us. We are all the poorer if American intellectual vitality is suppressed, debased and ignored because what it has to say does not fit the leadership's idea of what reality ought to be.

The definitive piece on the faith-based Presidency is Ron Suskind's much-quoted story for the New York Times magazine, Without a Doubt. It's worth reading in its entirety, but its most notorious passage is this:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend - but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

If you want something else to feel impotently angry about, try electoral fraud. Both sides have been accusing each other of dirty tricks, and both sides have been push-polling - calling voters under the guise of a survey and then reeling off the candidate's unattractive policy positions to those who plan to vote the "wrong" way - but the Republican Party's efforts to suppress the vote from unfriendly demographics (read: non-whites, students, young people, the urban poor) have been quite astonishing.

Some 4000 Florida students have been tricked into registering twice - and thus rendering themselves ineligible to vote - and the authorities in the state (where Jeb Bush is governor) have refused to investigate.

Leaflets have been circulated in South Carolina falsely claiming that voters who have outstanding parking tickets or child support payments will be arrested if they try to vote. There's been a lot of this sort of thing.

Mosh the Vote has a transcript of a This American Life special on the current attempts at electoral fraud.

Media Matters has a slew of examples - and takes a shot at a Wall Street Journal story that claimed the Democrats were seeking to suppress the vote by, um, criticising Bush. And Vote Watch 2004 (hey! my name's there!) now has 75 stories on electoral sleaze, vote suppression and fraud.

Unsurprisingly, many voters in the groups being targeted - and 80% of black voters - are losing confidence in the system, and expect to encounter efforts to prevent them voting.

On the other hand, Josh Marshall has an inspiring letter from a county in Florida, where the mostly black voters have not only voted early, but waited an average of five hours to do so.

Happily, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a Kerry result. Tracking polls have largely swung his way in recent days - and I confess, I thought OBL's bizarre intervention would have the opposite effect - and the six per cent undecided number (undecided voters historically break 85% for the challenger), the remarkably high level of new registrations and the ground-breaking Zogby poll of mobile phone users (who have been hitherto out of reach of the polling companies) all portend well for the Democrats. And Kevin Drum is floating the idea that the vote-suppression tactic has now attracted enough publicity that it has backfired and is now motivating the Democrat voter base.

It is true, of course, that a fair chunk of America hates Kerry as much as the Democrat base hates the other guy (and check out this Salon report to see how hateful the hate can get).

Lisa Dupler, a 33-year-old from Columbus, held up a rainbow-striped John Kerry sign outside the Nationwide Arena on Friday, as Republicans streamed out after being rallied by George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A thickset woman with very short, dark hair, Dupler was silent and barely flinched as people passing her hissed "faggot" into her ear. An old lady looked at her and said, "You people are sick!" A kid who looked to be about 10 or 11 affected a limp wrist and mincing voice and said, "Oh, I'm gay." Rather than restraining him, his squat mother guffawed and then turned to Dupler and sneered, "Why don't you go marry your girlfriend?" Encouraged, her son yelled, "We don't want faggots in the White House!"

The throngs of Republicans were pumped after seeing the president and the action hero. But there was an angry edge to their elation. They shrieked at the dozen or so protesters standing on the concrete plaza outside the auditorium. "Kerry's a terrorist!" yelled a stocky kid in baggy jeans and braces. "Communists for Kerry! Go back to Russia," someone else screamed. Many of them took up the chant "Kerry sucks"; old women and teenage boys shouting with equal ferocity.

With four days to go until the election, you can feel the temperature rising in Ohio.

But it is also true that Kerry negatives - from his war record to his voting record - tend to evaporate when you explore them. (Example: he voted to cut intelligence funding after "the first World Trade Centre bombing" - the one in 1994, that is - which is true. But the vote was lost, and Republicans subsequently pushed through a measure requiring a larger cut.) I've noted before that the Kerry campaign turned on the presidential debates, because he actually got unmediated access to voters. Suddenly, he looked a lot better than the guy portrayed in all the news stories.

From what I can see, the most significant minus for Kerry, from New Zealand's point of view, is that he would probably be even more protectionist than Bush, if a little more honest about it.

So, let's hope.