Archive for September, 2012

Augustine, Machiavelli, and Petrarch Conversing

One place for the conversation: in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, where Giotto’s frescoes mixed the old religious themes with a new humanist perspective

The assignment closing out the first unit of my honors first year seminar was straight forward: imagine a conversation between Augustine, Petrarch and Machiavelli.   Have them talk about the issues that dominated their lives, react to each other, and bring up others we read or talked about (Aquinas, Dante, Giotto and Boccaccio).   The results were spectacular.

I gave students freedom to tackle the assignment however they wanted.   One took the voice of Machiavelli, describing the conversations and his internal thoughts — polite to Augustine in conversation while ridiculing him in his head.   Another had them all in purgatory, some had them in heaven, one had them in a rather rowdy bar (Augustine sipping fruit juice), while one had them in the equivalent of zoo, having been snatched from earth and brought somewhere outside space/time.   One put herself in the role as translator of the conversation, giving her reflections on what they said, which worked really well.

Augustine (354-430) developed the spiritual philosophy and theology that would define the medieval world view – this world is an illusion, designed to tempt and test, but exists only as symbols of a deeper reality.   Do not pursue worldly delights or ambitions, those only lead you away from Christ.  With that view dominating, it’s not surprising that the Europeans spent nearly a thousand years with little progress!

Petrarch is often called the “father of humanism.”   Humanism means taking the human experience seriously.   Petrarch, along with others such as Giotto, Boccaccio and Dante, were rediscovering the classics from Rome and Greece, and thereby opening the door to a past that Europe had long forgotten.   They were enthralled by the classics, a world where human emotion and practical knowledge mattered — where life wasn’t only about preparation for the after life.

Petrarch expressed humanist love and emotion, but never approached his muse Laura – he loved from afar

Art became more realistic, human emotion invaded literature and poetry, and the material world started to matter again.   This led to the renaissance and an expansion of knowledge and wealth.    It also meant growing corruption in the Church as the spiritual became secondary to the practical.    Niccolo Machiavelli (1649 – 1527) took that humanism to its pragmatic ends justify the means conclusion with his book The Prince.

What’s most impressive is that the students  captured the essence of what these three people  symbolize.   Augustine is the other-worldly mystic who warns about the corruption of the flesh and power of a love for God.  Petrarch has his feet in both the Augustinian world and the new world of humanism.   He writes stirring emotional poetry to a woman, but one he loves from afar.    One student has the two of them reflecting on their similar experiences.   Augustine’s most powerful moment was when opened the Bible at random and was touched by something written by Paul.   Petrarch had done the same with Augustine’s Confessions atop Mt. Ventoux.

Florence at the time of Machiavelli – the wealthiest city in Europe, yet surrounded by strife, corruption and discord

Machiavelli is the anti-Augustine.   He is a humanist and a realist.   Of course the Church and God is important, but one has to live in this world with humans who are, as all three agree, base in their nature.   Humans are wicked, sinful and unclean.

Augustine’s solution is to go to the mountains and live separate from the depravity and ruin, in monasteries where life is devoted solely to the spiritual.    Petrarch admired Augustine but fantasized about living in classical times.   He would carry on conversations with Cicero and others from the past, wishing he could be in a world where knowledge and culture were advanced and developed.   Machiavelli compartmentalized the spiritual in order to focus on the practical.

What impressed me is how the students got into the mindset of the era, be it the dilemmas of humanism, the impact of Aquinas and Aristotle, or the inherent tension in the methods of the Scholastics.   They managed to mentally put themselves into that time frame just before the reformation.

That’s important.  It is so easy to think “oh, they didn’t have science yet, they were backward…the Church is controlling everything, that’s wrong.”   That’s a view of someone in the present imagining those structures of thought imposed on the here and now.

If we judge history through a modern lens we fail to understand the fundamental questions and dilemmas that the people at the time grappled with.    We wouldn’t appreciate how their dilemmas were similar to issues we face now; these were intelligent people whose thinking was not so unlike our own.    Moreover, once we endeavor to understand the past in context, it’s easier to see the imperfections of our own reality.

When we get to the end of the course students have an assignment to write about the present the way an Honors class 400 years from now might see it.    What do we do that will be seen later as barbaric and ignorant?   War?   Chemicals in food?  Eating meat?

How will religion and science change?    Is the history of western civilization — and all other cultures — starting to merge into a global discourse?   Might the intellectual history of the West be bracketed — ending at some year when cultural merging makes such cultural distinctions impossible to maintain?

The goal of the course is for students to see their academic journey and their place in the world as part of an unfolding story.   How we think is shaped by our cultural past.    Even an atheist has views and understandings that can be traced back to thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther.    Instead of being in the present looking at a past whose sole purpose was to create this moment, we are part of an exciting unfolding of history, connected to the past and part of a future yet undiscovered.

And if one sees life that way, learning is not a chore, it’s fun.   Learning does not end when college ends, but one is motivated to continue exploring and understanding the exciting and riveting history unfolding.   Traveling to a city like Rome is not just visiting another place, but traveling through time as we connect with history.   We are not in a world of stress, distractions and emptiness, but are part of the most exciting story ever told — being told by voices across time and space, each voice as loud and important as our own.

That sense of wonder has shaped how I look at life and my place in it.   It provides a sense of wonder and awe that transcends daily routines.    As a teacher, my goal is to provide opportunities for students to make that same discovery.   These papers show evidence that these honors students are doing just that.

 

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Blame the Pollsters too!

The right envisions the election playing out very differently.

If you’ve been reading my “2012 Polls” page, linked above and on the left side of the menu, you know that I constantly up date and report new Presidential and Senate polls as they are released.     So I’ve been swimming in polls, and will keep this up until election day.

Lately the polls are showing a rather pronounced trend towards Obama.    In the swing states that were either tied or leaning slightly, Obama has built sometimes large leads.   Taking the average of recent polls, Obama leads in all the swing states:

Ohio:   Obama + 7
Pennsylvania:  Obama + 9
Florida: Obama + 4
Iowa:  Obama + 4
Colorado:  Obama + 5
Nevada:  Obama + 5
Virginia:   Obama + 4
North Carolina:  Obama + 3

In the national polls it’s the same story:

Pew:  Obama + 8
Gallup Tracking:  Obama + 6
Bloomberg:  Obama + 6
National Journal:  Obama + 7
GWU/Battleground:  Obama + 3
Rasmussen tracking:  tie

The polls have turned dramatically towards Obama in the week since the Romney fundraiser video came out.   Whether its a short term bump or a shifting of the race to one in which Romney emerges as noncompetitive is unclear.   If I were a national pundit worried about my reputation I’d put in all sorts of caveats about how the race is not over.  My gut tells me that absent some kind of major external shock, Obama’s got this thing in the bag.

However, people on the right would argue that I’m living in a fool’s paradise, feeling secure about an election in which Obama is trailing his challenger.   Just as the media got blamed for Romney’s campaign foibles, many now blame the pollsters for creating an illusion that Obama is ahead when he’s not.    One commentator at a different blog thought this was part of an insidious campaign to demoralize Republicans.   Rush Limbaugh claims that the pollsters are in cahoots with Obama’s campaign to try to end the election early because they fear the debates.

A website called unskewedpolls.com, which associates itself with Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Thomas Sowell and Dick Morris, says the polls have it all wrong.    In fact, Romney is actually winning this election handily.   Their average has Romney up by 7.8% as of September 20th, the date of their last update  (the chart at the top of this post).

Their argument is simple, and on its face plausible.  Pollsters should weigh party ID just as they weigh other demographic factors in calculating their results.   I admit, I thought they did that.   But I’ve learned that pollsters believe that it would warp the data tremendously and we couldn’t trust the results if party identification was treated like race or ethnicity.

One reason for that is given by Amy Fried in her blog Pollways:

Voter ID trends are fluid, often reflecting the person’s preferences at the moment for one candidate or the other.

In other words, if people are trending towards Obama, it’s likely more people will identify themselves as Democrats.  If Mitt Romney is unpopular, it hurts the Republican brand.

Yet what about Rasmussen?

Rasmussen is a solid pollster.   Yet in this and past election cycles, he’s often shown a clear partisan lean to the Republicans.   This is especially true during the campaign cycle.   Rasmussen does weigh for party identification, and if he’s using his recent August poll numbers as a guide, he has the population as being more Republican than Democratic.  That is in opposition to the trends noted above.

I don’t know how he weighs it – his methodology page simply says:   “After the surveys are completed, the raw data is processed through a weighting program to insure that the sample reflects the overall population in terms of age, race, gender, political party, and other factors.”

There are two problems with that.   First, his methodology is automated, meaning he is focused on landlines which tends to be a more Republican population anyway.   So his survey on voter ID may be skewed.   Second, his data showing more Republicans than Democrats is contrary to most other indicators out there.

But the argument people make for considering party identification isn’t without any merit.   While party identification may fluctuate, most people do not change parties.   How many Republicans or Democrats do you know that veer back and forth?   Yet that makes it even more problematic to think there are more Republicans than Democrats out there.  From exit polls, we can get a fair sense of what party identification in the US is like.

Trends from 1939 to 2009 show both stability and flux, it’s hard to imagine there are really more Republicans now given past trends

The argument by supporters of Rasmussen (and critics of most pollsters) is that 2008 was an anomaly, voters shifted to the Democrats in response to the mideast wars and the popularity of Barack Obama’s campaign.   Now Obama’s shine has faded and the 2010 off year elections make it wrong to use 2008 data to predict turn out – whether by voter identification or even demographics.

Pollsters seem to understand that, and from what I can gather most use a number of ways to get their likely voter sample.  They screen respondents and look at demographic factors from the last two Presidential elections.   It may be that the youth and minorities will be more likely to stay home in 2012, but how much?   The conventional wisdom in the GOP has been that they have an enthusiasm edge, and if Rasmussen is using that to weigh his data (having fewer blacks, youth, Hispanics, etc.) then that could explain his results.

Voter enthusiasm has been rising, especially among Democrats. The idea Obama supporters will sit this one out is unlikely.

Yet all indications are that the enthusiasm gap is shrinking, and at this time Obama is generating enthusiasm while Romney is floundering.    Quinnipiac released polls on Wednesday showing Obama up 12 in Pennsylvania, 9 in Florida and 10 in Ohio.    Politico called these numbers jaw dropping.  Public Policy Polling also showed Obama up 7 in Iowa.  It appears like there has been a real shift towards Obama.

Therein lies the real reason not to trust Rasmussen’s numbers:  Almost every pollster is showing a shift to Obama at the state and national level.     Rasmussen has stayed flat.   To me this suggests that if he is weighing for party identification and makes demographic assumptions that understate Democratic enthusiasm his methodology is getting in the way of recognizing the trend.

These are all pollsters who have been around for quite awhile and have a good track record, including Rasmussen.   Their reputation is on the line.   They’ve been doing this and refining their methodology for years.   Is it really plausible that they all are making the same systemic error, either by conspiracy or chance?   Moreover, why would that “error” suddenly appear in mid-September, after all the polls had shown a close race before hand?  The evidence suggests Rasmussen’s method is flawed – though he could change how he weighs data as the race continues if he concludes that party ID is not favoring the Republicans and that the enthusiasm gap is disappearing.

Blaming the media and trying to find ways to disregard the preponderance of polls are both symptoms of the same disease: a campaign in distress.

UPDATE:   One other point – the same trend is being seen in Senate races around the country.   Democrats have built leads in seats that looked vulnerable, and candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin (MA and WI) have gone from being underdogs to favorites.   This reinforces the idea that the election is trending Democratic.

UPDATE 2:  Nate Silver did a thorough analysis of Rasmussen after the 2010 election cycle and found empirical evidence that Rasmussen is biased towards Republicans, and did very poorly.

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The Stress of the Moment

I am usually a diplomatic person who tries to treat everyone with respect.  But I am sure there is at least one person who doesn’t see me that way today.

The morning routine here is good, but gets stressful towards the end.    Check the backpacks, get the boys to brush their teeth and comb their hair, and then load the car.  Then I have to get them to turn off the TV, get their shoes on and finally make it to the car.   They sometimes fight, forget things at the last minute, and some days like today we get a bit late start.

The ten minute drive into school was good though.  Dana (6) was singing as loud as he could to Dennis DeYoung’s “100 Years from Now,” while Ryan (9) explained his theories on Nerf guns.   I get to the Mallett school (K-3) and survey the scene.   Many parents pull over and park and walk their kids to the door.   Needing to get Ryan to Cascade Brook (4-6) school down the road, I look to see where I can pull over for a quick drop off.   I pass the cars on the side, watch for any blinking lights saying someone is pulling out, and then pull over.

Dana knows the routine.  He grabs his backpack, I get out and give him a quick hug.   The time the car stops to when I pull out is thirty seconds at most.   Only this time as I’m about to say good bye a young blonde woman comes up to me.

The scene. Cars pull up to the side, it’s very efficient, especially compared to Cascade Brook’s drop off/pick up

“I know you’re in a hurry,” she says politely, “but you’ve cut me off the last three days.”

I’m dumbfounded.  No way.   No way did I cut someone off today, or the last three days.   She’s wrong.   I say “Oh, OK,” and then turn to say goodbye to an amused Dana who runs off to school.

“I know you’re in a hurry, I just wanted to tell you…” she repeats.  I mutter an OK, look at my watch, see I’ve got less than five minutes before Ryan is tardy.  So I don’t look back and get in my car and drive away, feeling unfairly accused.

Of course, I realize as I drive to the second school that I handled it all wrong.  I should have smiled and said, “if I’m cutting you off I apologize, I really am careful to try to watch for other cars, but I’ll pay more attention.”    Seven seconds.  A friendly response to a polite complaint.  She’d have been happy, I’d have been proud of myself and no worries.

Instead, I spent some time indignant.  What?   Cut her off?  I don’t think so!   I watch carefully.   Perhaps she’s one of those who gets confused and stops and doesn’t do anything for awhile.  Of course I’d pass her if that’s what she does.   No way.   I’m a very good driver.   I take safety in front of the school seriously!

Then as I realized that I was letting my mood go to a dark place I suddenly knew I’d let stress cause me to to switch focus from the situation – the relation between me and a stranger – to myself alone.   I was being criticized in a stressful moment in front of my kids for something I didn’t think I did.   How dare she!

Of course, that’s a me-focus.   That happens in times of stress.   It’s wrong.   It’s defining a situation egotistically, as if the only person that mattered was me.   Instead I should have thought, “I really don’t think I did that, but she obviously does, she took the courage to come to me and talk politely, and I should respect that.   I can err, maybe I did drive in a way that could be seen as ‘cutting her off.'”

But, of course, the insight comes too late.   I acted like a hurried jerk, and she probably has a very negative opinion of me.

My take aways:  1) I have to remember this when others act rudely or brusquely to me.   Nine times out of ten people who behave as jerks are really decent people caught up in the stress of the moment, egotistically reading a situation as being “all about me” rather than relational.   I just got a reminder of how easy it was to fall into that trap, I have to show understanding when others do the same; and 2) I have to keep working on my own behavior.

I think most of my friends would have been surprised that I didn’t respond nicely to the lady – they’d say, “wow, that’s not the Scott I know.”   Yet while I may act that way a lot less than I did when I was younger, it still comes out.   I have to catch myself earlier, pull myself back and say “think of the other person and the situation, not just your own emotions.”

And I have motivation.   I was bothered by my moment of weakness all day, feeling regretful about being rude — not mean, I didn’t really say anything to her, I just brushed her off — and wishing I could replay that scene with behavior I could respect.

But hey – I can blog about it.   Who knows, maybe she’ll stumble on this blog.   Or, for those of who are reading this, keep in mind the next time someone responds rudely that it doesn’t mean he or she is a bad person.   Sometimes the stress of the moment brings out weakness.

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Blaming the Media

To the Romney campaign there is one reason their candidate is doing poorly: the media.

Perhaps the worst sign for Mitt Romney supporters is the obsession conservative pundits have with blaming the media for their candidate’s lack of popularity.  Blaming the media is always the last recourse of a campaign in distress, and on the right it’s been a kind of security blanket, helping them avoid confronting hard realities.  Rather than question whether or not their message resonates with American voters, they say it would if only the media would frame it correctly.

There’s a kind of disconnect when people who watch Fox news and listen to talk radio complain about media bias — indeed, what they’re really complaining about is that the media doesn’t share the Fox news bias!

Consider:  Mitt Romney’s leaked tape was a big story – one of the biggest in the campaign, coming just over six weeks before the election.   The attack in Libya was also big news, a small but deadly terror attack on the 11th anniversary of 9-11.   Both got play.   Tough questions were asked.

To the right: the media should be focused like a laser on Obama’s “crumbling narrative” about what happened in Libya.   At least that’s claim Mona Charen makes is an especially whiney and vapid article attacking the press as being pro-Obama.   So what is the “crumbling narrative?”   Well, to find that you have to read a right wing interpretation of the news, since it doesn’t come from the White House.

President Obama calls the attack in Libya a terrorist attack that was coordinated, and not a spontaneous response to a movie.    Beyond that they so far refuse to say more until they finish their investigation.    The White House has been pretty consistent on that, even if they did criticize the intolerance and dishonesty of a video which sparked protests in other parts of the Mideast.

But the right wants a crumbling narrative, so they construct it through a patchwork of quotes taken out of context, building an artificial narrative they then can ridicule.    Take a few quotes from the UN Ambassador, take another quote here or there from minor officials, ignore all the statements from the President and Secretary of State, and then claim that Obama says the attacks were purely in response to the video and weren’t terror attacks.

Huh?    Oh, it gets better.   They then take the President’s claim that overall this is a bump in the road in the process of change for the region and say Obama is heartlessly calling the death of a diplomat “a bump.”

To get the GOP narrative, you need The Onion!   Yet, Charen claims, that’s how the press should be focused.    Anything else is a pro-Obama conspiracy.

That’s it?   That’s proof the press is supporting Obama?   Oh, Charen says, there’s more – Obama made a gaffe in Poland a year or so ago by mistakenly saying “Polish death camps” on a visit.   I remember that, the press and conservatives skewered Obama for days.   But now, Charen whines, the press should be praising Romney for getting what was “basically” an endorsement from Lech Walesa, who stood up to Communism.   Instead, she complains, the press covered an outburst from a Romney aide.

If this is a vast conspiracy, why does she have to reach way back to July to find evidence?   And is she saying the press shouldn’t have covered the outburst?   Earth to Charen, you swear at reporters it’ll get covered regardless of who does it! But the press did cover Walesa’s comments.    She fails to mention that Walesa (who has some of his own scandals) did not have the support of his own party, whose leadership rejected Romney for his anti-labor stance.    That doesn’t fit the narrative Charen believes the press should follow.

It’s not just the right – critics on the left deride the media corporate shills

Either one of two things are happening.   If you’re a Romney supporter,  you better hope it’s the first.

1.   The Romney campaign knows things are going poorly so they’re trying to pressure the press to give them good coverage.   They want to get the press to tell things the way the Romney camp wants it told.

That’s fine, though Charen’s article makes a pretty poor case.   But if the perception gets created that the press is unfair, they might go more gently on Romney.   Can’t blame them for trying that – Kerry’s campaign made similar complaints in 2004.

2.   Romneyworld is so locked into its view of reality that it truly believes they are victims of a media conspiracy and don’t understand that their campaign is the problem.

If that’s happening, Romney is toast.    They’re getting poor coverage because they are running a bad campaign.   This is not controversial, pundit after pundit on the right has been saying the same thing.     They’re doing poorly because Romney is not a good candidate.   People don’t like him, he let himself get defined by the Obama team last summer and hasn’t done much of anything to define himself.

It’s a close race, but Obama has the lead.   If Romney’s going to turn it around he has to turn around his campaign.   A first move is to stop whining.   When you whine it reinforces the image that you’re losing.     More importantly, he has to show he’s a leader.   Right now Romney appears to be a follower – a moderate who has veered to the right because that’s what his campaign wants.   People don’t think he believes in anything or has clear principles.   He is, in essence, the anti-Reagan.

“Stop it. This is hard work. Do you want to try it?” Ann Romney’s words could also be said to defend the replacement refs in the NFL. It is hard. But right now the Romney campaign team is operating with the same quality of work that the replacement refs provide to the NFL.

Consider Romney’s own words:  “And I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran. They’ll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.”

(Whichever estate?)

Get it – the media should ONLY write about the economy, geopolitics, the threat of war, or Iran.   Covering the campaign or what the candidates say, do or plan is a distraction.   It doesn’t work that way, Mitt – it never has.  The media cover a myriad of topics, and when an embarrassing tape is leaked, they’ll cover it.    They covered Obama’s and Biden’s gaffes too.  Remember all the play the Biden “in chains” comment got?   These same critics and the Romney campaign were all over Biden for a week on that!  And who made an out of context “you didn’t build that” quote the center point of their convention?

No matter how the right pushes the “media conspiracy” line, it’s a sure loser.    It’s the Romney campaign’s fault that they’re in the position they are in.   Only they can change it.

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Travel Well, Live Well

The Duomo and Baptistery in Firenze

This coming May we plan on offering a travel course to Italy.   It will be the seventh time I’ve been part of a travel course to Italy with student.  I’ve visited Italy five other times, including the year I lived in Bologna while attending the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (from which I earned my MA).

Having just discovered some cool websites involving Italy including Margieinitaly, lovebeautyexperience,  and traveling foodie, I’m very engaged with planning of the trip.   I’m the “trip planner,” the one who makes arrangements and takes care of the finances (in exchange my colleagues take over a lot of excess work during the trip itself).

Venice has been described as a “thinking person’s Disneyland,” but it’s beauty is real

The trip is difficult to plan because of the numbers.   We routinely have 40 students and four faculty, flying into Venice and out of Rome.    Venice is not a major hub so to get inexpensive tickets for that many people requires booking early.

My colleagues:  Steve Pane (Music History), Sarah Maline (Art History) and Luann Yetter (Literature) are the other three faculty, and together we’ve created a tight, integrated interdisciplinary course that yields an academic experience unlike any I’ve encountered.   Not only are we “on the scene” when we talk about art, history, the Catholic Church, or Florence, but over the years we’ve amazed ourselves by how much we learn from each other.    We find connections between disciplines and perspectives, and develop those in conversations with students.  The trip is always an educational experience for us as well as for the students.  There’s always more to learn!

Luann Yetter near Santa Maria Nouvella, talking about Dante at the end of the “Dante walking tour.”

1.  Numbers and Recruitment.    While it may seem like we’d be more comfortable with fewer than forty students, the economics of such a course requires at least nine students for each faculty member at a minimum.   We’re now gathering e-mail addresses of perspective participants, communicating with students who might be interested, and Monday held an early meeting (with a slide show!)   Because the course has a reputation, we usually have a good number who really want to go — but getting to forty can be daunting.

2.  Hotels.   Hotels are a challenge with over 40 people.   Luckily we’ve made connections over the years.  We know of a good hotel in Venice, Agli Artisti, near the train station.   Our favorites are the FLorentine hotels Abacho and Giappone, just blocks from the Duomo.   The Florence hotels feature five flights of stairs and no elevator, but the people there are awesome – we’ve stayed there every time.   Rome varies.   We usually stay near the Termini train station because it’s convenient, but they don’t like booking large groups.   We often have to break the group up.   My strategy now is to inquire about smaller groups in a number of hotels located close to each other.

Here I am with students in a Florence park, a seminar about the themes of the course so far (students were divided in groups, faculty rotated)

3.   Money.   Every trip has had a balanced budget.   As “keeper of the finances” my task is to determine a travel fee (cost of airfare, hotels, internal travel, public transportation, airport service, and many museums and events) and keep it as inexpensive as possible.   We do pretty good.   We get group rate train tickets (much cheaper than the Italian rail passes we got our first time); with hotels we balance price and quality.   By quality I mean safety and cleanliness, we eschew luxuries!   Students bring their own money for meals and others (though hotels usually have breakfast).

The hard part – determining the price in September without knowing what the value of the Euro will be in May.   Sometimes, it makes things really tight.    Even pricing in a higher value things can shoot up, that happened a couple of times and it was a struggle to stay in budget.   Once, though, the Euro dropped pretty dramatically and we were able to have some group meals and extra day trips.

Not the best quality photo, but our friends at Hotel Abacha (via dei Banchi) in Florence surprised us with some bread and wine one evening

4.  Logistics.   Who is coming?   How many need a bus to the airport?   Can we pick people up at the Kennebunk rest area?   How early should we get to the airport?    Too early and people get bored, but we don’t want to risk a flat tire or traffic jam threatening our flight!   One thing I learned is that when you’re traveling with a big group, airlines treat you right.   They don’t want to rebook 40 people.

Once we flew Portland-New York-Rome.   Due to a weather delay we arrived in New York at the very time our Rome flight was to depart.  I was convinced we’d have to spend the night near JFK.   Nope – Delta had a bus next to plane just to get our group to our flight.  They had held it for us, gave us boarding passes as we entered, and the best part is that our luggage arrived on time too!   Another time in London British Airways switched to a bigger plane to rebook us to Vienna (on a Germany-Austria trip) after we missed our flight due to volcanic ash.

Vatican seminar – the history and politics of the Catholic Church is fascinating

Theme of the Course:  Travel well, live well.   Traveling well means to accept that problems will emerge.   Museums will be closed, trains will be late, we’ll get lost, we’ll miss out on something, and our feet will get blisters.

Some people get very annoyed when things don’t go as planned, they get mad at airlines, the trains, and people who seem to be mucking up their day.   Stress builds.   These people are not traveling well.   The key is to let it go, go with the flow.   No matter how bad it seems, you’ll have a story and things will work out.    Once a student forgot his passport at the hostel and had to miss the train from Florence to Rome.   We gave him instructions to catch the next one, but due to a change of platforms about three hours into his trip he noticed the Alps.   Ooops, not Rome.   But he made it.

Another student had a passport stolen, others have gotten ill, and we get lost and off schedule quite a bit!   Don’t let such things get the better of you, look at it all as an experience — enjoy and travel well!   My experience is that if you can travel well, those traits carry over into every day life.   Problems get solved, life goes on, and you collect experiences!

Still eight months to go, but already I’m thinking of Italy!

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2012: A Democratic Wave Election?

Conventional wisdom says that this election is destined to be close, if only because so many people have already made up their mind and are unlikely to be persuaded to change it.

I think the conventional wisdom is wrong.   I’ve been keeping track of daily polls on my 2012 Polls! page, and what I’m seeing causes me to think that the electorate may be tipping to the Democratic side in a level not unlike how the GOP scored in 2010.    That would mean a Democratic wave, not only securing a second term for President Obama, but also keeping the Democrats in charge of the Senate and perhaps endangering the GOP House majority.

Why I may be right

Obama is clearly up in every swing state but Florida (and most polls show Florida at least leaning Obama), and has even taken a lead in North Carolina, a state assumed likely for Romney.    Despite tracking polls that show a close race, more major polls show Obama opening up a 5 to 8 point lead on his challenger.    The well regarded Pew poll with a sample of over 2000 likely voters showed Obama up 8.    Nate Silver notes that pollsters who use live interviews and call cell phones as well as land lines are the ones that show a larger Obama lead.  These polls are generally regarded as more reliable.

Tammy Baldwin’s turn around in the polls is not a lone event, Democrats nation wide are showing strength in US Senate races

But it’s not just Obama.   All over the country there is a surge for Democratic Senate candidates.    Democrat Elizabeth Warren went from about five points down to Scott Brown in Massachusetts to being a few points up.   Most people thought Democrat Tammy Baldwin didn’t have much of a chance in Wisconsin against the popular former Republican Governor Tommy Thompson.   From being down near ten, she’s showing a consistent lead in the polls.

In states like Michigan, Ohio and Florida, where the Republicans thought they had decent shots at grabbing Democratic Senate seats the incumbents are starting to open up double digit leads.     The most likely GOP pick up earlier this year was Missouri, but thanks in part to Todd Akin’s missteps the Democrats look set to hold that seat.

The Democrats are defending 23 Senate seats and the GOP only ten. Yet current polls suggest the GOP may not pick up any net seats.

Not long ago the question about the Senate was how many seats the Democrats would lose and if they could keep control.  Now it’s possible they could gain seats.   If this is a true swing to the Democrats, this could impact House races and instead of winning the predicted 10 to 15 seats the Democrats could win 30 or more – enough seats are vulnerable that a wave could pull ones into play that people think are likely to stay Republican.

Finally, there doesn’t look to be anything that can change the dynamic, save some kind of external shock.   Mitt Romney has proven himself an extremely poor candidate, unable to arouse excitement or generate support.   He’s always been a weak candidate, the idea he’ll remake himself in the next six weeks hard to imagine.   On top of that reports today suggest that the vaunted Romney money advantage may not exist.   That’s been the one hope of the Republicans, that an ad blitz in the final month might pull their man over the top.   Now it looks like neither candidate will have a clear financial advantage, even when Super Pac money is calculated into the mix.

Why I might be wrong

The Rasmussen and Gallup tracking polls continue to show a tight race, and they may be right.   Moreover, this bump up in polling numbers for the Democrats may mean they are peaking too soon.   The Republicans have time to adjust and respond.   If this had come in the last couple weeks of the campaign, the GOP would be caught off guard.

While Obama and Romney may be tied in money, the Republicans have more to spend in Congressional races, and they’ve only begun to invest there.    Even if Obama is pulling ahead of Romney that’s just a sign of how bad a candidate Romney is; the economy and other factors still favor Republicans.    The Democrats may keep the Senate, but there is no sign that this is part of a larger wave spreading to the House.

Finally, the biggest reason I may be wrong is that the idea of a Democratic wave seems completely implausible given conditions in the country today.

Why a wave in 2012?

When unemployment is at 8.0%, the economy sluggish, and the incumbent Democratic President has a job approval rating of under 50%, how could the Democrats possibly have a good year?

Here’s how it could be playing out:  through the summer the public was willing to give the Republicans a shot.   Mitt Romney had a reputation as a moderate, and people considered breaking with Obama.   However, Romney’s been an unbelievably weak candidate, dogged by constant missteps.    He insulted the British during a trip abroad designed to show his foreign policy credibility, he couldn’t put aside controversy over his taxes, and Obama’s team engineered a successful summer ad campaign defining Romney as a secretive plutocrat.   Then the conventions juxtaposed an angry and pessimistic Republican gathering with an upbeat, optimistic and even celebratory Democratic one.

Instead of an optimistic forward looking vision, the GOP came off as extreme, angry and warned that our best days may be behind us

Side by side, the Democrats spoke to centrists and average Americans while Republicans preached to the converted.   Add to that Romney’s Libya reaction and the leaked tape, and the public developed a distaste for a Republican party that seemed angry, a bit mean spirited and pessimistic.   Meanwhile, Democrats disappointed by Obama’s inability to bring about the change they desired became enthused about the election thanks to a strong convention and a desire not to let the Republicans win.

Clinton’s speech at the Democratic national convention spoke to independents and aroused Democratic enthusiasm

And the economy?   Most people aren’t suffering.   Disposable income is rising.  People aren’t going to vote on the basis of the jobs report or unemployment rate.   They’ll vote on how things feel to them.   They also recognize how bad things were in 2008, and still blame the Republicans.   By not offering a new vision for the future, the GOP forfeited their chance to argue that they are a force for change in 2012.

The result: a possible Democratic wave, caused less by the Democrats’ success or popularity than by a Republican failure to offer a new, persuasive and optimistic vision of what America could become with their leadership.    At this point some of the most vicious attacks on Romney are coming from conservatives and Republican insiders.

In short, campaigns matter, especially if one side runs a very, very bad campaign with a weak candidate.

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An unforgettable train conversation

Some of my most memorable conversations have taken place on trains in Europe

It was January 25, 1992 and I had just spent a few days with students from St. Olaf College, helping out on a “global semester” course run by Professor Rod Grubb.   I was living in Bonn, working on my dissertation, and had been hired by Professor Grubb to come help out as he led 15 students around the world, with a January stop in Berlin.   The students were great as we explored old East Berlin, not yet rebuilt or remodeled — a Berlin that is now gone.

I had to take the train back to Bonn, buying the German newsweekly Der Spiegel and finding a compartment that was empty.   Nowadays European trains tend to have open seating, much like airplanes.  In those days they were generally divided in compartments of six seats, three people facing three others.

Those compartments yielded some of the most memorable conversations of my life.  I recall once spending a night in deep conversation with four others on an overnight train from Bologna to Munich.    I chatted with a girl from Austria who got pulled from the train by the police when we crossed over into Germany.   Seems she had a striking resemblance to a female terrorist – she said she got pulled aside almost every time she crossed from Austria to Germany.   I developed a crush on her, got her address, but never saw or heard from her again.

Three seats like this were across from three other seats, often fostering conversation between strangers, and even lasting friendships

On this January day I was anticipating an uneventful trip.   However, soon my compartment was invaded by three talkative elderly women.    I had a window seat and buried myself in Der Spiegel as the train zoomed westward.    At some point one of the women was having trouble putting a bag onto the luggage rack above.   I stood up and offered to help, and she was very thankful.    She asked where I was heading, and I told her Bonn.   I think she could tell my accent was not German so she asked if I lived there.   Yes, I said, but only for this year, as I was actually a student from Minnesota studying in Germany.

She started asking me about Minnesota and my impressions of Germany.   It was a pleasant conversation, and the other women joined in.   At some point I mentioned Germany history, and the false impressions Americans had of Germany because of war movies and images of Hitler and the Nazis.

“I…” one woman said, looking at her colleagues, “we lived through that.”   She paused.

“What was it like?”   It was probably not a politically correct question, as Germans tend to be very sensitive about that era of history.   Yet I was curious.   My German Professor in college, Gerhard Schumutterer, had been in the Germany army in WWII.    We would ask him what he had thought about Hitler and what it was like to be in the German army.   I don’t think we realized how sensitive such inquiries were.   He’d answer patiently, noting that while he believed at the time Germany was right, he had been living in New Zealand with his missionary parents when he was called to the army.

My old German Prof, Gerhard Schmutterer (1919 – 2005), who I thank for getting me to fall in love with the German language and culture.

His father had connections in the Lutheran church and arranged to have him come study at Augustana College in Sioux Falls (where he would later teach until he retired) right after the war.    He said the first night he arrived he was tired and taken to his new dorm room.  Turns out the next day was a big football game with South Dakota State University.   The tradition then was that SDSU students would come and try to break into dorm rooms and paint the faces of students red (SDSU’s colors were red and white).    He hadn’t locked his door, heard screaming, leapt up remembering his time fighting on the Russian front, and when they broke into his room and painted his face red he was sure the Russians had invaded.   What a way to wake up in a new country!

So I wanted to hear the experiences of these women as we traveled across Germany on a non-descript winter day.   The most engaging and insightful woman told me how she was born in Lotsch, Germany and her parents had been supporters of the Catholic party and not too enthused about Hitler.   Yet, she recounted how under the Nazis the economy boomed and pretty soon Germans felt proud be German again.

Raised to be patriotic and proud of their country, most Germans thought it self-evident they were on the side of good in World War II

The others agreed — the newsreels at the cinemas would compare Germany’s economic growth in the mid-thirties with the depression in the West, and many Germans felt that they were unified and moving forward.   Other voices were silenced.    One woman recounted how her brother became an enthusiastic member of the Hitler youth, and though he was young wanted to fight to the very end when the war was finally over.   “He never fully recovered,” she said, “he still deep down is a Nazi.”

They started talking with each other, stories about that era – rationing, what happened in the schools, what their parents were doing, friends they lost and how convinced they were that the war had been forced on Germany because others were jealous of their economic success.   One talked about a priest who was genuinely conflicted, believing in Germany and disliking the war and censorship.

They told me of how hard it was after the war, how one who lived in the East hid in a haystack from Russian soldiers who were raping German women and girls.   They talked about how unreal it seemed.   Propaganda had convinced them of their superiority, but now allied troops occupied their towns.

I asked about the holocaust.   One woman insisted it was a shock to her and if she had known she never would have supported the war.  Another woman was more sober.  “I didn’t know about it,” she said, “but I knew Jewish people were disappearing.   People said they were immigrating, not wanting to be part of the National Socialist state.   I think we believed that because we wanted to.  But we could have known.   All the signs were there.   We closed our eyes.”

The first woman disagreed, but the other nodded her head.   They were clearly uncomfortable.   I realized that their war experiences were not that much different than those of the French or British — citizens are brought along for the ride, manipulated and used by leaders with their own agendas.

Now high speed trains are comfortable and open. I miss the old compartments.

They exited in Dortmund.   As they got off the train one of them grabbed my arm.  “I have never talked about this in this way or in so much detail.   Not even with my children or grandchildren.”    I nodded, unsure what to say.   “Thanks, I’ve enjoyed the conversation,” I responded.  She smiled.   “Enjoyed?”   She smiled again, shaking her head, “have a wonderful time in Germany, I’m so glad we had a chance to talk.”

I watched them get off the train and walk away as the train left the station.   I thought about my German professor, and how thankful I was that he inspired me to learn the German language.   Without that, I could never have had that kind of conversation.    I also realized that history looks clear in hindsight, but while it unfolds there are numerous shades of gray.    I can’t blame them for not seeing the evil that Hitler represented, nor can I be confident any of us won’t be fooled by someone who promises prosperity and claims war is being forced on us.

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