Sunday, March 27, 2005

What Is a Journalist?

I'm a journalist by trade but I consider myself by the more generic term "writer" so that I can include my other ambitions as a novelist, essayis, playwright, screenwriter and occasional haikuist. I find the broad term "writer" appealing because, while it's more pleasant to write some things than others, depending on my mood, my inner beast tends to be well fed by any of those activities. Most of the writers I really admire, like Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, were adept at writing in multiple forms. Everybody has a favorite form and all of those men were novelists primarily, but they could do just about anything and three of them actually made a living as working journalists at one point or another.

So what maks journalism different? Most will tell you that it means you work for a known news source. But, remember, there's no such thing as an "accredited" news source, though you'll see that term thrown around. You don't need a special license to start a newspaper or magazine and you can go to your cable access station and get yourself a half hour weekly news cast right now, if you so desire. I work for Forbes Magazine and people know what that is. That helps me get my phone calls returned, among other advantages, but it doesn't make my work more "journalism."

There is, for course, a sense of a journalist's ethic you must follow. Even if you write an opinionated, essayistic form of journalism, you must fairly understand and present the side of the argument that undermines your thesis. You don't call a person a crook without giving them ample opportunity to dissuade you and, if they can't, without giving them ample opportunity to convince your reader that your thesis is wrong.

But, I don't gather that Bill O'Reilly does that, and he's considered a journalist. On the left, Maureen Dowd doesn't do that and she's a journalist. So, even though I consider the ethic above important and, indeed key to doing journalistic work and feeling good about yourself when you have to report sour news, it isn't integral to what we, as a society, consider a "journalist."

What's most often discussed these days is the question of where bloggers fit in. I consider this blog to be an exercise in short, news-related essay writing. Now, aside from the fact that I don't get paid, it's hard to see how this is any different than the work done by a newspaper op-ed columnist. If they're the press, than so am I. And, so are you, if you want to be.

On strike against bloggers on this is the lack of editorial control. This will be posted because I want it to be posted, not because some greater authority has told me that it's worth reading or that it's not riddled with logical errors and false assertions. But, again, is the live television or radio journalist constrained like that? They say what they say, they don't get approval for their every utterance. I suppose they could be retroactively fired. But, I could be sued for libel if I printed something maliciously false about somebody here. I could also find myself blogging to no one (shall we call that "blogging off") if I destroy my credibility with the few readers I have. So, it's not like this is without some consequence.

Anybody can be a "journalist." Being a good one is another matter and I won't bore you with what I think that entails, though I will point out that it's as subjective as trying to be a "good" poet.

I have a feeling that when we established the rights of "free press" in the Constitution that it was meant to mean everybody. Throw your wares into the market place of ideas and see if you get anywhere. What's a journalist? Just somebody who wants to help others make sense of it all, really. Just a subset of "writer."

This little note was inspired by this on Atrios.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Worst. Vigilante. Ever.

A guy tried to steal guns from a gun shop in order to arm himself to go rescue the ailing Ms. Schiavo.

If you have to steal a gun to be a vigilante... don't quit your day job.


Forbes on Fox tomorrow, 11 am eastern, I'll be on discussing whether or not the death of Bush's Social Security proposal is good for the stock market. I argue that it is because the trillions in debt taken on to create private accounts would spook the market. I also finally said something I always wanted to say:

I implied that raising the social security tax by 2% would, as the trustees say, solve the problem. Steve Forbes, sitting next to me, said that adding money to the fund is just adding money to a fund that politicians will raid for other purposes. He's right. But, I said, not funding a program just because our representatives are irresponsible is no answer. Then, what came out of my mouth was, "by that logic, we might as well dissolve the government." And Steve said that might not be a bad idea. When we went off the air, Steve and I had a good laugh that we had shared an "anarchy moment" seemingly calling for the end of government in all forms. And, I never thought I'd have an anarchy moment with Steve Forbes, but, that's actually the kind of guy he is. I'm so lefty and he's so righty that he and I tend to come full circle whenever we talk. I never would have guessed that, back before I knew him and watched him run for President twice.

I think I've learned one other thing about TV and if you see this, let me know what you think... I used to memorize a lot of "hard" numbers before I went on the air. But I now have the feeling that saying "trillions in debt" is more effective on television, than saying "$7 trillion in debt." All in all, I feel like I'm loosening up on the show and that I'm getting my points across better because of it. Journalistic writing demands exactitude. TV seems to punish it. I think. I'm still new at this!

And now for something, completely indifferent...

I've decided this is a new feature of the blog. I will quickly discuss a news story or issue that I don't care about.

This week it's: Karen Hughes, former Bush spinmeister, hired to put a happy face on our policies in the Middle East.


Monday, March 21, 2005

A New Columbine... A New National Freakout?

So, it's happened again, this time on what's described as a remote Indian reservation -- a discontented student, described as a goth, killed his grand parents, took his guns to his high school and, in a unique solution to the problem of metal detectors, rammed his pick-up truck into the entrance, shot a security guard, a teacher, five students and himself.

I'm skipping the necessary mourning period and gruesome details to cut right to the chase. Here's the telling quote in the "color" piece that I linked to: "Another school worker described Wiese as "a mixed-up kid who seemed lost in life. He wasn't into normal things that kids should be. But I work with a lot of mixed-up kids who don't shoot people."

A very smart school worker, really. I'm amazed that he or she had the presence of mind to point out that a lot of mixed up people don't do things like this.

But, as I remember the aftermath of Columbine, I remember a sense of persecution against abnormal kids -- seemed like every weird one was potentially dangerous, all of the sudden. And, they're not.

I mean, who reading this was really, "into normal things that kids should be."

Honestly, ten people are dead. It will have to be dealt with. But let's keep perspective going forward.

Equal Treatment Under the Law

Well, if we've learned one thing this weekend, it's that your congress really works for you! Seriously, next time you have a problem, call your congressman immediately. Demand that the Senate and House meet in an emergency session to pass a law against whatever's bothering you, right away! It doesn't even have to be a matter of life and death, as it was this weekend. Congress is now in the business of passing laws that are meant to affect just one person (there are people in similar situations to Schiavo who are, for some reason, unaffacted by the Schiavo bill). If that's the way they want to govern... well, we're all entitled to equal treatment by our government officials. So make congress work for you! I think they're going to have to set up a hot line or something.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Hey Tom Delay... Bite Me!

Do we pay these people to insult us?

Look at what Tom Delay had to say about Michael Schiavo, a private citizen who has committed no crime:

"I don't have a whole lot of respect for a man that has treated this woman in this way," Delay said. "What kind of man is he?"

He's a man who, as a representative of the American federal government, that you're supposed to serve, Tom. It's okay for our representatives to disagree with private citizens and to express that disagreement, but those expressions should always be made with the respect that our government owes to its people. When last I checked, the people provide the government its power, after all.

And Delay... to insult a guy in a forum where he gets to response and where he's not around to take your head off over what you said... well, what kind of man are you? I'm gonna go with "cowardly bully."


I didn't really want to blog so much about the Schiavo case, which I consider to be a private family matter that is emotionally wrenching but that has already been decided in the proper venue of the Flordia state court system.

So, this is not an entry about her, about her family, or about anyone's point of view about either this specific case or euthanasia or even the medical system in general.

What has me concerned is that the entire Federal government has mobilized over this very specific, individual issue. The first thing that disturbs me about this is that I've always viewed legislative authority as something to be practiced in the abstract. You pass a law against murder, not against murdering a specific person or against one specific murderer. I think we all agree that lawmaking must work that way, right? Heck, that's what ensures that people get equal treatment under the law. This push by the government to insert itself into the Schiavo case seems to fly against that basic principle.

My second objection is that two branches of the Federal government have decided that, in the face of a court decision that its members don't like, that they're going to call a "do over." That's a dangerous precedent, isn't it? Now, they keep saying that all they want to do is to let a federal court decide. But does this mean that any time a state court makes a decision that the government doesn't like that it will change the rules in order to find a more favorable venue?

And, what if the Federal court agrees with the state court in this case? Will the House, Senate and White House stop? Or will they try to invalidate the decision of that court?

The government is supposed to act based on broad principle. In this case, it is trying to micromanage society. And that's dangerous.

Here's some good information on the impact of this little debate from Atrios at the Eschaton blog.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Respecting life, but only if you're rich!

Oh. Seems like Bush had previously signed a law that allows hospitals to discontinue life-support treatment for incurable patients, against the wishes of a patient's family, if they can't afford to pay for care.

Here's the link to the Eschaton blog, with more information.

I guess we should always "error on the side of life." Unless you're poor.

Against Balanced Budget Rules...

Democrats are chortling right now because the Paygo bill, which would require that tax cuts or spending increases be offset by either budget cuts or new revenues, failed in the Senate a few days ago.

And, given, there are people who want to choke the government out of existence by cutting taxes, increasing spending, and thus making government programs unaffordable.

And, granted, on the other side, there are people in congress who want to increase spending (especially for their states or regions) without having to raise taxes.

But, these "balanced budget" rules are still a bad idea and here's why...

Debt isn't always bad. It can be used constructively. For example, let's say you go into debt to build the interstate highway system. You've gone into debt, sure, but you've made an investment that will pay off big time in the future. I'd argue that wiring the entire country to broad band would, as with the highway example, be a project worthy of taking on debt for. To take it to a personal level, think about buying a home. You go into debt for that. But, generally, the benefits of property ownrship make it worthwhile in the long-term. Not only is the home likely to increase in value, but your earnings are likely to increase over the course of you paying off the debt that you took on to buy it, so, the sting of payments will even lessen over time.

Debt can be used wisely, is all I'm saying. Most of the time, individuals, and the government, don't use it wisely. But, they can. And, they should. Look at corporate America. Companies borrow money all of the time in order to finance big capital developments (like building a new factory) that will, over the term of the debt, create more profits than the debt costs. Debt is a tool. We shouldn't be supporting laws that take that tool out of the tool box. We should, rather, be demanding that our politicians spend debt money on investments that will pay greater returns than the cost of the debt incurred.

Debt isn't bad. The way we tend to use debt is.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Ugh. Ghoulish.

I know that issues like euthanasia are divisive and we've all got our own feelings on the matter. And I as, a socially libertarian leaning sort believe -- But, blah, blah, blah, right?

I'm really a lot more concerned that Republicans in the Senate and House tried to swoop into a family dispute down in Florida. A dispute which was settled, by the way, where family disputes are supposed to be settled -- in court.

If anybody inside or outside of government wants to debate euthanasia or "the right to die" or anything like that, well, fine. Debate away. Write some bills, put them in front of the American people, as with anything else. But there's something ghoulish about the way our government acted today. The Senate and House tried grandstanding in the face of sorrow. And, yes, so did people who protested, held up signs or otherwise got themselves involved not in an abstract issue but in a family's life.


On a happier note, if you don't usually read the comments on this blog, check out Sam's ( latest, in response to my post about the DLC Campaign Strategy. He said it better than I did.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Read What You Might Loathe

Jonathan Chait of The New Republic, makes a great point while guest blogging on today.

Look, all, it's too easy to fall into the trap of reading, hearing and watching only those people who have a point of view that appeals to you. I'm guilty of it.

At the same time, I also read the very right wing op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal every day. Admittedly, I get the Journal for free, but, still... it's good to read the other side. It's good to read critically.

I love The New Republic, by the way. It's a great magazine. It has idealogical flaws, as defined by my own biases. They were anti-Dean, they were pro-Iraq invasion, they are almost without pity or sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and they'll generally back Israel to an almost fanatic degree. However, I also realize, when reading the magazine, that hey, Dean is a problematic guy (much as I like him) and that there were reasonable arguments to be made for taking out Saddam (he's a butcher and genocidal maniac) and that as much as I feel badly for the Palestinians, those of us on the left don't always really understand the history of the region.

And where has this left me? I'm still glad Dean is president of the Democratic National Committee. I still think we were wrong to invade Iraq and, yes, I still think that the Palestinians got screwed when Israel was created, but... I don't feel like any of those conclusions exist because I've used a "straw man" to represent the other side of the debate.

You have to read ideas hate if you want to be a critical thinker and you have to read those ideas with as open a mind as possible.

Al From & Bruce Reed and their "phony" issues.

Democratic Leadership Council leaders Al From and Bruce Reed want wishy-washy mush-mouthed Democrats to run for office!

In an article headlined "What We Stand For" in the DLC magazine Blue Print, From and Reed write:

"The last two elections were all reflex, all the time -- deflecting Republican charges on same-sex marriage, guns, and abortion. The best way to stop having the same old phony debate on cultural issues is to force a real one on issues that matter: strengthening families, helping parents teach kids right from wrong, coupling rights with responsibilities, and asking all Americans to give something back to their country."

Whatever you believe about same-sex marriage, gun control or abortion, I think we can all, on the right and left, agree that these are real issues that are not in any way phony. Women either have a right to abortions or they don't. Same-sex couples either have a right to marry or they don't. The government either has vast powers to regulate gun ownership or it doesn't. How are these issues phony?

I suspect what's really going on here is that From and Reed want Democrat candidates to avoid giving direct answers to these questions (and thus lose the votes of people who disagree with them) and to instead blather on about "helping parents teach kids right from wrong," which sounds nice but doesn't actually mean anything.

Let's look at their other prescriptions:

"Strengthening families." Again, sounds great, but what does it mean?

"Coupling rights with responsibilities." Uh-hum, yeah, so? Which rights? With what responsibilities? Aren't rights already coupled with responsibilities?

"Asking all Americans to give something back to their country." Right. Like what? Taxes aren't enough? So, what do you want us to give back? I'll probably even do it. But you have to ask for something, not mouth platitudes at me.

The debate on cultural issues isn't phony. In fact, it's full of very direct questions like, "What's acceptable content for broadcast television?" or "Can you take that Ten Commandment monument off the courthouse lawn, please?" I dare say that voters on either side, who might ask a question like that of a candidate, would appreciate a direct answer (even if it's not what they want to hear) and would be pretty ticked off if the answer came back, "I want to strengthen American families by teaching morals to children and coupling rights with responsibility."

How stupid do From and Reed think voters are?

No War in Iraq?!?

In the spirit of not just picking on the more conservative, New Democrats... Just got off the subway at Union Square, where an enthusiastic hippie woman yelled "Say No to the War In Iraq!" right in my face and tried to hand me a flyer for some gathering of some sort.

Uh... Okay.

Never mind that the "war in Iraq" argument ended, oh, when we invaded Iraq in 2003. Maybe she wants the troops out now? Well, that would be bad. Reasonable people on all sides know that we have to clean up the mess we made.

But, I doubt I need to convince you all of that. It's not that her ideas are wrong it's that they're making us on the left look like idiots. See, this is why people dismiss the crowd or the Michael Moore crowd, and though I'm pretty sure that both Moore and Moveon realize we have to stay in Iraq until it's stable, I have a feeling that people like this flyer-waving woman are creating the impression in mainstream America that the progressive left is in as much of a fantasy world as the neocon right.

Let's pick our battles, people. The bankruptcy bill would have been a good one. Social Security reform is a good one. Keeping us out of yet another war with the likes of Syria or Iran would be a worthy goal. As for Iraq, we should be advocating the best result for a bad situation. Those of us who were against the war should always remind people that our troops were sent without our consent, but since the deed's been done, we should be holding our government to its promise by making sure that a stable democracy is not only created there, but that we will respect its independence.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Hillary Clinton turns prude!

Let's all shriek together... "But what about the children?"

That's what Hillary is doing and the New Democrats are backing her. See, she's worried that the V-Chip isn't enough anymore (heh, did anybody ever actually use that turkey?) and Hill, priming for a centrist position so she can run for president in 2008, wants to do something about... well, in her words, here's the problem: "Just a decade ago, we made great strides to keep children away from inappropriate material. But we face a complex new world. All across our country, kids today are playing increasingly violent video games while sending instant messages to friends and strangers online and listening to music they've downloaded on their I-Pods. How does a parent today who wants to protect their child from violent or explicit content have a chance?"

Here's the answer, Hillary -- access to greater amount of content will make the kids in, what you guys are lamely calling "Generation M(edia)," more savvy, more mature, smarter and more interesting than generations prior.

Information fights to be free, folks. Even to minors. But, the thing is, information isn't warping, it's enlightening. Sheltering a young generation isn't the answer. Let them see what they want. Parents are just going to have to make time to dicsuss what's been seen.

I know that a lot of free speech advocates (and I'm worse, I'm a free speech absolutist) say it's okay to protect minors. But, in the end, there's no real way to protect minors without limiting the content available to adults. Look at the movie industry. The MPAA rates movies and, unfairly, only has parents on the ratings committee, as if the views of people without kids don't matter. The natural market response, in Hollywood, is to tone down content in movies. Why? Because a PG movie is acceptable for a much larger audience than an R-rated movie is. The decisions made by directors and writers -- actual artists -- wind up being second-guessed by non-artists and the money issue creates an incentive for producers to give in to non-artist pressure, often against the wishes of the people who actually made the movie.

Is that right? I say it's "soft censorship." It's not compulsory by law, but it is compelled by a market manipulated by prudes. And... that sucks.

Stop making this kind of thing an issue, Hillary. What kids download on their iPods is not a matter for the federal government to be concerned with. Get back to the real issues like Social Security, the deficit and our messed up foreign policy.

The Bull Moose for Lieberman

Marshall Whitman, of the Democratic Leadership Council, would like us to stop picking on "Traitor Joe" Lieberman.

But, is there anything in his defense of Lieberman that, um, actually defends Lieberman?

Seriously, BM, if Lieberman is so important to the party, why don't you say why? I see a social prude and shill for the financial services industry who was part of a failed presidential ticket in 2000 and made a ludicrous, hopeless run himself in 2004.

What's to like about this guy?

I'm Wary of a "Religious Left."

The NewDonkey tells us that there's an emerging "religious left" at work, and while I can see the strategic advantages of having a thriving one, I am skeptical about it. We're a secular republic, after all and while religion is a major part of our society and while it will certainl influence government, I can see all sorts of potenial schisms here, along the lines of the schisms within the Republican party between the free-market conservatives, the libertarian conservatives and the religious conservatives.

Obviously, the Republicans have done a great job of bringing all of those factions together.

And there are places where liberal values and religious values meet. For example, one could interpret God giving man "dominion over nature" as a call to environmental responsibility.

However, the point of our society is that we don't live by any interpretation of "God's law." The Constitution allows you to do things that the Bible doesn't. Religious liberals absolutely must have a "live and let live" attitude with regards to social issues. The Religious Right doesn't have that. It'd be nice to believe that, by virtue of their being liberals, this won't be an issue. But there are already so many Democrats, in the old labor states particularly, who really have a conservative cultural sensibility, so this can't be taken for granted.

Thosethingswesay on Slate!

Slate's "Today's Blog" feature, by David Wallace-Wells quoted my entry about the fracas at UNC Chapel Hill on March 7th and I didn't notice. Here's the link, for anyone interested in thosethingswesay's Slate debut.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Traitor Joe and the DLC

All right, I've been heaping too much scorn on Joe Lieberman. So what about the influential Democratic Leadership Council and their silence in the face of the Senate's passage of the Bankruptcy Bill that protects millionaires but turns working families into indentured servants?

Here's the only post on the matter from the DLC"s blogger, Ed Kilgore

Yup, two lines of protest, after the vote's finished. Nice to know you all care!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Bankruptcy Bill Passes, Lieberman Votes "Nay" but...

The bankruptcy bill, which protects millionaires but leaves average people stuck in debt, passed the senate today. Turncoat Joe Lieberman voted against it. BUT, he voted for "cloture" which is what sent the bill to the floor of the Senate for a straight up and down vote in the first place. Now, Joe damned well knew that the bill would pass in a straight up and down vote. Hell, there are people in Surinam, with no interest in American politics at all who knew what was going to happen. Anybody who really opposed the bill, doing simple match about the Republican majority in the Senate, knew that the bill could only be defeated by courageous obstruction while it was still being debated and still open to substantive ammendment.

Last time this bill came around, New York Senator Chuck Shumer added a clever ammendment that would require anti-choice abortion protesters who had broken the law and been fined, to pay their judgments even if they went bankrupt. That ammendment killed the bill. By voting for cloture, which means that the bill went to a straight yay or nay vote with no ammendments, Joe Lieberman voted for the bill, no matter what he did afterwards. Yes, it's all stupid Senate procedural stuff I'm writing about, but... that stupid procedural stuff matters. In fact, that stupid procedural stuff is the weapon of the minority party and Joe damned well knows it. So, whatever he says, Joe voted for this bill. He helped pass it. Never forget that.

Lieberman isn't the only turncoat Democrat to vote for cloture, or who helped this bill pass. I'm singling him out because, as a former vice presidential nominee, and as a former candidate for President, he is a national, rather than local, figure. He owes us more than this. Joe, who's side are you on? Just be honest, Joe. I actually like people who's convictions differ from mine... when they admit it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Joe Lieberman, Traitor to the Working Class

So, it happened. Joe Liberman finally betrayed the Democrats in a demonstable way. Right now, headed towards passage, is a bill that will reform the bankruptcy laws, making it harder for working people in trouble to protect their assets and earnings against credit card companies.

The Credit Card Lobby (new name, new capital letters!) has been pushing this despite the fact that bankrupcties that erase credit card debt don't hurt them. The top players in that industry logged more than $30 billion in profits last year, so it ain't an industry in trouble.

The bill at handhas no exemption for families who have to go bankrupt because of surprise medical expenses. But it does contain a provision to allow millionaires to declare bankruptcy and yet still shield their assets in trusts. Ever wonder how it is that bankruptcy would be a disaster for you but that Donald Trump can declare it numerous times and still be a tycoon? Well, this bill makes it harder on you and easier on Trump.

There was a big fight over the last few days, with Senate Republicans and other Credit Card Lobby Bitches (new name, new capital letters!) trying to get the bill ready for an up and down vote. They voted for "cloture" today, meaning that the bill is no longer open to substantive ammendments. In and up and down vote, the bill will surely be passed.

Joe Lieberman, traitor to the working class, voted for cloture.

Why do the Democrats put up with this guy?

Oh, and, let's not forget, Lieberman is at the head of a movement to compromise with Bush on Social Security... he wants to do this even though Bush is losing that fight. Great job, Joe! Keep trying, you'll be a Republican sooner or later!

Monday, March 07, 2005

Peter Beinart, smart but wrong...

In a very smart column, urging Howard Dean to pursue the military vote for Democrat office-seekers, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, writes:

"Democrats should acknowledge that at times the left's understandable anger over Vietnam degenerated into a lack of respect for the military. And they should make amends in very practical ways -- most significantly, as the Progressive Policy Institute's Will Marshall has pointed out, by shaming America's colleges and law schools into letting the military recruit on campus. Liberal students, faculty and administrators have the right to criticize the Pentagon's discriminatory policies toward gays and lesbians. But it is outrageous for them to treat the U.S. military -- especially in a time of war -- as a pariah."

I can't stress this enough -- Democrats can't compromise on civil rights issues and they can't condone bigotry in any form. To do so, even if it is politically expedient now, will only cause shame and embarassment later on. Sometimes, you have to endure tough consequences to do the right thing. If a private company declared publicly that it would not hire gays and lesbians, and made a real issue out of it, the way the military does, then I dare say that most Univerisites would NOT allow them to recruit on their campuses.

Beinart brings up the "especially in a time of war" issue. Well, especially in a time of war, the military probably shouldn't be disqualifying potential recruits based on who they sleep with.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Back on campus...

I have to admit something ugly to you all. Back in high school, around the time of the LA Riots, around the time where "political correctness" rose to become part of the lingua franca, I was an avid opponent of affirmative action. I mean, really avid. And, I wasn't alone. As I recall, my opposition stemmed from two things: 1) a belief that people have the right to do whatever they want, even if it's stupid and racist and 2) my own self interest as a white guy about the enter the real world. Damnit, (redneck voice) I didn't want no minorities takin' my jobs!

I went to a sheltered private high school that I still think well of but that was, as I just said, sheltered. Then I went to a public university, got a taste of what people actually face in life and my views were modified.

I still think people have the right to be stupid racists, in the abstract. I'm a firm believer in freedom of thought and even in freedom of idiotic thoughts. But, I realized that "equality of opportunity" is largely a myth in the US and that it's a problem that must be rectified. Affirmative action laws, hate crimes laws and anti-discrimination laws are an imperfect, but important part of bringing people onto an equal playing field. As for my second, immature rationale... it turned out to be rather pathetic. It's easy to claim that, when you don't get something you want, you got screwed for one reason or another. But whoever looks at the things they do get but don't deserve? And, who was I, as a solidly middle class American youngster to complain in advance?

But, I was, in high school, an avid activist for the Ayn Rand "do it your damned self" view of life. And I remember one day that Jonathan Kozol, a liberal writer about education policy, came to speak to us. I mouthed off to him (don't remember what I said) and he remarked that conservatives were doing a much better job of mobilizing vociferous high schoolers than liberals were. This was in like 1991 or 1992, remember. And note who's running our government now.

While I abandoned most of my high school beliefs, everyone around me didn't. One classmate went on to college and tried to forcibly integrate an engineering society for black students. He's now a lawyer, member of the Federalist Society, and the type of guy who, if, down the road, the political stars line up, gets nominated to the Supreme Court.

I bring all this up because of this story about a fraternity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill which has successfully, so far, resisted campus rules that require frats there to have a non-discrimination policy when selecting members. They seem to want to ban homosexuals and non-Christians.

The old me would have wondered why homosexuals and non-Christians would want to be part of a frat like that anyway. It is a good question. One could argue that, even with totally open membership guidelines, they'd wind up with a frat full of straight Christians because that's their culture and nobody will want to enter it just to be mistreated.

My take now is that even if that's true, a public university like UNC Chapel Hill should exist to challenge dogmas like that and inward tribalism of all sorts. No doubt, my friends who read this blog have tended to associate with more progressive types. That is how we bonded, after all. But what Kozol said in his presentation to my high school is true -- prejudice starts with the young and it grows older and then becomes institutionalized. That's why, even in 2005, with more than a century separating our country from our two worst racial attrocities, genocide against Native Americans and slavery, this is still with us.

The courts are backing the UNC frat on this one. No doubt, the judges aren't racists. They're interpreting some complex law -- there is a right to "freedom of association" that is important, no doubt. But, if the issue is a public university's right to not recognize an exclusionary and bigoted organization... then the judges got it wrong. A public university has a responsibility not to recognize such groups, because a public university is beholden to society at large.

And, for those of you in the mood for hypotheticals... what about private universities who receive no taxpayer funding at all? Well, I say they can do what they wish. But, they would pay the price with their reputations as most of academia would view them as backward and small-minded for supporting such organizations. They have their rights, sure. But we have the right to judge them.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The DLC on "Values."

Hmmph, this is part of the substance of my last post and something I've been looking for. Ed Kilgore, the Democratic Leadership Council's blogger at helpfully explains:

"My own (and generally, the DLC's) definition of "values voters" is quite different. They are people who: (a) don't must trust politicians, and want to know they care about something larger than themselves, their party, and the interest groups that support them; (b) don't much trust government, and instinctively gravitate towards candidates who seem to care about the role that civic and religious institutions can play in public life; (c) don't much trust elites, whom they suspect do not and cannot commit themselves to any particular set of moral absolutes; (d) don't much like the general direction of contemporary culture (even if they are attracted to it as consumers), and want to know public officials treat that concern with respect and a limited agenda to do something about it; (e) are exquisitely sensitive about respect for particular values like patriotism, parenting and work; and (f) have a communitarian bent when it comes to cultural issues, and dislike those who view them strictly through the prism of the irresistable march towards absolute and universal individual rights without regard to social implications."

Here's my commentary on his points:

Point A is useless. It describes every voter in America, on the right and left. Go out and take an informal poll. Who will claim to "love politicians"? Even politicians claim not to like politicians.

Point B: Here he gives the New Dem mantra -- government isn't the solution, civic and religious groups are! Nothing against religious and civic institutions... but shouldn't people running for government posts be reminding folks that government can and should be part of the solution to the problems we face?

Point C: They don't trust elites because they won't commit to moral absolutes? See, I don't trust elites, like the Neocon foreign policy establishment, because they lie to me. But that's probably not who Kilgore means. He's probably talking about Hollywood actors and college professors. Now, when Hollywood actors refuse to commit to moral absolutes, it might engrage the People Magazine readers in the red states, but... that's kind of the function of Hollywood stars. Every society needs some people to live conspicuously outside the mainstream. The rest of us, who can't afford fancy lawyers and have to live by most of the rules get out some vicarious lawbreaking through the Hollywood types. That's why, though people complain about them, they also send hundreds of billions of dollars to the left coast. Now, if he means college professors. Well, I don't know. Noahm Chomsky certainly believes in moral absolutes. It's just that no politician from either side can live up to them. As for the true relativists, the post-modern theorists and the philosophers who don't believe in the concept of truth... Hey, smart people keep asking questions. You can't criticize them for where their inquiries take them. So, lay off the "elites."

D) "Values" voters don't like the direction of contemporary culture. See, this is where we get Joe Lieberman and Tippper Gore making asses out of themselves and alienating young and urban voters who like the culture just fine. This is what leads to multimillion dollar fines because, oh my god, somebody saw a breast for 2 seconds during the Super Bowl! You know what the problem with the culture is, Ed? Prudes.

E) He says they're sensitive about 3 values: Patriotism, parenting and work. All right, I guess it's kind of stupid to run for office and not be something of a patriot. But patriotism can never mean "my country right or wrong." Democrats should be careful about letting patriotism cross over into arrogant nationalism (for an example of arrogant nationalism, see our current foreign policy). Parenting. Sure. But be practical about it. Use the government to make sure all children have healthcare and parents have access to day care and can take leave from work without fear of losing their jobs. But don't use this as an excuse to micromanage the culture's values as a way to "protect the children" because I am so sick of that. Finally, work. Hey, work's important. But the truth is, American workers are, on the whole, working longer and getting less for their efforts than they have in the past. "Work" shouldn't be the value. "Workers" should be the value.

F) Kilgore describes people as having a "Communitarian bent" on social issues and of being skeptical about an absolute march towards absolute and universal individual rights. Ed, Democrats absolutely have to support individual rights. For one thing, it sells. Bush got re-elected with his "Ownership society" ruse specifically because it speaks to individual freedom (without actually providing it, but I digress...) Democrats should be careful not to be on the wrong side of history. Homosexual marriage is a right. It's just not recognized yet. It must be supported. Reproductive choice is a right, upheld only by a tenuous Supreme Court decision, but a right nonetheless. Access to healthcare, food, housing and some sort of guaranteed retirement income for workers are all rights. And on social issues, especially victimless or consensual crimes like drug use, gambling, prostitution -- consenting adults should have the right to do whatver they want. Nobody in either party supports that. But it's about time to consider this -- our culture can be far more permissive than it is, and it should be.

The War Among Democrats

I'm sure all of you know this by now, so I won't bother with links and examples and will just deal with the general issue here, which is that there's a battle going on within the Democratic party at the moment that is entirely counter-productive.

On one hand, you have and their idealogical ilk. These are the folks who maybe voted for Nader when we were all safely assured that Clinton would smash Dole anyway. Or, the folks like me who voted for Nader in exchange for a Gore vote in Florida in 2000. This camp, which I am kind of a part of, would be the old school left camp, the folks who think that FDR's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society are the reasons that American living standards rose so quickly in the 20th century and who want to preserve those ideas in the 21st.

On the other side, you have the Democratic Leadership Council, also known as "New Democrats." They're not to be derided, as they're very smart. And, they brought us Clinton who, for all his faults and foibles, was a great president. These folks are well educated, savvy in the financial markets and support rolling back some big government programs, though not to the extent that Republicans want. They're not "conservative," though they sometimes appear to be.

I have problems with both groups. I'm a social libertarian and neither faction really satisfies me on that front. I believe that the New Deal is still necessary, so I side with the Moveon crowd there. But, I also want to be effective and the DLC takes the edge there, big time. The DLC gave us 8 years of Clinton. Moveon was formed to stop Clinton's impeachment (it failed) and then it supported Gore (who failed) and then it grudgingly supported Kerry (who failed). The only victory Moveon has to its credit is getting Howard Dean named as president of the Democratic party. That's it.

But, I don't want to rag on Moveon too much. We need them. And, the DLC has major problems. Social Security privatization? They're against it now but it was one of their ideas back in 1995. A free and open society full of fun and free expression? Nah, these are the Tipper Gore "warning labels on records" folk. These are the folk who really like Joe Lieberman, who is kind of a Republican in Democrat clothing on social issues. A peaceful foreign policy? Nah, these folks read "The New Republic" as their Bible (so do I, actually, it's a great magazine but I temper it with the New York Review of Books) and The New Republic supported the war in Iraq (as did Lieberman, as did Kerry).

The whole "New Democrat" movement is what Bush tried to emulate with his "Compassionate Conservatism." The very notion, and it's very persuasive because it is so exceedinly modern, is that markets are effective but some people need help to succeed in them.

It's also a litle false. See, what the New Dems forget is that markets only work because there are winners and losers. You buy a stock because you think it's worth more than the price you're paying. Somebody sold it to you because they think it's not worth the price anymore. Somebody's right and somebody's wrong. You think you got a great deal on that car? Somebody thinks they got a great deal selling it to you at that price. Somebody's right and somebody's wrong. Markets are ruthless. I follow them, I write about them, and I'm skeptical of them. I'm not "against" them. They're a great tool for our society. But they're markets and markets can be hard on people.

And yet, turning back to Moveon... you can't just ignore the market. You can't trat them as an "evil" because, there are winners and losers. Having winners is important. And, on foreign policy, though I was against the Iraq war and though, looking back, I think every military intervention we've made, since World War II, under President's of both parties, has been a mistake... oh, wait... I supported the war in Afghanistan. That was the right thing to do. See? This is where Moveon and Michael Moore get it wrong. You can't just be a knee-jerk pacifist -- not if you want to deal with reality as it is.

In the end, the New Democrats are too willing to go to war and are too willing to trust markets and are too socially conservative. Moveon is too militantly pacifist, too supportive of big government programs that most people resent and, though I think they're not sociall permissive enough, they're too arrogant about the social liberalism that they do support.

This war, though, is not a problem. What the New Democrats need to realize is that when the Republicans were out of power, they spent their time building some pretty far right wing groups (Focus on the Family, the Promisekeepers, the Cato Institute...) and while none of those groups have mainstream appeal, they did mobilize Republican voters. Moveon isn't mainstream. The DLC is mainstream to a fault. But I'd argue this -- most Republicans don't really believe that the Apocalypse will occur within the next 40 years and that they're going to be raptured to heaven before the tribulation. But, they do know that they need the votes of people who DO believe that.

And the DLC has to realize that it needs the votes of people who will oppose every single war and who will campaign for the rights of homosexuals to marry, even when it's politically inconvenient.

There's a war going on among Democrats right now. Both sides are basically calling each other "out of touch elites." Howard Dean's job, as president of the party, is to end this war because it's counter-productive. I suggest that the Dems not compromise on social rights issues like gay marriage because it's always embarassing to look back into history and realize your party supported something akin to racism. But they could compromise on foreign policy and at least make it clear that no attack on Americans will go unanswered. They could also compromise on economic matters, as Clinton did, by making sure that the social safety nets of Social Security and Medicare are preserved while still encouraging the financial markets to operate and drive our economy. The New Democrats have to face the fact that they moved too quickly and that they left the traditional base of the party, the environmentalists, the union members and he middle class in general behind. That's why so many smart people voted for Nader before they lost the White House and realized that the stakes are now just too high for that sort of thing.

They're going to have to reach a compromise before 2008, if they expect to win. And shoving Hillary on us, as she veers towards the right, is not the answer.

Syria, Syria, Syria...

Bush's threat to Syria, which is basically of the "Get your troops out of Lebanon, or else" variety has me wondering, "or else, what?"

We'd have two options, of course. We could send troops into Lebanon and drive the Syrians out. Or we could invade Syria, topple the Baathist dictatorship in charge and spread us some more democracy! We have the capability, stretched thin though we are, to do either one. Syria is geographically smaller than Iraq and its military is much weaker. I first saw speculation that Syria would be next in the run-up to the Iraq war and there's little doubt that in the aftermath of the war that Syria has antagonized us by sending weapons and fighters to contribute to Iraq's insurgency.

On the other hand, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is kind of Saddam Hussein's Mini-me, bought himself some time by giving the US information about global terrorist networks. He was, for a short while, one of our odious friends, if not to the degree of Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, Assad had still been useful enough to us that we've, so far, left him alone.

That time may be over. Here would be a couple of reasons why we should invade Syria and topple Assad. Then, I'll give you a few reasons why we shouldn't.

First, as I said, we can do it and Assad is a bad enough guy that he certainly deserves it.

It's a two-for-one. Toppling the Syrian government would also free Lebanon from Syria's influence.

We're at a crucial time in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, one that could lead to an independent Palestine, living side-by-side with Israel. Assad is a big supporter or Palestinian resistance movements. Assad supplies weapons and money that could break the already highly unstable cease fire between the Palestinians and the Israelis, scuttling any hopes for a deal. So, getting rid of Assad now might give the peace process a chance.

Now, as to why we shouldn't:

Sure, we CAN do it, but having to occupy Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria all at once would make us more than a little vulnerable should there be a crisis outside of the Middle East.

Syria is no threat to the US. That's not even a claim you could stretch. Assad is simply not a threat. Invading another country without even the pretext that they're a threat is a terrible precedent to set, and though you could argue that we've already set that precedent numerous times, this one would be damned blatant.

If I were Iran and saw the US invade two of my nearest neighbors in the space of 2 years, I would definitely build nuclear weapons. No doubt about it. I'd build a lot of them. It's the only deterrent that works against the US.

It will cost too much money. Nobody's going to believe, after the $200 billion war in Iraq, that this can be done cheaply and at a time when Bush is claiming that the government can't even meet it's Social Security obligations, it'd be a crime to spend money invading Syria, or even driving them out of Lebanon.

War is bad for the economy in general. Bush would be gambling with a tenuous economic recovery by going to war. War causes uncertainty and that causes corporations to spend less money. So, yet another Middle Eastern war could drive unemployment up, slow GDP growth, decrease tax revenues and make our budget crisis worse.

Maybe Syria will simply back down and get out of Lebanon. I hope so. They're pulling their troops back to the border now, but the New York Times also ominously reports that Syrian troops are "digging trenches." If they back off, then war with Syria is an issue we don't have to worry about.

But if they don't, well... Bush blundered with his "get out, or else" threat. He's either have to follow up, with all the negative consequences that will entail, or back down and lose face.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Democracy in the Middle East

Syria's under pressure to get out of Lebanon, its puppet government there overthrown.

Egypt, ruled since 1981 by President Mubarak and the largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel, says there will be elections in the near future.

Iraq and Afghanistan have held elections, after we deposed their dictators.

Who's next? Libya? Our pals in the House of Saud?

Those of us who opposed the war in Iraq can't avoid this question now: Was Bush right all along? Is democracry "transforming" the Middle East?

Well, first of all, we don't know how legitimate Egypt's elections will be. Mubarak's government hasn't exactly sanctioned opposition parties over the last 2 and a half decades. There's some question about whether or not there's legitimate opposition that will be able to run. Will Mubarak let the radical Islamic elements, who have been his main foe and who have basically been at war with his government, participate in the elections?

And what about Saudi Arabia? Must we know, to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, encourage them to hold real, fair elections? Or is our policy that dictators can remain in power, so long as they're mostly friendly to us? Saudi Arabia's hold on world oil prices has lessened in recent years, by the way. Remember that Saudi prince who promised Bush that the House of Saud would keep oil prices low in advance of the election? If they tried, they didn't succeed at that. Which might mean that oil prices are going to be what they're going to be, even under a different Saudi government. Which means we can't support their government in exchange for lower oil prices anymore because their government can no longer provide them. Saudi Arabia will be a big test of our principles and motivations going forward.

And what about those principles and motivations? Bush's rhetoric about establishing democracy in the Middle East came about after we found out Saddam Hussein didn't have Weapons of Mass Destruction. It was a justification after the fact. Even if every country in the region turned into a stable democratic republic tomorrow, we shouldn't forget that the war in Iraq was not sold to the American people as a war for democracy.

It was also not sold as a war that would kill 1,500 of our soldiers and cost upwards of $200 billion. Our soldiers were supposed to have been pelted with candy and the price tag was supposed to be next to nothing, with Iraqi oil sales paying our bills.

And yet the question remains -- will we look back on the war with Iraq and say, "it transformed the middle east. Look at all of those people who traded tyranny for elected governments?" Too soon to tell, of course. But it will largely depend on our ability to respect whatever democracies form from this. That sounds like a no-brainer. But, we tried to "support democracy," often by force, throughout Latin America in the last century and look at the results: death squads in Honduras. The US-sponsored assassination of Allende in Chile, US support for the authoritarian Contra rebels in Nicaragua, our propping up a dictator in Panama until we carted him off to jail... More recently, and under Clinton, we helped to overthrow an elected government in Haiti, putting it back in power only when it agreed, in exile, to do our bidding.

I'm not so worried, as many are, that Middle Eastern democracies will elect extremist elements from the Islamic clergy. Certainly, those voices will have a role in those governments (as religious extremists have a role in ours) but I think that people are unlikely to elect their own oppressors. Given the choice, people tend to give themselves louder voices, after all. But you will also see things in Middle Eastern democracies that will not sit well with the US. You'll see, as we have in Nigeria, poor people in those regions wondering why they're starving while they're sitting on the world's most important commodity and why multinational oil companies are making most of the money from their oil. What will happen when a people's government in the Middle East starts demanding more from the international oil companies? What will the US do?

What will happen when even a moderate elected government in the region decides that the Palestinians still aren't getting a fair shake in Israel? Or if, and this is a possibility in Egypt, an elected government decides to reverse decades of peace with Israel? Our own commitment to democracy in the region simply won't be known until it is tested by an elected government that acts in a way our government feels is contrary to our own interests.

But first, we need to see some fair elections held without a US invasion toppling the existing government. We might see it in Egypt. I don't know. But I doubt the Syrian's are ready to follow suit. And Iran has another answer -- rather than be "democratized" it plans to nuclearize. And the Saudi's? The Saudi's? If you believe that Bush is committed to the transforming power of democracy, then you have to wonder why he hasn't said a word against his friends in Riyadh.

When Editor's Go on Holiday

One tough thing about being a journalist is that there's a temptation to write some rather, well, stupid things. To wit, MSNBC's story about the death of a 22 pound lobster notes:

"A gigantic lobster that may have survived two world wars and Prohibition before being plucked from the ocean will live on — but only as a shell of its former self."

Huh? Okay, surviving the World Wars, maybe that means something. But how in the heck did Prohibition pose a threat to a darned crustacean? I'd think it helped, actually. You can't eat a lobster without having at least one glass of wine. It'd be uncivilized.

Sorry for lack of posts lately and then for coming out of the silence with this gem.

Been thinking of new topics. You're all bored with Social Security, right? You all get that I'm against privatization, I gather.

So... the next topic will be the Middle East and... was Dubya right?