Friday, September 30, 2005

Oddly Enough...

I ranted here a few weeks ago about how troublesome it is that our government promised that capturing Osama bin Laden was our number on priority after 9-11 and yet, more than four years later, they haven't done that and there has been no outrage and no consequences.

Here's another thing that ticks me off, along those lines. Remember when Gulf War II was supposed to be easy? That was during the run-up to Gulf War II, before "Mission Accomplished," and before the war turned out to be not only hard but perhaps unwinnable by any means.

Why did the war backers think it was going to be a cakewalk?

Our surperior equipment. The Iraqis would be ragtag, badly trained and poorly armed. We'd bring terror from the sky, night vision goggles, heavily armored ground vehicles and body armored soldiers who could take a shot to the chest and keep on fightings.

During the 2004 elections, a lack of armor for our troops was a major issue.

It's still a major issue.

How can this be? The people who sold us this war and promised that it would be easy because of our unbeatable equipment have failed to supply our troops with said equipment. Body armor and vehicle armor were key the strategy and essential to keeping the promises that the war-backers made. By design and promise, the war was meant to be almost comically unfair, as if we'd sent a horde of unstoppable killer robots to take out the Michigan militia.

We're two and a half years into this war. A lack of armor for soldiers and their vehicles is still an issue. Why? There's a horde of contractors in the US, both large and small, with military and police contracts, who would love to supply armor and could do it quickly. This might sound way too cynical, but did somebody, or a lot of somebodies, in Washington decide to pay for the cost of this war in dead American soldiers, rather than cash?

I've gone all serious again, but I didn't want this war. It's our government that responded, "I know you don't, but it will be easy. Two and a half years from now, you'll have forgotten all about it." They were wrong. Negligent, too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mirrormask and Subliterates

I'm really excited that Tom Delay was indicted, but he has a long time to suffer and politics has been so depressing lately, so I figure it's time to change gears and to take issue with Michael Atkinson's Village Voice review of Mirrormask, written by Neil Gaiman and designed by David McKean. Atkinson hated it and I can respect that. He knows film. I saw the movie a few months ago and liked it. But, hey, to each their own.

In a short review, Atkinson mocks Gaiman for writing comic books and calls his readers undemanding and subliterate. There's no need for yet another online geek defense of graphic novels to be posted to the Web but this is an odd charge to level against Gaiman at least because he's also a best-selling prose novelist who gets kind treatment from book critics but mostly because, if you were really sub-literate, you wouldn't get half of the references in his graphic novels. Also, I like his graphic novels and can read so, nyah.

Atkinson doesn't really spell out his beef with comics, except that they seem to involve pictures and words, which, um, films do, except that in film, the words are spoken for the benefit of the subliterate. As for books with pictures and words, I wonder what William Blake would say about such objections.

Atkinson also implies that Gaiman isn't storyteller enough for an adult audience, which is odd since this is a kid's movie.

Honestly, I thought it had some flaws. It could have been paced better, the plotting is a little convenient at times and the performances get the job done but didn't blow me away. It's a great premise though and a nice twist on an old story idea: a kid who grows up in the circus wants to run away and join real life but winds up someplace weirder than a circus could ever be. As a kid's movie intended for wide release, it even takes some risks with the moral by telling the young not to embrace normalcy.

Also, I was pleased to learn that if I'm ever attacked by a sphinx, I can confuse the creature and escape by pointing over its shoulder and yelling, "Look, an idiot!"

All in all, I thought it was a likable movie and I expect its intended audience will like it more than I did but it's fine for Atkinson to disagree with me there as the whole argument becomes about taste at that point. Oddly enough, though, Gaiman's next movie project is an adaptation of Beowulf and the poor guy has been inundated with emails from his fans, who want to know which of their favorite scenes from the book will make the final cut. Wait a minute, his fans have favorite scenes from Beowulf? Those subliterates.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

That's It, I Want My Sunmobile

Every other year, the North American Solar Car Challenge tests solar-powered cars designed by various teams from colleges and universities. This July, the challenge started in Austin, TX and ended up in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). That's 2,500 miles, and the winning car did it in just under 60 hours. I'm surprised that the race got so little coverage here (though it was of course competing with Katrina). It seems like now, with gas around $2.75 nationally and spiking up to $4.00 in patches of the country, we should be paying more attention to technology that would let us run our cars on something other than oil. (The Heritage Foundation is rumored to have a plan to run them on the blood of the poor and the liberal, but it's apparently still in early stages.)

This could very easily turn into a predictable liberal screed on the backwardness of US energy policy in general, the backwardness of Bush's energy policy in particular, and the utopian potential of alternative energy sources. I'll try to avoid that.

But you know what? A more responsible energy policy--if not a wholly responsible energy policy--is easily within reach. Solar cars (or at least solar-gas hybrids) are neither fundamentally impractical nor generations away. You know how I know? I don't. I don't know enough about science to say these things with any authority. But you know why I so strongly suspect that it's true? I'll tell you: Principia College.

What, you're asking, is Principia College? Principia College is a 550-student liberal arts college in downstate Illinois. It's a Christian Science institution. It is, in fact, so dedicated to the principles of Christian Science that its website tells students that in case of a health emergency, step 1 is to turn to God. Step 2 is to go to the infirmary, where they can expect to receive Christian Science health care. Christian Scientists aren’t so much for the modern medical technology. (For example, although Principia offers an array of fascinating plant and environmental biology classes, the 2003-4 course catalog doesn’t even have a human or animal biology class.) Although Principia clearly has a lot of bright, motivated students and professors, it is by definition not an institution wholeheartedly devoted to the pursuit of scientific and engineering questions. It's not even an institution with an engineering major.

Principia College is, however, an institution that came in seventh out of eighteen teams in the North American Solar Car Challenge. Its car, built for one-tenth what some of its competitors spent, came in about eight hours behind MIT's and three hours ahead of Stanford's.

So here’s my question: if an underfunded team from a tiny institution whose students have to take classes outside the college if they want an engineering major can build a solar car that carries its driver 2,500 miles in 68 hours and only spend $200,000 doing so, why the hell does everybody talk about solar-powered cars as if they were flying cars?

Yes, I know that solar-powered cars don't work under all conditions. That's why the first commercial ones would mostly likely be hybrids, more or less on the model of current electric-gas hybrids, where the solar cells do at least some of the work now done by fuel cells (which are powered by the electrical grid and therefore mostly by nonrenewable, polluting resources). But my main point is more about initiative: if a bunch of twenty-year-olds--no matter how bright and motivated--with little training and few financial resources can do so much so well, why isn't our government more vigorously funding better-trained professionals and demanding far more impressive results?

Forget the piddling amounts of money and urgency that Bush included in his latest energy bill. Let’s put some real goddamn money and effort into this and make some real goddamn progress. I want my sunmobile.

Monday, September 26, 2005

War Protestin'

I'm certainly an opponent of the war in Iraq but, have any of you ever tried to, or felt the need to, participate in a mass demonstration like the ones we saw this weekend and today? Honestly, they've never worked for me.

Part of the reason is that many of them are organized by ANSWER which is a questionable organization, admirable for its ability to get rallies together but troublesome for its history, including its recent history, of supporting dictators either because they claim, often falsely, some left wing affiliation or simply because they oppose the United States. Though I can't find an online link with a quick search, I have bumped into their representatives in Union Square and they have, at times, supported the insurgents in Iraq as freedom fighters. Like I said, I'm against our war there and I know why there's a rebellion against it and I even recognize their right to fight against an occupying power, but... let's not delude ourselves. I can understand them but I can't support them. I can't support them because their vision of society is offensive to me. Ask me "why are they fighting us?" and I have a bunch of common sense answers. But those people and I don't share any sort of philosophy, not even in the least bit.

Other people I've met in Union Square, protest types of no discernible affiliation, have been crazy supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, still believing that the British monarchs control the world. Okay.

Israel has also been another issue where I take issue with these types. I'm very critical of Israel, I think their government has not behaved to the standards that it claims not only as a commitment but as the justification for a modern Israeli state. The Palestinians have been badly treated by Israel. I think that's easily fair to say. But, heck, they've also been unfairly treated by the Arab countries in the region and have been used as pawns against Israel. There's no doubt that I hold Israel as a democracy, to a very high standard and that they could have and should have done better by their Palestinian neighbors.

But, again, there's no point in fooling ourselves. If I were forced to be a member of a Palestinian society tomorrow, I'd be miserable. To be honest, their both victims and criminals, in the broadest sense, both people fighting for autonomy and yet still adherents to some very ugly and backwards ideas.

The protest types I've met don't see the ambiguity or the complexity of the matter. Honestly, a lot of rabid Israel supporters don't see that either, but it's hard for me to hang with any group that doesn't seen the wrongs of both sides in that region.

Then there's the ambiguity of the message? Free Mumia? I have no idea whether he's guilty or not. But he has nothing to do with the issue at hand and yet he's constantly brought up among that crowd.

9-11 as a US government insider job? Sorry, even at my most paranoid, I don't buy it.

An impending draft? Not even the Pentagon wants it. The last thing they need are soldiers who don't want to be there.

Those are all things I've heard or seen brought up in Union Square.

Finally, there is the big issue -- immediate withdrawal from Iraq. In an ideal world, our allies would step in to help us, stablize the situation, and fix our mess, under the auspices of the UN, but they have no reason to do so. I've seen it argued that our presence there is inflammatory and the cause of the current violence and while I buy that to some extent, I also think that our withdrawal would leave yet another conflict where the most powerful elements duke it our for supremacy and we wind up with some one in power who is as bad as Saddam was.

I wish we hadn't started the war but we did. I believe that we were lied to about the rationale for starting the war and that sucks. I believe we were lied to about what the war would cost in terms of lives and dollars and that also sucks. But it still happened. I don't care about our image, about "cutting and running," or even winning or losing. That we were lied, manipulated and cajoled into starting the war is important but it's an issue for our government and our people to deal with. That's a domestic issue.

There are no do-overs. We shouldn't have invaded Iraq, but we did. We're all responsible for our government's actions, whether or not we were lied to. I'd love for the troops to be brought home right now and I wish we hadn't alienated a world who could help us out, but as Colin Powell said, to the anger of The Pottery Barn, we broke it, and now we're responsible for it. That sucks.

But even if we hate what we did and how we did it, we still started this war, overthrew a government and left chaos in the wake. I can and do oppose our representatives, on both sides, who let this happen. But I can't back the "bring the troops home," folks in light of what we've done over the past 2 years. In the classic pattern of the manipulator, Bush basically followed a course of action that was so dramatic that we have to deal with the consequences no matter what we thought or think about the war.

Back to the protesters -- protests are great. People need a venue for self expression and marching is better than apathy, by far. But they really are their own sort of people. I think that for those of us who share some of their views, ideas and hopes, it's hard not to ask, "Why don't I do things like that?" But, I think, in the end, it's because being progressive encompasses a very large point of view, fraught with contradictions and specific issues where we all disagree. On the central issue of the day, bringing the troops home now, I find the notion attractive and I can sympathize with it and wish it were so, but I can't support it. On the other stuff I've written about here, well, never forget that while the right has their weird Christians who claim that homosexuality is so rampant in Oklahoma public schools that girls need escorts to the restroom and they have their freaks who want to teach intelligent design or to starve the government of tax resources -- we have some loonies, too.

I like loonies. Sometimes, what's crazy now becomes common wisdom years later. I think that acceptance and support of same sex marriage, for example, is a fringe belief now that will be a given decades from now.

But there are some people I can't connect with, even if they're mostly on my side.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

I Could Be Very Wrong Here...

...some institutions and people become prominent, based on work that they had done in the past that nobody noticed. But, in the wake of a massive but ineffective anti-war protest in Washington D.C,, a protest that I was glad to see but which I believe will change few, if any, minds, I can't help but think about the Republicans, who were out of congressional power up until the mid 1990s.

What did the Republicans do, while being losers? Well, if you've ever heard of The Cato Institute, or The Hudson Institute, or The American Enterprise Institute, or The Moral Majority or The Christian Coalition... that's what they did. They built and funded think tanks full of well-paid and reputable scholars that pimped their point of view. The members of these think tanks were mostly well qualified and certainly well quotable and, for the most part, smart enough that a guy like me would be terrified to debate one of them in a public forum.

To highlight a lesser known example, The Frasier Institute, based in Vancouver, Canada, of all places, regularly attacks and sometimes debunks, the claims of environmentalists in the U.S. Frasier is biased and pursue and agenda that's so strong that it clouds its conclusions but I've met and spoken to people from there and, let me tell you, you do not want to take them on in an argument because they have an answer, with conveniently supporting data, for everything.

But here we are, the left in the U.S. out of power in congress for more than a decade and out of power in The White House for going on six years and for what's guaranteed to be eight. We've formed some interesting and powerful online communities like and Eschaton and Dailykos and TPmCafe, but we don't have, as far as I can see, something that will grow into being The Cato Institute -- well funded enough and staffed with scholars hardcore enough that they can provide sources, quotes and data to any mainstream media outlet, on the left or right.

Honestly, I don't think these right wing think tanks are any sort of trick. Some of them, like Cato and Hudson, are so right wing that the Republicans in power now aren't good enough for them. They're really staffed with honest and rigorous scholars with whom I mostly disagree. I guess what I'm saying is, despite my objections to their conclusions, they are the real deal.

I hope that anyone who reads this blog can point me towards the intellectual, wonky, policy think tanks that the left, while out of power, is building up right now, to pay off in two decades just as they did for the right. I haven't noticed a single one. If they're out there, I want to know. If they aren't, well, we need to get moving. There's a lot to be gained, in American politics and American media, by having sympathetic inhtellectual institutions that exist outside the university system. We need them. They really paid off for the other side. And, sorry, but much as I love The Brookings Institute, it isn't enough.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Whattup Fiscal Conservatives?

As I've said here before, there are a lot of conservatives, and there's a lot about conservatism, that I respect. I was, after all, once a member of their clan. I do tend to respect fiscal conservatives. Not when they spew nonsense about tax cuts for the wealthy trickling down to the poor because it just stands to reason that lots of people will grab from the trickle before it reaches the bottom, or even the middle. But they are right when they point out that the ability to spend money is one of the most powerful attributes of government. For example, if you believe that everything a teenager needs to know about sex is not to have it, then you don't have to outlaw teaching about contraception, you just need to spend $230 million a year on an abstinence education program. One reason that fiscal conservatives hate government spending is that they know that the government, by spending on pet projects, can actually direct the course of society without passing laws. I respect them for realizing that and for pointing out that the government program you love today might be counterbalanced by one you loathe tomorrow.

But I'm not writing this to praise today's fiscal conservatives. They have really pissed me off in the last couple of days. Mostly, becase they're not what they say they are. This Chicago Tribune story is representative of their current complaint, that spending on reconstruction of the Gulf Coast needs to be offset with budget cuts because of our deficit. Now, I can understand that in the wake of an expensive national emergency that we might have to make some sacrifices and that some pet projects might have to go. But, look at the Katrina bill. $200 billion.

So, where were these fiscal conservatives during the run up to our war of choice in Iraq?

Oh, they were voting for it, and deciding to settle the bill later and even lying that there would be no bill because if Iraq's oil revenues.

So, let me get this straight: to be fiscally conservative in 2005 means that when our own citizens are struck by a natural disaster, any spending we incur to make things right needs to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere. Also, a year later, these same fiscal conservatives said that we don't have money that we could use to shore up the Social Security system, despite the mounting bills in Iraq at the time. But, if we're going to invade and occupy another country in a hostile region, these fiscal conservatives say it's okay to sell more Treasury bonds and to pay for it later, with interest.

I remember that John Kerry was criticized for being small-minded and selfish when he pointed out that we're opening fire departments in Baghdad and closing them at home. But it does seem like he had a point now, doesn't it? We can afford to invade and occupy Iraq, a bill we're paying wth debt, with interest, with our deteriorating global credit and with the lives of our volunteer soldiers. That's okay. But when are own people are in trouble, we have to fret over the bill.

See, there are no fiscal conservatives in today's Republican party. If there were, I could at least respectfully disagree with them, but there aren't. What these mis-labelled politicians really believe is that it's okay to spend debt to get what they want but when they don't believe in something, or when the unexpected occurs and their own citizens are suffering, we're out of money. This is all just an attempt, on their part, to cut government programs that they don't agree with. The Perscription Drug Benefit for seniors on Medicare is their big target. But if you're wondering why I mentioned the $230 million for abstinence education up top, well, I brought it up because it'd be an easy couple of hundred million they could save, and it's not on their list. These aren't fiscal conservatives at all. They just want to cut spending for things they don't like and they're using the destruction in the Gulf as a crass excuse.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Word Verification For Comments

Sorry, I didn't want to do this but since Jon and I are getting famous (and rich!) off this blog, we're starting to get comment spam. So, I enabled the word verification feature for comments, which I hope will not prove to be too much of a hassle for anybody. Now Jon and I (rich guys!) are heading back the the yacht (the big one!) and the hoochies (the hot ones!) that rich people like us so enjoy (because of our bloggy richness!)

By the way, you can still post annonymously. We're not requiring anyone to register with Blogger.

On Second Thought

Not long after I posted my little piece on how I couldn't get too excited about blaming Bush for botching the Katrina relief efforts, I ran into a column that made me remember it's important to lay blame where appropriate (here, on Bush and on other officials), even when you're not excited about it.

Matthew Spalding from the Heritage Foundation has a dumb column on the BBC website. This is a slightly modified version of my response in the BBC's little response area.

Spalding suggests that Americans' unified and generous response to Katrina's devastation proves two things: first, that government is bad at disaster relief and, second, that we're not a nation of increasingly isolated and alienated individuals. Spalding's claims--like many of the Heritage Foundation's--are suspect and misleading.

His first claim is smoke and mirrors designed to erase any calls for accountability in the bungled governmental response to Katrina. In a particularly tortured sentence, Spalding claims, “The governmental-centred response witnessed post-9/11 is not the answer, and cost at least some people their lives.” It’s absolutely true that the bungled government response exacerbated problems and very possibly added to the death toll. But that’s not because it was “governmental-centred” but rather because it was bungled. There’s nothing intrinsic in the nature of the operation that made government response inappropriate or unnecessary. Spalding's claim that governmental (i.e., federal) involvement in 9/11 reconstruction was somehow appropriate given “national security” concerns whereas it was inappropriate in response to Katrina is profoundly odd. Rebuilding is rebuilding, rescuing is rescuing, whoever or whatever caused the devastation

echo Mike, the Red Cross is great, and god bless them for doing what they do (interesting how the conservatives love the Red Cross when it does the military's job but not when it criticizes the way the military does its own job) but what the hell is Spalding talking about when he says that disaster relief should be primarily the undertaking of private organizations? Do we really want to depend on volunteers to provide food, supplies, shelter, and peacekeeping every time there's a natural disaster? Exactly what private volunteer organization do we entrust with setting up roadblocks, controlling looting, and enforcing curfew? What if the Klan or the Michigan Militia are the only organizations that volunteer? The mind boggles.

Spalding alleges that the National Guard responded too slowly and thereby left people stranded in the cities. The National Guard has often successfully helped disaster victims. Any slowness this time proves that the commanders didn’t get their acts in gear in this specific instance, not that the National Guard couldn’t or shouldn’t do such work. Or maybe the alleged slowness proves that our National Guard could better protect American lives if they were deployed in New Orleans rather than in Baghdad.

Spalding’s second claim (that America’s outpouring of sympathy proves that we don’t feel lonely and isolated on a daily basis) is also off the mark. To me, the overwhelming American response to Katrina implies the exact opposite. Most of our sympathy and help for Katrina’s victims has to do a basic humane desire to help people in need, but I suspect much of our eagerness to provide that help and sympathy—as with the tsunami before it—comes from a sense of gratitude to rediscover, at least momentarily, a sense of meaningful connection to other people, from a delight at being able to help solve a specific, concrete problem so different from the unrelenting but subtle and non-physical problem that is our daily experience of detached loneliness.

Federalist Walking Papers?

For some reason, I haven't been able to get too excited about blaming Bush for bungling Katrina. I assume he did, or at least partially did. Homeland Security and FEMA certainly have gone out of their way to make me feel less secure about the prospect of my surviving any upcoming natural disasters or terrorist attacks, and it's definitely true that as a nation we'd have more money, attention, and National Guard troops to focus on the short- and long-term mess in the affected region if Bush hadn't chosen to invade Iraq. Part of my relative lack of excitement, I think, comes from my sense that Bush was far from alone in this. Yes, he could've done a lot of things (almost everything) better. But so could a lot of state and local officials.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, in particular, hasn't covered himself in glory in recent days. In particular, I question his decision to allow residents to start returning to parts of New Orleans before anybody has had a chance to really evaluate the health risks of their moving back--much of the city doesn't have drinking water and does have a thick, juicy coat of toxic sludge. The decision further seems a little hasty given that he had to re-evacuate a lot of the returnees because there's a new tropical storm off the coast. I also question Nagin's stated rationale for allowing the early return. He argues that with so with many resources, talents, and energies deployed to make New Orleans work again, it's inevitable that someone will find a way to make the city safe and secure. That's a nice spirit of can-do optimism for the long run, but it's just goofy in the short-term. Living in toxic sludge is living in toxic sludge, and all the resources, talents, and energies in the world don't mean squat if the people coordinating the recovery effort don't direct those resources etc. toward sane, measurable, and sequential tasks that, say, remove the damn sludge before people bring their kids back to the city. (Nagin's recovery philosophy is starting to resemble Bush's reconstruction plan for Iraq--rhetoric and feel-goodery taking the place of analysis and planning.)

That, I guess, was part detour and part preamble to what I started out to discuss: election reform. Former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker have just started appearing on the political talk shows to tell people about the recommendations by their bipartisan election reform commission. Now, some of you might--like I did--react with surprise and suspicion to anything James Baker has to say about election reform, since he also led the Bush campaign's legal team during the Florida controversy in 2000. But I like Jimmy Carter; he's definitely done more good out of office than many Presidents do in office, and he's done a lot of election monitoring at home and abroad. I'm disposed to listen when he talks about this stuff.

I'm not sure I agree with all the recommendations of the commission--a lot of progressive activists are suspicious of the report's advocating a national voter ID, to be issued a state level. They figure this is another way to keep those without any current ID (usually poor, sick, and/or elderly) from voting. It might work out that way if civil rights advocates and the Congress don't insist on some transparency and make concerted efforts towards universal inclusion (something Congress isn't always so good at). But my hunch is that it could be done in a way to cut down on disenfranchisement of precisely those groups: if a black guy has his state-approved voter ID on election day in Florida, it'll be a lot harder for election officials in the panhandle to claim that he's actually a convicted felon.

At any rate, I'm not really interested (here) in discussing the specifics of the committee's recommendations. What I'm interested in--and this is why I brought up the Katrina response--is discussing the federalist system that still governs so much of America and whether we need to give it serious rethinking. In addition to nationally standard (thought state-issued) voter IDs, the Carter-Baker commission also wants Congress to urge the states to implement certain kinds of uniform voting practices. Of course, that's really all the Congress has the power to do--urge. Unlike those of most other countries, which have more national programs, our elections are left up to the state and local governments. So, at least partially, are out disaster-relief efforts. I'm not sure that's a great idea.

When the founding fathers drew up the Constitution, the technological and historical realities were very different than they are today. Not only was voting forbidden to women, racial minorities, and people without property, it was also a very slow and comparatively low-tech process. Having nationwide standards would have been more difficult technologically and pretty much impossible politically. (In many ways, the separate states were just that--separate nation states with very different cultures in each one.) These, days, though, the Electoral College is a technological and political dinosaur that, in many ways, makes the votes of some people worth more than the votes of others. These days, one can count every individual's vote in the course of a few hours and transmit those results almost instantaneously everywhere. These days, although the different states still have very different populations and histories, they aren't much like separate nation states, and the odds are many if not most Americans will live in at least a couple of them during their lifetime. (At age 30, I've lived in four, and I move way less than many.)

So it's my feeling that we need to start thinking about bringing our voting system and disaster relief systems up to date in order to deal with those new realities. In terms of disaster relief, that means one set of tasks--reorganizing, streamlining, establishing clear procedures and chains of command in ways that neither FEMA nor Homeland Security seems to have done despite the lessons of 9/11. And in voting that may well mean developing a national, nonpartisan election commission that sets universal standards for all federal elections (and maybe even all ballots with federal elections included on them). For federal legislators (whose votes affect the way I live regardless of what state I live in) and for the President (who by definition governs for and answers to Americans and not to New Yorkers or Mississippians), it makes less and less sense to me that the way we elect them varies state by state, city by city, and district by district.

This would require a massive change in relevant state and federal laws. Maybe even a Constitutional amendment. It would be a lot of work. And it's sort of scary in many ways. It definitely conjures up all sorts of Big Brother scenarios. But we could put proper safeguards in place. Besides, I'm not sure if such hypotheticals are any worse than recent actual events in which, for example, "voting irregularities" (or just outright voter fraud) in one state or precinct have determined who gets to cast a deciding vote in Congress or to be President and send our troops to war.

Anyway, just something I'm trying to sort out.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Remember Kelo?

A few months ago, when the Supreme Court decided that cities and states can seize private property under eminent doman laws, Sam and I had a lively debate here about the issue. I've always been reassured that such seizures, which are unpopular and painful for people, would be rare.

But will Kelo have repercussions New Orleans and The Gulf Coast? The whole project will focus on economic development, after all. When the government seizes private property, it pays the owner a going market rate. But after Katrina, rates in the region can't exactly be at their high. Certainly, after we see results from rebuilding, the rates will be higher than they are now. So I'm wondering, if property is seized now, will those who lose it have enough money to buy new property when people start to return to the region? It seems like a potential forced "sell low - buy high" scenario to me.

Not that this is happening. I just think that it could happen.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Who's Responsible?

I've seen a lot of arguments, lately, by those who want to absolve the Bush Administration for screwing up the Katrina response, that point out that the Red Cross was ready to move into New Orleans but was stopped by local beauracracy, or that Canada sent help but was stopped by locally controlled Homeland Security people, or whatever. This is all meant to pin the blame on the locals, instead of the feds.

The Red Cross is an admirable orgranization and their staff and volunteers do amazing, amazing work. They care when others don't.

But, let's not forget that none of us ever elected The Red Cross to do anything. They're good people who act on their own. Its members are heroic for acting, at risk to themselves, when other people, organizations and government don't care. They're to be respected and to be held up as examples of how to be human, among other humans.

But they're not to be the first thing we count on. Our government is the organization obliged by our social contract, by the taxes we pay and the laws we obey, to swiftly and competently supply for our needs during an emergency. To argue that The Red Cross might have done this or might have done that is silly. The Red Cross does what it does and we appreciate what they do and forgive what they can't. The government, on the other hand, is an institution that we can and should expect things from. It is, after all, oru government, bound to serve us and to help us when we're in need. That's why we have a government in the first place. I've not doubt made it clear that I think private charities are great. But it's the government that is supposed to represent us, serve us and martial the forces and resources necessary to solve the problems that we can't.

Just a Way Post 9-11 Thought

If you had told me, in the week or so after 9-11 that, four years later, Osama bin Laden would still be free and at large and that the big issue of 2005 would be how we've conducted our war in Iraq, I'd have laughed at you.

A lot of other important issues have surfaced in the meantime. We had to fight to keep Bush from privatizing Social Security. We had to deal with the run up to, execution of, and consequences of, the war in Iraq. We've had Katrina wipe out the Gulf Coast of the country and have had to watch, embarassed, while our government failed to respond.

I also think that this tendency we have, on all sides of politics, to start talking about our history at 9-11 is stupid and short-sighted and not helpful. It's also true that many criminals, including serial killers, act in the United States, without being apprehended, for decades and I accept that bagging a clever criminal, in any context is hard and uncertain work.

But, I can't help but remember that after 9-11, Osama was THE global public enemy and that we were promised that the full resources of the U.S. along with the resources of its allies, were focused on capturing or killing him. Given the amount of energy and resources promised, I'm shocked that we are where we are right now. It would be one thing if I could credit all of this to Osama being some sort of clever genius, but that isn't the explanation here. Our entire government got distracted, pursued other interests and botched the execution of the war in Afghanistan which is actually the only military action we've taken in my lifetime that I and the majority of the country saw cause to support.

It's just interesting to me, looking back and taking into account that the country has been in a "Post 9-11" mindset for four years, that a key Post 9-11 objective has gone unfulfilled and that nobody's been held accountable.

A lot has admittedly been accomplished. Osama and Al-Qaeda are not what they were at 9-11 as they're on the run and hungry for resources. But, if you think back to the aftermath of 9-11 and the promises and declarations that were made, there's no way to not believe that the Bush administration has messed up royally. It's amazing that Bush was able to get re-elected under such circumstances and it's amazing that he's not being grilled about this now.

A few years ago, I wrote about a mutual fund manager who does a very interesting thing -- he archives old newspapers and every morning, he reads today's edition and then the edition of the same paper a year ago. One of the ways he judges company managers is to check to see if what they promised a year ago came true. He's obviously doing some very detailed work. But, he does judge people by what they say they'll do and what they do and he pays attention. Bush's promise of Osama "Dead or Alive," was so prominent that you wouldn't need to duplicate the "old papers" strategy to see that it didn't happen. So I'm just kind of shocked that such a major promise could have been made and then left unmet.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bush to America: I'm Sorry You Feel That Way

"To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility." - George W. Bush's apology for the pathetic government response to Katrina.

Sheesh, talk about your non-apology apology. "To the extent?" It's, um, the borders of extent run wide, but Bush doesn't want to admit that.

I think Bush channeled his frat boy days when he told girls stuff like, "I'm sorry you feel that way," or "I'm sorry you're so ticked off about last night."

What's next? The Gulf Coast forced him not to help sooner? Actually, he's tried that one, blaming the governor of Louisiana like he did.

Maybe the next step is:

"I had to leave people in floodwaters because I love them so much! You made me do it, babe, you know you did, you didn't give me any other choice. But it's only because I love you. Don't you see that? If I didn't care, I wouldn't even be talking to you right now, New Orleans, I'd have just left. Come on, New Orleans, open the door! I'm just gonna sit here on the couch until you open that door. I'm just going to sit here calmly on the couch until you come out and talk to me. I love you baby. I'm not going anywhere. I'll be right out here. And you better not have that insulting smirk on your face when you come out. Baby? Aw, I'm sorry, New Orleans, I just love you so much and I get emotional. I don't mean it. I'll never leave you under 20 feet of water again. I've changed. I've really changed. But, seriously, why do you have to be like that?"

Monday, September 12, 2005

War and Media

Once again stealing an idea from Mike...

Mike's post ("Is the US Media Undermining...") on John Hinderaker's column is an important one because it highlights what in the last two decades has become a reflexive go-to of right-wing apologists, attack dogs, and lap dogs--blaiming "the media" for reporting a story that makes the Republican Party look bad rather than blaming the Republican Party for generating that story in the first place. (The Democrats do this too, of course, but not with the same savvy or bloody-minded inevitability.) So, following Hinderaker's thinking, the reason Americans are souring on the war is not that the war is turning out to be more deadly, prolonged, confused, counterproductive, and WMD-free than we'd been lead to believe but rather that the media are pointing that fact out. To me, this is like saying that it's not my fault for being overdrafted at the bank but is instead the bank's fault for sending me a letter telling me so.

(Speaking of which, John Hinderaker, if I send you the address for my Citibank branch, will you write a letter for me explaining that it's their fault I'm overdrafted and that they therefore owe me money. I'll pay you 15% of what they pay me.)

The problem, as Mike also points out, isn't that the news from Iraq is often bad (as well as good). It's that the Bush administration led us to believe that the news would be better and (remember those WMDs!) different. In a democracy, people should get the straight story from their elected officials, that means giving us the good and bad news. Part of that means admitting that there is bad news, rather than blaming the media for inventing it or "distorting the true picture."

However, the media's most conspicuous failures on the Iraq war don't involve their coverage of current events but rather their coverage of the lead-up to the war, during which they were complacent, uniquisitive, and complicit about alleged evidence proving that Hussein had WMD and the capacity to deploy them. If the media--and the President--had been bit more skeptical about the WMD claims or about the fantasies of cakewalk victory and occupation that expat Iraqis with axes to grind were handing the neocons, we might not have had a war, or we might have at least had a more realistic plan for occupation. Or any plan for occupation.

Since we can't rely on this administration for an honest assessment of progress and difficulties of anything involving the Iraq war or for much else beside it, we need the media to do better during the war than they did before it. What Hinderaker takes as unpatriotic and unproductive carping is in fact a patriotic imperative.

Hinderaker seems to forget that a little healthy skepticism about the government's claims and a willingness to report bad news is not only patriotic but can also actually--when the facts justify it--promote a war effort rather than "undermine" it. Consider for example that war so near and dear to his heart, World War II. On Dec. 8, 1941 a Chicago Daily Tribune article (written Dec. 7) began its description of the bombing of the Pearl harbor story with some bad news: "War struck suddenly and without warning from the sky and sea today at the Hawaiian Islands. Japanese bombs took a heavy toll of American lives. Cannonading offshore indicated a naval engagement in progress."

The story then followed with a little healthy skepticism of US government claims by pointing out that Berlin radio had broadcast a Japanese claim that many us ships and planes had been destoryed in the attack but that "Army and navy and White House officials in Washington were inclined to regard the reports as German propaganda and classified them as 'rumors.'"

The main difference between Roosevelt and Bush in this regard is that Roosevelt changed the classification from "rumors" to "facts" once the facts became clear.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Is the Media Undermining the Military in Iraq?

There's a very odd column out today, by John Hinderaker, that argues that American support for the war in Iraq is falling because of media bias. He argues that the media is reporting out casualties as headlines and not providing context about battles that we win, insurgents killed or captured, or objectives met. I disagree, in a lot of ways, since my mind is flooded with images of Iraqi women voting, wearing the iconic purple fingers, or Saddam Hussein in jail in his underwear, or the drafting of the problematic Iraqi Constitution -- I think we get a lot about what's going right.

Hinderaker argues that if we had the kind of media coverage now as we had in World War II, America would have lost support for that war, too. A lot has changed since World War II and the press probably was less confrontational to government authority back then, but judging by conversations I've had with members of my family who were there for the war or who fought in it, they weren't exactly left clueless about casualties, horrors and sacrifice.

The big difference between World War II and Iraq is that they are so freaking different that I can't believe I'm addressing the issue here. The U.S. was attacked by one of the Axis powers, for one thing. Before that, our cargo ships had been attacked repeatedly by German U-Boats. Hitler wanted to take over all of Europe and probably the world and he had the means to do it. The U.S. also sought to avoid that war, which raged for years before Pearl Harbor. The war sought the U.S.

It was also, in many cases, fought better and more honestly. Franklin Roosevelt didn't lie and tell the American people that the war would be cheap and easy. He said the opposite, that it would take an enormous toll on our society and that individual lives would be changed, combatant or no. But, he believed that it had to be done.

Here's one of Hinderaker's examples of how the current media would have undermined World War II: "How about the Battle of Midway, one of the most one-sided and strategically significant battles of world history? What if there had been no "triumphalism," as liberals sometimes call patriotism, in the American media's reporting on the battle, and Americans had learned only that 307 Americans died -- never mind that the Japanese lost more than 10 times that many -- without being told the decisive significance of the engagement?"

It's almost as if he doesn't know anything about the Battle of Midway. Here's the quick version, gleaned from watching "Victory At Sea," as a kid... The U.S. Navy had been reduced to a barely effective force by the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese has naval and air superiority. We were in big trouble. Admiral Nimitz knew that the Japanese had broken one of our secret codes, but they didn't know that we knew the code was broken. We had a base at an Midway Island on the International Dateline. Nimitz sent a message on the broken code, saying that the water desalinazation equipment had broken down and that the base was in chaos. He positioned what was left of his fleet in ambush. The Japanese navy, sensing opportunity, attacked the base and were soundly routed by the U.S. Navy in wait. It was pretty damned genius. It turned the tide in the Pacific.

Do you really think that a story like that would have gone unreported by today's media? I don't.

Also, Hineraker seems to think that the media, reporting on a war as it's happening, is something knew. I guess he's never heard of Ernie Pyle or even Ernest Hemingway, who wrote first hand accounts of the liberation of Paris for Collier's magazine.

The media isn't eroding support for the war in Iraq. Bad planning, lies about how the war would go and why we started in the first place, are eroding support. Never forget, we were told that it would be easy. We'd be greeted as liberators and we'd suffer few casualties and Iraq's own oil revenues would pay to rebuild the country. That's what we were told.

Franklin Roosevelt never said that World War II would be easy. He told the truth and said that American lives would be upended and ended, but that the cause justified the sacrifice. The difference between the national reaction to World War II and the national reaction to Iraq isn't about the media, it's about why we're fighting, how we're fighting and what we were told before the fighting began.

Signs of Weakness

Republican are famous for their loyalty and a lot of their success, since the Gingrich Revolution, can be attributed to their ability to defend their own, to attack the Democrats en masse and to take advantage of a fractured left. Of course, there are divisions within the right, too. There are people on he right who aren't happy when Pat Robertson says to kill Hugo Chavez. There's a secular right and a religious right, just as on the left you have staunch pacifists and economic liberals as well as hawks and free market liberals. But they've done a better job of keeping things together.

Katrina might have opened some wounds on their side, though. Remember, Bush's big strength in the 2004 election was that voters believed he would keep America safe from terrorists. But I think that what voters probably really meant is that he was the guy to handle any large scale disaster. Bush came out of 9-11 looking pretty good. New York's police, fire department and other agencies provided the cover by responding so well and the military handled the Pentagon. Shocked an appalled though we all were by the attacks, damage was localized, people near both attacks were taken care of, the government responded quickly at most all levels.

Four years later, Bush presides over a boondoggle. Republicans are loyal, but with the 2006 mid-term elections around the corner, Republicans who want their seatsin congress back now have to choose between saving themselves or loyalty to a President who has just proved himself and his administration as ineffective in the face of a major catastrophe. Robert Novak writes about some fracturing of loyalty here. Ed Kilgore of the Democratic Leadership Council expands on it here at Newdonkey.

Over course, there have been squabbles before. What they mean in terms of elections and the balance of power in a sharply divided America is entirely unclear. But I think that it does create an opportunity for Democrats, especially challengers from outside the government if they are willing to force Republican candidates for federal office to take a stand on Bush's ineffective government. It might win some elections. Remember, Democrat Paul Hackett nearly won a special congressional election in a highly Republican district, pre-Katrina, by forcing his opponent to defend Bush's inept handling of the Iraq war. If an unknown Democrat can come within a few percentage points of taking a Republican congressional district on a foreign policy issue, then I think it's fair to say that a domestic issue that speaks directly to security, is going to prove even more effective.

There is a chance here, I think. The 2006 elections are now far more competitive. In order to win some seats, it's going to be up to Democrats to really hammer away on Katrina and Iraq. These are two big issues, one foreign, one domestic, and both speak to Bush's former strength which was that he was once perceived as, for all his faults, as effective.

These little fights have a way os escalating.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Glenn Beck? He Won't Get This Post...

I wasn't going to blog again tonight, I really wasn't. Then, I was introduced to a right wing radio host, who I'd never heard of before, named Glenn Beck. He hates the New Orleans flood victims, really hates them, and also pointed out that he hates some 9-11 families. I had to know why he'd hate the victims of calamity. I just had to know.

Well, he hates the New Orleans victims because, when FEMA started handing out $2000 cash cards at the Astrodome (uh... I bet most people lost more than $2,000 worth of possessions, not to mention the future income they've lost because their jobs are under 20 feet of toxic flood water) they... kind of freaked out a bit about making sure they all got cards. They didn't riot, by, the way, they just kind of all freaked out. Let's keep this in perspective. If I'd just lost everything I owned, and the government had failed to provide a timely rescue, and that same government offered me a cash card worth a fraction of what I'd lost but which might provide me money to, you know, let my loved ones survive another day... I'd freak out to get one.

But Glenn Beck, who I have to give his full name for on every mention so that he's not confused with Genius Beck (the musician) says that it's like a buffet! They never run out of goodies! Okay, for one thing, buffet food almost always sucks. For another thing, if the government that had just left me suffering in toxic sludge for a week were running the buffet... why in the blue hell would I believe that they wouldn't run out for $2,000 cash cards? And, hell, beyond that, given the conditions that many New Orleans survivors are living in, getting $2,000 wouldn't even be much relief because I'd wonder what the hell our stingy and incompetent government would muster once that ran out.

And... I don't have a family. I don't have a wife and two kids. But, I do live in the modern economy and, as a denizen of that, I say that $2,000 is some nice relief in hard times, but that it can go pretty fast, even if you're single and being frugal. Look, I think it's great that the government is pretty quickly giving $2,000 to people who have been entirely displaced. It's a good start and a good thing and it gives people some leeway to figure out another way to exist. But it's only the start of what people deserve and it's barely a fraction of what's needed to make people whole. It's survival money.

This loser, Glenn Beck, is criticizing people who have nothing for freaking out about survival money.

Well, Glenn Beck sucks and he doesn't have the grapefruits to deal with real hardship.

My response is that everybody displaced had better get one of those cards and then, through a combination of insurance and government, they need to be made whole.

I've said this in almost every post and in almost every word I've written about New Orleans, but I'll say it again: Society exists, in its most essential part, to protect us against hostile environments. I really believe that it is the primary reason that people banded together. It's harder for tigers to eat us if we're together. We can make floodable land habitable, together. Hell, we can go in orbit, or to the moon, two places that would kill an individual in seconds, if we marshall our skills and resources together. That's freaking why we're together, in an evolutionary sense... it lets us expand! When people ask me why there was a city below sea level and people living in a flood zone in the first place, I always tell them that it's because humanity was gifted with reason and community. Those tools let us make dangerous place habitable. That drive, to populate the world, has its problems and we can have anb environmental discussion some other time, but at the root of it is the fact that society lets people live in places that might otherwise be unlivable. That's part of life, by the way. All species expand to maximum capacity. We have courted some dangers and suffered many losses, but that's who we are, fundamentally.

But, if that's what humanity has evolved into, a loose social collective that gathers skills and reasons to live in sometimes dangerous spots, then to do anything less than to give our full support to victims of the 2004 tsunami or 2005's Katrina, or to 9-11, or to hurricane Andrew or San Francisco's many earthquakes or the LA Riots... well, to do less is a denial of being human.

Part of being human is being social. Being social protects individuals from nature and each other. Those are fundamental needs of our species and we only exist because, throughout the billions of years that our planet had existed, we have met those needs to the degree that we can and have survived.

Folks, we are what we are. We are primates with reason and opposable thumbs who have banded together against an indifferent nature that includes ourselves. Know-nothings like Glenn Beck can blab, blab, blab, their vitriol and hatred towards other humans, but in 4.5 billion years of life on Earth and the evolution that came from it, modern humans are the only species who spread so far and with such dominance and I include viruses, bacteria and ubiquitous e. coli in that. We've done it with an evolved empathy and sense of community that Glenn Beck doesn't even know exists. Seriously, if that turd were to somehow read this post, he'd be entirely confused by what I'm saying. He just doesn't get it.

Look around you, look at the strangers, the cab driver, the Wal-Mart checkout clerk, the congressional representative, the billionaire mogul, the guy who jsut offered you his seat on the subway because you look tired, the talking heads, the ex-lover, the guy who stops you from driving down a street where a crane is operating, the cop walking down the street for no reason at all... we're all here for the greater good of the species, even the assholes. We're all together, because without being together, we'd be nothing more than the fossils of pterodactyls discovered by some other species that had been blessed enough by nature to get it together.

I guess I'm annoyed that, in the aftermath of the destruction of New Orleans, I have seen people blame the people in New Orleans. That isn't what made humanity so present on Earth. That is the opposite. That is a herd of kudu stopping to blame the slower one for getting eaten by a leopard, which would result in the leopord eating all of the herd.

See, even kudu know better.

But there's a difference. Kudu can run. Humans aren't runners. We're on two freaking feet! Running kills our backs and knees!

Kudu run. Humans rebuild and manipulate nature, hopefully in reasonable ways, and thus, they achieve the same result as a herd of running Kudu -- most get away to get more.

For 200 million years, a short span to the Kudu running but a long time in the life of most specifes, humanity has been served by banding together against disaster and using reason to prevent it. They run, we reason. That's how it's been for a long time. But the will to reason lies in empathy. You can't just say "Stupid idiots," and turn away. You have to say, "Is there a way to do this right?" If there is, you have to rebuild. That's human. What Glenn Beck and others have said, laying blame on the victims and wanting to run away isn't inhuman, it's antihuman.

Forgive me, by the way, if my definition of humanity is a bit "Star Trek." I'm a geek.

But think about it. A species uses empathy and reason to survive the threats of an indifferent nature. To me, that really sounds like what we're doing.

The Truest Caption

One of the worst, indeed.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Apocalpytic Thoughts (Well, In the Literal Sense)

An apocalypse is really a revealing. It's a time when a culture's deep and scary flaws are let out into the open air and this is usually expressed, in apocalyptic literature of all types, as highly, physically destructive. But, the way I see it, Rome didn't fall in a day (Did it? No, I'm sticking to that, it didn't).

In five years, we've had three major, destructive events that revealed flaws in our own systems. Three? Hey, people like to talk about the Post 9-11 world, but I talk about the Post-March 2000 world. Think about it this way, if you'd enetered the stock market in 1998, after the Russian, Asian and Latin American financial disasters, you would have pretty much made no money, 7 years later. That's a little arbitrary, but, if you're using the stock market as a gauge of our economic worth, it gives the United States roughly the same value now as it did seven years ago and all of the crackberries and Wi-Fi hot spots in the country haven't so far changed that.

9-11 and the two wars that followed it (one related, one not related but sold that way) served to hamper the recovery from our admittedly mild 2001 recession. Unemployment is still low, as is inflation, but wages have generally not kept up, even with the historically low inflation we've had. Low inflation might also be over. After Katrina, we lost 12% of our oil refining capacity. The outlying high gas prices are now hitting $6 a gallon. $3.50 and up isn't uncommon. Sure, we have a strategic oil reserve but, even before losing the southern refineries, there was a glut for turning oil into gasoline. Prices will probably soon fall from disaster highs, but... they're not going back to $1.75 a gallon. One of the revelations here is that we were probably all getting gas too cheaply, given supplies available and now global demand. Welcome to inflation.

Here's another revelation -- the US government has so overextended itself abroad and has become so fixated on terrorism that it is unable to properly respond to a major natural disaster in the US. Only good news is... the US doesn't have major natural disasters every month. The problem with that good news is, if you understand probability in its most basic sense, it doesn't mean that we're in the clear for awhile any more than me flipping tails with a coin means the next flip will bring up heads.

Another revelation -- there are some very good things that have happened over the past 20 years. For example, unemployment has kept to around 5% nationally and it's become a new norm. That used to be unthinkable and used to be a number that meant the best of times. Now, it's a norm. We have grown. But, throughout our current recovery, we have not created enough new jobs to keep up with new people entering the work force. The US has been growing on productivity, more than anything. Productivity only kind of creates jobs. Eventually, a very productive company will expand. But, in the short term, a very productive company is just getting a lot of work out of as few workers as possible.

Another revelation: Our technology has not made us invincible. Iraq is a quagmire. Rumsfeld famously said, "You go to war with the Army you have." But, the Army we have is all volunteer. In that sense, its size and strength serves as a public statement about how much we're willing to fight. Perhaps we need to start, "Going to wars that the Army we have can handle."

Because, and to bring this back to the beginning of this loopy little screed, I think that what's most been revealed are the costs of our belligerence. The National Guard, meant to guard the nation while other parts of the military are abroad, is at half strength in many places. Being constantly at war has spooked corporate executives and investors, making them less willing to commit money towards expansion. Some people think wars help economies. But that's only true in the case of say, World War II, when you can take a bunch of out of work people from the Depression and say, "You know, we're willing to pay you to build tanks and bombs." That's when companies like Ford, who can't sell cars to an impoverished public, start making fighter plane engines. Those aren't the kinds of wars we fight these days. The wars we fight are bad because they just kind of scare everybody.

People say about George W.H. Bush that he was too concerned with foreign policy while the domestic economy was a mess. The same is true of George W. Bush, but, for awhile, he framed all of his foreign interventions in the name of national security and since the country was attacked from abroad, people bought the argument. But, really, I think it's now been revealed that the son not only made the father's mistake, but made it much worse.

We never really properly recovered from the bubble bursting in 2000. The stock market says we haven't recovered at all. Our domestic situation has suffered from a lack of attention. That's the big revelation.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

A New Orleans Book Review

A very talented writer named Rob Walker, once at Slate, now a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, just published a fabulous book called "Letters From New Orleans." It's about his move from New York to New Orleans in 2000 and it's fantastic. If you love the city, or if you never knew it and now want to, you want this book. Rob's a fantastic writer.

I reviewed the book here at

This is really good, personal, essay journalism. It will tell you things you never knew about the city, even if you lived there. Rob got outside of himself on this one and wrote more about New Orleans than he did about himself, which is a real accomplishment in essay writing. It's not only relevant, but it's good enough that I sang its praises well before the disaster.

And now... on top of it all...

Chief Justice William Rehnquist has passed away. This was a man I don't often agree with but wouldn't want to debate with, as he has really thought through his decisions. It also gives the President two appointments to the court, which I think we gathered he'd get. He got one swing justice and one smart conservative to replace. It's not as if he got two progressives, but it will have a major effect on the courts. Two appointments in one year is a lot for any President. Bush will leave an indellible mark here.

It's amazing that this would happen, on top of the New Orleans tragedy.

But, I think Democrats should realize that the government's inability to prevent or even mitigate that tragedy, along with the recent bad news from Iraq, has weakened Bush. It's time for the opposition party to oppose. I doubt they can stop John Roberts and, despite serious reservations about him, I'm not sure that they should. I can live with a justice who I disagree with but still see as reasonable.

What Bush should finally acknowledge, though, and what he has never admitted, is that despite his squeaking into office in 2000 and his narrow victory in 2004, this country is divided and he represents us all. I think that anyone to the right of Roberts would be unacceptable. Let's see if the Democrats, neutered so far for 5 years, have gained courage as Bush's popularity has dropped over Iraq and New Orleans. Were the election held today, Bush might well lose. That's a tough call to make and it isn't of course, a definite call, but I think that even his partisans would admit he'd be in a lot more trouble, and he was in trouble a year ago. Bush is now vulnerable to outright challenge. I wonder if the Democrats will try, or if they've consigned themselves to minority status for the rest of our upcoming history.

I'm framing this as a minor fight. I don't expect Bush to appoint a liberal. Heck, he's President, he has his beliefs, I wouldn't even ask him to appoint a liberal. The Democrats shouldn't reject a reasonable, thoughtful appointment. But they should not be streamrolled. Not now. Not by a vulnerable President. If they are, then the left in America, such as it is, is doomed. It's one thing to cower in front of a bully. It's another thing to cower in front of a bully with a bum knee.

Watch this one. And, if you've never written or called your congressional reps, if you've never thought it was worth the time, consider doing so during the second Supreme Court appointment. Remember, we won't get a liberal, but some conservative justices, like Sandra Day O'Connor and, on fewer occasions, like William Rehnquist, have created a law that both parties can live by. We have the right to ask, at least, for that.

Yay, the Media is Finally Mad!

It certainly took long enough. Over at Slate, media cokumnist Jack Shafer has a great rundown on the TV news personalities who have pretty much lost it with guests who go on their programs to apologize for the government's response to the New Orleans flood.

For once, the talking heads, who darned well know spin when they hear it but uually let it slide, are demanding better from the governors and Senators and government employees who drop in to calm an angry public. In this case, the lies are too big to let slide. The guest says nobody expected the city to flood. But the host just an hour ago interviewed Professor "This city's gonna flood someday" from Tulane. The guest says that the government workers are brave and doing the best they can. The host says, "Sure, but where were they three days ago?"

This morning, with air lifts finally getting people out of the city, CNN's Miles O'Brien keeps saying, "It looks like we've turned a corner." But he's still so angry that he can't help but point out that it's a corner we should have turned days ago.

Now, the guests are trying a new tactic. They all seem to be saying, "There'll be plenty of time to assess the blame later." Uh, no. a GAO report and some Senate hearings in a few months or a year is not sufficient. Holding the government accountable later, when this is no longer the country's top story, is the same as letting them off the hook.

It's nice to see the media actually take issue with the government. But, to echo Miles O'Brien... it's a little late to be turning this corner, folks. If you'd been acting like this in 2002, half of the National Guard forces needed in New Orleans wouldn't be in Iraq right now.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A Weird Post I Apologize For

In my office, I have a wall devoted to photos I took and posters I collected, from a visit to Port Harcourt, Nigeria, five years ago. The wall tells a story of poverty, hope, bravery, fear, industrial apathy and propganda from all sides. That trip I took is in my soul.

A colleague visited on my office on this day of images from New Orleans. The photos feature Africans. My colleague apologized before saying what he said. He said, "What I saw on CNN today, from the Superdome, looks like a scene from one of these oil producing African countries that you have all over your wall."

Just turned on CNN.

My friend was right. I caught a little photo montage on a Larry King commercial break and I felt, looking at those photos, what I felt in Nigeria. But the Larry King photo montage is probably a lie. There wasn't one white face in it. I can't believe, given all of the poor caucasions that exist, that the situation isn't a little more mixed. Yes, I accept that in the US and especially the south, that African Americans would predominate. But, I fear that in selecting photos only of African Americans, that there's a bit of "the other" at work in our culture. "They," aren't like everyone else. "They," don't get the same compassion as us. "They," are like starving Ethiopians."

I know, I know, I sound like a college sophomore who just declared an ethnic studies major. Forget that. What I see, flipping channels, MSNBC, Fox, CNBC, CNN, CNBC, is... an ancient, irrational, and idiotic attempt to separate the people suffering now from the majority population.

I don't think it's an active conspiracy, by the way. I think it's old images, old ideas, being expressed now by people who wish the best. But, it's still there. It really is there. Turn on a news channel and tell me that it's not. If you can tell me that, then that's great news. If you provide evidence that this post is complete BS, then you'll have given me a lot of cheer.

P.S. I guess I'm a bit worked up about New Orleans, given my posts today. On some level, it really is about the great times I've had there. I had two visits. Both are still with me. The place got to me. I never lived there. But it is important to me. It is also, at this moment, a locus of national politics. Our government blew it here. But, that government was run by people who have always told us that government would always blow it. Our government is run by people who hate government. I truly believe that the tragedy of New Orleans is the result of the philosophy that government is a bad thing, perhaps even evil. The city was once, for me, a symbol of my libertine youth. It's now a symbol of the horrible implications of a political philosophy. That might sound abstract to you. But to me, it sounds reality with terror.

Please Remember This

A group of Democrat congressional reps have vowed to put forward a bill that will exempt New Orleans residents from the harsh provisions of the recent change to our bankruptcy laws. This is the right thing to do, since many of our fellow citizens will now face new obligations through no fault of their own. Any member of congress who opposes this, regardless of parties, should be held in the highest contempt.

Here's the problem. They have to introduce the bill now, to help those in need. But, if it fails, the bankruptcies won't happen for months, or maybe even years. If this bill fails, every New Orleans bankruptcy should be noted with the line, "some members of government tried to help, but their suggestion was rejected." The news cycle being what it is, that won't happen. So, remember, if this bill fails, that some people tried to do the right thing and point it out whenever the topic is raised.