Monday, April 30, 2007

Experts and Electability

I'm going to take a moment to savor the fact that the Chicago Bulls just swept the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

I moved to Chicago about ten years ago, around the last time the Bulls won a playoff series, and it's nice to see the local team (well, the national and international group of highly paid mercenaries) make good. But I'm also enjoying the Bulls' win because it reminds me that in the 2008 presidential election I'm going to tune out whenever anybody starts talking about electability.

Why? Well, let me return you to the last game of the regular season, when Chicago was playing Cleveland in a game that went a long way to determining the seeding of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Moderately complicated seeding procedures not worth discussing here meant that if Chicago won, it would be the #2 seed and therefore play the Washington Wizards. If Chicago lost, it would be the #5 seed and play the Miami Heat. The Wizards had been a really good team before losing two of their best players to injury; the Heat had just gotten their best player back from injury. As the Chicago-Cleveland game grew nigh, sports pundit after sports pundit sat in his sleek and shining suit in TV studio after TV studio and agreed that both Cleveland and Chicago really needed to win the game because defending champion Miami would be just too tough to beat in the playoffs. They agreed that Chicago would be doing well to win two games in a best of seven series. They were very persuasive.

They were also very wrong.

There are a lot of genuine experts in the world. Highly trained people with deep knowledge and experience who deserve consultation. Very few of those people are on television.

Instead, American TV is a strange three-camera kingdom populated by bright-toothed people overpaid to appear to understand things better than the rest of us. Mostly, though, they're just as clueless as we are. Or more clueless--they live closer to the contagious idiocy that passes as insider wisdom, which tends to disable what little common sense they might otherwise have. I mean, most mutual funds don't manage to beat the market, but we're supposed to take stock advice from "experts" on MSNBC who couldn't even get a job working as the personal assistant to a deputy fund manager? It's like a girl-crazy teenage boy taking dating advice from a gay uncle who isn't successful with men.

And print media pundits aren't much better. They're just a more rumpled, which gives the illusion of seriousness.

So this year I'm not going to listen to talk about "electability," which is the political equivalent of "Chicago can't beat Miami." Remember electability? It gave us John Kerry in 2004. Pundits and pollsters said that Dean was too left-wing and Edwards was too inexperienced. But John Kerry was baby-bear porridge. Kerry had war medals, good hair, and a sonorously boring answer for every question. He had, they said, the sort of gravitas needed to challenge Bush. And so the pundits all eventually infected each other with electability and decided that American voters wanted electability. They were very persuasive. Too many of us believed them.


This time around, I think Democrats (and Republicans for that matter, though they've got a crummy crop of candidates this go-round) should worry way less about electability and way more about policy, competence, and vision. (Electability, really, is only a sort of composite score of those three qualities anyway; it has no independent existence except in the minds of fake experts.) And the distribution and depth of those traits will only become truly clear about a year from now, after debates and campaigning.

My expert tip is that we'll have a good sense about a candidate's electability once we know which candidate the most people like. Crazy, I know.

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Look Who's Whining

Joe Lieberman whined today that bloggers are mean during an American Enterprise Institute about how to restore "civility in American politics."

Give me a fucking break.

You know what, Joe? If you want me to be civil then don't unapologetically support unnecessary wars.

Also, you're national leader. It's time to man up a bit. You're basically just angry that an online campaign cost you the Connecticut primary last year. You're a sore loser. Which is funny because that's what the Republicans called you in 2000 and I didn't listen to them. I guess they were right about your character even if they were wrong about the facts of the 2000 presidential elections. Now Republicans are, by your own admission, the people who sent you back to the Senate.

You say that the public is "fed up" with partisan politics. Not really. There's no reason at all for anyone to believe that. The public would rather have good policy enacted by either side than a bunch of bad policies that both sides agree on. Just because something's bipartisan doesn't mean it's good. The war in Iraq was sadly authorized by members from both parties. Look where that got us.

Oh, I almost forgot -- still supports the war even though the American people don't. "We can’t hold our finger in the air or read public opinion polls to tell us where to go," you say. Thanks, supreme overlord. Since you were elected ot office you shouldn't feel compelled to check in on the will of the people ever.

You warn that a third party candidate might make things interesting in 2008. I assume you mean your pal and my mayor Michael Bloomberg since he has the money to sweep in at the last minute and launch a credible campaign. But I don't think he'll do it because in his heart of hearts he knows he'll lose. There's a lot about his so called "centrist" politics that won't play well with the population because centrism doesn't mean what you think it means -- it's not the middle point between extremes, it's the views that most people in America hold. Those are different things.

I hope you're talking about yourself running, though. I wanna see some more Joementum. Only the embarassment of getting crushed as a third party candidate on the biggest stage of them all will ever make you fucking think for once.

Finally, on civility in American politics: You can wad that civility into a pointy little ball and shove it. You keep reminding us that we're at war. I know it and I'm mad about it. So stop asking me to be nice about it while you completely ignore any point of view that's not in line with your own.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ah, sex scandals...

I hate Washington sex scandals. Sure, I find them entertaining but, no matter what political party the scandalee is a member of, I do hate publically judging people by how they find a way to get off. The current scandalee is Richard Tobias who is a high-ranking official at the State Department or... was. There's a nice hypocrisy angle here because Tobias is on record as a supporter of Bush's "abstinence only," approach to sex education. He got in trouble because he was a client of an escort service run by a Washington D.C. madame who is being prosecuted for running a prostitution ring. Tobias says he never had sex, only massages. Sadly, he referred to ordering massage girls as being akin to ordering a pizza.

Still, even though this one gets the other side and even though the pizza comment is horribly demeaning towards women... I hate sex scandals. Hate, hate, hate, them. This is just not important to me. I care about policy. Yes, the Republican ox just got gored. But, the Madam has a long list. I'll bet it's bipartisan. And, though the Republican "famility values" platform makes them the most likely hypocrisy targets, every national political from both sides has made statements against promiscuity and lascivious yearnings. Our culture is just so repressed that only people who at least speak out against having fun can get elected or appointed to national office.

Any beef I have with Tobias has to do with the policies he's helped enable, not with who he has over at his hotel room to give him a massage. Though, a gentleman opens doors, pulls her chair out for her, walks on the traffic-side of the road and does not, under any circumstance, compare a lady to pizza. He's a cad. That amuses me. I like to laugh at cads.

But, politically? I'll take a qualified, intelligent government official who enacts and enables good policy but also gets massages from hookers over a prude moron any day.

I just don't care about who they sleep with.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Thanks, Jon Stewart

For those who somehow missed it, please go see this two-part interview between Jon Stewart and John McCain. Stewart actually asks McCain so many of the questions that I've wanted to hear a serious Iraq war apologist try to answer. Part II is particularly important because he asks how questioning the President is the same as failing to support the troops. And then he doesn't back down when McCain tries the typical nonsensical misdirections.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Unaccountability Dictionary

George Tenet, former CIA director and he of the "slam dunk" intelligence that justified the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war, is about to publish a book entitled At the Center of the Storm in which he attacks Dick Cheney and others (though not the President) for going to war with Iraq without a serious debate on whether or not Iraq actually, say, posed a threat.

There's a lot to be said about this but (see my post immediately below) it's already been said. "Today a former Bush administration official/federal prosecutor/Katrina victim/woman with functioning eyes and ears revealed that the Bush administration's glaring incompetence/contempt for the Constitution/half-secret desire to hasten Armaggedon has led the President and/or his top-level staff to invade/destroy/trample yet another country/right/box of puppies, but the President continues to maintain that he acted in the best interests of the nation and to stand firmly behind Don Rumsfeld/Alberto Gonzales/a compost heap that someone told him is Margaret Thatcher."

So, rather than pretending to be shocked that the administration bumbled blindly into Iraq armed with little more than a gas station map of Baghdad and a song in its heart (specifically, "America, Fuck Yeah!"), I'm simply going to point out an interesting lexical development made clear in Tenet's book. Tenent, who of course learns things before the rest of us, has begun to use words in the novel ways that they will incontrovertibly and imminently be used, or at least so the New York Times reports:
Mr. Tenet takes blame for the flawed 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s weapons programs, calling the episode “one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure.” He expresses regret that the document was not more nuanced, but says there was no doubt in his mind at the time that Saddam Hussein possessed unconventional weapons. “In retrospect, we got it wrong partly because the truth was so implausible,” he writes.
Implausible (adj.)--characterized by inconvenience of consequence.

See also Tenet: (n.) 1. an important belief or conviction held retroactively; 2. a person who holds such a belief or conviction

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News from the Middle East (Sigh)

Though it is of course exceedingly rare, sometimes somebody makes the point better than I could. From this week's Onion:

MIDDLE EAST—With the Iraq war in its fifth year, the war in Afghanistan in its sixth, and conflict between Israel and the rest of the region continuing unabated for more than half a century, intelligence sources are warning that a new wave of violence in the Middle East may soon blah blah blah, etc. etc., you know the rest.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

More War Years!

When he ran for re-election and lost hist own party primary, Joe Lieberman rather disputed the notion that voting for him was a vote for more war.

Now, he's publicly open to bombing Iran, since what we've done in Iraq has gone so well.

Given that Lieberman has been unapologetically wrong about well, everything involving us using force in the Middle East, why do his opinions on matters such as this even merit coverage?

Still, he gets to opine on such tooics and the rest of us, who are better informed and have better snese, do not.

Joe Lieberman is a liar. He said his candidacy didn't support more war and it does. He's an even worse liar because he supports new wars that aren't even being fought at the moment.

Joe Lieberman is a senator but he should be known as a scam artist. He doesn't seem to care a bit about public opinion, which wants the war in Iraq to end and doesn't want to start one in Iran, and that's bad enough. But he also defrauded the voters of Connecticut by claiming during the election that he was not a warmonger when he clearly is.

No Cooties Bus Lines

Some Israeli women are suing to eliminate gender-segregated bus routes in Israel. "Modesty buses," in which men ride at the front and women ride at the back, provide transportation on about 60 routes throughout the country.

Although those sixty are only a tiny fraction of the thousands of bus routes in Israel, many of them are in Jerusalem, and many of them offend and inconvenience riders--especially female riders. Those riders particularly resent that the buses are state-subsidized. They say, rightly, that while ultra-Orthodox Jews have the right to ride on segregated buses, they don't have the right to force all Israelis--many of whom are non-Orthodox, some of are non-Jewish--to pay for their own segregation.

Some apologists for the bus lines try to say that this is good segregation, not bad segregation. Shlomo Rosenstein, a Jerusalem city councillor, wants us to believe that "this really is about positive discrimination, in women's favor" because "our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women [and therefore] this modesty barrier must not be broken."

That's not a very good explanation. I'm not a Talmudic scholar, but I'm willing to bet that there's nothing in the Jewish holy writings expressly forbidding that "a man and a woman should commit a sin in the eyes of the LORD their GOD by traveling in shameful mixture on the Jerusalem number 40 express."

More importantly, I'm inclined to agree with Thurgood Marshall's insight in Brown v. Board of Education that the impulse to segregate is almost inevitably the result and the cause of inequality. (I wonder, for example, how the male defenders of the segregated buses would handle being made to ride in the back.) And, once again, I realize how nice it is to live in a country governed by the First Amendment, which prevents the establishment of a state religion and therefore makes it harder for people to turn "our religion" into state policy.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007


I'm with people who say that we don't need Al Gore to run in 2008 as some sort of rescue candidate because the Democrats are already running a very qualified bunch. At this point, I could see myself pretty happily supporting Obama, Clinton, Edwards and Richardson for president, though I'd prefer any of the first three with Richardson as a running mate.

Still, speculation continues that Gore might enter the race.

If he does, I'd at least say that I'll be even more undecided. While I don't know where my primary vote is going at this point, I do know that adding Gore to the mix will make me more undecided in the primary but will give me one more guy I know I could vote for in the general.

I hope he runs. Why not strengthen an already strong primary field?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

There are no other people...

Was just checking up on Neil Gaiman's blog before bed and, as he says, "There are no Other People. It's just us."

500 posts!

So, this is the 501st post at thosethingswesay. Thanks, Jon!

I guess this blog has a small readership (I've never measured it) made up mostly of friends of mine and Jon's, with a few people who straggle in from TPMCafe and from our one mention on Slate awhile back. We're not a huge progressive blog like Talkingpointsmemo or Eschaton or Dailykos. That's okay. There are thousands of blogs like ours with small readerships. I think we serve a function as well -- we provide a little something different for the readers of the big blogs who might drop by here during a moment where they just want a little something else to read.

Anyway, I guess that's where we stand. I like to think that me and Jon have put up some thoughts that are interesting. I'm not sure, philosophically, what they all add up to and I haven't reviewed the archives (I'm sure I've written somethings I'd be embarassed to reread) and I know we're typo-ridden and sometimes grammatically incorrect. If I had to sum it up, I'd say we've been progressive but not mainstream, and with a hint of libertarianism and a hint of socialism that are always at odds with each other.

More than anything, me and Jon have been mostly aghast. This whole blog has been informed by the fact that we Americans are in the fourth year of a way that we didn't need to initiate. For my part, thinking back to Bush getting to the White House in 2000, I never imagined that things could get this bad. I guess I naively thought, "What's he going to do, commit us to a multiyear military engagement on dubious grounds?"

I'm sad to admit that, before it seemed like that would happen for sure, and even after 9-11, that I was probably prone to dismiss such a notion as unfairly partisan and perhaps paranoid. But, as we now know, paranaoia doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Oh, Sweet Moronic Jebus

At a South Carolina town hall meeting, a superlatively Fox-informed gentleman asked John McCain when America was going to send "an airmail message to Tehran" (because remember, it's not tactics, intel, troop strength, materiel, and domestic support that win wars, it's the manliness of your message). In reply, McCain sang "Bomb Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann."

It was meant as a joke. And, along with the (rhetorical) dancing McCain did afterward, it did save him from having to answer directly whether he would lead us into another war even though the ones we're in already have stretched the military as far as it will go. Still. It's mighty creepy and somehow a little sad.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Death in Context

Just below, Jon writes about the Virginia Tech deaths in the context of the hundreds of Iraqui deaths that happened, and were largely ignored by our media in the same day. Jon points out that one reason that the media has given more coverage to Virginia Tech is obvious -- an American media favors an American story for its American audience. It's true.

But I wish it didn't go as far as it does. When I read Jon's post, I was reminded of the media frenzy surrounding the death of a young, white American girl in Aruba. That story was also important in that what happened to her was a tragedy, but it also got outsized media coverage.

Jon said, generally, that the American media is biased towards American deaths.

I wish it were nothing more than that. Unfortunately, what members of the American media try to do, when selecting their stories, is to appeal to what they perceive their audience to be. "White girl lost in Aruba" is a compelling story. But it was covered to a far greater extent than stories about minority women who go missing, even within our borders. Why more for the girl in Aruba than for a girl in the Bronx? Why more for 32 Americans than over 200 Iraqis?

Well, as I said, a member of the media considers the potential audience. And when you imagine your audience, you imagine them as extentions of yourself. And the media is largely made up of a bunch of middle class white guys, so we imagine that we should report for middle class white guys, even when we try not to. It's just psychology.

A psychology that skews coverage, without a doubt. First, the local takes precedence over the international. Then, stories about white folk beat our stories aboutn minorities. Then, stories about the upper and middle classes beat out stories about the poor and working poor...

It's not intentional, but it happens and it's significant.

What's Plan B for Iraq if the Surge fails?

In a brilliant articale, Phillip Carter at Slate invalidates the question. We're not on "Plan A" right now. He argues that we're on Plan F, and he details every strategy we've tried and why they've failed.

His description of the real Plan A, now 4 years old, is really telling. Our original Plan A was that our air stikes and special forces would "shock and awe" the Iraqis in such a way that they would fear resisting us and then would be inspired by us so that they would greet our troops as liberators and form their own democracy. What happened was that the shock part kind of worked in that nobody in Iraq liked Saddam enough that they were willing to go nose to nose with a stealth bomber, but after Hussein's government fell, Iraqis decided to have their own power struggle, rather than to take direction from us.

So now we have the surge and we ask, "What's plan b if it doesn't work?"

That almost implies that over 4 years, Bush has had only the opportunity to try two strategies. That's wrong. We've tried several times, without success, to implement strategies that will bring Iraq to peace and stability and all have failed. The thing to remember about Bush and his ilk, especially when the question of "giving it another chance" shows up is that Bush never intended on a real Plan B. This war was sold to the American public as a cakewalk and it's not one. How many chances should Bush get? He said we'd invade, be thanked for it, and would go home. Hasn't happened. Over four years he's said, "Just let me try this," and "just let me try that." He's been allowed to try. Hasn't worked.

It's been four years.

Nobody who sold us this war thought we'd still be fighting, in this manner, four years later. The best you can say for them is that they did say it'd be hard to build a new democracy in Iraq and that we'd still be there four years later -- but the implication was that we'd be there building schools, holding conferences and giving advice, not that we'd be needing to send more combat troops to fight a guerilla war.

Folks who say this isn't like Viet Nam point to the fact that our losses, while terrible, don't reach Viet Nam levels. But, we're 40 years after Viet Nam. Our technology and tactics developed since then have thankfully spared us Viet Nam level casualties. But I'm not going to wait until we get to old awful numbers before I say that our losses our too much. Relative to what we've learned and the technologies we've developed, our losses are already too much.

What we need now is not a "Plan B," it's a plan that gets our troops out of harm's way. We were not given the war we were promised. We are not achieving the results we were promised. Hell, the reasons we were given for even going to war in the first place didn't pan out.

So for how much longer should a democracy deal with a war that wasn't waged for the right reasons, didn't achieve what we were told it would, and has claimed more casualties, time and money than we were told to endure?

Not much longer at all, I say. Not even a day.

Bring them home.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Understanding the Corpses

Every blogger runs the risk of being a pontificating twit, a prattling narcissist, or some affiliated variety of prat. My hunch is that I'm particularly liable to lapse into insensitive dickery. And so I'm having a very hard time writing this post because I'm almost positive it'll come out wrong. But I still feel like what I have to say today is worth saying if I can say it right.

And I want to say that I think we're paying too much attention to the Virginia Tech shootings. Now, I'm not saying that it isn't a big story or that we shouldn't pay attention to it. Thirty-two people murdered is overwhelming. That sort of death, its pointless brutality, should impress itself on our thoughts. On the day all this was happening, I happened to be talking to a current Virginia Tech visiting Chicago. Maybe she would have been killed if she'd still been in Blacksburg. Maybe friends of hers died. Surely friends of her friends were gunned down for no reason worth the name. So that puts me at one or two degrees of separation from the slaughter--immune from the worst suffering but sensitized to the reality of it, aware that something awful happened to real people.

So, yes, I do think we should be paying attention and trying to think it through. Mike, for example, has posted thoughtfully on the shootings. In fact, it's hard for me to figure out how one can pay too much thoughtful attention to the stupid, heartbreaking murder of so many people. (It's not hard to figure out how one can pay too much exploitative, sleazy attention to it; for that, one has only to turn on half of TV news about the story.) So I don't think my objection is about the absolute amount of attention; I think it's about the relative amount of the attention.

Look, if you will, at the pic at the top of this post. The New York Times has three stories dedicated to the Tech killings. That's down from yesterday, I think. It has only one dedicated to the bombing deaths of 115 Iraqis today. Now, of course US reporters will cover US deaths more closely. Their readers and viewers care more and not necessarily for racist or xenophobic reasons but simply because we are taught to think of ourselves as Americans, and so when Americans die, we feel more personally involved. There's something disturbing about that, I think, but reporters aren't and can't be entirely detached from their own cultures. So American reporters cover American deaths more closely. (Plus, of course, it's easier, cheaper, and safer to send reporters to Virginia than to Anbar, so there will be more reporters on the ground anyway.)

Still, there is something wrong here. I've written before that our media often seem to treat some murder victims as way more important that others, and some of that seems to be happening with the Tech slayings. Thirty-three dead (counting the killer) is overwhelming at Tech because there have never been that many people killed there in a single day, not for decades at least, and there's nothing even approaching 33 homicides per year on the Tech campus. So the story is that something shocking has happened. But there there are neighborhoods in the US where 33 people die each year pretty regularly, most of them about the same age as the kids at Tech. That to me is at least as shocking, when you stop to think about it. Which we don't, by and large, unless we live in those neighborhoods. And we don't, by and large. So it keeps happening.

But even our radically uneven sensitivity to death isn't all that bothers me about it. I also think it's because--through a combination of mutually reinforcing practicalities and prejudices--the reporting encourages us think of the dead in Blacksburg as people and the dead in Iraq (and Detroit and Afghanistan...) as numbers. The New York Times, for example, has an interactive feature that gives pictures and details about each of the victims. Even the two currently unidentified victims count as individuals.

Of the Baghdad bombing, the Times can tell us only that the victims were in a "predominately Shiite district." Even the Iraqi reporters who contributed to the story remain anonymous (no doubt to protect them from insurgent attacks). And there's something deeply wrong about that. Without discounting the serious practical obstacles to identifying the Baghdad victims at all much less learning enough about them to provide photos and biographical snapshots, I think it hurts us that we won't ever see get those details.

In fact, simply because I happened to have some small connection to somebody from Virginia Tech at about the time of the shootings, I realize viscerally how angry and mystified and terrified people in Blacksburg must feel right now. I realize the genuine importance of the story, which, ironically makes me think what we're paying too much attention to it or, better, that we're paying too little attention to the ongoing slaughter in Iraq in comparison with the Tech deaths.

I don't say this because almost four times as many died in the recent attacks; it's not about numbers. I say it because it finally sunk in for me how hard and how long everybody touched directly by the Tech killings will have to struggle to come to terms with what happened there. How many nightmare-plagued nights, how many involuntary flinches at popping sounds, how many happy memories of friends that turn sour when the reality of their deaths reasserts itself. The events of a single day will affect the survivors for years, probably for the rest of their lives. I'm obtuse, so it took me a while to really deal with the enormity and the intensity of that. And then an even more overwhelming realization hit me: in Baghdad, for virtually everyone there, it's not the events of a single day. It's the events of days like that every month, if not every week, piled on top of one another, year after year after year.

And that's the story that's missing, I think. The unremitting trauma of being alive in Baghdad these days. Despite all the numbers and video footage, I don't think we as a country have really thought through what it means to live in a place where you can count on ten, twenty, fifty times a year hearing the same news that panicked parents and friends heard about the Tech shootings--there has been a senseless mass killing where your daughter goes to school, where your son works, where your wife studies. Only the families of soldiers on the ground have to deal with that. But that's what living though war actually means. And until we understand that on a gut level, we'll never understand what the war has meant for Iraqis.

Of course, maybe this has been obvious to all of you from the start. Maybe I'm just empathy deficient. If so, today I'm wishing I were a little more deficient. I'd feel better, anyway. But this war was started by people on all sides with that particular defect, people who think in abstractions like money and power or glory and honor and national will. But people who have the power to start violence should think in terms of distant pops and ominously ringing telephones, of terror, loss, and the rage that grows out of them.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech Shootings

Though these tragedies are quite rare, this is bound to have an impact on public policy. For the curious, I recommend reading this book by Mark Ames.

Last year, I reviewed the book. My review can be found here.

At this point, we don't know much about what happened in Virginia, but Ames' book gives a good glimpse into the psyche of a potential public shooter.

It's hard not to recall columbine and the heaps of abuse levelled on goth culture, rock stars and gun owners. Ames gets deeper than that, and to the real issues, I think: people feeling attacked and powerless and at the end of their wits. It's no the music, not the culture, not even the availability of guns -- it's that our society has a tendency to make people feel impotent, afraid and without recourse.

The important things to remember are that these incidents are rare. Also that the human element, the feeling of being powerless, is far more important than the policy elements. Putting up public cameras and metal detectors is just a band-aid. What's really important is to figure out why a person can become this desperate.

A little on Imus

Not really an Imus fan and I don't even listen to radio but I am surprised by what a big story the Imus firing was. Seems odd to me that a guy who for thirty years was paid to make shocking comments got fired for making a shocking comment, but that's the way that game is played.

Imus has a lot of detractors on the left and right and they're all happy about this. But, I'm not sure that's the right way to respond. No, it isn't censorship, nobody has the right to a national radio show or cable TV program and sponsors can drop a program whenever they want. Fine.

But it doesn't always work out well. I'm reminded of Bill Maher almost losing his career after 9-11 or of Wal-Mart refusing to sell "America: The Book."

Barack Obama said that this is an expample of the coarsening of American culture. I doubt anything Imus says is representative of America as a whole.

More than that, I don't think the coarsening of culture is the issue we should be worried about. What's worrisome is that the culture is turning bland and the corporate folks who tried to silence Bill Maher or who wouldn't sell Jon Stewart's book are responsible and those are, in type, the same people who fired Imus.

Guess I'm just noticing too much glee over this. Like I said, I'm no fan of the guy but when something like this happens and the debate starts to turn into one about the culture being too coarse, things spread. Suddenly artists, writers, film directors and video game programmers are brought into the fray and freedom of expression does suffer, not so much from government censorship but through a self-imposed corporate and cultural chilling effect. Not good.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Fascinating But Creepy

The title of this post could be the motto for the web in general, but this one is especially so:

So, anybody who has even given money to a campaign knows that you have to provide your name, address, and employer when you do. Makes sense. Keeps Kim Jong-Il or al-Qaeda from donating to campaigns ("Thanks for the new Iraqi training camp! Kisses, ObL."). But since that's now computerized and since political reporters are on the horserace aspects of this election like fake tan on LA flesh, the New York Times has already set up a searchable database for donations (mostly over $200). You can search by candidate, by zip code, even by donor name.

So I already know to whom some of my former professors and employers gave and how much they gave. Illustrative tidbits: Steven Spielberg ("self-employed, Universal City, CA") has given Clinton, Obama, and Edwards the maximum $2,300 each). And some guy named John Edwards in California has given $2,300 to Mit Romney.

There's now a push-button method to find out how your friends, family, neighbors, and enemies donate. This could get ugly.

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What Do We Want? A Better Slogan!

So I went to a Step It Up rally in Chicago yesterday. Lots of earnest and bland speakers with a pleasantly chipper woman doing MC duties. Readers of this blog will know that I'm all in favor of cutting carbon emissions and not above a bit of bland earnestness myself, but it became clear that Step It Up urgently needs a better slogan. This doesn't cut it:
EMCEE: What will we do?
CROWD: Step it up!
EMCEE: What do we want?
CROWD: Cut carbon emissions!
EMCEE: When do we want it?
CROWD: Eighty percent by 2050.

Nope. When you're trying to get several hundred pepole to chant in unison, a slogan like "We discourage a foreign policy that requires people to die to ensure our petroleum supply" doesn't quite have the punch of "No blood for oil."

So, if anybody can think of a better chant, please post it here.

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It's Not That Hard to Apologize


Consumer Theory

So I just bought a $195 polo shirt.

It's a nice shirt. Not an exciting shirt. Not made of silk. Not hand-stitched by master Italian tailors. It can't play MP3s and DVDs. It can't fly me round-trip from Chicago to New York or sponsor a starving child in the Philippenes for eight months. So, at first, I was a bit befuddled by why anybody would pay $195 for it. (People who know what I earn and how I dress will understand without being told that I didn't pay $195. By the time the store had finished discounting it, I paid just under $16, with tax.)

To sort out what makes a shirt worth $195, I looked up Theory, the company that manufactured it. Despite my expectation that I'd find that Theory had filed for bankruptcy after failing to sell a single $195 short-sleeved shirt or $115 pair of socks, the company appears to be a successful label that sells its products in high-end retail stores.

I also found their website, where I learned why their shirts cost $195. "Theory," it turns out, "is dynamic entrepreneurial sprit and attitude that is shared by our employees, our partners and our consumers." Aha!

Not only that, but their employees form "a band of aesthetic insiders" who "love style, luxury, and simplicity."

Oh. Well, that explains it.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Religious Conspiracy?

In a piece in today's New York Times (unfortunately inaccessible to non-members), Paul Krugman makes a fairly persuasive claim that the theocratic wing of the Christian right is trying to sneak its way into political power.

He points out that, for example, 150 grads of Regency University (founded by Pat "Blame Them Fags" Robertson) now work in the Bush administration and that many of them and their fellow believers seem to be there because of what they believe, not because of what they know or can do competently.

Now, fundamentalists, Catholics, evangelicals, ecumenicals, premillenial dispensationalists, Unitarians, whatever, all have a right to serve their country. I'm not bothered by Christians in government any more than I'm bothered by atheists or agnostics or Zoroastrians. But I am bothered by people of whatever faith or anti-faith who take a government job not in order to serve the people as defined by their job description but rather so that they can advance some cause hostile to their job description. I mean, Robertson and Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell both said after Katrina that the people of the Gulf Coast took a beating because God was passing judgment on America's tolerance of abortionists, feminists, and gays. Do we really want people who "think" like that involved in storm disaster relief? It would be like putting Josef Mengele in charge of the Tel Aviv Children's Hospital. (I have no idea if any Robertson-Falwell true believers were involved with Katrina relief efforts, but it would explain a lot about FEMA's response, yes?)

On the other hand, and it's not like this is any consolation, Krugman may be putting too much emphasis on both the religious dimension and on the degree of coordination of all this. Bush and Bushies seem to have a particular fondness for appointing people they like whether or not they're likely to be any good at the job--Alberto Gonzales, Don Rumsfeld, Michael Brown, Harriet Miers, et al. And you can only like someone if you know them, so it could be that all the graduates of Bob Jones, Liberty, Regent, etc. working in the Bush administration aren't there as part of a sneaky religious movement but simply because they're part of the general embrace of cronyism and contempt for government that underlies so many of this administration's hiring decisions.

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MC Common Life and the Real Speech of Men

Thanks to Yvette for this video from the Cumbria tourism bureau. MC Nuts, a guy dressed as a squirrel, and "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" with a backbeat. Enjoy.

For more, go here.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Weather Report

So after a mildly insomniac night, I woke up this morning, April 11, and staggered into the street to move the car before I got a street cleaning ticket.

And I discovered this morning, April 11, that before moving the car I would have to scrape off the half-inch of snow that had accumulated on it during the night (April 11).

The semi-strident, didactic blogger in me wants to point out that global warming doesn't mean the planet will be a little bit warmer everywhere but rather that a generally warmer planet means disrupted and unfamiliar weather patterns that might well include the half-inch of snow I found on my car this morning, April 11. The sad, sun-seeking part of me, however, just wants to say that it just snowed on April 11. Goddamnit.


UPDATE: Two and a half hours later, it's still April 11 and still snowing. Great, fat insolent flakes. Chicago, you are a spiteful beast.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Mike's Silence

Mike, incidentally, is locked in my basement and will remain there until he apologizes.

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Antisocial Behaviour

The British Parliament recently passed the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, which, along with an extensive system of public surveillance (including talking cameras), is intended to give police and private citizens alike the chance to cut down on public nuisances and general unpleasantness. ("So long as they don't do it in the street and scare the horses...")

The act triggers some of my libertarian alarms. While I think those alarms probably are partially valid, I also have to admit that England is far from a police state and that the act probably isn't going to usher in the reign of Big Brother. In fact, in Chicago, having a bunch of CCTV cameras everywhere lately has turned out to be useful to people complaining of police brutality.

So, rather than concentrate on civil liberties, I want to stress a point as relevant in the US as it is in the UK. In a list that intriguingly confuses behaviors with people and objects, the BBC says that the British government has stressed a number of types of antisocial behaviors: "local troublemakers and intimidating groups, nuisance neighbours, crack houses, air weapons and imitation firearms, graffiti and vandalism, fly-tipping and litter, beggars, abandoned cars, [and] trespassers."

To me, "beggars" stands out in this list. The other behaviors--intimidation, stereo-cranking, vandalism, dumping litter on people's lawns, trespassing--come from criminality or boorishness. People who care about other people won't do them. Begging, notwithstanding the urban legends of beggars hopping into BMW's at the end of the day, usually comes from some combination of homelessness, desperation, substance abuse, and mental illness. Most of the people who do it don't have a lot of other options. I've always been amazed that for most people (often myself included), the problem of homelessness isn't that some other human doesn't have food, shelter, and access to the occasional shower but rather that they're asking passersby for a buck. The problem isn't that they're starving to death, it's that they're making us notice.

Yeah, people begging on the street are annoying a lot of the time. But so are smug bastards in their luxury cars, guys who put hands on their girlfriends to steer them down the sidewalk, and shrill reactionaries who write letters to the editor about furriners, faggots, and those double-dreaded furrin faggots. But being annoying shouldn't be the same as being illegal.

More to the point, all these behaviors--begging, flaunting, patronizing, and fearing--aren't antisocial. They're profoundly social in that they come out of values and systems that constitute our society. Begging in particular comes directly from a social and economic system that thinks 5% unemployment provides a healthy downward pressure on wages and (in America) that thinks crazy people who can't pay for psychiatric care don't deserve that care anyway. We don't resent beggars because they interfere with our social system but rather because they remind us how that system works.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Stolen Sacrifices

In the last several months, Americans of different political backgrounds have been arguing that one of Pres. Bush's biggest failings as a leader has been his unwillingness to ask Americans to sacrifice during a time of war. These people argue that soldiers and their families are making big sacrifices--lives, jobs, stability, time with family--but the rest of us aren't.

Can't argue with the first part. Our soldiers and the people who care about them are being asked to make huge sacrifices, time after time, year after year. It often seems to me that liberals, conservatives, and apathetics alike who stridently accuse others of not "supporting the troops" are doing so in large part because they feel guilty about going along with a plan of action that requires 0.1% of the population to make 100% of the obvious sacrifices.

But here's some sick consolation for those feeling guilty: when it comes to the Iraq War, the rest of us are actually making sacrifices too. We're just not being asked to make them. We're not even aware of them.

Okay, maybe morally you can't be said to be "sacrificing" if you're not aware that you're doing it. But we are giving up a lot to make this war happen. I've said most of this before--we've spent something like $600 billion specifically on the war, more on affiliated military costs, and way more on opportunity costs.

The opportunity costs are particularly huge. By investing some--not even all--of the spent on the Iraq War, we could instead have stabilized the Social Security fund well through the retirement of the boomers. We could have used the Iraq War money to put in place ambitious, serious education plans that would lift poor people out of poverty, that would have placed better college education in the reach of everybody, and that in the long run would have made America both more pleasant to live in and more economically competitive. We could have worked out a national health care plan that would have protected, in particular, children without insurance. If nothing else, we could have given everybody--including military families who now would have their loved ones at home--a tax cut.

Above all else, we could have preserved the idea that the American government is there to serve Americans. Americans in general. Not defense contractors, not neocons who have manhood issues because they were picked on in elementary school, not chickenhawks who had other priorities until they were too old to put on a uniform. But from 2001-2006, we sat back and allowed a government to tell us that our long-term best interests lay in ignoring the Constitution and not spending any of our tax dollars on our future. We let our government spend more money than it had on something that hurt us, meaning that we now have less money to spend on things that could help us.

That has to stop. It really does. It's bad enough that nobody asked us to sacrifice. And it's worse that they made us do it anyway. It's worst of all that we're only now starting to notice.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Drudge Tries to Punch Pelosi During Press Conference

April 4, 2007. 10:29 am EST. WASHINGTON.

DrudgeReport author Matt Drudge tried to punch Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a press conference on steps of the Capitol Building, said an official who was present at the press conference.

"He sort of swung a sloppy right hook at her but missed," said the official. "Then he fell over. I've never never seen such disrespect or such bad footwork. He's definitely a DC gossip guy, not a boxer. It actually sorta looked like he was drunk." The official says Drudge was then knelt on by Secret Service personnel. Pelosi was unhurt.

The official is so far is the only person to mention the incident, which took place in front of dozens of cameras and Washington reporters. He has asked to remain anonymous because he fears retaliation for tipping us off to a story that should be available to anyone with YouTube.

"This is all BS wingnut spin. I didn't try to punch Pelosi," Drudge wrote on his own site. "I wasn't even there." At its first appearance on the website, however, Drudge's denial contained multiple typos, suggesting that he was still drunk and trembling when he wrote it.


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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Reality Check

So, most mornings I start the day by listening to NPR while I make breakfast. Then, to avoid doing my work, I'll often surf for news. First, real news (NYT, BBC, etc.). Then, fake news at The Onion. In recent months, The Onion has started running ads that are basically headline links for various real or realish news outlets. The headlines almost inevitably strike me as hilarious.

Does this happen to other people? Is it just because being at The Onion site predisposes me to finding real news funny? Or is it that all news coverage (if not the news) is pretty ridiculous and only morning grogginess and long years of being oh-so serious have prevented me from noticing?

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