Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Auld Acquaintance Not Forgot
Before we go boldly toward the challenges of 2004, I suppose I should weigh in with my own 2003-in-review piece, but I've run out of time to put it together. I have, however, linked to several worthwhile ones in the last few days, all of which I recommend. I do have time to quote a few of my favorite earlier entries from this blog. (Alas, all of my pre-October entries are currently unavailable, so until they are, this sampler will have to do.)

March 11: "The Bush Administration continues its futile push for passage of a second UN resolution giving it a fig leaf to wage preemptive war on Iraq. After its representatives made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, the administration seemed focused on getting nine of the 15 Security Council members to vote in favor, all the while acknowledging that a veto is likely, if not quite a done deal. Colin Powell bleated Sunday that the French had not actually used the word 'veto,' thus holding out the hope that they might simply abstain from the vote rather than tossing a big Gallic fuck-you into Uncle Sam's face. Then on Monday Jacques Chirac did indeed flip Powell the bird. (Why is Powell putting himself through this? My guess is that Mrs. Powell is now shaving him every morning, because the poor bastard must be unable to look at himself in the mirror anymore.)"

March 17: "It is said that the summer weather in 1939 Europe was unspeakably beautiful, that no one could remember finer weather. And then came September 1. Today, too, was a beautiful day here in Wisconsin. It must have felt exactly like this in late August of 1939, when the nations of Europe wearily waited for the inevitable. The difference is that this time, we're the Germans."

April 23: "The Democratic candidates, such as they are, seem to be pinning their hopes, such as they are, on the economy still being in the tank come Election Day. But unless it's spectacularly in the tank--and it will have to be a whole lot worse than it is now--that won't be enough. In fact, the economy might not even get noticed, what with all the flag-waving and hymn-singing that will be going on. In what is both a masterful political stroke and the epitome of political poor taste, the Bush campaign will kick off around the third anniversary of the September 11 attacks. And if the campaign should come on the heels of another star-spangled blitzkrieg in the Middle East (Syria, maybe, or will we have done them and moved on to Iran by then?), the Democrats would have to dig up FDR to win. And even then, Bush's $200 million campaign war chest would be more than adequate to portray him as a tax-and-spend liberal who cheats on his wife. Plus, he's soft on defense--remember, the Nazis and the Japanese ran rampant on his watch."

April 25: "[T]here's more today about Rick Santorum's anti-gay comments in which, among other things, he tried to distinguish between disapproval of homosexual acts and disapproval of homosexuals. Ari Fleischer has taken pains today to stress that President Bush believes Santorum is 'an inclusive man.' Of course this is the same president who called Ariel Sharon 'a man of peace.' Any day now, Ari is going to stand up in front of the press corps and announce that the president believes that two plus two equals five."

May 29: "I am convinced that one of the key reasons why the Republicans can get away with cutting taxes like drunken teenagers on an unsupervised bender is not just that people like to have more money in their pockets--although that's certainly a part of human nature that helps. It's that there's a hard nut out there in the electorate that thinks taxes are always bad, tax increases are even worse, tax cuts are always good, and is unwilling to consider any evidence to the contrary. While some of these folks are honest philosophical libertarians, many more are people with a vague notion that every tax increase means thousands and thousands of additional dollars sucked out of their individual pockets and into the government maw, where it is spent mostly on hookers, booze, and gold-plated bathroom fixtures."

June 16: "Being a good liberal, I am congenitally required to see nuance and acknowledge ambiguity, so I can't be 100 percent certain the DLC is wrong in their contention that a candidate who is strongly anti-Bush and clearly anti-war will get the party badly beaten in 2004. But I still believe that we need a high-stakes throwdown between competing visions; I still have little stomach for triangulating pro-war Bush-lite Democrats. As we used to say back on the farm, if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck. And if it walks like an endorsement… The only duck who's shown a real taste for George W. Junebug is Howard Dean."

July 9: "It was reported last week that Bush told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that God told him to strike Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. If this were any other Republican politician, we might pass it off as a ham-fisted attempt to communicate with a zealot in terms the zealot might understand. (Never mind that Palestinian zealots are largely secular zealots.) But Bush clearly believes it… If Bush is the best God can do, the quality of his work is slipping. I'd have saved Lincoln for these times, but that's just me."

July 21: "Sometimes headlines say more than they mean to, like this one from 7:30 this morning--"Wolfowitz Warns Foreigners Keep Out of Iraq." At mid-morning, however, somebody at Reuters must have caught it--the headline was changed to read "Wolfowitz Warns Iraq’s Neighbors Not to Interfere." Too bad--the ironic subtext in the original headline is the closest anyone has come to admitting that for all practical purposes, Iraq is now the 51st state."

August 6: "George W. Bush, the Great Liberator of the Oppressed and Champion of Downtrodden Peoples, stopped cutting brush on the ranch long enough today to send soldiers into Liberia to join the peacekeepers, as Liberia struggles through a civil war which has featured an Evil Dictator Who Killed His Own People. If you are an Evil Dictator Who Killed His Own People and Is Sitting on an Ocean of Oil, you get 150,000 troops. Members of Evil Dictators Who Kill Their Own People, Oil Free Division, apparently merit seven."

September 14: "Dick Gephardt told CNN that when he's the nominee, he will be proud to have Bill Clinton standing by his side. I felt almost physically stabbed by the remark--Dick Gephardt the nominee? Kill me now."

September 21: "Last week I caught a syndicated repeat [of NYPD Blue] that was so amazing I had to take notes. Two detectives were interviewing a suspected rape-murderer who had a porn fetish. In the line, 'You took a collar for dickie-waving last year,' the word 'dickie' was bleeped. But in a later scene, 'dickhead' went unbleeped, as did 'dick' when used as a synonym for the word 'nothing,' as when a suspect tells a detective there's no evidence he committed a crime by saying 'You ain't got dick.' So you might guess that modifiers are fine, but nouns referring to the male unit are forbidden . But you would be wrong. In the interview scene, 'chubby,' 'pecker,' and 'johnson' remained intact, as did the even-more-colorful 'whip your skippy' and 'flog your dummy.' And people say TV is a visual medium where language hardly matters anymore."

October 20: "As the daughter of a congressman and the sister of one of the most well-connected lobbyists in Washington, not to mention a star political reporter for ABC News, [Morning Edition commentator Cokie Roberts is] far more likely to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted than to do the opposite, which is supposed to be journalism's great credo. Why try to understand the Dean phenomenon, let alone explain it, when you can fall back on one of those things everybody knows is true? Surely nobody she knows will dispute it. I would die a happy man if Bob Edwards were ever to say, in that mellifluous NPR burr, 'But Cokie, that sounds like bullshit. Get the hell off my show.'"

I am glad to see this cursed year of 2003 go. May 2004 be no worse.

This is most likely my last blog post until Sunday or Monday, but in the interim, please click any or all of the links shown on the right side of this blog page. Or don't. Watch football all weekend instead. I know I will.

Uncommon Sense
The Bush Administration had an attack of common sense today on two fronts. Coming from this crowd, that's a record. First, John Ashcroft recused himself from the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame last fall. Plame, you will recalll, is the wife of ex-diplomat Joseph Wilson, who believes his wife's CIA cover was blown to punish him for accusing Bush of using bogus evidence to push his case for war against Iraq. Nobody's sure why Ashcroft did it today, long after the case has ceased to matter to very many people, but he did the right thing, which he cannot generally be counted on to do.

Second, and perhaps more important, the USDA has ordered that so-called "downer" animals--those unable to walk to the slaughter--no longer be used for human food. This common-sense regulation was passed by both houses of Congress at various times in the last two years, but was always dropped from final farm bills due to pressure from ag industry groups. Also banned--the use of "meat recovery systems" used to get bits of meat from the spinal cords of animals. (The existence of such systems was one of the more grotesque revelations of Eric Schlosser's best-selling Fast Food Nation a couple of years back.) It shouldn't have taken the appearance of mad cow disease in the U.S. for these regulations to finally pass. Such is the power of public outcry, however--it can even overpower the best intentions of industry lobbyists. We ought to remember that.

I was spending Christmas with the family when the mad cow story broke. My father and brother are small-scale beef producers, and their take is that most of the reporting of the story is more hysterical than factual, and thus the "crisis," while serious, is badly overblown. In their view, most people don't understand where beef comes from and how it is processed, so it's a short leap from hearing about one diseased cow 2,000 miles away to deciding never again to eat beef. For the last week, beef prices have been going down like Shaquille O'Neal falling through a skylight--and the people it hurts the worst first are not McDonalds and Wendys, not the giant meatpackers, but the smallest producers. Guys unlucky enough to be unable to afford lobbyists.

You Can't Always Get What You Want
The sort of person you want as a vice-presidential candidate has changed in recent years. You could call this the Cheney Effect-- Dick "Him Before He Dicks You" Cheney is easily the most influential VP in the history of the Republic (although Al Gore's influence was great, he exercised it under the radar, instead of from an undisclosed location). When personalities are removed from the issue, it's by no means a bad thing to have an experienced vice president sharing the load. People don't generally vote on the basis of who a candidate's running mate is. Nevertheless, given the importance we place on the presidency in difficult times, I don't believe there will be any more Dan Quayles or Spiro Agnews (or Geraldine Ferraros) a heartbeat away.

The problem for Howard Dean is that there are not a lot of Democrats with national stature who fit the current profile of a running mate. (Some dreamers pine for Hillary, but they pine in vain.) Dean's choice, whoever it is, will almost certainly come from the field of 2004 candidates, but the pool is shrinking. John Edwards said yesterday he doesn't want the gig. John Kerry wouldn't be offered it for geographical reasons, never mind his recent attacks on Dean. Joe Lieberman had his shot already. Dick Gephardt will be on his way back to Brigadoon by convention time. The remaining candidates offer nothing but comic relief.

So that leaves Wesley Clark. I believe Dean and Clark will come to an understanding, and Clark will be Dean's running mate. But there's a story out of Florida (already more than a week old) that says outgoing senator and former Democratic candidate Bob Graham is positioning himself for Dean's second slot. Graham, thanks to his foreign policy experience, Southern heritage, and grandfatherly appearance, would be a pretty good choice if Clark refuses the job.

Recommended reading: Dean toured the Midwest yesterday. He got to Green Bay one day late and missed the football game, but he did find time to talk to the Washington Post in Detroit. Just when I start thinking Dean might just be unelectable after all (losing to Bush 53-40 in a Newsweek poll last week), I read an article like this one, and my faith is renewed.

And here's one I missed over Christmas: Eric Boehlert of Salon looks back 34 years to the greatest week in rock history. There were giants in the earth in those days, the very moment the glorious 1960s began to crash--the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan, the Temptations, and more, high on the charts and blasting on the radio. It's one of the best pieces of rock journalism I've seen in years. I wish I'd written it--and I've tried.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Oh Fer Chrissakes
If this isn't nutball paranoia masquerading as high-minded action in the public interest, I'll eat my hat. It seems like a joke--and, for all the good it will do in fighting terrorism, it is--but what's not funny is the seriousness with which our solons are propagating this nonsense, which does nothing but ratchet up the general anxiety and give us yet another reason to be suspicious of our neighbors. Oh yes, the use of maps and almanacs may be innocent, and you may have nothing at all to hide if you are stopped carrying one--but you can damn well bet your name is going into some database somewhere, and your innocence will be suspect forevermore.

I have maps in the glove compartment of my car, and what's worse, I have been collecting almanacs for nearly 25 years. Somebody call Ashcroft.

The Year That Was
You gotta love this great year-in-review piece from Barry Crimmins in the Boston Phoenix. A pithy quote: "Items looted from museums on the banks of the Tigris River are understandably of little interest to Rummy, since the only history he respects is Genghis Khan’s foreign policy." And also, on the subject of Christian missionaries thronging the new Iraq: "People who drop death from above really should be careful about implying that salvation emanates from the same point of origin." And finally: "No matter how they try to spin it, we know that imprisoning Saddam will not bring a single slain 'Coalition' soldier back to life, or make their deaths retroactively glorious. Nor will it resurrect any of the thousands of dead Iraqis. Not one freshly minted paraplegic arose from a wheelchair upon hearing the news that Hussein had been caught."

Also reviewing the year just ending, Richard Reeves picks George W. Bush not only as his man of the year, but his man of the decade, and more. Reeves is one of the few columnists with a broad national audience to ask the following simple question about the American thirst to make other parts of the world more like us: What would we do if somebody conquered even part of our country, and told us we should believe in their values and accept their god because it's better than ours? "Would we fight?" Reeves asks. "Would we resist? I hope so." Of course we would. That we don't instantly realize this, and that we are somehow surprised that other people would rather fight than switch, is astounding evidence of our international naivete, and our egotistical belief that everybody wants to be just like us.

Divine Sparks
Yes, the sky seems a little brighter and the world much more benign on a day such as this. Strangers speak to each other in coffee shops and convenience stores where on other days, they'd keep their eyes straight ahead and their minds on their own business. Hangover from the Christmas season? Nope. This is how it feels up here in Wisconsin this morning, to be a football fan, to bask in the the Green Bay Packers' improbable capture of an NFL playoff berth yesterday.

The 16-game NFL regular season is such that every game matters, unlike the NBA and NHL, whose bloated playoffs render their regular seasons almost entirely meaningless, and even major-league baseball, where there's always another game tomorrow. The rhythms of the football season--a game every Sunday, post-game autopsy Monday, looking forward to the next one starting Tuesday, are as comfortable as an old sweater. Beyond that, the NFL has cunningly constructed its playoff system so that several teams have something significant to play for right down to the last game. So it was with the Packers yesterday, needing a win over Denver and a Minnesota loss to Arizona to qualify for the playoffs. Leading up to the late-afternoon kickoffs of both games, the math looked grim. Even if the Packers beat Denver, which had already secured a playoff berth and looked great doing it, they had to depend on Arizona, one of the four worst teams in the league, to pull an upset. What gave Packer fans hope was Minnesota's dismal performance in the last two-thirds of the season--after starting with six straight wins, the Vikings had lost seven of their next nine. The Packers were taking care of their business, rolling to an easy win. But when the Vikings took a 17-6 lead with two minutes to go in their game, Packer fans began contemplating the end. With bad news from Arizona, we would be left only with memories of two spectacular plays--Ahman Green's 98-yard touchdown run, the second longest TD run from scrimmage in NFL history, followed immediately by another Packer touchdown when the Broncos fumbled the next kickoff--to get us through the spring and summer.

When the season comes to an end, particularly in disappointment, the sense of disruption is almost painful. Suddenly there's no game next week--no game until August--and while we try to fill the void with other things, the rhythm of our days feels a little bit off all the while. But we have felt it before, and we know how to prepare for it. And so the preparations began.

But then, a break in the gloom. Arizona scored and it was 17-12. Then we heard that they recovered the next kickoff. Then we heard that they were inside the Minnesota 10-yard line with 30 seconds to go. Then our game went to commercial, and we waited. During the break, my brother said to me, "I have faith in the Cardinals. They're doing it. They're doing it right now." And they were. Back from the break, the first thing we saw on-screen was "Arizona 18, Minnesota 17." It turned out that Arizona had scored on fourth-and-24, the last play of the game, with no time left on the clock. Our living room erupted. Lambeau Field, where the score of the Minnesota game had been neither posted nor announced all day, erupted. The whole state erupted. Improbably, the Packers had made the playoffs--and our most hated rival (yes, hated more than the Chicago Bears) had suffered the most painful sort of defeat there is--from playoff contender to spectator, a once-promising season lost, on nothing less than a miracle play.

To understand how it feels up here this morning, you need to understand more than just the rhythms of the season or the details of what happened yesterday. You also have to understand how we grow in our Packer fandom here. It's like a church, really. We are in the pew every Sunday, even when there is no evidence that what we are worshipping reciprocates our devotion at all. And it's a nearly universal church--my brother, for example, who has never been much of a sports fan, continually surprises me with his Packer devotion--that brings us together in a way nothing else does. While younger fans are fired with the enthusiasm of the newly converted, untempered by disappointment, we older fans know that the road of faith is neither straight nor smooth. My generation grew up on the fading remnant of the Vince Lombardi/Bart Starr glory days of the 1960s, and came to adulthood during the awful 1970s and 1980s, when a succession of mediocre teams stumbled around blindly. Then came the 1990s, the Brett Favre era. History will record that Favre's first appearance with the Packers in 1992 resulted in a stunning comeback win. We started believing in the impossible then, and in years to come we saw it again and again. We saw it again last Monday, when Favre, grieving the loss of his father Irv just the day before, put on one of his greatest statistical performances in a game that would be the stuff of legend were Favre's legend not already so stuffed.

And we saw it again yesterday--as a friend put it, "Irv Favre won us another one"--and what is most amazing about it this time, most likely to linger after this season is over, is the communal nature of it. I am willing to bet that telephone use in the state spiked in the minutes following the game, as we made phone calls to distant friends to exult in the improbable. Whether we came right out and said it or merely felt it, we all shared the same thought--the beauty of this is not so much the result of the games but the way the experience pulls us all together, how it's so much bigger than each of us, bigger than all of us, more magical than we can imagine. How it captures the essence of why we watch sports, which is one of the only things in life that is capable of connecting us now and then to--and I don't think this is much of an exaggeration--a spark of the divine.

Well, now it's time for me to take a deep breath and get on with my work, much as the multitudes who went to their churches yesterday are going on with their work today, shriven of their sins, fortified by their faith, looking forward to their reward in Heaven, as I look forward to my reward next Sunday, when the rhythm rocks on.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out
All throughout the runup to the Iraq war (during what White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card famously called "rolling out a new product," between September 2002 and March 2003), we kept hearing tales about how if we just rooted out Saddam Hussein and installed a democratic government, Iraq could become the model for other aspiring democratized, free-market societies in the Middle East. But in today's Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports on the vast scaling back of those dreams. The deadline for the U.S. to transfer sovereignty to the provisional government is July 1--after which Bush will be able to proclaim "Mission accomplished" again, and begin posing for campaign photo-ops with returning soldiers. After that, many highly touted objectives, such as the privatization of previously state-owned businesses and the drafting of a constitution, are going to be dumped in the laps of the already fractious Iraqi governing council--along with the thorny problem of reconciling the conflicting desires of Iraq's various ethnic and religious groups.

So let us get this straight: The neocon dream for turning Iraq into an Islamic Switzerland, which was as stupidly romantic in its own way as any fantasy a 12-year-old girl ever cooked up about the boy in the next row, ran up against realities of resistance to conquest that should have been obvious to anybody who ever took a Western Civ course. And now the whole thing has turned into farce, with a steady drip of American casualties and growing skepticism about the wisdom of the war on the part of American voters. So rather than staying the course for as long as it takes no matter how hard it is (as our Maximum Leader has promised time and time again), we are getting out.

Congratulations, Iraqi resistance. You won.

But our departure is all just temporary. Even if this stratagem gets Bush reelected, he's not done with Iraq. When the place dissolves into horrific civil war sometime in 2005 (within a few months of the much-ballyhooed first democratic election) and ignites the rest of the Middle East with it, he'll have to come up with another genius plan to fix it--or, more likely, another genius misdirection ploy to keep voters from thinking too much about it, or knowing the truth. And if Bush somehow gets thrown out in the 2004 election, his successor will inherit the same mess. And then, because the base hypocrisy of the Republican Party knows no bounds, we'll be treated to the spectacle of them screaming about the quagmire in Iraq and wondering why the Democratic president can't get us out.

I was opposed and remain opposed to the war in Iraq--we should never have gone in there with all guns blazing like we did, and we sure as hell shouldn't have done it on the word of Ahmed Chalabi, who snookered Dick Cheney and the rest of the neocon geniuses like it was all three-card monte. But now that we're there, we have a responsibility to make sure we don't leave the place worse than we found it. (Which is pretty much what Howard Dean has been saying all along.) Bush's decision to cut and run to aid his reelection campaign is an abdication of that responsibility. Once again, the vaunted moral clarity under which this administration supposedly operates is revealed as malleable public relations nonsense with the same relation to the truth as a beer commercial.

If there is a hell, there are going to be a lot of surprised souls there someday, none more so than that of George W. Bush. I expect to have a good laugh at his expense when I get there myself.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Boys, Play Nice
It used to be said of nuclear war than when it was over, the living would envy the dead. So it may be in the Democratic presidential race. With a little more than three weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, the serious Democrats are doing their damnedest to destroy each other, and themselves. Whoever emerges from this bloodbath sometime in March or April may end up wishing he was lying on a beach somewhere sipping something with an umbrella and hitting on the waitress.

Start with yesterday, when Howard Dean said it would be wrong to prejudge Osama bin Laden's guilt before trial, if we ever got him. Once again, the words Dean spoke were, taken only as far as their literal meaning, correct. We have a tradition in this country of presuming innocence until guilt is proven, and we have traditionally liked to believe that this presumption applies to the worst criminals, because this presumption is what separates our judicial system from medieval star-chamber courts, and our country from banana republics and totalitarian states, and we have traditionally expected our leaders to uphold this principle. But Osama is not just a mere mortal--he's a symbol of everything evil, and for Dean to suggest that he might be owed the fate of mere mortals is to badly misjudge the apocalyptic temper of the United States at this moment in history. Like Lucifer at the day of judgment, Osama deserves to be shut in the lake of fire for all eternity, or so we believe. Mere human concepts of jurisprudence cannot apply to the devil himself. Today, Dean hastily backtracked while still trying to make the point that he believes in the president's responsibility to defend the legal process--and then contradicted entirely what he said on Friday by saying, "But as an American, I want to make sure he gets the death penalty he deserves."

All this (and much else) has prompted John Kerry to suggest that Dean simply has no chance against Bush. Kerry criticizes Dean for "vacillating isolationism," which is mildly humorous coming from a candidate whose own stand on Iraq--voting for it but ultimately saying he was against it--is textbook vacillation.

Meanwhile, poor old Joe Lieberman reportedly said he would be in favor of revising Roe v. Wade because medical technology has advanced since 1973, but has been furiously spinning a denial since the story broke yesterday. Criticism of his comments sounds to me like close parsing of precise phrases, but the fact remains that here's another Democrat with a muddled message making voters wonder what he stands for.

I have been following the campaign closely since last June or July. I quickly embraced Dean, and he is still my choice as of this moment--despite my deepening concern over his ever-increasing number of gaffes and the way that each one of them points up another critical vulnerability that will be exploited if he gets the nomination. But the tone of the race in the last two or three weeks--the familiar circular firing squad--has me wondering if the Democrats really do need someone to swoop in and save them from themselves. Somebody with a coherent message, somebody who doesn't open his mouth and insert a foot two or three times a week, somebody not instantly dismissable by the pro-Bush media and the average distracted voter. But we'll have to build him (or her) in the lab, because he (or she) doesn't seem to exist.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Road to Good Will
It's dark outside, and my house is filled with the smells of wood smoke and baking bread. I've broken out the Jack Daniels, and another Christmas Eve arrives here in Wisconsin.

It's peaceful here. We're hoping it stays peaceful, of course, but the world intrudes. In Baghdad, where it's already Christmas morning, Christmas Eve was anything but peaceful, as freelance journalist Dahr Jamail reports. Ominously, six Air France flights from Paris to the United States were grounded today based on credible intelligence of terrorist threats. With air defenses beefed up around the country, one hopes that Santa Claus can make it through tonight.

You do believe in Santa Claus, don't you? I absolutely do. In my hometown back in the 1960s, Santa met his public in a lovely double-wide on our town square, courtesy of the local mobile home dealer. One fine night we walked in, my brother and me (aged maybe 6 and 4) with our parents. Santa took one look at us and then called us by name--"Well, it's Jim and Dan Bartlett!" Since then, I have never doubted the jolly elf's existence. Not everybody believes in Santa, however--this explanation of the physics behind Santa's worldwide delivery has made frequent appearances in my e-mail box the last couple of days, although not everybody agrees with it. (The latter link proves that when physicists have too much eggnog, it doesn't necessarily make them less serious.)

But if you're persuaded neither by my personal experience nor by the laws of physics, there's one place to turn for the last word--to Cecil Adams, the World's Smartest Human. Cecil says, "Three hundred sixty-four days out of the year humankind commits all manner of heinous acts. On the 365th day we give toys to the kids.... The giving of gifts in such a way that no credit will devolve upon ourselves is sufficiently at odds with our routine behavior as to be accounted a mystery, and we may as well give that mystery a name. Santa Claus it is."

The world we claim to want is truly at odds with our routine behavior. The fact that the species is no closer this Christmas to our much-wished-for ideals of peace on earth and good will to men is not news. We never seem to get much closer to it, although sometimes, as in this painful year 2003, we seem to move farther away. Still, that we continue to hope for a world of peace and good will is not a bad thing, even if we do act like it's someone else's fault we don't have it yet. We seem to think other people make it impossible for us to be as peaceful and filled with good will as we know we are. "If those bad people didn’t make us conquer and destroy them, we wouldn’t have to. It's not us, it's them." But anybody with a conscience knows better. Peace on Earth and good will toward men begins at home, in our own hearts, our own houses, and our own country. We still might never make it to the perfect world. But on Christmas Eve, even the most cynical among us--your blogmaster, for one--can be persuaded to believe that we might yet find the wisdom to begin the journey. It's a sweet vision--even if it's just the Jack Daniels talking.

Barring catastrophic news, there will be no new posts until Friday or Saturday. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

It's Already Christmas Morning in Uzbekistan
On this Christmas Eve, we've received a small gift, albeit a puzzling one. Ralph Nader has announced that he won't seek the Green Party nomination for president, although he may run as an independent anyhow. If you think you've heard this story before, you have. Let's wave goodbye to the Greens as they make the same short trip to irrelevance that the Reform Party made when Ross Perot abandoned them in 1996.

We are also waving goodbye to 2003, so there are lots of retrospectives floating around the Internet, including this news quiz from Alternet, which shows better than most what a long, strange trip it has been this year. Another of my favorite yearend reviews is media critic Norman Solomon’s “P.U.-Litzer Prizes” for what he calls “the stinkiest media performances of the year.” In a classic "tell me something I don't know" moment, Solomon notes that most Americans who get their news from commercial TV are misinformed in one way or another about the basic facts of the Iraq war. And (drum roll please) those most likely to be the most misinformed are--Fox News viewers.

As we look forward to 2004 and the presidential election, here's the most compelling piece of evidence yet to vote for Wesley Clark. Man's got the right attitude toward what is going to be, like it or not, the number one issue of the fall presidential campaign. Of course, if Howard Dean had said it the way Clark did, the clucking from the other candidates would have been audible several states away without a radio. At AxisOfLogic.Com, Sheila Samples isn't ready to pick a candidate yet, but she knows what she wants to hear.

The rest of the world is looking forward to 2004 as well, watching to see what happens with our excellent adventure in Iraq. Watching is the key word, of course, as none of the world's other powerful states are contributing to our efforts (but who needs 'em when you've got Uzbekistan and Macedonia?). Nicholas Berry of ForeignPolicyForum.Com sees the silence of the EU, Russia, and China as a strategic matter, one that should sound familiar to Americans.

So the world is what it is, the same today in many ways as it is every other day of the year. But it's also different. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are when we are more the people we'd like to be than at any other time of the year. I may meditate further on that in a later post this afternoon or tonight. But if I go into a fudge-and-cookies-induced coma instead, here's my wish that your holiday is everything you want it to be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Enjoy That Christmas Roast
This just in--a story that has the potential to be monstrously huge. The first case of mad cow disease has been confirmed in the United States. It may not be a coincidence that it was announced late in the afternoon on the day before Christmas Eve, because the discovery of the disease here could have devastating effects on the beef industry and on corporations that sell vast amounts of beef--McDonalds, for example. The company's financial troubles in recent years can be traced to consumer fears about tainted beef in Britain during the 1990s. But it won't be only multinational corporations that will suffer--so will small beef producers, like my father and brother. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where cattle contracts are traded that have an impact on prices from coast to coast, will be open for a shortened trading day tomorrow. Watch for fireworks at the opening bell.

You Better Watch Out, I'm Telling You Why
A friend e-mailed me a story from the Washington Post about the obstacles to school choice, despite the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. It's the Law of Unintended Consequences come home to roost--Exhibit A for how the real world works in spite of the ways the geniuses running the Bush Administration believe it will.

The school choice provisions of NCLB sound for all the world like something written by bureaucrats whose families have gone to private school for generations. You don't like your school, you pick up and move to another, and if enough people do it, the school that no longer pleases its "customers" goes out of business. This is the marketplace competition model conservatives have been pushing on the public education system at least since the first Bush administration. Trouble is, escaping a failing school is not as easy as crossing the street. To believe it is fails to recognize that not every street has a school on both sides. Also, as the Post article indicates, not every street that does have a school is able to accept students who want to cross--or even wants to accept them.

There's a broader question percolating in the shadows of NCLB as well--the question of its ultimate purpose. Conservatives have dreamed of abolishing the public school system for a long time. Unfettered choice could certainly do it, at least in some areas of the country, where it could exacerbate white flight and leave only the poorest students in failing schools, which could then be shut down for lack of achievement and replaced with--what? Workhouses?

Recommended reading: From the Center for American Progress and the crack staff of "The Progress Report," "Naughty and Nice 2003," an exhaustive list of those deserving nice gifts and those deserving lumps of coal for their public performance in the year drawing to a close. The biggest gift Santa can bring should go to David, Christy, and Judd, who compile "The Progress Report" daily. In the few short weeks of its life so far, it's become absolutely indispensable for anybody who cares about progressive politics and policing the unconscionable nonsense of the Bush Administration.

Also from the Center, via TomPaine.Com, it's "2003: Claim vs. Fact." Like much that comes from the Center, it's a magic bullet that kills Republican spin--in this case, correcting the distortions in the Bush Administration's "2003: A Year of Accomplishment for the American People."

By the way, the White House's document of its accomplishments this year is a wacky laff riot, clearly written during the White House Christmas party while the liquor was flowing, butts were being xeroxed, and lampshades were turning into hats. It features such knee-slappers as: "President Bush's economic leadership is producing positive results," "The President is continuing to give our nation's first responder and public health system the training and equipment to prepare, prevent and respond to any future terrorist attack," and my favorite, "The president has continued to restrain spending." Stop it, ya crazy bastards, before I wet my pants.

God and Cookies and Eggnog
One of the things Republicans are good for is entertainment. You never know what kind of wacky thing they'll say next. Take Connecticut governor John Rowland, accused of accepting favors and gifts from businesses in exchange for state contracts, who told a press conference that it's OK because God has told him so. At the same press conference last week, the governor's wife left reporters gasping by reciting a parody of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" that criticized them for biased reporting.

Of course, claiming that the Big Guy is in touch with you, or that you're doing the Big Guy's work down here on Earth no matter how what you're doing might look to fallible human eyes, is fashionable Republican talk right now. Take George W. Bush, for example, who seems to have built an entire theological edifice on which he can do whatever he likes to whomever he likes wherever he likes. But Jim Wallis of the Christian website Sojourners says Bush is continually confusing America's goals with God's goals and his own role with God's role. Wallis' critique is, if nothing else, more proof that nothing is ever as simple as fundamentalists think it is.

Elsewhere in the news, when Bush brought up the subject of tort reform earlier this week, the effect was positively nostalgic. The world has changed so much since September 11, 2001, that the eight months beforehand, the first part of Bush's term, seem like some sort of languid, distant summer. Remember? When the only things we had to worry about were whether he'd start a war with China over the downed spy plane, or if he'd succeed in doing for tort reform in the whole country what he did for it in Texas? It's Bush dogma that frivolous lawsuits are what's driving up the cost of health care, and if we'd just make it harder for people to sue and collect, we'd improve the system a great deal. But just as it was nearly three years ago, that statement remains, not to put too fine a point on it, crap. MoveOn.Org's Daily Misleader reports that the cost of lawsuits as a percentage of health care spending is only about one-half of one percent. The cost of prescription drugs, on the other hand, represents 11 percent of spending and is going up despite the alleged improvements in Bush's Medicare plan.

And finally: We have, as of this moment, lived 48 hours without incident under the latest orange alert, but we may not be off the hook yet. A poster on Reason Online's Hit and Run message board who calls himself "John Ashcroft" reports: "I have credible intelligence indicating that on Wednesday night a man with a beard will be infiltrating targets all around the US. He's planning to evade all of our usual air transportation security mechanisms as he flies from house to house. He'll be delivering packages that have not been screened by security, and he'll be placing them in the vicinity of a highly flammable dead tree found in most homes. Apparently he chose this date for its religious significance. Wednesday and Thursday are the days when people will celebrate the birth of an alleged prophet in the Middle East. Although this prophet was executed as a dangerous subversive two thousand years ago, he still has fanatical followers all around the world. The man delivering these packages is doing it in the name of that prophet. Worse yet, we have reason to believe that various American citizens will act as accessories to his security breaches, leaving out cookies and eggnog for him. I can't stress enough that any American citizen found collaborating with this terrorist will be prosecuted as an enemy combatant. You have been warned."

Monday, December 22, 2003

Be a Hero
The U.S. government is paying for soldiers to fly home from Iraq and Afghanistan for two-week leaves--but the government's ticket only takes them as far as Baltimore, Dallas, or Atlanta, which is fine if the soldier lives there. Otherwise, they're often left to buy an expensive last-minute ticket on a flight home. Heromiles.org gives people a chance to donate their frequent flyer miles to help these soldiers get home. It's your chance to support the troops in a lovely, tangible way. And if anybody deserves it, they do.

General Consternation
Whether the Dean campaign offered the VP slot to Wesley Clark before he decided to run himself really doesn't matter all that much. What matters more is Clark's statement that he's absolutely not interested in being Dean's running mate and he doesn't see it "in the cards." Fact is, Dean needs Clark, and more so than he did before Saddam was nabbed. We've seen clearly in the last week that Dean's credibility on military and foreign policy issues is going to be a major issue in the campaign if/when he gets the nomination--which has probably always been true, but the criticism he's taken since Saddam's capture proves it. Clark is the best option for Dean, although his simple presence on the ticket won't be enough. Dean will need to craft a sort of co-presidency, with Clark taking the lead on military issues--which will give the Repugs an opening for further suggestions that Dean's not fit for the presidency because he admits that he lacks such expertise. (Although such an arrangement would little different than what Bush has done with the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld running their own little fiefdoms within the administration.)

Dean best get busy mending fences. Events of the past week have shown that good news from Iraq won't keep Dean from getting the nomination--it's too late to stop him now. But good news from Iraq makes him vulnerable to Bush in significant ways, and the Dean campaign had better start thinking of ways to pre-empt the attacks we all know are coming.

The Christmas Orange
Let no one think, just because Osama bin Laden lives in caves and looks and talks like Moses, that he's not a brilliant psychological warrior. Whether Al Qaeda launches a terrorist attack in the next week or not, the fact that they've succeeded in getting us to raise our terror alert level to orange just in time for the biggest holiday of the year is a hard shot to the body and mind.

Christmas American style is already an event that sits squarely at the conjunction of two sometimes-contradictory impulses that define us as a people--our religiosity (no matter whether it's the kind that's lived every day or the kind that's put on like a Santa hat on December 24) and our consumerism. The terror threat takes aim at both. The mere idea that the infidels (let's call them what we think they are in this context) might unleash some kind of indeterminate horror on us at this time confirms their evil. So if they were to strike us on the most sacred day of our year, the heinousness of the crime would be multiplied no matter what kind of a body count it produced. And if the threat of an attack dampens our desire to shop in the next few days (and experts differ on whether it will), the terrorists will have damaged something that, in the long run, means more to us than our religion--our economy, symbol of what makes us strong and free.

Some people wonder if the terror alert, first tipped on Friday before being raised on Sunday, is another Bush administration smokescreen manufactured to divert attention away from their defeats on the Jose Padilla and Guantanamo detention cases. I don't think so. If anything, it knocks the legs out from under the idea that the capture of Saddam Hussein made us safer from terror attack.

If you think about it, the vaunted five-level alert system has only two levels that are operational in a practical sense. Green, the lowest level, is one that will never be applicable until the lion really does lie down with the lamb and a little child shall lead them. Blue, general risk of attacks, seems to be the bare minimum achievable in a world with largely open borders and a sophisticated system of air travel, but it still presumes a level of general peaceablity among the human species that's not practical to achieve. Let's leave aside yellow and orange for a second to consider red--severe risk of attack. The nature of terror attacks makes it unlikely that we'd ever receive information fast enough for the bureaucracy to determine the need to go to this level. If this level is ever used, it would be in a local area--for example, if there were corroborated evidence that a suicide bomber was headed for New York City or something (rather like the story that sparked a flurry of concern last week).

So what we have are two levels--yellow and orange. Yellow is the modern condition, the natural outcome of 6,000 years of human history, which has resulted in the existence of people who want to terrorize and kill other people and have the technology and the wherewithal to attempt it. The relative openness of our borders makes it possible for them to get here and do just that. It was true before the alert system was invented and will always be true (absent a victory in the "war on terror," and regular readers of this feature know how likely I think that's going to be). Orange recognizes that sometimes we will have more than just the normal level of information ("chatter") about what terrorists are up to, which is what we've got this week. We don't know what they're planning, but they're up to more than the usual something.

The Department of Homeland Security has been reluctant to raise the level, particularly after the widely ridiculed orange-alert duct-tape freakout of last spring. So I'm guessing that this time, they didn't do it lightly and there's reason to worry. But how much good the alert does is questionable. A security analyst told NPR yesterday that the added vigilance and publicity of an orange alert might be enough to stop an attack operation from going forward. But it's unclear to me why terrorists couldn't just bide their time and use the return to yellow as a signal to go on with the operation. And Ridge's appearance on TV yesterday (his truly is the Face and Voice of Doom), in which he spun spectres of attacks worse than 9/11 and at the same time urged Americans to go about their business normally, contributes to the boy-crying-wolf problem inherent in the alerts. He's got to say what he said--first of all, he dares not downplay the threat in case it really does turn out to be big, and second, he dares not panic the populace by suggesting that they alter their regular routines. I have characterized this as "Go about your business normally but prepare to die"--which is not bad advice for mortal creatures such as we, whether threatened by terrorists or not, but doesn't really give us much we can use to help ourselves feel safer during the alert period.

Up here in Wisconsin, there's a grim tradition--each year on Christmas, it seems, we hear of a house fire somewhere, often in the Milwaukee area, that kills several children and gives a tragic tang to our celebrations. This year, we will be listening for something far more horrible. Merry Christmas, America.

One more thing: I don't think people who live outside of Wisconsin truly understand how we feel about Brett Favre, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. As much as they love Peyton Manning in Indiana or Steve McNair in Tennessee, our relationship with Favre is different, more personal. "He's like our cousin," my wife said this morning, and that's exactly right. Every family has a cousin who, if not exactly a black sheep, dabbles in shades of gray, and the free-spirited Favre is very much like that. So the news this morning that Favre's father died over the weekend hits every household in the state like the loss of an uncle. Although nobody would begrudge him taking the night off and breaking his record streak of consecutive games played, he won't. Favre will play tonight in Oakland before returning to Mississippi for funeral services over Christmas.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

Chatter in the System
There are two ways to take the possibility of terrorist attacks over Christmas. And most of us, I think, will take a little bit of both. First, don't worry. What can you do? Behave normally and don't change your plans, but prepare to die? If you live along the San Andreas Fault or in Tornado Alley, you know the drill already. And to a certain extent, terrorist attacks are like tornadoes or earthquakes--they come with little or no warning, and if your number is up, it's up. The second way, of course, is to worry--and not necessarily about whether the van that just pulled up next to you in the mall parking lot is carrying a fertilizer bomb.

The Bush Administration has taken many drastic steps in hopes of warding off terror attacks. We have no idea, of course, how many have been averted in all, thanks to everything from taking out the Taliban to checking Grandma for plastique at the airport. But perfect security is impossible. And so, one day, inevitably, there's going to be another terror attack. And whether it's another September 11, a dirty bomb or suitcase nuke in a major city, an anthrax or smallpox plague, or something less spectacular--like a van full of fertilizer blowing up a mall full of shoppers--our government will clamp down some more in hopes of reaching that state of perfect security. General Tommy Franks thinks another major attack will mean the end of the Constitution amidst public clamor for military rule. At the very least, it will mean a sequel to the Patriot Act. And we'll live under those conditions for a few years, until the next attack comes. And then we'll clamp down again.

This is one way a totalitarian state can be born. And it's why I fear our own government far more than I fear Osama bin Laden or any shadowy terrorist who wishes us ill. The damage we have done, can do--and will do--to ourselves is great. If Bush's foolishly simplistic explanation for terrorism, "They hate us because they hate freedom," really is true, then by doing what we have done, can do, and will do to our concept of freedom, we let the terrorists win.

I am not suggesting we do nothing. I am suggesting that we accept that perfect security is impossible, and not take actions that produce unintended consequences we don't want in a fruitless attempt to make our security perfect. I am suggesting that we understand that action against terrorism is most effective at the lowest level--that local law enforcement and first responders, badly underfunded by the Bush Administration, are going to be able to stop certain attacks and bear the brunt of those that succeed (just as they did on September 11) and if we intend to keep people alive, we need to make sure they have the resources to do it.

And, most difficult of all, I am suggesting that we need to address the root causes of terrorism--stop thinking of it as an irrational pathology and start thinking of it as a response to real-world conditions that can be changed. To fight a war against terrorism is as ridiculous as fighting a war against blitzkrieg or a war against infantry--like blitzkrieg and the use of infantry, terrorism is a tactic in the service of certain ends, and until we recognize that, we'll go in circles forever, endlessly treating the symptoms and not the disease, and never get safer.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Trial Tribulation
Raise your hand if you believed before last Saturday that Saddam Hussein would ever be found. Keep your hands up if you believed before last Saturday that he would let himself be taken alive, and forego the blaze of martyr's glory that would ensure him the equivalent of sainthood in the Arab world for the next thousand years. None of the hands remaining up belong to Bush Administration officials, I'll bet. But now that they've got him, they say there's going to be a trial. From Asia Times, Pepe Escobar speculates on what might come out at the trial. Escobar's summary of Saddam's various adventures with American assistance and/or encouragement makes it hard to believe such a trial will ever actually happen. Nobody in the administration wants to see this stuff come out.

And they may not have to. Wesley Clark is testifying in the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic this week, but the State Department demanded and received several conditions before permitting him to testify. His testimony must be in closed session, and the U.S. is allowed to edit the transcript after the session is over. Also, Clark will not be required to submit to cross-examination by Milosevic, who is acting as his own attorney. All of this is presumably being done to keep embarrassing details about past U.S. dealings with the former Yugoslavian leader from coming out. So it's a sure thing that key sections of Saddam's trial could likewise be kept secret.

Then again, here's another possibility. If Saddam is to be tried by an Iraqi court, there will be no need to document his international crimes, no need to talk about his WMD program (or lack of one) or support (or non-support) for Al Qaeda. There will be plenty of ordinary Iraqi crimes in which he was involved--murders, beatings, kidnappings--for which he could be convicted thousands of times over. So many, in fact, that the gassing of the Kurds (done with the full knowledge of the United States) need not come up at all.

But even if the worst happens for the administration--the whole sordid tale comes out--it's clear that they possess sufficient stones to simply to deny the truth of it despite the evidence. They're already rewriting history to airbrush their mistakes.

And finally this morning, an odd little tale has sailed under the radar this week. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reportedly told Fox News she wonders whether the U.S. has already snagged Osama bin Laden and if Bush waiting for the best political moment to bring him out. The comment, reportedly made in a green room before a broadcast, was tongue-in-cheek, Albright says, although Fox talking head Mort Kondracke says he's pretty sure she was serious.

No big deal, Mort. Mrs. Albright has only learned the same lesson the rest of us have--that with the Bush crowd, you can't rule anything out.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Wonders of the World
The D-Train is rolling up here in Wisconsin, too. Dean's 33 percent is as much as Lieberman, Clark, and Gephardt (the next three) combined, and even outdoes "undecided" by 11 points. What that says to me is that Dean is the only Democrat anybody is paying attention to up here, as the numbers for the rest of them parallel the national numbers, which measure the grossest kind of name recognition. These national polls have consistently shown Lieberman to be stronger than he actually is on the ground. For a guy who supposedly has 11 percent support here, Lieberman has no presence at all that I've seen--if he's got a Wisconsin office, I don't know where it is. (He has only one Wisconsin endorsement at the moment, from State Senator Jeff Plale--one of the leading Democratic enablers of Republican nonsense in the state legislature, so go figure.) The poll was taken after the capture of Saddam Hussein last weekend--so that hasn't affected Dean's standing against other Democrats yet. I suppose it could, because three-quarters of those surveyed wouldn't admit to being "very sure" of their choice.

The worry I have about Dean at the moment is not whether he'll get the nomination--it's how well he'll match up against Bush, especially now that Saddam Hussein is in the bag. (John Nichols of the Capital Times says he'll do fine because he's still right about the war.) It turns out that Ralph Nader is worried about Dean vs. Bush, too. So guess what? He's probably going to run again. Nader says, "The Democrats are damaging each other far more than any Green campaign could. What they are saying about Dean...all that will be used by Republicans." Well, yes. But how that justifies another Nader run is not quite clear to me.

Nader acknowledges that many of his 2000 supporters won't come back to him in 2004 (those who have realized that, wow, there really WAS a difference between Bush and Gore!) but he can count on picking up a goodly number of the Kucinich people, who are going to have their hearts broken sometime around 9:00 on the night of the New Hampshire primary, and will be ready to transfer from one lost cause to another and thereby help Bush get reelected.

I voted for Nader in 1996, dropped five bucks in the Nader for President basket at the Madison Farmer's Market in 2000, and intended to vote for him up until about a month before Election Day, when I decided my vote needed to go to Gore. Politics was once famously defined as "the art of the possible." What is possible, and how are you, the voter, most likely to help make it happen? By casting a vote for a candidate at three percent in the national polls, or a candidate at 42 percent? Naderites (and Kucinich people, for that matter) don't like to make those sorts of calculations. To them, a Gore vote or a Dean vote is a compromise they're unwilling to make. But that's foolish. If you're starving and somebody offers you a loaf of Wonder Bread, are you going to hold out for organic wheat-free dairy-free European six grain? You have the right to, but you'll be dead when you could have been alive. Quality of life is a different issue. It's perfectly fine to be concerned about your quality of life--but you have to stay alive before you can do anything about it. So it is in 2004. Before we can do anything about what Bush has done to progressive causes, we have to throw Bush out. If it means eating Wonder Bread, so be it.

Recommended listening: After this morning's post about Ev Ehrlich's exploration of the Dean campaign's Internet dominance as a paradigm-changer for the very idea of political parties, I flipped on NPR to hear a story about how the Internet has altered the nature of political rhetoric. Surprisingly, it's actually turned the clock back.

Can This Constitution Be Saved?
Maybe. Jose Padilla is not so much a terrorist mastermind but more a common criminal, although Fox News reported this week he "continues to provide valuable intelligence to the government" about a supposed Al Qaeda plot to detonate a dirty bomb. What he is most of all is a symbol--that he's been held in jail for over a year, charged with no crime and without access to counsel, on the word of Bush and Ashcroft, is a symbol of how the United States has changed in a fundamental and profound way since September 11.

One of the biggest--and, sadly, one of the first--casualties of the war on terror was the idea that the Constitution and laws must protect the worst of us if we want to be sure they're going to protect any of us. "Rights for bad guys? Why? If they want their rights, they shouldn't do anything wrong. If you don't have anything to hide, there's nothing for you to worry about." Lots of law-abiding Americans easily fall for that, and why not, when personages as august as John Ashcroft have been asking us to--and when, in the case of most people, it is in fact true? Well, how about this--as soon as we stop believing that the law applies to everybody, and replace that belief with the idea that our leaders know best and they don't have to answer to anybody, then our 227-year-old democratic experiment is probably over. We're back to where we were when King George III's government could do whatever the hell it wanted with the colonies. The appeals court decision that Bush does not have the power to hold Padilla on his word alone shows that the experiment isn't dead yet--but it's definitely on life support and its prognosis is iffy.

But maybe I am being old fashioned. What if Bush and Ashcroft and the people in their amen corner are right--that international terrorism is filled with such deadly possibility that the rules we have hitherto followed no longer apply? OK, then--so come out and say it, and then use the mechanisms provided in law to deal with it, by passing a Constitutional amendment that repeals the Fourth Amendment, for example. That would be bad, of course, but it would at least be honest, and better than yammering pious platitudes in public while undermining the law in private.

The Padilla decision will be appealed to the Supremes, and eventually, they will have to decide how much power a president has in our new-millennium wartime. That decision will be as important as any the Supreme Court has ever rendered--Dred-Scott big, Brown- v.-Board-of-Education big. Future-of-the-Constitution big.

That Hurts, But Thanks Anyway
Spinsanity is one of the most useful public services on the Internet. Its three writers dissect political rhetoric and the way politicians use it--which generally means calling attention to misleading spin and faulty arguments. Ben, Brendan, and Bryan are scrupulously non-partisan, taking apart rhetoric from the whole spectrum. Their straightforward style is devastating when pitted against the rantings of an Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. But in the interest of fairness, I have to report that in the last week, they've also analyzed MoveOn.Org's Daily Misleader as partisan disagreement and ideological attack masquerading as objective analysis of dishonesty. In their most recent post, they criticized Howard Dean's attacks on Bush's supposed foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks and Dean's distortions and omissions regarding the Iraq war resolutions in Congress.

It ain't exactly pleasant when someone or something you support is demonstrated to be less honest than it should be, but knowing that can also be useful. Something to steer by, like a lighthouse in the fog. Something with which to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Things Stupid and Not
Scroll to the bottom of this page for a nominee for Bonehead Political Quote of the Year. And this is coming from an otherwise smart guy, mind you. As Joe Conason once said of Wesley Clark, "It's a case of a smart man saying stupid things while pandering."

This, however, is a different matter. It's a Washington Post article by a former Clinton Administration official and sometime NPR commentator named Everett Ehrlich. Ehrlich's main point--that Howard Dean is accomplishing what amounts of a leveraged buyout of the old Democratic Party--makes you slap your forehead ("D'oh!") and wonder why you didn't see it yourself. (After you read the article, read the analysis by Mickey Kaus here--scroll down to the subheading "Waiting for Perot--or Someone Like Him," which is also the title of the main piece. Mickey, you gotta provide permalinks to individual entries.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

News Bites
The indispensable Robert Fisk reports from inside Saddam's spider hole.

Believe this, or don't--Ariel Sharon met with Saddam in Baghdad 24 hours after the capture.

And finally--objects in the yearbook are less perfect than they appear when Photoshop comes to play on school picture day.

Alfred E. Neuman is Alive and Well and Living in Washington
Last night Diane Sawyer interviewed George W. Bush at the White House. The transcript contains some fascinating bits. Asking Bush about his unequivocal statements that there were actual WMDs in Iraq (and which, we learned this week, his administration was claiming could hit the East Coast), as opposed to some of his later equivocations about "a weapons program":

DIANE: But stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction as opposed to the possibility that [Saddam] could move to acquire those weapons still--
DUBYA: So what's the difference?

What, me worry? Hell, it don't matter. (And the fact is, to him it didn't.)

And later:

DIANE: What would it take to convince you he didn't have weapons of mass destruction?
DUBYA: Saddam Hussein was a threat and the fact that he is gone means America is a safer country.
DIANE: And if he doesn't have weapons of mass destruction [inaudible]--
DUBYA: Diane, you can keep asking the question. I'm telling you--I made the right decision for America--
DIANE: But--
DUBYA: --because Saddam Hussein used weapons of mass destruction, invaded Kuwait. ... But the fact that he is not there is, means America's a more secure country.

Thought experiment: See if Bush's answers make any less sense when they come in response to different questions.

DIANE: So, got your Christmas shopping done yet?
DUBYA: Saddam Hussein was a threat and the fact that he is gone means America is a safer country.
DIANE: How about those Redskins?
DUBYA: I'm telling you--I made the right decision for America.
DIANE: Boxers or briefs?
DUBYA: Saddam Hussein used weapons of mass destruction, invaded Kuwait. ... But the fact that he is not there is, means America's a more secure country.

So you really don't need the questions at all. The man's going to say what he's going to say--just wind him up in the morning and away he goes. (Although I think he stole the last bit from Lieberman.)

Crazy 'Bout a Mercury
One of the criticisms leveled at NBC's The West Wing has been over its romantic and sometimes pious idealism. Critics say it manifests itself like this: The Bartlet Administration (the man spells his name wrong, by the way) is brought some proposal that has a lot to recommend it, or something distasteful that would be politically wise. Debate ensues. But then somebody--maybe the president himself, maybe his loyal aides Josh or Toby, maybe even his press secretary, C. J., has moral reservations of some sort, and so the administration decides to take the high road and refuse it. Some critics of the show find this terribly precious and not especially real.

Well, maybe, but, it turns out something like this happened when the new mercury pollution guidelines announced by the EPA this week were run up to the White House during the Clinton Administration. The administration determined that the guidelines violated the Clean Air Act and posed environmental and health risks, so even though the energy industry really really really wanted them, Clinton refused to approve them because they were bad for regular Americans.

Of course, the Bush White House, those great guardians of the public good, who always operate under the white-hot light of moral clarity, was happy to enact those same guidelines. Utility groups were invited to the White House to discuss them this past fall, but not environmental groups. The guidelines were announced Monday after a secret White House/FDA/EPA summit called to make sure that all three agencies spouted the same line, after the FDA issued a health warning on mercury just as the EPA was announcing the new and less stringent mercury pollution guidelines.

As it happens, these guidelines will benefit more Bush campaign donors. But that scarcely merits a mention anymore. We can stipulate that the whole damn country is for sale to Bush's Rangers and Pioneers and not waste any more space talking about it.

Recommended reading: Americans have a tendency to think that our economic problem right now is mostly that things are not getting better. We don't really believe that it's possible for things to get worse. But in the Guardian yesterday, Albert Scardino pointed out the economic challenges still facing the United States--none of which are going to respond to the capture of Saddam. The plunging value of the dollar compared to other world currencies seems arcane to Mrs. and Mrs. America, but its effects are not. Remember the oil shock of 1973 and the recession that followed--the one that wrote the obituary for the post-World War II economic boom that began in 1946? The dollar was falling then, too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

If You Want It
I have stopped spending the whole month of December trying to find the most perfect possible presents for people on my list. Instead, I go out on one night and buy something for everybody and hope that it gives them at least a small bit of pleasure, and tonight was the night.

I couldn't resist browsing the Christmas CD racks on my various stops. The pop and country flavors du jour, whoever they are in any given year, flood the racks with disposable discs--and so do some dinosaurs. I notice Jethro Tull is out with a Christmas album this year, which takes them about as far afield from Aqualung and Thick as a Brick as it is possible to be. (The album does includes the superb "A Christmas Song" and "Ring Out Solstice Bells," however, which the group recorded back in the day.) For so-called classic artists, a whole Christmas album is generally a give-up move, although reviews of Tull's album have been positive.

I also noticed this one. It's not a joke. It's a real album. He doesn't actually sing, but he did write a couple of the tunes. It's like what would happen if Andy Williams ran for the Senate, which I guess wouldn't be so weird now.

Last week, I gave you five holiday albums to search for and play before Christmas Day has come and gone. Tonight, you get five singles, in no particular order.

1.-2. Yeah, one way to look at them is as warhorses nobody really needs to hear again. But another way to take them is as indispensable components of American popular culture. "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby and "The Christmas Song" by Nat King Cole are still priceless and essential after all these years.

3. Someday at Christmas/Stevie Wonder. So deceptively simple, yet one of Stevie's best records, seasonal or otherwise. It sounds like a nursery rhyme, but you find yourself hooked as Stevie unfolds his vision of a utopian Christmas to come. And then he breaks your heart:

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

"Someday At Christmas" brings me nearly to tears every time I hear it, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it. And on this Christmas, the lump it leaves in the throat is particularly large. Said sentiments thus lead us to . . .

4 "Happy Xmas (War is Over)"/John Lennon and Yoko Ono. This was my favorite holiday song until Lennon was murdered just before Christmas 1980, and for years after I couldn't hear it without getting angry. Those years are past now, and I don't love this song like I used to, but I still couldn't imagine the season without it. It always seemed a bit odd to me that cynical old the-Beatles-are-more-popular-than-Jesus John Lennon would embrace the jolly season, yet he did it with the properly bemused attitude, placing the significance of Christmas where it seems to belong: on what happens inside those who celebrate it, and how that could change the world.

5. Merry Christmas Baby/Charles Brown. Brown first recorded this sometime during the 1950s, and rerecorded it many times thereafter. His duet version with Bonnie Raitt on A Very Special Christmas Volume 2 is absolutely righteous, and about as cool as it is possible for a single piece of music to be.

Tomorrow, more politics. Tonight, as soon as I post this, Christmas cookies.

Joe Lieberman is on rhetorical roll, saying yesterday that Howard Dean is in a "spider hole of denial" about Iraq. (Saddam's capture was a gift from heaven for Lieberman after Al Gore's big dis last week. It's his big chance to get out in front of the parade and pretend to lead it.) John Kerry has pronounced Dean unfit to lead; Wesley Clark has said Dean can't get elected without foreign policy experience. Dean is left with the Democrats' eternal problem--having to explain, in far more detail than most people have the attention span to sit through, why he's right and the others are wrong.

And he is right, of course. While Saddam's capture may make American soldiers in Iraq somewhat safer, Lieberman's contention that the United States itself is safer now that Saddam in in custody comes straight from the Bush Administration's playbook, and there's no evidence that it's true. Nevertheless, there's no way to spin the events of the last couple of days--they hurt Howard Dean. How much, we may not know for a while. But if they've given his fellow Democrats a large target to blaze at, they've also given it to Bush for next fall's campaign.

Recommended reading: Here's an intriguing bit of analysis from an Israeli website that says it specializes in political analysis, espionage, and terrorism security. Saddam Hussein was not hiding when he was discovered on Saturday--he was being held captive. The story speculates that his captors wanted a share of the $25 million reward the United States offered for information leading to his arrest. The "tips" that led to his capture may in fact have been part of a negotiation to give him up, until the Americans got tired of waiting. The tale would explain several things--why Saddam looked so bedraggled, why he was in a sealed hole and not some kind of underground command post, and most intriguingly, why he surrendered peacefully to American troops: "He must have regarded them as his rescuers and would have greeted them with relief."

Monday, December 15, 2003

The Baklava Gambit
I suggested this morning that American opinions regarding Saddam Hussein's capture won't really start to gel until the administration's propaganda machine starts rolling. In Online Journal, Matthew Mavaak wonders how helpful the capture will be to Bush, propagandawise: "Now what? The propaganda value of a shadowy Saddam, capable of wreaking havoc, was inestimable. Much of that locus standi has now vanished." And also: "Like General MacArthur's macho posturing during his first meeting with a humbled Emperor Hirohito, the sight of a medic clinically examining a beaten, disheveled Saddam, instead of a defiant maniac, was really a bad propaganda shot…So, this was the one who struck fear into the hearts of 'freedom-loving' people until 24 hours back?"

The pictures are striking. Perhaps it's a good lesson for us to see that even the most monstrous of our fellow humans are neither 10 feet tall nor endowed with horns, cloven hooves, and pointed tails. Although it's a bit hard to believe that someone so demonstrably evil would, in the end, look a little like Santa Claus after a six-month bender. (It's hard to imagine that the shots of him being examined weren't intended to demean him in the eyes of his former subjects, although Michael Moore noted yesterday that at least he got a free dental examination, which is something most Americans can't get.)

Recommended reading: Rarely in journalism does one man dare to fly so completely in the face of the conventional wisdom. Greg Palast does just that, however, with the real story of Saddam Hussein's career and capture.

The Toronto Star had a story yesterday featuring tales of Canadians of mostly, but not exclusively, Middle Eastern extraction, and their somewhat humorous encounters with American immigration officials at the border.

While incidents like these have no doubt increased in frequency since 9/11, the fact that U.S. immigration officials can sometimes be a bit dim or obtuse isn't new. Flash back to 1985--my wife and I have just visited the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (where we were welcomed profusely at the Canadian checkpoint with minimal questions), and have just crossed the bridge to return to the American side. (We've been out of the country maybe an hour.) I stop and roll down the window. A grim-faced official asks us what our citzenship is (the Illinois license plates apparently being unpersuasive) and then says sternly, "How did you find this bridge?"

I pause. There is a sign on the main road away from the Canadian falls that says "Bridge to USA," and you would have to be blind to miss it. I know this is what I should tell him (all except for the part about being blind), and I do, but not before I think of saying, "I found it to be a very nice bridge, thank you." Sometimes it doesn't pay to be a smartass.

Uhhhhhh . . .
I've been trying to decide what to think all day about the capture of Saddam Hussein. And I've finally decided that its significance is mostly symbolic. The idea that he was directing all phases of guerilla resistance against the occupying forces from a hole in the ground in Tikrit is silly, so the idea that the resistance is going to melt away now that he's gone is equally silly. It's a safe bet that the drip-drip-drip of attacks will continue as they have for months. (To their credit, American generals in Iraq have not promised any rose gardens now that Saddam has been nabbed.) Afghan government officials seem to think it might blunt the insurgency there--although their comments in this AP story sound like wishful thinking to me. There are plenty of stories today pointing out how Osama bin Laden is still in the wind, but unless he and Saddam really were running buddies, the capture won't help us find The Evil One at all. It's likely that the intelligence assets that were shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq before the war are not going to be shifted back now that Saddam has been caught.

On the homefront, the supposed "Saddam rally" on Wall Street melted before the closing bell today, and the idea floated by a couple of stories yesterday that the capture might somehow boost retail sales the last 10 days before Christmas is just loony. There's not much of a spike in Bush's approval ratings yet, either. I am not sure the capture changes the calculus of the presidential election much, although that footage of a completely humbled Saddam getting his teeth examined like a mule juxtaposed with Bush's squinty-eyed serious face will make a hell of a campaign ad. Howard Dean spoke for the first time today about what he thinks the capture means, and what we should do next. His rivals for the nomination have been positively gleeful in their condemnation of him since the capture. In the last few weeks, it's become fashionable to talk about Dean as a "teflon candidate"--as if nothing sticks to him on his march toward the nomination. We'll see if that's still true now.

But beyond symbols and speculation, what have we gained from the capture of Saddam? What, precisely, is different today from what it was 48 hours ago? I have no idea.

Bite Me
I have to confess that I have yet to read a lot about the capture of Saddam Hussein beyond a couple of Internet clicks, thanks to friends in town yesterday, the press of work, and a cold that has me hoping that on the third day, I will rise from the dead. But here are a couple of ill-informed thoughts that have crossed my mind so far.

First, in the long run, the capture is bad news for Howard Dean in that it gives his Democratic opponents (and George W. Bush) a powerful soundbite: "If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam would still be in power." Joe Lieberman launched it on Meet the Press yesterday, and will repeat it until Kingdom Come (as will right-wingers of all stripes, like NewsMax.com.) It's particularly ill-timed for Dean, coming the day after a vicious attack ad was launched in New Hampshire and South Carolina using images of Osama bin Laden to blast Dean's lack of foreign policy experience. In Slate, Will Saletan suggests that it's too early to determine how Saddam's capture will affect the race, and that predictions that Dean will be harmed or even finished by it are premature. A Washington Post poll notes this morning that Bush got only a one-point bounce in his approval rating yesterday, but his propaganda machine hasn't had much chance to roll yet. Between another East Coast snowstorm, the NFL season reaching a peak (and, as I know so well, millions of people down with colds and the flu), not everyone has had much chance to focus on the capture, so polling later this week will tell a better story.

The TV networks were in cheerleader mode yesterday--one of the talking heads on Headline News tried an ad-lib (which failed) about "sunshine breaking out all over the world on this Sunday morning," and even ESPN's Chris Berman talked about it being a great day for the world on NFL Prime Time last night. Last month in The Atlantic's D.C. Dispatch, William Powers noted the media's deep-down wish for success in Iraq, and analyzed its roots.

And finally, I am quite amused by reports that Saddam is being held in an "undisclosed location." Does this mean that instead of being in Argentina playing poker with Osama, Jimmy Hoffa, and Martin Bormann, he's now playing with Dick Cheney?

Sunday, December 14, 2003

What He Won't Say
"My fellow Americans…yesterday, your brave sons and daughters who make up the American--er, I mean, the coalition--forces, led by the hand of God, captured one of the incarnations of Insensate Evil that has been plaguing our world since September 11, 2001. As you have learned this morning, Saddam Hussein is now in American custody. We're a little disappointed that the bastard didn't shoot himself when he saw us coming, because now we have to have a trial. And in the interest of making the Iraqi Governing Council look legit, we have to let them do it, and they want to do it openly. It's a damn nuisance, really, seeing as how Saddam knows all kinds of stuff about how Secretary Rumsfeld and my dad dealt with him as an ally all through the 1980s that might come out at the trial and make us look bad. I can't quite figure out why we went through all this hassle of setting up military tribunals when we can't use them, but Dick said we had to have them, and what Dick says goes around here.

"You might be wondering if this means there will be any letup in the War on Terror. Goodness no. We expect that attacks in Iraq will continue until we have used sufficient fear and violence to make the Iraqi people's feelings of hatred for us turn to sweet Christian love. And after we're finished there, there are lots of other angry brown people in the Middle East and who need a good dose of American reality to turn them away from the path they're on, whatever path it is that we don't like. And to any hardliners in Iraq who might want to continue the fight now that Saddam is in the hands of justice, and to any other evildoers anywhere else who haven't yet got the message about who's really in charge on this planet, I say, 'Bring 'em on.'

"Because evil is not yet vanquished in every corner of the globe, here in the United States, our homeland security efforts will continue as before, and will wherever possible be increased. So if we start rummaging through your library records or subpoena your ISP to find out what websites you have visited, please understand that the need for such actions is only temporary, until all citizens of the Islamic world learn that America acts only out of a higher calling to bring peace and democracy and capitalism and Starbucks to every corner of the Earth.

"We must keep our homeland security efforts growing in strength and power because the other Evil One, whose name I am not going to say because it reminds people that we haven't caught him either dead or alive as I promised we would do over two years ago, is still out there. Perhaps he is living undercover as an insurance agent in Des Moines, Iowa, or a plumber in Butte, Montana, or maybe even right next door to you and your children. For this reason, you can rest assured that we're going to keep looking for him, too, doggedly and without letup, just like O. J. continues to search for Nicole's real killer.

"My fellow Americans, you will remember that I told you last spring that the sole reason we needed to go to war in Iraq was to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam's grasp. All that other stuff you thought you heard us say about weapons of mass destruction, well, that was just the liberal media trying to distort our true intentions. We cared only about the innocent Iraqi children. Yes, we've blown a few thousand of them to Kingdom Come sort of by accident, but we deeply regret these incidents, which are actually the Iraqis' fault for letting evil grow among them. But let us not focus on our failures in Iraq, or even call them failures, because to admit any sort of failure makes you look weak, like the French and the Germans, and might make people want to vote for that other guy--oh, what's his name? Bean? Well anyway, let me instead proudly stand before you this morning, as your Maximum Leader chosen by God, and say to you, 'Mission accomplished.'

Saturday, December 13, 2003

And I'm Proud to Be an American, Hiding Under the Bed
As the Kucinich people are fond of noting, Howard Dean ain't that far left, really. In The Atlantic's DC Dispatch, Jonathan Rauch suggests that Dean is actually to the right of Bill Clinton--or at least where Bill Clinton was when he ran for president in 1992. Even though I am fairly far left as lefties go, Dean's centrism doesn't bother me all that much. I have said elsewhere that I would like to live in a country where Kucinich could be elected president, but this is not that country. What I want more, at this moment, is to live in a country where George W. Bush cannot be president anymore. If Dean can't take him down, who can?

It's clear that win or lose in November, the legacy of Bush isn't going to go away within a couple of weeks of Inauguration Day. His administration has transformed not just American politics and policy, but the very psyche of the American people. Writing in The Nation, Robert Jay Lifton analyzes the "American Apocalypse." "The war on terrorism," Lifton writes, "is apocalyptic, then, exactly because it is militarized and yet amorphous, without limits of time or place, and has no clear end. It therefore enters the realm of the infinite. Implied in its approach is that every last terrorist everywhere on the earth is to be hunted down until there are no more terrorists anywhere to threaten us, and in that way the world will be rid of evil…The projected 'victory' becomes a form of aggressive longing, of sustained illusion, of an unending 'Fourth World War" and a mythic cleansing--of terrorists, of evil, of our own fear." Howard Dean--or anybody else--ain't going to turn the clock back on that psychological mindset right away, that's for damn sure.

Elsewhere, H. N. Arendt analyzes the crossroads between the war on terror and the cultural war conservatives are fighting. Some of us saw it already on the afternoon of September 11--that the Bush Administration would use the attacks not only as an excuse to pull up the drawbridges and hunker down in fear of the whole world, but as a club with which to beat anything they could characterize as liberal.

And finally: I believe that high achievement should be recognized--even high achievements in stupidity. Pacifica High School in Oxnard, California (originally to be named Pacifico until somebody noticed that "Pacifico" is the name of a popular Mexican beer) is preparing a big spring pageant in which the big finale will involve 200 students singing Lee Greenwood's "I Love the USA." Now, I know what you're thinking--isn't it "God Bless the USA"? Well, yeah. But school officials figured they'd better change it to avoid a potential lawsuit. You can guess what happened next. The high achievement in stupidity belongs to the school officials who thought they could change the song and nobody would notice, instead of PICKING A DIFFERENT SONG YOU FREAKIN' MORONS WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?