Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hold the Mayo for Jesus
I am on the road again, in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, as the area gears up for college basketball's Final Four this weekend. The Edward Jones Dome, hard by I-70 right downtown, is fully festooned, and the airport was full of tall people already yesterday, even though the teams didn't arrive until today.

As it was, I nearly didn't arrive until today. For the second time in my last three business trips by air, I spent a significant chunk of the day stranded in the airport, and missed some of my scheduled meetings. Yesterday it was weather and an unlikely daily double of two different Northwest planes, both bound for St. Louis, both suffering mechanical troubles.

I have decided that the best way to be a happy airplane passenger is to consider yourself in a state of helplessness. Once you walk into the airport, there's not a damn thing you can do about anything that really matters. You're a sheep, and you're waiting for somebody to herd you from one pen to another. So when the airline announces that your flight has been delayed, or that you have to walk to the opposite end of the airport for a gate change (which happened to me yesterday), you don't concern youself about it any more than a sheep would concern itself with walking to a different pen. Better to take it that way then to blow a gasket at the gate agent--because gate agents are, in the end, as helpless as the passengers. If they could get you on the damn airplane any faster, they certainly would, only to get you and your long sheep's face out of their sight. To think that they have some sort of evil agenda--that they got out of bed that morning for the express purpose of screwing you personally, as some passengers seem to suspect--gives them more credit for efficacy than they can possibly possess.

I didn't fly until I was 30 years old, and I only fly maybe three times a year now--so I am still capable of being impressed by the idea that I'm six miles in the air, and I still find looking out the window more entertaining than almost anything I could bring along to read. Flying over the Midwest and seeing those neatly surveyed squares below always reminds me of Thomas Jefferson, whose idea such a systematic survey was--and who would no doubt enjoy being six miles in the air to see it. I don't know whether it's true that spring moves north at the rate of 100 miles a week--that could be a fact, or it could be a folk belief spread by the farmers I grew up with--but it seemed plausible from the air yesterday. Flying south from Minnesota through Wisconsin and Illinois to Missouri, you could see the country below get progressively greener--and outside tonight, I caught a springlike scent in the air. People are talking about mowing their lawns down here already, while the grass back home is still December-brown.

Some people complain that the United States has gotten so generic that every place is like every other. It's true that I am driving a car rented from a national chain, I'm staying in a national chain hotel, and I've had my last seven meals at national chain restaurants--but this place has its own special flavor anyhow. The first thing you notice after hitting the interstate out of the airport is the number of billboards for Jesus. "Jesus loves you," "Jesus is Lord," and my favorite, giant white letters on a green background saying just "Jesus." (The only billboards as ubiquitous are the ones for the various casinos in the area. There's either a lesson to be learned from that or a joke to be made about it, but I can't get the bat off my shoulder.) There are also Jesus yard signs in this same green motif. With the spring elections coming next week, those signs make it look like Jesus is running for mayor or town council--which, given the way some Republicans are about their religion, he just might be. Lots of Jesus on the radio, too--I counted at least five stations while seeking something listenable yesterday afternoon.

When I was in Detroit three weeks ago, I wrote about the aggressiveness of Michigan drivers. They're aggressive here, too, but in a different way. On two different occasions today, drivers behind me laid on the horn when I dallied one microsecond after the light changed. Apparently my Wisconsin reaction time is not ready for prime time in Illinois. But I swear it's not entirely my fault. I am driving a rented Kia Rio, which has all the ferocious power of a month-old kitten, and damn near got me run over by a truck yesterday on the interstate, when I hammered the accelerator to merge and was able to count to three before the car actually speeded up.

Impatiently blowing your horn at the out-of-state visitor (even if his identity is disguised by Missouri plates on the rental car) doesn't seem like very good Southern hospitality. And people down here do consider themselves Southerners, as the proliferation of barbecue joints (and Jesus billboards) might indicate. I made the mistake of calling Final Four contestant Louisville "Louie-ville" today, only to be reminded that down here, they say it "Lou-uh-vul." And I am not sure if the guy eating mayonnaise directly from the squeeze packets at the next table this afternoon was indulging a Southern taste, or if he was just a slob--but I've never seen that up North.

But having barbecue on every corner is a good thing, and that's item A on the agenda for tomorrow.

Something to Nothing
I used to be scared of dying. (I almost typed "scared to death of dying," but how stupid is that?) Seriously. I thought about it every day, multiple times a day. And I used to think, although I don't believe I ever said it to anybody, that if it took being hooked up to a car battery to keep me alive, that's what I would want. What made me fear it, ironically enough, was believing in God. Because as long as I believed in God, I knew the score, and there was no way I was getting to Heaven. (I almost typed "no way in Hell," but how stupid is that?) So it was the fiery furnace for me, cracklin' and snappin' like a piece of bacon for all eternity. But even if through some terrible clerical error I got into Heaven, eternal life didn't exactly seem like a prize--because after you've had lunch with Abraham Lincoln, Ray Nitschke, and Robert Johnson a few hundred times, and learned everything there is to know about every subject there is to study, how are you going to spend the gazillion years you have remaining?

But after really studying the evidence for God's existence, I decided that he doesn't. Of course, you don't need a God to have an afterlife. There's the Tibetan concept of the bardo, an island between, where souls go while waiting for, well, whatever. While it would be wonderful if there were a place where my grandparents and my best friend Dave and my mother-in-law were all hanging out waiting for me to arrive, the concept is problematical. For example: my father-in-law has remarried. Which of his wives gets to sit in the passenger seat of his celestial Crown Victoria? And which version of my Grandpa Oscar is going to be there--the elderly one I remember, or the vigorous young Norwegian farmer I never knew?

Terri Schiavo's supporters are probably rejoicing amidst their tears today, believing that she's in the proverbial "better place." (That death would release her from her earthly prison makes her parents' fight to keep her alive seem rather odd. If someone you love is suffering, wouldn't you want to end it?) But I'm skeptical of that, too. A couple of years ago I attended the funeral of a young person who'd used a wheelchair most of his life. The pastor performing the service spoke emotionally of how the kid no longer needed the wheelchair, and how he was, at the very moment all of us were mourning, was walking and running and dancing and such. I am sure he intended it as a comfort, but I wonder how comforting it was to those grieving the hardest. It seemed to me a little like saying, "You've all won $64 million dollars in the lottery. You can't have it, but isn't it wonderful that you won it?" How, precisely, does that lend comfort?

My best guess is that dying is like going to sleep and never waking up to anything afterward. You don't know you're dead, because the senses that give you the ability to differentiate something from nothing don't work anymore. (Kind of like what happens when your cerebral cortex is gone.) And that doesn't sound particularly frightening to me. What is far more frightening to me than the loss of my physical life is the loss of my dignity--and one thing you can say about the Schiavo case is that everyone it touches has lost that. Her poor parents, who fought so hard to hold onto her--and whose simple parental love, I suspect, was in the end taken advantage of by people who were smarter and more politically ruthless than they could ever have been on their own. Republicans in Congress, for finally doing something so nakedly opportunistic that people who have tolerated all the rest of their shit can't stand the smell of this. Democrats in Congress, for failing to stand on principle even when the American public well and truly would have had their backs. The protesters outside the hospice, who became part of that weirdly American breed who weep selectively for some of the people they have never known. The cable news channels, which made more people dumber faster than at any other time in history.

It's not over, either. There's more dignity for people and politicians to lose. The religious right will continue its cultural war; Congressional Republicans will have their judicial war. CNN and MSNBC and Fox News will stay stupid. And Terri Schiavo crosses into American history.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

And Now, a Message From the Uneducated and Ignorant
I lived in Iowa for a long time, and liked it there. However, the cliche about Iowans--that they're plainspoken sons and daughters of toil possessing the sort of wisdom you can only get by staying far removed from the elitist East Coast and flighty West Coast--is not strictly true. Hang out in Iowa City or Ames for a while and you'll meet as many political and cultural flakes as you'd find in any California granola bowl. Remember also, that Iowa is home to one of the first statewide Republican parties to be almost entirely colonized by the fundamentalist Borg, during Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential campaign.

The influence of the Borg is the only explanation for the existence of Representative Steve King, who has been getting all sorts of airtime in the last few days with astoundingly ignorant and inflammatory comments on the relationship between Congress and the judicial branch in the wake of the Schiavo case. Last week he said, "The judiciary has circled their wagons, not around the Constitution, not around the law, not around justice, or jurisprudence, but around themselves." (To which a member of the reality-based community might respond, "I'm rubber, you're glue"--and be right.) Yesterday, Fly Trap had the goods on his weekend interview with NPR, in which he yapped about how it's time for Congress to assert its "rightful Constitutional authority" over the courts--a statement that indicates he's never actually read the Constitution. Granted, King isn't a very big fish--boil on the ass of Congress is more like it--but nobody in his party is rushing to distance themselves from his rhetoric, because much of his party is right in step with it.

I have been pessimistic about the direction of American politics for several years, but comments like King's cause me genuine, sphincter-clenching fear for our future. I believe that people like King put us in grave danger of blowing the entire experiment in democracy that began in 1776, and not in the intermediate future, either. It could happen within the next few months. Such extremists, driven by a religious conviction that brooks no doubt, don't back down--unless they're met with force and conviction greater than their own. Sean Connery in the 1987 film The Untouchables:
If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way because they're not gonna give up the fight until one of you is dead. . . . You wanna know how you do it? Here's how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send on of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?
I was going to end this post by suggesting that this is what it must have felt like to be an American in 1860 as the Civil War was approaching--until I realized that's old news. Radical Repugs like Steve King have started the war already. It's time for the rest of us to choose our weapons and fight--Chicago-style.

Recommended Reading: The big buzz in the blogosphere this week is over the return of Billmon, proprietor of the Whiskey Bar, who has resumed blogging after a hiatus of several months. His recent post on the Schiavo circus is one of the best you'll find anywhere, and his explanation of why he quit blogging (and started up again) mirrors a lot of my own feelings about the blogger's art.

Quotes of the Day: From Dave at Electablog: "Who would you rather be stuck at a cocktail party with: The placard carrying protestors outside Terry Schiavo's hospice or the Jacko supporters outside the Santa Barbara courtroom? Either way, you better drink with both hands..."

From Dover, Pennsylvania, where schools have been ordered to teach the farce of intelligent design, pastor Ray Mummert explains why Christians must stand up for it: "We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture." At last, a Repug tells it like it is.

Monday, March 28, 2005

When you're on the road as much as I am, you need to keep your eyes peeled for unusual sights--and today, I've seen plenty. By 7:30 this morning, I had already seen Wisconsin's largest tree, a cottonwood 23 feet in circumference and 138 feet high, in Montello. Not only that, but I also drove by Wisconsin's deepest natural inland lake, Green Lake, which is 236 feet deep at its deepest point. (There's a lake near Black River Falls that's 350 feet deep, but that's not a wonder of nature, it's a wonder of engineering--a manmade lake.)

You don't generally see those sorts of things on the Interstate, so I always enjoy those trip segments that take me off the well-traveled path. I come from a long line of well-traveled-path-avoiders--as a kid, my family always stopped on our travels to read the historical markers that are everywhere on Wisconsin's highways, and I still stop to read them today . . . when I have the time. So I've seen the world's largest black bear, an almost eight-foot-high, 665-pound specimen now stuffed and mounted in a roadside display in Glidden (in a case right next to the world's largest pine log.) As a result, Glidden calls itself the Black Bear Capital of Wisconsin. The bear was taken on November 22, 1963--which means that the seven hunters who were required to drag him out of the woods doubtless were among the last people in Glidden to learn of an even bigger news event that day. And I have seen the mysterious bow-and-arrow outcropping near Hager City, a prehistoric symbol that has defied all attempts at explanation. It's thought to be of Indian origin, but nobody knows for sure.

I don't mind traveling through little towns like Montello or Glidden, if I have time. The state highways generally go all the way through, and while there's a temptation to wonder how the hell people end up here in the middle of nowhere, I have to remind myself that my hometown probably looks like the middle of nowhere to a person from Hager City. Some of these towns are on the way to becoming nowhere, though. While a town like Green Lake can capitalize on its proximity to water (and the high-priced lakeside real estate that comes with it), other towns struggle. The difference between towns that are making it and towns that are dying might be the presence of a grocery store--as distinct from a convenience store--with a real meat aisle and a produce department and shopping carts. Once your grocery store closes, you have crossed a line and, things being what they are these days, you aren't going back.

A convenience store is not the same thing. Convenience stores are like plants in rocky soil--they find a way to thrive even when nothing else can. I should probably write a book on convenience stores, because next to the car stereo, a good convenience store is a travel accessory I couldn't leave home without. The good ones have a fountain (Pepsi, please, and not Coke), restrooms with more than one stall, and a decent selection of baked goods, for next to Diet Pepsi, these trips run on cookies and the occasional donut.

(Speaking of which, Krispy Kremes have become ubiquitous in convenience-store world, but the chain's vaunted financial troubles tell the truth about the product--they're good, but not as good as everybody had heard they were before they tried them. They're 75 or 79 cents apiece most places--way beyond what I'd pay for anybody's donut--but Krispy Kreme outlets in metro areas like Chicago or Detroit often price them at 49 cents, in which case I'm on them like a duck on a junebug.)

Long before Krispy Kreme moved north of the Mason/Dixon line, convenience stores were already a long way from a rack of smokes and a few bags of chips, the only refreshment choices available during my long-ago gas station employee days. Nevertheless, convenience stores are getting more sophisticated all the time by adding more elaborate menu items. While I'm generally in favor of food, I wonder how many travelers like me are buying, say, soup. Bit hard to eat in the car.

If I were king, in addition to mandating multiple-stall restrooms and Pepsi products, I'd make one other rule: people buying lottery tickets in busy convenience stores should have to go to the back of the line. I fully support your right to play the lottery--but I really don't think I should have to wait while you play your dollar scratch-offs in line, one at a time, so you can buy another if you don't win. This morning I had to wait for a couple who were buying Powerball tickets with whatever money they could scrape up out of their pockets--"Wait, I found another quarter, so we can get four dollars' worth." I sensed that the lottery was not only their retirement plan, it may have been a source of income.

I suppose that attitude marks me as a snooty Dane County liberal, but I'm covered in signs that mark me that way already, chief among them my "Republicans for Voldemort" bumper sticker and the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's under my arm when I stop for a meal. I am in western Wisconsin at the moment, the most liberal of the state's rural regions, so these markers probably don't put me in any danger up here. I'd be likely to get more looks in the redder eastern regions, but even there I wouldn't be in the kind of jeopardy sparked by the game Texas liberals used to talk about playing. Back when Democrat Ann Richards was governor, a group of people would drive out to Waco with bumper stickers that said "I'm the queer Ann Richards sent to take away your gun" and then try to get back to Austin--the winner being the one who got back alive.

This trip is not entirely a car trip--after a couple of days in small-town Wisconsin, I drive to Minneapolis, park my car, and fly to St. Louis for a few days. (It may be the first flight I've ever taken with no connecting flight to make.) In the 1980s, when George Carlin was suggesting that life is mostly about the pursuit, display, and storage of stuff, he observed that the trip within a trip is one of the most difficult things in life. You have already picked out the stuff you can't live without for several days, now you have to pick out a subset of the stuff to take with you on this additional trip. "Supply lines are getting longer and harder to maintain," he said. I'm feelin' you, George.

More road news, and perhaps even some of the political bilge you have come to expect from this low-rent website, later in the week--if the hotel web access holds out.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Link Dump
I posted something else about the Schiavo case over at Best of the Blogs just now--and while you're there (if you go), you should read two other worthwhile posts by BotB contributors: Leftcoast on how the Democrats fail to get it, yet again, and Jeff Popovich on how the melodrama of the Schiavo case comes from the same playbook as the cartooning of John Kerry last fall.

Then you should go outside and do something other than reading on the Internet. What the hell is wrong with you?

The Hisba Mob
I resolved when I sat down at my desk this morning that I wasn't going to spend a lot of time in the Schiavo swamp. But then I saw the parents' latest gambit--interpreting Terri's "aaah" and "waah" before the tube was removed as "I want to live."

Can you make any other sounds than "aaah" and "waah" without a cerebral cortex? Seems to me it could just as easily have been her NCAA tournament picks: "Carolinaaaaah" and "Waaaashington."

If there was any dignity left to anybody in this case, this pathetic bit of nonsense obliterates it.

With plenty of wingnuts calling for mob action, it shouldn't necessarily be a surprise that Jeb Bush was ready to send state agents into the hospice earlier this week to pull Terri out, but that local police told him they'd resist. Commenters over at Political Animal are speculating that Jeb may have fabricated and then leaked the story to shore up his standing with the wingnut base, who are frustrated that the law is prevailing over the loudly stated religious views of a minority absolutely convinced of its righteousness.

(Earlier this week, Juan Cole suggested that Congress' intervention in the case is very much like a fundamentalist Islamic concept called hisba, in which anybody who feels Islam has been harmed by someone's actions can file a claim against them, regardless of whether they're personally involved in the incident. How this differs from what Congress did last weekend, I can't see.)

The threat of mob action--or just a mob of nutbags weeping and chanting--makes for good TV, which is why this case has consumed more airtime than anything since the presidential election. Yes, the networks favor emotional displays over factual discussions, but as MediaMatters' Jamison Foser notes, the bigger problem is in their failure to properly identify the people they call upon to comment on the case. This isn't new, necessarily. Context is something TV news has never done a good job of providing. But if viewers don't know who these people are, what they represent, and what they've stood for in the past, there's no way to judge their credibility. So Randall Terry, a man whose history includes applauding the murder of abortion doctors and open support for theocracy, is presented merely as the thoughtful leader of a save-Terri group instead of the batshit loonball he's been for 20 years. Unfortunately, if a journalist tries to make clear who Terry is, he can be accused of unfairly stacking the deck against him--so journalists don't try to provide such context. Thus, the longer viewers watch, the less they end up knowing about what's really going on.

Now that Republicans in Washington are backpedaling from the case, the presence of Terry and his ilk reveal the affair for what it is: An irrational, Easter-week hissy fit by religious crazies who want what they want because they think it's what God wants, and nothing else matters but their opinion. According to Steven Hart at the Opinion Mill, "Terri Schiavo is now a mascot alongside Cassie 'She Said Yes' Bernal and all the other devotional objects cherished by religious zealots who fancy themselves persecuted because the eagle on the National Seal has not yet been replaced with a 3-D image of Jesus Christ."

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Talk Amongst Yourselves
Terri Schiavo . . . or something else. You pick it. I'm on the road and going to bed.

So the Schiavo case continues to boil this morning. My guess is that Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nutjobs for Jesus, will pass something to get the feeding tube reinserted by dinnertime tonight--and some court will pull it back out tomorrow. Then it's off to the Supreme Court, and imagine the hair-raising spectacle that might result if the Supremes decline to intervene. Villagers with torches storming the hospital can't be ruled out.

It's been interesting cataloging the various ways the Schiavo case runs counter to what the wingnuts claim to believe on other issues--states' rights, "culture of life"--but somebody at Salon noted a good one this morning. The Bible says wives should be subservient to husbands, so why shouldn't Michael Schiavo's wishes be honored? Or doesn't that apply while waiting for the miraculous regeneration of a destroyed cerebral cortex? Maybe not. No other precedent seems to.

Elsewhere, there's been another nauseating spectacle taking place the past 18 hours or so--baseball star Barry Bonds gave a weird press conference yesterday in which he announced he could miss half the upcoming season due to a knee injury, but also that he's tired, his family is tired, the media are a bunch of jerks who want him to jump off a bridge, and maybe he'll just hang it up entirely. As hard as it is to watch stories about Schiavo, it was almost as hard watching Bonds, leaning oddly on a crutch, demanding the cameras include his son in their shots, and whining about how hard his life is.

And he wonders why people don't like him. Even before his staggering hitting performances of the last several years (which some fans now believe are tainted by steroid use), Barry Bonds was one of the great stars of the game, and had been made wealthy beyond most people's capacity to dream as a result. It's true that the media and many fans don't like him, but much of that is his own fault. The fact is that the media and fans WANT to like successful pro athletes. Even though we're not as starry-eyed as fans used to be in the more heroic, pre-ESPN era, we still want to think sports stars are nice people who happen to have been given a gift we all wish we had. So if fans and the media come to dislike a guy, there's reason to believe the guy probably brought it on himself. And Bonds has been spectacularly rude to fans, reporters, and even to other teammates throughout much of his career.

I can only imagine how difficult it must be to have cameras pointed at you and questions shouted at you day in and day out. (ESPN has assigned a reporter solely to cover Bonds this season--an assignment you might want to think twice about before you begin to envy it.) But it goes with the territory, as the old saying goes. Bonds wanted to be a star, and he's been one for 18 or 19 major-league seasons. He's on the verge of breaking the most famous record in sports--the career record for home runs. What's happened to him in recent years isn't new. It's different, maybe, but not new.

One thing we can guess: Barry Bonds won't retire, not while the home-run record is still out there, because the possessor of the biggest bat in baseball also possesses its biggest ego. In the end, the press conference yesterday was not about his injury or his family, but his ego. After all--if he hates talking to the media so much, why was he out there yesterday?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

That's Not My Thumb I'm Waving
The wingnuts' goal in the Schiavo case was not merely to get into federal court--that was merely the most expedient move with the clock running. So it should surprise nobody that losing in federal court this morning doesn't mark the end of anything. Nobody's saying, "Well, we had our hearing, and that's all we could hope for." Nope. Rick Santorum has already thrown a hissy fit: "You have judicial tyranny here," Santorum told WABC Radio in New York. "Congress passed a law that said that you had to look at this case. He simply thumbed his nose at Congress."

To anyone not drunk on self-righteousness, however, it seems clear that judge James Whittemore did indeed look at the case, and his ruling is reasonable by the standards of the reality-based community, at least. He ruled that the 19 previous court hearings in the case have adequately protected Schiavo's rights, and that despite the life-and-death stakes at this moment, he had no choice but to apply the law, and by that standard, he wouldn't rule to reinsert the feeding tube.

But if by "thumbed his nose at Congress" Santorum means that Whittemore failed to get the message that he should ignore law and precedent to grant whatever the wingnuts decide they want, then, yeah, nose was thumbed. Schiavo's parents are ready to appeal--in effect, shopping for a judge somewhere who's willing to see it differently, i.e., to ignore law and precedent. (If it makes the Supreme Court before she dies, remember, Antonin Scalia awaits.) Meanwhile, Whittemore--a Clinton appointee who is for the moment as reviled in Wingnut World as Bill himself--had best invest in bodyguards and security.

The time frame for further action is short. Without feeding, Terri Schiavo will be dead within a week and her case will be moot. But the damage to the Constitution and the relationship between the judicial and legislative branches is done. It can't be undone, and it's likely to get worse, as Santorum's words make clear: The wingnuts are perfectly content to wipe out whatever stands in the way of their ability to govern by fiat. Law must give way to politics, deliberation to emotion, reason to faith, your rights to their whims. Today it's Terri Schiavo. Next week, it will be something else.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Circus Comes to Town
I don't believe I can recall a more nauseating political circus than the one that took place yesterday and today surrounding Terri Schiavo. The only other one that comes close was the Clinton impeachment six years ago--and as bad as that was, laden with hypocrisy though it was, rife with intellectual and political incoherence though it was, I am not sure it rises to the same level. The Clinton impeachment represented a danger to the Republic in that a rogue Congress tried to throw out a duly elected president for the flimsiest of reasons, but if impeachment had been successful, it would have messed with the private lives of citizens only indirectly. The Schiavo case is more dangerous because--among other reasons--it means that Congress can, and will, if it chooses to, intervene in the private lives of individual citizens, and those citizens' wishes and those of the judiciary be damned. The doctrine of separation of powers, all those checks and balances between branches we learn about in civics class, is badly damaged by this action--and if you consider this a one-time thing, you fail to understand what the Repugs are all about. They believe in straight-up democracy like you and I believe in the Tooth Fairy, and if their actions lead to one-party autocratic rule, Soviet-style, they don't care, as long as they're the one party.

The inconsistency of the Repugs' position in this case is mindblowing. States' rights? Only when a state does things our way. Preserving a culture of life? Only when acting to preserve it doesn't cost us any money--just last week Tom DeLay led the fight to cut the very program that would benefit people like Terri Schiavo through Medicare. In addition, the Schiavo case makes a fine argument for stem-cell research--which the Repugs are against. Neither do the Repugs honor the sanctity of marriage by permitting a husband and wife to carry out a decision they made together. (A caller to liberal talker Ed Schultz wondered this afternoon what the wingnuts would be doing in this case if Terri's spouse was named Michelle instead of Michael. "I'd pay to see that," she said--and so would I.) And George W. Bush himself signed a law in Texas as governor that permitted hospitals to cut off life support for patients, even against the wishes of their families--in cases where those families were unable to pay for care and the hospital no longer wished to pick up the expense.

Lesson: If you don't have a living will, get one (Terri Schiavo didn't)--but keep in mind that if Congress wants to, it can probably find a reason to invalidate that, too.

That so many Democrats signed onto the "Palm Sunday Compromise" is another example of the party getting snookered into going along with a rotten idea instead of standing its ground, although I have to admit I can understand the damage an incumbent might face two years from now from a campaign ad saying "Representative So-n-So voted to KILL Terri Schiavo." And that's the real reason DeLay, Frist, and the other Shi'ites in the GOP are perpetuating this goat-roping. It isn't because they care about Terri Schiavo. Amazingly enough, the public, and even the party's own hardcore evangelical base, seems to know it. Kevin Drum cites an ABC News poll that show huge majorities saying Congress shouldn't be involved and they're doing it for political advantage. A CNN poll makes similar points. Hell, even an Internet poll on the Fox News website earlier today said that Congress shouldn't have gotten involved.

Amazing. Infuriating. And for lots of reasons, terribly sad.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Pennsylvania? Indiana? South Carolina?
I had not been paying too much attention to the Terri Schiavo case in Florida, at least not until the noise around it rose to a crescendo impossible to ignore. I was amused to note that Bill Frist weighed in yesterday with his medical diagnosis of Schiavo--this from a cardiologist by trade who claimed last year not to know whether AIDS could be transmitted through tears and sweat. (Quote of the Day, from Marshall Whitman of the DLC: "I suspect that Senator Frist has his eye more on the Iowa caucus than the Hippocratic Oath.") Of course, Frist and his pals in the Senate also wanted to subpoena Schiavo to testify before something-or-other about something-or-other, despite the fact that the woman has been a potted plant for 10 years--so I am not sure I'd see Frist for a hangnail, let alone anything more significant.

As far as the politics of the affair, I tend to agree with the post at Daily Kos suggesting that the wailing and rending of garments amongst the wingnuts makes them look loony even to people not normally disposed to see them that way. On a personal level, I think Harry Shearer (yes, that Harry Shearer), guest-blogging for Josh Marshall (who's getting married this weekend), probably had the most appropriate take:
Part of what's so dispiriting about this place at this time is the sense that, in a totally non-economic sense, the public sector is crowding out the private sector. . . . Laci and Scott Peterson were private people having a private tragedy. Their lives were literally none of our business. Same with this family.
As for me, I woke up this morning wondering how many people die each day, prematurely, for want of good nutrition or health insurance or because they were poisoned by something in the environment--or blown up by insurgents in Iraq--and how come so few of the people gnashing their teeth over Terri Schiavo seem to give a rat's ass about their right to life.

Four-Day Fever: On a far lighter note, I am one of those people who doesn't become a basketball fan until NCAA tournament time. For two weeks in March, I am transformed into someone who can tell you that a number-12 seed has beaten a number-5 in 16 of the last 17 years, and who Taylor Coppenrath is. And this morning I got very excited when I learned that Wisconsin's presumed opponent in the second round, Kansas, took the gaspipe against Bucknell last night, and Bucknell will be a far easier opponent for the Badgers tomorrow. I actually called downstairs to The Mrs., "We could be goin' to the Sweet Sixteen!" The paradox of this is that once the Sweet Sixteen is winnowed to the Final Four, I am back to not caring. I haven't watched a Final Four game since Wisconsin was in it five years ago, and I haven't watched the national championship game since one of those Duke/UNLV shootouts in the early 90s.

But even in my temporary frenzy, I haven't gone completely over the edge. I still don't know where Bucknell is located.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Boulder That's Too Big to Lift
We’ve had an interesting colloquy going on in the comments section since my post on Monday about the church shootings in Brookfield, Wisconsin. So let's talk some more about free will, the idea that God created human beings with the ability to do good or evil as they choose. "Why did God allow this person [like, say, Terry Ratzmann] to do this terrible thing?" "Well, it's because God gave us free will, and sometimes people use their free will to do terrible things."

As I noted in one of my own comments to the original post, the free-will argument has no explanation for whose free will takes precedence in a situation where multiple wills clash. If Terry Ratzmann had the free will to choose to shoot up his church, what about the free-will choice of his victims not to be shot up that day--a choice they surely would have made if they had known? How is it that Ratzmann's free-will decision prevailed? The question has been asked before, most notably about Mohammed Atta, leader of the 9/11 hijackers, but I've never seen anyone try to explain it without resorting to the mysterious-ways default--which is, as I said Monday, a copout that avoids the issue.

(However, even if we accept the mysterious-ways default--that for some reason we are utterly incapable of understanding, the actions of a Ratzmann or an Atta must occur, even in a universe ruled by God--it's hard to square the benevolent God we heard about in Sunday school with a God who permits innocents to be painfully slaughtered and to spend their last moments on Earth in unspeakable horror. As Jonathan Wallace wrote in an anguished essay published after 9/11, "How do you reconcile this view of God with the parable of the shepherd, who leaves the 99 healthy sheep to go rescue the one in trouble?")

We've all heard the paradox, "Could God make a boulder so big that he couldn't lift it?" Each generation of Sunday-school fifth-graders hits on this question sooner or later, and while we smile at it, we never think too hard about it, either. But in that paradox lies another problem with the concept of free will--one that puts God's existence into serious jeopardy.

God is supposed to be omniscient. But, we're told, he also created us with the free will to decide our course of action in life. So right now, if I wanted, I could walk over to my office window, drop trou, and moon the condos across the parking lot. It's entirely up to me, or so I'm told. But if God is omniscient--if he knows everything, including that which will happen in the future--certainly he must know whether I will actually, at some point in the next few minutes, moon the condos across the parking lot. And if he knows that, along with everything else about my future, how free is my will, really? It might seem free to me, but if God already knows what my allegedly free choices will be, then isn't the course of the future fixed already?

And if the future is fixed, then God could not have looked down on Terry Ratzmann sticking a gun in his jacket last Saturday morning and said, "Hmm, I wonder what he's going to do with that?" He had to know what Ratzmann was planning--and in his omniscience, he also had to know what it feels like to die of a gunshot wound, or to watch someone you love die of a gunshot wound. And he let those things happen, even though his omnipotence gave him both the ability and the right to have stopped them.

And if he couldn't stop them--if God's future, like ours, is also fixed--then what's his purpose? He can't actually answer prayer, because it's already been determined whether Aunt Martha's boil will be cured, and if she's not destined to be cured, God can't do anything about it. He can't protect your kids while they're in school all day, because what will happen to them is already set. He can't intervene in history, because he has no power to alter the future he already knows.

So what good is he, exactly?

And so you've had a taste of the problem involved with the concept of free will. Dan Barker, an former pastor now with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, goes a step further--if there's such a thing as free will, he says, God cannot logically exist. And that's ultimately the point I was attempting to make in my original post--it seems obvious to me that a world where Ratzmanns (or Attas) can exist is not a world where a benevolent God also can exist. Jonathan Wallace puts it another way:
In fact, regardless of whether or not He exists, our world functions exactly as if there was no God. In a Godless world it is easy to understand how men invoking an imaginary God could fly fuel-laden 767's into towers full of people. In a Godful world, such events are impossible to comprehend.
If you're up for it, there's hours of brain-rattling, paradigm-shifting reading on this topic over at the Secular Web. You can choose your flavor: arguments for God or against.

And thanks for your comments. They make this bloviating seem a lot more worthwhile.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Stan, Prince of Darkness
So I am in the car early yesterday morning getting ready to hit the road for the home leg of my business trip when the NPR anchor says, "Eight people are dead in a church shooting . . . .," and (I swear) the thought flashes through my mind, "Here we go--more red-state values." And then the anchor says, "in Milwaukee." As you've probably heard, a guy walked into a hotel ballroom where a church service was being held on Saturday and started shooting, killing seven, wounding four, and then putting the last bullet into his own head.

But I am not going to apologize for my hasty characterization of "red-state values," because the Milwaukee suburb where the shooting occurred, Brookfield, is in the middle of the reddest part of Wisconsin, Waukesha County, which went for Bush by 67-32 last November while Kerry was capturing the rest of the state. In addition, the church involved was one of those splinter-from-a-splinter congregations, where a single charismatic preacher has somehow found a truth that has eluded every other religious thinker and gets a few dozen kindred souls to follow him: the kind of do-it-yourself denomination that proliferates in vacant storefronts and abandoned chicken coops all across Red America.

Neither am I going to apologize for the second thought that flashed through my mind yesterday morning, when the NPR anchor said that police knew of no motive for the shooting and little about the shooter. "You can bet it wasn't some evil atheist puke." Which, of course, it wasn't.

How come it never is? If it's true that belief in God makes people better, why shouldn't the godless be responsible for more evil--especially this kind? Shouldn't Satan have an easier time wooing atheists into doing his bidding? Shouldn't it be fairly easy for him to coerce some ungodly type who doesn't fear Jesus into shooting up a church supper? After all, if the irreligious have no moral anchor, they should be easy tools to use, right?

You'd think so, but it looks to me like Satan only tempts those who are disposed to resist him in the first place, like churchgoers. I suppose that's good business for Satan--after all, you can only go so far with your existing customer base, and you've got to expand to survive. Nevertheless, if you needed a random heinous act committed, it seems like coercing a believer to do it is the harder way to go--and if Satan (a word I keep typing this morning as "Stan," which strikes me as pretty funny, for some reason) is totally evil, wouldn't laziness be one of his faults? Wouldn't he prefer the path of least resistance?

And they say God moves in mysterious ways.

That, by the way, was how the Waukesha County supervisor who led a prayer vigil for the victims last night characterized the event. "God moves in mysterious ways," he said. A couple of the early stories on the web yesterday noted that a few survivors were questioning their belief in God after the shooting, wondering where God was when the victims needed him, but those comments are hard to find in stories today. Nope, today it's "he moves in mysterious ways," which cuts off all debate. We aren't meant to understand, so let's stop trying.

What a copout. It does more to keep God's hold on people than a thousand priests and preachers could do in a thousand lifetimes apiece. The rational response to something like the Brookfield shooting is to question exactly where God is and what he thought he was doing. The irrational one--the one that denies the human brain is worth using for reasoning--is to give him a pass and go right back to praising him for his power and goodness.

In Brookfield on Saturday God was at best--at best--an inept bystander incapable of doing anything useful. (The next time you screw up at your job, try telling your boss, "Hey, I move in mysterious ways," and see how far it gets you.) At worst, God was an enabler--he created the conditions under which Terry Ratzmann got his gun, and then, despite being the Most Powerful Being in the Universe, did nothing to stop him.

And people should continue to worship such a being why?

Friday, March 11, 2005

Arise, Future Chileans
Those of us who have been blogging for a while--in my case, for about two years now--have been fascinated to watch blogging creep into the mainstream. Sometimes it's amusing. When outlets like CNN talk about blogs these days, I am reminded of a 60 Minutes piece I saw in the mid 90s, when the Internet was just catching fire. Lesley Stahl sat transfixed by a guy explaining how it all worked, but when the time came for her to go online, she touched the keyboard like it were an icky bug. Now, CNN apparently has something called "the Blog Report" on Inside Politics, which Wonkette took down in hilarious fashion yesterday. (Although to be fair, making fun of Inside Politics is like shooting the proverbial fish in the proverbial barrel, seeing as how it's hosted by the helium-headed Judy Woodruff, who manages to keep her job year after year against all odds.) The political conventions last summer brought blogs to the attention of people who'd never heard of them before (like, say, Judy), and the Dan Rather controversy was the biggest boost of all.

The generally accepted storyline on Rathergate was that CBS rushed to air with an inaccurate story about Bush's National Guard service, and that some right-wing bloggers, especially the people at Powerline, uncovered the deception and are thus responsible for Dan's retirement this week--in other words, civic-minded citizens did the legwork that professional journalists did not. Powerline, which none of us out here on the left had even heard of, ended up winning Time magazine's Blog of the Year award. Except Powerline is not exactly a bunch of civic-minded citizens who are only in it for the public good. Its writers are former right-wing political operatives, as Garance Franke-Ruta noted in a story at the Prospect this week. Franke-Ruta reports that many of the high-profile right-wing blogs are politically connected to the Repug Party, not just by shared opinions, but through funding. This practice appears to be more widespread on the right than on the left--more coordination of seemingly uncoordinated entities, which the Repugs have raised to an art form.

Mark Schmitt at the Decembrist comments on the story, and says that maybe what we need is a code of conduct, to separate the journalists from the propagandists, the paid shills from the citizen hobbyists, and so forth. That's not a bad idea, but it probably wouldn't raise the level of discourse much. The Internet is still the Wild West, still the public square at its noisiest. We're a long way from civilizing the political blogosphere--and we may never be able to, if civilizing it requires partisan hacks to admit to being partisan hacks. If that happens, the Repugs won't be able to find anybody to blog.

Road Tales: I am still in the Detroit area, where you get the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on cable. The quaintness of Canadian culture versus American was on full display yesterday. The network has been devoting great slabs of airtime to something called the Tim Horton's Brier, which is the national curling championship, featuring teams from every province duking it out for supremacy. This event is staggeringly popular in Canada, apparently--so much so that sports columnists are complaining that the CBC isn't covering enough of it.
After telling all those irate fans they just couldn't pre-empt five straight nights of prime time TV for a sporting event, guess what CBC is doing immediately after the Brier: pre-empting five straight nights of prime time TV for the World Figure Skating Championships. A publicly funded network can't find room for a well-received slice of Canadiana like the Brier, but hands over 10 hours of prime time to a tape delayed fashion show where no Canadian will get within 100 yards of the podium?
With the National Hockey League season totally canceled, they're getting testy up there, apparently.

The CBC dropped curling for a while yesterday afternoon, however, to cover the memorial for four members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police killed near Edmonton last week during a raid on a marijuana farm. In the States, a memorial for four cops killed under similar circumstances would have gotten a few seconds amidst the stories from the Michael Jackson trial, but in Canada, it was cause for a national day of mourning and it consumed the whole country. Mass gun killings just don't happen up there, in what Reuters calls "a largely nonviolent society with strict gun control laws." I watched only a few minutes, but the grief of those in attendance at the Butterdome in Edmonton (honest to God, the place is called "the Butterdome") was palpable even to someone as culturally removed from it as I.

Recommended Reading: Via Josh Marshall, another reason why Social Security is bad--it contributes to the long-term decline of the family by keeping people from getting married and having babies. Countries with partly privatized systems, such as Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Chile, have higher fertility rates than countries with systems like ours.

Yeah, let's be more like Chile. That'll fix everything.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Whatever Happened to Old What's-His-Name?
I am not dead, nor have I been disappeared by agents of the Department of Homeland Security. I am merely on the road again, and at this moment am in Auburn Hills, Michigan, a northwestern suburb of Detroit. It's a bit of a nostalgic trip for me, as my in-laws lived in the Detroit area for several years during the 1980s, and some of the first extended trips The Mrs. and I ever took together (even before she was The Mrs.) were out here.

Lots has changed, but lots hasn't. Detroit-area drivers are the most aggressive I've ever known, and if you don't want to get pancaked, you need to remember a few rules:
1. Speed limits are actually minimums. If the sign says 70, do 80 or get passed like you were Amish.

2. Do not assume that because a street is narrow or curvy, that this will do anything to reduce speeds. A lot of streets here would, if they were in a similar urban area of Wisconsin, have speed limits of 35MPH. Here, however, the limit is 50--and see rule #1.

3. Green means "go." Yellow means "go faster." The first three seconds of red should not be confused with a signal to stop.

4. They make cars here, so if the worst happens, don't think of it as an accident. Think of it as economic stimulus.
An added challenge for the driver here is the generally crappy condition of the roads--if you put water into some of the potholes, you could stock them with fish. Drivers are reportedly gearing up for a massive reconstruction project on Interstate 96--and if that's the highest repair priority of all the roads around here, it must look like a back street in Baghdad.

You would expect a place called Auburn Hills to be one of those red-brick suburbs, where even the gas stations strive to look tasteful. You would be wrong. As far as I can tell, this is a largely industrial area. The home arena of the NBA's Detroit Pistons, the Palace of Auburn Hills, is just up the road from my hotel. While it is a somewhat striking building--with red brick, even--it sits at the foot of an enormous hill which, upon further examination, turned out to be the most massive landfill site I have ever seen. So calling it a palace is lily-gilding, to be sure. The Pontiac Silverdome, former home of the NFL Detroit Lions, is also not far away. What they're using it for now that the Lions have moved to a new stadium downtown, I don't know. Tractor pulls, monster trucks, and heavy-metal concerts, I imagine.

(The Pistons are not the biggest basketball attraction here right now. That would be Oakland University, which qualified for the NCAA men's basketball tournament last night by winning its conference tournament, despite a record of 12-18--which is a fine argument against conference tournaments, but that's another post entirely.)

Despite the close proximity of two major arenas and maybe a dozen hotels, the restaurant choices all tend toward stuff you have to unwrap. There is a Tim Horton's close by, however--and on this trip, Tim and I have gotten tight. Horton was an old-time hockey star who parlayed his fame into a chain of donut shops in Canada, and in recent years, the chain has expanded into the United States. They're the Dunkin' Donuts of Canada, and a colorful bit of Canadian pop culture. If nothing else, their proliferation even into relatively small towns (like Adrian, Michigan, where I was for a couple of days before coming up here) means you can get a decent bagel in places where the primary breakfast option used to be greaseballs from McDonalds.

So I'll be here for a day or two before lighting out for the provinces, where Internet access will once again be a hit-or-miss affair. So if there are going to be any more posts before I get home, they'll be in the next couple of days.

Recommended Reading: I am insanely late on this, but Kevin at Lean Left wrote a terrific takedown of conservative narcissism last weekend. I have said for a long time that it's not their positions as much as their hypocrisy that frosts me. To Kevin, it's their selfishness.
As much as anything else, it’s the sense that only they matter - that they are entitled to take whatever they want, however they can or choose to, and no sense of propriety, no consideration of fairness, and in fact no law, rule, or procedure, offers any reason for them not to do so. That nobody else’s interests but their own count for anything, and that it is in fact immoral for anyone but themselves to be given any consideration.
That so many of them claim to be walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ makes their callousness even more troubling.

Also, my former colleague Ted Remington, whose blog The Counterpoint analyzes Sinclair Broadcasting's nightly commentaries, has gotten some love from Sinclair in the past month, in old-school wingnut style. Instead of taking him on directly for his criticisms, Sinclair decided to smear him as an academic ne'er-do-well soft on plagiarism. Media Matters has the latest--and points out how Sinclair, yet again, couldn't be bothered to tell their story straight.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Because Some Kinds of Humor Never Go Out of Style . . .
. . . .Seeing the Forest directs us to this lovely Friday post from the Farmer at a blog that's new to me called Corrente. As an owner of both of the items the Farmer writes about, I believe he's onto something.

The Werewolf in Us
By now, nearly two weeks after his death, I would imagine that Hunter S. Thompson's wish has been granted, and his ashes have been blasted from a cannon across his Owl Farm at Woody Creek, Colorado, up the road from Aspen. I have been spending the last week or so in Thompson's shadow, rereading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. It occurs to me that what the Doc chronicled in that book was the birth of the right-wing political monster that's come to full maturity under George W. Bush. Writing of Richard Nixon after his reelection, Thompson said:
[I]t is Nixon himself who represents that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character almost every other country in the world has learned to despise. Our Barbie doll president, with his Barbie doll wife and his box-full of Barbie doll children is also America's answer to the monstrous Mr. Hyde. He speaks for the Werewolf in us; the bully, the predatory shyster who turns into something unspeakable, full of claws and bleeding string-warts, on nights when the moon comes too close . . . .
So Thompson was one of the first to take note of the idea that political candidates can appeal to the worst in us and ride those impulses to glory. An even better example, however, might be George Wallace. In 1972, the former governor of Alabama made some hay from this very thing--although Wallace was running as a Democrat, he was running to Nixon's right. Thompson suggests race-baiting and white-trash anger was all Wallace had going for him, and that he didn't have anything remotely resembling a program in mind should he end up getting elected. Wallace started late, ran a disorganized campaign, and never really had a shot at the Democratic nomination, but Thompson theorizes that had Wallace run as an independent in 1972 as he did in 1968, he may have cut Nixon's majority to a mere plurality--meaning that a significant percentage of the electorate was ready to go ever further to the right in 1972 than Nixon ended up going.

Although Wallace mellowed in his later years, his blueprint remained as virulent--and useful--as ever. Appealing to the worst--racism, xenophobia, greed--is how the right got to where it is today, although it used a slightly more sophisticated variety of the medicine that helped Wallace make strong showings in the '72 primaries, in definitely non-redneck places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Thompson again:
The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy--and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions. Taxes? Nigras? Army worms killing the turnip crop? Whatever it was, Wallace assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple, and that the only reason they had any hassle with the government at all was because those greedy bloodsuckers in Washington didn't want the problems solved, so they wouldn't be put out of work.
See also Reagan, Ronald, and Bush, G.W.

I don't know where I'm going with this, exactly, other than to recommend Thompson's '72 campaign book to you--and to marvel at the way so much of it seems to have foretold what we're seeing in American politics right now. Whoever said there are relatively few original ideas in human life, and that everything else is merely variations on them, appears to have been onto something.

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