Thursday, April 28, 2005

Talk Amongst Yourselves
How much time does it take John Bolton to groom that mustache every day?

How many minutes into the press conference tonight before Bush mentions the word "freedom"?

Complete the following sentence: "In addition to the meaning of the Constitution, the American Taliban also knows nothing about . . . ."

Anything else on your mind? If so, just say it. There will be no new posts here until Sunday or Monday, so it's up to you.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Nanny Nanny, Boo Boo Boo, Abortion Sucks and Democrats Too
This is crazy: House Repug staffers have rewritten several Democratic amendments to the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act being debated this week to make them look like the Democrats tried to insert protections for sexual predators into the bill. Raw Story has the whole thing. When called on it by the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, the Judiciary chairman--good old F. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin--basically stuck out his tongue, wiggled his fingers in his ears, and said "nyah nyah nyah": "You don't like what we wrote about your amendments, and we don't like what you said about our bill." This isn't just a matter of interpretations--it's making shit up.

This is smart: a blog called Pacific Views follows up on the Coulter cover story in Time. It quotes a letter journalist Rick Perlstein wrote to the author of the piece, John Cloud, and a separate post from Bob Somersby of the Daily Howler, a good blog I don't read often enough. Here's the money quote from the Somersby post: "In just the past five years, the 'press corps,' lacking all conviction, has made Gore seem crazy and Coulter seem sane. Their first performance put Bush in the White House; the latter act leads to a pitiless future." Perlstein and Somersby both fear that by raising the bar for unacceptable discourse by pimping Ann Coulter, Time will encourage right-wing violence against domestic targets--just like G. Gordon Liddy's mid-90s rants about how to shoot federal agents was followed shortly by Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Little is more satisfying in life than watching self-righteous twerps get their asses handed to them--which is what seems to be happening to the Repugs and the twerp-in-chief, Bill Frist, on the filibuster fight. Sam Rosenfeld at The Prospect observes that early this year, the target date for the vote was early March. Last week, it was supposed to be this week. As of yesterday, however, it appears there will be no vote this week--and the Senate is on a week-long recess next week. Are we into the holding action that precedes the surrender--rather like the Bolton nomination? Rosenfeld writes:
There are three reasons why the showdown keeps receding into the horizon.

First, the political fight doesn’t look to be a winner for the GOP. The party’s most recent internal polling shows 37 percent supporting the parliamentary move, with 51 percent opposed. (The latest Washington Post/CNN poll puts approval at 26 percent.) Hopes that the Democrats might hurt themselves in the polls by waging unpopular retaliatory actions seem like wishful thinking, particularly considering what looks to be the minority’s actual planned response -- nothing like an immediate, total shutdown of the Senate but, rather, a gradually escalating series of parliamentary tactics meant to impede Republicans’ legislative momentum over a course of months, combined with an effort to force votes on the Democrats’ top agenda items.

Second, most elements of the Republican coalition, besides the religious right, are very wary of picking this fight. The National Right to Work Committee and the National Rifle Association came out early against the nuclear option, while industry outfits like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers made it clear last week that they’re more interested in seeing the Senate continue to help pass business-friendly legislation (energy and asbestos bills are up next) than watching the gears slowly grind to a halt due to a dispute over a handful of judges.

Third, and most crucially, the bulk of Senate Republicans feel the same way -- which is to say that, contrary to Mitch McConnell’s recent assurances, the leadership at this point still has probably not locked down the 50 votes necessary for the gambit to succeed.
Here's the Repugs' problem writ large--the rift between the business groups who expect the party's corporate whoring to continue unabated, and the culture warriors whose votes are popular with the corporate crowd, but whose ideas are not. It's hard to imagine Bill Frist being smart enough to hold it together, given his personal ambitions, and the leadership failings Rosenfeld describes in his article.

Good fun, good times. Insert chuckle here.

Quote of the Day: Dave over at Electablog put up a good post yesterday about the way the Repugs have gradually removed obstacles on their way to repackaging American politics into its current, reality-challenged fantasyland by discrediting anybody independent who might disagree with them--the media, academic elites, and now, judges. The quote: "In a country where our jails are filled with poor black people, you've got to admit that it's pretty amazing to see rich, white dudes railing against the judiciary."

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Knock on Wood
I finally finished Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly today, which is about the ways in which governments pursue policies contrary to their self-interest. She starts with the Trojans taking in the horse filled with Greek soldiers, and proceeds to the Renaissance popes, whose blind corruption led to the Protestant Reformation. From there, it's off to the British government's stubborn insistence on asserting its authority to tax the American colonies, which created a revolution in a place where no revolutionary feelings existed. The book concludes with an examination of America's 30-year stand against Communism in Vietnam, which failed in 1975 for many of the same reasons that drove out the French in 1954. I thought about posting her entire last chapter, "A Lantern on the Stern," as a blog entry here, but I lack the will to type it all. Go to your favorite bookstore or library and read the book--it's dense and will take you awhile, but Tuchman is such a good writer (and, I suspect, charming company if one had ever met her in person) that you won't be bored.

In her lengthy section on Vietnam, Tuchman discusses the horrible realization that struck the Johnson Administration in the mid 1960s that a large segment of the American public no longer believed the government's optimistic reports on the war, and, what was worse, the public no longer considered the United States to be the good guys in the war. Tuchman quotes the French philosopher Montesquieu, who wrote, "The deterioration of every government begins with the decay of the principles on which it was founded." In other words, the United States lost sight of what it had historically stood for, and suffered grave consequences as a result.

I made a note of the Montesquieu quote last night, and resolved that it would be a good one with which to head this blog. Tonight I googled it, just to check the wording and the source, and that's when I saw something interesting--the quote appears on more conservative websites than it does on liberal ones. So the Baron has obviously touched a nerve out there on the right, where he serves as a beacon for all those good-hearted red staters fighting the liberal stain. But it seems to me that his words are just as damning for conservatives as they are inspiring. Because what are we opening up to decay when conservatives insist on upsetting the system of checks and balances, imposing a state religion, or quashing dissent, if not the principles on which our government was founded?

Montesquieu wrote those words in 1748, before there was a United States. So the deterioration of government through decay of principle has been around longer than we have--and, as I have observed before, even though we like to think we're exempt from the forces of history, we're not. And if Barbara Tuchman were alive today (she died in 1989), what she would see wouldn't be unfamiliar from her historian's point of view. The way we push our debts off into the future as if none of us will live in the future; the way we ignore global warming and shrinking oil supplies because we lack the will to confront them; the way we seek immediate political advantage on the assumption that we'll never be in the minority again (are you listening, Dr. Frist?)--all involve self-deception, and what Tuchman terms "wooden-headedness." All are cases in which plausible alternatives exist, and are easily visible to those who want to see them. And all of them could provide material enough for new chapters in The March of Folly.

The First Battle
There's a story out this morning that Harry Reid and Bill Frist are discussing a judicial compromise by which the Democrats would permit two of Bush's nominees to be confirmed immediately in exchange for the Republicans dropping their demand for the elimination of the filibuster. The judges in question are two of the less egregious ones--Brown, Owen, Myers, and Prior, the worst of the lot, would still face Democratic opposition--and Reid reportedly would confirm a third if Bush would replace the current nominee, from Michigan, with another nominee approved by Michigan's two Democratic senators.

Josh Marshall seems to have the best take on the proposed deal: it could be worth it for the Democrats to deal if it takes the nuclear option off the table permanently. Such a deal retains for Democrats the necessary leverage they will need to fight judicial nominations another day; and second, it would cause the wingers to lose their minds, thereby putting Frist and his party in the catbox. The latter is probably why Frist won't deal--and even that isn't entirely a bad thing for the Democrats, if the polls are right and the public thinks ending the filibuster is a bad idea. Bottom line is that Harry Reid seems to know what he's doing on this, as Josh observes--and Reid's plan to push some terrific progressive legislation in response to the nuclear-option threat is an excellent, counterintuitive idea. The conventional wisdom has been that the Democrat response to a loss on filibusters would be to shut the Senate down completely, and that such a shutdown would boomerang on them, just as the shutdown of the government boomeranged on the Repugs during the Gingrich years. It doesn't sound like a do-nothing shutdown is in Reid's mind at all--and if he could deliver what he's promising, it's hard to imagine it being unpopular, at least outside the precincts not already colonized by the Borg.

So Reid seems to get that the filibuster fight, win or lose, is not just a tactical matter, it's a strategic one as well. In any successful operation, the two will be closely related, but separate: tactics are short-term and strategy is the long haul. Repugs understand how tactics feed strategy--Democrats, not so much. As James Ridgeway wrote in the Village Voice this week, you've got Hillary Clinton moving right on abortion, and even Howard Dean is quoting the Bible in Florida. The Nation reported that Hillary and John Kerry have signed on as co-sponsors of "the Workplace Religious Freedom Act," which would, among other things, permit the vile practice of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions on religious grounds to continue. Hillary and Kerry have presidential aspirations for 2008, and the temptation to try peeling off middle-of-the-road voters (or to preemptively find shelter from the inevitable right-wing shitstorm that will envelop both of their candidacies) is probably too much for them to resist. But it's tactical rather than strategic thinking--what's good for me right now versus what's good for my party in the long run. It's the kind of thinking that keeps Democrats playing catch-up, and then getting beaten anyhow.

So here's what I've been getting around to. I like what Reid is doing, but whether he's successful isn't entirely up to him. I'm afraid we'll win this battle on filibusters, but fumble it in one of many different possible ways: by losing our nerve for the confrontation (which doesn't seem quite so likely now), or by settling for a compromise that merely postpones the nuclear war, or by taking a crumb now that causes us to forfeit the whole loaf later on (the possibilities Josh Marshall considers).

Another way we could blow it is to confuse a tactical win with a strategic one: by thinking that because we won on filibusters, the radical clerics of the Religious Right will shut up and go home. The only way a holy war ends is for one side to admit their god is a loser, and these people show no sign of being ready for that. Which is why defeating the right isn't a war of a single battle, any more than the Civil War was decided at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Our war can't be won at all if some of our highest-level soldiers are going to play footsie with the enemy. Because what strategy does that tactic ultimately support--the continued blurring of the distinctions between Democrats and Republicans? We've seen, in a series of national elections, how well blurriness has worked for the greater glory of the Democratic Party.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Frank, of What's the Matter With Kansas? fame, on the persistent power of backlash in American politics, and how liberals don't get it and can't fight it.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Enemy of My Enemy
You may have seen a story in your local paper or online over the weekend regarding American conservatives' reaction to the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI last week. American culture warriors are happy that Benedict seems to see things their way--against abortion, against same-sex marriage, in favor of doctrinal purity rather than modern moral relativity--and they view his election as a "win" for their side. But if ever there were a case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," this is probably it. It's certainly not the stirrings of a new form of ecumenism, because conservative American Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church are separated by an unbridgeable gulf--unbridgeable because the gulf isn't filled with water, it's filled with fire.

I was talking with a neighbor over the weekend who had recently attended a wedding where he shared a reception table with several strongly conservative Christians. The conversation hadn't been going on very long when one of the other guests asked my neighbor, "So how long ago did you accept Jesus?" My neighbor, who is not religious, laughed the question off, but decided to use the opening as a learning opportunity. So he started quizzing them about what they believed. Eventually he asked, "Is Gandhi in Hell?" "Yes," they responded, because he wasn't a Christian. "Is Mother Teresa in Hell?" he asked. "Yes," because she didn't believe in "true" Christianity.

That theological observation makes me wonder about all of the conservative Christian praise for John Paul II after his death. It's odd to think they'd praise a man while at the same time believing he was destined for the smoking section. Benedict, too--they're happy to have him and his flock on their side, but when the time comes, the whole lot of them is going to Hell. My neighbor observed that this is the same phenomenon that permits conservative Christians to make common cause with Jews on Israel--they support the Jewish state only inasmuch as it brings forth the Second Coming, at which their Jewish allies are going to be smitten, and eventually damned if they don't convert. But hey, for now, let's hold hands and sing "Kum-ba-yah."

Nuke Watch:
I must confess that I haven't dipped into the aftermath of "Justice Sunday" today--a few seconds of Bill Frist's simpering mug and his oily voice as I surfed by ABC's This Week yesterday morning put me off my Cheerios, so I'd rather not risk whole-body projectile vomiting by wading in any deeper. As it is, the controversy over the words "nuclear option" and whose words they really are is making my intestines quiver. Josh Marshall, Daily Kos, and other bloggers are on the case, and they have found that even reporters who should know better have swallowed the falsehood that "nuclear option" is a Democratic epithet.

One other thing along those lines: I will also recommend Jay Bullock's article today at Wisconsin's progressive website, FightingBob.com, about the role Wisconsin's own F. James Sensenbrenner will play in the upcoming Constitutional battles. Remember--F. Jim before he F's you.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Who's Johnny?
One especially bizarre facet of the Jim Guckert/Jeff Gannon story is the supposition that Jim/Jeff is actually Johnny Gosch, the Des Moines paperboy who vanished in 1982. I lived in Iowa in 1982, and the Gosch case was one of the state's major news stories that year, probably because it was the first widely publicized stranger abduction of a child in Iowa history, and we liked to think such things didn't happen in the Tall Corn State. Gosch's mother became a media celebrity, and has continued to work on behalf of missing and abducted children ever since. She insists to this day that Johnny was taken by an international ring of homosexual pornographers. (In 1999, she told a reporter that Johnny, living under an assumed name, visited her at her West Des Moines home in 1997, but told her not to notify authorities because it would put both of their lives in danger.)

With the Gosch story back in the news thanks to Jim/Jeff, MSNBC interviewed Gosch's mother earlier this month, and also asked Jim/Jeff himself whether he was Johnny Gosch. (He would only say that he feels sorry for Noreen Gosch.) The Des Moines Register covered the story about that time too, and ruled out any connection between Jim/Jeff and Johnny (in a snide, offensive tone on the Recreation page), as Noreen Gosch now does, too.

During the first Bush Administration, several years after Johnny Gosch vanished, his disappearance was linked to reports of a teenage homosexual prostitution ring run by a Washington lobbyist, Craig Spence, who counted high government officials, including several prominent Republicans, as clients. But the lobbyist committed suicide while preparing to go public with the story, and after a brief flurry of inside-page articles in a few papers, the story died with him.

A couple of weeks ago, Point Blank, an alternative paper in Des Moines, published a story about the Gosch case and the sex ring--and went out of business two days later, leading to speculation that People in High Places had cracked down. The spiked story (unavailable online, as the Point Blank website now redirects to another alt-weekly in Des Moines) reviewed the facts of the Gosch/Guckert/Spence story, and reported that at some point, some of the boys were flown to Nevada for a forced orgy of sex and murder--which was filmed by a guy named Hunter Thompson, gonzo journalist and Daily Aneurysm icon.

Jerry Mazza, writing at Online Journal, reports on Point Blank's story and tries to sort it out, although he doesn't always point the flashlight in a helpful spot, either. Apparently, the story of Thompson's involvement was not new--it had been reported (and, I gather, later denied) in the early 1990s. Mazza tries fleshing out the Thompson angle with excerpts from a story written by conspiracy maven Tom Flocco, and ultimately speculates on whether or how much Thompson's alleged role in the case had to do with his February suicide. At this point, the thicket gets so overgrown that I can barely see where I am.

Once you tiptoe out to the edges where conspiratorial suppositions proliferate, it's kaleidoscope time. Anything can be linked circumstantially with anything else, and there are plenty of people who are willing to connect the dots. Is Jim Guckert Johnny Gosch? Is he a tool of the government's MK-ULTRA program, which is the conspiracy theorist's all-purpose explainer for everything bad over the last 50 years? Was he the one who outed Valerie Plame? Was Hunter S. Thompson actually a maker of snuff films? Was he getting ready to write about the case? And did he really kill himself, or did somebody murder him?

I have no idea. Neither does anybody else.

Don't Need a Weatherman to Tell Which Way the Wind Blows
If you think about it, the National Weather Service is one of the greatest institutions of the American government. Think I'm kidding? Name another governmental agency that's more useful on a daily basis. And pretty non-controversial, you'd think.

Well, you'd be wrong. Those rat bastards at the NWS are doing terrible damage to the Republic, and they must be stopped.

Rick Santorum has proposed a bill that would forbid the NWS from competing with private companies such as AccuWeather or the Weather Channel by offering the same kind of data they do, such as daily forecasts and conditions in remote cities. In practical terms, it would mean an end to free forecasts and data on the Internet. This changed focus would free up the NWS to concentrate on forecasting hurricanes and the like, supporters say. But it's also a nice big bouquet to AccuWeather, which is, Wonkette reports, a major contributor to Santorum. By forbidding the Weather Service from offering free services, Congress would clear the way for AccuWeather and other companies to charge for information people have gotten free for years.

The saintly senator, to his (small) credit, was fairly truthful about his motivations: "It is not an easy prospect for a business to attract advertisers, subscribers or investors when the government is providing similar products and services for free." It seems to me that the answer for a poor, struggling business that can't hack it in a particular field is to FIND ANOTHER GODDAMN LINE OF WORK, but that's not the way of the corporate whorehouse the U.S. Capitol has become. It's just like the brilliant thinkers of the Repug party to take something that isn't broken and fix it. But I suppose that once you start smashing up the Constitution, it gets easier to do it to smaller things.

We're Ready for You on the Set, Mr. Serling: Earlier this week I guessed that nobody picked "Benedict" in the new pope name pool. Then I surfed back to the prophecies of St. Malachy from the year 1140, which predict that we are down to the last couple of popes before the end of the world. St. Malachy referred to the pope elected this week by the motto, "the glory of the olive." It seems there's a monastic order known as the Olivetans. And the order is called--wait for it--the Order of St. Benedict.

New at The Hits Just Keep on Comin': Elevator Going Down.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Bomb Throwers
Yesterday, Columbia Journalism Review's website published a jaw-dropping interview with John Cloud, the writer who did the Coulter piece for Time, in which he suggests that what Coulter does on the right, Eric Alterman does on the left. His criticism of Alterman seems to be based on the fact that Alterman has used the same kind of language Coulter has, which is a little like equating Albert Einstein with Kramer because they both had frizzy hair.

The interview has a rather odd tone. Cloud's response to the controversy surrounding the article has an airy, "oh, don't worry about it" quality, as if Ann Coulter were a movie star or celebrity chef who's more sidebar than main event. It's not his job, apparently, to think about the politically and culturally corrosive effect of the level of discourse Coulter represents--in fact, he basically tells CJR that very thing:
This is the point of my article. This is the way politics is engaged in debate now. And I think that his response to my article proves our point that this kind of dialogue, which is the Ann Coulter kind of dialogue, now holds sway.
Well. As news, the revelation that political debate is nasty and partisan ranks right up there with "sun rises in east" and "man bitten by dog." And to equate Alterman, a professor of English whose writing generally shows evidence of thought, with Coulter, who writes like she's got Tourette's Syndrome, indicates that he hasn't really read either one of them.

(Digression: Regarding the reader whose comment yesterday seemed to indicate that he thought that I was being cruel to Coulter by saying she sucks as a writer, I'd like to apologize. Not to him, however. To say that Coulter merely sucks is an affront to everything else that sucks, so I apologize to everything else that sucks.)

Recommended Reading: The inestimable Orcinus, whose beat is right-wing extremism, doesn't have to inflitrate secluded Idaho compounds anymore. His post from last night is one of the best you'll read about the mainstreaming of the sort of thing that was fringe lunacy only a few years ago. The "nuclear option" lights the fuse; the Constitution Restoration Act is the real bomb.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Is it Getting Hotter in Here, or Is it Just Me?
Time magazine has put Ann Coulter on its cover this week--the week of the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, regarding which Coulter said she wished Timothy McVeigh had hit the New York Times or the Washington Post. (How do you like your liberal media now, Mr. and Mrs. Oklahoma?) I'm not linking to the article because I don't want Time to have the traffic, and you can find it yourself easily enough. Here's my spin:

Coulter's politics are the worst sort of wingnuttery, but what makes it even worse is the obvious sadistic delight she takes in the cheap cruelties she inflicts on her targets. She offends me both as a liberal and as a person who's largely opposed to cruelty, but she offends me most of all as a writer. The woman flat sucks. If there's ever been a more frequent user of straw-man polemics than Coulter, I don't know who it would be. When I read her, I can scarcely follow her thinking. You can't see how her premises lead to her conclusions, at least until you understand that the conclusions aren't the point: the cheap and cruel invective is. It's ironic that Coulter would get Time's cover at a moment when there's lots of talk about bloggers who only want to crack wise and smear people, and who possess not a shred of journalistic credibility. There's no difference between Coulter's act and the kind of random and unsupported character assassination the big bad bloggers are supposed to be all about.

The only commentary you need to read on the Coulter cover is Digby's.
He points out that giving Coulter the mainstream stamp of approval that Time's cover represents is further evidence that we're like frogs in the proverbial pot of hot water, who are getting boiled to death one degree at a time. Ten or 15 years ago, Coulter's act would have been shunned anywhere other than a John Birch poetry slam. Now her political philosophy--which is essentially that liberals should be lined up against the wall and shot without the benefit of trial--is considered rational discourse. And that only raises the bar for what's considered irrational. Frogs, water, hot, hotter.

When Michael Moore made the cover of Time after Fahrenheit 9/11, the article inside questioned whether his schtick was good for America. Time apparently asks no such questions about Coulter. And where many of his fellow liberals were happy to take out after Moore, practically no conservatives will do the same with Coulter. While a few condemned her post-9/11 remark that she wanted to invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity, that's ancient history--and clearly forgotten. And four years later, we have to look at Coulter's horseface glaring at us in the checkout line, and we're left wondering yet again where the "sensible" conservatives are--the grown-ups who will stand up and stop the madness.

Maybe William of Occam was right. Maybe the simplest explanation for their failure to appear is the most likely to be right. Maybe they're like unicorns. Maybe they don't exist.

Your Homework Assignment: Overdue shout-out this morning to Dustin at Point Progression. Due to some horrible failure of taste, he links to this blog, and he posted a link recently to an online quiz called "What age do you act?," which I'm stealing. Your assignment, Aneurysm reader, is to take the quiz and report your results via the Comments section.

Hot damn, I got a 32.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Happening
I have been intensely busy with remunerative labor since the end of January--but today I put a big project mostly to bed, and it appears that I may have at least a couple of days to kick back--and perhaps even blog a bit more. Here are some items and comments from today's news:

Item: Joseph Ratzinger of Germany is elected Pope Benedict XVI.

Comment: Ratzinger was the pre-conclave favorite, and is a hardliner's hardliner, apparently. Certainly lefty bloggers have found plenty to dislike. KTK at Lean Left calls him "the Goebbels of the Vatican"; John at AMERICAblog says he condones violence against gays the same way Senator John Cornyn condoned it against judges; several bloggers note he was a member of the Hitler Youth as a child (forced to join against his will, he says); and at least one equates him with Karl Rove. I am not sure Ratzinger's election means much here in the United States, where Catholic dogma has been growing increasingly irrelevant even among Catholics for as long as I can remember, and was likely to continue down that path even if the church had elected the papal equivalent of the barefoot, guitar-strumming youth pastor we all had in the 1970s. But I am sure of one thing, however--Ratzinger probably won't be around long, because he's 78 years old.

Additional comment: Ratzinger may have been the pre-conclave favorite, but I am guessing few picked "Benedict" in the name pool. I would have bet the house on "John Paul III."

Item: Today is the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Comment: Nothing proves the relativity of horror like the fact since September 11, a terrorist attack that kills 168 people seems diminished. But it's still the biggest domestic terrorist attack in American history--a fact worth noting on a day when Democrats accuse the Department of Homeland Security of ignoring right-wing domestic terrorists in favor of monitoring radical tree-huggers and animal-rights organizations. Of course, in the Bizarro World, radical tree-huggers and animal-rights organizations have been positively rampaging. (Thanks to World O'Crap for the link.) Yet another example of how liberals and conservatives can look at the same thing and draw two entirely opposite conclusions.

Additional comment: I was in my first semester as a returning student at Iowa on the morning of the bombing, and my American Foreign Policy class spent a good deal of time discussing it that day. I won't forget how many of my classmates were all for turning the region from Egypt to India into a glowing parking lot, and asking questions later. [Sarcasm alert] I think four or five of them are working for the Bush Administration now. [End sarcasm]

Item: Starting in September 2006, Monday Night Football is moving from ABC to ESPN.

Comment: I doubt that most people will care all that much--around here, it means the game will be on cable channel 24 instead of cable channel 7. But it's at least possible that the culture will be somewhat poorer for the move. Monday Night Football, the television series, remains a big deal even after 35 seasons. Perhaps not as big a deal as it was when there were only three or four channels on your TV, but it's still big. For football fans, MNF represents validation. You don't get on it if your team isn't good--and I vividly remember the excitement in Packer World when our team finally made it, in 1995, after an absence of eight years. And because the games are on broadcast TV, ABC has always taken extra steps to make them entertaining for the casual fan who drops in--witness the repartee between Howard Cosell and Don Meredith in the 1970s, or the pop-star cameos that have opened each broadcast for the past several years. There will be no need for that kind of thing on ESPN, whose viewers can't be considered particularly casual. NBC is picking up the Sunday night package ESPN has had since 1987--and while they claim that Sunday night is now what Monday night used to be, that's wishful thinking. The Sunday night game is dessert after a football day, easy to skip if you're already full. (Football junkie that I am, I rarely watch unless the Packers are playing--or The Mrs. is out of town.) The Monday night game is a happening--and I don't think it's going to be as big a happening on ESPN.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The March of Folly
So Nurse Frist is really going over the edge now, joining up with the Family Research Council (motto: "Only One Book in Our Library Really Matters") for what seems to be a TV telethon making the following straight equation: Democrat = anti-Christian. This is the sort of thing they've been hinting for years, and it's taken the Schiavo case to smoke them out of their holes and into the rhetorical open. It's a positive wonder to behold, really: the complete disregard for the plain facts of American history, and their utter contempt for the concept of the majority respecting the rights of the minority.

And, of course, their total inability to count. One of the many things they don't understand is that they didn't win the presidency by shutout last November. Favorite quote, from Tony Perkins of the FRC (who is not the actor who played Norman Bates in Psycho, but if the shoe fits): "the liberal, anti-Christian dogma of the Left has been repudiated in almost every recent election." Yeah, like here in Wisconsin where we reelected the arch-leftist Russ Feingold with a greater plurality than John Kerry got. Or in Illinois, where Jesus' golfing buddy Alan Keyes got wiped 2-1. None of those inconvenient facts fits the theory, however, so they must be ignored.

This obliterates a line the wingnuts have heretofore merely tiptoed up to--Harry Reid pretty much said that in response to Frist's gambit today:
Our founding fathers had the superior vision to separate Church and State in our democracy. It is a fundamental principle that has allowed our great, diverse nation to grow and flourish peacefully. Blurring the line between Church and State erodes our Constitution, and our democracy. It is a blatant abuse of power. Participating in something designed to incite divisiveness and encourage contention is unacceptable. I would hope that Sen. Frist will rise above something so beyond the pale.
Don't hold your breath, Harry. Frist is trying to position himself as God's dog in the 2008 fight, thus the most dangerous place in the world to find yourself is in his way when he is trying to get to where more than three members of the Iowa Republican Borg can see him.

I happen to be reading Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly this week--about how governments repeatedly act against their own self-interest, even when the signs are fairly clear that the course they are taking will end in disaster. Tuchman's first example is the decision of the defenders of Troy to take in the Trojan Horse, thus letting Greeks into the city to conquer it. The American Taliban seem to be doing something along those lines--letting in the very thing, religious intolerance, that would have destroyed them in the past, and could destroy them in the future when the cultural pendulum swings again. But there are plenty of other parallels for what they're doing--for example, their demonizing of liberals doesn't seem much different than the demonizing of Jews that led to pogroms in days of yore. And their use of a television broadcast to spread the word puts me in mind of the Rwandan genocide--one of its most chilling features was the way the media were used to exhort Hutus to massacre Tutsis wherever they could find them. If Sean Hannity went on the air tonight and announced that it was time to start killing liberals, how many do you think would be dead by sundown tomorrow?

Thing is, I don't think it's up to the likes of me---a hellbound atheist puke (who, in fact, doesn't like religion much at all)--to turn the tide against these nutjobs. It's the members of progressive religious denominations who are going to make far more effective witnesses for the defense than I. Somebody's got to be an honest broker to make sure that the broadly persuadable middle--the kind of people who don't read the New York Times or the blogs, and whose biggest concern at this moment is where to go for dinner tonight--hears something more than 180-proof wingnut hysteria about morality and democracy, and who stands for what. Fortunately, the talking points in response to the Taliban's gross distortions are easily within the reach of all of us, because this is the one place where what we learned in civics class, which can be problematical in the real political world a lot of the time, is actually just the ticket.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

It's Finally Happened
Hundreds of blogs, millions of news stories--and I can't think of a damn thing I want to write about, so it's up to you. What's going on?

Monday, April 11, 2005

A Storm Story
It was Palm Sunday, and a big treat was in store for the young family. Father, Mother, and the two boys, aged five and two, were heading up the highway a few miles to the next town to have a nice dinner. What made it doubly interesting to the kids--to the five-year-old, at least--was the car they were driving. It was a loaner from the dealership, and not the old familiar '57 Ford that was the only other car he could remember.

On the way home, the sky got dark and the wind blew. Father turned on the radio and the family heard that tornadoes were possible in the Rockford area. As the family pulled into the garage--which they wouldn't normally have done if they'd been driving their own car--one of the kids asked how far away Rockford was. "About 50 miles," Mother said. "Don't worry."

As soon as they were home, it was time for the two-year-old to go down for a nap. The five-year-old picked up a book and flipped on the TV. Outside, it got darker. The five-year-old didn't pay too much attention--until the TV winked off. "Hey, what happened?"

Father went to the kitchen window and suddenly shouted, "Head for the cellar!" Mother, who was tending to the two-year-old in the bedroom at the end of the hall, shouted, "What?" Father, more emphatic now, yelled, "Grab Danny and head for the cellar!" The five-year-old didn't need to be told twice. He scuttled down the stairs with the rest of the family, and when they were two or three steps from the bottom, he heard a window blow out behind them.

They huddled in the dark southwest corner of the basement for a few minutes. The five-year-old didn't exactly know what was happening, but he could tell from what he'd heard in his father's voice that it was serious.

It's not much of a story in the retelling. However, I was the five-year-old, and the story is one of my most vivid childhood memories. Forty years ago today, the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak, the second-worst such outbreak in American meteorological history, ripped through the Midwest. Although there were bigger and more destructive tornadoes elsewhere, especially in Indiana and Michigan, one of them hit my town--Monroe, Wisconsin.

What happened after we came up from the basement is substantially more blurry in my memory than the runup to the storm and the rush to get to shelter. My father says we were only downstairs five or ten minutes before he went out to see what had happened. We were fortunate in that the only significant damage to our house was a single broken window and some lost shingles. The roof was about two-thirds gone from our barn, however, and a machine shed was seriously damaged. It could have been far worse, and for our neighbors a few hundred yards up the road, it was--the roof was ripped off their house and most of their farm was leveled.

It wasn't until years later that my father described to me what he had actually seen. He could see the top of the cloud that was bearing down on us, but didn't stay to look long enough to see much more than that. While we waited it out in the basement, he said he fully expected the house to crash down around our ears--but apparently the tornado wasn't on the ground when it passed over our house. It was, however, when it reached the west side of the city of Monroe. Damage was in the millions and injuries in the dozens, but there were no fatalities--not in our area, anyhow, but there were more than 250 elsewhere in the Midwest on the same day.

The storm knocked out the electricity and the telephones, so if you wanted to find out what had happened to your family, friends, and neighbors, you had to go and ask them. Thus it wasn't long before one set of grandparents arrived from nearby Brodhead, having heard only that a tornado had hit southwest of Monroe and knowing little else.

That night, perhaps for the only time in his 60-plus years of dairy farming, my father didn't milk his cows. The next morning, he rigged up an ingenious gizmo to generate enough vacuum to run the milking machines. I never knew exactly what it was or how it worked, until I asked him--this afternoon. It seems that the windshield wipers on his early-50s farm truck were vacuum-operated, and it was possible to rig up an attachment to the truck's carburetor that generated sufficient vacuum to power a milking machine.

By the next day, the sheriff's department had issued passes to people who lived in the hardest-hit areas, which you had to display on your car to get access. They helped keep out sightseers, and presumably, the passes would also help keep out looters, although we'd have been shocked by looting in 1965 small-town Wisconsin.

Over the next several months, the barn was re-roofed and the machine shed rebuilt, and life returned to normal. But for years afterward, whenever the skies darkened and weather watches were issued, I would become sick with worry. I reacted that way until I got into radio, and I realized that the only time a radio guy can be absolutely sure people are hanging on his every word is during severe weather. At that point, I got over my weather fears pretty quickly, and became a severe weather adrenaline junkie.

Once, shortly after I started at a radio station in a new town and severe weather broke out, I asked my partner to clarify the location of a reported tornado. "Seven miles southwest of Miles, Iowa," I said. "Where is that?" She got a weird and worried look on her face and said, "That's . . . here." And indeed it was--the station was atop a hill in a flimsy little prefab building seven miles southwest of Miles, Iowa. But instead of heading for shelter, I ran outside to look for the tornado--and my self-imposed rule after that was this: Unless I saw a tornado heading straight for me from out the station window, I would remain at my post. I was even a certified tornado spotter for a while.

Today, radio weather coverage isn't what it used to be--many stations with satellite programming simply don't have live bodies to cover the weather. True, they're all hooked up to the Emergency Alert System, which broadcasts warnings automatically as they are issued by the National Weather Service, but if you miss the one-and-only announcement, you're out of luck--nobody's going to repeat it. Other station abdicate their responsibility entirely--I knew of a program director who told his staff, "If they want to know, they can turn on the Weather Channel." Once, while I was driving home in horizontal rain and high wind and searching the radio dial for information, I heard a DJ say, "A tornado warning has been issued for a portion of the listening area. If you want to know the details, give me a call on the listener line." If he'd been working for me, I'd have fired his ass on the spot--but he was probably only doing what he'd been told to do. My last radio job was at a more-music, less-talk classic rock station, but if the weather went bad while I was on the air, I covered it, figuring it would be easier to ask forgiveness for breaking the sacred format rules than permission to do so. It's been almost seven years since I last sat down behind a microphone and did a radio show. But when the skies go dark and the weather turns severe, I still miss it.

The severe weather forecasting and warning systems we utilize today, right down to the familiar distinction between a tornado watch and a tornado warning, are a direct result of lessons learned during the 1965 Palm Sunday outbreak. Of course, part of my fascination with the Palm Sunday tornado is because it's one of the oldest memories I have, and as such, in true navel-gazing baby boomer fashion, it reminds me just how much the world has changed from then to now--and just how elderly I'm becoming.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

What You're Doing When You're Doing What You Look Like You're Doing
We can't know everything. It's just not possible. That's one of the reasons we institute governments--as the collectively expressed will of the people, governments are intended to learn the things we can't and act for us collectively on the things that we are incapable of doing individually. For a long time in this country, the assumption underlying governmental action was the idea of the common good--that what government did would benefit the public, generally. Whether it actually did has always been open to debate--but these days, it looks as if the debate is over, and the public good has lost out to something else. Private interests, certainly--but also to a kind of every-man-for-himself ethos that's the opposite of concepts like collectivism and the common good.

Flying home from a business trip last week, I read an article in the latest Harper's by Erik Reece on mountaintop coal mining in Kentucky. Coal companies blast and bulldoze the tops off of entire mountains to get at the coal beneath. No more crews digging like in days of old; a whole mountain can be leveled and mined by a dozen or so people. After the coal is taken, they shovel what's left of the tops down into the valleys (frequently buring streams), bulldoze the whole thing to flatness, and plant grass on it. Voila! As far as the government is concerned, if there's grass growing eventually, there's no environmental damage. (The article isn't available online, but there's a good summary of it here.)

This practice benefits the mining companies, who grow rich on the mineral resources and build their profits by taking the resources as cheaply as possible. What looks like a benefit trickles down to residents of the mountain areas, who need the jobs mining provides--but who also suffer from the disastrous environmental consequences that often result. Better to live on a moonscape with your taps running sulfuric acid than to find another way to make a living, I guess. Leaving aside the issue of bare survival, I wonder how you can live in the shadow of something as beautiful as the Appalachians can be and appreciate it so little. And I wonder what happened to the idea that we could mine the resources and preserve the mountains and protect the residents of the region.

Most people don't know where the coal that generates their electricity comes from--and even I, when I first heard about this practice, didn't believe they were actually flattening the Appalachians, but they are. Like I said, it's not our fault that we don't know, necessarily. We can't know everything--even though our inability to know everything is costing us more and more every day.

Take the legislation working its way through Congress to establish association health plans. This is touted as a way to cut the cost of health insurance for business owners--but the law as currently written allows such plans to exempt themselves from state regulation if they meet certain criteria. As the American Cancer Society puts it:
By excluding AHPs from state insurance requirements, they would bypass state consumer protections that assure access to life-saving colon and breast cancer screenings, certain preventive services, and cutting-edge clinical trials.

AHPs would be able to configure benefit packages to attract healthier people and discourage sicker people from joining. The state health insurance market would be left to cover more expensive individuals, such as cancer patients and survivors. Leaving one pool more heavily weighted with sicker individuals could drive up costs for the small businesses and their employees that remain in the state regulated insurance market.
So business owners get a break that helps them, and their employees get another modest benefit--even though they may end up far poorer for it in the long run. And people who have nothing to do with any specific AHP--those in the state-regulated insurance market--end up worse off as well. And you wonder, again, what happened to the idea that government should act on our behalf to benefit everybody?

(On the latter issue, you can also chalk it up as another way in which the Repugs are abandoning their cherished states' rights for the heavy fist of federally mandated control.)

The idea that humankind is capable of continuous, infinite progress has been around since the Enlightenment. But John Locke and the others didn't live in a society as unimaginably complex as our own. And so maybe they were wrong. Perhaps this is the way the world ends--with individuals battered by a hurricane of choices, small ones they are permitted to make but bigger ones made for them, until they retreat into a shelter of solipsism or fundamentalism to maintain the illusion that the world is still a controllable place. But is it?

Screw it. I'm going to watch the hockey game.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Flash Your Breasts, Go to Jail
Representative F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin has decided how to fight broadcast indecency--make it a criminal offense instead of a civil one. He told cable industry executives this week:
People who are in flagrant disregard should face a criminal process rather than a regulator process. That is the way to go. Aim the cannon specifically at the people committing the offenses, rather than the blunderbuss approach that gets the good actors. The people who are trying to do the right thing end up being penalized the same way as the people who are doing the wrong thing.
There's a couple shovels full of organic fertilizer there. I think the first part, aiming at the people who commit the offenses, would send Howard Stern or Janet Jackson to the big house. As to what the second part, about getting the good actors and how the people who are trying to do the right thing are getting penalized, well, nobody knows what that means. Not even Sensenbrenner, who, when asked to clarify, could only repeat himself.

To Sensenbrenner's credit, he did tell cable execs he's opposed to attempts by some in his party to extend indecency regulations to cable and satellite--but he acknowledges that if Congress chooses to strike now, it's likely to approve an expansion of the blue nose of the law. And as head of the House Judiciary Committee, he'll help decide whether and how hard Congress strikes. Not that anybody should get their hopes up. Sensenbrenner was in full accord with the Republican leadership's Schiavo shenanigans, and he represents the wingnuttiest part of Wisconsin, the western and northern suburbs of Milwaukee--so policing the virtue of other people comes naturally.

This story gives me an excuse to send a shout out to Jay Bullock in Milwaukee, whose splendid blog, Folkbum's Rambles and Rants, has covered Sensenbrenner's antics in the past, and who links to this blog--a link I'm happy to reciprocate. Jay's started up a separate blog on Sensenbrenner alone, Sensenbrennerwatch.com, which has for its motto what must be the Wisconsin political quote of the year: "F. Jim Sensenbrenner before he F's you."

A shout out also to Max (who, despite living in same Milwaukee suburbs represented by F. Jim, is not a wingnut) for sending along this from the St. Petersburg Times last week--columnist Robert Friedman on the Schiavo affair, and some of his wishes should he find himself in a persistent vegetative state one day. Favorite quote:
I want my case to be turned into a circus by losers and crackpots from around the country who hope to bring meaning to their empty lives by investing the same transient emotion in me that they once reserved for Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy and that little girl who got stuck in a well.
Me, too. In fact, I'd like the little girl who got stuck in a well to come and weep in person, if it's not too much to ask.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Talk Amongst Yourselves
I'll give you a topic: Bush, in his statement on Pope John Paul's death Saturday, said that we have an "obligation to build a culture of life in which the strong protect the weak."

Please provide at least one example from the actions of the Bush Administration since taking office in 2001 that renders this statement incoherent nonsense, and discuss.

Friday, April 01, 2005

It's the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine
For a country that's supposed to be all about a culture of life, we've moved rather swiftly into our second major deathwatch of the week, with news that Pope John Paul II, who was reportedly getting better just yesterday, is circling the drain today. They've even given him a feeding tube, apparently, which is, following two weeks of the Passion of Terri Schiavo, an irony too sharp to ponder for long.

(Digression: Ol' JP2, as his close friends like to call him, has worn the big hat for a long time--when he was elected in 1978, I was a freshman in college--young, hairy, and with my future in front of me. It's easy to forget how big a deal his election was--at the time, he was the first non-Italian pope in something like 400 years, and his credentials as a singer, poet, and mountain climber gave him what passed for rock-star status in his field. He visited Iowa in 1979, while I was a little baby DJ in extremely Catholic Dubuque, and as you might have expected, Elvis had nothing on JP2.)

Since JP2's health began to fail a few years ago, there's been speculation about who might be the next pope. Some people think it could be someone from the developing Catholic world, possibly a black African such as Francis Arinze of Nigeria. (I have to specify "black African" because three Africans h held the papacy before the year 500.) Of course, others think there might not be another pope at all.

In the year 1140, St. Malachy began having visions, and as a result of them, he assembled a prophecy regarding future popes of the Catholic Church. He listed 112 popes--and after that, he predicted the end of the world. Well, guess what? According to some interpreters of Malachy's list, JP2 is the last one. His death is thought to be the signal for the Rapture and the whole Doomsday show from the Book of Revelation. Other interpreters disagree, and think there will be one more pope before the celestial fertilizer hits the cosmic ventilator--although a few of them think that pope could be Jesus himself, returning to his rightful place as head of the church. You can even find a few people out on the Internet who think that Malachy's prophecies signal not the end of the world, but the end of only the Catholic Church. Of course, some of the same people who tout St. Malachy's record as papal seer also think Nostradamus had a hotline to the future--so caveat emptor.

Why does somebody who doesn't believe in God have any interest at all in this stuff? Because I'm human. Our fascination with end-of-the-world predictions probably grows in part from the knowledge that our own lives are finite, and so everything we see around us must be finite also. Just as knowledge of our own mortality is supposed to motivate us to make the best of the time we have, presumably knowledge of the world's mortality should do the same. But at the same time, if you know you're going to die, you don't take out any long-term magazine subscriptions--and so perhaps belief that you're living in the world's end-times has a way of excusing you from too much concern for the future. If you think you're going to be out of here pretty soon, how much responsibility will you feel for preserving the environment, promoting justice, fighting poverty and disease, or all the other things humankind is supposedly motivated to do? It would certainly explain the disinterest the religious right has in these issues--why paint a house that's going to be torn down tomorrow?

But the fact is that you can find evidence of people in every age who believed they were living in the end-times--and so I rather doubt that when JP2 breathes his last, the Four Horsemen will be unleashed. And I doubt even more strongly that this ride we're on has an ultimate destination. The point of this life, it seems to me, is not where we're going, but that we're going.

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