Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Water, Fire, and Smoke
Two pictures of people in the hurricane zone, chest-deep in water, holding what look like groceries. One picture, taken by AFP, is captioned, "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." The other, taken by the AP, is captioned, "A young man walks through chest-deep water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans."

How do we know that one picture is of shoppers and the other is of a looter? Both photos were taken from above, most likely from a helicopter, and it seems unlikely that the photographer had the chance to speak to the subjects in either one. (See 'em here). How do we know? Well, the two people in the AFP photo are white. The young man in the AP photo is black. And everybody knows that looting is what black people do after disasters, right? Whereas white people just want to feed their families and go on with their lives.

We "know" no such thing about the people in either of these photos. Over at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte expects that this kind of racist characterization is going to effect the post-hurricane political spin. Because so many of the hardest-hit people in New Orleans proper are poor and black, pictures of "looting," real or imagined, are going to cause many Americans to default to the belief that these victims are lazy and/or lawless, and if they're so lazy and lawless that they'd loot their own neighbohoods, then to hell with them. Better to argue that their fates are the fault of some social pathology than to suggest that the scope of the disaster, which was foreseeable and to a certain degree preventable, is at least partially the fault of the government, which is currently in the hands of people who don't give a damn.

And when those blame-the-victim accusations start coming, you can bet your house that there'll be plenty of right-wing pundits and conservative politicians standing by to fuel the fire and profit from the smoke. They should choke on it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

An American Sacrifice
For a few seconds this morning, I was ready to give George W. Bush some credit for cutting his vacation short to return to Washington in response to the aftermath of Katrina. After all, the wire service headlines made it sound like he was doing something significant: "Bush Cancels Vacation to Return to Washington."

"Cancels"? Hardly. First of all, he's not going back until tomorrow, instead of Friday as originally scheduled, which means all he really did was cut his vacation from 30 days to 28. And a little arithmetic on that yields the following: The average American worker gets about two weeks paid vacation each year. For many workers, that two weeks includes sick time, so they've got to hold a little of it back--so assume the best most people can do is to take a week off in the summer. If somebody like that cut his vacation by an amount equivalent to the amount Bush cut his, that's roughly like coming back on Sunday afternoon instead of Sunday night.

Big whoop.

Recommended Reading: David Neiwart at Orcinus, who's about the best there is at covering right-wing extremist movements, on the latest attempt by a right-wing columnist to "prove" that most of the extremist movements in the United States are tied to the left. Great stuff.

And over at Pandagon (the newest addition to my blogroll), there's this. Leave it to the anti-abortion freaks to find the most tasteless way to exploit Hurricane Katrina.

Late addition: Appropriately in light of my post earlier today, the Rude Pundit rides the slippery slope of legislating morality.

The Return of the Virtue Police
Most days, I knock off for lunch around 1:00 Central time to watch reruns of NYPD Blue on cable. Blue is, of course, the show that brought naked butts into network prime time, and added words like "asshole" and "dickhead" to the acceptable TV lexicon. Well, somebody's out to mess with my lunch hour.

Salon reported today that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has been meeting this summer with religious groups and TV industry officials on the subject of regulating the content of cable and satellite TV and radio. Because cable and satellite are not broadcast in the same way regular TV and radio are--over a scarce number of so-called "public" airwaves--they've been exempt from government regulation of content. But not for much longer, if the wingnuts get their way.

In his Salon article, Michael Scherer observes that the TV industry has a plan to stave off such restrictions. It's embarking on a campaign to educate viewers on the V-chip. Remember the V-chip? It was mandated in every newly manufactured TV starting in 1999, and is supposed to permit set users to lock out programs with certain content ratings. Don't want Jason and Jennifer to watch anything that's TV-14 or higher? V-chip it, and voila.

I just tried to find the V-chip on the setup menu of my 2004 model TV and couldn't, and god knows where the owner's manual is. So clearly, the chip has not lived up to its 1996 promise. But even if it had, the suspects who have been pushing the FCC into restricting cable and satellite--Focus on the Family and that crowd--would still be pushing further restrictions. Because they're already very good at keeping themselves and their children from watching inappropriate programming. They want more restrictions because they want to make sure you and your children don't watch anything they wouldn't approve of. Never mind whether you approve of it or not. That means you just don't know that the F-bombs on The Sopranos are bad for you, and in that case you're surely too ignorant to be a good parent. Which is why people who know better, like James Dobson, simply must step in, for the good of everyone.

Here's what really sucks. (I can still say "sucks," right?) Of all the cultural prohibitions right-wingers have been dreaming of slapping on society since Reagan rode in from California, it seems to me that content restrictions on cable and satellite are the one they're the most likely to get. The reason is that they will have enthusiastic help from people who should know better. Remember--Bill Clinton was an extremely enthusiastic proponent of the V-chip in 1996, and Hillary took time out of her busy schedule a few weeks ago to blast violent video games. But it's not only going to be the usual DLC suspects who rush to help the Repugs in this game. Content restrictions on cable and satellite is an issue that's going to be terribly hard for most Democrats to oppose, simply because few will want to find themselves in the position of having to defend some of the explicit material mentioned in the Salon article. Particularly when when the next election rolls around. And any Democrat with the inclination to try will face the good old Democrat problem of requiring multiple paragraphs to explain how the Republicans' five-word position statement--We Must Protect the Children--is simplistic and flawed.

In the coming "debate"--which will probably not be a debate so much as it will be a parade of suburban soccer moms looking all concerned in front of Congressional committees--we'll hear a lot of talk about "common sense" restrictions on content, and who could be opposed to common sense, right? We'll hear a lot less about the absurdity of trying to make the entire universe of TV entertainment options safe for eight-year-olds.

Jesse Taylor at Pandagon explores Scherer's article and the entire issue in great detail, so go read.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, the Resident of the United States: :
My fellow Americans: I just wanted to drop by this afternoon and tell you that Hurricane Katrina is going to be very bad. And on a more important topic, I am happy to report that everything going on in Iraq is double-plus good. Let me go on at length about that, while those of you in the path of what could be the most devastating hurricane in American history get ready to face the storm, and the aftermath, which you'll have to do without the usual level of help from the National Guard because so many of them are over in Iraq fighting my war. Speaking of Iraq, everything is not just double-plus good, but getting gooder every minute.
Various bloggers have been speculating this afternoon whether he'll cut his vacation short to return to Washington and monitor the hurricane, which could be one of the strongest ever to hit the U.S. mainland, and one that could kill dozens or hundreds (conceivably, thousands) if it hits New Orleans head on. Answer: He won't leave Crawford unless the storm takes a hard left and comes right at him.

What a screwed-up and disconnected set of priorities. What an embarrassment to our country, and to humanity. What an ass.

(A bit of advice: Fill up your gas tank tonight or tomorrow morning, because if the storm takes out the Gulf oil platforms when it makes landfall tomorrow, we'll blow through the $3-a-gallon mark like Sherman through Georgia.)

Recommended Reading: Snark along with TBogg as pro-war nuts take off on one another in Crawford. Realize the awful truth as Leftcoast at Best of the Blogs lays out a another great plan that will never happen. Behold Frank Rich in the New York Times, nailing it again: "Among Washington's Democrats, the only one with a clue seems to be Russell Feingold. . . ." (And then wonder along with me why Rich's column is always stuck in the Saturday Times, which has the lowest readership of the week.)

Book It
Over the last week or so, various readers of this bilge have been listing the books they've been reading this summer, or books they'd recommend based on the books they've been reading this summer, or books you just oughta read because they're good and stuff. Because it seems like a good thing to do on a Sunday morning, let's recap. First, my original list:
Until I Find You/John Irving
Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail/Christopher Dawes
Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco/Peter Shapiro
American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies/Michael W. Kauffman
The Guns of the South/Harry Turtledove
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?/George Carlin
Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping
/Patrick Radden Keefe
Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War/Penny M. Von Eschen
Now, here's the list contributed by blog readers:
They Marched Into Sunlight/David Maraniss
Hitchhiker/M. J. Simpson
Wodehouse/Robert McCrum
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince/J. K. Rowling
Seven Soldiers of Victory/Grant Morrison
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana/Umberto Eco
Dune/Frank Herbert
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone/J. K. Rowling
Main Street/Sinclair Lewis
The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation/Matt Ridley
Bitter Grounds/Sandra Benitez
Not a typical beach book in the bunch--no mass-market mysteries, no romance novels. (The Harry Potter books don't really count--any book that's so big it would block out the sun can't really count as beach reading.)

Those of us who have time to read lots of books, or a few deep-n-heavy tomes, enjoy quite a luxury, really. I know of people with high-maintenance families and/or stressful jobs who claim to read only a couple of books a year. But at least their intentions are good. It was widely reported in the UK a couple of weeks ago that Victoria Beckham, one of the Spice Girls, who has actually written a 528-page autobiography, has never read a book. "I prefer listening to music," she said, "although I do love fashion magazines."

It figures.

Information on any of the books mentioned in this post can be found here.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hosebags in the House
There's a must-read story at Salon this weekend by Cintra Wilson, a civilian (or, as she puts it, "a no-account hosebag") who was embedded in the White House Press Corps last July, about the time the corps was abusing press secretary Scott McClellan over Karl Rove's role in the Valerie Plame affair. It's like a travel piece, in which an observer unacquainted with the rituals of some exotic culture goes in wide-eyed and comes out barely able to describe the strangeness of what she has seen. It's also frequently hilarious, as when Wilson describes what it meant when Bush flip-flopped from saying he'd fire anyone involved in the outing to saying he'd fire anyone convicted of a crime in the outing:
Since it was far from clear that outing Plame was technically illegal, and given the proliferation of fabulous lawyers in Washington D.C., this was tantamount to saying, "We'll burn the witch if she assumes the form of a sturgeon when we hose her down."
Wilson found that the members of the White House Press Corps are, with few exceptions, locked into a kabuki-style ritual with rigid boundaries for acceptable behavior. Life among the Corps is also a lot like high school, in which some people's opinions count for more than those of others, who have the misfortune of ranking further down on the social ladder. (And just like high school, it doesn't matter if those further down are actually smarter or more perceptive than those higher up--they still don't count for as much, because it ain't what you are, it's who you are that really matters.)

The ritual structures and the social dynamic work against the primary function of the press, which is to call bullshit on the bullshit. And at some molecular level, the reporters seem to understand this, in spite of their best efforts to keep from noticing. They often struggle to keep their ids from coming out, and they're successful so often that when an id actually escapes, as seems to have happened during Wilson's time at the White House, the effect is shocking.

While Wilson's piece begins as a humorous travelogue, at the end of her trip, things aren't quite so funny. She concludes that while the Bush Administration has created lots of enemies and imagined many more, the enemy it fears most and fights hardest against is information. Scott McClellan's job is not to impart the real thing, but to ladle out clever simulations of it, stuff that looks like nutritious soup but on closer examination is really just colored water and packing peanuts. Wilson characterizes him as "the Undertaker of Information," but a better explanation of what the White House is up to comes from an unnamed member of the press corps, who tells Wilson:
You get frustrated, and you think it's like nailing mercury to a wall, and then you realize that it's not because Scott is so masterfully evasive, but because the White House declines to provide any mercury, or a wall.
If you are not a Salon subscriber, you can watch a brief ad to get access. You can also pony up the cash for a year's subscription, which you will find to be be money well spent.

More Recommended Reading: There are a couple of other good pieces out there this weekend that make good reading alongside Wilson's lengthy travelogue. Many people who cover Washington, whether they're in the White House Press Corps or their beat is some other aspect of the government, eventually achieve the coveted status of "Washington Insider." Yesterday, Digby discussed the way Washington insiders set the parameters for thinking about various politicians (for example, why the insiders loved JFK but hated Clinton), and how their attitudes corrupt the way Americans perceive their leaders and think about their government. Paul Waldman at the Gadflyer picks up the idea, and figures out why the press insiders who were so hard on Clinton have let Bush slide for so long.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Short Attention Span Theater
Here's some worthwhile reading for the start of your weekend, and it won't weigh you down as you head out the door to have some fun.

Steve Clemons has been filling in for Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, and he's been following the arrival of John Bolton at the United Nations, who's sticking to the script: screw the whole UN, and screw your own State Department if you have to in the process. (Something between the lines of the linked post makes me think that there might be something to Bob Woodward's supposition from earlier this month that Dick Cheney might be considering a bid to succeed Bush. The neocons aren't going to risk the next guy going off the script, and who'll hold the next guy's feet to the fire?

Interesting stat at Salon's War Room today: a new AP poll shows opposition to the Iraq war at levels comparable the level of opposition to Vietnam in August 1968. In 1968, you may remember, mass protests occurred in the streets. In 1969, they became bitter and more violent in 1969. In 1970, the authorities started killing protesters, and the protesters did some killing of their own. Buckle up.

Cecil Adams of the Chicago Reader writes in his latest column about Operation Able Archer, a set of American war games that nearly provoked the Soviets to go nuclear. It happened in November 1983--the same anxious season of the Korean airliner shootdown, the attack on Grenada, the barracks bombing in Lebanon--and only two weeks before the apocalyptic TV movie The Day After.

I have written before (but I lack the attention span to find the link) that one of the problems in Washington is that the press corps really wants to buddy up with the people they're covering. Well, last night about 50 of them attended a totally off-the-record shindig at the mansion in Crawford. Thank goodness a few of them seemed uncomfortable with it. On this, at least, they're not whores.

I was pleased to see that Bush served Shiner Bock, a very good Texas beer. I'd have pegged him as the kind of guy who'd buy whatever was cheap--and then shake them up and shoot them into his mouth.

It's a bit early, but as I used to say on Fridays when I was in corporate life, there's a pint out there somewhere with my name on it and I'm going to go and get it. Cheers. . . .

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Suckiest Suck That Ever Sucked
Our first nominee: NBC's Today, which teased the following three stories for this morning's broadcast: a report on the jail in Aruba where somebody having something to do with Natalee Holloway either is being held, or was being held, or something; Olivia Newton-John's missing boyfriend; and Scott Petersen's life on death row.

It's great to live in a country where times are so good that we can devote our attention almost exclusively to stories like these, ain't it?

The winner: Today's Katie Couric, for telling Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, "I always felt it was our responsibility as journalists to explore issues and talk about subjects and have serious stories that people need to know about to be informed citizens." And then, giving an example of a story of which she was particularly proud, mentioned her interview with the runaway bride.

(Blogger bangs head against desk, wonders if it's late enough in the day to begin drinking.)

Recommended Reading:
Meanwhile, in the reality-based community, there's an interesting discussion going on at Political Animal regarding whether Bush takes the war in Iraq seriously or not--or if it's merely something that gives him the chance to play at being a "war president" the way kids used to play at cowboys and Indians. Although if Bush were playing cowboys and Indians, he'd have run all the other kids off by now because he'd always want to play it exactly the same way. The Quote of the Day is in the comments: "I'll believe he's serious about Iraq when he's willing to impose a war tax."

Also worth reading: Billmon, whose new modus operandi since returning to blogging is juxtaposition. This one is a beauty.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Daily Aneurysm: Accidentally Worth its Salt
Man, I love it when this blog accidentally becomes relevant and timely. Here are updates on some of the gasbaggery found here over the last couple of days:

Update Number One: I got a fight-high-gas-prices forward in my e-mail today, but it wasn't the one petitioning Bush to do something to lower prices that I expected to receive. It was one suggesting that if we'd just stop buying gasoline from Exxon and Mobil, they would be forced by lack of demand to lower their prices, and other gasoline retailers would have to follow suit. And voila! Cheap gasoline would soon return, and there would be much rejoicing.

It won't work. If you stop buying gas from one or two companies but intend to keep driving, you're just going to have to buy gasoline from somebody else. Thus, the demand that no longer exists at stations A and B, which you are boycotting, is going to be made up by increased demand for what's on sale at station C. The only way to really curtail demand is to stop buying gasoline altogether. Park your car, take the bus, ride a bike, get a horse.

Update Number Two: We've been sharing our summer reading lists this week, too. (If you haven't revealed what you've been reading yet, click here and go to "comments.") You may have noticed that George W. Bush's own list got some publicity recently. We're supposed to believe he's reading big historical tomes like Mark Kurlansky's Salt, for example. In the past, we've been told he's read a biography of former secretary of state Dean Acheson, and the hefty official report of the 9/11 commission. At Alternet, Kir Slevin ain't buying it. Slevin is pretty sure Bush isn't really reading any of these books, and that the list is an attempt on the part of his handlers to make him seem more like an actual president and less like a moron.

Update Number Three: Pat Robertson is still a boil on the ass of humankind. That isn't newsworthy. But now he's a liar, too, claiming he never said he wanted Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez assassinated, even though videotape of his remarks shows he did. (Videotape must be of the devil.) That the sanctimonious turd is getting blasted for his kill-Chavez remark by more than the usual liberal suspects might be the most gratifying political event of the summer.

The Bombing of Sterling Hall
Thirty-five years ago today--3:42AM on Monday, August 24, 1970--the largest truck bomb ever detonated in the United States (until Oklahoma City) exploded outside Sterling Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin here in Madison. The target was the Army Math Research Center, housed in the building. A researcher working in the building, Robert Fassnacht, was killed in the blast, and 26 buildings were damaged. The blast was audible 30 miles away. Damage was eventually estimated at $1.5 million, which was real money back then.

The day of the bombing, Wisconsin governor Warren Knowles said he believed it was the work of a nationwide conspiracy of radicals who wanted to destroy American society. Well, not really, although there was a conspiracy. Four Madison men were eventually sought in connection with the bombing. Karl Armstrong, the leader of the group, was arrested in Canada in 1972, fought extradition, and eventually agreed to a plea deal that got him 23 years in prison. He was paroled in 1980. David Fine, who was only 17 at the time of the blast, was captured in 1976 and served three years. Armstrong's brother, Dwight, remained on the run until 1977. After his arrest, he made a deal for a seven-year sentence and, like his brother, was paroled in 1980. The fourth conspirator, Leo Burt, has never been found.

What I remember most about the bombing (I was 10 that fall, growing up in a small town an hour from Madison) is the immediate and irrevocable characterization of Karl Armstrong in particular as the embodiment of evil. I'm sure I got this impression through news reports, and doubtless from whatever my parents said about the story. Surely that was the way many people viewed the conspirators in the days immediately following the bombing. In the intervening years, however, reactions to the bombing have become more ambiguous.

It's clear now, in a way that wasn't clear then, that events on the UW campus from 1967 onward were leading toward some sort of cataclysmic event. By 1970, the UW campus had been the scene of frequent anti-Vietnam protests, some violent. Many students perceived that the police and university officials preferred tear-gassing first and asking questions later, a practice that tended to radicalize even the apathetic. The Sterling Hall bombers wanted to take the protests up a notch, and make a more powerful statement than merely marching, by targeting a military installation on the UW campus. And so they stole a truck and built a bomb.

The bombers' remorse, and the number of movement veterans and sympathizers who still live here, has left mixed emotions 35 years later. Some understand the bombers' motivation. Karl Armstrong himself claimed his foursome didn't set out to kill anyone--they planned the bombing for the wee hours of a Monday morning, called in a warning, and were horrified when their van, packed with a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, exploded prematurely. But there's also the indisputable fact that Fassnacht left a wife and three young children behind--and none of them were responsible for what was happening in Vietnam.

Undoubtedly, some of our local conservatives have already begun composing angry letters to the editor of the local papers, and will use the latter point to bash anyone who fails to categorically condemn the bombing. Yet you'd find very few people around here today who wholly support what the bombers did. Even those who wore "Free Karl" t-shirts back in the day have moderated their views. If nothing else, age will do it. Things that seemed earth-shatteringly important when we were in college are put into perspective with the passage of time. Yet the passage of time has also invested Karl Armstrong with a touch of the folk hero--and as long as that lasts, what he did 35 years ago is always going to be controversial.

The Sterling Hall bombing was a turning point in the antiwar movement, not just here but across the country. The movement, which had already been rocked by the Kent State shootings in May 1970--the event that galvanized Karl Armstrong to action--was further shaken by Sterling Hall. How could the movement continue to criticize the killing of innocent civilians in Vietnam when it had killed an innocent person, too? On the local level, students once went out protesting at the drop of a hat (sometimes out of sheer boredom), but after Sterling Hall, antiwar demonstrations in Madison simply stopped.

The best book on Sterling Hall is Rads: A True Story of the End of the Sixties by Tom Bates. It's apparently out of print, but you can still find it at various used book stores and websites. (Here's a link to Amazon.com, which features a review by a reader who knew Burt and Fine.) This article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, written for the 30th anniversary five years ago, is also a good summary of the event and its aftermath.

The Armstrongs are still around. For years, Karl owned a juice cart (still does, as far as I know), and for a while he ran a restaurant called the Radical Rye. Dwight drove a cab. (That they'd return to Madison after doing time for the bombing says something about the hold this town can have on people.) David Fine went to law school in the '80s and sought admission to the bar in the state of Oregon, but was denied. Leo Burt--well, nobody knows where he is.

For all you know, I could be him.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

I Am Superfluous
I was gonna blog this afternoon--but David Sirota beat me to it. Go read now.

So as not to disappoint you entirely, here's a preview of something you will probably receive in your e-mail in the next couple of weeks, particularly if you have one of those annoying acquaintances who likes to spam their entire address book with half-baked nonsense. I used to like the old colloquialism that such-and-such is "as useless as tits on a boar hog." Now I think a better one is "as useless as an online petition."

(On the subject of annoying e-mail acquaintances: I have one who likes to send kitschy, patriotic stuff, and another who sends anything that bashes Bill Clinton--and who apparently never reads this blog. My wife, however, has an acquaintance who must be the single most gullible e-mail user on the planet--she frequently forwards alerts about Madalyn Murry O'Hair's campaign to get religious broadcasting off the air, and the bill in Congress to impose a five-cent e-mail tax.)

Why are you still here? Go read Sirota.

Mighty Quiet in Here
Christ, what a retard. That was my reaction to Bush's speech yesterday before the VFW. It's bad enough that he keeps flogging September 11, bad enough that he yammers about staying the course like an obsessive/compulsive parrot--but his attempts to characterize the "war on terror" as every 20th-century war rolled into one is the kind of thing you'd say only if you'd flunked a lot of history courses. And I wondered again, for the 114,376th time since January 2001, "How did somebody so goddamn dim ever get to be president?"

Regarding Iraq's purported similarities to other American wars, a person with half a brain cell capable of critical thinking should be able to understand the difference. Let's take World War II as an example. That war began with unambiguous provocations--we knew who we had to fight and where to go to fight them. If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he'd have gone to war against Brazil. World War II had clear objectives that would bring it to an end when accomplished--the capture of Berlin and the crippling of the Japanese war machine. If Bush had been president during World War II, we'd still be hopping islands in the Pacific looking for "evildoers."

That Bush feels the need to go on a five-day PR campaign to shore up support for the war is evidence enough that his equation of it with other American wars is false. Go ahead, ask somebody who remembers World War II. The reason some people remember it as "the good war" (rightly or wrongly) is that it transformed American society, giving every citizen the opportunity to feel like they were contributing. Nearly everyone knew somebody who was fighting, and in the unlikely event they didn't, things like gas rationing and war-bond sales brought the war home anyway. There really was a "homefront" in that war. FDR didn't have to explain the stakes to people with the same tired cliches again and again and again, because Americans knew the stakes in a visceral way.

All we're being asked to contribute now is our silence as the war spins out of control. Those who try to think constructively about ways out end up getting vilified--but Digby observes that trying to escape that vilification, whether it's by taking the Biden/Hillary line, which essentially boils down to "keep doing what we're doing and wish harder," or not talking about the war at all, is a losing strategy for Democrats. By talking about ways out of the quagmire, we can make the Repugs defend what they're doing, and take ownership of what they've already done. After all, it nearly got Paul Hackett over the hump in Ohio, where a Democrat shouldn't have had a snowball's chance in Hell.

"Will No One Rid Me Will Rid Me of This Meddlesome Priest?": Eight hundred years ago, Henry II said it about Thomas Becket and got results--so somebody ought to say it about Pat Fucking Robertson. If an equally prominent liberal called for the assassination of a democratically elected foreign leader, Repugs and the media from coast to coast would be demanding that the Democrats disavow the remark, the speaker, and everything the speaker ever stood for. So we await the equivalent condemnation of Robertson.

(Insert sound of crickets chirping here.)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Summer Reading Club
I don't know how much of our tax bill goes to fund our local library system, but the Mrs. and I are certainly getting our money's worth. She's been known to devour two or three books in a weekend. I'm a bit slower, but I read my share. And here's what I've been reading this summer.

Until I Find You/John Irving. Even though I'm a big Irving fan, I found this 800-page doorstop a bit daunting at first. It's the life story of a boy and man who spends his life trying to find the father who abandoned him--and even though it's fairly easy to guess how it's going to turn out, it's moving nevertheless. Irving's obsessive focus on sex (and in this novel, what passes for sex is a bit strange in spots) gets a bit tiresome after a while--but nobody else spins plots like he does.

Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail/Christopher Dawes. Dawes is a music journalist. He happens to live next door to punk-rock legend Rat Scabies, who has become obsessed with the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau (featured, among other places, in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code). How best to describe the Rennes mystery in a few words? Well, sometime in the 1880s, the priest of a tiny church in southern France is said to have discovered documents relating to A) an enormous treasure in the area hidden since the Middle Ages; B) the possibility that Jesus survived the crucifixion and founded the Merovingian dynasty of French kings; and C) various other odd events. Scabies wants to know the truth, and talks Dawes into going on several quests to find it. Despite the obvious connections to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the story is not so much Pythonesque as it is a rock-star road movie. To Scabies, the quest is mostly a lark. To Dawes, getting to the bottom of things at Rennes-le-Chateau begins to seem very, very important. Plus, it's a good introduction to a fascinating historical mystery.

Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco/Peter Shapiro.
I blogged extensively about this over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'. It's interesting cultural history, even if you think disco sucks.

American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies/Michael W. Kauffman.
Kauffman reconstructs the life of John Wilkes Booth, the development of Booth's conspiracy, the assassination, the hunt for the conspirators, and their trial and punishment. Kauffman reveals that some of the stuff everybody knows about the assassination is false: for example, Booth was far from crazy, and he didn't break his leg jumping out of the presidential box. By examining legal procedure as it existed in the 1860s, Kauffman explains why several culpable conspirators were never charged, even though they were more deeply involved than some of the people hanged or imprisoned for the assassination. This is one of the best Civil War-era books I've read in years.

The Guns of the South/Harry Turtledove. And speaking of the Civil War, in this novel, the Confederate Army is given AK-47 automatic weapons by time-travelers who want the Confederacy to win the Civil War. That sort of wild premise is almost guaranteed to draw in a Civil War buff, and once you get past the logical problem with time travel--the butterfly effect, which states that the smallest change in the past can have incalculable effects on the future--it's a mighty entertaining novel. Turtledove has written several series of alternate-history novels. One of them has traced the military history of the separated USA and CSA up to the 1940s--although The Guns of the South is not considered part of that series.

When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?/George Carlin. I'm a Carlin fan, but this book didn't do it for me. It's a collection of bits, many of them involving Carlin's favorite subject, the manipulation of language. They're not really organized in any logical manner--and lots of them aren't funny, even if you imagine them accompanied by the sound of Carlin's voice and the gleam in his eye.

On the end-table in my living room at the moment: Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping by Patrick Radden Keefe, and Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, by Penny M. Von Eschen.

What have you been reading lately?

Casual Business
From the time I went to kindergarten through all my years in radio, my dress code never changed. Jeans were acceptable for nearly all occasions. When I started student teaching, that changed. Ties were mandatory. (The only piece of advice I got on dress from my supervising teacher was to make sure I didn't wear the same tie on the same day each week, because the kids would notice.) After that, I went into corporate life, although the first place I worked wasn't very strict about dress. Their most interesting innovation was declaring Monday to be "casual day" instead of Friday. The psychological benefit of being able to ease into the week by wearing jeans to work on Monday turned out to be vast, and I can't imagine why more companies don't do it.

After a couple of years, I went to a bigger corporation, which had just recently adopted business casual. Management had apparently been dragged to it against their will, originally--we heard stories that under the previous regime, female employees who got runs in their pantyhose were sent home to change. Jeans were permitted only two days per month, but many people found ways to get around the code--cargo pants not obviously denim-colored, or Hawaiian shirts buttoned to the top. What this company needed more than a dress code was a personal-appearance code. If the company was really concerned with maintaining a professional atmosphere at the office, it needed legislation to cover the guy with the mohawk, the girl with the spectacularly ugly colored tattoos on both arms, or the woman whose preference for cleavage-baring tank tops made her quite the distraction.

When I quit the place a couple of years ago to go freelancing, I joked that my new office dress code was going to be slippers and underwear. Two weeks after I quit, I had to go back to pick up materials for an assignment. It was Halloween, and when I got there, I discovered that the people in my old department had worn pajamas as costumes, in my honor. Despite what people think, I do get dressed to work every day--although I'm in T-shirts or untucked button-up shirts and shorts all summer, and sweatshirts and jeans all winter. Being able to wear whatever the hell you want is one of the unsung joys of working at home.

The Associated Press is out with a story about corporate dress codes this morning. It seems that a few companies are permitting their employees to wear shorts on very hot days--although the story also notes that the dress-code pendulum, which has been swinging in a more casual direction since the late 80s, may be starting to swing back. I recall reading a study done a few years ago that suggested business casual actually reduced productivity, so it's a wonder that, in our every-penny-counts corporate culture, business casual has thrived so long in the first place.

Recommended Reading: Kos and Armando on the latest hijinx from the Democratic Leadership Council, which recently accused Iraq war critics of being anti-American. Sixty percent of Americans are now persuaded that the war is a mistake--yet these powerful Democrats refuse to criticize Bush's war effort. Over the weekend, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel came out hard against the current policy, using the type of rhetoric Democrats should be using every damn day--the kind that so far, only Russ Feingold has had the courage to use. But the DLC is advising prospective '06 candidates not to talk about the war at all.

(This post has been slightly edited since it first appeared.)

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Across the Great Divide
So this morning the first news story I click on is about a counter-camp of war supporters that's set up in Crawford this weekend. Or, as the AP wrote in its lead sentence, "A patriotic camp with a 'God Bless Our President!' banner sprung up downtown Saturday. . . ." So the war supporters are "patriotic," which, by implication, means that Cindy Sheehan and the anti-war people outside Bush's mansion are not. (Blogger sighs heavily here.)

So you could see this as more evidence that the so-called "liberal media" is actually in the tank for Bush. However, I doubt that AP writer Angela K. Brown chose the adjective with much deliberation--she merely made the kind of automatic, easy choice we tend to make when we're confronted with the stereotypes we've grown up with. Flag-waving president-supporters are "patriotic," because flag-wavers always are, aren't they? My country, right or wrong--right? We are frequently reminded, however, that we're living in different times today. Except the language we use hasn't caught up--and the fact that it hasn't only reinforces the perceptual divide between "real Americans" and those who are something else.

Rose Aguillar is an independent journalist who is traveling in the red states, interviewing average citizens she finds along the way. Her post in which she meets Mary Fowler, a woman whose views on American politics and culture are shaped exclusively by her two primary news sources, the Bible and The 700 Club, will have you gnashing your teeth. Read the first few comments, too, before they devolve into a flame war. One of the commenters came up with a fine description of the perceptual divide:
You and I are like two people, one speaking Finnish and the other speaking Czechoslovakian, over a bad cell phone connection during a lightning storm with jets taking off overhead. There will be no communication. You live in a world of superstition which you accept as fact. I don't. The day I turn to Pat Robertson or any of his ilk to help me "understand" anything will be the day you make burnt offerings to Zeus.
Quote of the Day, no doubt.

I was first pointed to the Mary Fowler post by Digby, who quoted it extensively on Friday, and who posted some further thoughts about it yesterday. He points out that even though Mary's religion and her Republicanism seem intertwined, she's the kind of person who will choose Jesus over Tom DeLay every time. Thus, if she and people like her can be shown that the Republican Party is by no means Christlike, and that its positions do not truly reflect her deepest religious beliefs, she can be pried away into political limbo. Like another couple Rose Aguillar spoke to, Mary can be persuaded to opt out of the political process altogether.

Opting out is the best a liberal can hope for where the Marys of America are concerned, because we'll never get people like her across the divide, which is the central fact of American political and cultural life at the moment. I'm a student of the Civil War, and I'm convinced our current divide is at least as serious and unbridgeable as that which separated the North and the South during the Civil War era--and it may be more serious. Our divide isn't a sectional one--it's being fought house-to-house and block-to-block from coast-to-coast. Example: Digby's got another good post about Dear Abby's advice to the woman who's offended by her neighbor's gay pride flag. More perceptual divide: That flag is either a statement of pride in the finest tradition of American pluralism, or it's an insidious expression of forbidden thought from which innocent children must be spared. One thing's for sure: It's never just a flag. And an adjective, such as "patriotic," is never just an adjective. Everything's contested.

Friday, August 19, 2005

I Believe You Should Click These Links
This afternoon at Best of the Blogs: I Want to Believe.

At The Hits Just Keep on Comin': Believe it or Not.

This Is Your Brain on Blogs
Last summer, I would have blogged the hell out of John Roberts, Karl Rove, Cindy Sheehan, and all the other characters in the news these days. This August, not so much. It's outrage fatigue, pure and simple. Last year, there was hope that the Bush shitrain might stop in January. But when January arrived and the forecast promised four more years of rain, it suddenly got a lot harder for me to keep providing the same level of bloggy goodness day in and day out. (There have been weeks since January when I've posted more at The Hits Just Keep On Comin' than I have here--because that blog has utterly no political content at all, and as such often is a hell of a lot more fun to write.)

In addition to feeling outrage fatigue, I sometimes get discouraged at the lack of response to what I'm doing. Not that I am ungrateful for those readers I have, but there are days (and weeks) when doing this feels like shouting into the void. Not that shouting into the void--like doing good for its own sake without expectation of reward--doesn't have value. It's just human nature to get tired of it after a while.

Still, I am not entirely discouraged, because it turns out that blogging is probably good for my brain, and some brains are perfectly wired to do it. Ann Althouse, who, it turns out, is based right here in Madison, dug up a scholarly study on blogging and its effects on bloggers. In addition to the study itself, Ann provides her own comment on how it feels to blog. It's a feeling many of us share, I am sure, when we feel like the blogging is going well, and when we feel like it isn't.

Worth a Thousand Words:
Also at Ann's site, some great pictures of Madison in the late summer. Click the link to see why we all love it here. Of course, last night, the nearby suburb of Stoughton (note to the national media: the first syllable rhymes with toe, not cow) was hit by a massive tornado that demolished three dozen homes--so it's not always peaceful and placid. According to the Weather Channel, more tornadoes were reported in southern Wisconsin last night than the state usually reports in a normal year.

Recommended Reading: Paul Krugman places a wakeup call to all of us who've forgotten the fact, largely proven, that the Republicans stole the presidential election in 2000 and suppressed the vote sufficiently to capture it in 2004. If Democrats don't succeed in forcing some sort of reforms into the electoral process, it won't matter who the party's candidates are in 2006 and 2008, or how they frame their positions. The bastards on the other side will steal it again.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Take it Outside
Former Wisconsin governor Lee Dreyfus (the first candidate I ever voted for, elected in November 1978--and a Republican) once characterized Madison as "68 square miles surrounded by reality." People up here tend to embrace that distinction. They love to dream things that never were and say "why not?"--and then make those dreams into reality. Take the total ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, which went into effect on July 1. No matter how big or small the place, no matter how effectively segregated a the establishment's smoking area had been in the past, it doesn't matter. Smoking inside of restaurants and bars is verboten here, period. (Even, I kid you not, in cigar bars.) If you want to light it up, you gotta take it outside.

From a public-health standpoint, this is a slam dunk. The dangers of secondhand smoke are well-established by research, and it seems fairly commonsensical to say that people shouldn't have to be exposed to such dangers against their will, especially when they're out for a nice dinner and a couple of drinks. And only a total ban on smoking would be truly effective--for every restaurant that does a good job of keeping the smoking and nonsmoking areas apart, there's one that makes a room divider out of wooden screens and fake plants, puts the smokers behind it, and then seats some unlucky nonsmokers right next to it.

As a good liberal and a nonsmoker, I should be in favor of the ban. I certainly enjoyed the fresh air while sitting in one of my favorite Madison barrooms the other night. But I think the total ban is a terrible idea. What bothers me about it is the way it infringes on a business owner's right to do whatever he wants with his property. Yes, I have railed against the completely free exercise of that right in the past, both in specific instances involving specific businesses, and in general terms involving the Bush Administration's drive to repeal regulations that rein in that right. I have argued that in many cases, there's a greater public good served by forbidding certain practices that might permit businesses to save money or operate more effectively. That greater-good argument is often used to argue for the smoking ban. But you're going to have to live with me being inconsistent on this issue.

Let's imagine a restaurant called El Perro Que Fuma. It allows patrons to smoke. People who don't want to eat or drink in a smoky atmosphere have two options as far as El Perro Que Fuma is concerned--they can either put up with the smoke or go somewhere else. Now let's imagine another restaurant. Let's call it El Perro Sano. It does not allow smoking. People who want to smoke have two options as far as El Perro Sano is concerned--they can either take it outside, or go up the street to El Perro Que Fuma, or some other place that allows smoking.

This situation is precisely where the marketplace should be permitted to do its vaunted magic, where potential customers of each place make their free choices based on the information they have. Exactly the wrong approach is for potential customers of El Perro Sano to go before their city council and demand an ordinance that gives them the right to smoke anywhere they want. In effect, that's what Madison's nonsmokers have done. Even in a restaurant or bar where, through free choice in the marketplace, a majority of the customers choose to smoke, the minority that doesn't want to smoke has imposed its will on the majority.

Madison's ordinance is having a negative effect on many restaurants and bars. Total takes are down, waitstaff and bartenders are being laid off, registration for fall pool and darts leagues are lagging. Many of the places reporting these negative effects are working-class neighborhood watering holes, and there's a semi-persuasive argument that the ban is at least in part a social-class issue. You could characterize it (and some have) as upper-middle-class do-gooders presuming to make life decisions for blue-collar folk who just want to kick back in their accustomed fashion. That fashion includes smoking, which is something they freely choose to do, and who are these people to come stomping into a neighborhood bar they wouldn't normally deign to visit and telling the customers what to do?

Madison's mayor has said the ban is here to stay. Some members of the City Council are working to repeal it, or put it before the voters in a referendum. And Republicans in the state legislature are on the case, too--pushing a bill that would ban citywide smoking bans, like that enacted here and in some other Wisconsin communities. So stay tuned.

I'm not all that comfortable being opposite the liberal side of an issue, but when I apply my rule--"If the circumstances were exactly reversed, would you still support your position?"--Madison's smoking ban doesn't hold up.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Always a Bad Idea--Always
I have been trying for several years to get The Mrs. to stop shopping at Walmart. It's not that there aren't other big-box retailers around. Target and Shopko are even closer to our house than Walmart is. And truth to tell, she's spent less time and money there in recent weeks. I'd like to think this is due to my good influence (also known as "nagging"), but it may have more to do with her having less time to shop on the last few weekends.

It's true that many things you buy at Walmart will be cheaper than the same things at other places. But you're saving money only if you think of it on a pennies-from-your-pocket basis. What Walmart does to the retail base of the communities it enters is well-documented. (People in my hometown, which already has a Walmart, are trying to fight the construction of a Super Walmart right now, knowing what it will do to existing businesses there.) The burden Walmart's low pay and crappy benefits put on government health-care systems is equally well-documented. In short, the costs of shopping at Walmart come back to get you in myriad ways, and those costs far outweigh the change you get back from your $20 bill.

I quit shopping at Walmart several years ago because of the way it masquerades as "family friendly," while behind the mask it's pushing a wingnut agenda. Walmart makes decisions regarding which CDs, books, and movies to stock on what it calls a "family values" basis--but the families they value the most are the ones who make up the Bush base. At Alternet, Amy Schiller has more.

Favorite Headline of the Day: "Study Details Bar at Center of Milky Way". It's great to find a nice place for a beer when you're a long way from home.

Take a Shower, Eat a Mint
Step out onto your front porch and take a deep breath. Smell that? It's the stink of fear, a miasma rising from Republican hardcores coast to coast. Eric Boehlert at the Huffington Post:
When it comes to Bush's second term, the White House has entered Tom Petty territory--it's Free Fallin'. Think 1,854 U.S. casualties, $3.00 gas prices, grand jury testimony, Terri Schiavo, Social Security reform, 43 percent job approval rating.

And now think Cindy Sheehan.
Blackdogred at Best of the Blogs can smell it, too. He read Boehlert's post as well, and made a point I've expressed here before myself.
I will predict this: crackers like this dope who fired a shotgun over the head of Cindy Sheehan and this dope who drove a pick-up through her campsite, while not dispatched from GOP Headquarters, are going to go positively Timothy McVeigh before, during, and after Democrats regain power. The Right has achieved its power by a deliberate, concerted, patient, inexorable program of demonization and hatred and fear of anyone or thing other than itself. Its architects and generals are not going to abandon their tactics, they're going to ratchet them up. The true believing footsoldiers? They're not going to surrender without, literally, a fight.
As somebody wrote before the election last fall, anger is part of who the Repugs are. They'll be angry if they lose and they'll be angry if they win. And now that they're not getting 150% of everything they think they're entitled to, they're going beyond angry. To borrow a phrase from the Rude Pundit, they're going bugfuck insane. And it's not a question of if some of them will move from rhetorical violence against those they view as their persecutors to actual violence against them. It's a question of when.

Recommended Reading: Intelligent Design is not the only "alternative" theory out there concerning the origin and development of the universe. For example, there's Unintelligent Design. And the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Look out, Bob the Rain God--you've got competition.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Everybody Drive to Wyoming
Gasoline is up another dime today at most places out here on the west side of Madison. The going price is now $2.69.9, although a few places are still at $2.59.9, and at least one has split the difference at $2.65.9. I debated topping off at one of the places where it hadn't gone up, even though I'm barely down to half-a-tank at the moment. Then I decided not to, because at the most I'd be saving maybe 50 cents. And 50 cents isn't the problem--$25 a tank is.

AAA posts a Fuel Gauge Report on its website, and it's no doubt getting major hits today after being mentioned in USA Today. And given today's price increases, it's already out of date. As of this morning, the highest prices for regular unleaded were found here:
California $2.76.5
Hawaii $2.74.0
Nevada $2.66.6
Washington $2.64.2
Illinois $2.62.7
The cheap stuff, meanwhile, is here:
Wyoming $2.37.7
Utah $2.39.7
South Carolina $2.39.8
Oklahoma $2.42.1
Louisiana $2.43.2
Of course, it's likely to be higher in major metros, and if you haven't seen pictures of gas station signs in California showing prices for all grades over $3, you haven't been looking.

The rising cost of gas has driven the Consumer Price Index up a little bit, and the stock market was also down today, sparked in part by more increases in the price of crude oil. I have no idea whether this runup in oil prices is something temporary, or whether it will lead to economic disaster--although with George W. Bush in charge, I'd put my money on disaster.

(Digression: Absolutely nobody is calling on Bush to do anything about the price of oil--but can you imagine the squealing demands from the right if John Kerry had been elected last fall? As it is, we can assume that Bush will do either nothing or something cosmetic that has no real effect. He did sign the energy bill earlier this month and claimed it would help, but nobody who isn't already loaded on GOP kool-aid believes it will do anything but fatten oil company profits.)

Journalist Gywnne Dyer, writing in the New Zealand Herald, is a bit more optimistic about the future than I am. He does not see an economic collapse coming as a result of the current rise in oil prices. Even if the current worse-case scenario develops--$100 a barrel--Dyer says that oil would have to stay there for a year before it started squeezing the world economy. And he doesn't think that's going to happen. He expects oil to return to its "natural" level of $40 to $55 per barrel, eventually. In the short term, Dyer thinks high gasoline prices might start to encourage conservation, thus helping address global warming immediately without squeezing the economy too severely.

In the long term, however, Dyer acknowledges we've probably reached the famous Hubbert Peak, and so there's nowhere for oil production levels to go but down. If that's the case, Dyer predicts another massive rise in prices, perhaps another doubling of the price (whatever it will be), sometime around 2010 or 2012. And, of course, peak oil means that on some future date, we will extract the very last drop of crude oil there is to get. You and I probably won't be around to see that--but our children and grandchildren might be.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Adventures in Moral Equivalence
Today's Quote of the Day comes courtesy of Think Progress, providing a (mercifully) shorter version of Kathleen Parker's latest column, on Cindy Sheehan: "If Bush meets Cindy Sheehan, the terrorists win."

Parker writes for the Orlando Sentinel and is widely distributed on Townhall.com, and the best you can say for her is that she's consistent. You can count on her for analysis as sophisticated as that you'd be likely to get from a suburban mother of three who thinks she's well-informed because she watches Fox News for 15 minutes every morning while she's on the treadmill.

Also on the Sheehan beat, if you haven't heard this next yet, you'll hear it soon from your favorite Repug mouthpiece: White supremacist David Duke posted a statement on his website supporting Sheehan's vigil. Wingers will be shocked, horrified, etc. It's pretty clear that Sheehan's vigil has little to do with explicit dislike of Israel. But since she mentioned Israel in a critical way at one point, there will be a rush to brand her, and anyone who looks kindly upon her, as anti-Semitic, now and forever. And getting the support of David Duke--well, that makes her David Duke's prom date, of course, and anyone who supports her must think David Duke is OK, too. Never mind the broader and more important questions Sheehan is asking, or the fact that David Duke is not immune from being on the correct side of an issue now and then, or from making a couple of rational points in favor of that issue. Repeat as necessary: "Anti-Semitic, David Duke-supporter, nanny nanny boo boo."

Hey, Kathleen, I've got your next column for you: "If Bush meets Cindy Sheehan, the Nazis win World War II."

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Over a Barrel
For much of the summer, The Mrs. and I had been planning to spend this weekend with the family at the lake in southeastern Michigan. It's about a two-tank trip each way. The last time we made the trip, over Memorial Day, the price of gasoline was around $2.10 a gallon. But the going price on the west side of Madison went up to $2.59.9 yesterday, an increase of 20 cents in less than a week--and that means it would be even higher in Michigan. So we decided to stay home--because it just would cost too much to go.

All the while gas prices have been rising in the last year or so, I've been wondering how high they'd have to go to make me drastically alter my driving habits. Yeah, we canceled our planned trip this weekend, but what would it take to get me to alter my more mundane driving routines--the quick trips to the convenience store for caffeine or the mid-afternoon clusters of errands that get me out of the house. The answer seems to be "more than $2.59.9." The Mrs. and I make a decent living, and we can still afford to drive. I work out of our home, and she could take the bus to work, but using a monthly pass would still cost something like $2 per round-trip. That's still more expensive, at the moment, than driving her fuel-efficient '95 Ford Contour, and that doesn't include the cost of her time. It's nearly an hour each way on the bus from out here in suburbia to her office downtown versus a 20-minute drive. But if gas should get up around $3 a gallon, the bus would become a more attractive option to her.

I recall reading somewhere that some analysts think the price of oil could reach $100 a barrel. This week's gas price spike came when it set a new record price above $66. That price is about double what it was last August. If oil added another $33 a barrel and gas prices went correspondingly higher, the price would be pushing $4 per gallon. That price still wouldn't be as high as it is in Europe, but it might be enough to curb my routine driving, too. And if I had to bet, I'd say that I'll probably get the chance to find out.

(It's hard to believe, but even the current prices, when adjusted for inflation, still aren't as high as they were early in 1981, when I was horrified to pay $1.30 a gallon. We'll pay $1.30 a gallon for milk before we'll pay that little for gas again.)

Newspapers around the country have picked up the story of the poll of consumers that suggests many are beginning to worry about the impact of high gasoline prices. (Wisconsin State Journal version here; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel version here, both with appropriate local color.) The people I feel great sympathy for are those on fixed incomes--the high prices fall on them first, and hardest. The people I feel no sympathy for are those with monster SUVs. How do you like your nine-mile-per-gallon status symbol now, Mr. and Mrs. Hummer? It would have been cheaper to have your net worth tattooed on your foreheads.

The skyrocketing price of oil does more than make driving more expensive. As manufacturers and other businesses absorb fuel-price increases, those increases will be passed onto consumers in higher prices for damn near everything. And the cost of heating a home this winter is going to be monstrous. I'm no economist, but I know that the pivotal role of oil in the American economy makes it one of the pillars on which the economy rests. If the price goes uncontrollably sideways, we will be uncontrollably screwed. And we might find out how screwed a lot sooner than we'd like.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Bloggers: We Make America Suck
It's Friday afternoon, and once again I don't have the attention span for political analysis. I clicked on an interesting-looking article from The Nation about why, when 60 percent of the country (and a larger percentage of Democrats) are now against the Iraq war, Democratic presidential wannabes like Hillary and the hopeless Joe Biden are still toeing the pro-war, Bush-lite line, but I couldn't even finish it. Nope, I'm going to wrap up the week giving out a few rounds of applause to bloggers who are much more talented than I am.

I don't link to him as much as I do some others, but it's good to be reminded now and then that Kos is one of the best we've got out here in the blogosphere.

David Neiwart at Orcinus is another top-tier guy. Nobody covers right-wing extremism (the militia kind, not the Washington kind) better. He posted a chilling bit last night about the appeal of lynching to Free Republic nutjobs. Who doubts that crowd would start killing, Rwanda-style, if somebody gave them the word?

My new blogger hero is Digby. He's joined the short list of people I read every day, because of posts like this.

Of course, none of us are really "bloggers" anymore. Atrios and others have taken to calling their websites "online journals of public opinion," or somesuch, because certain Repugs are getting ready to go after bloggers who, as everyone knows, are responsible for most of the bad things that have happened in the country in the last four or five years.

Really, we suck.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Bigger, Better, Blonder
There's an interesting article over at Alternet this morning by Tony Seton, a journalist who worked with Peter Jennings on the old AM America show and on World News Tonight. Seton suggests that Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather are complicit in the dumbing-down of American TV journalism over the last 25 years or so because, as managing editors of their broadcasts, they must take reponsibility for what their shows reported--and didn't report.
Let's make clear, too, that they weren't told what to say by their corporate bosses. And the result of their tenure that jumps out is the 50 percent decline in the television audience watching them every night.

Some might ascribe the drop in ratings to the wider choice presented by cable and satellite, but that is only part of the picture. The larger truth is that after Walter Cronkite left in 1981, the quality of the network news began to slip. The focus shifted from the steak to the sizzle. It was apparent in the ratio of features to hard news, a programming decision designed to attract more viewers for the "entertainment" value of such programming.

Another proof of the slide was the commercials, which shifted toward targeting an older audience, the only people still watching, mostly out of habit. Network news became something of a palliative, losing its relevance in a complicated world that required more time and better writing to explain. The producers, abetted by the anchors, decided the audience wouldn't sit still for any explanations that required thought, so they fed them pathos and pictures.
I especially like the point that network news lost its relevance "in a complicated world that required more time and better writing to explain," mostly because it echoes one of my recurring themes in this blog--that it's harder to be well-informed now than it used to be. As Seton notes, evening news executives always used to claim they were a headline service, and that newspapers had to provide the depth. But even though TV finally has the time, because there are entire 24-hour cable channels devoted to news, isn't it odd that we're still waiting for the depth?

A corresponding problem is not that TV news operations are trying to explain hard stuff and doing it badly--it's that they aren't talking about hard stuff much at all anymore. At the Huffington Post on Tuesday, Bob Cesca noted that CNN had devoted a great deal of time over the previous few days to Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, why men have nipples, and a man who forgot his wife at a gas station. Meanwhile, Karl Rove's (real) treason, dead Marines in Iraq, the corporate welfare-stuffed energy bill, the pork-stuffed highway bill, all of that hard-to-understand, unsexy stuff, gets kicked to the curb because it's less entertaining to the customers than repeating the word "nipples" on the air. And last night, after a day on which Iran restarted its nuke program, Cindy Sheehan continued her campout in Crawford, and more pre-9/11 intelligence failures were revealed, Fox News apparently devoted two more goddamn hours to the Natalee Holloway case--and promoted heavily throughout the day its intention to do so.

The counterargument from the news producers is "We're just giving the people what they want." That's OK--if you're manufacturing widgets, or, to use a more media-centric example, if you're a guy sitting at his dining-room table writing a low-rent blog. But if TV news execs want to keep talking about the importance of their calling and the vital leadership role they play in American democracy, then excusing their laziness and vapidity by saying they're only giving the people what they want isn't something to be proud of.

Quote of the Day: In his Alternet piece, Seton goes a bit overboard into the sort of lefty hyperbole that occasionally mars Alternet by suggesting that Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather committed treason through omission. But he gets off a good line by describing them as "color commentators as the naked emperor paraded his perversion through the corridors of power."

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I Logged Onto the Daily Aneurysm, and All I Got Was This Stupid Plug
This afternoon on The Hits Just Keep On Comin': Turn the Beat Around.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Not That There's Anything Wrong With It
This is going to come as a shock to The Mrs., our family, and our friends, but James Dobson's Focus on the Family group has posted a helpful series called "Helping Boys Become Men, and Girls Become Women" that addresses the question of how parents can keep their children from going homosexual, and after reading the series and reflecting on my childhood, I am pretty sure that I might be gay.

For example, one sign that a boy might be gay is "A strong feeling that they are different from other boys." Yeah, I had that. You could suggest that every kid feels that they're different from other kids, but that's just your godless liberalism talking. "A tendency to cry easily, be less athletic, and dislike the roughhousing that other boys enjoy." Well, I didn't cry easily, but I was not blessed with athletic talent, not even a little bit. I liked to play football, however--but touch and not tackle. Most unathletic kids who grew up to be gay "had traits that could be considered gifts: bright, precocious, social and relational, and artistically talented." That was me, definitely. (Why couldn't I have been a dullard?) "A repeatedly stated desire to be — or insistence that he is — a girl." I think I wore drag for Halloween one year. Does that count? "A strong preference to spend time in the company of girls and participate in their games and other pastimes." Well, as a kid I don't remember going through a phase when I thought girls were icky. Most of the new and enduring friendships I have made as an adult have been with women. At my last corporate gig, I was the only man in a department with 20 women, and I got along just like I was one of the girls. I was once invited to go shoe-shopping with them, and I'm going out drinking with some of them tomorrow night.

The evidence is piling up.

Plus, I think my dad messed me up, too. Dr. Dobson has all kinds of suggestions for proper dad behavior, but my dad didn't get the memo. He was supposed to play rough-and-tumble games with me, but unless you count horsie rides to bed, I can't recall any. It wasn't like we played rugby or anything. He was supposed to teach me to pound a square wooden peg into a square hole in a pegboard. I had a pegboard, but putting the square peg into the round hole seemed more challenging and fun. (Damned precocious and artistic behavior again.) Most worrisome of all, Dr. Dobson recommends that a father should "take his son with him into the shower, where the boy cannot help but notice that Dad has a penis, just like his, only bigger." (I'm sure the boy can't help but notice his father's penis in that situation, what with it being at eye level and all, but I digress.) In any event, my dad never took me into the shower, not once. Despite that, I know for a fact he has a penis, and that's good. Knowing such a thing is apparently key to preventing homosexuality, so at least I have that going for me.

So many behaviors can be signs of gayness, and we'd never know if Focus on the Family didn't tell us. So now I'm starting to doubt everything I do: I own cats instead of dogs. I thought about watching Sex and the City tonight instead of baseball on ESPN. I just had a tangerine-lime bottled water to drink instead of a cup of black coffee.

Yep, gay as an Easter basket. No doubt about it.

"A Country-Club Drug-Addict Republican"
Need something beautiful in your life? Well, then, my blog-reading friend, I've got something for you. Paul Hackett, the Iraq vet who nearly pulled the political upset of the year last week in a special election for Congress in Ohio, was on the Ed Schultz Show this afternoon, where he laid the stomp and whipsong on Rush Limbaugh. There's audio here, and you really ought to hear it all. (If all you have time for is a transcript of the good bits, they're here.)

Great stuff, great guy. Glad he's on our side.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Topping the News
The AP's David Bauder has filed another story on Peter Jennings, this one speculating on the future shape of network TV news in the long term, and on Jennings' replacement in the short term. Front-runners for the anchor chair, according to Bauder, are the two reporters who have been sitting in for Jennings since he left in April, Charles Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas. Gibson was considered a possible replacement for Jennings even before he returned to Good Morning America a few years ago. As for Vargas, former GMA news anchor, Bauder says, she "lacks Gibson's experience but could attract some younger viewers." (She's 42.)

C'mon, Dave. That's supposed to be the wisdom of a seasoned observer, but it's crap, and it's revealed as such by your next sentence: "The evening news, a tradition born at a time when evening newspapers were important, has one of television's oldest audiences."

The networks cannot reverse the 20-year slide in the relevance of the evening news simply by putting a different face in the anchor chair. The paradigm has long since shifted, and it ain't shifting back. You may have heard that Al Gore's TV network, Current TV, launched last week. It's an experiment in messing with the form of TV news, presenting "pods" of information meant to go down in quick bites. And that underlines the problem the major networks face. They can't mess with the form all that much, as long as they remain locked into 30 minutes at suppertime (6:30 in the east, 5:30 Central.) In addition, no matter what else they do, there are certain demographic realities the networks simply can't change. The audience is fragmented by a gazillion channels--the days when most TVs got only three channels and most people had to watch news at 5:30 are long gone. An entire generation--the younger viewers a younger anchor is supposed to magically attract--has grown up unable to remember a time when news wasn't available on demand via cable. Kids in high school today can barely remember a time when it wasn't available on demand via the Internet. As Bauder notes, nightly news viewership remains around 25 million, but that's down something like a third in 10 years, and there's no reason to believe it won't continue to decline, no matter who the networks put into the anchor chairs.

I'm sure Elizabeth Vargas is a fine reporter, a talented broadcaster, and a quality human being, but unless she's going to do the news topless, she's likely not to reverse the slide, either. Network TV's primary customer base is shrinking. Demographic reality means that there will be no magic switch in preference once the customers reach a certain age. At some point, the demand for the product will no longer be able to support the cost of manufacturing it, and the product will become obsolete. It happened to elevator-music radio, it happened to the Oldsmobile--and it's happening to the network evening news.

Anchorman Down
News junkies and TV history geeks should join in a toast today to Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor who died over the weekend. Just how long Jennings had been at the ABC anchor desk in one role or another is quite surprising--since 1978, as part of ABC's three-headed newscast, and as a solo act since 1983. Jennings also anchored the network's evening newscast for three years in the 1960s, up against Walter Cronkite and the Huntley-Brinkley Report. I grew up an Uncle Walter fan, but after Cronkite retired, I moved over to ABC, and for several years Jennings was my anchor of choice. I stopped watching network news sometime in the early 90s, but until the Internet exploded, I usually found my way to ABC when major news broke.

David Bauder's Associated Press obituary for Jennings is comprehensive, although it includes one weird sentence: "With Americans looking more inward in the mid to late-1990s, NBC's Tom Brokaw surpassed Jennings in the ratings." I'm guessing that refers to Jennings' international experience and his broadcast's focus on international news, and presumes that viewers uninterested in international news started preferring Brokaw's South Dakota blandness to Jennings' Canadian cool. (Earlier in the obit, Bauder noted that Jennings was especially popular with urban viewers.) That's quite a leap, though. A more logical reason for Brokaw's rise in the mid '90s is the competitive balance of the networks. During that period, NBC had one of the strongest primetime lineups in history--ER, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier--and such a dominant ratings lead in primetime couldn't help having a trickle-down effect all across the schedule.

In any event, Brokaw's lead over Jennings was slight, and the competition between the major network newscasts remains tight. Never mind that in a universe with 24-hour cable channels and the Internet, a daily 30-minute news summary at 5:30PM is as irrelevant as an afternoon newspaper. When Brokaw retired last year, I suggested that it would be a fine excuse for NBC to dump its nightly newscast entirely because they've got a 24-hour cable channel with a deep bench of anchors who could be pressed into service when the mothership needed to cover spot news. ABC has no such luxury, so somebody will be hired to replace Jennings eventually.

One thing is certain, though--it won't be a Canadian who didn't finish college.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Good Question
What he said.

Him, too.

This explains a lot as well.

Privacy, Schrivacy
The more I read about Supreme Court justice-designate John Roberts, the more I find myself worried about one thing: his stand on the right to privacy, which seems to be that there is really no such right.

Four important Supreme Court decisions established the right to privacy: Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), Roe v. Wade (1973), and Lawrence v. Texas (2004). All of these cases have to do with the right of people to do what they want in their bedrooms. Griswold overturned a Connecticut law that forbade married couples from using birth control (!). Eisenstadt essentially extended the right to use birth control to unmarried couples. Roe involved the right of a woman to decide whether to have a baby at all. Lawrence was the famous Texas sodomy case, which overturned laws limiting what consenting adults could do behind closed doors. Each of the cases that followed Griswold rests on it--and Roberts is on record saying he believes Griswold was wrongly decided. (Liberal Oasis has lots of pertinent links and commentary on the decisions and their implications here.)

Right-wing thinkers have hated the Griswold decision for a long time, blaming it for everything from hippies to Bill Clinton, and they'd be happy to see it go. In addition, many social conservatives blame everything that's wrong with the country on sex, so it's only logical to assume that they'd be happy with something that allowed limits on sexual behavior. In John Roberts, both groups have got a justice they can get behind. (So to speak.)

It's not hard to imagine Roe being overturned at some point in the next few years. It's almost guaranteed--although as we've noted here before, it won't lead to an instantaneous national ban on abortion. But the chance we might lose other bedrock privacy rights seems batshit crazy--at least until you contemplate how much batshit-crazy stuff has come to pass in the last few years.

That said, however, making it illegal for married couples to use birth control seems extremely unlikely to me. There's no constituency for such an idea outside of the hardcore theocrats. The fact is that there are millions of legitimate wingnuts out there who, despite their politics, would rather not risk making a baby every time they dance the horizontal bop.

Making it flatly illegal for unmarried people to get birth control is a pro-lifer's wet dream. (Shaky metaphor, I know). The logic on which such a ban would rest is as dubious as the logic on which abstinence education rests. "If people can't get birth control, they won't have sex" is just as loony when you're talking about adults as it is when you're talking about teenagers. But in wingnut fantasy world, abstinence education works--so you can bet they wouldn't hesitate to apply its dubious lessons elsewhere if the Supremes opened the way.

But undermining the right to privacy as it applies to homosexual acts--that would have far-reaching effects right away. It would move same-sex marriage far beyond the pale, and give the green light to all sorts of persecutions of gays. It would also permit cultural know-nothings to legislate against anything sexual with which they have a problem--closing down your local erotic boutique, for example, or banning fetish night at your favorite urban nightspot, or even coming after heterosexual couples who have a taste for, shall we say, alternative uses of their equipment.

If the worst happens in the next few years and this critical quartet of decisions is eroded, the first effect will be the return to a state-by-state patchwork of laws involving privacy, again largely along red/blue lines. We can hope that a few places will still exist where what you and your significant other do with the lights out (or on, if that's the way you like it) is exclusively your business.

More than almost anything else I can imagine, wouldn't the end of privacy in some parts of the country be the final straw that makes people who live there get the hell out? Imagine the cosmopolitan citizenry of Atlanta suddenly facing draconian laws governing their bedroom behavior, or the cosmopolitan citizenry of Austin suddenly finding it impossible to get birth control. Imagine the exodus to more enlightened regions, not just of the nominally progressive, but of the politically disengaged who just want the right to get down as they please. I'm not necessarily imagining only a population shift, either. Couldn't a red/blue division over something as fundamental as privacy accelerate the actual breakup of the country?

It's a pretty wild speculation. We've put up with a lot in this country over the last several years that has strained the Union without breaking it, but there must be a last straw out there someplace. I'm convinced that the specter of a couple's private business becoming subject to public regulation could be it. And if it is--well, good, then.

(This post has been slightly edited since it first appeared.)

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Newt, Phone Home
Why did Rafael Palmeiro take steroids? The answer is obvious. It's Bill Clinton's fault. Emmett Tyrell explains that the 1990s were beset by the cultural evil known as "compartmentalization," an example of which is Bill Clinton's happy embrace of his job as president, all the while running up a record of public and private corruption that would make Caligula blush. From this assertion, he leaps to Palmeiro's steroid use as another example of one of the many things we thought were true (Clinton good president, Palmeiro good power hitter) have, in the bright light of the new conservative millennium, have in fact been revealed as untrue.

My guess is the primary reason Tyrell makes this leap is the Clintonesque tone and demeanor of Palmeiro's denial of steroid use in front of Congress last spring. It's not as if there's much else linking the two men. Palmeiro, after all, is a Republican who contributed to the 2004 Bush campaign.

(Over at Alternet, Dave Zirin reminds us that when Palmeiro and Jose Canseco joined the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s, one of the team's owners was George W. Bush. Canseco has claimed many of his Texas teammates were steroid users, and that Bush knew about it. You could call it another potential skeleton in Bush's closet, if the closet wasn't already too crowded to hold one more.)

Quotes of the Day:
Kevin Drum at Political Animal: "It's hard to believe, but the leadership of the modern Republican party is now so insane that liberal Democrats can legitimately look back and say that Newt wasn't really all that bad. Yes, you heard that right. Newt. Wasn't. Really. All. That. Bad. I think I'll spend the rest of the day hiding under my bed."

Another good one, from over at AMERICABlog: "We've never known what the GOP would do if they controlled all three branches of government, and now we do: record deficits, wars without end, rampant corruption, isolation from the world community, invasion of privacy and a looming theocracy. Happy?"

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