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Monday, October 31, 2005

Note to Patrons: There was apparently a problem over the weekend with the web poll opening literally dozens of popup boxes for some users. When I (jb) checked it this morning, it tried downloading some software to my computer. Third-party programs like the web poll occasionally do things like this, and generally it's in violation of the providing company's terms of service. They can't help it and neither can I. (It's certainly not something I deliberately chose to inflict upon users, as the user who caught the problem implied in his note to me.)

So you have to take matters into your own hands. You need a popup blocker, a firewall, and automatically updating anti-virus software to go anywhere on the Internet. If you don't have all of these, you're asking for problems far worse than popups gone wild. In fact, you may already have them and not know it. So I apologize to anyone who had similar trouble. If you have clicked the web poll since I put it up last week, you might want to run your virus scanning program now. We now return to our regularly scheduled Internet news and commentary feature.


Believe It Or Not
Aside from being dazzling conversationalists and brilliant dancers, JB and I also have this in common: we're atheist, and we make no secret about it.

Readers may come away with the impression that he and I are hostile to religion. JB can speak for himself on the matter, but I admit that I am hostile to religion, insofar as it trains its adherents to wear blinders. Often, the intensity of the belief is in direct proportion to the size of the blinders.

I try to believe as little as possible. This requires a fine distinction between "believing" and "accepting," terms which in casual use are often seen, unfortunately, as interchangeable.

Belief, in this context, is a process that requires no evidence and in fact can readily persist in spite of contrary evidence. It may be based on intuition, tradition, wishful thinking, fear, hope, and a whole range of similar factors. Acceptance, in contrast, is based upon evidence and reason. I do not "believe" that the can I'm about to open contains Coca Cola. I accept the likelihood that it will, based upon my experience with similar cans, the consistency of the brand, the reputability of the vendor where I purchased it, and so forth.

Religion is bad, in my view, because it values faithful belief in a far-out claim over reasoned acceptance of evidence. Worse, it lays the groundwork for magical thinking, which populates the shadows and unseen places with all manner of ghosts, goblins, and bogeymen, be they ectoplasm or flesh and blood. It creates a rubicon of uncritical thinking and a precedent for declaring certain subjects off-limits for questions and investigation.

Persons of faith will object that they routinely subject their faith to critical examination, but the vast majority of such inquiry is of the C.S. Lewis "here's why you should continue to believe" vibe, rather than a wholesale reevaluation of the belief itself. Few apologists truly inspect their faith on a level playing field, and field invariably slants toward the reaffirming of faith.

In science, every assumption is open to modification and deletion. Every religion, by contrast, has a handful of "thou shalt nots" that halt inquiry, by fiat. If a reader can name a major religion in which this is not the case, please comment.

One particular religion that will enjoy the spotlight in the coming days is Constitutional Originalism, which I've decried previously. High Priest Antonin Scalia worships the document as an inviolable parchment writ by Almighty Jefferson himself, never to change or grow regardless of Jefferson's own wishes on the matter. Scalia, a man of faith, has spent decades training himself to avoid critical inquiry into "sacred" matters, and by his judicial philosophy he considers his interpretation of the Constitution to be sacred.

The Republican base, which still approves of Dubya's performance despite any empirical evidence of his nonpareil incompetence, has similarly trained itself not to question the Annointed Leader. They need no evidence to believe that he is a good man who's keeping us safe from the terrorists and leading us into unprecedented economic prosperity.

How many non-theists, I wonder, number themselves among Dubya's supporters? (Aside from full-blown Libertarians, who are crazy anyway.)

While thinking about all of this, I heard a snippet from an old Reagan speech over the weekend. It was offered as an exemplar of the "proper" way a President should accept responsibility for the gross criminality of his underlings. Here's the salient point:
A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.
To anyone reading with a critical eye, that passage should read like a diagnosis of abject insanity. Yet Reagan sycophants herald it as the contrite genius of a great communicator.

on edit: I originally typed "genious," which might just qualify as irony.

What does it mean when your "heart" and your "best intentions" tell you something in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? My "best intentions" tell me that I've paid off my student loans—will that be enough to get Sallie Mae off my back?

People of faith aren't necessarily any dumber than people of non-faith or people who have no belief in magical fantasies. However, people who are willing to live as though evidence is subordinate to "best intentions" are setting themselves up as patsies for unscrupulous manipulators all too willing to exploit them.

As Fitzgerald moves forward with his investigation, let's be thankful that he is moved more by evidence than by his beliefs. If instead he were like 39% of the country, then Dubya would be appointed god-king for life before the next grand jury is seated.

Tootsie Rolls: the Devil's Tool
It's been noted by better writers than me that one of the problems with Christianity is that you, as a human being, can't really win. If you succeed at something, God is responsible for your success, but if you fail, you failed, or you let God down in some way. And the whole enterprise is pretty tricky, too: Sometimes, even when you think you're doing good, you're doing wrong, and maybe without even knowing it.

Imagine that you are a hardcore fundie, and that you believe Halloween is evil, sick, bad, and wrong. But because you live in a neighborhood with lots of other families, many of whom do not share your beliefs and who will permit their kids to go trick-or-treating tonight, you decide to participate in the Halloween fun by handing out anti-Halloween religious tracts. Jesus gives you brownie points for that, right?

Wrong.
Giving any kind of treat when someone knocks at your door on Halloween night is participating in Halloween. Just because you add a tract to the treat (or give only a tract) does not sanctify this Halloween activity. Giving a tract while you engage in the ritual that Satan takes very seriously (the trick-or-treating ritual is a satanic ritual no matter how cute it looks or how much fun it is) will not give your or your child automatic protection from evil spirit contact. You are sinning and thereby breaking God's protective hedge. The serpent will bite you and your children, tract or no tract.
Or, as World O'Crap observes, giving out tracts "is just as bad as sacrificing virgins to Lucifer." For your Halloween-morning reading pleasure, World O'Crap has an extensive takedown of anti-Halloween fundies, featuring the unparallelled unintentional hilarity of Jack Chick tracts.

Recommended Reading: Orcinus, on "liberal fascism," which is neither, and on Michelle Malkin, clever simulation of professional journalist.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

On the Subject of Things We Do Just Because
Quick followup here on Friday's post: Madison officials will not characterize what went down on State Street early this morning as a riot, but they did have to break out the pepper spray and cart about 250 people off to jail. They carted off about 125 the night before, but did not have to use pepper spray to break up the crowd at bartime.

Key excerpt from the Wisconsin State Journal story linked above, which gets at the problem of students feeling as though they have a right to riot:
Matt Sokol, 19, a UW-Whitewater student, said the chanting [of a soccer-hooligan cheer thought to be an "anthem" of those wishing to riot] "is a Madison thing. You do it because you are in Madison."

Sokol and his friends, including Kristi Prokop, 18, said they didn't want to see anyone hurt. But they appeared to feel that to get the full effect of Halloween in Madison, it would include "a riot."
The reporter did not note whether Sokol and Prokop were wearing bib overalls and staring up in wonder at the tall buildings, but they might as well have been--their attitude is precisely that of small-town, small-college kids who perceive themselves as walking on the wild side simply by leaving Whitewater (population 14,000, enrollment, 10,000) behind for the decadent big city. What's worse is that they believe that simply being in the decadent big city entitles them to engage in the kind of behavior in which they would never engage in their own town. It would have been interesting had the reporter pursued the line of questioning further--just what makes you think, Matt and Kristi, that people like to riot here, but not in Whitewater? What makes you think it's OK for you to riot here, but not in Whitewater--or for people to riot anywhere? It's doubtful that either of them had thought through the consequences of what they say they believe. But if they did, I'd hope that neither of them would like what it says about them.

Matt, Kristi, a piece of advice: Next year, stay away from Madison on Halloween. You can't handle it here--but not for the reasons you think.

Sunday Ritual:
As soon as I post this, I'll be settling down to watch the Green Bay Packers, season record 1-and-5, meet the Cincinnati Bengals, season record 5-and-2. The Packers, decimated by injuries, aren't likely to win this game, or any of the following four (three of which are against teams that made it to the NFL's conference championship games last season), and may be lucky to win four games all season. Fan reaction up here is breaking down along predictable lines: Younger fans, who have known only the successes of the last 15 years, are freaking out, talking about firing the coach, and even about trading Brett Favre. Some of them are giving up entirely, switching allegiances to other teams. Older fans, however, those who were weaned on the awful teams of the 1970s and 1980s, are more sanguine. We've known this was coming; now that it's here, we're disappointed, but we'll continue to watch, even if it gets as bad as we fear that it might. This is Wisconsin. It's what we do.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Trick or Trick
I greet you on this Friday afternoon from a little coffee shop on State Street in Madison. State Street runs from the Capitol Square to the campus, and is lined with restaurants, bars, and stores. It contributes to one of the most vibrant college-town scenes in the country. In short, it's what lots of people think of when they think of "Madison." And sometime within the next 36 hours, it's going to be the scene of a riot.

Halloween at UW-Madison has been pretty wild since the 1970s--weird costumes, strange behavior, and lots of public intoxication, with tens of thousands of revelers packing the lower State Street area. It was at its early peak around 1980, while I was a student at UW-Platteville, about 75 minutes away. I knew lots of eminent Plattevillians who traved to Madison for Halloween (although I never did myself). That wasn't unusual--I knew of students who came from as far away as Carbondale, Illinois, to make the scene, and thousands of students from Minnesota have made the trip in recent years. In 1982, a 19-year-old student died of a fall--his accident was complicated by the fact that while paramedics were loading him into the ambulance, somebody stole the keys from the ignition. The student's death seemed to tame the celebrations, which stayed raucous but under control for a long time thereafter.

In 2002, after the downtown bars closed, a student arrested for allegedly assaulting another partygoer resisted arrest, and people in the crowd started throwing bottles at the cops. Despite the addition of more cops and giant floodlights, the after-bar riot was repeated in 2003, on a larger scale. Windows were broken, and at least one store, vandalized and partially looted, was forced out of business. Last year, despite the scheduling of alternate Halloween events and massive anti-riot publicity beforehand, it happened again, complete with cops on horseback and teargas.

Since the morning after the riot last year, city and UW officials have been mixing stern warnings with draconian measures in hopes of stopping the riot this year. No out-of-town guests will be permitted in dorms; cops will be busting off-campus house parties that don't have permits; pedestrian flow is being regulated on lower State Street; there will be even more cops, barricades, and floodlights. Still, it seems doubtful to me that rioting can be avoided--because lots of students want it to happen. Most of those arrested in past years have been out-of-towners, but campus newspapers have published quotes from UW students who seem to view the riot as something they're entitled to as part of their college experiendce, like a football game or fraternity mixer. And when it starts to go down, they're no more likely to leave the area than they would be to leave the football game in the second quarter.

One of the brilliant ideas floated by city officials is to close bars early--at 1:30 instead of 2:30. Bar owners, already stung by the city's smoking ban, have refused. And it seems to me that city officials have it precisely backward--the rioting breaks out after bar time, so why not let the bars stay open all night? If 75,000 Halloween night partiers straggled home between 2 and 8AM, whenever they ran out of money or got too drunk to stand, instead of being shunted out into the night en masse at bar time, wouldn't the chances of a riot drop quite a bit? The cost of police overtime is cited as one reason why it won't work to keep the bars open, but the money would be well spent if the riot were prevented.

But that's not the biggest obstacle. The liberal bluenoses (and I say this as a liberal myself) in and out of city government who back the smoking ban get the fantods over student alcohol consumption too, and so they're constitutionally unable to abide the lesser vice, a little more alcohol consumption, in the name of preventing the greater one--a riot that costs the city and property owners hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems clear to me that someone else is going to have to die before Halloween gets back under control, before the student revelers tone down the action, before the city decides to take a counterintuitive step that might actually work.

Temporary fencing, no-parking signs, and floodlights are already up in the downtown, along State and other nearby streets. It's going to be a bumpy weekend. I hope that wherever you are, it's an enjoyable weekend. Merry Fitzmas to all and to all a good night.

Unlikely, But True
(Edited to add link to Salon report.)
So Scooter gets his and Karl twists in the wind. Not exactly the socko Fitzmas Morning we'd hoped for, but good enough for now, as Salon observes. By the time you read this, we'll know exactly what special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has got, and what the counterattack will be like. (Eric Muller at Is That Legal suggests--jokingly, I think--that He Who Shall Not Be Named might try appointing Fitzgerald to the Supreme Court.)

It occurred to me this morning just how unlikely it is that we ever got to this point. After passage of the post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act in 1978 (with a brief lapse in the early 1990s), the DC Circuit Court of Appeals could appoint independent counsels to investigate the executive or legislative branch--which is how we got Grand Inquisitor Ken Starr during the Clinton years. The act lapsed again in 1999 and was not renewed, thus putting the authority to create special prosecutors back in the hands of the Justice Department, where it had been in days of yore. In other words, the sole authority to investigate the executive branch returned to the executive branch--a bad idea under the best circumstances, and even worse under an administration led by a guy who can out-Louis XIV Louis XIV. (It's one reason I've referred to He Who Shall Not Be Named as the luckiest politician in American history.) When the Plamegate probe was first announced nearly two years ago, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was going to lead it, but he recused himself and appointed Fitzgerald, probably to avoid conflict-of-interest accusations--which was pretty unlikely for an administration (and an AG) so convinced of its inherent rectitude. Nevertheless, if not for Ashcroft's action, we might never have gotten here.

Other Unlikely Events:
On the current jazz record charts, saxophone legend John Coltrane holds down two of the top three positions, even though he's been dead since 1967. And Lonnie Nielsen has the first round lead at the PGA Champions Tour Charles Schwab Cup tournament in California. Why should you care? Well, he's first cousin to The Mrs--which means we'll be flipping between football and the Golf Channel all weekend.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Unqualified Failure
Outside of everyone else whom Bush has appointed to any position during his term, Miers was perhaps the most transparently ill-suited for the post for which she was nominated. Her sudden self-removal reads almost like a scene from the Bush Admin's sex-ed playbook: withdraw before the climactic moment, and hope that the person (or millions of people) you're screwing will still respect you in the morning.

Under ordinary circumstances, I'd predict that Bush and his surrogates will claim that her withdrawal was a result of the vicious partisan attacks against her. But the worst attacks didn't come from the left flank, so if Bush wants to blame anyone, he'll have to start with his far-right base.

Miers' hasty exit presents a few other dilemmas, not the least of which will greet her successor nominee. If, as Bush has asserted, he searched the world over and thought he'd found the most best-qualified candidate of all, anyone he appoints in her stead will, by definition, be second-best at best. And America hates a silver medalist. Whatever lovely stories Bush tries to tell about not-Miers, he'll have to start by explaining why he didn't pick not-Miers in the first place.

During the Kerry:Bush debates, if such they may be called, Bush proclaimed that he had no "litmus test" for determining who would be nominated to the Supreme Court. I didn't buy that any more than Bush did, and neither did anyone else. Does anyone believe that he would have appointed a brilliant lawyer who happened to be, say, a gay atheist, even if the lawyer was objectively the most qualified person in the land? Of course not.

The litmus test comes in two phases: Is the nominee blindly loyal to Bush? and Does the nominee satisfy the base? Miers passed test one and failed test two, and now she's out altogether.

By the way… If Bush knows what a real litmus test actually is, I'll eat my phenolphthalein.

Also, Bush is infamous for his inability to recognize his own mistakes. Or admit that they've occurred. Or that they're even possible. But if Miers isn't the right person for the job, as she clearly isn't, judging by her can't-take-the-heat denouement, then Bush must face the possibility that he has once again erred on he side of cronyism.

Oh, who am I kidding?

Some will opine that Miers' withdrawal was planned from the beginning, and that he only appointed her as a proverbial stalking horse for his true nominee. I'm not convinced of that, because I can't believe Unkle Karl, even in the throes of indictment, would have permitted such a base-defying move to proceed as a mere ruse. Of course, now is Bush's chance to nominate the most far-right lunatic he can find in a pandering effort to service his base, and experience tells us that no amount of reality can shake the conviction of the most strident right-wing true believer.

I don't have the statistics in front of me, but I wonder how often in our nation's history such a low-approval President has had the opportunity to nominate two justices in such rapid succession. Bush has been a lame duck since some time in January 2001, but that hasn't stopped him from making permanently destructive policy changes at every opportunity. It's strangely fitting that, as he's circling the bowl, he gets yet another chance to flush the rest of the country along with him.

So, where does that leave us? Bush's every foreign policy decision has been disastrous, his every domestic policy decision has been disastrous, and his every personnel appointment has been a spectacular farce. If the whole thing were played out on-air, no one would believe it.

Heck, I can hardly believe it anyway.

On edit: Patient readers may recall this post from a while back. Well, perhaps Tom Noe will be more careful the next time he's put in charge of millions of dollars in rare coins.

Ann, You Ignorant Slut
No indictments today, apparently, but the announcement of Harriet Miers' withdrawal probably has something to do with the Plamegate story anyhow. Since last summer, on several occasions when He Who Shall Not Be Named has found himself in political trouble, whether it was over Plamegate or Hurricane Katrina, he's used court appointments to direct attention away from it. Salon has the timeline.

As for the rest of the early commentary on Miers, better take the rest of the day off to read it. Salon also blows the smoke away from the Miers cover story, that she withdrew because the administration was unwilling to release certain documents about her tenure. At the Gadflyer, Sarah Posner discusses the damage the Miers debacle does to women, and to female lawyers. (Remember that slogan from last year: "W" stands for women? Yeah, right.) And John at AMERICABlog has nine reasons to be happy about the Miers withdrawal.

One big reason to be happy is that the mask is finally off the beast. Most savvy observers know that the wingnuts want, more than anything else in the whole wide world, judges who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they can't come right out and say it, because that would be committing the cardinal sin of asking nominees to prejudge cases that may come before them. So they usually couch that wish in language that's vague and neutral. But even if they try to go back to that now, nobody should buy it. They've made clear that if they don't know in advance that you're going to vote to overture Roe, they don't want you--and there's no way for them to run from it. If Harriet Miers had been precisely the same inept, sloppy, undistinguished candidate she turned out to be, but was on record opposing Roe, they would have touted her as one of America's finest jurists. As it is, however, the only person who believed that nonsense was her boss.

Atrios notes that Ann Coulter was on Fox this morning, gleefully celebrating Miers' withdrawal. Her objection to Miers is that Harriet was not opposed to the Griswold v. Connecticut ruling, which, in 1965, made contraception legal for married couples. That's right, kids. If you don't want to risk babies every time you do the nasty, you Hate America. But it seems strange to me that Coulter herself would want to make contraception harder to get, given that she looks to be the sort of woman who (channeling Dan Aykroyd), hops from bed to bed with the frequency of a cheap ham radio.

Quote of the Year?
Daily Kos noted yesterday a recent Saturday Night Live parody of the teleconference between He Who Shall Not Be Named and soldiers in Iraq. It contained the following, which might be the Iraq War Quote of the Year: "The Iraqi people are so full of freedom they could burst. Sometimes an Iraqi will be so full of democracy they'll walk into a crowded area and explode."

Cranks in the Crosshairs
The Mrs. and I finally caught up last night on our backlog of episodes of The West Wing--the most recent of which gave us a look inside a White House under investigation. (Former Clinton aide Paul Begala takes a similar look inside at TPM Cafe this morning.) People inside a White House under this kind of siege aren't just threatened from the outside; they're also threatened by one another, as Begala notes and The West Wing demonstrated. The most innocuous phone call, e-mail, or meeting note can become evidence of wrongdoing, and merely speaking to the wrong person at the wrong time can put you in the crosshairs, too.

I suppose that's what Repugs were trying to say last week by test-driving the talking point that any indictment for perjury or obstruction of justice in Plamegate would be "minor." However, knowing what we know about the people surrounding He Who Shall Not Be Named, it's doubtful that their wrongdoing involves only the misinterpretation of innocent phone calls. Although we'll be hearing that a lot, along with lots of other dubious bilgewater, once the deal is done. (And it looks now like it might be tomorrow before the indictments come down.)

Recommended Reading: At Orcinus, David Neiwart gets Quote of the Day for his crack about a calendar featuring "attractive" Republican women such as Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter: "These are indeed true visions of superior womanhood, so long as your taste runs towards soulless harpies for whom the word 'crank' has multiple meanings."

Also be sure to check this, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mike Luckovich, and this, from BuzzFlash via AMERICABlog. Powerful stuff.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

We're Special
With the Repugs melting down in scandal and splintering along their faultlines, there's a hope maybe Democrats can reclaim one or both houses of Congress in the elections a year from now. Democratic leaders in the House are gearing up. They've already settled on a slogan for 2006: "Together, America Can Do Better."

Oh, for chrissakes. As Shakespeare's Sister put it:
Why oh why oh why oh why are the Democrats allowing their own message to reinforce the notion that the GOP is “the norm,” so inescapable that the Dems’ own party identity must even abstractly reference the GOP, in answer to the question of whom, exactly, they can do better than.
Or, as the title of her post asked, "Who's getting paid for this shit?"

The only way Democrats lose next year is if we beat ourselves--which we are more than capable of doing. It seems to me that House Democrats work with House Repugs every day of the week, and some of those personal relationships are genuine friendships. It's as if the Democratic leadership as individuals really doesn't want to unload on people they like, hence dishwater like "We can do better."

Your suggested campaign slogans for the Democrats are welcome in the comments.

Recommended Reading: John Dean explains why he thinks we could find our Fitzmas stockings empty. But what if we don't, and evidence of wrongdoing reaches as high as the vice-president's office? James Ridgeway of the Village Voice says that even if Cheney were under indictment, there is no constitutional reason why he would have to leave office, and he could, theoretically, preside over his own impeachment trial. But assume that Cheney leaves office, one way or another. Over at the News Blog, Steve Gilliard explains the specialness of our vice-president-in-waiting, Condi Rice.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Two Thousand Dead, But At Least The Buildings Look Nice
Remember Paul Hackett, the Iraq war veteran who ran for Congress in an Ohio district that had historically gone for the Repugs by 40-point margins, and ended up losing 52-48? He's decided to run for the Senate next year, against incumbent Repug Mike DeWine.
Salon interviewer: "When you ran for Congress, you favored better training for Iraqi forces. Now you're saying we should get out?"

Hackett: "There are two options: Increase troop strength or train the Iraqi military with a match of one American soldier for every Iraqi soldier. That's not going to happen. Everybody knows that, so if we're not going to train the Iraqi military, let's quit spending our money and spending our lives.

"Here's the problem: We've been there two-plus years and there's nothing objective this country can point at and say, 'This is what we've improved since we've been over there.' The infrastructure is worse -- the electrical grid, the water grid, the sewage grid, the road system. All that infrastructure is worse today than when we got there two-plus years ago."

Interviewer: "The Bush administration says there's progress."

Hackett: "Bullshit. I've been there. There's no success unless you call painting schools success. We've painted a lot of schools."
I can scarcely describe my glee when I read that succinct "bullshit"--the kind of thing DLC Democrats wouldn't say if they were covered in it.

Hackett will have to get through a primary against Ohio Congressman Sherrod Brown, who dithered about getting into the race, decided not to run, and then changed his mind about the same time Hackett got in. But no worries--if Hackett loses the primary, the Democrats ought to run him for president in 2008.

Merry Fitzmas:
It just keeps getting worse for He Who Shall Not Be Named. Even if today isn't the day the Fitz hits the fan, news that it may have been Dick Cheney himself who outed Valerie Plame to his staff is like getting a present early. But the threat of indictments hasn't paralyzed the White House. Administration officials found time this week to demand that The Onion stop using the presidential seal in parodies. Dave Pell at Davenetics gets Quote of the Day: "That is the modern-day equivalent of trying to heckle Don Rickles."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Looming Evil, Flaming Death, Yeah, Whatever
You may remember the speech He Who Shall Not Be Named gave earlier this month in which he spoke of 10 terrorist plots that had been foiled. Oooh, very scary. The list of actual plots was released last week--and it's not quite what was advertised.
Intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the White House overstated the gravity of the plots by saying that they had been foiled, when most were far from ready to be executed. Others noted that the nation's color-coded threat index was not raised from yellow, or "elevated" risk of attack, to orange, or "high" risk, for most of the time covered by the incidents on the list.
So they exaggerated. Yawn. What's weirder is that several famous foiled plots we know about, including shoe bomber Richard Reid, and whatever led to the famous Christmas orange alert of 2003, are missing from the list.

It's one thing to screw up the big stuff, as I believe I have noted before. Anybody can screw up the big stuff. It's another thing entirely to be unable to get smaller things right. Surely, assembling a list of high-profile terror alerts, even if it's hot air deployed in the service of public relations, is a small thing that should be easy to do. Unless you really don't give a damn anymore--or didn't give a damn to begin with.

Recommended Reading: In a wired world, everyone's a critic. Over at Amazon.com, everyone can be a book critic. A website called The Morning News was inspired by Time's recent list of the 100 best novels to cruise the Amazon user reviews of some of those books, and put together what it calls "a compilation of the best of the worst . . . about the best." I found it highly educational. I learned that Harry Potter is irrefutably better than George Orwell, that four pages of Henry Miller is enough, and that at least one reader thinks Slaughterhouse-Five is nonfiction.

PS: Comments are working again. Or so it seems.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Thirteen Channels and Nothing On
My wife and I have only basic cable, and it's Adelphia, for pity's sake! That means that we get channels 2 through 24, inclusive. Here's the rundown:

2 CBS
3 NBC
4 ABC
5 Some Godchannel
6 CBS
7 UPN
8 ABC
9 Some shopping network
10 Community bulletins (text-and-photos)
11 NBC
12 FOX
13 PBS
14 UPN
15 PBS
16 WGN
17 WB
18 PBS or a shopping network, by turns
19 TV guide (the worst channel of all time)
20 CSPAN
21 CSPAN2
22 Some shopping network
23 TBS
24 PCNC (meager Pittsburgh news and local programming)

After you skim out the duplicates and the utterly worthless, it's actually 11 channels of shit, with apologies to Roger Waters. Outside of the 20 and 21, our roster is a wasteland with infrequent oases.

Of course, we could pay $700 to $1000+ per anum for one of the myriad "digital packages," but that's still a high price to pay for programming that is, in the main, crap.

But there was a time, long ago, when 11 channels would have been plenty, because each channel offered at least some programming worth watching. Now we have forty clones of CSI and Law and Order, not to mention 1000 weekly hours of reality programming. What happened?

Well, two things, as far as I can tell.

Thing One: We had the 1996 deregulation of the industry, which led quickly to a race-to-the-bottom of the quality barrel. Despite (actually, because of) the over-touted glory of the free market, industry leaders scrambled to consolidate channel-ownership and to maximize profit at the expense of quality. If the hype was to be believed, the competitive marketplace would blossom into a viewer's paradise, chock full of heart-rending drama and side-splitting comedy. Instead, we get TBS showing the same shitty movie five or more times in a weekend and calling it "choice." Also, networks now fill up increasingly large swaths of airtime with Thing Two.

Thing Two: Infomercials. One could opine infinitely about the horrors of these wretched vignettes of corporate whorism, but I'll say merely this: the kind of mind able to watch a 30-minute commercial from start to finish and then buy the product is no kind of mind able to watch a 90-minute presidential debate and come away informed. Worse, the precedent having been set for half-hour misrepresentations of fact, it's hardly surprising that a "news" channel hit its stride shortly after deregulation with its own 24-hour misrepresentations.

All of this is petty bitching before I get to my real point, and here it is: yesterday morning TBS ran Troop Beverly Hills, a film so misbegotten that I'm not even going to link to IMDB. A film so insultingly stupid that I will henceforth refer to it only as TBH.

I defy you to find me 100 people nationwide who paid to see this drek in its original release. And then I defy you to find a different 100 nationwide who made a conscious choice to watch the film as it aired yesterday. Hey, I don't need Citizen Kane morning, noon, and night, but if you strapped me in Ludovico's chair and made me watch TBH, I would suck the fillings from my teeth in an effort to kill myself via mercury poisoning. If you're going to the trouble of actually putting something on the air, why not make it something that people will watch?

Oh. Tonight's TBS offering was Gone in 60 Seconds. If you missed it, don't worry, because it'll be on again a dozen times this week.

To Say He Sucks Is an Insult to Everything That Sucks
There was a funny exchange in the comments at AMERICABlog this afternoon, even though it was off the topic of the original post. Somebody referred to Bush as a cowboy, which prompted the following:

Commenter 1: "I really wish liberals would quit using 'cowboy' as a word with a negative connotation, and quit referring to teh Chimp as one. He's as far from being a cowboy as [AMERICABlog creator John] Aravosis is."

Commenter 2: "It is not only a slur on cowboys, but on chimps. Hard to come up with a reference to the Liar in Chief that doesn't denegrate other living beings. Heck... even calling him the Liar in Chief is an unnecessary slur on liars."

Commenter 3: "Not to mention chiefs and prepositions."

Another commenter suggested that, as they do with Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, perhaps we should start calling Bush "he who shall not be named." Not a bad idea, really. If we don't say the name, perhaps we don't empower the evil it embodies. Well, if it's good enough for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, it ought to be good enough for us.

Evil Thought: He Who Shall Not Be Named is already the luckiest politician, if not the luckiest man, in American history. So: You don't suppose the special prosecutor will announce the indictments tomorrow, when the TV networks will be obsessed with the hurricane, do you?

Quite Possibly the Dumbest Thing I've Ever Heard From the Wingnuts
And now, from the people who told you that satellite photos of Hurricane Katrina looked like a fetus, comes the request that Christians pray for Hurricane Wilma to wipe out abortion clinics in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. But only the clinics and nothing else.
You can pray for God to destroy the bricks and mortar of these government-protected death camps, without praying for harm to human life, even that of the child-murders themselves (the abortionists), or the accessories before-and-after-the-fact (the other abortion center workers, and relatives of the unborn child advocating his/her death).
Yea verily, let the mighty winds of Wilma perform targeted demolitions in the middle of city blocks, whilst leaving the adjacent Waffle Houses and auto parts stores intact.

Tim Grieve of Salon calls it "the reverse-neutron-bomb theory of divine retribution." Which is surely the quote of the day.

You really should download the group's press release just to see it verbatim. Apart from being purple in a way only hardcore Christian entreaties can be, it really gives Microsoft Word a workout, with underlining, boldface, and sometimes, underlined boldface. But no italics. Maybe italics are Satan's font. (Italics = Italy = Rome = Home of the pope = antichrist, etc. Hey, it's no less loony than the press release itself.)

Would anyone like to speculate why these people think God would need the almighty bludgeon of a hurricane to do what he could just as easily do with a few well-targeted sinkholes? Or why "true Christians," whoever and whatever they are, shouldn't condemn such nonsense? Wilma is going to destroy property and kill people, regardless of whether those people are believers, infidels, abortionists, or Waffle House waitresses. The hurricane doesn't care. And neither do these anti-abortion nutjobs. How Christian is that?

Friday, October 21, 2005

I Do What I Want To Because God Ordered Me To
The next time some WTF Christian jackass engages you in a debate on abortion, throw this out in the first round: God is Pro-Choice.

Repeat it a few times, because it won't get through your opponent's thick skull on one go. God is so pro-choice, in fact, that he's made free will more important that salvation. Heck, the notion of free will is even more important than any person or soul, as far a The Big Guy's concerned.

I hear some scoffers loitering in the vestabule, so I'll elaborate.

We've all heard the one about "if you love something, set it free," but the bottom line is that love (or Democracy, for that matter) obtained through duress has not really been obtained. Similarly, it's no fun playing pinball if there's no way to lose, because there's no value in succeeding if there's no way to fail.

That's why those WTF Christians are so hopped-up about everything secular. If those accursed homosexuals can get into heaven despite a lifestyle of unmitigated sin, then what's the sense of being all pushy and righteous all the time?

God knows this. That's why he lets you decide whether or not to sin and whether or not to "accept him into your heart," as the saying goes. God could have made you a mindless drone guaranteed for salvation, but he knows that there'd be no value in it that way. In a real sense (well, as "real" as any of this fairytale theorizing can be), salvation is therefore less important than the choice to accept salvation.

Ditto for all that damnation stuff. Sure, it's infinitely bad forever and ever amen, but God lets you go to hell if that's what you choose, because the choice is of greater significance to him than the eternal suffering that follows.

This sort of thinking is probably alien to the Krazy Koolaid Krowd, but a species of it underlies the whole idea of being personally pro-life and pro-choice. We atheists often frame it as the recognition that, even if I can decide damn well for myself, I don't have the right to decide damn well for everyone, so I leave the choice to you. And that's why the law should stay out of it.

Fundamentalists, despite themselves, know this to be true. The say that they want to ban abortion because it stops a beating heart and all that, but what they're really attempting is the banning of choice. Such a ban would be a literally ungodly piece of legislation.

"But wait!" they cry. "As a Christian nation, we're obliged to enforce Christian values and morality." Really? Ask Alabama Governor Bob Riley what he thinks of that position.

Despite Bob's best efforts, we apparently need only enforce those Christian values that don't inconvenience the Christians calling for their enforcement.

Hell, I could go on about this for eternity.

on edit: JB's mention of lascivious ice-cream-licking reminds me:

Did you hear the one about the obsessive solipsistic voyeur?
He sat around all day watching himself masturbate.

Strumpets and Slatterns and Trollops, Oh My
It happens every year around Halloween--fundamentalist churches getting all up in the grill of people who decorate their houses for the scary season, calling Halloween a pagan observance that encourages devil worship. (Instead of putting a jack-o-lantern in the window and an inflatable ghost on your lawn, it would be much better if you took your kids to the local church-sponsored Hell House, where they could learn that God loves them so much that he's willing to burn them for all eternity.)

As I (and others) have noted before, it must be very difficult to be a fundie, and to be afraid of quite literally everything--Halloween, television, their own biological imperatives. The fear takes many forms, and it's not just Bible-thumpers who are consumed by it. For example, Leon Kass, a University of Chicago professor who heads the President's Committee on Bioethics, has published an astounding article at a Focus on the Family website in which he bemoans "the end of courtship." He seems to suggest that American society could be saved if men and women (mostly women) would turn the clock back to 1885 and behave as they did in Victorian days. While his language is not overtly fearful--he doesn't suggest that lack of female modesty makes Jesus cry--it's clear that he's intimidated by the social advances of the last 50 years to the point at which he can scarcely imagine how such a world continues without spinning off its axis.

There's a funny post at Crooked Timber responding to Kass' article. One of the commenters to the post reminds readers that Kass once wrote a book in which he criticized, among other things, the phenomenon of people licking ice-cream cones in public.

Afraid of both women and ice cream? How does he get out of bed in the morning?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Velvet Rope
Most people are regular people: taxis and coach instead of limos and first-class, the bleachers instead of the skyboxes, the nine-dollar bottle of wine instead of the one that costs $35. But from time to time, we find ourselves on the other side of the velvet rope. When we know we're only going to be there for a short period, we enjoy it, but we're almost self-conscious about the way we act while we're there. Look at me, look where I am, hope I don't look out of place. (Spending time with a famous person can provoke a similar reaction.)

However, when regular people get the right to be inside the velvet rope all the time, not everybody reacts well. Think of lottery winners here, or Roseanne and Tom Arnold. Acquiring the credential that gets you inside does not automatically grant you the savoir faire to act gracefully once you're there. The nouveau riche really are different from those who are born to wealth, fame, and/or power, and from those who have learned over time what to do with the wealth, fame, and/or power it's been their good fortune to acquire.

(Wow, "savoir faire" and "nouveau riche" in back-to-back sentences. Welcome to the fuckin' Algonquin round table.)

So anyway--a FEMA official told Congress today that disgraced FEMA director Mike Brown was more concerned with his dinner arrangements than with responding to the unfolding Hurricane Katrina disaster. Which is exactly the kind of behavior you'd expect from a regular guy from outside the ropes who got a ticket inside and decided he liked the view. Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. Have your people bring the dessert cart.

The Smart Money:
It's been my position here for quite a while that once the Plamegate indictments come down, Karl Rove will get away clean. There's no reason why his skill at political combat, directed against his White House colleagues, shouldn't be able to save his ass, just as it's saved his boss's ass on so many occasions. Thus I believe others are likely to be indicted, but not Rove himself. You can find lots of people who'd debate that assumption, but there's a difference between those who are just talking and those who are willing to back it up. One way to back it up is to put money on it. According to the Financial Times, the website Sportsbook is taking wagers on Rove's fate, and 70 percent of those laying money down are betting Rove avoids indictment and keeps his job.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Semicolons and Strained Metaphors
In his repost of archival material, JB included this almost offhand comment:
Only government, as the expression of the informed collective will of the people, has the moral authority to do it.
By "it," he means ensuring justice, and I think it's worth mentioning that "justice" can be a big umbrella. Many Conservatives identify "justice" as the mechanism by which trespassers are shot on sight, or the structure through which all elements of society are kept in their proper place. Liberals, generally, see "justice" as a means (one hopes) of seeing that the powerful are not endlessly able to screw the powerless.

Are my definitions liberal-biased? Absolutely! If you want a pro-Conservative spin, consult just about any non-internet mediasource. But if you're reading this, then you already knew that.

And another thing. The government is not only the only agency with the moral authority to ensure justice; it's also the only agency that's both empowered and required to do so. Bush, Norquist and their ilk (I'm talking to you, John Stossel) prepetually hail the virtues of privatization, as if an unaccountable multibillion-dollar multinational is somehow magically better able to provide for the common good than the Fed. Big Government, so the story goes, is bad because it's an unaccountable, entrenched power designed to protect its own interests. Big Corporations, one the other hand, are good because they're unaccountable, entrenched powers designed to protect their own interests.

Er…

On CSPAN2 over the weekend Kurt Vonnegut (who has looked exactly the same for approximately five decades) advised new writers to avoid semicolons; apparently I don't know how to listen.

I mentioned a strained metaphor. Here goes:

I think that the rising tides/all boats image is good, but it works only in the abstract. In reality, the yachts ensure that they rise all the higher by throwing their various anchors onto the little rowboats beneath them. Sure, the yachts are vastly outnumbered by the rowboats, but they can afford a whole bunch of anchors. And they'll always need somebody to scrape off the barnacles and clean the manatees out of the propellers.

I'll know that I've been blog-reading too long when JB unveils an ancient entry from the archives, and I remember reading it the first time through.

edited, because I forgot how to use html
edited again, because I forgot how to spell

edited one more damn time by jb to put in the link to his earlier post; this collaboration thing is going to be fun; Vonnegut is right about the semicolons

Greatest Hits, Volume One
I'm salvaging files from our ancient desktop computer before putting the old girl out on an ice floe. Among those files are six months of pre-Blogspot posts on this blog. Poking through some of them this morning, I found a piece titled "A Political Education," in which I explained how I became a liberal. Since we're apparently not getting any White House indictments today, I'm going to republish a bit of it to pass the time.

The post (from June 2003) is still relevant, because we're always concerned here with the proper role of government, whether it's in responding to disasters or ensuring physical and/or economic security at home. And I'm a liberal because conservatism is incapable of fulfilling those roles without doing far more harm than good.
I am a New Deal liberal. Classic American New Deal liberalism has a record of actually doing what modern conservatism claims it’s going to do but hasn’t yet--liberalism frees people to do their best by their own lights. I believe that there is a common good, a rising tide that can lift every boat, and that citizens have a shared responsibility to the perpetuation of that common good. From time to time, the health of the common good requires citizens to sacrifice a bit of their own liberty in the name of justice--to make sure that every boat can take advantage of the rising tide. Like many liberals before me, I believe that government is the fairest and most efficient agent we have for ensuring justice. Only government, as the expression of the informed collective will of the people, has the moral authority to do it.

Conservatism would hold the social fabric together by fulfilling every individual’s desires (except for appetites of the flesh, of course, which should be discouraged and where possible, criminalized) and failing that, by moral extortion--the promise that God will get you if you don’t conform. But it can never truthfully claim to lift all boats, and it doesn’t intend to. A conservative society is a zero-sum game. Some go to Heaven and many more to Hell, in both the temporal and the spiritual senses. It stands triumphant now because it appeals to the worst human impulses in an era when people are no longer ashamed of those impulses but celebrate them--everything from selfishness and self-righteousness to xenophobia and racism on up to a foolish desire for simplicity and the dangerous wish for kings. On such a foundation, conservatism can never build anything that will last. In fact, it’s questionable whether anything could be built for the common good on such a foundation. Enclaves, yes--a strong and unified society for all, almost certainly not.
I'd modify the last part a little bit: The one thing conservatism can build on such a foundation is the sort of fear-regulated culture of know-nothing conformity we've lived in for the last four years. It's going to take more than a few indictments to move us beyond it, but we gotta start somewhere.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What We Learn
Last night, PBS broadcast Two Days in October, a film based on David Maraniss' book They Marched Into Sunlight. The Dow Day protests in Madison and the ambush on the Black Lions infantry unit in Vietnam, chronicled in the book and the film, happened on the same two days, October 17 and 18, 1967.

One of the things that's happened since the protest days of the 1960s, at least here in Madison, is that many of those involved have come to regret some of their tactics, even though they stick firmly by their overarching reasons for doing what they did. In the film, many of the Black Lions find themselves in the opposite position, although a similar one. They question the overarching reason that put them in Vietnam to begin with--whether the war was right or wrong. What they don't question is the way they conducted themselves in the jungle. What these protesters and soldiers have in common is their willingness to question. Was it right? Was I right? Even though they (and we) will never be in the same situation again, the lessons to be learned from answering the questions are valuable in living on afterward.

It seems almost impossible to avoid this interrogation of your younger self as you age. Once you acquire some perspective, you sometimes find that you didn't have everything figured out like you thought you did. Even though your heart was in the right place, perhaps you could have done things differently. Or at least that's the way it happens to liberals. Many conservatives, as we've seen again just recently with the Harriet Miers nomination, seem to think that holding the same beliefs unchanged for years is the surest sign of virtue, and that a person who doesn't pledge in advance never to change those views is not to be trusted.

On Dow Day, university officials requested that City of Madison police officers clear students from the Commerce Building on campus, where they were staging a sit-in to stop Dow Chemical recruiters from using the building. The cops gave students two minutes' warning to clear the building, but then, according to eyewitness accounts, almost immediately began cracking heads with billy clubs. Over 60 students were hospitalized. Many who were beaten by the cops were trying to leave the building, but were trapped in the crush.

Two Madison cops involved on Dow Day were interviewed in Two Days in October. Unlike many others who were there that day, neither of these men seems to have moderated his views on the event one iota. They were both unapologetic for cracking heads, proud of what they did, and convinced that in the same situation today, they wouldn't do anything different. The contrast between them and others interviewed in the film couldn't be more stark. For them, on this issue at least, it's as if time stopped on October 18, 1967, and nothing they have done, seen, felt, or learned has reached them since.

There's a word for that--arrogance--and it made me angry as I watched. But I also felt sorry for them. Sorry that they felt so threatened 38 years ago, sorry that they were physically assaulted (one of them took a brick in the face)--but sorry also that time, which can teach us a lot about ourselves and our world, hasn't taught them much of anything. Sorry that they've grown from young men to old with their arrogance intact.

Our local PBS affiliate followed the film with a panel discussion featuring four of the people interviewed in the film, including Clark Welch, who commanded a company of the Black Lions. I thought maybe one of the cops would be on the panel, but neither one was. And once the discussion began, I realized that neither of them would have had anything to offer. The very idea of the film--in fact, one of the reasons we study history in the first place--is to understand what the Vietnam Era has taught us, and how to use that knowledge in our own lives today and in the future. Now, I don't know the cops' politics, whether they're liberal or conservative, or even whether they supported the Vietnam War in 1967. And I have to confess that I don't know whether they, too, have questioned their actions and decided, with perspective, that they were right then and are still right today. But I rather doubt it. The 38 years we've lived through since Dow Day are among the lesson-rich in human history. It's a rare person who can claim to be the same today as they were then. And so I see in the cops' unchanged opinions an unwillingness to even begin questioning themselves, an unwillingness to listen to history. They believe what they believed, and that settles it, then, now, and forever.

Keep talkin' like that, guys, and each of you could become a Supreme Court justice.

I could go on, and I hope that if you agree or disagree, you'll pick up the thread in the comments. On this particular Madison day, more peaceful than the one 38 years ago, I'm off to watch my nephew play football.

The Winter of Our Discontent
It's a beautiful autumn day out my Wisconsin window, golden sunlight and infinitely blue skies. We've got as much color as we're getting this year, and every sidewalk and street crunches with the fallen leaves. We know, of course, that this is the way the world works--a few days, maybe a week, of fragile beauty before winter wins the battle, as it always does. Nevertheless, the simple fact that life provides us with days like these makes the possibility of decline and death seem slightly absurd.

But at the same time, this time, we seem to be heading for a winter that looks particularly dark: inflation at its highest levels in 15 years, home heating costs to soar (in Wisconsin, we're bracing for prices 61 percent higher than last year), the threat of bird flu, and the fates of Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Tom DeLay, and Harriet Miers likely to ratchet up the level of partisan warfare beyond anything we've seen to date.

And who knows what else we might be dealing with before spring comes again? Salon is reporting this morning that there's evidence that Washington was the target of a biological attack late last month. On the same day thousands of antiwar protesters were marching on the National Mall, bioweapons sensors scattered at various points throughout the city picked up trace amounts of the bacteria that causes tularemia--amounts that are difficult to explain away either as sensor malfunctions or natural occurrences. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control dragged its feet on reporting the incident to public health officials nationwide, and is sticking to a story that the findings were due to soil containing the bacteria that was stirred up by dry weather. That's the way tularemia outbreaks have happened before, but that was in rural areas. It's less likely for an outbreak to happen that way in a city. What we know of what happened in Washington so far conforms to a likely bioterror scenario--hit a large city during an event that brings lots of people to town from across the country, then wait for the disease to spread.

One of the scariest bits in the article is the suggestion by one expert that what the sensors picked up could have been a terrorist's test, in preparation for another attack later. Scarier still is the slow response by the CDC, which, to be fair, isn't entirely the agency's fault. A large-scale biological attack would require several days before public-health officials in various places across the country could put the pieces together and figure out what had happened. A smaller incident, like this one, simply takes longer to identify. Unfortunately, any time that's lost, especially in a large-scale attack, equals lives lost, and lives lost equal public anger, outrage, panic--all things that can (and, inevitably, will) get in the way of effective response.

Scariest of all is the knowledge that it would be up to the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate that response. Given the agency's track record on stuff we can forecast and understand, and which are confined to a relatively small area, like a hurricane, it's hard to be optimistic when contemplating their likely response to something as unpredictable as a large-scale biological attack.

And don't get me started on bird flu.

Yes, it's quite a lovely morning, the sort of day we cherish each October. But there's darkness in the distance.

Monday, October 17, 2005

President Mom Saves the World
Even though I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the new ABC series Commander in Chief is going to be unfairly compared to The West Wing, I'm going to go ahead and do it anyhow.

The West Wing's producers rely on several former White House staffers to provide technical advice on how things work. Although Commander in Chief employs Hillary Clinton's former deputy communications director as head writer, three episodes in, the verdict seems to be that it's getting much of its technical advice from seventh-grade civics textbooks, seasoned with handfuls of Hollywood nonsense. The two major crises Mackenzie Allen has already faced--the execution of a high-profile dissident in Africa and the murder of several DEA agents in South America--have both been solved mostly by making her serious face and then sending in the troops. In other words, steely resolve and American firepower will make everything right.

And conservatives think President Allen is a plot to warm us up for President Hillary? Christ, she's Bush.

An independent president would never choose another political novice as her vice president, and if she tried to, that person would have no chance to be confirmed. And the writers seem to be setting us up for an attempt by the Speaker of the House (who, if he had a mustache, would twirl it like Snidely Whiplash) to force Allen from office. This, too, simply wouldn't happen. Assume, correctly, that with no political base in Congress, she will be nothing more than a caretaker until the next election, yes. Manipulate the system to screw her over politically, yes. Connive with her chief of staff to replace her with somebody else, no. Even Tom Delay would shrink from that.

Politics aside, the writers have some more fundamental problems. On two separate occasions, characters have delivered lines so precious that I was certain they were setups for jokes--only to have them be meant in earnest. The writers also seem to have a tin ear for the family dynamics of such a high-profile family--Allen has supposedly been vice president for two years, and her husband has been her chief of staff, and in that time, the family would certainly have discussed A) the possibility of Mom becoming president and B) how to live in a fishbowl. Yet the writers present the First Family, especially the kids, as if they'd been plucked off the street and installed in the White House out of the blue. From her first second on-screen, it was clear that the eldest daughter was going to be a problem, and three episodes in, she's already locked up the Kim Bauer Prize, named after superagent Jack Bauer's daughter on 24, whose main tasks in the first two seasons of that series were to look pouty, act stupid, and take up airtime better spent on more interesting characters. (Digression: Just once, can't somebody on TV write a family in which it's Older Brother who's maladjusted, Middle Child who's likable and popular, and in which Youngest Child isn't so cute she makes your teeth hurt?)

We know already that the entire first season of this show is going to be about Allen's adjustment to her office. However, a more interesting series would involve the adjustment of Kyle Secor's "first gentleman" to his position, trying to sublimate his take-charge instincts to a lower-profile role, and dealing with the former first lady's chief of staff, a chirpy protocol fanatic. Ultimately, Secor is a lot more believable in his role than Geena Davis is in hers. His advantage is that his character is a blank slate. Viewers have no expectations for him. Davis' disadvantage is that she has to be The First Female President, and carry all the baggage the audience--and the writers--associate with that role. She has a lot less space in which to maneuver, and so far, she's stayed in the box.

But: The Mrs. likes the show, and the third episode was far better than the second, so we're not giving up on it yet. Yet. (Am I being too hard it? Click "comments" and tell me, one way or the other.)

Later this week: I catch up on my backlog of West Wing episodes.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Name Three Things That Blow
We're still in shock up here over Wisconsin's miraculous 38-34 win over hated rival Minnesota yesterday afternoon--but I think I can pull myself together enough to talk about something else.

Fact: During the fall of 1998, after eight months of all-Monica, all-the-time, 36 percent of Americans supported holding hearings into the possibility of impeachment, while 26 percent supported the actual impeachment and removal of Bill Clinton. This past week, according to a poll commissioned by AfterDowningStreet.org, 50 percent of Americans would support impeaching George W. Bush if it were determined that he lied about the reasons for the Iraq war. Among Democrats, the number is 72 percent. Among independents, 56 percent. And you've seen this reported where? Quite possibly, here and only here, or elsewhere in the blogosphere. The mainstreamers won't touch those numbers--the same mainstreamers who started speculating on Clinton's impeachment the same week the Lewinsky scandal broke.

The AfterDowningStreet folks are trying to find a Democratic member of the House of Representatives--just one--to introduce an impeachment resolution. (Tammy, you listening?) But even if they do, it will go nowhere, of course. For now. But if it's true that Patrick Fitzgerald is looking beyond the Plame outing to the broader issue of Iraq, that could change, although it may be unduly optimistic to be unduly optimistic.

More on the poll and the preponderance of evidence for Bush's impeachment here. Something to think about on the anniversary of the executions at Nuremberg.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Fake Events, Real Stupidity
Bush's teleconference with soldiers in Iraq this week was even more phony than we thought. Despite the assertion that they were all combat soldiers, one of them was in fact a military flack. Now, military public relations officers are in about as much danger as people walking point, so I don't intend to demean that officer's service. But as cooked as the event was, it seems just that much more extreme to cook it to the point of including one person who would know exactly what to say and how to say it, as a last line of defense against going off the administration's script.

Disgusting. Not surprising, but disgusting.

And speaking of phony events, it appears that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was instrumental in getting the recent terror threat publicized and in raising the alert level, even though the evidence for the threat itself was pretty thin. He's in a tough reelection fight, so why not do what has worked so well for the Bush Administration? Orcinus analyzes the long-term damage of hoaxing for short-term advantage.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Quote of the Day
Kathleen Reardon over at the Huffington Post, writing about the anti-intellectual tide that seems to be on a never-ending crest in America, quoting John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: Humans "owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worst and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter." Indeed we do, although lots of our fellow humans seem dedicated to precisely the opposite--which takes Reardon back to her original point.

Since one of our missions here (besides snarking at everything snarkable) is to help distinguish the better from the worst, I'm happy to announce that in the wake of his most recent relief appearance this past week, Tom Herbst will become a regular contributor to this blog, effective whenever he puts up his next post. This doesn't mean I'll be writing any less (in case you were hoping that's what it means), just that Tom will be adding his perspectives more often. If ever there were a case in which two heads are better than one, this should be it.

Friday Random 10: Just Can't Stop It
This list really is random, I swear, although if I'd picked 10 songs I wanted to hear this morning, I couldn't have done much better.

"More Today Than Yesterday"/Charles Earland/Charlie's Greatest Hits. This one came up on the Random 10 just two weeks ago--but I never mind hearing it again.

"Spanish Harlem"/Aretha Franklin/Billboard Top R&B Hits 1971. After a couple of lean years, Aretha roared back into fashion in 1971 with this cover of the Ben E. King standard. That's her on piano, with just as much soul as when she sings.

"Jimmy Loves Mary Anne"/Looking Glass/Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day, Vol. 10.
An example of a classic one-hit wonder ("Brandy," 1972) that really isn't. I'd argue that this is actually better than "Brandy." More ambitious, at least.

"Fool to Cry"/Rolling Stones/Rewind (1971-1984). The Rolling Stones have a knack for making records that are recognizable within the first second--think "Start Me Up" or "Brown Sugar." And also this, although the way it begins is uncharacteristically quiet.

"They Just Can't Stop It (Games People Play)"/Spinners/Pick of the Litter. On the radio 30 years ago this week, this is, in fact, my favorite single record of all time, from one of the greatest Philadelphia soul albums ever made. It's far more complex, instrumentally and lyrically, than most Philly soul records, so it rewards repeated listening. When I'm alone in the car and it comes on, I've been known to rewind it a time or two.

"Make Me Smile"/Chicago/The Very Best of Chicago: Only the Beginning.
The original "Make Me Smile" was edited from several segments of "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon," a sidelong suite from Chicago II. This version is a longer edit, available for the first time on Only the Beginning.

"Philosopher's Stone"/Van Morrison/Back on Top. I wrote about this album just last week over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'. It's an October essential.

"The Last Resort"/Eagles/Hotel California. Don Henley's meditation on Manifest Destiny, one of the more ambitious things the Eagles ever tried. If Hotel California is a concept album about life in the 1970s, this is an effective way to end it.

"Bonnie's Theme"/Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters/The Color of Love.
Here's another group that's appeared on the Random 10 previously in its brief history, and another one that's always welcome. This tune gives Earl, on guitar, a chance to take back his own album from organist Bruce Katz, who steals it from the first track.

"So Beautiful"/Simply Red/Life. I own almost every album this group has made to date, and I think it's important to tell you that, so you don't go thinking I am entirely a 70s guy. (Simply Red's first hit was in 1985.) Mick Hucknall frequently writes songs about beautiful women with empty heads, and this is another one: "You're so beautiful/But oh so boring/I'm wondering/What am I doing here?"

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Heading Out and Coming Home
I don't swim, I don't boat, I don't fish--but I love to vacation by the water. As The Mrs. and I watched the Lake Michigan waves hit the beach at Kewaunee, Wisconsin, yesterday morning, I thought again how the waves were rolling long before any of us arrived on the scene, and they'll be rolling long after we're gone. I suppose that bothers some people, but not me. It's actually a comfort, that no matter how badly humans screw things up, much will endure even though we may not.

Lake Michigan is there in the first place due to the glaciers that sculpted North America as recently as 10,000 years ago. On our way Monday, we drove through the Kettle Moraine State Forest, which also exists thanks to the glaciers. The area represents the southern extent of the Green Bay Lobe of the Wisconsinan Glacier, which left behind an unusual landscape of cigar-shaped hills called drumlins, sinuous ridges called eskers, and deep pools of water called kettles. ("Moraine" is term for the the soil found at the glacier's edge.) Autumn was just beginning to color the forest earlier this week--in another week or so, it ought to be spectacular.

Our destination Monday was Kewaunee, a little lakeshore town. Tuesday, we headed up to Door County, which is probably Wisconsin's most famous travel destination. The first town you hit on Highway 42 is Algoma, another lakeshore town that's more aggressive in luring tourists than Kewaunee, better-scrubbed, with a lakeside boardwalk and picturesque downtown. From there, you leave the lakeshore behind and head up to and through Sturgeon Bay, the biggest city in Door County. We went as far north as Egg Harbor, one of the more elite resort communities on the peninsula. All up and down Door County, funky fishing shacks co-exist with luxury condo developments, and the contrast is never more pronounced than in Egg Harbor. The fall colors were near their customary brilliance up there, which we found encouraging, since the color forecasts we've been hearing for southern Wisconsin are not too promising. It's good to know that autumn has arrived up north like it always does.

Egg Harbor is not very far north, though. You can go another 30 miles or so before reaching the end of the highway at Gills Rock--the last Highway 42 sign is a few yards from the pier where the ferry to Washington Island picks up. But even Washington Island isn't as far out as you can go. That would be Rock Island, which is so remote that one veteran camper I know says she was frightened by the brightness of the Milky Way the first time she saw it out there.

We'd have gone farther, but we didn't have time. And on Wednesday, we were heading in a different direction, straight west from Kewaunee on Highway 29 to Green Bay, to worship at the shrine that is Lambeau Field. Unlike many football stadiums, which are open to the public on only a handful of game days each year, Lambeau is open every day except Christmas and Easter--the newly built atrium, completed in 2003, houses several restaurants, a gift shop, and the Packers Hall of Fame. I've written here several times before about being a Packer fan, and how fandom here is different than fandom in any other NFL market. The popularity of the atrium is only the newest indication of it.

Coming home is what makes travel worthwhile. And with this trip, my fall travel season is over. Until late January, I'll be sticking close to home, and that's OK with me.

We're Going to Need a Bigger Bus: You need no more vivid evidence of the way things have changed for George W. Bush than to read the Associated Press piece on his talk with soldiers in Iraq today. Instead of solemnly allowing themseles to be played, and reporting the event as if it were real news, the AP's report is almost entirely about how the event was staged and ultimately phony. As recently as three months ago, they'd never have been so bold. If there's one thing the Bush gang has always been good at, it's photo ops. Now they can't even do that anymore. But the most amazing development of all is that the fakery has finally become the story, after more than 4 1/2 years. Nice to have you aboard, national media. What took you so long?

Third Basemen
Many thanks yet again to Tom Herbst for keeping the flame lit while I was away. He'll be back. I'm back myself, from a brief working vacation to the Lake Michigan side of Wisconsin. If it doesn't look like autumn where you are yet, fear not, for the season is on its way. The fall colors in Door County are as magnificent as ever.

I was able to keep up on the news from my lakeside vantage point somewhat, and have been quite amused by the kids-before-Christmas anticipation of various bloggers over the pending indictments in the Valerie Plame case. The biggest gift under the tree would be if Dick Cheney were mentioned. I'd settle for his inclusion as an "unindicted co-conspirator"--if only so we could hear that phrase a few thousand times in the next year or two, remembering how it was the stake through the heart of Richard Nixon a generation ago.

Several bigtime blogs mentioned it while I was gone, but I don't know if you caught it: Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News is guessing that Cheney's absence this summer has little to do with his fabled "undisclosed location," and much more to do either with his health, or that he's tired of playing chaperone to Junior and is letting Bush be president all by himself. Which would explain "Brownie, you're doing a great job," and Harriet Miers.

We are not the first country in history to be led by someone demonstrably too dim for the job. To read the history of medieval Europe, to take just one example, is to read a history plagued by leaders whose power vastly exceeded their capability to exercise it well. Our supposedly democratic, supposedly classless society was designed so it would not suffer the same fate, plagued by brainless aristocrats who rise to power by virtue of birth. Except now, it clearly is. A friend sent along a column by journalism professor Robert Jensen, originally published at Counterpunch, in which he suggests that Bush's biggest problem isn't what he believes in his heart, but who he is as a son of the privileged class.
In our president all we see is an extreme version of a more general problem in an affluent but highly unequal society, in which people on the top have convinced themselves they are special and therefore deserve their positions. . . .

That’s probably the most pressing race problem in the United States today -- a de facto affirmative-action program for mediocre middle- and upper-class white men that places a lot of undeserving people in positions of power, where their delusions of grandeur can have profound implications for others.
It's not just Bush, of course. Legislatures from the U.S. House and Senate on down are full of people who were, as Ann Richards once said of Daddy Bush, were born on third base and think they hit a triple. More than a few of them would have trouble figuring out which end of the bat to swing, if the playing field were truly level.

More Recommended Reading: Salon's interview with Russ Feingold from earlier this week. It's mostly about an exit strategy for Iraq, but also contains Feingold's explanation of why he voted for John Roberts. Was Roberts the best we were likely to get from a president like Bush, who is constitutionally entitled to his pick, even if it's from a galaxy of loons? (My phrase, not Feingold's.) Feingold thinks so, although to his credit, he also admits he could be wrong. Also, over at The American Prospect, Jack Hitt makes a proposal: Democrats in the Senate shouldn't fight the Miers nomination, they should just stay home, and let her be comfirmed 55-0 with 45 abstentions. While I agree with Hitt that such a vote would have powerful symbolic value, I'm not sure how valuable it would be in the long run. Who really remembers that Clarence Thomas was approved 52-47? And what difference does that make, really?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Profound Sense of Fatigue
When I first read Robert Anton Wilson's Schrödinger's Cat Trilogy in the early nineties, I really went into it with the wrong idea. I thought it would be an exploration of that cool dead/not-dead quantum-mechanics stuff you hear about, but in fact it was a comically disjointed romp through three universes, interconnected but distinct. Here are two points worth mentioning outright:

1. A super-computer that "knows everything that has been recorded" is called GWB and is nicknamed "the Beast"
2. One of the trilogy's more unsympathetic protagonists is a bitter midget (sic) named Chaney

Make of that what you will.

At this time I should mention that it's a fairly naughty book, sex-wise, so if you're easily offended, click here.

I've been looking and I can't find a particular excerpt, dammit. Anyway, a scene takes place in which nuclear armageddon is averted solely because the President is, shall we say, thoroughly relaxed by a woman who, in the film version, might be played by Monica Lewinsky. Wilson then comments on the vocally self-righteous crowd that, if the woman's actions were known, would condemn her regardless of the catastrophe she averted.

To the Right (as has been noted elsewhere) the only real morality is sexual morality, and a President who, by proxy, engages in murder and torture and warfare can still be a Moral Man.

I think that George Orwell nailed it with this passage from 1984:
It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war-fever and leader-worship. . . All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simpIy sex gone sour. . . For how could the fear, the hatred, and the lunatic credulity which the Party needed in its members be kept at the right pitch, except by bottling down some powerful instinct and using it as a driving force?
One hesitates to read too much into the long, oiled gunbarrels and smooth-shafted missiles so beloved of Neocons, and I'm hardly the first guy to note their curious (dare I say obsessive?) repressiveness--it is, I think, clearly less about delusions of morality than about control. Orwell knew it in the first half of the last century. Wilson recognized the connection in the early 80's. Kubrick put it on film, and that was more than 40 years ago!

Their weirdness comes out (excuse the pun) in many ways, of which the the firestorm emanating from Janet's boob is only the most obvious. You don't have to look too hard, so to speak, to find a lengthy list of prominent Republican deviants, pedophiles, and nonconsensual buggerers. Heck, how many times has a Conservative referred to gays "shoving their sexuality in our faces" or "ramming it down our throats?" Jeepers, what hot, sweaty invective! My keyboard is positively throbbing as I type this!

Bush's approval rating is now well below 40% (around 2% among blacks, by some reports). Since, in times of duress, Republicans tend to return to their dual bases of sex and violence (concurrently, if possible), precedent suggests that somebody's either going to get invaded or screwed in the coming days in hope of a bump in the polls.

Well, even the media are starting to recognize that we've been getting screwed, so what's left? Correction: who's left?


I'm rambling. It's late, and I need to go to bed. But if I wake up tomorrow and hear that Iran has donned its sexiest little strapless number, I'll know what's going on.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Nutjobs and Old Coats
If you listen carefully, you can still hear the palpitations. No, it's not Cheney tallying the return on his Halliburton investment, nor is it DeLay quivering with excitement at his lawyer's latest attempt at distraction (one hastens to reiterate that DeLay's attorney has chosen to attack Ronnie Earle rather than swearing by affadavit that DeLay is innocent).

No, the palpitations I'm talking about are the pitiable flutterings of the far-right hearts that until last week had been set on a Supreme Court full of drones, just like Bush promised (see Moldy Lemons, below). Harriet Miers drifts onto the scene, and suddenly a whole throng of Dittoheads wonders if maybe, just maybe, God isn't speaking through his son George, and there's all sorts of talk about how he's abandoned his base blah blah blah.

I mean, bankrupting the government and the nation? That's super!
Sanctioning torture? No problem! Exploiting 9/11 to this very day? Let's roll Killing 100,000+ innocent Iraqis? Bring it on!

But nominate a woman who might not personally bomb every abortion clinic in the land? How could he betray us like this?!?

Much has been made of the evils of Liberal Judges Who Legislate From The Bench and the virtue of Strict Constructionists aka Originalists aka nutjobs who think that the Constitution was written by Exxon and Philip Morris. It can't be stated often enough that a judge who strikes down a Conservative-friendly law is an out-of-control activist, while a judge ruling against, say, civil liberties is honoring the original intent of the founders.

If there's one thing that I learned in all those lit courses in college, it's that you simply can't know an author's intent (which is in any case subordinate to the actual text). This veers close to pseudointellectual postmodernist bullshit, but here's the kernel: no matter what the author intended, what matters is what made it onto the page. And, once it's on the page, the author has no more authority over the meaning of the text than does any other reader. In other words, writing the document is your chance to get it right.

However, all of that goes out the window when the authors say "if we missed anything, we leave it to the readers to write it in." Jefferson et al were the authors, and we're the readers. Scalia can howl about what the Constitution "really" means, but what it really means is that we can change what it really means.

It's no coincidence that many of the people preaching the inviolability of the original Constitution are the same ones who insist that the transcribed oral traditions of a nomadic, pre-technological culture are the immutable Word of God; that kind of text-fetishism is fine for mythology but misses the whole point of the Constitution.

Jefferson himself wrote of the need for a flexible system of laws:
We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
We can debate whether or not we're a civilized society, but the message is clear: if it don't fit, fix it.

So, will Miers make a good justice? Well, if she merits the specific praise that Bush has given her, then she'll certainly be awful. I don't buy into the tinfoil-hat theory that Conservative bloggers' bitching about her is a form of disinformation, because that's too many loonies to herd into one bin.

But if, at the very least, she recognizes that the Constitution is far more alive than Scalia would like it to be, then maybe, just maybe Bush will have managed to do one thing right during his tenure.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Know what a serpentine belt is?
Here's a hint: It's not what a snake wears to hold his pants up.

This morning I trekked about five miles from my inert car to the nearest phone, located in a store displaying a long rack of rifles above a metal aquarium seething with bait-minnows. The proprietor let me use his rotary phone to call for a tow, and he told me to help myself to a Pepsi. I had no cash on me, but he said that I could pay him the next time I was nearby.

I grew up in an area where you couldn't get a penny for your thoughts without giving a receipt, so this kind of in-your-face trust is really alien to me. I thanked him but declined his offer, and in my mind he assumed the roll of Friendly, Helpful Stranger. Then he recounted his own tale of automotive woe.

A few years back, in Cleveland, his car just "sput-sputted and died." After a moment's reflection, he popped the hood and got out to take a look. He kept his lug wrench in hand "because it was, you know, one of them colored districts."

I gasped something like "g-whuh?" and I think I experienced the cognitive dissonance familiar to Bush-worshippers faced with irrefutable proof of his evil idiocy. My guy had morphed from Kindly Proprietor to Stereotypical Backwoods Bigot faster than you can say "squeal like a pig."

So how did I react? I nodded politely and said I'd wait outside for the tow truck. Cowardly, yes, but for all I know Zed was in the basement with a trussed-up geek. And no one had seen me enter the store. Hmm...

In 2004 my county went for Bush by a 3% margin (if memory serves). That means that any given neighbor is about 50% likely to have been wholly insane on November 2nd, and one hopes that they've recovered since that time.

But it seems to me that somebody has to be in the 37% still supporting our President. Maybe Bush has a lock on that demographic represented by those ready spot you a Pepsi if you're white or to tighten your lugs if you're from "one of them colored districts."

Anyway, who uses a rotary phone anymore?

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