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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I Voted for It Before I Voted Against It, Part Deux
I called Herb Kohl's office this morning to ask why, if he planned to vote against Samuel Alito's nomination today, he voted to kill the filibuster yesterday. "The senator felt that further debate was not necessary," said the aide who answered the phone. Well, the necessity for more debate wasn't the point. The filibuster wasn't debate--it was a last-ditch parliamentary maneuver to stop a bad nomination. In the name of comity, or bipartisanship, or cluelessness, or some other damn thing, Kohl and 16 other Democrats chose not to support the only strategy that had a chance of working.

I was disappointed in Kohl, but not surprised. Kohl is a nominally progressive Democrat, but he's an old-school patrician Democrat, and not a people's liberal in the mold of Russ Feingold and Tammy Baldwin. So he has to be prodded occasionally to find his courage and do the right thing. Yesterday, he didn't have it, preferring instead to take a position on Alito that is intellectually incoherent. If the filibuster had no chance and therefore wasn't worth supporting, then he might just as well have voted for Alito this morning, too.

(Honesty compels me to report that his mild-mannered, get-along-to-go-along style is working for him. Wisconsin Republicans can't find anyone serious who wants to take the kamikaze mission of running against him this fall. The only Republican who'd have a chance of winning, former governor Tommy Thompson, is nowhere to be found. Tim Michels, who ran against Feingold in 2004, has said he won't make the race this time unless the party pays for it.)

But while we're smarting over Kohl's vote up here today, we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture. Digby observed this morning that 25 votes for a filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee is a very big deal. It may represent a major change in attitude on the part of prominent Democrats, who have had a habit of screwing the base to pander to the wishy-washy middle. Yesterday, all of the senators who want to be president voted against cloture in the end, rather than throwing in with the majority to prove to the Fox News crowd that they aren't really all that liberal. Imagine, voting with your base when the chips are down. What a concept.

(Note: I think the last time we had four posts on this blog in a single day was during Hurricane Katrina last fall. Don't get used to it.)

Thanks, Senator Byrd. Thanks very much.
Conventional media outlets adore scandals involving easily punned-upon names. Recall the delight of CNN when Trent Lott's "wish we'd been segregated" comments came back to haunt him, in the form of such gems as "Lott of Trouble," "Lott to Lose," and the like. I resist that urge here as I annunciate my disappointment in Sen. Robert Byrd, (D-WV). You'll get no "Byrd Brain," "Byrd's of a Feather," or "Byrd Flies Right" commentary from me, no sir.

For all of his posturing and rhetoric about the sanctity of the filibuster and the right of the minority to have its views aired, Byrd dutifully voted to confirm Judge Samuel Alito to the post that he'll likely hold until long after Byrd has gone to dust.

According to Byrd, he was responding to the concerns of his constituency. He refuse[s] to toe the party line," he "hail[s] from a conservative state," and he's just obeying the will of his constituents who (like Byrd himself) prefer Conservative judges.

Actually, Byrd prefers to protect Byrd. John Raese has announced his intent to challenge the venerable Senator in the upcoming election, so it's little surprise that Byrd would hunker down and stand up for his principles of reelection-at-all costs.

Thanks also to Senators Conrad (D-ND), Johnson (D-SD), and Nelson (D-NE). I hope that, when your future Republican opponents rake you over the coals, you look back on this vote of principle with pride and self-assurance. I'm irritated at each of these enablers, but I'm particularly annoyed with the gentleman from West Virginia.

Byrd famously brandishes a copy of the US Constitution while holding forth on the Senate floor, as if to show that he's intimately acquainted with it. It's a great shame, then, that he voted to hand unchecked executive power to the President, since the confirmation hearings made it clear that Alito believes that the Prez can do what the Prez wants. Byrd claims to believe Alito's assurances to the contrary, but if he really believes that then he's a very poor judge of character. Sure, he voted against Gonzales, but he voted in favor of Ashcroft. Of course, so did a lot of other Democratic Senators, but Byrd distinguished himself by praising Ashcroft as a "man of God" rather than as a partisan hack who couldn't defeat a dead man in his bid for a Senate position of his own.

I should mention that Byrd has made a remarkable turnaround during his career, from a former KKK member to an admirable defender of civil rights, so much so that the NAACP gives him a 100% rating on its Congressional score card. It would therefore be easier to accept Byrd's role in the destruction of the Supreme Court if he'd been an anti-democratic jerk all along, but instead he's often risen to the defense of some of the Constitution's key principles. Why, then, did he abandon such a big principle now?

Again, ask John Raese.

A Note About Blogging Motivation
I blog not out of narcissism but out of a desire to share my great wisdom and scintillating prose with the invisible masses. I employ a chorus of eager sycophants to offer me praise, so internet-based narcissistic validation would simply be redundant.

And Now, We Present the Single Dumbest Thing You Will Ever Read in Your Entire Life, Even if You Live to Be 100
Warning: The following article may lower your IQ simply by making its way through your eyeballs and into your brain. You have been warned. Click here.

The State of the Union Is Blotto
If you're planning on watching the State of the Union tonight (and I'm not--I'll be watching a basketball game, and I don't even like basketball), you might wish to make it more tolerable with the Daily Aneurysm's State of the Union Drinking Game.
Every time he says "freedom" or "liberty," take one drink. If mentioned in the same sentence, take three drinks.

When he says "the state of our union is strong," pour a second drink for your other hand.

Every time he refers to "spreading democracy," take one drink. If he says that Iraqi elections are spreading democracy, take two drinks.

When he praises Justice Alito, take one drink in honor of Harriet Miers, who was more qualified.

Every time he says "terrorist surveillance program" or "protect the American people," take one drink. If he says that his terrorist surveillance program is protecting the American people, take three drinks.

At the first mention of health savings accounts, light one cigarette and inhale deeply, but only if you already have private health insurance. Otherwise, take one drink. Of milk or soda.

Every time he mentions 9/11, take two drinks.

Every time he mentions that the administration is careful to protect Americans' civil rights, take two drinks.

When he professes to be "very concerned" about Iran's nuclear program, chug remainder of bottle and open next bottle.

If he mentions "fiscal responsibility" or says anything complimentary about the United Nations, throw empty bottle at TV.

If he says "fight them there so we don't have to fight them here" or a close approximation thereof, throw all remaining bottles at TV. Spark up joint.

Following the speech, count the number of conservatives commenting for whatever channel you're watching. Subtract the number of liberals commenting on all channels combined. Take drinks equal to the resulting number. (This can be calcuated with the sound down, which is the only way I'd do it.)
Your suggestions for other reasons to drink are welcome.

Recommended Reading:
Maybe you're thinking of ordering a Seahawks or Steelers jersey from the NFL before the Super Bowl this weekend. Remember, you can have it personalized. Most people put their names on the back. But naughty people like to put other things on their backs. The NFL knows what they are, and they won't stand for it. (Link not safe for work.)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Gathering of the Tribes
It's a common phenomenon in the blogosphere--you sometimes have to wade through a deep pool of sludge to get to the golden nugget of wisdom floating in the middle. A blog (for example, this one) can be filled largely with garbage, but every once in a while contain a bit of good thinking. Or, to take a broader view, you can read a lot of blogs that are little more than narcissistic blather (again, like this one) before you find one that's consistently informative and wise.

That's not supposed to happen in newspapers, however--as newspaper folk are constantly reminding us. Pick up a newspaper and you are guaranteed a quality reading/journalistic experience. Newspapers are superior because they have editors, who check facts and monitor writers to make sure everything in their pages is fit for public consumption. As opposed to bloggers, who just rave on with no accountability to anyone, and if some poor reader gets brain cooties from something they write, they don't care.

So I wonder what happened in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, where veteran columnist Jon Margolis hacked up the single most incoherent column I've seen in a major newspaper in a long time. (The link goes to Smirking Chimp, where you won't have to go through the Trib's obnoxious registration process.) I have no idea how Margolis intended for Ted Nugent's opposition to anti-hunting groups to explain why intelligent design is so popular among Americans. I've read it three times, and I still haven't got a clue. It's so confusing that I'm tempted to think there's text missing.

What makes the column even more frustrating is that Margolis buried a fairly good observation near the end: We Americans are endlessly separating ourselves into like-minded tribes, which helps account for our polarized politics. Polarization, then, has something to do with our diversity.
Americans lack common ethnicity or religion, and while most of us speak the same language, our grandparents didn't. We get to choose our tribal loyalties and hostilities. Some choose one sociopolitical subculture to join, and others to find objectionable. Whatever the objectionable guys support is to be opposed, and vice versa.
Americans are like everyone else, in that we want to belong to something. We used to find it largely sufficient to be an American, we the people, united we stand, all that. But America is growing ever more amorphous and wide-open, and as a result, it's harder to feel as though we can be at home with people who seem so much different than ourselves. It's easier to feel comfortable in a group that has clear rules for what (and who) is included, and excluded. Which might be why America is looking more and more each year like a fractious collection of self-interested groups jockeying for position against one another in a zero-sum game. The idea that "we're all in this together" is mostly for marketing purposes, and has no relationship to reality.

Perhaps this is what Margolis meant to say. Then again, he might have meant to say only that Cat Scratch Fever is a really cool album. Whatever it was, I'm sure his editor knows.

Recommended Reading: There's a better-argued column in the Boston Globe today by James Carroll. He contemplates the likelihood that tomorrow night's State of the Union address will contain many references to the war we're supposedly fighting, but what kind of a war is this, anyhow? "Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault." Even though American soldiers and Iraqis are dying--real deaths, not theoretical ones--the war seems to be taking place some plane of the theoretical, or the metaphorical, or the metaphysical. (Or some other word Bush couldn't define if you gave him a dictionary.)

Poo-Tee-Weet
JB's reflections on the Challenger disaster got me thinking about the where-were-you question, for that and other situations.

I was in a 9th grade English class being led at that particular moment by the student teacher. The "main" teacher—Miss Henning, an outright shrew by all accounts—had been watching the launch on a tv in a nearby science class, and she came back into the room looking very grave.

She gave us the news, and a tv was promptly wheeled in so that we could get the live scoop. CNN had already been in existence for more than five years, but either it wasn't available locally, or the school or teacher chose to opt for ABC instead. I don't recall who the commentator was, nor do I remember much of the commentary, but I can still see the eerie shot of the main cloud and the two suddenly unfettered rockets snaking around the otherwise blue sky. This was before the advent of 24-hour saturation news coverage, but even then we were treated to endless loops of the liftoff, the explosion, and a side-view from one of the chase planes that seemed to show something seriously wrong with the booster from very early in the flight.

Immediately my class embraced the grade-school speculations about some diabolical plot to destroy the shuttle, compounded the the days-later rumor that a Soviet fishing trawler—anchored a few miles off the coast for every other shuttle launch—wasn't there that day.

That morning we learned that Miss Henning had been on the shortlist of final candidates for the seat ultimately occupied by Christy McAuliffe.

I don't remember Reagan's speech at all, partly because this was long before I had any political consciousness. I wasn't yet in the habit of thinking about things in terms of the National Consciousness, either.

But I've always been a big fan of science and space, so I'd seen either the launch or landing of most previous shuttle missions. In the course of my layman's interest, I came upon the then-hypothetical statistic that any given shuttle launch had a 1 in 70 chance of exploding. I don't remember which number the Challenger was, exactly, but I know that they'd passed 70 missions without major incident, so it may be that their number was up. So it goes.

I also heard, a few days later, that polls indicated that some huge fraction of the population would jump at the chance to ride aboard the shuttle, even the next day. What do we make of that?

In my lifetime there have probably been three national "where were you when" moments. The other two were Reagan's near-assassination and, of course, September 11th. JB was right to note that the Columbia explosion didn't instill nearly the same depth of national horror as the Challenger; it was sad, but it wasn't new. But those other three events sure "changed everything," much as Kennedy's assassination had done seven years before I was born.

As for Reagan, I don't really remember the shooting, because at that point I was in 4th grade and barely thought about such things. I recall the general event, and I can still picture the news footage showing the handcuffs swinging back and forth on that one guy's pocket as they tackled Hinkley, but I don't remember exactly where I was.

On September 11, I had taken a day off from work and was productively watching X-Men on DVD that morning, when my wife called with the news. So it goes.

As a culture, we've been generally shielded from the daily horrors familiar to other nations, such as suicide bombings, missile strikes on weddings and funerals, and the ubiquitous silt of depleted uranium. The tragedies that do occur are fed to us in carefully correographed bulletins, so that our fears and feelings are guided to a result scripted before we even read the first headline. We'll authorize just about any crazy legislative action, as long as it makes us feel safe to listen to our Ipods and watch the next American Idol.

It's striking that every event that "changes everything" involves waking us from our national complacency, rather than ushering in a bold era of societal enlightenment. "Where were you when society as a whole realized that everyone deserves a living wage?" That would be a moment worth remembering.

Did the Challenger "change everything" for America? We saw that space exploration was dangerous, but we knew that already. Maybe we learned that hugely complex machinery can sometimes fail spectacularly, but we knew that already, too.

Maybe, as JB notes, the explosion heralded the beginning of the slide into privatized, low-bidder incompetence. If so, then we can thank a faulty O-ring for Haliburton, HMOs, Dubya's hell-spawned Iraqi war machine. So it goes.

Everything changes everything.

Empty Streets
Last week, I reread Rads by Tom Bates, about the 1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center (AMRC) at the University of Wisconsin. For three years, from Dow Day in 1967 to the August day Sterling Hall was bombed, Madison was the "third coast," a national center of student protest against the Vietnam War. After the bombing, which George Will called "the Hiroshima of the American left," the movement largely died, not just here, but on campuses across the country.

There was a sense among many students at the UW back then that because the war was an intolerable crime against innocent civilians, and because the University would not respond to demands to disengage from the war machine, direct action was justified. Karl Armstrong, leader of the conspiracy that bombed Sterling Hall, took more action than most--setting fire to the UW's Red Gym in an attempt to take out the ROTC, burning the UW Primate Lab (mistakenly thinking it was Selective Service Headquarters), and attempting to drop gasoline bombs on the Badger Army Ammunition Plant north of Madison. The "New Year's Gang" that took credit for the attacks over the holidays in 1969-70 was primarily Armstrong, although he had help from his brother, Dwight, and a couple of others. The University steadfastly refused to close the AMRC, and over the summer of 1970, Armstrong hatched the plan to blow up the building in which it was housed.

Armstrong was captured in Canada in 1972 and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. (A researcher working in the building was killed in the blast.) At his sentencing hearing, various all-stars from the American left came to Madison to argue that his sentence should be mitigated--in effect, that the bombing was a justifiable response to the illegal war in Vietnam. It didn't work--the judge gave Armstrong the maximum. Armstrong didn't help himself much. Bates portrays him as a rather low-key revolutionary until his arrest, when he became a megalomaniac who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his notoriety, and so his sentencing hearing had more than its share of circuslike moments, which helped his credibility and that of his supporters not a whit.

A successful strike on AMRC might have further energized the American Left, if the bombing hadn't killed the researcher, Robert Fassnacht. That act cost the movement many of its supporters, young and old, and hardened the attitudes of those already opposed to student protest. And the movement, which had been seething with energy a few months before, in the wake of Cambodia and Kent State, withered away in a matter of weeks.

I'm not the only person who thinks that this country needs more of the spirit of the 1960s at this moment--the willingness not just to stand up and but to take action against the illegal actions of an immoral government. We've got more reason now than in the 1960s, because the United States is not just waging an illegal war for a dubious purpose, but its government is consolidating power at home in a Constitution-nullifying fashion that would make Zombie Nixon smile from his perch in Hell. If this were 1967, people would be in the streets. Some of that same energetic impulse exists in people who huddle behind computers and write, but if they stay huddled, it's not the same thing. And so it seems highly unlikely that anybody will be moved to blow stuff up anytime soon in response to what the current administration is doing. Thus, we may finally end up with the fascist state that the students saw coming in the 1960s--not through the application of hobnailed boots to the collective groin of the citizenry, but with docile acquiescence. Go ahead, take my rights, just don't tell me I'll have to give up my cable.

Let me be clear, so my name doesn't end up in some Homeland Security database (if it isn't already there): I'm not suggesting that things need to be blown up here in 2006. I am suggesting only that perhaps, the lack of organized protest today is itself a legacy of Sterling Hall. By tarring all of the student protesters of the 1960s with a brush wielded by a few murdering bombers, Sterling Hall may have hastened and strengthened the attempts by conservatives, from the 1970s to now, to discredit the politics of the entire 1960s generation--and anything that looks like it. If you tell people that it's time to turn off their iPods and get into the streets, you're a relic who has missed the history of the last 35 years. The protesters were fools, because they accomplished nothing, and some of them were murderers. Don't you remember?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Warning Bells
January 28, 1986, 20 years ago yesterday, was a fairly normal day around the radio station. I'd wrapped up my morning show at 10AM, and all morning, when we hadn't been talking about the Chicago Bears winning the Super Bowl the day before, we'd been reading news stories about the pending launch of the space shuttle Challenger, the excitement surrounding the teacher-in-space, Christa McAuliffe--and the cold temperatures at Cape Canaveral.

Out in the long hallway behind the studios, a UPI wire machine chugged away, day and night, printing news stories, weather forecasts, and sports scores. (Computerized, paperless news delivery was still a few years away--we still had to load the wire machine with fat rolls of paper, and one of the greatest sins you could commit was to let the paper run out.) From time to time, a bell on the machine would ring. Most of the time, it was just a ding or two, to alert you to a sports score or an update to a breaking story. For something really big, it might ring three times.

After 10:00, I usually stayed in the studio, recording commercials, which is what I was doing on that day. I happened to be in the hallway when the alert bell rang--four or five times, I don't remember how many, but more than I'd ever heard before. (It may have been what the wire services call a "flash"--and I think it would have been the first flash sent on the wire since the Kennedy assassination.) The news director came out of the newsroom at the other end of the hall on a dead sprint, but I got to the machine first, so I was the one to rip the bulletin. It read: "There has been an explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The fate of the crew is unknown." And that was it.

I was transfixed, rooted in one spot like I was a tree or something. "The fate of the crew is unknown?" How long I stood there, I don't know. Maybe only five seconds, but I remember that I needed to actually, physically rouse myself to action. I said, aloud I think, "I'd better go and put this on the air." I went into the FM studio, broke into the automated programming, and read the bulletin. I presumably ad-libbed a bit about how we would have more information when we knew it, because at that moment, we knew nothing.

About half-an-hour after the first bulletin came in, I went on the air again to report what we'd learned in the interim. Just as I keyed the microphone to speak, the listener line started to blink. It blinked all the while I was talking, and was still blinking when I finished, so I answered it. It was a listener who proceeded to go off, angrily asking why my station wasn't saying anything about the Challenger explosion. "Ma'am, didn't you hear the bulletin I just read?" I asked. She hadn't, of course, because she'd been on the phone. But it occurs to me that she was probably right to complain--imagine hearing that there's been some sort of unspeakable disaster and tuning in your local radio station, only to hear the usual diet of Madonna and Huey Lewis. Down the hall, the AM station hadn't been carrying the launch live, but the jock on the air had been listening to it off the air. He had the presence of mind to put the network broadcast on right away. I should probably have done the same thing on the FM, but I don't recall doing so, even after the woman's phone call.

The rest of the morning passed in a blur. My day was generally done around 1:00, and I went home to watch the coverage on TV. That was Ronald Reagan's greatest day, remember--when he went on the air and quoted that poem, saying how the astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God," he performed the single greatest public service of his presidency. It expressed the grief we all felt, and in a unique and appropriate way. I'd been too busy for grief while I was at the station, but it hit me once I got home.

The Mrs. had been making radio sales calls in a little town 30 miles down the road, and had learned of the disaster from a client. She kept making her calls, although at one point in the afternoon, she says she had to pull off to the side of the road and weep. And as afternoon turned into evening, I started feeling worse and worse myself. First there was the shock of it--nobody could have imagined something so horrid. Next, I started imagining myself as part of it--in the spectator stands with the McAuliffes, looking at the exploded vehicle in the sky and not really understanding what it meant, or worse, in the cockpit as the thing blew up. We took some comfort in those early hours in the widely reported story that the astronauts would never have known what hit them. It wasn't until weeks later that we learned they really did know, and that they were probably alive until the crew compartment hit the water.

Investigations showed that the Challenger probably shouldn't have been launched in such cold weather--and although it was never proven, I have suspected ever after that the launch was rushed so that Reagan could talk to the astronauts live during his State of the Union message, scheduled for that night. And if it's true that people knew it shouldn't have been launched, then somebody, either at NASA or at the company that built the rocket, killed those seven astronauts as surely as if they'd blown their heads off with a gun.

The next morning, life began again, although a lot different than it had been the day before. The Challenger explosion was the end of an era--the era in which NASA moved from success to success. Since then, NASA has looked like just another government agency, bumbling along with the lowest bidder. The agency would lose another shuttle in 2003, and while it was a surprise and a terrible loss, it wasn't one-tenth the shock Challenger had been.

(Edited, because on further reflection, I think we had a UPI machine, not an AP wire.)

Friday, January 27, 2006

Elevating the Level of Discourse
There's a very old folktale about an automaton cobbled together from sun-baked and salt-bleached wood. Through an effort of will this soulless creature is able to pass itself as almost a man, though it's still clearly made of twigs. Later on it tries to pass itself off as a woman, but it's still clearly a pile of twigs trying to pass itself off as a man trying (generally unsuccessfully) to pass itself off as a woman. All along, the twig-that-would-be-man-who-would-be-woman is terrified that people will realize that it's a sham, and in the tragic end it's publicly recognized as the desiccated and brittle bundle that it is.

In other news, Ann Coulter has loosed her sphincter and shat forth a load so foul and stinking that it could only have come the mouth of Ann Coulter. She joins the doughy Chris Matthews, demonic Pat Robertson, and dumbass George W. Bush, along with myriad other Conservatives who see nothing wrong with identifying liberals as enemies of America of whom no humiliating naked pyramid can be stacked tall enough. This curiously effective name-calling strategy has been around forever, but in the sewage of modern deregulated (and Conservative-friendly) media, the biggest and most corn-dotted logs float the farthest.

Allegedly recovering drug-addict Rush Limbaugh has used the tactic for years ("Feminazis" being just one of many sophomoric gems), but lately it's become not just accepted but standard practice to liken Liberals and Democrats to Osama bin Laden. The sickening part is not that Republicans—long proven to be self-serving assholes—are doing this, but rather that no one with a public voice is decrying it effectively. Democrats should condemn this disgusting tactic every time they pass a microphone. Instead, they cower and issue written and multiply-signed declarations that no one reads outside of the signors themselves..

So Coulter has now "joked" that Justice Stevens should be poisoned. Can you imagine the outcry if, say, Bill Maher had suggested that Scalia should be killed? Sure, we'd need garlic and holy water to do it, but that's not the point. Maher is recognized as 51% hack on his best day, and no one really marches behind him in Liberal coming-out parades. In contrast, Coulter is, well, not a wet dream, but at least something of an aridly carnal fantasy among zealots seeking a nominal woman to prop up as the pretty (sic) face of the Conservative punditocracy.

It's bad enough that she's considered a legitimate commentator and that she's permitted to publish book after pus-oozing book of scarcely coherent hate-speech. But even worse is the media's willingness to give her a pass on anything she chooses to cast forth from her scolex. Liberals are condemned for days if they even suggest that maybe—just maybe—Bush lacks a solid plan for stabilizing the economy. But Coulter and her equally manly peers can let fly with the most vile invective they can muster.

It's a sign of the degeneracy of our culture that a dried bundle of twigs (one hesitates to use the word "fagot") can purvey such shameless hate-speech and yet remain so totally unbridled.

And it's an even bigger shame that I didn't realize, until just now, that I could have ridden the unbridled-->bridled-->horse-->horseface imagery all the way into the rhetorical blogging sunset.

Sam I Am, Sam I Am, I Do Not Like That Sam I Am
The sad truth is that Alito was confirmed pretty much from the moment that Harriet Miers was nominated. There's not a Republican in Washington who wouldn't have bet the farm that Sammy would take his seat at the right hand of the duck-hunter, ready and willing to rubber-stamp Dubya's most reaching and preposterous policies. This is the legacy wrought by a flaccid and deferential Democratic minority.

Kerry's call for a filibuster, as doomed outright as any Democratic initiative in the past five years, seems to me nothing more than an effort to pad his resumé for another futile run in 2008. To that I say "thanks for nothing, John. If you hadn't gone windsurfing and worn that dumb cleansuit, we wouldn't be facing any of this crap now."

I agree with JB in his assessment that the media will pummel the Democrats with this, probably right on through the elections later this year. And if by some miracle we retake the Senate, then every contested initiative thereafter will be framed as an opportunity for Repubs to show the Dems how a successful filibuster is done. Every successful Republican filibuster will result in a congratulatory media blitz about the strength of the unified minority against the controlling Democrats.

There's no way to paint this as anything but a goddamned disaster. If there is any silver lining, it's the hope that in a few years we can all muse nostalgically about those quaint civil rights we used to have back when there were three branches of government.

A few summary thoughts: Byrd can go jump in a lake and take his cherished Constitution pamphlet with him. For all of his tough talk against Frist in the past weeks about the right to filibuster, in the end Byrd did nothing but bend over and urge his fellow submissives to do the same. Landrieu is so ridiculously ineffective that she makes even Lieberman look like a Democrat.

Come to think of it, there is another silver lining. Most of the domesticated citizenry (left or right) is so hopelessly and proudly uninformed that Diana Ross is the only Supreme that they can name, so it's not like my conservative coworkers will be guffawing about this great victory. Instead, they'll watch breathlessly each week to see if Todd Bridges can lace his own skates without accidentally hanging himself.

In the past weeks I've read a number of blogs (and more than one posting forum) wherein Liberals have been urging one another to "take action" to stop Alito. Well, 100,000 electronic signatures on a petition do not a filibuster make, and in the end, our hopes were much as they were at the beginning—entirely in the hands of the Democrats who have succeeded in achieving failure more times than any minority party in recent memory.

Seriously. Have the Democrats accomplished anything that can be called a victory under Dubya? Anything at all? The best they can do is strip a provision out of one spending bill so that Repubs can reinsert it into a different and undefeatable piece of legislation.

Hell, I can live with that. We're the minority, so it's not like we can introduce sweeping reforms. But every so often I'd like to see one meaningful display of unified strength, successful or not.

And I'd prefer that the figurehead of that display not simply be servicing his own Presidential ambitions.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hail to the Resistance
So John Kerry (remember him?) intends to lead a filibuster against Samuel Alito. The New York Times called for it in an editorial today, and lots of people on the left have been doing so too, even if there's little chance of success, just to make the point that this guy is way, way out of the mainstream. I'm in favor of it, too, but we all need to understand the following:

A) We're not stopping Alito.
With 55 Repug votes in the bag, they only need five more to achieve cloture, and a couple of Democrats, Salazar of Colorado and Landrieu of Louisiana, are already saying they will vote for cloture.

(Mary Landrieu--what a terrible excuse for a Democrat. Really. "Because we have such a full plate of pressing issues before Congress, a filibuster would be, in my view, very, very counterproductive." Well, then, why not do all that first before confirming Alito? She even gets in the obligatory Repug talking point: "It is important that we have an up-or-down vote." Peter Daou's ears are ringing.)

The Repugs are claiming they already have 60 votes for cloture, and they're probably right, given that Nelson of Nebraska, Johnson of North Dakota, and Byrd of West Virginia say they'll vote for confirmation. If they favor the guy, it doesn't make much sense for them to vote against cloture--although Salazar says he will vote against Alito and for cloture, so anything's possible. (It's even possible that it might dawn on Salazar how stupid his position is.)

B) We're going to get killed by the media. The cruising-to-confirmation storyline has been agreed upon for a couple of weeks now, so this will be played like the obstructionist tactic of a few sore losers. We see it as another way for Democrats to get across the idea that Alito represents a serious turn to the right for the Court, one that's likely to empower the presidency and the corporations at the expense of the other two branches and average Americans. Nobody at the networks is interested in that, however, because it takes an adult attention span to understand it. The story will either be the eminently qualified Judge Alito versus anti-Bush bitter-enders who Hate America, or as Democrats engaging in frivolous self-aggrandizement. Given that Nurse Frist is vowing to call for a cloture vote early on to slap the opposition down, bet on frivolity being the preferred frame. The Times has already gotten the party started in the story linked above, calling Kerry's plan "a quixotic attempt to stop" the nomination.

C) We're going to get killed by members of our own party. At some point in the next couple of days, either Nelson, Johnson, Landrieu, or Salazar will stand up in front of a camera and start pounding lumps into their own party for filibustering the nom, and it'll get played on TV like it was the winning play of the Super Bowl. This will be seen as proof that the Democrats are a bunch of pussies who can't keep their own people in line. (Which is largely true.) And if they can't even do that with their own people, then how, Mr. and Mrs. America, can you dare trust them to protect your precious bodily fluids from Osama?

(I expect Byrd to keep quiet. His statement on Alito says his vote is in response to the wishes of his constituents, and he appears to buy the assurances Alito gave during the confirmation process--alas. I didn't get the sense from his statement that he will want to scold his colleagues. If he hadn't been challenged by a well-funded opponent just yesterday, he might not be voting like he is.)

D) We have to beat the hell out of a handful of talking points and keep repeating them until we're blue in the face no matter what anyone says in response to them.
Every senator who speaks needs to be speaking from the same script, over and over like an endless loop, inside the Senate and outside on various TV and radio shows. This is part of the wider war that's left to be fought, in which we have to change the subject from what the Repugs want to talk about to what we want to talk about.

E) John Kerry has grown testicles 18 months too late. He gave a fine speech on the floor of the Senate yesterday, in which he made clear that the issue with Alito is not whether he's qualified, but what his ideology is, and how much that ideology stands to screw with what Americans find important. How nice of him to take the lead in a fight that's doomed to fail, as opposed to the fight he should have won rather easily in 2004. And with a story appearing just hours before the filibuster announcement that he hasn't ruled out a presidential run in 2008, it doesn't take a genius to tell you that the filibuster is going to be diminished by suggestions that it's a campaign ploy.

So even though it's going down hard and fast, we need to filibuster anyway, if only to get ourselves used to fighting. As the Rude Pundit said so well last week:
Democrats need to think of themselves as an organized resistance, an insurgency against a dictatorial government, an uprising with popular support among the citizens of the United States. A resistance doesn't succeed unless it actually, you know, resists. And if not on Alito, then what? Dianne Feinstein-leaning Democrats need to take a page from the anti-abortion movement: if you believe it's about life and death, then act like you wanna save lives.
What he said.

The Queen Is Dead
"Alas, poor Wonkette! I knew it, Horatio: a blog of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: it hath cracked my shit up a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it. And who made better rimjob jests than thee? Here hung that snark that I have partaken I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your Butterstick? Your jokes about buggery, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning?

Yes, Wonkette is dead. Well, not dead, but it jumped the shark for good this week. Between Ana Marie Cox's departure for multimedia stardom and the arrival of the new guy, we're being treated to various bigfoot bloggers (Ezra Klein Tuesday, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds yesterday--who's a Republican, for chrissakes) who are trying on Ana Marie's thong and finding it an uncomfortable fit. Klein's posts read like he was ashamed to be posting on such a frivolous site, while Reynolds committed the cardinal sin of thinking he's funnier than he really is. And for Wonkette to be Wonkette, it's got to bring the funny. Ana Marie could bring the funny. Several of her guests, like the pseudonymous "Joe Klein" and "Holly Martins," could bring the funny. Henry the Intern could bring the funny some of the time. DCeiver, who filled in a few weeks ago, could bring the funny like nobody this side of The Onion. But they're all gone, and we're left with people who, excellent writers though they be, can't summon up the combination of rapier wit and over-the-top snark that made Wonkette what it once was.

From its birth in 2003, Wonkette was never really a blog like other blogs (including this blog) are blogs. It was part of a large online media empire, yet despite its corporate origins, it retained an outlaw edge, thanks to the anal-sex jokes and the Cult of Butterstick. But now that it's safe enough to accommodate writers like Klein and Reynolds (and its coming transfer into the hands of a male blogger, David Lat), its days on the cutting edge are over.

Make no mistake--the change in Wonkette's blogger gender is going to matter. While Ana Marie wasn't a delicate flower of womanhood or anything, her take was uniquely female in many ways. (Would a male blogger have embraced Butterstick to such an extent?) The blogosphere is enough of a boys' club as it is. So I guess this means it's time to start reading Pandagon more often now.

Recommended Reading: One of the reasons Bush seems largely bulletproof no matter what he says or does is because the default position of the media is to defend him. Peter Daou has some thoughts on the media triangle that props him up, and Steve Soto at the Left Coaster has some worthwhile thoughts on what Daou said.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sunset on Pennsylvania Avenue
You may have heard over the weekend that NBC has made official what we've suspected for a long time--this will be the final season of The West Wing. It's not going to be all that hard to see it go, given that it's been creatively moribund for the last three seasons. The campaign storyline of the last two seasons (which will be resolved in a two-parter on April 2 and 9) has morphed the show into something like those rock bands from the 60s that play county fairs every summer. You know the ones--one original member and four hired guns making music that is supposed to be like the real thing, but has something missing at its core.

I'd be perfectly happy to fast-forward through the campaign stuff, because it's been as perfectly free of drama as the channel that scrolls public service announcements. The only reason I'm still watching is to see the stories of the people The West Wing has always been about--Jed and Abby Bartlet, Leo McGarry, C.J. Cregg, Toby Ziegler, and the rest. (And Charlie--what have they done with him?) And Josh Lyman, too--senior-aide Josh, not Pod Josh, who's supposed to be the confident manager of a presidential campaign, but who looks as though he's seen the same thing the rest of us have--that his candidate isn't ready to be a senator, let alone president. The final episode on May 14 will involve the inauguration of the new president--but let's hope, now that the producers now know it's the final episode of the series, that it will focus on the characters who are leaving, and not on the ciphers coming in, whose lives we won't see and about whom we don't care.

Salon asked some of its writers whether they'll miss The West Wing. Some will, some won't. A couple of them get at a critical point--when the show debuted in 1999, it was still possible to imagine the White House as a place where the people's business got done in the people's interest. No longer. And that, as much as anything, might explain it's why time for The West Wing to go.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Forget Your Troubles, Come on, Get Happy
Headline from the Washington Times' Insight Magazine: "Impeachment hearings: White House prepares for worst." That's the Washington Times, folks--the house organ of the Bush fluffers--so you can assume that it represents something close to the official view of Republican insiders, which is that hearings into the illegal wiretap scandal are a serious threat to the continuation in office of He Who Shall Not Be Named.

The article is behind a subscribers-only wall, but Steve Gilliard has it, and makes a good point about possible impeachment hearings, one you might even characterize as happy: All it would take to drive HWSNBN from office would be the prospect of hearings, which he wouldn't stick around for. "Bush could NEVER take the brutal questioning which would start with wiretaps and end with Iraq and Niger." He'd resign first. Cheney, too. So we'd end up with President Rice, which would be bad, but I'd take my chances for a while.

There are lots of reasons why hearings won't happen, starting with the spinelessness of Dems in Congress and the unfortunate tendency of Repugs to stand by their man when they should join in on the nut-cutting. But on this frigid January day, let the simple facts that hearings might happen, and that they might happen as soon as this spring, and that Repugs are scared shitless over them, wash over you like warm waves on a tropical beach.

Oh Canada: I don't think there's much reason to get too worried about the Conservatives winning the election in Canada yesterday. For one thing, they didn't get a majority, so they'll have to form a coalition with parties that don't share their ideology. For another, party leader Stephen Harper spent the last several months moderating his positions to look more like a centrist, but now that he's in office--if he's like an American conservative--the mask will come off, and he'll be revealed to hold positions far out of step with Canadian public opinion. Up there, the Conservative Party is an uncomfortable coalition of various interests--kind of like the Democrats down here--and just like the Democrats down here, it's hard to see them enforcing the sort of ideological discipline American conservatives have used to keep their varying interests marching in lockstep. And that means that the Harper government's lifespan probably won't be much different than its conservative predecessors, led by Joe Clark and Kim Campbell. Neither of them could keep the PM gig for more than a few months.

We Have Found a Witch--May We Burn Her?
It's a whole month's worth of Quote of the Day in a single article--yes, the long-awaited Most Loathsome People of 2005 from the Buffalo Beast. Hat tip to contributors Allan Uthman, Paul Jones, Ian Murphy, and Chris Riordan--who are not very nice people, but in a very good way.

Tom DeLay: "A politician so horrible, his prior career as an exterminator constitutes fratricide."

Scooter Libby: "A high-level fall guy, responsible for leaking what was in the interest of profit, not leaking what wasn’t, and barking on cue to produce the noise of governance without the drawbacks of actual governance."

("The noise of governance without the drawbacks of actual governance" might be the single greatest description of the Bush Administration ever coined.)

Paris Hilton: "Her continued success as a celebrity famous for nothing, despite the eerie resemblance she bears to the inbred banjoist from Deliverance and a lack of talent so profound that others become duller as they approach her, indicates that something is fundamentally wrong with humanity."

Karl Rove: "[H]e is simply missing the part of his soul that prevents the rest of us from kicking elderly women in the face."

Martha Stewart: "Only in America could a plutocrat convicted of insider trading find sympathy among her social inferiors--people she would have either sterilized or mustard gassed, if the law permitted her."

Each of the people cited on the list gets an appropriate sentence as punishment for being who they are. For God (#13 on the list), the Beast proposes: "Forever listening to an unending stream of idiotic, mundane prayers uttered by the dumbest, most inarticulate people in His creation." For Barbara Bush (#12): "Bound and thrown into Lake Pontchartrain. If she floats, burned at the stake. If she drowns, even better."

Monday, January 23, 2006

33 Years Since Them Wimmin Killed God
To my shame, I didn't realize until this morning that yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and I had CSPAN on for much of the day, so you'd think I could have figured it out. Along with 1962's Engel v. Vitale, 1965's Griswold v. Connecticut, and 1981's McLean v Arkansas, 1973's Roe, as you're no doubt aware, has led directly to terrorism, AIDS, teen pregnancy, and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Engle, of course, is the famous "school prayer" decision, Griswold is the "keep your cops away from my contraception," and McLean is the "hey, creationism ain't science" ruling, all of which were welcome but long overdue. And, frankly, they're all still very much at risk. It would be sad indeed if our forthcoming Supreme Court were to overturn these benchmark confirmations of the character of our nation--the secular character, that is. I'm not talking about the citizens (who can believe whatever they want and who will happily believe everything and anything asserted by a well-funded mouthpiece), but the nation itself, as set forth in the deliberately non-religious Constitution.

Considering the apparent likelihood of Alito's confirmation, it may be timely to reflect upon what these decisions represent and how things would change if they were "revisited" by the Roberts/Thomas/Scalia/Alito court. Dubya's views on reproductive rights were of course well known even before he called to encourage anti-choice marchers, and he's previously come out in support of creationism. What will happen when any of these issues gets to the Supreme Court? Hard to say for sure, but it's all but certain that Dubya knows how his carefully groomed surrogates on the court will rule.

It's been speculated in many places that, for political reasons, Republicans don't want Roe overturned, because that would render obsolete one of their most powerful "moral" positions. I'm not so sure. Nullifying Roe would only eliminate that protection at the federal level, thereby empowering states to attack reproductive rights. Heck, many states already have "trigger clauses" for laws just waiting to detonate upon Roe's overturning. Repubs could then hail two triumphs: the destruction of Roe and the reaffirmation of "states' rights," the latter of which everyone after the Reconstruction recognizes as a code word for "curtailed civil rights" and "formally institutionalized racism." And even after the Right has made women subordinate to their respective uteri, there'll still be gays, atheists, and liberals in general to condemn as the banes of "our way of life." They have to fight us liberals here so that they don't have to fight them at home.

At least one fact will remain very clear even after Roe is cast down: wealthy white folks will still be able to afford abortions no matter what laws are put on the books.

Thirty-three years later, we're still living a nominally free society, but the cover charge for entry into that society has become increasingly more visible and out of reach of the average citizen.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Flagpoles and Booyah
I have begun again my twice-yearly traveling season, with a quick trip last Thursday and Friday. I tend to visit a lot of the same places year after year, which can make the trips rather tedious--but as I wrote last September, only a failure of curiosity or imagination requires a person to think of a trip as dull. So Thursday afternoon I headed northeast from Madison, up U.S. 151, to Wisconsin's eastern shore.

The first interesting place you hit on 151 is Beaver Dam. Beaver Dam used to be the home of the Monarch Range Company. A Monarch range was the centerpiece of a lot of Wisconsin kitchens--including my grandmother's--from the turn of the 20th century into the 1980s, until the company sold out and its successor went bankrupt.

The next stop along 151 is Waupun. In 1851, three years after Wisconsin became a state, Waupun (pronounced waw-PONN) was selected as the site of the state prison. Some of today's prisoners reside in the first building erected, in 1854. Newly constructed prisons--and Wisconsin has its share, because, like other states, prison construction was much of what passed for economic development here during the 1980s--look like industrial plants, apart from the razor wire. But old prisons, like Waupun, with those forbidding stone walls and towers, look like prisons. Waupun's prison is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it's safe to say you don't want to visit there.

Fond du Lac is where U.S. 151, Interstate 43, U.S. 45, U.S. 41, and Wisconsin 23 (the road to Sheboygan) intersect. Thus, you can't go anywhere in eastern Wisconsin, including to heaven or hell, without going through Fond du Lac first. It's a city of 42,000 that seems to sprawl on for miles. When I first started traveling that way regularly a couple of years ago, I suggested that what they really needed to do was unleash a fleet of bulldozers to straighten out the byzantine curves of 151 that wound you through the city's downtown. Fortunately, they've finally opened a bypass--although it still requires you to negotiate an urban streetscape for a while. Old habits die hard, apparently.

I made a quick convenience-store stop in Fond du Lac, and saw a store across the street called National Flagpole. It occurred to me that while I've seen dozens of places selling flags, this was the first one I'd ever seen selling the poles.

My destination Thursday night was Manitowoc, a lakeside industrial town that, like many industrial towns, ain't entirely what it used to be. The giant Mirro cookware plant closed a couple of years ago (you could use a Mirro pot to cook on your Monarch range for most of 100 years). Manitowoc remains a shipbuilding town, however, and has been for a long time. The sports teams at Lincoln High are nicknamed the Shipbuilders, or Ships for short.

Friday I had to head up to Mishicot, a town 15 miles north of Manitowoc notable primarily for a resort with a 45-hole golf course. On the way, I went past a grocery store with a sign out front advertising its hours as 6:06AM to 10:33PM. On my way home, I went through little Francis Creek, Wisconsin, where one of the local bars was advertising its upcoming booyah bash on an outdoor sign. Booyah is a chicken stew loaded with vegetables, created by the Belgians who settled that part of northeastern Wisconsin. The stuff is sometime called Belgian penicillin, and typical booyah recipe is meant to feed dozens or hundreds.

On the return trip, I hit Fond du Lac in a snowstorm, which dropped travel speeds to 30 or 40 the rest of the way home, and turned a three-hour trip into a four-hour trip. It meant I had to concentrate more on the road than the sights along it, but I'd seen enough on the way up. Because only a failure of curiosity or imagination requires you to think of a trip as dull.

About the Football:
I have no real idea who's going to win today. As the week has unfolded, I've convinced myself at one time or another that every possible combination of winners and losers was absolutely the right the way to pick. I can make a perfectly good case for any one of those combinations, which in the aggregate would add up to "jeez, I don't know." So here, without further comment, are my picks. Thank goodness there's no money riding on this.
Denver 27, Pittsburgh 21
Carolina 28, Seattle 27
But it just as easily could be one of the other possible combinations. Jeez, I don't know.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Decisive Action At Home And Abroad
I'm not an anti-gun fanatic. That's probably because I've grown up in an area in which most households contained at least one hunter and at least one high-powered rifle of some sort, but it's probably also because I know that not every person who can get hold of a weapon is going to go on a spree.

That's not to say I support the unchecked gun ownership espoused by certain Not Reasonable Advocates of so-called "gun rights." I've never heard a convincing reason for the guy on the corner to own an AK-47 with a 100-round clip full of Black Talon cop-killer bullets, unless he's hunting a really well-armed deer.

I don't really buy the argument that guns are to protect us from the government, either. That may have worked when cutting-edge weapons technology was a horse-drawn cannon or a flintlock musket requiring thirty seconds or so to load and fire, but it doesn't apply to store-bought automatic weapons that fire thirty projectiles per second.

The best a freedom-loving citizen could hope to accomplish today is a Randy Weaver-esque defense, and I must confess that I'd love to see how the Rightwing punditry would spin that episode (since it's still a favorite stomping point in their perpetual anti-Clinton campaign).

The Dubya administration that has so little regard for privacy and due process and free speech and the lives of its citizens clearly has no compelling reason to protect "gun rights" other than a desire to mollify its base. But if ever it seemed that those gun-thumping bible-toters from the Confederate States had really turned against the administration, we'd find out in a big hurry just how seriously Dubya takes the 2nd amendment. Honestly, it seems that there must be at least one amendment that he supports, so maybe this is the one. Well, maybe the 21st amendment. And the one about "no graven images."

Gun advocates will often argue that guns are necessary because we can't really rely on the police to protect us, and they cite all kinds of anecdotal evidence about corrupt cops, slow response time, and general inefficiency of the system. The answer, they claim, is to arm yourself to the teeth, shoot first, and cry "gun rights" later. It's argued, in fact, that police aren't even a real deterrent to crime, since cops generally respond to rather than prevent crimes from happening.

That argument, of course, is nonsense, because it speaks in absolutes about things that are frankly unknowable. The deterrent effect of police presence can't be ascertained except by noting the effect of police absence. "Nonsense," cry the gun-rights advocates. Crimes are or are not committed because criminals assess a risk as being acceptable or unacceptable, and they commit their crimes accordingly. What does it profiteth a mugger if he shall gain an old lady's social security check if he gains also a pound of buckshot in the ass?

So goes the argument. Arm everyone, and we'll all be free and happy and manly and prosperous etc. etc. etc.

Turns out that that whole cherished argument is refuted by no less a personage than Richard Cheney, who bravely asserts that
"It is no accident that we haven't been hit in more than four years. We've been protected by sensible policy decisions, by decisive action at home and abroad."
Well, that's a relief! That means that all of those so-called terrorist insurgent attacks in Iraq have actually been prevented by Dubya's policy, which is to say that they must not really have occurred.

Of course, Cheney is likely referring to attacks on American soil. In that case, he's almost right. The anthrax mailings occurred late in 2001, which is more than four years. But that grenade attack happened in May of 2005, to name one example. I guess that the mere existence of the PATRIOT act, coupled with ever-increasing fascist surveillance policies, is a sufficient bludgeon to drive even the most terrible terrorist from our shores or into incarceration (in the case of 400 or so people charged with terrorism as of June 2005).

But it's especially nice to see Cheney praising Clinton's adminstration. Since Bill protected us via his own "sensible policy decisions, by decisive action at home and abroad," we were free from terrorist attack from 2/26/1993 through the end of Clinton's term. And we can hardly blame that first WTC bombing on Clinton, since it happened just days after his inauguration. I mean, Dubya wasn't blamed for 9/11, coming just eight-plus months after he said those same words about upholding the Constitution blah blah blah.

So the Dubya Administration is enjoying its role as terrorism deterrent, in exactly the same way that many of Dubya's supporters insist that police do not deter crime.

So which is it, gun advocates? Does a domineering executive presence deter violent crime, or not? Does the lack of an attack prove the efficacy of that deterrent, or not? Do you really think that Dubya would hesitate to negate our cherished "gun rights" if he thought it expedient, or not?

Hey, if ever there were a government from which we needed to protect ourselves, we're suffering under it now. If Dubya et al really felt that some citizen were an actual, armed threat, that citizen would vanish without a trace, perhaps showing up in an unmarked pine box some years later in Uzbekistan or Yemen or Crawford County.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Talk Amongst Yourselves
Work and travel are keeping me off the blog today, but I'm barely an improvement over nothing anyhow, so you don't need me. We've had some interesting threads going below that you can feel free to pick up on.

--Handicap the Repug presidential race for 2008. Who's the man--or woman? Who would be the easiest for your favorite Democrat to beat? And who is your favorite Democrat, by the way?

--Explain why CNN and MSNBC seem so eager to keep hiring right-wing nutjobs for on-air slots when Fox News has the wingnut demographic locked up. Are they just dumb, or is there something else going on?

Or contribute an entirely new topic. I want you to do whatever makes you happy, because your happiness is what I'm all about.

I'll also be out of blogging range on Friday and Saturday, but I am hoping the Sage will serve something for you to nibble on in my absence. Coming Sunday: more football predictions sure to be wrong.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Things That Are Good for the Spirit
It's been an extraordinarily busy day here at my dining-room table, as all of my clients seem to have awakened from a long winter's slumber at the same time, so I have been forced to do remunerative labor instead of blogging--which is not a bad thing. I need the money, and the glorious benefit of blowing the dust out of certain cobwebbed regions of my brain can't be understated, either.

I had to drop in this afternoon, however, to point you to a most unusual news article from the Associated Press, written by Nedra Pickler, about the White House response to Al Gore's criticisms of the illegal spying program. Pickler is often highly critical of Democrats in stories that are not intended to be opinion pieces--for which she became infamous during the 2004 nomination fight. But note the ninth paragraph of her story today, in which she takes an uncharacteristic whack at Scotty McClellan, essentially calling him out for distorting Bill Clinton's record on domestic spying. It's a beautiful thing, really, and utterly unlike not just Pickler, but mainstreamers in general. Imagine providing context for a remark instead of just parroting whatever the administration says and leaving it to the reader, ill-equipped though he may be, to decide.

Mmmm, smells like journalism.

Amongst the other stuff I've done today, I did find time to visit a blog called Unqualified Offerings, which I suggest you visit also. The post that brought me there is a discussion of the fabled "ticking time bomb" scenario, which is often used as a justification for torture. The scenario goes like this: If you knew that a terrorist was going to blow up a city full of white women and babies and make Jesus cry, wouldn't you be justified in torturing the terrorist to get information on the attack? The answer is usually yes, and that's how lots of people justify the use of torture. But Jim Henley's twist on the scenario is so simple that a simpleton such as I should have been able to think of it, and well worth the click.

On a completely different matter, Henley's also got a list of free software that does some of the same things Microsoft and others make you pay for, or replaces stuff by Microsoft and others that doesn't work as well. (For what it's worth, I used ZoneAlarm's free firewall on my old desktop computer, and found it to be better than the McAfee firewall I am paying for on the laptop. I also use AdAware anti-spyware and recommend it, along with Spybot and Spyware Blaster, which are not on the list, but are also good and easy to use. And yes, I suggest you use them all, as they tend to catch different things.)

Another thing I like about Unqualified Offerings is that Henley calls his wife "Mrs. Offering." I'd ask my Mrs. if she'd like to be "Mrs. Aneurysm," if I didn't know the answer already.

I have also been spending time at mp3 blogs (and I wrote about a couple of my favorites last week at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'). Today, The Number One Songs in Heaven has posted a breathtakingly gorgeous Southern soul tune called "Nothing Takes the Place of You" by Toussaint McCall. It's soul music in the most uplifting, good-for-the-spirit sense of the word. In fact, I am convinced that it could heal the sick and raise the dead. Even if you don't feel like you need it now, download it anyway. In a world such as this, you'll need it eventually.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hatin' on Headline News
A year or two ago, CNN Headline News dumped news entirely from primetime, putting on an hourlong showbiz show (gee, there's an underserved subject area), and an hour featuring Court TV's Nancy Grace, whose show might be the greatest waste of electricity in the history of American broadcasting. Sooner or later, every missing persons case in the country is going to get its turn on the show--brides gone from their honeymoons, grandmothers vanished on the way to the market, and Natalee Holloway as the Beaver. It's the worst kind of exploitation, as families and friends of the missing display their pain for CNN's profit and Grace's personal glorification. (Why anybody would want to spend any time at all with Grace, who has all the charm of a wounded alligator, is a mystery.) If you didn't know it was a real show, you might mistake it for a parody of bad cable news. The people involved in it should be embarrassed.

But they're not, and they're about to embarrass themselves even more. Headline News announced today that it intends to hire right-wing radio host Glenn Beck for a primetime hour starting in April. Beck's a lovely example of wingnuttia, as Media Matters ably summarizes here. Beck looks all boyish and innocent, but he's as nasty a wingnut as wingnuts come----racist, sadistic, turned on by war, and a genuinely bad guy. We can only hope that this hire might go the way of MSNBC's unfortunate experience with Michael Savage, whose TV career ended after four months in 2003, as soon as the suits at the network began to understand what they'd signed on for. But then again, Savage looked like a spittle-flecked maniac when he got rolling. Beck, who's on about 200 radio stations, mostly in red-leaning areas of the country, will likely come across as a lot more conventional--if no less hateful.

What the hire says is that CNN will put on every available right-wing nutjob before they'd even consider hiring somebody who remotely skews left. Liberal media, my ass.

Go, Al, Go
Like many, I was blown away by Al Gore's speech yesterday--both by the speech itself, and by the sad predictablity of the Bush humpers' response to it. It says a lot, and none of it good, about the state of political discourse in this country when the instant response to such a speech has nothing to do with the content and everything to do with ad hominem attacks on the speaker. "Oh, Al's just running for president" or "Everybody knows Al Gore is mentally ill." (Honesty compels me to report I haven't seen anybody criticize Gore's mental state this time, although conservative mouthpieces said so frequently after one of his earlier speeches.) And after the administration has had a couple of hours to formulate a response, what they do is predictable, too: They send out an official--last night it was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales--to A) distort and B) lie about Gore and his record.

It seems to me that responding to legitimate criticisms and accusations by defaulting immediately to dishonesty, or childish "nanny nanny boo boo" behavior, is its own form of mental illness, but I'm not a doctor. And if Al Gore is running for president--the new-model, post-2000 version of Al Gore, the one who talks plainly and passionately about stuff that really matters--then go Al. I love me some Russ Feingold, but I could easily love me some Al, too.

Monday, January 16, 2006

One Fine Day in Kuwait, and Iowa
I would have forgotten it entirely if it hadn't been for the Today in History box in the right-hand column, but tonight is the 15th anniversary of the start of the Persian Gulf War. On that day, we'd known for weeks that there was going to be a war in the Gulf. We didn't know exactly when it would start, although Saddam Hussein had been given a January 15 deadline to pull out of Kuwait, and when he didn't do it, we knew the war couldn't be more than hours away.

We forget now how profoundly scary it was to anticipate that war, before we found out that Saddam's vaunted Republican Guard was going to fold up like a cheap card table. We'd heard that the military had ordered 40,000 body bags, for example, and Saddam had promised "the mother of all battles." We suspected that he might try to widen the war into a conflagration embroiling the entire Middle East, and he tried, by hitting Israel with his infamous Scud missiles. (In early January, I had listened to a talk show--a thorougly secular, non-wacky talk show--that discussed, in all seriousness, whether Armageddon was at hand.)

On January 16, 1991, I was working at a radio station in Clinton, Iowa. In those days, Clinton wasn't exactly Paris in the 1920s--it was a hanging-by-a-thread industrial town where the top employers were an animal carcass rendering plant and a grain processor, both of which blanketed the city with an indescribable stench, and a chemical plant that produced god-knew-what. It was a shot-and-a-beer town, albeit more in the what's-the-use, who-gives-a-shit sense than in the salt-of-the-earth sense. (That's partly why The Mrs. and I never lived there--I commuted from 30 miles away for three-plus years.) Despite all that, however, the station was run by the best owner I ever worked for, and it became a place where you could plant little seeds of good radio and be given the time necessary for them to grow.

So on that day, I am on the air in the afternoon, my regular timeslot. Around the office, war talk has been secondary to the fact that Jane Pauley of NBC News is in town shooting a feature for one of her shows. At the end of the 3:30 local newscast, my reporter, Christy, mentions this to me on the air. We happen to know that the owner of the local limousine service usually plays our station in his limo, so I make a little speech: "Jane, if you're listening and you have a few minutes, stop by the radio station. Your driver knows how to find it. We promise it will be the easiest interview you ever had. Nothing but softball questions. You can plug your new show all you want." I repeat the invitation a few more times over the next couple of hours.

About 5:45, Christy suddenly bursts into the studio yelling, "This is it! This is it!"

She is talking about the first bulletins of bombers over Baghdad. For a few seconds, I think she is telling me Jane Pauley has showed up.

I wasn't in favor of that war. All the talk about liberating the poor Kuwaitis, and all the talk about Saddam being worse than Hitler, all of it sounded to me like PR nonsense. It was a war to control the flow of oil, nothing more. The fact that an international coalition was working together on the effort made it only a little easier to swallow. Yet when the war actually began--in the first 10 minutes after Christy barreled into the studio--I remember feeling a rush of excitement, and a euphoria so powerful my knees almost buckled when I stood up. Visions of B-52s flying wing-to-wing, tanks and trucks roaring over the border, endless lines of soldiers marching into the distance, flags snapping in the breeze, my country, of thee I sing. This is it. This is it.

There's not much to tell after that. We put on ABC Radio's wall-to-wall coverage, fired up the TV set in the newsroom, and settled in for the evening. And over the next few hours, the course of American history began to change, in ways we're still working out now, 15 years later.

Warning: Cheap Shot
My wife has noticed something frightening: Doesn't BooHoo Scalito look an awful lot like Nathan Lane in Goldmember?

I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but I've never seen Mr. Lane and "Mrs. Alito" in the same place at the same time.

Hmm...

(Sorry--I couldn't find a pic of Lane in Goldmember. Go rent it.)

Black Ink, White Page
On this MLK Day, let me say first that I am not sure a white guy should be pontificating about race relations. Especially not a white guy of Norwegian ancestry who lives in a suburb that's 98 to 99 percent white (albeit in the most racially diverse neighborhood of that suburb). In fact, the opinions of the general run of white people--who know about black American life on a second-hand basis at best--are not entirely reliable. So when you hear that 78 percent of white Americans think that significant progress has been made toward racial equality in the United States, consider the source--and then take note that among black Americans, the figure is 66 percent.

The same poll notes, interestingly enough, that more suburbanites believe in progress than urbanites, and more Republicans than Democrats. In other words--if you neither are, nor live with, nor make common cause politically with black Americans, you are more likely to believe progress is being made toward racial equality. You probably could have predicted that without a poll. (The good thing, at least, is that majorities in all demographic groups see progress.)

I am not sure that agreement with a statement that the country has "made progress toward racial equality," which is what the AP/IPSOS poll asked about, is the same as agreement with a statement that "race relations are better." On one level, of course they are--race relations are a lot better now than they were 50 years ago. But what about a comparison between now and 25 years ago, or 10? Somewhere there are probably objective standards by which it can be measured, but I don't know what they are. What I suspect is this: Despite living in a politically correct age, we talk about racial issues in much harsher terms now than we used to. I'm not talking about white people throwing around the word "nigger"--I'm talking about white people's opinions about black culture, black employment and career aspirations, black family structure, and so on. White people are a lot more blunt about expressing themselves on those issues now, whereas a generation ago we might have thought the same things, but would have taken care to whisper about them.

You can argue that talking out loud is more honest than whispering, and thereby better--and it is, when the talk is constructive. But when it's the same old stereotyped nonsense, about black people who don't want to work, can't be educated, have bad habits, or whose culture threatens white values, then what have we gained? My point is that open hostility between races seems more common now than it was when I was growing up. But remember--I'm a white guy of Norwegian ancestry who lives in a suburb that's 98 to 99 percent white (albeit in the most racially diverse neighborhood of that suburb). So I could be wrong.

Recommended Reading:
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir writes about the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction, and how a leading historian believes its failure is the key to our unhappy racial history. And the Rude Pundit compares and contrasts the words of Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, and James Dobson on religion in public life.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Apparently Some Football Happened Today
Don't tell JB, but I'm not a big sports fan. If he'd known that at the outset, he might not have given me this gig, so let's keep it a secret, just between you and me.

I live near Pittsburgh, a town that for all intents and purposes stopped looking ahead some time around The Immaculate Reception. I actually ran into Franco Harris at a party two years ago, though I have no idea why he was there. A friend who knows these things pointed him out to me, saying, "That's Franco Harris."

He seemed smaller than I would have imagined, probably because Pittsburgh lore remembers him to be slightly taller than the famed PPG Building (most of which no longer belongs to Pittsburgh Plate Glass, by the way). Anyway, he had a good handshake, and he was a nice enough guy for the four seconds that he and I chatted.

But Pittsburgh managed to edge out the Colts today, fanning once more the flames of Yinzer Optimism. One hopes that the optimism is justified, as the expression goes, if only to justify the multi-million dollar sports complexes that the 'Burgh built a few years ago for two of the then-losingest teams in their respective sports. If the Pirates would take the pennant for '06, so much the better, but even I know enough to know that that's unlikely. And didn't we used to have a hockey team somewhere?

Anyway, all of that is secondary to the two-hour season premiere of 24, airing tonight between 8:00 and 10:00 Eastern. Or at least it was supposed to. A pair of football teams saw fit to run past their duly ordained timeslot and push 24 back approximately eleven minutes. It would only have been four or five minutes, but they just had to air the post-game wrap-up. If there's a job in the entire US economy that's less vital than a post-game commentator, I'd like to know what it is.

The redundancy of this redundant redundancy wouldn't have bothered me, except that other obligations required me to record it for viewing at 10:00 p.m. Thanks to I missed the last eleven minutes of episode two. If you know anything about 24, it's that the show takes place in "real time," and each episode ends in a cliff-hanger. Thankfully, episodes three and four air tomorrow, so I can likely pick up the plot without much lost, but that's hardly the point.

Even worse, I found that the episodes were not commercial-free, as they've done sometimes in the past. Sure, that means that everyone in those earlier episodes drives the Ford SUV-du-jour, but I can live with shameless product placement if it means no pace-breaking commercials.

But tonight, the first commercial I saw was that stupid talking baby for Quizno's Subs. Bring back the Spong-Monkeys, sez I. This insipid, unfunny, and played-out pint-sized Tom Ridge Lookalike should be banned from public air forever, as should all CGI characters on commercials, whether they're pimping toenail fungus remedies or selling dog food. Let's just get rid of animated talking animals, while we're at it. If I have to live in a world that permits even one more stupid chimp-in-an-unlikely-circumstance movie, I'll scream. Bad enough that we have a stupid chimp in--

Nah, that's too easy.

Sorry to rant, but Baby Ridge on top of overlong color commentary just sends me over the edge. So what happened in the final eleven minutes, anyway?

A Late Word About the Football
Four extremely good games this weekend, as most everyone expected. Divisional playoff weekend is usually the best NFL weekend of the year.

Sunday: a classic finish for Colts/Steelers, one you'd scarcely believe without seeing it. How sick are the Colts about this, their best chance to make the Super Bowl? Their nemesis, New England, is no longer in their way--and they can't get past the number-six seed in the AFC. Their kicker is probably the second-most reliable in the NFL, but he missed with all the money on the table--although the game was lost before then, when Peyton Manning, the best QB in the NFL not named Tom Brady, couldn't do his usual magic.

Bears/Panthers: also a great game with a breathless finish. Rex Grossman played a better game than I expected, but when he needed to pull it out at the end, he didn't. Both this game and the Colts/Steelers games were poorly officiated, by the way--at one point, I remarked to The Mrs. that Bears fans have been complaining for 25 years about getting jobbed by the refs, but that as of today, it was now time for them to shut up, although a few minutes later, the refs missed calling a delay-of-game penalty on the Bears, and the resulting play ended up in Carolina intercepting a pass. So after a quarter-century of bitching about penalties called, I am guessing that somewhere, they started bitching about the one that didn't get called.

Losers. Shut up and go home.

Saturday: I'm reluctant to say that Denver beat New England--it was more a case of New England losing to Denver, with all the mistakes and turnovers New England committed. In retrospect, it may be that New England's late-season run was destined to end like that--they probably lacked the talent of previous teams, and momentum, luck, and guts can only take you so far. Now that Denver has beaten the champs, it may be time for me to start believing in them. But I don't have to say just yet.

Redskins/Seahawks: a better game than I expected, although it was the result I expected. Not the dominating Seahawk performance I expected, though, even though the Redskins were lucky to be in the playoffs to begin with, and Cinderella's coach usually turns into a pumpkin more or less on time. Seattle will need a more thorough effort than that to beat Carolina next weekend.

I was 2-and-2 on the weekend (right on the Seahawks and Panthers, wrong on New England and Indianapolis), and now I'm 5-and-3 overall. Predictions for the coming weekend's games will be up Friday or Saturday.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Where Rosy Scenarios Fall Victim to Gut Instincts, and the Tom Brady Love Fest Continues
Once again this weekend, I intend to watch football until my eyes fall out. I'll get to my picks in a moment, but first, I've got a few thoughts about my team, which was anything but elite this year.

The Packers fired head coach Mike Sherman on January 2, even though he had four winning seasons in five years and won three straight division titles. Although his firing was unjust and probably unwarranted, Sherman got caught in the switches with a new boss--general manager Ted Thompson, who took over Sherman's GM duties before last season--and a record of 4-and-12. In pro sports, you don't survive that deadly double.

This week, the Packers replaced Sherman with Mike McCarthy, a former Packers assistant who'd been offensive coordinator with San Francisco. The 49ers had one of the NFL's worst offenses this past year. Before that, he was offensive coordinator in New Orleans, which never rose above the level of mediocrity while he was there. And before that, in the single year McCarthy was the Packers quarterback coach (1999), Brett Favre had one of the worst seasons of his career. None of these is entirely McCarthy's fault--but then again, going 4-and-12 wasn't entirely Sherman's fault, either, but he was held responsible nevertheless.

One immediate positive folks are finding in the McCarthy hiring is that McCarthy's familiarity with Favre--or to put it more precisely, Favre's familiarity with McCarthy--might persuade Favre to return for the 2006 season. However, in the two weeks since the season's end, I've made my peace with the idea that Favre may not return, and lots of other Packer fans have, too. So if bringing Favre back is the best thing McCarthy can do, it isn't going to be enough.

Coaching changes in pro sports are often made on gut instinct, and it seems likely that's how Ted Thompson decided to fire Sherman and hire McCarthy. But unless Thompson's gut is especially golden, it's hard to see McCarthy as an improvement, at least not right away. Sherman won 65 percent of his games--there are coaches enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame who were less successful. (Note to McCarthy: 11-and-5 next year would be 65 percent.) Now, maybe McCarthy is like Andy Reid, a previously unknown Packers assistant who's become a great success with Philadelphia, or maybe he's like Mike Holmgren, a former 49ers offensive coordinator who took the Packers to two Super Bowls, winning one (and is in the playoffs with the Seattle Seahawks this weekend). But right now, there's no evidence that he's either one of those. There's not even much evidence that he could be one of those. All we know for sure is what we can see right now--that the Packers, who were a big question mark for 2006 after the disaster of 2005, remain just as big a question mark as they were before. With an unproven coach and the team just embarking on an offseason of upheaval, maybe bigger.

Playoff Picks:
Last week, I went 3-and-1, only going wrong on Carolina/New York, which was the hardest game to pick anyhow. So now the pressure is on to do equally well this weekend, so that my picks are demonstrably better than what I might have gotten by tossing a coin.

Washington Redskins at Seattle Seahawks. The Redskins are a fashionable pick, partially because pundits are in love with the Skins' Hall-of-Fame coach Joe Gibbs, partially because the Redskins are the hottest team still playing, and partially because half of Americans think Seattle is located somewhere in Canada. Pundits also think this game will be close, and it could be. But I think it's also the most likely of the four this weekend to have viewers flipping to the Food Network in the second half. As the week has gone on, I've kept lowering the margin I expect the Seahawks to win by. But they'll win. Seahawks 29, Redskins 14.

New England Patriots at Denver Broncos. Denver quarterback Jake Plummer has had a season in which his vast potential finally turned to performance, the Broncos' running game is its usual solid self, and their defense stopped opponents consistently all year on the way to a 13-and-3 record. But I've seen them lose big games over the years just often enough to pick against them tonight. New England has veteran players and coaches who know how to win playoff games. They also have superior talent at quarterback, where Plummer is far more likely to have an off game than Tom Brady is. Patriots 24, Broncos 19.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts. The Colts haven't played a meaningful game since early December. Will they be rusty after their long layoff? Will they be affected by the terrible Christmas-week suicide of their coach's son? Are the Steelers on a sufficient roll right now to beat the Super Bowl favorite? Answers: Maybe; yes, but in a good way; and yes, but it won't be enough. I expect this to be like a great heavyweight fight, at least for a while. Colts 28, Steelers 14.

Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears.
The hardest game of the weekend to pick. As a Packer fan, I am genetically programmed to pick against the Bears, so to compensate, I have been looking for reasons to take them all week. And they do have the league's best defense. They beat Carolina earlier this season. But there are legitimate reasons to pick against them, too. Carolina has multiple weapons on offense, and they're rolling, after disposing of the Giants last week. The Bears benched QB Kyle Orton for ineffectiveness even though they went 10-and-4 with him, and reinstalled the oft-injured Rex Grossman, then benched him again for the meaningless final game of the season--so he's played six quarters of football all year. The last big game Grossman played was at the University of Florida, and this is bigger. In addition, the December Bears were not as dominant on defense as they were during the first three-quarters of the season. Nevertheless, lots of Bears fans believe they're a mortal lock for the Super Bowl. Not so fast there, flatlanders--that's the mass hypnosis talking. If the Panthers manage at least two touchdowns, they'll win. If they get three, that's a mortal lock. Panthers 17, Bears 13.

Token Political Links: Here's a great rant from Steve Gilliard about the chickenhawks who are fighting the Iraq War and policing the bounds of acceptable discourse from behind their computers. And if you're wondering whether filibustering Alito would be a good idea or not, Salon's War Room is wondering, too.

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