Sunday, April 30, 2006

Speaking Truthiness to Power
I am de-hiatusing myself quickly to reiterate that I hate the White House Correspondents Dinner. It's unseemly for reporters to get all chummy with the people they're supposed to be covering, particularly in an era like this one. The failure of our current press corps to cover this administration honestly and effectively has had, is having, and will continue to have devastating consequences that result in nothing less than real people ending up real dead. The press corps should be boycotting the damn thing, not jockeying for seats.

The chumminess of the whole thing is summed up by this story, which is leading most of the online news sites this morning. Ha-ha-ha, they had a Bush impersonator up there alongside Bush. Isn't that funny. (Didn't they do the same thing with Will Ferrell a couple of years ago?) But the far more newsworthy event coming out of the dinner was Stephen Colbert's remarks. In the words of Steve Gilliard, "He said everything I would want to say if I could force George Bush to listen to me as a captive audience for 20 minutes." Colbert's liable to end up in Guantanamo for what he said, but just knowing that Bush had to listen to it brightens up a rainy Sunday.

Money quotes:
"The greatest thing about this President is you know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday!"

"I believe that the government that governs best is a government that governs least, and by these standards we have set up a fabulous government in Iraq."

"[Jesse Jackson] is a very challenging interview... It's like boxing a glacier. Enjoy that metaphor by the way because your grandchildren will have no idea what a glacier is."
Ladies and gentlemen, please remember to tip your waiters and waitresses, and drive safely on the way home. Editor and Publisher has the details here; the video is here.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Only You Can Prevent Spiraling Dumbitude
There's a link at Eschaton this afternoon to a funny story at Hotline. It's the transcript from a White House briefing today, in which Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post tries to find out if it's White House policy that every TV set in the White House must be tuned to Fox News. You may enjoy the spectacle of outgoing Press Secretary Scott McClellan talking a lot and saying nothing, for one of the last times.

We can't really do anything about the existence of Fox News, and if it was like Pravda before, it's going to be more so with the ascension of Tony Snow to Press Secretary. But we can take little steps to limit its hegemony--like asking if you can tune to something else when you see it on a public TV. I also program it out of the channel lineup on hotel TVs whenever possible, which seems like the least any of us can do to raise the collective IQ of the American citizenry.

This blog is now going on hiatus until Monday, unless our occasional guest poster Tom Herbst, the Sage of Pennsylvania, decides to check in. (We haven't heard anything from Tom for quite a while, either in the blog entries or the comments, so I am hoping that this mention will smoke him out.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Be Vewy Vewy Qwiet--I'm Hunting Tewwowists
Our most entertaining Republican candidate for Wisconsin attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, is at it again. According to the Capital Times, Van Hollen told a press conference today, "We have in Wisconsin terrorists who are training and raising funds."

Holy crap, J.B.!

He declined to offer details (of course) although he'd like to (of course), but he's forbidden to do so by federal law (of course). Van Hollen claims he learned this startling news while he was U.S. attorney for the western half of Wisconsin. Later in his press conference, however, the situation was revealed to be not quite what J.B. made it out to be at first. Capital Times reporter David Callender writes,
But Van Hollen appeared to backtrack later, saying the training he was referring to "is not the physical training, not the things you would customarily hear or see, or anything that rises to the level of illegality."

He also acknowledged that there have been no terrorist acts in Wisconsin either before or since the Sept. 11 attacks, but he added that there are a number of potential terrorist targets, such as power plants and the Capitol.

"I assure you that if there are people who are active in terrorism in the state of Wisconsin and people are at risk of that, they will be taken down," he said. "But people can only be taken down once they have conspired and committed an act in furtherance of that conspiracy."
So let's review:

--There are terrorists training in Wisconsin, except that they're not physically training, or doing anything you would hear or see, and they aren't doing anything illegal. Well, by that definition, if you're standing in the bathroom scratching your ass, you're doing more evil than the terrorists are.

--There have been no terrorist acts in Wisconsin either before or after the September 11 attacks. Damn, J.B., nothing gets past you.

--There are a number of potential targets, such as power plants and the Capitol.
And also Lambeau Field, Wisconsin Dells, my mom and dad's house, and the world's largest six-pack.

--If there are terrorists in Wisconsin, they will be taken down, but only after they've engaged in conspiracy. What does he mean, "if"? Confusion over their existence aside, apparently this means J.B. isn't down with the president's whole preemptive, stick-it-to-them-before-they-stick-it-to-us policy. Appearing to go against Dear Leader in any way, including what to order for lunch, will get you nowhere with Wisconsin's Republican faithful. So which is it, J.B? Are you with the president, or are you against him?

Van Hollen was last spotted on this blog bashing the Democratic candidates for AG, accusing them of celebrating lawlessness by speaking to immigrant rallies a couple of weeks ago, and has compared abortion to homicide. He's a Bush appointee to the U.S. attorney's office, and I was surprised to learn he lives in Waunakee, just up the road from here--because I'd never heard of him actually doing anything until he decided to run for AG. The only polling I can find on the race shows him trailing his primary opponent, Waukesha County DA Paul Bucher, by 26 to 7, but 49 percent are undecided, so it really doesn't mean anything. Van Hollen's strategy appears to be to hammer emotional Republican hot buttons as hard as possible--abortion is murder, immigrants are lawless, and terrorists want to kill your children in their beds right in Waunakee--in hopes of getting people to realize he exists.

But ooh, terrorists in Wisconsin. Very scary.

News Update: An amendment that would have preserved net neutrality lost in the House Energy and Commerce Committee this afternoon. The entire telecommunications bill containing provisions that would drastically reconfigure the Internet now goes to the Senate. It's unknown what will happen there, although a couple of senators are crafting a bill that's a lot like the amendment that was defeated today. Stay up to date by clicking the "Save the Internet" banner at the right.

Circling the Drain
Here's something so stupid it causes me actual physical pain just thinking about the combination of synapses in the human brain that must fire to make a person think this is sensible: Infertility is an unhealthy situation. Because contraceptives cause infertility, they are unhealthy. Therefore, the state has a compelling interest in banning contraceptives to promote women's health.

Amanda and her readers at Pandagon do a nice job of demolishing the argument, showing that if contraception is somehow contradictory to "nature," so are cold medication, chemotherapy, and marriage. But the fact that somebody even has to rebut such a stone stupid argument indicates how speedily our society is circling the drain.

Lots of blogs are talking about the appointment of Fox talking head Tony Snow as White House Press Secretary. Best comment I've seen came from a reader at Political Animal, who suggested that the appointment is aimed straight at the Repug base. Since the 32 percent of Americans who still support He Who Shall Not Be Named are probably mainlining Fox News 18 to 20 hours a day, the Snow appointment is a message to them and to their wavering brethren that He Who is still their man, and they need to stick with him in November.

But neither of those is the big story of the day. Nope. Here in Wisconsin, our long statewide nightmare is over: Brett Favre has announced he will return for another season quarterbacking the Packers.

Favre has dithered over the decision since early January, but finally made up his mind yesterday. The great Canadian philosopher Geddy Lee once said, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." By taking four months to make up his mind, Favre told us a lot. He made it pretty clear that he wouldn't mind getting out of Green Bay by saying he felt like he could still play at a high level but wanted to be sure the Packers would be contenders before he made up his mind. So I wonder how committed he is to being in Green Bay at all. Even though he's saying this will be his last year, if he has an average season statistically by his standards (regardless of the Packers' eventual record), I am pretty sure he'll want to play somewhere else in 2007.

I have no empirical evidence for it, but I have a feeling that Favre has burned substantial goodwill among fans by jerking the team around all winter. My hope is that the second or third time he makes one of the stupid mistakes that helped ruin the 2005 season, he'll get booed. Last season, a quarterback who played as poorly as Favre did would have been benched, but Favre's legendary status kept him in the games beyond all rationality. That shouldn't happen this year. If the guy shows he can't play, he should sit, whether he's a Hall of Famer or not. It isn't like we have to worry about keeping him happy, which was why he played last year when he didn't deserve to.

Nobody's quite sure what Favre's seen recently that makes him think the Packers will be contenders in 2006. Only the most blindly optimistic, kool-aid drunk fans (32 percent, maybe?) believe they will be. So Favre should be on a mighty short leash this year. We've gone 4-and-12 with him, and we can go 4-and-12 without him.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

It's 5:00--Do You Know Where Your Testicles Are?
(This post requires a parental advisory for explicit language. Really: If you've got one of those Internet filters that blocks naughty sites, farewell--it's been good to know you.)

Here are a couple of candidates for Quotes of the Day. First, on the likely appointment of Fox News analyst Tony Snow as White House Press Secretary, from Joe in DC at AMERICABlog: "Tomorrow we'll see the actual morphing of FOX News into the White House. . . ."

It occurs to me that Snow's appointment is a remarkable fuck-you to quite nearly everybody, but especially "the liberal media." True, He Who Shall Not Be Named could have picked Hannity, which would have been an even bigger invitation to self-copulation, and the synergy between the White House and Fox was already clear, but still, as an example of how little the administration cares about how it's perceived, this is big.

Elsewhere, HWSNBN gave an embarrassing speech yesterday in which he yammered on about Iraq again, saying, "[T]he confluence of a terrorist network with weapons of mass destruction is the biggest threat the United States of America faces. They have said it's just a matter of time." The Rude Pundit asks:
"Who the fuck is the 'they' there? Intelligence analysts? His cabinet? Or are 'they' the terrorists themselves? 'Cause, like, that'd mean that a bunch of sexually repressed crazed religious fundamentalists are setting our foreign policy and dictating massive spending and loss of life on the part of the United States and . . . oh, fuck, the irony just made the Rude Pundit's nuts retreat into his body cavity in fear."
If irony and fear really make the Rude Pundit's nuts do that, they must be pretty far up after five years of similar nonsense. I know mine are.

Dangerous Distortions
Those of us who have lived on the Internet for several years have seen this day coming, and now it's almost here--the day the Internet, which evolved in the ultimate small-D democratic manner to become the civilization-altering force it is today, is handed over wholesale to major telecommunications corporations, who will make it fit a business model that ensures they make as much money as possible from those willing to pay, and to hell with everybody else. A committee in the House of Reprsentatives is set to vote on a bill this week that would end the practice of "net neutrality" and permit corporations a greater role than ever before in determining what gets done online, and by whom.

I lack both the expertise and the attention span to fully explain the concept of net neutrality and why major telecommunications companies are opposed to it, but here's how I understand it: Right now, every communication on the Internet is treated like every other. My MP3 download of a song from your website goes through the pipeline right alongside a video download somebody is getting from a TV network's website. Your online order of two books from a tiny used book store in East Overshoe goes right alongside some right-wing foundation's order of 10,000 Ann Coulter books from Amazon. It happens that way because of net neutrality. But if neutrality is erased, and telecommunications companies are given the right to regulate traffic, Amazon and the TV network would have the right (and the dollars) to pay for the highest-speed access, while others would have to settle for the slow lane.

Some observers think the ultimate goal is to keep Internet users within the walls of a defined space, a la AOL, and charging them extra to go elsewhere. (In the old days of AOL, you couldn't get out of their network at all.) Limiting users to a private network not controlls user eyeballs that can be sold to advertisers, it also can keep "undesirable" content out--and "undesirable" can be defined any way the private controlling entity wants to define it. In Canada recently, users of AT&T's Internet service were kept from viewing the website of a company sympathetic to a union AT&T was negotiating with. There would be little to stop the telephone companies from refusing to permit their Internet customers to use voice-over-IP telephone services like Vonage, for example.

Of course, supporters of the bill that would end net neutrality are spinning it as a property rights issue--pity the poor corporations who are being denied their god-given right to do whatever is good for them. However, that's a dangerous distortion of not only the issue of net neutrality, but a dangerous distortion of what the Internet is. It's not merely a medium of communication--it's communication itself.

There's a thread at Political Animal that tries to explain the issue from the ground up; Steve Gilliard (who has been scary good the last couple of weeks on various issues) has a great essay on what the end of net neutrality will mean in practical terms. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is going to vote on the bill ending net neutrality this week--if your representative is a member of that committee, there's no time to write a letter and e-mails aren't worth very much. Call 'em. Find out who's on the committee and learn more about the issue here.

More Recommended Reading:
As a history geek, I am forever trying to view current events through the lens of history. Distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. takes a look today, comparing the Bush doctrine of preventive war to the Cold War doctrine of containment-plus-deterrence. Although he ends his column with a paragraph of absurdly wishful thinking about how Bush might be "moved by daily sorrows of death and destruction to forgo solo preventive war"--fat chance--it's still a worthwhile perspective.

Monday, April 24, 2006

It's My Party and I'll Slack If I Want To
I have thought up a few slogans the Democrats could use for the fall elections. Here they are:
"Democrats--keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle since 1945."
"Vote Democratic--our Jesus is more peaceful than their Jesus."
"No more civilian casualties--vote Democratic."
"Vote Democratic--because red makes you look fat."
Your contributions are earnestly sought. Between Blogger's database problems today, the press of actual remunerative labor, and plain laziness, I'm taking the rest of the day off. (All except for writing this at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

If Everyone Hates You, You're Not Necessarily Right--Maybe You're Just Really, Really Wrong
From today's New York Daily News: "Taking her hardest line yet against illegal immigrants, Sen. Hillary Clinton told the Daily News she wants U.S. borders secured with a wall or fence, possibly surveillance drones and infrared cameras."

(Blogger sighs heavily, beats head against desk.)

This probably looks like clever triangulation to her and her people--position yourself, in true Big-Dog style, between the Democrats who would let everybody in and the Republicans who'd ship everyone of Mexican ancestry back over the border--but it's just stupid. There are millions of voters, even in the center she's trying to peel off, who will never vote for her no matter what she says. And by saying stuff like this, the net effect is mostly to piss off the Democratic base--most importantly, minority voters who already hate the Republicans for saying the same damn things.

Hillary's reelection to the Senate this November is as close to a sure thing as there is in politics, so this statement is really about 2008. And it's a play straight from Ye Olde Centrist Democrat Master Plan. But that book's been out of date since Hillary's husband strolled into history. If we run plays out of it in 2008, we're going to lose--again.

Recommended Reading: I'm late finding this, but it's still worth a look--an article from New York magazine on the conspiracy theorists developing their secret histories of September 11. Just describing them with the phrase "conspiracy theorists" makes them sound wacky, like the guys living in their mother's basements who've spent the last 40 years cooking up Kennedy assassination theories. And some of the 9/11 theorists are indeed wack, but others continue to raise plausible questions about exactly what happened that day, and continue to ask why. It's easy to get sucked into a speculative vortex if you take all of their theories seriously. However, it's easy to get out again if you remember that the same Bush Administration some theorists accuse of actively facilitating the whole thing is also the crowd of geniuses who've screwed up everything else they've touched since Inauguration Day. So that most extreme of possibilities is almost certainly wrong. But lots of other possibilities can't be ruled out.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Bottom of the Barrel
I hope you read the article I linked to yesterday by historian Sean Wilentz, writing in the latest Rolling Stone. His article, "The Worst President in History?", compares the personality traits and governing characteristics of He Who Shall Not Be Named to the presidents who are traditionally ranked among the worst: Buchanan, Harding, Grant, Hoover, Andrew Johnson. Because once you've read that, you'll be interested in reading John Dean's "If past is prologue, George Bush is becoming an increasingly dangerous president." Dean puts Bush on the couch using the work of political scientist James David Barber, whose analysis of character traits and attitudes toward the work of being president allowed him to predict Richard Nixon's second-term self-destruction two years before it happened.

By Barber's typography, Bush is an "active/negative" president--he does a lot, but he doesn't like the job very much. This is demonstrated, Dean says, by his inability to do the work of persuasion that presidents must do to govern effectively--demonstrated by earlier this week when he explained that Donald Rumsfeld would remain as defense secretary because "I'm the decider, and I decide."
Bush has never understood what presidential scholar Richard Neustadt discovered many years ago: In a democracy, the only real power the presidency commands is the power to persuade. Presidents have their bully pulpit, and the full attention of the news media, 24/7. In addition, they are given the benefit of the doubt when they go to the American people to ask for their support. But as effective as this power can be, it can be equally devastating when it languishes unused - or when a president pretends not to need to use it, as Bush has done.

Apparently, Bush does not realize that to lead he must continually renew his approval with the public. He is not, as he thinks, the decider. The public is the decider.

Bush is following the classic mistaken pattern of active/negative presidents: As Barber explained, they issue order after order, without public support, until they eventually dissipate the real powers they have -- until "nothing [is] left but the shell of the office." Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon all followed this pattern.
Active/negative presidents are risk-takers, and once they've taken a risk, they stick with it beyond reason. Think Wilson, driving himself to a debilitating stroke on a whistle-stop speaking tour to sell his stillborn League of Nations. Think Nixon saying, "I want you to stonewall it . . . whatever it takes to save the plan." Think Iraq. Dean predicts that with his back against the wall and his presidency lost if the Democrats retake Congress, Bush will take yet another risk to save his bacon. Think Iran.

The Dean link comes from Smirking Chimp, which also contains a column today by Chris Floyd about the likely toll of a nuclear strike on Iran. It's probably not the kind of thing you'd like to read as you head into the weekend--according to the Pentagon's own estimates, a strike limited only to the main underground site at Esfahan would leave three million dead of radiation poisoning in two weeks, plus 35 million exposed to cancer-causing levels of radiation as far away as Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.

Homework for the wekeend: In the wake of what would be the greatest crime in the history of mankind, what do you think Americans would do and say?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Veritable Cornucopia of Clickworthy Linkage
If you've got questions, we've got answers--provided these are the questions you have.

What if Republicans talked about guns the same way they talk about sex?

How would it turn out if one of America's leading historians compared He Who Shall Not Be Named with the worst presidents in American history?

When is a campaign called "Hands off the Internet" really about putting the Internet entirely in corporate hands? (If you're a member of MoveOn.org, watch your e-mail for more info on this.)

What if you spent your afternoons in your corporate cubicle following major-league baseball online while you were supposed to be working, and then bragged about it on your blog?

If you are a man over the age of 30, what are 59 things you shouldn't do? (This was apparently the subject of an article in Esquire last fall, but has now been turned into a book. My favorite: "Shout out a response to 'are you ready to rock?'")

How stupid do you have to be to say "yes" to a guy who knocks on your door and claims he's in the neighborhood conducting free breast exams?

Is the Capital Brewery Dark Doppelbock sitting in my refrigerator at this very moment one of the best beers in the world? I think it's time to go and taste for myself.

Left Behind
You may have seen the story this morning about a survey of parents and teachers regarding the likelihood that the No Child Left Behind Act will succeed in getting all students up to state standards in reading and math by 2014. Parents are much more likely to believe this will happen than teachers are. If you're the kind of person who'd wager on such things, bet on the teachers being right.

No Child Left Behind has as its centerpiece the idea that the feds will allow states to maintain control over what students should know and be able to do. But state standards are a patchwork. What is expected of the average eighth grader in Texas is a lot different than what's expected of the average eighth grader in New York. This accounts for the vast discrepancies between the proficiency figures shown by state tests and those based on a national test, such as the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). Some state standards seem shockingly low. When I was developing test-prep materials for use in Texas schools, I found it hard to believe that anyone could fail the grade 8 tests, especially in language arts, given the simplistic reading passages and dead-easy questions on them. When California jumped into the state-testing pool with both feet back in the late 90s, its standards seemed fabulously high, especially in social studies. Sample objective for grade 7: "Describe the theological, political, and economic ideas of the major figures during the Reformation, e.g., Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale." During precisely the same years, the only Calvin Texas seventh-graders were likely to know anything about owned a stuffed animal named Hobbes.

The goal of having all students at or above state standards is admirable, although it also can lead to something known in testing circles as the "Lake Wobegon effect"--the statistically impossible situation where everyone is above average. It is theoretically possible for every student to score at or above the established level for "proficiency." That's because state tests are "criterion-referenced," as contrasted with "norm-referenced" tests that grade on a curve, thus requiring some students to fail. However, even criterion-referenced tests are norm-referenced to a degree--if vast numbers of kids begin to pass, there follows a suspicion that the tests may be too easy, and they're tweaked so that some kids will fail. Some states adjust their standards and tests every couple of years, which makes me wonder how they can know whether their kids are really improving versus some standard that defines proficiency--the standard keeps moving.

Neither of these factors--the dubious rigor of state standards or the possibility that all students will be permitted to succeed in the first place--is readily apparent to parents, but they matter a great deal to teachers and to students. What parents are expressing about No Child Left Behind's likely success is mostly a hope. Teachers, who are generally better informed about what's going on in schools than the best-informed parent, understand the difficult reality. That's not to say they don't want every kid to succeed, only that they know how hard it's going to be, especially by government fiat and/or unfunded mandate.

In the end, the strong belief parents have in the eventual success of NCLB by 2014 is a bit like a patient's strong belief that cancer will be cured by 2014. "Sure, why not? It seems like we ought to be able to do it by then." But ask a physician or medical researcher, who knows a lot more about the field than the typical patient, and you'll find a different sort of optimism. "We're working hard and we'll make it someday, but it's unrealistic to give us a deadline like that."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You Can Show Me the Money, But I Might Not Look
My favorite sports blog, Deadspin (part of the Gawker media empire, and thus a cousin to Wonkette), linked to a story this morning about the University of Georgia athletic department, which is the most profitable in the country. In fiscal year 2005, Georgia sports made a profit of $24.9 million. The story is notable to me because the Wisconsin Badgers are ranked third. The Badger athletic programs raked in $75.3 million last year. With expenses of $59.5 million, that leaves a profit of $15.8 million, behind Michigan and a little ahead of Texas and Alabama.

At Wisconsin, the money is coming primarily from three sports. Football is sold out on a season-ticket basis, as is men's basketball. Just to get on the waiting list for tickets requires a significant contribution to the Badger Fund, the athletic department's fundraising arm--$500 every year for football, and an astounding $2500 a year for men's basketball. That's not for season tickets, that's to maintain your place on the list for the right to buy season tickets should any become available. Men's hockey is the third revenue-producing sport--and the figures from the just-completed national championship season, which included several sellouts at the Kohl Center and thousands of dollars in championship merchandise, aren't included in the figures released this week. You might think trademark-licensed merchandising would contribute a big slice of the revenue pie, but it doesn't. It was reported a couple of weeks ago that licensing brought in about $800,000 last year--not much, given the amount of stuff you can buy up here bearing the trademarked images of Bucky Badger or the university's "motion W" logo.

The insane profitability of major-college sports is the elephant in the room that fans don't usually talk about. We don't talk about the fact that colleges make their enormous profits on the backs of athletes who don't get paid a dime for what they do. Yes, they get scholarships, but on a dollars-per-hour basis, even a four-year free ride works out to peanuts.

We also don't talk about the byzantine forest of regulations the NCAA has instituted to maintain the supposed amateur status of what it likes to call the "student athlete." Here's my favorite example: The son of a couple we know plays hockey for the Badgers. We met this couple several years ago, while their son was still in high school. But because their son is now an athlete and The Mrs. and I are season-ticket holders, it would be an NCAA violation if we bought his parents dinner, even if we'd been picking up dinner checks for years before. If The Mrs. and I had been sending their son birthday presents since he was a baby, that would become a violation too, as soon as he became a member of the team. These and other equally odd rules exist in large part to protect the system as it currently exists--to preserve the profitability of college sports.

Many fans don't think about this stuff at all, and those of us who do think about it don't dwell on it. We focus instead on the games themselves, or on the pageantry the games involve, or on our participation in the glorious history of the university, or on recapturing our undergraduate past, or on something else entirely. I'm as guilty as anyone on this score. I realize that the system is wack--that it's crazy for the UW's football coach and athletic director, who are public employees, after all, to be paid more than the governor of Wisconsin. But I also happily contribute to the system. You should see the cool hockey championship hat I bought.

What He Said: Michael Tomasky, writing at The American Prospect, thinks 2006 could be the year of a major political realignment, just as 1932 and 1980 were--provided that Democrats figure out what they stand for beyond a constellation of individual ideas. Tomasky's suggestion is something I've advocated here and elsewhere for a long time: the idea of the the common good. This is a great article, long and loaded with good stuff, so go read. Soon.

Mapping Belief
Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers put up a map showing "religious adherents as a percentage of population." The darker the color, the greater the percentage of people who identify themselves as a member of one of the 149 religious bodies that participated in a survey by something called the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. (Can't be a very big association, can it?) The most strongly affiliated regions are Utah, north Texas, western Oklahoma, northern Iowa, southwestern Minnesota, and much of the Dakotas. (It looks like North Dakota is the strongest of all.) The least affiliated region is the northwest, especially Oregon and northern California.

I'm intrigued by some of the ways in which this map doesn't at all match what seems to be our political reality. Take Ohio, for example, which is currently in the throes of a theocratic drive that would make an Iranian mullah proud. Based on that, you'd expect it to be one of the most heavily religious states in the Union. However, only two or three counties show up in the most heavily affiliated category--and the whole southern tier of the state shows up in the least affiliated category. West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida--all show less affiliation than you'd expect, whereas Massachusetts, despite its liberal reputation, looks comparable to Mississippi.

I'm intrigued also by my home region, at the micro level. If you look at the southernmost tier of counties in Wisconsin, from left to right, Grant and Lafayette counties are in the heaviest group. They're part of a broader swath of dark red that runs up the Mississippi on the Iowa side--a region that, despite its religiosity, contains several of the few rural counties in the country that went Democratic in the 2000 election, and was strong for John Kerry in 2004. The next county to the left, Green, is where I was born. It actually shows less religious affiliation than most of its neighbors, although I'm not sure why this should be true. Dane County, where I live now, is directly above Green, and despite the presence of so many godless liberal types in and around the University of Wisconsin, its figure is comparable to the rest of the counties in southern Wisconsin. The Fox Valley area, which sits at the base of the "thumb" formed by the Door Peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan, is widely perceived as the most Republican area of the state, and this map backs it up. It's no surprise, then, that Mark Green, who is currently representing that region in Congress, is also the Republican candidate for governor this fall. However, the heavily Republican Milwaukee suburbs don't show the high percentage of religious affiliation you'd expect there--if religious affiliation equals stronger Republican support. Perhaps it doesn't, or not in the ways we often think.

The weirdest little spot is right in the center of Wisconsin, where Adams County shows the lowest percentage in the state. (Adams County is one of Wisconsin's more enigmatic places--it was the home of our famous cannibal, Ed Gein, and people whisper about its general weirdness.) Its eastern neighbors, Marquette and Waushara counties, show a little higher, but less than their surrounding neighbors. Green Lake County, right next door, is a little island of dark red. I have no idea how to explain this.

The map makes no distinction regarding denominations or types of religious belief--it only distinguishes the number of people who consider themselves affiliated, so it's difficult to draw any conclusions from it that have much to do with contemporary politics. It doesn't conform all that well with the red-state/blue-state map from the 2000 and 2004 elections, except in the most general way. I'd be interested in your thoughts as to why this is the case.

Recommended Reading: Orcinus on what Michelle Malkin's latest column has to do with the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Quote of the Day: In the Pandagon story linked in my second paragraph above, Amanda contemplates Ohio's proposed law making it a felony for Ohioans to go out of state for an abortion. "I wonder if Congress will pass something like the Fugitive Slave Act, to assist Ohio in tracking down its female property and returning them to their rightful owners after they escaped mandatory pregnancy."

(Edited a bit since first being posted.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Lights Out, Man on Top, and Don't Enjoy It
Our American theocracy is marching on this morning. The Bush Administration is out with new guidelines for organizations seeking grants to fund abstinence-education programs. To get money, programs must define abstinence as "voluntarily choosing not to engage in sexual activity until marriage. Sexual activity refers to any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation between two persons including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse." (The way I read it, that means threesomes are OK, but that's probably not what they mean.) The programs must also define marriage as "only a legal union between one man and one woman as a husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife. (Consistent with Federal law)"

So this means, as Think Progress put it yesterday, gay people must be celibate. But it seems to me that the regulations also say that heterosexuals of any age must not boink one another without the benefit of clergy, either. The anti-gay stink of the guidelines aside, their focus on the proper place for sexual activity is utterly removed from reality. In America, marriage has never been a requirement for people to have sex. Not in the 1950s, not in the 1920s, not in the 1860s, not in 1776 or 1620 or 1492. By trying to shove this definition down the throats of American schoolchildren, the American Taliban are trying to do what the Puritans couldn't.

We can see in these guidelines the looming shape of a more distant wingnut goal. During the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice Roberts last year, a lot of pixels and ink were spilled over his belief in a Constitutional right to privacy. One of the cases on which the right to privacy rests is Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which established the right of unmarried couples to possess contraceptives--the same right established for married couples in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). These guidelines, even though they're only for abstinence education programs at the moment, represent some sort of wingnut utopia--and it would clearly be a utopia where Eisenstadt is overturned. (The harder nuts wouldn't mind seeing Griswold tossed out, too, in the name of making sex entirely about babies. A year ago, I speculated that this was unlikely--but now I'm not so sure.)

Recommended Listening: I've written here and here in the last week about the need for popular music that addresses the political realities we live in, as popular music so often did in the 1960s. This record, by Pink featuring the Indigo Girls, is as fine an example as we're likely to get. As blunt as it is, few radio stations will have the stones to play it, but that's what the Internet is for. Disseminate it widely, please.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Alternating Worldviews
Reader Mark, who blogs over at Truth Perceived (although not so much lately due to the presence of a new little person in the house, I am guessing), made an excellent point in his comments to this morning's post: "I believe I know what your problem is. Your anger is not righteous. Your anger is the product of your world view, where as the world view of an 'angry conservative Christian' is a product of his/her anger."

That made sense to me. And not three minutes after I read it, I came across a column by the inestimable James Carroll of the Boston Globe, which addresses the anger on both sides of the political divide as it relates to our threats against Iran.
An Iranian official dismissed the talk of imminent US military action as mere psychological warfare, but then he made a telling observation. Instead of attributing the escalations of threat to strategic impulses, the official labeled them a manifestation of "Americans' anger and despair."

The phrase leapt out of the news report, demanding to be taken seriously. I hadn't considered it before, but anger and despair so precisely define the broad American mood that those emotions may be the only things that President Bush and his circle have in common with the surrounding legions of his antagonists. We are in anger and despair because every nightmare of which we were warned has come to pass. Bush's team is in anger and despair because their grand and -- to them -- selfless ambitions have been thwarted at every turn. Indeed, anger and despair can seem universally inevitable responses to what America has done and what it faces now.
So everybody's hacked off, but as usual, for different and largely opposite reasons. Liberals are upset because of what the Bush Administration has done; Bush-humpers are upset because of what has been left undone. But Carroll doesn't track Mark's thesis exactly. He observes that the anger of both sides comes out of their worldview--the Bush gang's worldview includes the belief that its actions are self-evidently righteous and wise, and so it views its opponents at home and abroad as ungrateful, or as conspiring against it, or as irrationally recalcitrant, because its opponents refuse to acknowledge that every move they've ever made was precisely the right thing to do.

Carroll continues:
While the anger and despair of those on the margins of power only increase the experience of marginal powerlessness, the anger and despair of those who continue to shape national policy can be truly dangerous if such policy owes more to these emotions than to reasoned realism.
Indeed, what causes a great deal of liberal anger is the feeling of powerlessness that accompanies it: If the best minds in the country, regardless of political affiliation, can't make the Bush gang see reason, what hope do I have of making any difference? From there, it's a short leap to political apathy, and/or outright clinical depression. Carroll sees the danger, but counsels against falling into it:
Surely, something besides intelligent strategic theory is at work here. Yes. These are the policies of deeply frustrated, angry, and psychologically wounded people. Those of us who oppose them will yield to our own versions of anger and despair at our peril, and the world's. Fierce but reasoned opposition is more to the point than ever.
So buck up, liberal friends, if only--and this my depression talking, not James Carroll--if only so that when the shitrain begins to fall in earnest, we'll be able to stand out in it knowing we did our best to stop it.

I am presently auditioning alternate worldviews, by the way. One of them that's working out nicely is playing as I write this: an album by Jimmy Smith, master of the Hammond B3 organ, entitled Standards, smoky, after-hours jazz from the late 50s that can definintely soothe the savage breast. The other alternative I am considering may be more widely popular: drinking with both hands, starting well before 5:00, and continuing for as long as necessary.

Who's with me?

On Being Angry and Tired
There's been another spike in the characterization of lefty bloggers as "angry," thanks to an article in the Washington Post on Friday. That right-wingers tut-tut about "the angry left" has always seemed crazy to me, because nobody's more angry, in the red-faced, saliva-spitting, vein-standing-out-on-the-forehead sense than the typical right-winger. Scratch one and you'll find he or she is motivated politically almost entirely by anger: at recalcitrant foreigners, at cultural rot, at paying taxes, at Hillary, you name it. If they ceased being angry, they'd lose their ability to engage politically.

So why they get away with criticizing us on the left for our anger is a mystery, but they're right about the fact that we're angry. In our position, it would be crazy not to be.

Because it's so much a part of who they are, right-wing anger seems inexhaustible. Even they win, they're not happy, because they don't always get 150 percent of what they want. In that, they're a lot like the kid on Christmas morning who, amidst a pile of gifts taller than he is, is upset because there was one thing he wanted that he didn't get. Exhibit A is the War on Christians conference held in Washington last month. Their kind controls two branches of government and is well on the way to controlling the third, but they still feel persecuted and on the defensive. (Elizabeth Castelli, a historian who specializes in Christian martrydom, attended the conference and wrote an interesting piece on it for the Revealer--which is a website that's going on my list for regular visits.)

But I am convinced that for lefty types such as myself, it's harder to maintain the same level of vinegar. Three years ago, I got an e-mail from a long-out-of-touch friend who had discovered this blog for the first time. My friend observed that it must take a lot of energy for me to be so angry every day. Three years ago, it did. So imagine how much more it takes now. I can still summon it up now and then, but not as consistently or as well as in days of yore. (Go back to the 2004 entries in this blog and you should be able to see the difference for yourself.) In fact, in the last year or so, out of sheer exhaustion at being angry, I've actually found myself wishing that one of the looming disasters in our future would just get here already: the next unprovoked attack on a foreign country, the economic crash sparked by high oil prices (perhaps caused by the next unprovoked attack on a foreign country), even the terrorist attack that leads to martial law and the suspension of the Constitution. As horrid as those would be, at least they would permit us to begin dealing with whatever the next phase of our country's history is going to be. Although that phase will certainly involve things to be angry at, perhaps they'll be different things. And perhaps, in whatever the next phase brings, lie the seeds of a society that will require less anger to navigate on a daily basis.

I'm not unsympathetic to the points Amanda Marcotte made at Pandagon yesterday, as she took on some of the myths about anger. One thing is certain--in the United States right now, all the cool kids are angry. But I suspect that means a lot of the cool kids are very, very tired, too.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Still Stuck in Stupidville
When cable TV news producers dream, they dream of weekends like this:
On Thursday, a little girl gets eaten by a bear.

On Friday, a suspected cannibal is arrested in Oklahoma. On the same day, the cat trapped in a New York City building for two weeks is rescued.

Yesterday, there's an arrest in the Natalee Holloway case.
If Angelina Jolie or Katie Holmes gives birth today, the Rapture could happen and they'd never notice.

(When I was reciting this litany of stories to The Mrs. this morning, she added, "And they found those two missing boys in Milwaukee." To which I responded, "Yes, but nobody cares, because they're black." Sad and harsh, yes, but also true.)

So none of the issues at stake in the stories I've found on the Web today stand a chance in hell of breaking through, especially with all the cute Easter features that the cable channels need to run. But if you're reading this, chances are you'll be interested, so here you go:

A legal blog called Concurring Opinions analyzes an article in the New Republic by a Harvard Law School professor who argues that personal privacy and government transparency make it difficult for the government to function effectively. Yup--if the government could snoop more and reveal what it's doing less, we'd be better off. At Daily Kos, Armando notes that the professor is a specialist in Christian law theory and strong supporter of the Iraq War--and so it's not surprising to me that he'd argue, at this moment in history, that the government should be more obtrusive and less accountable. (Wonder what he'd think if John Kerry had won in 2004.) In the end, I'm with Atrios, because he's thinking along the same lines I was last Thursday: "I understand that September 11 drove a lot of people a bit nuts, but I really don't understand why they're still stuck in stupidville. . . ."

Also worth reading today is the post at Orcinus on "round 'em up and send 'em back" anti-immigrant rhetoric. One of the things people forget is that the Constitution protects everybody in the United States, even if they're not citizens of this country. Of course, you can't necessarily blame people for forgetting this, because the administration has ignored it since 2001.

The News Blog has an analysis of the Duke lacrosse scandal that cuts through the story that the stripper was already injured when she walked in the door of the house where the infamous party took place. Short version: Not likely, once you know how college jocks think--and the purpose of the post is to explain how college jocks think. The News Blog also found an interesting story last week that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere--the one of the lacrosse team captains is the son of the vice president for government relations at Merrill Lynch, which may explain the sudden presence of high-powered Washington lawyer Bob Bennett defending the players.

For good measure, here's a story the cable channels probably will find time for: If the lame storylines on Desperate Housewives this season haven't already caused it to jump the shark for good, perhaps this will: the main street of a new real estate development in the Madison suburb of Verona will be called Wisteria Lane, with adjoining streets to be called Bree Circle, Gabrielle Circle, Hatcher Road, and Lynnette Drive. Columnist Susan Lampert Smith of the Wisconsin State Journal gets Quote of the Day for today: "As a cynical newspaper person, I must also point out that Wisteria Lane has a major crime problem. Recent episodes have featured murder, arson, adultery, embezzlement, statutory rape and hiding a fugitive. Hope the Verona cops are ready."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Look
One of the many, many obstacles right-wingers are trying to put in the way of abortion is federal legislation mandating that women be told that the fetus will suffer pain when it's aborted. Like a lot of right-wing "science," this supposition is made up of about one-third misinterpretation of the facts, one-third wishful thinking, and one-third arrant bullshit. Actually trying to find out whether what they believe is true would take too much time. Plus they might also find out that they're wrong, and what good would that do them?

They're wrong.

Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers reports on a medical journal article that examines the concept of fetal pain. The article is not necessarily as definitive as it could be. Some of the commenters point out that the author is unclear about the distinction between feeling pain and being able to remember it. However, it seems clear nevertheless that the image the anti-abortion crowd wants to implant in women, dating back to the Reagan-era movie The Silent Scream, of a fetus reacting to being aborted, is politically convenient melodrama and not scientific fact.

Quote of the Day: Actually a couple of paragraphs from Molly Ivins, who starts her latest column talking about the administration's retrofitting of the lie about the mobile weapons labs, but then gets into the immigration demonstrations of the past few weeks.
There are just some things I know from living in Texas all my life. One is, don't bother to build a fence. Two is, if you want to stop illegal immigrants, stop the people who hire them -- quit punishing people who come because there are jobs. Three, this border has always been porous, and it has always worked to the advantage of the United States.

If you want to do the smart thing and look for a long-term solution, try fixing NAFTA and helping with economic development in Mexico. Meanwhile, I could do without the drivel about how these people are so different. Of course they're not. Try getting out a little more.
Immigrants must be different from us because they look do different and sound so different. Fetuses must be the same as us because they look so much the same. The older I get, the more convinced I become that the single greatest truth in life is that you can't trust the way things look.

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Brilliant Show
A reader (glad to see you're still out there somewhere, Jason) wrote earlier today saying that to him, the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui looks a lot like a show trial, and wonders just why Moussaoui is on trial to begin with.

Well, to a certain degree, his trial is a show trial. Although he's been branded the "20th hijacker," there's no physical evidence linking him to the 9/11 attacks. We know he was involved with some of the hijackers in the years leading up to the attacks, and he was allegedly supposed to be on one of the planes that day. However, he wasn't on a plane--he was in jail in Minnesota on the day of the attacks. He's made many claims about who he is and what his mission was--some corroborated, some not. In the end, he's a thin reed, but he's all we've got (unless the wicked Osama has been caught since the last time I checked the news) and over the last several weeks, he's played the part of Unremittingly Evil Terrorist perfectly. If he had one of those long mustaches like the villains in the old TV westerns, I'm sure he'd have twirled it by now.

If Moussaoui wants to end up strapped to a death-chamber gurney, he's going about it the right way, because it would be too much to expect the jury to counterintuitively give him the one thing he must fear more than death--life in prison, wasting away in obscurity until he's a little old terrorist, never enjoying the martyr's death that will entitle him to 72 virgins in heaven, or whatever the hell he's hoping he'll get.

(Yesterday, I mentioned the Rude Pundit's impression of the Moussaoui penalty trial as "overwrought." He gets into more detail on it today, calling the horror show unleashed on the jury another chapter in "our ongoing fetishization of 9/11.")

Elsewhere: Bill O'Reilly wants you to know that there is no War on Easter. It's just something a liberal newspaper columnist thought up, based on O'REILLY'S OWN GODDAMN TV SHOW THE NIGHT BEFORE.

Excuse me.

And finallly, I am smackin' myself upside the head for not thinking of this: David Neiwart at Orcinus wrote about wingnuts who want the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians, and who justify themselves by saying, "This isn't discrimination. I am against race discrimination because race is inborn; being gay is a chosen behavior, and why should chosen behaviors get special protection?" Be careful, Mr. and Mrs. Much-Better-Than-Everybody-Else--don't ask that question if you don't really want to know the answer. Because David observes: Uhh, well, religion is a chosen behavior, too, and we protect that.

As the Guinness TV commercials say, "Brilliant!"

Four Strong Winds
On May 4, 1970, four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio. Six weeks later, Neil Young was on the radio with a song about it. "Ohio" is a roar of anger and a cry of disbelief that remains one of the most chilling artifacts of the 1960s. Although "Ohio" was released under the name Crosby Stills Nash and Young, it's a Young solo record--he wrote it, and the ominous, corrosive guitar on it is typical of his work around that time. (I suppose it's possible some readers of this blog may never have heard it, or might not be familiar with it. If that's you, hear it here. Be patient. The upload site seems a little slow this morning.)

Young has always been more engaged with the real world than a lot of rockers--at the height of MTV's cultural influence in the 1980s, he recorded "This Note's for You," a putdown of corporate rock that was extraordinary mainly because it dared to say what lots of people were thinking, but few had the stones to admit. And now, it seems, Neil Young is back and ready to say what needs to be said, in his usual no-nonsense style. At the recent SXSW music and film conference in Austin, Young revealed his next album will be called Life in War, and will feature a song called "Impeach the President." According to a blog called DownWithTyranny, the album took three days to finish, although when it will be released isn't clear.

"Ohio" was an important record at a time when the American people were turning against the Vietnam War. We live in a different era now, in a culture slivered into endless demographic fragments, so it's doubtful that Life in War will have the same reach in 2006 that "Ohio" had in 1970. Nevertheless, whenever the political realities we live with every day manage to pierce into our bubbleheaded pop culture, in whatever way it happens, it's an important thing. So go Neil.

Good Vibrations Required: Send good thoughts today toward my much-missed former home, Iowa City, which was hit by a tornado last night. There were no fatalities and few injuries in Iowa City itself, (although there was one death in a nearby county), but there's lots of damage.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Two Worlds
You oughta go read Will Bunch today, as he reflects on the cockpit recording from United Flight 93. (That's the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11.) The tape was played for jurors in the penalty phase of the trial of "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui this week.

The point that sticks with me is one Bunch makes toward the end: There's a real world--in which the Bush Administration screwed up its response on September 11 itself, then took advantage of the attacks by lying us into a war and shredding the Constitution--but there's also "9/11 world." This is the place where we're still figuratively curled up in the fetal position, whimpering and traumatized by the attacks. It's a place where we continue to believe many, many things that aren't true and never were, where we ignore real-world truths that seem too complicated to understand or painful to face.

It seems to me that the chances of our entire experiment in democracy failing are proportional to the number of Americans who insist on living as though 9/11 world is the only world there is. Unless people can learn to get past their grief and fear, the danger is very real.

The penalty phase of the Moussaoui trial certainly isn't going to help. The Rude Pundit called it "overwrought" the other day, and that's precisely the right word. Four-plus years after the attacks, the parade of grieving witnesses deployed to make sure Moussaoui winds up dead, dead, dead, went past the point of overkill (so to speak) by the second day. And it's a sure bet the testimony ripped the stitches for a lot of Americans. But for an indication of how tender the wounds remain, you need look only toward the controversy over the trailer for the movie United 93 that's coming out later this spring. The trailer was reportedly so upsetting to New York audiences that one theater quit showing it. Even after living in the shadow of 9/11 every day for over four years, many New Yorkers--jaded and tough as nails though they claim themselves to be--still can't face the memory.

Grief is hard. Everybody responds to it differently, and it can take a long time for some people to get past it. But in order to get past it, a person has to resolve to try. The refusal of so many Americans to make that resolution is only speeding up the spiraling disaster in which we're caught.

All Your Peeps Are Belong to Us
A reader sent me a link to a Think Progress report on Bill O'Reilly's attempt to whip up a war against the War on Easter, suggesting it might be good blog fodder. I confess I didn't watch the video, but it's really not necessary to watch it, because you already know the argument: Liberals are out to take Easter away from honest, God-fearing Americans who want to celebrate the torture killing of a shadowy figure from first-century Palestine by hiding chocolate eggs and Marshmallow Peeps for their children to find, all the while telling the kids that the candy has been hidden by a giant rabbit.

I get why some Christians might really think there's a "war on Christmas"--what with manger scenes, which are overtly religious, being barred from public places. However, it seems to have escaped the notice of these same Christians that the Easter Bunny is not a religious symbol. But in Wingnut World, that's no barrier: take one part incident and two parts bullshit, mix well, and presto! Another battle in the culture war erupts.

For what it's worth, there is an actual "war on Easter" being fought by a documentary filmmaker trying to hide 666 DVD copies of his film The God Who Wasn't There in churches across the country, to be discovered by parishioners. He's going on right-wing talk radio and offering frequent updates on his campaign on the Internet. (He's even received a visit from the FBI, apparently.) The whole thing seems a bit juvenile to me, although I guess it's clever PR. And the film itself includes some impressive figures: Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith; urban-legend busters Barbara and David Mikkelson of Snopes.com; and historian Richard Carrier, whose brilliant stuff at Infidels.org helped me figure out what I can believe and what I can't.

Here's the thing about the war on Easter, though--it just isn't getting any traction. Google the phrase "war on Christmas" and you get about 781,000 hits. Google "war on Easter" and you get about 67,000. Too bad, Bill--but there's always next year. Unless Jesus comes back before then, of course--although if he does, I'm guessing the Easter Bunny is going to have a hard time then, too.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What If We Nuked Iran While American Idol Was On?
Earlier this week, I guessed that the decision to attack Iran has already been made, and that now we're going through the same "roll-out" period we did in late 2002, when the administration kept protesting that war against Iraq was not inevitable, all the while trolling for excuses to make it look like Saddam's fault--and fabricating them as necessary. The mighty Billmon thinks the same thing, although as usual, he says it better and in more detail.

Billmon's post is primarily about how American public opinion and the world might react to a nuclear strike on Iran. What Americans would think is especially interesting to me. It's natural for people like you and me to imagine that dropping a nuclear weapon, even a tactical bunker-buster in a surgical strike, would wake people up for good and all, and finally get Americans into the streets by the millions with ropes for the lampposts, ready to string up the perpetrators like Mussolini. Well, not so fast there, reality-based universe person:
What I'm suggesting here is that it is probably naive to expect the American public to react with horror, remorse or even shock to a U.S. nuclear sneak attack on Iran, even though it would be one of the most heinous war crimes imaginable, short of mass genocide. Iran has been demonized too successfully – thanks in no small part to the messianic delusions of its own end-times president – for most Americans to see it as a victim of aggression, even if they were inclined to admit that the United States could ever be an aggressor. And we know a not-so-small and extremely vocal minority of Americans would be cheering all the way, and lusting for more.

More to my point, though, I think it's possible that even something as monstrously insane as nuclear war could still be squeezed into the tiny rituals that pass for public debate in this country – the game of dueling TV sound bites that trivializes and then disposes of every issue.
Something buried in the Seymour Hersh New Yorker article over the weekend that hasn't been mentioned much was the suggestion that Bush feels he's the only president who can stop Iran--and that includes future presidents. It's clear, after yesterday's announcement about Iran having enriched uranium, that Bush will atttack Iran sooner rather than later--but what happens if, by the summer of 2008, he feels he hasn't finished the job? If he's the only person in American history, present or future, who can accomplish this holy task, what's to stop him from refusing to leave office when his time is up? Certainly not American public opinion. If Billmon's take is correct, Bush would be able to get away with that, too.

Yuck Yuck Icky Icky Eww Gross: P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula writes today about a Lutheran church in Minnesota that had a contract to provide social services for Anoka County in the Twin Cities' suburbs. However, it refused services to a male-to-female transsexual because "this person's outward behavior contradicts the church's teaching" (The Lutheran church has teaching on transsexuals?) and is "contrary to God's revealed will." Plus, they had some kind of problem with her using the bathroom, which is brain-rattlingly stupid, even for Minnesota. P.Z. comments with the Quote of the Day:
And this is exactly why I will always oppose any attempt to draft the godly into the business of supporting the social safety net. It is this pretense of knowing the will of an invisible being, which they freely use to give their bigotry the deity's imprimatur, which makes them untrustworthy. Anyone who makes untestable claims of a god's will, claims that can't be verified by anyone else, is suspect—it's simply too convenient an out. And when it's used to make an innocent suffer, it's simply contemptible.
Amen, brother.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In Case of Rapture, Can I Have Your Car?
I first heard about the Rapture when I was in junior high, when my family's Methodist church had a weeklong revival with outside speakers, many of whom were on various evangelistic trips, including speaking in tongues and end-times prophecy. (I vividly remember one of them, a student about my age, who told our youth group that she thought it would be really cool to die, so she could see what Heaven would be like.) As far as my own parents went was to bring home Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, which I read with great interest. It had quite an effect on me--for years afterward, if it would get unexpectedly quiet in the house, I'd wonder if I'd been Left Behind. (I always just assumed I would be.) Lindsey's book is largely responsible for popularizing the idea of the Rapture, as part of his apocalyptic interpretation of world history--in fact, it was the single largest-selling title of the 1970s.

The doctrine of the Rapture itself is relatively new, only about 100 years old, and is based on a close reading of a handful of scattered Bible verses. From those scattered verses, however, gazillions of Rapture-based Internet sites have bloomed. The best-known is probably Rapture Ready, home of the famous Rapture Index. The site describes it as "a prophetic speedometer" indicating how fast we're moving toward the Rapture. As of yesterday, the index stands at 156, down from the all-time high of 182 reached a couple of weeks after September 11, but way up from the all-time low of 57 in December 1993--oddly enough, 11 months into the administration of Satan's henchman, Bill Clinton. According to the site, an index of 156 means "fasten your seat belts"--the Rapture could happen by the time you finish reading this sentence.

Another interesting Rapture-related website is The Rapture Letters. I can't describe it any better than the site describes itself. It will automatically e-mail your loved ones who have been Left Behind with whatever message you'd like to send--love, encouragement, advice, or nanny-nanny-boo-boo, if you're that kind of person.
We have written a computer program to do just that. It will send an Electronic Message (e-mail) to whomever you want after the rapture has taken place, and you and I have been taken to heaven. . . .

If you wish to do something now that will help your unbelieving friends and family after the rapture, you need to add those persons email address to our database. Their names will be stored indefinitely and a letter will be sent out to each of them on the first Friday after the rapture. Then they will receive another letter every friday after that.

This rapture letter service is FREE and will hopefully gain the person you send it to an eternity in heaven.
Of course, the Rapture Letters assumes that the Internet will continue to function after the Rapture--which is perhaps a subtle commentary on the people responsible for ISPs and the Internet backbone.

The trouble with Rapture-based theology is, as I have written at this blog and elsewhere, the way it lets people who believe in it off the hook. If the world is going to end in a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, or years, and if you're not going to be here anyhow when it does, where's your incentive to do anything for the world, as contrasted with your incentive to do things for yourself? Another Rapture-related problem we're having right now, with the most serious implications possible, is that our only president seems determined to actually provoke it, by causing an apocalypse in the Middle East. If he gets his apocalypse, I suppose there will be some entertainment value in the astounded disappointment of the wingnuts when they aren't Raptured away, and find themselves stuck down here in the shitstorm with the rest of the heathens, but it'll be hard to find much else to laugh about.

But we can still laugh now, so let's take the opportunity: Jumping off from an in-all-seriousness post by another blogger about what you should do if you get Left Behind in the Rapture, the inimitable Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon provides 14 additional things you should do. (And if you're reading this blog, you're going to be Left Behind, so don't claim nobody warned you.)

We got into a discussion here about immigration in the comments a couple of weeks ago. With a new round of immigration protests yesterday, it seems like a good time to revisit some of those comments, since similar statements are being launched across dinner and restaurant tables and around water coolers all over the country today.

Here's one: "Immigrating into the USA is sort of like becoming a season ticket holder at Lambeau Field for the Packers. You're put on a list and it might take years and years. Does that mean we should be allowed to crash the gates if it isn't fast enough for our liking? Try it and see how far you get."

Never mind the fact that our current immigration laws are essentially punitive in their molasses-like pace, and that it can take legal immigrants just short of forever to get in. The fact is that lots of people crash the gates every year, and that many of them are a lot more dangerous than the masses being demonized these days. Steve Gilliard at the News Blog:
Here's what I don't get, [Congressmen James] Sensenbrenner and [Tom] Tancredo want to turn law abiding residents into criminals, but remain mute about the Russian mafia, coyotes, MS-13 and snakeheads, people who really violate US law, create victims in the US and overseas,and are criminals.

The mexican guy who makes my pizza is not a threat, the coyotes on the border are.
Many of those opposed to draconian restrictions on immigrants from Latin America are not favoring open immigration for all. They'd merely like to see immigration laws enforced in a way that solves real problems--not by building walls, not by criminalizing the simple act of being here or helping those who are, but by addressing the actual root causes of real, solvable problems, instead of posturing.

Also on the subject of "illegals": "I have no problem with Mexicas, Cubans, Argentines, or anybody wanting to move to this country and start a new life...as long as it is done LEGALLY."

Nothing turns Americans into by-the-book law-abiders faster than the subject of immigration--"goddammit, those people should follow the law." Gilliard responds:
These people [immigrants] want to be Americans like the people who came here to Ellis Island. We need to stop hiding behind the excuse that they "broke the law". People gamble online and they "break the law" and no one is jailing them.
Contrary to popular belief, the legal system has operated selectively in this country since approximately 1607. We've always been selective in which laws we enforce, and in how we enforce them. And it's very popular to claim we should be cracking down on immigrants, who are among the least able to defend themselves within the legal system.

On the subject of assimilation, then and now: "[My immigrant forebears] worked hard to assimilate into the American culture and they certainly did not expect everyone else to learn their language."

Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez (who started the fun here a couple of weeks ago when I linked to her post on distorted media portrayals of the immigrant protests) put up another great post last week, which you should read in its entirety. She said this about the language issue:
The Pew Center for Hispanic research shows that by the third generation all immigrant grandchildren – NO MATTER WHERE THEY ARE FROM OR THE LEGAL STATUS OF THEIR ANCESTORS – are COMPLETELY ASSIMILATED ENGLISH SPEAKERS.

There is not a single third-generation Hispanic in the United States whose primary or dominant language is Spanish. NOT ONE.

This is precisely the same assimilation pattern followed by the Germans, Italians, French and every other linguistic minority immigrant group to this nation.
People who criticize immigrants for speaking their native languages "too long" seem to think that you can learn to speak English like a native in six months--but as another commenter to my original post noted, it can actually take up to seven years, and that's if new speakers are taught systematically in school.

Valdes-Rodriguez's point about language acquisition also speaks to a quote by Teddy Roosevelt that's been requoted and reprinted in lots of places recently, including in the comments here:
There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.
Far too much has been made of immigrants waving Mexican flags during protests. What else is someone who takes pride in his roots supposed to wave? Hell, various bloggers dug up footage of Jeb Bush, who is as Mexican as I am, waving the Mexican flag during one of his election campaigns. (Or maybe it was a Cuban flag. Either way, it makes my point.)

But there's a broader issue here. Once immigrants have the chance to assimilate--once they're given the time it requires, time that can't be shortened by Republican legislative fiat or wishful thinking (which are so often the same thing), they, too become loyal Americans. And some demonstrate their loyalty in far more meaningful ways than yammering from behind a keyboard. (I count myself amongst the yammerers, so don't take that personally.) A Korean immigrant who had come here legally wanted to do something to speed his citizenship, so he volunteered to serve in Iraq--and in February, he got killed. Our country is the only one in the world that inspires people to do things like this. Whether you think the Iraq War is right or wrong doesn't matter this time--how many people born in America would have done the same thing for another country?

Quote of the Day: J.B. Van Hollen is a Repug candidate for Wisconsin attorney general. Yesterday, both the incumbent Democrat AG, Peg Lautenschlager, and her primary opponent, Kathleen Falk, spoke to the immigration rally held in Madison. Pull the string on Van Hollen's back, and what he says is predictable: "Attending a rally that celebrates granting rights to those who break the law is absolutely ludicrous. As Attorney General, I will fight crime and restore integrity to the office. I will not celebrate lawlessness." Yep, whenever an issue is too complicated for effective demagoguery, you can count on the GOP to ride to the rescue.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Santos by a Nose
The West Wing settled its election storyline last night, crowning a clear-cut successor to Jed Bartlet when Matt Santos defeated Arnold Vinick by an electoral college count of 272-266. It came down to Oregon and Nevada, and sometime after 4:00AM on Election Night, Santos got them both. The resolution was mildly surprising because last week's episode showed the stars aligning for a protracted Florida-style debacle that didn't happen. Vinick refused his staff's advice to pursue legal challenges, deciding instead to concede.

The producers revealed today that a Santos win wasn't their original plan. They say they intended for Vinick to win all along, but that plans changed after the death of John Spencer, who played Santos' running mate, former White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. According to an article in the New York Times, the producers thought it would be too much if Santos lost the election and his running mate, too.

I have my doubts about whether that's true, but it really doesn't matter now. Somebody noted on the Television Without Pity West Wing message board today that if the show were going on for another season, it would be more interesting to watch Vinick in office than it would be to watch Santos. But the show's last episode will be on May 14, and by electing Santos, the show will offer its dedicated viewers plenty of opportunities for closure. Opportunity number one is next week, when several characters unseen for years will return for Leo's funeral. The most buzzworthy one is Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe. Seaborn was the White House deputy communications director and won a seat in Congress a few seasons back as a way of writing him out when Lowe left the show. He'll reportedly be one of the pallbearers at Leo's funeral, but I'm also guessing he'll be Santos' choice to replace Leo as vice president. It would offer another nice bit of closure, given that in an early episode of the series, Bartlet told Sam that he would be president one day.

I have to give a bit of love to the producers--I was ready, about the time of the live debate episode last fall, to quit watching The West Wing entirely. But since the show returned to the air after taking the month of February off, it's been mostly pretty good. It hasn't reached the level of the first four seasons or anything, but after the depths of the godawful fifth and sixth seasons, what we've seen in the last few weeks is a definite comeback.

Nuke 'Em Til We Win
I can't add much to what other bloggers are saying about the New Yorker article that appeared over the weekend, in which journalist Seymour Hersh reported that He Who Shall Not Be Named and his administration are planning an attack on Iran, which will reportely include nuclear weapons. Hersh claims that senior military officials think the whole thing is crazy. There's a story out this morning, "U.S. Tries to Dampen Talk of Iran Strike," that represents an attempt to subvert the Hersh story, but don't buy it. The administration and its fluffers can claim all they want that an attack is still at the "if" stage, but based on the evidence of past experience, it clearly isn't. The only question left regarding an attack on Iran is a "when," and the answer is so simple that even an idiot like me can see it: The attack will be timed in such a way as to maximize the Republicans' chances in the November election. If Bush was willing to prosecute a war in Iraq to get reelected in 2004, there's no doubt he'll be perfectly happy to kill tens of thousands of Iranians (and as many American soldiers and pilots as required) to keep from getting impeached in 2007.

A thread at Think Progress, in response to Hersh's appearance on CNN this morning, is debating how military officers might respond to orders in such an attack. It's interesting to contemplate the spectacle of the senior generals who would give the initial orders telling Bush, "We won't do this." Presumably, such insubordination would require Bush to sack them publicly, thus opening the curtain on some mighty entertaining political theater. But as a mechanism for stopping the attacks, it wouldn't work--just as Nixon found somebody who would fire the Watergate prosecutor in 1973, Bush would find somebody further down the chain of command to execute his orders, no matter how bugfuck insane they might be. And so I say again: If the decision to attack Iran has been made, then Iran will be attacked, and it will be timed in such a way as to maximize the Republicans' chances in the November election. I'd bet my house on it.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

No Words
Wisconsin 2, Boston College 1.

A Fan's Lifetime
I wonder what it's like to be a Yankees fan. Or a fan of Duke basketball. Every year when the season starts, they know their team has a chance to be champions. Must be nice. Of course, it's easy to be a fan of the Yankees or Duke, precisely because they win championships frequently. It's what makes them attractive, especially to people who aren't from New York or North Carolina. Walk around the average shopping mall where you live (outside of New York or North Carolina) and count the number of people wearing Yankees or Duke apparel. I'd wager practically none of them were Yankees fans in the early 90s, when the team was below .500 every year, or could tell you who coached Duke before Mike Krzyzewski. (Bill Foster, actually.) Such fans are not really fans in the traditional sense. They're consumers, and they maximize their emotional "buying power" by picking what looks like the highest-quality product--and they'll switch if something better comes along. That's a fine idea if you're buying a car or a brand of frozen peas, and it's actually a weird sort of ideal at this time in this country, when being a good American is defined by being a good consumer. However, when picking a sports team to follow, it's a betrayal of who you are.

Let's leave aside the broader question of why people come to care passionately about corporate entities such as the New York Yankees or Green Bay Packers, but not corporate entities such as General Motors or International Widget. Most of us become fans based on geography. Around here, we're Packers fans, Badger fans, Brewers fans, because our parents and friends are. (Although I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, because when I discovered baseball, Milwaukee had no team, and the Cubs were what I could find on TV.) This fandom becomes part of who we are, and we could change it no more easily than we could change our appearance. Oh, it's possible to change it, like getting a face lift or a boob job is possible--but it's not something most folks can do without causing people to talk.

Being a Wisconsin sports fan builds character--because it's true that you can learn more from losing than from winning. We've had our successes in my fan's lifetime. The Packers won a Super Bowl in 1997, but--and this is the point--they lost out on the way to the top many more times than they made it to the top. The Brewers made it to the World Series in 1982--and lost. My Cubs won pennants in 1984, 1989, and 2003 but crashed spectacularly each time, falling short of ultimate victory.

Which is why today is a special day. Today marks one of the rare occasions in my fan's lifetime that my team has reached the pinnacle with a chance to win it all in one game, when the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team plays Boston College for the NCAA championship. As I wrote earlier this week, Wisconsin has won five hockey championships, two of which I remember. In 1977, my girlfriend and I watched the championship game in her parents' basement, although honesty compels me to report we weren't always paying attention to it. In 1981, I was at a party in college on the night of the game, but I was more interested in the contents of the beer keg than the game on the TV. The '77 and '81 Badgers were not my teams in the same sense that the '06 team is mine.

The Mrs. and I are hockey fans, and have been season ticket holders since we moved back home six years ago. But as Wisconsin sports fans--Badgers, Packers, Brewers, whatever--we know the bargain we've made. This ain't Duke. Being a Wisconsin sports fan means that you will win sometimes, but you will lose often, too. That's the way it is. As a Wisconsin sports fan, you know going in that you will rarely win it all because you will rarely have the chance. Tonight we do. And we are ready. We are ready. We are ready.

Gomer and the Immigrants
Here's some stuff from the web worthwhile for your Saturday morning, on the subject of immigration:

David Neiwart of Orcinus guest-posts at Firedoglake, with a primer on how extreme right-wing ideas gradually morph into acceptable mainstream discourse. He's written about this on his own site extensively, but his post at FDL is a good summary, focusing on anti-immgrant sentiments.

Neiwart features an interesting quote. See if you can identify who said it:
Every new immigrant adds to our crime problems, our welfare rolls and unemployment of American citizens. . . . We are being invaded in the southwest as if a foreign army were coming over the border. . . . They’re going to take more and more hard-earned money from the productive middle class in the form of taxes and social programs.
Any guesses? It sounds like something Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, leader of the anti-immigrant forces in the House, might have said during debate last week. But it was actually David Duke, speaking in 1982--and at that time, Duke's position was considered far outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse. A generation later, it's a perfect illustration of the phenomenon Neiwart writes about. (According to the post, Duke was recently quoted as saying Tancredo would make a good president. To quote Gomer Pyle: "Surprise, surprise, surprise.")

On the subject of immigrants "adding to the unemployment of American citizens," Steve Gilliard of the News Blog blows that argument apart. The News Blog also has the horribly sad story of 14-year-old Anthony Saltano, who was banned from eighth-grade graduation and threatened with prison by his school principal for organizing a protest walkout against anti-immigration legislation last month. Two days later, young Saltano killed himself.

One Other Thing: On the subject of immigration, I have been thinking about the oft-heard "great-grandparent" argument, which goes something like this: "My great-grandparents came over here on the boat from __________, and they had to enter the country legally, learn English, and then work to make it on their own. Why shouldn't immigrants today do the same thing?" It occurs to me that the great-grandparent argument doesn't hold up today--that the situation modern immigrants face is much, much different than our Scandinavian or German or Italian or Irish forebears faced in the 19th century. Trouble is, I'm not sure why it doesn't hold. If you've got any ideas, let's hear 'em in the comments.

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