Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Same Stuff, Different Box, So What
My thanks to those who have commented to last night's post about Howard Dean and religious voters.

If the key to winning elections in this country is now finding an effective way to speak in coded religious language, we're screwed. If, in 2006, the only way we can get people to do what is self-evidently right is by appealing to their irrational beliefs in invisible powers, I find myself wondering what the precise purpose of the Enlightenment was. Democrats are not going to be able to turn people away from an affinity for theocracy if our main argument is going to be "Our Jesus is better than their Jesus."

I have to confess that when the subject is mixing religion and politics, the dogmatic atheist in me comes roaring to the surface. I don't want religion shoved down my throat by anybody. History shows, again and again, that religion is responsible for as much trouble and strife as it purportedly cures. There's really no need for the United States to prove it anew. A truly progressive politics would try to achieve some progress on this front--to try and do better than merely substituting a differently packaged form of Christian belief for the one that's gotten us in such trouble since Reagan rode in from the ranch.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Who Loves Ya, Baby?
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I love me some Howard Dean. I first heard of him sometime in 2002, and decided to support him for president in June 2003. Even after his campaign had imploded, I voted for him in the Wisconsin primary anyhow. And I was thrilled when he became chairman of the Democratic National Committee. However, as far as Dean's ongoing crusade to convince evangelical Christians to vote Democratic is concerned--dammit, Howard, cut it out.

Because I love me some Howard Dean, I have to defend him a little bit. He's got the right idea to suggest that Democrats can't let the Repugs monopolize what it means to be "moral," and that core Democratic beliefs are in fact deeply moral, in a way average Americans instinctively understand. But when he talks about peeling off members of the Repug base as a strategy for winning elections, he's simply out of touch with reality. It ain't gonna happen. Plus, there's no need.

As we approach the 2006 elections, there are millions of voters with a bad case of buyer's remorse over their choice in 2004. Many of them aren't firmly or consistently identified with either party, and make their choices based not on ideology, but on a gut-level feeling of identification--"this person/this party will do a better job of standing up for me." Sometimes they find they were wrong, as a significant percentage of the 59 million Bush voters now know they were. Once they decide they were wrong, their weakly ideological or nonideological reason for choosing one candidate over another makes them people Democrats can realistically hope to capture.

The place to find Democratic voters is not among people who are being told from the pulpit on Sundays that Democrats are the spawn of Satan. Even if Bush is demonstrated with evidence to be wrong on absolutely everything, including what to order for lunch, his base will stay with him no matter what. Howard Dean could go on the 700 Club and start speaking in tongues, and the show's core viewers still wouldn't vote Democratic. For Dean to do so is a waste of time and effort--and given that Dean is still a bit of a loose cannon, it will probably do more harm than good in the long run.

So, Howard--Mr. Chairman--I still love ya, buddy. But you gotta stop it.

How to Avoid Getting Back to Work After the Holiday Weekend Is Over
It's easy: Don't stop drinking. The amount of high-quality beer being made within a few miles of where I'm sitting is positively astounding. Those of us who live up here know it. Those of us who like beer try hard never to take it for granted. Just in the last couple of weeks, several of our local breweries have made news that reminds us how fortunate we are.

--Middleton's Capital Brewery is just a few blocks away, and Friday it won another national award, this time as a Grand Champion at the U.S. Beer Tasting Championships in Chicago, for its Winter Skal. At the same event, Milwaukee's Sprecher Brewery won a similar honor for its Black Bavarian. (Black Bavarian apparently did not win for its ability to heal the sick and raise the dead, although it can.)

--The New Glarus Brewing Company, just 20 miles down the road, broke ground a couple of weeks ago on a new facility that will allow it to more than double its production capacity, thus bringing more Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel, and Raspberry Tart to the masses. A couple of years ago, New Glarus Brewing pulled back its distribution to a smaller area, although this expansion may permit them to widen it again. If so, it will be the happiest thing to happen in Chicago since last year's World Series, at least.

--My hometown brewery, the Joseph Huber Brewing Company (50 miles from here, tops), was featured in a Capital Times article over the weekend. The brewery has been a fixture in Monroe since 1848, but it's only within the last 10 years that it's developed a variety of beers beyond yer basic Huber beer, and Huber Bock in the spring. They mostly appear under the Berghoff label.

--Now that summer's here, it's wheat beer season. Wheat beer was the first variety I got into when I first became a beer snob, and it's a great place to start your own adventure in snobbery. Although I like other styles better now, a wheat beer still hits the spot on a hot day better than most. The Wisconsin State Journal recently lined up several wheat beers and taste-tested them. I won't give away the results here, but let's just say the old hometown brewery knows what it's doing wheatwise.

--A new brewpub, Ale Asylum, has just opened on Madison's East Side, becoming the first brewpub on that side of town. Before the summer is out, local legend the Great Dane will open a third location on the near west side to go along with its downtown and south locations, and Granite City Food and Brewery, a regional chain brewpub, will open out here on my side of town.

Beer. It's what's for dinner. And lunch. And breakfast if we can manage it, all summer long.

Recommended Reading: One week from today, voters in Iowa will select a Democratic nominee for governor. The contenders are Chet Culver, current Secretary of State and son of longtime U.S. Senator John Culver; Mike Blouin, former state economic development director (who was a Dubuque County pol of some sort when I lived there nearly 25 years ago); and state representative Ed Fallon, whose longshot candidacy has captured not just progressives but a few Republicans, too. Culver is purportedly the front-runner, mostly on name recognition, but there's a perception among some voters that he's not very bright. He is bright enough to have a blog, though--which you will appreciate even if you care nothing about Iowa politics.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Life Is a Carnival
An AP story appearing in lots of newspapers this weekend talks about Katie Couric's adios from Today, which will happen on Wednesday of this week. Jeff Zucker of NBC has already gotten the festivities off to a ridiculous start, calling Couric "one of the great news broadcasters in history." Jeff, buddy, hosting a morning TV news show in the modern era is not exactly Edward R. Murrow doing battle with Joe McCarthy. Even taking that into account, however, a couple of facts in the story revealed just how much of a lightweight Couric is.

Fact 1: Her alarm clock goes off at 5AM. Her show begins at 7. I can't imagine how she gets to the office, goes through makeup and wardrobe, attends a rundown meeting, and does any significant preparation in such a limited amount of time, unless she's sleeping under her desk. By way of comparison, when Bob Edwards was doing NPR's Morning Edition, which airs live from 6 to 8AM, his alarm clock went off at 1:05. It takes more time to know what you're talking about than it does to sound like you know what you're talking about. Couric's talent as a quick study is useful in her job, but it's also a sort of carnival trick, like juggling six plates at once: "Beyonce, best of luck with your new workout video and thanks for stopping by. Coming up next, Senator Russ Feingold discusses the NSA wiretapping program."

Fact 2: The AP's David Bauder writes, "Couric is most proud of giving her all to make each segment a positive experience, whether it's a newsy interview or a cooking segment." Well, that's lovely. Unfortunately, if you're a journalist, making viewers feel good is not your job, and it certainly shouldn't be your goal. And that's the sort of thing that makes me wonder what will become of the CBS Evening News with Couric at the anchor desk. Remember, she once said an especially proud moment of her career was interviewing the Runaway Bride. It's one thing for breakfast TV (as the British call it--a term that captures the triviality of the form extremely well) to always end up perky and positive. It's another thing entirely if the "newscast of record" at the end of the day is going to try to leave a viewer with that same positive vibe. The only way to do it is to distort or ignore what's really going on in the world.

Recommended Reading:
The latest Carnival of the Godless, a biweekly compilation of worthwhile posts about atheism, is up. Hell's Handmaiden addresses the idea of America as a Christian nation, and notes that most of the documents Christians use to support this claim are colonial documents, such as the Mayflower Compact, the Massachusetts Bay Charter, and William Penn's frame of government for the Pennsylvania colony--which are not so much about the founding of the modern United States as they are about the founding of the local branches of the government that was overthrown in the 1770s. Post-1776 founding documents speaking in similarly religious terms are much harder to find. (I remember reading something a few years back in which a writer cited the use of "A.D" dating in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as proof the Founders were Christians, which is weak even by fundie standards of proof.) We shouldn't be surprised by this, though: relying on old texts and ignoring the way newer ones have replaced them is a lot like preferring the Old Testament to the New.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Late Update
The Duke women's lacrosse team is not wearing "innocent" sweatbands in their NCAA tournament game tonight, in solidarity with their male counterparts--some are wearing sweatbands with the numbers of the three men's players indicted in the rape/assault scandal. Other players were seen warming up in sweatbands that read, "No excuses, no regrets." Which is even more hideously inappropriate than "innocent." Never mind that it may refer to the women's team's sense of commitment in the NCAA tournament--when people are watching to see what they're wearing, "no excuses, no regrets" sounds an awful lot like, "Yeah, the boys did it, but they shouldn't have to apologize, and if they did it again, it would be OK with us. What are you gonna do about it?"

I don't care if that's not what they mean--that's how it looks. By going forward with this, they've clearly gotten some horrible advices from their coaches, their parents, their friends, and whomever else gave it to them, only they're incapable of seeing it.

If there's any justice, they'll get blown off the field tonight. They deserve it.

We now return to the weekend, already in progress.

This, That, and the Other Thing
We're in pre-holiday mode here at the Daily Aneurysm. That means we've been doing our regular amount of screwing around in lieu of working, but we don't feel guilty about it. It looks like the first official weekend of summer is going to be summery here in Wisconsin, with the thermometer headed for 90 by Sunday. We're ready. The World's Largest Brat Fest starts today in Madison, in which over 175,000 bratwurst will be consumed by Monday evening, such that simply breathing the air in Dane County will raise your cholesterol level. We're ready for that, too. Who wants to live forever?

We were highly entertained last week when Deadspin, our favorite sports blog, put up a list of the strangest, weirdest, or most pathetic sports team nicknames. Today, Deadspin has topped even that: Ladies and gentlemen, the hockey team at the Rhode Island School of Design is called the Nads. And here is their mascot.

This could only happen in hockey.

We were entertained earlier this week by an article in the June Harper's by David Samuels. It's a sort of ethnographic study of the Super Bowl in Detroit last February, in which Samuels hung out with pregame entertainer Stevie Wonder, watched the halftime show featuring the Stones roll onto the field, visited with officials, talked to fans, and attended postgame player press conferences. In the apparent fact that Wonder's inspiration for his funky, synthesizer-driven 70s sound was Switched-On Bach, the famous 1968 album of classical interpretations on the Moog synthesizer recorded by Walter Carlos, Samuels finds a metaphor for American life that's worthy of being not just Quote of the Day, but Quote of the Week: "[the] free-floating weirdness of American life will always escape any attempt to make us seem like a normal country rather than a furious human-wave assault on the farthest shores of reality."

That may end up adorning the top of this blog before very long.

And so we welcome the Memorial Day weekend. As we are sticking close to home this year, there may be new posts here between now and Tuesday, and there may not be. Don't worry about it. Turn your damn computer off and go outside to play. Drive carefully. Eat a brat.

The Other Thing: Some worthwhile MP3 downloads at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.

Innocence and Irony
Lacrosse is not very big here, despite the fact that there's a major Wisconsin city called La Crosse, best known as the home of the World's Largest Six Pack. Few would pay attention to the game of lacrosse at all were it not for the Duke scandal. Today, the Duke women's team plays in the NCAA tournament in Boston. The team members will wear wristbands printed with the word "innocent," to show solidarity with the scandal-plagued men's team. And they really are solid--the women's team invited the ousted men's coach to give them a pre-tournament pep talk.

In the United States, we rarely talk about social class, even though it's often the most important thing that divides us. The Duke lacrosse scandal gives us a fine opportunity to confront it, although we'll spill barrels of ink and millions of pixels discussing the race and gender implications before we'll deal with the class aspect of the case. But the Duke women's "innocent" wristbands are evidence that class is not just an issue in the case, it's the issue.

Under normal circumstances, you'd expect gender to trump everything else here, because it often does. If members of the football team had thrown a party and invited strippers in, how many of the women's lacrosse players would have protested the insult to their gender? If the stripper had been raped and beaten by some of the football players, how many of the women's lacrosse players would have stood in solidarity with the victim? Yet that's not happening here.

Why not? Here's my guess. The members of the Duke women's lacrosse team come from the same privileged backgrounds as the men. Thus, they have the same understanding of how much the accused players have to lose. They have a similar view of the world--what they're entitled to, and who isn't entitled to the same things. So, if the men's team members felt that the stripper was less human than they, because of her race and her job, why wouldn't the women's team share that attitude? The men's team has closed around its members, forming a blue wall of silence, with players accused of nothing trying to obstruct the investigation, and the Duke women have chosen to stand along that wall with them. (One wonders: Are any of the women law students? Does their prejudging of a case before the legal system has weighed in strike them as ironic at all?)

The idea that we share a common humanity, a common destiny, a common good, is growing more outmoded by the day in America. All we share, in many people's eyes, is a common marketplace, a socioeconomic shark tank in which everybody has to compete with everybody else, best of luck and the devil take the hindmost. When we blindly assume conditions in the shark tank are equal for everybody--in other words, when we ignore the implications of social class--it's easy to assume those who don't share our class have only themselves to blame for it. And because they must have "failed," they're less worthy of respect than we are. And from that perception of inequality comes events such as the Duke scandal--and the weird solidarity of the women's players in a situation where we wouldn't expect to find it.

Short version: The men's lacrosse team is their kind of people, and a black woman who strips for a living is not. And that's the only thing that matters to them.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Thing That Came Out of the GLOP
There was a little squib in the Capital Times yesterday about how the local chapter of GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is changing its name to the Gay-Straight Alliance for Safe Schools. This post has nothing to do with either of those organizations. It's about something I thought of while reading the story--something I hadn't thought about in years.

In the fall of 1980, the University of Wisconsin at Platteville got its first gay and lesbian organization. When the group tried to get official sanction and funding from student fees, controversy erupted. Platteville was small-town Wisconsin, and UWP a school attended largely by small-town and rural kids. A good bit of the opposition to the gay group was of the "icky icky eww gross" variety, as it dawned on the small-town and rural kids that there were gay people in their midst. That unfamiliarity with gay people plunged the campus into a swirl of misinformation and bigotry. Some students argued that if gays and lesbians were granted official university recognition, "witch covens, cults, and anti-American organizations" would be next. A few students formed an organization designed to protect heterosexual rights. (And probably grew up to become Republicans.)

The gay-student organization made a critical misstep at the beginning that made it easier for people to think of them as icky. They called themselves "Gays and Lesbians of Platteville," which was quickly condensed to its acronym: "GLOP."

A certain campus newspaper columnist whose regular beat was music thought the anti-gay students were way out of line. So he wrote an impassioned screed about the GLOP affair, defending the right of gay and lesbian students to organize, and criticizing those who criticized them. He waited until just before deadline to turn it in, in place of his usual music column. He figured this would force the editors to run the thing, even though he had been told several times to stick to music and leave the politics to other writers. He was right. The columnist wrote:
Although I wouldn't want my kid to be homosexual (were such a thing up to me), the fact remains that some people are. And as far as I'm concerned, so what? These folks (known far and wide, it seems, as the G.L.O.P.) aren't likely to set up a table in the Student Center hallway and hold a recruiting drive. I don't expect them to enter a float in the Homecoming parade, but they have the right to if they want to. . . .

In the past month or so, at times the ignorance on this campus and in the Platteville community has been so thick you could cut it with the proverbial knife. There's been a great over abundance of bigoted, close-minded rhetoric, which is disappointing coming from an institution that is supposed to be a place of education and enlightenment. In the face of all that, it takes a hell of a lot of courage to admit to a taboo like homosexuality, and it is mighty admirable to try and improve the lot of those who are [gay], even in a small way.
I was a rural kid from a small-town high school, and I'd never met a gay person in my life as far as I knew--but the position I took in that column was the only one that made sense to me, even though homosexuality was as foreign to me as Sanskrit. As I wrote last winter at The Hits Just Keep on Comin', I'm not especially proud of many columns I wrote for the paper between 1979 and 1981. The rhetorical tics I had back then make me squirm with embarrassment now; neither do I agree today with every opinion I held then. In fact, I often wonder what the hell I could have been thinking.

Not this time.

Recommended Reading: The day Al Jazeera (and paranoia) came to North Dakota and God wants you to beat your children.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sex! Evil Mexicans! Bad Writing!
CNN hit the daily double of wingnuttia last night, with Lou Dobbs citing the racist Council of Conservative Citizens as a source on immigration, and Paula Zahn spending an uncritical segment with a guy who claims to be able to "cure" homosexuals. It's hard to pick which one is more egregious. Although I'd be tempted to give the prize to Dobbs for hyping racist propaganda about Mexican intentions for the Southwestern U.S. that reads like a bad alternate-history short story, Zahn deserves it too, for failing to recognize an obvious quack when it's sitting right in front of her.

Meanwhile, over at Headline News, Nancy Grace ran one of her typical segments, about some tragically spectacular murder somewhere involving people you don't know. The on-screen graphic accompanying the report read, "Parents and Quadriplegic Son Murdered!" It's a subtle thing, but that simple exclamation point had the effect of raising the temperature of the story. Of course, more heat didn't necessarily mean more light. In fact, that one little punctuation mark served to both hype the story and to trivialize it at the same time.

An old editor of my acquaintance used to say that you should write as if you're given 11 exclamation points for your entire writing life, and when they're gone, you can't have any more. He might have added that if you're writing graphics for TV, you should type as if the exclamation-point key is broken.

One More Thing: Tonight's season finale of American Idol is such an enormous pop-cultural event that even this blog, which does not officially care who wins, can't ignore it. Whether you officially care or don't, you might be interested in a few half-baked thoughts about it over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin'.

The Lineup
Congress.org is out with a list of Congressional power rankings, based on 15 characteristics of power the organization finds in the following categories: position, influence, and legislative activity. They stress that their ranks are strictly about legislative effectiveness. A lot of what makes members of Congress seem effective to their constituents--local visibility, communication with voters, and constituent services--aren't measured at all. The rankings do include a touch of what Congress.org calls the "sizzle/fizzle" factor, which accounts for personal popularity (or, in the case of scandal-plagued members, unpopularity) and other subjective factors. Examples of members with "sizzle" include McCain, Hillary, and Obama, so you get the idea.

Wisconsin's two senators rank at Number 54 and Number 82. The surprise here is that Herb Kohl is 54 and Russ Feingold is 82. Kohl ranks 18th overall among Democratic senators; Feingold 32nd. Kohl gets his highest marks for his position, Feingold for his legislative activity. It appears that Feingold lost points due to his purported interest in running for president, "which usually translates into reduced resources and ability to exercise power in the legislative process." He also ranks low in influence, which is surprising to me, and probably to you too. He's been nothing less than the conscience of the Senate in the last year or so. If his colleagues had the courage to support and vote for the censure resolution, he might rank higher.

My representative, Tammy Baldwin, ranks 424th of 438 members ranked (including delegates from DC, Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands). This is because "Member has weak committee assignment or lacks significant committee influence due to member's minority party status." (They said that about Feingold, too--but not about Kohl, even though they both serve on the Judiciary Committee and the Special Committee on Aging. Kohl is on Appropriations, Feingold on Foreign Relations and the Budget Committee. Which makes the two senators' respective rankings even more mysterious.) Baldwin's opponents in the last couple of elections have tried to make an issue of her lack of legislative accomplishments, but without success. Her personal popularity is fabulously high here, as is her visibility, such that it's hard to see her losing her reelection bid this fall. The Repugs haven't run a viable candidate against her since 2000, and it looks as if her challenger this year will be the same guy she dispatched in 2004.

Other people who've represented me over the years rank like this: Iowa Senators Grassley and Harkin rank 4th and 35th respectively; Iowa representative Jim Leach is 69th; Illinois representative Lane Evans is 282nd. (I've been gone from Illinois a long time, but Lane Evans soldiers on.)

You can find out where your senators and representative rank by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Breaking the Bank
At Thanksgiving 2004, The Mrs. and I did some sightseeing in Washington, D.C. I wrote the following about the National World War II Memorial:
Its soaring columns and iron wreaths are as overblown as the black granite of the Vietnam Memorial is understated, and having one festooned column for each of the 50 states, DC, and various territories is overkill. As several historians have noted, public memorials say as much about the times in which they are erected as they do about the past events or people they commemorate. Even though the World War II Memorial was designed in the late 1990s, it's clearly an artifact of America's 21st Century empire.
In New York, they're still hassling over the World Trade Center Memorial. Recent reports indicated that the cost of the memorial could run anywhere from 500 million to one billion dollars. Billion, with a B. Tom Engelhardt wrote a great post at TomDispatch last week, in which he compared that cost to other memorials, and found that the World Trade Center Memorial will cost more than all the other famous American memorials combined. Far, far more.

Ain't that America? Everything's bigger here. Our hamburgers, our movie stars--and our sense of violation when something bad happens to us. When homegrown terrorists blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, we built our first inflated memorial for $29 million. The World War II Memorial was the next one built. We weren't necessarily salving open wounds with that one, but we were surely conscious of the way our victory (and we always consider it "our victory," never mind the British or the Free French or the Russians) did nothing short of creating the modern world. And at the precise moment in history when "the greatest generation" was being venerated, anything less than what we built would have been perceived as too little. (Try not to think about the irony of the WWII Memorial looking like something Mussolini would have built for himself if he'd been on the winning side.)

Now comes the World Trade Center Memorial. As Engelhardt notes, our desire to spend a billion on a 1776-foot tower and reflecting pools is more about glorifying our suffering as Americans than about remembering those who died. But that's in keeping with who we are, too--21st century Americans are the most egotistical race of people who've ever walked the planet. So we're going to break the bank for an obscenely elaborate monument to the most psychologically wounding day in our history, the events of which started us on our current spiral down history's drain.

Perhaps the World Trade Center Memorial is fitting, then, but not in the way it's supposed to fit.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Day Is Done
(Warning: If you taped or TiVoed the season finale of 24, spoilers are ahead.)

Jack Bauer saved California from terrorists, brought down the President of the United States, got to kiss his beloved Audrey--and ended up in more trouble than he'd been in all day. Day Five ended with Bauer in Chinese custody, presumably about to pay for his personal invasion of the Chinese consulate on Day Four, 18 months earlier.

In other words, the day that began with Bauer brought out of hiding because his cover was about to be blown ended with his cover being blown. It's like everybody at CTU forgot the Chinese might have an interest in Jack to begin with. Jack certainly forgot about it. Yeah, he's had a busy day, and stuff slips your mind when you get busy, but remember--but he was in hiding until yesterday.

Now that the season's over, the suspension of disbelief that's required to fully enjoy 24's video thrill ride starts falling away, and questions arise for which there are no good answers.
It was mighty clever of Jack to bug President Logan--but how could he know Logan would confess in time to save the lot of them from going up for treason? Presumably Jack and Mrs. Logan cooked up the plan for her to provoke him into confessing, but they did it off-camera, so we never saw it. And that's a dramatic cheat.

You've gotta wonder, too, why Logan didn't tip the Chinese to Bauer 18 hours ago, when he first realized Bauer was onto him. Surely that would have been easier than co-opting the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Secret Service into his plot.

And who was that omnipotent guy with the black eyeglasses who seemed to be giving orders to Logan for the second half of the day? He turned up in the first five minutes tonight, then disappeared.
(One thing we learned tonight about Logan--he may fancy himself a man of action, but he's not much of one. Exhibit A: At the end of the first hour, 6:00AM in the show's universe, he and the First Lady were getting ready to hit the rack. No more than five minutes later, they were getting dressed. Not much of a salute from the little soldier, apparently.)

For all the political meaning people try to hang on 24--how Logan parallels Bush, whether last season's explicit torture sequences were some kind of commentary on our reality, that the show represents a Republican fantasy of how the war on terror should work--it really can't support any of it for very long. I've been one of those people hanging meaning on it. Earlier this season, I wrote that 24 had become the darkest entertainment show ever seen on American TV, providing a sense of looming horror that could only be more dire if they started killing random viewers at home. It didn't maintain that--and there's a persuasive argument that for the second season in a row, the whole thing fell apart at the end.

But here's the thing about 24. When we sit down in front of the tube, we do it to be entertained, and the people who make 24 do that as well as anyone in the history of TV. If only they could manage it without leaving half-a-dozen loose ends hanging every year.

(Get much, much more from viewers at Television Without Pity.)

Carry Me Back to Old Californy
As noted this morning, our Wisconsin Republicans were busy this weekend. They took a straw poll at their state convention and favored Virginia Senator George Allen for president in 2008 by one vote over Rudy Giuliani. Newt Gingrich and Condoleezza Rice were close behind. Honesty compels me to report the straw poll had only a little over 300 participants. Nevertheless, the ideological fissure that threatens to divide the Repug party is nicely captured by the Allen/Giuliani split. Rudy would be utterly unacceptable to the culture warriors, who would make up Allen's base. (For what it's worth, Giuliani placed second a year ago, behind Rice; Allen had run fifth last time. Jeb Bush, who placed third in 2005, didn't get a single vote this time.)

I don't know whether you caught it or not, but last month, The New Republic brought to national attention the fact that Allen, despite claiming a full set of shitkicker bona fides--bolo ties, country music, NASCAR--actually grew up privileged in California. He adopted Confederate sympathies while in high school there, and never set foot in the South until he was a sophomore in college. So that means he's an even phonier cowboy than Bush. However, since lots of voters (Repug and otherwise) either can't tell or don't care about the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk, Allen's fake Confederate act would make him a formidable candidate in 2008. (The original New Republic article is behind a subscription wall. Digby captured some of the highlights.)

Recommended Reading: Wisconsin will be voting on a referendum question this November regarding a state Constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage. Pandagon reports that the wingers are test-driving their newest talking point on the issue, designed to keep them from being accused of bigotry. They apparently plan to talk about how it has nothing to do with homosexuality and everything to do with nurturing the family unit. (No word on whether they'd talk about our death penalty referendum question in a similar way: "It has nothing to do with the prisoner; it's all about helping the victim's family.")

I'm concerned about the marriage amendment for two reasons. The possibility that it will lose is bad enough. Even worse is the certainty that it will unleash unparalleled ugliness into Wisconsin politics, especially given that the tide of public acceptance is slowly turning toward same-sex marriage. Clearly, only one antidote could possibly be strong enough for this ugliness: Before then, the Milwaukee Brewers must trade for Boof Bonser.

Dimwit Jamboree
Time for another installment of Those Wacky Republicans, our intermittent look at how Wisconsin's wingnuts are entertaining the whole state by being themselves.

The governor has until the end of the month to sign a stack of bills passed by the legislature. One of them would mandate abstinence education as the best choice for sex education in schools.

Comment: State Senator Mary Lazich, last seen at this blog co-sponsoring a bill that would forbid school districts from adopting textbooks that referred to dates with C.E. and B.C.E instead of A.D. and B.C, gave our local NBC affiliate a lovely quote: "I think the bill, at the end of the day, what it does is require that students be armed with more information, information that they are not being armed with now." That's as neat an example of conservative doublespeak as you're ever likely to hear--because to people like Lazich, "more information" about sex, as provided by abstinence education, equals "no information" about sex.

Item: Tommy Thompson isn't going to run for governor this fall.

Comment: Tommy gave a good old political stemwinder at the state Repug convention this weekend, but ultimately for other people. It's not a surprise he passed on the governor's race. Congressman Mark Green has had the money locked up for months, which is why Scott Walker got out of the race earlier in the spring. But Thompson didn't say anything about running for the Senate against Herb Kohl. His speech would have been the place to do it--it would have brought the house down and energized the party faithful so much that they'd glow in the dark. But he said nothing about the Senate, and he ducked questions afterward.

The Repugs didn't run a serious candidate against Kohl in 2000, and they've got nobody this time, either. They've stacked the November ballot with a same-sex Constitutional amendment and an advisory referendum on the death penalty, so you'd think that even a rich dimwit with nothing to offer (like Tim Michels, who got stomped by Russ Feingold in 2004 and who is considering another run if somebody else would pay for it) would be competitive. With a big-name candidate like Thompson running against Kohl, it would be hard for them to lose. Perhaps if He Who Shall Not Be Named didn't have an approval rating in the same range with brussels sprouts and diarrhea, he might call on Thompson to run for the good of the party. As it is, the decision is entirely up to Tommy, and he will supposedly make it this week. I won't be surprised no matter what he decides.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Another Excuse to Type the Words "Boof Bonser"
We haven't done a sports-themed post here for a while, and Sunday afternoon seems like a good excuse to do one. So here we go.

Item: Barry Bonds finally hit his 714th career home run yesterday, tying Babe Ruth for second on the all-time list.

Comment: A sports-talk host I was listening to this morning suggests that Bonds' achievement, steroid accustions or not, outshines Ruth's because Ruth played in a time when major league baseball was made up entirely of white Americans, while Bonds' opponents have come from all over the world, and in an era when athletes are more physically talented to boot. That may be true, but we can't rely only on the numbers to prove it, and in a sport that venerates numbers like no other, that matters. Barry Bonds may deserve a far higher pedestal than many people are willing to put him on, but we'll never know for sure--and it's nobody's fault but his.

Item: Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro breaks a leg at the Preakness Stakes; Sam Hornish wins the pole position for this year's Indianapolis 500.

Comment: Every year in May, we're reminded that the Triple Crown of horse racing and the Indy 500 are mere shadows of their former selves. The Triple Crown is being done in by demographics, in the United States, at least. Where's the new generation of American horse-racing fans coming from? Answer: nowhere. The new power base in the sport is Middle Eastern money--and in the world we live in right now, it's hard to imagine Americans embracing a sport where the big winners are people from Dubai and Bahrain. If Barbaro hadn't been seriously, perhaps terminally, injured yesterday, a fraction of the people who are aware of the race today would have noticed the result. The demise of the Indy 500, like Boof Bonser's first name, is self-inflicted. At the precise moment in the early 90s when NASCAR stock-car racing took off, the people who own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the idiotic decision to start their own racing league for open-wheel cars, and anyone who wanted to compete at Indy had to run in several other no-name races. As a result, the major stars of the sport--the Unsers, the Andrettis, and others--stopped running at Indy, and the race became as compelling to the national audience as minor-league baseball. Since then, the Indy Racing League has developed its own stars--Hornish, Helio Castroneves, and most famously right now, Danica Patrick--and has lured a few of the older stars back. But the Indianapolis 500 has now become the second-most popular race at its own track, overshadowed by NASCAR's Brickyard 400 every August.

Item: The NBA playoffs still have a month to go.

Comment: When the Milwaukee Bucks won their lone NBA title in 1971, they wrapped it up in late April. The NBA has expanded its roster of teams and the size of its playoffs since then, and now the season ends around Father's Day. It's an easy argument to make that in general, the playoffs would be far more compelling with half the teams and half the games. However, three of the four conference semifinal series this year will go to a deciding seventh game, one today and two tomorrow, and each one has had a storyline to snare even the casual fan: the rise of Lebron James to Jordan-like stature as he attempts to lead the underdog Cleveland Cavaliers over the favored Detroit Pistons; the struggle of the Dallas Mavericks to finally get past their arch-rival, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs; and the stunning performance of the Los Angeles Clippers, long the most mismanaged franchise in sports, having to prove quarter-by-quarter than they're not a fluke, and largely succeeding. Not that I'm going to actually watch any of these games or anything--but I won't automatically turn off the sports talk shows when they start talking about them, either.

His Fastball Is Mighty and Will Not Be Denied
You may have noticed the news stories this past week about the growing popularity of "Nevaeh" as a first name. I did. Over the years, I have collected odd names. It's easier now than it used to be. Some of the names parents hang on kids today seem so strange, and sometimes so flatly cruel, that you can't help but notice them. I am thinking here of the parents wanted to name their son "Tim," but for whom "Tim" was simply too pedestrian, so they named him "Tymme," or the parents who created future strippers by naming their daughters "Wytnee" or "Lynzi." (Until I write something based on my bad-names archive, Baby's Named a Bad, Bad Thing will have to do if you want more.)

I was collecting athlete names first, however. It started way back in the 60s and 70s, with names like Pedro Borbon and Cepheus Witherspoon. But despite my experience with odd names, nothing prepared me for the latest one I found: Boof Bonser. Boof is a pitcher who will make his major-league debut for the Minnesota Twins today against the Milwaukee Brewers.

In defense of his parents, Boof's name is self-inflicted. His parents named him "John Paul." ("John Paul Bonser" isn't a bad rock-star name, actually--a chainsaw lead guitarist in a heavy-metal band, maybe.) Somebody nicknamed him "Boof" at some point, and he legally changed his name to "Boof" a few years ago. The people at I Dislike Your Favorite Team brought some grade-A snark about Boof on Friday, and I laughed along with them. But that was before I realized this name has magical powers. When you speak the name "Boof Bonser" aloud, something happens. You have to smile. Endorphins are released. I am convinced that merely speaking the name "Boof Bonser" aloud can reduce stress and will improve your attitude. All the trouble in the world seems mitigated by the fact that there's a guy named "Boof" walking around and sharing it with us. Perhaps, if spoken often enough, "Boof Bonser" could change your life.

Try it.

Later today: Items and comments from the non-Boof (Boof-free? sans Boof? Boofless?) pages of the sports section.

Friday, May 19, 2006

It's Not a Lie If You Believe It
These are the kind of headlines that greet us online and in the paper this morning, headlines which say things that we know are untrue:

"Hayden Insists NSA Surveillance Is Legal" (No word on whether he also insisted that the Cubs will contend for the pennant, that donuts won't make you fat, or that Paris Hilton is a virgin.)

"Bush Says Border Fencing Makes Sense" (Of course, abstinence education, tax cuts, and Iraq make sense to him too, so what the hell do you expect?)

Let's see if we can make up some headlines that are just as likely to be true:
"Harry Potter Author: 'I Want Your Kids to Worship Satan'"

"New Leads in Jimmy Hoffa Disappearance" (No, wait, that's real.)

"Donuts Won't Make You Fat" (Nah, maybe that's not so good. There are probably a few people around who believe it. Skeptical? Hey, there are people who believe this.)

"Barry Bonds Retires, Admits Steroid Use"
And so on. You can probably think of your own.

On the subject of lies, brouhaha has been swirling around reporter Jason Leopold, who wrote last Friday that Karl Rove had told White House colleagues he was going to be indicted and that he planned to step down as soon as he was. The story swept the blogs last weekend, but was treated with more skepticism than you'd expect from people who have been dying to see Rove's perp walk. The muted response seemed odd to me, although I didn't investigate the reason why. Here's why. First, absolutely nobody else had the story. Second, Leopold's credibility is apparently less than completely solid--Salon sacked him a few years back for using unsubstantiated material in a story. Capitol Hill Blue has the details.

Whether Leopold is ethical or credible or something less than both, the bottom line on Rove this morning seems to be this: Given past patterns in the special prosecutor's office, chances are good that if Rove is going to get his, it will come today.

To be on the safe side, however, don't hold your breath.

Recommended Reading: Once again, I love me some News Blog, which picked up a Huffington Post post (post post post) from Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy and former high Republican thinker, about the likelihood of Bush and Cheney surviving the summer in office, let alone the full 977 days remaining in their term. Phillips suggests that House speaker Dennis Hastert, third in line, is manifestly unqualified to be president, so the Repugs might consider appointing someone else to be speaker--and that someone doesn't have to be a sitting member of the House. It could be a senator. Phillips suggests Lugar of Indiana or Warner of Virginia--either of whom, though they are Republicans, would be a vast improvement over HWSNBN and Dick Him Before He Dicks You. (Good nickname--credit to Jerry Bowles at Best of the Blogs for it--but too long. Henceforth, we shall refer to the vice president as "Himby.") Except here's the thing--House Repugs, who elect the speaker, won't do anything without White House marching orders, and they surely won't mess with the presidential succession. And besides, everybody knows that if Himby drops dead or resigns, Condoleezza Rice gets the VP gig. And she makes Hastert look like Lincoln.

Also, Mark Morford has been playing around with Google Trends, a new web tool that unveils all sorts of information about who's googling what and where they're googling from. Just what the Internet needs--another great time-waster.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

You Were There
On May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate hearings began. I was in seventh grade that spring, already a news junkie, so if anybody in my school besides the teachers knew about Watergate, it was me. Our social studies teachers, Miss Alt and Miss Odell, made us watch the hearings in class. I am not sure how many students really understood what they meant--and I don't remembver how much I understood about the hearings, either. But I knew major news events when I saw them, so I was interested.

No matter what's on the front page, above the fold, like the Watergate hearings 33 years ago, life goes on in countless other ways, with events that leave lighter footprints on time. Over at my other blog, The Hits Just Keep On Comin', we do an occasional feature called "One Day in Your Life," focusing on the events and popular music of one single day. Just for kicks, let's try something similar here, and see if we can find a theme or some significance in the juxtaposition of events.

May 17, 1973, was a Thursday. The biggest event on Richard Nixon's official calendar (apart from the hearings) was the signing of an executive order regarding the "Inspection of Income, Excess-Profits, Estate, Gift, and Excise Tax Returns" by the Senate Commerce Committee. He also talked to his lawyer, Fred Buzhardt--a conversation that would be taped on the famous White House taping system to be revealed at the Watergate hearings later that summer. The conversation was about the existence of the Huston Plan, a domestic spying operation devised in 1970 to disrupt student protest movements. (Domestic spying. Mmmm, smells like history.) Nixon was concerned that the Watergate committee knew about the plan, and was concocting a strategy to contain the political damage if the plan, which was never carried out over objections from the FBI, was revealed by the committee. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon gave a famous speech in which he declared, among other things, "The whole world is in my hand, I will conquer and subjugate the world."

The energy crisis hadn't officially arrived yet, but government officials were trying to find energy wherever they could, and on this day, three nuclear weapons were exploded underground in Colorado. The nuking, code-named Rio Bravo, was part of something called Operation Plowshare, which was intended to release hard-to-get natural gas resources in the area. (Don't tell Bush or Cheney about this.) It worked, except that the gas became so radioactive that it was unusable. Quelle surprise. The first three astronauts were supposed to be launched on their mission to Skylab, but the launch was postponed until the 25th. Their job--fix severe damage to the orbiter that had occurred at launch on May 14.

Football player Jay Riemersma (tight end, Buffalo Bills) was born. So was actor Hill Harper (CSI: New York and Lackawanna Blues), in Iowa City. Also born on that day was 7-foot-6 inch actor Matthew McGrory (The Devil's Rejects). McGrory, who died last summer, is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world's biggest feet--size 29 1/2.

David Bowie, playing a concert in Dundee, Scotland, was mobbed by fans on the way to his limo after the show. In London, the Rolling Stones wrapped up 11 days of work on their forthcoming album, Goat's Head Soup. (That's the one with "Angie" on it.) Then-unknown Canadian rock band Bachman-Turner Overdrive released its first album. Los Angeles radio personality Hal Goodwin died after having a heart attack on the air. The New York Review of Books published a review of the controversial movie Last Tango in Paris.

The old Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In sports, California Angels outfielder Bobby Valentine got his leg caught in the outfield fence and broke it--his leg, not the fence--trying to keep a home run from going over the wall in the Angels' 4-0 loss to Oakland. The team I followed, the Chicago Cubs, lost to their arch-rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, 6-4.

And that was the day. You were probably there, too, somewhere.

Corrections and Additions
Last weekend I wrote about the excellent excerpt from Michelle Goldberg's book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism that appeared at Salon. In that post, I was fuzzy on the distinction between Christian Reconstructionists, who'd like to reconfigure all of society on an Old Testament basis, and Dominionists, who don't go as far in advocating things like stoning sinners in the public square. My pal kn, who is reading Goldberg's book, reminded me of the distinction. David Neiwart discussed the distinction at Orcinus yesterday--just what should we call those people? He originally suggested "Christianists," derived from the word "Christianism":
Christianism is a theocratic form of Christianity which is anti-pluralistic, designed to impose conservative Christian beliefs on American society (and eventually the world) through the use of the political system (or sometimes outright force). Christianism is a domestic crusade designed to change the country from the inside into one in which (nominally) Christian beliefs are the guiding societal force.
Implicit in the term is Christianism's status as political ideology distinct from religious belief. But he also says "dominionist" is a good choice, and for an interesting reason: People don't know what it means, which requires us to explain it every time we use it. When Mr. and Mrs. All-Christians-Are-The-Same hear what Dominionists stand for, they sit up and say "Well, that's crazy." Which is exactly the reaction we want.

ITMFA: Last week, the Rude Pundit suggested that Democrats should run this fall on the platform that voting Democrat means getting rid of Bush. They ought to come right out and say that if elected, Democrats will impeach him. (And, I would add, see that the bastard is turned over to the International War Crimes Tribunal). This will never happen, of course. But Zachary Roth at Washington Monthly has a less inflammatory suggestion--Repugs are already telling their supporters that if the Democrats take Congress, they'll launch "politically motivated" investigations of everything. The frame is in place, so why not use it? Why not say, "If you vote Democratic, you'll get real Congressional oversight, the way the Constitution intends it?" As Roth notes, the case will have to be skillfully made--and more skillfully than you might imagine, given that the media has already accepted the Repug frame, and that any post-election investigations will be reported as political payback rather than the lawful reassertion of Congressional responsibility.

It can't be done in a timid bleat--but honesty compels me to report that since this is the Democratic Party we're talking about, timid bleating is what we'll probably get. Talking about impeachment, Washington insiders like to put on their frowny faces and say, "Oh, we just had the Clinton impeachment, and the country couldn't stand another one." Nonsense. The Clinton impeachment was a joke--a partisan circus that had very little support outside the Repug base. The crimes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney make Nixon look like a shoplifter. A worse crime would be letting them get away with it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Go Fish
In announcing its fall schedule for 2006, ABC has also announced the official cancellation of Commander in Chief, its highly-touted series starring Geena Davis as the President of the United States. There are lessons in this for aspiring television producers everywhere.

First of all, there's a difference between an intriguing concept and an intriguing show. Commander in Chief was the most intriguing concept of the past several TV seasons, but the producers never had a clue about what to do with it. Instead, they merely grafted generic plots on top of it. And not even generic TV plots--plots that were generic long before the invention of television: the powerful enemy lying in wait for the eager young hero to stumble, and the fish out of water tale. While it may be true that all stories are a variation on two plots ("you go on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town"), stories worth hearing generally dig a little deeper.

Second of all, if your goal is to craft intelligent, thoughtful adult drama, do not focus attention on children. As soon as Commander in Chief did its first episode about the kids having trouble adjusting to President Mom, I was off the bus. Even when otherwise intelligent and thoughtful adult dramas try to morph into family drama, it never works. Take the story arc on The West Wing in which Bartlet temporarily resigns the presidency when his daughter is kidnapped, and the episode where C.J. goes home to bond with her distant and ailing father, which represent the worst story arc and single episode of the series. Take the melodramatic storyline in the next-to-last season of NYPD Blue, in which Andy and Connie nearly lose the baby they're trying to adopt. Take the monumentally stupid Kim Bauer on 24. Someday, somebody's going to prove me wrong about this--but it isn't going to be a show where the youngest daughter is wide-eyed and precocious beyond her years, the middle daughter is sullen and maladjusted, and the oldest son is an amiable overachiever trying not to seem like one.

However, the simplistic family dynamic of Commander in Chief was in keeping with the general simplicity of the show. The conflict between Davis and her nemesis, Donald Sutherland, was so broad that the only thing missing was the hero's white hat and the villain's black one. And while The West Wing, even at its lowest point, always presented the mechanics of governing as they really work, Commander in Chief presented the back-of-the-cereal-box version, in which problems are simple and so are the solutions. The irony of this is that it's a vision of politics that conservatives should love--especially the part where President Mom sends American troops stomping all over the globe to prove she's got balls enough to lead--but they were so spooked by imaginary visions of Hillary Clinton in Davis' character that they didn't notice.

My guess is that between the standard set by The West Wing and the high-profile failure of Commander in Chief, it will be a long while before anybody tries a president series again. Unless somebody figures out that a much more interesting idea has been under their noses all this while: a series about the husband of the first female president. Now that's a fish-out-of-water tale worth the effort.

Quote of the Day: From Daily Kos contributor WorldCan'tWait, who reported on a Christian youth rally called BattleCry, recently held in Philadelphia. In response to a comment made on the report, WorldCan'tWait provides an interesting take on the culture war:
At its most basic level it's a lot of lazy fucking parents who need the government to bring up their kids for them. Too bad they don't get a clue and take personal responsibility for it. Hint. If you don't want your kids being "manipulated" by junk mass culture, take them to a museum, buy them copies of Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare, take them camping. You don't need a theocracy because American Idol sucks.
Very well put.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Bartlet for America One Last Time
I may have to take back some of the bad things I've said about John Wells and The West Wing. Wells took the writing credit for last night's series finale--and it was as fine a piece of work as he's ever turned in, one that ended the series on a completely appropriate note, and in thoroughly satisfying fashion. The episode gave us the right balance of old and new, and of looking back and looking forward. After 2 1/2 seasons of hit-or-miss TV, The West Wing got it right at the end.

The final episode of a long-running series should be written for and be true to the people who have watched it religiously. This is where some other series finales have failed. Take the last episode of Seinfeld, which abandoned the style that fans adored for an episode with a conventional storyline that ended up being untrue to the spirit of the entire series. Or the 1983 finale of MASH, which was clearly written, produced, and acted with the knowledge that the whole world would be watching, and thus ended up so unlike the rest of the series in look, tone, and spirit that it played like an inferior remake. But The West Wing didn't fall into either of these traps. The final episode contained some great nods to the series' history--the framed napkin with the words "Bartlet for America," which dates back to the episode explaining how Bartlet came to run for president in the first place; and Santos, in the Oval Office, asking his chief of staff Josh, "What's next?" They brought the funny, as in Debbie Fiderer's advice to her successor as presidential secretary. They reminded us, as show so often did, of just how awesome and important the office of the presidency is. The show has often done this through the eyes of the characters who are most like viewers. In the first season, Charlie Young, newly hired as the president's "body man," watches him preparing to give a televised address and whispers to Josh, "I've never felt like this before." Josh responds, "It never ends." Last night, it was Donna Moss, who began the series as an aide's gopher but now appointed chief of staff to the new First Lady, getting a look at her office.

It might have been otherwise for The West Wing. As Matt Santos walked to the platform to be inaugurated, I imagined for a moment that we might hear shots ringing out or something--after all, John Wells is the same guy who ends each season of ER with mayhem. I would like to have seen Toby Ziegler find out about his pardon--and that it was Bartlet's idea to give it to him--but that's a minor quibble for which Wells compensated by thinking to do something else. At the inauguration, we saw various characters watching Keb' Mo' singing "America the Beautiful." The single unfamilar face in the crowd was series creator Aaron Sorkin.

Although it's fun to imagine how Sorkin might have written the finale, Wells did it well enough. And if you're a West Wing fan, you had to get pumped by the promo for Sorkin's new Studio 60, right?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A Dumb, Mechanical Universe of Random Fortune and Tragedy, and How I Learned to Live Here
Every once in a while I devote a Sunday morning to visiting Internet precincts I don't get to regularly. This morning, it was The Secular Web, and specifically an article by Richard Carrier called "Why I Am Not a Christian." If any single individual is responsible for the fact that I am not a Christian, it's probably Carrier. His copious work at that site helped me straighten out the religious muddle cluttering my head in the mid 1990s and turned me into the well-adjusted hellbound atheist puke I am today. "Why I'm Not a Christian," posted earlier this spring, pulls together a lot of themes from stuff he's written over the years. The desire to quote the good bits puts me at direct risk of quoting the whole thing, but I'll try to restrain myself to topics that have been addressed at this blog in the past.

Last year, we got into a lovely rumble about free will--the idea that God created people with the right to make mistakes or do wrong, rather than creating us so that we would always do what's good and right. The argument goes that we can choose to accept the good or reject it, which is why not everyone is good, as you would expect in a universe designed by a loving God who wanted his creations to be happy. But that argument is actually a contortion made necessary by the fact that when it comes to having told us clearly how we're supposed to live, God has done no such thing--at least not in ways that aren't open to widely diverging interpretation.
The Christian proposes that a supremely powerful being exists who wants us to set things right, and therefore doesn't want us to get things even more wrong. This is an intelligible hypothesis, which predicts there should be no more confusion about which religion or doctrine is true than there is about the fundamentals of medicine, engineering, physics, chemistry, or even meteorology. It should be indisputably clear what God wants us to do, and what he doesn't want us to do. Any disputes that might still arise about that would be as easily and decisively resolved as any dispute between two doctors, chemists, or engineers as to the right course to follow in curing a patient, identifying a chemical, or designing a bridge. Yet this is not what we observe. Instead, we observe exactly the opposite: unresolvable disagreement and confusion. That is clearly a failed prediction.
Shorter Carrier: If the Christian God existed, there would be no need for free-will theories.

Over at the Secular Outpost, a blog maintained by several major contributors to the Secular Web, somebody commented on an article from Christianity Today about a preteen girl who learned to believe in the power of prayer after it helped her cure her teacher's cold and get permission to have a sleepover. The blogger wondered if the girl would have such a strong belief in prayer if she'd chosen different things to pray for--like an end to suffering in Darfur. One of the things that boggles the non-Christian mind is the way Christians accept the kind of suffering we're seeing in Darfur without blaming God for failing to help. Many rely on more contorted reasoning to explain it--the variation on free will that says humans must choose to help, or that humans must be tested by adversity like Job. Or least satisfying of all, that "God moves in mysterious ways": Despite the definition of him as a God of love, there's a reason he lets starving babies have their eyeballs eaten by flies while their mothers watch helplessly, and it's not his fault that we can't understand why. However:
A Christian can rightly claim he is unable to predict exactly what things his God would choose to do. But the Christian hypothesis still entails that God would do something. Therefore, the fact that God does nothing is a decisive refutation of the Christian hypothesis. Once again, a prediction is made that consistently fails to pan out. Instead, we observe the exact opposite: a dumb, mechanical universe that blindly treats everyone with the same random fortune and tragedy regardless of merit or purpose. . . .

A tsunami approaches and will soon devastate the lives of millions. A loving person warns them, and tells them how best to protect themselves and their children. And a loving person with godlike powers could simply calm the sea, or grant everyone's bodies the power to resist serious injury, so the only tragedy they must come together to overcome is temporary pain and the loss of worldly goods. We would have done these things, if we could--and God can. Therefore, either God would have done them, too--or God is worse than us. Far worse. Either way, Christianity is false.
The most interesting part of this lengthy article is where Carrier takes on intelligent design, specifically the argument that the universe is designed precisely so we can survive in it, and therefore, God exists.
Even the Christian proposal that God designed the universe, indeed "finely tuned" it to be the perfect mechanism for producing life, fails to predict the universe we see. A universe perfectly designed for life would easily, readily, and abundantly produce and sustain it. Most of the contents of that universe would be conducive to life or benefit life. Yet that is not what we see. Instead, almost the entire universe is lethal to life--in fact, if we put all the lethal vacuum of outer space swamped with deadly radiation into an area the size of a house, you would never find the comparably microscopic speck of area that sustains life. Would you conclude that the house was built to serve and benefit that subatomic speck? Hardly. Yet that is the house we live in. The Christian theory completely fails to predict this--while atheism predicts exactly this.
The fact that our existence seems unlikely is the farthest thing from evidence that a god created us. That we exist at all in a cosmos so vast and inhospitable is more persuasive as evidence of an accident. If we'd been created deliberately, the universe would look a lot different than it does. How would it look?
The answer is easy: the very universe early Christians like Paul actually believed they lived in. In other words, a universe with no evidence of such a vast age or of natural evolution, a universe that contained instead abundant evidence that it was created all at once just thousands of years ago. A universe that wasn't so enormous and that had no other star systems or galaxies, but was instead a single cosmos of seven planetary bodies and a sphere full of star lights that all revolve around an Earth at the center of God's creation--because that Earth is the center of God's love and attention. A complete cosmos whose marvelously intricate motions had no other explanation than God's will, rather than a solar system whose intricate motions are entirely the inevitable outcome of fixed and blind forces. A universe comprised of five basic elements, not over ninety elements, each in turn constructed from a dizzying array of subatomic particles. A universe governed by God's law, not a thoroughly amoral physics. A universe inhabited by animals and spirits whose activity could be confirmed everywhere, and who lived in and descended from outer space--which was not a vacuum, but literally the ethereal heavens, the hospitable home of countless of God's most marvelous creatures (both above and below the Moon)--a place Paul believed human beings could live and had actually visited without harm.

That is, indeed, exactly the universe we would expect if Christianity were true--which is why Christianity was contrived as it was, when it was. The first Christians truly believed the universe was exactly as Christian theism predicted it to be, and took that as confirmation of their theory. Lo and behold, they were wrong--about almost every single detail!
I warned you I could quote almost all of it. Rather than going further, I suggest you block out an hour and go read the whole thing. If I had to pick one summary to explain what I can believe and what I can't, this would be it. Thanks, Professor Carrier.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Flag and the Cross
The other day, I was out somewhere and saw the following bumper sticker, with a quote attributed to novelist Sinclair Lewis: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross."
(And, I might add, backed by a poll that says some percentage of the population is OK with it. There are dueling polls out right now suggesting that A) two-thirds of Americans are OK with the latest round of domestic wiretaps and B) that half of Americans are not OK with the latest round of domestic wiretaps. If ever there were a situation where you need to examine both the questionnaire and the methodology to determine the credibility of a poll, this is it. But the mighty Billmon has decloaked himself this weekend to make the point that the validity of our civil rights is not subject to approval or disapproval by a poll. That's what makes rights rights--we're entitled to them no matter what.)

Sinclair Lewis would recognize the thing he feared in the Christian Reconstructionists--a religiously inspired movement that wants to take control of every facet of American culture, society, and government under Old Testament principles. When I first started studying these people, in the mid 1990s, it was mostly because they seemed to be such entertaining loons. Back then, even they didn't think their kingdom was close at hand--one of their leading thinkers estimated it might be a thousand years away. But in the last 10 years, things have speeded up considerably.

Michelle Goldberg has written a book about the movement, and an excerpt appeared at Salon yesterday. It's the sort of thing that inspires open-mouthed, they-can't-be-serious awe--followed rather swiftly by the chilling realization that these people are absolutely serious, and on fire with the devotion of the truly committed.

I wonder, though, whether the United States, and specifically the great big squirming, wiggling, vibrating and vibrant bag that is our culture--art, science, education, socialization, money, sex, sports, commerce, the totality of it, however you'd like to describe it--is remotely containable on the scale the Reconstructionists suggest. It's possible to imagine Reconstructionists getting control of a state government--there's actually a formal movement to do just that in South Carolina--but even if they were to succeed in one state, the border would not be all that far away, and those who chose to flee could flee. To see them successful at clamping down on the entire country requires a flair for paranoid invention even I have trouble summoning up, and I'm a lot more paranoid about Christian nutbags than most people.

What would it take? Even the kind of surveillance of telephone calls that was revealed this week isn't likely to be enough. The Reconstructionists are, at bottom, thought police, and how they might get inside the heads of 298 million Americans to police what they're thinking, I'm not sure. Even George Orwell's telescreens couldn't tell what you were thinking. And short of putting half the population in uniform to police the activities of the other half, I can't seem them succeeding to the extent they imagine.

Of course, they won't need to succeed to that extent to make life difficult and unpleasant for millions of us. Their ethos--the idea that only they know what's right and moral, and that people who don't share their views are not fit to live in America--is already afoot in the ranks of conservative America. It may be in a somewhat dishwatery form compared to the Reconstructionists' 180-proof version of it, but it's there. And as long as they keep soldiering on, it's likely to get stronger. Maybe not strong enough to reach the critical mass they dream of, but strong enough to make this country even harder to live in than it is now.

Recommended Reading: You remember the Desiderata, of course ("Go placidly amid the noise and the haste"). And you may remember National Lampoon's "Deteriorata" ("You are a joke of the universe/you have no right to be here.") At Orcinus, David Neiwart presents Deciderata.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Speeding Into the Weekend
Items and comments in 25 words or less:

Item: Fox News has figured out why the Dow went down 120 points today--because USA Today "made the country less safe" by revealing the latest round of illegal wiretaps.

Comment: Ow! Ow! Ow!

Item: Nancy Pelosi, who will be Speaker of the House if the Democrats retake Congress in November, told the Democratic caucus she is "not interested in pursuing" impeachment.

Comment: Maybe it's a tactic to defuse the issue for November, but don't rule out that she really means it. Ladies and gentlemen, your Democratic Party.

Item: An atheist candidate for the Democratic nomination for Alabama attorney general is also a white supremacist and a Holocaust denier.

Dude, you may be an atheist, but you're in the wrong party.

Item: Karl Rove has told his White House bosses that he is going to be indicted and will immediately resign as soon as he is.

Comment: Ohgod, ohgod, ohgod . . . I think I need a cigarette.

Textbook Example
This blog gets its name from the fact that nearly every day, there's something in the news that makes you want to have a stroke. While I frequently find myself more entertained than pained by the Wisconsin legislature's wacky Republican membership, today even they are making my head hurt. The Wisconsin ACLU reported in its quarterly newsletter about a bill proposed during the last session by state senators Tom Reynolds of West Allis and Mary Lazich of New Berlin. The bill, SB506, would prohibit school boards in Wisconsin from adopting any textbook that uses the terms "CE" ("common era") and "BCE" ("before the common era") instead of "AD" and "BC" when referring to years.

Ow! Ow! Ow!

According to one online report, Reynolds told his colleagues, "[The] revision of well-established historical references is simply an attempt to sterilize educational materials from even the most innocuous religious references. This trend is unnecessary and should be discouraged."

What Reynolds doesn't know (although the list of things Reynolds doesn't know is undoubtedly a lengthy one) is that CE and BCE are not new terms. The Oxford English Dictionary says they date back to 1881. He also doesn't know that common-era notation is more accurate than BC and AD, given the hazy dating of the birth of Jesus. What Reynolds does know, however, is that CE and BCE have gained in usage precisely because they acknowledge that we live in a pluralistic world where not everybody's a Christian. So we're safe in assuming his bill is largely about showing non-Christians who's in charge. In other words--it's another, uh, textbook example of Christo-fascist bully tactics.

The true intent of Reynolds' bill is revealed in the penalty the bill would impose on those school boards that dared to violate the law--a fine of not less than $25 and not more than $100. So as a way of actually protecting the integrity of historical references (or protecting the Christian children of Wisconsin from evil secularism, whatever you want to call it), it's not exactly a deterrent. But as red meat for the wingnuts in Reynolds' district and around the state, it's top sirloin.

(In a legislative body filled with Republican nutjobs, Reynolds still manages to stand out, as former Madison mayor Paul Soglin pointed out at his blog last December. A website from one of the neighborhoods in Reynolds' district also keeps track of his antics. It headlined a squib on his legislative agenda, which includes knee-jerk support for the death penalty, by saying "Reynolds pushes bills to kill gas tax, people, textbook terms.")

SB506 actually got a public hearing in March, but failed to pass when the legislature adjourned earlier this week. My guess is it'll be back, as long as legislators like Reynolds come to Madison to represent their constituency of one--Republican Jesus.

(For more on common era notation, click here for the long version and here for the short.)

Thursday, May 11, 2006

And in Other News Today, the Sun Rose in the East
And now, the Daily Aneurysm's commentary on the news that the administration has illegally monitored the phone calls of millions of Americans who have nothing to do with Al Qaeda since just after September 11:

Well of course they have.

Thank you and good night.

All Praise to the Invisible Blue Unicorn in the Sky for Helping Me Write This Blog
With few exceptions, the Christian faith of athletes is generally a mile wide and a half-inch deep. Highly proficient athletes live their lives on a ragged edge between success and failure. They often fail more than they succeed, their careers are short, and their grasp on them is often tenuous. Thus, they need every psychological advantage they can get. So, if they can get an advantage by believing that God is taking time out from curing somebody's cancer and finding somebody else's missing daughter to help them hit a critical three-pointer in overtime, they'll take it.

The phenomenon of athletes thanking Jesus for home runs, touchdowns, and championships jumped the shark years ago, but like other things that have jumped the shark (Desperate Housewives and the Bush Administration come to mind), it shows no sign of slowing down. Salon has an interesting article this week about about the prevalence of evangelical Christianity among athletes, especially in professional sports.

Even when I was still nominally a believer in God, those midfield prayer huddles after football games involving both teams seemed off to me--a bit like Pharisees praying on street corners to show how pious they were. The huddles were popularized by Reggie White, the Packers defensive lineman, who was also an ordained minister. But even White, who was widely thought to be the kind of Christian who put most other Christians to shame, seemed superficially religious to people who knew him well. A reporter who has covered the Packers for years and who regularly saw White in unguarded moments once told me that in his opinion, White was the biggest hypocrite he'd ever seen.

Nevertheless, people can believe what they need to believe to get them through the day. I don't care all that much, as long as their beliefs or the consequences of their beliefs don't get up in my grill. The only danger I see in the colonization of sports by fundies is that it makes their sort of religion seem like the norm to young fans who admire pro athletes. Anything else, Judaism, Islam, skepticism, or even keeping your mouth shut about religion, starts to seem abnormal. And in the testosterone-fueled, what-happens-here-stays-here world of the locker room, abnormal is a bad thing to be.

Recommended Reading:
I haven't linked to Mark Morford at SFGate for a while. He's got a good one today, about what it would be like if gasoline went to $6 a gallon, or $10. It's clear that our country is headed for some kind of historic disaster--economic collapse or fascist dictatorship or wartime bloodshed on U.S. soil--and I've been half-wishing that it would just happen already so we can stop the waiting and get on with whatever's next. Morford observes that while $6 or $10 gas would be extremely difficult and disruptive in the short term, after a while, we'd adjust, and life would go on. Granted, it would be easier to adjust to $10 gas than it would be to adjust to 24-hour government surveillance. But we're even getting used to that.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's Next?
The West Wing's final episode is this Sunday night, but the night's not going to be what it could have been--NBC has decided not to air a tribute special, like they've done with almost every other high-profile series in recent memory, reportedly because some cast members wanted too much money to appear. Instead, NBC will repeat the first episode of the series at 7:00 before showing the series finale at 8. I understand the economics of TV, but we're talking about one of the most honored series in NBC's history, and it seems petty for them to balk at ponying up, especially at the last minute. You'd think they could take what they make from one episode of Deal or No Deal and throw it at the West Wing cast, but apparently not.

Fortunately, there will be nearly endless West Wing retrospectives in the media over the next several days, and they're already starting to appear. The Los Angeles Times had a story today about the formerly unrequited relationship between Josh and Donna. At BuzzFlash, guest writer Michael Winship reminisces about the show as a fantasy world for liberals who respect speaking in complete, humorous sentences, as epitomized by the late great Leo McGarry. And AP television columnist Frazier Moore writes a letter to Jed Bartlet.

I'm hopeful that the final episode will focus on the outgoing administration and not the incoming one. And I am eager to know what the final line of dialogue will be. If the writers have a solid grasp of the characters and the show's history--not a sure bet week-in and week-out, although they've been better about it this season--the final scene will go something like this:
Matt Santos has been inaugurated. We're in an underground garage, where Jed and Abbey Bartlet are getting into a limo for the ride to the airport and the flight back to Manchester, New Hampshire. They hold hands but don't speak. Their faces tell us that every memory they have of the last eight years is flooding back at once. Finally, the former president says, "Let's go." As the limo rolls away, they take one last look at the White House. Then Jed looks at Abbey and says: "What's next?"

Fade to black.
"What's next?" is a recurring Bartlet-ism, and ending the series with it would leave dedicated fans limp with closure.

If Aaron Sorkin were writing the script, he'd do it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Vast Wasteland at 45
Newton Minow was appointed by John F. Kennedy to chair the Federal Communications Commission shortly after Kennedy took office in 1961. Forty-five years ago today, Minow spoke to the National Association of Broadcasters, and coined the phrase that will appear in the first sentence of his obituary.
When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.
Minow went on to describe what he meant:
You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you will see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, try it.
Minow spoke in an era that's so different from the multichannel, on-demand TV era we live in now that there's almost no comparison--except for the wasteland part. Today, the western is dead, the gangsters come from the 'hood instead of from Italy, and the audience participation shows are known as "reality TV," but everything else Minow criticizes is still taking up space on the dial. Commercials are still annoying and boredom is still a problem, epitomized by the lament that there's all those channels but still nothing on.

(That dreck would proliferate on television in 45 years is mostly a matter of mathematics. There's a whole lot more TV now than there was in Minow's day. In his speech, he refers to "79-and-a-half hours of prime evening time"--a week's total on three networks. If you have the typical 70 channels or so on your cable system, the equivalent number today is something like 1900 hours of "prime evening time" in a week. Perhaps the wonder is that there was so much dreck in Minow's time.)

Minow found it difficult to place blame on the viewers for the situation in 1961:
I do not accept the idea that the present over-all programming is aimed accurately at the public taste. The ratings tell us only that some people have their television sets turned on and of that number, so many are tuned to one channel and so many to another. They don't tell us what the public might watch if they were offered half-a-dozen additional choices. A rating, at best, is an indication of how many people saw what you gave them. Unfortunately, it does not reveal the depth of the penetration, or the intensity of reaction, and it never reveals what the acceptance would have been if what you gave them had been better -- if all the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination had been unleashed. I believe in the people's good sense and good taste, and I am not convinced that the people's taste is as low as some of you assume.
Minow called upon the broadcasters to offer more balanced choices of viewing--not as easy to do then as now. But as time went by, we got much more than "half-a-dozen additional choices." Broadcasters have delivered the variety Minow sought. But that variety hasn't changed things the way Minow thought it might. We know now that mass taste is in reality every bit as grim as it looked to Minow in 1961. You can unleash "the forces of art and creativity and daring and imagination" and some people will watch the results, but many more will plan their entire week around American Idol.

It's easy to criticize broadcasters, as Minow did, for the poor quality of television. (His comments were not well-received in some quarters--the producers of Gilligan's Island named the S.S. Minnow as a slap at the chairman.) Today, we're a bit more realistic than Minow was in 1961. The problem in our country now isn't that people watch TV. It's how. Television, as a medium, is neither good nor bad. It's a conduit, like a garden hose. It's what we do with what we receive that makes the difference. We can water our lawn so it grows, or drown it so it doesn't.

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