Thursday, December 30, 2004

Unleashing the FBI on America's Novelists

Here's a news item you're unlikely to encounter elsewhere. It's from the Winter 2005 issue of the Author's Guild Bulletin, which arrived in my mailbox half an hour ago. The story, titled "Baseless Hysteria?" describes the experience of a writer researching a novel who stumbled upon information about "atrocities committed by an al-Qaeda-linked group in Cambodia, her novel's setting."

What happened next? According to the Bulletin:

Six federal agents, including three from the FBI, raided her home before dawn. . . . they confiscated her computers, photocopier, files, books, discs, computer programs, music CDs, contracts, television, pens, paper and postage stamps. . . .It tooks months for agents to return the author's computer, she said, which now contains monitoring software apparently installed by the government. The agents also returned some of her discs, which she said were ruined. Nothing else seized by the agents has been returned. . . .

The author believes that in her research, she stumbled onto a website the government created "for the sole purpose of entrapment." She learned, too, she said, that her e-mail was being tracked and monitored by a powerful government tracking program called Carnivore.

Remarkably, the source of the article in the Authors Guild Bulletin was a story in the November, 2004, issue of the Romance Writers Report. Somehow I never thought of romance writers as a collection of dangerous radicals--but give the Bush administration time . . .
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Tsunami Relief

Click here to get a handy list of agencies that are supporting the relief work in South Asia (care of Daily Kos). Let's give generously and show the world that the American people are better than their government.
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TV Gets It Wrong

Amusing "Critic's Notebook" piece on page 1 of the New York Times Arts section today. Virginia Heffernan uses an analysis of the Christine Lahti character on the TV series "Jack & Bobby" to skewer the ridiculous way in which "intellectuals" are depicted in the MSM. Money quote:

Oh, why are television's humanities professors so banal? . . . The book-learning on display in "Jack & Bobby" appears to come mostly from a single book: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Professor McCallister [the Lahti character] . . . is meant to be a great contrarian, but she's incongruously reverential about canonical writers. A professor of history at the fictional Plains University in Missouri, Grace has two Ph.D.'s, both inexplicably in history; still, her addresses to the undergraduates of the plains recall Miss Jean Brodie's exhortations to Scottish schoolgirls. Only less intelligent.

Good one, Virginia! Now for another of my pet peeves (peeves make excellent pets, so loyal and reliable): the way my own industry, book publishing, is depicted on TV.

Like college professors, book editors are generally portrayed as dim-witted but pretentious pseudo-intellectuals. They work in vast offices decorated with costly modern furniture and flooded with light from expansive windows with a view of the New York skyline. (If you're an actual book editor, you are shaking your head in rueful disgust about now.) And perhaps most annoying of all, the book manuscripts they are supposed to be reading always appear to be about a hundred pages long--one fifth to one tenth the size of most real book manuscripts, but just about the length of a typical movie script (which apparently is the closest thing to a book that most Hollywood set dressers have ever seen).

(Ingrid, am I using the term "set dresser" correctly? Please advise.)

Interestingly, the TV series that came closest to depicting a book publisher accurately was Seinfeld, where Elaine's office at Pendant Publishing was a tiny, ratty closet piled high with books, papers, and junk. (Was there a refugee from publishing at work on the Seinfeld staff?) Guess you have to turn to farce if you want to find realism on television.
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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

New York loses another native...

I just found out that the actor/singer/dancer Jerry Orbach has died from cancer at the young age of 69.

Like John Lennon, I always thought of Jerry as one of those New Yawkers who liked it here and didn't go "Hollywood" despite the fact that he could have afforded to live high up on hill in La-La Land, isolated from everyone. I was lucky enough to see Jerry in a revival of "42nd Street" and wished I could have seen him in the original "Fantasticks." Currently, I am playing a computer game version of "Law & Order" in which he does his own acting.

Occasionally, I would see him on the streets of Manhattan and I'd wave and say "hi". He'd say "hi" back and smile, never pretentious or snobby. I have always had a fondness for the old Broadway hoofers who stayed in New York and still kept a foot on the Great White Way, as Jerry hosted PBS shows on the history of Broadway and similar programs.

Jerry, New York and I will miss you.
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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

An Evangelical Scholar Consigns C. S. Lewis to the Ashheap

I'm a serious aficionado of C. S. Lewis. As you may know, Lewis was an Oxford don, a novelist and writer of fantasy, and a Christian apologist. Popular during his lifetime, he has developed a significant worldwide following in the years since his death (an event which got very little press attention, since it occurred on November 22, 1963, the same day as another more noteworthy passing).

Lewis has many "pockets" of fans who know him from a specific aspect of his life and work. His Chronicles of Narnia children's books have always sold extremely well (though not quite as well as the Middle Earth books by Lewis's friend J. R. R. Tolkien), and have had a major influence on contemporary fantasy series like the Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and His Dark Materials books. Lewis's adult science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) has a smaller but significant following that overlaps with admirers of the "spiritual thrillers" written by Lewis's other famous friend, Charles Williams.

Another pocket of Lewis fans is drawn from people who saw one of the productions of Shadowlands, the dramatization of his late-in-life, odd-couple love affair with Joy Davidman, a Jewish divorcee from New York City. (Anthony Hopkins played Lewis in a movie version.)

In addition, each of Lewis's many books about Christian faith has its own pocket of appreciative readers. Mere Christianity is a popular gift for young people who are wondering about their own faith. A Grief Observed, based on Lewis's diaries during the slow death of Joy Davidman from cancer, has touched many readers who are living through a similar anguish. Surprised by Joy, Lewis's spiritual autobiography, has encouraged many a religious awakening (when I met political commentator Mort Kondracke he cited this book as a personal favorite). And The Screwtape Letters, The Pilgrim's Regress, and The Great Divorce are religious satires that attract a philosophical audience.

Rather than fitting into any single Lewis "pocket," I've read and enjoyed all of the books mentioned above, along with Lewis's literary criticism, most of which is now considered passe among academics (although The Discarded Image, a brief summary of the medieval world-view, still makes a handy idea kit for the student who is tackling Dante, Chaucer, or Spenser for the first time).

As I say, I'm a serious Lewis aficionado. Above all, my understanding of Christian beliefs and attitudes owes a lot to Lewis. So I've been getting increasingly nervous in recent years as I became aware that Lewis had become popular among some American fundamentalists. Evangelicals like Charles Colson, the one-time Watergate conspirator who has gone on to a successful post-prison career in the ministry, give much of the credit for their personal faith to Lewis, and his books get prominent display alongside the Left Behind series in so-called Christian bookstores.

It's easy to see why evangelicals like Lewis. He's a graceful stylist, is obviously deeply sincere about his beliefs, and explains them in an appealingly clear, down-to-earth fashion. This is why a book like Lewis's Mere Christianity makes a good starting point for any religiously disengaged person--an agnostic, for example, or an intelligent, questioning teenager--who is curious about religion and why on earth anyone might choose to embrace it.

But Lewis's popularity among evangelicals frankly made me worry: Omigosh, what's wrong with Lewis that these people from the red states like him?

Now I'm feeling much better. Googling the Internet for writings that contained the words "C. S. Lewis" and "evangelical," I came across an article that analyzes Lewis's theology from a fundamentalist standpoint--and categorically rejects it.

The article is by theologian John W. Robbins, and it appeared in the December, 2003, issue of an evangelical journal called the The Trinity Review. Robbins quotes Lewis extensively, including a passage from Mere Christianity which effectively captures Lewis's characteristic tone and attitude. Here's how Lewis explains the central tenet of Christianity, the redemption of humanity by Jesus:

Humanity is already "saved" in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation. But the really tough work--the bit we could not have done for ourselves--has been done for us. We have not got to try to climb up into spiritual life by our own efforts; it has already come down into the human race. If we will only lay ourselves open to the one Man in whom it is fully present, and who, in spite of being God, is also a real man, he will do it in us and for us. Remember what I said about "good infection." One of our own race has this new life: if we get close to Him we shall catch it from Him.

Of course, you can express this in all sorts of different ways. You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarrelling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.

These lines capture much of what I (and millions of other people) find appealing about Lewis. He makes no bones about his belief in a traditionalist form of Christianity, one that embraces a clearly supernatural role for Jesus (as opposed to honoring him merely as a great moral teacher or exemplar). Lewis emphasizes that Christ has done something miraculous and supremely important for humankind. But because Lewis respects the mystery behind this belief, he refuses to be rigid about how it is described and expressed. Frankly admitting that he doesn't understand exactly how Christ's redemption of humankind "works," Lewis will not quibble about the precise explanation that a particular person or sect might prefer.

(Lewis was quite consistent about his refusal to get caught up in sectarianism. He expressed sympathy and respect for many forms of belief and practice, and once commented that his ideal model of Christian worship was an Orthodox service he attended in which some people knelt, others prostrated themselves, others held their arms aloft ecstatically, others sang, and still others prayed in silence--and no one paid any attention to, much less criticized, any one else.)

Lewis's openness and humility are exactly what John W. Robbins cannot abide. In his article, after quoting the passage above, he remarks, "Now these paragraphs are an attack on Christianity, not a defense of it" (my italics). How so? Because, in Robbins's view, a theologian who doesn't unwaveringly embrace the doctrine of "justification by faith" as spelled out in evangelical teaching is not a true Christian.

Give Robbins credit--he doesn't hesitate to carry this judgment to its logical conclusion. The title of Robbins's article is "Did C. S. Lewis Go to Heaven?" And Robbins answers the question in the final sentence of the essay: "Not if he believed what he wrote in his books and letters."

Whew! That's pretty hard-hitting criticism--to send an author to hell, not as a figure of speech but literally.

I find it fairly mind-boggling to read an article like this--a well-written, carefully-reasoned piece of argumentation whose basic thesis is that what Christianity desperately needs is more "quarreling" among sects about the right "formula" for defining theological truths. (Hey, let's start the twenty-first century by bringing back the Inquisition--yeah, that's the ticket!)

On the other hand, I was relieved to discover that I hadn't been misreading Lewis all these years. The fact is that the writer I'd long admired is too tolerant and open-minded to satisfy the evangelical jihadist.

The good news is that millions of readers around the world read the works of C. S. Lewis, while John W. Robbins and The Trinity Review are read by just a handful. The bad news is that there are probably some evangelical pastors, guided by the likes of Robbins, who are telling their parishioners, "It's all right to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Just don't swallow that heretical stuff about God wanting everybody to be saved."
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And Especially Ingrid

and especially Ingrid!
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Monday, December 27, 2004

Monday After Christmas

. . . spent the afternoon driving daughter Karen home to the apartment she shares in Prospect Heights. We listened to Brian Wilson's Smile CD on the way down--quite an amazing piece of work, it's clear that the artists had a lot of fun making it. Listening with my 22-year-old daughter to an album released in 2004 by an artist my age who has finally gotten around to recording music he wrote in 1966 is a nice way to span the ages. (Karen loves the album; along with Bjork's Medulla it was one of the first two albums she downloaded onto her new iPod, her best gift from Santa Claus.)

. . . driving along at rooftop height on the BQE passed a twenty-foot-long homemade billboard bearing the message WORST PRESIDENT EVER. Karen said, "He really is, you know." Parked outside her place for fifteen minutes to carry up her Christmas stuff including the $200 chair she bought at IKEA--where did we buy cheap chairs for our first apartments, I wonder? Can't remember all these years later.

. . . Driving home saw a full moon, huge and orange, hanging just above the apartment buildings alongside the BQE. Quiet end to a beautiful Christmas weekend. Thanks to Mary-Jo, Karen, Laura, Matt, Janee, Alvin, Jonathan, Jack, all the others who helped make it special.
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Saturday, December 25, 2004

Thoughts for Christmas Day

Two quotations are permanently posted on my office bulletin board. The first is from J. S. Bach:

Like all music, the figured bass should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the recreation of the soul; where this is not kept in mind there is no true music, but only an infernal clamor and ranting.

The second is from Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing that is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Merry Christmas, all.
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Thursday, December 23, 2004

"The incredible incompetence of large corporations"

If you're interested, Daily Kos has a bunch of additional comments about my post on private versus public enterprise (find them here). I especially enjoyed the one from a guy calling himself "k9disc" whose experiences working at IBM and then in the hotel business left him seriously disillusioned about corporate America.
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George Orwell, Now More Than Ever

Everyone knows the adjective Orwellian, which like Kafkaesque is used to describe some of the more frightening and repugnant qualities of contemporary life. And many people have read George Orwell's classic novels 1984 and Animal Farm, mostly in high school.

Those books are great. But Orwell has a special place in my heart as the author of some of the last century's best non-fiction prose--essays, letters, journalism, literary criticism, cultural broadsides, political diaries, and all kinds of other writings that make it clear that Orwell would have been the world's greatest blogger if the Internet had been invented in 1930.

(As an aside, isn't it interesting to contemplate how the world might have been different if the Internet had been invented in 1930? How would the global struggles against fascism and Communism have been affected? What if the Jews of Europe had been in constant daily contact with the rest of the world via email and websites? Maybe nothing would have turned out differently, but then again . . . Any alternative history writer looking for a new idea is free to run with this one.)

I find myself frequently dipping into the enormous four-volume collection of Orwell's collected essays, journalism, and letters (edited by his wife Sonia and Ian Angus and published in paperback by David R. Godine). I love to reread his bracing commentary on the events of the day, in which he can be counted on to expertly expose and skewer the cant and hypocrisy of all sides, from the far right (of course) to the far left, which then included Stalinists, Trotskyites, and many other now-defunct variations. And he does it with such humor, astringent wit, and stylistic grace that every page is a sheer pleasure to read, even when the controversies under discussion are mostly passe.

If you're not acquainted with this wonderful stuff, start with the widely-available anthology titled A Collection of Essays, which gathers a lot of Orwell's most permanently interesting work. It includes pieces on everything from Orwell's miserable boyhood as a scholarship student at a third-tier "public" (i.e., private) school in England to brilliantly insightful essays on the political and social implications of bawdy comic postcards, kids' school stories, hard-boiled pulp fiction, and the novels of Dickens. The observations are often surprising and mostly dead on target, and the writing is tremendously fun in a delightfully accessible, pop-intellectual sort of way.

Orwell is one of the two deceased writers (the other is I. F. Stone) that I most wish could somehow be cloned to write about today's political, social, and cultural scene.
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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Bethlehem, Rome, and the Politics of Christmas

John Richards links us to this nice column, titled "The Politics of the Christmas Story" by James Carroll. Opening graph:

The single most important fact about the birth of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospels, is one that receives almost no emphasis in the American festival of Christmas. The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome's day is over.

Rome's day may be over, but two thousand years later, "imperial power" lives on, centered not in Rome but in Washington.

One can certainly argue that the American empire, by historical standards, has been relatively benign. But it's still weird that the religious right is so willing to cater to the powerful, so eager to promote itself as the official cult of our contemporary Caesars, and so happy to bless their military adventures--and to do all this in the name of Jesus, spokesman for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the oppressed.

Culpable, willful blindness is the only possible explanation--because, to describe the values that rule today's Rome as "Christian" values, you have to blind yourself to the plain meaning of the Bible. I guess that's the price you pay for power.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

One of Wall Street's Good Guys Weighs In

My friend Martin Fridson, one of the smartest guys on Wall Street, offers a partial demurral to my post about private versus public enterprise:

The management fee for my Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund is not the government's exorbitant 0.60%, but only 0.18%. And expenses are all reflected in the 0.18%. It’s a no-load fund, meaning there is no sales charge. Not clear why anyone buys anything other than a no-load index fund (not limited to S&P 500), but to each his own.

If Vanguard ran a fund purely as a custodian, which is what the government does with Social Security, the administrative cost would be far below 0.60%. Actively managed funds, which employ portfolio managers and analysts, have additional costs to recover. Of course, as we know from
Investment Illusions, they may not add any value, but they do have costs.

Your larger point is certainly true--corporations waste money just as the government does. Only saving grace is that if they don't get Big Government to insulate them against market forces, and if they keep wasting money, they eventually disappear. Government, on the other hand, is like Old Man River. It can keep going forever through its power to tax.

Marty's reference to Investment Illusions is to a book he wrote several years ago (published by John Wiley)--well worth reading.

He's right about the power to tax, of course. And traditional liberals agree with traditional conservatives in being suspicious of unchecked power in any quarter, including government. My main beef is with some self-proclaimed conservatives who (unlike Marty) refuse to acknowledge that private enterprise at its worst can exhibit many of the same flaws (arrogance, wastefulness, etc.) as government at its worst.

Anyway, most individual investors would be well-advised to put their money into a no-load index fund like Vanguard rather than one of the more expensive (but usually not more profitable) managed funds that tend to get touted in magazines and on TV. That's my advice, not Marty's, but I think he would agree.
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Fruits of Cronyism

Quotations from adjacent stories in today's New York Times:

F.B.I. memoradums portray abuse of prisoners by American military personnel in Iraq that included detainees' being beaten and choked and having lit cigarettes placed in their ears, according to newly released government documents. The documents
[were] released Monday in connection with a lawsuit accusing the government of being complicit in torture . . .

"Listen, I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart. . . I have heard the anguish in his voice and seen his eyes when we talk about, you know, the danger in Iraq and the fact that youngsters are over there in harm's way. And he's a good decent man. He's a caring fellow."

Our president grew up in a family deeply enmeshed in our nation's political and economic power structure. As many journalists and biographers have noted, the core value taught in the Bush family is personal loyalty. Thus, the present administration is a kind of apotheosis of cronyism.

Unfortunately, the moral compass provided by cronyism is deeply flawed. President Bush believes--sincerely, I think--that what matters most about Donald Rumsfeld is whether he is "a good person." And Bush judges the "goodness" of a person by how he acts and talks around Bush. Bush looks into a person's eyes and judges his "soul" by what he sees there. And having made that judgment, he will not allow it to be shaken--after all, personal loyalty is a two-way street.

However, a more meaningful way to judge a public servant would be to examine the wisdom of the policies he establishes, the kinds of government actions he supports or permits, and the long-term effects of his administration on the people he is supposed to serve.

These are the standards by which history will ultimately judge both Rumsfeld and Bush--not by whether they are likable, "decent," "caring" fellows who talk in a kindly way about the people whose lives they are ruining for no good reason.

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Sunday, December 19, 2004

Enough With the Concessions Already

Robert Kuttner, editor of The American Prospect, writes an excellent letter to the editor of The Washington Post in response to a snide remark from George Will about the "moral vanity" of liberals who find fault with red-state values. As Kuttner explains, pointing out what you consider a narrow-minded or wrong-headed policy doesn't make you an elitist: "Was Lincoln looking down his upturned nose at slaveholders? The George Wills of the day accused him of far worse."

Unfortunately we progressives have long been susceptible to brow-beating by conservatives because of our excessively "reasonable," overly conciliatory natures. Way back in the 1950s, a classic Jules Feiffer cartoon strip showed two lily-livered liberals debating how to deal with a very large, oafish person in a leotard who was pushing them to join in some idiotic dance routine. By the end of the strip, having agreed that it would be better not to cause a scene or hurt anyone's feelings, the liberals were dutifully dancing on tiptoes as one of them remarked, "It's we who have insight who must make the concessions."

Now, fifty years later, it's time we stop fudging about what we believe to be right and wrong. Enough with the concessions already.
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How the Creationists Sell God Short

Entire books have been written analyzing the scientific problems with creationism. Much less has been said about why creationism makes no sense from a religious point of view. Here are two of the key points.

First, creationism grows out of a basic misunderstanding of the Bible. The Bible is not a scientific text. When the Bible was being written, there was no such thing as science as we now understand it. The book of Genesis, for example, is a collection of powerful stories handed down through oral tradition to explain certain timeless truths about the relationship of God and human beings. It is not an attempt to describe the physical mechanisms by which the universe, the earth, and living things came to be.

If the "authors" of Genesis were interested in crafting a scientific account of the origins of our world, they would have been more careful about making it logical and consistent. For example, Genesis includes two contradictory descriptions of the creation of Eve. First it says that God created humans "male and female" (Gen 1:27) and instructed them to populate the Earth. Then it gives the "Adam's rib" version (Gen 2:20-23), in which the creation of a woman is apparently an afterthought. (How God originally expected Adam to reproduce isn't explained.)

The contradiction between these two versions causes a logical problem only if you assume that the Bible is some sort of scientific text. But there's no problem once you recognize that the authors of Genesis are more interested in expressing their views about the nature of human beings and the moral connection between the two sexes--that male and female are deeply intertwined physically and spiritually, etc.

The fundamentalist attempt to transform a book of moral and spiritual teachings into a science text is silly and betrays a fundmental ignorance about what holy scripture is all about.

The other problem is that creationism assumes a simple-minded notion of divine creativity.

I was once chatting with a creationist acquaintance when some topic relating to the wonders of human nature came up. Shaking her head, my friend remarked, "And to think that some people believe we evolved from the mud!"

I suspect that some variation of this emotion underlies much of the appeal of creationism. Fundamentalists are offended by the idea that God's plan for creation might be carried out through squalid, mundane, and seemingly random processes, such as mutation, competition, selection, and worst of all, sex. The idea that God created humans through miraculous fiat (while speaking in a voice like Charlton Heston's, I guess) seems more in keeping with their concept of the divine dignity.

For me, the truth is just the other way round. Every writer knows that the most artfully crafted novel, play, or movie is one in which the story is set in motion with a particular cast of characters and a couple of basic premises--and then seemingly works itself out from that point on, with no visible sign of authorial tinkering. By contrast, you know an incompetent writer is at work when the plot requires several "miraculous" interventions to end up in the right place--astounding coincidences, out-of-the-blue surprises, unmotivated changes in the characters' personalities, and so on.

To me, evolution is a fabulous tribute to the sophisticated creativity of God. It implies that he set the universe running and then let the story of life unfold with minimal further intervention, knowing from the start how the plot would develop--through the emergence of humans, the spread of sin and suffering, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, right up to our own day.

Maybe Darwin said it best, in the famous final paragraph of The Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . . Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

What a genuinely inspiring view of creation--fruit of a brilliant scientist's lifetime of study and contemplation of how nature, God's masterpiece, really works.
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Friday, December 17, 2004

Private Enterprise: Sometimes Mean But Not Very Lean

The myth of the "efficiency" of the private sector as compared to the wasteful, bloated bureaucracy of government is one of our era's most striking examples of the power of propaganda to induce people to believe things contrary to ordinary experience.

Now's a good time to take a closer look at this myth, since the looming debate on dismantling Social Security will include many paeans to the benefits investors will supposedly enjoy once their accounts are managed privately rather than in Washington.

The myth implies that government offices are flooded with unnecessary tax dollars that are inadequately controlled and ripe for the looting by greedy, lazy bureaucrats.

How well does this square with everyday experience? Think about your acquaintances who work for government at any level. Are they the most prosperous people you know? Do they earn salaries far higher than their counterparts in private business? Are their perks especially generous?

When I was growing up, my mom and dad both worked for the government. Mom was a public school secretary in New York City, Dad was a letter carrier. We got by at a lower-middle class level, with one car, one TV, and an annual vacation in the Catskills. There was certainly nothing lavish about the perks or privileges their jobs provided. I remember Dad talking hopefully about the possibility that one day he might retire to Nalcrest, the modest Florida retirement community funded by his union, the National Association of Letter Carriers. (Instead he stayed put in Brooklyn and died fairly young.)

In my innocence, I assumed that life in the private sector was pretty much the same. So when I got a white-collar job at a publishing company, I was startled by the amount of money that got wasted on frankly unproductive things, from lavish holiday parties to sales conferences in the Caribbean attended by hundreds of employees with grand nightly buffets, dancing, boat rides, and golf outings for the executives. People chuckled over stories about bizarre incidents of waste, like the publisher who called the company's limousine service to carry his umbrella home from the office one day after the rain unexpectedly cleared up.

Around the same time, my sister was working in the movie and television business. She would regale me with stories about the perks enjoyed by the stars, not to mention the vast quantities of catered food ordered up for every day on the set--most of it never eaten and simply thrown away.

(Of course, show business is legendary for its wastefulness as well as for the pharaonic demands of its leading men and women. A recent college graduate I know is building up his filmmaking resume with a job as one of the assistants to a major star in a current production. His sole responsibility: to ensure that the star has access to no fewer than four Internet connections at any given time.)

The theory is that competition forces business to be lean and efficient, to purge itself of waste. Well, the last time I looked, book publishing and show business were both competitive businesses. Neither one looks especially lean or efficient. And if you think that other businesses are much different, you haven't been reading the papers. CEO compensation sets records every year; sales of corporate jets are soaring; spending on executive "coaches," physical trainers, club memberships, multiple apartments, and other privileges has become commonplace even in smaller companies.

There is a trend toward "leanness" in many industries. But it's focused exclusively on the bottom end of the business. That's why some hourly employees at Wal-Mart have reportedly been forced to work overtime without pay, while the Walton heirs are featured on the cover of Fortune magazine as "America's richest family."

Think about the most ambitious people you knew in college--the ones who had their eyes fixed on making the big bucks. Where did those people go to work? Did they apply for jobs on Wall Street, at the big consulting firms, or elsewhere in corporate America? Or did they opt for one of those "bloated, wasteful" bureaucracies like the Department of Education or Health and Human Resources, where they could really make a killing?!

These arguments are anecdotal, of course, which makes them vulnerable; one anecdote can be countered by another. We've all heard stories about unjustifiable perks at the highest levels of government, like Congressional "fact-finding missions" to island resorts. But it's obvious that no one chooses government work with the goal of becoming rich--except indirectly, since you can get rich after you leave government by going to work as a lobbyist for private industry.

And there's plenty of hard data to back up the point that the private sector is not highly efficient compared with the public sector. For example, contrast the administrative costs of Social Security (they average about sixth tenths of one percent of the total moneys paid out in benefits) with the much higher management fees and sales charges imposed by most mutual funds.

At the very least, it's time for the conservative myth of efficient private business versus wasteful government to stop getting a free ride in the public discourse. Where's the evidence to support it?

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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Sex and the GOP, circa 1963

Fascinating historical tidbit from Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters (which should be on your must-read list if it's not already). It describes theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's concern about the possible effect of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller's divorce on national politics:

"Your former choir boy, Barry Goldwater, is cutting a wide swath," [Niebuhr] wrote Bishop Will Scarlett. "Interesting how Rockefeller's lack of private morality has made him a dead duck and given Barry his chance." Niebuhr thought Rockefeller's spicy divorce and remarriage might have the political effect of turning the Republicans into "a reactionary party" built upon white voters in the South and West.

And of course that's exactly the Republican Party we have today, forty years later. Pretty shrewd prophecy, especially for 1963, when Democrats still ruled the "solid South" and it was a tossup as to which major party (if either) would be willing to actively support equal rights for "Negroes."
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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Saving Social Security

Joshua Micah Marshall has a fine piece here about what Democrats must do to stop the dismantling of Social Security--with his first key point being the need for party unity. Highly recommended.
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"Cost Certainty"? I'll Take It

It's a shame that sports reporters aren't required to learn a little something about economics and politics. Whenever there's a labor dispute in pro sports, I gnash my teeth over the way most commentators naively endorse the ludicrous demands of management while bashing the "greedy" players. It's the players, of course, who represent the free-market principles that most Americans--including, emphatically, the sports reporters--claim to favor.

(An aside: I don't mean to imply that there is some sort of moral justification for paying a power-hitting shortstop 200 times as much as a nurse or schoolteacher. The fact is that, as two minutes of thoughtful reflection makes obvious, morality has very little to do with the workings of the marketplace. And if we want to interfere with the market for moral reasons, I don't think that the best place to start would be to mandate that athletes get a smaller piece of the pro sports pie so that team owners can keep a larger one.)

Current case in point is the labor lockout in the National Hockey League. (Hard for me to develop a rooting interest in any sport where virtually all the players are white, so my interest is purely political.) The owners just rejected an offer from the players that included a 24% salary cut for next year, saying that it doesn't produce the "long-term cost certainty" the owners must have.

(This is the same phrase we've heard from many of the baseball owners over the years. In effect, the owners are asking for a rule that will prevent them from offering the players too much money.)

"Cost certainty"?! Who wouldn't want cost certainty? Any business would like to have a guarantee that its expenses won't rise next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. But what business enjoys that kind of insulation from the marketplace? In what industry are managers so immune from the effects of their own mistakes? And what does this vision of locked-in profitability have to do with a free market?

Actually, there are a few industry segments that enjoy guaranteed profits. For example, some defense contractors operate on a cost-plus basis, which allows them to charge the taxpayers whatever they choose to spend, and then some. But I for one don't consider the Halliburtons of the world a model of economic fairness and rationality.

The team owners and the commentators who back them are in fact advocating a highly controlled marketplace, more akin to socialism than to the free market. They're not necessarily wrong; pro sports might operate better under such a system. So let's have an honest debate about it. If we did, the national conversation about sports might become a source of economic education for millions of fans who otherwise ignore the topic, rather than a morass of cant and sloganeering.

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News Flash: Gay Men Snore Too

Andrew Sullivan's blog is one of the most consistently interesting sites on the web. I agree with him about sixty percent of the time; much of the rest of the time I think he's nuts. And there are moments when his moral clarity outshines nearly every other blog--for example, his posts about the abuse of women and children under fundamentalist Islam.

Then there's Sullivan's unique public persona. Last night he appeared on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports talking about his successful treatment for sleep apnea. It was a good, informative segment that has me considering a visit to a sleep disorders center for testing. (I usually wake up refreshed, but Mary-Jo, tormented by my snoring, does not.) But most of all I liked hearing Wolf Blitzer casually refer to Sullivan's "boyfriend" (in a conversation not centered on "gay issues") and the sky not falling! Little by little, the world is changing . . . and sometimes in good ways.
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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Top 10 Reasons Progressives Shouldn't Root for the Yankees

(For anyone who wonders about the connection between politics and sports.)

1. Because rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for General Motors.

2. Because George Steinbrenner was convicted of giving illegal campaign contributions to Richard M. Nixon.

3. Because, whereas the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers were the first major league team to field a Black player, the Yankees were among the last (Elston Howard in 1955).

4. Because Steinbrenner represents the worst aspects of the football mentality applied to baseball--the assumption that victory is all about "guts," "toughness," and "will." (Steinbrenner's highest compliment to a ballplayer is that he is a "warrior." Can't imagine why he never hired G. Gordon Liddy as his manager.)

5. Because the whole "Yankee tradition" thing has just become sooo pretentious. (Voice of God on the public address system . . . monuments beyond the centerfield fence . . . Lou Gehrig and Thurman Munson canonized . . .)

6. Because the Yankee fan embodies the spirit of entitlement: "Sure, we've won more championships than any other team. And if we don't get another one next year, I plan to throw another tantrum."

7. Because when the Yankees win through trickery or intimidation (Jeffrey Mayer, Billy Martin), their fans think it's cute.

8. Because the Yankee system of buying championships is a "brute force" system based not on finesse or strategy but on overwhelming the opponent through sheer firepower. (Which is okay, but don't then pat yourself on back using terms of artistry like "excellence" and "greatness.")

9. Because Joe Torre is a smart, decent man who doesn't deserve to be publicly humiliated by his boss any time his team loses three games in a row.

10. Because Rudolph Giuliani is the ultimate Yankee fan.
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Getting My Priorities Straight

Sent an email to my friend Gary to follow up on a couple of writing projects that he and I have been talking about. Gary wrote back:

I’m embarrassed to say that I have not had time to work on the sample chapter for R’s book yet or to read the script and movie treatment you sent (although I did start the treatment right when you sent it and it looked extremely interesting). With World AIDS Day, I had to write about 30 speeches and didn’t have time for anything else.

(Gary works for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.)

Gee, Gary, you certainly should be embarrassed. Why are you wasting time trying to help save millions of lives around the world when you could be reading my movie script?!
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Monday, December 13, 2004

Reports: Mets Sign Pedro Martinez

I don't know how to react to this. On the one hand, it's always exciting to add a big-name player to your roster. Will I go out of my way to tune in when Pedro is on the mound at Shea in May? You bet. And does Pedro represent an upgrade over the guy he replaces--Al Leiter? Of course. Going into 2005, a Mets rotation of Martinez, Glavine, Benson, Trachsel and Zambrano looks pretty darn good.

On the other hand, Pedro is a flake. And I don't understand why the Mets can never sign a star player at the age of 26 or 28 rather than 33. It's all too easy to picture this deal blowing up in our faces like the Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn deals did.

On balance, I'm optimistic. Given where the Mets have been the last few years, change is good. And I'm happy to see Omar taking a big gamble, with club ownership behind him. Getting past the management timidity of last season is an important milestone, kind of like US foreign policy finally outgrowing the Vietnam Syndrome under Bill Clinton . . .
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Sunday, December 12, 2004

In Defense of the Liberal Arts Education

The New York Times Magazine's annual "The Year in Ideas: A to Z" issue coincided with a mad dash to grade student papers this weekend.

Under E: The Employable Liberal Arts Major, which describes the recent trend at universities to offer their undergraduate students professional training, linking it to an increasingly competitive job market and increasingly anxious parents and students who wonder what tangible benefits they receive in return for $30,000 a year.

The fundamental-- and distressing-- problem here is that many people believe a liberal arts education to be useless.

A liberal arts education teaches students how to think logically; to express themselves coherently and articulately; to organize their thoughts to effectively communicate their point of view; and to write well. These are all skills that people need in a wide range of fields in the "real world." In addition, based on my experience as a teacher, these are skills that even the brightest students at good secondary schools are not acquiring.

Not to mention a host of other benefits of a liberals arts education that may indeed be useless-- if the sole purpose of life is to be a drone who lives to work, to increase productivity, to acquire wealth, and to consume-- including the appreciation of art, literature, music, history, cultures, the workings of the human mind, and languages.

When the Western university was created in the 12th century, it was believed that a solid foundation in all of the liberal arts was a prerequisite for the highest goal of education: the pursuit of truth (in that context, through the study of theology).

Rather than catering to a demand for more professional training for undergraduates and buying into the "student as consumer, education as commodity" mentality, universities have to reassess and understand the benefits of the education they have been offering for centuries. Then they have to communicate this to their students.

Although I hope that my students' lives will be enriched by an appreciation for classical music, I know that if they never listen to a symphony again they will still have gained practical-- indeed, marketable-- skills in my classroom: to write coherently on any topic, to create an argument with supporting evidence to express their point of view, and to use language more effectively to communicate with those around them.

Forget about professional training: without these abilities, they won't even get past the job interview!
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Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Hollow "Faith"

Most of the liberal websites have been running critiques, some of them quite thoughtful, of the article “A Fighting Faith” by Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic. In response to overwhelming public demand (in a form of a question from my friend Dick before last Tuesday’s book club meeting), I want to share some of my reactions. They don’t rise to the level of a coherent alternative view, but maybe they’ll edge the conversation in a useful direction (at least in our little corner of the blogosphere).

For those who haven’t read the article, Beinart challenges today’s liberals to emulate the 1947 group that founded Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) by taking up the cause of resistance to Islamic fundamentalism much as the ADA took up the cause of anti-communism. In Beinart’s view, this would be both morally right and politically astute, since a Democratic Party that supports the promotion of American values of freedom and pluralism on the world stage--by force when necessary--will gain credibility with an electorate that today assumes that most Democrats are squishy on defending our people against terrorism.

Beinart’s evocation of the feisty, proudly internationalist liberalism of the 1950s and 60s has a strong emotional appeal. And Beinart may be right about the political calculus. It’s possible Kerry might have won if he’d been much more consistent about criticizing the weakness of Bush’s war on terror, including the failure to capture Bin Laden, the absence of any genuine effort to propagate democracy in the Middle East, and the preference for giant tax cuts over meaningful investments in either homeland security or international efforts to oppose terror.

Nonethless, I feel there are big holes in Beinart’s prescription.

First of all, try as I might, I can’t see radical Islam as a threat to America on a par with fascism and communism. Joshua Micah Marshall says it well on his blog, Talking Points:

Let’s survey the world stage the ADA folks faced in 1947 for some points of comparison. Having vanquished fascism, the democratic world faced in world communism a political movement that in its basic hostility to democracy and liberalism was more similar to than opposed to fascism. Russia, half of Europe and (in a couple of years) China were all communist. The communists controlled the largest land army in the world and would soon have nuclear weapons. Communism had substantial minority support across Western Europe, including vast support (active or passive) among the most articulate in society. And in the United States many on the left saw communists less as enemies than as errant allies, with whom cooperation was possible on common goals.

Placing context or limits on the danger posed by Islamic terrorism is a hazardous business these days. But unlike communism in 1947, militant Islam simply does not pose an existential threat to our civilization. It just doesn’t.

It’s true that the jihadists killed 3,000 Americans on September 11. And yes, they would kill more if they could. Even so, the Islamist threat still doesn’t measure up to the threat posed by Stalin’s armies.

Second, today’s world is different from the world of 1947 in a lot of other ways. I was reminded of one of those ways when Beinart tried to separate the war on terror, which he supports, from the war in Iraq, on which he is apparently ambivalent:

But, even if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism.

Beinart forgets that, for millions of Americans as well as people around the world, the war in Vietnam did obviate the battle against communism, in that the dishonesty, brutality, and corruption of that war taught them a new, profound, and unfortunately justified mistrust of the US and its government.

Today, because of both Vietnam and Iraq (as well as other misadventures of the past three decades), it’s very difficult to recapture the unclouded moral fervor of America in 1947--an America still celebrating its recent victory in a plainly moral crusade which left our country both the most powerful and the most admired nation on earth.

In 1947, I might have felt relatively few misgivings about handing Harry S Truman the power to wield America’s might on behalf of freedom around the world. I sure as hell don’t feel comfortable handing the same power to George W. Bush in 2004. And would it be different if the president were a liberal Democrat? A little. But Lyndon B. Johnson was a liberal Democrat, and he led us into Vietnam.

The last thirty-five years have convinced me of the need to keep our crusading impulses--and our presidents--on a short leash.

Finally, even if I grant Beinart’s analogy between world communism and radical Islam, his article leaves unanswered the most important question: What would he have us do?

Truman and his successors fought communism in a variety of ways. At home, they sought to purge communists and fellow travelers from government posts, labor unions, and universities. Abroad, they supported non-communist regimes in Europe and the Third World with development aid (such as the Marshall Plan), military assistance, and at times US troops. They created a network of alliances, from NATO to SEATO, to deter communist attacks. And they mounted a major propaganda effort on behalf of US-style democracy around the world, including people-to-people programs like the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress.

What sort of parallel strategies does this list suggest for today’s battle against radical Islam?

Would Beinart suggest we focus on purging America of radical Islamist influences? I don’t believe there’s a single significant US institution that's in danger of falling under the sway of radical Islam. Of course we need to arrest people who are plotting violence. But would a McCarthy-style witch hunt against those who espouse “anti-American” philosophies really make us safer?

Overseas, does Beinart want us to shore up non-Islamist regimes that are under attack from the jihadists? We are already doing that, with results that are mixed at best. This strategy puts us in bed with a pretty unsavory crowd, one that is almost as totalitarian and anti-Semitic as the jihadists themselves, with damaging effects on US prestige and credibility around the world. Worse still, it seems to be encouraging the spread of radical anti-American sentiment rather than slowing it.

Does Beinart advocate the creation of alliances to deter jihadist attacks? The biggest difference between radical Islam and world communism is that the terrorists are seemingly impossible to deter, since they don’t control nation states and in many cases are happy to die for their cause. So this plank in the anti-communist platform seems largely irrelevant today.

Finally, does Beinart call for a massive effort to spread the ideas behind American-style democracy around the world through propaganda and humanitarian programs? I’d support this item enthusiastically.

But what does it all add up to? What is the substance of the “fighting faith” Beinart’s Democratic Party would espouse? The closest he comes to answering this question is this passage near the end of his article:

Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.

Well, okay. If it's necessary to pass Beinart's litmus test, I’m happy to stipulate that Osama bin Laden is a worse guy--a much worse guy--than George W. Bush. But then what? Is Beinart simply saying that we liberals need to get better at making growly noises in the direction of the jihadists?

I’m sure he has something more specific in mind. But I can’t tell what. And until I know, I can’t agree that Beinart has the answer for what ails our party--or our nation.
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Strange Bumperfellows 2

Three stickers on the back of an SUV spotted on Douglas Road here in Chappaqua:

(1) A small, quite old and faded US flag.
(2) A slightly faded red-white-and-blue sticker with the motto, "United We Stand."
(3) A brand new black-and-white sticker reading, "Support Our Troops--Bring Them Home!"

Maybe I'm wrong to see any ideological conflict here. God knows I would be the first to point out that national unity does not require support for the invasion of Iraq. But I suspect that what we are witnessing here is one driver's gradual evolution from pro-Bush hawk to reluctant peacenik.

I'll keep my eyes peeled and report back the minute a fourth bumper sticker sprouts on the same vehicle. Before the war is over, she (the driver was a woman) may end up to the left of Michael Moore.
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A Few Kind Words About a Republican

I'm sorry to see that Al Leiter (rumored to have future aspirations involving Republican politics) is departing the Mets in a spirit of bitterness. New Mets G.M. Omar Minaya is probably doing the right thing to cut some of the old guys loose (including Leiter and John Franco), but I would have preferred a warm-and-fuzzy farewell scene.

On the other hand, our perceptions of what happens in pro sports are distorted by the fact that all the transactions are conducted in the glare of publicity. God knows some of the machinations I witnessed behind the scenes during my days in the corporate world were a lot more ruthless than Leiter's departure from the Mets. The business world works that way.

Anyway, I always enjoyed watching Al pitch--he was animated, twitchy, dogged, and overtly emotional. He was also a funny, articulate public spokesman for the Mets, even during the team's down years (of which there are always plenty).

Good luck with the Marlins, Al. Except when you're playing the Mets.
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The Aesthetics of Steroids

At last, a position on steroids that makes sense to me. It comes from a letter-writer on Andrew Sullivan’s blog (unfortunately anonymous, as are all his correspondents). Money quote:

A stronger case against steroids in sports can be made on aesthetic grounds. I follow professional sports not because I want to measure anyone's achievement, but because the spectacle gives me pleasure. If I thought that (or, rather, now that I can't ignore the fact that) their achievement came from steroids, my enjoyment would diminish. Why exactly? Seeing apparently normal people do great things just gives me more pleasure than seeing manufactured behemoths do greater things.

This aesthetic appeal is particularly crucial to major league baseball, which is charming largely because it is played by normal-looking guys, as opposed to pro football and pro basketball, which are played by guys who often look freakish. In fact, the nature of baseball is such that guys who look positively schlumpy are often better at it than sleekly muscular hunks. As Bill James once pointed out, John Kruk, with "a body like a sack of potatoes," was a much better ballplayer than Bo Jackson, who looked like a Greek god. (Yeah, yeah, the Greek gods probably weren’t Black, but you know what I mean.)

This allows us fans to maintain the pleasant illusion that we are (or could be) drinking buddies with our favorite ballplayers, and that, in case of a sudden injury to one of the stars, we might plausibly be called out of the stands to pinch hit late in a game. (As James Thurber remarked many years ago, the majority of middle-aged men fall asleep at night while striking out the lineup of the New York Yankees.)

No way we would entertain the same fantasy about pro football. Even the idea of getting down on the field with those guys is terrifying.

So anyway, it behooves major league baseball to work out a more effective anti-steroids policy. Not because steroids spoil the “purity” or “integrity” of the game but because (a) they’re bad for the players’ health, and (b) they make the game less fun to watch.

In fact, the only problem with the letter on Sullivan's blog is that its argument hinges on the word "aesthetic." Anyone who tried to use that word on a sports radio call-in show would be cut off and probably subjected to death threats as a homosexual liberal fit only to comment on professional figure-skating. That's one of the reasons God invented blogs--to give progressives who like to use words of two syllables or longer a safe place to talk about sports.
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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Blaming the Victims in the Plame Case

Every so often you read an article in the MSM that leaves you whacking yourself on the side of the head, saying, "Wha--?" That's my reaction to today's Washington Post op-ed by Richard Cohen about the Valerie Plame case.

As you probably know, the investigation by a special prosecutor into how a CIA operative was illegally outed in a column by Bob Novak has produced subpoenas and threats of jail time for Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, Judith Miller of the New York Times, and other reporters--but not for Novak. Of course, the fact that right-winger Novak wrote his column at the behest of the Bush administration to punish Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, for criticizing the Iraq war, may help to explain this pattern.

So now I read Cohen's op-ed and find that he pins the blame squarely on--the press? The logic, apparently, is that some newspaper writers urged an investigation into the Novak case. Now, according to Cohen, "The press, alas, is getting what it wanted. . . . the press ought to remember never to call for a special prosecutor. The trouble with them is that they are, as designed, above politics--which too often means common sense and compromise."

Oh, now I get it--the problem with the current attacks by the Justice Department on the independence of the press is that they are too non-political. I guess that was the same problem we had with our last special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr . . .
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Monday, December 06, 2004

Eheu fugaces, etc. etc.

I have a strict policy to refrain from bemoaning the passing of the good old days (which were mostly pretty bad), but today I'm willing to make an exception, prompted by the amusing profile of Regan Books publisher Judith Regan in the January Vanity Fair. Money quote:

"'Does anybody think there would be a Paris Hilton autobiography if it weren't for Judith?' asks HarperCollins executive editor David Hirshey."

Hirshey said this, mind you, to praise Regan.

When I was a starry-eyed young editor, I was impressed by accolades like, "There would be no Look Homeward Angel if it weren't for Maxwell Perkins." Sorry, but Regan's achievement doesn't strike me as the 2004 equivalent . . .
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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Here's One Page I'd Like To See Added to Form 1040

Talking with Mary-Jo about how screwed up our system for funding programs like education is, I remember a concept I saw presented in a jocular way many years ago. You know how, when you fill out your income tax form, you get to decide whether or not to earmark a dollar for the next presidential campaign or a wildlife preservation fund? Why not extend this system to cover the entire federal budget? Each taxpayer would decide exactly how his or her tax payments would be allocated. Feel like devoting 100% of your taxes to building a missile defense system or buying Bush a yacht? That’s your prerogative. Prefer to contribute to education, or environmental regulation, or veterans’ health? Go for it.

The more I think about this goofy idea, the better I like it. The obvious drawback is that, in any given year, the cumulative choices made by the taxpayers might be ridiculous. It could be like asking each member of a family to jot down on a slip of paper one dish they want for dinner; when all the slips are opened, you may end up with five requests for coffee ice cream, which would make an unbalanced dinner (although I wouldn’t be the first to complain).

On the other hand, the combined wisdom of the taxpayers might prove to be surprisingly sound. Most people would tend to support their personal interests. Soldiers (and perhaps their families and friends) would allocate money for military programs. Doctors and nurses would support health care. Sculptors and oboists would send funds to the National Endowment for the Arts. In the end, a reasonable spending balance might emerge.

The system could also include features that would encourage informed choices. For example, each taxpayer could be sent a one-page summary, with graphs, of how the past year’s budget was allocated. You could then make choices for next year based on how you think the national priorities need to shift: “We only spent 1.6% on Homeland Security last year? Let’s make it three percent.”

If the power of the Internet were harnessed, it might even be possible to watch in real time as the financial choices of taxpayers get registered. Thus, people who file close to the tax deadline could be guided by the interim results; if it looks as though OSHA is being short-changed, mine and factory workers could mount a last-minute push to get the funding needed to improve safety programs next year.

If they wanted, concerned groups-—policy organizations, lobbyists, maybe even government agencies themselves—-could advertise to try to win taxpayer support. It might be fun to see commercials from NASA (soaring vistas of outer space, of course), the Coast Guard (buff young sailors patrolling the harbors), and the Justice Department (gripping courtroom scenes out of Law and Order), each concluding with the same desperate plea: “Remember us when you invest your tax dollars on April 15th.”

Think election night is tense? The mood in Washington as the tax allocation results came in would be electric. Bureaucrats, generals, even cabinet officers would be tracking the numbers knowing that their pet programs--and their jobs--might be on the line.

The results would be absolutely fascinating. There’s no way to know for sure, but I suspect the priorities chosen by the country as a whole would be more healthy than those now being set by the administration, Congress, and the lobbyists. Remember hearing about surveys showing that most Americans assume we spend fifteen or twenty percent of the budget on foreign aid (as opposed to the actual figure, which is less than one percent)? I’m convinced that we could get Americans to allocate three percent of their tax dollars for hunger relief in Africa--all it would take is a halfway decent advertising campaign (Bono would fund it). Same goes for AIDS research, mental health services, music education in schools . . . list your favorite cause.

Might be tough to get this system enacted into law. Constitutional amendments are hard to pass. But it makes a neat fantasy, doesn’t it?

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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Strange Bumperfellows

In the A&P parking lot this morning I saw a car with three bumper stickers:

"Ban Veal"
"Stop Greyhound Racing"
"Bush/Cheney 04"

Maybe the real key to the Republican victory was their secret courting of the PETA vote . . .

Any other counterintuitive bumper combos out there?
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Friday, December 03, 2004

So Long, Suki . . .

. . . thinking of you, Sis, as she stretches rolls and yawns on some heavenly cloud-bank . . .
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"War is a Racket"

The always-interesting John Richards sends along this link to a remarkable antiwar tract written back in the 1930s by Marine Major General Smedley Butler. Like Eisenhower's later denunciations of the military-industrial complex (a phrase Eisenhower coined), it's still relevant today and carries extra weight because of its source.

By the way, a little quick research suggests that Smedley Butler (of whom I'd never heard before) was a remarkable figure, worthy of more than a footnote in the history books. He was the most highly-decorated Marine of his day (winner of two Congressional Medals of Honor), helped lead the "bonus army" march on Washington demanding benefits for World War I veterans, and appeared before Congress to denounce an attempted coup plot against the FDR administration.

There's a 1994 scholarly study of Butler published by the University Press of Kentucky, but no "popular" biography. Seems as though there ought to be one.

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The Trouble With Common Sense

I’ve had a problem with Philip K. Howard since 1995, when he published his much-acclaimed best-seller The Death of Common Sense. Howard’s diatribe against regulation and lawsuits featured plenty of hair-raising anecdotes about idiotic government bureaucrats stifling the creative impulses of good Americans, but failed to suggest a better way to achieve a fair balance among competing interests--which after all is the central challenge in governing a complex society like ours.

The most frequently cited story in The Death of Common Sense involved Mother Teresa abandoning plans to build a multi-story homeless shelter in New York City because she couldn’t afford to install an elevator, as mandated by excessive, intrusive regulations. The book implied that the typical New York real estate developer who runs afoul of city ordinances is pretty much a Mother Teresa-type, humbly intent on serving humankind. (It implied this rather than saying it because the idea immediately disintegrates as soon as it’s put into words.)

Now Howard is back with an op-ed piece in today’s Times in which he rails against excessive bureaucracy in the public schools. I don’t doubt that ham-fisted administrators, legislators, and principals often make teaching needlessly difficult. But it’s typical of Howard that his article is prompted by a recent court ruling that New York City schools have been short-changed by the state (in favor of upstate and suburban school districts) to the tune of over $14 billion.

The prospect of the state having to make good on the inequity outrages Howard. Why? Because “experience shows that failing social institutions are rarely resuscitated by money alone.” To prove this point, he cites a single example (Kansas City) of a school system that invested in building facilities and hired teachers but then showed “little improvement” (at least according to Howard). The real route to school reform, of course, is eliminating legalistic rules, as Howard spends the next fourteen paragraphs asserting.

Notice the sleight-of-hand here. Neither the state court panel that ordered the change in school funding nor anyone else that I know of has spoken in favor of needless bureaucracy or intrusive rules. There’s no logical reason why we can’t do both--provide city schools with badly needed money and reduce red tape. But the structure of Howard’s argument suggests that it’s an either/or choice. Which means, in his universe, that the city schools mustn’t get the money.

(As an aside, it’s interesting how conservatives decry the folly of “throwing money at problems” when it applies to public school funding, welfare, or health care, but never in regard to defense spending, building prisons, or corporate subsidies. And I have yet to meet a Republican mom who objected to having a shiny new library, science lab, or swimming pool in her suburban school on the grounds that “education isn’t about spending money.” That logic applies only to other people’s kids. But I digress.)

There’s a clear pattern underlying Howard’s writings. In the abstract, no one can argue with his call to eliminate needless bureaucracy. But somehow Howard’s “common sense” consistently promotes outcomes that benefit affluent, white communities and harm poor, urban, largely minority communities.

Just a coincidence? I think not.

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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Who knew?

The news is out that Jason Giambi admitted to a federal grand jury that he took steroids in 2003. I must say, I'm shocked beyond belief. And to think that all along I believed that his transformation

from this:
to this:

was just due to hard work and clean living. Were there signs that we all somehow missed? I'm sure the Yankees' coaches, trainers and management are as perplexed about this as I am.

Major League Baseball must act swiftly to demonize punish Giambi. After all, the integrity of the game depends on turning a blind eye to the rampant steroid use maintaining the confidence and trust of the fans.

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What the Heck Do We Do . . .

. . . with the word fascism? That's the question raised by this article on Daily Kos.

There's no denying that many political and economic trends at work in the United States over the last ten years match up with the characteristics of fascism.

On the other hand, it's also clear that the US is still far from being a full-blown fascist state. And (most significant of all), it's highly likely that even using the word fascism will short-circuit most discussions rather than energize or inform them.

Many Americans will simply stop listening when they hear the word, assuming that anyone who applies it to the US is paranoid or hysterical. Others (especially Jews) for whom the Holocaust is the overwhelming historical association with fascism will be offended by any application of the word to a (so far) less-horrific assault on human rights and dignity. And even those who are open enough to consider the issue objectively will probably require a ten-minute, point-by-point analysis of the historical attributes of fascism before they will concede the similarity. And as we all know, it's awfully hard to get anyone to give you ten minutes of uninterrupted time for anything.

On balance, then, I doubt it helps our cause to lean on the F-word at this moment in history. But it's damn scary that we even need to have this conversation in the United States of America, isn't it?
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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The National Conversation Does Not Take Place on CBS

John Richards, one of the most thoughtful members of our church, St. Mary the Virgin in Chappaqua, just sent us a link to
this blog item
, adding the comment, Having a national conversation on progressive Christianity will be difficult under these conditions . . .

As you'll see if you check out the link, the article (on Joshua Marshall's blog) is about the refusal of CBS television to run a commercial for the United Church of Christ which highlights the church's openness to people of all backgrounds, including varying sexual orientation. In defending their decision, CBS cited a policy prohibiting ads that take positions on controversial political issues--a flimsy excuse whose illogic Marshall dissects rather thoroughly.

It's obvious that today's TV executives are running scared. They're unnerved by Bush's reelection, the ascendancy of the Christian right, and Michael Powell's politicization of the FCC. But those of us with long memories recognize the trend as simply another familiar swing of the MSM pendulum, which repeatedly veers from "timidly sticking a toe into the waters of dissent" to "unabashedly backing the powers-that-be and demonizing or ignoring anyone who doesn't."

The last worst time for political openness on the TV networks was probably the early- to mid-1960s. The networks made little pretense at fairness or balance between left and right, for example depicting leaders in the anti-war and civil rights movements as somewhere between nuts and treasonous. Thus, the Smothers Brothers' variety show, whose outspokenness was pretty tame in comparison with The Daily Show or even Saturday Night Live, was abruptly cancelled after Pete Seeger sang a satirical anti-war tune one night. At the same time, Bob Hope was being treated as a sort of national treasure for his constant (and unfunny) sneering at smelly, flag-burning hippies.

Having lived through that era, I'm never surprised by the readiness of the MSM to bend to the prevailing political winds. After all, they are driven by money, first, last, and foremost--and you can't expect bean-counters to suddenly become courageous risk-takers for the sake of artistic or political freedom.

We're better off today in at least one way: There are plenty of media outlets, especially cable TV and the internet, that didn't exist a generation ago and that have a large and growing audience. The fringe media's reflection of a broader, more realistic America exerts pressure on the major networks and newspapers. If we are to have a national conversation on progressive Christianity, it will start there.

But that doesn't mean we can let the networks off the hook. Instead, we need to continually point out the ridiculous narrowness of the political, social, and cultural expression that the MSM are willing to present.
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