Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Resistance Is Futile

. . . puny mortal, when you visit Disney World. Most of the contributors to World Wide Webers are with me there now, ostensibly for the benefit of five-year-old Jakob but also as part of an ongoing psychosocial experiment examining how one can be in and of a culture without necessarily being enthralled to it.

The fact is that whenever I visit Disney World I am very conscious of being emotionally manipulated for obvious economic reasons--yet because it's done so darn well, I enjoy (almost) every minute of it. Not only in the four major theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney/MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom) but everywhere in the vast panoply of Disney satellite facilities--hotels, recreation areas, restaurants, theaters, golf courses, and of course, stores, stores, stores--one is surrounded by thousands of visual, auditory, and sensory details artfully selected and arranged to induce a pleasant consumerist stupor by evoking a particular "theme" with just the right balance of familiarity and surprise so that one feels nostalgic, relaxed, and excited all at once.

This morning as we strolled the faux-1900-era seaside resort street fronted with shops ("emporia"), cafes, and amusement halls behind Disney's Boardwalk Villas, I commented to daughter Karen, "You know, I can't decide whether this is charming in a cheesy way or just cheesy enough not to be charming. Either way, I like it." You have to give Disney credit for the doggedness with which they carry out their "themes" (even the door to the workout room on the hotel's lower level is adorned with a pseudo-Edwardian sign exhorting patrons to "Exercise for Vim, Vigor, and Vitality!") as well as for the occasional infusion of truly clever originality that consistently marks Disney as superior to the other American corporate purveyors of kitsch.

For example, looming alongside the pool behind the Boardwalk Villas is a twenty-foot-high structure that looks for all the world like an old wooden roller coaster. But after a few moments you realize it's actually a water slide, a red plastic chute nestled among the intersecting white wooden crossbeams in place of a roller coaster track. It looks cool and is probably fun to ride (can't tell you from personal experience since we haven't yet had temperatures warm enough for swimming).

As you can tell, my approach to Disney is to try to maintain my awareness of how I am being worked over (if only for the sake of my self-respect) but also to let myself enjoy it--which I do, I do.

Later in the day, Karen expressed annoyance over having to listen to an audioanimatronic George W. Bush deliver a homily on freedom near the conclusion of the patriotic pageant presented in the grandly colonial Hall of Presidents on the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square. (He's one of 43 presidential figures arrayed on stage in period garb, who nod, shift in their chairs, and move their hands in an effort to appear lifelike--which is more than some actual politicians ever manage to do.) I understand Karen's feelings, although of course the robot version of Bill Clinton played the same role when he was president. It's a bit unreasonable to expect the Disney corporation to dis a sitting president (especially at a theme park located in a state governed by the president's brother).

However, I noticed that the Disney "imagineers" positioned Bush rather far from any of the other presidents in their tableau--except for Nixon, who stood immediately to his right. This probably wasn't intended as a sly comment on the fact that W's administration is the most corrupt, dishonest, and constitutionally reckless since Tricky Dick's, but I think I'll choose to take it that way.

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Monday, January 24, 2005

$50 Million for the Head of What's-His-Name

According to Time magazine's Tim McGirk, the U.S. is launching a media blitz to remind Afghanis about the $25 million bounty on the head of Osama bin Laden--a bounty that the government plans to double within the next few weeks.

What's more, earlier today on NPR, McGirk added that U.S. officials were spreading the word that they would also provide relocation to a safe foreign country for any individual who claims the bounty as well as for his family and/or tribe. This could involve moving, housing, and supporting dozens of people. McGirk summarized it all as "a desperation move" reflecting the fact that "the trail has gone cold."

Gee, imagine what we'd be willing to do if Osama weren't (as the Bush administration constantly asserts) such an insignificant, impotent, trivial figure in the war on terrorism . . .

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If You Can Use a Chuckle

. . . albeit a sardonic, bitter chuckle, visit this link. I think the one I like best is "God Bless the Magnetic Ribbon Industry," but no doubt you'll have your own favorites.
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A Patch of Grassroots That Deserves Watering

I pass along, without further comment, the following email from our good friend Penny Vane:

Many of you know that I have been working for some months now with an organization called American Respect.

The mission is initially to raise awareness and stimulate discussion about America's foreign policy, specifically and immediately with regard to the war in Iraq and our response to terrorism; but longer term, the "vision" can perhaps be described simply as the pursuit of world peace and prosperity, achievable through being and living true to America's founding ideals--simple things like freedom, friendship, respect and dare I say it, love. Our "tagline" comes from Abe Lincoln's second inaugural address, "with malice toward none." (And you can now wear that message in a wristband, available at the website. I hope you'll order some--link through at

The war in Iraq is wrong. As noble as it might have been to want to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, it has nothing to do with addressing terrorism. And terrorism remains a global concern, one that cannot be addressed by military means. American Respect has published and proposed some alternative solutions which we hope to contribute to the national dialog. I hope you'll join in spreading that word. There's a lot to be concerned about, both internationally and domestically, in the next few years, and it's my hope that American Respect can help support "the conscience" of the nation, reminding us all and nudging our leaders to remember the values upon which we were founded.

The name "American Respect" is not a "demand" that America be respected; rather it is a pledge that Americans have an inherent responsibility to be respectful . . . not only of others, but also of ourselves. The word itself includes the notions of listening, accepting, acknowledging and yes, respecting, the perspectives (governments, lifestyles, races, religions) of others. Peace and harmony sound like awfully corny goals . . . but are there any more important?

I've been very proud to be able to lend my expertise to this cause. Some of you may have signed up independently for the American Respect email list when I forwarded to you the original essay published in the New York Times last September. Others may have just read my earlier emails with sympathetic curiosity . . . and I certainly would not add your name to their list without your permission.

Either way, I do hope you will again visit the website,, read the new follow-up essay, and circulate the discussion among your own friends and contacts. Voices raised together CAN make a difference. Please add yours.
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Sunday, January 23, 2005

Another Post-Mortem for Crossfire

One of my favorite columnists, Michael Kinsley, holds forth on the demise of Crossfire in this column in today's Washington Post. Kinsley, of course, was one of the first hosts of the show, and he's honest enough to admit that he got good and sick of it after six years. He also does a good job of eviscerating Jon Stewart's somewhat hypocritical denunciation of the show, noting that Stewart criticized the program for "hurting America," but then (in Kinsley's words) "repelled any counterargument by retreating into his shell like a turtle and declaring that he was jes' a littl' ol' comedian, boss."

So far, so good. But I think Kinsley goes wrong when he tries (somewhat half-heartedly) to justify the show's "shoutfest" format. Here's his defense:

The conceit that there are exactly 2.0 sides to every question, one "left" and one "right," is a genuine flaw of "Crossfire"-type shows. So is their "Groundhog Day" quality: The argument goes on forever, and nobody's mind is ever changed. But this format has a great advantage over other variations of TV talking-head journalism in terms of intellectual honesty. . . . The building block of "Crossfire" and its imitators is the tendentious question: a question from an explicit point of view. This is liberating. You don't have to pretend that you have no opinion on the subject you're badgering a politician about, and you also don't have to pretend that you know all about some topic that had never crossed your mind until that morning's paper.

First of all, the notion that the hosts of Crossfire are "journalists" is pretty dubious. I'll hold my nose and grant that Bob Novak and Tucker Carlson are journalists of sorts (on the grounds that they make a living primarily by writing prose for publication or for recitation on the air). But aren't Paul Begala and James Carville primarily political advisors or consultants? Or you could say that they've metamorphosed into that vaguer entity, the "celebrity," defined as a person whose fame has gradually become untethered from its original source in some form of achievement. Either way, they're surely not "journalists" in any sense of the word.

More seriously, though, I question the notion that the format of Crossfire helps the cause of "intellectual honesty." It may liberate the hosts from pretending to be politically neutral, but it destroys any possibility of intellectual honesty on the part of the guests by forcing them to approach every question not as a topic for serious inquiry and debate, but simply as a competitive shuttlecock to be knocked towards the opponents' end of the court.

In practice, this means reciting your team's talking points on the issues of the day, changing the subject as quickly as possible whenever the other team interjects one of their talking points, and above all never suggesting that there could be some third point of view with even greater validity. The upshot is that any experienced viewer of Crossfire can predict with ninety percent accuracy what both guests are going to say--a sure sign that virtually no one involved is doing any actual thinking.

This kind of game is sometimes fun to watch, and of course I like cheering when "my" team scores a few points. But it really has nothing to do with either journalism or the pursuit of truth, which is why the demise of Crossfire won't diminish either one.
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Thursday, January 20, 2005

No Crisis--So Let's Destroy Social Security Just for the Fun of It

Under pressure from independent voices in the reality-based community, some on the right are already beginning to back away from the bogus claims that Social Security faces a short-term crisis. The latest example is George Will, who values his (inflated) reputation as an intellectual too highly to shill for a position that is so obviously false.

Instead, Will tries to argue in today's column that Social Security should be "reformed" not because it's economically necessary but in order to express "the philosophy of freedom." By which he evidently means the assumption that anything private is always better than anything public.
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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Defending Social Security

"There Is No Crisis" is the name of a new multiblog effort to spread factual information and counter the Republican fear-mongering aimed at destroying Social Security. We're proud to be members. To learn more, click on the new link at the top of our "Some Links We Like" section to the right. And make sure that everyone you know understands that the only "crisis" facing Social Security is the one deliberately being created by the Republicans.
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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Combatting the "Silent Tsunamis"

There's been a fair amount of media coverage of the just-released report on the so-called Millennium Goals for combatting global poverty (a good summary from the New York Times can be found here).

Produced by a team of researchers led by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, the report concludes that, if the industrial nations agreed to give one half of one percent of their income to development, it could produce major improvements in the lot of the world's poorest, including dramatic reductions in deaths from malnutrition and diseases like malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis--"silent tsunamis," in Sachs's phrase.

One half of one percent--fifty cents for every one hundred dollars--would represent a doubling of the current average percentage given to development aid, although of course the rate of giving varies by country. According to the Times:

In 2002, many world leaders, including President Bush, supported a declaration promising to "make concrete efforts" toward a target of providing seven-tenths of 1 percent of their national incomes for aid.

Five countries have achieved that goal: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Britain, France, Finland, Spain, Ireland and Belgium have committed to reach that level on specific timetables. The United States government, which allocates less than two-tenths of 1 percent for aid, has not made a comparable pledge; the Bush administration has increased American aid by a half, to 15 hundreds of 1 percent from one-tenth of 1 percent, but it is still the smallest percentage among major donor countries.

Is it likely that the US is now ready to step up to the plate? A separate article (find it here) offers this discouraging observation:

In an interview with Cable News Network (CNN) last week, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States does not accept a percentage of GNP as the best measure of international aid. ”We do not accept that definition of giving,” he added, although the United States has reaffirmed the principle at several U.N. meetings over the years.

Still, there may be reason for hope. As the Times observes, the international climate is more favorable for development aid than it has been in years, thanks in part to the outpouring of concern in response to the South Asian tsunami disaster, in part to worries that the persistence of poverty provides breeding grounds for terrorism.

The Sachs report does not ignore the need for political and economic reforms in the developing nations if aid is to be effective. In fact, it specifically targets a dozen well-governed developing nations (Ghana, Mozambique, Mali, and others) where aid would be wisely invested, and where basic assistance programs such as distributing de-worming medications and bed nets treated with insecticide could save hundreds of thousands of lives.

A few years ago, I worked on a book project with Michael Weinstein, an expert on development, former economics columnist for the Times, and now director of policy, planning and research at the Robin Hood Foundation here in New York. Today I emailed Michael to ask, "Should I recommend to the readers of our blog that they back the Millennium plan?" He wrote back:

[Sachs] makes a compelling case. And convincing. My answer to your question is a raucous “yes.”

This looks like a cause that progressives ought to rally around. It's a perfect opportunity for a country that likes to brag about being "the most generous nation on earth" to put its money where its mouth is--and produce enormous humanitarian benefits in the process.

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Midwinter Thoughts on Two National Pastimes

With the free-agent signings of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, it has been an exciting winter for Mets fans. If new GM Omar Minaya can complete the trifecta with slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado, we'll go into the 2005 season with more than a hope to compete.

Apparently, Delgado's much-reviled refusal to stand for the seventh-inning singing of "God Bless America" in some stadiums as a protest against the war in Iraq hasn't cost him many points among his fellow ballplayers. According to a profile in today's Times, he's considered unusually smart, friendly, thoughtful, and popular.

Sounds like the kind of guy I want in my clubhouse. And although few in the conservative MSSM (mainstream sports media) have said so, isn't it possible that Delgado's antiwar stance is a PR positive if he signs with a New York team? To say nothing of the fact that he hits for power, drives in a hundred runs a year like clockwork, and has a lifetime on-base percentage of .392. Critics claim only that he's weak on defense--which is what they always say about liberals . . .

Which leads me to my other baseball comment for today: a solution, at long last, to declining interest in the "midsummer classic," the All-Star Game.

The underlying problem is that both fans and players apparently don't identify with either the National League or the American League to the degree they once did, thereby diminishing their rooting interest in the game. In response, I propose junking the whole National-versus-American structure. Instead, let's make the All-Star Game a contest between two groupings that people actually care about--red states and blue states!

Based on last year's election results, the Red States team would get to draw stars from eleven major league franchises, including the Braves, Astros, Rockies, Royals, Diamondbacks, and Cardinals. The Blue Staters would have seventeen teams, including the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Giants, and Orioles. To even things up a little, we could give the Expos and Blue Jays to the Red States (don't want to hear their usual whining about bias).

The immediate benefit of this scheme is that it will encourage millions of baseball fans to take a greater interest in politics. The quadrennial battle over swing states would gain piquancy once sports aficionados realize that something even more important than electoral votes is at stake--namely, the allegiance of franchises like the Reds and Indians (Ohio), Phillies and Pirates (Pennsylvania), and Marlins and Devil Rays (Florida).

The other unique new twists would include:

Nifty All-Star uniforms in appropriate colors!
George W. Bush and John Kerry as honorary team captains!
Color commentary by Carville, Novak, Begala, and Carlson!

Uh, come to think of it, maybe this isn't such a good idea after all . . .

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

"Be Patient; Be Earnest; Be Aggressive"

Via my friend Chris, a gift for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day from Francis Grimke, pastor of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington. These remarks are from a memorial sermon on John Brown preached in 1909:

If John Brown were permitted to speak to us today from heaven, where he has been now for fifty years, he would say to us, I believe, Never despair! Never give up! The forces that are for you are greater than those that are against you. Be patient; be earnest; be aggressive. In spite of the Atlanta riots; in spite of the official lynching, or the unjust dismissal of Negro soldiers [an issue in 1906-7], and the Negro-hating spirit which it exhibits, and all the other brood of evils that seem to be threatening you, keep a stout heart.

Out of the darkness, and the seeming triumph of the forces of oppression and injustice in 1859 when I was executed, there came the Emancipation Proclamation, and the great Amendments to the Constitution. Be assured of one thing, God did not strike the shackles from your limbs, and lift you to the plane of American citizenship, that he might desert you and leave you in the hands of your enemies. The same power that was with you in the dark days of slavery, and that stood behind you when the great Amendments were being put through, is still with you, and will continue to be with you to the end.

Back of all the forces that have been put in operation for the uplift of your race, from the beginning to the present, God has been, and still is. He it was who stirred the Anti-slavery leaders to action, and brought on the war, and inspired the men in Congress,—men like Sumner, and Stevens, and Wade,—and that moved upon the heart of Lincoln himself. It was the power of God, working through human agencies, that brought about emancipation, and that lifted you to the plane of citizenship, and clothed you with the sacred right of the ballot. And will he now desert you? Will he leave you naked to the tender mercies of your enemies? Never. God doesn't work that way; that is not his way of doing things.

These great landmarks in your history,—slavery, emancipation, citizenship, the ballot, are evidences that there is to be no backward step. God never would have brought you thus far unless he meant to stand by you, and to see that the rights guaranteed to you under the Constitution, are yours in reality as well as in name. In spite of discouragements; in spite of the gathering gloom, God is leading you on.

(Works, edited by Carter Woodson, 1942, vol. 1, 140)

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Friday, January 14, 2005

More "News That Stays News" From Gibbon

Speaking of Gibbon (yes, we were), my friend Arthur Maisel followed up with this email:

In the year 251, the Roman emperor Decius took advantage of a brief respite in the defense of the empire from the encroachment of the Goths—a respite that had resulted from his own successful campaign against them and had led to his elevation—to consider why the formerly impregnable empire now found it hard to defend itself from barbarians.

An able and decent man, he came to the conclusion that the major factor was the decline in the former high moral standards among the Romans. So he determined to reestablish the ancient office of censor, which had become a mere shell in the great Augustan absorption of all power to the monarchy.

In the days of the republic, the censor had been, with the consuls, the most powerful person in the government. The censor oversaw not just public decency but behavior in general—in commerce, in the practice of religion—and included the control of political corruption in his mandate. Decius, who would soon lose his life in the next Gothic foray against the northern frontier, appointed Valerian (later to become emperor himself) as censor. But Valerian saw that the job was all but hopeless because, as Gibbon (chapter X) sums it up, “a censor may maintain, he can never restore, the morals of a state. . . .In a period when these principles are annihilated, the censorial jurisdiction must sink into empty pageantry or be converted into a partial instrument of vexatious oppression.”

Gibbon notes with grim humor that “the approaching event of war soon put an end to the prosecution of a project so specious [i.e., having an attractive appearance] but so impracticable; and whilst it preserved Valerian from the danger [of failure], saved the emperor Decius from the disappointment which would most probably have attended it.”

The Republican coalition seems to be in a similar bind. The religious fundamentalists—at least the sincere ones—want to restore what they imagine to have been the former moral standards of the United States. Their allies in the Republican party, however, bear much of the responsibility for the destruction of the standards of behavior in commerce, media, and government (not the realms of behavior, it must be admitted, that the fundamentalists tend to focus their attention on, preferring scrutiny of private matters to public ones).

Our would-be Valerians are as little likely to succeed, though that must be counted as at best cold comfort.

As an aside, I would guess that the usefulness of war as a distraction from failed domestic projects hasn't been lost on our "Decius"--Emperor George II.
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Is It Me or Is It My Testosterone?

Conversation with Mary-Jo the other night:

Karl: I heard from my friend Arthur today. He emailed me a couple of new songs he recorded. I told him about our blog and he posted an interesting comment with a quote from Gibbon.

Mary-Jo: That's nice. How are Jane and Sam?

Karl: Uh, I dunno. Fine, I guess.

Mary-Jo: You haven't spoken to Arthur in months, and you didn't ask about his family?

Karl: Uh, no. But he didn't ask about you, either. We're men. That's the way we are. We talk about our interests, not personal stuff.

Mary-Jo: No, that's the way
you are, not men in general. I hear the men at my work talking about their families all the time.

Karl: Well, that's different . . .
[followed by an awkward and unconvincing attempt to fabricate reasons why that would be different]

So what about it? Is this a genuine difference between men and women (as socialized in our society), or are men like Arthur and me just self-absorbed narcissists? (I realize that the two options are not mutually exclusive.)

Your opinions are hereby solicited.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Lincoln's Rebuke

It's inevitable that Andrew Sullivan would weigh in on the current debate about Lincoln's sexuality. He contributes this article in The New Republic. Its concluding paragraph:

The truth about Lincoln--his unusual sexuality, his comfort with male-male love and sex--is not a truth today's Republican leaders want to hear. They are well-advised to attack and suppress it. They are more closely related to the forces Lincoln defeated than those he championed; and his candor, honesty, and brave forging of a homosocial and homoerotic life in plain sight would appall them. The real Lincoln is their greatest rebuke. Which is why they will do all they can to obscure the complicated, fascinating truth about the man whose legacy they are intent on betraying.

All true, of course. But the rebuke that Lincoln represents goes far beyond his sexuality. Read his second inaugural address and you will be stunned to encounter the unmistakable voice of a politician who actually believes in God--who takes seriously the notion of divine justice and has wrestled in trembling and anguish with its implications for himself personally and for the nation he leads.

Everyone knows the fourth and final paragraph of the speech, which begins, "With malice toward none; with charity for all; . . ." It's a graceful, beautiful benediction. But its sweetness is deepened by the contrast with the two preceding paragraphs, which set forth a moral synopsis of the history and meaning of the Civil War.

It's noteworthy that Lincoln refuses to posture or congratulate his (Northern) audience about the justice of the Union cause in that war (though if any cause was ever just, that one was). Instead, he tartly observes:

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war.

(I like that "somehow"--the meticulous refusal to be drawn into arguments to justify the war.) Lincoln presses on to describe how the Civil War, like many another war, has had unintended, far-reaching consequences:

Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict [i.e. slavery] might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.

And what moral sense does Lincoln make of these facts--of the appalling length and destructiveness of the war? He spends the rest of the long third paragraph offering his interpretation, which is deeply rooted in Biblical notions of justice, retribution, and the inevitable consequence of sin. He quotes Matthew 18:7: "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" And from the honest contemplation of the meaning of this text for Americans emerges this syllogism:

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him?

Yes, Lincoln is saying what he appears to be saying: "this terrible war" has been visited upon Americans because they deserve it. And, yes, "both North and South" deserve it, for both North and South countenanced the offence of "American Slavery." (Note that last phrase. Unlike most writers of textbook histories and all modern politicians, Lincoln refuses to pretend that the crime of slavery was some sort of aberration, irrelevant to the true "character" of our people. No, he brands it as what it was: "American Slavery," our nation's unique contribution to the register of historic evils.)

Though Lincoln finds this harsh conclusion unavoidable, he refuses to take any pleasure in it (unlike, for example, preachers of today like Pat Robertson, who sometimes seem to relish their vision of the coming destruction that sodomy, abortion, and progressive income taxes are surely bringing to America). Lincoln offers this plea:

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.

But he won't let us off the hook:

Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's [i.e. the slave's] two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

Most politicians of today who choose to speak about God do it purely to flatter themselves and their audience. There's almost no limit to the flattery Americans are expected to swallow--witness the fulsome post-tsunami encomia about how America is "the most generous nation on earth." Truly generous people give and shut up about it.

But Lincoln refuses to flatter himself or us. Instead he models the highest degree of spiritual maturity--a readiness to see and judge oneself through God's eyes, with unflinching honesty, not wallowing in one's sins but acknowledging them as the first essential step toward repentence.

Yes, Andrew. The "real Lincoln" is the "greatest rebuke"--not just for Republicans, but for all of us.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Welfare for Wal-Mart

Without additional comment, I pass along a message from my editor friend Hilary Hinzmann:

Perhaps you've heard that Wal-Mart regularly forces store employees to work off the clock. Here is some context.

Wal-Mart's low-wage policies mean that every two-hundred-employee Wal-Mart store costs U.S. taxpayers about $420,000/year in social welfare expenditures ($2,103/employee), including:
  • $108,000/year for the healthcare of the employees' children
  • $125,000/year in tax credits for the employees' low-income families
  • $42,000/year in housing assistance
Total welfare bill for Wal-Mart's cheap labor practices: $2.5 billion/year.

Wal-Mart's net sales for 2003: $256.3 billion.

Wal-Mart's net income (profit) for 2003: $9 billion.

What Wal-Mart says about its store employees ("Associates"):

"When Sam Walton founded Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., he established the Three Basic Beliefs to which we remain firmly committed:
  • Respect for the Individual
  • Service to our Customers
  • Strive for Excellence
The Three Basic Beliefs go hand in hand with the integrity and ethical conduct that is the foundation of our business."

"People often ask, 'What is Wal-Mart's secret to success?' In response to this ever-present question, in his 1992 book Made in America, Sam Walton compiled a list of ten key factors that unlock the mystery. These factors are known as Sam's Rules for Building a Business."

"Rule 2: Share your profits with all your Associates, and treat them as partners. In turn, they will treat you as a partner, and together you will all perform beyond your wildest expectations. Remain a corporation and retain control if you like, but behave as a servant leader in a partnership. Encourage your Associates to hold a stake in the company. Offer discounted stock, and grant them stock for their retirement. It's the single best thing we ever did."

Wal-Mart Statement of Ethics: "Wage and Hour: It is a violation of law and Wal-Mart policy for you to work without compensation or for a supervisor (hourly or salaried) to request that you work without compensation. You should never perform any work for Wal-Mart without compensation."


Welfare costs--Data from U.S. House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee, cited by Simon Head in The New York Review of Books.

All other
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God and the Suffering of the Innocents

It's frustrating to see the how glibly, and on what shallow grounds, otherwise intelligent people are rejecting belief in God in the wake of the terrible tsunami deaths. A typical example is this column in The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's literary editor. Here is the key quote:

I do not see how a theistic view of the world cannot be embarrassed, or damaged, by such an event. If it is not possible to venerate nature for its goodness, then it is not possible to venerate the alleged author of nature for His goodness.

I understand that religion long ago learned how to argue its way around cosmic cruelty, but it is the absence of protest, the intellectual efficiency, that is so repugnant. Those who smugly intone that they have no explanation, that it is all a mystery, that the ways of the universe and its Creator exceed the capacities of the mind: they are over-ready for tragedy. They should more candidly admit that they choose not to reflect upon the spiritual implications of natural destruction, because they wish to protect what they believe. In the aftermath of such a disaster, religious people have more mental work to do than irreligious people, because they are the ones who teach the benevolent government of the world.

Does Wieseltier believe that religious people have never considered the problem of undeserved suffering? He talks as if the deaths of innocents in South Asia were the first such deaths in human history. In reality, the numbers of those destroyed by flood and disease in the past two weeks are dwarfed by the routine, annual death totals from starvation and preventable illnesses like malaria. Cast your eye backward over the past century and you encounter the world wars, the Holocaust, the famines engineered by Stalin, and millions of other deaths of innocents from all manner of disasters, both natural and induced by humans. And the twentieth century was obviously not unique in this regard. Similar tragedies have occurred throughout history.

The simple truth is that tragic death is an everyday occurrence, and everyone over the age of five is aware of this fact. It's the height of naivete to imagine that our view of the human condition should be dramatically altered by the latest tragedy--as if somehow the ten thousand tragedies that preceded it never really happened.

Wieseltier remarks, "If it is not possible to venerate nature for its goodness, then it is not possible to venerate the alleged author of nature for His goodness." This would be a telling blow if Christianity were a form of nature-worship. It isn't.

Human beings are animals living in a universe governed by physical and biological laws. Consequently, we must work and struggle to survive, are subject to illness and suffering, and will ultimately die. Nothing in Christianity or in the Bible denies any of these obvious truths. In fact, the Christian faith insists on these truths to the extent of describing a God who willingly becomes human in order to live with us under the same conditions, including suffering a painful, lonely, premature, and humiliating death.

The painful facts of life lead some people to conclude that God is evil; otherwise, why would he permit such suffering and death in the world he created?

Well, what's the alternative? Can we imagine a natural world that is devoid of suffering and death? It would have to be a world in which the laws of nature are constantly being revoked--in which God's hand reaches down to prop up every falling tree, to quell every storm, to end every drought, to cure every disease.

God would also have to be constantly intervening to obviate human freedom of action--slowing down speeding cars, preventing guns from firing and bombs from exploding, holding back the hands of parents who try to abuse their children. The foreman of a chemical plant who plans to dump toxic waste into a nearby river would somehow have to be stopped; would God's hand shut the valve, or would he miraculously transform the toxins into pure water?

It would be a strange world, a world where nothing bad could ever happen. But since one could never be sure how or where God would next intervene (even gravity would be subject to revocation to protect people from falling to their deaths), one could scarcely make or carry out any plan of one's own. As a result, humans would have no ability to shape their own lives (for good or evil), but would simply be sheep-like creatures herded from one harmless activity to the next.

Would this be a better world than the one in which we actually live? Maybe--but it doesn't sound particularly attractive to me.

You may want to protest that I'm being silly--that no one expects God to create a world completely devoid of suffering, but simply one in which massive tragedies like the South Asia tsunami don't occur.

I don't think the distinction is as clear as you might assume. If a benevolent God would prevent the tsunami and its 150,000 deaths, would he allow the attacks on the World Trade Center (3,000 deaths)? The Oklahoma City bombing (158 deaths)? The Heavens Gate cult suicides (39 deaths)? The murder of Laci Peterson? The death of anyone's favorite aunt or uncle from cancer or heart disease? If you are designing a universe, where and on what logical basis do you draw the line between permissible suffering and the impermissible? How do you distinguish the merely unfortunate from the tragic?

Obviously I haven't invented these arguments. They're familiar from the age-long debate on "theodicy," which deals with the apparent conflict between the nature of God and the existence of evil and suffering in the world. The fact that, over the centuries, such arguments have become familiar also bothers Wieseltier. As he says, "I understand that religion long ago learned how to argue its way around cosmic cruelty, but it is the absence of protest, the intellectual efficiency, that is so repugnant."

But Wieseltier is wrong to say that religious people are characteristically complacent or smug about human suffering. He should reread the Bible. He could start with Job (a book-length meditation on undeserved suffering), then turn to the Psalms and the Prophets (which are filled with lamentations over the sufferings experienced by the people of Israel), and then consider the Gospels (which culminate, of course, in the most famous unjust execution in history).

Of course there are religious people who are smug, self-righteous, and callous about human suffering. There are secular people like that, too. To criticize "religion" for trying to paint a smiley-face on the nature of human existence is just plain wrong. Christianity is, among other things, an intellectually serious effort to grapple with the fundmental problems of life. It deserves a more serious and knowledgeable critique.

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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Six Decades of Social Security "Reform"?

If you have any uncertainty about what the Republicans really want to do to Social Security, read this leaked memo from a Bush strategist.

The most telling sentence is, "For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win." What does this refer to? Have conservative Republicans being trying for six decades to "reform" Social Security, or to "save" it, or to "strengthen" it, or to "guarantee" that it will be there "for future generations"?

No. Social Security was created in the 1930s by liberal Democrats, and ever since then conservative Republicans have been trying to kill it. At first, they were open about it. Partly as a result of this extremely unpopular stance, their support in the country fell dramatically, culminating in the Barry Goldwater fiasco of 1964.

Then the mainstream conservatives put the issue to one side (although more extreme right-wingers, like the John Birch society, continued to fulminate about Social Security as a "socialist" program). During the 1960s and 70s, they gradually created the infrastructure and membership base that elected Reagan and the two Bushes.

Now they have hit on what they consider the winning strategy: To fatally undermine Social Security under the guise of protecting it. If the current "reform" movement is simply an extension of the conservative agenda of the past six decades, there can be no doubt about its objective.
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Friday, January 07, 2005

Rachel Carson--Wasn't She a Character on "Friends"?

Just visited our local Borders bookstore to buy a copy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. This book caused an enormous stir when it was published in 1962. It galvanized a generation of political activists, spearheaded the campaign to ban the pesticide DDT, and is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement. With justifiable pride, the book's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, published a handsome 40th anniversary edition.

So where is this classic book shelved at Borders? In the gardening section--as if Silent Spring were a book of tips on how to get orchids to bloom!

Look for John Hersey's Hiroshima on the travel shelf, Uncle Tom's Cabin under home repair, and The Feminine Mystique in the hair and makeup section.

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Let's Talk About a Real War on Terror

The notion of a "war on terror" has always been misbegotten. Since terrorism is a technique of warfare rather than a flesh-and-blood enemy or even an ideology (like Communism or radical Islam), it's highly unclear what it means to be "at war with terror" and what "victory" in such a war would entail. How can "terror" be eliminated? Is it possible to prevent the technique of terrorism from ever being used again by any aggrieved or hostile group anywhere in the world? Answer: Of course it isn't. The best we can hope for is to reduce the incidence of terror to a level we can live with, as John Kerry was pilloried for saying.

The truth is that the Bush administration uses the locution "war on terror" as a way of obfuscating the reality of our current struggle. The US is fighting against concrete enemies, not an abstraction like "terror." These enemies include the members of al-Qaeda and allied groups of radical Islam that oppose the global influence of the US for all kinds of political, social, cultural, and economic reasons, along with selected Middle Eastern regimes (like that of Saddam Hussein) that have either supported the radical Islamists or have opposed US interests in other ways.

The administration prefers not to call this conflict by more accurate phrases like "the war on radical Islam" or "the war on Middle Eastern anti-Americanism" because of the theocratic and imperialist overtones they carry. The administration's squeamishness is a kind of backhanded tribute to the "political correctness" conservatives supposedly disdain.

The unreality of the notion of a "war on terror" is thoroughly exposed by today's news that Edgar Ray Killen, a 79-year-old preacher and longtime Ku Klux Klan leader in Mississippi, has finally been arrested for his alleged role in the notorious 1964 murder of civil rights leaders Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney.

As Killen's arrest reminds us, the United States has a long-standing native tradition of terrorism, embodied not only in the Klan but in other right-wing groups that have long used violence in a deliberate, explicit, and often successful attempt to terrorize Blacks, Jews, immigrants, gays, and other targeted groups. Although the Klan is relatively weak today, successor organizations like the militias of the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, neo-Nazi organizations like Aryan Nations and the National Alliance, and an array of extremist "churches" carry on the tradition. The teachings of such groups helped spawn terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, whose bomb killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995.

So terrorism--specifically, terrorism practiced by members of radical religious and ethnic cults who hate American values--is not the exclusive property of Islam or the Middle East. It has existed in the US for a long time, and still retains popular support in many American communities, as illustrated by the fact that it took four decades for a Mississippi grand jury to indict anyone for murder in the Schwerner/Goodman/Chaney case. (Seven men were convicted of "civil rights violations" three years after the killings. Killen, the current defendant, was acquitted at that time because of a jury holdout who "insisted she could never convict a preacher," according to the Times).

It's possible to imagine a US administration genuinely interested in waging a "war on terror." Such a war would be an all-out offensive against all ideologies and groups that promote bigotry, hatred, and violence based on racial or religious differences. It would couple aggressive law enforcement efforts against hate groups both here and abroad with positive efforts to break down ethnic and cultural barriers, improve the lot of marginalized peoples (from Afghanistan and Palestine to Mississippi), educate children about the need for tolerance, and respond vigorously to propaganda that inculcates bigotry.

Instead of which we get Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the Patriot Act.
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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Millions of Americans Are Running in Place

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan's blog for pointing out this story from The Economist summarizing the apparent decline in social mobility in the US. Just as Americans desperately want to believe that we are the most generous nation on Earth (although we are not), so we want to believe that anyone in America who is willing to work hard can reach any level of achievement and economic status--although this is increasingly false. And it's not "class warfare" to point it out, and to be enraged by it.
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Calling a Spade a Spade

In today's NY Times Metro section, the Public Lives column has an interview with historian Fritz Stern in which Dr. Stern compares today's political climate to that which allowed the Nazi party to take power in Germany. The Times says, "He stops short of calling the Christian right fascist but his decision to draw parallels, especially in the use of propaganda, was controversial." John R. MacArthur, author of a book on wartime propaganda, is quoted in the column saying, "The comparison between the propagandistic manipulation and uses of Christianity, then and now, is hidden in plain sight. No one wants to look at it."

There are many similarities between Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and facism. During a very powerful sermon at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin a few weeks ago, Joel Clark Mason spoke about these similarities. All these thought systems provide a (false) sense of security from the many fears people face in their lives, and a sense of community, at the cost of requiring adherence to rigid thoughts and beliefs, which include the subjugation of women and demonization of people who do not think according to the prescribed beliefs. These systems all hearken back to an idealized past and requires that true believers work toward restoring that past.

The Times columnist writes that Nazism was so horrendous that "it often seems to defy the possiblity of repetition or analogy." We had better wake up to the fact that we are already torturing people, holding American citizens and others without charges and without hope for legal representation, and waging a war without the moral justification of self-defense. In short, we had better stop worrying about political correctness and call a spade a spade, because being able to label something correctly is the first step in challenging it.
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Bye Bye Crossfire

Buried in a small article on page 5 of the Business Day section of today's New York Times is the news that CNN will soon cancel its political debate program, "Crossfire." More surprising is the fact that CNN's new president, Jonathan Klein, "specifically cited" Jon Stewart's criticism of "Crossfire" in making the annoucnement. According to the Times, "Mr. Klein said last night, 'I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart's overall premise.'"

Isn't this startling? How often does the president of a company announce that he agrees wholeheartedly with one of the company's most vocal critics, then backs that up with action? Isn't this a little like the CEO of McDonald's saying, "You know, I've been reading Fast Food Nation and starting next week we're going to completely revamp our menu . . . "?

As for the substance of the decision, Stewart was right in saying that the "Crossfire" format of liberal/conservative pairings shouting vapid slogans at one another contributes nothing to the national debate. It's also questionable how much the "Daily Show" format of sarcastic mock-newspeople making fun of liberals and conservatives on a balanced, equal-time basis contributes to the national debate, but that's another issue.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Kelly Ripa's Shocking Weight Loss!

Back at the A&P today I had another opportunity to contemplate the world of tabloid newspapers. Unlike the Weekly World News, the Enquirer focuses on cheesy celebrity stories, kind of like an unauthorized version of People magazine.

(Years ago--I forget why--someone from Time Warner came into the book publishing company where I worked with a secret advance copy of something called Picture Week, which they hoped would become a successful new magazine. It had almost no verbal content, just photos of celebrities and captions. When the meeting was over, one of my colleagues remarked, "Well, it's easy to see who the audience for Picture Week would be--folks who consider People magazine too intellectual." Time Warner must've ultimately jettisoned the project, since I never did see a copy on any newsstand.)

Anyway, it's interesting that papers like the Enquirer seem to consider it equally newsworthy when female celebrities gain weight (Kirstie Alley, Elizabeth Taylor, three-time-winner Oprah Winfrey) and when they lose weight (Kelly Ripa, Winona Ryder, the Olsen twins). Apparently the only sure way to stay out of the headlines is to make sure you keep your weight exactly the same. Yet another burden we ask our celebrities to bear.
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Orwell's Dilemma: Democracies and Torture

In today's Washington Post, Richard Cohen offers a good description of the repulsive tactics endorsed by our next Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez, in a column titled "Ugly Truths About Guantanamo" (registration required, but it's free and easy).

Along the way, Cohen cites George Orwell, who I notice wrote a typically succinct and honest explanation of why lapsing into barbarism is not only a morally disgusting tactic for a democracy but also extremely likely to be ineffective. This is from an unpublished letter to the Times of London dated 12 October 1942:

By chaining up German prisoners in response to similar action by the Germans, we descend, at any rate in the eyes of the ordinary observer, to the level of our enemies. It is unquestionable when one thinks of the history of the past ten years that there is a deep moral difference between democracy and Fascism, but if we go on the principle of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth we simply cause that difference to be forgotten.

Moreover, in the matter of ruthlessness we are unlikely to compete successfully with our enemies. . . .As a result of our action the Germans will chain up more British prisoners, we shall have to follow suit by chaining up more Axis prisoners, and so it will continue till logically all the prisoners on either side will be in chains. In practice, of course, we shall become disgusted with the process first, and we shall announce that the chaining up will now cease, leaving, almost certainly, more British than Axis prisoners in fetters. We shall thus have acted both barbarously and weakly, damaging our own good name without succeeding in terrorising the enemy.

There are those who will argue that the best way out of what we might call "Orwell's Dilemma" as it applies today to our conflict with the extreme Islamists is to cast aside our moral inhibitions and vow to become as ruthless as the terrorists. Leaving aside moral considerations, I don't think it would work. It would take generations of indoctrination to mold American public opinion to the point where it would unflinchingly support out-and-out brutal tyranny. I'm afraid we may get there in time, but we're not there yet.

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Sunday, January 02, 2005

Better They Should Say, "Find the TRUE Story"

One of my dream jobs (I have six or eight) would be to write for the Weekly World News, which as you know is the wackiest of the supermarket tabloids. They run a lot of stories with religious themes; archeologists who've discovered the remains of Noah's ark, the mummified bodies of Adam and Eve, or the skeleton of Satan evidently regard the Weekly World News as the most prestigious scientific journal in which to report their findings. For many years now, the paper has also been covering the Washington, D.C., exploits of the big-domed "space alien," who was last seen romancing an obviously excited Condoleezza Rice by licking her face (headline: "White House Hottie Declares: 'He's a Silver-Tongued Devil!'").

The cover of the current issue packs the paper's most brilliant one-two punch ever. The main headline reads, "TWO-HEADED BIGFOOT SHOT BY IOWA COP." It's illustrated with one of the News's typical Photoshop patch jobs, showing the deceased, hirsute primate, two heads and all, prone beside a lush cornfield (it's Iowa, get it?) with a policeman standing over him, pistol in hand.

So far, just a typical News cover. What elevates this issue to genius is the sidebar promoting a reader contest: "FIND THE FAKE STORY INSIDE AND WIN $200!"

I love the sheer chutzpah of this challenge: Find the one fake story in the Weekly World News!? And the perfect capper is the chintziness of the prize ($200?!), underscored by the backdrop image of--ooh, ooh!--a twenty-dollar bill!!

Jon Stewart likes to claim that his show is the world's leading purveyor of fake news, but I give the honors to the Weekly World News.
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The Outrage Continues

Our friend John Richards, who keeps us up to date on some of the more concerning developments in the news and on the web, sent along very interesting articles from the Philadelphia Inquirer (registration required, but it's free) and the Seattle Post Intelligencer which illustrate the dire condition of women's rights in the US. It is discouraging that, as Laura pointed out in her post, Bush surrounds himself with women in seemingly important positions while his administration is working to increase the ability of the government to control women's lives.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Justice Department has issued guidelines for the treatment of rape victims which leave out prevention of pregnancy. Although the "morning-after pill" is safe and effective when given within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, many people who would benefit from it are not aware of it, and few states require it to be offered to rape victims (New York does, but recently a NYC hospital was fined for violating the rule).

Obviously, the right to potential life of a rapist's offspring overrules the woman's needs. Think of the absurdity that an alleged rapist could possibly be condemned to death (not for the rape alone, of course, but for what society considers a real crime of violence) but the less than 72-hour-old potential embryo has an automatic right to life. A member of the commission that developed the Justice department guidelines stated that no one on the commission opposed informing women about pregnancy prevention but due to the political climate this recommendation was eliminated.

It is hard for me to understand why women are willing to accept the control of their bodies and medical care by the government. It would seem that conservative women, whose ideology supposedly is to restrain "big government," should be the first to jump on this issue.
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Saturday, January 01, 2005

Republican Mind Tricks (caveat lector...written in rage)

For this weekend's NY Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon interviewed Jeanne L. Phillips, the chairwoman of the inaugural committee.

[Side note #1: it really irks me that Bush surrounds himself with women and members of minority groups, as if to show that he is a friend to these groups, while his actions that count clearly show the opposite to be true. And, I cannot fathom how any self-respecting woman could do ANYTHING to further Bush's aims, even something as trivial as planning his inauguration parties, without developing a horrible case of self-loathing. ]

Despite the fact that we have known all along that the troops aren't getting the equipment they need and that the Republicans were nevertheless planning expensive inauguration parties, and despite the fact that a number of other people have commented on these facts, I am still enraged by the following exchange:

Solomon: I hear one of the balls will be reserved for troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Phillips: Yes, the Commander-in-Chief Ball. That is new. It will be about 2,000 servicemen and their guests. And that should be a really fun event for them.

S: As an alternative way of honoring them, did you or the president ever discuss canceling the nine balls and using the $40 million inaugural budget to purchase better equipment for the troops?

P: I think we felt like we would have a traditional set of events and we would focus on honoring the people who are serving our country right now -- not just the people in the armed forces, but also the community volunteers, the firemen, the policemen, the teachers, the people who serve at, you know, the -- well, it's called the StewPot in Dallas, people who work with the homeless.

S: How do any of them benefit from the inaugural balls?

P: I'm not sure that they do benefit from them.

S: Then how, exactly, are you honoring them?

P: Honoring service is what our theme is about.

[Side note #2: it is bizarre that Phillips doesn't even seem to want to MENTION a homeless shelter or soup kitchen or whatever "the StewPot" is-- and a good indication of the type of people Bush keeps close: people who are so far removed from reality that a homeless shelter is somehow a taboo subject. Why? Because the homeless are untouchables? Because God forbid someone should mention within earshot of W that homelessness exists?]

Anyway, this exchange is infuriating because it is a perfect example of the kind of bizarre thinking that goes on in this administration: they say that they're honoring people who "are serving our country right now", so they are. Period. They aren't actually doing anything to honor them, but they say they are, so it is so.

[Side note #3: How disturbing is it that fire fighters, police officers, and teachers are lumped in with "community volunteers"? These are actual professions! Teachers, certainly, are not valued as they should be, are not respected as they should be, and are not paid as they should be. So don't say that a bunch of rich white guys partying while the rest of the world goes to hell equates honoring them!]

This quote reminds me of two things:

1) Genesis-- God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Under what other circumstances does saying something equal doing it? (This could degenerate into a diatribe about creationists, Bush's God complex, etc., but I won't go there.)

2) Jedi mind tricks-- Bush says, "I will be able to cut taxes, reform social security, fight an endless war, and cut the deficit," and with a wave of his hand, people believe him. Perhaps this explains how it is possible that so many people would vote for such a clearly horrible person....and now we know what the Democrats need to do in 2008: find someone who can bring balance to the Force.

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