Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Sorry To Disappoint You, But Saint Paul Was Not a Republican

It's always interesting to see how conservatives selectively quote from scripture to support their positions, as someone named Richard Turpyn does in his March 29 letter ("Christianity and Capital Punishment") to the Washington Post. Turpyn is responding to an earlier column by Eugene Robinson:

So Eugene Robinson can't reconcile Christianity with capital punishment [op-ed, March 18]. I don't think he's trying hard enough.

Jesus Christ spared the sinner the punishment for sin; he did not spare the criminal the punishment for crime. Saint Paul made it clear in Romans 13 that government is authorized to punish criminals with the power of the sword, which was not a figure of speech under Roman law.

True, so far as it goes. But if you're a conservative, you might want to be careful whom you quote. In the very chapter Turpyn cites (Romans 13), Paul comments, "The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted" (Rom. 13:1-2).

Does Turpyn believe that the American Revolution was a mistake and a sin, as this statement would clearly imply? Does he think that the folks in Florida who want to use force to defy the courts in the Schiavo case are "rebelling against what God has instituted"? Does he write letters to the editor advocating these positions?

Follow Paul down a few lines and you read, "This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing " (Rom. 13:6). Has Turpyn written to Grover Norquist about this?

On the other hand, if Turpyn rejects Paul's position on the latter two points, on what basis can he insist that we accept Paul's authority on the death penalty?

In the end, we're driven back to doing what we should be doing in the first place: deciding political issues based on what our own reason and our best sense of morality dictates, rather than searching for isolated Bible verses to justify particular positions.

It would be nice to have a cadre of Bible-loving progressives who would regularly expose the right wing's scriptural cherry-picking. Conservatives have the right, like anyone else, to choose their favorite religious teachings and cite them when making political arguments. But they shouldn't be able to get away with presenting their highly selective version of the Bible as if it is the Bible, to which all right-thinking people must kowtow.
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The Hidden Logic of the "Culture of Life"

Many bloggers have been pointing out the inconsistency of the religious right when it comes to their so-called "culture of life." There seems to be no logical reason why "Christian" conservatives should consider life sacred when it takes the form of a persistently vegetative Terri Schiavo or a three-month-old fetus, but not when it takes the form of a retarded Texan on death row, an Iraqi civilian in the way of a US bomb, or an "enemy combatant" in Guantanamo.

If the sacredness of life is the issue, then it also seems illogical to consider abortion murder (and to want to punish abortion providers accordingly) while opposing murder prosecutions of women who procure abortions and even permitting abortion in cases of rape or incest. If the fetus is really a human being who deserves the same protection as any other person, what difference does it make how or by whom it was conceived?

There's no denying that these positions are inconsistent when judged against a "culture of life" ethic. But they are consistent when you set aside the "life" rhetoric and focus on the real ethic of the religious right. What actually drives their morality is a rigid division of the world into Good people and Bad people. The Good people deserve praise, protection, and rewards. The Bad people deserve condemnation, punishment, and (in extreme cases) death.

Thus, Terri Schiavo and the average fetus are both forms of "innocent" (i.e. Good) life that must be saved. A condemned person on death row, an Iraqi who tolerated the regime of Saddam Hussein (or worse yet supported it), a suspected terrorist in Guantanamo, and an abortion provider are all Bad and deserve death.

A mother who conceives a child out of wedlock is pretty Bad (the slut!) and deserves condemnation (though not death--the religious right doesn't go that far, at least not yet). However, if the child was conceived not through the mother's Badness but through an act of incest or rape, the mother is actually Good. Therefore, she can be allowed to obtain an abortion to rid herself of the burden implanted in her by the Bad man who made her pregnant.

As you can see, when viewed in this light, the apparent inconsistencies vanish. All you need is a clear vision of who is Good and who is Bad--which the "Christian" right has, in spades.

You may notice a tone of mockery in my analysis. This is not because I disbelieve in the ideas of "good" and "bad." Heaven knows that the Righteousness of which Jesus spoke is real enough, as is the Sin he warned us against. But as Jesus constantly reminds us ("Judge not that ye be not judged"), living morality isn't an exercise of pasting people with black or white tags. It's about being merciful and walking humbly with our God.
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The Final Straw

I'm no fan of David Brooks', but his op-ed today is the final straw. Titled Whose Team Am I On?, I read it half hoping that this would be a follow-up to his column from last week, Masters of Sleaze in which he took on the GOP and Tom DeLay for their ethics violations. Instead, it turns out that Brooks wanted to tell the world that he is thinking of rooting for the new Washington Nationals instead of the Mets.

Now, why he would consider switching allegiance to a team that barely even exists is beyond me. But, as is typically the case with Brooks, it isn't the sentiment it's the pseudo-intellectualism that accompanies it that really annoys me. You see, Brooks lets us know that he is agonizing over this decision and that this process has led him to question the very nature of fan loyalty. He identifies three reasons why a person could love a team. The first is simple attachment to the team's hometown, the second is a bond forged through years of shared emotions and the third is "a philosophical love, a love for the Platonic ideal the team embodies" (naturally the last of these is the one he identifies with). All of which is nonsense.

Fan loyalty is, quite simply, about loyalty. Usually we pick our teams early in life, and sometimes a special moment (a day at the park with dad, a particularly exciting pennant race) or familial/peer pressure helps forge the bond. But once the choice is made it is rarely questioned and never (for the true fan) abandoned. The measure of a fan isn't based on physical location (true fans maintain their loyalty to a team regardless of where they live), shared emotions (though these certainly make up the experience), or some metaphysical attachment. Instead it is purely about committing to something, through good times and bad, no matter what. It's about sticking up for The Team when they lose and sticking it to everyone else when they win. It's about casting your lot with something you have no control over but that is guaranteed to give you highs (and lows) more pronounced than you normally experience in daily life.

This is the reason why, to the true fan, the worst type of fan is the fair-weather fan who jumps onto the bandwagon only when the going is good. Actually, the fair-weather fan is the second-worst type of fan. The traitor is the worst.
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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Happy Easter

. . . a day dedicated to reaffirming the truth that, despite all that happens in "the changes and the chances of this life," love, not death, is the ultimate power.
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Saturday, March 26, 2005

Obsessive Ramblings of an Editor: Simon Winchester's "Meaning of Everything"

WARNING: Snarky literary commentary ahead. Read on only if you are willing to share my readiness to obsess over points of style and accuracy that most normal people consider trivial.


I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester’s brief history of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. I approached the book with great anticipation, partly because of the subject matter (I’m fascinated by lexicography, linguistics, and the history of English) and partly because of the uniformly good reviews the book received when it was published in 2003.


The book has its share of intriguing facts and stories, along with colorful portraits of some of the quirky characters involved in creating the OED. But I didn’t find much that was genuinely interesting or new.

However, Winchester’s prose is what really irks me. He writes in a self-consciously literary style, crafting longish periodic sentences decorated with an awkward mixture of British idioms (not always accurately used), pseudo-learned polysyllables, and occasional jolts of slang. (William F. Buckley, Jr., long considered by middlebrow critics the epitome of stylistic elegance, also writes this way.)

The result is prose that sounds impressive but falls apart on close examination. Here’s a typical passage from the book’s first chapter, where Winchester is describing the arrival in England of the medieval Nordic invaders whose language supplanted that of the Celts:

The invaders themselves had an easy time of it; the Romans had gone, and the remaining Celts were in no position to mount much of a defence. They were in consequence to be swiftly dominated by the newcomers, invaders who were linguistically of Germanic stock—Teutons. But though the invaders arrived at more or less the same time, they were not all the same people. Some, to an extent indicated by where their longboats had been launched, were Frisians, other were Jutes, still other Saxons, and—most importantly for the naming of both the English nation and the language that resulted—some of them were called Angles.

Let’s consider this passage point by point:

(1) In the first sentence, why the needless themselves? One of my pet peeves is the insertion of himself, itself, or themselves into sentences as a kind of padding. There are dozens of examples in the narration for Ric Burns’s documentary miniseries New York, which is filled with sentences like, “New York itself . . . had emerged as one of the most strangely paradoxical cities on earth,” and “David Rockefeller himself would soon be in a position to overcome any initial opposition to its involvement--at least within the agency itself.” Such sentences sound all right when read aloud in the plummy tones of David Ogden Stiers, but the meaningless reflexive pronouns are an annoying stylistic tic, a sign that the author is straining to sound grand.

(2) Why the adjective remaining, which in context (the remaining Celts) seems to be drawing a distinction between certain Celts who remained in England and others who had departed? I guess Winchester means to say that the Celts remained behind after the Romans left. If so, the sentence would be clearer if worded and the Celts, who remained behind, were in no position . . . But then it seems to me that the whole idea of remaining could be omitted with no loss of clarity: the Romans had gone, and the Celts were in no position etc.

(3) In the second sentence, who are They? There are three possible references for the pronoun, and it takes a while to figure out that Winchester is talking about those remaining Celts from the previous sentence.

(4) Why the non-idiomatic phrase in consequence? When I first read the sentence, I was brought up short; the clause They were in consequence seemed to be a unit, although I had no idea what it was supposed to mean. Only on a second reading did I figure out that Winchester is using in consequence to mean consequently, i.e. therefore. The sentence would be simpler and clearer if it began, Therefore, they were swiftly dominated . . . Better still, omit Therefore—the meaning is equally plain without it.

(5) What is meant by the phrase linguistically of Germanic stock? Stock refers to a kindred or lineage, but languages are not transmitted genetically. Were the ancient inhabitants of India linguistically of Sanskrit stock? Were Eastern European Jews of the 1880s linguistically of Yiddish stock? What Winchester wants to say is invaders who spoke Germanic tongues.

(6) In the fourth sentence, what does the phrase to an extent mean? Does it mean that the invaders were Frisians, Jutes, Saxons, etc. to a certain degree (i.e., to an extent)? If so, how could one be a Frisian only to a certain degree? (One is either a Frisian or not.) Or does the phrase mean that the tribal identity of the invaders was indicated partially (i.e., to an extent) by those launching-places? If so, is Winchester trying to suggest that there is also some other source of information about their tribal identity? If so, what is it? If it’s not important enough to name, why allude to it in the first place?

(7) Why is the pronoun other used (twice) in the singular form? If Some [of the invaders]. . . were Frisians, wouldn’t one say that others [with an s] were Jutes, etc.?

This is slipshod, confusing writing, not “eloquent,” “supremely readable,” and “lucid,” as the New York Times Book Review called it. (Oh, wait. The review was written by William F. Buckley, Jr. That explains a lot.)

Well, at least we can credit Winchester with a masterful job of literary and historical research . . . can’t we?

Maybe not. I’m just an amateur when it comes to linguistic studies. But I noticed one serious blooper in that same first chapter. Winchester claims that George Orwell, among other writers, “touted the notion of the Teutonically inspired Old English as being the purest form of English ever written and spoken.” Orwell, he goes on to say,

publicly yearned for English to be purged of all its Latin, French, Greek, and Norse loans, and to be centred round and dominated by the short, simpler words that were of an undeniable ‘Anglicity’—what some call the ‘common words’ of the English language. He keenly wanted English, as the sixteenth-century humanist John Cheke had once written, to be ‘written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borrowings of other tunges’.

Winchester repeats this point about Orwell twice more in the book. But it’s nonsense. Orwell never advocated any such quixotic idea. (Since the great majority of English words are of non-English origin, urging writers to stop using such words and revert to the English of the tenth century would be like calling on Americans to abandon the automobile, train, and airplane and walk everywhere—only much more impractical.)

I suppose what Winchester has in mind is the famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell criticizes the unthinking preference of many writers for pretentious Latinate diction:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers.

This is a far cry from calling for a “purging” of foreign influences from English. Orwell is merely saying that, where a fancy Latin word and a plain Anglo-Saxon equivalent are both available, the latter is generally preferable—for example, one should use underwater instead of sub-aqeuous. A few pages later, describing the kind of writing he prefers, Orwell explicitly says:

To begin with, it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting-up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from. . . . Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning.

Winchester ignores these clear statements, instead making Orwell sound like a crank. This is quite unfair.

George Orwell pondered deeply the relationship between language and clear thinking and not only wrote eloquently about the subject but also tried to practice his own precepts for vivid, precise writing in thousands of pages of essays, reviews, letters, pamphlets, articles, stories, radio broadcasts, and novels—nearly all composed with greater clarity and skill than any typical page of Winchester. For Winchester to so badly misconstrue the meaning of an important writer on linguistics in a work devoted to that subject leaves me with little confidence in his overall accuracy.

Too bad, since I really hoped and expected to enjoy The Meaning of Everything. I saw Simon Winchester on a C-SPAN Book TV program and he seems to be a delightful fellow. He also has an enviable lifestyle, living and working on a New England farm with a converted barn that serves as a huge, book-filled writer's studio. It's wonderful to see a fellow freelancer thrive like that. But I wish he'd arrange for his next best-seller to receive an extra round of editing before it's put to bed.
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Thursday, March 24, 2005

"Family Values" and Terri Schiavo

Thoughtful, honest post by Digby about the Schiavo case and the light it sheds on the problematic nature of "family values." What about the family that Michael and Terri launched--the family that she chose to join, leaving behind her family of origin? Why are the interests, wishes, and integrity of that family being shredded by the innuendos and assaults of the far right, abetted by the cowardice of the MSM?

As Digby writes, sometimes "family values" comes down to a matter of control, and some of the people who claim they want to uphold those values are really just asserting the power of parents to impose their will on their children.

Jesus had no use for those kinds of "family values." When people tried to impose them on him, he shrugged them off with the question, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And he urged his followers, "Let the dead bury their dead." We're put on this earth to live, not to fulfill the dreams of our parents.
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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why Not Debate "Intelligent Design" in Schools? Here's Why

In this column titled "Who's Afraid of Intelligent Design?" in today's WaPo, education writer Jay Mathews sounds sweetly reasonable when he asks, "Why not enliven [classes on evolution] with a student debate on contrasting theories? Why not have an intelligent design advocate stop by to be interrogated? Many students, like me, find it hard to understand evolutionary theory, and the scientific method itself, until they are illuminated by contrasting points of view."

Sounds good, and if such a debate were moderated by a biology teacher with a strong grasp of all the relevant data, including detailed knowledge of the most common factual distortions employed by advocates of "intelligent design," it could even be a powerful teaching tool. (No, it wouldn't suffice to have a moderator with a good, basic knowledge of Darwinian theory. As debunkers of pseudo-science like Martin Gardner and James Randi have often demonstrated, innocent scientists who assume that everyone is an honest, disinterested truth-seeker like themselves are easily deceived by clever bunco artists--hence the distinguished physicists who've been taken in by phony mediums and sleight-of-hand tricksters like Uri Geller.)

But of course the number of high school teachers in America who are truly prepared to manage such a confrontation is minuscule. And let's consider again the underlying premise that truth is best revealed through debate. If it's true, why is it that no other topic is taught that way? Social studies teachers don't invite royalists, communists, or neo-Nazis to present alternative views on American government. Health teachers don't invite guest speakers who believe that childhood immunizations are dangerous, that water fluoridation is a deadly government plot, or that AIDS was invented by the CIA. (Imagine the public reaction if they did.)

There's only one reason why the advocates of "intelligent design" want to launch this new teaching technique, and that's because they are desperate to get an official imprimatur for their non-scientific doctrine as a valid alternative to evolution.

And would the creationists be satisfied with an hour devoted to debating their point of view? We all know the answer. School boards would have to brace for the next wave of letters: "My daughter told me that her biology class spent four days on evolution, and only one hour debating intelligent design. This is outrageously biased. Unless you give equal time to the Christian alternative, I'm prepared to sue . . ."
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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

You're Entitled To Your Own Opinion, But Not To Your Own Facts

The Terry Schiavo case gives us so many things to be depressed about. One that I haven't seen explicitly mentioned is the way the coverage fuels the long-standing tendency of some Americans to feel that their opinions on any subject are valid and important regardless of whether they are based on fact.

In the Schiavo case, I am baffled by the readiness of Americans to offer a judgment as to whether or not the poor woman's feeding tube should be replaced . . . whether or not she wanted to be kept alive through such means . . . whether or not she is in a persistent vegetative state . . . and whether or not there is any hope she can be revived--all in the total absence of personal knowledge of the case or the people involved, much less any medical training or experience.

If I were approached by a reporter asking my opinion about any of the above questions, the only honest answer I could give would be, "How the hell should I know?" And that's the only honest answer 98% of the population is in a position to give. Unfortunately, most people fail to recognize this fact. They consider themselves qualified to offer a medical diagnosis and ethical pronouncements based on five seconds of selectively edited videotape accompanied by emotional commentary from the patient's mother and father.

I suppose this "arrogance of the common folk" is the natural result of decades of pandering by politicians and the media to the "inherent goodness and wisdom" of the "most generous people on earth," etc. etc. The only thing that's more revolting is the readiness of Bill Frist, who as a physician obviously knows better, to play along with the game by pretending that he, too, can better interpret Ms. Schiavo's condition on the basis on those five seconds of videotape than all the doctors who've treated her in the past fifteen years.

And then there's this sad observation: that for the religious right, Terry Schiavo's inevitable death, whenever it comes, will be a political windfall. She'll enter their pantheon of martyrs to the "activist courts," the "liberal media," and the "decadent elite," her image to be trotted out whenever they want to fuel their followers' sense of anger, alienation, and resentment.
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Monday, March 21, 2005

Random Notes of a Culture Surfer

Pretty fascinating Nova show on PBS about the scientific and technological challenge of preserving the original parchment copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (read about it here). The experts at the National Archives have created airtight cases designed to protect the documents against tornados, earthquakes, gas attacks . . . almost as if the nation's survival depends on the physical condition of these artifacts. Couldn't help thinking how nice it would be if the same care were being taken to defend the ideals they set forth.


Great to see that Markos, founder of DailyKos, has time to sponsor the creation of a series of sports-related blogs, including one devoted to my Mets. (Never even realized he was a sports buff.) Scanning "Amazin' Avenue," I don't see any posts reflecting linkage between progressive politics and Met fandom, although I'm convinced such linkage exists. It all goes back to 1969--the year of antiwar marches, Woodstock, and Tom Seaver--though my theory concerning the precise nature of the socio-historico-athletic convergence has yet to be fully articulated. Any political science majors out there interested in collaborating on this with me? Detailed knowledge of the oeuvres of I. F. Stone and Bill James a prerequisite.


It's nice that Pastor Dan has linked to worldwidewebers on his great blog, faithforward--although I'm a little puzzled to see that we're listed under the heading, "Warning! Adult Language and/or Images Ahead!" We've used the occasional "Damn" or "Hell," but nothing stronger that I can recall; surely in this day and age this doesn't qualify as "Adult" language, does it? I guess I should look on the bright side--maybe we'll be visited by thousands of surfers searching for Internet porn who will find themselves seduced instead by our pithy observations on Paul Krugman, Donald Rumsfeld, and the proper recipe for an egg cream.
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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Is This How the First Dark Ages Got Their Start?

This story gives the lie to the oft-stated claim by rightwing Christian fundamentalists that they don't object to the presentation of evolution but just want equal time for creationism (or its stalking horse, "intelligent design") so that science students and other citizens can "decide for themselves." As the Times explains, about a dozen Imax theatres, most in the South, are refusing to show a movie about volcanoes because it refers to evolution. The theatre managers say they fear protests by creationist patrons or community groups.

This isn't a matter of lobbying for discussion of intelligent design--it's about silencing discussion of evolution. The trend is especially startling and disturbing because some of the theatres involved are based in science museums (the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, for example). If scientific ideas can't be presented in a science museum, then where?
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Friday, March 18, 2005

Take Up the Bat, Peace-Loving Peoples of the World

Way back in 1945, George Orwell observed that international sports were "an unfailing cause of ill-will." He went on to say:

I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

(The '36 Games, of course, were the Berlin Olympics which Hitler strove to convert into a showcase for Aryan racial superiority. The Black track star Jesse Owens interfered with those plans.)

Orwell's rule may be right in most cases (thank God Americans don't care about soccer--imagine the kind of riots we'd have if Arsenal or Manchester United were playing a US team with the soccer equivalent of Oakland Raider fans). But it's pleasant to note that there are exceptions. Apparently "cricket diplomacy" has been generating a hopeful thawing of relations between India and Pakistan.

Recent "test matches" (why are they called that? what exactly is being tested?) between the two countries produced enormous flows of tourism across the border and many shows of friendship in both directions--sharing of picnic lunches, Paki cricket fans waving Indian flags and vice versa, etc. Pakistani President Musharraf is weighing an invitation from Indian Prime Minister Singh to attend upcoming matches in Calcutta and Bangalore as part of the ongoing peace process.

Of course, the reason that cricket diplomacy leads to friendship while any attempt at football diplomacy would only lead to violence and war lies in the nature of cricket itself. Although I've never been to a cricket match, everything I've ever read about it (including Orwell's own fond recollections of the sport, with which he says he conducted "a sort of hopeless love affair" until around age 18) makes it sound like an even slower, more ruminative, more pastoral version of baseball. How on earth could any activity so soporific be expected to inflame anyone's passions, nationalistic or otherwise?

As with so many topics, the seer George Carlin said it best long ago in his classic routine about the differences between baseball and football. (If you aren't familiar with it, you owe it to yourself to read it here now, although hearing Carlin deliver it is even funnier.) In lilting tones, Carlin observes, "Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park--the baseball park!" Then his voice becomes stern: "But football is played in War Memorial Stadium."

He goes on dissect the violent military symbolism of football, contrasting it with the pastoral, pacifistic--frankly, all but gay--imagery of baseball. No wonder Lincoln, our greatest gay president, liked baseball. (There's an old story that Abe was in the on-deck circle when the official delegation arrived from Chicago to inform him that he had been nominated for President on the Republican ticket in 1860. "You gentlemen will have to wait a moment," Lincoln supposedly told them. "I have to take my turn at bat.")

Anyway, it seems obvious that cricket (or more likely baseball, in this age of the one great superpower) is ideally suited for adoption as the global sport, since it's so unlikely to disturb world peace. This is why the Lords of Baseball (to use Dick Young's famous epithet for the billionaires who run the sport as their plaything) ought to settle the steroid issue as soon as possible and turn their attention instead to organizing an annual tournament featuring teams from around the globe.

Before I die I want to watch the US champion Mets take on challengers from Japan, Mexico, Australia--who knows, maybe even Russia and India--in a true World Series. Wouldn't that be fun?--And no riots, either. Just happy fans slumbering peacefully in their bleacher seats.

One other diplomatic note. I was in the car with Mary-Jo this week when an NPR newscaster reported that China had freed Muslim dissident Rebiya Kadeer in anticipation of Condoleezza Rice's upcoming visit. The reporter added, "China has a history of releasing political prisoners shortly before visits by senior American officials."

Me: "That's great. We ought to send senior American officials over to China more often."

Mary-Jo: "And let them stay over there a while. The longer the better."
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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

At 23, Taxes Are For Me . . . And So Is Social Security

I have a couple of things to expound upon: (1) I saw Paul Krugman (Princeton economist, New York Times columnist, personal hero) and Michael Tanner (of the Cato Institute) debate Social Security and privatization last night; and (2) Maureen Dowd’s recent column on the lack of women columnists.

The debate was at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, which is running a whole series of discussions called “Ethical Edge.” The debate was very straightforward and no new arguments were brought to the table.

Some things I found irritating:

Tanner repeatedly spoke patronizingly to the audience, making those sarcastic and obvious jokes. For instance, “There will be a $12 trillion deficit. That is trillion—with a T.” Jokes are a great way to emphasize points and put dialogue in perspective. However, those tactics should be reserved for Comedy Central, not for the opening statement in a serious discussion.

He also described beneficiaries of Social Security and the citizenry at large in disparaging ways. Paraphrasing, he said people have to go to Congress “hat in hand” to claim their Social Security benefits, while the “doorman” would have the same chance to invest his money into private accounts as the person who owns the “duplex upstairs.” What is the point of these personalized stories in a discussion like this? The audience was a very particular demographic: people familiar enough with NYSEC to know that this program was happening and people interested enough (and probably already well-read) in Social Security and privatization to spend two hours after work listening to a discussion about it. Did he think that personalized stories would sway the audience one way or the other? I know what’s at stake; he does not need to tell me pity stories, such as the one about the 59-year-old widow with two grown children, who won’t get benefits from Social Security (um . . . that’s why they should work!).

If he wants the government to stop being patronizing towards its citizens and to allow them, instead, to make their own choices, can’t he do the same? Can’t he elevate the dialogue and speak to us as educated individuals? This should be a discussion of reason, not emotion.

Something that was touched upon, thanks to Krugman, is that private property is a social institution. I once read the very illuminating point (I believe it was made by ethicist Peter Singer) that we cannot have private property without government because it is the government that enables us to have our property. Among other things (such as protecting ports, enabling ships to come and go and thereby enabling trade), it protects against theft. Government is not evil; it is helpful.

Okay, so I’ve been hearing a smattering about women’s issues lately, probably due in part to the Los Angeles Times’s page of women columnists. I cannot say why there are not as many women columnists as men, but I can say that I will do my part to change that. This is Women’s History month! (Whatever that means . . . )
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Saturday, March 12, 2005

Books in the Rear-View Mirror Are More Trivial Than They Appear

This week's Fortune magazine includes their list of the 75 best business books published since 1930 (the year the magazine was founded). I love lists like these (I even find the endless "100 Best Pop Whatever" shows on VH1 irresistible), so I immediately set to scrutinizing it. Leaving aside my mild annoyance over the fact that none of the books I've worked on was included (unlike some other similar lists that have been compiled over the years), I must say that I have my doubts about any list that supposedly covers the past 75 years but includes only 25 books published prior to 1990. What, all of the greatest business geniuses in history were born after 1940? I'm guessing that the Fortune list was developed either by editors aged 35 and below or by naifs unduly influenced by publishers' propaganda about their current crops of books.

Worth noting merely as an example of a phenomenon that's widespread in our publicity-driven age: historical myopia in which events of the present and the very recent past seem to loom far larger than events from a generation or two ago--not to mention a century ago, or a millennium ago. This visual impairment makes relatively recent trivia appear more significant than major milestones from the past, which are undeservedly forgotten.
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In Search of the New York Candy Store

This week, Leonard Lopate is celebrating the 2oth anniversary of his talk show on WNYC, New York's National Public Radio outlet. Reminiscing about his boyhood while being interviewed by Tom Brokaw yesterday, he remarked that his parents used to own a candy store in Queens.

I mentioned this to Mary-Jo over dinner, and we got to talking about the corner candy stores we remember from our childhood in Brooklyn. She grew up in Bay Ridge, I lived in Brownsville and Clinton before moving to Bay Ridge, so we lived in three different neighborhoods, but the candy stores we recall all fit the same pattern. They weren't really candy stores at all, although they did indeed sell candy. But they also sold all kinds of others things: cigarettes, of course (probably their biggest single source of business); newspapers, magazines, and comic books; basic school supplies and stationery, like pencils, pads, notebooks, and envelopes; small toys, like tops, yo-yos, and jacks; baseball cards and other little collectibles like those long-haired gnomes that went in and out of fashion in the 1960s, and what not.

This kind of candy store usually had a counter with a few stools where you could sit and have a cup of coffee, a dish of ice cream, a soda, or an egg cream (which as New Yorkers know contains neither egg nor cream but is made with seltzer, chocolate syrup, and milk), and sometimes even a sandwich. It was above all a neighborhood hangout, both for kids and for idle adults--the easy and obvious place to meet after school and the first place you would go to look for someone you'd lost track of, since if he wasn't there he probably had been, and the proprietor could tell you where he'd gone ("He said he was going to play punchball in the schoolyard").

The candy store was the kind of institution that Jane Jacobs writes about in her classic Death and Life of Great American Cities, a de facto community center that puts eyes on the street, brings generations together, creates a sense of belonging, and subtly helps to discourage crime and other forms of antisocial behavior. Of course, it's also the kind of petty enterprise that tends to be obliterated by programs of "urban renewal" or gentrification.

What I wonder about is two things:

1. Was the kind of candy store I describe here solely a New York City phenomenon? Or do people who grew up in cities like Chicago, Dallas, or San Francisco recall similar places?

2. Do such stores still exist? Mary-Jo theorizes that in many New York neighborhoods the same role is now played by the bodega, which sounds right. But what about non-Latino neighborhoods? Are there "candy stores" today? If so, what are they called?

I'd love to hear your comments.
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Thursday, March 10, 2005

Christians for Bush? Count Us Out

Son Matthew passes along this link to information about a March 8th press event at which leaders of five mainline Protestant denominations--our own Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutherans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the United Church of Christ (Pastor Dan's church)--protested President Bush's draconian 2006 budget.

According to the press release issued before the event,

The leaders will speak from the context of the teachings of Jesus Christ on matters of economic justice. The leaders will also illustrate how the Churches are doing their part to serve the working poor of the nation and reject the notion that faith-based organization can alone turn back the rising tide of poverty at home and abroad.

Did you see news of this in the mainstream media? Me neither. Will this condemnation of Bush's domestic policies by a broad-based coalition of Protestant leaders do anything to discourage the media's habitual shorthand references to "Christian" support for Bush? I doubt it.
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Soros, the Swift Boat Veterans, and Moral Equivalency

One of the most destructive habits of the mainstream media is their ingrained assumption of moral equivalence--that the precisely 2.0 viewpoints they recognize in regard to any issue are almost always roughly equivalent in terms of honesty and proximity to the truth. Today's WaPo column by David Broder exemplifies the problem. Writing about an effort led by Trent Lott (of all people) to "reform" political campaigns by restricting 527 groups, Broder summarizes the activities of such groups in the 2004 campaign this way:

Democrats were the main abusers, with billionaire George Soros and friends financing a network of groups run by longtime party and labor activists. But Republicans drew even more blood, thanks to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads questioning John Kerry's service in Vietnam.

Hold on a minute, David. It may be true that 527s aligned with the Democrats spent more money and ran more ads than their Republican counterparts. That doesn't make them "abusers"--unless you assume that any exercise of free-speech rights during a campaign by an unaligned group constitutes "abuse." I don't know of any pro-Kerry/anti-Bush groups that were ever accused of the sheer dishonesty practiced by the Swift Boat Veterans. Tough, negative campaigning--yes. Outright lies--no.

It's hard to avoid feeling that MSM pundits like Broder are so resentful of outsider interlopers (i.e. citizens) inserting themselves into the political process that they automatically tend to tar them all with the same brush, when by any objective standard it's clear that only a few, concentrated on one side of the battle, are actually responsible for degrading the level of national discourse.
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Saturday, March 05, 2005

Che Guevara, Meet Sally Field

Two random notes about culture and politics:

1. Finally got around to watching The Motorcycle Diaries (now out on DVD). Good movie with fine performances by Gael Garcia Bernal (as the young Che Guevara) and Rodrigo de la Serna (as his friend Alberto). But when the movie ended, Mary-Jo turned to me and asked, "Why did that get an R rating?" Excellent question. There were no sex scenes, no nudity, and no violence. There was a little talk about sex, but no more than in an average episode of Friends (and a lot less than in an average episode of Sex and the City).

The only explanation that I can come up with is that Che was a communist. I have no idea whether the movie rating rules make specific reference to the political affiliations of the movie characters, but I suppose there's some general clause about "morality" that could be made to fit in a pinch . . .

2. Channel-surfing half an hour later I came across CMT, the country music channel, which, as you may know, sometimes shows movies and old TV shows--things like Smokey and the Bandit, Coal Miner's Daughter, and episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard. But tonight they were showing Norma Rae, the old Sally Field picture. Interesting--we associate country music with conservatism, but here's the "official" network for country music showing a movie about a heroic union organizer. Why? Because the characters talk with southern accents.

Illustrates how culture can trump politics--as Howard Dean tried clumsily to acknowledge with his talk about reaching out to the guys with shotguns and confederate flags in their pickup trucks. Unfortunately, Dean--like John Kerry--couldn't talk with a southern accent if his life depended on it.

P.S. Turns out there is a website that lists the reasons for movie ratings (www.mpaa.org). It says that The Motorcycle Diaries was rated R for "language"--a one-word explanation that doesn't clarify much. Maybe the board members feel that sex talk sounds dirtier when it's in Spanish . . .
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Iraq: Another Reminder About the Dangers of Premature Celebration

So, an Italian journalist held hostage in Iraq is freed after thousands of her countrymen march in support . . . the Italian people respond with jubilation . . . the mayor of Rome orders that the Coliseum be floodlit in celebration . . . and then the Americans shoot her?

(By accident. If you haven't seen the front page of today's Times: "The military did not know that the hostage was in the car, a State Department official in Washington said." The journalist was wounded; an Italian intelligence agent in the car with her, who had been instrumental in arranging her release, was killed.)

This should do wonders for Italian-American relations and help win even more support for our efforts in Iraq, don't you think?
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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Social Security: No More Choices, Please

On Slate, Thomas Geoghegan makes a key point about Social Security--that very few people actually want to manage their retirement funds. Most people have neither the time, the knowledge, or the desire to make informed investment choices for their old age . . . and the few who do are probably already doing it via IRAs, 401(k)s, Keogh plans, or other tax-advantaged investment vehicles.

The sense of being overwhelmed by the challenge of investing is one of the main reasons that millions of workers who are eligible to participate in 401(k) plans never sign up, thereby forgoing thousands of dollars in matching funds from their companies. Is it smart of them to pass up the opportunity? No, but it's understandable and human. Free-market fundamentalists like to think of people as perfectly rational entities driven by enlightened economic self-interest. But they are much more than this, which is why free-market theories rarely work as neatly, swiftly, and painlessly as theory would suggest.

The most likely result of forcing people to accept retirement management reponsibilities they don't really want will be the emergence of a whole new class of financial losers--people whose retirement funds shrivel due to carelessness, inattention, ineptitude, gullibility, impatience, or just plain bad luck.

This is a major implication of the shift to an "ownership society": A more rigorous, implacable sorting of people into winners and losers. What's more, since the losers will have failed at playing the free-market game effectively, they will deserve their fate, at least in the minds of our neo-Puritanical right wing. Is that comforting? Just the opposite; as H. L. Mencken once remarked, "Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice."

Within the last half-hour, I heard personal finance guru Suze Ormond on NPR backing up Geoghegan's point: That expanding people's choices when it comes to saving for retirement will hurt more than it will help. As she puts it, when you give people more choices, they get nervous and paralyzed, and often end up doing nothing. (I'm no different from anyone else in this regard. It takes me months to get around to making decisions about my own retirement investments. And when New York State introduced a plan a couple of years ago to allow residents to choose their home energy supplier, I simply shut down my brain and refused to deal with the idea. I have trouble deciding what color sneakers to buy--you want me to decide which type of electricity I prefer?)

For this reason among others, Ormond wants to maintain Social Security largely in its current form. (She talks about lifting the cap on taxable income to restore the program's viability, which I'd support, as well as the possibility of having some of the payroll tax proceeds invested by the government in the broadest possible stock market fund--not in "personal" or "private" accounts but on behalf of the Social Security program as a whole. Without claiming expertise, this proposal strikes me as reasonable; it certainly wouldn't create the unacceptable level of individual risk that makes the Bush plan so destructive.)

I'm pleased to hear this message from someone who has the ear of millions of average Americans--especially since Ormond says she was personally lobbied by Treasurer Secretary John Snow to support the Bush plan. It's good that Ormond didn't let herself get soft-soaped by the administration's flattery into abandoning her common sense.

One last observation on the Social Security debate: I see that Tom DeLay has denounced the AARP as "irresponsible" for coming out against the Bush plan before its details have been specified. On the other hand, he hasn't criticized anyone who supports the plan sight unseen. Care to buy another pig in a poke from George W. Bush? The last few bargains he offered us didn't turn out so well . . .
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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

No Shocker Here

Checked out the latest Weekly World News at A&P today. Best headline: "Survey Shocker: Nurses Smarter Than Docs!" accompanied by a staged photo of a (male) doctor wearing a goofy grin and a dunce cap, alongside a (female) nurse wearing black-rimmed glasses--which, in popular iconography, are definitive proof of a high I.Q. Of course, this is no shocker for anyone whose family includes a nurse or a doctor . . .

Speaking of popular iconography, here's something I've always wondered about: What's the origin of the notion, found in countless New Yorker cartoons over the decades, that penniless people wear barrels (held up, of course, by shoulder straps)? Aren't barrels fairly expensive? When and where would a barrel have been the cheapest possible form of alternative garb? (It surely wouldn't have been the most comfortable.) Anyone out there have a theory?
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It's Safe To Give Journal Readers the Facts--They'll Vote Republican Anyway

The traditional gulf at The Wall Street Journal between their far-right-wing editorial columns and their down-the-middle--even occasionally liberal-tilting--news pages remains as wide as ever.

Yesterday's paper included a (rather boring) op-ed piece promoting personal Social Security accounts by John F. Cogan, a Hoover Institute fellow and a member of President Bush's hand-picked (not to say ideologically stacked) Social Security Commission. The same issue featured an analytic front-page story whose two-column headline read, "In Bush's 'Ownership Society,' Citizens Would Take More Risk; Beyond Social Security Moves, His Vision Encompasses Health Care and Housing; Shrinking the Safety Net." Most delicious quote--these two back-to-back grafs:

The president's philosophy reflects a libertarian, free-market bent common to Texas and its small-town Petroleum Clubs, made up of local business leaders. As far back as the young oilman's losing bid for Congress in 1978, Mr. Bush proposed carving private accounts from Social Security.

After his defeat, Mr. Bush went back to the oil business, and then became part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. His own financial risks and business failures through the 1980s were cushioned by investors drawn from his family's circle.

Nicely done, no?--soberly worded and objective, but with a sting derived purely from juxtaposition of undoubted facts.

That's not all. The same issue of the Journal featured a column on the front page of the "Money & Investing" section that quietly but methodically disemboweled the logical contradictions underpinning the Bush administration's Social Security proposal. As summarized in the article's second paragraph, the president's plan "ignores an irrefutable rule of finance: There is no free lunch."

I've long speculated as to why the management of the Journal tolerates what it must view as the ideological waywardness of its reporting staff. I think the explanation is this: Readers of the Journal are largely business people (managers, entrepreneurs, and investors) who expect and demand objectivity when it comes to reporting on trends and ideas with economic or financial consequences. (Of course, that applies in spades to the overhauling of Social Security.) When it comes to information that might shift interest rates, bond valuations, or currency prices by a decimal point or two, the Journal rightly prides itself on high standards of factual accuracy. After all, we're talking about money here, something that most Journal readers consider more important than any political shibboleth--even one they happen to endorse.

And in any case, it's safe to reveal the truth, however ideologically incorrect, in the news columns of the Journal, since the vast majority of Americans have never looked at a copy of the paper and probably never will. It's a lot more worrisome to the right when a reporter at one of the TV networks strays from the path of politically-approved news. Too much of that, and voters might start pulling the wrong levers.
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