Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Christmas Mania in Paradise

It's only one week after Thanksgiving--not even December yet--but curiously enough Christmas mania seems to be in full swing in Hawaii. All the hotels have huge lavishly decorated trees on display along with wreaths, ornaments, candy canes, Santas, wooden soldiers, etc. etc. And wherever Mary-Jo and I go, including the airport, Christmas tunes are playing--I swear I've heard five different versions of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" during the past 48 hours. Mary-Jo's theory is that when you live in a land of summer-like winters and no snowfall you have to bend over backward to remind people that Christmas is coming. This makes sense to me. The love of kitsch that seems to characterize the Japanese tourists--who as I've mentioned are ubiquitous here in the islands--may be another factor. Perhaps the Japanese, who often seem to me to want to be more American than the Americans, will be the last great body of Bing Crosby fans in the world.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Greetings From the City of the Future

Mary-Jo and I are vacationing in Honolulu, the world's most remote large city—it has a population of 900 thousand, and it's a good five-and-a-half-hour flight across the Pacific from Los Angeles, as our sore backsides can attest. It's also a visually remarkable place, studded with slender high-rise glass-and-concrete apartment towers featuring contrapuntal zig-zag or curvilinear designs as avant-garde as anything this side of Dubai, all towering over streets lined with palm trees and flower-fragrant shrubberies.

We're staying at the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach, a tall sliver of a hotel fronting Kalakaua Avenue, the busy main shopping drag of the Waikiki district of Honolulu. It's one of those beachside hotels ingeniously designed with the rooms wedged at angles into the structure so that each little balcony all along the building's length has its own view, however narrow, of the ocean. In our case, we can see a 15 per cent segment of Waikiki Beach, a shallow strip of sand almost covered with towels, blankets, and woven mats, and the placid waters of the Pacific dotted for a good quarter of a mile out with waders, swimmers, and surfers starting as early as seven o'clock in the morning.

The hotel captures in a particularly striking way the atmosphere of Waikiki. Its ground floor is dominated by Duke's, a big, bustling restaurant decorated with surf boards, vintage photos, posters, framed Hawaiian shirts, and other memorabilia related to Duke Kahanamoku, the surfer and Olympic swimmer who helped bring Hawaiian culture into the American consciousness back in the 1920s and 30s. Duke's bar is open to the beach and is manned by flower-shirted mixologists who rustle up mai-tais, daiquiris, mud slides, and other rum-laced beach drinks for the swimsuit-wearing crowd of locals and tourists with a bottle-juggling flair reminiscent of Tom Cruise in Cocktail. Recorded steel-drum-band music provides the predictable sound track, except on Saturday night when a local rock group bangs out tunes clearly audible up in our twelfth-floor room.

But if you leave Duke's, stroll across the hotel lobby, and then step out the front doors, you'll find yourself suddenly on a crowded city street that resembles New York's Madison Avenue in midtown, only with palm trees. Outlets for Gucci, Tiffany, Coach, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, and other upscale merchants rub shoulders with schlocky (but expensive) art galleries and glitzy gallerias that compete for the dollars of Japanese tourists with atmospheric doo-dads, from antique cars and flaming sidewalk tiki torches to a two-story street-front aquarium tank boasting a shark and a couple of sting rays cruising majestically among swarming schools of lesser fish.

There are plenty of great beaches in the world as well as many vibrant urban centers of commerce and pop culture, but I imagine no other city (with the possible exception of Miami) combines the two quite as dramatically as Honolulu.

This is our second visit to Hawaii. On our first visit, almost five years ago, the economy seemed depressed. Today the islands are thriving. Our cousin Michael, a building contractor in Honolulu, reports that his services are much in demand. Another cousin, Willie, who is a small business owner in Hilo on the "big island" of Hawaii, says that the demand for workers has made it prohibitively difficult to hire help. (Willie told us, "Hawaii's unemployment rate is the lowest in the country." We checked, and, sure enough, as of October, 2005, the state's 2.7 per cent is the best in the country; no other state beats Virginia's 3.4.) The casual impressions of a tourist reinforce the theme: The streets and shops are jammed with visitors, every other block on Kalakaua has some new mall, hotel, or office complex under construction, and the wealthy Japanese whose absence was blamed for the last slowdown are back by the busload.

Honolulu's ethnic diversity is striking. In New York City, we see many Japanese travelers, particularly in the business districts of midtown and lower Manhattan and at specific cultural sites like the museums and, especially, the great botanic gardens of Brooklyn and the Bronx. We also see a lot more European visitors than one sees in Honolulu; you hear plenty of French, German, Italian, Spanish, and even Russian and Swedish spoken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Moma, as we New Yorkers refer to the Museum of Modern Art. But nowhere in the US are there as many local residents of mixed ethnic background as one sees in Hawaii. It's something I particularly enjoy, being myself of Eurasian extraction (half Japanese, half German). Walk down any street in Honolulu and the first twenty people you pass are likely to include people of a dozen different skin shades as well as many variations of nose shape, hair curl, and eye slant. In that sense, Hawaii is even more ethnically diverse than New York City and perhaps represents a foretaste of where America itself is ultimately heading as our many bloodstreams inevitably mix.

Throw in the surprisingly casual culture of the islands--you commonly see tattooed youths with dreadlocks and flip-flops toting surf boards past the pricey jewelry shops on Kalakaua, and the ubiquitous open-collared, flowered "Aloha" shirts are worn even by silver-maned anchors reading the news on TV--and you can get some idea why Mary-Jo and I find it especially stimulating to vacation in Hawaii. Winter temperatures in the 80s don't hurt, either.

We'll be here in Honolulu for three days, catching up with some of our favorite relatives and enjoying the city/beach scene. Then it's off to Kauai, the "garden isle" of Hawaii, which we've never visited. We'll report more from there.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

My Late Night with Dave

I was lucky enough to work in the television industry a loooonnng time ago when I was the assistant costume designer and then costume designer for a little late night show called "Saturday Night Live." This was from 1985-1990. I then left NBC due to complicated political reasons. Eventually I got tired of freelancing and grabbed the first opportunity to get a steady pay check. (Because there is little television work in New York for a costume designer, I probably would have had to move to California to really pursue that career in earnest.)

While I was at NBC, I would (literally) run into Susan Hum, the costume designer for "Late Night with David Letterman," whose show was taped on the 6th floor while "Saturday Night Live" was at the famous studio 8H (and yes, it's really live). She and I became friendly, and I eventually filled in for her when she needed to take a day off. In those days, the Letterman show was a hit but still "small." Dave's suits were all bought off the rack, and Paul Schaffer still had some hair.

Fast forward to present day. Susan and I live in the same neighborhood, and we run into each other occasionally. She moans and groans about the lack of good assistants, and I've told her once or twice that she could call me if she were ever stuck. Well, I got a desperate call a few Fridays ago to help her out on Monday, and I told her I would.

I had never been to Dave's studio with CBS, which is at the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway. I was pretty excited about going back to my old biz for the day. I had to wait a half hour at the side entrance (since 9/11, security has beefed up tremendously) for Susan to show up.

Now, she has an office and several large wardrobe rooms filled with shirts, suits, hats, and, well, stuff. The first thing we did was hit the morning meeting, where the writers and designers show up to discuss that day's show. Susan and I kept our ears open for any mention of costumes--but luckily for me, there were none. (I wasn't too sure about my costuming abilities being tested so soon after my comeback.) However, they will have a "Will it Float?" segment, which involves two scantily-clad models and two athletic types to assist in the depositing of the thing that may or may not float (it's a case of apple sauce in glass jars, and in case you're wondering, no, it didn't float).

I spent most of the morning returning clothes to various stores throughout the city, one of the least glamorous jobs for a costumer--but it was a beautiful day, and I didn't mind the schlepping around. I got back to the studio at around two o'clock and was hungry for lunch. I figured it would be sacrilege to get a sandwich anywhere other than the "Hello Deli," which is right next door to the studio (and which of course is often featured on Dave's show), but I thought that it would be mobbed with tourists getting their pictures taken with Rupert. Turns out my instinct was right, but when I complained to Susan about the tasteless sandwich I was eating, she chastised me and said, "You should have had Rupert make it."

Susan then took me on the grand tour of the new studio--much larger than the old digs, but Dave still keeps it freezing cold all the time. We listened to Paul warm up the band and watched the blocking of the running order. Then it's off to the control room. I felt like an old geezer when she pointed out the new high-def screens which are all flat – no more watching individual monitors. When they are all off, it just looks like a black, flat wall. We also had an industry discussion about what high-def means for fabric choices and colors.

There were two shows taping on this day, one to air that night and the other to air Friday--Dave likes his three-day weekends. The second one had the "Float" girls, and Susan and I went upstairs to help them dress. Susan had a slew of game show dresses to chose from. Then the heads of each department lined up against the hallway walls, waiting for Dave to emerge from his office to go to the taping. We were there to listen to any last-minute instructions/changes.

When he came out, there was a cry of "Dave's coming!" so we could get out of his way by pressing our backs against the narrow hallway walls. I could hear Dave ask his assistant to write down a guest's name phonetically on the cue card so he'll get the pronunciation right.

Susan and I watched the show in the control room. Everything went well, including the dropping of 2,000 super balls from the studio roof. We were supposed to be there until 8:00 p.m., but Susan left fifteen minutes early to attend a meeting for a charity she supports. She had me sit at her desk for the last fifteen minutes to GET ANY PHONE CALLS!! Oh My God!--is someone going to call and ask for something for the show?? Is Dave going to need something RIGHT AWAY or else the entire show will be a flop???? This kind of thing happened all the time at SNL, but it's unlikely here, and the phone never rings.

My day of "going home again" is over, and I had a great time. I love that adrenaline rush you get when you work in TV and that feeling of being a part of a hit show . . . even if I did only return a shirt that Dave probably never saw to begin with.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Football and Prayer: "It's Not About Religion"

From today's New York Times, here's a story that illustrates why some of us Christians prefer to keep prayer out of schools and other public places--through the quoted words of people defending school prayer.

In this case, the prayers are those of the East Brunswick Bears, a high school football team in New Jersey. Their coach, Marcus Borden, is suing to reclaim the right to lead his players in prayer before games. (They can and do pray on their own, but Coach Borden contends that his rights have been abridged by the school board's new policy forbidding him to take part.)

The kids and parents quoted in the article support the coach. Typical comment from a former East Brunswick player named Matthew Weiss:

I don't understand how a football player can score a touchdown and go down on one knee and bless himself, and he doesn't get in trouble. That's probably the next thing that the parents will go after.

(It's not that tricky, Matt: The football player doesn't represent the government; the public-school coach does. There's a big difference.)

But more telling remarks came from Gwen Bloom, whose son, an offensive lineman, is the only Jewish player on the Bears. According to the Times, Ms. Bloom . . .

. . . was not bothered by Borden leading her son and his teammates in prayer. "It's a tradition, like eating turkey on Thanksgiving," she said. "You're just sharing your thanks and appreciation. It's not about religion."

Stephen Halpuka, a former Bears player who's now a college student, defended the practice in similar terms:

"When I first heard about the controversy, I couldn't believe it," he said. "We just took the pregame prayer as an almost ritualistic activity. Coach was always really clear. He'd say, 'If you don't like it, you can go outside the room.' I can never remember a teammate objecting."

Halupka said his coaches at Muhlenberg [College] lead the team in pregame prayers. "It's almost like a moment of silence," he said. "The coaches ask us to pray in our own way. It's pretty much like what Coach Borden was doing."

So what is Coach Borden suing to defend? Pregame prayers that are basically devoid of content--"an almost ritualistic activity" that amounts to "a moment of silence" and that "is not about religion" but is purely "a tradition, like eating turkey on Thanksgiving." In other words, a gesture in the direction of God--and a rather empty one at that.

Of course we all know why the coach's prayers had to be watered down of any specific content. It's because we live in a pluralistic society, where (believe it or not) Jews are allowed to play high school football. (Who knows, there might even be an atheist or two wearing shoulder pads somewhere.) If you're going to come up with a prayer that speaks for a diverse group of believers and non-believers, it'll have to be pretty darn vague.

I have nothing against an occasional vague, ecumenical, feel-good prayer. At times, such prayers feel appropriate--for example, during the many interfaith memorial services after 9/11. But how close to the heart of anyone's actual faith does such prayer go? If the players regard it as unrelated to "religion" and so meaningless that they can't imagine why anyone would object to being pressured to take part, does it even deserve the name "prayer"?

Jesus, of course, advised his followers to pray in secret rather than in public (where "the hypocrites" love to pray--Matt. 6:5-6). He had in mind a more intimate, personal, real conversation between the soul and its maker--not a social ritual equivalent to passing the chestnut stuffing. Yet prayer in an American public school must inevitably be just such a watered-down, empty ritual. Otherwise it would quickly alienate and anger any student or parent who didn't share the specific faith it expressed. Is that really worth suing over?

My advice to Coach Borden: Chill out. Your faith isn't being suppressed. All you've lost is your power to make a bunch of teenagers bow their heads and mumble some empty words. Not quite the stuff of martyrdom.

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Peter Daou Captures the Iraq Debate in a Nutshell

Strongly recommended: this article by Peter Daou from today's Daou Report, deftly summarizing and skewering the ten leading fallacies deployed by those who support the administration's war in Iraq and attack the motives and integrity of antiwar critics. Nothing brilliantly innovative here, but an extremely succinct and effective analysis of the brazen lies and subtle distortions of Cheney, Hannity, and company--worthy of saving and perhaps passing along to that well-meaning and open-minded but misguided friend who innocently assumes that Fox News really is fair and balanced because they say so.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Holiday Roundup: Katie Couric, Scooby-Doo, and Carlos Delgado

Thanksgiving morning . . . slicing apples for pie while Mary-Jo wrestles with the turkey and NBC's coverage of the Macy's parade plays in the background. Nothing puts you in a holiday mood like hearing Katie Couric say, "Look, Matt Lauer! Here's everybody's favorite canine sleuth, Scooby-Doo! Furnished by Warner Brothers Consumer Products!"

Karl (squeezing lemon juice over the apple slices): God, these news people must want to retch when they read that stuff.

Mary-Jo: I doubt it. When you're getting paid millions, you probably think it's brilliant.

Fed up, she switches off the TV and puts NPR on the radio. Brian Lehrer is at The New School interviewing somebody about immigration issues: "So tell me, do you encounter the same problems in your work with the Ecuadoran community?" Ahh, real journalism. Brian would probably commit hara-kiri sooner than accept Matt Lauer's salary to play the foil to perky Katie Couric every morning. (Don't count on me doing the same, however. I'd be happy to prostitute myself for a sugar daddy like The Today Show. If only I had the dimples . . .)

As a Mets fan, I have something special to be grateful for today: Carlos Delgado, who has hit thirty or more home runs nine years in a row and will be swinging for the fences in Flushing next season. The only downside will be having to listen to angry callers on WFAN complaining about the fact that Delgado refused to stand for the seventh-inning rendition of "God Bless America" in protest over the use of Vieques Island as a bombing range (he's a native of Puerto Rico). Get a life, guys. We already have to stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the start of games--don't ask me to explain, I can't imagine why playing baseball should be considered a patriotic exercise. Adding another loyalty test two-thirds of the way through the game seems needless. Exactly how much is enough? Would the hyper-patriots who hate Delgado be willing to stand for a patriotic song at the beginning of every inning? What about having to kneel in prayer facing Washington, D.C., five times a day? Where exactly would they draw the line?

Here's an alternative approach: Suppose we just stipulate that everyone is a good American until they do something to prove otherwise, and drop the constant demonstrations of loyalty.

Oh, well--the guys frothing at the mouth about Delgado's "bad attitude" will probably change their tune if he helps lead the Mets to a World Championship. I'm old enough to remember when about one third of the country would have been happy to string Muhammad Ali up from the nearest tree (Draft Dodger! Black Muslim! Uppity Nigger!). Today he's universally loved, a kind of national teddy bear now commemorated in his own museum down in Louisville. One of these days he'll be a balloon in the Macy's parade: "Say, Matt! It's Muhammad Ali, America's favorite poet-pugilist, eighty-two feet of bobbing and weaving fun! A service mark of Muhammad Ali Productions, all rights reserved!"

Time to roll out the pie crust. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Demand 50-50

I just read a really awesome piece which I was directed to by Broadsheet. "Homeward Bound," by Linda Hirshman and appearing in the American Prospect is about how traditional homelife is stalling feminism and is largely why women leave the workforce. I feel as though Hirshman echoes everything I feel, wonder, and believe, even things I feel are judgmental and I don't want to admit I believe (such as: women necessarily need to work in order to be fulfilled, that staying home and taking care of children doesn't cut it).

While the article is rich with interesting things to talk about, there are a couple of things that stand out for me that I have often wondered and debated about.

First, why do people have the idea that child-rearing is largely the woman's job? I have heard people say that women have a special bond with their children because they hold them for nine months. Never having given birth, I have no idea if this is true, but I am skeptical. I hope that men are able to develop just as strong bonds with their children once the children are born. I certainly hope the father of my children feels just as deeply and strongly about our children as I do! But, let's say that men don't develop quite the same bond with children as women do. I hope that the bond that they do form is strong enough to inspire them to care and nurture their children the same way women have done for centuries.

Also, is it a matter of the bonds parents can form with their children or the bonds they do form with their children in our society? Have men not formed strong bonds with their children because they don't get home from work until after their children are asleep? Or, maybe they have not because they think they shouldn't, and so they leave the bonding to the women?

I have serious doubts that men can't form the same bonds women have with their children. Seeing the way my dad treats his kids and grandkids, you would never doubt men's abilities to create strong bonds with their children.

Maybe women leave the workforce so willingly because work sucks. Maybe men would leave too if they could. After having been in the workforce for just over a year, I have often seriously wondered why so many people in society have gone along with the 9-5 schedule. Sitting under flourescent lighting, cleaning up the messes irresponsible colleagues leave, and dealing with bureaucracy is unfulfilling and not fun. Whenever I complain about work, people's favorite response is, "You find that everywhere." Why do people subject themselves to these frustrations? Maybe because it is what everyone else has been subjecting themselves for decades, at least. Maybe women leave work because they do not find their particular jobs fulfilling or interesting to them and maybe staying home, raising kids, and otherwise spending time they way they choose sounds a whole lot more fun and fulfilling. But, maybe men feel the same way as women. Maybe men would just as willingly leave their jobs if society wasn't going to judge their manhood or if their wives were able to make as much their male counterparts. Maybe men also do not find their work fulfilling and would be willing to give it up for staying at home and spending their time as they choose.

I am not saying that I want to stay home if given the choice. I want to find a fulfilling job that utilizes my abilities, constantly keeps me interested, and allows me to move around, talk with people, and discuss my passions. Seeing my friends join the workforce, I am skeptical that many people find what they are really meant to do. It seems as though a lot of people take jobs because the jobs are available at the time they are looking and because they are not aware of what else is out there. I think it's difficult to figure out what job you are most suitable for, and I think that probably a lot of women leave their jobs because they have not found the job that suits them. And I bet their husbands also haven't found what suits them and would make the same decisions their wives do.

So, I'd appreciate some input. Do women form unique bonds with their children? Would men leave their jobs as quickly as women seem to do?

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Happy Birthday To Us

This coming Saturday, November 26, World Wide Webers will be one year old.

A lot has happened since this blog was launched. (Click on "Birth of a Blog" near the top of the righthand column for a look back at those bleak times.) Unfortunately, the party in power in the federal government has not changed. But a president who one year ago was crowing about the "political capital" he believed he'd created during his re-election campaign is now reeling from a seemingly never-ending string of scandals, dropping in the polls, and finally being challenged by a skeptical press. Even the Democrats in Congress are starting to show a little backbone. All because of World Wide Webers. (Well, mainly.)

We're happy to report that a growing number of people have made World Wide Webers a regular stop on their Internet cruises. Readership has been steadily increasing over the past several months, and November is on track to set another new high, with close to 2,000 visitors. And based on comments we've received both on- and offline, we know that the quality of our readership is far more impressive than the quantity. Thank you, and help yourself to a slice of cake (pictured above).

(By the way, try Googling images of "birthday cake" sometime. The number and variety of pictures generated is astounding. I came across a photo of an enormous tiered cake decorated for the 80th birthday of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a remarkable number of cakes for dogs [often shaped like bones], and such creepy images as a girl's Sweet Sixteen cake decorated with the Playboy bunny logo.)

During the coming year, we'll try to make World Wide Webers an even more stimulating place to visit. Maybe by this time next year we'll be celebrating a new look in Congress. But whatever the news may bring, we hope to chew it over thoughtfully and entertainingly with you.
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A Lawyer in the Family

The Weber clan is celebrating Janee Woods Weber's ascendancy to the bars of both New York State and Connecticut. She passed the exam the first time out, which is more than certain members of the Kennedy family can claim. Congratulations, Janee--not that we were surprised by the news.

Having our first lawyer in the family will probably be a mixed blessing. On the down side, it means that we'll now have to avoid lawyer jokes at family gatherings, which is a shame, since it's a rich genre. (I like the one about the lawyer who protests to St. Peter about having died at the young age of 35. Peter scrutinizes his records and explains, "Based on the billable hours you claimed, we figured you must have been working for at least seventy-five years.") Our ethnically diverse family has already eliminated many other categories of non-P.C. humor, and now we'll be forced to rely even more heavily on anti-Bush jokes. God help us if we ever get a Republican in the family.

The big benefit, of course, will be knowing that we can credibly threaten to sue people who cross us. Over Thanksgiving dinner I'm planning to get Janee's opinion about the strength of my cases against the SUV driver who takes up two spaces in the parking lot and the shopper at the A&P who claims a spot in the express lane even though she plainly has eighteen items in her cart. Watch out, evildoers--vengeance is coming.

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Facts and Fallacies on Prisoner Abuse

Here is an excellent compendium by the Washington Post's Emily Messner of most of the relevant facts and documents about the Bush's administration's use of torture in prosecuting the "war on terror."

It's followed by a large collection of comments by Post readers from many places on the political spectrum. Interestingly, many of the rightwing correspondents seem to feel that it's a telling argument in favor of torture to point to how bad Islamist terrorists are. For example, here's what someone who signs himself "Recovering Democrat" wrote:

Moderate muslims have had plenty of opportunities (especially here in the US) to condemn terrorism but rarely have I heard any of their official mouthpieces (CAIR, etc.)actually do it. We can all sit around the drum circle and chant for peace and harmony but until you get it through your head that "Jihad" is not some "internal personal struggle no more threatening than a kitten playing with a ball of yarn", we're up the creek.

It's hard to believe that someone making this argument has actually spent fifteen seconds thinking about possible historical analogies. We didn't feel the need to make torture part of US military practice during World War II. Are today's jihadists actually that much worse than Hitler's Nazis? Does the war on terror reduce Midway or the Battle of the Bulge to "a kitten playing with a ball of yarn" by comparison?

The growing desperation of the right is reflected in the fact that their arguments are becoming more and more obviously ludicrous.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Babies By Choice, Not By Default

Well, for the first time today I was annoyed by Salon's new women's issues blog, Broadsheet.

In an item about the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (www.vhemt.org), Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski is pretty dismissive of the message of this group, which I think is a smart one, despite their provocative name. It's disappointing, because I have generally found Salon to be sympathetic to the concept of being "childless by choice."

I recommend the VHEMT site, which I had never heard of before. They make a serious point (basically, that human society has overtaxed the resources of our planet and-- for this reason, among others--perhaps having children should not be considered the default life choice) with a lot of humor.

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AARP's $25 Million Well Spent

In his column in today's Washington Post, economist Robert J. Samuelson declares that "AARP has become America's most dangerous lobby." The organization's crime? Failing to offer what Samuelson considers a serious solution to the entitlements dilemma.

Obviously that's not much of a crime. It seems churlish to attack a membership organization simply because it has failed to solve a problem that the Bush administration and many other allegedly serious policy experts have failed to solve. So Samuelson shifts his ground, complaining about AARP's supposedly deleterious effect on the public debate:

This year AARP spent $25 million, mostly on TV and print ads, to defeat President Bush's proposal for "personal" Social Security accounts. The punch line of one ad is revealing: "If you have a problem with the sink, you don't tear down the entire house." Translation: The problems of today's retirement programs resemble a clogged sink; "personal accounts" are a radical solution, akin to demolishing the house. Only modest tinkering (fixing the sink) is needed. Brilliant imagery -- and totally misleading.

Like AARP, I oppose personal accounts. But I do so because they divert attention from the basic problems and don't do much to solve them. It isn't just the sink that's clogged; the roof is leaking, the porch is sagging and the wiring is faulty. Unless we renovate the entire house, it will become uninhabitable. That is, we need to rewrite the social contract to reflect improved health and longer life expectancies: Americans need to work longer, eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare need to be raised gradually, and benefits for wealthier retirees should be reduced.

Hmmm. So AARP's real crime, then, amounts to (1) comparing Social Security to a faulty sink rather than a leaking roof and a sagging porch, and (2) opposing Bush’s personal accounts (which Samuelson also opposes!) for the "wrong" reasons. Hard to see how this makes AARP "America's most dangerous lobby." (Wouldn't the NRA be a more logical candidate? Someone I'm sure has calculated the number of deaths attributable to the their anti-gun-control campaigns.)

Thank God the folks who run AARP (supported in part by my membership dues) didn't listen to the counsel of people like Bob Samuelson. They understood that, in the first half of this year, the urgent need was to expose Bush's "plan" (which of course was never actually fleshed out into the form of an actual proposal) as the fraud it was, a veiled attempt to undermine Social Security and put it on the course to extinction. Their ads helped to do that, thereby averting an imminent threat to the program.

Only once the Bush plan is finally dead and buried--which probably means after Bush is out of office--will it be safe to have a real debate about the future of old-age entitlements. As AARP knows, before you focus on planning the house renovation, you'd better get the blow torch away from the neighborhood arsonist.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Why I Won't Be Wearing Red

This a letter I wrote to a friend in response to an email she forwarded me. Out of respect for her privacy, I'll call her "Sarah."

Dear Sarah,

Thanks for forwarding the email asking me to wear red on Fridays to symbolize my support for our troops in Iraq and around the world. Based on our long friendship, our shared love of St. Mary's, and the many values we have in common, I know you are a deeply sincere person and that your request comes from the heart. That's why I am taking the time to respond with an explanation of why I will not be wearing red as you've asked.

For many years, going back to the days of the Vietnam War, I've wondered about exactly what "supporting our troops" really means. I can think of many possible ways in which Americans might "support" the troops who are doing battle in a specific war. Some of these ways I am happy to participate in, but some I am not.

Supporting our troops could mean:

* Praying for their physical and spiritual well-being and their safe return to their homes and families. This I am happy to do, and I can't imagine that there are many people of faith who would feel differently.

* Refraining from belittling or attacking soldiers verbally or in other ways, and treating them with personal respect for their service and sacrifice. Once again, you can count me in.

* Willingly paying taxes to provide material support for the soldiers and their families, and advocating government policies to ensure that our armed forces are well-equipped and that veterans are well cared for. Here again, I am happy to participate.

On the other hand, supporting our troops could mean:

* Endorsing our government's decision to launch a particular war (such as the invasion of Iraq) or its policies in regard to waging that war.

* Regarding American soldiers as being above criticism--for example, speaking and behaving as if the inhumane treatment of prisoners at Abu Gharib prison is all right because "our" troops did it.

* Acting as if the lives of people killed by American soldiers (whether uniformed enemy combatants, civilian attackers, or innocent and uninvolved men, women, and children) are of lesser value in God's eyes than the lives of Americans.

* Refraining from criticizing the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, and other government officials during a time of war.

I can't endorse any of these attitudes, Sarah. If I did, I would be espousing attitudes that I think are deeply anti-Christian. I can't believe that, in the eyes of Jesus, the life of a young Iraqi man is valueless or that it's okay to torture him in hopes of getting military or political information out of him. If "supporting the troops" means endorsing torture or the needless killing of civilians, I can't do that.

If I "supported the troops" in these ways, I would also be giving the president and the party in power at any given time a blank check to use American power in any way they see fit. This is obviously not what our nation's founders intended, and it would ultimately transform our country from a democracy and a republic into a dictatorship.

The idea that criticizing the president's policies in time of war somehow means failing to "support the troops" is especially insidious, considering that President Bush has repeatedly declared that the "War on Terror" is a global battle whose objective (to "defeat terrorism") is open-ended and, in practical terms, impossible to achieve. (How can we ever eradicate every would-be terrorist from the face of the earth?) As defined by the president, the "War on Terror" is likely to last decades, if not generations. Are we supposed to put democracy on hold by refraining from debate and criticism all that time?

I don't imagine that you meant to endorse all of these positions when you forwarded the email to me, Sarah. But I'm afraid that the people who are pushing the "wear red on Fridays" campaign did. Look at the language in the email:

Americans who support our troops used to be called the "silent majority". We are no longer silent, and are voicing our love for God, country and home in record breaking numbers. We are not organized, boisterous or over-bearing. We get no liberal media coverage on TV, to reflect our message or our opinions.. . . It will not be long before the USA is covered in RED and it will let our troops know the once "silent" majority is on their side more than ever, certainly more than the media lets on.. . . Every red-blooded American who supports our men and women afar, will wear something red.

Notice the tone of this message, Sarah--the complaints about how the "liberal media" silence attempts to voice support for the troops, the references to the "silent majority" of "red-blooded Americans," and the implication that people who aren't part of the "silent majority" somehow don't love "God, country and home." The idea here is not to unite Americans in support of our country but to divide us: conservatives against liberals, the "silent" supporters against the unpatriotic critics, "red-blooded" Americans against--what?--lily-livered peaceniks?

I'm sure it's no coincidence that the organizers of this (supposedly "not organized") movement are calling for people to wear red rather than any other color. Remember the election coverage? States that vote Republican are called "red states." The people who wrote this email want the US to be "covered in red" not just in terms of clothing choices but in the voting booths.

Sorry, but I am a Democrat and usually vote that way. Unfortunately, it sounds as though the "support our troops" people don't consider me "red-blooded" enough to be a real American.

If you think I'm being paranoid, Sarah, think again. Look at what President Bush said in his speech at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania on Veteran's Day:

And our debate at home must also be fair-minded. One of the hallmarks of a free society and what makes our country strong is that our political leaders can discuss their differences openly, even in times of war. When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support. I also recognize that some of our fellow citizens and elected officials didn't support the liberation of Iraq. And that is their right, and I respect it. As President and Commander-in-Chief, I accept the responsibilities, and the criticisms, and the consequences that come with such a solemn decision.

While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began. (Applause.) Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs.

They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein. They know the United Nations passed more than a dozen resolutions citing his development and possession of weapons of mass destruction. And many of these critics supported my opponent during the last election, who explained his position to support the resolution in the Congress this way: "When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security." That's why more than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate -- who had access to the same intelligence -- voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power. (Applause.)

The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges. (Applause.) These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them. (Applause.) Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. (Applause.) And our troops deserve to know that whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united, and we will settle for nothing less than victory. (Applause.)

I could take your time to dissect the untruths in the president's speech, Sarah. For example, the "bipartisan Senate investigation" that he refers to (the Robb commission) specifically stated that it did not look into whether or not the administration distorted intelligence information about Iraq in order to support its case for war . . . so how could it exonerate the administration against charges it did just that?

So much of what the president is arguing here is at least debatable. But President Bush speaks as if such debate is not acceptable. Notice how, in the last paragraph I quoted, the president equates criticism of his administration and debate over the war with failure to support the troops: "These baseless attacks [at least, he considers them baseless] send the wrong signal to our troops." In other words, he is saying, "As long as our soldiers are in harm's way, shut up and don't question me. Otherwise, you're betraying our troops." It's the same divisive message contained in the email you sent me.

The real goal of the people who sent you that email, Sarah, is not to support our troops but to make disagreement with Republican policies appear unpatriotic, un-American, and hateful.

I don't think you really want to participate in such an effort--you're too good-hearted and thoughtful a person. And you know that, no matter how we may disagree about public policies, the values we share are too deep and important for us to allow ourselves to be divided by people seeking political objectives.

Thanks for taking the time to read this letter. Hope you're well--

yours in Christ,

Karl Weber

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Monday, November 07, 2005

IRS Harrasses Antiwar Church in California

Here's a story that deserves further investigating--news that the Internal Revenue Service has threatened the tax-exempt status of an Episcopal church in Pasadena whose rector dared to give an antiwar sermon two days before last year's presidential election.

I could easily segue into a rant about the hypocrisy of the Christian right and their allies in Washington, who don't hesitate to push their own brand of politics from the pulpit. But why preach from the same well-worn text to my choir of liberal readers? Instead I'd rather urge anyone in the news media who may see these words to start digging further into what happened here and the pattern of behavior exhibited by the Bush administration's IRS toward non-for-profit entities, especially churches, throughout the United States.

Is there a pattern here? That's not yet clear. As far as I know, the IRS challenge to the tax-exempt status of the NAACP because of a speech by Julian Bond critical of the Bush administration is still ongoing. (Google traces no news coverage of the story in recent months.) The Pasadena church case apparently dates back several months and has only become public now because the pastor, disturbed by the IRS's unwillingness to withdraw its complaint, decided to go public in a sermon this past Sunday. Are there other liberal organizations that are being harrassed by the IRS that we haven't heard about?

If Bush or Cheney, through subordinates such as Karl Rove, has quietly (or not-so-quietly) urged the IRS to use its audit power to pursue the president's political opponents, that's an impeachable offense. At least, that's what twenty-eight out of thirty-eight members of the House Judiciary Committee (including six Republicans) decided on July 27, 1974, when they voted to approve Article 2 of the Bill of Impeachment against Richard M. Nixon. It reads in part:

Using the powers of the office of President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, and in disregard of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has repeatedly engaged in conduct violating the constitutional rights of citizens, impairing the due and proper administration of justice and the conduct of lawful inquiries, or contravening the laws governing agencies of the executive branch and the purposes of these agencies.

This conduct has included one or more of the following:

1. He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavoured to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposed not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be intitiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner. . . .


I know it's hard to stay in a permanent state of outrage against the crooks and bullies who currently control the White House and Congress. But let's never forget that this is not "politics as usual." If the administration is behind an IRS policy of selective enforcement of the laws for political reasons, these are high crimes and misdemeanors and should be punished as such.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Latest Fashions in Tinfoil Headwear

One of the great websites, both informative and fun, is the Urban Legends Reference Pages run by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson (apparently mainly Barbara). It's also known as snopes.com, a reference to the family of misfits featured in William Faulkner's series of Yoknapatawpha County novels (who knows why?).

Meticulously researched and constantly updated, snopes.com examines familiar and unfamiliar legends in categories ranging from Crime, History, and Religion to Disney, Racial Rumors, and Hurricane Katrina. If you've heard a story that sounds too good to be true and have wondered about its veracity, chances are good that you can find it here, rated on a clear three-level truth scale, from green (true) through yellow (partially true or unverifiable) to red (false), together with as much background information about the origin, spread, and evolution of the legend as the Mikkelsons could gather.

One of the prime sources of material for snopes.com is the Internet, which of course disseminates vivid anecdotes, dubious factual assertions, and news images (genuine or doctored) with unprecedented rapidity and anonymity, making it an ideal vehicle for spreading disinformation. And although most of the myths analyzed on the site are apolitical (Was actor Walter Matthau born "Walter Matuschanskyayasky"?--no; Do fisherman on Reunion Island employ dogs as bait for shark-fishing?--sort of), a regular visitor to the site soon notices a large number of legends that are designed to launch or reinforce right-wing themes.

For example, one current item (featured along with other recent discoveries on the What's New? page) is an email being circulated on the Web under the heading "North Dakota News Bulletin." It purports to offer a comparison between the response to Hurricane Katrina and a surprisingly early, heavy snowstorm that struck several northern states in October. What's the point? That the self-reliant, hardy (and overwhelmingly white) residents of the Northland took care of themselves, unlike the indolent darkies of New Orleans: "We did not wait for some affirmative action government to get us out of a mess created by being immobilized by a welfare program that trades votes for 'sittin at home' checks." (Racial references supplied by me; racial overtones present in the original.)

Barbara Mikkelson's analysis of the email is typically restrained, logical, and fact-based. After providing basic data about the severity and impact of the blizzard, she writes:

Midwesterners hit by this storm appear to have overcome their short-lived catastrophe without federal assistance. However, in comparing response to that weather-related disaster to what overwhelmed New Orleans, it needs be pointed out that the bulk of the digging out from under the snowfall and rescuing stranded motorists from snow-entombed cars fell to the state's police and emergency service workers and the National Guard, not (as the e-mail would have it) to rugged individual citizens who hadn't been "immobilized by a welfare program that trades votes for 'sittin at home' checks." The nature and severity of the two disasters were different--the one could be coped with locally, but the other could not.

Other current myths that inculcate right-wing memes include an email presenting a series of blatantly false assertions about the history of Social Security (beginning with the lie that FDR intended the program to be "completely voluntary" and going on from there), a rumor about gun-toting Katrina evacuees forming gangs in Utah, and a corny joke based on a "news account" of a press conference at which Jesse Jackson denounced appliance makers because "all the washing machines are white" (yes, really).

The picture of Internet misinformation isn't completely one-sided. Occasionally folks on the left will also spread untruths or semi-truths, often originating in the form of jokes (like this doctored photo showing Bush holding a phone receiver to his ear upside-down--he's dumb, get it?). But my strong impression from years of scanning snopes.com is that the right far outstrips the left in circulating misleading and downright phony "information" in support of its positions.

It's easy to list possible reasons:

1. Large number of right-wing news outlets in the MSM (from Rush and Fox News on down) that help to circulate fake stories (as for example the exaggerated tales of violence in New Orleans after Katrina).

2. Hostility/contempt by the right for "liberal elitists" in the media, academia, science, etc., which translates into a willingness to disbelieve "experts" when they present facts that contradict preferred assumptions.

3. Generations-old tradition of conspiracy-mongering on the right, from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to water fluoridation to commies-in-the-State-Department to the Trilateral Commission to Bill-and-Hillary-are-murderous-drug-dealers. There are some parallels on the left, but they never gained the traction or the enormous just-out-of-the-mainstream following that the right-wing myths achieved.

Whatever the reasons, it's good to have snopes.com available as a handy source of facts with which to undermine the fakitude of the wingnuts. It's a phenomenal public service that the Mikkelsons provide just because they are fascinated by idiocy and dedicated to the truth. Pretty cool.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why teens do what they do

Mom and Brian can probably speak about this much better than I can, but today at work I saw a very interesting presentation called "Why Kids Are Different: Understanding New Developments in Brain Science and Using Them to Argue for Better Outcomes for Youth." Dr. Abigail Baird of Dartmouth University spoke about her research on adolescent brains.

In one experiment, she asked adults and adolescents whether something was a good idea or a bad idea. The examples she used were, "Lighting your hair on fire," "Swimming with sharks," "Eating a light bulb." It took adolescents slightly longer to decide something was a bad idea. More significantly, the parts of the brains in use when making these decisions were different in adolescents than they were in adults.

Dr. Baird determined that adults are able to imagine images or sensations while adolescents are not. Instead, adolescents have to spend a longer time using their reasoning skills to decide if something is a bad idea. Also, because adolescents have fewer experiences than adults, they have fewer experiences to draw on when making decisions (the amygdala, responsible for "fight or flight," sends out fewer images).

Legal Professor Steven Drizin of Northwestern University explained how he and others are using this information in juvenile justice. He advocates that adolescents should be tried as children rather than adults and that adolescents should have different rights during interrogation than adults. Because adolescents' prefrontal lobes are not fully developed, they do not have the same inhibitors that adults do. Their amygdala (responsible for fight or flight) is utilized more and they are more likely to act irrationally (such as admitting to crimes they did not commit) so as to avoid potentially more damaging situations.

I apologize to both Dr. Baird and Professor Drizin for my poor explanation of their fascinating presentations. Their research and work is really important to a more just and safe world.

If you are interested in learning more, Dr. Baird has a website you can check out: www.theteenbrain.com.

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