Sunday, April 30, 2006

Fascinating Comparison

One of Digby's correspondents wonders why the new Spanish-language national anthem is so offensive to our right-wingers . . . the same right-wingers who would defend to the death the "heritage" represented by the Confederate flag.

One of these symbols is a tribute to the powerful appeal of American values for the peoples around the world, while the other represents an historic effort to destroy the nation through violence. Isn't it interesting which one the conservatives choose to defend?

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Not-So-Innocent Pawn in the Publicity Game

Evidently Kaavya Viswanathan is the new James Frey, the latest poster child for literary malfeasance. By now you've probably read something about the Harvard sophomore with the half-million-dollar advance from Little, Brown whose first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, turns out to contain some forty passages suspiciously reminiscent of passages from another chick-lit author, Megan McCafferty. (If you haven't caught up with the story yet, or vice versa, this piece by Ann Hulbert on Slate will bring you up to speed.)

The contretemps is providing an opportunity for lots of folks outside the publishing world to learn about the odd phenomenon of "book packagers," creative boutiques that, for some books, have taken over the functions once handled by editors, artists, and even authors, from designing jackets and writing cover copy to tightening plots and cranking out pages of serviceable prose. Yes, the practice can feel a little tawdry, and the fact that no one at Little, Brown, William Morris (her agency), or Alloy Entertainment (her packager) noticed that the resulting book was filled with passages that were not original illustrates what can happen when ownership of a creative project is so diffused that no one really feels responsible.

We English majors have an idealized image of the artist as infused with a passion that grows from the near-sacred uniqueness of his or her vision. It's a image that doesn't fit terribly well with the idea of the novel as commercial product to be churned out according to formula by an anonymous team of hirelings--with bits spliced in from other products as needed to fill out the predetermined page count.

But this is what the publishing industry gets for signing books not on the basis of their inherent literary or artistic qualities but because of the attractiveness and promotability of their authors. Having sat in on hundreds of editorial meetings, I can practically hear the conversation when Kaavya was first introduced:

Here's our next hot property. She's young, she's South Asian--a hip new demographic--articulate and pretty. She's fodder for Oprah, Elle, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Page Six, The View. And the book? Don't worry about the book! We've got a packager on the case.

I stop well short of calling Kaavya a victim--she did get paid half a million smackeroos, after all--but I almost feel sorry for her. How many twenty-year-old kids are polished novelists, after all? How many have the maturity, insight, and perspective to write intelligently about life, love, and relationships--to say nothing of the writing skill? God knows I couldn't have written a decent novel at age twenty, and it would have put me in a false position if I'd signed a contract to do so. (Thankfully I wasn't cute enough to attract any offers.)

A variation on the same phenomenon underlay the James Frey case. Frey's book, too, wasn't so much a work of literary art as a publicity opportunity, driven by the author's dramatic backstory: Drug Addict Tells All! Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that Frey would have been tempted to ratchet up the drama of his life story several notches--he was simply providing his publisher and the reading public with the "true-life" thrills they'd bargained for.

Publishers have better odds of publishing honest books when they seek out real writers rather than photogenic images designed to generate buzz on TV.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Our "Communist Cabal" Exposed in Carnival of the Liberals

The truth is out. The penetrating Doctor Snedley, substituting for his boss Doctor Biobrain, has selected one of our diaries for inclusion in Carnival of the Liberals #11. In the process of recommending our "rambling mess" of a post, Doctor Smedley diagnoses our pathetic whining quasi-Marxism all too accurately. Oh well, they say there's no such thing as bad publicity. Check out the Carnival, click the links, and see whether any of the other chosen pieces are less elitist and traitorous than ours.

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When the Name Makes the Man

On Slate, Timothy Noah points out that "Tony Snow" is an aptronym, a name that describes its bearer's occupation or predominant characteristic. (Curiously enough, sister Ingrid phoned me from work a couple of months ago asking me if there was a word for such a name. I couldn't think of aptronym at the time, but a colleague of hers did.) Noah's point, of course, is that the new White House press secretary will be in charge of "snow jobs."

That works, but I have an even better example from the exact same field. A decade ago or so, I published a couple of books produced by the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company. The McKinsey staffer I worked with on these projects was a communications specialist (= PR guy) remarkably named Stuart Flack--practically the equivalent of a lawyer named Shyster or a physician named Quack.

I hadn't thought about Stuart Flack in many years. Prompted by Noah's aptronym watch, I Googled him, learned that he is still at McKinsey, and discovered that he is also an award-winning playwright, author of Homeland Security, a play about racial profiling in the post-9/11 era. Whaddaya know--pretty good for a corporate flack.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Marty Fridson's $100 Million Fix for GM

Martin Fridson is a Wall Street securities analyst, the youngest person ever inducted into the Fixed Income Analysts Society Hall of Fame (yes, there is such a thing), and author of several books, including Investment Illusions, named by Worth magazine one of the fifteen best investment books of the last 125 years. He is also my friend, going back to the (now distant) days when I was his editor.

For some unknown reason, Marty doesn't blog (although he does maintain his own website). Instead, he periodically circulates emails containing wisecracks, satiric phony movie ads, and miscellaneous observations about people and markets. Here, with Marty's permission, is his latest missive.

* * *

People are upset about all the money General Motors is losing, but lucky for them, I've figured out how to turn things around.

According to the latest quarterly earnings report, GM sold 2.2 million vehicles and lost $323 million. That means every time the company made a car or truck, it lost $147. The solution is obvious: Make fewer cars and trucks and you'll lose less money. In fact, if you reduce the output level to zero, you'll be up to a breakeven!

Now I know what you're thinking: All that GM has to do is wait for the price of cars to go up and then it will resume making a profit on each vehicle. But that logic is faulty. Take my car, for example, which I bought in 2001. According to a reliable source called the Blue Book, my car is worth less than it was last year. And in 2005, it was worth less than it was in 2004. So GM would be crazy to count on car prices going up. The trend is obviously down! This shows the importance of doing your homework before you start throwing in your two cents.

The real money, I find from reading the company's own report, is in the finance business. GM's subsidiary, General Motors Acceptance Corp, made $605 million last quarter. The company needs to keep that part of the operation going. The only problem is, what do you do when someone comes in to borrow money to buy a car and you're not making cars any more? Once again, the answer is obvious: Convince that customer to use the money to buy shares of General Motors stock instead. These shares are just pieces of paper that cost almost nothing to produce. It's basically pure profit and on top of that, you can charge the customers interest on the money you're lending them. Truly a sweet deal!

So by following my advice, the company can improve its bottom line by a net figure of about $1 billion. I think everybody will agree that a 10 percent cut represents fair compensation for my powerful recommendations. So Mr. Waggoner, mail me a check as soon as you can get the treasurer to bring the company checkbook to your office.

But please make it certified.

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Local Government--It's Not What Jefferson Imagined

The reason I haven't posted in the last two days is that I have been immersed in the real estate swap meet that seems to have taken over the world. We are selling two places and buying another, driven primarily by the desire to downsize: Now that the other World Wide Webers have grown up and moved to their own websites--sorry, I mean homes--Mary-Jo and I don't need four bedrooms any more.

Nor do we need to keep paying the high taxes that support one of the western world's best school systems here in Chappaqua. We have Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry teaching in the local elementary schools. Well, that's a slight exaggeration. But the schools are really good, and really expensive--which is why people with money and small kids compete for houses here. (When their own kids are involved, people disregard the conservative theory that education is all about discipline and moral values, and that "throwing money at schools" is pointless. For some reason, that concept gets trotted out only when the conversation turns to providing better funding for schools in poor neighborhoods.)

One of the most time-consuming aspects of our in-the-works home sale is a series of renovations we must to do get a certificate of occupancy for our basement from the town building department. Seems that the people from whom we bought the house seventeen years ago never bothered to get a C of O when they finished the space, and the issue never arose when we bought the house. It's odd and illogical, but local real estate people and attorneys tell us that the rules haven't changed, but that enforcement has become much more strict in recent years.

So now we are scrambling to make a bunch of changes that range from the seemingly arbitrary to the patently absurd, including reconstructing a soffit that carries some wires and a pipe alongside one wall so that the ceiling clearance is the full, required 80 inches rather than the current 78 1/2 inches; installing a large casement window in my office to serve as a required "second means of egress" from the basement (the exit through the garage doesn't count because it's considered a "dangerous space"--what, you didn't realize your garage was a death trap?); and expanding the doorway from the office into the main basement room from 30 to 48 inches so that this second means of egress is more readily accessible. All this work is generating lots of noise and dust and costing us a pretty penny.

I'm a believer in safety regulations, and I understand that one-size-fits-all rules will sometimes, inevitably, produce individual outcomes that seem unfair. That's life. But it would have been nice if our town had promulgated the rules more clearly and enforced them consistently, so that these items would have been taken care of years ago--preferably by the people who actually finished the basement in the first place, when they would have been easy and inexpensive to do.

I had a problem that was similar and even more painful many years ago when Mary-Jo and I lived in New York City. After I had been doing freelance work from our apartment in the Bronx for several years, we were suddenly notified that I owed the city payments for something called unincorporated business tax. The rate wasn't very high, but the interest and penalties made the total bill many thousands of dollars--quite a shock to a couple of young people living month-to-month and just managing to keep up with our bills.

At the time, I was calculating our own taxes and filing the forms myself, and I swear to God that the incorporated business tax was not mentioned anywhere in the official instructions provided by the city. Apparently I was supposed to just know that it existed. This sounds incredible, but shortly after my rude awakening, financial guru Andrew Tobias wrote a column about his own similar expdrience with the unincorporated business tax. His anger and frustration helped drive him out of the city soon thereafter. (Mary-Jo and I also moved out of town, of course, but not for that reason--see comments above about the schools in Chappaqua.)

We all grow up with quasi-Jeffersonian propaganda about how local governments are "closer to the people" and therefore much more responsive than the big, bad federal bureaucracy. So powerful is this propaganda and so common-sensical is its logic that it took me a long time to realize that it's totally false. Nearly all of the really bad experiences I've had with governments have involved town, county, or state offices, while federal agencies--though sometimes no picnic--are usually reasonably well run.

Of course, this is a generalization, which means there are significant exceptions. But I think the rule is basically valid. Just consider--the infamous motor vehicle bureaus are not run by the federal government. By contrast, the most effective and widely appreciated government programs--things like Social Security, Medicare, the federal highway system, and the National Parks--are administered at the national level.

This may change if the Republicans control the federal government for a few more terms. Bush has been running agencies like FEMA the way county commissioners run sewer and highway maintenance departments--as dumping grounds for politically-connected cronies, family members, and campaign donors. And letting lobbyists write legislation to establish new programs, as with the absurd Medicare drug benefit, is another way of guaranteeing that the federal government will eventually become as confused and ineffectual as state and local governments. Think of it as yet another proud accomplishment of the Bush administration--dragging Washington down to the level of the local town hall.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Great I. F. Stone

I just finished one of the more exciting projects of my career--selecting and writing brief introductions for a selection of articles by the great dissenting journalist I. F. Stone (1907-1989). The collection will be published in book form this fall by PublicAffairs, the imprint of Perseus Books founded by my friend Peter Osnos, under the title of The Best of I. F. Stone.

The book will include 65 pieces written between 1940 and 1971, covering topics including World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, Civil Rights, the rise of the military-industrial complex, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Vietnam. Most were originally published in I. F. Stone's Weekly, the newsletter Stone wrote and published from 1953 to 1971; the rest appeared in The Nation and The New York Review of Books, as well as in anthologies that are now out of print. (An online archive of the Weekly is currently under development but not yet available.)

I never knew "Izzy" Stone, but he is a legendary figure among journalists, especially, of course, on the left. If you don't know much about him, this lively, affectionate appreciation by Victor Navasky of The Nation would be a fine place to start. Stone is best known for his remarkable investigative journalism, based on exhaustive reading and analysis of public documents--The Congressional Record, transcripts of government hearings, grand jury testimony, obscure federal reports, court filings, intelligence briefings, foreign newspaper clippings, etc. etc.--in search of the revealing quotation, the inadvertant disclosure, or the crucial discrepancy that would bring down an elaborately-constructed edifice of official lies, which the mainstream media had usually accepted at face value.

So shrewd were Stone's judgments and so sound his instincts that his writings were repeatedly prescient. In 1945, he worried that U.S. policy in the post-war period would lead to a hostile confrontation with our Russian allies. In the same year, he said that a future Jewish state in the Middle East could never be fully secure until the Palestinian Arabs had a homeland of their own. When McCarthy was just a blip on the national scene, Stone was warning about his talent for demagoguery. In 1955, months before the Montgomery bus boycott, he was writing that the only hope for a peaceful resolution of the race crisis was the emergence of a Black "American Gandhi." And in 1961, he warned of the danger that an overreaching U.S. empire might become embroiled in an unwinnable war in a little-known country called Vietnam.

In this respect, Stone's journalism holds up better today than that of his more famous and more widely admired British counterpart, George Orwell. Scan the four-volume collection of Orwell's newspaper and magazine writings edited by his widow Sonia and you'll find plenty of sharp insights and memorable writing--and also quite a few wildly off-target attempts at prognosticating the future. Which is not totally surprising--after all, despite the frequency with which the title 1984 is used to evoke the horrors of totalitarianism, the post-war world didn't really evolve along the lines Orwell envisioned in that book.

Stone's gifts also extended far beyond great investigative journalism. His writings include excellent examples of satire, travel narratives, personality profiles, policy analyses, philosophical ruminations, and spot reporting. He wrote a wonderfully vivid and funny account of the gathering of right-wing loonies that nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964, a blistering psychological analysis of the warmongering Air Force general Curtis LeMay (in the form of a review of LeMay's autobiography), an insightful sketch of life among Blacks and whites in rural Arkansas at the height of the Little Rock integration crisis, and touching tributes to Albert Einstein and Fiorello LaGuardia on their deaths. (All are included in the forthcoming collection.)

It goes without saying that the world could surely use another I. F. Stone today. In fact, if Stone were alive, there's no doubt in my mind that he would be blogging. How delighted he would be to be able to instantly post his latest discoveries from the worlds of government malfeasance, corporate skulduggery, and political corruption, complete with active links to the documents proving his charges. Since that's impossible, I encourage every liberal blogger to read the great man's writings, learn from him, and (hopefully) imbibe a little of his humane, passionate spirit.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

When Political Botox Is Not Enough

On NPR, just heard BBC reporter Adam Brooks say that the reason White House spokesman Scott McClellan has resigned is the perceived need for "a new face for the Bush administration." That's true enough. Problem is, the "face of the Bush administration" is not the face of Scott McClellan. It's the faces of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, et. al. . . . and they are not going anywhere.

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Still Missing the Point in the Debate on the Generals

In this WaPo op-ed column by Melvin Laird and Robert E. Pursley, we see plenty more desperate flailing by Rumsfeld defenders trying to articulate a principle that would justify stifling dissent by retired military officers.

First, Laird and Pursley say that the generals' criticism of Rumsfeld is ill-timed because it is coming too late:

while their advice and the weight of their experience should be taken into account, the important time for them to weigh in was while they were on active duty.

There's no indication as to why Laird and Pursley assume the generals were silent while on active duty. Obviously they didn't go public with their dissent while in uniform. Do Laird and Pursley think they should have? (Somehow I doubt that.)

Then Laird and Pursley switch gears and claim that the generals' criticism is ill-timed because it is coming too early:

Rumsfeld respects the delicate balance between military expertise and civilian control, but in the end the decisions are his to make. Our democracy is designed to favor civilian control of defense decisions. The problem is that when military advice is considered and then rejected, officers are likely to feel sidelined. Sometimes we all must wait for hindsight to be able to make accurate judgments.

And to illustrate, they point out that the concept of the volunteer army, which many in the military originally opposed, has turned out, decades later, to be a good one. Which I guess means that they think the generals are engaged in a "rush to judgment" by criticizing the Iraq War only three years after it was launched. Perhaps they will let us know when they think dissent is finally appropriate. Will it be okay to critique the war in 2010? How about 2025? (God forbid people should offer opinions while there is still a chance to influence events on the ground.)

As their groping continues, Laird and Pursley claim that, in fact, the generals have no legitimate beef with Rumsfeld because he has provided them with so many opportunities to share their recommendations:

There are many avenues through which military ideas can be expressed. The uniformed service chiefs and civilian service secretaries meet frequently with the secretary of defense. We still have many friends and associates in the military and the Defense Department. We are confident that Rumsfeld does not limit those who meet with him to proffer advice.

Of course, this too misses the point. When the retired generals urge that Rumsfeld be fired, they aren't merely complaining about the system by which ideas are shared inside the Department of Defense. They are saying that Rumsfeld's decisions have been stupid, inflexible, ill-informed, and ultimately disastrous. In other words, this is a quarrel about substance--not just about process. (It's noteworthy that Laird and Pursley make no effort to defend Rumsfeld on the merits. After all, how could they?)

Which leads to the final line of defense--the old "dissent comforts our enemies" argument:

We do not advocate a silencing of debate on the war in Iraq. But care must be taken by those experienced officers who had their chance to speak up while on active duty. In speaking out now, they may think they are doing a service by adding to the reasoned debate. But the enemy does not understand or appreciate reasoned public debate. It is perceived as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.

Like most defenses of the Bush administration, this boils down to "Shut up, he explained."

It may or may not be true that "the enemy does not understand or appreciate reasoned public debate." But Americans do. Why exactly should we grant Al Qaeda censorship powers over our democracy?

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Carnival Knowledge

One clever response to the incredible burgeoning of the blogosphere has been the invention of the "blog carnival," a kind of on-line magazine offering an edited collection of excellent blog posts representing a particular theme or point of view. A blog carnival provides an easy way to catch up on fine writing from cyberspace without having to wade through acres of less-worthy offerings. (You can read more about the entire blog carnival concept here.) There are dozens of blog carnivals, with titles ranging from the obvious (Carnival of Computing, Carnival of Health and Fitness, Carnival of Knitting) to the arcane (Carnival of Empty Cages, Carnival of Socks, End of Month Egg on Toast Extravaganza).

World Wide Webers is now an official supporter of our favorite blog carnival, appropriately known as Carnival of the Liberals. (You can learn more about COTL by clicking on the badge at the bottom of the left-hand column.) The next bi-weekly COTL will be hosted at Doctor Biobrain, which has just issued a call for submissions. And on October 11th, we'll be hosting COTL right here on World Wide Webers. Watch this space for more details as we claim our rightful place in the not-so-vast left-wing conspiracy . . .

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Rumsfeld's Defenders Contradict Themselves

Those who want to silence or at least drown out the retired generals (six and counting) who have called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld are making two main arguments:

1. For military officers to publicly criticize the secretary of defense runs counter to the vital American tradition of civilian control of the armed forces. Sample quote from the conservative blogosphere:

Noting that the controversy contains serious issues of civilian control of the military--something apparently lost on leftist war critics pushing the dissident general's attacks--General [Richard] Myers stated, "My whole perception is that it's bad for the military, it's bad for civil-military relations and potentially it's very bad for the country because what we are hearing and what we are seeing is not the role the military plays in our society."

2. The generals should have voiced their criticisms during the runup to the Iraq war or in its early stages, when the crucial decisions were being made. Their failure to do so (and their going public with the criticisms now) calls their integrity into question. (Self-proclaimed virtues arbiter William Bennett took this position on CNN's Situation Room on Friday.)

Okay . . . So the generals are wrong because soldiers shouldn't say things like this about the secretray of defense, and because they should have said it a lot louder and sooner. That's pretty clear.

Actually, parsing these mutually contradictory arguments suggests that the dissident generals handled the situation with complete propriety. While they were in uniform, they dissented privately (if at all), then deferred publicly to the civilian leadership. Now that they are retired, they are civilians--which makes it appropriate for them to publicly air their positions about national policy.

Of course, there is another step that the current dissidents could have taken: Resignation in protest followed by a public statement of the reasons. That would have been a noble and gutsy act of self-sacrifice, subjecting those who made it not only to loss of their livelihoods and of the lifelong connection to military service they no doubt cherish but also to merciless attacks from right-wing media, politicians, and activists. No one can urge such a costly step on another person. But it would have made them heroes of democracy--unrecognized in the short term, but hopefully not in the long term.

If Sy Hersh is right about the agonized debates currently taking place in military circles about an attack on Iran, we can only hope that, this time, some of the generals will be willing to make a public break with the hierarchy before the catastrophe starts.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Something To Look Forward To

Via sister Ingrid, this link to a cheery story about the upcoming medical crisis expected around 2010 when millions of baby boomers begin to succumb to dementia. Of course sometimes I think I'm getting a head start--I always was a bit precocious . . .

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Paging Mr. Banquet . . . Call for Rutabaga R. Banquet . . .

I've written before about finding Dadaist poetry in the subject lines of spam emails--phrases like "minstrel camping," "imbroglio typographer," and "actinium messiah" designed either to evade spam detectors or provoke curiosity in the recipients. Now the spammers have moved on to a new strategy: concocting weird and comic sender names, also apparently generated by some kind of bot randomly scrolling through a dictionary. The names always have the same form: two unrelated words separated by a middle initial. Here are some from today's inbox:

Applejack Q. Poets
Tropic T. Relocated
Transacted U. Hysteresis
Suggests G. Stalwarts
Rutabaga R. Banquet

Aren't these great? One's first reaction might be to describe these monikers as "Dickensian," but on reflection they sound more like the names of characters played by W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx--names like Larson E. Whipsnade, Hugo Z. Hackenbush, Otis B. Driftwood, Eustace P. McGargle, Mahatma Kane Jeeves, and Rufus T. Firefly. (You get partial credit for knowing which names match with Fields, which with Marx; full credit for being able to name at least five of the movies involved.)

Is everyone else getting the same kinds of loopy messages? Even more important, does anyone think this is actually an effective strategy for getting the emails read?

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Framing the Democratic Message on Iran

Greg Sargent at The American Prospect is dead right when he says that Democrats need to be developing a message now about why a preemptive attack on Iran would be crazy, counter-productive, and wrong--a message around which they can coalesce in time for a Congressional debate and the fall midterm elections.

But I disagree with his favored version of the message (borrowed from John Avarosis at AMERICAblog), which states, "George Bush is the wrong man to be launching yet another war." It carries the unmistakeable implication that "yet another war" might be all right if only we had a better man to lead it.

This is the "incompetence" argument, closely akin to Condi Rice's "tactical errors" argument, both of which are likely to become increasingly favored right-wing positions as the Bush administration continues to unravel. The lesson the arch-conservatives take from the Bush fiascos is, "Next time we need to elect someone who is just as radical and ruthless as Bush, but a little smarter." I wouldn't want Democrats to do anything to (inadvertently) lend support to that position.

For this reason, I think it's a mistake for Democrats to lean too heavily on Bush's personal failings. He's going to be gone, one way or another, in three years (absent some truly apocalyptic constitutional upheaval), but the battle against the militant, tyrannical, corporatist Republicanism he represents will go on. We need to challenge that ideology, not just the man who currently embodies it.

With all that in mind, I'd prefer to see Democrats opposed to an Iran attack rally around a message like this: "America can't afford to squander its resources and waste its children's lives in a third failed war in the Middle East." This puts the focus where it belongs--on the policy, not the man.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Norton Anthology Boiled Down To 66 Words

Via the wonderful Language Log, here's a link to an NPR discussion of William Matthews' summary of The Four Subjects of Poetry:

1. I went out into the woods today, and it made me feel, you know, sort of religious.

2. We're not getting any younger.

3. It sure is cold and lonely (a) without you, honey, or (b) with you, honey.

4. Sadness seems but the other side of the coin of happiness, and vice versa, and in any case the
coin is too soon spent, and on what we know not what.

I love how offhand, vague, trite, inconsistent in tone, and even ungrammatical these are (check out the superfluous "what" in the last item). And I'll be damned if they don't summarize more or less accurately the contents of, oh, eighty percent of the lyric poetry written since around 1780. (Extend the view backward further in time or broaden it to include narrative, dramatic, or epic poetry, and a lot more themes clamor for inclusion.)

Among other things, it's a useful reminder that poetry is not about deep thinking. It's generally about saying trite things in a way that somehow keeps coming back to haunt you.

I imagine the same kind of offhand summary could be created for most other artistic forms. To start the ball rolling, here's my stab at The Four Subjects of Movies:

1. If I could get my hands on the contents of that black box, I could--dare I say it?--rule the world!

2. I've got an idea--let's put on a show!

3. If I can't have you, I'll die. Or somebody else will.

4. Ohmigod, it's alive!

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Government Is Not Bush's Personal Fiefdom

Courtesy of The Daou Report, here's a quotation from conservative blogger Carol Platt Liebau that captures a popular right-wing meme in defense of the Bush-ordered leaks:

The overheated coverage of the supposed Presidential "leak" of classified information is a joke.

As John Podhoretz points out, the authority to declassify information resides with the President. Hence, he can't "leak" anymore than someone can effectively steal from himself.

Interesting comparison. But let's think about it for a minute. Is all the classified information held by the government Bush's personal property? Obviously not. It's "property" that he and his administration hold in trust on behalf of the American people. That's why the laws specify procedures both for classifying and for declassifying information--which do not include quietly whispering selected portions of secret documents to individual friendly reporters in order to gain political advantage.

Just as a bank president disburses bank funds only according to specified procedures and with oversight and approval by others (like a loan committee), the U.S. president is supposed to declassify documents in public and in accordance with the rules--not in secret, piecemeal, and willy-nilly.

So in authorizing leaks to specific reporters in an attempt to discredit administration critics, Bush wasn't "stealing from himself." He was acting more like a banker who helps himself to a bundle of cash from the vault to get out of a tough personal scrape.

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Tom DeLay, Innocent Bystander

In this op-ed piece in today's Washington Post about his years as a top aide to Tom DeLay, John Feehery is clearly pulled in two directions. On the one hand, he wants to defend his old boss against the corruption charges that have brought him down. On the other, he wants to tell a few juicy stories about the hard-knuckle political maneuvering and power plays he witnessed during DeLay's glory years. So he tells the stories while laboring hard to spin them. Here's his concluding summary:

DeLay was an amazing legislator, probably the most talented this town has seen since Lyndon Baines Johnson. But like all great men, Tom DeLay had great talents and one great weakness. In his case, it was some staff members run amok. In the end, that weakness forced him to step down.

The problem is that Feehery's own account makes a mockery of his spin.

First of, all as for DeLay's genius as a legislator, Feehery makes it clear that, for DeLay, passing laws to benefit the American people came second to partisanship. Feerhery doesn't refer to a single legislative accomplishment by Delay. The only actual congressional activity he mentions is the Clinton impeachment saga, where DeLay rejected a Democratic censure proposal that represented a fair and honorable compromise, in favor of a purely partisan impeachment plan that was bound to fail. This led to Feehery's resignation:

My stomach wasn't in this effort. I couldn't match the energy of [Tony] Rudy and [Michael] Scanlon. They were everywhere, doing the briefing books, leaking to reporters, doing the legal research and whipping the members. They spread rumors that there was evidence that Clinton had raped a woman. I told Tom I was leaving, and he was very gracious. His attack dogs were already on the prowl. He didn't need me.

This is not exactly reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson. LBJ was certainly capable of strongarm tactics, but as Senate majority leader he worked hand in glove with leaders of the Republican opposition to pass Eisenhower's domestic and foreign policy agenda.

And as for DeLay's aides--people like Rudy, Scanlon, and chief of staff Ed Buckham--who supposedly ran amok and thereby brought down their too-indulgent boss, who exactly hired, trained, and guided them? Er, DeLay himself, of course. Feehery tries to make it sound as if they just somehow appeared on the scene, eliding responsibility in classic style by writing in the passive voice: "In the meantime, Buckham had become DeLay's chief of staff . . . Scanlon was DeLay's new press secretary, having been hired after Rudy became deputy chief of staff . . ." (my italics).

And once DeLay hired these characters--whom Feehery depicts as ruthless, dishonest bullies--he then chose to encourage their worst tendencies. As Feehery notes, "Tom prized the most aggressive staffers and most often heeded their counsel." When someone hires and promotes the meanest and most underhanded people he can find, makes them his chief strategists, and never tries to rein them in, doesn't it seem fair to assume that he shares their vicious traits and in fact hired them because of those traits--not despite them?

Feehery's article is a valiant attempt at spin control, testing a potential new Republican meme: Tom DeLay, innocent victim of an over-zealous staff. But there's a limit to how far the facts can be spun . . . and Feehery has passed it.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Presenting World Wide Webers Stadium

Word is that the Mets are soliciting bids for naming rights to their new ballpark, slated to be completed for the start of the 2009 season. (Isn't it beautiful? More images available here.) Son Matt shared with me the rumor that a certain clothing manufacturer was working on a plan to pay apt tribute to baseball history by dubbing the park The Ralph Lauren Polo Grounds. But if our advertising revenues go through the roof, maybe we can outbid them. Think of it--the first stadium named after a blog.

Actually, although I'm not much of a baseball purist, the trend to corporate sponsorship of stadium names makes me a little melancholy. It leaves ball clubs open to embarrassing fiascos like the one in Houston (Enron Park--ouch!). It also shatters in too-overt fashion the pleasant illusion that sports exists in a world apart from commerce. We all know that isn't true, but it's fun to pretend.

So I hope the Mets will give their new home a dual name, like Time Warner - Gil Hodges Stadium. Then we can just call it by the non-corporate name ("Are you going out to Hodges this weekend?") and quietly pretend that no CEO was ever involved.

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Closing Our Borders in the Name of Labor

It was okay when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers and replaced them with cheaper workers, because after all those public-employee unions had gotten too big for their britches.

It was okay when corporations hired union-busting consultants, bent the NLRB rules to block union certifications, and moved their operations from states where unions are strong to states where they are weak, because after all those companies had to reduce their costs somehow.

It was okay when companies shipped jobs by the hundreds of thousands overseas, starting with manufacturing jobs and gradually expanding to include more and more service jobs and even white-collar professional jobs, because after all the world is globalizing and US firms have to be competitive.

It was okay when Congress refused to raise the minimum wage or mandate health coverage or protect worker pensions, because after all the money to pay for those multi-million-dollar executive packages has to come from somewhere.

And it was okay when Bush pushed through tax cuts that massively benefited unearned wealth while giving pennies to salaried middle-class workers, because after all the Republicans won the election and owed some big favors to their base.

But we have to draw the line somewhere. And if brown-skinned people are sneaking across the border to take jobs as maids and gardeners and dishwashers--why, that's an outrage! American workers, unite!

* * *

The immigration issue is a real one. The wage-depressing effect of 12 million relatively powerless, easy-to-exploit undocumented workers is a serious concern, and some reasonable compromise that includes both serious border controls and a program to integrate the undocumented immigrants as citizens is probably the right solution. But the disproportionate emotion being mobilized around the problem (see Lou Dobbs, the Minutemen, Republicans in the House) suggests the degree to which good old-fashioned racism and xenophobia, rather than economic concerns, are driving the controversy.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Temple of Literary Commerce

I spent Tuesday afternoon conferring over a new book manuscript with an author and editor at the handsome Bertelsmann headquarters on Broadway between 55th and 56th Streets in New York City. As you may know, in an age of media consolidation, this German conglomerate owns many of the most prestigious brand names in American publishing, including Random House (also the umbrella name for the firm's US operations), Knopf, Doubleday, Bantam, Dell, Crown, and others.

Like all publishers these days (and probably throughout history), Random struggles to find the right balance between art and commerce. The confluence of the two is vividly illustrated in the decor of their headquarters, which is a sleek modern building more impressive than any other publishing operation I've visited. The lobby, a marble-lined space perhaps twenty-five feet high, is lined from floor to ceiling with illuminated, glass-enclosed cases in which books from decades of Random House history are displayed. A glance takes in titles by everyone from Norman Mailer and Lee Iacocca to Gunnar Myrdal and William Faulkner. Walking past these icons of culture is an impressive and humbling reminder of why I am happy to work in publishing. (Yes, I am still idealistic about it after all these years.)

Our meeting took place on the fourteenth floor, which is lined with meeting rooms, each named after a notable author. We were in the James Baldwin room, a small space (perhaps ten by ten) next door to the similar-sized Chester Himes room. (Himes's name was only vaguely familiar to me. Google reveals that he was a Black novelist best known for a series of mystery novels.) I noticed other rooms named after Katharine Graham (the late publisher of the Washington Post and author of one of the most-acclaimed and best-selling autobiographies ever written), Willa Cather, Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and Somerset Maugham.

Unfortunately, the rooms aren't decorated to suit their names. The Maugham room could be in colonial Indochinese style, all bamboo, teak, and silk. The Joyce room might be a Dublin pub circa 1904. The Graham room would replicate a 70s era newsroom with clicking teletype machines. As for the Douglas Adams room . . . well, use your imagination.

In reality, of course, all of the rooms are in comfortable but generic office decor, with just a couple of exceptions. The Dr. Seuss room is a large conference room (seating a dozen or so rather than just four or five) lined with framed covers of the authors' books--The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and the rest. And the main assembly hall, arrayed with a hundred or so chairs for big presentations, is dedicated to the prolific western novelist Louis L'Amour, the walls decorated with quotations from his writings.

The pecking order implied by the room dedications sends a clear signal to the Random House editors and authors of today. The company is very proud of the Pulitzers and Nobels won by people like Joyce and Maugham and Faulkner. But in this temple of literary commerce, pride of place goes to the fellows who keep the company afloat--the much-loved minor talents like Dr. Seuss and Louis L'Amour, whose books fill the shelves in dens and kids' bedrooms in households by the millions around the world.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Victim of the Phony "Objectivity" Cult

This is nuts. ABC News has suspended producer John Green for expressing political opinions in two private email messages, written one year ago and eighteen months ago. The older message expressed disgust over President Bush's tactics in a debate with John Kerry; the more recent criticized former secretary of state Madeleine Albright for having "Jew shame." The proximate cause: Green's messages were revealed by Matt Drudge and The New York Post, exposing him and his employer to the wrath of the right.

The Albright comment gives ABC bipartisan cover for their disciplinary action. But it's hard to imagine that Green would be in trouble if he hadn't offended the Repugs. Has anyone scoured John Stossel's email lately? Would he be suspended for having written something like, "Bush creamed Kerry in the debate tonight. You'd have to be nuts not to vote for him"? Can't see it.

As usual, it matters very much whose ox is gored in any specific case. But in the bigger picture, this whole cult of journalistic "objectivity" is crazy, and the new John Green standard only worsens its craziness. Why on earth would we expect or want journalists to be devoid of political opinions? The only people who never express any feelings about politics are those who know and care nothing about it--not exactly the kind of people who are likely to be our most talented journalists. There are already plenty of TV reporters like Suzanne Stone, the gorgeous, ambitious hack played by Nicole Kidman in To Die For. Is this actually the model we want young journalists to emulate?

In fact, of course, most journalists do care about politics, which means they express opinions about it all the time. If the John Green standard becomes generally accepted, it will simply lead to public inquisitions similar to the ridiculous Kabuki dance of Supreme Court confirmation hearings, in which journalists are forced to declare that they have never written, spoken, or thought about politics and that their minds are like fields of virgin snow--white, pure, and empty. Such a standard would reward skillful liars and punish the honest.

Of course we want journalists who separate their personal opinions from their coverage of the news, and report all the relevant facts of a story no matter what political positions those facts tend to support. We should gauge the professional competence of a journalist by that standard and by the skill, maturity, and sophistication with which he or she makes the crucial judgments of the craft: Which stories are worth covering? Which facts are most truly relevant? How should those facts be arranged and presented to most closely approximate the "truth" as I see it? How much reporting must I do before I can be reasonably certain the story is ready for release?

The day-in, day-out performance of a journalist in answering questions like these is the relevant basis for judging his or her integrity--not the ability to avoid expressing political opinions in private. All the John Green standard does is give partisan operatives a new weapon with which to attack journalists they dislike. Outlets beyond ABC News should actively and explicitly disavow it.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Two Cheers for Bureaucracy

Two stories in this morning's New York Times deal with very different topics, but share a common theme. The first describes how a significant fraction of charter schools around the country are collapsing due to financial and educational mismanagement, using one school in the Bronx as an illustrative example.

The ReadNet Bronx Charter School was founded by Robin Hubbard, described as "an Upper East Side architect known for her charm, enthusiasm and prominent friends"--in other words, not an experienced or trained educator. The school used "a curriculum developed by the ReadNet Foundation, which Ms. Hubbard had started several years earlier, after helping her own son struggle with learning problems."

Today the school is being shut down, leaving hundreds of students and families stranded for the coming school year. The Times spoke with a lawyer named Neil M. Frank, whom Hubbard hired to try to get a handle on the school's management problems:

Mr. Frank said he was never able to get to the bottom of where the school's money had gone. He said that consultants, including ones affiliated with ReadNet Systems, a business founded by Ms. Hubbard, were hired without contracts or board approval. Clear lines were not drawn, he said, between the school, Ms. Hubbard's ReadNet Foundation, and ReadNet Systems (now called Smart Learning Systems). He described the relationship among the three as "a bowl of spaghetti."

Mr. Frank said he did not suspect that anyone had personally profited from the school. But he insisted that a "forensic audit" be conducted, and ultimately resigned from the board.

The other story deals with a charity called Tuesday's Children, founded by Chris Burke, brother of a bond trader killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The organization provided treats and morale-boosting outings to kids who lost parents on 9/11. But today, like the ReadNet school, Tuesday's Children is falling apart. It seems that Burke diverted at least $311,000 in charitable donations to unaudited purposes (including some personal expenses), using secret bank accounts known only to himself. Burke's parents are stepping in to repay the stolen monies.

What do these two stories have in common? Both deal with people who I think were--at least at the outset--well-meaning, even idealistic. Hubbard and Burke were enthusiastic amateurs eager to do something good and impatient of bureaucratic constraints. Charter schools, of course, are deliberately designed to bypass the ordinary systems for regulating education. And the Times describes the story of Tuesday's Children as

. . . the story of a leader who came to feel frustrated by the kind of "red tape" he had set out in 2001 to cut through. . . . [Burke] was, he said in a telephone interview last week, "relentless in the pursuit of the positive for these families."

"I twisted arms," he said.

But people--including well-meaning, energetic amateurs--are only human. And when you give them millions of dollars to spend on complex projects they don't really know how to run, and then provide minimal oversight (i.e. "red tape"), they can easily get tempted to cut corners--not just bureaucratic corners but also legal and ethical ones. What's the harm in hiring consulting firms run by your friends? Why not spend some of the charity's money to keep your personal finances afloat? No one's going to know--how can we get into trouble?

We all love to mock and complain about bureaucracy. Politicians on the right, in particular, find it's an easy target for cheap "populist" rhetoric. A pencil-pusher in a government office is a lot easier to attack than someone with real power, like the CEO of a corporation. And calling for the creation of charter schools is a quick way of burnishing your credentials as a pro-education politician without spending any money. Promising to "cut red tape" is an uncontroversial, cost-free, and ultimately content-free campaign pledge.

The truth is that, as I've written before, bureaucracies exist for a reason. Most government bureaucracies were created in response to massive scandals or failures on the part of the private sector. Of course bureaucracies tend to become sclerotic. They need constant monitoring and periodic reform. But bypassing them, shredding them, slashing their budgets, and constantly denigrating them isn't "reform," any more than disbanding the police force would be "law enforcement reform."

Go ahead and make fun of bureaucrats if you like. But when it's your money, you damn well better hope a few smart, well-funded bureaucrats are in place to make sure it's not getting stolen.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

My Vietnam Doppelganger

The continuing controversies over the design of the 9/11 memorial at the ground zero site in New York City include a battle over the arrangement of the names of the victims. Designer Michael Arad favors a random sequence, intended to embody the randomness and chaos of the attack itself. Others say that the rescue workers should be listed separately, or that family members, friends, and colleagues should be grouped together.

This recalls one of the small brilliant choices that make Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., so effective. Lin rejected the general assumption that the 58,000 names of those who died in the war should be listed alphabetically. As she pointed out, listing twenty consecutive Robert Johnsons (the actual number--including no fewer than three Robert Lee Johnsons) would reduce the sense of individuality attached to each name and turn them into identical faces in the crowd. Instead, the names appear in the order of their dates of death, from 1959 to 1975. If you want to find a particular person, you look up the name in a directory which tells you the panel and line where it appears.

I visited the memorial shortly after it was completed in 1982. Not having lost a friend or family member in Vietnam, I flipped idly through the pages of the directory for a moment, then decided to look up my own name--Karl Weber. Sure enough, there was a Karl Weber who was killed in Vietnam. And spookily enough, we shared the same birthday--May 15.

You can read the basic stats about my Vietnam doppelganger, Karl Edwin Weber, right here. He was from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and was one day shy of being eighteen and a half when he was killed in Quang Tri on November 14, 1968. He'd arrived in country just four weeks earlier. He wouldn't have been old enough to cast an absentee ballot in that year's election, in which Nixon was elected president. (The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, wasn't passed until 1970.)

And on this page you can read a few brief messages from people who knew him. The most touching one was posted in 2001 by his buddy Clark Jordan:

I never have forgotten you. I constantly think of you and even after 33 years still miss you so much.

Clark lives, or lived, in Jackson Heights--a neighborhood in Queens where Mary-Jo and I and our kids used to go to church. Maybe we passed him on the street some time.

Karl Weber, dead at eighteen. There but for the grace of God. It's a strange world.

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Writing To Impress the Wife

Calvin Trillin, who writes about food, travel, and other topics for The New Yorker (as well as satirical poems and topical humor columns for The Nation) has something of a cult following. It's a mild-mannered, urbane cult, but a cult nonetheless, fueled not just by his writings but also by his occasional, hilariously deadpan appearances on The Tonight Show and other late-night venues.

For me, Trillin is the foremost current practitioner of the art of what used to be called the "casual," the short, funny, personal essay for which New Yorker writers like Robert Benchley, James Thurber, E.B. White, and S. J. Perelman were once famous. More recently, Woody Allen has written some good casuals; so have Ian Frazier and Bruce McCall. I don't care much for the attempts by Steve Martin and P.J. O'Rourke, and while Dave Barry can be very funny, his spirit is fundamentally parodic, and his shtick is limited and therefore tiring.

Trillin's writing is rarely uproarious, but it is so thoughly infused with his quietly eccentric personality that it becomes, at its best, both loveable and highly entertaining. I savor his long-running gags, such as his ongoing campaign to replace turkey as the traditional main course on Thanksgiving with spaghetti carbonara, and his complaints about the former editor and publisher of The Nation (invariably referred to as "wily, parsimonious Victor Navasky") and the scanty pay he offered Trillin for his columns--"something in the high two figures"--which Trillin says he accepted only because The Nation's offices were within walking distance of his Greenwich Village apartment, making it easy and pleasant to drop off his copy at the same time as he picked up his dry cleaning.

Fans of Trillin are also fond of his wife Alice, a constant sitcom-style presence in Trillin's writing. However, as Trillin observes in his rueful memoir, "Alice, Off the Page" (in the March 27 New Yorker), the literary version of the Trillin household fractured sitcom convention by casting Alice as the straight man, the George Burns to Calvin's slightly ditzy Gracie.

Alice, sadly, died of cancer five years ago. Trillin's memoir briefly recounts the events surrounding Alice's passing. (I hadn't realized she died on September 11, 2001, which must make for a weird collision of griefs in Trillin's annual remembrance.) Most of the essay, however, is about the relationship between the real Alice and the fictional Alice that Trillin created in his writing, as well as the role the woman played in Trillin's life and work. My favorite passage describes how Trillin--much to his delight--impressed Alice with his wit the first time they ever really talked, at a party in New York. Then he adds:

. . . I never stopped trying to match that evening--not just trying to entertain her but trying to impress her. Decades later--after we had been married for more than thirty-five years, after our girls were grown--I still wanted to impress her. . . . I showed Alice everything I wrote in rough draft--partly because I valued her opinion but partly because I hoped to impress her. If the piece was meant to be funny, the sound of laughter from the next room was a great reward. When I wrote in the dedication of a book "For Alice," I meant it literally.

Trillin compares himself to the mystery writer Dick Francis, who said he would give up writing books after his wife died. "As I understood what he was saying," Trillin remarks, "she was the one he'd been trying to impress."

I know exactly what Trillin means. Maybe most men who write have in mind some person they are trying to impress. For some, it may be a father, teacher, friend, or mentor. But for many, it's a wife or lover. That's certainly true of me. Mary-Jo impresses me so much that it means a lot to me when I manage to turn the tables on her. Apparently that's how Trillin felt about Alice.

In truth, this is a big reason I blog. Not only does blogging provide a creative outlet, a podium from which to share my ideas and opinions, and a chance to practice and hone my craft, but it's also an opportunity for me to write something I know Mary-Jo will read. Unlike Trillin, I don't show her my work in draft form. (For one thing, a lot of it is about topics she's not very interested in--business, for example.) But she's very faithful about logging on to World Wide Webers. And I don't write very many posts without thinking, "I hope Mary-Jo likes this one."

I wonder what she'll think about this one.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Condi Rice and the Beatles

So Condi Rice is a Beatles fan. Apparently she expressed puzzlement to her British counterpart Jack Straw about the curious line from "A Day in the Life" about "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire." (The two were touring Blackburn, which is Straw's home town.) Straw fobbed her off with some story about how John Lennon was inspired by a newspaper story about potholes in the local streets.

I suppose that's possible, although I still prefer the urban legend that circulated along with other Beatles mythology when I was a teenager--that the line was Lennon's rude way of referring to a large girls' school in Blackburn . . . you get the idea.

Obviously Straw wouldn't dare mention that to Condi.

Is it a little odd that a Black girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1960s would have been a Beatles fan? Maybe not. Judging from biographical pieces like this one, Rice didn't grow up the way you might assume based on geography and her color. Her family was solidly middle class. Her minister father avoided involvement in the civil rights movement. As for Condi, she was deliberately sheltered (as much as possible) from the realities of racial prejudice, and as a kid she devoted her energies to activities like classical music and figure skating.

This sounds like a much more privileged childhood than mine, for example--closer to the way kids are raised in an affluent suburb like Chappaqua than the way my friends and I grew up in Brooklyn. Maybe being a Beatles fan was part and parcel of the "mainstream" upbringing her parents wanted for her.

None of this is to say or imply that Rice is "not really Black" or any such nonsense--I don't believe in that stuff and wouldn't spout it even if I were qualified by my skin color to have an opinion about it. But it's probably no coincidence that the Black politicians most likely to make a serious bid for the White House--Rice and Barack Obama--both come from such out-of-the-ordinary social milieus. (Much more so than Colin Powell, who grew up in the Bronx.) Maybe the first Black President will need to be someone that white Americans feel--even unconsciously--isn't "too Black" for them to vote for . . . the kind of person who grew up listening to the Beatles rather than James Brown.

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Advertising Anomalies

For those who are curious: We've signed up with two advertising sources. Blogads, which sells space on many leading blogs, provided the "advertise here" spot currently appearing at the top of our right hand column. (Thanks to fellow blogger Digby at Hullabaloo for providing us with the "sponsorship" connection Blogads requests to sign up a new site.) Blogads will track our blog and its traffic for at least several days before any ads from their sponsors begin to appear.

The other source is Google, which has already provided some ads. Google uses a bot to scan the contents of a blog, scope out the interests of its readers, and provide appropriate ads. Oddly, the first few ads from Google seem to have a predominantly conservative slant. Evidently their bot can recognize "political" words like "Bush," "Iraq," "Congress," etc. but can't necessarily diagnose the overarching philosophy embodied in the writing. (Can't be too critical there. Sometimes I have trouble too, especially when I'm reading Andrew Sullivan.) The fact that the title of a recent post contained the word "Prayer" may have confused the bot as well.

Hopefully the ads will shift leftward as more posts appear. Meanwhile, you're urged to visit the website that promises to introduce you to thousands of "Beautiful Republican Singles." Maybe at least we can do to a few Republicans what their party has been doing to the whole country . . .

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