Wednesday, May 31, 2006

They Both Have Better Hair Than McCain

I suppose it's naive of me to ask, but why is it that Katie Couric's 172 different hairdos reinforce her image as America's beloved girl-next-door, while Hillary Clinton's changing styles prove that she is a calculating phony or even, according to one National Review columnist, "one of those Star Trek villains who would baffle Captain Kirk for half a show because they keep changing form"?

I swear, I may have to support Hillary for president just out of irritation over the way the MSM covers her.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Oh, Shut Up

To do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off.

Conservative talking head Laura Ingraham on The Today Show, March, 2006.

Since the start of the war in 2003, 71 journalists have been killed in Iraq, a figure that does not even include the more than two dozen members of news media support staff who have also died, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That number is more than the 63 killed in Vietnam, the 17 killed in Korea, and even the 69 killed in World War II, according to Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan free speech advocacy group.

"Iraq Becomes Deadliest of Modern Wars for Journalists," by Marc Santora and Bill Carter. New York Times, 30 May 2006.

I guess those hotel balconies are a lot more dangerous than Laura Ingraham seems to think . . .

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Monday, May 29, 2006

Great Moments in Culinary Linguistics

The delightful Language Log website has two amusing posts (here and here) analyzing the grammatical, linguistic, and culinary characteristics of a difficult-to-read item on the menu at a restaurant called EVOO (a mysterious name that every fan of Rachel Ray will be able to interpret with ease). The menu item is:

Garlicky Pork Sausage Stuffed Crisp Fried Maryland Soft Shell Crab

The linguist authors of the diary, Geoffrey K. Pullum and Roger Shuy, labor manfully to develop a theoretical schema for menu descriptions, and the one Shuy comes up with just barely manages to justify the weird syntax of the quoted item. It's an interesting exercise, but I think that, in the end, this is one of those instances in which grammatical correctness is less important than somehow cramming in the words needed to convey an implicit, underlying message, to wit:

If you're on a diet or have a sensitive stomach, don't order this--it'll kill you. Otherwise, go for it.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Why Liberals Pick on Poor John Stossel

Oh, please. Andrew Sullivan uses the example of John Stossel to illustrate how liberals lack "tolerance" toward maverick thinkers. Money quote that Sullivan uses to support this argument (from a Stossel interview):

I think homosexuality is all right. And yet the conservatives will pay me a $40,000 speaking fee--which goes to charity, by the way--and invite me to their events and have me on their shows. But the liberals will have nothing to do with me.

The explanation is simple and has nothing to do with liberal intolerance. Stossel, a self-proclaimed libertarian, likes to portray himself as equally distanced from conservatives and liberals, because on the one hand he supports gay rights and abortion choice, while on the other hand he supports big business's unfettered right to pollute, defraud, etc.

But the equivalence is phony, not real. First of all, most of Stossel's reporting focuses on the supposed liberal tyranny that is sapping America--not on issues of human rights.

More important, it's very clear that he and his fellow libertarians have enormous influence in Washington these days purely because of their pro-business orientation. Conservative Republicans are busily dismantling and defunding necessary regulatory structures, flattening tax rates and feeding tax breaks to business, all with the cheers of the libertarians. Meanwhile the other side of the libertarian agenda--freedom to make my own personal moral choices--gets ignored or actively trashed, with nary a peep from the likes of Stossel.

John Stossel likes to think of himself as equidistant from right and left, but in objective terms his influence is entirely on the side of the right. Why else would he be getting those $40,000 speaking fees from right-wing groups supported by big business?

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Sorry, Conservatives--When It Comes To Pop Music, You Lose

Music and politics intersect in a couple of current news items. First, National Review has selected "the top 50 conservative rock songs of all time," in a transparent and pathetic attempt to claim retroactive victory in one of the many culture war battles where conservatives have been hopelessly routed.

A number of the songs selected require quite a bit of stretching to be labeled "conservative." For example, is the Beatles' "Taxman" really about "opposition to taxation," as the New York Times summary would have it? The lyrics quote the taxman as saying, "There's one for you, nineteen for me." If National Review wants to enlist the Beatles in a campaign against a 95 percent tax rate, that's okay by me, but I don't think this standard would satisfy Grover Norquist.

Elsewhere in the Times, Kelefa Sanneh disses the Dixie Chicks for their defiance of the conservative country music establishment, saying, "There's a contract that binds country singers to their fans, and the Dixie Chicks have broken it." How so? According to Sanneh, they've violated the unspoken "rules" of the country music "game" by speaking disrespectfully of the fans who have attacked them for criticizing President Bush, using words like "rednecks" to describe them. Sanneh concludes:

The Dixie Chicks are still a joy to hear, and they'll have plenty of fans no matter what. The Nashville game is hard work; it brings out the best in some singers and frustrates others. If the Dixie Chicks don't want to play that game, that's certainly their prerogative. But they might at least acknowledge that they've been playing it for years, and reaping its rewards. And they shouldn't be too surprised if some fans jeer--angry, but also disappointed--as they walk off the court.

The idea seems to be that the Dixie Chicks deserve the boycotting, blacklisting, and verbal attacks they've been getting from conservative country fans because they refuse to suck up to people who send them death threats. It's more of the mainstream media's typical double standard--demanding that liberals respond with civility, meekness, and respect while conservatives fling four-letter epithets and threats of violence. Enough already.

And by the way, the reading line of Time magazine cover story about the Chicks describes their current album as possibly "the best adult pop CD of the year," but then wonders, "Er, will anyone buy it?" Er, last time I checked, it was number one on Amazon. Maybe the Chicks know a little more about how the Nashville game works than Time or Kelefa Sanneh do.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I Should Be So Lucky

Carnival of the Liberals is back. COTL #13 is hosted on Lucky White Girl, and--lucky us--our recent post about Stephen Colbert and the "angry left," "Sometimes We Have Good Reason To Be Angry" was chosen. Check out all the winners--lots of good writing here, all done with the left hand. (And check out the retro poster Lucky White Girl concocted. Cool, eh?)

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hillary Clinton: "Too Ambitious To Be President"

Hillary is probably about eighth on the list of leading Democrats I would select as our 2008 presidential standard-bearer . . . but I gotta say that this story from The Onion does a brilliant job of exposing the laughably self-contradictory (and sexist) quality of most of the objections to a Hillary candidacy that we'll be hearing from the mainstream media over the next 30 months.

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Seeing With Fresh Eyes

Mary-Jo and I have been home from Arizona for two days now, but I wanted to add this observation:

In our image-saturated world, it's extraordinarily difficult to respond appropriately to a place one has seen ten thousand times in pictures before seeing it in the flesh. While staying in Sedona, Mary-Jo and I made the two-hour drive north to the Grand Canyon. It was interesting and certainly impressive, but on the whole we ended the day feeling more as though we'd ticked off an item on our lifetime to-do list rather than having experienced something truly awesome.

In truth, our main reaction was, "Well, the Grand Canyon looks exactly the way we expected it to look." Which is a shame, of course. How one envies the first European explorers to glimpse the American West--to say nothing of the people we call the Indians, who of course were the continent's original and true pioneers.

For real grandeur, the high point of our week was our hike up Boynton Canyon, a two-hour, three-mile trek through scrubby desert and pine forest that culminated with a brief, steep uphill scramble leading to an exposed rocky ledge where the whole valley was spread out below us while red sandstone cliffs and white limestone cliffs towered overhead. (The picture above, which we took from that spot, scarcely hints at its beauty.) This is where our breath was truly taken away--because we'd never seen a picture of Boynton Canyon before and had no idea what to expect.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

In Bookstores, Size Does Matter

Although it may get me drummed out of the bibliophile's sodality, I must say I agree with Tyler Cowen's article on Slate praising the big chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble and gently debunking the mystique of the independents. (Comments from Slate's fraysters are posted here; to see them, scroll down past the more recent material posted above it.)

I have fond feelings about some specific independent bookstores that I've spent happy hours in, including New York's famous Gotham Book Mart, the charming Yellow Umbrella in Chatham on Cape Cod, and Denver's Tattered Cover. (The latter, somewhat ironically, was one of the first "book superstores" and therefore created the model that Borders and B&N would later use to take over the industry--at least until the advent of Amazon threatened to make that model obsolete.)

But stores like these--richly stocked with a wide variety of titles, redolent with literary history, and staffed by knowledgeable book-lovers--are few and far between. I've been in many more independent bookstores that are drab, understocked, and run by clerks no more insightful about literature than the average barista at Starbucks.

One of my good friends and a fellow member of my monthly book group used to make a point of shopping at Fox and Sutherland, a venerable independent book store in Mount Kisco, New York. Marty felt it was a matter of principle to support the independent owner against the encroachment of the giant chains. When he and I swapped notes about our latest book purchases, I always felt vaguely guilty about saying, "I bought it at Borders."

But on those occasions when I visited Fox and Sutherland, I rarely found the book I was looking for. Many shelves were devoted to things like picture frames, jigsaw puzzles, leather datebooks, and board games--nice goods that perhaps have higher profit margins than books, but hardly made the store into a bastion of high culture. Eventually I gave up and started spending all my book dollars at Borders, where I almost always found the title I wanted (and several other good ones to boot)--that is, when I wasn't patronizing Amazon, where virtually everything is of course available.

I understand the sentimental appeal of the old-style hometown bookstore. But I'm also a realist. Very few Americans have ever been lucky enough to live in a town blessed with such a store. (Jacques Barzun once observed that the relatively unavailability of good books was one reason America was considered "not a reading country": If hamburgers were equally difficult to find, he quipped, America would be "not an eating country.") For most of us, the arrival of the giant chains--and of Amazon--has been a genuine boon.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Feminism and Pop Culture

I just finished reading Rebecca Traister's article on Salon about the rise of young female celebrities who are overly sexualized, superficial, and dumb. I came away from the article confused. Traister seems to make two points, neither of which are particularly well fleshed out: the criticisms of teen culture are overblown and, at the same time, the teen culture carelessly sells the image of "unthreatening femininity." I think Traister did a particularly bad job of supporting this last point. Of a four-page article, she only addresses this argument in the final quarter-page. Her prime example is a "Harvard graduate student" who "liked the 'idea' of dating a dumb girl."

Traister wants us to be alarmed by this admission, but it left me annoyed. By citing his place and level of education, Traister is setting this man apart from--and above--the average man. Are we supposed to think that he is more enlightened than the average man? And if an enlightened man wants to date a dumb girl, then surely all unenlightened men out there would also want to date dumb girls.

But is he more enlightened because of his education? All types of people make their way to all types of institutions to pursue all types of degrees. For all we know, this guy could be a sexist, chauvinist, homophobic man who suffers from low self-esteem. Why should I take what he says as evidence of the doomed future for smart "threatening" girls? One example is not enough to support Traister's opening argument about "unthreatening femininity."

Also, this guy has, actually, "dated only smart girls." He's never gone through the motions of dating a dumb girl. The "idea" he has about dating "dumb girls," is probably similar to my "idea" about dating a musician who works at a coffee shop during the day and plays random gigs at night, or about dating a surfer who back packs around the world looking for a good wave, or about dating a Wall Street broker with a great apartment in Gramercy. I am sure I will never actually date any guys like this, but it is interesting to imagine what life would be like with these people who are so different from me. If this "Harvard grad student" regularly dated "dumb girls" and said that it was great because he could boss them around and treat them like trophies, then I think we could possibly have more to be concerned about (but don't forget, he could still be sexist with low self-esteem).

Traister calls these ditzy, sexy women "images of unthreatening femininity." This makes me wonder two things: who are they unthreatening to? and why is the opposing image necessarily threatening? Traister does not explore either of these two issues.

Regarding the first, I can imagine scenarios in which people from both sexes find this image threatening (not unthreatening, as Traister claims). I know plenty of guys who would be intimidated by these girls' attractiveness and would not want to date them because of it. I also know plenty of girls (myself included) who would be intimidated by this.

Regarding the second, why are intelligent women threatening? I can't wrap my head around this. Is men's self-esteem so delicate that it is damaged when they meet an intelligent woman? That just seems pathetic to me. I would appreciate comments about this because I really just don't get it.

My final point about this article is that Traister frequently notes that there are not many good role models for girls: "Adolescent girls still have no female president to look up to, and too few artists and tycoons and athletes and activists." I agree that it is encouraging to see people like you pursuing high-power, high-status careers. Or, put another way, it is discouraging if you see no one like you pursuing high-powered, high-status careers. But, I wonder if kids really look to pop culture or celebrities for role models. I certainly never did. I always looked to people in my family, friends, teachers, or leaders in my local community. Another problem I have with Traister's statement is that it implies (as do many discussions on this topic) that girls can only look to women as role models and boys can only look to men as role models. Why is a girl limited to looking to Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice as strong political figures? Why can't she look also to Barak Obama, Al Gore, Howard Dean? Why is a girl limited to looking to Mia Hamm and Michelle Wie? What about Tom Seaver or Tiger Woods? I hope a girl can call Martin Luther King, Jr. a role model and a boy can call Mother Teresa a role model.

I think people connect with other people's inspirational stories (and therefore consider someone a role model) because they come from a similar background and they are empowered to think, "If they can do it, so can I." Background is not limited to gender, so why should role models be limited to gender?

I think that the images these young women portray are scary and I do not support the objectification of women. But Traister came to this article with a set of prejudices that is not fair to the people she is writing about (impressionable girls, men, her readers). I think of the feminist movement, and many other equal rights movements, as a struggle to make others realize that you can't generalize and stereotype a group of people. People have all sorts of differences and you can't assume that people of a certain share every quality, belief, or desire. It is frustrating when people fighting stereotypes of one group, stereotype another group.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Garrison Keillor Takes on the Catholics--And Sideswipes the Republicans

Very funny diary by Garrison Keillor on Salon. His string of epithets directed at Republicans is worth the price of admission all by itself. But there is one factual weakness in his argument: Catholics aren't the only folks who use incense. Some of us Episcopalians are into "smells and bells" as well.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Red Rocks, Red State--Paranoia in the Desert

This is an edited version of a diary previously posted. The original version contained a factual error now corrected.

Mary-Jo and I are spending the week in Sedona, Arizona, nestled in the famous Red Rock Country, where incredible towers of wind- and water-sculpted sandstone loom over the landscape like castles out of some fantasy novel. Sedona is also known for its hundreds of New Age practitioners, from yoga teachers and Tarot card readers to crystal purveyors and alternative healing gurus, who are drawn here by the confluence of energy vortexes that supposedly made this part of the world a sacred space for the Native Americans.

I don't know from vortexes, but the mountains are gorgeous, the sun is warm, and the food (so far) has been very good, so I have no complaints.

Of course, Arizona is also one of the reddest of the red states, home to Barry Goldwater and John McCain and reliable presence in the Republican column on Election Day. Its citizens pride themselves on their rugged frontier spirit and maverick ways. No one typifies this better than Rusty, our guide on today's off-road Jeep tour of one of the best of the red rock trails.

Rusty showed up for our trip decked out in denim, wearing a big black cowboy hat, spurs on his tall black boots, and with a six-inch Bowie knife and a revolver strapped on his hips. He had a mane of long white hair, a beard, and a mustache, and as he coaxed the Jeep at two miles per hour up and down the bone-jarring, boulder-strewn trails of the Coconino National Forest, he regaled us with facts and anecdotes about the storied century plant, the agave, which grows for years, finally blossoms--and promptly dies; the best ways to find potable water if you're ever lost in the high desert; and how to avoid being bitten by one of the eleven species of rattlesnake said to inhabit the Arizona wilderness.

Rusty also shared with us his wisdom on a number of topics less obviously germane to his role as guide. For example, he told us that alcoholism, drug abuse, and poverty among the Indians are caused by the generosity of the federal government, whose financial support saps the natives of their independence and drive; that the people who died on 9/11 because they obeyed police recommendations to stay in their offices exemplify how most Americans are "sheep" who have lost the will to think for themselves; that the best way to eliminate one or two of the less desirable justices of the Supreme Court would be to kill them; and that this July 4th, the United Nations will launch a program to take away all the weapons from individual citizens in every nation on earth, paving the way for global tyranny.

Rusty was so definite about this last statement that I had to investigate further. It didn't take much research to discover Jim's source. As you might imagine, the Internet is full of hysterical material linking the UN to gun control and other liberal conspiracies. But the specific focus on this coming Independence Day is derived from this campaign by none other than Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. He is selling books and raising funds based on the notion that the UN is about to overturn the Second Amendment.

Well, that does sound alarming. And when you dig a little deeper, it appears that LaPierre is onto something. The UN does indeed have a program to control the spread of small arms. And the UN's own website contains an announcement that "The United Nations Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects will take place at UN Headquarters in New York from 26 June to 7 July 2006."

Here of course is where LaPierre--and my friend Rusty--got their "July 4th" rhetorical point. Pretty clever, to link the gun control issue to our visceral feeling for Independence Day and American liberties. But what about the substance of their fears? Is Kofi Annan really getting ready to take away Rusty's revolver and the trusty sidearms of all the twenty-first century Minutemen?

Well, according to the UN website, the program is basically about trying to get governments to register sales of small arms to other countries and to be transparent about their own holdings of such weapons. The hope is that this will make it more difficult for insurgent armies, private militias, terrorist organizations, and other such groups to use them to destabilize regions and foment wars. Nothing in there about taking away guns from those who own and use them for private purposes.

Hey, Rusty: I understand your skepticism toward the government, the mainstream media, and other purveyors of conventional wisdom. But know this: There are plenty of independent, non-mainstream, unconventional people out there who are all too ready to mess with your head for their own self-serving ends. Don't let them.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Happy Time Cartoon Beloved Characters Endorse World Wide Webers

Ever Google your own name just out of curiosity to see what pops up? Sure you do. Well, this picture (with this link) appears on the second results page of an image search keyed to "Webers." Anyone know enough Japanese to explain what this furshlugginer thing is all about?

Now I know what Homer Simpson felt like when he discovered Mr. Sparkle.
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Bush Does Wonders for Clinton's Reputation

Good post from Digby about the recent poll that found large majorities of Americans preferring Clinton to Bush in virtually every department, including foreign affairs, national security, and personal honesty (Bush's supposed strong suits). The longer Bush stays in office, the more nostalgic Americans are becoming for the Clinton years--or, as The Onion put it, "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity."

Here's a weird and disheartening angle: I saw Bill Schneider report this story on CNN's Headline News yesterday. When he tossed it back to the anchor (not sure which one of the station's interchangeable blonde news readers it was--might have been Christi Paul, but I didn't really catch the name), she responded by saying (I paraphrase), "To be fair, Bill Clinton didn't have to deal with things like 9/11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Hurricane Katrina." And Bill Schneider agreed that this was so and that these factors must be taken into account in interpreting Bush's low approval ratings.

Good grief. Giving Bush a pass because of all the difficult problems he has had to deal with--and ignoring the fact that he either allowed them to happen (9/11), willfully created them (the wars), or needlessly worsened them (Katrina)--takes illogic to a new low. (Not unlike the guy in the old joke who is convicted of murdering his parents and asks for leniency on the grounds that he is an orphan.) Thank God the polls suggest that Americans are increasingly not buying it.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"All Governments Lie . . . "

" . . . but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out." So wrote the wise and prescient I. F. Stone. The first three words of the quotation form the title of a new biography of Stone by Myra MacPherson, to be published this September by Scribner (at around the same time as the collection of Stone's writings that I edited for PublicAffairs). Read more about Izzy Stone and his growing contemporary relevance in Peter Osnos's column for The Century Foundation.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sometimes We Have Good Reason To Be Angry

There's a certain kind of liberal who gets upset when people on the left exhibit intense feelings. This is the kind of liberal who talks a lot about "civility" and frets continually about the possibility that left-wing "loonies" spouting "anger" and "conspiracy theories" will alienate middle-of-the-road voters and thereby help Republicans get elected.

This kind of liberal believes that being polite and restrained and moderate and reasonable will not only elevate our national discouse but will also pave the way to Democratic electoral victories.

Today's case in point: Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, who is feeling understandably uptight because of the hostile reaction he received to a recent column, in which he declared, as a self-proclaimed expert on humor, that Steven Colbert's performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner was not funny. The thousands of angry emails he has gotten--prompted, he believes, by vitriol from the left wing of the blogosphere--illustrates why Americans can't abide the angry left and will therefore vote Republican in the upcoming elections.

It's an interesting theory. I wonder how Cohen explains the Republican victories in 1980 and 1984 and 1988 and 1994 and 2000 and 2002 and 2004. For most of that time, there was no blogosphere to speak of, and little sign of the angry left. In fact, for several of those elections, the big media story was "angry white men" who were joining the right-wing culture army, rallying behind Pat Buchanan, forming militias and border patrols, tuning in to Rush Limbaugh, signing up for the Christian Coalition, lashing back against affirmative action and "political correctness," and protesting abortion rights and judicial activism. Remember all the cover stories analyzing those angry white men and their profound economic and cultural grievances? I sure do.

Funny, but all that seething anger from the right didn't seem to cost the Republicans a lot of elections. In fact, over the past two decades, whenever the Democrats came close to winning elections, Republican operatives like Karl Rove redoubled their efforts to energize their base of angry white males, using phony issues like flag burning and gay marriage and the "war on Christmas"--just to make sure the anger didn't subside before the next election day. And for this, Rove was hailed as a genius in the mainstream media.

So I guess anger is only a turn-off when it comes from the left.

I remember hearing from the polite and reasonable liberals--Richard Cohen's counterparts--back in the 1960s. They subscribed to a double standard then, too. They were constantly warning about the terrible danger to American democracy posed by "anger" and "violence" from the left. It scared them so much that they tacitly or explicitly supported efforts by people like J. Edgar Hoover and the Johnson and Nixon administrations to demonize left-wing groups and target them for infilitration, investigation, harrassment, and prosecution.

Those polite, centrist liberals were oh so concerned that civil rights "agitators" would alienate well-meaning whites and set back the progress that Blacks had made. And angry talk about "Black Power" and "self-defense" by groups like the Black Panthers and the Black Muslims evoked thousands of words from the polite liberals about the danger to the nation posed by these "violent," "anarchistic" organizations. Meanwhile, oddly enough, only Blacks were dying on the front lines of the civil rights struggle, from Emmitt Till and Medgar Evers to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Throughout the sixties, the same liberals fretted about the "hatred" and "violence" they feared from New Left groups like SDS. They urged those opposed to the Vietnam War to "work within the system" and do nothing to shake the foundations of our precious democracy. Yet oddly enough, there were practically no victims of politically-motivated violence in the sixties except liberal Democrats like the Kennedys or antiwar activists like the five kids murdered by the National Guard at Kent State.

A teenager at the time, I could never understand why, every time someone on the left got murdered for his beliefs, the government and the mainstream media declared it was time for a crackdown . . . on the left.

Now here it is, forty years later, and it's deja vu all over again. We're again mired in a pointless war based on government lies and saddled with a right-wing administration bent on stifling dissent, eliminating oversight by Congress and the Courts, evading Constitutional limits on its power, and using extra-legal violence against those it declares enemies.

In these dire circumstances, the overarching danger, according to the polite and reasonable liberals like Richard Cohen, is incivility from the left.

I just edited a selection of articles by the great I. F. Stone, who had more journalistic genius in his pinky (his left pinky of course) than any three Richard Cohens. Stone was a learned, intensely rational man who deployed historical insight and a deep wisdom about human nature in his political writings--a humanist in every sense of the word. He would have shared Cohen's discomfort with the over-the-top anger that one sometimes encounters in the blogosphere (on the left and the right).

But Stone also had a sense of proportion. In 1970, when the right was cracking down on dissent with the tacit approval of polite and well-meaning liberals, he wrote a great column titled, "Only the Bums Can Save the Country Now."

"Bums," of course, was what right-wingers like Nixon and Agnew called those who dared to get angry over what was being done to their country. Those bums were marching in the streets, chanting obscene slogans and demanding politically impossible things like an end to the draft, equal rights for Blacks, withdrawal from Vietnam, and the impeachment of Nixon. Loony stuff, you see.

I. F. Stone wasn't one to block traffic or chant obscene slogans or throw balloons filled with blood on the walls of draft board offices. He channeled his anger at the right into startling, fact-filled exposes and pages of vivid, white-hot prose. But he also knew better than to turn up his nose at the incivility of those bums in the street. He would have known, in times like these, where the real obscenities--and the real dangers to American democracy--can be found.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Immigration Facts and Fantasies

Before you get browbeaten over the horrific and unprecedented threat represented by today's immigrants by your favorite Lou Dobbs fan (who may be a good friend, neighbor, or relative), read this fascinating article from The Washington Post, which sums up a few of the historical realities about immigration. They're quite a bit different from the pleasant myths many second- and third-generation Americans choose to believe. A few examples:

Contrary to the boasts of many proud Americans that "my relatives didn't break the law when they came to this country, they played by the rules and waited in line," the fact is that for most of American history there were no real "rules" about immigration:

Until 1918, the United States did not require passports; the term "illegal immigrant" had no meaning. New arrivals were required only to prove their identity and find a relative or friend who could vouch for them.

Customs agents kept an eye out for lunatics and the infirm (and after 1905, for anarchists). Ninety-eight percent of the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were admitted to the United States, and 78 percent spent less than eight hours on the island. (The Mexico-United States border then was unguarded and freely crossed in either direction.)

Contrary to the claims of many Latino-bashers that "immigrants were once expected to know English," historian Nancy Foner points out: "Eventually they introduced a literacy test . . . but it was in the immigrant's own language, not English."

And contrary to the complaints that today's immigrants come here just to make a buck rather than being motivated by zeal for American citizenship like past immigrants:

. . . perhaps half of the Italian immigrants returned to Italy, often with cash to buy a farm or own a business. Greeks, too, returned in large numbers. "People complain about Mexicans coming for economic reasons, but they don't realize how many earlier immigrants just sojourned here," said Richard Wright, a geography professor at Dartmouth College. "The rates of return are staggering."

There's much more interesting stuff in the article. But the key take-away is simple: Don't take the self-serving historical fantasies of the anti-immigrant rabble-rousers at face value. They're mostly based on nothing more than thinly-veiled xenophobia, economic anxiety, and an attitude of, "Our families are safely inside, now it's time to shut the gates."

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

With Friends Like Caitlin Flanagan, Democrats Need No Enemies

So here is Caitlin Flanagan in Time magazine, holding forth as the spokesman for all the millions of Americans she claims have been rightly alienated from the Democratic party. The explanation lies in Flanagan's version of the last two generations of political history:

The Democrats made a huge tactical error a few decades ago. In the middle of doing the great work of the '60s--civil rights, women's liberation, gay inclusion--we decided to stigmatize the white male. The union dues-paying, churchgoing, beer-drinking family man got nothing but ridicule and venom from us. So he dumped us. And he took the wife and kids with him.

And now here we are, living in a country with a political and economic agenda we deplore, losing election after election and wondering why.

It's the contempt, stupid.

It must be wonderful to be a photogenic journalist with a counter-intuitive backstory--Liberal housewife! Conservative feminist! Feisty and opinionated stay-at-home mom! It licenses you to bloviate freely based on stereotypes and vague impressions without having to offer any actual facts in support of your assertions.

Tell me, Ms. Flanagan, who exactly are these Democratic party leaders of the past forty years who have treated white males, union-members, church-goers, and family men with "venom," "ridicule," and "contempt"? Did Robert F. Kennedy do this? Did Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern do this? How about Walter Mondale or Jimmy Carter or Mike Dukakis or Bill Clinton or Al Gore?

Every single presidential candidate we have nominated has been a white, church-going family man. Every significant Democratic leader has spoken with respect if not reverence about the family, about hard work, about the value of religion and playing by the rules and honoring our nation.

Democrats have embraced one candidate after another who embodied the traditional values that blue-collar males supposedly stand for. We voted for the Sunday-school-teaching Jimmy Carter, the war heroes McGovern and Kerry, the stolid midwestern Mondale, the southerners Clinton and Gore, and the aspiring ethnic Dukakis. We practically canonized Mario Cuomo, whose credentials as a church-goer, union-supporter, and family man outshine those of any six Republicans combined.

Search your memory, Ms. Flanagan. Your vague impression of Democratic "contempt" for middle-class whites is based on something. Maybe it comes from some flippant remarks made by a Hollywood movie producer or some obscure academic or an angry student leader or Black Panther from the 1960s or 1970s. Any of these is a far more likely source for your impression than any actual Democratic leader. But it's beyond me why you would characterize an entire party based on fringe figures like these.

Hey, it's true that there are white males who believe that the Democrats hold them in contempt. They believe it because of decades of Republican propaganda. The Republicans encourage people to think that anyone who expresses values that differ from their own is showing "contempt" for them. Thus, according to Republican propaganda, advocating choice on abortion is equivalent to "mocking Christian values." Opposing the war in Iraq is equivalent to "spitting on the troops." Defending gay rights is equivalent to "assaulting marriage." And (most relevant to Ms. Flanagan's writings), supporting women in the workplace is equivalent to "demeaning traditional lifestyles." It's pathetic to see a supposedly liberal Democrat unthinkingly swallow these ridiculous equations.

Democrats don't kowtow to white males or beer-drinkers or church-goers. But they also don't treat them with contempt. I'm all three, and I'm also a proud Democrat. Get real, Caitlin.

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Shelby Steele: Whining Liberals Lost Iraq

This op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Shelby Steele certainly illustrates the incoherence and desperation of what passes for philosophy among conservatives these days. As Digby, David Neiwert, and especially Glenn Greenwald have shown, Steele's message (which Greenwald aptly summarizes as "Time to stop feeling guilty and start really bombing") is vicious, self-contradictory, and dishonest.

Among the obvious questions that seem not to have occurred to Steele:

If, as Steele claims, we invaded Iraq not out of humanitarian concerns but "simply to defeat a dangerous enemy," why did we choose to invade a country that had not attacked us and showed no intention to do so?

Conversely, if we invaded Iraq out of concern for the well-being of the poor oppressed Iraqi people (as Bush and company continually claim), why would unleashing the full "ferocity" of our military on the same people be an effective solution to the ongoing insurgency?

If, as Steele states, the Bush administration has restrained itself from using necessary force in Iraq out of excessive sensitivity to international opinion and to avoid European "scorn," why did the same administration go out of its way to publicly ignore and mock "old Europe" during the run-up to war and in the heady early days of an apparently easy victory?

Finally, if the "white guilt" that holds us back from using our full military might in Iraq is so foolish and unwarranted (as Steele suggests), why are we supposed to preen ourselves on "the truly remarkable moral transformation" that it embodies--namely, the rejection of racism that all Americans supposedly now share?

Logically and intellectually, the Steele column is a mess. It's important only because it floats a new conservative meme about Iraq--that, just as in Vietnam, we lost the war because we didn't have the courage to ignore liberal whining and attack with all the brutal power of the American military machine.

Never mind the fact that it was Bush and Rumsfeld who insisted on attacking Iraq without an international coalition and with a force they'd been warned would be inadequate. Conservatives are already at work rewriting history to blame liberals and the French for the fact that we fought in Iraq with one hand tied behind our back.

A decade from now, millions of Americans will believe it.

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Republicans Are Fearless and Brilliant--Just Ask Them

John McCain's recent zigs to the extreme right certainly look like political pandering in a last desperate attempt to obtain the Republican presidential nomination--not the kind of behavior one would expect from a supposedly fearless maverick. But in today's Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals that it isn't pandering--that, in fact, McCain remains "A Man Who Won't Sell His Soul."

And how does Ignatius know? Why, McCain told him so! Ignatius writes:

Some people (Bill Clinton comes to mind) have a knack for making easy compromises on the road to election, but McCain isn't one of them.

"I don't want it that badly," McCain says.

That certainly clears that up.

In a similar vein, the Post's gossip columnists Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts inform us that Bush's comedy act was a smash, while Colbert's was a dud:

The reviews from the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner are in, and the consensus is that President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges stole Saturday's show--and Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert's cutting satire fell flat because he ignored the cardinal rule of Washington humor: Make fun of yourself, not the other guy.

Their source for this priceless insight? "Landon Parvin, who helped Bush and Bridges write the jokes contrasting Bush's public voice with his supposed inner thoughts." Now there's an objective point of view!

As an author, I wonder what I have to do to get the prerogative that McCain and Bush evidently have--to write rave reviews of my own performances and get them published (under someone else's name) in a supposedly serious newspaper. Sure would be handy the next time I have a book coming out . . .

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