Friday, June 23, 2006

Bush Lauds Iraq Insurgency

From today's New York Times:

BUDAPEST, June 22--Fifty years after Hungarian partisans waged a bloody but unsuccessful uprising against Communist rule, President Bush came to this eastern European capital on Thursday to lay a bouquet at the eternal flame monument, but also to draw a parallel to the war in Iraq.
Yes, indeed--the Hungarians were an inspiring example of a people whose country had been occupied by soldiers from a foreign superpower and dared to rise up in an insurgency aimed at driving out the invaders . . . er, wait a minute--are you sure this is the parallel you want to draw?

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Had Enough?

In the latest round of debate over whether or not the Democrats need a positive message (as opposed to a simple we're-not-Bush message) going into the 2006 midterms, I think the best potential slogan was proposed the other day on Daily Kos.

The slogan is simple--and coincidentally it's the same one the Republicans used to take control of Congress in 1946.

"Had Enough?"

I think the TV commercial practically produces itself:

A montage of newspaper front pages--headlines and appropriate photos--crashing onto the screen one at a time, against a black backdrop, each accompanied by a heart-palpitating THUD:








Add a couple more if you like. As the last front page fades to black, a white light fills the screen, followed by these two lines of type, the first in red, the second in blue:


I think it works. What about you?
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Friday, June 16, 2006

Too Many Things

My apologies for not blogging lately, but you will understand and forgive me when I offer as explanation these three little words:

We are moving.

Everyone knows the hell of moving. We last moved seventeen years ago, and I vividly remember how bad it was . . . and how I vowed that I would never move again if I could possibly help it.

But vows like that tend to get broken. (Many a woman in the throes of labor has vowed never, ever to have another child, but somehow second and third children do manage to get conceived.) Now here we are, surrounded by a sea of boxes of books and papers (around a hundred at last count), counting the hours till there will be some return to normality. I spent the last two days rooting around in the attic among boxes I haven't looked at since the last time we moved, which gives you some idea of how important the contents must be.

There's nothing like moving to make a man into a disciple of Thoreau, at least temporarily. How alluring the unencumbered life suddenly seems! To travel the open road, carrying just a knapsack holding a few essentials, the wind in my face, free as a bird! The life of a philosopher--not that of a pack mule, weighted down by all these things.

Yet how seductive things are. I've been throwing out vast mounds of stuff the last few weeks, from old couches and appliances and dressers and clothes to bags and bags and bags of papers and books, and I must say that not a single thing I've tossed hasn't cost me at least a momentary twinge of regret. After all, I owned all these things for a reason. Each one represented a relationship or an experience that I wanted at one time to hang on to or keep for some reason. Discarding all these things now is like rejecting pieces of my past as empty, worthless. And maybe they were, but I hate to acknowledge that.

Which is why I'm clinging to some things that by rights I ought to trash. I'm willing to throw out the old green-glass 8-oz. vintage Coca-Cola bottle that a husband-and-wife author team sent me as a souvenir from their home in Vanuatu in the South Pacific, where Coke is still dispensed that way. Same with the little model airplane I was given after touring the plant where they manufacture Gulfstream aircraft as part of a ghost-writing project that never came to fruition. And the unpainted, uncarved Pinewood Derby car that for some reason I saved from son Matt's Cub Scout days and stuck in a drawer in my office.

But I will not throw out the painting daughter Laura made of Mets third baseman Howard Johnson, wearing his characteristic 1980s moustache and jersey #20, just completing his home run swing. (I judge, from stylistic and historic evidence, that the artist was about twelve at the time.) Or the bag of scallop shells in thirty different speckled hues, ranging from pure white to deep gray, almost black, that I collected one week on the north shore of Long Island and that I've been meaning for years to arrange in a shadow box. (I figure I'll include somewhere in the arrangement a nicely calligraphed version of the opening lines of Sir Walter Raleigh's famous poem about going on pilgrimage:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet, / My staff of faith to walk upon . . . )

And I certainly won't throw out the bass drum head from the kit I played, incompetently, with my old bandmates thirty years ago, painted with the name of the band (WINTERFILTH) in stenciled white letters on a black background.

Some things are sacred.

But oh how happy I will be when the move is over and I can sit in my new home surrounded not by boxes but by my usual furniture and pictures and books, and not have to carry all these darned things anywhere. I like having them (I admit it) . . . but not moving them.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

How To Argue With the Bereaved: It's Called Civility

John Tierney in Saturday's Times:
Arguing with someone in mourning just isn't done--unless, of course, you are Ann Coulter and you have a new book to sell.

She managed to offend everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bill O'Reilly by suggesting that some of the activist widows of the Sept. 11 victims were enjoying their husbands' deaths. That's over the top even for Coulter. But she has identified a real problem: how do you conduct a political argument with grieving relatives?
The "real problem" Tierney and Ann Coulter have identified is, of course, a phony one. It's perfectly easy to argue with grieving relatives like the 9/11 widows. You just start by saying something like, "I sympathize with your loss and the deep sorrow you must be feeling. But with all due respect, I must disgree with you." Absolutely no one would question your right to argue that way.

Perhaps the real problem is that too many on the right have forgotten how to debate without using personal smears (see the swift boating of John Kerry and the personal attacks on everyone from Joe Wilson to Cindy Sheehan). For these people, the notion of respectful disagreement has evidently become so foreign that they can't imagine how to argue with people that are practically smear-proof. So instead they start frothing at the mouth.

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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Fifth Beatle Dies, But Forty More Live On

The death of keyboard player, singer, and songwriter Billy Preston garnered the inevitable "Fifth Beatle" headlines. Which got me wondering: Exactly how many people have been described as "the Fifth Beatle"? This is the kind of question that the Internet was created to answer, and it only took five seconds on Google to uncover this list of Fifth Beatles from Wikipedia:

Muhammad Ali [oh, come on!]
Neil Aspinall
George Best [popular British soccer player]
Pete Best
Alf Bicknell
Wilfred Brambell [very clean]
William Campbell [a non-existent person as far as I can tell]
Eric Clapton
Rod Davis
Brian Epstein
Mal Evans
Len Garry
Albert Goldman
Eric Griffiths
Colin Hanton
Dave Hill
Larry Kane
Jeff Lynne
Murray the K
Charles Manson [yes, that Charles Manson]
George Martin
Linda McCartney
Tommy Moore
Eddie Murphy
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon [convenience-store owner from The Simpsons]
Jimmy Nicol
Yoko Ono
Billy Preston
Ed Rudy
Tony Sheridan
Pete Shotton
Phil Spector
Stuart Sutcliffe
Klaus Voormann

But this list merely scratches the surface. Those eager to plumb these depths of absurdity still further should check out this list, which includes Freddie Mercury, William Shatner, and J. R. "Bob" Dobbs (the cult figure around whom the Church of the Sub-Genius is centered).

There are probably other lists to be found, but the number of extra Beatles is already well into the forties, which I guess is comforting--John Lennon and George Harrison may be dead, but we are in no danger of running out of Beatles for a long, long time.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Conservative Doomsayers: Consistently Wrong, Even About Baseball

Interesting table in the sports section of the New York Times today. It lists the ten baseball players who spent the longest careers with a single team (that is, not the longest tenures with a team, but the longest one-team careers, if you follow the distinction). Here's the list:

Carl Yastzemski, Red Sox--3,308 games
Stan Musial, Cardinals--3,026
Cal Ripken, Jr., Orioles--3,001
Brooks Robinson, Orioles--2,896
Robin Yount, Brewers--2,856
Al Kaline, Tigers--2,834
Mel Ott, New York Giants--2,730
George Brett, Royals--2,707
Craig Biggio, Astros--2,617
Ernie Banks, Cubs--2,528

Does this have some kind of social or political significance? Indeed it does. If you read the sports pages or listen to talk radio, you know that one of the favorite canards of conservative old fogies is the claim that "Ballplayers today have no loyalty," that "Free agency has destroyed team spirit," and that "In the good old days, players stuck with a team."

In fact, the very same issue of the Times contains a letter to the editor making exactly this point, using it to explain why some fans have (allegedly) abandoned rooting for real teams in favor of fantasy-league baseball. Todd Hemphill of Trinity, Florida, writes:

There was a time when rooting for the local teams made sense. With few exceptions there was continuity from year to year. The players were part of your community. When they succeeded, there was a sense of pride and accomplishment. Now plays are hired guns, spinning through a revolving door of multimillion dollar offers.
The implication is that businesses--i.e., the team owners--need to have greater control and power over individuals--i.e., the players--in order to suppress selfishness and disloyalty. For the good of the sport, of course.

This stuff about how baseball has changed for the worse is repeated so often that I bet almost all fans assume it's true. Actually it's hogwash. Go back to the list from today's Times, which one might as well call "The Ten Most Loyal Players in History." When were these players active? Here's a list of their career dates:

Yaz: 1961-1983
Musial: 1941-1963
Ripken: 1981-2001
Robinson: 1955-1977
Yount: 1974-1993
Kaline: 1953-1974
Ott: 1926-1947
Brett: 1973-1993
Biggio: 1988-date (still active)
Banks: 1953-1971

What do you notice? Of the ten most loyal players, only one (Mel Ott) played most of his career before World War II. Six played at least part of their careers after the start of free agency (1975), and four (Ripken, Yount, Brett, and Biggio) played practically their whole careers under free agency. This despite the fact that the free agent era is only thirty years old and therefore represents less than one quarter of the entire history of professional baseball (which started in 1869).

Only one conclusion is possible: In baseball, free agency increases player loyalty, continuity, and stability--exactly the opposite of what bloviating journalists, commentators, old-time players, and bar stool experts have proclaimed for years. Amazingly, none of them bother to look at the facts before making their grand pronouncements.

The larger point: When systems are reformed to protect the rights and interests of more people, the dire consequences that conservatives invariably predict rarely materialize. Increasing the minimum wage does not cause massive unemployment. Protecting the environment does not destroy industry. Raising taxes on the wealthiest does not slow economic growth. And letting ballplayers negotiate their own deals with ballclubs does not ruin the sport's continuity.

But don't expect the bloviators to admit it.

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For the South, the Past Is Never Past

Of all the thoughtful, eloquent writing by Digby that I've enjoyed over the past two years since discovering his great blog Hullabaloo, this diary may be the best yet. Digby goes back to the pre-Civil War era to trace the roots of the ongoing battle over regional cultures and the persistent defensiveness of the South. He quotes the following passage from Lincoln's Cooper Union speech, describing the position of the then-new Republican Party (talk about historic role reversals!):

The question recurs, what will satisfy them [i.e., the white Southerners who defend slavery]? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly - done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.
And Digby goes on to say:

So too, today, we must ask the question, "what will satisfy them?" Will it be to ban gay marriage? Outlaw abortion? Destroy the public schools? Institute mandatory prayer? Deport all non-English speakers?

I don't think so. It certainly will not be enough to nominate a conservative, born again southern Democrat. We did that. His name was Jimmy Carter. Here's what they are still doing to him even 25 years later. [Digby links to a diary chronicling the latest conversative attacks or Carter.] We nominated a son of the "New South," modern, moderate and pro-business. They impeached his ass.

No, what must happen is that Democrats everywhere must place themselves avowedly with the most conservative red states in every way. They must openly reject their own tribal identity (whatever that may be) and become them. Nothing less will do.

"The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of [liberalism], before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us."

We are not going to win conservative red states simply by respecting the culture. There is no evidence that it will work.
The whole post--like almost everything Digby writes--is well worth reading.

I am usually skeptical of "grand theories" that try to explain current political and social trends in terms of vast historical forces operating on a scale of centuries. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that the current North/South divide is in some sense the "same" conflict as the one that split the nation almost 150 years ago. ("Same" in quotation marks because of course no two historical events are ever truly the same.) Which is not to say that civil war must inevitably recur, or that the regional split can never be healed--but that Northern liberals have much to learn from the wisdom of Lincoln--his clarity, flexibility, firmness, and courage--in dealing with the South in the 1850s and 60s.

Perhaps William Faulkner, that insightful, conflicted, bitter yet loyal son of the South, had it right when he wrote (in Requiem for a Nun), "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

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Friday, June 02, 2006

We Are Destroyed By What We Disdain

Check out this post over at TAPPED (The American Prospect) about the comically convoluted labyrinth of formulas supposedly used by Homeland Security to determine the terrorist risk rating of various U.S. cities--a system that somehow designated Washington, D.C. as "low risk" (partly on the ground that it has no hotel casinos or theme parks).

I see two possible explanations for this idiocy: (1) The absurd system that Homeland Security is blaming for its ludicrous risk assessments is merely a cover for decisions that are, in fact, purely political. (2) The department actually based its decisions on their system, which is ridiculous because it was devised, approved, and used by people who don't know how to run an actual organization and in fact pride themselves on this disability (disdaining "bureaucracy," "red tape," "big government," and all that).

In one of his wonderful books on baseball, sabermetrician Bill James observes that people who believe that baseball statistics are meaningless refuse to learn what statistics really mean and therefore end up believing the stupidest theories about the sport, trapped by their own willful ignorance. Something of the sort happens regularly to the Bush administration. Disdaining government, they refuse to think about how to conduct it with intelligence and efficiency, and therefore end up perpetrating some of the most bizarre bureaucratic screw-ups ever seen--from the Medicare drug program to Katrina to Iraq.

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Gerrymandering Is About More Than Race

I'm not enough of a statistician to evaluate the math-based claims in this New Republic article about "the gerrymandering myth." The authors assert that gerrymandering does not appear to be the primary cause of the decreased competitiveness of Congressional seats in recent years. They also say that the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act--due to expire in 2007--have reduced the power of partisan Republicans to gerrymander by forcing strict scrutiny of redistricting plans that reduce minority representation.

For these reasons, they recommend that Democrats not invest their energy or money in reform efforts designed to thwart gerrymandering. Money quote:

[T]hough the independent commissions sought by [anti-gerrymandering] activists might eliminate the ills of gerrymandering once and for all, support on the ground is still very thin--as voters in California, Florida, and Ohio have made clear. Furthermore, such work must progress state by state, so that complete protection by 2011 (when states must next redistrict) is highly unlikely.

Instead, these well-intentioned groups should direct their energies toward Congress and the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. The Act is fundamental in ensuring minority representation in Congress. Without it, gerrymanderers armed with sophisticated technology and facing few real constraints could run wild, causing minority representation in Congress to shrink dramatically. And that would be much more troublesome than a high incumbent reelection rate.
I'm all for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. But isn't there a huge potential downside for Democrats in relying on that law to combat Republican manipulation of Congressional lines? To exaggerate slightly, if the only Democratic seats that are safe from extinction are minority seats, don't we run the risk of having our party increasingly stereotyped in the minds of white voters as "the Black party"?

Don't get me wrong, I'm proud that minority-group members gravitate to the Democratic party, and we should do all we can to continue to deserve their support. (There are currently 40 Black members of Congress, every one of them a Democrat. They represent about one fifth of the total Democratic caucus.) But we need to keep fighting, legally and politically, to protect the Congressional representation of all Democrats, not just those who happen to be members of a racial minority group.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

A "Racist" Charter School and the Self-Contradictions of Conservatism

It's not surprising that the xenophobic Lou Dobbs devoted a segment of his show this evening to this story about an allegedly "racist" charter school. The gist of the controversy, as channeled through a conservative news service:

Taxpayers along with radical groups that aim to reconquer the Southwestern U.S. are funding a Hispanic K-8 school led by a principal who believes in racial segregation and sees the institution as part of a larger cultural "struggle."

The Academia Semillas del Pueblo Charter School was chartered by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2001, local KABC radio host Doug McIntyre--who has been investigating the school for the past three weeks--told WND.

Among the school's supporters are the National Council of La Raza Charter School Development Initiative; Raza Development Fund, Inc.; and the Pasadena City College chapter of MeCHA, or Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan.

"La Raza," or "the Race," is a designation by many Mexicans who see themselves as part of a transnational ethnic group they hope will one day reclaim Aztlan, the mythical birthplace of the Aztecs. In Chicano folklore, Aztlan includes California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Texas.

Now, opponents of charter schools (including those demonized "special interests," the teachers' unions) have long warned that giving taxpayer money to private schools run to promote private values, interests, and goals, is a recipe for problems like this. When we support public schools, we get public accountability in return. Charter schools have no such accountability . . . which is one reason why they don't represent the solution to our educational problems that conservatives like to claim. (In fact, they promote the division of our society into racial, ethnic, economic, and cultual ghettos . . . something conservatives, in other contexts, like to decry.)

Of course, the conservative supporters of charter schools don't talk about "eliminating accountability." Instead, they say it like this:

While charter schools must adhere to the same major laws and regulations as all other public schools, they are freed from the red tape that often diverts a school's energy and resources away from educational excellence. Instead of constantly jumping through procedural hoops, charter school leaders can focus on setting and reaching high academic standards for their students.
(I'm quoting the website of The Center for Education Reform, a D.C.,-based organization that pushes charter schools.) The key words here are "red tape" and "procedural hoops," which tap the universal frustration we've all experienced with badly-run bureaucracies to enlist our emotional support for the "freedom" of charter schools.

But if we give charter schools the "freedom" to follow their own agendas, how will we block the use of taxpayer money to fund schools that are racist or otherwise obnoxious to mainstream values? The only answer--which some politicians will undoubtedly propose if the Semillas del Pueblo story gains any traction--is to create some system for evaluating, regulating, and approving the procedures and curricula of charter schools.

Hmm. Sounds like the dreaded "red tape" and "procedural hoops" that the conservatives promised we would banish forever.

This is one of the many points of collision between the "libertarian" (essentially pro-business) piece of the conservative coalition and the "values-based" (Christianist, xenophobic) piece. It's a friction we liberals need to keep pointing out and exacerbating. If either piece drops out of the Republican coalition, the party will find it damned hard to keep winning elections.

And remember: In political rhetoric, "red tape" and "bureaucracy" generally equal "rules I'd rather not follow--but which I'm ready to impose on people I don't like." Think of this next time you feel yourself getting sucked in by some conservative's "anti-bureaucracy" rant.

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Well, It's Not As If Terrorists Ever Targeted New York Before

In a perverse way, it's reassuring to see that plunging poll numbers and intra-party rebellions haven't driven the Bush administration to abandon any of their core governing principles--such as making life-and-death decisions based on patronage, partisanship, and cronyism. Latest case in point, as reported in The New York Times:

After vowing to steer a greater share of anti-terrorism money to the nation's highest-risk cities, Homeland Security officials today announced grants to New York City and Washington that would be slashed by 40 percent, while dollars headed to spots including Omaha and Louisville, Ky., would surge.

The release of the 2006 urban area grant allocations, which total $757 million, drew an immediate condemnation from leaders of Washington and New York, the two targets of the 2001 terrorist attacks, as well as expressions of befuddlement by anti-terrorism experts. . . .

And here's the part of the story that offers the unique bit of ketchup-is-a-vegetable, you-have-to-hear-it-to-believe-it surrealism that we treasure from the Republicans:

New York officials were given a one-page tally that explained, in part, how the region's risk-based standing was calculated. The document said the region had no "national monuments or icons," four banking or financial firms with assets of over $8 billion, 28 chemical or hazardous material sites, as well as nearly 7,000 other possible important, high-risk targets, like hospitals or major office buildings . . . .

In related news, the Bush administration announced plans to move the Statue of Liberty to Casper, Wyoming, the Empire State Building to Macon, Georgia, and the Brooklyn Bridge to Tallahassee, Florida.

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