Saturday, March 31, 2007

Silencing David Hicks

Over at Talking Points Memo, Joshua Micah Marshall writes about the plea bargain deal accepted by Gitmo detainee David Hicks. It includes a statement that Hicks has never been mistreated (contradicting his past complaints about beatings), a promise not to sue, and a commitment not to speak with the media for at least a year. Observes Marshall,
What we have here is a plea bargain in which the government leverages its vast control over the life, liberty, and body of the defendant to obtain for itself a release from potential liability for its own conduct and a one-year protection from bad PR. Truth, justice, and the Gitmo way.
I agree with Marshall. But I also wonder how enforceable this kind of gag order is--especially given the fact that Hicks is going to be returned to his native Australia to serve out his sentence. What exactly will the US government do if Hicks (for example) publishes a book detailing how he was tortured at Gitmo--send the Marines to Adelaide to arrest him? Are there any lawyers out there with some notion as to the practical impact of this agreement?

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Why Ed Kranepool Hasn't Shown Up At Temple Lately

With the start of the baseball season less than 48 hours away, a few items related to America's pasttime:

1. I visited this thread on the Mets-related blog Amazin' Avenue yesterday and was amused and distracted by the query, "By the way, can anyone tell me when a team has had 3 Jewish players on their team at the same time[?]" The question garnered two less-than-serious responses ("The Marx Brothers" and "The Three Stooges"), and then this semi-serious response: "Art Shamsky, Al Weis and Jerry Grote on the Championship 1969 Mets team. (OK, I'm lying about Grote, but still . . .)." To which I responded, over-enthusiastically, "Hey, you forgot Ed Kranepool! He was on the 69 Mets and I'm pretty sure he was Jewish. Anyway he was born in the Bronx and that should count for something.")

Having shot from the hip, I later decided to check the facts on one of several websites that list Jewish ballplayers and was chagrined to discover that not only is Ed Kranepool not Jewish but apparently neither is Al Weis! Which suggests the possibility of a new baseball trivia category: Major league players who are not Jewish but who could pass for Jewish. My Mets candidates, in addition to Weis and Kranepool, would include Al Leiter, Don Zimmer, and of course pitcher David Cohen (oops, Cone).

This may seem like an odd topic but there is a kind of precedent: In one of his Baseball Abstracts Bill James riffs on the large number of members of 1986 Mets who had Latino names without actually being from Latino families, including Keith Hernandez, Rafael Santana, Jesse Orosco, Sid Fernandez, and Bobby Ojeda. ("Maybe they're trying to qualify for some kind of affirmative action grant," he speculated.)

2. I got another reason to dislike Chris Matthews this week when he concluded one of his shows by donning a Philadelphia Phillies cap and predicting a "big season" for his team. Maybe the fact that he grew up a Phillies fan helps to explain some of the content-free, deeply unserious snarkiness of Matthews' show Hardball. These are the fans who spent a decade mercilessly booing the greatest third baseman of all time, Mike Schmidt, for reasons that no one has ever adequately explained.

3. King Kaufman at Salon is one of the better sports commentators around. So I was mildly appalled to find that his National League preview column predicts that my Mets will finish no higher than third in the Eastern Division, behind the Phillies and the Braves. Third place!--for the team that led the entire National League in victories last season!? He calls them "an aging team" with "a rickety starting rotation." Vicious, vicious slander--every single player on the team, even Julio Franco, is younger than I am. Since I am psychologically still in my twenties, that makes them spring chickens in my book.

Let's go Mets.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Times Deems Pork a Scandal--If It's Democratic

Wow, looks as though there is a pattern here. Back in December, I wrote about how the New York Times had devoted most of its precious op-ed page to an eye-catching graphic (a format they call Op-Chart) that presented a highly slanted and misleading attack on liberal bloggers. (Short version: The chart, developed by DC blogger K. Daniel Glover, presented an almost entirely Democratic list of bloggers who'd been paid consultants to political campaigns, implying some sort of corruption--while failing to note that the relatively small number of bloggers who'd worked for campaigns without disclosing their paid status were all Republicans.)

Now the Times is at it again, using the visually arresting Op-Chart format for another unfair hit on Democrats. Today it's this chart by Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste (which as you might guess is a corporate-funded lobbying group). The chart lists items of pork attached to the emergency spending bills currently before Congress, and lest anyone misunderstand the message, Schatz's introductory comments note:
Despite their campaign talk about earmark reform last fall, the new Democratic leadership shamelessly used pork to buy votes. . . .The chart below, which is a partial list of some of the most egregious earmarks, shows that the new bosses are already feeding at the trough, and "war pork" threatens to sink their fiscal credibility.
There follows the chart, decorated with a giant silhouette of a pig (get it?), listing such appalling and obvious wastes of taxpayer money as $4 million for the Office of Women's Health at the FDA and $2 million for repairing ditch irrigation systems. All of this with no background, context, explanation, history, or comparison.

I guess it would have been too much work for an editor at the Times to look back at any other emergency spending bill--one passed by a Republican Congress, for example--to see whether any unrelated spending was included. It took me all of five minutes on Google to uncover this House bill from June, 2006, as sponsored by that great Republican statesman Jerry Lewis (R-CA). A single paragraph of this bill, which was designated an emergency spending bill to cover expenses related to Hurricane Katrina, provides funding for the following pork projects:
(1) the St. Mary Development Corporation, City of Dayton, Ohio, to purchase and demolish blighted property, develop detailed design/construction drawings, and to begin site preparation for new infill housing lots in lieu of street infrastructure and parking facility improvements; (2) the West Virginia University Institute of Technology Community and Technical College in lieu of the West Virginia Technical College for completion of a building for a newspaper publishing program; (3) the Borough of Mahonoy City, Pennsylvania, for improvements to Centre Street in lieu of improvements to West Market Street; (4) the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation for demolition and redevelopment of properties in the Broadway-Fillmore Corridor, Buffalo, New York, in lieu of infrastructure improvements in Central Plaza Park; (5) the Crittenden County Senior Citizens (currently, Day Care) Center, Crittenden County, Kentucky, for expansion of such Center in lieu of the Day Care Center; (6) the Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, New York, for renovation and build out of a multipurpose center in lieu of construction of a senior center; (7) the Boys and Girls Club of Lancaster, Inc. in Pennsylvania (currently, City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania) for construction of the Columbia Clubhouse for the Boys and Girls Club of Lancaster; (8) the City of Greenwood, South Carolina, for the Emerald Triangle Project in lieu of the Greenwood Partnership Alliance, South Carolina, for the renovation of the Old Federal Courthouse; and (9) the UND Center for Innovation Foundation in Grand Forks, North Dakota, for the UND Technology Transfer and Commercialization Center as well as the Ina Mae Rude Entrepreneur Center.
You can read the whole bill if you want to see the complete list of pork projects deemed worthy, nine months ago, by the Republican Congress.

Did the Times turn over its op-ed page last summer to run a giant chart accusing the Republicans of hypocrisy or corruption for passing this bill? Don't bother looking. They didn't.

The Op-Chart format is fun and very effective. Media experts have long known that people are far more likely to look at pictures and read captions than they are to study long blocks of text. So when the Times runs an Op-Chart, it probably gets much more readership than the typical op-ed column.

It's disturbing that America's "paper of record," that supposed bastion of liberalism, seems to feel it's appropriate to devote this format especially to insinuations of hypocrisy and corruption in which data is cherry-picked to make Democrats look bad.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Schism--The Easy Way Out

As I wrote here, the Episcopal Church in the USA is facing a crisis driven by its most conservative members. Angered over the installation of a gay bishop and by other acts they view as unorthodox (especially the ordination of women), a relative handful of conservative parishes have tried to withdraw from the ordinary structure of the church and establish ties with African bishops who share their right-wing views.

Back in February, the conservative faction wielded enough votes in a gathering of the worldwide Anglican communion to pass a communique that asked the American church to agree to halt the practices deemed unacceptable or face possible expulsion from the communion. This was an unusual step because the Anglican tradition has always permitted a great deal of leeway to national churches to control their own practices.

The communique also asked the American church to ratify and recognize the links between some US parishes and conservative African bishops--another unusual step, since the Anglican communion has always required local churches to accept the authority of duly elected diocesan bishops. The communique offered a so-called "pastoral scheme" under which conservative US parishes could, in effect, conduct worldwide "diocese hunts" to find bishops whose practices they consider congenial.

Now the US bishops have responded. In this resolution passed at a meeting held in Navasota, Texas, the bishops have reaffirmed their continuing desire to remain a part of the worldwide Anglican communion while rejecting the "pastoral scheme." After listing the doctrinal and traditional grounds for this rejection, the bishops make this point:
Most important of all it is spiritually unsound. The pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation. The real cultural phenomenon that threatens the spiritual life of our people, including marriage and family life, is the ease with which we choose to break our relationships and the vows that established them rather than seek the transformative power of the Gospel in them. We cannot accept what would be injurious to this Church and could well lead to its permanent division.
Here we get to the heart of the matter. When do philosophical, personal, and spiritual disagreements between people become so great that the only solution is separation? How long do people who have been bound together go on striving for reconciliation, while enduring the pain and anger that inevitably arise from harsh dissension?

This is the question at issue in the looming Episcopal schism. It's also the question--at least one of the questions--at issue when a married couple contemplates divorce, as well as one of the chief questions that the American nation faced during the struggle over slavery.

And perhaps there's a pattern here. Rigid, absolutist conservatives seem to be the ones most eager to insist that separation is the only solution to the unbridgeable differences they perceive between themselves and those with whom they are in conflict.

It was the Southern Confederates who insisted that the only solution to the slavery crisis was civil war. It's the conservative Episcopalians who today are pushing a denominational schism. And--perhaps not coincidentally--the four leading Republican presidential candidates (Giuliani, McCain, Romney, and the as-yet-undeclared Gingrich) have nine divorces among them, whereas the four leading Democrats (Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and the undeclared Gore) have each been married to the same spouse for decades.

I guess, for the "family values" party, marriages--figurative or literal--last only as long as everyone agrees with Daddy. Once he doesn't get his way, he's out the door.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Hillary Is No Big Brother

By now, you've seen the Hillary/Apple/1984 commercial that was whipped up by a freelance political consultant (who formerly worked on the Obama campaign) and that has been widely disseminated via YouTube and hundreds of other websites. (If you haven't seen it, here's a link.) Two comments:

1. Whether you like Hillary or not--and I personally would rank her, at this moment, no better than fourth among the declared Democratic contenders--the ad is extremely unfair. You could take a clip of practically anyone and insert it in place of the image of Hillary on the screen, and they would end up looking creepy and sinister. (Think about it.) The ad certainly doesn't demonstrate anything about Hillary--it just smears her by associating her with emotions that are, at the very least, wildly disproportionate.

What's more, it's disingenuous for defenders of the ad to say (as some have done in the blogosphere) that it's merely designed to satirize Hillary's "robotic," "inauthentic," "overly scripted," "old-politics" campaign. In fact, it goes much further, powerfully evoking the widespread right-wing Republican belief that Hillary is a would-be dictator eager to enslave Americans. Think I'm exaggerating? The book title and subtitle pictured here weren't my idea. Plenty of people on the right are ready to believe this nonsense. The 1984 ad plays into their hands and will certainly be helpful to the Republicans if Hillary gets the nomination.

And lest you say I am over-reacting, consider the history of the iconography in this ad. When Apple originally created the ad to introduce the Macintosh computer, it was deliberately using hyperbole. It was obvious that comparing IBM to a brutal, tyrannical Big Brother was an absurd exaggeration. (For starters, IBM never had an army, prison camps, or secret police.) Depicting Mac users as feisty iconoclasts battling an all-powerful regime was just a fun way of tapping into everybody's inner rebel, drawing on emotions derived from a much more serious conflict--the conflict between freedom and tyranny dramatized in George Orwell's novel.

By recasting the Apple ad with Hillary as Big Brother, the hacker is dragging the 1984 symbolism back from the world of technology into the world it originally came from--the world of politics. Suddenly it's no longer so obvious that the ad is a satiric exaggeration! We all know that IBM doesn't literally have the power to turn the country into a dreary hopeless den of conformity. Do we know that about the next president of the United States? Not necessarily.

Thus, transforming a computer ad which embodied a mock political message into a real political message invites us to take its imagery much more literally. And I have a real problem with this. Whatever you may think of Hillary, she is no Big Brother. Depicting her as one is--well, is Limbaugh-esque.

2. I'm hearing a lot of talk about how this ad illustrates the incredible new powers of technology, of the netroots, of citizen activists, etc. etc. (Paul Begala and Arianna Huffington were just expatiating about these themes on WNYC radio.) Let's not get carried away here. Remember this ad is a ripoff of an old media ad. It gets most of its evocative power from the production values of the original TV commercial as well as from our memories of how the original was used--as the opening salvo of a very effective marketing campaign designed with great creativity and chutzpah and launched with enormous fanfare during the Super Bowl, no less.

So the excitement this anti-Hillary message is generating is largely derivative. It doesn't show how the little guy with no resources can use technology to create a powerful message--it shows how a little guy can make a big splash by cleverly stealing, twisting, and repurposing a message originally created by a big guy.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Elizabeth and John Edwards Will Carry On

After a morning of rumors, the Edwards family announced at a noon press conference that, despite Elizabeth's being diagnosed with cancer that is "treatable but not curable," John's campaign for the presidency will continue--with Elizabeth participating as fully as she can. Good luck and God's blessings to them both.

On the far less important level of implications for politics and media, apparently the big story is the fact that the website The Politico laid an egg by declaring--inaccurately--that Edwards would definitely suspend his campaign. On the site, Ben Smith has issued a forthright mea culpa explaining and apologizing for the mistake.

More appalling than his error are some of the comments by visitors to The Politico. A few samples (spelling errors and typos uncorrected):
It'll be interesting to see what the Clintonistas and the Obama-Lama-Ding-Dongs do to garner the sympathy vote now that the Edwardses have (temporarily, at least) cornered the market. Perhaps Bill will have another right wing conspiracy affair? Hillary will realize she has no moral fiber? Obama will realize Unitarianism is a cult? Another political coup for the wily lawyer from NC!

This was cleary a scheme designed to use his wife's illness to get publicity and sympothy. Don't take it very hard you were just a pawn in this sick little game. Get used to it.

Well, what I said about wishing Mrs. Edwards and her family well in her battle with cancer stand. I have to say that my opinion of her husband, however, just went down a few notches as he places his political ambitions above his family. I suppose it was too much to hope for that despite having despicable views, Edwards might be a decent man.

And so, Mr. "Big House" Edwards' ego is more important than his family . . .
Talk about cynicism. What on earth gives these people the right to sit in judgment on a decision like the one the Edwardses have had to make?

For my money, Andrew Sullivan got it right (as he does sometimes). When the rumor mill was saying that Edwards was suspending his campaign, Sullivan wrote a post praising him for getting his priorities straight. Once the rumors proved to be false, Sullivan wrote an update saying, "Good for him," and praising the character of both the candidate and his wife.

There's obviously no inconsistency there. As outsiders, people like Sullivan and I would have supported and admired a decision by Edwards to leave the race so as to focus all his energy on the needs of his family. But as outsiders, we are clearly not in any position to condemn him now that he and Elizabeth have made the opposite decision. We're not the Edwardses' doctors and we're not members of the family--who are we to decide what's best for the two of them?

For too many people, dragging "family values" into politics seems to mean giving license to the bullies and the busy-bodies to stand in judgment over the rest of us.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Owning Up

Good column by Stanley Fish in today's New York Times about the resistance by some politicians to taking responsibility for slavery and other past evils. The heart of his argument:
. . . the objection most often voiced is that the wrong people would be apologizing to the wrong people. That was the point made by Tommie Williams, the Georgia Senate majority leader, when he said: "I personally believe apologies [for slavery] need to come from feelings that I've done wrong," and "I just don't feel like I did something wrong."

Williams's counterpart in the house, Speaker Glenn Richardson, made the same claim of innocence on behalf of his colleagues. "I'm not sure what we ought to be apologizing for," given that "nobody here was in office."

But this is very bad reasoning, and you can see why if you read just a few recent Supreme Court cases on any subject. Invariably, the justice delivering the court's opinion will cite a precedent from a case decided 50 or 100 years ago, and say something like, "In Smith v. Jones, we ruled that . . . " But of course he or she didn't actually--that is, personally--rule on anything in 1940 or 1840, so what's with the "we"?

The answer is that by using "we" to refer to an action taken before any present member of the court had reached the age of reason or was even alive, the justices acknowledge that they are part of an ongoing enterprise, and as such are responsible for its history; not as individuals, but as persons charged with the duty of carrying on a project that precedes them and will survive them.
Fair enough, and here is a second point that Fish didn't mention. Conservative politicians--the ones who most frequently get on their high horse to disclaim responsibility for evils like slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment, etc.--seem to have no difficulty claiming a spiritual and political connection to heroic deeds from our nation's past. From Bush--who loves to compare himself to everyone from Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Truman--on down to every local politician who wraps himself in the mantle of Washington and Jefferson on Independence Day, they all love to bask in the glow of this reflected virtue.

If the wisdom, courage, and perserverance of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are part of our national inheritance--and they are--then so are the cruelty, arrogance, and deceit of the Ku Klux Klan, Joe McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover. If we want to claim the former, let's show a little integrity and maturity by owning up to the latter.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Psychoanalyzing The Usage Gripers

The folks over at Language Log devote a fair amount of time, space, and energy analyzing (and, let's be honest, mocking) the ignorance and general silliness of pop language mavens and grammar scolds. You know the type--people who think that misuse of the word hopefully or failure to honor the niceties of the subjunctive voice is a sign of the impending and richly deserved downfall of the American republic and who write shrill letters to newpaper editors announcing this fact.

Now, in some recent posts, linguist Mark Liberman goes beyond the mockery to speculate about what motivates the usage gripers, and he even quotes a few emails he has received theorizing about their psychological and philosophical characteristics. For what it's worth, here is my two cents, quoted from my own email to Professor Liberman:
My impression is that class, racial, social, and political anxiety is a major emotional driver behind prescriptivist complaints about grammar, usage, and other forms of linguistic "misbehavior."

People who feel that the world is going to hell because the values they were raised with are no longer respected find verbal mistakes an easy and publicly acceptable thing to seize on and complain about. And in their complaints there is often an undercurrent of resentment over the fact that the "wrong sort of people" are now shaping "our" language.

This resentment cuts in a couple of directions. It radiates "downward" in social terms, towards groups like young Blacks and Latinos who refuse to learn and use "proper" English, and also "upward" towards "elitists" like academics, politicians, and business consultants who use "fancy" euphemisms and obscure words as ways to befuddle and control "us" good solid mainstream Americans.

What these complaints have in common is an emotional undercurrent of fear about how the world is changing and a desire to push it back toward what was perceived as a more comprehensible and controllable state before "they" started messing it up.
Of course, the above generalizations don't apply to people like me. When I correct other people's grammar, I do it in the nicest possible way and out of pure human generosity, much as I would discreetly gesture to alert a friend that his fly was open or that he had a piece of spinach stuck between two front teeth. As Phyllis Lindstrom used to say on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "I'm just too much of a giver. It's my greatest flaw."

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Men May Be Swine, But Not Necessarily Ambitious Swine

Over at The American Prospect, Linda Hirshman fuels the ongoing debate about male/female equality by bashing (a) insincere men for paying lip service to the notion of fairness and (b) weak-kneed women for letting men slide by on good intentions. Her complaint is that, despite years of empty promises about giving more time and energy to caring for kids and the home, most men still devote the lions' share of their physical and mental resources to careers instead. And while she acknowledges that unfair corporate and government policies play a role in this imbalance, she thinks women need to do more to pressure men to change their choices.

Hirshman sums up her argument this way:

Why won't the men sacrifice their own ambitions, independence, earning power, and success in the interest of equal treatment for the women they purport to love? Because they understand the value of their work prospects. No opt-out revolution there. But the Council on Contemporary Families seems to think that the men who run the institutions of government and the market economy are going to limit their success and earn less money by increasing the cost of their labor force through paid parental leave, increased training time for shorter term workers, on-site day care, and the rest. These men are not going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts when they won't even do it for the women they love. . . .

Until women refuse to participate in the unjust world the men embrace, there will be no forward progress.

As a man, I am fully aware of my sex's capacity for laziness, self-dealing, and hypocrisy. (I have long noted these tendencies--and not solely in other men.) But I think Hirshman's diary is slightly unfair. She seems to assume that all men are basically careerists--"guys willing to run from equal fatherhood as soon as it pose[s] a threat to their prospects at work," as she puts it elsewhere in her column. And she also assumes that their careerism is fundamentally selfish, driven by "their own ambitions, independence, earning power, and success," to quote her litany.

This is off base, I think. Those motives certainly exist and I'm sure they drive many men. But for some of us, careers aren't just about ambition. They are also about being able to afford a house with enough bedrooms; private school tuition or a neighborhood with good schools; car repairs; dental bills; and a family vacation once or twice a year.

So when a man chooses to focus his energies on success at work, he may well be motivated, at least in part, by his family's needs and wants, not just his own desire to flee from "equal fatherhood." And if a man were to decide to accept diminished career prospects and a reduced income in exchange for more time at home with his children, would that necessarily improve life for his female partner, as Hirshman seems to assume? I'm not so sure that every couple would agree.

Hey, I realize that the "unjust world" we live in was shaped over the millennia mainly by men. But that doesn't mean that every man of today "embraces" that world, as Hirshman says. Many of us deplore and resent the constrained choices we face, even as we try to work the system as best we can to benefit ourselves and the people we care for.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Half A Notch More Intelligent Than Your Average Barroom Conversation

Bag News Notes does its usual interesting job of analyzing an image from the current media--in this case, the Photoshopped cover of Sports Illustrated that depicts a half-submerged baseball stadium as a way of promoting their cover story on the potential effects of global warming on sports.

Which reminds me that I've been meaning for the longest time to write an article about the politics of Mike & the Mad Dog, the popular sports radio talk-show duo on New York's WFAN. They talk about social, economic, and racial topics surprisingly often, and usually, infuriatingly, from an ostensibly "non-political" but right-wing position heavily tinged with Know-Nothingism.

Case in point: When Sports Illustrated ran the cover on global warming, host Mike Francesa didn't even bother to read the articles inside but simply denounced the magazine on his show as follows (I am paraphrasing, but not by much):
Hey, I'm no scientist, I don't know anything about climate or global warming. But can we get real about this cover story? I mean, the effects of global warming are incredibly subtle. No way it will have any impact on sports in our lifetime. In a hundred or two hundred years, maybe. I mean, what are we talking about, half a degree here or there? This story is an unbelievable stretch. The guys at Sports Illustrated are so desperate for something to write about that they're obviously jumping on this Al Gore/Oscar bandwagon. I mean, talk about pathetic [etc. etc.].
Maybe the most noteworthy thing about this absurd rant is Francesa's assumption that, for a sports talk show host, it's entirely appropriate and maybe even praiseworthy to announce that he knows nothing about a topic before spending several minutes delivering opinions about it with the utmost sense of conviction.

Such are the standards of evidence and logic that are taken for granted in the world of sports talk. Which doesn't matter, if the topic is Mariano Rivera's contract extension or the power-hitting potential of Lastings Milledge. But you might think global warming is important enough to actually devote five minutes to learning about before shooting off at the mouth, no?

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An Airline Safety Tip I Doubt Will Get Implemented Any Time Soon

Flying from New York to Chicago on ATA this morning I overheard one twenty-something woman say to another, "Airplanes should have some kind of knockout gas on board so that if the pilot knows the plane is going to crash and everyone is going to die he can turn on the gas and put everyone peacefully to sleep."

Her companion was trying to sleep and responded with silence until the woman added, "I'm going to recommend this to some major airline." At which point her companion replied, sleepily, "You do that, honey."
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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Observations Out Of Advancing Fogeydom

A couple of quick, unrelated comments about technology and communications media from a baby boomer's perspective:

(1) Last weekend I heard an NPR interview with Roger Angell, baseball writer and fiction editor of The New Yorker. He was talking about a newly-published collection of letters by his stepfather, E.B. White. At one point, the interviewer asked Angell about the effect of email on the art of correspondence. Angell replied that email had basically destroyed the custom of letter-writing, and he spoke for a minute or two about how friends and family members used to keep in touch with one another via snail mail.

Sorry, but I think Angell has this all wrong. I was born in 1953 (33 years after Roger Angell), and there was never in my lifetime a period when average people kept in touch by writing letters. People picked up the phone and called one another. The one possible exception, when I was very young, would have been when someone was very far away--on another continent, for example--in which case long-distance phone charges might have been prohibitive. But by the 1960s, people were using long-distance telephone routinely. By that time, the letter as a medium of daily intercourse was pretty much dead, though it was regularly mourned in print and over the airwaves by etiquette experts and other defenders of the old-fashioned.

Angell is, I'm sure, sincere in his nostalgia for the "old days" when people wrote letters, but I think he's recalling the 1940s--definitely not the 1980s.

If anything, email has revived the custom of letter-writing. I certainly communicate by writing much more than ever now that I have the option of dashing off an email to someone. And I love it, since (truth be told) I pretty much hate talking on the telephone.

(2) Flipping around the TV channels the other night in the usual futile search for something to watch, I realized how incredibly rare it has become for Mary-Jo and me to watch anything on one of the major TV networks. We like good sitcoms--at various points in our lives we were faithful viewers of M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, and Frasier--but the only network sitcom we still watch with any regularity is 2 1/2 Men on CBS (which I would place on the third rung of sitcom greatness, about on a par with shows like Family Ties and way below the true classics of the genre).

Other than that, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything we watch on the networks. We sometimes catch part of 60 Minutes or a little of The Today Show while getting dressed in the morning, and if I can't get to sleep at night I might tune in Letterman. But otherwise, everything we watch is on cable or PBS. Surprisingly enough, I'd guess that we tune in to specialized outlets like the Cooking Network and the Travel Channel quite a bit more often than CBS, NBC, or ABC.

For someone who grew up in the heyday of network TV, this is an amazing change that has crept up on me--a little like discovering that, without fully realizing it, I gradually stopped looking at The New York Times and now devote all my reading time to The Daily Racing Form and Popular Mechanics.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Things People Say

I'm reviewing a new book about the American health care system by Arnold Relman, a physician and former professor at Harvard Medical School. It's a good book, but I'm writing not to give my assessment but rather to focus on a couple of sentences from the last chapter, which is titled "An Open Letter to My Colleagues in the Medical Profession":

I suspect most of you chose medicine for the same reasons my generation did over sixty years ago, and the prospect of a good financial return on your educational investment was not at the top of your list. Financial reward was important, of course, but it was not your first priority. Everyone knows that a competent physician can almost always earn a good living, but there are many easier ways to make more money, without working so hard or preparing so long and arduously.
This is the kind of statement you hear bandied about a lot, in reference to a lot of occupations: "No one becomes an X in order to get rich, because there are a lot of easier ways to make money." I've heard comments like this in which X was everything from writer to nurse to college professor to politician to social worker to artist to career diploment. The underlying assumption is almost never questioned. And while I agree that very few people would go into any of these fields with the sole purpose of making a lot of money--and that the same probably applies to medicine as well--I wonder: What exactly are these other fields people are always vaguely alluding to, where it is supposedly easy to get rich?

Are the people who make these statements thinking about business--say, being a corporate executive or a management consultant? I know a bunch of people in those occupations who are very well-off, but they mostly work very, very hard--long hours, weekends and evenings of work, lots of time on the road, etc., etc.

Is law supposed to be the royal road to wealth? Law school is no picnic, and attorneys, especially young ones, are famous for the grueling hours they put in.

What about show biz or sports? Obviously those who achieve success in these fields make huge amounts of money in occupations that sometimes appear less than grueling (although being an NFL linebacker or acting in a Broadway musical is actually quite physically demanding). But no one could describe the path to success in these areas as "easy," not with the daunting odds any individual aspirant faces.

The more I observe life and think about it, the more I conclude that the only easy way to get rich is to marry or inherit money--and that exacts its own sort of price. When it comes to earning money, there actually is no easy or foolproof way.

I think the reason you hear statements like the one I quoted before is simply that, when contemplating the difficulties we each face in our own careers, we tend to assume, without giving it much thought or performing any research, that other people must have it a lot easier.

In fact, they probably don't. Which maybe is some sort of consolation. Or maybe not.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Runaway Campaign Spending? Not So Much

Updated below

Good point by Atrios in a post about campaign finances:
I don't really think presidential campaigns cost all that much money. This is a big country and a national campaign requires a decent staff, a lot of travel, and, yes, television advertising. Add up what it costs to employ even a modest staff in dozens of states for a sustained period and you've already gotten to a pretty big number.
Commentators love to complain about "runaway campaign spending" and the "vast sums of money" now involved in politics, and television reporters have a way of enunciating any number that ends in "-illion" with great relish so as to imply that it is obscenely huge. Yet they rarely provide any actual context or comparison. For example, five minutes on Google yielded the following dollar figures:

U.S. retail jewelry sales (2006 est.): $44 billion
McDonalds store revenues, U.S. (2006 est.): $22 billion
U.S. theme park revenues (2205 est.): $10 billion
U.S. video game sales (2004 est.): $6.2 billion
Total cost of 2004 Presidential and Congressional election campaigns: $3.9 billion

The problem with election financing is not that the amount of money is so great. The problem is that (1) individual politicians have to raise this money through personal solicitations; (2) the process of fund-raising takes a lot of time and energy that government officials should really be spending on public business; (3) most of the money raised, naturally enough, comes from organizations and individuals that want to influence policy; and (4) certain specific interest groups (like big business) have a lot more money to spend than others, which tends to skew policy in their direction--not necessarily to the benefit of the country.

Taxpayer funding of elections could solve the problem by breaking these insidious links. And it would cost five or six dollars per taxpayer per year. Not so "vast" in my book.


A reader writes with this excellent point:
I feel that your comparison of national campaign spending to revenues from selected industries is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Check out the attached report from AdAge, however. In 2004, Procter & Gamble and General Motors each spent more than $4 billion to advertise their products to American consumers--34 companies spent more than $1 billion each. Look at spending by category--political campaign spending is actually quite low compared to many consumer product categories.
Thanks, and keep those letters coming.

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Memo To The Republican Right: Play Nice, Pretty Please!

A pretty good column by E.J. Dionne in today's WaPo--a timely corrective to David Broder's latest absurd knee-jerk endorsement of anything labeled "bipartisan," no matter how lame. The gist of Dionne's piece:
Hand-wringing over extreme partisanship has become a popular cause among learned analysts. They operate from Olympian heights and strain for evenhandedness by issuing tut-tuts to all sides, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

But the evidence of recent days should settle the case: This administration has operated on the basis of a hyperpartisanship not seen in decades. Worse, the destroy-the-opposition, our-team-vs.-their-team approach has infected large parts of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. That's a shame, since there are plenty of good people in both. Still, the tendency to subordinate principles to win short-term victories and cover up for the administration is, alas, rampant on the right.
Pretty good column, as I say, until the last paragraph:
All of which leaves conservatives and Republicans who care about the rule of law with a choice. If they keep going along with this White House's way of doing business, their own cause will continue to suffer long after the president's term is over. Principled conservatives should be the first to want to clean up these stables and end the hyperpartisanship.
The problem is that "principled conservatives" who "care about the rule of law" have long since been marginalized or even driven out of the party. And how exactly has the so-called conservative cause been "suffering"?

The right has continued to use their vicious tactics and even to escalate them because they have been highly effective as tools for seizing and retaining power, and because no one has punished them for it. They will continue down the same path until they face retribution--undeterred by high-minded hand-wringing on the WaPo op-ed page.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

As Long As We're Citing The Jurors . . .

The familiar right-wing news outlets are gleefully trumpeting the fact that at least one of the Scooter Libby jurors believes he should be pardoned by President Bush. Which is fine, she is entitled to her opinion. But if we are going to give the jurors a privileged role in the debate, let's remember the other juror who said the real question in the jury room was why Karl Rove hadn't been indicted.

Want to free Libby in exchange for Rove behind bars? Okay, I'll make that deal . . .
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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bush Administration Corruption: The Political Gift That Keeps On Giving

Remember how, just a couple of months ago, Democrats were debating whether or not they should use their new majorities in Congress to investigate wrong-doing by the Bush administration, or, instead, keep their focus on the future and avoid getting bogged down in recriminations over the past?

Well, it turns out that the argument is moot. It looks as though Congress will have its hands full investigating brand-new scandals and malfeasance by the administration. Just in the past two days, Congress has been holding hearings into the firing of U.S. attorneys who apparently weren't strongly enough motivated to tailor their investigations to political ends, as well as hearings into the Walter Reed veterans' care scandal.

Coming next (if current headlines are any guide): a probe into administration twisting of intelligence to justify a hard line against North Korea (which backfired by making it possible for the Koreans to create their first nuclear bombs); a probe into more administration twisting of intelligence, this time to justify a possible future war against Iran; and hearings on the overstretched, underprepared status of the US military, which the current "surge" in Iraq is only going to exacerbate.

Looks as though the Democrats don't have to do much digging into the past to discover Republican misdeeds to criticize--the only problem may be finding enough hearing rooms for all the investigations that their current shenanigans demand.

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My First Experience with the French Health Care System

After being sick for a long time, I decided that enough was enough and that I needed to see a doctor. I found a list of English-speaking doctors at the U.S. Embassy website and called the one with the most Anglo-sounding name, figuring that would improve the odds that he would be a native speaker.

(This is not xenophobia, by the way; my French is adequate for the superficial encounters of day-to-day life, but not really good enough for the type of conversation you have with a doctor--description of symptoms, explanation from the doctor of what he or she thinks is going on, instructions about taking medication. Not being sure what type of bread I'm buying or where, exactly, the cut of meat I've just purchased comes from on the cow: not a big deal. Not being sure if I understand how to take prescription medication: possibly a big deal.)

Well, this was by far the most positive experience I have ever had with a doctor. I called this morning, spoke to the doctor himself--he turned out to be British--and made an appointment for the afternoon. By contrast, when I had pneumonia last fall at home, I had to beg to get an appointment that same week, and only got one because I stumbled upon a facet of the system (admittedly a university health service, but still) that they do not advertise: nurses on call to offer advice when you haven't been able to get an appointment but need help. (The necessity for this is a serious problem, but being able to talk to someone competent is awesome no matter if the reason she exists at all is because the system is incompetent. Being able to talk to a nurse meant being able to talk to someone actually trained to know that what I was describing was serious.)

Anyway, to get back to today's experience in Paris: The doctor's office didn't look like an office as much as an apartment, which I had expected from reading I'd done. I had thought it would seem uncomfortable or strange, but in fact, it is so much nicer than the sterile environment of American doctors' offices. I'm already uncomfortable, possibly even in pain, and I don't need it amplified by sitting in a cold room surrounded by metal and plastic. Instead, I sat on a normal chair in a room with a beautiful wood-beam ceiling, wood floors, and art on the walls (and, yes, in one corner, the typical exam table and cabinets with doctor's-office supplies).

And, the best part: I spent a total of 55 euros for the appointment and for the medicine he prescribed (antibiotics and pain killers), which I was able to pick up three minutes after walking out the door at the pharmacy down the street--no waiting for it to be called in, no waiting for it to be filled. Not to mention that 80% of the cost will be reimbursed by the French government. (This step is, unfortunately, where I think French bureaucracy will step in and take the bloom off the rose . . . but I don't mind it so much when we're talking about 44 euros instead of double that.)

If going to the doctor was always like this, I might not have waited two weeks before going to see one!

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