Monday, October 29, 2007

Meanwhile, The Boston Mud Hens Win Another World Series

This weekend's biggest news in baseball--at least here in New York--was agent Scott Boras's announcement that his client, Alex Rodriguez, would opt of the last three years of his contract with the Yankees and become a free agent. The Times story covering the announcement contained a comment by the apparent new boss of the Yankees, Hank Steinbrenner (George's son) that epitomizes what I dislike about the franchise:
In an interview before Boras's announcement, [Hank] Steinbrenner said he would try to impress on Rodriguez the value of winning titles and making his legacy as a Yankee. He related a story of talking to Joe DiMaggio, who told him his championships would not have been half as meaningful if he had won them for any other team.

"Does he want to go into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee," Steinbrenner said, "or a Toledo Mud Hen?"
That sneering remark pretty much says it all. In the eyes of the Yankees, any team other than their own is basically the equivalent of the Toledo Mud Hens. This, I guess, is the "class" and "dignity" that the Yankees' fans and broadcasters are constantly bragging about . . .

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Chris Hayes on the Right's Internet Smear Machine

This week's cover story in The Nation covers a topic I've treated on this blog--the use of viral email as a below-the-radar system for disseminating right-wing anecdotes, rumors, and lies. Although the sources of these hard-to-kill emails are almost impossible to track--which of course is part of what makes them so attractive to people with dishonest motives--journalist Christopher Hayes was able to confirm that at least some of them originate with paid operatives for conservative Republicans.

Hayes also provides a link to, a website dedicated to tracking and debunking phony information circulating on the Internet. A quick comparison suggests that the Mikkelsons' well-known "urban legends" site may be more thorough in its research and presentations. But both sites--and indeed any site that tries to combat misinformation with facts--deserve respect and support.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Pure, Beautiful, Ever-Receding Dream of True Conservatism

It's quite a sign of both intellectual bankruptcy and political desperation to see "thoughtful conservatives" increasingly trying to distinguish some abstract, ideal, Platonic vision of "conservatism" from the actual policies advocated and pursued by practically every real-life conservative over the past thirty years--which cumulatively have led the United States into a disastrous cul-de-sac, economically, socially, and on the world stage.

As Ezra Klein smartly notes, the precise analogy is to old-time Marxists who spent decades plaintively declaring that "true" Marxism had never been tried, seeking in vain to disavow responsibility for the visible results of actual Marxism virtually everywhere it existed (and as supported in most cases by those same Marxists).

A vivid illustration of how the same phenomenon now dominates conservative "thinking" is found in today's George Will column about the line-item veto. The concept is in the news again because Mitt Romney has taken to pushing as a way of distinguishing himself from Rudy Giuliani (who legally battled a short-lived version of the veto when Clinton tried to use it to cancel funds for New York).

Will quite correctly points out that the line-item veto was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on grounds that make perfect sense. He also points out, again correctly, that creating such a veto through constitutional amendment would have the effect of "substantially augmenting what should not be further augmented--presidential power."

But then, having established a principled difference between himself and a huge chunk of the conservative establishment, Will proceeds to announce that this does not suggest a possible flaw in conservative ideology--which by definition is impossible. How so? Because the line-item veto isn't a conservative idea at all:

The line-item veto expresses liberalism's faith in top-down government and the watery Caesarism that has produced today's inflated presidency. Liberalism assumes that executive branch experts, free from parochial constituencies, know, as Congress does not, what is good for the nation "as a whole." This is contrary to the public philosophy of James Madison's "extensive" republic with its many regions and myriad interests.
Get that? An idea that first gained widespread fame as part of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America; that was passed in both House and Senate thanks to overwhelming support by self-proclaimed conservative Republicans, despite substantial opposition by Democrats; that was then challenged in court by five Democratic members of Congress (supported by a single Republican, Mark Hatfield); and that since then has been advocated almost entirely by conservative Republicans like Romney (and in fact is being used by Romney to help shore up his conservative bona fides)--this idea is, for George Will, an expression of "liberalism."

It's fine for people to play around with words and ideas, creating their own fairyland versions of concepts as an exercise in pure esthetic/philosophical gamesmanship. Conceptual artists and avant-garde theoreticians do stuff like that all the time, which is why they influence a total audience of approximately 217 people.

If Will ever went on ABC's This Week and admitted that the ideal conservatism he adulates has little connection with the policies and personalities that dominate the Republican Party, he would thereby be declaring his own intellectual irrelevance--which is why he will never say any such thing, instead leaving the relationship between his ideals and the muck of actual politics as vague as possible.

And the mainstream media's tolerance for that vagueness creates a situation in which fantasists like Will are invited week after week to appear on national television and granted significant political clout to help shore up support for actual conservatives and undermine actual liberals--despite the fact that these real-world beings share very little with Will's fairyland visions except the terms used to name them.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Things People Say, Part 3

A good entry--though not by me--for my nascent series on "things people say" that just aren't true. In this case, Paul Waldman of TAPPED eviscerates one ever-popular cliche of American politico-speak that contains very, very little truth:
It's a wonderful thing that in our country, a person born to modest circumstances can rise to become a political leader, governor of a state and perhaps even president. But the idea that this is possible "only in America" is just ridiculous.
Actually I remember an anecdote from years ago that put to rest for me this "only in America" nonsense. It was a little Talk of the Town item in The New Yorker in which one Gothamite asked another what all the commotion on the street was about.

"It's a visit from the Lord Mayor of Dublin. He's Jewish, you know." With a self-satisfied smile, the other New Yorker replied, "Ah! Only in America!"

P.S. Mary-Jo and I are still touring Italy, which is why the blogging has been so sparse lately . . . Today we visited Rome's beautiful Borghese gardens, which are the city's equivalent of Central Park, containing art galleries, playgrounds, a zoo, etc. etc. They also include paths named after Americans and other citizens of the world ranging from Washington to Fiorello LaGuardia. I am praying they won't one day find it advisable to name a road after President Rudolph Giuliani.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dispatch From Italy

In keeping with the name of our blog, World Wide Webers, I am blogging from Florence, Italy, where Mary-Jo and I are on the second leg of our Italy tour--our first time in this country. We were in Rome for three days earlier and will be leaving for Venice on Saturday. A few random observations, which is about all I am capable of as I nurse my tired feet in our hotel room on a late afternoon.

1. By definition, every country in the world has exactly the same length of history as every other (depending of course on whether you count pre-human history as "history"--I guess technically it is not). But in Italy the history is much more in your face than it is in America or in any of the other foreign countries I've visited.

Every other corner seems to have an archeological excavation, a wall or column from Roman times, or the remnants of a medieval building which itself was built atop two or three layers of earlier structures. Every building you pass seems to have had a ridiculously interesting history: Originally a granary, then a prison, then a government office, then a chapel, then a jewelry factory, then the home of an aristocratic family, etc. etc.

If you come to Italy as a history buff determined to read all the plaques and markers, you find yourself in about a day and a half crying Uncle and feeling as though you can't possibly absorb another date, name, or event, and if you never hear another one it will be too soon.

2. The other thing that Rome and Florence have in absurd excess is art--paintings, facades, sculptures, fountains, monuments, chapels, stained-glass windows, frescoes, mosaics, etc. etc. There is so much art everywhere that even the guidebooks can't list it all. You quickly get to the point of feeling that a mere masterpiece isn't very impressive--only a work that has its own page in Janson's History of Art is worth crossing the street to see.

3. However, much of the art, especially in Rome, is not so much about beauty as it is about power, wealth, and position. After a few hours at the Vatican, in particular, you feel as though you've been beaten over the head with visions of artifacts whose primary purpose is to impress you with the might and majesty of the patrons who commissioned them or the rulers who plundered them--statues whose sheer size makes them intimidating, reliquaries each bearing a king's ransom in gold and jewels, etc. etc.

One ridiculous example: Our guide told us that sixty percent of the porphyry in the world is in the Vatican. Value: $20,000 per cubic inch, which at the current dollars/Euro exchange rate is almost as much as the cost of the scrambled eggs I had for breakfast at our hotel this morning.

I have no idea if that statistic is true--the one about the porphyry, not the one about my eggs--but either way it encapsulates the problem with the Vatican from an esthetic standpoint: The mindset behind a lot of the art there is not that of the art-lover but that of Scrooge McDuck ecstatically sliding down piles of gold coins in his vault.

Having said this, I must admit that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel remains pretty darned impressive.

And despite what I said about psychological overload, there is something rather amazing about seeing, in the church of Santa Croce, the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelangelo, all within a few yards of one another. I guess even an overstimulated history buff is still capable of a thrill or two.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Peggy Noonan Frets About the Power of Political Families--Or At Least One of Them

As you know, the Bushes are the fourth family to have members of two generations serve in the U.S. presidency, the others being the Adamses, the Harrisons, and the Roosevelts. Along with the Kennedys--who had only one president but who have had several senators and representatives over two generations--these are generally considered the great American political dynasties.

Now there is a strong possibility that a second member of the Clinton family will be elected president. This doesn't really qualify as a "dynasty," since we are not talking about a second generation. And unlike all those true dynasties we just listed, the Clintons did not inherit position, wealth, or fame. Still, it's unusual and notable that a second Clinton might serve in the White House less than a decade after her husband. And this has our serious thinkers deeply concerned:

It is the nature of modern politics. A political family gains allies--retainers, supporters, hangers-on, admirers, associates, in-house Machiavellis. The bigger the government, the more ways allies can be awarded, which binds them more closely. Your destiny is theirs. Members of the court recruit others. Money lines spread person to person, company to company, board to board, mover to mover.

The most important part is the money lines. Power is expensive. The second most important part is the word "winner." The Bushes are winners; the Clintons are winners. We know this, they've won. The Bushes are wired into the Republican money-line system; the Clintons are wired into the Democratic money-line system. For a generation, two generations now, they have had the same dynamics in play, only their friends are on the blue team, not the red, or the red, not the blue.

They are, both groups, up and ready and good to go every election cycle. They are machines. There are good people on each side, idealists, the hopeful, those convinced the triumph of their views will make our country better. And there are those on each side who are not so wonderful, not so well-meaning, not well-meaning at all. And some are idiots, but very comfortable ones.

Is this good for our democracy, this air of inevitability? Is it good in terms of how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves? Or is it something we want to break out of, like a trance?

It would be understandable if they were families of a most extraordinary natural distinction and self-sacrifice. But these are not the Adamses of Massachusetts we're talking about. You've noticed, right?
Peggy Noonan isn't the only right-wing concern troll to furrow her brow about this topic lately. And of course they are all motivated by sincere worries about the future of democracy, the evil effects of concentrated power, the shallowness of a public that can't seem to get beyond mere family ties--right?

Then again, it seems a bit odd that no one on the right ever expressed any concern over the perpetuation of the Bush dynasty into a third generation (remember that paterfamilias Prescott Bush actually launched the sequence back in the 1950s). They haven't even uttered a peep of protest over the many, many suggestions that Jeb will someday be the third Bush president.

I guess, for some odd, purely coincidental reason, only Democratic dynasties raise these serious historical concerns about the course of our Republic.

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