Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Golf, Infinity and Rotary

I am out in western Colorado, reconnecting with the county I fled as too backward 35 years ago. It is still not where my head resides, yet I can't help but love the place.

In Minnesota, which is politically becoming too much like Colorado for comfort, I could lose myself in the woods or out on the water and feel insignificant in the moment, an edible speck in the great wilderness. But out here you don't measure yourself against the nearby landscape. The cosmos seems the only context and millennia the closest yardstick, whether you look at the great rock formations or the big sky. I am not simply occupying a tiny slab of the planet, I am a sub-microbe instantly whisked away at birth.

Not that I'm complaining. This is good to contemplate.

But then I am reminded again of the temporal shortcomings of this world. I played golf today with Wahlid. A Lebanese gentleman, a Rotarian, an oil and gas man, and confessed poor golfer who actually has a sweet swing and takes delight in every good shot. I would play with him any day of the week. From others, I learn he is also incomparably generous (he bought my beer) and a great community supporter.

I learn also that several members of the local Rotary — including a classmate of mine — stopped coming to meetings the year Wahlid was president. And they were vocal about why.

I think I am going to like spending more time here. I may even start going to Rotary meetings...

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

More is Less

I finally got in the mood to read Bob Dylan's Chronicles, and I have to say it is a surprising book.

He comes across as more gracious, worshipful and insecure than you might expect, but still a genius. Just not a literary one. The narrative is disjointed and not tightly edited, yet I found myself re-reading passages more here than in anything I've read in many years.

If you're not a musician, I can't vouch for how some of the sections on songwriting and recording will get across, but if you understand music, performing and the creative process, you will slow way down and savor sections, such as his extended description of the struggles recording an album with legendary producer Daniel Lanois in New Orleans.

Dylan returns to listen to the mix of a song that has given him and the band grave troubles:

A lot of work had continued after I'd left the night before. Ruffner had overdubbed torpedo licks over my very minimalistic Tele rhythms. My guitar was taken out of the mix entirely. My voice was out there in the middle of nowhere in some corridor of sonic atmosphere. The song got shanghaied. You could tap your foot to it, clap your hands or jig your head up and down, but it didn't open up the world of the real. It sounded like I was singing from the midst of the herd, a lot of artillery and tanks in the background. The longer it went, the worse it got.

"Christ, all this happened while I was out of here?" I said to Lanois.

He said, "What do you think?"

"I think we missed it."

Monday, August 29, 2005

Well, That's Clear

I never got around to posting this enlightening exchange between a reporter and Bush when it was current, but now that we know John Roberts is stickler for precision with the English language....

"Does the administration's goal — I'll ask you about the Iraqi constitution. You said you're confident that it will honor the rights of women."


"If it's rooted in Islam, as it seems it will be — is there still the possibility of honoring the rights of women?"

"I've talked to Condi, and there is not — as I understand it, the way the constitution is written is that women have got rights, inherent rights recognized in the constitution, and that the constitution talks about, you know, not 'the religion,' but 'a religion.' Twenty-five percent of the assembly is going to be women, which is a — is embedded in the constitution. OK. It's been a pleasure."

Body Counts

Once again this weekend, I encountered the cloudy argument that the Iraq quagmire (fighting for freedom from a WMD-wielding, Kurd-murdering, hand-chopping tyrant) is in no way similar to the Vietnam quagmire (fighting to defend a Catholic ally against a godless communist invader) because we have lost only slightly over 1,800 Americans in Iraq compared to more than 50,000 (47,000+ hostile casualities and nearly 11,000 others) in Vietnam.

Therefore, we should not "cut and run." Just look at the numbers! We're doing really well there. Why are you Cindy Sherman huggers so upset?

If this loses something in translation, trust me, it gains nothing in the original.

But if you look at U.S. casualties in the first four years of our engagement in Vietnam (1961-65), the number killed in action is 1,864.

Let's compare journalist deaths. According to Reporters Without Borders 66 journalists and their aides have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, compared to 63 journalists killed over 20 years of conflict in Vietnam.

I can't find statistics on American human rights workers killed in Vietnam, but it's likely that more women like Marla Ruzicka and Fern Holland are dying in the current conflict.

Differences between the conflicts? Certainly. For example, Lyndon Johnson hated what the Vietnam war did to derail his Great Society consensus in Congress, while the current commander in chief's domestic policy is based on demanding consensus for his war in Iraq.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Word Man

I'm testing an audio feature to see if it works to add music to some of these posts. Let me know what you think.

This is a song I wrote in about 1986 about selling out, when I was still figuring out whether I had.

MP3 File

What Do You Love?

We were talking over a good slow lunch about the things we'd given our lives to.

He was telling me about a lonely campaign he undertook to elevate the standards for his profession, proposing to a national board how it might validate excellent design practice through certification. Have designers earn a credential.

"Then Ivan Chermayeff shot me down," he said, with a wry twist of the mouth to indicate the icon of graphic design had fired a fair, direct shot. "Chermayeff said, 'I worked with the head of General Motors, and he was a guy who loved cars. Now when I work with General Motors, it's an MBA, and all he loves is money. I worked with the CEO of Xerox, and he loved copiers. Now I work with an MBA, and all he loves is money.'"

An MBA is a professional credential, Chermayeff argued, that had helped ruin American business by replacing passion for the product or the customer or the craft with a focus on the money. People became designers because they loved beauty, solving problems visually, the mysterious act of making something that had never existed before.

"If we make design professionals earn a credential, we won't have designers who love design, we will get designers who love money."

What do you love?

Friday, August 26, 2005

Slowly Croaking with the Soviet Frogs

During the dark, pre-glasnost days of the Soviet Union, we were regularly served evidence of its breakdown through images of sluggish citizens standing in long lines awaiting their ration of government-made toilet paper. How, we wondered, could they tolerate this? Why didn't they throw off their shackles and join the free nations of the world, where we wait in line only after picking up our bread and Charmin?

Yesterday, I visited a similar strange and foreign land.

A long meeting across the city dumped me into rush hour traffic. Leaving from an unaccustomed place, I chose a route I soon regretted, and found myself creeping (no, much slower than that) along as I merged from a trunk highway to the so-called interstate at its most concentrated.

To accept traffic fed from another busy artery, the long feeder road started as two lanes, but clearly merged into a single lane. The drivers recognized the futility of trying to gain any advantage by racing up to where the road narrowed, and we queued up one-by-one (cars, as well as people) like good comrades. A huge waste of human and fossil energy as we idled, but there was nothing to be done but wait your turn.

In the mirror, an SUV cruised down the merge lane, past all the cars that had accepted their position in the great order of things. A gratuitous move, because the futility continued far ahead. Progress faster than the masses would be difficult — even for an aggressive driver with a shoulder-high chrome bumper.

A van several cars back pulled out just far enough to block the SUV driver's path, and we proceeded that way for some time. But the ramp opened to a grassy median where it was clear the SUV could zip around, grabbing the last receding yards of the merge zone to pass half a dozen cars before the margin closed totally. The van driver conceded a foot and the SUV accelerated, reaching a gap left by a semi-trailer.

To daily commuters, this is a familiar and grating scene many places in the city. To this inner-ring-dwelling, frequent bicycle commuter, it was a visit to a now-exotic land as I joined the thousands of shuffling freemen and women.

One frog tries to escape, clambering over the heads of the others, but we all slowly boil together in this concrete pot, heated by a fire of our own making.

At least the Muscovites didn't have to wait for their toilet paper twice a day, five days a week.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

When Truth Doesn't Fit the Culture

You may remember the name Janis Karpinski. She was the highest-ranking military officer to take the fall for abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. She was portrayed as out-of-the-loop, and perhaps only semi-competent, as interrogators dog walked all over the Geneva Accords.

A different picture emerges in an article and extensive interview transcript published yesterday by Truthout, in which Karpinski blames higher-ups and private contractors, rather than her soliders and CIA, for the shameful episodes. What happened to her, she implies, is what happens in the Department of Rumsfeld and Cheney to those who don't get with the program:

Karpinski said that General Shinseki briefed Rumsfeld that "he can't win this war, if they insist on invading Iraq, he can't win this war with less than 300,000 soldiers." Rumsfeld reportedly ordered Shinseki to go back and find a way to do this with 125,000 to 130,000, but Shinseki came back and said they couldn't do the job with that number. "What did Rumsfeld do?" Karpinski asked rhetorically. "If you can't agree with me, I'm going to find somebody who can. He made Shinseki a lame duck, for all practical purposes, and brought in Schoomaker. And Schoomaker got it. He said, 'Oh yes sir, we can do this with 125,000.'"

As events unfolded, her superiors could see that Karpinski — a woman, a reservist and truth-teller — didn't fit with the culture.

The first time Karpinski got any clarification about the photographs was January 23, 2004. The criminal investigator, Colonel Marcelo, came into Karpinski's office and showed her the pictures. "When I saw the pictures I was floored," Karpinski said. "Really, the world was spinning out of control when I saw those pictures, because it was so far beyond and outside of what I imagined. I thought that maybe some soldiers had taken some pictures of prisoners behind barbed wire or in their cell or something like that. I couldn't imagine anything like what I saw in those photographs."

Marcelo told her, "Ma'am, I'm supposed to tell you after you see the photographs that General Sanchez wants to see you in his office." So Karpinski went over to see Sanchez. She said that "before I even saw the photographs, I was preparing words to say in a press conference — to be up front, to be honest about this, that an investigation is ongoing and there are some allegations of detainee abuse."

But Sanchez told Karpinski, "'No, absolutely not. You are not to discuss this with anyone.' And I should have known then," she said, "and I know that Sanchez was hopeful for a four-star promotion even then, in January of 2004. And I thought it had probably most to do with the election coming up in November 2004, and that this could really move the Administration out of the White House if it was exploited. So naively, I just thought, you know, they're going to let this investigation go and they're going to handle it the way it should be handled."

Karpinski said, however, "The truth has been uncovered, but it's been suffocated and it has not been released with the results of the investigation." She added, "McClellan and Rumsfeld can get up on their high horse and say that there've been no fewer than 15 investigations that were conducted. But every one of those investigations is under the control of the Secretary of Defense. And every one of those investigations is run and led by a person who can lose their job under Rumsfeld's fist."

Karpinski's experience is consistent with other mid-level employees who start out thinking they are doing the right thing by speaking out, and then discover their perspective is not considered helpful to the leadership. Very quickly, they can be quashed or dismissed,

James Lynn alleges he was fired by Wal-Mart after doing his job investigating the employment practices of the retailer's Latin American contractors. After reporting abuses to a visiting executive in a meeting, he says, he was fired, with an explanation that he didn't fit the culture. (Wal-Mart says he was dismissed for fraternization with a subordinate.)

Last week, I heard a tale about now-departed 3M CEO James McNearney firing a manager who dared to suggest to the new leader, again in an open forum, that maybe 3M's culture was responsible for some positive achievements that ought to be considered by the Chief Change Agent. Departures were inevitable as the Six Sigma/fire your bottom 10% every year GE culture met 3M's devote 15% of your time to developing unproven ideas, and the truth-teller provided an early and convenient symbol for the futility of resistance.

Leaders should shape the culture, and obvious malcontents need to go. But truth-tellers are among the most rare and valuable employees in any organization. And in government, especially, we need them to stay on the job.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Harboring Terrorists

Terrorism is not simply violent acts against noncombatants. Since terrorism typically lacks the brute force of a state-sponsored military, it primarily gains power through the threat of violence. It is used unpredictably to create fear and instability that will wear down the will to resist.

Our own Department of Defense defines terrorism as: "The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological." [Emphasis mine.]

For terrorism's threat to be credible, it must occasionally unleash actual violence, but the most important weapons of the terrorist are the camera, videotape, the web, and access to a free press.

Given this context, is Pat Robertson — like his homies, Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh — a terrorist?

Robertson has long been a sanctimonious goon — the devil spawn of Alfred E. Newman and George W. Bush, or vice versa — who projects a nice crinkly countenance when he prays for bad things to happen to his enemies, in Jesus' name. He has always had a tenuous grasp on international affairs post 1 A.D. Now, he claims, the democratically elected head of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is turning Venezuela into "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent."

Communist infiltration? Does that mean Castro couldn't make it the 90 miles to Florida, so he thought he'd try Caracas as the doorway to overthrowing the US? And while they're at it, the virtually 100% Roman Catholic nation will become the next terrorist training camp? We know that nexus of communism and Islamic extremism worked really well in Afghanistan...

Clearly, Pat's delusional. Donations to his empire must be flagging. But should we let it go at that? Is he simply, Ann Coulter-like, exercising his right to free speech and self-promotion when he advocates the assassination of Chavez, or, as the putative leader of pentecostal Christians, does he cross a line even Iran-Contra Reagan himself declared illegal? Chavez has to be loving it. Now he can really stand up to US imperialism and increase his majority support in the country.

Chavez may not be Tony Blair, but neither is he Saddam, so even our go-after-the-bad-guys-sitting-on-oil leaders are going to disavow Robertson's loose lips and hope this blows over. But in this age of the Patriot Act, when an innocent Brazilian can get eight bullets for living in the wrong building, surely Rev. Robertson merits at least a serious visit from the authorities. Otherwise, we legitimately can be accused of harboring terrorists who advocate the overthrow of democratic nations.

Robertson has been criticized for his remarks by some of the clergy, but not other allies in the Christian right:

The Rev. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals said he and "most evangelical leaders" would disassociate themselves from such "unfortunate and particularly irresponsible" comments.

"It complicates circumstances for foreign missionaries and Christian aid workers overseas who are already perceived, wrongly, especially by leftists and other leaders, as collaborators with U.S. intelligence agencies," Mr. Cizik added.

Who gives greater aid to the enemy and puts Americans at risk? Those — like Bill Moyers, Cindy Sheehan and Al Franken — who question whether we are living up to our principles? Or those like Robertson, who confirm the darkest, erroneous suspicions about the American character?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Let's Hear it for Chaos!

UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine, who teaches modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies, writes about the Iraqi constitution's development in the context of competing interests among the Suunis, Kurds, Shi'ites — and Americans.

After considering how the constitutional process will necessarily paper over such key questions as the presence of US bases and the rights of women, Levine asks a chilling question: Whether continued chaos in Iraq is actually in the US interest:

The idea of "sponsored" or "managed" chaos as a defining characteristic of contemporary neoliberal globalization has already been demonstrated by scholars working on Africa, the former Soviet Union, and other locations along the "arc of instability" that happens to contain some of the world's most resource petroleum rich and politically unstable countries. The main thrust of this argument is that the coming "Age of Peak Oil" makes it strategically necessary for the United States to maintain a long-term military presence in Iraq, and thus have unrestricted influence over its vast oil. In an environment where the vast majority of Iraqis do not want either of these things, creating a situation of violence and instability becomes a logical, and perhaps the only feasible way, to secure them.

Ironically, this dynamic interacts with the constitutional negotiations precisely by being largely absent from the discussions and debates over it. Lost in most of the public discussions around the constitution is whether it will prohibit or allow any foreign country (in this case, the United States) to have permanent bases, which is clearly opposed by the vast majority of Arab Iraqis. But as long as the violent insurgency continues, the Shi'i majority government cannot risk asking the United States to leave. Therefore, a serious but manageable insurgency becomes the most viable way to ensure that by the time the Iraqis work out their differences, the United States has half a dozen or more permanent bases constructed and has ensured that legal impediments to their presence are no longer an issue.

In other words, Cindy Sheehan's son died because a truly free and stabilized Iraq would have kicked us out.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

No Dry Cleaning Left Behind

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles faces a probe into whether she had employees do personal chores and classwork she needed to complete state licensure requirements.

What separates this from the usual tales of executives who delegate dog walking, bill paying and dry cleaning pickups — while they are presumably engaged with weightier matters of state — is that Peebles is an educator. Peebles' supporters say there's another factor at play: The anonymous allegations are getting more attention because of Peebles' race.

"Now we have a bright daylight lynching. A bright daylight lynching of a black woman who has turned around a culture and a system of injustice," says the Rev. Ian Bethel.

Sorry, Rev, I don't buy the Clarence Thomas card. Peebles may be ruffling feathers as she changes a culture that needs changing, and that's to be expected. But she also should be the prime role model in an organization that demands students do their own work, and in which teachers are expected to improve results in the classroom while funding supplies out of their own pockets and getting bumped from one job to the next due to budget cuts. There's culture change, and then there's plain old culture breakdown.

Teachers I know — including those in my own family — have retired at the first opportunity. Not because of the kids, they say. It's the administration bowing to community and parental pressure, largely to dumb things down. The good classroom teachers I know have a curious combination of traits. They're like entrepreneurs, creative and restless to run their own show, but without the risk tolerance to strike out totally on their own. Crappy leadership and micromanagement are more likely to cause these teachers to leave than the hope of a bigger payday in another field.

Meanwhile, it's not so sweet for the school superintendents, either. The position has increasingly high turnover, driven by a shortage of experienced leaders, job stress, states meddling in the classroom while demanding improved results, and the leading edge of Boomer retirements, since public employees tend to retire earlier. Not to mention escalating salary offers from competing districts. Peebles started the Minneapolis job at $167,751, with no prior superintendent experience and managerial skills known to be modest. Detroit's school chief earns $244,000 and the Miami-Dade County (FL) school superintendent looks to make nearly $480,000 in first-year salary, bonus and benefits.

Last year, 49 Michigan school districts lost superintendents, for example. The search averages 11 months to fill an open position, typically through a public process that forces candidates to put themselves in play. This creates more turmoil, uncertainty about direction and changing priorities, once the new leader comes on board. Couple all this with reduced budgets, unfunded mandates, and the current trend of testing to drive educational outcomes. Then throw in a black woman from outside the state who apparently brings a non-Minnesota leadership style.

An investigation will reveal whether Peebles exploited her staff and cut corners academically or whether she indeed is just a tough change agent who was trying to keep too many balls in the air. Or maybe, whether Minneapolis brought in someone not ready for prime time to satisfy people like Rev. Ian Bethel.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Standup Guy or Standup Comedian?

I've been willing to give John Roberts the benefit of the doubt, because the man's positives seem pretty strong and the negatives are largely speculative. He has a first-rate mind, a judicial temperament, and as far as we know, he hasn't rented any Long Dong Silver videos.

I respect his Catholic faith and beliefs regarding abortion. And I firmly believe individuals are obligated to act upon their moral convictions — just not when their professional responsibilities require acting otherwise. Then, the ethical response is to resign or decline to participate and accept the consequences.

Still, there are some reasons I'm concerned that Roberts's personal beliefs may yet turn up, Scalia-like, in his judicial opinions. Like a lot of brilliant characters, he seems to be quick to judge people, including entire categories of people.

Now maybe he has mellowed since marrying Jane Sullivan, who was part of the first class of women to enter Holy Cross, where men like her future husband had "opposed the decision to integrate, so the women who chose to go there were seen as pathbreakers, pioneers walking into sometimes uncomfortable territory," according to the Washington Post. But that's wishful thinking. The couple, who didn't marry until the prime childbearing years had passed, appear to have been devoted careerists. Jane Roberts has been called a feminist by Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, although her record of feminist engagement — a few years on Board of Feminists for Life — seems very sketchy compared to her devotion to satellite law and the Catholic Church.

The rightward Washington Times reports on the nominee's resistance to admitting girls to his all-boys high school:

"I tend to think that the presence of the opposite sex in the classroom will be confining rather than catholicizing," [Roberts] wrote. "I would prefer to discuss Shakespeare's double entendre and the latus rectum of conic sections without a [b]londe giggling and blushing behind me."

"Game times should be interesting too," Judge Roberts, then a junior at the Catholic lay-teacher school, wrote in the Torch, the school's newspaper. "Imagine the five cheerleaders on the sidelines, with block "L's" on their chests, screaming, "Give me a 'L'!" Give me a break!"

This undercuts any claim of sensitivity to women's rights Roberts might make based upon growing up with three sisters. Perhaps Roberts was concerned that the girls would get all the good roles, like Peppermint Patty, in the school plays.

To be fair, how many of us could survive a vetting of our high school opinions? Perhaps this is just early, pre-law school evidence of what a Bush spokesman called a great sense of humor, exhibited in this "a lawyer joke" in a memo regarding a female lawyer in his organization:

"Some might question whether encouraging homemakers to become lawyers contributes to the common good, but I suppose that is for the judges to decide."

Ho, ho.

Roberts addressed the ethics of allowing a Falls Church Girl Scout to meet the president [Reagan] in the midst of the annual cookie drive. "Elizabeth . . . has sold some 10,000 boxes and would like to sell one to the President. The little huckster thinks the President would like the Samoas," he wrote, before concluding that he had no objection to deviating in this case from the White House's practice of avoiding "an implied endorsement" by the president.

Not like some Gold Star Mother trying to talk to the president, this deviation surely served a national purpose.

The same article quotes Roberts skillfully combining ethnic political pandering, lawyer humor and a musical turn of phrase: "I think this audience would be pleased that we are trying to grant legal status to their illegal amigos."

In a January 1982 memo he wrote about legislation that he said would "heap benefits" on the Texas Band of Kickapoo Indians. Explaining their history, Roberts wrote, "The Kickapoos, originally from the Great Lakes area, did not stop running from their encounter with Europeans until they reached Mexico, where they now hold 17,000 acres of land" [Note: About 10 times the size of the holdings of the Bush clan, which fled from Connecticut] and "provide migrant labor in the U.S." Roberts said he had no legal objections to the bill, which he said was consistent with administration policy, but added that its "provisions seem overly generous — particularly in light of the fact that these are, generally speaking, Mexican Indians and not American Indians."

Not to mention, big fat chickens who ran and ran...

The new court's majority opinions should be a scream.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Shades of Sandy Berger?

The Washington Post reports that "a file folder containing papers from Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s work on affirmative action more than 20 years ago disappeared from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library after its review by two lawyers from the White House and the Justice Department in July" who were vetting the nominee.

A little over a year ago, Sandy Berger admitted he removed copies of classified memos from the National Archives, among documents critiquing the Clinton administration's response to the millennium terrorism threat, in preparation for the 9/11 Commission. Like a steroid user failing a drug test, he first claimed the removal of 60 or more pages, plus failing to review his handwritten notes with Archives officials, was inadvertent.

"I made an honest mistake which I deeply regret," he later said, and colleagues reinforced the claim, noting he would "constantly lose track of papers or appointments without subordinates to keep him organized and on schedule."

As someone who once dealt with classified materials, I know inadvertent security violations do occur in the course of daily routine. And a lot of high-powered people are helpless when it comes to running their personal lives. But as one who researched government-controlled archives related to the USS Pueblo spy ship fiasco, I find it hard to believe Berger, a former senior government official, absentmindedly walked off with those secret papers.

Same with lawyers working on the Rogers nomination. The official line is that it would have been difficult for them to make off with the unclassified folder, but Berger certainly had no trouble taking much more sensitive papers. Officials at the Reagan Library believe Archives staff may have misplaced the Roberts folder as they for prepared for disclosure of the materials to the Senate and news media. If so, it should eventually turn up there.

So the options seem to be: Pilfered papers or lost in the shuffle. Conspiracy or mistake.

I'd normally be willing to go with mistake, but admitting shortcomings is not a strong suit of officials from either party, especially the Blameless One in Chief. Unless, perhaps, the only choice is to be seen as an occasional idiot instead of a resolute evildoer.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Placebo Politics

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real
suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the
oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of
soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the
demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions
about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that
requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the
criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
- Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, February, 1844

In context, Marx's so-called "opiate of the people" comment sounds downright compassionate. Given how the view of opiates has evolved over the last 160 years, a more up-to-date translation might call religion the placebo of the people.

A sugar pill works if you think it works, and if it doesn't, then no harm to anyone else.

Writers like local columnist Katherine Kersten (who is probably more responsible than any person on earth for this blog because her writings so consistently drive me over the edge of publishable letters to editor into inchoate raving... see?) are free to call Pope John Paul II "an icon for young people" and detect "an outpouring of religious interest among young people, at a time when popular culture emphasizes pleasure-seeking, and elites view religious belief with suspicion" — and the temperate nonbeliever says, well, yes, isn't it pretty to think so?

But the intemperate nonbeliever wants to shout: See?!! See what she just did? She tied liberals — because we know "elites" doesn't mean pious multi-millionaire corporate executives like Ken Lay or beneficiaries of wealth and privilege like the Bush family, Pat Robertson or Richard Mellon Scaife — to irreligious pleasure-seeking.

Kersten goes on, of course, in case you're harboring the mistaken view that religion could have anything to do with real life:

The Rev. William Baer, rector of St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, who will lead Lahti's group [on a pilgrimage], explains it this way. John Paul II's great insight was that today's young people, though searching for meaning, have little interest in clichéd, '60s-rooted notions of spiritual "relevance."The Holy Father offered this generation of young seekers a truth and a spirituality that go back centuries in the Church," said Baer, and they snapped it up.

Yes, God save us from the clichéd, '60s-rooted notions of Pope John XXIII, Karl Rahner and Teilhard de Chardin. Let's go right back to medieval times for our guidance. But still, no great harm there.

Until religion establishes itself in public life and the conduct of the state, oy!

The extreme wing of believers acquires what it desires in this world (power, pleasure, freedom, repression of others) and justifies it as the product of God's will. And whatever thwarts them is the work of activist judges, over whom God presumably holds no sway. For these folks, who present humility but secretly believe themselves the true elites, religion is neither placebo nor recipe for relevance. It becomes the crack house whose residents are feeling high, while the surrounding community suffers the resulting pollution, the muggings and the smash and grabs.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Not As Bad As We Think, Or As Good As We Want

“Kennedy-esque” used to mean young, vigorous, handsome, principled and accomplished, inspiring national leader. In hindsight, JFK had mostly young and inspiring going for him.

Vigorous? We know now the beach touch football games were bogus pageants like the Bush aircraft carrier landing — symbolic rituals to cover up JFK’s poor health and likely drug dependence.

Handsome? Kennedy certainly had it over his contemporary Nixon and the other double-chinned politicos of the time, but he’s better looking in retrospect. Some of the hooded-eye, puffy-faced portraits taken during his presidency are harrowing to behold now that memory is fading. He looked best outdoors, with a breeze in his face, squinting into the sun.

In politics, handsome is one-third power and one-third arrogance, with an oversized, horse-faced skull, full hair and long choppers, plus lack of a beer gut, taking care of the final third. There are bonus points for an appliqué of money and a glamorous wife. See Rep. Jim Ramstad, Sen. Norm Coleman or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appended an actual Kennedy, for contemporary examples of handsome.

(Sign of the apocalypse: I just discovered Spell Check has Schwarzenegger in its dictionary.)

Principled and accomplished? It appears Bobby was the more principled of the Kennedys, and if Clinton hadn’t come along, JFK could claim clear title to the office of Philanderer in Chief. The Kennedy record of accomplishment is sketchy. Peace Corps, Space Program. Bay of Pigs, Vietnam.

I started out to write about Rep. Mark Kennedy (R, MN), who plans to run for the Senate seat Mark Dayton is vacating, as an example of the new “Kennedy-esque” — a lite version of what maybe wasn’t all that substantial to begin with. (Now you see why I write for a blog instead of a newspaper.)

Kennedy’s campaign website appeared to reprint an Associated Press article that noted he had voted with Democrats on 10 key issues this year, with a fulsome headline — “A Common-Sense Get Things Done Guy.” But the piece was actually excerpted, leaving out 13 sentences that criticized Kennedy for attempting to mask his conservative extremism and bolster his statewide standing by recently joining the other side for a few visible votes. Even more important, the post didn’t indicate the ellipses, or link to the original article, reinforcing the idea that Mr. Kennedy was Mr. Moderate-reach-across-the-aisle-if-that’s-what-it-takes-to-get-things-done Guy.

I’m all ready to tear into Kennedy when I read about the latest anti-John Roberts ad from NARAL, a pro-choice organization to which I’ve sent a check from time to time. deconstructs the ad’s deceptive claims about Roberts’ record as an attorney, coupled with footage of a victim and clinic bombed by the recently convicted terrorist Eric Rudolph — a much later event unrelated to the case in which Roberts filed a brief of behalf of the government. In other words, NARAL distorted Roberts’ record just as much as Kennedy disguised his.

At the same time, I’m reading Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Everything You Think You Know About Politics… And Why You’re Wrong. Her research says that the media help create an inaccurate picture of how often politicians lie or fail to keep their campaign promises, in part, by overreporting attacks and underreporting supported positions. As I've noted before, only tyrants bat 1.000, and distortion is a bi-partisan tactic.

But cheeez. Can’t we do better than this?

[Sorry for the lack of links, but I’m in a cottage working from a dial-up.]

Monday, August 08, 2005

None Dare Call it BS — Not When Dead Babies are Involved

Speaking of stem cell foolery, Clever Peasantry has done a thorough job of exposing Sen. Norm Coleman's (R, Coleman) purported pro-science move toward expanded funding for research. Read the links to other posts to get the full flavor of how Coleman's celebrated move to middle ground (in opposition to the President!) is really another cynical move to bolster the career of the Senator from Coleman — without actually doing anything for stem cell research.

One More Reason Fund Stem Cell Research (or Not)

"Placenta has versatile 'stem cells'" says the Reuters news story:

It is not yet certain that the cells they found are true stem cells, said Stephen Strom, who worked on the study. But they carry two important genes, called Oct 4 and nanog, which so far have only been seen on embryonic stem cells...

Strom said the cells he worked with also do not appear to be immortal, meaning they die out after a while in the lab, unlike true stem cells.

In other words, true stem cells are immortal.

I guess, like most people, I've been paying only fleeting attention to the details of stem cell science, preferring to form my opinions based on the self-interested celebrity testimony of Michael J. Fox, Nancy Reagan and Tom Delay, plus modern homunculist thinking as in today's Strib asserting, "the scientific fact that embryos are tiny humans.*" All of which is filtered, of course, through my own secular humanistic moral relativism to arrive at a conclusion that satisfies me. Just like everybody else, except using a different filter.

So I'm not about to get all technical on you now. But that word, immortal, just struck me.

Why, in the name of Creationism, haven't some of these homunculists fastened on the immortal nature of stem cells, and their proximity to the moment life begins. What if stem cells proved to be the locus of the soul? Or perhaps more important, proved the existence of the soul?

What type of government funding might stem research attract then? What embryonic stem cell strip mining might ensue?

* A very tiny human being, to be sure, about soooo >.< big.

Peak Oil

I was dreamin' when I wrote this
Forgive me if it goes astray
But when I woke up this mornin'
Coulda sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple,
there were people runnin' everywhere
Tryin' to run from the destruction,
U know I didn't even care

Say say two thousand zero zero party over,
oops out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999
—Prince 1999

The Wall Street Journal recently published a dialog between two experts on the ramifications of "peak oil," the point at which the global supply of petroleum reserves begins its inevitable decline. If you haven't read much on how policy makers should approach the problem, this is a good place to start. (via

You will never wake to the headline, "Today, the world ran out of oil." Rather, global oil production will rise, reach one or more "peaks," and decline. Forecasts for the peak vary between Thanksgiving of 2005 and 2050. Personally, I think global oil production will peak between 2015 and 2025 and be a greater challenge than the "looming crisis" in Social Security...

The peak in global oil production goes beyond paying a few dollars extra to fill the gas tank. The 20th century could be called the "Petroleum Age." Inexpensive oil means goods can be imported and exported at little extra cost, people can live far from work and a small fraction of the work force can feed those that produce the goods and services we associate with modernity. All of this may change after the global peak in oil production. As such, the peak isn't just an economic problem, it is one of the biggest social and political challenges for this century.
—Robert K. Kaufmann, professor of geography, Center for Energy & Environmental Studies at Boston University

As the US and North Sea reserves get depleted, the world is increasingly reliant on places like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela, whose governments are actively using the oil revenues they receive from us in ways that are very fundamentally contrary to the interests of most OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] nations. Putting a dollar valuation on this is difficult. How many more Beslan children or London commuters might be alive today if the Saudis had not poured so many billions of dollars into promoting global Wahhabism? How much freer would the people of Lebanon be without Iran's heavy support of Hezbollah? And how much of the US military budget is devoted to protecting Americans from such threats?
—James Hamilton, professor of economics, University of California at San Diego

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Clearing the Real Brush

I see that the Leader of the Free World is fixin' to head for his Crawford "ranch" for a French-scale 5-week vacation, the longest such presidential getaway in about 36 years. I don't think it's a bad thing the President gets out of Washington and risks a few blisters. He doesn't stop being President just because he's on vacation, and he has the same right as any multi-millionaire to enjoy his 10,000 square foot ranch house with the pool and the rented animals.

As the Washington Post notes: "[F]rom the president's point of view, the long Texas stints are the best way to clear his mind and reconnect with everyday America.

'I'm looking forward to getting down there and just kind of settling in,' Bush told reporters from Texas newspapers during a roundtable interview at the White House on Monday. 'I'll be doing a lot of work. On the other hand, I'll also be kind of making sure my Texas roots run deep.'

'Spending time outside of Washington always gives the president a fresh perspective of what's on the minds of the American people,' White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Friday. 'It's a time, really, for him to shed the coat and tie and meet with folks out in the heartland and hear what's on their minds.'"

Like President Reagan, Bush is a world-class vacation record holder with sense enough to produce plenty of photos of the off-duty president doing his chores. Of course the Chief Ranchhand doesn't raise animals or grow crops on his tiny (by Texas standards) spread, so the chores are pretty much limited to hosting visiting dignitaries and clearing brush.

I myself am partial to clearing brush, so I don't knock it, but if his goal is to connect with what's on the minds of the American people, he should be clearing something else. Here are a few suggestions:

• Clearing obstacles to treatment for a teen suffering from depression. The mental health care system is a confusing mess, with difficulty finding appropriate resources even for resolute people with insurance. Just imagine if part of your illness is feeling defeated by ordinary tasks.

• Clearing roadside IEDs with one of the Reserve Units he sent to Iraq.

• Living at 28th and North Oliver in Minneapolis for week and clearing drug dealers out of his yard.

• Accompanying a laid-off 54-year-old worker on job interviews.

• Babysitting for a woman with two part-time jobs — who still has no benefits and can't get above the poverty line.

You can whack down cedars all you want, Mr. President. I'm glad to see you're healthy and not afraid of physical work. But that hardly brings you closer to the concerns of people who have to work like that that 52 weeks a year.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Strict Constructionism at the DMV

A large segment of the population believes — and possibly our latest Supreme Court nominee would agree — that interpretation of a law should be strictly based on the intent of its authors. Words have meaning, you see, and all you have to do is read the language without introducing any of your own thoughts.

Those true believers should have been in line with me at the motor vehicle registration counter. I was expecting my number to be called, but the woman I was counting on to vacate a spot was disputing the charge for her license tabs.

"How come I just sold a trailer like this and there was no fee?'

The clerk began to explain to her why he'd assessed the correct amount, but the woman insisted, so he offered to look up her earlier transaction.

"But the one you sold was a pop-up camping trailer. It's treated differently, because it has living quarters."

"So does this one," she said. "It's the same kind."

"But you said it was a motorcycle trailer."

"It is a motorcycle trailer."

"Do you know what a motorcycle trailer is? It hauls motorcycles. This is a camp trailer."

"Well, it's pulled by a motorcycle."

"We don't care what pulls it. We go by the size and function."

She wasn't giving up. "You pull it with a motorcycle. What else would it be but a motorcycle trailer?"

"When you said 'motorcycle trailer,' I thought you meant a motorcycle trailer." He could see she wasn't getting the source of confusion, so, being quite nice about it, he restarted her paperwork without the fee. A truly civil servant.

So here's a question for Judge Roberts: "What is the meaning of the term livestock trailer? Is it a trailer pulled by oxen, as it surely was in the 18th Century. Or is it a trailer loaded with livestock? And what does the answer tell us about judges who find the meaning of laws in words alone?

Trail or Twain?

John BoltonKarlRoveblahblahguncontrolPatriotActyaddaJohn RobertsMarriageAmendmenthibbidaglobalwarmingracismpeasand carrotsurbansprawlrichandpoorhmmmm.

It can git jes plain tejus bein a littrut blogger, keeping up on the latest nuance of the Plame Affair and scanning the global home typing pool for the next outrage du jour.

What the blogosphere needs is a good comics section.

Sure, there are satirical sites like Wittenburg Door and The White House, but those are more layered political cartoons. I mean comics you don't have to read the rest of the newspaper to understand.

Thankfully, we have Mark Trail, the least reflective writer in the universe, and his daily episodes are available online at the WaPo. If he didn't love the outdoors as seen from a canoe so much, Mark could be the patron saint of kickass males everywhere. Instead, he's the idol of freelance writers for his ability to pick up the phone and get work whenever he wants to do a story, spend all his time procrastinating in the woods, and meet his deadlines with nary a panel devoted to him at the typewriter. (You don't hink Mark would use a computer, do you?)

Mark lives in a world with three types of men and two types of women. The men divide into amiable editors and game wardens clueless about human behavior, totally corrupt businessmen and poachers with long sideburns, and hapless weaklings manipulated by predatory women. The few non-predators are perpetually passive home ec majors (see Cherry).

Violence, deceit, gender politics and furry animals. It's all there, rendered in a plodding storyline with Boy Scout Manual illustration. Jack Elrod, Mark's creator, may be a gifted ironist or 100-percent sincere. Either way, the strip works for me, without requiring any mental effort.

One great thing about the Web is that whenever an idea crops up, but you're too lazy to write about it, with just a little digging, you can find someone who already has done the work for you, and someone else who specialized in his obsession, but then seems to have run out of steam.

Some say this easy accessibility to the work of others encourages plagiarism. Me, I think it teaches humility.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Bicycle Notes

Took the long way to the office today, following a meandering route through precincts so unlike Eden Prairie and other fortresses for the winners of class warfare.

Why don't VFW clubs ever have windows?

How do you respond to a neighbor whose vision of his castle is the hellish accumulation of every half-assed home handyman project known to man? Not to mention the ADHD and lack of financing to get anything completed.

A small duplex has accumulated an impressive, rotating inventory of out-of-warranty luxury cars — a Mercedes, a Volvo and two Jaguars spill out of the driveway and onto the street, where the residents (Syrians?) are always working on one of them. The Volvo in front of the neighbors' house has a chalkline drawn around it on the pavement, with "No Parking" chalked at one end and a handicapped parking symbol at the other.

I turn off into a Jewish cemetery I've always passed before. Stones, some bearing Cyrillic names on one side and English on the other, are clustered tightly on a modest hill farthest from the road. There are no towering monuments, the doctors taking their place equally beside the hat makers and laborers. To reach them, you must pass through awaiting fields planted with alfalfa, not grass. A circle drive through the memorial park reveals more than a dozen circles where elm stumps have been ground out over the past several years. What was once a treelined way now resembles a cartpath through a farmer's field. This place might be starkly beautiful in winter, but today, even with all the green, it is merely stark. A good place to contemplate impermanence.

A few miles down the road a new multifamily development rises along a street called Elmgrove Avenue, lined with spindly, slick-barked red maple saplings and transplanted pines.

A shopping center on the skids, with a nearby strip development already abandoned. I think large enclosed malls around the country could be easily reconfigured into medium security prisons, with the parking areas converted to exercise yards and prison gardens. The customers and their families wouldn't have far to travel.

Between meals, I buy three stuffed grape leaves from a Lebanese deli and eat them as I ride. I've been anticipating them for miles as I pass each convenience store and its abundance of easy snacks. $1.12, about the price of a small bag of chips.

Mixing a Steroid-Viagra Cocktail?

Baseball star Rafael Palmiero has been suspended under major league baseball's newly stringent drug abuse policy. Like other athletes caught in the act, he denies "intentionally" using steroids.

The upright friend of President Bush vehemently denied before Congress that he'd ever used steroids, despite a claim by former teammate Jose Canseco that he had injected Palmiero.

Does it seem hard to believe the man might risk a potential berth in the Hall of Fame by taking a body-building substance that could help him earn him a berth in the Hall of Fame?

Would he risk his health and reputation?

Doesn't it seem hard to believe a young, virile, Latin ballplayer would take a drug with those organ-stressing, testicle-shrinking side effects. And, of course, we always figured Palmiero shilled for Viagra only because a relative suffered from erectile dysfunction — plus maybe the money. But so what if he used it himself? Just because he took one performance-enhancing drug doesn't mean he would take others...

Does it?