Wednesday, November 30, 2005

All is Not Flackery

In making the long-ago transition from writing for papers and magazines to writing for a corporation, I made a shocking discovery: That I was no longer expected to present an objective set of facts reflecting the multiple sides of the "truth." I was now an advocate for my company's interests.

Actually, I made more discoveries. That publication deadlines were negotiable and that it was acceptable to start a piece with a cliche like "shocking discovery." There was no crusty copy editor scrubbing my stories. It was the HR director or the marketing V.P., and to them, cliches were good.

Responsible communication advocates (the oft-maligned PR professionals) do present both sides of an issue and try to dredge up inconvenient facts. But this analysis stays inside. It's used to shape the company's message — to counter or lean away from the other side of the story.

That's the nature of the bargain when you're inside. You present reality, give your best advice, and then put your finest effort into doing what you are told — or find another job.

Although communication professionals know the media are just doing their jobs most of the time, their masters in corporations and government may not believe in a non-partisan press. Since an institution's own advocacy is so pronounced, perhaps it can't believe the press isn't behaving likewise. Why else air all that bad news?

Now we read of U.S. forces placing stories favorable American actions in Iraqi newspapers. You might excuse this as a legit wartime propaganda tactic, except U.S. policy is supposed to be supporting the formation of democratic institutions in Iraq. One of the pillars of democracy is a free and independent press.

Is this a case of hypocrisy? Not with this administration. They're just behaving overseas the way they did at home — hiring actors to portray journalists and underwriting columnists to float favorable opinions of administration policies — more than once (ad alert on this link). This may be one more example of trying to improve government by importing common business practices.

Although I wish otherwise, I accept that my government isn't always going to be straight with me. That's the nature of politics. But officials shouldn't get a second crack at pulling the wool over my eyes by manipulating the free press.

Selling democracy is not the same as selling a product.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Judges, Goats and the First Amendment


Back with this, I began my descent into the world of paranoia over activist judges, and then lurched further into the fringes.

The so-called judicial overreaching often proved to be something like this: A suboptimal man who can't take no for an answer elevates a relatively trivial matter into a federal case.

Any old codger can temporarily stall a town council meeting over his weeds citation. It takes manic energy and a certain twisted intelligence to file hundreds of pages of court documents and launch a web site to broadcast the grievance.

Then there's Frank Kulon. You can try to work your way through Kulon's account of how a local justice of the peace and others conspired to take his property, but it's hard to tell even what on, let alone what's true. (According to this article, "Kulon was arrested in 1998 and charged with possessing a stolen gun. Liberty Town Justice Jeffrey S. Altbach, filling in for the town judge in Neversink, set bail as recommended by the prosecutor. Later, the case was dismissed.")

But Kulon wasn't satisfied. He believed the judge and DA had conspired against an immigrant, and he wasn't just going to pack up his jumbled thinking into a lawsuit.

Because Kulon is an artist, he painted his persecutors. Altbach was portrayed as a goat-horned demon. Then he printed the caricature on flyers that promoted his gallery. He also imagined Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen F. Lungen lounging in his office, surrounded by Liberty's corpse and other symbols of a corrupt authority.
Justice Altbach through the eyes of his "victim."
Altbach sued Kulon for defamation and obtained an injunction against displaying any depiction of the judge while the case was pending. Another Judge, Anthony T. Kane, ruled on that case, dimissing the defamation claim, but allowing the injunction to remain in effect. Kulon added Kane to his rogue's gallery.
D.A. Lungen taking a lunch break in his office.
The paintings are cruel and twisted, but also intriguing. They're so clearly symbolic and the product of an unbalanced mind that perhaps the best reaction would've been to laugh them off, but those aren't my symbolic balls hanging out of the loincloth.

All these images and more can be found on Kulon's web site, so the First Amendment triumphed. But the other side of our freedom of expression is the obligation to become informed about what we see and hear, to not let ourselves be swayed by sophistry and lies. The First Amendment provides no protection on the receiving end.

Kane and Altbach conspiring.

Sometimes the voices crying out against injustice will have a case, and other times they will simply be crackpots. But it's important to weigh the facts and not just the crier. Look at Kulon's work one more time.

In addition to his anti-judge paintings, Kulon has turned his art against war. This detail from "Operation Iraqi Freedom" depicts wounded children peering into a lake of blood. His "My Fight" (Mein Kampf) shows President Bush sending off tanks giving the finger to freedom. Sometimes even the crackpots get it right.



Friday, November 25, 2005

Rail: The Other Blue Highway

Years ago, my family made an Amtrak trip to Chicago for the grand tour: Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, Art Institute, Field Museum and a Cubs game, completed with a return ride on the El.

We took the train there for our kid and had plane reservations back to Minneapolis so we wouldn't have to endure the return trip. Funny thing, though. Once in Chicago, we cancelled the plane ticket and booked a return on Amtrak. It was that pleasant.

Based on that trip, plus childhood memories of riding with my grandmother on my grandad's lifetime rail pass, I'd vote for ongoing subsidy of Amtrak. But the boys who fly private jets and Air Force One don't see it that way.

See cleversponge for what's going on with the national rail service.

Keeping the Lights On in 1002005 A.D.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Nevada are wrangling over radiation standards for the planned nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain.

Normally, I'm all in favor of taking the long view, but worrying about protecting future residents of a desolate area a million years from now seems actually short-sighted, particularly when we seem unable to set new fuel efficiency standards for automobiles in the here and now. If the human race is to last into the future longer than it's been on the planet thus far, we have a few bigger problems to solve on a much shorter time frame.

Like how to generate energy for any purpose.

The new proposed standard replaces the E.P.A.'s initial effort to set a standard that would hold for 10,000 years, which, as a New York Times editorial points out, is "roughly twice the span of recorded human history ... By Congressional decree, the standard had to be consistent with advice from the National Academy of Sciences, and the academy noted, correctly, that there was no scientific basis for stopping at 10,000 years when the peak hazard might emerge hundreds of thousands of years later."

Who knows what humans will be facing by then? Yucca Mountain is about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Maybe the Strip will extend all the way up through the old nuclear proving ground right to the depository doors, where there's a theme hotel for real gamblers.

Actually, the odds don't sound too bad. Growing up in Colorado, I received annual background radiation exposure of 700 millirem, twice the standard that will kick in for any Yucca Mountain neighbors starting 500,000 years from now.

The real question is, how will planet earth keep the lights on in the meantime unless we start accepting some risks like nuclear power?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Simon or Solomon?

I keep getting distracted from wrapping up this thread on the sins of judicial activists and the crazy men who hate them. It's just too much fun poking around — at a safe, Web's-length — in these hives of righteous grievance.

Any issue requiring the court's attention can easily be reduced to a cartoon — or a horror story. And if that horror story fits with one's own worldview, why not use it to whip up similarly minded folks? For example, public school dance instructor is allegedly fired for playing religious music in class. Or a second grader isn't allowed to sing "Awesome God" in the "Frenchtown Idol" school talent show and another kid gets away with Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name."

Is that fair? Some small town Simon Colwell censoring an eight-year-old belter, who I'm sure was charming and unfaillingly on pitch? Instead, I'm thinking Solomon and compromise duet:

An angel’s smile is what you sell
You promise me heaven, then put me through hell
Chains of love got a hold on me
When passion’s a prison, you can’t break free

And the Lord wasn't joking when He kicked 'em out of Eden
It wasn't for no reason that He shed his blood
His return is very soon and so you'd better be believin' that
Our God is an awesome God

Paint your smile on your lips
Blood red nails on your fingertips
A school boy’s dream, you act so shy
Your very first kiss was your first kiss goodbye

And judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom
Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross
I hope that we have not too quickly forgotten that
Our God is an awesome God

You’re a loaded gun
There’s nowhere to run
No one can save me
The damage is done

Shot through the heart
And you’re to blame
You give love a bad name
I play my part and you play your game
You give love a bad name
You give love a bad name



I promise, I'm still getting to Artists, Goats & Judges.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

More Dispatches from the Fringe

If you haven't yet read I Hope SD Voters Read This, you may want to start there before coming into the middle of this tale of JAIL4Judges fanatics.

David Neiwert at Orcinus does a good, ongoing job of covering this Posse Comitatus world. Me, I'm just a tourist who fell down the rabbit hole and wants to send back a few postcards.

Starting with some research into a South Dakota initiative to enable citizens to prosecute judges for unpopular verdicts, I began looking further into the anti-judiciary crowd and just started following the links. I found:

White men with anger management issues. They're not the guys arrested for for driving while black in the wrong neighborhood or put in prison for drug offenses that would put suburban dwellers into treatment programs. No, they seem to be fueled by petty grievances, unrealised fears and resentment that they aren't more important to neighbors, God and country. Judges are the focus of this paranoia, perhaps because, given the civil disputes and petty infractions that obsess them, these angry white men are more likely to run afoul of a judge in court than a cop in a shoot out.

Although these are free men, they think they're only a crooked judge away from prison, having their guns snatched, their property sold at auction and their daughters raped in front of the courthouse.

A close alignment with God. The anti-judge movement does not seek to recruit from the American Atheist Society. It professes one letter of the law and one Judge, who coincidentally seems back up the angry white men in all previous court decisions as recorded in the Bible. Nevertheless, the white-robed Judge seems to need a lot of help from a circuit court of small-time preachers and megalomaniacal televangelists.

A thing about uniforms. Distinctive dress is a way of identifying who's on the team and keeping the rest of the world out, whether you're Amish or Hare Krishna, priests or televangelists, Marines or survivalists, Goths or Crips. The less powerful you are, the more significance uniforms have as a projection of power. (A Wichita city inspector wears a uniform as he goes around tagging garbage cans and BTKing women.) No wonder "black-robed judges" come in for special suspicion.

The bedfellowship gets stranger. You start to think you have this figured out. These guys have been disappointed after submitting to authority, and nopw they're turning against it! You can see it in people like Timothy McVey, past champion strip searcher Ron Branson and in an "organization" like Police and Military Against the New World Order.

There's no facist like a frustrated facist.

But then you start reading one of the allied sites — Patriot Politicans Lead Wars (PPLW) — and see it sounds similar to Michael Moore with its mission: "to provide America’s purportedly patriotic president and lawmakers both the honor and the opportunity to actively serve in all wars, police actions and military drafts they choose to promote and administer. Our PPLW plan is a chance for these political leaders to add personal involvement to the impassioned words and acts by which they traditionally have propelled our children and other loved ones into war zones around the world."

Your Christian President reflects this disaffection with Bush, and with a sinking feeling, you realize you might agree with some of what these guys are saying:

The fact of the matter is that Bush's policies are virtually identical to that of his predecessor, and yet Bush is showered with praise while Clinton is continually demonized. Such an observation leads me to believe that it is not Bush's neo-conservative agenda nor exemplary leadership, but solely his public profession of faith which has gained him the admiration of the religious-right.

The irony in this situation is that Clinton likewise portrayed himself as Christian; nevertheless, he was despised by most fundamental Bible-thumpers. So why does Bush come across as more believable? Again, I ask, is it the mere fact that he is Republican?

Bush obviously wears his religion on his sleeve for public consumption, but I was never comfortable with that being the sole reason for Bush's overwhelming acceptance among fellow Christians. Now, after years of earnest prayer and research, I have come to the conclusion that George W. Bush is indeed a religious man - broadly Christian - yet twisted and macabre in ways most people are unaware. In other words, what the Christian community as a whole fails to understand is that Bush's version of Christianity is far from what is deemed "fundamental."

President Bush, like his father and grand-father before him, is an elitist. He is part of a cabal of individuals whom believe that they posess secret knowledge which has been passed down since the time of King Solomon. They believe that they are the "enlightened ones," and that Christ has entrusted them with ushering-in the prophesied millenium; the thousand years of world peace. They believe that it is they, through Christ, whom will ultimately save mankind and rule over the entire earth; a.k.a. "New World Order."...Please understand that opposing Bush and the neo-conservative agenda does not make you a liberal Democrat!



No, anything but that.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Examining One Heart of the Divide

Got accused yesterday of veering off from my supposed theme of the week: art and judicial activism.

Guilty, with extenuating circumstances.

When I made that statement, it was already the middle of the week and I still had enough material for a couple posts. I should've put my head down and kept writing. Instead, I kept reading stuff that got me going in a different direction.

The latest... Minnesota candidate for Governor Becky Lourey was quoted as saying: "I'm for fair taxes ... based on the ability to pay. We've got to stop living in a plutocracy, government by and for the wealthy."

Had she added, "and paid for by the middle class," it would have been an even better soundbite that highlighted the issue of tax disparity. But the statement wouldn't be true, since the wealthy do pay the majority of tax dollars. The middle class pays a higher proportion of its income in various forms of taxation.

This would be a very good discussion for Minnesota and the nation to be having, because it goes to the heart of the divide. (Actually, the divide is more like a worm with multiple hearts, but you get the idea.)

It's a topic I've written about before, but if you want a quick overview from some experts, read the 11/20/05 Strib conversation between Growth & Justice's Joel Kramer and Lynn Edward Reed of the Minnesota Taxpayers Association. You'll have to find a newspaper, though. The Strib's redesigned online version is so buggy, slow and ill-conceived, even this registered reader gave up trying to find the cover piece of the print OpEx section. (There was a dumbed-down sidebar on tax rate differences from the print story, broken into two different copy blocks and presented as separate mini-stories, minus the graphic that illustrated the actual data. Sheesh.)

And there's still more to come on judge hating.

Friday, November 18, 2005

More Do. Less Spout.

I feel like I've been doing too much complaining, directly or indirectly, and that's not my nature.

How do you fix shit? That's really the American way.

There are two ways for opposing military to interact — in warfare or in discussions about how to avoid warfare.

We can exploit markets, erect trade barriers and jockey for oil. Or we can cooperate with other nations about how to make global markets work, and realize that competitors like China are even more motivated to reduce pollution than we are.

We can demonize others or invite them into our homes, our universities, our towns and our businesses. If we are truly better, we win, and if not, we learn to get better.

I've been reading These are our enemies by Mark Satin. We can read and reflect and do. Or we can spout.

Them's Fightin' Words

Colin Powell employs emphatic gestures to show the terrorists we would never "cut and run."

As Congress has renewed debate over our Iraq strategy, we are seeing an orchestrated sprinkling of fighting words.

Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, a retired Marine colonel with a hawkish record on defense, called for withdrawal from Iraq, and the Administration first dispatched the chickenhawks. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said "Representative Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run" and accused Murtha of "insulting the troops." Majority Leader Roy Blunt said withdrawal talk will "embolden our enemies" and Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said critics want to take "the cowardly way out."

Vice President Dick Cheney called questioning the Bush administration's use of intelligence before the war "one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."

Murtha responded: "I like guys who've never been there that criticize us who've been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done."

Owww.

Time to bring out the Republican Vets. Minnesota Rep. John Kline, a retired Marine colonel, called Murtha's comments "unconscionable. He should know better." Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, an Air Force vet and former Vietnam POW, laid down more fire using the same "unconscionable," according to an LA Times story.
"Reprehensible" should only be deployed by a skilled operative.

Unconscionable and reprehensible are the WMD of political bluster — big words that envelop their target in an accusatory ooze of reptilian immorality. People may not know what they mean, but they sure sound creepy. Words like these are to be deployed only by specially trained operatives because in the wrong hands, they are kinda hard t' pernounce.

Cut and run, on the other hand, is the all-purpose, plainspeaking way to imply frantic cowardice without actually saying it. You can practically hear the pantywaists scampering away when faced with a little adversity. Googling "cut and run" plus "Iraq" yielded 302,000 hits today. Expect the total to keep climbing.

"Cut & run" is easy t' pernounce.



In Sometimes a great notion, the Word Detective spells out the origin of cut and run:

A ship at anchor coming under sudden attack by the enemy, rather than waste valuable time in the laborious task of hoisting its anchor, would sacrifice the anchor by cutting the cable, allowing the ship to get under sail and escape the attack quickly. "To cut and run" was thus an accepted military tactic in emergencies, and the phrase itself dates to at least the early 1700s. By the mid-1800s, "cut and run" was in common use as a metaphor for abruptly giving up an endeavor in the face of difficulty, and appears in non-nautical context in Dickens's 1861 novel Great Expectations.

William Safire also writes about early use of the term:

Sailors extended the metaphor to fit other hasty, though not panicky, departures: Herman Melville, in his 1850 novel, White-Jacket, had a midshipman cry out, "Jack Chase cut and run!" about a buddy who ran away with a seductive lady. The poet Tennyson wrote to his wife, Emily, in 1864: "I dined at Gladstone's yesterday -- Duke and Duchess there ... but I can't abide the dinners .... I shall soon have to cut and run."

That lighthearted sense has since disappeared. Like the word quagmire, the phrase has gained an accusatory edge in politics and war.



Gotta go....

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hangering Judge?

I'm dedicating the rest of the week to art and judicial activism. Thanks to Jim for this.


by Mike Ramsey, editorial cartoonist for The State News, the independent daily of Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I Hope SD Voters Read This

Awake at the wrong hour, I got up to read and decided to look into an article about South Dakota Judicial Accountability (SDJA), an "organization" that recently submitted petitions to put an anti-judicial measure on the state's ballot. It's headed by William Stegmeier, owner of a livestock feed grinder manufacturing company.

His initiative would remove state judges' immunity from lawsuits over their judicial acts. You can read more about Stegmeier and his flawed quest here, but it's hard to draw conclusions about how legit this misguided movement really is. After all, the man collected 46,800 signatures in support of a concept serious legal scholars consider dangerous to democracy... in a state with only 527,000 registered voters!

Digging into his website led me further into a deep spiral of relationships that say a lot about the roots of the "stop activist judges" movement. SDJA is a state branch of the JAIL (Judicial Accountability Initiative Law) campaign to "end the rampant and pervasive judicial corruption" in US legal system. The organization helpfully provides proposed initiatives for your state, too.

JAIL4Judges founder Ron Branson turns out to have a tale that seems typical of these judicial crusaders.

Born in 1946, Ronald Branson joined the U.S. Military in 1963. He had a very strict and straight-laced view of "just doing his job." Part of his military time was spent as a Prison Chaser over prisoners at Fort Belvoir, VA. He presided over work details and regularly strip-searched the prisoners. He quickly gained the respect of his superiors, and took on the reputation as the strictest Prison Chaser within the prison compound, having disciplined more prisoners than all other Prison Chasers collectively.


Rigid, aggressive, but also submissive to authority, these guys start as cops or capos. Not really believers in the system, but certainly efficient cogs. But then they fall out for one reason or another, and they seek another system to take them in.

After his honorable discharge from the military, Ron entered Washington Bible College, and later graduated from two Bible Institutes .... In 1974 he became the author and publisher of the Alert Sheet Publications, a documentary which exposed cults and other religious organizations. He was ordained into the ministry in 1977 and pastored several churches. He began to realize that the biggest cult and threat to the churches was government, after which he began the Alert Sheet Informant, a publication which exposed government corruption ... In 1980 Mr. Branson was called upon to travel with and meet appointments by the late A. J. Porth, the patriarch of the modern-day patriot movement, as his right-hand man.

[No, this isn't Branson. This is Harvey Kash of Americans for Legal Reform. Thanks to the fink file for tipping me to these boys.]

And so they continue, small timers distant from real civic affairs, but big men in their disaffected circle of others who are aggressive and single-minded enough to make some money out of unglamorous pursuits — well drilling, industrial gaskets, chiropractic and small-time ministry in places like Tea, SD, Kamiah, ID, and Lost Springs, KS.

They can hang in their VFW halls, intimidate their wives, indoctrinate their kids, annoy their neighbors, cheat on their taxes and still remain invisible men. But then something else happens.

A DWI. A missed child support payment. A deer taken without a tag. A parking ticket. A property dispute. All normal blue collar libertarian crimes. But suddenly this gives focus to the good soldier's sense of grievance over a humdrum life: The system is responsible for my pain. And unlike the ghetto dweller who never bought into the system, this believer's pain over oppression is doubled by a sense of betrayal.

Ron's legal pursuits within the courts began in 1982 when he engaged the County of Los Angeles over their refusal to give a mandatory civil service hearing to a sixteen year employee of the county holding civil service protection ...

The straw that broke the camel's back was in 1994 in which Mr. Branson brought suit against the City of Los Angeles and seven police officers for thirteen and a half million dollars for false arrest, false imprisonment and unwarranted strip-search and numerous other causes of action.

The once-master strip-searcher is allegedly strip-searched and his humiliation is complete. Though his biography mentions the strip-search, it is less clear about the legal issue that launched his campaign: a dispute over an unpaid parking ticket. I don't recommend reading his 40-page petition to the US Supreme Court. One paragraph in the patriarch's bio puts it more succinctly:

All attempts by Mr. Branson to bring his case to a final judgment through the courts and then the Legislature failed. He realized that the law on the books was a façade to give the public the impression that we had laws that governed our society. Mr. Branson realized that if there were to change at all in society, it would not come from within the government, but would have to be done by going directly to the People through the initiative process. After a period of eighteen years of seeking redress by pursuing due process of law, Mr. Branson was then pursuing his fourteenth case to the United States Supreme Court. The results were always certain and predictable.


Well, yes, one would hope so in this case.

Organizations like Dr. Rick Scarborough's Vision America — with its tentacles to semi-mainstream fringe figures like Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, and yes, Tom DeLay — look positively genteel by comparison. Like Stegmeier, Branson and others, they pretend to appeal to high Constitutional principles, but they tap into the same troubled, unbalanced base of support.

Next time — Christians who hate Bush; anti-war and anti-judge cops; and artists who don't like, well, see for yourself...



KISS OF DEVIL (THE TWO HONORABLE JUDGES)
— Franciszek (Frank) C. Kulon

New Orleans Has How Many Electoral Votes?

Being a world traveler and all, I'm still catching up on my reading...

This from Richard Clarke in The Atlantic via hullabaloo.

You Always Know What America Stands For When Bush Is President

"Imagine if, in advance of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of trucks had been waiting with water and ice and medicine and other supplies. Imagine if 4,000 National Guardsmen and an equal number of emergency aid workers from around the country had been moved into place, and five million meals had been ready to serve. Imagine if scores of mobile satellite-communications stations had been prepared to move in instantly, ensuring that rescuers could talk to one another. Imagine if all this had been managed by a federal-and-state task force that not only directed the government response but also helped coordinate the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and other outside groups.

Actually, this requires no imagination: it is exactly what the Bush administration did a year ago when Florida braced for Hurricane Frances. Of course the circumstances then were very special: it was two months before the presidential election, and Florida's twenty-seven electoral votes were hanging in the balance. It is hardly surprising that Washington ensured the success of "the largest response to a natural disaster we've ever had in this country." The president himself passed out water bottles to Floridians driven from their homes."

From The Atlantic, but you'll have to be either a subscriber or buy the issue to read the whole thing. Trust me, it's worth it.

Spreading Freedom and Pavement

To make yesterday's point more directly: our President and his neocon policy gurus think we are exporting democracy. We are also, and more effectively, exporting individual self-determination, consumerism and growing energy consumption.

People in free countries fill the ballot box only rarely and inconsistently. They fill cash registers with their votes daily and universally. Who gains power under this system?

Whether you regard the spread of unbridled capitalism as a victory for freedom depends on your perspective. For individual people improving their lives in the here and now, it looks like progress — especially once the suicide bombings slow to a trickle. Third world countries have advanced environmental degradation on their own pretty well, and economic growth will doubtless improve some areas, such as water treatment. But looking at the long-term prospects for the planet and humanity, it is difficult not to envision growth as impending doom.

No wonder the far right views both Al Qaida and the Sierra Club as enemies.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Can the World Afford Two Beautiful Countries?

Troutsky asks in a comment on the previous post, "Is growth truly something which can be perpetually sustained, for eternity?"

There are at least two possible answers to this.

One is "yes." This is likely to come from someone who is optimistic about technology, dedicated to self-interest, and really has no expectation of actually being around when the final answer comes down.

The other is "no." It usually comes from the few who have rejected the short-sighted allure of consumerism and the many more who have already got theirs and now want to keep out the riff raff. Either way, that "no" begs the question of how you stop the comfortable lifestyle train without derailing it. Right now, Al Qaida and the Taliban seem to be the only ones intent on stopping western-style growth, and I don't care for their solution.

We are accustomed to holding America's consumption responsible for the planet's environmental peril, but that's a petty misdemeanor compared to our complicity in setting a bad example for the developing world.

In the introductory Chinese lesson during our tour, we were told that the Chinese ideograph for America could be translated as "Beautiful Country." That's kind of sweet until you realize how they are starting to emulate American-style growth. If they succeed, we are all in deep doo-doo.

One question I heard several times after returning was: "Were there lots of bikes in Beijing?"

By U.S. standards, certainly. But bike-clogged streets are an old movie. The really striking impressions were of the number of autos and the amount of construction in every city. China is already reportedly the leading buyer of steel and concrete. With its huge trade surplus, China holds a large amount of U.S. Treasuries, and therefore, exerts significant influence over U.S. interest rates. It is only a matter of time before China becomes the leading customer for the world's oil.

Building weapons of mass destruction and sending troops around the world is so-o-o old economy.

The oil gap between China and the U.S. is still wide. Our 300 million people manage to consume 20.5 million barrels of crude oil per day, while China's 1.3 billion get by on only 6.5 million per day. U.S. citizens own roughly 0.6 cars per capita. In China, as of 2003, the ownership rate was only about 0.0054 per capita, but the percentage had grown 134% from 1998. It shows little sign of slowing, despite government efforts to discourage ownership by making driver's licenses difficult to obtain and license plates as costly as a used car.

It's not hard to imagine China, with its ascendant economy, soon reaching Mexico's level of car ownership (0.1 per capita), which would mean it had put nearly as many cars on the road as in America. Throw in the increased demand on China's coal-fired power plants, which contribute to perpetual smog and streak even the new buildings with Industrial Revolution grime, and you can almost hear the polar ice cap melting from here. Even more immediately disturbing, after a week in the country, we realized the only birds we'd seen in China were in cages — or barbequed on sticks.

Still more worrisome for us than the environmental degradation, I think, is the slurping sound as another large economy pokes its straw into the earth's communal petro shake.

The Chinese government has enforced strict population limits and still controls some brakes on the economy. But it's hard to see the forces of reform and openness being reversed. People want better lives, and when you live in the land of second cars and second homes, it's hard to deny others a quarter of what we have.

But can the planet afford more than one beautiful country? And if only one, whose will it be?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Framing ANWR

Now that the House has pulled ANWR drilling out of its version of the budget bill, perhaps it won't slip through the back door as it appeared it would last week when I started in on the subject. However, the bill still needs to be resolved in conference, and there's still lots of politics to be played.

The Senate kept drilling in its version of the bill, without Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman's vote. With sufficient votes in hand for his party to pass an ANWR-linked bill, Coleman was able to take a principled stand against the drilling as he had promised in his campaign. Give him some credit, although it would have been interesting to see his position had the White House required his vote. I suspect he would have tipped, with a rehearsed expression of great sadness as he weighs the greater interests of all Minnsotans.

(You can see Coleman's — or any other Congressperson's — entire environmental voting record at the Sierra Club's Votewatch.)

As an NPR story summarizes, the ANWR wrestling match "has stretched more than three decades. It has been full of tricky legislative maneuvers, late-night votes and passionate lobbying efforts by both sides." In Congressional scuffles, as in World Wrestling Federation matches, the spectators are screaming for their guy/issue to win. But for the actors, individual victories are meaningless, except as plot points in the ongoing power struggle.

Whether you see ANWR drilling as a blow against foreign oil despots or against unborn caribou likely has little to do with the facts and a lot to do with your emotional identification with "energy independence" or "wilderness values." That's human nature. Plus, the facts are complicated, and they are being filtered through similar values screens.

Here's just one example of what I found as I tried to sift conflicting views.
The map published by advocates depicts the ANWR Coastal Plain — the non-wilderness area where drilling would be permitted — in go-go green, and then helpfully shows the 2,000 acres of "Proposed Development Area" to scale. This maps leaves the impression of a flyspeck in a region where other development has already taken place.
An NPR-created map shows the entire Proposed Drilling Area as a swath of stop-sign red, and the somewhat compressed projection creates an impression that ANWR and the Plain cover a larger portion of Alaska's land mass.

Language, color and total area in the two maps are each aligned with a certain point of view. I've measured the maps — the NPR map makes the ANWR area 5% wider and 13% deeper — but I can't tell you which is a better depiction of reality.

There's other potential distortion at work. Language in the bill authorizes production equipment and infrastructure to occupy an above ground "footprint" of no more than 2,000 (8km²) of ANWR's 19 million acres (77,000 km²), or approximately 0.01%. But Alaska Wild, which opposes drilling and refutes some of the pro- spin on its site suggests that the proponents' red dot shows only the allowed footprint as relative acreage and not the actual location of the drilling footprint:

There is nothing saying that the 2,000 acres has to be contiguous. Recent U.S. Geological Survey studies conclude that potential oil resources are located in many small accumulations in complex geological formations, rather than in one giant field like Prudhoe Bay. It is more likely that oil development would spread over a large region connected by roads, pipelines, power plants, processing plants, airports, gravel mines, powerlines, and other infrastructure.



There are other ways to frame this. As needed job creation, for instance.

The National Defense Council Foundation, a Republican organization chaired by Rep. Dan Burton, estimates 2.2 million U.S. jobs would be created, directly and indirectly, by opening ANWR to oil drilling. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the entire U.S. oil and gas extraction industry only had about 123,000 wage and salary jobs in 2002, and the Census bureau counted 2,771 such workers in Alaska, slightly more than in Kansas. Consider petroleum and coal products manufacturing currently employs only about 112,000 nationally. Figure in modest job creation for transportation and some construction. (Alaskan oil production is declining, and presumably new production would use some existing infrastructure, transportation and refining capacity.)

No word on how many of those jobs will be cleaning up oil spills, but 2 million seems high.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Blame Gaming

As this administration lurches into the beginning of the end, it’s important to remember who to blame for the whole sad, sordid tale: Gary Hart. Specifically, I blame Gary Hart’s libido.

Consider this hypothetical: Gary Hart — who has since proven himself an eloquent and erudite scholar of homeland security — does not cavort on the impossibly named Monkey Business. He secures the Democratic nomination in 1988, sparing our collective consciousness the trauma of Michael Dukakis driving a tank. Bush the elder, instead of ascending to the presidency, retires to relative obscurity. The Bush family’s political influence wanes. Hart is re-elected in 1992. Bush the younger scrapes up enough political capital to run for governor of Texas in 1994. Even if he wins and winds up on the GOP ticket in 2000, he gets walloped by Bill Clinton, who, of course, rose to the fore in 1996.

Improbable, yes, but not impossible. And definitely preferable to this T-minus-three-years-and-counting debacle.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

It's Faith or It's Nothing

Yesterday voters in Pennsylvania turned out the Dover school board incumbents who ordered the introduction of intelligent design in the district's science curriculum. Meanwhile, the Kansas Board of Education lurched back down the path the Dover community abandoned, saying high school students should be taught that Darwin's theory of evolution is "controversial."

But the real controversy is political, not scientific. For years, a seesaw battle has been going on between Kansas creationists and science educators, with conservatives and moderates changing seats in subsequent waves of backlash. It may be coming to a school board near you.

"Both sides ought to be taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about," says President Bush, implying there's some sort of equality that simply doesn't exist as far as mainstream science is concerned. Mathematics isn't obligated to spend time on numerology and the Kabbala. Astronomy doesn't try to help students understand astrology. But at least those pseudo-disciplines actually deal with numbers and stars.

Intelligent design deals with nullity, the spaces between knowledge and understanding. Its all-purpose higher power theory allows it to fill in any gaps science hasn't yet explained — or to smooth over complexities that are explained but simply too much bother to comprehend.

This actually a very useful function, but it's not science. It is the comforting function performed by a narcotic to treat pain when a cure has failed. At some point, life may very well come down to faith or nothing, as this song says...


MP3 File

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Welcome to Fantasy Island


We are witnessing the incredible shrinking presidency. I know this isn't reaching across the divide, but what is Tattoo going to do now that the facade around Mr. Roarke is starting to crack?

I promise I'll try to do better next time.

Poverty Gains Some Recruits

Emptying the archives of unsent sarcasm. Post Kristina and travel, this never got posted.

In 2004, according to a Census Bureau report published in late August, 1.1 million Americans joined the ranks of those who officially live in poverty. That means recruiting is up afterall under our war president. The total living in poverty is now 37 million, or 17% more than during Bill Clinton's second term. According to the same source, those who enjoy no health insurance gained 800,000 troops in 2004. The total number of Americans without health insurance is now nearing 46 million.

On average, we are making progress. Five percent of American households saw their incomes go up in 2004, while only a portion of the 95 percent who didn't gain lost ground.

So naturally, we are staying the course, pushing through the elimination of inheritance taxes, reduction of taxes on capital gains, deep cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, and federal student loans, and holding the line on the minimum wage.

Words Like Water


When I wrote Wuhan Walking, I didn't realize we had this shot of the poignant impermanence of the word.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Budget Drilling

I've still got a few postlets to finish relating energy, ANWR and China. Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that the budget bill is about a whole lot more than drilling in Alaska. However, drilling is an apt metaphor for what's going on with the House as it plans tax cuts for the wealthy, budget cuts for the poor and... Well, let the New York Times editorial tell it:

That rara avis, the moderate Republican lawmaker, is suddenly in sight, forcefully objecting to the House leadership's abominable package of budget cuts for the poor and environmental licentiousness for the energy industry. The five-year, $54 billion proposal is headed for a floor vote this week disguised as an overdue act of fiscal responsibility and government savings. In truth, it is so over-the-top in its inequities and giveaways that embarrassed moderates are actually rebelling, withholding support unless some of the more outrageous measures — like despoiling the Alaska wildlife refuge with oil drilling — are killed.


You can read the whole thing via Truthout.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Strolling Past the Lead Plant

[Click any photo to enlarge.]
Although we traveled through many very modern areas in Chizhou, a tall smokestack was the predominant image seen from the river. In a morning stroll through the waterfront area, we started past the decaying port terminal, where teens pretended to be skateboard dudes in baggy clothes, doing stunts on rubber wheeled roller skates.

We crossed a viaduct near a new police station located amid decaying commercial buildings. It was difficult to always tell in China which buildings were being built, abandoned, renovated or simply used as they were. It was the only time in two weeks there was strong whiff of sewage.

Blue gravel trucks hurtled down the main road toward the landing, blowing their air horns. In cities where there was much more harrowing traffic, horns were rarely heard, but here, the blasts were constant.

In America, we're now conditioned to think industrial smoke is white because all we typically see coming from chimneys is water vapor. It was shocking to see the foul black smoke and the grey clouds rising from under the factory roofs as if the place were burning down. A hospital is only a block away, to the right of this shot.


Reports say slightly over 10% of Chinese children have unhealthy levels of lead in their blood. One toxic city in the south has an 82% rate. It's not just coming from battery factories, but from electronics plants and the processing of e-waste.

Friends just returning from China said they saw a story putting the rate of lead poisoning in Chizhou's children at 95%. I couldn't independently confirm it, but these kids are growing up within blocks of the lead factory. The factory is scheduled to close within two years.



China's rapid development is worrisome for the added pressure it places on the environment, on the consumption of scarce fuels and material, on the displacement of jobs. But then I remember the smells of Chizhou, the smiles of those kids and the stroll past the lead factory.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

To Drill or Not to Drill

This vote today sends a signal to OPEC and the rest of the world that America is serious about meeting more of its own energy needs. America will not let our consumers or our economy be held hostage to runaway global oil prices.
—Sen. Pete Domenici, New Mexico, Chair Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee


We need to give our children a future less dependent on fossil fuel. According to the Energy Department's latest analysis, even if oil companies drill in the [Arctic National] Wildlife Refuge and hit peak production, it will only lower gas prices by a penny per gallon.
—Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington


Last week, an almost evenly divided (51-48) Senate declined to strip language from the pending budget bill that would allow oil development in Area 1002 of the Coastal Plain bordering Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This cleared the way to pass the budget bill and let slip in the back door a provision the Senate refused to include as part of legislation that is actually supposed to deal with energy issues — the Energy Bill.

How nifty, setting loose oil companies in ANWR without actually having to go on record in favor of it. Senator Domenici proclaims the passage a blow for increased energy independence, although it's hard to see OPEC shaking. The Energy Information Administration projected that ANWR production will possibly begin around 2010, with peak production 20-30 years after that.

Meanwhile, no sign of slowing the giant sucking sound that is far more responsible than OPEC for our vulnerability.

I make it a personal policy not to get depressed over knee-jerk generalities, so I spent substantial time trying to form a reasoned position on ANWR — to drill or not to drill? — and I come out on the question like some damn Hamlet. Partly, because it's complicated with multiple sides, but mostly because somebody is going to want that oil very badly someday.

Like virtually everything in American political life today, the ANWR posturing has little to do with actually solving the big honking issue that really matters — the world we're leaving our grandchildren. The concern is not likely to be whether they can save a penny at the gas pumps or watch bird migrations while freezing their asses off. It'll be how they and their grandchildren are going to heat buildings and transport people and products without oil. And unfortunately, the fossils in today's Congress won't be sufficient to serve as an alternative source of fuel.

I'll continue this topic in forthcoming posts...

Activism or Restraint? Depends.

Atrios asked the question: How often has each justice voted to strike down a law passed by Congress?

Why am I not surprised at the answer?

One conclusion our data suggests is that those justices often considered more ''liberal'' — Justices Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens — vote least frequently to overturn Congressional statutes, while those often labeled ''conservative'' vote more frequently to do so. At least by this measure (others are possible, of course), the latter group is the most activist.


With Clarence Thomas leading the list of current justices for percentage of the time they voted to strike down Congressional laws...

Thomas: 65.63%
Kennedy: 64.06%
Scalia: 56.25%
Rehnquist: 46.88%
O'Connor: 46.77%
Souter: 42.19%
Stevens: 39.34%
Ginsburg: 39.06%
Breyer: 28.13%

So "judicial restraint," praised by guys like Rick Scarborough and other Judge Alito advocates, means what, exactly? According to the Reader's Companion to American History:

"Judicial restraint" and "judicial activism" refer to the extent to which the Court defers to the constitutional determinations of other branches of government and the extent to which it refuses to impose affirmative obligations upon government. Throughout its history, the Court has claimed to exercise judicial review with restraint, but it has always actively pursued its chosen policies of the moment.


Put it this way. Whenever you hear "principle" in a political discussion, most people are really talking about interest.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

What Do You See?

As a Mac user, I've given up on Internet Explorer, since they gave up on me about two years ago. But, using IE to check on this blog tonight, I was appalled to see that only the posts were showing up. Not the links, sidebars and all other manner of related content.

If you see lots of white space down the right side, please leave a comment below, with your browser and operating system info. Or switch to Safari or Firefox.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Using the Dead

One side benefit of the StarTribune's recent redesign is that I save fulmination time several days a week by missing Katherine Kersten's column. Kersten, for you readers who live outside the Minnesota orbit and don't subscribe to the online edition, is a resolutely right-wing rosary mom who enrolled at Carleton College at the time I was there, took one horrified look, and quickly fled to the sacred confines of Notre Dame.

After a stint with the conservative Center of the American Experiment — from which she periodically lobbed wretchedly cobbled together opinion pieces — Kersten was signed by the Strib as a "local" columnist, which means her political pieces based on Republican talking points don't appear on the editorial page. But they reliably generate more reader reaction than public financing of new stadiums, indictments of Republican officials and the woes of Vikings put together. Local bloggers are so virulent about her that I can't even link to their comments and maintain the shaky dignity of ATGD.

Her next-to-latest column begins with a Kersten favorite technique, using the arch "quote" as a cudgel:

Paul Wellstone's death was a tragedy that united all Minnesotans in grief. But as we remember the sorrow, it's also important to remember the "memorial service" — three years ago Saturday — that went notoriously awry.

Kersten goes on to "explain" why Minnesota voters passed over the impeccable statesman Walter Mondale for the opportunistic narcissist Norm Coleman, carefully expressing his grief in the staged media event below...

It was resentment that some Wellstone supporters were cynically willing to exploit what is best in human nature — the unifying empathy for personal tragedy — and subvert it to partisan political ends. Their action was consistent with the '60s battle cry: "The personal is political." That world view holds that nothing human is higher than politics, or too private or sacred to be turned to political purposes.

The Wellstone rally was a huge miscalculation. Yet today, the left continues to use grief to achieve political goals.


Norm Coleman, joined by his wife, Laurie, talked about his memories of Paul Wellstone in front of their St. Paul home. "I had the greatest respect for his passion. He was a fighter." —Photo, Duane Braley, AP


Had Kersten "truly" been united in grief with the mourners, she would have seen the three-plus hours for what they were — an extraordinary outpouring of tribute and love interrupted by 20 minutes of pain expressed by a profoundly anguished man who was trying to emulate the oratorical style of his hero and friend.

Her take is so egregiously wrong that the only possible explanation is Kersten is projecting her own warped views onto the mourners — as well as Cindy Sheehan — for seeking "political mileage from a personal tragedy." For the political mileage clearly came from the spin applied by the Republicans, who could have empathized with Rick Kahn's pain, but chose to pounce on his faux pas and falsely characterize the entire proceedings as a "rally."

What else would a loving memorial to Paul Wellstone resemble? What kind of people would you expect to speak?

I can imagine golfer John Daly's friends slugging impossibly long drives over the water, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Don't you suppose Jimmy Swaggert's service will resemble a revival meeting? Will Jay Leno go down to nothing but the strains of the Miserere? I think Bruce Cockburn means it when he sings:

Tie me at the crossroads when I die
Hang me in the wind 'til I get good and dry
And the kids that pass can scratch their heads
And say "who was that guy?"
Tie me at the crossroads when I die


I still burn remembering the dessicated priest who discouraged testimonials at my father's funeral — because people might go on too long or bring up inappropriate memories — and then delivered a generic eulogy, as if my father had given little to the church, done nothing for the community and raised a cookie cutter family. Had the priest been in charge of the Wellstone service, Norm Coleman would be shilling for the Center of the American Experiment instead of tormenting Kofi Annan.

Since Cut-and-Paste Katherine needs to read it somewhere before an idea can show up in her writing, let's break it down.

Of course the living use the dead, because death confers temporal power. Why should we let the memories of those we knew and loved trickle away if we can wrench more meaning from their lives?

Cindy Sheehan is using her son's death to try to save more young people from dying.
Mothers Against Drug Driving are using their childrens' deaths to try to save more young people from dying.
Every day there are people using the deaths of loved ones to try to combat AIDS, breast cancer, suicide and gang violence.
I use the death of my mother to express empathy for those who have lost their mothers.
Black Americans use the death of Rosa Parks to advance the ideal of racial equality.
Christians use the death of Jesus to represent love, forgiveness and salvation.

Is this cynical exploitation of death? Or is it honoring life? Oh, wait, this is how we honor life:

George Bush using the death of some po' boys he never met to justify deaths of still others he will never know.
Congressmen posturing over Terri Schiavo.
Abortion clinic protestors harrassing strangers with photos of anonymous fetuses.

Who do you suppose is more cynical? Rick Kahn or Bill Frist?