Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nominating Perry is a blazingly dumb idea

I HAVE NO IDEA if Rick Perry is dumb ― though the circumstantial evidence seems compelling, in a backward Cochranian sort of way ("if the gloves fit, you can't acquit"). But there is a more basic reason why Republicans would be ill-advised to nominate Perry over Mitt Romney to face off against Barack Obama in 2012.

In the general election, Americans would at least give Romney the once-over and hear him out. He might even have a sporting chance against Mr. Obama if we sink into Depression. Perry, on the other hand, would be dismissed faster than he could say "The Alamo." It's not complicated. Gov. Perry ― the swaggering cowpoke who brandishes an authentic Texan drawl ― will be quickly seen by most non-Republicans as a cruder, dumber, darker version of George W. Bush, the man even the GOP wants to forget. And rest assured, Team Obama will spare no expense in making sure this Perry-Bush portrait hangs high in the gallery of public perception. The only Republicans who could give the game away faster than Perry are Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. Pundits mock Perry for his alleged dumbitude. But their targeting is off. The real question is whether the GOP is dumb enough to nominate him.

Thinking about all of this, the satirical Western Blazing Saddles naturally sprang to mind. Bart (Cleavon Little) is soon faced with an angry lynch mob after revealing himself ("Excuse me while I whip this out") as the town's new sheriff. Thinking fast, Bart points his own pistol at his head and gruffly shouts: "Hold it! Next man makes a move, the negro gets it!" Olson Johnson: "Hold it, men. He's not bluffing." Town Doctor: "Listen to him, men. He's just crazy enough to do it!" Bart: "Shut up!" Bart places his hand over his own mouth, then drags himself through an open door. Once safely inside, Bart coos: "Ooh, baby, you are so talented!" He looks into the camera: "And they are so *dumb*!" As for my Republican friends, only time will tell.

Infinity hurts your brain

A rousing discussion about infinity is underway on Andrew Sullivan's blog. Lots of readers have weighed in on its undeniable existence. Here's one of the more intriguing explanations: "Another example of infinity is the relationship between a mathematical point and a line. By definition a mathematical point has no dimension - it is 0 units long, 0 units wide, and 0 units high. A line, which is composed of such points, however has a dimension. Its length is >0. How is it possible to obtain a value >0 by adding only values of 0 together, which is essentially all you do when you place points adjacent to each other to form a line? Normally, any number multiplied by 0 is 0; however, infinity multiplied by 0 is not 0." Got that? I suggest Excedrin® Extra Strength for the headache you may now be experiencing.

Take with food (and a grain of salt)

It's common to see "Take Medication With Food" labels affixed to prescription drug containers. I'm told that taking vitamins with food is also a good idea (your body absorbs the ingredients better or something). The same may apply to political meds. Dr. Allan Lichtman, an American University professor, has a winning prescription for calling presidential elections. US News & World Report reports Lichtman has a "belated birthday present for Barack Obama: Rest easy, your re-election is in the bag." Using 13 "keys," the professor has accurately predicted every election since Reagan's 1984 re-election. The keys range from party mandates and social unrest to foreign policy successes or losses. "They test the performance of the party that holds the presidency. If six or more of the 13 keys go against the party in power, then the opposing party wins," reports USN. Per Lichtman, Obama has already pocketed nine of the keys. So he's a slam-dunk for re-election in 2012. Although my key-less intuition agrees with the good professor, I'd still advise taking Lichtman's meds with a big grain of salt.

Speaking of being small ...

Just before I posted a view of the Earth and Moon as seen from six million miles away (courtesy of NASA's Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft), I re-read Carl Sagan's sublime "Lonely Pale Blue Dot" essay. Putting us into proper perspective, he wrote: "Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark." And we humans are smaller still in the scheme of things. Amazingly, the news media is even smaller. Driving home the point, the Washington Monthly writes: "The media is making quite a fuss over the fact that President Obama intends to deliver his speech on the economy to a joint session of Congress at the same time as a debate for Republican presidential candidates." Is Obama trying to step on GOP toes? Breathless, inquiring minds in the White House press corps want to know. Steve Benen reports that "for what it's worth, rumor has it this afternoon that NBC will shift the timing of the debate so that it airs after the national address." And political life goes on, ever smaller and meaninglessly, on our pale blue dot.

All of us, in perspective

See that small white dot? That's called Earth. See that smaller, greyer dot adjacent to it? That's the Moon. Seen by NASA's Juno spacecraft from a distance of six million miles, the Earth and Moon are but two tiny dancers on a "very small stage," as Carl Sagan would put it. This cosmic scene, a fleeting moment in space-time, is at once sublime and humbling.

Few have put humankind (and, I daresay, its follies) into better perspective than Dr. Sagan. For him, the third rock from the Sun was a "pale blue dot." On it, he said, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. He observed that: "Every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar,' every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there―on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
Indeed. Consider today's presidential race where we witness candidate after candidate strut their certitudes and self-proclaimed divinities before bowed, unthinking crowds. All hail the new Rising Sun, they say, for the Heavens must revolve around them. The delicious irony is that these pitiful playlets of egotism unfold on a planetary rock, Sagan's lonely blue dot, that is adrift in an infinite universe where humanly politics matter not a whit, and never will. The gods must be laughing.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dancing with the B-List Stars

"It's that time of year again," the The LA Times breathlessly reported. "ABC has unveiled its next batch of 'celebs' who will quick-step their way through the 13th season on Dancing with the Stars." Well, Jumpin' Jack Flash and slap me silly. OK, OK -- so I'm not impressed. That's just me. "Stars" ranks No. 2 behind "American Idol" in popularity. So I'm clearly the odd man out (again). But looking over the show's new slate of "celebs" is like walking down a B-Lister Skid Row. Nancy Grace (Darth Vaderess and queen ambulance chaser), Ricki Lake (talk show host has-been), Elizabetta Canalis (famous cuz she dated George Clooney once), Chaz Bono (yeah her, I mean, "him"), Rob Kardashian (the only one in the clan who pees standing up), Chyna Phillips (um, who?) and a few others who function only under the klieg lights, any klieg lights. Sure, it's fun, it's diverting, it's harmless and That's Entertainment. But it's a pity that this popular show trumpets exactly the wrong subliminal message to the huddled masses: You don't exist unless you're on TV (like the spotlight-craving "stars" on Dancing with the Stars).

Hello? This is your worst nightmare calling ...

Ring-Ring. Ring-Ring. "Um, yeah ... hello?" the groggy liberal Democrat says, emerging from a deep political coma. "This is your wake-up call, sir. Texan Rick Perry could conceivably become the 45th president of the United States. Have a nice day. G'bye." Now fully awake, said Democrat is now suffering heart palpitations. A blood-curdling scream is imminent. According to POLITICO, Dems are having a Perry panic attack. "His entry in the race is a signal and a wake-up call,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told POLITICO's Ben Smith. "[He's] looking to go to the O.K. Corral and start shooting. … Rather than the left get caught sleeping, we better load up, because he is bringing it.” I daresay this is a tad overblown. But it's not a bad thing. The nightmarish idea of another Republican in the Oval Office ― especially a swaggering, uber conservative Texican who's light on brainpower ― will focus disparate liberal minds like nothing else. Despite all their angst and playground squabbling, they'll run home to Daddy Obama lickety-split. And that's good for the president and America.

Tip: How to get rich fast

Apart from winning Powerball or knocking over the Bellagio Ocean's Eleven-style, there are only two ways to get rich fast. (1) Write a witty book about "How to Get Rich Fast." The Greater Fool theory rarely fails. (See Or (2) Run for president in a race you can't possibly win; write an eminently forgettable, ghost-written "memoir" that the news media and bloggersphere will trumpet for free ― and thousands of your adoring (but fleeting) fans will "pay any price, bear any burden" to buy ― then cash out fast. (See Michele Bachmann's new book, scheduled for release in November). Who knew it was so easy?

Of Jobs and dreams

In a 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, Steve Jobs said: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” Those words are heady and inspirational. It is a philosophy about work life that merits deep contemplation. On the other hand, it comes from a man ― a Silicon Valley Alexander ― who has been a multi-millionaire since his 20s. From that comfortable pedestal, it's easy to say "don't settle" for anything less than matching your dreams with a job that will fulfill them. Jobs' early financial windfall freed him to follow his dreams. Most folks have to eat and pay the bills. Bloomberg's Virginia Postrel agrees. In a thoughtful piece, she says Jobs' clarion for the "promise of greatness and self-fulfillment" is compelling. But it could also lead to "perpetual dissatisfaction. If business isn’t just about making money, if it is about finding a version of true love and leaving a cultural mark, the stakes are much higher. Your work becomes your identity." Also worth bearing in mind, Postrel noted, is why Jobs really kept working after he became richer than God. “It’s a neat way to play,” she said, quoting Intel exec Dave House (who's also a gazillionaire). Clearly, there are no easy solutions for how best to pursue our dreams. We do the best we can with the cards we're dealt. And hope.

Rewarding failure?

Grist for thought from Chris Hayes (Nation's Editor at Large): "[W]hat's so troubling about this [Dick] Cheney publicity lap, is the fact that he has managed to escape not only legal sanction for advocating and overseeing the implementation of the war crime that is torture, but that he also has appeared to manage to escape social sanction as well. ... Everyone is now going to treat him as just another memoirist with a book to sell, and have his book party and give his interviews and cash his checks as if he were Keith Richards. ... When powerful people are not held to account when they have no worry about their reputations, it creates a moral hazard. Not unlike what's happened with the banks. Anti-social behavior is rewarded. Failure is also rewarded. And we are trapped inside a system of perverse incentives." (Hat tip: Washington Monthly)

The thinker's conundrum

Ancient Greek historian Herodotus said, "The worst pain a man can suffer: to have insight into much and power over nothing." It is, I daresay, the thinker's conundrum. But perhaps the greater agony is to have power over all and insight into nothing. At that the gods laugh. For that man's power is meaningless. Just grist for your Tuesday thoughts.

Cheney's dark little room

I'M GLAD Saddam Hussein and most of his henchmen are pushing up daisies as they burn in Hell. Lord knows they got what they deserved. But was regime change worth $3 trillion dollars, 36,633 American dead and wounded, and well over 100,000 Iraqi casualties? Only history will render that verdict. But for Dick Cheney, history can go take a flying leap. When asked by NBC's Matt Lauer if the Iraq War was worth the cost in treasury and blood, Cheney replied, "Oh, sure." His answer was almost flippant. There is something deeply bone-chilling about politicians who exhibit such fanatical certitude about their actions or views. Theirs is a binary world of 1's and 0's, the consequences ― and in Iraq's case, the collateral damage ― be damned. Theirs is indeed a nasty, dark little room. The likes of Cheney never learn, as Herodotus said, circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances. Nor can they ever comprehend the profound tragedy of fathers burying their sons in violation of the natural order. I hope history proves Iraq was a worthwhile endeavor for the sake of the fallen and maimed. They are the ones who paid for any forthcoming rendering of victory, unlike the smirking old men now cashing in on ill-perceived glory.

So, is it Perry?

Uh oh. Rick Perry has vaulted to a double-digit lead over his Republican rivals, says the latest CNN poll. Mitt Romney, who has the most to lose, is getting smoked. He's at 18% in contrast to Perry's 32% support among Republicans. It's still too early for Perry to start measuring the drapes. But his forward momentum is undeniable. Jon Chait has a good, level-headed take: "Perry isn't a lock, but something has to happen to take him down, or he will win. In general, early polls mean a great deal in Republican primaries. They're not perfect, but they are strong indicators. ... You can't assume that all voters are picking their candidates ideologically, but there is surely an ideological component at work. If and when the field gets narrowed to a Perry-Romney race, Perry will be in a commanding position to increase his share. Unless something knocks him off." At this point, I'd say it's Perry's to lose unless Romney can quickly prove that he's more than an empty suit.

Say 'cheese': A snapshot of our today

An admiring friend charms a young mother: “My, that’s a beautiful baby you have there.” The mother replies, “Oh, that’s nothing — you should see his photograph.” Inside this weird colloquy lies a sorely bitter truth. (Louis René Beres)

Our 'Plato problem'

This brilliant article by Louis René Beres took my breath away. It's a perfect companion piece to my previous post ("No, stupidity isn't a party issue, it's ours").

Some excerpts:
In Plato’s Republic, a canonic centerpiece of all Western thought, we first read of the “philosopher king,” a visionary leader who would impressively combine deep learning with effective governance. Today, almost 2400 years later, such leadership is nowhere to be found ... Here in the United States, we seemingly remain content with criteria of presidential selection that emphasize anything but cultivated insights or real wisdom. ... Stubbornly, we the people are willing to reduce all serious political judgments to a crass assortment of numbing clichés and visceral ideologies.

In American politics, no one any longer expects what Ralph Waldo Emerson had once called “high thinking.” ... In our national politics of veneered truths, whenever a candidate’s spoken words seethe with vacant allusions and blatant equivocations, the crowd nods approvingly, and leaps with satisfaction.

Many of our national heroes were once created by commendable achievement. Today, the successful politician is fashioned by a system that is refractory to all wisdom, a system that is sustained by banality, empty chatter, and half knowledge.

When will we learn to look behind the news, to acknowledge that our fragile political world has been constructed upon ashes? The answer: Not until we learn to take ourselves seriously as persons; not until we begin to read and think with sincerity; not until we stop amusing ourselves to death; not until we seek rapport with genuine feeling; and not until we rediscover the dignified grace of real learning.
Beres concludes: "Plato’s 'philosopher king' may not be a practicable standard for American electoral politics, but it surely can’t hurt to keep such a potentially enviable measure somewhere in mind. At a minimum, such a recollection could remind us of how far we have already strayed." Indeed.

No, stupidity isn't a party issue, it's ours

WaPost's Jonathan Bernstein says stupidity is a party issue. He writes: "Is Rick Perry smart enough to be president? I have no idea. But I do know one thing: the people who should figure it out are Republicans who care about their party, and they should do it not because of the general election – it likely doesn’t matter – but because a party has a strong interest in not electing a bad president." Because ...  well, party prerogatives and "political careers" could be "severely damaged" as a result. So lemme get this straight. Electing a dummy is a bad idea because the pro political class might hurt itself? Oh the humanity! Bernstein's piece is a clumsy mess. He's no dummy, but you can decipher for yourself what he was really trying to say here. Good luck. What actually bowled me over was the bold assertion that a candidate's intelligence doesn't matter. "Most voters choose on the basis of party and how they believe the incumbent is handling the job," Bernstein writes. Never mind the fact that there is a direct correlation between job performance and brains. (See George W. Bush and, arguably, LBJ's handling of Vietnam.) That said, Bernstein is not wrong about how voters vote. I ask again, how on earth did we get to this very scary place?

Sarah Palin is (almost) irrelevant

It's not quite official, but politicos across the spectrum have attached the dreaded "irrelevant" label to Sarah Palin. It seems the supernova has burnt herself out. Even if Palin makes a late-entry into the presidential race, it won't matter much. Beyond her cultist fan base, nobody is much interested. If Palin jumps in, her run would be nasty, clownish and short -- an inevitable train wreck. In fact, that's precisely why some cheeky pundits on the left are chanting "Run, Sarah, Run." Cratering epically in a presidential race would deliver a vampire-like stake through the heart. Steve Kornacki, drooling at the prospect, writes that it would "once and for all convince the political and media worlds that the empress has no clothes." And, poof, Palin disappears from our lives forever (a pleasant thought indeed). In a succinct but terrific piece, TPM's Benjy Sarlin surveys what happened to the once and future Prom Queen of America. "Ultimately, Palin has been her own worst enemy. Over and over she's made costly unforced errors that have solidified her critics' worst impressions of her while alienating potential supporters," Sarlin writes. Manically, Palin used every nail available to her to hammer home the "already entrenched image of the ex-governor as a thin-skinned, rash, and divisive figure." And it worked brilliantly. How sweet it is.

Monday, August 29, 2011

If You're Explaining, You're Losing

Mitt, dude, you're making this way too easy. Mitt Romney has fairly or unfairly come under fire for flexing his millions to upgrade his palatial beach home in San Diego ― in the middle of a presidential campaign. For reasons known only to him, the former Massachusetts governor now says he's only doubling, not quadrupling, size of his $12 million dollar Xanadu. Glad you cleared that up, sir. That might even knock a million or three off your bill. Now would be a good time for Mr. Romney to heed British Labour politician Denis Healey's First Law on Holes: When you're in one, stop digging! Man, what a blockhead.

Unpacking Rick Perry's God shtick

Christopher Hitchens, casting a skeptical eye on Rick Perry's God shtick, wonders: "Does the Texas governor believe his idiotic religious rhetoric, or is he just pandering for votes?" The Hitch was in the Lone Star State when Perry "announced that he was using the authority vested in him to call for prayers for rain. These incantations and beseechments, carrying the imprimatur of government, were duly offered to the heavens. The heavens responded by remaining, along with the parched lands below, obstinately dry. Perry did not, of course, suffer politically for making an idiot of himself in this way." Hitchens concludes that "religion in politics is more like an insurance policy than a true act of faith. Professing allegiance to it seldom does you any harm ... My bet would be that, just as Perry probably wouldn't have tried to take credit if there had been rain after his ostentatious intercessions, so he doesn't lose much actual sleep over doctrinal matters, personal saviorhood, and the rest of it. As with his crass saber-rattling about Texan secession a season or so back, or his more recent semitough talk about apparently riding Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke out of town on a rail, it is probably largely boilerplate, and mainly for the rubes." Sounds about right, though it makes it no less pathetic.

Is he dumb — or just 'misunderestimated?'

Going for broke (and page hits), POLITICO poses a simple question today: Is Rick Perry dumb? "Doubts about Perry’s intellect have hounded him since he was first elected as a state legislator nearly three decades ago. In Austin, he’s been derided as a right-place, right-time pol who looks the part but isn’t so deep — Gov. Goodhair,” writes Jonathan Martin. Now that Perry has stepped onto the national stage, says Martin, a new joke is making the rounds: “He’s like Bush only without the brains.” Ouch. So is Perry dumb? POLITICO punts, saying: "It's complicated." Naturally, Salon's Steve Kornacki goes all killjoy on us, noting that the "dumb" label has actually been good for Republican presidential aspirants. Reagan was called "an amiable dunce." George W. Bush was mocked over his C student credentials. Yet both rode into the Oval Office on the shoulders of gullible voters who simply didn't care. "That ... may be a source of comfort to Rick Perry right now," Kornacki writes. Swell.

The Obama Reality Distortion Field

On the one hand, who the hell cares what Mel Brooks, 85, thinks about President Obama's job performance? On the other hand, the funnyman's words are still worth listening to: "You got to be so damn tough to get what you want, and he’s not that kind of guy. The common man is in a lot of trouble. That’s all I can tell you," Brooks told the Daily Beast during an interview. This, mind you, has nothing to do with reality. But it's perception. And that "reality" is shared by too many rank and file Democrats, particularly liberals. Chalk up another win for the GOP propaganda machine and its media enablers. Mr. Obama will be able to undistort this reality distortion field during the upcoming campaign. Still, I hope the president and his peeps are mindful of the uphill task ahead.

Fear of the new

"New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common." (John Locke)

Words without thoughts

"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts never to heaven go." (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)

Quote of the Day

"Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of." (Benjamin Franklin)

Totally gnarly, dude, but way stupid

The caption for this photo (AP/The Post And Courier, Sarah Bates) reads: "A surfer braves the wind and waves at The Washout at Folly Beach created by Hurricane Irene, on August 26, 2011 in Folly Beach, South Carolina." If you've ever wondered why insurance rates are so high for young men, this is why. It's gnarly, though.

Mother Nature: Fooled ya! (giggle) - Ctd

THE TROUBLE with criticizing the media (which I do often) is that one can over do it (which I have on occasion). I pulled my punches on the media's coverage of Hurricane Irene. I shouldn't have. Take it away Howard Kurtz: As dawn broke on Sunday morning "the apocalypse that cable television had been trumpeting had failed to materialize. And at 9 a.m., you could almost hear the air come out of the media’s hot-air balloon of constant coverage when Hurricane Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm. ... Someone has to say it: cable news was utterly swept away by the notion that Irene would turn out to be Armageddon. National news organizations morphed into local eyewitness-news operations, going wall to wall for days with dire warnings about what would turn out to be a Category 1 hurricane, the lowest possible ranking. 'Cable news is scaring the crap out of me, and I WORK in cable news,' Bloomberg correspondent Lizzie O’Leary tweeted. ... But the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings. ... The fact that New York, home to the nation’s top news outlets, was directly in the storm’s path clearly fed this story-on-steroids." Nor was the web immune from overdramatizing Irene: "Lash Us to the Mast!" screamed a TPM headline Friday night. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) in Jurassic Park after he realizes the park is out of control: "Boy, do I hate being right all the time!" I'm sure Howie Kurtz feels the same.

Is life merely a computer simulation?

This will definitely hurt your brain: Famed computer scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber posits that "as a consequence of Moore's law, each decade computers are getting roughly 1000 times faster by cost. Apply Moore's law to the video game business. As the virtual worlds get more convincing many people will spend more time in them. Soon most universes will be virtual, only one (the original) will be real. Then many will be led to suspect the real one is a simulation as well. Some are already suspecting this today. Then the simplest explanation of our universe is the simplest program that computes it."

Text messages (2) from @TheAlmighty

Jonathan Capeheart is right. There are too many politicians who think they have a DM connection to "@TheAlmighty and then subject the rest of us to what they say His judgment is." The Word according to our latest Moses, Michele Bachmann, is that God is showcasing His wrath "to get the attention of the politicians." The lady who has God on speed-dial says the recent earthquake and hurricane are incontrovertible proof. She said He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ For the Lord wants the pols to: "Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending." Because, you know, God is all about American government spending. And why is God taking a special interest in the politics of one very specific set of hominids in one particular country on an obscure planet circling an average sun in a unremarkable solar system orbiting the fringes of a galaxy that is located somewhere inside a universe reputed to contain an infinite number of galaxies? Cause the voices in Bachmann's head say so. Call me nutty, but I suspect @TheAlmighty has better things to do. Forgive us, Lord, for we clearly know not what we do ― our politicians least of all.

Update: Feeling the blow-back, Bachmann now says she was just kidding about the Lord's text messages via pestilence and plague. Uh huh. Sure you were.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Friendly uber alles

PHOENIX IS NOTED for its friendly people. And folks are indeed friendly here. Really, really friendly. Auto-pilot friendly. Shop at any grocery store to see it action. There I am at the checkout counter of my local Safeway with a basket containing a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, a few apples and a bag of Doritos. A single bagger. Upon concluding my purchase, the inevitable ritual begins: "Thank you so much, Mr. Perkins! You saved 83 cents today!" the cashier says brightly, teeth gleaming white. "Do you need help carrying your bag to your car?" Granted, I'm not the studly Marine I once was. But I think I can manage it -- somehow. "Um, thank you, no." I reply. "Well, have a nice day!" Never mind that the "day" is over, the sun having set two hours ago. Shopping during actual daytime hours is even wackier. Take today at Fry's (the friendly "Fresh Food...Lower Prices!" people). My cashier is a lanky, white-shirted blond kid (he's maybe 19) with a painfully clean-cut haircut. The friendly guy in front of me asks the kid, "So how are you today?" as he makes his purchase. The kid replies, "I am having a wonderful day here at Fry's." I nearly dropped my Oscar Mayer hot dogs. Somebody needs deprogramming. Is this kid human or a walking Fry's commercial? Upon my turn at the checkout, I simply couldn't resist: "So, are you really having-a-wonderful-day-here-at-Fry's?" I asked tongue in cheek, mimicking his line. "Um ... yessir," the kid replied unsteadily. Hmm. Did I just knock him off script? "Well, every day's a holiday, every meal's a feast!" I said cheerily, repeating an old Marine Corps saying. [Pregnant pause.] "Well ... what do you say about work?" the kid inquired politely. He was serious, and clearly puzzled. Wow. I had indeed knocked him off auto-pilot. Discretion being the better part of valor, I simply said, "Same as you, kid. Same as you." And they call us Californians weird.

Mother Nature: Fooled ya! (giggle)

Well, the predicted End Times fell short -- again. Stormageddon didn't submerge all of Lower Manhattan under fathoms of seawater after all. Nor did it turn New York (or the East Coast) into a post-apocalyptic wilderness populated by zombies. We can safely skip the Planet of the Apes casting call for Charleston Heston to pound the sand and scream: "Oh my God! ... You Maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!" That said, I'm glad Mother Nature (this time costumed as a skanky temptress called Irene) opted mostly to toy with us, test FEMA's preparedness and try President Obama's patience. This is, what, the 100th natural "disaster" on the president's watch thus far? What's next -- an epochal Ice Age? And the Republicans will still say it's his fault, of course. But I digress. Per the New York Times, the storm never packed the "violent punch that forecasters had feared" (like the weather guy ever gets it right). Ergo, the Eastern Seaboard is still there. Though denizen inconvenience is high, damage is relatively light and casualties are low. Bullet dodged. From the news coverage I caught intermittently, it seems the media did not totally embarrass itself. So I can skip aping Heston's "It's a mad house! It's a mad house!" theme as a basis for my commentary. To be sure, there were plenty of over-the-top media moments (i.e., reporters lashing themselves to rain-whipped telephone poles, shouting: "Oh the humanity!" into the hurricane-ing wind, and such). But all in all, the press mostly kept their heads about them. Um, bravo, I guess. Anyway, we're lucky Irene, that hussy, turned out to be mostly a tease.

So where was the Garden of Eden?

In a word: Iraq. Brook Wilensky-Lanford, author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, writes: "The best guess of modern archaeologists is that the Eden story in the Bible developed from an ancient Sumerian myth about the loss of fertile farmlands as sea levels rose, which in turn developed from actual pre-history. The Sumerians then settled in Iraq’s southern marshlands. Since then, those lands and the people who’ve lived on them have gone through countless Eden cycles: fertility, civilization, peace, followed by drought, invasion, and war." So can we then assume that Adam and Eve more likely resembled Iraqi Marsh Arabs than the bucolic European pair depicted above? Shocking.

So who needs a National Weather Service anyway?

Irene notwithstanding, Fox News is trumpeting the elimination of ― wait for it ― the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service. I kid you not. "While Americans ought to prepare for the coming storm, federal dollars need not subsidize their preparations. Although it might sound outrageous, the truth is that the National Hurricane Center and its parent agency, the National Weather Service, are relics from America's past that have actually outlived their usefulness," write Fox News opinion writers Iain Murray and David Bier. Dumb and Dumber argue that America would be far better off using private outfits like AccuWeather. They're more efficient and cost effective. And, by god, what's good for business is good for America, right? There's just one fly in this Fox News ointment. AccuWeather and its fellow privateers rely heavily on the NWS for its free data. No NWS, no AccuWeather. D'oh! (Hat tip: Steve Benen)

'I have a dream today'

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today." (Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday, August 28, 1963)

Wanted: American Savior. Salary negotiable.

In a poignant op-ed in today's Washington Post, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) imagines what Dr. King would say to President Obama. Lewis is the last surviving speaker who stood on the dais where Dr. King gave his "I have a dream" speech, delivered this day 48 years ago. The piece is really an unsubtle letter to President Obama. It also doubled as a classified advertisement. WANTED: American Savior. Job: Impossible. Required Skills: Miracle-making/BYOW (bring your own wand). Hours: Terrible. Grief: Unending. Salary: Negotiable. Right person can succeed. Send resume and references to:

Congressman Lewis writes:
Today, Dr. King would still be asking questions that reveal the moral meaning of our policies. And he would still challenge our leaders to answer those questions — and to act on their beliefs.

Among those leaders, I know he would take a special interest in President Obama — not only because he is the first African-American to sit in the Oval Office, but because Dr. King recognized the power of one man to transform a nation.

He would say that the president has the capacity to unify America, to bring us together as one people, one family, one house. He would say that a leader has the ability to inspire people to greatness, but that to do so he must be daring, courageous and unafraid to demonstrate what he is made of.
Transform a nation. Unify America. Inspire people to greatness. Those are tall (if not impossible) orders for any president ― even for the gifted Mr. Obama. Is it reasonable or even fair to burden him with them?

Think about it in context. The Founders, collectively, inspired and transformed the nation. But even during the American Revolution, support for the patriots was never more than a bare majority (40-45%). Lincoln too was transformational but it came at the cost of a terrible Civil War. Though FDR cemented national unity in WWII, Pearl Harbor, not he, was the 9/11-like trigger for it. JFK certainly inspired but he was martyred before he could leave a true legacy. Even Dr. King, as Lewis noted, was a highly controversial figure in his time, even in the black community. One man ― an activist, a revolutionary, a president ― can indeed influence the course of history. In Mr. Obama's case, it is unfolding before our eyes.

And yet there is this forlorn but fervent hope for a savior. Lewis and other well-meaning folk hope, nay pray, it is Obama. But that is a role only Christ himself can play. Earthly leaders, mortals all, can inspire and shepherd us along Dr. King's bending arc to justice. The best of them, as Lewis says, must be morally-grounded and unflinching in the face of adversity. Their tasks are not risk-free. Yet in the end, as Obama has said, we are the ones we've been waiting for. The savior lies inside of us. That is how hope is nurtured and change is made. That is why America has surmounted impossible odds. That is why she still lives. That an African American president leads the country today speaks volumes about our potential. Obama is not Moses. He is more akin to the sergeant on point during a battlefield patrol. His role is to guide, motivate and protect his charge, not lead them to The Promised Land. That part is on us.

The congressman's op-ed is a worthy read. President Obama would be wise to take its essence to heart. It is a timely reminder of his higher responsibilities as leader. Given the nature of politics, there is of course a practical limit to what Mr. Obama can do before 2012. After it, however, there is a great deal more he can achieve in weaving the threads of his ultimate legacy. I have little doubt that Obama will do Rep. Lewis and Dr. King proud, God willing.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Being absurdly human

Difference (noun). The quality or condition of being unlike or dissimilar. Human (noun). A member of the genus Homo and especially of the species H. sapiens (who can be really, really dumb sometimes). Those two words and their attendant definitions ran through my mind as I read a New York Times piece about Ntsiki Biyela, an award-winning winemaker who is one of the few black South Africans to succeed in her country's white-dominated industry. You go, girl, I thought admiringly. Given South Africa's ugly past, this is worthy news indeed. But then the absurdity of it all hit me: "What a piece of work is man!" as the Bard might say. Who but man would marvel at the accomplishments of a fellow human simply because of her skin pigment? Who but man could discern and quantify a difference that is fundamentally irrelevant? It is analogous to being dumbstruck by the sight of a yellow-haired puppy catching a ball as well as a black-haired one. They're dogs, an unimpressed visitor from Vulcan would note logically. That's what your dogs do, right? Indeed. Just try explaining that to some of my fellow H. sapiens. Ms. Biyela is succeeding due to brains, business savvy and gumption. Wouldn't it be nice if could celebrate that without conflating the matter with her beautiful brown skin? Alas, miles to go before we sleep ...

Um, what's wrong with this picture?

Washington Post photog Michael Williamson captured this shot as Irene bears down in the Virginia Beach area. The caption read: "Ashley Davis holds her 12-year old daughter Hunter during strong winds in Virginia Beach." QUESTION: Why, oh why, is Ashley Davis in Virginia Beach in the first place ― holding her 12-year old daughter Hunter during strong winds ― like deers caught in the headlights? Thrill-seeking? Be safe, people, not stupid. Just sayin'.

School of hard knocks

"A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard." (Herman Melville)

Scorched earth runs in the family

Former Veep Dick Cheney has a new book out, entitled In My Time. Apparently, it's unapologetic. Naturally, Maureen Dowd came up with a more fitting title for the tome: Darth Vader Vents. "Why is it not a surprise to learn that Dick Cheney’s ancestor, Samuel Fletcher Cheney, was a Civil War soldier who marched with Sherman to the sea? Scorched earth runs in the family," she writes. "Vice’s new memoir ... veers unpleasantly between spin, insisting he was always right, and score-settling, insisting that anyone who opposed him was wrong. His knife-in-her-teeth daughter, Elizabeth Cheney, helped write the book." I guess Dowd won't be gifting friends with it this Christmas. Though it springs from the grave, Herman Melville unknowingly wrote the best book review: "A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things." Cheney is in no danger of ever realizing that truism.

Scully and me

ENGULFED in the Saturday smell of fresh-cut grass, I paused my rake to hear him describe the fast single to left field. The soft night air eddied about my father and I as we sat in Dodger Stadium, eyes glued on the field, ears plugged into his transistor voice for the play-by-play. Cruising south on Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down, I actually shushed her, my date, and turned up the car radio. Infielder Steve Garvey had just hit another home run, the sprightly voice announced. (My date was not impressed.) Those are just a few sweet memories of Dodgers announcer Vin Scully and me. It's a LA thing. Like my mom's peach cobbler, his voice is comfort food for Angelenos. "You know why Scully is so great?" a buddy of mine recently asked rhetorically. "He always gives you the score. You never have to wait long." True enough. And Scully, I've just learned, is coming back for one last Dodger season. "It came out of nowhere, but that doesn’t make it any less sweet," the Los Angeles Times reported. "Vin Scully announced in the middle of the Dodgers-Rockies game Friday that he is coming back next season for his 63rd year as the voice of the Dodgers. The greatest sports broadcaster ever, back for at least one more season." One way or another, I'll get back to LA next summer to hear that voice. I've got a few more memories to add to my collection.


"It occurs to me ― maybe some gaps are unbridgeable." (Freddie de Boer, L'Hote)

Leading behind the scenes

THERE IS OFTEN a penalty for being too clever by half. The phrase "leading from behind," coined by an over eager Obama adviser, is but the latest example. The aide meant that pursuing US interests and spreading its ideals "requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength," as Ryan Lizza noted. But for Republicans, the LFB remark is a gift that keeps on giving. "The phrase ricocheted from one Murdoch-owned editorial page and television studio to the next; Obama was daily pilloried as a timorous pretender who, out of a misbegotten sense of liberal guilt, unearned self-regard, and downright unpatriotic acceptance of fading national glory, had handed over the steering wheel of global leadership to the Élysée Palace," writes David Remnick. The more accurate description of Obama's Libya policy, Remnick says, would have been “leading from behind the scenes.” Continuing, he writes: "There are no sure outcomes in foreign policy, only a calculation of consequences, guided by an appraisal of national interests and values. The trouble with so much of the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that it cares less about outcomes than about the assertion of America’s power and the affirmation of its glory. In the case of Libya, Obama led from a place of no glory, and, in the eyes of his critics, no results could ever vindicate such a strategy. Yet a calculated modesty can augment a nation’s true influence. Obama would not be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don’t need to trumpet your victory." Amen. Now if only the Republicans could be as mature or as wise as the leader they mock.

Clean Slate?

Why is it so damn hard to attract an audience to high-brow magazine websites like Slate? When did great writing, deep reporting, insightful commentary, and intellectual nourishment become radioactive? Wall Street Journal: "Since its mid-1990s launch, the online magazine Slate has been a study in whether a Web-only news organization can support a staff of professional journalists churning out original, reported content. This week, Slate signaled the goal remains out of reach: It laid off a number of key employees, including its media critic, Jack Shafer, arguably the site's best-known voice. ... In July, Slate drew 6.5 million unique visitors in the U.S., down about 6% from a year earlier." I simply don't understand it. Albert Camus said, "At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face." Well, I just got decked on mine.
Some sample Slate stories:
- Planet of the Apes? Not anytime soon (ape brainpower is a problem)
- Rise of the Twins: Science, history and culture of multiple births.
- Weather and War: El Niño may be to blame for recent global conflicts.
- Shut Up and Kiss Me: Great Magnum photos of smooching

Some sample stories on (the wildly popular) Huffington Post:
- Giant Rat Killed With Pitchfork In Brooklyn
- Rashida Jones: 'I Tried To Kiss As Many Girls As Possible'
- Anderson Cooper's Craziest Stalker
- Photos: Celebrity Look-A-Likes
So, Slate is circling the drain while HuffPo may skyrocket to fame and fortune. What's wrong with this picture? I hold no brief against Arianna's HuffPo. It is what it is. But it seems philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer got it right when he concluded: "In the sphere of thought, absurdity and perversity remain the masters of the world, and their dominion is suspended only for brief periods."

Irene: 'Stormageddon' or the real deal?

I MAY HAVE BEEN too glib in my earlier post about Hurricane Irene. Most headlines are now heralding: "Thousands Evacuated as Irene Moves Up Coast." Large-scale flooding in low-lying areas may be the biggest threat. Parts of Manhattan could be underwater in 36 hours. That is no laughing matter. Yet, I'm finding it difficult to judge just how dangerous this storm is. Having underdone Pavlovian conditioning to expect fluff or outright bullshit from over-the-top media coverage, I'm sorry to say that it has become harder to discern fact from hype. The clown videos of breathless reporters being whipsawed by wind and rain do not inspire confidence. Remember the sanctimonious predictions of Ecological End Times following the BP oil spill? (Think Anderson Cooper.) Did the media's obsession with that underwater cam make us a better informed country? And how about LA's "Carmageddon?" That was a veritable parody of the news. So is Hurricane Irene a largely invented "Stormageddon" or is it the real deal? The fact that the major networks are based in New York ― a city directly in Irene's path ― does not not guarantee superb reporting. Indeed, it invites myopic thinking. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. But, as well-documented here on The Portal, the Media-Internet Complex has worked prodigiously to earn my skepticism. In this case, I say guilty until proven innocent. That said, for the folks in harm's way, I hope Irene's ominous roar is bigger than it's bite.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Does your head feel heavy?

Slate's Jon Cohen has a thoughtful piece about the profound differences between man and ape, and why never the twain shall meet ― Hollywood notwithstanding. Apart from the fact that we separated from a common ancestor with chimpanzees some 5 million years ago, humans are hardwired for language. Our knuckle-dragging relatives are not. Cohen notes our ability to "acquire massive vocabularies (we typically have 60,000 words by high-school age)." Given that amount of tonnage, it's a wonder we can lift our heads at all. Where, I wondered, did that 60K figure come from anyway? Is that really the average size of a person’s vocabulary? Linguist and dictionary expert Michael Quinion says asking is easy. Answering it is anything but. "[It] all depends what you mean by word and by vocabulary (or even English)," he writes. Long story short: Your average Napoleon Dynamite teenager probably has a vocabulary of 10,000-12,000 words. College grads have somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 words. But that just covers active words. Passive words tend to be severely underestimated, Quinion says. Further complicating matters, lifestyle, profession and hobby interests also influence the number of words you carry around in your head. Anyway, this is definitely the stuff of No. 10 headaches. I'm almost sorry I asked.

(Art credit: "Heavy Headed Limbo" by Andrea L Cornish)

Here's hoping Libya will be different

Abdullah 'Firimbi' Hassan (a rebel character in Black Hawk Down): "Do you think if you get General Aidid, we will simply put down our weapons and adopt American democracy? That the killing will stop? We know this. Without victory, there will be no peace. There will always be killing, see? This is how things are in our world."

Bethumped with words

Costard (in Love's Labor's Lost): "O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words. I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon."

"Zounds!" as Shakespeare's Philip Faulconbridge (King John) would say. "I was never so bethump'd with words." Most English speakers would likely agree with his sentiment. And yes, "honorificabilitudinitatibus" (meaning profusely lauded) is a word, among the longest in the English language (James Joyce even used it in Ulysses). You'll hurt your brain if you try to pronounce it.

The erudite folks at say the Bard used a total of 17,677 words in all of his plays, sonnets and narrative poems. (The American Heritage Dictionary says there are actually 884,647 of them, made up of 29,066 distinct forms. But never mind.) Of those, some 1,700 were first used by Shakespeare. Here are some of the words he brought into common usage:
Accommodation, aerial, amazement, apostrophe, assassination, auspicious, baseless, bloody, bump, castigate, countless, courtship, critic, critical, dexterously, dishearten, dislocate, dwindle, eventful, exposure, fitful, frugal, generous, gloomy, gnarled, hurry, impartial, inauspicious, indistinguishable, invulnerable, lapse, laughable, lonely, majestic, misplaced, monumental, multitudinous, obscene, palmy, perusal, pious, premeditated, radiance, reliance, road, sanctimonious, seamy, sportive, submerge, suspicious.
Amazing. But by now, you may feel like Alonso (The Tempest): "You cram these words into mine ears against the stomach of my sense!"

Another inconvenient truth

"I forgot. You Americans don't smoke anymore. You live long, dull and uninteresting lives." (Abdullah 'Firimbi' Hassan, Black Hawk Down)

'All units Irene. I say again, Irene.'

LOVING FILM can be a double-edged sword. In my case, it nourishes the intellect ― and my penchant for cynicism. Watching the waterlogged news coverage of Hurricane Irene, naturally a movie came to mind: Black Hawk Down. In it, "Irene" was the go-signal for a raid to capture a Somali warlord in the dangerous heart of Mogadishu. To all airborne helicopters and ground elements, the command center radioed: "All units Irene. I say again, Irene." Our gung-ho heroes let out a collective "hoo-ah!" Pilot Durant: "Fuckin' Irene!" Pilot Wolcott: "Ireeene!" Things went all Black Hawk Down from there. Anyway, these scenes sprang to mind when I tuned into MSNBC. Does a Category 2 warrant wall-to-wall coverage to the exclusion of all else? Of course not. To be sure, Category 2 is serious wind. But Katrina (Category 3) and Camille (Category 5) it ain't. But the cable news biz is like war in a sense. In Black Hawk Down, "Hoot" (Eric Bana), a Delta Force operator, wryly noted that "once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window." Same thing for the media: Just substitute "bulletin" for bullet and "common sense" for politics. Anyway, "Fuckin' Irene! Ireeene!"

Wisdom for the ages

"A man can't ride your back unless it's bent." (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

The Race Man Speaketh

IT MUST BE NICE to be handed a megaphone through which one can lecture sanctimoniously from atop Mount Olympus, or, in this case, the New York Times. Behold brother Cornel West ― Princeton-philosophe and self-appointed keeper of the MLK flame ― as he holds forth from his Ivory Tower:
The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.

King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens. In concrete terms, this means support for progressive politicians ... extensive community and media organizing; civil disobedience; and life and death confrontations with the powers that be. Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.
Right. As the Marines in Afghanistan might say, it's time to light this dude up.

Unlike Dr. West, Dr. King was a veritable fountain of wise words. A number of them came to mind as I read West's harangue. One included: "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." With respect to Barack Obama, brother West is a blind man stumbling through his own self-righteousness. He cannot comprehend that Obama is president of all the United States, not just the downtrodden whom West takes great melodramatic pains to press to his bosom. Nor can West muster any semblance of faith in Obama's clearly honorable intentions. Not yet halfway through this first term, closing the book on Obama's legacy to blacks and America is preposterous. West's implied claim that Mr. Obama is a sellout is frankly reprehensible.

It is true that West's role is to "agitate, agitate, agitate" as Frederick Douglass urged. Constructive, vigorous criticism of Obama is both proper and healthy. But West goes several bridges too far. He speaks absurdly of revolution, of "life and death confrontations" and "cemetery clothes" and being "coffin-ready." These are the ramblings of a pompous, attention-seeking poseur in the grip of a 60s fever dream. For West, Obama is Othello, an egoist Moor whose exalted "Age" is already doomed to Shakespearean tragedy. This is pure rot, of course. The real tragedy is watching the sad unraveling of a brilliant but overrated "race man" whom history has by-passed. It's time someone said it plainly. Dr. King said, "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness." Brother West should seriously ponder these words. The bells toll for thee.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Summer doldrums

David Brooks (New York Times) is apparently resigned to the worst case scenario: "Romney might be able to beat back the [Rick] Perry surge. In the meantime, it’s time to take Perry seriously. He could be our next president." Right. Anything is possible. So is an alien landing. Brooks is a very smart guy. But he should know better than to assign too much weight to Perry's recent poll surge. With the election over a year away, it's meaningless. At this point in the 1992 and 2008 elections, George H.W. Bush and Hillary Clinton were also surging in their respective polls. We know how both of those movies ended. It's August. It's hot. It's muggy. And Brooks probably needs a vacation. Chalk up his white flag to a patch of the doldrums, a predictable part of the passage in this summer of our discontent.

Damn I'm good

On the Internet, the adulation for Steve Jobs is so thick you need knee-high boots to wade through it. Personally, I've never cared much for the guy. From the start, I found the whole Apple cult thing off-putting (and a tad disturbing). Besides, I could never get pass his trademark smirk. "Damn I'm good," it seems to project. The thing is, he was damn good. And so, a tip of the hat: credit where credit is due. @placito (some self-important personality on Twitter) captured Jobs' historic importance perfectly with this line: " 'Why do people care so much about Steve Jobs resigning?' he said as he typed on a square of glass that contained all the music he ever owned." Exactly.

Classically heat-obsessed

KBAQ (89.5 FM), the classical music station, is among the nicer things that come with living in Phoenix. I would surely go insane without its soothing reassurance that civilization is not a desert mirage. It can sometimes appear that way in Arizona, this land of Sen. John McCain & Co. But I digress. KBAQ is a hoot during our periodic but extraordinary "hot spells" in August. This week, with daytime temps averaging 112, it's all the announcers can talk about. Instead of erudite factoids about the composers between sets, we mostly get: gosh-it's-so-hot-today-and-there's-no-end-sight-so-stay-cool. Over and over again between Bach's "Air on the G-String" and Glazunov and Mendelssohn and Debussy ad infinitum. I kid the announcers, of course. Their work is superb. Late August means we're way past the it's-a-dry-heat cliche. Think hot, humid, haboob -- like the planet Venus. But at least we have the music. That's something.

Going all medieval on us

"Now there's a crack in it, there's a crack in it and it's closed up. Is that a sign from the Lord? Is that something that has significance or is it just result of an earthquake?" A scene from the Dark Ages? The hushed talk of frightened peasants as one points a shaky finger at the crevice, perhaps? Nope. Fast forward a millennium or so, and try again. It's a quote by TV evangelist Pat Robertson who, according to TPM, "suggested on Thursday that a four-foot crack in the Washington Monument caused by Tuesday's earthquake might be a sign from God." After spooking his audience about the possibility of divine intervention, Robertson said, "You judge, but I just want to bring that to your attention." Right. Somebody help me out here ... how do you spell c-h-a-r-l-a-t-a-n again?

Do we really care what Angelina Jolie thinks?

Jonathan Chait: "I have mixed feelings about movie stars who get involved in political causes. On the one hand, it's a little sad that people need a movie star to make them interested in politics. Nobody should care what movie stars think. On the other hand, given the reality that people care a lot about what movie stars think, it's a moral good for movie stars to use their fame to direct people toward what they consider worthy causes." But caring about what movie stars think doesn't make their thoughts about worthy causes worthy -- or long-lived. Anybody remember Haiti, that other cause célèbre? All I hear are crickets, and the sounds of Catch-22.

Chickens, meet roost

The trouble with the Internet for folks who preen in the public sphere is that it never forgets. Its memory of the Libyan intervention and the arguments made against it is especially long and revealing.

The politicians and pundits had all the answers of course:
Sen. Richard Lugar (March): “Once again, we in the United States have not defined what we believe the outcome should be." (He predicted disaster.) SecDef Robert Gates (Mar 12): Imposing a no-fly zone over Libya is easy, but is it “a wise thing to do?” National Review's Mark Krikorian (Mar 21): "Instead of a strong leader resisting calls for an unjustified military action — or even a strong leader resolutely supporting the military action — we have a timorous and irresolute leader reluctantly caving in to the demands of his staff. We are in for a heap of trouble." Sen. Lindsey Graham (Mar 22): "We have been overly cautious, unnervingly indecisive.” Maureen Dowd (Mar 22): "[Obama started a war] of choice with a decision-making process marked more by impulse and reaction than discipline and rigor." Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Mar 27): "This war is wrong on so many fronts. The initial stated purpose, protecting Libyan civilians, will soon evaporate as it becomes clear that the war has accelerated casualties and enlarged a humanitarian crisis." GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman (Aug 2): "We have no definable interest at stake, we have no exit strategy.”
The so-called experts also had their say.
Gen. Wesley Clark (Mar 14): "If we interfere and a couple of bombs go astray ... the first person to cry out and take a deathbed conversion to Islam will be Moammar Gadhafi, who will suddenly say that this is NATO and the West attacking Islam. And he'll be the first one to appeal for al-Qaeda to come in and help him. And there'll be a rallying cry for a fatwa, and before you know it, there will be fighting against Islam."

Dutch-Moroccan writer Abdelkader Benali (Mar 27): "There is even more trouble ahead by choosing intervention. The only way to force a decisive victory is by sending in ground troops. These ground troops will attract al-Qaida and religious copycats. Libya could become a new Iraq, internally divided and externally weak. Tension [will increase] ... and illegal migration to Europe will explode."

Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Ed Husain (Mar 27): "With undefined aims, lack of Arab support, unknown rebel forces and no clear exit strategy, there is a real risk of being drawn into a protracted conflict."
But a funny thing happened on the way to toppling Qaddafi. Every ever-loving naysayer quoted above was proven dead wrong, some dramatically so. As any American chicken would say, "buk buk." I simply wanted to take this opportunity to insert the shiv, and twist it.

Is America losing her mind?

Let's face it: America has major league daddy issues. And President Obama is bearing the full brunt of it from all sides. Among Republicans, the psychosis takes the form of sullen hostility and a tendency to blame the president for anything that goes astray. The BP oil spill was his fault, as was the East Coast earthquake. Bush drove the nation off a financial cliff, but Obama gets blamed for the resulting bad economy. Obama did what Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton couldn't do: Topple Qaddafi. But no good deed goes unpunished. Why didn't he do it in "weeks not months?" the Republicans lament. The GOP is like the nagging wife from hell (think "domestic goddess" Roseanne Barr).

Among the president's "friendly" Democratic base, profound angst and infantilism rule the day. "Why doesn't Obama grow a set and use his magic powers?" whine the activists. Why hasn't he closed Gitmo, reversed global warming, made Israel and Palestine love each other, given every American a job, and divined free universal healthcare yet? That was supposed to happen during your first 100 days of office, daddy. The Dems are like a stalker girlfriend from hell (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction).

"Race man" Chauncey DeVega is certainly not irrational. Far from it. Yet even he is tempted to sup at the table of unrealistic expectations. He's disappointed in Obama. "Not totally his fault," DeVega observes, "But he is much responsible and should take agency for his actions and deeds. He is a great man who has shunned away much of his potential greatness." Really? Is DeVega serious? Does he or anyone else recall the fact that Obama has not yet concluded the second year of his first term? This is sheer crazy talk.

The irrationalness of it all has seemingly reached absurd proportions. And yet, it feels real. Between the bad economy and daily injections of "crazy" by a barking mad Media-Internet Complex, America is having a nervous breakdown. But rather than pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, they crave a hug. Unfortunately, Obama cannot avoid dealing with them (his reelection might hang on it). I say unfortunately because, well, "daddy" still has to go work each morning and earn a living. You know, keeping us (and the world) safe for democracy and stuff. It's a low-down-dirty-shame that we have to add this extra burden to his plate. The good news is that Obama is smarter than most. Maybe he'll find a way to talk America back from the ledge. The bad news is that if this inspirational leader can't do it, then nobody can. On a more serious note, I hope the national craziness I sense is being falsely magnified by said Media-Internet Complex. Perhaps it is much less serious than it appears. But if Mr. Obama really can pull a rabbit out of his hat, now would be a good time. It might at least quiet America's inner little girl.

Something oddly familiar

Mediaite editor Rachel Sklar on Twitter: "Home! And on my 4th bowl of soup. My mommy makes yummy soup." Well, this sample of over-sharing is one reason why I don't do Twitter much these days. Sure, it has it uses. But I've been falling out of love with it for some time. You might say, "The thrill is gone, baby" ― as the great BB King would sing it. Apart from taking Disraeli to heart ― “The choicest pleasures of life lie within the ring of moderation” ― I've also come to realize that Twitter wasn't adding much to my intellectual life. Yeah, I know ― Twitter intellection is an oxymoron. Still, I mainly follow top-tier journos and pundits, for chrissakes. You'd think a scrap of erudition would show itself occasionally. But the twitterese I mainly encounter is cynical or infantile and oh so tiresome. Much of it is posted by Twitterholics. (When the Nation's Greg Mitchell tweeted: "Ha, first time tweeting from highway stop on way to son's movie premiere," I had to go all "unfollow" on the dude and cut him loose.) Twitter has always struck me as oddly familiar, though I could never put my finger on it. But it finally dawned on me: Twitter is high school, digitally re-lived on a campus that never closes. It's a vast playground populated by cool kids, nerds, bullies, student body presidents (or wannabes), prom queens (or wannabes), Beavis & Butthead, Napoleon Dynamite, and his pal Pedro. Which helps to explain the 10th grade-level discourse. Kurt Vonnegut famously said, "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country." Or, I might add, Twitter.

About those drones ...

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius is the insider's insider. The man has more connections than the neurons in your average pundit's brain. He is especially plugged into the intelligence community. Though Ignatius can be ponderous at times, he's rarely wrong. His topic this week: drone effectiveness. These weapons are the scurge of every peacenik liberal. "Drone attacks continue to pile up the corpses of innocent human beings," Glenn Greenwald writes melodramatically. (As you can sense in my mockery, I think judicious use of drones is necessary, Obama hasn't gone Strangelovian on us, and war is hell.) Ignatius reports that the government's "SSE" (or Sensitive Site Exploitation) of the materials found in bin Laden's lair turned up an intriguing finding. He writes: "Bin Laden was suffering badly from drone attacks on al-Qaeda’s base in the tribal areas of Pakistan. He called this the 'intelligence war,' and said it was 'the only weapon that’s hurting us.' His cadres complained that they couldn’t train in the tribal areas, couldn’t communicate, couldn’t travel easily and couldn’t draw new recruits to what amounted to a free-fire zone." This strikes me as a pretty good return on investment. The critics of U.S. drone ops are well-meaning but naive. Their fear of "killer robots" and slippery slopes is overwrought. In a perfect world, in a fair fight, I too might avoid drone attacks to eliminate the possibility of collateral damage. But Obama operates in a wartime wilderness of mirrors dominated by one rule: kill or be killed. Yet no one more than he knows that war is a series of catastrophes that sometimes results in victory, to paraphrase Georges Clemenceau. I'd cut the president some slack.