Friday, September 30, 2011

Babbling like a 6th grader, minus the grammar

Is there a correlation between grammar usage and intelligence? Yes and no. It's possible to be quite bright but inarticulate in the usual sense. More often, though, intelligent people develop a capacity for competent if not elegant expression. Apart from being naturally adept at learning stuff, smart folks tend to be voracious readers. Consume Shakespeare, Hemingway or even the witticisms of a favorite sports writer long enough, and you're bound to improve your own spoken or written prose through simple osmosis. But then there are odd ducks like Sarah Palin. I'll skip judging the quality of the gray matter that allegedly resides in her head. There's no profit in it, as the Ferengi of Star Trek might say. But today Palin walked back a negative-sounding comment she made about Herman Cain (she called him the "flavor of the week"). Doing so violated GOP rule #1: Thou shalt not publicly diss a fellow Republican. For her penance, she performed this soliloquy on Fox News: "I’m saying in this fast, 24/7 news cycle that is our world today that the media does have to gin up some controversy and intrigue so viewers tune in and there’s a lot of competition in the media world in this quasi-reality show it seems that’s being created in the GOP primary." Spoken like a true 6th grader, minus any discernible grammar. In English, Palin's run-on sentence roughly translates to this: The "lamestream" media tend to make mountains out of molehills (which is true). As George W. Bush famously said: "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" Evidently, little Sarah Heath never did. Too busy shooting moose, I guess. But that doesn't mean she's stupid. Palin is no doubt following the Ferengi Rule Of Acquisition #15: "Acting stupid is often smart." And it has been undeniably profitable for her.

The Lady Doth Protest too Much?

Inscribed on the 30-foot-tall Martin Luther King Memorial statue are these words: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness." Poet and author Maya Angelou is harrumphing loudly over them. “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” Angelou told the Washington Post. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply. He had no arrogance at all. He had a humility that comes from deep inside. The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.” Hmm. Really? During the powerful sermon from which the inscription was drawn, Dr. King said: "If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Technically, I see Angelou's point. The inscription's wording is inelegant. It would better read: "If I was a drum major, say that I was so for justice, peace and righteousness." Would that fit on the statue? I dunno. But does the current wording scream "arrogant" to visitors paying homage to this world-renown peacemaker? I think not. As far as I know, there have been no complaints until Angelou raised her voice. Methinks the overprotective poet doth protest too much.

Alabama 'Yellowhammers' its own (again)

In the 1998 movie version of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush) coldly says to a wretched victim, "It's a pity the law doesn't allow me to be merciful." A federal judge in Alabama seems to have adopted a similar attitude. Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn of Federal District Court in Birmingham has "upheld most of Alabama’s new immigration law, the nation’s harshest and most radical attempt to harness a state’s power to find and punish illegal immigrants," according to the New York Times. One particularly noxious section requires schools to collect data about the immigration status of incoming students and their parents for State "assessment" of criminal activity. It's a page right out of the KGB manual. The idea of course is to scare away the kids of illegal immigrants and/or entrap their parents. The trouble (among other things) is that most of these children were born here. Therefore, Alabama is potentially threatening lawful, American citizens (i.e., innocent kids). It's almost as if Alabama, the Yellowhammer State, has become a far-flung province of the old the USSR, complete with state-sanctioned "informers." With states like Utah, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina jumping on the "papers, please" bandwagon with similar laws, this is becoming truly dystopian in scope. The Obama administration plans to appeal the Alabama decision and the matter will ultimately go to the US Supreme Court. The sooner, the better.

Gayphobia in the flesh

Evidently, they can't help themselves. Behold the "insights" of president wannabe Newt Gingrich on same-sex marriage: “I believe that marriage is between a man and woman. It has been for all of recorded history and I think this is a temporary aberration that will dissipate. I think that it is just fundamentally goes against everything we know.” Incredible. Why, oh why, are these people so terrified of gays? Why must America be relentlessly subjected to their medieval dogma about homosexuality? For all of ancient Rome's shortcomings (and, beginning with slavery, there were too many to count), how is it that nearly 3,000 years ago the average Roman was more sophisticated about and accepting of homosexuality than some present day Republicans? It staggers the mind. In classical antiquity, there wasn't even a single Latin or Greek word for what we now define as gay. "In the ancient world so few people cared to categorize their contemporaries on the basis of the gender to which they were erotically attracted that no dichotomy to express this distinction was in common use", wrote the late James Boswell, a prominent Yale historian. Newt and his paranoid compatriots truly need to get a life. They can start by just shutting up about gays and leaving them (and the rest of us) alone.

Pacifism in a box

L'Hote's Freddie deBoer is a self-declared, unapologetic, uncompromising pacifist. On yesterday's killing of Al Qaeda figure Anwar Al-Awlaki he writes: "For a society of law, the killing of Al-Awlaki should be even more disturbing than the killing of Troy Davis. Davis at least enjoyed some kind of due process, although it was the flawed, biased due process of a hideously racist system and one that is massively bent towards maintaining guilt and punishment. Al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was given no trial, no representation, no appeal, no opportunity to defend himself legally at all. None. He was declared a terrorist by the government, again with no due process, and assassinated. ... The character of someone killed is utterly and permanently irrelevant to the moral status of that killing. It is as wrong to kill Hitler as it was wrong to kill his victims. ... Please, tell all the keyboard warriors you know, and let them flame on. I really don't give a shit." Well, now. If nothing else, deBoer is no coward. He is commendably sticking to his convictions at the risk of being labeled a terrorist sympathizer (he isn't), and his views warrant respect.

But I wish I could penetrate and comprehend the world deBoer inhabits. To me, it is a purely intellectual or philosophical construct that is beautiful but tragically untethered to human life as it exists. If you or I could magically eliminate all the killing in the world tomorrow (along with the dark sins in which it is rooted), who among us would hesitate to do so? Yes, we have a moral responsibility to condemn violence in all of its ugly forms. And, to paraphrase Aeschylus, it is good that humanity's house is shaken when the gods, or the dreamers, make us reckon with moral guilt. And though it is the sad story of mankind, history has shown over and over again that war begets war and ultimately solves nothing. On the other hand, the idealism of simply turning the other cheek in the face of aggression is plainly suicidal in a world humanity has remade in its own flawed image. It is at this intersection with reality that pacifism, in all of its moral nobility, falls short. It is true, to paraphrase Einstein, that nothing will end the killing unless the people themselves refuse to engage in it. Thus far, we have shown ourselves to be utterly incapable of doing so. I wish deBoer would at least acknowledge that inconvenient truth.

That said, the National Review's Kevin Williamson, playing Aeschylus in modern guise, made an observation that is indeed worth pondering: "The prospect of putting American citizens [like Al-Awlaki] on a government hit list should give us pause as conservatives: not for what this administration might do with such power, but for what an administration 50 years down the road might do with it."

Les Misérables of a sort?

THIS is a strange one. In 1962, nearly half a century ago, 19-year-old George Wright apparently shot and killed the owner of a New Jersey gas station during an armed robbery. After his arrest, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. Eight years later, he escaped and subsequently joined the Black Liberation Army, a militant nationalist-Marxist group. Between plots to implement regime change, Wright, a handsome man, worked part-time as a model. But somewhere along the way, he tired of fighting "the racial onslaught of the pig who wishes to brutalize our black leaders, rape our women, and destroy our black communities," as the Black Panther militant in Forrest Gump put it by rote, perfectly capturing the racial paranoia of those times.

In 1972, Wright (dressed as a priest and packing heat in a hollowed-out Bible) and two BLA associates hijacked Delta Air Lines Flight 841. They demanded and received $1 million dollars, and ultimately escaped to Algiers. No one was hurt in the hijacking (the passengers reportedly said they were "polite"). From there, Wright essentially disappeared into the ether -- without the money; it was confiscated by the Algerians and returned to the US. There's little doubt in my mind that Wright was one bad motherfucker, a deluded radical who had gotten away and beaten justice. In time, he was forgotten -- and the world moved on.

Fast forward 39 years. On a cobbled street in the scenic seaside hamlet of Almocageme, Portugal, sits a "small whitewashed house with terracotta roof tiles, a yellow door and a small front garden." It is the home of one Jorge Santos and his wife, Maria do Rosario Valente, 55, the daughter of a retired Portuguese army officer. Neighbors said the couple, who raised two children (now in their 20s), lived quietly in the village for over 20 years. Santos, it seems, had bought a "pennyworth of paradise," as novelist Victor Hugo might describe it. The locals knew Santos as "a friendly man they thought was from Africa, who spoke good Portuguese and did odd jobs. Over the years, he worked as a nightclub bouncer, a beach stall salesman and ran a barbecue chicken restaurant," according to the AP. Years earlier, Santos had even worked translation projects for the U.S. Embassy in Guinea-Bissau. John Blacken, then the U.S. ambassador, recalled him as a swell guy, "an ordinary person."

Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos is of course George Wright. At some point in the 90s, Wright allowed himself to be fingerprinted for his national ID card. Luck and online database forensics conducted by a federal Fugitive Task Force ultimately led to Wright's surprise arrest as he walked to a local cafe. "Can you imagine?" a U.S. Marshals Service spokesman told the LA Times. He could picture the scene: Game over, buddy. You lose.

Wright, now 68, is being detained without bail in Lisbon pending extradition. Good. Case closed. Justice will finally be served. The family of the murder victim will get the closure it rightfully deserves. The long arm of the law is not fiction, and Wright's case is a classic reminder to all would-be criminals: You can run but you can't hide. Or as Hugo would put it, "Liberation is not deliverance. A convict may leave prison behind but not his sentence." Those are all the proper reactions to the epilogue of this saga, a story seemingly ripped from the pages of an Elmore Leonard crime novel. The news of this successful manhunt may even call for a toast over champagne.

But why do I feel a bit, well, queasy? It's not like I want this feeling. As I said, Wright was one bad motherfucker. He is easy to despise for good reasons. He put himself into this box, and now he's about to pay the price. Still, it's hard to deny that this decades-long manhunt has a whiff of Les Misérables to it. After chipping away the hard-packed ice encasing this cold case, the tenaciousness of the federal G-Men would impress even Inspector Javert. To be sure, Wright is no Jean Valjean, a fictional character guilty only of stealing bread for his starving family. Wright is all too real, a convicted killer who largely avoided paying for his multiple crimes.

But that said, should we reject out of hand any thought of redemption, as uncomfortable as this might be in this case? Is it possible that Wright -- a convict on the lam for over four decades -- has rehabilitated himself? These questions are not easy to contemplate given his principal crime (murder). After all, his cruelty left two little girls fatherless. In the name of justice, we will re-imprison Wright to serve out his time. And the law, as Inspector Javert correctly observed, doesn't allow us be merciful. In 1962, Wright was sentenced to 15 to 30 years for murder (of which he served 8 years). To this must be added charges for escaping prison, hijacking, kidnapping and extortion. It adds up to the death penalty in slow motion since Wright, 68, will never live long enough to repay his overdue debt to society. But is the old man we're about to lock up (forever) the same man who committed these crimes? I don't know.

Yet I am uneasy with the thought that Wright may be a changed man. What we know of the circumstantial evidence seems to suggest it. And if he is rehabilitated, then what does justice mean in his case? Does the presumed punishment still fit the crime? Has reform really become "a discarded fantasy," as Javert coldly observed? Are we so consumed with vengeance and self-righteousness that notions of redemption and, yes, forgiveness, are utter impossibilities? Yes, Wright is guilty. But are we truly incapable of pondering Hugo's truism that "if the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness?" I possess no answers for any of this. Maybe there aren't any.

I leave you with this memorable scene from The Shawshank Redemption. Morgan Freeman, who plays a convicted killer named "Red" serving a life sentence, is before an annual parole board:
Parole officer: "Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you've served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you've been rehabilitated?"
Red: "Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don't have any idea what that means."
Parole officer: "Well, it means that you're ready to rejoin society ..."
Red: [cutting him off] "I know what *you* think it means, sonny. To me it's just a made up word. A politician's word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job. What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?"
Parole officer: "Well, are you?"
Red: "There's not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit."
Red is given his freedom by the parole board.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

No good news goes unpunished

Ever notice how most news orgs and blogs ignore the doings on Wall Street unless the stock market has a bad day? Then there's no escaping the headlines that scream "Dow craters, down 100 points!" But good luck finding the story about how the Dow rose 150 points the next day. In a similar vein, we insist upon lashing ourselves with bad news about the unemployment rate each week, even when the news is good. Today, Market Watch reported, "New applications for unemployment benefits sank by 37,000 last week to 391,000 to mark the lowest level since April." Great. Now cue Gloomy Eeyore of Winnie-the-Pooh fame: "But a government official suggested the surprising drop may have stemmed from a variety of 'technical' issues not captured by normal seasonal adjustments," the report said (echoing what the downcast donkey would undoubtedly say). Gee, thanks for brightening my day. Cue Captain Bligh: "You may resume the lashings, Mr. Christian, and put yer back into it man!" Like I said, no good news goes unpunished.

Are 'We the People' our own worst enemy?

As we approach another national election, Professor Louis René Beres notes that each aspirant wants to be the "people's president." To say otherwise would be foolish if not blasphemous. So it is ironic, he writes, that the Framers of the Constitution did not believe in democracy. The fact that the famous Philadelphia convention was held in secret speaks volumes. Beres observes: "Today, we try to forget that the Founding Fathers displayed a very deep distrust of ordinary folk, and, as corollary, an abundant fear of democratic governance. With no more than a half-dozen exceptions, the men of the Philadelphia Convention were scions of wealth and privilege, utterly disdaining the people as a vile and contemptible 'mob.' Any serious thought by the general population was something that always had to be vigorously discouraged. ... Even Benjamin Franklin, whose faith in the people was discernibly stronger than that of his colleagues, remarked candidly that any capacity for purposeful citizenship remained undemonstrated."

Would democratic governance give rise to the barbaric Hobbesian mob as the Founders feared? In America, it did not. Instead, a more benign but equally dangerous mob arose, one Beres characterized as bearing the "far-reaching absence of any individuality, courage, or serious thought." We have become a people who have made a virtue of "fitting in" and not rocking the proverbial boat. Gone are the rugged individualists "motivated by industry, meaning and self-reliance," as Ralph Waldo Emerson once described the nation. Instead, Beres writes, America today is what Emerson dreaded most: a people marked by conformance, mimicry, and "trembling.” Beres laments that demos is no longer "a preferred path to virtue, but an endlessly deep valley of imitation, mediocrity and eventual despair." In this sense, the fears of the Founding Fathers have indeed manifested themselves. Can we matriculate beyond the crowd? Perhaps. America's best days may still lie ahead.

But as Beres rightly notes, "Before this intolerable condition can change, and before the assorted [presidential] aspirants can ever make good on their ritualistic adorations [about 'We the People'], it will first be necessary for us to take our Selves seriously. Soon, unless we finally start to honor the American people as individuals, the coming presidential election will miss the point."

On being piggish

"I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." (Winston Churchill)


Granted, Mitt Romney is a walking, talking target-of-opportunity for mocking. He can't help being endearingly goofy. But sometimes the high school derision goes a tad too far. Yesterday, Romney told a New Hampshire Town Hall audience that he's often tagged as being a flip-flopper. "Well, in the private sector, if you don't change your view when the facts change, well you'll get fired for being stubborn and stupid." Romney said in his own defense. "Winston Churchill said, 'When the facts change, I change too, Madam.'" Good line. Except Churchill never said it, as MSNBC's First Read and other lefty blogs were only too happy to point out. The quote, most scholars believe, actually belongs to Churchill compatriot John Maynard Keynes, the famed British economist whose theories are "loathed by many conservatives." Oh-the-irony, First Read mocked gleefully, Romney is such a clueless dolt. Romney, a Harvard law (cum laude) grad and certainly no dummy, probably had this Churchill quote in mind before his brain-wiring crossed: "To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often." Yes, as Churchill quipped, "we are masters of the unsaid words, but slaves of those we let slip out." And yes, Romney mucked it up and, as David Bowie sung in "Changes," he's obliged to "turn and face the strain." But on this score, Romney could take his tormentors down a notch by citing another Churchillian witticism: "A fanatic [or a lefty blogger] is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject."

OMG! It's Coffee Day! Woo-Hoo!

What if they gave a huge national event and nobody cared? Today is National Coffee Day. Raise your hand if you'll be dancing in the streets to celebrate the occasion. Nobody? Okay, how many of you have even heard about this day? (Cue the crickets.) Right.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A constitutional miracle

In 1787, September 17th "dawned clear and cold" in the City of Brotherly Love, wrote Catherine Drinker Bowen in her book Miracle at Philadelphia. For the gathering delegates, "an assembly of demi-gods," as Thomas Jefferson called them, it was the last day of the still secret Constitutional Convention. The brisk autumn weather stood in stark relief to the sultry days at the onset of the proceedings in May. The history about to be made was not lost on 36-year-old James Madison. With national bankruptcy threatening, the Thirteen Colonies teetered on dissolution. To Madison, "a crisis had arrived which was to decide whether the American experiment was to be a blessing to the world, or to blast forever the hopes which the republican cause had inspired.”

By September 17, however, a constitutional consensus, over which George Washington himself presided, was finally at hand. As the "morning sun streamed through the high south windows" of the State House on that day, forty delegates turned their attention to 81-year-old Ben Franklin as he rose to speak:
"Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. ... In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such."
Hours after the speech, "The members then proceeded to sign the instrument," Madison recorded. As they did so, Franklin pointed to the rising-sun painting adorning the back of the President's Chair. "Painters," he said to nearby colleagues, "had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have often, and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun."

When the news broke about this novel, unasked-for, "three-headed" Constitution, the nation was, to put it mildly, "shocked," wrote Bowen. Congress referred the proposed document to the states on Sept. 28, this day, 224 years ago. Ratification proved to be arduous, bitter, and close. It nearly didn't happen at all. But old Dr. Franklin was right. Somehow out of this rabid contentiousness, America's sun did rise. And despite our never-ending troubles, it still is. Perhaps that is the true miracle.

Beltway Logic

Outside the Washington I-495 beltway, logic is generally defined as "reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity." Inside the beltway, logic is, well, something else. This morning, for example, Dana Milbank argued that Herman Cain could still become the GOP nominee for president. Yes, the notion left me dumbfounded, too. But humor me and keep reading. Milbank's DC "logic" is simple. For GOP candidates, winning the Iowa primary is key to winning the nomination. But because so few Iowans vote in the primary, major polls cannot predict their "true sentiment" (i.e., nuttiness level) since the sample is too small to measure accurately. Ergo, a few thousand crazies could end up handing Cain the nomination. "For that reason, it would be foolish to rule out any candidate — even the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive," Milbank wrote. To the extent that literally anything is possible, Milbank is not wrong. (See how that DC "logic" works? You can't dismiss his punditry outright.) There's no need to punch holes in the presumptions holding up Milbank's shaky house of cards. They're obvious. I'm just amazed at what passes for political analysis these days. As for Mr. Cain's long-shot chances, Joe Scarborough gets it exactly right: Crazy. Never. Wins.

Well said

TPM's David Kurtz: "The only people more desperate for Chris Christie to enter the GOP race than Republican bigwigs are national political reporters. Much easier to cover the candidates jockeying for position than, say, the assorted economic and budget issues that should define the race."

Has it really come to this?

What, according to the Washington Post, is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s appeal to Republicans? He's blunt and funny. One wonders what the Founding Fathers would make of these presidential "qualifications."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

GOP is stuck with Clark Kent (minus the spandex)

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's ... it's ... (sigh) ... another false alarm. Dammit, the Republicans grouse. It turns out that Rick Perry, the latest Superman impostor, is just another fumbling politician easily felled by even a whiff of Kryptonite if it comes packaged as a debate podium. But Republicans remain steadfast at the docks, waiting for their superhero's ship to come in. Surely there exists a GOP Man of Steel (preferably one without a Texan drawl) who can defeat President "Lex Luthor" Obama in 2012. Some want to believe that he is Chris Christie. But why they think the rotund New Jersey governor would look good in red, white and blue spandex (let alone fit into the outfit) is beyond me. Like Perry, Christie too has baggage (he's rude, crude and not particularly popular in Snooki Land). Unlike Perry, he has little of the stuff Republicans value most: executive experience (he's only halfway through his first term). And there's also this news flash: He's not running for president. Fox News reported that sources close to Christie said "he has finally made a definitive decision, once and for all, not to run for president in 2012." Christie's brother Todd told The Star-Ledger today: "I'm sure that he's not going to run. If he's lying to me, I'll be as stunned as I've ever been in my life." Granted, Christie hasn't personally doused the flame-broiled clamor yet. (All politicians like the national klieg lights, so why rush?) But it's a near certainty he isn't running. I hate to break it my Republican friends, but waiting for a Caped Crusader is as pointless as waiting for Godot. You're stuck with mild-mannered Mitt "Clark Kent" Romney. And even if SuperMitt had the audacity to sport spandex beneath his Savile Row suit, there would be few if any phone booths for him to change in thanks to Republican-driven deregulation of the telecom biz. (Oops. How's that for poetic irony?) I'm afraid the guy who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound is that other fella, Barack Obama. Um, sorry.

The perfect GOP candidate?

I don't blame TPM's Benjy Sarlin for scratching his head over the latest Chris Christie boomlet (I'm confused, too). He's probably thinking: wait, lemme get this straight. Christie is the new Republican Savior? How can that be? Does Christie have a twin or something? Because the guy who Sarlin has reported on has "sagging approval ratings in New Jersey, called Republicans’ sharia panic 'crap' spread by 'crazies' while condemning politicians of all stripes for even discussing the Park 51 community center in Lower Manhattan. Oh, and he’s moderate on immigration and believes climate change is real, man-made, and a problem." Right. The pundits want you believe that the Republican base (the same folks who just booed gunslinger Rick Perry off the stage for being too soft on immigration) will just love this Jersey Shore dude. Talk about a twisted "Situation."

Another inconvenient truth

Straight talk from Foreign Poicy's Arron David Miller: "The 'sky is falling' crowd bemoaning the loss of American influence on the peace process ought to stop whining. There's no deal now that anyone can broker. The president is right to protect his political flanks. This isn't cheap or dirty politics; it's smart. If Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas forces a vote on U.N. membership in the Security Council this week or next month, Obama should veto it and sleep well that night. [For now] there is no conflict-ending agreement now available to Israelis and Palestinians. The gaps are just too big, the suspicions too deep, and the regional environment too uncertain; and the capacity of an American (or any other mediator) to serve as an effective broker is just too implausible. ... Democrats who happen to dream of a Middle East peace, reelecting Obama next year -- not trying to cobble something together now -- should be the primary goal. ... After all, [the peace process] will be around for some time to come; Barack Obama may not."

Monday, September 26, 2011

'Ack-Ack' over New York

Wait. Lemme get this straight. The NYPD now has Triple-A capabilities (that's anti-aircraft artillery for you civilians) in the event of another 9/11-style terrorist attack? You're telling me Hizzoner Bloomberg can opt to fill the skies over Central Park with "ack-ack" to bring down a threatening airliner, like, with a phone call? That's pretty much what New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly implied on "60 Minutes" Sunday. Yes, he said, the NYPD has "some means to take down a plane" in an "extreme situation." Right. Sure it does. And if you believe that, I've got some primo desert land in Death Valley I want to sell you. Needless to say, Kelly would not elaborate.

First, I bet this is an elaborate head fake. New York wants terrorists to believe it has anti-aircraft defenses. During the interview, Kelly brought up the movie Casablanca, zeroing in on the scene in which Major Strasser boasts to Rick about supposed Nazi omnipotence. "Can you imagine us in London?" he asks with an evil smile. Rick: "When you get there, ask me!" Major Strasser: "How about New York?" Rick: "Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade." Exactly, Kelly said, hoping prospective evil doers will get the same message. Who knows? The ruse may even work. Lucky for us, your typical terrorist tends not to be the brightest color in the crayon box.

Second, and call it a hunch, I seriously doubt that the Pentagon is outsourcing surface-to-air missile capabilities to cops. In reality (and I'm guessing here), it may have pre-positioned Triple-A batteries at military facilities close to or inside NYC. In the event of another airborne attack against the city, they could be deployed as a second-tier line of defense (the first being fighter jets), probably under the auspices of the National Guard. Another possibility, I suppose, is that selected SWAT units have been trained to use shoulder-fired Stinger missiles. Then again, why bother when US Army personnel (with more training and experience) could be quickly choppered into NYC. In any event, I doubt we'll be seeing ack-ack emplacements atop skycrapers or beat cops armed with portable missiles anytime soon.

Eyes turn to Christie as Rome burns

HOW EXACTLY WOULD President Romney or President Perry deal with improving the American healthcare system while reducing costs? Precisely how would these men broker a peace between Israel and Palestine to lower tensions in the Middle East? Would they continue to pull US troops out of Afghanistan or re-invade? If it's the latter, how would they pay for it? What would President Perry do if future events prove he is wrong about global warning not being real? Does he have a Plan B (or do we just drown as sea levels rise)? And since both candidates believe unregulated private enterprise and more tax cuts will solve all that ails America economically, can either man actually prove it (esp. since these "solutions" failed under the last Republican president)? Wouldn't you like to know the answers to these and other substantive questions from the GOP men (and woman) who would-be president? Too bad thee and me (i.e., America) are the only ones who do. The news media sure isn't interested. Today, it is too busy hyperventilating over whether Chris Christie ― the "ill-tempered, half-term, extremely rotund 50%-50% popularity Governor of New Jersey" (as TPM puts it) ― will jump into the race now that Rick Perry is supposedly cratering. You see, the media have suddenly deemed Perry an also-ran in the wake of one bad debate performance. Plus, Perry got creamed in a meaningless straw poll. Ergo, Perry is doomed. This is, what, the fourth Christie-For-President boomlet? The governor's peeps say nothing has changed. He's not running. To the media, that means he's running for sure. Sigh, with a heavy exhale.

Why is the media humoring Cain?

I don't want to read too much into this, but why is the media fawning over Herman Cain in the wake of his upset win in a straw poll over Rick Perry? It can't be because Cain matters in the GOP presidential race. He has zero chance of winning the nomination. Cain is an odd duck but he's not delusional. He knows (I hope) that his bid is a vanity exercise. His supporters (minus the loons) know it, the GOP frontrunners know it, and the political media certainly know it. And yet, there he is, everywhere on the mediascape today. So why the coverage? Why the copious ink-spillage on the man who will never be president? The most charitable answer is: it's a slow news day. The less charitable answer is that it's a special form of media paternalism reserved for minority novelty acts. And the self-proclaimed "Hermanator" is about as novel as it gets. "Herman Cain is on a roll," read the misleading lede in Perry Bacon's piece for the Washington Post. (And lest you think this is a black pol/white journalist thing, it's not. Bacon happens to be black.) Then there's the "endorsement" by Dennis Miller (the ex-SNL funnyman). “Can I tell you how jazzed I am about this cat? How proud I am of him hanging in there?” Miller gushed on his radio show, per Mediaite. Again, not to overreact and go all Blaxploitation on you, but would Miller refer to Perry or Romney as "this cat?" And Miller telling Cain that's he's "proud" of him is not unlike a 1870s do-gooder complimenting her charge of unsmiling Indian children on their grasp of "American" instead of their own rich native languages. Needless to say, Cain is "on a roll" to nowhere. Cain of course is only too happy to play his banjo in this vaudeville act before his 15 minutes are up. Not that it truly matters. He'll be confined to history's dustbin soon enough. But shed no tears for Mr. Cain. He's rich enough to revel nicely in obscurity again.

Why is this man smiling?

Jon Chait re-states the obvious for the national media (which again is asleep at the wheel): "The search for a viable alternative to Mitt Romney has been a long and oddly futile process. The requirements are not especially strict: one must be a Republican politician in good standing, be interested in becoming president, never have proposed national health care or tax increases, and be able to deliver teed-up scripted attacks on Romney. The combination turns out to be surprisingly difficult to put together. Failing that, we may see a man walk into the nomination of a party whose electorate is dying to vote against him, simply because nobody else could stand in his path without keeling over."

Slow on the uptake?

Despite the boorishness of those GOP debate audiences, James Joyner (a Republican) agrees with Jon Chait that it's unlikely many "conservative Republicans feel visceral hostility toward sick, uninsured people or gay soldiers. Rather, their booing is an expression of tribal partisan solidarity." This assessment sounds about right (and I certainly hope it's true). Joyner writes: "If you’re over 50, especially if you’re not living in a major metropolitan area, the world we live in simply isn’t recognizable as the one in which you grew up in. I’m a bit younger than that and it’s shocking how much different things are than when I started high school. Married women now routinely have careers outside the home. Our industrial base, at least as we used to understand that concept, has moved to China, India, and elsewhere. Our social mores have changed radically on issues ranging from the coarsening of the language to gender rules to the widespread acceptance of homosexuality. This all has a whole lot of people afraid, angry, and confused. Things they’ve believed all their lives are now socially unacceptable or even demonstrably untrue. And they’re surrounded by people going through the same thing and, increasingly, have their fears and anger stoked by self-selected media outlets who reinforce rather than challenge their worries. Having spent most of my life around these people, it’s my sense that they're decent folks who just need a little more time to adjust." And I guess time will tell.

Down but not out

It's possible that Rick Perry, an ex-Air Force pilot, has flown one sortie too many. And yes, campaign-wise, he's now struggling at the controls of a nose-diving plane that's clearly on fire. But don't write him off just yet. Huffington Post writer James Moore provides some of the reasons why: "Rick Perry is looking wobbly. But he has been politically staggered before and recovered to win the fight. If he falters in his current effort, it will be the first time in his 26-year career of public service. ... Perry's support will return. Straw polls and debates don't decide nominations and are only a small piece of what picks a president. George H. W. Bush was so bad in debates with Michael Dukakis that his lack of linguist skills was turned into a Saturday Night Live skit and everyone remembers how Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas stuck a shiv in Dan Quayle for comparing himself to John F. Kennedy. But nobody remembers a Dukakis-Bentsen administration. The only place Rick Perry is going is further out in front of the GOP pack." Moore goes further than I would on Perry's chances of capturing the GOP nomination. It's not a lock. During the 1988 Bentsen-Quayle debate that Moore referenced, Quayle intimated that he had as much experience in the Congress as JFK when the latter sought the presidency. Bentsen famously replied: "Senator ... I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." In a similar vein, Governor Perry is no George H. W. Bush -- or, for that matter, George W. Bush. I still say Mitt Romney will likely win the nomination. But that's assuming the GOP doesn't commit political seppuku first.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The game shows we call debates

LA Times columnist Doyle McManus is not impressed with the slate of GOP presidential candidates. After watching last week's debate, he thought the candidates left us with more questions than answers on the big issues. "And don't get me started on foreign policy," he wrote. I could hear his heavy sigh from here. More interesting was his observation about the debate itself. "Of course, a debate can't be expected to cover every subject, even when it lasts two hours. And the television networks that run the events naturally try to focus the candidates on issues that might spark telegenic exchanges, such as the clash between Perry and others over immunization against the human papillomavirus," McManus opined. Note McManus' tone. There isn't even a pretense anymore about the alleged seriousness of modern debates. What we watch today is more akin to the "Wheel of Fortune." The trend allowing audience participation (which has cheered executions and booed a gay soldier) only adds to the game show feel. And in the last debate, is it mere coincidence that one of the moderators (Fox News' Megyn Kelly) bears an uncanny resemblance to Vanna White? What's next ― a laugh-track? Sure, I pine for the days of Lincoln-Douglas. But would it kill us to return to some updated form of that effective format ― you know, for the sake of the country? It's awful hard to hide ignorance, incompetence or unpreparedness when dueling mano a mano in a quiet studio sans audience. Besides letting us quickly separate the wheat from the chaff, viewers might even learn something from the discussion. Imagine that. Even a debate involving three persons in this setting, though not ideal, would be better than the carnival shows the networks stage today. Not that I'm holding my breath, mind you. Rating-friendly debates modeled on "The Price Is Right" is the price we pay for our political apathy. Until that changes, get used to increasing shouts of: "Come on down!"

The heart of the matter

Steve Benen goes to the heart of our broken politics: "[A]nyone tempted to think the current conditions are somehow normal -- the parties have never gotten along; divided government is supposed to be dysfunctional -- is simply wrong. We've reached the point at which Republicans have pushed the basics of governing to the brink, in ways unseen in American history. As [Eric] Boehlert explained, 'The Beltway game has never been played the way it's unfolded under Obama. ... The radical nature of what we're witnessing today has no precedent in modern American politics.' That those responsible for this fiasco appear likely to be rewarded for their efforts next year is truly astounding."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cloudy with a chance of satellite showers

Why, oh why, is the media so consumed with dead satellites falling back to Earth? According to the New York Times, NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) was "intently tracked by people around the world over the last couple of days." Or so the media says. Okay, by a show of hands, how many of you had even heard of UARS before you learned about it from the media or Twitter? Right, that's what I thought -- nobody. Now I have no doubt a handful of geeks in Star Trek garb, Tea Partiers (it's Obama's fault), and the very very paranoid were indeed following the UARS saga with bated breath. After all, the Times reported, at least 26 pieces -- the largest being 330 pounds!! -- was "expected to survive the plunge." OMG! Somebody is gonna die! And it could be YOU! Oh the humanity! Except NASA, like a substitute teacher being overrun by screaming kindergartners (Schwarzenegger: "IT'S NOT A TUMAHHH!"), has repeatedly said that there's only a 1-in-3,200 risk of anyone being injured by the falling debris. For those of you (like me) who are a little weak in the math department, that means the chances of getting hit by UARS is one in several trillion. Your'e more likely to win the top Powerball prize. And just for the record: No one has been hurt by falling satellites since the dawn of the Space Age -- not a single person, ever. Yet, we go through this media-hype cycle every time a sizable orbital object swan-dives to Earth. Still, if you're one of the satellite-paranoid-delusionals, please hold and stay on the line while we trace your call.

Don't take it off, baby

Here's one for the books. Andrew Sempere writes: "I had more or less forgotten this image until a few years ago, when [a technique] was discovered by the internet as a meme known as bubbling, where celebrity photos are 'undressed' by carefully masking clothing. A kind of reverse-censorship in the service of titillation." The bikini-clad Lindsay Lohan photo on the right is the original. Clearly, there are lots of bored PhotoShoppers out there with way too much time on their hands.

In Moscow, another knock at the door

"In Moscow, unexpected knocks at the door can bear ill tidings," wrote Pulitzer Prize-wining journalist Hedrick Smith in The New Russians (Random House, 1990). The man at Russia's door is Vladimir Putin. It seems he's back. And this time, comrade, he's planning a long visit with you. Your permission is not required. Today, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he will not stand for reelection. Instead, Putin, the man he replaced in office, will now replace him. One Russian observer wryly told the NY Times: “They decided between themselves who will hold which job. It’s like a swap in chess — my bishop for your rook.” So it seems. Technically, the Russian congress must vote to make it official. "But that's already a foregone conclusion, as is his victory in a general election against underfunded and undercut opposition groups," New York magazine reported. Also noteworthy are recent constitutional changes that extend presidential terms from four years to six. If Putin serves two terms (a likely prospect), his total time in power will rival Stalin's 30-year tenure. It means the ex-KGB spymaster will have near Czar-like power. Hopes for more democratic reforms are bleak, not that there is a Russian groundswell for them. "[M]ost Russians feel no nostalgia for the chaotic political pluralism of the 1990s," reported the Times. Hedrick Smith observed that the Russian character "tend to make public life intractable and pose formidable obstacles to reform: their escapism, their impracticality, their lackadaisical attitude toward work and their vicious envy of people who try to get ahead." Indeed, the "flip side of Russian generosity and sentimentality is Russian irresponsibility and impracticality," he wrote. Alas, "it is the Russian soul," as the poet Andrei Voznesensky put it. The Medvedev-Putin Gambit is but the latest confirmation that nothing much has changed in Mother Russia.

Blowing smoke

I love it when pundits hyperventilate (or is it choke?) over wisps of smoke. It seems Herman Cain (the pizza mogul-guy) landed unexpectedly atop a GOP Florida straw poll today. TPM's Josh Marshall immediately went to work discerning the "upshot" of the upset win. Rick Perry, the GOP frontrunner, was expected to win big, Texan-style. But since Cain managed to snatch Perry from the jaws of victory, it must mean that the "conservative/Tea Party wing of the party is seriously disillusioned with Perry," as Marshall concludes. No, not really. Don't get me wrong. I'm not picking on the usually level-headed Marshall. He's hardly alone in the business of blowing smoke rings today. Having read a LA Times piece on the straw poll, Roger Ebert (yeah, the "Two Thumbs Up" movie guy) tweeted: "Perry's campaign in desperate spin control after his crushing 2-to-1 loss to Herman Cain." Actually, they're not (Team Perry is too busy spinning it as a big Romney loss). The Wall Street Journal wrote: "Herman Cain catapulted back into the presidential picture after winning today's Florida GOP straw poll." Really, WSJ? Whatever is these folks are smoking, it must be good sh#t.

Bear in mind that the straw poll represents a plurality of only 2,000 partisans, and all were required to pay cash for the privilege of participating. Cain, therefore, is the preference of the nuttiest of the nutcase pool. Behold the voting logic of delegate Beth Shields who told POLITICO: “When I came here, I was really hoping that [Perry] was going to make me love him and I just don’t think he showed well. On the other hand, Shields added, Cain was “not full of himself. He’s honest, he’s got a sense of humor, he’s got a plan.” Does Shields represent the views of most Tea Partiers? I doubt it. (I do, however, love Shields' line: Perry didn't "make me love him." Heh. The Texan governor better switch cologne brands. The Old Spice clearly ain't working.) Meanwhile, I imagine "Hermanator" Cain, already a legend in his own mind, thinks he's now fast-tracking to the White House ("I'm king of the world!").

But no worries if you've never heard of the Florida straw poll. Most folks (including Republicans) haven't either. Which is exactly the point.

A potent tea cocktail

Chauncey DeVega kicks over a rock to expose an inconvenient truth about Republican politics: "[T]he Tea Party is easily lampooned; however, their songs, folksy misspelled posters, embrace of ignorance as authenticity, and love of costumes are a type of political theater. Consequently―and this is a point that many in the pundit classes and other professional bloviators seem to miss―'the show is the thing.' Reasoned discussions of policy and good governance are made secondary to a sense of belonging. For folks who feel alienated, scared, and 'want to take their America back' (from 'the blacks, the gays, the atheists, the Socialists, the liberals' etc.) a sense of belonging is a powerful salve for alienation and anomie. ... Emotion trumps reason. Faith has been mated with ideology to create a worldview that is immune from critical interrogation and intervention. Heretics are burned at the proverbial stake of Right-wing talk radio and Fox News. And ideological orthodoxy is the prime directive, even if it means destroying the U.S. economy." Scary times.

Saturday chuckle

"How did Sigmund’s wife get him turned on? She’d show up wearing only her Freudian slip." Badaboom.

Drum punchline 2

GOP Newspeak?

Rick Santorum is (rightly) under fire for the dismissive comments he made about gay military service members during the last GOP debate. You can explore the details here. I'm more interested in the response from GOProud, a gay Republican group which (rightly) demanded an apology from Santorum. But the group's demand then went a step further. According to Slate, GOProud spokesman Jimmy LaSalvia said, "I don't care if you're running for dog-catcher, if a soldier asks you a question, the first thing out of your mouth is: 'I thank you for your service'." Really? Says who? Granted, LaSalvia is justifiably (if crudely) asking for simple respect. On the other hand, his indignant demand smacks of Orwellian Newspeak, a dystopian method of expression in "1984" designed to instill a certain worldview while squashing any thoughts considered heretical by the State. When did the possibility of not automatically thanking the troops effectively become a thoughtcrime? Poverty of thought leads to slavery of thought. And, as the Roman poet Ovid said, it is but a step from one to the other, and that very slippery.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Admiral of the Ocean Sea

Reviewing "Columbus - The Four Voyages," a new book by Laurence Bergreen, the New York Times' Ian Toll opens with an insightful (and I think accurate) take on the controversial "Admiral of the Ocean Sea": "In 5,000 years of recorded history, scarcely another figure has ignited as much controversy. Each second Monday in October, the familiar arguments flare up. Christopher Columbus, rediscoverer of America, was a visionary explorer. He was a harbinger of genocide. He was a Christianizing messiah. He was a pitiless slave master. He was a lionhearted seaman, a rapacious plunderer, a masterly navigator, a Janus-faced schemer, a liberator of oppressed tribes, a delusional megalomaniac. In “Columbus,” Laurence Bergreen, the author of several biographies, allows scope for all these judgments. But Christopher Columbus was in the first place a terribly interesting man — brilliant, audacious, volatile, paranoid, narcissistic, ruthless and (in the end) deeply unhappy." Toll writes that in Bergreen's telling, "Columbus emerges in these pages as an immensely courageous but less than heroic figure." He concludes: "Columbus was not the enlightened rationalist of legend; he was a self-appointed messiah who called himself 'Columbus, the Christ-bearer,' and believed with utter conviction that he was an instrument of divine will. But if Columbus was a Christian, he might have paused to consider the rhetorical question posed in Mark 8:36 (slightly altered to fit the circumstance): 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain a New World, and lose his own soul?' ”

You want my text msg now -- or yesterday?

"Zounds!" as Shakespeare would lustily declare, has quantum science just thrown Albert Einstein under a bus? Maybe so. It seems European physicists at CERN plan to announce that they have "clocked a burst of subatomic particles known as neutrinos breaking the cosmic speed limit — the speed of light — that was set by Albert Einstein in 1905," according to the New York Times. Suddenly, the shocked physics world is "bethump'd with words." If true (and that's a big if), then it's a complete game changer.

The Times reported that physicists raced the neutrinos a distance of 450 miles at a speed 60 nanoseconds faster than light could travel (which is 186,000 miles per second). Though the speed increase is slight, it's still fast enough to turn physics on its head. It would "would open up the possibility of time travel and play havoc with longstanding notions of cause and effect." For example, if you could transmit something faster than light, you could -- to paraphrase Einstein -- send a text message to the past.

But, as the Times writes, "Incredible claims require incredible evidence." Scientists are of course skeptical and rigorous independent experiments have yet to be conducted. Alvaro de Rujula, a theorist at CERN, told the Times, “If it is true, then we truly haven’t understood anything about anything. It looks too big to be true. The correct attitude is to ask oneself what went wrong.” Spoken like a true scientist. But to an artist or poet, the fact that "it looks too big to be true" could be precisely the quality that may make it true.

The biggest scientific discoveries tend also to be the most elegant. They are, as Professor Ian Glynn (author of "Elegance in Science") put it, "simple, ingenious, concise and persuasive; they often have an unexpected quality, and they are very satisfying." One wonders whether "too big to be true" is actually that "unexpected quality." To paraphrase one of Glynn's examples, perhaps the skeptics will one day mimic the reaction of Thomas Henry Huxley who after reading Darwin's account of evolution remarked, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” God may not play dice with the universe, as Einstein believed. But if he does, then the scientists at CERN may have just unraveled the mechanics of one of his rolls. We'll know soon enough. And what if the discoverers of faster than light speed are proven right? I don't know about you, but only one phrase will leap to my mind: "Holy shit! Awesome."

(Un)Smooth Operator

The political consensus about Rick Perry's debate performance last night is unanimous. In a word, he was awful. The universal derision prompted a mea culpa of sorts from the Texan governor. Speaking before a friendly crowd in Florida today, Perry remarked, "As conservatives we know that values and visions matter. It’s not who is the slickest candidate or smoothest debater who we need to elect.” Besides, he added, how can you trust smooth operators like President Obama who "can sure talk a good game," and Bill Clinton who “sell ice cubes to Eskimos and the next day be against ice cubes.” Really? Is Perry really dragging out Clinton's "slick Willie" caricature? Besides from it being a relic of political antiquity, the Big Dog finished his White House gig a while back. Somebody should remind Perry that (1) it's not 1992, (2) he's not running for student body president, and (3) his Democratic opponent is not Napoleon Dynamite. Funny how it never occurs to preening C students that intelligence, substance and integrity matter more than "values" (which is nothing more than a dog whistle to conservatives pining for the 1950s). Smoothness is merely window-dressing. In fact, I seem to recall a tall, lanky Republican fella with a nasally voice and train wreck of a face. This pol was many things, but smooth he wasn't. They called him Abe Lincoln. But when it comes to smarts, the gulf between Lincoln and Perry is as wide as the Texas Panhandle. And every time Perry opens his mouth he proves it.

Onward Celibate Soldiers

In last night's GOP debate, a citizen (pictured) asked candidate Rick Santorum this question: "Do you intend to circumvent the progress that's been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military?" Santorum (who's never been near a pair of combat boots let alone worn them) replied: "I would say, any type of sexual activity has absolutely no place in the military." He concluded by implying that he would bar gays from military service. The audience cheered wildly. So lemme get this straight. Santorum would bar sex in the military -- any sex. Besides hollowing out our armed forces overnight, Santorum's edict would pretty much narrow the recruiting pool to celibate monks (because nothing says American military power like pious, brown-robed friars). The new Marine Corps motto would necessarily change to "The Few. The Proud. The Very Very Horny." What on earth is wrong with these people? Their mindless dogma just staggers the mind. By the way, the fellow who asked the question via video, Stephen Hill, is an Iraq combat vet. Hill, who as Roger Simon noted has "biceps big enough to crack walnuts," happens to be gay. The Republican audience actually booed him. Gee, I wonder if these worthless pudknockers would do so to his face. Methinks not. But I'd pay money to see such a confrontation, mano a mano.

Perry doesn't speak 'hypothetical,' but he should

Look, I don't expect presidential candidates to be foreign policy experts. I do, however, expect them to have a solid working knowledge of international affairs especially as it relates to current hot spots. I also expect candidates to do their homework before showing up at a debate before a nationwide (if not worldwide) audience. But as JFK is reputed to have said during the Cuban missile crisis, "There's always some sonofabitch who doesn't get the word."

Last night, Rick Perry was that fellow. During the debate, he was asked: "[I]f you were president, and you got a call at 3 a.m. telling you that Pakistan had lost control of its nuclear weapons, at the hands of the Taliban, what would be your first move?" The Texas governor badly flubbed the answer. This wildly hypothetical question is mostly designed to goad a hapless candidate into saying: "I would invade" -- which, ironically, is probably the correct literal answer. In such a dire scenario, the U.S. would in fact have little choice but to invade and seize the nukes. But stating the obvious aloud would make a candidate sound crazy in a Big Breaking News kinda way. No, Perry didn't fall into the trap. But he might have been better off if he had.

A wily, top-of-his-game candidate would have responded along these lines:
Brett, if you're asking hypothetically, well, that's a doozy. Cuz I'm just a small-town Texan who never learned to speak "hypothetical." [Laughter] The idea of the Taliban suddenly seizing Pakistan's nukes is far-fetched. Game changing events in the real world don't happen like they do in Hollywood blockbusters. Trust me, my White House won't operate like the lefty West Wing episodes Obama tries so hard to emulate. [Laughter] We Republicans live in the real world. [Applause] The idea is to prevent such "bolt out of the blue" scenarios in the first place. As president, I would take all necessary steps to forestall Taliban plotting long before it ever reached critical mass. That means actively engaging Pakistan as an ally and helping it to secure its nuclear arsenal. It means reducing tensions in the region in partnership with India and other allies. And strategically, it means advancing nuclear nonproliferation to keep terrorists from ever getting their hands on nukes. A 3 a.m. phone call of the type you suggest, Brett, means your foreign policy has utterly failed. Unlike President Obama, I would act proactively ahead of a potentional crisis instead of reactively "leading from behind." [Rousing applause]
This is Politics 101. Reframe the question to make the points you wish to make. Be knowledgeable (or appear so), decisive, and coherent. Come across as presidential and someone who wisely thinks ahead and anticipates problems. Toss in some red meat and contrast yourself with that "appeasing" Obama fellow who's too busy "apologizing" for America to think straight. I'm told Republicans like that.

But here's how Gov. Perry's answer actually went down:
"Well obviously, before you ever get to that point you have to build a relationship in that region. That's one of the things that this administration has not done. Yesterday, we found out through Admiral Mullen that Haqqani has been involved with -- and that's the terrorist group directly associated with the Pakistani country. So to have a relationship with India, to make sure that India knows that they are an ally of the United States. For instance, when we had the opportunity to sell India the upgraded F-16's, we chose not to do that. We did the same with Taiwan. The point is, our allies need to understand clearly that we are their friends, we will be standing by there with them. Today, we don't have those allies in that region that can assist us if that situation that you talked about were to become a reality."
I'd love to comment, but I literally have no idea what Perry is talking about. Relationships, F-16's, Taiwan? As the Washington Monthly observed, this is unadulterated gibberish. It's like the dude popped a Quaalude or something. In this case, Perry might have been better off just saying "I'd nuke the bastards." Then, at least, we'd know where he stands. As it is, Perry is proving he is clueless about foreign policy and seems unprepared (or unable) to do anything about it. If you've ever wondered what a second-rate mind looks like, wonder no more.

Simple Sarah's Potion No. 9

Oh c'mon Sarah Palin peeps, you're making this way too easy. The ex-half-term governor is “on the verge of making her decision of whether or not to run for office,” read the breathless letter from SarahPAC treasurer Tim Crawford to supporters/groupies. And to show your undying love, send money. Or to quote the letter directly, “Send your best, one-time gift to SarahPAC today. So lemme get this straight. Ms. Palin is absolutely, positively teetering on the verge of thinking about possibly running for president, maybe. While the free world awaits with bated breath for a decision that she may or may not make for a presidential bid that she may or may not pursue, she wants your money to help her think about thinking about it. Got all that? Also, there's a sale at Marcus Neiman at the mall and mamma needs a new pair of shoes. But that's merely a detail. Presumably this shtick is aimed at gullible Palin fans who'll drink anything served at the fountain of their Wasilla Goddess. Evidently, this week's special is Simple Sarah's Potion No. 9. It'll cure all that ails ya, friends, you bet'cha. I have to hand it to SarahPAC though. The sheer boldness of this ploy would make even an old-time snake oil salesman blush.

Our addled consciousness

One could glimpse the shackles of dogma when an audience cheered Rick Perry for boasting about the capital punishment he has meted out. Perhaps this bloodlust bears the "marks of weakness, marks of woe" that William Blake described in his poem "London." Writer Lee Siegel had Blake in mind as he critiqued "our sick passion for execution." In the Daily Beast, he wrote: "[Troy] Davis’s scheduled execution received more and more attention as its hour approached, but nothing like some previous causes célèbres over the past few months. If Davis’s impending execution had, in the same time period, received half the attention lavished on Anthony Weiner, the earthquake that barely was, the hurricane that wasn’t, and a dozen other subsidiary collective obsessions—e.g., Charlie Sheen’s world-historical roast—the question of capital punishment itself might be at the center of debate, and not only the question of Troy Davis’s innocence. You would think that the possibility of an innocent man murdered by the state would be worth at least one 24-hour news cycle. ... It seems that we will not know how to treat our transgressors humanely until we unlock our addled consciousness. Blake, who referred to 'mind-forged manacles,' would have understood." Siegel, I think, is on to something here. If nothing else, it is a fitting coda to the Troy Davis saga.

Treatise on a one-liner

Bruce Willis delivered the immortal words "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker" in the hit movie Die Hard. For some reason, Slate's Eric Lichtenfeld thought the one-liner was worthy of erudite deconstruction back in 2007: "A quarter of the line (or half, depending on how you count) is profane, and yet 'Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker' is actually a delicate wisecrack. Underscoring the line's bridging of generations is the symmetry of its construction. On either side of the comma, past and present each get four syllables. This balance is manifested in the evenness of Willis' first—and best—delivery of the line. Subtly, he eases off 'fucker,' the word that, by virtue of its syntactical position, and its very nature, we might expect to land hardest on our ears. That Willis does not employ the same deftness in the sequels is a pity. The phrase is most effective not as a buildup to some hammer punch, but as one seamless unit of defiance." Really? I dunno. Though I can appreciate Lichtenfeld's musings, his treatise still strikes me as overthink. Somehow Willis' "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker" seems no more profane or meaningful than, say, Samuel L. Jackson's "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" But then, what do I know.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child." (Cicero)

Our wits have long turned

In his new book "The Forever War," Dexter Filkins quotes a Marine describing war: “When you’re training for this, you joke about it, you can’t wait to see the real thing. Then when you see it, when you see the real thing, you never want to see it again.” Although this simple but devastating observation was made by a young Marine who saw combat in Afghanistan, it could have been made by a mud-encrusted Doughboy in the Argonne, a Johnny Reb retreating at Gettysburg or a Roman centurion standing amid butchered bodies on a Carthaginian plain. This time it will be different, the old men pledge. It will be the war to end all wars. And it will surely be over by Christmas. And yet war's result is always the same: catastrophe, win or lose. Over countless millenia, young soldiers have marched exultant into war ― for king, for country, for vengeance, for glory ― only to return home chastened and hollowed by war's ugly reality. But tangible memories of the "real thing," as the young Marine put it, evanesce almost as quickly as the smoke from the last canon fired. Veterans understandably retreat into themselves, fleeing the awfulness they've seen. Stirred by gratitude (and guilt), the citizenry and its impressionable young, both wholly innocent of war's reality, mount their soldiers on heroic pedestals. The war is inevitably pasteurized as the necessary conflict between good and evil, one bravely fought by the latest Greatest Generation. War of course is always most righteous for those not obligated to fight it or for jocular young soldiers not yet exposed to the coppery taste of its bloody reality. Thus the endless cycle begins anew. Realizing he is going mad, Shakespeare's King Lear lamented, "My wits begin to turn." I'm afraid humanity's wits in matters of war turned long ago.

Newt hearts Marie Antoinette

Since I value the brain cells I have left, I'm skipping the GOP debate tonight. Andrew Sullivan, however, bravely volunteered for the dicey mission. Amid incoming GOP mortar rounds at 9:12 pm EDT, he reported that "there's a whole lot of abolishing going on tonight." It seems Rick Santorum wants to abolish all public sector unions. Not to be topped, Newt Gingrich was all "second that emotion" and added that he wants to abolish all unemployment compensation, too. "People should not get money for doing nothing," Newt said. In other words, "Let them eat cake." The compassion gives me goosebumps.

It's about electability, stupid

Although Rick Perry remains the overall poll leader in the GOP presidential contest, I still say Mitt Romney will likely end up as the nominee to face Obama in 2012. Whether Republicans like it or not, Perry is proving that he is not as electable as Romney is in a general election. Josh Marshall identifies one driving force: "Conservatives who don't really care for Romney appear happy to vote for him against Obama." I think my prediction is fairly ironclad -- unless of course the Republican electorate really does lose it mind, walks up to the ledge on the 99th floor, and jumps.

'Ground Zero mosque' opens to ... yawns

Remember the "Ground Zero Mosque?" (Insert scream of horror here.) You know, as Steve Benen notes, the mosque "which wasn't a mosque and wasn't at Ground Zero? Well, Park51 opened yesterday, and no one noticed or cared. Civilization appears to be intact; the memory of the 9/11 attacks is unaffected; and the zealots who tried to make this into a story continue to look like foolish."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Lyman Abbott: "Every life is a march from innocence, through temptation, to virtue or vice." (Photo: © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos)

Sometimes a simple 'yes' is enough

Noting that Rick Perry has oddly accused President Obama of "appeasement" in the conduct of American foreign policy in the Middle East, Salon's Joan Walsh asked, "Is the Texas governor too ignorant to know the term is associated with placating and not fighting Adolf Hitler?" Although she takes an entire blog post to explore the empty corridors of Perry's mind, the short answer is: Yes. The rest, as they say, is just noise.

Weirdness that works

Elton John's spectacles aside, these are about the weirdest glasses I've ever seen. Yet, weirdly, they somehow flatter U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), seen here speaking during a news conference on Capitol Hill. To me at least, it's almost art. (Photo credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Here Be Dragons

When Andrew Sullivan is "on," he's on with a vengeance. He delivers a devastating critique on the state of things: "I will never think of America the same way after the Bush-Cheney administration. They ripped the scales off my eyes; they proved that America isn't, in the end, different; that its core moral principles, such as the prohibition of torture, are nostrums to be tossed aside at the whim of a few very scared and incompetent men; that the rule of law ends when it comes to presidential power, when he can simply order dipshit lawyers to say black is white; when no regret is ever truly expressed about the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died under US occupation; when the architects of these strategic and moral disasters are given legal immunity and peddle books on talkshows defending and bragging of their own awful legacy. It has sickened me - the lack of morality, the lack of accountability, the constant recourse to mass amnesia. And in a man like Perry, you see all the characteristics of this belligerent, diplomatically autistic, aggressively stupid, and fundamentalist psyche. The dragon we thought we had slain is stalking the land again." And yet at least half the country seems willing to chain themselves (and the rest of us) to this dangerous political archetype at the ballot box. Have we lost our minds? "Here be dragons" indeed.

Stick that in your pipe

Harper's magazine, the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S (per Wikipedia), publishes something called the "Harper's Index," a compilation of "ironic statistics arranged for thoughtful effect." Statistics of course can be manipulated to mean almost anything, and I'm not 100 percent sure the numbers in Harper's Index (Oct. 2011) would stand up to close scrutiny. With those caveats in mind, the next time your Republican friends try to hang the bad economy on President Obama, fire back with these apparent facts: (a) Seventy-one percent of current U.S. debt was accumulated during Republican presidential terms. (b) Two-thirds of debt-ceiling elevations since 1960 have been signed into law by Republican presidents. (c) In 1961 the percentage of corporate profits paid in taxes was nearly forty-one; now it is less than eleven. (d) Seventy-five percent of the increase in corporate profit margins since 2001 has come from depressed wages. Interesting, isn't it? Whether after your counter-harangue you opt to throw in "so stick that in your pipe and smoke it" is up to you.

The details of playing God

Brian Palmer, Slate's Explainer columnist, asks: When a defendant is sentenced to death, what are his chances of actually being executed? Palmer writes: "The average killer is 28 years old at the time of his arrest, and it takes an average of 14 years between sentencing and execution. But these data include only those inmates whose executions were actually carried out; many are not. To put it into perspective, 323 people were condemned in 1996. Fourteen years later, in 2010, only 10 people were executed. It is not uncommon for inmates to spend more than 20 years on death row, and one man challenged his execution on the basis that a 32-year wait and repeated stays of execution constituted cruel and unusual punishment. So what happens to all these non-executed people? Most spend their lives in prison."

Make it all better, daddy

Michael Moore on Twitter today: "President Obama: Can't you do like President Kennedy did & send in federal troops to stop this injustice in Georgia? The buck stops with u."

Um, no, Mr. Moore, it doesn't. Sigh.

Bombast, ignorance and infantility is a potent cocktail. And Moore & Co. are clearly on their third round at the trendy Messiah Speakeasy, and signaling the barkeep for a fourth. I hate to be a killjoy, but the proverbial buck does not stop with the president in the Troy Davis matter. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution took this question to legal experts and asked: Can the president grant clemency or stop the execution in any way? Answer: "No. While President Obama has said he thinks the death penalty does little to deter crime, he has no legal authority to get involved, officially, with a state execution. When the death penalty is imposed for a state crime like murder, it is a state issue." Georgia's Constitution even bars the governor from stopping the execution, slated for tonight at 7pm EDT. Whether or not this state law is wise or even correct is a matter for the next Georgia constitutional convention.

Presidents can only intervene when federal laws are violated. That is why JFK and other presidents could step in with federal troops during the civil rights era. No federal laws are involved in the Davis case. I image a president might, on moral grounds, send in the Marines anyway if Georgia were about to hang a clearly innocent person (and the Feds could prove it). But that's not the case here. Davis' innocence is anything but clear. Even reasonable doubt about his guilt is debatable, though I would pass on playing God and err on the side of not executing him. The point is that President Obama is not daddy who, with the wave of a magic wan and a kiss to our little foreheads, can make it all better. Even the NAACP was foolishly threatening to drag Mr. Obama into this mess. In short, Mr. Moore and his sympaticos need to grow up and swear off the Messiah juice.

The power to arrest this Wonderland madness rests solely with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. I wish that were not so. Sadly, it seems hell bent on playing the Red Queen. "Off with his head!" has been the answer to all requests for clemency from Davis. All legal options to stay his date with the hangman have been exhausted, say the experts. Like it or not, that means Troy Davis is a dead man walking. As a nation, we should be deeply troubled about not really knowing if justice is being properly served in this case. It is not a proud moment for humanity.
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UPDATE: Troy Davis was executed tonight by lethal injection at 11:08 p.m. EDT.