Saturday, October 12, 2013

The nub of it

Time's Joe Klein: "It isn't hard to locate the immediate cause of the shutdown and impending debt-ceiling debacle: the radical nihilist minority of the Republican Party and the GOP's craven leadership. Words should not be minced here. These radicals--it is wildly inaccurate to call them conservatives--are a pestilence feeding on ignorance and cynicism, preying on fear as a period of unprecedented prosperity wanes. They are not the apocalypse but represent the desperate last gasp of the white majority and of an era. My generation's era." Alas, no truer words have e'er been said.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Putin doppelgänger

Assuming the dog hasn't been artfully photoshopped, a Ukrainian man allegedly found this Staffordshire terrier-German shepherd roaming the streets of Kiev. It's a dead ringer for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Substance over style

President Obama's ham-handed trek on the road to Damascus wasn't pretty. There's plenty to criticize about his handling of Syria over the past two years. And yes, as Kevin Drum opined, the president's team "probably blundered into the possibility of a diplomatic solution on Syria." But given the mind-numbing difficulty of the Syrian problem (it's akin to 12-dimensional chess), Obama's "accidental diplomacy" is probably beside the point. After all, as Drum rightly notes, "it’s rock solid certain that Assad isn’t going to launch another gas attack anytime soon, which means that, by hook or by crook, Obama has achieved his goal for now. No, it’s not the way he planned it, but the best war plans seldom survive contact with reality, and the mark of a good commander is recognizing that and figuring out to react. It may not be pretty to watch it unfold in public in real time, but it’s nonetheless the mark of a confident and effective commander-in-chief. It’s about time we had one." It is also worth noting something Obama himself said recently about his critics: "Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that, because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq war." Good point. Still, Obama should do himself a favor with a closer study of both Machiavelli ("Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are") and Sun Tzu ("Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt").

Friday, September 6, 2013

An insignificant man

In the opening quote of his memoir, The Last Witness, former Adolf Hitler bodyguard Rochus Misch wrote: "My name is Rochus Misch. I am an insignificant man, but I have experienced significant things." Misch, who died at age 96 today, was the last survivor from Hitler's bunker in Berlin. He thought the Furher was a swell quy. Prior to his death, Misch told the AP that Hitler was "a very normal man... he was no brute, he was no monster." Right. The moral blindness in some men beggars belief. Given the horrific consequences of WWII (which Hitler started and resulted in 60 million dead worldwide) and the "Final Solution" (which Hitler ordered and resulted in the murder of six million Jews), Misch's daughter, Brigitta Jacob-Engelken, told the BBC that "she could not understand why her father, who remained loyal to Hitler to the end, was not more critical in his reflections of Nazi history." The answer is simple. Misch was an insignificant man without a discernable conscience or a soul -- and incapable of developing either. Let that be his true epitaph.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Obama's Syrian two-step

Apparently, President Obama is prepared to bomb the bejesus out of Syria for using chemical weapons -- but only if Congress approves. Only time will tell whether this high-stakes gamble proves to be brilliant or breathtakingly foolish. Lord Horatio Nelson, the famous Royal Navy commander, would probably be of two minds about Obama's abrupt about-face. On the one hand, he'd squint his remaining good eye and conclude: "If a man consults whether he is to fight, when he has the power in his own hands, it is certain that his opinion is against fighting." On the other hand, Nelson might tip his hat to Mr. Obama for his enigmatic moxie: "The measure may be thought bold, but I am of the opinion the boldest are the safest."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Historical profiling

The New Yorker's Jelani Cobb captures the essence of the Zimmerman trial: "The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling. The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty. ... Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away."

Friday, June 7, 2013

Pitch perfect

Now that's comedy. Needless to say, this "review" has gone viral on the Web with a billion tweets -- and counting.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Jaw-dropping body art

Photographer Ray Massey and artists Annie Miller and Annie Ralli give new meaning to an observation made by Edgar Degas: "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." See more of this amazing art here.

In the annals of WTF?

The head officer of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch at the Pentagon -- Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41 -- was arrested and charged with sexual battery Sunday after he allegedly grabbed the woman's breasts and buttocks, per USA Today. Wow. Clearly, there is something terribly rotten in the state Denmark and it has nothing to do with Hamlet. Methinks it may be time for Congress to take sexual assault/harassment prevention programs out of the military chain of command.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Why gun reform keeps failing

SOMETHING like 90 percent of Americans, including most rational gun owners, favor more robust background checks as one means to deter gun violence. And yet, that proposal – and any other sensible gun reform measure – has been declared KIA in Washington. One only needs to look to Arizona to understand why. The state recently made it a crime for the police to destroy firearms that come into its possession via buy-back programs. Surrendered arms must now be warehoused until sold. Make of this what you will. But it is telling that Gov. Jan Brewer received some 2,000 pleas in support of the new law and only 25 in opposition to it. This disparity explains, in a nutshell, why gun reform keeps failing. The folks who really care about this issue make their voices heard. Or as Woody Allen would summarize it, eighty percent of success is showing up.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

No escaping history

Some folks are desperately trying to repair George W. Bush's broken legacy by rewriting history. Jon Chait is particularly impressed with Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin's valiant try at defending the indefensible. "It is so slavish and so crude it inadvertently exposes all the catastrophic weaknesses in the Bush record that more clever defenders have usually learned to tiptoe around," he wrote. Chait cited a particularly masterful sentence. "Unlike Obama’s tenure," Rubin wrote, "there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11." Chaits correctly noted that this is not true. But, he drolly opined, "exempting the most disastrous attack on the United States from Bush’s record of avoiding terrorism is a feat of propaganda that, while common, continues to boggle the mind. Emperor Honorius Kept Rome Safe, except that one time it was sacked by the Visigoths."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Forever snarky

There is a popular misconception that cynicism or snarkiness is a recent cultural phenomenon. It isn't. Consider this bit from the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz. Scarecrow: "I haven't got a brain ... only straw." Dorothy: "How can you talk if you haven't got a brain?" Scarecrow: "I don't know ... But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking ... don't they?" Indeed. And, clearly, the habit remains unbroken.

Ode to the politics of fear?

I CONTINUE to be amazed by people -- intelligent, rational people -- who evidently believe that President Obama has Marvel Comics-level superhero powers. "Why doesn't he just get in touch with his inner Incredible Hulk to cure what ails us?" they wonder with childlike incredulity. And speaking of the Hulk, I am further amazed by how devoted some of these folks are to benevolent brute force and its supposed effectiveness. In a lengthy front page article about gun control ("In Gun Bill Defeat, a President’s Distaste for Twisting Arms"), the New York Times flatly stated what it sees as a basic "truth" about Mr. Obama: "After more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers." After all, LBJ used to "back people up against a wall" to get his way, famed biographer Robert Dallek told Peter Baker, the auteur of the the Times piece. "Obama has this more reasoned temperament," Dallek said. "It may well be that it’s not the prescription for making gains. It raises questions about his powers of persuasion." In a jaw-dropping Sunday opinion piece, "No Bully in the Pulpit," Maureen Dowd wrote: "Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles." So, let's add this up. Ruthlessness. Arm-twisting. Slamming folks against walls. Brass knuckles. Bullying. Instilling fear. Excuse me, but have these people lost their collective minds? And when did the politics of fear become a virtue or democracy a zero-sum game? It is true that neither Mao Zedong (who famously said that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun") nor Joseph Stalin would have lost a gun control debate. But the price of their "persuasion" tactics would strike most Americans as a tad high, Dowd's talk of brass knuckles notwithstanding. Granted, LBJ -- the fellow to whom Obama is often and inaccurately compared -- got Congress to enact some marvelous legislation through intimidation. But he also force-marched the nation down the rabbit hole of Vietnam at a cost of 58,282 American lives; and ended up as a broken, one-term president. I'll take Mr. Obama's "reasoned temperament" anytime and twice on Sundays.

What the terrorists never learn

In 1957, Albert Camus -- a Nobel Prize for Literature winner -- elegantly rejected the equation of justice with revolutionary terrorism: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

Friday, April 19, 2013


Believe me, I hope the cops find and neutralize Suspect No. 2 -- Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- and do so soon. But have the authorities overreacted by letting a lone (albeit deranged) 19-year-old completely shut down Boston, a city of nearly a million souls, at a cost of a billion dollars a day?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Glock, Ruger, Smith & Wesson win again

From the Economist: In the aftermath of the failed background-check vote, Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot in the head two years ago in Arizona, remarked: "Moments ago, the US Senate decided to do the unthinkable about gun violence—nothing at all."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Don't be terrorized

Despite yesterday's horrible bombings, the chance of dying by an act of terrorism is about 1 in 20 million. On the other hand, the annual risk of getting killed in a car accident is 1 in 19,000. Do the math. Tomorrow morning, your fellow motorists will pose a greater threat to you on the freeway -- by several orders of magnitude -- than any potential terrorist.

Madness rears its head again

HISTORY ADDED an unexpected footnote to its chronicle yesterday. It took the form of the terrorism that marred the 117th running of the Boston Marathon. The only silver lining is that it could have been worse, much worse, though that is of little comfort to the dead and maimed. It is also sad that news coverage rapidly descended into tragedy porn, bookended by the endless video-loop of the first bomb blast and the morbid fixation on the resulting amputees. But fretting over this is pointless. Periodic suffering – sometimes great suffering – from the madness of a few is the unavoidable price of being alive. In the post-9/11 world, perhaps the best tonic for facing these events is the stoicism famously displayed by the British during World War II: "Keep Calm and Carry On." For come what may, as Macbeth said, time and the hour run through the roughest day.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pretty hypersensitive

LET'S START with a show of hands: How many think Barack Obama is a sexist boor? Don't be shy. Hmm. Just as I suspected: I'm not seeing any hands out there. And yet Obama is being slammed (by a vocal minority) for complimenting the physical beauty of California attorney general Kamala Harris -- in good humor, mind you. But judging by the Serious Writer harrumphs out there, you'd think the president was caught waving $20 bills at Harris for a lap dance. The LA Times' Robin Abcarian wrote that Obama was "more wolfish than sexist" and "may be a little problem he needs to work on." Salon's Joan Walsh wrote that "my stomach turned" over the comment. Um, right. Molehill meet mountain. Yes, technically, though it's a stretch, Obama's ad-libbed comment -- "... and [Harris] is by far, the best looking attorney general" -- could be construed as "benevolent sexism" in the way that the phrase "he is a credit to his race" is a belittling form of racism. Yes, telling a female colleague at the office that she looks "cute" is generally improper, as Slate's Amanda Marcotte rightly notes. And yes, the male propensity for objectifying women is a problem. But to lay this all at Obama's feet -- as if our societal plate tectonics are governed by his every utterance -- is patently absurd. Everything (thank god) is not political. Sometimes, a compliment is simply a compliment.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

OMG! 'Lizard People' are running America!

THE GOOD NEWS is that the crazy election season is over. The bad news is that the crazy election season is over. The latter assertion may help explain why the good folks at Public Policy Polling -- who evidently have nothing better to do -- have conducted a poll on America's belief in conspiracy theories. Per PPP, 51% of Americans believe JFK was killed by a conspiracy (no surprise), 21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell (also no surprise), 13% believe Barack Obama is the antichrist (um, huh?), and 4% believe "lizard people" control our societies by gaining political power (say what?). And the point of this poll? There is no point. And as Joshua Keating points out, it's even ridiculous to take this poll at face value. He writes: "Given the small sample size -- 1,247 voters -- we're talking about 50 people who actually said yes to the [lizard people] question. ... But I'd hesitate to assume that even those 50 people actually believe this. Applying Occam's razor here, I'm going to assume that the people who answered yes to many of the questions on this survey fall into four categories." He goes on to identify: The true believers (the minority), people messing the survey-taker, the delusional, and the easily suggestible. So, how long until the next crazy election season?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Local TV news: 'Sunny today, but that could change.'

Local TV news is a bit like Drunk Uncle: It will never shut up or leave. Ed Rabel, an Emmy Award-winning former television news correspondent, confesses: "Not to be dispiriting, but there is very little reason to watch the local news. If you're satisfied to simply see the day's digest of house fires, fender benders and high school reunions, fine. Otherwise, the regional boob-tube newscasts are nothing more than a "vast wasteland" in the words of one-time FCC Chairman Newton Minow. Basically, the items they flog as news are merely undemanding fillers located between used-car commercials and mattress ads." Or as Ron Burgundy would say, "You stay classy, [insert your local town]."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Seeing is easy with eyes closed

Watching the conservative old men in black robes tie themselves into knots over same-sex marriage this week has been amusing -- and a little sad. Everyone knows that any rational ruling should bend toward equality. America is just waiting for the justices -- i.e., the COMIBR -- to awaken to the fact that it's no longer 1954. And yet, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's observation has never been truer: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” Naturally, Roberts, Scalia, Alito et al are conforming to stereotype. Take Nino, for example. Webster's should add his full name to its dictionary as an additional definition for the noun "anachronism." To wit: “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?” Scalia asked Ted Olson, the ex-solicitor general for the George W. Bush administration and a Republican. “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages?” Olson retorted. Touché, as they say. Yeats said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” Let's hope the COMIBR possess senses capable of being sharpened.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hillary 2008: Thwarted by a malign star?

I LOVE IT when star pundits make sweeping assertions as though they were God's Own Truth. Take Kathleen Parker, reigning queen bee at the Washington Post Commentariat. In her latest column -- part perfumed valentine, part plea for Hillary to run for president, and part resume for a future press secretary job -- she writes: "President Obama visits the Middle East, makes history as he speaks war to Syria and Iran and peace to Israelis and Palestinians, and the talk back home circles The Big Question: Will Hillary run?" Yes, there's circular talk alright -- but it is only inside the Beltway. The actual Big Question: How Hillary-obsessed will the national press corps become? And yeah, I noticed how Parker belittled Obama, too. She actually does it twice. Anyway, there's nary a sound about Hillary in the rest of America. And for good reason: Election Day 2016 doesn't begin for, well, 1,325 days, 15 hours, and (as of this writing) 10 minutes. Just so we're clear: That's 3 years, 7 months and 9 days from today.

That said, Parker says the "zeitgeist" is ready for a female president. I agree. But is it ready for Hillary? Taking a stab at that potent question would have made a very interesting column. Instead, Parker whines about the Last Campaign. Hillary "coulda been a contenda," Parker suggests. But, alas, The Female Chosen One was thwarted in her 2008 bid by "this man Obama, this deus ex machina who descended from some distant star to blind the masses with his light. His destiny, alas, was greater than hers and so, once again, Hillary had to wait." Sooo ... you're sayin' Hillary was a powerless bystander? Really, Ms. Parker? That all you got? And did you have to go all Latin on us, too? I mean, deus ex machina?

Two can play that game, for I have an alternative theory: This man Obama, this alis volat propriis ("he who flies by his own wings") who ascended 35,000 ft. and flew 530 nautical miles from Chicago to DC in coach, was the better candidate. Full stop. And as such, he swept the floor with that chaotic campaign known as "Hillaryland" and won. It's also worth bearing in mind that Hillaryland's dysfunction had a bit something to do with Parker's objet d 'art politique: um, Hillary.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Time to stop whining, I guess

As usual, Jack Shafer cuts through the bull: "I’ve yet to meet anybody who used Google’s RSS Reader more, or pushed it harder than I have over the last eight years. ... [But] the old software maxim — if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product — is true of almost every Google service. Google sells your Gmail activity — as well as your searches of the Web, images, maps, and use of its other services — to advertisers. We, the Google Reader product, weren’t producing much, if anything, in revenue for Google, so the company fired us."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Say it ain't so, Google

Forget the Pope. "Hear that? That's the sound of millions of news junkies on the Web scrambling to find an alternative to Google Reader. The search giant has announced that it will shutter its much-maligned, though still widely used RSS Reader, which will, no doubt, leave many users in a tizzy, searching for other ways to subscribe to their favorite RSS feeds." That's how CNET reported the breaking news this afternoon. I'll be among those in a tizzy. Lemme get this straight: You've got a workmanlike product that's reliable and popular. So you kill it? Google's corporate motto is: "Don't be evil." This isn't evil. It's just stupid.

Habemus Papam

THE TELEVISION was on but muted. I saw the white smoke as I happened to look up. So, the Conclave has chosen a new Pope. That was quick. It's only Day 2. Naturally, the media is covering the event like the Super Bowl. The adjective "breathless" leaps to mind. Something unseemly about that. I un-mute the TV. MSNBC's Tamron Hall is gushing. "We're glad you could speak to us, Chris, especially since two of your relatives were nuns and you're a Catholic." That would be Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's Hardball. I have a passel of Catholic relatives, too. Didn't realize that qualified me as a Vatican expert like Matthews. I watched the curious blend of pontiff-mania, stilted pageantry and medieval proceedings a little while longer. Matthews begins spinning yarns about the nuns of his youth. Decorum compelled me to hit the mute button.

Friday, March 8, 2013

It was a dark and stormy day ...

THE WINDOWS of my study rattled as broadside after broadside of afternoon wind and hail battered them. Hail. Frozen, white, quarter-inch balls of hail. In Arizona. I could hardly believe it as the hail began to accumulate in blowing drifts along the ground. It looked like glassy snow. In Arizona. Wow. The Phoenix area almost never gets "weather," the character-building, soul-trying conditions that I experienced (and mostly enjoyed) on the East Coast. It was nice to get a taste of that again today.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Beware of do-gooders bearing gifts

I NEARLY FELL for it. Back in 2009, a group of Harvard undergrads devised a brilliant product: a soccer ball that creates and stores electricity during game play. In 30 minutes of play, the "Soccket" can power an LED lamp for 3 hours. Presto! A clean, cheap, Eco-friendly energy source for the downtrodden in developing nations. Socckets are now being marketed by Uncharted Play, a for-profit "social enterprise" that aims to "create fun products and services that address real world issues and bring joy to the masses." So what's not to like? Nothing, except the old adage: Beware of do-gooders bearing gifts to brown people. There is no shortage of well-meaning (mostly white) people offering donor-driven, top-down, photogenic solutions to Third World problems. The problem, as critics Aaron Ausland and Kelsey Timmerman point out here and here, is that virtually all of these "solutions" fail the Fish Test. To wit: In impoverished regions, is it better to give a man a fish or teach a man to fish? The answer is obvious -- except, evidently, to those pushing their feel-good but futile products. The Soccket is a cool invention that I hope will find utility somewhere. But it's still a fish. And, as Ausland argues, it represents everything that's wrong with international development today. At bottom, the problem isn't electricity, it's poverty.

Caution: Media train wreck ahead

IN THE NEWS today: Senate confirms Brennan as CIA director. Check. Obama signs Violence Against Women Act. Check. North Korea vows to turn U.S. into "sea of flames." Whatever. Check. Jodi Arias trial's focus is graphic sex, not murder. [Cue the screeching tires sound effect] Um, wait. Wha? Who is Jodi Arias and why is the media insisting that I know? Long story short: Arias and her boyfriend had lots and lots of gratuitous sex (in every conceivable form), and then she killed him. In self-defense, she says. She's now on trial for her life. So just how salacious is this trial? Hint: The photo of Arias at left was shown to the jury as Exhibit Q or whatever. Well, perhaps America will grow up one day and learn to ignore these sensational episodes of human failing. Oh stop laughing. I'm serious. Attaining cultural maturity is not impossible. What's that? I can't hear you over the cackling. Oh never mind.

Hillary does Zoolander

Oh I kid the former secretary of state and presumed Democratic frontrunner in 2016.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Iraq War: Not a pretty picture 10 years later

AFTER 9/11, it didn't take long before American shock transmuted to white hot anger. With the sound of those jet engines slamming into the Twin Towers still ringing in my ears, I vividly recall my own rage. President Bush stoked it further when he stood atop the rubble in New York and said, "I can hear you ... and the people who knocked down these walls will hear from all of us soon." Understandably, America was spoiling for a fight and we wanted our pound of flesh. We unthinkingly gave Bush carte blanche to get it. He unthinkingly obliged us with the Iraq War, launched 10 years ago this month. The Butcher of Baghdad had nothing to do with 9/11. But there was a seductive logic to knocking him off: In theory, he could potentially arm terrorists with WMDs in the future. But how great was this potential? Virtually nil. But that is the crucial question that should have been asked -- but wasn't -- before spilling blood in Iraq. And so Bush invaded Iraq willy-nilly with a 2-to-1 ratio of support from the American people. The cost: Eight years of war, at least a trillion dollars in US treasury, 36,709 dead and wounded American soldiers plus 50,152 Iraqi civilian fatalities. And, in the end, the war bought us the world's 9th most politically unstable country, according to the think-tank Fund for Peace. But aren't the Iraqis better off without Saddam? Yes, unquestionably. But was it worth the price we Americans paid? Before attempting to answer that question, I'd advise asking the 1% of Americans who endured multiple, PTSD-inducing combat tours in Iraq -- and the families of the 4,486 U.S. soldiers who returned home in coffins.

Don't cry for me, Venezuela

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, soldier and politician, born July 28, 1954; died March 5, 2013.

The Guardian's obituary perhaps summed it all up best: "Populist leader of Venezuela – a charismatic hero to the poor who denounced capitalism and persecuted his opponents." El Comandante was not exactly a dictator, but he was no Thomas Jefferson.

Some, like scholar Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, are quick to apply a "Che" Guevara-like hallow to Chávez: "The facts speak for themselves: the percentage of households in poverty fell from 55% in 1995 to 26.4% in 2009. When Chávez was sworn into office unemployment was 15%, in June 2009 it was 7.8%. Compare that to current unemployment figures in Europe."

True. But Guardiola-Rivera (and legions of blinkered leftists) never confronts the crucial question: At what cost?

That's left to Venezuelan writer Francisco Toro (and many others): "Today millions of Venezuelans will weep tears of genuine anguish at his passing. ... It's just that, over the past fourteen years, he exploited that vein ever more ruthlessly, strip-mining the people's affection for the gratification of a monstrously overgrown ego and dismantling the institutions of democratic life in the process." As Toro outlines, those facts speak for themselves, too -- in spades.

And then there's Oliver Stone, this time on a mission to revise history before it's written. "Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history." That, I doubt.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Leave the smarts, take the cannoli

Fredo Corleone [exasperated]: "I'm your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!" Michael [calmly]: "That's the way Pop wanted it." Fredo [angry, out of control]: "It ain't the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I'm smart! Not like everybody says ... I'm smart ... and I want respect!" With that classic Godfather scene in mind, Daniel Dewy, a specialist in machine superintelligence, asks: "How do we know the human brain doesn’t represent the upper limit of intelligence? Human brains are really good at the kinds of cognition you need to run around the savannah throwing spears. But we’re terrible at anything that involves probability." You know, stuff like representative democracy, macroeconomics, supreme court decisions, war, and battling climate change. Me [angry, out of control]: "But, Daniel, we're smart ... not like everybody says!" And then I remember that we're no longer on the savannah chucking spears. Right. Humanity may be in deeper trouble than we realize. I know it was you, Fredo ...

Removing a peculiar asterisk

IT'S JAW-DROPPING but official. Some 147 years after the Union ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, and (as SNL noted) 4 months after Lincoln opened in theaters, the Magnolia State has freed the slaves. According to ABC News, until February 7, 2013, the state Mississippi had never submitted the required documentation to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, meaning it never officially had abolished slavery. Talk about par for the course. William Faulkner famously said, "To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi." That, alas, means I'll never understand the world.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Jousting with Obama

I LOVE IT when White House reporters boldly attempt to go one-on-one with President Obama intellectually. They actually expect to win the tournament. And every time, they get slam-dunked or otherwise taken to school by the Professor in Chief. During press briefings, it's like a scene out of The Paper Chase where cocksure Harvard law students attempt to match wits with Professor Charles Kingsfield (played by John Houseman) -- and lose. Take yesterday's press conference on the sequester mess. AP's Julie Pace, a bright Northwestern University grad, tried to goad the president into admitting he's no Daniel Day Lewis, I mean, Lincoln. To wit:
Pace: "Mr. President, how much responsibility do you feel like you bear for these cuts taking effect?"
As usual, Obama responded thoughtfully and at length. But the Paper Chasing Ms. Pace wasn't satisfied, so she daringly went for the presidential jugular. Big mistake:
Pace: "It sounds like you're saying that this is a Republican problem and not one that you bear any responsibility for."
Obama flashed his trademark mega-smile, steadied his gaze, and fingered the trigger of his impending trap.
"Well, Julie, give me an example of what I might do?" Obama asked playfully.
"I'm just trying to clarify your statement," Pace responded, now squirming.
"Well, no, but I'm trying to clarify the question," Obama said, pulling the trigger.
Kersplat, goes the trap. Ms. Pace, you've just been served. Obama completes his shot:
"What I'm suggesting is, I've put forward a plan that calls for serious spending cuts, serious entitlement reforms, goes right at the problem that is at the heart of our long-term deficit problem. I've offered negotiations around that kind of balanced approach. And so far, we've gotten rebuffed because what Speaker Boehner and the Republicans have said is, we cannot do any revenue, we can't do a dime's worth of revenue. So what more do you think I should do? Okay, I just wanted to clarify. (Laughter.) Because if people have a suggestion, I'm happy to -- this is a room full of smart folks." (More laughter)
Heh. Next up, CNN's Jessica Yellin, a Harvard College grad, magna cum laude no less.
Yellin: "Mr. President, to your question, what could you do - first of all, couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal?" (Laughter.)
Obama -- Harvard grad, Law Review, and constitutional scholar -- again flashed that winsome smile, targeted his quarry and, well, you know what's coming.
Obama: "I mean, Jessica, I am not a dictator. I’m the President. So, ultimately, if Mitch McConnell or John Boehner say, we need to go to catch a plane, I can't have Secret Service block the doorway, right? So ..."
Yellin (again trying the mythical Lincoln gambit): "But isn’t that part of leadership? I’m sorry to interrupt, but isn’t –"
Obama (lowering the boom): "I understand. And I know that this has been some of the conventional wisdom that's been floating around Washington that somehow, even though most people agree that I’m being reasonable, that most people agree I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don't take it means that I should somehow do a 'Jedi mind-meld' with these folks and convince them to do what’s right. Well, they're elected. ... And this idea that somehow there’s a secret formula or secret sauce to get Speaker Boehner or Mitch McConnell to say, you know what, Mr. President, you’re right, we should close some tax loopholes for the well-off and well-connected in exchange for some serious entitlement reform and spending cuts of programs we don't need. I think if there was a secret way to do that, I would have tried it. I would have done it. ... What I can do is I can make the best possible argument. And I can offer concessions, and I can offer compromise. I can negotiate. I can make sure that my party is willing to compromise and is not being ideological or thinking about these just in terms of political terms. And I think I've done that and I will continue to do that. But what I can't do is force Congress to do the right thing."
Nor can he force White House correspondents to ask smarter questions. Obama 2, Reporters 0.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The unbearable lightness of being (flat wrong)

YOUR HONORS, may it please the Court:

Um, why are four conservative white men (Roberts, Scalia, Alito, Kennedy) -- plus Clarence Thomas -- on this Supreme Court in a rush to deep-six the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

Why the rush to judgment that racism, a tragic hallmark of America for centuries (recent progress notwithstanding), has suddenly evaporated -- now and for all time? Why the rush to embrace the fantasy that, “The radical treatment [i.e., the aforementioned Act] cured the disease,” as Alabama Shelby County lawyer Bert W. Rein has so passionately argued before Your Honors. Why the rush to cast aside the fact that Rein's beloved Shelby County -- the geographic center of Alabama (i.e., the "Heart of Dixie") where Republicans (all white) have held every elected office in the County since 2010, whose first County Courthouse was built by slaves in 1854, and whose current website (where not a single minority face appears) referred to its historic 1820 census as containing 2,044 whites and 448, um, "Negroes" -- has had 240 discriminatory voting measures recently blocked by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act? You know, the reason why Justice Sonia Sotomayor called Shelby County the “epitome” of the reason for keeping Section 5 firmly in place?

Why the bum rush by the Gang-of-Four-plus-Thomas to ignore the 98 to 0 Senate vote in 2006 to keep the Voting Rights Act in place? Why is Justice Antonin Scalia in such a hurry to declare that the will of Congress was proof not of the strength of the case for the law, but of what he called “the perpetuation of racial entitlement?” Say what?! Why, Your Honors, the blind resistance to walking a mile in the shoes of discrimination's victims -- and contemplating the backward pull of the South's blood-red clay -- before declaring with certitude that discrimination is dead? Why, oh why, are you white dudes (plus Thomas) so damn eager to spike the football in your imagined victory over prejudice? Your Honors, are you serious?

And yet chances are excellent that the storied Voting Rights Act -- a law that even Gang-of-Four-plus-Thomas member Samuel Alito said was "probably one of the most successful laws of the 20th century” -- will be struck down in defeat, 5 to 4. Humbly, I ask again, why?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Quote of the day

"Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time." -- E.B. White (1943)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Back to the Oscar prom

So what, among other (way more important) sequester-related things, was headlining the Washington Post front page this morning? "Michelle Obama's Oscar presentation raises questions about the role of a first lady." Um, really? Yeah, really. And it's the "most popular" story on the newspaper's website, too. Just when I thought the national press corps has graduated high school, I wake up at the back of the classroom and realize it didn't. Technically, this is known as a "temporal causality loop," a phenomenon whereby a specific moment in time repeats itself continually inside an independent fragment of time. Say what? Ok, Ok -- think of it as the Hotel California: You can check out anytime you wish, but you can never leave. Either way, Washington journos remain 20 credits shy of maturity. Please leave the First Lady (who did graduate) alone.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Emancipation of Barack Obama

HISTORY HAS NOT yet rendered its verdict on President Barack Obama. But we know now that he was no fluke of history. In 2008, Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, Obama was a talented rookie -- but arguably very, very lucky. By 2012, however, he "was the captain of the football team" with a formidable record. Coates thoughtfully  writes: "The second chapter of the Obama presidency begins exactly a century and a half after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect" and that "Lincoln’s [Emancipation Proclamation] order transformed a war for union into a war for abolition, and in so doing put the country on a road to broad citizenship ..." I would add that Obama's reelection put the country -- kicking and screaming (see the dying GOP of angry old white men), messily (see Congress) but irrevocably -- on the road toward the Framers' dream of "a more perfect union." It's rarely pretty, but that's how American history is made.

NASCAR, c'est la même chose ...

And you thought Coliseum-style death-sports died when Rome fell.

Kyle Larson’s car (32) goes airborne during a multi-car wreck on the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. -- sending car parts and other debris flying into the stands, injuring spectators. Geez. (Photo: David Graham / AP)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Analyzing Vader's generalship

IT SEEMS Wired is hosting a military strategy symposium that analyzes the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. You know, the movie. Spencer Ackerman (apparently straight-facedly) writes: "How did the Galactic Empire ever cement its hold on the Star Wars Universe? The war machine built by Emperor Palpatine and run by Darth Vader is a spectacularly bad fighting force, as evidenced by all of the pieces of Death Star littering space. But of all the Empire’s failures, none is a more spectacular military fiasco than the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. From a military perspective ..." Well, you get the picture. Granted, the symposium is utterly harmless (albeit preposterous). But hey, whatever flies your Rebel Alliance Starfighter (and may the Force be with you). But it's a classic example of what happens when us boys have way too much time on own hands.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Life is tough on the Vatican beat

I SIMPLY MARVEL at how the press loves to cover itself. From CNN, we get this fraught report from Italy: "Opaque, hierarchical and arcane, the Vatican is a tough beat even for seasoned reporters. It involves paying punctilious attention to papal routine -- never missing the often dreary papal audiences on a Wednesday and the uneventful address from the Vatican on Sunday." Surely you can feel their pain. The "Vaticanisti" (what the reporters call themselves) in Rome are forced to toil in the 11th-most-visited city in the world and the most popular tourist attraction in Italy. And, oh my god, they have to dine on real Italian food in all of its sumptuous magnificence -- you know, frequently. How on earth do these lowly scribes manage to survive at all on this beat? Having spent some time amid the beauty and glories of "Roma," all I can say is: Give me a break, CNN.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rubio's 'Watergate'

Never, ever, volunteer to give the Republican Response after the President's State of the Union Address -- especially if that president is named Obama. No good will come of it. Just ask Bobby Jindal. Marco Rubio -- the new GOP "Savior" according to Time magazine -- did it anyway. Well, it turns out that Marco Aurelius can't walk on water after all. Talk about not being ready for prime time. Enjoy:

Coup de grâce

Ted Nugent, 64, is an aging "rock star" from the now distant 70s. If you were a young person then, you probably rocked out to his "Cat Scratch Fever" occasionally. But Jim Morrison (of "The Doors") he wasn't. His other "hits" appealed mostly to his dedicated fans/groupies. Musically, he went the way of the dinosaurs. Then, he returned from the dead - sort of. Today, Nugent is "famous" for being a crazy-white-guy-conservative who desperately craves the limelight and won't shut up about his politics. Somehow, he has become an uber Republican and a Tea Party poster boy. Wrapping himself in the American flag, Nugent claims to speak for the average Joe, the cop, and especially our troops. Never mind that he dodged the draft to avoid going to Vietnam. Anyway, Nugent was at the SOTU last night as a guest of a publicity-seeking congressman. Apparently, he behaved himself. Afterward, he mingled with the press, according to Slate. “If you walk the halls with me,” he told a National Review writer, “every military guy, every cop, has an Uncle Ted story. See the smile on my face? These are my buddies here. I’m surrounded by working hard, playing hard Americans.” Right. Slate then reported this sequence of events: Nugent was shepherded over to a standing MSNBC camera. Two police officers looked on, confused by the mobile media herd. “Who’s that?” asked one cop. “It’s Ted Nugent,” said the other cop. “He’s a rock star, he talks about guns.” “Really? Never heard of him.” Priceless.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

'Fair and balanced' and untrusted

Poor Fox News. It seems, as Falstaff told his mistress in Henry IV, there's no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune. According to Public Policy Polling's latest annual survey on TV news: "There's only one source more Americans trust than distrust: PBS. 52% of voters say they trust PBS to only 29% who don't trust it. The other seven outlets we polled on are all distrusted by a plurality of voters. Just like its actual ratings, Fox News has hit a record low in the four years that we've been doing this poll. 41% of voters trust it to 46% who do not." Andrew Sullivan, of course, couldn't resist: PBS, "That alleged bastion of liberal bias – which Mitt Romney wanted to defund – is now trusted more than any other media source. Congrats, Roger Ailes. You’re doing for the liberal media what Karl Rove did for the Democratic party."

What would Jesus pack?

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition? Yes, pious folks in Arkansas may soon be able to pack heat in church. According to a CNN report, the Arkansas state legislature passed a measure that would allow concealed guns to be carried in houses of worship. It passed overwhelmingly. And the governor, a Democrat, apparently plans to sign the bill. Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri weighs in with this perspective: "Is this really the world we want to live in, where we are not just fearing the worst but expecting it, all the time? To me, at least, that misses the point." Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Go ahead, make my day

POTUS shoots clay targets on the range at Camp David on Aug. 4, 2012.

The hype is the point

Finally, a clear-eyed writer speaks truth to the Super Bowl. The Atlantic's Hampton Stevens observes that the "spectacle has eclipsed the game." So why fight it? He rightly concludes that the "Super Bowl is our National Day of Capitalism—a feast and party that's mercifully without the least bit of spiritual underpinning. It's a celebration of commercialism and consumerism, and consumption for consumptions' sake. ... If you are a serious, hardcore NFL fan—the sort who is deep into fantasy draft prep by June—try not to get too upset about all the silliness today." Good advice. For sanity's sake, this is one of those times when it really is better to simply bow to the absurd and pass the popcorn.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Another inconvenient truth

WEIGHING IN on the gun control debate, writer Sam Harris goes to the heart of the matter and asks: "How is it that we live in a society in which one of the most compelling interests is gun ownership? Where is the science lobby? The safe food lobby? Where is the get-the-Chinese-lead-paint-out-of-our-kids’-toys lobby? When viewed from any other civilized society on earth, the primacy of guns in American life seems to be a symptom of collective psychosis."

OMG: God is a NFL fan?

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, a quarter of Americans say God influences sporting events. Political comedian Dean Obeidallah helpfully notes: "That means about 80 million Americans believe that God will help one of the teams in this Sunday's Super Bowl." Oh my god. I better call my bookie. Per CNN, when asked if they believe God plays a role in who wins, 27% of Americans said yes. Poll results varied among regions and religions: 36% said yes in the South, 28% in the Midwest, 20% in the Northeast and 15% in the West. Do I have a problem with this? Not at all. I'm a committed whatever-floats-your-boat kind of guy as long as your boat doesn't unduly rock mine. Still, the very idea that God might give the Baltimore Ravens a divine assist is difficult to fathom. I mean, how could He not be a 49ers fan in the first place? After all, they are 4-point favorites. This, of course, is the sort of twaddle we get into when ye of too much faith (the pious 27%) try to bring the Lord down to our level. There's a reason we were made in God's image, not the other way around.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Counterfactually speaking

Salon political reporter Alex Seitz-Wald: "If more guns were the answer [to gun violence], then the U.S., with its 300 million guns, should be safest country on the planet."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Hillary Clinton is stepping down as secretary of state on Friday. Today, she told questioners (for the upteenth time) that she’s “not inclined” to run for president in 2016. I'm inclined to believe her. But her statement is hardly Shermanesque ("I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected"). So the door is still open a smidgen. Now at age 65, I seriously doubt Hillary wants to run the gauntlet of another presidential campaign (and, if she wins, do it again in 2020 at age 73). But the gathering winds of politics and history may compel her into the race nevertheless. That said, I'm sure Hillary was sincere when she quipped: “I am looking forward to finishing up my tenure as secretary of state and then catching up on about 20 years of sleep deprivation.” She'll probably need it.