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?