Sunday, August 28, 2005

Why I hate George

I've never understood the ferocity with which some conservatives despise Bill Clinton. It's natural for certain Republicans to dislike certain Democrats, and vice versa, but the hatred that many in the conservative cartel feel towards Clinton is personal. Their venom goes beyond politics; it is visceral.

Some, such as noted curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens, explain this hatred as a reaction to Clinton's lying ways. Yeah, Clinton can talk his way out of any situation, is every bit as deceptive as his detractors describe, and is an ardent practitioner of situational ethics (and policies and beliefs -- whatever it takes for him to be liked), but so is virtually every other politician who makes it to the national level. Besides, when it comes to lying, Clinton is a piker compared to our current propagandist-in-chief.

Others propose that this seething hatred for Clinton is really all about the 1960s. To some arch conservatives, Clinton represents everything that was wrong about that tumultuous decade -- he is anti-war, pro-feminist, all long hair and rock and roll and the very antithesis of the conservative ethos that all but evaporated during the Vietnam War era. There's probably something to this analysis; fighting Clinton during his presidency let the conservatives refight the 1960s' cultural wars all over again. (And if this analysis is sound, then it's quite ironic that the conservatives' current standard bearer has essentially recreated the Vietnam War cultural conflict via his so-similar-it's-eerie invasion of Iraq.)

It's more apparent why many liberals today feel a similar visceral hatred of George W. Bush. I won't speak for anyone else, but my dislike for Bush predates his post-9/11 empire building and Orwellian takeover of the public debate. No, I hate Bush more for what he is than for what he's done -- although what he's done is deplorable enough.

In my mind, George Jr. is the perfect poster child for everything I hate about class and privilege. Throughout his life Bush has felt entitled to success and approval. He comes from a rich and powerful family, so he's never known what it's like to achieve anything on his own merits. It's not that he's dumb (and he's not as dumb as he seems), and it's not even that he appears to be intellectually incurious. It's that he's lazy, and he still expects good things to come to him.

In Bush's world, someone is always there to bail him out. If he gets arrested for drunk driving, one of daddy's lawyers is there to take care of things. If he thinks he might get drafted, one of daddy's friends is there to make sure he gets a cushy position in the National Guard. If his business is on the verge of going under, another one of daddy's friends is there to buy it off him for significantly more than it's worth. And on and on and on.

You can see this sense of entitlement in the way Bush runs his administration. Opposing views aren't allowed to be heard in this White House; problems aren't even acknowledged, let alone dealt with. All is as the emperor says it is.

And the emperor, privileged as he is, doesn't have to work hard for his success. Unlike past presidents who routinely put in 12-14 hour days, Bush takes a long lunch, sets aside a few hours in the afternoon for a bike ride and a nap, and then retires early. Like others in his privileged class, he spends more time on vacations and long weekends in a year than the typical American worker gets in a decade. The privileged class doesn't have to work; they're entitled to success without effort.

This is why I hate George W. Bush. He's a wealthy, protected fratboy who's never worked a hard day in his life. Everything comes easy to him because of his family and class. He is not a typical working-class American; he is everything that working-class Americans despise. He is the kind of person the masses will put up against the wall, should the revolution ever come.

And yet Bush projects an aura of everyday American. His public persona is that of the guy next door, an average guy with average tastes (and average intellect). Bush's handlers are masters of perception to pull this deception over on the press and the public. George W. Bush is no more an average American than Marie Antoinette was an average Frenchwoman. He is not us, no matter what he pretends.

While I'm comfortable in my disdain for Bush and all that he represents, there's one thing that bothers me. I recently read a scholarly analysis of Ross Macdonald's novels, The Novels of Ross Macdonald, by Michael Kreyling. (I'm a huge Macdonald fan; he was the first -- if not the only -- author to merge genre fiction with the literary novel.) In the book, Kreyling reveals an episode during the 2000 presidential campaign where a reporter was comparing summer reads with then-candidate Bush. The reporter recommended Michael Connelly's The Concrete Blonde; Bush came back with Macdonald's The Zebra-Striped Hearse.

Hence a conflict. How can someone I hate so much for who he is and what he thinks also be a fan of such a great and thoughtful novelist such as Ross Macdonald? In other words, can I continue to hate someone who likes the same books I do? (Forget, for the moment, the additional surprise that Bush even reads -- let alone what he reads.)

I think this is where I have to reluctantly pull out a Hitler analogy. As evil as Hitler was (and I'm not comparing Bush to him in that manner), Hitler liked dogs. Can a man be pure evil if he likes dogs? Can Bush be all bad if he likes Ross Macdonald? I don't know. All I know is that someone of Bush's nature doesn't deserve to be leader of our country, and shouldn't be held as an example of all things American. Despite his reading habits, George W. Bush is everything that America is not. And that's why I hate him.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

No problem

In spite of my general churlishness and almost-total disdain for the human race, I try to be polite. It's a generational thing, I think; I was raised to say "please" and "thank you" and to hold doors open for other people, so that's what I do -- even if the dimbulb counterhelp is too busy chatting with their cohorts to turn around and take my money in a prompt fashion.

So here's the deal. When you're a worker in the retail service industry, you're supposed to say "thank you" to your customers. You make a sale, you take an order, you take their money, you say "thank you." Except that today's service help seem not to know this. More often than not, when a counterperson takes my money and gives me change he or she doesn't say anything. If any words dribble from their mouths, it's the phrase "here you go." Sorry, folks, "here you go" is not the same as "thank you." Not that I view myself as all that special, but all retail help should treat their customers as if they were. Hence the "thank you," now missing from our collective retail vocabulary.

So what do I do when a mentally suspect counterperson attempts to take my order, or when a perpetually disinterested cashier hands me my change, or when a distracted waitperson slides my plate down the table? Why, I say "thank you." Forget that that's what the retail help should be saying. I'm polite. When someone hands me something, I say "thank you."

And what does that retail worker say in response to my "thank you"? They say "no problem." Not "you're welcome," which should be the proper response. No, they say "no problem." As if they wanted to reassure me that I wasn't really bothering them by giving them my order or my money. "Hey, man, it's no problem, I didn't have anything better to do than to wait on you." No problem, my ass.

Here's the problem. American society in the 21st century has lost all civility. When a retail worker responds "no problem" to what should be a privilege to serve the public, all perspective has fled. I don't know whether it's a sign of poor breeding, poor schooling, or the heathen influence of MTV, but it's not right and I don't have to like it. We need a return to common etiquette, and a dismissal of this casual indifference. And people wonder why I've become so curmudgeonly...

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree, no problem.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

9/11, Iraq, and the war on terrorism: Stop the lying

On Saturday, President Bush once again pulled out the old chestnut about how the Iraq war is linked to the so-called war on terrorism. It's about time, however, that the old chestnut be revealed for what it is. It's not justification, it's not spin, it's not even a shading of the truth. It's bullshit, pure and simple. Once again, Bush is lying to us -- and we shouldn't put up with it any longer.

Let's look at what Bush said in his radio address. First, he made this statement:

"Our troops know that they're fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to protect their fellow Americans from a savage enemy."

There is no reason to accept this statement at face value. I would wager that the typical new recruit knows nothing at all about who or what he'll be fighting, beyond what the recruiter told him. (And, if recent reports are to believed, the average recruiter is lying out of his ass in a futile attempt to meet his unachievable recruitment numbers.) Even if our soldiers think they're fighting for some higher cause when they first enroll, they're disabused of that notion once they get on the ground in Iraq and find themselves knee-deep in a messy civil war where the only factor unifying the different factions is their hatred for their American occupiers. The "savage enemy" that Bush talks about isn't some terrorist group, it's a variety of "freedom fighters" battling guerilla-style to take back their homeland. To them, we're the savage enemy.

Next, Bush had the gall to say this:

"[Our troops] know that if we do not fight these evil men abroad, we will have to face them one day in our own cities and streets, and they know that the safety and security of every American is at stake in this war, and they know we will prevail."

Lies, nothing but lies. But let's take them one at a time.

The statement starts with the well-practiced line that we're fighting the terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to fight them here in America. This implies, at the very least, that Iraq is full of terrorists who are just itchin' to travel across the Atlantic to do damage here in the U.S. Nothing could be further from the truth. The so-called terrorists in Iraq are a rag-tag bunch of stone throwers and car bombers, nothing much organized about them at all. They certainly don't have the financial wherewithal to purchase a plane ticket to New York and fund a terrorist campaign here in the States. We have to fight them there because they couldn't get to the U.S. if they wanted to. These militants are not, nor have they ever been, a threat to the American homeland.

Bush then goes on to claim that "the safety and security of every American is at stake in this war." Now, this is just total bullshit. If we lose in Iraq, which we probably will, no American (save for our troops in Iraq, of course) will be put at risk. The rag-tag Iraqis will not follow our retreating troops across the Atlantic to attack our major cities. No American will be less safe when we abandon the fight. It's not a war that endangers Americans -- again, save for those poor souls we're sending there to do our fighting for us. The notion of this being the kind of war that that is necessary for our national safety, or that even requires national sacrifice, is laughable.

Bush ends that little statement with the phrase, "and they know we will prevail." If they (our troops) know this, they know more than I do, and more than our military leaders, as well. Iraq is a quagmire, an unwinnable situation similar to what we faced in Vietnam. It's not a matter of if we're going to pull out, it's a matter of when and how. And, yes, we'll leave that country in worse shape than it was before we got involved; a bloody civil war is most definitely in the cards, and there's not much we can do about it. (Though it does make one marvel at the effectiveness of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in keeping warring factions at bay; dictatorships aren't always all bad.)

Bush wasn't done talking, however. Our so-called elected leader had the audacity to draw a direct relationship between 9/11 and the Iraqi conflict:

"In a few weeks, our country will mark the four-year anniversary of the attacks of September the 11th, 2001. On that day, we learned that vast oceans and friendly neighbors no longer protect us from those who wish to harm our people. And since that day, we have taken the fight to the enemy."

In other words, we're in Iraq because of 9/11.

Once and for all, let's put an end to this lie. There is no -- absolutely zero -- connection between Sadaam Hussein, Iraq, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 9/11 attackers had no ties to Iraq. Hussein had no connection to Al Queda. Hussein was not involved in the planning or the funding of the 9/11 attacks. There is no there there. Iraq was no more involved in 9/11 than Canada or Switzerland were.

Bush didn't attack Iraq because of 9/11, or because of terrorism in any way, shape, or form. Maybe he attacked it for the oil, maybe he did it in the name of some neo-con plan for world domination, maybe it had something to do with his daddy. I don't know. The only thing I do know is that saying the war in Iraq is somehow justified as revenge for 9/11, or to prevent some vague future terrorist attack, is pure bullshit. Let's call it that and treat it as such.

But there's more. The President had one last statement to make:

"We're fighting the terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world, striking them in foreign lands before they can attack us here at home."

What a whopper. Again, there weren't any terrorists in Iraq, so there goes the initial justification. Of course, there are terrorists in Iraq now -- but only because our troops are there provoking things. In other words, we have made Iraq a haven for terrorists. Thanks, George.

Then there's the notion that if we fight them there, they won't attack us here. The recent bombings in London put lie to that theory. Fighting Islamic terrorism isn't like fighting a country, with physical boundaries and organized troops. Terrorists are everywhere and nowhere. Attacking them in one country with conventional armies doesn't affect their ability to strike at will anyplace else in the world. We're not tying them down; we're only pissing them off.

If we truly want to minimize the danger from Islamic terrorism, we'd call off the troops and sic the CIA on them. Terrorist groups are small and shadowy, best fought with subterfuge and counterintelligence. That's what's worked in the past (against all manner of Middle Eastern terrorist groups from the 1970s and on), and the only thing that will work in the future. Fighting a virtual enemy with hundreds of thousands of physical troops in a single location is pure folly.

It's also pure folly to imagine that we're really in Iraq to fight a terrorist threat. That's not why we invaded, and it's not why we're still fighting today. It may be what Bush and his cohorts would like us to believe, because "fighting terrorism" plays well in the polls. But it's a sham justification, a lie so enormous and so criminal as to warrant prosecution in international courts. Why anyone ever believed this -- and why anyone might still believe it -- is testament to the power of propaganda.

Here is my request of our so-called leader: Mr. President, quit lying to us -- and bring our boys home now.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, August 19, 2005

The song vs. the performance

Back in the 1960s, one sure way to spark a heated discussion was to ask your friends who they liked best – the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Everyone fell into one or the other camp. You may have listened to both groups, but you always identified yourself with just one.

For some folks, the Beatles vs. Stones debate was a cultural one. The Beatles presented a safe, almost cuddly image; the Stones, in contrast, were wild and dangerous. You might be okay with your sister or daughter dating John or Paul, but God forbid they hung out with Mick or Keith. (Although, to be fair, Charlie Watts was probably as safe as Ringo; it’s a drummer thing.)

To me, however, the difference between the Beatles and the Stones was more about the music. There’s no denying that the Beatles’ music was more melodic, more sophisticated, more arranged and produced; the Stones’ music was more rhythmic, more raw, more unpredictable. To identify yourself as a Beatles person was to declare your love for sophisticated musicality; to identify as a Stones person said something about your love of the rock ‘n’ roll performance.

And thus is the essential and time-honored division between all music fans. You’re either a fan of the musical creation itself – the song, the arrangement, the production – or you’re a fan of the performance. There doesn’t appear to be much middle ground.

This is certainly the case in popular music. Song lovers appreciate artists who create sophisticated, melodic works. It’s the composition itself that’s important, which is why music lovers are often disappointed to hear their favorite groups perform live. ("It doesn’t sound like the record," they whine.) Song lovers appreciate the creators of the music – the composers and arrangers and producers who make the music they love. We’re talking classic composers like the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson, and modern artists such as Coldplay, Fountains of Wayne, and A Girl Called Eddy.

Lovers of the performance appreciate bands who put on great live performances. They love the interaction of musicians onstage; there’s nothing better than a great groove or a hot jam. The song the group is playing is less important than the playing itself. Performance lovers appreciate great players, guys like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck; they love bands that cook, whether that’s the Rolling Stones, Widespread Panic, or the White Stripes.

The same holds true in the world of classical music. Some classical music lovers are attracted to the great works by the great composers – they go to a concert because the symphony is playing Bach or Beethoven or Stravinsky. Other classical lovers are attracted to the great symphonies and performers – they go to a concert because Yo-Yo Ma is the guest soloist, or because Lorin Maazel is conducting. The former group appreciates the players, but loves the compositions; the latter group appreciates the compositions, but cares more about the performers and how they interpret the music.

Then there’s jazz. Due to its improvisatory nature, it’s fair to view most jazz fans as performance lovers. While there’s some composition and arranging involved – especially in the big band genre – most jazz is less about the tune and more about the performance. In this way, jazz lovers have a lot in common with jam band fans. It’s all about the playing.

Myself, I’m a lover of the music who also likes to perform. My personal tastes run to the great composers of popular music: Burt Bacharach, Lennon/McCartney, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and so on. While I certainly recognize and appreciate great performances, my record collection is more about the musical creations than about the playing. On the other hand, I used to be a performing musician, and when I’m playing I could care less about the composition; there’s nothing better than a group of musicians clicking together onstage. But while I do listen to my share of live jazz, in the privacy of my own home I gravitate to the music composition side of things. Go figure.

Now, I may be mistaken (I often am), but it seems to me that popular music today is veering more towards the performance than it is the composition. I’m not sure why that is; I think it has something to do with the general decline of musical skills (especially compositional skills), the cult of the celebrity (let’s face it: performers are more interesting celebrities than composers are), and our national inability to perform two-step thinking. You see, it’s easy to be a fan of the performer – that’s who you see when you watch them onstage or in a video. To be a fan of the composer, you first have to separate the composition from the performance – not always an easy thing to do for the musically unsophisticated – and then realize that someone actually wrote that song. That’s two- or maybe even three-step thinking, which is too much work for the average dullard. (Not that performance fans are necessarily dullards, mind you – although some are.) It’s a lot easier to see someone singing a song and say, "I like that person’s song." What they mean is that they like the way that performer is singing the song, whoever composed it, but try explaining that to the average music fan. Such unsophisticated beasts.

Anyway, I’m sophisticated enough to recognize and to appreciate the creators of the music I listen to. I also appreciate the performers, but realize that even the best performer can’t make a bad song worth listening to. A good song, on the other hand, will still hold up under even the worst performance. I realized this at an early age, when I heard Tony Randall singing "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" on some salute-to-the-Beatles TV special; it was a god-awful performance, but it was still surprisingly listenable, thanks to the intrinsic strength of the song itself. If it still sounds good when Tony Randall sings it, it must be a good song!

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Unintelligent design

It’s hard to believe, but here we are in the 21st century and there are still those among us who question the teaching of evolution in our schools. Oh, they’ve actually moved beyond trying to ban evolution from the curriculum – we’ve progressed that far from the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Now they’re trying to return the teaching of creationism to our schools, under its modern guise of "intelligent design." There’s nothing intelligent about intelligent design, and they’re not fooling anyone by trying to position it as a rival scientific theory. Intelligent design is creationism, pure and simple – a new way to preach fundamentalist Christian religious beliefs in our public schools.

The intelligent design battle is raging in dozens of states and hundreds of school boards across the U.S. It’s just now reared its ugly head in my home state of Indiana, where a group is threatening to sue the Hamilton Southeastern School district unless they provide a "balanced and nonpartisan" view of the origins of life. Which means, of course, teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in science classes.

I’ve written before about the problems with "balanced and nonpartisan" coverage of issues that are essentially fact-based. The facts are the facts. There’s no opposing viewpoint; facts are not partisan. If you try to "balance" the facts you end up legitimizing non-facts, which really isn’t the smart thing to do. So back off on the "balanced and nonpartisan" argument; it’s a non-starter.

What the creationists want to do is present intelligent design as a scientific theory, just like evolution. In other words, they're hiding their religious arguments behind a facade of pseudo-science. As Alex P. Oren, the Hoosier advocate says, "This is not science versus religion. This is science versus science."

The problem is that intelligent design isn’t science. Science involves facts and logic. It involves provability and predictability. It doesn’t depend on faith. Scientific facts exist whether you believe them or not. They’re not debatable.

Not that people don’t want to have the debate. One ID-friendly parent at Hamilton Southeastern High School made this statement: "You have to know both sides. It is better to know, and then the kids will have to decide which they think is the right one."

But when you’re dealing with facts, there is no debate. There aren’t two sides to a factual story. Something either is true or it isn’t; the other side of a truth isn’t an alternative truth, it’s a falsehood. Since evolution is the fact, debating “both sides” in this case would involve arguing a truth versus a non-truth. Letting our kids decide which is "the right one" would allow them to make up their mind in regards to pre-existing facts – and there’s no mind-making to be done. Just because little Suzy Sophomore decides for herself that evolution is false doesn’t make it any less true; the facts are the facts, no matter what anyone thinks.

Would we spend time debating other known truths, just to present a "balanced and nonpartisan" argument? Should we waste taxpayer dollars debating whether 2+2=4 or whether it equals 5? And what if Suzy Sophomore decides that she thinks 2+2=5 is true? Allowing for individual beliefs is one thing, but allowing individuals to believe things that provably aren’t true is quite another. If we let kids make up their own minds in opposition to known truths, we’ll end up teaching nothing – and our already undereducated youth will become even more ignorant than they already are. Nope, we should be teaching facts and logic in our schools, not unproven theories and speculation. And evolution, despite what the creationists might like to think, is a proven scientific fact. It exists, it’s true, and we should teach it.

Intelligent design, on the other hand, fails the science test on all fronts. First, there are no facts backing it up. None. If there is in fact an intelligent creator behind the creation of life, true science requires some form of scientific proof. But there isn’t any. There are no ancient blueprints, no stamp in our DNA that says "Copyright God." Unlike evolution, which has proof coming out its ass, intelligent design is proofless.

This leaves the logic argument, which also doesn’t exist – although the IDers would like you to think otherwise. Their logic goes something like this. Because the likelihood of things evolving exactly so as to create complex organisms is so low, miniscule really, then there has to be a guiding hand behind the evolution. In other words, a low probability dictates an intelligent guide.

But this is faulty logic. If this logic were sound, then any event that is highly improbable is proof that God exists. The odds of winning the Powerball lottery are several million to one, yet someone just won the lottery last week; since the likelihood of that exact person winning the lottery was so small, then God must have made it happen.

You see the fault with this logic. You could take any improbable event as proof that God exists. I reached into my sock drawer this morning, with my eyes closed, and somehow pulled out a matching pair of socks. Does this mean that God exists? Last night I was out walking and saw three frogs lined up in a row under a streetlight, small to medium to large. Did God make them line up like that?

Of course not. Just because something unlikely happens doesn’t mean that some higher power made it happen. Sometimes unlikely things happen. Sometimes highly improbable things happen. Sometimes coincidences occur. That’s just the way things work. God isn’t required to allow the possibility of me picking out a matching pair of socks, or seeing an ascending frog lineup, or winning the lottery. Nor is God required for this event to lead to that event to lead to the creation of complex organisms. The existence of complex organisms is not proof that God exists. It can just happen, simply following the laws that dictate evolutionary change.

Creationists will then respond that evolution isn’t a fact, it’s a theory. Why, that’s what the scientists call it – the theory of evolution. So if you’re going to teach that theory in the schools, you should teach alternative theories, as well. The problem here, of course, is that the scientific use of the word "theory" differs from the common usage that the creationists are relying on. Hey, Einstein’s theory of relativity may be called a theory, but E pretty much equals mc squared. Nothing theoretical about it.

The same thing with the so-called theory of evolution. We know that evolution exists. We’ve seen the evidence, we understand the logic, it makes sense. There may be more details to be discovered, but science is all about discovery, and as we learn more we refine the "theories" that we use to describe the world around us. We don’t have to invent some supernatural being to explain things we don’t understand. Science does a fairly good job of explaining things, all by itself.

Just why supposedly intelligent people in this day and age actually believe in creationism escapes me. Or, more precisely, why these people refuse to believe scientific facts. It’s not that they believe in a higher power that is disturbing; the bigger issue is that they choose to ignore facts and logic. It’s just like those folks who refuse to admit that global warming exists – how can anyone with half a brain in their head ignore the facts? Believing in a God and accepting the science of evolution don’t have to be mutually exclusive, unless you’re an extreme literalist who believes that the world was created just 12,000 years ago, fossil evidence to the contrary be damned. How blind do you have to be to refuse to acknowledge scientific fact? You can wish things were otherwise, but calling the sky pink doesn’t make it any less blue.

So the creationists need to pack up and go home. It’s okay to believe in a creator or intelligent designer or grand poobah or whatever you want to believe in the sanctity of your own home or church, but you can’t preach that kind of nonsense as a scientific fact in our public schools – not unless you can prove it, that is. Schools are home to facts and knowledge (and a few basic skills, such as the "three Rs"). There is no place in our schools’ science curriculum for speculation. Save the speculation and debate for philosophy and religious studies courses; science courses are reserved for the teaching of proven scientific facts.

And here’s my advice to any creationists reading this column. Get your head out of the pew and go read a good science book. (I can particularly recommend Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.) There’s a whole wonderful world out there, all quite scientifically sound and all very well documented, just waiting for you to discover it.

But that’s just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, August 12, 2005

More on Mr. Roberts

No, I'm not talking about the Henry Fonda play and/or movie. I'm talking, of course, about Supreme Court nominee John Roberts -- or, as he's now referred to, John G. Roberts Jr. (Wow, that makes him sound more impressive and authoritative!)

Many feared that George W. Bush (see, it's the middle initial that makes him sound more grown-up) would nominate a right-wing extremist hack for the post. Well, it appears that Roberts is not that. What he is, it is becoming apparent, is a corporate hack. You know, the kind of lawyer that can argue any position for a buck, but has particular fondness for high-paying business clients. That's right, our future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court is nothing more than a high-priced ambulance chaser.

And here we see W's true allegiance. It's not to the social conservatives, despite how loudly they scream. It's not even to the neo-cons, despite how frequently they bomb. Nope, it's to good ol' American business -- of the corporate variety, of course. If there's a buck to be made by big business, whether it's through lucrative pork barrel contracts or tricky tax loopholes, Georgie is there to lend a hand. Let's face it, the Prez never met a slimy businessman he didn't like. Nominating Mr. Roberts to the court is just his latest gift to his high-powered corporate pals.

It's really interesting how Bush will take flack from both the left and the right when it comes to helping the CEO class. Extreme lefties, of course, dislike Roberts simply because Bush nominated him. (To be fair, they also find fault with some of Roberts' past cases in regards to privacy rights.) What's fun is that the extreme righties also take issue with Roberts in regard to some work he did in favor of gay rights. You gotta admire a guy who pisses off both the left and the right -- he's got to be doing something right. Or, in Roberts' case, he's just doing whatever his corporate clients pay him to do. Following the buck really isn't a valid judicial philosophy, except in the corporatacracy that America is in the process of becoming.

So the lefties probably don't have to worry about Roberts overturning Roe vs. Wade, or even messing much with privacy rights. And the righties probably don't have to worry about him pushing a pro-gay agenda. What we all have to worry about, however, is Roberts toeing the corporate line and removing government constraints on what our corporate citizens can and cannot do in the name of turning a profit. I suppose it could be worse -- Roberts could be both a corporate hack and a social extremist. Instead, he's just another pretty face in the service of the almighty dollar. All praise the corporate overlords!

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The newsman is bigger than the news

Peter Jennings died this week. The world mourns his passing; he seemed like the real deal, slightly more intelligent than his peers, definitely more debonair, and also more interested in and cognizant of affairs outside the United States. He was, of course, Canadian, which could explain all these things.

I am writing this not to mourn nor to praise Mr. Jennings, but rather to exhibit my amazement and disgust of how the news networks covered his passing -- in particular, the amount of coverage it gathered. Okay, I know Jennings was one of the big three "voice of God" newsreaders, but come on. Did the death of Peter Jennings really warrant top-of-the-broadcast placement on all three major networks? Did it warrant 5-10 minutes of coverage on the competing CBS and NBC nightly newscasts? Did it warrant a full 20 minutes of coverage (out of 30 total) on ABC? I think not.

There is no way that Jennings' death was more important than the day's typically horrifying news out of Iraq. There is no way that Jennings' death was more important than the ongoing scandals within the Bush administration. There is no way that Jennings' death was more important than the pork-filled highway bill being passed. There is absolutely, positively no fucking way that Jennings' death was more important than the tens of thousands of deaths resulting from the genocide in Darfur. Yeah, Jennings was a very important person, but the world goes on.

So what inspired the orgy of Jennings coverage from the major news organizations? Was it really all about respecting the passing of a valued colleague, or was it simply insider navel gazing? Does the general public care that much about Jennings or is it the networks themselves that have all the interest?

I hope it's the latter, although I don't have to like it. The news networks covering the news networks as news isn't new, but rather a further sign of the deterioration of real journalism in our broadcast media. When the newsmakers become the news, our priorities are seriously warped.

It would be worse if the public actually viewed Jennings' death as a significant news event -- although that wouldn't be surprising, either. It's the cult of celebrity, where Jen and Brad and Angelina are more newsworthy than government corruption, dubious international incursions, and large-scale slaughter. As a public we should be interested in those major events that are truly shaping our world; instead, we just want to hear about what the pretty people are doing. Sad, really.

Peter Jennings' death is important, though, in the way it either signals or reflects an ongoing change in our broadcast media. In the past six months we've seen all three voice-of-God newsreaders either retire or pass away, which causes many pundits to assume that the death of traditional media is close at hand. In reality, the major broadcast networks have been sliding for almost 25 years now; the passing of Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather just draws attention to the trend. And it's not that the network news organizations are dying, it's that they're becoming both less effective and less relevant -- the second one being directly related to the first, of course.

Most people today either don't remember or don't realize that the modern age of responsible, socially conscious journalism didn't start until the 1940s. Before then, yellow journalism and advocacy journalism were the rule; there may have been three newspapers in every city, but each was biased in its own way. World War II was the event that helped to create a less-biased, more objective brand of journalism, as practiced by Edward R. Murrow and other reporters of that generation.

Of course, the Murrow generation couldn't live forever, and the ending of that era coincided with the decline in modern journalism. It all started in the early 1980s, when Walter Cronkite retired. Uncle Walter was the true voice of God, the most respected man in America, and Dan Rather was a pale shadow of -- and a poor replacement for -- the main man. Cronkite's secret was that all he did was report the news; in contrast, Rather and his ilk injected themselves into the story. (In a way Geraldo Rivera is the evil spawn of Dan Rather; can you see the similarities?) When the newsman becomes part of the news, objectivity becomes suspect.

Around the same time, we saw the true journalistic consequence of the Watergate scandal. Instead of inspiring more aggressive investigatory journalism, the Watergate affair actually led to more inexperienced reporters striving for star status. Every young buck out of J-school wanted to be the next Woodward or Bernstein -- not in terms of reporting, but rather in terms of fame. Blame it all on Bob and Carl, or more accurately, on Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Everyone wanted to be a star.

But perhaps the most important factor in the decline of modern journalism was the birth of the 24-hour news channel, in the form of Cable Network News. It was twenty-five years ago that CNN hit viewers' screens, and the need to fill all that time with something led to much of the time being filled with total dreck -- often the same dreck, repeated over and over and over again. (Runaway bride, anyone?) CNN also was in it for the money, where the traditional network news organizations weren't; broadcast journalism used to be about prestige, not about bucks. But twenty-five years later it's all about the bottom line, and how to fill 24 hours a day cheaply and in a way that draws the most viewers for the advertisers. That means lots of celebrity news, the return of yellow/tabloid journalism, and as much inflaming of passions as is necessary to keep the ratings high.

The result of all these changes is more news than we've ever had before, with less coverage of important events. It's both symptomatic of and a contributing factor to the dumbing down of America. We should be ashamed.

So we mourn the passing of Peter Jennings and the big three voice-of-God newscasts, perhaps a little more than we should. If Thomas Jefferson was right that a successful democracy requires an informed populace, then the union is in danger.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Monday, August 08, 2005

More power to Starbucks

No, it's not that I think Starbucks is all that great. In fact, I prefer taking my business to local coffeehouses. But, because my favorite local coffeehouse is run by a pair of Luddites who refuse to put in wireless service, when I need to access the Internet I go to Starbucks. And Starbucks needs more power -- power outlets, that is.

A few years ago, I was the only guy sitting in Starbucks tapping on a laptop PC. Apparently, I am a harbinger of major trends. Today, at any given time of day, you'll find three or four or more folks in the nearest Starbucks doing the tapping and squinting thing, all of them paying their monthly fees to T-Mobile for use of their WiFi hotspot service.

The problem with all these interlopers is that the average Starbucks store doesn't have that many power outlets. All those laptops have to be powered, and laptop batteries only last so long, so everyone has to jockey for primo table position near a free outlet. Now, I'm relatively lucky; some older and smaller Starbucks don't have much table space or outlet availability at all. My preferred Starbucks (there are six within a ten-minute drive) is a newer, larger store, so finding a table generally isn't a problem. Finding a power outlet is, however. This particular Starbucks only has three power outlets in the entire store. That's not enough.

It pisses me off to no end to trundle into the store at my regular time and find some yahoo sitting at my powered tabled of choice. It's even worse when the yahoo isn't using the power -- when, like today, it's some old fart sitting and reading the newspaper. He can read that damned newspaper anywhere in the store, why does he have to read it at my regular table, next to the coveted power outlet? Doesn't he know that's my table? Doesn't he know that some of us actually need to use that power outlet? Who let him into the store in the first place? The staff should know better than to serve crusty old time-wasters like him. Kick him out, is what I say.

Anyway, you see my point. Starbucks needs more power outlets. If they really want to cater to the laptop-toting crowd, and if the keyboard tappers continue to grow in number, Starbucks and other WiFi-enabled coffeehouses need to take the power situation into consideration. Hell, I'd gladly buy them an extension cord and outlet strip, if that's what it takes. We're here, we're tapping away, and our batteries are running down -- give us a break, okay?

But that's just my (battery-powered) opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Roberts for the Supremes

About a month ago I made my prediction for who President Bush would nominate to fill Justice O'Connor's Supreme Court seat. I predicted that Bush would do one of two things, based on his demonstrated personality traits. He would either nominate Alberto Gonzales (loyalty) or some right-wingnut, such as Michael Luttig or Janice Rogers Brown (ballsiness). Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

Bush's nomination of John Roberts took most pundits by surprise. It's actually a fairly good choice, on two different fronts. Politically, Roberts' lack of a paper trail makes it difficult to mount much of an opposition to him. And practically, Roberts is very well qualified. He's a choice that's hard to argue with.

Not that the left-wingnuts aren't arguing, of course. Bush could have nominated Bill Clinton to the post and the radical lefties would have still found something to scream about. That's the problem with wingnuts, on either side of the aisle; they're too caught up in their own positions (and in trashing the opposition) to look objectively at any single issue. Whatever the other side does must be bad, because it's the other side doing it. I hate this sort of knee-jerk reactionary behavior; it's one of the main things wrong with American politics today.

One of the reasons the party-line ideologues behave the way they do is that by polarizing the electorate they can raise more money for their own organizations. Fire up the lefties about Roberts' nomination and they'll write a bunch of checks to help fight it. Fire up the righties about abortion (or gay rights or flag burning or whatever) and they'll write a bunch of checks to help fight it. If everybody's getting along, nobody's writing checks. To raise big bucks, you have to fire up the base by creating some sort of threat or conflict.

This is why, by the way, that savvy Republican leaders actually don't want a Supreme Court nominee that will overturn Roe v. Wade. As long as abortion is something they can complain about, they can fire up the far-right evangelical part of the their base for some big contributions. If the Court were to ever actually make abortion illegal again, that part of their base won't have anything to rally against, and the funds will dry up. (Plus, women voters will quit hiding behind soccer-mom security issues and fire up the Democratic side of things, like they did back in the 1960s and 1970s; if abortion is ever outlawed, Republicans won't be able to win a major office again for at least twenty years.)

In choosing John Roberts for the post, Bush made a very savvy decision. This is not something his administration is known for, which is why everyone was so blindsided by the choice. Bush (and Rove and Cheney) typically makes choices with a big "fuck you" in mind, as he's done with the recess appointment of John Bolton to the U.N. There's absolutely no good reason to push someone like Bolton, who so pisses everyone off that he'll be totally ineffective in the job. Going ahead with the appointment after so much protest is nothing but a "fuck you" to the Bushies' many critics; it's a frat boy middle-finger response to legitimate adult criticism.

Why Bush chose Roberts is open for speculation. According to some reports, Bush liked the fact that he exercised regularly. Wouldn't be first on my list of qualifications for the highest court in the land, but they didn't ask me. (And what's with Bush and exercise, anyway? The big lug spends more time exercising than he does governing. Whenever something big happens, he's always off riding his bike...) I suppose it's possible that wiser heads prevailed in this instance, and someone somewhere in the West Wing decided to avoid a bloody ideological fight and make a politically expedient choice. Who knows?

But back to Roberts himself. The guy is a consummate Washington insider, a very intelligent guy, a guy who appears to be a minimalist when it comes to change. He does not appear to be an activist right-wing extremist, or someone who wants to overturn 200 years of legal precedent via a strict originalist interpretation of the Constitution. Nope, he appears to be a smart guy who recognizes precedent and prefers to let change happen slowly, at its own pace. Yeah, he's a conservative, but what did you expect? Hell, O'Connor was a conservative, too. Bush was going to nominate a conservative of some sort no matter what, and he could have done a lot worse.

So unless something startling comes up in the confirmation process (which is why we have the confirmation process), I say let's welcome John Roberts on board. As I said, Bush could have chosen someone a whole lot worse. As is, Roberts could be a fine addition to the court -- not a liberal activist, but not a right-wing conservative activist, either. There's a place for judicial pragmatism.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.