Friday, January 27, 2006

Getting personal

Here's a fundamental difference between Democratic politics and Republican politics. When the Democrats disagree with the Republicans on an issue, they criticize the issue. When the Republicans disagree with the Democrats on an issue, they criticize the Democrats. With the Republicans, politics is personal.

Some examples.

Senator John Kerry announces that he's in favor of filibustering Sam Alito's Supreme Court nomination. He criticizes Alito's opinions on key issues, and argues (convincingly, IMHO) that Alito's future decisions are likely to be harmful to a variety of civil rights. Do the Republicans counter Kerry's point-by-point critique of Alito's views with a similar point-by-point policy rebuttal? Of course not. Instead, they start firing away at Senator Kerry, on a deeply personal basis. Kerry's deluded, Kerry's out of touch, Kerry's too French. They don't criticize his views; instead, they demonize him, personally.

Decorated and universally respected Congressman John Murtha comes out against the Iraq war. He criticizes the Bush administration's management of the war, treatment of U.S. soldiers, and lack of a clear exit strategy. Do the Republicans counter Murtha's point-by-point critique of the Bush administration's performance with a similar point-by-point policy rebuttal? Of course not. Instead, they start firing away at Congressman Murtha, on a deeply personal basis. Murtha's out of touch, Murtha's a soldier hater, Murtha's a traitor. They don't criticize his views, they demonize him, personally.

Former VP Al Gore speaks out against the Bushies, and the right wing shouting class scream that Gore is having a "meltdown." Harry Belafonte speaks out against the Bushies, and he too is said to be having a "meltdown." Patriots and critics alike are called treasonous when they raise their voices in protest. Never are their points addressed; the only response is to slander the messenger, without ever responding to the message.

And so it goes. Anyone who criticizes the Bush administration or its policies is slandered as a looney or a traitor, called out of touch or anti-American or something worse. Reasoned criticism is countered by vicious personal attacks. And the name-calling isn't limited to Democrats; even rogue Republicans who don't toe the party line (such as Senator John McCain) quickly find themselves the victims of the right-wing smear machine. It's despicable.

This is what politics has come to in America. Or, at least, this is what Republican politics has come to, and what the so-called liberal mainstream media tacitly endorses. Patriots like Kerry and Murtha are "Swift-boated," their patriotism questioned and their honor despoiled. They aren't allowed the courtesy of having their views heard and responded to; the only response is a vicious smear campaign.

This is, for no other reason, why the Republican ruling class must be driven from power. Political discourse must be more than nasty name-calling. Governing must be more than the crushing of one's enemies. Issues should be addressed, respectfully and thoughtfully; criticism should be answered, professionally and dispassionately. There is no place in our political and government life for schoolyard bullying; these sorts of personal attacks should be reserved for the truly despicable among us -- perhaps, indeed, for the right-wing thugs masquerading as public servants in the Bush administration and the Republican-led Congress.

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

Monday, January 09, 2006

Absolute power

The current uproar over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping of American citizens isn't about the infringement of civil liberties -- at least, not wholly. It is disturbing that our government is spying on us with little or no justification, but the real issue concerns how this has been done. It's all about Presidential power, and Bush's flaunting of the law and the Constitution.

Here's the thing. Under current law, the administration can spy on anyone it wants, as long as it receives a warrant from the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. As a semi-Libertarian and general advocate of civil liberties, this bothers me, but it's the law. All the administration has to do is apply for a warrant, and 99 times out of 100 they get it. They can even apply for the warrant post-action, which means they can wiretap first and ask permission later. And it's all legal.

But this carte blanche approach to the issue wasn't good enough for the Bushies. No, they wanted to eavesdrop without asking permission of anyone -- even if they were pretty much guaranteed approval if they asked. The Bushies, in performing their post-9/11 wiretaps, didn't seek the required warrants from the FISA court. They broke the law.

That's the deal. It's not what they did; it's that they broke the law to do it. And, for a President, breaking the law is an impeachable offense.

It's pretty cut and dried, at least to me and most knowledgeable observers. The Bushies see it different, of course. Bush and his legal advisors claim that Congress' 2001 joint resolution authorizing the use military force against al Queda gave the President broad powers to combat the enemy, including the ability to conduct covert, warrantless surveillance. Further, they point to the directive in the Constitution that states "the president shall be commander-in-chief," which they say gives Bush virtually unlimited authority on issues related to national security. And, in our supposed post-9/11 world, virtually everything has something to do with national security.

In essence, Bush claims that his responsibility as a wartime commander-in chief gives him implicit (if not explicit) authority to do whatever he wants to do, with no oversight and no consequences. Laws don't matter; to Bush and his staff, Presidential authority takes precedence over any and all laws. This is the very definition of the Imperial Presidency, the President as Monarch and Supreme Ruler. The loyal opposition likes to refer to Bush as King George, and they're not far off the mark.

Then there's the whole conceit of Bush as a "wartime" President. Yes, our troops are at war in Iraq, but that's not the war the administration is talking about. The Bush administration and a malleable media have done their best to convince the country that we're "at war" with terrorists, or Islamic jihadists, or somebody, it's not clear who. Forget the fact that the average American feels no effects of this so-called war, nor has made any sacrifices in that regard; by pretending we're in this amorphous war, the Bushies can justify practically any action as a necessary consequence of fighting the war. And, to further benefit the powermongers in the administration, this "war" against an invisible enemy is so amorphous that it need never end. We'll be at war as long as the administration needs, and to whatever extent best benefits them. It's a sham, and one in which the media are willing conspirators.

The consolidation of Presidential power, of course, is actually counter to the intentions of our Founding Fathers. Bush and his "original intent" followers would do well to remember the framers' deep distrust of excessive executive power, and the checks and balances they built into the Constitution. The original intent of the framers, of course, was to rebel against the oppressive power of a king. That's why they devised the separation of powers inherent in our tripartite government, and severely limited the powers of the executive branch. The President may have executive status, but only Congress can declare war. And the legislative branch exists not just to interpret laws, but also to check the power of the other two branches -- including and most especially the executive.

While this consolidation of Presidential power is claimed as a necessary precaution during wartime, the roots of the new Imperial Presidency pre-date the war in Iraq, and the 9/11 attacks. From the first days of the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney was doing everything in his power to rebuild an all-powerful executive branch. It's really a response to the restrictions on Presidential power enacted in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Cheney was there for Nixon's last days, then served as President Ford's chief of staff, where he chaffed at the new legislative limits placed on the executive branch. Now Cheney and his staff are trying to undo thirty years of governmental reform, and return the country to the excesses that marked and marred the Nixon Presidency. In Cheney's mind, the Presidency must have absolute power, with no possible oversight from the legislative and judicial branches of government. Cheney wants the President to be King, the Constitution be damned.

We are at a turning point in our democracy. If Bush is allowed to continue his consolidation of power, that power will become unlimited, and the American experiment will fail. Bush and Cheney and their dreams of an omnipotent Imperial Presidency must be stopped, and Bush must be brought to account for his flaunting of the law and the Constitution. Impeachment is what's called for, and then a return to the true tripartite government that our founders intended. Anything less will ensure that American democracy will be supplanted by a royal dictatorship -- and this cannot be allowed.

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

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Thanks, Sony

There are many things I like about Sony the corporation, and many things I dislike. In particular, I like their electronics products, and I dislike their greedy, customer-hating music label. (At least the rat bastards at Sony's music division were forced to withdraw their ill-considered copy protection scheme, and are now in the process of settling the resulting class-action lawsuit.) But Sony's service, however, leaves something to be desired.

As I said, I like Sony's electronics products. For many years I had a series of Sony A/V receivers, which I only recently moved beyond when I purchased a set of higher-end B&K separates. I like Sony's TVs, so much so that my home theater system is centered around a Sony rear projection set. I even like Sony's computers, as witnessed by my year-old water-cooled Sony desktop unit.

In fact, I like Sony's computers so much that when it recently came time to choose a new laptop PC, I chose a Sony. I had the choice narrowed down to a Sony FS-790 series or a similar Toshiba, but I really liked the feel of Sony's keyboard (important for a writer) and the look of Sony's LCD screen. So I went with the Sony.

And that's where the fun began.

I decided to place my order from Sony's website; none of their stock models was spec'd precisely the way I wanted, and Sony offered some customization from their site. I checked all the right check boxes and made all the proper selections, so far so good, and clicked the "buy" button to finalize the order. A few seconds later I received a confirmation email, which unfortunately told me that the computer I just ordered was not available for immediate shipment. Not sure what that meant, I look up the status on Sony's website and found out that one or more components of the computer were out of stock. I wanted the computer by Christmas (this was about two weeks before), so this wasn't good. It was time to call customer support.

The good news is, Sony's customer support is in the U.S., not in India as it is with many electronics companies. I talked to a nice American gentleman (in California, I believe), who looked up my order and confirmed what I already knew, which was that some part of the PC was out of stock, and he had no idea when it would ship. He certainly couldn't guarantee shipment by Christmas. So I told him I'd have to cancel my order and buy something by another manufacturer.

At this point the polite young gentleman kindly cancelled my order, but then made an interesting suggestion. Sometimes, he said, customers place a custom order through the website but then cancel the order before the unit ships. This leaves Sony with a brand-new custom-built PC in inventory, and maybe they had one of these sitting around that might come close to the PC I originally spec'd out on the website. He offered to transfer me to a salesperson, and I took him up on the offer.

The salesperson I was transferred to was every bit as helpful as the first gentleman. He did some searching of their in-stock inventory, and found a pre-built computer in their warehouse that exactly matched the specs of the unit that I originally ordered. It was just sitting there, having been cancelled by another customer after it had been built. He could ship it to me immediately, and at a $400 savings, to boot. Good deal.

So, a few days later, I received my brand-new Sony laptop, and I was happy. But only for awhile.

My first disappointment had to do with ordering accessories. I needed a spare AC power pack and a bigger battery. The original salesman had told me to call him after I received the PC, and I would get a 20% discount on any accessories I ordered. He even gave me his name and extension. But when I called the number, I got voice mail, and after leaving my number, he never returned my call.

Okay, so I just wouldn't order from that salesman. I could still order from the website and receive a 20% discount, after receiving an electronic discount coupon after registering my computer online. I registered the PC, but never received the coupon via email as promised. I needed the accessories, unfortunately, so I bit the bullet and ordered at full price. A happy camper I wasn't.

Then, just a few days ago, I got an email from Sony telling me that my new computer was now in stock and that it was being shipped to me. Having received my new computer several weeks earlier, this intrigued me. So I looked up the order on Sony's website, and discovered that they were talking about the original computer I ordered online, which had been cancelled. In fact, Sony's order status for the computer said "Cancelled." However, the cancelled order was still being shipped. Grrrr.

I called up Sony's customer support and inquired about the situation. Yes, the only somewhat helpful lady on the phone said, that order had been cancelled. And yes, she continued, it had been shipped to me the previous day. How, I inquired, had a cancelled order been shipped? A glitch in the system, she replied. Indeed, I responded. And had my credit card been charged for this computer I had cancelled? Of course, the nice lady said. But she would be glad to issue me a return slip, and Sony would pay to ship the computer back. After they received the returned computer, then my charge card would be credited for the full amount. So I have a $2,000 charge on my card until you receive the computer back, I said, which could be two weeks or more? Yes, she said. But we're paying for the return shipping, she added. As well you should, I said. I don't consider that a gift, but a given, I added. She didn't comment further.

So sometime today or tomorrow, computer number two (or is computer number one?) will arrive at my doorstep. I will then print out the return shipping label, lug the thing to my nearest FedEx location, and ship it back to Sony. Sometime in the next few weeks, if all goes well, that $2,000 charge will be taken off my credit card. And Sony might, depending on my mood, lose me as a future customer.

I do wonder how a company that sells electronics products at very slim margins can afford to build and ship PCs by mistake, as they did with me. After all, my experience can't be unique; it takes a bit more than a "glitch in the system" to create this kind of error. It seems to me that Sony needs to examine their systems to find out how this sort of thing can happen, and how often it happens, and then make the necessary changes to ensure that it doesn't happen again. I certainly couldn't stay in business if I made a lot of $2,000 errors. Sony needs to fix their broken system.

Still, I like my new laptop. I'm using it right now, to type these words. The keys feel good under my fingers, and the words look good onscreen. I just don't need two PCs to get the job done.

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