31 December 2006
Leave it to the brain trust that thought it wise in the days after 11 September to paint the war of terrorism as "this crusade", to insult Muslims everywhere.
The hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that devout Muslims try to make in their lifetimes, includes some of the holiest days of the Muslim calendar. So, when did the Bush brain trust suggest that Saddam Hussein ought to be hanged? On the eve of Eid al-Adha, in the middle of the hajj.
For any Bush administration apologists who might be reading, imagine if Muslims in, say, Mogadishu, took pains to execute Americans on Good Friday, or Israelis on Yom Kippur. Then you might understand why Muslims might be a wee bit upset about the timing. Or you might not care (they were not wise enough to welcome American troops as liberators, so do you expect them to get what they deserve?)
Reticence Be Damned
Todd Gitlin is quite right to note that Gerald Ford should hardly be praised for keeping quiet his objections to current foreign policy until he died.
[W]hy is it a sign of character to swallow your right to public judgment when you are one of the few standing Republicans who can lay claim to being a textbook conservative, and who therefore might get a hearing in the ruling party at a time when its titular leader has led it, not to mention two countries, over a cliff?
I noted in this space a few days ago that Ford had hardly used his political prominence to do much of anything that wound up criticizing his own party, but the news that he was critical of the Iraq War but not brave enough to do so either live or in person is lamentable.
What is even more lamentable is the low esteem that the pundits who so dominate coverage of American politics have for full and frank discussions of policy. A sane political process would welcome or even feature honest discussion of potentially dangerous policy choices. Sane political coverage would, as a matter of course, point out where the politicians had not had adequate discussions. Instead, the pundits are happy that these discussions do not take place.
It is as if the main lesson learned from the Cold War was that Stalin's Politburo had it right in that stifling dissent was the highest form of political discourse.
28 December 2006
The War on Christmas
My family had occasion to travel from K Marx the Spot World Headquarters to my parents' house in Maine on Christmas Day. Contrary to what one might hear from conservative blowhards about a War on Christmas, we found that our supposedly secular neck of a supposedly secular country was all but shut down on 25 December.
What was open? A few gas stations. The turnpike rest areas that never close. A couple of convenience stores. Two Chinese restaurants. The Maine Mall in South Portland? Shut tight as a drum, as were the fast food restaurants nearby, even the Tim Horton's that has a 24-hour drive-through window.
It seems to me that if there is a War on Christmas, then the anti-Christmas forces have lost, lost in a rout.
27 December 2006
The Scum Still Rises
In January, I lamented that New England Cable News had fallen to the siren calls of advertising money from Kevin Trudeau's latest "Natural Cures" scam. In July 2005, I alerted NECN to the fact that Trudeau's settlement with the Federal Communications Commission not only allows him to peddle books and newsletters, but also fines him and his companies $2,000,000 for redress to consumers. When a government official explains that its action "is meant to shut down an infomercial empire that has misled American consumers for years," perhaps broadcasters ought to think about why they continue to take money from the man behind that empire.
(One ought to note that, like many actions of the Bush administration, an action meant to shut down an infomercial empire has done nothing to shut down that empire. Instead of peddling snake oil, it is merely peddling snake oil literature. Big difference.)
Despite two separate assurances to me personally by the president of NECN, in July 2005 and January 2006, that NECN would keep Trudeau's infomercial filth off the air, it has appeared yet again. Either NECN does not care about who advertises, or worse, they do care. In either case, well done, NECN, for showing us just how far a cable channel will bend down to pick up the grimiest nickel.
The Spirit of '75
Rest in peace, Gerald Ford. I can understand why some left-leaners view his presidency as somehow untarnished. After all, his successors included Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
But for all the talk of his supposed moderation, it so seldom came out in his public comments after his presidency. If the supposedly moderate do not speak out against the right, are they moderate but too bashful for words, or merely not that moderate in the first place?
Any proper appreciation of Ford's presidency has to include his administration's awful support of Indonesian President Suharto and his campaign against East Timor. The amazingly compendious National Security Archive has two briefing books on the subject—one from 2001 describes how Ford and Henry Kissinger gave Suharto their blessing; another from 2005 shows how later administrations covered up and indeed compounded this ignominious deed.
24 December 2006
Solution in Search of a Problem
The social security "reformers" refuse to give up. And it hard to blame them, since a good chunk of the Republican Congressional caucus believes—for a host of reasons—that privatization of Social Security will be an unalloyed good, and since a nonzero contingent of the Democratic Congressional caucus is afraid of anything that smacks of socialism.
In this recent article from the Washington Times, we find that President Bush is willing to increase payroll taxes to "fix" the system, but that is not all he wants.
Since November, Mr. Bush has said everything should be on the table in the effort to fix the program's finances—a statement in sharp contrast to his declaration after the 2004 elections that "We will not raise payroll taxes to solve this problem."
Asked twice in recent weeks about the president's plans, White House press secretary Tony Snow wouldn't rule tax increases out.
"I'm not ruling it up and I'm not ruling it down, because you know what, as you and I have seen in the past, definitions of these things can be very squirrelly," Mr. Snow told reporters at one briefing....
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who will become the party's Senate leader next year, also says all options are on the table as he tries to force the issue onto the agenda.
"We all know this is an enormous problem," he told a farm group recently, according to the Associated Press. "We all know that it will get worse each year if not tackled. Sometimes, divided government produces very good results on big issues."
As Max Sawicky rightly points out, news of the impending demise of Social Security is based on two assumptions, both tenuous. First, economic growth has to stink in the long run. Second, the federal government has to ignore the chance to raise revenue to fund the program out of general revenues. (It is somehow both amusing and unsettling to see confirmed members of the Church of the Great Market somehow convince themselves that the market will not deliver in the long run.)
Politicians like McConnell have a number of reasons to hate Social Security in its current form. It is a wildly successful government program that needs the government, or at least an entity not interest in big management fees, to operate so cheaply. It indicates that the market for secure old age and disability pensions has failed a wide section of Americans. And it denies big financial institutions the ability to play profitable games with a big pile of money.
"Reform" over the past decade has often been shorthand for using the magic of the stock market to resolve long-term funding issues. Yet what the past decade has shown is that the stock market is at best a risky place for small investors to place their money. When small investors buy individual stocks, they often make poor decisions. And even when the stocks that they pick are no worse than the standard for the market, the unique lack of democracy among stockholders helps insulate the folks who run companies from looking after the long-term interest of the putative owners. Further, when individuals buy mutual funds, they are putting faith in yet another layer of management that often proves immune to the siren calls of fiduciary duty and in yet another set of hapless (or worse) directors.
We will know that democracy has finally conquered the corporate world when in the ordinary course of business, several large public companies and several large mutual fund firms have elections with more candidates than seats for their boards of directors. (Don't hold your breath.)
Worst of all, the putatively sensible option for Social Security—raising the payroll tax—is a particularly regressive one. The social security tax, 6.2% of wages paid by both employer and employee, cuts off well below the level of, say, a Goldman Sachs trader ($97,500 for calendar year 2007). If raising payroll taxes means obliterating this limit, then we finally have good social security news to report, particularly if the 6.2% is reduced to raise the same amount of revenue. But if it means simply raising the 6.2%, then the sensible center is dead wrong yet again.
22 December 2006
Give Me That Old-Time Republicanism
Patriotism is not always the last refuge of a scoundrel. Virgil Goode, the Republican so in love with the United States Constitution that he ignores the flaw that the religious test clause in Article VI, is now shocked that Keith Ellison, has the audacity to be a Muslim and be a newly elected member of Congress.
When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the votes of that district and if Americans don't wake uyp and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.
Yes the oath of office (which is actually an affirmation of office for those who wish not to make oaths) used in the House of Representatives when members are sworn in en masse does not involve a religious text at all. Many members opt, for purposes of publicity, to use a Bible or other religious text in a private ceremony with the Speaker of the House after the official oath. This private ceremony may mean things to the various representatives, but it means nothing as far as the institution and the Constitution are concerned.
Goode does not seem at all embarassed or ashamed at his intolerance. While I would hope for more from a Southern Republican, I have learned not to hope for too much.
Linwood Duncan, a spokesman for Mr. Goode, said the Virginia lawmaker had no intention of backing down, despite the furor.
"He stands by the letter," Mr. Duncan said. "He has no intention of apologizing."
After all, Goode has a constituency to represent.
21 December 2006
Jim Crow, Minus the Protestants
Who knew that Jim Crow-style accomodation laws required neither Southern baptism nor Afrikaner Calvinism? Apparently, some Israeli buses are officially segregated by gender.
A woman who reported a vicious attack by an ad-hoc "modesty patrol" on a Jerusalem bus last month is now lining up support for her case and may be included in a petition to the High Court of Justice over the legality of sex-segregated buses.
Miriam Shear says she was traveling to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City early on November 24 when a group of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men attacked her for refusing to move to the back of the Egged No. 2 bus. She is now in touch with several legal advocacy and women's organizations, and at the same time, waiting for the police to apprehend her attackers.
In her first interview since the incident, Shear says that on the bus three weeks ago, she was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of men who demanded that she sit in the back of the bus with the other women. The bus driver, in response to a media inquiry, denied that violence was used against her, but Shear's account has been substantiated by an unrelated eyewitness on the bus who confirmed that she sustained an unprovoked "severe beating."
Shear, an American-Israeli woman who currently lives in Canada, says that on a recent five-week vacation to Israel, she rode the bus daily to the Old City to pray at sunrise. Though not defined by Egged as a sex-segregated "mehadrin" bus, women usually sit in the back, while men sit in the front, as a matter of custom.
"Every two or three days, someone would tell me to sit in the back, sometimes politely and sometimes not," she recalled this week in a telephone interview. "I was always polite and said 'No. This is not a synagogue. I am not going to sit in the back.'"
But Shear, a 50-year-old religious woman, says that on the morning of the 24th, a man got onto the bus and demanded her seat—even though there were a number of other seats available in the front of the bus.
"I said, I'm not moving and he said, 'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you.' Then he spat in my face and at that point, I was in high adrenaline mode and called him a son-of-a-bitch, which I am not proud of. Then I spat back. At that point, he pushed me down and people on the bus were screaming that I was crazy. Four men surrounded me and slapped my face, punched me in the chest, pulled at my clothes, beat me, kicked me. My snood [hair covering] came off. I was fighting back and kicked one of the men in his privates. I will never forget the look on his face."
Shear says that when she bent down in the aisle to retrieve her hair covering, "one of the men kicked me in the face. Thank God he missed my eye. I got up and punched him. I said, 'I want my hair covering back' but he wouldn't give it to me, so I took his black hat and threw it in the aisle."
Throughout the encounter, Shear says the bus driver "did nothing." The other passengers, she says, blamed her for not moving to the back of the bus and called her a "stupid American with no sechel [common sense.] People blamed me for not knowing my place and not going to the back of the bus where I belong."
According to Yehoshua Meyer, the eyewitness to the incident, Shear's account is entirely accurate. "I saw everything," he said. "Someone got on the bus and demanded that she go to the back, but she didn't agree. She was badly beaten and her whole body sustained hits and kicks. She tried to fight back and no one would help her. I tried to help, but someone was stopping me from getting up. My phone's battery was dead, so I couldn't call the police. I yelled for the bus driver to stop. He stopped once, but he didn't do anything. When we finally got to the Kotel [Western Wall], she was beaten badly and I helped her go to the police."
Segregation. Vigilante patrols. Religious extremism bolstering reactionary political views. Why move forward when the glories of the 1950s can be relived right now?
17 December 2006
Worst Online Advertising Coincidence Ever
It sounded like a good idea to the Chrysler suits. Advertise on Time.com so anyone reading the "Person of the Year" story would see your ad. Lots of people buy cars. Lots of people read the Person of the Year story online.
But they misread just how silly the Time magazine suits could be.
Yes, if you are going to have "You might not be Time Person of the Year" as the opening line of the ad, do make sure that "You" is not the actual Person of the Year.
15 December 2006
I Wonder If They're Compensating For Something
Yesterday's Boston Globe showed just why some people hate the holidays. It's not the early darkness, or the commercial frenzy. It's the people.
Bob and Nancy Ractliffe of Dover got their 12-foot Fraser from Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, which sells about 1,000 trees, including 100 to 125 that are 10 feet or taller. "It was almost unheard of a decade ago," said Barry White, the nursery's buyer....
The Saturday the Gallaghers picked up their Christmas tree, the family piled into their 2006 Land Cruiser and their nephew, John Gallagher, 19, followed in the company pick-up. Their 8 -year-old daughter, Mary Kate, dressed for the season in a red velvet dress with white furry trim, had lobbied for a 12-foot tree almost as wide as it is tall. Kathy Gallagher, partial as she is to tall trees, said no. "We couldn't get it into the house."
As it was, it took four people to load the Gallaghers' tree onto the nursery's cart and three to push it into the pick-up. Back home, Paul and John Gallagher dragged it across the back porch and broke three branches as they squeezed it through the double doors. "I didn't throw my back out, so I guess it's OK," said Paul Gallagher, 44. His nephew hammered nails into the tops of the window frames on opposite sides of the room and secured the tree with wire.
The Ractliffes know from experience that's a good idea. In 1990, the 15-foot tree they'd installed in a too-small stand crashed to the floor of their St. Louis home. Luckily, the glass balls that shattered were considerably less valuable than the hand-painted, hand-blown glass ornaments they now use. The 10,000-square-foot house in Dover that they bought in 2001 has a 26-by-20-foot family room with a 20-foot ceiling.
The Gallaghers paid $118 for their tree; the Ractliffes paid $279 for theirs, plus another $50 for delivery and set-up. That's well above the $60 to $75 Webster Cranberry and Weston Nurseries charge for a typical 7- to 8-foot Fraser—and the balsams Weston sells go for even less.
As similar as the families' trees are in size, they differ substantially once decorated. The Gallaghers' tree twinkles with 600 white lights, the Ractliffes' with 3,100. The Gallaghers favor ornaments that are cute, homemade, or edible, the Ractliffes collectibles that can cost more than $100 apiece.
The Ractliffes' tree is a tableau for 400-plus intricate figures—Waterford calling birds, a red butterfly by Jay Strongwater, a black-robed Father Christmas by Patricia Breen, a Swarovski crystal snowflake—each with maker's tag still attached.
I would guess that the line demarcating sharing one's Christmas joyfulness and lording it over the poor souls who lack Waterford calling birds got crossed a long time ago.
Ad Execs Think We're Idiots, Part XCVII
What was American Express thinking? Yes, they wanted to make their small business product, "OPEN," hip to the scads of baby-boomer entrepreneurs who are looking for revolving credit accounts. But did they really think that using this song was the way to do it?
Stop wasting my time
You know what I want
You know what I need
Or maybe you don't
Do I have to come right
Flat out and tell you everything?
Gimme some money
Gimme sone money
I'm nobody's fool
I'm nobody's clown
I'm treating you cool
I'm putting you down
But baby I don't intend to leave empty handed
Gimme some money
Gimme some money
Don't get me wrong
Try getting me right
Your face is okay but your purse is too tight
I'm looking for pound notes
Bad checks, anything
Gimme some money
Gimme some money
In longstanding advertising tradition when using an old song, the American Express advertising geniuses just use the "Gimme some money/Gimme some money" chorus. But did they really think that viewers would not think of the band that played the song in the movie theaters?
Perhaps there is hope for Madison Avenue after all. Perhaps the advertising executives are so appalled at the rentiers of America that they actually want folks to think of the lines "I'm looking for pound notes/Loose change/Bad checks, anything." Perhaps not.
13 December 2006
The Ick Factor
Why has Jeff Jacoby gone so soft?
Just last week, his newspaper, the Boston Globe published the front page news that a couple was planning to get married—and procreating was certainly not on their minds. Barely 18 months ago, Jacoby patiently explained to his readers that only straight folks ought to get married, because only straight couples could procreate.
The core of marriage has always and everywhere been the pairing of a man and a woman because no other arrangement can do what marriage does: produce the next generation, bind men to the women who bear their children, and give boys and girls the mothers and fathers they need.
Despite his clear support for traditional marriage, his own newspaper is flouting society's mores. And he has kept silent. Could it be because the happy couple is not gay?
Richard Rosenberg and Lillian Wulfe enjoyed happy and productive lives, he as an insurance salesman and she as a statistician. Both widowed, they never expected to give marriage another try. But three years ago, a flirtation developed into regular dating, until they were nearly inseparable. Rosenberg, who is 85, and Wulfe, who is 92, fell in love.
"We are pretty well certain that we will never reach a silver wedding anniversary, but we decided that we can celebrate every wedding anniversary," Rosenberg said.
Before close family and friends last night, the couple was married in the chapel of the Orchard Cove retirement community in Canton, where they both live.
What social conservatives do not like to admit is that often their deepest held beliefs boil down to finding certain things just plain icky.
Now that Bruce Tinsley got arrested for drunk driving—again—I wonder what the chances of Mallard Fillmore talking tough on crime are anytime soon. (And I wonder what the chances of seeing a hook-nosed judge are.)