Friday, July 29, 2005

Is it Hypocrisy or Irony?

This column is rated PG for creepiness and grossness and for the disgusting thoughts of its author
     Conservatives want to have their cake and eat it too, it seems. They loved the story of Susan Torres, the dead woman kept on life-support so her baby can be born. It's a great story for the self-proclaimed "culture of life" crowd. Life Survives Death! What a great headline.
     Susan was 21 weeks pregnant when she died. That's almost 5 months out of the normal 9. Typically, viability of the fetus is around 23-24 weeks, sometimes later. Susan's widower, Jason, decided to keep her body hooked up to machines so that the baby could have another month in the womb and have a chance to live. It's a decision that, while immensely creepy, has not met a lot of controversy. And who could really argue, knowing that despite using her body as a mindless tool for baby creation, they are helping to create a life? BTW, I'm using words like "creepy" and "mindless tool", not because I oppose these efforts, which I don't. I use these words because they are true. I think most of us find something unsettling about a baby being born of a dead woman, as miraculous as we think the baby is.
     Here's what I find funny. Many of the same people who love Susan Torres' story oppose stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, and abortion. At first glance, these stances don't seem to conflict. But look at their arguments: Abortion at any stage is murder, not because of intelligence (which doesn't exist in a fetus), not because of any identifying human characteristics like arms or a head (which doesn't exist in an embryo), but because of their unique DNA (which was unknown when late-term abortions were banned by the church in the middle ages and all abortions were briefly banned in 1588. They were made legal by the church again in 1591 until 1869.) The unique DNA of an embryo is the reason given by at least one commenter here as the reason why it must be allowed to live in the future, why it must not be used for any purpose, even to help save lives via its stem cells. But did Susan Torres not have unique DNA? It's OK to use her body as a baby factory, but it's not OK to use an embryo the size of the period at the end of this sentence for its stem cells?
     Let's take this example to its logical, yet extreme example. Say Jason Torres decides that his wife would have wanted to have 3 children. Presumably her brain cancer did not damage the other eggs in her body. What if he had doctors artificially inseminate Susan so she could have another baby, and another? Are we OK with that morally? What's the difference between the second and third baby and the first one? I can guess one answer - nod if you agree. It's because the first one was already on its way towards life, right? And stopping it would be murder while creating a new life in Susan's dead body would just be unnatural and therefore immoral. So let me throw this crazy idea out. You know all the fertilized eggs left over from in vitro fertilization that are just sitting around waiting to be destroyed? The ones that you say will be murdered if not used? Why not implant them into Susan to be born? And if it can be done in Susan, why not get people to volunteer their bodies to be used as baby factories when they die? Wouldn't that be just as wonderful and miraculous as Susan Torres' baby? No? Hmmmm.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Terror on the Subway

     On July 7, when I heard about the London terror attacks, I felt sad for the victims, but not devastated. A horrific thing happened to those people riding the subways, but no worse than what happened to the people in the World Trade Center or to innocent Iraqis living next door to criminals that were bombed to oblivion from the sky or to ordinary Israelis riding buses or shopping in malls every day. Just more senseless killing, but not an earth-shattering act. London did not stop on July 7 - businesses operated as usual, the stock exchange pulsed with activity. I did not even think the London attacks were worthy of much debate. What's to talk about, really? Terrorists attack the West. Did Bloomberg overreach when he instituted random bag searches in New York's subways? Maybe, but the intrusion on our civil liberties seems so commonplace now it hardly seemed worth the effort to discuss it. But then we heard that London police had shot and killed an Underground passenger. And so began the unexpected discussion.
     We talked about the victim, a 27 year old Brazilian electrician. We talked about the police. We talked about terror. The people I spoke with expressed their sympathy for the police (and little for the dead man), saying how frightened the police must have been after 2 bombings in the subway and how they could hardly be blamed for having twitchy trigger fingers. I actually agree – I don’t blame the officers too much. But I don’t lay any blame on Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian, either. In fact, his death scares me more than subway bombs. Here are the facts of the case: police were suspicious of this man from the start, because he lived in the same neighborhood as the bombers. Plainclothes officers followed him to the subway station, actually boarding his bus. They noticed he wore a heavy jacket, which made him very suspect in the summer heat. And when he boarded the train and they yelled at him to stop, he ran. This odd behavior, while not normally a death sentence by any twist of the imagination, was enough for my friends to conclude that he alone was responsible for his early death in these fearful times. Who in their right mind could go on a London subway without being aware of the increased security and tension?
     But consider this: First, the terrorists lived in his neighborhood not because it was a place that supported terrorism, but because it was a place that could escape notice. It was home to immigrants, but hard working ones. Before July 7th, police had no reason to suspect any sort of terror activity from there. Second, Menezes was from Gonzaga, Brazil, a small town about 200 miles from the coast. Weather there is closer to Florida’s than England’s. Today, the high in Gonzaga is 86º F. Today’s high in London is 64º F. Keep in mind that right now we’re in the middle of Brazil’s winter and England’s summer. I grew up in South Florida. If I were in London today, I’d be wearing a coat too. My mother, who thinks 64º is practically freezing, would be wearing a heavy coat, if she went outside at all. Third, it seems Menezes’s visa had expired recently. He probably could have renewed it, but neglected to do so. He probably lived with a daily, underlying fear that Immigration would catch up to him. Until July 7th, the worst scenario he could probably imagine was getting caught in a routine traffic stop or to have the police look at his papers. When he ran, he was running from plainclothes officers who had been following him from his home. Whether he knew they were police is in doubt. In addition, he had been attacked by a gang only a few weeks earlier. He had reason to be scared of people, especially if he didn’t know they were police.
     In short, Menezes was caught in unlucky circumstances directly related to the fact that he was a foreign national. But why am I worried? Well, in 2001, Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijaakers, lived in my hometown in Florida, probably no more than a mile or two away from my parents. Would I be a suspect? Are my parents? I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve run through airports since 2001, despite the knowledge that security was on alert. Now I wonder what my chances of being shot were. Am I really that different from this Brazilian guy? Can we really blame him and go on as if nothing happened? London police say that they were working on a revised security manual that says to shoot suspected suicide bombers in the head. The idea goes that if you shoot them in the chest, the bomb may explode. But this is flawed, because in Israel, every train station or restaurant or mall has armed security guards at every entrance checking bags and people. If it ever comes down to shooting someone in the head, they know the person is a terrorist. You can’t apply part of the Israeli solution to London and feel safe.
    One last thing to think about – What is the mission of the London police? Is it to fight terrorists? If that’s the case, then by all means go shoot anyone you suspect. Or is it to protect the people who live, work, and visit London? If that’s the case (and I suspect it is, old chap), you don’t protect them by shooting them. How safe would I feel if I knew that if I wore the wrong clothes or acted funny, I might be a target of the police? How safe would I feel bringing my children to the subway if I knew that at any moment they may break out of my arms and start running away? And that I would run after them, jumping turnstiles and ignoring police if I had to? I don’t blame the officers. But I don’t feel any safer if this is our idea of security. 52 innocent people died in the bombings. So far 1 has died in the response. If the thought of us killing our own in panic isn’t the definition of “success” for a terror operation, I don’t know what is. We have to do better.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Are We Too Rich? (Take 3)

     This is my third attempt to address this topic. Attempt #1 and Attempt #2 left me feeling unsatisfied. (Plus, nobody read my blog then) There's something about this that really bugs me, and I'm having the hardest time elaborating on exactly what. I feel that both times I attempted this in January, I fell short. There were circumstances this weekend that reminded me, so I'm going to try yet again.
     I'm not going to use my standard disclaimer that I'm not a tree-hugging hippie, because some of you know that and the rest won't believe it. Some of you just think my whole reason for existing is to attack Christians. That's fine. At least I still have credibility, right?
 &bsp   Six months ago, I linked too much wealth with the cultural and economic demise of the United States in the future. I want to talk about this on a personal, anecdotal level. My wife and I live in a quiet suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. Despite my love of cities, I was tired of the apartment lifestyle. I was tired of living cheek to jowl with other people, of smelling their cigarette smoke on my balcony, of hearing them fight and have sex in the apartment above me. I wanted a house with a yard and a quiet neighborhood street. The neat thing about Atlanta is that you can get these things intown. In fact, there are neighborhoods in walking distance from downtown and midtown that meet these criteria. However, they have one of two problems: they either have a large supply of crack houses or they have a price range close to or above $1 million. So we are as close in to the city as we could get and still afford the house we want (that's not very close in). We're actually surrounded by $800,000-$1.2 million riverfront houses. Our house is set back, in a much more modest neighborhood. But we're still in the million-dollar school system, so our neighborhood is in high demand with families. In fact, I believe we have a disproportionate number of single parents in our neighborhood, since this is the best school district they can afford on one salary. It's a hard-working neighborhood, full of single-parent homes, dual-income homes, and families just starting up. It remains affordable because the people who can buy more expensive houses usually do - there are plenty of choices nearby.
 &bsp   So who are my best neighbors? Just about everybody. It's an older neighborhood, so there's no mandatory association, but people work to keep their yards neat and maintained, and there's a volunteer group to keep the entrances pretty. So are my worst neighbors? They're the family that moved in next door about 9 months ago. Here's my introduction to them: I was setting up my yard for Halloween one night after work - putting up lights so the kids won't trip and things like that. I noticed a few SUV's at the house for sale next door. They back out and drive away, except one, which drives over to my house (25 yards away). A middle-aged, slightly balding guy gets out and introduces himself, saying he just bought the house. "Congratulations," I said, holding out my hand. "Welcome to the neighborhood." "Oh, it's not for me," he said. "It's for my daughter. And her kids. And her... live-in." I fought back surprise to stay polite. "Oh. Well, I can't wait to meet them." "I'm not so sure about that. Her boyfriend's not the friendly type. Well, I hope they don't give you too much trouble. I'll probably be around a lot, mowing the lawn and fixing up the house. She's too young to do those sorts of things. I probably stared as his Suburban rumbled away. We've met this girl - she's actually very pleasant. She's a little younger than us - although obviously not "too young" to mow the lawn. Her two kids (by 2 different fathers) seemed nice too, if a little spoiled. We never did meet the boyfriend, but we did learn from conversations with this girl that he doesn't work and neither does she. In the past nine months, we've been treated to gangsta' rap at all hours and the delightful scent of pot smoke wafting from their garage. Now, I'm not in a condo or townhouse. For us to smell pot smoke in our kitchen with the windows closed from next door means they were having quite a party. What happened this weekend was that one of her kids was having a birthday - 5 years old, I think. And they were having a party. I was out working on the lawn, and I got to see the guests arrive. A few had kids in tow, but it was the presents I noticed. No Harry Potter or Tickle-Me-Elmos. They were carrying 6-packs of Natty Lite and closed brown bags. And the entertainment for this children's party? A boombox in the driveway yelling about "pimping 'dem hoes".
     How is this relevant? Well, obviously the girl's father has too much money. He's not super-rich or anything, but for his lifestyle, it's too much. Enough that he never saw the need to educate his 25-year old daughter to keep her legs closed or work for a living or even maintain her own residence. Nice girl, but pretty worthless in society. For her kids' sake, I hope her father lives a long, healthy life. But is this why we have money? Is this the Republican ideal? Is this why when it comes to setting tax policy they oppose taxing gifts and inheritances? I say that because unless you're a militant anarchist, you understand that our government needs revenue to operate. And it has to get that revenue from someplace. Someplace=taxes. So the question is, when we get taxes, what is best for our society? And the answer seems clear: not from people who want to ruin their children. I truly believe that what this father is doing to his daughter is child abuse. Or maybe just plain abuse, even though he treats her like a child. He is funding his daughter's descent into the dregs of our society, and instead of allowing her to reap the fruits of her (non-)labor like a good Republican (I noticed the "W" sticker on the car), he's propping her up and enabling her behavior. Which is actually punishing me and my hard-working neighbors. Because now the prices of starter homes is going up since so many of the purchasers are parents of over-age children who are not price sensitive. I make a good living, but I stretched to my limit to afford my house. This guy bought his deadbeat daughter a house that cost more than mine and promptly began $20,000-$50,000 of renovations.
     I'm not just mad about this girl, although that hits closest to home. I have millionaire coworkers who have children my age. Most are screwed up - they can't finish college, they're getting pregnant (or getting someone pregnant), they're sitting at home jobless. And it's all funded by their parents. (They're all rabid Republicans too, and complain about welfare and race and people being allowed to work on Sunday) The response to a kid getting knocked up? Buy her a $300,000 house! To be fair, some of my coworkers' kids are responsible and mature. Their parents, while wealthy, did not give all their money to them. One coworker, in particular, has 2 houses, an RV, a houseboat, a pontoon boat, and 2 waverunners. These are his toys. His kids? They got summer jobs at McDonalds and Publix in high school, they bought their own homes, and they were married before they thought about having kids. Is it selfish? Or is our society in better shape if it allows people to use their money to spoil themselves, but not ruin the next generation or two? If we as a society have to decide where to get our tax money, should it be from the people working two minimum wage jobs or from the people who have no further use for their own money and are giving it away to a broken generation? Silly questions. Obviously it needs to come from those evildoer minimum wage folks.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

We're on Your Side. Trust Us.

     If there is such a thing as a Law of Unintended Consequences, the US Tax Code is full of them. Virtually every tax on the books is there for a purpose (I say virtually all, because with the size of the code, there have got to be accidental laws in there). The primary purpose of taxes, in general, is to raise revenue so the government can operate. Think of homeowner associate fees. The secondary purpose of many taxes it to influence behavior. For example, in order to encourage charitable giving, the government has made donations to qualified charities tax-deductible. In order to reduce consumption of alcohol and tobacco, there are additional "sin" taxes tacked on. There are also attempts to make the tax burden as fair as possible, while still funding the government. Of course, "Fair" is in the eye of the beholder...
     The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) was an attempt to make things more fair. Outraged that a number of the wealthiest Americans weren't paying a penny of income tax in 1966, the federal government created a parallel tax system to catch the people who were overusing deductions. They made sure it would apply to only the wealthiest Americans. Of course, today, we all know what's happening to the AMT. It is applying to more and more Americans each year as inflation boosts the salaries of ordinary Americans into the 1966-wealthy range. One reason Bush was able to say his tax cuts over the past few years haven't had that much of an impact on tax revenue was because those extra deductions threw a lot of people into the AMT, which meant that they paid more tax anyway. Now a presidential tax panel has recommended eliminating the AMT altogether. It's just too much for the average American to deal with, they said. Scrap the thing and the only losers will be tax accountants. Hey, the government bureaucrats are on our side for once! Or are they? Clearly the AMT was never meant to apply to the estimated 21 million families it will hit in 2005. Most of those people pay taxes and have no weird tax-avoiding deductions other than state income tax or large families. But lets not forget the original purpose behind the AMT - as a band-aid over holes in the regular income tax that allowed the wealthiest Americans to pay less tax than the local schoolteacher or mechanic. Simply getting rid of the AMT will once again open the door for people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to deduct 100% of their salaries. And then who will it fall on to make up the rest? The Treasury Department estimates that killing the AMT will cost $1.2 trillion (with a "T") over the next 10 years. Some of that was the hidden cost of the Bush tax cuts. And the rest is legitimate tax that will no longer be paid by the wealthy.
     I'm not saying that Congress failed to fix the AMT in order to get the public support for scrapping it. But it's awfully convenient that the biggest winners will be the rich, while the upper middle class merely dodges the bullet. The AMT isn't the only convenient, "We're from the government and we're here to help you" issue today. I'm sure you've heard of the estate tax, which the Right has dubbed the "Death Tax". A better name would be the "Inheritance Tax", since it's absurd to suggest that you're being taxed for dying. Only the people inheriting money are taxed, and then only if you A) failed to plan correctly and B) left behind a large sum of money. The Estate Tax was designed to prevent dynasties. It's aimed at the super-rich, not to penalize them, but to encourage them to spend their money while they live, either by investing it or enjoying it. I won't argue the pros and cons of such an approach. I will say that again it had unintended consequences. After years of not keeping up with inflation, it became nearly impossible to pass down small family businesses whole. The Republican response has been to push to abolish the tax altogether. They've done an excellent job convincing a lot of Americans that the tax was going to financially ruin their children. The Truth is that the biggest beneficiaries are going to be the super-wealthy, which the upper-middle class dodges another bullet. The family farmer with $5 million worth of land but few liquid assets will be saved, but so will the $5 billion bequeathment from Bill Gates Senior to Junior.
     For better or worse, the American public is being sold a bill of goods. They're being encouraged to choose a small gain today that will come with a large pain tomorrow. If abolishing the AMT and the Estate Tax is really in the middle-class's favor (as I'm sure our friends on the Right will vigorously argue), why not trust them with the truth. Why not tell them how much the people in charge stand to gain personally from these abolishments? Why not share with them where the extra $1.5 trillion will come from? Why not tell them that the reason they are in danger of being hit by taxes that were never meant for them is because Congress dropped the ball? What are they afraid of?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Rove Who?

Whose Fault is it Anyway?

     By now I'm sure most of you know my attitude on sensational journalism, especially when it comes to highlighting cute, little white children or hot, young white women. (If you're new and you don't know, then welcome aboard! You'll find out pretty quickly.) The news of three young boys found dead in their grandmother's car trunk a few weeks ago was tragic. And it's commendable that their plight was highlighted while they were still missing, even though they were middle-class Hispanics. In short, the three boys were playing in one of the boy's grandmother's car. They opened the trunk, climbed in, and got stuck there. The families called the police and a massive search in Camden, NJ got underway. Nobody thought to search the car, which was unused and in an overgrown yard. Originally, I said (to my wife, not to the blogosphere) that this was a tragic situation where nobody was to blame. Children do stupid things sometimes. Stories like The Bridge to Terabithia and My Girl have always freaked me out, as the childrens' deaths are all but unpreventable. I once saw a TV movie when I was a kid that showed a boy falling backwards out of his treehouse and breaking his spine, dying instantly. I had nightmares for weeks.
     I empathized with the Camden boys, too. I related to my wife a story of my own from when I was their age. My parents had a minivan. The back seat folded down, and when the back hatch was closed, it created a small space in the bottom rear corner of the vehicle. I was curious what it was like back there, so I pulled the hatch shut, lay down, and pulled the seat on top of me until it clicked. I couldn't tell you what it was like, because immediately I realized I'd done something stupid. I was jammed in there tight and could barely move a muscle. It took several minutes of panicked wiggling to move my arm enough to release the seat. Had I pulled this stunt in something like a refrigerator or had I been maybe 10 pounds fatter, I might have been in real trouble.
     That being said, my whole attitude changed (towards one of the families, not the boys) today when I read that evidence showed that the boys were still alive when the police search began. Nobody thought to seach the grandmother's car. It wasn't until days later when one of the fathers opened the trunk that the grisly discovery was made. Now the Cruz family is holding the police responsible for the deaths. "However, a lawyer for Anibal Cruz's family said responsibility for the deaths is now 'squarely on the shoulders of the police.'" The Cruz family has not decided whether or not to sue.
     Now, it's true that the police are undergoing an internal investigation as to why they did not search the car earlier. Clearly, it would have been a smart place to look, especially since hindsight is the proverbial 20-20 and the case got national attention. But that doesn't make the tragedy their fault. A) The boys were unsupervised. B) The car in question was unlocked and witnesses remember seeing the boys playing in it. C) Neither the owner of the car nor the family of the owner of the car nor the family of the other two boys thought to look in the car at any point. Mrs. Cruz, if you really want to assign blame (although I believe there is none to assign), point the finger at yourself for not teaching your son to keep himself out of danger. Point the finger at yourself for not looking in the car. Don't blame their deaths on the people who came out to help. They didn't lock your son in the trunk and they didn't prevent you from finding them.
     It's interesting to note that at least one mother says she has no intentions of suing. Iraida Agosto, the mother of the 6-year old, whose husband found the bodies, is not blaming anyone. It "isn't going to help us bring him back," she wisely said. It's also interesting to note that the Cruz boy was the 11-year old, the one who should have known better.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Dirty Rove Tricks

     This is an update to yesterday's article, Help! My Country has been Hijacked by Criminals and All I Got was this Lousy Refund Check!. It might be helpful to read that first, although the primary topic yesterday was the diversionary tactics of politicians and the stupidification of the American public.
     The news today is that it's possible Rove did not leak Valerie Wilson (nee Plame) to Robert Novack, but that Novack leaked her name to Rove. This is unconfirmed, but it makes me very uncomfortable for a few reasons:
     1) In my opinion, the Dems have been overly aggressive in targeting Rove. This will come back to bite them. However, even if this new news is true, it doesn't clear Rove. Scott McClellan clearly communicated in the past that anyone in the White House who was involved would be fired. He may still regret his poor choice of words.
     2) It appears nobody on the Left ever learns their lesson. This looks like a classic Rove stunt. Think back to Rove's fake bugging incident in Texas, where he apparently bugged his own office and then held a press conference to blame it on the opposition. In this case, he carefully orchestrated the idea that he was the leak so the media would pounce on it. The White House, complicit in this scheme, clamped down on information at the press briefings, making them look guilty. This only fired up the media more, looking for whatever was hidden. Now comes his revelation that he was not the original source of the leak. Why didn't he say earlier? Now he can claim the Dems are out to get him and were just looking for an excuse.
     3) The timing is extraordinarily bad, although I wouldn't bet money that this was a coincidence. Bush is about to name his candidate to replace Justice O'Connor. Rove's plan is probably to discredit the Democratic leadership right before the nomination by saying they're shrill naysayers crying wolf every time they see a sheep. The irony of this is that Rove is a wolf disguised as a sheep disguised as a wolf.
     4) We still don't know who leaked Wilson's identity. It may have been Rove or it may not, but Novack clearly said it was from "2 high-level administration" sources. So the question is still there: Why was she outed? Back to conspiracy theories, it now appears that the one linking the outing to revenge against her husband is quaint and petty. The real conspiracy theory should now be that the administration orchestrated the leak to a) cause an uproar, b) blame Rove, c) show Rove to be (somewhat) innocent, and d) derail opposition to Bush's Supreme Court nominee. If this is the case, it goes beyond criminal to treasonous. Playing politics to gain power makes you a jerk, but it's legal and even arguably ethical. Breaking laws and weakening the country's intelligence network to gain power is akin to a coup d'état.
     Thankfully, this administration is too honest and forthcoming to be a party to such paranoid fantasies.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Help, my Country has been Hijacked by Criminals, and All I Got was This Lousy Refund Check!

     Wouldn't that be a great T-Shirt or what? I think when historians write about this era, they will look at the huge stadiums and arenas partially financed by the government, of the Michael Jackson and OJ trials, of the parade of damsels in distress garnering 24-hour coverage on the news stations, of sales tax holidays and refund checks, and of political feel-good wars like Grenada or Iraq I. This era will be the panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses", of the modern day. That term was used to describe the way the Roman emperors kept the populace content and subjugated. It's amazing and distressing to see how easy it is to distract the American public. Why is it that so many people are content to watch garbage news on television instead of real news, if they pay attention to the news at all? Why are so many people averse to even paying attention to politics, even though it strongly affects their daily lives? Instead, people react to scare tactics and vote on "issues" instead of on policy and principle.
     It's easy to blame the education system. In fact, that's what the Right has done for nearly 50 years. First it was subverting the American way of life because Black children were allowed to attend, so they moved to the far suburbs, where classrooms were still all White. Now, it's subverting the American way of life because it's not religious enough - because it's teaching Reading, Ritin' and 'Rithmatic instead of the Bible. But I don't think the education system is to blame. Obviously parents have a responsibility to teach their children, but they've abandoned this job. Parents today fight with the teachers more than the students do. They sometimes seem more interested in getting their children good grades than in getting them an education. Homeschooling parents usually manage to get a good education drilled into their kids. Does spending an extra 6-8 hours in a school make them dumber, or are the parents allowing and even encouraging lazy, stupid behavior?
     Maybe the current anti-intellectual jihad is a direct consequence of the hippie movement when the boomers were kids. In the 50's and 60's, education was paramount to combat the Soviets. Math and science were pushed hard. Logic was taught so kids could withstand Red propaganda. (A skill we could sorely use today) Then the boomer rebellion came, fueled by the Vietnam conflict. And this was a full-scale rebellion, not only rejecting unquestioned authoritah, er authority, but everything they were expected to do. Make your kids learn science? Hell no, man. That's a downer. My kids are going to be free, man. Science and math and politics are for nerds, man. And so two generations now know virtually nothing about how this country works. (The rest of us are split into two groups - the caretakers and the opportunists, but that's another post)
     Or maybe (and here's the conspiracy theorist talking) we are apathetic about the way this country is run because we've been led to it by years of propaganda and brainwashing. I'm not saying there's some sort of official government conspiracy to keep people down ala 1984. I just wonder if a lot of the PR politicians do is designed to suppress any interest in getting involved. Republicans make a lot of GW getting more votes than any other president in history. In fact, it had to do little with his popularity and more to do with the fact that a) there were no third-party candidates like in 1996 or 2000 b) voter turnout was high - the highest as a percent of the voting age population since 1968 and c) he won. Republicans don't publicize that Kerry also got more votes than any other presidential candidate before him. He was like the Sammy Sosa of candidates. Anyway, the reason turnout was so high in 1968 (61% compared to 56% in 2004 and ~50% for the 36 intervening years) was because in 1968 the country was polarized around an issue - race. George Wallace was a third-party candidate running on a platform of anti-civil rights. He got the southern Democrats so riled up that they went and joined the Republicans.
     Why is this relevant? A lot has been made about the Karl Rove/Valerie Plame scandal lately. Whether or not Rove is guilty (and we don't know that for certain yet), a crime was committed. Until Rove became the primary suspect, the White House was adamant that Plame's outing as a CIA operative was a crime. Scott McClellan insisted that if anyone from the White House was involved in the Plame affair, he or she would be terminated. Rove has actually already admitted to being involved, although his defense is a rather Clinton-esque "I didn't speak her name" when he identified "Wilson's wife". So will Rove be fired for his involvement? My guess is no. Americans don't seem to particularly care very much about Rove or Plame or spies who don't drive sports cars and shoot bad guys while skiing backwards and speaking with British accents. The White House is hoping this will blow over, and the Right-wing media is downplaying everything, saying completely irrelevant things like "Wilson lied", "Plame was a desk-jockey", "Wilson only went because his wife told him to". Eventually, Bush will name a controversial Supreme Court Justice and Rove will be in the clear.
     And Democrats will scratch their heads in bewilderment and wonder how on earth he can get away with this. And it all comes down to "issues". If it's not an exciting story with sex or race or gays or God involved, you can pretty much forget people watching. It's not like Valerie Plame went missing in Aruba. She's not even hot, for goodness sake. And if there's such a thing as "political capital", every organization is too busy burning theirs up fighting issues to waste on a boring legal battle about words spoken to a reporter and shadow corporations in foreign countries. So grab your remote control and your People magazine and flip to TBS - they probably have a James Bond marathon going that will ease your boredom from reading this column.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Values Voters

     Values voters scored a victory in national elections on June 24 this year. The new conservative President, elected with a strong mandate despite claims of voting irregularity, promised to bring back traditional religious values. His campaign was geared strongly towards religious conservatives and the socially and economically depressed, who helped sweep him into office. Analysts say that his appeal to the poorer classes came strongly from the perception of him as a populist and a "man of the people". After the election, he was heard saying, "the [religious] revolution of [2005] will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world. The wave of the [religious] revolution will soon reach the entire world." It's difficult to pin the President down, however, since he usually "avoids interviews with independent journalists, or avoids answering questions by asking other questions and asking them not to ask 'complicated questions'". (src: Wikipedia)
     As you may have guessed, this President is not George W. Bush, although if you change the date from June 24, 2005 to November 2, 2004, there would not be much difference. No, this president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-liner president of Iran who was previously the mayor of Tehran and possibly one of the Iranian terrorists who held American hostages in 1979. It's far too early to say what his legacy as president will be, but as mayor, he strengthened religious rule, promoting separate elevators for men and women and put a serious religious emphasis on city cultural centers.
     Conservatives get all aflutter when you compare their man to Adolf Hitler. So, assuming Ahmadinejad did not participate in the hostage taking (US government analysts say his facial structure does not match the man in the picture, despite otherwise resemblence), let's compare him to Bush. Hey - why not? Despite the fact that Ahmadinejad has not started a reckless war, has not pushed legislation to rape the environment, and has a declared goal of pushing national oil wealth towards the poorer elements of his society, there is a lot to compare. And Ahmadinejad is not an international criminal, so what do the GOP apologists have to whine about? Now, granted, Ahmadinejad is not a great person. And he's certainly not the leader I would want for myself or my country. He's not even the leader I would wish on anyone else, even the Iranians, whom I know very little about. Then again, neither is Bush, whose destructive policies have divided and set back this great nation for a generation or more.
     Basically, Iran is experiencing a "backlash" against the liberal policies of the past few years. The Values Voters there were tired of seeing uppity women without veils and men without beards. They were looking for a return of the "good old days" of 1979, when they hardly had to harass women showing their ankles in public, because none dared to. They find the US and George Bush tired and hypocritical when talking about freedom. Islamic Iranian voters want the freedom to repress women, so why does Bush feel their freedom is less worthy than that of the reformers. The reformers, led by previously popular president Khatami, were destroying the Islamic ways of Iran and were leading the nation into godlessness. Or, at least that's how Iranian conservatives see it. Reformers are upset. "I want the rights and freedoms that everyone is entitled to," said lyricist Payam Eslami. "Normal rights. Nothing more."
     Those words could have been uttered by a homosexual in the US. Unfortunately, it seems the majority of Americans don't understand why they should care. Why they should care about women in Iran or gays in America or how the two are connected. We're like the proverbial frog in the pot of slowly boiling water. The water around is getting warmer, but we can't tell whether we're just getting comfortable or whether we're getting cooked until it's too late. For the people who were feeling just a little too chilly before, calls to lower the gas flame are ridiculed, shut down, and called traitorous. At least 51% of Americans don't think we'd hit the boiling point. Surely the flame will drop long before then. But we only have to look to our neighbors around the world to see what happens when extremism and religious intolerance hits the boiling point.
First they came for the communists,
I did not speak out
because I was not a communist.

When they came for the social democrats,
I did not speak out
because I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists
I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews
I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew;

And when they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

-Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984)

Friday, July 08, 2005

Talkin' on a Jet Plane

"I don't know when I'll get a signal again"

     With apologies to Peter, Paul, and of course, Mary, I want to talk about cellphones in the sky. That is, the communications revolution that's sweeping the nation. (No, I'm not drunk, but it's Friday afternoon and it has about the same effect) Despite what some haters may say, cellphones are absolutely remarkable. When I got my first cellphone 3 1/2 years ago (so I'm a dinosaur, so what?), I used to stare at the tiny little piece of molded plastic and think about how amazing it was that I could sit in the middle of a field and make a phone call as easily as if I were in my own living room. Easier, actually, since I didn't get good cellphone service in my house. That I could call anywhere in the world, and more amazingly, that anyone in the world could call me (not that anyone did) and my phone would ring almost anywhere I would go. It's such a revolutionary concept that almost nobody even imagined it 30 years ago. I love the beginning chapter of Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" how a character had to choose between purchasing a car phone for his business or a self-aware, intelligent, walking, humanoid robot to play nursemaid for his daughter. He could only afford one - they cost about the same. Of course, the book was written in 1940, but my wife's cellphone, which is smaller than the palm of her hand, has 2 color LCD screens, and is more powerful than any computer imagined in 1940 was free (with a 2-year contract). The walking, intelligent robot? The closest we can come so far is George Bush, except we're still working on intelligent. (It's a joke! Lighten up.)
     Anyway, the point is that what we take for granted now was beyond comprehension when our parents were young. Its impact on our lives has been immeasurable. For example, in the old days (1999), if I was meeting friends at an open-air concert, I'd have to be very careful to specify where and when I'd meet them. If someone was late or got lost in the crowd, well, good luck finding everyone else. If you couldn't make it because your car broke down? Your friends might be waiting all night. And as far as the car breaking down goes, we have much better peace of mind that we'll be able to summon help when we need it. In the old days, my mother insisted that if I flew into a city where I had family, I had to give them a call to let them know I was in town, even if I was just connecting to a flight or could otherwise not see them. Phone calls are expensive, you know. Today, it doesn't even make sense (although she still asked me if I called so-and-so when I landed in Boston on my way to Maine). I mean, not only is the call free, I don't even know that when the person picks up, they're still in the same city I am. Imagine, in 1985, calling someone on the phone and asking them, "Where are you?"
     There are downsides to this new technology. People blame it for being on call 24 hours a day, for hearing people talking loudly in the grocery store, for people having conversations during a movie. But these rudenesses aren't the phones' fault. They're the fault of people, who seem to forget that certain evil bosses had 24-hour contact policies in the pager days. That there are always rude and thoughtless people in the grocery stores and movie theaters.
     In December, the FCC announced that it may relax restrictions on cellphone use on airplanes. They had banned them because of concerns of interference with ground-based communications, as well as airplane communications. Finding that such interference did not exist and that cellphone use may very well have saved the White House from the fate of the World Trade Center on 9/11, the FCC may soon say that airlines will have the right to decide whether their passengers may use the devices.
     But wouldn't you know, busybodies are bombarding the FCC, demanding that cellphones remain banned from planes. These may or may not be the same people who keep the FCC on speed dial during the Super Bowl commercials, but their opinion is that since they expect quiet on a plane, they want the government to mandate it. It's a ridiculous argument. If an airline wants to keep phones off their planes, they have the right to demand it. But without any health or safety reason to ban them, how can anyone possibly justify the FCC or FAA doing such a thing? Jay Bookman, an otherwise reasonable columnist, opines, "In other words, we know without a doubt that allowing cellphone use in airline cabins would be a disaster.". A disaster? Sitting on a flying bus with people talking is a disaster? If you ban cellphones merely because they inconvenience some people (while conveniencing others), why not ask the FAA to ban children from flying? Or talking? On my redeye flight home from Vegas this past Monday night, I was trying to sleep and the guy across the aisle had his personal light on so he could read a book. Should I petition the FAA to ban lights on nighttime flights? (hmm, that rhymes...) Smoking - that's a health concern, OK. Fireworks and knives and lighters - those are safety concerns, check. Smacking the flight attendant on the rump - harassment concern, plus the flight attendant is more likely to be a middle-aged gay guy nowadays. Don't ask the government to restrict freedoms for your personal peace of mind, though. This goes for phones on planes, but also for flag-burning, for consensual sex between adults, and for anything else that people are trying to get their government to ban in the name of "Because I Said So".

Thursday, July 07, 2005


     The story of the missing Alabama teenage in Aruba has been so pervasive and overblown, it rivals the Michael Jackson case and the tsunami for overpromotion. One of my friends sees it as a diversion from real national problems. A new Downing Street memo? Quick, interview Natalee Haolloway's mom! I don't know how much of that is true, although certainly the administration must appreciate reduced attention on the failing war in Iraq. My wife, who couldn't tell you where Downing Street is, much less tell you why they're issuing memos, could tell you every detail of the Aruba case and scans the web nightly for more news on her investigation. This whole overdone story bugs the crap out of me though. It's tragic, sure, but how is it that that the nation is wrapped up in this one pretty, blond girl and not the thousands of other missing people in the United States.
     For example, in 2000, 6,324 people were reported missing and of those, 323 were never found, in the city of Jacksonville, FL alone! In the US, 2,000 people go missing every single day! Most of those (85%-90%) are innocent children. Natalee Holloway is neither a child nor innocent, nor was she in the United States. At the time of her abduction, she left her friends and the relative safety of a nightclub to get a ride to the beach with local men she did not know. My gut tells me that she was involved in illegal drugs and sex on the island. Not that that should condemn her to any fate which may have befallen her. Her case is truly tragic. But no more so than children who are snatched from their own neighborhoods and whose names and faces have never passed before our eyes. For every Natalee Holloway and Jennifer Wilbanks you weep over, how closely do you look at the "Have You Seen Me?" flyers you get in the mail or see in the post office? How much do you pay attention to the people you actually have a chance of helping? (My apologies to the people actually in Aruba combing the beach for traces of Natalee)
     I could accept this orgy of press coverage for what it is - an attempt to fill four 24-hour news channels plus hundreds of local newscasts with tabloid information to sell ad time. No harm, no foul, right? Except that yesterday, emboldened by the nationwide panic over her daughter's disappearance, Natalee's mother issues a press statement criticizing Aruba's response, suggesting that they're not doing everything in their power to find Natalee. Ignore the fact that the small island has completely mobilized to find the girl, that the Netherlands has sent its air force jets to Aruba to search, that hotels and citizens have donated over $20,000 to aid the search. Forget that Aruban tourism, which makes up the major part of the Aruban economy has been hurting since Natalee went missing, although that was probably mostly from parents reconsidering their unwise decisions to send their underage teenagers someplace to get drunk and have sex with strangers for a week. Can't this woman see, even through all her grief, how much Aruba has sacrified for her and her daughter's bad choices? To the media: stop feeding us this junk and let the search for her body go in peace. To those glued to their TV sets: how much will you care about the people in your own community who are weeping over their missing children right this minute, but can't even get the local TV station to show their pictures on the news? It makes me sick.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Respect My Authoritah

     As we were firing explosives into the air on Monday, celebrating a small band of rebels that revolted against their leader during a time of war, I thought about the subject of authority. One of the major differences between conservative and liberal thought is the respect and deference to voices of authority. The quote "My President, Right or Wrong" is a great example. As respectful and appropriate as it sounds to many right-wingers, it sounds dangerous and anti-America to many on the left.
     This distinction appears to have been repeated over the past 150 years. In the 1860's, Southern Democrats felt free to create their own country because of major splits in attitudes and values, while Republicans were adamant that the President is the ruler of the nation whether you agreed with him or not. In the 1960's, it was Democratic leaders that were willing to undermine the authority of local governors and mayors to enforce desegregation and remove institutional racism, while the Republicans were deferential to those in charge. Likewise, it was left-leaning hippies who protested against the Vietnam War, while the more conservative element supported the administration's moves, even when the administration was Democratic. Perhaps these attitudes stem from the religious bases of the two sides, as I discussed in April in "Pietistic Republicanism". The Republican-leaning pietistic religions rely on strong leaders and rhetoric, while the Democrat-leaning liturgical religions rely on personal interpretation of written law.
     Of course, none of this explains where the "My President, Right or Wrong" bumper stickers on SUVs were when Clinton was president and right-wingers were calling him everything from "Slick Willy" to "Bubba" to "Billery". But that's an analysis for another day. Personally, I don't believe that the righties' hypocrisy on the issue of authority means they don't believe in it. For some reason, it didn't seem to apply to #42, but it continues to be a major rift in inter-party dialogue. Democrats usually live by the mantra, "Question Authority", while Republicans prefer "Respect Authority". Is it any wonder why Republicans are the ones talking lovingly about their fathers bringing out the belt while the Democrats are the ones who would rather use "time-outs" and other alternate discipline?
     With the debut of the new Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the late Roald Dahl has gotten a lot of press recently. Before you start wondering what on earth this has to do with Southern Democrats and the Vietnam War, were you aware that Dahl's books, including Charlie, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach, are regularly targets of book banning in libraries and schools? Despite the absence of violence (except for the comic sort) and sex, many parents find these books to be highly objectionable. Why? They encourage children to question the authority of their parents. In Dahl's books, children are the heroes. Parents never are. However, Dahl's villains aren't exclusively parents, in the tired old "us vs them" genre. His villains are just as likely to be random adults, aunts, uncles, or even other children. In fact, a common theme in Dahl's books revolves around parents who have died or who are too beset by circumstances to be effective. Nevertheless, according to an article in the New Yorker, one parent looking to ban Dahl from elementary schools in Virginia said, "children misbehave and take retribution on adults, and there's never, ever a consequence for their actions." To many people, children talking back (or worse!) to adults is the worst possible offense. Children are bullying each other? Kids will be kids. Children are disrespectful to a grownup? Now we have a problem.
     I'm not saying kids shouldn't respect adults. Everyone deserves respect, even adults. But the era of Father Knows Best is gone, if it ever really existed. Deferring to people simply because they're older than you or because they hold leadership positions in business or government isn't always the right way. Again, I'm not saying kids shouldn't be deferring to adults, just not for the simple reason that they're younger. They should defer to people who know more, who are actively working to help them, who are working to educate them. And always respect, the way any human should respect another. But the instant true authority disappears, so should nominal authority.
     Many Republicans claim they lost any and all respect for Bill Clinton when his numerous affairs were revealed. Democrats argued that his personal conduct, while troublesome, had nothing to do with his military and economic and social policies. While incredibly misguided, I can understand when people make the decision to see the person instead of the office. That's why it confounds me when conservatives don't have the decency to respect the people who have taken a look at the multiple breaches of trust Bush has committed and have decided for themselves to separate the office from the man. What opponents of Dahl's books, like many conservatives, don't understand, is that the children in his stories aren't rebellious, they're independent. They evaluate actions based on the action, and not on the person performing it. This is what independent thinking is. It's not a rebellion against everything authority stands for. Dislike of Bush doesn't mean an instant repudiation against every one of his policies. Despite the high-profile battles between red and blue in Washington, a lot of lower-profile bills get passed with bipartisan approval. Otherwise intelligent Republicans will defend to the death the appropriateness of John Bolton as UN Ambassador or insist that the rationale from the start for the war in Iraq was the freedom of the Iraqi people. In response, Democrats have been "unifying", a word that means that despite their otherwise intelligence, they'll support partial-birth abortions and Palestinian terrorists. Somehow politics have become a winner-take-all game, and politicians are too scared to lose to actually govern. But instead of blindly obeying authority, instead of following Bush and Frist over the cliff, why can't we learn to question the rules? Why can't we follow our own consciencences and make our own decisions? The King is dead. Long live the King.