Saturday, December 25, 2004

Homemade X-mas Card

We’re having a nice Christmas here. Santa Claus is still a big, big deal in our house, and thankfully the girls asked for presents that weren‘t too extravagant or hard to find. So parents and kids are all pretty satisfied. No snow, which takes some explaining (my youngest has been brainwashed by the TV specials to think that a white Christmas is automatic), but it’s quite cold outside, so a couple of the presents (a Razor scooter, for one) won’t get tried out until tomorrow.

One odd thing--my friends the Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by. These guys first knocked on our door one Saturday over two years ago, and for better or worse I was polite and attentive to them. (I don’t agree with what they preach, but I respect their dedication, if for no other reason than having been a field canvasser at one time myself.) They’ve stopped by regularly ever since then, one Saturday a month or so, just for a couple of minutes, to give me a little magazine and a short Bible lesson. You wonder how productive it is for these folks going around knocking on doors on Christmas Day, in the freezing cold. But Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas like most churches to begin with, so maybe that‘s part of the point.

One of the girls got the Crayola crayons 120-color set. Crayon color technology has almost doubled in a generation. I wonder if there is some corollary to Moore’s Law that accounts for this. Anyhow, I whiled away some time today looking at the colors and the names Crayola assigns to them. Most of the great ones from my childhood are still there: Cornflower and Periwinkle and Bittersweet. The new colors, I give mixed reviews. Crayola does do some innovative things in the way of fluorescents. But some of these colors, frankly, are mostly hype and not much character. Entrants like Shocking Pink and Outrageous Orange and Unmellow Yellow--it’s obvious what’s going on there, right? Just adding a clever or trendy modifier to the same old color. There are some cheap sentimental nature/ecology allusions. There’s a Rain Forest Green, a Mountain Meadow. There’s a color called Outer Space. There are colors called Manatee and Timberwolf. Also, there are some nods to cultural Americana (Denim, Tumbleweed, Purple Mountain’s Majesty, Wild Blue Yonder), some of which verge on nationalism or militarism. Navy Blue is a cliché by now rather than a military tribute, but there is a Cadet Blue and, most striking, a Purple Heart.

Obviously, the eight or ten basic colors are a given, but it’s interesting how much editorializing goes on in The Big Box. The Crayola Company of Easton, Pennsylvania, is one of the unacknowledged legislators of our mental universe. They’re at least as important as any museum or school in fundamentally shaping American children’s imaginations and use of senses. Kvetching aside, the company fulfills this role fairly responsibly. Foods and flowers represent the membrane between the wild and the domestic, the natural and the artificial. Like many children’s songs and stories, Crayola dwells quite a bit on the table and the garden. Granny Smith Apple. Asparagus. Macaroni and Cheese. Orchid. Wisteria. Inch Worm. Robin’s Egg Blue.

I thought of commenting on this story about the soul-negating tyranny of "Season's Greetings" (there is a Raleigh connection after all, and isn't it my function on the WWW to blog about national news stories that originate in my geographical area? Isn't it? Hello?) but I won't. 'Tis the season for peace on earth, good will to ALL men, and I think the angel was including big fat crybabies in that injunction.

Monday, December 20, 2004

"Caryan" Brotherhood; or, Getting Medieval

So this Christian school got exposed for employing materials in the classroom that defended Southern slavery. (It was reported in the Raleigh News & Observer, but I’ll include this link because it will last longer.)

I never heard of Cary Christian School before, despite its being not more than 15 miles from my house. When I first heard this story, I thought there might be mitigating circumstances here. Parents in Cary regularly have gripes about the county public schools, and some of those gripes are reasonable. Cary’s population is booming at an unbelievable rate, they can’t build schools fast enough to keep up, so every year there are problems with overcrowding and children being involuntarily re-assigned to different schools to shift the population load.

This could fairly be described as “busing,” so use your imagination as to some of the Cary parents’ gripes that are less savory.

Where parents are chronically unhappy, private and charter schools will sprout up at a rapid rate. I have heard and read stories about disorganization at some of these new schools—inexperienced teachers, half-baked curricula, and so on—and I wondered if adopting a pro-slavery pamphlet might have been an honest mistake. In other words, I started out looking to give the Cary Christian School some benefit of the doubt, and perhaps learn that the story wasn’t as bad as it first sounded.

The lesson, as always: I’m an idiot. On closer examination, the story is just as bad as, maybe a little creepier than, it first sounded. Cary Christian School is a freaky scary fundamentalist place. When the bad publicity hit, the school did pull the offending pamphlet from use, but the statement currently on their website doesn’t seem very contrite about the whole thing.

My notion of Cary is that it’s full of technology workers. I guess it’s quite possible to have a narrow-minded troglodytic worldview and at the same time have the skills to build routers for Cisco Systems. Anyway, I feel there IS a line somewhere between, on one hand, religious families with legitimate concerns about the quality and climate of their public schools, and on the other hand, xenophobic bigot assholes. This was my initial interest in this story. Well, it turns out the school falls squarely into asshole territory, but I became morbidly interested in the creepy ideology this school subscribes to.

In its statement about the slavery hub-bub, the school uses Biblical arguments, some of which Jefferson Davis would recognize. Funny thing about Saint Paul, he was really clear that slave trading was wrong, but much iffier on the subject of slave ownership per se. If you’re a pedantic literalist who refuses to let your mind be tainted by any hint of historical interpretation, this is a problem. So their statement is rather sophistical (“the logic of the Great Commission requires the eventual death of slavery”) and in the end, it seems that slavery loses on a technicality. But CCS’s reading of the Civil War is that, like all revolutionary approaches to social change, it was unnecessary. (The Holy Spirit works like yeast through a loaf, it never manifests itself violently.) Exactly how slavery would have ended without a war is never addressed. But it matters little. Apparently, the reason it is important for our kids to study arguments for and against slavery, is as intellectual calisthenics, a warm-up for the really important social struggles of our time: against abortion and homosexuality.

Cary Christian School is a leading member of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. The ACCS is based in Idaho (I can’t resist reporting this factoid), and its website is a family-sized Planters sampler of mixed wingnuttery. It is slick and erudite and hair-raising all at the same time. Here is an excerpt from one of its position papers:

[A]s Christians, we reject the follies of ancient paganism, while seeking to appreciate what God gave them through common grace. As classical Protestants we affirm that the Protestant Reformation was a glorious recovery of the truth of the gospel, and was not an unfortunate mistake. As medievalists, we affirm that the soul-destroying Enlightenment was an unfortunate mistake. As private educators, we affirm that the growth of government education in America cannot be understood apart from the war and its aftermath that established a centralized state in our nation.

I assume that last sentence refers to the Civil War and Reconstruction. So to sum up, Catholics are bad, the Enlightenment was a big mistake, and government schools are linked to the sinister tyrannical after-effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. (By the way, these guys are relentlessly consistent in referring to public schools as government schools. Newt Gingrich would be proud. Hell, Goebbels would be proud.)

Clicking around these sites for the ACCS and its member schools, you find something for every prejudice. Sure, there’s rhetoric to appeal to the freaky Randy Weaver style Christianist true believer, but the schools also push the buttons of the less extremely conservative parents—run of the mill curmudgeons with their knee-jerk complaints about the public schools. The emphasis on a classical curriculum connotes a tried-and-true Eurocentric approach—a rejection of multiculturalism and trendiness. Whole-language is out; rote memorization of grammar and spelling is in. Centralization and bureaucracy are out; parents-as-customers are in. There are codes of conduct and codes of dress that enforce civility, unity, and respect for authority. Cellphones and iPods are banned from school grounds.

Something else I find intriguing is that one of the foundational texts of this “classical education” movement is “The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy L. Sayers. I think of the late Ms. Sayers as a sweet English lady who wrote whodunits. It turns out she’s a more interesting figure than I realized: a vicar’s daughter, a scholar of theology and the classics, an early feminist of sorts, an associate of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis. She was a serious critic of modernism: her horror of Freudian thought shines through particularly in this lecture. But I’ve got to think Sayers is doing subterranean somersaults at the way these Idaho spuds are using her. She champions the classical trivium in education (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) as a tool of free intellectual inquiry. But by linking her trivium with Biblical literalism, the ACCS beats Sayers’s plowshare into a sword.

The ACCS opposes school vouchers: a devil's bargain, they believe. That government money is like crack cocaine, and before you know it you'll be allowing all kinds of infernal things, like mandatory buggery in the hallways. The ACCS is also an ally of the home-schooling movement, which I posted about once before. Homeschoolers are not the isolated screwballs I’d once thought they were. Every new thing I discover about their networking and coordination worries me, including this little tidbit: "we homeschool because we don't want our kids to be socially bonded to their peer group. We want to keep the hearts of our children where they ought to be, with their parents, until it is time for them to marry and leave home."

[UPDATE: Sorry, the Cary Christian School took down their position statement about the Biblical view of antebellum slavery. Fortunately, I have my hard copy! If you're curious, let me know.]

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Now Playing

How did I get to my age without ever hearing this album in its entirety? Another shameful gap in my education... Anyway, what a great song "Stray Cat Blues" is. "Jig-Saw Puzzle" shows a marked Bob Dylan influence, but still manages to be a Stones song. I tend to feel that when Mick Jagger sings country, he's laughing AT us, not WITH us, but "Dear Doctor" is genuinely funny.

I set myself up for ridicule when I try to interest my kids in my CDs, but I did score a success with the Ramones: the girls like it, and I get a surreal chuckle when I hear my four-year-old singing along with "Blitzkrieg Bop." (She has a new pair of black boots that look like Doc Martens, and I tell her that the Ramones are just right for her to dance to in her "punk rock boots.") I feel okay about my kids hearing "Beat on the Brat" or "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" because they're pretty absurd, and if the girls ask, I can explain that it's a joke.

On "Stray Cat Blues," however, Jagger is not joking. I'm a bit uncomfortable playing that song for my kids, the oldest of whom is almost 11. Not that there's anything wrong with a grown man wanting to bed a 15-year-old girl (or two), necessarily...

Monday, December 13, 2004

Steroids in Baseball

Though I don’t agree with all his conclusions or lack of them, Skip Bayless helpfully connects some dots here. As others have pointed out, on the list of public scandals, baseball players using steroids should rank way below the leaking of grand jury testimony by federal prosecutors. But Bayless reminds me of something I’d forgotten: Herr President cited steroid abuse as one of the nation’s leading ills in his last State of the Union address. And he wants to be able to say Mission Accomplished somehow. It looks unlikely that Bush’s Justice Department will manage to nail any scalps to the courtroom wall (quel surprise), so a “victory” in the court of public opinion, by way of a politically motivated press leak or two, will have to suffice. Right-wing scolds could hardly invent a better scapegoat on this issue than Barry Bonds: an unpopular player in that blue state Sodom & Gomorrah, San Francisco. Jason Giambi, overpaid free-agent bust for the New York Yankees, is almost as good for the part.

Slate used the occasion of the recent Bonds/Giambi disclosures to republish this Charlie Pierce article, a timely reminder that in the past, drug scandals in sports have had some really bad ramifications for American public policy and constitutional law.

I realize that with sports we are talking about the private, and not the public, sphere, but we have allowed the job of abridging our rights to be subcontracted in so many directions these days that the government hardly has to bother itself with doing so anymore, and a lot of that has its roots in the days after Len Bias died. [Bias’s death from cocaine overdose contributed to the war-on-drugs mood and legislative excesses of the 80s.] Consider, for example, Pottawatomie County v. Earls, in which the Supreme Court decided last year, by the predictable 5-to-4 margin, that high-school students could be tested for drugs if they decided to participate in virtually any extracurricular activity.

The case concerned a girl named Lindsay Earls, who’d refused a school-mandated drug test. Lindsay Earls wanted to join the choir.

Pierce also makes the very salient point that much of what Bonds and Giambi are alleged to have done wasn’t illegal at the time, neither in the eyes of the government nor of major league baseball.

I don’t have a whole lot to add. I really had no faith in Bonds’s or Giambi’s innocence even before the recent revelations; the circumstantial evidence is pretty overwhelming. It bothers me, I admit, especially in the case of Bonds, who has broken or will break some of baseball’s most cherished records. But it's an aesthetic objection, and a wee bit of an irrational hang-up on my part.

There's a colorful tradition of stretching the rules in baseball, including throwing a spitball and corking a bat. The spitball, of course, was legal for many years, and when baseball finally outlawed it, they grandfathered the active practitioners. Today, when you can just about about calculate the value (at ten of thousands of dollars) of every double off the wall that could be juiced into a home run over the wall with a little help from a syringe--why would any fan be surprised?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Blogstorms and Bumper Stickers

This Peter Beinart article in The New Republic has been thoroughly masticated by my elders and betters in Blogtopia. So I'll try to keep this somewhat brief. (heh -- we'll see)

Beinart's piece is thought-provoking, and it outlines the Democrats' dilemma in a useful way. Hence all the hubbub in Democratic circles. And some of his criticisms of the Kerry campaign on foreign policy are on target. For instance, while I think Kerry was right to oppose the $87 billion of additional funding for the Iraq occupation, it was a mistake to justify that vote in isolationist terms (e.g., why build firehouses in Baghdad but not in New York). Kerry should have cited the poor progress of the Iraq occupation, and Bush's refusal to pay for the war by rolling back tax cuts--to seriously re-align his administration's priorities. There IS a way for the Democrats to extend their core principles (such as human rights and the rule of law) into the realm of foreign policy and anti-terrorism. Beinart mentions the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps: examples of Democratic initiatives that have used economic developments (carrots) in tandem with military power (sticks) and have achieved positive results. And congruent with this approach, there was room for Kerry to attack Bush from the right on his conduct of the anti-terror campaign: Why didn't we finish the job in Tora Bora? Why do we tolerate embarrassing distractions such as Halliburton and Ahmad Chalabi? Abu Ghraib -- WTF? Kerry could've hammered Bush much harder on grounds of incompetence and less than total commitment, and affirmed traditional Democratic values at the same time.

It being The New Republic, though, naturally some things in the article grated on me. Beinart writes, "Had Kerry aggressively championed a national mobilization to win the war on terror, he wouldn't have been the Democratic nominee." That's exactly wrong, as fellow TNR writer Noam Scheiber establishes here. (If anything, Kerry missed an opportunity to reach toward the center-right.) Another thing that got my goat was that Beinart implies that the right has undergone "a historical re-education," significantly adapting its worldview to the new post-9/11 reality. Where's the new thinking? The outline of the Iraq invasion and Middle East "democracy promotion" has been on paper for 10 years or more, and the 9/11 attacks were no lesson at all, but an opportunity. 9/11 energized the right, and it gave them great fuel for propaganda and fear-mongering. But the right has less insight into the causes of Islamist terrorism, and in fact are more implicated in the conditions that cause it, than we are. They have no answers, just tough talk. And fewer scruples about demagoguing and using US troops as political pawns.

Bumper-sticker semiotics is one of my favorite hobbies. On the way to the coffee shop this morning I saw a car festooned with Bush/Cheney stickers, and with the familiar support-our-troops yellow ribbon decal-—and beside it, something that shocked me: a black ribbon that had the letters POW-MIA on it. What the fuck is anybody doing with a POW sticker in late 2004? It's just to feed somebody's persecution complex. It’s ain’t rational. It’s animal.

The country is still absolutely reeling from September 11th: left and right, in different ways. We will be nowhere close to a consensus on what 9/11 meant for decades, if ever. It’s like Vietnam in that sense. In fact, what Beinart writes comparing exit poll data between Dems and Reps and between '00 and '04, is mostly meaningless. 9/11 messed with our heads profoundly enough that our common language is shaken, and what "Iraq" means to people across the political spectrum is hardly worth comparing.

What most people mean by national security is really national pride. Liberals can talk until we’re blue in the face about how the Iraq war is counterproductive against terrorism, and most people aren’t even listening. The whole point of Iraq is animal vengeance—-who cares that it’s misdirected-—and getting our national mojo back. And the GOP is infinitely better at tapping animal instincts than we are. And I don't envy them in that respect.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


If you were given dictatorial power over the NBA, what would you do differently? Assume that you can't manufacture extraordinarily talented players, but you can change the rules and structure any way you like.

Oh boy. We’re firmly in the realm of fantasy, are we?

The tension between players and fans has so much to do with money. The public resents the huge salaries players draw, but at the same time ticket prices are so high, ticket buyers feel they have a license to abuse players verbally (or worse). So turn down the volume on the bling-bling. Reduce ticket prices by at least half. Fewer corporate skyboxes. More bleacher seats that “regular people” can afford. Reduce the number of games by a third. Reduce TV commercials on the game broadcasts. Reduce or eliminate billboards in the gym. And reduce player salaries commensurate to all this (by 75%?). (I know, it’s un-American to leave money on the table voluntarily, but it’s my fantasy, dammit.)

Guarantee the security of players on the court and fans in the bleachers. More cops, if that’s what it takes. Eliminate alcohol sales, or limit them (say, first half of the game only).

I agree, the NBA should have a developmental league. At the same time, if a teenager has the ability, or shows the promise, to command an NBA contract, it seems unfair to deny them that. Nobody thought it was somehow immoral of Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard, did they? If 18-year-olds want to go pro, let them, but let them play in the “minor leagues” for a year or two. Don’t make them grow up in the glare of the big time. And don’t make them endure a year or more of pauperdom, going through the motions of getting a college education they’re not interested in.

(College basketball will become a second-tier level of play in my scenario. But college ball will become less mercenary. College fans will expect players to stick around for four years, and will believe that the players are real students as well as athletes.)

Link each NBA team more closely to the real basketball culture of its community. Put the arenas where the fans are, and reduce ticket prices to make them affordable to the “average fan.” For instance, and I’m not certain this matters in the recent fight, but the Detroit Pistons play in Auburn Hills, an affluent suburb. Detroit has a great tradition of basketball played by black kids in inner-city neighborhoods. The Pistons should be geographically and financially within reach of the most passionate fans.

If each franchise has a developmental or youth team, that can be a bridge to the community as well. Tickets to those games can be extra cheap, with perhaps some giveaways. Developmental teams could hold camps or workshops for youth players. This could be a recruitment tool for up-and-coming players as well as a community relations strategy.

Less ear-splitting music, please. Fewer dancing girls and cavorting mascots. Let’s be clear that we’re all here for a basketball game.

As far as actual play goes: Expand the court. The players have gotten bigger and faster, and it’s simply too crowded out there. Make the court wider by five feet or so, and maybe longer as well. Expand the three-second lane: perhaps go to the international lane (wider at the baseline).

I like the physicality of the NBA, but I don’t want it to be Worldwide Wrestling. Call fouls a little closer. There ARE such things as traveling and palming, Mr. Referee. And hand out stiff penalties for the most flagrant fouls.

Team play and fundamentals are lacking. Fewer games per season (i.e. more time to practice) and the presence of developmental leagues might improve this situation. Also, there should be more exhibition games between NBA teams and international teams. (Foreign teams are less athletic than American teams, but are sounder fundamentally, they pass better, etc.) All parties would benefit.

** We hashed over the Pistons-Pacers fight at PeoplesForum as well, and I was finally persuaded that it's not the end of civilization as we know it. Nobody was badly hurt, fortunately, and when was the last time people were talking about the NBA in November? But I take it more seriously (and simultaneously maybe less seriously, I dunno) than the Slate writer does. Big time sports matter, for better or worse, as a kind of Kabuki theater where we work stuff out as a culture. I'm in favor of tweaking the conventions a bit to keep the focus on fair play and merit rather than gladiatorial decadence. Yet precisely because sports is NOT curing cancer or housing the homeless, it depends on the public's faith. Pro baseball and football had problems with players involved with gambling and organized crime. Those sports confronted gambling firmly if not brutally (see: Shoeless Joe Jackson) and went on to prosper. On-court violence and the tension between players and fans may be the NBA equivalent of the Black Sox scandal.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Tuesday stuff

More stuff about religion that I was hipped to by The Revealer. Shield your eyes.

The New Pantagruel is a webmag about religion and culture. (Pantagruel is a Rabelais allusion; damned if I know what it means beyond that.) The slant is definitely conservative, but conservative in the best sense (i.e. respect tradition and “do no harm”) and hard to pigeonhole. I was only familiar with “the culture of life” as a catchphrase used by Bush and other pro-life figures, but the New Pantagruel actually fleshes it out as a political/cultural platform. It includes opposition to the death penalty, concern for systemic poverty, and other positions that you’d normally put in the Democratic column.

This piece is a roundtable discussion of the November elections, whose participants really wrestle with which candidate, if any, might earn the culture-of-life vote (Bush obviously wins on abortion, Kerry wins on everything else). My question is whether abortion has to be THE culture-of-life issue or just one of many. (Again, what makes the life of a fetus intrinsically more worthy than that of post-born humans with flaws and actual experiences?) But it’s an informative dialogue. And if you think all Ralph Nader sympathizers are/were post-Woodstock acid casualties, here is evidence to the contrary.

A writer at Daily Kos looks at the growth of the Christian Right somewhat the way I do: as a triumph of propaganda and organization, rather than a spontaneous growth of faith. He talks about the growth of Christian media, including radio stations, overcoming the usual fractiousness among different denominations and traditions:

Furthermore, thanks to companies like Clear Channel, Christians across the country are being exposed to exactly the same political rhetoric. James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" is carried on virtually every Christian radio station across the country, as are many other such programs. And while the protestant wing of Christianity is hopelessly fragmented into thousands of denominations and sects, Christians feel a sense of unity here. The idea here is: We may disagree about the proper way to baptize someone, but at least we can "all" agree on some certain core points. And although Christianity. Inc. is careful to never articulate these clearly, these are the core points around which it is organized. There is no doctrine on "Spirit 95", our local Christian radio station. Instead there are platitudes, feel-good (i.e. non-controversial) Bible verses, and praise songs. Consequently, through this tendency to avoid anything controversial, there is very little discussion of Christianity itself at all! This happens at the local level. But these stations also play the national-level shows distributed across the country. Because of this, there is a hidden implication that the topics discussed by the likes of the Dobsons and the Robertsons must be part of the "safe" topics that we (apparently) "all agree upon".

Monday, November 22, 2004

Teenage Motherhood: Not Just A Good Idea, It's The Law

I was looking forward to reading this piece in The Nation about feminist politics in the South. God knows why I was. Apparently female residents of Tennessee HAVE to be knocked up at age 15.

The basis of a good article is here, but the writer comes off as a liberal Northern anthropologist/spy, slipping into enemy territory with forged papers. She uses the term "religious fanaticism" to refer to people who... I'm not sure, contribute money to the GOP? Buy the Left Behind books? My not-very-rigorous reasoning is that if millions of people do it, it's not fanaticism.

Reporting from a conference on women's issues in the South, Ms. Sayeau writes that "it took one attendee's sister a year to recover from a minor injury because most doctors in her town of 17,000 were incompetent." Wow--I sure wouldn't publish this claim based on an anecdote. It COULD be true. I certainly suspect the quality of health care in small towns is a problem in this country (all regions). But describing the problem as one of incompetent doctors gives short shrift to the systemic nature of the problem, AND it contributes to the unhelpful stereotype of Southerners as ignorant yahoos.

Another thing: My perception is that feminism and women's liberation are tainted terms in our culture, even more so than liberal. Not just in the South, I think young women today live feminism but don't proclaim it. I'm open to being corrected about this, but I think saying "feminist" or "women's libber" without qualification comes off as dated and ivory-towerish.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

I Take What I Need to Live

This week's favorite album is Hey Ho! Let's Go! , the two-disc Ramones anthology. Sixty-some tracks, and extensive liner notes by David Fricke.

In college at some point I decided I needed A Punk Record. My music collection, then and now, ranged in tone mostly from very mellow (folk, bluegrass) to medium hard (Neil Young, The Who), but I decided I needed one really fast thrashing record, to play at maximum volume on the last day of final exams or other times when I needed sonic release. The one I grabbed was Rocket to Russia, and it served its purpose very well. Later I supplemented the one punk album with "Never Mind the Bollocks" and a Clash or two, but all of these are on vinyl, therefore I haven't played them in about a decade.

So I picked up Hey Ho! Let's Go! and feel like I understand the band much better--thanks partly to Fricke's essay. I'm sometimes guilty of taking a condescending view of punk bands as noble savages, untutored and instinctive, but these guys were deliberate in their choices about sound, onstage image, and aesthetic principles. That signature Ramones sound is really quite beautiful, even sweet when they wanted it to be--"I Want You Around" is the song that's earworming me today. And to be honest, part of what heightens my appreciation for that sound is hearing how they strayed somewhat from it late in their career, with overbearing producers and Joey betraying his deadpan delivery a bit.

A great thing about the Ramones is the combination of twisted humor with bubblegum-pop influences. Yesterday was the first time I ever took a close listen to "The KKK Took My Baby Away," and it's a girl-group song, for cryin' out loud. King and Goffin could almost have written it. (And it makes it real easy to hear what attracted Phil Spector to the Ramones.)

Monday, November 15, 2004

The Numbers Are Sapping Our Essence

My friend Naz Nomad provided a link to this story: An Indiana congressman wants to change the number of Interstate 69.
Hostettler, a proponent of the interstate extension, agrees. “Every time I
have been out in the public with an ‘I-69’ button on my lapel, teenagers
point and snicker at it. I have had many ask me if they can have my button. I believe it is time to change the name of the highway. It is the moral thing to do.”

Another data point to support my theory: The entire conservative social agenda is driven by parents being embarrassed to talk to their teenagers.

The Hoosier Gazette offers some pedantic support to Rep. Hostettler's initiative:

As a matter of fact, naming the highway’s extension I-69 is a violation of the
Interstate Highway System’s rules for numbering roads. Interstates numbers
are to increase from west to east. If the extension through southern
Indiana is named I-69, then 69 will be west of I-65, a direct violation.

Forgive me, but this is a case of the media and the congressman engaging in some 69 action on each other. Not even hot paper-on-pol action--I'd call it perfunctory--but still, a surrender of the chaste gazetteering that Hoosiers have traditionally insisted on.

Let me just ask -- Is the ultimate goal to eliminate 69 from the list of whole numbers altogether? Because that seems a little off the wall to me. What if we just tried to be cool and accept 69 whenever it naturally occurs, in highway numbers or street addresses or whatever? The other way to go is to change hundreds of highway signs and have the old ones turn up in college dorm rooms and on eBay. I don't think that's the way to lessen the sexual connotation of old 69.

Doctor Love

James Dobson has been in the news a lot lately. Head honcho of Focus on the Family, Dobson considers himself largely responsible for Dubya's '04 victory, and he's making the rounds of the Washington talk shows, loudly calling in his markers.

When my wife and I announced our engagement, her aunt gave us as a present Dobson's marriage primer Love For A Lifetime. We sat on the couch together one evening and leafed through it, reading bits aloud to each other. And we laughed and laughed. I don't remember all the things we found amusing; one thing was that he spends a couple of pages defending the idea that wives should be obedient to their husbands. Anyway, it was a hoot.

I don't have my Gore Vidal book or notes handy, but he has a good riff somewhere, written during the Reagan years, about the movement in politics toward "strengthening traditional family values," and how when politicians talk about the family, the subtext is the regulation of people's libidos, especially their homoerotic urges. When considering how James Dobson made the trip from family therapist to preacher against same-sex marriage, Mr. Vidal leaps to mind.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The important things

You may have missed it, what with the presidential election and Yasser Arafat and Falluja and all, but the Anaheim Angels have named Francisco Rodriguez their new closer. This is a smart move by the Angels and, more importantly, a terrific development for my fantasy baseball team, Diablos Rojos.

Sorry, once again, this is going to be a boring post for normal people, but I have to let my fantasy-baseball obsession out to stretch its legs.

I complained about my 2003 fantasy season at nauseating length here. Our league has a modified keeper system: each winter, all owners designate four players to keep for the next season.

Diablos Rojos keepers, 2003-4:
  • Orlando Cabrera
  • Luis Castillo
  • Kerry Wood
  • Billy Wagner

Sheesh. Cabrera and Castillo were not much of a foundation for an offense. The best thing I could say about them was that at least they were middle infielders, which simplifies drafting quite a bit. Wood and Wagner were legitimate keepers, although as it turned out they were hampered by injuries in 2004.

But then I had a good draft. Then I made a series of trades that turned out pretty well. Unlike '03, I wasn't aggressively seeking trades, I was letting the game come to me. Oak Park was wanting a shortstop rather badly, so he offered me Bobby Abreu for Orlando Cabrera. That was a slam-dunk win for me (though Oak Park won the league so he can be philosophical about it). Then I got Gary Sheffield and Freddy Garcia in exchange for Adam Dunn. Another bargain: Dunn had a very good year, but he's a wild swinger who's had an inconsistent career, whereas Sheffield is a disciplined hitter and perennial star who had an MVP caliber year. So Dunn for Sheffield was at least a wash, plus Garcia was a useful pitcher for me. Then near the deadline I traded Carl Crawford to Portland for two excellent rookies, Zack Greinke and Jason Bay. Crawford is the best base-stealer in baseball, but I had a huge lead in steals so strategy dictated dealing him. This trade helped both teams. So I finished the season in 4th place, an improvement of a spot or two in the standings, and here's how the keeper list looks:

Diablos Rojos keepers, 2004-5:
  • Bobby Abreu
  • Gary Sheffield
  • Zack Greinke
  • Francisco Rodriguez

Ah, this is better. Abreu and Sheffield are studs. THEY form a good foundation for an offense. Sheffield is aging and he played with a hurt shoulder all year, but he put up killer numbers anyway, and I think the shoulder will be better in the spring.

Rodriguez was a great middle-round draft choice. He's a hellacious young pitcher--the Angels have just kept him in a setup role because of the old rule of thumb, Teams need an experienced closer. Well, the new rule of thumb is, Look for inexpensive guys in their 20s and avoid expensive guys in their 30s. A young guy, with great stuff, on a competitive team, working with a manager who knows him and will use him in a consistent way. This is all shaping up well. It's just like what the Yankees did in the late 1990s, letting John Wetteland go and giving young Mariano Rivera his chance. I'm glad I resisted Cape Fear's repeated efforts to pry Rodriguez away from me.

Zack Greinke: ah, what the hell. There's a good argument for NOT putting a lot of stock into a starting pitcher. They're relatively unpredictable. A good strategy is collecting, say, seven starting pitchers in the late rounds of the draft, expecting four or five of them to pan out well. And even if I was going to make a starting pitcher one of my keepers, there is an argument for Kerry Wood, who has more of an established track record. But I'm going to make a spot for Greinke. People in the sport rave about him. He had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4:1 or 5:1, which is outstanding. He's 20 years old, which means he might be in danger of early burnout, OR he might be very, very special.

I made a cognitive leap forward last winter in evaluating pitchers: identifying guys who are likely to be sound, with decent ERA and WHIP. This winter's challenge: try to figure out some clues as to which pitchers will record Wins. I've been assuming that Wins are largely a matter of luck, and that the best thing you can do is have a bias toward pitchers who are on winning teams rather than losing teams. (In other words, all else being equal, take a guy from the Yankees or Red Sox or Cardinals rather than the Tigers or Devil Rays.) But I must be missing something. How come I led my league in ERA and WHIP and was near the bottom in Wins? How do Cape Fear and Oak Park manage to be near the top in Wins year after year?

If called by a Panzer, here's a good anzer

This is mind-blowing. There was a peaceful anti-war protest in Los Angeles two nights ago, and somebody sent tanks to disperse it. There is video at the linked page.

Nobody is owning up to this move; it sounds like whoever had this idea quickly realized what a fuck-up it was. The military put out some excuses that are patent bullshit. Either the tanks were lost, or they were stuck in traffic, or the company mascot Fido ate their orders.

This fucking country, I'm telling you...

Also, for cryin' out loud, it's Rule #1 for goon squad work in southern California: always take out the guy with the Handi-Cam.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004


Let me say this once and for all, in a place where I can refer to it and the rest of you will never have to hear it again. I often find myself in the position of apologist for organized religion, to online or sometimes real-life friends who are politically liberal but religiously lukewarm in their personal lives. Is the church a transmitter of division and injustice? It has been at times, no doubt. But I'm learning more and more about the positive contributions the church has made to American history, which we should acknowledge whatever our personal religious beliefs or lack of same.

The desire for religious freedom obviously was crucial to our country's founding and to our tradition of civil liberties. But what's more, in many ways, churches and denominations were transmitters of the institutional habits of democracy. Look at the original Protestant refomers: John Calvin gets a bad rap a lot of the time, and certainly the man was ruthless in attacking religious dissenters, but Calvin was also a proponent of radical equality, of universal education, and of representative government. When I joined my church, I read pamphlets and heard talks of the Presbyterianism-for-Dummies variety, and I heard the repeated argument that Presbyterian church governance was influential in the movement for American independence and the authoring of the Constitution. (Presbyterians are a Calvinist offshoot.) It's a self-serving argument, but not without some weight. The Protestant churches have been agents of enlightenment in America.

The church and synagogue were key institutions for helping American immigrants gain a foothold in their new country. And black Americans--good grief, black American culture is unimaginable without the influence of and sustenance provided by the church. For decades when they completely lacked political power, African-Americans were maintaining the practices of self-government in their churches: electing bishops and other representatives, raising up leaders from the ranks of the community.

There are many more examples. I haven't read it yet, but I understand Tom Wolfe wrote a magazine profile of Robert Noyce (?), the founder of Intel. Wolfe argues that Noyce learned principles as an active member of a Congregationalist church that have been key to the corporate success of Intel.


To me, this sums up the "pro-life" movement. It makes a cult object out of the baby--cute, innocent, full of potential--but gives short shrift to the real, complicated woman who found herself with an unplanned pregnancy.

Who cares about the "pre-born" when they enter the anticlimactic post-born stage of their lives? Are pro-life people working on the needs of unaborted babies and their mothers: things like adoption, affordable child care, universal health coverage for children? Is the Christian right seriously looking at ways to REDUCE unplanned pregnancies? Are they seriously claiming that abstinence-only sex ed is EFFECTIVE, rather than just a way to avoid awkward discussions with their teenagers? A lot of inconvenient facts get glossed over.

A lot of the churchy talk about the "traditional family" is sentimental hogwash that relies on stirring anecdotes. Fallen women who made the brave decision to "choose life." Ex-gays who courageously overcame their sinful urges and took the cure. Ex-drunks who used Bible study to kick the bottle, save their marriages, and in rare cases get elected President. Great, but look at statistics: the so-called Bible Belt region has higher rates of divorce, of domestic violence, of STDs.

Recycled: ~ 80% post-consumer content

Mark Schmitt of The Decembrist grapples with the phenomenon of the Christian Right in this post. A snippet--

[W]hy it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has, for the
first time ever, virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public
phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is
this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a
displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the
factors that might cause it to change?

Here is what I posted in Comments there:

I take issue with the thesis that we are experiencing a period of religious renewal. Rather, I think consumerism is having the same corrupting effect on religion as it has on so many aspects of American culture. Comfort trumps social justice. Knee-jerk secularism and feel-good fundamentalism -- both are easier than thinking.

Absolutely agree that megachurch evangelicalism partakes of self-help ideology and eschews sacrifice. Megachurches follow the logic of the marketplace and entrepreneurism. Many booming churches are non-denominational and so are relatively free to incorporate worship styles and doctrines that are "market-tested" for maximum popular appeal. New church start-ups use the same criteria for site selection that Starbucks or Walgreens uses: they look for emerging suburbs with attractive demographics. These churches promote tenets and practices for their convenience and feel-good quality, e.g. the "prosperity Gospel."

By contrast, the historic denominations (with more nuanced theologies and thoughtful, committted approaches to social problems) are less flexible. They support institutions and doctrinal traditions somewhat without regard to "marketability". They are geographically rooted to long-standing churches/congregations, even to those located in inner cities and rural areas experiencing demographic decline. Their situation is analogous to the Mom 'n' Pop store struggling to survive on Main Street and compete with the new Wal-Mart out by the interstate.

Today I heard a leading scholar of the African-American church express the view that the growth of white conservative Protestantism is simply a backlash against the civil rights movement. I think that's a little too simple an explanation, but there's a kernel of truth there. Mainline Protestant leaders were often outspoken in their anti-Jim Crow views. The mainline denominations are precisely the ones that have been in decline for the last generation while more conservative churches have experienced growth. It's a sort of religious "white flight."

Similarly, I think there's truth to the notion that pro-life, anti-gay, anti-feminist movements are a reaction to the sexual revolution and gender wars of the Baby Boom generation. (By anti-feminist I mean, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention's retrograde decision on the ordination of women. The SBC REVOKED the ordination of clergywomen who had been serving very ably as pastors.)

ADDENDUM: To link this more clearly to Schmitt's original post, the pertinent "trend in the nature of religious worship" is that in many places, worship has become about Me, Me, Me. God, give me comfort and leisure and success AND deliver me from feeling guilty about it. Economic and racial issues are hard to confront, because it's hard to deny one's own place in those hierarchies. People of different sexuality are easier to demonize and feel superior to.

The church is a social and historical institution. Many American Christians, like many Americans in other contexts, have been frightened by change and by social upheaval. I think the Culture Wars are real--there is a deep and acrimonious divide between modernists and anti-modernists. Religion stresses tradition and has pre-modern roots, so it is a particularly intense front in the battle.

I just had a thought: as voluntary organizations, churches may be MORE susceptible to some harmful effects of consumerism (insularlity, cliquishness) than other venues. Workplaces and schools tend to have diversity thrust on them. But churches are largely voluntary and self-sorting, and can be extremely insular.

A side effect is that the Karl Roves and the Rick Warrens have joined forces and found a way to put a religious spin on greed, sentimentality, and self-congratulation. (Insularity works to the advantage of the GOP, which, for example, wants to get a sharp anti-gay message out to the base but show a more gay-tolerant face to the political center.)

Disjointed stuff. More later, perhaps.


I got to sit in on a conference of African-American preachers yesterday. A couple of highlights were hearing a singer who left behind a career as an operatic soprano for the ministry (she has performed at Carnegie Hall, she later told me), and hearing a real black church sermon: a foot-stomping, window-rattling, virtuoso performance. (The preacher took note of me as the uptight white guy off to the side who didn't shout "Amen" even one time. Sorry, preacher, I just thought it would sound fake coming from me, but I did enjoy the sermon.)

The main topic of the meeting was sociological research on the black church: demographic trends, institutional issues. Eye-glazing stuff for normal people, but I found it interesting, and I wanted to report a couple of things I heard. I suppose this must be classed as anecdotal evidence. I trust the sources, but you can judge for yourself.

Most Americans who convert to Islam (and how many there are is a matter of conjecture--some people believe there are a lot) are African-American men who convert in prison. How perfectly obvious (the familiar Martin-Malcolm dichotomy is still alive), and yet perfectly ironic. I remember another factoid I learned a couple of years ago that struck me in a similar way: the U.S. military sends its doctors to inner-city emergency rooms to get training in trauma medicine.

I was surprised at how many different contexts the recent election came up in. These leaders were chastened by the fact that white conservative churches turned their people out more effectively than black churches did. They regarded it as a failure of leadership and of educating their members. However, a few different people echoed this observation: The federal government is using the IRS as an intimidation tool against some black churches who urge members to vote Democratic (with the usual dance of endorsing positions, not candidates). The threat is applied in a curiously selective way, apparently.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I'm a Strict Constructionist

That's right, I believe the Constitution should be interpreted according to the authors' intent, and that includes the Second Amendment. People should have the right to possess as many breech-loading flintlock rifles as they want. Single-ball pistols as well. This should be true throughout the 13 states.

Keep your powder dry and your ramrod ready!

Dixie Liberal Blues

Without meaning to, we had really gotten my kids worked up about the election and John Kerry. They helped us put the stickers on the bumpers, and stake the signs out in the yard. They kept an ear open for mentions of the candidates' names on TV or the radio, and checked the morning paper for their pictures. They spoke Kerry's name with delight, and Bush's name with cartoonish disdain, like a foul substance they were trying to spit out. They drew pictures of Kerry or for Kerry, one of which they insisted I mail to him, which I did, at his campaign office in Washington. My oldest was excited that Kerry won the mock election in her fifth-grade class. (This may be a red state, but by God, my kids go to a blue school.) My youngest, who is four, told me confidentially that she was thinking about marrying John Kerry.

So I was a little worried about how they would take the news this morning. I needn't have been. "Did John Kerry win? He didn't? What's for breakfast?" Having small kids can be great for taking your mind off stuff.

Let me say I feel really fucking stupid about the post below this one, written on Election Eve. I expressed rather nakedly and childishly the hope that America is a liberal country at heart. In 2000 we were indignant--we felt cheated by the Republicans, and ill-served by the media. In 2004 we were mobilized and largely ready for those things. The masses heard the Kerry message and the Bush message, and they chose the Bush message. There aren't many "if onlys" today, mostly just a cold, heavy realization that the problem is with us. Or else it's with them. Or with the fact that there's an us and a them.

In the car, where ALL your heavy duty talks with your children take place, H*****, the fifth grader, asked me about the differences between the parties: Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian (the three on our ballot). My answer rambled on for five minutes or so, talking about the role of government, activist or minimalist and so on. Then I added: "Then there's also the Green Party. They really care about the environment." (Come on, I couldn't let the Libertarians be the only counter-culture party out there.) Anyway, as you might have guessed, I seem to have raised a Green Party supporter.

I think I mentioned I was a poll greeter at my precinct for the Democrats. It was a mixed experience. It's dull work, certainly, but I see the value of it, as well as that of the volunteer poll observers and drivers and canvassers. There were lots of good intentions and energy on display, though organization fell down in some ways. My co-volunteers were nice folks: disaffected Dixie liberals like myself. I see things I could have done better, ways I could have been bolder. There was some gamesmanship by our Republican greeter counterparts, which maybe I should have confronted more aggressively. Guess I shouldn't bear our red state shame entirely on my own shoulders.

I took the signs out of the yard today. I wonder how long I'll keep the bumper stickers on the car.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Voting (3): Low-Information Rationality

I'm going to be a poll greeter at my precinct tomorrow, a Democratic Party volunteer. I went to a meeting tonight to pick up signs and printed materials and find out what I'm supposed to do. Rule 1 on the handout I got: "Attitude is Important!... Be sure to smile, be positive, and be non-confrontational."

One volunteer spoke of his experience as a greeter during the early voting period, and encouraged us to introduce ourselves and be cordial with the Republican greeter at our site. Help voters relax, create a bipartisan spirit. Some folks joked that they'd like to unload their leftover Halloween candy on the voters standing in line. The Party's response is, fine, but hand it out impartially to donkeys and elephants alike.

It was also stressed to us that a key part of our job may be to offer support to the people still in line at closing time. The rule is that if a person is in line at 7:30 pm, he is entitled to vote, even if it takes half the night. We want to help that person to stick it out for that hour or more--to keep his place in line and finally mark that ballot, resisting the little voice that says screw it, let's go home and watch Law & Order re-runs. If I can cajole, cheerlead, run out and buy donuts, whatever it takes to help last-minute voters persevere--it's all good.

Plainly, the Democrats value turnout for its own sake. At least this time around, they do. That seems right to me: the most tentative and marginal voters--immigrants, minorities, poor whites--are ones who belong in the D column. Perhaps that's naive to say, but it sure is borne out by the fact that the GOP obviously hates new voter registration and robust turnout--they keep pulling dirty tricks to try and thwart those things. And the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

I've thought for awhile that lowering voter turnout is a deliberate Republican strategy, and one that is unhealthy for the body politic. One effect, if not goal, of the Lee Atwater - Karl Rove school of scorched earth politics is to breed general disgust with politics-as-usual and politicians as a profession. They're all the same: all liars and crooks and scumbags. Right? Isn't that the common-sense wisdom out of the mouth of Joe Sixpack nowadays? I suppose it's hard to trace causation in this chicken-and-egg relationship between negative campaigning on one hand, and widespread disdain for government and politics on the other. But surely there's a correlation.

The Atwater - Rove approach, and the overall sense of alienation it fosters, leverages the structural advantages the Republicans have. The negative political climate is like a thick smog, blinding and irritating. It discourages the tentative, weakly-committed voters. Why leave the house and breathe that shit if you don't have to? So the contest is between the parties' respective bases, and it's harder to organize the Democratic base, which is like a herd of cats (trust me, I was just at a meeting with them), than it is to organize the Republican base, which is more like a team of sled dogs--hungry blue-eyed purebreds with a narrow field of vision and an authority fetish. Anyway, it's an article of faith with me that being positive and encouraging turnout--more universal suffrage--is a good long-term strategy for Democrats.

A tip of the hat to Phil at Here Be Monsters who got me thinking with this recent post , which is partly about whether voter turnout in this country is an absolute good, or whether it would be better if pig-ignorant citizens (not to mince words) stayed home on Election Day. Further thanks to Phil and Chana for helping me re-discover this New Yorker piece by Louis Menand, a really interesting examination of the cognitive processes of American voters.

Phil bemoans the stupidity of the electorate and its rising stupidity in recent years. Mr. Menand observes the extremely tenuous grounds most people base their votes on, as well as on the fact that even Americans who "vote their pocketbooks" do a piss-poor job of accurately gauging what voting decision would most benefit their pocketbooks. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that most folks hold political opinions that are meaningless.

As a practical matter, of course (and I think Phil would agree), smart people governing dumb people is an unworkable idea--even less workable in this country than giving all the power to the rich and/or high-born, who at least could be easily identified. Menand gives us a glimmer of hope: a theory of "low-information rationality" in which through symbolic and associative reasoning (e.g., use of party labels and other generalizations), even poorly-informed voters can make the "right" choice in the aggregate.

Some of us cultivate our opinions lovingly, while others toss them off casually. But is any political opinion meaningful outside the context of maximizing its influence? A vote is a vote is a vote. As an ordinary voter, how is my opinion more potent than that of my Southern Baptist neighbor who votes however Pat Robertson tells him to? Well, I type my opinions into persuasive posts on this nifty blog... but then I must conclude that Atrios's opinions are about 100,000 times more meaningful than mine.

I don't know quite where I'm going with that last part. I do know that I'm impressed with Menand's conclusion that "[f]or most people, voting may be more meaningful and understandable as a social act than as a political one." And when I ponder the apparent surge in voter interest in the US this year, I can't imagine it is mainly attributable to enthusiasm for Bushism: for straights-only marriage, tax cuts uber alles, and blind loyalty to Dubya's war council. No, I think it's a Bush backlash, and what it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in size and energy.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Voting (2)

My first grown-up (sort of) job was as a teacher at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. A cozy little enclave in a—well, not cozy, actually, rather hard-bitten but small town, where people took note of new arrivals. There was a teacher at the school named Bill, a middle-aged man, absent-minded and rumpled, with crumbs of food in his mustache, Mr. Chips in the early stages of senility. But a very sweet man. Bill was active in the local Democratic Party. The first time we met he inquired politely about my politics and was pleased to hear that I intended to register Democrat. The next evening I got a knock on my apartment door, and was surprised to see Bill there, holding the voter registration forms in his hand. He came in, sat down on my awful Salvation Army couch, and filled out the forms FOR me, which was a little embarrassing. But it was an intimate and human moment. I definitely felt I was being ushered into something, with Bill as my guide.

My memory of Bill has a strange coda: Months later, Bill took me aside in the hallway of the school and told me, solemnly, that the party had been suckered and one of the Democrats on the ballot was a ringer, a Lyndon Larouche follower. Bill was very sorry to have to take the highly irregular step of urging me to vote for the Republican in this particular race. I followed his advice. That was one of the last times I talked to him before I moved away.

I mentioned earlier that I was traveling last week. I didn’t get online much from the road. What little news I got came largely from catching snippets of CNN or glimpsing the front page of USA Today. Looking at the campaign news through that prism, I was left with the feeling that Bush was unbeatable. Whatever Bush does on a given day is above the fold, while Kerry is always below the fold. What a relief to get back home and apply the comforting filter of my favorite blogs, reporting all the bad news for the GOP and all the reasons why Democrats should be energized.

But which filter is truer? The one with integrity or the one with market share? It’s an incredibly complex political culture we confront, a Rorschach inkblot we try to make sense of. And the act of voting this year feels to me like an urgent prayer—or if you prefer, a coin tossed into a fountain for luck, by someone who desperately needs for his luck to turn. An inarticulate plunk into a chaotic abyss, a gigantic input-output system that collects impulses from a hundred million directions, processes them and yields what? Wisdom, justice, vice, voodoo?

Doing my homework on the candidates then presenting myself to vote is keeping faith. Faith in what, I'm not sure. There's been a lot of disgusting news about mucking around with the voter rolls, and even if my candidates squeak through, it won't soothe all my qualms about our alienated system.

Voting (1)

The early-voting sites around here are drawing large crowds. I went to vote on Tuesday and had to wait 40 minutes in a line that snaked out the door and around the corner of the building. It was a beautiful clear day, fortunately.

The woman in front of me in line was lively and chatty, and we got an earful of her political views. “I’m sick of Bush AND Kerry. I wish I could vote for None Of The Above. Let’s see how we would do with no president for awhile.” The government just needs to get out of the way and let individuals fulfill their potential, which is unlimited in our free society. Another woman in line disagreed gently, bringing up discrimination against women. She recalled a job where male co-workers used to grope and grab her. Our heroine Woman #1 nodded, she too had been grabbed by men on the job. The solution there was simply to say No to these men firmly. Then she tied together the strands of the discussion thusly: “That was one good thing about Clinton. He was so busy messing around with his girlfriends, he didn’t have any time left over to meddle with the economy or anything.”

By this time I was biting my tongue so hard I liked to draw blood. (Bill Clinton didn’t take time to tinker under the hood of public policy??!?!) But there this woman was, with her cockeyed and extremely cynical views of the politicians, lined up to cast her vote a week early. I came to find out she needed to vote early because on Election Day she would be serving as a poll worker. She’d had to get trained—sure, she would get paid, but she had devoted quite a bit of time. Elections couldn’t be held without people like her.

I find the ritual of voting to be enjoyable and renewing: giving my name to the senior citizen keeping the list, receiving my ballot, filling it out. We have the paper ballots where you fill in the broken arrow, then feed the ballot into a scanner when you’re done. I enjoy the gauntlet of signs and poll greeters you pass through on the sidewalk outside the polling place. I like to give a wink to the Democratic greeter out there. I enjoy getting the “I Voted” sticker as I leave. If election boards shift more toward voting by mail or online, and surely they will, I will mourn the lost ritual of going down to one’s voting precinct.

Call me crazy—a little part of me also appreciates standing in line at the post office or the DMV. Those inconvenient cattle calls are rites of citizenship, I say. People of every creed, color, and background have to show up and be hassled.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Roll Over Bambino

The Boston Red Sox are on the brink of winning the World Series. It would be their first WS championship in my lifetime, indeed in my dad’s lifetime, though my Gran was three years old the last time. And she doesn’t turn 90 until January.

Assuming the Red Sox can seal the deal, this would be the end of the notorious Curse of the Bambino. The notion is that when Harry Frazee, Red Sox owner and Broadway producer, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 (in order to finance his B’way musical “No No Nanette”) a blessing was placed on the Yankees and a curse on the Red Sox. And you can’t deny that over the years the Red Sox have lost a lot of close contests under excruciating circumstances. Longtime fans can tick off the names on the roll of dishonor: Johnny Pesky. Denny Galehouse. Mike Torrez. Bill Buckner. Grady Little.

Bill Simmons, aka’s Sports Guy, is a lifelong Boston baseball fan, but he hates, in fact is offended by, the idea of the Red Sox curse. He thinks it suggests that Red Sox fans WISH for misfortune, ENJOY being seen as perennial losers. He prefers to think of the Red Sox nation as long-suffering rather than cursed.

I have to say, never having been a true Red Sox fan, the notion of the Curse has always appealed to me. Appealed to my Puritanical side, I should say. The baseball God is a jealous god, and Frazee’s disrespect to his franchise and to baseball’s greatest player deserved punishment. But perhaps 86 years in wilderness exile is enough. And my superstitious side feels that a Red Sox win would somehow bode well for the Massachusetts gentleman running for the presidency.

Certainly, there are several good non-supernatural explanations for why the Red Sox have fallen short so many times. Boston has often featured lineups that hit well but didn’t run or field or pitch particularly well. When you get to the playoffs, it helps to be able to win games in more than one way, and the Carmines were often too one-dimensional. Some people have observed that the Red Sox’s culture was one of brooding temperamental stars and a lack of team spirit, “25 players and 25 cabs.” There’s also the uncomfortable but valid argument that the Sox had a history of institutional racism that caused them for years to ignore the pool of talented players of color, and then for years afterward to have trouble attracting those players to or keeping them with the team. (See Howard Bryant’s Shut Out, an informative read despite being the worst-edited text I can ever remember grappling with.)

This year’s team addresses those problems. The core of the 2004 Red Sox, their emotional center as well as their core of talent, is a group of dark-skinned players: Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and David Ortiz. They seem to be fun-loving guys who help make for good team karma. At midseason this year, Boston traded away a marquee player, Nomar Garciaparra. Somewhat counterintuitively, the trade improved the team in two ways: (1) it lowered the stress level in the clubhouse, and (2) by substituting Orlando Cabrera for Nomar, the team’s ability to run, catch, and throw improved sharply. Pitching-wise, as patched-together as the Sox have often seemed the past couple of weeks, they have enough warm bodies, with a good mix of flamethrowers and junkballers. And you can't argue with the wisdom of going out and getting Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke.

I feel for the Cardinals (and for Jim B., my college roomie from St. Louis), but for once the Red Sox seem more well-rounded than their opponents. St. Louis has some big bats, but their pitching has looked pretty awful, and they are suffering the worst absence due to injury, starting pitcher Chris Carpenter. Wait till next year.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Kris or Krista

I was perusing the candidate endorsements in last week’s Independent, the alt-weekly paper here. There is a candidate for District Court judge here named Kris Bailey, who I had assumed was a woman. He is in fact a man, but as the Indy points out he doesn’t seem to mind our thinking His Honor is Her Honor. Bailey’s website doesn’t identify him real clearly—indeed, there is one picture of the Bailey family in which Kris’s WIFE is holding a gavel.

This makes a difference. I confess, on those down-ticket races where I probably know little if anything about the candidates, I often use the apparent sex of a candidate as a guide. All things being equal, I’ll usually vote for the woman.

The Chief Justice of our state Supreme Court, elected in 2000, is named I. Beverly Lake, Jr. (I is for Isaac.) He is a perennial GOP office seeker, got crushed in the 1980 governor’s race, won some and lost some other campaigns for various offices. His political fortunes improved, though, when he changed his name on the ballot, in 2000, to “Beverly Lake.” Quite a bit less masculine than “I. Beverly Lake, Jr.,” wouldn’t you say?

Electoral androgyny. Who'da thought this would be a conservative political strategy?

Monday, October 25, 2004


Notes from a week mostly spent in the arms of the airline industry:

I don't care what all your metal detectors say. My shoes are a weapon of terror against good taste--nothing more.

Towns and bodies of water should be labeled to help me identify them from the air.

My cab driver in Louisville took a liking to me, I guess. He showed where he keeps his Smith & Wesson. Then he told me a baffling story about the time a fare left a prosthetic leg ("still warm!") in the backseat, and never tried to reclaim it, though the cab office held onto it for years.

Hey, movie fans, have you wondered what Val Kilmer was up to, or down to, lately? Well, this month he's the cover boy for the American Airlines in-flight magazine. Looking ruggedly enigmatic in his photo, Val submits to a hard-hitting interview... about things to see and do in Santa Fe, his adopted hometown.

A shoeshine GIRL!

Well, for my afternoon libation I explored the delights of Concourse G. For my evening meal I think I'll wander over to Concourse F and see what gustatory surprises await me there.

The cover story of Inc. magazine is titled "Are You Underpaying Yourself?" Gee, could this be pandering to the readers?

I was sitting on the plane waiting to take off from Minneapolis/St. Paul (connecting en route to Kansas City) when the flight attendant came over the speaker, in an exasperated voice, telling us we were delayed because John Kerry's campaign plane was taking off and all other flights had to wait. (The passengers murmured their discontent.) A few minutes later, the pilot came on, in a more patient and understanding voice, saying that actually the problem was due to Dick Cheney's campaign plane. (Laughter and LOUD sounds of discontent from the passengers.) The delay was pretty short and we were on our way, but the next day at my conference I spoke to a woman from St. Paul who was on the flight, and she said the candidate who was in town was in fact Kerry. Now I'm wondering if life is just really confusing in a swing state, and/or if the Northwest Airlines pilot was playing mind games with us.

The cover of the Northwest Airlines magazine was Lily Tomlin, who at least got to talk about herself.

Chewing gum is my friend.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Bus Stop

Well, it's not every day you come to work and see the burnt-out shell of a bus parked near your office.

Bus 19 is a program of Christians for Israel. They have purchased the remains of a bus that was struck by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem early this year, with 11 people being killed. They travel the country displaying the bus (it's on a flatbed trailer) and raising awareness of the horrors of Palestinian terrorism.

Duke, in the face of protests, is hosting a Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference this coming weekend. Allowing Bus 19 to come was an 11th-hour conciliatory gesture to the anti-Palestinian people. That's also how come hardline anti-Islamist writer Daniel Pipes is speaking on campus tomorrow.

What can you say about this bus? On one hand, it IS affecting. Almost all the sheet metal is gone from the sides and roof. The glass is all gone. Seats are ripped out of the floor and scattered here and there. You can see where the bomber was positioned. The thick plywood floor is blown out in that spot, and one seat has all the fabric and foam rubber burned away.

On the other hand, it's like a fetus in a plastic bag that an anti-abortion activist thrusts in your face. The campus paper calls it academic expression, which it is most definitely not--it's an appeal to raw emotion. Are we guilty of intellectualizing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict here? Being as we're a university, I think we're in the business of intellectualizing things.

The bus arrived here yesterday. A quiet counter-demonstration began today. And as I was typing this, an e-memo came over warning about a bogus e-mail that appears to attribute pro-Hamas statements to Duke students connected with the PSM. So although none of this interferes directly with my work, it's not just another day at the office.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Work and Family

I've been spending time the last week or so at 11D, where the proprietor Laura has been hosting a blog conference on work and family. The gender politics of housework. The competing wants/needs of parents and non-parents in the workplace. What government should or shouldn't do for "nucular" families. Good stuff like that.

My bride and I, we're just hanging on, I feel. Trying to keep all the balls in the air, with a lot of drops or bobbles. We don't feel like we're doing a stellar job at home OR at the office. But neither of us wants to step completely out of work life for a substantial chunk of time, and I suppose we like the standard of living that our combined incomes afford us. In other words, we have a good-sized house in an attractive city with pretty good public schools. So things could be a lot worse. Money feels tight, however, and it's hard to see a time when it won't feel tight. The youngest gets out of day care in two years; the oldest enters college probably five years after that. Time is even tighter; we're harried and tired a lot.

Don't know if anybody saw "60 Minutes" last night -- a feature on professional women taking a hiatus in their careers to be full-time parents. It was a fairly thoughtful piece, but one undercurrent, to me anyway, was that Lesley Stahl was a little bit miffed that after all the crap she (and other women of her generation) took to carve out a place for women in the workplace, that the younger generation was "opting out" of that struggle.

One woman interviewed had been top of her class at Stanford Law School (I think it was Stanford; someplace high-falutin' like that), and she left her job to be with the kids while her husband, a surgeon-in-residency, brought home the bacon. The implication (or at least the proposition that she had to rebut) was that she was squandering her Stanford education.

I'm not quite doing justice to the 60 Minutes story. They discussed the problem of part-time work, namely how difficult it often is for part-timers to get satisfying assignments rather than busy work. They did interview a Harvard Business prof talking about innovative ways for companies to deal with the dynamic: perhaps maintaining an extended-leave relationship with an employee, with some peer contact and continuing education, for the 5-10 year period that he/she was a fulltime parent. But the story clearly viewed the dynamic as a problem, and its interviewees as economic assets, and education as a financial investment. (Three years of law school ain't a broadening experience like a semester in Paris, I realize, but I would have appreciated some lip service paid to the idea that a liberal education is a good in itself.) It sure would have been nice if stay-at-home dads with graduate educations and lofty career prospects could have been interviewed as well.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


A lot of political blogs have commeneted on this Washington Post column from yesterday: Onetime Bill Clinton pollster Mark Penn saying that the conventional wisdom is all wrong--there are lots of swing voters who are going to be decisive in this year's campaign.

The point many have made is that Penn is off base when he says:
"We might all learn a lesson from Bill Clinton in 1992. He won by making the
Persian Gulf War irrelevant to the election. "

The first Gulf War was OVER in 1992. It had been well-planned, well-argued for, and had received multilateral support, and whatever people now think about the wisdom of leaving Saddam in place and abandoning the Shiite rebellion, in '92 there was consensus in the U.S. that the war had been a success. The present Iraq war is ablaze with controversy. It just seems silly to advise Kerry to shy away from Iraq as an issue. Bush went so far out on a limb, and with such troubling results so far, it was just dense for Kerry and Edwards not to confront Bush about it.

A few general observations: Mr. Penn, for obvious self-interested reasons, is making the case for a very poll-centered approach to campaigning. It's a silly conceit of mine that a "real" statesman would campaign and govern on principle, not pander to voters based on poll results. (Not just a conceit of mine--it's no accident when Bush boasts that he doesn't look at polls or focus group data.) But I think there are good reasons not to put enormous faith in polls that examine specific issues or divide us too finely into demographic segments (e.g. middle-aged white suburban women).

Polls are simply not as accurate as they used to be, for one thing. Americans have polled and telemarketed to death, the rate of response to polls and surveys has dropped considerably in the last decade or two (I believe this is true in marketing and social science contexts as well, not just politics), so for statistical reasons polls are less reliable. (I would welcome comments on this observation.)

I think what Penn is describing is the famous Clintonian art of triangulation. Some phrases that come to my mind are "awfully cute," "threading the needle," and "somewhat defeatist." It just seems to me that triangulation presumes (excessively) that the public is hostile to a progressive message, and the best result triangulation aims for is a 51-49 victory. Bill Clinton could perform this juggling act, shading the message differently for different audiences, and keeping the Democratic base just happy enough while offering goodies to the moderates in the general election. But campaigners as talented as Bill Clinton don't come along very often.

Maybe I'm not hearing reason about this, but I still don't accept the main premise of the column. I think there is more to be gained from drawing clear lines, rousing the base, and doing get-out-the-vote activities than from fetishizing swing voters, be they soccer moms or office park dads or whatever the hell.

Penn counsels the Kerry campaign to be positive and avoid "insults." I would reply that it is not an insult to look at Bush's performance and give it the harsh verdict that it objectively deserves. Also, to me, an aspect of being positive is really trying to unify us, and promote a common vision that applies to everybody.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Why NASCAR Is Stupid

Because it is not a sports league, it’s an advertising agency. Why else would NASCAR react so hysterically because Dale Earnhardt Jr. accidentally let slip a cuss word on TV?

Earnhardt screwed up. NASCAR fined him, which is appropriate. But NASCAR also deducted points from his ranking in the drivers’ championship standings. Knocked Earnhardt out of the points lead, in fact.

That violates the integrity of the competition. It's as if the NFL got mad at Terrell Owens for taunting his opponents after (legally) scoring, so they penalized the Eagles a touchdown or a win in the standings. Earnhardt screwed up in the PR function of his job, he didn’t break the rules of racing. But apparently the PR function is top priority. What are they crowning, the champion racer or Miss Congeniality?

NASCAR exists to turn its cars into billboards and the drivers into spokesmodels. The first words out of any driver’s mouth in an interview are thanks to his sponsor, Viagra or the U.S. Army or Rockwell Automation or whatever. I used to scorn Jeff Gordon because every time he won a race, the first thing he would do afterwards was pick up a big bottle of Pepsi, and be sure the logo was visible to the viewing audience while he drank it. (Poor guy’s body temperature was about 120, he needed an IV drip, but he was contractually required to drink fizzy sugar water, which no sensible athlete would quench his thirst with.) But maybe he considers himself lucky he didn’t have to take a swig of Dupont paint.

NASCAR wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be G-rated for its corporate friends, but its fan appeal is based on the rough, tough, no-nonsense image of the drivers (especially the Earnhardts). They don't really want their drivers NEVER to swear or duke it out in Pit Row, they just want to administer wrist slaps. But if I were Dale Jr. I'd be pissed.

I'm a fool to let it bother me. I don’t even know much about stock car racing, so I don’t know how Earnhardt’s penalty (25 points) compares to the penalty (two laps) they assessed Robbie Gordon, who merely caused a wreck on the track deliberately a few weeks ago.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Not A Crossroads

Yesterday's post was a bit over the top, no?

I really expected the day's news to have an impact on the evening's Bush/Kerry debate. (I wonder if one of the many rules of engagement the two campaigns agreed to said anything about using late-breaking news?) Maybe the innocent-unsuspecting-kid aspect of yesterday's attacks got to me sentimentally, but I think on any other day it would have been a much, much bigger story. And it does get at the central question about Iraq: as every day brings new reports of vicious insurgent attacks, how do you respond: with stubborn resolve not to be driven out of the country? Or with deepening understanding that the US armed forces will never, never be able to achieve a non-catastrophic outcome?

Nobody is eager to admit failure in the face of terrorist violence, but failure is the fact of the matter. We screwed up terribly. The terrorist insurgency may be the final straw, but it wasn't the original problem; the original problem was Bush's reckless adventurism. A military force under the United States brand name cannot pacify Iraq; we have no credibility or good will there. We need some kind of international coalition to bail our pitiful asses out. Maybe no American leader can get that coalition, but it's for damn sure that the Bush government can't; it has no credibility or good will in the world.

I don't have too much brilliant insight about the presidential debate last night to add to what's already out there. I was yelling at my TV for Kerry to lambaste Bush about the International Criminal Court (how can any American respect a President so alienated from core American values that he won't sign on to a promise not to commit torture and genocide?). But Kerry done good, and my spirits are a lot better now than 24 hours ago.

It still boggles my mind that anybody can support Bush after seeing him on a stage alongside a competent politician. I know it's bad strategy to call him an outright dummy, but at times Bush hems and haws and wracks his brain for even a merely appropriate answer, to questions the assistant White House pastry chef could have told him to expect. I get embarrassed for him. At times he throws out facts that are only marginally relevant, just to fill dead air and give the impression he knows something about something. What was the point of name-checking Poland or the US ambassador to Sudan, other than to show that G.W. Bush does too have a couple of pieces of knowledge lodged in his brainpan?

Thursday, September 30, 2004

A Crossroads

Over 50 people killed in insurgent violence in Iraq today. 35 of them were children, killed at a celebration where US troops were handing out candy to them.

These children were killed in an instant, utterly by surprise, while American soldiers were standing next to them. It was as if the offer of candy lured them to their deaths. Think of what a trauma this will be for the soldiers who were present.

Ironies on top of ironies. The celebration was for the opening of a new sewage plant, of all things.

Today is a pivotal day in American if not world history, I believe. George Bush and John Kerry are debating tonight; today's news will be the featured topic. Kerry is going to make the case that this tragedy shows the complete failure of our military operation in Iraq. Bush is going to argue the opposite, roughly, that this is the kind of evil we're up against. Voters will weigh the arguments and judge whether we need a total change of leadership and direction, or we need to "show resolve" and cling to the mode of action that has brought us here, to a children's party that can turn into carnage in the blink of an eye, and that American soldiers are powerless to stop.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

YEAR ZERO: This article is devastating. Naomi Klein is reporting about how the Bush Administration neocons were staggeringly overconfident in their ability not only to install democracy in Iraq, but to create a radical Western-style free market economy at the same time. They tried to hit the reset button on the entire economy: privatize state industry, break the labor unions, no trade barriers, no regulation -- Paradise as theorized by Milton Friedman. It's another huge smackdown for the neocons. Iraqi industry is now a blood sport, with threats and murders and bombings between labor and management. Klein tells of one labor union who trumped their company (and Paul Bremer's CPA) in contract negotiations with the demand, Give us a raise or we'll all join the armed insurgency. They got their raise.

Bush's people are unbelievable. Are there actually people this arrogant and dense? Of all the places in the world to use as a petri dish for their pet economic theories, they had to pick Iraq: the oldest culture on earth, a multi-ethnic nation jerry rigged by thoughtless British colonial bureaucrats, just starting to deal with the mass psychic aftermath of Saddam's state terror. Hardly the easiest place to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Props to Harpers magazine for publishing a good article online (I usually find their website to be kind of useless). And big props to Naomi Klein, whom I was unkind to in an earlier post. (Though with this scathing indictment of neocon economics, it makes me wonder anew why Klein is so cavalier about the difference between a Bush and a Kerry administration in '05.)

A choice quote:

New Bridge Strategies, the company that had gushed back in October about
how “a Wal-Mart could take over the country,” is sounding distinctly humbled.
“McDonald’s is not opening anytime soon,” company partner Ed Rogers told the
Washington Post. Neither is Wal-Mart. The Financial Times has declared Iraq “the
most dangerous place in the world in which to do business.” It’s quite an
accomplishment: in trying to design the best place in the world to do business,
the neocons have managed to create the worst, the most eloquent indictment yet
of the guiding logic behind deregulated free markets.

HAVE FAITH BUT VERIFY: Somewhat related to the last post: The faith-based initiative has never been one of my major complaints with the Bush Administration. For one thing, frankly, detailed discussions of welfare or housing or public health policy don’t always rivet my attention. For another thing, my children have gone to church-affiliated day care centers, with which all in all we’ve been very satisfied. No heavy proselytizing; they just provide a much-needed service in an effective way. These centers have been in business for over 25 years, so I know that faith-based social services are not an entirely new thing, nor an inherently scary thing. So I haven't been an absolutist about the separation of church and state. As long as the state doesn’t anoint one faith as the official one, I figure some cooperation is okay.

However, I got to attend a conference last week which looked at this issue from the point of view of congregations themselves, and congregations are something I get paid to be interested in. One of the invited guests was this guy, an expert on faith-based policies. He gave just a brief synopsis of his work, but it was very enlightening. Far from being a recent innovation or a spontaneous movement of the spirit, faith-based social programs are the result of years of groundwork by conservative philanthropic groups who wanted to get government to do their bidding. And it’s worked; more and more, government spouts the conservative narrative of cultural devolution and moral rot. (Think William Bennett.) Faith-based initiatives are a really handy talking point for the Republicans to rally their white conservative base, and they help chip off some votes in the black and Latino communities (which are more socially conservative than some white Democrats realize).

For congregations and other religious agencies, the faith-based initiative has been something of a Faustian bargain. It’s NOT a great bonanza of new funding sources, it’s mostly a confusing mess of new paperwork and procedures. There’s an unfortunate temptation for a church to twist itself out of shape, sell out its vision and priorities, in order to get a piece of a block grant. And conservative Christian groups have the inside track anyway over liberal churches or especially non-Christian groups. Not one dollar of faith-based grant money has gone to any faith other than Christian.

In other words: yet another Bush administration policy turns out to be motivated by political considerations. Its practical impact is negligible or even harmful.

And here comes Amy Sullivan with an examination of faith-based social policies, that pretty much confirms Bob Wineburg’s view, and adds a twist: Bush travels around he country boasting that his faith-based initiative pumps $1 billion a year into church coffers. What he doesn’t say is that a tax benefit he had promised (extending the deduction for charitable giving), he ended up welshing on. That, combined with the repeal of the estate tax, which used to motivate people to bequeath money to charity, costs faith-based nonprofits $80 billion a year.

It really isn’t so much the case that religion infects politics in America, but the opposite: politics uses religion (like it uses patriotism) in cynical ways. The church-state wall, remember, was put there in the first place to protect the church. The wall needs to stay there to protect both religion AND government from doing mischief to each other.

ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVE: This year’s legal controversy over the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was much ado about, well, two little words. The interesting aspect to me was this: The Bush administration, arguing for keeping “under God” in the pledge, claimed that it was an instance of ceremonial deism. A nod to history and tradition, with no real religious meaning. The phrase has been in there a long time; the whole country has learned it that way; let’s leave well enough alone. In other words, the atheist plaintiff clearly took the name of God more seriously than the government did.

Kenneth Briggs is a well-regarded veteran religion newswriter, and I thought this was a great column. It brings to mind the government’s lazy defense of God-in-the-Pledge. Americans invoke God the way schoolchildren recite the Pledge to the flag: by rote, drowsily.

A lot has been written this year about the role of religion in politics and public life, and the God Gap, and of how striking the U.S. is in its religious fervor. This kind of talk is way overdone. Americans like God in much the same way they like Big Macs and Coca-Cola and SUVs with American flag stickers: reflexively, superficially, out of conformism. It’s easier and more convenient to go with the flow on the subject.

When you read polling data about how religious this country is, how often we go to church, etc. – keep in mind that Americans tend to lie in these polls.

The consumer ethic dominates religion as it dominates every arena of American life. Churches that succeed do so by entertaining and pandering – giving the consumers what they want. Too many preachers are self-help gurus who avoid making demands on people’s consciences. The fastest-growing churches function like retail chains: opening outlets in demographically desirable spots, serving gourmet coffee in the lobby, offering reclining movie-theatre style seating.

The point being, enough of pundits with platitudes about our country’s faith and piety. Spiritually as in every other way, the average American is a flabby, lazy, selfish, smug moron.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

EMPTY SUIT: A Fantasie. Several people I respect, including my friend Phil from Here Be Monsters, have been talking up James Wolcott and his new blog. So I checked the blog out, and will continue to do so, and hopefully seek out his new book. Ayi Chihuahua , I think it’s called.

Some smart guy (Montaigne? Not sure) once said that in great writers we see our own discarded thoughts reflected back – thoughts that we only half-remember, or that we lacked the courage to articulate. Anyway, I now rate Wolcott as a great writer because of his post saying that GW Bush is scared of losing his election. I remember thinking, fleetingly, during Bush’s convention speech the other night that his eyes didn’t convey confidence but helplessness.

It doesn’t pay to go very far down the road toward psychoanalyzing politicians. Better not to think of them as complete human beings, but as vote-seeking missiles. Nonetheless, almost against my will I’ve formed a strong image of Bush (in a nutshell: rich mediocrity with a huge sense of entitlement and a spiteful streak), and it leads me to believe that in his current circumstance, the guy is way, way over his head. He wanted to be elected President, to prove something to his family and everybody who ever crossed him or doubted him and generally assert himself as a Big Shot. The Biggest. To be able to say anything to anybody and not check his tongue; to hand out favors.

He wanted to get the job, but see, he never relished having to do the job, and being nominally in charge of the nation’s economy and security is acutely unsettling to him. He was shaken to his bones by 9/11. (Though he’ll never admit it. Can’t show weakness, and besides, Cheney and Wolfowitz and those guys obviously think 9/11 was the greatest thing that ever happened.) He never wanted to work this hard, and he never wanted to have people’s lives riding on his decisions. (Regular, innocent people, I mean--not death-row murderers. That never used to be a worry.)

Trying to reconcile the highs and the lows is mind-bending. Giving that speech on the deck of the aircraft carrier, looking at the San Diego skyline: How those sailors cheered! How great he knew it would look on TV! Then, the next day it felt like, that damn press conference and having to try to think of a mistake he could admit to. Serving the Thanksgiving turkey to the troops in Iraq: Take that, forces of evil! Then later, having to consult a criminal lawyer to ensure his ass stays out of jail. Nothing is more humbling than that, am I right?

He doesn’t mind slinging mud in the campaign, particularly if he can cling to a thin pretense of deniability, like with the Swift Boat crap. His conscience, dull thing, is untroubled. But he hates the routine of campaigning, the intense schedule, trying to remember names, shaking hands with some Missouri county commissioner. He’s sheltered from questioning reporters; hell, he’s insulated from anybody who doesn’t worship him, practically. (The quickly squelched heckler during Bush’s convention speech really seemed to throw him for a minute.) Still, he’s nagged by the sense of something that past holders of the office have had, that he lacks: command of the job. Some core beliefs, a sense of purpose, a record of policy achievement to brag on, or at least some hard-earned policy experience to learn from. But that’s the huge vacuum in the room that everyone is too polite to mention. Bush is innocent of belief or purpose or any feeling for policy. He has Cheney and others to supply that stuff. Bring out instead the cheap slogans and bravado and the wisecracks about John Kerry. The applause lines. Let us applaud them.

He often resents his advisors, yet he craves them, for where would he be without them? Some of them are literally irreplaceable. If Rove were hit by a truck, my God, who but Rove could tell him who Rove’s successor should be? Loyalty to his inner circle is desperate unto death, but it comes at a high price for the circle members. Dubya is holy hell to work for. He is furious about any new phrase in the stump speech, any juncture where he has to improvise. Behind the scenes, it takes a brutal combination of browbeating and ass-kissing by Karl, Karen,, to get Georgie even to board the campaign plane or step on the dais.

They wind him up and send him out. He’s terrified of failing and letting them all down. But in his gut, his deepest self, he yearns to go home to Crawford and stay there. Make a few speeches, serve on a few corporate boards. He’d still have his retinue; he’ll always have a Secret Service detail and the armored Chevy Suburban. But please, Lord, he prays, harder than he’s ever prayed before. Let me get through these next two months, sleeping on the plane, prepping for speeches and debates, shaking hands with assholes, facing the goddamned public. Then let me somehow get through four more years of being told where to go, what to say, never quite knowing what’s going on. Then, dear Lord, let me go to Crawford and rest. Finally be a Big Shot, and fuck anybody who doesn't like it. Amen.