Sunday, July 31, 2005

I prefer "idealistic pragmatism"

This has been a banner week for trite political sloganeering. First, apparently solely because we needed a better-sounding acronym to reassure people in the face of terror attacks, we dropped the GWOT and replaced it with the GSAVE. Today we find that Condoleeza Rice's new slogan is "practical idealism."

Where have we heard that before?

To be fair, Rice has obvious reasons for using the phrase. But is there any political slogan more vapid?

Friday, July 29, 2005

Bolton's moustache and Condi's boots

Oh, come on!

Too often we see this same seventh-grade behavior among adults. While healthy civic discourse involves disagreement on issues of policy, too often people are prone to bully and harass their opponents with attacks on physical appearances when they are unable to articulate a valid and logical opposing argument.

Mocking public figures for their disastrous personal style choices is not just a right - it's a necessity!

Mean guys

I was watching the House debate on CAFTA a couple of nights ago. Florida Republican Clay Shaw was running things. Time after time after a Democrat spoke, Shaw would dish out a nasty aside dismissing the previous speech as the ravings of a liberal or a fool, then throw it over to a Republican who would set the record straight. His Democratic counterpart, Charlie Rangel, behaved like a gentleman. Republican leaders also pointedly dismissed the Democrats as partisan hacks for opposing the bill, though it was the GOP that had engineered the whole scenario for exactly such an outcome. Does political rhetoric really have to be not merely hot, but insulting and belittling? Even Newt Gingrich had a kind of flamboyance to his rhetoric that made it hard to think he really meant it all.

Why are the Republicans behaving sensibly?

First Bush makes a reasonable choice for the Supreme Court. Then today, Frist breaks with the White House and the religious right on stem cells.

After four years of ideological confrontation from the White House and its allies, are the grownups back in charge in Washington? I wouldn't get too excited yet. High-minded centrism and bipartisanship are not exactly breaking out all over.

But anyway ... there are several interpretations of this sudden softening of the hard-right monolith.

1. There is a genuine intra-party split underway on stem cells, the first of many as Bush heads toward lame-duckitude. Maybe. But I doubt Frist would have broken with the White House without Rove's advance knowledge and approval.

2. Karl Rove and his 51 percent polarization strategy are on the outs due to some combination of Plamegate and other factors - the failure of the Social Security proposal, et al. Unlikely. Though it certainly seems that Rove wasn't the main moving force behind the Roberts nomination.

3. Bush's political weakness has taken the bloom off the confrontational approach. More likely. Bush needed a victory and some public goodwill - and it looks like Roberts will deliver on both. By the same token, Frist's move is a logical and smart one for him. After months of awkward pandering, he's actually doing something we can believe he believes in - that is also popular with a majority of the country. He also gives the Republican Party a big tent feel on the issue, which it needs.

4. The grownups are actually back in charge. Unlikely. Have you seen Brent Scowcroft recently? In fact, there are no grownups in the Republican Party anymore. We can only hope that objectively speaking, polarization's political dividends are declining.

Pay no attention to that woman behind the curtain

When Karen Hughes starts her new job trying to spin the entire Arab world with her special brand of pathologically rigid message discipline - i.e., repeating the same sunny catch phrases over and over while Bush & Co. go on their merry way, doing what they please - it won't work:

To fight these [anti-Western] ideas, friendly state visits from Laura Bush will not suffice. Neither will more Britney Spears songs for Muslim teenagers, which is what we play on U.S.-funded Farsi and Arabic radio in the Middle East. Instead, we need to monitor the intellectual and theological struggle for the soul of Islam, and we need to help the moderates win. This means making sure that counter-arguments are heard whenever and wherever Muslim clerics and intellectuals are talking, despite the impact of Saudi money.

Like all PR, Bush- and Hughes-style PR is at its heart fakery, and insulting fakery at that. Only 50.3 percent of Americans bought it in the last election. It won't sway the Arab world.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Should Democrats embark on a grand march toward universal health care?

This Rick Perlstein article rises to an impossible height above the political landscape to argue that the one sure-fire way for the Democratic Party to regain the upper hand is to pass universal health care:

These programs make life in America fundamentally better. And because these gooses, Social Security, Medicare, lay golden eggs. They manufacture Democrats.

It is the duty of every generation of Democrats to produce new geese to lay 70 years of golden eggs. It is the only way our party has grown—as Bill Kristol puts it, by reviving the reputation of the Democrats as the generous protector of middle-class interests. They know they're screwed if we're credible in our pledge to deliver new kinds of power to ordinary people in their every day lives.

Democratic congressmen can do that, for example, by making a credible collective pledge that if you vote Democrat enough you will never pay another medical bill as long as you live. You really think people wouldn't stop voting Republican then?

Well, yes. And Perlstein, who wrote a book tracing the rise of modern conservatism, knows a thing or two about what makes political movements tick. Shorn of all short-term priorities and positioning, this makes sense. Of course it would be great if the Democrats could create universal health care! This is what they do best, and they should constantly have their eyes on that goal.

But best not to think too hard about this. The idea is both monolithic and abstract. He offers no clues on how to get to there from here, either politically or programmatically – that’s not his job. Matthew Yglesias analyzes that here. And in that same general neighborhood of monolithic abstraction, or abstract monolithism, or whatever, the Democrats have two other problems besides their inability to pass gigantic, popular entitlement programs: They are culturally out of tune with the country, and people don’t trust them to protect us all from terrorists or to exercise American power around the world.

Bribing war criminals to surrender

I wonder what this:

Karadzic's wife appeals to her husband to surrender
PALE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — The wife of fugitive Radovan Karadzic appealed Thursday to her husband to surrender to the U.N. war crimes tribunal "for the sake of your family."


Has to do with this:

In the Balkans, war crime pays. This year, a record 20 accused war criminals have been turned over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, compared with only three in 2004. But NATO troops didn't nab these fugitives in daring dawn raids. Negotiators did much of the work, offering generous financial incentives. "Everybody here in Serbia believes the government gives big money to indictees," says Natasa Kandic, head of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade. "If you want to go to The Hague, you'll be rewarded and your family will have a very good life."

Some of the incentives are legally mandated. Serbia passed legislation last year to provide pensions to its indicted war criminals. The law gives indictees a full salary, plus unspecified "compensation" for family and legal expenses. In the Republic of Srpska, the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia, benefits are even more generous: a full salary to the indictee himself, a double salary paid to his family, plus 80 euros a month to each of his school-age children. (A typical Bosnian Serbian salary is only 200 euros a month.) Family members also get four expense-paid trips a year to The Hague to visit indicted loved ones. And last year Srpska added a cash bonus of 25,000 euros for anyone who surrenders.

Still more generous inducements are offered to the really big fish. According to Serbian media reports, Gen. Vujadin Popovic got a bonus of $1 million when he turned himself on April 14. Popovic was the commander of the Drina Corps in Bosnia, which conducted some of the worst ethnic-cleansing campaigns in the region. Serbian government officials have told human-rights activists that Gen. Ratko Mladic, the accused architect of the Srebrenica massacre, was offered $5 million to turn himself in, although in the end he decided to stay on the run. (The U.S. government still has a $5 million reward for his capture.)

I'd guess Karadzic would be entertaining similar offers. The article cites various reasons for this egregious policy: Serbia wants into the EU and must expedite the process; there is residual support for these criminals, etc. But buying surrenders and confessions undercuts the whole purpose of the war crimes tribunal, doesn't it?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Times randomly searches for a position

Daniel Radosh continues his exploration of the absurdities of random bag searches:

You know you're in trouble when the Times is urging the government to restrict civil liberties even more.

It's true. The Times editorial in particular is a masterpiece of editorial writing kitsch. In its high-minded, goo-goo way it aims to please every possible constituency among its readership and thus cannot make a coherent argument. It says in spite of the civil liberties problems, we must search bags - but not harshly or unfairly or in a way that profiles. But not half-assedly either! And we have to do it like this for a long, long time. And please don't shoot anybody like they did in London, that would be really bad. Oh, and the Bush administration is screwing up again.

Stewart, Santorum and the culture war

TNR's T.A. Frank didn’t like (subscription required) Jon Stewart’s interview with Rick Santorum last night, but I agree with Ann Althouse, who thought it a decent interview:

Stewart made his points subtly, in the middle of the mushy niceness. Santorum kept talking about the "ideal" of the man-and-woman-with-children family, and Stewart accepted that ideal but asked why not include other people in that positive model even if it's a step away from ideal. He noted when Santorum equated heterosexuality with virtue and got Santorum to back away from that equation a tad.

I think Stewart was trying to make a connection and a lot of the blather was the kind of small talk that establishes that one can talk. It drew the audience in, and it drew Santorum into a relaxed dialogue. (Did you see Santorum smiling about Victoria's Secret?)

Sure, Stewart could have shredded him with harsh questions, but that's not the only way to talk about politics.

It’s hard to strike the right balance in a situation like this. “Tough” questioning would simply have polarized the discussion and made it unpleasant - not good TV. Stewart made an admirable attempt to avoid that without lobbing softballs. In fact, comedians are the only people I’ve seen even try to do this lately in a cable universe devoted to the bipolar shout-fest. Bill Maher conducted one interesting experiment a few months back on "Real Time." He had Ward Churchill of “little Eichmanns” fame on with a man whose brother had perished in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Such an encounter at first seemed purely a stunt, one almost guaranteed to devolve into a voyeuristic disaster, all the psychic and political wounds of the past few years erupting in our faces. The segment had a crackling tension, the sense that any moment it would explode. But Maher kept it civil, and pretty soon Churchill was squirming, obliged to face a real person instead of his imagined America of corporatized exploiters. It was great television.

Why is it only comedians – well really, only Maher and Stewart and maybe Letterman – can create a middle ground, tenuous and unstable though it may be, for discourse between blue and red? They do provide a kind of safety valve – a rare, cool and shaded space in the media where shouting talking points doesn’t work. There’s always the risk that such encounters will end up going mushy. But let’s give these guys some credit for showing that the culture wars need not always be fought to the death.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Early RIP for "Six Feet Under"

If you don’t have HBO and/or don't care about "Six Feet Under," sorry, this is the obligatory end-of-series rant.

I’ve been watching “Six Feet Under” since the start. The show has always been erratic, in part because of the limitations of the funeral home/family drama premise. Realistically speaking, how many spectacular deaths and seriocomic existential crises can befall one family in a limited timespan? How much ironic, smart-alecky quirkiness can be larded on top of the deaths and crises without driving the audience away?

Still, it was often so well-written and surprising that these weaknesses faded into the background. And a few times it achieved an especially rich mixure of emotional power and unsettling complexity. The last few episodes of the third season, when one of the characters – the sweet, soul-sucking wife of the central character Nate – disappears and turns up dead, were remarkable explorations of the tenuousness of life. They turned something we all try to avoid thinking about into irrestible, wrenching drama.

But now it’s the last season, and SFU has jumped the shark. The characters are still quirky and impossibly clever, and existential crises abound. It has its moments and is still among the best-written shows on TV. But the surprise has gone out of it – the kiss of (forgive me) death for a show like this.

During its earlier seasons, the show managed to be both mordant and effervescent – the themes of mortality and danger were counterbalanced not just by comedy but by sly surprise. The writers took whatever dramatic premise they were working with and twisted and upended it a couple of times beyond even what made dramatic sense. This season, they’re not doing that. Most of the main characters have been behaving in predictably wrongheaded and self-destructive ways, but without the revelatory twists.

The season began with the disastrous wedding of Nate and Brenda, and they have been tediously arguing, and arguing about the nature of their arguments, ever since. The writers have never known what to do with Rico and Vanessa, Latino characters evidently meant to make the show less demographically white-upper-middle-class-highly-educated. And this season they have also been endlessly churning over the sorry state of their marriage. A plotline in which brother David and his partner Keith adopt two troubled kids so far appears to be mostly movie-of-the-week inspirational material, though I suppose the elder of the kids could go postal before it’s done – but that would be predictable too. Since it’s the last season, viewers began laying bets on who would die. At the conclusion of this week’s episode, Nate had some kind of massive brain attack and collapsed. The last shot is of his face, eyes open and blank. I could go on …

There are some redeeming elements. Claire’s temping job in a cubicle hell with annoying co-workers and an office catch phrase (“yeah baby!” – should every office have a catch-phrase?), is extremely amusing. And any time Patricia Clarkson reappears, things liven up considerably.

I’m sorry to see the show stumble offstage. Watching it and other sui generis shows such as “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood,” you realize just how hard it is to get all the elements consistently right, hour after hour. A tiny plot swerve or tonal miscue can throw off a whole episode. It’s hard to keep it going for years. SFU is simply showing its age.

Hillary exploits Drudge for a change

Drudge is reporting that Hillary Clinton will support Roberts for the Supreme Court.

Of course, being Drudge, it's impossible to tell if this is true. But assuming it is, it shows Hillary's - and her staff's - finely-tuned political smarts. There of course is no immediate political need to release this information, especially to scandal-sheet websites. This clever centrist positioning, an almost subliminal message for 2008 aimed at Drudge's broad, right-leaning readership. It's political ju-jitsu, using Drudge's and the right's weird Hillary obsession to promote Hillary.

More generally, it shows she is willing to support a conservative nominee (a palatable one that many Democrats will support anyway) and it separates her from the left wing of the party, Sister Souljah style.

"She is simply doing what is right for the country, not MOVEON.ORG," the Clinton insider explained.

Would Kerry have done this? Would he or his staff even have thought of something like it?

See also this recent USA Today story:

BUFFALO — Bill Herberger, an 80-year-old former American Legion commander, didn't vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton when she won a Senate seat in 2000.

But when Clinton finished her pitch to save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station from closure before the federal base-closing commission last month, the Swormville, N.Y., man and hundreds of other veterans, reservists and military family members roared their approval.

"I will tell you that I didn't support her, because I didn't think she'd be supportive on issues like this," Herberger says. "And I will tell you that I will vote for her next time. She's been absolutely marvelous."

Hillary and her people are really smart. At a time when the political center is up for grabs, they are seeding the media with messages linking her to the center. Will it work?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Random bag searches give me that warm and fuzzy feeling

More security-as-therapy:

Amy Wilson, 28, said the [NYC transit police] officers' work "makes me feel safer. I like knowing they're here."

Spring forward at your own risk

Does Daylight Savings Time kill people? The answer is apparently yes, according to a 1998 study:

Two major points are made by these data. The first is a confirmation of the fact that following the spring shift to Daylight Savings Time (when one hour of sleep is lost) there is a measurable increase in the number of traffic accidents that result in fatalities. Furthermore, it replicates the absence of any “rebound” reduction of accidents following the fall shift to DST (when the opportunity is present for an additional hour of sleep).

Interesting commentary on human nature. People won't go to bed earlier when the clocks are set forward, and they'll stay up later when the clocks are set back.

I dislike Daylight Savings Time for less existential reasons. For one, the complexities of resetting six different kinds of digital clocks in my house twice a year are daunting. Each had an owner's manual. But we threw those away - who keeps the owners manuals for small appliances, let alone the simplest, most basic electronic item of them all? And yet, every digital clock has maddening quirks that, without a written guide, can turn tinkering with them into a major chore.

More generally, I've never understood the need for DST. As the referenced post states, it's debatable whether it helps save energy. And if we are really serious about it, why not just permanently shift all U.S. times zones ahead by one hour? One reason for not going whole hog seems to be so that politicians can expand DST every decade or so and claim to be making progress.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Openness and security

I tend to agree with this:

Is there really anyone out there who thinks random searches at the turnstiles will make New York subways any safer? One expert points out, "If someone had something and they were actually caught with an explosive, they're just as likely to blow themselves up as anything." But why even do that when you can simply decline to allow the cops to search your bag (which, they claim, will be allowed) and walk to the next station. And if you're dead set (ha ha) on blowing up the station you were turned away from, you can even take the train back one stop, walk up to the cop who denied you entrance, flip him the bird, and light yourself up. Hell, you could just walk to a different entrance to the same station. What are the odds you'll be stopped again? I mean, seriously, if you're already at the point where you're willing to kill yourself, how is the possibility of a random search going to act as a deterrent?

There is an element of futility to piling on various forms of security screening in public transit - or anywhere. Without a police state, there is simply no way to secure the agora. Which on the whole is good - just not so hot in this situation.

Much of the security effort - airport screening, color coding, bag searches - functions to buttress our feelings, give us a sense that we are being protected - and secondarily, as CYA for agencies and politicians after an attack. It's odd that in the realm of emotion, inconvience and irritation somehow make us feel safer.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Barbie plies the global economy

Here's an interesting article about a familiar cycle of globalization:

1. Taiwanese town becomes manufacturing center, cranking out millions of Barbies and accessories for Mattel.

2. Mattel decamps to locales with even cheaper labor, including the Chinese mainland.

3. Taiwanese town opens a Barbie Museum and becomes tourist destination.

Like the United States and Europe, newly-industrialized nations are now manufacturing less and less and turning to cultural/information products. What happens in 50 years when all manufacturing and outsourceable service work is done in Africa? The rest of the world won't have anything to do but write screenplays and visit Barbie museums.

Will Harry stand the test of time?

The Harry Potter terrorism allusion meme propagates:

In 1998, when the first Harry Potter book came out, Voldemort was a fantastical villain, a symbol of evil in the abstract. Today, however, as we substitute for our abstract fear of Voldemort the very real fear we've felt in our own immolated cities, the new book resonates in ways that the old ones have not.

It is hard not to wonder, though, whether making the books more timely will make them less timeless. Critics have been atwitter about Harry Potter lately. Some believe the books belong alongside the classics of children's literature. Others scoff that Hogwarts is no Narnia—that the world Rowling has imagined is narrowly conceived and filled with too many cheap references to our own. Reading the Half-Blood Prince today, Rowling's references to terrorism don't feel cheap. They feel terrifying. But how will they read in 50 years?

It's probably true that the topicality of the books will date them. They do of course address timeless themes - coming of age, evil, prejudice. But the accumulation of winking cultural references - not to mention the whole Potter craze - makes them very much books of the present day, and such postmodern artifacts tend to be disposable.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

It's like this: He's replacing a white woman with a white man to go in a different direction from dad, who replaced a black man with a black man

Here's one explanation for the Roberts pick that does fit the Bush family psychodrama storyline:

George H.W. Bush replaced the first black Justice, Thurgood Marshall, with the second black Justice, Clarence Thomas. He nevertheless insisted that he'd picked "the best person for the job" -- something few people believed. (And I'm not trying to disrespect Thomas. I think he's a fine Justice.) The elder Bush not only created a designated seat and resorted to making hard-to-believe assertions about his action, he also undermined his ability to oppose affirmative action, because the Thomas pick was so widely perceived as affirmative action.

The younger Bush has now chosen not to replace the first woman Justice with another woman. So unlike his father, he is not creating a designated seat on the Court. And in picking Roberts, he actually picked someone about whom it can be said convincingly: He was the best person for the job. And he has not limited what he can plausibly say about affirmative action.

A little tortuous as these kinds of speculations go, but interesting. I think Bush deserves credit for making a choice that is not an obvious attempt to massage an interest group or fish for more Republican votes.

RIP Scotty

Star Trek's James Doohan has died at 85.

Revenge of the establishment

For the first time in memory, Bush defied easy prediction yesterday. John Roberts is not an in-your-face choice for the Supreme Court. The decision was calibrated, not over-the-top – designed to disarm the Democrats, not offend them, and to satisfy the right if not to thrill it. He’ll be confirmed pretty easily. Democrats would need to uncover a hidden cache of documents spewing bile over Roe and the 10 Commandments or some Bolton- or Thomas-like temperamental oddity to sway the general public against him. But Roberts' whole demeanor shouts respectability, probity, caution. He’s skillfully plied the hallways of the Republican establishment his whole life.

Indeed, that’s one of the striking things about the nomination. Bush tends to tolerate, if not outright dislike, people with CVs like Roberts’s – people who followed established paths to success, covering their walls with Ivy League diplomas, Phi Beta Kappa keys and the like. Bush has all but shut them out of the upper levels of the executive branch, surrounding himself instead with killer political operatives, loyalists and movement conservatives.

Bush has always been viscerally at odds with the Republican wing of the Eastern Establishment embodied by his father and grandfather. Roberts is one those guys that Bush would have resented in college and mistrusted afterward: the kind of man his family wanted him to be, when of course he wasn't. That's the psychodramatic explanation for the entire Bush 43 presidency.

Cliched as it may be, that explanation has been a pretty reliable predictor of Bush behavior - up to now. So what’s the deal here? Why is Bush acting reasonably rather than provocatively, and seemingly going against his own instincts – both his yen for confrontation and his disdain for the establishment? Could the long-term necessities involved in establishing a legacy finally be trumping Bush's gut?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Subtlety is for wimps

If she is indeed Bush's choice, Edith Brown Clement appears to be pretty un-Bork-like, and more Souter- or Kennedy-like - on other words, someone Democrats would find it hard to oppose. But she could also turn out to be a right-wing Souter. In any case nominating, her would be uncharacteristically non-confrontational for the Bush White House. I thought they wanted a huge partisan nuclear conflagration. Though wearying, that usually seems to work for them, and they really need something right now to distract the masses from Rove, Iraq et al. So not clear what's going on here. Is Bush actually going to do something subtle?

Update: ABC is reporting it's not Clement. Expect an in-your-face nominee.

CIA angst

Fair and balanced:

The insensate hatred of the CIA on the mainstream right now matches the insensate hatred of the CIA on the extreme left.

The left deplores the fact that the CIA exists. The right deplores the fact that the CIA has resisted orders to take up residence in Cheney's hip pocket.

Monday, July 18, 2005

W is for "Wretched"

Somehow I missed this reference in the opening chapter of Harry Potter VI:

Consider page one of book six, for example, in which the Prime Minister is waiting for a telephone call from a President of an unnamed "far off country" whom the Prime Minister regards as a "wretched man." Three guesses which President she had in mind.

No way, dude! If J.K. Rowling is anti-American, this is a pretty damn subtle way of expressing it. When I read it, I was thinking more ... Putin. Or the president of Bulgaria or Malaysia or even some made-up country. But since this scene takes place late at night, it does make sense in terms of time zones that the call is coming from the United States.

But the rest of this post is really silly. Rowling is anti-American because she insisted on a British cast for the films? Yeesh. Conservatives in particular should appreciate the terrorism metaphors - Hogwarts has installed special high security procedures ("defensive spells and charms, a complex array of countercurses, and a small task force of aurors dedicated solely to the protection of Hogwarts School"). Harry has a flyer from the Ministry of Magic on "Protecting Your Home and Family Against Dark Forces" which advises informing on friends or neighbors "acting in a strange manner" who may be cursed. This reads as satire, but in context the threat the characters face is quite real.

War of the idiots

Why do people in Hollywood keep saying idiotic things that are then turned into only slightly less idiotic right-wing "gotcha" columns?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Reality begins to bite back

This strikes me as true - Karl Rove's lawyer seems not to know what he's doing, at least with regard to media coverage and more generally, his public posture toward Fitzgerald's investigation.

How can the foremost political/media manipulator of our day have such maladroit representation?

Of course, he may just have picked the wrong guy. But I think it goes a bit deeper. Howard Fineman perceptively notes that the erasure of the line between partisan politics and national security is what led to this whole mess in the first place. Doubtless Rove's assumption going forward is that legal peril can be dealt with as a political problem as well. But for the first time really, the Rove machine is brushing up against a true bright line - the possibility of criminal indictment. This is a reality that can't be controlled, redefined or spun away. And it's obviously causing some consternation behind the scenes and missteps in front of the cameras.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Inevitable Harry Potter post

Harry Potter VI arrived today. Actually, two copies. Not sure why this happened, but when you've got to deliver several million books in one day there are going to be a few glitches. I hope this doesn't mean that a disappointed 12-year-old has been left in the lurch somewhere and is crying into his/her robe tonight.

I'm a Potterphile. But I've been a bit disappointed with the past couple of books, which were overlong and over- or under-plotted, depending on your point of view. In other words, they had lots-o-plot, things happening, people dying, mysteries uncovered, wizarding duels, etc. But the relevant, meatier plot elements were doled out quite sparingly -- a big problem when your book is 870 pages long. (Kevin Drum has some of the relevant numbers and trend lines.)

Some of the slyest stuff in the books is social satire. Dolores Umbridge, the Ministry of Magic functionary who torments Harry and his friends in book V, is a perfect distillation of the bureaucratic mentality - cruel and comically small minded. J.K. Rowling's deft sensibility is evident in the first chapter of the book VI, in which the harried Prime Minister (one imagines Tony Blair, oh, last week) gets an unwelcome visit from the Minister of Magic, who informs him the wizarding world has been plunged into war, and that the bad guys are responsible for various recent disasters that have hurt the PM's political standing. The PM's responses to this absurd and dreadful tableau - fear, anger, distaste, reluctant empathy for a fellow politician - are quite funny. And the scene does have an unexpected poignancy given the events of 7/7. The PM is brought face to face with a hidden and troubled world embedded in British society that has unexpectedly erupted and is killing ordinary people.

Friday, July 15, 2005

"Knowledge is good" - Emil Faber, 1904

Coming to a couple of things late. I tend to read the Sunday New York Times in a few spurts spread over the course of the week – and sometimes the book reviews and magazines lie around even longer. Eventually I get to them, or give up, or just leave the ones I feel obliged but not motivated to read: anything about terrorism, refugees, the EU or Iraq by David Rieff or Michael Ignatieff, who I think may be the same person.

Ignatieff, BTW, appears to have written his own Wikipedia entry:

In 2003 Maclean's also named him Canada's "Sexiest Cerebral Man" because of "his made-for-TV looks and effortless eloquence."

This piece by the authors of “Freakonomics” argues that our current beliefs about child safety seats are simply wrong. Despite the name, and the legal and regulatory apparatus that forces parents to contend with systems of straps, hooks and buckles worthy of the space shuttle, the seats are no safer than ordinary seatbelts for children over 2. Yet the federal, state and local governments are constantly hectoring us: Not only must carseats be appropriate to the age and weight of our children, but 80 percent of us don't have a clue how to secure them and we must all attend remedial carseat installation clinics.

The rules on safety seats are a symptom of our cultural and political obsession with minimizing risk by creating largely pointless bureaucratic and physical restrictions – the backseat version of the airport security routine.

This piece, inexplicably written by Jake Tapper of ABC News, laments the decline of the National Lampoon magazine. I was just entering my teens when the Lampoon was big, and it was crude, offensive, twisted, stupid – but subversive and always surprising. As the article notes, it was an Anglo-Irish response to the Jewish humor that dominated up to that time – instead of being self-deprecating it was angry, mean-spirited, always in-your-face. Its influence lingers -- from Letterman to the current crop of men-behaving-atrociously comedies to the Rove/Plame scandal (double super secret background!). Now - is this ironic, or just the inevitable end of a process? - the name has been completely cheapened and debased, used mainly as a brand for boob raunch fests of considerably lower quality than “Wedding Crashers.”

Synthetarians unite!

More on in-vitro meat (I repeat, they need some serious brand-name brainstorming before they go national with this concept). What do you call someone who eats such a product?

Take a deep breath on Plamegate

Don't listen to the spin from the Republicans on the Plame story! Their only intention is to obfuscate and trivialize. There appears to have been a round-robin of dishing between reporters and the White House over Plame and her role in shipping her husband off to Niger, and today's spin and leaks are weaving a giant fuzzball around it. Did Novak reveal Valerie Plame's name to Rove? Did he call Rove not vice versa? Were Cooper and Rove talking welfare reform or Niger? Was Karl just helpfully waving Cooper off the misperception that Wilson was believable? Did Judy Miller spill the beans or did someone spill them to her?

On the other hand, don't buy into the liberal/Democratic line either (i.e., Rove is a criminal/traitor). We don't know if he will be charged or someone else - or anyone. We don't know to what niche in the upper echelons of government Fitzgerald has traced the Plame gossip. We don't know what statutes are involved, or if the potential crime is revealing her identity or a subsequent cover-up or perjury - or something else.

Beyond the fact that this is a serious investigation that will likely end with someone being charged or reaching a plea bargain, there just isn't enough information publicly available to make a judgment from the outside on legal culpability.

Does that mean Democrats should stand down in the face of furious Rovian spin? Well, no. But in their quiet moments they should take a step back and contemplate what we do and don't know, because there are probably more surprises ahead.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Minimalism

Thanks to Derek Powazek for pointing out that bloggers commenting on the aesthetics of the new Daily Show set share a similar taste in graphic design:

... I did a Technorati search for "Daily Show" "Jon Stewart" "New Set" Desk Couch. The top three results were all within the last 24 hours:

Jon Stewart II: What a Difference a Set Makes
A couch, a couch, my kingdom for a couch
But what a way to go

The funny part is, while all three present differing opinions on the new set, they all use the same Blogger template. Jon Stewart fans prefer Minima?

Subtle seductions are the best kind

Just in time for Harry Potter VI, it’s official – the pope disapproves. Or at least he did, back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger:

"It is good that you shed light and inform us on the Harry Potter matter, for these are subtle seductions that are barely noticeable and precisely because of that deeply affect (children) and corrupt the Christian faith in souls even before it (the Faith) could properly grow," said Cardinal Ratzinger.

Setting aside the basic ridiculousness, this pronouncement, made in a letter to an anti-Potter activist, sounds pretty tossed-off – a passing sop to a supporter on a minor issue. Harry Potter, another wave in the ocean of decadent secularism sweeping European and American Catholics away from their faith. I-Pods, hip hop, the Internet or Owen Wilson would have done just as well. Heck, he's probably got a form letter in his laptop:

Most esteemed and dear ----,
Thanks for your kind letter of June 12, as well as your pamphlets and the fruit basket. The Hilary Duff matter has lately weighed heavily upon us, so we are grateful you are able to illuminate this further for us. These insidious currents are indeed a phantom menace that plies the youthful soul.
Sincere Greetings and Blessings,
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Coming soon: McCain in "Dodgeball II"

This morning, I clicked on Drudge. The headline read "MCCAIN STARS IN BOOB RAUNCH FEST." No link, no explanation. Okay. I'm embarrassed to say I kept clicking. A couple of minutes later, he posted a photo of John McCain over the headline. Oh, that McCain. After that, he slapped in an image of a poster for The Wedding Crashers - the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn boob raunch fest in question, and then - finally - a link to content: McCain boasted about a cameo appearance in the movie and had at some earlier point criticized Hollywood for producing too many boob raunch fests!

This was an unusual alignment of Drudgian obsessions: right-wing cultural politics, McCain hatred, Hollywood excess. With one welcome, non-Drudgian addition: facts. So it was actually funny and had a real point.

But why is Drudge - who routinely acts a conduit for White House attacks - not paying much attention to the story of the day, the Rove imbroglio? Didn't he get the Mehlman memo? Shouldn't he be soldiering on, trashing Wilson/Plame and misleading the public along with Hannity, Gingrich and the rest? Perhaps this is a deliberate distraction. If you think too much about the GOP defense of Rove, it doesn't hold up that well. So why bother to defend Rove - something that will only sow doubt among the faithful - when you can trash McCain, clearing the way for Jeb in 2008?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

"He really dove for Goyal today"

Scott McClellan's stonewalling on Rove is creating the best WH briefing room theatrics in a long while. The correspondents are full of self-righteous fury at having been lied to. McClellan's instructions are to robotically decline comment. At times like this he seems like a befuddled kid rather than the voice of a giant and powerful political machine. This is no reason to feel sorry for him. He possesses no knowledge of what's going on in the White House and has no apparent desire to possess any. His responses betray no incipient creativity, no pleasure in jousting with the big egos, poofy hair and big lips arrayed in front of him in the room. He is just a witless apparatchik looking for an out, anything to break up the barrage of Rove questions. In the absence of Jeff Gannon, that's being provided by Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe with an occasional assist from Les Kinsolving. Fishbowl DC has more:

After nearly ten minutes today of grilling by various TV networks and other top news organizations, he turned to Goyal:

McCLELLAN: It doesn't change what I just said. Go ahead, Goyal.

GOYAL: Scott, two questions. One, this morning at the National Press Club, John from the Heritage Foundation was speaking. This is -- my question is in connection with the Prime Minister of India's visit on Monday, next Monday. He said that the U.S. should change its policy as far as India, China and U.S. is concerned because China is getting away.....

Blah, blah, blah. As he blathers on, the moment passes. It takes some time to wind the conversation back to the topic of the day, and more often than not the questioning never reaches the intensity it once had.

Shorter, hipper Kakutani

All you need to know about John Irving's latest novel.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

But what a way to go

The Daily Show has a new studio and a new set. It will take some getting used to. The oddest thing, as Dana Stevens notes, is that Jon Stewart now sits not at his Cadillac-sized, traditional pseudo-anchor desk but at a kind of modified conference table, while his guests sit right next to him on a wheeled office chair instead of a couch:

This setup gives the interview segment of the show a far more formal feel than before, like a Sunday morning public-affairs show or, worse yet, PBS's Charlie Rose, which I've always found to be the most visually (and often verbally) boring talk show on TV. As Stewart and the guest converse, we see them both only from the waist up, hands folded demurely on the table with their mugs and books between them.

This is a loss. As Stevens notes, a creative and/or psycho guest can do a lot of things with a couch - including humping it. A meaningful encounter with Stewart's rolling office chair carries the risk of serious injury.

Rove's subtle knife dulls

I understand why Karl Rove and Co. wanted to discredit Joe Wilson. At the time he came forward he was a credible establishment voice telling the world that the White House was full of it on a key point. Wilson's subsequent outspokenness, er, that is, his compulsive self-aggrandizement has muddied the waters to some extent. But that doesn't change the fact that he was right - Niger wasn't trying to sell uranium to Saddam Hussein.

What I have never understood is the content of the White House attack on Wilson. Basically, it seems to be: Valerie Plame was involved in sending him to Niger, and this is suspect because a) it was not something Cheney ordered (though Wilson did not claim this); b) it was nepotism, or freelancing, or something else not exactly illegal or even wrong, necessarily, but still not good; c) Wilson is less a man because his wife has the higher security clearance and dispatches him to far-off locations to investigate WMD trafficking, rather than the other way round. Or something.

Some have alleged that they blew Plame's cover to get back at Wilson. That may be true. But it does seem like they believed that these talking points on their own merits were a good way to bring him down a notch.

This is suprisingly thin gruel for a guy who is a world-class, he-is-an-unstable-homosexual-liberal-traitor-who-fathered-a-black-baby-out-of-wedlock rumormonger. And this is still the spin they're using. Perhaps the sheer vagueness of the attack is itself a kind of ploy. Maybe the Rove playbook calls for sowing doubt and disquiet rather than the full-bore smear in this situation. Or maybe these guys are losing their touch for the politics of personal destruction. Unfortunately, we'll find out over the next few days.

Mexican racist stamp-collecting, cont'd

Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico's most prominent intellectuals, defends the subject of the odd controversy over racist philately that has recently dominated U.S.-Mexican relations:

If Memin Pinguin were a person of flesh and blood, I believe he could win the coming presidential election.

Actually, Krauze's points are substantive: Historically, Mexico's attitude toward race relations is significantly more tolerant than that of the United States. The vast majority of Mexicans are of mixed-race descent, and the descendants of African slaves had it better there than their counterparts in the north. The Memin Pinguin character doesn't carry the same cultural baggage that similar images do in the United States.

Still, you have to wonder if Mexico's defensive embrace of the character in the face of U.S. criticism amounts to protesting too much.

Rove in the bunker

Karl Rove's problem is (ironically) more political than legal. His gossip-mongering created this situation. Assuming Bush can't or won't fire him absent a criminal indictment, this could drag on for a while, putting the White House off its game at a crucial time. The main political problem is that (unlike, say, DeLay/Abramoff/Indian casinos) the wrongdoing here is pretty easy to understand, as ABC's The Note explains:

And this is where that old Washington rule kicks in.

No, no — not "it's not the crime; it's the cover-up" (although that has kicked in too).

We are thinking of: "It is the scandal that is understandable to Joe and Gennifer Six Pack that can get you in the end."

And this one is pretty easy to understand, based on known facts.

For the average American, it is unseemly for the president's senior adviser, using inside information, to discredit enemies of the president anonymously. (Of course, this happens all the time, but that doesn't mean it is seemly or appropriate in the minds of the Six Pack clan.)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Brave New Big Mac

This is interesting -- meat grown in a lab, without the moral and environmental problems of raising and killing live animals, and with the benefits of better nutrition:

"There would be a lot of benefits from cultured meat," says Matheny, who studies agricultural economics and public health. "For one thing, you could control the nutrients. For example, most meats are high in the fatty acid Omega 6, which can cause high cholesterol and other health problems. With in vitro meat, you could replace that with Omega 3, which is a healthy fat.

"Cultured meat could also reduce the pollution that results from raising livestock, and you wouldn't need the drugs that are used on animals raised for meat."

Naturally, there's also a Wikipedia entry on "in-vitro meat." (If they want to market this stuff, they are going to need to change the name.)

Alex Tabarrok thinks that this will give new impetus to groups such as PETA. They will be able to make the argument that there's no longer any need for meat from traditional livestock production. But what about vegans, who blend nutritional concerns with the humanitarian? One tenet of the creed may disappear. And while this sounds like a good deal for cows, it's also kind of creepy, like we're one step closer to Soylent Green.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Finding Neverland in all the wrong places

Watching the trailer for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is unsettling not because it features greed, gluttony, oppression of oompa-loompas and other sins – all prominent elements of the book - but because Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka so plainly evokes Michael Jackson. It’s been remarked upon in the media, and Depp & Co. have denied MJ was an influence. But the velvet suits, gender ambiguity, delicate physique, the prettily angled planes of the face (though Depp’s face is smooth and perfect – the face Michael’s been aiming for all along, only to butt up against the limits of technology and crumbling cartilage!) will all stir up unsettling associations for anyone over eight. What were they thinking?

Report suspicious activity

In Slate, Tim Naftali explains why Homeland Security's knee-jerk response to yesterday's attacks in London was exactly the wrong way to handle things. Tom Ridge is gone, but his carnival of color codes is still with us:

Chertoff's response today was about one thing: cover. If there is an attack on the Washington Metro tomorrow, the federal government will be able to say to commuters, "Well, we warned you."

Do they know something we don't?

450 Sheep Jump to Their Deaths in Turkey
Friday July 8, 2005 2:31 PM
ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) - First one sheep jumped to its death. Then stunned Turkish shepherds, who had left the herd to graze while they had breakfast, watched as nearly 1,500 others followed, each leaping off the same cliff, Turkish media reported.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Death of bipartisanship

The most interesting thread of the trade discussion placed blame for the Democrats’ abandonment of free trade on … Republicans. The Bush administration and Republican congressional leadership have, in their usual style, neither brought Hill Democrats into the process of crafting free trade agreements nor actively sought their support. That means that CAFTA is essentially a Republican document, with some of the usual giveaways to business and only pro forma nods to labor and the environment. In other words, not something even many free trade Dems can comfortably support.

Daniel Drezner notes that with the disappearance of traditional forms of bipartisanship – and their replacement by occasional alignments between ideologues of both parties - it was inevitable that the open trade agenda would be undermined:

The shifting politics of trade and immigration are another, more prenicious example of this new bipartisanship, by the way. Trade was your classic centrist issue that generated support from centrists on both sides of the aisle. Today, liberal Democrats oppose trade expansion and relatively open immigration because they fear the effects on unions and the working class. Conservative Republicans oppose trade expansion and relatively open immigration because of fears about global interdependence and the loss of sovereignty.

The result: a weakening Congressional support for an open economy.

How can Democrats recapture the initiative on trade? Options are limited. One way might be to defeat CAFTA in hopes of forcing the Bushies to the table the next time around (though that scenario is hard to imagine), or wait for a Democratic presidential nominee to redefine the party on the issue.

More on the London bombings

Here's an interesting source for information/perspective on the terrorist attacks. Andrew Sullivan has e-mailers feeding him scary, vivid, and sometimes humorous dispatches attesting to the famous British pluck in the face of adversity.

Meanwhile, DHS has raised the terror alert level - but only for mass transit systems. I suppose prudence demands they do this, but isn't it pointless? If there were going to be an attack in the United States today, it wouldn't happen where everybody's already looking.

The long run

James Pinkerton has a good take on the broader implications of the Cooper/Miller situation. Over the past generation, the right has brought down the mainstream media. Over the past five years, the right has institutionalized a powerful government that disdains transparency. I don't like these things, and at some point the right will decide it doesn't like them either - because political power is transitory, and a weak press and government-on-steroids is a recipe for capriciousness:

The decline of the MSM has led to the rise, in terms of relative power, of the federal government. And while the institutional Right might be happy about that as long as George W. Bush is president, surely everyone who leans starboard will feel differently when, say, President Hillary Rodham Clinton sits atop the commanding heights of state power. If a right-leaning Federal Communications Commission can use "decency" as a hammer against Howard Stern today, what's to stop an imaginative lefty lawyer from smashing Rush Limbaugh tomorrow?

Terror in London

Prayers for the citizens of London today in the wake of the terrorist bombings. This appears to have been a sophisticated attack carried by a substantial number of people, timed to coincide with the G8 summit. At the same time, though, any conspiracy this size will have weak points investigators can discover and trace, so I hope British authorities will be able to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Gonzalez scenarios

Maybe Bush can be goaded like a kid in a playground fight into appointing Gonzalez.

Or, if Bush follows the sage counsel of his mother hens, he will appoint Gonzalez.

Actually, Bush did say character will be his number one criterion, and Gonzalez automatically meets his "he's a good man" standard. Of course, Vladimir Putin meets it too. So don't get your hopes too high for Gonzalez.

Free trade and the Democratic Party, continued

Whoa. I cross-posted a version of my trade post below on the TPM Cafe site, where it was "elevated" to a position on the home page for the latter part of the day. There, it was greeted with almost universal hostility. Not free traders, they.

But nobody really addresses my central concern, which is that there is no affirmative Democratic agenda on trade. With the political center blown up on trade like everything else, the issue has become an ever-bigger locus for the hostility of the traditional left - labor, people against "multinational corporations" and capitalism as a matter of principle, etc. This is a recipe for both policy and electoral failure.

I posted this comment on the site:

...I appreciate the objections to the current trade policy advanced by the Bush administration. Saying “no” to CAFTA and Bush-negotiated free trade agreements may well be sound policy in the short run. I would like to see tougher labor standards and better trade adjustment assistance, and a broader vision for how to address living standards in countries we trade with.

But most of the comments go well beyond the specifics of CAFTA or the negotiating strategy of the USTR's office and display a general hostility towards open trade, multinational corporations, etc., traditional targets of the left. I don’t hear much in the way of alternative approaches to trade. "Fair trade" is a nice concept, but is exceedingly vague. What should the default Democratic Party approach be? More tariffs and quotas? Wait until we have a Democratic president who can negotiate more equitable agreements?

Returning to the other point of the post, if there is no affirmative Democratic strategy on how to handle the challenge of globalization and open trade, especially with the developing world, then there is a big hole in the Democratic agenda. Bill Clinton was adept at harmonizing an open trade agenda with traditional Democratic concerns. Of course he sort of ran aground on the issue late in his presidency. But where are Clinton’s heirs on the issue? The fact that the pro-trade position has become almost untenable within the party is going to be a problem for the 2008 Democratic nominee.

Limits of reason

Economists look at the issue of the decade and the rational choice theorists conclude that suicide terrorism is ... irrational (via Marginal Revolution):

Suicidal terrorism is a far stronger counter-example to narrow self-interest. From a nonevolutionary point of view, it is impossible to reconcile the two. No matter how much you receive for your services, it does you no good if you are not alive to consume anything. Furthermore, if you get paid first and die later, there is an end-game problem. A selfish agent would take the money, then do everything in his power to back out.

This paper, by GMU economist Bryan Caplan, does conclude that there is a form of rationality to be found in this irrationality, which he unsurprisingly dubs rational irrationality. In other words, even most would-be terrorists would rather not kill themselves and opt out at the last minute. And some of those that do kill themselves are operating under extreme circumstances in which irrationality makes some kind of rational sense.

But he ultimately concludes that most of them are in the grip of flat-0ut irrational irrationality.

An interesting exercise, which also concludes that there are temptations to appeasement when deterrence is ineffective. But didn't we know this stuff already? Isn't game theory more useful when people have not been driven beyond reason?

Caftarama

The Democrats’ long meandering path toward opposing free trade is a troubling thing, not least because the pressure to open up trade is only going to intensify. Negotiated trade agreements are still the best way to ensure that globalization doesn’t run roughshod over the poor and the displaced. If Democrats drop out of this game, the poor and displaced will be worse off, not better. And a tactical policy to oppose the most important agreements – those with developing nations – for all the usual reasons (environment, labor, outsourcing, putting the hurt on Bush) is no policy at all. That's not to say that these aren't genuine issues, just that the die-hard free trade opponents in the Democratic camp don't really have workable solutions to them - except to kill trade agreements.

In the long run, that's a losing electoral strategy as well. Opposition to free trade is heavily interest-group driven, and the urge to throw bones to dozens of groups is something the Democrats should think twice about before they make it a centerpiece of their economic policy. As Kerry found out, it's hard to integrate the anti-trade position into a forward-looking message for the Democratic Party.

Hauru no ugoku shiro

To continue the long-lost Miyazaki thread: I haven’t read the novel “Howl’s Moving Castle” by English fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. Apparently the movie takes great liberties with it. An on its own terms, the film is maddening if you are expecting the vertiginous chase scenes and tightly-engineered uplift you find in all American animation.

It is leisurely of pace if not overlong. It explores narrow segments of a wider world whose rules, boundaries and history are unknown to us. This approach is richly suggestive: Stunning imagery and cataclysmic events are only half-explained, left for the viewer to piece together. The patient meanderings get you thinking in ways that “Shrek” never managed. I spent most of breakfast the next morning mulling various points over with my six-year-old son.

But sometimes it feels like Miyazaki stopped one draft short of a final script. For instance, it’s never really clear what motivates Howl, a youthful wizard who transforms into a birdlike monster and compulsively attacks the airborne warships that are bombing towns in arbitrary war. Maybe Bush hatred, as Miyazaki has been outspoken against the Iraq war. Meanwhile, the other protagonist, a teenaged girl named Sophie, is transformed into a 90-year-old woman by a spiteful witch, but it doesn’t seem to bother her much. She sets off on a quest to break the spell, but soon settles down as a housekeeper in the eponymous castle. The resolution doesn't quite deliver the promised emotional oomph. And Billy Crystal, who plays a fire demon, should be banned from voice work. He can’t deliver a non-grating performance – especially in an anime where everyone else has enormous doe eyes and a dubbed English accent.

But these are quibbles - even second-rate Miyazaki beats most anything out there today.

And they really do do things differently in Japan.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Oh Martha, where art thou?

Unfortunately, this is true: These days, a big cross-section of the U.S. public will take pleasure in seeing Matt & Judy – or any journalists – hauled off to the pokey.

There is no federal right to keep sources confidential. There should be a federal shield law, but there isn’t one now and there won’t be one in the near future. So what Matt and Judy are doing by refusing to testify amounts to civil disobedience. That's dramatic, but kind of abstract. It's no Martha Stewart redemption arc, with a humbling fall from grace and a TV series at the end - just a standoff over vital principles that the public seems not to care much about.

The apocalypse is sucked into a black hole. Discuss.

Is Plamegate turning into Bush's obligatory Watergate/Iran-Contra/Monica second-term scandal? If Fitzgerald is targeting Rove, almost certainly, and depending on the timing it could consume the already apocalyptic Supreme Court fight as well.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Imagology

Going in, the odds are against the Democrats to win the Supreme Court battle, especially if Bush’s nominee has decent academic or political credentials and no illegal nannies, government-subsidized love nests, unconventional psychotherapies, fetishes involving soft drinks, or odd-looking facial hair. (The Kerik thing nearly doubled the list of potential nomination-killers.) But this Washington Post story gets its thesis from the Sunday show Republican talking points and the wishful thinking of just two “key” senators from the group of 14, only one of them a Democrat – Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a red state.

They argue a filibuster will fail if it is based on “ideology.” Well, yes. Republicans would love a fight based on ideology because they actually have one - or at least they used to - and most people think Bush was elected fair and square and probably deserves to name an ideological compatriot.

But to the public, ideology is boring. Who really thinks this is going to be "about" ideology? With so much pressure, money and attention, the media will tire of ideology early and develop its own narratives based on politics and character - and small, quirky things like porno rentals. Meanwhile, the Democrats – at least the smart ones – won’t base their argument on ideological grounds alone, but capitalize on the media’s characteriological biases. They’ll weave many things into the attack - ideology, character, and facts from the record (if there is one) - in hopes of tipping public opinion and the political center their way. If they can do that, they will get a jump on the GOP in setting the terms of debate for next election, regardless of the outcome of the fight.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

But there was that one Koran incident

How to bridge the red-blue divide:
Hire the creator of "Piss Christ" to do the photos for your thoughtful ruminations about U.S. interrogation policy and torture.

It's interesting that the Times's new Public Editor does not even mention the "perception of liberal bias" issue - or at least cultural tone-deafness - here, focusing entirely on the technical issue of how staged photo illustrations should be labeled.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Now, about Cambodia and Chile...

In an interview with Indian TV, Henry Kissinger has apologized for calling the Indians "bastards" in a recorded chat with Richard Nixon:

"This was not a formal conversation. This was somebody letting off steam at the end of a meeting in which both president Nixon and I were emphasizing that we had gone out of our way to treat Mrs Gandhi very cordially," Kissinger, 82, told NDTV. "There was disappointment at the results of the meeting. The language was Nixon language."

Memin Pinguin update

Those racist Mexican stamps are flying out of the post office faster than they can be printed:

Crowds of Mexicans lined up at post offices on Friday to buy a new set of stamps featuring a 1940s black comic-book hero whose stereotypical looks and antics have been slammed as racist in the United States.

Some 400 people, from comic fans to Mexicans simply wanting to defy the White House, descended on Mexico City's main post office. Media reports said one bought 4,000 stamps of Memin Pinguin, a mischievous black boy whose thick lips, flat nose and monkey-like antics have offended U.S. civil rights groups.

This has more to do with Mexican contrariness towards U.S. scolding than with racism. A tough call for the left - does anti-imperialism trump multiculturalism here?

Curb your dog in Korea or else

Via Marginal Revolution, Another example of digital technology used as an instrument of social pressure:

Woman doesn't clean up her dog's mess — blog infamy ensues
In Korea, a woman's dog crapped on the train. When people on the train asked her to clean up the mess, she became belligerent.

Within hours, she was labeled gae-ttong-nyue (dog-shit-girl) and her pictures and parodies were everywhere. Within days, her identity and her past were revealed. Request for information about her parents and relatives started popping up and people started to recognize her by the dog and the bag she was carrying as well as her watch, clearly visible in the original picture.

In an era of net-driven self-exposure and shamelessness, it is interesting (but not particularly encouraging) to see the Internet and the "swarming" capabilities of digital gadgetry used in the service of shaming someone.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Where have you gone, Speedy Gonzalez?

Elsewhere on the international front, a controversy erupted this week when Mexico released stamps honoring a cartoon character named Memin Pinguin who appears to be closely related to little black Sambo. American civil rights groups have denounced it. Jesse Jackson is on the case. Even Scott McClellan chimed in:

"Racial stereotypes are offensive, and I would say racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin. The Mexican government needs to take this into account. Images such as these have no place in today's world."

The character is atrocious. But this is an interesting test in an era of globalization: whether an essentially American sensibility/sensitivity on ethnicity can - or should - be applied to another country's cultural prejudices, no matter how objectively offensive they may be. Gene Robinson’s thoughtful take is yes, it can. This blog has another perspective, noting that this kind of image is still floating around, imbedded in odd niches of American culture, mostly unremarked-upon.

But there are a lot of things in the mix here. Mexico’s reflexive impulse against American cultural imperialism, for one. If Scott McClellan and Jesse Jackson were hectoring me about anything, I’d pause before doing what they told me. If the stamps are withdrawn at this point, would it actually reduce racial prejudice in Mexico or just create more anti-American sentiment?

But then there's Mexico’s image as an up-and-coming nation, riding the global flux – and the role of global media and the Internet as leveling, homogenizing forces. The world popular culture coming out of the cuisinart is heavily American-flavored -- including American cultural mores in all their trashy glory. But American pop culture is also by definition multicultural. If Mexico wants to play in the world of MTV, Memin Pinguin will have to be left behind.

Update: President Vicente Fox is standing firm:
"All Mexico loves the character," Fox said, adding that he himself was fond of it.

But officials caution it could take years to train the forces necessary to maintain the rule of law

Via Althouse, via Memeorandum, from the Australian: Spanish men are now going to be required by law to share housework equally. This trend extends all the way from the long arm of the law to the buttons on consumer appliances:

Attempts to blast Spanish males out of their cosy reliance on women as girlfriends, wives, chefs, cleaners, childcarers and custodians of the elderly include technological changes to household appliances. The latest washing machine, named "Your Turn", prevents the same person - typically a wife and mother - from using the appliance consecutively by adopting fingerprint recognition technology.

There they go again, those wacky Spaniards! But when you get socialism + consumerism + technology, you've got to wonder where it's all heading. Cloud Atlas, a terrifically entertaining novel I read last year, featured a socialist consumerist dystopia set in a future Korea, where the state keeps people under its thumb with, basically, computer games and lots and lots of shopping. There are a lot of ways to organize societies. Hard as it may be to believe, some of the worst ones haven't been tried yet.

The bride, 32, is a vice president for investments at Reservoir Capital Group, an investment firm in New York. She graduated magna cum laude from...

New York Times, heal thyself:

Getting the New York Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing works.