Saturday, June 20, 2009

Saturday Rock Show

R.E.M., Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran - the faces and voices of 80's rock. Yet none are more iconic of that strange decade that U2. Unlike Gabriel or Duran Duran, whose best work was done then, and R.E.M., who are like America's answer to the Rolling Stones, just a great rock and roll band that keeps getting better and better, U2 have their own unique vision, follow their own muse, and stand or fall on their own terms. Yet,The Joshua Tree is without a doubt their single best, most cohesive album, musically. They could still shock back then, such as with this very different (for them) bluesy, very LOUD song, "Bullet the Blues Sky".

I've been inspired to go back to the decade when I came of age because Lisa's on her way to her high school reunion, and I'm gonna miss mine.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Two Parts To The Health Care Reform Debate

In essence, any major public debate has two separate yet linked dimensions. Space is filled by considerations of legislative politicking; counting votes, in other words. Very often these votes hue to party lines, ideological preferences, and various coalitions of legislators, are formed in the committee stage (which is why floor debate is usually quite pointless; once a committee has done its work, the floor debates usually are nothing more than an exercise in ensuring either passage or defeat, trying to swing one or two members this way or that). The other dimension, the actual policy and its effectiveness (or lack thereof) is usually relegated to the staff of individual Senators or the committee responsible for various pieces of legislation. For this reason, unfortunately, the two parts of public debate are very often separate, going in their own directions without referencing one another all that much.

As we get the massive health care reform issue rolling (Sisyphus is no longer pleased, I think), we are witnessing the outlines of this very common occurrence. Matt Yglesias sums up this frustration very nicely.
The big problem, politically speaking, with health care is that you basically have people on the left arguing both sides of the question. On the one hand, insofar as your plan is “big government” that’s left-wing. But insofar as your plan is expensive, that’s also left-wing. Which is because people normally think of big government programs as expensive. But when it comes to health care, heavy-handed government intervention is actually way cheaper than private sector alternatives. Consequently, every time you try to make the plan more “moderate” by, for example, curbing the influence of a public option you actually wind up making the plan more “left wing” by needing to raise more taxes. And if you want to make the plan cheaper, while still actually achieving its goals, then you need to make it more left-wing not more moderate. But in the United States, ideological correctness and special interest politics prevents us from admitting this.

The chart accompanying this piece, as well as several other studies of health care expenditure per capita across the industrialized world, make a point that is worth pondering: It is far less expensive, over all, to have a single-payer, publicly-funded system than any alternatives being offered.

Another part of this whole politics-policy divide that is actually infuriating is this kind of thing, also reported by Yglesias:
After reading Volsky and Cohn on the Bipartisan Policy Council health reform plan put together by former Majority Leaders Howard Baker (R-TN), Tom Daschle (D-SD), Bob Dole (R-KS) and George Mitchell (D-ME) I feel, well, kind of “eh” about it. This is not a great plan, but it would be better than the status quo. It’s about what you’d be looking for from a bipartisan compromise, in other words. Personally, I’d like to think that overwhelming progressive electoral victories would result in some juicier fruit than this, but the fact of the matter is that a lot of the Democrats in the Senate appear to not have particularly progressive convictions.

Which I think leads to the question, how bipartisan is this really? Howard Baker and Bob Dole are nice, but how about some Republicans currently serving in the United States Senate?

If you are too young to remember, Howard Baker was Senate Majority Leader during the 1980's. He retired from the Senate after not seeking re-election in 1984. Bob Dole, you may recall, is also no longer in the Senate. While George Mitchell and Tom Daschle are probably nice guys (for the most part), they were also pretty ineffective Majority Leaders when the Democrats held thin majorities in the upper house. Neither, of course, currently hold elective office (although Mitchell is a special envoy for Pres. Obama).

I think it is important to note, as Bob Cesca does, that many of the major players in this debate are major recipients of campaign donations from the health insurance industry. One of the biggest, Max Baucus of Montana, has received over $2,000,000. While political ideology may be an important factor in this debate, what is driving the Senate away from the overwhelmingly popular public option is filthy lucre, pure and simple.

While I understand Pres. Obama will be holding a live discussion this weekend on health care reform, my own wish is similar to that of many other supporters both of the President and serious health care reform - get out there, speak loudly, often, clearly, and in detail, on what kind of reform you want, and how quickly you want to get it done. The public is behind you, but the health insurance lobby has far more cash at its disposal, and therefore more influence.

While much of the immediate debate sounds eerily familiar to the 1990's attempt to address the issue, there are several things that give me at least a dim glimmer of hope. First and foremost is the simple reality that the Republicans are no longer ascendant in Congress. While they and more conservative voices certainly have the bully pulpits of traditional media, they are no longer the only, or even the biggest, game in town. David Broder may nourish a seriously stiff jones on the whole Baker/Dole/Daschle/Mitchell business, but they aren't in the Senate anymore. In other words, who cares what they think?

We also have a President who is still, despite all the grumbling of the press and conservative yakkers, wildly popular with the American people. While I believe the poll data that emerged yesterday pointing to "concern" over federal spending, once the point is driven home that a public plan would be far cheaper overall than any other option currently under consideration, I believe the debate will shift back toward a proposal the country supports.

The Decline And Collapse Of Newspapers

Yesterday, The Washington Post fired Dan Froomkin, more an online than in-print pundit, not only capable, but consistent enough to be a prod to both the Bush and Obama White House. Today, having discarded a source of information that was popular, the Post prints two op-ed pieces, one by Charles Krauthammer, the other by Paul Wolfowitz, that demonstrate (especially taken with yesterday's dismissal of Froomkin) the editors' commitment to a new direction - failure.

Please note that this is not just an ideological critique. Krauthammer and Wolfowitz are not only propagators of a particular political point of view; on the specifics of policy preference - pretty much everything they insist the United States either ought to do, or (in the case of Wolfowitz) actually implemented as national policy was not only a dismal failure, but counterproductive and rejected by the American people during the last two election cycles. I am not suggesting they should not have a voice; I am not saying they shouldn't have their views printed in an organ as important as the op-ed page of The Washington Post.

One of the jobs of an editor is to make decisions that will not only reflect a certain consistency of viewpoint - if, say, The Washington Times or The Wall Street Journal offered a spot to Froomkin it would certainly raise a hue-and-cry from the right - but that benefit the paper financially. In the midst of a recession and changing market structure that is undermining the newspaper business in a variety of ways, making personnel and editorial decisions that not only reduce the number of readers your newspaper gets (Froomkin was not only popular, but linked and crossed-referenced all the time), but also present your paper as the mouthpiece for an ideological stance that is both out of favor politically and a dismal failure practically pretty much indicates that, as a business leader, the front wheels are already over the edge of the abyss.

Way to go.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stupid Funny

Via Bob Cesca comes this wonderful bit of really hilarious crap. I wondered if this kind of thing was still around, and lo and behold, we get to listen to how listening to Kenny Loggins leads to child sacrifice. Well, maybe that's true . . .

End Of An Era

I saw an obituary in my hometown newspaper and realized we have really come to the end of an era. The death of James Lantz, a retired engineer on the Lehigh Valley Railroad marks a very real end, not just for the railroad and its relationship to Sayre, PA, but on a personal level as well. My grandfather was also an engineer on the Lehigh Valley, starting off in the first decade of the 20th century shoveling coal. By the time the 1920's rolled around, he was sitting behind a desk. When the Depression hit, and many lost jobs, he kept his in part thanks to his on-going union membership. When engineers were being let go, he left his desk and got behind the wheel again. He continued to drive those trains - the Lehigh had been a Rockefeller railroad, connecting various NY and PA rail lines - and even finagled a job for my father in what was known as the Big Shop in 1940 or so.

James Lantz must have been one of the last engineers on the Lehigh. My grandfather retired in the 1950's, and even then the line was ailing. Were he, by some miracle, still alive, my grandfather would be 119 years old this year, twenty-four years older than the late Mr. Lantz.

At one time, the Big Shop in Sayre, PA was one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world, housing a couple rounds, and space enough for engines and other cars to be dismantled for a thorough cleaning. My father told me about an old man named Chacona (his son would go on to be a long-time mayor of Sayre) whose job was to guide wheels in to a vat of acid for a thorough cleaning. The wheels, having been removed from the car, were hoisted on to a conveyor that carried them along the line. It would stop above this vat and the winch would lower the wheels ever so slowly down. Mr. Chacona would stand on a plank set across the top of the vat - with the acid fumes rising, no rail, no breathing equipment, no safety suit - and use a long pole to make sure they entered the vat just so. That was his job, and he did it day in and day out for years without an accident. Such was some folk's work experience before OSHA, I guess . . .

While not born from the rails, Sayre benefited enormously from them - the Lehigh even subsidized housing on a street along the rail yard - named (what else?) Lehigh Avenue. There was a tunnel that was built below the yard, with an entrance smack dab in the middle of Lehigh Ave.. Men in overalls, carrying their lunches in pails, would pour in to that tunnel every morning, and out again in the afternoon. When I was a kid, we would drive by that old tunnel entrance, long since boarded up, and I always wanted to go through it, but my father told me how dangerous it had become. While I am quite sure he was right for any number of reasons, part of me wishes I had not heeded his warning and taken that walk before both ends of the tunnel were sealed permanently.

The above photo, showing the Big Shop and its massive smokestacks, is very personal for me. I remember well the last days of the Lehigh yards in Sayre, and the final images as the Shop was taken down and those stacks were dynamited, tumbling with a sad majesty to earth. While that was certainly one mark of the end of the era of the rails in small town America, the death of someone very likely one of the last engineers on the Lehigh Valley Railroad draws to a final close - a kind of sad, human coda - this once wonderful, vibrant chapter in our national life.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Funny Republican Public FAIL

This is so funny.
Earlier today, Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) put up this astonishing post on Twitter, likening the oppression of the Iranian people to the plight of House Republicans


In the hours since, the Twitter community has responded -- with massive heckling.

Here's the original tweet from Hoekstra:
Iranian twitter activity similar to what we did in House last year when Republicans were shut down in the House.

Here are a couple sample responses:
ArjunJaikumar @petehoekstra i spilled some lukewarm coffee on myself just now, which is somewhat analogous to being boiled in oil

ceedub7 @petehoekstra I got a splinter in my hand today. Felt just like Jesus getting nailed to the cross.

TahirDuckett @petehoekstra ran through the sprinklers this morning, claimed solidarity with victims of Hurricane Katrina

Republicans always claim that it is liberals and Democrats who relish their victimization, yet they are always the first to claim they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

What a bunch of stupid schmucks.

Donna Joan Johnston Konicki, April 1, 1928 - December 17, 2008

While I say it with trepidation - who wants to pick out a "favorite" relative? - I am honest enough to admit that my Aunt Joan, my mother's only sister, was my favorite Aunt. Why do I say that? Three reasons - Uno, hosting, Good 'N' Plenty.

When you played Uno with Aunt Joan, it was brutal. Once, my brother managed to sneak a wrong card on the discard pile, and the whole game went around a couple times before he admitted it. I thought Aunt Joan was going to blow a gasket, even though she, and the rest of us, were laughing so hard we were crying. Of course, when we played, we always laughed like that.

I spent many eventful and fun days and nights with Aunt Joan, fewer moreso than the summer after Lisa and I were married. We were on our way to Illinois, and made a pitstop for a couple days to visit my mother's family and my relatives in Dayton, and stayed with Aunt Joan. She let us sleep in her bedroom, and the morning we were preparing to leave, we were making her bed, and I am sad to admit that I passed gas so loud it actually rattled the windows. Lisa insists that fart is still rattling around the Universe, and will be picked up by some advanced civilization a couple million years from now. Of course, she heard it in the other room (I think she would have heard it in Cincinnati), and started laughing, and we started laughing, and we left the house laughing. My guess is, however, that she cried when she went in to her bedroom later.

The summer after I was in kindergarten, my mother had gall bladder surgery. My father being helpless in the face of taking care of five children from 16 to age 5, my Aunt and my cousins Claudia and Leah came out to make sure we were fed and watered and that nothing horrible happened to us (you can read my cousin's recollection of one part of that trip here; sad to say, reading it forced me to recall my sisters and her singing "I'm the happiest girl in the whole USA"). In an effort to keep me occupied, Aunt Joan either bought or brought along a board game based on the candy Good 'N' Plenty. Part of playing with Aunt Joan was that she would give me some of the candy while we played. Never a huge fan of licorice, I nevertheless ate those candies eagerly, and forever after would associate the taste with that visit. She also bought me an orange stuffed bear that was almost as big as I was; said bear, named Theodore Edward (what else?) currently resides in my younger daughter's bedroom.

Now, if this seems like slim pickin's as to why my Aunt Joan was my favorite Aunt, let me elaborate a bit. She and my mother were the only girls in a large family full of boys, making their relationship far closer than it might otherwise have been. When she visited, both my mother and father were different. Mom always seem to laugh more, and Dad seemed so relaxed and open (I heard my first ever dirty joke, I must have been about 11 or so, from my father when he and Joan were sharing them back and forth). One summer about fifteen or so years ago - maybe more but no less - Aunt Joan came in early July and ended up staying almost the entire summer. It was an endless summer of enjoyment for my parents, and Joan, too. Once, my mother returned from somewhere, and walked through the house looking for Dad and Joan, finding them sitting together on a side porch. Joan laughed and said, "Virginia, why didn't you look in the bedroom?"

She had a difficult life in many ways, a sad life. In her last years, though, she was reconciled with her son and older daughter (her younger daughter, the cousin who writes about her family experiences, is by far my favorite non-immediate family member) and no one was happier than I when these things happened. Because, you see, beneath the gruff and very loud Johnston exterior lurked a warm, loving heart (the same, I think, is true for all of the members of my mother's family). I loved her because she took care of me and my whole family, provided a little light and light-heartedness to all of us with her visits. I would rather not dwell too long on those parts of her life, because, like Johnstons do, why talk about them?

She fell ill very suddenly last fall, and within a very few weeks was gone. For a variety of reasons, a memorial service was postponed until this coming weekend. Sadly, I cannot make it, but Lisa and the girls will be going in my stead.

I'm fighting tears as I write this, because saying goodbye is always hard, and knowing I cannot do so properly hurts. I love you, Aunt Joan, and will eat a whole box of Good 'N' Plenty on Friday, and think of you, and laugh because I know in my heart that you loved being with us for the same reason - we laughed so hard it would hurt.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Watching Iran

Like most Americans, I am watching events unfold in Iran with a mixture of hope and a sense that the inevitable crackdown will be ugly. It certainly doesn't help matters that there are confusing reports on the legitimacy of the election, on the way Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khameini is handling it, and the obvious question of which way the military and Revolutionary Guards will turn once a final decision is made.

Twenty years ago we had the weird and wonderful spectacle of the snowballing revolutions in Central and Southern Europe even as China landed with both tank-covered feet on pro-democracy rallies in and around the capital city. It was easy enough both to cheer and mourn the events of that fateful year - from the erection of the statue of liberty in Tianenmen Square to the people tearing down the Berlin Wall to the snow-covered corpses of the Ceaucescu's on Christmas Day - because everyone knew the horrible nature of the regimes involved, and celebrated the possibilities presented by the utter collapse of totalitarianism, as well as mourned the death of any possibility for change in China.

Now, however, the situation is different. First of all, far too many in influential circles in the United States government hold a thirty-year grudge for the storming of the US embassy and subsequent hostage-taking following the Islamic revolution in Iran. Most of our policy toward Iran in the intervening decades has been premised upon payback, pure and simple.

Because of the myopia brought on by a natural desire to punish a country that managed to humiliate the United States and bring down a President, it is often difficult to decipher the reality in Iran from our own wishes. It is true the final legal authority in Iran is the Supreme Council, a group of religious leaders devoted to a particular interpretation of Islamic law. This, however, doesn't make it much different from Saudi Arabia. Unlike the Saudi kingdom, however, within the parameters of theocratic absolutism - the supreme law of the land exists under the umbrella of Islamic law - Iran has had a lively, even vigorous democratic history in the thirty years since the revolution. Its parliament is multi-religious. Women have been a vital part of Iranian politics and civil life (one could hardly say the same for Saudi Arabia). While the first decade to decade and a half of its life were caught up in the twin predicaments of vilifying the United States and conducting a very long war of attrition with Iraq, national leadership has swung back and forth between various adherents to principles of the original revolution and those who wished to see the national constitutional framework of Iran - an Islamic nation - as contiguous with modern, western ideas of the Open Society. While not holding the reins of power, such a view is still powerful enough to make for lively debate within Iran, and drove much of the (foreign) news coverage of the recent elections there.

I will not pretend I do not wish to see Iran emerge from its current crisis as a secular state (one of the perils of being an American is seeing the advantage of dismantling any relationship between the state and religious practice). I will not pretend I do not desire sitting Pres. Ahmedinejad (sp?) to step aside. My hope is that the military and security apparatus will stand to one side and allow the legal system to disentangle the mess Iran currently has.

I fear, however, this will not be the case. Blood has already been spilled. The government is cracking down on foreign journalists reporting events. It has blocked various internet applications that would provide information to the outside world - a vital necessity.

So I watch and wait. I hope, but I also fear.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Hitler Was A Vegan, So von Brunn Was A Leftist

One of the most horrid, awful results of the recent spate of right-wing violence has been the sudden reappearance of Jonah Goldberg and his idiotic thesis that fascism is actually a phenomenon of political liberalism and the left. Dave Niewert does the world a service of calling out Goldberg's nonsensical thesis. I can only imagine how painful it was first to read Goldberg's thick pile of crap, then actually treat it with enough respect to call it crap in detail. For all that such a thesis is easily dismissed by a welter of historical evidence, Goldberg is out there, in print and TV, trying to get the message out.

Not just Goldberg, though. It's all over the place. Andrew Breitbart, who runs a right-wing blog, says the von Brunn is closer to a multiculturalist - and most would agree that adherents of the multicultural thesis are of the left - than to any figure on the right. I think the only way to square this particular circle is to construct an argument something like this:

- Multiculturalists stress the continuity of cultural identity over individuality.

- von Brunn stressed the continuity of the white race over the individuality of persons of different races

- von Brunn is a multiculturalist.

Now, the major premise is deeply flawed, a caricature of what multicultural theory is and how it operates. While the minor premise may be true to the extent that a racist sees race as the single determining factor in an individual's life, to equate multicultural theory with racism is not only deeply flawed, but highly offensive. As John Cook writes, "James von Brunn is exactly like a lesbian studies major."

One of the more stupid aspects of the whole "fascists are liberals" nonsense is the conflation of the personal quirks of this or that historical or contemporary political figure and modern political alignments. For example, Goldberg points out, quite correctly, that Woodrow Wilson was a racist. The roots of the party's power lay in the racist south at the time. In many ways, however, Wilson was also a Progressive. To argue, however, that because Wilson was both an adherent to many of the principles of classic Progressive politics and was also a racist that racism is, therefore, an inherent part of Progressive politics, then or now, is ridiculous.

The same applies to other figures. As the title of this post notes, Adolf Hitler was a vegetarian, indeed a missionary of the superiority of a vegan diet over meat. Many contemporary vegans tend to drift leftward in their politics - mostly - so, apparently to Goldberg, Hitler was actually a liberal-lefty.

Treating this nonsense as anything other than nonsense is almost impossible. I have made the decision that anyone who comes around here and attempts to make this argument will not be engaged directly. I consider this argument on a part with creationism, another notion I refuse to engage directly. Part of keeping one's sanity in times such as ours is the necessity of drawing lines and creating boundaries. So, if someone reads this and starts typing, "But, but . . . Mussolini liked sprouts! Stalin was gay! They're all lefties!!!" and expect a response, forget about it. I may laugh and call you an idiot. I won't delete your comment. It will just convince me that you are as big a doofus as the people who promote this nonsense.

Prayer For Enemies

One of the most difficult aspects of the recent spate of right-wing murderous violence has been my own anger. Jesus insists we are to pray for those who hate us; I have no desire to do so. We are to love our enemies; I despise them. Yet, I want to do these things, because I have been admonished to do so. These are some of the hallmarks of the Christian life. Anger, disgust, disdain - these are not helpful in one's walk in faith.

I turned to a friend on Facebook for guidance, and I received the following prayer. It originated with St. Nicolai of Zica:
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth; enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.

Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world. They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself. They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments. They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish. Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a fly.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:

So that my fleeing will have no return; So that all my hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; So that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; So that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;

So that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; Ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies. Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies. A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

I must admit I have said this prayer through gritted teeth, mouthing the words without necessarily feeling the emotion. Yet, continuing to say this prayer may lead to an honest expression of thankfulness and loving kindness toward those whom I currently despise.

Lord, make it so.

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