Saturday, May 29, 2010

Apparently, He's Like This In Real Life, Too


My 18-year-old niece is my friend on Facebook. The first time I saw that she had typed some profanity, yes, I admit, I was taken aback. Not because I believe it shows a lack of class, or is an affront to the Almighty. She's my niece, and I guess I think of her as this little kid, instead of a young woman just weeks away from graduating high school. After the initial shock wore off, I have come to chuckle at those FB status updates that include some colorful language.

What strikes me most about this is the sheer effrontery. His niece seems quite clear she neither desires nor cares for his advice, yet Marshall goes ahead and gives it anyway, as if his profession of "love" covers the sin of being a fussypants busybody in his niece's life.

I just learned a whole lot about this guy. . .


TPM has a couple marvelous posts, "Whom Are You Remembering?" That one is easy. First, I am remembering my great uncle, my grandmother's brother, Corporal Everett Shores, killed during American action in the trenches in the summer of 1918. Cannon fodder, a death among millions in that slaughter-bench, all sides should have learned the futility and uselessness of human beings killing one another. Alas, enough did not that even more would die within a generation.

Another I honor rather than remember. My uncle, David Johnston, USMCR. He served honorably in China right after the Second World War. He served honorably during the disastrous retreat from the Chosen Reservoir in Korea. He served honorably as a member of a special Intelligence Unit, domestically and abroad, until he left the service in 1954.

Obviously, I do not "remember" Everett Shores. I remember him, though, because his death reminds me that all the talk of honor, on the battlefields of the last century, mean nothing. He died uselessly, needlessly, at least in a military sense. Let that needless end to a life - ending up cannon fodder - provide meaning for my children and their children never again to allow their loved ones to end up that way.

May the example of my Uncle David remind us that service can be rendered in small but nevertheless important ways. One need not line up divisions and whole armies to make a difference.

An Upcoming Anniversary

N.B.: I've been in a reflective mood lately, and with us moving and all, for some reason this has been on my mind.

My fourth trip to our nation's capital overwhelmed me with one feeling, and one feeling alone - I was coming home.

My first trip, in high school, was to the Mall and the Smithsonian. My second, in college, was to a Hilton on New Jersey Ave, near Union Station and Capitol Hill. My third, again to the Smithsonian via the Metro near my brother's apartment in Gaithersburg (I had gone to stay with him prior to beginning my time in seminary). My fourth, also via Metro, was my first visit to Wesley, to talk with the Financial Aid/Housing Director about setting up accommodations for my impending time.

I got off at the Tenleytown stop, on Wisconsin Ave., NW. There's a beautiful, old-fashioned Roman Catholic Church there - St. Anne's - and the Tenley Campus of American University (it's really just an off-campus dormitory, sitting on Nebraska Avenue). You walk down Nebraska Ave, past the local NBC affiliate, a Navy Chapel - the Naval Computer and Communications Center is on the southeast corner of the intersection of Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues - and all the while I walked, besides marveling at how beautiful the neighborhood was, how different from my previous experiences of Washington, I had this overwhelming sense that I had, just a few months prior to my 25th birthday, come to a place I could call home.

My four years living in Washington will always be special to me. I did a whole lot of living, and learning, in that time. I fulfilled a childhood dream of living in Washington, DC. I was studying a subject I loved, with a community of friends and a larger community of like-minded individuals with whom to argue and laugh and sit around and BS and just enjoy life. From the moment I entered that part of the city, though, I had the distinct feeling this was the place I was supposed to be.

I reached the corner of Nebraska Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue, and turned north. I walked past the entrance to American University, down a slope and stood and looked at the entrance to Wesley Theological Seminary. The chapel faces Mass. Ave, and on the outside wall of the back wall, facing the street, is a huge statue of Jesus. Our Lord is supposed to be blessing the city and environs. However, due to flaws in the stone, the blessing is being made with his left hand, an insult and even curse in some cultures. So, I suppose, a bit equivocal.

I was entering seminary at a time when my life was, to be blunt, in turmoil and I personally near collapse. I felt isolated. I was quite alone in the world in many ways. I was going to a place where I knew no one, was not even sure I belonged, and faced a whole host of inner problems that I really had no idea I had to deal with. All the same, after a short, friendly visit on campus, with reassurances, I knew where I was going was right.

In the ensuing four years, I would come to know the streets and neighborhoods around Wesley well. Many walks, most just to spend time walking, some to get to the Tenleytown Station so as to get other places, some to spend time hand in hand with someone special, acquainted me with how beautiful this part of the District of Columbia was and is. The Spring Valley Shopping Plaza, about a mile north of campus on Massachusetts, had a CVS for immediate needs, and a wonderful old delicatessen, Wagshals, that in the future, would become someplace special for me. Right behind the little shopping center was a grocery store. There were another couple buildings on this one-block stretch, one empty until 1992 when a Crate & Barrel would fill it. The other was office space that was just opening as the Law School for AU.

The side- and backstreets were tree-lined and narrow, sometimes winding. Among the residents were Senators and Congress members, diplomats and senior members of the bureaucracy. Just north of the Tenleytown station on Wisconsin Avenue, in a nondescript building above a secondhand bookstore sat the office of the Brazilian Naval attache (for those who don't understand this kind of stuff, that's usually a place for spies). The McDonalds on Wisconsin, right up the street from a pizzeria where we would go on Wednesday nights ($1 pitchers with a large pie, very conducive to discussing theology), was a place I saw Sen. Phil Gramm once, sitting and eating a Big Mac with someone from his staff.

My wife tells me I am superstitious. Not in a "step on a crack" kind of way; more as someone who considers the confluence of dates and events important. It was 20 years, in 1990, from the time my family moved to the home where my parents still live. This summer marks the 20th anniversary of my move to Wesley. I very quickly came to the conclusion that my adult life, in the most important respects, began that summer and fall, that my life consisted of before Wesley and after Wesley. I met people who I still consider my closest friends. Very quickly I felt accepted by a group of students, both upperclass folks and first years, who were like-minded regarding all sorts of theological, socio-cultural, and political issues. I became a part of a community of people, and I felt affirmed in ways that made it safe for me to deal with all the psychological baggage I carried with me.

At Wesley, on the fringes of the territory set aside for our national capital, I found myself. It all started 20 years ago, and my life hasn't been the same in all sorts of wonderful ways. If I could, I suppose that given the least excuse, I would rush back there in a heartbeat. For all that I know my roots lie in the rural confines of upstate New York and the northern tier of Pennsylvania, of the area around Dayton and Springfield, OH, and that my family right now is midwestern, more than any place or space other than my childhood home, Washington, DC became and remains home for me.

Friday, May 28, 2010


The weekend's here, it's a holiday weekend, and we've got packing to get done, fun to be had, and, yes, I just succumbed to temptation and hopped on the Twitter bandwagon.

I have lingering guilt from an incident playing catch with my daughters yesterday. Moriah missed a high lob - even thought she was perfectly positioned to catch it! - when the ball bonked her right above her right eye. Needless to say I still feel a horrible Dad. Ugh.

I feel like I have so much to digest from my perusals of various items on the internet - agnotology and its various guises; more and better discussions with people who actually think, and are willing to stand corrected; the culture of cultural elitism - and am feeling quite excited about my prospects for the future.

The weather here on the northern prairie is so beautiful, I wish I could bottle it for days in November or February when it sucks.

God has richly blessed my life with friends and family. I sometimes marvel at all the things in my life, few of which (other than guilt, of course) I deserve. Grace abounds and is apparent in every waking and sleeping moment of my life.

I would be remiss as a blogger if I did not remind everyone (as if reminding were necessary!) that we need to hold the memories of our fallen service members in our thoughts and prayers on Monday. We sleep safe at night because these folks gave the last full measure. Beside the Constitution to which they swear fealty, it is to them that we owe so much, and for which we have so much to be thankful as Americans.

Eat something cooked on a barbecue this weekend. Kiss someone you love. Listen to a child laugh. Make sure your favorite songs make a soundtrack to your days.

And brush and floss three times a day.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

We're All DOOMED!!!!

My old childhood friend Jim Brewster engages in an exchange concerning the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, relevant to her position as Solicitor General in a case involving Monsanto Foods. Some of the comments on the article are almost farcical in their hysteria.
All of Americas Food Crops will Soon Be SCREWED… Plant Your Own Or Die, will be the New Law Of The Land…
These SOB’s Should be Put up against a wall and Shot! For Crimes Against Humanity…

they’re criminals, ecoterrorists and enemies of the people.

it is up to the people to create the society we need and want.

As Solicitor General, Kagan’s job is to defend those of Acts of Congress which are constitutional.

She is supposed to represent the people, not corporate interests.

As to her other positions, she agrees with Bush and Obama that suspects can lose their habeas corpus rights, e.g. indefinite detention without trial.

She is an abomination to freedom along with the rest of the goons in government who continue to support the Patriot Act, kidnapping, torture, assassinating citizens, ad nauseum.

Actually, I was pretty nice to her in this piece since I didn’t get into all these other problems with her.

I admire Jim's insistence that the discussion revolve around relevant facts, take certain realities - that as SG, Kagan was doing nothing more than acting as an ethical attorney, many other points - and that said discussion take place with civility.

When engaging people who think that the entire planet is about to die because a corporation is doing business under the relevant law, there is no way any discussion can be civil. There is no way to "argue" with people who believe it perfectly acceptable to murder other people in the name of "the people". That Jim does an admirable job of taking the discussion in a new, and interesting, and constructive direction will be of little relevance.

With the ongoing nightmare in the Gulf of Mexico, global warming, deoxygenated zones in the ocean - whole regions devoid of life thanks to human abuse - toxic sludge from mining practices, and on and on, I think it would be good, even constructive to address some questions regarding the viability of our current level of technological/industrial society. These are, as I point out elsewhere, these questions, while certainly involving technical questions, are, in the main, political.

Were I to hazard a guess, unless we members of industrialized societies suddenly gain a wisdom and foresight our ancestors managed not to have, I think we probably face the gradual but increasingly obvious end of industrialized society. I do not think this dystopian in the slightest, because human beings have usually managed to survive these kinds of social breakdowns. Yet, the main question is how we decide to face this decline. Do we outsource these questions to technical experts? Do we cower in fear? Do we line corporate leaders up against a wall?

One reason I am relatively sanguine about the prospects of the potential collapse of our current industrial infrastructure is the length of time involved. Another is that I find far too much of the discussion - like the "Mark of the Beast" article - to be based on waht I consider false premises. The utopia/dystopia Hobson's choice rests on assumptions regarding progress, human society, and the relationship between politics and technology that don't hold up under scrutiny. I don't consider myself "dystpian" for thinking it likely our society will end its current way of managing at some time in the next few centuries. I don't believe that, should some technological breakthrough come to pass, the future will be so bright we all have to wear shades.

Rather than attempting to engage people, on either extreme, when they do not have any desire to discuss or argue, but to preach and be admired for their wisdom and sagacity, it is up to some people, like Jim, to present options and possibilities for those willing to listen and consider. That is why I do not think we're all doomed. On the contrary, while my descendants in the 25th century may look back and bewilderment at our folly and lack of foresight, I believe and hope that they will run things a bit more wisely, a bit more scrupulously, and bit less wastefully.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Militarizing The Mexico Border

All I gotta say is this:

What a stupid fucking idea.

Nice going, Mr. President.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Bit Of A Rant (Language Alert)

I guess being a self-declared genius doesn't mean what it used to mean:
It was an accident. It couldn't have been foreseen. The possibility that an oil rig might explode isn't one of the concerns voiced by environMENTALists. At least, it wasn't until now.

Accidents, including catastrophic accidents, are foreseen all the time. That is why regulations regarding workplace safety and health exist. By mandating certain things, and limiting other things, the chances this or that accident may happen in any particular instance is reduced significantly.

If the point I was trying to drive home in my immediately prior post wasn't clear enough, I shall endeavor to make it so.

We have heard for far too long that industrial regulation is a hindrance. Workplace safety regulations are unnecessary because of course businesses care about their workers, of course industry cares about the environment because the people who run businesses live in the environment, too. Financial regulation hinders employment and economic growth and opportunity, and bubbles like the housing bubble happen, like shit, so what can you do about it?

As far as I'm concerned, this on-going disaster should be laid at the feet of every politician, right-wing intellectual, libertarian nincompoop, and average agnotological right-winger who has insisted for years that we need to drill baby drill, that the environmental damage of any particular potential accident is outweighed by the economic benefits, and besides that who cares about brown pelicans, anyway?

If these people had the courage of their convictions they would look at what is happening in the Gulf, shrug their shoulders, and say, "Oh, well. Shit happens. What you gonna do?"

Like Rand Paul, though, they have no balls. Called out for outrageous statements that, at the very least, have intellectual integrity in their favor, they carry on as if this problem is someone else's. They demand to know why more wasn't done to prevent this accident, to minimize the damage, to protect the workers. On and on and on, without ever once realizing this incident is a direct result of the way they ran this country.

As far as I'm concerned, this is their fucking fault. Let them clean it up, or be consistent enough to not give a fart in a windstorm about it.

You either live with the results of policies that you favor whether they are good or bad, or you don't. In the first instance, you own up when the shit hits the fan. If you refuse to accede any responsibility for cataclysmic fuck-ups like what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico, then you might at least be adult enough to admit your error, and do something about it. Hiding behind weasel words like "it was an accident!" is meaningless. More than that, it is intellectual and moral cowardice.

If Gov. Jindal is correct that more than enough booms and other tools to help clean up the oil exist, and he is just sitting around and waiting for someone else to give the go-ahead to protect the coast line of his own damn state, he is admitting, quite publicly, that he is a failure. If former Gov. Palin really thinks that we need more drilling in the Gulf, then she needs to get herself down there and poo-poo the tar-balls on the beach, that surround the corpses of dolphins and birds as the inevitable cost of energy independence. If all those who claim that Pres. Obama is a Marxist dictator really had any idea what they meant, then why isn't he just drafting all of us to haul ass down to the Gulf and get the situation under control?

This disaster is a direct result of policies we have been told, over and over again, are better than the alternatives, that the costs are low compared to the benefits, that we shouldn't worry about endangered species under threat from an industry that exists to draw a hazardous chemical from within the earth. We have been led by the nose to this point by people who really couldn't care less about the economic and environmental damage their policies might bring until they actually do bring them. Then, of course, the fault lies elsewhere.

Bullshit. Grow a pair. Admit that, yes, indeed, this situation is due directly to the regulatory regime being minimal. Admit you don't really care about environmental damage, that we need to drill, baby, drill, despite what is happening because a few soiled ecosystems and dead birds and sea mammals and reptiles are a small price to pay for a little more oil.

If you can't do that, don't be surprised that I am not interested in hearing what you have to say.

Jindal's Rage

I got scolded for not writing all that much about the BP "oil spill" today. Which is funny because I was actually going to address some things I heard on a story this morning on NPR that featured, quite prominently, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal ranting about the multiple failures both of British Petroleum and the federal government's response to the on-going leak.

What struck me most was the rank hypocrisy on display. If memory serves, Jindal is a Republican. That party currently believes that, a), federal regulation of industry stifles profits, innovation, and employment, and to that end the Bush Administration refused to mandate the kind of redundant safety devices on the rig that might have prevented both the accident that killed eleven workers and the on-going oil leak; b) the states are in a far better position to regulate and manage their own affairs than the federal government, and to that end insisted in an earlier press conference that it was his state, not the federal government, that was acting swiftly to protect the coastline of his state from the oil, and was doing a far better job of it than the feds; c) turned down, or attempted to turn down, federal dollars at several points over the previous few months from various agencies for a variety of reasons, and yet now demands, DEMANDS, the federal government "do something".

Pres. Obama is doing quite a bit more than I could ever imagine the Bush Administration doing, considering their response to Katrina. Yet, he is following certain general guidelines for action that one would think a Republican politician would support. He's accepted BP's word that it could manage, then stop the leak, and given it plenty of time to try all sorts of gimmicks, all of which have failed. He's also accepted the general Republican argument that states have rights, too, and given Gov. Jindal ample opportunity to do all sorts of stuff he insists need to be done to protect the inarguably valuable Louisiana coastline from harm. It is Jindal who is now claiming that he would, indeed, do all the stuff he said he was going to go ahead and do, but it is that nasty horrible awful federal government that is preventing them from doing so, making the situation that much worse.

The whole mess is not easily solved, and I have no solution myself. It would seem, however, that a company that practices deep-water drilling like this would have far better contingency plans for a potential disaster like this that involved more than tinkertoys, legos, and duct tape. One would also think Jindal would be praising the free market for allowing BP to drill baby drill without interference from the federal government.

You reap what you sow, as far as I'm concerned, and while my heart really does ache for the brown pelicans, dolphins, and the whole ecosystem damaged by this on-going incident, somebody needs to take Bobby Jindal by the hand, and as they tour the devastation of the Delta marshes, read the speeches he has made, along with the speeches of other Republicans over the years. Then, find a dead albatross covered in oil and hang it around his neck.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Can't Lose What You Never Had

. . . American democracy, like Athenian democracy, was a grand thing once. No less than Pericles' orations and Plutarch's Lives, Tocqueville's great book will live on to inspire any future generation that seeks to revive the noble but elusive ideal of popular self-government.
George Scialabba

It is surprising, I suppose, to find an observation like this in a review essay by someone who is supposed to be one of our best critics. To lament the current state of our public life is commonplace. To claim, by extension, that somehow we have lost something that is, for a generation, irretrievable, is false on its face historically, and currently.

There is no doubt that our current civic life, public institutions, and the general public trust necessary to repair that them are broken. The past two decades of rhetorical hostility and practical neglect leave much of our common life looking like I-35 in the Twin Cities a couple years back, for many of the same reasons. Part of the reason Barack Obama has inspired, first, so much fervor, and now, so much disgust, is that he offered himself as someone who really believed in the promise of our common life and institutions, that they are not beyond repair, and that we can rebuild them to work better for all of us. His failure to magically make us better in less than a year and a half in office, for some reason, has left many, particularly on the left, almost incoherent with rage.

George is not incoherent, and there is little rage here. Rather, while certainly coherent, he is in mourning for the loss of the democratic promise of the middle decades of the 20th century in America. It is true that a trend toward social democracy lived in our public policy - a stronger social safety net, much higher marginal tax rates on a more progressive scale, the public and legal support for organized labor, an effort to include more and more marginalized and disenfranchised groups in our public life - and it is also true that much of that was actively dismantled from the early 1970's through much of the previous decade.

Yet, this was hardly the work of a small coterie of business interests, policy experts, and elected officials. Rather, it was a general historical trend, visible should one look for it, that began at the zenith of liberal hubris in the 1960's, culminating, first in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, then the Republican majority in Congress from 1994 through 2006. While it is certainly true that this movement was aided by money from corporations, given talking points by think tanks, and lived as much on obfuscation and dissimulation as it did on serious intellectual and political muscle, these elections, and the ideas and policies they represented would not have turned the way they did if they did not enjoy at least a plurality of broad support. This little factoid is usually missed by left-wing critics. It is the failure of democracy, under pressure from monied interests, that are to blame; they are lied to, misled, too stupid to know what is in their own interests.

For a generation, liberal intellectuals bemoaned the dumb electorate for giving us Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush and even Bill Clinton (I honestly cannot tell you who the left hated more, Clinton or Reagan; the current left-wing rage at Obama is similar to the vitriol heaped upon Clinton) because they refused to acknowledge what should have been clear - these men and the policies they supported and ideas they represented were popular. We usually get the government we both want and deserve.

That beneath the cloak of support for free markets and an expanded zone of personal (usually economic) freedom, much of our public life was left in tatters is true enough. Yet, a significant number of Americans, much as it pains me to write this, have never believed in such a thing as civic virtue, the benefits of our common life, and the duties of living in a society. That these interests coincided with the electoral desires of a major party were enough to create a generation, more or less, of conservative dominance. Liberals were smart enough to understand the results would be catastrophic, in the end. They have never been brave enough to admit that their ideas were in disfavor.

No more.

If one considers the Tea Party movement in the Republican Party in comparison with events in the Democratic Party between 1968 and 1972, I think a little understanding may be gained. After the disastrous Democratic convention and loss in a close election, the Democratic Party set up a commission of reform under then South Dakota Senator George McGovern that sought to change the way the party chose its Presidential candidates. While the long term effects of the McGovern rules have been the election, in 1992 and in 2008, of two of the most popular Democratic Presidents in our country's history, the immediate effects were catastrophic. Many long-time Party leaders and influential members of the intellectual wing of the party left. The party managed to nominate some serious losers - George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis - that left the party struggling after each Presidential election.

The Tea Party movement is a similar, informal, phenomenon. The conservative wing of the Republican Party, regardless for the moments of the merits of their argument, has felt betrayed by the establishment. They are supporting a host of candidates, noisily humiliating stalwart Republican politicians with impeccable conservative credentials, seeking to make the party more ideologically pure. They want the Republican Party to look like them, much as left-wing populist Democrats in the early 1970's wanted that party to look more like them. My prediction is the results will be a kind of mirror. I have predicted all along the Republicans will lose the midterms, and even with the loss today of a House seat in Hawaii, I still predict that.

Yet, this hardly means that we might either sooner or later, restore our country's tattered democratic practices, dismantles slowly or swiftly under the age of the Republican majority. For one simple reason - it never existed. While liberal Democratic policies certainly enjoyed broad popular support, they were hardly the stuff of serious leftist policy. Presidents from Roosevelt on were, to a man, considered dupes and rubes, or worse, active agents of the corporate classes, tossing a bone here and there to the proles while ensuring the survival of those that held the purse strings of power.

And this description, for all that it is a bit morally overwrought and simplistic, was largely true. Like both W. Bush and Obama, Roosevelt sought not to destroy the banking industry, but to save it. He sought not to overturn American capitalism, but to save it from its worst excesses. Obama, at least, is honest enough that this move is necessary. Fixing the structural dynamics that created the problem always need to take a back seat to preventing total economic and social collapse and catastrophe.

Both historically and currently, the politicians we elect, the policies they support, and the people and institutions that support those who are victorious do so not because of the nefarious acts of corporations seeking to pull the strings of government; not because the people are too stupid to even know what is in their own best interest, let alone act upon it; or because the ideas they represent are of necessity covered in lies in order to mask their utter vacuity. No, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, the combination of interests and support create conditions that give us the leaders we want.

For good or ill.

There never was a moment when American democracy "really" flourished to be squashed by hostile forces. Even our best politicians and leaders were, for the most part, not that good; our worst far more horrible than we can really imagine. We have always muddled through as best we can.

Our historical moment continues to be one of hope, I think, for liberals. Despite the noise, and the endless stream of support for conservative ideas and policies one reads and hears in our national discourse, most Americans understand, at some level, their utter failure. Our democracy will work as it always has - not very well, but better than any alternative I can imagine - to continue to give us men and women who will work to give us, the people, what we want. The hope, of course, is that what we want, and what we need, coincide.

I believe they do.

Virtual Tin Cup

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