Monday, January 31, 2011

Mr. Mom Chronicles: The gross-out wars begin

Tobias has added aggressive licking to his arsenal. I may or may not have taught him that, but I'm certainly living with the consequences.

I'm not feeling well, so I settled down for a nap this afternoon. Tobias crawled under the blanket with me, but apparently didn't want me to sleep -- he put his head next to mine and, not getting a response, did the unexpected: He ran his tongue up and down my nose.

I laughed, but apparently it's not a one-time thing. A little later, after I'd gotten up, he came over and licked my knee. So I grabbed his hand and stuffed it in my mouth.

"Dat's gwoss," he told me. He's learning.

Rendell, Bissinger, and the changes at the Philadelphia Daily News

There's a lot of ground to cover in Larry Platt's memo to the staff of the Philadelphia Daily News. So I'll just stick with saying this sounds good....

In covering Power, the Daily News should report from street level, poking the reader in the ribs and telling him or her how things really do or don’t get done in this city. Philadelphia is a town that is run for and by the same group of 300 insiders. We have an obligation to provide a road map for our readers as to how the transactional nature of our town can conspire against the common good. And we can do that in an entertaining way that holds the usual suspects accountable. 

...but I can't help but juxtapose that mission statement with this: 

I’m also honored to announce that another Pulitzer Prize winner, best-selling author Buzz Bissinger, will serve as an editorial advisor and occasional columnist in our pages. I’ve known Buzz for nearly twenty years; he’s passionate and inspiring and often outraged. I plan on having some regular big-picture brainstorming sessions, often with Buzz in attendance. Yes, he cut his teeth at the Inquirer, and, until recently, penned a column for our sister publication. But Buzz is excited about what we’re doing here and his is a voice our city desperately needs.

Speaking of loud voices, I also want to welcome our new sports columnist, none other than Ed Rendell. 

Ah, yes, Ed Rendell and Buzz Bissinger. Such fresh, establishment-challenging voices! If Larry Platt weren't giving us these guys, how would I know what they think or where to find their views?

I've been in the business long enough to have read a few of these memos. (And to have written one or two myself, frankly.) Revolutions are often promised but rarely realized. But it's not usually so naked that the promise of great change and reinvention is accompanied by fanfare of drawing from the same well that you've been drawing from for the last 25 years. 

Bernd Eichinger, maker of 'Neverending Story' and 'Downfall,' RIP

It's a heck of an expansive moviemaking resumé: Bernd Eichinger, who just died at age 61, was a writer or producer on "The Neverending Story" the "Resident Evil" franchise and some of Wim Wenders' earliest movies. But the movie that probably touched the deepest chord with me was "Downfall," Eichinger's film about Hitler's last days, as the Soviet army closed in around him. The controversy around the movie is remembered in his obit today: 

“Downfall” (2004), which was written as well as produced by Mr. Eichinger (and was also nominated for an Oscar), tells the story of Hitler’s final days, portraying life with his close compatriots in his Berlin bunker.

Based partly on a memoir by one of Hitler’s secretaries and partly on historical texts, the film, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, portrayed Hitler in an almost neutral fashion. It depicted his paranoid rantings as Berlin was under assault by Russian artillery and the Germans faced certain defeat, but also featured moments of warmth and thoughtfulness. Many critics, especially inside Germany, felt that any attempt to humanize Hitler was ill advised.

“The lack of narrative position alone,” the filmmaker Wim Wenders wrote, escorts the audience “into a black hole in which they are led, almost unnoticeably, toward looking at this time through the eyes of the perpetrators, and generates a kind of benevolent understanding of them.”

Mr. Eichinger rejected such criticism, saying in a 2005 interview that the Nazi period was the “darkest” in German history and that it “traumatized not only the generation which was involved, but traumatized also my generation.” He added that to attack the film for showing that Hitler had human traits was unjust.

“There is no such thing as telling the truth and not taking everything into consideration,” he said. “Otherwise you are a Stalinist with one view of things. You burn what doesn’t fit your position or put it into the archives because you want to show only bad and good. When I wrote this script, for me the important thing was to show the gray.”

Watching "Downfall" didn't make me feel sympathy to Hitler, nor to any of the people in his cadre. But it did make me feel a small twinge of empathy for the people around him. Yes, these people committed themselves to a horrible and monstrous ideology — but they were people, after all. I took the depiction of them as a warning about how easy it is to commit oneself to misguided or even hideous dogmas, even with the best of intentions, and how difficult it can be to extract oneself from those visions even as they cause the world to crumble about you. Few people think of themselves as evil. Instead, they operate the gas ovens and the furnaces  and convince themselves that they may be doing difficult work, but they are doing it for a greater good. Eichinger's movie didn't make me want to be a Nazi; it made me see how easy it would be to be a Nazi, and provided a warning against slipping down that slope. It was cinematic art at its most thought-provoking and valuable. RIP.


Today in inequality reading: Egypt

A big reason for the unrest in Egypt? The widening gap between the rich and the poor:

“These big guys are stealing all the money,” said Mohamed Ibraham, a 24-year-old textile worker standing at his second job as a fruit peddler in a hard-pressed neighborhood called Dar-al-Salam. “If they were giving us our rights, why would we protest? People are desperate.”

He had little sympathy for those frightened by the specter of looting. He complained that he could barely afford his rent and said the police routinely humiliated him by shaking him down for money, overturning his cart or stealing his fruit. “And then we hear about how these big guys all have these new boats and the 100,000 pound villas. They are building housing, but not for us — for those people up high.”

The widening chasm between rich and poor in Cairo has been one of the conspicuous aspects of city life over the last decade — and especially the last five years. Though there were always extremes of wealth and poverty here, until recently the rich lived more or less among the poor — in grander apartments or more spacious apartments but mixed together in the same city.

In the next few days, I'll start summing up some of my first impressions from the opening month of my year of income inequality-welfare state reading. The United States isn't Egypt, in any number of ways, but it still seems that Egypt might serve as a cautionary tale to our own elites. Widening income inequality -- a system in which the rich get richer and everyone else gets left behind -- is ultimately destabilizing over time. America's own problems with a growing income chasm aren't just a problem for the middle class and poor; they could end up being a problem for everybody. Don't kid yourselves: It could happen here

Today in inequality reading: Egypt

A big reason for the unrest in Egypt? The widening gap between the rich and the poor:

“These big guys are stealing all the money,” said Mohamed Ibraham, a 24-year-old textile worker standing at his second job as a fruit peddler in a hard-pressed neighborhood called Dar-al-Salam. “If they were giving us our rights, why would we protest? People are desperate.”

He had little sympathy for those frightened by the specter of looting. He complained that he could barely afford his rent and said the police routinely humiliated him by shaking him down for money, overturning his cart or stealing his fruit. “And then we hear about how these big guys all have these new boats and the 100,000 pound villas. They are building housing, but not for us — for those people up high.”

The widening chasm between rich and poor in Cairo has been one of the conspicuous aspects of city life over the last decade — and especially the last five years. Though there were always extremes of wealth and poverty here, until recently the rich lived more or less among the poor — in grander apartments or more spacious apartments but mixed together in the same city.

In the next few days, I'll start summing up some of my first impressions from the opening month of my year of income inequality-welfare state reading. The United States isn't Egypt, in any number of ways, but it still seems that Egypt might serve as a cautionary tale to our own elites. Widening income inequality -- a system in which the rich get richer and everyone else gets left behind -- is ultimately destabilizing over time. America's own problems with a growing income chasm aren't just a problem for the middle class and poor; they could end up being a problem for everybody. Don't kid yourselves: It could happen here

Philly police: Probably worse than you think

God, I love the Philadelphia Daily News:

THE NUMBER of complaints against Philadelphia police officers has spiked in the past few years, yet getting a complaint form isn't always as easy as it's supposed to be.

At times, officers at some police-district headquarters pressure complainants for personal information regarding the complaint, and provide misinformation or even deny them the form needed to file a complaint.

In spot checks conducted recently by the Daily News, supervisors at five police districts refused to allow the complainant to remain anonymous - which is against the Police Department's own policy - and wouldn't supply the form to reporters who posed as complainants.

An additional 11 of the city's 21 police districts did not follow department policies for filing complaints. Problems included creating a hostile environment for complainants, and neglecting to inform them of the procedure and locations to file a complaint.

Not that this is shocking, but what this likely means is that all the arrests and firings of Philadelphia cops in recent years probably represents just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corruption and abuses of official power. The stuff we've heard about is just the stuff that was successfully reported and investigated. Doesn't it seem likely there are a lot more problems that never draw official notice because citizens either A) don't bother or B) get the runaround?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Social media vacation

I'm taking a break from Twitter and Facebook until Monday. Sometimes a mental cleanse is required.

This new highway is brought to you by Big Brother

In a somewhat intriguing article arguing for private funding of new road and infrastructure projects, AEI's R. Richard Geddes makes this following aside:

More toll-funded roads wouldn't necessarily mean more toll plazas clogging our highways. Advanced satellite tracking technologies allow "open road" tolling, in which motorists would be charged per mile of road used--just as consumers are charged per kilowatt hour for electricity, per gallon of water, or per minute of cell phone use--without the backup at the toll booth. Private investors have the resources to utilize this new technology.

It might be a bit late in the game to make this complaint-slash-observation, but I'm not really sure that I'd want some governmental-business partnership tracking every place I drive with a satellite. We're increasingly trackable thanks to our cell phones and standard in-car technologies at this point, so the horse may be out of the barn, but the idea still gives me the creeps.



Tucked in a drawer somewhere around here, I have an autographed picture of Judith Resnik. During the early 1980s, while other kids were swooning to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," I was writing fan letters to astronauts. And one of the original astronauts -- John Young, who'd flown on Gemini and Apollo and the first space shuttle -- had been kind enough to respond with a stack of autographed pictures. His own, for one. Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space, for another. And Resnik, the second American woman in space. I treasured these photos, would pull them out and stare at them, but return them carefully to their package when I was done. I was never a baseball card collector, but I understood the impulse.

Resnik was the "other woman" aboard the shuttle Challenger, when it blew up 25 years ago today. Most people remember the teacher Christa McAuliffe, understandably; her presence on the doomed flight, as an amateur among risk-taking professionals, compounded the sense of tragedy. But I felt more connected to Resnik. Her autographed photo had created a connection between us, in my mind. And while I would've been upset by the explosion, the fact that I possessed something she'd once touched enhanced my own personal sense of devastation.

Weird thing, though, is that I never cried about it. Not until 10 years later, in 1996, when I caught a TV special commemorating the anniversary of Challenger's demise. It was only then -- as an adult, in my first full-time newspaper job -- that I broke down and sobbed. I was probably weeping for myself; the explosion was the beginning of the end of my intensely held childhood dream, after all. I am not an astronaut, and I will never slip the surly bonds. 

But Judy Resnik did. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Can free markets save Afghanistan?

There's a suggestion of the sort in Sen. Marco Rubio's piece over at National Review:

And if their people are to establish businesses and attract long-term economic development investments that help wean them off the opium trade, Afghanistan must become a country where basic property and commercial laws are respected and enforced.

Now, Rubio is a bit of a Tea Party darling, but this is the first time I've heard hint of anybody trying to apply Tea Party philosophy to the war in Afghanistan. And I'd really like to see him expand on this theme. My initial reaction is that lots of Afghans are, in fact, responding to market forces by growing the opium that the West uses-slash-finds-so-problematic. Beyond that, though, I've not really heard that property right issues are a particular problem in a land where the central government is corrupt and ineffective. If there's a substantive critique to be made along these lines, I'd really be interested in seeing it. Admittedly, I suspect it's a throwaway line that doesn't actually mean anything.

Does gridlock defeat special interests, or serve them?

At the Cato Institute, Marcus Ethridge writes (PDF) a celebration of good old-fashioned government gridlock. By making government so inefficient, he says, you make it unlikely that special interests can dominate the decision-making process:

A large and growing body of evidence makes it clear that the public interest is most secure when governmental institutions are inefficient decisionmakers. An arrangement that brings diverse interests into a complex, sluggish decisionmaking process is generally unattractive to special interests. Gridlock also neutralizes some political benefits that producer groups and other well-heeled interests inherently enjoy. By fostering gridlock, the U.S. Constitution increases the likelihood that policies will reflect broad, unorganized interests instead of the interests of narrow, organized groups.

This seems overly optimistic to me. It assumes that "well-heeled interests" don't understand how to employ the levers of power in negative fashion as well as positive ones. The United States Senate tried for decades to pass civil rights legislation--like anti-lynching laws--only to be frustrated time and again by a band of Southerners who used the filibuster to great effect. In that case, there was broad-based recognition in American society that it was bad to kill black people, but the filibuster served the purpose of protecting Southern white guys. Who was the "special interest" in that case?

Ethridge never once uses the word "filibuster" in his piece, though, celebrating instead on the checks and balances provided in the Constitution--the filibuster isn't in there--and bemoaning the rise of the regulatory state. I'm not really sure how you honestly examine gridlock (and deride the "rent seeking" associated with unelected regulators making rules for the rest of us) without dealing with the ramifications of the filibuster. There's an argument to be made that the filibuster so constrains Congress that the legislative branch has ended up deferring to executive branch rulemakers to get stuff done instead of doing their jobs. The framers of the Constitution may have created a limited government, but they also wanted it to be energetic. The filibuster, as currently used, is a gridlocked step too far. And I see little evidence it serves anybody but small interest groups.

Commencing a Mark Steyn freakout in 3 ... 2 ...

Apparently jihadists aren't going out-baby us all into sharia law:

Globally, Muslims now make up 23.4 percent of the population, and if current trends continue, will be 26.4 percent by 2030. Such growth is not enough to create a drastic shift in the world’s religious balance, experts said. The world’s Christian population has been estimated in other reports to be 30 percent to 33 percent.

Amaney A. Jamal, associate professor of politics at Princeton and a consultant for Pew on global Islam, said that the report could challenge assertions by some scholars and far-right political parties about future demographic domination by Muslims.

“There’s this overwhelming assumption that Muslims are populating the earth, and not only are they growing at this exponential rate in the Muslim world, they’re going to be dominating Europe and, soon after, the United States,” she said. “But the figures don’t even come close. I’m looking at all this and wondering, where is all the hysteria coming from?”

In the United States, the Muslim population might someday be as high as 1.7 percent of the population. There's this wild-eyed segment of conservatives who believe that every single American Muslim is a secret radical bent on establishing a caliphate to make all of us grow beards, wear burkhas and stop watching HBO. Even if that was true -- uh, it's not -- the numbers simply don't bode well for that proposition.

Scott Rigell, the defense budget, and a Constitutional cop-out

Near the end of the New York Times' story about the desire of some Tea Party Republicans to cut the defense budget, I came across this striking passage:

Representative Scott Rigell, a Republican newcomer from Virginia who at first sparred with the Tea Party but then signed a pledge supporting many of its positions, said that he, too, was committed to a strong military and the spending it required. In an interview after the hearing, he said that “as a very first priority, it is our constitutional duty to stand an army.”

You hear a lot of this sort of thing from hawks who want to cut Medicare but continue pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into a bloated defense budget, so it might be a good idea to understand how Rigell wrongly invokes the Constitution to avoid a hard discussion about the proper size of the defense budget.

First of all, the Constitution empowers Congress to raise an army and a navy, it's true, but it doesn't actually create a duty (that is, if I'm reading Rigell properly, a requirement) to do so. In fact, it limits army appropriations to just two years at a time. Why? So that the Congress can frequently discuss whether the size and footing of that army is appropriate to the needs of the nation.In Federalist 24, after all, Alexander Hamilton writes "that clause which forbids the appropriation of money for the support of an army for any longer period than two years a precaution ... will appear to be a great and real security against the keeping up of troops without evident necessity."

"Evident necessity."  Read, oh, Federalist 23 through 29, and the idea of "evident necessity" becomes clear: The Founders wanted the European powers to keep their mitts off the United States and its territories. (They also wanted a strong navy to protect American mercantile shipping.) Since Tea Partiers and Republicans continually raise the topic of the Founders' vision for America, it's worth emphasizing very strongly: The United States current defense posture -- one in which we have so many bases around the world that we've literally lost count -- is light years away from what the Founders articulated. They were fighting fears that the U.S. military would become so large that it could oppress the American people; they didn't even consider the idea of bestriding the entire globe.

Just for emphasis, though, let's rejoin Hamilton in Federalist 26

The legislature of the United States will be obliged, by this provision, once at least in every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot; to come to a new resolution on the point; and to declare their sense of the matter, by a formal vote in the face of their constituents. ... The provision for the support of a military force will always be a favorable topic for declamation. As often as the question comes forward, the public attention will be roused and attracted to the subject, by the party in opposition; and if the majority should be really disposed to exceed the proper limits, the community will be warned of the danger, and will have an opportunity of taking measures to guard against it.

Finally, in Federalist 28, Hamilton suggests that Americans don't need to worry about the military getting too big for its britches. "We should recollect that the extent of the military force must, at all events, be regulated by the resources of the country. " 

The debate over defense spending doesn't end with a listing of Congress' enumerated powers, in other words. The Founders wanted us to debate that spending, vigorously. They expected that the size of military would be kept in line with the actual need to defend the (ugh) homeland, and reined in if the military was getting too large. And they expected that the size and power of the military would be constrained by our national ability to spend money on that military. There are indications on all fronts that the American government in the 21st century is running afoul of all those ideas. Congrats to Tea Partiers who are sincere enough in their vision to go down this road. And watch out for Republicans who mutter the words "Constitutional duty" in order to short-circuit a very needed debate.


Well, as long as I'm wading into the abortion topic anyway...

Nicholas Kristoff:

The National Catholic Reporter newspaper put it best: “Just days before Christians celebrated Christmas, Jesus got evicted.”

Yet the person giving Jesus the heave-ho in this case was not a Bethlehem innkeeper. Nor was it an overzealous mayor angering conservatives by pulling down Christmas decorations. Rather, it was a prominent bishop, Thomas Olmsted, stripping St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix of its affiliation with the Roman Catholic diocese.

The hospital’s offense? It had terminated a pregnancy to save the life of the mother. The hospital says the 27-year-old woman, a mother of four children, would almost certainly have died otherwise.

Bishop Olmsted initially excommunicated a nun, Sister Margaret McBride, who had been on the hospital’s ethics committee and had approved of the decision.

I get and won't try to dispute why the Catholic Church is anti-abortion. But this incident, like similar ones before it, does somewhat perplex me: If the ethic at stake is the preservation of life, why is the life of a child considered more valuable -- as it apparently is in this case -- than the life of the mother? Or, in more abstract terms, than the lives of four other children who would have been deprived of the care of their mother?

For comparison's sake, I note that the Catholic Church more or less originated and provided the intellectual energy behind the "just war doctrine." Broadly speaking, it lets church members justify a course of action that always results in the maiming and killing of many innocent people—precisely so that greater harm, or evil, won't result from inaction. 

I, for one, don't expect Catholic hospitals to start offering abortions right and left. Certainly, I'm not a Catholic. But Catholic hospitals provide much of the care available to people in rural and poor areas of the country, and it concerns me if they're being confined by policies that don't seem to place much value on the lives of actual living women.

Another reason to transfer my baseball loyalties from the Royals to the Phillies

You know things are bad when the best press your team has received in years is when your $12 million-a-year pitcher walks away from his contract a year early rather than pitch for you again.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Another letter to a Christian friend: This time, it's abortion

Even if you don't live in Philadelphia, you've probably heard about the arrest of Kermit Gosnell, the West Philly abortion doctor arrested and charged with multiple murder charges for delivering and killing live babies -- as well as a charge in the death of one of his patients.

I haven't written about the matter publicly until now, because, well, I don't want to.

But a Christian friend, from my older and churchier days, has written to inquire on my take. So here it goes. I don't expect it to satisfy anyone.*

My initial take is that I try to avoid public discussions of abortion whenever possible. On an instinctive level, I generally find abortion to be personally repellent. As a legal matter, I'm unable to bring myself to the place of believing it should be prohibited - in the first trimester at least. (Why? Because I've come to believe that there are real issues of women's health, economic well-being and freedom that are involved in the matter.)

But given that I don't possess much certitude or expertise on the topic, I've decided I can't add much of substance to any public discussion of the matter. So I refrain.

And it's possible that makes me a coward. I acknowledge that.

On the Kermit Gosnell arrest: It sounds like the man was a monster and his actions horrifiying. My conscience is troubled, by what I've read, and I haven't mustered the courage to actually read the grand jury report that goes into some detail on the matter.

That said, I'm fairly sure that was Gosnell is accused of doing is in not the way legalized abortion is supposed to be carried out. In fact, I can say that with some confidence because abortion IS generally legal in the first trimester, and yet the Democratic district attorney in this very Democratic city is talking about the death penalty for the doctor. Legal abortion isn't supposed to kill the women who seek it. And the officials who failed to meet their regulatory duties in ensuring the safety of Gosnell's clinic need to be held to account, so that women who do have abortions don't have to risk their lives, health, or dignity in doing so.

But like I say, I'm ambivalent -- at best -- about the whole topic, and I'll probably not let myself be drawn into an intricate conversation about the topic. I'm certain my take on this disappoints you, and that saddens me. I've tried to be honest, however, about a topic I'd rather not engage at all.

I only post this publicly, because I suspect that many Americans feel like I do: They don't really like abortion, but they don't want access to it prohibited. Those folks, I think, try to keep their heads down and avoid the discussion. Somebody might as well say something.

* To the extent there are comments on this post, incidentally -- either here or on my Facebook page -- I'm going to ask people to be respectful to each other. I'll have no problem deleting comments that I think cross a line into abusiveness, even if you're a friend of mine.

Bill Keller on revealing government secrets in a time of war

Although it is our aim to be impartial in our presentation of the news, our attitude toward these issues is far from indifferent. The journalists at The Times have a large and personal stake in the country’s security. We live and work in a city that has been tragically marked as a favorite terrorist target, and in the wake of 9/11 our journalists plunged into the ruins to tell the story of what happened here. Moreover, The Times has nine staff correspondents assigned to the two wars still being waged in the wake of that attack, plus a rotating cast of photographers, visiting writers and scores of local stringers and support staff. They work in this high-risk environment because, while there are many places you can go for opinions about the war, there are few places — and fewer by the day — where you can go to find honest, on-the-scene reporting about what is happening. We take extraordinary precautions to keep them safe, but we have had two of our Iraqi journalists murdered for doing their jobs. We have had four journalists held hostage by the Taliban — two of them for seven months. We had one Afghan journalist killed in a rescue attempt. Last October, while I was in Kabul, we got word that a photographer embedded for us with troops near Kandahar stepped on an improvised mine and lost both his legs.

We are invested in the struggle against murderous extremism in another sense. The virulent hatred espoused by terrorists, judging by their literature, is directed not just against our people and our buildings but also at our values and at our faith in the self-government of an informed electorate. If the freedom of the press makes some Americans uneasy, it is anathema to the ideologists of terror.

So we have no doubts about where our sympathies lie in this clash of values. And yet we cannot let those sympathies transform us into propagandists, even for a system we respect.

Matt Yglesias: We're No. 2! (Or will be soon.)

I don’t begrudge a president making a formal speech the chance to engage in some meaningless nationalism, but something I thought was really striking about Barack Obama’s speech last night was how utterly unprepared American political culture is for the idea of a world in which we’re not Top Nation. And yet the reality is that while we’re the world’s largest economy today, and will continue to be so tomorrow, we really just won’t be forever. The Economist predicts that China will pass us in 2019. Maybe it’ll be 2018 or maybe it’ll be 2022.

But it will happen. And fairly soon. And it’ll happen whether or not we reform education or invest in high speed rail or whatever. And the country doesn’t seem prepared to deal with it. - News : More troops lost to suicide

For the second year in a row, the U.S. military has lost more troops to suicide than it has to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The reasons are complicated and the accounting uncertain — for instance, should returning soldiers who take their own lives after being mustered out be included?

But the suicide rate is a further indication of the stress that military personnel live under after nearly a decade of war.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

With his grandaddy.

Should civil libertarians vote for Obama in 2012? Or is there a good GOP challenger in the offing?

Conor Friedersdorf:

Our last two presidents are unlike one another in most ways. It so happens that what they have in common is tremendously consequential. Both presidents needlessly undermined civil liberties, the separation of powers, and the rule of law in the course of fighting the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. Had President Obama merely lived up to his own pre-election rhetoric on civil liberties, I'd be here arguing for his second term. As it is, I'm very much hoping for a change of leadership.

So why haven't I pledged my support to his eventual opponent? The way I see it, my vote is the GOP's to lose, and they may well do it, because several contenders for the nomination would be even worse than President Obama. Put simply, I won't vote for any Republican who thinks that our current leadership is excessively solicitous of civil liberties in the war on terror, or whose main foreign policy critique is that our leaders are insufficiently bellicose. It isn't much to say that the current administration hasn't tortured anyone, or launched any unwinnable foreign wars, but one couldn't say it about its predecessor.

Let's hope that America doesn't suffer a terrorist attack between 2012 and 2016. But level with yourself. It's a possibility. It isn't unthinkable for it to be worse than 9/11. How will the man or woman in the White House respond? That's one question I'll be asking myself as I evaluate the candidates in the next election. In such a scenario, do I trust Barack Obama to avoid overreacting in a way that hurts America? To refrain from using an attack as a pretext to seize greater power for the executive branch? Or to launch an ill-advised war?

I trust him more than Bush/Cheney or McCain/Palin. I trust him less than Bush/Quayle or Clinton/Gore.

Deep thought

The weird military stencil font on the Pauline Kael book in the last post made me realize something: You can't judge a book by its cover. But you CAN judge a book's cover—and, probably, the publisher—designer by its cover.


Today's deliveries from Amazon

I'm going to (mostly) do my informational reading on the iPad and pleasure reading in the old way. Mostly. The updated McSweeney's app is pretty good.

Today's deliveries from Amazon

I'm going to (mostly) do my informational reading on the iPad and pleasure reading in the old way. Mostly. The updated McSweeney's app is pretty good.

Adam Serwer on Keith Ellison

The Islamophobic right's renewed focus on Ellison is reminder of how divorced from anything resembling a legitimate government interest their agenda is. As co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Ellison's social liberal views are about as far from Taliban-style Sharia as possible. Ellison has also very publicly called on Muslims to do more to counter radicalism, saying at an appearance in July that "As American Muslims, we have to tackle the moral logic that some Muslims use to justify violence in the name of religion...To say glibly Islam is a religion of peace ignores the reality that there are some Muslims, to our horror, who distort Islam and advocate violence. We have to be at the forefront of correcting the record."

The Islamophobic right though, isn't so much interested in national security or even preserving the secular rule of law as it is about preventing American Muslims from having any role in American public and political life. So it doesn't matter how much of an antithesis to radicalism Ellison represents through is political views or the very fact of his participation in American democracy, because he identifies as a Muslim, he is an enemy. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Income inequality reading: The Onion

PARIS—At a press conference Tuesday, the World Heritage Committee officially recognized the Gap Between Rich and Poor as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," describing the global wealth divide as the "most colossal and enduring of mankind's creations."

"Of all the epic structures the human race has devised, none is more staggering or imposing than the Gap Between Rich and Poor," committee chairman Henri Jean-Baptiste said. "It is a tremendous, millennia-old expanse that fills us with both wonder and humility."

"And thanks to careful maintenance through the ages, this massive relic survives intact, instilling in each new generation a sense of awe," Jean- Baptiste added.

Why I don't care that Keith Olbermann has left TV

Let me put it to you this way. You're talking to a recent immigrant at jury duty. He is telling you how determined he is to be a good citizen and civic role model for his kid. a) "So I've been trying to read Tocqueville in the evenings after work." b) "So I try to attend an occasional City Council meeting." c) "So I've been volunteering as a precinct captain during elections." d) "So I keep up with the Supreme Court by reading the most significant opinions each session. e) "So I keep up with what Congress is doing by reading The New York Times." f) "So I read the blogs of a few political scientists each day." e) "So I watch Keith Olbermann every night."

Is there any doubt that "e" is the worst option?

With very few exceptions, the retirement of a popular political talking head is great news: it's likely to result in fewer people watching political television.

Sounds right. Also, I don't have a television, so there's that. But most days, I'm not sure that the blogosphere is a vast improvement over the shouting heads on TV. In some ways it's worse: TV at least has to go to commercial every 15 minutes or so.

Mr. Mom Chronicles: My toddler is a smart-aleck

The scene: Boy is in his high chair. He has finished lunch and wants down:

BOY: Done. Done! DONE!

ME: (Looking to teach him to be polite and say "please.") I'm sorry, but I didn't hear the word I needed to hear.

BOY: Done ... now!

The enemy of my enemy is ... what's that again?

President Obama’s decision to make GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt chair of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competiveness has come under attack from FreedomWorks and the Free Enterprise Project, which are calling for Immelt to be fired.

The groups, which have launched an online ad and a petition, say that Immelt’s leadership will lead to more “crony capitalism,” with the government helping a specific business or industry. They are also concerned that Immelt, who will remain CEO, will use his position to help GE specifically.

I dunno. This is speculation on my part, but I'm going to guess that the real aim here is to keep Obama isolated with the "anti-business" tag. Rather than try to pull the president in the direction of their favored policies, groups like FreedomWorks aim to make it illegitimate for business figures to do, um, business with the president. This seems more about winning elections than trumped-up concerns about "crony capitalism."

The politics of the individual mandate

For the last year, Republicans have been arguing that the individual mandate is a threat to liberty so horrifying that it would make Stalin jealous of its diabolical power. Democrats shouldn't be afraid to invite them to come up with their own alternative to the mandate, then we could discuss it -- so long as they agree that any solution is in the service of universal coverage. Get them to agree to that, and the question of whether we should be moving toward universal coverage will be set aside. We should get to the point where any time a Republican criticizes the mandate, they will be asked how they would get everyone into the system. That would be a discussion on Democrats' terms.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Glenn Beck in June: 'You're Gonna Have to Shoot Them in the Head'

"Tea parties believe in small government. We believe in returning to the principles of our Founding Fathers. We respect them. We revere them. Shoot me in the head before I stop talking about the Founders. Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government.

"I will stand against you and so will millions of others. We believe in something. You in the media and most in Washington don't. The radicals that you and Washington have co-opted and brought in wearing sheep's clothing — change the pose. You will get the ends.

"You've been using them? They believe in communism. They believe and have called for a revolution. You're going to have to shoot them in the head. But warning, they may shoot you.

"They are dangerous because they believe. Karl Marx is their George Washington. You will never change their mind. And if they feel you have lied to them — they're revolutionaries. Nancy Pelosi, those are the people you should be worried about.

"Here is my advice when you're dealing with people who believe in something that strongly — you take them seriously. You listen to their words and you believe that they will follow up with what they say."

I don't pay a ton of attention to Glenn Beck. But a lot of people do. And that really depresses me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The golden age of liberty is now

Jamelle Bouie writes at The American Prospect: Segregation was more than separate water fountains and terrible bus seats, and it was enforced -- frequently -- by horrible violence. Which is why I can't help but me miffed by things like Mark Steyn's essay on the gradual "erosion" of liberty into the United States. In this narrative -- held mostly, but not exclusively, by conservatives -- the United States was once a place of great freedom and choice, strangled by big government and the welfare state. Newsflash. For at least a tenth of the population, "freedom" was anything but. From the 1880s until the middle of the 20th century, African Americans lived in a virtual police state. Want to start your own farm? The county won't sell you land. Want to escape sharecropping and peonage? Good luck finding the white landowner who won't cheat you out of your earnings every year. Don't have your employer-issued work papers? The sheriff can arrest you for unlawfully leaving a job. Walking alone without permission from a white man? The sheriff can arrest you for vagrancy. Can't pay your inflated court fees? Well, this nice man from the coal mines/cotton fields/turpentine farms has offered to pay your $15 fine, provided you work 14 months of hard labor. And so on, and so on. Which is to say, if there is anything that infuriates me about conservative rhetoric, it's this refusal to acknowledge the profound illiberty that existed in the United States for most of its history. Okay, so you don't like universal health insurance and you don't want the government to give your money to the lazy or "less deserving." Fine, that's fair. But let's not pretend like today is somehow less free than the past. For blacks, and virtually everyone but white men of privilege, the golden age of freedom is now.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The job-killing welfare state

US unemployment, on this measure, is in the double-digit range — significantly above the global average of 7%. Meanwhile, Germany, with a much stronger social safety net, has unemployment of less than 5%. (Remember, these aren’t official national statistics, they’re Gallup’s attempt to apply the same yardstick to all countries.)

Isn't the tradeoff supposed to be that we get a more dynamic economy in exchange for the thinner safety net?

Slow blogging. But for how long?

Every now and again, I'm stunned when I start to think about how much I don't know.

It's a lot.

I enjoy writing. I really enjoy writing in a blog format. But on occasion I get the sense that I'm adding to the sum total of ignorance in the world. (Or, at least, adding to the pile of noise.) I'm not really an expert in anything. So why does my opinion on anything, really, need to be disseminated to the public?

No answer to that.

I know myself. I'll pick up the blogging pace again soon. Right now, though, I'm stopping to listen and read a little more. When I speak out, I'd like to know what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Netflix Instant is one of the finest inventions of the 21st century

What I love about Netflix Instant: You can, given the right conditions, give yourself a quick education in cinema history and cinema trends. This week I've been watching the Hong Kong gangster movies of director Johnnie To. They make me happy. And Netflix is only $9 a month! What a century!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dear Mayor Nutter: Sometimes your efforts to look 'tough' end up backfiring

Mayor Nutter just told us that the person of interest in the Kensington Strangler case in now in police custody.

"We got the mother------," said Nutter.

Nutter did not have any details about how the police caught the guy, but a police press conference is underway.

If this really is the guy, I'm glad. But c'mon Mayor Nutter. You don't have to play dress-up tough guy for us.

Still a bad, impossible idea

I don't like this trend:

Palu, Sulawesi Tengah arrived from on "Cup O' Joel: Why Don't We Just Invade North Korea?" by searching for invade north korea.

Raleigh, North Carolina arrived from on "Cup O' Joel: Why Don't We Just Invade North Korea?" by searching for why don't we just invade north korea.

Not sure why the searches for justifications for war with North Korea are picking up. But I don't like it.

Federalist 41-44: The limits of enumerated powers vs. the limits of the written word

Through the first 40 chapters or so of “The Federalist Papers,” it’s been pretty easy to read the words of Hamilton, Madison and Jay with a liberal’s eyes. In the battle between those who want an energetic government capable of acting for the common good and those who want a national government shackled into near-inefficacy, these guys seemed pretty clearly to be on the former side. The Constitution was a strengthening and centralizing of the powers of national government, after all; to the extent we’ve talked about limits so far, it’s usually been an eye-rolling bone thrown in the direction of the Antifederalists. The limits were (nearly) incidental. The power was the thing.

Until now.

It’s not so much that Federalists 41-43 are about the limits of the government’s power as they are a fairly sharp delineation of what the government can actually do. And, well, it’s not much.

James Madison opens 41 with a clear eye on the Antifederalists, and he frames the question of the next few chapters fairly succinctly: “Is the aggregate power of the general government greater than ought to have been vested in it?”

To answer that question, he considers what the general government is supposed to do, and his answer -- it least initially -- is also pretty succinct:

That we may form a correct judgment on this subject, it will be proper to review the several powers conferred on the government of the Union; and that this may be the more conveniently done they may be reduced into different classes as they relate to the following different objects: 1. Security against foreign danger; 2. Regulation of the intercourse with foreign nations; 3. Maintenance of harmony and proper intercourse among the States; 4. Certain miscellaneous objects of general utility; 5. Restraint of the States from certain injurious acts; 6. Provisions for giving due efficacy to all these powers.

Item No. 4 caught my eye -- “miscellaneous” can cover a lot of territory -- but it turned out that’s Madison’s way of providing an overview of some of Congress’ more, er, miscellaenous powers: of copyright, over treason, that kind of thing.  There’s no Social Security. No Medicare. No national parks. Not much, in fact, of the stuff that I’m really glad that modern government does. Madison doesn’t say the federal government can’t or shouldn’t do these things. He just kind of sets the parameters.

What am I to make of this? What is anybody who is looking for a firmly grounded Constitutional liberalism to make of this? Do we have to choose between the Constitution and Social Security? Because, in all honesty, one is tempted to look at those two choices and say “The hell with the Constitution.”

But wait. Maybe there’s a sliver of hope here. And it comes in Federalist 44, when Madison attempts to defend Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution—to this day, perhaps, the section that arouses the most controversy in fights between activist government liberals and limited government conservatives.  The clause in question gives Congress the power

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

This was already a controversial clause in the 18th century. Antifederalists apparently saw in it the possibility that Congress would overstep its bounds. And by their lights, it probably has been used that way.

Madison answers the charge that the clause is too vague by saying, in essence, that getting more specific -- either by listing more limits to Congress’ power or by providing a specific list of powers Congress could claim to execute the laws of the land -- would inevitably become problematic in the not-too-distant future.

But he runs out of steam, and finally reminds his readers that, ultimately, questions of what to do if the government exceeds its Constitutional power ultimately reside with the people of the United States.

In the first instance, the success of the usurpation will depend on the executive and judiciary departments, which are to expound and give effect to the legislative acts; and in the last resort a remedy must be obtained from the people who can, by the election of more faithful representatives, annul the acts of the usurpers. The truth is, that this ultimate redress may be more confided in against unconstitutional acts of the federal than of the State legislatures, for this plain reason, that as every such act of the former will be an invasion of the rights of the latter, these will be ever ready to mark the innovation, to sound the alarm to the people, and to exert their local influence in effecting a change of federal representatives.

In other words, the final arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning isn’t the president or the Supreme Court or Congress -- it’s us.

Madison frames this in negative terms: We voters will set the limits for Congress, and if Congress exceeds those limits, we’ll punish Congress by electing new representatives. But it seems to me it’s possible to frame it in positive terms, as well: If We The People want government to provide Social Security and we’re not willing to punish representatives who give it to us -- in fact, we’ll punish those who threaten to take it away -- well, who is to say we’re wrong?

This is very seductive. And maybe not so different, practically, from the way we run things now. Our politics these last few years haven’t just been about how much we want government to spend or not spend, but about what’s Constitutional or not. That’s involved a lot of push-and-pull, and it’s been very frustrating at times, but one could make the case that citizens really do push back when they feel the government has overstepped its powers. Isn’t that what the Tea Party has been about? Sure, this ends up being messy and frustrating -- but it really does make the Constitution a living document, in the best sense: a constantly renewed guide that is the product of an ongoing conversation between the governed and the government, instead of 10 Commandments handed down from slave-owning demigods who lived hundreds of years ago. (Ones who, incidentally, didn’t always adhere to strict readings of the rules they were given.) I don’t always get the outcome I want, but I feel better if our government is a product of both wise  tradition and modern norms and democratic guidance from the citizenry.

There’s also a danger here, and it gives me pause. Because while I do want the government to provide a social safety need to the poorest and most vulnerable among us, I don’t want it (say) to make torturing people legal through a reading of the Constitution that allows a president to disregard laws and treaties that are the law of the land. I want there to be limits, and those limits are hard to maintain once you start treating the written Constitution as the beginning of the conversation instead of the end. Most Americans, it seems, were fine with a president whose reading of the Constitution let him break laws in wartime. I don’t agree with that. It gets harder to make the case against him if the Constitution is a somewhat fuzzy thing.

On the other other hand: It would appear that the rules for interpreting the Constitution are already fuzzy enough that our previous president got away with his interpretation. And if that’s the case, why the heck shouldn’t I get my safety net in the bargain?

In truth, with the exception of Ron Paul and other hardline libertarians, the rest of us spend so much of our time arguing about what the Constitution allows and what it doesn’t because we have implicilty agreed to let there be a certain fuzziness to the whole project. This isn’t very satisfying, and there’s a real possibility that we end up with the Constitution being whatever I say it is today. But it isn’t. It’s what we say it is today. And that’s the way it probably always has been.

There's a whisper in my ear, though. It's telling me I'm a hack, interpreting the Constitution the way I want against the evidence of my reading. But I'm only halfway through the Federalist Papers. I need to press on before making any final conclusions.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ummm.... no

Netflix Queue: "Election/Triad Election"

Three thoughts about Johnnie To's Hong Kong gangster duology, "Election" and "Triad Election," coming up after the trailer...

* If you have ever been a lover of American ganger movies of the last 40 years — the "Godfather" movies and/or the work of Martin Scorcese — you will find much to admire here. Certainly To, a director whose work goes back to the Shaw Brothers days, is a fan of those movies. You can spot homages throughout these two flicks: A fishing trip that ends in murder, Moe Greene-style broken glasses, a "Casino"-style burial in a field, as well as lots and lots of ritual. But these movies take place in a very Hong Kong-China context, and some of the themes that To wrestles with are an ocean away from what you're used to.

* These movies are also very different from each other. Both concern the war for leadership in a Hong Kong "triad," but each is show differently. In the first, the war becomes a race to see who can first get their hands on the Dragon Head baton -- signifying leadership of the triad -- turning "Election" into a kind of "Ronin"-style chase movie. The characters don't matter so much as the action, which is muted but intense. The winner of the war, Lok, only begins to reveal his the character beneath his calm at this end of the first flick. "Triad Election" reveals how power-hungry he has become -- but like "Godfather III" concerns itself primarily with the character of Jimmy Lee, who wants to go legit, but can't.

* The key to a gangster movie, of course, is violence. What's remarkable about these movies, though, is how ugly the violence is. We're not presented with the grand opera and beautiful assassinations of American gangster movies. Death is blunt, tactile and messy in these films. One scene in "Triad Election" -- one of the most memorable in all of cinema since the woodchipper scene in "Fargo" -- features Jimmy Lee literally doing his own butchery. (Literally.) If there is a moment of beauty mixed with violence here, it comes when a doomed gangster watches his son literally flee from him and the violence he has brought into their lives: I got a bit verklempt there. 

These movies deserve to be watched back-to-back. America hasn't been graced with a truly great gangster film, probably, since "Goodfellas." Taken together, "Election" and "Triad Election" are probably the first great mob movies of the new milennium. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I don't always get Netflix recommendations

One of these things is not like the others.

I'm done with the Tucson story

Actually, I was pretty well done after the president gave his speech. And I don't mean I'm done commenting -- though, yeah, there's nothing new for me to say at this point. I mean: I'm done reading. I guess in some months or years, when Gabrielle Giffords has (knock on wood) recovered to the point that she can give an interview, or if the shootings prompt some significant and likely-to-be-passed legislation, I'll pay attention again. But at this point the number of Tucson stories vastly outweighs any value I can draw from them; there's more reportage than there is news to report. And I can't take it anymore. Maybe this makes me a bad journalist-citizen. (And certainly the victims and their families can't quite so easily move on; I recognize that and they have my sympathy.) But at this point, the continuing magnitude of coverage has started to feel like wallowing. I'm not interested in wallowing.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Matt Yglesias on changing the tone

I don’t think people should pretend to like people they dislike or avoid saying what they mean. But I do think people should be careful to avoid a certain kind of tendentious rhetoric. Some of the participants in our political debate are quite stupid, some are corrupt, some are dishonest, and some combine multiple unattractive qualities.

What should be avoided is the tendency to dramatically overstate the ideological stakes in our political debates. The choice between Democratic candidates and Republicans ones is important and has important consequences. But in the grand scheme of things, you’re seeing what’s basically a friendly debate between two different varieties of the liberal tradition. I think efforts to elide the difference between the religiously inflected populist nationalism of George W Bush and the religiously inflected populist nationalism of Mullah Omar are really absurd, as are the efforts by Glenn Beck to elide the difference between the progressive income tax and Joseph Stalin. This stuff is mostly unserious, but I also think it’s potentially dangerous. If you really thought prominent American politicians were plotting to fundamentally subvert the American constitutional order tand supplant it with a totalitarian dictatorship, you’d be prepared to countenance some pretty extreme countermeasures.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Scripps column

Glenn Beck is right.

Not about everything, mind you, or even most things. But Beck is right to lament how Americans have lost the spirit of unity that filled the nation, oh so briefly, after 9/11.

Remember those days, and remember them with some bittersweet fondness.

They may represent the final moment -- ever -- that Americans came together in the aftermath of tragedy. Nowadays, everybody retreats immediately to their ideological camps and girds for battle, no matter the facts on the ground. Despite President Obama's very nice speech Wednesday night in Tuscon, that's unlikely to change soon.

Why? Because our politics is more about denying legitimacy to the "other" side than it is about solving the problems that face the country.

It's understandable why many liberals thought the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords was the work of a right-wing terrorist: the rhetoric on the right in recent years has been alarmingly militant.

But liberal commentators were wrong to publicly cast blame before we even knew Jared Lee Loughner's identity and motives; a wait-and-see silence would've been appropriate.

It's understandable why conservatives recoiled from associating their rhetoric with any kind "climate of hate" surrounding the shooting: Loughner is clearly mentally ill; Republicans aren't responsible for the vagaries of his brain chemistry. But right-wing commentators were also wrong not to pause and reconsider the appropriateness their side's recent talk of "Second Amendment remedies" in the political realm.

Nobody pauses. Nobody reflects. The only way to start trusting each other again would be to shut up and listen to each other once in awhile. But what are the chances that will happen? Non-existent, it seems. I'm right, you're wrong, and that's all anybody needs to know.

And that's my take. A bit more pox-on-both-your-houses, probably, than I feel. But man, it's hard to say anything fresh or new or insightful about stuff sometimes. Some weeks, that's pretty discouraging.

Why does Karl Rove have a newspaper column?

I don't begrudge anybody who makes the move from politics and into the realm of journalism. James Fallows and Hendrik Hertzberg both did time as speechwriters for Jimmy Carter, and I'd dare say our national discourse these days would be a bit less smart if they weren't making regular contributions. (A conservative example of this phenomenon is Bill Safire, whose language column for the New York Times was beloved by nerds everywhere.)

But I still don't understand why Karl Rove has a regular newspaper column

Don't get me wrong: I don't object to Rove's "journalism" career here because of the quality of his analysis, or because the man can't write. The problem is that Rove is still an active participant in the political realm. And that means readers can't know if they're getting his real analysis of a situation -- something you'd normally expect on the op-ed page of a prestigious newspaper -- or his on-message analysis of a situation that might not be honest, but serves to advance the GOP's interests. 

I got to thinking about this today after the final paragraph in Rove's latest contribution to the Wall Street Journal: 

Mr. Obama's best chance of success 22 months from now rests on reclaiming his image as a reasonable, bipartisan and unifying figure. It won't be easy, given his track record as president. That can't be airbrushed from history. But the selection of Mr. Daley as chief of staff indicates that Mr. Obama is willing to give it a try. It makes sense. After all, what he was doing nearly wrecked his party and has imperiled his presidency.

Now. Rove might be right that Obama abandoned his efforts to be a bipartisan and unifying figure. He might not. All I know is that in the recent mid-term election, Rove led the American Crossroads group that raised tens of millions of dollars to defeat Democratic candidates for Congress. Rove isn't just rooting for the GOP team, in other words: He's still very much trying to advance the ball up the field. 

I guess you could make the case that most op-ed writers are trying to advance one party's fortunes at the expense of another. And that's true. But this seems different to me. Eugene Robinson (say) or Michael Gerson or most other writers you name don't still have skin in the game. The idea is that they may be biased, but they're free to be honest within the bounds of those biases. They don't always have to hew to the party line if their viewpoint takes them somewhere else.

But Rove's "other" job is to get Republicans elected. And we know that in the course of doing that job, his modus operandi has been to take an opponent's strength and turn it into a weakness. Ergo, President Obama -- the national leader who is still regarded as trying the hardest at bipartisan -- has "abandoned" that effort in office. And Rove says this not as somebody who is rooting against Obama, but whose "other" job is to actively defeat him. What are the chances that he'd ever call President Obama a unifying figure, no matter how much it could (hypothetically) be deserved?

And, incidentally, the "about Karl Rove" box on the WSJ page makes no mention of Rove's current activities. 

This stuff happens. Bill Kristol keeps finding newspapers to let him make regular commentary, and he's in pretty much the same situation. But unless you want to know what the GOP message du jour is, I can't imagine how this situation serves readers. If you want to write about politics, write about politics. If you want to play politics, play politics. Karl Rove might benefit from his current arrangement, and so might Republicans. Do readers?

Recalibrating this blog

In a few hours, Scripps Howard should release the latest column from Ben Boychuk and yours truly. We talked about the Tucson shooting, of course: It's the only thing to talk about this week. And I hope my editors at Scripps will forgive me for teasing the column with this teaser summing up my take:

Nobody pauses. Nobody reflects. The only way to start trusting each other again would be to shut up and listen to each other once in awhile.  But what are the chances that’s going to happen? Non-existent, it seems. I’m right, you’re wrong, and that’s all anybody needs to know.

I'm not really happy with my contribution to this week's column. I'm not sure there's 300 words on the topic I could've written about Tucson that would've made me happy. I didn't want to re-hash the case that every liberal has made about militant rhetoric on the right; I didn't want to do one of those false equivalency things, either, where I suggest the problem stems from both sides; and yet I don't want to let my side of the argument off the hook and suggest that liberals offer a high-minded approach to public discourse that conservatives don't -- because, well, I don't believe it. 

But I do believe that paragraph above. I'm not sure if there's actually a way anymore to do vigorous, lively politics -- and politics is how we do democracy --  without retreating into base tribalism. I'm as guilty of that as anybody, from time to time. And I guess I'd like to recalibrate my own contribution to the conversation a bit, to make it less knee-jerky and more thoughtful: To stand for some ideas instead of tearing down what other people offer. 

So I'm going to attempt to retreat from the way I've done blogging lately, and try a different approach. Instead of scattershot snarking, I want to do a few things in this space:

* Curate the most interesting commentary I read, from a variety of sources.

* Interact with longer-form journalism and books.

* Expand the the topics here beyond politics to include some of my other favorite things: Literature, movies, TV, city life, and parenting. A whole life should not be confined to one's ballot-box preferences.

These are all things I've done before. But I'm going to be a little more intentional about them. I suspect it won't do wonders for my blog traffic, but that's ok: This space is a hobby, not a job, so I don't need to worry about that. 

In practice, this means I'm going to stop reading the morning papers on a laptop with the mouse button hovering over the browser's Posterous "blog-now!" button. I'll retreat to my iPad, which allows for sharing quickly, but not blogging efficiently. I'm going to consume information without expecting to produce new information immediately in response.

The end result is that you can expect me to revive my series of blog posts about the Federalist Papers. After last week's argument about the Constitution in the House, I'm more convinced than ever that liberals can -- and should -- make a case for constitutional liberalism that's rooted in (but not at all confined to) the Founders' vision. 

And as I've previously said, 2011 is my year of reading about income inequality and the welfare state. I'm almost complete with my first book in the series, Paul Krugman's somewhat-dated "The Conscience of a Liberal." You can expect my thoughts on that in a few days.

This is what I'm going to attempt. This will still be a liberal place. I don't pretend that I have more than a microscopic influence on the national conversation, but I'd like it to be productive. And for me, that probably means going slower and deeper.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Memo to K-Lo, regarding Sarah Palin and 'blood libel'

Actually, I find it pretty easy to believe that a conservative Christian American could "love" Israel and not know (or understand) very much about the Jewish people. There are lots of conservative Christians who see a Jewish homeland as a good thing purely in terms of its value to Christian eschatology. 

About Illinois' 67 percent tax increase (Or: Math is scary)

This is always the part that gets attention:

In the final hours of its lame duck session, the Illinois legislature (barely) approved a 67 percent percent increase in the state's personal income tax.

This is not:

The hike will bump personal income taxes up from 3 percent to 5 percent.

I won't argue that a bump in the tax rate from 3 to 5 percent isn't significant. But that two-point bump certainly looks a lot less significant and alarming than a 67 percent increase, doesn't it?

For what it's worth: The median household income in Illinois in 2009 was a bit more than $53,000 a year. Assuming the earners in the household get paid every two weeks, that amount comes out to $2,076 biweekly. Right now, lllinois is collecting a bit more than $62 per paycheck. After the tax increase, it'll be $104 a paycheck -- a difference of $42, more or less. That's $84 a month out of take-home pay, and for most families that's nothing to sneeze at. But these, at least, are useful numbers in understanding the magnitude of the tax increase. The nationwide headlines shouting about a 67 percent increase! tell you the scariest-sounding but least-illuminating bit of information about the story.

Haley Barbour's civil rights museum

Perhaps Sarah Palin could take some lessons from another GOP 2012 hopeful on how to respond to a P.R. nightmare. While Palin is in a defensive crouch following Saturday's attempted assassination, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour offers a different model: when Barbour was accused of racism for his praise of segregationist groups, he issued a quick apology. Three weeks later, he's looking to make amends, calling for the construction of a $50 million civil rights museum in his home state. Barbour delivered his final "state of the state" address Tuesday. "The civil rights struggle is an important part of our history, and millions of people are interested in learning more about it," he said.

Including Haley Barbour!

Weird Google searches that found me

From my blog's traffic logs:

Los Angeles, California arrived from on "Cup O' Joel: John Podhoretz on Sarah Palin" by searching for "philadelphia story" blood libel.

Huh. I'm pretty sure I know how that ended up landing on my blog. But for a minute I was whisked into a parallel universe where Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn were the authors of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." I don't think it would be as witty or charming as the real movie, though.

John Podhoretz on Sarah Palin

So in the sense that the words “blood” and “libel” in sequence are to be taken solely as referring to this anti-Semitic slander, Palin’s appropriation of it was vulgar and insensitive. I guess. The problem is that I doubt Sarah Palin knew this history, because most people don’t know this history, including most of the anti-Palin hysterics screaming about it on Twitter at this very moment. She used it as shorthand for “false accusation that the right bears responsibility for the blood of the innocent.” She shouldn’t have, though she certainly had no intention of giving offense to those sensitive about it, because it would be an act of lunacy to open that can of worms for no reason.

But here’s the thing. Sarah Palin has become a very important person in the United States. Important people have to speak with great care, because their words matter more than the words of other people. If they are careless, if they are sloppy, if they are lazy about finding the right tone and setting it and holding it, they will cease, after a time, to be important people, because without the discipline necessary to modulate their words, those words will lose their power to do anything but offer a momentary thrill — either pleasurable or infuriating. And then they will just pass on into the ether.

If she doesn’t serious herself up, Palin is on the direct path to irrelevancy. She won’t be the second Ronald Reagan; she’ll be the Republican incarnation of Jesse Jackson.