Monday, June 30, 2008

We All Live at the P.O. Now

When Andrew Jackson took office as president in 1829, he appointed friends and supporters to federal patronage jobs. Most people back then knew only one federal employee in person: The town postmaster. As these jobs changed hands in 1829, often for the first time in anyone's memory, the people in America's towns were shocked -- at the evidence of a real federal government.

John Barton Derby wrote: "They go about the streets and ... seem to be saying to themselves, 'E'cod! -- there is a United States government, or I'm darned!' For so beautiful is the system of government continued by our wise forefathers, that while the general government of the United States poises and holds together the whole, no man in the country ever feels its direct action (when it is peacefully and constitutionally administered), excepting in the appointment of a postmaster of his village. And it is only by some irregularity in the system, that he becomes conscious of subjection to higher powers than his own paternal state government."

Which is a charming illustration of the original and intended scope of federal government in the United States. Yes, I find my state legislature even more ridiculous than Congress, but at least if I don't like the way my state operates I can move to another one and still be a U.S. citizen.

But it also illustrates what might be, with perspective, America's great contribution to the world: We are a nation dedicated to the free flow of information. We have contrived since our birth to spread information as widely and freely as technology will allow.

Postmasters (generally local innkeepers or store owners with space to hold mail till people called for it) in 1831 made up 76 percent of the entire federal civilian work force. There were 8,700 of them. The U.S. Army at the time numbered a mere 6,332 men. The post office delivered not just letters, but newspapers, journals, pamphlets, business receipts and bills, and all manner of reading material. In fact, it delivered more newspapers (16 million) than letters (13.8 million).

DeTocqueville was shocked, when he arrived at the absolute frontier of Western civilization (then located in Michigan) to find regular mail delivery there and citizens living in rough-hewn log cabins who were fully conversant on the goings-on in Washington, D.C., as well as the goings-on in Paris. French peasants 30 miles from the capital knew less about it than the Michiganers did.

Thanks to the post office. By 1828 America had almost twice as many offices as Great Britain and five times as many as France. Postal service in Canada was so poor people often routed their letters through the U.S. Contemporaries reckoned that, if ancient figures like Plato or Herodotus could visit modern America, many things would surprise them, but only the post office would really impress them. They spent a lot of time in those days thinking about such things, since America was deliberately built on classical models. And, about the post office, they might have been right.

Well, what the post office was to the 19th century, the Internet has been to the 21st. And in the 19th century as in the 21st, some people mistook the free flow of information for a force that would promote unity and harmony of interests in the nation and the world.

It didn't. One of the first major controversies in the run-up to the Civil War involved the abolitionists swamping the Southern mails with pamphlets meant to convince slaveholders of the error of their ways or foment servile wars and racial butchery (depending on your point of view). In 1835, a Charleston mob ransacked the city's post office and burned bags of abolitionist literature, an act supported by state politicians.

One of the principal and long-running moral controversies of the 19th century involved the propriety of delivering mail on Sundays.

Running the post office sucked the federal government into controversies over social institutions and arbitration of public morality. The federal government never had been set up to do such things and it did them awkwardly.

Folly of the Day

Has to be this.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Among the pictures in my uncle's packet of photos that he traded cigarettes for on the beaches of D-Day are a few like this one above.

If you start at Omaha Beach in Normandy and walk straight inland, you soon come to the town of Saint-Lô.

Which is pretty much what the U.S. Army did in 1944.

But before it could do that, it had to disable Saint-Lô as a German command and supply center and as a key transport junction. Which meant it had to bomb the hell out of it at the moment the invasion began. With only the most cryptic prior warning to the resistance, and none to the general population.

Now, imagine what al-Jazeera or BBC or CNN would do with this:

Mr. Leclerc was called by a young boy, whose brother and sister were buried under their house. "We dig through stones, bricks, earth, clothes, things. We throw mementos at the feet of the mother, who collects them in a neat little pile. It goes on for hours, and night falls. Some men leave, to go across the street, there are six victims under the ruins, a whole family. We find the remains of a bed, the boy's bed, empty. We keep looking ... What for? There can only be squashed bodies in there, under such a mass of burnt beams, collapsed walls and plaster dust. Then, suddenly, a hand touches something soft. It is tiny, and warm. We dig deeper, faster, half an hour more, and now, a muted yell. We find the foot, the leg, blood. At last, we retrieve the little mass of living flesh, covered with dust. Now, the only light comes from the fires. The little boy is still in there. We go back to work. A new miracle, a cry :"Mommy". He wants to cry, he does not understand. "What happened?" A priest, his black habit covered with white dust passes by on his way to the hospital, we give him the little girl, he takes her in his arms. She is dead."


From the shelter of his barn, Mr. Herpin saw the "bombed out" arrive at the farm, "absolute ghosts barely able to stand on their broken limbs; their faces pale and scarred, their eyes staring into space, their hair plastered with dust. Their clothes, when they have any left, are torn, they are covered with bloody wounds. And above all, I remember that awful impression of seeing fellow human beings, acquaintances, friends, so deprived of everything, so humiliated, so broken, from whom all dignity had been stolen, brought down to the level of exhausted beasts .... And yet we are seeing only the lucky ones, those who, against all hope, were able to escape being crushed or burnt to death. There are nearly no complete families: here, it is a mother with her child, there a grandmother and her grandson, or a father alone. Some speak with their eyes down, and, listening to them, one can guess at the tragedy of that night: the race to the shelter, the awful [con]flagration, the screams of the wounded and of the dying, the exits buried, the holes one digs with bare hands, and then, the escape amongst the ruins and the corpses, and the profound joy of being alive, even though everything is lost. Most, though, are silent, vanquished by the pain and the memory of the terror they just lived through. They lie on the ground, in the dirt, and they beg for water."

Surely, today, they would have been there, cameras at the ready. They would have been broadcasting all along, and been able to show the peaceful life in the sleepy French town under German occupation, and how Allied bombs shattered it. They would not have been allowed to broadcast locals being shipped off to slave labor camps, but they wouldn't have minded that and no one would have much complained. How can you complain about what you don't see?

When we were looking through the shoebox of photos and that one at the top of the post came out, my uncle explained the story of the bombing of Saint-Lô and its strategic importance. If it wasn't for the slaughter of that town, they might never have got off that beach. If life is often a choice between bad and worse options, war always is.

Arthur Miller wrote that Ernie Pyle "told as much of what he saw as people could read without vomiting." Today? No civilized people can stand a war for long, in the age of the television camera. No civilized people who can see it will stay in a war.

But uncivilized people certainly will.

More on Jokes

Look, a philology joke!

“In some languages,” said the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, “a double negative yields an affirmative. In other languages, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative. Yet, curiously enough, I know of no language, either natural or artificial, in which a double affirmative yields a negative.”

Suddenly, from the back of the hall, in a round Brooklyn accent, came the comment, "Yeah, yeah.”

Ranks right up there with the one about the freshman crossing Harvard Yard on the first day of classes who accosts an upperclassman and says, "Can you tell me where the library's at?"

He gets a chilly reply: "My good man; at Hah-vard we do not end a sentence in a preposition."

Freshman frowns, thinks for a second, then says, "OK, can you tell me where the library's at, asshole?"

The former is from this review of a new joke book.

Another review of it, here, offers this scientific perspective:

A team of researchers at Bowling Green State University reported in 2000 that rats produce an ultrasonic chirping during play and when tickled by humans. These chirps appear to be contagious, and young rats prefer older rats who produce more of them.

Rats and humans had a common ancestor about 75m years ago, and humour has clearly come a long way since then. Nobody has caught rats, or even chimps, trying to tell a joke. But another finding from recent research is that pre-packaged jokes are a less important part of humour than people may think. Jokes have a long and fascinating history -- which is engagingly told in a short book, "Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes", by Jim Holt, to be published in America in July and in Britain in October. But it seems that only about 11% of daily laughter is actually occasioned by jokes. Another 17% is prompted by media and the remaining 72% arises spontaneously in social interaction.

That reviewer, Anthony Gottlieb, notes in his blurb that "he is working on a book about nothingness," which might contribute to your daily 17 percent.

This review, meanwhile, pokes deeper into the psychology:

Laughter is one of the most treacherous of all fields of history. Like sex and eating, it is an absolutely universal human phenomenon, and at the same time something that is highly culturally and chronologically specific. Every human society in the world laughs, and whatever their race or language, people make almost exactly the same sound in doing so.

[What about the deaf?

This study investigated whether laughter occurs simultaneously with signing, or punctuates signing, as it does speech, in 11 signed conversations (with two to five participants) that had at least one instance of audible, vocal laughter. Laughter occurred 2.7 times more often during pauses and at phrase boundaries than simultaneously with a signed utterance. Thus, the production of laughter involves higher order cognitive or linguistic processes rather than the low-level regulation of motor processes competing for a single vocal channel. In an examination of other variables, the social dynamics of deaf and hearing people were similar, with "speakers" (those signing) laughing more than their audiences and females laughing more than males.

There you go.]

Part of what makes humor fascinating is that it is as universal as breathing, yet so idiosyncratic that a joke has to be put together with the precision of a recipe to work. And it typically only works the first time. What's funny last week isn't funny this week, and what's funny on my block might just get blank stares on the other side of town. From the NYRB review:

Never mind what we may share with the primates; it is often hard for the English to share a joke with their neighbors across the Channel, or to respond to cartoons penned a century ago. It is all very well for comedians to claim that "the old ones are the best," but anyone who has picked up a nineteenth-century copy of a comic magazine such as Punch is almost bound to have been disappointed. Even when they are not referring to the minutiae of some now forgotten political crisis, the vast majority of the cartoons simply don't make you laugh. It is sometimes easy enough, on a few moments' reflection, to get the joke and to see why it might once have seemed funny; but that is a very long way from feeling the remotest temptation to laugh oneself. In that sense laughter does not travel across space, time, or even necessarily—as any encounter with a group of under-fifteens will tell us—between different age groups in a single community.

The writer then delves into the topic of ancient humor, one of the most vexing and absorbing puzzles. What sorts of things made ancient people laugh? Can we tell from the text what the jokes are? I'm certain the coast guard in "Beowulf," for instance, is there for comic relief, but that's just a hunch. I can't prove it. No one can.

Read the 3rd C. B.C.E. comic mimes of Herondas, if you can find them. Those certainly were meant to be humorous. But it's maddening to try to trick out the humor in them now. To "Get it," you have to know about ancient schoolmasters or whore houses in a way that everyone then knew, but even scholars now don't.

A related problem is accents, which are not only humorous when put to good use (confusion from words that sound alike in a different accent) but present an instant way to tag a character with a set of stereotypical features and a rough back-story.

They were common in ancient Greek drama, but they present a problem for a modern translator, whose audience knows no proper Greek, much less the local shades. Ezra Pound worked one comedic Greek character into modern expectations by using minstrel show dialect ("made the watchman talk nigger," as Pound put it). But already less than 80 years later, that's impossible.

Consider Lampito in "Lysistrata." Typically, in U.S. productions, she has a thick Appalachian, hillbilly, or Deep South accent. Probably the women of the Wild West, of all the regions in the U.S., would bear the closest parallel to Lampito the Spartan, but that region lacks a strong accent for the stage. In translations made in Britain, however, Spartan dialect typically was rendered into Scottish English. It does have a resemblance to it, with its flattened vowels, and there's a cultural overlap, in suggestion of rudeness, stinginess, female toughness, and love of warfare. During the Cold War, a Russian accent sometimes was used for Spartan.

What lasts, whether in Herondas or Seinfeld, is the humor that comes from the most basic human situations, the ones unchanging over millennia, which even the rats and the apes would recognize if they could. Love, marriage, sex, bodily functions, child-rearing. According to the NYRB article, a version of this joke (this is Freud's version) is one of the oldest jokes known, and I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the ur-joke:

A royal personage was making a tour through his provinces and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to his own exalted person. He beckoned to him and asked: "Was your mother at one time in service in the Palace?" "No, your Highness," was the reply, "but my father was."


Why Wolves Love Sheep Law

In the perfectly non-discriminatory nanny state, the school bully will be invited to your birthday party. Or else.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Officials at a school in Sweden have confiscated birthday invitations handed out in class by an eight-year-old boy.

The reason: they see it as a matter of discrimination.

A Swedish newspaper says the school in Lund, southern Sweden, seized the invitations because the boy failed to invited two boys because they were not his friends.

The newspaper Sydsvenskan quotes officials as saying they had a duty to prevent discrimination.


The father told the newspaper that the two classmates were not invited because one had bullied his son and the other had not invited him to his birthday party.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Where's White?

Where in America today would you seek another William Allen White?

He came to mind while I was writing about Roosevelt edging America toward war on the side of Britain during 1940. White, a loyal Republican small-town newspaper editor, loathed Roosevelt.* But he did what he thought was right.

The last quarter century of White's life was spent as an unofficial national spokesman for middle America. This led President Franklin Roosevelt to ask White to help generate public support for the Allies before America's entrance into World War II. White was fundamental in the formation of the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, sometimes known as the White Committee.

* From an editorial published in 1943, shortly after Roosevelt returned from the Casablanca Conference: "We who hate your gaudy guts salute you."


Council Winners

Council Winners have been posted for the week of June 27.

First place in the council went to South Africa's Neville Chamberlain by The Razor. It was a good post: Balanced, informed, with a strong opinion and great sourcing. And I learned some things I didn't know before.

Votes also went to The Whole Shebaa-ng by Soccer Dad, which walks the reader through some dot-connecting in the current Middle Eastern diplomacy and reaches a conclusion many, whether they like it or not, find inescapable:

Acceding to Syria's and Hezbollah's demands will only serve to strengthen them. If Israel gives in here, Hezbollah will make new demands. Better that Israel should be (unfairly) portrayed as unreasonable than that Iran's proxies should be strengthened even further.

And to More Quincy from right here, and to Warped by Joshuapundit, about a recent Nicholas Kristof column about Israel.

Dick Morris Gets One Right by Hillbilly White Trash. What he, via Morris, sees looks like this:

The Law enforcement approach equals the Word Trade Center in rubble, the Pentagon damaged and Flight 93 and its passengers scattered across a field in Pennsylvania.

The military approach equals most of al Qaeda leadership dead or captured, 20,000 al Qaeda fighters dead in Iraq, no terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11 - and a handful of video tapes of Osama bin Laden's ravings being broadcast on al Jazeera.

Which approach to terrorism leaves you feeling safer?

Outside the council, the winner was Why You Should Apologize -- Ineffectively and Dishonestly -- For What You Didn't Do by Classical Values, which tells a family history tale that illustrates the irresolvable complications inherent in the notion of slavery reparations. [My version of that post was done here].

Votes also went to The Unconscious Roots of Media Bias by ShrinkWrapped, which takes off on the same Kristof column Joshuapundit disliked, but unfortunately doesn't seem to differentiate news coverage from editorial page work.

Other votes went to Big Gains in Iraq? by Abu Muqawama, a nice clear-headed and unbiased summation of where things stand; Obama's Lack of Ordinary Modesty by American Thinker, the mere mention of which here is likely to activate that 24-7 Obama truth squad.

Usually, wide-eyed Obama attacks leave me cold, but it's hard to not detect a certain hubris in speeches like this: "generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick, and good jobs for the jobless. This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal."

Votes also went to An Almost Unfathomable Ignorance of History by Brits At Their Best. I like this blog, in part because it has said nice things about my books. The picture it paints here is tragic, of a Britain fed up with its own Britishness and seemingly on a lemming-like march to nonidentity.

Recently, by coincidence, the serious fiction writer Nicholson Baker and the right-wing extremist commentator Pat Buchanan both published books suggesting World War II was not the good war, that it was avoidable but Churchill and Roosevelt provoked it, that the Allies committed war crimes, and that it served a few while sacrificing millions.

Reviewers -- the few who read them -- were quick to dismiss both books, sometimes even rolling them into a single article (which probably appalled the good liberal pacifist Mr. Baker; I suspect Mr. Buchanan is beyond appalling). Both books now seem consigned to oblivion.

But before they go, I would point out that -- except for the conclusion about it not being a good war -- there are kernels of truth in the individual charges made, as I understand them.

Specifically, Churchill (along with Roosevelt and others in the U.K. and U.S.) did provoke Hitler and the Japanese. Deliberately. And they put their countries on a wartime footing as fast and far as they could, in a time of peace. They thought the clash of these civilizations was inevitable, and better to start it before the enemies had built their power to too great a degree to be overcome.

Churchill was not the sort of man who would walk past a scene of the strong bullying the weak and mutter thanks to God that it wasn't him under that rain of fists. He wouldn't have stood at a safe distance and criticized the brutality but done nothing. He'd be looking for a way to get into that scrap and change the outcome.

It's that damned Anglo-American quality which so infuriates the rest of the world. The tendency to want to jump into a fight where you don't have a clear self-interest, just because it's not a fair fight or a just one, and you want to use your power and skill to set it right. What is fair and just is, by definition, your interest.

Are there other possible motives? Always. Are there likely beneficiaries among your friends? Always. Does that mean the impulse is not real or pure? No. But the rest of the world has convinced many Anglo-Americans that this quality in their culture is the main obstacle to peace in the world and must be banished.

Those who agree with that would do well to remember an earlier president with that trait strongly in evidence, and ask whether their politics aren't better suited to the accommodating James Buchanan, Old P.F., rather than the man who succeeded him.

Votes also went to The Card by Stop the ACLU (the "Card" being the race card; the players being Obama supporters); Alcoholism Progression by Dean's World, a gripping example of powerful personal blogging; and Is There A Pattern Here? If So, Is There A Name For It? by Discriminations, another Obama post.


Sorry State

Newspapers are dying. This is not a drill.

People have been talking about the inevitable demise of the print newspaper ever since the Internet came along in the early 1990s. Back then, it seemed a distant forecast, like astronomers' talk of the eventual death of the sun.

Now the death of the "Sun" seems a lot closer:

Officers of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, which represents nearly 400 [Baltimore] Sun workers in the news, advertising, circulation, building and finance departments, said yesterday that they were told by Sun management that 55 to 60 jobs would be cut in the newsroom, which would be a reduction of roughly 20 percent.

That's just one news item from the past week. Here are a few more:

[Martin] Gee, a veteran designer and illustrator, drew industry-wide attention this spring when he created a poignant photo display of images from the [San Jose] Mercury News that represented the emptiness of the paper following recent cutbacks. He posted them on his Flickr page, which was eventually linked to by numerous other Web sites.

E&P reprinted many of the images in the June issue, with a story by Editor Greg Mitchell in which Gee stated: "I love this paper," adding, "it's the one I grew up with." Gee told Mitchell at the time that he was not reprimanded for the display, but "our editor wrote a memo saying we should not dwell on the past."

He also said in that piece: "I am probably on the top of the list for the next round of layoffs." Gee could not be reached for comment Friday, but several sources confirmed his layoff, which also was reported on a number of Web sites.

Eight others at the Merc also got the axe. Meanwhile ...

Boston Globe unions have been asked by management to take an across-the-board 10 percent pay cut to help trim costs, while the newspaper also looks at consolidating its printing plants, according to several union members.

The Globe has just completed a round of buyouts that led to the departure of several high-profile staffers, and a top union official vowed yesterday to fight the proposed pay cut.

... The Boston Herald officially announced plans yesterday to outsource its printing operations and lay off 130 to 160 press operators, electricians and other production-related workers later this year. Herald owner and publisher Patrick J. Purcell said there are no plans to cut newsroom staff.

And in Texas:

The [Fort Worth] Star-Telegram announced that 130 positions would be eliminated through layoffs and voluntary buyouts.

Rumors about a corporate-wide downsizing had surfaced the week before. First thing Monday morning, the McClatchy Co., the Star-Telegram’s parent, announced a 10 percent reduction in staffing.

Even one-time flagships are foundering:

The [Hartford] Courant, the state's largest newspaper and owned by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing Co., will cut 60 newsroom positions. The paper's news pages will be reduced by 25 percent.

The Charlotte Observer is shrinking its staff by 11 percent, or 123 jobs.

No region of the country is immune:

The publisher of the Palm Beach Post said on Wednesday it would cut 300 jobs from its payroll of 1,350 because of a slump in ad revenues, increased competition from the Internet and an overall tough economic environment.

About 130 newsroom jobs will be cut, Palm Beach Post Publisher Doug Franklin said in a memo to staff.

Even the real estate is on the block:

CHICAGO, June 25 -- Tribune Co. is considering selling its iconic headquarters on Chicago's Magnificent Mile and buildings in Los Angeles.

The media conglomerate said Wednesday that it asked real estate firms to explore "strategic options for maximizing the value" of Tribune Tower, a Gothic landmark completed in 1925, and Times Mirror Square, the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times.

Smaller papers are bleeding, too.

PORTLAND, Maine - The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram are eliminating 36 jobs and closing their four news bureaus in response to a continuing decline in advertising revenues, their publisher said Thursday.

One publisher estimates 19 of the top 50 U.S. newspapers are in the red. Even those who survive will change the way they do business. This is a harbinger:

The newspaper industry is taking a beating, and now the Orange County Register is outsourcing some copy editing work to a company in India.

And in Pittsburgh:

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has eliminated stock market tables and Monday business pages, and will trim general news pages when possible, all to cut expenses, Executive Editor David Shribman said Friday.

And that's just the newspaper layoff news from the past week.

Which made this story sort of grimly amusing:

U.S. newspapers got a failing grade for gender diversity in their sports departments and a C for racial diversity, according to a study released Thursday.

Seventy-eight percent of the staffs at Associated Press Sports Editors newspapers and Web sites are white men, the study found. Just 5 percent of sports staffs are black men and just under 3 percent are Latino men. Only 11.5 percent are women.

Yes, believe it or not, top newsgathering organizations still wring their hands about their own "diversity." This was a big deal back in the mid-80s, when someone pointed out that the media, having scolded the rest of corporate and governmental America about integration, had one of the least-integrated businesses in America.

There was a rush to bring more "diversity" into newsrooms -- generally that meant race. It didn't mean gender, because already by that point newsrooms were becoming pink-collar ghettos. It sure didn't mean adding more conservatives or veterans or committed Christians.

That was then. We had sensitivity training. Most of the people who sat in that room with me are out of journalism now. To be talking seriously about making changes for the sake of diversity in this climate is like talking about making staff changes on the "Titanic" while its bow is under water.

Yet there they are:

"Dr. Lapchick's report is a mirror that forces us to look at ourselves," said Garry Howard, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's assistant managing editor/sports and APSE second vice president. "I still feel the future will be better."

... "The 'F' grade is jarring," said Jenni Carlson, president of The Association for Women in Sports Media. "Sports departments need to be held accountable for the diversity of their staffs, and right now, the lack of gender diversity by and large is appalling."

... Lapchick said APSE was the only organization that had ever approached him asking to be surveyed. He suggested "individual newspapers do diversity management training to make those newsrooms — and I would say this about any organization — more welcoming places, so people don't think that they were hired simply because they were a woman or a person of color."

At least the industry that's blind and deaf about everyone else's world is equally so with regard to its own.

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Is a growing national income inequality bad for everyone, rich and poor and in between? This writer thinks so.


Thursday, June 26, 2008


2009 will close out the most fundamentalist Christian, right-wing, and philosophically authoritarian White House in U.S. history.

Signs are that it will be followed by the administration of a man whose political inner circle could become the most America-skeptic, left-wing, and statist kitchen cabinet in U.S. history. All built around a personality cult.

No wonder a secular, traditional, patriotic political independent like me feels this just is not my millennium.

We come from an administration where political loyalty and a sheepskin from Pat Robertson's law school was the ticket to authority in the Justice Department. Political loyalty and a skepticism about the universe being more than 10,000 years old was a ticket to blue-pencil authority over government science reports. Political loyalty and a correct position on Roe v. Wade, for pity's sake, was the ticket to getting a job overseeing the desperately essential work of building up Iraq after we took control of it.

We head for an administration where -- we'll see. At least one odious, unrepentant '60s rich boy radical friend of Barack won't be making policy decisions in the Department of Education or channeling millions of tax dollars to his pet causes. But only because the accidental searchlight of scandal happened to light on Bill Ayers. Every week or so seems to bring up another like him. Even at this rate and with seven months left, some are bound to get through.

Obama, in his short political life, seems to have been in a MoveOn-colored cocoon, so that when he sits down at a Pennsylvania farm wife's kitchen table he might as well be the leader of another country. Benevolent visionary or not, that difference remains.

McCain doesn't matter. I like him well enough, but this election isn't going to be about him.

I keep thinking of Harold Macmillan's quip that watching the Kennedies come to power in Washington, D.C., was "like watching the Borgia brothers take over a respectable North Italian city." This election is really about Hope: I hope the real Obama is more in his rhetoric than his friends.

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A Well-Regulated Grammar

I don't own a gun, but I do own a Latin grammar.

I haven't had a chance to trace the history of the amendment before it passed. It occurs to me that I might not have it in any books.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Think Globally, Act Stupidly

Here's that rarest of birds, a reasonably detached scientific estimate -- numbers! Lots of them! -- of various things people think they can do to help solve the global energy crisis. Turn off your appliances? Forget it: Skip one hot bath a week and you can leave your TV on for months.

It also looks at some of the possible models for one nation (Britain, in this case) to work toward "sustainability," eco-friendliness, and energy independence (not always all possible at once). And at what they'd look like. The model most glamorous to the severest friends of Gaia turns out to be the most brutal to her:

It’s worth noting that in earlier analysis, [Professor David J.C.] MacKay [of the Cambridge University Department of Physics] suggested that pumped storage on this scale would be very hard to achieve using existing lakes and lochs. In actuality, vast amounts of seawater would probably get pumped up and down mountains and cliffs routinely to bridge the huge demand swings of a mostly-electric Britain and the massive variations in a mostly-wind powered grid.

MacKay made no effort to cost plan G, but he offers maps and figures indicating the staggering scale of the engineering. Britain would be literally covered with — and girdled by — massive wind farms, tidal barriers and wave barrages, and every sizeable body of water in the land would rise and fall to the strange new tides of the national grid. We would have literally rebuilt the British Isles as a single mighty renewable generator, pouring concrete and erecting steel on a scale so far matched only by human habitation — industrialising the land and sea in a way that would make intensive agribusiness look like a wildlife refuge. And still we’d be importing power.

That’s the reality of the Greenpeace plan for the UK, in hard numbers. You can see why MacKay is worried about their response.

Bonus points for using "sizeable."


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Comic Wisdom

D.L. Hughley at the BET Awards tonight: "Like, how bad a president is George Bush, when the country goes, 'You know, we'll try the black guy?'"

Council Winners

Watchers Council winners have been posted for the week of June 20.

First place in the council went to Judicial Activism Run Amok by Wolf Howling. This post dealt with Boumediene v. Bush, as did several nominees this week. Wolf, like most of the posts nominated on the topic, sees it as a travesty:

The case of Boumediene v. Bush is far more of a policy document than a reasoned Supreme Court decision. Indeed, the 'reasoning' of Justice Kennedy, who penned this travesty, is sophistry of the highest order. The outcome of his "reasoning" is a gifting of Constitutional rights to foreign prisoners of war and a vast intrusion of the judiciary into the enumerated powers of the Congress and President. It promises true havoc.

I suppose it's an election year thing; it puzzles me that so many people on both sides of this one are so adamant that their interpretation is the only possible honest one, and that anything else is treason or fascism. It seems to me there's reasonable grounds to be wary of granting the habeas corpus rights of an American citizen to suspected alien pseudo-paramilitaries swept up on distant battlefields in Asia. That seems like something we'd want to consider carefully before rubber-stamping.

On the other hand, I appreciate the logic of innocent-until-proven, and the requirement to give such scooped-up riff-raff a decent avenue to prove they are not what they are alleged to be. And in general the principle that Americans ought to be as generous as possible with human rights, in the name of our ideals.

I agree with Richard A. Epstein about the flaws in the recent decision:

Yet Boumediene is rich in constitutional ironies. In addressing whether non-Americans detained outside the United States are entitled to habeas corpus, the court passed up an opportunity to clarify the law, and instead based its reasoning, flimsily, on a habeas corpus case that was decided just after World War II. This is too bad, because issues as important as habeas corpus should turn not on fancy intellectual footwork but on a candid appraisal of the relevant facts and legal principles.

At the core of the dispute in Boumediene is the Constitution’s suspension clause: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” Unfortunately, the text neglects to specify the grounds for granting habeas corpus. And historical precedent is inconclusive on the question of when it should be available to aliens held in American custody outside the United States.

Everyone rightly waves the flag for habeas corpus, but ever since 1861 it's been know that the Constitution is practically hazy on the circumstances under which it applies, and under which it can be suspended, and by whom. It's still so.

Votes also went to Admitting Defeat in the Rhetoric War by Cheat Seeking Missiles, in which Laer contrasts President George W. Bush's wartime rhetoric to Franklin Roosevelt's.

That's a bit unfair, I think, as some of Bush's addresses on this topic -- when he has made them -- have been sterling. They haven't been the same type of rhetoric Roosevelt gave, because that was a different type of war, by our choice.

What Laer might be wishing is that the war was fought more in the Eisenhower style than in the clumsily sensitive and politically delicate climate of the Bush White House. Roosevelt led a war to unconditional surrender, and his commanding general, Eisenhower, warned the Germans we came as conquerors, not liberators. In this war, we profess to come as liberators -- and I think the record in Iraq and Afghanistan shows we mean it -- and that is a much more delicate path to tread. The jury's still out on whether we have the patience for it.

Either way, he's right, I think, in his assessment of what is coming next:

We are in a quandry. The candidate with the rhetorical powers to patch things up has the wrong policy, and the candidate with the right policy is perhaps even worse rhetorically than Bush. McCain might want to make his #1 qualification for running mate "soaring rhetorical power."

And votes went to What the Free World Would Do Well To Emulate by The Colossus of Rhodey, a strong post on how, as Mark Steyn (quoted in the post), says, "[T]he bedrock difference between the United States and the countries that are in a broad sense its legal cousins" is that "Western governments are becoming increasingly comfortable with the regulation of opinion. The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world."

Steyn also says: "The problem with so-called hate speech laws is that they're not about facts. They're about feelings." Especially in the case of the Western nations other than the U.S., where laws forbid such speech, but the government only gets involved after some person or group speaks up and claims offendedness.

I disagree with the part of the post that imputes a fondness for this type of law to a simple lust for power by liberals:

What is it about this liberal desire for the restriction of speech and expression? The answer is simple: Power. If you can restrict and punish expression which you do not like, you'll always get your way.

I think there are fair and honest ways that can lead a person down a primrose path, including this one. Of course it always helps if you're the kind of person eager to silence dissent and enthrone one human vision as God's. But that is not restricted to liberals.

Votes also went to Say It Loud, Say It Proud: I Am a Racist! by Bookworm Room, anticipating the response she expects from people when she doesn't vote for Obama; and to A Rose By Any Other Name -- Tiptoeing Around Jihad by Joshuapundit.

Outside the council, the winner was After the Charge at Miserable Donuts, another winning post from a sterling milblog. I really think when you look back on this decade, one thing that will stand out is the emergence of the milblog voice. It's not great writing, but at its best it's great description. And in other cases it's great horse-sense analysis. Here's a sample of the latter from this one:

The Iraqis paused to mourn their dead, caught up on some rest, maintenance and refitting – and went back to operations. Their progress is never enough if you hold them to American military standards, but is undeniable by anyone who watched them throughout this time. They are slowly and inexorably gaining strength, experience and an identity of their own. It was elements of three Iraqi Army divisions and two National Police brigades that won in Basrah. We, the Coalition, helped – and I believe that our help kept the casualties and damage down - but make no mistake, this was an Iraqi victory won by the Iraqi Security Forces. The people of Basrah are why the ISF are winning the post-battle too. They have experienced militia/religious fanatic/thug rule and they don’t want any more truck with it. It is the ordinary Abduls, Hattams and Fatimas of Basrah who point out the weapons caches, told the ISF where the JAM and Iranians were hiding, and it is they who are getting to step out into the light at last.

Votes also went to Obama and Taxes: An Unchanged Liberal Agenda at Lone Star Times; The United States Supreme Court Versus America: Awarding "The Privilege of Habeas Corpus To Terrorists", Hugh Hewitt's take on Boumediene; Why Irish Voters Rejected the Lisbon Treaty at The Brussels Journal; and Serlo the Mercer and Magna Carta at Brits At Their Best.

Wishes and Horses

Who I wish Obama would pick for a running mate? Jim Webb

Who I wish McCain would pick for a running mate? Sarah Palin

My prediction for November? Better get used to the sound of "President Obama," barring a tragedy or a mega-scandal. It's going to be a bumpy ride when the saint takes the wheel. It could be great, ultimately. Or not. Better be prepared to be patient and to make yourself useful in case the predictable bad moves turn out as badly as we predict they will.

What do you think?


How did he do it? He probably was on network TV as much as the Smothers Brothers. Yet he always managed to seem to have just stepped into the studio from some counterculture happening, and to be headed off to another one after the cameras stopped rolling. He always kept the aura of the hippie who never surrendered, never cut his hair, never came in out of the rain and made peace with the establishment. But who was glib and just soft-edged enough that it kept inviting him back for dinner.



Guess who said it?

“If I were to watch the news [about Iraq and Afghanistan] that you hear here in the United States, I would just blow my brains out because it would drive me nuts.”

Did you guess MSM reporter who covers Iraq?.

Lots of jaw-droppers in that article.

Monday, June 23, 2008


A journalist never should be suffered to feel loved by his audience. Feeling loved is potent. So is feeling rich. Even the strongest, unknowingly, will bend to what will keep the feeling alive.

A journalist should be, at best, respected. So that one faction, gloating over his evisceration of their mortal enemies, know in their hearts, "He would treat us the same, if he discovered our crimes."

It was famously said of a politician, "We love him for the enemies he has made." It was an unworthy enkōmion for that or any politician. In journalism, however, the enemies one makes are proof of professional integrity. But the reaction is not "love."

To be loved? No, never. To be feared and respected, always. A journalist should embrace the pariah role. Unbribability only can be proven by poverty.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Signs of Trouble

I see from skimming the wire tonight that the New York Times has Dexter Filkins reporting from Kabul. That's a sign of something. He was one of their four core reporters during the Iraq invasion. For what seems like years, Carlotta Gall has been holding down Afghanistan for the Times almost single-handedly.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday Cat Blogging

Petite Jamilla ... again. Yeah, she's sort of taking over. I don't think you'll mind too much, though.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Seven Sees

I got Sevened by Dave at The Glittering Eye.

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.
4. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.
5. Present an image of martial discord from whatever period or situation you’d like.

I swore I had done this one before, but I couldn't find it searching the dashboard. Until I realized it was eight things last time -- and it was Dave who got me then, too.

So, add these seven to those eight and you've got me fifteen ways to weird:

  • I can eat box macaroni and cheese every day and drive a beater car for years, but I believe in not scrimping when it comes to the important things in life. By "important things" I mean beer and socks. My wife and I have been known to drop $100 on a case of good Belgian.

  • My son recently was voted "most unique" in his high school class.

  • My two favorite vacation destinations are the Florida Keys and the German Alps -- and I don't sail or ski.

  • Speaking of women roughly my age, I think Gina Gershon is roughly hot.

  • In high school, I lettered in swimming four years.

  • I have dyslexia.

  • I am distantly related to "The Sundance Kid."

Here's my "martial discord" picture.

Which also could qualify for Dave's brief misreading of the line as "marital discord." Note the inscription on the club!

Tags, tags, tags. I'm terrible at tags. Probably most people I'd think of already have been tagged. Tag yourself and say I did it!

Pacifica, An Imaginary History

And so they were pacificists -- pacifists along more practical lines, who, though they never would attack another nation, would all tenaciously and vigorously defend their island should it ever be invaded.

It was written into their constitution. Like the pure democratic Greeks of antiquity, every citizen was an arrow in the communal quiver, a spike up on the battlements. There was thus no need for that bane of freedoms, the standing professional army.

An invasion seemed unlikely most of the time, but the islanders were wise enough to know the world did not share their ideals. That wolves still prowled, and that a nation with offshore drilling capacity could not flaunt its defenselessness and survive for long.

The idea of self-defense was taken very seriously. Monthly drilling was mandatory. This caused some difficulty at first, since the pacificist constitution specifically forbid "coercion of the individual" for any purpose, but after some debate a clever jurist found a soft spot in "of the individual." The council were not impressing citizens into the drills as individuals, but collectively, and such collective coercion was not outlawed.

Loyalty was highly prized. Spies or double agents or saboteurs were jealously watched for in high positions, and accusations frequently hurled. A people's defense would fail if such traitors were permitted to freely plot and sap.

Along with loyalty, bravery was prized most. Or what they called bravery, which was not on the whole equivalent to the thing we mean by that word. It had no stoic or patient quality; it seldom referred to anything but fighting. The islanders were careful to let the world know they were a fighting people. Their bravery might come closer to what we call bravado: A need to prove to peers your toughness and readiness to defend.

It was an edgy, brawling place, with more pistol ranges per capita than even Texas.

More Quincy

If I could bottle any figure from America's past and slip a few drops in the drinks of our current crop of leaders, I'd pick John Quincy Adams.

Adams took his seat in the U.S. Senate on Oct. 21, 1805. Within 10 days he had made a nuisance of himself. He probably would have accomplished it sooner, but not much business was being done in the Capitol that month, it being horse racing season in Washington.

Sen. John Breckenridge had introduced a simple resolution to wear black for a month to mourn the recent deaths of three patriots. Probably everyone expected it to breeze through as a pro forma, but the new guy from Massachusetts rose and objected to it; "I asked for the constitutional authority of the Senate to enjoin upon its members this act."

Whether it was the polite thing to do was less important than whether it was within the limits of the powers and duties defined for the various branches of the government by the Constitution. Whether Adams approved it or not -- one of the patriots to be so honored was his father's cousin Samuel Adams -- mattered less than whether it would deform in the slightest degree the structure of the government.

Breckenridge replied that the motion was "merely conventional" and "not binding."

"I then objected against it as improper in itself, tending to unsuitable discussions of character, and to employment of the Senate's time in debates altogether foreign to the subjects which properly belong to them," Adams wrote in his diary. Those who don't consider JQA among our most humorous presidents will perhaps miss the drollery of the next line in the entry. "This led to a debate of three hours ...."

Adams did not succeed in stopping the resolution, only in having it re-structured. As the resistance indicates, the tendency in the federal government to decide what the politicians want to do, then figure out a way to do it that is not terribly unconstitutional, was thriving as early as 1805. It is now so dominant that the narrow constitutional objection is too rarely heard even from people who might invoke it in their own interest.

Adams was in and out of Congress till his death in 1848, and literally till the end he was on his feet objecting to some activity underway for which he found no authority in the Constitution. Like Jackson and Polk and others among his peers he used this objection against schemes he disapproved. But he also was alert to it in the case of projects he supported, and in such cases urged that the Constitution be changed, rather than ignored.

Above: Adams by Sully

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Newsroom Chatter

Some gems from your friends in the MSMs.

"Last time I checked, (Hugo Chavez) was the elected president of a constitutional republic." [I.e., not a demagogue or a dictator. Chavez is enormously popular here.]

"It's difficult to believe anyone could be more right-wing than George Will." [Will's columns, when certain editors are forced to read them, set them off in fits of choking rage.]

The WMD Betrayal

The rest of America has blame enough to bear for what those endured who went to Iraq on our mission -- military and civilian -- and for what the Iraqis suffer. We could have done better. We let them down. We let them all down.

But we -- and they -- were let down in turn by this administration. I think the critics have it right who say that Bush and his inner circle were trapped in a permanent campaign mentality. They seemed unwilling or unable to lead, rule, or govern. But they were relentless at sapping domestic opponents and building majorities that would hold together just long enough.

As in all things, the Bush Administration was not the first to employ a bad executive policy; it merely took the bad policy to excess. Karl Rove was the manifestation; no purely political adviser should have a permanent home in the White House, and no war decisions ought to be made for political reasons (as they were, say, in Fallujah in 2004).

When it came to Iraq, I think, they couldn't help themselves. They did the one thing they knew how to do. They put together a platform with mass appeal. They lured in independents and pried key constituencies away from their opponents. They played on doubts and fears -- everything the Bush campaign squad did to beat McCain in 2000.

When you're running for office, you don't take the same message into every church, campus, or union hall. You tailor and weight the words to suit the audience. That's why the White House's run-up-to-war rhetoric seems so disjointed and scattered. Saddam's alleged ties to 9/11; the humanitarian justification; draining the swamp and spreading freedom. And, most potent of all, the WMD What-If.

The truth of that guessing game was somewhere on a scale between "Saddam has no WMD and no chance to get them" and "Saddam has stockpiles of the most lethal weapons, including nukes." How much risk are you willing to take? That was how the administration pitched it to the center, to the mass of Americans unmoved by emotional or visionary or utopian or conspiratorial arguments. The pitchers were Powell and Rice, the cabinet voices with the most appeal to the moderates. The sober, calculating set of people who think of themselves as guided by common sense, not partisan propaganda. Including a great many in the media.

Which is why the failure to find significant stockpiles or an active program hurt so much. The Saddam-did-9/11 zealots weren't going to be dissuaded by evidence of any sort. To the drain-the-swamp/humanitarian justification people, the WMD argument was secondary, if still important. Its unravelling did not seem at first to derail their hopes. Their justification for war lay elsewhere.

But I think the media had gone along, and most of the pundit class, and a great many voting people, on the basis of the WMD What-If. To discover the Administration had gambled on that and lost so badly -- gambled our trust and international credibility -- turned a great deal of opinion sour. It became "Bush's War" to a new set of people who felt betrayed. Some joined the anti-war protesters. Many just sat it out.

No doubt it had an impact on a great many people who went to fight the war at our bidding, and their families who endured their absences and feared for them. But they still managed to do what we asked, even when we asked impossible and contradictory things. No matter what you might glean from watching TV news, the better part of us has been in Iraq these past five years.

That none of this was historically unusual in wars ("Mr. Madison's War," "Mr. Polk's War," "Mr. Lincoln's War") hardly mattered. That some chemical weapons actually turned up in Iraq hardly mattered. That most other credible voices, including anti-war ones, also presumed until May 2003 that Saddam had some level of WMD (Ralph Nader and Scott Ritter, I think, were notable exceptions who came out and predicted he didn't -- but that was a guess, too), didn't matter, either.

In America, you can win elections by bluff. Then you've got four years to govern while the people discover the bluff, and when it's time to run again, you can start over with a new bluff. It doesn't work that way in war. You have to get it right every day.

Like this post itself, the Iraq War became, to the 99 percent of Americans who weren't over there, a political matter. It was about the domestic relationships, the hostilities and betrayals and lies and slanders. About who was going to be forever excluded from the national debates hereafter.

[I was not a WMD What-If backer of the invasion, though I admit the argument had an influence on me. I came around on the humanitarian/draining the swamp side. If anything, what I learned in reading the oil-for-food revelations made me more fearful of Saddam's potential for destructiveness, measured in terms of the near future, than I was before the war.]

[I should add that this is a post about one aspect of the war and the history of it; it is not a complete statement of my views about it. It is about what I think happened in our country, in part, not about what ought to have happened or what ought to happen next.]

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Doors of Perception

Do you think the Christian right would drop its opposition to legal recreational drugs if it discovered how many people have been in the presence of God while on acid, or pondered the morality and mortality of their lives while toked up?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Humor Dissected

Iron Curtain humor

'What is the difference between communism and capitalism?' 'Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man; communism is the exact opposite.'

'Capitalism stands on the brink of the abyss. It will soon be overtaken by communism.'

Uniquely of its times. And, perhaps, there's an indigenous Eastern European/German quality to much of it. But what also impresses me is how timeless and universal humor always is. You can find the same jokes across every culture where the language allows them to be made.

'Is it true that half the Central Committee are idiots?' 'No, that's rubbish. Half the Central Committee are not idiots,' is a version of a story told about Disraeli: 'Mr Speaker, I withdraw that statement. Half the Cabinet are not asses.'

How many versions of that joke exist? Why do we all still feel delight at the discovery that we don't always appreciate the difference between converse and reverse?

The second joke above, the "abyss" one, is a sly version of the old mixed metaphor. The other three are various plays on the idea that you can reverse certain statements and still be saying the same thing. Such forms probably make up a greater percentage of the humor output of totalitarian systems than democratic ones.

There's at least one American historical variation on this joke, involving Lincoln's appointment of Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as Secretary of War at the start of his administration. It was patronage for a state that had swung the election for the Republicans, but Cameron was notoriously corrupt. When Lincoln asked Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens if Cameron was corrupt, he replied, "Well, I don't think he would steal a red-hot stove."

Cameron heard about it and demanded a retraction. Stevens then told Lincoln "I believe I told you he would not steal a red-hot stove. I will now take that back."


Grist for the Diploma Mill

For those of you who enjoy seeing academe slagged.

What the university offered, then, became no different from the fare of a television station, a local movie theater, rap concert, or a government bureaucracy: the more the campus devolved into popular life, the less it had to offer anything of rarity or singular beauty—confirming Plato’s pessimism that the radical egalitarian appeal to mass appetites must lead to arts of a lesser and more accessible quality. If half-educated strippers and sex entertainers are deemed street artists or populist philosophers, then they can now be welcomed to campus, exempt from both the charge of sexual exploitation and pornography by reciting anti-American poetry and offering anti-Western quips as they unclothe and fondle themselves before cheering college audiences. A Ward Churchill is the emblem of today’s university provocateur and entertainer, posing as the everyman professor with beads, buckskin, and an automatic rifle, enhanced and protected by bogus credentials and a faked identity.

I recuse myself from all comment in such cases. I am far out of the shadow of the ivory tower and have a great antipathy for it, based on prejudice and experience. The schadenfreude I feel in reading passages where it is roundly dissed tells me I am a poor judge of the quality of the criticism.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Interesting Graph

Higher in Spain than in Britain? Higher in India than in America? U.S. and China have about the same feeling about him?

And, by the way, John Edwards' chosen blogger proves again that she reads her progressive narrative better than she reads the words on the page. She shows this chart from the report and writes: "A new World Public Opinion poll of 20 nations finds that just 2 percent say that they have 'a lot' or 'some' confidence that President Bush will do 'the right thing regarding world affairs.'" As a commenter quickly points out, it's 2 nations out of 20 (10 percent), not "2 percent" of either people or nations.

UPDATE: I was wrong. It's a different blogging Amanda, not the one Edwards wanted. Thanks to commenters for pointing that out.


I never knew Obama was a fellow left-hander. Looking at this, he's really a left-hander, with that deformed way of writing we tend to have. It's to keep from smearing what you've just written in dragging your hand over it. (Think about it: Right-handers don't have that problem.) And when you're signing a book that's going to be a keepsake, you want to be especially careful about that. So, yeah, I recognize this posture, and it's about as uncomfortable as it looks.

Other Hands

Ever since I was a teenager I've bought used books. I like them clean, not marked up, but I also enjoy, somehow, knowing that this paper has been touched by other hands and these words have flowed into other minds. If the book has an interesting signature on the flyleaf, a "discarded" stamp from some rural library, or an odd bookplate, so much the better.

When I was younger, I'd buy them at the local thrift shop, so they mostly were from close to home. Most were old novels or story collections -- I got my Dumas, Scott, Poe, Hawthorne that way. But with time my interests have grown more arcane, and with Internet resources like Alibris and Powells, I buy a book now because usually it's the only copy available, and I get it from wherever it comes from.

I've bought several older, thorough, obscure language dictionaries in the last 10 years or so. Not the kind of thing most people would want to load down on their shelves: Thick blocks of book, mostly in German, published in the early 20th century. Really fine books, if you enjoy a well-made book.

Their provenance, where they've been before they arrived in my hands, began to interest me the other night when I was looking something up in a German-language dictionary of French etymology printed at the university press in Heidelberg in the 1920s. The bookplate was a pen-and-ink sketch of an idyllic tropical scene, with dark-skinned people diving in calm waters beside a hut and under a palm tree. And the name was like something from Waugh: Peter Antony Lanyon-Orgill. It occurred to me that the Internet which brought me this book might tell me who he was.

I looked over my shelf for other names to research, and realized I had two of his books -- the massive Oxford Sanskrit-English dictionary also has his nameplate on it.

As I suspected, he wasn't hard to find. To my delight, he was a sort of brilliant, bold, and controversial Cornwall character, characterized as a "fringe" figure in some quarters, cited as an authority in others.

Peter A. Lanyon-Orgill (1924-2002) made himself a place in every bibliography of Pacific linguistics without, it could be argued, ever making any original contribution to the field. At one extreme his publishing activities verged on fraud and plagiarism, but from another point of view he made available work which otherwise might have languished unknown in manuscript form. Throughout it all, in parallel with his real life as a schoolmaster, he constructed an apparently imaginary scholarly career, complete with field research, advanced degrees, and learned colleagues, all largely of his own invention.

His ancestor had sailed with Captain Cook, but his own writings elicit dire warning in scholarly books about the mysterious Easter Island writing systems.

Apparently his library was broken up and sold when he died, which is how I came to own a little part of it, which I cherish more today than I did yesterday.

AP vs. the Bloggers

The Glittering Eye has a good post on it.

Apparently the crux of the suit is "fair use."

Last week, The A.P. took an unusually strict position against quotation of its work, sending a letter to the Drudge Retort asking it to remove seven items that contained quotations from A.P. articles ranging from 39 to 79 words.

Good Lord, thank the heavens it wasn't the "New York Times." They can't write a lede up there in less than 40 words.

Eighty words or less seems seriously, absurdly small. Especially because one of the things blogs do well, and indispensably, and uniquely, is "fisk." And to do that, you have to basically reprint the entire article, rebutting it line by line, including the structure.

What is the AP thinking? I think Dave is on the right track here:

Does the Associated Press have a cause of action at all? I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a blogger quote the Associated Press but I’ve seen lots of bloggers quote various newspaper and other web sites in which Associated Press material is included. Wouldn’t the newspaper or other A. P. subscriber need to be the complainant? Perhaps some smart lawyer could straighten me out on this.

I'm neither smart nor a lawyer. But the AP is still, at its roots, a consortium of newspapers and broadcasters (it began with the New York press pooling its coverage to exploit the one telegraph wire that could carry news back east from the Mexican-American War).

Anymore, three-quarters or more of AP coverage is generated by AP itself, but the rest is still passed up and passed around by the member papers. Who pay for the right to use this copy and illustration as they see fit.

And they pay a lot. An AP subscription is well into six figures, even for a moderate-sized daily newspaper in a small city (subscription rates are scaled by circulation). You get a lot of gear with this: Satellite dishes, etc.

But the amazing fact is, AP has been giving away the same content online for years now. I've been astonished by this. One night a few years ago when I was working as wire editor, the power failed downtown and we couldn't work on our computers. I went home, six blocks away, where all the lights were on, and was basically able to do my job from my household Yahoo account: I could see all the stories, see all the pictures. The only thing I couldn't do was move them into the newspaper's pagination system.

Why on earth is the AP charging newspapers hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for this content, which the publishers then have to turn around and try to sell to the public, when anyone can see it in full, for free, online?

It takes a bit of effort to get directly onto the AP site or its photo stream. Almost nobody links directly to AP, as Dave notes. On the other hand, all it takes is for the newspaper in Boise, say, to post up an AP story on its Web site, and everyone in the world can read it for free.

I don't think the AP wants to do much about that; at least the Boise paper's Web advertisers get exposure, in that case. Though whether the reader from Bangladesh wants to download the coupons for the free undercarriage car wash in Boise is a dubious proposition.

But when the article appears whole as a Freeper post, no one anywhere in the AP's food chain benefits at all, and it is a net detriment to all the member organizations.

That's why I think they attempt to draw this line in the sand. What they don't seem to realize, or want to realize, is that the sand they're drawing in already is 8 feet underwater, thanks to the dam they allowed to collapse 10 years ago or more and can't fix now.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


For a Christian economist. Devise a system of economics that guarantees fairness in a land where, to many, pennies are precious, and, to a few, millions are chaff. For a culture of unrestrained freedom, as ours must be, surely will arrive at this. Where one's very time in life -- the precious hours between the sleep and the sleep -- can be bought and sold.

For a global warming zealot. Study the state of the world and of scientific knowledge in 1908. Forget everything discovered or revealed since then. Decide what a person in 1908 would see as the great pressing crises facing the human race, and devise a policy, using existing technologies, to combat or address them.

[Here's a hint, from 1899:

A Chicago Daily Tribune story featured scientists speculating about a future in which people's hands and feet will get smaller because of labor-saving machines, a time when "the hat will vanish and the hair will improve" and when everyone will live around the equator because of global cooling.

"Man will develop more in the 20th century than he has in the last 1,000 years,"' one scientist said.]

Just Once

I know this is mean-spirited of me. But just once, on Father's Day, I'd like to see a different kind of story as the lede feature in the Sunday paper.

Not that I have anything against celebrating the happiness of the man who ditched his babies and their mother when he was 20 and went to drink and shoot up and ended up a homeless alcoholic, and now, 10 years later, is getting back in touch with his son and daughter. [Thanks to some intervention treatment program hosted by some rescue mission. Funded by some bill pushed by some state senator. And it's all threatened by federal budget cuts thanks to Republican parsimony and the war in Iraq. Et cetera.]

But I wonder, where is the dad who stayed? The dad who came home every night to his family in spite of his demons. He took shit from abusive bosses and said nothing, because his kids needed the paycheck. He could have tossed it all to the wind and let the demons rule, but he didn't. Perhaps they were kept at bay only by the strength of the mutual love he had with his son and daughter.

It is all over-simple from a God's-eye view. Perhaps the father who stays warps his children; perhaps the father who leaves allows them to develop strength they would not otherwise have.

But in the over-simple world as we experience it, isn't there a place for the dad who stayed? I'm sure the other man's tale is uplifting, in a sad way, but might not this be, with the writer's touch?

Don't Mean a Thang

Never trust neo-progressives who claim to be champions of the American poor and the working folk, but who reflexively despise country music or can't be bothered to tell classic country from bad country.

"Country music made between about 1950 and 1970 is a secret history of rural, working class Americans in the twentieth century -- a secret history in plain sight. . . . Country music knows that the dark heart of the American Century beat in oil-field roadhouses in Texas and in dim-lit Detroit bars where country boys in exile gathered after another shift at Ford or GM. Bobby Bare might've pleaded in 'Detroit City' that he wanted to go home. But we all knew he wouldn't, that he couldn't. Country profoundly understands what it's like to be trapped in a culture of alienation: by poverty, by a [lousy] job, by lust, by booze. ... If you truly want to understand the whole United States of America in the twentieth century, you need to understand country music and the working people who lived their lives by it."

The operative phrase, of course, is "want to understand."

Friday, June 13, 2008


Europe wakes up with a hangover.

My biggest worry, in fact, is that Mr Obama wins and the Democrats get a huge majority in Congress. The new president will be focused hard on two big policy challenges in Washington - dealing with Iraq and reforming US healthcare. He won't have a lot of political capital to spare to stand up to a resurgent Democratic Party in Congress over trade policy, and the US could slide further towards protectionism.

Meanwhile, a big Republican defeat in November is quite likely to result in a very nasty isolationist turn inside the opposition party. The neoconservatives - those bad guys who believe that the US should spend blood and treasure trying to bring democracy to the great unwashed - will be discredited. President Obama could find himself under pressure from both parties in Congress to put US interests first.

All of this means that the new president will have to spend a fair amount of time on trips to Europe explaining to his admirers why he really isn't able to deliver that much.

Why Obnoxious is Sometimes Necessary

You know, ... yeah.

Council Winners

Council winners have been posted for the week of June 13.

First place in the council went to The Chicken or the Egg? by Joshuapundit.

Votes also went to Dear Pakistan by Wolf Howling; For Once, It Really Is About the Children by Bookworm Room; Caring Is Not Enough by The Glittering Eye; The Global Warming Cult by The Razor; and I'm a Fuel, Fuel, Fuel for You by Soccer Dad.

Outside the council, the winner was What Kind of War Crimes Trials Does Obama Plan? at American Thinker.

Votes also went to Wake Up and Smell the Soup! by Melanie Phillips; Obama and Khalidi -- What We Know So Far by Daled Amos; Have You No Shame, Sir? at Winds of Change; and When Worlds Collide at The Weekly Standard.

Grim and Few

Our Defense Secretary just handed the mainstream media the prize it had sought in vain: How to write about the decline in violence in Iraq without 1. making it look like things are going well for the U.S., and 2. admitting the media's convictions about it have been wrong for a long time.

In this new trope, Iraq becomes just a backdrop to talk about how badly the U.S. is screwing up in Afghanistan. Why, the scribes even got to bring forth their favorite adjective again:

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — It's a grim gauge of U.S. wars going in opposite directions: American and allied combat deaths in Afghanistan in May passed the monthly toll in Iraq for the first time.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates used the statistical comparison to dramatize his point to NATO defense ministers that they need to do more to get Afghanistan moving in a better direction. He wants more allied combat troops, more trainers and more public commitment.

More positively, the May death totals point to security improvements in Iraq that few thought likely a year ago.

But the deterioration in Afghanistan suggests a troubling additional possibility: a widening of the war to Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida have found haven.

Note that "few," by the way. Always note a "few" or a "many" or a "most" in journalism in a passage where no statistics are cited. It's a sure sign the writer is trying to drag you over a talking point without letting you feel it.

What "few?" A year ago, in June 2007, according to the polls, 39 percent of Americans thought "the surge" would "improve the security situation [in Iraq] over the next few months." Almost 40 percent might arguably be called "few," but it would seem to stretch the definition of that word.

But chances are the AP writers and editors weren't thinking of that number. They were looking around their newsrooms or thinking of their social circles. "Nobody we talked to expected anything good to come of it." Therefore, "few" feels justified.

So if 39 percent is "few," then I guess 11 percent is "very few indeed," "next to nobody," or some such thing. But do you see that sort of phrasing in discussions of the run-up to the War in Iraq? Yet that was the figure in a CBS News February 2002 poll who thought Iraq "currently does not possesses weapons of mass destruction." That was well before the serious Administration push to sell that point to the public was underway.

But the AP doesn't write stories with lines like, "The failure to find stockpiles of WMD in Iraq a development few thought likely before the overthrow of Saddam."

Friday Cat Blogging

Because you can never have enough Petite Jamilla:


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Old Reporters

Some old reporters should just hang it up and edit copy. But they don't. They become columnists. Which means they're given the job of filling a chunk of space with meaningful and creative words. Chances are digging and scooping were the skills that got them success as reporters. Those will be useless in a column. Chances are wordcraft and vivid writing never were strong suits, and what reserve they had of those skills dried up long before they retired from reporting -- and into the job where those skills are essential.

Pick any one you like: There are dozens of these lame warhorses around. My pick today is Marianne Means I find her column titled "Being "an outsider' can be a problem" on the wire, but not online. It is about Sen. Obama. IN it, you can read this graph:

Nobody argues he's not a different kind of pol.The missing element in this picture, however, is that too much newness can begat naivete about the way that power politics works and what makes the big players tick. It takes years of experience and listening at keyholes to fathom the underground financial and emotional connections that can control decisions made for supposedly other, more noble motives.

If you survive the howler of a present-tense "begat," if you rewired the double negative sentence correctly without it blowing up, just try to sort out the images. There's a picture. With a missing element! (Rhetoricum, perhaps.) There's ticks! And keyholes that you listen at to ... fathom, which is measuring the depth of water, but you're doing it underground, somehow.

Gardening. Is a lovely hobby for retired reporters. I highly recommend it. Or fly-tying. You can mutter all these gobbly things to yourself while you putter.

Webb's People

"When misunderstanding serves others as an advantage, one is helpless to make oneself understood." -Lionel Trilling

Jim Webb is willing to speak up for the CSA insofar as it stands as a symbol of a certain regional pride, and for the valor of the individual Southern soldier?

Well, good for him. And some in the Democratic camp fret that this makes him poisonous to their politics? Well, too bad for them.

Many Americans see the South, past and present, only as a failed society, poisoned by slavery and racism, peopled by evil masters and wretched rednecks -- Simon Legrees and "Deliverance" extras. Any respect for anything Southern, to these people, is just a transparent mask for racism.

I have seen too many people shift the blame for America's modern race mess, and its violent past, onto that one-third of the nation that lies below the Mason-Dixon Line. This psychological shell game absolves the whole by cheating a part. Behind this scapegoating, perhaps, is frustration at a race problem that won't go away. We've given up on dialogue and understanding, and now we just hope to placate the demon with sacrifices.

Scapegoating the South trains the mind to think the race problem is one that happens somewhere else, in someone else's town. Particularly, it encourages those of us outside the South to overlook our own communities. It ignores the oft-told truth -- told by Frederick Douglass and Alexis de Tocqueville and Martin Luther King Jr. -- that racism in the Northern cities has always been far more virulent than that in the Southern countryside.

Trash-talking the South also incidentally sanctifies a New England-based political and moral culture that is the root of much that is wrong in modern America. The North was a great deal more than just abolitionists and Freedom Riders, just as the South was more than the slave auction block and the lynch mob. Manichaean history does no justice to America's complexity.

Those who make the mistake of treating modern American racism as some perverse peculiarity of Southern white culture often make the same mistake about slavery. Slavery originally existed in all the colonies (as well as European, Middle Eastern, and African nations). In the United States, it took root in one region and not the other; an accident of climate and geographical economics having nothing to do with inherent moral qualities. Slavery was profitable, and its profits enriched all sections of late 18th and early 19th century America. The South was stripped and plundered and impoverished after 1865, but Northern communities and institutions still enjoy the legacy of their wealth.

The CSA was a bid to form an independent nation out of a region that had a common enemy and some collective regional identity. But the CSA comprised many sub-cultures (a few of them didn't want to be there), and it had a leadership that sometimes confused self-interest with public policy. It had its fair share of charlatans and profiteers and criminal opportunists. It had some brilliant generals and a great many men in uniform who would be the pride of any army in human history. It was committed to 18th century republican values that were incompatible with fighting a modern war, and it had internal social conflicts that the war aggravated.

In nearly all of this it was entirely like the American Revolutionaries. "The alienated elements of the American population during the Revolution were probably larger than in the South during the Civil War," James McPherson wrote. The colonists in 1776: one-third for independence, one-third against, one-third uncommitted. That must be the standard for legitimacy, or else our United States lacks it. The CSA fought a much larger enemy than George III, mostly on its own soil, without a Dutch loan or a French fleet to aid it, and the majority, in spite of internal divisions, put up a herculean effort, won spectacular victories, made shift with what little it had, and held out till the place was literally gutted and blood-drained by its foe.

The Confederacy mobilized between 750,000 and 850,000 men, which translates into an amazing 75 to 85 percent of its available draft-age white military population (The presence of slaves, to keep the economy moving, allowed this, but so did the work of women on the yeoman farmsteads). The losses the South took would translate into, say, six million U.S. battle casualties in World War II (instead of 961,977, the actual figure); nearly a million in Vietnam, instead of 201,000.

Write them all out of the American story, if you wish. Burn the past's dead as the cost of a racial reconciliation you hope for in the future. We all hope for that. But reconciliation of what? With what? Don't the people Webb speaks for have to be part of that peace?

Completely Turned

Can this story get weirder? I hope so!

A producer of online sexual fetish material is headed for a federal obscenity trial in Los Angeles.

The prosecution is the first in Southern California by a U.S. Department of Justice task force formed in 2005 after Christian conservative groups appealed to the Bush administration to crack down on smut.

Internet fetish porn has been a particular target of the government since then. It's not hard to see why the government would go after such low-hanging fruit. The DVDs and videos in the case are centered on such things as feces, urine, and sex with animals.

To certain people who have been given certain mental quirks in life, these are highly eroticized scenes. To most people, they will be merely revolting. It's not hard to dig up a local person to file a complaint about it. Few people will defend it as an exercise of healthy eros.

"All they're going to do is turn on a DVD machine and hope the jury is going to be so shocked and disgusted and offended that they're going to throw me in prison," said the producer, Ira Isaacs. He's got it just right.

He is defending himself on the grounds that he is an artist and the videos are works of art. "[I]f jurors find that any of the four videos at issue in the case have any 'literary, scientific or artistic value,' the work is not legally obscene, according to a 1973 Supreme Court ruling," reports the LA Times.

It would seem there's a more interesting line of defense available here. Most people find nothing sexual in these recorded performances. So how can they violate a community standard of "obscenity" if they do not meet a community definition of sexuality?

On the other hand, for the only market for which they are intended -- what we used to call "perverts" -- this is pure sexuality; it is what they feel in their hearts as the culmination of libido. The only difference between this material and "regular" pornography is in the eye of the beholder: It turns them on; it turns you off.

Finally, while the government focuses on the kind of fetish material guaranteed to make juries packed with non-perverts squirm, the range of fetishes, and the porn made to cater to them, is as wide as the world itself, it seems. [The last, at least, not work-safe, but the best. And none is close to authoritative or complete.]

Many of them are not only entirely without sexual content to the average non-pervert (or to perverts who happen to be mainlined into other things), they are without shock or gross-out value. People dressed up and cavorting in Halloween-style furry animal costumes, for instance. Is that porn? To some of us, evidently, it is the purest intoxication of allure and desire. How do you craft laws for that? Who do you protect, and from what?

In an early story on the case, the LA Times wrote:

Presiding over the trial will be Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Kozinski was assigned the case as part of a rotation in which he and other appeals court judges occasionally oversee criminal trials in addition to deciding appeals.

His involvement in the case may be a stroke of luck for Isaacs. That is because Kozinski is seen as a staunch defender of free speech. When he learned that there were filters banning pornography and other materials from computers in the appeals court's Pasadena offices, he led a successful effort to have the filters removed.

"Stroke of luck" turns out to be understated. Just days later, a gadfly who had been dogging the judge over another matter finally got the attention of the media with his earlier discovery that there was a good deal of -- wait for it -- fetish porn available for public view on the judge's personal/family Web site.

In an interview Tuesday with The Times, Kozinski acknowledged posting sexual content on his website. Among the images on the site were a photo of naked women on all fours painted to look like cows and a video of a half-dressed man cavorting with a sexually aroused farm animal. He defended some of the adult content as "funny" but conceded that other postings were inappropriate.

Kozinski said that he thought the site was for his private storage and that he was not aware the images could be seen by the public, although he also said he had shared some material on the site with friends. After the interview Tuesday evening, he blocked public access to the site.

... After publication of an article about his website Wednesday morning, the judge offered another explanation for how the material might have been posted to the site. Tuesday evening he had told The Times that he had a clear recollection of some of the most objectionable material and that he was responsible for placing it on the Web. By Wednesday afternoon, as controversy about the website spread, Kozinski was seeking to shift responsibility, at least in part, to his adult son, Yale.

The judge -- who is asked to define what is pornography to the rest of us, appears to be comfortable with his own version of it:

The judge said he didn't think any of the material on his site would qualify as obscene.

"Is it prurient? I don't know what to tell you," he said. "I think it's odd and interesting. It's part of life."

... The sexually explicit material on the site was extensive, including images of masturbation, public sex and contortionist sex. There was a slide show striptease featuring a transsexual and a folder that contained a series of photos of women's crotches in snug-fitting clothing or underwear.

... The judge said he planned to delete some of the most objectionable material from his site, including the photo depicting women as cows, which he said was "degrading . . . and just gross." He also said he planned to get rid of a graphic step-by-step pictorial in which a woman is seen shaving her pubic hair.

The AP version of the story quotes Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at University of California, Irvine, defending Kozinski.

"It's much ado about very little," Chemerinsky said. "There is no indication that this material is even close to obscenity."

And -- God love the "Times" for their reporting on this; they clearly recognize this story as the journalistic equivalent of a genie's lamp, which it is -- then there's this:

More than a dozen MP3 tracks were listed, and they were neither excerpts nor used to illustrate legal opinions, which experts said might have qualified their copying as "fair use." The artists included Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Weird Al Yankovic.

Uploading such files could violate civil copyright laws if friends or members of the public visited the site and downloaded the songs, according to attorneys who have litigated file-sharing cases for both copyright holders and accused infringers.

There it is. A news story where Weird Al is the normal guy.