Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Crazy voices

One of the joys of being a newspaper editor is that all sorts of crackpot opinions show up at the door. For example, every week I get a copy of Regent University grad Nathan Tabor's column. It's often thoughtless and occasionally ridiculous, filled with unexamined assumptions and vague imitations of arguments. But this week's entry sets a new standard.

Start with the second sentence, which insists that liberals "want to turn criticism of same sex marriage into a crime." Now, really, what could possibly be further from the truth? No liberal this side of Stalin would seriously argue that people who criticize same-sex marriage should be imprisoned. Tabor expresses the opposite of an idea, a negative force that subtracts knowledge from the universe.

In paragraph four, he quotes with approval a Georgia House member who says, "If we could liken the Internet to a mall, a place where you can go in and purchase goods and services, and also liken it to a library, a place where you can go and pull a book, pull a resource, and obtain some information, why would we tax a person upon entering a mall or why would we tax a person upon entering the library?"

We don't tax a person upon entering a mall because malls are privately owned entities that wish to attract people into their stores. We then tax the land the mall sits on, tax the profits and, in many states, tax each sale. We don't tax a person upon entering the library because we already have taxed the person to pay for the library. The public owns the library, and the public decides the price of entry. Neither case is comparable to internet access.

In paragraph six, Tabor dredges up the "limousine liberal" cliche. Are there no "limousine conservatives"? No, because conservatives, no matter what their mode of transportation, are ordinary folk. Only liberals get the "limousine" label because applying the term in any other way would require considering whether the cliche actually means anything. That way lies madness.

In the last paragraph, Tabor makes a daring claim: He alleges that he is thinking. However, he provides no evidence. Instead, he writes that "some public officials on the local, state, and federal level are determined to tax anything that sits, moves, or beats the liberal news networks to the punch on breaking news stories. Mainstream journalists have said for a long time that bloggers represent a threat to traditional journalism—and so it only stands to reason that reporters and their buddies on Capitol Hill want to make life difficult for Joe Average Internet User."

So internet taxation is a conspiracy between liberal elected officials and mainstream journalists aimed at shutting up "Joe Average." Tabor is wrong. We're happy to hear from Joe Average. It's Nathan Tabor who needs to shut up.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sweet dreams

I dreamed last night that it was fall already and the first day of my journalism class at Rocky Mountain College. It was a typical dream fiasco: I had no class roster, no syllabus, no notes and didn't even know what room we were meeting in. And the room was oddly divided by a bank of shelves so that I could see only half the class at a time.

But the dream wasn't one of panic or frustration. Instead, I felt excited and ready to go and looking forward to winging my way without notes or plan. And here it is, still May. Maybe my subconscious is in better shape than I thought.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Culture wars

The culture wars are over, and the hippies won (hat tip to Paul Stephens).

The Iconoclast

Ed Kemmick, that putrid purveyor of pussyfooted prognostication, waxes nostalgic for the days when newspaper vituperation was in style. Such nostalgia (which I share, as the borrowed motto at the top of this page indicates) always draws me to "Brann and the Iconoclast," an account of the life of William Cowper Brann, whose Iconoclast was published in Waco, Texas, but gained international circulation. Brann's gift for invective was often turned against religion, a sensitive target in a town that was the home of Baylor University.

Of one popular preacher of the day (whose syndicated column appeared in 3,500 newspapers), Brann wrote:
The Tyler Telegram humbly apologizes for having called that wide-lipped blatherskite, T. DeWitt Talmadge, "a religious faker." Next thing we know our Tyler contemporary will apologize for having inadvertently hazarded the statement that water is wet. When a daily newspaper tells the truth, even by accident, it should stick to it instead of crawling on its belly in the dust to humbly ask pardon of the Devil. The Iconoclast will pay any man $10 who will demonstrate that T. DeWitt Talmadge ever originated an idea, good, bad or indifferent. He is simply a monstrous bag of fetid wind. The man who can find intellectual food in Talmadge's sermons could acquire a case of delerium tremens by drinking the froth out of a pop bottle.

When Baptists in Nacogdoches, Texas, wrote Brann to tell him they had pressured the local news agent to quit selling the Iconoclast, Brann wrote back, "... contumacious recalcitrants are invariably boycotted in business by the hydrocephalous sect which boasts that it was the first to establish liberty of conscience and freedom of speech in this country, yet which has been striving desperately for a hundred years to banish the last vestige of individuality and transform this nation into a pharisaical theocracy with some prurient hypocrite as its hierarch ..."

Unlike the nameless cowards whose anonymous comments so often pollute blog posts, Brann faced the consequences of his poison pen. After recovering from a kidnapping, beating and near lynching by a band of Baylor students, he wrote, "I have just been enjoying the first holiday I have had in fifteen years. Owing to circumstances entirely beyond my control, I devoted the major part of the past month to digesting a couple of installments of Saving Grace presented by my Baptist brethren, and carefully rubbed in with revolvers and ropes, loaded canes and miscellaneous cudgels -- with almost any old thing calculated to make a sinner reflect upon the status of his soul ..."

Then he issued this challenge in response to those who claimed he had slandered Southern women: "I walk the streets of Waco day by day, and I walk them alone. Let these cur-ristians shoot me in the back if they dare, then plead that damning lie as excuse for their craven cowardice. If the decent of this community fail to chase them to their holes and feed their viscera to the dogs, then I'd rather be dead and in hades forever than alive in Waco a single day."

He didn't have to wait long. On April 1, 1898, he was shot three times in a gun battle on a Waco street, the fatal wound entering his back right where the suspenders crossed. His attacker, shot four times, died soon after.

Memorial Day

I took my Memorial Day on Sunday, watching the Indianapolis 500 and curled up with "Night Draws Near," an extraordinary account of the lives of Iraqis before, during and after the U.S. invasion. It's one of those books that, without really telling you much you didn't already know, somehow puts everything into its proper place and perspective. Most enlightening so far, perhaps, is the way it helps me understand how Iraqis could both hate Saddam and hate us for attacking their country to remove him. I'm only up to the beginning of the occupation, but it's already clear that this mess won't be fixed for a long, long time.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

More conservatism

David Rye and I continue our discussion of liberalism and conservatism in comments below. But I want to add a critique of one more paragraph from the Townhall column I first criticized in "Dumb Stuff":

Unlike liberals, conservatives tend to be primarily concerned with pragmatism, not niceties. This is one of the biggest reasons that conservatives have such a healthy respect for the traditions and institutions that have been proven to work over time and such contempt for those that don't, like the United Nations and the federal government.

Skip over the puerility of the first sentence, then consider the two institutions that conservatives, we are told, hold in contempt. First, while everyone, including me, ridicules the federal government, take the long view: If we agree that some sort of federal government is necessary, then we could be a whole lot worse off that we are. Federal power in the U.S. historically has expanded in times of crisis: After the failure of the Articles of Confederation, which resulted in a Constitution that is still the model for the world; after the Civil War, which upheld the supremacy of the federal government, banned slavery and extended constitutional rights to the states; during the Depression and World War II, which made America the world's supreme power and a beacon of freedom and prosperity to the whole world. We may, in fact, be the best governed country in history. That's a record that deserves contempt?

The United Nations is inept and ineffective, but what did you expect? The odds that it could ever have been a roaring success were never good. The whole idea flies in the face of hundreds of years of international conflict. Countries that are strong aren't restrained by the UN; countries that are weak attempt to manipulate it to find the strength they can't find elsewhere. Of course it doesn't work well. It's a bold, wacky experiment that could hardly have been expected to change the course of human history in just a few decades. But to my mind, at least, it's an experiment worth investing in because it doesn't cost much and its potential benefits, somewhere down the road, are great.

Let's see: the world's most successful democratic government and history's bravest attempt to resolve international conflict. If these are the sort of institutions conservatives hold in contempt, then what could possibly earn their respect?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Nailing it

Jon Stewart had the best analysis yet of the Justice Department's inability to explain how it decided to fire all of those U.S. attorneys. It was, he said, the "immaculate termination."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Irrational conservatism

I was hoping someone might challenge my "Dumb Stuff" post below, and Dave Rye, a thoughtful conservative, was kind enough to do so. Since this is my slow day at the office (I rolled the last page off at 8 this morning) let's think a bit about this.

John Hawkins writes that "liberalism is nothing more than childlike emotionalism applied to adult issues." He adds:

Going to war is mean, so we shouldn't do it. That person is poor and it would be nice to give him money, so the government should do it. Somebody wants to have an abortion, have a gay marriage, or wants to come into the U.S. illegally and it would be mean to say, "no," so we should let them. I am nice because I care about global warming! Those people want to kill us? But, don't they know we're nice? If they did, they would like us! Bill has more toys, money than Harry, so take half of Bill's money and give it to Harry.

Hawkins gives the game away in his first paragraph when he says that liberalism is "nothing more" than emotionalism. He reiterates that point in the sentence following the quote above. So if we can find even one aspect of liberalism that is something more than emotionalism, he loses. But that's too easy. For purposes of argument, let's assume that he actually thinks liberalism is some sort of political philosophy, or at least an ideology. Let's assume that some general understanding of liberalism vs. conservatism applies: that conservatives generally favor less government than liberals, that conservatives generally are more resistant to social change, that conservatives are more likely than liberals to base their political views on an underlying belief that moral and religious absolutes should govern human behavior.

How does the paragraph quoted above fit within this framework? It's pathetic. If Hawkins is to be taken seriously, we must believe that liberals are less likely to wage war than conservatives. Over the course of world history, this may be true. Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Spartan warriors were probably more conservative in important ways than their contemporaries and adversaries. But the analogy breaks down in American history. American conservatives were loyal to the Crown during the Revolutionary War. Liberal abolitionists and federalists beat the drums for the Civil War. A classic liberal was commander-in-chief during World War II, and liberal presidents started and then expanded American involvement in Vietnam. Even the Iraq War makes sense only as a liberal war -- principled conservatives such as the Cato Institute, Pat Buchanan, William F. Buckley and George Will were either skeptical about or outright opponents of the war from the beginning. The only really coherent case for war in Iraq that I have heard came, predictably, from a liberal, Christopher Hitchens.

Hawkins next presents the idea of giving government money to the poor as a product of liberal emotionalism. But nearly all sides now agree that at least some level of government assistance should be available to those most in need. If somebody falls unconscious in the street, cops gather and an ambulance is called. Even those least able to care for themselves through illness or accident generally can find a place to eat and sleep, and I don't hear conservatives complaining about that. We're really just arguing about how much government support is justified, and that is a question that doesn't rely heavily on emotion. There is no bright line dividing conservatives from liberals on exactly what level of assistance should be provided. That's what politics is for.

Are the liberal positions on abortion, gay marriage and immigration based solely on emotion? This gets confusing because my own positions on these topics seem solidly conservative to me, yet they get me pushed into the liberal camp. I am pro-choice on abortion because Americans have been unable to reach moral consensus on what the correct position should be, and I don't think the government should step in on moral questions that the people themselves can't resolve. I think gays should be allowed to marry because I don't think telling people whom they can marry is any of the government's damn business. I accept the need for constraints on immigration, but I also know that this country was built, and is still being built, by immigrants, and immigration policy must take that into account. It amazes me that any conservatives disagree.

Finally, is concern about global warming emotional? This is the perfect question for such a debate because the existence of human-caused global warming (as opposed to what the correct policy response should be) is purely a factual question. The planet doesn't care what conservatives or liberals think. But if either side is relying on emotion in this debate, it seems to be conservatives. My conservative values tell me that global warming might be for real, and if it is, the consequences could be devastating, so I should support reasonable steps to deal with it. Actual conservatives seem to argue that every scrap of evidence in favor of global warming should be discounted or ignored, and every scrap of evidence against it should be trumpeted.

Why? Pure emotionalism, so far as I can tell. Conservatives don't like the way a world with global warming would look, so they set about to deny it for as long as possible. Indeed, an emotional attachment to tradition and to belief in higher powers seems to be the cornerstone of what Hawkins believes conservatives are. Liberal democracy, which is at the heart of Western greatness, embraces knowledge and accepts changing conditions. By Hawkins' own standards, the real enemies of logic and fact in political discourse are conservatives, not liberals.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Babcock vs. PSC

As I write this, I am on the phone with Public Service Commissioner Brad Molnar, who says the PSC just voted 5-0 to reject the sale of NorthWestern Energy to Babcock Brown. The next step, presumably, will be a request for the PSC to reconsider its decision. More later.

UPDATE: The AP's take is here.

UPDATE 2: We are working on a dead-tree version of this (tonight is deadline), but I was struck by one thing Molnar said: While Babcock Brown made a good case that it was a capable company, it never really made a case that this sale would be good for Montana ratepayers. "They never made that quantum leap," he said. I had my professional writing class at Rocky this spring examine some of the documents in the case -- op-eds, full-page ads, letters to the editor -- as examples of business communication, and they came to almost exactly the same question: Babcock made a good for itself but not for Montanans. Now Babcock has paid the price.

Dumb stuff

A comment over at City Lights led me to this column, which I think may be the dumbest thing ever written in English.

Monday, May 21, 2007

No Dough No Mough

Just got word that the Carlin has canceled its series of live No Dough concerts. Apparently this had something to do with it (be sure to read Sean Lynch's comment).

Down, down

Tough April for Gannett and Lee Enterprises.

Full disclosure: Billings Outpost revenues were up 9.6 percent in April 2007 compared to April a year ago.

Free tickets

Here at the Outpost, we have quite a few free tickets to give away for the Lipizzaner Stallions this weekend. If you are interested, or if you know someone who might be, send e-mail to

Homer Murdoch

The prospect of Rupert Murdoch acquiring the Wall Street Journal sends shivers through the spines of journalistic purists. The Journal may be the world's finest newspaper -- wonderfully written and reported, with editorial independence so fierce that its news and opinion sections seem to be not only on different pages but on different planets. Murdoch is ... well, something different.

Murdoch says he won't tamper with the Journal's independence, and there is every reason to believe he is sincere about that. He is, if anything, a good businessman, and the Journal is a good business. But there also is every reason to believe that his sincerity doesn't mean much.

For a description of how Murdoch's ownership of the Wall Street Journal would play out, turn to Harold Evans' "Good Times, Bad Times". Murdoch pressured Evans (better known in this country as Tina Brown's husband) out of the editor's job at the London Times not long after acquiring the paper. Murdoch couldn't fire Evans outright; he had to go through a board of directors. Contemplating his future, Evans wrote:

Nothing in my experience remotely compared to the atmosphere of intrigue, fear and spite at Murdoch's Times. ... If I fought and beat Murdoch this time, despite the odds, I would have to endure an endless assault. ... I would be subjected to a thousand humiliations, challenged on every paperclip. My energies would be absorbed not in journalism but internal politics, seeking alliances, suspecting every man's hand. I would have to keep in constant touch with the national directors and their successors, ready to justify and vindicate every editorial decision Murdoch chose to challenge or misrepresent. It would be Russian roulette. I would become frightened to pull the trigger on an empty chamber. I feared for my own character and self-respect. I had seen what had happened to others, the courtiers apprehensive on his arrival, hoping for the boyish grin, fearing the scowl, demeaning and coarsening themselves. Perhaps I would make one accommodation with Murdoch to win favour and then another, or subconsciously begin to guess what he wanted and give it to him. It was a challenge to myself I thought I could endure; but there was the contrary danger implicit in that flash of vanity. There was the certainty, it seemed, that I would become obsessed with either Murdoch or my own introspection. Neither was an attractive prospect.

Great papers aren't often killed by great calamities. They are slowly bled to death.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bad for bidness?

From Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, comes this post-legislative session observation: "Jon Bennion, Government Relations Director of the Montana Chamber said the vicious attitude toward business expressed throughout the Sessions was a shock. How can we possibly consider ourselves truly open for business with the constant haranguing of business that we heard?"

I didn't cover the session at all and didn't follow it closely through the news. But I can't recall hearing much business bashing. Does he have a point?

Compassionate conservatism

From the invaluable Jackie Corr comes this link to a story about Lee Enterprises' personnel practices. Jackie comments: "It seems like Kathy was a beneficiary of compassionate conservatism. At least they didn't kick her down the stairs."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Big brother

I avoid Albertsons for all the right reasons, but I had to go there today to fill some prescriptions for my wife and her former gall bladder. While the prescriptions were being filled, I picked up a few odds and ends.

Of course, prices were punitive for shoppers like me who refuse to become "preferred" customers. With every purchase, steam pumped out of my ears in greater volumes. Albertsons pretends that its "preferred" program is voluntary, and it mostly is for me. But for people who live in the neighborhood and lack transportation, the grocery store really leaves no choice: surrender full information and knowledge of your most intimate shopping habits with Albertsons or pay far higher prices.

It just about makes me choke.

UPDATE: In comments, a couple of people suggest it's morally acceptable to simply lie in such cases. I'm not sure I'm up to debating the moral argument -- my first and second thoughts both say lying is not justified -- but whether it is or not, lying is not something I can bring myself to do. If I were a better liar, I might not care about the whole situation so much.

Simple surgery

I was off work most of yesterday hanging around St. Vincent Healthcare while my wife had her gall bladder removed. It certainly has become an efficient procedure. She was in at 6 a.m., home by 4 p.m. She might have been home by noon if her blood pressure hadn't lagged.

Within a few years, I suspect, hospitals will just rent you the use of the operating room and hand you a page of instructions, then you can take internal organs out yourself. Caution: Wash hands before attempting surgery.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Big media

The Outpost editor lifts his head above the muck long enough to make another frail attempt to set the world aright. The world shrugs and spins on.

But if you haven't seen "Fiction," you are missing out.

UPDATE: Jim Haigh, a lobbyist for the Mid-Atlantic Community Papers Association, saw the column at Stop Big Media and passed along a link to his FCC testimony on newspaper cross-ownership. It's worth a read.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

GOP beating

I'd be interested in hearing contrary viewpoints, but it seems to me that Republicans took a terrific beating in the legislative session. By scrapping the usual budget process, they put pressure on themselves to deliver on their own plan, then they couldn't deliver. Lange's outburst made them look bad, then they looked even worse for the way they dumped him.

Most fundamentally, Republicans seemed to hitch their fortunes to two nonstarters: opposing enforcement of tax laws and permanent tax relief. Whether the Department of Revenue really needs more employees is a technical question I am not competent to answer, but I know how it looked. It looked like the GOP was endorsing fat-cat tax avoidance. Whether it's fair or not, that's a label nobody needs.

On permanent tax relief, I basically agree with Republicans that permanent tax cuts are better policy than one-time rebates. But it's not a deal breaker. We will all get decent tax relief this year; what we get in two years will depend on who is in office, how the economy is cooking, and what the state's needs are. That would be true no matter what this Legislature did.

Finally, Schweitzer is cleaning up on press indicating that after all the shouting he pretty much got what he wanted out of the session. He never seemed to doubt that he would. That hurts Republicans where it really hurts -- right in their vanity.

Contractual obligations

The Outpost's bank since its inception had been First Citizens until it was absorbed by Western Security Bank. I have no complaints about the new bank, especially since it has been buying some ads from us, but the worst part of the deal has been that we had to change our credit card processor.

The deadline for the change to Nxgen Payment Services was Monday, so naturally I put it off until then. Then I read through the application, which was wickedly obscure and had all of the important provisions printed in type that no doubt was Nxgen's entry in the World's Smallest Typeface contest.

But I waded through it and was about ready to sign off until I reached the cancellation provision. If we change processors in the next year, we have to pay Nxgen $295. If we change in the next three years, we have to pay $195.

Online opinions differ about whether processing companies are justified in asking for cancellation payments, but I wasn't eager to make a three-year commitment to a company that I have yet to transact a single item of business with. I liked this provision even less: "Merchant agrees that the early termination fee is not a penalty, but rather is reasonable in light of the financial harm caused by Merchant's early termination."

Say what? How can I legally bind myself to something that I have absolutely no way to know is true? What's "reasonable"? We don't use processing equipment, so Nxgen has no expense there. So far as I know, the only start-up expense it bears is the cost of telling us what phone number we have to dial to enter credit card transactions. From then on, it makes a profit on every transaction. Beyond that, Nxgen's only risk is that I will cheat my customers and they won't honor their credit card transactions. But we have a 10-year spotless history of meeting those obligations, and I am as likely to win the lottery as to start cheating customers now.

The only real financial harm Nxgen faces is that if I don't sign the contract, it won't get a chance to gig me for 200 or 300 bucks if I don't like its service. I agree that this is financial harm that Nxgen will certainly incur.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Good Brewer

I'm a longtime critic of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, but I agreed with most of this. I used to think that a safe way to figure out a position on any given issue was to just find out where the Chamber stood, then take the opposite stance. Brewer has made it much more complicated.

Friday, May 11, 2007


As usual, Brad Molnar's take on the Mike Lange blowup is a bit different than anything else you are likely to read. Funnier, too. I especially liked the Bill Strizich anecdote.

If you look closely, you also can see on this page a cartoon by Paul Driscoll, who is back to drawing Montana-based political cartoons after a few years off. It's too small to read online, so you will just have to pick up a copy of this week's Outpost (it's small there, too, but legible).

UPDATE: In the comments, it's Kemmick vs. Molnar. Won't somebody please stop this fight?

Term limits

During the waning days of the spring semester, I was mentally plotting a post blaming term limits for the Montana Legislature's miserable failure to pass a budget this session. Then I read Kirk Dooley's well considered post at City Lights arguing that the U.S. Congress, without term limits, has much the same problems that the Montana Legislature has with term limits.

How to respond? My first thought was that term limits hurt Montana while the lack of term limits hurts Congress. But I was not willing to walk on so high a wire.

Maybe this is closer: Term limits are simply irrelevant to the problems Congress has. Montana gets the worst of both worlds: The divisiveness and partisanship of Congress, plus the lack of institutional wisdom and seasoning caused by term limits. Add term limits to Congress, and it would be even worse than it is.

Take, for example, the congressional debate over funding the Iraq War. Sean Hannity blasts Democrats every day for "politicizing" the war, but politics is, of course, the way questions like this one are resolved in democracies. And the democratic (Democratic?) process, messy as it is, appears to slowly be working in this case. Nobody wants to leave soldiers in the field without bullets or rations, but Congress has gradually been getting across an inescapable point: The president can't simply have a blank check anymore to do whatever he wants in Iraq for as long as he wants. If Congress gives him that blank check, then voters will fire a lot of members of Congress in the next election -- and they will be replaced by representatives even more hostile to the president's aims. This may not be a message that will penetrate the president's skull, but Republicans in Congress are certainly hearing it.

In other words, in Washington the system is working, in its usual awkward and ugly fashion. In Montana, the whole thing broke down -- and I still blame term limits.

SIDEBAR: One of the most annoying aspects of the debate in Helena over budget surpluses is advanced by groups like this one: The surplus should be returned to the people because the money came from the people. Of course the money came from the people. Every cent the state spends comes from the people. There is no other source. The money came from the people, and it is up to the people to decide how best to dispose of it. That's why we elect legislators.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

He's back

The jackpot paid this morning. Final grades were due by noon in all three college classes I was teaching. I had to make a speech at 10 a.m. It was deadline day at The Outpost, and I was up all night getting the paper out.

Got 'er done. Even got a couple of hours of sleep this afternoon. So now school's out, and I'm back contemplating what to do with this sadly underused blog. Having the summer free seems like a vast expanse of unoccupied time, but it isn't that easy. Running this business is easily a couple of full-time jobs, and it has suffered for my absence. Getting the blog going is only one of many possible priorities, and I haven't yet sorted out how I will approach them all. It's not clear to me that blogging is all that good a use of my time. On the whole, I would rather study German grammar.

But this afternoon I got a message from my hometown in Texas: "Your fans down here around Victoria hope you'll update your blog pretty soon." That made my day. And it was enough to get at least this much going on the blog.