Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Laugh time

We often get obituaries that say the deceased had a great sense of humor. But they rarely provide any evidence, which makes me skeptical. But an obituary I am editing now for Ernestine Jarussi Cameron, 94, delivers:

After a superintendent at Roscoe suggested that she and students clear rocks from the schoolyard, they worked with crowbars, shovels and bare hands. When someone observed, “At least they hadn’t hired a lazy teacher,” she replied, “No, just a dumb one.”

At a family reunion in 2007, commemorating 100 years in Red Lodge, a nephew knelt to greet her in her wheelchair and said, “Hi, Ernie, it’s me. Here, let me take my sunglasses off.” She looked at him and responded: “Put them back on!”

Sunday, April 27, 2008

More on Wright

My brother, the Texas English professor and Scripps Howard columnist, weighs in on Jeremiah Wright.

The Hamas endorsement

So Hamas endorses Obama, which means that we need to elect McCain to thwart Hamas and stay on course in the war on terror.

Except that Hamas must know that its endorsement of Obama helps McCain, so we really have to elect Obama to thwart Hamas and change the course in the war on terror.

Except that Hamas must know that its endorsement of Obama seems transparently designed to help McCain and therefore actually helps Obama, so we really have to vote for McCain after all to thwart Hamas and stay on course in the war on terror.

Except that Hamas must know ... oh, never mind.

Berg on Rye

Speaking of talk radio, as I often do, local listeners have taken a beating of late. First we lost Marvin Granger and "Your Opinion Please," the best talk show on radio, for my money, because it was the only one that seemed interested in actually airing competing viewpoints and ideas.

Then KBUL replaced "Brian and the Judge" with Dennis Miller. Dennis Miller? "Brian and the Judge" had a fundamentally conservative point of view leavened by a certain sense of fairness, courtesy and curiosity absent on most other conservative shows. Most importantly, the Judge is a bulldog on defending the Constitution and civil liberties, a quality often absent among the radio frauds who claim to be conservatives.

Dennis Miller is a disaster. What little I've heard so far has been disorganized and annoying, with no discernible point of view. He has somewhat famously leaned to the right since 9-11, but I haven't heard much of that on his show yet. Instead, I have heard stupid gimmicks and absurd callers.

Miller always has struck me as a clever but not terribly funny guy whose incredible penchant for topical allusions brings at most a wry smile, rarely a laugh. Wry smiles don't cut it on radio. Most notable reference from what I've heard so far: "Sal Maglie chin music." Yeah, I get it, but so what?

The other notable local talk show event was the replacement on KBLG of Dave Berg with Dave Rye, apparently the result of a contract dispute. This may be an improvement. Nothing against Berg, but I think we've heard about everything he has to say, dozens of times over. Dave Rye, as his occasional and always welcome appearances on this blog indicate, is a fair-minded and reasonable fellow.

Still, is there some reason why every available hour of political talk radio has to be filled with absolutely nothing other than the usual conservative line? I mean, just for the hell of it, why not occasionally have somebody as host who doesn't automatically lean Republican? I don't get it, and I am profoundly bored by it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Coulter and Hannity

This week's talk radio highlight: Sean Hannity was still pounding on Jeremiah Wright, arguing, if that's the right word, that Barack Obama should have disassociated himself from Wright 10 years ago. That is something that he himself has had to do, Hannity said, when people have made extreme statements.

Oh, yeah? Consider just one case. The worst thing that I believe I have ever heard a human being say was what Ann Coulter said about certain 9-11 widows. The comments are not only outrageous in themselves, but they directly violate Jesus' command to show compassion and care for widows and orphans. So far as I know, both Hannity and Coulter claim to be Christians.

Yet Hannity has not repudiated Coulter's remarks. He has not disassociated himself from her. He continues to feature her on her show, and he has even defended what she said.

His usual response to similar lines of inquiry is to point out that he isn't running for president. Fair enough. So let's put it this way: Is anyone who has done what Sean Hannity has done fit to serve as president?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Kampus komedy

An anonymous commenter below suggests that if I am going to complain about the Patriot Act, then I also should raise concerns about violations of civil liberties on college campuses. I'm not sure I see what connects the two, but OK, I'm game.

The problem is that I haven't had much experience with the sort of problems he talks about. I've taught or studied, or both, at nine colleges, give or take a couple, and I have never encountered punitive speech codes or guest lecturers shouted down. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, and I'm not saying my experience is either broad or deep enough to be representative of the whole. But I see enough problems on campus -- students balancing multiple jobs, funding concerns, the general decline in literacy -- that I don't spend much time fretting about problems I don't see.

And I seek problems out, within my limited capacity to do so. Whenever there is an orientation session on academic freedom, or campus attitudes, or sexual harassment, I try to go. Sorry, nothing thrilling to report. Am I just kowtowing to my employer? Here's evidence that I don't do that.

Even if I did see problems, I'm not sure they would rise to the level that concerns the commenter. I think Ann Coulter is an odious human being, and I don't see why any college would consider that she has anything of value to say to students. Nor do I think she is in a great position to complain about the response she generates. Once she decided to build a career by calling everyone who disagrees with her a traitor and an enemy of God, her claim on receiving a respectful public hearing attenuated.

Still, people shouldn't be assaulted for things they say, and once the error of inviting her has been made, she certainly should be allowed to speak. Colleges that fail in their obligation to provide a reasonably safe venue where she can be heard deserve to be excoriated, but given the nature of college life, it isn't surprising that they sometimes fail at the job. How occasional lapses in crowd control at selected colleges add up to a civil liberties threat equal to the threat posed by a federal law isn't clear to me. Perhaps I need enlightenment.

As for speech codes, there have, without question, been egregious cases, and they do concern me, especially when they take place on publicly owned campuses. But colleges have struggled for years to define their role as both bastions of intellectual inquiry and as safe harbors where students can explore new ideas without getting beat up too much. When a mother threatens to punish a child who insults the neighbor kids, no one reads that as a threat to the First Amendment. Matters quickly get more complicated when a school, acting in loco parentis, attempts the same thing. Weblogs such as The Volokh Conspiracy often deal with the accompanying legal issues (such as this University of Montana case) with far more expertise than I could. I leave them the field.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Dog bites man

Think there is no news in Montana? You are right.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Out-rusticating the rustics

Much blather on talk radio this week, and a long post at Montana Headlines, about Barack Obama's remarks about how "bitter" small-town folk "cling" to guns and religion because they are unhappy with the ways their lives are going in other respects.

Most of this strikes me as so nonsensical that it took me a few days to realize that it could actually even be a controversy. That's one problem with listening to talk radio: There is so much manufactured outrage built into every broadcast that it becomes hard to detect what real outrage might lie underneath.

It also seemed clear to me that when Obama said rural people "cling," he wasn't referring to a desperate attempt to give meaning to their lives. He was talking about guns and religion as political issues, as a way to influence public discourse.

Whether he's right about that is in my mind an open question. Others have noted that he makes the same argument Thomas Frank makes in "What's the Matter with Kansas?" I haven't read the book, but I've read a long excerpt, and Frank seemed to make a compelling, but incomplete, case.

I also can't claim to speak for small-town America, although I suspect I have better credentials to do so than any of the talking heads I have seen pontificating about the topic. I've lived most of my life in small towns (no, that does not include Billings) and was raised in a fundamentalist church in the South by parents who practically defined the middle class: a school teacher and a mailman.

I'm not sure why things have changed in that group, but I'm certain they have. When I was a boy, fundamentalist churches stayed out of politics. At best, it was considered a distraction from the church's real mission. At worst, it was downright tacky. The decision by conservative churches to embrace political activism is one of the biggest changes in American politics in my lifetime.

And the conservative obsession over gun rights has to be rooted in something other than genuine concern about threats to the Second Amendment. I'll bet you could search the entire ranks of political candidates in Montana this fall and not find a single one who is willing to take on the gun lobby. It just isn't done. Yet a large chunk of rural voters seem persuaded that we are just an election away from wholesale repeal of the right to bear arms.

Can these things be explained by economic insecurity? Perhaps in part, although other factors certainly are in play. The gun lobby didn't become powerful by minimizing threats to gun rights, so it obviously has a stake in keeping emotions at a high pitch. And the fundamentalist shift to politics owes its origins no doubt in part to fear that godlessness was taking over secular life.

Remember, when I was a kid, Texas still had blue laws limiting what goods could be sold on Sunday. Voters had to pay a poll tax. Kids were directed to pray in school. Homosexuals not only couldn't marry, but they'd better stay out of sight. Blacks had their own schools -- not good schools -- and couldn't play Southwest Conference sports. Casual marijuana users could get 99 years in prison.

I think the world is a better place without those restrictions, but lifting them scared the hell out of a lot of rural people. And that would have been true no matter what economic insecurities may have accompanied the changes.

Montana Headlines cites George Packer, who says that Republicans have dominated presidential politics for most of the last half of the century because Democrats are blind to rural concerns. Packer's contention is dubious on multiple grounds. For one thing, Republicans have held the presidency for 28 of the last 48 years. That's 58 percent of the time -- a nice margin but a bit short of dominant, especially when one considers that of the five Republicans who held the presidency during that period, one resigned in disgrace, two couldn't get re-elected and another not only lost the popular vote but may leave office as the most unpopular president in U.S. history. So when Packer says that Republicans dominated presidential politics, he basically means Ronald Reagan, and Reagan, despite his own elitist lifestyle, certainly did have broad appeal in rural areas.

Conservative Democrats (and there were a lot of them in those days) understood very well what was going on in small towns, and they weren't happy about it. Liberals understood, too, but they were willing to take political hits to erase old standards of bigotry and intolerance that had reigned for more than a century.

Obama represents, in important ways, the final triumph of the political price liberals paid to level the playing field. It would be troubling and ironic if he were to fail to complete that triumph because of a perception that he doesn't understand the struggle that got him there.

But it would be more troubling if he were to lose because it simply isn't possible in presidential politics today for candidates to think out loud, to pose thoughtful responses that may turn out to be wrong but that advance the level of political discussion in America.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

True patriot

The Outpost editor gets fierce.

UPDATE: I didn't have room in the column to get into this, but one striking aspect of the talk was that of the 75 people who attended, just about every single one (judging from the standing ovation and questions) seemed to already agree that the Patriot Act is a problem. Hostile voices and even skeptics seemed to be absent.

It's more evidence that we are an increasingly bifurcated society. In one part of that world, assaults on the Constitution, civil liberties and humane treatment of prisoners are a horror and a disgrace. In the other part, the whole issue doesn't even seem to exist.

UPDATE 2: For further evidence of how disconnected Americans are on this issue, look at the comments on The Gazette story (if you can bear to). The people who say, "If the ACLU is for it, I'm against it" must be among the scariest people on the planet.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Got any climate change?

Mtpolitics has been exercised, here and here, about the composition of the Montana Climate Change Advisory Committee. Craig argues that committee members were tilted toward accepting the notion of human-caused climate change and that the Montana media have failed to adequately document this fact.

But he seems to be missing an important point. The committee wasn't appointed to look into the question of whether humans cause global warming. As the governor's letter calling for creation of the committee made clear, the purpose of the committee was to "identify ways in which we can reduce our collective greenhouse gas emissions while saving money, conserving energy and promoting our economy."

The governor's argument is that cutting greenhouse gases is good business. That may be arguable, but an advisory committee probably isn't the place to have that argument. How having someone like, say, Dan McGee serving on the committee would help achieve its goals is beyond me.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Hard times

Just received word that the Acton Bar has closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy. That's the third good Outpost customer -- along with Montana Celtic Treasures and Ben Franklin in West Park Plaza -- that has closed or has announced that it is closing in the last month.

Is the economy hurting? Well, I'm nervous.

Wild dreams

I'm not usually a vivid dreamer, or at least I don't usually recall vivid dreams. In recent days, I've had three intense dreams that I remember clearly, which usually has happened in the past in times of personal change or uncertainty. So far as I know, nothing like that is going on now, but perhaps my subconscious knows something that the rest of me hasn't figured out yet.

In the first dream, I suddenly found myself recruited into a part in a Venture Theatre production. In the second, a volcano threatened Yellowstone County. In the third, last night, my wife and I were taking in dinner and a show -- the menu was the size and shape of a pocket dictionary -- in an expensive London restaurant when Ed Kemmick showed up in drag. According to a Gazette story that also cropped up in the dream, he was doing undercover work on a big story involving, apparently, corruption in expensive London restaurants. My first words to him, I recall, were, "Did you lose a bet?"

So how did Ed Kemmick look in drag? Trust me, you'd rather see the volcano.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

All Wright

The new Outpost has not one, not two, but three columns dealing with the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

And, in a rare conjunction of my German teaching and my Outpost work, here's a piece about some letters from German prisoners of war here that recently turned up.