Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

House on Bush

C-SPAN's rebroadcast last night of the House Judiciary Committee's hearing on executive power made a fellow proud to be an American. I found it riveting, right up to the point where I fell asleep, which just shows that it takes more than a few rivets to keep me awake at night.

But it is important and vital stuff. Everyone ought to have a look, then consider what the real issue is in the presidential campaign (hint: It isn't Obama's preacher).

Monday, July 28, 2008

The man with no money

Had a long and fascinating interview this morning with John Driscoll, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House who vows not to spend any money running for office.

I have never thought for a second that he had a ghost's chance, especially after reading this story, but he is awfully persuasive in person. There's nothing like utter independence from campaign contributors and party machinery to make a fellow free to say what he thinks.

Much more in Thursday's (or possibly the Aug. 7) Outpost.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Secession anyone?

This item on the history of Absaroka is pretty fascinating (h/t Andrew Sullivan).

UPDATE: If Texas can secede and Arizona can secede, why not Montana?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

He's baaack

It's good to see former Outpost columnist Rob Natelson in the blogosphere over at Electric City Weblog. I like and respect Rob and his opinions, and I usually disagree with him.

Same this time. Lord knows, I'm no expert, but I do try to keep up a bit with the news in Germany, especially during the school year, and antipathy toward Bush certainly seems like a real phenomenon to me. It's especially striking if you compare the enormous outpouring of sympathy and solidarity with America that flowed out of the German press immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, with the attitudes that are commonly expressed today.

One example: Remember the "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech? Right after Sept. 11, a major German paper ran a long sequence of photos and quotes of ordinary Germans, each completing the statement, "Today I am an American because ..." The answers were extraordinary and wide-ranging, from our defeat of Hitler to the humanity of our post-war occupation, from the bulwark we provided against the Soviet Union to the lamp we left out for immigrants, from our lively culture to our history of standing up for what's right in the world. A couple of years later, this sentiment had just about entirely dissipated.

And, yes, I think Bush bears a fair share of the blame. Germans in particular were sympathetic to the war in Afghanistan but thought the war in Iraq was a really dumb idea (they have some serious expertise in starting dumb wars), and they see Bush as an especially brazen example of the worst in America: arrogant, uninformed, indifferent to the opinions of allies.

None of that is to suggest that Germans now hate Americans. When I lived there, I found a enormous reservoir of good will toward Americans, and I can't believe that reservoir has been drained. But I do suspect that Germans welcome Obama as a candidate who may show considerably more deference and respect to the views of a country that we really do need to have on our side.

UPDATE: Here's a more nuanced view, well worth reading.

Airport blues

So I had to pick my wife up at the airport at 11:17 p.m. Friday. The plane was late, if the word even has meaning anymore with respect to the airline industry. Airplanes in the 21st century do not arrive on any known schedule.

I got there at the scheduled time but couldn't find her. Maybe I am just an idiot, and everybody else has figured this out, but I could find no way to learn what the status of the plane was: in the air, on the ground, crashed into the Bighorn Mountains. The ticket counters were empty. The security check-in was empty. The arrival screen showed no flights earlier than about 9 a.m. Saturday.

A guy at the car rental counter didn't seem to be aware that planes even landed at the airport. He suggested I ask a cop. Sound advice, no doubt: Got a missing airplane to report? Tell a cop. But I couldn't find a cop.

Back in the luggage area, a woman told me she couldn't help me unless it was a United flight. It wasn't. Otherwise, she said, I would have to go to the ticket counter, but the ticket counters were dark and empty and appeared likely to remain so for at least another five or six hours.

I hung around for an hour, then gave up and went home. There was a message on the answering machine from my wife telling me her flight would arrive late -- at just about the time I heard her message.

She says there's an 800 number you can call to find out when airplanes arrive. So I guess the operating principle is that if you want to know whether an airplane landed in Billings, Montana, you can't go to the airport and find out. You have to make a long-distance phone call to another state.

Maybe I'm just being picky, but it seems to me that if you were in the business of landing airplanes, you would keep track of that event. And it seems that if the airplane contains passengers, you would want to make that information available to people who might come to the airport to pick them up. Few people arrive at airports with spare vehicles stashed in their luggage. On the other hand, it was a good deal for the airport, which made $3.50 for the parking time I used while trying to find out whether an airplane had landed.

Driving home for the second time that night, it occurred to me that we really have finally solved the problem of security on airplane flights. We have made flying on an airplane so miserable an experience that not even a terrorist would want to be caught on one.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Nader on the ballot

Just got a news release from the Ralph Nader presidential campaign announcing that he was turning in 9,500 signatures today to get on the Montana ballot in November (5,000 signatures are required).

I have mixed feelings about this. Nader's supporters were collecting signatures at Dehler Park this week. I declined to sign on Sunday, then relented and signed on Monday.

Generally, I like having more candidates on the ballot, just to shake up the two-party system a bit. And I like Nader, just as I usually like single-minded, endlessly committed political figures. But he has about worn out his welcome with me. No protest vote for you this year, Ralph.

Wood on McRae

I had probably looked at the front page of this week's Outpost 50 times, and delivered a couple of thousand of them, before I noticed that I had misspelled a word in very large type on the front page. Damn it. I think it may be the largest type in which I have ever misspelled a word, but I don't want to even think about whether that's true or not.

At any rate, don't let that stop you from reading the story, which is excellent (and spells "intrinsic" correctly. Here's the part I've been telling everybody about:
At one point Wallace McRae was clinically dead. But the doctors brought him back, and he was lying in a hospital bed hooked up to a respirator, a tube down his throat, unable to move, unable to talk, when in came Paul Zarzyski, a fellow Montana cowboy poet.
He had come to tell Wally that he couldn’t die. If he died Paul would never want to perform his own poetry again, either on stage with Wally or seeing Wally in the audience looking at Paul with a critical eye.
Later, on his feet again, Wally joked with Paul, “Boy, was I ever tempted to die, and relieve the world of having to listen to your poems.”

Shakespeare on second

My own estimate of the virtues of Dehler Park as a venue for Shakespearean tragedy would be a bit harsher than this. The sound wasn't bad -- better, actually, than it often is at Pioneer Park -- but putting the stage between the pitcher's mound and second base left the players too far away for full enjoyment. It never became obvious to me just by looking exactly who Macbeth was. I had to wait for him to speak.

Then there was the street noise, and airplanes flying overhead, including one right in the opening lines of the "sound and fury" speech. Fortunately, Macbeth had the presence of mind to hold his tongue until the worst of the noise had passed.

It's a marvelous play, of course, full of great speeches and drama, and eminently stageable. Of all Shakespeare's plays, it's the one that most resembles an HBO mini-series. So I don't mean to complain about a free show.

But my vote for the best Shakespeare venue I have seen (including London) is for Shakespeare at Winedale, a rustic setting in central Texas where the University of Texas gives its summer Shakespeare plays.

The whole thing is so improbable -- basically a barn in a field miles from any city -- and so primitive and intimate that I think it must be the closest experience on earth to what it was actually like to sit in the Globe Theater and see the plays for the first time. It's always in mid-summer, and hotter than hell, but that just adds to the authenticity of the experience.

We took my daughter when she was a little tyke, too small to understand much of what was going on, but she has had a weak spot for Shakespeare ever since, and I've always suspected that Winedale may be the reason why.

And if that's not good enough, you can always stop for pie in nearby Royer's Round Top Cafe, where they charge extra if you order pie without Blue Bell ice cream on top. Texans are tolerant people: You don't have to eat pie a la mode if you don't want to, but their tolerance does come with a price.

UPDATE: The link is now fixed.

Thursday talk radio update, Part 2

Bill O'Reilly spent an hour yesterday inviting listeners to comment on how fairly he has treated Barack Obama. Interesting topic, except for a couple of disclaimers. One is that since O'Reilly doesn't do a lot of original reporting (although he firmly believes that he does) he was really asking listeners to analyze his analysis of Obama coverage. The other disclaimer is that since O'Reilly never allows criticism of him to go unanswered, what we actually mostly heard was O'Reilly's analysis of his listeners' analysis of O'Reilly's analysis of Obama coverage.

Bottom line, according to O'Reilly: O'Reilly is doing a fine job.

At least he did point out that some right-wing talk-show hosts are devoting three hours a day, every day, to Obama bashing. Apparently there is an audience for that kind of talk, he said. If that reference wasn't clear enough, he eventually specifically mentioned Sean Hannity, though mostly only to wonder why liberals get so angry at Hannity. After all, he pointed out, Hannity is openly partisan, doesn't hide his motives, and has every right to bash Obama all day long, if he can get people to listen to him.

In one of my frequent imaginary phone calls to national talk-show hosts, I explained to O'Reilly that in at least my own case, my dislike for Hannity isn't because he favors McCain. Heck, I like McCain. It's that he is so relentlessly unfair in his treatment of Obama and all those who support him. He distorts facts, takes things out of context, cuts opponents off, forces them into trap questions. It's tiresome, and trivial, and gives the lie to Hannity's daily claim that he provides the most complete and comprehensive election coverage on the radio dial.

But when I turned to Hannity for my weekly confirmation of this observation, I found that he had changed tactics. Rather than abuse or interrupt his liberal callers, he was openly mocking them. He would pretend that he agreed with them and promise to do better. It was bizarre, and I wondered for a while where mockery fits along the scale of the stages of grief.

But it's possible that he just thought it was funny. Hannity often seems to imagine that he is a funny guy, although I have never heard any evidence that he is. Rather, on Thursday I heard evidence that he is pathetic.

Thursday talk radio update, Part 1

Bill O'Reilly broke silence on Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side" yesterday, but just barely. In a segment that lasted scarcely two minutes, he perpetuated a substantial list of misperceptions about the whole situation.

1. He seemed to dismiss Mayer as just another, George Bush-hating, left-wing radical liberal. But she has a distinguished resume, and her book is a thorough account of the best information on the topic.

2. He said that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to people who aren't soldiers in uniform. Massively wrong.

3. He stuck to the Bush line that that only three suspects were waterboarded and that the waterboarding produced intelligence that saved thousands of lives. So far as I have had time to read, Mayer doesn't add any additional waterboarding victims to the known list, but she does point out that considerable dispute exists about exactly how and how often the three known victims were waterboarded and about how useful the information they provided was.

4. Even assuming that O'Reilly is right about the number of people waterboarded, it isn't clear what difference that makes. If we were talking about a few rogue interrogators acting on their own, then maybe we could agree that three abuses of the law isn't so bad. But if we are talking about war crimes approved at the highest levels, under bogus legal justifications, as now appears to be the case, then the number doesn't really matter. What's the deal? The first three war crimes are free?

4. He said that it's pretty much up to listeners to decide whether they think coercive interrogation techniques such as forcing prisoners to go without clothes and sleep amounts to torture. But the whole point of having international conventions on torture is to prevent single countries, much less individuals, from writing their own rules. Nor are individuals, of course, free to rewrite American law.

5. He cited surveys showing that most Americans don't much care what happens to suspected terrorists (see Eric Coobs). But this is not a case where opinions of individual Americans matter much, unless those Americans rise in sufficient numbers to amend the U.S. Constitution or revoke international treaties. And even Coobs, I suspect, for all of his tough talk, might blanch at the reality of actually amending the Constitution to eliminate, say, habeas corpus.

Mayer's part of the discussion lasted about one sentence, taken from her response to a question posed by David Letterman about the possibility of trying Bush administration officials for war crimes. Her response was about as noncommital as it could be, noting only that the administration is worried about it.

But O'Reilly isn't worried. And he did his best on Thursday to make sure his fragile listeners don't worry either.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Web update

The webmaster (my wife) is in Texas, and we are having a bit of trouble getting the Outpost website updated. Check back on Saturday, please. In the meantime, take joy in this post criticizing Obama for using the German language to invite Germans to attend a speech he is giving in Germany.

I think the poster originally was supposed to be in English, but the German-only law blocked it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Have a seat

I think this is why fans aren't allowed to bring their own chairs to Dehler Park.

Mallard the duck

The Mallard Fillmore strip in today's Gazette caught my eye. Not only was it a remarkable finding, but it seemed to contradict other evidence.

The problem: This is production day, so I don't have time for in-depth research, but I have been unable in a quick search to verify that this claim is true. The closest I have found is this, but it doesn't quite support Mallard's conclusion.

Anybody else find anything?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Going Hollywood

Ucross, Wyo., author Craig Johnson gets a writeup in the LA Times. His new novel, "Another Man's Moccasins," will be reviewed in the Outpost's upcoming book issue. The review won't be quite as kind as this article would suggest.

Honest vs. stupid

In Sunday's excellent Pioneer League game here, the Mustangs got a break when the umpire missed a call at third base.

It wasn't entirely the umpire's fault. In a two-umpire game, there's no way that the base umpire can always be in the best position to make all of the calls he is required to make. In this case, the Mustang runner tried to slide around the tag and was tagged away from third, at least a foot from the base. The umpire, standing near the pitcher's mound, couldn't see all of that, but it was obvious to everybody in my section, just a few feet from third base and with an excellent angle on the play.

I suggested that in such cases, the umpire should be able to appeal to the fans, reasoning that if even the hometown fans disagreed with a call that favored the home team, then the call must have been wrong.

"It would be a good test of the crowd's honesty," I said.

Gary Amundson, sitting next to me, shook his head.

"He would be safe," he said.

The guy directly in front turned around and looked at me.

"There's honest, and there's stupid," he said.

The expression in his voice left no doubt in which category he thought my suggestion belonged.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

On the line

Interesting study here of the IQs of football players at various positions. Based on my limited experience as a Texas A&M beat writer, I'm not surprised to see offensive tackles at the top of the list.

It's pretty hard to judge IQ, but it certainly seemed to me that offensive linemen were the most studious and academically dedicated players I encountered. More than players at the so-called skilled positions, linemen seemed to see football as a means to an education, rather than seeing education as an obstacle on the path to playing football. Even lineman who had a chance to play in the NFL knew that they would never get famous doing it, and that their careers, if any, were likely to be short. They were, as a group, the most thoughtful and serious athletes I dealt with.

Environmental update

A letter writer in today's Gazette makes an excellent point. Even those least sympathetic to the environmental movement ought to be willing to concede that there have been important benefits. Do you suppose they will?

The comparison with Russia is particularly telling. In 2002, Harper's magazine had an in-depth article about how the Aral Sea has been drained and poisoned into a massive cesspool. The author said that in the Soviet Union, just as in the United States, pollution concerns led to ambitious laws to protect the environment in the 1970s. The difference was that in the Soviet Union, the same people who made the laws were the people who enforced them and also the people who were expected to comply with them. In short, they were ignored.

So the next time you are bewildered and outraged by environmentalists' lawsuits blocking exploitation of natural resources, remember that an adversarial system like ours has powerful benefits, too. And the next time you hear someone like, oh, say, Sean Hannity saying that environmentalists aren't needed because we have learned to take care of the environment, think about how that happened, too.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Free advice

John Driscoll has put up a beta version of his campaign website for Montana's U.S. House seat. He invites suggestions for improvements -- provided the suggestions won't cost any money, of course.

My free suggestion: Make the mug shot smaller.

Doty vs. Molnar

For obvious reasons, I won't go into much detail here, but it's worth noting that I had to give a deposition on Friday in Russ Doty's ongoing libel case against Brad Molnar. Doty, Molnar's lawyer and a court reporter all showed up at the office on Friday afternoon.

Doty, who is representing himself, alleges that Molnar maliciously made false statements about Doty in their 2004 campaign. He also claims, interestingly, that Molnar is in breach of contract for violating the clean campaign pledge he had taken in the campaign.

So what does that have to do with The Outpost? Some of you will recall that before his run for the Public Service Commission, Molnar wrote columns for the Outpost, sold some ads and delivered papers every week. So part of the deposition had to do with how he may have obtained information about Doty.

Another part had to do with items that appeared -- or didn't appear -- in the pages of The Outpost. Some of it had to do with articles I wrote about their race, although I am not sure why. Part also related to this post about a letter I declined to print.

All in all, an unsettling experience. I have covered a few depositions, but I can't say that I liked being the subject of one.

Friday, July 18, 2008

More on guns

Tim Fox, Republican candidate for attorney general, and Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos have scheduled a news conference at 2 p.m. Monday at the Courthouse Park to "make a major policy announcement on gun rights."

My guess: They're for 'em.

Thursday talk radio update

Sometimes what the talking radio heads don't say is more important than what they do. There has been considerable buzz in the blogosphere and on NPR this week about "The Dark Side," Jane Mayer's new book about the war on terror became a war on our own ideals. But not a word -- zippo that I could hear -- on commercial talk radio.

O'Reilly, who is often quick to challenge government competence and integrity, seems to have no trouble swallowing the administration's three-pronged position on torture: We have never tortured; if we did torture, it wasn't illegal; and if we did torture and it was illegal, it was all done by low-ranking people acting as rogues.

Hannity, of course, rarely allows consideration of anything that might make Republicans look bad. And this mess unquestionably does make Republicans look bad (and, for that matter, most Democrats don't look like paragons of virtue on this topic either). People like Hannity do the most harm to America not when they relentlessly pound on the shortcomings of every member of the opposite party but when they ignore, for partisan reasons, things Americans ought to be talking about. Like it or not, talk radio has an agenda-setting power that helps determine the national conversation.

I've often speculated about the nonsensical distinctions we make between conservatives and liberals, but the most difficult of all for me to get is the way in which so many so-called conservatives have allowed themselves to line up on the side of torture. Conservatives are supposed to be about traditional values, and few values in this country are more traditional than that while other countries may torture people, and throw people in jail without charges, and deny them legal representation, we don't do that. We're too good for that.

I am a bit consoled by the prospect of a McCain-Obama campaign this fall. Of all the available candidates, these two seem to be, among the possible winners in their respective parties, the candidates who are most likely to:

1. Reject torture.
2. Reach across the aisle to break down partisan gridlock.
3. Rein in the runaway executive.
4. Annoy Hannity and his ilk.

That gives me hope. But I also bought Mayer's book yesterday, and that gives me fear.

War Powers

With respect to the discussion below, you will want to read the piece on the War Powers Commission in this week's Outpost.

Monday, July 14, 2008

In the past

While looking for something else, I just ran across an editorial I wrote for the Sept. 11, 2002, issue of the Outpost. Looking at one's own outdated punditry can be humbling, but this crucial passage seems to hold up pretty well:
Overseas, we appear to be moving from the War on Terror toward a large-scale conventional war on a people against whom we bear no grudge. They are badly led, to be sure, and concerted international pressure to force reforms is in order, even the threat of military action.
But we must not allow ourselves to be unilaterally plunged into a war whose grounds are unsupported by hard – and public – evidence and that has not been declared by Congress. And if we do go to war, we must have clearly defined goals and a well articulated exit strategy. Nobody must be left behind.

Still makes sense to me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ups and downs

I've often thought that the high point of history in my lifetime was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I think this is the low point.

Stupid or dishonest?

The silly debate over Barack Obama's comments about learning a second language, referred to below, keeps dragging on. The oddest comment I found was from Jonah Goldberg, who called what Obama said "either staggeringly dishonest or stupendously dumb." What makes that otherwise unremarkable observation odd is that in the very next paragraph, Goldberg acknowledges that Obama was essentially correct: "I agree that students should learn a second language whenever possible," he writes. Now, I understand that it can sometimes be dumb to say true things, but how can it be dishonest?

Goldberg answers by inventing an alternate quote for Obama. He writes that the dishonesty would be clear if Obama had said this: "Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they'll learn English — you need to make sure your child is a lot better at math."

Only problem is, that would also be true. Just as it would be true if Obama hadn't said Spanish or math but computer science, history or art appreciation. Any of those would involve discussing something that actually matters rather than something that doesn't. So Obama deflected an inconsequential question and tried to turn it into a statement about something that might really be useful. I think that's called politics.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Candidate update

The Yellowstone County Democrats' Central Committee is meeting Tuesday to find a replacement for Jeff Meide, who was the party's candidate in House District 53 against Elsie Arntzen. Meide withdrew for personal reasons, Chairman Ray Tracy says. The meeting is at 7 p.m. at the BEA Office downtown.

Tussing vs. Molnar

Here is a piece of actual news that I ran out of time and space for in this week's Outpost:

Brad Molnar and Ron Tussing may debate as many as 13 times in their race for the Public Service Commission. Molnar forwarded copies to me of a recent e-mail exchange with Tussing in which the Billings mayor proposed at least 10 debates, one in each county, and Molnar replied with a suggestion for 13 debates, including three in Yellowstone County.

"I intend to bring a more balanced approach to our energy needs in Montana," Tussing wrote. "Whereas, I support diversifying our energy portfolio to develop
clean coal technologies, add to wind power generation and smaller energy generating projects throughout the state, you have proven to be reluctant when it comes to alternative, renewable energy sources."

Molnar seemed to regard that comment as a bit of snark, and he fired back some snark of his own: "You got me there. If the developers want the ratepayers to cover all costs and assume all risks. I always say "no". Sometimes 4-1. Sometimes 3-2."

Molnar added this response to the e-mail, which had come from Mary Jo Fox of the Tussing campaign:
"You (Mary Jo Fox) sent this to my government address. That is against the law. Your wife sent out her 360PPM on a government computer. That is against the law. Your son in law sent out an invitation to all lobbyists/attorneys that present before the Commission so you could sell your sevices to them. Properly handled its not against the law. But he sent it into a lot of government computers. Against the law. I only mention this because of your recent action against my conservation education effort and myself in search of a quick negagtive headline. I have not brought action against you or yours because I wish this election dialogue to get out of the gutter and into the real issues and offering real solutions instead of the usual pie in the sky stuff and extreme negativity to cloud the issues. Please get on board with this.

Some explanation: The "recent action" Molnar refers to a complaint Tussing filed against Molnar earlier this summer. "360 PPM" apparently refers to a proposal to limit carbon dioxide emissions to their current level of 360 parts per million. I neglected to press for details on what the son-in-law allegation is about.

When I talked to Tussing late Tuesday, he said he didn't remember a "360 PPM." While I was on the phone, he asked his wife, Darlene, and she said she didn't remember either.

He said he wasn't sure that any laws were broken. While government workers can't use government equipment for campaign purposes, they can't control what people send to them. But he agreed that contacting Molnar at his work e-mail wasn't a good idea, and he said his campaign would avoid it in the future.

He seemed to be open to a full 13 debates and to most of the minor changes Molnar suggested in sponsorship and format. However, he said he wasn't optimistic that it would be possible to find a workable date and location in every county.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Jackie Corr, R.I.P.

Many of my references to Jackie Corr here over the years have been preceded by an adjective: The indefatigable Jackie Corr, the indispensable Jackie Corr, and so on. Now, regrettably, I have to add a new adjective: the late Jackie Corr.

E-mails by the bushel full came in from Jackie, often in the middle of the night, and always on some issue of justice, corruption or corporate perfidy. He was a Butte workingman with a workingman's sense of what's right and wrong in this world, a journalist's sense of news and a historian's sense of how it all fit together. He scoured the internet endlessly and wrote prolifically, with pieces published in Counterpunch, the Butte Weekly and occasionally in the Outpost (for instance, here, here and here.

He sent me more material than I had time to read. But I was always eager to look at what he sent, and I never passed over something from him without suspecting that I was making a mistake.

His last piece to appear while he was still alive must have been the story in this week's Butte Weekly about rising gasoline prices, a story filled with contempt for Big Oil, George Bush and Democrats whose "official line at the Democratic Convention in Denver in August will be to act like gas is still selling at $3.00 a gallon outside the convention while it will be 'Happy Days Are Here Again' inside the convention against a background of thousands of corporate logos."

But I liked better his piece the week before on Butte boxing great Stanley Ketchell, dead at age 23 back in 1910. According to Jackie, Ketchell's manager, Wilson Mizner, told the big city papers, "It's not him. The kid can't be dead. Start counting over him and he will get up."

For those of us who had learned to count on Jackie, it's hard to believe he won't get back up.

UPDATE: Here is the full obituary.

Thursday talk radio update

Hannity has been calling his show the "Stop the Radical Barack Obama Express." But yesterday, the word "Radical" was gone. Tactics have changed.

Now the argument is that Obama is a flip-flopper who acts only out of political expediency. Hardly a radical position for a politician to take.

Interestingly, I never heard Hannity mention the one position change that has aroused the most concern on the left: Obama's decision to vote for the FISA bill. Note: as always, I'm bouncing in and out of the car delivering papers when I listen to these shows, so just because I didn't hear him mention it doesn't necessarily mean it didn't come up. But even Hannity must have recoiled at the mental gymnastics required to criticize a man for changing his mind enough to agree with Hannity's own position.

I can understand the left's concern about FISA, but most of the alleged flip-flops seem small beer to me. Obama has endorsed public financing of campaigns but has rejected it for his own campaign. To me, that's about as much of a flip-flop as saying, "Yes, I think ballet is a valuable and important part of the international arts culture, but, no thanks, I'm not interested in taking lessons right now."

Obama's position on Iraq does not seem to me to have wavered at all. Perhaps someone can point out how I am wrong about this, but my understanding always has been that he would withdraw troops as rapidly as possible consistent with preserving stability in Iraq and with the safety of the soldiers. This is a position that even the U.S.-backed Iraqi government endorses. Obama would be a fool to argue that this goal could be achieved without consulting U.S. commanders on the ground, and I have not heard him make such an argument.

Hannity did have Dick Morris on as a guest, and Morris added an alleged flip-flop I had not heard: that Obama backed off his support for merit pay for teachers when he recently appeared before the NEA. That would be serious, if true. Merit pay is one of those self-evidently good ideas that Democrats balk at because they are afraid of crossing the union. But Morris was flat wrong; either that, or this is.

Morris did argue that taking the flip-flop route was good campaign strategy for Republicans, even if Democrats make similar arguments about McCain. McCain's years in captivity, apparently, have immunized him from the charge.

Too bad. I can't think of a single successful politician who isn't vulnerable to the flip-flop charge. Politics is the art of the possible, attained through trade-offs and negotiation. I would rather listen to Hannity railing against Jeremiah Wright from now until November than to the tedious flip-flop argument.

But even that wouldn't be as bad as having to listen to Glenn Beck. I girded up my courage yesterday and tuned in to the opening of the show, which featured a guest host whose name charity forbids me to mention. I lasted no more than 90 seconds. His opening monologue was so mind-numbingly stupid that I could feel my brain cells dying. No wonder these conservative talk-show hosts are so successful: They destroy the brains of their listeners and render them helpless.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention my favorite bit from Hannity. Defending a free-market approach to healthcare, he pointed out that hospitals are required by law to provide emergency care to those who need, regardless of ability to pay. Hmmm. I will be ready to concede that is a free market approach when Hannity concedes that it would be a good law if McDonald's were required to serve a cheeseburger to everybody who came in looking hungry.

Thursday delivery day bumper sticker

"Men who change diapers change the world."

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Hoch soll er leben

Good grief. Various precincts of the right-wing blogosphere (plus Hannity) are bloviating about Barack Obama's recent remarks on language learning in the United States. For a good time, scroll through the comments and revel in all of the misspellings, grammatical errors and careless typos from those who argue that English is, by God, the only language they need to know.

But I see this as a serious matter. I teach a few German courses, so I was happy to hear Obama speak out in support of more language learning in schools. It's in my own self-interest, of course, and I have no quarrel with those who say that learning another language is unlikely to be of a great deal of practical use to most of those who make the effort to learn one.

I still argue that it's worth the effort. Here are a few reasons:

1. You don't really know your own mind until you have studied another language. From about age 3 on, we are so tied to language that it's hard to turn that inner voice off. Studying another language provides a constant reminder that the words we use to think about and describe the world are only a few choices among infinite possibilities. You never quite see the world the same way again.

2. Modern pedagogy tends to focus heavily on critical thinking, discussion, creativity and knowing how to look stuff up. Learning language reminds us of another aspect of education, once highly valued: memorization, rule learning and practice, practice, practice. I don't think those values should reclaim education, but I do think it does students some good to be exposed to them. Language learning requires a level of skill, talent and discipline all its own. I will never forget what one of my most diligent students said after a year in my class: "Learning German has been an humbling experience for me." Humility is not a bad thing to learn.

3. Learning a different grammar helps students understand English grammar better. I never got the subjunctive in English until I had to learn it in German. I always tell my students that once they learn the dative and accusative cases in German, they will never struggle again with distinguishing "who" from "whom" -- a distinction that floors students who have never studied another language.

4. You can't really grasp another culture without understanding some of the language. When I am explaining the difference between the formal "Sie" and the informal "du" in German, I sometimes tell students about a scene in "The Pianist." Germans address friends, family members and small children informally (and also talk to God that way), but they use formal address in most other circumstances. Throughout the movie, Germans insult Poles by using the informal form of address, even to elders, when Nazis are ordering Poles around. But in the one kind encounter that the main character has with a German officer, the officer addresses him formally. It's a sign of respect that immediately tells the German listener that the officer will be unlike any Nazi the pianist has encountered before. Of such slight and subtle language differences are whole worlds of understanding created.

5. Obama is absolutely right that language ought to be taught early. I don't understand exactly how this works in the brain, but the capacity to learn new languages declines rapidly as one grows up. Put that stuff in their heads when they are young, and it will stay there. And they will be better people for it.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Time for a revolution?

George Ochenski has a chilling column in the Missoula Independent arguing that George Bush is guilty of many of the same offenses that caused the founding fathers to start a war.

They're real

Stumbling home after a long day slogging through another edition of The Outpost, I flipped on C-SPAN and saw John McCain holding a town hall meeting. He was good, full of energy (almost a bit manic), occasionally funny, generally open and accessible. And I agreed with most of what he had to say.

This should be no surprise. I have followed McCain in small bits for a number of years and have always liked most of what he has to say. But American politics have become so poisonous that even after just a few weeks of following the campaigns mostly on blogs and talk radio, it's a bit shocking to see the actual candidate and realize that he isn't frothing at the mouth, calling for jihad or punching out dissenters.

Just a reminder, folks: The atmosphere is toxic out there. Try to remember that these are two quite decent, capable candidates, not traitors or space aliens. It feels stupid to have to say this, but even smart people can get lulled into idiocy by listening too much to the partisan crowd.

SIDEBAR: Here's my one gripe about McCain's presentation. Someone asked him how he could have voted for impeachment of Bill Clinton but not vote for impeachment of George Bush for far worse deeds. McCain ducked. I think that's a question that deserves an answer.

Monday, July 07, 2008

One plus

Montana: We may be poor, but at least we are skinny.

Dehler Park update

After taking in a couple of more games at the new ballpark, here's a somewhat more generous view. I'm not flip-flopping, mind you, I'm just revising and extending my perceptions based on new evidence and insights. Here are three things that made me like the park better:

1. Two excellent and close games on Saturday and Sunday. Technically, that has nothing to do with the park, of course, but good ball improves its surroundings.

2. We spent a couple of late innings Sunday just walking around the park. One thing the new park does is move much of the socializing aspect of minor league baseball out of the stands and back into the wide concourse. That's not a bad trade-off. You can still watch the game pretty well, and we ran into a half-dozen people we knew and were able to talk to. I spent the Mustangs' crucial eighth-inning rally far down the right-field line, which was a fine place from which to view the key hits. There aren't many places to sit in the concourse, though. I ran into one of my former students who seemed perfectly happy to stand and roam for the duration. Not sure I'm up to that.

3. I ran into Alan Rice, who gave the park a good review. His opinion matters because he has seen more minor league parks than any human I have ever known. In fact, he was just back from a tour of Texas and Southern league cities. Alan says Dehler Park stacks up well against most of the parks he sees, except maybe in size. The cramped seating, he said, is typical in the minor leagues. And Billings is far better off than Missoula, in his view, whose new park retains a cobbled-together look as it has struggled to finish the park as funds are raised.

OK. I'm happier now.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

He's back

According to my e-mail, Christ Jesus will be at the civic center in Stafford, Texas, on Sunday, July 13. Admission is free.

About time he showed up.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Have gun, will babble

Attorney General candidate Tim Fox is challenging opponent Steve Bullock to delineate his position on 18 specific gun rights issues.

"Protecting our gun rights is one of the most important issues in Montana," Fox says. But is it?

Few things seem less likely than that the Montana attorney general will have to decide any key gun rights issues over the next four or eight years. The Montana Legislature won't pass any bills undermining gun rights, and Congress is unlikely to. Even if it does, a state attorney general's opinion isn't likely to matter much one way or the other.

The attorney general's position on any big issue doesn't really strike me as critical, except perhaps on issues that come before the State Land Board. What we really need is an attorney general who:

1. Can provide the state with sound legal counsel, regardless of his personal position on the issues involved.

2. Can write opinions that match what a judge in a similar position would be likely to hold. Attorneys general aren't needed to break new legal ground but to provide realistic interpretations of the law that will withstand judicial scrutiny.

How having a strong opinion about the Second Amendment figures into the work an attorney general actually does isn't clear to me. True, there might be an occasional opportunity for a friend-of-the-court brief on a gun-related case, but that doesn't mean that Fox's passion about the topic will necessarily translate into good legal doctrine.

One might argue instead that passion isn't necessarily a virtue in the attorney general's office. Good judgment, not strong emotions, is what's required.

Thursday talk radio update

To his credit, Michael Smerconish, sitting in for Bill O'Reilly, had the courage to read portions of this column from the Philadelphia Inquirer out loud. Oddly, Smerconish indicated that he had problems with the column, but he defended it, sort of, by noting that a recent poll found that two-thirds of Americans consider dissent a patriotic act.

I don't quite see what difference the poll makes. Since establishing America was in itself an act of dissent, dissent is patriotic at its core, regardless of how many people agree or disagree with that notion.

The Inquirer column made me feel a bit patriotic, unsettled, proud and envious -- because he had thought to write it, instead of me. The crucial point is that all of the high and mighty talk about liberty and freedom that the founding fathers crafted arose not out of ease and reflection but out of struggle, suffering and a deeply divided country. If they could endure what they did without compromising fundamental principles, then what excuse do we have?

UPDATE: I meant to mention the weird fill-in on Limbaugh's show on Thursday. I forgot his name, and it isn't worth looking up, but he started off by accusing Wesley Clark of "smearing" John McCain's military service by pointing out that flying an airplane doesn't necessarily qualify one to be president. Then, within 10 minutes, the host passed along exactly the same "smear," if smear it is, against George McGovern, who he said was a hero as a bomber pilot in World War II but that didn't qualify him to be president. When a caller objected, he denied that he had smeared McGovern.

How is it possible to distinguish between the two? Only one way I can see: McGovern had a D after his name. McCain had an R. Any other comparison is irrelevant.

Cobb vs. Dehler

Here's my Outpost take on the new baseball park. I've seen three games since writing that, and my updated take is bit harsher.

Perhaps harsh is the wrong word. I understand fully what the ballpark supporters were up against, and I realize that we were damn lucky to get a new park at all -- which was badly needed. Still, I don't think I will ever like the new park as much as I did Cobb Field.

The reasons are small, but they add up. The seating is really cramped. Nobody can get in or out of the middle of a row unless everybody stands up. Sitting next to a stranger can be a considerably more intimate experience than you really might want.

The lack of a roof has made a fairly big difference twice: on opening night, when it rained for six innings, and yesterday afternoon, when the scoreboard thermometer got as high as 108 degrees. I'm still enough of a Texan to be fairly heat tolerant, but I think a lot of older fans just won't go in hot weather. My mother-in-law is a baseball fan, and a Texan for longer than I was, but we couldn't have gotten her to a game at all last year if not for a promise that she could sit in the shade.

The biggest downside, in my opinion, is that it just isn't possible to sit up as high as I often like to. Sitting close to the action has its pluses, but I often like to sit as far from the diamond as possible, with the game laid out before me like a chessboard, watching the geometry of the game unfold. Can't really do that here.

I don't really mean to complain. I voted for the park, and I'm not asking for my money back. It's as much as, and perhaps a bit more, than we could reasonably have hoped for. But I wish it were easier to persuade taxpayers that, when you are going to build something that has to last for 50 years or so, it's worth spending a bit more up front to get it right.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Obama leads in Montana?

No wonder Obama thinks visiting Butte on the Fourth of July is a good idea.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

No Gazoo in Bozo

Just had a call from a reliable and well informed source who says that, effective today, The Billings Gazette is no longer being delivered to homes or racks west of Livingston. Subscribers in Bozeman apparently have been told that they can sign up for an e-mailed version of the paper for $5 a month that looks on the screen just like the printed version. High fuel costs were cited as the reason.

Verging on default

Newsosaur reflects on how close newspaper companies are to defaulting on their debt. Lee Enterprises shows up only in the comments.