Saturday, November 29, 2008

Idiots assemble

I was prepared to write my annual post lamenting early Black Friday shoppers when I read today's Gazette and saw that one early-morning shopper summed it up better than I ever could: "We're like a community of idiots."

Idiots indeed. To reiterate: I'm pro-freedom and would never question the right of sport shoppers to hit the shopping centers at 4 a.m. My complaint is that the stores open that early, depriving employees of a full day off for Thanksgiving. It's an especially cruel game to play on employees who have to leave town to visit families for the holidays, then make the late drive back to be on duty when the doors open.

Americans work far too many hours with far too few days off as it is. It is pernicious to rob workers of a big chunk of one of the few days they still get -- especially one that is so quintessentially American.

It's unpatriotic. And it borders on blasphemy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tap twice if you hear me

Spam e-mail subject line of the week: IS IT TRUE THAT YOU ARE NOT ALIVE.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"The One"

I've been a holdout on commenting about Rob Natelson's two posts on Obama as Messiah. As I have argued here and in blog comments elsewhere, the notion that Obama is, or claims to be, some sort of supernatural savior was the dumbest thing to come out of the 2008 election. Yet it persists.

To respond point by point:

1. Virtually 100 percent of the Messianic claims I have heard about Obama come from the right, not the left. I don't doubt that the idea is out there on the left somewhere, but I followed the election pretty closely and never ran across a serious argument that Obama is anything but a human being, fragile and flawed like all of the rest of us.

2. With respect to Obama's resume, it certainly was thinner than I would prefer. I don't know how many of his supporters think he will "govern brilliantly" or "transform America," but don't count me among them. I voted for him because he struck me as an unusually cool head, a good speaker and a pragmatic politician, tough enough to get the job done and compassionate enough to want to get the job done right. I may be wrong, of course, but a fellow has to hope.

3. I don't know of any "hate-mongers" in Obama's associations. Ayers committed criminal acts a long time ago. So far as I can tell, he is out of the hate business. His acts, despicable though they were, fell within a tradition of American armed violence against perceived government oppression that the founding fathers not only understood but practiced. Jeremiah Wright's sermons (I've read three) strike me as firmly in the Christian tradition, a bit shrill at times, maybe, but far from hate speech. I haven't heard of any other alleged "hate-mongers" in there.

4. I haven't heard the claim that Obama has the highest IQ ever in the White House. I thought the trophy for that honor had been retired and is in a closet somewhere at Monticello.

Rob's point, apparently, is that Obama should "dampen the unrealistic level of expectation now." I'm not sure that's doable, or even wise. I hope that most Americans are realistic enough to know that presidents almost never live up to our highest hopes and ideals. But that doesn't mean we should quit trying to find one who does, or that the ones we do find should tell us to stop looking.

UPDATE: Upon further reflection, two additional points:

1. Even presidents who look saint-like in retrospect didn't necessarily seem that way at the time. Despite having to run against the peace platform in his own party, George McClellan won 45 percent of the popular vote against Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Defend that vote, Democrats!

2. If any president in modern history has taken on supernatural status, it has not come from leftists in support of a liberal Democrat but from conservatives in support of Ronald Reagan. Hannity's daily hagiography of Reagan is one of his most amusing diversions.

UPDATE: I somehow neglected to link to these worthy posts on this topic.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sorrows of the internet age

Early this morning, I finally achieved one of my lifetime goals: I finished reading Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther." I'm not sure why it took so long; it's not that demanding a book. I was drawn to it as a kid when I heard that the fate of the young hero set off a wave of copycat suicides in Europe. I was too young at the time to read it, I suppose, and put it off, then somehow lost track of the notion.

Learning German, it came to mind again, and I found a cheap paperback copy. But by the time my German became good enough to take it on, the idea had somehow slipped away again. I chipped away at a few pages from time to time, but years passed, and my German fell into disuse, and I lost the nerve for the project. But teaching for the last few years has put some polish back on my German, and I finally took a crack at it this summer. Then school started, and a few other books intervened, but I finally finished it off this morning.

Was it worth the wait? Maybe not. Werther's sensibility is a bit too far removed from our own to feel all that much sympathy for his plight. Pull yourself together, man, my inner critic kept saying. And I found the long recitation from "Ossian" near the end a needless, and language challenging, distraction. But, by God, I made it.

And just in time. Now that suicides are the stuff of internet entertainment, not just Sturm und Drang novels, Goethe will never seem the same again.

UPDATE: If you don't think the world is quite a sick enough place, scroll through the comments for the link above. Trust me, the world is plenty sick enough.

Thursday talk radio update

Sean Hannity continued to assure us all that he is rooting for Barack Obama to do well as president. To show us that he was serious, he encouraged Obama every few seconds by pointing out that he is a dishonest radical socialist whose cabinet picks so far prove that he is:

1. A dishonest radical socialist.
2. Indistinguishable from the Clintons. Or
3. Weak and indecisive.

It's gonna be a great four years.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Smaller is bigger

Looks like I'm not the only one who thinks that banks like Citigroup got too big for their own good.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

No tears

The Outpost used to have a credit card through troubled Citigroup. We didn't do it on purpose; we got the card through another company, which Citigroup then bought.

We paid the monthly bill on time for several years. Citigroup's own records don't show that we were ever late. Then one month earlier this year I let the bill get lost in the endless piles of paper on my desk. I didn't know it was due until a few days after it was late and somebody from the company called and asked about it. I paid the bill the next morning, plus the payment for the following month.

No use, of course. Our interest rate more than doubled. The Citigroup rep said we should call and ask to have the increase reversed since we had such a good payment history. But as it happened, we had better options available at the time, and I didn't feel like pleading. I closed the account. Instead of making a small but solid profit from me every month, Citigroup's profit went to zero.

No doubt the company works under some formula by which that calculation makes sense. No doubt most people don't have the options we did and just have to swallow the increase -- if they can, or go under, if they can't.

But it seems to me that a company too big to know who its honest customers are might be too big to be in business. And it shouldn't expect my vote for a bailout.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Cellphones in Yellowstone

An in-depth look at cellphone towers and internet use in Yellowstone National Park.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Joe Schlesser

I was glad to see this kind letter in today's Gazette about Joe Schlesser, formerly the funny and wildly energetic entrepreneur of Artspace.

Joe was a good guy whose various claims to fame included one guaranteed to knock me over: He had once seen my great childhood hero, Roy Rogers, naked. It was nothing scandalous -- a momentary encounter while changing for the swimming pool -- but it couldn't have impressed me more if he had said he had shaken hands with Michelangelo.

Now both Joe and Roy are gone. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gov releases budget

Gov. Brian Schweitzer released his budget proposal for the biennium this afternoon. Among the highlights, according to the accompanying news release:

* General fund spending down 2.5 percent.

* $20 million for children's health insurance.

* $124 million increase in education funding.

* $25 million in one-time money to retrofit government buildings to make them more energy efficient.

* $250 million left in the bank at the end of the biennium.

“I know inflation is eating away at all of us," the governor said. "But I’ve said since last January that this session would feel like a belt-tightening one. But we’ll get through this as Montanans always have.”

Friday talk radio update

With two college courses on Thursday, and another on Friday, I've been winding up Outpost delivery on Friday afternoon. So I got to hear discussions of William Ayers on both O'Reilly and Sean Hannity this week.

Why anyone should care about Ayers at this point is beyond me. If Obama manages over the next four years to successfully wrap up two wars, capture Bin Laden, balance the budget and get the stock market back up over 12,000, he would get re-elected even if he were caught personally planting bombs in the White House basement. But Ayers was what talk radio had to offer.

The arguments are well worn. It's not that Obama is a terrorist, said Ms. Hill, it's what his association with Ayers tells us about his judgment.

So what does it tell us about Obama's judgment? That he is willing to meet with people who have done bad things in hopes of achieving mutually beneficial results? But we already knew that. That's basically his foreign policy. And noted terrorist enabler, David Petraeus, essentially endorses the idea.

The people you hang out with also tell us something about your character, Ms. Hill said. It's true that our mothers warned us about the company we keep. They warned Jesus, too, and look what happened to him.

Now, I don't think Obama is Jesus, or claims to be, although various bloggers might want you to think otherwise. But he is a Christian, so it's fair to ask what Jesus would do if he wound up living in the same neighborhood as a former member of the Weather Underground.

Jesus doesn't speak directly to me, but I spent quite a few years mulling over what he would do in tight situations, and I'm pretty sure I know how the Jesus I was taught to believe in would react. He would think: This guy has done bad things. He hasn't fully repented, but he realizes that he went too far. He isn't doing those things anymore, and he is instead holding a responsible job and working to improve the community in which he lives. I can work with this guy, and I should work with this guy, and I might even be able to save him.

I don't know if that's how Barack Obama thought about Ayers. I'm sure it's not how Hannity thinks.

Of course, Jesus probably couldn't get elected president.

Thursday talk radio update

Warren Olney's "To the Point" discussed the possibility of prosecuting war crimes within the Bush administration once Bush leaves office. Glenn Greenwald of Salon fame made the simplest possible case for prosecution: Either we are a nation of laws or we are not. Let top public officials off the hook because it is politically inconvenient to prosecute them, and justice is robbed of all meaning.

Olney being Olney, he of course had people on who disagreed. The argument generally runs that the case is unclear and that there is a legal underpinning to the administration's claims that it has acted legally. Greenwald replied that if we refuse to prosecute any administration that manages to concoct a legal theory, then we abandon prosecution altogether.

Makes sense to me.

Meanwhile, there is talk that Obama may create an independent commission to look into the matter. Most of us roll our eyes at the thought of another federal commission, but Scott Horton made a compelling case in the latest issue of Harper's (available here but not legible without a subscription). Whether or not a commission results a prosecution, it has benefits, Scott Horton argues. It helps earn public support for the anti-torture position, and it signals to the world that America's torture chamber days are behind it. Those are good reasons.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Max Baucus!

Max Baucus draws a rare exclamation point of approval.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

New-fangled voting

NPR was just interviewing Curtis Gans of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. He was saying that voter turnout last week wasn't as heavy as some early reports had indicated. I had heard that and was only half-listening when the topic turned to one near to my heart: early voting.

Gans said there is no evidence that relaxing rules on early voting increases turnout. There is some evidence, he said, that early voting decreases turnout. Not only does it diffuse get-out-the-vote efforts, but also a lot of those early ballots apparently wind up getting left behind on kitchen tables.

Meanwhile, of course, Americans are abysmal voters, ranking 139th out of 172 democracies (if memory serves) in turnout.

There's only one solution: Give everybody Election Day off, and make it a paid holiday for everybody who shows up back at work on Wednesday with an "I voted" sticker.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

2 surprises

The two biggest election day surprises for me: Linda McCulloch over Brad Johnson for secretary of state and Monica Lindeen over Duane Grimes for state auditor.

I didn't much like the way Johnson ran his 2002 campaign for U.S. Senate, but I haven't heard any particularly compelling complaints about how he has run the mostly nonpartisan Secretary of State's office over the last four years. And I didn't see that McCulloch ran a noticeably better campaign. So what's the deal with Johnson? Too Republican? Too male?

I have similar feelings about the Lindeen-Grimes race. If anything, I thought Grimes ran the stronger campaign. At least I saw more of him than I did of her, and she lives around here. Name recognition? I figured he would have a slight edge. Political positions? I figured he would have a slight edge. What did I miss?


Nice column by Ed today on the Obama election. I was struck by the historic importance of the event at the same moment he was: When the whole family got up on stage. Every racial stereotype of the last 50 years ran through my head -- and not a single one made a lick of sense anymore.

At MSU Billings on Wednesday, I was a bit disappointed to see so few students who seemed to share my excitement about the historic significance of electing a black man as president. The few comments I heard were mostly in the "anybody but Obama" category.

I mentioned it to a colleague who had noted the same thing. "Maybe that's a good thing," I finally said.

Maybe it is. If it still seemed like a big deal to people their age to elect a black man president, then maybe it wouldn't have happened. There is the ultimate triumph of racial equality: They elected a black man president, and nobody noticed.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Thursday talk radio update

"In the spirit of the Fairness Doctrine," Sean Hannity allowed Obama backers a half-hour devoted to gloating calls. Since Hannity and fairness never quite belong in the same sentence, it wasn't a real half hour. Between Hannity's interruptions and rebuttals, plus ads and plugs for his upcoming Freedom Concerts, gloaters may have gotten 10 minutes.

Not that there was much gloating. Most callers seemed more interested in getting the country back together after a long election. Hannity apparently has no such interest. He was rude and combative and weirdly certain that Republicans would be fine if they just went back to being conservatives.

Everyone can take away from the election the lessons they wish. Here is the lesson I took: Voters gave the Hannitys, Becks and Limbaughs of the world a hard slap in the face. They rejected the cheap shots, the grandstanding and the propagandizing and looked at the election with clear and open eyes. This election gave the worst of the talk show world their worst of all possible worlds: A Republican they didn't like, a Democrat they liked even less, and a result they liked least of all.

So will Hannity learn and grow? Hint: On Friday's show, he led with the g______ America quote from Jeremiah Wright.

Promises, promises

In an e-mail saying thanks to supporters, U.S. House candidate John Driscoll includes what may be the year's most unusual campaign promise:
Should we file again for Congress, I promise not to vote for the other guy.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Vote suppression?

Matt Singer of Left in the West is asking local media to pass this along:
We have confirmed a report of an inaccurate text message circulating in Missoula telling people that local polling places have long lines and that Obama voters should vote tomorrow. Similar jokes and rumors fly every election. While we do not have concerns that many voters will be tricked into thinking that they can vote tomorrow and we do not know whether these messages are intended as pranks or as malicious suppression, we are worried that rumors of long lines and delays could dissuade voters from attempting to participate this year.

We'd encourage local media to highlight that few polling places in Montana suffer from long lines or waiting times to vote and to emphasize that voters do need to go to their polling place by 8pm tonight in order to be able to vote.

Note - we also know that similar text messages are being reported in Florida and around the country, including in this CNN report:

Election 2008

I just went down and voted to toss the bastards out -- except for the bastards I voted to toss in. It was the longest line I've ever seen at my polling place (American Lutheran Church) but that doesn't necessarily mean much. I usually vote in the dead hours of mid-afternoon; today I was there about 9 a.m.

Still, it was smooth sailing. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. In return, I get to bitch about the winning candidates for another four years. You gotta love it.

Wrong on Rye

Dave Rye just allowed a caller to read a big piece of an e-mail alleging that Barack Obama thinks the national anthem should be "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing." This e-mail has been floating around for a while. It is, of course, folderol, and has been solidly swatted down.

OK, radio hosts can't know everything and perhaps shouldn't even be expected to always ferret out pure fraud. But this was pretty ludicrous on its face. Beyond that, when another caller complained, Rye defended the earlier caller, saying he thought what she said was true. I'm not sure whether he meant "true" in the sense of being based on actual facts or "true" in the sense that it serves his larger point that: Liberals are unpatriotic; Obama is a liberal; therefore, Obama is unpatriotic.

But surely, Dave, facts should count for something, even on talk radio. Shouldn't they?

Monday, November 03, 2008

A true American

Just wandered across a post on a great American hero, Carl Schurz, and his thoughts about America's role in the world. Scott Horton gives a bit of Schurz's history, but leaves out a great deal. Schurz was actually born in Germany, became a radical, and was trapped in a siege at Rastatt during the Revolution of 1848.

When the defending forces surrendered, Schurz and a small group of confederates tried to escape through a storm sewer, found the way blocked by enemy soldiers and retreated back through the sewer to a barn, where they lay virtually motionless in the loft for a couple of days while Prussian soldiers tended their horses beneath them. The men then worked their way back through the sewer and fled the country.

Then Schurz sneaked back into Germany and bribed a guard to secure the release of his radical old professor, who was being held in prison in Spandau. When I tell my German students about this, I naturally emphasize this heroic gesture.

Only then did Schurz immigrate to the United States, where he became a general in the Civil War, then a senator, the secretary of the Interior and an editor at Harper's. Yellowstone's Mount Schurz is named for him.

As an aging veteran of two devastating wars, he said this:
The man who in times of popular excitement boldly and unflinchingly resists hot-tempered clamor for an unnecessary war, and thus exposes himself to the opprobrious imputation of a lack of patriotism or of courage, to the end of saving his country from a great calamity, is, as to "loving and faithfully serving his country," at least as good a patriot as the hero of the most daring feat of arms, and a far better one than those who, with an ostentatious pretense of superior patriotism, cry for war before it is needed, especially if then they let others do the fighting.

Wonder who he would vote for tomorrow?

Palin's medical records

Andrew Sullivan has been a fairly lonely voice crying out for the release of Sarah Palin's medical records (most recently, here). Just now, from the McCain campaign, comes this.

It won't change my vote!

Now's the time

Just got an e-mail from attorney general candidate Tim Fox with the subject line "7 days left."

Tim! Wake up, man! It's later than you think.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Trick or treat

Several political comments along these lines have surfaced. Glenn Beck used a variation of it on Thursday; Mike Huckabee used a similar example -- A students required to give points to lazy C students -- on Fox News on Sunday. The message in each case is the same: Barack Obama would force hardworking people to give their hard-earned money to lazy bums.

Boy. Sometimes it seems that people really are just born conservative or liberal and ideology has nothing to do with it. I grew up in the country on two acres of huisache so I had never had much experience with trick-or-treating. We weren't willing to walk five or 10 miles to hit enough neighbors to fill a bag of candy.

But sharing Easter eggs after the hunt was a recurring theme in my childhood. The big kids got the most and the best, and they were always expected to give some to the little kids who couldn't move as fast. I think it had something to do with Christianity.

Now I wonder if today's conservatives weren't the kids who hoarded every egg they could get, lied about how many they had and threw a fit every time they had to give one away. I never did like those kids.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Lee ailing

Maybe it's just me, but I missed this highly interesting story in the Billings Gazette this week. It's more bad news to add to the "morgue"-like atmosphere reported at the chain's most prestigious acquisition.

Maybe it also helps explain why the Mini Nickel, owned by Lee, has just signed a deal with Town Pump to control distribution of free publications in its 75 Montana stores. We just got a letter this week telling us that we will have to pay $40 a month if we want to stay in our two Billings Town Pump locations.

Maybe. According to the account in The Press Pass, the publication of the Montana Newspaper Association (new edition not yet on line), the contract apparently does not affect newspaper racks, just TMC (total market coverage) and shopper-style publications. Not sure why the Mini Nickel wrote to us.

But it's more than a bit annoying. Efforts by large chains to gobble up news rack space in major retailers and block out competitors have been documented here and elsewhere.

What's annoying about Town Pump's behavior is not so much that it's trying to make an extra buck or two but that it gave the contract to our biggest competitor and the state's dominant newspaper company. Don't the rest of us get to bid?

The other thing is that Town Pump occasionally sends us news releases about its various activities and asks that we print them at no charge. We have always been happy to do this, when the items are relevant and space is available.

Now Town Pump wants us to print its news releases for its benefit at our own expense. Then it wants us to pay Town Pump so that Town Pump customers can read about its good works. I wonder whether anyone there has considered why this might not sound like a good business model to us.

On the other hand, bad news is always good for somebody. The Gazette dropped its weekly TV guide on Oct. 1, which leaves the Outpost as the best source of weekly TV listings. Not only is our pickup on the streets noticeably better, but our subscriptions went up 215 percent in October.

Common courtesy

A convenience store where I deliver the Outpost now has a sign up asking customers to refrain from talking on their cell phones while paying for their items in the checkout line. It must say something about the state of modern courtesy that the store would even have to ask.

I was in a grocery store checkout line sometime back, and the person in front of me made it all the way through -- waiting in line, paying the bill, picking up the groceries and leaving -- without ever suspending his cellphone conversation. When I got to the cashier, she scowled at me.

I thought, What did I do wrong? But it wasn't me she was angry at.

"I hate it when they do that," she said.

"So do I," I answered.

It does seem to be appalling behavior. What's up with that?