Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dred Scott's Revenge

I spent a fair part of Saturday reading "Dred Scott's Revenge: A Legal History of Race and Freedom in America," by Andrew Napolitano, the judicial analyst for Fox News. It's a good read but really less a legal history than a retelling of the story of racism in North America, from colonial slave-trading days to the election of Obama.

Napolitano's basic argument is that the government (and its judges) erred through much of U.S. history by failing to follow natural law rather than "positivist" law created by men for their own ends. It isn't quite clear to me how things would have played out if the legal history had gone his way; I hope to get a chance to ask him. A couple of phone interviews I had scheduled with him had to be canceled because the book was so slow in arriving, and I am trying for a third.

Just for example: A lot of early Americans (and some still today) believe that intermarriage between the races violated natural law. Others, even some pretty progressive revolutionary thinkers, thought that blacks were naturally inferior to whites, and that gap could never be overcome without subjugation, deportation or extermination. How do these beliefs fit into Napolitano's conception of an America ruled by natural law?

Napolitano is right, though, at least judging from my reading, that quite a few revolutionary thinkers found it obvious that blacks were fully human and entitled to the same natural rights as any other human being. The failure of that kind of thinking to win the day in early America has cost us dearly. And the judge is particularly hard on Abe Lincoln -- the harshest assessment I believe I have ever seen of Lincoln's role in preserving the union above all else, including justice for slaves. Again, it isn't clear to me that things would have turned out better for blacks in the long run if Lincoln had been more interested in their welfare and less interested in saving the union.

If nothing else, Napolitano's book is a good corrective to nonsense like Limbaugh's claim that Sotomayor is a racist. You want to talk racism? Let's talk centuries of slavery, thousands of lynchings, a hundred years of Jim Crow, decades of segregation and an ongoing legacy of crime, poverty, and employment and legal discrimination.

Then, if Limbaugh still thinks it is in his best interest, we can compare all of that to what Sotomayor said.

Napolitano, by the way, is an admirable fellow in my book. KBUL's decision to drop his radio show in favor of Dennis Miller's was egregious. Napolitano leans right and like all talk show hosts has a tendency to bluster, but he is a bulldog on civil liberties issues and a reminder of what conservatism ought to be about.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Thursday talk radio update

A caller tried to make what sounded like a perfectly reasonable point on Hannity's show, but Hannity cut him off.

I say that "sounded like" because it is usually hard to tell on Hannity's program. Anytime a caller starts to make an argument that he can't answer, he immediately begins to bully and interrupt, making it hard to know for sure what the caller wanted to say. But this caller seemed to be saying that whatever one may think of Sotomayor's decision in the Ricci case, it could hardly be called an example of judicial activism, as Hannity was claiming (a good non-lawyer's discussion of the case is here). The appeals court ruling that Sotomayor supported not only upheld the lower court, it also followed existing precedents. Those may be bad precedents, or they might be good precedents based on a bad law, but there was no sign of judicial activism in her ruling.

That's not good enough for Hannity, of course, so he cut the caller off. To him, Sotomayor not only has to be a bad choice (because she was picked by a Democrat), she has to be a bad choice because of judicial activism. Those are the accepted code words. Her actual record has very little to do with it. At least Limbaugh had enough intellectual honesty to admit that he would oppose Sotomayor if for no other reason than to try to make Obama look bad. Hannity is never that straightforward.

When another caller suggested that Hannity shouldn't place so much weight in opposing her on essentially two sentences she has spoken in her life, Hannity replied that he had examined her record thoroughly and had found five cases demonstrating her legal ineptitude. When pressed, he named only one: Ricci.

Hannity made this same claim throughout the last election campaign. He always claimed that he had examined the context of Jeremiah Wright's controversial half-dozen sentences thoroughly. But I never once heard him cite any context or give any indication that he had understood, read or even thought about what the context might have been. I eventually became convinced that he was just lying about having examined the context, and I suspect that he is lying about Sotomayor, too.

But if Hannity walked around the edge of the abyss, Glenn Beck plunged right in. In the few minutes that I listened, he accused Sotomayor of being both a "racist" and a "Marxist." The racist label apparently was based solely on this statement: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Say what you will about the merits of that statement (and don't ignore the fact that she used the subjunctive voice), it is a long, long way from saying that certain cultural experiences may better prepare one to make certain kinds of decisions to saying that certain races are genetically superior to other races and that this justifies subjugation of the inferior race.

The Marxist claim appeared to rest solely on the fact that in a yearbook entry she quoted Norman Thomas (the incendiary quote: "I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won"). Thomas was, of course, a Socialist, which means that Sotomayor must be a Marxist.

Hannity makes this sort of claim, too: If you agree with anything a Marxist or socialist ever said, then you must be a Marxist or socialist, too. In his "man on the street" interviews, he frequently asks ordinary people if they agree with this classic Marxist statement: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Most of those interviewed agree with the statement and have no idea where it came from. Hannity then pounces: So you must be a Marxist.

What the heck? When I was in the Army I had an old Chinese proverb tacked to the barracks wall. What does that make me, an old Chinese? (The proverb: "Just as one does not use good metal to make nails, one does not use good men to make soldiers.")

At least Hannity has an excuse for his absurdities. He is an unreflective and ill-informed man. Beck seems much smarter than Hannity. He just sounds crazy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pirates and democracy

Back in April, Rob Natelson wrote a tongue-in-cheek post arguing that Somali pirates were environmental activists and heroes who promoted social justice. I wrote in comments that there actually was some truth to the myths that romanticize piracy.

Evidence for my claim comes in a book by Peter T. Leeson, "The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates." He notes that pirates were far better paid than commercial sailors, had more control over their working conditions and operated in a more democratic atmosphere. He writes:

Pirates ... were outlaws, with no recognized authorities to settle disputes. So they invented their own ways of doing business. Decades before the American Founders got their act together, pirates were drafting documents full of voting rights, juries, checks and balances, rules for property allocation, even methods for impeachment. The buccaneers may have been less concerned with natural rights than with survival and claiming their fair share of booty, but the end result feels surprisingly like the kind of self-governance we expect from enlightened modern republics.


Pirates' reputation for ruthless torture and murder arose in part because they tortured and murdered. But Leeson notes, "Portraying the freebooters in the worst possible light worked to the advantage of everyone concerned. For governments, crusading against the outlaws who robbed their merchants and treasury ships was a way to keep public opinion firmly on the side of the state. Practicing pirates, meanwhile, were happy to be depicted as violent and unpredictable outlaws, as this encouraged their prey to surrender and cooperate. In fact, the marauders went to great lengths to ensure that their reputation as heartless ship wreckers and torturers remained intact."

It's a long way from Blackbeard to Somali pirates, but some of the appeal of the profession remains the same.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day talk radio update

Hope you are out celebrating and commemorating while I am sitting here in the office, pounding out another issue of the Outpost. Don't feel too bad for me: We did get into the mountains for a few hours yesterday, and they were lovely and inviting.

Today I'm sitting here typing and listening to the radio, and wondering why it is that conservative talk radio, whatever its acknowledged flaws, always gets a pass on patriotism. NPR, as we know, is the refuge of liberals and arugula lovers, America haters and liberal traitors. Talk radio is where salt-of-the-earth, old-fashioned, real Americans go for enlightenment.

But this holiday is just like all of the others with a patriotic bent. All weekend long, NPR has been cranking out hours of quality programming on Memorial Day themes. There has been show after show of music appropriate to the day, from folk songs to marches to classical music. The news today had a superb interview with the author of a book about the little-known troubles that World War II veterans had readjusting to civilian life. "To the Point" interviewed an inventor of devices to help wounded soldiers back on their feet. There was even a piece about "Lili Marleen," the lovely soldiers' song that was a hit on both sides during World War II, despite its German origins.

KBLG, meanwhile, was replaying a Fred Thompson broadcast first heard when Obama released the torture memos. Caller after outraged caller accused Obama of treason and called for his impeachment and prosecution. I didn't flip over to Limbaugh, but apparently he had on similar fare. In conservative radio land, no holiday is important enough to set aside the vital work of impugning the loyalty and integrity of Democrats.

I don't really mind conservative talk fans pursuing their blind agenda 24-7-365. That's their business. And I don't really mind their claiming to be better Americans than I am. God knows better. But it sticks in my craw that they can make both claims simultaneously on a day set aside to remember those who died to help keep all Americans together.

They ought to feel at least a smidgen of shame.

SIDEBAR: I was nowhere near World War II but nevertheless learned to love "Lili Marleen" in the Army, too, while I was in German language school. The melody is gorgeous, and I especially like this verse, which doesn't really come through in the English versions I know of (you need to know that the song is about a soldier dreaming of once again standing under the lamp post at the barracks gate, hugging his girl):

Deine Schritte kennt sie,
Deinen zieren Gang
Alle Abend brennt sie,
Doch mich vergaƟ sie lang
Und sollte mir ein Leids gescheh'n
Wer wird bei der Laterne stehen
Mit dir Lili Marleen?


Approximately:

The lamp post knows your steps,
Your graceful walk.
Every evening it shines,
But forgot me long ago.
And should something happen to me,
Who will stand under the lamp post with you,
With you, Lili Marleen?

Well, it doesn't really come through in my English version either. Trust me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thursday talk radio update

So yes, I did take a few days off to go see my daughter graduate in Missoula, a fine and pleasurable event. Then there was the paper to catch up on, which explains why nothing has appeared in this space for a while. Please contact the subscription department for refunds.

All the radio talk yesterday was about the "showdown" between Dick Cheney and Barack Obama on national security matters. Sadly, it was one of those cases where one gets all of the commentary about the speech before hearing the actual speech. Limbaugh declined to even play excerpts from Obama's speech, reasoning that his listeners were more interested in hearing his reaction than in hearing the speech itself. It's a bit stomach churning to think that he was probably right.

You would never guess his reaction in million years: He thought Obama was arrogant and defensive. He thought Cheney was incisive and brilliant. Hannity had a different reaction: He thought Obama was defensive and arrogant; Cheney was brilliant and incisive. Actually, give Hannity a point or two for originality: He said Obama was "pathetic" and that Cheney "rocked."

I cannot confirm the accuracy of this analysis. When I finally did hear some excerpts from Obama's speech later on TV, he sounded reasonable but unexceptional. The excerpts from Cheney that Limbaugh and Hannity played sounded flat wrong.

Here was the first:

We hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.


I don't doubt that there might be some phony moralizing going on out there (What? The CIA lied to the speaker of the House?), but you would think that even Cheney would acknowledge that some Americans really do care about our history, our reputation and our ideals. We aren't all just faking it.

Here was the second:

But in the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States.


It's true that we don't want nuclear-armed terrorists getting into the United States. But that misses a more important point: We don't want terrorists getting nuclear arms at all. That means that we have to keep them away not only from our own weapons but from the nuclear weapons of every other country in the world, including countries that are still trying to build some.

Since even Cheney might concede that we can't impose our will on every country out there, we are stuck with cooperation, negotiation and persuasion. And half-measures are the basis of international diplomacy. We can't just go around making demands; we have to work with people.

Maybe Cheney had things to say that made more sense, but when these are the excerpts chosen by two of his fans to demonstrate his brilliance, it sort of squelches the desire to seek out more excerpts.

SIDENOTE: Hannity also interviewed Oliver North. I don't much care what North has to say, but I was kind of interested because Hannity has been so upset over Nancy Pelosi's accusation that the CIA lied to Congress. I've been wondering lately why Hannity would be so upset over the charge, since North famously lied to Congress and became a right-wing hero as a result. So isn't Pelosi really just nominating the CIA for hero status?

But the issue never came up. Instead, Hannity tried, and failed, to get North to sing along on the first verse of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." It was a low moment in radio history. When I switched to jazz on NPR, it had never sounded better.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thursday talk radio update

As noted here and elsewhere, there has been whining all week by Hannity, Beck and their ilk about Wanda Sykes making fun of Rush Limbaugh, and quite a bit of criticism of Obama for appearing to find it funny.

But this is clearly a case where the pot should do a color check before making observations about the kettle. I just got through two hours of Limbaugh (minus bouncing in an out of the car making delivery stops) and jotted down a list of points he made, approximately in order:

-- He made fun of how Nancy Pelosi blinks.

-- He referred to Obama as "The Messiah" (twice).

-- He accused Obama of saying during the campaign that "terrorists are good guys."

-- He said that Obama's base is "anti-American."

-- He compared Obama unfavorably to Hugo Chavez.

-- He accused Obama of "creeping socialism."

-- He referred (twice) to Obama's inauguration as his "immaculation."

-- He said that Obama "denies God."

-- He said that Obama believes that American soldiers "rape and murder."

-- He accused Obama of having said that every successful American is corrupted.

-- He summarized an Obama commencement address to Arizona graduates with two words: "America sucks."

And Obama is supposed to apologize for chuckling at the suggestion that Limbaugh might have kidney failure? Obama should instead get some sort of medal for restraint for not rolling on the floor guffawing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Addison Bragg

Just got word of the death of longtime newsman and Gazette columnist Addison Bragg. His health had been declining for a while, enough that his family recently gave the Outpost a skillfully drawn caricature depicting him after using a bow to shoot a fountain pen into the chest of a sword-wielding thug, with the caption, "The pen IS mightier than the sword."

I didn't know Addison well; he was still writing a column but was a fairly rare sight in the newsroom by the time I arrived at the Gazette. But he was one of the fraternity, an amiable and inexhaustible story teller, and I am sorry to hear that he is gone.

Monday talk radio update

Cunningham on Sunday night and then Hannity and Beck today were all beating up on Wanda Sykes for cracking wise about Rush Limbaugh and also at Barack Obama for apparently having laughed.

I won't defend her sense of humor. I don't think much of jokes about people dying either. But I would defend the serious point behind the joke. The open rooting of Limbaugh, Hannity and their ilk for the failure of the Obama administration is deeply disloyal and worthy of public scorn.

It's one thing to hope that Obama's proposals don't get through Congress. By all means, flail away against them. It's one thing to try to get bad policies changed. But it's a very different thing to hope that once the policies are in place they will fail in some dramatic, election-altering fashion.

If that happens, people lose their jobs. They lose their houses. They lose their medical care. Some will die -- perhaps of kidney failure. If Obama's policies fail, then Iraqis will die. Afghanis will die. Pakistan may fall. American soldiers will die, and their families will mourn.

Press them, and Hannbaugh will protest that they are rooting only against socialistic policies. But I have listened to them for at least a hundred hours since Obama was elected and have yet to hear either of them root for -- or try to bring about -- anything but utter, abject, complete failure of the Obama administration in every respect.

I thought Bush's decision to invade Iraq was the dumbest move I'd ever seen by a U.S. president (yes, worse than Vietnam, worse than the Bay of Pigs). But once the decision was made, I rooted every day for him to be right and me wrong. Let the neocon bloggers blast away at my stupidity and cowardice. Better to be proved a fool than to have a disaster in the Middle East.

Obama entered office under similar circumstances. The economy was cratering. Auto companies were failing. Banks were sinking. Afghanistan was deteriorating. It's too soon to know whether his decisions will prove right or wrong. But for all our sakes, we had better hope they are right.

And if your devotion to your ideology outweighs your devotion to the welfare and safety of your country, then you really aren't much different from Osama Bin Laden.

WEIRD SIDE NOTE: In nearly the same breath in which he attacked Sykes, Cunningham defended this joke, which insults not only Pelosi and Reid but also U.S. soldiers. So hoping that Limbaugh drops dead of a disease isn't funny. Rooting for the assassination of congressional leaders by soldiers sworn to protect them? Comedy gold.

Going Kindle

Tyler Gernant, the Democrat running for Denny Rehberg's seat, says that his campaign is the first in the nation that allows visitors to his site to download "policy packets" to Kindle.

Packets will cost users 99 cents, with all of the receipts going toward a tree-planting campaign.

Rye responds

For those of you who don't usually look back through old comments, you will want to check Dave Rye's response to my question about the Fairness Doctrine under the Thursday Talk Radio Update I post. It's a thorough and interesting response.

I still think there is less here than meets the eye, but considering that we are still talking about a doctrine that not only doesn't exist but hasn't even really been proposed, it's hard to say. I will reiterate: I am sympathetic to the Fairness Doctrine because I don't think radio stations should be able to use their government-granted licenses to essentially promote one political party for 24 hours a day, but I would vigorously oppose any doctrine that would cause a hardship for fair-minded shows like Dave's.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What real newspapers do

Most newspaper work is less thrilling than the climax of "State of Play" (worst movie title ever?) described below.

More typical is the reaction I had during the previews, when Tom Hanks in the upcoming "Angels and Demons" said the Catholic Church had ordered a "brutal massacre." My instant thought: What's the difference between a brutal massacre and a run-of-the-mill massacre? Would it be possible to have an "amiable massacre"?

That's how newspaper work warps your mind.

The dying news

I turned in final grades for my two German classes on Wednesday, so I took Saturday off. Around my house, days off are rare enough to always seem like bloggable events. Not much excitement here, though. I took it easy, washed dishes, cooked a steak dinner for an early Mother's Day, hit the hot tub, lay in the hammock and read.

Some of it was even work-related. I'm teaching freshmen composition again in the fall, so I reviewed a couple of textbooks for possible use. This allowed me to read excerpts from "The Communist Manifesto," which I had not read for many years, and from "Wealth of Nations," which I have never read. My most striking observation was how little would have to be changed in either piece to have exactly the same argument today.

I also read Wally McRae's new book of prose pieces. That was work-related, too, since an Outpost review will come of it, but that did not diminish the sheer pleasure of reading his stories. My friend Anita gave me a copy of "The Cowboy Curmudgeon" when I left Texas for Montana, and getting to briefly know the author (who delivered his new book personally to the Outpost office) has been one of my Montana pleasures.

We also went to see "State of Play," which is a political thriller wrapped inside a newspaper reporter's wet dream about the dying of a noble industry. The closing scene has it all: a rumpled, chili-cheeseburger- and Cheetos-munching, knows-everybody reporter flanked by the cute-as-a-button blogger he is mentoring, pounding out a story stuffed to the gills with sex, greed and corporate and political corruption that reaches to the highest levels of Congress, all while the press is holding past deadline at a cost to his corporate overlords of $300 a minute.

Get me rewrite!

Although actually I thought Russell Crowe's lede looked a little weak. Improved versions are welcome.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Swine flu here

The state health department is holding a news conference in a few minutes (5 p.m.) to announce Montana's first probable case of swine flu. The patient is a Yellowstone County resident who is not hospitalized and is recovering, a news release says.

People with flu symptoms are advised to stay away from school, daycare and work.

Savage banned

Electric City Weblog has an amusing post and comments on England's decision to ban Michael Savage from its shores. Mr. Natelson presents this largely as a free speech case, but it isn't really. Mr. Savage is free to speak as he pleases; he simply is not free to travel to England.

I admit that I would find this outrageous if Mr. Savage were English and were banned from traveling to America. This is a free country. But I am less interested in protecting him from the despotism of English law. We already had that fight with England, and we won. We can easily avoid England's legal excesses by avoiding England.

Moreover, I don't much mind mind seeing Savage held to standards that he himself applies to those he dislikes. He has called, for example, for an outright ban on Muslim immigration, laws making it illegal to build mosques in America and a law requiring that only English may be spoken on U.S. streets. England isn't telling him that he may not speak; it is telling him, "We don't want your sort here."

Sidenote: In comments, Mr. Natelson says that by the standards applied to Savage, Jeremiah Wright also should be banned. This is insane. Despite massive efforts in the presidential campaign to dig up outrageous statements by Wright, Republicans managed to find only a half-dozen or so sentences. A couple of these seem less outrageous in context. A couple of others are tough criticism that nevertheless fall well within accepted boundaries of public discourse.

So we are now to equate perhaps two sentences spoken by the Rev. Wright over a couple of decades with the venom that Savage spouts daily? No way.

Thursday talk radio update II

Sean Hannity had James Dobson of Focus on the Family on to complain that Barack Obama had given short shrift to the National Day of Prayer. He quoted James Madison saying that religion was the basis of sound government.

He didn't note that Madison (and Thomas Jefferson) opposed presidential proclamations calling for prayer or other religious exercises. Madison's view is worth reading in full, with special emphasis on this sentence:

The last & not the least objection is the liability of the practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities. Candid or incautious politicians will not always disown such views. In truth it is difficult to frame such a religious proclamation generally suggested by a political state of things, without referring to them in terms having some bearing on party questions.


Short version: Unscrupulous talk-show hosts like Sean Hannity can easily turn prayer proclamations into opportunities for short-term political gain.

Dobson, I am sure, would have a hard time understanding why someone like Madison could think religion is important but also think that it should have nothing to do with government. But the founders understand that keeping religion separate from politics would strengthen, not weaken, religion. That was still obvious to de Tocqueville when he visited America decades later and attributed the powerful influence of religion in American life to its divorce from the political world. He wrote, "Hence any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in order to live, and in serving them it may die."

Somewhere around the early 1950s, though, the message seemed to get lost. That's when the National Day of Prayer was created and when "Under God" was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. With the threat of godless communism looming, we lost our nerve, and some of us still haven't gotten it back.

Thursday talk radio update I

Dave Rye said on his show yesterday that if the federal government were to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine, he would simply quit his show.

I'm not sure why this topic keeps coming up. I remain unaware of any serious attempt to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine. Is there one I am missing?

In any case, I'm not sure why it would be of concern to Dave. He presumably has worked with the doctrine more than I have (since I haven't worked with it at all, he couldn't have worked with it less), but it is hard for me to imagine any scenario, past or present, under which his show would run afoul of the doctrine. While Dave himself leans pretty far to the right on most (but not all) issues, his program is a model of fairness to all points of view. Indeed, he specifically invites opposing views. If the government were to impose sanctions on his show, then it really would be wildly out of control.

So, Dave, I know you stop by here occasionally. Please explain. Do you really think you would be affected by the Fairness Doctrine, or were you just trying to make a point?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

More American fascism

Piece of Mind takes exception on several counts to my American Fascism post below. I thought the post was clear; it still seems clear to me. But Piece of Mind has managed to find a number of things in it that I never intended to say.

What I said was that a number of acts of the Bush administration came closer to my dictionary's definition of fascism than anything I have ever seen in my lifetime. Piece of Mind seems to believe that I said I had never seen any of those things until Bush came along. That was not my point. My point was that Bush put all of the parts together in a way I had never seen.

I said that Bush had attacked countries that had not attacked us. I did not say that had never happened before.

I said that we then ran those countries with a seamless marriage of corporate, military and governmental interests. Perhaps a better word would have been "unprecedented" rather than "seamless"; still, the statement stands. None of the examples he cites comes close, in my view.

I said that we adopted torture for the first time in American history. I didn't say that we had never used torture before. But the Bush administration was the first American administration I know of (Piece of Mind provides no counter examples) that made torture a deliberate, and purportedly legal, part of its information-gathering arsenal. That's why I said "adopted," not "used."

Piece of Mind makes it his mission to pry the motes from editors' eyes. Maybe it is time he saw the beam in his own.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Gazette circ down

According to my usually reliable source, the Gazette's audited Sunday circulation was down just over a thousand for the six months that ended March 30. Monday through Friday circulation was down just over 900.

Out of my head

So one Christmas my brother thought, if he likes Simon and Garfunkel, he ought to like Dylan, right? So I got Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, and the world changed again. There was nothing like this in Great Songs of the Church, Volume 2. People said this one was a drug song, but they always said that in those days about things they didn't understand. A few years later, after I had traveled around Europe for a while, I decided it was a hitchhiking song. Still works for me.

Though I know that evening's empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me; I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet,
And the ancient, empty street's too dead for dreaming.

Hey, Mister Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy, and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey, Mister Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle-jangle morning, I'll come following you.

Take me for a trip upon your magic, swirling ship,
My senses have been stripped,
My hands can't feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step,
Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering.
I'm ready to go anywhere,
I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade.
Cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.

(Chorus)

Though you might hear laughing spinning, skipping madly across the sun,
It's not aimed at anyone,
It's just escaping on the run,
And but for the sky there are no fences facing.
And if you hear vague traces of skipping reels of rhyme,
To your tambourine in time,
I wouldn't pay it any mind,
It's just a ragged clown behind,
It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing.

(Chorus)

Then take me disappearing down the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time,
Far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees,
Out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky,
With one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea,
Circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate,
Driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

(Chorus)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Messiah, 1932

My friend Robert Lubbers is reading a book about the Great Depression (and, yes, I am so dumb that I have forgotten the name and so lazy that I won't call and ask him). Last night he showed me a passage about the common habit that people had then, even in relief agencies, to claim that people who were out of work somehow deserved their fate. It should have been pretty obvious that millions of hardworking Americans who had been diligently providing for their families didn't suddenly become shiftless bums overnight, but the feeling was common enough, and it was often shared by the unemployed themselves.

The writer said that the director of one relief agency said that Negroes believed the new president was "the Messiah" and that he would provide them $12 a week to live on without their having to lift a finger.

Even omitting the outdated racial reference, and even adjusting for inflation, the bigotry in that statement is pretty obvious, isn't it? Do you suppose that modern-day claims that Obama is a purported Messiah will someday look just as bigoted to our grandkids?

American fascism

Over at Electric City Weblog, Rob Natelson sniffs fascism in a plan for restructuring General Motors. Mr. Natelson has done a fair amount of casual name calling on that blog of late. He found a "show trial" (his weasel-like quotation marks) in the Libby trial of Grace executives; he found a Messiah in Obama's presidency; he found Obama worship in the media; he found pornography in a Kaimin sex column.

This is probably good blogging; judging from the number of comments at Electric City, dropping a few slurs from time to time is good for business. But can it possibly be true, or fair?

Of course not. My dictionary, for instance, defines fascism as "a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized governmental control, belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism." So we can clearly see that Obama's plan for General Motors is fascist, provided one leaves out the parts about one-party rule (although Republicans seem determined to push us in that direction), suppression of opposition, national belligerence, racism and militarism.

Even the one plank left to Natelson -- government control of the economy -- is not nearly so strong as he imagines. Obama said at his press conference Thursday that he has no desire to run auto companies, and I see no reason not to believe him. Why would he?

But he inherited a situation in which all three big automakers were in bad shape, and two of them appeared to be on the verge of bankruptcy. It's understandable that he would want to find a way to shore them up until his program to get the economy on the mend got untracked. Maybe it was a bad idea. Maybe it will make things worse. But it isn't fascism. Neither Chrysler nor GM was forced to take a nickel of government money, but without it they were almost surely headed for the courts anyway, which means the government was bound to get involved in some fashion. If Obama is smart, and he seems to be, he will do what can be done, then get out as fast as possible.

Mr. Natelson presumes that Obama plans to stick his nose into other businesses, but he naturally fails to discuss specifics. Even the obvious possibility -- healthcare -- goes unmentioned. Mr. Natelson settles for the quick slur, and he defends it in part by saying that leftists are quick to pin the same slur on conservatives.

Certainly there have been leftists who have tossed around the "f" word. But I can't think of anyone with the national audience that, say, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage have, who has done so. At the national level labels of fascism appear to be conservative property. And that may be true even in Montana. Has any leftist with Natelson's notoriety and stature used the term in this state? I haven't seen it.

I am not as far to the left as Mr. Natelson is to the right, but I admit that I saw elements of what looked like fascism to me in the Bush administration. We invaded countries that hadn't attacked us; we then ran the conquered countries with an almost seamless marriage of corporate, military and governmental interests. We suspended, without admitting it, habeas corpus. We adopted torture for the first time in American history. We taunted prisoners' religious and cultural beliefs. We ignored and insulted allies. It's the closest thing to fascism I have ever seen in America.

But still not close enough. I don't think I ever used the term in print or on the blog to describe Bush policies. To the best of my memory, I mentioned the scary parallels only in private to a couple of people who I knew would get the point without taking offense. Fascism, whatever limited merits it might have as a way of describing government policy, is simply too tainted by its Axis associations to be fair game in American political discourse. You mention it; you lose.

Mr. Natelson ought to know that. And as a man who values words, he should choose them more carefully.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Torture revisited

It's worth taking another look at why torture is a bad idea as a matter of public policy even if you think it's a good idea in certain circumstances.

Some of this comes from watching the complete conversation between Jon Stewart and Cliff May, which can -- and should -- be seen here. May argues, in part, that the so-called torture memos are actually good because they show the limits America placed on enhanced interrogations. That's why releasing them was bad -- because terrorists now know what the limits are.

And why is that bad? Because the reason torture is so powerful is that the victim never knows when it will stop. He is powerless. If you know, for example, that there are limits on waterboarding -- only 182 to go! -- then you have a certain amount of control over the situation. If you are deprived of sleep for 11 days, but know you can sleep in on the 12th, then it's less like torture and more like finals week in college.

So the idea is that we don't torture, but only the president gets to define torture, and only the president gets to know what that definition is. If the definition gets out, as is likely in a free and open society, then torture doesn't work so well. You really have to choose: freedom or torture? Take a moment to think it over before you decide.

Another reason why setting specific limits on interrogations isn't helpful is that not everybody reacts to torture in the same way. So what might cause intense suffering in one victim might be quite tolerable for another. May, for instance, presented as laughable the notion that loud music might be considered a form of torture. But I read somewhere recently (I forget where) that a victim said that loud noise was actually one of the worst parts of the ordeal.

It makes sense to me. You are all alone with nothing do, and you have music blaring that guarantees you can't sleep, you can't hear and you can't talk. Pretty soon, I imagine, you can't even think, and madness can't be too far past that. Sounds like torture to me.

May's justification for one-size-fits-all torture tactics seemed to rest in part on the Geneva Conventions standard that torture is what shocks the conscience. What shocks the conscience more, he asked, a waterboarded terrorist or 3,000 dead in the World Trade Center?

The problem with heading down that road is that there really is no place to stop. What shocks the conscience more, pulled-out fingernails or 3,000 dead? A severed limb or 3,000 dead? An innocent child murdered to get her father to talk or 3,000 dead?

It is not a slippery slope. It is a plunge into the abyss.

Thursday talk radio update II

It amazes me how many phony and irrelevant arguments about torture hold sway in the talk radio world. Dennis Miller and Dave Rye both had some yesterday, and Hannity has been a veritable fount of them. Just to keep our minds clear, let's once more shoot down a few of the more obvious errors.

1. Torture is OK if it works. The Convention Against Torture, which was signed and publicly promoted by President Reagan, who some conservatives seem to think was a pretty good president, specifically says that torture for any reason is banned. Of course, it has to say that. Everybody who tortures can think of a good reason to do it. The torture convention simply takes that argument off the table. As somebody said on "Says You," that argument is like saying, "Maybe robbery is a crime, but look at all the nice stuff I got."

2. Waterboarding is OK because other forms of torture are worse. So the next time a cop pulls you over for speeding, try to talk him out of a ticket by saying, "Hey, maybe I was driving too fast, but at least I didn't shoot anybody." Let me know how that works for you.

3. Waterboarding isn't torture because it doesn't seem like torture to me. Dennis Miller was making this point yesterday, apparently unaware that binding international legal precedents are not set by comedians. Unfortunately for his legal theories, it's pretty clear that waterboarding violates U.S. law, the convention on torture and the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. remedy for that problem is to either abide by the law or change the law and to either renegotiate or repudiate the treaties. We can't just let talk show hosts make up their own laws.

What these confused pundits probably do know but don't like to mention is that we are bound by treaty not only to refrain from torture but also to punish those who fail to refrain. So when the former president and vice president of the United States openly admit to practices that almost surely violate our treaty obligations, then Obama risks committing a war crime himself if he fails to pursue an investigation.

Personally, I think that pursuing torture charges against Bush administration officials is bad politics. It may even be bad for the country. But I don't think that we have an honorable alternative.

Thursday talk radio update I

Rush Limbaugh seemed to be in a bit of a quandary yesterday. He led with news that Chrysler had filed for bankruptcy, which he, of course, read as a sign of failure for the Obama presidency. And since Limbaugh has famously rooted for Obama to fail, then this should have been good news for him.

Not so fast. Using a chain of logic that I couldn't quite follow, Limbaugh argued that Chrysler's bankruptcy may make Obama look bad in the short term, which is good, but in the long term it promotes Obama's secret goal of leading the United States into socialism, which is bad. So Chrysler's bankruptcy was actually bad news for Limbaugh.

So Limbaugh has to root for Chrysler to succeed, which would make Obama look good, in order for Obama to ultimately fail, which is what Limbaugh wants. No wonder failure has so many fathers. Or is that success?