Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Why yes, it's crystal clear

He feels his pain
Originally uploaded by vegacura.
The Vega received a letter today, addressed to "Dear Fellow Republican." It was from my old friend, Ken "The Chin" Mehlman, and it was intended to remind me how strong, resolute, and courageous our Dear Leader is, and that "a fierce battle is being waged for America's heart and soul."

Oh, and that "the decision you make in the next few moments could determine the outcome."

So I ripped up and tossed the goddamned thing in the trash.

But, anyways, I enjoyed this little bit of deliciousness:

There can be no doubt: Amercans have spoken...[sic] and their trust and confidence in President Bush is [sic] crystal clear. [emphasis theirs as well]

Yes, I thought, Americans' trust and confidence in the Miserable Failure is crystal clear, indeed.

The latest CBS News poll finds President Bush's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 34 percent, while pessimism about the Iraq war has risen to a new high.... CBS News senior White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that now it turns out the Coast Guard had concerns about the ports deal, a disclosure that is no doubt troubling to a president who assured Americans there was no security risk from the deal.... In a separate poll, two out of three Americans said they do not think President Bush has responded adequately to the needs of Katrina victims. Only 32 percent approve of the way President Bush is responding to those needs, a drop of 12 points from last September’s poll, taken just two weeks after the storm made landfall.

Here's my favorite line from the story:

In a bright spot for the administration, most Americans appeared to have heard enough about Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident.

And Iraq, probably, too.

Climate of fear

Lest you thought the bloviating of the right, in which plays and movies are reviewed and angrily criticized before they're even seen, didn't have an effect...

The play was written by the actor Alan Rickman, who directed the piece, and Katherine Viner, a journalist at The Guardian newspaper in London, who pieced together snippets of Ms. Corrie's journals and e-mail messages to create the script. And while the show had not been formally announced, Ms. Viner said yesterday that she and Mr. Rickman had already bought plane tickets to see the production at the workshop.

"I was devastated and really surprised," Ms. Viner said in a telephone interview from London. "And in my view, I think they're misjudging the New York audience. It's a piece of art, not a piece of agitprop."

But Mr. Nicola said he was less worried about those who saw the show than those who simply heard about it.

"I don't think we were worried about the audience," he said. "I think we were more worried that those who had never encountered her writing, never encountered the piece, would be using this as an opportunity to position their arguments."

Haven't seen the play. Don't know if it's any good. And don't have much of a point of view on Rachel Corrie other than I'm sorry she was killed and I won't link to Little Green Assholes. But when artists begin to worry about the views of people who haven't seen, and have no intention of seeing, their art, then I think we have yet another reason to exult in the Great Times in which We Live.

Another day. Another victory for the Kulturekampf.

Folly marches on

Digby. You know what to do.

I think that many of us over these last few years have felt as if we were living under water. Everything has seemed vaguely distorted. Communication and movement had an odd quality of density and resistance. We spoke out. We marched. We called our representatives. But it seemed as if our words sounded garbled and muffled in some way.

And there has also been a strong sense of inevitability. Certainly, since the impeachment the country has been steamrollered into a bizarre and aberrant political reality, never more than after 9/11 when the administration began agitating for this absurd, incomprehensible war. Despite its utter madness, I think most of us knew it was unstoppable. And it wasn't just us moonbats who knew it; it was the CIA and the state department. It was all of Europe and even Saddam himself. I suspect this is yet another feature of folly --- the sense among those who know better that there is no way to change the course of the event, that you are speaking a language nobody can understand.

And he preceded that powerful post with an equally powerful one wondering why Democratic party leaders are disdainful towards us "extreme" lefty bloggers, while Republicans embrace their truly extreme supporters.

The guy's good.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Treating the innocents, part 2

Finally getting their due

Great news for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Effa Manley became the first woman elected to the baseball Hall of Fame when the former Newark Eagles executive was among 17 people from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues chosen Monday by a special committee.

Manley co-owned the Eagles with her husband, Abe, and ran the business end of the team for more than a decade. The Eagles won the Negro Leagues World Series in 1946 -- one year before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier.

Manley used the game to advance civil rights causes with events such as an Anti-Lynching Day at the ballpark. She died in 1981 at age 84.

And it is terrific that Buck O'Neil and Minnie Minoso got in while they're still around to enjoy it.

Got his back

Via the Daou Report, a staunch Bush supporter looks behind the furor over the Dubai Ports fiasco and sees...wait for it...the Em. Ess. Em. And traitorous Congressional Republicans who have forgotten their blood oath to Dear Leader. Alongside a web ad for Bill Frist, he writes,

What is really stunning is how fast even GOPers turned on a dime against the President. When I attended the RNC Blogger Forum in DC back in January, I got to meet Senate Majority Leader Frist - and the exchange vastly improved my opinion of Senator Frist. All that has evaporated. Indeed, I'll likely never trust Frist with so much as the political equivalent of a burnt-out match, given the way he allowed himself to be rolled by this run-of-the-mill scare lobbying campaign.

You can see it now, can't you? It was all just a game, orchestrated by some interests who stood to lose if Dubai Ports World came in. I'm not the cleverest guy in the whole, wide world - but I smelt the political rat here a mile off. I was unimpressed by the first tremors of this furor last week because, quite honestly, it didn't seem that big a deal. Who, after all, would think that an Executive Branch run by scourge-of-terrorism George Bush would do anything to allow terrorists a new foothold in the United States? It was too absurd to contemplate - but not too absurd for the MSM... [sic] and, God help us, not too absurd for it to be used to roll the Congressional GOP.

I really feel for President Bush these days - he's carrying the whole load, hindered rather than helped by his alleged political allies. This man has to fight terrorism, fend off increasingly strident attacks from Democrats, and sustain the entire GOP.

Ah, well, he's tough enough. Keep at it, Mr. President: there are still some of us out here who got your back.

Hmmm. I'm guessing that Mark Noonan doesn't mean that in a, ya know, Brokeback Mountain kind of way, but whatever. Whenever someone says that he's "not the cleverest guy in the whole, wide world," he probably thinks that, yes, he's pretty clever. But "smelt?" I knew they were a non-native nuisance fish, but are they who he means by the "interests who stood to lose if Dubai Ports came in?" He doesn't elaborate, so I'll go with that.

Anyway, it would seem that Noonan is wearing a prototype pair of "Red State Spex."

Sunday, February 26, 2006

"Not based in Afghanistan"

After it was determined that al Qaeda was responsible for the worst mass murder on U.S. soil, we invaded Iraq to route the Taliban and chased the remnants of al Qaeda into the caves of the Tora Bora.

After the next attack masterminded by al Qaeda, we are going to have a much more difficult time routing the Pashtuns of Pakistan and chasing al Qaeda, in particular Osama bin Laden, anywhere.

During the past 12 months or so, CIA and Pentagon officials have quietly modified the line they employed for three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- that bin Laden was hiding out "in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border." Now the same officials say with some confidence that he is "not based in Afghanistan." Whatever ambiguity there was in the past is gone: Bin Laden is in Pakistan.

What's left is the question: What are the United States and its ally, Pakistan, doing about it?

Not enough, according to high-ranking Afghan, Pakistani and Western officials I've spoken to here. Indeed, the disastrous policies of the United States and Pakistan, starting with the aftermath of the war in 2001, have only hastened the radicalization of northwest Pakistan and made it more hospitable to bin Laden and his Taliban allies. The region has become a haven for bin Laden and a base for Taliban raids across the border back into Afghanistan which they had fled.

Not that you'd be able to tell any of that from what Bush administration officials have been saying. Almost everything the administration claims about the al Qaeda leader is tinged with bravado and untruthfulness. "We are dealing with a figure who has been able to hide, but he's on the run," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month. Here in Pakistan, however, the view is different. Bin Laden is not considered to be on the run, but well protected by friends who are making his life as comfortable as possible.

After all, his number two, the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, appears to have a busy social calendar in Pakistan's Pashtun belt. U.S. missiles narrowly missed him at a dinner party held in his honor on Jan. 13.

Paul Krugman was right, the uproar over the administration's Dubai ports fiasco is the last straw (or, at least, the latest) for a cowed public, press, and Congress that have willfully ignored the Cheney administration's failure to bring bin Laden to justice, but has instead created a climate of fear to profit politically from his existence.

They've been very good at telling us we need our freedom curtailed so that they can listen in on "calls from al Qaeda," but they can't find the bastards in the hinterlands of our "close ally." Why the loyal opposition hasn't called the administration on this, day after day, is bewildering.

I mentioned Krugman. Well, here he is, his long beard and flowing robes flying in the wind as he stands high atop the mountain, railing at the frightened masses below, who do not understand why God has forsaken them. He reminds them that he has warned them for lo these five years, that they have turned their eyes away from Reason and Good Sense for too long.

And those gods can be beeyatches [TimesSelectGradeMeats, so apologies to the Times's copyright lawyers]:

The storm of protest over the planned takeover of some U.S. port operations by Dubai Ports World doesn't make sense viewed in isolation. The Bush administration clearly made no serious effort to ensure that the deal didn't endanger national security. But that's nothing new — the administration has spent the past four and a half years refusing to do anything serious about protecting the nation's ports.

So why did this latest case of sloppiness and indifference finally catch the public's attention? Because this time the administration has become a victim of its own campaign of fearmongering and insinuation.

Let's go back to the beginning. At 2:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld gave military commanders their marching orders. "Judge whether good enough hit S. H. [Saddam Hussein] @ same time — not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]," read an aide's handwritten notes about his instructions. The notes were recently released after a Freedom of Information Act request. "Hard to get a good case," the notes acknowledge. Nonetheless, they say: "Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

So it literally began on Day 1. When terrorists attacked the United States, the Bush administration immediately looked for ways it could exploit the atrocity to pursue unrelated goals — especially, but not exclusively, a war with Iraq.

But to exploit the atrocity, President Bush had to do two things. First, he had to create a climate of fear: Al Qaeda, a real but limited threat, metamorphosed into a vast, imaginary axis of evil threatening America. Second, he had to blur the distinctions between nasty people who actually attacked us and nasty people who didn't.

The administration successfully linked Iraq and 9/11 in public perceptions through a campaign of constant insinuation and occasional outright lies. In the process, it also created a state of mind in which all Arabs were lumped together in the camp of evildoers. Osama, Saddam — what's the difference?

Now comes the ports deal. Mr. Bush assures us that "people don't need to worry about security." But after all those declarations that we're engaged in a global war on terrorism, after all the terror alerts declared whenever the national political debate seemed to be shifting to questions of cronyism, corruption and incompetence, the administration can't suddenly change its theme song to "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

The administration also tells us not to worry about having Arabs control port operations. "I want those who are questioning it," Mr. Bush said, "to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard than a Great British company."

He was being evasive, of course. This isn't just a Middle Eastern company; it's a company controlled by the monarchy in Dubai, which is part of the authoritarian United Arab Emirates, one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan.

But more to the point, after years of systematically suggesting that Arabs who didn't attack us are the same as Arabs who did, the administration can't suddenly turn around and say, "But these are good Arabs."

Finally, the ports affair plays in a subliminal way into the public's awareness — vague but widespread — that Mr. Bush, the self-proclaimed deliverer of democracy to the Middle East, and his family have close personal and financial ties to Middle Eastern rulers. Mr. Bush was photographed holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (now King Abdullah), not the emir of Dubai. But an administration that has spent years ridiculing people who try to make such distinctions isn't going to have an easy time explaining the difference.

Mr. Bush shouldn't really be losing his credibility as a terrorism fighter over the ports deal, which, after careful examination (which hasn't happened yet), may turn out to be O.K. Instead, Mr. Bush should have lost his credibility long ago over his diversion of U.S. resources away from the pursuit of Al Qaeda and into an unnecessary war in Iraq, his bungling of that war, and his adoption of a wrongful imprisonment and torture policy that has blackened America's reputation.

But there is, nonetheless, a kind of rough justice in Mr. Bush's current predicament. After 9/11, the American people granted him a degree of trust rarely, if ever, bestowed on our leaders. He abused that trust, and now he is facing a storm of skepticism about his actions — a storm that sweeps up everything, things related and not.

© 2006 New York Times Co.

So ends today's (Friday's, actually) Krugmaniad.

Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan, if you needed any evidence for the failure of the Bush administration to seriously confront the elements that ended in more than 3,000 people losing their lives in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there is the infamous Bagram prison.


Well, it's officially begun. Just as the blame for our failure in Vietnam was placed by hawks at home on the failure of the military to use enough force, so it has begun in Iraq. Shorter Bill Kristol: My dream of flowers and sweets would have come true had we just killed more of them the last three years.

This moment in wankery is brought to you via Atrios.

Treating the innocents

13-year old Rakan Hussein's story, as told by the Globe's Kevin Cullen in the first of a four part series, is terrible. And moving.

A soldier in the bunk above Rakan awoke and slid his legs down to the floor, mumbling in a morphine haze that he had to go the bathroom. A nurse tried to take the soldier's helmet, but he held it tightly to his chest, pointed to a jagged hole in its side and said it was the only reason he was still alive and that he'd be damned before he gave it up.

The soldier, a big country boy with wide shoulders and a deep shrapnel wound in his back, looked at the small, emaciated Iraqi child beneath him, and turned to Ronan, who had met Rakan at the US military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and was bringing him back to Boston for treatment.

''What happened to him?" the soldier asked, as Ronan recalls it.

Ronan repeated the story: a speeding car, a jumpy patrol, a family devastated.

The soldier bent down, wincing in pain, and stroked Rakan's head. ''I'm sorry, kid," the soldier told him. ''I'm really sorry."

Rakan looked at him, intrigued.

Still clutching his helmet, the soldier dug into his duffel bag with his free hand and pulled out his US Army cap and handed it to Rakan. Rakan smiled up at him.

Ronan turned away, his eyes welling up.

Later, he tried to explain.

''Every military person I've dealt with in this says the same thing: what can I do to help? All these guys know they could have been the one who pulled the trigger."

But Rakan, who lost his parents and possibly use of his legs, because of a U.S. patrol mistakenly fired on their speeding car, needed an extraordinary amount of effort to get him the care he needed. Not only that, that extraordinary effort would not have even begun had the patrol not been accompanied by Chris Hondos, a photographer for Getty Images, whose photos of the family's plight appeared in Newsweek.

I am somewhat astonished that U.S. forces do not routinely provide medical care to any innocent civilian victims they injure by accident. Instead, they call an ambulance and send them to Iraq's hospitals? Those were in bad shape before the U.S. invasion.

I guess I'm naive. I would have assumed they'd be taken to the army's medical facilities, at least for initial care, such as removing a U.S. bullet.

Something else struck me as I read the installment. I wonder who will be the more permanently traumatized: Young Rakan, or the soldiers who killed his parents by mistake and left him unable to walk?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Give to your local Fafblog station

Complimentary tote bag
Originally uploaded by vegacura.
Fafnir, Giblets, and the Medium Lobster are demanding tribute again. It's important to help keep their important voices thriving on the internets, so give! Handsomely.

I did, and as a thank you from the...well...whatever they are...was able to download this handsome tote.

By giving, you ensure that they will continue to bring us perspective on events we get nowhere else. Not only that, they bring us their unique outlook oftentimes in easy-to-digest FAQs.

Q. Whew! Is democracy on the march?
A. Democracy was on the march. Sadly, freedom and democracy were caught in a blizzard and freedom was forced to eat democracy to survive.
Q. It died as it lived: sautéed in garlic sauce with a side of scalloped potatoes.
A. Democracy is survived by sectarian violence and fanaticism. In lieu of flowers, please send a coherent exit strategy.

No one brings more reassurance to the complaisant among us in this chaotic world.

Q. Tell me more about this “not our fault” theory – I find it oddly compelling.
A. Like weather, terror is affected by seasonal fluctuations. The jet stream carries hijackers from continent to continent; El Niño causes suicide bombers to condense in the upper atmosphere. Is this affected by human activity or just part of a natural warming trend for terror? We just don’t know!
Q. Your ideas are boldly nonconformist, yet conveniently reaffirm my desire to do nothing. I like it!

Perfect little bites of wisdom for our busy, on-the-go times.

On the road again

Like a minor David Brooks, I have ventured out into "America," got a glimpse of what it's like to travel on business midway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, and feel confident into parlaying those observations into a grand sociologic treatise.

A couple of things really stood out.

Even for someone like me, who actively sought out news and information during the trip -- surfing when I could back in the hotel and trying to listen to NPR through the static of the hotel radio -- the business traveller exists in a bubble which is pretty much impermeable to current events. Lots of talk about Sasha Cohen's silver medal, and not a word about our largest colony's downward spiral. Explains a lot about the Republican party's hold on power.

No one is subject to more seminars and training for ethics, diversity, and sexual harrassment (now often folded into ethics), than the modern corporate manager. What effect this has on sales of "movies on demand" at the hotel, I don't know. But I'll tell you, there's a lot of guys with issues out there.

Now, I love room service, but I never buy movies at hotels (there's something depressing about the very idea). This trip, though, I thought I'd check out the titles...for purely sociological edification, you see. When you click on the menu item, the first thing you're reassured, "No movie titles will appear on your hotel bill." So -- again, only out of intellectual curiosity -- I clicked on "Adult." From a mere perusal of the titles, these aren't movies intended to get couples' engines revving during a weekend stay on the town. Nope. These movies are pretty clearly "targetted" to male business traveller who, because or despite of the hours of seminars and training they've received, have some serious and in some cases really demeaning attitudes towards "secretaries," Asians, and roving wives. For the rest, there's rough gay fantasies.

The odd thing is, I have no doubt those movies are immensely profitable for the hotels. And that's despite the fact that the particular conference I attended was made up of at least 60% women. So, there must be some very heavy users among the men on the road out there.

Again, sounds like a mainstay of the Republican Party base.

The Bermuda Shorts scandal

Josh Marshall has been detailing the cash prizes that were transacted between Abramoff and just-pled Mithcell Wade quite extensively, but this little offshoot of the skullduggery is perhaps my favorite.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Judgment Day


The shrine is one of four major Shiite shrines in Iraq, and the site has special meaning because 2 of the 12 imams revered by mainstream Shiites are buried there: Ali al-Hadi, who died in A.D. 868 and his son, the 11th imam, Hassan al-Askari. Also, according to legend, the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as the "Hidden Imam," was at the site of the shrine before he disappeared.

These figures resonate with Iraqi Shiites, whose traditions have long been shaped by violence with the rival Sunni sect. At an earlier time of rising tensions, the 10th imam was forced from his home in Medina by the powerful Sunni caliph in Baghdad and was sent to live in Samarra, where he could be kept under closer supervision. Both he and his son were believed to have been poisoned by the caliphate.

Fearing such persecution, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who was just a child when he became the 12th imam, was hidden away in a cave, where he held forth through intermediaries for about 70 years. Then he is said to have gone into what Shiites call occultation, a kind of suspended state from which it is believed he will return before the Judgment Day to bring justice during a time of chaos.

Then I guess we can be expecting him any day now.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

In which your host reveals he watches women's figure skating

But not the men. No, no. Not the men (not that I am, like Mickey Maus, viscerally averse to doing so).

Anyhoo, while watching the early performers I turned to Madame Cura and wondered aloud why they wear such god-awful costumes. Madame, says I, why can't they wear those wonderful black suits they wear while they train? Wearing those, they'd actually look like, ya know, athletes, and, yes, far more sexy at the same time.

And then Irina Slutskaya came out on the ice. Fantastic.

King Kaufman thinks she looks like she patterned the outfit on the men's figure skaters, but I find that patently untrue and unfair.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Too sick for words

Something to Tivo tonight, to watch after the sparkly costumes of figure skating are but pleasant memories.

"Dealing Dogs," a film to be broadcast tonight on HBO, documents the project that was designed to expose the kennel's inhumane treatment of dogs and violations of the law. The investigation was initiated by Last Chance for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal-rights group.

The operation resulted in the closing of Martin Creek Kennel and also in one of the largest victories ever for animal rights advocates.

Each year, 42,000 dogs are sold to veterinary schools and research labs by so-called Class B dealers (brokers and auction operators), according to information gathered by the filmmakers and the advocates at Last Chance. Under federal law, those dealers are required to buy animals from reputable breeders, shelters or pounds and to treat them humanely. But animal rights groups have long contended that the animals are often stolen pets, bought from illegitimate sources or abused. The investigation by Pete, which began in late 2001 and ended in April 2002, caught the dealers in the act.

Pete's camera reveals a kaleidoscope of horrors: dogs covered with wounds from fighting with other dogs over food; workers striking dogs. He discovers that dogs with heartworm, an easily treated disease, were killed and their heartworms sold to researchers. At one point, he leads the investigators working with him to a table soaked in blood and a grassy field scattered with dog parts and rotting corpses.

The film also shows a woman named Elaine, who admits that she illegally sold enough dogs to Martin Creek Kennel's owner to pay off her mortgage. Some of the dogs were stolen, she said, and no questions were ever asked.

"I feel guilty; Bob doesn't," she says, referring to her husband. "He likes the money. But I think, 'That could be a child's dog.' "

Dick Cheney's weekend outing in which he shot an old man in the face at close range has raised the debate over hunting essentially defenseless birds. For instance, is there something inherently wrong in blasting them away by the dozens so's he can relax from the pressures of killing Iraqis by the thousands? I don't really have an issue with hunting -- I am a great lover of animal flesh, I admit -- but I simply do not understand wanton cruelty to animals. Profit motive doesn't explain it to me. These people are sick. And when you think about cruelty to dogs -- an animal that has thrived in the company of humans by adapting to live with us (or, some would say, take advantage of us) -- you have to wonder, how fucked up are these people? And how many of them does it take before you lose all hope for our fucked up species?

Workin' for a living

As if this humble blog hadn't been a mixture of thin gruel and weavel-filled bread lately, work requires me to travel for the next couple of days, so postings will be light. Please amuse yourselves with the venerable blogs to the right. And check back soon.

As ever,

Your friend,

The Vega

Patron saint of blogging?

George Orwell?

The question was, of course, rigged. The great critic and editor Cyril Connolly fell into despair over the prolixity of Orwell’s wartime writing: “Being Orwell, nothing he wrote is quite without value and unexpected gems keep popping up. But O the boredom of argument without action, politics without power.”

Connolly was the constitutional opposite of Orwell - a spry wit given to sloth, a portly bon vivant who masticated away his genius. But he recognised, in effect, how awful Orwell would have been as a blogger, and how he would fall into the kind of dross exemplified by the author’s “In Defence of English Cooking”: “Here are some of the things that I myself have sought for in foreign countries and failed to find. First of all, kippers, Yorkshire pudding, Devonshire cream, muffins and crumpets. Then a list of puddings that would be interminable if I gave it in full: I will pick out for special mention Christmas pudding, treacle tart and apple dumplings. Then an almost equally long list of cakes: for instance, dark plum cake.”

It's a long slog to get through before you get to that enjoyable little nugget. Otherwise the article is standard issue "wry reporter who gets paid to write is amused by the megalomania of 'the blogosphere' and its pathetic bleatings that it will soon 'replace the MSM.'" He talks to Glenn Reynolds and a few "lefties" like the former Wonkette.

But what gets lost in these pieces is that the lefty side of "the blogosphere" doesn't expect to "replace the MSM." In fact, unlike Powerline and the rest of the Peignoir Media club, we don't want to. Quite the contrary. We want the "MSM" to be tough, to be curious, to be relentless. It's something that's been missing too often in these great times of ours, but that doesn't mean I want traditional newspaper reporters relegated to the trash heap. It's the right that wants that. They don't want reporters to be tough, curious, or relentless in finding the truth. Because if reporters and their editors were that way, we'd like not have had to suffer through the endless journalism head shakes over Whitewater and Vince Foster. And Iraq would still be an ugly little sore in the Middle East, not a sucking chest wound.

We want "the MSM" to remove their epaulettes, not turn in their press badges.

Atrios, thinking along similar lines (to several thousand more readers).

Mixed up

Doin' a heckuva job.

GOLDEN, Colo. - President Bush on Tuesday acknowledged that Washington has sent "mixed signals" to one of the nation's premiere labs studying renewable energies — by first laying off, then reinstating, 32 workers just before his visit.

The president blamed the conflicting message on an appropriations mix-up in funding the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is developing the very renewable energy technologies the president is promoting.

"I recognize that there has been some interesting — let me say — mixed signals when it comes to funding," Bush said. "The issue, of course, is whether good intentions are met with actual dollars spent.

"Part of the issue we face, unfortunately, is that sometimes decisions made as the result of the appropriations process, may not end going to where it was supposed to have gone.

"We want you to know how important your work is," he said. "We appreciate what you're doing."

Two weeks ago, 32 workers, including eight researchers, were laid off at the lab.

Then, over the weekend, just before Bush's planned visit, the government restored the jobs.

I'm glad they got their jobs back, but if I were one of the 32 workers who were laid off then re-hired, I wouldn't be in too great a rush to unpack the boxes. 'Cause the Bush photo-op giveth, the Bush photo-op can taketh away.

Oh, and Bush asked for a souvenir, I understand

At the lab, where Bush was holding a panel discussion of his energy initiatives, the president saw tanks where agricultural waste is fermented into ethanol. He was shown samples of polar, switchgrass and corn stalks — material the lab is studying in hopes of developing a cost-effective way to use it to make ethanol.

"You're doing great work here," said Bush, who picked up a bottle of clear-colored ethanol and smelled it.

He took some of the "empties" back with him. Once a coke dealer, always a coke dealer.

Rebuild America

E.J. Dionne looks at some interesting ideas for rebuilding the Democratic party.

Meeting Sims and reading the Urban Institute manuscript provided a bracing reminder that there is an authentic search going on outside of conventional politics for the new ideas to animate a new political era -- precisely what Democrats are supposed to be seeking.

Sims is a bluff, warm man who gets excited about problem-solving. A Democrat, he will talk your ear off about the King County government's effort to work with local employers in creating a new heath care delivery system. The idea is that government can be a catalyst for negotiation, research and reform and save both public and private employers money while producing better health outcomes for consumers.

It fits with Sims's larger idea that government, far from being a drain on the nation's wealth, ought to "provide the social infrastructure and the physical infrastructure to help wealth be created." He said during lunch here the other day that Democrats should run under the slogan: "Rebuild America."

It's unlikely that Democrats are ever going to out-security Republicans. Instead of trying to outflank the GOP from the right, Democrats should hammer home what it is that they've actually done right in the last 40 years: develop America's infrastructure. Even the dumbest of voters has to recognize that with the Republicans in power, everything from highways to the military have decayed rapidly. New Orleans is the perfect metaphor. Democrats can run on a platform of rebuilding infrastructure, reforming healthcare and education, and fixing a depleted military.

Might as well give it a try. Trying to be more hawkish on Iraq hasn't worked very well.

Monday, February 20, 2006

White man's burden

All the talk of "major" withdrawals from Iraq by the end of 2006 (funny, isn't there a mid-term election in the Fall?) has you thinking that we're finally getting out of the place?

Think again.

Tom Engelhardt finds it kinda, ya know, weird, that the United States would really be planning to draw down our presence in Iraq while, at the same time, building some of the largest, most advanced military bases in the world.

Assuming, then, a near year to come of withdrawal buzz, speculation, and even a media blitz of withdrawal announcements, the question is: How can anybody tell if the Bush administration is actually withdrawing from Iraq or not? Sometimes, when trying to cut through a veritable fog of misinformation and disinformation, it helps to focus on something concrete. In the case of Iraq, nothing could be more concrete -- though less generally discussed in our media -- than the set of enormous bases the Pentagon has long been building in that country. Quite literally multi-billions of dollars have gone into them. In a prestigious engineering magazine in late 2003, Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army engineer "tasked with facilities development" in Iraq, was already speaking proudly of several billion dollars being sunk into base construction ("the numbers are staggering"). Since then, the base-building has been massive and ongoing.

In a country in such startling disarray, these bases, with some of the most expensive and advanced communications systems on the planet, are like vast spaceships that have landed from another solar system. Representing a staggering investment of resources, effort, and geostrategic dreaming, they are the unlikeliest places for the Bush administration to hand over willingly to even the friendliest of Iraqi governments.

If, as just about every expert agrees, Bush-style reconstruction has failed dismally in Iraq, thanks to thievery, knavery, and sheer incompetence, and is now essentially ending, it has been a raging success in Iraq's "Little America." For the first time, we have actual descriptions of a couple of the "super-bases" built in Iraq in the last two and a half years and, despite being written by reporters under Pentagon information restrictions, they are sobering. Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post paid a visit to Balad Air Base, the largest American base in the country, 68 kilometers north of Baghdad and "smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq." In a piece entitled Biggest Base in Iraq Has Small-Town Feel, Ricks paints a striking portrait:

The base is sizeable enough to have its own "neighborhoods" including "KBR-land" (in honor of the Halliburton subsidiary that has done most of the base-construction work in Iraq); "CJSOTF" ("home to a special operations unit," the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force, surrounded by "especially high walls," and so secretive that even the base Army public affairs chief has never been inside); and a junkyard for bombed out Army Humvees. There is as well a Subway, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, "an ersatz Starbucks," a 24-hour Burger King, two post exchanges where TVs, iPods, and the like can be purchased, four mess halls, a hospital, a strictly enforced on-base speed limit of 10 MPH, a huge airstrip, 250 aircraft (helicopters and predator drones included), air-traffic pile-ups of a sort you would see over Chicago's O'Hare airport, and "a miniature golf course, which mimics a battlefield with its baby sandbags, little Jersey barriers, strands of concertina wire and, down at the end of the course, what appears to be a tiny detainee cage."

Ricks reports that the 20,000 troops stationed at Balad live in "air-conditioned containers" which will, in the future -- and yes, for those building these bases, there still is a future -- be wired "to bring the troops Internet, cable television and overseas telephone access." He points out as well that, of the troops at Balad, "only several hundred have jobs that take them off base. Most Americans posted here never interact with an Iraqi."

The Bush plan to fight the War on Terrorism (or, AARP) is -- and always has been -- to plant bases in the Middle East to replace those mothballed in Saudi Arabia (the Cheney administration being so sensitive about Muslim sensibilities over bases near Mecca and Medina) to protect against any rogue nation (either its leaders or...people) from disrupting oil supplies, and because we all know that Arabs respect nothing more than power. In the air, use a combination of massive airpower and assassination by drone to systematically kill terrorists. Success to be measured by body counts and crossing off names on terrorist "org charts."

That's a plan, alright. I'm sure the natives will be so cowed by massive bases that they will forget their resentment over having the pleasure of a huge American presence in their midst that will do nothing (for security reasons) for any local economy other than Haliburton's. And "killing them all" by bombing in civilian areas and taking out unfriendlies has a certain "West of the Pecos" attraction for a fair number of us -- especially when "them all" are brown. But that logic weakens and falls on the fifth stride when reality's five fingers of death intervenes.

Oh, and there's a fifth massive base under construction. Did I say base? I meant embassy.

The Bush administration is sinking between $600 million and $1 billion in construction funds into a new U.S. embassy. It is to arise in Baghdad's Green Zone on a plot of land along the Tigris River that is reportedly two-thirds the area of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The plans for this "embassy" are almost mythic in nature. A high-tech complex, it is to have "15ft blast walls and ground-to-air missiles" for protection as well as bunkers to guard against air attacks. It will, according to Chris Hughes, security correspondent for the British Daily Mirror, include "as many as 300 houses for consular and military officials" and a "large-scale barracks" for Marines. The "compound" will be a cluster of at least 21 buildings, assumedly nearly self-sufficient, including "a gym, swimming pool, barber and beauty shops, a food court and a commissary. Water, electricity and sewage treatment plants will all be independent from Baghdad's city utilities." It is being billed as "more secure than the Pentagon" (not, perhaps, the most reassuring tagline in the post-9/11 world). If not quite a city-state, on completion it will resemble an embassy-state. In essence, inside Baghdad's Green Zone, we will be building another more heavily fortified little Green Zone.

Fighting violent Islamic terrorists is hard. Real hard. Building an empire is fun.

I'll hand it to previous empires, though. They generally had to come in to some sort of contact with the natives.

Engelhardt's main point is that, surprise, despite all of this massive building, no one is reporting on this.

As Kevin Drum says, read the whole thing.

Enemies near and far

Everyone is talking about Francis Fukuyama's denunciation of neoconservatism (I guess) in yesterday's NYTimes Magazine. Nobody's talking much about the truly disturbing portrait of the changing face of violent jihad in the Middle East that also appeared in the issue.

In the 90's, Zarqawi's desire to wage jihad against the "near enemy" of so-called infidel Muslims was becoming more common in the Arab world. There were, by that point, many men like him in Amman and, even more so, in Jordan's heavily Palestinian cities of Zarqa and Irbid. Some had made it back from Afghanistan, where they successfully fought the Soviets, and were awaiting a next jihad; others had come up from Kuwait, part of a massive exodus of Palestinians from that country during the Iraqi invasion in 1990 and following the withdrawal of Iraqi forces in 1991. (Support among some Palestinians for Saddam Hussein's invasion had led Kuwait to throw out its Palestinians en masse once his forces had withdrawn.) Within this latter group were some committed radicals who had been deeply influenced by Egyptian clerics — firebrands of the Islamic Group, a radicalized, prison-based offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, who had themselves been expelled by Egypt to Kuwait.

Many of these rootless and unwanted believers found a spiritual and political home in a type of Islam called Salafism. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Salafism emphasizes the rootlessness of faith. It despises local saints and mystical practices (like those of Sufism) and any other departures from the most rigid Sunnism. It despises Shiites. It commonly despises all other sects or practices that Salafis might consider "bida," or "innovation." Given this intense preoccupation with purity, Salafis are constantly trying to identify and expel the impure. This is called "takfir," often translated as "excommunication": an old, disused term that has found new life in Salafism, which permits, even encourages, the killing of Muslims whom Salafis have expelled through takfir. Perhaps the most ferocious embodiment of takfiri Salafism today is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

That ferocious embodiment is the man to whom our war in Iraq provided a failed state. He's the "connection" to al Qaeda the administration is always pointing to; forgetting to mention that when Hussein was in power, Zarqawi was confined to the northern part of the country -- the no-fly zone that was already under U.S. and British control.

After his release in 1999, Zarqawi left for Pakistan, where he was arrested and detained briefly before making his way to Afghanistan along with his key followers. He found both Al Qaeda and the Taliban insufficiently extreme, according to Mohammed Abu Rumman, a journalist for Al Ghad. A critical dispute was over whom to attack: Zarqawi criticized Osama bin Laden for not calling Arab governments infidels and attacking them.

For Zarqawi, the "near enemy" was the priority, while for bin Laden the "far enemy" was. This has been perhaps the most critical dispute within violent, extremist Sunni Islam. Al Qaeda, at least in relative terms, has always been concerned with making connections among groups that might otherwise expend themselves fighting one another. By focusing on the far enemy — the United States, Israel, European states and Russia; whether on their own territories or against their citizens, embassies or interests in Muslim lands — Al Qaeda could assert some charismatic leadership over an otherwise quite diverse and fractious "movement." And by leaving the many near enemies alone (or forming alliances with them), Al Qaeda could acquire a little breathing space.

The zeal for purity has led Zarqawi and Salafis more generally to focus on their close surroundings. This urge might, of course, lead to withdrawal; in the 1970's, one Egyptian Salafi group tried physically and psychologically to remove itself from society altogether, forming something like a commune. But an impatience for changing the world and perhaps, in some, an appetite for violence has led many Salafis into vigorous engagement with the nearest enemies they could find, even when those enemies were extremists with ideas little different from theirs.

Zarqawi was such a strict Salafi that he criticized the Taliban — for insufficiently imposing Shariah, for one thing, and also for recognizing the United Nations, an infidel organization. And thus he criticized Al Qaeda as well for associating with the Taliban. Zarqawi established his own camp near the western Afghan city of Herat, close to the border with Iran. When the United States attacked Afghanistan, American intelligence officials have said Zarqawi made his way through Iran to autonomous Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where he may have linked up with the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in a region outside of Saddam Hussein's reach. With Hussein removed from power in April 2003, Zarqawi had a new failed state to operate in. And the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent American occupation presented the perfect opportunity to heal the rift within Muslim extremism: the far enemy had made itself the near enemy as well.

The best part of having the far enemy become the near enemy as well is that, for violent Jordanian jihadists, they can keep their day jobs.

According to Azzam, his studies did not keep him from the occasional forays into jihadist activity. Three days after America's invasion of Iraq began, Azzam and other followers of his late father crossed over from Jordan into Iraq and established a base for themselves in Falluja. The only source for this is Azzam himself, but his telling the story at all involved some risk to him, and his command of the detail and of the personalities involved lent him credibility; it also matched up well with information I had gathered on earlier reporting trips to Falluja and Baghdad. "We were trying to convince Muslim scholars to begin the resistance," he said. "They had no plan. They were sleeping. For one month they did not agree. They said, 'Go back to your country."'

For Azzam, leaving Iraq alone to work out its own fate was not an option. He said he believed that resistance would start, and he wanted to shape the process as well as hurry it. "We were more than 30 or 40 Arabs, without weapons," he said. "We went from mosque to mosque, from school to school. People said, 'The U.S. brought us democracy!' They believed the lies of Bush that he will bring democracy and freedom."

Everything changed, he said, on April 28, 2003, when American soldiers killed 15 demonstrators in Falluja, then killed 2 more in a subsequent demonstration. (Iraqis said that the first demonstration had been to protest the Americans' using an elementary school as a military base.) After that, rumors spread of four American soldiers raping a 17-year-old girl, with pictures distributed on the Internet. (Those pictures may well have been fabricated.) "This story was the main cause of starting the resistance in Falluja," Azzam said. It "made them reconsider, but there was still no action. I was watching from afar — with a smile. In the beginning they had said, 'Go make jihad in your own country.' After the rape story, they said, 'O.K., we want to start now, or tomorrow we will find our mothers or daughters or sisters raped.' This story exploded the resistance in Falluja. They called us for a meeting and said, 'You were right.' We had told them from the first day that the Iraqi Army abandoned weapons that they should take, but they said this is stealing, haram, looting. You could buy an R.P.G. for three U.S. dollars in those days."


Azzam viewed his support for Iraqi resistance as consistent with his support of other indigenous Muslim movements fighting in what the jihadis consider self-defense. "Iraq is a defensive jihad," Azzam insisted. "Troops from abroad came to a Muslim country." He said that the Iraqi jihad was going very well. "Praise God, we were successful," he told me. "Everything is going much better. Much better than we were planning. It won't take like Afghanistan, nine years, to kick the U.S. out. It will be much faster. But we must know our aims and goals. Just exploding cars is not enough. We need a plan for the future. When the Americans leave, we will look for the next place."

When they find that next place, will the Americans be there? The specifically Salafist form of jihad doesn't require a "far enemy" like the United States. Given the rigidity of Salafism, it will always have a range of near enemies to choose from. Al Qaeda is different: the kind of force-projection missions it has favored, taking the fight to the far enemy, will presumably occur as long as there is an Al Qaeda. But what of the "defensive jihad" fought by people like Huthaifa Azzam?

Azzam and others along the spectrum of jihadi thought seem to expect the United States to continue, to some degree, as a "near enemy," now that it has become deeply involved in Iraq. Americans in the region will be subject to the chronic low-level violence carried out by men who, for years now, have done a bit of bombing here, a cross-border incursion there, all while spending the rest of their time selling cars or mobile phones.

Think of the tens of thousands of lives lost as a result of our empire-building experiment in Iraq. Think destroying a dictator was worth those lives? Perhaps so. But if the "stability" of the region was the central rationale for the neocons determination to take out Saddam, then that's yet another leg on the logic stool that's been kicked out from under them -- and from under the Iraqi people.

It's only a game

I've never seen the appeal of video games; perhaps it's the attraction of being able to engage in totally anti-social behavior in the comfort and safety of your own home; of the powerless being able to grant themselves great powers for a few hours.


On the other hand, I've never been one to fear that playing a violent video game is going to lead to the next Columbine.

That said, I found this exchange, debating the relative merits of Grand Theft Auto and whether or not killing a prostitute in the game is a good or just neutral thing, extremely disturbing.

Perhaps it's early stage old-fogeyism...or maybe these really are signs and portents of the decline and fall.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sparking a debate, alright

As yet another demonstration in the Muslim world ends with an embassy under attack, the cultural editor of the Danish publication that printed the original set of cartoons (as opposed to those that were used to really stoke the rage), tries to explain.

As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak. The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic.

The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants.

Since the Sept. 30 publication of the cartoons, we have had a constructive debate in Denmark and Europe about freedom of expression, freedom of religion and respect for immigrants and people's beliefs. Never before have so many Danish Muslims participated in a public dialogue -- in town hall meetings, letters to editors, opinion columns and debates on radio and TV. We have had no anti-Muslim riots, no Muslims fleeing the country and no Muslims committing violence. The radical imams who misinformed their counterparts in the Middle East about the situation for Muslims in Denmark have been marginalized. They no longer speak for the Muslim community in Denmark because moderate Muslims have had the courage to speak out against them.

In January, Jyllands-Posten ran three full pages of interviews and photos of moderate Muslims saying no to being represented by the imams. They insist that their faith is compatible with a modern secular democracy. A network of moderate Muslims committed to the constitution has been established, and the anti-immigration People's Party called on its members to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims, i.e. between Muslims propagating sharia law and Muslims accepting the rule of secular law. The Muslim face of Denmark has changed, and it is becoming clear that this is not a debate between "them" and "us," but between those committed to democracy in Denmark and those who are not.

This is the sort of debate that Jyllands-Posten had hoped to generate when it chose to test the limits of self-censorship by calling on cartoonists to challenge a Muslim taboo. Did we achieve our purpose? Yes and no. Some of the spirited defenses of our freedom of expression have been inspiring. But tragic demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia were not what we anticipated, much less desired. Moreover, the newspaper has received 104 registered threats, 10 people have been arrested, cartoonists have been forced into hiding because of threats against their lives and Jyllands-Posten's headquarters have been evacuated several times due to bomb threats. This is hardly a climate for easing self-censorship.

Still, I think the cartoons now have a place in two separate narratives, one in Europe and one in the Middle East. In the words of the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the integration of Muslims into European societies has been sped up by 300 years due to the cartoons; perhaps we do not need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe. The narrative in the Middle East is more complex, but that has very little to do with the cartoons.

I appreciate that the reaction to the cartoons may have led to a healthier debate in Denmark, but I fear that, ultimately, secularists have lost a bit more ground. If people in the secular west were afraid to insult Islam before, that fear has been reinforced most certainly now. Perhaps insulting any major religion may be more dangerous now, as a result of this "debate."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Shani Davis

There may be "a paucity," but one just became the first to win gold in speed skating.

Congratulations, sir.

"Thank you sir, may I have another?"

Friday, February 17, 2006

Still working on Maggie's Farm

Listening to Maggie's Farm at the '65 Newport Folk Festival this evening...

Madame Cura: Do you think Maggie's Pa is Dick Cheney?
Whoa, shit, Mike Bloomfield slashed out a guitar solo that, quite literally, just curled my toes. Can't imagine what it must have sounded like to 1965 folkie ears. No wonder Pete Seeger tried to take an axe to the power cables.

The Vega: Impossible! But...now that you mention it, Maggie's Ma is, clearly, Lynn.

Friday dog blogging -- back of the milk carton edition

Have you seen this dog?
Originally uploaded by vegacura.
Poor Ch. Bohem C'est la Vie, otherwise known as Vivi.

The week had started well for Vivi, a 3-year-old who won a certificate of merit on Tuesday in the dog show, which is the equivalent of being named runner-up for best whippet, said her handler and co-owner, Paul Lepiane.

The next day, Vivi was scheduled to travel in the cargo hold of the 11:55 a.m. Delta flight from Kennedy to Los Angeles International Airport. The whippet was last seen by Ms. Walton and her sister, Jamie Walton, shortly before 10 a.m. when the airline took custody of her plastic carrier.

Around 11:30 a.m., as they sat aboard the plane, they could see baggage moving into the cargo hold and spotted Vivi's kennel. From her window seat, Jamie saw a baggage handler peering into the kennel and assumed that he was simply looking at Vivi.

But a few minutes later a flight attendant told Jil Walton that her dog was loose. Jamie Walton said her heart sank. Her sister said that she thought it would be a simple matter of coaxing Vivi back into the container. But Vivi took off and ran.

Airport workers took off after her, following in a truck that clocked Vivi's speed at 25 miles per hour. She ran for three miles, until she came to the end of runway 4L, which juts into the bay near Duck Creek Marsh.

We'll try to keep you abreast, Dear Reader, of this developing and important story.

I don't know much about Whippets, but the dog's hips remind one of how they've bred German shepherds to appear as though they're moving forward while standing still. In shepherds, that leads to all kinds of problems, especially hip dysplasia.

"A paucity of blacks"

It's a very slow time in the world of sports radio call-in shows. So Grunt Bumbel's commentary the other night has proven a godsend for them. In between complaining that the Winter Olympics are boring (they are), I've heard nothing but outrage from all of the hosts on WFAN over his comments, which went like this:

Count me among those who don’t care about them and won’t watch them. In fact, I figure that when Thomas Paine said that “these are the times that try men’s souls,” he must’ve been talking about the start of another Winter Olympics. Because they’re so trying, maybe over the next three weeks we should all try too. Like, try not to be incredulous when someone attempts to link these games to those of the ancient Greeks who never heard of skating or skiing. So try not to laugh when someone says these are the world’s greatest athletes, despite a paucity of blacks that makes the winter games look like a GOP convention. Try not to point out that something’s not really a sport if a pseudo-athlete waits in what’s called a kiss-and-cry area, while some panel of subjective judges decides who won.

Mike and the Mad Dog are outraged, OUUUUUUTRAGED, that he'd say something like that (Russo seems particularly enraged about the GOP comment, as it apparently got his Family Britches of New Canaan shorts all in a knot). What would happen, they sneer (over and over), "if a white guy said something about the 'paucity' of whites in the NBA?"

What would happen, you morons? Apparently nothing. 'Cause you just said it.

I think Gumbel would have made a far stronger point if, instead of a "paucity of blacks," he'd simply said, "a paucity of color." Because, like Major League Baseball prior to Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, how could you say that the game was the best it could be if an entire population wasn't invited to play? In the case of the Winter Olympics, truth is, an entire hemisphere just isn't participating.

UPDATE: Turns out that the southern hemisphere is represented (sorry, Times$elect).

HE shivered as he spoke in the swirling snow, cried as he recounted the time past, the money spent, the marriage lost, the father he buried two weeks ago.

His parents raised 11 children but only one Olympian, and the old man, on his deathbed for almost a year, under hospice conditions in Orange County, Calif., at least heard his son say that he had qualified once more, a fifth time, a run remarkable for persistence, if not for performance.

Connie Kinch died knowing that his boy, Arturo, was going to ski again for Costa Rica, where he was born and lived until he left for college, a soccer player with World Cup aspirations before he hit Colorado and saw the mountains.

Go find longevity spread across the decades like Arturo Kinch's. At 49 years 10 months, he was young enough to finish the men's 15-kilometer cross-country sprint yesterday — despite falling out of his skis at the start — and old enough to place himself in the Olympic downhill at the Lake Placid Games.

"I was 41st" at Lake Placid, said Kinch, the one-man Costa Rican team here, 26 years later. "My Olympic best."

HSAs and Wal-Mart's CEO

It is worrisome that the liberal blogosphere, so effective in helping to kill preznit's public efforts to privatize Social Security (private efforts are another story), have been so complacent about HSAs. Writes EJ Dionne of Bush's recent speech on health care given at...wait for it...Wendy's:

Take, first, the case that received little attention. Campaigning at the Ohio headquarters of the Wendy's fast-food chain for his proposal to expand health savings accounts, President Bush dismissed critics who contend that the accounts "are not a solution for the uninsured, they're regressive, they favor the wealthy."

That was an accurate enough description of the opponents' criticisms, but then came this zinger: "It's kind of basically saying, if you're not making a lot of money you can't make decisions for yourself. That's kind of a Washington attitude, isn't it -- we'll decide for you, you can't figure it out yourself. I think a lot of folks here at Wendy's would argue that point of view is just simply backwards and not true."

But opponents of Bush's plan are not "kind of basically saying" anything of the sort. They want people "not making a lot of money" to have a chance to buy affordable health insurance. They are arguing that HSAs, as the accounts are known, would offer a lot of money to the most well-off among our fellow citizens without increasing health coverage. Indeed, there is good evidence, mustered this week by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that HSAs would instead lead to a net increase in the number of uninsured.

And, as Elisabeth Bumiller pointed out in the New York Times, a $5,000 contribution to an HSA would have saved a couple with two children and a combined income of $40,000 just $630 on their 2005 federal income taxes. (And that assumes the couple could have afforded to put away the whole five grand, which is unlikely.) But a comparable couple with an income of $120,000 would have saved $1,500.

In other words, HSAs give the smallest benefits to those least able to afford health insurance. That is not exactly showing respect for those who are "not making a lot of money." The elitism here lies with those making the proposal, not with its critics.

I caught one post on this by Josh and one from Kevin, but where's the relentless drum beat that attended the Social Security bamboozlepalooza? And Brad, Max, this is your respective areas of expertise, no? We need to hear from ya.

And on a related thread, here's what the CEO of Wal-Mart has been saying on his company's intranet:

Asked about Wal-Mart's stock price, which has fallen 11 percent in the last five years. Mr. Scott said: "You cannot have Target or Walgreens beating you day after day after day." Mr. Scott wrote that one reason Wal-Mart's same-store sales were growing more slowly than Target's was that Wal-Mart's customers earn less and have been squeezed worse by soaring fuel prices.

"Wal-Mart's focus has been on lower income and lower-middle income consumers," he wrote. "In the last four years or so, with the price of fuel being what it is, that customer has had the most difficult time. The upper-end customer got a tremendous number of tax breaks about four years ago. They have been doing very well in this economy."

He said having to pay $50 to gas up a car did not change anything for rich customers, but did for those who didn't earn a lot. "It changes whether or not you go to the movie, whether or not you buy new sheets, whether or not you go out to eat."

And on government-sponsored health care:

November 11, 2005

...The underlying issue, though, is that health care in the United States is at a crisis state. There are 45 million uninsured people in the U.S. and government has to be involved. In Wal-Mart's case, although our health care plan stacks up very, very competitively, there are people who are saying that as a large company, our health care plan should be better than the competition. The problem we have with that is that if our health care plan is more costly than the competition, then how do we compete in the retail industry? You can't have it both ways.

So we think government needs to be involved. We don't want heath care costs, insurance levels, those kinds of things, to be a competitive advantage. We want it to be a competitive advantage if we hire healthier people and if our people are wiser at spending their health care dollars. But we don't want it as a competitive advantage because we would provide less health care than a Target or the Gap or Bed Bath and Beyond or whoever else.

In the past month, I've met with five governors, talking to them about what it is at a state level they can do and Wal-Mart can do in joining with them. What we'd like to see is a national program or at least state program that are reasonably consistent that impact everyone equally. So that all of our associates and customers have access to adequate health care that's affordable to them, but also affordable for government and affordable for business. People are working on it, but at this point, the federal government doesn't seem to have an appetite to take this on.

You may remember that Sen. Hillary Clinton tried, but it didn't work very well for her at that time. My personal feeling is the time is right, and right now, business and government have the opportunity to join together and get this problem behind us. [yes, all emphasis is mine]

Tell it to Wendy's.

Happy Friday!

I think one of the comments to The Washington Monthly says it best this morning.

Kevin, three times now today -- with the global warming, the Gitmo story and now this leak case -- you've caused me to just stop and just go "Oh shit." Someday when my grandchildren ask me "What was it like to watch American civilization crumble around you?" I'll be able to recall this and begin my long, sad story...

Posted by: jonas on February 17, 2006 at 2:09 AM

But don't despair. As another comment notes, we're ignorning all the good news -- the rise in cell phone use, the painting of the schools...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Oh, the humanity!

Every day, more proof that lunacy and empty gestures do not respect national borders.

Meanwhile, Michelle Malkin has driven The Editors to distraction.

And, in response, this is the best they can come up with!

Advice and non-consent

Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, is shrill.

IT has been weeks since President Bush's State of the Union speech, and I have not heard any outcry over his policy statement on cloning: "Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms." I can only guess that this means the public doesn't care, or doesn't understand what Mr. Bush means by this, or agrees with his nonsensical concept of what "human" means, or that somehow the stem cell scandal in South Korea has led to widespread agreement that we should just give up on such research. Any of these possibilities would be a mistake, not just for American science, but for the very human life the president seeks to protect.

Calling human cloning in all its forms an "egregious abuse" is a serious mischaracterization. This makes it sound as if the medical community is out there cloning people, which is simply not true. The phrase "in all of its forms" is code, a way of conflating very different things: reproductive cloning and biomedical cloning.

The volatile issue has been debated again and again, and the president's own largely conservative Bioethics Council (of which I am a member) in 2002 made a big distinction between the two forms of cloning. We voted unanimously to ban reproductive cloning — the kind of cloning that seeks to replicate a human being. We cited many reasons, from biomedical risk to religious concerns to the flat-out weirdness of the idea. But in fact human cloning has not been attempted, nor is it in the works; so it's a theoretical ban in the first place, like banning marriage between robots.

At the same time, the council had differing views on biomedical cloning, including stem cell research. Seven of the 17 voting members voted to allow scientists to proceed with the practice, pending regulations, while three more voted for a moratorium until such regulations were written. Thus, the majority, 10 of the 17, did not call for a ban on biomedical cloning — and this was our advice to the president. Obviously, he ignored it.

Yes, he tends to do that.

Why do scientists and other experts of good faith continue to give this administration cover by continuing to be members of Bush's various "advisory councils," when politics trump "advice" everytime?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Batman should stick with The Penguin

Sheesh, I thought this was just some figment of Roy Edroso's fertile imagination, but NOOOOOO!

Batman vs. Terrorists

Batman is enlisting in the effort to demolish the minions of Osama bin Laden. A forthcoming graphic novel from Frank Miller, the Batman writer whose credits include the graphic novels "The Dark Knight Returns" and the "Sin City" series, pits the caped crusader against Al Qaeda operatives who attack Gotham City, Agence France-Presse reported. Mr. Miller, who is 120 pages through the 200-page novel — called "Holy Terror, Batman!" — said it was an unabashed "piece of propaganda" and he left no doubt about the outcome. Such works have an honorable tradition, he said, noting: "Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That's one of the things they're here for. These are our folk heroes. It just seems silly to chase around the Riddler when you've got Al Qaeda out there."

Especially when you also have Batman out there.

Whereever "there" is.

The good news is that it should keep the 101st Fighting Keyboardists™ busy for a few weeks as they sound out the graphic novel's bigger words. Like "kapow!"

"Cheney's law"

Geez, the tide has really turned among Republicans, increasingly desperate to distance themselves from the Miserable Failure and, especially, Dead-eye Dick.

ALBANY, Feb. 14 — They are calling it "Cheney's Law."

Named laws are nothing new in Albany. From Megan's Law to Kendra's Law to VaSean's Law, state lawmakers often use names to try to put a human face on the occasionally arcane issues that they address with their legislation.

Usually the laws are named for the victims of violence. But now a bill on hunting safety that has been introduced in several legislative sessions but never became law has been christened "Cheney's Law" by several Republican senators.

The bill, which would make it a felony to leave the scene of a hunting accident, passed out of the Senate Codes Committee yesterday, just as much of the nation continued to discuss Vice President Dick Cheney's accident on Saturday, in which he shot and wounded a 78-year-old lawyer while on a hunting trip in Texas.

Officials have said that Mr. Cheney did not leave the scene after he shot the lawyer, but stayed with him while he received medical treatment.

The curious timing of the committee vote was not lost on the bill's sponsor, Senator George H. Winner Jr., an upstate Republican who is one of the senators calling it Cheney's Law. "It's some circumstances," he said.

The bill would make it a felony to leave the scene of an accident involving a serious physical injury. Senator Winner said that the bill was inspired by a 2001 hunting accident in Steuben County, in which the victim was left to die.

Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat, said that he would introduce the bill in the State Assembly.

State Senator Thomas K. Duane, a Manhattan Democrat, marveled that the vice president's hunting accident could serve as a catalyst to change the law in New York. "We must have him come for the bill signing," he said.

Will Dick Cheney begin inspiring Republicans to pass good legislation? Now that would be remarkable.

Not accountable

I know, I know. There must be other, way more egregious things to write about than the shooting scandal and the bizarre way it's being handled by Cheney's people, but I heard something on NPR this morning that almost made me drive off the road.

Paraphrasing, but pretty close...

Juan "Wan" Williams: Because Vice President Cheney isn't running for president, he doesn't feel he's accountable to the American people.
Williams, a regular on Fox News, is the closest thing to a mouthpiece for Republicans on NPR.

This whole thing is like lifting up a rock, isn't it?

Bread and hunting accidents

Somewhere in Texas this weekend, a group of hunters walks through a field...

Harry Whittington: Dick, aint it great to get out of Washington and blast away for a few hours?

VPOTUS: Sure is, Harry. But I'm sure not looking forward to going back to Washington. It's going to be a hell of a week.

Whittington: Worse than usual?

VPOTUS: Afraid so, Harry. Look...

Whittington: A quail?

VPOTUS: No. "Look" as in I have something I've been meaning to talk to you about.

Whittington: Shoot.

VPOTUS: Heh. Heh. Well, that's just it, Harry. You see, there's going to be shit storm in Washington this week. A congressional panel is going to issue a report -- written by Republicans, for gawd's sake -- that says George and those bozos in the DHD completely fucked up the response to Katrina.

Whittington: Damn, that's too bad. What can I do?

VPOTUS: Glad you asked...

Shot rings out, startled birds fly out of the prairie grass...

Sorry, I am no playwright, but the Whittington shooting provides yet another useful distraction for the Cheney administration, as more bad news is pushed aside for the scandal du jour (of course, how could they know that a few pellets might kill the poor old bastard). Jon Stewart could barely suppress is glee -- a White House scandal that isn't just dry, commonplace, lying to America scandal we've grown so inured to. But instead involves guns, small birds, and a VP who Shot. An old man. In the face.

Some -- like me -- might see a conspiracy in all of this, but Onnesha Roychoudhuri sees this as a good thing -- something to humanize the utter disaster that is this administration.

Our senses are being overloaded, our levels of outrage have peaked. But then in comes Cheney's trigger-happy hunting foray. Suddenly, a nation's attention is united. So, are we being distracted from the real news? The continuing defense of illegal warrantless wiretaps, FEMA's scandalous response to Katrina, force-feeding at Guantanamo, former CIA officials pointing to improper use of intelligence, or being fired for opposing torture, Cheney's involvement in the Libby leak, the budget.

It's hard to wrap your mind around this kind of inhumanity and egregious leadership. There's just no rationalizing it and it's hard to see any immediate end to it. No laughs there. But Cheney shooting a lawyer? Hilarity ensues. There's an almost slumber party slap-happiness to the jokes. You find yourself giggling even before Jon Stewart gets to the punchline. You were waiting to laugh. And I think this reaction has everything to do with the American public having some sense of the level of scandal that surrounds this administration. Give us something human to hate and to mock.

Daou's point is well made: Once journalists, activists, and politicians (who give a damn) discover a scandal, it is their responsibilty [sic] to follow through, to push it to its "ultimate conclusion." Along with vigilance to the facts, it's also important to focus on the (in)humans behind these scandals. That's what makes them real, that's what makes allegations stick.

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera says that, "He learned he could recognize a person who was not a Stalinist by his laughter -- the ability to laugh was a sign that someone could be trusted, for it signified irreverence, a refusal to take history and its policemen seriously. Ever since then, he says, he has been 'terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor.'"

There's no shame in reveling in Cheney's front-page blunder. Just as long as you turn to page A12 to find out what's really going on.
Maybe so. You rarely do see Dick Cheney laugh.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Baseball's politics and history, as orange crate art

Sour oranges
Originally uploaded by vegacura.
Ah, Los Angelenos, the Vega is jealous. If you live in Southern California, this sounds like a great show to see.

As Sakoguchi became more immersed in creating a series that could encompass the entire history of baseball and its relationship to American culture, he found themes and subjects similar to those he had explored in his non-baseball OCA paintings. And in this collection, he has brought those themes home with a vengeance.

Of the 120 paintings in the series, 26 (22%) deal with subjects pertaining to questions of race or racism. Nine of these deal with Jackie Robinson and various aspects of his career. However, these are far from the most pointed examinations of the issue: for that, we must turn to Sakoguchi’s “tribute” to Cap Anson, one of the pillars of nineteenth-century baseball, whose 3000-hit, Hall of Fame career is eclipsed by his echoing command on one summer day in 1884: “Get that ###### off the field!”

Many more really amazing images at the link, above, which also has links to further images.

The show, at the Da Vinci Gallery in Los Angeles City College, runs until March 4

Gun safety

Another asshole with a gun
Originally uploaded by vegacura.
By the looks of things, Saddam Hussein understood gun safety (first rule, point the gun skyward) better than Dick Cheney.

"Where the mistake was probably made was not verifying where other members of his hunting party were not keeping in visual contact," Hammer said.

And, despite the bloviatings on the right that this incident will actually improve Cheney's standings in the Red States, where they imagine manly men "pepper" each other all of the time, seems...maybe not so much.

Safety experts say shooter carries responsibility

BY JOE DUGGAN / Lincoln Journal Star
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

When it comes to hunter safety, political spin doesn’t fly. Neither do arguments that blame the victim in Vice President Dick Cheney’s ill-fated quail hunt Saturday in Texas, said Mike Streeter, hunter education coordinator for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“Any attempt by whomever to take the blame off the shooter and put it on the victim is wrong,” Streeter said Monday.

Point blank: The guy who pulled the trigger was the vice president.

News accounts of the incident quoted the property owner saying the attorney got shot because he put himself in Cheney’s line of fire without signaling or announcing himself. That makes gun safety more complicated than necessary, Streeter said.

“The principle is to be sure of your target and what’s beyond it,” he said. “That’s the principle that apparently wasn’t followed.”

The “sure target, safe shot” mantra is one of 10 rules of gun safety that all Nebraska youngsters are required to learn through a certified course before hunting with a firearm or bow and arrow. Others include maintaining muzzle control and to always treat every firearm as if it were loaded.

That's the Lincoln Journal Star, folks. Lincoln, Nebraska.

I'll take Publius one step further on this. Ridicule is great, but there is no more effective means of diminishing a politician, even in the eyes of his true believers, than convincing them that he's an asshole. Thanks, Dick!

The funny papers

Yes, we all found Dick "License to Kill" Cheney's Elmer Fudd impersonation over the weekend pretty funny. And I'm glad preznit & co. are getting a kick out of it too.

After a not-entirely-successful effort on Monday to explain the vice president's hunting accident, press secretary Scott McClellan reloaded this morning and took aim at Dick Cheney himself.

President Bush, he announced, would be on the South Lawn with the national champion University of Texas football team. "The orange they're wearing is not because they are concerned that the vice president will be there," he deadpanned.

The reporters, so recently his tormenters, guffawed. "Although," he continued, pointing to his orange tie, "that's why I'm wearing it, so hopefully none of y'all will --''

Har, har.

Hunter Shot by Cheney Has Heart Attack

By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006; 2:03 PM

The 78-year-old lawyer who Vice President Cheney accidentally shot in a hunting accident suffered a minor heart attack this morning after a piece of birdshot moved and lodged in his heart, doctors said.

Doctors treating Harry Whittington said the Republican lawyer was moved back into the intensive care unit and will need to remain hospitalized for at least a week.

"Some of the birdshot appears to have moved and lodged into part of his heart," Peter Banko, spokesman for Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital, told reporters outside the Corpus Christi hospital. Banko said the birdshot caused a minor heart attack.

Asked if the birdshot could move more and endanger Whittington's life, Dr. David Blanchard, emergency room chief at the hospital, said: "When birdshot is in your body, there's always the risk they can move. We'll watch very closely for any migration."

Blanchard said what happened to Whittington was extremely rare. He said cardiologists may see a similar case only once or twice in their lifetimes.

Wonder if Cheney will see fit to make a statement if the man dies.

It's our job

So sayeth Digby

I don't say this because I think that liberal blogs are taking over the world and have changed the face of politics as we know it. I say it because I know that without us there would have been virtually no critical voices during the long period between 2001 and the presidential primary campaign during 2003. We were it. The media were overt, enthusiastic Bush boosters for well over two years and created an environment in which Democratic dissent (never welcome) was non-existent to the average American viewer. In fact, it took Bush's approval rating falling to below 40% before they would admit that he was in trouble.

I believe that if it had not been for the constant underground drumbeat from the fever swamps over the past five years, when the incompetence, malfeasance and corruption finally hit critical mass last summer with the bad news from Iraq, oil prices and Katrina, Bush would not have sunk as precipitously as he did and stayed there. It literally took two catasprophes of epic proportions to break the media from its narrative of Bush's powerful leadership. And this after two extremely close elections ---- and the lack of any WMD in Iraq.


I have written before about this and made it clear that I do not wish to destroy the mainstream media. I do not believe that this country can do without a credible press. But after waiting in vain for more than a decade for the press to shake off its torpor and exert its perogatives as the fourth estate, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that our (and their) only hope was to join the fray and pull as hard as we can on the opposite end of the rope.

I see that the press does not know what to make of this. And I see that many Joementum Democrats don't get it either. They remain convinced that the country will wake up one day and see that our arguments are superior. They are wrong. This political era will be remembered for its brutal partisanship and sophisticated media manipulation in a 50/50 political environment. Democrats have been at a huge disadvantage because of the Republican message infrastructure and the strange servility of the mainstream press. So, we are pushing back with the one tough, aggressive partisan communication tool we have: the blogosphere.

The mainstream press is going to have to get used to us because we aren't going anywhere. I suspect they are actually somewhat relieved that somebody on our side has stepped up to take the slings and arrows of the vast right wing conspiracy and provide them with some cover. (No need to thank us. Just report the truth.)

Joementum Dems, on the other hand, need to recognize that we are in a partisan time and that requires a partisan strategy. We are going to hit them hard every time they repeat Republican talking points and otherwise enable the opposition to dominate the media discourse. There is no more room for bipartisan gestures that only benefit the GOP side of the equation. David Gergen said yesterday on This Weak that Republicans are much better at message than Democrats but they aren't so good at governing. Nobody knows this better than those of in the grassroots who have been forced to watch this trainwreck from the sidelines for more than a decade. It's why Bush is at 39% today and yet there is no guarantee that Democrats will win in the fall or any sense in the media that the Republican Party has failed. We cannot afford any more Democratic complicity with Republican memes and we are going to work against those who do it.

Exactly so. In recent weeks, I've been on the fence regarding Joe Lieberman. I mean, it's a dangerous strategy to eat your own, and while Lieberman may bend over far too much to appear "bipartisan" and "responsible," he has been a consistent vote on issues I hold dear. But, enough already. To win this fight we are going to have to hold Democrats' feet to the fire, and show the same kind of message consistency as we face when dealing with the Mighty Wurlitzer of the Right. Continuing to support a war that Republicans themselves are losing the stomach for is not a winning strategy. Cutting off at the knees a rising star in the party to show support for a Republican colleague is not a winning strategy.

The Republicans have so browbeaten their "moderate" members that, for all the fervid hopes that the Northeastern/Rockefeller Republicans will "take back the party," they quake at the very thought of taking on the wingnuts in the party, even if it means losing votes back home. If Lieberman wants to be a Northeastern Republican himself, then he should go ahead. He won't be any more powerless than he is now, as a Democrat. But I won't support him.

On a separate, but related, point. I'm not sure if Paul Hackett would have been the best candidate to unseat DeWhine. There have been reports that he's a one-issue candidate (though I'm not so sure). And his views on immigration are, at best, uninformed. But why the fear of a primary? It seems to me a primary 1.) helps hone the candidate's positions, 2.) forces him/her to be a better campaigner, and 3.) keeps the candidacy in the spotlight. Yes, there's a threat of diluting the money stream, but that's not likely in a race where there's an opportunity to pick up a seat in the Senate. The money's going to be there anytime a Dem has a chance to beat a Ohio Republican, regardless of the race.
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