Monday, March 29, 2010

The Good Fight

The Attorney General for Washington State, Rob McKenna, has enrolled the state in the lawsuit against the recent health-care overall effort. The state's Democratic establishment is, to somewhat understate things, hopping mad. (It's not shaping up to be a good first quarter for Governor Gregoire. The Attorney General isn't the only other elected official who's not being cooperative.)

Attorney General McKenna was on PBS yesterday, explaining his position. Of course, he was asked if he's against the reforms. This is to be expected, given that he's an elected Republican. In fact, Democratic fund-raising e-mails are thick on the ground, using McKenna's "rebellion" to soliciting funds. Admirably, the Attorney General refused to be baited, and calmly, if emphatically, explained that he felt that the Federal government calling for an individual mandate for citizens to purchase something from a private company on pain of penalty was simply outside of the powers that they had been granted in the Constitution. All in all it was very interesting, and it indirectly undermined a major Republican talking point - during one part of is argument Attorney General McKenna basically said that part of the reason that the individual mandate was unconstitutional was that it wasn't part of a government takeover of the health care system.

This argument makes perfect sense to me, even though I lack the Constitutional scholarship to evaluate its accuracy. But what I applaud the Attorney General for is not allowing himself to be pushed into the idea that a laudable goal should be allowed to trump the law. We all understand that it's possible to do something perfectly reprehensible while adhering to the letter, and possibly even the intent of the law. The flip side of this is that things that may be perfectly just, moral, ethical and necessary may be patently illegal.

The whole point behind the rule of law is that the rules are the important part - even if they become an impediment, there are rules and procedures for changing them other than the whim of rulers, or even the public at large. Our tolerance for bending or breaking the law when we feel that's warranted or required can lead us to some very bad places, all in the name of the greater good. So as much as the slog that was enacting health care got on my nerves (Is it just me, or can Democrats barely lead a horse to water?), if they have to through it again to get it right, so be it.

So fight on, Mister Attorney General. I don't know that I'm in your camp, but I applaud you for standing up for the rules.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Comfortably Dysfunctional

I was listening to this week's episode of This American Life. The topic was the joint venture between General Motors and Toyota, and basically, how GM as a company failed to learn the lessons of that venture, and the Toyota way of doing things, and how that helped lead them to only continuing to be a viable concern because of a massive infusion of capital from the federal government. One of the things that NPR automotive correspondent Frank Langfitt said during the piece really struck me. I don't claim to have a photographic memory, so I'm paraphrasing here, and hoping that I get it right, but he said something along the lines of that people at General Motors had become too comfortable with their roles in a dysfunctional relationship.

Yes, I know. It's nothing particularly profound, but upon hearing that, I suddenly had a phrase that put into words so many things that I had been seeing, and not really knowing how to talk about. Like most simple and elegant explanations, it effortlessly fit into so many different places. (Although, like simple and elegant explanations, it also runs the very real risk of being overused.)

In work, in politics, in society... it's really easy to see how things aren't working because so many of us have allowed ourselves to become comfortable with our roles in frighteningly dysfunctional relationships with each other. Politics, especially.

Tell me which side of the political spectrum the owner of this car considers themselves to be on.

Now, think about how long it might be before both sides of the aisle are driving around with this sentiment plastered on their back bumpers. Not that far in the future, is it? But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Your President. My President. Whatever happened to OUR President? Karl Rove may have demonstrated that running to 51% of the electorate while simultaneously ignoring and vilifying the other 49% to be a viable political strategy, but it's also showing itself to have been a catastrophically short-sighted one. The nature of politics is such that one expects a certain level of dysfunction between partisan members of the public and politicians of the other party. But when the relationship between the different ideological segments of the public is dysfunctional to the point of a rhetorical civil war, something has gone seriously off the rails.

And as the dysfunction grows and becomes more entrenched, people become more and more comfortable, not only with their role in the dysfunctional relationship, but with the idea that the relationship isn't dysfunctional enough. And so the dysfunction comes to be both a means to and end, and an end in and of itself - a desirable state that is to be sought after.

It would be easy to say that if dysfunction wins, we all lose. But that's not true. People are smart enough that someone will have positioned themselves to benefit if the rest of us self-destruct. (Or at least they think they have.) But I can't see how I'd manage that feat myself, so I'm pretty sure that if dysfunction wins, I lose. Which gives me an incentive to find either a way to benefit from the ongoing rancor, or a way to bring it to an end. Right now, I must admit that I'm at a loss as to how to do either. Which prevents me from being comfortable with my role in this relationship. I have no idea what I'm going to do about this. But I'm hoping that necessity will, once again, be the mother of invention, because, comfortably or not, we can't go on like this.
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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Falling Behind‏

While it's true that no matter how cynical one becomes, it's never enough to keep up, I've usually managed to stay within striking distance. But I quick round through the news this morning, and even with my cynicism flooring it, I find I'm being left in the dust.

Then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger halted a canonical trial against a priest who molested hundreds of boys in Wisconsin after receiving a letter from the molester pleading for leniency - after ignoring letters from the Archbishop of Milwaukee seeking to have the priest defrocked. No-one, however went to secular authorities with the information when the church failed to act.

A teenager whose family was on the Wife Swap television program is suing for one hundred million dollars, claiming that the scripted lines she was given made her look bad, and that she never consented to being on the show. The fact that both of her parents were recently convicted of felonies that have large fines attached has nothing to do with it, really.

Sore losers on the political Right have taken to threats and vandalism against members of Congress who voted for the health care overhaul bill. It seems that even the siblings of legislators have been threatened.

Sigh. I'm starting to think that the best course of action is to dust off and nuke the whole freaking planet from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

Against the Wind

In the Political Irony department.

Did you ever notice that politicians seem to always disdain those of their fellows that they view as too susceptible to the fickle winds of public opinion? I might have to go look into this, because I'm pretty sure that one of the very same people who are now allegedly hopping mad that passage of the health care overhaul bills "goes against the will of the people" has, at some point in their career, been one of those politicians who vowed not to let themselves be blown about by polls.

(Of course, the truth of the matter is that politicians are usually saying "I promise not to be swayed by opinion polls that would lead me to vote in ways that you, random member of the audience, don't like," which usually means that they'll studiously ignore anyone who voted for someone else.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cross Purposes

t seems that there are some things that never change - like the fact that in government, the left hand doesn't always know what the right hand is doing. In this case, the left hand is Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire, and the right hand is Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, setting up Washington State government to be at war with itself. The basic conflict is a simple one. Attorney General McKenna believes that certain provisions of the health care overhaul bill recently signed into law are unconstitutional, and so joined the lawsuit lead by Florida. Governor Gregoire has no problems with the new law, and is upset that the Attorney General signed Washington up without consulting her.

Of course, the party affiliations of the actors is lost on no one, and the more politically active of Washington's citizens are lining up behind their sides, and (unsurprisingly) loudly denouncing each other. But like most such disputes, this one is generating a lot of heat, but no light, and seems likely to degenerate into a spate of internet-fueled name calling. Once the initial anger passes, the Governor and Attorney General are still parts of the same administration, and will likely mend fences enough to work together, leaving their followers to argue uselessly until the next elections.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Easter is coming up, and that means the crosses are out again at the nearby church. This is an annual ritual, enacted every spring. The rest of the time, the sports field is, well, a sports field, used for soccer, baseball, football, et cetera.

Once upon a time, I was a part of my employer's charitable giving committee. We had an annual budget, about 90% of which was spoken for. The rest of it we opened up to the employees - they could submit charitable causes, make their case, and then we'd select which ones received a piece of the pie. It was interesting, and rewarding, but it had an interesting and unintended consequence. When you asked people about the giving committee, no one really seemed to understand that the moneys that we disbursed to the employee-selected causes were just a small fraction of the overall budget. In the eyes of just about everyone in the company - including those who should have known better, it was all we did. But such is the reality of things - we are not known for who we are, or what we have done - we are known for the actions that people attribute to us. If you fell a tree in the forest, and no one is there to see it, it doesn't cast a shadow on your reputation.

Okay, segue done. So walking past this church, and their annual Cemetery of the Innocents, I understand where people get the idea that all a certain segment of the religious class cares about is abortion. While I realize that this church likely has dozens of causes that are important to them, despite the fact that I live within walking distance, this is the only thing that I ever see them publicly advocate for.

Which brings us to this man. I don't know his name, or where he's from. I don't know where he spends his nights, or how he makes ends meet. All I do know about him is that he was once a productive member of the workforce - an orchard worker in Eastern Washington. But now he's suffering from Hepatitis C, and can't continue working. On top of it all, he also has a tumor growing inside of him. And, given the fact that he's panhandling at the end of an expressway off-ramp, he clearly lacks the funds to pay for treatment. No family, no significant other; all he has is himself, and his cat. He's resigned to dying - he's simply waiting for the end.

And so, when I saw the crosses, my first thought was: Where's HIS marker? Who's making note of the fact that disease will still HIS beating heart? Is he not innocent enough to have someone make a public marker of his passing? Now I know, that given the choice, the church members who so carefully laid and out and placed the field of crosses wouldn't abandon this man lightly. But it seems that he, and the thousands of others like him, don't appear on their radar screens. That he doesn't rise to the level of being worthy of note. That they won't even know he existed, let alone memorialize him.

But I guess that's MY job, isn't it? I'm afraid that I can't offer hundreds of crosses. So a single candle will have to do. And, really, I understand that few people are likely to see it. But it helps to understand that a man will not die forgotten, even if no-one sees that I remember.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Standing Aside

Okay. Back to grousing at the media. The Seattle Times editorial board has a feature called "civil disagreements," in which two of their number make statements about something that's been in the news. Since each person has a couple of paragraphs to make their point, one after the other, it's a little bland. A point-counter point format would be more interesting. Oh, well.

But what gets to me about these is the cavalier way in which the topics are treated. One of the editors, Lynne Varner, seems prone to oversimplifying things, or not digging very deeply into them. In this exchange on the recent U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling concerning the Pledge of Allegiance, she states: "The divided court said the pledge doesn't violate the constitutional separation of church and state." (This ruling, she cheers, is "standing up for God.") But... that's not what the Los Angeles Times blog posting that she cites says.

In Thursday’s ruling, [...] the judges ruled 2-1 that Newdow and others who joined his lawsuit didn’t have standing to challenge the 1954 amendment to the pledge adding the words “under God” because no federal statute requires them to recite it.
Divided appeals court rules Pledge of Allegiance doesn't violate Constitution
Now, I'm not a lawyer, but even I know that the majority opinion, seems more to have dodged the question, than actually answered it. Ruling that plaintiffs don't have standing to bring a case doesn't speak at all to the merits of said case.

I'm crabby about this because topics like this aren't entirely trivial. Non-Christians in this country often feel that the majority is out to marginalize them, and are perfectly willing to ignore the Establishment Clause when it suits them to do so, while being constantly on the lookout for any government action that they feel does them short shrift. It's important that when such things are discussed in the media, that they're accurately portrayed, so that we, as the public can enter the discussion knowing what we're talking about.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I Wanna Fly...

Isn't that cool?
I think that it's a subset of Buddhism that says if you don't lead a good life, then you come back as a lesser animal. I'm angling for Bald Eagle, myself. But Red-tailed Hawk or Osprey would work, too. Hopefully, I won't overdo it, and wind up a Pigeon.


It's worth noting, I think, that the term "Political Leader," as applied to members of Congress, state legislators, the President, governors and other officials is an oxymoron. If you look at the few nations where the head of state is or was referred to as "Leader" or some embellishment thereof, one thing that you'll notice is that they aren't subject to public recall. In fact, they aren't answerable to the general public in any way, shape or form. This is also true of most other organizations. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not accountable to just any old Army Private or Air Force Captain. The Chief Executive Officer of a corporation may be answerable to the Board of Directors or the major stockholders, but unless the guy in the mailroom secretly controls a large block of voting stock, the guys in the corner office really don't care what he thinks. But, to be honest, that may or may not be something of a convincing argument, so let me ask you the following - the last time you went to the voting booth, or dropped a ballot in the mail, did you vote to be a follower? Did you vote to do what the person you voted for told you to do, or did you vote for that person to do what you told them to do? After all, in the case of legislators, isn't that the point behind representatives?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Natural Elf Killers

Prison officials said they had banned [Dungeons and Dragons] at the recommendation of the prison’s specialist on gangs, who said it could lead to gang behavior [...]
Dungeons & Dragons Prison Ban Upheld
Dungeons and Dragons as possible lead-in to gang activity? Really? It seems unlikely that a bunch of guys rolling dice and pushing miniatures around on a map would lead to putting hits out on other inmates or running drugs behind bars. The overall opinion seems to be that any group of inmates that isn't attempting to shank one another is effectively a prison gang.

To a degree, I understand the prison's desire to prevent Kevin Singer from playing D&D while in prison. It's unlikely that many of the prison staff really have a clue as to what Dungeons and Dragons is about (when you read some of the gang specialist's statements, it's pretty clear he's totally ignorant), and corrections officials don't like having anything in their facilities that they don't understand, and therefore, aren't sure how to control. But like the comment thread on The Volokh Conspiracy acknowledges, there were other, and perhaps more intelligent rationales for a ban.

And all of this does bring up one point that's lost in all of this - if any consistent cooperative activity behind bars can be considered a threat to prison security, is it any wonder that people get out with barely any ability to function in society?

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Little Knowledge

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a journalist. I don't really know why, mainly because I never put much thought into it. I guess it's really the part of me that enjoys researching things. As this weblog can attest, it's certainly not because I'm an expert writer. But now, I'm glad it didn't. Not because what I'm doing with my life now comes close to living the dream, but because, as often as I complain about the media, I understand that being a journalist is really a difficult job.

Case in point.

“Skeptics note that porn sites would likely keep their existing ‘.com’ storefronts, even as they set up shop in the new ‘.xxx’ domain name, thereby expanding the number of porn sites on the Internet.”
Global Internet agency reconsiders `.xxx' for porn sites
Tom Maliti, the article's author, doesn't tell us which skeptics of using .xxx for adult sites passed along this note to him. But if I may be allowed to offer completely some unsolicited advice - stop using those guys as sources - especially on background. Anyone who's going to tell you something that makes you look like an idiot when you publish it, should have to do so in public. Now, I don't consider myself all that technologically savvy, but even I know that if decides to also register, that's not automatically another distinct web site - any more than my getting another telephone number from the phone company means that I must have two homes. Just because the URLs are in different top-level domains doesn't mean that they resolve to different IP addresses. While I'm sketchy on the exact details of how Web servers work, I do get that much (I think). But perhaps that does make me better educated about the World Wide Web than the average Joe - even if the average Joe happens to be a reporter.

And therein is the rub. I'm sure that reporters are called upon to document things that they have little knowledge about on a regular basis, and every so often, they stumble into something that, if they knew better, they wouldn't have submitted (and if their editors had known better, they would have corrected). Yes, I know I'm suddenly being somewhat of a softie on this issue - and standing down from my usual zero-tolerance of what strike me a obvious journalistic errors. Maybe because I've had some time to think about this before I wrote it, or maybe I'm just mellowing in my old age. So I'm cutting Mr. Maliti a little slack. Because he's got a hard job. But he'd better not let me catch him flubbing it again.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Picture This

This came up on Slate’s twitter feed: “Check out the stock art on this awful story about a dad who raped his daughters.”

So I went and looked. It's a cropped, black-and-white photograph of a man holding a woman down - his hand, at the end of a hairy forearm, is locked around her wrist, her fingers are curled into a not-quite fist; some strain is showing. They're both Caucasians. You don't see anything more of him; part of her head and body are showing - just enough to tell she's wearing a white t-shirt.

Some of the remarks in the comments section complained about the photo being in poor taste, but it just seemed, well, there to me. (I don't know how else to put it.) What really caught me about it was the idea that it was a stock photo. Someone staged that picture, and put it up on iStockphoto for sale. And that's what struck me as strange. Don't ask me why, because intellectually, I guess it makes sense - after all, CBS News decided that it was just the picture they needed, since they didn't have (or wouldn't/couldn't post) a mug shot, press conference, home or anything else germane to the story. So I guess the artist made a small commission on the piece. But still, I have a hard time picturing that shoot. I find myself intensely curious as to what went on.

"Move your hand a little farther up, Jack."

"Turn your head a little to the right, Jill."

"Should I slide over a little bit?"

"I don't think that light is in the right place."

In the end, I guess it's just like any other photo shoot. A photographer comes up with a concept and hires a couple of models to play the roles, and some time later, one or more professional photographs come out of it. But it would never have occurred to me to set up something like this particular picture. In all honesty, I understand that is says something about me, more than anything else. But I don't know what.

Friday, March 5, 2010

So What Would You Call It?

I've noticed an interesting thing on Slate, recently, in the aftermath of two earthquakes to our South.

I'm not talking about the earthquake, and certainly not about the so-called "looting," which I prefer to think of as the autonomously organized distribution of unjustly hoarded goods.
Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians?

There will be "looting" in Chile this week as people struggle to survive in the ruins, but the Chilean army and police, not the U.S. Marines, will control the situation.
Shaken, but Not Broken
And I wondered: "Scare quotes? What for?" The implication, I think, is that what is being called looting actually isn't looting. And to a degree, that might be right. What happened in Haiti or Chile (or New Orleans, for that matter), doesn't quite fit the definition of loot as it appears in Merriam-Webster, since there isn't a war going on. My hard copy Webster, however, allows for any calamity to be an occasion for looting, but it came out during the Reagan administration, so things may have changed in the interim.

But I think that something else is actually in play. And that is that the word looting has a negative connotation attached to it, conjuring up images of bandanna-masked people rushing out of Best Buy with plasma screen televisions during a riot triggered by a demonstration gone South. And to some of Slate's more left-leaning authors, it's unfair to use that same word to refer to people who are basically stealing to survive.

However, one wonders what would actually change if we invented a new word to mean: stealing necessities to survive after a catastrophe. Likely, people everywhere would rush to claim the term for themselves, wanting it to be known that they're taking things for only the right reasons. And this would work for about a week, until the new word acquired the same negative connotations of looting, and left-leaning authors started bracketing it in scare quotes. After all, we already use looting instead of stealing or thievery, mainly because it's a narrower term - otherwise we could simply give Hindustani (which I think is just called Hindi-Urdu these days) its word back, thank it for the loan, and simply call people who steal things thieves, as we usually do.

A better alternative is simply to retain the word loot, but allow it to remain value neutral, with any moral judgment being predicated on the situation at hand. Looting designer clothes from a boutique during an Anarchist demonstration because you don't think you'll get caught - criminal. Looting food from a grocery store after an earthquake because you don't know when emergency supplies will arrive (and you didn't unjustly hoard any for just such an emergency) - more acceptable. We've got enough morally loaded words as it is. No need to load new ones.

Overdoing It

"Killer Asteroids" is on National Geographic this morning. The somewhat breathless title conceals a somewhat run-of-the-mill treatment of Earth-crossing asteroids. As one might expect, the program showcases a number of different astronomers, including David Levy (co discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9), who, we are told, regards Earth-crossing asteroids as "celestial terrorists."

Render unto Caesar a break, willya? "Celestial terrorists?" I understand the idea that many people don't take the idea of the Earth being hit by a large asteroid very seriously - despite the potential for worldwide catastrophe, it's a VERY remote risk. This can make it hard to motivate people to put time and resources toward the issue. But calling big chunks of space rock "terrorists" doesn't seem to be a very good way to change that.