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Monday, March 28, 2005
The Museum Of Improbable Claims
On Friday I linked to an article about the discovery of 70-million-year-old soft tissue in a T-rex, a revelation that made me feel kind of woozy and insecure. You start to wonder what's next: will they discover a race of people living in a crater on the Moon? Will a subterranian passage be found to the center of the earth (which will of course be populated with ravenous dinosaurs and women in fur bikinis)? Will cats in blue jackets be discovered dancing with dogs in red caps (what would become of the mice and the rats)?

This morning the CNN web site chronicled a similarly unlikely incident at the end of a Schindler family news conference:

After remarks by Randall Terry -- an anti-abortion activist who has been acting as a spokesman for Terri Schiavo's family, the Schindlers -- members of a group calling itself the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigades seized control of the microphones and blasted Terry as a "Christian fascist thug" trying to interfere in "the most intimate affairs of life and death."

Okay, time out. Did I hear that right?

The "Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigades"? What is this, 1971? Are Maoist student groups building bombs in their dorm rooms while wearing tie-dyed t-shirts, listening to Country Joe and the Fish and plotting the overthrow of the government? Are they working in concert with the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Army, or both?

Clearly, to Randall Terry's group this is 1971, and violent hippie youth gangs threaten the stability of our government. But the rest of the world moved on a long time ago.

It's obvious that this is a clumsy bit of street theater orchestrated by Randall Terry himself. It's too bad the news media -- made indolent by the 24-hour news cycle -- took it hook, line and sinker.

Sunshine Superman


I've never been a big fan of David Foster Wallace, a writer who (in spite of his obvious talent and cleverness) would benefit greatly by a forced reduction in his sugar intake. But his in-depth story on right-wing talk radio in the April Atlantic Monthly is magazine writing at its best. Wallace gets into the psychology of winger talk radio better than anyone has to date, I think. He does this by spending a lot of time in the studio with John Ziegler, a pretty typical winger host from L.A., and Wallace really tries to understand the curious mix of self-righteous conviction and cynical show-biz that goes into the program.

Wallace does a good job, too, of being fair to Ziegler. The fact that the guy is a thin-skinned, egotistical creep is difficult to mask, but Wallace does his best. Along the way he gets into a little of the history of talk radio and how it -- and, perhaps, America -- was changed by the 1988 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was basically the Rooseveltian principle that had regulated the broadcast industry since its infancy.
It required that stations operate in "the public interest", that they offer balanced programming, roughly equal time for two sides of a debate. It viewed the electromagnetic spectrum as the property of the American people, not the companies that owned the radio and TV stations; broadcasters therefore had a greater responsibility than just making money.

FCC Chairman Newton Minow's famous speech, where he declared that "the public interest is not merely what interests the public" was, in retrospect, the high-water mark of this approach. Under the Fairness Doctrine, a talk-radio host who was left-wing would have to be counter-balanced by a right-wing host. Through most of the 1980's, right-wing hosts were actually difficult to find, and the process was seen as cumbersome to program directors. As a result, talk-show hosts were usually even-handed, more like debate moderators than racantouers

With the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine it was possible to program an entire day of one side snarling at the microphone without worrying about providing another perspective. And the right wing was perfectly suited to benefit from this new arrangement.

I'd love to link to this article, but the Atlantic is a subscriber-only site. But this quote really gets to the heart of the matter:

It seems only fair and balanced to observe, from the imagined perspective of a Neal Boortz or a John Ziegler, that Minow's old distinction reflected exactly the sort of controlling, nanny-state liberal attitude that makes government regulation such a bad idea. For how and why does a federal bureaucrat like Newton Minow get to decide what "the public interest" is? Why not respect the American people enough to let the public itself decide what interests it? Of course, this sort of objection depends on precisely the collapse of "the public interest" into "what happens to interest the public" that liberals object to. For the distinction between these two is itself liberal, as is the idea of a free press and a broadcast media's special responsibilities -- "liberal" in the sense of being rooted in a concern for the common good over and above the preferences of individual citizens. The point is that the debate over things like the Fairness Doctrine and the proper responsibility of broadcasters quickly hits ideological bedrock on both sides.

(Which does indeed entail government's arrogating the power to decide what that common good is, it's true. On the other hand, the idea is that at least government officials are elected, or appointed by elected representatives, and thus are somewhat accountable to the public they're deciding for. What appears to drive liberals most crazy about the right's conflation of the "common good" / "public interest" with "what wins in the market" is the conviction that it's all a scam, that what the deregulation of industries like broadcasting, health care and energy really amounts to is the subordination of the public's interests to the financial interests of large corporations. Which is, of course, all part of a very deep, serious argument that America's having with itself right now.

This is a very impressive diagnosis of how a government that for many years was more or less on the side of the people has been turned against them without the people even being aware of it. If you are able to lay your hands on a copy of the April issue, I'd recommend you give it a read.

Friday, March 25, 2005
What's Next, Tap-Dancing Skeletons?
For every door that opens in the scientific world, another door closes. When the heliocentric model of the solar system gained currency, our notions of our own importance to the universe had to be adjusted downward. When space probes landed on Mars and took pictures, we had to put away our fanciful ideas of canals and bug-eyed Martians. And when evidence began to accumulate in support of the Big Bang theory, the idea of an eternal, unchanging universe had to give way to an unpleasant alternative: that the universe is just a temporary structure; that nothing -- literally nothing -- lasts forever.

Scientific discovery tends to shatter our illusions, but that's the price we pay for knowledge. But it's pretty rare when a scientific discovery opens a door without closing another.

That seems to have happened with the discovery of soft tissue within the fossilized femur of a T. Rex discovered in Montana in 2003:

[A] 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in Montana has apparently yielded the improbable, scientists reported yesterday: soft tissues, including blood vessels and possibly cells lining them, that "retain some of their original flexibility, elasticity and resilience."

Moreover, an examination with a scanning electron microscope showed the dinosaur's blood vessels to be "virtually indistinguishable" from those recovered from ostrich bones. The ostrich is today's largest bird, and many paleontologists think birds are living descendants of some dinosaurs.

In a paper being published today in the journal Science, the discovery team said the remarkable preservation of the tissue might open up "avenues for studying dinosaur physiology and perhaps some aspects of their biochemistry." Speaking at a teleconference, the team leader, Dr. Mary H. Schweitzer of North Carolina State University, said, "Tissue preservation of this extent, where you still have this flexibility and transparency, has never been noted in a dinosaur before."

Dr. Schweitzer, as well as scientists not connected with the research, cautioned that further analysis of the specimens was required before they could be sure the tissues had indeed survived largely unaltered. They said the extraction of DNA for studies of dinosaur genetics and for cloning experiments was only a long shot, though at least reasonably possible.

In a separate article in Science, Dr. Lawrence M. Witmer, an Ohio University paleontologist who had no part in the research, said: "If we have tissues that are not fossilized, then we can potentially extract DNA. It's very exciting."

Everyone's secret hope, of course, is that dinosaurs might be cloned so that they can become surly and ravenous, escape from their cages and chase us around, roaring and gnashing their teeth. Now that would be exciting. I think this desire is instinctive and closely related to the thanatos -- the human death impulse.

But paleantology really isn't my field.

Thursday, March 24, 2005
The National Review On MLK
From the National Review, September 1965, via American Renaissance:

For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the ‘cake of custom’ that holds us together. With their doctrine of ‘civil disobedience’ they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes … that it is perfectly all right to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance… . And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted ‘school strikes’ sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit violation of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed …

Legal Rights Vs. "Natural Rights"
If you're wondering how much strain the Terri Schiavo case is putting on the Republican coalition, it's instructive to read the remarkable article posted on the National Review web site by Bill Bennett and Brian T Kennedy.

While "process conservatives" like George Will are trying to warn the Republicans away from what they perceive as a political train wreck, the evangelical wing of the party -- which is currently calling the shots -- think the fight has barely begun:

It is a mistake to believe that the courts have the ultimate say as to what a constitution means. Every governor is bound by oath to uphold and protect his state constitution. In the case of Florida, the constitution Mr. Bush pledged to defend declares that, "All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty..." If the governor believes that he and the Florida legislature possess the constitutional authority and duty to save Terri's life, then he is bound by his oath of office to do so.

[...] It is time, therefore, for Governor Bush to execute the law and protect her rights, and, in turn, he should take responsibility for his actions. Using the state police powers, Governor Bush can order the feeding tube reinserted. His defense will be that he and a majority of the Florida legislature believe the Florida Constitution requires nothing less. Some will argue that Governor Bush will be violating the law. We think he will not be violating the law, but if he is judged to have done so, it will be in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., who answered to a higher law than a judge's opinion. In so doing, King showed respect for the man-made law by willingly going to jail (on a Good Friday); Governor Bush may have to face impeachment because of his decision.

Hmm, I wonder how strenuously the National Review defended Dr. King's position at the time?

In taking these extraordinary steps to save an innocent life, Governor Bush should be judged not by the opinion of the Florida supreme court, a co-equal branch of the Florida government, but by the opinions of his political superiors, the people of Florida. If they disagree with their governor, they are indeed free to act through their elected representatives and impeach him. Or they can vindicate him if they think he is right. But he should not be cowed into inaction — he should not allow an innocent woman to be starved to death — because of an opinion of a court he believes to be wrong and unconstitutional.

Even by the standards of right-wing discourse, this is a series of astonishing claims. Basically, the argument here is that the Constitution itself is unconstitutional because it enforces "legal rights" but not "natural rights", and that the executive branch, while technically co-equal to the judicial branch, should still have the last word as to matters of constitutionality.

That religious conservatives are calling upon Jeb Bush to shred the Constitution in order to give them the result they want is disturbing, but not surprising; but that they expect him to willingly commit an act of political self-immolation for their cause shows just how delusional they really are. Bush is perfectly willing to lead a parade for the religious right, but he is not crazy or stupid.

The Republicans who handed over the keys of their party to the religious right have made a fool's bargain. It seems like they're just beginning to realize that fact.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005
The Democratic Party: Too Chicken To Survive?
One issue that readers of this blog raise quite often is the overall utility of the Democratic party. Do the Democrats, as a party, offer a viable alternative to the Republican agenda, or is the party simply too weak and corrupt a vessel to withstand right-wing attacks?

A related question is whether 21st-century progressives should be pragmatic in hope of winning elections, or if they should be damn-the-torpedoes types who would rather die on their feet than live on their knees?

The Terri Schiavo case has brought these questions into sharp focus because a number of Democrats -- too many, in my view -- sided with the Republicans on this issue. They do not seem to have done so out of conviction but because they believed, as the Republicans believed, that there was going to be a very dear price exacted for opposing the Schiavo bill in Congress.

But it's beginning to look like this was one of the most unpopular things the Congress has done in a long time.

Did this incident expose the Democrats as a bunch of cringing chickens who are simply incapable of taking a principled stand?

I think Josh Marshall gets it about right:

The recent national political phase of this case began with Republicans seeing a political opportunity to mobilize the electorate against Democrats -- an especially inviting opportunity given the turn of other political news of late. Most of the national press bought into this storyline. And most Democrats seem to have done so as well.

That doesn't mean they agreed with the underlying viewpoint advanced by Republicans. But they did buy into the political storyline. And that set into motion the standard drama, with cowering Democrats put to flight and fear by grinning Republicans, with national reporters occasionally aghast but mainly enthralled, as our baser natures might be by a gloveless boxing match.

(From childhood, most of us remember that there is a certain bully character type. But it is seldom an accident just who gets bullied. Bullies, in their very nature, perhaps their deepest nature, know how to sense and seek out people who are afraid to defend themselves. That's an instructive lesson here too.)

Yet now we see, quite in contrast to the conventional wisdom, that what the Washington Republicans have done here is quite unpopular with the public. [....]But those polls shouldn't have been necessary for Democrats to know how to act in this case. Anybody watching this could see what the Republican majority was doing was a cheap political stunt[....]the Democrats should have been more confident that the majority of the public would have been more supportive of living under the law of the land in this case, or put another way, of their being the grown-up party.

Josh speaks very eloquently here, and I would encourage you to read the whole post over at TPM.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005
David Limbaugh vs. The Soldiers Of Death
David Limbaugh, outraged at this morning's Terri Schiavo decision, is going ape over on the Town Hall web site:

I doubt that I'll ever be able to understand, much less relate to, the sympathies of certain people. Generally speaking, they seem to feel more compassion for wildlife than animals, more for animals than human beings, more for guilty human beings than innocent ones, more for Communist dictators and tyrannical thugs than freedom fighters, and more for the vindication of an abstract principle devaluing human life than for an actual human being like Terri Schiavo, who, though severely disabled, may truly want to live.

Could it be that something besides Terri's wishes motivates many of the death-soldiers, such as an allegiance to the culture of death, or some abject, inhumane resentment that we spend so much money keeping severely disabled people alive? I've received appalling e-mails from people complaining about the financial burden on society in keeping Terri alive.

Such stinging moral outrage! But David -- where are the tears for Sun Hudson,the Texas infant who was taken off life support against the wishes of his mother?
On Feb. 16, Harris County Probate Court Judge William C. McCulloch made the landmark decision to lift restrictions preventing Texas Children's from discontinuing care. However, an emergency appeal by Hudson's attorney, Mario Caballero, and a procedural error on McCulloch's part prevented the hospital from acting for four more weeks.

Texas law allows hospitals can discontinue life sustaining care, even if patient family members disagree. A doctor's recommendation must be approved by a hospital's ethics committee, and the family must be given 10 days from written notice of the decision to try and locate another facility for the patient.

The "Texas law" mentioned in the story was signed by Gov. George W. Bush in 1999.

Limbaugh's hypocrisy is hard to take, but it's by no means the worst thing on display here. The most irritating thing is his ad hominem attack not only on Terri Schiavo's husband, but on anyone who thinks differently than he does.

According to Limbaugh, if you believe that Terri Schiavo desires to live and is being cruelly put to death, that's just common sense and you're on the side of the angels.

But in his view, there is no way that anyone could sincerely believe that Terri Schiavo would not want to continue living under her present circumstances. The only explanation for taking that position, he claims, is "an alliegence to the culture of death" or "some abject, inhumane resentment that we spend so much money keeping severely disabled people alive".

So tell me, David -- did George W. Bush sign that Texas bill into law because of his alliegence to the culture of death, or because of his abject, inhumane resentment that we spend so much money keeping severely disabled people alive?

Monday, March 21, 2005
ABC News Poll: Boot To The Head
The first major public opinion poll on the Terri Schiavo case is a boot to the head for Congressional Republicans. By a margin of 63 to 28 per cent, Americans believe that Schiavo's feeding tube should be removed. An even greater majority, 70 per cent, believes that it's inappropriate for Congress to get involved. And a whopping 67 percent of Americans believe that the Congress is acting not out of concern for Terri Schiavo, but in order to gain political advantage.

It gets even more interesting:

In addition to the majority, the intensity of public sentiment is also on the side of Schiavo's husband, who has fought successfully in the Florida courts to remove her feeding tube. And intensity runs especially strongly against congressional involvement.

Included among the 63 percent who support removing the feeding tube are 42 percent who "strongly" support it — twice as many as strongly oppose it. And among the 70 percent who call congressional intervention inappropriate are 58 percent who hold that view strongly — an especially high level of strong opinion.

As Ed Kilgore points out at Talking Points Memo, the Republicans may have painted themselves into a corner. If the federal judge asked to intervene in the case defers to the state courts, the Republicans in Congress -- who have so strongly signalled to their base that they will do anything to keep Terri Schiavo alive -- will have no choice but to pass even stronger legislation.

But I have a feeling it won't come to that. Frist and Co. will get a sudden and acute hankering for restraint, constitutional authority and respect for the Rule of Law.

Don't Worry -- Congress Has A Plan To Save You
There is a discouraging familiarity about the arguments surrounding the Terri Schiavo case, which reached a strange sort of critical mass last week. The members of Congress, who normally wouldn't be found in Washington during Easter recess even if Earth were threatened by a giant monster invasion or an planet-dooming asteroid strike, flocked back to Washington with a lunatic zeal to save someone who neither needs nor wants to be saved.

Like the Elian Gonzales case of happy memory, fanatics from all walks of life, armed with incomplete and often inaccurate information, think they know what's best for someone in Florida whom they've never met.

Both the House and the Senate decided to humiliate themselves (more than usual, that is) by compelling a woman who has been in "a persistent vegetative state" for 15 years to testify before a Congressional committee. They are bound to get more dramatic testimony from her than they ever did from Mark McGwire, but are there no limits?

Apparently not. Legislation allowing Federal judges to short-circuit state judicial authority -- tailored to Terri Schiavo's case alone --was passed early Monday morning and the President has already signed it:

As the House opened debate just after 9 p.m., Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Ms. Schiavo needed to be protected from a "merciless directive" from a state judge.

"The Florida courts have brought Terri and the nation to an ugly crossroads by commanding medical professionals sworn to protect life to end Terri's life," Mr. Sensenbrenner said.

But Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and an opponent of the bill, told colleagues that Congress was substituting its judgment for that of the Florida judges and doctors who have been intimately involved in the case.

"This is heart-wrenching for all Americans," Mr. Wexler said. "But the issue before this Congress is not an emotional one. It is simply one that respects the rule of law."

Rule of law? What a quaint idea. This is George W. Bush's America, buddy. The rule of law is whatever the Republicans say it is.

The decision to remove a feeding tube from a patient is a difficult and agonizing one, but it actually happens every day. The difference here is that pro-life groups have made Terri Schiavo a sort of honorary fetus. For example, one group issued this statement in a press release on Friday:

With the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube this afternoon [...]the courts have condemned an innocent woman to death. There is only one person in the world who wants this woman dead, and that is her estranged husband Michael. Terri Schiavo has committed no crime, but she is disabled. She is not in a vegetative state, and requires absolutely no artificial life support. Terri receives only basic nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube. She has now begun to suffer a slow, miserable death following today’s court-ordered removal of her feeding tube.

In the writings of what I'll call the pro-feeding-tube faction, two claims are always made. The first is that her "estranged" husband "wants her dead". This claim is often laced with all sorts of sinister adjectives designed to make Michael Schiavo out to be a monster who wants to kill his wife for the insurance money. What they don't mention is that Terri -- who was incapacitated by the side effects of an eating disorder --was incapacitated fifteen years ago, and the legal battle surrounding this has been going on for seven years. There is not, as many pro-life groups have claimed, a financial payoff for Michael Schiavo; her life insurance policy was was cashed out years ago to cover her medical expenses.

Now,the dogged insistence that Terri Shiavo is not in a persistent vegetative state -- in spite of what the doctors treating her say -- is just nonsense. And it is nonsense to suggest, as the Congress is suggesting, that the doctors and the Florida courts are so misguided and ill-equipped to deal with this issue that the executive and legislative branches of government must inject themselves into this matter.

In another time, under different circumstances, this peculiar sideshow would just be another practical example of why anyone running for Congress should first be forced to reveal the grade they got in high-school civics. 535 members of Congress, and the vast majority seems to view the Consitution as an obstacle, an impediment to their "getting things done". These were the very people the Framers warned us about.

Whenever this sort of idiocy gets out of hand, the wise old owls always shrug and note that the Republic will survive. And it probably will. It's pretty durable. But it's not indestructible.

Friday, March 18, 2005
No Way, I'm Not Signing That Thing
Recently the public broadcasting entity which employs me had a successful pledge drive, and to celebrate I went with a number of co-workers to the local watering hole. As I was tipping back a pint of Brown Trout Ale, one of my colleagues asked, "Have you signed the Beam yet?" and I replied, "No way, I'm not signing that thing".

The Beam was a big I-beam that had been painted white and was lying on a tarp in the parking lot of the station. Everyone had been invited to sign it, and at a little ceremony later on we would all stand and watch at the Beam was hoisted up and bolted into place on our new building. That way, future generations could ask, how did all these people climb all way up here to sign an I-beam with a Sharpie?

My co-worker asked, "Why wouldn't you sign the Beam?"

I said the first thing that popped into my head: "Because eventually, the right-wing government's going to tear the beam out so they can get all our names. Then they'll ship us off to Guantanamo Bay, where we'll be interrogated, tortured and killed".

"What a disturbingly realistic fear to have," said another of my colleagues.

I got to thinking about this conversation when Shakespeare's Sister posted an interesting little thought-experiment: suppose that the book Fahrenheit 451 became reality, and all books were banned. What book would you choose to memorize?

It should have been an agonizing choice for an old English major like me, but it was strangely an easy choice -- and it was a Japanese novel in translation to boot, A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami.

And what book would you be content to let burn? For me, this would again be a shockingly easy choice: Love Story, by Erich Segal.

So let's hear from you, Lost Citizens -- what's your choice?

Thursday, March 17, 2005
I Double-Dog Dare Ya
It figures. Just when it looked like the Bush administration was serious about mending fences abroad, Dubya jabbed a finger in the eye of the world community by yesterday selecting neocon crazy Paul Wolfowitz as President of the World Bank.

"Old Europe", (which had recently begun to believe that the kooks from Defense were no longer calling the shots at State) has suddenly got the heebie-jeebies again.

Wolfowitz has two qualities that make him a natural to run the World Bank. First, he is insanely loyal to Bush. Second, like his predecessor James Wolfensohn, his name starts with the word "Wolf" -- which you have to admit is pretty cool.

Wolfie has no actual banking or international development experience, but that's not unprecedented; Bob MacNamara (and no, Nemo, I don't mean the former WCCO-TV personality) was appointed to the World Bank presidency by LBJ in 1968.

But at least MacNamara's background was in business and administration, which has some connection to banking and finance. He had held a number of executive positions at Ford, including -- briefly -- President. His experience in moving a car from the drawing board to the showroom required orchestrating the moving parts of a huge, vertically-structured production entity. His experience was at least analagous to running the Pentagon. And while running the World Bank was a stretch for MacNamara, people could see it, they could wrap their heads around it.

The same cannot be said for Paul Wolfowitz.

Wolfie never ran the Defense Department. He was mostly a wonk, a strategic thinker, a big-picture guy -- in other words, he'd come up with the big ideas and someone else would take the rap and clean up the mess when things went south.

Peter Bosshard, the policy director of the International Rivers Network, an American NGO [Non-Governmental Organization], pretty much summed up the reaction of the international development community this way: "In his career, Wolfowitz has so far not shown any interest in poverty reduction, environmental protection and human rights. His election as World Bank president would most likely exacerbate the current backlash against social and environmental concerns at the World Bank, and would initiate a new era of conflict between the Bank and civil society."

Aw, but he's such a nice guy.

Now, the big question about Wolfie's appointment (and the appointment of John Bolten as ambassador to the UN) is whether this signals a vindication of our, er, "robust" policy towards the rest of the world, or if these guys are just being kicked upstairs in order to get them away from the levers of power in Washington.

Personally, I believe it's the former. With Rummy in place the neocons still control the Pentagon and the one-two appointments of Bolten and Wolfowitz seem like an deliberate in-your-face move against the Europeans. Here's our team, Bush seems to be saying; whatcha gonna do about it? Block Wolfie's appointment?

I dare ya.

Monday, March 14, 2005
Democracy: You Know You Want It
Ah, the Bush administration -- born-again Jeffersonians all. Having used up all their chits on the WMD issue with the global community, suddenly their greatest concern is pollinating the flower of democracy across the face of a barren world. What will be the next dictatorship that Bush will bring to heel? Syria? Iran? North Korea? Saudi Arabia? Egypt? Quatr?

Nope, looks like it's going to be Venezuela.

What's that? Is there a question from the back of the room? Well, no, Venezuela isn't a dictatorship, I guess, but they keep electing the wrong people. That's the same thing, right?

Fox News, which no longer even pretends to be anything but the GOP's Pravda, gives us a good look at how the Venezuela "debate" is being framed:

CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chavez, the left-wing leader who is moving toward totalitarian rule at home in Venezuela and backing guerrilla movements in the region, could become a test for the new Bush administration.

What a fair and balanced lead! "We report, you decide", right?

"I think we have to view, at this point, the government of Venezuela as a negative force in the region," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her confirmation hearings last month.

Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil producer; Chavez basically controls 15 percent of U.S. oil imports. He allegedly is taking billions of dollars in revenue to grease the way to one-man rule of a country with a 50-year history of democracy.

His critics say the government's use of its oil wealth threatens the region.

Venezuela's oil revenues subsidize food prices for the poor, although a large bottle of cooking oil can cost just pennies. The money generated from the $50-per-barrel cost also is being used to buy weapons such as 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles and 30 attack helicopters from the Russians. There also have been discussions about a possible $4 billion purchase of advanced MiG fighter jets.

One U.S. State Department official noted, "We shoot down MiGs."

Finally, a consistent policy out of this administration. Who is this "State Department official"? Does Doug Feith still have a desk over there?

Chavez's opponents admit he is popular, especially among the poor. But being popular, they say, does not give the president the right to do whatever he wants. The police, military and armed thugs have been tools used freely by Chavez to hang on to power during a coup attempt and a national strike in 2002.

Now, buoyed by electoral victories and high oil prices, Chavez appears to be doing everything he can to snuff out democracy before the eyes of a nation and a world that does not seem to be paying much attention."

This is typical of Fox's sloppy reporting, if you can even call it reporting. "His critics say" is repeated again and again, usually without attribution. The story implies that his electoral victories were illegitimate, gained by using "the police, military and armed thugs", but doesn't mention that the recall election was monitored by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, who were satisfied that the election was legitimate.

No one who supports Chavez is quoted or even alluded to, beyond the one oblique reference to his being "popular" and his "electoral victories" . You may remember that last August, Chavez won a recall election with 59.25 percent of the vote -- and he got that without using the soft-core porn billboards the good, upstanding oil barons who financed the recall used.

Today's Financial Times reports that the U.S. is developing a new policy to destabilize -- er, "contain" the Venezuelan government:

A strategy aimed at fencing in the Chávez government is being prepared at the behest of President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, senior US officials say. Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs at the Department of Defense, said the policy was being developed because Mr Chavez was employing a "hyena strategy" in the region.

"Chavez is a problem because he is clearly using his oil money and influence to introduce his conflictive style into the politics of other countries," Mr Pardo-Maurer said in an interview with the Financial Times. "He's picking on the countries whose social fabric is the weakest. In some cases it's downright subversion."

Look who's talking.

Friday, March 11, 2005
Apples To Horseapples
Somewhere, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko is smiling.

For decades, Lysenko's name was a dirty word, synonymous with the cynical misapplication of the scientific method for political purposes.

I know, I know; you're sick of hearing about the guy. Well, I'm sick of talking about him, but if the wingers want to rehabilitate him, what can I do?

Get this: if you don't buy the arguments that Bush & Co. have put forward on phasing out Social Security (and most Americans don't) a new study by the University of Buffalo has another argument for you to try. The study reveals that -- gasp! -- the Social Security system itself is responsible for decreased fertility and marriage rates in industrialized countries!

Policymakers and citizens pondering the merits of Social Security reform should consider new evidence showing that "social security" adversely affects decisions to marry and have children.

A new University at Buffalo study, examining the experience of 57 countries over a 32-year period, concludes that in the U.S. and other countries where social security is instituted as a defined-benefits, pay-as-you-go system, marriage and fertility rates fell sharply over time -- partly as a result of social security itself.

Those declines were not found in countries utilizing government-managed personal savings accounts or privatized pension funds as a basis of their social security system.

The most-industrialized countries that fall into this category, by the way, are Singapore, Malaysia, the Phillipines, and Chile. Comparing the marriage and fertility rates of these countries with the U.S. and Europe isn't just apples to oranges, it's apples to horseapples.

Prior to the establishment of current form of Social Security in the U.S., the family was the main form of social security, [lead investigator Isaac] Ehrlich points out. "Working children took care of retired parents as they aged, and so there was an incentive for parents to have large families," he says.

Hmmm. The Social Security system was signed into law in 1935. So why aren't fertility and marriage rates tracked before 1960?

You've probably already guessed the answer: the baby boom generation has been factored out of this "scientific study" -- presumably because it doesn't synch with the author's thesis that Social Security causes birthrates to decline.

A pay-as-you-go system is, in principle, financially sound if it behaves like a large family where the entire generation of retirees is supported by the succeeding generation of workers, Ehrlich says. "In reality, however," he adds, "the pay-as-you-go system does not provide strong incentives for the system to remain financially sound.

Time out. Ehrlich seems to be arguing that young people, knowing that a faceless collective state will take care of them in their old age, have no incentive to create offspring in sufficient numbers to support them later on.

And they say kids don't plan for the future these days.

This sounds like a terrible problem, Dr. Ehrlich. Whatever can we do?

The solution, Ehrlich suggests, is to reform Social Security by making it fully funded by individual contributions (thus, also independent of inter-generational support) by allowing people to manage some portion of their contribution through government-regulated, properly balanced pension funds. Americans also should be given the option of bequeathing these annuities to their children, he says.

This, Ehrlich says, would provide people with more incentive to adequately plan for retirement. Moreover, contributions to privately managed pension funds, channeled to productive private investments, also will promote higher economic growth, he says.

What a coincidence: it just so happens that George W. Bush has a plan just like that.

Thursday, March 10, 2005
There's "Crazy", There's "Extra Crazy", And Then There's "Ann Coulter Crazy"

Yep, she's crazy all right: Ann poses with Tailgunner Joe

Elvis Costello once sang that people's obsessions sometimes become their careers, and Ann Coulter is the living proof of this sentiment. Ann is not just feigning right-wing nuttiness in order to draw attention to herself or to sell books. She's the real thing: a genuine, certifiable, wild-eyed crazy person, crouching on the Shelf of Insanity between the Flat Earthers and the Flying Saucer People.

Ann's always making wild statements about people she hates (which is just about everybody; the few men she regards as attractive are the ones that remind her of her father, which is creeeeepy). But she went over the top, even by her own standards, when she went after White House correspondent Helen Thomas in her February 23 column. Ann started out by defending James Guckert (or Jeff Gannon, or whatever):

Now the media is hot on the trail of a gay escort service that Gannon may have run some years ago. Are we supposed to like gay people now, or hate them? Is there a Web site where I can go to and find out how the Democrats want me to feel about gay people on a moment-to-moment basis?

Yes there is, Ann; here's the link.

Unable to explain how a reporter could get a White House press pass under an assumed name without any kind of security check, Ann swings for the fences:

Press passes can't be that hard to come by if the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas to sit within yards of the president

Oy vey! Helen Thomas is an Arab? Who knew? Imagine that, Ann thinks little old Helen Thomas -- who's been covering the White House for over 40 years -- is a security threat.

Starting to look a little desperate, Ann tries to excuse the Gannon pseudonym:

Democrats in Congress actually demanded that an independent prosecutor investigate how Gannon got into White House press conferences while writing under an invented name. How did Gary Hartpence, Billy Blythe and John Kohn (Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and John Kerry) run for president under invented names? Admittedly, these men were not reporters for the prestigious "Talon News" service; they were merely Democrats running for president.

Actually, Billy Blythe was adopted when he was a child; he didn't choose the name Clinton. John Kerry's grandfather, a Jewish immigrant named Fritz Kohn, changed his name to Frederick Kerry. And Gary Hart shortened his last name from Hartpence when he was in his twenties; to the best of my knowledge he didn't make the change in order to cover up a past career in the porn industry.

But hey, ya want facts? What are you reading an Ann Coulter column for?

Friday, March 04, 2005
Lynn True, 1963 - 2005

Here in the Lost City we don't talk about personal things except in a very jokey and superficial way. But at the risk of appearing mawkish or self-indulgent I'd like to take a moment to remember an old friend of mine, and a friend to many of the faithful readers of this blog, a fine woman named Lynn True.

Lynn was a senior at my high school when I was a sophomore, both of us active in theater, and we were in several shows together. A few years later she married a close friend of mine, so I've seen much of her over the years. She was smart and she was funny, a savvy career woman, a good-hearted mom, a decent soul. Her last years were spent in a tenacious battle against breast cancer, a foe she tangled with year after year, through the pain and the weariness. In the end it overwhelmed her.

I do not believe what my religion teaches about physical trial: that it is a crucible that purifies the soul. But when I close my eyes I feel like I can see her, walking in sunshine and shadow, in some beautiful place, and her eyes flash with beauty and innocence and a droll understanding of the things we don't understand: why we're here, where we're all headed, why the world is like this -- so beautiful and at the same time so cruelly unfair.

She was magnificent, and I will miss her.

Thursday, March 03, 2005
Meet The New Donkey, Same As The Old Donkey

Laugh while you can, Joe Lieberman

Like the Sirens luring Odysseus' men to their destruction, the Democratic Leadership Council is once again calling on members of their party to slow down, keep their voices low, try to get along with the Republicans in Congress. Joe Lieberman, who along with Al Gore is practically the DLC poster child, is currently meeting with Lindsey Graham to find a way to compromise on Social Security.

This compromise will undoubtedly involve an incremental concession from Republicans. The incremental concession will be erased in Conference anyway, and the result will be what the Republicans have been dreaming about for 70 years: the end of social security, with Lieberman giving the administration the imprimatur of bipartisanship.

The DLC knows this. Their real hope is that the Republicans will go easy on Dems who do nice things for them.

Ask Max Cleland how well that worked.

The DLC is making the same assumptions that a timid schoolboy might make: help the mean kids do their homework, and maybe they won't pummel you on the playground.

It doesn't work that way. You won't beat the Republicans by playing nice with them; you'll only beat them by standing up and fighting them. But Ed Kilgore, filling in on the Talking Points Memo blog, tried to present Lieberman's disloyalty as unimportant:

[Bush is] going to lose this fight, folks, whether or not one or two Democrats in the House or Senate give him "cover" by offering some sort of deal that neither party will accept.

Immediately, Atrios and Matthew Yglesias jumped all over Kilgore, who responded this way:

...I understand the need for unity on Social Security and other topics right now. But unity is a means to an end - beating Bush on the dangerous things he's trying to do to our country.

I read this passage several times, but my eyes kept telling me that I wasn't mistaken. Finally I sent Ed an email, which read in part:

I have to say that if Lieberman throws in with the Senate Republicans on the Social Security issue, it's really going to cost the centrist Dems a lot of credibility. You claim that Dem unity is directed to the end of "beating Bush on the dangerous things that he's trying to do to our country". But Social Security phase-out IS one of the dangerous things that he's trying to do to our country.

If Democrats don't stand up for Social Security, what exactly will they stand up for? If Lieberman is in favor of Social Security phase-out, the DLC will have to disown him -- fast and very publicly -- because he will be radioactive inside the Democratic party and silence will imply agreement.

And if it turns out the DLC is in favor of Social Security phase-out, they might as well pack their bags and move to the RNC headquarters.

I don't believe in litmus tests or purges, but my God, being a Democrat must mean something. There must be some things that are core beliefs, that are not negotiable.

I still believe this. So far, however, I haven't received a response from Ed Kilgore. I one ever arrives, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005
This Can Only Be Trouble

Moonbase Alpha: a disaster waiting to happen.

The Japanese space agency, flush from its recent success at launching a satellite, is contemplating a bold new step to compete with its space-faring neighbor, China. The Japanese are designing a counterpart to the U.S. space shuttle, and are even thinking about building a moonbase. This is an idea that both the U.S. and Russia spent many years considering. Luckily for us, both nations eventually abandoned the idea, realizing that moonbase-building is a venture fraught with peril.

Now, I like to think I have some experience with moonbases, having seen every movie and TV show depicting them (admittedly, I have no practical experience in this area, but who does?).

The first thing you need to know is, moonbases are disaster-magnets. Hostile aliens invariably zero in on moonbases and either try to destroy them, take them over, or both. Foreign spies and evil doppelgangers sprout up like weeds in such places. Meteors mercilessly rain down from the sky. Sinister artifacts from other planets are routinely discovered nearby. Start up a moonbase and it's possible the Moon itself will be ripped from the Earth's orbit and hurled into the depths of outer space (let's see you get that NASA appropriations bill through Congress now!).

Let's hope the Japanese government will reconsider their reckless attempt to build a moonbase and focus on the things they're good at: making weird cartoons, reliable cars and short, charming robots.

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