Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Drill, baby, drill!

Told of President Obama's decision to greatly expand offshore drilling, my wife this morning sighed and said: "He has a whole bunch of Republican in him."

Republicans surely won't agree. And it's important to remember that he told us he would do this two years ago:
Obama said Friday that he would be willing to compromise on his position against offshore oil drilling if it were part of a more overarching strategy to lower energy costs.

"My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," Obama told The Palm Beach Post early into a two-day swing through Florida.
The problem, from my perspective,is that he's doing this before there's a comprehensive energy policy in place. It's an offering in hopes of getting one. From the NYT today:
The proposal is intended to reduce dependence on oil imports, generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation.

But while Mr. Obama has staked out middle ground on other environmental matters — supporting nuclear power, for example — the sheer breadth of the offshore drilling decision will take some of his supporters aback. And it is no sure thing that it will win support for a climate bill from undecided senators close to the oil industry, like Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, or Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana.
From the perspective of getting a deal on energy and climate legislation, keeping this move in Obama's back pocket for negotiations might've been a little better and he might've been able to get his environmental supporters to understand a little bit. As it is, this decision looks like he's giving away the candy store without any promise of a return.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Can Republicans criticize anything without invoking the Soviet Union?

At The Corner, Sen. Lamar Alexander criticizes a new law that cuts private banks out as middlemen in the student loan process. He's wrong on a lot of the particulars, but the conclusion of his argument is really perplexing:

“It changes the kind of country we live in more than it changes American education,” Alexander concludes. “The American system of higher education has become the best in the world because of choice and competition. Unlike K-12, we give money to students and let them choose among schools, having the choice of private lenders or government lenders. That’s been the case for 20 years. Having no choice, and the government running it all, looks more like a Soviet-style, European, and even Asian higher-education model where the government manages everything. In most of those countries, they’ve been falling over themselves to reject their state-controlled authoritarian universities, which are much worse than ours, and move toward the American model which emphasizes choice, competition, and peer-reviewed research. In that sense, we’re now stepping back from our choice-competition culture, which has given us not just some of the best universities in the world, but almost all of them.”

This is really misleading. What the new legislation does, really, is change the mechanism by which students receive the money that they still use to choose among the schools they want to attend. You can argue that it's wrong to cut out private industry from the lending process, but Alexander is hinting here -- without saying it, exactly, only offering a misleading juxtaposition -- that students will somehow be restricted in their educational choices. And that's not at all true. Not even a little bit.

And to be realistic about the market forces here, it's not as though the government is keeping banks from lending money to students. What's happening here is that the new law keeps banks from profiting from the government lending money to students. This is not an anti-market move; this is a cutting out an expensive middleman move: the result is that more money will be available to help more students go to school. It's using government money more efficiently, and isn't that what we all say we want?

But Alexander's critique raises a real question: Why can't Republicans criticize Barack Obama without invoking the Soviet Union at nearly every turn? They do understand the difference between nationalizing all private industry with an accompanying program of killing/jailing/exiling everybody who disagrees and changing the method by which U.S. government money gets to students, don't they?

Don't they?

It's like I said yesterday about Norman Podhoretz: They probably do understand the difference, and they're just saying things like this for political effect -- in which case they're liars who deserve to be driven as far from power as possible. Or if they don't, they're too dumb to be close to the reins of power. I suspect Alexander and his Stalin-talking-point ilk are lying hacks. But again: I'm open to the possibilities.

For all you Obama-hating deficit hawks out there

Via Paul Krugman, a graphical representation of how the two Bush tax cuts, the Iraq War and the new health reform law impact the federal budget:

Stuff like this is why it's so hard for me not to think of the Tea Partiers as, essentially, sore losers.

The Inquirer and the worst lede ever on a weather story

Seriously, it's hard to top this:

A month after setting new standards for whiteness, the region is setting new ones for wetness.

I mean: Ewwwwwww.

The 'Christian militia' and sedition

My knee jerked a little bit this morning when I read in the New York Times that members of the Hutaree "Christian militia" are being charged, among other offenses, with sedition. My reading of American history is that sedition charges -- usually "seditious libel" charges -- have been brought here mainly in cases where the government sought to punish dissent rather than any real attempt to bring down the government.

Still, if you define "sedition" as the "stirring up of rebellion against the government in power," then the Hutaree -- if you believe the federal government's allegations -- seem to fit it. In the charge of "seditious conspiracy," the government says the Hutaree

did knowingly conspire, confederate, and agree with each other and other persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury, to levy war against the United States, to oppose by force the authority of the Government of the United States, and to prevent, hinder, and delay by force any execution of United States law.

These allegation have to be proven, of course. But if true, they do seem to fit the definition.

So why does this seem so ... weird?

I think it's because the term "sedition" does have such a fraught history in this country, used mainly (it seems to me) to punish anti-war dissenters and mostly harmless leftists than genuine revolutionaries. "Sedition" has been a means of punishing thought crimes in this country, in other words.

And it's something that presidents and prosecutors have, in recent decades, seemed to avoid: My quick Google research can find no record of sedition or seditious libel charges for at least a half-century in this country. (UPDATE: A friend points out it's merely been 20 years since there's been a seditious conspiracy charge in this country. Still: That's fairly rare.) That's been true even through the attacks on Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center, and even as Americans like Jose Padilla, John Walker Lind and Adam Gadahn have taken up arms in the service of American enemies.

It seems, at first blush, that the "sedition" label might well fit the Hutaree. But given the history, it still makes me a little bit uncomfortable. And it frankly presents a bit of a challenge to the Obama Administration: It is, politically, continually fighting charges of "tyranny" from the right. Accurately deploying a "sedition" charge does not make Obama a tyrant -- but it will surely make it easier for the righty fringe to portrary him as one.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Netflix Queue: Yojimbo/A Fistful Of Dollars

I guess I knew that Sergio Leone copied Akira Kurosawa, but still it's striking to see these movies back-to-back.And it's even more striking when you think about the career of Clint Eastwood: You mean to say that the foremost icon of late 20th century American manhood -- his squints, his three-day beard, his laconic style leavened with the occasional wisecrack, the jaw stroking and so much more that made Clint Clint -- got his entire shtick from a Japanese guy?

It's like finding out that Dodge muscle cars were based on Toyotas. Really AWESOME Toyotas that you never knew existed.

About that "Christian Militia"


Nine members of the Christian militia group Hutaree have been indicted on multiple charges involving an alleged plot to attack police, including seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. Attorney in Michigan announced this morning.

The Hutaree members allegedly "planned to kill an unidentified member of local law enforcement and then attack the law enforcement officers who gather in Michigan for the funeral."

The indictment continues: "According to the plan, the Hutaree would attack law enforcement vehicles during the funeral procession with Improvised Explosive Devices with Explosively Formed Projectiles, which, according to the indictment, constitute weapons of mass destruction."

Just a reminder: Until yesterday, these guys could presumptively walk onto an American plane anywhere in the world with relative ease. A benign medical student from Pakistan? Not so much.

About the Philly guy who threatened Eric Cantor

Looks like the Philly man who threatened Eric Cantor doesn't discriminate on the basis of party:
According to the federal complaint against him, Norman Leboon of Philadelphia has admitted making some 2,000 videos that contained threats. A sampling of his "work" reveals rambling incoherent videos that mix pseudo-religious incantations with random warnings and threats. In one video he addresses President Obama, Vice President Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid by name and says, "Your punishment is coming, the swine, it will be severe, and you will beg for mercy to your god, it will be severe, you will know god's swine, god has warned you." (Some conservatives are already chortling over the fact that Leboon contributed to Obama's 2008 campaign, though it's not clear what that's supposed to signify.)
Beyond that, though, there's a pretty clear difference -- to me, at least -- in the threats against Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in that I haven't seen any Democratic lawmakers saying (like Republicans did), "Well, yeah, violence was wrong -- but you can't blame people for being angry!" And incidentally, I haven't read all the comments by the "deranged leftists" at TPM, but they seem pretty solidly behind arresting the guy who threatened Cantor.

There's violent loopiness on both sides. The difference, from what I can tell, is that the GOP leadership does a better job of making excuses for (and even promoting) the violent loops on there side. It's kind of a critical difference.

Norman Podhoretz and other people who don't deserve to be taken seriously

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed defending Sarah Palin as much smarter than she seems, Norman Podhoretz can't resist getting a little dig at President Obama:
What she does know—and in this respect, she does resemble Reagan—is that the United States has been a force for good in the world, which is more than Barack Obama, whose IQ is no doubt higher than hers, has yet to learn.
What crap.

Podhoretz, of course, is talking about the same Barack Obama who stood in Europe and bragged about how America had saved that continent from the Nazi menace and then guaranteed security there for decades afterward to the present day. The same Barack Obama who stood before a Muslim audience at Cairo University and said, "the United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known." I'm not aware of an opportunity that the president has missed -- when given -- to talk about all the good things America has done in the world.

Podhoretz surely knows this -- and has decided to ignore it. In which case he is (despite his "intellectual" reputation) a hack, more concerned with advancing an agenda that includes painting the president as somehow insufficiently proud of America than in paying attention to the truth. In which case, he deserves to be ignored. Or maybe he doesn't know it. In which case he is too ill-informed to take as a reliable source of opinion about anything, and thus deserves to be ignored.

I'm inclined to think he's a hack. But I'm open-minded.

A lot of folks on the right continually make this charge against Obama. It's not enough for them to disagree with him on the substance of the issues: They have to portray him as probably anti-American. But it's not true. And the same logic applies to them: Either they should know better or they're liars. Truth matters.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bag O' Books: Eating Animals

How to respond to Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book, Eating Animals? Let us examine the choices:

* BOREDOM: This might be your initial response. After all, the last decade has seen the rise of a new -- or maybe renewed -- literary subgenre concerned with the ethics and sustainability of how we eat. Eric Schlosser got the ball rolling with 2001's Fast Food Nation; the intervening decade has brought us Matthew Scully's Dominion and David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, among other contributions. Mark Bittman once advised us How To Cook Everything, but more recently has decided that Food Matters -- and that maybe we shouldn't be eating so much meat.

The masterpiece of this movement, of course, is Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which took its readers on a tour of 21st century "factory farming," with steps along the way for moral contemplation of meat eating, hunting and Whole Foods shopping. Pollan's tome -- and a couple of spinoff books -- was a smash hit, finding its way to the bottom of thousands of reusable cloth bags toted by enviro-foodies to farmers markets across the land.

So what's new for Foer to say? Not much, honestly. His reportage here covers much of the same ground already trod by Pollan. Factory farming -- we're told again -- is a dirty, cruel process that is awful to behold is probably making us sick. If you've read Pollan, you're likely to find yourself in the grip of a second possible reaction:

* IRRITATION: What Foer does offer is attitude and sanctimony. Where Pollan is professorial, using narrative to nudge his reader toward a conclusion, Foer comes across a smart, profane, angry undergrad -- one you might try to avoid on the quad when he starts hectoring passerby to stop and watch his Meet Your Meat video. He might be in command of the facts, but damn he's annoying.

It wouldn't be fair to compare Foer to Pollan so much, except that Pollan is one of the targets here. In Omnivore, Pollan concludes he's not willing to give up meat -- but he decides to seek it from alternative sources (local ranchers, hunters) who use sustainable practices and keep animal cruelty at a minimum. This draws Foer's moral ire, declaring that Pollan is among those who "never, absolutely never, emphasize that virtually all of the time one's choice is between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals."

There's only one problem with this critique: Foer ends the book as a committed vegetarian -- as he has to, really, once he decides he cannot justify any amount of animal suffering in the name of a good meal. Despite this decision, however, he vows that he can support efforts to create sustainable, minimally cruel family farms.

"The meat industry has tried to paint people who take this two-fold stance as absolutist vegetarians hiding a radicalized agenda," Foer writes. "But ranchers can be vegetarians, vegans can build slaughterhouses, and I can be a vegetarian who supports the best of animal agriculture."

We never really understand why Foer -- who finds any level of animal suffering to be unacceptable -- decides this approach is appropriate. But bizarrely, this conclusion is not that far from Pollan's own. The distinction, I suppose, is that Foer is really sensitive and tortured about the process. This is moral preening, and that is all it is.

This sanctimony -- replete with references to Martin Luther King Jr. and the Holocaust -- would make Eating Animals worth tossing in the trash bin at your nearest barbecue joint ... were it not for the third possible reaction to this book:

* GRUDGING ACCEPTANCE THAT FOER IS KINDA MAYBE RIGHT: Damnit, factory farming is gross. It fills our rivers and waterways with shit; it fills our air with climate-changing gases; it delivers meat filled with contaminants and antibiotics. And it is, by any rational standard, cruel: chickens have their beaks cut off; pigs live in their own waste; cattle are dismembered while alive and conscious. These are facts that should give one pause -- if not for the sake of the animals, then for the sake of our own health.

Foer, of course, wants more than a pause. He wants a halt. The environmental factors are important to his case, but it's clear he considers the moral argument most persuasive.

"Think about it," he asks. "Do you eat chicken because you are familiar with the scientific literature on them and have decided their suffering doesn't matter, or do you do it because it tastes good?"

My first, glib answer: A little bit of both.

Less glibly, what I mean to say is that I do not grant (say) chickens the same moral weight that I do a human being. Foer presents science here that chickens -- among other animals -- share human capacities for pain, fear, reason and other cognitive processes. I don't doubt that he's right. But still: I do not grant a chicken the same moral weight as a human. I just know there's a difference between us and them. (If chickens one day rule the earth, I may regret these words.)

Until then, though, I find the example of nature too compelling. Animals eat other animals. All the time.

Foer doesn't buy this argument. "The entirety of human society and moral progress represents an explicit transcendence of what's 'natural,'" he says. And he's right. But what is interesting to me about this is that environmentalists -- and, let's face it, there's a signficant overlap between them and the vegetarian community -- make this argument in no other context. Dams are unpardonable usurpations of Mother Nature's work; so are power plants. Environmentalists usually call on us to disturb nature as little as possible, to acclimate our processes to the earth's natural rhythms. Then dinner time comes.

So where does this leave us? Probably -- if you've ever given thought to your meals -- at the same place you started.

My family already buys our meat from a halal butcher who, in turn, buys his cattle and chickens directly from nearby Amish farmers. We already have escaped the factory farm system, putting our money toward something as sustainable and minimally cruel as we can achieve while still eating meat.

But we probably don't need to eat meat as often as we do. Tonight I prepared a vegetarian stew from the Sundays At Moosewood cookbook. It was delicious, stuffed full of veggies and spices, and any concerns I had about missing meat were quickly overcome by the fact that it was super tasty.

This, of course, is what Foer misses. In his quest for moral perfection, he forgets that a good meal -- even a simple meal, even a vegetarian meal -- can bring you pleasure. Pollan never forgets that. I know whose manifesto I find more appealing.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Bag O' Books: "Bomb Power"

It is difficult not to stand in awe -- and a little envy -- of Garry Wills. His casual brilliance has made him one of the more prolific writers and thinkers of the age, and his thinking has been supple enough to carry him from an early alliance with William F. Buckley to an esoteric ideology that still seems to call itself "conservatism" while finding itself most comfortable on the pages of the lefty New York Review of Books. He's the kind of guy who appears capable of tossing off a 250-page book between lunch and dinner, while the rest of us are struggling to compose coherent blog posts in a comparable amount of time.

His new book, Bomb Power, reads a little bit like that -- a 250-page blog post. Wills makes the case that the advent of the Atomic Age also ushered in an era of presidential overreach: that Harry Truman used the prerogatives of the bomb to assert unconstitutional powers (in warmaking, foreign policy and even domestic policy) and to shield his efforts from congressional and judicial oversight; that every president since then (with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter) has tried to expand on that unconstitutional foundation.

At its best, Bomb Power serves as an overview of 65 years of expanding presidential power. But Wills doesn't really pursue his own thesis with much zeal: we see the advent of the bomb at the beginning of the book, and the rise of some institutions to govern its production and use. Wills, though, doesn't do much to make the connection to the overreach he describes thereafter: Korea, the Bay of Pigs and the Gulf of Tonkin all the way up to Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.

And his argument is made more difficult by a lack of context. Except for some brief references to Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln, we're not given much of a lesson in how executive power was wielded prior to World War II -- only told that the legislative branch was given more primacy than it currently exercises.. And in critiquing the unconstitutional nature of the postwar rise of the Cold War national security state, Wills doesn't bother to discuss whether the measures taken in the name of anti-Soviet national security might've been, you know, useful. This book, in other words, is written for people who already agree with Wills' point-of-view on such matters.

Wills finally peters out with a single paragraph looking to the future. "Some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution," he writes. "It may be too late to return to its ideals, but the effort should be made."

As it happens, I'm pretty sympathetic to Wills' perspective. This book, however, felt like an appetizer for some other, longer and better-argued work of history.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Newt Gingrich, health reform, the Civil Rights movement and partisan rancor

I thought this was interesting framing by Newt Gingrich in this morning's Washington Post:

But former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill "the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times," Gingrich said: "They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
As writer Dan Balz notes in the next paragraph, "no one doubts that Johnson was right to push for those civil rights measures." No one does now of course -- at least not openly, if they wish to participate in mainstream politics -- but the reason the civil rights legislation was so devastating for the Democratic Party over time was that there were plenty of people who did think it was wrong for Johnson to push for those measures.

What does this have to do with the health reform debate? 

There's a lot about Republican governance the last 40 years that I've thought annoying at best and damaging to the country at worst. And yet the worst of it has never been so bad that it would justify hopping in a time machine and convincing LBJ not to pass civil rights legislation in order to keep the South in the Democratic column. The tradeoff -- 40 years in the political wilderness in exchange for a legal regime that protected and enforced the rights of African Americans for the first time in our history -- was worth it, frankly.

And if Gingrich's prediction comes true -- I'm not at all sure it will -- I suspect it will again be worth it. Millions of Americans who can't afford health insurance will finally be covered; millions of others who have paid for coverage will actually get to use that coverage instead of seeing it revoked when they get sick. A legal regime that enables all Americans to access and use health care is, frankly, the least that can happen in the richest civilization this planet has ever seen.

Republicans might be able to tap into anger among some voters to ride back into power. But it's unlikely they'll have the stones to repeal health reform -- last seen in power, of course, they were expanding the Medicare entitlement that conservatives had vociferously opposed a generation earlier. So they can have the presidency for the next 40 years, if they want. Power is important, but so is the end to which it is used. Democrats might be sacrificing their power now, but for a worthy cause. I'm OK with that.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Bag O' Books: 'Revolutionary Road'

Try as I might -- and I've tried -- I just can't get into John Updike. I know that he was one of the literary masters of the second half of the 20th century. It's just that he's so boring. Other readers, readers I like and respect, disagree with me, so I give a run at an Updike novel now and again. A few weeks ago I tried my hand at Rabbit, Run, and I didn't make it nearly as far as I should've. The pace was glacial, the dense layers of description and internal monologue acting more as an obstacle than as illumination. I couldn't go on.

For whatever reason, though, I thought I'd at least kick the tires of postwar middle-class ennui with Richard Yates' 1962 novel Revolutionary Road. Turns out I made a good choice: Yates turns out -- in this book at least -- to be closer in spirit to the wit of Philip Roth than to Updike. There's entertainment going on here, though it's the kind that'll make you wince every few pages.

Like a lot of people my age, my first awareness of Revolutionary Road came not in a bookstore or literature class, but in a movie advertisement: I've never seen the 2008 film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, but the trailers seemed to promise a been-there-done-that portrayal of the crushing soul-lessness of suburbia. I've not the seen the movie; I can tell you that the book reads more like a satire than an actual tragedy, despite some grizzliness in the last act.

And the satire is not of the suburbs, really, or the people who live in them -- but of the kind of people who live in the suburbs and think they're too good for them, folks who harbor fantasies of urban bohemia even as they go about the day-to-day drudgery of raising kids and earning money at boring jobs. Today, we call people like this "yuppies," but the term didn't really exist in 1962 -- and Yates was well ahead of his time in chronicling not just the rise of suburbia, but also the backlash.

Here's the synopsis of the book:
Frank is mired in a well-paying but boring office job and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities, free of the consumerist demands of capitalist America. As their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations, their trip and their dreams of self-fulfillment are thrown into jeopardy.
What the synopsis doesn't tell you is how thoroughly and neatly Yates depicts the pretentions of his characters. April isn't actually a good actress; Frank literally talks a good talk, but it usually amounts to a jargon-filled rant against bourgeois life that was probably articulated better in some of the books he read during a brief stint at Columbia. Yates depicts a typical dinner gathering given by the Wheelers:
And even after politics had palled there had still been the elusive but enlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, or The Suburbs, or Madison Avenue, American Society Today. "Oh Jesus," Shep might begin, "you know this character next door to us? Donaldson? The one that's always out fooling with his power mower and talking about the rat race and the soft sell? Well, listen: did I tell you what he said about his barbecue pit?" And there would follow an anecdote of extreme suburban smugness that left them weak with laughter.
"Oh, I don't believe it," April would insist. "Do they really talk that way?"
And Frank would develop the theme. "The point is it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so typical. It isn't only the Donaldsons--it's the Cramers too, and the whaddyacallits, the Wingates, and a million others. It's all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It's a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity."
The book follows the Wheelers as they select and decorate their suburban Connecticut home in ways they hope will show themselves to be above suburbia. And when tragedy does occur, it's only because the our main characters contemplate making good on all their snooty talk. As a pretentious, city-loving wannabe urbanite who has done his fair share of suburb-dissing, I can tell you I had a rare experience with this novel: I felt indicted. Repeatedly, and at times painfully, and at a distance of a half-century.

Yates can't quite sustain the indictment; the last act of the book feels like a movie that -- having run out of things to say and do -- ends with a run-of-the-mill car chase. Until then, though, Revolutionary Road is a splendid book, well-drawn but efficiently paced. It's the kind of book I wish John Updike had written.

Bag O' Books features my thoughts about whatever I've read recently, even if I'm decades late to the table.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Andrew McCarthy is either a liar or a fool

"I believe many of the attorneys who volunteered their services to al Qaeda were, in fact, pro-Qaeda or, at the very least, pro-Islamist."
Andy McCarthy, National Review's The Corner
Andy McCarthy is either a liar or a fool.

If attorneys who represent terror suspects in American courts are "pro-Qaeda," that means they were glad to see the Twin Towers come down, glad to see the Pentagon burning, glad to see a hole in the side of the U.S.S. Cole and glad to see the carnage and death dealt at America's African embassies in the 1990s.

If attorneys who represent terror suspects in American courts are merely "pro-Islamist," that means that they desire to see sharia law imposed on Americans and a caliphate established to rule the entire Islamic world -- which, eventually would be the entire world.

And under either scenario, the folks who want to see these things happen are embedded in the most elite precincts of the American legal system! But there is, of course, no real evidence to support either contention, just McCarthy's own speculation. The absence of such evidence -- combined with an 10-second Occam's Razor examination of why American lawyers might be offering their services to terror suspects -- renders McCarthy's theorizing dubious. He either knows this and is a liar, or he believes his own rhetoric and is a fool.

Either option renders him deserving of the utmost contempt.

To be fair, McCarthy tries to backtrack a little bit from his own statement, writing the following words later in the post:
You can be pro-Islamist, and even pro-Qaeda, without signing on to the savage Qaeda methods. And the relevant question with respect to progressive lawyers is not so much whether they are pro-Qaeda as it is whether, as between Islamists and the U.S. as it exists, they have more sympathy for the Islamists. 
Wait. What? What distinguishes Qaeda as a form of Islamism is its embrace of violent methods. Is there an un-armed Sinn Fein analogue to Al Qaeda that nobody knows about? No? OK, then: McCarthy's clearly full of crap here. The relevant question with respect to McCarthy is whether or not he knows he's full of crap. Either way, he's trying to get away with his slur on American lawyers without having to own the ramifications of his own words.

This much is clear: Andrew McCarthy is either a liar or a fool.

Related: Conor Friedersdorf on Andy McCarthy's un-American slurs.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Netflix Queue: "Let The Right One In"

How to explain? It's like Harold & Maude, only if both characters appeared to be 12 years old and Maude was actually a vampire. And if it had the icy surroundings and slowly building sense of dread as in The Shining. With Scott Farkus from A Christmas Story making an appearance as Harold's tormenter. Oh yeah, and it's all in Swedish -- with all the awkward touches of pre-adolescent sexuality that might imply.

Does that describe it? It's the best I can do.

Michael Smerconish is wrong about Fred Phelps

I really don't want to be in the position of continually defending professional homophobe Fred Phelps. He's an evil man with an evil belief system who has brought added grief to hundreds -- if not thousands -- of people by picketing funerals with his "God Hates Fags" message.

But I believe that the First Amendment give Fred Phelps the right express those views -- no matter how odious, no matter how provocative the time and place of his expression. Michael Smerconish, writing in today's Philadelphia Inquirer, disagrees.

By picketing Lance Cpl. Snyder's funeral, didn't Westboro Baptist infringe upon family members' First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion? Which on March 10, 2006, took the form of a burial service at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster, Md.

And because the Westboro demonstrators weren't protesting on a street corner or in a public park, it could also follow that they infringed upon the Snyders' right to peaceably assemble for that private funeral.

The point is that while Phelps and his flock may believe they have a constitutionally protected right to protest at a funeral, that right should not come at the expense of the Snyders' right to peaceably gather at a Catholic funeral. Especially when that practice involved mourning the death of an American hero.

"When the Fourth Circuit decided in favor of Phelps against Mr. Snyder, implicitly they decided that Mr. Phelps' rights were more important than Mr. Snyder's rights," Sean Summers, the York, Pa., lawyer representing the Snyder family, told me in a phone conversation last week. That should not stand.
Get past Smerconish's troubling implication that Fred Phelps' rights -- and by extension, our rights  -- are somehow less valuable when they come in conflict with the desires of a military family. Smerconish's argument is that the Snyder family was less able to exercise their own rights to religion and peaceably assemble because of the Phelps protest.

And I don't think that's true. The funeral still happened. The Snyders still assembled. They still gave their son a Catholic service. It appears that they exercised their Constitutional rights fully -- but want to deny Phelps the opportunity to do the same. And I don't blame them -- Phelps' protests truly are execrable -- but that doesn't make them right.

It bears repeating at every opportunity: The First Amendment protects all variety of assholes, troublemakers, demagogues and rabble-rousers. It doesn't just protect popular speech because, well, popular speech doesn't really need protecting does it? The First Amendment protects even Fred Phelps. Because of that, it protects us all.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Netflix Queue: 'The Emperor and the Assassin'

Every nation has its own creation myth, something that illuminates our understanding of how a country sees itself, and the emergence of China as an economic superpower in the last couple of decades has prompted some cinematic consideration of how it came into being. Notable among these movies in recent years was Jet Li's Hero, which featured some wonderfully staged action scenes -- it was a Jet Li movie, after all -- but was also troubling to Western and democratic sensibilities with its seemingly pro-totalitarian bent.

Hero, though, was preceded a few years by 1998's The Emperor and the Assassin, and one hopes that this version of China's creation myth doesn't really show us how that country's citizens and artists think of themselves -- because it is super twisted.

Long story short: Li Xuejian plays Zheng Ying, the King of Qin who in 221 BC united all of China's disparate kingdoms under one empire. He's the Chinese George Washington, only if George Washington had a frothing bit of Macbeth in him, sprinkled with a twist of Hitler: Even at the outset he's clearly insane -- and as the movie progresses, it becomes clear he'll do anything to consolidate power: Murder his own family members, wipe out all the children of a city, and destroy entire families at a whim. But he manages a moment of clarity early on, describing China as he will one day rule it with kindness and wisdom.

His lover, Lady  Zhao, is played by Gong Li, who is one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on screen anywhere in the world at any point in cinematic history. (I wanted, during the movie, to call her Lady Rowwwwr.) She is so moved by Ying's promise to benevolently rule a unified China that she has her face branded, part of a plot to create a pretext for Qin's invasion of a neighboring kingdom, Yan. But she changes her mind when she sees Ying's dark side, and plots with a reformed assassin to kill the king.

We know from history that Ying did become the first emperor of China, and thus we know what becomes of the plot. But still, something buzzes throughout the movie: This is China's creation myth! And it's full of double-crosses, palace intrigue and deaths to fill two or three Shakespeare plays! We're apparently supposed to take it as a given that the unification of China was a worthy thing -- and if you're a Chinese moviegoer watching this, that may well be a given. The rest of us, though, are left aghast at the horror of it all. Put it this way: I've never seen a movie with so many dead children on screen.

China's movie industry is not known, for obvious reasons, for its subversiveness. But there might be a hidden message in all of this. Lady Zhao is so moved by the king's promises of benevolence, food, safety and even good roads for all that she deforms her own visage to enable Ying's military adventurism ... only to find his bright vision similarly deformed by the awful task of acquiring power. A lesson learned: Never, ever trust the king.

A little quiet, please? (What I gained from shutting off Twitter and Facebook for a few days.)

This afternoon was a rainy Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, and thanks to the good graces of my wife I got to spend it in my favorite way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon anywhere: By myself in a coffee shop, with a good book in hand and frequent pauses to stare out the window.

The glory of it all was enhanced by a rash decision, made earlier this week in a fit of pique about something or other: I'd deactivated my Twitter and Facebook accounts. The decision alarmed a few of my friends, some of whom immediately contacted my wife through her Facebook account to ensure that I was OK. I was. I am.

But it has been an adjustment. Somewhere in the last couple of years, I've become accustomed to sharing any short, stray thought that crossed my mind with hundreds of friends and acquaintances. In the last few days, I've caught myself ready to share some joke about my 18-month-old son's activities -- only to catch and remind myself that, no, that's not something that's going to be shared right now.

Also in the last few years, I've become accustomed to compulsively checking up on what my friends and acquaintances have to say about their own lives. At times, my life on Facebook has resembled one long, never-ending class reunion with everybody I have ever known ever. Often it's been pleasant -- Whatever happened to that woman I used to have the crush on, anyway? -- but sometimes it has been burdensome: Thanks to Facebook, it's near-impossible to run away from home and completely reinvent yourself. You carry all your past relationships forward with you into your present, a steady accumulation of now that used to be once was. Sometimes it's good to unmoor yourself.

It also creates a lot of noise. Accumulate enough "friends" on Facebook and Twitter and barely 15 minutes goes by during waking hours that somebody, somewhere, isn't sharing something about themselves. In recent years, my normally sedate coffee shop habits had become increasingly frantic: Rather than read a page from a book, then sit and stare out a window -- or watch people in the shop do their own things -- I'd read a half-page, check my phone for social media updates, and repeat the process ad nauseum. The flow of data wasn't just interrupting my ability to read; it was devastating my chances to contemplate, to sit back and let my mind work around what it had just consumed.

Most of us, I think, have had the experience of working for hours on some insoluble problem -- only to arrive a solution 15 minutes after walking away from it. Our brains need time for repose, but the constant  stream of stuff makes those moments rarer and rarer.

So I shut off the stream.

This is probably not permanent. I'm unemployed right now, and Twitter and Facebook provide networking opportunities -- as well as promotion for projects like this blog -- that are difficult to duplicate with such ease in "meatspace." For an afternoon, though, I got to sit in a coffee shop and stare out the window to watch the rain fall down into the streets of Philadelphia. It was kind of glorious.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Netflix Queue: 'Tyson'

The popular image of Mike Tyson has long been that he's a dumb, savagely abusive brute who treats women -- in particular -- like crap. James Toback's documentary, Tyson, is supposed to correct the record a bit and it does: Now we know that Mike Tyson is somewhat self-aware that he's a savagely abusive brute who treats women like crap.

That's not what Toback is necessarily aiming for in this 2008 documentary. After all, we're treated to many, many images of Tyson staring pensively at the ocean while he tells his rags-to-riches story of a youngster who went from being the first coming of Omar Little -- robbing drug houses -- to the world's youngest heavyweight boxing champion to a convicted rapist to Holyfield ear-chewer and finally to a washed-up boxer and family man. We're also treated to private home video footage of him play-boxing with one of his young children. This is supposed to make us think that Tyson's not quite the brute we've perceived him as: Google up the phrase "Mike Tyson Toback complex" and you'll get 32,000 hits.

But where women are concerned, Mike Tyson is anything but complex. He professes openly that his goal is to dominate women, particularly sexually, and particularly if they're extraordinarily powerful. He calls Desiree Washington, the woman he was convicted of raping, a "wretched swine" -- betraying no Kobe-like awareness or contemplation of the possibility that (at the very least) the sexual advances he thought were welcome actually weren't. Every moment that Tyson talks about women makes you cringe -- though at least there's a laugh to be had when he describes performing "fellatio" on one young woman he met early in his career.

One, though, can be unsympathetic to Tyson and still recognize his story as a tragedy -- a tale of talent, riches and opportunity pissed away because of his own faults, and stolen from him by the always-corrupt game of boxing. But Tyson's contemptible characteristics loom too large in the story for you to feel sorry for him for long.

"Netflix Queue" features reviews of movies I just got around to watching -- no matter how out-of-date they might be.

This must be just like starting over

OK. Let's try this blogging thing in ANOTHER new place.