Friday, June 29, 2007

There are obvious discrepancies in real life from TV life. Any casual observer of My Sweet 16, the abominable but delightfully awful show on MTV that is a cross between a reality show and a morality play, knows that an individual’s faults and deprivations is good entertainment and can be significantly profitable for even the most reprehensible characters in our pop culture ecology. Take Flava of Love as an active reminder of this, as well, as too easy a target for critique; there are few better examples of the mass marketability of complete idiocy than Flav. We like our TV sensational.

Political shows are an exercise in this form of celebrity TV under a guise, if not a complete ruse or deception, that the shows themselves are more about information and journalism than they are about entertainment. Though I think the informative aspects of these shows in non-election years are marginal but present, in election years, the shows become forums for watered down analysis from hacks and politician worshipping journalists. The news quality of such shows is suspect.

For years I have been a fan of Hardball as political theater. It has some journalistic elements and has had in the past some really good interviews. It also has, with increasing frequency, theatrics between political figures posturing for each other. The Coulter/Edwards stupidity this week was an example of posturing. The Hitchens/Sharpton “debate” last night was more about the theater, the great men becoming something of a parody of themselves, with little actual content between the two.

The previous debate between Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchens (found on Slate) was actually very interesting. The moderator did a good job keeping each man limited to his own space on stage and not letting one or the other dominate the program. This is essential with two men who are prone to talking over each other. Last night Chris Matthews stepped back from the two men, by doing so, he ruined the debate by not actually moderating the two blowhards, who just talked over each other for an hour of TV time. Of course, this is a shame, but it is not unexpected.

Matthews presents himself as a real time journalist. Most of the other TV commentators do the same. Though there are journalistic aspects to these shows, they are primarily designed for entertainment, not for information. Nobody watching a “debate” between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton expects to be better educated by the end of the hour. You are expecting to be entertained by the two personalities at the expense of substance. In this case the substance was the existence of God, but to hear the two debate, it might as well have been anything.

There is nothing wrong with entertainment TV, of course, but the demise of print media, a daily crumbling of the foundation of American print journalism, leaves me skeptical of where people are actually getting their information from. Are we as a now digitalized society getting our information from cable news, if we get it from anywhere at all? If this is the case, what is the news value of TV designed for entertainment posing as news?

I don’t have an answer to these questions but I don’t think I need one either. It is not the answer that is important in this aspect but merely that the question lingers out there, like a bump in the mouth, something to run your tongue over and think about. The issue is not whether Matthews and Company should change their shows but how we digest the content of their shows that matters. If we are taking Hardball as straight news, then there is a danger that the proverbial and inevitable spin of the contestants will become more influential than it should and given more credibility than it deserves. However, if we take it as entertainment, not news, we can admire it for its value thus, and not as something more than what it should be taken as.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

To get into an argument with an insane person is an exercise in futility – you cannot win because they function on a different plane of rationality than the rest of existence. Their entire sense of reason is different, they frequently have no shame and can’t be humiliated, and they will always resort to going one step lower than you are prepared to go. An insane person has no scruples and isn’t governed by sense. This is why Ann Coulter is likely crazy.

Antagonists who do decide to fight it out with the insane are often bested by their own sense of frustration. The argument will disintegrate into moralisms, condescension, or shouting. It can easily turn to weird violence. It often, though, disappointingly turns into awkward silence. The sane person is frustrated to the point of silence and the crazy person grins because they think your silence is a concession.

I watched the Hardball Ann Coulter exclusive on Tuesday when Elizabeth Edwards called in to give old Ann a piece of her mind. Was it a big deal? No. It was a cheap argument. Coulter is a first rate, calculating, media personality, who if she believes a fourth of what she is says, I think can be classed as legally insane in most states. She is a trained lawyer, who though completely void of analytical clarity and rational line of thought, loves the way sound bites form in her mouth and spits them out with venom, much like a TV lawyer and not like an actual one.

Elizabeth Edwards, a successful lawyer in her own right, has a functioning lawyers mind. She was rational when she called into Hardball as well as exceedingly moral. She asked Ann to please stop the personal attacks against her husband. Coulter laughed in her face and acted as smug as the other delusional blond media darling Paris, as she flipped her hair about, the venom falling from her fangs, and the flash of crazy in her eyes disguised behind her Hiltonesque sunglasses.

There was no climax to this “debate”. Coulter’s crazy snake failed to gnaw at the phone lines, Edwards repeated herself repeatedly, and Matthews smiled at the cameraman as if to say, “this is great for the show.” It ended apathetically with all the potential of a Junior High after school fight and just as much of a letdown as someone yelling “the cops are coming” when they went to the commercial break.

Absolutely nothing was accomplished by this “confrontation” except that the Edwards camp may have gotten a few more donations for Elizabeth’s “courage” to confront the insane Coulter who will likely sell a few more of her trite books. To put money in crazy’s pocket wasn’t the aim of the Edwards camp, for sure, but this is the unfortunate reality of the world we live in now.

If the mainstream media had any sincerity when it came to the hatemongering Coulter, they wouldn’t ask her to come on TV. She has become a bestseller not because of her writing but because of her television appearances where she says terrible things in order to sell books. This is hardly a brilliant media strategy, but somehow, the media seems to be duped enough by her charmlessness and they keep her around as a professional provocateur, lining her pockets with money.

Matthews seems to want to take her on as well for being a big meany. So do many of his colleagues in the media. However by making their discontent public, they are only giving her free airtime, thereby encouraging crazy with a television camera and a load of publicity for opinions that are no more insightful than the rantings of an elderly small town republican committeeman after a couple of scotches at the annual Lincoln Day dinner. Hardly the stuff for TV. She’s an easy target and by taking swings at her, you’re just validating her insane ramblings and giving her a forum. Then again, by blogging on her, I am doing it too. Sometimes crazy gets the best of all of us.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Americans like to get their religion in a building separate from where they get their car title. The crazy guy who stands outside of the courthouse with a placard featuring dead fetuses and crosses proclaiming ‘repent for the end is near’ is cliché enough, but that man does indeed exist, and he believes what he does is as integral to Christianity as was Paul’s mission to Corinth. Though he seeks to change the world, he does it from outside of the government building. The point is that most of us like our religion separate from our civil government and part of being a nation built upon classically liberal virtues is that we believe that government should support human progress. Faith is something for the individual and the family.

It is this notion, that society is imperfect and that progress is the eventual outcome of our American experience that defines the evolutionary thought of the Founders. Conservative “strict constructionist” thinking is historically inconsistent with American state papers and their intellectualism. The Declaration is a statement of Enlightenment values and the Constitution was designed as a flexible document for this reason. America was an intellectual pet project for extremely smart and practical men. The Founders were anything but orthodox, but instead, were men with varying degrees of reserved radicalism.

And what they left behind for America to figure out was the notion of societal progress. This does not mean progress over religion or progress over tradition, it just means that the previous generation’s mistakes need not be the mistakes of their children, and that we as a nation can correct and amend our faults for the benefit of future society. Rigid orthodoxy was never in the cards for America because it doesn’t allow for correction. In these United States, we believe in national renewal.

Though I am no sociologist, political scientist, or religious scholar, I see this as one of the principal differences between the Islamic/Western clash. In traditional Muslim nations, orthodoxy is a prime value and change is viewed as threatening, sometimes even, as heretical. This is why writers are jailed for asking questions and why poor Mr. Rushdie, who is not even Muslim, is facing persecution again this week for accepting a knighthood offered by the Queen for a lifetime of work. The Rushdie affair has been a twenty-year clash between the right for a man to freely express his art and those who are so obsessed with orthodoxy and so threatened and sensitive to critique, that they would kill a creative writer simply to make a gruesome point.

Orthodox Islam, or Islamist Islam (whatever the appropriate nomenclature) doesn’t share with us the traditions of the Western Enlightenment. They do not share our value in progress. Nor do they want to. Many Islamists see our belief in human progress as being culturally and morally toxic. Why vary from the truth when God has already handed down the truth? They see our belief in human progress condescension and judgment on their way of life. There is some truth to this. American exceptionalism, what is called a new form of cultural imperialism by some, is a threat to people whose religious orthodoxy is their only societal bond, well, other than totalitarian suppression.

We run the fine line of a culture now embracing multiculturalism where sometimes the culture being embraced has no respect, in fact little regard, for the national ethos. The American founding spirit of progress and reason in civil affairs, faith and values at home, is a huge part of this narrative and should not be lost, nor placated, because it is seen as a threat. We cannot control how people perceive us to be but we can control who we are. The important thing is that there is that progress is a value itself worth keeping.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A recent contest held by Nicolas Kristof for Iraq War Poetry has been on my mind lately. He got the idea from reading Wilfred Owen and saw some kind of mental parallel between the war writers of the First World War and our own generation’s own war writers. II can see, at least superficially, what he means.

In all war writing there is a desire to get the experience of the soldier on paper and transmit a sense of what they consider a real experience to the public. Part venting and part informational, the war book is a collection of reminisces, thoughts, sometimes-profound ruminations, to show people what they author has seen in combat. Sometimes this is to prevent war, other times it is to memorialize the deeds of the dead. Sometimes it is political; it is about personal vendetta against poor officers and even poorer politicos that got us into some foreign mess to begin with. The war writer is, after all, a political being.

I have been thumbing through Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves this week. I read excerpts of it as an undergraduate but I never sat down and punched out the whole thing. It is similar to Sassoon’s Memoirs in topic and style, but Graves has more of what I would call a charming innocence in his story, one that is tarnished by the experience of war. You don’t find this in the same degree in Sassoon. Both are similar authors trying to authenticate the brutal reality of the trench war for the public in an attempt to show, to some degree, the folly and waste of modern war.

Message woefully not taken.

The war book is a tricky thing to do. In a much-anthologized essay entitled The Soldier as Novelist, Jonathan Vance surveys First World War lit as a historical and cultural phenomenon. He describes the emphasis by people like Graves and Sassoon to “get it real” to accurately reflect the visceral horror of trench life for their readers. Most veterans, it seems, preferred the work of more, I guess, romantic writers on war than that of Sassoon and company. This was because an anti-war spirit fueled their writing that many veterans thought that this pathos was a poor memorialization for the deeds of beloved lost comrades. The disillusion of war, though felt and written about by writerly types, wasn’t as common of a public belief among First World War veterans as you would believe from reading the surviving books. Vets were more interested in memorializing the dead and commemorating their victories than brooding over the terminal loss of a generation’s culture and youth.

There are parallels here between the First World War writers and those emerging from the Iraqi War. Literature has migrated from the First World War, from the modern to the Postmodern, though we can’t agree as a literary species on what that means exactly. Many Second World War vets turned authors sought to make modern war absurd and satiric (Vonnegut, Heller, Pynchon). Their biting cynicism was a profitable tonic for the boomer generation who wanted something confrontational, absurd, and sarcastic to match their phenomenal ability to sense the conspiracy in everything, especially Vietnam, which in their defense, was a conspiracy. So is the current war – the difference is that we are more interested now in the “real” than we are in the absurd, and the war writing emerging from the Iraqi War, with its emphasis on authenticity, is a throwback to the modernist movement.

Unlike writers of the Second World War, our war writers are introspective, have a sense of the real, and a journalist’s desire to transmit what they consider accurate information to a confused public. They are less interested in introspective craziness (Catch 22) and more into the very hard realities of life on the front lines (All Quiet on the Western Front). So far there have been many memoirs written and published from soldiers up and down the ranks. The emphasis on memoir and creative non-fiction is one of the strong parallels to First World War writing.

Though the genre remains the same, more or less, the medium for publishing art has changed completely from that of the early 20th century. Though the Pentagon cracked down on soldier bloggers a few years ago, there are lots of pages up from former soldiers writing about their experiences. War poetry has made it into the NY Times and NPR has diary entries from soldiers posted on its website and they are compelling essays. In order to get a name for your writing, you don’t have to be Robert Graves, with a posh public school turned soldier turned poet memoir, you can be a regular guy who saw some pretty bad shit in Iraq and wants to tell people about it on a blog. It’s unpretentious and its no less real than some of the “immortalized” writing. You don’t have to write the Iliad to get your point across. The important thing for this new generation of writers is the thing itself – the experience of war. In later works, we’ll see what that means.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Finally. Columnist Roger Cohen (IHC/NYTimes) states the obvious today. This is not meant to be a dig against him, but instead, I mean to praise his column. Writing for a lefty publication syndicate, one that has been hard (for good reason) on the war and soft on the anti-war movement, Cohen says plainly that, “the United States must keep a military presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.”

So why is this remarkable? Because he is able to put aside all discussion of causality in this horrid war, all discussion of withdrawal timelines and presidential candidate namby pamby on the issue, and instead tells us what we already know. That is something we know but that nobody seems willing to talk about. If we pull our troops out of Iraq there will be anarchy and reprisal killings by the score and possibly a broader war. The Iraqi government, lacking even its own security force to conduct its meetings and protect its officials, will likely collapse. The divisions between the hundreds of gangs and sects in the streets will become deeper and a further escalation of violence is the likely result.

Cohen uses this realistic appraisal, this potential for complete regional disaster, as the primary humanitarian argument in favor of a prolonged occupation of a regional security force backed, supposedly, by the US and the UN. Though I have serious misgivings about the credibility of the UN to do anything aside from providing bureaucratic jobs to do-gooders, it’s an interesting and progressive proposal.

It is also reflective of something very sad in our political culture especially in our prolonged campaign season of 2007-08. The few friends that I keep, a list growing smaller and more elite by the fortnight are interested in what people like Cohen have to say far more than anything we hear from presidential candidates. Most mornings, I wake with a series of forwarded articles in my inbox, captivating op/eds mostly, but pieces almost exclusively written by career journalists and not by aspirant politicians or by clever academicians.

From Clinton to McCain and from Edwards to Romney we haven’t heard a sensible and convincing war plan from either side of the political quagmire. Both sides are panderers, including the beloved and canonized Obama, whose phased withdrawal is an obtuse public statement of pandering obviousness. Clinton has no leadership, McCain wants to throw everything but the kitchen sink into Iraq, and Giuliani’s too busy telling us why he thinks he’d make a good warlord to come up with a strategy that people can believe in.

The obvious person I am leaving out is the President but nobody but Barney really cares what he thinks anymore, and from what I hear, Barney’s only listening for the bacon bits.

So instead we have columnists to speculate for us what it would be like to have leader that had the gumption, credibility, and public forum to address a pragmatic approach to a bloody awful war we shouldn’t have gotten into but have no choice but to fight. My hat of off to people like Cohen but their job scribbling something twice a week, though a daunting task to do with any degree of quality, is a lot easier than getting elected to high office. At the same time, it doesn’t say anything about the candidate’s collective desire to get this thing right in Iraq if they can’t tell us what they want to do specifically, right now, as a reasonable alternative to the waywardly inept policy of this failed Presidency. Leadership is more than stamina on the campaign trail. It about a maintaining a balance between realism and hope.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

An essay today - its a little long but I hope you enjoy it anyway.

Reading Biology

Mr. Henderson was my 10th grade biology teacher. He was one of those teachers that make you not want to send your future child to public school. Any system that would produce such a pedagogue as him, in his weird sans-a-belt pants, was utterly doomed. Like his choice in trousers would indicate, he loved the easy ride, and his occupation, the life of a public school teacher fully licensed and tenured, meant he could be unobstructed in his idleness. The best that can be said about him was that he took great care to trim his moustache, and was, I think, a nice guy. However nice a guy he was, doesn’t excuse the fact that when he was awarded tenure, a presumably difficult accomplishment, he promptly forgot how to teach. That is if he ever knew in the first place.

The fact that he couldn’t teach wasn’t an impediment to him making a career of it. He came from that great school of education developed, I believe, sometime in the 1970’s, the one where teachers literally read out of their textbooks how to conduct day-to-day classes. He had one of those slightly larger than average teacher’s editions of the standard biology text, emblazoned in large white capital letters BIOLOGY imposed upon a lush forest of greenery. I am thoroughly convinced, that if anything happened to his teacher’s edition, he wouldn’t be able to teach a single day’s class just by winging it even after twenty years of being in a classroom teaching “science”. For all I know, he probably didn’t know anything about biology, since he just read what was in the book out loud, before getting in his Buick at 3PM and calling it a day.

What made his class truly unbearable wasn’t the fact that I was craving intellectual stimulation, but that I wanted something just vaguely interesting out of learning. My entire life in school was dedicated to preventing boredom, a futile exercise, since the very definition of public education is to make dreadful all that is inspirational. His class was simply awful, and to make matters a whole lot worse, I had this basic biology class for a double fourth period with my socially retarded and sadistic peers - an hour and a half torture session over the lunch hour.

All of the smart kids were either in honors, or their parents were able to get them into a section taught by a real teacher before the year began. My parents were of the status quo variety, Calvinists I believe, who thought that my lot of ending up in Mr. Henderson’s class was somehow akin to Job’s sufferings. Like Job, I took it because I didn’t want to make any trouble and because, if anything, public school prepared me for a lifetime of recognizing classes that had “Easy A” bedazzled across the top of the syllabus.

I had no friends in this particular class. I was an honors kid normally, who because of an early reluctance to do my math homework, ended up being thrown into “academic” biology and mathematics, but honors everything else. So for two class periods a day, I left the cushy geekdom of honors and was cast down into purgatory. In honors, the teachers still cared about their students. But in the sociological experiment that is “academic” biology, this was sadly not the case.

Don’t kid yourself - there was absolutely nothing “academic” about basic biology. We didn’t even have homework. We barely had any work at all. Instead of taking our textbooks home with us to study or to prepare before class, Mr. Henderson had us read the text in class. Presumably, this was the only way he could guarantee that we did our reading assignment and wouldn’t muck up the books. The bonus for him was that it gave us something to do in class. For every second we spent reading aloud from the book, the less Mr. Henderson had to teach.

We sat in three rows of ten desks each. I was in the middle of the second row, because my last name began with an “I” and Mr. Henderson was so blatantly incompetent that he wouldn’t be bothered to memorize any of our names. So we were put in alphabetical order. Each day, he read the roll while looking at the seating chart – proving that even by the end of the year, he didn’t know any of our names. Before he called on you, he always looked at your name on the seating chart, just to make sure he got it right. The plaid panted “Biologist” himself sat in the front of the room, at a lectern, where his trusted teachers edition textbook sat on the pedestal like a sacred text in a cathedral, and on this pedestal remained. I think that it came with the lectern when it was first installed in the room, twenty years before; right after old Henderson got tenure and grew his fantastic moustache to celebrate.

We never did a single experiment or dissection. We never did anything except read out of the textbook. On off days, we would take a quiz based on our reading – the reading that some poor slob had just finished reading aloud in class. Most kids reflecting on their high school lab science requirement remember the smell of formaldehyde, or decay, or chemicals in the classroom. The only odd smells I remember were from my peers, mostly teenage boys who smelled funny from not showering after morning gym class, or from the endless farting – the latter due to the fact that this was a the class right after lunch and most people tend to get a little gassy after eating chicken patties smothered in ketchup.

I mastered this class within about five minutes after arriving. I received A after A on reading quizzes, not because I was brilliant, but because I had at least sixth grade reading comprehension ability. The quizzes were all on the section of text that we had just finished reading in class. The fact that many of my peers got C’s or lower proved a popular theory at the time, that they were all probably raised within close proximity to a nuclear power plant.

But there was a darker side to all of this frivolity. Even with the ease in which I breezed through our “academic” work, I lived in complete terror that someday, it would be my turn to read aloud from the textbook, and all of my peers would discover that I had a stutter. This, the fact that I talked funny, made such an assignment terrifying. If we had the chance to take our books home with us, you know, to study like normal people, then I would do fine. But because we were graded on being able to sound out words in class aloud for the benefit of all, I watched as my fate moved closer and closer, day by day, one plastic desk at a time.

You see, being a marginally clever little lad, I had managed to make it my entire life without any of my peers discovering anything particular about my speech. I doubt if any teacher even knew of my condition. I surely didn’t tell anyone. No, the fact that I was a stutterer was something that only my family and I knew, and even they refused to admit that it was a legitimate problem, insisting that I just got “hung up on words”. Although this is an accurate definition of the condition, their stupid downplaying of what was a legitimate speech impediment, failed to grasp the complete scope of the true psychological awfulness of talking funny in front of people. Reading aloud was terrifying and was something that I avoided at all costs. Because I was in honors reading, where we never had to read aloud because it was presumed that we could read just fine, and honors everything else, where the teachers had better things for us to do than read out of the textbook during class, nobody ever noticed that there was something wrong with me.

So when Mr. Henderson explained at the beginning of the school year what his definition of “class participation” was, he invariably meant that we were to read aloud from the textbook, and that he would somehow evaluate said reading, using a criteria that he made up on the spot. Reading aloud was the very definition of fear to me. I could stand a written test, I could master multiple choice or true verses false paradigms, and I could even give class participations, speeches, book reports, whatever, provided I could pick out the words myself. But to read aloud from an inflexible text and be graded daily upon the accuracy and fluency of your reading was the one thing I knew I could not do without falling all over a work like “symbiosis” and never, in fact, getting past the first syllable. Hell, I couldn’t even say, “syllable” without stuttering the word to death by myself, let alone, sitting in a class full of unfamiliar and judgmental teenage wolves.

What causes stuttering? Well according to experts, nobody really knows anything really. It could be genetic, as some recent evidence suggests, or it could be both the combination of a physical and a psychological disorder. Symptoms are usually individualized with some commonality shared across the cases. According to the Stuttering Foundation Publication No. 0011 “If Your Child Stutters: A Guide for Parents”, a delightful manual to stutter through, most children will outgrow their stutter. For those of us that didn’t outgrow it, certain situations will aggravate the disorder, such as stress and uncomfortably.

So if you are a 15 year-old stuttering boy who has managed to cleverly disguise your strange habit of repeating about a hundred words a hundred times without actually saying them, being forced to read aloud from a biology textbook is the very definition of stress and uncomfortably. Not only is reading aloud stressful, but there is nothing so uncomfortable as being a teenager. So from a clinical standpoint, I was totally screwed.

And this was a fact that I was painfully aware, as I shrunk into my chair and awaited the eventual fate, watching as each day the horror of reading aloud moved one sinister desk closer to me. It made me sweat. It kept me up at night. It made me want to cut class, and I was the kind of dork who never did that.

The question of how I was able to hide my “closet” stutter is a very valid one. My stutter is unpredictable – it literally comes and goes depending upon my emotional state. What I mean by this is that, at times, I can speak with fluency and grace, and I can say just about any words without falling into a r-r-r-rut. However, when I am anxious, stressed, or reading something I am insecure about aloud, then I am much more likely to get hung up on words that I would not normally repeat, say if I was talking to myself in a car or singing in the shower.

I was able to hide the condition because I was a serial substitutor throughout the entirety of my academic career. People have often asked why I decided to become a writer, and the answer is pretty simple – I am able to express my vocabulary fully through writing, whereas, if I was speaking, I would only be able to use a fraction of these words in everyday use. For words that I had a particular difficulty, say for the word “difficulty” itself, I would substitute “hard”. For the word “sincerity” I would say something like “earnestness” or “honesty”, both of which I can say with ease. My life had, up until biology class, been lived in a world of synonyms.

And now this bastard Mr. Henderson, with his funky mustachio, was going to publicly “out” the fact that I was a weirdo in front of the most moronic group of “academics” in my High School. My peers weren’t college prep, they weren’t even junior college prep, but they could all presumably do something that I, the class geek, could not do. They could read aloud.

So I waited my turn at the verbal stockyard. And then, on a mid September Morning, that turn came.

“Would you,” Henderson said through the filter of his clam chowder caked upper lip, “would you mind reading today’s section?”

I began tearing at a hangnail on my thumb. I had no choice but to read or else I would fail basic biology, which I think was technically impossible. I had to find an out.

“Yes,” I said. “I would mind.”

It was a long shot, but Mr. Henderson afforded me an unseen option by asking me to read, rather than just telling me to do so.

“Oh,” said the moustache. “Fine, Ms. Jenkins, would you mind reading?”

Ms. Jenkins rolled her eyes, said a “whatever” under her breath, put her gum on the desktop, and read. My classmates thought me peculiar, but not more peculiar than before and I escaped the wrath of a greater public humiliation by not confirming the fact that I was a weirdo, one who talked funny, in front of the class.

This crisis was avoided in the most apathetic way possible. I made for the door at the end of the period, feeling that although I may have failed class participation for this day, I could likely make up for this deficiency in another way, say, by getting straight A’s on every assignment. As I walked out the door, the Moustache turned to me, looked down at his seating chart to get make sure I was the same person who sat in the middle of the second row, and he said, “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

Whatever sense of relief was immediately dissipated from me, like smoke from an open beaker.

“Okay,” I mumbled to my five star notebook. I was, after all, a teenager and we mumbled as a species.

“I’m sorry I put you on the spot today,” he said. This, I couldn’t believe. If any of the other kids in the class would have pulled something like this, refusing to read aloud based on a rhetorical error on the part of the instructor, he would have cast them out into the hallway. But with me - the kid we both knew shouldn’t be in his class - he apologized.

“It’s okay,” I said soothing the uncomfortable pause between moustache and man after a conflict. “I just don’t like to read aloud in class.”

“Oh,” he said. “That’s okay. You don’t have to. We’ll find another assignment.”

We never found another assignment. I never had to read in class. I ended up acing all my assignments and got an A for the year. Mr. Henderson and I never said anything more about the fact that I didn’t like to read in class. No teacher for the remainder of my high school experience ever discovered that there was anything wrong with the way I talked. I continued to substitute words, and although my speech at times was peculiar, sometimes archaic, but it was attributed to eccentricity. And my stutter remains, though, without as much frequency, since I am no longer as an adult, asked to read aloud. Serious reading is an individual activity, and serious writing is a solitary trade. Both suit well the stuttering boy.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

In recent weeks, the debate over aggressive dog breeds has reemerged. Pit Bulls, or more appropriately Bull Terriers of all breeds, are the subject of the debate, as they were in the 1980’s, when there was the first media outcry against the breed. Since that time, the Bull Terrier in its many forms has a bad reputation, for many good reasons for sure, none more paramount than poor ownership and handling.

If you go to, an online pet adoption service used by shelters nationally, you can search for a dog by breed. The second most common breed available for adoption is the Pit Bull Terrier behind the Labrador. There are 7,294 of these dogs looking for homes in shelters in the US. To put that into perspective, there are a thousand more Pit Bulls available for adoption than Beagles, five thousand more than Poodles, and seven thousand one hundred more Pit Bulls available for adoption than Scottish Terriers. Keep in mind that these dogs are up for adoption – this does not include the number of dogs available from breeders, pet shops, and from the morally reprehensible puppy mills.

This is a breed explosion. Like all things material, a dog’s popularity depends upon its marketability. Dog breeds come in and out of popularity and their breeding rises and falls depending upon the need for dogs. For some breeds, this has hurt the bloodlines, creating a large number of inferior dogs with serious chronic health conditions. Imagine bringing a new puppy, a three or four pound little fuzzball, home to your family only to have that innocent little dog, completely helpless without proper care, dying within a few months from a painful genetic disorder. Stories like these are sad but they are also very real. The modern “industry” of dog breeding is bad for breeds, pups, and people.

Enter the Bull Terrier, whose popularity now is unmatched. There are reasons for this. The Bull is a tough looking dog and is a prominent feature in advertisements and rap videos. Much has been made of its popularity in gangsta culture and the hip-hop attachment to these little bruisers. It is also a popular dog for fighting and home protection. Though there seems to be a need for the bull terrier, the adoption rates indicate that a lot of owners are getting rid of their dogs as well, meaning that the Bull terrier is available for purchase, but also, frequently abandoned.

The Bull Terrier was genetically bred to be a fight and watchdog. This does not mean that the dogs are inherently mean. Most terriers were bred to kill – my own Westie was a breed designed to kill vermin around the small farms of Scotland. Though my dog would never maul a person, I would never bring home a pet guinea pig, for she would kill it the second she caught it between her powerful little jaws. The Bull Terrier was genetically mutated to bate bulls and to fight other dogs. It is an extremely tenacious and strong little ball of muscle. Irresponsible owners should not own it.

The issue then is how does a community control dogs that are owned by irresponsible owners. When a Bull Terrier mauls a child, it is almost always off leash, and in most cases, it is a dog that has been abused or raised to be hyper-aggressive. The issue is do we ban a single breed of dog? We don’t even ban firearms and exponentially more people are killed and maimed by guns than dogs. If we cannot ban a single breed, and if we shouldn’t ban a single breed (after all, not ever pit is a nasty cuss), how do we keep the dogs from becoming a problem?

First, the humane society and SPCA can seize dogs that are being mistreated or dogs that are potentially dangerous. They can actively campaign to remove aggressive dogs from negligent owners. If state laws don’t allow seizures, then write your rep and ask for a meeting over this issue. Laws can be amended.

Second, you can pass local leash laws as a municipal ordinance. All dogs when they are in public should be on a leash for their own protection, and that of the public. If an owner is to take their dog in public they need to have the means available to control it. If they can’t control their dog, the municipality should fine or seize the creature.

Third, we can eliminate the need for these dogs. If there isn’t a market for Pits, the puppy mills will stop over breeding them. This is not primarily a breeder issue. Most responsible breeders are just as selective of who they let buy their dogs as a buyer should be about whose dog they buy. The problem is with impulse buyers who go to a local pet shop and buy a puppy mill dog because they want a quick fix. This encourages the puppy mills to keep breeding inferior dogs.

Fourth, shelters should put down all dogs that have been used for fighting and all bulls that show a hyper-aggressiveness. This is sad – no one wants to see dogs killed. But a dog that has been bred to fight is a ticking bomb. These dogs are unsuitable in peaceful communities where children play and people walk their own friendly pups.

Fifth, shelters should actively screen their potential adoptive dog parents for their ability to handle and control a dog as powerful as the Pit Bull. They should recommend, if not require, adoptive dog parents to bring the dog to obedience classes. No classes – no adoption period. They should do a home visit to see where the dog will live and selective adoption screening.

Not all Bull Terriers are bad and banning one kind of dog over thousands of other breeds sets a bad precedent. We can, however, control the future of the breed and keep it out of the hands of bad people.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Free Scooter Libby - Save us all a headache and let him out of jail.

I am all in favor of hard justice when it is dolled out to spoiled heiresses, axe murderers, and dog beaters. I am also in favor of mob justice, at least on TV, because bad guys shooting other bad guys seems to cut out the middle man and saves the taxpayer a few bucks.

What I am not in favor of is keeping some Washington inside man in jail when the damage to his career and to the administration has already been done. Who pays for Scooter going to jail? The taxpayers do. What end does it serve? None. Nor does it justify the crime. He wasn’t convicted of treason - he was convicted of badly covering his tracks. His incompetence shouldn’t be a crime to be punished with hard time. Instead, get creative, blind justice lady, and give him soft time.

If you want the slimy hack Libby to truly suffer, make him do a yearlong internship at Greenpeace or, better yet, at Amnesty International. He can be the Intern in charge of counting all of the dead Iraqi civilians killed each day because of the war he helped spin us into. There is nothing more dehumanizing than being an intern – especially for a cause you loathe.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the man with the most famous nickname in Washington (incidentally – it is the same name I give my dog when she is wiping her butt across the kitchen floor) has little to offer the correctional system. When Watergate broke, former Nixon advisor Chuck Colson went to Jail and then gave his life to Jesus, and has been nice to people ever since. Colson, however, didn’t work for Darth Vader (no he worked WITH him not FOR him – big difference). Scooter was Darth Cheney’s Chief of Staff – it is reasonable to assume he’s too far gone to the Dark Side to ever return.

Damn pity too since I think we could have all benefited from a Born Again Scooter. If there’s one thing the nation needs more it is another evangelicals with a juvenile nickname.

So pardon Libby, Mr. President. It can’t hurt your approval rating. It only confirms your core values. Scooter is probably the most Bushlike of all your hacks. 1) He is loyal 2) he is unquestionably steadfast 3) He is quietly sinister 4) Based on the Iraq intelligence, he is obviously is bad at asking questions 5) He loves Dick . . . Cheney. 6) He has a cool nickname. 7) He is incompetent.

Seven reasons to pardon him and I am sure there are many, many, more.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Why We Should be Talking About Paris

There were two distinctive media issues from the Hilton saga that dominating network and cable news last week. The first was coverage of the saga itself. The second was a unanimous bashing, by serious news people, of the tabloid news for sensationalizing Paris Hilton, while, of course, covering the story itself with a smug look of disgust. It was, after all, news and they were obligated to report on it. From Brian Williams on down the network chain, there was talk of why the socialite Hilton didn’t deserve the attention at all.

All of it talk, talk, talk. Paris the sensation was created by the mainstream media itself – they made the juicy tartlet famous for being famous – simultaneously idolizing and demonizing her behavior. If the media had a moniker of actual conviction, they wouldn’t cover the story at all, which was their option.

But to not cover Paris is a mistake. We should be talking about Paris Hilton. Especially those of you who are parents – you should talk about her behavior with your pre-teen or teenage children. In addition to being America’s favorite stupid person poisoned by affluence, Ms. Hilton and her ridiculous family, have a lot to teach us about what we value in society, and likewise, what we value in ourselves. Here are some positive lessons learned from all of this.

1) We learn how to behave toward an authority figure. Paris went to jail, from what I gather, as much from the crime as her attitude toward it. She showed up an hour late to her court hearing and showed absolutely no regret at having violated the law. Because of this the judge threw the book at her.
2) We learn to take responsibility and accept punishment with dignity. Instead of screaming for one’s mommy, take your punishment with dignity and humility, or else America will hate you.
3) We learn that a spoiled child grows to be a petty and selfish adult. Enough said.
4) We learn that education develops a person not only mentally, but also morally, and gives scope and awareness to the individual. Finishing High School and going to college doesn’t teach a person everything but it does facilitate personal growth, even for the most unwilling. For Hilton, her GED didn’t cut it.
5) We learn that celebrity is just an empty word. Ms. Hilton’s lasting contribution to the entertainment world is a sex tape and a car commercial with her in a bikini. If she had more to offer in terms of talent, we can forgive some bad behavior. When your only talent is posing then . . .

There are more lessons from this debacle for sure. Regrettably, Paris isn’t the only spoiled child who grows to be a nasty adult. But this is precisely why we should be talking about her. To talk about her bad behavior is to condemn the behavior itself – something people are very afraid to do – but something that is necessary for the development of our society as a whole. In this case, making fun of Paris can be good for future generations.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Nothing is more easily dismissed in debate as a cheap simplification of a politically complicated matter. Often these utterances are to score points with, well, the types of people who love cheap simplifications. Around my home, we refer to these voters, the cheap kind, as “the bumper sticker brigade”, those who are quick to put something often trivial, or marginally witty, on the back of their car’s to distinguish themselves as a member of an elite caste of supposedly trivial or marginally witty people.

Balderdash I say to the bumper sticker brigade – they can take their cheap sound bites and shove um right up their tailpipes.

It is exactly this type of rhetoric, the cheap kind that is the stuff of the modern political debate, a complete misnomer, for an event that has little to do with actual debate and more to do with bumper sticker public policy. Why we bother with this process is completely beyond me. The kind of people who watch the early party debates are likely the people whose minds are already made up – why else watch a horse race unless you have money on a horse?

Senator Clinton’s recent soundbite, where she called the Iraq War “Mr. Bush’s war” was met with applause and was regarded by many as, if not a rhetorical home run, then at least a triple. She wasn’t saying anything that couldn’t be gotten from any third rate blogger - hardly the elevated stuff we expect from candidates – and as much as I admire the work done by my peers, the blogosphere is a place for passion and not a place for innovative or effective policy.

Her labeling of this war, as Mr. Bush’s alone, is stupid. It trivializes the war. The burden of this war is not Mr. Bush’s alone but it is actually shared by thousands of families across the country. This war was initiated by a select group of people within the White House and DOD. Having no opposition from the public, or from any other sector of government (including the senate), it was allowed to happen. Though Mr. Bush’s government certainly got us into this mess, Hillary Clinton did nothing to stop the war from happening. In fact, she was one of its great champions in the senate. Her flip on the war shows us two things (at least) about what kind of person is lurking behind that botoxy grin and foppish hair. One, it shows us something about her judgment. Two, it shows us something sinister about her approach to politics.

First, if we are to believe Mrs. Clinton, she says that she would not have authorized this war if “we would have known then what we know now,” etc. This is an infectious backpedal. I think if you hang around the Senate cafeteria long enough you’ll come down with it and then will go around saying it to everyone you know. Supposedly misled, Mrs. Clinton was duped by Bush, even though her aides love to tote the fact that she is a voracious reader and always does her homework. How such a allegedly brilliant mind failed to ask any questions is beyond me since the case for war was something so fragile that a simple, well placed, “where are you getting this?” would have brought down the house of cards.

How was someone so well prepared not able to read the hundreds of pages of grave dissent (we forget that there was mass opposition now) that were published against this war before it began? There were lots of people, albeit not the majority, who knew that there was something sinister in the works. From foreign policy experts to former generals, there were a lot of credible people urging caution. Additionally, we now know that Mrs. Clinton didn’t even bother to read the latest intelligence reports before voting – shocking behavior from someone who is allegedly so well prepared for every occasion and from someone who claims to have agonized over the vote to go to war.

If we are to accept her claim that she was duped then what does that tell us about her sense of judgment? Not much I’m afraid.

Second, and more importantly, is the sinister belief that her war vote was pure politics. This is the belief is that Mrs. Clinton sensed, in 2003, there was something fishy going on but that she had to be a hawk if she was going to run for president. She had to be hard on Sadaam to look presidential or else run the risk of being labeled a softy liberal come the Iowa caucuses in 2008. My gut says that this suspicion will be confirmed and that her war vote had nothing to do with the actual evidence but everything to do with politics. In this case, her assertions now are completely disingenuous and (I’ll say it) completely dishonest.

Not to mention cheap – for Mr. Bush’s war is also Mrs. Clinton’s. Its not like she did anything to stop it from happening.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

When I posted Ike’s D-Day message yesterday, my wife came into our modest study and said, “You love D-Day.” It’s true – I love D-Day. I love movies about D-Day, books about it, TV specials on the History Channel, and especially, the photographs from the invasion of Normandy, 6 June 1944. In the photographs is where you really witness it. You see the uneasiness and the true terror of combat on the faces of those brave young men. In their faces, we see real people, not myth or nostalgia so frequent in the captions and descriptions of battle to follow. The photographs are the experience of war before we added the commentary afterward.

I also love what D-Day signifies through that lens of late 20th century myth. I am old enough to remember the commemorations and I am lucky enough to have known people who fought in the Second World War and then went off to seemingly normal lives. One of my great-uncles was shot down and spent 2.5 years in a German internment camp. After the war he became a minister. A good friend of my parents and grandparents, who died only a few weeks ago, was a fighter pilot in both Europe and the Pacific, flying photographic recon and fighter support for bombers. He became an optometrist and spent his post-war years in peace asking children and adults “is this better” as he adjusted their lenses. Another great-uncle, a man I never knew, was a Bronze Star winning infantryman in Patton’s Third Army and was wounded in the Bulge. He became a letter carrier. So many of us have stories like this.

The Second World War was one of national sacrifice. The veteran’s stories remind us of how seemingly normal their extraordinary actions were. Historians like Stephen Ambrose made careers on this theme – that the famed Band of Brothers was a collection of hearty boys who were made into men by the experience of war. Then, their lives went on. It is a tough thing for us to imagine now, the idea of the citizen soldier, because war is supposed to be so transformative, culturally as well as personally, for those who fight in it. After Vietnam, we are consumed, rightly or wrongly, with the internal transformation war has on the individual and the conspiracy of nations to weed out their young in tragic bloodletting. These are debatable and powerful themes and ones we should be discussing.

However, D-Day seems like a different age altogether. I have been to Omaha Beach, to Utah, Sword and to Point du Hoc. I have seen the landscape and the remaining bunkers and shell holes. I have seen the American Cemetery there with its acres of crosses. Yesterday, NPR played Reagan’s speech from 1984 “The Boys of Point du Hoc”, an address that still resonates today. Reagan seems like a relic of a past age as well because politicians don’t speak in grand narratives anymore. Maybe they don’t have the words or maybe they think they’ll appear insincere or won’t be accepted by a cynical public if they talk this way. Reagan took the chance and of all the tributes since 1984 to our “greatest generation”, his is the one we remember from that cliff overlooking the English Channel. He wasn’t a perfect president, but I have no doubt that Ronald Reagan was a man who had that rarest of modern virtues, conviction. For those of you who think that presidential rhetoric doesn’t matter, read the speech.

But we cannot forget the actions that Reagan was honoring and the dead who surely didn’t, in Lincoln’s words, “die in vain”. We memorialize to make sense of conflict, to honor the living as much as the dead, and we construct our historical memory, our narrative, from scraps of remembrances clouded in sentiment. This, however, doesn’t make them less true, gripping, or beautiful in their message and in the scope of their tragedy. Look to the faces of the men waiting to hit the beaches and tell me if it isn’t remarkable today to think that those men from yesterday suffered to free a continent mired in ethnic hatred and totalitarian oppression. It’s easy to speak of freedom but its another thing to volunteer your life for someone else’s. That’s what these men did and this is why I love D-Day.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German warmachine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

There was an article in the New York Times this past Saturday by Patricia Cohen entitled “Proclaiming Liberalism and What It Now Means”. It was a fascinating summary of some recent or forthcoming books about the future of liberalism as a defined political ethos in the next election and beyond.

These new original books and essay compilations come as a result of the increased partisanship and cynicism of the general population toward President Bush whom they see as a personification of conservativism in practice, however nonsensical an assumption this is. Additionally, these works are also meant to also engage the liberal base for the 2008 presidential election and give them a platform to stand upon with moral and religious voters.

In Cohen’s piece, which is well researched and very well written summary of some complicated matters, she quotes essaying Amy Sullivan who believes that Republican voters “are choosing the political party that talks about morality and religion over the party that doesn’t.” Her claim is that liberals have ceded moral issues on account of a reluctance to talk about morality and religion and thus have lost people who normally would have believed in many of the things that traditional liberalism advocated such as social justice, education, and economic fairness.

According to writers like Sullivan, a back to basics approach is needed to define liberalism as a moral movement as a way to encourage moral or religious voters to see the appeal in the liberal moral belief in common decency, fairness, and equality. Before the word liberal became taboo during the Reagan era, it was synonymous with societal reform and social justice, and it is the hope of the neo-liberal movement to convert wayward conservatives to this mantra.

And this does have some appeal to people like me – diehard centrists who are skeptical of government and disenchanted with what conservativism has become. Sure, liberalism has some appeal because many of the things that I believe in are, well, liberal values. However, at the very foundation of liberalism are three things that I cannot accept no matter how they are packaged.

First, is the irrational belief that humanity is itself capable of great good because human beings are naturally and progressively, good people. That society, with encouragement, can lift itself up with enough support from the government. History contradicts this belief and the generational ability of human beings to commit repeated atrocities confirms it. When left to our own devices as beings to make moral judgments, humans are a sorry lot.

Second, the very liberal belief in radical acceptance of fanatical relativism to the point where people are too afraid of making “value judgments” to actually believe in anything of any substance. This speaks for itself. Religious and moral people love value judgments – it is after all how you separate moral from immoral behavior.

Third, there is a passive bigotry among liberals toward the unenlightened. In plain English, religious and moral people think liberals think that they’re stupid. There is good reason for this – a lot of liberals do think we’re stupid because we believe in God. Look at the graphic at the head of this posting and tell me, honestly, that the left doesn't think Republicans are stupid.

The reason moral and religious people lean toward Republican candidates is not, as is claimed in the Cohen article, because liberals have pushed them away, but it’s because they don’t share a common worldview with liberals. It is because moral and religious people are anti-relativist – they believe in definitive systems of right and wrong and largely have a dour view of humankind (something that both Catholics and Protestants believe, I’ll have you know). They are also, possibly, less accepting of what they consider things immoral, and to a lot of Christians this means homosexual marriage, divorce, and abortion.

Though I am to the left of my party on these issues, I have a substantive disdain for people who lack moral fortitude. I have a bigger disdain for being talked to like I’m a child. Liberalism seeks to infantilize citizens under a paternalistic federal government. I have my religion to talk down to me; I don’t need my government to do it too.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The good old days weren’t so great.

The history of the Clinton White House is one of great ambition curtailed, of high hopes dashed on the rocks of partisanship, and of a great political messenger who shot his agenda in the foot, repeatedly. What the public remembers fondly from the 90’s has little to do with politics and more to do with the unchecked growth of American technology in a revolutionary decade, one that brought the internet and Britney Spears simultaneously into American homes. What we don’t remember is any significant activity from Washington other than the Lewinsky scandal. FDR had social security. Ike had the interstate highway system. Bill Clinton has, well, an acquittal from the senate.

The politics of the 90’s was marred by partisanship and cynicism. Though Bill Clinton remained popular up until he left office, he was a popular president because he was an interesting person and a great communicator, and not because he did anything remotely transformative. Our political system was the same when he left office as when he entered as was, for the most part, our societal makeup. His lasting achievement, in the eyes of most political scientists, is welfare reform. After eight years in office, the most interesting thing he accomplished was a bureaucratic reform of an entitlement system.

We reinvent our past to suit the political debates of the present. Hillary Clinton’s autobiography, a book seldom quoted and never actually read by anyone, was entitled “Living History”. This was the precursor to her current presidential campaign entitled “Manufacturing History” because this is what the ever-ambitious double duo is doing. They are creating a myth surrounding their time in office and encouraging a public nostalgia for their invention. This has to do with power and their strange belief that they’re entitled to it because they’re allegedly remarkable. There is no rational reason why a second Clinton presidency will be any more remarkable than the first.

It’s easy to be nostalgic about the pre-9-11 world because it didn’t phenomenally suck as bad as the world does now. Just because Mr. Bush has managed to dismember the constitution and destroy our chances of world peace for, say, another generation or two doesn’t mean that we should return to the past as a way to heal the future. Historically, this is folly, because the past in this case is an imagined myth by a desperate public who want, as desperate people do, for things to return to an easier time.

However, such a belief is marred in folly. We should remember the 90’s for what it was – a decade of political handsoffishness – signified by a substantially more libertarian Republican party on one side and an aging Boomer with his hands tied by Congress on the other. Clinton, the first time around, was harmless because we were at peace and in a period of economic growth. The world was not a safer place because of the Clinton presidency, no in fact, the seeds of our current war were sown in the dismantling of our intelligence apparatus under his watch. But it appeared safer and to Bill Clinton, appearance is everything.

He always looked and sounded good. He still does and this is why people like him, especially compared to the disaster that Bush is from a podium. It’s like comparing a Rolex to a sundial. However the Clinton veneer was thin and fragile in application and his presidency is an example of how an intelligent and personable individual with little intestinal fortitude can be repeatedly thwarted by a brutal and cunning opposition. This balance between Republican meanspiritness and Clintonian dreamy idealism was the perfect political balance in a trivial political age.

However, now our age is anything but trivial. Though it is a natural inclination to want to return to a seemingly easier time, we can’t, and we shouldn’t make our decisions based upon sentimentality for the past. We need to look to the future for a pragmatic leader. Pragmatism is a far different thing than the dreamy idealism of the hyper ambitious duo that just can’t stop thinking about tomorrow even when it was so yesterday.