October 25, 2014

Title IX compliance

On Friday I attended a required training wherein we (faculty and staff) were informed/reminded about our obligations under (the current interpretation of) Title IX. In case you've been hiding in a cave for the last few years (or decades), that's the law that states:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
(We also were reminded about the school's obligations under the Clery Act, but that wasn't as interesting and I won't be talking about it here.)

Most of the coverage about Title IX, especially before a year or two ago, tends to have something to do with sports programs; and in particular with making sure that colleges (and other schools!) provide equal access to athletics for female students. It's often cited as the reason that US women totally dominate the Olympics and other world sports competitions. But another big area of effect that Title IX has is on sexual assault and harassment: if female students are being harassed and assaulted and having to avoid certain classes or buildings or withdraw entirely, then they are ipso facto being denied the benefits of the education program. So the school, and by extension each employee, has Title IX obligations with respect to sexual assault and harassment.

I basically knew all that. I have to say, though, that I'm a little surprised at the extent to which this is taken. According to the presenters at the training (one a consultant from a company that does these trainings at various places, and the other the head of campus security), my obligation as an employee is to report to a Title IX officer any information that I have about sexual assault or harassment having to do with Longwood-affiliated people. That sounds pretty straightforward, right? There are two interesting consequences of this, both of which were directly confirmed in the Q&A at the end of the training:

  1. The obligation pertains even if the victim specifically asks me not to report it or tell anyone.

    Now, what may happen in this case is that after the Title IX report is filed, the campus police contact the victim, who declines to pursue a case or file charges, and it ends there. (Interestingly, and revealingly, the head of campus police referred to this situation as the victim being "uncooperative", which raises the question of who exactly the police are serving here.) Although they may also contact the alleged perpetrator to get their side of the story, which means that the victim may have reason to worry about retaliation---which is problematic to say the least.

    The other major probably-unintended consequence is that it means that a student who does not want to file a complaint will be unable to talk to any university employee about their problems (except for counseling services, who are the only non-mandated-reporters). That is unfortunate.

  2. The obligation also pertains off campus, to anything you hear even third- or sixth-hand, if any involved party is or might be Longwood-affiliated.

    You hear that? Since I live literally next door to Longwood students, if I witness or even hear about anything there I'm supposed to file a report with our Title IX officer. This would apparently also apply if I lived next door to Longwood faculty or staff.

    It's a surprising outcome, to me at least. Another audience member asked if he was supposed to be "snitching on" his neighbours if he heard something; the officer said, "no of course not, not unless your neighbours are Longwood students or staff or something like that." Which is a ludicrous thing to say, since a large percentage of Longwood staff live next to other Longwood staff---it's a small town---but I actually live next to Longwood students, as such. I raised my hand and clarified this, and he confirmed that yes, I should be reporting in if I witness anything there. So after clarification, his answer was really, "Yes."

Also interesting is that this all applies even to past conversations and events. It's not clear how much of the above is actually federally-required and how much of it is Longwood's CYA interpretation of the law; the head of campus police seemed to be saying the former, but a lot of us suspect it's more the latter. But at least until told otherwise, our job is to report anything, even hearsay, that involves, or might involve, sexual harassment or assault as committed by or upon anyone who is a Longwood student or employee. I guess if we all take that seriously and they decide we're overreporting, we'll hear back with more nuanced instructions.

EDIT: Discussion on Facebook about this post turned up the highly relevant article "Which matters more: reporting assault or respecting a victim's wishes?" from the Atlantic last year (thanks Jim).

EDIT again: Since nobody's discussing here anyway, I'll link to the FB post where a lot of the discussion is happening: the post is only accessible if you otherwise had access (i.e. you're FB friends with me), but that link should at least let you jump right there.

"I work on the assumption that Facebook is working by default to make me look like an asshole to everyone who's connected to me, because I've seen it do it to others." --John Scalzi

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October 16, 2014

Polled!

I just got political polled! So of course I have to record and report on the experience. It was based out of Christopher Newport University and randomly targeting Virginia residents in the age range 18-39. I'm curious how they got my number, because as a cell phone with a 309 area code (originating in western Illinois), this wouldn't be on any naively compiled list. That's actually very reassuring to me with respect to the legitimacy of polls, because with a mobile population that increasingly isn't bothering to change their cell number when they move (because why would they?) and certainly isn't bothering with land lines, it suggests that they're still able to construct a somewhat complete sample space.

The poll followed a fairly standard format, with some broad questions, some agree/disagree questions, and the demographics at the end (to prevent question fatigue on the questions they actually care about). I had minor objections to some of the phrasing of the multiple choices (e.g. a pure liberal/conservative binary), but I think they're fairly standard and can't really fault them for using them. I did object to the fact that the poll worker (a student, I think) mispronounced the governor's name---McAuliffe---as "McAwful", twice. I even called her on it, and she did sound surprised and a little embarrassed, so I think it may have been unintentional (it is a natural metathesis of the name) and there was nothing else in the questions to suggest that it was an opposition push poll (indeed, given the construction of the poll, I'm almost certain it wasn't), but it was still a little obnoxious. Perhaps with my correction she'll get it right for the rest of her shift, at least.

Now for the questions. These are all paraphrased, but I don't think I missed any, and they are in order.

  1. Is the country headed in a good direction, or a bad direction?
  2. Is the commonwealth [i.e. Virginia] headed in a good direction, or a bad direction?
  3. Do you approve or disapprove of the job Terry McAuliffe is doing as governor of Virginia?
  4. Do you approve or disapprove of the job Barack Obama is doing as president of the US?
  5. Would you say you follow political coverage (very closely | somewhat closely | not closely | not at all)?
  6. Would you rate your likelihood of voting in this November's election as (certain | likely |etc)
  7. Who do you plan to vote for in the senate race? (presents three options, Lib/Rep/Dem, with name and party affiliation)
  8. Who did you vote for for president in 2012? (Obama, Romney, other)
  9. What would you say is the most important thing for the elected senator to work on in the senate? (open answer)
  10. The next batch were all agree/disagree/neither:

  11. My generation faces more economic challenges than my parents' generation.
  12. My political involvement is important.
  13. My generation can affect policy more than my parents' generation.
  14. My voice doesn't matter.
  15. The government is working to solve problems that affect the country.
  16. I pay attention to political coverage and commentary.
  17. Then one more multiple-choice question:

  18. How different would you say that the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are? (very different, somewhat different, pretty much the same)
  19. Then the demographic questions:

  20. What is the highest level of education you have attained? (free response)
  21. Do you have any student loan debt?
  22. Do you view student debt as a (major problem | somewhat of a problem | not a problem) for the country?
  23. Do you identify as Hispanic/Latino?
  24. Do you identify as (American Indian | etc | White Caucasian | some other ethnicity not listed)?
  25. What year were you born?
  26. Religious affiliation? (protestant | catholic | jewish | muslim | other)
  27. Do you politically identify as (strong liberal | somewhat liberal | moderate | somewhat conservative | strong conservative)?
  28. Do you identify as a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent?
  29. Do you identify as a member of the Tea Party?
  30. Is your marital status best described as (married | living with partner | separated | divorced | widowed | never married)?
  31. Is your employment status best described as (fully employed | employed part time | retired | not actively seeking employment)
  32. What was your approximate household income last year? (with options given in $25K buckets, and much disclaiming about not having to answer this one)

So, I got polled.

"Facebook's valuations are being driven by large amounts of investor money injected into the Zynga symbiote, who throws nine figures a year at Facebook to continue identifying new pieces of brain matter to feed to their mad cows." --patio11

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January 27, 2014

Ooh! Hate mail!

Well, that's new. I just got my first piece of hate mail attacking me for daring to take a stand against the old boys' club.

A couple days ago, someone posted to Hacker News about a new command line tool for looking up and curating examples of how to run different programs---a useful-sounding idea---which they decided to call "bro". The software is described at and available from bropages.org.

The term "bro" is, to say the least, one that comes with a lot of baggage. I saw the HN post fairly early, and in the first hour or two there were a couple comments critical of this naming choice and a lot of comments raging defensively against these criticisms. I made a post that tried to articulate just why the name was problematic; if you read the HN post about this my post is right at the top, having been heavily upvoted by many members of the HN community.

It also got a lot of responses.

If you have the time, you can read them; if you're familiar with this kind of argument there's really not a whole lot of new ground there. But that brings us to today.

Two days after the shitstorm in that comment thread, someone tracked me down (not hard, since I put my email in my Hacker News profile, although he used a different email address than the one I posted there) and emailed me the following helpful advice:

You are a huge white knight on HN. Do you really think that shielding women from the horrors of products with the word 'bro' in the name will get you laid? Pathetic. Most women need less 'protecting' than a dork like you.

I'd never heard of him before, but casual internet stalking (i.e. typing his name in a search engine) seems to indicate that he's in sales at a UK telco company; not clear if he would self-identify as a "bro" but it doesn't seem out of the question. By the standards of hate mail this is pretty mild, of course---when it comes right down to it, more amusing than threatening---but it's a bit puzzling what would be the goal of an email like this, other than to try to intimidate someone into silence.

Well, you can see how well that worked.

"I work on the assumption that Facebook is working by default to make me look like an asshole to everyone who's connected to me, because I've seen it do it to others." --John Scalzi

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May 19, 2012

Poll tax

The Farmville Herald has a weekly feature where they print the front page of the paper from exactly 50 years ago. It's fascinating reading—recently we've seen the building of the physical plant for the newly-established white academy (the public schools having been closed to keep the colored kids out), among other things.

Yesterday's, by which I mean Friday, May 18, 1962, has this little blurb in the National News Summary:

The literacy test bill was tabled for the session Tuesday after Senate leaders tried twice unsuccessfully to shut off Southern debate against the measure by cloture. The bill would have substituted completion of the sixth grade for literacy tests as a requirement for voting in federal elections. Civil rights advocates promised another try next year, but the real fight may come at the beginning of the session if they try to change the rule requiring a two-thirds vote for cloture to one requiring a simple majority.

It brings a certain perspective to our current fights over voting access; Virginia just passed a law that requires ID to vote (or more specifically, changed the existing ID-required law to mean that if you don't have ID you have to cast a provisional ballot rather than merely swearing an affidavit that you are a legitimate voter, and then go to the county clerk within a couple days with your ID to convert the provisional into an actual ballot). It considers your voter registration card to be sufficient ID, so I'm not quite as mad at it as I could be, but it's a transparent attempt to make it harder for already-disadvantaged voters to vote.

But at least it's not a literacy test (or, for that matter, a completion-of-sixth-grade test). So, that's something, I guess.

"Commas group and separate meaning. They're the duct tape of written English. No set of rules based on form rather than content can adequately describe their habits and activities." --Teresa Nielsen Hayden

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April 09, 2012

More Catholic madness

My old diocese (Peoria) is still occasionally sending me updates because they haven't noticed I moved, and against my better judgement I just read part of one. In it, Bishop Jenky is going on about how he's willing to go to jail over resisting the mandate, saying that everyone who disagrees with him is just pretending to be Catholic, and finally has the gall to claim that "they wouldn't do this to any other religion in the country."

Yes, that's right. The Catholics are the ones that are persecuted here. That's why they make up something like a quarter of all Americans, a similar percentage of Congress, and fully two-thirds of the Supreme Court.

He, like many others in the hierarchy, is pulling out all the stops on this. They care about this issue more than they have cared about any other issue, social or political or theological, in my lifetime. They have mobilised the troops on this issue more than they do for abortion, their heretofore banner issue, and the only other issue that they've raised even close to this much fuss about.

And the thing they (claim to) care about, more than anything else, is making it harder for women, Catholic or not, to gain some measure of control over their own reproductive health.

They were often accused of having an anti-women bias over abortion, and they protested that it wasn't about being anti-women, it was all about the innocent embryos. As a surface motivation, this is somewhat plausible, and I think most of them believe it to be true (although I think there are probably subconscious motivations they may not be aware of). But there's just no analogous claim that they can be making here.

So yes, they care. Or at least claim to. They're ready to go to jail to demonstrate what martyrs they are for the deep and abiding principle of... of... not letting women exert control over their own bodies? Because granting women such access, and making everyone pay into a pool to pay for it---a tax, effectively---is the largest affront to the church that they've ever seen. Apparently. I still think that at least some of the bishops were duped into this and haven't really thought about what-all they're supporting, but they've thrown in with the Republicans in a big way here and are promoting an agenda of making non-Catholic women (who ignore them) and Catholic women (who mostly disagree with them) less able to make their own moral, personal choices.

"Sometimes one despairs of using natural language for communication of propositions between humans, when it is so manifestly not suited to the task." --Geoff Pullum

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March 08, 2011

Bookmark

These links came up in a recent Facebook discussion. They address points that I've mostly made myself, but they do it rather more elegantly:

Mostly I just wanted them someplace where I could easily find them again, so I can refer people to them.

"The Magna Carta... came about for the same reason so many landmarks of liberty, including the Declaration of Independence, were established in the English-speaking world---because the upper middle class balked at paying taxes." --Sarah Vowell

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March 02, 2011

Synchronicity: US vs UK

I saw the following two stories within a day of each other:

You should read both (they're short), but the upshot is this: in the UK, an aid agency told a religious couple they couldn't foster kids because they wouldn't accept a gay child (or rather, they would "accept" gay children but then tell them there's something wrong with them); in the US, religious aid agencies with public funding told couples they couldn't foster kids because they themselves were gay.

Of Stephen Colbert the character: "He's not mendacious and stupid; he's innocent and stupid. He's more like a puppy urinating on your politics." --Tom Purcell

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July 03, 2010

Don't forget the Greens!

Submitted for publication at the Register-Mail:

I was glad as always to read the Register-Mail's summary and analysis of our congressional candidates (in last Sunday's "Hare, Schilling, offer voters distinct choices"), but I was disappointed that the article didn't include even the briefest mention of the Green Party candidate.

I know a fair amount about the statewide candidates, and both Rich Whitney (for governor) and LeAlan Jones (for senator) have consistently impressed me with their ability to actually address issues and speak to us like we're adults. While I'm not perfectly decided yet (with many months to go!), I'm certainly leaning towards voting Green in those two races.

I'm not alone, either. The two larger parties in the state are both so dysfunctional (and keep nominating such dubious candidates) that a lot of people are fed up. As of mid-June, Whitney was polling at 9% against Brady and Quinn (34-30 respectively) and Jones was polling at 14% against Giannoulias and Kirk (31-30)---both are significant numbers for third-party candidates, and both Greens are gaining on their opponents in their respective races. (PPP)

Which brings me back to the congressional race. I actually don't know as much as I'd like to about the Green candidate in this district, Roger Davis. I can (and will) do my own internet research on the topic, but with the Illinois Green Party making a respectable showing these days, I do hope that future Register-Mail coverage will mention and give us a sense of the Green candidates, too.

"Any good programmer in a large organization is going to be at odds with it, because organizations are designed to prevent what programmers strive for." --Paul Graham

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November 18, 2008

Last rant for a while, hopefully

I have said before, repeatedly, that I find the abortion issue to be entirely poisonous to the political discourse of this country—largely because it inspires single-issue voters on both sides to overlook huge faults in one candidate just to vote against someone who disagrees on this one point. I've also said that I wish people would just let the issue rest a while so we can get back to other issues and stop arguing over a stalemate.

And yet I keep finding myself drawn back into the argument.

I think this is, in part, because I have sympathies on both sides, and as someone comparatively neutral I get really irritated to see the sheer misrepresentation flying around. Most recently, I've been witnessing the Roman Catholic Church trying to self-destruct over the issue.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, many bishops and priests launched a full-court press to get McCain elected, using crass threats about the Eucharist and salvation to cudgel voters into voting against Obama. Having failed at that, the political wind continues, as quoted in a recent TIME article (hat tip to Whispers):

"There's more fear here than wrath," a senior Vatican official told TIME with regard to the Catholic hierarchy's attitude toward Obama. However, if Obama signs the Freedom of Choice Act in his first months in office "it would be the equivalent of a war," says the same official. "It would be like saying: 'We've heard the Catholic Church and we have no interest in their concerns."

The Vatican and the USCCB are now reaping what they have sown. When they say with one breath that Catholics should consider all issues when voting, and with the next that abortion is the most important issue and trumps all others, they set themselves up as politicians playing the game rather than voices of morality. By telling millions of Catholics that they, as Catholics, must not vote for Obama, they risked their position as spokesmen for all Catholics; and when a majority of Catholics voted for Obama anyway, they lost that position. Even if most Catholics are pro-life (and I think we are), the vote served to discredit the politician-bishops, showing that they do not speak for a majority of their members and that they do not control the votes of their members.

Of course, as soon as they lost, they tried to make nice, as politicians do. "Voting for Obama is a mortal sin" suddenly became "We need to seek a compromise position" when the bishops' political dicta were roundly ignored, but now it's too late. I at least haven't noticed large numbers of people hanging back from Communion, though admittedly I haven't been paying close attention and my sample size would be small in any case; but I'm pretty sure that the 54% of Catholics that voted for Obama did so with a clear conscience, contra anything the bishops claimed about their eternal salvation being in mortal peril. Had they stuck with their original stated position—that many issues are important and voters need to look at the whole candidate—they could make reasonably credible claims on this issue. But the quote about 'war' doesn't pass the laugh test, and the last piece of the quote, that the government has no interest in the concerns of "the Catholic Church", is a truth of their own making: having demonstrated that "the Catholic Church" really means "the hierarchy" and not "Catholics", they've made themselves politically a lot less relevant.

The real tragedy, religiously speaking, is that it makes them morally less relevant as well. When religions really do stay above politics, they retain a moral authority over their congregation and a moral influence on leaders, even leaders of other religions. When they descend into politics, they become politicians, and relinquish moral authority in the eyes of their congregation (at least those that disagree politically) and in the eyes of outside observers (who may or may not disagree)—it looks like they're saying it just to get votes for their guy.

"Chicago enjoys a myth about itself---tough, brawling, but also amiable---that's grounded in a certain amount of bad behavior. A lot of people here like the legend of corruption, if not the actual practice. Corruption makes good stories." --Mary Schmich

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November 08, 2008

An unsurprisingly disingenuous response

Responding to my recent letter, another reader of the paper responded with his own, "We can choose life or death". My response (posted in the R-M comments forum as they only allow people only one "official" letter every thirty days):

You have not addressed a single point that I made in my letter, instead using it as an excuse to write a tangentially-related letter about abortion. To recap, my points were: 1) the flyer distributed in at least two Galesburg churches was not completely accurate, 2) the flyer and bulletin together convey a clear pro-McCain endorsement, which puts the churches' tax status at risk, 3) threatening voters with excommunication over their vote is unethical and desperate, and 4) single-issue voting is counterproductive anyway. Did you intend to actually refute any of these points?

To expand on #3, I'd also like to point out that automatic excommunication for voting for a pro-choice candidate is not the position of the Roman Catholic Church or of the US bishops; so-called 'latae sententiae' excommunication only follows from serious sin (like abortion itself). Last I checked, the official word was that one should pay close attention to abortion as an issue of top importance, but not focus on it to the exclusion of all else; and that though one shouldn't support a candidate solely for their pro-choice stance, one can vote for a pro-choice candidate for other reasons (as long as they are important and not frivolous). You claim that 'all' of the other issues are of 'this world', when there are numerous other life issues out there, including war, health care, welfare, and the death penaltywe can argue about their relative importance, and the RCC does indeed put abortion at the top of the list, but it is deeply disingenuous of you to pretend they don't exist.

"Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It's the most theatrically corrupt." --Studs Terkel

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November 05, 2008

YES WE CAN

Woo Obama!

The reason I'm only just now posting is I just got back. I was at an election returns gathering, and after Obama's speech I started walking home. When I was at Cherry Street and the tracks, I heard loud cheering and chants of "O-ba-ma!" coming from the direction of campus—I assumed they had to be at the square but later found out they were at the quads seven blocks away. On the spur of the moment I decided I didn't want to miss it, so I walked over. Getting closer to campus I saw small groups of people chanting and skipping (really) down the street towards the middle of the campus. I dropped off my stuff in my office, and followed the cheering. At that point it was coming from a crowd that was streaming from the tennis courts area toward Old Main.

At Old Main, on the south face, were hundreds of people cheering and chanting "O-ba-ma!" and "Yes we can!". Packed in tightly, less than half fit on the raised platform, with many spilling over onto the grass. At one point the cheer switched to "Main Street! Main Street!", which was momentarily puzzling, but then the crowd started peeling off to walk up Cherry Street towards Main. A few police cruisers showed up with their flashers and stopped traffic for us. Along the way, the crowd in Duffy's spilled out and cheered us on, and a bunch of people who had been at Cherry Street for the Dems' returns party were there cheering with us too. We rounded the corner and headed for the square, where the at least four hundred people were filling the (dry) fountain, standing on the edge, and again spilling out into the grass. More chanting for a while, and then someone started the anthem, which everyone sang like it was a beloved drinking song, and then the crowd streamed back towards campus.

Back at campus, some people split off into other directions, but a lot headed in the direction of CFA, where I thought I heard actual instruments, and indeed, someone in one of the jazz groups had a key and had dug out their equipment, and a jazz combo was playing. The energy and exuberance was incredible; the atmosphere was electric. People were dancing and partying and just having fun, with frequent spontaneous chants springing up either between songs or right in time with them. When the party finally broke up at about a quarter to one, everyone headed back to the dorms, where I imagine they'll be continuing for hours yet.

The best part was the sense that we were part of a party that was going on across the country and indeed around the world. Never in my lifetime have I been witness to anything like this, and if we had hope before it's doubled now: the depressing future we had waiting for us is not set in stone and things can and will get better. We can! We will!

"We are not a collection of red states, and blue states, we are the United States of America and in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again." --Barack Obama

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October 29, 2008

Electioneering in church

I just submitted the following for publication in the Galesburg Register-Mail:

Last week, in my parish bulletin, there was an insert entitled "Where do the candidates stand on key issues?" It's misleading and inaccurate in several places; for instance, it claims Obama opposed a bill "that would have provided protection for babies who survive abortions", but in fact such infants were already covered by existing law, and his votes against the relevant bill were for other reasons. Quotes on immigration and Iraq make it sound as if there were no differences between the two on these issues. And the clear slant of the flyer is pro-McCain: of the twelve "various issues" presented, six are about abortion, and the next page of the bulletin contains a full column that asserts that one's top priority "must" be "opposition to abortion" (as we also heard in the sermons of the day).

Is it illegal? Perhaps not, but it skates very close to the edge. If endorsing candidate X is electioneering, and illegal for churches and nonprofits, then surely mandating a singular focus on issue Y, while simultaneously handing out a piece of paper that says "only candidate X believes Y" is just as bad.

One priest in town reportedly went so far as to say that anyone voting for a pro-choice politician---for any reason---should not receive Communion. Threatening Obama voters with excommunication is both desperate and absurd, and mostly serves to make the church look like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party. I'd be sure I'd misunderstood, except that similar reports are coming in from across the country. This is spiritual abuse, and it's worse than illegal: it's terribly unethical. It also undermines their position as spiritual leaders.

The worst part is, single-issue voting is dumb even if one issue is your top priority. So-called "pro-life" politicians have long understood that abortion is job security: all they have to do is say they are pro-life, and they get votes from single-issue voters. Why would they want to actually stop abortion? These politicians can claim to be pro-life, while failing to actually address abortion (much less any other life issue) in any way, and on other issues they are free to do anything at all since their voting base doesn't appear to care about anything else.

It is for this reason that the wise voter---liberal or conservative, Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise---will look at the entire candidate in making their decision. Single-issue voting is irresponsible, simplistic, and counterproductive, and no church should be in the business of encouraging it.

UPDATE: Printed in full today (30 Oct) under the title "Church and politics colliding in Galesburg". I've already gotten two voicemails at my work phone from Galesburg residents who specifically tracked down my number just to thank me for writing it; it seems to have struck a nerve. Some interesting online comments on the Register-Mail posting, too.

"What justifies the [Boumediene] decision is the practical necessity and importance of reassuring the citizens of the United States and the world at large that the United States had not given up the role it assumed after World War II as the chief proponent of the rule of law worldwide." --Noah Feldman, "When judges make foreign policy", NYT

Posted by blahedo at 02:42 AM | Comments (3)

August 28, 2008

Racial education politics

I just read an article on BBC about Roma/Sinti kids in Czech schools; I felt a strong echo of a lot of the rhetoric and practice surrounding US schools wrt black kids (actually, Latino kids too). While we don't quite make them sign forms admitting to being retarded (!), most of the rest of it could have been here, right down to the quote from the Roma rapper:

"Czech people are racist and xenophobic. But many Gypsies are worse. They don't send their kids to school because they don't want them to be white. It's a big mistake. We can talk about racism. But we live in a democratic country and everyone can make choices."

Here in the US, we have a disgraceful education gap between children of different races, chalked up to a variety of problems from lack of money to lack of parental involvement to lack of accountability. But informal school segregation is alive and, unfortunately, well. A recent lawsuit against Illinois' U-46 district (Elgin) just got upgraded to class action:

The lawsuit, first filed in February 2005, claims U-46 violated the rights of black and Latino students by placing them in older, more crowded schools; forcing them to ride buses longer and more often than their white peers; and providing them with inferior educational opportunities.

I had been aware of the disadvantaged position and the racial discrimination that Roma face in central and eastern Europe, but until I read the BBC article it had never occurred to me just how strong the parallel could be. I can't decide whether to be encouraged, in that this is not a unique problem and maybe we can put our heads together to solve it, or worried that maybe this sort of thing is universal and inevitable.

"Gah, if TPTB want to shut down all airline travel, it'd be way easier to just come out and say it. ALL AIRPORTS CLOSED! Better than this long drawn-out charade where we all have to hate airplanes first." --Eva Sweeney

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February 05, 2008

Voting Green

Today is primary day in Illinois, and I had decided some weeks ago to vote in the Green primary, for a variety of reasons. I was looking forward to seeing what would happen at the polling place, where I knew I'd be likely to be the only one voting Green in my precinct (if not the city!).

I arrived and said my name, and they found me and checked me off the precinct list, and as they were doing that, I was glancing over to the stacks of ballots they had—one for the Dems and one for the Republicans. Not a good sign. Sure enough, they asked, "which ballot would you like, Democrat or Republican?"

I replied, "um, Green?" And the initial reaction was that I was teasing them because the counting slips and the bar across the top of the ballot itself were green on the Dem ballot (yellow for the Republicans). So there was a bit of, ah-ha, funny, Democratic then?, but I said, no, Green *party*. This seemed to ring a bell in the head of one of the judges, who turned to a small stack off to the side that were the Green Federal ballots (whose slips were white and the bar across the top of the ballot sheet itself was red).

Then ensued a bit of confusion because they knew there was a distinction between a "federal ballot" and a "primary ballot" (which I'm not too certain of myself but I think has something to do with whether you registered to vote far enough in advance of the election or something—the federal only lists the presidential candidates, while the other lists also all other local positions), and they thought I was entitled to a "primary ballot" but couldn't find any. I knew the Greens weren't running anybody in this district, so the ballots would be functionally equivalent, and was happy to settle for the federal.

As I was filling it out, the judges from the other precinct at the polling place were piping up to tell my judges that no, there really was a separate primary vs. federal ballot, and just then one of my judges found them. So we officially spoiled my first ballot (which I'd already marked), and at this point I observed that they were getting a lot of practice with the more rarely used pieces of electoral judge procedure. :)

Finally handed a Green Primary Ballot, I marked my candidate, fed it into the machine, thanked everyone, and headed home.

Overall grade: C+. They didn't offer me a Green ballot initially, which they were supposed to, and then tried to give me a Dem ballot even after I asked for Green. And then, they gave me the wrong Green ballot. However, it is at least a passing grade, because there was no active discouragement (just confusion) and in the end I was in fact able to vote the correct ballot. The plus is because they were so darn polite about the whole thing and incredibly eager to help me get through the democratic process.

Though I don't want to ascribe any malice to anyone over the choice, picking green to represent the Dems was really unfortunate. I like in general the idea of picking a random, or at least arbitrary, color to represent each party, but when the name of one party is the same as the color associated with another, this is just begging for problems....

But still, I'm positively giddy over having voted in an actual, honest-to-God Green Party primary today. Hurray democracy!

"Real hypocrisy is not in the failure to practice what one preaches, for ideals that may be practiced without stumbling are hardly worth preaching in the first place. Rather, hypocrisy is the failure to forgive the particular failings of others the way you'd forgive yourself for your own particular failings, to see the good despite the bad in yourself but not in others." --Jonathan Prykop

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December 12, 2007

The four-state solution

I've been daydreaming about the Palestinian conflict again, and the following idea is insisting that I post it. I'm aware that there are pragmatic roadblocks, of course.

With all the recent stuff between Gaza and the West Bank, it's clear (if it wasn't before) that these two areas house populations that are not exactly the same, though they have a lot in common. Furthermore, one of the big problems with the so-called two-state solution is that there is no good transportation link between the two pieces, and any such link would necessarily cut through southern Israel. Some have half-jokingly referred to a "three-state solution", but of course that by itself is problematic because of the lower viability of a state the size of the Gaza strip with a population of 1.5 million.

Simultaneously, one of the big stoppers all around is the status of Jerusalem: the West Bank Palestinians insist on, at least, East Jerusalem, while Israel demands that Jerusalem remain whole (and that their capital be there). As a location of many holy sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, it's a place a lot of people want control over, and it's a sticky problem.

Meanwhile, in any solution there's the issue of Muslims in the Jewish side, Jews in the Muslim side, and Christians, Druze, and others on both sides. Israel is scared of any solution that might give non-Jews a majority in the Knesset, though with 20% of Israeli citizens being Arab and Muslim, there is some room for compromise. There is also fear for the status of Jews living in settlements in the West Bank, many of whom (at this point) were born, raised, and grew up there, and want to stay there, even at great cost.

So, here's the ("the") solution: four states, federated.* I've heard proposals for a federation of a Jewish and a Muslim state, but this version addresses several more of the issues. The fourth state, of course, would be the (entire) city of Jerusalem, a city-state of just under a million people, roughly 70% Jewish, serving also as the seat of federal government. Constituent states could, at their option, also use it as their capital (a situation not unknown in many parts of Europe, where a provincial or regional capital sits outside the region itself, in an adjacent city that comprises its own region). Israel would obviously make use of this; possibly the West Bank also, though presumably Gaza Strip would use Gaza City as its state capital.

Individuals would be citizens of one of the four states and thereby of the federation. The three outer states would not be required to give citizenship to just anyone, and could impose restrictions (e.g. "must be Jewish") on new citizens. The city-state of Jerusalem would not impose such restrictions, and otherwise unattached citizens of the federation would thus be citizens of the capital city-state. Here's the catch: although the outer states could restrict their citizenship, and thus their state parliaments, law-making authority, and judiciary, they would be constitutionally prohibited from restricting citizens from the other states in the federation from living, working, or travelling there. That cuts both ways: long-displaced Arabs with citizenship in West Bank, Gaza, or Jerusalem will be able to move into Israel, but Jews with Israel or Jerusalem citizenship will be able to (continue to) live in West Bank. (But, more about settlements in a second.)

Internally, each state would set up its own governmental structure. Federally, there would be a bicameral legislature, with one house being strictly proportional to citizenship counts, and if the state wants to do district-based allocation of its representatives, it has to allot (at least) one district for its citizens living elsewhere in the federation. The other house would allocate, say, fifteen seats per state, elected at-large, and work under additional restrictions: votes requiring a majority of the seats would also require at least 1/3 of the votes in each delegation, and votes requiring a supermajority overall would also require a majority within each delegation. This is very important, as it gives any one state a veto against unwanted legislation. Constitutional changes would require 3/4 within each delegation plus ratification by the legislatures of all four states, again as an extra-strong protection against abuse.

On to the settlements. As I understand it, several of the most-pressing concerns ostensibly about the settlements have already been dealt with in this solution: no more Israeli-only roads, no more ghetto wall, no more preventing villagers from getting to the lands they work. These, of course, were the "easy" part, because the claims were so lopsided. When it comes to the actual houses and villages of the settlements, though, the dual claim is stronger: "I've lived here my whole life" vs. "My ancestors had lived here for centuries before your ancestors kicked them out." The only thing that makes this any different from the situation with American Indians or the Australian Aborigines is that the initial kicking-out was a few years more recent. And what's more, there's even less of a difference between the West Bank settlements and more or less the entirety of Israel. Assuming you believe the State of Israel has some right to exist, you are on pretty shaky ground to let Israel keep Israel but draw some line that requires all the Israeli settlers to pull out; but for the descendants of the Arabs displaced both from West Bank settlements and from the current State of Israel itself, there is a recent claim that can't be completely dismissed either. This would be among the hardest sells in the solution, but it would have to be the case that A) descendants of any property-holder in British Mandate Palestine in 1948 would have to be able to make a claim on that property, either to reclaim the property itself or be paid some high percentage of market value for it, AND B) the choice of whether the payment was monetary or the property itself would have to be up to the current "owner" of the property. Some significant percentage of this cost would have to be covered by the State of Israel (and international donors, no doubt): either to subsidise the "owner" to pay the claimant, or to subsidise their move to somewhere else.

Security would also be an important concern, and a cornerstone of the solution is an integrated federal military. Having Jews and Arabs serving side-by-side will go a long way to furthering understanding and knocking down prejudices, much as the integration of the US military was a key precursor to the civil rights movement here. In a federated four-state situation, it would take some time to get this up to speed, of course, and likewise for integrating the federal police force, necessary for putting down the inevitable initial clashes. While the federal forces were integrating and retraining, the states would need to be protected and policed by an external force led by Canada and Japan. (Why those two? Most disinterested developed nations I could think of, with the former having small but significant and roughly equal minorities of Jewish and Muslim citizens, and the latter having vanishingly small percentages of either, and neither country having any compromising commitments to Israel or Arab countries that I know of.)

It's a pipe dream, of course, but any successful solution is going to have to include many of these elements. Separately, any of the various proposed states, including Israel, have limited viability on their own, and of course no sovereign state wants to entrust its security to another that it doesn't control—not to mention, the borders between any of the constituent states in any solution like this would be fundamentally indefensible. (That's what triggered the 1967 war, really.) Having separate Israeli and West Bank and/or Gaza militaries would inherently make for a very tense cold war at best; whereas with a unified and integrated military, all parties get to take comfort knowing that every single unit has a mix that includes citizens of all the states, a neat little insurance policy against rogue commanders, considerably more secure (for everyone) than most of the other solutions I've heard.

*This is radically different from the "four-state solution" you'll see if you google that phrase—in all of these, the Kingdom of Jordan is the fourth, setting up a three-against-one dynamic that's about as far from the above system as you can get. Jordan is more homogeneous, viable on its own, and doesn't need to be part of anything like this—there'd be no reason for them to want to commit to anything like this, and many reasons for the federation not to want them in. Likewise for neighbours Syria and Egypt, obviously, although I could imagine Lebanon eventually wanting in as a fifth state if the federation seemed to be working.

"The computer is simply a testing ground for a well-thought-out idea." --Natasha Chen

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October 07, 2007

Where's the outrage?

In church today, during the announcements we were exhorted to participate in the Life Chain this afternoon, an event where a lot of folks stand around and hold up "pro-life", i.e. anti-abortion, signs around the public square. Once, St. Pat's had a strong representation at this, but our numbers had dwindled; and thus the exhortation: "Where's the outrage, people?"

Where, indeed?

It was pointed out that there was a lot of outrage floating around over Michael Vick and the dogs, but that this was about 4,000 children being killed every day. Here's the thing, though: the outrage at the dogfighting is directed at a person, Michael Vick, who is judged to be a bad person for his actions. When you try to build some sort of outrage over abortion, though, you get a little stuck if you try to make it personal: as soon as you bring an actual woman—or girl—into the equation, pregnant and "in trouble", it seems difficult to sustain the personal outrage. Especially when the other half of the message is, purportedly, that We Welcome You And Will Help You Out. What are we getting outraged at, again?

Well, here's something to get a little outraged about: agitating for laws against abortion does nothing to resolve the underlying social justice issues. Even if these groups succeeded at making abortion illegal—which wouldn't stop it from happening, mind you—the people who feel cornered enough to be seeking an abortion in the first place are simply left hanging. For the most part, they're resorting to abortion because they think they don't have any other options, which may be an incorrect perception, but you better believe they're not coming to you to talk about it after all of this.

Here's another: Planned Parenthood has done far, far, far more to decrease the demand for abortion than any of these Life Chains ever did. No pregnant girl walks out of a PP clinic without knowing all her options, honestly evaluated—a bit of scruple that I suspect most illegal abortionists would lack, and that I know most "pro-life" activists lack—and a fair sight less get pregnant in the first place, because PP has gone to the trouble of educating them on their reproductive systems and giving them access to birth control. This is the responsibility of both the parents and the schools, but both groups are abdicating in droves... often at the instigation of various religious institutions.

Which brings me to another thing one could get outraged about. For all the rhetoric about the sanctity of life and the dignity of all humans and all that—and some institutions don't even bother with that much—there remains this bizarre disconnect when it comes to birth control.* That is, in the course of arguing that all couples should welcome new life, and therefore should not want to use birth control, these people forget that some people are not yet on board with this program, do not welcome new life, and are having sex anyway. These people should perhaps not want to use birth control, but the entirety of their situation rather indicates that they should use birth control. Anyone who glibly responds that they should just be abstaining from sex is complicit in the conversion of new life from "something to be welcomed" to "punishment for having sex". By hollowly prescribing and proscribing actions without first ensuring that the actions follow from a consistent belief system, these deeply misguided "pro-life" activists do far more to engender some of the very social ills they claim to be protesting against.

So, that's where the outrage is. I'll be skipping the Life Chain.

*Many outside the religious establishments claim this is all about power and misogyny. While that's undoubtedly true in some cases, I don't think it's universally so—I'm convinced that some people really do genuinely hold these beliefs, and that it really is a weird disconnect, rather than a more active case of rationalising a prejudice.

"Since we're still on our first round of batteries, we weren't sure what this meant in terms of recording time. The unit is rated to run 18 hours, but nobody who works with electronics takes these sorts of ratings as anything other than gentle fun, a brief diversion from the world of hard facts." --Shriram Krishnamurthi

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May 13, 2007

Anonymous motherhood

I was reading today's funnies, and against my better judgement I actually read Family Circus this week. The actual content of it had Dolly musing about alternate mothers and Billy imagining a thought bubble with drawings of other funnies-pages moms. Which is a little odd, and I guess funny for some, but what annoyed me was that the little inset box explaining the joke captions the images as follows: "(clockwise starting at upper left) Blondie, Dennis the Menace's mom, Hagar's wife, and the moms in "Baby Blues", "Luann", "Zits", and "For Better or For Worse". (There is then a "happy mom's day to all mothers" balloon coming from the authors' signatures.)

Other than Blondie, who presumably got named because the comic strip is eponymous, all these characters have no identity of their own here. They can't really blame space considerations, because there would've been plenty of space to say e.g. "Blondie from 'Blondie'; Alice Mitchell from 'Dennis the Menace'; Helga from 'Hagar the Horrible'" and so on. And honestly, probably nothing would have even registered if they'd just gone the shorter route and said, "Moms from: 'Blondie', 'Dennis the Menace', ...". But the actual phrasing they used sort of made it sound like these fictional women have no character or relevance except in relationship to other people.

Thinking about it, the one that really started me off on this path was the "Hagar's wife". Hagar gets a first-name reference, and Helga is then identified only in relation to her man, not even by her motherhood (which might arguably be defensible given the message of the strip). Which highlighted the fact that none of the fictional women shown were actually named other than Blondie. And the fact that the actual body of the strip is pretty much devoid of content, except to say that mothers are basically interchangeable. And largely anonymous.

Which, in a lot of cases, I suppose they are. But rather than raising this as a troubling issue, the strip just follows along. I know I'm overreacting, but the whole thing bugs me. I guess that's what I get for reading Family Circus.

But, happy Mothers' Day, everyone!

"You have to be awfully desperate to leave your home behind, risk the crushing daytime heat and the cold nights of the desert, and set out for a country that wants your cheap labor but not the economic burden of educating your children and caring for your sick." --Carol Marin

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April 17, 2007

Democracy in action

I was drafted into being a "polling place administrator" for the municipal elections today, which basically meant I floated around three polling sites (covering seven precincts) and stood ready to resolve any technical problems that might arise with the equipment. Which, happily, didn't happen.

But it did give me a chance to meet a lot of people and see how things were run at various sites. If they don't keep around this position, I definitely plan to sign up as an election judge (as I've been meaning to do for ages now)—because I'd be good at it and there aren't nearly enough new people doing it. (Nearly every judge I met had been an election judge for at least a few years, many of them for decades.)

Also interesting was the attitudes of the various election judges, for good or for bad. Like the judge who started doing some of the closing-down stuff early, because "nobody's going to show up in the next ten minutes". (Someone did!) Or the judge that thought there should be some simple test that everyone should have to pass before being allowed to vote, to keep out the "retards". (Yikes.) Or the judge that thought there was way too much fuss about all this privacy stuff, because they weren't really interested in peeking at your vote. In a more positive direction, one judge found it very important to rearrange the handicapped voting booth so that it would actually fit a wheelchair behind it and be accessible, and so that nobody could walk behind it and see what they were doing. Or the many that went very carefully over what the voter needed to do to successfully vote their ballot. Some of them didn't always see the point of all the specific procedures—and would therefore be inclined to cut some corners—but not one of them would have let anyone's vote go uncounted.

As the day wrapped up, I headed over to City Hall, at first to see if there was anything else I was needed for. When there wasn't, I thought I'd hang around a couple minutes anyway, just to get the results. Four of the seven wards had an aldermanic election this cycle, and all four were contested. It was a rout. The people of this city are seriously displeased. (This may partially be fallout from the Super Walmart snub, along with various other "we're ignoring our constituents" snubs the council as a whole has made.) In three of the wards, a challenger beat an incumbent by a factor of two or more. (In two of those wards, this was even in the face of having a second challenger taking a significant number of votes!) In the fourth, the incumbent won by a margin of just nine votes. The turnout was also reflective of this: those four wards had a total of 2,349 votes cast, to just 668 votes (for various school board seats) in the other wards.

So, just another exciting election day in Galesburg!

"If we elect a bum worse than the one we threw out, we can vote for someone else four years later. Democracy's not that complicated. If we don't start behaving like we live in one, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves for the consequences." --Ben Joravsky

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February 14, 2007

Power from above

Hoo, it's been awhile since I wrote anything, but I'm totally fired up about this new CD I just discovered. Dan Berggren's song "Power from above" was linked to by the Step It Up folks, and it is, as they say, anthemic; the verses have a renewable-energy message:

Sinners are you ready for a little redemption
To receive forgiveness for what we’ve done?
The time has come to break bad habits.
It’s time to turn to the wind and sun.
The chorus takes that rather religious language and draws the analogy more clearly:
Just a little more power from above,
Just a little more faith, respect and love
For this old earth our only home.
It may take strength to say no to that power from below
But there’s salvation in the power from above.
Absolutely brilliant. Note that throughout the song, it uses "we" language: the singer is certainly not exempt from his own message. We all need to work at being better—and to draw in more of the Christian context he's accessing very effectively here, we're all human and will never be perfect, but that only means we can all always work on improving.

But that'd be all for nought if not for the song. It's a folky tune that is just unbelievably catchy. A low-fi MP3 is available from Dan Berggren's website (along with the full lyrics), but you know what? Just go buy the whole CD (entitled "Fresh territory" and available on iTunes). It's all good, some is environmentalist, some is just good folk music. His "From every mountain side" is not to be missed; four new verses to "My country 'tis of thee" that are just as good if not better than the original:

Seeds of democracy,
Nurtured with honesty,
Become our liberty
When we share the load.
So, yeah, go buy it.

"It's also a lot easier to slap a health claim on a box of sugary cereal than on a potato or carrot, with the perverse result that the most healthful foods in the supermarket sit there quietly in the produce section, silent as stroke victims, while a few aisles over, the Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms are screaming about their newfound whole-grain goodness." --Michael Pollan

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January 31, 2007

Pavlovian training

I read yesterday that Obama introduced a bill to pull out of Iraq. It's a little more complicated than that, of course; the bill requires the redeployment to begin by this May and be completed by next March. It probably won't pass in exactly its current form, but it's ratcheted the debate up a level, and it is an example of exactly the sort of thing I like my senators doing and would like my President to do.

Ever the believer in positive reinforcement, I immediately turned around and dropped $50 on his presidential campaign. I have this little fantasy that a graph of contributions to his campaign will show a big spike immediately after the introduction of the bill, and that he will see this and think, "ah! People do like to see strong leadership in service of ethical goals" and act accordingly.

"I worship a god who laid down his life so that unworthy people would not get the punishment they deserved." --Jonathan Prykop

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January 24, 2007

So much for the consistent ethic of life

The head of the Catholic Church in England has given an ultimatum that the Church would rather leave hundreds or thousands of children homeless than to place even one child for adoption by a gay couple. Some new laws passed last year say that adoption agencies can't decide not to place a child just because of the orientation of the adopters, just as they already couldn't withhold a placement based on race.

Though often billed as gay rights legislation, it's really more about the children: it's simply awful to hold adoptable children hostage, making them wait longer to be placed, essentially just to make a point. But your friend and mine the Roman Catholic Church evidently has more important things to think about than, you know, helping children, and so they're calling the government's bluff.

In response, the government—evidently more reluctant than the Church is to sacrifice the welfare of the children—is considering an exemption for Catholic adoption agencies.

The worst part is, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is attempting to frame this as discrimination against the Church, firing up a great big martyr complex and trying to pin this one on the government.

Thanks, Catholicism! Chalk one more up for the consistent ethic of life.

"I think Solomon would agree that the only fair solution here would be to cut Joe Lieberman in half lengthwise." --Mike McCool

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November 22, 2006

Forgiveness is not permission

In a homily several years ago—in the wake of the abuse scandals and in response to them—I heard a priest give an excellent homily that he ended up summarising in nine words: "sin is in the will; forgiveness is not permission." It's an important message of reconciliation, and even if you're not religious and have no use for the concept of sin, that second part is something anyone can (and should) take to heart. We have this idea that if we forgive someone, it's like saying it was okay to do the thing in the first place. Not so. And that attitude is corrosive; it keeps divisions in place and holds wounds open to fester and burn. It encourages a tit-for-tat race to the bottom, where everybody loses.

I think a really important first step to reducing racial tensions (as well as sectarian tensions, ethnic tensions, social tensions...) is to recognise this basic idea: forgiveness is not permission. If we can forgive someone their past faults and let them try to start from a clean slate—knowing there may be more stumbles yet to come—then we can lead by example and help them to become more tolerant and loving and cosmopolitan, rather than inciting them to anger and to lash out again.

(I originally posted this as a comment to Eric Zorn's musings on the Michael Richards situation, but I liked it and decided to post it here too. :)

"Last time I preached the Word, in Galilee, I spoke in parables. MIS-take!" --Peter Barnes, The ruling class (Jack)

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October 16, 2006

A parody of themselves

Enjoying some of my first leisure time in about a week, I was paging through the Sunday paper. I got through the article on the (lack of) gubernatorial debates that actually mentioned the Green Party candidate Rich Whitney; and the nice little feature on a local apple orchard; and the "Sudorku" Foxtrot comic; and then I came to a full-page insert, paid for by the local Democrats. It said:

VOTE EARLY and VOTE OFTEN

Now, don't get me wrong: it's clever, it's funny, and it calls attention to the relatively new law about early voting locations (distinct from absentee ballots) here. All of the factual information on the flyer is afaik 100% true. And yet....

"Giuliani v. Clinton would be like a wood chipper versus baby chicks. Why does our party do such a foul, foul job of picking candidates?" --Matt Zanon

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August 14, 2006

Still not convinced

Indeed, I'm less convinced before that our current administration isn't just giving us a snow job over this whole airline security kerfuffle. I was just watching CNN in the hostel's* dining room, and this is as close to a direct quote as I can do from memory:

VOICEOVER: American travellers adapted quickly to the new set of luggage regulations. But what if the terrorists think the same way? Security experts are now worried that terrorists can use the new regulations to attack planes from the cargo hold.

"EXPERT": Here at LAX, we simply don't have the ability to scan large pieces of cargo for explosives. We are working with companies to develop this technology even now.

VOICEOVER: Blah blah blah greater danger blah blah terrorism blah blah new regulations blah blah blah.

But here's the thing: although travellers are checking more luggage---an obvious consequence of restricting what they can put in their carryons---and therefore the system is at higher flow, the regulations on checked luggage haven't changed at all. So all of this "new danger", "we were caught unawares", etc, it's all a great big lie: they have said that they don't have any specific knowledge of plans to stick bombs in checked luggage, and the generic danger is absolutely no worse than it was a week ago. The entire purpose of this media campaign of Michael Chertoff and the other members of the administration is to create fear and terror in the population, presumably in an attempt to get permission (or forgiveness, or complacency) for more rounds of their treasonous, failed policies.

*Ooh, forgot to mention: I'm in San Francisco right now, in a downtown hostel at the end of a dead-end alley. I'm off shortly to explore a bit. I'm really in a much better mood than the rest of this post would seem to indicate. :)

"And I wonder if that includes Jesus of Nazareth, who, as Gibson may have discovered during his extensive research for his movie, was Jewish. Maybe the fact that Jesus' mother had a nice Catholic name was confusing." --Fr Jim Martin, SJ

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August 10, 2006

Credibility shot

I realised to my surprise as I was reading about the whole airline security hubbub that the Bush administration credibility was so thoroughly shot that I still kind of see this, at least the US end of it, as just a stunt. This level of cynicism surprises even me, honestly. But although we apparently have very detailed information on the plot, we don't even know at all what kind of "liquid" is involved? And more importantly, despite the fact that, again, we have very specific information about which flights and what people were involved and how this plot was supposed to work (involving flights originating in UK, even), no "liquid" is allowed on airline flights anywhere in the US, period, including toothpaste, which isn't much of a liquid. And the threat level is "raised to orange", when we had gotten rid of that whole system because it was stupid and meaningless then, and just as stupid and meaningless now, except as a means to instill terror in the entire population and use fear to boost the popularity of the administration.

It'll probably work, too.

Again.

"Baseball caps are inelegant. They are boyish. They are a symbol of the American determination to make every occasion, however special, into a subset of "casual Friday." They are sporty in the obnoxious extreme. They are everything that has gone wrong in American style since mid-century." --PeaceBang

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July 17, 2006

Continuing occupation, resistance

Every time I hear about some new awful thing that the Israeli government has perpetrated, I just get more exasperated. I acknowledge Israel's right to exist, and successfully re-convince myself of it every time I find myself in doubt. But they piss away any international goodwill they might have, brush off any attempts to gently remind them what it was like to be on the other side of the ghetto wall, and undermine any Palestinian attempt at legitimacy before it can even get off the ground.

And yet, and yet. As a citizen of a country that has been doing a lot of the same things lately, I am acutely aware that there can be good, reasonable citizens unhappy with the evil acts of the regime that rules them. So it's at least somewhat gratifying to run across an opinion column written by an Israeli Jew in Israel and printed in an Israeli paper that raises all the objections that I myself have felt to the actions of Israel, not just in the last weeks but in my lifetime.

So I wish luck to Gideon Levy and the other Molly Ivinses and Arianna Huffingtons and Koses of Israel, in raising awareness of the issues and bringing their fellow citizens round to the measure of sanity that they clearly so desperately need before their country implodes from the stress. (And likewise to the MIs, AHs, and Ks of the US....)

"Without knowing the IDF strategy it really looks like Israel is ripping the heads of Lebanon's Barbies because Lebanon's cousin took Israel's Tonka truck." --Joe Shidle

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July 06, 2006

Persian cuneiform -> $$$

I just read an article about an international incident in the making. Here's the executive summary: A few years ago some Americans were killed in a suicide bombing in Israel. The suicide bomber might have been sent by Hamas, who are probably partially funded by Iran, so the survivors sued Iran in an American court for compensation. And won. So then, in order to collect, they found that a priceless collection of Persian cuneiform tablets excavated from ancient Persepolis by University of Chicago researchers—and still housed in the U of C museum—were technically "on loan" from the Iranian government. So they sued to get these assets seized from the U of Chicago, to be auctioned off so they could get their money. They won this, too, and the U of C is understandably having a fit. As, for that matter, is the Iranian government.

It's so wrong on so many levels. Who is this going to hurt? Not the Palestinians. Not Hamas. Not even Iran, really. It hurts the university, and the archaeological community. It really hurts the rest of the country's museums, who will now have a much harder time getting collections on loan. It mostly helps the lawyer who is pushing the suit through, and now Iran will have a very legitimate grievance against the US government.

The rest of the world will just see this as evidence that the US is too full of greedy idiots. And they'll be right.

"So, Middle Eastern men, gang bangers, etc., listen up!  It has been scientifically shown that firing guns into the air for entertainment is not a good idea. Please stop right away. Also knock off with the holy wars and random violence. Thank you." --Cecil Adams

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June 09, 2006

Going even wronger

Following up on my rant from last night: Wired has an article about how the government is so scared of drugs and terrah and we are so scared of any risk to THE CHILLLDRUN, however small, that home chemistry sets, and amateur chemistry as a whole, is basically impossible at this point. This archetypal way to get kids interested in science, gone. One company tried to put together a new release of a Mr. Wizard kit, but discovered that more than half the chemicals were illegal or would expose the company to too much liability. Another company got raided by the feds for the horrible crime of selling chemical reagents.

It's really fucking depressing, is what it is.

"I disagree: I think it's a debate about whether you think gay people are part of the human condition, or just a random fetish." --Jon Stewart

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The future held such promise

Where the hell did we go so wrong?

Twenty-five years ago, I grew up watching a bunch of different kid's TV shows. What was on then? Sesame Street. Pinwheel. The Electric Company (in reruns). Mister Rogers. Today's Special. 3-2-1 Contact. Most of them on Channel 11, Chicago's PBS station, a few on Nickelodeon.

You know what they weren't? Toy commercials. You could get a couple of Sesame Street-related things, but nothing like today; 3-2-1 Contact had an affiliated magazine that was itself pretty educational.

You know what else they weren't? Completely inane. In the past few years, I have had the misfortune to see a few pieces of children's programming, and it's like aliens invaded between the early 1980s and now. Adults watch "modern" educational programming and feel their brains slowly melting out. But, find an Electric Company clip on YouTube and, whether you get a nostalgia burst or no (I don't, actually; although I recognise the theme song I don't remember any of the characters or scenes from that show) you get the feeling that you could watch whole episodes of it.

And the most important thing that they weren't? Patronising. Every one of them is clearly children's programming, and yet they treated their audiences like people, and they educated them. They didn't just socialise them, which is what the newer shows seem to be doing, afaict. When kids were present in the shows, the adults (and puppets, and animal sidekicks) would have conversations with them. (This probably contributes to the non-inanity, come to think of it.) They pitched it to their target audience, but you don't get the feeling that they held back things that might have been too hard; their job was to get kids excited about knowledge and reading and learning and discovery.

Watch these clips: parts one, two, three, and four of the very first episode of 3-2-1 Contact, broadcast in 1980. There's stuff in there that I didn't learn until grad school; most of you would learn at least a few things from the episode. And although the technology is aged, I bet there would be at least a few things in there to make you go, "oh, cool!". But for all that, it's still clearly a kid's show from start to finish, nothing in there is truly out of reach for, say, a precocious eight-year-old, with most of it probably working just fine for a 6yo or younger.

So what happened? To my knowledge, there's nothing like this anymore. Any of it. Sesame Street is still on, but it's a very different sort of show than it used to be, with selfish, bratty Elmo promoted as its flagship, a paragon of childly virtue (available in six tickle-me variants for just $30 each!). Mister Rogers and some others are still in reruns in some places. But what have they been replaced with? Patronising, mind-numbing, inane, feature-length toy commercials.

The Electric Company put it on the line, right in the intro: "We're gonna bring you the power." An all-star cast on your TV day after day helping you learn to read—no matter what your race, gender, or class—to give you the power to do whatever you wanted to do, be whatever you wanted to be. The others, even without the famous people in the cast, aren't something just to keep your kid distracted and give you a break. They're the real deal, funded by groups like the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education and of course the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to make kids excited about learning.

What the hell happened?

"The Ten Commandments are not a series of 'No', but a big 'Yes' to love and to life." --Pope Benedict XVI

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Ya-hoo!

I'd about given up hope that he'd do it! Last Saturday, at graduation, Stephen Colbert (yes, that one) gave Knox's commencement address and got an honorary doctorate from us. It was a brilliant speech, and that alone would've been worth the price of admission. Not to mention he deserves the award for what he's done, both politically and socially. (I would link to a video of the speech, but amazingly, YouTube only has clips from it; although, you should at least watch this one, which contains a bit of the speech that got, er, amended out of the printed transcript.)

But ever since it was announced, once we thought about it, we were all sort of hoping Knox would get a shout out on his show. I mean, think of the PR! And given his persona, how could he possibly resist bragging and demanding that people call him a doctor? But the whole week went by with no mention of us. Too bad.

Tonight, though, at the end of the Report, there he was standing there in his Knox D.F.A. hood (just the hood on his regular suit, none of the rest of the regalia), and he mentioned Knox, and Galesburg, and the size of the graduating class (250, close enough), and the degree itself got a bit of screen time with the big KNOX COLLEGE across the top. Woo! Yee-ha!

Not that we're hurting for applications right now anyway. But you simply can't pay for that kind of national exposure. This is so exciting.

'Somewhere in the quiet, leafy recesses of the Bush family, somebody is thinking, "Wrong son. Should've tried the smart one."' --Garrison Keillor

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June 06, 2006

On protests and propriety

Last week our group was accosted by a bunch of motorcycle guys, as I wrote about here. The story was printed in a Register-Mail article and condemned in an editorial; then my letter was printed, followed by another letter, and a supportive batch of "man on the street" interviews that appeared in Saturday's paper.

Thursday's paper included a report that the "God hates fags" jackasses were going to be back again (they were last here in November), to protest at the funeral of Knoxville's Pfc. Caleb Lufkin. The article mentioned that our friends the Patriot Guard Riders would be there to "shield the mourning family and friends"; much as several Knox students did last time. I hadn't been able to go last time due to teaching a class, but I decided to join whoever was standing with their backs to the "protestors", not least because with classes over, most of the Knox students were gone by this point.

Actually going up there was among the harder things I've done, somewhat to my own surprise. Partly I was nervous about how the motorcycle guys would react to me being there. Partly I was uncertain of how many people would be there, where I could stand, what I could do. And I was actually pretty worried about the Phelps group themselves—they pretty much fund themselves through lawsuits, and they can play the law a lot better than me or anyone on our side. And it seemed likely that they'd at least try to use the new "no protests at funerals" law (which is a stupid and unconstitutional law, but nobody listens to me about that) against us. Could I get arrested? Would it be considered a protest to stand inside the 200ft boundary in front of them? Would it be worth it?

When I got there, I parked on Academy a couple blocks away and walked up to the corner. On the northeast corner were two people with a painted sign that said "We honor Pfc. Caleb Lufkin!" or somesuch, and the Westboro vans hadn't arrived yet. I walked up to stand next to the sign people, and as I walked up the Westboro van arrived—about a dozen people, mostly children. They were directed to the sidewalk on the north side of Fremont, between Academy and West (presumably 200 feet from the church). Traffic was blocked off between West and Clark. We moved into the intersection to more effectively be in front of the protestors, who were starting to sing their parodies of American patriotic songs.

Predictably, Shirley (their leader, Fred being unavailable, I guess) started yelling that we were breaking the law with our "protest signs", and demanding that we be removed. A very apologetic cop talked to us, and his explanation jibed with my understanding: the law hasn't been tested yet, nobody really knows whether it would apply to us or not, probably not, but could we maybe just stand there without the sign instead? He promised to check with his superiors to get their legal opinion on whether we could bring the sign back out. Note, by the way, that this sign would not have been at all out of place at a regular military funeral—so it seems doubtful that it would count as a "protest" in any meaningful sense. (Strangely, we also got a hard time from the CNN correspondent, who kept accusing us of breaking the law with our sign; we just said we didn't think so and ignored him. I have no idea what he was trying to achieve.)

Meanwhile, the motorcycle guys had arrived. Hurray! We three people were feeling kind of exposed and ineffective by ourselves. But the motorcycles were all massed over in the Fremont/Clark intersection. It turns out they'd decided that they were there to honour the dead soldier, but not to protect anyone from seeing the protest (which is not what they said to the reporters, and not what it says on their website). Let me say that I'm not impressed. Fortunately, the local emergency services stepped into the void, with a fire truck, several police cruisers, and the converted R/V from Homeland Security (!) occupying most of Fremont between Clark and Academy.

As the protest wore on, a group was gathering on the southwest corner of the intersection, many of them with enormous US flags (ha! good idea.) that, together with the crowd, formed a nice wall blocking what remained of the view of the protestors. I joined them, both in standing there and in singing assorted songs in an attempt to drown out, or at least muddle the sound of, the awful revised versions that Westboro were singing. We sang a lot of first verses of things, because few people knew more than that, but this continued until 11:00, when the protest ended and the funeral began. I headed back to campus to participate in Senior Pumphandle. The protest got a relatively anticlimactic article, and life moved on.

The whole situation brings up some interesting questions about the conflict between what is legal and what is proper. The law in question, written specifically to target this group, is just bad law, and of course they were able to do their usual schtick without breaking it; but their actions were unquestionably improper (even if their message had been a good one). What we were trying to do was more proper, but of less certain legality—I think it was legal, but with the law untested, nobody's really sure. Of course, I think it's a bad law, so if it had been used against us, I was willing to pay a price, since that's what civil disobedience is about. They weren't willing to do civil disobedience, apparently, which is just as well because the ACLU really doesn't need a case like this for the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters of the world to point at.

In retrospect, I'm not sure my own actions were of maximum propriety either, though. The big sign, the big flags, blocking the protest completely from view: that seems somewhat equivalent to the hidden-away "free speech zones" that I so abhor, right? Same goes for the singing to drown them out—I do think they have the right to display and sing their awful message; at what point does my own right to display and sing a message infringe theirs? Not to mention that, on a purely pragmatic note, I think our singing was just egging them on anyway. I think that if this happens again (let's hope not), the better strategy would be to do as the Knox kids did last time around: just stand silently in front of them. It doesn't completely block their message, but it very effectively conveys that we're not interested, that their words have no effect on us.

Of course, that requires a bit of organisation in advance, which is tricky when your group is composed of Knox people, Bethel people, and random other Galesburg folks that had just been out for a walk. But it's worth filing away for reference.

"[Blagojevich] acts like an ordinary, impulsive person: He wants what he wants, he wants it now, and he doesn't let worries about the future or the Constitution trouble him too deeply." --Eric Zorn

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May 29, 2006

Hawk bullying

UPDATE: this story got written up in today's Register-Mail.

A letter to the editor:

One of the many groups that marched in this year's Memorial Day Parade was the Knox County Peace and Justice Coalition. We leave our actual protest signs at home for Memorial Day; instead, we have a batch of smaller "Peace" and "Knox County Peace and Justice" signs, and one big posterboard sign. That sign remembers the 2,464 dead of the current war as well as the 17,648 wounded; they may be injured, they may be gone, but they are not forgotten.

Or at least, they wouldn't have been. As we were lining up for the parade, a man from the motorcycle group a few places behind us came up and notified us that "some people" would not be happy with the sign. We acknowledged the possibility, but kept the sign out, so he left and came back with five or six of his friends, who surrounded our group and very aggressively insisted that we not use the sign with the numbers on it, as this parade was "hallowed ground". They made vague legal threats on the basis of the new funeral protest law, and there was an implication that someone might get hurt.

We then edited the sign to make it even clearer that it was meant as a memorial: in its final form, it read "We remember/2464 dead/17648 wounded/Never forget!" But this was not enough, as a few minutes later this group came back again, actually grabbed one of our leaders by the shoulders, and made us put the sign away. Various members of their group (not by far the entire motorcycle group; I estimate there were less than a dozen harassing us) kept coming back up the line to check on us.

Not willing to be completely bullied by these thugs, I hastily made some smaller signs that just said "2464" to tape in my windows, which I didn't put up until the line had started moving. Nevertheless, the situation was entirely unacceptable. Though we had every right to protest, we did not, out of respect; and yet we were harassed, intimidated, and assaulted just for not being willing to sweep our thousands of war dead under the rug.

I understand that these men are veterans, and that they are politically in favor of the war, and that is their right. But it is shameful for them to use a show of force to silence those who would remember the losses of families in Galesburg, in Knoxville, and across the country. Not on Memorial Day; not on any day.

"Maybe it's time for real artists with the English language to replace a few Latin I students on ICEL." --Todd

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April 08, 2006

Another HS drug raid

Today's paper had a front-page above-the-fold article about a drug raid at the high school. No suspicions or anything, they just felt like it. My letter in response:

Of the lockdown and search at GHS on Thursday, Principal Hutchins said, "we feel like it sent out a good message."

The message it sends to all the students of GHS is this: whether you are guilty or not, whether we suspect you or not, you and your belongings are subject to being searched whenever we feel like it.

Because people who've done nothing wrong have nothing to hide?

This is not "a good message". This is an egregious erosion of civil liberty. If these students had been adults at work, the raid (evidently with no probable cause and no warrant issued) would have been a clear and obvious violation of the Fourth Amendment. The terrible message that the school has sent here is that the freedoms that the American colonists fought so hard for are nothing more than inconvenient words on an old piece of parchment, to be evaded whenever a loophole presents itself.

It was precisely this sort of search that loomed large in the Framers' minds when crafting the Fourth Amendment: during the Revolution and before it, British agents under "writs of assistance" would go through people's houses fishing for smuggled goods. This gross invasion of privacy was a major factor in furthering the movement for independence---even innocent people aren't too happy at having government agents rifle through their stuff.

Increasingly, we hear from people who seem to believe that saying a magic word like "drugs" (or, for that matter, "terrorism") suddenly justifies the negation of all the rights enumerated in the Constitution. Patriotic Americans should not let that happen; when we pledge allegiance to a nation "with liberty and justice for all", we shouldn't have to add any disclaimers at the end.

Should be printed sometime next week.

UPDATE: Printed in Monday's paper.

"A Catholic university is where the Church does its thinking, and that thinking, to be beneficial, must come from an intellectually rigorous engagement with the world." --Fr John Jenkins, CSC

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March 09, 2006

Container ports

This whole ports business is a fascinating study in political positioning, and a great game of "who's paying attention?". It'd be funny if it weren't so deadly serious.

I think every person can be spotted a first reaction that objected to the deal. It's a knee-jerk, but a relatively reasonable one: "What? The Emiratis are taking control of our ports? No way!"

Then you start to settle back and think about it. Maybe you're a little ashamed at prejudging the situation; not all Arabs are bad, after all. And the Dubai company wouldn't be in charge of security any more than the current London one is—as several pundits have commented, we'd still have the same crappy security we've got now. And as Arab nations go, UAE is a comparatively moderate one. It's no Iran; it's not even a Syria. So maybe Bush was right to fight to approve the deal.

But while the initial knee jerk didn't pan out, the subsequent reflection on the idea turns up some puzzling facts. Even if Bush was strongly in favour of this deal, why does he feel so strongly that he'd use his first veto ever over it? And the ownership of the company is worse than just some Arabs based in Dubai; we'd be turning over control of five major ports to, in part, the government of Dubai. Who, it turns out, would not be required to keep records on American soil, where they'd be subject to US subpoena—as virtually every other major offshore company operating in the US is required to do. And finally, if the company was really vetted like Bush claims, and the dossier says what Bush claims it does, I guess I'd be less worried than otherwise, but wait: we've been down that road before. W has demonstrated, repeatedly, that he is willing to massage the data and flat-out lie about reports he's been given, so we really shouldn't just take his word on this.

I'm a little nervous about the involvement of a foreign government in the running of the ports, but if a careful investigation decides that this doesn't pose a risk, then I think I'm ok with that. I'm just very glad that this grand hoo-ha has forced there to in fact be a careful investigation, first.

And I'd really like to revise that agreement to force them to keep onshore records. You know, just in case.

"For now, suffice it to say that making the users of your design unhappy is not likely to be precisely the result you were looking for, unless you're designing a French film." --Joel Spolsky

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February 09, 2006

On overreaction

It just seems so amazing how worked up the Muslim world is getting over these damn cartoons. Even after people draw analogies that really make you understand why someone would get irritated at such cartoons, even outraged, the level this is being taken to—burning embassies! killing people!—is just completely insane.

This week's episode of The Boondocks was a rerun. I don't remember its title, but its key feature is memorable: it describes "The Nigga Moment". After showing two black guys get into a gunfight over a face-saving argument that started after one accidentally bumped into the other (a quintessential "nigga moment", we're told), we get a scene to illustrate contrastively. A black guy bumps into a white guy, they both get briefly angry, but then the white guy breaks off, laughs, and says, "oh, that's right. I'm white!" And laughs all the way home.

This kind of brash caricature is ridiculous on its face, and thus perhaps easy to dismiss. But under the hood, it's a pretty profound bit of commentary: it's a suggestion that the real reason we sometimes see blacks fighting over seeming trivialities (and no reason to restrict it to blacks, of course; this seems perfectly applicable to gang violence in general) is as a direct result of their lack of power, their oppressed status. The bump of the shoulder is a trigger, a mere spark, that last straw of lacking control over one's life, that causes one to need to respond in a grossly exaggerated way. The "nigga moment" is, in this analysis, a last-ditch effort to exert some sliver of control over one's own existence. We don't see white people acting that way, because even the worst-off of them enjoy some level of privilege, simply for being white, even now; though they may not laugh it off with a casual "I'm white!", it's a lot easier to brush off a loss-of-control situation when you're in control of your life in so many larger ways.

I think that this may be the lens we need to use to view the Mohammed cartoon brouhaha. It's not from the comparatively well-off Muslim countries (like Egypt or UAE) that we're seeing the violence and insanity. (They're ticked off, of course, but I think we can spot them that much.) The places we see rioting and violence and destruction are the countries where the people are poor and oppressed. The people causing the destruction are not the merchants and businessmen. They are poor teenagers—and let's recall that the teens are an angsty and powerless time under the best of circumstances—in broken countries like Afghanistan and Palestine.

At this point, of course, there's nothing we can do but damage control. But if we are to solve the larger problems, and to prevent future idiocy of this variety, we need to first realise that people that are made to feel powerless are unstable and dangerous to themselves and everyone around them.

"The criticism sticks to every developed nation. Our wealth does not belong to us, and we have not acquired it through superior virtue or greater faith. We have our 10,000 talents because the king sets all of us free from our debt. Let's not demand from the developing world its 100 denarii. It isn't the Christian thing to do." --Chris Tessone

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January 28, 2006

More on abortion

I was skimming today's paper and just had to respond to one of the letters in it, yet another screed on abortion. I totally cribbed from Chris Tessone on this one:

Abortion debate is in the air this week; Stacy Monti's letter echoed Kathryn Lopez's article and others, and the anti-choice activists once again make their emotional but vacuous arguments that don't address the real problems.

First, "choice" is equated with abortion, as if once presented with the choice, a woman couldn't help but choose abortion. (Ms. Lopez' column is especially egregious in this regard.) Just because the option is there doesn't mean she has to take it. "Choice" means you have more than one, and women who feel guilty about having had abortions don't get to blame their freely-taken choice on the fact that it was legal. People who believe abortion is wrong are always free not to get one.

Next comes the rhetoric about murder. The Bible, which the anti-choice activists are usually so happy to quote, says otherwise. Immediately before laying down the "life for a life" punishment for murder of an adult, it very specifically gives a different punishment if the victim is unborn: "the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman's husband demands of him, and he shall pay in the presence of the judges." (Ex. 21:22) Money, awarded as damages in a civil lawsuit. And that's if someone attacks a woman and kills the fetus; it says nothing about if the woman terminates her pregnancy voluntarily.

We hear emotional appeals about "tiny babies known only to God". Religiously speaking, what's the problem here? When a soul goes straight to heaven, is that not a cause for joy?

The equation then drifts from "abortion = murder", which is misleading and arguable, to the vague "supporting legalized abortion = murder", which is simply false. If anything, the reverse is true. Many studies in many countries have repeatedly shown that legality doesn't correlate with frequency; people just get abortions anyway. But places where abortion is illegal, including many places the US has forbidden from conducting abortions, have a high incidence of women being maimed or dying from complications from abortion. Culture of life? I don't think so.

To quote a friend of mine, we Christians "are called to a much less adversarial and judgemental relationship with the people around us, and we should be even more eager to use this approach when the question involves young women who are routinely marginalized by our society." I don't like abortion, and I wish more women would choose not to have them. But even more than that, I wish our society didn't put so many women—and young girls—into situations where they felt that was their best option.

Hopefully, it should be published sometime next week.

"Help control the local pet population: teach your dog abstinence." --Stephen Colbert

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January 04, 2006

This Abramoff affair

The thing that I find most interesting about all the manoeuvring involving Jack Abramoff is W's reaction. The administration is carefully not claiming that W didn't ever meet Jack Abramoff, distancing them as much as possible but still hedging for the possibility that they may have shook hands or had their picture taken, etc, etc.

But W is famous for his ability to remember people. Whatever his faults, his people skills are unparallelled, He remembers folks he met once years before; during his frat's hazing period, he successfully named upwards of two hundred guys he'd just met that week. When Reagan started in on his whole "I do not recall" routine, it was an awful lot easier to believe.

"Drowning in cheese is not a kosher death." --Don Engel

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December 22, 2005

Christmas at war?

We're spending this Christmas at war, but there certainly isn't a "war on Christmas", despite what Bill O'Reilly and the AFA may find political advantage in claiming. See my letter to the Register-Mail that was printed Wednesday.

"What matters in determining mortality and health in a society is less the overall wealth of that society and more how evenly wealth is distributed." --British Medical Journal

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November 23, 2005

Washington, take note

This is how you win hearts and minds.

But somehow, I think Washington will be taking a different message from this action....

"I still feel at home in churches brimming with demons; they're just fixer-uppers, is all. Like a junk room that's starting to attract rats, one of the worst things you can do is to continue not going in there." --Jonathan Prykop

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November 20, 2005

With dignity and compassion

That's how Knox College students reacted last week when Fred Phelps and his hate cult came to Galesburg. That's the "God Hates Fags" guy, only now he's moved on to attacking the military (for being taken over by fags, natch); and about two weeks ago, a Galesburg native died in Iraq, so Phelps decided to protest at his funeral last Tuesday.

Various student groups got wind of this, and there was some lively discussion as to how to counter-protest, along with warning to be very careful, since the Westboro Baptist Church is extremely litigious. (It's how they fund themselves, actually.) Then the word came from the family of Sgt. Wehry: please, no counter-protests. There was a bit of luck, because---not knowing the layout of the town---the cult applied for a protest permit in the area nearest the street address of Bethel Baptist, but that's on Academy, which is just where their church office is. The main entrance and such are all on Fremont. Nevertheless, even if they were going to be way off to the side, it seemed difficult to let this go by with no response at all.

So the members of Common Ground and the Alliance for Peaceful Action at Knox arranged an action that was, in my opinion, the most effective demonstration performed in the last three years. They went to Phelps' group's protest and... stood in front of them. That's it. They stood there with their backs to the hate group, partially blocking them from the view of funeral attendees and otherwise completely ignoring them.

I was really proud of them. They didn't let the nasty protesters and their sick message ("Thank God for dead soldiers"? Ugghh.) get to them or bring them down to that level. And their effort was much appreciated throughout the town. On the Common Ground mailing list, at least three or four people have mailed the group to thank them, and in the paper, they've gotten 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 letters to the editor thanking them, and an editorial. These students are a credit to Knox, and to the community.

"We think different problems are attacked better in different languages, and that software engineers and computer scientists should not be restricted to a single semantic arrow in their quivers." --Weiser, Demers, and Hauser, The PCR Approach to Interoperability

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November 15, 2005

Exposing the evil empire

I saw the Walmart movie tonight (the anti one). It wasn't very good. Its production values sucked---the sound mixing was terrible, and frequently drowned out the speaker with "background" music---and if I hadn't gone in knowing a bunch of stuff about Walmart, I would still be a little skeptical. In one interview, they kept flipping the image horizontally, I suppose to make it look like multiple camera angles. In nearly every interview, there were obvious splices, right in the middle of sentences, and while this may have been done to make the speaker sound more coherent, it's also hard to be convinced it wasn't changing the meaning of what they were saying.

I did learn two things, though, that I didn't already know: 80% of crimes committed at Walmarts occur in their parking lots, making them one of the highest-crime areas in many towns they invade; and appraised property values automatically go down throughout a town as soon as Walmart arrives, because the appraisers know that so many stores are about to close, empty space will soon be available.

It was neat to see that the showing required not one but two overflow rooms to seat everyone---many college affiliated people, but also some from the town---and that a lot of the attendees stuck around for discussion afterwards. There was actually a really good one in the room I was in, because there were two guys who were, if not pro-Walmart, at least pro-big-business and very free market about jobs (after all, if Walmart's not paying enough, the workers can just leave, right?). It's good for me to actually have to argue against an opponent in person every now and then. (One of the others in the room was a R-M reporter who took my name---I hope I'm not quoted to say something ridiculous tomorrow. :P)

In other news, I woke up with a slightly sore throat this morning, which maintained itself all day and started getting worse about two hours ago. And yet, all I can think is, if I was going to get sick, THANK GOODNESS that it waited until now. The very last immediate-deadline anything that I have for this term is FP meetings tomorrow; then after that, grades are due in two weeks. So I have time to recover, whew.

Mein bratwurst has a first name,
It's F-R-I-T-Z,
Mein bratwurst has a second name,
It's S-C-H-N-A-C-K-E-N-P-F-E-F-F-E-R-H-A-U-S-E-N. --Tony Nuval

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October 28, 2005

Blago's legacy: healthy kids

You know, for all that I'm down on Illinois' current governor---he really is kind of a schmuck---I do have to give credit where it's due. The All Kids plan he's just gotten passed sounds pretty awesome: all Illinois children, up to age 18, will have health insurance. And rather than have a bunch of onerous hoops to jump through to keep out the people who "don't need" it, the plan is technically open to anyone. The only requirement is that the child hasn't been insured for twelve months, or is under one year old, or a parent has just lost a job. In addition, there is a sliding copayment and premium scale, so that if somehow some rich family wanted to enroll, they would be basically paying their way. And---this is the best part---preventive care checkups require no copayment.

I understand Vermont has a similar program, but then, we have twenty times as many people as them. I really hope this works. This is an important first step towards socialised health care, and it's happening right here. Illinois is so the best state to live in.

"Monks are not used to being compared to camels in heat, but they took it pretty well. I noticed eyebrows going up around the choir, and then a kind of quiet assent: 'well, there are days.'" --Kathleen Norris

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October 07, 2005

John Edwards and poverty

Here's why John Edwards is cool: he's out there stumping on behalf of the poor---which would be nice enough---but more importantly, he's stressing the fact that the vast majority of people living in poverty aren't there because of disability or laziness, they're actually working full-time.

It should be enough to know they're poor, but one of the less flattering traits of humanity at large is the belief that people should only get what they "deserve", whatever that means, and that lazy people don't deserve to get anything. This in turn becomes an easy out, permitting people to dismiss poverty as some strange form of just deserts.

The problem is, this really hasn't ever been true, although the lazy poor person is pretty much a trope in political discourse. It certainly isn't true now. Poor people aren't any lazier than the rest of us---considerably less so in many cases---and in the vast majority of cases, they're only in the position they're in because life dealt them a crappy hand. Helping the poor is not, as Edwards points out, a matter of charity; it's a matter of justice.

"Character is what you are in the dark." --Dwight Moody

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August 17, 2005

The hot topic: Gaza

The events currently coming to pass in the Gaza Strip are obviously the single largest event to happen in the Israel-Palestine situation in my lifetime. I strongly suspect that it will prove to be the most important event in the entire Middle East in that time period. The obvious competitor is the current Iraq War. That will clearly have effects of some sort on Iraq itself, but outside of Iraq its chief effect looks to be an increased supply of terrorists---a quantitative, rather than a qualitative change.

But the Israel situation is different. It serves as a focal point for a lot of other conflicts both near and far, and so it has the potential to have much more widespread effects. I have said before that I couldn't see any possible good end to the Palestinian conflict, but that was largely because both sides seemed to be deeply tied to a downward spiral of retaliatory attacks, unwilling to give anything positive unless they got something in return but happy to attack the other.

Here, now, we have a unilateral concession on the part of Israel. "We're pulling out of Gaza. We'll get back to you in a couple months." This has been a source of consternation among the settlerist hardliners, as well as a source of suspicion among the Palestinians. But Hamas, of all groups, seems to be acting with surprised restraint right now. After this, the story isn't over, but Israel has restored a great deal of its credibility and political capital. It's true that the West Bank portion of this pullout was just four relatively small and isolated settlements, but they were settlements that were plunked right in the middle of a lot of Palestinian villages, and their removal restores contiguity to a lot of Palestinian territory. And much more importantly, the withdrawals from these four settlements and the seventeen in Gaza will prove that Israel has the willingness and the wherewithal to forcibly but nonviolently evacuate settlements, should that be placed on the table. It also provides an answer to questions of the form "Why should we trust that you will...?".

The first day of forced evacuation has gone as well as could be hoped. Here's hoping the rest go as well, and that both sides use this opportunity to move forward towards a sustainable, permanent resolution to the situation that will satisfy all sides.

You, O Lord, will keep us and preserve us always from this generation,
While about us the wicked strut and in high place are the basest of men. --Ps 12:8-9

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July 23, 2005

Balance of power

A few days ago I finished the book Balance of power, by Richard North Patterson. Without giving away any more than the book jacket, I'll summarise the plot as follows: a liberal President with an anti-gun agenda is handed an incident that maximises the sympathy and outrage of the American public along every imaginable axis, and yet it is still far from trivial to actually implement even the most commonsensical of gun control laws, due to powerful politicians and lobbies. As you might imagine.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Much better than the last few audio books I've gotten; I don't think there was any point in this one where I felt I was forcing myself to slog through. Indeed, much as with actual book books, good ones, I found myself unable to "put down" the book, popping CD after CD to find out what happens next.

But I think I can review it very concisely. To the extent that the function of a review is to tell its readers whether they'll like the thing reviewed, here's all I need to say: you will like or dislike this book exactly to the extent that, and for the same reasons that, you liked or disliked the first four seasons of The West Wing. Other than that, I don't really need to say anything (except maybe that I really liked the big speech, a masterpiece of persuasive oratory).

"He's just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. But that's what we get when Democrats run awful campaigns. Really, Democratic candidates should be more mindful of their responsibility to protect this country from their opponents." --Michael Kimmitt

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July 10, 2005

Legacy of 9/11

Among the lasting effects of the attacks of 9/11---and perhaps the most personally relevant for me, unfortunately---is a certain desensitisation. Despite rationally understanding the tragedy of the recent bombings in London, there is this nagging, horrible part of my brain saying things like, "what's the big deal? Only a few dozen dead." As if that makes it any less tragic, or any less terror-inducing.

I think that it was in fact less terror-inducing than 9/11, but for quite a different reason: Londoners, and Britons as a whole, have had much longer to become psychologically prepared for bombing attacks. The IRA's activities of a decade or two ago were certainly a textbook example of terrorism, and those bombings make today's residents of the UK a considerable bit more able to deal with the London attack without a lot of knee-jerk fear and power play. Not to mention the fact that even now a significant number of older Brits can remember the Battle of Britain, and even in the younger generations, the bombings of London play a notable role in the national psyche. So London, I think, will pick itself and move on sensibly---maybe with heightened security, but it will be security that actually helps, rather than just irritating and invasive measures that serve only to make people feel better. The effectiveness of 9/11 had at least as much to do with its novelty as with its scale.

All the same, though, there's that nasty little corner of my brain that is playing the numbers game. Not exactly one of my prouder moments.

"well I use triple-rot13 ... nyah nyah nyah" --Skapare

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June 12, 2005

Politics, religion, and morality (again)

It's been said in a variety of places that there is a natural alliance between leftist political groups and religious (or at least Christian) groups, regarding serving the poor, working for peace, and so on. I've said it myself, in fact.

What troubles me about such an alliance, however, is that in its own way it's just as bad as the alliance between the we-control-your-life rightists and Christian groups. Once again, they are using the machinery of politics to impose religious beliefs on everyone else; a tyranny of a (perhaps temporary, coalitional) majority.

And, truth be told, the reasons I support my various progressive causes are not at all religious. Religion is a reason for me personally to go out and help feed the hungry and help provide shelter for the homeless. (Something which I'm regretfully not very good at.) But if I say that the government should do those things for religious reasons, that's no good at all; it's a violation of the establishment clause, and just generally bad policy, since it would mean that a decrease in subscription to certain religions should decrease government services, which is madness.

No, I believe the government should be in the business of feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and so on, because the government's business is to serve the people. The imperative for the government to provide social services is not particularly a moral one; to the extent that government is not just of the people and by the people but also for the people, basic services like keeping people from having to eat cat food is just part of the job description.

The fact that good Christians should be helping out on the side is just gravy.

You can't legislate morality. When you try, it doesn't make people suddenly start making moral choices, whether they be to give food to a soup kitchen or decide not to have an abortion. It just takes the decision away from them; such people aren't acting morally, they're just tooling along in an amoral state, following the law because they fear punishment or literally can't do otherwise. If you give people real choices, sometimes hard ones, they will surely make mistakes; but only through those choices and, yes, those mistakes, can they graduate to the highest levels of moral decisionmaking.

"The radical criticism of the myth is due to the fact that the primitive mythological consciousness resists the attempt to interpret the myth of myth. It is afraid of every act of demythologization. It believes that the broken myth is deprived of its truth and of its convincing power." --Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

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June 11, 2005

Silencing dissent

Yesterday at the hearings on the reactivation of parts of the "Patriot" Act, the committee chairman---James Sensenbrenner---decided he didn't like what people were saying, and so without a motion to adjourn or any warning, he went on a three-minute rant and then declared the meeting over. When other committee members tried to question what he was doing, he cut their mikes. Heaven forbid that the American people get a full hearing about their worries that dissent is being silenced! The C-SPAN video of this disgraceful action is available at this site, along with a second clip showing what happened next: the rump committee continued the hearing, even with their mikes cut (C-SPAN had boom mikes, I think, but you can tell that the people in the room have to raise their voices to be heard).

"If [civil authorities] try to enforce spiritual conformity, and are successful, they have removed the risks and courage which belong to the act of faith." --Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

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June 06, 2005

Obama at Knox

Commencement was Saturday, and Senator Obama was the main speaker. God, he's a great orator. He also is, or has, an excellent speechwriter. But it's not just that; he can integrate stuff on the fly. The Knox website has a "transcript" that is pretty obviously just the intended speech (and not copyedited, at that, tsk tsk), but comparing that to the actual transcript is pretty impressive, as you can see how he made changes as he went, and if you listen to the video you can see that when he would misspeak on one word, he'd extemporaneously edit the rest of the sentence to match it.

After Obama's speech, and after the diplomas were distributed, Dan Lieberman gave the student speech. It was structured around a motif of "Hi mom!", "Hi faculty!", each one followed with some remarks thereto, and when he addressed the abovementioned orator, he turned around and said, "Hi, President Obama!" A brief gasp and then thunderous applause from the audience. Dan then coyly explained that he wanted to "try that out and see how it sounded"---more applause. Dan then directed the Senator to find under his seat Dan's résumé (it was actually there, Obama held it up to show the crowd), in the most shameless bit of job schmoozing I've ever seen. I hope it's effective; he'd be a great guy to get into politics.

Aside from these two excellent speeches, the ceremony was chiefly notable for the rain which didn't quite hold off. As the choir sang "How can I keep from singing", a perfectly serendipitous thunderclap accompanied the line "No storm can shake my inmost calm..." as grey clouds raced in to threaten. The platform party skipped a bunch of stuff to get to the diplomas in an effort to beat the rain, which failed, so all the graduates got a bit rained on. However, by the end of the list, the rain had stopped again, so we went back and picked up the earlier stuff we'd skipped, and indeed the weather then completely cleared. By the time we'd finished the recessional, it was sunny and warm again. Sigh.

At that point, I grabbed some food, said hi to a few people, and then ran off to my car to race up to Milwaukee. But that's for another post.

"If Christianity is to remain relevant in the United States, it has to emphasize a doctrine that has historically been important to the faith but has been much maligned in this past century: the efficacy of the conscience apart from the institutional church." --Chris Tessone

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June 02, 2005

The vicar of Wakefield

The book-on-tape that I just finished listening to over the weekend was something of a departure for me; normally I go for the suspenseful thriller mystery, since one of its chief goals will be to keep me awake and alert while driving. But this one struck my fancy anyway, billed as the first comedic novel written in English: The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, first published in 1766. And the voice actor's accent alone was worth the price of admission (which was free, but still); the novel itself was a little scattershot, but still a fun read. I was interested to note that the desire to tie up all the loose ends with a nice, happy little bow, currently billed as some sort of American weakness, was already alive and well in 18th-century England.

Indeed, I was pretty surprised at a lot of the ways in which this novel could have been written much more recently. Many turns of phrase were older than I thought, and aside from a leaning towards some now-less-used words like 'assiduity', there were very few places where the language of the novel would be out of place in modern Standard English. (Even the thees and thous seemed to be on their way out; I think by this point they were already restricted to intra-family conversation.) I was certainly pleased to note a bunch of split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions, the most delightful being in the second-to-last chapter: "She was now made an honest woman of." Magnificent.

But the most interesting parts of the book were when characters were having discussions about politics and society, many of which are just as applicable today as they were 240 years ago. On class and the accumulation of wealth:

An accumulation of wealth, however, must necessarily be the consequence when, as at present, more riches flow in from external commerce than arise from internal industry; for external commerce can only be managed to advantage by the rich, and they have also at the same time all the emoluments arising from internal industry; so that the rich, with us, have two sources of wealth, whereas the poor have but one. For this reason, wealth in all commercial states is found to accumulate, and all such have hitherto in time become aristocratical.
That's from Chapter 19. On the nature of punishment and the role of the state therein:
Then, instead of our present prisons, which find or make men guilty, which enclose wretches for the commission of one crime, and return them, if returned alive, fitted for the perpetration of thousands....
Chapter 22 has more on this theme, starting around page 224. Some of it, it's like he's looking through time at turn-of-the-21st-century America, and all of us that even existed then was a bunch of colonies across the sea.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Perhaps because of its familiarity in language and politics, it helps to show me just how different some other things were about life in 18th-century Britain.

What could we say? We're only twenty five years old,
with 25 sweet summers, and hot fires in the cold.
This kind of life makes that violence unthinkable;
we'd like to play hockey,
  have kids,
  and grow old.... --Moxy Früvous, "Gulf War Song"

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May 12, 2005

At least I don't send you chain mail

For your viewing pleasure: a really well-constructed flash animation on a certain topic of relevance.

Again, Rehnquist, et al. see, in microscopic fine print at the end of the fourth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution, the following phrase: "except in the case of enforcement of controlled substance laws." I don't know why this is, but it is. --Michael Kimmitt

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May 10, 2005

On work (and slack)

Monsignor Swetlund spoke today at Knox on the topic of work and social justice from a (Catholic) theological perspective. It was an interesting take on the issues, and I hope to work these ideas more into my own rhetoric. It really is a shame that liberals have as a group become so disdainful of religion---there is quite the natural alliance there.

He started off with an analysis of Genesis. Although people frequently say that work is part of the curse of the Fall, he pointed out that Man was created to work; it's just that work became toilsome after the Fall. Right from the start, though, God sets Adam to naming the animals, and grants dominion over them. This stewardship is not something to be taken lightly, and definitely counts as work. When Genesis says that man was created "in His image", the word that is used (S-L-M) is the same as for the statues of themselves that kings of the ancient era would place in their provincial capitals to remind people who was boss; the king's viceroys would be appointed to rule in his name, always reminded of the authority of the king. We are God's viceroys; over our own little slice of God's creation we hold dominion, and we are called to the responsible stewardship thereof. Part of that responsible stewardship is doing the work we are called to do---Catholics say we must follow our vocation.

And remember the third/fourth Commandment: "Six days you shall work." (There's also something about resting on the seventh in there.)

It's an interesting contrast to a creed held dear by a number of other people I know (not Christians): that the highest calling of Man is to slack. I'm pretty sure the idea was originally proposed in jest, but Church of the Subgenius and related traditions thought about it and realised that it's not so silly as it may at first sound. We work to pay the bills, but why let work steal our soul? Our humanity is found in the times when we are at leisure.

However, I'm not sure the two ideas are so much in opposition. I've heard a fair amount about slack from a friend of mine (he goes by "Reverend Jack" when he's ministering), and it strikes me that the chief characteristic of work that makes it not slack is the fact that the worker doesn't want to be doing it. If it's something you'd do anyway, then it doesn't seem to particularly count as "work" on the work-slack continuum. It can, however, count as work on the work-sloth continuum. So it really does strike me that the two systems are moderately compatible; meaning that the pinnacle of metaphysical place-finding would be to land a job that lets you do slackful work (or, alternatively, to have buckets of money and do slackful work, but that's harder to arrange). Which is just another way of saying "find a job doing what you love", which isn't very novel or surprising to anyone, I suppose.

But anyway.

After a fascinating rundown of the Catholic work ethic, the monsignor moved on to address the question of how this fits in to the larger issue of social justice. He framed it in linguistic terms, though I'm not sure he thought of it that way: work is a transitive action; it has both a subject and an object. The objective side of things is what we've already covered, regarding creativity and the (co-)creation of things both tangible and intangible. It's important that most members of a society produce more than they consume; that's what makes a society prosper. (He referred to himself as a notorious exception, since priests don't "produce" much, but I would disagree---it's just that his production is almost entirely in intangibles.)

As soon as you consider the subjective side, though, the social justice issues naturally fall out. Sure, this factory is producing lots of good things, but what about all the employees that are getting injured? Sure, this company improved its bottom line, but what about all the workers without health care? Sure, we're meeting our production quotas, but what about people that are working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks? Any complete discussion of the rights and duties of work must necessarily include these subjective components as well.

The bishops (and I wasn't clear on whether this was an American bishop thing or more widespread, but it's certainly consistent with the larger RCC position) laid out a three-point plan for reviewing any work decision, whether at the company level or at the public policy level:

  1. What will it do to people?
  2. What will it do for people?
  3. How will it affect the least well-off in society?
If you can't come up with a satisfactory answer to all three, you should be rethinking your decision.

The Genesis theology that justified the duty to work also justifies a right to work; Man was made to work, the reasoning goes, and we should make it our business to help enable that. What is it, exactly, that people have against "make-work" programs? The very term is loaded with negative connotations, yet few declaim the many achievements of New Deal programs that had the government paying people to build parks and roads and bridges and monuments. Many of them still exist in reasonably good shape today. While certainly not appropriate for everyone on welfare (and it would be a disaster if this sort of work were required of everyone on welfare), it might make a lot of people more fulfilled if they could actually do work they could take pride in. I mean, it might be hard to feel fulfilled if the fruits of their labour did not contribute to corporate profits, but I'm sure they'd find a way.

Msgr Swetlund closed with two (unfortunately-)controversial points:

  • We have a duty not just to see that all people work, but that they be paid a just, living wage. That means paying them enough money to keep a small family above the poverty line; despite all the corporate barons that cry whenever people demand a raise in the minimum wage, it still is quite a bit less than any reasonable living wage. In Champaign County, in order to support a family of four at just the poverty line, working 40 hours a week, a worker needs to make $9.25 an hour, and that's if health care is included on top of that. It would easily break $10 in a big city like Chicago, and yet the national minimum wage is still just $5.15. (Happily, the state has raised our minimum wage to $6.50---that's progress, but it's still not enough.)

    And of course the barons cry: right now, all the growth and prosperity goes straight into their pockets. In 1980, the average CEO made 42 times what an average worker made. Now they make more than 500 times what the average worker makes.** Think about that every time they say companies can't afford to pay their workers....

  • Americans work way too much. Even when you exclude the French with their famously short weeks and long vacations, we work a lot more than other first world nations. In 1973, we worked about 40.6 hours a week on average. Now it's more than 50.*** On average. And while in 1977, dual-income couples worked a collective 70 hours a week, they now work 82; and if they have kids, the numbers go up rather than down: the average dual-income couple with children now works 91 hours a week. We've gotta fix that.

"Leisure," said Msgr Swetlund, "is the basis of culture. Not work." Sounds like slack to me.

Thing I need to investigate further: There is a economic philosophy called "Economy of communion" that has apparently been used to great effect in some third world countries. The idea is, you convert a held company to a co-op, and profits get split in thirds, with one third each going back to the company (as capital improvement), to the workers, and to the community. Because this is a philosophy and not a legal definition, co-op leaders are able to use judgement and discretion, as when a Brazilian co-op used part of the "workers" money to hire an on-site doctor, vastly improving the local health care situation, or when the same co-op took one day a week for its workers to build houses, Habitat-for-Humanity-style, to replace the shantytowns that people were living in until then. Healthy, happy workers are vastly more productive, so this sort of model really is viable.

Other thing I need to investigate: evidently, Pope John Paul II wrote a number of plays in his younger days. One, titled "My God's Brother", is a rather subversive (for postwar Poland) dialogue between a Marxist, who wanted to help the poor by overthrowing the government, and a Christian, who wanted to help the poor by, y'know, helping the poor. The icing on the cake is that the Marxist turns out to be Satan in disguise. This is about how I feel about the anti-choice activists that spend all their time, talent, and treasure on making it illegal, as opposed to those few* that actually work at providing good, free prenatal care and other support services for the unexpectedly pregnant.

* By "few" here, I'm referring to those who are anti-choice and work to support the unexpectedly pregnant. I know lots of people who provide material support towards prenatal services, but strangely enough, most of them don't want abortion to be illegal. By their fruits ye shall know them, eh? In many parts of the country, Planned Parenthood is still the only place women can go for cheap or free prenatal care.

** Said he; I'm getting between 300 and 419, 300, and 458, depending on who you check and exactly when they were calculating, but the point stands regardless, eh?

*** Not sure where he got these numbers, and don't have time to chase them down. So, grain of salt and all that.

"It strikes me that Bauer's guess was pretty lucky--I have two axes in my garage but have yet to inscribe either with the word "axe." But hey, when the high priest tells me, "Inscribe the word 'axe' on this axe, chop-chop," I'm not about to wait around for him to axe me politely." --bibliophage

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April 13, 2005

"A gentle, firm, sensible lecture"

An extended quote from an article on the British monarchy in this weeks USN&WR ("Family Drama", by Michael Korda, himself a Brit):

Nobody who has listened to President Bush ranting about cutting Social Security benefits or lowering taxes for the rich can doubt that it would do him no harm if he had to listen at regular intervals over a cup of tea to a gentle, firm, sensible lecture about social responsibility from somebody like the queen, who, for all her faults, is very conscious that the poor and the humble are as much her subjects as is the Duke of Devonshire. Prime ministers as powerful as Gladstone, Disraeli, and the Marquess of Salisbury complained that their palms grew sweaty and their knees trembled before their regular "chats" with Queen Victoria, whose stern common sense and careful moral judgment made her a formidable interlocutor. Those who know Queen Elizabeth II say that she is every bit as sharp and formidable as her great-great-grandmother. Indeed, recent photographs of the queen not only show a certain resemblance to Victoria---the frown, the turned-down corners of the mouth, the beady eyes, the expression of barely concealed impatience ("We are not amused")---but make it clear how unnerving it would be to explain to her a policy with which she disagreed.

There's the solution! I wonder if they're accepting applications for readmission.

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April 02, 2005

Search and seizure in action

Submitted to the Register-Mail last Sunday:

Last week, you printed an article titled ``Drug sweep at ROWVA negative''. Results aside, I was quite disappointed to learn of the circumstances of the search. According to the article, the search ``was not triggered by any specific knowledge of drug activity at the school.''

I won't dispute the fact that this is technically legal. It has been repeatedly demonstrated in our courts that minors do not benefit from the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution. The superintendent did indeed have the legal ability to spring such searches on his students.

That's not to say I think they're legitimate.

How can any ROWVA teacher now keep a straight face when teaching that in this country, our Fourth Amendment protects us from arbitrary search and seizure? That police need to demonstrate cause before they can get a warrant to search your property? Seen from the eyes of a 16-year-old, an intrusive locker search---when the searchers themselves admit you've done nothing suspicious---starts to look an awful lot like a bunch of redcoats going through all the houses in the village, fishing for contraband.

Either we are doing a poor job at teaching our kids about their fundamental liberties, or else we are doing an excellent job at teaching them that freedom is something that looks good on paper but is too impractical to actually do more than pay lip service to.

Published verbatim in today's paper, aside from introducing a grammatical error.

"Terrorists think they can attack us with conventional weapons? Listen up, Osama: I don't care how long you plan, I don't care how far you go, there's no way you can kill more Americans with your guns than we already do with our own." --Lewis Black

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March 31, 2005

Finally.

I'm irritated at all the self-righteous windbagging that has gone on, that brought me psychologically to the point where my only reaction when a person dies is, "finally!" That just shouldn't be. Relief, yes; there are certainly cases out there where the end comes as a blessed release from the suffering of a painful life. The current case started out that way.

But the blogs, the newspapers, the televisions, the churches, the political meetings, and just about every damn other place you turn, they've all taken this poor woman's situation and blown it into a full-on proxy war about everything from abortion to health care, when really all it ever was was an unfortunate family dispute regarding whether a spouse has total decision-making capability for the mentally unfit (or mentally departed, as the case may be). I was---we all were, I think---getting so sick of it. There was a dread in the pit of my stomach that a feeding tube would be reinserted at the 11th hour, a cruel and unusual treatment dragging the whole mess out for months or years more.

Now, it's over. I have no illusions that the publicity will stop, but I can hope that at least the rancour will settle down a bit, and it will become a more civil debate. And politicians will have to stop using it as a smokescreen for whatever new crap they're pulling this week.

"It's like the pull-out-and-pray method of birth control--really, it's one of the most sinful methods of birth control because it sucks at preventing unwanted babies, and the point of Catholic dogma is that life should be desired, not that our methods of preventing life must be shoddy." --Jonathan Prykop

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January 18, 2005

More King

Following up on yesterday's post:

When looking for a quote that was used in a speech, the best tactic is really just to email the speaker. This netted me the quote I liked so much from yesterday's session; from an article Martin Luther King Jr. submitted to the Morehouse Maroon Tiger in 1947:

Education must... train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one's self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

Great, huh? The quote's 55 years old and he could have said it yesterday. Actually, just go ahead and read the whole thing; it's not very long.

And on the topic of the holiday itself, I refer you to today's Frazz. Great comic strip. It's like he reads my mind sometimes.

"After that things start to deteriorate: you get into Macroeconomics (feel free to skip this if you want) with its interesting theories about things like the relationship of interest rates to unemployment which, er, seem to be disproven more often than they are proven, and after that it just gets worse and worse and a lot of econ majors switch out to Physics, which gets them better Wall Street jobs, anyway." --Joel Spolsky

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January 17, 2005

Martin Luther King

The standard model for schools observing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, much like that for Columbus Day, Veteran's Day, George Washington's birthday, and a host of state-level observances, is to take the day off school and sleep in.

The only one of these that Knox observes at all is MLK Day, and its mode of observing it is so much better than the standard one that I wish every school would adopt it. (This would not be very popular with kids, although working parents might actually like it a lot.) We don't get the day off, you see. We actually observe the holiday.

The six regular class periods are adjusted to 45 minutes each, to make room for a two-hour block in the middle of the day. During that time, a convocation is hosted in the main college auditorium, with music, speeches, and poetry on relevant subjects---in this case equality and multiculturalism. There were some great speeches; MLK was really a brilliant guy, and though we remember who we was generally, our day-to-day knowledge of him is as two-dimensional as our knowledge of a lot of other historical figures. But if we're going to honour him with a big ol' holiday, maybe it should be something more?

And his writings are complex. "I have a dream" gets a lot of play, of course, but at least as much as his multicultural message, King had a lot to say about nonviolence. In some ways, it was more central to his thinking than anything else. And the best quote of the day by far---I wish I could track down the exact wording---was something from way back when he was an undergrad at Morehouse, writing about the importance of education in critical thinking and analysis to understanding the important issues of the day. Who talks about that on a day to day basis?

Think, how much more culturally aware and thoughtful would we be if our holidays were less about getting the day off, and more about contemplating the issues surrounding the subject of the day?

"Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can't do anything about that." --Joel Spolsky

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December 06, 2004

More news on the voting front

Apparently someone's just blown the whistle on an actual vote fraud operation commissioned in 2000 and put in place for the vote this year in southern Florida. The details, if true, are pretty damning; vote fraud, murder, espionage... It's basically confirmation of exactly what we were fearing would happen. I hope it's not true, but the posted affidavit is sworn under penalty of perjury, etc, etc, and the FBI is now investigating.

Thanks to Lee for the heads-up.

"A God who can harness the laws of randomness and chaos, and create beauty and wonder and all of these marvelous structures, is a lot more creative than fundamentalists give him credit for." --Richard Colling

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November 07, 2004

A modern "districting"

Here's a totally wild idea I wanted to throw out there. Right now most jurisdictions have some sort of geographically-based districting, with each district electing some number of representatives. Other common systems include at-large representation (all representatives elected by the entire jurisdiction) or party list representation (where each party submits a list of candidates, which are then "elected" in proportion to that party's share of the vote---this is common in Europe).

All of these methods have a tendency to marginalise certain voters. What if people could change the district they were in?

A bit of thought dragged this idea to its logical conclusion, which actually is relatively robust, I think. Each jurisdiction has, instead of N districts, N representative groups. Each group elects one representative. Every person belongs to exactly one representative group, of their choosing. People can change groups at any time (possibly with some logistical restriction on frequency of changing). That's it! No further restrictions.

The first objection I came up with: what about keeping districts the same size? Totally not a problem. If the system gets a rep group with too few people and another with too many, the one with too many can easily migrate half of its people over to the small group, effectively taking it over.

So what about the small groups that get taken over? They build coalitions in order to securely maintain one rep group.

With respect to third parties, this sort of system would enable them to form more easily as a rep group of like-minded people that can successfully elect a representative from that party.

With respect to existing parties, there would undoubtedly be a significant number of rep groups that map fairly well to the existing parties; but well-known fault lines would probably be reflected by having e.g. one of the Democrat rep groups be anti-choice.

Minorities of race, gender, and culture that felt it important to be represented by one of their own could easily form a rep group to make it happen.

What about the things the old geodistricting was good at? Rural districts really do sometimes share concerns that the urban ones don't; and there would almost certainly be many rep groups that were dominantly one or the other.

Essentially, the system is maximally flexible to reflect the up-to-date current political fault lines. It's in a representative's best interest to represent their constituency well, because otherwise they will drift off to other rep groups, leaving this one ripe for a takeover by some other group with their own candidate. Or maybe they'll stay here and just elect someone better. When not actively performing a takeover, it's in a citizen's best interest to join the rep group with the candidate most closely aligned to them (both in outlook and priorities), because then they can help to protect that representative from a rep group takeover and exert some influence over them as well.

In terms of implementation, the chief difficulties are in keeping track of membership of the rep groups and in managing elections. The former is only incrementally harder than maintaining voter rolls now. The latter is a little trickier, but not hard if we move to machines that actually print the ballot in addition to helping you vote---the machine can print the ballot appropriate to your rep group(s).

So, there it is. Neat idea, huh?

"'No Scrubs,' TLC. It begins with a definition. It has axioms. It makes inferences. How cool is that?!" --Annemarie Peil

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November 05, 2004

Framing the debate

Over the past several years, I have witnessed a slow-growing realisation among liberals and progressives that much of the gains the neo-cons have made can be directly traced to the terminology they introduced into the national debate. By "framing" the issues in such a way that certain things are presupposed, they win the debate before it even starts. For instance, by grabbing the term "pro-life", people trying to make abortion illegal assert that everyone else is "anti-life", and by letting them do that, the pro-choicers concede the point. It also helps to conceal the fact that there are a lot of other life-related issues that many anti-choice activists do much worse on. Another example is, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the stupid debate between whether homosexuality is genetic or a choice. It presupposes that homosexuality is bad, and that gay people are either choosing badly or just dealt a bad hand, and the debate is lost before it starts.

But that's all been slow in developing. What I've seen just in the last three days since the election, is the sudden realisation from many different sides that liberal and progressive causes need to specifically attack the assertion that the bigoted viewpoints are more moral. Not just "we ought to re-frame the abortion debate... somehow" but "we must cast it as morally wrong to deny a woman the choice that God Himself granted her". Not just "we ought to re-frame the marriage rights debate... somehow" but "we must cast it as morally wrong to deny life partners the right to visit each other in the hospital".

Seriously, I'm seeing this on nearly every liberal or progressive forum I read. It's almost completely out of the blue, and for its sudden prominence we can thank the fact that fifty million people demonstrated that they care more about things framed in moral terms than anything else---it became more important to deny two men the right to leave each other money in their wills than to fund our schools, keep people healthy, or stop killing people.

"It is WRONG to rule through fear. Not in some abstract or removed god-says sort of way, but rather in that visceral experiential way showing us again and again that the fruit of fear is tyranny." --Jonathan Prykop

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November 03, 2004

Predictions

In the next four years...

  • Republicans float a proposal for the repeal of the 22nd amendment---term limits. No prediction on the outcome.
  • The US will unilaterally invade Iran.
  • The US make no progress with North Korea.
  • Democrats and independent pollwatchers find credible evidence of voter fraud in at least one location that would have brought one state back into play. It is dismissed as sour grapes and no consequences result.
  • Nothing further is heard about anti-gay legislation until Spring of '06 or possibly Spring of '08, then an amendment to restrict marriage rights is again floated, primarily to embarrass Democrats.
  • 5,000 American dead in Iraq, 2,000 in Iran. US Military base established in eastern Kurdistan.
  • Military draft is formally proposed, but rejected; bases worldwide are dismantled to support Middle East campaign.
  • International reputation of the US continues to sour; EU begins drafting proposal to maintain coordinated troops to reduce US/NATO reliance.
  • FTAA is established. Jobs begin to bypass Mexico and go straight to El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Central American nations.
  • No significant Democrat power players come from New England or the West Coast.

I really hope not a single one of them comes true.

"When I was an altar boy, the most coveted job was to be "thurifer," or incense hassler. This job was great because you got to light the charcoal in the thurible (incense burner) before the service, which gave my natural desire to play with matches a religious significance that I still feel when lighting coals in the Weber." --Cecil Adams

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Where to from here?

The final gap in Ohio between Kerry and Bush will probably be somewhat narrower than its current 135K, but it certainly appears that the advantage will remain to Bush.

But it bothers me, as it has always bothered me, that if Kerry concedes then a lot of votes will never be counted. Just how many of the provisional ballots will turn out to have been valid? What about all the military ballots that haven't even arrived yet, that 90% of the commentators don't even seem to be aware of?

Both of these numbers can tell us a great deal. If the provisional ballots break strongly for Kerry (even if they don't bridge the gap!), then we have to ask a lot of hard questions about why so many more Kerry voters than Bush voters were nearly disenfranchised. And then we have to ask how many people who could have requested a provisional were not aware of that opportunity or were discouraged from taking it (as I have heard anecdotal evidence of in Illinois).

If the military ballots break strongly for Kerry, then it tells us a lot about how the soldiers on the ground feel about the way the war is being run.

On the other hand, even if it were to turn out that Ohio went to Kerry, or anything else that eventually turned the election to Kerry, there's a really big problem we need to address: by all accounts, half this country voted for someone who approves of the death penalty and torture, who has prosecuted a war under false pretences and continues to intentionally mislead the American people as to its rationale, who has converted a stable national surplus to the largest deficits ever, and who has explicitly and repeatedly told the whole rest of the world to kiss off (except when they're providing cheap offshore labour to increase CEO profits and steal jobs). And who pushes a national security agenda which, while still far from anything truly fascist, bears enough similarities to the authoritarian states of the last century to give one pause for thought.

Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, we need to think long and hard about why an awful lot of people are demanding to be ruled very badly.

"If it were up to me, Riffany, I would have liked to see it end in compulsory couples ballroom. You expect blood in sudden-death armorball, but it's so much more vivid when it's dealt during a foxtrot." --Schlock Mercenary, Howard Tayler

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November 01, 2004

The duty to vote

Much has been made lately about the citizen's duty to vote. Or rather, there's been a lot of encouragement for people to vote, with no reference whatsoever to any sort of duty. This is unfortunate.

In response to these, there's been a bit of a backlash against the "just go vote" type of campaigns; specifically, a lot of people are irritated that people are being encouraged to vote even if they're uninformed. This backlash has on occasion (not as part of any widespread campaign) gone so far as to say that those who aren't well-informed about the issues should not vote. This is also unfortunate.

As I see it, citizens of a democratic government have two very important duties: to inform themselves, and to vote. Crucially, though, I do not link these two; the duty to vote is no less present if one is uninformed, and failing to learn about the issues does not let you off the hook for voting.

The reason I carefully formulate it in this way is that we have no test for whether people are actually informed. Nor should we, of course, as there is no feasible means for such a test, and it would instantly devolve into a poll tax/literacy test situation anyway. But because there is no such test, a lot of uninformed people end up going out to vote. And I would posit that anyone who is conscientious enough to have the thought---even in passing---that "perhaps I'm not sufficiently well-informed to cast a vote", they are already better informed and more thoughtful than at least a third of the population, and at least ten percent (at a bare minimum) of actual voters.

At the same time, this knowledge that they need to vote whether they're informed or not should not decrease the relevance of informing themselves. And if an uninformed person goes and votes, that just means they have neglected one duty rather than two. For democracy to work, its populace needs to work at understanding the issues and electing representatives that actually represent rather than just having pretty campaign literature.

But for the love of God, don't stay home just because you wish you were better informed. Learn what you can from places like vote-smart.org, go vote, and just try to do a little better next time.

"My impression is that just about every damn thing you can think of makes the baby Jesus cry. The little wanker should grow some thicker skin already." --Chris Sedlack

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October 30, 2004

Lazy day

I haven't left the house today except to walk the dog.

I feel kinda bad, because the Knox County Dems were running a bunch of last-weekend-before-the-election stuff, and I was going to go help them out. But it's so hard to get myself motivated on that, when the fed elections are all pretty well set---Evans in the 17th, Obama in Illinois, and Kerry for IL's electoral votes. And the local ones, which are just as important and on which I could have even more influence, I can't bring myself to care about. *sigh*

Instead, I slept until noon and spent the rest of the day doing laundry, cleaning, and typing in a couple of knitting patterns. Now I'm going to sit here and watch three hours of animation. Time well spent. :)

"Wait, vegans won't eat honey!?!? I mean, for goodness sake, they're bees. There are trees that are higher on the evolutionary scale than bees." --Jonathan Prykop

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October 09, 2004

Debate redux

Once again, Bush's debate voice was best characterised as "guys, you gotta believe me!" Not very presidential. Others have noticed, of course, and I just wish some of the more mainstream media pundits would point it out.

His debate face was a bit better this time around. Clearly, someone told him he had to stop smirking and looking impatient; almost as clearly, he took lessons in this from his wife, whose long-time approach to this is to appear utterly (perhaps udderly) vacant.

Someone needs to fill in W on modern computing terminology, though. I mean, "there's a rumour on the inter-nets"? Has he not used a computer in the last ten years? Heck, forget using a computer; I'd think that general media exposure, even for illiterates, would use the word "Internet" often enough that pretty much everyone but the mountain hermits would know it by now.

Kerry, for his part, seemed a bit restrained. He made a few good points, as with the "we did something they've been unable to do---balance the budget" line. However, there were never any really powerful zingers. In fact, he was handed two golden opportunities by his opponent, which he totally passed up.

Early in the debate, Bush made reference to Kerry's "global test", as we all knew he would. Kerry should have been ready, as soon as that was said, to start his rebuttal with some variant of: "Oh, weren't you paying attention the other night? I explained my global test then, but I'll revisit it now..." The spin of that whole thing, condensing a whole paragraph of explanation into its two least representative words, is an inexcusable bit of campaign 'strategery' from the Bush camp, and making Bush out as if he wasn't paying attention had every potential to be another "There you go again" or "You're no Jack Kennedy".

Later, in one of the last questions, Bush went on and on about his "Culture of Life". I don't remember whether this was in response to abortion or stem-cell research. But when Kerry got his 30-second extension, Kerry should have immediately dropped the proximate topic and ripped Bush a new one: "Culture of Life? Culture of Life? This from the man who supports increasing the use of the death penalty, sends thousands of men and women to their deaths with no plan or purpose served, refuses to fund any sort of realistic health care initiative for children, the elderly, or indeed anyone at all. Ladies and gentlemen, we can talk about a culture of life, but this man shows no consistent support for quality of life or even the preservation of life. Do not believe his lies."

Overall, though, I think the debate went well. Bush rambled a bunch, using the same old phrases we've heard before, and there was a fair amount of not answering the question on both sides. But the questions were excellent, and the moderator was at least somewhat good at pressing the candidates when they dodged a question. I'm not a fan of the "town hall" format where random people are picked and then they ask a question, because there's a lot of not-really-a-question questions and general grandstanding. But having an impartial moderator select questions from 200 or so written by audience members, that gives us the best of both worlds.

Also, I just noticed as my dog was sitting on my lap that some of his whiskers have split ends. So cute!

"People do what they want to do. Corollary: When people do things, it's because they want to do them. This philosophy saves me a lot of time that would otherwise be wasted on trying to figure out other people's motives." --Casey Westerman

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October 01, 2004

NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION

That was certainly the high point. Kerry got asked what the biggest security threat was, and BAM he answered. He got Bush to agree that nuclear proliferation was the biggest threat, and totally laid out the ways in which Bush has failed to deal with it.

Overall, I think the debate went fairly well on both sides, actually, but to the extent that anyone "wins" these things, it had to go to Kerry. Bush's tone from start to finish kept making me thinking he was about to add, "c'mon guys! you gotta believe me!" He got increasingly panicky through the evening. There were several times he delivered lines that clearly seemed designed to make the audience laugh, except of course they'd been carefully instructed not to make any sound in response to the debate, so these lines fell completely flat.

My only cringe moment for Kerry was when he totally misused the word "cohort". Then a little while later he used the word "severalfold", and that was cool enough that I mostly forgave him.

The item of the evening that Bush kept trying to push was that Kerry was inconsistent in his stance on the war (though he avoided the word "flip-flop"). Regardless of whether it was true (and it's not), Kerry really won this battle, because he outlined a short, concise statement of his position, and each time it came up he reiterated this and gave a different supporting point. Bush's only response was, "but he was inconsistent!" No support. Hey, if you say it often enough, maybe it'll become true!

Another point Bush was hammering, and rightly so, was Libya. Considering it might be the one and only true success in his whole little war, Bush has taken long enough to realise that he needs to dwell on it. On the other hand, he was certainly beating that drum enough tonight.

Now, back to writing my exam....

"I would say that participants in this discussion would be well-served to read "Ideology and Utopia" by Karl Mannheim, but no one here ever takes book recommendations seriously, preferring instead to argue from existing bases of knowledge and assumptions that don't overlap, so I won't." --Michael Feltes

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September 16, 2004

Mandatory reading

Long-time readers of my blog (both of them) know that from time to time, I run across something so important, or outrageous---often both---that I require all my readers to look at it. I don't do it very often, or I would just irritate people. But once again I have found something that I find it extremely important for everyone to read, and pass around, and show their friends. Thus, "mandatory reading".

Everyone knows that the Republican National Convention was in New York City a few weeks ago, and most know that there were protests. Peaceful protests. On the Sunday before the convention a half a million people participated in a violence-free march protesting the President and his policies. Smaller groups continued with gatherings and marches during the week.

Unfortunately, those people lost the benefit of numbers, and during the week the NYPD arrested hundreds and hundreds of people whose only crime was---gasp!---walking on the sidewalk. Or listening to someone on a soapbox. At last count over 1,800 people were arrested; many were held for more than 24 hours in horrible conditions.

But don't take my word for it. You need to read this account from someone who was there, including pictures and videos. I can't adequately stress how important it is to publicise accounts like this without sounding like a fringe crank, and that in itself may be indicative of how important I think it is.

There are other accounts, too. Look around. My friend Zach was there, too. Look around the various IndyMedia sites for more first-hand accounts. Don't let the mainstream media's total failure to cover this major event let you think that it never happened.

"They're called sweetbreads for the obvious reason that if you called them thymus glands or whatever you couldn't give the damn things away. The art of euphemism goes back a long way." --Cecil Adams

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September 13, 2004

On flip-flopping

I'm getting sick of hearing the word "flip-flop" over and over again. It is used to mean a lot of different things, and not all of them are bad (though all are painted with the same brush when that word is used).

It just happens, from time to time, that someone with an honestly-held, well-considered opinion is presented with fresh information---or at least a fresh perspective---and after some further consideration, changes their mind. It's the mark of a thoughtful person leading an examined life. To act otherwise is to live in unreasoning stubbornness. Calling this sort of thing a "flip-flop" is a disservice; we want people to be always thinking critically and to never be so attached to a certain view that they will hold it to the point of absurdity.

It also happens, for most of us, that there are some issues that we just don't care about that much. Or maybe we care, but we're still undecided. It seems to me that for a politician in this position, an entirely reasonable course of action would be to poll carefully and take the stance supported by a broad majority of the electorate---at least until some further evidence comes up that might support a different view (see previous paragraph). We clearly don't want a politician whose entire worldview is blown by the prevailing winds, but I'm not sure that simply following constituents is necessarily bad, in moderation. I remain somewhat partial to the politicians who actually deep-down agree with me, but the poll-followers can at least make a claim to being representative.

The kind of flip-flopping that's really problematic is when a politician holds one belief but flat-out lies about it, saying one thing in public speeches but doing another when constructing budgets, ruling committees, or otherwise exerting authority. For the all-too-large segment of the voting public that will believe what is said in the speeches (which they agree with) and never hear what is actually done (which they would disagree with), this sort of thing undermines the basic fabric of the democratic process. Now, some blame might lie in the person who neglects to fact-check, or the media that neglect to report, but dwelling on that is counterproductive; the lion's share of the blame lies on the shoulders of the lying politician.

It can be hard to tell, absent context, which sort of "flip-flop" is occurring in any given case, if all you have is a simple "before" and "after" snapshot. The first and second sorts of "flip-flop" are hard to tell apart in any case, but if you look at the bigger picture they are both characterised by a basically consistent profession of one belief, leading up to some point in time from which all subsequent declarations are of the new belief. The third tends to be accompanied by a lot of back-and-forth, playing both sides, saying one thing and doing another over and over again. As the first two are basically honest behaviours and the last is a basically lying sort of behaviour, they're sort of incompatible; people who change their mind or blow in the breeze are likely to do so on more than one issue, and people who try to blatantly snow the public are not going to restrict their deceit to just one issue. So it is instructive, not just to look at long-term patterns within an issue, but also to seek patterns across a politician's entire platform.

There are three kinds of flip-flops: the considered change of mind, the populist poll-follow, and the out-and-out lie. Kerry might do either the first or the second, but Bush is a coarse flip-flopper of the third kind.

"It used to be sad that the Republican Party couldn't find more black candidates. Now it's tragic." --Brent Spillner

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September 12, 2004

Shenanigans!

I call shenanigans on the whole damn Bush campaign. It turns out that Illinois wasn't the only one they blew off a deadline for: they did it in Florida, too.

They knew perfectly well that having a September convention would make them miss deadlines, and they just didn't care. They knew that if the Dems tried to call them on it, they could cry "technicality!" and in the end the Dems would look bad. I'm annoyed that they think the Rule of Law doesn't apply to them, and I'm appalled that they appear to be correct. (Meanwhile the other parties are trying to follow the law, and being beat back with thoughtful arguments like, "oh, you're not a real party anyway.") I bet this doesn't even make the national media, just like the Illinois kerfuffle stayed mostly local. I wonder how many other states this is going on in....

"I pity the bacterium who lands on MY chili." --Eva Sweeney

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September 02, 2004

Ongoing madness

My cable was out last night, and so I was unable to watch the RNC speeches. At the time, I was disappointed, because I wanted to follow them. Reading some of the transcripts, it's probably just as well; I may have saved myself an apoplectic fit or two. Rhetoric and propaganda are one thing, and if they have a place at all, it's certainly political conventions. But they just keep making statements that are demonstrably untrue! That is, lying.

Zell Miller's speech deserves especial attention. The main thrust of his arguments seem to be that A) Kerry is unpatriotic to even run for president against Bush in these turbulent times, B) the Democrats are even more unpatriotic for supporting him, and C) anyone who protests against the current administration is damn near treasonous. We have many words for countries where those sentiments prevail, but "first world" and "democracy" are not among them.

'To my selective hearing, however, the mom's sales pitch sounded like: "Gush, gush, gush, cat urine, gush, gush, cat urine, gush, gush, gush, the urine of the cats, gush, gush, missing puzzle piece, gush, gush, gush, bowel obstruction, gush, gush, gush, $2,000 for kitty surgery, gush gush."' --Burt Constable

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August 19, 2004

Alan Keyes is a

I'm not sure what to call him; no name I can think of really seems adequate. Much has been made of his "carpetbagger" comment with reference to Hillary Clinton; it demonstrates an inconsistency of thought, but I don't hold his Maryland residency against him. He's a poor choice to represent Illinois, not because he doesn't live here, but because he's way out on the right-wing fringe, even allowing for the rightward movement of the Republican Party in the last couple decades.

Recently he suggested that descendants of slaves should receive reparations from the US government. (He's already played the blacker-than-thou card at Obama, pointing out that Obama's father was African, not African-American, so I can only assume his reparations scheme involves some complicated red tape to only compensate the real descendants of slaves.) His "thoroughly conservative, thoroughly consistent Republican" scheme involves making the reparations through tax breaks. And you know what? He's right, it is conservative and Republican---it keeps the money in the hands of the rich. Nobody else seems to have pointed this out, but if the reparations are in the form of tax breaks, the lion's share will go to those who have already climbed (or been helped) out of poverty into the middle class. Exactly those folks who least need it.

He's claimed that the 9/11 attacks were a sign from God that we should stop committing abortions. Lest this seem like it totally comes from left field (you think?), he claims that both terrorism and abortion show a "disregard for the claims of innocent human life", so when we fight terrorism we should notice this inconsistency and, presumably, ban abortion or something. It's not clear whether Keyes regards the fundamentalist Muslim terrorists of the 9/11 attacks to be actually sent by God, or what---he's avoided answering that question!

I do have to say, though, that when he does choose to answer questions he is fairly articulate. I'm looking forward to seeing Obama and Keyes debate; hopefully they will be able to keep them contentful. We'll see.

"Wiggling is almost always the correct solution to hardware problems." --Zach Miller

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August 05, 2004

Andrea Zinga

Today at 1, the Republican candidate for the 17th Congressional district of Illinois came to speak at the gazebo downtown. Perhaps fifteen people came, including a few members of the press. I was hoping to get her to talk about NAFTA, but her remarks were restricted to two burning issues of the day: abortion rights and marriage rights (she's against both).

Speaking on abortion, she pulls in a clever rhetorical device: she compared the common pro-life/pro-choice stance to an argument on slavery. Apparently, in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen Douglas said he was "personally opposed to slavery" but didn't want to impose his views on others. Meanwhile, Lincoln took a stand, etc, etc. She then riffed for a while on humanity and life; her closing statement was, "I stand strongly for this most fundamental of American principles---life." This, of course, is one of the great rhetorical devices of all time, adopted by the anti-choice movement, to state that they are for life, and by implication that their opponents are against it. The whole thing was so vague and fluffy, and failed to state any concrete positions on any specific thing, that it was pretty hard to argue against.

I did at least ask one question, which was: settting aside the legality of the thing, it's certainly good to make abortion rare, and to that end, what was her stance on reproductive education? She said she was for it, but what she actually meant by reproductive education was (I'm not even kidding) programs that put an emphasis on girls' self-worth, thus encouraging them not to get pregnant. She also commented that the teen pregnancy rate was down slightly, and that she thought abstinence was more popular among teens these days.

The second half of her remarks was about same-sex marriage; she took as given that it was bad, of course, so her remarks mostly addressed so-called "judicial activism". She spent quite a bit of time explaining how rarely she thought the Constitution should be amended (which is good), so her way of addressing this issue is to pass one amendment (huh?) which prevents the judicial branch from doing anything unpopular. She calls it the "Checks and Balances Restoration Amendment"; I've posted the whole thing in the 'continue reading' part below, but the gist is that a 3/5 vote of the Senate can overturn any ruling made by the Supreme Court (or any ruling appealed to the SC but denied certiorari).

She claims that she's the first to come up with it, although I could've sworn this isn't the first place I heard of it; in any case, it seems to be carefully crafted to the marriage rights question. She points out that it could not have overturned Dred Scott, or Roe v Wade, or a hypothetical judgement of unconstitutionality of McCain-Feingold, because of lack of consensus. It would (she claims) enable the Senate to overturn the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that marriage can not constitutionally be restricted to mixed-sex couples. If that's even true, it's due to careful crafting---that's why they'd use 3/5, because I'm fairly sure 3/4 or even 2/3 would not be attainable on this issue.

I really wanted to ask her opinion on the role of the judicial branch in protecting minorities from the tyranny of the majority, but I couldn't formulate the question fast enough. I think she and her handlers realised that the only questions were coming from opponents (one from me, two from the county Democratic Party chair), and they'd better close up shop before they got a really hard one.

Oh, and in related news, the Washington State DOMA has been ruled unconstitutional, pending further review by the state Supreme Court. It's not in the mainstream press yet (I only heard about it when Zinga mentioned it!), but it should be there by tonight, I think.

"With a track record like that you'd think conservatives would be lying low, hoping no one would notice them. But no. They're still out and about, making a lot of noise and telling the rest of us how to live our lives. That's what makes us a free country, I guess, the freedom not merely to make a mistake but to repeat it, endlessly." --Donald Kaul

Full text of the "Checks and Balances Restoration Amendment":

Upon application by a simple majority of the House of Representatives to the Senate, the upper chamber must review any decision by the Supreme Court or any other federal court where appeal has been made to the Supreme Court and denied or given no response within six months after such appeal was filed, or by any state or local court when such decision would bind the whole nation. Once such application has been properly made by the House of Representatives and duly recorded with the Senate, the Senate must schedule the review no later than in the next session in which they sit. If three-fifths of the Senate votes to overturn the ruling, then the ruling is immediately rescinded and the Senate's decision is final. If less than three-fifths of the Senate votes to overturn, the Court's ruling is upheld.
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That's-a me!

For a long time now, I've been an avid reader of Eric Zorn's blog, and from time to time I send him a comment on it via email. Most recently it was a comment on liberals and conservatives, and, well, why don't you just go read it? It was posted today, scroll down to "Tautology".

"Yes, children, we did used to have blogs. We called them diaries, and they got us into almost as much trouble as yours will get you." --Miss Manners

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July 03, 2004

Theopolitics

Driving down Hicks this morning, I saw a sign on a church for a summer institute, of which one workshop was entitled "Would Jesus have been a Democrat or a Republican?" There is so, so much wrong with this. What's to say he'd be either one? What would it mean to be a Dem or Rep in 30 CE? Especially considering the ideology of both parties has changed considerably over their century-plus lifetimes. Even casting it as "If Jesus weighed in today, what would he be?", I know what I think, but even if this particular church agreed with me, I still think it's inappropriate to use the pulpit to preach politics.

Also, I hate blog spam. I think I'll have to install the MT spamblocker plugin sometime next week.

"I'm pro-abortion for Republicans. Does that count?" --Michael Kimmitt

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June 22, 2004

Twists of fate and politics

In light of the current flap about Jack Ryan's recently-released divorce records, I find myself in the odd (and slightly irritating) position of defending the Republican Senate candidate.

The allegations made by his ex-wife were basically that on vacations to a few different cities, he took her to a few sketchy clubs where couples (and, he expected, they) would have sex in public or semi-public areas. Not with random people, note---just with the person they came with. So, basically, even if the allegations are all true, they mean that Jack Ryan is (drum roll...) an exhibitionist.

That's all?

There's no question that he played this badly, of course; had he come out with this information earlier (perhaps after the primary) it would almost certainly have gone better than dragging it out until late June. But ultimately, who the hell cares? I want Obama to win, but I'd be irritated if it were as a result of something like this. I hope that any would-be Ryan voter who is offended by the allegations (note that they're not even proven yet, and Ryan's denying them---stupid if they're true, but what can you do) will sit down, take a deep breath, and think about all the other things that Ryan stands for. I think he's wrong on a whole lot of things, and I agree with Obama on most things, which is why I plan to support and vote for Obama in November. But if you agree with Ryan's platform, seriously, don't let this thing stop you.

"Patches set upon a little breach
Discredit more in hiding of the fault
Than did the fault before it was so patched."
--Shakespeare, King John

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June 21, 2004

Science Fiction Moment

Feeling generally crappy today, developed a cough, and decided to slouch around the apartment all day. But there's good news!

In pretty much every science fiction story written since about 1940, space has figured pretty strongly. Most acknowledged that the elbow of the progress curve would be about when private interests started successfully attaining space.

Well, here we are, then. A team based in California has made a reusable spaceship and a reusable launch plane, and piloted the sucker above the accepted "space boundary" of 100km/62mi. It was in flight for about 90 minutes before reentering the atmosphere, and glided to a landing in the Mojave Desert. They'll probably make an attempt at the coveted X Prize later this year.

The downside is that the Republicans will probably use this as an excuse to defund NASA. :P But even so, we're (finally) moving into a whole new era of space exploration; we may soon see the fulfillment of some of the promises given to our parents' generation in the 60s.

"We teach these children, not because they are Catholic, but because we are." --Dr Mary MacDonald

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May 25, 2004

Cars and trucks

Gas prices are high, and they'll be getting higher. And it's our fault.

Well, not my fault, really. Aside from trying to not drive very often, when I do drive it's in a car that routinely gets 30+ mpg around town and over 40 on the open highway. The problem is all those people who get really huge vehicles (SUVs being the worst, but vans, trucks, and even full-sizers are not exempt) and then drive them around all the time, everywhere.

It's not the case that these big cars are never appropriate, of course. Farmers and subcontractors are often hauling around a bunch of stuff in their pickups. Families with a bunch of kids make use of the extra passenger space in a van. And I'm sure someone has a legitimate use for an SUV.

But a lot of people get a big vehicle because, quote, "I want to be able to pick up a load of lumber at the Home Depot." If they give any reason at all, that is, aside from needing to make a public display of excess. The pseudo-legitimate excuses made don't hold up under further scrutiny: these weekend warriors are going out and getting something that requires cargo capacity maybe once or twice a month. Last I checked, most home improvement stores would rent you a pickup truck for an hour for about $25, easily enough to bring your load home and drop it off. And you'd save that much in gas in a month with a smaller car, not to mention the fact that a smaller car saves you a bundle up front. And even with the SUV you'll occasionally run into big lumber purchases you can't handle---not a problem if you're renting a truck on the spot.

More generally, to the extent that a lot of gas-guzzler drivers have occasionally legitimate uses for their vehicle, it is often so rare that they would actually save money just buying a smaller car and renting something big for a few hours. And the economic and environmental savings of not burning off such an excess of gas and oil, well, that's simply uncountable.

"Hey, don't make me take off my leg and beat the shit out of you." --Harley Jackson

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April 06, 2004

Perhaps they should reconsider.

This morning I saw a 2001-vintage bumper sticker. On the left side was an American flag, with the canton a charcoal grey with perhaps a hint of blue, and the field an array of very faint light-grey stripes from which all the red had been entirely bleached out.

The right side? "These colors don't run." Evidently they just fade away. I'm generally a fan of leaving bumper stickers on even after their nominal relevance period has passed (if Kathy hasn't taken it off yet, there's still a Nader 2000 sticker on my old car), but it seems like an exception might be made in this case....

"It would be relatively easy to form a wheat cartel, seeing as there are many fewer countries which are large-scale producers of wheat than there are large-scale producers of oil. The U.S., Canada, Argentina, Russia, and the Ukraine could basically starve the rest of the world. That is not, however, politically expedient." --Michael Feltes

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March 18, 2004

Obama for Senate '04

Barack Obama, after winning the Tuesday primary in a landslide, will now go on to campaign and, with a little help from us, win in November.

He was at Knox today as part of his tour of Illinois. He spoke for about a half hour and then took questions. He's a solid liberal, though as he points out, "is it that liberal to think that you shouldn't have to go bankrupt just because you get sick?" What really struck me, though, was that he never put forth just one single thing that was supposed solve all our problems, or even one problem. "There is no magic bullet," he said, and so for each problem he addressed, he listed three or four reasonable---and most importantly attainable---goals that each formed steps on a path to a solution. His major agenda items seem to be health care (and he's served on a health care committee in the IL Senate), the economy (primarily jobs, but also education), and Iraq. Which is a pretty good set of items to focus on right now. I'm really glad I voted for him, and I'm really glad he won.

Also worth pointing out: more people voted for him than voted for all the Republicans in the Senate primary, put together. There were more people in Dupage County that voted for Obama than voted for Jack Ryan. Now, they weren't head-to-head, of course, but it really shows that he, and our current political situation, really fire up Democrats to get involved. It's certainly not "in the bag", but boy do we ever have a good shot at it.

Now back to figuring out what I'm going to teach my kids about Operating Systems this term.

"True jihad today is not in the hijacking of planes but in the manufacturing of them." --Izzat Majeed

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March 16, 2004

Of all the days...

Marvelous. The weather outlets continue to predict 2 to 4 inches of snow, but it's already over that, still coming down, and the radar makes it look like the storms only about halfway past. Any other day, I'd be all "snow day! Hot chocolate!", especially with "Spring" Break meaning I didn't have to go in to work.

What worries me, though, is how this is going to affect the primary. I think a lot of people are going to stay home, and it's going to disproportionately affect the candidates that don't have party machine support. Obama had a fifteen or so point lead in the last poll I saw, and I think he has a good shot at winning, but pundits were already predicting that Hynes was being undercounted in the polling due to machine effects, and this bit of bad weather is certainly not going to help matters any. The good news (I guess) is that it's also going to disproportionately affect the rural vote, which was one of Obama's weak areas; but then, his weakest areas further downstate look like they're not getting snow.

All of which is to say, I have no idea how it'll turn out. Go vote.

"Only dedicated herpetologists could characterize the vista up a turtle's gaping bunghole as a `spectacular view.'" --Cecil Adams

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March 14, 2004

Dennis Kucinich and the IL Primary

Dennis Kucinich came to Galesburg today, and spoke at 11:00. I went to go see him. (Which meant I went to 7:30 Mass and met a whole new bunch of people, but that's a separate story.) I have to say, the other time I heard him speak (at the Harkin Steak Fry) must've just been an off day, because he was a great speaker today.

He talked about a lot of things, but a lot of them were tied together with the idea of a basic attitude change: right now, we spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the Department of Defense---which is really just a War Department---and blow off all the other things that we as a society should try to promote. He speaks of a Department of Peace; it would support and fund programs that try to reduce conflict, and remove the root causes of conflict. What if we, as a society, tried to unlearn all of those habits of thought that lead ultimately to domestic abuse and child abuse? What if we as a society stopped letting the corporations push through legislation whose sole purpose is keeping labour cheap?

He gave a great analogy: not so long ago in this country, most families didn't lock their houses, pretty much ever. Nowadays, we mostly do, and that's fine. But what if someone were to not just lock their door, but put in a big steel outer door, and a huge electrified fence, and get guard dogs, and pile sandbags up behind all the windows? We, their neighbours, would freak out, even if they claimed it was only to defend themselves. But that's exactly how the rest of the world sees the US.

Still, a lot of his solutions seem too extreme. NAFTA's a problem, certainly---and so, he says, we should just cancel it. The bigwigs have been given their chance to "fix it", that didn't work, so *bam* we should just get rid of it... I dunno about that. Return Social Security retirement age to 65? Nice in an ideal world, but not at all realistic. Indexing the age to slowly increase---even if it goes up more slowly than life expectancies---is a much better plan.

I continue to support Dean's platform over Kucinich's for the same reasons I ever did---it goes in the same direction, but is a lot more practical. I worry that the Dem leadership will see the folks who vote for Kucinich as not understanding reality or something like that, and therefore ignoring their voices entirely, whereas the Dean folks, while perhaps a bit left of party-centre, are within reach and therefore worth throwing a few bones to.

On the other hand, given the disenfranchisement of Illinois voters in the primary, any vote we make is more of a statement than anything else---it's been made abundantly clear that the Democratic Party is not interested in the opinions of Illinoisans when it comes to who should get the nomination, so perhaps we should use our vote for something else. Following that reasoning, it makes a little more sense (or is at least seems less nonsensical) to vote for an extreme candidate who is leaning in the right direction, just to demonstrate how strongly you feel that the party needs to move in that direction, even if you wouldn't want that candidate to win the Presidency.

In the end, I'll probably still end up voting for Dean on Tuesday, but either way, I'll come out of the booth regretting that I couldn't vote for both of them. What certainly seems true, though, is that for all those of you out there who abandoned a preferred candidate---be it Dean or Kucinich, or Edwards, or one of the others---due to "electability" or somesuch, you really might as well go back to your original choice. If there is an up-side to this whole stupid drawn-out primary process, it's that we don't have to worry about actually selecting the nominee. We can just make our opinions known; and we should.

(And don't you dare think of skipping the primary just because the presidential nomination's been decided. Whatever your political inclination, there is a dead-heat race for the nomination for US Senator from Illinois, and if you're of voting age and live in Illinois it's really your civic duty to go out and vote for the man or woman who you think will do the best job. It could end up being even more important than the Presidential contest---we're looking at a possible 50-49 split in the Senate, and which side has the 50 makes a huge difference.)

Illustration of argument in the alternative:

  1. I never met the victim.
  2. If I did meet her, I certainly didn't kill her.
  3. If the jury is actually fooled by the prosecution, and thinks I killed her, then you have to understand it was self-defense.
  4. Also, I'm completely batshit insane.

--Mike Peil

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March 03, 2004

A letter

Dear The Democratic Party,

Congratulations on selecting your nominee! We made the decision four weeks ago, and we'd hoped you'd hurry up and get it over with a bit faster, but we're glad that you've finally finished. Now we can stop giving you all this free coverage. We'll give you about an hour for the convention, but it's not really a news event, so that's about it. Paid spots only from here on out! Man, thanks for not making this difficult by pushing the final decision off til the convention---if you'd done that, we'd have to give you free press until July. You really saved our bacon on that one!

Love,

The Media

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February 29, 2004

Dean redux

The Washington Post has a very interesting article on what went on in the Dean campaign over the last few months.

In other news, Dean for America is planning to announce on 18 March what its plans for the future are. I can't wait!

"Advocating civil unions for all... is instead undercutting the homophobe's diversionary tactics and forcing the debate to focus on the issues. In other words, the debate comes to whether the legal benefits of marriage can be denied to homosexual partners, instead of blathering about whether someone's sanctity is all up in a bunch." --Eric Blau

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February 23, 2004

The story drags on

Did George W. Bush actually serve his time in Alabama? Of all the hundreds of people stationed at the base, not one has come forward to say definitively that they remember GWB reporting in for drills (except for one who claimed to have seen him during periods he definitely wasn't actually there, so he's of questionable credibility).

Well, Gary Trudeau is sick of it, and offering a $10,000 reward for anyone who will come forward with proof that Bush was actually there then. (The reward money will not go to the claimant, but as a donation to the USO in the claimant's name, but still.) Trudeau is putting it up from his own money. As he puts it, "Thanks to Bush's massive tax cuts for people who don't need them, GBT is flush."

What gets me is, whether he was AWOL or not, he was somewhere during that time, and he must have interacted with someone wherever he was. Where are all those people? This is so bizarre.

"It is said that to speak Italian correctly, one must sing it. In my experience, to speak Italian correctly, one must whine it, preferably to one's mother." --Michael Kimmitt

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February 20, 2004

Netherlands, Canada, ... Cambodia?

You know, Cambodia is definitely not the first country I think of when I think of "progressive liberal thought". But King Sihanouk has just taken a stand in favour of marriage rights. Yay Cambodia!

"Since children consider that their entire childhoods are, by definition, embarrassing, it requires some delicate negotiation on the part of parents to convince them that certain stories do not reflect upon them adversely. The word "cute" should be omitted from such an argument." --Miss Manners

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February 19, 2004

About time

I'm now officially a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Woo!

"The teacher coaxes people towards ideas instead of saying them outright because lots of liberal arts knowledge is only approximately effable." --Jonathan Prykop

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February 18, 2004

Moving right along

Dean has "dropped out" of the race.

But what does that mean? First of all, it doesn't mean we can't vote for him in the primaries. If you were a Dean supporter and don't have a preference between Kerry and Edwards, it certainly can't hurt to give your votes to Dean. If Kerry doesn't take >50% of the vote in primaries, the convention will be brokered and a sizable Dean bloc will be able to wield power and gain concessions before lending their support to one or the other of the frontrunners.

In the more long term, we look to what the next phase of the presidential campaign will bring. GWB for the Republicans, I guess Kerry or Edwards from the Democrats, and a raft of third-party candidates. Those of you voting against Bush have an easy choice. Those of you who believe in voting for people may have a harder time of it, and I don't have much to say. At this time, I guess I'll vote for whoever wins the Dem nomination, but I can't guarantee it and I certainly don't favour them enough to campaign for them.

But they have plenty of advocates. Apparently. Fortunately, there's another important thing to work on: getting liberals and progressives elected to the House and Senate, and to state legislatures. After all, the President can't accomplish much if he's battling a hostile legislature. For the U.S. Senate, Illinois has a huge field of competitors (an argument for voting reform if ever there was one), and the race will be an interesting one. Blair Hull is the current frontrunner, but his campaign seems to be "I have lots of money, so you should vote for me!" He seems like sort of a flake. Barack Obama looks promising, though; he's been in the IL Senate for a while, and has sponsored and voted for a lot of really good stuff. Check him out! This is the sort of guy we need in the Senate.

"w/r/t self-determination: I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The rules changed in 1918. Period. Historical examples before then are not analogous to examples after then." --Michael Kimmitt

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February 14, 2004

Setbacks in Iran

Iran is leading up to its elections next Friday, and more than 500 candidates have backed out in protest---the "Guardian Council" has blocked more than five times that many from running, mostly because they were too liberal.

It's sad that these people would back out voluntarily, especially with all the others forced out, although I don't know the situation on the ground; but in any case this is going to mark more uphill battle for reformist voices in Iran. I've been following the situation in Iran a little more closely than most, because I think that they provide the best hope for true democracy in the Middle East right now. They're not there yet, obviously, but if they don't backslide, they could be just a decade or two away from it.

If you don't read that article, at least look at the information on this page. You may be surprised. Two-thirds of the country's population are under 30. Really! And of that number, the largest number is in the 10-19 age range---i.e. not voting yet, but they will in the next decade. The literacy rate is decent for the adult population, but essentially first-world for the late teens. Women vote, and they have since the 60s. There is much sentiment in favour of reform, and although President Khatami has achieved some reform, the youth of the country is disillusioned from the slow pace of it. I only hope that when they finally force their hand and take the Guardian Council out of power, that it is done peacefully; but when that happens, we'll see a much more democratic Iran within a year or two. (Which is not to say they'll be allied to the US. Let's not make the mistake of assuming that any true democracy would ally with us....)

Anyway, we're rooting for you, Iran. Good luck.

"There are few things as entertaining as watching Jonathan mow the lawn. I've never seen anyone amble/mosey/lollygag behind a mower before." --Kim Kinsella

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February 12, 2004

Let's hear it for long memories

I wasn't born yet in 1971, and so it's difficult for me to know the sorts of things people said back then. Thank goodness for social commentators who keep track---two different ones, both of whom submit their commentary long in advance, both managed to remember and call our attention to a comment made by Senator Kerry 33 years ago. In today's Doonesbury and today's Molly Ivins column, we read that he hit the national stage as a Vietnam protestor, saying, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Indeed.

Continuing on the subject of Senator Kerry: Today's Drudge Report, that bastion of unbiased reporting, broke a story that Kerry had a recent affair with some woman. Is it true? I don't really care. I feel bad for Mrs. Kerry, I guess, but I don't think it reflects on his abilities as a politician. (I diss his abilities as a politician on their own merits, thanks.) However, it reminds me of a wish bordering on a prayer that I have about this election: I devoutly hope that any stuff like this, if it's going to come out anytime before the second of Novermber, will come out right fucking now. About Kerry, Dean, Edwards, or anybody else. The very last thing that anyone needs is a controversy about the Democratic nominee. If we have to go through this, at least let us ride it out now....

"They all eventually get old and rattley. Everything eventually gets old and rattley, even real live sex partners, so why be so judgemental about some battery operated plastic?" --Leigh Anne Wilson

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February 09, 2004

Political comments

I'm getting ever so tired of the media treatment of the Dean campaign. He continues to do considerably better than the Edwards and Clark campaigns, and yet he gets virtually no mention. Headlines roar: "Kerry wins again!" They fail to note when Dean takes a third of the delegates. Currently Dean has almost half as many delegates won as Kerry---and more than twice as many as the next closest competitor, John Edwards. Putting that in perspective, Kerry still has less than a fifth of the delegates he'd need for a majority.

The only candidate with a significant nationwide campaign so far has been Dean, and to a lesser extent, Kerry. The rest have been always just focussed on the next couple states to hold a primary or caucus. This would be a big advantage for Dean if the media didn't keep acting as if (and occasionally saying that) he was already out of the race.

When I go to the CNN results for, say, Washington state, why does the "status" column unequivocally put a checkmark next to Kerry's name? This isn't the final election, and the states are not winner-take-all---if you let yourself look closer at the table, you'll see that Dean got almost 40% of the delegates from Washington! Yet the media chalks it up as a loss, ignores the rest of the story, and talks some more about Janet Jackson's boob.

In other news, the Bush is a deadbeat story seems to have resurfaced; let's see if it can take off this time.

"Abstinence-only sex ed may be stupid and may not work, but it is the only possible option for a lot of folks who have a certain set of beliefs. To fundies, nothing matters more than sex. Once you understand this, you will understand the insanity surrounding homosexuality, abortion, movie ratings, and sex ed. It's all about the sex. It's always about the sex." --Michael Kimmitt

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February 05, 2004

A curious overlap

Thinking about politics lately, as I am wont to do on occasion, I was struck by a certain overlap between two groups of people.

There are a number of people out there who profess to believe that it does not matter who gets the Democratic nomination, as they will vote for that person whoever he is. A large number of these people seem to support Kerry. (This is fully distinct from the idea that it does matter who wins the nomination but that they will vote for whoever wins anyway---a view held by people in all the camps.)

There are also a number of people who profess to believe that it does not matter who is actually best, but that we should try to nominate the "most electable" candidate---thus not voting on one's own opinion of the candidates, nor even on another's opinion of the candidates, but on one's guess at another's opinion of the candidates. A large number of these people seem to support Kerry as well.

The fact that the Kerry camp would be home to both beliefs is not in itself shocking. What should give you pause, though, is that there is a huge amount of overlap between the two groups, and that the Kerry camp is dominated by this overlap (and none of the other camps are).

The logical conclusion is that these people are delusional, lying, or just haven't really thought it through (my money's on that last one). If the Kerry camp will by and large vote for whoever wins the nomination, then he's no more "electable" than the other candidates. There are probably a lot of people in the Dean camp that won't vote for Kerry; I expect there are some in the Clark and Edwards camps as well. Heck, there are probably a whole bunch of Kucinich people that necessarily vote for the Dem nominee. This is not really an argument for Dean, or Clark, or Edwards, or Kucinich; but it's certainly not an argument for Kerry.

Aside from those folks, the open question is, who can bring in people who won't just vote for whatever Dem is nominated. That will require some measure of charisma, of passion, of leadership; three qualities that Kerry is singularly lacking in. I do find it rather baffling to hear people say things like, "I know that Kerry doesn't have very much charisma or leadership, or any ability to rouse passion in people, but I think he'll bring more people in to vote for him." Do they even hear what they're saying?

"A host who does not use large plates and huge napkins for a buffet meal deserves what he eventually finds on the rug." --Miss Manners

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February 02, 2004

Sea change in the middle east

A while ago Sharon said he was considering pulling back a few of the West Bank settlements, which was promising. Now he's announced that all Gaza settlements will be evacuated. If he's serious, this is the biggest news in the Middle East in decades. Yes, even including the various American wars over there. It doesn't completely solve the problem, but actually ceding Gaza to the Palestinians is such an awesome act of good faith that we might actually see real progress in the West Bank negotiations, too. Wow.

"Common names are bad. Unlisted numbers are tricky. States where you need to prove you're related to obtain official records are a challenge. People with no affiliations with organizations, too. Not knowing a state or city---annoying. Those who never get arrested or do anything noteworthy in their communities---frustrating.

The uberchallenge, though, is trying to find someone who never existed in the first place." --Gel Thelen

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January 25, 2004

Carl Sandburg

Today I went and spent some time down at the Carl Sandburg Birthplace Museum on 3rd Street. He was a pretty cool guy---hardcore socialist, which I hadn't known. I really should put his Lincoln biography on my to-read list (all six volumes(!) of it).

I continue to be annoyed at people who describe Dean's outburst after the Caucus as "a scream", "a tantrum", or "anguished". I mean, these people obviously were not watching the same speech I was. I saw it that night, and I've seen it several times since, and it was obviously not anguished, clearly he was exhilarated and excited. It was the sort of yell or cheer one makes at a pep rally; which, strangely enough, was exactly where he was. Even if you hear the scream out of context, it's a long stretch to say it sounds upset. (At least it's getting him a lot of screen time. No press is bad press, eh?)

"Googling suggests that mplayer is the answer (as it is to most questions for which emacs or perl are not the answer)." --Zach Miller

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January 10, 2004

I love Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington just wrote a piece about Dean entitled Unelectable, My Ass!. It's a great look at all the stupid stuff that the DLC and others have been saying about Howard Dean.

We like that he's angry. So are we. We've got a lot to be angry about. How is it that the other Dems are not?

What's with all the 1972 McGovern comparisons? How about let's compare him to 1968 Bobby Kennedy, instead.

Why are they sticking to the "tried-and-untrue" swing voter strategy? Sure, if we can convince a Bush voter to vote Dem instead, then that effectively counts as two votes, where enticing new voters only gets us one. But getting the two votes is A. Lot. Harder. It's like saying, "hey, you can buy one of these widgets for $5; but I've got a great deal, you can buy two of them in a package... for $20." I mean, sure, we need to continue thinking about the swing voters, and go for the easy ones, but not at the expense of strategies that will bring in new voters (especially as those are more likely to work *and* the people they bring in are much more likely to stick with the Dems than to swing right back for the next election).

And why have we let the Democrats abandon FDR's great vision? We used to really believe that a truly advanced nation could provide for those who didn't have enough. Where did we let it go?

"No Democrat can win by playing 'Whose swagger is swaggier?' or 'Whose flight suit is tighter?'" --Arianna Huffington

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November 27, 2003

PSA

Remember that tomorrow is International Buy Nothing Day. If you have been getting fed up with how consumerist our society has become, join this protest by... not buying anything. That's it! All you have to do is purchase nothing tomorrow (Friday, day after Thanksgiving). Yes, we know that's when the stores put some of the sales. If you don't agree with the premise, fine, but don't you dare tell me "I'd participate except that it's inconvenient".

In any case, happy Thanksgiving!

"I don't feel quite as cute as i used to be, but ah well, we all become hairy old men, even women." --Christopher Baldwin

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November 26, 2003

Grading, day 3

Six problems done, two to go. Sort of three, because the last problem was a big two-parter. Looks like I won't get home tonight, meaning that I get to brave the Thanksgiving traffic tomorrow morning. At least I'll be cross-commuting.

I try not to have mandatory reading too often, and I know I had that article on Wal-Mart a few days ago, but this is important too: ``War on Dissent'' is an article in yesterday's Globe and Mail, a major (some would say the major) newspaper in Canada. Other media outlets are reporting on Miami completely from the perspective of the police.

"The X-Files poses a mystery and offers two rival kinds of explanation, the rational theory and the paranormal theory. And, week after week, the rational explanation loses.... Imagine a crime series in which, every week, there is a white suspect and a black suspect. And every week, lo and behold, the black one turns out to have done it. Unpardonable, of course. And my point is that you could not defend it by saying: 'But it's only fiction, only entertainment.'" --Richard Dawkins

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November 11, 2003

Deanariffic

I just got back from Burlington, IA, where I saw Howard Dean speak. I shook his hand! Nothing really new, but the venue was nice and small; there were perhaps 150 people there. The three of us from Knox were sitting on the floor front and centre. A reporter interviewed us after, and Stef said she was from the Boston Globe, so we'll see if I'm gonna be quoted. :)

"Borrow and spend, borrow and spend---this is the credit card presidency!" --Howard Dean

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More Israel idiocy

Israel is now claiming that the Great Wall of Palestine does not bring hardship to the Palestinians, because "it will have gates so Palestinians can get to and from their homes."

The ghettoes had gates, too.

I mean, seriously, do they not see the parallels? For all that they will "never forget", they seem to have a pretty selective memory.

"The Palestinians will never have a state until the Israelis feel secure, and the Israelis will not feel secure until the Palestinians have a state." --Senator George Mitchell

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November 02, 2003

On voting machines

The Register-Mail published an AP article today about voting machines. I wrote the following letter in response (no word yet on whether it'll be published):

As indicated in "Voting machines debated" in Sunday's paper, touchscreen voting machines are not the panacea that many people seem to think, and may not even solve some of the confusion problems we're trying to solve---differing viewing angles may cause people to try to touch one name, but be recorded as touching another. (Ever been to an ATM where you weren't sure which button the "press this button for withdrawal" arrow was pointing to?)

Optical-scan voting systems seem to be the best answer to a number of requirements---legibility, ease of use, lack of confusion, and recountability. As much as we value the convenience that computers provide, these systems are probably a better bet (and a better buy).

If you are interested in computerized systems, however, you should be looking at touchscreen voting aids. These would be machines that provide a computer interface to the process, but in the end, print out a paper ballot that the voter can read---and verify---before submitting it for an official tally. Of the companies currently marketing computerized voting systems, only Avante produces anything meeting these vitally important accountability requirements.

In this sort of system, computer security concerns are minimized, because even if someone cracked into the system to tamper with it, the voter would notice the discrepancy before handing in their ballot. Furthermore, the existence of a paper ballot enables a recount to occur later if the result is in dispute; recounts are simply not possible with most companies' systems, including those from Diebold and ES&S, two major players in the industry.

What if the system has a bug in it? Many of us can't even trust our computers to stay up without rebooting for more than a day or two. It is a scary thought that we might blindly entrust the entire democratic process to machines whose performance can't even be verified. If we at least require our voting machines to leave a paper trail, voting fraud---not a new phenomenon, just in a new guise---can be detected, the offenders prosecuted, and the results corrected.

I would direct interested readers to a much more complete analysis by Dr. Rebecca Mercuri on the problems of electronic voting, along with some proposed solutions, at the following URL: http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/WEBONLY/publicfeature/oct02/evot.html

On The Time Machine (the 2002 movie): "It starts out slightly silly, then gets annoying, followed by predictable, unintentionally humorous, ridiculous and meaningless, followed by long periods of bad. Then it wraps itself up in blatantly lame with spouts of mere badness and disgust and misery." --The Self-Made Critic

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September 29, 2003

It's here!

My office is now the location of the first G5 at Knox, a sleek dual-2GHz model with 2GB of memory and 160GB of storage. Damn but that sucker's fast (not to mention sexxxy). Of course, I now realise just how much I've customised my laptop, and now I have a crapload of stuff to install on the G5....

I went to the Galesburg Dean House Party tonight. There was a good mix there, about 15 people but only half Knox students. As usual, Dean just gave great answers to the questions asked him. I got another extrabudgetary check today (this one returning my key deposit for the key to my office in the CIT), so I donated that to the campaign, this time counting for the house party (sorry Mike ;).

And when I got home I was inspired to unpack six more boxes of books. Almost done. I can now see nearly half of my living room floor!

"We realize that having the service available to test would be a good first step in the direction of utility. Sometimes we have to shut the service down to implement improvements. Sometimes it decides on its own to break for a nice pot of Earl Grey and some fresh silicon wafers." --Google labs

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September 23, 2003

Reading assignment

An article entitled ``Why no one wins in the global food fight'' is your mandatory reading for today. This article hits on several important topics, including why Third World countries have a hard time rising out of poverty, who exactly benefits from farm subsidies (hint: not the small farmers), and why a big portion of the world really hates the U.S. (hint: it has nothing to do with religion, culture, or personal morality).

"Television is the alcohol of the body politic. A little helps the entity function more smoothly, but excessive continued use causes terrible harm." --Michael Kimmitt

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August 22, 2003

Fiscal Irresponsibility Friday

Today is Fiscal Irresponsibility Friday. If you haven't already, write a letter to a local paper highlighting the fiscal issues the Bush administration has. Pointers can be found at the above link.

The text of my letter to the Galesburg Register-Mail:

Today's editorial ("State belt tightening on right track") hit a nerve: Illinois, like many other states, is finding it needs to tighten its belt. But what about the federal government?

In the last couple of years under George W. Bush, we have seen substantial surpluses turn into huge deficits, with no end in sight. We keep hearing about cutting our government's source of income---taxes---while trying to maintain or increase spending in many areas. His father, the first President George Bush, said that "there is no practice more dangerous than that of borrowing money"---evidently our current President wasn't paying attention. Because of the deficits, the fed is unable to lend any aid to the states; it has managed to set aside just $20 billion for all the states put together (and that only with a fight), which isn't going to go very far. As today's editorial reminds us, Illinois alone is suffering from a $5 billion deficit.

But Illinois is working to cut the deficit. We are trying to remove the extras---like cars for state employees---so that we can protect what is important---like education, and health care. Bush, to the extent he is cutting anything at all, is cutting funds to things like the Head Start program, Americorps, and health and hazard benefits for our military. All the while pushing more rounds of tax cuts for the rich.

That's not tightening our belts; it's cutting our legs off at the knee.

"Yet, as morally as you wage war you cannot wage a moral war." --Yishay Mor

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August 05, 2003

Dammit, Israel

Look, I understand the importance of maintaining a Jewish state. And I'd been sort of kvetching about this wall Israel's building, thinking it was sort of unpleasant, but only mildy, since it seemed like a not totally unreasonable security thing to put up along the border with the West Bank.

This had a lot to do with never having seen a map of where the wall was going in. This link points to such a map. Go follow that link right now.

What the hell do they think they're pulling? That's not a security wall along the border, it's a naked land grab. How can Sharon claim with a straight face that it's anything else? I mean, I guess I always knew that the Israeli leadership didn't really want peace, but I didn't realise they'd be quite so obvious about it. (Note, of course, that I said "the Israeli leadership"---I think that what the Israeli people want is rather different.)

Thankfully, US foreign policy in this regard has at long last recovered a measure of sanity: we're discussing decreasing our aid to Israel by the amount they're spending on West Bank settlement.

"I'm always on solid ground. I tend to break unsolid ground." --Sam Walker

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June 04, 2003

Missed me?

Well, I got my master's degree and flew off to Edmonton. I'm back from the Canada trip now (travelogue and pictures forthcoming), enjoying better health and enduring worse weather than at any point *during* the trip. Ah well.

I just now got back from the Dean Meetup, where I met about twenty Rhode Islanders who really, really want to see Howard Dean elected as our next president, for all sorts of reasons. It was immensely encouraging. Unlike the people I met during my stint in the Nader 2000 campaign, these people were not (by and large) born activists with a bunch of causes. And despite finding each other ultimately through the Meetup website, they weren't just a bunch of tech-savvy geeks, either---they were just a bunch of folks who are sick of the government, sick of being "led" by someone who is desperately trying to be just "one of the guys"; they want to have a leader, who will do the right thing, even if unpopular, and occasionally give us bad news---then give us a prognosis and a treatment plan, so that we can work together and solve the problem as best we can.

Please help if you can. We *can* win this.

"Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." --Hermann Goehring

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May 22, 2003

Dammit.

ARGH. I just listened to a cop yelling at our poor custodian for about twenty minutes because he left a box out on the floor (because he needed to empty his trashcan before he could put more in). Apparently, someone jumpy because of the bomb at Yale yesterday said the box looked "suspicious"---so they're blaming Tony the custodian for a bomb scare. Of course, he was just doing what he always did, and nobody ever told him otherwise. And their advice to him was to, in the future, leave boxes like that next to a trash can or something, so it wouldn't look suspicious. What kind of rank idiocy is this? If we're scared about bombs in boxes, then a box should be no less suspicious sitting next to the trash can than it would be five feet away against the wall. And we're in an academic department here---do you know how many boxes there are around here? People receive books, computer parts, computers; and they all come in boxes which are then discarded. (I'm not even counting all the assorted fast-food containers that pass through here.) And why stop at boxes? Someone could leave something in a trash can. Or a cabinet. Or on a high shelf. Or under a table. We can't live in fear of bombs like this. If we get bombed, well, then we do. Reporting "suspicious-looking boxes" just gets innocent custodians in trouble, and has no tangible benefit.

"After all, let's face it, evil is easier, more fun, and better paying." --Sam Walker

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May 12, 2003

Molly Ivins sums up my

Molly Ivins sums up my opinions on the WMD issue very nicely:

Look, if there are no WMDs in Iraq, it means either our government lied us to us in order to get us into an unnecessary war or the government itself was disastrously misinformed by an incompetent intelligence apparatus. In either case, it's a terribly serious situation.
Dreadfully serious, and it's really pretty depressing that so many people let themselves be lulled by the "but Saddam was really an awful guy" distraction.

"Everyone in the sciences secretly believes that mathematicians are smarter than they are. I think mathematicians also believe this." --Paul Graham

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May 06, 2003

Universities not of interest

From this article: "Coalition forces have no orders to protect universities. They have orders to protect places of interest.... Iraqis need to protect their own cities." --US Central Command

Thanks, guys.

"Gordon's is only good for serious mixing/jello, and even then only because it's cheap. As a matter of fact, the only good thing about Gordon's is that it's cheap. And at least 80 proof. Two. Two good things." --Eva Shillace

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April 24, 2003

ATMs and Iraq

Discovery: apparently, an ATM will let you overdraw your account, even when it knows your balance. I went right inside and they let me put the money back in (and said I therefore wouldn't be charged an overdraft fee), but it was still annoying. They claimed it was so if you were at a restaurant or something, and paying, they wouldn't have to block the payment and embarrass you or something; but we all know it is really because they want to get the overdraft fees.

In other news, we are now threatening France, Germany , and Iran with various consequences for their lack of support for our war, in addition to our bluster about WMD in Syria.

Juxtaposition of the incongruous:

"The pilgrims...engaged in religious rituals that were banned for a quarter of a century under Saddam Hussein. This included self-flagellation and the cutting of heads with swords, to mark the death in the 7th century of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Mr Fleischer said President George W Bush had been delighted to see the people given a chance to express their religious fervour."

And some lovely news about Iraq:

"A US army commander in Iraq says the fighting there is not over and there are now more American troops in the country than ever."
Looks like the armband's staying on for a while longer. Just this afternoon I saw a car flying a black flag from a mount on its back window, which is such a great co-opt of the whole flag-on-car movement that I wish I'd thought of it---too bad I don't drive my car very often, or I'd do that too.

Well, back to my thesis.

"Bush made it clear a month ago that this was all about finding weapons of mass destruction... no, wait a minute, last week he made it clear this was all about liberating the Iraqi people... hold on, this morning he made it clear this was about cutting off the flow of oil to Syria, a known haven for terrorists... well, in any event, it has NOTHING to do with American oil interests: that much has been made clear." --Bill Swift

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April 18, 2003

Officially, the war may be over...

Officially, the war may be over, but the destruction continues. I had suspected, and this article confirms, that the US wouldn't exert much effort to "bring to justice" all the "oppressors" that we are supposedly trying to depose. And we are doing nothing to prevent the rioting and looting.

I realise that pretty much nobody else is doing this, but I'm going to continue with my quaint and old-fashioned form of protest---wearing a black armband. I had thought about taking it off in the last few days, as the formal fighting wound down, but all those that die due to the mismanagement of the conflict are just as dead, and it's just as much the result of the war. So the armband stays on, at least for now.

Sam has not learned
To spell hors d'oeuvres
Which still grates on
Some people's n'oeuvres. --Eva Shillace

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An essay by Howard Dean

An essay by Howard Dean on why permitting this war was such a crashingly bad idea (and what he'll do different). Have I mentioned that I love Howard Dean? Because I do.

On the Enron building: "I was told I would recognise the building because it looks like a stick of deodorant. It does, just the right contoured shape for an enormous giant to pick up comfortably in his fist to wipe his armpit with." --Mark Gregory, BBC correspondent

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April 16, 2003

Death penalty and soccer

Yesterday, I went to a talk by former Illinois governor George Ryan and Northwestern law professor Lawrence Marshall, about capital punishment. Verdict: Ryan is a terrible speaker (he repeats himself and he rambles), but whatever else you may say about him, he sincerely and honestly believes that the death penalty is Just Wrong. Larry Marshall (whose daughter is a Brown undergrad) is a pretty good speaker, though. Together, they presented so many arguments why we shouldn't have the death penalty: aside from being racist and classist in practice, and in violation of norms of human rights even in theory, in the last decade we have demonstrated that even for murder convictions, even with all of the safeguards in the system, we actually convict innocent people with some regularity. Bad enough to send them to prison, but how can we even think about killing them? And finally, about the only real reason to carry out the death penalty is to make the victims' families feel better. And it doesn't even really do that.

Later on, I saw the movie Bend It Like Beckham, which was fantastic. It's a funny, witty film about an Indian Briton who really just wants to play football (er, soccer). But her orthodox Sikh parents don't want her to become a footballer, now that she's a grown woman and should be learning things like how to prepare a full dinner (aloo gobhi et cetera); and she should be helping out with the preparations for her sister's upcoming wedding. It actually came out last year, but is just hitting its American release---probably won't hit the main theatres, I'm guessing, but worth seeking out in the smaller ones.

"Hell, yes, I support our troops! I support them so much that I want them safe at home. I support them so much that, if it were up to me, they would never have been put into danger in Iraq in the first place." --Chronos

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April 12, 2003

The US government is handing

The US government is handing out decks of Iraqi Most Wanted playing cards. This is just beyond bizarre.

Now for a few hours of work; and then, the luʻau! Whee.

"When state legislators are willing to pay only, say, $10 for a visit of a Medicaid baby to a pediatrician's office, but are willing to pay $50 for a visit by their own, they are signalling a different social valuation on the medical care of different people." --Uwe Reinhardt

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April 10, 2003

Universal health care

I just went to a great talk by Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of economics at Princeton, on the viability of universal health care in this country. The words were very pessimistic, but the attitude was not defeatist; his goal (eventually stated explicitly) was to build our level of anger so that we would not just say "yes, that's a good idea", but actively fight for it.

I'm reminded of a phrase Arianna Huffington likes to throw around: "sustained outrage"---the duty of every progressive, especially these days.

We spend so much money on health care in this country---more per capita than any other, even after adjusting for pretty much anything you can adjust for---and yet, for the average joe, it's not that much better. And for the poorer-than-average joe, it's not even available, or if it is it's even more expensive. Anytime we discover a new Object of Compassion (OC), and decide to give funded access to health care to the OC, we spend so much time, energy, and money to erect barriers---to prevent even a single non-OC from benefitting from our magnanimity---that we end up spending less on care and more on administration than (say) Germany, and we don't even manage to cover all the OCs.

So sad.

"I have never seen such passion for foetuses as here in the US, but as soon as you take one breath of oxygen, it's 'you're on your own, kid.'" --Uwe Reinhardt

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March 31, 2003

Another helicopter went down (for

Another helicopter went down (for "undetermined reasons") in southern Iraq, killing three of our marines. Seriously, should we be using these things? I've lost track of how many we've managed to crash by now (six?), but I know the human losses have been significant (thirty? forty?), and this is ridiculous. Have we even lost that many men in the actual fighting? By now, probably, but still, wow.

And here's a delightful little story, hidden as a quiet little paragraph in the middle of a story from the LA Times:

During Sunday's encounter, a car approached a U.S. checkpoint along a road outside the city. This time, airborne commanders said, American troops spotted three armed men inside and called in a mortar attack. One round destroyed the car and killed the men.
This is after a car bomb the previous day had killed four US soldiers (and one suicide bomber). At first, it seems pretty straightforward: our military is defending itself. But... they saw armed men in a car? Yeah, no kidding, I'd be surprised if there was anyone around there that wasn't armed. But more importantly: they saw three armed men in a car? What? Suicide bombers don't come in threes! They send in the minimal number of people to staff each bomb, usually one, occasionally two for really complicated stuff. But a simple car bomb only needs one. Those weren't suicide bombers. But even that isn't directly relevant: the US has now established that it believes it has the right to lob artillery at and utterly destroy stuff for any reason at all. "We thought it was a carful of suicide bombers."

Lovely.

On a slightly lighter note, I was amused at the byline on this article. Usually they put a city there, like "WASHINGTON", or "NETANYA, Israel". Here, they put "WITH U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ". God only knows where.

"It's not PDA! We weren't making out, we were just french kissing. And it wasn't public, it was on a bus." --Carly Robinson

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March 21, 2003

Recap: Serbia had its prime

Recap:

  • Serbia had its prime minister assassinated, and is turning into a police state with over a thousand arrests connected to the murder
  • Central African Republic was taken over in a coup by a top general, possibly with assistance from neighbouring Chad
  • North Korea has stepped up its threats, done missile tests, and generally tried to beat its chest and scare us
  • Zimbabwe had a national strike and threats of a repeat, and nearly half its population goes hungry from famine
  • Venezuela is finally off-strike, but the overall situation continues to degrade
  • Israel's economy continues to suck, they continue to do nasty things to Palestinians, and we continue to bail them out with billions of dollars in aid
  • Hong Kong has been hit with a new and deadly... something... that the doctors can't even explain, which is spreading in a big way to Vietnam and Guangdong province, and has been detected in Canada, US, and UK
  • The UK's governing bodies are having a rocky time of it as top ministers resign and the prime minister tries to fight an unpopular war
  • The US is facing huge war protests, some turning violent and leading to the arrests of thousands
  • And, of course, Iraq is being invaded and its civilian population is dying, so that W can get his hands on more oil.
Not exactly a good couple of weeks, huh?

"The most difficult balance to strike is the balance that must be struck in time of war or time of peace, the balance between liberty and security." --Janet Reno

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March 19, 2003

And awaaaaaay we go.... "If

And awaaaaaay we go....

"If the war's supporters can't stand the fact the people of Europe have their own minds, how much more contemptuously will they regard the will of the people in the Arab world? Am I supposed to believe people who want European leaders to defy 80 and 90 percent of their populations are concerned about democracy?" --Brian Rainey

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I'm not a militarist---that is,

I'm not a militarist---that is, I don't know much about military deployments, and what you might call the technical details of war. So I can't verify that what the BBC reports in this article is true, but it certainly sounds plausible. In which case... what are we doing? It's bad enough that we're going to go to war, but how much worse that we might manage to bungle the job! The silver-lining part of my brain is telling me that a badly-run war might finally burst Bush's weird popularity bubble, but the rest of me cringes in horror that it might come to that.

"We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat." --Robin Cook

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March 17, 2003

"DO NOT DESTROY OIL WELLS"???

"DO NOT DESTROY OIL WELLS"??? Does he even care how transparent he sounded? This statement was greeted by raucous laughter by the 500 or so people... hm, I should back up.

Tonight, Janet Reno gave a lecture here at Brown. There was, predictably, a packed house to hear her, and the line when I arrived at 6:15 (the talk was at 7:30) was already a couple hundred people long. Just before she was to speak, they announced a format change: instead of an hour-long talk, she'd just give a half-hour speech, then they'd display the President's speech live on the screen there in Salomon, then we'd go to fifteen minutes or so of questions.

It was a frustrating talk to listen to. She may once have been an excellent public speaker, but she seemed to have a lot of difficulty tonight; she clasped her hands or gripped the podium most of the time so that they wouldn't shake, and her speaking was definitely suffering as well. She kept losing her train of thought in mid-sentence, putting emphasis on strange parts of the sentence, totally forgetting details like Yaser Hamdi's name (which must have been in her notes, but she went off-notes a few times, and I wonder if she was having a hard time reading them). She also repeated herself a lot. She certainly had the strength of her convictions, though, a passionate belief in freedom of speech, privacy, and the importance of an informed populace.

At 8 we broke for W's little speech. It was good to watch it with a crowd---there was a palpable air of "did he really just say that?" A few times there was nervous laughter as he said something that was just too outrageous to be believed (of which "do not destroy oil wells" was but the most egregious). Predictably but depressingly, he lied to the populace several times, as when he claimed that France had declared its intent to veto any resolution that asked Iraq to disarm, when of course it had done no such thing (it was rather only going to vote against a resolution to send the US to go "peacekeep", or whatever we're calling it these days). He moved on to the second half of his speech, which was purportedly to the Iraqi people, who were listening "in a translated radio broadcast"---as if the Iraqi government would translate his subsequent remarks accurately, or at all---and gives instructions on what to do when we invade their country, namely that they should let us. This was, of course, propaganda directed at Americans, who can now feel guilt-free about the war: "well," they can say, "Bush told them we wouldn't hurt them if they would only throw down their weapons and follow our instructions." Of course, we've been there before, and the Iraqis would be stupid to believe us this time around (assuming they could even hear).

Perhaps he had some hope that they would actually hear what he said, hence the "do not destroy oil wells" command. Where some other statements got some nervous laughter from some of the audience, this was greeted with loud, raucous laughter from all present. Simply unbelievable.

I would like to warn the world of the consequences of letting Bush get away with invading Iraq, but someone else said it better:

The cause of peace requires all free nations to recognize new and undeniable realities. In the 20th century, some chose to appease murderous dictators whose threats were allowed to grow into genocide and global war. In this century, when evil men plot chemical, biological and nuclear terror, a policy of appeasement could bring destruction of a kind never before seen on this earth.
I suppose I should maybe cite the speaker of that quotation. That would be W, towards the end of his speech, about an hour and a half ago. Funny how that works.

After the speech, there was a dull shock and dead silence for a moment. The dénouement was bound to be banal, but I have to say that Ms Reno did a lot better with the off-the-cuff questions. One of which, I'm proud to say, was from me: I commented that a lot of government groups---and their records---had been merged under the Department of Homeland Security, and I asked her whether that was a net plus or minus, what the privacy implications might be, and generally what she thought of it. She said that she was particularly concerned about the role of the CIA in the new Department. "We are a nation that doesn't like to be spied on," she said, "especially by our own agencies." She further commented that we, the people, need to be vigilant and ensure that the DHS doesn't abuse its powers.

And that's about all. I still can't believe he said "do not destroy oil wells."

I don't care
if you really care
as long as you don't go. --The Cardigans, "Lovefool"

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Like rats from a sinking

Like rats from a sinking ship...

"God forgive me, but Isaac was really a bit of a schmuck." --Fr Henry Bodah

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We tend to think of

We tend to think of South Africa as a relatively backwards, bigoted place sometimes---apartheid wasn't that long ago---but then they go and do something like this. The US still has much too much prejudice floating around to do anything similar, at least as a whole country (individual states are another story, of course).

Oh, and it looks like the war with Iraq is going to start any minute now. I've got my black armband made and ready to go; do you have yours?

"'Satellite' is like my favourite song ever, except for a few other ones." --Rebecca Santoro

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September 30, 2002

So I've been thinking about

So I've been thinking about political systems.

Two years ago, when I was telling everyone why they should vote for Nader, I was saying things like, "vote for the person you think is best", and pooh-poohing all the objections about "spoiler candidates" and such. Meanwhile, my friend Michael Kimmitt was telling people about how they need to resolve differences in the primary, then unify under the selected candidate: more or less specifically affirming the two party system. I didn't really like that solution, because it routinely ends up presenting us with decisions like Bush vs Gore.

Earlier this year, the French had an election for President in which Jacques Chirac (the incumbent president) was front runner, and Lionel Jospin (then the premier) was thought to be in second. As was usual French elections, there were a number of lesser candidates as well---after ballots were counted, the top two candidates would face off in a runoff vote a few weeks later. As it happened, Jospin was narrowly edged out by a far-right candidate (Jean-Marie Le Pen), who then faced Chirac in the runoff, where he was soundly defeated 80-20%.

This pattern of events was unfortunate, because Chirac and Jospin were relatively moderate candidates, and each would have gotten a lot of votes in the runoff from people who had voted for someone else in the initial vote. Le Pen was unlikely to increase his percentage (and didn't); those who would have preferred slightly-left Jospin to slightly-right Chirac almost universally preferred Chirac to extreme-right Le Pen, sealing his victory. "It's too bad," thought I, "that they couldn't send to their runoff vote the most popular leftist candidate vs the most popular rightist candidate." Oh. That'd make the first election a primary....

Well, sort of. But it certainly sent me off into a different way of thinking. What if the elections were really just runoffs between the best two candidates, and primaries were really where the elections happened? (Michael's been saying this for years, but it never quite registered, I guess.) I thought a lot about this.

But it still galls me to think that I should have to vote for (say) the Democrat just because I think he's less bad than the Republican, and he was selected in the primary. At least, not if there are alternatives. So I flipped back to backing Instant Runoff Voting or some other fair voting system; it's the logical extension of a basic runoff vote, which is itself just an approximation at finding the most supported candidate. If IRV had been in place in France, then people could have stated explicitly that they liked <random leftist candidate> best but still preferred Jospin over Chirac; and as the runoff rounds proceeded (instantly, without the need for further voting) it would have (correctly) ended up a contest between Jospin and Chirac, instead of a system accident that wasted peoples time by pitting Chirac against Le Pen.

Of course, the existence of IRV wouldn't abolish the existence of the parties, nor should it. Political parties provide a convenient way of grouping like-minded people, and funneling monetary support in some centralised way. And for the determination by the party of which candidate to fund, primaries would continue to make sense. If a candidate is defeated in the primary, he can choose to concede---most would, I think---or go it alone, as an independent. An unfunded independent. This would be difficult, but provides a useful outlet: it's the difference between "I agree with A more than B, but in the end, B's pretty good and I'll vote for him" and "I agree with A, but barely at all with B, and the thought of voting for B is awful".

Until we can get IRV in place, though, I've definitely come around to the idea of primaries being a useful if not very perfect approximation thereof. Now I just have to decide whether I'd rather register as Democrat (so I can vote in the primaries) or as Green (to lend numerary support to their existence: it helps their cause to be able to cite numbers of registered Greens in various jurisdictions). Oh well, I'll think about that before the next elections in two years!

"Well, someone come up with a good word that means "person whose name I can put on the same invitation separated by an "and" if I want both people in a couple to show up at my dinner party" yet doesn't indicate what they do with one another in their spare time so as to earn this distinction, and I'll be happy." --Gel Thelen

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August 19, 2002

UGH.

UGH. I finally got around to looking at the website of these Catholic anti-Disney people, and my feelings could at this point not be more mixed.

They are the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property. Browsing through their website, I found the tone familiar---it has the same sort of “sustained outrage” that I have come to expect from a lot of progressive sites. Of this, I approve; too many people have become totally apathetic in their acceptance of things they disagree with, and sustaining the outrage and calling others to action is important.

As for the things they get outraged over... some are pretty straightforward---many of their items are in protest of someone making fun of the Catholic Church, or its major players (Jesus, Mary, the Pope). I'm sort of annoyed that they think this sort of “blasphemous” discourse shouldn't take place, or shouldn't be broadcast or displayed; but whatever, they have a right to say their piece and convey their outrage. Fine. There's something about an anti-abortion rally---fine.

Then I get to two very interesting items: one, from last January, was a letter to Bush and Rumsfeld in support of not granting the Al Qaeda detainees POW status. Their basis is that these people are not honorable, therefore don't deserve any protections. WHAT?? I'm not even going to go into this, it was hashed over enough back in January, but suffice it to say that in addition to being wrong this struck me as really out of place for a Catholic organisation.

The second eyebrow-raiser was last December, when this group wrote a letter to Bush praising his decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty. Come on guys, what are we, Protestant fundamentalists? Last I checked, Catholics weren't hell-bent on bringing about Armageddon.

But now for the flyer that started all this. Apparently it's one of their older campaigns, from 2000. The title of the flyer is “Disney's next victims?” with a picture of two cute little kids. What, are we supposed to think that all those evil gay people are going to convert them or something? In what sense exactly are they supposed to be Disney's “victims”? Ah, but further down we see a quote from Matthew 18:6:

But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.
This is an odd choice of translation, talking about someone who would “scandalize” the children, whereas (go click on that link above) all the versions I can find refer to either offending the little ones or causing them to sin. (The New American Bible, which I'm given to understand is the Catholic standard, uses the latter interpretation.) Any one of them, though, is problematic, as kids aren't scandalised or offended by depictions of gay people on TV and in movies, unless their parents teach them to be, and such depictions aren't very likely to lead the little ones to sin---but it might lead them to be a little more tolerant of others, or a little less self-loathing if they turn out to be gay themselves.

But that's just the cover. Inside, there are some examples of what's so bad about Disney (preceded by the sentence “Did you know that each time we buy from Disney, we help destroy the family?”---Yeah, whatever.) The problem cases seem to be the TV show Ellen, Gay Day at Disney World, the book Growing Up Gay, and the movies Priest and Dogma. One of these things is not like the other... the objection to the movie Dogma is that it's blasphemous, which, well, it is. The others, though, all evidently are bad because they are accepting of homosexuality. (My favourite comment is about Gay Day, which “turns Disney premises into a modern day Sodom and Gomorrha[sic].”. I have to giggle at that---what exactly do they think those gay people are doing at Disney World??)

So many things about this irritate me, but I think most of it boils down to the inherent assumption made in the flyer, which is that merely being homosexual is bad, or at least that being a practicing homosexual is vastly worse than being a practicing heterosexual---or else why aren't these people boycotting, y'know, all the entertainment companies that depict unmarried relationships between straight people? I.e., all of them? According to actual Catholic doctrine, being homosexual is not a sin, and having gay sex (out of wedlock, which is at least for now tautological) is no different than having straight sex out of wedlock. But you never see TFP or any of these other morality groups getting their panties in a bunch over all the unmarried relationships all over the popular media.

Actually, there's another thing that irritates me about this, which is the assertion that homosexuality is somehow inimical to “the family”. But there's nothing about the fact that two people are of the same gender that will make them automatically worse at forming a family than any other two people. And one thing that's particularly bad for “the family” is when one member thereof discovers his or her homosexuality (or bisexuality, or transsexuality) and lives in fear of the disapproval of the rest of “the family”, or gets forcibly ejected from “the family” for being the way they are. My thoughts return to the two cute little kids on the cover, and wonder: if one of them turns out to be gay, aren't they a bit more likely to become TFP's next victims?

"I'm sure we could manage a reasonable middle ground, what with that "intelligence" and "flexibility" stuff going for us as a species." --Jonathan Prykop

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