Saturday, December 24, 2005

National Review at 50: Why "Lolita"'s 50th Was More Fun

The birth of the modern conservative movement is usually carbon-dated to 1964, when Barry Goldwater lost the election only to see the conservative desert bloom in his wake. A closer look at the fossils should push the date back to 1955. That was the year Dwight Eisenhower launched America’s neo-imperial age by sending the first advisers to Vietnam, the year corporate America decreed profits an entitlement when General Motors became history’s first billion-dollar company, the year Ray Kroc launched billions and billions of thromboses with the first franchising of McDonald’s, the year a half century of great American literature died when five American publishers rejected Nabokov’s Lolita, and the year conservative’s die-hard trinity was born with a look-who’s-talking-now twinkle in its halo: Chief Justice John Roberts, Chief Jingoist Bruce Willis, and National Review — the magazine Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak says brought him “clarity of perspective and the intellectual ammunition to fight the battles that needed to be fought.” Vanna White’s America has been turning the pages of that puzzle board for 50 years. And so National Review commemorates its 50th anniversary with its special December 19 issue. Read the complete round-up…

Friday, December 23, 2005

Flag-Burning Does Australia

From iron-fisted policing to chain-rattling domestic security to draconian internment of unsavory immigrants
to dovetailing British and American hubris in Iraq, John Howard’s Australia has been a mirror image of George Bush’s America for the last four years. Now add to the list the fury over flag-burning.

Two Australian teens are in jail and have been denied bail for setting an Australian flag on fire. Cleverly, the offense they’re being held for is not the flag-burning as an act in and of itself. Nor have they been charged with stealing, even though they climbed up a private club’s flag pole and took the flag. The two charges are “entering a building with the intent of committing an indictable offence and one of malicious damage by fire.” Is the indictable offense the malicious damage by fire? And malicious to whom, besides Australia’s pride? Protesters routinely burn things in effigy. They’re not generally arrested, unless of course they’re Iranians burning something more domestic than imported, or liberal New Yorkers protesting their government’s infatuation with Mussolini. No, the Australian case is Turkey light. Just as Turkey wanted to put Orhan Pamuk, the writer, on trial for “insulting” Turkish identity (by claiming that Turkey bore responsibility for murdering Armenians and Kurds in separate genocides), Australia’s authorities won’t stand for being insulted, especially not by immigrants (one assumes that the teens are the sons of Lebanese pachas).

The more the West claims to be doing battle for liberty in the face of the East’s regressive assaults, the more the West adopts the methods of repression and regression. Among America’s red states, we have Utah, Nebraska, Texas, Wyoming, so many more… and now Australia, on whose fatal shoals liberty has drawn its latest wreck.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

American Culture in Recession?

We’re not a very interesting culture at the moment. Not in literature, not in moviemaking, and discounting the Marsalis clan, not in music either. Television is in an oddly creative spurt if you look past the reality shows and the news networks’ dismal fictions and colon-centered “news-you-can-use” posing as information. But if television is the new gold standard of cultural creativity, the bar has dropped dangerously low. It’s surprising, considering that from The Great Gatsby to Bill Gates the United States has been inspiration, leader and trend-setter in business, technology, law, human and civil rights, popular and high arts, every science imaginable and unimagined not so long ago, all the while managing to save the world a couple of times and send greetings to the four corners of the universe along the way. Not a bad run for an adolescent country. What a reversal lately. If we’re not plundering, bombing or boring the rest of the world with preachy and occasionally lethal crusades, we’re being plundered at home by rhetoric and political lawlessness out of character even for this Republic of excess s and pay-per-lobbyist corruption. Read the rest...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Where Spygate and Intelligent Design Meet

On page 87 of Judge John Jones’s opinion striking down intelligent design as a valid scientific theory for public schools to teach, you come across the following lines: “A final indicator of how ID has failed to demonstrate scientific warrant is the complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory. Expert testimony revealed that the peer review process is ‘exquisitely important’ in the scientific process. It is a way for scientists to write up their empirical research and to share the work with fellow experts in the field, opening up the hypotheses to study, testing, and criticism.”

But peer review would demolish the intelligent design theory and expose it, as the federal trial in Pennsylvania did, as the theological Trojan horse that it is. With ticks. Judge Jones could just as easily have been writing about President Bush’s theory of executive privilege, otherwise known, in this latest incarnation, as Nixon on Speed. Where is its national security warrant in the complete absence of evidence, accountability, accomplishments?

Peer review is the academic term for checks and balances, otherwise known as the Black Hole of Washington politics in the last five years. The Bush administration wanted its NSA spying scheme to remain a secret because its reasoning is no more defensible, no more sustainable, than that of the dervishes of Intelligent Design. Give spygate a little scrutiny and it crumbles of its own weightlessness: It was the NSA itself, like the FBI and the CIA, that so grossly neglected to act on what it knew and could have known more about, legally, had it not been dozing at the listening posts and refusing to share what it tracked with the FBI until after the 2001 attacks. Not that the FBI, notoriously and criminally more molasses than Mossad, would have reacted intelligently. Now we have a president who claims the spying program is an absolute necessity, because the legal process doesn’t stand up to necessity anymore than it stands up to scrutiny. It cannot. An empirical look at the program might even legitimize it as a national security tool, proving to Congress, behind all the closed doors they please, why it’s needed and how effective it’s been. But for that you’d need facts. Evidence of effectiveness. Evidence of an intelligently designed spying operation.

Lacking that, you get stone walls. Lacking stones in a democracy that still puts on at least the appearance of transparency, you get lies, like what President Bush said in Buffalo on April 19, 2004: “[W]hen the President says something, he better mean it. See, in order to make the world more peaceful, it’s essential that those of us in positions of high responsibility speak clearly and mean what we say.” Moments later, this is what he did say: “Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.”

There’s a lot of carping in the press about whether it’s just to call Bush a liar if he’s only being sincere, or acting on received information—that is, if, in a six-grader sort of way, he doesn’t know any better. “I’m against the ‘liar’ label for two reasons,” Nicholas Kristof, technically a liberal, wrote in his New York Times column on June 30, 2004. “First, it further polarizes the political cesspool, and this polarization is making America increasingly difficult to govern. Second, insults and rage impede understanding.” But what’s Kristof or anyone to call a contradiction as blatant as Bush’s in Buffalo in 2004 and Bush since last Saturday? What if the president is insulting us and making a cesspool of the Constitution? What if it isn’t rage that impedes understanding, but the president himself, willfully and unapologetically?

Bush is not only conceding but defending spygate, with a feign of self-righteous outrage quite similar to Sean Hannity’s reactionary tantrums. He’s calling it a vital gap-filler, like intelligent design partisans claiming their theory fills gaps evolution cannot. So what has become of the no-wiretaps-without-warrants assurance? How can that not be a lie, to say nothing of the crime of it all? The White House’s answer: The president was only referring to the Patriot Act. Not to his secret program. So he’s on fair grounds. In other words: even credibility is, as Dick Cheney would say, executive privilege. Facts are what the White House say they are. It even has its peer-reviewers: Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Dick Cheney.

For all its obsession with orthodoxy and control, not even the Council of Nicea was that narrow, that despotic, that nauseatingly self-aggrandizing.

A Failed Florida Election in Iraq

Why should Florida and Ohio have all the electoral fun? Iraq’s Sunnis are asking for a recount. Or an investigation. Or somebody’s head. They’re unthrilled by the numbers, which show religious Shiite victories by margins beyond sizeable. The headlines in Teheran must be hilarious in a Woody Allen-does-Apocalypse Now sort of way: “Iran Wins.” The headlines in Fallujah and Ramadi, where every street is Elm Street for American patrols, must have a more Freddy Krueger feel: “Sharpen Your Knives.” Iraq’s so-called secularists—the only secularists in the world toward whom the Bush administration is willing to display wet and wild public displays of affection—are also feeling sclerotic. Ayad Allawi, former Saddamite but currently the closet thing Bush has to a trusty DeLay in Baghdad, scored a “dismal” 14 percent in his own town. The Diebold machines must’ve not made it to Iraq on time. Either that or the hackers borrowed from the Florida Supervisor of Elections office must’ve taken the day off, or mistaken Bahrain for Baghdad, or failed to convince Iraqi voters that touch-screen voting machines had nothing to do with Poltergeist, or that the 72 virgins some of the more rabidly ayatollesque candidates promised their supporters were predicated on a mailed-in rebate coupon from Best Buy. There are no Best Buys yet in Iraq. Not with Halliburton monopolizing the vestal vermin’s market, anyway. There are only rancidly honest elections. The results are living up to everybody’s expectations but the Bush administration’s team of fabulists. They’re trying to rewrite history’s first drafts in the White House basement, down there well out of the light but in the same dank dens of fantasies where Oliver North once concocted his delusions of grandeur in that pre-Viagra era of GOPers Gone Wild.

You can see how these little blue pills have done more to damage the world than Fat Man and Little Boy. Before losing his constitutional compass North just wanted to rewrite history in Nicaragua while freeing hostages in Lebanon with Saudi money and Israeli missiles FedExed to Teheran. All of that on a measly $17 million budget, with “residuals.” (A brief tangent back to that Iran-Contra era, seemingly so innocent in comparison with today’s high crimes: here’s Oliver North explaining to his Senate questioners, on July 8, 1987, why he should be in the Boy Scouts Hall of Fame instead of in a Senate hearing room: “I saw that idea of using the Ayatollah Khomeini’s money to support the Nicaraguan freedom fighters as a good one. I still do. I don't think it was wrong. I think it was a neat idea. And I came back and I advocated that and we did it. We did it on three occasions. […] It was a good idea because we weren’t using the taxpayers’ money, we were using the Ayatollah’s money.” Ah. That wonderful Republican reasoning where defense of the taxpayer always trumps the defense of the Constitution. (North’s testimony that day is worth a read because it doesn’t look as if Gore Vidal will live long enough to immortalize it in an eighth installment of his American Hysterics series; lacking time, settle for this gem from Letterman’s Top Ten Oliver North Campaign Slogans, from February 3, 1994: “If I ran contra, I can run the country!”)

Bush’s vigilantes in comparison are trying to put a corporate face on these latter-day crusades from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. The Ayatollah is dead and his check book long closed, so it’s all been done on a $1.5 billion-a-week expense account drawn right out of the taxpayer’s nose. The vigilantes imagine they can not only force-feed “free” elections on a nation of shell-shocked poster broods of resentment, and in the scope of howitzers and F-16s to boot, but that they can actually calibrate the outcome as precisely as they did in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004. Arabic, it turns out, isn’t as easy to gerrymander as Floridian. Iraq’s Shiites have been laughing all the way to the polling station. It’s the arms-for-hostages deal all over again. America is again the hostage. Iraq is getting armed to the teeth at American taxpayers’ and gullibility’s expense (“we’re building up the Iraqi Army so the U.S. Army can stand down”). And Iran’s Shiite brigades control the trigger. As Yakov Smirnoff might say, “what a country”—if he ever took a break from entertaining corpulent and contented conservatives vacationing in Branson, Missouri, and ventured his pandering humor to the turbid shores of the Tigris. But then, he could say the same in Branson with equally lethal irony. I dare you to laugh.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Bach Soars, Mel Gibson Crashes: Passions of Christ (& Christmas)

There's apparently a movement out there to "put Christ back in Christmas." Did someone take the rum out of the eggnog? I have no idea why anyone would want to codify this most intelligently designed of holidays, especially in the United States, where it freely evolves according to whatever you want it to be. What's Christmas if you always know what's in the wrapping? It's an annual gift of endless meanings and occasions (and debt and hangovers and depression, but Bethlehem wasn't Nirvana, either).

I'm particularly grateful this time of year, not just because of the luck of my present surroundings. As a child, of course, it was all about the presents. Childhood gave way to adolescence's shoe-faced years, when a hard line against happiness might have been a requirement had it not been for WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University in New York. Someone there had the heavenly idea of putting Bach back in Christmas. Read the full column...

Trifler, Fibber, Sophist, Spy: How Bush Abolished the Constitution

James Bamford is a codebreaker in his own right, an investigative reporter of the Seymour Hersh kind. His latest is the profile of John Rendon and the Rendon Group, chief flackers for the Bush administration and wag-the-dog manipulators of world opinion (the Rendon Group’s bogus storylines helped sell the Iraq war to a too-trusting American public). But six years ago, in the waning days of the Clinton administration, Bamford wrote a stunning short piece for the Washington Post about the NSA, the National Security Agency that, as the New York Times revealed on Monday, has been spying on Americans, on Bush’s orders, since 2001, and to the tune of perhaps 500 eavesdrops at any given time. Bamford (who later published one of the only books on the NSA) begins his Post piece by describing a massive NSA installation in Yorkshire, England, the largest of the agency’s many eavesdropping operations around the world. By 1999, the cold war long over, it should have been shrinking. Instead, it was expanding vastly. (By then the NSA, by far the largest intelligence agency in the western world, numbered 38,000 employees to the CIA’s 17,000). “People in Europe and the United States are beginning to ask why,” Bamford wrote in 1999. “Has the NSA turned from eavesdropping on the communists to eavesdropping on businesses and private citizens in Europe and the United States?” Read the full analysis of Bush's defense of the indefensible...

Bush: Dictator, Moi?

There was a telling exchange between President Bush and a reporter during this morning’s press conference. The irony was lost on most, maybe because it was so blatant: Bush took offense at a question suggestion that he was acting dictatorially. The feigned offense in itself was a clever way to sideswipe the question, rather than answer it. When the reporter attempted to press the president for an answer, Bush acted exactly as dictatorially as he’d just said he couldn’t possibly, twice. Watch, and note the repeated talking-point lie about “talking to Congress all the time,” then fielding the softball from “John” to end the exchange:

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. I wonder if you can tell us today, sir, what, if any, limits you believe there are or should be on the powers of a President during a war, at wartime? And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I disagree with your assertion of "unchecked power."

Q Well –

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on a second, please. There is the check of people being sworn to uphold the law, for starters. There is oversight. We're talking to Congress all the time, and on this program, to suggest there's unchecked power is not listening to what I'm telling you. I'm telling you, we have briefed the United States Congress on this program a dozen times. This is an awesome responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the American people, and I understand that, Peter. And we'll continue to work with the Congress, as well as people within our own administration, to constantly monitor programs such as the one I described to you, to make sure that we're protecting the civil liberties of the United States. To say "unchecked power" basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the President, which I strongly reject.

Q What limits do you –

THE PRESIDENT: I just described limits on this particular program, Peter. And that's what's important for the American people to understand. I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country. John.

Q Thank you, sir. Looking ahead to this time next year, what are the top three or top five -- take your pick -- accomplishments that you hope to have achieved? […]

Monday, December 19, 2005

From Domestic Spying's Apologists to Dating in Darfur: Monday Morning Bloggerback is Up

We slog through the blogosphere's 788 trillion posts, reading each word for word so you don't have to. Then we choose the (relatively) best or most relevant. Despite last week’s sound and fury, it was a thin one for substance. The line-up (click on the link to read it directly):
  1. How the Bush brigades defend the NSA's domestic spying

  2. Taking Shakespeare to the Patriot Act

  3. Dating in Darfur

  4. Khartoum Without Blinders

  5. Remembering Verdun, 1916

  6. St. Louis' Jihadist Cabbie

  7. Cingular's Brooklyn Terminaton

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Iraq's Meaningless Election

“Thursday's parliamentary election in Iraq was a landmark event -- for Iraq. It wasn't a landmark event for the Arab or Islamic world. Democratic elections have been taking place from Indonesia to Algeria for years. They just haven't necessarily produced the kind of results the West likes to celebrate. The same may hold true for Iraq. As two previous elections there proved, symbolically monumental showings at the ballot box have little influence over what happens in the streets, what happens to the American occupation, or -- most troublesome for Iraq's future -- what may happen should Americans leave. Voting is putting a good face on an intractable war. It isn't bringing peace.” Read the full editorial in today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal…

Wikipedia (Almost) as Accurate As Britannica

Finally, a little hard evidence on the Wikipedia debate. An encyclopedia prone to inaccuracies? Not more than Britannica. The science journal Nature—as creditable source as they come—did a little investigation:

“[E]ntries were chosen from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica on a broad range of scientific disciplines and sent to a relevant expert for peer review. Each reviewer examined the entry on a single subject from the two encyclopaedias; they were not told which article came from which encyclopaedia. A total of 42 usable reviews were returned out of 50 sent out, and were then examined by Nature's news team. Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia. But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively.”

In other words, “The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.”

Wikipedia is peer-reviewing at its nearly-best. It compels and enables corrections in a way that Britannica’s almost-written-in-stone hardbound volumes do not (cannot). See Nature’s article on the Wikipedia investigation…