Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Theme sweater hell

For kids, Halloween is the first major holiday of the year. You have to remember that children, like professors, operate on a September 1-August 31 schedule. For people in the real world who have to work all year-round (hah!), January 1-December 31 is considered the normal calendar. And so, in just a few hours, the kids will come knocking on my door, dressed in costumes ranging from the vastly unoriginal teenagers wearing jeans and a T-shirt who just hold out a pillowcase like they're making a dry run for an armed robbery over the weekend to the infants dressed as frogs, flowers or an Oreo.

Yes, infants. "Go ahead, Winston, hold out your pumpkin so the nice man can give you some candy."

Hold out what pumpkin, Winston? Winston can't even hold a fork or anything else at that point. Winston can chew on a finger; Winston can stick his hand in a wall socket; Winston can play fisherman in the toliet. What Winston cannot do is pound down Nestle crunch bars until he has a religious experience.

Let's be real: the candy isn't for Winston, Brooke, Waldo, Patrice or any other 11 month-old. Whatever my failings as a parent -- and they are legion although NOT recorded on the public record -- I never took my kids out to do their father or mother's bidding when they were that age. Like every other self-respecting parent, I bought extra candy for myself, told my children we were out of candy when we were not, shut down neighborhood operations as soon as possible and threatened to call Dr. Dana, the world's greatest pediatric dentist, if they kept asking for more.

"Fine," I'd say. "Take some MORE Mounds bars (my favorite -- we can't keep Reeses because of allergies in our house) while I call Dr. Dana to let her know that YOU KEPT ASKING FOR MORE CANDY THAN YOU'LL EVER EAT EVEN THOUGH IT WILL ROT YOUR TEETH OUT AND PROBABLY KILL YOU INSTANTANEOUSLY!"

"No, don't call Dr. Dana, PLEASE DON'T," they would plead. "Please. She told me last time I would have to pay for a cavity if I got one."

Love Dr. Dana -- she always came through in the clutch. No more, though. My kids have figured out that scaring them with Dr. Dana, like everything else, is an empty threat.

Tonight, I will not don a costume when I answer the door. I will not put on a Viking hat, dress like an old hippie, put on a George Bush mask (we don't want to scare the children), or dress like a mime. To their credit, few of my neighbors will make this concession either. There was, many years ago, a mom in our neighborhood who used to dress up as Morticia Adams when she greeted her trick-or-treaters. Around the same time, there was an exponential rise in the number of dads insisting on taking the kids out for Halloween. Then, one summer, the house went up for sale. Word quickly spread throughout our neighborhood, and by the following Halloween the dads were back manning their castles. "No, dear, you go out with the kids. They're only young once and YOU, not me, should have this experience. Anything else wouldn't be fair."

At least that was my story.

To her everlasting credit, my wife will not appear at the door in a costume either. And even more endearing, she will not wear a Halloween theme sweater to celebrate the day. Nowhere among the 3,428 sweaters in her closet, all of which appear to me to be the same color ("You're colorblind," is the stock answer) will you find a theme sweater of any sort -- no pumpkins, no deer, no dreidels, no American flags, no rabbits, no Menorahs . . . zip, denada, bupkis. Nor will you find any pumpkin or skeleton jewlery among the millions of earrings she has ("It's not really a million," she says. "Only 999,999 thousand. You always exaggerate to make a joke for your friends").

Oh, come on!

The theme sweater is something I have never understood, perhaps because theme sweaters, with all due respect, are not a Jewish thing. If there is a theme to a Jewish sweater, it is where it was purchased and how much you think she paid for it. "I saw that sweater at Loehman's last week," is a more typical comment. "If she tells you she bought it at Bloomingdales she's lying. And, between you and me and the wall, it's a knock-off . . . $45, tops. No need to tell her . . . her husband's having some business problems, at least that's what I hear. Let her enjoy."

This morning at school drop-off you could see the excitement in the eyes of the Theme Sweater Moms, who were as, if not more, excited to wear their new pumpkin pullovers as their children were to come dressed as their character to school. "Oh, look at you," said one TSM to another on the plaza this morning. "I just LOVE your sweater. It is just SO CUTE. I almost got that one myself. Now maybe I will."

"You'd better hurry," said another TSM. "They're almost out at Target. We were so late getting things together for Halloween this year. I didn't even get their costumes until last week. And everything was just so picked over. I think they still might have some earrings."

Oh, my God. "Picked over . . . not until last week . . . SO CUTE?" What is cute about a 40 year-old woman wearing a sweater with PUMPKINS on it?

Bring back Morticia Adams. Quick.

Stay informed (ongoing)

Eugene Robinson has another great op-ed on Bush's ongoing misadventures in Iraq and elsewhere in today's Washington Post. E.J Dionne has a good op-ed on Republican campaign tactics, and why negativity may not work as well this year as in previous ones. If you can breech the New York Times' firewall, John Tierney is excellent in this morning's New York Times.

Last week's New Yorker (the 10.31.06 edition -- remember, magazines post-date their actual distrubtion dates for advertisers) features an interesting piece on the Allen-Webb Senate race in Virginia. The new Tom Tomorrow cartoon is here(follow the links from the home page, which is required reading).

And the new Jazz Times features a cover story on Ornette Coleman. Don't miss it!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Some press conference questions for President Bush

The scariest part of reading White House transcripts of President Bush's press conferences is trying to cut through the Bushwellian double-speak to understand what the Decider thinks he is sayihg. Any sane person with a modicum of critical judgement can conclude after just a few sentences of one of his non-answer answers that the Decider really does believe what he is saying. The catch, however, is that he isn't saying anything at all.

Take last week's disastrous press conference on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. The Decider claimed that the United States is "winning" the war in Iraq; that our struggle against the Iraqi resistance is no different that our fight against facism (and totalitarianism, which he didn't include) in World War II; that America's security for the forseeable future and beyond depends on our success in Iraq; and that Iraq has not yet descended into a civil war. None of these assertions is true, certainly not when tested against any reasonable empirical measure of "winning," "civil war," and the relationship of Iraq to our security and that security to the rest of the world. Bush's denial last week of the realities at home and abroad is reason enough to make his perhaps the most immoral presidency of the last 100 hundred years. Never before has a president had the capacity -- technological, bureaucratic, intergovernmental and transnational -- to know as much about the world as this one does. Never before has a president expressed so little interest in knowing anything that defies a personal belief system so completely divorced from skepticism and inquiry; never before have the consequences in American lives, money and moral standing been so great. Men and women are dying everyday because President Bush cannot admit he made a mistake in invading Iraq that is epic and without parallel as a strategic choice.

And yet . . . yet . . . the president and his spokespeople stand before the American public and the world everyday uttering inanities such as "staying the course" isn't what we meant by saying we would "stay the course." The United States is "flexible" on tactics except when it's not, but under no condition is it staying the course is Iraq except that it is, except when it's not.

What does that mean?

What does this mean? "I don't drink except when I do, which means I drink except when I don't."

What does this mean? "If I go out with you I will not have sex on the first date except if I do, unless I decide not to, which means that I might unless I don't, which is not to say that I won't think about it; it's just not something that I think about unless I do and I don't plan to."

Which makes someone better off financially? 1. I make $10,000 a year. I get a 3% raise to take effect in January 2007. The cost of living is projected to rise 5% in 2007; or 2. I make $10,000 a year. The cost of living did not rise last year in 2006. In January 2007 I will receive a 1.5% cut in pay. It will not rise again in 2007.

This is what I mean by Bushwellian double-speak. He would believe what he said in the first two examples make sense. He would probably get the third example wrong.

But he did say one specific thing that offered reporters a chance to pin him down on what he meant by his own words. And it was this:

Wait a minute, let me say -- the ultimate accountability, Peter, rests with me. That's the ultimate -- you're asking about accountability, that's -- rests right here. It's what the 2004 campaign was about. If people want to -- if people are unhappy about it, look right to the President. I believe our generals are doing the job I asked them to do. They're competent, smart, capable men and women. And this country owes them a lot of gratitude and support.


So three questions for President Bush:

1. "Mr. President, you have talked of the sacrifices that military families -- service men and women, their families left behind, mothers and fathers -- have made to accomplish your objectives in Iraq. You have expressed admiration for their courage and willingness to serve and, if necessary, die to protect their country in what you have called the most important struggle our nation has faced since WWII. Both your daughters, Jenna and Barb, are of draft-eligible age. Have you talked with them about the importance of their service to the country in a time of war? Do you plan to encourage them to serve abroad? If not, why not? Has any member of your extended family made any specific financial or service-related sacrifice to support the Iraq War?"

2. "Mr. President, you have repeatedly said that you are 'accountable' -- your own word -- for the Iraq War. What exactly do you mean by this? And for what are you accountable -- the false intelligence from unreliable, politically motivated Iraqis and syncophants in your own administration, our policy to engage in torture, inadequate troop levels, what?"

3. "Mr. President, if you had the oppportunity to meet with the families of deceased and maimed soldiers who fought in Iraq, what would tell them exactly is the United States' objective right now? What would you tell them justified the loss or disfigurement of their son or daughter?"

Sunday, October 29, 2006

New Joisey gets one right

Almost six days after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that gay couples are entitled to the same legal rights under state law as married couples, all is well at the intersection of Lindale Drive and Walton Road in Bethesda. Late last Tuesday afternoon, after the court's decision came down, I walked around my neighborhood to see if any new "For Sale" signs had gone up or if I might catch a husband or wife hopscotching out the house with nothing more than a suitcase, screaming in joy, "Now I can move to New Jersey to marry my secret gay lover I’ve been hiding from you for fifteen years! And you can keep the children! So long, breeder!"

My neighbors seemed more preoccupied with when the ongoing sidewalk repair project in our neighborhood was going to end, and when it could soon be cold enough so that no one would have to cut their grass anymore this year. Pretty exciting stuff, I’ll grant you.

After the sun had gone down, I donned my black cat burglar’s suit, applied black make-up to my face, put on a ski mask for dramatic effect, and eased in and out of the secret passageways connecting the yards and roads in my neighborhood to see what effect New Jersey’s decision would have on our thoroughly all-American, heterosexual community.

My conclusion after hours of undercover work: not a damn thing.

A few quick notes about the New Jersey court’s decision: first, the seven-member court unanimously agreed that the state constitution did not permit legal discrimination against homosexuals, whether as individuals or as couples in a “committed” relationship. Four members of the court agreed that the state legislature needed to establish a legal framework recognizing “every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples.” The court’s three dissenters would have gone further, saying that gay couples should have the right to call their civil unions marriage; second, the four members of the majority were appointed by a Democratic governor; the dissenters were appointed by a Republican governor. So much for blind partisanship; third, the court did not mandate a right to gay marriage. It said that the legislature must decide what to call these “committed same-sex relationships.” The legislature can call it a civil union, marriage, or whatever. What New Jersey cannot do is maintain a caste system for gays and straight couples based on nothing more than sexual orientation. As Dahlia Lithwick commented in Slate, you can say what you want about this decision, but the one thing you can’t argue with much force is that it represents “activist” judges making “activist” decisions.

Naturally, the usual nutcases came out (perhaps a bad choice of words) kicking and screaming about how New Jersey’s decision undermines our great tradition of heterosexual marriage. Roughly half of American marriages end in divorce; the remaining half include many that are emotionally and sexually dysfunctional; and the number of kids who sit up at night wondering if their parents ever loved each other, much less why they got married, is greater than our politicians and professional commentators would like to admit.

There is much to make fun of New Joisey about – its cultural contributions consist primarily of Bruce Springsteen, the Sopranos and the five-minute press-on-nail salon. Last Tuesday, however the Garden State got one right. It ruled that gay men and women had the right to, at minimum, a civil union with rights no different than married couples. And perhaps without realizing it, the judges also gave a boost to the state economy. Now anyone, including Vito and Johnny Cakes, can have their names airbrushed on the hood of their matching Camaros professing their love for each other until an untimely mob hit - or exposure to a toxic waste site – does them part.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Abolish the letter of recommendation

For professors, fall is "letter of recommendation" season. So far this academic year, I have had 34 requests for some sort of reference -- for law school, a master's program, to study abroad, to transfer to another school, for first out-of-school jobs, for not-so-real jobs (really, do you need a reference from your professor to work part-time at the Pottery Barn? What's the big deal? "We think Courtney is smart enough to straighten candles and wrap drinking glasses, but what we're really concerned about is whether she can reconcile the Lochner decision with our corporate policy to permit employees to take a 10 minute break every 2 hours"), and to serve on a residence hall social committee.

Time for a life-lesson: other than a letter saying, "Lucas is a social misfit who is a dead ringer for Dwight on The Office and has no business studying abroad, working at Chicken Out, living in a residence hall much less being in a position of authority and should certainly NEVER be allowed to enter a post-undergraduate degree program," the letter of recommendation doesn't matter. I wish at some point we would just abolish this ritual and let employers and academic institutions figure out whether their applicants are worthy of their consideration or not.

Bleech!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tomboys vs. Tomgirls

You would think that thirty-five years after the enactment of Title IX, the rise of first-rate amateur and professional womens’ sports in the United States and the enthusiasm that girls of all ages now show for sports once reserved exclusively for boys – the United States now fields world-class national teams in soccer and ice hockey – the phrase “tomboy” would have gone the way of New Coke, 8-tracks, the mullet, Roseanne, the AMC Pacer, disco and other similar cultural artifacts of the last generation or so. No, no, no . . . the phrase is alive and well.

Just the other day after school, my almost-eight-year-old teenage daughter asked if she could play with her friend, Jordan.

“Let me go ask her mother,” who, besides being very cool and not one to wear a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt, was standing just across the plaza.

“No, not that Jordan. There’s another one that you don’t know. But this Jordan isn’t like the other Jordan. The new Jordan is acts more like a girl than a tomboy.”

Some clarification here. Jordan 1 is very much a girl as well as a phenomenal 7 year-old soccer player. She mows down everyone and everything in her path, and my daughter’s coach and I affectionately refer to Jordan 1 as “The Franchise.” I have told her parents, only half in jest, that Jordan would make a great hockey player. Jordan 1 has long hair that she keeps in a pony tail and pierced ears. She does seem to favor a sports-oriented wardrobe – jerseys, jeans and sneakers. All other outward signs indicate that she is a girl. Her parents, who have two other daughters, also believe Jordan is a girl.

I still have not seen Jordan 2. I am assuming, though, from my daughter’s description that Jordan 2 falls more squarely within my daughter’s definition of what a girl should look like. Of course, there is the matter of my daughter the fashionista – who would, if permitted, wear high-heels and a mini-skirt in place of her soccer uniform. Add the attitude and you’ve got . . . well, we don’t really know and neither does anyone else. I sometimes put it like this when people who haven’t met my daughter as me to describe her: she is the “bad” Bond girl – she would seduce James and then pull a gun on him to take him back to the Evil Genius’s lair. But my daughter wouldn’t go down in the inevitable spray of machine gun fire that ends a Bond movie. She not only would survive; she would take over the world. And under no condition would she give James a chance to escape his fate by attempting to prolong his death that never comes. She would actually kill him and then skip away . . . and that would be the end of the Bond franchise.

Still, I wouldn’t call my daughter a tomboy. In fact, before I started hearing my kids use that phrase to describe girls who like sports and favor less feminine clothing, I cannot even remember the last time I used the word tomboy to describe any of my kids’ friends or anyone I knew from my own childhood. So where is this going . . . ?

In one of my classes last spring, we were discussing sex discrimination and the Supreme Court’s major decisions that have outlawed most forms of public and private discrimination against women. Students are always shocked to learn anything in my classes, but many are especially surprised to learn that several of the Court’s major decisions advancing the legal rights of women involved laws that favored women over men. One especially astute student of mine was discussing how many of the laws treating men and women were based on archaic social stereotypes of their respective “roles” in society. True enough, I agreed. Then I went on to ask her about her own views on contemporary men and women’s “roles.”

“Suppose,” I said, “that you were babysitting 7 year-old fraternal twins, a boy and a girl.” (Note: I began this line of questioning after asking my class of 35 students how many of the women had ever babysat, and every woman raised her hand. The same question to the boy yielded one hand, and that involved watching a cousin. When I asked the class how many of them had ever done landscaping work for pay or held a construction job, almost every boy raised his hand. Not a single woman raised hers.) “The girl wanted to play soccer, run around, build Legos, dig in the sandbox and show you her electric guitar. She also thought it was really cool that her house was being renovated because she liked watching the construction. When you went home that day, would you tell your roommate that the girl you were sitting was really weird or really fun and cool?”

“Fun and cool,” she said.

“All right . . . now suppose the boy didn’t want to do any of those things. Instead, he wanted to play dress up and pretend to host a dinner party. Then he wanted to show his little sing-along-machine and perform Kelly Clarkson songs for you. He changed outfits four times in three h ours. He also wanted to show you how he fed his “pretend” baby and simulated breast-feeding. What would you tell your roommate? Weird, or fun and cool?”

She kind of half-smiled and admitted she wasn’t sure. Pressing her a bit, I asked her to be completely honest and admit that she would probably describe the boy as a “complete fucking weirdo.” “Maybe not in those terms,” she said, but she nonetheless conceded the point, and admitted that it was her own perception of gender roles that led her to this conclusion. This woman’s honesty and intelligence make her the outstanding student that she is. Rather than pretend to take a position she didn’t believe, she admitted that she couldn’t really explain the difference.

Unfortunately for my students, I still have excellent peripheral vision from my days of holding runners on base as a pitcher. Without turning my head, I noticed a boy chuckling at her response, sort of a “dude, you got schooled by Ivers look.” I turned my attention to him.

“And you would describe the boy . . . how?”

“I don’t know,” he replied in a goofy way. “Maybe he’s gay?”

“He’s gay because he wants to play dress-up and sing? Does that make our soccer-playing girl who also wants to work construction a lesbian?”

“It’s not the same thing. It’s normal for girls to play soccer. But it’s weird for boys to do the things you said.”

“So you think he’s gay,” I pressed. “What if he happened to be a great soccer player who also wanted to be a ventriloquist? Now he plays sports and plays with dolls. Is he still gay?”

“Not if he plays soccer. And I’m not saying he is really gay. He just sort of acts gay.”

Now we were at the heart of the matter. “How can you act gay if you’re not gay? If you came home to find your roommate having sex with another man, would you believe him if he told you, ‘I’m not really gay. I’m just acting that way.’ If my friend Lowell turns in all his guns, sells his pick-up and stops threatening to kill drive-thru attendants with his bare hands does that make him less of a Gentile? If you pick the African-American kid first sight unseen to play on your side in a pick-up basketball game, and it turns out he sucks, is he really not black?”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “this makes the 7 year-old boy a tomgirl rather than gay. If girls can still be tomboys, can boys who do not conform to early childhood stereotypes of how boys should behave be tomgirls?”

After a few seconds of silence, we moved on to a less controversial topic – sexual harassment.

I thought about this topic a few days ago after watching the 22 funniest minutes of television I have seen in ages – the “Gay Witch Hunt” episode of The Office. I was watching the show on my iPod and apparently my laughter reverberated throughout the house. My kids came running back to the bedroom to see if anything was wrong.

“Dad, is everything all right? You were laughing really loud,” inquired my twelve-going-on-eighty-five year-old son. I must be some kind of good parent – my kids think something is wrong because I am laughing and not yelling. But this is also the same kid who informed my wife two days ago that he “might have asthma” because he was out of breath after running during P.E. Game Cube just doesn’t get the heart rate up like it used to, eh boy?

Everything was fine. I had just finished watching the scene where the HR guy tells Michael that he should stop making “gay jokes” at Oscar’s expense because Oscar really is gay. After some back and forth, Michael tells the camera that he would never make any gay jokes to someone who is really gay. “You don’t tell someone who is retarded that they are acting retarded. You tell the person who is normal that they are acting retarded if they are doing something that is retarded.” Making fun of a gay person who is really gay would be offensive, he concludes. Later, when discussing the matter with his staff, one of the more quiet employees tells Michael that they thought he was gay in high school because he always dressed neatly and had matching socks. Then someone else mentions that she thought he was gay because of some superficial characteristic . . . .

So what does this have to do with tomboys and tomgirls? I guess I have always thought it was interesting that no one has ever used the phrase “tomgirl” to describe boys exhibiting behavioral traits associated more with girls. Tough guys still like to describe such behavior as “gay,” even though the person accused of being gay might not be gay. To complicate matters, it is not uncommon to hear men – and the occasional woman – describe Hillary Clinton or some other ambitious public figure as a “lesbian,” even though she might be married with several children and grandchildren to her credit. What the hell does political ambition have to do with sexual orientation? Perhaps she was never very good at sports. Knowing Bill Clinton as we do, I doubt very much he would have married a lesbian – unless she was really a heterosexual woman just “acting” like a lesbian. Then again, that could make her a porn star, couldn’t it?

All this is just so damn confusing, isn't it? We would all be better off if we worried less about associating certain behavioral traits with gender. A great contribution of the women’s rights movement in the 1960a and early 1970s was to educate men -- and women -- about the rights and possibilities of women. Women should be free to make their own choices about what they wanted to with their lives, whether that involved having sex for fun or to have babies, to become a doctor instead of a nurse or a lawyer instead of legal secretary. A generation later, we know a lot more about the intrinsic differences between boys and girls and men and women, and we have recognized, although somewhat slowly, that men and women are equal in their standing before the law but not necessarily the same. Even today, boys will sometimes be boys and girls will sometimes be girls. In the same spirit, we should also recognize that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests, and spend less time assigning names, rules and boundaries to people who just enjoy being themselves. Duke Ellington once said that people spent too much time trying to place his music in a category or a box. Music was either good or bad. Right he was, and so are people.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rush Limbaugh is an asshole

For anyone who has ever watched a friend or relative suffer from Parkinson's disease, there is no doubt that this affliction takes a terrible toll on the victim. Unlike, say, a 10 year-old who fakes a stomach ache to get out of a math quiz, Parkinson's sufferers are not over-dramatizing the effects of the disease to get someone else to take out the garbage or mow the lawn.

So what possessed Rush Limbaugh, even by his low standards, to accuse the actor Michael J. Fox of, at worst, "faking" his battle with Parkinson's and, at best, "exaggerating" his symptoms? Well, it seems that, according to Limbaugh, Fox, who long ago agreed to make public his affliction with Parkinson's to encourage stem cell research on the disease, is faking, imagining . . . his illness to help take down Republican candidates this fall who oppose stem cell research. Said Limbaugh:

"He is exaggerating the effects of the disease," Limbaugh told listeners. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act. . . . This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting."


Limbaugh was beseiged with criticism after making his on-air statements, and later offered a mealy-mouthed apology "if" Fox was truly suffering from Parkinson's. Rush, Michael Fox is everything you're not: universally well-liked, smart, respected as a person and a professional and courageous. You, on the other hand, are just an asshole.

To see the Washington Post story on Limbaugh's comments, click here.

To see the ad on behalf of Maryland Democratic candidate Ben Cardin that raised Rush's suspicions, click here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Stay informed (ongoing)

On Bush and Iraq, see Richard Holbrooke and Eugene Robinson's op-ed pieces in the Washington Post this morning; the New York Times has an excellent editorial on easing out of the Iraq disaster.

The new Atlantic Monthly features a million word (not really, but it felt like it) profile by Joshua Green on Hillary Clinton. Read and decide for yourself whether you would like her to serve as your next president.

The New York Times Book Review features an interesting review essay by Jim Holt on Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion. More comment on that later in the week.

Justice Scalia

I see from yesterday’s (10.23.06) Washington Post that Justice Antonin Scalia has just given yet another public address on one of his favorite themes – that issues such as abortion and suicide have "nothing" to do with the Constitution, and that the federal courts should not intervene to resolve the differences that exist among the citizenry on these matters. Here he is:

"Take the abortion issue. Whichever side wins, in the courts, the other side feels cheated. I mean, you know, there’s something to be said for both sides. The court could have said, ‘No, thank you.’ The Court could have said, you know, ‘There is nothing in the Constitution on the abortion issue for either side.’ It could have said the same thing about suicide, it could have said the same thing about . . . all the social issues the courts are now taking. . . ."

"It is part of the new philosophy of the Constitution. And when you push the courts into that, and when they leap into it, they make themselves politically controversial. And that’s what places their independence at risk."

So many things are wrong with this statement it is hard to know where to begin. First, issues like abortion, assisted suicide, the right to die, the right to contraception and others related to them have everything to do with the Constitution because they touch, in varying ways, upon the most fundamental elements of personal liberty. The decision to bear or not bear a child, to engage in a personal, sexual relationship with another person because of the emotional and biological needs fundamental to human nature, to decide whether to continue a miserable life for no other reason than medical technology can sustain it are as important to the individuals facing and making such decisions as the right to believe or not believe in God or the desire to underwrite or not religious instruction with tax dollars are for others. No, the words abortion, suicide and contraception are not mentioned in the Constitution, but neither are such words and phrases as “education,” “Internet access,” and “medicare.” The Court has and will continue to rule on matters that involve legislation and policy conflicts in all these areas, and very few people believe these are inappropriate venues for the courts. Justice Scalia knows full well that the courts exist to provide relief to parties that believe they have been shortchanged by the legislative process. This doesn’t mean they are entitled to win. There might well be very good reasons that women should not be allowed to have abortions or unmarried persons below the age of legal sexual consent should not be permitted to buy contraception. Constitutional dialogue is an umbrella for social and political dialogue, and no amount of wishing that away can ever change that fact.

Second, the courts entrance into the social dimension of American life is not some post-1960s phenomenon, as conservative critics of the Court often make it out to be. True, the Court did not deal directly with issues involving the Bill of Rights until the early 20th century, and it is also true that it did not really ramp up its involvement in civil right and liberties cases until after World War II. But so many of the major cases the Court decided in the 19th century and after the turn of the 20th century dealt directly with the social and political order of our nation that it is impossible to argue otherwise. Remember, most of the Court's decisions involving claims of individual freedom or the collective good during this period favored management over labor, owners over renters, big business over the artisan or small businessman and the interests of whites over blacks and men over women. Until the New Deal Court emerged in the late 1930ss, the Court intervened by and large to maintain a status quo that favored individuals and institutions in positions of economic, social and political power. By neutering the Fourteenth Amendment in 1873 shortly after its enactment in 1868, the Court prevented women, newly freed African slaves and others on the losing end of the political process from achieving equal status in American life. The idea that the Court has only recently gotten into the business of mediating social problems is patently false, and Justice Scalia has to know this is true. Protecting slavery, ensuring the legal disenfranchisement of women, subjecting African-Americans to the "separate but equal" charade, prohibiting the establishment of work rules protecting children and guaranteeing a minimum wage and upholding the right of states to sterilize women perceived as eugenically unworthy sounds like the social arena to me, and that's only a fraction of what the Court addressed during these different periods before the "modern" era that began after World War II.

Now, as always, the debate over the meaning of the Constitution is a debate over our collective social, political and economic values. And the Court cannot avoid being a part of that conversation. Nor should it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Happy Birthday to me

Today, I am older than Curt Schilling, the same age, within a day, as Wynton Marsalis, slightly younger than Barack Obama, who, other than his good looks, sophistication and erudition, has nothing on me, much younger than Julio Franco and several decades to the south of the great jazz drummer Roy Haynes, who can still blow 99% of drummers of any age off the bandstand.

Happy birthday to me.

The server supporting this site crashed over the weekend. Come back tomorrow for commentary on Justice Scalia, tomboys vs. tomgirls and reincarnation!

Reincarnation

Let me be clear before I get to the main point -- I think when you're done in this life you're done. No pearly gates, no angels, no devil, no fires in hell, no great classroom or baseball field in the sky and absolutely no second chance to serve some omnipotent spiritual authority. However, in the spirit of Shirley Maclaine, who, by my last count, is on life 3 or 3,294, depending on her mood, I've given some thought to who or what I'd like to come back as if I had a second or 3,294th chance to correct my errors or just experience a more charmed life.

1. Condi Rice. Okay, so your first thought might be why not Tim Robbins, who gets to say good morning to Susan Sarandon, or whoever the guy is who is married to Julianne Moore? Well, I have a smart, talented and beautiful wife, so no need to upgrade there. I do know this, however: my wife wouldn't be nearly as patient as Condi Rice's boss if I had her record of professional mediocrity. Condi's career really is remarkable . . . a non-descript doctoral dissertation that made absolutely no scholarly impactand a subsequent medicore professional record that did nothing to stem her warp-speed ascension up the academic ladder, moving from professor to Provost of Stanford by the age of 38 . . . confidante and advisor to President Bush I, and now Secretary of State to the Decider himself. And her accomplishents in this administration? Condi made no effort to alert the Decider to Bin Laden's lurking shadow over the United States in the months before 9/11; she refused to accept any responsibility for the United States' intelligence failure on al-Qaeda; she was a syncophant in the circle of advisors pitching the Iraq invasion; she has done nothing to stem the tide of anti-democratic movement in Russia (her area speciality as an academic); offered no ideas on how to get out of the Iraq mess or a single independent thought on what's wrong and why (and that's because, according to Condi, there is nothing wrong), compared the struggles of the Afghan government (now crumbling) and the Iraqi government (whatever the hell that is) to the Southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and has made no effort to take an independent stand on any aspect of administration foreign policy.

Her reward? Promotion from National Security Advisor to Secretary of State, and frequent mention as a possible presidential candidate in 2008 or, if not then, 2012. Oh, and she was annointed as a sex symbol by the Washington media a few years ago after wearing some stiletto boots while on official business in Europe. That's right . . . Condi Rice, a sex symbo. Not a bad life, eh? If I screwed up as much around my house as Condi Rice has helped screw up around the world, and started wearing any of my wife's 412 pairs of stiletto boots to compensate for my failures, I don't think she'd be teary-eyed with happiness that, after all these years, she knew, just knew, that she had married such a sexy man. She'd kick me with one of those pointy toed boots right into the street.

2. Any disgraced right-wing politician or public figure. Okay, so you might have to go through a few weeks of public ridicule or personal disgrace. But remember, that's at the expense of the liberal media, which is always try to tear down such upstanding American citizens and patriots like Chuck Colson, Oliver North, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and Mark Foley. And think of the upside! You either end up at a cushy, well-paid job in some Washington think-tank and praised as a "global thinker" on the big issues of the day, get your own radio show and make zillions of dollars, enjoy great social status among the Washington political-media establishment as a "former Reagan/Bush/Bush administration official" called on to comment on the great issues of the day or make a career blaming someone else -- the liberal media, gay people, obscure feminist theorists, your lawn guy, Tracey Partridge (whose off-beat tambourine playing foretold the demise of the Partridge Family's musicial career and cleared the path for Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper and other early purveyors of glam-trash-rock) and, for one size fits all demonization, Hillary Clinton. Your friends in the right-wing Establishment won't think any worse of you. They'll simply nod their heads sympathetically knowing how difficult it is to take righteous public positions on sex, drugs, drinking and rock n' roll after getting caught privately enjoying sex, drugs, drinking and rock 'n roll, and take you in as one of theirs. Family values indeed.

3. A serial killer. I don't have any desire to kill anyone, not even the crossing guard in front of my almost-eight-year-old teenage daughter's school. But I have always wondered what it is about serial killers that makes them such kind and generous people in the eyes of their neighbors and former school teachers. Every time one of these nutcases gets caught unearthing one of their victims from their backyard, after having chopped them up and dined on some of their more attractive prey, television reporters covering the arrest and perp walk out of the killer's house always manage to find a neighbor who says, "We had no idea Walter was stalking, killing and decapitating people. He was always so nice to us . . . carried in our groceries, shoveled the snow from the sidewalk, picked up Gus's perscriptions after his circulation went bad and helped us with the church social last year." And the teacher who recalls the nice, quiet boy who turned his work in on time and didn't bother anybody. Do you think that just one time someone would say something like, "Walter? That kid was a freak from Day One. He collected fireflies and then suffocated them, went on a bashing spree against frogs near the creek that landed him in juvy for a month and must of run through three-fourths of the gerbils at the pet store. Turns out he was shooting and skinning them." And a teacher who would say, "Walter was by far the most deranged student I ever had. I kept a gun in the desk drawer just in case he decided to freak-out one day. Glad someone finally wised up to him." If I ever got busted for, let's say, getting into a verbal altercation with the crossing guard that got me banned from my almost-eight-year-old teenage daughter's school parking lot, I bet some former student of mine would say, "That asshole gave me a C- in civil liberties and ruined my life." A former teacher might chime in, "Gregg Ivers? Did he ever graduate? That kid was such a pain in the ass in 6th grade. I could have sworn he was asked to leave town and never come back. So this is what happened, huh? I'm not surprised." A serial killer might just be the way to go.

4. Paris Hilton. Here is someone with absolutely no talent or skill to do anything (and, yes, I've seen "the video" courtesy of one of the more developmentally-challenged friends with whom I play hockey, and I unequivocally stand by my assessment), is not the least bit attractive, can't even talk in complete sentences and, incurring just the small expense of a public break-up with her equally vacant best friend, can do anything she wants anytime she wants and seems to have enough people convinced that she really has skills, looks, talent and a remedial command of the English language. And let's not forget more money that she could possibly spend in ten lifetimes. What does this woman put on her 1040 as her occupation? Does anyone know? Wow! What a gig!

5. The crossing guard in front of my almost-eight-year-old teenage daughter's school. If I parked my car on the curb in front of a fire hydrant so that a fire truck could not possibly get to it every day for three years, would I have the nerve to reprimand a driver for taking a right turn after she told him to go simply because he didn't use his turn signal, having seen that NO OTHER CAR WAS WAITING TO PROCEED? I don't think so. Would I threaten to report him to the school principal, knowing full well that he was already on the outs with the PTA for his position on the Sally Foster wrapping paper scam? Most definitely not.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Encore: The Sociology of Starbucks

Note: I had no idea as many people would actually read my blog as they have. And there seems to be a particular enthusiasm for one of my earliest posts, "The sociology of Starbucks," particularly among current and former employees of a certain national coffee chain, So here is an encore presentation:

The sociology of Starbucks

On a recent trip to Starbucks, I had the pleasure of waiting in line behind my favorite type of customer: the 50ish preppy woman, her hair held back by a black headband, wearing a white Lacoste polo shirt with the collar turned up, complemented by capris featuring some sort of strange collection of fruit, accessorized with a belt patterened in strawberries and rounded out with sockless Gucci flats. She was, naturally, sporting the latest in Fendi eyeglass frames, which she repeatedly took off and on, much like a turtle poking his or her head out of the shell, to signal the counter-workers that she was losing her patience. And when it was her turn, she offered up something like this:

"I want a grande not-quite-half-caf with a shot of [unintelligible], with three-quarters of an extra shot, no foam soy latte, [something else unintelligible], blah, blah, blah . . ." The barista repeated the order back to make sure she got it right, which amazingly she almost did, except not to the satisfaction of her customer. I did hear a lot of, "Not quite this, not quite thats," though.

After going through this ritual a second time, the woman turned to me, as if we were members of the same "can you believe people like us have to go through this shit" sorority and said, "Sometimes I just want to strangle these people. I don't know where they come from."

To which I responded, "They're much nicer to you than I would have been. If this were my store, I would have asked you to leave."

Miffed, the woman replied, "I would have reported you to the manager and had you fired."

"I didn't say if I worked here. I said if this were my store. That would make me the manager and I wouldn't fire myself," I said.

"I would demand something," she responded, apparently quite unfamiliar with the corporate structure of small independently-owned retail coffee shops, such as the hypothetical shop of mine. "I will tell you that if you worked here, I would ask to see the manager."

"Neither option works," I reminded her. "I wouldn't fire myself. Plus, I don't work here."

My friend the barista then handed me my coffee, on the house. Just coffee. No fractions, no currency conversions and no shots. I walked outside, and who do I see but the Coffee Lady in a dispute with a meter maid . . .

"And you're telling me that you're going to give me a ticket for leaving my car here for five minutes to get coffee?" When he reminded her that all the parking in front of the store was metered, and that there were no exceptions for affluent white Starbucks addicts to grab their Grandes and go (I exaggerate the second part of the sentence), she grabbed the ticket and began to get in her car when she noticed me standing on the sidewalk in front of her.

"And I suppose you put money in the meter, right?"

"No," I responded. "I rode my bike. I don't have to."

She just looked at me, threw her hands in the air, hoped in her Land Rover (which, by the way, is perhaps the unsafest SUV on the road) and screeched off.

And that was that.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

College is not for dummies

In the past week, I have read two articles addressing familiar themes on the state of higher education in the United States. Each deserves some comment, although for very different reasons.

Eugene Hickok, writing in last Wednesday's New York Times, offers a fairly cogent summary of the new conservative complaint about what's wrong with American colleges and universities. In addition to the usual whining about professors not teaching enough, about what they do teach when they decide to grace the classroom, about the lack of preparation our students have when they decide to enter the professional world, comes a new suggestion to right our rudderless ships: we should introduce more standardized testing to see what our students know and what they don't by the time they graduate, pack up their Birkenstocks and hitchike home. Hickok cites a report released from the National Civics Literacy Board (on which he served) for evidence on just how unaware our college graduates are of the world around them -- the average score for "civics literacy" for a graduating senior was 53.2 percent.

That's not good, no doubt. But is that really how we want to evaluate what students know when they graduate? And to decide what it is that they know, we have to define -- with apologies to Bill Clinton -- the meaning of the word "know." I'm not sure how well my students would do if they were tested in some standardized form on what I taught them when they graduated. I try to teach them certain specifics in my courses, with those "certain specifics" depending on the course I'm teaching. Sometime the specifics are more abstract if I'm teaching a course that is more historically or theoretically oriented, or quite specific if I am teaching a course on some aspect of constitutional law. As I tell my students, though, filling them full of facts is not my goal. Rather, I want them to develop a critical capacity to see the world from a more informed, more skeptical, less bullshit-driven perspective. I could care less if they could circle the "correct" answer for judicial activism . . . the more important question is whether judicial activism is a term with any actual meaning. Political rhetoric in the United States is overcrowded with meaningless terms to describe important moral choices and complex public policy issues. "Partial-birth abortion," for example, is a phrase not found in any medical dictionary. It is a market-tested phrase created to capture a certain rhetorical (and moral) corner in the public debate over legal abortion. Same with "sexual orientation" to describe hetero- or homosexual attraction. Is someone "bi-sexual" if they are primarily attracted to and sexually involved with people of the opposite sex, save for one same-sex encounter at some point in their lives? Is "sexual orientation" just as applicable to describe a heterosexual attraction to certain physical features of another person, such as hair color, build, height, body type, and so on? And what exactly is the "gay lifestyle?" A penchant for fresh flowers, fashionable jeans, and yogurt smoothies? Is that anymore indicative of gay life in the United States than potato chips, NASCAR and an obssession with celebrity weight-loss counts is of the "heterosexual lifestyle?"

You can't really test what people "know" when they graduate from college. Yes, we all wish that our students could write better, would read and even think about what we ask them to, would test their own ideas by defending through precise argument and research their preconceived notions of right and wrong before babbling on about whatever it is they think they know and . . . the list goes on. College is the opportunity for students to develop independence and discipline, and to learn about the world around them in a setting that fosters intellectual curiosity and growth. On that count, I don't think we're doing a great job. But not for the reasons that Hickok suggests. And that leads me to Clive Crook's new piece in the Atlantic Monthly on the false but well-ingrained notion that going to college is, above all, a way to increase your earning power and take a rightful place in the information-based world economy.

Time and time again, we hear that going to college is the best hope that our young people have of securing a good job and entering, at minimum, the mainstream of the American middle-class. People who do this kind of research point to the correlation between education and income, and there is no real reason to dispute that going to college gives the average person -- not the Bill Gates, YouTube, Google or Facebook geniuses -- an advantage in getting started in their income-generating, adult lives. But Crook points out something that most professional academics in the liberal arts could have told anyone who asked them a long time ago: college has long since ceased to be a place where a student comes to ponder the universe at the foot of a faculty composed of brilliant scholars who could tell you what Plato's favorite meal was and why that mattered but couldn't park a car or figure out how to order Chinese take-out. Sometime in the late 1950s, our large land-grant universities entered into an arrangement with the federal government to devise a curriculum that would offer a "real-world" education to better prepare our young graduates to enter the world of commerce, science and technology. The government was about to make a huge commitment to funding our public universities, and that commitment was going to come with significant strings attached. That commerce might be the financial and banking sectors, or the worlds of engineering, computer science and accounting. The United States was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and our best hope to match them missle for missle, innovation for innovation, was to move our universities away from the cherished ideal of providing a rigorous liberal education to those qualified enough to enter them, and towards a vocational model that drives the overwhelming number of colleges and universities today. Even in my own department, we emphasize the practical component of our undergraduate programs at the expense of a rigorous in-class liberal education. We tell our students that they will intern to get the "practical" experience they need to enter the job market in Washington upon their graduation. The assumption here, of course, is that our degree has some real economic value beyond the liberal arts education that is supposed to make our students better students. The transformation of our universities has been designed to make the once dreaded question heard by liberal arts majors such as "Political science? What are you going to do with that? Run for office ? . . . go to law school? . . . your parents must be thrilled to pay 84 million dollars a year for you to wait tables when you graduate."

Personally, I would rather be waited on by someone who went to college and even has a graduate degree. I wish the people who fixed my car, repaired my shoes and dry cleaned my suits had gone to college. I wish the people who had gone to college had actually tried to learn something more in the courses they took on philosophy, literature, politics and history than they did. In short, the real reason to go to college is, as Crook concludes, personal and social enlightenment. We have converted our university system into satellite corporations that provide vocational education. Universities are businesses, first and foremost. They provide majors in hotel and restaurant management, sports medicine and agri-business not because of the higher education component of those majors, but because it provides basic training for entry level employees in those fields.

Eugene Hickok says that our universities have become sub-standard sleep-away camps (my phrasing, not his) because professors disengaged from the "real world" drive the curriculum. Universities respond to what faculty want to teach. He asks whether taxpayers should be funding courses such as the history of comic book art, presumably at the expense of something useful, like Introduction to Event Planning or Personal Finance. To me, that's an easy question: of course we should. The reality, however, is that courses like the one Hickok describes are the outlier in most departmental curriuculums. If he were to take a look at what my department is offering this semester, he wouldn't find anything approaching parody. And the reason is simple: faculty can't teach what they might want unless they can find a minimum number of students to take it. Universities respond to what students want, not what faculty (or professional staff, such as academic advisors, want. Our residence halls look more like corporate suites than anything I remember in college. Our dining facilities resemble food courts, not the traditional college cafeteria of yesteryear. The college experience is very different now than it was just ten years ago. And it is world's away from it was 25 years ago. The amenities for students are just incredible. But as far as what we're teaching them and what they're learning, I think it's a wash. Our students have become "customers," and we are much closer to Nordstrom or L.L. Bean in our approach to pleasing them -- give 'em what they want so they'll keep writing those fat (and inflated) tuition checks -- than the cranky owner of a diner who picks and chooses who eats there and who doesn't.

Personally, I find it amusing that conservatives never suggest the most logical solution to funding higher education: making access to a four-year college free for qualified students at the appropriate level of academic accomplishment. If you can get accepted to the University of Virginia, let the public foot the bill. If your academic performance merits admission to Towson instead of the University of Maryland, then so be it. We often hear from conservatives how important it is to educate our students so that they can compete in the world economy. But we never hear plans for a comprehensive funding program to provide access to college like most European nations and Canada. We will waste billions of dollars this year funding anti-terrorism measures that provide absolutely no security against terrorism. No matter how much the government spends on such measures, there is absolutely nothing preventing some nut from walking into the New York Stock Exchange with a plastic explosive attached to his belt and blowing himself up. We delude ourselves if we think otherwise. The school shootings of two weeks ago were acts of terrorism committed by Americans against Americans. Terrorism is not just about angry Muslims attacking the United States. We have been encouraged to think that way. But that's a false and misleading campaign, albeit one that is politically very useful.

Equalizing the playing field would give people of limited means many more choices than they already have. By all means let them major in business, marketing, electrical engineering or whatever "practical" field interests them. The odds are, they might learn something along the way about the world they are about to enter, maybe pick up a language to help them in their chosen field and have a better understanding of how other nations see us rather than how our government wants us to see the world. And you know that can't be bad.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Change of address

The new URL address for my main website is now: www.greggivers.com. You will automatically be redirected there if you click a hotlink. If not, consider this your change of address postcard.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The wide world of sports

So I read that 31 college football players were suspended for fighting during a game played over the weekend. If football was a civilized sport like hockey, the referees would have given them all five minutepenalties for fighting and then let them return. Perhaps football should adopt some of the rules from hockey, letting teams fight, permitting power plays, adopting shoot-outs between placekickers to break tie games. Changes like these might actually make the game interesting.

Tom Glavine goes to the mound tonight for the New York Mets in their fifth game against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS. Personally, I want St. Louis to win. I have many friends from college who live in St. Louis and I have forgiven them for dispatching the Braves from the NLCS almost twenty-five years ago. But tonight I'll be pulling for the Mets. Tom Glavine gave the Braves the best years of his career; yet had to labor in the shadow of John Smoltz and Greg Maddux as the number 2 or 3 starter. Glavine is the "maybe" when people discuss their respective Hall of Fame chances. And just last week Glavine was the subject of two columns in the Washington sports pages pointing out that, at 40, he is still pretty damn good and has taken his new status as the Mets ace in stride, with Pedro and El Duque out. No disrespect to Pedro, a great, great pitcher, but I'd taken Glavine's career over Pedro's any day. Glavine is sitting at 290 games won -- 300 is a certainty if he plays for the Mets next year -- with a career ERA of 3.42, a career winning percentage of .603 and five 20 game seasons. And, most impressive of all for a pitcher, he has never been on the disabled list and NEVER MISSED A START DUE TO INJURY -- EVER. That means if Tom Glavine is on your pitching staff, he is going to take the ball every fifth day and give your team a chance to win. And how many pitchers can you say that about over a twenty-year career?

Hall of Fame, make room for Tommy Glavine, because he's coming. How great would it be for him, Maddux and Smoltz to be inducted in the same class?

Brian Wilson is not a genius

After penicillin, the iPod might be the greatest invention of the last 150 years. I mention penicillin only because I know many people who find it a useful, and, at times, live saving medication. Me, I'm allergic to penicillin, so my vote goes to the iPod.

But this post is not a testimonial to the iPod. I could go on and on about all its wonderful features, and how mind-blowing it is to have your entire record -- I mean, CD -- collection at your fingertips. And being able to watch episodes of The Office while waiting for your car to be fixed makes the inevitable trip from your "service advisor" ("Mr. Ivers, we could just change the oil and send you on your way, but what I think I'd do if I were you -- and I realize I'm not -- is just go ahead and replace the transmission." Me: "Really, at 15,000 miles, is that necessary?" Service advisor: "I notice you have a car seat in the back. Do you love your family? Personally, I wouldn't endanger them by driving a car with 15,000 miles on it with the same transmission, but that's just me . . .") much more bearable than it would be if were left with nothing more than four year-old copies of Field and Stream to browse through.

The playlist feature is great for my biking commute. Fifteen great Beatles songs in half an hour? Done. A couple of extended jams by the Allman Brothers? No problem. Listen to Miles Davis and Bill Evans work their magic on Kind of Blue in its entirety to match a cool, sunny morning? Push the button. But every so often I decide to relieve myself of control over my music and use the random feature. This is a real big deal for me. I love to try new things, and when it comes to playing music I love, as a drummer, to improvise with other musicians. But surprises make me nervous because, in my case, they're usually not very good. This could be because an experience I once had in college, where a girl I had actually been out with twice -- half my college dating experience -- told me before our third date that she had a surprise for me that weekend. And that surprise turned out to be the boyfriend from "back home" that she had just gotten back together with earlier that week. But she did, of course, want to remain good friends because I was just like a brother to her and the thought of kissing her brother made her sick and besides I was really smart and she didn't know what to say around me so it was best that we just not see each other anymore although she didn't want it to be like high school where we just didn't talk to each other and that I would really like her boyfriend . . .

But I'm over that now.

After summoning up the nerve to hit the shuffle feature as I began my bike ride into campus, I waited to see where my iPod would take me. First up: John Coltrane, "Out of this World," from his eponymous 1963 album on Impulse. Great tune, incredible Elvin Jones drumming and McCoy Tyner piano playing and, from Trane himself, an amazing solo over a set of chord changes that would send most other players back to the shed; next, Michael Brecker playing a solo version of "Naimia," a Coltrane tune, from the album, New Directions, that he did with Herbie Hancock a few years ago. Brecker is, to me, the greatest tenor player since Coltrane himself. The man can play anything . . . brilliantly and always from the heart; shifting gears, "Hungry for You," The Police, from Ghost in the Machine (1981). Ah, Sting, as staggeringly brilliant as he is annoying and self-important. He is, in my view, one of the five or six best pop songwriters of the modern era. Great ears, great feel for great musicians, and a fantastic bass player to boot; who's that next, yes, I guessed right, Chick Corea and his Akoustic Band, playing "Round Midnight." This was a great trio with John Pattitucci and Dave Weckl . . . lots of bounces and swing, and you can hear Chick, one of the most influential pianists in music since Bill Evans, pushing these two young musicians to feel and hear new things. Made in 1991, this recording still sounds great; next, Yes, with "Yours in No Disgrace," from a live 1971 recording . . . the brilliant jazz-influenced Steve Howe guitar lines, the genre-defying bass of Chris Squire, Bill Bruford's propulsive drumming and the angelic contratenor of Jon Anderson . . . wow! then the Beatles, "Love Me Do," their first single, and the recording that paved the way for everything else; next, Steve Khan, the most underrated great guitarist of the past twenty-five years, with "Casa Loco," (1982), featuring Steve Jordan, Anthony Jackson and Manolo Badrena. So far, so good, iPod.

And then, "Good Vibrations," by the Beach Boys.

Uh-oh.

I'm not sure how or why it happened, but sometime in the late 1960s and then again in the late 1990s a consensus seemed to emerge in the rock press that Brian Wilson, the brains behind the Beach Boys, was a true "genius" and tortured soul somewhere on the level of Charlie Parker. If I had to pick the person responsible for Brian Wilson's elevation to the genius level, it would be Paul McCartney. After the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966, McCartney praised it, calling it the "record of all-time," and publicly confessed that he wasn't sure that the Beatles could live up to Wilson's creation. Wilson had said earlier that Pet Sounds was inspired by Revolver, the record considered by many Beatleologists to be the band's best.

A few months later, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In retrospect, I think the Beatles did all right.

As a kid, I never took the Beach Boys seriously. To me, it was lightweight ear candy. And seeing their record covers just made things worse -- these smiling blond boys in matching striped shirts . . . could there have been anything more uncool? I was in my black light poster phase, with Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes posters decorating my room, and another poster featuring a peace sign in place of the stars on a faux American flag. Flowing rivers, mysticism, general all-around coolness to match the side length epics these bands were now writing and putting onto record. Listening to the Beach Boys was something I did ONLY if a girl I happened to like that minute thought they were good. I'd nod my head when she might say, "I just love all their songs . . . they just make me want to go the beach and dance." "Oh, great," I would think, "my two favorite activities -- dancing and the beach." So I would usually say something like, "I can see how you could like them, but have you ever listened to side 4 of Tale from Topographic Oceans by Yes. It's the whole story of the sun as a metaphor for what we see and what we don't, and the ritual of life. And the part when Chris Squire comes in behind Jon Anderson on the vocals is . . . "

Then I'd look up, and she'd be gone.

For a while, I tried to get on board the Brian Wilson bandwagon. I bought a Beach Boys collection of great songs, listened to them, and found about three or four palatable after repeated listenings. "We'll have fun, fun, fun/Till my daddy takes the T-bird away." Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane it's not. I suggested once to some bandmates that we should play a Beach Boys song or perhaps just sing it acapella. That almost got me fired -- on the spot -- from a band that I helped form.
I watched the TV tributes to Brian, a made-for-tv movie about the rise of the Beach Boys, their fall after Brian began having mental health problems and then a return to respectability, sans Brian, as an oldies act. Then, of course, came the rumors that Brian was about to release Smile, his masterpiece that gone into remission when he disappeared from music in the late 1960s and went into hiding. The word came that Brian had gotten himself together -- a good thing, of course -- and had given the green light to release his long-awaited recording.

The reception wasn't great. It wasn't horrible, but it certainly wasn't anything than made anyone stand up and take notice. And remember, this wasn't a new recording by someone seeking to prove he still had something left in him. This was a recording made at the height of creative powers. I listened to bits and pieces of it, and didn't come away terribly impressed. I just didn't hear the "there" there. Compare that with listening to the Beatles outtakes that made up the Anthology series released in 1995, or the Let It Be "naked" remix without the strings that was released last year. The difference between anything on Smile and "The Long and Winding Road" minus the cloying Phil Spector strings is stunning . . . not even in the same league.

The Beach Boys made some nice music, and there is no taking away the aural brilliance of the vocal harmonies and arrangements on some of their songs -- "God Only Knows," "California Girls," and "Good Vibrations" are the only Beach Boys songs I can make it through without turning them off. And some very good musicians and great bands have mentioned the Beach Boys as an influence in introducing vocal harmonies into their own music. But so many of their songs just sound like remakes of earlier songs. I just don't get it. Brian Wilson made a few interesting recordings, and definitely had some great ideas about soundscapes and record production. A genius, however, he is not.

"Good Vibrations" finishes up. Next: "In Walked Bud," by Thelonious Monk . . . a man who was and will remain forever, in every sense of the word, a true genius.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Stay informed (ongoing)

See the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon here; Ruth Marcus has an excellent column on the South Dakota abortion law in this morning's Washington Post; The Onion's take on the Foley scandal; and the cartoon Slowpoke here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Godless, again, in the new year

Sooner or later, I knew the question was coming. And I also knew that I would have absolutely no good answer for it.

“Why should I have to subject myself to that torture chamber for six hours,” demanded my twelve-going-on-eighty-five year-old son as we prepared to make our annual sojourn to temple for Yom Kippur services. “Everyone knows this stuff is all made up. Religion is for crazy people. Look at the news. All these people are crazy. Bush believes in God, and look how he’s screwed up the country.”

Checkmate. Nonetheless, as a parent, it is my solemn obligation and moral responsibility to speak only the truth to my children.

“First of all, we’re not going to be there for six hours. The family service lasts an hour and fifteen minutes. And it’s not too much . . . to make YOUR MOTHER AND YOUR GRANDFATHER, WHO CAME ALL THE WAY UP HERE TO SPEND THE HOLIDAYS WITH YOU AND YOUR SISTER, HAPPY ONE WEEKEND A YEAR. HOW MANY 7 A.M. HOCKEY GAMES HAS YOUR GRANDFATHER WATCHED BECAUSE YOU WANTED HIM TO? HOW MANY BASEBALL GAMES . . .,” and on and on I went until I remembered my Rosh Hashanah pledge to stop threatening my son with haircuts and private school every time he defied mine or my wife’s authority, which is pretty much every fifteen minutes.

So far, I had parsed my words to Clintonian perfection.

But the boy was ready: “How come you don’t fast? How come you don’t wear a yamacha to services? How come . . . how come . . . how come . . .” Full of enough piss and vinegar that would many of the alter kachers sitting in the steam room at the Jewish Community Center proud, he had upped the interrogation a level, so I gave him what I refer to as the fire extinguisher – use in emergencies only – of parental responses to questions from your children that cannot be answered without the whole damn chain of command collapsing on the spot.

“Adults get to make decisions that kids don’t,” I responded. Of course, I had heard that same response two or three zillion times growing up – and found it, shall we say, terribly unsatisfying each and every time. "When you’re 18 years old . . . no, when you’re ON YOUR OWN AND PAYING YOUR OWN WAY YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT. AS LONG AS YOUR MOTHER AND I ARE WRITING THE CHECKS . . . BLAH, THREAT, BLAH, THREAT, BLAH. ”

Was I really saying this? Yes, I was. Worse, I was really convincing. But having retreated to this desperate tactic a few thousands times before, I could get through my act without a hitch. By now, I know the book of bad, hypocritical parenting backwards and forwards. And when it comes to religion, I cover all my bases because I do not now nor have I ever believed in God.

Even now, I avoid this conversation except when absolutely necessary. For me, religion is like masturbation -- think about it all you want, but keep it quiet, keep it to yourself, and you'll get a lot more pleasure out of it that way. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where way too many people, coming from very different points in the social universe, feel compelled to share their views on religion and, uh, self-love, with as many people as possible. But since no one has ever run a presidential campaign pledging to remake the world based on a personal relationship with his or her genitalia, we are left to deal with politicians who believe their 1-800 relationship with God requires them to impose rules and preferences on society -- and, now, other countries -- based a belief system that has no basis in fact, logic or scientific inquiry.

Beginning Sunday, October 8th, the New York Times began the first of a four-part series on the special, preferential place of religion in American society and, in particular, the advantages that religious individuals and organizations enjoy under federal and state law. Naturally, the Christian Right will poo-poo the Times series because it is the New York Times, and accuse the Times of fanning the climate of hostility in which "faith communities" are forced to navigate their ever-perilous existence. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that 116.3% of what the Christian Right stands for is absolutely antithetical to what a modern, secular and progressive society should be, I would tell anyone who is interested in grass-roots social activism to copy their strategies and tactics in support of their own cause. Sometime in the late 1970s, a group called the Moral Majority, led by Jerry Falwell, seized upon one of all-time great fictions of American political culture -- that Christians, particularly "conservative" ones who favored a "traditional" approach to social, economic and political ideas -- were a beleagured and put-upon class of citizens. They put their weight behind the successful presidential bid of Ronald Reagan, members of Congress, candidates for state and local offices, schoolboard elections and ad infinitum. By the end of the 1980s, the Christian Right had morphed into a phalanx of organizations, ranging from the Christian Coalition to Focus on the Family, and had become a powerful force at all levels of American politics. I remember George Bush I, who had stayed as far away as possible from the fringe elements of the Republican Party for the better part of his career, who had supported civil rights laws, birth control and abortion rights, and the state over the church, prostrating himself before the Christian Right during his 1988 run for the presidency in a way that would have caused even the most hardened oncologist to wince in pain. Sure, he was elected . . . running against Michael Dukakis, who was branded as a "card-carrying" member of the ACLU who allowed black convicts to escape under Massachusett's prison furlough program. Bush, of course, was defeated in 1992, and hasn't really had much to say about the Christian Right agenda since then. And he has been conspicuously quiet about his son's religiously-fueled misadventures at home and abroad.

So powerful is the contemporary Christian Right that no Republican candidate for national office can get out of the starting gate unless he or she demonstrates that "faith" has called them to support tax cuts for the wealthy, environmental irresponsibility, a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later foreign policy, the death penalty, fourth-class status for gays, a false nostalgic attitude towards sex education and birth control, and an attitude towards abortion rights in which government support for life begins at conception and ends at birth. And, for reasons that absolutely defy the evidence, the Christian Right places a good deal of the blame for the cesspool that is American culture on the Supreme Court. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, in a common refrain, has said that “radical courts have attempted to gut our religious freedom and redefine the value system on which America was built.” (Yes, yes, the same Dennis Hastert who looked the other way on the current scandal involving Mark Foley's sexual solicitation of underage teen-age pages working in Congress when it was first brought to his attention). Mr. Speaker, Democratic presidents have appointed two justices to the Supreme Court since 1967, and those didn't come until 1993 and 1994. Roe v. Wade (1973), the most frequently condemned decision by the Christian Right, was decided by a 7-2 majority, with five of those seven members appointed by Republican presidents. Of the two dissenters, one was appointed by a Democrat (Kennedy > Byron White) and one by a Republican (Nixon > Rehnquist). In fact, if you look at every major decision expanding civil rights and liberties handed down by the Supreme Court over the last 30 to 35 years, the majority of justices within the majority commanding the vote have been Republican appointees. Oh, it's true, and you can even look it up. Yet, the myth lives on.

The Times series makes clear what anyone who has taken an honest look at the place of religion in American public life knows: that religion occupies a preferred place in a multitude of contexts, ranging from the countless exemptions that religious invidivuals and organizations have under federal, state and local law from civil rights laws, land-use regulations, tax laws, criminal and civil laws involving sexual misconduct, sexual harrassment, health insurance, just for starters. The ideas driving the justification for this preferred place for religion before the law are referred to as the "ministerial exemption" rule or "church autonomy" principle. That is, it is better to leave religion alone that to entangle it in the affairs of the state.

On one level, that makes perfect sense. Government shouldn't be allowed to come into a house of worship and tell its members what and what not to believe, no more than it should be allowed to interfere with the positions of Planned Parenthood or Americans United for Life. But I have become increasingly skeptical of the wisdom of permitting employees of a secular group to sue their employers for violations of their legal rights while witholding that right from employees in religious organizations. I never thought I'd live say this, but I think -- and have for a while -- that Justice Scalia was right in the Smith decision of 1990: religious claims should not be entitled to a presumption of constitutionality when they involve exemptions from laws that apply to the general population. Advocates of this view claim that many laws operates as a burden on religious individuals and organizations, and removing those burdens simply allows them to practice what they believe. If the claim is that such exercises of faith are constitutionally protected, then so are exercises rooted in philosophy or some other secular origin. If a public school student receives an exemption from a dress code regulation in order to wear religious garb of some sort, then why isn't a student who supports or oppposes the Iraq War permitted to wear a hat expressing that view? If the answer is that one student is religious and the other is not, that is not good enough. Moreover, it raises serious questions about government favortism towards religion that encroaches into the area of establishment clause law.

Supporters of government accommodation of religious practices and laws that exempt religion from rules that apply to everyone else often point out that America is the most religious country in the West as if this is a good thing. I have always seen it as pardoxical that we can boast some of the most sophisticated research and scientific inquiry in the world, make education the centerpiece of personal advancement, and then maintain that God watches over America and intervenes in our personal and public lives. I am sure that at least some of even the most zealous advocates of public support for religious institutions genuinely believe they need the money to do good work, whether it's providing services to the homeless, the sick, the elderly and so on. But I am far more persuaded that most contemporary "faith-based" initiatives are about vote-buying and constituency politics than about making the world a better place. I could go on and on (hold the jokes), but I'll end with this question: who stands a better chance of being elected president first, a woman, an African-American, a gay man (all of whom believe in God)or a Nobel Laurete who is an affirmed atheist? Answer that question honestly and you'll have a much more accurate picture of the so-called victimized state of "faith communities" in American life.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The corruption of political rhetoric, or why the pro-life movement is really pro-choice

Note: The entry below was one of my first posts, and was on my original American University site before I moved my blog to the current address. I am reposting it at the suggestion of one the 6 readers of this blog.

Since "In Cold Blood," Timothy McVeigh, Jeffrey Dahmer, the Unabomber and the most recent spate of school and workplace shootings haven’t managed to puncture the Great American Myth of the Midwest as the bulwark of common sense and down-to-earth values in a destitute culture dominated by the Hollywood, African-American rappers, the programmers at Comedy Central and liberal Establishment of Washington (which, if you live here, you know is really quite conservative), along comes the South Dakota legislature to give it one more shot.

In March 2006, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting women from obtaining an abortion for any reason except if the procedure was medically necessary to save the life of the mother. The law, which, of course, is patently unconstitutional, was so off-the-charts crazy that not even the nation’s largest anti-abortion rights groups, such as Americans United for Life, supported it. Now, pro-abortion rights activists have managed to get the law on the November 7 ballot as a referendum. Their thinking is that, given the chance to vote, and to think of the law, in the privacy of a ballot booth, as something that could affect them, their sister, their mother or their best friend, most South Dakotans will not support such an extreme measure.

I don’t know enough about South Dakota’s electoral landscape and political culture to make any kind of prediction about the law’s chances of being invalidated. But I do think this not-so-little battle illustrates the absurdity of discussing abortion in terms framed by the business of marketing and the categorical hazards of political rhetoric. The Washington Post reported on August 29 that a recent Maxon-Dixon poll showed that just 39% of respondents in South Dakota supported the ban as written, compared to the 59% that would support restrictive legislation that permitted exceptions for rape and incest.

So this means . . . what? Rather than compare the “pro-life with exceptions” respondents to the “pro-life with only death exception” respondents," we would do better do realize that most Americans, even those who describe themselves as “pro-life,” are really pro-choice. Once you established exceptions, you are pro-choice. This is really no different than opposing the death penalty except in cases involving terrorism or sex-related offenses. You either oppose the death penalty or you don’t. Limiting its application is not the same as opposing something, whether it's the death penalty, abortion or corporal punishment in schools.

And let’s not forget the small matter of making abortion a Class 5 felony under Nebraska law. A felony means someone has to go to jail, pay a fine or serve probation. Under the law’s current construction, the abortion provider is subject to a criminal sanction. But why not the pregnant woman? After all, she is a co-conspirator by any legal definition, seeking out, as she is, an illegal act. And so, arguably, is the person driving her to an abortion clinic. And so is the receptionist, the office manager and the staff nurses. And so is everyone, apparently, but the . . .

. . . man responsible for contributing to the pregnancy, even if the act was consensual. Suppose a woman has an abortion because her husband doesn’t want to have the baby, or doesn’t want to have another baby, or doesn’t want to have another boy/girl? Suppose she has the abortion against her will? Do we go to the Patty Hearst defense here -- my boyfriend/husband/this guy I just met who won't take responsibility for his actions?

The answer is: no one knows, because no one has thought much beyond the rhetoric of electoral politics. Hopefully, South Dakota will wake up supporters of abortion rights in that state and nationwide, especially those “pro-choice Republicans” who cannot possibly have any other reason to support President Bush anymore. Then perhaps the anti-abortion rights movement can move to the next frontier to promote the "culture of life" -- banning vasectomies as a non-therapeutic medical procedure and imposing a criminal punishment for men who seek them out, the doctors who perform them, and the women who want their husbands to have them to spare them the trauma of having a hysterectomy.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Stay informed (part 2 of a 3,475 part series)

Michael Kinsley on Bill O'Reilly's fake populism; Tom Tomorrow's weekly cartoon; and, if you are intrigued by the irony of the Decider calling upon Henry Kissinger to assist him with democracy-building in the Middle East, read James Mann's column in today's New York Times.

If you want to laugh at the Republican leadership's handling of the Foley page scandal, here, as a public service, is a clip from The Daily Show's in-depth report and analysis.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Reefer madness, revisited


Marijuana, like homosexuality, strikes many conservative cultural warriors as a late 20th century phenomenon. Just as there were no gay people until the Supreme Court outlawed state-sponsored school prayer in the early 1960s (and yes, there are people who really do subscribe to this view), marijuana use is often portrayed as an unfortunate consequence of the Beatles transition from lovable moptops screaming "yeah, yeah, yeah" to sweater clad pre-teen girls to psychadelic pseudo-druggies no longer fit for anyone's daughter who made mysterious references to "tangerine dreams and marmalade skies."

"Someone was smoking something when they wrote those songs," my friend Michael's mother used to tell us when she would hear us listening to Abbey Road, usually the side 2 medley. It definitely wasn't what she was smoking, which was usually a Salem Menthol cigarette. "And it was him," she would say, pointing to a picture of John Lennon that Michael kept over his dresser. "I don't think the other ones wanted to do it. He was the bad influence."

How did she know someone was smoking "something" if she had never smoked marijuana herself? That was always the question we wanted to ask and never did. And she was wrong about John introducing marijuana to the Beatles. It was Paul; John introduced the Beatles to LSD. But at 12 or 13 years old, it's best to hold that information close to the vest.

By the time I started high school in 1976, marijuana was easier to find than beer, even though the drinking age in Georgia was 18. Like now, people who used marijuana operated under code terms. They "partied or "partook," were "cool," or were "into expanding their horizons." The common refrain when discussing a pot smokers went something like this:

"Hey, do you guys know anything about that new kid who just moved in down the street," someone would ask.

"Not much, but I did notice he was wearing an (Pink Floyd) Animals concert t-shirt the other day, so he must be 'cool.'"

So, in other words, he probably smoked pot. No word on whether he drank beer or mixed liquor with coke, sprite or some other soft drink to mask the taste. But, in my high school, drinking was assumed of everyone, with maybe the exception of the National Honor Society or Math Club members, until proven otherwise. Marijuana smokers, on the other hand, consituted a completely different class of people. High school high society-types -- jocks, cheerleaders, yearbook editors, student government geeks, the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes -- always made it a point to let you know that they did not smoke dope.

"No fucking way I would get near that shit," I remember our star soccer player saying to me, breathing the remnants of Jack Daniels and Coke into my face before heading into the stands for a football game. "Do you know that you can kill, like, thousands of brain cells every time you take a hit? Do you think I want to end up in shop class making bongs like the rest of the freaks?"

And, of course, as soon as the coast was clear, the same lunkhead would seek me out behind the concession stand. "Ivers, do you know where I could buy a joint?"

"Why would you ask me?"

"You seem like the partying type, you know, since you're into Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis. Aren't you friends with that guitar player?" A concert t-shirt does indeed make the man. And, by the way, my friend the great guitar player did not smoke dope.

"Can't help you," I'd say. "Dry myself."

"All right, but don't tell anyone we had this conversation," like we were Cold War spies floating a prisoner swap out of official view.

For as long as marijuana has been around, which is a lot longer than the last 39 years (Sgt. Pepper was released on June 1, 1967), it has carried a negative reputation. Marijuana, depending upon the era, has been the choice of Communists, 20s swingers, early porn merchants, African-American jazz musicians, white beatniks, 60s pop celebrities, misguided professional athletes, contemporary rock stars and other undesirables. Cool, smart, together, fun, attractive people do not smoke pot.

They drink. And drink. And drink. And drink.

Doctors tell us and the wine industry reminds us that red wine is good for your cholesterol . . . and your heart . . . and stress . . . and will make you incredibly hot and desirable, especially after you kick your Jimmy Choos off in your $65,000 kitchen and hop up on the buffet counter holding your Reidel glass. Scotch is the choice of the sophisticated, affluent professional. Who doesn't want to sip Johnny Walker Red sitting in an Adirondack Chair in the front lawn of a glorious Tudor home, while a fleet of Mercedes sit gleaming in the circular driveway? Laugh, smile and frolic by the beach while enjoying a glass of Italian Pinot Grigio?

But nothing says "U.S.A." like beer, the choice of the slacker, dumb guy sports nut who just wants to hang out with his buddies, wear his jersey, eat potato chips and pump his fists, except, in the case of "upscale" brews, when it's the choice of an impossibly good-looking, single, and presumably white collar professional man. A martian who sat through an hour of any televised sports event in the United States (with the exception of golf, which turns its nose up at such debauchery, preferring to bombard you with hedge fund and luxury car ads) could come to no other conclusion that the average viewer is a male alcoholic who suffers from erectile dysfunction. Drinking beer, and lots of it, holds the keys to the promised land for the demographic target -- the male loser who is crashing on someone's couch or still living in his parents' basement. Drink beer and women will dig you. Bring designer beer to a party and women will not only dig you, they will demand a turn with you right then and there.

Pot smokers are not so lucky. Advertisements directed towards them are not intended to glorify their lifestyles. No, not at all. The point of national drug control policy is to persuade pot smokers and anyone thinking of taking a hit off an herbal jazz cigarette not to do it -- at all. The little, bitty language at the bottom of beer ads on television and in magazines encourages people to drink responsibly, not to drink and drive and so on. But you can rest assured that no one is paying attention. If you can swig a few Heinekens and have a shot at Heidi Klum, what good is moderation?

Our national anti-marijuana policy assumes that anyone who smokes pot is incapable of moderation. Even the best of the anti-marijuana ads produced for the Office of National Drug Control Policy refuse to concede this possibility. I've seen two so far: Pete's Couch and Whatever (click here to see them). Give the ads credit for laying off the "if you smoke marijuana now and then, pretty soon you'll be dropping acide and craving heroin" approach. The prohibitionists seem to accept the medical evidence and pyschological research that rejects the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug to more evil doings. But they perpetrate the stereotype of marijuana smokers as chronically stupid, lazy and incoherent because they are always and without exception stoned to the hilt. In Pete's Couch, a high school age boy talks about his experience smoking pot. No, he didn't kill anybody or think about using heroin. Like his friends who did not get off the couch for the entire commercial, the boy just didn't want to do anything but just sit there and presumably stare into space. Perhaps his parents were lucky enough to have surround sound, and they broke out the 5.1 SACD version of Dark Side of the Moon. Our hero learns his lesson: he doesn't want to be lazy. He wants to be a productive member of society, meet girls and ride his bike. Someone should have warned him to shy away from any hacky sack games in his new found enthusiasm for exercise. We all know where that would lead -- back to Pete's Couch. In Whatever, the good guy is a street-smart, clean cut African-American teenager who tells the camera that he has ambition for a real life -- college, a good job . . . the works. Unlike his stoner friends in the bag, who appear not to know where they are, our hero in this ad lets the world know that once he's gone his buddies won't have anyone to drive them around and get them through the day. Let his friends toke it up . . . he's moving on.

Okay, let's, for a moment, suspend our sense of disbelief and imagine a beer commercial that portrays drinkers as drunks, sans the occasional designated driver. A camera beams in on a group of guys at a baseball or football game. They're drunk as hell, courtesy of the vendors who have no problem selling them beer after beer as long as the cash keeps flowing. One is cursing up a storm while grabbing his genitals, oblivious to the little kids who are sitting in front of him. Another, having neglected to establish his food "base" before the game, is throwing up on the seat in front of him, while screaming at the hapless usher to "let me enjoy the fucking game you goddamn rent-a-cop" (I saw this once at Camden Yards). A third guy has stripped to the waist. And despite having failed his unsolicited audition for America's Hottest Bachleor, he demands that every woman around him "show me your tits." Then the camera isolates the responsible member of the group who says, "These losers can keep on truckin' after I leave for medical school next year. Let somebody else put them in a shopping cart and wheel them home after a night on the town."

Uh, no, that's not happening anytime soon.

There is something strange about criminalizing a drug that, when used in moderation, has never been shown to carry the health risks and social consequences (alcoholism and related illnesses; spousal and child abuse; chronic fatigue, to name just a few) of excessive drinking. And cigarettes? It's the only product on the market that, when used as directed, will either kill you or make you really sick.

People who smoke too much dope will turn to mush, no doubt. But there are millions of people making good grades, planning a future, paying taxes, mowing their lawns, staying involved in their communities, raising families, and living a productive life who prefer marijuana to alcohol as the relaxant of choice. They're no threat to anyone or themselves. In our current culture, it's perfectly fine to tell a friend at the office that you're looking forward to unwinding with a glass of wine or stopping off for a "pop" to brush back the day. You can't say in polite company that you're looking forward to sitting on your porch and taking a hit off a joint to take the edge off. Of course, if you did, your friend might well want to join you -- that is, unless the cool kids were looking.