Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Faith-based immunity" from lawsuits?

The Supreme Court this morning heard a case involving the right of taxpayers to sue the executive branch of the United States over the expenditure of funds that allegedly violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Almost forty years ago, in a landmark case called Flast v. Cohen (1968), the Court held that citizens have a right to bring suit in federal court if they can demonstrate a logical "nexus" between the congressional expenditure of public monies and their status as federal taxpayers.

Today's case, Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (06-157), deals with the right of citizens to sue the executive branch, as opposed to Congress. The lawsuit involves a challenge to the White House "Faith-Based" Program that provides funding to religious organizations, including what the law refers to as "pervasively sectarian" organizations, i.e., churches, synagogues and mosques as opposed to "religiously-affiliated" organizations, i.e., the Jewish Federation, Catholic Charities, etc.

You can read more about the case here, and you can read today's transcript of the oral argument here.

Al and Strom


Raise your hand if thought the weekend story revealing that relatives of Strom Thurmond, an icon of Southern segregation, once owned slave-descendants from Al Sharpton's family, the professional rabble-rouser, sometimes presidential candidate and occasional civil rights activist, was a headline from The Onion.

As admittedly weird as the pairing of these two American originals is, no one should feign shock over the strange bloodlines that continue to emerge from the slave-master relationships of the antebellum South.

Torture on trial

Dahlia Lithwick has an excellent piece in Slate on the "wrongheaded[ness]" (her word) of the Bush administration's decision to detain and torture suspected terrorists in Guantanamo and elsewhere. The more you read about the facts in the Jose Padilla case, currently before a federal judge in Miami, the more you wonder how we got to this point.

And worse, how little the American public seems to care.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Making sense of academic nonsense

Since students were not beating down my door this morning to take advantage of my office hours, I decided to go through some of the papers, files and unopened mail that occupies my desk. And lo and behold, I didn't find much of anything useful in these assorted piles. So in the trash they went . . .

I left undisturbed a pile of books that sits next to the most recent copies of the American Political Science Review, the leading scholarly journal in my academic discipline, and Perspectives on Politics, a recent spin-off of the APSR started by political scientists who believed our flagship journal had become over-specialized, methodologically obtuse and unwilling to publish scholarship that did not fit into a tight, usually heavily quantitative methodological box. Perspectives states its philosophy on the journal's masthead -- "Each article must be accessible to and meaningful for readers with much general knowledge of politics but with no specific knowledge of the issue of hand." Sounds like a fancy, schmancy description for Political Science for Dummies. Honesty compels me, however, to admit that I have never made it more than 2 or 3 pages through an article in Perspectives. And that is 2 or 3 pages more than I have read in any article published in the APSR since I was in graduate school. Since publishing in the APSR is the political science equivalent of winning a Grammy Award (I'd say Emmy, but academics do not like to admit that they watch television. If they do, they usually preface their confession with something like, "24 is really a metaphor of the stateless, border-free global network that reflects the post-material status of our interdependent world." Me? I am less complicated. I watch The Office, sports, The Simpsons and, when it returns, The Sopranos because I like them . . . a lot!).

So indifferent am I to what goes on in my discipline that I couldn't even get excited about the Centennial Issue of the APSR, which was published in December 2006. Another confession: I didn't even open it until last week, when I found it sitting on top of a copy of the Jazz Times, which I needed so I could order a couple of CDs I didn't know had just been released. Half the issue is devoted to the evolution of political science as an academic discipline, and the other half to essays commenting on the "Top 20" articles published in the APSR over the past 50 years or so. The status of these "classic" articles was determined by the frequency of scholarly citation to them. Imagine my professional disappointment when I quickly figured out that I had cited none of these articles in anything I have ever written, not even, "What to Do (and Not to Do) with Time-Series Cross-Section Data." That made sense, since I don't remember reading any of them at any point in my graduate training or thus far in my professional career. I know that says something about me; but what it says isn't clear.

Done with the APSR and Perspectives, I turned to the books sitting on my desk. A couple of them actually looked familiar to me, and when I leafed through them I noticed that my name was in the acknowledgments of a couple of these books. This was a pleasant surprise, since I didn't remember reading any of the prior versions of the published manuscript. Maybe I did; who knows? My surprise turned to shame when I looked at the back dust jacket and discovered that both books were "essential reading" for anyone interested in judicial politics.

Got that? Anyone -- except me, I guess, because I haven't read either one and don't plan to between now and my retirement. Just looking at these books was stranger than fiction, since I was acknowledged as helping to bring someone's thoughts together to write a book that I haven't read and do not plan to read. But my embarrassment began to recede when I found out that I had nothing to with the other four or five books I have stacked up on my desk. These books, too, were, according to the back dust jacket, "essential reading" for "anyone" interested in, among other things, "how American politics works." Two were deemed "classics" in their fields. One promised to "change the way we viewed and understood the Supreme Court." A prominent scholar, at least according to my colleagues who read his work, heralded another book as so important that "no need exists for a further biography" of this particular Supreme Court justice. Imagine that . . . 2007, and there is not a single person out there toiling in the fields of American constitutional studies, constitutional law, political science or law and society that can offer any additional insight into this justice.

And finally, one dust jacket promised a "major contribution to the past and present dialog that will define America's future!"

Wow! That is some heavy stuff . . . and to think I got that one off the Amazon bargain bin.

The more I think about it – and I do think about things, sometimes even very important, serious things, like whether the Caps were going to move Dainus Zubrus today as the trading deadline approached in the NHL – I cannot even remember the last time I read a professional journal article of any kind in my field or labored through one of the books deemed “essential” for anyone interested in judicial politics, the Supreme Court, American politics, the future of humankind, the preservation of the Earth or the future of political science. And, yes, you can find books available about the future of political science, and there are at least two or three dozen people in my profession who actually debate where the field is going. I generally don’t find myself involved in these debates because I don’t where the field is now or even where it has been. The future of political science? Dude, count me out!

Last September, I attended the annual American Political Science Association meeting in Philadelphia. I had no paper to present, no panels I wanted to hear, no manuscript to hustle and no real reason to go. I did need to see an editor and colleague with whom I work on a book series that is published by a distinguished university press. I know the press is distinguished because several young assistant professors pulled me aside in the hotel lobby to ask me if we (the “distinguished university press” mentioned above) would be interested in taking a look at their proposals in the hope that we would consider their manuscripts for publication. One such ambitious, newly minted Ph.D informed me that he was working on the “cutting edge” of “comparative judicial behavior in European courts of last resort” using one the “sexier” approaches available. He then told me that, since I’d probably heard “through the grapevine” what he was working on he wouldn’t take up anymore of my time.

Boy, did I feel dumb! Not only was I completely unaware of who this young man was, I had never heard of his dissertation. And I was completely flabbergasted that political science, even such a seductive comparative studies of judicial voting behavior, could be sexy. I think Sandra Bullock is sexy, and I would also throw Julianne Moore, Sheryl Crow and Julia-Louis Dreyfus into the mix. But political science? Jee-zus!, I must be getting old. Right in front of me for almost 18 years and I didn’t give the sexy, come-hither side of political science the attention it needed. I had stopped seeing political science as a sexual discipline and starting taking it for granted as a way to make a living without working too hard. No wonder it stopped finding me interesting a long time ago.

I left the convention after four hours. Up in the morning and back in the afternoon. On the train ride home, I browsed through some the convention papers I was going to miss – “contextual analysis of roll-call voting in three-dimensional space,” “game theory as a tool in terrorism,” “revisiting controversies over the use of Box-Jenkins analysis . . .” and then the next thing I knew my train was pulling into the Baltimore station and the woman sitting across the aisle was tapping me with her magazine to see if this was my stop. Oh, well . . . with all the unread “essential reading” still on my desk that I had no plans to read, I would never have had a chance to give all those papers the serious look I'm sure they deserved.

I have no idea how many millions of words political scientists have put to paper since the formation of the professional discipline at the turn of the century (hence the Centennial Celebration that I admittedly did not know about). But I am pretty sure that the amount of time that political scientists have devoted to talking and writing about their specializations, arguing about dependent variables, clashing over interaction problems in multi-variate analysis, fighting over what we know compared to what we simply think and convening in hotels to present and listen to research papers that offer little more than a "window" into a "much bigger project" that is part of the "further research" demanded by an earlier "tentative conclusion" is inverse to the actual contribution that our field has made to understanding politics. When you can write about the professional life of your field and have it read like a parody, is it any wonder that people outside our field find so little "essential" about what we do?

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Live and in person . . . again!



The Ocio Jazz Collective will make two appearances this week. Thursday night, an expanded line-up featuring Baha, our hand percussionist, and Galen Huckins, a Boston-area pianist, will play at Twins Jazz, 1344 U St., NW, from 9.30-11.30 ($5 door). On Friday night, our regular quartet will appear again at the Mayorga Coffee Factory at 3040 Georgia Ave ( at Blair Mill) in downtown Silver Spring (no cover, no minimum!).

Come on out and support live local jazz!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

A practice GRE/LSAT question

For students -- or emancipated adults looking to change careers -- nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of taking the GRE (or LSAT) after almost four years (or more) of freedom from standardized tests. Before investing in an GRE or LSAT prep course, see if you can answer this gem, courtesy of Dick Cheney.

Asked for comment by reporters on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Jack Murtha's call for troop withdrawal and redeployment from Iraq, the Vice-President had this to say:

"I think, in fact, if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we’ll do is validate the al Qaeda strategy. I think that’s exactly the wrong course to go on. I think that’s the course of action that Speaker Pelosi and Jack Murtha support. I think it would be a huge mistake for the country."

Asked for comment on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision this week to call for 1,600 British troops, half its force, to leave Iraq by mid-2007, Cheney said:

"I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well."

So . . . here you go. Congressional lawmakers decide that it's time to start a real discussion about leaving Iraq and that's aiding and abetting al-Qaeda. But when the British Prime Minister, pressured by domestic political forces, decides that nothing will be accomplished by his country remaining in Iraq, it's a sign that we're making forward progress.

Figure that one out and you can pick the school of your choice.

Oh, Canada!

You thought Canada was just all beer, hockey, donuts, universal health care, peace and prosperity, good manners, environmental integrity, racial and religious harmony, sensible drug laws, progressive social policy and clean cities? It is so much more than that.

The Canadian Supreme Court yesterday unanimously struck down a "security" law passed after September 11, 2001 that permitted the government to detain suspected foreign-born terrorist suspects indefinitely while their cases were being reviewed. The law also permitted the government to introduce secret evidence into their proceedings.

Contrast the Canadian court's decision with a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals last week that upheld the Military Commissions Act of 2006 against a constitutional challenge brought by several detainees in Guantanamo Bay. The law was a congressional response to a Supreme Court decision of last spring, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), when a 5-3 majority ruled that President Bush had no constitutional authority to establish military commissions without congressional approval. So Congress, it what might be an all-time low even for that too-often pathetic institution, gave the president the authority he wanted. Remember how Congress was just "outraged" -- "outraged" -- over the conditions in Gitmo and other detention facilities in who-know's-where and was going to do something about it? Oh, well . . . .

By the way, the United States has detained over 5,000 persons on charges related to terrorism since September 11, 2001. Not one has been convicted of a terrorism-related crime.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The rich, the famous, Starbucks and me

If you live in Washington long enough, you eventually learn that this is a city with the highest percentage of Very Important People per capita of any city in the United States. There is a good chance that this distinction extends to the entire world. I've lived in two other cities and one small town in my lifetime, and never have I had the pleasure of being around so many very important people as I have since I moved to Washington in 1989.

The nicest thing about living in Washington, compared to, let's say, Knoxville, Tennessee, or Columbia, Missouri, is that you don't have to spend a lot of time tracking down and even stalking, should the mood strike, very important people. They self-identify, thus saving commoners, such as myself, the valuable time involved in seeking them out. And if you are unlucky enough not to have to someone remind you of their importance, you can catch up by reading the "Reliable Source" in the Washington Post Style section or the front sections of the Washingtonian magazine, which feature "Power Players," "Capital Comment," and, of course, "Post Watch." I am particularly grateful for the latter feature, since, like you, I need to know who is coming and going at our local school paper. And without the "Reliable Source," I might not know which Special Assistant to the Special Assistant for Special Assistants to the Deputy Undersecretary for Special Assistants in the Fertilizer and Standard Measurements Section of the Large Farming Division of the Department of the Interior ordered a no-foam soy latte at Starbucks last Saturday morning after walking his dog in upper Chevy Chase, D.C. I might not know that he was wearing khakis, hiking boots, a North Face down vest and a long-sleeve dark blue microfiber pullover t-shirt, even though it appeared that he had not hiked anywhere other than a few city blocks on sidewalks to get his latte. And I might not know that he was reading the Sports section of the Washington Post. I might not know any of these things and, as anyone living here long enough can tell you, these are very important things to know about people who are, without any doubt, very important.

So imagine my terrible embarrassment after my own recent encounter with a very important person at -- where else? -- the Starbucks near my university. Now, although my university boasts many, many very important people (I know this is true because they have told me), almost all of whom have Ph.Ds or law degrees and have testified before congressional committees, given television interviews, spoken to prominent specialists in exotic locales about their important scholarly findings or provided expert testimony in trials, my faux pas did not involve any of my colleagues. By the way, I love being in a profession where I can refer to people I don't know or know and don't like as my colleagues. It makes me feel, well, very important. After all, you have never heard your mechanic, bagel proprietor or dry cleaner say, "Let me consult with my colleague and get back to you about whether we can get your shirts to you by Tuesday."

No, you have not. And you never will, for the simple reason that, in Washington, an advanced degree, distinguished title or prestigious institutional affiliation makes one by de fault very important, whereas selling products and services that people actually need makes you just another peddler that didn't have what it took to write that dissertation, "Public Swimming Sub-Cultures in the Post-Modern Era: A Pre-Structural Analysis of the Can-Opener vs. the Cannonball in Three-Dimensional Space," that has served as the paradigmatic work in the now-"hot" and "sexy" field of the sociology of public space.

So, here I am, just another civilian in this city of very important people, lining up on a weekday morning for my Starbucks fix. Finally, my turns comes, after the law students in front of me have ordered their grande, no-foam, half-shot, whatever-the-hell-it-is-they-drink morning cocktail. And I am just about to order my tall coffee with room for cream -- simple and to the point, unlike me or anything in my life -- when a dainty little hand appears between my right arm and my hip, holding a fruit and cheese plate. The hand deposits the plate on the counter and then disappears just as quickly. I glance over my right shoulder and see the hand along with the rest of this person reaching down into the refrigerated display for a bottle of water. But this time, rather than sneaking the water up onto the counter, a petite, very well-dressed woman with at least $5 or 6 million worth of highlights in her very well-attended hair, just walks in front of me to place her water alongside her fruit and cheese plate.

Now here comes the fun part: I know who this person is, despite the oversize Britney-Paris sunglasses covering half of her face. I know because once upon a time I watched television news and saw her doing a "stand-up" in front of the White House. Despite much happening in my life between 1982 and 2007, I know this is who I think it is because . . . she reminded me!

"Excuse me," I said to her. "Am I in your way?"

"No, you're not," came an expressionless reply. For a minute, I thought I was speaking to an animated fly that had taken over the lab in some sort of horror movie. "I am in a hurry and need to get going."

Why not play along? "Well, I'm in a hurry, too. And I was just about to order when you decided to put your stuff on the counter ahead of me."

"Living in Washington, we're all in a hurry. I just happen to be in more of hurry than you."

What a great response! I was finally part of the "in Washington" crowd -- the too-busy-to-wait-in-line crowd; the always-on-the-go crowd; the if-the-outside-world-had-any-idea-how-important-we-are crowd. Wow! Could a conversation about the pros and cons of Martha's Vineyard vs. Jackson Hole be far behind? Would I finally make into the "Reliable Source" as a gossip item ("Wasn't that Gregg Ivers staring blankly into space while waiting in line at Starbucks? Our spies said he had coffee and an apple fritter.")

"I'm not sure you're in more of a hurry than me," I said. And, for the piece de resistance. "Do you have any idea who I am?"

This got her. "I'm sure you're someone in a hurry. But if you had any idea who I am you'd understand why I need to get going. I also (she pointed one of those dainty little fingers over my left shoulder towards the window) have a driver waiting."

"I don't have any idea who you are. But I definitely know who I am, and I need to get my coffee and go. I admit, though, that I drove myself."

She was a good match, and genuinely non-plussed that I did not who she was, even though I did. "If I buy your coffee, will you accept my apology for breaking in line?"

"That is more than fair. I leaned over and quietly whispered in her ear, "Sometimes, I wonder if the craziness of our lives is worth the fame and fortune."

A smile broke beneath the facade of Washington seriousness. "I'd trade a sane week for anything sometimes. You, on the other hand, don't strike me as someone who takes a lot too seriously. Do I get points for that?"

"You certainly do. And I don't want to hold you up anymore because I know, since you have a driver waiting and I don't, that you've got someplace to be."

"Do you really not know who I am?"

I held fast. "No, I don't (even though I did). But I do know you like fruit and cheese for breakfast."

She finally smiled. "I'm not so sure what to believe with you. But either way, this was fun, and you made my day."

There was one more thing.

"Who are you?" she asked.

"Come now," I said. "All those years in the news business should give you a head start on that question. But thanks for the coffee."

She shook her head and smiled even wider. "You earned it."

Washington is, as you know, a city full of very important people doing very important things. And I am now one of them.

Live and in person . . . again!


The Ocio Jazz Collective, the jazz quartet I have been playing with the last couple of months, will be appearing tomorrow night, February 24, at the Mayorga Coffee Factory in Silver Spring. We play from 7.30-9.30 p.m.

Mayorga features a full-menu along with great coffee. And for those so inclined, it also has a full bar.

For more information on the Ocio Jazz Collective, visit http://www.myspace.com/ociomusic

Come out and enjoy.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Punitive damages . . . not clarified

For varied reactions to the Court's decision two days ago in Phillip Morris USA v. Williams (2007), which threw out an $80 million jury award to the wife of a deceased smoker on the grounds that juries can't award damages to persons affected by a lawsuit not named in the suit, see the comments posted on SCOTUS Blog, which you can also find on the right side of my index page.

The 5-4 split is interesting. The Court's two most conservative members, Scalia and Thomas, and the its two most liberal members, Stevens and Ginsberg, formed the dissenting four. But they did not all dissent for the same reasons.

The conventional wisdom on this case is that "business interests," i.e., the big companies that hit with these huge judgments, took home a big victory. I think that reaction makes for a better "hook" in the initial news stories "expert" commentary about the case. But Justice Breyer was fairly careful in his opinion to say that the main issue in the case wasn't the size of the award but the intended beneficiary. A party not "injured" by the company's action cannot benefit from a punitive award.

Anyway, read the opinion and decide for yourself.

Surround sound has its downside

For those of you who believe you know obscenity when you see it, be careful.

And turn the volume down . . . way down.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ornette Coleman


No, I haven't headed this post with the pioneer of free jazz and the inventor of "harmolodics" as part of some effort to recover from my confession last week that I own some embarrassingly cheesy music, protected from public display by iTunes and my iPod . . . why would I? I am not the least bit hesitant to admit that I own some bad songs by one-hit wonders, or multiple songs by bands I have derided in print and in conversation with fellow musicologists (read: intoxicated or otherwise attitudinally-adjusted friends). I do. But if I told you what those songs were that would take the mystery out of the writer-reader relationship. And who wants that?

Repeated listening to the new Ornette Coleman recording, "Sound Grammar," have made me even appreciate even more this quirky genius's great contributions to American jazz music. I freely admit that Ornette is an acquired taste, and like many things that appeal to the fringes of our musical palette, sometimes to difficult to grasp on the first few encounters. If "free jazz" makes you nervous, don't be. There is a tremendous range of great music available in this sub-genre of jazz -- you can find some great work by mainstream jazz giants such as Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, Pat Metheny, Jack DeJohnette and Michael Brecker, just to scratch the surface, that goes beyond the boundaries of more conventional musical language.

Ornette is not all screeching and honking. Some the melodies he has put to paper and the notes he has blown through the air are among the most gorgeous bits of music I have ever heard. Listen and find out for yourself.

The Hillary-tanic vs. the Bullshit Express

To listen to venerable Washingtonians in-the-know talk about the 2008 presidential campaign, we should tell anyone thinking of challenging either Hillary Clinton or John McCain for their party's respective nominations to stop this nonsense right now and go back to their regularly scheduled programming. I hope neither one makes it to the final round because I believe they are both terrible candidates for reasons that are remarkably similar -- neither Hillary (no disrespect intended; but she wants to be branded as "Hillary" and not "Clinton") nor McCain are capable of thinking in complex, panoramic terms, something essential in a president. Clinton spends so much time explaining why she hasn't taken the positions she has, justifying really awful positions she has taken or votes she has cast or, even worse, not taking any positions at all that Pfizer will soon market a new drug to treat Hillary-itis, defined as the inability to say anything meaningful while insisting while you have said a lot. I have already written why I think Hillary's candidacy is doomed. This morning you can find an even better explanation by William Saletan in Slate.

And John McCain? All that talk of the "Straight Talk Express" was always bullshit. McCain is a brave man, and it makes me squeamish to even think of what he went through as a POW in Vietnam for five years. But as a senator he has never been anything other than what he is now -- a right-wing ideologue with a penchant for taking personal rifts (primarily with the Bush royal family) and turning them into expressions of political candor. He opposes abortion rights, recently endorsed Arizona's measure to ban same-sex marriage, opposes almost every form of gun control, offered a quasi-endorsement of "intelligent design" and is an unrepentant hawk. And while he has talked in the past of the need to reform defense procurement, rethink how we fund political campaigns and occasionally poked the noses of prominent Republicans, McCain has embraced more and more of the Bush social agenda over the last couple of years to shore up any ill-will among the Republican "base." Now that his presidential ambitions are front and center, McCain has positioned himself as the true "conservative" of the Republicans vying for the White House in 2008. And McCain has made no bones about his support for the Iraq war -- he is all for escalation and "finishing the job," even though no one knows what that job is anymore.

McCain can spin and whirl with the best of them. He can take one position one day and another position the next, claim they're both really the same except if they're not, and chalk it up to "straight talk." When he does talk straight what does come out of his mouth is genuinely frightening. His willingness to talk to the press and, in a previous life, needle the Bushes no doubt endeared him to the professional Washington talking class, which loves a good story-teller regardless of their politics. Make no mistake, though -- four years of McCain would be as divisive and disastrous as these past six years of W have been. If I have to choose between the Hillary-tanic and the Bullshit Express, I might just sit this one out.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Supporting the troops is more than just a car magnet

On Sunday and Monday, the Washington Post ran a two-part series detailing the dysfunctional state of the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the majority of soldiers returning from military service with crippling physical and psychiatric injuries are treated. Five and a half years of war have pushed the hospital's operating capacities past overload (I wonder if the Decider and his War Cabinet even thought about treating the wounded and distressed when they predicted their "cakewalk" in Iraq and quick departure from Afghanistan, and what might happen if things did not go so well). The articles are sad, depressing, maddening -- in other words, a truly excellent piece of investigative reporting by Dana Priest and Anne Hull.

In this morning's Post, the Army announced that it would begin "renovating" several of the dilapidated buildings where long-term patients are being housed, and address the other inadequacies in the care, treatment and housing of the wounded.

Read the series and then read this morning's article detailing the Army's response here.

I wonder how many flag-waving members of Congress have even know about the problems at Walter Reed, much less have even thought about them. If someone would like to investigate the votes of Representatives and Senators who have voted to extend the Iraq War but have also voted to cut funding for veteran's care, I'd love to know how that turns out.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Check please!

Read this column by David Broder and you will understand why very few people outside of Washington take the "Washington insider" trumpeted by self-styled Washington insiders seriously. This piece might be among Broder's all-time worst, and that is saying something.

A-F means A-F

A few weeks or so ago a new student in one of my classes asked me if I was "one of those professors who doesn't believe in giving Cs anymore?"

One of those professors? And just what exactly is that, I responded.

"You know, a professor who gives As and Bs!" the student quickly answered back.

"As opposed to only Ds and Fs?" I asked.

"Huh?"

"You said a professor who doesn't give Cs. If I don't give Cs, that means I could only give Ds and Fs or Xs (a grade my university reserves for people who are registered but don't come to class, or come to class or don't do any of the graded assignments . . . I can never really remember; the whole idea of an X seems pretty stupid to me -- sort of like guys who pick up their golf ball after an indeterminable number of strokes and say, "Just give me a fucking X on that hole!" and then "discount" it when totaling up their score "If you take away that X," this person always says, "I had a pretty good round!" Sure, sure, sure. And if you take away the 216 girls that didn't go out with me in high school and college and compare it to the seven that did I had a pretty good dating career in a younger life.

"Well, a lot of professors don't give Cs anymore, just As and Bs . . . that's what I mean. So, is that your policy?"

Policy? Policy? Policy? W-h-h-h-a-a-a-t?

"If you take this course A-F," I said, "you are eligible for any of the grades on that scale."

"So I guess that means, like, you're not one of those professors? Why not?"

This was getting stranger and stranger.

"Imagine this," I said. "Suppose I was your physician and you came into my office for your physical. I took a look at you and refused to ask you to take off your clothes and put on a medical gown because the sight of seeing a 5'2" 410 lb. man scared the living shit out of me, even as a medical professional. I took some of your vitals and found that you had a pulse of 91 and blood pressure of 185/120, a reading pushing you up into the death range. The entire physical was a complete disaster -- a cholesterol test ordered earlier revealed you above 250, putting you in boiled chicken and steamed carrot territory for the rest of your life, if you lived long enough to drive home. I tell you this, straight up: Lose 250 lbs. minimum, change your diet and once your weight gets under control start a vigorous exercise program and just otherwise get your shit together. That, or you die."

And, the final question . . . "Would you do it?"

"Well, yes, because I have to choose between living and dying."

"But," I respond, "isn't the point here really just to accept the evaluation of an expert in the profession you are consulting for advice?"

"Your class is not about living or dying. It's about getting into law school and I need good grades."

And I need to win the lottery and stop dealing with this nonsense, I thought.

"By giving you a grade you don't deserve I am giving you a false assessment," I continued. "To me, it's no different than telling someone who needs to change their personal health habits that they are really just fine. Get it?"

"No."

The student dropped the course. And we both lived . . . at least so far . . . happily ever after.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thank you for reading this . . . really

I had no idea when I began blogging back in late August that as many people would read this as they apparently do. I started doing this because I thought it would be fun to practice writing shorter pieces on topics of interest to me, or, I described it to someone, get some much needed "brain-er-cise." Friends who know me well (and nonetheless still consider me a friend) thought if I wrote down my thoughts they wouldn't have to listen to me carry on and pontificate about everything I carry on and pontificate about.

That part hasn't worked out.

I sent out a brief email to those people in my email address book letting them know I was starting a website with a blog. Since late August, I have heard from people that I literally haven't heard from in 30+ years (my next door neighbor growing up when I was between 4 and 12), old college friends I haven't heard from since graduation, former students I'd lost touch with, ex-almost girlfriends, their boyfriends, the parents of friends I have never met, work colleagues of people I haven't seen in years, and so on.

So thanks. Keep reading -- and commenting.

To hell with the groundhog . . . pitchers and catchers have reported!

One of the worst things about getting older is that you're supposed to get smarter -- life experience, knowledge, advancement in your chosen profession, and all that -- but too often you realize instead, or at least in my case, that you have maxed out. Here I am, older than some of you and younger than others, and yet I still struggle with the greater than/less than sign (Is it <>? I honestly still can't figure it out), can't balance my checkbook (not writing checks down probably doesn't help) and don't know what my mechanic is talking about what he asks me, "Does that belt make an "eeeeeeking" noise or a "ch-ch-ch-ch" sound first?" I just sort of look at him, blink a couple of times, and think, "I could sure go for an apple fritter right now!"

And then there is Groundhog Day. For the last 10 years, at least one of my children has been young enough to ask me, "What does it mean when the groundhog sees his shadow?" Being the bad dad I am, I never know what to say because I don't know the answer. I grew up in Atlanta, so there was absolutely no way that six more weeks of winter was coming after February 2. By the end of February, we were playing baseball outside and by the middle of March we (or me) we're already complaining about the humidity. The groundhog was not a big part of my life.

The true test of spring is the opening of Spring Training. Earlier this week, all 30 teams opened their camps to pitchers and catchers, and position players are starting to trickle in as well. The Yankees have gotten off to an MLB-leading start in the drama department, Kerry Wood, the Chicago Cubs oft-injured pitcher, hurt his stomach and chest getting out of a hot tub, and there are the usual complaints from players about not being "appreciated" by their teams because of insufficient contracts (Me? I'd love to be "unappreciated" for $4.5 million per year for teaching every other course well -- or not even well, just adequately).

But really . . . who cares? Baseball is back. So to hell with the groundhog and his shadow. Winter is over when Spring Training begins.

Friday, February 16, 2007

One more thing to love about iTunes


With apologies to all the gender theorists out there (and Deborah Tannen, who might write a book about this post), men and women will always be different in one major area . . . and this is (drum roll please) . . .

Men put their CDs in a prominent place for display in whatever passes for their residence . . . whether it's their dorm room, first apartment, group house, the place they live with their girlfriend or wife, or the basement of their parents' house when they have to move back home after their girlfriend or wife has kicked them out of that very same place, whether they own it or not. Women do not do this. If they do, I have never known one. And I have known a lot of women . . . most of them, unfortunately, were related to me or just, as they soooooooooooo often reminded me, "good friends."

Seriously. The first thing a guy does when he walks into a house for the first time is look for the music collection and start scoping it out. He might compliment the new plasma TV ("Ooooh, on the wall . . . nice choice.") or check out the content of the refrigerator even if he is not hungry or thirsty, but he will do that on the way to the CD collection or afterwards. Never before.

Until I was about 25, I cared what people thought when they looked at my record and now CD collection. From the moment I bought my first album with my own money, "Let It Be," and announced I was going to grow my hair like Paul McCartney (a decision my mother vetoed on the spot without announcing a right of appeal), I have always bought music by the truckload. And to this day I have all my CDs in a prominent place in our family room. My CDs are, in fact, the only thing of mine in that room. I have no place to sit or say-so in what comes in or what goes out, and I have to clean up everyone else's stuff. My CDs are my line in the sand, my claim to personal dignity, my personal reminder that I have SOME say so about the house in which I live and that help pay for with my astronomical, out-of-control, professorial salary. And in perhaps my only real nod to "guydom," as the contemporary "men's magazines" in the grocery store check-out line call such behavior, I divide my CDs by genre, organize them in alphabetical order by band name or artist's last name and place them left to right in the order in which they were released. There are always some tough calls: Should Stevie Ray Vaughn go in rock or blues? Do you put Donald Fagen's solo albums after the last Steely Dan release, or put them under F in rock? Do you put the Coltrane Box Sets in a special section reserved for Box Sets, or do you put them in the Coltrane section in jazz?

I am proud to say that after a long back-and-forth lasting many years, I have agreed to allow my wife to include her Sheryl Crow CDs and her Madonna CD from 86 years ago on my display rack, and not merely in their own section. Crow is under C and Madonna under M. My reaction now when someone says, "You actually have a Phil Collins album?" is now, "Yes, 'Face Value,' a great album and 'Hand in Hand' is a phenomenal instrumental. You play it," and no longer, "I think it's my wife's/friend's/college roommate's/old roommate's/cable guy's CD. I don't have any idea what it's doing here. "

But iTunes has changed this crisis of personal growth. iTunes has made it possible to buy truly embarrassing music by the song, and not the album, and store it on your iPod and then back it up to your hard drive. No one ever has to see that you have, "Convoy," by C.W. McCall or "We've Only Just Begun," by The Carpenters. No one ever has to know. And if you ever get punked on your iPod . . . "What the hell is "Ride Captain Ride" doing on your iPod?" you can always say, "My kid downloaded it onto my iPod through his account. Thanks for letting me know. I'll take it off." No one has to know that . . . well, no one has to know that whatever cheesy song that might be actually belongs to you.

Thank you, Apple. And Karen Carpenter has a great voice . . . so what of it?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Gettin' some of that overtime -- part II

In my office mail box today was some sort of official-looking envelope from a publisher that appeared to a bill. I didn't remember ordering any books from this publisher recently or ever. So imagine my surprise when I opened it up to discover a royalty check for $59.67.

For what?

For a book I'd forgotten I'd published fifteen years ago. And it gets better: the royalties are for books sold from January 1997 through December 2005. I can only imagine what happened in 2006!

No need to take part in the NBA Slam Dunk contest. I'm taking that time off.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Students are biased . . . so what?

About a month ago, shortly after I returned to teaching after a semester-long sabbatical, I wrote a piece for Poliscope that divulged a major secret about college professors -- they have points of view, sometimes feel strongly about their own research and scholarship and sometimes share, in different ways, those opinions with their students. To distill, in uncharacteristic fashion, the point of that piece to its essence, I suggested that, in the end, it doesn't matter what professors think or what their opinions are. What matters is how well the student challenges his or herself, and how honest a student is willing to be about s/he does or doesn't know. What I believe or how I vote is no more relevant to a student's education than that student's decisions are to my life.

I got quite a bit of mail about that from friends in the outside world and many former students. The responses ranged from: "Do you think that disclosing professors are biased will get you in trouble?" (No; I can't get "in trouble" for saying something about myself); "What do you think you're students will think?" (I don't know; I don't talk about my blog in class); "Can you be fair to students if they disagree with you?" (No; but I can be equally unfair to everyone!) ; "Why would you say something like that?" (Why wouldn't I? is a better question. I am many things to many people, but a bullshit guy is not one of them. Ask me a question and I will answer it. And yes, I will tell you if you have a booger on your nose. I'd want someone to tell me).

After a month of being back in the classroom (I didn't realize how much I missed it; this is the best job that anyone could ever have), an idea occurred to me as I was listening one morning to some students offer their various views on the topics I teach: Do students ever think for a moment about their own biases, and how that affects their perceptions of their professors?

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't spend a lot of time guessing or even thinking about what my professors' politics were. I spent most of my time thinking about:

1. Whether the girl that I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess three weeks later in a bar that she would have if I had only asked her out 33 more times? Yes!)

2. Whether I had enough money to go out Friday and Saturday night, or whether I would be stuck home pretending to study one of those nights because I was broke. (Answer: No; yes.)

3. If I made a A in this class, would that move my GPA up enough to get into the "reach" graduate school to which I applied? Or what if I made a B? Or C? (Answer: I don't know. I got in where I wanted to and hoped like hell I didn't get a call saying there had been a bureaucratic snafu and I was back on the street.)

4. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No. But would she confess after graduation that she always liked me, and was afraid of liking me "too much?" Yes!)

5. Whether the other girl I thought was cute would go out with me. (Answer: No, without a caveat.)

So, no, I didn't wonder very much if my professor in whatever class I was taking was a Communist, a socialist, an atheist, a Republican, gay, lived with his mother, liked long walks on the beach and spicy food, favored the designated hitter, was a reformed arsonist, a secret cross-dresser and so on. I spent much more time, when I wasn't thinking about which cute girl was going to turn me down, about the opinions of my classmates, and what could have possibly happened to them that caused them to say some of things that they did. Dropped on their head? Locked in a shed? Brainwashed by foreign, no, extraterrestrial agents? Denied food and water for extensive periods of time? Suffering from an untreated concussion? The list was endless . . .

But that was really one of the funnest parts of college -- getting a chance to hear views, opinions, accents and beliefs that you had never heard before (and, depending where you moved after college was over, you might never hear again). And now, colleges emphasize intellectual diversity in their admissions decisions (sometimes linking them to race and ethnicity, but that is a whole different subject) because they want the undergraduate experience to be that exposes students to different points of view.

Great. All for it.

But that means students will come into the classroom with biases of their own. And just as professors must evaluate students objectively on graded assignments, students must learn to evaluate professors objectively without regard to their own opinion. I'd much rather have a student just come right out and say, "You know, that guy is an asshole!" rather than feel that s/he couldn't get a fair shake on the basis of their opinion. After nearly 18 years of college teaching, I've had students come to conclusion that I am, in their opinion, an asshole (or a fuckhead, shitbrain, prick, whatever) regardless of their self-styled political philosophies, but very few believe that my opinions, whatever they may, got in the way of a fair evaluation. For me, as for any college teacher, a student needs to understand that s/he is going to get a high, hard one right down the middle -- sorry, Spring Training opens tomorrow -- regardless of whether they think they agree with me or not. A student needs to develop the self-awareness and the maturity to realize that s/he should not always blame me if they ground out or whiff. My only obligation is to put the ball over the plate. The rest is up to you.

And today's word is . . .


Ben & Jerry's has just announced that it will name a new ice cream after Stephen Colbert: "Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream."

The ice cream will be in stores very soon. Colbert plans to donate his proceeds from the ice cream's sales to his charity, "Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Fund."

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

My date with Sheryl Crow -- clarified

This past Sunday, February 11, Sheryl Crow, the popular singer, songwriter and guitarist, turned 45 years old. I wouldn't have known except that I saw her birthday listed on the Simpson's calendar that hangs in my family's kitchen. I have not seen Sheryl since the spring of 1983, when I was a senior in college and she a junior. After almost 24 years, I think I am finally over our tumultuous relationship and can wish her without reservation a happy birthday.

So, yes, it's true. I went out with Sheryl Crow in college.

For 45 minutes.

Back then, Sheryl Crow was Sheryl Crowboff. She was popular in Greek life at the University of Missouri, very cute (although not nearly as hot as she is now) and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. I was a member of Phi Kappa Psi (barely), and we lived very close to the Theta sorority house. Some of my friends -- I still can't bring myself to use the phrase "fraternity brothers" (I couldn't then, either) -- dated girls who were Thetas. I didn't date a Theta, of course, just as I didn't date anyone else during college. But I knew all my friends' girlfriends, and I spent the equivalent of a semester abroad listening to all their relationship problems during college. I met Sheryl one night while I was out with some friends and their girlfriends. As usual, I had hitched myself to a beer, found a good spot to stand near the bar, and waited to hear how horrible everyone else's boyfriends and girlfriends were.

"This is it!" I'd hear from a friend. "I'm not puttin' up with her shit anymore. You think Kathy so great? You deal with that shit!"

And Kathy would reply, fueled by a couple of Gin and Tonics, "What can't you be more like Ivers? At least he has a brain and knows how to treat a girl -- unlike you, asshole!"

"He does? Then why doesn't he have a girlfriend? Huh? He's so fucking great?"

After I offered both my friend and Kathy the chance to deal with Kathy's shit, the result was always the same:

My friend: "I so love that girl, I swear to God, I don't know what I'd do without her."

And Kathy? "Thanks, Ivers. You are such a good friend . . . oh, my God, really more like a brother. And if you're like my brother that means if we ever got together that would be, like, sick, you know, like incest. . . "

"Please," I would say. "Just stop. Now."

So one night, evening, afternoon . . . I don't really remember, I asked Sheryl to go to a party that a friend of mine was having off-campus at his apartment. She agreed, and when I told her I would pick up her around 9 p.m. she told me that she would just meet me there.

Not a good sign. I should have known then that this wasn't going to work out.

Sheryl did meet me at the party, and we hung around, sort of, for about 45 minutes. She disappeared to get a beer and then I never saw her again.

Not that night. Not ever.

And that is the story of my date with Sheryl Crow.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Gettin' some of that overtime

In what must be one of the greatest sports quotes of the last however-many-years, Chicago Bulls rookie forward Tyrus Thomas announced last week that he wasn't particularly looking forward to taking part in the Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA all-star game:

"I'm just going to go out there, get my check and call it a day."

Thomas was asked if having a chance to hang with some of the game's greats was an appealing feature of all-star weekend:

"I'm just into the free money. That's it. I'll just do whatever when I get out there."

"I might have to break out some tapes of old contests. But I'm just taking it for what it's worth."

By the way, the winner receives $35,000. Maybe that's just a check to Thomas. But for the rest of us, it's not a bad "check" for a few minutes work. Even what you earn what a college professor earns, $35K is still $35K.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Is Anna Nicole Smith more newsworthy than falsifying intelligence to justify a war? Yes!

I usually don't go out on a limb and make predictions, but I'm going to break precedent here and bet that most people reading this, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, commitment to vegetarianism or shoe size now know that Anna Nicole Smith died yesterday at 39 years old for reasons that may or may not be the result of "natural causes." For even the most celebrity-ignorant among us -- and I certainly fall into that category -- Anna Nicole Smith stood out even among a bumper crop of professional dysfunctional celebrities. But as iconic as figure as Smith apparently was -- and will remain -- in American popular culture, did her death really merit more column inches in this morning's Washington Post than a story reporting that the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office has concluded that a key Bush administration political appointee -- undersecretary of defense and Dick Cheney acolyte Douglas Feith -- misrepresented key intelligence on Iraq to bolster the administration's position for war?

The editors of the Post think so. Granted, the Feith story ran above the fold on the right hand side, the most important place in a newspaper. The story of Smith's death also appeared on the front page, below the fold, and jumped inside the paper, and featured a quote from a Syracuse professor who directs the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University on Smith's contribution to our understanding of celebrities.

Wow! I had no idea . . . really, that Anna Nicole Smith had the impact on our society that she did.

And, to top it off, the Style section features an essay on what Smith's "gold-digging" marriage at 26 to her 80 year-old husband means for institution of marriage, what it tells us about the different motives that men and women have for marrying and . . . something else, but I stopped reading after my iPod surprised me with "A Day in the Life," by The Beatles.

You try doing anything else when that song comes on.

Going out on a limb . . . again! . . . the Feith story is, at least to me, more important. Granted, it doesn't tell us anything we really don't now know about the Bush administration's deceitful pre-Iraq war behavior. And the story might not have needed to go on longer than it did. But when the capital's most important paper -- by default rather than by deserved reputation -- pays more attention to the tragic life of a celebrity who did not, with all due respect to those who believe differently, really contribute anything to our public life other than a few cheap laughs at her own expense, something isn't quite right.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

And I thought it was just me . . .

None of my friends with jobs in the adult world believes me when I tell them that I have had students who have threatened to sue me over a bad grade. Well, apparently I now have some company.

See? I really don't make this stuff up.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Why youth should be wasted on the young

The good news keeps rolling in . . . first, football season comes to an end; second, Hank Aaron's birthday comes a day later, an appropriate reminder to turn the nation's attention to the coming of baseball season -- just two weeks away, when the Chicago Cubs give their fans an appropriate Valentine's Day present by opening spring training workouts for pitchers and catchers -- third, I found $40 in a pair of pants I hadn't worn in almost a year, and fourth, the Washington Post reports that achievement-obssessed parents are beginning to realize that turning their kids' formative years into one long pre-college study hall might not necessarily serve their best interests. And high schools are starting to recognize that making high school an academic boot camp does not always bode well for a student's mental health or improve that student's likelihood of success in college.

Two of the schools mentioned in the story are, quite literally, close to my home -- Walt Whitman High School and Thomas Pyle Middle School -- but they could one of dozens in Montgomery County. My neighborhood is one of those where parents fret about whether their choice of pre-school will affect their child's ability to succeed in second grade math, and whether their elementary school education will adequately prepare their child for AP courses in high school, and whether . . . . and whether . . . . and whether. Even after seven years of supervising my children's elementary and middle school education, I still don't understand why so many parents worry so much about every little detail of their children's schooling. Since my children are active in sports, art, dance, etc., I meet a lot of parents while waiting for practices, rehearsals and games to finish. And almost as soon as they find out I am a professor, whatever subject we were discussing immediately gets dropped in favor of:

"Do colleges care about AP credits?"

"Will taking algebra in 7th grade help my child's application to college?"

"Do you know anyone at _________ University that can give an extra look to our daughter's application?" (Better yet, one person whom I had known for all of 25 minutes asked me if I could get her a "discount" if her child got into the university where I teach. Mmm . . . sorry.)

My answer usually go something like this: I'm not really sure because I don't make decisions about who gets into my university and who doesn't. But what I do tell them is this: the social and emotional development of a teenager preparing to attend college is much more important than whatever AP credits, business accomplishments or glossy letters-of-recommendation s/he may bring with them to campus. After a meeting a class for the first time, I can get a pretty good idea of who will do well, who will end up somewhere in the middle, who will struggle, who will spend more time trying to beat the system than doing the work and who will try to get the most out of the course. What I don't know is what any of them made on the SAT, how many AP credits they brought with them or whether they were the best debater at their high school or the lead in the school play. And frankly it doesn't matter. College is the time to start clean -- it's sort of like getting the call to the Big Leagues . . . whatever you might have done in the minors doesn't matter; it's how well you hit major league pitching or stop an NHL slap shot that does. If a first-year college student is prepared to handle life on his own -- to deal with academic challenges, able to balance a social life with school, capable of living with another person in small space without an intervening parent, no amount of AP credits or spit-shined SAT scores are going to help him or her.

Students on the over-achievement track in high school are usually there because a parent or someone else has pushed them to "succeed, succeed, succeed." In communities such as mine which have a professional, highly-educated demographic (and usually the affluence that comes with it [except if you're a college professor]), there is a push to turn every aspect of a child's existence into a competitive, pre-professional exercise. Your 8 year-old son comes home one day and says, "We learned to play chess in math class," and the next thing you know a parent is scouring the Internet looking for chess clinics, chess teachers and travel chess teams. And sports? Even worse. Although there are plenty of reasonable families who support their kids the right way in youth sports, too many are still out there who believe that this is all just preparation for a professional career in hockey, soccer, baseball or whatever. And 9 1/2 times out of 10, it's not the kid who is delusional -- he or she just wants to play the game, score a goal, get a hit and make friends -- it's the parents. And when you respond to questions about how their son can improve their game, there are some parents who look at you incredulously when you suggest that they spend more time on skating, fielding ground balls or simply work harder on their fundamentals. I've told more than one parent that if Tiger Woods can have a golf coach, their 12 year-old recreational athlete can listen to what their coach has to say.

Sometimes it is really okay just to play a sport, volunteer your time, learn to play the piano or take voice lessons simply because you want to and enjoy it for what it is -- not everything should be a means to an end. Just because school-age children are capable of doing great things with their minds does not mean they are emotionally equipped to handle the stress and competitive pressure that comes with being treated like a trained seal. If taking a step back is something that professional educators are starting to think is a good thing for their middle and high school students, they are taking a necessary corrective step in preparing them for college. How is less preparation actually better preparation for college? I have some thoughts on that, but that will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

New Tom Tomorrow here

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Hank Aaron


Today is a great day for two reasons:

1. Football season is over.
2. Feburary 5 is Hank Aaron's birthday.

Despite hitting 755 home runs and ending his career with 3771 hits, 2297 RBI (a major league record), 1,477 extra base hits (a major league record) and a batting average of .305, Hank Aaron is the most under-appreciated great player in the history of major league baseball. Never has one player done so much -- and let's not forget that he holds the major league record for games played and total bases -- without receiving the full credit he deserves from the public and the baseball media. It's not that Aaron has failed to receive recognition as a great player. He has. For those of us that grew up watching Aaron play (and that was the only good thing about being a Braves fan in the late 1960s and early 1970s), he was a study in quiet excellence. Aaron never bragged and never showboated; he simply went out and hit the hell out of a baseball nearly every day of his career. He also won three Gold Gloves, and, in the early part of his career, could steal his share of bases (240 over his career). He hit 20 home runs over 20 times and hit over .300 fourteen times. And even after age slowed him a bit, he made up for his diminishing speed with great baserunning skills. He was as complete a player as Barry Bonds and probably better. Better yet, he accomplished everything he did without steroids and was a class act from the moment he helped integrate the Sally League as a minor leaguer until the day he retired. Aaron was an occasional customer of my dad's when I was growing up, and he was always accommodating and self-effacing in the few times I met him.

Aaron did not have the charisma of Babe Ruth or the romantic pull of Mickey Mantle. He was never immortalized in song like Joe DiMaggio and did not meet an untimely and tragic death like the great Roberto Clemente. But, for my money, I'd take Aaron over all of them. He played against better competition than Ruth or DiMaggio because major league baseball no longer excluded African Americans by the time Aaron broke in to the big leagues. By the time Aaron closed in on Ruth's record, he was receiving death threats warning him not to break Ruth's record. He ignored them and went on to hit number 715 in Atlanta. I remember exactly where I was: at Meyer Birnbaum's house watching the game in his family's living room. We jumped for joy and gave each other "some skin" (high-fiving had not been invented yet). Hank Aaron, our favorite player, had broken the most cherished record in baseball.

As I've gotten older, I've become less attached to records in professional sports. I don't root against any player closing in on the great records in a given sport. I'm all for Tiger Woods breaking Jack Nicklaus's records in golf; I hope Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin break every record there is in the NHL; I hope Ichiro Suzuki breaks Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak and bests Ted Williams's .406 batting average from 1941. But I really shudder at the thought of Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's home run record. I can't imagine anyone less deserving than Bonds to break such a great record by such a great man.

In the meantime, happy birthday, Hammerin' Hank. You will always be to me the greatest of them all.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Dissent and the troops: listening to each other

This is not the post I thought I would write this morning. In fact, I didn't think I would write anything at all. Up at 5.30 a.m. to run my son's 6.55 a.m. hockey practice, then sticking around to help run a clinic held afterwards for players who just didn't get enough ice earlier in the morning, then to stick around -- this time as just another parent mainlining caffeine -- while Max and several of his teammates helped with our club's Special Hockey program, I just wanted to catch a nap somewhere, anywhere. Dumb enough to bring my laptop to the rink, I stumbled across an on-line column by a Washington Post writer named William Arkin called, "The Troops Also Need to Support the American People."

Before I get to Arkin's column, let me first say that, prior to reading it, I had just about given up on the Post for dead when it came to meaningful commentary and analysis on the Iraq War. The paper's editorial position has been decidedly pro-war since the Bush administration began beating the military drum on Iraq in early 2002. Its regular stable of pro-war op-ed columnists -- Charles Krauthammer, George Will, David Ignatius, Sebastian Mallaby and Jim Hoagland -- and frequent contributors to the page from either the administration, pro-war members of Congress, "shadow" foreign affairs groups or a regular rotation of retired former officials -- including the odious Henry Kissinger -- all have a decided pro-war slant. Even as the administration's justification for going into Iraq was exposed for the fraud that it was (and is), the Post has been reluctant to confess error. At best, it has taken the "as-long-as-we're-there-we-may-as-well-get-it-right approach" that wants the best of both worlds -- "We were wrong, but leaving will be worse."

Worse? Worse how?

. . . neither here nor there right now. In his column, Arkin offered (and I paraphrase) the following question: Why should the American public blindly support the military when the mission it has been asked to carry out cannot be accomplished? And answered it by asking (paraphrasing again): Shouldn't the troops -- and the military command structure -- listen to the American public? Arkin noted that Americans do not support the war, do not support the president who insisted upon it and do not believe there is any chance in hell of accomplishing some sort of stable regime in Iraq sympathetic to the United States. Americans opposing the war do not oppose the troops; they oppose the administration that is using the troops -- and sacrificing the troops' lives, their limbs, their sanity, their future and their families -- as pawns in the domestic politics of power and influence. Listening to the administration and war supporters in Congress attempt to defend the indefensible is bad enough, but what's worse is listening to such fence-sitters as Hillary Clinton insist that the inconsistency of their position on the war makes more sense than the war's outright defenders. Yesterday, Hillary announced that, if she were president in 2002, she would have never started this war.

All right, then . . . so why did you vote for it? And John Kerry? Don't get me started . . .

What do Americans owe their soldiers in uniform? This is a delicate but important question. As a citizen, I owe the armed forces whatever they need to accomplish an objective that is consistent with an important civilian objective. Did the United States have an obligation, along with most of the world, to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991? Did the United States do the right thing by intervening in the Balkans during the 1990s to assist other countries in NATO to bring some order to the civil wars intended to "ethnically cleanse" those countries in the region? And what about Somalia? One, of course, can make arguments for and against American intervention in each case. In each case, though, there was an important civilian objective linked either to American foreign policy or to promote human rights. More importantly, the careful manner in which each option was debated reinforced what is perhaps the most noble feature of the American constitution -- that civilians control the military and not the other way around.

Certainly, I can understand why our soldiers putting their lives on the line would be frustrated with the growing anti-Iraq war sentiment back home. But the soldiers unfortunate enough to be in Iraq must also remember that few American oppose our presence, along with our "old" allies, in Afghanistan. In fact, most Americans believe that our military is needed more in Afghanistan than in Iraq, a sentiment that has grown with time as the Iraqi deception has become more clear. Americans do not oppose military action easily, especially once the decision to commit troops has been made. But we do no one any favors to continue supporting a war that promises no decent outcome. Troops returning home are not going to face an environment that some did after Vietnam -- no one will refer to them as baby-killers or murderers, or spit upon them, or remain indifferent to the difficulties they will face reintegrating into civilian society. Our soldiers returning from active duty should take some solace in the fact that the small number of Americans who know that the Bush administration has reduced benefits for our veterans find it outrageous.

Ours is now an all-volunteer army. The feeling among many soldiers interviewed about their service in Iraq that they are just "doing their job" and that they deserve support for what they do illuminates something very different about the Iraq war. Service age men and women are not lining up at enlistment centers to go fight in Iraq now nor were they when the Bush administration revved up the war machine almost four years ago. For soldiers to say that they are just doing a "job" is quite telling, in that it suggests what motivates their service is not the same as what drove people to take up the fight against Hitler and Imperial Japan. To say that our soldiers are fighting for our freedom back home just is not true. No one in the United States genuinely goes to bed at night afraid that our country's security at home rests with a "victory" in Iraq. I'm not sure anyone really knows what a victory in Iraq is at this point. Whatever the short and long-term prospects are in Iraq for its people and their country, nothing that happens there will affect anyone back home, save the military families who have made and will continue to make sacrifices in the name of an amoral president who refuses to see the world as it really is. Had this really been the "struggle of a lifetime" that the Decider has insisted that it is, he would have asked Congress to institute a draft in order to put together the 750,00 - 1,000,000 troops that non-aligned military experts have argued is really necessary to take control of Iraq and ward off intervention by Iran, Syria and anyone else. A draft would have moved the debate at home in a very different direction by this point -- and probably much sooner -- if armchair hawks risked their own lives or a loved one in the name of . . . whatever it is that our president claims we are fighting for in Iraq.

Americans citizen are free to criticize the foreign policy of our government. No elected official, military commander or media windbag should ever suggest otherwise. If freedom of speech is good enough for other countries, then it is good enough for us. Our soldiers should understand that a domestic debate over our national interest in remaining in Iraq is a cultural touchstone of democratic nations. If we are not secure enough to debate openly our choices, especially when those choices involve sending people to die, then there is something wrong with us. Patriotism has a much broader meaning that blindly supporting the policy choices of the party in power. Our government got it very, very wrong in Vietnam, and not until American citizens took the streets in massive numbers did the government begin to listen. Our current president has demonstrated that he does not really care what the voters or the public think. Two and a half months after the November elections and ever plummeting poll numbers later, the Decider announced that he would escalate our presence in Iraq, not reconsider it. Our troops should remember that they serve the nation, not just the president. Although there is not always validity in numbers, at some point it makes sense to ask for a soldier to ask why over a hundred million Americans no longer support a war that, just a few short years ago, it didn't even bother to question.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Remembering Molly Ivins


My best guess is that few people of the few people who read this blog have any idea who Molly Ivins is and why so many people in the press and in public life have taken time in the last day and a half to write tributary obituaries on her behalf. In her syndicated column, Molly, who died Wednesday at 62 after a multi-year bout with breast cancer, was the sharpest observer of American politics writing in the print media, never hesitating to call 'em like she saw 'em. Born in California, she grew up in Texas and embraced that state's version of populism at an early age. Modern and progressive in her politics, she was distinctly old-school in her understanding of what journalists were supposed to do, and that was to speak truth to power. Unlike many of her contemporaries in journalism, Molly had no interest in entering the incestuous pool of the Washington political-media complex. She thought that journalists should challenge the governing class, not aspire to become part of it.

Her final columns over the last several months were devoted almost exclusively to the Iraq War. Molly was never for it, noting years ago that the United States was going to enter a sectarian hell with no way out. Her final column, published on January 14, 2007, was a call to rise up and raise hell, and not stop until the United States left Iraq.

Talking about Molly Ivins doesn't do her justice. You need to read her. You can find an archive of her columns by clicking here.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Say it ain't so, Joe.

What the hell was Joe Biden thinking when he made the following statement:

Barack Obama is "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" to run for president.

Say what?

I am not now nor have I ever been a member in good standing of the Jesse Jackson Fan Club. As far as I can tell, though, Jackson is articulate, bright, clean and nice-looking, particularly for his age. He also kicked Joe Biden's ass in 1988 during the Democratic presidential primaries. Jackson lasted longer than Biden and got a hell of a lot more votes. And what about Al Sharpton? Again, not my favorite. Sharpton isn't stupid, seems clean enough and can turn a phrase.

Biden has offered the usual, "I was taken out of context" as his defense. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn't. But anyone running for president needs to think a bit more carefully before saying such stupid things as Biden did. The man does like to talk, which is why the Senate is much more suitable place for Biden than the White House.