Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Blood Sweat & Tears

Fusion conjures up images of all the excesses wrought by the marriage of rock and jazz in the early 1970s. Whereas guitarists like Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix actually tried to light their guitars on fire by pouring gasoline on them, pyrotechnic guitarists like Al Dimeola and John McGlaughlin attempted to disintegrate their fret boards by seeing how many notes they could play per second. Clearly influenced by Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Duane Allman, jazz-trained guitarists like Dimeola and McGlaughlin wanted to answer their rock contemporaries note-for-note, except they wanted to play them twice as fast just to show everyone they could. As someone who has always liked guitarists who emphasize taste and atmosphere over speed, I never found Dimeola and McGlaughlin all that interesting, although they each could, on occasion, play some absolutely terrific music.

By the end of the 1960s, jazz had all but disappeared from radio. Such luminaries as Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea had begun to experiment with rock rhythms in their music for reasons that were as much practical as they were artistic. In 1969, Miles Davis released "Bitches Brew," an album that marked his transition into electric music, and a recording that is commonly viewed as the first "electric jazz" or "fusion" record by an artist legitimately considered a Founding Father of modern jazz. Personally, I don't like "Bitches Brew." My dislike for that recording has nothing to do with Miles "selling out," which I don't think he did. Nor is it because the music is electric (I grew up on rock and embraced Weather Report and Return to Forever right off the bat). I just particularly care for the rambling, disjointed, decidedly non-melodic nature of the music. Worst of all, the music doesn't swing and it doesn't rock. I gave that album away a long time ago, and this is coming from someone who owns every single recording Miles Davis made as a leader from 1949-1968.

I'm not sure it's even accurate to call "Bitches Brew" the first fusion record in modern music. If we define fusion as the marriage of jazz to rock (and its sub-genres, like R&B and the blues), then my vote goes to "Child is the Father of Man," by Blood, Sweat & Tears, a group that formed in the late 1960s as a true, conscious effort to take the rhythms of rock and fuse them with the arrangements of small combo jazz. Blood, Sweat and Tears was not a band that carried a horn section to embellish the rock currents of its compositions, as R&B and soul bands (such as James Brown's) did. The horns were right up front with the guitar as rhythm and lead instruments. Original members of Blood, Sweat & Tears included the great trumpeter Randy Brecker and keyboardist and composer Al Kooper.

Caught off guard by its early success, the band blew apart after its stunning debut album, losing Brecker and Kooper, its two most well-known musicians. But an obscure Canadian singer named David Clayton-Thomas took over lead vocal duties from Kooper, and gave the music, while slightly more commercial, a genuine depth of soul that it didn't have before. Thomas, in my view, remains, along with Gregg Allman, one of the most authentic white male blues singers in modern American music. Blood, Sweat & Tears second album, simply called Blood, Sweat & Tears, pushed the group into the pop charts with a stunning swiftness. I remember absolutely loving that record after my father brought it home, an effort at that time (1971-ish) to encourage me to listen to music that had horns in it. I didn't take much persuading -- I literally busted a pillow on our living room couch, the couch I wasn't supposed to sit on in the room my sister and I weren't allowed to enter playing along to that record. Songs like "Spinning Wheel," "And When I Die," and "You've Made Me So Very Happy" grabbed my ears and didn't let go.

Blood, Sweat and Tears would go through many incarnations over the years, disappearing for long stretches, reforming with new members (all of whom were first-rate musicians), then disappearing again and, in true American fashion, turning up at state fairs and theme parks years down the line. No matter, though. Blood, Sweat & Tears, more so than any other band, combined rock and jazz better than anyone else at at time when American music was in a state of flux. Chicago, another great, great band of the late 1960s and early 1970s, drew its inspiration from Blood, Sweat and Tears, and took up their mantle until the lure of commercial success led them to forsake more adventurous music for rock music's most unattractive feature -- the power ballad.

A band doesn't have to remain together for 10 or 20 years to leave a lasting imprint on the development of modern music. Sometimes it hard for people to grasp that the Beatles only played together for eight years and have less than 7 hours of recorded music in their catalog. Blood, Sweat & Tears is one of those bands forgotten, if even known, by many jazz and rock enthusiasts today. But, in its prime, it was one hell of a band.

More on the dealth penalty moratorium

The New York Times leads this morning with Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse's analysis of the justices decision to stay the Mississippi execution last night.

In the department of unintended irony, Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey tells the Senate he isn't sure if "waterboarding" meets the threshold definition of torture.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mississippi execution blocked

Earlier this evening, the United States Supreme Court granted a stay to a Mississippi death row inmate less than one hour before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection. This marks the third time the Court has blocked an execution in the last month.

Does the Court's action confirm that a de facto moratorium on the death penalty is now in place until the justices decided Baze v. Rees next spring? It sure looks that way now.

Zeebop is live again

Acoustic Zeebop will perform this Thursday, November 1st, from 6.30-7.30 p.m. in the atrium of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Center, which is located at the intersection of Montrose Road and Executive Boulevard in Rockville. Our performance is help the GWJCC kick-off its 38th annual book fair, which runs until November 10th.


Admission is free.

Red State Update on the Scariest Day of All

Jackie and Dunlap offer their insight on Halloween.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Justice for Genarlow Wilson

Genarlow Wilson, who was sentenced to jail for 10 years after a jury found him guilty of having consensual oral sex with a 15 year-old girl when he was 17 years old, was released from prison over the weekend after four years of exhaustive efforts on his behalf. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Wilson rejected efforts by the Douglasville prosecutors to enter a plea bargain because he would have to register as a sex offender, and would not have been allowed to live in the same house as his younger sister.

I wrote about Wilson several months back, and included links to this awful story. You can learn about the background of Wilson's case and subsequent legal trauma here.

Mazel Tov, Max!

We now have a Bar Mitzvah boy -- I mean, man -- in the house! Max led his service on Saturday morning with a sophistication and calm that belied the collective nervous breakdown in our house the night before. Never have we been more proud of and happy for him. He was truly incredible.

Families going through the Bar Mitzvah process get so caught up in the planning, tutoring and drama of the big moment that you rarely step back and appreciate the moment for what it truly is: a collective pause to stop and acknowledge the passing of time. I had never really thought of it that way until a non-Jewish friend -- a beautiful, blond shiksa, yet -- pointed that out to me the Thursday before Max's Bar Mitzvah on Saturday. And that is so true. We were so fortunate to have friends as far back as 30 years in attendance, people with whom I have been friends since I was slightly older than Max. Two of his pre-school teachers were there. The Babysitters Club that began in 1995 and continues to this day -- one is now a successful attorney in private practice; another is a dentist; another a nationally recognized secondary school educator; another on the cusp of a Ph.D; and the rest are continuing their education or beginning what will of course be successful careers. Most are even married (or on their way). Max had friends as far back as pre-school there for him. Neither my wife nor I have family members that live in the Washington area, so we have built a family over the years through the amazing people we have met in the 19 years we have been here. Taking time to appreciate the people who have helped you build the life should be an essential part of the Bar Mitzvah.

Thank you to everyone who helped and supported us along the way.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Alabama execution halted

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday stayed the execution of Daniel L. Siebert, who was scheduled to die by lethal injection today. Alabama is now the 18th state to suspend or have suspended by a court its lethal injection method.

This means that no execution will take place before, at minimum, the Court's decision in Baze v. Rees late next spring.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bar Mitzvah lockdown

T-3 days and counting. We are in Bar Mitzvah lockdown until Sunday, October 28. No blogging until then.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

New music from Zeebop

Zeebop, my jazz group, has added two more sound samples to our webpage. "Solar," by Miles Davis, and "Afro-Blue," made famous by John Coltrane are here.


We've got some live shows coming up in November and December. Check back next week for more details.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Puttin' the funk down on middle age

Sometimes in life there is simply no avoiding a truism, no matter how much we might like to pretend otherwise. I began my 46th year of living today. Just the thought of saying that sounds weird. 39, 40, 43 and even 45 were numbers I could handle, because I could still reason that I was closer to 40 than 50, even though I have been closer to 50 than 0 since I was 26. At 43 or 44, I still would not be the oldest player in either the NHL (Chris Chelios, 45) or MLB (Julio Franco, who is somewhere between 49 and 84, depending upon which birth certificate makes its way into that day's media guide; there is also Jamie Moyer [who turns 45 in three weeks] and Roger Clemens [45]). At worst, I'd be tied.

Music is another matter. Age doesn't bracket or limit musicians nearly as much as sports does. Jazz drummer Roy Haynes, a contemporary of Max Roach and just a notch below in terms of influence, is kicking musicians one-fourth his age off the bandstand with an alarming and healthy degree of regularity. Tommy Flanagan, the great pianist, is pushing 85 and still playing regularly in New York clubs. Roger Daltrey (the Who), Jon Anderson (Yes), Mick Jagger (Stones) and Paul McCartney, all of whom are over 60, can still sing in nearly the range they could 40 years ago. True, youth is the time when musicians tend to be most innovative and put down their creative stamp. Still, there is something to be said for a lifetime of refinement and the pursuit of new musical interests.

Forty-six is truly the Switzerland of the age continuum. I am no longer young, and can now accept that I haven't been for quite some time. Just a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for my almost nine year-old teenage daughter to finish sampling all the various hand creams, lotions and other assorted beauty products at our local Bath and Body Works, one of the impossibly cute floor clerks asked me if I would be interested in a complimentary analysis of my skin to determine what kind of face cream would "restore" my "youthful complexion."

"I don't want my youthful complexion back," I said. "I spent most of my teen-age years in either the school principal or dermatologist's office. I'm good where I am."

"Sir, you could really benefit from an exfoliating scrub and moisturizing lotion. You would see a difference in two weeks!" she yelped.

"Who else would see the difference?" I asked. "Do you think it really matters at this point? I learned long ago that men of my limited physical appeal needed to compensate by becoming good cooks, knowledgeable about endangered species of birds and wild animals, or good with a nail gun . . . anything really for women to find them useful, if not attractive."

She wasn't giving up. "Sir, I think you could really benefit. My Dad uses it and loves it!"

MY DAD USES IT AND LOVES IT. MY DAD USES IT AND LOVES IT. MY DAD USES IT AND LOVES IT.

No, this lovely child did not scream those words to me. But they sure as hell sounded loud.

"I make it a personal policy not to spend more money on a tube of face cream than on bottle of wine. And why do you keep calling me sir?"

"My parents taught me to address people their own age as Mr. or Mrs., ma'm or sir."

* * * * * * * * * *

Great. Just great. Sir, sir, sir. That means you are old, old, old.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last Sunday, as I was unloading the back of my car after a weekend of driving my kids around town to their various athletic and social commitments, I noticed two baseball bats, a baseball glove, two hockey sticks, five drum bags, a cymbal carrying case and a pair of running shoes. In other words, these were the identical contents of my car trunk when I was 17 years old. Good or bad? Who knows? But fun? Yes, absolutely.

* * * * * * * * * *

I mentioned this yesterday when I wrote about Max Roach, but I still can't fathom how anyone would want to do the same thing the same way over and over again from the day they start working until the day they retire or die. I find that as I get older, I find myself more attracted to and interested in people who share that perspective. I am fortunate to know many very, very smart people who have made choices in their professional careers to do what interests them rather than what would necessarily bring in the most money, or elevate their professional status. People with wandering minds (like myself) are inherently drawn to new ideas and approaches. I am more than happy to let my professional colleagues do what they want the way they want to do it. I suppose there is something to be said for mining the same quarry for a professional lifetime -- you might just end up knowing something that no one else does. Not much has changed in my field since I started graduate school 24 years ago. Status quo ante reigns supreme.

I still get strange looks when a colleague asks me, "Don't you really want to know why justices vote the way they do?" and I respond, "Not really." To me, what the Supreme Court says in any given opinion is much more important than whether Justice Scalia's Catholicism or Ruth Ginsburg's pre-Court career as a pioneering lawyer on behalf of women influences how they see the law and, in turn, how they vote. I think the answer is pretty easy in both case -- yes. I could really care less about what motivates a justice. A justice's vote sometimes reflects personal preferences, sometimes a bow to legal norms, a particular legal theory (free speech regardless of for whom), political bias, religious influence . . . or residual anger from a nasty confirmation fight. And even a cursory reading of Marbury v. Madison (1803) makes it real clear that justices act "strategically." That is, they negotiate, compromise and bargain to maximize their preferred positions. None of this stuff is really hard to figure out. But it is challenging to model it mathematically. Anyone who wants to spend a career doing that is welcome to it. As I get older, I find that less hardened, more open minded academics find it far less necessary to criticize the work of their colleagues, whereas scholars who adhere to a more rigid approach to research have a far greater need to criticize work that doesn't meet their particular requirements. If we were curing cancer, I might understand the urgency for more exacting "scientific" approaches to scholarship. But political science deals with how people (or nations, or corporations) negotiate a complex set of social, economic and, of course, political arrangements to maximize their power and influence. Part of what attracted me to this life was the chance to read, think, talk, debate and ultimately teach about big ideas. I don't know if I'm capable of one. But I like to think, talk and teach about them. Live and let live.

* * * * * * * * * *

Golf is the most frustrating sport. Baseball is the most elegant and exacting sport. Football is the most boring and over-produced sport. Hockey is the most athletically demanding and exhilarating sport. Professional basketball is the sport most in need of a drastic overhaul -- a great game that has been driven into the ground by selfish and unappealing athletes.

Soccer? Lunesta on grass.

* * * * * * * * * *

Americans are too fat and are far too irresponsible in their alcohol consumption. Going to any professional sporting event is becoming less and less pleasant with every passing year, as it seems that the number of food-gorging, beer-swilling obnoxious attendees continues to increase at an exponential rate. I'm not sure I would even call them fans. They don't seem interested in watching world-class athletes perform as much as just wanting to pick fights, scream at opposing fans, gobble up "merchandise" suitable for children, spew profanity regardless of who is sitting around them and just generally vent their anger.

* * * * * * * * * *

That said, Americans take sports way too seriously. Something needs to give. The Boston Red Sox trip to the World Series this year cost $130 million. My university's entire budget for one year is less than that by almost 25%.

* * * * * * * * * *

Women get better looking with age. Men don't.

* * * * * * * * * *

I moved to Washington, D.C., when I was 27 years old. I imagined it would be an exciting place full of interesting people, brimming with intellectual energy. That has not been the case. Washington is a place where everyone wants to be like everyone else. And when you spend most of your time trying to conform to a perceived norm, you can't be yourself. There is "agreeing to disagree" and there is just plain going along to get along. Independence of mind is worth far more than being invited to parties on the Vineyard or being mentioned in the Washington Post Style section.

* * * * * * * * * *

The best television show in my lifetime is "The Sopranos," followed by "M*A*S*H," "Hill Street Blues" and "The Simpsons."

* * * * * * * * * *

I never liked Michael Jordan. I'd take Magic or Bird before Jordan ten times out of ten.

* * * * * * * * * *

Leave gay people alone. Really. Aren't there other issues in the world in need of far greater attention?

* * * * * * * * * *

I was so upset when I learned the Beatles had broken up that I faked a stomach ache in school so I could go home and cry. I was 9.

* * * * * * * * * *

The most perplexing political phenomenon of my lifetime is Ronald Reagan. I didn't get it then and I don't understand Reagan nostalgia now. Had Mikhail Gorbachev not taken the steps he did to end the Cold War Ronald Reagan would be remembered for . . . . what? Classifying ketchup as a vegetable?

* * * * * * * * * *

Washington conventional wisdom holds that George Bush is really much smarter than he comes off. I think he's even dumber than he appears. As my father once said, no one that stupid can be that smart.

* * * * * * * * * *

I still love Go-Karts.

* * * * * * * * * *

Why do Washington journalists, ex-congressmen, two-bit talk show hosts and others who pass for "celebrities" here write memoirs? Who would pay $20 to learn more about Robert Novak? Does anyone really care about Andrea Mitchell's rise to journalistic stardom, or need fatherly advice from Tim Russert's father?

* * * * * * * * * *

You do make your best friends in college and graduate school. I will see my three of my closest friends from college (one from high school) this weekend when they come in for my son's Bar Mitzvah. I can't imagine the last 25 years of my life without them. My other two life-long friends had family commitments on their own and couldn't make it. But it's nice to know they would have been here, no questions asked, if they could have.

* * * * * * * * * *

An acquaintance asked if I was going through a mid-life crisis because of my addiction to playing hockey, biking to work, returning to running (!), playing music, playing in a band, etc. I didn't realize that we were supposed to cash it in after 25 and sit on top (or in front) of a television l like a spayed cat. Sitting on your ass is a mid-life crisis. Enjoying life isn't.

* * * * * * * * * *

The best part of my job is teaching and being around interesting, energetic young people. They teach me a lot. I hope the reverse is partially true.

* * * * * * * * * *

The three best professors I had in college were Michael Fitzgerald, David Stevens and Jim Riddlesperger. The three best professors I had in graduate school were Tom Walker, Karen O'Connor and Eleanor Main. Tom and Karen taught be a lot about law and the courts. Eleanor told me to shut my mouth and get to work. Hers was the best kick in the ass I ever received. And I received a lot in my wayward youth.

* * * * * * * * * *

Richard Pryor is the greatest comedian ever. George Carlin -- in his prime -- is a close second. Think David Chapelle is funny (and he is)? Pryor paved the way for all these guys -- black, white, green, orange -- who do observational humor with an edge.

* * * * * * * * * *

Say what you want about the "excesses" of the 1960s and 70s, they were a time of extraordinary and necessary social and political change. The true "excesses" were not the demands of African-Americans, women, gays and others for equal rights, or the effort to address the needs of poor people, but the insistence by those in power to continue fighting losing battles -- Vietnam, delaying desegregation, denying women their due or classifying homosexuality as a disease, etc. Ask any young conservative -- man or woman -- today whether the world was a better place in 1960 than in 2007. Then go ahead and ask that same person what the Republican party contributed to the cause.

* * * * * * * * * *

For anyone who has ever asked me what they should do when they graduate, here's the answer: you should do what makes you happy.

* * * * * * * * * *

I guess it's true that old people complain a lot, so I'll stop.

Max Roach

Sometimes the influence and legacy of a musician is so enormous that it takes more than a day, or two, or even a week, to get a handle on how to describe with words that person's contribution to music. Such is the case with Max Roach, one of the greatest drummers ever, who passed away on August 16th. I have wanted to write something about this phenomenal musician, but I haven't really figured out what to say. Since I don't think I ever will quite get it right, here goes:

Max Roach was a founding father of modern jazz. Drummers rarely get mentioned when anyone talks about revolutionary musicians. Jazz drummers like Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Louis Belleson, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones or rock drummers like Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer are mentioned (deservedly so) as innovative and creative drummers; rarely though, are they thought of as integral musicians in defining a musical genre. Max Roach did not possess the physical gifts or the showmanship of Rich, Krupa or Belleson. Roach passes a different test. Jazz music would have continued along the same path whether those drummers had lived or not. Not so in Roach's case. What Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were to their instruments, Roach was to his. And although Parker and Monk, in particular, are justly considered the twin foundations of modern jazz composition, Roach was every bit a composer as a drummer as he was a player. He moved the drum kit from the back line to the front, and introduced a melodic, polyrhythmic dimension to jazz drumming, liberating the instrument from its role as a timekeeper.

The first recorded performance I heard by Max Roach was "On Basin Street," an early 1950s recording that featured Clifford Brown on trumpet. I thought the music was incredible, and I was dazzled by Brown's high registered acrobatics that were as musical as they were virtuostic. What I didn't know at the time (I was 15) was that no played the drums like Max Roach did before Max Roach. He introduced odd times to jazz playing and composition, taking the pulse of swing out of the standard 4/4 convention and into other places. But Max never sounded like he was playing a math problem. Whatever music he played swung, and swung like hell. He was also a politically engaged and active man. Max's most well-known recording as a leader is "We Insist! Freedom Now" suite on Impulse! Records in the early 1960s. The record received mixed reviews, but that didn't phase Max. “I will never again play anything that does not have social significance,” he told Down Beat magazine after the album’s release. “We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.”

The most attractive quality to me in Max's approach to music was his belief that real musicianship meant change, even if those changes defied convention or didn't please an audience that wanted to hear what made him famous. In 1990, he told the New York Times: “You can’t write the same book twice. Though I’ve been in historic musical situations, I can’t go back and do that again. And though I run into artistic crises, they keep my life interesting.”

Well said. I cannot imagine why anyone in any profession would want to continue doing things the same way over and over again. I do not understand that approach to professional life in my own field, where the prevailing norms reward the status quo and frown upon innovation. Although I am a couple of thousand pegs below Max Roach in professional accomplishment and stature, I have always felt exactly the same away about my life as an educator. Why write another book that you have already written? Why write the same article again? Why adhere to a professional or social convention that discourages innovation and creativity? Why continue to cling to the idea that there is a right and wrong way to think about learning and teaching? Had Max Roach simply done what drummers before him did the instrument would not have advanced as it did. What if Paul McCartney had chosen not to play the melody line on "All My Loving" and instead just played the root notes along to the rhythm? Listen to "Strawberry Fields Forever" sometime and count the number of different time signatures in that song. There are at least six. Either John Lennon didn't know what he was doing or, as is more likely, knew what he was doing but didn't care. What if Pete Townsend had listened to the record company executives who told him rock audiences would not buy a "concept" album based on a "rock opera?"

In my approach to teaching, I have a good idea what I want to accomplish in any given class but I never know until I walk in the door what I am going to say or how I am going to get there. Some days are great; some days are not so great. But to me, anyway, the days are always interesting. Freedom within form means that you have to challenge yourself, and that is much more rewarding than simply reading lecture notes or passing along the ideas of other people without questioning them. Nothing is easier than doing what is familiar and safe. Nothing is more frightening -- and more fun -- than changing it up.

Max Roach was a jazz musician who mastered both compositional and improvisational approaches to drumming. He understood that change and progress went hand in hand. Change, of course, does not automatically mean progress. But the essence of Max Roach was not change for the sake of change. Max Roach did not define accomplishment by how much better you might think you are than another person. He defined accomplishment by the commitment you made to yourself to be better than you were the day before. And that is a lesson that goes far beyond music.

Red State Update on Dick Cheney's family tree

Jackie and Dunlap discover a member of Dick Cheney's family that doesn't wear a flag lapel.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Another stayed execution

The Georgia Supreme Court yesterday afternoon stayed the execution of Curtis Osbourne, who was convicted of killing two people in Spalding County 27 years ago. This is the Georgia court's second such decision in three days, leaving no doubt that Georgia now makes 17 the number of states that have suspended lethal injections. The last four federal executions have also been suspended.

Alabama has an execution scheduled for Friday, October 25th. Will Alabama proceed now that Georgia has tabled two executions just days apart?

Click here to see a map with the states that have placed lethal injection on hold.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A new cocktail shaker for lethal injection?

A conversation with a fellow soccer parent at my almost nine year-old teenage daughter's game on Saturday afternoon turned to the rapid series of events that has led to the possible de facto imposition of a moratorium on the death penalty. My friend works with numerous state attorneys general, and believes that no state will carry out an execution before the Supreme Court decides Baze v. Rees, which will not, in likelihood, come down before mid-winter 2008. He wondered, though, why so much energy has been expended to suspend the executions of death row inmates who might be innocent rather than on possible innocent convicts currently serving life sentences without parole. A life sentence with no chance for release isn't that much better than death row. Is the deprivation of liberty really that much worse?

Executing an innocent person is the most immoral act government can undertake. Letting an innocent individual rot in prison is easily a close second.

I had a somewhat different question: why doesn't Kentucky (along with every other state) just change the chemical composition of its lethal injection method? The question before the Court is not whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment; it is whether the cocktail sufficiently anesthetizes the victim. Why can't Kentucky just simply alter the chemical balance?

This is all so puzzling.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Georgia's death penalty, revisited

Late last month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a four-part series on Georgia's death penalty that comprehensively reviewed from 1995 to 2004 how death sentences are sought and carried out in that state. The timing was fortuitous -- on September 25th, the United States Supreme Court agreed to decide whether Kentucky's lethal injection method violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Journal-Constitution's articles were done in conjunction with a longitudinal study by University of Maryland criminologist Ray Paternoster. You can find a link to a hard copy of his study by going to the articles linked above.

Regardless of what you think about the death penalty, you cannot help but walk away with a clear picture of just how arbitrary and random the administration of the death penalty in Georgia really is.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Georgia follows Texas on lethal injection

Just hours after I posted a link mentioning that Georgia was the next state to have a death row inmate scheduled for execution, and that less than 48 hours remained before Jack Alderman was to receive a lethal injection for the murder of his wife 33 years ago, the Georgia Supreme Court decided to stay Alderman's execution. Alderman has been on death row longer than any other inmate in the United States.

One way to interpret the Georgia court's decision, which is now the third court in three weeks to halt an execution in light of the Supreme Court's September 25th decision to hear, is that a de facto moratorium is now in place. On the other hand, there is nothing to indicate that all states will forgo executions until the Court decides Baze v. Rees (No. 07-5349). The Court's decision did not preclude a further review of Virginia death row inmate Christopher Scott Emmett's case. And the Texas and Georgia courts issued fairly limited orders blocking the executions in their states.

Linda Greenhouse had a short article in this morning's New York Times about the broader significance of the Baze litigation and whether this new pattern of judicial behavior towards lethal injection. Her conclusion isn't much different than the one I offered yesterday: that there are good arguments for and against the conclusion that Baze represents a moratorium. I guess the argument that I'd offer against the moratorium position is that there is no critical mass within the Court that seriously questions the constitutionality of the death penalty. I am familiar with the Court's death penalty decisions, and I still can't figure out which group of four wanted to hear this case. Neither can many knowledgeable people with whom I've discussed the case.

The best place to keep up with law and politics of the current Baze-fueled stays on execution is Ohio State law professor Douglas Berman's Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Moratorium for the death penalty?

Late Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court halted the execution of a Virginia man who would was scheduled for a lethal injection just hours after the justices' decision. Less than three weeks ago the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals stayed the execution of a death row inmate based on the Supreme Court's September 25th decision to decide whether or not Kentucky's lethal injection method violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

A number of lawyers affiliated with anti-death penalty groups have suggested that the Court's decision to hear the Kentucky case, combined with the decision of the Texas court and its ruling yesterday, has had the effect of instituting a de facto moratorium on executions in the United States. Justice Antonin Scalia has demurred, suggesting that too much is being read into these actions. Scalia said that he would have permitted Arkansas to execute a death row inmate who received a reprieve from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which based its decision on the Court's decision to review the Kentucky case.

Georgia, Mississippi and Florida have plans to carry out executions in the coming weeks, with an execution scheduled in Georgia for Friday.

I have no idea what will happen in the Kentucky case. I have no idea whether the Court's decision amounts to a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. And I have no idea what group of four justices wanted to review Kentucky's lethal injection method. But I do know that all these developments represent a marked departure from the Court's position on the death penalty 10 to 15 years ago, when it wasn't inclined to intervene on behalf on death row inmates or even review their cases.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Clarence Thomas's peculiar appeal

For a reasons I simply cannot fathom, the Washington Post devoted an entire column on its Op-Ed page Monday morning to excerpts of an interview that Lally Weymouth, a senior editor at the Post's sister publication, Newsweek, conducted with Supreme Court associate justice Clarence Thomas about his new book, My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir. Thomas's book was published just two weeks ago to coincide with the opening of the Supreme Court's 2007-08 Term. Like many memoirs of still-serving public figures, the readers will come learning very little that he or she didn't already know. For people like myself whose job it is to keep up with such things, there was little in Thomas's life story that had not already been told by his biographers, and even less insight into what motivates his jurisprudence. Most controversial about the Thomas autobiography was his decision to re-visit the wounds of his 1991 confirmation battle, in particular, of course, the show-stopping allegations brought by former EEOC staff lawyer Anita Hill that he sexually harassed her during the time they worked together.

Predictably, Thomas emboldened his supporters for his relentless refusal to acknowledge any criticism that liberals brought against him then or at any point since he took his seat on the Court. Thomas continues to insist that he nominated based solely on merit, that race played little if any role in his professional ascent, that his approach to judicial decision-making is politically neutral and guided by nothing more than an objective, law-based approach to reading the Constitution or any statute he has been asked to interpret.

What puzzles me is why the Post would choose to run this interview two weeks after Thomas had already made the radio and television talk show rounds, and after the professional commentariat and academic bloggers had said all there really was to say about his book. Weymouth is the daughter of Katherine Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post, so she has access to any prime real estate she wants in either the Post or Newsweek. What is the news value here, other than giving Thomas a sympathetic venue to tell a story that people either already believe or they don't?

Red State Update on the Democrats and NASCAR

Jackie and Dunlap offer advice to Democrats on how to survive a NASCAR race.

New Tom Tomorrow cartoon here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Back to school night, 13th grade style

Two times over the past three weeks, I sat in the too-small desks at my children's middle and elementary schools to hear their teachers talk about what parents can expect over the next nine and a half months, roughly the period they will be incarcerated in the Montgomery County Public Schools. I heard all about curriculum innovation, some new approach to parent-student communication that promised a "heuristic," experience-rich engagement with technology, the need for our children to respect their teachers, the staff and their classmates, the availability of "peer mediation" for students who have "unresolvable conflicts," and, of course, the endless opportunities for families to buy overpriced wrapping paper (there's that wench, Sally Foster, again!), inedible pizzas, disgusting milkshake mixes, raffle tickets that cost more than any prize we might hope to win . . . and . . . and . . . and . . . anything else that might bring in a dollar for the "supplemental activities" in which neither of my children ever seem to participate.

For parents, Back to School Night is an annual ritual that, quite honestly, runs it course after the first one you ever attend. I can lip sync every word that comes out of the mouth of my almost nine-year old teen-age daughter's elementary school principal. And that's not just because this my fourth Back to School Night for her. I went to three or four at the same elementary school for my now 13 year-old son who thinks he's 27 but acts, on a good day, four or five, and, on a not-so-good day, 8 months to negative 15, before I cashed it in. Two years ago, I attended my first middle school Back to School Night, thinking I would hear something demonstrably different than I heard at elementary school Back to School Night.

Au contraire!

Same damn thing, except that the workload for parents is even greater than their workload in elementary school.

Yes, that's right! Our children not only go back to school every fall, but so do we, their parents. Why? Because the Montgomery County Public Schools long ago appear to have decided to enlist parents in their children's education as full-time partners. No one asked me if I wanted to tutor my children every night in various subjects that I know absolutely nothing about, or turn my dining room table into a perpetual disaster zone, filled with mindless arts and crafts projects or 57 lb. textbooks "too big" for our children's backpacks and, naturally, the weekly 24 page "newsletters" -- which, naturally, include even more opportunities to hone the academic and athletic skills of our perfect children -- written largely by Professional Moms who used to be Professional Something Else Besides Moms. The Professional Moms who wrote the school newsletters when my son was in 1st grade are still writing them in the 8th grade -- and their children are still winning every award the school has to offer, from Most Tastefully Decorated Locker to Outstanding Geometry Student to Most Chotskes on Their Crocs.

As annoying as the Back to School Night Ritual is, I can understand why the public schools want to take an evening to acquaint the parents of their inmates with their rules and expectations over a given year. I can understand why parents want to know what's going in their children's classrooms or, in our case, use that time to give our son's teachers carte blanche to do whatever is necessary and soothe whatever concerns our daughter's teachers have that our Little Miss Boss is after their jobs.

Back to School Night is no longer limited to elementary and secondary education, whether private or public. Universities like mine now find themselves fully engaged in Back to School Night-type rituals of their own.

* * * * * * * * * *

Progression towards an undergraduate degree used to be divided into four years: the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years. Concern about gender specificity -- i.e., the freshman year -- led some colleges to start calling their undergraduates 1st Years, 2nd Years, 3rd Years and 4th Years. As colleges have become more and more attuned to the "needs" of their "customers in the last 7 to 10 years, I am convinced that we should re-label the undergraduate years as 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th grades. Given the impenetrable cucoon that colleges now create for their undergraduates, combined with the complete lack of interest in the rituals of adulthood of so many of our students, I think it makes more sense sometimes to think of college as one big slumber party with an academic component that seems more and more irrelevant by the year.

* * * * * * * * * *

Some snapshots from the first six weeks of class . . .

A few days before the beginning of school, I received an email for the mother of a student who had signed up for one of my classes. Could she "sit in" for the first class or two to make sure that my classroom was "the right environment" for her child? I debated for a day or two whether to write her back, finally deciding that I would to avoid a phone call from the Dean's office taking me to task for not "working with" one of our "customers." I emailed this parent and told her I would not permit her to observe my first few classes. If her child did not like my class then he or she could always drop it. I heard back from this mom, who told me she had hoped to avoid having to put her child through drop and add. Besides, her child's three other professors had agreed to have her come to class to "observe." I returned her email, telling her that getting three out of four of her child's professors to accommodate her demands was very impressive. She emailed me, again, to tell me that she going to have her child drop the class because my "oppositional behavior" was a bad sign.

As they say in professional sports, this was a trade that worked out well for both teams.

* * * * * * * * * *

We have a University Club on campus that is sort of like an "adult swim" lunch hour for professors, administrators and staff. I used to eat there once or twice a semester, but gradually the place began to feel more and more like visiting an elderly relative at a Jewish assisted living facility than a place where smart and interesting people gathered to talk about ideas so I have cut the place out altogether. Plus, eating there reminded me too much of the high school cafeteria. Look, over there, it's the University Senate clique, discussing various matters that will ultimately be ignored or overruled by various Deans at the university level! And back that way is the table where professorial media celebrities hold court, comparing their appearances on Ukranian television from 2. a.m. the previous morning or their appearance at the coveted 3-3.30 p.m. coffee and lecture spot at an independent book store, best known for its extensive collection of 1980s liberation theology, somewhere down on U St. In the corner, there's an all-important faculty member talking about her latest professional recognition, her junior colleagues sitting at rapt attention, sifting through their "market greens" salads (which, to me, look suspiciously like the Dole ready-to-eat bagged salads that are constantly being recalled by the F.D.A.), smiling and marveling over each word that comes out of her mouth.

Cool kids, brainiacs, student government turned University Senate-geeks . . . the more the things change the more they stay the same.

This year I started eating lunch in the Terrace Dining Room, affectionately known as TDR, which, until last June, after 18 years of teaching here, I did not know was open to faculty and staff. Undergraduates, of course, bitch and bitch and bitch about the food, which is not exactly the stuff of dining halls from years gone by. AU food is catered by Bon Appetit, which is light years ahead of the mysterious sawdust and resin that appeared to comprise most of my on-campus college meals twenty-five years ago.

Not good enough for most AU graduates, though. "Ooooh, my God!," shrieks one frightened girl in front of me at the salad bar. "Like, what the hell is that?" she wonders, pointing to the sliced cucumbers.

"What they appear to be," I said. "Sliced cucumbers."

"Like, really? So why do they look like pickles?"

"Because cucumbers and pickles are cousins."

"Wow! I sooooooo love pickles, so maybe I'll have some cucumbers!" she screamed, as if I had just handed her the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. "Thank you so much! What dorm do you live in? I live in Letts!"

"I live off-campus, in Bethesda."

"But you're still on the meal plan?"

"Only during the week," I answered. "Weekends I cook."

"Like, that is so smart. Who has time during the week to cook, though?"

Why do I get the impression that this girl in a kitchen ends with a fire extinguisher and a 911 call?

* * * * * * * * *

I teach a 400 level elective. Translated, that means the course is primarily for juniors and seniors, mostly the latter. It also means, as an elective, you have a choice to take it or not.

In this class, students receive three free absences. After that, they forfeit half a letter grade. They also have to turn in their homework every class period so they are better able to discuss the books I assign to read. Miss three assignments and you lose half a letter grade for the semester.

So far this semester, in a class of 35, 8 students have already conceded a full grade; two more have conceded half a letter grade.

$45,000 a year, for what? I can't wait to hear how this is my fault.

* * * * * * * * * *
Last week, in TDR, I had the pleasure of sitting down the table from a girl who was furiously pouring four different kinds of cereal into her Louis Vuitton purse, all the while yapping away on her cell phone, complaining about how she's tired of being "hit on" by everyone on campus. After she had filled what must be the cereal compartment of her purse, she stashed about a dozen cookies, four bananas -- an excellent source of potassium! -- and some onion rings into what had to be most expensive to-go bag I have ever seen. How she could see what she was doing eluded me, as she was wearing a pair of sunglasses so big and gaudy that she looked like she had just been examined for cataracts. I wanted to follow her around just to see who all these people were "hitting on" her. Really, I wanted to see just one, and then ask him how long he had been in prison or stationed on a submarine.

* * * * * * * * * *
About two weeks ago I had a student come by my office to talk about some "problems" he was having in my class. Since I teach two classes consisting of 20 and 35 students, I can recognize the faces after a couple of weeks. I had never seen this student, so I assumed he was coming in to offer an explanation for his absences -- a preoccupation with the World Cup of Rugby, no running water or electricity in his apartment, dealing with a stalker or some other manufactured tragedy to explain his decision to bypass my course.

"Uh, professor, I'm like, really sorry I haven't been there so much, but, like, my car has been really messed up and I can't get anyone to get me to the mechanic. I live off-campus and everything so I'm, like, not able to get to campus for classes . . . and not just yours," grunted this mysterious man.

"Have you thought about the Metro," I asked.

"I knew you were going to ask that," he said. "Yes, I have, but if I took the Metro I'd have to walk two blocks from my apartment and then take the shuttle here. That takes too much time and it makes me tired."

"Hundreds of people who work here and go to classes do it every day. Why can't you."

"Because I'm not like most people?" he responded, as if asking me a question.

"You're not?"

"I'm not what?"

"Like most people. I said that hundreds of people use Metro every day to come to campus, and you said that you weren't like most people, as if you were asking me a question."

"But I'm not like most people. That's what I meant to say."

"Then who exactly are you?" I asked, determined to find out who this mysterious person across the desk from me really was.

He then gave me his name. I then looked at my class rosters. This was going to be fun.

"What exactly are you struggling with," I asked, pretending to be concerned.

"Like, I don't understand like what you mean when you talk about Congress and the executive having, like, oversight responsibilities. Does that mean that, like, one is in charge of the other or that, like, one is more in charge of the other?"

"What do you think it means?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said. "That's why I'm here.

"Why should I help you when you admit you haven't been to class? If you'd even read the assigned material you would know the answers to those questions. Oversight is pretty basic, don't you agree?"

He wasn't sure. "I am paying a lot for this class so I think you should help me," he said.

"How much are you paying for this class?" I asked.

"Like, a lot. "

"So, like, in other words, you don't know," I said. "Is this your money or your parents?"

"Well, technically it's their money but it's for my education so it's kind of mine."

"Ask me another question," I offered.

"What is the incumbent advantage?"

"I don't know," I said.

"How can you not know if you're the professor? How can you expect me to know something when you don't?"

"First, how do you know that I don't know. I could very well know the answer and simply choose not to tell you, which is the case here. Or, as is also the case, I could refuse to tell you the answer for one simple, fairly obvious reason, even though I know the answer."

He hesitated. "What's that?"

"Because I'm not your professor. Look at your syllabus. It's says Professor DeGregorio and the course is about Congress. That's not my name, and I don't teach that class."

"Oh, shit, man, I'm sorry." I was stunned. An American University undergraduate has just apologized for inappropriate behavior. I kept waiting to her that this was somehow my fault, or, if not mine, society's. But just before I could laugh and tell him it was all right, he righted his personal ship and righted himself in true undergraduate fashion.

"Like, are you having office hours anyway? Do you think you could help me?"

What to do . . . what to do? "If you leave, now, I won't tell anyone about this. I think that's the best deal you can get."

So he left, muttering under his breath about me "not being cool." Well, get in line, dude. It is what it is.

I did see him later, though, at the gas station, pumping gas into his late model BMW M3. It appeared to be running just fine.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Not supporting the troops -- again

The Washington Post leads this morning with a front-page account of the Herculean efforts of the wife of an Iraq war veteran to cope with her husband's mental illnesses after his return home. Anne Hull and Dana Priest, who wrote the Pulitzer-worthy series on the decrepit state of the Walter Reed medical facility in Washington, D.C., have written another compelling story worthy of whatever professional accolades are available to hand out. Part investigation, part personality profile and part social commentary, Hull and Priest offer a heartbreaking portrait of Army wife Michelle Turner's lonely and largely unsupported effort to care for her husband, Troy, who returned in late 2003 from his one-year stint in Iraq a completely different person than she married years before.

Troy Turner suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental illness that has left him unable to function with his wife's support. He cannot hold a job, help around the house, attend to his children, socialize, drive a car or engage in any day-to-day activities that anyone else considers normal. Hull and Priest describe her tireless work to enlist support and help for her husband, and the empty hands she often comes back with after navigating the federal bureaucracy. The Turner's income consists of the $860 disability check they receive from the Department of Veterans Affairs, an amount not nearly enough to cover their monthly expenses. Michelle's days are spent seeking care for her husband, fighting off bill collectors and attempting to provide some semblance of a normal life of her children.

Last night, before I read this article, I saw a television advertisement for an organization called Operation Homefront, a non-profit group that distributes financial assistance to military families in need. There I was, sitting in front of my big plasma television, content to sit home on a Saturday night and watch a professional hockey game in high-definition resolution. Meanwhile, somewhere in rural West Virginia, a woman named Michelle Turner was trying to figure out how to make it through the next couple of days, if that far ahead, without having her family's power turned off, or her children going to be hungry, or her husband attempting to kill himself. I thought to myself after seeing the advertisement about the utter disconnect between civilians in war time and the military families who are giving, literally, everything they have -- their economic livelihoods, their mental and physical health and the "normalcy" that the rest of take for granted -- to fight an endless and pointless war that will end up accomplishing absolutely nothing except to dig a hellhole from which this nation -- never mind, for a moment, Iraq -- will not recover for decades. What does it say about a nation's moral compass that military families have to depend on private charities to supplement their meager finances? The Turners, by the way, sought and received help from Operation Homefront.

Compare the pension and benefits package that retired members of Congress are eligible to receive. Of the 413 retired members of Congress receiving pensions, 290 are getting paid close to $61,000 a year. Another 123 are receiving approximately $36,000 per year. The differences in pension benefits are based on length of service, and whether the member receiving pension income began service before or after 1984, when the retirement program for federal legislators was changed. Members are also eligible to continue receiving medical and dental care under their federal insurance plans. And there are also cost-of-living-adjustments that kick in year after year. All in all, it's a pretty good deal.

Imagine a member of Congress attempting to provide for a family on $860 a month, while dealing with the emotional and financial burdens of caring for a mentally ill family member.

Just what do the think the reaction of the Bush administration brain-trust will be after seeing this morning's article on the Turners? Pick one:

(a) "Who the hell is responsible for this? This is unconscionable. We are going to fix this problem and fix it now. The idea that we send these men and women off to war, have them return home shells of their former selves, and offer not even the bare minimum to help them is not just a national embarrassment, but an international disgrace."

(b) "Goddamnit! Do you realize what this is going to do to the president's poll numbers? I've got every major Republican presidential candidate pissing in my ear about the effect this will have on their campaigns. Someone needs to put together a crisis management team to control the flow of information. Should we do a photo op with the Turners and get them some help, or is that an admission of our fuck-up? Christ, we have got to fix this!"

I pick (b).

In the department of unintended irony, on the same morning the Post's front-page offers perhaps the most poignant human interest account to date of the Iraq war's impact on military families, the editorial page offers us an upbeat assessment on the "surge's" positive contribution to quelling violence in Iraq. From Day One, the Post has been a relentless cheerleader for and on behalf of the Iraq war. After four and a half years of mindless bloodshed, the Post still sees nothing at all disturbing about publishing an editorial called, "Better Numbers," as if success and failure in Iraq is linked to the number of Americans being killed. Best news of all? "Only" 36 American soldiers were killed in the one month period from September 13th to October 12th that marks Ramadan. Last year, the number was 97. Perhaps if the United States stays in Iraq long enough, we can that number down to the single digits.

The Iraq war will not end on the terms the United States for the simple reason that Americans are not willing to die for this cause. At some point, the public's patience will run out, whether than happens before or after it becomes necessary to draft soldiers is anybody's guess. Whoever the enemy is in Iraq, homegrown "insurgents," Iranian-sponsored mercenaries or al-Qaeda operatives, these are soldiers who are willing to die for a cause that cannot be measured in body counts or sports metaphors. Fewer American and Iraqi deaths will not get the Turners the help they need.

In Godfather II, Michael Corelone, in Havana for a business meeting with fellow mob heads (and representatives of leading American corporations economic interests in Cuba) observes to a colleague that he witnessed "something very interesting" earlier in the day. Batista's security forces had rounded up and shot rebels sympathetic to Castro. But Corelone also witnessed a rebel take his own life with a grenade rather than be taken prisoner. Corelone understood the rebels' resistance, and especially this suicide, against a much more powerful enemy not as something futile, but as acts of determination. Corelone had served in World War II and knew a winner when he saw one. If a man is willing to die for a much larger cause, Corleone reasoned, that is a man who will not be held back. Rather than stay in Cuba to see the expansion of his criminal enterprise, Corelone arranges to leave before Castro's rebels topple the government.

Political culture is much more powerful than anything else is explaining how and why social, economic or political movements take on the power they do. America's enemies in Iraq will not go away because the United States government wants them to, or because they feel overwhelmed by a sophisticated military force that is simply carrying out its orders. Life is often a contest between reason and passion. And passion most always wins.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"A nightmare with no end in sight"

Retired General Ricardo S. Sanchez, who was the top military commander in Iraq from June 2003 until mid-2004, told military reporters assembled in Washington Friday that the United States war effort there has been "a catastrophically flawed," marred by "incompetence," "desperate," and a "nightmare with no end in sight."

Sanchez's criticism of the Bush administration is hardly surprising or original. Civilian and former military officials who opposed the war from the moment the Bush administration began campaigning for it back in early 2002 predicted the disaster that is now Iraq. Sanchez is the latest retired military officer who helped to plan or oversee the Iraq war to go public with criticism. Two things make Sanchez's words stand ouh. First, he was the Army's top military commander in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (although he was cleared of wrongdoing by the Army's inspector general) and, second, he is the highest ranking military officer with Iraq experience to criticize publicly the Iraq war. His most pointed criticism is directed at the Bush administration.

The White House has offered a perfunctory comment on Sanchez's criticism, thanking him for his service and wishing him well. No doubt the White House's surrogates in the right-wing media will have the administration's back in the coming days. Put on the coffee, wingnuts. You've got a busy week ahead. Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on environmental awareness and now a former Bush administration favorite has made the harshest public statements to date about the Iraq war's continuing slide to nowhere.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ann Coulter's "perfect Jews"

So here's an easy question for you . . .

Put Ann Coulter in a pair of overalls, add 75 lbs. to her anorexic frame, die her hair black, substitute a pair of Birkenstocks for her black Jimmy Choo stilettos, and would anyone pay attention to her?

Of course not. She'd simply be another anonymous voice on the far margins of the right-wing blogosphere, ranting and raving under some not-too-clever alias -- Red State Mama, Trailer Queen, Patriot Girl.

But because of America's obsession with skinny, blond women, Coulter enjoys a public profile that belies any rational explanation. Her claim to fame is her obnoxiousness wrapped in some sort of sex appeal that eludes me. Personally, I think she gives club-hopping skanks everywhere a bad name. You do have to give Coulter credit -- she knows exactly what she is doing, and somehow manages to divorce reason from her opinions with a level of skill worthy of a first-rate pornographic film actor or professional wrestler. Coulter has parlayed being outrageous into a prosperous career. Put that woman in black cocktail dress and a pair of 4 inch heels, give her an audience of pasty-face conservatives and what do you get? Ka-ching.

Coulter's latest outrage, though, might even be too much by her low-brow standards. Earlier this week, promoting her latest book denouncing liberals on CNBC's "The Big Idea," television host Donny Deutsch asked her to describe what the United States would look like in her "dreams." Coulter responded by saying that Jews would convert to Christianity and become part of a "perfect" Christian nation.

Yep, she sure did. Perhaps Coulter wants Jews and Muslims, neither of whom have a place in her brave new world, to work things out.

That's doubtful. What's truly outrageous is not so much Coulter's view of a perfect America -- to be fair, mine wouldn't include her -- but that she'll continue to receive thousands of dollars per speaking engagement and all the free media access she wants.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Red State Update on Christianity in the presidential campaign

Jackie and Dunlap offer their opinions on the infusion of Christianity into the presidential campaign.

Red State Update might be the funniest thing going. Along with Tom Tomorrow on Tuesdays, I'll start linking Jackie and Dunlap on my site the same day.

Tuesdays just got a lot more fun.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Karl Rove's dirty hands

Did Karl Rove intervene in the Department of Justice's decision to pursue a 32-count corruption charge against the former Democratic governor of Alabama, Donald Siegelman, who is now serving an 88 month prison sentence?

Read here and decide whether Rove's alleged behavior is consistent with his general pattern of sleaziness.

box and one




Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Supreme Court arithmetic

Students of the Supreme Court know it take only four votes from the justices to hear a case. But did you know that it takes five votes from the justices to stay an execution?

A death row inmate scheduled for execution can succeed in persuading the Court to hear an appeal, but that same inmate cannot stay alive unless five justices vote to stay his execution.

Suppose the request for a stay comes first. Four justices can agree to stay the execution -- not enough to avoid a trip to the lethal injection chamber. Let's assume those same four justices want to hear the inmate's appeal. Unless there is another justice to grant the stay, the inmate could be executed before the Court reviews an appeals petition.

Adam Liptak wrote about this yesterday in the New York Times.

New Tom Tomorrow here

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Genesis

The poster to the right occupied a place on any bedroom wall I called partly or entirely my own from 1977 until 1981, longer, with the exception of my Yes poster, than any other poster I owned during my high school and early college years. Like many people my age, my first exposure to rock music was the Beatles, and that was not a band I found on my own. My mother played me Beatles records during my early childhood and my father, a jazz snob, finally broke down when he heard "Sgt. Peppers" and decided that listening to the Beatles would not render me a musical illiterate. That's pretty much all I listened to until 1972, when, in one night, I heard three songs that formed the basis of my musical taste in rock that has lasted to this day.

FM radio was very different in the early 1970s, more experimental and less commercial. AM radio dominated rock and pop music, and FM was strictly for bands that did not fit the 2 or 3 minute hit-song format. One night -- I don't remember the month -- I was up late listening to WQXI-FM, 94.1 in Atlanta. Right in a row, I heard "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes, "Do It Again," by Steely Dan, and "Living in the Past," by Jethro Tull. I didn't know enough about music to know what I was hearing, but I knew that it wasn't like anything else that was on the radio. The Beatles aside, Yes and Steely Dan have remained two of my three favorite all-time rock bands.

About a year later, I was rummaging through albums in a used record store when I came across the strangest looking album cover I had ever seen. I picked up the album, and started reading the liner notes on the back. The story involved a dry cleaning ticket on a subway train, and it made less sense the more I read it. I turned the album over again to look at the front cover, which featured a band playing on a white-lit stage with a singer wearing some sort of triangle mask on his head. The owner, who, I would learn in my later teen years, spent most of his time in the back of his store smoking pot, told me to take the album home, listen to it, and if I didn't like it he wouldn't make me pay. So I did. And that formed mind-blowing musical experience number three.

The album was "Genesis Live." The singer wearing the costume was Peter Gabriel. But what grabbed me most was the bold, majestic and cinematic qualities of the music. From the opening keyboard introduction to "Watcher of the Skies" to the tail end of "The Musical Box," I was fascinated by what I heard. I had just started to play the drums and was enamored with Bill Bruford, the drummer for Yes. But Phil Collins could give Bruford more than a run for his money. By 1977, after Gabriel left Genesis and Collins became the band's lead vocalist, Genesis was right up there with Yes as my favorite band. I didn't view Gabriel's departure as a crisis. "Trick of the Tail," the first post-Gabriel record, was stunning, the best Genesis album to date compositionally and instrumentally. Collins was more than an adequate replacement as a singer, and his drumming was simply superior -- powerful, complex, musical and possessed of a soul, an elusive combination in progressive rock. Steve Hackett's guitar lines were searing and distinctive, emphasizing atmosphere and drama over pyrotechnics. Michael Rutherford's multi-instrumental contributions on 12-string guitar and bass formed an essential part of the early and mid-period Genesis sound, as did his compositions. But the most indispensable member of Genesis then -- and now -- was keyboardist Tony Banks. All the trademarks for which Genesis is most beloved by its long-standing fans -- the swirling mellotron and organ passages, the classically-inspired piano interludes, the orchestral component of compositions like "Supper's Ready," "Watcher of the Skies," "The Cinema Show," "One for the Vine," and "Firth of Fifth" -- all came primarily from Banks' pen. The line-up you see in the poster is from 1977, taken from the "Wind and Wuthering" tour, which I was fortunate enough to see in March of that year at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. I saw the "Lamb Lies Down Broadway" show in 1974 or 75, and the '77 show blew it away.

Genesis, of course, would withstand the departure of Steve Hackett in 1978, release a decent album that same year, "And Then There Were Three," then release an absolutely superb album two years later, "Duke," a recording that would mark the band's final nod to its progressive roots. "Abacab," released in 1982, had a couple of decent moments, as did "Genesis," released in 1984. By then, I was listening mostly to jazz and jazz-fusion, with only an occasional visit to the English art-rock bands (and the Police) that dominated by turntable during the 1970s.

Phil Collins, of course, became a world-wide star as Genesis became more commercial and pop-driven. I don't really like much, if any, of Collins's recorded solo work after his second album. Still, I regard him as one of rock's greatest drummers ever. Listen to any of the Genesis albums from 1971 to 1981, or the Brand X recordings he played on during that same period. Even now, Collins has played on big band tributes to Buddy Rich and even fronted a very good big band of his own. Latecomers to Genesis or fans who like his solo work don't really know about Collins's previous life as a drummer. This is sort of like coming to Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court justice with no knowledge of his career as a ground-breaking advocate on behalf of the NACCP. I met Phil Collins in 1978 when Genesis came to Atlanta. The band did a signing at a small record store 45 minutes from my house. Genesis was still a cult band and only a few dozen people turned out to meet them. I brought all my albums for the band members to sign, which they did (I still have them). A guy in front of me in the line for Collins was seeking advice on his musical development. He told Collins how hard the music was to learn, how hard he was practicing and how much time he was putting into learning one tune, "Dance on a Volcano," in particular, but not making much progress.

"What should I do, Phil?" he asked.

"Two choices, mate," Collins responded. "Quit or get better."

Great advice . . . about a lot more than music.

Genesis was in town a few weeks ago as part of its 13-city 2007 North American reunion tour. I didn't go and wasn't tempted. For people like myself who connect to music and musicians in ways that are probably not healthy, Genesis was an essential part of my growing up. More so than any other band I can think of, you can divide Genesis' history into fairly distinct periods: the formative years with Gabriel up front (1969-1975); the early post-Gabriel period (1976-1981); and then the pop years (1982-92) that coincide with Phil Collins' ascension to pop superstardom. From what I understand from friends who have attended reunion shows, the band sounds great. How could they not? But remembering "In That Quiet Earth" from 1977 is much more than just wanting to leave a treasured memory in place. It represents a time and place when I was discovering bands on my own, and a certain possessiveness about being part of something that you believed no one really truly understood but you.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Baseball vs. public education in the nation's capital

Some of my best friends are Jewish; some of my best friends are African-American; some of my best friends are Italian; and some of my best friends like opera, are religious, think white bread and mayonnaise are staples of any cosmopolitan diet, attend NASCAR races, own guns and lots of them, and listen to speed metal. And like any truly good friend, my tolerance for people like me and people not like me entitles me to ridicule their attachments, attributes and other components of their personal and psychic make-up. After all, what are good friends for other than to give each other a hard time, eh?

Readers of this blog know that baseball is my favorite sport. Back in 2004, when Major League Baseball announced that the Montreal Expos would move to Washington, D.C. and play at RFK Stadium, I was thrilled to have National League baseball less than 25 miles from my house. From 1992-1998, I shared a Baltimore Orioles weekend season ticket plan with a Mets fan also living in exile. American League baseball, though, is an inferior game to the National League version. That, combined with a refusal to support Peter Angelos's continued destruction of the Orioles franchise, led me to abandon my weekend visits to the Yards.

There was also the small matter of a second child.

So what does demonstrating by baseball bona fides have to do with the awful state of public education in the District of Columbia?

Washington, D.C., by almost all accounts, is worst performing public school district in the United States. That's right. The Nation's Capital. The Capital of the Free World. The Most Exciting and Important City in the World (anyone who believes that needs to get out of town -- and not to Rehobeth Beach or Martha's Vineyard). Pick a title . . . Washington, D.C. has the worst school system and worst performing students in the United States.

You would think, then, that education would command serious attention from local politicians? Not really. Like most politicians, D.C. officials talk about their commitment to education but rarely do anything serious about it.

A condition for moving the Expos to Washington was the District government's willingness to pony up a ton of money to build a new, exclusive baseball-only stadium modeled on . . . what else? Camden Yards. Since 1992, when the Orioles began playing in Camden Yards, over a dozen major league teams have built new baseball-only stadiums that are, more (Turner Field, Jacobs Field, PNC Park) or less (Tropicana Field or Miller Park) , replicas of Baltimore's shrine to baseball. Right now, the District is committed to spend $611 million to build the Nationals' new park near the Navy Yards in the Anacostia section of the city. To say that Anacostia is economically underdeveloped is like saying that President Bush needs a little help with his spoken English.

The Washington Post Sunday edition is running a story on the fortune and misfortune of the graduating class of 2005 from D.C.'s Cardozo high school. Students who received A's in their high school classes were consigned to remedial math and English courses in fourth-tier colleges because of their inadequate instruction. Only 29% of Cardozo students applied to post-secondary institutions. The tale of woe goes on and on.

Washington, D.C. wanted major league baseball for other reason than to claim membership in an exclusive club. To spend $611 million dollars to build a stadium that its least affluent citizens will clean and usher on behalf of their better off counterparts makes little sense when the city's education system is not just a national, but a world-wide embarrassment. Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many season-ticket holders or even occasional game patrons are graduates of the D.C. public schools or have children in them?

D.C. officials claim that it will make money in the long run off its "investment" in baseball. Judge for yourself.

Friday, October 05, 2007

President Pinocchio

So just what did you expect President Bush to say after the New York Times disclosed Thursday morning that the Department of Justice, in February 2005, secretly authorized American military personnel and C.I.A. officers to torture suspected terrorists detained abroad after the administration said publicly in December 2004 that it did not "condone" torture?

"This government does not torture people. You know, we stick to U.S. law and our international obligations. The American people expect their government to take action to protect them from further attack. And that’s exactly what this government is doing, and that’s exactly what we’ll continue to do."

In other words, the United States will continue to physically and psychologically abuse "high-value" suspected terrorists by beating them, subjecting them to simulated drowning, placing them in frigid temperatures with inadequate clothing, bombarding them with loud music, humiliating them sexually and using other techniques that would make even the most hardened and sadistic Nazi-era prison guard wince, since these techniques do not meet the Bush definition of torture, which is organ failure or a near-death experience.

Members of Congress, and not just Democrats, expressed outrage over the Times disclosure on Thursday, with West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller noting, "[t]he administration can’t have it both ways. I’m tired of these games. They can’t say that Congress has been fully briefed while refusing to turn over key documents used to justify the legality of the program. The reality is, the administration refused to disclose the program to the full Committee for five years, and they have refused to turn over key legal documents since day one."

President Bush continues to lie to the public, members of Congress, the news media and anyone else who question his unprecedented, illegal and secret expansion of executive power. The topic doesn't matter. Torture that isn't torture; a war the U.S. is losing but really winning; billions of dollars wasted on anti-terrorism measures that do not accomplish anything; defending an inept attorney general who lied to Congress and the public about his role in one scandal after another . . . the list goes on and on and on.

* * * * * * * * * *

On Wednesday, President Bush issued just the fourth veto of his presidency, rejecting the renewal of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, sometimes referred to as S-CHIP. As usual, the president couched his rejection of a popular and successful program to provide health care to poor children as a necessary step to curtail runaway spending.

"My job is a decision-making job, and as a result, I make a lot of decisions," said The Decider, signaling a return to form.

Here, The Decider decided to highlight the "abuse" to which the S-CHIP program was subjected by families who were not really as poor as they claimed.

"Poor kids first," said The Decider, noting that families with incomes up to $83,000 per year could be eligible for the program. "That doesn't sound poor to me."

Just like torture isn't torture to the president, poverty isn't poverty either. New York proposed to raise the income threshold for families wishing to participate in the program by 400%, double the amount that federal law now permits. New York justified its decision based on the high-cost of living and insurance in New York City and surrounding communities, which are the most expensive in the nation. The Decider pointed out that he supported the program while governor of Texas. He didn't mention, however, that he fought unsuccessfully to limit eligibility to families with incomes 150% above the poverty level, substantially lower than federal law permits.

Thirty-seven million American children are classified as poor. These are not the children that the president sees in his hermetically sealed travels around the country. The same president who encouraged Congress to spend money faster than the U.S. mint could print it has now decided that a $35 billion dollar program over five years will now bust the budget. Cost of the Iraq war so far? Approximately $455 billion and counting.

Only The Decider knows why he has chosen to veto a program that provides an unquestionable benefit to poor American children. Absent in any discussion of Bush's behavior has been the tag line that many reporters and columnists have included in their stories: the S-CHIP program benefits those families that make too much money to qualify for federal relief but not enough money to purchase private health care insurance.

Read that again and ask yourself this: what is wrong with a country that considers an income treading water at the poverty line too much money to qualify for government-subsidized insurance? How can that be? These are not privileged college students who come to me, their Louis Vutton purses bearing only the receipts of their latest Ugg boot purchases and no cash, to explain why they can't afford the $72 textbook I assigned them for the semester. These are poor children, with no voice of their own, who will go without health care because their parents are trapped in poverty.

Hmmm . . . will The Decider go after Medicare and Medicaid, true government-run health care programs, to clear the ideological decks of the specter of "socialized medicine?" And what the Veterans Administration programs that provide care to wounded war veterans, thousands of whom will seek assistance for injuries suffered in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Should we give them a tax break and wish them well in the for-profit medical sector?

* * * * * * * * * *

And then there is Blackwater. Along with DynCorp and Triple Canopy, Blackwater provides for-profit "security" in Iraq for American civilians employed in the region or visiting on government-sponsored missions. Blackwater employees are mercenaries, being paid to provide "security" in a combat zone that cannot be adequately policed by the United States military. Yet, the president claims we have all the troops we need and that we certainly do not need a draft. Blackwater mercenaries have used fatal force against Iraqis when they clearly should not have, but nonetheless has remained immune from any real government oversight or discipline. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Blackwater errors left 17 Iraqis dead in mid-September. Has the company come under scrutiny or criticism from the administration? Not a chance.

* * * * * * * * * *

I. F. Stone once famously wrote that "all governments lie." For the 45 year period that marked the Cold War, the United States could claim that it lied less than the Soviet Union, and when it did lie it was in the service of a commitment to freedom and equality. Of course, the United States lied aplenty about matters it should not have -- Cuba, Vietnam, Watergate and the atrocious behavior of the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover. But the Soviet Union was always worse, and that insulated the United States from the kind of criticism it now regularly faces from countries who share our paper commitment to democratic values.

For the past seven years, the Bush administration has engaged in a systematic campaign of dishonesty and outright lies on matters ranging from the costs of federal programs to help the needy to the "outing" of a C.I.A. officer to the rationale for fighting a senseless war. Lying is something you expect from a president who was elected to office by means that would make the Corelone family proud. But what about the spokespeople, press secretaries and other lackies sent out by the administration every day to lie on behalf of a president who is only articulate when he talks about punishment rather than compassion? How can these people go out and defend a president (and vice-president and . . . ) who so openly lies to the public? Is hanging with the student government crowd so important to their sense of self that they are willing to compromise their integrity for an Adirondack chair on a Martha's Vineyard beach?

President Bush = President Pinocchio.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Back to the bathroom for Larry Craig

A Minnesota judge ruled this morning that Senator Larry Craig, the family-values Republican senator from Idaho, cannot withdraw his guilty plea stemming from an alleged solicitation incident in a Minneapolis airport bathroom last month.

Political embarrassment is no basis for throwing out a plea that, according to the judge, the senator made knowledgeably and voluntarily.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Craig, a man who enjoys an almost zero legislative rating from liberal organizations.

Larry Craig is learning that you can't have it both ways -- legally and in other ways.

Torture from the top

The New York Times offers an explosive story on its front page this morning -- the Bush administration lied in December 2004 when it announced that it did not condone the torture of suspected terrorists held in detention facilities operated by the United States, calling the practice "abhorrent." In April 2004, "60 Minutes" and the New Yorker, in separate stories, had run the now-infamous photographs featuring U.S. military personnel posing with inmates held at the Abu Ghraib prison just west of Baghdad. Those stories led to more accounts about the practices used by C.I.A. officers and other U.S. officials responsible for interrogating prisoners held as "enemy combatants." Like all stories that detail a parade of horribles by the U.S. government, the information ultimately published or broadcast by the media came from public officials who felt compelled to speak out. These were not stories "uncovered" by enterprising reporters. These were stories pursued by reporters who had the door first opened for them by civilian and military personnel.

So, the December 2004 response by the Bush administration was not an unprompted reminder that the U.S. government does not engage in torture as it was a defensive posture in lieu of the controversy stemming from Abu Ghraib and, later, Guantanamo Bay. Later, in November 2005, the Washington Post published a story about C.I.A.-operated prisons in Eastern European countries that remained so classified that only a handful of officials in the U.S. even knew about them. Some lawmakers raised concerns that these "black box" sites were beyond any oversight from Congress, since their existence was never acknowledged -- nor has it ever been.

In February 2005, according to the Times, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales led the preparation of a memo by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department giving the go-ahead to the harshest interrogation techniques ever authorized by the United States. Beatings, psychological torture, simulated drownings and frigid temperatures were just some of the methods authorized by the Gonzales memo. Gonzales, consistent with his spineless posture towards his patrons in the White House, made no effort to question the directives coming at him from Vice-President Dick Cheney's office or the president himself.

The White House earlier this afternoon acknowledged that at least one of the two secret memos mentioned in the article exists, but denied, of course, that the U.S. engages in torture, even after clear and convincing evidence in the Times story makes clear that it does.

''This country does not torture,'' White House spokeswoman told reporters. ''It is a policy of the United States that we do not torture and we do not.''

Let's the end the fairy tale of American exceptionalism now. The Department of Justice, acting at the behest of the White House, drew up legal authorization to justify the torture of suspected terrorists held around the world. Remember when high-level government officials used to resign rather than make statements like this to the public, or take part in drawing up such blatantly immoral policies?

I'd say this is all unbelievable except that it's not.