Thursday, November 29, 2007

Mr. Smith never went to Washington

So Trent Lott wants to cash in after 19 years in the Senate by retiring just one year after beginning his fourth term. So he's got an eye on K St. and the oodles and oodles of money that awaits him after he begins what it certain to begin an exceptionally lucrative lobbying career. So he didn't really mean it when he told Mississippi voters in 2006 that he was there for the long haul so he could continue to direct hurricane relief back home. So he persuaded his Republican colleagues to return him to a position of leadership after he was ousted over his remarks praising Strom Thurmond's early commitment to segregation so he could garner more influence over legislation and deal-making, Setting the stage for his return to those battles as a high-priced lobbyist with unparalleled access.

So this is surprising . . . why? Just what the hell is so shocking about an American politician looking for more money? Should Lott move to K St., he'll join 37 former senators and 158 representatives as registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill. You would think Lott is the first senator to forsake the "honor of public service" for largess in the private sector by the reading the Washington Post's editorial this morning, which chastised Lott for his "unseemly" decision.

Please.

The American political system is hopelessly corrupt. Money and who spends it has everything to do with what happens in American politics, whether the issue involves the ethics of allowing private contractors to have law enforcement and quasi-military powers in Iraq to what industries get protected and why under the guise of economic regulation to whether Congress should intervene to prevent life-support from being withdrawn from Teri Schaivo, a decision that was pushed by the powerful Christian right-wing of the Republican party. Americans are in a fundamental state of denial about the power that the moneyed classes have in politics. The rich write the rules, not the poor. Why can't most Americans see this? No matter how much they complain about the Iraq war, home foreclosures, health care, education, the dearth of well-paying jobs, Americans don't seem to want major change. Over 95% of the time, they return the same senators and representatives to office year after year. We spend more time finding scapegoats that have little or no power to alter the flow of the American political economy -- Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, the Duke English department, Yale Law School, Al Sharpton, gun control advocates, Michael Moore, Jenna Jameson or NPR -- than demanding that our political leaders explain why the distribution of income in the United States continues to skew more and more towards a relatively small professional class that enjoys the overwhelming share of income in the United States, leaving the middle and lower classes further and further behind.

Americans are desperate, as so many visitors from foreign countries, dating all the way back to Alexis de Tocqueville, have observed, to believe the narrative handed down to them by our myth-making industries. American television, the advertising business and the public relations departments of American-based multinational corporations spend billions of dollars per year reminding Americans that ours is the greatest country in the world, that no other country is as free, as healthy, as well-to-do, as imaginative or as open as the United States. Rather than confront the realities of living in a political society that equates social justice with the distribution of income and rights through economic markets, Americans choose denial. By 2009, China will become Detroit-based General Motors biggest car market. Sales of GM cars outside the United States now account for a majority of the auto maker's business. GM is eliminating jobs by the thousands in the United States while creating them abroad. Do you think the industry chieftains who keep their favorite politicians in power care that we will make China our largest trading partner even though it uses government-mandated abortion as a form of birth control? Do you think President Bush is losing sleep over that paradox? Not a bit.

I finished watching yesterday Michael Moore's newest movie, "Sicko," which is nothing less than a full-scale, no-holds-barred indictment of the American health care system. I know enough about Michael Moore and usually enough about the subject matter he chooses to know whether he's entertaining me or educating me. This is very, very powerful documentary . . . far more authentic and devoid of the sometimes clamoring self-righteousness that Whole Foods customers like to strut on the way to their Mercedes and Range Rovers and sporty Lexus coupes, persuaded, despite their personal wealth in the renumerative private sector, that they are keeping it real and representin' the working man by buying non-petroleum based bathroom cleaners and cheeses delivered by unionized hands from a simple but friendly native from a faraway land. Whatever you want to say about Moore's methods, this much is clear after watching "Sicko": American don't have a health care system. We have providers of health care services like we have providers of iPods, Tinkertoys and the complete line of Bed Head hair products. We have a system that is based on the profit motive and is answerable to share holders and other investors. For most Americans, medical treatment is determined by insurance companies, not doctors. For the approximately 55 million Americans without health insurance, their medical treatment is determined by their income. They have no guarantee to health care. We know all this and yet we continue to resist -- fail to demand, is more accurate -- a true universally accessible health care system funded by tax dollars and shared collectively. America spends more money than any other country in the world on health care and yet is the only developed nation that does not have a publicly funded national health care system.

I don't even bother listening to what the different candidates have to say about health care because no talk of any "reform" without a call to completely junk our current approach and follow the European or Canadian models has any meaning. Too many people have too much money and power to lose. Our horrible national health care crisis will continue unless we take the for-profit motive out of medicine. And that's not even getting to pharmaceuticals -- another awful problem because of our privately held health care model.

Americans should be shocked when they see these stories but they're not. We'll talk about how corrupt Russia or Pakistan's political system is and then look the other way when talking about our own. We cannot even regulate campaign expenditures and donations because powerful private interests have succeeded in persuading the courts their money is really speech. Not to let them get behind a candidate amounts to a First Amendment violation of the worst sort.

This is the world we live in. For whatever reason we choose to believe that it's not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The things my students teach me

Here we are, at the end of November . . . already! . . . the semester just about over, and I can't decide if . . .

. . . this semester has just zipped on by . . . whoooooooosh! . . . or drudged-drudged-drudged-drudged along, slower than hell . . . waiting for the weather to turn chilly, then rainy, then cold and then . . . perhaps to white clouds and snow, and the winter break that comes once I clear the blue books, papers, make-up assignments, "lost" assignments mysteriously found and deemed in need of credit, letters of recommendation are cleared off my desk and extraneous university junk mail ("Come by Public Safety and find out how we can make your on-campus parking experience even better!") off my desk.

Like I always do at the end of a semester, I ask myself a few questions: Could I have taught my classes better? (Yes) Should I have had them read more? (Yes) Less? (No). Perhaps I should have assigned an additional writing assignment (Definitely not)! Student writing gets worse and worse every year and becomes more and more painful to read. I decided some years ago that I am not a writing teacher, just like a writing teacher is not a political scientist trained to teach undergraduates about the Constitution and what it means. I wonder how often an English professor or writing instructor has a student come up to her and ask,"Professor Davis, can you explain to me again the difference between Section 5 power under the 14th amendment to enforce the equal protection clause and the equitable power provision of Article III?" You know as well as I do that no English student ever asks that question of a professor. But our students want me to teach them how to write. All I can teach them is what I know, and, while I know how to write, I don't know how to teach people how to write. I'll learn that I should tell people specifically what they should write about, and then how to write what I've told them they should write about. I stopped giving writing assignments in certain courses for this very reason -- I just didn't want to argue with people less than half my age who have none of my expertise why I should do their work for them.

Some students don't agree with this policy, and think I should take a more painstaking approach to correcting their writing or, at minimum, providing them with "tips" on how to improve their ability to choose a topic, construct an outline, write an essay and then read it over to make sure it makes sense. My philosophy towards teaching undergraduates includes a heavy dose of self-reliance and taking steps towards developing the confidence to think independently. My approach to teaching about American constitutional development can sometimes be quite unconventional. My goal is never to "get through" a given number of cases or reach a certain point in the syllabus or teach such inane concepts as "judicial activism and judicial restraint," or teach such extraordinarily complex matters like sexual autonomy as if they were simple questions involving "sexual orientation" and "societal preferences" within some "long-standing -- albeit theologically non-existent -- Judeo-Christian tradition." I try to teach students some degree of humility along the way. By telling them I can only teach them what I know, I am trying to get them to understand and respect the division of labor and realize that, if their professors admit that they don't know everything, maybe they can, too.

* * * * * * * * * *

I also learned this semester, more than in any recent semester I can remember, that some students still just love to pass notes back and forth to each other during class, almost as if the pressure of their senior year has forced them to think wistfully for the days of 6th or 7th grade, when you passed a note to your desk neighbor to pass to your friend to pass to the friend of the girl you wanted to go steady with, in hopes that she would, upon giving it the once-over, pass it along to the girl that you couldn't stop thinking about, but would nonetheless break up with not five days after you had referred to her as your "girlfriend" to the guys you hung out with during lunch.

Since I don't allow laptops in class, students have to distract themselves -- and me -- the old-fashioned way. Psssst! Psssst! Psssst! Are they making fun of me? Sure. It could also be a classmate who has just admitted that, Griswold v. Connecticut notwithstanding, perhaps the Constitution, because it doesn't mention making-out, kissing, holding hands, does permit a state, if not Congress, to outlaw any form of "affection" or "intimate expression" that might lead to non-procreational sex. "Can you believe she said that?" the note might say. "What do you think Ivers really thinks about that?" "I can't tell." "Is he letting her just say this stuff to see if she can back it up?" "I can't tell." "Do you think he agrees with her?" "No way." "I don't know . . . he comes up with some awfully weird shit." "Yeah, do you remember that time if asked what's-her-name if a cab driver should be charged with accessory to murder for knowingly driving a woman to a clinic that performed abortions after the state had made them illegal?" "Oh, my God, yes, yes! That girl was like, 'she shouldn't have gotten pregnant' and I'm like, whatever." "Have you read the book we're talking about?" "No, have you?"

"No."

Old school note-passing is just low-tech IM'ing, but it is still very annoying. I've always wondered what the students' reaction would be if I started passing notes to one of their classmates or spent the session texting away on my cellphone when one of them asked me a question.

* * * * * * * * * *

And no, I still don't permit students to use laptops in class. You don't need them to take notes, and the idea that a constant click-click-click! . . . tap-tap-tap! on a keyboard is conducive to class discussion and interaction is nuts. Put a keyboard in front a student during a 75 minute class lecture and discussion and you invite distraction. Solitaire? Why not? Check my email? Absolutely! Ooooh, another trip to eBay?!?!? Can't pass that up? IM'ing my friend on the other side of the classroom? How cool! Every so often I stop and look in a classroom where students have their laptops open. I have never, ever seen a page open to anything other than email, People Magazine online, a game . . . nothing, in other words, having to do with the class. Just the other day, I saw one particularly dexterous student texting away with his right hand (careful, though, to keep his phone below the desktop) while emailing with his left while a classmate looked at him with slack-jawed awe. But most of my colleagues are afraid to tell their students they can't have laptops in class for the same reason that so many are afraid to give them bad grades or tell them they can't roast a rotisserie chicken or give each other back massages during class -- they don't want to compromise their teaching evaluations, the be-all, end-all measure of how "effective" we are as instructors.

What does it tell you when a colleague comes up to you and asks, "How do you get your students not to use their laptops in class or play with their cellphones when you're trying to teach?" The answer is simple: tell them they can't use their laptops or play with their cellphones during class. "But won't they get mad?" comes the response. Maybe, but who cares? The classroom is our office, and I seriously doubt that any student with a job would contest a boss's decision to prohibit cell phone use during an office meeting or one-on-one session with them. Fonzie from "Happy Days" had the bathroom at Arnold's for his office. The classroom where I am assigned to teach for 75 minutes twice a week, is my office. I don't agree with my colleagues who believe that placing limits on the power of our students to control how we teach them is somehow adverse to their "rights," much less their interests.

* * * * * * * * * *

I have also learned, once again, that, for many students, my request to keep current with their twice-weekly assignments due in class or to turn their exams and papers in on the date their due is considered an option over which they have considerable discretion. Assignments are due when they are due. I have never turned a student down for an extension who is dealing with an illness or some personal problem. In fact, I am more likely to offer an extension to a student IF I know the student is on the level with me. But someone who comes to me with a casual "look, I'm just busy" after-the-deadline decision to turn in an assignment isn't going to get my sympathy. Part of what we're trying to do as college professors is to teach students some semblance of responsibility. Allowing them to determine the boundaries and rules of their course requirements isn't going to do that.

* * * * * * * * * *

Is it unreasonable to expect a student who has an opinion on the Supreme Court and the work it does to know who the sitting justices are who decide the cases and write the opinions? I don't think so. Sometimes, when writing fiction or sketching out a docu-drama, it's all right to alter some facts to fit the story line. But if you're going to have something to say, good or bad, about what the justices do, shouldn't you at least know who they are?

* * * * * * * * * *

I had a student, only half in jest, suggest to me I was "biased" for pointing out in class that not a single major abortion decision by the Supreme Court from Roe v. Wade (1973) forward has been made by a majority of justices appointed by Democratic presidents. Roe was a 7-2 decision whose majority consisted of five justices appointed by Republican presidents and two appointed by Democratic presidents. Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the 5-4 decision often cited as the one that "saved" Roe, saw five Republican-appointed justices "preserve" the "core holding" of Roe. Three Republican-appointed justices and one Democratic-appointed justice comprised the minority opposed to Roe.

Since 1975, no more than two Democratic-appointed justices have served on the Court at any one time. I barely made it out of Algebra II (without trig!) in high school, but even I know enough to know that two can never make a majority out of five. Anytime I point out that Republicans have controlled the Supreme Court for the last 40 some-odd years, I am inevitably met with an eye-rolling, hands-in-the-air, body-repositioning response by someone, as if I have just revealed that President Kerwin has a secret taping system in his office (he doesn't) or that weapons of mass destruction don't really exist underneath our university's athletic fields (they did and still might). To me, one of the great conservative political victories of the last generation has been to persuade the American public that the Court is getting its marching orders from liberal law professors and the ACLU. Nothing could be further than the truth. Students should be interested to learn that a popular perception isn't true. Instead, they sometimes get mad. And this applies to liberals as well as conservatives. I have had students look perplexed, perhaps even offended when I suggest that an effort to achieve intellectual "diversity" by emphasizing race, religion, gender or ethnicity in the admissions or employment decision-making process might encourage us to embrace stereotypes of persons historically lacking power. If an admissions committee decides to admit an African-American or Jewish student because they want that person's "point of view" represented, aren't we assigning an identity to someone based on their race, religion and/or ethnicity? Shouldn't the goal of affirmative action be to make our major institutions more representative of our nation's demographic, and then let ideas take people where they may? Maybe, maybe not. But I am always surprised at the reactions of some students when you suggest there is another way of looking at things other than through the limited lens of conventional wisdom.

* * * * * * * * * *

Quirks, follies, eccentricities and sometimes just plain weird behavior aside, college students are a great source of inspiration to the professors who teach them, or at least they are to me. I am continually amazed by the intelligence, sophistication and maturity of students who are still in the fledgling stages of their adult lives. In some ways, we ask far too much from 18-22 year-olds -- to declare a major as if the rest of their life depended on it; to rack up internships like stuffed animals on a hunting cottage wall; to stuff their resumes full of experiences of little or no value because they believe doing so will help get them where they want to go. My job, in addition to teaching them what I know, is also to remind my students to turn things in on time, to pay attention (or pretend to) to things you don't necessarily find all that interesting, to own up to your mistakes, to learn certain adult norms of personal behavior and to figure out a responsible way to correct a problem that doesn't involve just avoiding it. In other words, my job is to push them and their job is to make me explain why they should listen to me, which means that we each are doing what we are supposed to do. There is no better job than the one I have, and that is why, unless I am offered the touring drum chair for Steely Dan or the general manager's position with the Atlanta Braves, I could never imagine doing anything else.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Live Zeebop

Zeebop will appear at the Tavern at American University on Monday, December 3rd, from 7-9.30 p.m. This will feature our electric version: Justin Parrott, bass; Mark Caruso, guitar; Mark Kowal, guitar and me driving the train in the back. You can see some clips from recent acoustic shows by going to our website, where we've posted some links to You Tube.

Coming soon: Zeebop T-shirts, stickers, downloadable mp.3s and new venues for 2008.

Having unexpectedly entered the wedding and Bar Mitzvah circuit (playing one this Saturday), let the word go forth that we are available for private parties of any size and kind, excluding wet T-shirt and fake orgasm contests (Justin performs solo at those events). Spread the word, if you can.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Red State update helps Mike Huckabee

Jackie and Dunlap explain the appeal of their soulmate, former Arkansas governor and current Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, as only fellow Southerners can.

Sarah Simmons, rising star

I also owe a belated congratulations to my old student and dear friend, Sarah Simmons, a 1995 AU graduate, who was named by Campaigns and Elections magazine -- the preeminent journal on campaign politics among working professionals -- as one of the Rising Stars in American politics.

I wasn't surprised to learn that Sarah had been afforded such a great honor by her peers. I was surprised that she didn't tell me, since the woman talks more (and faster) than almost anyone I know, including me. But Sarah is also modest, and wouldn't blow her own horn. From the moment I first met Sarah as a college freshman, I never doubted that she wouldn't be tremendously successful at whatever she chose to do. Naturally, I was troubled, then saddened, then simply perplexed by how such a bright, incredibly personable, energetic, great-looking and talented young woman could be a Republican. I've met and know Sarah's parents well enough to know that it is not her mother's fault. And her dad? Well, ever since he shot a hole-in-one several years ago he rarely talks or thinks about anything else, so I can't really hold him responsible. All I can think of is that, as a Kansas hillbilly, she got hit by a tractor or felled in the head by a cow . . . something had to cause her frontal lobe to disintegrate.

I love her anyway and have made my peace with her misguided ways. And when the day comes when she wakes up from this bad dream and sees the light, I will welcome her with open arms and, of course, a great big kiss!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Congratulations to Yiaway Yeh!

I am pleased to report that a former student of mine, Yiaway Yeh, was elected to the Palo Alto City Council on November 7. Just 29 years old, Yiaway is exactly the kind of person you hope enters public service -- very, very smart, compassionate, a good listener and dedicated to bettering the community around him. I can't claim to have had much of an influence on Yiaway. He took me once and got the hell out of Dodge. But now that he's achieved such an impressive milestone, I am willing to claim him as one of my own.

Congratulations, Yiaway. I'm just glad I didn't turn you into a marketing major.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Lifestyle management" for the clueless

About three weeks ago, I posted a comment on a column by the Washington Post's Marc Fisher that asked, upon learning that it takes a good $500,000 a year for a Manhattanite to meet the definition of someone who is "rich," how more salt-of-the-earth Washingtonians, who think $200,000 is enough to make them "rich," would spend their money.

My point was that Washington does not lack for a pretentious, socially driven, status conscious, ever upwardly mobile, "hey, look what I've got," class of its own. I highlighted a Washingtonian magazine article from November 2006 that revealed just how much it takes to live an A-list life in the nation's capital: $648,212 a year. Posing is posing, whether your wearing Armani black or -- horror of all horrors -- Talbots, Lily Pulitzer or anything else that appears that you were frozen in time during sorority or fraternity rush twenty or thirty years ago.

For people who aspire to make the pages of the Washingtonian or Bethesda magazines or, even one notch higher, a mention in the Post's "Reliable Source" gossip column ("Hey, wasn't that Biff Gucciloafers, the Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff to the General Counsel of the Office of Plastic Recycling in the Roanoke Field Office of the Department of Interior, whispering sweet nothings into the ear of Georgetown socialite and philanthropist Brooke "Tweety" Astorcamp, at Cafe Eurotrash last night?"), getting and spending -- and then letting everyone else in your social circle know just how much you got and spent -- can be exhausting work. Sometimes there are pools that need cleaning, Hummers that need servicing and detailing, $3,000 gowns that need altering, cracks-not-visible-to-the-naked-eye-in-the-imported-Italian-foyer-inlays that need repairing and . . . ugh! . . . children that need shuttling to activities that their prosperous parents may or may not know about.

Sometimes there are even pets that need their television channel changed because some of the "rescue" shows on Animal Planet disturb them.

Yes, you heard that right. Pets who need their television channel changed.

That, if for no other reason, is why so many Washingtonians, at least according to today's Washington Post, need "lifestyle consultants." Listen, just listen, to how our region's well-to-do -- and their children and pets (which, in some cases, I am firmly convinced carry the same status in many privileged households) suffer:

Pets need constant attention, not just someone to walk them. One of Glass's employees flew a dog to Colorado so it could spend a summer with his family in Aspen, Colo. Other helpers changed the TV channel daily at one client's house; her beagle liked the Animal Planet network, but the client didn't want the dog watching its more troubling animal-rescue shows.

Lifestyle managers have searched for a reliable used car for a client's 16-year-old or taken over their scrapbooking project. One wrote an online dating profile for a client. Others have negotiated overseas adoptions or bailed their clients out of jail. Another was handed a brown paper bag full of insurance documents from a client's recent surgery with the command to sort it out.
Lifestyle managers have even descended upon universities. About two weeks ago, I had one student come to me to request a "blue card" (permission to take a class that is full) for a class I am teaching next semester on behalf of another student, who did not, according to this person, have time to do it herself. I told the student I do not give "blue cards" for any of my classes because if I say yes to one student I have to say yes to them all.

"But it's not for me," she said. "It's for someone else."

"I don't give them to anyone," I responded. "Just out of curiosity, why isn't the student who wants to take the class asking me herself?"

The student looked a little sheepish, and then said, "This is how I earn money. I run errands for other students who don't have time."

Of course! What was I thinking when I was in college? I worked as a waiter in sorority house, a kitchen boy in a burger-and-beer restaurant, an academic tutor for the University of Missouri athletic department, an undergraduate teaching assistant (which involved grading multiple-choice tests and getting materials from the library) and as a cook in a fraternity house.

A student who doesn't have time to sign up for classes. I just hope this person gets the right support for her dog. "Rescue 911" can cause nightmares in even the toughest pit bull.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hates crimes in geographic perspective

Tomorrow morning's print edition of the New York Times includes a startling and disturbing piece on the Op-Ed page that highlights the geographic distribution of "noose" incidents since the September 20th, 2007 public demonstration on behalf of the "Jena Six," the name given to the six teen-age African-American students who were arrested and prosecuted on charges ranging assault to second-degree murder for beating a white student who hung a noose from a tree in the school's front lawn.

The sequence of events that spawned the Jena Six controversy took place in the fall and early winter of 2006. Read for yourself where and how often "noose incidents" have occurred in just the last two months.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving! See you Saturday.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Red State Update visits the Democrats in Las Vegas

Jackie and Dunlap head out to Vegas to experience the Democratic debate. They get distracted.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Would you eat this fish?

Perhaps I'm making too much of this, or simply without a sense of humor, but is this advertisement for the fish specials at my local Giant a little strange?

Do you really want a seahorse saying "Happy Thanksgiving?"

Do you really put pictures of saltwater aquarium fish -- which are not fit for consumption by humans -- on a big sign advertising your specials on eastern oysters and sea scallops?

Should I really care?

New Jersey reconsiders the death penalty

The New Jersey Senate will consider a bill before the end of the year that would take the state's death penalty off the books. Since the state hasn't executed anyone since 1963, a decision to repeal the death penalty would be more symbolic than anything else. But the broader significance is two-fold: (1) New Jersey would be the first state with a death penalty to repeal it since the Supreme Court authorized the use of the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) after a four year legal moratorium on executions; (2) it comes after 19 states have either set aside executions or had them blocked since the Court agreed on September 25th to hear a case (Baze v. Rees) on the constitutionality of Kentucky's lethal injection protocol.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Girls on the run

Yes, that ridiculously adorable nine year-old teenage girl on the right is Claire Ivers, my daughter, holding up her medal after completing her first 5K race as part of Girls On The Run, a nationwide program for elementary school-age girls that combines exercise with positive messages about physical and mental health. About a dozen girls from our elementary school took part in the race Saturday morning. They just didn't finish the race -- they ran. I didn't run three consecutive miles until I was in the eighth grade, and that was only because two friends and I were running to escape an angry mob from another neighborhood after our street hockey team had won a "bragging rights" game under what our opponents believed were mysterious circumstances.

So congratulations to Claire and all the other Wyngate girls on setting and achieving such a challenging goal!

Steve Khan

I first heard guitarist Steve Khan as a session player on Steely Dan's "Aja" and "Gaucho" records, and was immediately taken with his tone, phrasing and note placement. My freshman year in college, my friend Joey Pierce, one of two people over the course of my life whose musical interests have run parallel to my own, played a record featuring Khan, drummer Billy Cobham, saxophonist Tom Scott and ex-Weather Report bassist Alfonso Johnson called, "Alivemutherforya." The idea was to take some of the up and coming "fusion" instrumentalists of the time and create a "supergroup" to showcase their musicianship. Well, I certainly was impressed, and began looking for more records featuring Khan. That led me, in the early 80s, to buy a series of records he made with percussionist Manolo Badrena, drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Anthony Jackson under the name Eyewitness. To this day, those records remain some of my favorite and most played in my collection. (Full disclosure: much of the sound that my band, Zeebop, has been going for is rooted in Khan's approach to the early Eyewitness recordings). The rhythmic variation, melodic lines and arrangements on those records are original and astounding . . . and the use of space and free-floating time. Khan's approach to composition and improvisation marries perfectly, to me, the "freedom within form" idea that represents the very best of what jazz, or improvised music, has to offer.

And while Khan is one of those musicians whose tone and style make him immediately recognizable to listeners -- John Scofield, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Abercrombie are other guitarists from this generation of players who, to me, fall into that category -- there is nothing similar at all about any of his recordings. He can move back and forth between trio, quartet and the use of additional musicians, usually Latin percussionists, without sacrificing his musical imprint or making it sound like he playing in an unnatural setting.

I've bought everything he's ever played on since, I first him on those Steely Dan records, including, in more recent years, his more straight-ahead and Latin-influenced jazz dates. His most recent recording, "Borrowed Time," is just astounding. Link to his website here and explore some one the great guitarists in any genre of the last 25 years. Khan also has some fascinating perspectives of life outside of music, and the insightful and sensitive essays he often writes on his website and in the liner notes to his CDs are worth the purchase of his music.

I suppose of the other qualities I would ascribe to Khan's approach to composition and writing is "musical." I know that sounds strange: music that is musical. But for anyone whose musical ears developed in the 1970s, jazz and rock music was populated by instrumentalists who were often dazzling in their technical ability but ended up making records that sounded like they were attempting to write and solve complex math problems. Not so Steve Khan. One of the most beautiful melodies I have heard comes from his hands in a nearly 30 year-old composition called, "Dr. Slump." To this day, I can even describe the feeling that comes over me when I hear that tune. Everything . . . everything is just perfect about it. But it doesn't sound "perfect" or stilted . . . just flowing, melodic and achingly beautiful.

Musicians, like most artists (or any professional, for that matter), hate the phrase "underrated" or "underappreciated" because it suggests that their talent has escaped notice within their own communities. Steve Khan has not achieved the commercial success or notoriety of Scofield or Metheny, although guitarists from the very famous to guys doodling on their guitars at home revere him (including the guitarist in my own band). But that shouldn't prevent listeners with big ears from appreciating one of the most original voices -- on guitar or any other instrument -- in contemporary improvised music.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Cool Zeebop pics

Some recent pictures of Zeebop from our show in support of Ashley Kahn, the great jazz writer:


Mark Caruso, our brilliant guitarist
and musical director.










After the show, with Ashley Kahn.













Justin Parrott, beneath the hair, and I, during "Mr. P.C."










Me, trying to keep up, during
"So What/Impresssions"











Justin Parrott, our young bass phenom,
taking a solo during "Afro-Blue."

Friday, November 16, 2007

Does the Iraq war matter?

The New York Times Wednesday published the results of a poll taken in Iowa and New Hampshire on the attitudes of voters in those states towards the major candidates running in their upcoming primaries. Some of the results aren't terribly surprising. Hillary Clinton gets the nod as the Democratic candidate most likely to get her party's nomination, but comes in third behind John Edwards and Barack Obama as the candidate considered most forthcoming and likely to say what he or she believes. This was true, with little difference, in both states.

No surprise there. Hillary's strategy has been based on her "experience," such as it is, and her self-portrayal as a candidate who can work the middle, a completely unoriginal euphemism for not taking a firm position on an issue.

But the result that absolutely knocked me over was this: almost half of Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are unwilling to tie their favored candidate's position on the Iraq war into support for that candidate. 48% of Iowa Democrats and 45% of New Hampshire Democrats would vote for a candidate who does not share their view on the war. Here we are, in a war that has brought more death and maiming to American soldiers since Vietnam, and continues apace rudderless and without end in sight, and almost half the Democrats in those states are willing to set the war aside to vote for their favorite candidate.

In 1968, two Democratic candidates, Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, ran as anti-Vietnam war candidates, leaving the third, the hapless Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson's vice-president, to defend the incumbent administration's position on the war. Richard Nixon, of course, ran on a promise to end the war by working for "peace with honor." That plan, of course, involved running a secret war in Cambodia and Laos to destroy North Vietnamese strongholds, a plan that backfired once it became public. Nixon didn't run against the war, even though it was extremely unpopular by summer 1968. He ran against liberals, the counterculture, hippies, the Northeast elite, all based on a "Southern strategy" that involved coded and sometimes overt appeals that a Nixon administration would not make African-Americans and the civil rights movement a priority.

And it worked. So well, in fact, that it has served as the Republican strategic template for all presidential elections since then.

A Republican candidate running for the 2008 nomination will offer a similar strategy to voters: managing rather than ending the Iraq war, diverting resources into other countries and conflict points to divert attention from the worst foreign policy decision in American history, offering a domestic agenda built around tax cuts and other economic policies embraced by corporate America, a pledge to appoint "strict constructionists" to the courts, underscored, as always, by an attack on that unidentified mosaic of "cultural elites" who threaten to undermine "traditional American values."

The Beltway commentariat and their acolytes in the political-media complex who drool over their every word seem persuaded that it will take a minor miracle for a Republican to succeed Bush in the White House. For the Democrats, the key seems to be whether Hillary can stand tough on Iraq and demonstrate that she can be just as jingoistic as her male competitors. As long as she continues not to say much of anything, and offers banal, poll-tested reassurances that she supports the troops and opposes Bush's "mismanagement" of the war (though careful not to say the war itself), she can start stocking the White House kitchen with Grey Poupon instead of Kraft yellow mustard.

Is 2008 really 1968 all over again? I don't think so. Yes, the country is divided into red states and the occasional blue cities (and their suburbs), as it has been since 2000. Yes, the Iraq war is a disaster, but one from which 99% of Americans are disconnected. Having a strong opinion is one thing; knowing that your number could come up and either you or your son or daughter could be off to Iraq is something entirely different. If Bush had reinstituted the draft, increased taxes, mandated national service from civilians in support of the war or any other genuine measure that would require sacrifice from the citizenry, we would be looking at a very different environment around the 2008 election.

The Iraq war marks the first time the United States has gone to war for a sustained period of time without conscription, the reorientation of the economy to support the production of war armaments, "auxiliary" services to support the war effort, additional taxes, rationing or any other measure that extracts sacrifice from Americans at home. Think about it for just a minute: more Americans have died in Iraq than on 9.11; tens of thousands of American soldiers are maimed for life; countless others will battle mental health scars for years, if not the remainder of their lives; the nation's stature to engage the world on diplomatic initiatives is lower than ever; and the president of the United States is reviled throughout the world.

And yet . . . and yet, almost half of Democratic voters in the two most important presidential primaries are willing the look the other way on the Iraq war. Astounding.

On second thought, 2008 might be 1968 all over again. But not for the reasons you think.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Updated Zeebop Website

We've made some changes to the Zeebop website. You'll see a direct link to You Tube, where you can see some recent performances from us, including our show last week in support of the great jazz writer, Ashley Kahn, which was an absolute blast. We have also added some new sound clips to our site, new pictures and updated our schedule, which now includes a date at Rumors, located at 19th and M Sts. downtown, on Friday, December 7th, from 6-8 p.m. We'll also be playing in the Tavern at American University on Monday, December 3rd, from 7-9.30 p.m. Both shows are open to everyone.

Barry Bonds indicted . . . finally

As Gomer Pyle would have said, "Sur-prize! Sur-prize! Sur-prize!"

Federal prosecutors announced this afternoon that Barry Bonds has been indicted on multiple counts of obstruction of justice and perjury for lying to a federal grand jury about his steroid use.

Get this, though: the White House issued a statement saying it was "disappointed" by the announcement of Bond's indictment.

If anyone knows a liar when he sees one, it's our current president.

Florida execution blocked

The United States Supreme Court blocked the execution of a convicted Florida child killer earlier today.

The moratorium continues.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Autumnal quiet in the nation's death chambers

Dahlia Lithwick, my Supreme Court (and legal) correspondent crush of long standing, wonders why states haven't switched over to other forms of execution rather than wait for the Supreme Court to decide whether the lethal injection cocktail currently used in death penalty states. The same mix of drugs injected into death row inmates was banned by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2002 to put animals to sleep.

She points out something I did not know and hadn't really thought about: this October marks the first one in three years to pass without an execution. There's more to learn, so read Lithwick's article.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rudy G and the mythology of moderation

A small operation on my right hand prevents me from typing very much or very well without pain, so any posts for the next few days or so will be limited to links to noteworthy pieces from other sources.

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent piece in Salon that busts open the mainstream media's latest inexplicable deep-thought de jour -- the transformation of the Republican party from a collection of right-wing religious fanatics hell bent on militarizing every foreign policy and national security crisis while creating social state worthy of the Pilgrims at home into a voice for "moderation" by "centrist" Rudy Giuliani.

Support for gay rights and a pro-choice position on abortion doesn't make you an iconoclast in American party politics. It puts you knee-deep in the social and political mainstream. Giuliani's welcome embrace of Pat Robertson, America's greatest living circus tent-worthy Christian con artist, doesn't exactly qualify you for membership in the Great American Center. Imagine what the mainstream media's response would be if some crazy lefty on par with Robertson received a big bear hug from Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama at a staged photo opportunity? I don't know the answer because there isn't a left-wing public figure that has access to American party politics like the religious cranks and nuts on the right and their secular let's-bomb-Iran brethren.

Think about that for a moment. Our "respectable" political spectrum goes from Pat Robertson on the right (and he's not even the craziest -- there's James Dobson, the phalanx of cable television and talk radio nutcases, just to start) to John Edwards, the most "liberal" Democrat in the race (Dennis Kucinich gets less attention than former Republican presidential perennials Alan Keyes and Pat Buchanan did in their day) on the left.

That's right. John Edwards, whose radicalism includes a single-payer system of privately provided health care modeled on Medicare and the heretical belief that massive income inequality is not a positive social attribute in a nation that generates as much wealth as ours, is the lefty on the fringes. That puts him with Richard Nixon, circa 1972.

Those latte-sipping, Crate and Barrel-outfitted, Patagonia-clad, Ecco- shoe, Bordeaux-drinking liberals in the national media. When will they get in touch with the real people?

Red State Update finds Jackie's momma

Jackie's 112 year-old momma gives an earful on her son's competitors in the presidential election.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, November 12, 2007

"Constitutional dictatorship?"

Sandy Levinson, the University of Texas law professor who write frequently and perceptively about the imperfections of American constitutionalism, offers an interesting post over on Balkinzation about the current disconnect between a Constitution that permits President Bush to continue serving his term "and the majority of Americans who are increasingly made sick to their stomach by this Administration must put up with it for another 436 days because . . . the Constitution . . . fail[s] to provide for terminating the term of a President in whom that majority has lost any confidence." Levinson continues:

It is so much more reassuring to denounce George Bush as behaving "unconstitutionally" than to address seriously the possibility that the reality is far worse--that he is taking full advantage of the powers in fact granted by our Constitution even to persons with the most egregious lack of knowledge and judgment so long as they are elected, via an indefensible electoral college system (though that's the topic for other postings), to occupy the White House.
Levinson offers the most recent example of Bush's "unconstitutional" behavior -- newly confirmed Attorney General Michael Mukasey's refusal to state for the public record that "waterboarding" meets the internationally recognized definition of torture (as well as violating the rules of interrogation in the Army Field Manual). Levinson opines that the situation like the one the country now finds itself -- an out-of-control president (and vice-president) with no regard for public opinion, much less basic decency, free to do whatever he wants because the Constitution offers only impeachment as a means to remove him from office -- is based on a glaring flaw in the Constitution: the lack of a recall or "no confidence" mechanism that would permit his removal from office.

Levinson has a point, and far be it from me to disagree with someone so prolific, thoughtful and daring in presenting his ideas. I'm not sure what the Constitution's "flaws" have to do with the Democrats' capitulation to the administration on the Mukasey nomination, a truly reprehensible action. I'm not sure what the Constitution's "flaws" have to do with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi's unwillingness to offer a bold and daring plan to terminate the war in Iraq, or the wishy-washiness of the major Democratic presidential candidates (Clinton, Obama and Edwards) to offer an "unconditional" plan for withdrawal, or to introduce major reform to our health system that would make the Decider decide that all Americans don't deserve health insurance (that, in addition to lower-income children who qualify for SCHIP assistance) or call an end to Cold War-era rhetoric that refers to any effort to democratize access to health care and higher education as "state run socialism."

In short, the Constitution has nothing to do with the Democrats' inability to offer any significant policy or legislation innovation since winning back majorities in the House and Senate in November 2006. Just last week, Congress, for the first time, overrode a Bush veto -- a $23 billion "water" bill that offered just about everyone in Congress some goodies for the home folks just as the election season is preparing to swing into high gear. 138 Republicans joined 233 Democrats to give the bill's supporters far more than the 2/3's necessary to override a presidential veto.

Now that the Democrats are in power, they are more answerable to the powerful and wealthy corporations, business interests and individuals who donate money to their campaign chests than they were when they were the minority party. I'm not sure I believe that Hillary Clinton doesn't have an opinion on the Iraq war, abortion rights, medical care as a public good and so on. I think Hillary, if properly medicated -- legally or illegally -- might offer some very interesting answers to those questions. But she is a product of a campaign process that rewards candidates who hit the moving target of powerful interests. Hillary isn't going to get elected by promising to appoint pro-choice judges or protect endangered species. She will get her party's nomination and possibly (but I still don't think so) elected to the presidency by convincing a majority of voters that she will not pick their pockets or allow foreign terrorists to damage our citizenry.

Here's the other thing: how does the Constitution explain the ability of a president with a 33% approval rating to get his way on virtually everything? To hear the establishment press tell it, George Bush is out-of-touch, disengaged, wildly unpopular, down-in-James Buchanan territory as one of the worst presidents ever and held in little, if not cosmetic, esteem by foreign leaders around the world. And yet . . . he towers over a Democratic Congress like a lord over the flies.

What does the Constitution have to do with that?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

From Abercrombie to Zappa

My music collection begins with a recording by the great jazz guitarist John Abercrombie and ends with the unclassifiable iconoclast, Frank Zappa. Last week, someone wrote me to ask how I could possibly like the Allman Brothers Band, Genesis, Max Roach (who he never heard of), Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker (another mystery), Bill Evans, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, etc., etc., since they were all so different.

Here's the real question: How can you not like great music, regardless of who makes it or what you want to call it?

I used to hear, when I was younger, that growing older meant getting more set in your ways and finding a certain comfort level in what is familiar and conventional. That bit of wisdom supposedly applied to everything, from work to food to play to . . . really to anything you did.

I find myself moving in the opposite direction. I have always been intellectually restless, interested in new things, new ideas and meeting new people from whom I can learn something I didn't know. I don't have any real interest in repeating myself simply because I've honed a certain skill or gotten something down that was once challenging. I don't find the easiest way the most interesting way, nor do I find convention, particularly in my professional life, particularly attractive as a touchstone for understanding the world around me. If you spend your whole life trying to be like everybody else, you can't be who you are.

I look at all the musicians whose music I've listened to and collected over the years. The very best of them took the knowledge base in place when they first picked up their instrument and, from the beginning, searched for their own voice. That often meant breaking rules, or defying how a certain instrument was played, or revoicing chords (or getting rid of them altogether), or playing melodies on a rhythm instrument or rhythm on a melodic instrument. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, the Beatles, Yes, Steely Dan, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Jaco Pastorious, Wayne Shorter . . . just a few that pop in my head . . . these are all musicians (or bands) whose entire song catalog or approach to music reads like a "Do Not Try This at Home" manual, and yet their contributions to music, regardless of genre, are immeasurable.

In my professional life, I've never tried to copy anyone else, as a teacher, as a writer or as a researcher. I think the highest compliment you can pay your best teachers is to follow the voices in your own head. Not the scary ones that put you in a rubber room, but the ones that say, "Let's do it this way and see what happens." This has not been to my professional advantage. Political science, like most formal academic disciplines, thrives on convention, rule-following and specialization. I can't tell you how many times I have heard professional colleagues criticize some pretty smart people for thinking about a question in an unorthodox fashion, or venturing off into new endeavors that don't involve hypothesis-testing or seeking a more public intellectual profile by insisting that what they're doing is "not political science."

And that is what, exactly? Compiling mounds of data to "prove" that money influences political campaigns, or that judges are not "neutral," or that Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guiliani have "empathy" problems? And who cares if you can "prove" that the Supreme Court responds (or doesn't) to how lawyers "frame" their arguments? Or if written briefs are more or less important than oral arguments? First, you can't really "prove" either supposition. Second, even if you could, who cares? But cast doubt on the conventional wisdom of what passes for "scholarship" and you'll be relegated to the "Gee, it's such a shame a bright person like that isn't spending more time wondering if members of Congress are more likely to grant a personal audience to a major donor than someone who isn't able to pony up $1,000 for inclusion in the Patriots Circle." I have heard this from colleagues from time to time, including one or two who believe that I am "wasting my time" writing everyday for my blog (as if that constitutes my entire existence). Ironic, isn't it, that people who make such a point of criticizing me still pay attention to what I write? The Web is real big place. Go somewhere else, if it's that bad.

I'm not sure what my point is here, other than to encourage people to approach not just music, but everything, whether your student, professional or personal life, with an open mind. You might not get rich, but you'll sleep better.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Roy Haynes

Max Roach's passing in August means that Roy Haynes is the greatest living drummer in jazz music -- here, there or anywhere. Here is a man who, in 1947, was "sent for" by Charlie Parker to join his band after the great saxophonist discovered he couldn't work with Buddy Rich (a duo that has to rank among the oddest couplings in music history, but I digress . . .). Imagine being 22 years-old and having the most revolutionary jazz musician in history have someone tap you on the shoulder during a set-break at a ho-hum gig and say, "Bird wants you to come play with him."

Okay, so Tony Williams was 17 when Miles Davis asked his father if Tony could come play with him when he was done with high school. Whatever. Talent is talent.

Haynes will turn 83 next March, and trust me, if you've seen this guy play recently, he will turn 83. The only question is whether his bandmates will be able to keep up with him. About two years ago, I saw Roy Haynes play with Christian McBride, one of the greatest bass players in jazz, a man a little less than half his age. Haynes was pushing his band that night, knocking flies off the wall with that trademark machine gun-like snare drum of his, snapping, crackling and popping all the way through the gig. The odd rhythms he summoned up added great interest to the music, which never lost its foot-tapping quotient. I've been listening to a lot of Haynes lately, trying to get my snare drum to sound like his, something, I've decided is simply not going to happen. Many, many, many years ago, I knew a drummer who became infatuated with Haynes snare drum sound, and spent about $3,000 on various snares before he realized that you had to be Roy Haynes to get that sound.

Imagine starting your career with Charlie Parker and still kicking ass into your 80's. Haynes can get anybody he wants to play with him, and the occasional recordings he still makes all feature much younger musicians who feed off his musicality, confidence and warmth. Read all about him this month in the Jazz Times.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Chuck Schumer's new BFF

Newt Gingrich, whose personal offensiveness is matched only by his obnoxiousness as a public figure, might well be on Chuck Schumer's Five Faves cell phone plan, if not a new BFF.

Newt the Frewt was in town to meet with selected lawmakers earlier this week, one of whom was the New York senator. "Newt Gingrich is a great thinker who is trying to find a way to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans, and that's a good thing," Schumer gushed to reporters.

Huh? This is the same Newt Gingrich who drove the Republican party into the ground during his brief turn as Speaker of the House?

The same Newt Gingrich who made Bill Clinton's destruction his number 1 priority? Who decided to make Clinton's refusal to own up to his affair with Monica Lewinsky a cause for impeachment while carrying on an affair of his own? Who had the worst job approval rating of any modern Speaker? Who resigned just four years after ascending to the house speakership?

And, who most recently, has embraced Jerry Falwell and joined the Christian Right's perpetual campaign to return America to its Christian roots?

Newt Gingrich is not a visionary. Newt Gingrich is an amoral con artist. To his credit, though, he always gets the last laugh.

So what is Chuck Schumer doing yuk-ing it up with this guy? Why would he believe that Gingrich is anything other than a two-bit political quack, someone who, in 1880, would have been a circus promoter or a door-to-door "death insurance" salesman? Newt Gingrich did more to create the modern red v. blue, 50/50, us-against-them mentality is this country than any other politician of the past 15 years. The idea that Gingrich is prepared to assume some elder statesman status as a consensus-building, bi-partisan voice of reason is absurd? Will Gingrich join Donna Shalala on the A-list bi-partisan commission circuit?

The Mukasey mystery, continued

The Senate voted to confirm Michael Mukasey yesterday by a vote of 53-40, a feat which earned the former federal judge and U.S. attorney the distinction of receiving the lowest number of "yes" votes of any attorney general to head the Department of Justice in last fifty years.

No doubt Mukasey's confirmation will please the Beltway establishment, which has fallen all over itself to defend the new attorney general's morally indefensible position that "waterboarding," while "repugnant," does not meet the definition of torture. The only possible defense of Mukasey's position is legal: conceding that waterboarding is torture would open up American interrogators who have used the practice to prosecution under the rules of the Geneva Convention. Confession: I am not smart enough to figure that out for myself. This argument was pointed out to me by an attorney and friend of mine, who also happens to be the smartest person I know.

Six Democrats joined 47 Republicans to give Mukasey the nod. The five Democrats running for the Senate did not vote, although each one is on record as opposing Mukasey's nomination. Chuck Schumer, the New York senator who sponsored Mukasey's nomination, and Diane Feinstein of California ensured his approval when they announced last week that they would support him. For their decision not to buck their party's position, Schumer and Feinstein were congratulated by the Washington Post editorial board for their "moral fortitude" and willingness to take a "stand on principle."

Slice and dice it like you want, but what remains is this: the president nominated, and the Senate approved, a nominee to head the Department of Justice, whose responsibilities in the international arena have changed dramatically since 9.11, who does not oppose an interrogation technique recognized by the Western world -- I hesitate to say our allies, since that is a day-to-day proposition these days -- as torture. With timing that would bring a smile to the face of even the most demanding Broadway stage manager, a former Marine interrogator acknowledged yesterday that has been prevented by the Department of Defense from admitting that harsh interrogation techniques blew his prosecution of a suspected terrorist.

We have 438 days, 1 hour and 36 minutes remaining to see just independent Michael Mukasey turns out to be. The guess here is not so much.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Zeebop on You Tube

If haven't had a chance to see us play live before, you now get the next best thing -- Zeebop on You Tube. We had the chance to play in support of the internationally acclaimed jazz writer Ashley Kahn earlier this week, who was in town to promote his book, The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records.

Click here to see "So What/Impressions," a medley of the Miles Davis and John Coltrane compositions. Click here to see, "Afro-Blue," a tune made famous by John Coltrane," and here to see "Mr. P.C.," another Coltrane tune.

Justin Parrott, bass; Mark Caruso, guitar.

Please visit our website, www.zeebopmusic.com, where you can hear six newly loaded sound clips, including the original, "Bar Mitzvah Blues."

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Mukasey mystery

So Democrats Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein agreed to vote to confirm former federal judge Michael Muskasey's nomination to serve as Attorney General. Schumer and Feinstein have been vociferous critics of the Bush Administration's detention and interrogation policies. Each considers "waterboarding," or simulated drowning, torture. Mukasey says he "abhors" the practice, but doesn't know if it's illegal, although he would like to see Congress ban "waterboarding," so much so that, as attorney general, he would enforce the law without hesitation.

Our next attorney general promises to enforce the laws passed by Congress. Wow! He must have finished at the top of his high school civics class.

Can you imagine what Bush could get away with if he didn't have a 33% approval rating? All I ever see anyone write about is how Bush is irrelevant, a disaster by any measure, oblivious to reality and otherwise more than one foot out the door of history and . . . yet . . . he gets EVERYTHING HE WANTS! Seriously, what major changes in domestic or foreign policy have the Democrats affected since November 2006? Democrats agreed to give Bush his 20,000 "surge" in troops despite Iraq's ever-worsening state; been unable to override his veto on SCHIP, caved on an effort to protect the administration's detention and interrogation policies and much, much more.

And now two of the top Democrats in the Senate -- with Schumer an outspoken critic of President Bush from top to bottom -- have handed Bush a huge symbolic victory by confirming a man who will carry out whatever policies his bosses want him to do. Editorial writers for the Washington Post insist that Mukasey will run an "independent" Justice Department, which would mark a first for an attorney general, since everyone who has ever served in that position has carried out the policies of the president rather than contest them.

How can a nominee for attorney general not have a thought-out opinion on torture? How dissimilar is that from Clarence Thomas's "I've never discussed Roe v. Wade with anyone before, not even in law school" answer during the pre-Anita Hill phase of his 1991 confirmation hearings.

Give Bush credit on this one. He told the Senate that if it did not confirm Mukasey then he would take the attorney general's job off the books for the next 15 months -- he just wouldn't appoint one. Rather than let Bush look stupid for refusing to appoint an attorney general more in line with the so-called public opinion on torture, the Democrats gave Bush who he wanted on his terms, claiming Mukasey was the best nominee they could get from these nutcases. But why did the Democrats settle for someone inconsistent with their position on this matter when they have a majority on the Judiciary Committee. Why can't Bush take the heat?

All this with 33% of the public's approval. Somethin' else.

Working class Washingtonians

Marc Fisher, the reliably interesting and refreshingly down-to-earth straight Washington Post Metro columnist, wondered aloud in his blog the other day just what it takes be considered rich in Washington. Taking his cue from a recent New York Times Magazine piece that found residents of Manhattan believed it takes an income of $500,000 to cross the barrier separating the upper middle-class from the rich. Fisher noted that the magazine regularly "offer[s] readers glimpses into the fabulous (and not-so-hot) lives of the ultra-rich," and then offered some examples of what a Manhattanite "needs" to live the life of Zsa Zsa Gabor (the mysteriously accented Manhattan socialite uprooted from her Park Avenue existence to go live with her farmer husband in Petticoat Junction in the 1960s television show, "Green Acres,") Donald Trump or the late Leona Helmsley.

So how do Washingtonians do on $200,000 a year, the benchmark of what BBQ residents (Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens) believe they need to earn to live like the rich? Fisher allows some Washingtonians to give their own views on how $200,000 allows them to live. You can read them in his post.

But . . . I could have answered that question, quite literally, a year ago when I wrote a piece for my blog called, "Getting by on $648,212 a year." The nation's capital has its own magazine, the Washingtonian, that keeps up with the lives of impossibly good looking, wealthy and socially engaged white (and sometimes Vernon Jordan and Bob Johnson) Washington lawyers, politicians, media "celebrities" (like Robert Novak, Al Hunt, Doreen Genzler and Fred Barnes), well-coiffed women with air-powered blonde helmets of hair and the fat and happy male power brokers who escort them to such A-list social events as the Washington Correspondents Dinner and private parties featuring the Capitol Steps, a high school Glee Club-level comedy troupe. The Washingtonian can also tell you where you can find the best balsamic vinegar, professional dog walking services, nanny placement firms, luxury beach homes and architects who can make that long-time fantasy of having a replica of Fenway Park in your basement a reality. You can find countless high-achievers who will testify, without a trace of self-consciousness or irony, how important it is to have just the right pair of $550 Jimmy Choo pumps for the Cystic Fibrosis fundraiser, or why their child needs a $25,000 playground in the backyard, or just the right pair of $135 jeans to relax in over the weekend, all the while sipping lattes made with their $5,000 cappuccino machine.

Just recently, the Washingtonian featured 100 people to watch for in Washington (I didn't make the cut -- again), the most influential professionals under 40 (one is a former student of mine!), fashion tips from the men and women who travel in those circles, where the best places in Washington are to work (shock -- they're all law, public relations, lobbying, information or other "new economy" firms of some sort -- not a Jiffy Lube in the bunch), "great places" to take day trips and weekend vacations during the autumn season, and how to find the perfect party planner for that $100,000 Bar Mitzvah party ("Our child loves ancient Rome, so we wanted to dig up some fossils and fly them over so that Zachary and our 500 closest friends could see the bones of real gladiators").

The rich and pretentious in D.C. are no different than the rich and pretentious in Manhattan. Posing for other people is posing for other people. Your preference really depends on whether you prefer black t-shirts and dresses to Lily Pulitzer.

Red State Update on gays and Obama

Jackie and Dunlap on Barack Obama's gay problem.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Vindication for helicopter parents?

This morning's Washington Post features a front page story that discusses a recent survey indicating that college-age students benefit from "helicopter parents" who are intent on making their children's lives their own. Here's a brief excerpt from the survey's findings:

"Compared with their counterparts, children of helicopter parents were more satisfied with every aspect of their college experience, gained more in such areas as writing and critical thinking, and were more likely to talk with faculty and peers about substantive topics," said survey director George D. Kuh, an Indiana University professor.

The study found no evidence that helicopter parenting produces better grades. In fact, students with very-involved parents had lower grades than those whose parents were not so involved, but the authors suggest that "perhaps the reason some parents intervened was to support a student who was having academic difficulties."

What exactly is a helicopter parent? To answer that, let me offer a definition of what a helicopter parent is not:

* A helicopter parent is not someone who knows what courses her child is taking, where she lives on campus, what her roommate's name and background are or any other dimensions of her child's on-campus living and studying arrangement. A helicopter parent is not someone who speaks to his daughter a couple of times a week, offers advice on how to deal with a difficult roommate, consoles her on a boyfriend or girlfriend break-up or helps find a good deal to fly home for Thanksgiving. A helicopter parent is not a mother who wants to know if her daughter is having regular sex and using contraception. A helicopter parent is not a father who wants to know why the university does not have sufficient lighting in dark places, especially a campus path where students walk frequently at night.

What, then, is a helicopter parent? Try this:

*A helicopter parent is one the phone with her son or daughter multiple times a day about nothing in particular. A helicopter parent feels he has a right to call a professor to question a grade, or, even better, question the purpose of a particular assignment a student has been given. A helicopter parent feels the need to call a professor to complain that a grade his daughter received in his class will keep her from getting into Harvard Law School, and then feels the need to email that professor an amortized statement about the potential lost earnings you have created for his daughter. A helicopter parent asks for a recount to make sure that her daughter's unsuccessful run for the student senate wasn't rigged. A helicopter parent believes her son benefits by having her read and proofread his assignments, and refuses to accept a professor's position that collaboration outside the stated rules of the course constitutes academic dishonesty. A helicopter parent feels then need to create an artificial floor beneath his child's life experience so that every scrape, bruise, botched midterm, social setback, bad grade and so on is cushioned by his belief that disappointment and failure happen to other kids, but not his own.

I could go on all day, and usually I would. But in the interests of brevity, there is a difference between a parent who is supportive and encouraging of a child, and one who is intervening, controlling and absolutely determined to live a life through the child rather than help a child forge a path of his or her own. I don't have any close friends that I would define as helicopter parents, although I consider every single one engaged and involved in the lives of their children, whose ages range from 8 to 18. None of them works in higher education, and when I tell them stories from my stranger encounters with students and sometimes academic administrators, their response is usually one of sheer disbelief. For my friends in the professions of law, medicine or some sort of specialized research, their shock at hearing about the adventures of helicopter parents soon gives way to a fear of, "Will they be at my doorstep with their mom and dad five or ten years from now threatening to sue if I don't hire them or because I decide to fire them?" I also have friends in retail or other small businesses who have hired kids they once coached in baseball, basketball or hockey, only to fire them because they have no work ethic -- worse, no internal voice that tells them since someone else is buttering your bread you ought to show up on time and do what you're asked. Their parents have come to them and given them an earful about how their child won't be able to buy a car or go on a ski trip with their friends if they get fired. And they don't see the disservice they are doing their kids. Once a parent erases a boundary between student and professor, employee and employer are not far behind.

In my experience, for every one child who benefits from helicopter parenting as a college student, ten more don't. I have listened to and, if necessary, helped those students manage various crises involving academic and personal matters that stem, in those instances, from parents determined to manage every aspect of their lives. I have had students in my office in tears afraid to tell their parents they don't want to attend law school or get a master's in public administration, or terrified to tell them they simply don't want to do what their parents want them to do. I have had students come to me who don't know how to contest a parking ticket, call Dell for product support or find a reputable mechanic to fix their cars.

Perhaps there is something to controlling every aspect of your kid's life and refastening the umbilical cord as they get older. In the blink of an eye, I have gone from emptying the Diaper Genie to driving my son to mall for a "date" with his new girlfriend. Everyday is an adventure, and parenting is definitely flying without a net (or as more experienced friend puts it, jumping out of an airplane without a parachute). The toughest part of all of this is having to accept the harshest part of child-rearing, and that is from the moment they leave the womb you are preparing your child to leave you and step into the world on his or her own.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Ponchos

I have come to the conclusion that ponchos are the adult of equivalent of Crocs -- one of those bizarre fashion trends that come from nowhere, have nothing to offer, look absolutely hideous . . . yet somehow manage to find a home on far too many women -- and even some men -- because they're, well, just so comfortable.

Ponchos once were once limited to women who carried NPR tote bags, wore soft-soled clogs all year around, except for the hot summer months , when Tevas (and now the even uglier Keens wet/dry shoe) make their annual appearance, favored large, jangly earrings and long, flowing drape-like dresses with a matching scarf.

In other words, women who looked like Maude.

But ponchos are back, and adorning women everywhere. Just this weekend, I saw two couples strolling on G St. near the Verizon Center, each wearing matching ponchos.

Hopefully, this is just a strange, passing phase, and women will throw their ponchos in their personal or family's time capsule, along with other such wonderful items from the 70s, like 8 track tape players, brown shag carpeting, lime green Camaros, knee-high white socks with stripes at the top and their husband's Charlie's Angels poster (or their Bee Gees poster).

Can granny shoes be far behind? Please say no.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Just how hard is it to buy an ice cream cone?

You would think that a customer holding a $10 bill in his hand, clean and shaved, having no known criminal record and, for once, minding his own business, would be able to buy himself and his son an ice cream cone.

You would think.

Then again, perhaps you didn't have the pleasure of attempting to transact business with an Aramark operated concession stand employee at the Washington Capitals game against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Verizon Center Friday night.

Unprompted, I decided to be a good father and buy my son a serving of Dippin' Dots. Inspired by my uncharacteristic generosity on my son's behalf, I decided to buy myself a Soft Serve cone. I thought I could do this in the same line, since the two machines are literally six inches apart, and employees wearing the same color shirt work behind the same counter.

I could not.

Let me add some details. First, I hate lines. I won't stand in them for more than two or three minutes, and that is a stretch. My inspiration to buy ice cream came, in part, because there was NO ONE STANDING IN LINE.

NO ONE. NOT A SINGLE freakin', friggin', fucking, ugly ass, beyond hot, skinny, fat, stupid, brilliant, insane or otherwise noticeable individual was standing in line for Dippin' Dots or Soft Serve. I had seen many a 400 lb. person that night wearing a Flyers jersey, and they weren't even queuing up for an additional couple of hundred calories. What does that tell you?

Second, the second period intermission was winding down to a close, and I didn't want to miss the start of the third period. Time was on my side, or so I thought.

Third, and most critical, the most obnoxious hockey parent in my son's league had just walked up behind me, and I did not want to listen to or smell him, so I had every incentive to buy my ice cream and get the hell out of there.

That did not happen.

I was standing at the counter for about 10 seconds before the lethargic employee who ultimately would not serve me ice cream could saunter over from his comfortable seat a few feet away from where I was waiting, money in hand, to buy ice cream. He did not ask if he could help me. He did not ask me how I was doing. He did not ask me my favorite color or if I enjoyed such activities as starting forest fires or removing "Do Not Enter" signs from parking lots or residential streets. He did not ask me anything.

Instead, he just stared, as if the Dippin' Dots stand was the OK Corral, and he was waiting for me to make the first draw. I decided to break the ice.

"Hello," I said. "I'd like a cup of Dippin' Dots with rainbow sprinkles and one swirl ice cream, please."

The employee looked at me as if I had just asked him for the square root of 482 and directions to Toledo, Ohio using only the back roads -- at the same time.

He didn't get me my Dippin' Dots order or my Soft Serve. Instead, he conferenced with his co-worker, who, by the deference given to him, held a managerial position of some sort.

"Uh, we can't do that," he responded. "I can serve you Dippin' Dots, but you'll have to go in the other line for Soft Serve."

"What line? There is no other line. I'm it (ignoring the above-referenced individual behind me)."

"You'll have to get in the other line. That's our policy."

"Your policy is not to trade $10 for a Dippin' Dots and a Soft Serve when there is no one else in front of me or in this other line that doesn't really exist?

"You'll have to get in the other line. That's our policy." (NOTE: That is not a typo. He really said the exact same thing twice.

"But there is no other line. Why can't you just save us all some trouble and get me both things. I could have been done and gone by now if you had worked with me rather than against me."

"You'll have to get in the other line. That's our policy." (NOTE: Yes, he said the exact same thing a third time.)

I gave up. "I tell you what. I'm not going to spend $10 on ice cream here. When you think about it, spending that much on ice cream is rather stupid, don't you think?"

Blank stare. Glassy eyes. Blank stare. Glassy eyes . . .

"Don't you think?" I asked.

"You'll have to get in the other line. That's our policy." (NOTE: Yes, a grand slam.)

As tempted as I was to get in the Soft Serve line and place the same order just to see what he would say, I decided to cash it in and return to my seat, sans Dippin' Dots or Soft Serve. I did, however, remember to stop at another concession stand for a cup of water so that I could take my anti-schizophrenia medication.

Just kidding!

In line in front of me was a man who obviously was not interested in ice cream. He ordered a Budweiser and a Bud Light, a request that required the concessionaire to use two cups and two separate taps. And guess what her response was?

To tell the customer that she couldn't serve him two separate beers in one line?

No, no, no!

"All right, sir. That will be $14."

Just like that. Wow. Who says customer service is dead?

Friday, November 02, 2007

What would Jesus veto?

The Senate just passed another version of the State Children Health Insurance Program, 64-30, setting up an opportunity for The Decider to veto this popular and effective program that provides health insurance coverage to poor children. The House passed a similar bill three days ago, 265-142.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino announced that Congress should get back to work on a real bill that "helps poor children" but doesn't raise taxes.

Yeah, yeah . . . tell YOUR boss to get to work and announce a supplemental tax to fund the Iraq war, and level with the American public that you cannot fund a large scale war effort over an extended period without raising revenue.

The Petulant Decider is determined to ride this one out, although it's not clear why his opposition to a program that is supported by Republican senators like Iowa's Charles Grassley is so entrenched. SCHIP is a program that assists approximately six million children, and one would think that the president, as a man of God, would extend his commitment to the "culture of life" to include poor children who need coverage for health care. Not all. His concern for children already born doesn't match his concern for stem cells, embryos and fetuses. His jingoism and tough talk also embrace capital punishment, loose restrictions on guns and, of course, a casual attitude towards the death and destruction caused by war seems at odds with message of peace preached by Jesus and his admonishment that the poor must receive food, shelter, clothing and care when sick.

President Bush has never shied away from admitting that his personal faith, including his relationship with Jesus Christ, informs his attitudes towards various public policies -- a "What Would Jesus Do? (W.W.J.D.)" approach to politics.

In the case of SCHIP, I wonder if The Decider also gives any thought to what would jesus veto (W.W.J.V.)?