Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

A peaceful and joyful Christmas to all. See you on January 2nd.

Red State Update celebrates Christmas

Jackie and Dunlap offer Yuletide greetings -- with Mike Gravel.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Democratic delusions

For me, reading the Outlook section of the Washington Post makes about as much sense as a bug flying into one of those outdoor blue lights. I know, like the bug, I am flying into a certain death; but the pull of a certain topic, like the beautiful glow of the blue light, often proves too much to resist. Today's blue light in the Post is an article by John Judis and Rudy Teixeira, "Get Ready for a Democratic Era." Above the headline is a tag that reads, "Heading Left." Since I have my doubts about whether a Democrat will win the White House in 2008, and whether Congress -- even a non-veto proof one -- will remain in Democratic hands, I read the Judis and Teixeira article in hopes that my pessimism would prove wrong and that I could embrace what the authors believe is a certain dissolution of Republican power in presidential politics.


Judis and Teixeira's belief that the Democrats are poised for a major victory at the polls comes down to this:

1. Voters never really bought into the Republican social agenda, and their contempt for President Bush, reflected in his low popularity rating, has hardened this opposition.
2. The same voters who favor Democratic positions on social policy also support the pro-environment, pro-education position of the major Democratic candidates as well.
3. Americans are really turned off by Bush foreign policy, especially the Iraq war, and want a president who will "restore" America's place in the world as a country that lives up to its rhetoric on the rule of law, human rights and social compassion (putting aside, for a moment, that the image of the United States as a righteous and noble country has always been one that Americans have embraced much more so than the rest of the world, including our allies).
4. The Electoral College coalition that has sustained the Republicans in every presidential election since 1980, with the exception of 1992 and 1996, is on the verge of collapse. Women, minorities and professional-managerial types have little interest in the Republican vision for America.

If American voters cast their ballots based on what they tell pollsters, then Democrats would have a lock on Congress and the presidency. Americans who favor abortion rights, oppose or don't care about school prayer and other forms of religious piety in politics or policy, like clean air and water, carry little about intervening in the civil wars of other countries, want some meaningful change in the way we deliver health care and believe that higher education should not bankrupt middle-class families have constituted a majority for some time now. For the Democrats, the problem has never been the core of their ideas. Their problem is the truly awful candidates they nominate for president and their staggering inability to communicate with the public.

Here's a number that Judis and Teixeira don't mention: the last Democratic president to win a majority of the presidential popular vote was . . .

Jimmy Carter, who did it once, in 1976. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson beat Arizona congressman Barry Goldwater by carrying 61% of the popular vote and 44 states, losing only Arizona and five Deep Southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina). In 1976, Carter barely beat Gerald Ford, the Republican incumbent, with 50.8% of the popular vote. Sixteen years later, in 1992, Bill Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote in a three-way race (43%) and four years later won re-election with 49% of the popular vote, still a plurality, in a three-way race. Extra points if you can identify the third party candidate in those two elections and the Republican loser in 1996. Hillary Clinton can invoke all the nostalgia she wants about her husband's presidency, and what a happier and better place the country was because of his time in office. The fact remains that American voters never truly embraced Bill and/or Hillary Clinton while they were in office. Relative peace and prosperity aside, President Clinton could not withstand a Republican assault on his presidency in 1994, and again in 1998 when he was impeached over lying about a blow job from a White House intern. Think about this for a moment: Americans, by and large, agreed with Clinton's domestic and foreign policies for the majority of his time in office. Americans had far less enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan's domestic and foreign policies during his two terms in office. But I am willing to believe that no Congress would have mounted a successful impeachment drive against President Reagan had he been caught in the same position as Clinton was with Monica Lewinsky. Remember, Reagan did not govern with a Republican majority in both houses for his entire eight years in office.

Al Gore could not beat George W. Bush despite a "successful" two-term Democratic presidency. John Kerry could not beat W in 2004 despite a disastrous turn in Iraq, a bumbling economy, widespread discontent with the religious fervor that accounted for so much of Bush's approach to policymaking and a dramatic drop in support for the president personally. Not only did Americans find Bushworld less than they imagined the first time, they stopped liking him as much. But they liked John Kerry far less. On paper and in debates, Americans liked what they heard from Kerry more than Bush. Tell them it was Kerry and not Bush and suddenly they didn't like what they heard nearly as much.

I don't believe Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. I named her the Hillary-tanic earlier in the year and nothing has changed to alter my opinion that her candidacy was doomed from the start, and will amount to the most expensive pre-general election failure in the history of American presidential politics. Almost sixteen years after Americans met her on "60 Minutes" defending her husband against the true and not-so-true charges leveled against him on matters ranging from his penchant for bimbos to financial misdeeds, Hillary Clinton is still working to get people to like her. Yes, she's smart. Yes, she's tough and calculating. Yes, she can take a punch and throw one. But far many more people dislike her than should at this point in her career as a public figure. So New York voters like her. So what? The Democrats don't need to win New York again; they need to make inroads on the electoral map in the Midwest, the Rocky interior states and the South. Hillary Clinton is not going to do that.

So who is? The best of the lot is Barack Obama. He's smart, charismatic, mature -- he should be elected for answering, "Of course I inhaled. That was the whole point," when he was asked the requisite "Have you ever smoked marijuana?" question -- and a quick study. Is he "ready" for the presidency? Compared to whom? W? Ronald Reagan? Bill Clinton? Ross Perot? Mitt Romney? Rudy Giuliani? Mike Hukabee? Obama is as ready as any of them, if not more. If he were not, then you wouldn't see Clinton's campaign going after him like it has in the last six weeks or so.

Suppose Barack Obama is nominated. He has a funny last name, a black father, admitted youthful indulgence in illegal drugs and a life of experience that makes the righteous Christian conservatives drool with anticipation. Can he be the one to make inroads into the Republican hold on the electoral college? Whether he can or not, he has a much better chance than Hillary Clinton, whose high negatives and inability to connect on a human level with so many voters will not change between now and the November 2008 election.

For better or worse, all the survey results and opinion polls cannot capture the mysterious "it" factor in American presidential voting. I wish I could believe that Iraq will be a noose around the Republicans' neck; but I don't think so. Too many Americans are unconnected to this war, and those that are will not vote for a presidential candidate who talks negotiation and compromise, which they associate with "weakness" (see Kerry, John. 2004 Election). Americans don't want to pay more taxes either. They want their big cars and big houses and big TVs and big stomachs and big portions and big shoes and everything else than screams excess. They want it all and don't want to pay for anything. And, despite all the talk of the mythological American character, ours is a nation that still consumed with consuming. Given the choice between financing a plasma television and investing in a universal health care system, Americans will take the television. They can watch it in bed while home from work -- sick.

Deciphering who will win or lose a presidential election is not an eHarmony-type matchmaking process. Lining up our likes and dislikes with presidential candidates does not always mean that we will like what the model chooses. Sometimes opposites attract; sometimes people with little in common other than a certain chemistry that makes them click prosper for decades, while the perfect couple -- the one with everything in common -- fall apart after days, a few months or a couple of years. What Americans tell their pulse takers they want and what they end up choosing are, in many cases, very different things. We all like to think that, in the event of a terrible fire or flood, we'd race right back in the house or the building to save that beloved cat, elderly neighbor or favorite possession. But once that building catches on fire all bets are off. Our reasoning process changes completely, and we become survivalists. So much will change between now and the November election, yes. The candidates running will not, however. They are who they are, and the one Americans choose will not be the one that matches their eHarmony profile. It will be the one that wins their heart.

Finally, some sense on the steroids issue

Mike Wise of the Washington Post writes the best commentary I have seen so far about the Mitchell report on steroids in baseball. Read it here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Zeebop in the new year

As weird as it sounds, 2008 is just a little over a week away, and the good news is that Zeebop will enter the new year with a groove and a swing in our step.

On January 19th, we'll be at Maggiano's in Friendship Heights on Wisconsin Ave. in Northwest Washington. Our set will run from 7-10.30 p.m.

Beginning February 11th, and running for four consecutive Mondays into March, we'll be playing at La Ferme in Chevy Chase, just off Brookeville Rd., between Western Avenue and East-West Highway. Our sets will run from 6.30-9.30. La Ferme is one of the area's oldest and most highly regarded French restaurants. For years, La Ferme has featured jazz every week and a fortunate turn of events has opened the door for us to play there.

We should have some news on some club dates in downtown and in the greater Bethesda area soon. Stay tuned.

For more information about Zeebop and our music, please visit us on the web by clicking here.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Extra! extra! Mukasey to advocate Bush policies on torture, eavesdropping and everything else!

Six weeks ago, the Washington Post endorsed the nomination of former federal judge Michael Mukasey to replace Alberto Gonzales as attorney general. As the Post always does, it asked "partisans" -- translation: liberals -- to put their objections aside and get behind a decision, in this case a nominee who does not believe that torture, as practiced by United States interrogators working for the C.I.A. or the Department of Defense, is illegal. The Post congratulated Democrats Diane Feinstein and Charles Schumer, both of whom were (and are) on record as opposing torture, for having the "moral fortitude to defy party politics and take a stand on principle." Feinstein and Schumer recognized what the Post did: Mukasey was a principled man who would work hard to restore the Department of Justice's tattered image under Gonzales, whose Stepin' Fechit act for President Bush had finally driven Democrats, with Republican support, to push for his ouster. Schumer said that "Judge Mukasey . . . was not my ideal choice . . . [but he] is far better than anyone could expect from this administration."

Congratulate yourselves, Senators Feinstein and Schumer and, above all, the enlightened, ever sensible "moderates" of the Washington Post editorial board, for giving the Bush administration an early Christmas present. Yesterday, speaking before the American Bar Association, Mukasey said that senators and representatives opposed to the president's request to continue his warrantless surveillance program were siding with the terrorists. He also said that the Department of Justice has no plans to share information with Congress about its "investigation" into the C.I.A.'s destruction of the two tapes in which interrogators were allegedly shown using techniques, including "waterboarding," considered torture by the Army Field Manual. Mukasey has also shown no interest in addressing the torture issue by calling on Congress to draft legislation specifically outlawing the practice.

Mark Filip, a federal judge currently going through the Senate confirmation process to serve as deputy attorney general, the No. 2 position in the Justice Department, offered the same garbled response to the "waterboarding" question as Mukasey did when he sitting before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He finds it abhorrent, horrible, blah, blah, blah . . . respect the process, legal questions, not sure yet . . . blah, blah, blah . . . acidic foods hurt my stomach, blue is a soothing color . . . blah, blah, blah . . . can't comment until the process of review runs its course.

In other words, I'm not gonna answer your question, and if you dare reject my nomination President Bush will accuse you of aiding terrorists, and you'll suffer for it at the polls because Mr. 33% Approval Rating still runs this country.

So Mukasey turned out not to be the Great White Hope that all those sensible centrists who care about the country said he would be. He's going to tow the line and stand in the way of anyone who wants to encroach the president's powers for the next 13 months. He's going to vacillate on the torture question, not offer to cooperate with Congress when it wants information about executive branch misbehavior and pretty much serve the president exactly as the men around Bush knew he would when they chose Mukasey to succeed Gonzales. They knew that the Democrats would buckle, that the Washington Post would fall over itself to embrace someone with the right academic and professional pedigree, just as it always does, and that nothing would change in substance between now and January 20th, 2009.

Wow . . . so Mukasey wasn't really telling the truth about his intentions during his confirmation hearing . . . so Bush picked him because he would represent the administration's insane conception of executive power and tip-toe around the torture issue . . . so Barry Bonds wasn't the only major league baseball player juicing during the 1990s and early 2000s . . . so Jamie Lynn Spears just couldn't say no despite all that high-quality, federally-funded, abstinence-only sex education . . . so white teen-age girls get pregnant, too . . . so all this shit happens over and over again . . .

. . . but, with only 6 shopping days left until Christmas, who's paying attention?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

And Joe said, "are you kidding? Of course it's so."

So, now that the nation has had a chance to digest the contents of George Mitchell's report on steroids and other banned drugs in Major League Baseball, what will be the upshot of all this?

Very little, I predict. Mitchell recommended no punishment for any of the 90 + individuals identified in his report as involved with steroids and HGH (Human Growth Hormone). I'm not sure what charges are available to federal prosecutors -- or anyone else -- against players who admitted doing something that was illegal in their sport but not illegal under federal law. Barry Bonds was indicted for lying to a grand jury and obstructing an investigation into Victor Conte and his drug lab, BALCO, not for using steroids. Had Bonds gotten his drugs somewhere else, say from a New York Mets clubhouse attendant or a personal trainer employed by several New York Yankees, he never would have become the target he did. Bud Selig, the commissioner of MLB, is saying with a straight face that he will get to the bottom of all this and work with the players' union to establish some sort of legitimate drug testing policy. To me, Mitchell's report makes Selig looks far worse than any of the players identified. Selig presided over MLB at the height of the "steroid" era, and was just as complicit in allowing Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and perhaps Roger Clemens to mount their drug-assisted assault on baseball's most hallowed records. Selig should have resigned the moment the report was released, apologized to baseball fans, not to mention Hank Aaron and Roger Maris, for allowing such a farcical era to ensue. As for the players, they did what players have always done at the most competitive levels of professional and amateur sports -- looked for ways to cheat without getting caught. I just can't believe Americans are so naive as to think that steroids in baseball are the first encounter with drug-fueled cheating in our great game. Go buy a copy of Jim Bouton's Ball Four, first published in 1970. Bouton, a former major league pitcher who bounced around baseball for about a dozen years, pulled the curtain back on professional athletes for their worshipers to see and was vilified for it. Bouton wrote about drug use, alcohol dependency, philandering, shady business practices and everything else that was common to the baseball culture. "Greenies," or amphetemines, were the drug of choice for most major leaguers (and, according to some accounts of drug use in sports, still the preferred drug today) back then, and Bouton wrote about just how dependent players were on their pills to keep them going through the drudgery of travel and the fatigue of playing almost everyday. He also blew open another long-standing myth about professional sports -- that the men who played these games were grateful to get paid anything for doing something they loved. They played because they couldn't really do anything else, and they played because they got paid. If the players didn't care about the money, they wouldn't have enlisted Marvin Miller to fight for free agency.

Punching a hole in another Hollywood-Madison Avenue myth about the American character is too easy, especially when it involves the high-horse of sports. Taking steroids is probably a bad thing, especially in such concentrated doses. But the athletes who took them, and still might be taking other substances to "enhance" their performance, are doing so because their fans want to see them shatter records and perform superhuman feats. They understand how short their window of opportunity is to make almost $2 million a year as an average major league baseball player, and so they're willing to do what they have to do to get the competitive edge. Drug and alcohol use has long inspired men and women in the arts, music, finance, higher education, law, politics . . . well, virtually everything. Is anyone prepared to take back Charlie Parker's most brilliant playing because he used heroin, cocaine, abused alcohol and neglected his family, dying at 34 with a liver the doctor said resembled a man's twice his age? Diminish the Beatles post-1966 recordings because they smoked a lot of pot and occasionally used L.S.D.? And just what the hell was Steve Jobs doing all those nights to stay awake in the garage when the foundation of Apple was under construction? How many thousands of people have used drugs to ease their pain, "inspire" their creativity, spark their energy and who knows what else in their personal and professional lives? When does it matter and when does it not?

I'm more sure about something else -- leave race out of the discussion on steroids and baseball. Sally Jenkins, the fine sports columnist for the Washington Post -- the paper's best, actually -- wrote a column Tuesday suggesting that a double standard exists in how the press, the public and law enforcement treats white and black athletes suspected of drug use. The eagerness of the Feds to prosecute Barry Bonds and Marion Jones (another BALCO client), while demonstrating less enthusiasm for the Roger Clemens and Brian Roberts of the world, is rooted in race, says Jenkins.

I just can't get behind this argument, and I'm usually one to see these things, even though I am white. Barry Bonds and Marion Jones got caught in the middle of the BALCO prosecution. Jones confessed while Bonds has not. Bonds is smart for playing the race card. I think he's guilty, and he's resorted to the best possible smoke screen to distract an investigation based on fact. I feel like I'm listening to someone Jewish (which I am) retreat to accusations of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of bad behavior by a high-profile Jewish figure or some transgression by Israel. It's tacky and tasteless, but, when you're ass is on the line, you do what you have to do.

Pete Rose, who deserves the disgrace into which his gambling took him, is white. So is Lance Armstrong, who fended off accusations for his seven years at the top of the cycling world because he was a great American athlete in a sport dominated by Europeans. Mark McGwire, who will probably never enter the baseball Hall of Fame, is also white. So is Bill Clinton. So is Hillary Clinton. Thinking about it a bit, I wonder if baseball (and the government) has spent more money looking into Barry Bonds's alleged misdeeds than Pete Rose? Rose, like Bonds, spent years insisting he had never done anything until one day he admitted that he done everything his accusers had said.

And what about Michael Jordan, who "retired" in the 1993 because he said he had lost his desire to play basketball? That same year, prior to his retirement announcement, Jordan's high-stakes gambling activities became public. Speculation about his losses ranged from the high five figures to the millions. And there was some mumbling that he might have bet on basketball while still playing the game. A year before the NBA first took notice of Jordan's gambling, one of his "associates" was found murdered, with records of checks that had been written to him for amounts that were identical to what Jordan owed various people. Of course, Jordan managed his public persona expertly, coming across to the public as a nice guy who just happened to play basketball better than anybody in the world. He became perhaps the first professional athlete to "brand" himself so successfully, launching, of course, his shoe line and everything to come after it. The NBA's most valuable economic commodity had gotten himself into "Sopranos-style" trouble, with every passing story and "investigation" revealing sleazier and sleazier characters and arrangements, and the amounts of money allegedly being gambled and lost getting higher and higher. By his first "retirement" Jordan was making $40 million a year in endorsements alone from Nike, Chevrolet and McDonalds, and had become the face of the NBA, which had found a savior for the post-Bird, post-Magic years. So, was Jordan's "retirement" a way for Jordan to settle his debts and straighten himself out at minimal exposure to himself and the league? Why would someone who had just led the NBA-stocked "Dream Team" to an Olympic gold medal in 1992 "retire" at the first of his many athletic peaks, especially when he was superb, injury-free physical condition? Did baseball ever cover for Rose the way that the NBA covered for Jordan?

Professional sports are ruthless enterprises, a whole step above the "amateur" leagues and organizations that serve as the training grounds for the lucky few who step into the light and make their millions. Had George Mitchell taken his investigators to Wall Street, K St., Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the L.A. music industry or any other concentrated area where ambitious people are out to make their fame and fortune he would have found enough illicit drugs, unsavory characters lurking about and money-making scams and double-dealing to make MLB look like an entry-level recreational little league. Long before there was Victor Conte, Jim Bouton and Pete Rose, there was Arnold Rothstein (the alleged mastermind behind the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal), the Wrigley family and countless others who rigged sports to their advantage and openly procured drugs to make the players "perform" better. Heroes, sports heroes anyway, fall hard. Maybe the lesson of all this will be for people to rethink the value we place on professional athletes and their achievements.

. . . until A-Rod's next multi-zillion dollar contract for playing baseball.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More on the God wars

Over the last two years or so, a number of books have appeared by fairly high-brow writers and academics, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, that have challenged religious orthodoxy. These are not books merely critical of radical Islam, the Christian Right in the United States, the Orthodox settler movement in Israel or any other particular politically engaged religious movement. They take issue with religion as a belief system, and conclude that religion is nothing more than a dangerous -- very dangerous -- fairy tale for adults. I have read the books by Dawkins, Harris and Dennett, and Hitchens' book I've read in bits and pieces on Slate and other sites on the Internet. None of the authors pulls punches. They all believe that religion does far more harm than good in the world, and simply cannot fathom why people continue to place faith and believe in doctrines, stories, fables and rules that ask for unconditional acceptance and, as a matter of presupposition, refuse to subject themselves to empirical examination or the forces of reason. Dawkins and Hitchens are unapologetically harsh in their characterization of religion and its followers, while Harris and Dennett are less so, but still equally mystified by why anyone continues to take religion seriously. Personally, I feel the world would be a lot better off without the suffocating force of religion on so many aspects of our culture, social arrangements and politics, and that isn't even getting into the bizarre relationship between religion and human sexuality. Americans, for the most part, wince at the idea of the genital mutilation of young girls commonly practiced in 28 African countries and several in Asia and the Middle East. The justification given by these regimes for such a vulgar practice -- one that most Americans find repulsive -- is rooted in religion and culture. The purpose, of course, is to deny young girls their sexuality, and simply make them vassals for reproduction and the sexual needs of men. Did you know, however, that the only form of sex education funded by the United States government is abstinence education? That's right. Here we are in 2007, and Congress, at the president's behest, does not allocate money for sex education beyond "just say no." This is not public policy based on the social and natural sciences. This is public policy rooted in a religious fantasy that denies the power of human sexuality.

Yet, I do understand the appeal of religion for many people. Humans are social animals, and we all have a need for companionship, community, support and moral direction. If religion provides those essential human needs for individuals, then fine. I get the relationship between ethnicity and religion. I am Jewish but not at all religious. My atheism is not something I discovered only recently or in my early adulthood; it is, rather, a lifelong position. I have never believed in God, not even when the Braves won the World Series in 1995, when I won front row seats to see Yes in 1979 or after I learned about slavery, the Holocaust, religious slaughter and the Trail of Tears or after King and Kennedy were shot months apart from each other before I was eight years old. An all-knowing, intervening, metaphysical force ordering the universe never made sense to me. The idea that God created the world and then endowed humans with the capacities of reason and deliberation to run it never made sense to me. I was never a good enough science student to understand the Big Bang theory or the intricacies of Darwinian evolution. But the idea that something called "God" did all this never registered. I understand the need for people to believe there is something bigger out there sorting out the human condition. I understand the longing that many individuals have for some spiritual undercurrent to give meaning to the daily tasks of life focused on survival. I understand why some people pray for a "miracle" when their own life or that of a loved one is at stake. Who really wants to accept that we are fundamentally on our own in this world, supported only by people who we hope share the qualities of compassion, love and justice that most people want to believe describe themselves as well as others?

American politics has so sullied religion -- and never more so than right now -- that whatever patience I have had for the "good" side of religion, the side that discourages war and believes in universal health care, the side that believes we should fund children's health programs, pre-natal care and support women who face difficult reproductive choices or the side that wants to bridge the racial, ethnic and cultural divides in this country, is gone. So I was surprised when I actually decided to read reviews of two new books on our contemporary God wars in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review. John DiIulio, a former adviser to President Bush who helped him design and promote the "faith-based" initiatives that were such an important part of his 2000 presidential campaign and pre 9.11 focus, has just written "A Godly Republic: A Centrist Blueprint for America's Faith-Based Future," a book that extols the virtues of allowing churches, synagogues and other religious bodies to receive government funding to supplement their social missions. DiIulio made headlines a few years back when he quit the Bush White House, disgusted by the disconnect between the religious rhetoric coming from administration officials and the paltry interest they showed in getting various programs funded and off the ground. Forget the complete lack of empirical data that showed religion did a better job of delivering social services than secular providers. I disagreed then with the whole idea that funding religious social services was constitutional. If providing direct funding for churches to rehabilitate alcohol and drug addicts through religiously-based programs doesn't violate the Establishment Clause, then nothing does. But the bulletproof protection that religion enjoys from public criticism prevented any meaningful discussion of the constitutional dimension of the "faith-based" initiatives. DiIulio discovered that the Bush people didn't care much about constitutional niceties or whether these programs would even work. They simply wanted to pay off an important constituency in the Republican party -- conservative Christians who wanted federal dollars to underwrite their programs and Catholics that the Republicans were attempting to woo from the Democrats. There really wasn't much more to it than that, as another key adviser, David Kuo, from the early days of the Bush White House would later write in his memoir on his experience trying promote "faith-based" programs. DiIulio is apparently still animated by the belief that religion can and should play a key role in addressing social policy concerns, even though, as he acknowledges, there is no evidence that it does the job very well. Why then should it partner with federal, state and local government?

Charles Taylor, a philosophy professor at McGill University in Montreal, has a different concern, apparently, in "A Secular Age." Taylor believes our "modern" preoccupation with science, democracy and the forces of reason to order an unruly world have pushed religion to the sidelines. All I can conclude is that Taylor needs to take a little closer look at life, particularly political life, south of the 49th parallel. Taylor is certainly free to believe that his own life lacks meaning without God, but he shouldn't punish the rest of us who feel that God's followers need to dial it back in American public life. Americans currently devote an wildly disproportionate share of time to debating the moral component of abortion, same-sex marriage, something bizarrely called "homosexual" conduct," medical marijuana use and many more issues that operate at the margins of daily life, while feigning little concern for corrupt lending practices, Manichean trade agreements and business practices, or our "valued" relationships with such democratic nations as China, a country that compels abortion to limit family size and enthusiastically embraces child labor and Saudi Arabia, a country that punishes women who fall victim to sexual assault and rape by lashing them in public. But China's children make cool stuff for our children and the Saudis keep our Range Rovers and Hummers zipping back and forth to the mall. So why get bogged down in the details? Taylor believes that, first, we need more religion -- the right kind, of course, which is socially and politically repressive -- and, second, "secularists" need to stop picking on religion.

Hmmmm . . . I think religion has the upper hand on the "secularists" right now. Perhaps Taylor should take a little bit closer look at the "I Love Jesus" contest being waged right now among the presidential candidates in both parties.

Or he might want to send the Texas Education Agency a big, colorful FTD bouquet for firing the state's head science curriculum adviser, Christine Comer, two weeks ago after she committed the unspeakable offense of forwarding an announcement about a local lecture being given by a philosophy professor who testified against teaching "creationism" in Delaware public schools last year. Taylor should feel even better about yesterday's news coming out of Texas, namely that a state advisory group has approved a request by a "creation college" for state funding to teach the absolutely idiotic notion that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit created the world in six days, and that all mankind descends from Adam and Eve. This "college," the Institute for Creation Research in Dallas, then wants to send its graduates into the Texas public schools so that students can get "both sides" of the "various theories" explaining the origins of mankind.

There are no "both sides" to this issue. "Creationism" is simply fabrication and distorted belief, a desperate effort to teach religion to the masses. And there's a place for that, just like there was a place for people who believed that the Walrus was Paul or that he was just plain dead. Or that the astronauts never really went to the moon, that space aliens are being held somewhere in Roswell, New Mexico or that George W. Bush really won the 2000 election without cheating.

God can't favor capital punishment and support its opposition. God can't support reproductive choice for women and compel them to have children against their will, even if they were raped. God can't oppose war and support torture. God can't look kindly on a National League that plays real baseball and an American League that uses the designated hitter. Only people can make these choices. And sooner or later people are going to have to take responsibility for the God they created, and not the other way around.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Red State Update analyzes the Dems in Iowa

See what Jackie and Dunlap have to say about the Democrats final pre-caucus debate in Iowa.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Led Zeppelin

For white guys my age who grew up in the suburbs (although where I lived in Atlanta would now be considered "in town") and logged some serious time on plaid cloth couches in basements decorated with black light posters featuring running water, green ecology peace signs and not-drawn-to-scale depictions of the constellations, including the planets, Led Zeppelin was a crucial part of our teen-age curriculum. Within my circle of friends who were serious about music, I was the least inclined towards hard rock, or what later became known as heavy metal. Like everyone, I started with the Beatles, gravitated to Motown, then discovered English progressive bands like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, where I remained anchored until I got into jazz towards the end of high school and the beginning of college. Friends of mine with older brothers tried to get me into Jimi Hendrix. I found his approach to guitar playing too raw and blues drenched for me. Guitar players I liked were much closer to jazz, such as Steve Howe of Yes. Naturally, I didn't realize any of this at the time, and later came to appreciate Hendrix for the earth-shattering influence he had on musicians from every corner of the musical world. My own preferences were for lyricism and melody in music, coupled with harmonic variation. That's what pulled me to the lavish, experimental approaches of Yes and early Genesis, and later to jazz.

The exception were Led Zeppelin and later the Who. I think the first Zep song I ever heard was "Living Loving Maid." It was definitely harder and more earthier than any of the music I was listening to then; but there was something different about it that just sounded really great. Robert Plant's voice and Jimmy Page's guitar playing are the immediate stand outs for any newcomer to Zep. But John Bonham had the coolest drum sound of any rock drummer since Ringo -- a great groove, full, complex yet simple and absolutely dead-on. Zeppelin became my venture into hard rock. I was never interested in any of the other hard rock musicians of the era -- no Kiss, Ted Nugent, Robin Trower, Mahogany Rush, Black Sabbath or Aerosmith for me. None of those bands could have ever made a record like Led Zeppelin IV or Physical Graffiti because they didn't have the talent, the musicianship or sense of sophistication that Zeppelin did.

I got to see Led Zeppelin in its prime, the 1977 tour that produced the live recording, "The Song Remains the Same." A movie would later be released by the same name, and I cannot even begin to count the number of times my friends and I did a midnight double feature of that movie and "Yessongs," a shortened version of Yes's triple-live album of the same name. Naturally, we "prepared" for the movies by hanging out in my friend Paul D'Englere's basement, which was also equipped with a pool table. In the event that any of us felt like getting up, the pool table was there for some light gambling. I even still have my Zep concert t-shirt from that tour, a shirt that you can now buy at Target for $12. It's the black one with the swan on the front.

Last week, Zeppelin reunited for its first proper concert since John Bonham died in 1980. They had gotten together a few times before, and Plant and Page had toured together briefly during the 90s. But this tour added John Paul Jones, the original bassist and keyboard player, and Jason Bonham, "Bonzo's" son, who has been a studious guardian of his father's legacy. I have to admit there was something jarring about picking up the New York Times Arts and Culture section and seeing a full, above-the-fold story on the Zeppelin show. The review was positively glowing, and it appears from all the reviews I've read that the band hasn't lost much. The musicianship is still very much intact, and when you are dealing with a catalog like that the songs will still sound great provided you can play them. Certain bands like Journey and Styx strike a chord of dread in me every time I hear that they are still performing. Who would admit to seeing those bands then, much less now? In high school, I threatened to drop one of my best friends because he bought "The Grand Illusion" by Styx until he reminded me that he had a car and if I wanted to go anywhere I'd have to find another friend who might possibly have an America or Jackson Browne album in their collection. Zeppelin, though, was another matter entirely. Page, Plant, Jones and the departed John Bonham deserve all the accolades written about them, proving that it's not always a bad idea for the song to remain the same.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Running addiction

In March 2005, I went out for a routine 4 mile run. I took about three strides, not even making it as far as my across-the-street neighbor's house when KABOOM! . . . my left knee just exploded, ricocheting pain all up and down my left leg, pain that I had never, ever experienced so acutely. Twelve years before, I had arthroscopic surgery on my right knee to repair some cartilage damage that had been an on-again, off-again source of aggravation since my first year in graduate school. That knee problem had just degenerated into a chronic condition that kept me from running for about two months. Three weeks after my surgery in October 1993, I returned to running, although never to return to the glory years that had culminated in a 2.53.46 marathon time the October before.

The second knee surgery came and went three weeks after my initial injury. But something curious happened after that -- I completely lost my desire to run. For some time, I hadn't particularly enjoyed my runs. I did them, but they felt like going to a job I didn't like, something I hadn't experienced since my four days as a dishwasher for Gino's Pizza when I was 15 years old. I couldn't wait to get back on the ice to play hockey. I was excited to start playing my drums again (as a left-handed drummer, I need my left foot to play the kick drum) and I even thought about playing golf again, a once regular enterprise that had, since my daughter's birth in 1999, been relegated to an occasional bucket of balls at the practice range.

About a month after my surgery, I bought a bike, and started biking on a semi-regular basis. I didn't (and haven't) turned into one of those crazy 100 mile-on-the-weekend cyclists. My bike rides are pretty much limited to commuting back and forth to campus, errands in downtown Bethesda and small trips in my neighborhood. For almost 2 1/2 years, I didn't run, except to illustrate drills for my son's baseball team. I was fearful that I would get hurt again, yes. But I really had just burned out after almost 30 years of running. There were peaks and valleys in my training -- lots of running my junior and senior year in high school, summers between college but less steady during the academic year, serious running in graduate school, including my first marathon, consistent throughout my twenties and into my early thirties, then a precipitous drop-off in my late 30s and early 40s. Even when I would take a break, usually never more than a week or two, I knew I would always go back.

So not to run from March 2005 until late June 2007 was a big deal. I'm not sure what made me lace of my running shoes on that random mid-week day and see if I could still pull it off. The weather was hot and humid as hell, but I had always liked running in that weather because, growing up in Atlanta, that was all I knew. I stretched a little bit -- although I never really stretched when I was a more competitive runner -- and took off to run a route I knew was no more than 2.5 miles. I didn't hurry, I didn't look at my watch because I didn't wear one, I didn't think about what I had to do at home or work . . . I just ran.

And it felt great.

No matter what other sport you play with a high aerobic component, there is nothing like the first sweat you break from a good run. Hockey is the only sport I have ever played where I feel as, and sometimes more, exhausted as running. Hockey, though, is anaerobic. For 45 seconds to 90 seconds, you go all out, take a two minute rest, and then get back out there. Running allows you to settle into a groove, tweak it a bit, and just relax -- sort of like playing a good blues or rock rhythm. Just keep it simple and let the space guide you.

So since that June day I have been running on a regular basis. Not a lot -- just three miles or so three times a week. And, no, like an idiot, I have not replaced biking or anything else with running. I've just added it to the list. Perhaps it's no wonder that, for someone who is supposed to be in such good shape, I feel tired more than I should.

Running now is much different for me than it once was. I have a nice route I take. I'm in no hurry to finish. I bring my iPod along so I can listen to music I always thought would be nice running accompaniment. I'm not "training" for anything or trying to hit target mileage points or break certain times. I'm not cataloging my running in a diary to make sure I am meeting my goals or keeping up with previous years. I don't have any desire to race, although I did get to run with my nine year-old teenage daughter in a 5K race that was the season-ending celebration for a running program she participated in this fall called, "Girls on the Run." I am running now because it feels good. Even though the weather this morning was cold and rainy, I put my stuff on and went out anyway, knowing that I was simply out to enjoy the run for what it was . . . .

. . . until I saw I guy about three phone poles in front of me. Do I let it go or do I draft him? If I do draft him, do I pass him on the hill to get in his head or just let him hear the footsteps, the blow past him on the downhill? Or do I do nothing at all and just enjoy the run? Remember, the competitive days are behind me.

Or they were until I caught and passed him. Half a mile later, I turned around and he was out of sight.

Now I could relax and enjoy the run.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A disappointed president scolds baseball . . . without irony

I sometimes tell my friends that, as I get older, I secretly admire people with no self-awareness and absolutely no concern for how their behavior affects other people or inspires those, "what an asshole!" thoughts in the rest of us. Just the other day, I was sitting in my car, waiting in line to turn out of a busy little shopping center onto River Rd. in Bethesda. And, then . . . out of nowhere . . . comes a big Range Rover, driven by a Bluetooth-equipped woman with a big cup of coffee in her right hand, bolting through the "In" lane, clearly marked by a big arrow pointing towards the parking lot, around the rest of us because . . . clearly, she had someplace to be.

Bad timing, though. A car, a mere Honda Civic, was turning in the shopping center, as the driver had the right to, what, with our light red and his light green. BOOM! They collide . . . making quite a mess and holding the rest of us hostage until they could move their damaged cars out of everyone else's way. Even better, the woman hops out of her Land Rover, furious that the wreck has resulted in spilled coffee all over her white ski jacket (with a furry collar, of course), and yells at the Civic driver, "Did you not fucking see me turning?"

The Civic driver was what society now calls a "Senior." Back in my youth, we called "seniors" what they were -- old people who posed a clear threat to the smooth operation of life's appropriate tempo. But in this case the senior was completely absolved of a "senior moment." He was taking a right turn into a shopping center, cleared by the traffic light to do so. And was one of those adorable seniors, with his pants pulled up around closer to his chest than his waist, and wearing one of those hats that, for reasons that aren't clear, older men start wearing to keep their heads warm, the ones that, from my best historical research, were popular among newspaper boys in the 1930s who yelled, "Extra, extra . . . read all about it." Since my window was rolled down, I could hear her oh-so-polite query to him. And I'll I could get from him was a series of non-verbal gestures, which included pointing at the light, and then the white arrow on the ground, which clearly indicated that she was driving the wrong way.

No matter. She was probably late for her appointment at Aveda, and, as a Land Rover operator in Bethesda, she was entitled to get where she needed to go on her terms. My initial response was, "Jesus, what the hell is your problem?" referring, of course, to the wrong-way driver. But my second response was one of admiration: she did what she wanted, without a moment's notice to think about what her decision would mean for anyone else. In the end, she was right. Two hours later no one would remember what happened except for the people who witnessed it, none of whom knew her. They would have a story to tell, but beyond that, it was an event of no consequence to them. She would tell her friends and personal trainer and bikini waxer and domestic staff and manicurist about this crazy old man that damn near killed her, a "fucking asshole" that should have his license revoked. And on and on. Insurance would cover the damage to her prized Land Rover, a perennial loser in every Consumer Reports evaluation on safety, reliability, gas mileage and, well, really, everything . . .

But she got what she wanted. On her terms.

This is, of course, a typically long and, on first glance, unrelated story to my real purpose in writing this piece. President Bush has issued his first official response to George Mitchell's report on steroid use in major league baseball. Here's what the president has to say:

My hope is that this report is a part of putting the steroid era of baseball behind us. I understand the impact that professional athletes can have on our nation's youth. And I just urge . . . those in the public spotlight, particularly athletes, to understand that when they violate their bodies, they're sending a terrible signal to America's young.
According to a presidential spokemen -- how many "spokesmen" work for the president, by the way? What do you put down on your resume after working as a "spokesman?" February 2005- January 2008 -- Spokesman, Office of the President of the United States: Repeated responses given by other spokesmen to people who generally found explanations incredulous. Engaged in no real thinking, just sycophancy. Mastered phrases such as, "The president shares your concern," or "the president is aware of these issues," or "the president looks forward to working with the Democrat leadership to get his way, which he always does." -- our president is "familiar" with what's in Mitchell's report but hasn't read the 400 page document.

In the last two weeks, the president, presuming he is "familiar" with the NIE report on Iran's nuclear ambitions, the C.I.A. admission that it destroyed taped evidence of its interrogators' use of torture to extract information from captured terrorists and a memoir from a former "spokesman," Scott McClellan, that he was absolutely "familiar" with the chain of events that led to Valerie Plame Wilson's outing as a covert C.I.A. agent, has simply ignored questions about his accountability for any unsavory behavior in his government. For all the mainstream media blabber about his lack of "relevancy," Bush knows exactly what he is doing. He will stick to his story, much like a husband greeted by his wife in their bed with her best friend will insist that they were just looking for ways to spice up their marriage, because he knows that something else will come along to replace the current "concern" over . . . whatever. He knows that most Americans don't really give a shit about the things that perplex Op-Ed columnists, television commentators and bloggers in their boxers. He knows that, his 32% approval rating aside, he still controls the legislative agenda in Congress and the conduct of the war in Iraq (and that other one in Afghanistan). He knows that he can do whatever he wants because after all the spitting, foaming at the mouth and hands thrown in the air, Americans need to get back to their shopping and their celebrity gossip. He knows that no one will see the irony in the statements coming out of both sides of his mouth. In the end . . .

The president will get what he wanted. On his terms.

And that you have to admire.

The Hillary-tanic captured at sea

A too-accurate cartoon by Tony Auth in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

This is your Cy Young award on drugs . . .

So seven MVPs and one Cy Young Award winner, a pitcher who happens to be the most winning pitcher still in baseball and eighth most winning pitcher of all-time (and the second most winning pitcher of the modern era) and numerous other solid major league players were implicated in former U.S. Senator George Mitchell's report on steroid use in major league baseball. Yes, there was Barry Bonds again, joined now by Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, the Giambi brothers, Mark McGwire and Miquel Tejada, who just about burst a blood vessel denying former Orioles teammate Rafael Palmeiro's allegations that he used steroids.

By now, no one can dispute that a culture of denial enveloped MLB during the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s on illegal drug use by players. Last spring and summer, I wrote that the owners were as much to blame as the players and their union for the introduction of steroids into baseball and their subsequent use by players looking to prolong, enhance or, in some cases, save their careers. Mitchell holds owners and players accountable for their bad behavior, but does not offer any specific suggestions for reform, other than to institute an independent drug testing program.

Roger Clemens has already denied the allegations made against him, joining Barry Bonds, who joined Pete Rose, in the Hall of Fame of Cheaters, Liars and Deniers years ago. Of course, none of us who watch the games and read the stories about professional athletes and their bad behavior have any way of knowing who did what. Clemens and Bonds are not especially well-liked by their peers or fans outside their home teams, and so guilt or innocence generally forms around an impression, not evidence. Really, is there anyone licking their chops to see Andy Pettite disgraced or embarrassed? Brian Roberts? Mo Vaughn?

Baseball is the greatest game of all time, for me anyway. But the sport walked willingly into the fire of steroids and now the players, owners, union officials and sportswriters who let it happen have no choice but to deal honestly with the Frankenstein they created.

There are black ones and brown ones and tan ones . . . and they all look just the same

Earlier today I turned around after ordering coffee and bumped into a student wearing a black North Face jacket and Ugg boots. She didn't see me because she was talking on her cell phone about how, like, she had no more "anytime" minutes left on her plan. I took a few steps to my right to the cream and sugar kiosk, where, right as I was about to put my coffee on the counter, a student in a black North Face jacket and Ugg boots knocked my freshly brewed afternoon pick-me-up out of my hands and onto the floor? Did I hear an "excuse me?" No, I heard, instead, a shriek into her cell phone, "Oooooh, my God! Like there's coffee all OVER MY NEW UGGS!" I think . . . think she glared at me, as it was hard to see her eyes behind her big, big, BIG sunglasses that obscured most of her forehead and cheekbones. After I retrieved a wet cloth rag from the person who poured my coffee (and nicely offered me another cup, on the house, since the coffee bomb that took out the Ugg boot did not launch at my initiative), another student leaned over and said, "Dude, that fuckin' sucks! Like, she'll probably make you pay for her boots."

"Dude," I responded, "I don't think that's going to happen."

"Dude, I don't know. These women are pretty protective of their ugly-ass boots."

The first thing that came into my mind wasn't a lawsuit or entry into a witness protection program. It was the theme song from the Showtime series, "Weeds," called, "Little Boxes," a folk tune from the late 1960s. If you know the song, then you'll recognize, sort of, the following adaptation to my university.


Little UGG boots on the North Quad, Little UGG boots made of suede, Little UGG boots lined in fleece, Little UGG boots all the same. There are brown ones and some tan ones/And some purple ones and some black ones/And some meshy ones and some furry ones/And they're not tested on animals/Even though that's from where they came

And they all look just just the same

And the UGG girls in their UGG boots attend my university/And they all come out the same/And the UGG girls in NORTH FACE/And big glasses, sometimes stilettos, where they all come out the same

And the AU boys in ABERCROMBIE/They wanna be lawyers and congressmen/And they all come out the same/And the AU Boys in J. Crew/Can't they think of something new?

There's an iPhone/And a Blackberry/And a text message/And some hair gel

See the AU boys in NORTH FACE/Who look like they're hiking/Hair slicked back like a Viking/And they all look just the same.

Dude, you don't understand/Dude, you're my man/Dude, I'm in the gym/Dude, I can't speak English I'm so dim.

They all attend my university. And they all come out just the same.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

College for illegal immigrants

My brief post Monday pointing out Harvard's decision to reduce the cost of attending college there for families earning between $120,000 to $180,000 appeared to touch a nerve. Now, two days later, the New York Times runs another story on the difficulties facing another class of potential college students trying to fund their education: the children of illegal immigrants.

Twenty five years ago the United States Supreme Court ruled that the children of illegal immigrants were entitled to a public education through high school. The Court divided 5-4. The only justice still serving on the Court who was part of the Plyler v. Doe (1982) decision is John Paul Stevens, who joined the Court's majority. The Court's rationale was that to deny to a "discrete group" of persons -- in this case the children of illegal immigrants -- a benefit to all other persons "similarly situated" within in its borders violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment.

In 1996, Congress, responding to election year pressure to beat up on illegal immigrants, passed legislation banning states from offering in-state tuition rates to illegals who were resided in the state where they wanted to attend college. Ten states have since found a loophole in the federal law and permit illegals to attend public universities for in-state rates as long as they graduated from a state school. Three other states have explicitly outlawed this benefit.

About 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from public high schools every year. For those who wish to attend college, the tuition differential hits them especially hard because illegal immigrants, by and large, have far fewer resources than their legal peers. But the societal benefit of educating illegal immigrants beyond high school gets lost in the broader debate about illegal immigration and what the United States ought to do about it. The Court's 1982 decision on the right of illegals to a public elementary and secondary education was premised on the belief that children should not be punished for the decision of their parents to come to the United States illegally. Illegal immigration has always been an attractive issue for politicians looking for red meat to throw to their constituents. Illegals are fine as long as they clear our dishes, mow our lawns, paint our houses, take care of our children, fix our cars, build our roads and office parks and provide cheap labor to home builders who construct the McMansions going up in neighborhoods like mine that reduce housing costs (and increase profit margins) by anywhere from 10-25%. A key issue that immigrant-bashers miss when foaming at the mouth about how illegals are ruining the country -- and by extension their lives -- is that American businesses, large and small, want them here. They want their cheap labor, their general ignorance on how to work the education system and get access to health providers. American consumers want the advantages that come with lower labor costs -- goods and services far cheaper than they could get them for union-scale labor or even labor above what illegals receive. Remember, no one is forcing American businesses to hire illegal workers. They hire illegals because they want to, knowing full well that Americans will save their anger for workers rather than their employers. Rather than turn their ire towards illegals by forming posses to patrol the borders or passing laws making it illegal for potential day laborers to "loiter" at 7-11s, Americans should pose this simple question to the businesses that hire them: why do you continue to hire illegal workers rather than hire legal workers and provide them with higher wages and benefits? See what answer you get.

Harvard's decision to assist students it defines as middle and upper-middle class coupled with the issue of what to charge illegals to attend public colleges should illustrate for Americans the dilemma of affordable education beyond high school. Unlike health care, we provide public education at no cost to persons who reside within a state, legal or illegal. For reasons that make absolutely no sense, not economically, not culturally and certainly not for the long-term health of our politics, we sever that contract at the most important point -- the transition to college, which no one disputes is the key to higher earning power, greater job satisfaction and greater engagement with the political system. How and why we deny education to anyone -- legal and illegal -- beyond high school and believe this is a good thing is beyond me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New Jersey prepares to abolish the death penalty

The New Jersey Senate voted yesterday to abolish the state's death penalty. The measure already has majority support in the House, where it will now head for a final vote before it lands on Governor Jon Corzine's desk. Corzine has said that he will sign it.

By next week, New Jersey will become the first state since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the United States Supreme Court after a four year moratorium, to repeal its death penalty by legislative action. The state supreme Court of New York declared its state's death penalty unconstitutional in 2004. The governors of two other states with death penalties, Illinois and Maryland, imposed a moratorium on executions after they determined there too many problems in carrying them out.

I'd like to think this will inspire other states to follow suit. I don't think that will be the case, though. Retribution is too powerful an emotion for many people to put aside when weighing the pros and cons of capital punishment. And politicians have no incentive to campaign against something that is still pretty popular. So we'll see.

Red State Update wants to do Mitt Romney's yardwork

Jackie and Dunlap offer to work for Mitt Romney's troubled landscaping service.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Harvard's new financial aid plan

Harvard announced today that it will substantially increase the financial aid it awards to students whose families earn between $120,000 to $180,000 per year, charging them no more than 10% of their income for tuition. Three years ago, former Harvard President Larry Summers instituted a plan that eliminated tuition for families earning $40,000 or less, requiring little more than a small work-study contribution. Summers later raised the amount to $60,000 per year.

Harvard has a $35 billion endowment, the largest of any university in the country. I'm pleased to see it use its resources wisely. And it's great that someone who is able to get into Harvard can now generally go. But what does this mean for colleges who do not have Harvard's resources, like mine? How are we supposed to bridge the divide between the rich and everyone else? A ticket to American University costs approximately $45,000 per year, about the same as Harvard. We don't compete with Harvard for students so there's no competitive disadvantage there. But the number of students scratching and clawing to get through American is not insubstantial, and I've yet to hear a serious proposal yet to make our university less expensive to attend. Instead, we tell them that charging them more money makes us a better school, a statement that is simply not true.

Then again, I think college should be free for anyone who wants to attend a public university. How or why we don't value education enough after high school to make college available for anyone, subject to the appropriate qualifications, who wants to attend is beyond me. Private colleges are a different matter, and a different topic altogether.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Tom Tomorrow is now available on Mondays!

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Joni Mitchell

How do you begin describe Joni Mitchell's 40 year career in popular music, especially when that path has taken her from busking for pocket change in her native Canada in the mid-1960s to the heights of commercial success in the American recording industry in the early 1970s, only to turn her back on a business she believed was exploitative and insincere, to then accept invitations from jazz innovators such as Charlie Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorious to play as side musicians on her albums, and then, finally, to have such great modern guitarists as John Scofield, Bill Frisell and John Abercrombie look to her own guitar playing as an inspiration in their own work?

Court and Spark is probably the recording that introduced most listeners to Mitchell's work, as it includes two of her most popular singles, "Help Me [I Think I'm Falling]," and "Free Man in Paris." The same people who discovered Mitchell with those songs probably had no idea she wrote one of Crosby, Stills and Nash's most popular songs, "Woodstock." Listen to these songs carefully, though, and you will hear a very different inflection and voicing than her contemporaries at the time, most notably Carole King (a great singer and songwriter in her own right) and Roberta Flack. Mitchell's vocal style, much like her guitar playing, owed much more to jazz than popular music. Polio at an early age left Mitchell with limited mobility in her left hand, and that left her unable to voice many standard chords on the fretboard. Her original, unorthodox style attracted the attention of the great jazz musicians I noted above, and she began to collaborate with them on several ambitious recordings in the late 1970s, with Mingus and Shadows and Light the most interesting -- albeit uneven -- of the bunch. For me, hearing an artist take chances with something new and interesting rather than play the same way over and over again is much more gratifying, even if the results are less than spectacular.

Mitchell continued to inspire other artists in the 1980s and 1990s. You can almost draw a straight line from Mitchell to Patricia Barber, a pianist/singer/composer more firmly rooted in the jazz tradition, a musician, like Mitchell, who falls into the "too cool to be real" genre of modern artists. But how do you account for Madonna drawing her inspiration from Mitchell?

Herbie Hancock seems especially taken with Mitchell's work. He featured her prominently on his 1998 tribute to George Gershwin, Gershwin's World, where she offers beautiful renditions of "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now." His most recent record, The Joni Letters, is a tribute to her compositional gifts. Reacquaint yourself with this great artist if it's been a while. If you've never spent any time with her, do so. You'll be amply rewarded.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Religious craziness and Mitt Romney

In early 1967 -- that pre-"Sgt. Pepper," pre-Summer-of-Love America for those of you whose political memories do not extend beyond Ronald Reagan's presidency -- Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney's father, George, the popular Republican governor of Michigan, which was then the most heavily unionized state in the country, decided to run for president. Like his son, who was then 20 years old and in college, George Romney's commitment to his Mormon faith raised no questions about his fitness to govern at the state level. Enough people, though (and operatives in Richard Nixon's presidential campaign) apparently had enough suspicions of Romney to lead the Gallup Poll, in April of that year, to poll voters on the question of whether his religion posed a problem to serve as president. By a 75% to 17% margin, poll respondents said no. The remaining 8% didn't know enough about Mormonism to offer a yes or no answer.

Forty years later, what do Americans know about Mormons? According to poll data from the Pew Forum on Religion in American Public Life, almost 1 in 3 do not believe or consider Mormons Christians, even though Mormons accept the central tenet of Christianity that Jesus is the son of God. Mormons (25%) rank third behind atheists (61%) and Muslims (47%) among Americans who believe that a candidate's particular religious beliefs, or lack thereof, would make it "less likely" to support them for public office. Only 53% of Americans view Mormons "favorably," compared to 76% who view Catholics and Jews favorably. Muslims and atheists are viewed most unfavorably by Americans.

So how do we interpret the data? You could conclude that Americans aren't terribly "tolerant" of religious denominations that fall outside Protestant Christianity. Or you conclude that America was a much more tolerant place in 1967, when George Romney's religious beliefs didn't seem to bother too many voters. What, with an unpopular war dividing the country, domestic discord over cultural issues, an uncertain economy being weighed down by an inadequate tax base to support domestic spending and war, there was little or no time to think about a candidate's religious values as a qualification to hold public office.

. . . wait a minute! Doesn't that sound familiar?

Mitt Romney's "dilemma" has nothing to do with whether Mormons are "qualified" to hold public office. Mormonism is no weirder or "cult like" than any other religion practiced in the United States. Really, is there any other explanation for the difference between a religious cult and a mainstream religious denomination than the number of people who subscribe to its tenets? Personally, I rank religious folklore such as the Virgin Birth, the existence of God, the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, Moses's receipt of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai from God, his parting of the seas, an aversion to certain foods or a belief that you have to eat certain foods a certain way, the prohibition on women from assuming pastoral or rabbinic duties, male and female celibacy in service of God, the existence of heaven and hell, pearly gates, angels, "miracles" at the hands of an intervening, knowing God . . . the list goes on and on and on . . . as farcical as anything the Mormons do.

Remember way back when in Campaign Season 2000 when Joe Lieberman had to "answer" questions about whether his adherence to Orthodox Judaism would get in the way of his ability to carry out the presidential office? Reporters actually asked Lieberman if his practice of observing the Saturday sabbath meant that he would not conduct presidential business over the weekend? Had I been Lieberman, I would have told reporters that is what my vice-president and shabbos goy was for, but I suspect most reporters wouldn't have gotten the joke.

Mitt Romney had to give his "You can trust me I'm just as religiously batty as you are" speech earlier this week not because his Mormonism would impede his ability to hold the presidency, but because former Arkansas governor and born-again Christian, Mike Huckabee, the darling of Iowa evangelicals (who make up 40% of that state's likely Republican primary voters), has pushed the religious issue to the forefront of his campaign. The Christian Right has been integral to the Republican party success since 1980, and Romney is simply answering to his party's "faithful" by pandering to their histrionics over abortion, gay rights, school prayer and, of course, the scientific method. More disturbing than Romney's pathetic speech this week was the state of Texas's decision to fire its highest-ranking official, Christine Castillo Comer, after 27 years as a science teacher and nine more as the director of its science curriculum in public schools. Her offense? She forwarded an email from the National Center for Science Education about a local talk being given by Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor, who served as an expert witness for the Dover, Delaware Board of Education last year when it defeated an effort to introduce "creation-science" -- pure academic quackery -- in its public schools. Nary a word has come from the mouths of the God Squad running for office in either party about the nation's second most populous state firing a public school official because she passed on information about a respected evolutionist's speech. Remember, say the creationists, that evolution is just a theory.

Mmm-hmm . . . and so is gravity.

Mitt Romney's speech doesn't deserve comparisons, good or bad, to John F. Kennedy's speech in 1960 before a group of Southern Baptist ministers that affirmed the principle of separation of church and state. It deserves no attention as a serious statement of ideas, religious faith, religious inclusiveness or the relationship between religion and civil society. Romney, if anything, believes that America would benefit from a greater fusion of Christian religious principles in our politics. Rejecting an opportunity to tell the crazy Christian Right that continues to work tirelessly to make America as intolerant and as backwards as possible to shut up, Romney gave God's most ardent followers the only answer that an ambitious Republican candidate could -- that he is just as nutty as they are and thus deserving of their party's nomination for president. Nothing more and definitely nothing less.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The War on Drugs -- $500 billion later

Okay, so I admit I bought the new copy of Rolling Stone in the airport a couple of nights ago because I needed something to read on the plane, and the cover story on Led Zeppelin's pending reunion show and possible tour grabbed my attention. Inside, though, I found another much more serious and disturbing article documenting the last 35 years of drug policy in the United States. "How America Lost the War on Drugs," written by Ben Wallace, is a systematic, clear-eyed review of our government's effort to "contain" the flow of illegal drugs into the country and "treat" offenders and addicts. His conclusion is one that shouldn't surprise anyone who has followed this debacle over the years -- that our drug policies have been a failure. By focusing on interdiction and punishment, rather than prevention and treatment, the United States has created an environment in which illegal drugs -- marijuana, cocaine, heroin and the latest scourge, crystal meth -- are now cheaper, more potent and readily available to anyone who wants them.

Wallace's piece is not some fuzzy-headed call to legalize recreational drugs. He draws distinctions between those drugs that do not pose a public health risk (marijuana and mild hallucinogens) and those that do (cocaine, crystal meth and heroin). His piece is extremely well-done, and should leave you shaking your head over what happens when pandering and moralizing trump reason and public health as policy-making incentives in national drug policy. Especially appalling is the government's decision to target pain patients using medical marijuana and their doctors.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Coalition of the no longer willing

Hendrik Hertzberg's new comment in this week's New Yorker on President Bush's foreign policy incompetence couldn't be better timed. There is, of course, Bush's stammering, defensive press conference Tuesday, in which he tried to explain how the NIE report concluding that Iran suspended whatever progress it made towards developing a nuclear weapons program in early 2003 actually strengthened his argument that it had not. Hertzberg doesn't talk about the NIE report because his article didn't appear until in print until Tuesday.

Instead, Hertzberg's attention directed towards a development that few others in the mainstream media have discussed since Iraq went south in early 2004 -- the number of countries that once formed the president's "coalition of the willing" on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that have abandoned the war and, not so subtly, their support for American foreign policy. On March 13, 2004, three days after al-Qaeda inspired terrorists bombed passenger trains in Madrid, Spain's voters tossed out the conservative government that had sent 1,300 soldiers to Iraq. Those soldiers were back home within three months. In May 2005, Romano Prodi defeated Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Bush's most vocal supporter in Western Europe, and promptly brought Italy's 3,000 troops home. Voters in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine and Norway replaced their leaders who had committed troops to Iraq in service of American objectives. None of these countries any longer have troops in Iraq.

Tony Blair, the British Labor party leader tagged as Bush's "poodle" in the British press, was all but forced to relinquish his post after it became clear that voters were prepared to end Labor's majority in parliament. Gordon Brown, Great Britain's new prime minister, has promised to bring home the remaining 5,000 of the original 45,000 troops originally committed to Iraq. And Bush's last real public defender on the world stage, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, saw his conservative government ousted in that country's most recent election. So dissatisfied were Australian voters with Howard's Ed McMahon-like fealty towards Bush that he lost his seat in parliament. The new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, signed the Kyoto climate-change treaty in Bali this week, leaving the United States standing alone as the only Western power to reject it.

In November 2006, American voters replaced Republican majorities in the House and Senate with Democrats who, according to the deep-thinkers in the Washington media, were sent to Congress to force President Bush to make major changes on Iraq. That hasn't happened. Since the Democratic "sweep" of the congressional mid-term elections, 984 more American soldiers have died in combat; over 12,000 have been wounded. Since March 2003, Great Britain has suffered 173 total casualties; Italy 33; Poland 23; Spain 11; and Australia 2, numbers that don't compare to the United States. But these losses, combined with the futility of the American mission in Iraq, were enough to force their respective governments to abandon what was, at best, a patchwork coalition held together, in the case of the Eastern European countries, by foreign aid and, for Great Britain and Australia, a misguided belief that a victory would enhance their world-wide prestige.

Regime-change in Iraq was an after-the-fact goal of the United States after the invasion failed to turn up WMD. That goal, of course, has been achieved. To what end, as Hertzberg notes, is not clear. What is clear -- stunning, is a better word -- is that the Bush administration has survived two intervening elections since the Iraq war began without having to make major policy changes in order to remain in power. All that has changed since November 2006 is that approximately 20,000 more troops have been committed to Iraq -- the "surge" of February 2007. Public opinion polls tell us that Americans are highly dissatisfied with the Bush administration's management of the Iraq war. But their actual votes -- and demands on their leaders -- say otherwise.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

World War III averted -- for now

Bush v. Gore (2000) . . . "Curveball" . . . non-existent WMD . . . the Valerie Plame "outing" . . . Abu Ghraib . . . Guantanamo Bay . . . embracing Putin . . . the whole goddamn Iraq war . . . is it possible for President Bush's credibility to drop even further?

Yes, it is.

Until yesterday, the Decider and his still-militant minded inner-circle (and their sycophants in the right-wing media) had been rattling the sabers on Iran for the past six months, making claims that stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program was essential to stop World War III before it started.

Or, in his own words: "So I've told people that, if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon."

According to the most recent National Intelligence Estimate (the same document that Bush ignored in August 2001 when he was informed that al-Qaeda was poised to strike the United States using commercial airliners), it turns out that Iran stopped whatever pretenses it had to making nuclear weapons in 2003. It also turns out that the Decider was told about the report's general conclusions back in August, and more specifically what the report -- reflecting the opinion of all 16 American intelligence agencies -- said before he gave an October speech warning Iran to stop making nuclear weapons or risk . . . World War III.

During his press conference yesterday, the Decider admitted that his director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, told him about the report's findings. But he also said that he didn't know enough "specifics" to conclude, as the report did, that Iran was at least 7 years away from having enough materials to build an A-bomb. Incredulously, the Decider insisted that the report strengthened, rather than weakened, his position that Iran posed an "immediate" threat.

This could be Bush's Kennedy-Khrushchev moment -- understanding that your mortal enemy nonetheless is "rational" enough, as the NIE concluded, not to risk blowing up the world. For some reason, I don't think Bush or the Dr. Strangeloves who surround him have the imagination or the courage to pursue a more enlightened diplomatic path.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Red State Update wonders about Rudy G's women

Jackie and Dunlap find Mayor 9.11's way with women a little "gross."

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Plamegate continues

I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the leak of former C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame Wilson's identity through the media and subsequent commutation of his 30 month sentence to time-served (about ten minutes) did not close the door on a congressional investigation into the Bush administration's role in the affair. Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald had been cooperating with House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman's request for White House documents related to the matter until the president's lawyers intervened to halt the flow of paper.

Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan disclosed in his recent memoir that five high-ranking members of the Bush administration -- Bush, Cheney, Libby, political adviser Karl Rove and White House chief of staff Andrew Card were involved in leaking Plame's identity through the press, or, more accurately, the odious conservative columnist Robert Novak's column.

Haven't heard much about this lately, have you? I guess with everything hunky-dory in Iraq now the nation can turn its attention to more important things . . . like the television writers strike, Britney Spears's parenting problems and Mike Huckabee's inspirational "faith-based" political campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Go to Dan Froomkin's Washington Post on-line column, "White House Watch," for more details.

The inevitable decline of the inevitable candidacy of Hillary Clinton?

Just a few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton was reminding voters that this presidential campaign was all about the issues and not about personal attacks. In September, she scolded John Edwards for scolding her about how she raised money. Late last month, she criticized Barack Obama for criticizing her comments that appeared to support the Bush administration's approach towards Iran.

High and mighty was Hillary. Proud, preening and, as the establishment press decided, the "inevitable" Democratic nominee.

Looks like the Hillary-tanic is hitting its first real rough seas of her "textbook campaign," the one that "Washington insiders" -- from both parties -- had praised her for running so far. A Des Moines Register poll published yesterday shows that Hillary is trailing Edwards and Obama in the Iowa caucuses. The same poll also shows that Hillary is now second to Obama is support among women (31%-26%), having lost 18 percentage points in the last three weeks or so.

So how has Hillary chosen to fight back? She questioned Obama's "character" over the weekend, a week after she said he doesn't have the necessary experience to be president. Obama is in the middle of his first term as a United States senator. Hillary Clinton is in the middle of her second term in the same job. Unless experience includes being married to the president, as Hillary was, the experience issue is a wash. And the kind of experience Hillary had in the White House isn't the type of stuff on which to base a presidential campaign.

Read more here.

Zeebop in the Tavern tonight

Electric Zeebop will be appearing in the Tavern tonight at American University from 7.00-9.30 p.m. Taking a break from all those worries and exams sure would help a lot.

Admission is free. Tips, gratuities not accepted. But phone numbers for our 24 year-old single bass player, Justin Parrott, are welcomed.

Learn more about Zeebop here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Another disgrace at Walter Reed

This morning's Washington Post features another tour de force from reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull on the disgraceful treatment and care of physically and psychically wounded Army members by the Walter Reed medical facility. In this installment, Priest and Hull tell the story of 1st Army Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, who was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder at Walter Reed. Her doctors told her Army superiors that Whiteside was suffering from a legitimate and very real psychiatric disorder. Officers countered that Whiteside's alleged problems were just an "excuse" for her uneven and, at times, disruptive behavior. Like their previous stories on the Walter Reed debacle, Priest and Hull practice meticulous, truly investigative reporting, a practice all too rare by a mainstream media that is too afraid to challenge the status, lest they fear their friends in places of high power.

We'll see if anyone steps into help Whiteside. If nothing else, another embarrassment for Walter Reed might motivate someone in Congress or the bureaucracy to score political points and help a troubled young woman in the process.