Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas -- New Year Break

I wanted to write something meaningful, profound, clever or witty before taking my annual end-of-the-year break from blogging and pretty much everything else. But, it's Christmas Eve, and I ain't feelin' it.

Even Jewish atheists have a heart. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.

Oops . . . . having said that, please join Zeebop for our last show of 2008, this Sunday at the redDog Cafe in Silver Spring, from 6-9 p.m. We played 75 shows in 2008. Thank you for your support and encouragement.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap have a conversation with the Illinois governor and offer their opinions on the Rev. Rick Warren's invitation to participate in the Obama inaugural.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Bush legacy

Friday, December 19, 2008

Gay for a day in Virginia

Arlington, Va. -- One might suspect that the last place to launch an undercover Gaydar operation is in the stands of the Kettler Ice Arena or Iceplex or whatever the term de jour is for a fancy ice rink. Kettler is where the Washington Capitals hold their practices and other team events, which are open to the public. Arlington is a western suburb of Washington, a place most famous for the cemetery overlooking the nation's capital lies just across the Potomac that honors the men and women who fought and died in our wars. But is also the kind of place that combines modern suburban sprawl with the "heritage" of the Old South. As-of-yet unoccupied strip centers line the roads named for either where they go (Industrial Park Drive) or a weapon favored by the Confederate sympathizers who still live there (Musket Ball Court). Every so often you can drive by Yuppie emporiums like Aveda, Trader Joes and Whole Foods, where young Democrats are staking their claim to this part of former cradle of the Confederacy by planting their preferences for organic balsamic vinegar and daring anyone to make them shop at Safeway or Sears.


And it's not just professors done grading their exams who spend their weekday mornings watching the Capitals practice -- creepy stalkers who appear not to have been in the sun for 20 years, looking to get their photo collections autographed so they can put them up on eBay; the parents who've brought their young children over from the other rink where they were taking skating lessons; and then the one fading groupie who asked a player if he would sign her body "where the sun doesn't shine." A little surprised by this unusual request (which was, thankfully, denied), I snuck a look at this woman, and noticed that, in the florescent lighting of the rink, her body cast a considerable shadow over the floor.

But by far the best represented suburban demographic at the rink was the Office Space Guy -- the Dockers clad white -- excuse me, extremely Caucasian male, stomach slightly protruding over his waistline, sporting a short sleeve or denim long sleeve shirt bearing a corporate logo (Goodyear/Gemini; Jiffy Lube; Sprint/Nextel; Verizon; and so on) of some sort and soft-soled brown shoes that reminded me of the Buster Browns my mother bought me at Alfred's Shoes when I was 6 or 7. Hanging from a belt loop or their neck was a corporate ID security card -- complete with a photo that, in one case, bore a frightening resemblance to one of those stringy meth freaks who always says, "I just wanted to know what it felt like" after he's been apprehended for killing and sodomizing a string of 7-11 clerks in rural Kentucky. And, naturally, their obsessive participation in fantasy sports leagues equips them with all the insider info they need to assess the players performance on the ice.

"Dude," says one to his friend, "Theodore looks so bad out there that I could get one past him today."

"Dude, you are so right. And, like, what is the deal with Nylander?" says his friend, who is sporting some non-linear facial hair sprouting from the moles that dotted his face like small towns on a AAA TripTik. "Is he, like, just getting worse and worse?"

"Exactly what could you get past Theodore," I think to myself. "A bad check? Stolen credit card? Your cousin passing for your new girlfriend . . . what, exactly? You could shoot five hundred pucks from five feet away, assuming you can skate, on Jose Theodore (an admittedly average NHL goalie) and he wouldn't break a sweat." But I say nothing.

I learned a long time ago that engaging morons like this doesn't do anyone any good. From 1993-2000, I had a Baltimore Orioles Sunday season ticket plan. Next to me for three of those years was a guy whose answer to everything, at least at the beginning, was this:

"Ripken should move three steps to his right. I don't know what he thinks about out there but it sure isn't baseball," he would say, and then turn his head in every direction for some sort of nodding approval from fellow Section 84 members, something that never came. Then he would brush each hand down the opposite arm, as if he were relaying the steal sign to the runner on first, tug at his Sans-a-Belt slacks, pull up his black socks and kick his right shoe into the concrete floor as if he was a horse preparing to bust out of his stall.

One day, the temptation was too much. "Why do you want Ripken to move three steps towards third base with a ground-ball pitcher like Jamie Moyer facing a dead-pull left-handed hitter like (Ken Griffey) Junior," I asked him. "If anything you want to take away the middle by moving the shortstop to second base."

"Oh, well don't you just know everything," he responded, pushing, for emphasis, his big black glasses with mismatched clip-on shades up his zinc oxide-covered nose. "I suppose the next thing you'll tell me is that you played major league baseball."

"Acutally," I told him, "I was drafted by the Orioles out of high school, two years after Ripken. They wanted me to start in Class A, but I told them I wasn't about to ride the buses after batting .674 my senior year. I thought I was ready for the majors right then and there. Use me or lose me, I said. Edward Bennett Williams looked at me like I was crazy. I told him to fuck off right to his face. No shit."

He looked at my friend, who had leaned back in his seat to give this guy the "you're-in-over-your-head-stop-right-now-look." He snorted, looked straight ahead, and never again mentioned that Ripken should move three steps towards third base for the next 2 1/2 years.

But temptation got the best of me when I overheard the conversation behind me sitting at the Arlington rink earlier week.

"Dude," said an Office Space Guy, his voice clearly audible over the pucks that were boomeranging off the protective glass and boards, "that shirt you're wearing makes you look so gay. I can't believe you're wearing that thing in public." Obviously, these guys were on some sort of executive track because they were allowed to wear shirts without corporate logos to work.

"How would you know? Don't you have to be gay to know if a shirt looks gay," came the clever response from his friend.

"Dude, everyone knows that's a gay shirt."

By this point, it was clear that these two guys were not riffing on the "know-how-I-know-you're-gay-scene" from the 40 Year-Old Virgin. Be good, I pleaded with myself. Don't get into with it with them. Oh, shit . . .

"I don't think that shirt makes you look gay at all," I said, turning around to the Office Space Guy accused of violating some sort of unwritten heterosexual dress code. "If you had unfastened French cuffs and a striped pattern that went diagonal rather than vertical, you might pass as one of us. But not that thing -- you're good."

They looked at me dumbfounded.

"I kind of like it," I continued. "But my boyfriend the fashionista wouldn't be caught dead in it. Of course, that's why I'm here and he's working."

More silence.

"I like the power play unit -- Green on the point, Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom and Fleishman. It's actually a high-end NHL-caliber powerplay. What do you guys think?"

"Uh, yeah, I mean, you know, Ovechkin . . . he's awesome. And Backstrom and Semin, plus Federov, if he gets better," said the Gaydar-challenged fashion cop.

"We'll see," I said, and then turned around. The shirt discussion ended.

A few minutes later, one of the guys announced that he had to "take a leak," and I decided it might be fun to follow him to the men's room.

"How's it going," I asked as I stood next to him. "These guys are just unbelievable. Everything is just so damn fast. I think about the guys I play with and it's just a completely different game. Do you play?"

Continuing to stare down, as if something might radically change in his anatomical make-up between then and when he finished his business, he said, "No, I don't play but I am a big fan. I have season tickets."

"I have season tickets, too. Would you talk to my boyfriend," I asked as we stood at the sink washing our hands. "He will not go to a game with me, like he'll lose his clients if someone sees him at a game. Really, do you care what your stylist does when he's not working?" Now completely freaked out, and looking as though I was about to hand him my phone to call my non-existent boyfriend, I decided to give him a break. "See you later. Nice meeting you."

I returned to my seat in the stands right above the blueline. My new friends, however, had moved up several rows and down towards the goal. Far enough, I imagined them thinking, that they might not catch anything, or risk having to shake my hand knowing where, to them, they thought it had been.

For whatever reason, homophobia remains the last respectable legal form of bigotry in the United States. I must confess I wasn't always enlightened to the cause, not really understanding the difficulties of living a secret life openly ridiculed by people who would never think of making racist or anti-Semtic statements. It took me until my junior year of college, 27 years ago, to grasp the full intensity of anti-gay bigotry. A friend of mine left school that year when some housemates discovered he was gay through a fairly incontestable fact-finding process that I need not detail here. These guys wanted to kill him, or least want his "faggot ass" out of the house. Eventually, they calmed down; but they did make clear that he was not welcome back. Shortly after I graduated, I learned that one of the more vocal members of this posse had had an "experience" with our gay friend, and, according to him, didn't seem to mind it at all.

Visiting my friend at home one weekend, I had some long discussions with him about his life, the things he had been through, when realized he might be gay, and just how damn difficult it was to live a normal life. Growing up when I did, it was standard fare to make fun of the boys in my classes who weren't good at sports or played the trumpet by calling them "fags." Being a fag, however, didn't mean you were a "homo," which was the term we saved for people who we thought were "real" fags. But here I was facing a wholly novel situation: finding out a guy who was good at sports, loved baseball, liked the same bands I did, had an incredible sense of humor and one of the quickest brains I had ever run across, was gay. For a minute, I thought I might be gay, too.

"Do you think the fact that I can't get a date means I'm gay," I asked him in a moment of alcohol-assisted candor one night. I think I was more concerned than curious.

"No, just unattractive," he said. "You're not gay."

This fall, the usual assortment of anti-gay initiatives were on the ballots across the country. They succeeded, a strange anomaly in a year when Democrats swept the elections at every level. Some outlawed gay marriage; others made it harder for gay couples to adopt children. Using the electoral process to prevent gay Americans from doing things they cannot do (i.e., get married) is the ultimate in empty, symbolic politics. Perhaps one day someone will convince me that preventing people who love each other from getting married and raising children or participating as full equals in our civic life is a great idea. Until then, state-sanctioned homophobia represents bigotry in its rawest, most bilious form. The day it disappears will not be a moment too soon.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Jazz Starter Set

Last Sunday, a music critic for the Washington Post recommended ten recordings for the jazz novice . . . as in someone who might have heard something he or she might have liked and decided it was "time to get into jazz." Not surprisingly, I found the critics suggestions pretty strange. I have no idea why anyone would recommend Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" as one of the first ten recordings to own. Don't get me wrong: I love Eric Dolphy and I love "Out to Lunch." I have several recordings on which Dolphy plays (mostly with John Coltrane) and as a leader. But to start? No. Dolphy, Andrew Hill and Tony Williams were pushing bop into a freer place, although still a good standard deviation or two inside Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. A novice does not need Miles Davis's early '70s recording, "On a Corner," a period in which Miles was at his lowest creative ebb, having followed the "fusion" movement launched by Weather Report and Gary Burton. As much as I love Miles Davis and deserves every great thing that can be said about him, I never liked his electric period (post-1968). I love music that fuses genres -- Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Joe Zawinul's world music, for starters; I just don't think Miles did this very well because it wasn't him. His heart, which he fought against in the latter part of his career, was always in the beautiful melodies of the great jazz standards and the freedom and beauty of modal jazz.

Anyway . . .

Here are my ten starter jazz recordings in alphabetical order. I begin with Ellington, the great American composer and bandleader, who bridged the gap between old swing era and the bebop revolution. I end with Wayne Shorter in 1966, a time when jazz had reached sort a peak in terms of boundary-pushing. Ornette, Cecil and Andrew Hill were moving jazz into a place so free that few could even understand where the pulse was. Miles was about to disband his second great quintet; the fusion movement was building but had not yet rocked, literally, the jazz world; the Beatles were at their peak, and African-American recording artists like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations and James Brown were drawing black listeners, and the young white music fans, who would have grown up on Bill Haley and Elvis Presley a decade before were about to turn to Jimi Hendrix and the Who to stake out their claim in the late 60s cultural rebellion. On these ten recordings you'll hear most of the major instrumentalists and composers of the early modern era, which is one of the main reasons I chose them. Remember, this is for the beginner!

Enjoy!

Dave Brubeck, "Time Out"
Miles Davis, "The Complete Birth of the Cool"
Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue"
John Coltrane, "Blue Train"
Duke Ellington, "Live at Newport 1958"
Bill Evans, "The Complete 1961 Recordings at the Village Vanguard"
Thelonious Monk, "Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington"
Wes Montgomery, "The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery"
Charlie Parker, "The Complete Savoy Recordings, 1947-48."
Wayne Shorter, "Adam's Apple"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reefer madness revisited

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

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

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

By the time I started high school in 1975, marijuana was easier to find than beer, even though the drinking age in Georgia was 18. Like now, people who used marijuana operated under code terms. They "partied or "partook," were "cool," or were "into expanding their horizons." The common refrain when discussing a pot smokers went something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

"Why would you ask me?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Red State Update

After a brief sabbatical, Jackie and Dunlap are back, and offer their comments on "Mod" Rod Blagojevich's troubles in Illinois, Obama's "troubled" relationship with Bill Richardson, debut their new song, "Christmas in a Beer Joint," and interview Lisa Ann, the noted actress who plays Sarah Palin in the Larry Flynt produced adult film, "Who's Nailin' Paylin?"

Friday, December 12, 2008

Uggology

A dear, attractive and witty friend shared with me this morning the difference between an "Ugg Boot Girl" and a "Girl Who Wears Ugg Boots." Our exchange started after I sent her a picture of the most hideous Ugg boot ever . . . photographed by a friend who noticed it at a gig I was playing.

I offer her unauthorized and anonymous explanation:


A. Do I own Uggs? The answer is “yes.”

B. Am I a closet “Ugg Girl?” The answer is no. I believe the label “Ugg Girl” carries with it more meaning beyond being a ‘girl’ who owns a pair of Uggs. An Ugg Girl plans her outfits around the boots in question, and wears them on the outside of her pants to accentuate the inevitable bunching of the pants around the knees. Usually a “look at me, I think I am in Aspen on the slopes yet it is 50 degrees outside” ensemble is worn at the same time, and the boots are not worn for the purpose of keeping one’s legs and feet warm. An Ugg Girl wears her Uggs regardless of the weather, and can’t quite seem to pick up her feet when walking. She is often heard saying things like, “Um, like, whatever” and “I’m so over it.” She tends to “summer” in exotic places on Daddy’s dime, and can’t even tell you how much her Uggs cost because she can’t be bothered with those kinds of details. I am a woman who owns a pair of Uggs, and wears them in the thick of my New England winters when walking the dog (when the snow isn’t falling) and my pant legs cover them at all times. All that can be seen of my Uggs is my goofy looking gingerbread-man feet. I wear them solely for warmth factor. Ugg-ly? Yes. Warm? Hell yes!

C. Oh, and I’ve had the same pair for 4 years. Somehow I feel this takes me out of the trendy Ugg Nation. I hope this clears up my participation in the Ugg phenomenon.
Let the voters decide!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Evaluating" fourteen weeks in 10.5 minutes

I promise and double-pinky swear: this will be my last post on how universities evaluate college teaching . . .

until I write the next one.

So, as I take a break from the mound of blue books sitting to my right, I thought I would share another feature of the ludicrousness that defines the end-of-the-semester ritual of how students evaluate their courses and professors. A quick caveat, though, before I get to my main point. I don't spend time offering my opinion on the evaluation process because I feel like I'm getting a raw deal from my students. My students are highly self-selected. For better or worse, almost every student I teach knows, to the extent that they can, what they're in for. Sometimes, when I teach courses in our General Education program, I get disgruntled students. But those are few and far between. And, frankly, I don't care that indifferent, lazy or not very capable students don't "like" me or my classes. I don't do this for them. I do this for the good ones. Period. Students who get something out of my classes take me for upper-level courses; students who fare poorly don't and warn their friends to stay away. I like it like that.

Still, though, my university's system of "evaluating" teaching is so silly that it merits whatever honest commentary I willing to give it. Maybe one day the process will change. But as long as we're an institution that derives 90-95% of its operating budget from tuition, we're only going to become more "student-centered," even if that means compromising the classroom experience and reducing professors to little more than well-compensated counselors at Camp AU.

So here's today's insight. I administered - a fancy term that means, in this case, "handed out" -- my course evaluations this week. In Class 1, the students were finished with the evaluation in six minutes; in Class 2, the students completed the evaluation in 4.5 minutes. In Class 1, I had just finished gathering up my things, taken the customary seat outside the classroom on a bench to wait for the students to finish up so I could sign the sealed envelopes that will determine whether I can order an extra topic on a pizza every other week for the next year or just once a month, when three students walked out, thanked me for the class -- something that is always better than a computerized summary -- and went on their way. For Class 2, the students were done even more quickly. I went to the water fountain to take the vitamin cocktail that allows me to play hockey and work-out with such mediocre results and returned to my bench to find six students standing in a semi-circle. At first I anticipated a firing squad, but then I remembered our campus, in addition to being drug-free, is also gun-free. Some chit-chat, questions about this semester and the next, some thank-yous, a couple of hugs (one from the captain of the cheerleading squad!), some handshakes (sorry, guys) and then . . . all done.

So, the students in my two classes this semester spent a total of 10.5 minutes evaluating me, after I spent 52 classroom hours teaching them; at least triple that preparing for those classes and reading their assignments; and countless more talking to them in my office or responding to their email inquiries. I don't mind doing any of this. In fact, I love it, and I am grateful to have the job I have. I have had opportunities over the years to do different things and I have never given more than 30 seconds -- tops -- to trading my job for something else. And that was when I was offered a low-level political appointment in the first Clinton administration, an offer I turned down flat when I realized I would do nothing more than generate white papers for people who would never read them. Intellectual freedom and connecting with bright, personable young people more talented than myself is better than anything else I could ever hope to do, except maybe . . . maybe . . . spending a summer in the drum chair for Steely Dan and playing just one show with Wayne Shorter.

Back to the blue books. I will spend about twenty minutes on each one, then, after a break to rest my increasingly bad close-in eyesight, read through them again just to make sure I got them right. Meaning what? Meaning that I will spend nearly four times the amount of time evaluating one final exam for one student in one class than the 50 students in my two classes combined spent evaluating me. Meaning that I will spend about 10 times the amount of time evaluating just one assignment from one student than the most diligent student evaluator spent "evaluating" me for an entire semester.

The students bear no blame for this. The university does. And it's not just faculty that suffer for this. Students do as well because they are not part of any genuine process that takes what they say seriously. And believe it or not, enough do that their voices should be heard as part of a more comprehensive process of truly evaluating college teaching.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Go Speed Racer, go

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Here come the judges . . .

About three or four days before the presidential election, I posted a piece expressing my disappointment that so little attention had been paid to the impact that a McCain or Obama presidency would have on the composition of the federal courts, with the Supreme Court positioned at the apex. Two weeks ago, I posted another essay on the courts, this time spending more time talking about the forthcoming shift in the power circles underneath the political actors responsible for choosing and confirming federal judges. In addition to mentioning the obvious -- that Obama's judges will be, at minimum, centrists and, at best, genuine liberals unashamed to admit that the Constitution is not fixed in time and that judges should bring their power to balance reason and politics to determine law's contemporary meaning. No one seriously contests anymore the false objectivity of originalism, or what might be more accurately called constitutional fundamentalism, as legitimate intellectual tool to decide the meaning of the Constitution. Maybe, just maybe, the American people can have an honest conversation about what our Constitution should mean, given the social and political context of our times. Sort of, you know, like the Wizard-of-Oz moment we're having right now over the discovery that our "free market" isn't now nor has ever been really free. Markets are a creation of law, and law is the creation, for the most part, by those with social, economic and political power.

But I doubt it.
This morning's Washington Post contains several articles on the topics I just mentioned above, all of which express some, at minimum, disbelief that President Bush's judges have turned out to be -- well, there's no other way to say it -- conservative. There also seems to be some suspicion that Barack Obama will apoint judges who lean to the left, although Obama, when asked, claims he will have no "litmus test" for his judicial nominees.
And you can be he won't as long as they're all pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-civil rights claims, pro-labor, willling to concede that some criminal defendants might be entitled to the presumption of innocence, that not every federal park should be turned into a parking lot and believe that Congress should have broad power to regulate the economy.
Since I can't figure this stuff out for myself, even though I teach and write about American constitutional law and people that shape it, largely because I have never constructed a successful predictive model explaining why the law moves this way or that way, or why this judge or that judge decides cases in such-and-such a way, I am grateful that so many experts make themselves available to reporters writing stories such a these. Other professors, more learned (pronounced: ler-ned or learned? I know but won't tell) than myself, are pointing out that Obama has a huge opportunity to shift the direction of the federal judiciary and that he will need to appoint decidedly different judges than George Bush to do so.

Or: a (fx>\\^~) * ( fx + fy = fz) % b to the third power (45-123) + 1793=!% - over
b (ghj) /\/\<>/\>/< class="(199">x) - zip code - Giant membership number

But we should be careful in making such a brash prediction that a more liberal president who happens to have taught constituitonal law for a number of years at the University of Chicago with such colleagues as Geoff Stone and Cass Sunstein might appoint more liberal judges. Further research is needed, as is a generous grant to underwrite such an important topic. If I have learned anything in the roughly 25 years I have thought, written and talked about this stuff, it is that I am not capable of offering a meaningful opinon on what I do without the assistance of the true experts in the field.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . .

Friday, December 12th, 9-11.30 p.m. at the Red Dog Cafe in Silver Spring, 8301-A Grubb Rd. Come out and enjoy a full bar, an excellent bistro menu, wood-fired pizzas, desserts and coffee. We'll be joined by the great local jazz guitarist, Duff Davis.

We play at the Red Dog on Sunday, December 28th, from 6-9.00 p.m.

Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions.

To learn more about Zeebop, click here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Question 21a: Did the professor bring pizza, donuts, dancing girls and Thai stick to class?

Until last Thursday, I taught my first class on Monday and Thursday mornings at 9.55 a.m and my second and last class at 11.20 a.m. I generally don't get to my first class until about 9.54: 59 and, because the students in my first class are just filled with questions such as, "Professor Ivers, do think the Constitution is the work of existential deists who believed in the power of pride?" and "Uh, Dr. Ivers, can you, like, explain to me what, like, or whatever, we just talked about or something (sniff, sniff, wipe snotting lose on cuff of jacket or shirt) because, like, I'm, like, sort of, like, sort of, like, confused about, like, whether the 1st Amendment and the First Amendment are the same thing because, like, sometimes you spell them differently on your Power Point slides," and "Are you really going to lower our grades if we don't come to class, like you said you would in your syllabus?" You know what I want to ask them back? This: "Are you really going to reproduce the accounts of a major league baseball game without the express written of the commissioner?" I generally arrive at my next class about 11.19: 59.

Okay, no one asked me a question like that this semester, although I did have a student ask me on the first day of classes if it was "really true that I really made people do all the work and come to class."  While she was sneering or having allergic reaction of some sort that made one of her cheeks slide up under the right side of her Big Sunglasses, I told her that I did.
"I'm going to drop!" she announced, taking one final smack of her gum before twirling around and flip-flopping her way out the door.
"Thank you!" I said.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last Thursday, my timing was off. I noticed my students standing outside the door of my first class waiting for the professor to end the class before mine, which runs from 8.30-9.45 a.m. By the time I usually get to class, my students are well-settled and finishing the breakfasts I don't let them eat once class begins (although some do, thinking that a muffin or raises don't qualify as food, something that irritates the living hell out of me).  Raisins or muffins don't bug me; it's the eating that does.  I poked my head in and saw the professor finishing up the course evaluations with a couple of his students, who have to witness and sign the folder containing the bubble-sheets that will determine a professor's fate.  The class was running behind not so much because the evaluations were taking too long -- the professor was in the classroom and, by university regulation, s/he can't be when the evaluation is administered.  No, no, no.  The professor and the students were gathering up the plates and boxes and cups that were still scattered about the room by their spoiled classmates, who were or are obviously used to being picked up after.  Bites of donuts, bagels, pastries  . . . two "to-go" boxes of fresh coffee from the Einstein Bagels on the other side of campus . . . even some fresh fruit . . . on the same day as the teaching evaluations.
So hard to believe. Or is it?
After I gathered up my papers, made fun of my adorable assistant's sweatpants and Uggs, and nodded when my some of my students reminded me what our schedule is next week, I started out the door when I was greeted by a "Did you call the pizza man?" from a guy wearing a Papa John's hat, a guy I had never seen before.  But, as I've learned from the signs on Metro educating us about terrorism, he wasn't sweating or wearing a coat warmer than necessary for the day, that he wasn't here to blow anyone up. And the professor who teaches after me, who was busy setting up as I was shutting down, was taking out the course evaluations she was about to administer to her class.
Then there was the soda, brownies and other goodies worthy of an end-of-the-season party for a 4th grade soccer team to compliment Papa John's.  All in the name of class spirit and camaraderie.  
Or is it?
If you would have walked through the halls of the Ward Building at American University last week, you would have thought that the next three months worth of contestants on "The Biggest Loser" were getting in their last pre-game meal. Boxes and boxes of Krispy Kreme, Dunkin' Donuts, Starbucks and Whole Foods Bags are stuffed into hall trashcans, with little or no thought to throwing them into the recycling bins.  Either all these professors attempting to buy their students approval with free food and drink are Republicans and could care less about recycling anything, something I highly doubt, or could care less about ethics and social responsibility when it comes to keeping their jobs.
But guess what? I understand exactly where they're coming from. As I've written before, professors are the only employees at American University who are not subject to peer review. We are judged based on the results of the standardized teaching evaluations given out in every class at the end of the semester.  Assistant professors without tenure and people who really care about getting latte-a-week raise rather than a cup-of-coffee raise know that the people with the greatest power in this process -- the worst students in the class -- will determine whether they were "effective" teachers for the semester. You'd have to be a complete idiot to believe that students who don't do well in your classes are going to take a step back and say, "You know, I didn't really do jack in this class and deserve what's coming to me.  Man, I wish I could apologize to Professor Ivers for being so out-of-it all semester."  Of course they're not. These students have been seething in anticipation of this day.  You bet your ass they're going to reem you.  After all, who's fault is it that the exquisitely prepared meal that you ordered in a restaurant, served to you with grace and manners, is one you turned out not to like because you "forgot you were allergic to shrimp?"  The chef's, of course.
Higher education is not without its problems.  But really, should it come down to this for professors who want to keep their jobs and get their tiny little raises?  Can pizza, donuts and three kinds of Coke (that's "soda" or "pop" to those of you not from the South) really buy a student's love?  If so, what kind of system are we running, and just who the hell is benefiting from it?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Is higher education too big to fail?

Just how expensive now is it to attend a four-year college? Take a look at this:

Since 1982, the cost of attending a four-year college has increased by almost 450%. That's more than health care and housing costs, and four times the increase in the Consumer Price Index. Break it down this way: for every one dollar increase in the cost of living, college has increased $4.50. And that's just tuition, not living expenses. Technological innovation comes with a serious price tag as well. I went to college from 1979-83. I took a typewriter, one without a cartridge that corrected typos -- God knows how many gallons of White Out I went through my freshman year -- a clock radio, my stereo, all my records, a few books, mostly ones I "borrowed" from my father so that I would look smart to strangers and my clothes. That was it. No cell phone, no VCR, DVD player, iPod, iPhone, iTouch, laptop, counterfeiting machine, PC, laser printer . . . no nothing. My roommate and I shared the phone in our dorm room, which, compared to some friends of mine who had the share a phone with an entire hall at their colleges, was pretty sweet.

I've offered several posts (also, click here, here, here and here) on what I view as the ludicrousness of the contemporary price tag to attend college, public or private, but especially the latter. The retail price for one year of college at American University right now is about $43,500 per year, if you live on campus and enroll in the meal plan. And that doesn't include books and other education-related materials. Living off campus might ease the burden somewhat, but not enough to make a real difference for families trying to figure out whether they can afford to send their child to American.

$43,500. Wow! I sometimes cringe when I think about that number, and what we're offering in return. We cannot, as professors, hold our students to the standards that most of us would like because that would result in far too many disgruntled "customers," which is what many of our administrators call our students. Over the years, for example, my school, the School of Public Affairs, has started giving a "Customer Focus" award to our staff, including our academic advisors, who, advise students, who, in turn, I never thought of as a customer until universities decided to borrow this phrase from corporate America. What the hell does that even mean, anyway? I can tell you this much: if I worked as an advisor in our department, I'd end up slapping some of the students upside the head, and you can be damn sure that I'd focus my hand so that I wouldn't miss. I know our advisors dream about doing this. I know this because they tell me.

Now shift your eyes a bit. Over the last two months, the phrase "federal bailout" now applies not only to the financial, banking and insurance sectors, but potentially to the automobile business and, you can rest assured, the real estate business, as home values continue to nose dive. Sooner rather than later, secondary industries affected by the failure of major front-line industries will come to Congress with their hats in hand, asking for their own rescue. Congress will decide who gets what not necessarily based on need and necessity, but by the centers of power that can bring the most pressure to bear on the greatest number of members, who, of course, are beholden to their constituents, financial supporters and those powerful yet often invisible minorities who exercise political power at an inverse ratio to their numbers. There really isn't a good reason to deny the auto companies k-billions of dollars when Congress has already given out enough in loans, guarantees and other assorted financial gifts to the big banks and investments houses to start a new country. None of these companies deserves, according to Milton Friedman school, a Goddamn nickle. Let them fail, say the Economics 101 texts, so that markets can "adust" and "self-correct" and thus fix whatever mistakes buried these companies or industries in the first place.

There is an upside to current economic crisis, and it is this: Americans have finally learned that there is no such thing as a free market; that markets are a product of law, which is a product of political preferences. Determining that markets act "fairly" means that you're willing to accept, as a condition of political economy, income inequality, joblessness and services centered around basic human needs such as health care and education allocated and disributed based on profit rather than the public good. People who claim that markets are a "natural" product of human nature know that isn't true. Markets can effectively distribute some things and not others. No one, for example, can make a very good argument why preventive health care should be considered less important than treatment for the already-ill, which is always more expensive. Preventing poor public health is not a priority in the United States; if it were, then our public resources would reconfigure the health care delivery system, as, over the years, we have for education, certain aspects of transportation, parks, recreation and poverty-assistance programs. We would also have passed laws banning tobacco use in the United States. How strange is it that we permit the sale of a product like cigarettes that, when used as directed, will harm or kill you? Or make weapons that we sell to foreign governments, often for reasons of profit rather than national security? Power, not reason, is the currency of value in American politics.

So, turning back . . . will higher education one day become "too big to fail?" There's little danger of colleges and universities going out of business. The necessity of a college degree to have any serious chance of entering, at minimum, the American middle-class, much less aspire to life like the cool people on television shows seem to have -- cool apartments, hip clothes, an endless supply of disposable income and a witty retort for almost anything -- means that universities have their "customers" over a barrel. About 65% of Americans attend college now; yet only about 30% have bachelors degrees. Are we sending more kids than we should to college and pumping up their grades or lowering admissions requirements to do so? Has the computer-based existence to which everyone, it seems, is tethered . . . a view that's accurate if you're a member of the socio-economic class that can afford to participate fully in technological innovation . . . reached all the way down the income scale? Someone working on a factory floor, cleaning toilets, washing dishes, delivering packages or changing the oil at Jiffy Lube isn't sitting behind a computer all day, with multiple windows open to ESPN, USA Today, Gmail, Ebay and Facebook, riding shot gun along side this stunning engine of change. The Internet and our modern computer-centered culture has created a whole new population within a population of have nots.

So how can I make a case that access to public colleges should be the same as elementary and secondary public schools -- free based on a particular level of demonstrated accomplishment and aptitude. Please don't tell me we can't afford it. The federal government is now good for about $1.5 trillion in promised funds to breathe life into these companies that failed the test of their own lassiez-fare gospel. Establishing a right to an education beyond the K-12 level simply means that we're adapting to acturial and demographic shifts. 40 years ago, when a high school education meant something, when the United States, which made many more things than the still-recovering post-World War II economies of Japan, China, India and Europe, established the first "blue-collar" middle class society in the Western world, it made sense, to the extent that it did, to shift the expense to families after high school since college was a place to "get an education" and not learn a trade or learn the skills necessary to enter corporate America and work your way up the secure corporate ladder. A bachelor's degree in the post-industrial era of the United States is the equivalent of what a high school degree was through the early to mid-1960s. Refusing to recognize the changes in American society over time require us to revamp our public education system to look beyond funding K-12 education is short and long-term disaster. And whatever case you want to make that the "money just isn't there," don't make it so loud that Wall Street can hear you. Or it might have to give the money back the federal government just gave them.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Executive compassion at GM

Before you buy into the new-found compassion of the Detroit auto executives and their heartfelt interest in protecting their workers' middle-class way of life, read this, a post I wrote in September 2007 after the UAW struck against GM.

Then ask yourself how concerned the men (and some women) who sit in the executive perches at the Big Three automakers really are about their new blue-collar best friends.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Take the fun out of childhood -- now!

Like most parents, I've spent good money after bad on sports and countless other activities that my children had determined, right then and there, that they absolutely had to do or their lives would come to a screeching halt, if not ruined altogether for decades to come.

"Don't you realize it's been my life-long dream to play the cello?" wailed my now-14 year-old son, after my wife and I told him, back in the third grade, that we were not going to give in to his demands to become a classical cellist. What our boy genius did not know that we knew was that students participating in the Wyngate school orchestra got out of third period twice a week to take lessons and rehearse for the off-key cacophony/screech-a-thon sometimes referred to as the elementary school orchestra. After we told our son that the school had changed its policy on students taking orchestral instruments to move their practice times to AFTER school rather than DURING school, his no-doubt sincere desire to enter the Greater Washington Jewish Community Center Hall of Fame as our people's answer to Yo Yo Ma disappeared even faster than the stashes of leftover Halloween candy that he and his sister have hidden around the house that they don't think we know about but actually do.

Then there was our daughter's inexplicable interest a few years ago for about two weeks in becoming a private detective. To this day, I'm not sure what that was all about. We think it had something to do with the outfits she might have seen Barbara Feldon wear in an old episode of "Get Smart." The forensics in determining my son's motives are much more transparently fundamental -- some how, some way, underneath the professed desire to become a marine biologist, special effects artist (the "fire phase" of 6th grade; don't ask), cellist or artificial snowball manufacturer is his not terribly well-concealed objective to do absolutely nothing. Yes, yes, indeed . . . the boy will stop at nothing to do nothing, and, in fact, spends more mental and physical energy attempting to avoid doing almost anything than if he chosen to simply do whatever Herculean task confronted him, like, oh, I don't know, almost anything.

Except for hockey. He'll get up at 5 in the morning to play hockey and stay up late to play it some more. Naturally, being a future player representative for the NHLPA, he will only skate during the allotted ice time. If we practice from 6.30-7.45 a.m., he'll be on the ice not a minute sooner and stay not a second later. If he does, he wants to negotiate the terms. The other kids? "Wow, free time! Thanks, coach," they'll say, and then skate they will. Mine. "If I agree to skate 10 more minutes, then you have to agree to take me to Game Stop or Fuddrucker's."

And video games. No issues there either. He'll play them early in the morning, as in 2 or 3 or 4 a.m., not 7 or 8 or 9 a.m. Sleep, too, is another favorite activity. There's never an issue getting him to sleep and letting the day fritter away, gentling snoozing while I throw his clean laundry at him in an effort to get him up and moving. My daughter's not nearly as driven by the same desire to sleep and do nothing. Her favorite activity is talking, talking, talking . . . in great detail . . . about everything she is about to do during the day, from the early morning wake-up call to the often futile efforts to make her go to bed. In our house, CNN stands for the "Claire News Network." Her unedited stories range from who has slighted her at the 4th grade table in the lunchroom to what earrings she should wear on her "date" with Dylan to the Wyngate Book Fair to demanding an answer to why Hillary Clinton will serve as Secretary of State (really)!

Our children have found their way into their interests and activities on their own. Once they've chosen something, we make them finish what they start. For Max, hockey, baseball, video games, learning the drums, video games and, especially, doing nothing are interests he needs no prodding to pursue; for Claire, talking, screaming, threatening me, dancing, fashion, soccer (if the jersey colors are acceptable) drawing, performing and shopping have all remained constant since she popped out of the womb and started talking, screaming, threatening me, singing, dancing, shopping . . . etc. For better or worse, they have figured out what they like and don't like, and we've let them do it, as long as it doesn't land them in jail or result in too many complicated explanations for us ("No, no, no, really, we had no idea that our son was using dynamite to blow up the mole holes in your backyard. Yes, yes, we'll talk to him . . . what? You want to thank him. Oh, well, yes we did encourage him back in 7th grade to steal combustible materials from the school science lab").

But I could have saved myself a whole hell of a lot of trouble if I had had the luxury of taking my kids to Atlas Sports Genetics in Boulder, Colorado, to have them genetically tested to see what sports they would have the best chance to play well, so as to avoid wasting time and money on the soccer ball that has mostly been used in the house, and not for soccer; the Tae Kwan Doe uniform, tennis lessons, the recorder, the millions of dollars in Thomas the Tank paraphenalia, the 43 million pieces of Lego, several of which are still ingrained in my feet, Polly Pockets, the cooking books for kids and who knows what else. Yes, our children seemed to enjoy these different phases. But none proved a natural match for their, as of yet, untested genetic gifts to have their own cooking show, building and owning a railroad (coming complete with a federal bailout in the event it fails) or spot on the Olympic soccer team roster. As one mother who has enlisted the services Atlas put it:

"I could see how some people might think the test would pigeonhole your child into doing fewer sports or being exposed to fewer things, but I still think it’s good to match them with the right activity," Donna Campiglia, 36, said as she watched a toddler class at Boulder Indoor Soccer in which (2 1/2 year old) Noah struggled to take direction from the coach between juice and potty breaks. "I think it would prevent a lot of parental frustration."

Note how the mom seems not the least bit disturbed by her own behavior as an absolutely off-the-charts example of modern micro-parenting. Her concern, rather, is that her child might get "labeled" as a gymnast so early on that he might not have time, with all the special training that will inevitably follow, to learn to play the mandolin, or even the cello, just because he finds it appealing. After six years of coaching ice hockey in Montgomery County, where anybody who is anybody must have a child play a sport beyond the recreational level in order to establish their credentials in the Good Parent Social Circle, I thought I had heard or seen it all. But genetic testing for toddlers to determine their sport? Damn, go ahead and take the fun out of childhood right now. Thinking about it a bit, though, there are no shortage of deranged adults who have been doing that for sometime now. Just ask their children, who often never step foot back on a field, ice rink or gym floor once they leave for college, how much fun it really was.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Trick or treat?

Yes, Halloween was three weeks ago . . . but genuine fright knows no calendar, such as the release of a new Paris Hilton movie, a "trade that helps both teams" that inevitably helps the other and not yours or the "we need to talk" conversation initiated by your girl/boyfriend, wife/husband or the hairstylist who says "I thought I'd do something different this time" before she turns the chair around to have you face the mirror.

Here's some post-Halloween/pre-Thanksgiving fun:
Which is scarier, this or this?
Have a good Thanksgiving.  See you Monday.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . . 

We play a new venue this week, Felix/Spy Lounge, 2406 18th St. in Adams Morgan, DC. We'll be there from 5-8 p.m.
Friday night we'll play from 9-11.30 p.m. at the Red Dog Cafe, 8301-A Grubb Rd., in Silver Spring, MD. The cafe is four doors down from the Parkway Deli.
As always, thanks for your support.  To learn more about Zeebop, click here.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Friday, November 21, 2008

Quantum of Solace

Don't listen to what anyone says -- the new James Bond movie, "Quantum of Solace," is fantastic, in some ways even better than "Casino Royale" the first in the Daniel Craig-as-Bond-era, because the story line moves beyond the usual megalamaniac trying to take over the world or unleash a death ray on a major American city and sometimes London just to make a point. More so than any Bond movie, even dating back to "Dr. No," James is motivated to find and kill the people who killed his wife at the end of "Casino Royale," which was more powerful than Diane Rigg's death in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," largely because George Lazenby didn't play Bond the way that Ian Fleming created him -- serious, tough, not given to emotion or attachment and able to kill and walk away as if he just bumped into an old friend and shared some memories over some late afternoon tea and cookies. Craig's "Bond" is the closer to Fleming's Bond than any of the other Bonds that the previous actors played, including Sean Connery (my favorite, mostly for sentimental reasons) and Pierce Brosnan (excellent -- the best since Connery). The real Bond kills people with his bare hands, not trick watches and invisible cars, and Craig pushes to the fore Bond's violent nature and cold-bloodedness, yet makes you wonder if he's hiding something.

The movie is great. I think some of the opposition is coming from people who call movies "films" because they think it makes them sound like true patrons of the cinema, or what you and call "the movies." So what.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The next Supreme Court

The nation's attention is understandably fixated on the deepening financial crisis -- Citigroup is now the latest behemoth to invoke the "too big to fail" card -- and, of course, on whether Hillary Clinton will become our next Secretary of State (she will). Take a minute, though, to realize the ancillary effect that Barack Obama's election will have on the composition of the federal courts and, in particular, the United States Supreme Court. For the last seven years and eight months, George W. Bush has appointed almost 300 hundred judges to the lower district and appellate courts and made two key appointments to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts and Sam Alito. Both have proven consistent and committed right-wing jurists -- there is nothing original or compelling about their judicial philosophies. Their opinions read like they've just rolled off the assembly line from the sophisticated network of public interest law groups, law school organizations and non-profit think tanks that comprise the factories where modern conservative jurisprudence has been nurtured and developed into powerful forces in American politics.

By the far the most influential group of this movement of the last 25 years is the Federalist Society, which began as an informal club among law students at Yale, Harvard and the University of Chicago to challenge what these self-described libertarians and conservatives called "orthodox liberalism," which to them was a political ideology just seven steps short of Communism. Since the second Bush administration came to office, the Federalist Society has some sort of connection to almost 50 percent of his judicial appointments. Roberts and Alito are both Federalist Society members. And while the society pretends that its outrage is over the craziness of such out-of-it radicals as David Souter and John Paul Stevens, both appointed by Republican presidents, refusal to adhere to the original intent of the Framers, its real motives are rooted in the conservative cultural, economic and political opposition to the substantive triumphs of modern American liberalism. All constitutional silences tend to favor the rights of majorities to rule, which is pretty much all the time unless they do something, which isn't often, to expand individual rights. Then we need to remember the courts are there to protect the individual from ruthless acts of badly-intentioned legislators or members of the executive branch . . .
. . . unless they're not. You get it, right?
Turns out, though, the Federalist Society will be hibernating in the political woods for the next four years and maybe, if Sarah Palin runs against Obama - oh, by the way, does anyone believe that Sarah Palin will even get invited to speak at the 2012 Republican convention, much less bear that party's standard? -- four more after that. Bush's appointments are young and conservative, and will have an impact on the lower federal courts' work for decades to come. But Obama will have to chance to fill around at minimum 200 vacancies in the lower courts, many of those openings due to the fact that the judicial appointees of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush will be retiring, much more often than not, before Bill Clinton's appointments. I am certain that an Obama administration will take very seriously the judicial recruitment and appointment process, and take advantage, as W did, to shape the judiciary in a moderate to liberal direction. He did, after all, vote against the nominations of Roberts and Alito, as did Hillary Clinton. An Obama Justice Department is going to mean a renaissance for legal liberalism, as hundreds of eager young and established lawyers, some academic and some practioniers, will be vying to work there to undo, where possible, and halt, at minimum, the victories of the Bush administration in the courts and, more generally, the way law is thought of and manipulated throughout our culture. And the lawyers -- and, naturally, Ph.Ds in political science and philosophy -- who don't get into Justice will look elsewhere where they can debate and write about where the law should go and how best to get there.
New judges may well face many more complex statutory and constitutional questions than their predecessors. I am really interested to see how the courts will react to the inevitable challenges brought to the government's much more aggressive posture in regulating, if not, in some cases, taking over "private" industries in the automobile, financial, steel, insurance and real estate sectors. The next ten years or so could see the courts revisiting questions that haven't been raised since the New Deal. Conservatives are worried that Barack Obama will take pain to see that the courts get the attention they deserve as political institutions, and not buy into the nonsense that "the law" stands apart from politics. Let's hope the conservatives are right.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

When up is down

So now, or so I hear, it's the Big Three Detroit automakers who are "too big to fail." About two months ago, just after Lehman Brothers collapsed and the nation's huge financial, insurance and banking companies came begging, in all their exquisitely tailored and manicured glory, hats-in-hand, for their share of a $750 billion rescue package that Congress was told to authorize by Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke, the chief executives from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler sneaked through the kitchen entrance to ask for (and get) $25 billion in loan guarantees to save their companies from their mismanagement. Now, six weeks later, the Big Three heads of state want $25 billion more in loans to save their companies because it's not clear that they'll get the $25 billion they've already asked for. They want their money for the very same reason that AIG and what's left of the banking and financial sectors wanted theirs -- the Big Three are indeed Big, so Big that they're . . . too . . . Big . . . to fail.

Too big to fail? Let's rephrase the question by beginning with a more accurate statement:

The American automobile companies have failed. Detroit has made terrible cars for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my family started buying Japanese cars in 1979 and never turned back. Neither my wife nor I have owned an American car since 1988. My in-laws turned the corner in 1989. If Americans put as much time and effort into researching an automobile purchase as they did, say, a new Dustbuster or cell phone plan by combing through every Consumer Reports or Amazon customer review of the last however-many years, no one -- and I mean no one -- could possibly conclude that buying an American car makes sense.

For Chrysler, this is its second trip down the aisle asking for a federal bailout, having scored big in 1979 when Lee Iacocca, who was Ross Perot before Ross Perot and Mitt Romney before Mitt Romney became Ross Perot -- never mind -- sweet-talked Congress into guaranteeing loans from private lenders. That established the template for the next generation of what I've decided to call "socio-capitalists," or capitalists who operate on socialist economic principles, to come begging for relief.

I could go on, talking about the irony of the Big Three bosses stepping off their private chartered jets in Washington and then traveling by limousine over to Capitol Hill to begin their beg-a-thon that puts the annual "Save PBS" telethons to shame. At least we get a cappucino (naturally) cup for donating to PBS. And underwriting the Big Three will mean . . . what . . . to me? I don't honestly know how much of this works. But I do have a fairly competent understanding of English grammar. The phrase "to fail" to describe something that "has failed" is wrong.

* * * * * * * * * *

I haven't quite decided what Cabinet position I want to take in the Obama administration. Part of me thinks running the Justice Department might be fun. But I'd have to go to law school at night and that might mean having to skip my adult hockey games, pass up a gig or buy the iTunes versions of "The Office" and "30 Rock" at a faster clip than I already do. Plus, I probably wouldn't have time to watch them, given the demands of the job. And I've already paid my fees for the hockey season, which still has five months to go. There's travel involved, having to get up early every day and put on a suit, and . . . oh, fuck it -- let someone else do it.

Now I know how Hillary Clinton must feel. Choices, choices, choices. Should Hillary take the "floated" offer to serve as Secretary of State in the Obama administration? That gets a big "Hell, no!" from me. Then again, I'm not a fan.

But I must admit I have to admire someone who somehow manages to end up on the short list of every major job opening not on Craig's List or the American Political Science Association e-newsletter. Senate seat coming open in New York? Viva la Hillary! President of the United States? You go, girl! Secretary of State? C'mon, now. Is there a better choice out there than Hillary Clinton?

You have to examine the record. Back during the Democratic primary, Hillary took great pains to portray Barack Obama as inexperienced and untested, and, by extension, unable to understand, much less carry out, the awesome responsibilities as our Commander-in-Chief -- a theme that John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, hammered Obama on as well. Hillary and McCain, you see, were members of the same club -- Persons of Great Importance who had "crossed the threshold," "passed the bar" or "met the responsibilities" to serve as CIC. It wasn't clear then nor is it clear now just what the initiation ritual consisted of or where the test scores were posted to mark passage into this special club. On the most important foreign policy question of the post-Cold War, pre-return-to-the-Cold War era, the decision to invade Iraq, Hillary and McCain were flatly wrong. But in Washington, being wrong doesn't matter. Retaining your position of power to decide what you might want to do next -- coaching a Little League baseball team, moving to a K St. lobbying firm, running for president or offering up your considerable services to serve as a Cabinet secretary -- is the currency of value. So John McCain can be wrong on Iraq and yet claim credit as the architect of "the surge," the ingenious idea to increase troop levels so that the United States could bring violence down to 2004 levels, knowing full well that the purveyors of conventional wisdom in the corporate media will laud him as a "serious thinker unafraid to make the tough choices," even though "the surge" is to Iraq what "All Deliberate Speed" was to Brown v. Board of Education era -- a problem in search of a solution.

Hillary Clinton can use an undistinguished Senate career that has drawn praise for her mastery of briefing books rather than any legislative accomplishment of signifcance. Hillary used her time in the Senate to prepare her failed presidential run, which I accurately predicted would be the presidential campaign equivalent of the Titanic -- an expensive, doomed disaster, yet still retain her reputation as a modern day Eleanor Roosevelt. Hillary was unable to manage her campaign team, blew through over a $120 million in the process, needlessly extended the Democratic primary by insisting, with the cooperation of the corporate media, that she had a chance, until the very end, to win a nomination that she lost in early March and . . . yet . . . persuade the "serious" thinkers who staff the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post and navigate the shark-infested waters of "official" Washington that she'd be a great pick as Secretary of State.

No, I didn't state that incorrectly. A Clinton as our nation's chief diplomat. Think about that one for a moment.

Just how do you get to the point that you are presumptively qualified for any job out there when you haven't demonstrated that you're any good at the one you already have? Here's one possible answer. Years ago, we had a Dean in the School of Public Affairs at American University who was an absolute disaster from the moment he stepped on to campus. Imagine, if you can, Michael Scott from "The Office" combined with Lumberg from "Office Space" but minus the charm and that's what you get. He came here with sterling recommendations, so naturally the question was, and I paraphrase, "WTF?" And then the lightbulb went off. Everyone wanted to get rid of him, so they wrote him great references, you know, that ones that go, "As much as we'd hate to lose Dean Schmendrick, neither do we want to get in his way as he continues to build his career." Seems generous, right?

Wrong. Translated: "If you want him, you can have him."

Maybe Hillary Clinton would be a good Secretary of State. Maybe she could use the position to run for another office, say, Prime Minister of Great Britain or President of France or -- talk about cracking that glass ceiling by the millions -- Queen of Saudi Arabia! Imagine Hillary and the Hillary-nistas running an oil fiefdom where women can't vote or do much of anything else unless their husbands or fathers let them. For me, though, that's less of a question than how the John McCains and Hillary Clintons of the world are always called upon to save the day when their legacies of bad judgment far outweigh anything else they've done.

And that's not even getting to Joe Lieberman. Can you . . .

No. I just can't get into that.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap continue to cope with the concept of President-elect Obama. Apparently, it's not so easy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . .

We have two dates this week:

Thursday, November 20th, Maggianos, 5330 Wisconsin Ave., NW, in Friendship Heights across from Mazza Gallerie. We play three sets of straight-ahead jazz, with some blues and funk creepin' in at some point. 6.30-9.30 p.m. We'll be joined by local blues guitarist Mark Kowal.

Friday, November 21st, Red Dog Cafe, 8301-A Grubb Rd., Silver Spring, MD. This will be our first show at Red Dog, which is located just south of the intersection of East-West Highway and Grubb Rd. Some of you might these directions easier: Red Dog is just a few doors down from the Parkway Deli -- yes, the one with the pickle bar! We would appreciate all the support we can get! Two sets of straight-ahead jazz from 9-11.30 p.m.

Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions.

To learn more about Zeebop, click here. We plan to start recording our first CD very soon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap move to Canada and decide that, perhaps, their lifestyle doesn't suit the Great White North.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Barack Obama . . . a man for our times

"Unbelievable" shouldn't be the reaction anyone has after hearing a speech from a president-elect or even a president of the United States. As the largest democratic nation in the world, we should expect our presidents to have a demonstrated intelligence, foresight, calmness and sophistication when speaking to Americans or to the world.

But after eight years of suffering through a president who is without a doubt the least capable man ever to hold the office, hearing Barack Obama address the nation just a few minutes ago highlights the startling difference between the new president-elect and his predecessor. How the hell did we end up in a position where we seem grateful that our president can speak the English language and use it to communicate an articulate, thoughtful and powerful vision? Another legacy left by George W. Bush.

Barack Obama has nowhere to go but up. He is, literally, following, in Bush, the worst president in American history. Just his ability to speak in complete sentences and demonstrate fluency in the important issues of our time is a major break from the past. Now is not the time, though, to vent about Bush, although I must add that anyone who thinks that history will "vindicate" him is a complete idiot -- or mentally ill. A brilliant, thoughtful man who sees the world as something beyond some mythical version of 1955 small-town America to which no one in their right mind would return. President Obama has arrived not a moment too soon.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

John McCain shows class . . .

John McCain's concession speech is easily his finest moment of his campaign. I don't recall ever hearing such a heartfelt, thoughtful and generous speech by a candidate who has just lost a presidential campaign.

You could really see McCain's anger when some of his supporters starting booing when he congratulated Obama. The reaction was instant and genuine.

Good for John McCain. You can almost see a sense of relief in his face, although I don't know if he's happier to be done with a campaign he never seemed enthusiastic about or because he's now free from the right-wing nut jobs that ruined his candidacy (like the ones booing McCain -- again -- for congratulating Obama and Biden one last time).

Tears of joy

I just heard John Lewis, perhaps our greatest living American -- and, no, I'm not kidding, and if you think I am you need to do some reading -- interviewed on television. Listening to this giant of the civil rights movement, I couldn't help but shed a tear when I saw that Lewis's eyes started to mist over.

I cannot even imagine what this night means to Lewis, Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King and so many other African-American men and women who devoted their lives to making this country live up to its self-professed ideals. Not to belabor the point, but I think white folks need to step aside right now and resist congratulating themselves on their "willingness" to elect a black president and instead thank African-Americans for their patience and, yes, their allegiance to a country that made them wait for longer than they should have for something that is now rightfully theirs to share.

President Barack Obama

"Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last . . ."

Thank you, Ohio! You just made Barack Obama the 44th president of the United States.

And, as always, thanks to Sarah Palin for accepting the Republican vice-presidential nomination. You were truly a gift that kept on giving.

Live Zeebop this week

Zeebop will play at Pap and Peteys, located at 5th and H Sts., NE, Wednesday night, November 5th, from 7.30-11.00 p.m. Join us for three sets of straight-ahead jazz, served with a slice of funk at one the H St. corridors great new places.

If nothing else, come celebrate the end of the election.

Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions.

As always, thank you for your support.

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap ruminate on the presidential campaign's closing moments, plus highlight all the terrible things Bill Ayers has done to America, Sarah Palin's rogue operation and reveal the scandal around Barack Obama's distant aunt who is living in squalor -- illegally.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Four reasons John McCain cannot win the election

Here are four reasons that John McCain cannot win the presidential election this Tuesday. No, I don't have any special insight into the data that has been collected, massaged, analyzed and interpreted (or misinterpreted) to death that show Barack Obama winning by a fairly comfortable margin, both in the Electoral College and in the popular vote. My point here is why a McCain victory at this point, just 48 hours before the polls close on the East Coast, would be disastrous for the nation. Not simply disastrous because his election would mean that, after eight years of absolute horror from the most unpopular president in modern American history, the nation has chosen to extend the Bush reign of error for four more years. Right now, the race isn't really close. The polls show Obama ahead in every state John Kerry and Al Gore won plus: New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and Virginia. Plus, Obama is knocking on the door in North Carolina, Indiana, Florida and Missouri. He is ahead by anywhere from 3.5-7% in national polls. This is not a nailbiter from the perspective of the professionals who design and administer polls and analyze the data. In layman's terms, the outcome of this election is about as mysterious as one of those winter storms that will hit town and dump enough snow to make life for everyone fun, then miserable for a couple of days. The only question is whether the storm will leave 6" or two feet by the time it's done.

And so what happens if, by some miracle, John McCain wins on Tuesday?

1. Racism will explain the difference between a predicted Obama win and an actual McCain victory.  Sorry, but there is no other explanation.  I doubt very seriously that the very same people who have told pollsters and reporters that they plan to vote for Obama are going over their respective health care or economic plans this weekend that will lead to a "A-ha!" moment.  I doubt very seriously that Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright or some other McCain boogey-man will move decided voters from Obama to McCain.  No, at this point the only factor that can possibly explain a serious shift to McCain is racism.  Let's be real clear here.  Racism is not just dressing up in sheets and burning crosses or throwing around racial epithets without a trace of social consciousness.  Racism, among other things, is when you assign a superior value to one person and an inferior value to another because of their ancestry or ethnic origin.  For a voter to conclude that he just can't vote for a black man after telling someone he could is a racist. Sorry.  For the life of me, I don't understand why conventional journalists and commentators have bent so far over backward to dismiss the covert racial appeals of, first, the Clinton campaign in the Democratic primary and, now, the McCain campaign in the general primary.  Continuing the beat the Jeremiah Wright drum, outcries of "socialism" by a candidate who has just voted to authorize close to $1 trillion in government funds to save Wall Street, A.I.G. and, coming up, the Detroit auto companies, the emphasis on giving "our" money to "those" who don't deserve it, the not-so-subtle effort to link Obama to his Islamic superiors in al-Qaeda . . . the whole she-bang is just one big racial dog whistle. So far it hasn't worked.  If anything, the clear emphasis by the Clinton and McCain campaigns to make Obama a "black candidate" who will put black America first and everyone else second, like "hard-working white Americans," has backfired.

Hundreds of thousands of voters will have to retreat into their protective racial shells come Tuesday.  And while the McCain campaign has not been above appealing to voters vacillating on whether this accomplished, Harvard-educated lawyer, community organizer, professor, state legislator and U.S. senator is "ready" to serve as president -- witness Arlen Specter's pathetic comments in Pennsylvania this weekend on the secret lives of Pennsylvania voters -- the real question for McCain to consider as he prepares for the last election of his life is this: Does he really, really want to become president by appealing to the sickness that is American racism?  Does he really, really want to take the presidential oath knowing that African-Americans will no longer have any reason to trust white America again?  What will his friends in the Establishment media have to say about that? Will they continue to look for alternative explanations that don't exist?  

This is put up or shut up time for Americans who claim they are "beyond" the stains of our racist past and who claim race is just "one of those things they just don't notice" when sizing up the attributes of a black candidate. Forget, for a moment, what a stupid statement that is. I notice that someone is black every time I talk to someone who is black, just like I notice that a woman is a woman every time I talk to a woman. Failing to support a candidate who is so far and away superior to his opponent because that person just "isn't ready" for a black president has no positive outcome for anyone, least of all John McCain, who will become the Dorian Gray of American politics.

2. The political polling industry will have a hard time recovering from such a colossal miscalculation of the American public. Seriously, what legitimacy will the political polling industry have if their respondents prove them wrong?  Or perhaps the caveat in their marketing materials will be:  "Predicting political outcomes with confidence as long as a black man doesn't run against a white candidate since 1996." Honestly, I think the only people rooting harder for Obama to win than his most fervent supporters are the pollsters who make their livelihood convincing political candidates that they know what they're doing.

3. The international community will give the United States the finger. Point of clarification: the United States didn't squander its reputation as an international force of liberty, democracy and free markets after it rejected the consensus of the international community and invaded Iraq in March 2003.  Rather, the United States managed to lose the sympathy of nations who were repulsed by the attacks on New York and Washington that killed over 3,000 innocent men, women and children who had done nothing more than get up and go to work on the morning of September 11th, 2001. America's imagined post-Iraq decline in the eyes of the world actually began in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson refused to leave Vietnam because he didn't want to be remembered as the "only" American president who lost a war and continued through Richard Nixon's decision to extend illegally the war into Laos and Cambodia.  Our allies have never embraced our foreign policies on the Middle East, Latin America, Cuba, South Africa (remember the apartheid years?), Africa and many more places around the globe.  U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s wasn't a terribly popular or wise decision.  Yes, the United States did the right thing in the 1990s by bringing, along with other NATO nations, an end to the carnage directed by former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic (an effort, for you historians out there, opposed by very same people who couldn't wait to topple Saddam's statute just a few years later).  But America's perception of itself as the nation that all other aspire to be is perhaps the best example of "American exceptionalism," or the belief that America was somehow chosen by God to be different and better than every other nation. For American voters to turn on Barack Obama two days before the election will reinforce the perception that many of our nominal allies have of our country as one that is intractably racist and thus in no position to lecture the rest of the world, much less invade other countries, that refuse to follow our model.

4. Wave good-bye to grass-roots activism.  After hearing the old folks lament the laziness and self-absorption of Generation X, Y, maybe Z (doesn't this sound a bit like the Cat in the Hat, with Thing 1, Thing 2 and all the other little Things you couldn't see?), young people decided to put down their remotes and their wireless mice and hit the streets.  Families and individuals of modest means began putting aside a few dollars a week to send to Barack Obama as if they were tithing on behalf of some new religion. And what happens? Their candidate loses because the McCain campaign reaches deep into the post-1964 Republican campaign manual and sells the country on the evils of electing a black, er, I mean an "untested, socialist and Muslim" president.  A disengaged citizenry isn't good for democracy, assuming that the Republican party thinks that actual democratic engagement by the average people is a good thing, or only a good thing if it is an unlicensed, semi-employed plumber who's pissed off, or the secessionist-minded husband of Alaska's governor.  

"My feets is tired but my soul is rested," is a comment that Martin Luther King attributed to one of the quiet but courageous women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott who walked miles and miles everyday to and from work rather than continue to sit in the back of that city's segregated buses.  Forty-eight hours from now, we'll have the chance to see just how rested the soul of America, fifty years later, really is.