Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pigs on the wing, part III

So, predictably, here comes the swine flu hysteria . . .

Earlier this morning, as I left the house, I asked my wife, "How long until we get our first hysterical email from a Walter Johnson [high school] parent demanding to know how the school intends to protect the children from swine flu"?

I asked that question about 7.45 a.m. By 8.03 a.m., we had our answer: 18 minutes.

"Hi, Can anyone post what MCPS or WJ is doing regarding swabbing down desks, lockers, etc at the school? What extra steps are being taken re: the swine flu? I haven't seen anything from MCPS or the County. Now apparently there are a few cases in MD. Thanks."
Naturally, we also received an email from our temple ensuring us that the officers are taking all the necessary steps to prevent the swine flu from entering our congregation.

Silly, silly, silly. Even Reform Jews know that the swine flu isn't kosher.

Questions like these just demonstrate that you educate people at the finest schools in the land, the kind of schools that are so good that the owners of the Volvo station wagons (and their SUV successors) that carry their precious human cargo from place to place feel compelled to list them on each side of the rear window to inform all travelers of their discerning educational tastes and the deep pockets it takes to accumulate such a pedigree; that you can spot the difference between broccoli from broccoli rabe from thirty feet away at the local Whole Foods; that you can seal your home behind an vast array of anti-bacterial cleaners, soaps, vegetable waxes, tissue paper and naturally-derived laundry aides; that you can read every single issue of every single magazine about parenting, living more simply, going green, orange and blue and inject the latest miracle anti-oxidants . . . but you just can't make them think.

Here's some advice: either come to grips with the fact that no one, not even the most clever companies with the cleverest advertising and marketing campaigns, can shield you against certain phenomena in the natural order, or spend a fortune and your mental health falsely attempting to protect yourself against viruses and diseases that might make you sick or -- yikes!!! -- might even kill you. Pointing out that you have a better chance of dying in a car accident, getting your hand chopped off by a lawnmower (God, who does that? I've never understood how anyone could be that stupid. Ranks right up there with the people who drown in three inches of water), winning the Powerball lottery or becoming a professional athlete at the game's highest levels. Believe it or not, you have a better chance of contracting meningitis than you do of contracting the swine flu. And that is some nasty stuff. Had it in high school. Even math was more fun than dealing with that.

However . . . if you are one of those people who genuinely believe that we can all live risk-free lives despite the impossibility of doing so . . . if you are one those people who genuinely believe that two confirmed cases of swine flu in Maryland (population: about 5,650,000) means the coming of Armageddon . . . if you are one those people who genuinely believe in witchcraft, spells and religious wrath . . . then by all means do the following:

1. Take the plastic sheeting and duct tape you have leftover from the anthrax hysteria of fall 2001.

2. Construct a fort with no air holes in the darkest reaches of your basement, remembering to take the high-fiber dry goods and gallons and gallons and gallons of water you carted home in your Expedition or Range Rover from Giant or Safeway or Whole Foods to protect yourself against anthrax, biological terrorism, crop dusters with deadly chemicals and real terrorists who were going to enter your home (at 3 a.m., naturally) and smother you with blankets infected with smallpox.

3. Retrieve the Cipro you bought on the black market or hoarded through a well-placed doctor friend (by now expired, the Cipro, not the doctor, unless s/he expired), a map, three flashlights, a cell phone and your list of emergency contacts, even though, as the result of the terrorist attack, no one will even be alive, much less have power or phones.

4. Take one last look outside, then quickly go door to door in your neighborhood, zig-zagging in dark clothing, like you did to minimize your chances of being shot by the sniper of fall 2002, the one who experts decided was a disgruntled white man, a Joe the Plumber-type, driving around in a white van, even though it turned out to be a deranged African-American man and naive teen-aged boy who were driving around in beat-up Chevy sedan.

4. Get inside the plastic sheeting -- remember, no air holes, since the terrorists will dump spores of anthrax and other noxious chemicals into your personal safe space -- and seal it shut with the duct tape.

5. Whatever you do, don't read the newspaper accounts of the two teenagers who were just arrested today for plotting to bomb their high school over in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb just outside the D.C. line. You might not want to send your kids to school ever again. You might think about home-schooling them.

6. Then STFU and leave the rest of us alone.

And remember, when we run from the pigs rather than defeat the pigs in their own pens, the pigs win.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap continue their voice their concern for the ships sailing into pirate-infested waters, comment on Perez Hilton v. Miss California and comment on Hugo Chavez's appeal.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sports drunks

The last time I remember watching a football game -- or, come to think of it, any game -- in a bar that seated more than about 50 people was sometime during the fall semester of my sophomore year in college. For reasons that will be apparent in about three or four sentences, I can't quite remember if Tennessee, the university I attended my first two years, was playing Georgia, Notre Dame or UCLA. But I do remember -- very clearly, if that makes any sense, that the legal drinking age was eighteen. And, like almost every other of the 98,000 or so fans in attendance, I was enjoying whatever Southern Comfort or Jack Daniels-based concoction my friends and I had brought into the stadium to get into the football spirit. At 18 or 19 years old, there is a certain degree of "stupidity" freedom that goes with the age, especially at college football games. For my first two or three years of college, I looked forward to every "football Saturday" with great excitement. As strange as this might sound, these Saturday games served as a great motivating force to get all my work done so I could enjoy whatever it was I wouldn't remember by Sunday afternoon. I attended every Tennessee home game during my first two years, and, as best as I can remember, I didn't get thrown out of a single one. Nor did anyone that sat in my section. Then again, by the end of the third quarter, the chances are better than even that I had passed out or, as I prefer to remember it, nodded off for a quick, restorative nap, so someone -- not me, though -- might have been asked to watch the remainder of the game from the comfort of home.

My all-time favorite beer-driven sports story took place during the second semester of my freshman year at the End Zone, the perfect college beer bar. At the End Zone, you could not buy a bottle of beer, only draft beer in pitchers. And you drank your beer out of plastic cups, not glasses. And you sat at wooden picnic tables, not In 1980, you couldn't spend more than $10 in that bar if you tried, unless you decided to buy everyone in the bar a pitcher. Even then, it was still a close call.

As the only hockey fan in Knoxville, Tennessee by way of Atlanta, Georgia, I put together a floor outing to watch the U.S. vs. Soviet Union semi-final hockey game at the End Zone. Like everyone else who watched that game, I never, not for minute, thought the Americans would beat the Soviets. No sane person could have. So, as the third period wound down and it became apparent that the Americans were going to win and go to the gold medal game (Trivia question: Who did the Americans beat to win the gold? Hint: It wasn't the Russians), we did what all normal college students would -- and should -- do in that situation: we began drinking out of the pitchers, not the cups. And as we started counting down . . . "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . " a dorm-mate of mine, a guy who, today, would be a dead-ringer for Kenny Powers from "East Bound and Down," dressed as he was in oversized jeans, work boots (not Timberlands), a belt buckle with some sort of gun on it, a flannel shirt with the sleeves torn off . . . the kind of guy that comes to rescue you and your car from a dark, deserted road in his tow-truck and, without prompting, starts talking about how mandatory seat-belt laws violate his constitutional rights . . .

anyway, he stood up on a picnic table he had commandeered for himself and shouted, pitcher of beer in hand, "Goddamnit . . . you communist bastards. We just kicked your ass in hockey. Now get the hell out of Afghanistan!" Sort of a strange sentiment, right? The Americans lucked out and beat the Soviets in a game they would easily lose 99 out of 100 times, so let that determine world politics. Fun, fun, fun.

* * * * * * * * * *

Earlier tonight, I sat in a bar of 18,277 people and watched the Washington Capitals paste the New York Rangers, 4-0. My season tickets have been in the same place for about the last five years, and I've come to recognize most of the faces around me. For hockey fans, they're all pretty normal. No one leans forward to block your view, drinks to excess, curses in front of small children or otherwise behaves like a complete idiot. Yes, there are some, like my long-time neighbor to my immediate right, Mr. Cranky, who is never happy with anything the Caps do, unless they win every shift of every period in every game. In the span of minutes, the Caps can go from the greatest team ever to "clowns on ice," his favorite phrase to describe play that does not meet his exacting standards of excellence. Even Alex Ovechkin, whom he once called "overrated" after he failed to convert on a what he perceived as a scoring chance from behind the opponent's net with three people on him, does not escape criticism. You gotta Mr. Cranky one thing though . . . at least he's sober.

By my count, at least twenty people were escorted out of our section from rows that began about eight back from where I sit (the second row in the upper bowl). During the second period intermission, I got up to take a walk around the counter-clockwise walk around the concourse, a ritual of mine when the Caps are ahead. As I walked through the portal, I looked up and saw a guy, wearing a Rangers jersey, asleep with beers in each hand, with one more in the drink holder on his seat and another one in the drink holder in the seat next to his. Walking around the concourse, I saw lines twenty and thirty feet deep at the beer stands, with eager semi- or completely drunk men and women, most of whom were holding a stack of empty cups to let the world know, much like we did our freshman year in college, how many beers we had already consumed that evening (or morning). waiting for yet another opportunity to gulp down another $7 beer. And on and on it goes.

Later in the game, I witnessed Rangers coach John Tortorella throw a water bottle at a Caps fan seated a few rows behind the bench, then pick up a stick and start brandishing against some other Caps fans who were heckling the Rangers. After Tortorella did his thing, a fan dumped half a beer on him, further infuriating the tempermental coach and leading a couple of players to turn around and start yelling at the fans. The Rangers would later defend their behavior by writing a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that -- are you ready for this? -- "throughout the game, several people seated immediately behind the visitors’ bench took advantage of the looseness of the glass panels and the unusually wide gaps between the panels to assault the Rangers with some of the most obscene language imaginable. Because of the way the glass is installed, the patron sitting behind Coach Tortorella (the gray-haired, bearded man in the white T-Shirt) could literally scream into the coach’s ear. According to Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay, one patron was screaming at the team, in graphic language, about whether Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have a sexual relationship. This was within earshot of several children seated nearby. Several other fans also made repeated homophobic remarks."

And in the department of unintended irony . . . a Rangers official demanding that opposing fans tone down their language. Have John Tortorella or Glen Sather, the Rangers GM, ever sat in the stands at any New York sports event?

In the third period, I saw the police escort numerous people out of the stands, not just in the cheap seats where I sit, but from the expensive seats in the lower bowl (which, with the exception of the last 10 rows between the blue lines, are not a terribly great place to watch a hockey game). I couldn't see if they were Rangers fans or Caps fans. Even without a good luck, I'm fairly certain they were drunk.

For me, the biggest problem in professional sports isn't what the athletes make or whether they use steroids or visit sick children in hospitals or win every game or choke in the playoffs. Since I've always preferred playing sports to watching them, I don't get that emotionally invested in the outcome of any game, regardless of who is playing and for what stakes. Sure, when I was younger, much younger, I rose and fell based on how my favorite teams were doing. But never for long. Now, I watch sports purely for entertainment, although that doesn't mean I don't have great admiration for what great athletes do. I've watched some of the best athletes ever play their chosen game from anywhere from five feet (Tiger Woods at the Masters in 1995) to five yards (dugout seats to Game 1 of the 1991 World Series) to the stratosphere (1989 NBA conference finals between the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks). I've been close enough to see the facial expressions of such great athletes as Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretsky, Mario Lemeiux, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Oveckin, Dominique Wilkins, Pete Maravich, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Pete Rose, Cal Ripken, Bo Jackson, Joe Frazier and many more. I was attendance when Gene Garber ended Pete Rose's hitting streak at 45 games, when Ryan Minor replaced Cal Ripken in the Baltimore Orioles line-up, when Orel Hershiser pitched innings 37-46 of his 53 consecutive scoreless innings streak and when Hank Aaron hit his last home run in Atlanta Fulton County stadium as an Atlanta Brave.

No, the biggest problem now is attending a game without some sports drunk ruining it, whether at the game, in the lobby or on the Metro home. There is a temptation, naturally, as you get older to see problems that have always existed as somehow worse they were before. Stupid, immature and generally moronic drunks at ballgames have always been with us. Still, I see this problem getting worse and worse. And not worse before it gets better. Just worse.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Secrets, lies, terrorists and torture

Who is lying to whom or what about the lies that one person may or may not have told to another person about something that might or might not have happened?

Okay, so that's an awkwardly phrased question. But that's the one that keeps coming back to me as I read the coverage and comments about the Obama administration's decision to release the Bush Justice Department's torture memos a little over a week ago. As I understand it, the concomitant debate within the Washington political-media complex has centered on these major questions, issues, concerns . . . or whatever you want to call them.

1. Did the Obama administration compromise our national security by detailing the torture program created and carried out by the Bush administration?

2. Was Obama's decision "reckless" and "irresponsible?"

3. Has Obama now handed the "terrorists" a strategic victory?

4. Have the chances of eating poisoned arugula at the Whole Foods salad bar increased as the result of the public release of the memos?

5. Will a crazy man decide to shoot up a youth soccer game this weekend because he now knows how to prepare for a C.I.A-led interrogation? This assumes, of course, that the crazy man is a terrorist affiliated with an international terrorist movement and not some homegrown, good old-fashioned American psychopath -- you know, the sort of person who does this thing somewhere in the country about every 27 seconds or so.

* * * * * * * * * *

As usual, the conversation in Washington is about everything and nothing . . . everything in the sense that the usual self-appointed "experts," or the very same people who depend, at best, on government sources for their information , claim to "know" whether the use of torture yielded "valuable information" from "high-value" detainees. That information, in turn, helped the United States "foil" "numerous" "plots" around the globe. Likewise, opponents of torture are quick to discount any possibility that torturing detainees helped elicit information that was (and is being) used to prevent terrorist acts against the United States and, one hopes, our allies in Afghanistan and the two or three countries that still support whatever the American mission is in Iraq.

The "nothing" component of this discussion, debate or argument, though, is the more compelling narrative, and one that I haven't seen addressed all that much (outside of, perhaps, Glenn Greenwald's reporting and commentary). The "nothing" of this story is this:

How does anyone . . . and I mean anyone . . . know who is telling the truth about what the United States really did to detainees considered "high-value" (and it doesn't seem that long ago that every other alleged terrorist captured by the United States was the "Number 2" official (behind Osama Bin Laden) in al-Qaeda or the former Saddam government in Iraq)? How does anyone know who provided what information to whom about what plots or movements or actions, and whether that information was useful or not?

For anyone not directly involved with the capture, detention and interrogation of prisoners held under United States authority to claim they know what did or didn't happen is not possible. For anyone to take on face value the statements made by former Bush administration officials not privy to the proceedings that torture provided valuable, life-saving information is foolish bordering on delusional. Government officials are in the business of promoting the agenda of the agency, organization or individual to whom they answer, and that obligation means, by and large, that disinformation rather than the "truth" serves as the preferred currency. Remember how the Bush administration first denied that it authorized torture, and then once Seymour Hersh broke the Abu Ghraib story in 2004, reluctantly confessed, for no other reason that to maintain some shred of credibility, that it did use "enhanced interrogation techniques (i.e., torture)" but refused to apologize for them? Remember how President Bush said the United States would never torture anyone? Remember the outrage over how Jessica Lynch was treated by her Iraqi captors, only for the public to discover later that the entire story around Lynch was fabricated? Remember . . . remember . . . remember . . . ? The list is endless.

So, for me, the question is a little different than whether torture yielded useful information, since I do not believe there is anyway that everyday civilians like me can know that. Nor do I believe that a single mouthpiece in the Washington political-media complex (unlike Paul Krugman, I do not think the Washington political and media establishments are separate entities. They're one and the same) knows more about this than I do, which is nothing.

I. F. Stone once wrote that "all governments lie." For democratic nations like the United States, the trick is to maintain the balance between lying, which, again all governments do, and openness. But when the nation is besieged by an administration that lies so often and so egregiously that even individuals far less skeptical -- okay, cynical -- than myself don't know what's true and what's not, there is absolutely no reason to accept a word that comes out a regime that sponsored and aggressively pursued torture. So, for now, forget all the discussion about the need to "recover American values" or return to the "ideals upon which this nation was founded." Our "values" are far less pure than we like to pretend. Like all great nations, this one was founded and developed by blood as much as reason. I'd be willing to bet that torture was quite common during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. I'd be willing to bet that Americans tortured and were tortured during World Wars I, II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I'd be willing to bet on all these things and many others. But betting is all I can do, since I have no idea what happened to whom and when it happened. And neither do you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap comment on the nation's "tea parties" and their impact on politics, taxes and everything else; pirates and how to tame them; and offer some YouTube clips of famous country stars from way back when.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Obama and torture: 1 for 2

The reaction to President Obama's decision to release the Department of Justice (specifically, the Office of Legal Counsel) memos that sanctioned torture to suspected terrorists detained by the United States has been lightning quick. As is predictable from the Washington pundit class, conservative critics have all but accused Obama of treason, while liberals normally supportive of Obama are pissed off by his decision, for the time being -- to borrow from Introduction to Psychotherapy -- to move on; there's nothing to be gained by authorizing the Obama Justice Department to prosecute Bush administration officials involved in creating and authorizing the various forms of torture administered to C.I.A.-held detainees.

My feeling, for now, on Obama's decision is mixed. I think Obama's decision to release the torture memos was an extremely brave political act, and one almost unprecedented by an American president. Yes, it involved the previous administration and, yes, no one reading the memos can be surprised by what's in them and, yes, the Bush administration, after some genuine investigative reporting beginning with Seymour Hersh's stories on the Abu Graib scandal, had already acknowledged that it did authorize C.I.A. interrogators to engage in what it euphemistically called "enhanced" techniques to elicit confessions and other information from "high-value" suspects. And, yes, Obama was getting ahead of what he knew a federal judge somewhere along the long would have required him to as the result of an ACLU lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act aimed at getting the torture memos released. All that said, Obama's decision to release the memos before the legal freight train hit him is an extraordinarily praiseworthy act as a political decision. American presidents generally don't do things that compromise the reputation of their predecessors or offer the bloodhounds in the entertainment media (Rush Limbaugh) or in the mainstream press (the WSJ editorial page; conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer or Bill Kristol) a freebie. Of course, no reasonable person should take seriously anything that these county fair-level carnival barkers have to say. But ours is not a reflective nation nor one with the capacity for critical self-examination. So, while we demand that other nation's clean their closets of all secrets and put on trial government officials who engage in corrupt and barbaric acts (think post-Saddam Iraq), we engage in Olympic-level intellectual gymnastics to defend our lack of accountability and the possibility that we are not a perfect nation.

But I think Obama gave one so he could avoid putting the United States on trial before the whole world by strongly hinting that he will not authorize or encourage the Justice Department to open an investigation to determine whether to prosecute officials in the Bush administration, a prosecution that could well end up putting Bush, Cheney and many others in the line of fire. I simply cannot fathom why so many people in the Washington political-media aristocracy are so willing to shrug their shoulders at such unconscionable behavior, yet demand a full accounting of whether Bill Clinton sexually harassed a low-level state employee while he was a governor and then, as president, copped a couple of blow jobs from a White House intern. That's an inquiry more suited for the National Institutes of Mental Health than Congress or the Justice Department. Poor Edgar Alan Poe -- can you imagine the fun he would have had with this one?

Or Kafka.

To me, national security is not served by allowing government officials at any level and regardless of their political persuasion, to break the law with such impunity, especially a democracy that self-righteously lectures the whole world on freedom, individualism, the rule of law and the respect for rights. Washington's got Obama by the short hairs on this one. He knows full well that he cannot spend the first term of his presidency overseeing an investigation of the Bush administration, one that, before we forget, is ultimately the Attorney General's call, not the president's. The nation is too knee-deep in shit right now to do what should be done. That's too bad, because holding his own office, and by extension the United States, accountable for criminal behavior would be the best lesson that this former law professor could ever give.

You can read more about the torture memos (and actually see them) here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jose Three-or-more is not the answer

Before the Washington Capitals 4-3 opening round loss to the New York Rangers, I cautioned all my friends who thought (but no longer do) that the Caps would dispose of their opponents in five or (maybe) six games. Sure, the Caps can score a ton of goals. But that's during the regular season and certainly not, night after night, against a great goalie like Henrik Lundquist. So, like in baseball when the post-season is about pitching, playoff hockey is about goaltending. In short series, you see rested No. 1 goalies every night. No AHL call-ups, second-stringers or emergency stop-gaps.

And the Caps just don't have it. Jose Theodore, whose regular season performance was, by far, the worst of any No. 1 goalie in the Eastern Conference, allowed four goals on 21 shots. Two those goals, one and four, were softies and third one should have been stopped as well. A first-rate goalie makes those stops. Theodore didn't.

I'm not pressing the panic button because I never thought this series was a gimmie in the first place. The Rangers are a better team under John Tortorella than they were under the first coach, they have Lundquist and they kill penalties better than anyone in the league. The Caps coasted in the last month, were frequently uninspired and have the weakest goalie of any team in the playoffs in either conference. Don't be surprised if the Caps go home after the first round.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reality-based political science?

Joseph Nye, a professor of government at Harvard and the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government, acknowledged in an Op-Ed piece in Monday's Washington Post what any honest political scientist should admit, when the microphones are off or, as is more appropriate to academia, when the tenure clock isn't running -- that, as a discipline, political science is an insulated, irrelevant and (yawn!) boring discipline. Nye, of course, is right -- dead right. But I guarantee you that a solid majority of political scientists around the country are muttering under their far less accomplished breaths that Nye is among those "old" political scientists who simply doesn't understand all the high-powered and sophisticated work that his "modern" contemporaries are doing. As I've mentioned before, for "serious" academics, "seriousness" is defined as accepting academic convention, which means, rather than question the underlying assumptions that (falsely) support the (utterly predictable and ultimately not) theoretical foundation of the empirical methodologies (impenetrable mathematics, statistics and other such "tools" rooted in, again, assumptions that are not, in any sense, rooted in empiricism), you wink and nod and accept all this for what I believe are three reasons:

1. You want to advance your career, and there are few better jobs in the entire world than that of a tenured academic. The analogy here is that of a low-level mobster, or, thinking about it a little bit more, a mafia wife who genuinely believes that "the life they have chosen" is no different than working as a tobacco company marketing executive or Congressman or telecommunications lobbyist. You go along to get along. And to do that, you develop a different moral calculus and, most importantly, an extremely aggressive form of cognitive dissonance. Or something that less sophisticated people (and psychiatrists) call denial.

2. You haven't really gotten out much, grown up and maintained friendships with people outside the cloistered walls of academia, worked in the field that you claim to know so much about or actually know anyone who does what you claim your "data" says they do. Think political scientists whose "research" is about campaign politics, lawyers, public interest organizations and legal institutions, Third World development or state legislative "behavior," but have never so much as handed out a yard sign, interviewed a public interest lawyer or a federal judge about what they do or think the Third World is any neighborhood without an organic food co-op or a fair trade coffee shop with three year-old copies of In These Times on the corner tables.

3. You don't have the imagination or creativity to see the world -- or the parts that interest you, anyway -- as it really is. By siphoning off the complicated, messy parts of politics, culture, human relationships, economic complexities, the interaction of forces that seemingly have no relationship, you can model, explain and predict to your heart's content. In the end, no matter how dazzling the statistics and math are, none of these articles are explaining or predicting anything, because what they claim to explain and predict has already happened. You can describe, interpret, analyze . . . do a number of things thoughtfully and systematically touch upon the political world. But explain and predict? If that were the case, a lot more political scientists who study judicial behavior would be on the payrolls of the nation's most prominent appellate law firms that currently have practices in the state and federal courts than the current number, which is somewhere around or at zero.

But you need to make your serious, important work absolutely unintelligible to people who might actually have some interest in the topic, but don't have a Ph.D and teach on a college campus. You know how nutritionists believe that you shouldn't buy any food with more than five ingredients in it? You should be wary of someone who cannot either (1) tell you what they're working on (2) why it matters or (3) what they've accomplished with their sophisticated "methodologies" in less than five sentences.

These three groups, in my naturally unscientific estimate -- no rounding term, no degrees of confidence or freedom -- comprise about 90% of academic political scientists. The remaining 10% consist of either exceptionally accomplished political scientists like Joseph Nye, whose work actually is valued and respected by policy-makers and academics.

Or people like me, who aren't serious, much less influential.

Oh, well. What are you gonna do?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap try out "sexting," warn North Korea to cool it and host an interview between Billy Bob Thornton and Joaquin Phoenix . . . the latter with some pretty interesting results.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The thrill of victory

Put aside the noise about steroids, contracts, bad behavior, television announcers screaming at each other about steroids, contracts and bad behavior and you can still find plenty of reasons why sports are still great and maintain such a hold on American culture.

The Frozen Four championship game between Miami of Ohio, the tournament's lowest seed, and Boston University, the tournament's highest seed, was without a doubt the best college hockey game I have ever seen. It might also be one of the best hockey games I have ever seen at any level. Like everyone else, I thought Miami had it wrapped up after heading into the final minute with a two goal lead. Then BU scores two goals in the final minute, forcing the game into overtime. Once in overtime, BU took it right back to Miami, scoring the deciding goal about 8 minutes into the first overtime period. Yes, the goal was fluky. But when you come back like that everything can and does usually go your way.

Poor Kenny Perry. A two shot lead with two holes to play in the Masters, still the greatest golf tournament in the world, and he goes bogey-bogey to end in a three-way tie for first. Perry survives the first sudden death hole and then loses to Angel Cabrera on the second hole to squander what was probably his last real chance to win that tournament. Years ago, I met Kenny Perry when I was invited to a party by a family that hosted him for a local PGA tour event. He was just as nice, modest and gracious then as he comes across in all the profiles and stories done on him this week. I would liked to have seen him win just to see a nice guy finish first. But you have to give Cabrera credit. He recovered from a horrible approach shot on 18 to par the hole and survive into a playoff.

That's the great thing about sports. You can predict the predictable. But you can't predict the events that leave us with the greatest memories and keep us glued to or pacing in front of the television.

Plus, the Braves swept. All good in my 'hood.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bill Bruford

Bill Bruford, after Ringo Starr, was the first drummer I ever paid more attention to than the other members of the band whose album or song I was listening to at any particular moment. And I remember quite well the first time I heard Bruford, and, by extension, Yes. Sometime in early 1972, I was staying up late listening to WQXI-FM (94.1), then the first FM station in Atlanta to play songs beyond the Top 40, which is what you could hear on its sister AM station. On WQXI AM, you would get the edited version of "Roundabout," by Yes, if that. On the FM station, you would get the whole song, including the middle "B" section ("Along the drifting cloud the eagle searching/Down on the land . . ."). But "Roundabout" wasn't the first tune that drew me into a life-long fascination with -- and addiction to -- Yes and Bruford. The song that literally forced me to stop drumming on the pillows that I had carefully arranged on my bed was "Long Distance Runaround," still, in my view, among the most elegant and sophisticated three and a half minutes of rock music ever. For most listeners, I suppose, the opening jazz-inflected guitar line of Steve Howe is what immediately pulls the listener into the song. For me, though, it was the crystalline tone of Bruford's ride cymbal and the jazz-like but rock-rooted kinda-swing, kinda-something else drum pattern that propelled the song along. The counterpoint bass of the incomparable Chris Squire, the greatest bass player (after Paul McCartney) in the history of rock, made this is rhythm section unlike anything I had heard in rock music, probably because neither Bruford or Squire were locked into the traditional roles of the bassist and drummer. For rock drummers and/or bassists to lock-in and play melodically with and against each other was so far outside the box that you couldn't have located the box with infra-red night vision goggles. Other rock drummers of that time, even the great ones like Keith Moon, John Bonham, Carl Palmer or Charlie Watts, didn't play like Bruford did. Only Phil Collins, who American audiences were not familiar with because Genesis had not yet found acceptance in America (that would take about another year), was playing with the same level of sophistication as Bruford.

So, naturally, after I had fallen hard for Yes and decided I wanted to play just like Bruford, the rat bastard announced he was leaving the band after "Close to the Edge." After Close to the Edge? Perhaps the greatest album in the progressive rock history? Did he have arthritis, like Sandy Koufax, and decide to leave at the top of his game rather than make the fatal athlete's mistake of sticking around just long enough to make everyone forget about his or her greatness? As it turned out, Bruford did not have arthritis; rather he had the musical shplikes, the Yiddish word for "nervous energy," the inability to sit still, the need to do something, anything to keep the brain moving. Make one of the greatest records ever? Thank you very much, said Bruford. Now let's move on to a new challenge rather than just make another record in the same vein. As someone who would have killed -- literally, I really do -- to sit in the Yes drum chair, it took me a long time to understand how anyone could leave a band after having done something so spectacular. By my early 30s, about twenty years after I first heard "Long Distance Runaround," I finally figured it out. Bruford simply felt that he had accomplished as much artistically as he could have with Yes and that it was time to move on to another situation -- in his case, the sadistic enterprise led by Robert Fripp known as King Crimson. Did that for a few years, then called it a day, moved on to play with his buddy Phil Collins during the 1976 Genesis tour, after Phil had taken front-man and vocalist duties from Peter Gabriel, requiring a trusted and exceptionally skilled drummer to fill his spot for live performances. Cashed that check and then started his own band, Bruford, which moved closer to the template that has guided his career ever since: improvisational music, not quite jazz and not quite rock but never treading towards the dreaded "fusion" bin where musicality is too often sacrificed for self-indulgence and a "see-how-fast-I-can-play-this" mentality. Bruford made some incredible albums under his own name, especially "Gradually Going Tornado" and "One of a Kind," before going back to King Crimson, then started his own semi-electric, semi-acoustic band, Earthworks, which eventually moved towards the more traditional acoustic jazz model, then took a quick detour back into Yes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leaving again to make a record with Eddie Gomez and Ralph Towner . . .

Yes, that Eddie Gomez, who was the great jazz pianist Bill Evans's bassist from 1966-1977.

. . . and then back to Earthworks and King Crimson again before, by the late 1990s, settling into Earthworks and jazz once and for all.

I just finished reading Bruford's autobiography, and, typically for him, it is unlike anything I have ever read about a musician's life. First, he writes well. Second, he is open and forthright about his personal and musical life without feeling the need to settle scores. Third, and not finally, he is remarkably frank about what he believes are his own shortcomings as a musician and how hard it is to get to that point in your career where you believe you have made a contribution to something larger than just cashing your paycheck. As a drummer, Bruford stands out in so many ways: his precise approach to time that never stagnates into drum machine-like mechanics, his signature snare drum sound (which I've never really cared for, prefering a fuller, less "pingy" sound myself), his ability to play in all sorts of time signatures without making it sound like he's playing a math problem and his constantly evolving set-up and choice of instruments. All of this, of course, in search of something new.

Bruford mentions towards the beginning of his autobiography a piece of advice he received early in his career from King Crimson co-drummer and percussionist Jamie Muir, who told him that drummers, like all musicians, exist to serve the music, not the reverse. That might seem like a pretty fundamental point -- we all should acknowledge that we are part of something larger, and that our best efforts should be directed towards advancing the art or profession that we have claimed as our own. Twenty years into my chosen profession, I am confronted by the stark realization that the majority of academics, whether in their research or teaching, are content to go along in order to get along, a maxim more familiar to the political world than an environment dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Just as I have never felt that practicing what I already know is particularly useful, I don't think that reading, thinking and writing about what I have already read, thought and written about is terribly challenging or interesting. Bill Bruford, as a musician, has accomplished infinitely more than I ever will as a professor or writer. But his stubborn pursuit of ideas new and interesting, and his determination to practice and develop the techniques and skills necessary to achieve them, even if that means disappointing an "audience" that wants him to do the same things year after year, should inspire anyone who wants to make a contribution to whatever the passion or profession that animates their dreams and informs their soul.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The end of excess?

A week or two ago, standing in the check-out line of the third grocery store I had been to that afternoon -- this one because my 10 year-old teen-age daughter had decided that the orange juice I bought at grocery store number two did not have enough pulp for her advanced palette, a trip necessitated by my disastrous purchase of orange juice at grocery store number one that had too much pulp -- I noticed the Time magazine cover to the right. What caught my eye was not the middle story on the top border, "Sticker Shock: Inside the College Financial Aid Game," -- what could that be other than another conventional-wisdom-come-lately acknowledgment that our college admissions and funding process has reached the FUBAR stage; that something should be done about it; but that nothing probably will? -- but the stark cover feature, "The End of Excess: Why This Crisis is Good for America"

Pardon me if I've heard this before. Remember this?

"True, the belief that the United States was a privileged sanctuary, that distant threats could not disturb our lives at home also collapsed that day. And yet, as Americans examine their altered world, as we cope with the economic uncertainties, personal insecurities and even anxieties of what lies in the future, the national mood -- whatever that is -- is shaped by much more than [our recent trauma] . . .

And why not? There were so many other stories and forces directly touching our lives. The wonderful, giddy euphoria of a wonderland in a "new" economy playground was already gone as bubbles burst and personal investments and 401K plans headed down. As the once high economic tide receded, it would expose what had been lurking beneath the surface: the accounting scandals, corporate financial games and Wall Street cronyism that have poisoned public trust in business and the markets."

These words were written shortly after September 11th, a moment when the mainstream media decided that "America had lost its innocence," as if, in the immortal words of Foreigner, it felt like the first time. But, by my extremely unofficial and unauthorized count, September 11th marked at least the 25th* time that "America had lost its innocence."

Since 1961, the year I was born, America, the Little Bo Peep of great nations and semi-successful empires, lost its innocence during or because of the following events:

Bay of Pigs (1961)
Cuban Missile Crisis (1962)
Medgar Evers Assassination (1963)
John F. Kennedy's Assassination (1963)
Gulf of Tonkin (1964)
Vietnam War (1954-1975)
Mississippi Murders of Civil Rights Workers (1964)
Watts Riots (1965)
Bloody Selma (1965)
Summer of Love (1967)
Six Day War (1967)
1968, the entire year (including the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Democratic Convention and more)
Pentagon Papers Case (1971)
Watergate Break-In (1972)
Yom Kippur War (1973) (America went on nuclear alert)
Roe v. Wade (1973)
South Boston Riots (1974)
President Nixon Resigns (1974)
Patty Hearst (1974)
Attempted Assassination of President Ford (1975)

and . . . skipping ahead by a ratio of about 2:1, the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979), Iran-Contra scandal (1986), Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union (1990); Gulf War I (1991), the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center (1993); the Clinton Impeachment (1998), the attack on the U.S.S. Cole (1998).

That's 25 or 26 or 27, depending on how you count. Or 24.*

Either way, 24 or 25 or 26 or 27 losses of innocence before September 11th add up to much more than one. For whatever reason, Americans, by and large, seem to really believe that we are a nation of innocents, periodically victimized by a small number of deranged and wholly un-American citizens who no one would miss if they all packed off and headed to one of the new-a-Stans somewhere in Eastern Europe. Milling about our lawns, chewing the cud with our neighbors, who, of course, we all know well and by name, in and out of each other's houses are we are all the time, waving to the kind-hearted postal worker and making sure that those crazy teenagers down the street aren't overdoing the root beer floats at the local hangout, where the girls are giggling at the boys, who are comparing their tricked-up hot rods with each other, hoping that they'll land one of the gigglers for a ride to the point, where they'll make-out and nothing more, since they know that premarital sex isn't what God wants.

And besides, sex is for sluts, whores and bad boys. Gays, too, because they're predators and mentally ill. Plus, they can't help themselves, unless you want to blame the Supreme Court, which put us on the path to ruin by eliminating school prayer.

Let's be real for a minute: TV Land America exists in TV Land America and nowhere else. As a kid, I used to watch the Brady Bunch when it was in prime time and then after school when it was in re-runs, or what is now called syndication. For a long time, I really thought the Bradys had a lawn made from artificial turf, or, again dating myself, what we called Astroturf, in honors of the surface the Houston Astros played on in the Astrodome, and wondered why we were so underprivileged. It took me sometime to figure out that blended families -- I was part of one growing up -- did not co-exist like the Bradys did, much less like each other all that much. Until I was about 16 or 17, I didn't realize that entire industries existed of people with budgets the size of emerging industrial nations who devoted their time to something called "public relations," "branding," "the consumer experience," "visualization," "image positioning," and other such black arts intended to mislead, defraud, delude, comfort, deny and just plain bullshit as many people as possible about anything in which their clients -- businesses big and small, government agencies, presidents or any politician for that matter, entertainers and athletes, anything or anybody, have an investment. That was around the same time I was preparing to leave high school and start college. Rarely since have I walked, much less run, down the path well-beaten in anything I've ever done, simply because, as I have learned in the interim years, I'm not wired that way. Rather than gravitate to "American Idol," the American Political Science Review or the Billboard Top 40, I instinctively wonder how so many people can possibly be wrong so often. Or worse, wonder why they believe they're possibly on to something.

Nassim Taleb's marvelous new book, "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable," explains our penchant for predictability in a brilliant and delightful manner. Taleb wonders why we focus so much on "explaining" the ordinary and so little on understanding the impact of improbable events. Or, to use his analogy, why are we fascinated so much by white swans and so little by black swans? Why do "social scientists" spend so much time attempting to explain retrospective events without taking into account all the random variables that occur between the point of interest and the current tense (think about the mainstream media's near-obssession with the "Bradley effect" in the past election, when there was nothing at all similar between the "role of race" in a Los Angeles mayoral race from 1982 and the presidential campaign of 2008)?
Events that traumatize, influence and shape the world on a grand scale aren't necessarily predictable; but our need for some sort of comfort level in what we know, to assume that we can know and predict what matters of importance will happen next, takes precedent over the fact that (1) we can predict, in the real sense, much of anything and (2) that whatever we can predict is fundamentally useless.

Journalists, commentators, academics and others who ponder the grand meaning of events big and small possess a collective level of amnesia that simply boggles the mind. Before the current crash-and-burn of the housing market, the financial sector, the dissolution of America's automobile industry, the disappearance of our manufacturing base that has inspired the false belief that we are entering a post-consumer age and returning to our core values of community and simplicity, there were other such moments when our runaway consumption and boundless appetite for more and more and bigger and bigger suddenly came to a sudden halt. Before the greed and avarice of the Bush II years, there was the greed and avarice of the Clinton years, and before that, the greed and avarice of the Bush I years and the greed and avarice of the Reagan years. And before that, and before Taleb, there was Alexis de Tocqueville, who, traveling throughout America in the early 1830s, commented on what he called our nation's "love of comfort."

In America the taste for physical well-being is not always exclusive, but it is general; and though all do not feel it in the same manner, yet it is felt by all. Everyone is preoccupied caring for the slightest needs of the body and the trivial conveniences of life. . . .

In America I never met a citizen too poor to cast a glance of hope and envy toward the pleasures of the rich or whose imagination did not snatch in anticipation good things that fate obstinately refused to him. . . . Love of comfort has become the dominant national taste. The main current of human passions running in that direction sweeps everything along with it. . . . I do not reproach equality for leading men astray with forbidden delights, but I do complain that it absorbs them in the quest of those permitted completely.
And finally:

There is a closer connection than is supposed between the soul's improvement and the betterment of physical conditions. A man can treat the two things as distinct and pay attention to each in turn. But he cannot entirely separate them without in the end losing sight of both. Why is it, then, that animals only know how to satisfy their primary and coarsest needs, whereas we can infinitely vary and continually increase our delights? If men ever came to be content with physical things only, it seems likely that they would gradually lose the art of producing them and would end up by enjoying them without discrenment and without improvement, like animals.

Forget for a moment how an economic meltdown that has displaced millions of Americans from their homes, jobs, access to healthcare and overall mental health can possibly be "good for America," as Time suggests. Only someone immune from the fragile nature of modern American economic life could have made such a statement. The real question is not whether we are preparing to enter a post-material era free of excess; but why so many Americans continue to genuinely profess surprise at the seismic and often devastating impact that big events, sometimes predictable but often not, have on our economic, social and political lives, and how or why we are going to deal with those events differently than we have before.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap offer their insight into the cultural significance of President Obama's gift of an iPod to Queen Elizabeth, former vice-president Dick Cheney's spying campaign on Obama, and Madonna's determination to adopt an African baby.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week . . .

Monday, April 6th, La Ferme, 7101 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, MD. Soft, swing jazz in a country French restaurant setting. 6.30-9.30 p.m.

We'll also be back at La Ferme on April 20th.

Saturday, April 18th, Maggianos, 5330 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington. Three sets of straight ahead jazz. 7-10.30 pm.m

Hope to see you out soon!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The college caste system

Over at Salon, Andy Kroll, a student at the University of Michigan, has an excellent piece on a rarely talked-about consequence of the rising costs of attending a four-year public or private college in the United States -- that our college campuses are increasingly becoming "gated communities" of privilege for those lucky enough to have the means (or merit or need-based assistance) to attend them.

Kroll interviewed several students either already attending the University Michigan or about-to-graduate high school seniors who have either given up the prospect of heading off to Ann Arbor because they simply cannot afford it. And these are Michigan residents who cannot piece together the approximately $6,125 per year for tuition, a number that does include room and board. At that price, an education at the University of Michigan is as close to as steal as there is in higher education -- the Ann Arbor campus is perenially ranked as one of the top five public universities in the country (defined as those offering a full range of degree programs, including Ph.Ds, dental, medical and other professional schools, etc.). To read how many students cannot afford to attend their state's flagship university is truly heartbreaking.

I've written several pieces on what I believe are the most pressing problems in higher education. You can find the most recent one, "Is higher education to big to fail," by clicking here. You'll see several more links in that post taking you to pieces on everything from the ridiculousness of how professors are "evaluated" at my university to my suggestion that we should consider making public universities accessible to all qualified students by eliminating tuition. As the discrepancies continue to mount between those who are able to attend college and those who are not, the consequences will reverberate on multiple levels. The high cost of attending college has already made professors much more beholden to their students demands than ever before. More and more, professors are simply teaching to the test so that their students can do well, make their A or, in rare cases, a B, and go away happy. At $45,000 per year, students at my institution are under the impression that they call the shots, and academic administrators, for all their insistence that professors are the lifeblood of the university, have every incentive to make their "customers" -- yep, that's what they're called now -- happy. Another consquence of smaller budgets and potentially smaller student bodies will be the increasing "professionalization" of the undergraduate curriculum. The first programs to go in most budget cuts are music, art, performance, the humanities and the less "relevant" social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology. At these prices, students want their degrees to have "value," and schooling them on the history of Eastern and Western civilization, music appreciation, philosophy or who was stomping around what continent when don't always provide the means and ends relationship they want from their classes. As much as I hate this trend, who can blame them? It is, after all, much easier to buy books and attend concerts when you have a job.

College roulette

Yesterday's New York Times and today's Washington Post feature stories on what's new and what's not in the annual spring ritual of college admissions. The Times story discusses the increased importance of a fat wallet, or an applicant's ability to pay the actual retail price of tuition, room and board, in getting accepted into private, selective colleges and, in some cases, their public counterparts. The Times also maintains an excellent blog on the business side of higher education, including how colleges make admissions decisions, award financial aid, compete with other institutions and allocate their resources.

The Post story focuses on the impact that the recession is having on the number of applications that private colleges are receiving this year and the corresponding rise in yield rates -- the number of students admitted as a percentage of all applications -- in order to maintain the class sizes necessary to sustain their operating budgets. Universities with large endowments can usually weather the storm during difficult times and generally don't have to make many adjustments in their admissions decisions. But for universities like American (and we are not alone), which is somewhere between 90-95% tuition driven, the need to admit and retain students takes on a greater importance in times like these. The Post reports that our applications are down 1%, which makes us, along with Howard University, the only school in the greater D.C. area (although the University of Virginia is included here). In fairness to American, though, last year was a record-setting year for the number of applications received. The 1% drop is actually meaningless. The bigger question is whether we have the resources to admit the students we would most like to have, or whether, as the Times article suggests, we will have to admit students we'd rather not based on their ability to pay the approximately $50,000 it will cost to attend American next year.