Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Day Grows Ever Closer

As the return of the sparrow heralds the onset of Spring, the arrival of the author's copies tells up Publication Day is not far behind...

Sunday, January 25, 2015

SOTU: If This be Liberalism, Let Us Make the Most of It

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama delivered some news the Republicans in Congress really didn’t want to hear: Things in America are a lot better, in objectively measurable ways, than they were six years ago when he took office.
An economy growing at the fastest rate since 1999. Deficits cut by two-thirds. Millions more people with health insurance. Soldiers coming home from two brutal wars. Lower gas prices. And much more.
“The shadow of crisis has passed,” the president said, “and the state of the union is strong.”
This, of course, did not sit well with those, both in the opposition party and the media, whose phony-baloney jobs (to quote the great Mel Brooks) depend on keeping Americans in a constant state of crisis, insecurity and fear. They need to keep insisting that nothing is getting better, that the state of the union is one of disaster and decay, that we’re doomed, I tell you, doomed, and we’ll be back to tell you more about it — right after this message from Cialis.

PBS commentator Mark Shields, for example, seemed amazed that the president didn’t slink to the podium dressed in sackcloth, deliver a mumbled apology for being alive, and stumble away under a hail of thrown vegetables and tin cans.
“This was not a conciliatory speech,” Shields said. “It’s amazing that the guy just got crushed in an election and he comes out very strong, very assertive.”
Well, Mark, maybe it’s because it wasn’t President Obama who got “crushed.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, Barack Obama wasn’t running in 2014. In the years he was actually running, it was Mr. Obama who did the crushing, as he noted in the night’s best line. When the Republicans responded to his statement that he has “no more campaigns to run” with derisive applause, Mr. Obama smiled the smile of a man whose opponent has just walked, serenely and all unaware, into a perfectly thrown and devastating left hook.
“I know,” he said, “I won both of them.”

That got a lot of laughter from the Democrats, but I’m wondering if it may have been partially directed at the ones who blew the 2014 elections so badly by forgetting why Mr. Obama won.
There were a lot of Democrats who were defeated in 2014. The thing that most of those candidates had in common was that they “ran away,” not only from the president, not only from his policies, but also from the fact that those policies are working to make life better for millions of Americans.
It’s a lesson the Democrats never seen to learn: When you try to position yourself as Republican Lite, the voters you need stay home, because they don’t see any difference worth turning out for. Mrs. Clinton, are you listening?
Having delivered the good news, the president set out to outline a program to keep the recovery going and make things better for the middle class. Things like: expanded child care for working families; a hike in the minimum wage, which would admittedly cost some jobs but which would lift far more people above the poverty level and put more money into the hands of the people most likely to spend it; free community college to train people for the future; paid sick leave; and tax cuts for the middle class rather than for corporations and millionaires who don’t need them.
I’m enough of a realist to know that these proposals are going to face probably insurmountable opposition in a Congress controlled by people whose knee-jerk reaction to anything that might help anyone other than their wealthiest donors is to snidely ask, “How are you going to pay for that?” Ever notice how they never ask that question when what they want is a fleet of new fighter-bombers that don’t work, or more tax cuts for rich people? We always find the money for the things we make our priorities.
I also know that the right is going to define these policies as “liberal.” Well, if those things, popular as they’re likely to be with the middle class, come to define “liberalism,” then I feel pretty good about the future of liberalism, especially when the other side’s “jobs plan” is taking away people’s newly acquired health insurance, cutting more rich people’s taxes, and building the Mystical Magical Keystone XL pipeline — which, to hear them tell it, will solve all our energy problems, provide us all with jobs, and give every American child a new pony.
These proposals may very well not pass this Congress. But they lay the groundwork for electing the next one, if the Democrats remaining can find their spines. Because fighting for the middle class isn’t just good political theater; it’s the right thing to do.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Yep, Je Suis Charlie, Y'all.

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

In the wake of the brutal murder of 17 people in Paris last week, a new catch phrase sprang up: “Je suis Charlie.”
It’s an expression of solidarity with the employees of the satirical tabloid Charlie Hebdo who were shot to death by self-proclaimed “jihadists” after the newspaper published raunchy cartoons featuring the image of the Prophet Muhammad.
Among the many ironies arising here is that one of the first people these religious thugs killed in their alleged “defense” of Islam was himself a Muslim, police officer Ahmed Merabet. In a related attack, several customers of a kosher grocery were saved by another Muslim, an employee of the store named Lassana Bathily, who hid them in the freezer.
In addition, the French Muslim Council, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Al-Azhar (Cairo’s thousand-year-old center of Islamic learning), the president of Egypt, the Arab League, and other Muslims around the world condemned the attack.
Heck, even Hezbollah said the “apostates” had done more damage to Islam than any cartoon, but that may have been more of a Sunni/Shia thing. If these goobers wanted to defend Muslims or unify them against the unbelievers, they did a mighty poor job of it.
Another irony is that, under normal circumstances, a lot of the people in the streets and in the media throwing their support behind Charlie Hebdo might very well be picketing them or calling for boycotts of their advertisers.
These guys were (and are) equal opportunity offenders. It wasn’t just drawings like the one of a naked and, shall we say, anatomically complete Muhammad with his behind in the air and a caption that’s so ugly I can’t even describe it via euphemism and expect to see it printed in this newspaper.
They also drew anti-Christian cartoons like the one of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost having sex with each other. Some of their caricatures of Jews are like something from ’30s-era Nazi propaganda. And so on. The lengths to which Charlie Hebdo goes to not just push the limits of good taste, but to gleefully explode them make the most vulgar “South Park” episodes look like “Barney the Dinosaur.”
One of their cartoonists, who goes by the pen name “Willem” (and who didn’t get shot because he missed the staff meeting) put it this way: “It makes me laugh. We vomit on these people who now say they’re our friends,” with “these people” explicitly including the pope, the queen of England and Vladimir Putin. Well, Willem, old son, all I can say is, resisting terrorism makes for strange bedfellows.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, thanks to the outpouring of support, the magazine just printed and immediately sold over 3 million copies, by far their largest run ever, and put out new international editions in 16 languages, according to Reuters.
And their new cover is another picture of Muhammad, holding up a sign that says, you guessed it, “Je suis Charlie,” below a headline saying “Tout est pardonnĂ©” (“All is forgiven.”)

So, suis-je Charlie (am I Charlie)? Well, thankfully, I’ve never been shot for what I’ve written. At least not yet. But I have had people publicly express on this newspaper’s website that I deserve “a long agonizing death, not quick, but slow and painful,” or that I’d die soon and my whole hometown would celebrate, all over jokes I’ve made in this column.
Others have sent me emails telling me I deserved to be hanged for treason for questioning Mr. Bush’s disastrous war. So I do feel a certain solidarity, even though these hateful sentiments were expressed to me by people who would no doubt describe themselves as Good Christians rather than Muslims.
To paraphrase one of my literary heroes, Mr. Samuel Spade: When a writer is killed for what he writes, you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was a writer, and you’re supposed to do something about it. Well, what I do is write. Writing is a small thing, I suppose, but it’s not nothing, or people wouldn’t be killing over it.
Therefore, wherever those so-called “jihadists” are spending their afterlife right now, I want to do what I do and tell them, in writing: You blew it, dimwits. You tried to silence Charlie Hebdo, and you utterly failed. You didn’t die martyrs. You died as ineffectual fools, and Charlie Hebdo lives and thrives. (Insert razzberry noise and extended middle finger here.)
Though some of their content makes me say it through gritted teeth, I have to say it: Je suis Charlie.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Here Comes JEB!

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Recently, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (or JEB! as his campaigns have referred to him) announced that he would form a “Leadership PAC” in January to “actively explore the possibility” of running for president.

After the announcement of the Leadership PAC, JEB! also announced that he was resigning from every private and nonprofit board of directors he sits on, according to stories in Politico and The Washington Monthly. Severing himself from all those corporate ties (which took effect on the last day of 2014) gives him a chance to characterize any slimy or damaging corporate connections as “long in the past” by 2016.
This may seem a curious attitude from the party who will be trying frantically to hang the 1990s-era indiscretions of Bill Clinton around his wife’s neck, but then, no one demands consistency from Republicans. Certainly not the national media.
In politician-speak, all of this means: “I’m totally running, but to announce this early would seem crass.” After all, the last thing someone running for the most powerful job in the Free World wants to appear is ambitious.
While I’ll probably never agree with JEB! on a lot of issues, I’ll give him credit for being at least reasonable on things like immigration reform and Common Core. He’s also miles ahead of many members of this party on the environment, according to statements I’ve read from both Democrats and Republicans from Florida. In fact, JEB! Is now a candidate for my small list of sane Republicans.
That’s going to be a problem for him.
See, there are two things that really grind the gears of the far right: (1) any proposal for immigration reform more realistic than “put a giant electric fence on the border and ship every single illegal immigrant home tomorrow, including the toddlers”; and (2) Common Core, a system of national education standards that they don’t really know anything about, but which Fox News has assured them is the thin end of the wedge for Islamofascistcommiesocialism.
JEB!, however, has stated that illegal immigrants “broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.” Oh, the heresy! He went on to say, “It shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families.”
This is guaranteed not to sit well for those for whom “riled up” is their default state, especially when it comes to Those People.
As for Common Core, it’s been decried by other Republicans such as Jim DeMint, former senator and Heritage Foundation president, who says the standards “substitute an unaccountable federal bureaucracy for state, local and parental decision-making in education.” It has also been condemned by presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. But JEB! has vowed to keep pushing it, calling the standards “good for the country.”
So by 2016, JEB! will have two choices. He can stick to his guns on immigration reform and Common Core and lose primary after primary to one or the other of the jokers who’ll keep popping out of the Republican Clown Car to be the front-runner for 15 minutes before imploding in a cloud of racism, misogyny, or bat-spit craziness. Or he can pull a Romney and try to run from things he once championed, to convince the raging right he’s one of them, and then lose the general because neither side trusts him.
So far, JEB! has shown an admirable tendency to take the first option. He’s even said he’s willing “to lose the primary in order to win the general.” How he hopes to win the general election without getting enough primary and caucus votes to get the nomination has not, however, been disclosed by his campaign. It’s probably some kind of top secret “strategery.”
Or possibly, the wingnuts will be able to choke back their bile over immigration and Common Core and embrace JEB! as the one most likely to beat Hillary Clinton. After all, as governor of Florida, he did do some things they love. He cut taxes, of course. He signed the Stand Your Ground law, which effectively legalized the killing of young black men if you could convince a jury you were scared enough of their hoodies and Mighty Black Fists of Doom. He ended affirmative action in state college admissions.
The Teahadists love that sort of thing and, if they can find it in their hearts to compromise, just a leeetle bit, on a couple of issues …
Wait. What I’m I saying? They’ll never do that. JEB! is toast.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Flights of Insanity: The Media and Missing Jetliners

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

What is it about missing jetliners that causes media outlets to completely lose their minds? (I mean, even more than usual.)
You may remember what happened after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March of last year. Bafflement about what had happened to the unfortunate aircraft quickly gave way to the type of crack-brained speculation you’d expect from a barefoot bearded guy raving on a street corner in a dirty pajama bottom and a stained Army surplus jacket.
Our old friends at Fox News, for example, trotted out one crazy theorist after another. They had a retired lieutenant general who came on and said he was “certain” the plane had been hijacked and secretly taken to Pakistan.
They had Erik Rush of WorldNet Daily, who appeared on Fox and claimed to have a source who told him that the U.S. (on President Obama’s orders, of course) took control of the plane via remote control of the “fly-by-wire” system, then diverted it to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. There, software engineers who were preparing to defect to China with sensitive computer data were taken away, and everyone else on the flight was murdered to cover up the plot.
The one who really led the charge over the Cliffs of Insanity, however, was CNN’s Don Lemon, whose commentary on the disappearance of Flight MH370 earned him a spot on the Columbia Journalism Review’s “Worst of 2014” list.
Lemon got the ball rolling when he began openly wondering if there was a “supernatural” explanation for the plane’s disappearance. “Why aren’t you talking about the possibility,” he demanded, “that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”
What cemented his place in last year’s Hall of Shame, however, was the moment when he suggested, in front of a panel of guests, that the plane might have been sucked into a black hole in the sky. “I know it’s preposterous,” Lemon said, “but is it really preposterous?”

Yes, Don. Yes, it is. I hear that Stephen Hawking is working on designing a mechanical arm so he can whop you upside the head with it.
Now, with the disappearance of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it appears as if the same silly circus is beginning again. Fox News host Anna Kooiman asked if maybe the plane crashed because of “differently trained” pilots using the metric system. “It’s not just a difference in the way that we measure things?” she asked. “Is it not as safe in that part of the world? Because our viewers may be thinking, ‘International travel, is it safe? Is it not safe?’”
Over on CNN, “aviation expert” Mary Schiavo attempted to assure us that it couldn’t be a terrorist attack because “most terrorist activity takes place in good weather.”
Meanwhile on Twitter, CNN viewers have been begging the network for “less crazy this time.” Well, we can hope, I suppose, especially now that they may have started finding actual debris and bodies from the terrible crash.
Part of the problem, as always, can be laid at the feet of the 24-hour news cycle, which constantly demands new material to view, read or download. Certainly there’s a powerful temptation to feed that ravenous beast with anything near to hand, even if it’s garbage.
In addition, as people like Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein (author of the book “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas”) have pointed out, inconsistent information from “official” sources contributes to an environment of uncertainty. That kind of uncertainty provides fertile ground for the wildest conspiracy theorists.
That’s a reasonable explanation for the behavior of the paranoid fringe, wrapping their tinfoil hats on tighter as they hammer away on their keyboards to blog about their latest demented fantasy. But when it comes to supposedly “legitimate” news sources (and, for the moment, I’ll include Fox in that category) — well, to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, it’s not their job to be as freaked out as we are.
Certainly it’s the responsibility of governments involved in a mass disappearance or other disaster to provide accurate information in a timely fashion. But in the event that they don’t, it’s equally the responsibility of news organizations not to fill the void with ridiculous speculation and wild theories that would embarrass a writer of ’30s pulp novels.
Like it or not, the news media help shape public perception and opinion, and that gives them a responsibility beyond just filling air time with nonsense. Someone needs to act like the grownup here.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: Let the Devil Speak by Steven Hart

Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and IncitementsLet the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements by Steven Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Smart, witty, acerbic essays about American culture, literature, and music. The book's real tour de force is the first  chapter, "He May Be a Fool, But He's Our Fool", which proceeds from a curious juxtaposition between two cultural events: racist Georgia Governor Lester Maddox' contentious appearance on the "Dick Cavett Show" and Randy Newman's seminal 1974 album "Good Old Boys." Newman had often said that the Maddox appearance, where Newman felt the Governor was treated unfairly, was the inspiration for the album's opening track "Rednecks." Steven Hart uses that connection to trace not only the divergent careers of Newman and Maddox, but the thread of bitter, corrosive resentment, inevitably tinged with racism, which runs through right wing politics to this day.

My favorite passage is the one about Pat Buchanan's "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican convention. Hart writes: "the imperturbably sunny face of the Reagan Presidency had been replaced by a frothing troglodyte with an anti-tax pledge in one paw and a picture of a bloody fetus in the other." That passage perfectly sums up the moment when I got off the moderate fence I'd been sitting on during the first George H.W. Bush term and threw in with the liberals.

It's not all politics, however: "The Ents From The Orcs" provides a fascinating glimpse of another particular moment in time that left an indelible mark on our culture: a night-long conversation in 1931 between three Oxford University academics (Henry Victor Dyson, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien) that led to the writing of Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" and Tolkien's Middle Earth series. "Bruno" is an appreciation of the life and work of the late Jacob Bronowski (of "Ascent of Man" fame). All of the essays share the same insight and sharp, incisive, sometimes cutting prose. I found myself nodding along in some places, laughing out loud in others. Great book, and highly recommended.

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