Thursday, June 28

Grow Up

Jonah Goldberg, "Confessions of a Cheney Fan: The man has got style." NRO, The Shameless Remnant of a once Shameful Enterprise, June 27

Eric Lichtenfeld, "Yippee-Ki-Yay... The greatest one-liner in movie history." Slate, Bellwether of the New Media, June 26

Like Cancer Man in The X-Files , he always seems to be standing in the shadows, moving the gears of government to his own nefarious tune.

Since the Die Hard franchise, and its catchphrase, have been absent from the screen for 12 years, a question arises: do the words "Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker" still matter? And why did they resonate in the first place?

MR. Goldberg, as some of you already know, is author reputed author the nameplate on the door of the new upcoming long-awaited erstwhile column article book curio article column remnant laughingstock Liberal Fascism Totalitarianism Rudeness Hippies From Readers, I Need the Name of a Philosopher Hegel to Hillary Clinton Barack Obama No, Hillary Clinton Fuck It I Fucking Know John Mackey's a Libertarian! That Head Shop That Wouldn't Sell Me A Naked Lady Bong Without I.D. The three-year effort involved in scrupulously researching meticulously footnoting ducking and covering seems to have had little if any effect on him, although, like the massive doses of LSD we're required to give laboratory rats in order to make accurate observations about the effects of marijuana on H. sapiens, it's really hard to tell.

Mr. Lichtenfeld is the actual author of the actual book entitled Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie (ISBN-13: 978-0819568014), the revised and expanded edition of which was published this past April by Wesleyan Film Books, and which was called a "marriage of popcorn and the provocative" by Steven E. de Souza, the screenwriter of the original Die Hard. Mr. Lichtenfeld, in other words, watches pretend shit pretend to blow up and then writes about the cultural relevance of it. This would seem to represent a sea change from the Ironic Retro Hipster Anti-Contrarian Contrarian contrariness usually found in Slate to a more direct Hiring a Generationlet Too Young To Grasp the Concept at the Time and Now Capable of Pulling It Off Without the Irony. The astute reader has already noticed the odd affinity of the two methods, as Mr. Goldberg writes unreflective paeans to real shit blowing up in a way that suggests he can't tell the difference.

I have no real bone to pick with Mr. Lichtenfeld (and what if I did?); I'm too old to pretend I can keep up or care, and every generation deserves its own historians of ephemeral junk. Otherwise you'd endure a lifetime of Bette Davis movies. (Who is, now that I think of it, a pretty good argument that schlocky cartoon violence at least makes for a better Time Waster than attempts to bring Maugham to the silver screen.) Still, what excuses saying:
Unlike the many action-movie one-liners that are rooted in the hero's narcissism, McClane's stems from our collective wish-fulfillment. He is not referring to himself, not suggesting an "I" or a "me" but an us . And considering the European Gruber's appreciation of fashion, finance, and the classics, McClane's comeback acquires an additional subtext: Our pop culture can beat up your high culture.

in 2007? What would have excused saying it in 1988? Oooh, take that! lousy Eurocentric High Culture! From all of us! "All of us", in this case, being defined as "twenty-five year-old white men still trying to justify their fourteen-year-old's confusion of video and real life by saying things like 'collective wish-fulfillment' a lot". High Culture? Beating on High Culture in this day and age is like making fun of the style of dress your grandma was buried in. At the funeral.

It's not that I can't enjoy a good slog through an actioner, provided it doesn't insult not just my conscious intelligence but that of my R-brain in the bargain. It's not that I can't imagine anyone excited by the prospect of Bruce Willis squeezing out another sausage--okay, it is--nor by the thought that an adult would spend his time beating the drum for it, no matter what the job paid. It's the apparent inability to tell the difference that troubles me. We make a distinction between a pair of fourteen-year-olds diddling each other's privates and the same act between the puppybodied middle-school cheerleader and the nicotine-stained janitor with the bald spot. Can't we do the same for culture? Grow up!

Which brings us back to Jonah and the world as viewed through Raisinette-smeared glasses. Take a whiff:
In particular, I like his stance toward the media. His view of the Fourth Estate is a bit like that of a bull elephant annoyed by varmints shnuffling around his feet: He’s not bothered enough to squish ’em ... yet.

Now, I take a backseat to no one in my belief that the Media could use a good squishing (nor in my suggestion that they evince more characteristics of the inherently more squishable vermin, though the idea of Dick Cheney squishing varmints is plausible, assuming somebody else cornered 'em first). Still, Dick Cheney is about to accomplish something? Provided he gets just a tad angrier? Please, girl. Cheney is terminally pissy. He may have run roughshod over the Cheerleader in Chief these past fugly six years or so, but who couldn't? When has Dick Cheney ever come out into the light? He hands over the nation's energy policy to his pals in the Ohl Bidness--a standard (pardon) Republican act of faith--and does he come out when challenged, look anyone in the eye, and state his case? Of course not. He runs and hides. Bull elephant? Try boll weevil.

And tough on the Press? Shit, how about "deathly afraid of it"? (Remember, he and Bush both peed themselves because Adam Clymer walked by when they were unarmed.) Has there ever been a VP who's appeared on Meet the Press that often? Or been pitched as many softballs, or gotten away with so many non-answers? Tough? Cheney's been hiding from Tough since Nam. If he hadn't he wouldn't have been able to leave such an unbroken trail of stupid, disasterous, sui generis decisions. We'll leave aside how many hours he's spent in the happy bosom of FAUX News. Tough guy. Like Himmler, who vomited on his own boots the one time he toured an extermination camp.
The vice president is famously concerned with two things: restoring the prerogatives of the executive branch, lost in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and defeating our enemies in the war on terror. Both are admirable goals. But seemingly countless sources inside the Bush administration tell the Post that Cheney has a contempt for bureaucratic and legislative consensus-building that rivals his contempt for cultivating public support through the media. As a result, he often succeeds in bulldozing policies — on enemy interrogations, etc. — all the way to the president’s desk. But he’s isolated when it comes time to defend these policies in Congress and the public.

Well, it's always refreshing when people become willing to talk years after such things have turned every horizontal surface into a toxic waste dump. It's just too bad that Cheney was unable to restore the original idea of the Commander in Chief as the man on the big white horse leading troops into battle.

Say it again: there are "conservatives" like Lileks or Brooks who stand in the tenth row of the mob hurling the occasional swear, and then there are the Jonahs, twenty rows back of them, throwing rocks. You'd think that by this point he'd notice the line in front of him had crumbled. You'd think that at some point he'd catch the difference between a brickbat and a breakaway bottle. You'd think having been maneuvered into admitting he was more interested in earning money than doing any heavy lifting in the Clash of Civilizations would have consigned him to bed, with the sheets over his head, spewing the Wisdom of Thomas Sowell into the patient ear of his Cheetos bag. Maybe you think too much.

Wednesday, June 27


THERE'S good news from the kitchen remodeling front: The US still leads the world in the production of building materials you can't get the UPC codes off of without a belt sander.

I've had to put aside my summer reading: Geoffrey Perret's feisty Commander in Chief, and Francis Parkman's 19th century history of the French and Indian Wars, which is a damn fine yarn if you can ignore all the childlike savages and history as the inevitable march toward British superiority stuff. I had to turn off Amity Shlaes on Book Notes, just as she was explaining that nobody in the history of historical-looking books had ever cast a critical (but fair!) eye at the New Deal before. This is not to say I wouldn't have turned her off anyway. And none of this is to say I've gotten any actual work done.

I was forced to ponder, briefly, how long into a Giuliani administration it would be before the neoantifluoridationists began blaming Truman for Iraq. ("Nobody's ever looked at the Truman Doctrine critically before!")

Still, I had enough time to join millions of Hoosiers worldwide in celebrating our sinecured senior Senator's latest stirring from coma. It was vintage Lugar--I'm the only person left who still refers to him as "Nixon's Favorite Mayor"--delivering an unflavored homily as if he were doing an impression of Paul Harvey under sedation. And winding up getting 2.5 minutes of attention that refers to him as "a moderate Republican" and "a respected foreign-policy expert" while ignoring the fact that he's spent five decades moderately providing suppressing fire for what was, back when he started, the crackpot wing of his party. The News was so excited by the spectacle that no one bothered to listen to what the man was saying (and who can blame them?). Instead, he's introduced as "Top Republican Breaks With Iraq Policy", followed by fifteen seconds of a vague droning sound, followed by a reply by Tony Snow (what a prescient choice for Press Secretary--not prescient, exactly, since they knew he'd have to lie every minute of the waking day, but still--the man's been doing it for his entire "professional" life. And he thrives on it, assuming the cancer isn't his Digestive Tract's Own Rebellion. Even Ari Fleischer was ground down by this stuff, but Snow pops back up every sunrise with a four-year-old's sense of rebirth and wonder).

It's odd, too, because no one evinces more disinterest in the niceties of diplomatic maneuvering than the American Press, but here was Nixon's Favorite Mayor (hey, it's a lonely job) pulling a Republican PR stunt (okay, a boooring Republican PR stunt) and they just can't get enough of it for a hundred and twenty seconds. It's treated as though Lugar said something substantial which had come to him after long consideration of The Surge. But Tony Snow was right (which must seem like the discovery of a new intellectual continent to him). Lugar beige-ly warned the nation of the dangers of Iraq entanglement in 2002. Just hours before he voted for it.

Somehow nobody asks "Why is it a moderate Republican, a respected foreign-policy expert, takes five years to recognize and moderately object to an utter fucking Republican foreign policy disaster?" Dick Lugar had the opportunity to be the William Morse of his day and party, or at least its Bill Fulbright; his Hoosier seat would have stayed warm, or at least body temp. Instead he goes on providing cover for dingbats at risk of getting mussed in the next election.

And nobody asks him, "Where were you when we had resources to worry about?"

Monday, June 25

Stop Fighting Each Other; Start Fighting Insects.

Drew Westen, "Obama's Decline in the Polls: Who Turned Off the Electricity?" HufPo, June 24.

Maureen Dowd, "A Vice President Without Border, Bordering on Lunacy" the sort of thing the New York Times thinks you'll pay for, June 24

If you start with false premises about how the mind of the voter works, you'll reason your way to a concession speech. You can watch precisely how Michael Dukakis and Al Gore did that here . They listed all their best facts and figures, their positions and policy statements, their 17-point plans for every issue. Their goal was to convince voters that they had the most to offer -- in the language of economics, that they offered the greatest marginal utility. Perhaps they would have won if everyone were Alan Greenspan (although even Greenspan got emotional about irrational exuberance).

WHEN you're a child psychologist, every problem looks like a wet mattress! Gore was boring, wonky. A stiff. Didn't Maureen Dowd tell us so?

We might add that he won the 2000 election.

Professor Westen is aware of that fact. Gore won, but then his boring wonkiness, his insistence on taking the "high ground," cost him his suit before a Court which issued a baseless and corrupt decision. Damn you, Al Gore!

Have we made our point already? Has Professor Westen made it for us? Democrats like Westen seem intent, not just on fighting the last war, but on doing so even after they've lost the next one. Has Obama "dropped in the polls" because he got all wonkified an' stuff an stopped being sexy? I don't know. The one undeniable fact I can add to the discussion is this: I, like millions of my fellow Americans, haven't watched a minute of those clownfests, and if I chose to the fact that somebody started rattling off facts instead of wowing me with folksy charm or a come-hither stare would make me more likely to listen to him, not less. In this I may be an atypical American, but I doubt I'm too far from the average person watching the candidates debate a half a year before the first primary. Maybe the Obama Brain Trusters want to use the debates to show their man has a grasp of the issues. Maybe they figure he can turn on the charm on the stump. Maybe it's the full moon. I don't know. Maybe Democrats, who've been complaining about the trivialization of our national elections for thirty years, should stop joining the chorus calling for their candidates to morph into Ronald F. Reagan.

Then again, maybe it's something else entirely. Westen:
The one who is using it is John Edwards, who voters saw as the winner of the last debate, but who the East Coast media have run a concerted effort to take out of the race -- first by pretending that he wasn't in it, describing it as a two-way contest between a white woman and a black man, and failing to mention in most articles that the usual presumptive favorite, the vice-presidential nominee from the last election, was even in the race; then by amplifying a concerted GOP effort to portray him as feminine and hypocritical (as if the Kennedys couldn't talk about poverty or the minimum wage until they sold their compound on the Cape), and now describing his years studying and speaking about poverty -- not exactly an obvious issue to champion if you want to win an election -- bashing immigrants is much better for the polls, if not for the soul -- as a political ploy and perhaps a misuse of funds.

Edwards wins debates, but the Press attacks him on trivialities. Hmmmm. Sorta like Al Gore?

Oh, speaking of Breck Girls, here's MoDo:
I've always thought Cheney was way out there--the most Voldemort-like official I've run across. But even in my harshest musings about the vice president, I never imagined that he would declare himself not only above the law, not only above the president, but actually his own dark planet...

The answer here, Maureen, is that it's your imagination which is found wanting.
It's a new level of gall, to avoid accountability by saying you're part of a legislative branch that you've spent six years trying to weaken.

No it isn't; it's precisely the same level of gall Cheney's exhibited since he really was a legislator, where he made Dick Armey appear both warm and reasonable. How'd you miss it before now, apart from your overriding concern with earthtones and hair care? Cheney's latest legal shenanigans are entirely of a piece with the claim of "executive privilege" he's been wrapped in like an individual cheese-food slice since the first months of his administration. "Executive privilege" is an invention of the Nixon administration, Maureen, and you and I are both old enough to remember it, though you're much better preserved.

The press attacks on Gore were pernicious and unceasing, and those responsible are mostly still around. It's not up to John Edwards to "defend himself" against similar attacks. It's up to everyone who wants to restore a modicum of seriousness to quit criticizing candidates for talking about issues and start demanding a better Press.

Friday, June 22

Welcome, Summer

Things I Just Don't Get, Vol. XXXII

• Elvis' '68 Comeback. The other day I ran into a clip of the thing. Every time I do my reaction is the same: "Huh?" He amphetamined himself into a Naugahyde suit and proved, conclusively, that at age 33 he still remembered the words to his old songs. I believe he squeezed the filming of the thing in between making Speedway, where he played a rock-n-rollin' race car driver, and Charro!, where he essays a rock-n-rollin' cattle driver. That isn't a comeback. It's a couple hours of sobriety in between gutter-creeps.

It's not my intention to rag on Elvis, but on the remarkable public wish-fulfillment orgy that has reworked the thing into some career resurrection instead of the official televised start of Elvis: The Nostalgic Vegas Lounge Act. Elvis' fans rob him of his most interesting characteristic--his genuine and profound tweekiness, literal and figurative--just because it interferes with their cardboard image of the Second Valentino.

• The Fall of the Wall. This weekend my wife went to a going-away party for her German exchange student and gave her three pieces of the Berlin Wall (my wife's parents were in Germany when they were being mined). It was reportedly a big hit, which is fine; it's part of her history. But the American excitement escaped me. It seemed based on a proprietary sense of Cold War, but the people who'd overthrown Soviet Communism were the citizens of the Eastern Bloc countries themselves, and its collapse--which even hard-core Reaganauts attribute to economic factors--underlined the contrived nature of the Great Manichean struggle and the needless expense of billions, if not trillions of dollars in its pursuit. There was the kind of giddiness over the thing usually reserved for hometown fans following a national championship. Why? Because it's easier to get all sweaty over a symbol than over a complex set of circumstances which aren't all in your favor? Plus, we had to listen to that song over and over and over, and "Watching the world wake up from history" may be the worst line ever not written as a Sir Paul McCartney/Bernie Taupin collaboration.

• Fareed Zakaria, who was just on The Daily Show (again! and with no book to peddle). Okay, he's a bright and charming guy, plus he's some vague species of beard-free Muslim, which gives him cachet provided he says what Americans want to hear. Which he does. And does. And does. Zakaria is a constant reminder that we're not lacking for bright boys here, just wisdom and judgment. Sure, he was among the first of the "liberal" war floggers to recant--to some extent--but he had the previous year to figure out that we weren't going in with 400,000 troops and we weren't bothering with any coalition building. (By the way, earlier in the week Jon Stewart asked Ted Koppel why we couldn't try sending in 500,000 troops now. Astonishing. I know it's a fake news show, but sheesh, he might have well asked why we weren't publishing the Iraq-9/11 connection.) Zakaria is always identified as a "centrist", which means that while he's someone who's still wrong for all the wrong reasons, those reasons aren't quite as wrong as the extremists'.

Sure, sure, God bless TDS an' all, but why are Zakaria, Hitchens, Dennis Miller and Brian Williams allowed to be repeat offenders?

• Fighting "al-Qaed" in Iraq. And it's not even "al-Qaeda in Iraq" anymore, it's just "al-Qaeda". You'd think that at least the New York Times would be a little sensitive about taking government stenography, but no. Either that or "al-Qaeda" has become a synonym for "Sunni" without my noticing. It doesn't even rise to the level of argument disguised at fact. No one could possibly believe it. Even quoting the military saying it without a [sic] raises questions about your judgment at this point.

Thursday, June 21

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman--June 21, 1964

Thursday morning, as over two thousand NAACP convention delegates marched outside the Justice Department, a postcard, postmarked Sunday, was delivered to the Goodman's apartment in New York: "I have arrived safely in Meridian, Mississippi. This is a wonderful town and the weather is fine."

Tuesday, June 19

I Suppose It's Fortunate He Died, Since He'd Have Choked To Death By Now Anyway

I'm the last man on earth,
That's what the matter is with me.

-Loudon Wainwright III

DECEMBER, 2000. Installed as President of the United States in what the clinically, if not pathologically, detached would describe as the most scandalous national election in a century, George W. Bush faced the public he'd been hiding from for most of the previous five weeks (two sightings, if memory serves; was that boil not enough, America? Did it need to grow eyes and teeth and start snarling before you got the message?) and said--again, if memory serves--that the millions of Americans who had voted for his opponent--more than had voted for him, even allowing for massive disenfranchisement--"could suck his dick".

Okay, that's wrong. He didn't say that. His ventriloquists did.

It was clear that his handlers had no intention of being conciliatory beyond what their marginal interest in propriety demanded. Within a week someone on the inside had used the M word--mandate--and two more things became clear: that they were sticking with the pre-election playbook in spite of what had occurred in "reality", and that "I didn't say it--he said it" was to be a sort of trademark (within a couple years this would be officially shortened to "I didn't say it," whether or not the speaker had been caught on tape doing precisely that). I suppose the actual count was three things becoming clear if you count the Free Press signaling its willingness to eat any plate of shit set before them.

And all this was perfectly clear. I don't think I'm speaking as a partisan here. I think I'm speaking as someone who's spent fifteen minutes talking to a car salesman. Their first fucking order of business was to spread the White House Vandalism story, something that, once again, had been decided on earlier and made to fit. They didn't even bother looking for evidence. Their talking weasel--later to shit himself when he learned he might face jail time--promised the ladies and gentlemen of the Free Press, on the first full day of the administration, that he'd provide evidence of something he knew didn't happen. Mike Allen knew it was concocted. Tony Snow knew. So did Andrea Mitchell. They knew.

A week or so ago there was a Daily Show bit that revolved around Jon ticking off a litany of Bush administration crimes. Just the major ones. And I sat there thinking, "Gee, I forgot about that one...oh, that's right, they did that...those phone company records sorta slipped my memory, somehow...Wow, I..."

Isn't it obvious to everyone, now, that from Day One this was such a thoroughly criminal enterprise that swiping a candy bar at the convenience store counter while the clerk's back was turned was not beneath them? Isn't it clear that matters like the Hatch Act or the Presidential Records Act were less objects in their path than objects beneath their contempt? That the Attorney General's three-card monte spiel about presidents deciding which laws to obey was in fact a confession of a criminality so profound it beggars belief? If you cannot impeach George W. Bush at this point, tell me what the impeachment clause is for, aside from ginning up outrage over a blowjob. It is clear--it should be clear to diehard Republicans, let alone timid Congressional Democrats--that there was an intention to violate the laws of the United States from the earliest minutes of this administration. It's not only clear that the President has committed what qualify as High Crimes; it's clear that the phrase describes his administration in a nutshell. If George W. Bush is not impeached we owe the Past an apology and the Future a good reason not to defile all our graves. And we owe ourselves an Amendment: " 'High Crimes and Misdemeanors' shall not be construed to constitute impeachable acts unless it can be demonstrated beyond any possible doubt that such greatly exceed the typical daily outrages of the 43rd President.

Turns out it was lucky for you that Outrage died, eh Mr. Bennett? Funny how things work out. And by the way, however excruciating it's been, and however devastating to families across America, all to no purpose, still, I have to say thanks for giving us a close-up look at your real Virtues.

Monday, June 18

MoDo: Just the Hot Parts

MAUREEN Dowd is a columnist. For the New York Times. The following is from her column. In the New York Times. It was (as far as I can tell) a column about the race for President. Of the United States. It was in the New York Times.

busty brunette
pink bikini
red underwear
Obama Girl model
music video
sultry-catchy [sic]
featured cage dancer
beef up
pretty boy
drawing attention
superficial charms
Ralph Lauren
how good he looked
Obama Boys
Clinton camp
supermarket mogul
fly on his plane
his pal Bill
astrological software
First Lad
$10 million a year
an opportunity to paint
hoists his pedestal so high he's bound to fall off
proving he's pure
proving he's tough
act high-minded and do-gooding [sic]
hit men
tangled in contradictions high and low
saint and killer
moves like a shark
lean over
bite his ear off
Charlie Cook, the political analyst
do what it takes
immaculate conception
so easily wrapped around the fingers
give them millions
Al Capone

Sunday, June 17

Fun With Monogamy, Kitchen Remodeling Edition: I Think He Said Something As He Went Past The Window, But He Was Falling So Fast I Couldn't Catch It.

SO here's what happened: the new refrigerator was 1/2" too tall, something we'd effectively overlooked in worrying about the width, which turned out to be fine. At this point I'm not even going to bother mentioning which of us said in the store she was sure the height was no problem. My responsibility. I took the measurements, but then, I've sucked at that since Geometry.

So it sat in the middle of the kitchen, and I squeezed around it with the step stool and screwdriver and made to remove the more of less useless cabinet which was in the way. One screw on the bottom cleat (one?) and two at the top. No problem. They're out, the cabinet is still up. I mean up. There is, for all intents and purposes, zero difference between its former solidity and its current. I am, at this late point in Life, wise enough not to yank on the thing until it and the neighboring cabinets crash onto the breakfast dishes in the sink. This may sound like a simple matter to you, but believe me, it took me decades to reach that point.

Wisely, the cabinet removal was put aside until the next morning. I did remove the molding and the twelve linear feet of concrete board running along the top, the stuff I'd been threatening to remove since 1996. This revealed what is quite possibly the second ugliest wallpaper produced in the 70s, the first being the flocked stuff my mother put in our bathroom. In fact, I'm not sure this stuff was commercially produced; from all appearances somebody's grandchild did the graphics. Once that was down, taken out, and burned, I was able to marvel at the weird furring-strip frame attached to the front of the cabinets.

There was still no real indication of how the things had managed to stay up since the days when the Doobie Brothers ruled the charts. The new fridge hummed along as we loaded it up. Dinner came and went. Nothing crashed to the ground, unless you count whatever Larry knocked over, and we don't.

My Poor Wife and I discussed various options. We were basically in agreement that the refrigerator couldn't stay in the middle of the floor, and I said that provided she agreed I'd do whatever it took to get the cabinet down the following morning, short of pulling the wall down with it, assuming I could stop in time.

The next morning I climbed up and gave the thing a few tentative taps and sort of felt around like I thought I was going to discover two big anchor bolts I'd missed the day before. With nothing to do but go for it I tried to pry off the furring strip preparatory to putting my weight into the thing, but the nails were too long. They were finishing nails, and driven in too well and with too small heads to pry loose, so I got out a hacksaw blade, slipped it between the cabinet and the strip, and when I sawed through the fifth and last one the damn thing fell off the wall and into my arms.

Okay, that was easy. I have no idea why the cabinets were attached like that. I'd been guessing that they'd been glued up there really good. It's a fairly seamless job otherwise, unlike a lot of the stuff that's been done to the house over the years, so it's difficult to explain. I'm beginning to wonder if some undocumented worker died when the house was being built and they mixed him in the foundation.

The worst thing, really, is that this solved the refrigerator problem in what was basically still the first attempt, leading to a fatal case of overconfidence, and the loose talk about remodeling the kitchen somehow became a reality. We're going to paint the cabinets (can't stand most woods with stainless steel), put in a new floor ("Will you be using our installers?" asked the guy at the Lowe's Linoleum Desk. "No, we're gonna do it ourselves, and after that I'll be back to book your installers," I told him.) The cabinets will be rehung properly (he said breezily) and at something approaching normal height for a full grown adult in the current century. We picked out the new quartz countertops with only five hours' debate. I decided to live with a new drop-in stove instead of the eight-burner commercial job I've been pining for for years. One of the best things about doing it yourself is the enforced rationality.

My wife (have I ever mentioned that somehow we're complete opposites on a lot of things? I have? Okay then.) immediately jumps onto the nit-sized details, like picking tile for the backsplash and choosing door knobs and explaining why my every idea is wrong. She had the idea of mixing all different styles of door and cabinet pulls together, which I had to admit sounded promising, so this evening I went searching online. Astonishingly, there are more cabinetry hardware sites on the internet than there are porn sites. It's close, anyway. I stumbled out for a tea break after about six hours. She asked me what I'd been up to.

"I'm looking for cabinet pulls for your new kitchen."

She ignored it, of course. "Did you find anything?"

"Did I find anything? Honey, I've now seen more knobs than all of Liza Minnelli's husbands combined."

Anyhow, if I disappear for the next several months, you'll know why.

Thursday, June 14

Goldberg on Education: Like a Man Selling Brassieres

Jonah Goldberg, "Public Ed 101: Why Have It?" Available wherever thought-provoking commentary is replaced by sludge, June 13

Here’s a good question for you: Why have public schools at all?

Well, I guess the short answer would...
O.K., cue the marching music. We need public schools because blah blah blah and yada yada yada. We could say blah is common culture and yada is the government’s interest in promoting the general welfare. Or that children are the future. And a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Because we can’t leave any child behind. The problem with all these bromides is that they leave out the simple fact that one of the surest ways to leave a kid “behind” is to hand him over to the government.

Y'SEE, Jonah, here's the thing. Not only would it be nice if once, just once, you'd try to engage an opponent's argument seriously, but you, Jonah Goldberg, are not nearly good enough to be dismissive of anyone. This sort of thing has now passed its shelf life by a quarter-century, and the fact is, it smelled pretty rancid back then. The "I don't need to hear about any facts, because all facts are suspicious, like how every week they're telling you something else causes cancer, and besides knowing stuff is vaguely fruity and Real Men don't eat quiche" routine comes from Republicans of your parents' generation, terminal outsiders with a Nixon-sized chip on their collective shoulders. They bought into the hype that it--whether they held it themselves or simply celebrated it in the Bible Belt yahoos they imagined they had made a cosmic common cause with--won them a "revolutionary" election.

But then at some point, like when Ronald Reagan said trees cause pollution or evolution was "just a theory" it was time for somebody somewhere to explain to your punk asses that this was not right, no matter how "offended" you were by affirmative action or convinced that Milton Friedman had Explained It All. Instead, even after you had come into power you held onto it. It had been bad enough when it was just a come-0n for the suckers; once you were in power it became a serious drawback for that country y'all pretend to care about more than anyone else so long as it doesn't cost you anything. It turned into a mannerism, like those hideous clown glasses that became the trademark of that fashion doyenne. Bear in mind, she wound up doing Old Navy commercials.

You found yourselves defending, or defending the people who claim to believe, the idea that whole branches of science are manned by people who have no real interest in the truth. This was the time to disconnect. Instead, like all good ideologues, you doubled down, and doubled down again, and here we are, with some about-to-enter-middle-aged columnist going through motions that haven't made any sense since he was in school. You guys used to be the party of "You can't take government action because there're always unintended consequences". Now you're the party that refuses to acknowledge real fucking consequences. When they fall on your head by the hodful.

I'm sorry. Where were we?
Americans want universal education, just as they want universally safe food. But nobody believes that the government should run 90 percent of the restaurants, farms, and supermarkets. Why should it run 90 percent of the schools — particularly when it gets terrible results?

Okay, I have to ask: how much time did you give that? Did you think it through, or did you type it as it popped into your head? George Will is widely rumored to employ a Quote Boy. Maybe you need to hire a Metaphor Wrangler.

Here's a simple answer, simple enough that it should have occurred to you: because that's the way it developed, owing mostly, as Cruel Irony would have it, to 19th century religious thinkers of the Whig persuasion. Do you find yourself lying awake at night wondering why we ever bothered with low-definition television when hi-def is so much better? Or why telephones used to be attached to the wall? Not to mention the fact that all this is coming from someone who doesn't really believe the government should be inspecting food, or farms, or restaurants.
Consider Washington,

Aw, yes. If it ain't New York with you guys it's D.C. Because how else except by looking--and by "looking" I don't mean "going to see" but "selectively quoting something you think makes your case"--at the largest, most complex, most impoverished, or culturally-diverse urban school systems can we possibly know that the entire public education system is a failure?

By the way, you're the same guy who's complained the media focuses on the bad news in Iraq, right?
home of the nation’s most devoted government lovers and, ironically, the city with arguably the worst public schools in the country. Out of the 100 largest school districts, according to the Washington Post , D.C. ranks third in spending for each pupil — $12,979 — but last in spending on instruction. Fifty-six cents out of every dollar goes to administrators who, it’s no secret, do a miserable job administrating, even though D.C. schools have been in a state of “reform” for nearly 40 years.

Something tells me if I jump one paragraph I'll find myself soaking in a blatant contradiction...
A standard response to such criticisms is to say we don’t spend enough on public education. But if money were the solution, wouldn’t the district, which spends nearly $13,000 on every kid, rank near the top? If you think more money will fix the schools, make your checks out to “cash” and send them to me.

You just got done telling us that money didn't go to students! I'm sorry. Like I imagine that would register if I said it to your face.

We're going to return to this in our concluding remarks, but for now I thought you might want to offer us a specious claim, and follow that up with one of those meaningless anecdotes which people who've already been convinced find so convincing.
Private, parochial, and charter schools get better results.

Also, "students at Ivy League colleges and charter schools score higher than average on their SATs". "Drivers of race cars and tricycles are sometimes injured or killed in high-speed crashes". "Jonah Goldberg and a top-ranked Sumo wrestler average 350 pounds". Wait, that last one didn't work.

It's a question of your choice of conjunction, Mr. Loady-pants. The best we can say about charters--unless we just want to lie about it--are that the results are mixed. Where charters are required to accept the full challenges of the regular public schools--learning disabilities, non-native speakers, emotional difficulties, students with zero parental support--they don't exactly work miracles. In twenty years we've gone from charter advocates promising to "solve" the "failures" of public schools, to chalking up mediocre test scores to the result of "startup difficulties", to the present, where their poorer performance than their regular school "competitors" on the NAEP was explained as a sampling error. There are some very good things about charters. But it's clear now--and was clear twenty years ago if we used a nominal amount of skepticism--that they're no panacea.

Private and parochial schools--most of which aren't required to join in public testing--can admit or expel whomever the choose (back to the public schools with you, Mr. Troublemaker! Miss Underperformer!), have no responsibility to educate non-English speakers or the learning disabled, and have the built-in advantage of parents who care about their children's education and can afford to be involved in it. I'd grown weary of explaining this before you ever had your lunch money stolen, Mr. Goldberg.
As for schools teaching kids about the common culture and all that, as a conservative I couldn’t agree more. But is there evidence that public schools are better at it? According to the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress history and civics exams, two-thirds of U.S. high school seniors couldn’t identify the significance of a photo of a theater with a sign reading “Colored Entrance.” And keep in mind, political correctness pretty much guarantees that Jim Crow and the civil-rights movement are included in syllabi. Imagine how few kids can intelligently discuss Manifest Destiny or free silver.

Sigh. Okay, we're going to do this again, for the benefit of people who didn't bother to pay attention the first time. I dare you to collect all the anecdotal "idiocies" of the past thirty years--yes, Mr. Goldberg, they're at least as old as my days in the public schools--and give that test to one hundred randomly selected adults.

You're not going to collect blank stares about Free Silver. You're going to find that the average guy on the street considers it a badge of honor that his head isn't filled up with crap like that. Yadda, yadda, yadda yourself.

You can stow that "political correctness" shit, too (another expired shelf date, for one thing). Our history texts negate "controversies" as much as possible, and put a positive spin on the rest ("The U.S. has done more than any other nation in history to provide equal rights for all," says The American Tradition). Political pressure--much of it from the Right, much of it aimed at "diversity"--keeps publishers cranking out vanilla texts and keeps many teachers in fear of stirring up trouble.

While I'm thinking of it, Mr. Pantload, would you care to take a ten-question test on African-American history, seein' as how you were subjected to PC history in your day?

So, okay, I'm married to a teacher who works in an urban school district. I'd be the last person to tell you we don't face enormous challenges in education, particularly among urban minorities. Or that mismanagement isn't part of the problem. (So's the sort of demagogy that ignores patently obvious complexities that interfere with its simplistic solutions. D.C. schools are a mess, but the main reason they, like many inner-city school districts, spend so much per student while so little gets to the classroom is the expense of maintaining ancient infrastructure. My wife's classroom got air-conditioning two years ago. There are still some IPS schools operating without it, and we're nowhere near as bad off as D.C. Imagine trying to keep children orderly on a 90º day, let alone teaching them anything. When I told the HVAC salesman last week that I didn't really care for air-conditioning unless I was trying to sleep in 90º weather with 50% humidity he looked at me like I'd told him my water just broke.)

But I'll also be the first person to tell you that a sizable part of our problem is the constant ideological meddling from the Right over the six decades since Brown. It's not the bogus libertarianism of Everything Privatized Is Good. It's not the anti-union sentiment (though that is, when you subject yourself to it, remarkably vehement for an attitude with next to no evidence to support it), or the supposed human indignity of states requiring teachers to have a degree in teaching. It's race. It's simple. You never hear "conservative" pundits complain that white suburban school districts spend too much, or offer too many programs away from the so-called Core. The concern is neither for education, nor expense. If we privatized education tomorrow, and by next week we learned that test scores had plummeted, expenses were tripled, and two-thirds of teachers couldn't explain the significance of a Colored Only drinking fountain, you'd be fine so long as you had yours. So here's a little history lesson. No charge. This attitude of yours has nothing to do with Common Sense or principled philosophy, and it isn't swimming bravely against the current. It's the prevailing attitude of the last forty years, the last massy redoubt of the racist (yes, Jonah, crypto- and not-so-crypto) response to mandated equality. It's the But My Hands Are Clean version of the closing of public schools across the south in response to Brown. It's been tried and found wanting, and it, not public education, is the real failure here.

Tuesday, June 12

And The Next Thing You Knew, Sammy Davis Jr. Was Kissing Nixon

June 12, 1967: In Loving v. Virginia the Supreme Court overturns the bans on interracial marriage which still remain in sixteen states, blithely ignoring the legal principle that some women might later have regrets.

Fun With Monogamy Vol. DCXXVI: The "Fug" Edition

Sunday Morning:

PW (amative): Honey, remember when we used to "fug" out on the deck in summer?
Me: No.

Sunday Afternoon:

Coming home from the Mall (new refrigerator, Kenmore, French doors, stainless) on another unannounced Drive Like A Moron Day, we get in the middle left turn lane behind a guy who then decides it's time to stop as soon as he's through the light and wait for traffic (considerable) to clear so he can get in the right-hand lane.

Me: God-truster (new shorthand for bad driving based on Indiana's "In God We Trust" plate).
PW: Hoosier.
Me: Naw, they were from out of state.

We pull alongside at the next light.

PW: Missouri. (Mock rolling down window) "Fug" Harry Truman!

Monday, June 11

God Still Needs Historians

James Mann,"Ronald Reagan Did Not End the Cold War. So Naturally, the People Who Are Most Mistaken About This Are the Ones Who Believe Ronald Reagan Did Not End the Cold War." New York Times, June 10

OKAY, that's unfair; Mann actually seems to think both sides are equally off the mark about Reagan's Berlin Wall speech:
In the historical disputes over Ronald Reagan and his presidency, the Berlin Wall speech lies at the center. In the ensuing years, two fundamentally different perspectives have emerged. In one, the speech was the event that led to the end of the cold war. In the other, the speech was mere showmanship, without substance.

I'll say this, when it comes to faux-balanced op-ed pieces this one at least manages to unfairly characterize both sides, albeit in slightly different ways. I've read a lot of people who claim Reagan ended the Cold War, but I don't remember any saying he did it with four words. The argument closely resembles a debate over the relative economic accomplishments of Your Guy vs. My Guy: many people involved are more than willing to exaggerate in both directions at once. Those ardent Reaganauts who remain, however tenuously, tethered to the Mother Ship do not not imagine that Reagan ended the cold war on his own, let alone via teleprompter. That just scores points in a very tiresome debate. He's credited with spending the Soviets into a form of military bankruptcy. (The yet-more-anchored among his adoring throngs are forced to add "quicker than they would have".) This is already a double-edged sword with a missing hilt; Reagan's military spending was profligate to the point of incontinence, focused on Big Tickets and Bright Shiny Objects instead of nuts and bolts. The damage to our own economy from, for example, building and maintaining one aircraft carrier for each Congressional district in the country is not inconsiderable. But it is the military damage, on view first as his successor's (and his Party's) struggles to find new excuses for keeping the brass in golf courses and highly destructive playthings, later as that successor's idiot son struggling to wade ashore for the start of what he (and his Party) variously described as WWIII, IV, or V while wearing a 450-ton pack. Somebody usually gets around to asking Who Really Won a particular war as the unintended consequences become clear over time. That process hasn't really begun with Reagan and the Cold War yet--you can still catch that "Tear down this wall!" on occasion as a History Channel promo, complete with patriotic bunting and John Williams score--but the evidence is beginning to mount up big time.

But let's stop to ask ourselves, "Granted that it's absurd to imagine a speech ended the Cold War, what substance of the speech has been missed on the way to this different perspective?" Or, better, let's ask Mr. Mann:
But those who dismiss the speech as insignificant miss the point, too. They fail to see its role in helping the president line up public support for his foreign policy.

In the months leading up to his speech, Mr. Reagan had been under attack in the United States for having been beguiled by Mr. Gorbachev. Conservatives were particularly outraged. In September 1986, after the K.G.B. had seized Nicholas Daniloff, a journalist for U.S. News & World Report, in retaliation for the arrest of a Soviet agent in the United States, Mr. Reagan hadn’t taken a hard line, but had instead negotiated an exchange.

Later that fall, hawks in the national-security establishment were upset that at the Reykjavik summit meeting, Mr. Reagan had talked about the possibility of abolishing nuclear weapons.

So the value of Reagan's speech was that it got that segment of his party which some would call "hard-liners", and others "clinically insane", behind the idea of Glasnost? Does that even address the issue? It was 1987. Reagan's popularity had crested, he wouldn't face re-election again, the hard-liners in his own administration would go on to bedevil his vice-president's, before finally gaining enough power to achieve their dream of screwing things up royally for as many succeeding generations as possible seven awful years ago. Reagan didn't need them; they needed him. Further, it's Fiscal Year 1988. Reagan's supposed Crazy As A Fox military budgets were already through Washington like a cow goes through a boa constrictor.

Unless, of course, we don't really believe that shit about his planning to spend the Soviets into bankruptcy.

We are certainly free to ask why no story is preferable to a real one, or why the Op-Ed pages of the Times should host a fifteen-hundred word birthday party for that speech. The Solidarity joke current at the time ran "The Soviet system is superior to all other systems because it solves problems the others don't even have." Say the same about us and the Cold War: we thwarted the world domination plans we furnished the Commies in the first place. Not to be a party-pooper, but in historical context it's pure flummery to discuss "winning" the Cold War without acknowledging what a long line of Cold Warriors in the White House have wrought, from the Truman Doctrine and US intervention on behalf of a military dictatorship in Greece through Korea, Vietnam, and on to Reagan's glory-hogging spending spree. The past four years and counting should certainly lead us to ask whether we're better off for having loosened the fetters of so-called neocon (in reality, just admirers of vintage Truman) lust for empire. Arthur Vandenberg told Harry S he'd have to sell his anti-Comie interventionalism on Fear, not logic. And it still is news.

Saturday, June 9

A Brief Word About Current Events

I LIKE to think of myself as a humanitarian. I would be moderately displeased should Paris Hilton or any other heiress be forced through an enormous garlic press specially designed and built for the purpose. Her celebrity, or "celebrity", as you choose, may be somewhat more disconcerting than that of your run of the mill People fodder famous for attacking songs, or "songs", with the vocal end of a ball-peen hammer or "performing" in some teevee program whose only possible explanation, for producer or audience, is as a demonstration of just how rapidly Great Civilizations can collapse.

(Okay, it's Saturday morning and I told myself I wasn't going off on any tangents, but this is the thing that's really offensive about the Reaganaut nostalgia for the Golden Age that Never Was: they pine away for things like chastity, and segregation, and Patty Page, stuff your contemporary American wouldn't actually put up with for twenty minutes, and they miss the stuff that might really make a difference. Edd "Kookie" Burns, once the most famous practitioner of personal grooming on the planet, never got another job. It took thirty years before Jerry Van Dyke was forgiven for "My Mother the Car". Those were the days. Today, somebody who had a fookin' walk on on those shows is famous for life. You cannot enter a restaurant in Indianapolis, at any hour of the day or night, without detouring around that Rupert guy from Survivor, signing autographs for what you swear, until the next time, must be the last people in the Midwest who don't have one.)

Because it's damned hard not to see Paris Hilton as the embodiment of the Bush administration, as the Bush Daughter who didn't have to toe the line in public lest Babs freeze the trust fund for twenty years, the one who didn't have to promise not to run drunk and naked through any hotel corridors on this continent. For anyone who's half-followed the foibles of the stock market the only way not to imagine Paris Hilton as the result of some murky Murdockesque figure's decision to speculate in the heiress market as George W. Bush's potential ascendancy began ("Here's the deal: Brain-dead fourth-generation Money plus Sex. It can't miss") is to ignore her completely. And good luck trying. So it's hard not to imagine she deserves jail time. And impossible to think that could happen without some 11th hour bail-out à la Bush.

(More tangents: I was home all day yesterday, making sure the furnace installers stayed away from the silver, and I got to watch some of the fun. No matter how distasteful the subject, those teevee wall-to-walls are your best example of Just How Far Down the Shithole We've Fallen. The answer is, so far, at this point, that the CNN gang was apologizing for covering the thing, as if it were beneath them or distinct from the rest of their hard-hitting, issue-oriented coverage. Best line: to the Hairdo who proclaimed the situation was "very minute-to-minute right now," confirming my long suspicion that the studio is the only place where these people hear, or use, English. Runner-up was the Celeb reporter-on-the-street--dressed and coiffed like a Hunky Teevee Carpenter, minus the hunk--who was running down the visitors' list chez Paris, and said something like, "There was Nicky Hilton, Paris' less well-known but still frequently photographed sister." )

All I intended to mention about this is that by some weird Cosmic Reduction, some HO scale of Chicness brought Indianapolis its own Celebrity Alcohol-fueled judicial news arc this past week as former Colts quarterback Jack "Is He the Guy Who Married Jane Pauley?" Trudeau was busted for furnishing liquor to underaged partygoers at his daughter's high-school graduation party. He's also charged with obstruction for not giving up the clipboard list of attendees he'd been holding when the cops arrived--Jack (an ath-a-lete, after all) apparently not understanding that he was in a helluva lot more trouble than the kids who'd been hitting his beer bong. I suppose one should be cheered by the fact that the claims of White Tony Suburban Privilege in the matter were fairly drowned out by condemnation of the practice, if not the privilege. And of course there were the cries of "Kids are going to drink anyway," the defenders of which idea always sound like my teenaged compatriots whose "drinking anyway" totaled roughly a case of beer per night. And, as is required once such stories hit the air, the whole thing turns into a debate over the dangers of alcohol, and nobody gets around to asking why Jack Trudeau was blaring loud music at his tony neighbors in the middle of the night, or why kids today would be willing to drink in the presence of adults, or why there were so many adults around, anyway (including the still publicly-unexplained attendance of Why Aren't You a Fugitive? former Conseco CEO Steve Hilbert). Were they waiting for the kids to get drunk enough to start diving in the pool naked? Shouldn't Vague Creepiness be a C felony?

Happy Birthday

Jack Leroy Wilson
June 9, 1934--January 21, 1984

Thursday, June 7

All Politics Is Personal. At Least I'm Taking It That Way.

[A deal is struck. Riley spends his day tearing out a wall in the basement, awaiting the Inspector on Thursday and Friday's promised installation of a new furnace and a/c. Riley opts for Trane™, and realizes that, had he shown some ambition one time in his life he might today be Marcos Moulitsas, and that single mention might have earned him a substantial discount.

[In retrospect, the sales process has been like so much of American commercial life: genial on the surface, faintly bubbling with odiousness underneath. The winning supplicant had mentioned, at the end of their hour, the Feel Good feeling of having upgraded one's fuel efficiency. "Have you seen An Inconvenient Truth?" he asks, and without waiting for an answer lubricates any potential frictions in the suggestion by continuing, "I'm not a big Al Gore fan, but..." Riley is even less likely to discuss politics, or even falsely politicized science, with complete strangers than he is to drive some place in order to see a movie while surrounded by louts. He applauds Al Gore. His Oscar™, along with Frances McDormand's and and George C. Scott's, are the only three which have ever cheered him. He certainly does not blame the winner of the 2000 presidential election for his (that is, Riley's) innate suspicion that American's are applauding themselves for seeing a movie, not signing on to reduce frivolous energy consumption. He does not blame the salesman for this, either. Truth be told he's touched, even while some back part of his brain is suggesting he offer the guy $500 to find him an older system that's not up to code somewhere, just to see what happens.

[Instead, it's smiles all around, and Riley comes up with the idea of spending twenty minutes typing up the scene by way of explaining why he doesn't have time to write anything until all this blows over.]

JAMES Fallows here, via Norb, ponders Rudy's answer on the war. As well ask about any of 'em, except the Straight Talkin' McCain and the delightful Ron Paul. You didn't craft that disaster, or stupidly link your fortunes to it like Honest John--why defend it? This is the problem, at least the most obvious, easily corrected one. We fucked up. Without any crapola about everybody believing there were WMDs. Everybody didn't, and the people who were supposed to be deliberating the matter couldn't be bothered reading the intel. The next President of the United States is takin' this in the shorts, or panties (I suspect at least one Democratic candidate of traveling Free and Easy), thanks to your man, your plan, your party. Might as well start in now explaining to the mouth breathers of the base that there's no more men to play Army with. Maybe it'll start sinking in in the next eighteen months. And any man who's afraid of Fred Dumbo Thompson isn't fit to be President. It's fucking over. Not because you've lost a debate, or lost public support, or failed to come up with another Gipper, and I swear I'm hunting down the next idiot pundit who runs that line. It's over because you finally ran into reality. And there's no appeal.

(By the way, Fred Dumbo Thompson, assuming he does enter the race, confounds the punditocracy by going nowhere after receiving a small bump from the publicity. Riley is nothing is not a fearless prognosticator, for the simple reason that he's never been right, once, so shoot the works, right? But Thompson, right now, has Newt's numbers from four months ago, probably largely from Newt's own people, and where did that get Newt? Plus he's utterly fucking gormless. He's gonna come in and play Mr. Conservative among the Republican Presidential field? Sure he is. He's gonna wear like the pants from one of those 2/$99 S&K suits. You heard it here first.)

Bob Somerby on the uh, suspiciously good news on the school testing front. (Let's ask, right now, how it is possible that the Washington Post has managed to make itself the Worst Paper in the Country in a field of All-Star contenders?) My Poor Wife and I were watching local news last night and heard the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001--automatically given "credit" for the Good News no one in that newsroom had bothered to think about, despite the fact that Indiana's cumulative scores went down--referred to as "Bush's No Child Left Behind Plan" three times. This despite the fact that what the headline writers know as NCLB is just an extension of the Dumb As A Toad Political Meddlesomeness In Public Education Act of 1995, and that assuming there is some nationwide improvement in test scores the connection to NCLB is more than likely rampant cheating to avoid consequences that might accrue despite teaching the test rather than imparting knowledge. The Education Beat is a permanent, and highly visible, part of local news. Any reporter halfway up on the issue should know the study was, at the very least, debatable. Instead it was presented as a clear-cut victory for George W. Bush's visionary leadership. Th' fuck?

At one point in the proceedings we got to hear somebody say something like this, without cracking up (I think it was someone from the Center on Education Policy, but it might have been an Indiana stooge): "One of the reasons for the improvement is that educators realize the benefits of the program and are enthusiastic about it."

Now, my Poor Wife has been with me for at least 98% of the last thirty years, so we have an remarkably broad and nuanced vocabulary of non-verbal signals. It's so well-developed at this point it may only require use of the pupils. I'll have to check. At any rate, we looked at each other the moment he said it. And it turns out that the sign for "How does he keep from choking on bullshit?" doesn't require much specialized knowledge at all.

[The Inspector comes and goes. Shown the thermostat he can't supress a chuckle at its Ford Administration charm. "Yeah," says Riley. "I get the same reaction when I take my Betamax in for service."]

Wednesday, June 6

Truthiness: An Impossibly High Standard

LAST week's youthful exuberance about the process of deciding on a new furnace/ac combination fades into memory as the Elmer Fudd of my expectations meets the Trickster Wabbit of sales & marketing. I had imagined that this part of the process would be concluded by last Saturday. It's Wednesday. Later today a guy I don't want to talk to will drop by at his convenience, and he will run a line of patter that falls somewhere between a grad school psych major and a one man good cop/bad cop routine. He may allow as how his competitor's products are pretty good, except that little problem they've been having with heat exchangers cracking just after the warranty expires, or he might ask me what other brands I'm "interested" in--the correct answer is I'm not "interested" in any of 'em--and then poor mouth those like six cups of espresso.

I'm not going to begin trying to explain how asking my neighbor for a bit of friendly, over-the-back-fence advice (he briefly ran this grift in between swindling watercraft buyers and the users of salon hair-care products) has extended the process through our current cool spell and on through the next weekend where the weather maps are colored flame orange. He meant well. I'm supposed to come out of all this getting a "deal". I'm a white Protestant Middle-Westerner. I would rather give you an extra $1000 if it means you'll do your job swiftly, correctly, and without playing the radio real loud.

I did enter into the thing with some enthusiasm. I spent hours reading whatever I could, researching companies, reading internet Q&As with HVAC contractors. I was a Prepared Consumer, right up to the point where I met the first salesman, at which point I was reminded that 53 years of age is too old not to realize that your professional salesman/marketeer makes a career--and what's more, takes a wanton boy's delight--in yanking the wings off prepared consumers.

He had admitted that his competitors made good products; it's just that every time he got called out to write up a work order on a prematurely senile unit it was inevitably one of theirs. In this I'm guessing he hoped that I was too stupid to have read the nameplate on my own silent hunk of scrap metal. The second guy, later that same day, helped me re-establish my sense of self-worth. A tall, angular Hoosier a little older than me, he was no salesman. Rather, he was an HVAC lifer who'd managed to get his own business, and who did his own sales calls. "First thing is, there's too many choices. Second thing is, you've probably talked to ten people and gotten ten different stories." I hadn't, but only because he was second.

So here's the thing: we're a nation of swindlers, from Jamestown to that idiot speech that idiot George W. Bush just gave at Jamestown. That's certainly condemnation enough for a country whose pollster-swindlers like to assure us is 114% Christian, even before you factor in the intricate system designed to verbally deodorize the whole thing. I'm just left to wonder at all those Red State morals voters who are so key to our national elections that the Democratic Presidential candidates are now jostling each other for the best (read: nearest the camera) pew. They (the morals voters, not the candidates) walk into drug stores, supermarkets, big box retailers every day and get swindled. Not necessarily by excessive mark-ups, but by a perversion of the whole system, where choice is not determined by the quality of goods on the shelves but by the quality of goods given to the manager in exchange for that shelf space. God knows how many of these people actually make their livings somewhere along that chain. Most of 'em wouldn't dream of cheating you in a change-making transaction, but they are willingly sold on the idea that absent personal dishonesty on a corporate scale Wal*Mart would simply refuse to sell you any merchandise, or be unable to obtain any in the first place, and that without two or three intervening layers of whistle-wetters I'd be fashioning my own furnace from discarded coffee cans and a carton of butane lighters.

And so who are those folks mad at? People who are willing to come to this country and get swindled paycheck after paycheck.

By which I mean to say that people who imagine that having the morals of a hermaphroditic jackal is enough to dim Rudy Giuliani's chances probably need a new furnace.

Monday, June 4

God Speed, Steve.


Weekend Yelling At The Teevee Blogging

THERE are times when teevee news seems stupid, banal, mendacious, flatulent, perverse, or hopelessly worshipful of the status quo, and there are other times when it seems an elaborate, multi-million-dollar side show designed by some impish god specifically to piss me off. Go ahead and guess which one this weekend was.

It began as I walked into the room to hear a local sub-anchor intone "Major 'oops' on the campaign trail" as a graphic of Hillary Clinton beamed beside her. As you may already know, unless this was all somehow staged just for my benefit, the junior Senator from New Yawk gave a stump speech in front of a screen which spelled it "TOMMORROW". In a land where the President of the United States is a barely-functional illiterate, in a land where that local station's news crawls are a source of endless grammatical malfeasance, in a land where someone who is paid to use words can say "Major Oops" without fear of retaliation, "TOMMORROW" is a major oops. I trust Ms Clinton has resigned by now.

Shortly thereafter, in what remains as the "features" section of the news despite the fact that roughly 95% of local news could now be so described, I learned that Friday was the fortieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's. I was to be reminded of this again and again over the weekend. At no time did any of this cause me to care.

That attitude is not in response to enforced cultural nostalgia brought to you by people who have no idea what they're talking about. Fortieth anniversary, fine, run a feature. Instead, I'm just tired, bone-weary, of any story that includes the word "hippie" as intoned by people who might, might possibly remember an older brother or sister splashing on the patchouli to follow Jerry Garcia around the Midwest in the mid-1980s. At some point the Official Culture--roughly around the time that it began asserting the whole country just loved The Gipper--decided, in the words of George W. Bush, that The Beatles were awright until they got all weird an' psychedelic an' stuff, and started telling America's youts to take LSD. This attitude was aided and abetted by an entire generationlet which was somehow forced to listen to nothing but Oldies radio throughout its formative years, and has been holding a grudge ever since. Meanwhile, Elvis, who reigned as King of Rock n' Roll for three years largely on the strength of music he stole from Arthur "Big Boy" Cruddup--not "stole" as in "he stole black music", but "stole" as in "kept in indentured servitude in a shack near the Graceland property line"--followed by a two-year Army stint designed to keep his manager from being deported, followed by twenty-five years of eating Eskimo pies, playing Las Fucking Vegas and making movies that David Spade would have turned down, not only gets a free pass on the seventeen major central nervous system depressants in his bloodstream at his demise, he winds up on a fucking stamp.

And I don't give a fuck, in case I haven't said "fuck" enough yet. When times are gone they're not old, they're dead. Sgt. Pepper was never my favorite Beatle album (that would be Rubber Soul). I never listened to it on headphones. I didn't even have a stereo with a headphone jack until seven years later. I was a white suburban punk kid on a Stingray bike in 1967. Two brothers from my block had just gone off the Vietnam. I didn't give a...flip...about the Summer of Love. I don't care. I just wish they'd stop showing that thirty-second Hippies at a Be-In stock footage as though it tells us something about the Sixties, already, and go back to covering American Idol full time.

And please, Aimee Mann: I love you, but if you're gonna write something as patently silly as "Fiona Apple is a better lyricist than Paul McCartney" in a major metropolitan newspaper I'd just as soon remember you the way you were.

This was followed, eventually, by the bottom of the hour recap of Today's Top Story: Another Baggage-Handler Mastermind Foiled in His Attempt To Secure Enough M-80s to Blow Up the East Coast.

Then thanks to the miracle of tape delay, Sunday evening after chores I had just put away trying to figure out how a show featuring Mary Matalin and James Carville, and hosted by Tim Russert, would actually wind up on the air when it was time to start wondering how a round table discussion featuring George Will, Cokie Roberts, and what used to be Sam Donaldson's face could be imagined by anyone, anywhere, inside, outside, or under the Beltway, as bounding the American political debate. Fer cryin' out loud. I'm 53 years old--okay, 53 and a half--and I'm younger than everybody who appeared on the Sundays today except Stephanopoulos. (Face the Nation had Ken Salazar on, and he's a year younger than I, but I didn't tape it, plus combined with Bob Schieffer they total over 200 years old.) Fer chrissakes, out of nine panelists on two major network shows, only three were young enough to be Baby Boomers, and only Carville looks like he'd know how to fill a bong. George Effing Will started on that program when it began, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, as an affirmative action hire to combat the rampant liberalism of the press. That's rampant liberalism, as defined by Sam Donaldson, who was once--no, really, kids, this is the level of reality bending that occurred in those days; it's not a recent invention--considered the bête noir of the White House Press Corps. Donaldson was what Dan Rather was later to become--the inexplicable face of an indefensible conspiracy theory about a Press which was already sitting in Reagan's lap, purring contentedly.

I think I'm gonna leave Mary Matalin's public stupidity alone, on the grounds that she must have suffered a severe head injury she and Carville have kept from the public. She recommended "conservatives" and independents read the latest entry in the ever-popular History as a Series of Moral Lessons for Children, Michael Beschloss' Presidential Courage, which she seems to imagine will resuscitate Bush's reputation, or, at the very least, make everyone wait fifty years before judging the Iraq War disaster to be a disaster.As though the problem with Americans is they're too curious and not credulous enough.

Then FBI Assistant Director John Miller led off This Week, and after Georgie "Kid" Stephanopoulos read the whole litany of things this "Terror Cell" was not--including armed, funded, competent, or connected to al-Qaeda--Miller objected that there were no direct ties to al-Qaeda "as far as we know". Ninety seconds later, in response to a question about the timing of the arrests, he said, "Our primary concern about how long to run the case, when to take it down, was essentially to get all the intelligence out of it--what are the networks involved? What are the connections? Where is the money coming from?"

And yet, Director Miller, you closed it down without knowing for sure there was no al-Qaeda connection? And you now imagine it's sufficient to suggest that anyone, however delusional, who wants to blow shit up is "influenced" by al-Qaeda? Mr. Director, who do you think will be the really big breakout star of this year's Idol finalists?

Friday, June 1

Ghost Dance

• George W. Bush, drama queen. There's a shocker, huh?

Joe Lieberman: "Y'know, I think this country could use another VIP trip to Iraq and another positive assessment of our progress there."

• The attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of Ronald Reagan.

• Fred Thompson, the New Reagan.

• "But we read Burke!" recast, at least in part, as A Lover's Plea ("Okay, baby, maybe I've been a little too conservative in the past...").

GRANTED, the modern Right has always exhibited a healthy respect for the power of magical delusion, and Goldwater/Reaganite "movement conservatism" is based on little else. These are the people who believe that a 19th century Boy Scout ditty has the power to return us to a magical time, and that if the .002% of the population who don't believe in Jesus were forced to pray to him anyway it would accomplish things the prayers of believers cannot. But this is the first time that circumstances, and the alignment of the stars (Hi, Nancy!) has permitted the naked nerve-endings of "conservatism" to be so exposed. Reagan had brain bubbles by the time Iran/Contra made its way to limited public consciousness, and there was always a discernible cynicism that surrounded both his myth-making machine and the Press that fawned over it.

Of course the shining panoply of modern American public opinion molding makes it unlikely (but not impossible) that George W. Bush will appear on the White House lawn wearing a toga and laurel wreath and leading a white stallion he introduces as "the new Mrs. Bush". But that fawning Press is still with us, the same guys who told us George W. Bush had charisma, remember? That's what you call a distinction. The last sad survivors of the Plains were not given that sort of treatment:

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Wow, that's a great-looking shirt. It's not high-fashion, but it's manly. I bet a shirt like that would stop a bullet.

HOWARD FINEMAN: I was gonna say "manly".

CHRIS MATTHEWS: That's all the time we have today. Jeff Gerth joins us tomorrow. He's got a new book out...

By the way, speaking of Nancy Reagan, I'm about half convinced that if the technology were available to simply scoop up what's inside her brain, instead of allowing her to filter it, publication of the data would mark the end of the Republican party as we know it.