Tuesday, December 27, 2005

So at a guess, what do you think the odds are of my sister and I contracting some kind of flu-like virus, and showing the same symptoms - vomiting, fever, all that fun stuff - within half an hour of each other? But on the other hand, what are the odds of us being the only two people getting food poisoning out of a group of ten people at the table? Because it's got me stumped.

My family spent yesterday with my dad's family - my aunt Laurie and her twin daughters Raina and Maron (dammit, they've had their hair colored differently for more than a year now, I should not have such a hard to telling them apart), and my dad's cousin (?) Leigh and her husband Ken and son Sky. So there were ten of us having dinner at a restaurant in Hanover yesterday, and of them, only my sister and I got sick, apparently. My sister thinks it was the cheddar cheese on our sandwiches, since we were probably the only people to have it, but my dad still thinks it's just coincidental flus... who knows.

On another note, I'm definitely getting myself tested for allergies soon. I could have sworn I was allergic to aspirin but not ibuprofen (I've never had it tested, it's just guesswork based on hives I get after certain kinds of medicines), but based on the red blotches I have now either it's ibuprofen too or it's ibuprofen instead or it's changed since the last time I used a painkiller...

God bless us, everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

I love this guy. Dick Tuck, political prankster. If only every bit of negative campaigning could be like that. I first saw a reference to him at a blog posting somewhere, probably John Cole's. In addition, I'd like to add one other thing I read about him, I think it might have been on the Wikipedia page about him (which is now down, apparently, because parts of it had been taken without permission from the place I link to). Apparently after he ran for a Senate seat (House? Governor?) and lost, he was quoted as saying "The people have spoken... the bastards."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

I learn new appreciation for George Orwell all the time. I think his essay "Politics and the English Language" (a copy can be found here) should be required for every student of political science or English. It's mostly about the craft of language, but there's some relevant and timeless bits about political use of language in there. This bit, for example:
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:
While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years [the essay was written in 1946], as a result of dictatorship.

The obvious corollary is that just as some words are used because they're stripped of meaning or they avoid the honest emotional reactions, others are used because their meanings are irrelevant but it's not obvious, or because they provoke emotional reactions just for the sake of those reactions. I'm reminded of Orwell because I just saw this post by a guest blogger at Andrew Sullivan's. What I'm wondering is, what is "militant philosophical atheism"? Can you think of any examples of militant philosophical atheists? I suppose Soviet Russia and other totalitarian communists would count as militant atheists, but there's little or nothing philosophical about them. And since the post itself is about the Catholic Church's position on intelligent design, I doubt Communists could possibly have anything to do with it. I can just see the thought process of this R guy: "hmmm, philosophical = weak, atheist = un-American, militant = terrorist, extremist, baaad..." Who cares that the people he's describing barely exist in this hemisphere and have nothing to do with intelligent design?

And while I'm at it, could someone tell me what "objectively dishonest" means? Is there a bit of Catholic moral teaching here that I'm ignorant of? (Complete coincidence that these both touch on Catholicism, by the way. I first heard this particular emotionally-charged but content-free phrase here; I just reference that Catholic news source because it seems like an earlier use of the phrase, if not the first.) Have any of the people using the phrase ever stopped to wonder what a "subjectively dishonest" statement or action would look like?

EDITED ON 12/21/05, 11:06 A.M.
And of course, how could I forget what might be the single most egregious example of our times: "homicide bombers," which is the term Fox News made up for suicide bombers. Even going as far as to rewrite AP stories without saying so in some cases to make that "correction". I first heard about this in the documentary "Outfoxed." As others have pointed out, it really is pretty much the definition of Orwell's Newspeak - removing information from a term and at the same time trying to incite irrelevant emotional reaction.

"Suicide bomber" - Huh? Why would someone do that? What's wrong with them? What could drive someone to such lengths? How can we prevent something that doesn't fit into normal patterns of rational behavior? "Homicide bomber" - Homicide is a crime, so they deserve whatever they get, end of story, no more thinking needed, it's probably seditious anyway.
To expand on my last post, let me say that I agree with Nicholas Boudrot in the general spirit of his comment. If what we've heard about the wiretaps is relatively complete and accurate, then Bush didn't use the existing procedures to get approval for ordering wiretaps on American citizens when a perfectly good system for getting that approval exists. The conclusion to which some have jumped in the absence of any apparent legal motive for the wiretaps is that they are being placed on non-terrorist opponents of Bush - specifically, Democratic Congressmen or activists or whatever. And since we don't know who they are being placed on - the single biggest effect of this program was to avoid oversight and accountability - that guess is as good as any. Since then, many people are suggesting that it's not that sinister: the program is a massive data-mining operation, so it would be impractical if not impossible to get a warrant for every person who would be affected by it. Of course, that's no less a crime - if the law is inconvenient, then you're supposed to either adapt to it or change it, not ignore it as Bush seems to have done.

So, with the obvious caveat that we don't quite have all the facts yet, I'd say that this rises to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors." But given that there is no conceivable way that a motion to impeach Bush could be successful while Republicans control both houses of Congress, the question becomes, is it a good idea to move to impeach even if it will fail? Should we do it because it's the right thing to do and damn the consequences, or did Clinton's impeachment lower the bar for impeachment proceedings, or did it raise the bar or what, or does one of those details I'm ignorant of actually completely vindicate Bush, and will impeachment look like standing on principle or just look like pettiness...

Monday, December 19, 2005

Great minds think alike, simple minds seldom differ. Imagine it was 1999 again...

Just because I didn't want to let the warrantless wiretaps story go by, but I didn't have anything witty or original to say about it. What am I supposed to do, feign surprise?

Friday, December 16, 2005

I'd laugh my ass off at this, I swear, if it wasn't being done by an incumbent member of the party that currently controls the government.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Pretend it's 1999 or so again. Matthew Shepard is still in the forefront of the national consciousness. Everyone knows about the President, Monica Lewinsky, and Linda Tripp. The word "globalization" is no longer limited to economists and radicals but has become generally known. The Y2K bug joins other, more religious millenial doomsaying. The economy is doing great, partly because of tech investment which will turn out to be a bubble. America's most recent military venture in Bosnia, despite its share of criticism, was successful by any measure. Ted Kaczynski and Timothy McVeigh are the faces of terrorism that Americans are familiar with, but the rest of the world still has Palestinian suicide bombers, Basque seperatists, Japanese cults, and more - at least Northern Ireland is calming down, thankfully.

So back in the world of 1999, suppose you saw the following sentence in an editorial in a mainstream American publication.
Torture is like almost every other issue: It involves trade-offs between the rights of individuals and the needs of society.

What would your emotional reaction to that phrase be? Assuming of course that it's being used seriously and not as a caveat or qualifier to introduce something else*, you'd think that the writer was nuts and you'd be right.

The world didn't change on 9/11. We did. And not for the better.

*This is how it's being used in the article I link to. Michael Kinsley is not supporting torture, he's dissecting the "ticking time bomb" "argument". I choose this quote at this link because it's a succinct summary of what many people really are arguing, and those people really are nuts.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Big death penalty debate over the past couple weeks. On the one hand we have Stanley Tookie Williams, co-founder of the Crips, who was executed yesterday for four charges of murder. On the other hand we have Cory Mayes, who is currently on death row for shooting a police officer in a maybe-illegal, undeniably-unnecessary no-knock raid on his house in the middle of the night*. My thoughts? Pretty much everyone is claiming that Tookie is a bad example for anti-death penalty activists to rally around. But I disagree - simply based on my experience. Most opinions about him seem to be "I'm against the death penalty in most cases, but this guy deserves it." But a lot of people are instead saying "I'm for the death penalty, and people like this are why." (Usually throwing in a few gratuitious barbs at the eeevil libruls in Hollywood who have supported Tookie more vocally than Mayes, of course.) A month ago I had been in the first group. But after hearing a lot of talk from the people in the second group, now I'm saying "I'm against the death penalty." So maybe I'm not the target for the anti-death penalty arguments, but Tookie's case worked on me.

Months ago someone e-mailed Andrew Sullivan to argue that the torture in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere was acceptable because terrorists are monsters and deserve whatever they get, and Sullivan's response only disputed the belief that all the abuse victims were terrorists. That e-mail and its response pissed me off - not "outraged", in the overused that-politician-won't-get-away-with-it sense, but genuinely made me angry. The only difference between that attitude and the most vicious, destructive forms of totalitarianism is a matter of degree. (In Sullivan's defense he didn't explicitly agree with the e-mailer, just argued a side issue, so I don't assume he believed the same.) And some sociopath manages to pass it off as fucking normal and walk around in polite society as if it's just another difference of opinion.

Someone once said something to the effect that the measure of a society is not how well the "normal people" live but how the least among you get treated. I think it was Jesus, but I haven't been able to find the chapter and verse. It's inevitable that the rich and influential will be free and protected. It's normal that the middle class, when it exists at all, will be pretty secure. But how a society treats the poor, the crippled, the criminals, the gays and Jews and gypsies and other groups that have been pariahs throughout history - that is the measure of how just and fair and ethical a society is. And people already know it, even if they don't think about it in those terms. Why is America so great? Because it has almost always been a better place for the poor and downtrodden, with more opportunity and equality, than the rest of the world.

And Tookie's case reminded me of that. Forget how we handle the suspects of crimes who are probably innocent, how should we handle the ones who probably aren't? Cory Mayes is easy. He had every reason to believe he was acting in self-defense and the police didn't have a good reason to be there in the first place, so don't kill him. But that dodges the entire question in the death penalty debate. Do we, should we, kill the guilty?

If it was a case of us individually, most people wouldn't even think about it for long. We might take an "eye for an eye" view if it was a loved one, and of course people do terrible things when there's a mob mentality spurring them on. But most people in the position to make a consequence-free, cold-blooded decision about killing a human being would say "I'm not going to sink to their level." I don't think I'm being too naïve in saying that - of course some of the people would pull the trigger all the time, and all of the people would pull the trigger some of the time, but most people would not pull the trigger most of the time. But when it's safely removed because it's done by someone you've never met, to someone you've heard nothing but bad things about, when you don't have to think about what it means, it becomes controversial.

* I know both the links are biased. The idea was not to endorse one or the other of them, but if I happen to agree with Mayes I wanted to be fair to Williams.

Edited on 1/16/2006: Just because I can. No major changes, just tightened up some of the language.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Almost finished reading Al Franken's latest book, The Truth (With Jokes). I've been very slow about it by any standards, let alone mine. Partly just the fact that I have lots more to do with my time than I did when I read Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them, and partly because I think it's not as good. There's the inevitable sequel handicap, and also the fact that I pay more attention to politics now than I did two years ago so a lot of what he talks about is old news to me. But also, it just... seems to fall flat more, and comes across as bitter and refighting-the-election far too often.

However, he's talking about post-war reconstruction in Iraq, and he mentions a particular "security" company that got several contracts. (And it goes without saying, bilked the government for millions.) The company is named Custer Battles LLC.

Custer Battles. Post-war reconstruction was implemented in part by Mr. Custer and his partner Mr. Battles. It was run from the top down by people who thought Custer Battles was reliable. Business management genuises who named anything "Custer Battles," let alone a security contractor, were considered competent to rebuild a country.

Call me crazy, I found that funny.

"Thank you for calling the law offices of Dewey, Cheatham & Howe, may I help you?"

"Oh come on, anti-German prejudice hasn't been popular in America for two hundred years. Steven Hitler has a great chance of getting elected!"

And who ever thought Trojan was a good name? "Let's see, we need something that implies sneaking a bunch of seamen through the walls where they'll spill out and attack..."
- Mark "Kamikaze" Hughes

"I think we should name our new company Custer Battles. It really projects strength and sounds all-American."

Friday, December 02, 2005

Insanity. And while it's generally misleading to judge a blog's author or community in general by the comments that can be found on it, Goldstein and half a dozen other commenters chimed in with unqualified praise for this commenter, so in this case I feel justified.

There's quite a bit in that post that's incorrect, disagreeable, or similar, but there's one thing in there that's flat-out irrational and yet frighteningly common.
The only way we will lose is we keep on listening to idiots such as Murthra, Pelosi, Moore and Dipshit in the time of whatever.

I would recommend to all that they call up or write their congressmen and tell them to stay the course.

Right. El Salvador-style death squads are now a part of the Iraqi police force. The army thinks it's necessary to use propaganda in a country we aren't at war with and they got caught. The duly-elected Iraqi government is asking us to get out and saying that insurgents have a "legitimate right" to attack Americans.

But if we lose in Iraq, whatever "losing" means, it is totally and completely the fault of The Left(TM).

New flash, jackass: the Republicans are in power. If things were going well now, and if they got worse after a Democratic president started implementing his policies, then maybe it wouldn't be totally insane to blame the Democrats for the chaos in Iraq. Since neither of those "if"s is true yet, wake up. Like it or not, Bush is in charge. If he chooses to bend under political pressure and institute a plan that turns out to be disastrous, then - well first of all, I really don't care if it's disastrous unless it's even more disastrous than his current plan, and that's a pretty high bar for disaster. But even if he does follow the Murtha's-in-all-but-name plan and Iran gets nuclear weapons as a direct and inevitable result, it's still his fault. His choice, his decision, his burden. Gun makers aren't liable for gun deaths, neo-Nazis are not (usually) liable for hate crimes they didn't commit, and people criticizing a politician aren't responsible for what the politician does about it*.

To be clear, I can't really blame Bush or other elected Republicans for this attitude. As far as I know they aren't promoting this particular bit of stupidity themselves, and even if they were, politicians do what they have to do to get elected. Dishonesty and innuendo are still unethical, but this is meaningless to complain about because almost any professional politician would do the same thing in the Republican's shoes. But I can blame the morons who fall for it. There's a point when ideology becomes blind faith and willful ignorance, and when you're blaming your political rivals for "potential future"** problems in a situation that they have never had control over, that point is just a speck in the distance behind you.

*Yes, even if he what he's doing is just following their advice. The worst you can call someone who gives bad advice either in earnest or not expecting it to be followed is "stupid". That and much worse is perfectly fair against the men who caused, well, almost everything I linked to above half of what I linked to above and more besides.

**"There are none so blind as those who will not see..."

Thursday, December 01, 2005

I think there's a lot of truth to how Jon Stewart described Bush on a C-SPAN show last year some time. He didn't talk about religion or history or any of the issues which has been so clouded that it's almost impossible to tell who did what, he basically just said that he completely disagreed with Bush's leadership style. I bring that up because this seems to be an extremely good summary of that leadership style, and I also just thought it was funny.