Saturday, December 29, 2007

The best songs of 2007

Music. It makes the road wider, faster, emptier and simultaneously less lonely. It makes the heart beat faster, ache harder, dance more gracefully. It makes the mind focus and rest and wake up. It makes life more interesting. So thank you 2007! I created what I feel like is an even stronger Best-Of this year than last year, and I didn't think I'd ever top 2006 (that year was so good that nothing from Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood made it).

This year's just-misses include: Radiohead, Missy Higgins, Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, Maps, Peter, Bjorn and John, Blair (Gimma) and The Shins or Jens Lenkman. I am shocked that Missy Higgins didn't make it. Her concert at the Hotel Cafe this year was awesome.

So without further ado ...

1. Take Me To The Riot -- Stars from In Our Bedroom After The War; My favorite song from my favorite album of the year. Also the band that gave a tie for the best show of the year that I saw.

2. Paper Planes -- M.I.A. from Kala; One of the most creative forces in music, she incorporates some Wreckx-N-Effect along with gunshots and cash registers in the chorus to say it ALL.

3. Silver Lining -- Rilo Kiley from Under The Blacklight; my favorite band (sorry R.E.M.) released an ultimately good, though not great, album. Never has breaking up sounded so complete. The most deceptively delivered, yet powerful lyric of the year "I never felt so wicked as when I willed our love to die."

4. Fluorescent Adolescent -- Arctic Monkeys from Favourite Worst Nightmare; music should be about joy and sex and emotion.

5. After All These Years -- Abra Moore from On The Way; back after a hiatus, the Austin-based-singer is back with one of the most beautiful songs I've heard in any year.

6. If The Brakeman Turns My Way -- Bright Eyes from Cassadaga; another fave who released an album that didn't measure up to his previous, although the Omaha-indie-mogul didn't miss by near as much as Rilo Kiley. Just by listening to this song you'll transform.

7. Foundations -- Kate Nash from Made Of Bricks; Amy Winehouse only wishes she could be this brilliant. Lyrics with more bite, melodies more beautiful and a voice far less gimmicky.

8. Underwater (You & Me) -- Clap Your Hands Say Yeah from Some Loud Thunder; do-it-yourself rock-n-roll lives from these guys. They don't use a label to distribute domestically, so please don't download, go see them!

9. Icky Thump -- The White Stripes from Icky Thump; the dirtiest record of the year.

10. Say It To Me Now -- Glen Hansard from the Once soundtrack; Best movie of the year and best single song performance of the year for me. His amp or mic blew out during the show at the El Rey forcing him to sing with his lungs and his heart. The audience was rapt.

11. Umbrella (feat. Jay-Z) -- Rihanna from Good Girl Gone Bad; best pop song of the year by A LOT. And in an era of panty-less fallen ingenues trying to out skank each other, this song celebrates commitment.

12. The Story -- Brandi Carlile from The Story; One of many artists who has covered Hallelujah. One of few who have done it justice. This song is sincere and Mitch Album could learn something about the difference between that and sentimentality.

13. What Light -- Wilco from Sky Blue Sky; An incredibly accessible song from the American masters of music snobbery.

14. Adventures In Solitude -- The New Pornographers from Challengers; The saddest song of the year? Probably.

15. Take What You Take -- Lily Allen from Alright, Still; You've probably heard Smile, which is great, but this song not only has a stronger rhythmic edge, it also has wittier lyrics.

16. Stronger -- Kanye West from Graduation (Deluxe Edition); the ego has landed with a kick-ass song. Fusing Kanye's viscious point of view with Daft Punk's musical genius yields greatness.

17. Lips Are Unhappy -- Lucky Soul from The Great Unwanted; Probably the most obscure act on the list. They're another part of the neo-British soul invasion. But unlike the wicked as they are cute Pipettes, Lucky Soul bring the 60s back 60s style.

18. 1234 -- Feist from The Reminder; The Broken Social Scene Collective gets two on the list (Stars members) with the catchiest most delicious piece of candy-coated pop music in 4-eva!

19. Intervention -- Arcade Fire from Neon Bible; "Who's gonna reset the bone?" Well, who? Whoever does it will have answered the most urgent question posed by anyone this year. See this band in your lifetime and it will change your life for the bester.

If you read this and would like a copy, lmk by posting a comment.

I'm not dead ...

... I've just been basking in traffic, lines, over-worked/underpaid customer service reps, spending, lazing and video-gaming ... in other words the Holidays. Over Thanksgiving the roommates equipped us with an HDTV, Wii and Xbox 360. YIKES! They're all fab. I told two friends to call me to invite me to do something OUT every week to make sure I get out of the house. I've been pretty good about that. But this week has had lots of Wii, lots of Wii.

Though I did find time to finish my best of 2007 CD. I love it. It was more difficult this year than ever. That post coming later today, but first I have to get back to work and edit two more stories (and finish the one I'm currently working on) and then dust and clean the room and deal with mail and banking stuff. I note the list only to point out that once again my best laid plans to evenly distribute the work tasks of my break have failed. But that's OK, I'm learning that legit rest and relaxation is IMPORTANT. The bags I carried under my eyes all fall REALLY FUCKING taught me that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Triumph of reason plus faith

I've said it before in this blog (I think), but it's worth saying again—writing is hard. Back in high school, I used to think that it was inspiration. In grad school I learned that it was effort, rejection, determination, dejection and blood.

So it's with great joy that I now try to impart that messsage to students. Hopefully it won't take them so long to learn it, because maybe that will mean they, too, can write some stuff this good.

First, this was on the Washington Post/Newsweek site recently. It's a column about "moderate Muslims" and the root of the title of this entry. I found this incredibly intelligent, moving and hopeful—could there be three better words to be described as?


Eboo Patel

Eboo Patel


Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. His blog, The Faith Divide, explores what drives faiths apart and what brings them together. He is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. An American Muslim of Indian heritage, Eboo has a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. He is on the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations, the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation and the Advisory Board of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. Eboo is an Ashoka Fellow, part of a select network of social entrepreneurs with ideas that could change the world. Close.

Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. His blog, The Faith Divide, explores what drives faiths apart and what brings them together. more »

Faith Divide | Eboo Patel Archives | On Faith Archives | Interfaith Youth Core

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Muslim Dirty Laundry

When I wrote an article for this website a few months ago called On Muslim Antisemitism, a Muslim friend of mine remarked, “What you say is true, but why do you have to air our dirty laundry?”

I stared at her in disbelief. Did she really think that the world was unaware of our dirty laundry?

The sad truth is that too many people think it’s the only kind of laundry Muslims have.

And one of the reasons for this is because mainstream Muslims aren’t talking openly about the problem.

My wife was at a dinner party last week and someone asked about the English woman in the Sudan who, at the urging of her Muslim students, named the class teddy bear Muhammad and received jail time and death threats for her efforts.

My wife’s friend asked: “Does Islam really say that she should be punished?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” my wife responded.

I understand why my wife took a pass. Mainstream Muslims are tired of being put on the defensive, of only being asked about their religion in relation to violence or the oppression of women, as if that’s all that Islam has ever or could ever produce.

But her friend still wanted an answer to her question. And if my wife wasn’t going to provide one, then she would have to find someone who would.

In this case, it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote an OpEd in The New York Times effectively stating that Islam requires Muslims to severely punish teachers who name teddy bears Muhammad (Sudan), rape victims who are accused of being in the presence of a man who is not a family member (Saudi Arabia) and female writers who criticize Islam (India).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right on two important points. The first is that all of these punishments are appalling and brutal. The second is that moderate Muslims should be louder about these matters. There are some things that are true even if Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes them.

And once moderate Muslims are louder, not in the form of angry indignation but as eloquent articulators of the depth and meaning of their faith, then people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali will suddenly find themselves consigned to the place where they should have been all along: the margins, where they can froth at the mouth all they want.

Hirsi Ali and people like her are widely-read because they offer a theory of the problem: they tell the world a convincing story of why Muslims keep popping up on the front pages of newspapers in negative articles. Hirsi Ali’s theory, and the theory of other Islamophobes, is that Muslims have dirty laundry because the body and soul of Islam are dirty.

Hirsi Ali ends her Times OpEd with a subtle but scathing indictment of Islam – that it is a tradition opposed to conscience and compassion. “When a “moderate” Muslim’s sense of compassion and conscience collides with matters prescribed by Allah, he should choose compassion,” she writes.

I wonder if my wife’s dinner part friend thinks that’s true. As far as I know, it’s the only theory that she’s heard.

A lesson for mainstream Muslims: Whenever you don’t offer a theory of the problem, someone else will. When there is a vacuum of information about a hot topic and you don’t fill it, other people will aggressively move in.

Too many mainstream Muslims believe they have only two options in the face of the current discourse on Islam: angry indignation or stony silence.

I believe there is a third way. It is what University of Michigan Professor Sherman Jackson, one of America’s leading scholars of Islam, calls ‘Islamic literacy’.

Here is how someone literate in Islam, Muslim or not, might have responded to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s contention that Islam and compassionate conscience are mutually exclusive. First, by saying that there should be no excuses made for those who sought the punishments in any of the three cases she named. They were indeed brutal, and as such, were in conflict with the core ethos of Islam – compassion and mercy, which are enshrined both in the Muslim tradition and in the human conscience.

Compassion and mercy are the two most repeated qualities of God in Islam, best illustrated by the most common Muslim prayer, “Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim” – In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the most Merciful. As they are qualities of God, they are attributes that Muslims are required to emulate.

Compassion and mercy are also enshrined in the first lesson that classical Muslim scholars would teach their students, what came to be known as the Tradition of Primacy in Islam: “If you are merciful to those on Earth, then He who is in Heaven will be merciful to you.”
Islam, like other traditions, has internal contradictions. The Qur’an and Muslim law say different things in different places. That is precisely why compassion and mercy play such an important role in Muslim interpretation and practice. When in doubt about how to deal with a particular situation, a Muslim should always be guided by compassion and mercy.

Compassion and mercy are given to human beings by God – they are the content of our conscience. Dr. Umar Abdallah, the most senior scholar in Western Islam, writes in one of the most important essays in contemporary Islam that mercy is the central quality that God “stamped” on His creation.

Fazlur Rahman, amongst the most widely-respected Muslim scholars of the twentieth century (and Dr. Umar’s intellectual mentor), wrote that the single most important term in the Qur’an is “taqwa”, which translates roughly as “God-consciousness” or “inner torch” or “conscience.”

Khaled Abou El Fadl, one of America’s most important scholars of Islamic thought and law, believes that people are required to bring their God-given compassion to the reading of the text of the Qur’an. “The text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text.,” he writes in a remarkable essay called The Place of Tolerance in Islam.

Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, the most prominent Muslim scholar and preacher in the West, wrote in a piece for this website, “Unfortunately, millions of Muslims all over the globe are humiliated and betrayed by the ignorance and lack of basic humanity that a small minority of Muslims too often exhibits.”

He continued, “True religion – as well as the highest secular values – demands we … attempt to understand each other, recognize our real differences, and display mutual respect.”
That is a statement of both liberation and guidance for mainstream Muslims. Muslims who speak only of brutality and severity and punishment are not just betraying mainstream Muslims, they are violating our tradition. They do not speak for us. We are not required to defend them.

To mainstream Muslims everywhere: When we act and speak with compassion and conviction and knowledge, even about our ‘dirty laundry’, we are following the straight path of our faith, educating those with genuine questions about Islam, marginalizing people with destructive agendas, and doing our part to build a world based on understanding and respect.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Merry Dec. 17

I love Christmas. I am not a Christian or even religious, but I love Christmas the most. At its best this is the time of year that makes people happier, nicer, more generous and move willing to open themselves to love, forgiveness, gratitude and redemption. I've thought about these things a lot lately for no real reasons save it's the holidays and I've been drinking in my fave Christmas songs and holiday cheer. Well, I think also because we had the work Xmas party with the teen staff Saturday and trying to convince one particular girl that the Holidays were awesome (or at least could be) made me think back to how I felt during the holidays when I was her age (14 years ago).

I wasn't nearly so light and hopeful about them back then, far more cynical, though still drunk on the retail and days off of school.

In that spirit (poor connection here warning) here's a fave song from high school, though in no way holidays-related. This is one of the first songs I loved that not many other people had heard of. Thus birthed the music snob I've become, but I think a good person, too? Btw, to all music snobs out there, Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is a FUCKING great song. But back to the Sundays ...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The spirit of the commercial season

Over the past two-plus seasons the Buffalo Sabres have captured my heart, mind and soul, just not my wallet, at least not entirely. I've bought several T-shirts, but opted against the big ticket hockey fan item ... the jersey. The only reason I passed last season when they won the President's Trophy and inspired at least a half dozen hour-long late night phone calls with my friend Jon, was because I strongly dislike the logo the team adopted coming out of the lockout.

It's been called the Chargalo or Barney Rubble's wig. In short, it has prevented me from showing my true fandom, but it has saved me probably $200-plus. Why oh why couldn't they have returned to the original logo? Or even stayed with their updated cartoon goathead logo, which was the ONLY 90s-update era logo that I ever liked.

Well, now temptation has emerged. The Sabres were selected to play in the Winter Classic—an outdoor game to held at Ralph Wilson Staidum (where the Buffalo Bills play). The game will be on national television on New Year's Day. Pray for 30 degrees and no wind.

And in honor of this stupendous sports occasion, the Sabres will be wearing the new Reebok version of the original uniforms.Oh man do I want one of these! Unfortunately, it's about $130 with no name or number and about $210+ (depending on how long the name is) to get customization. Well, there's no way in hell I'm gonna be blank jersey guy. The only thing worse than that is YOUROWNNAME jersey guy.

The only thing that kept me from buying it right now is that my two fave guys from last year—Chris Drury and Daniel Briere aren't on the team this year.

Check back in a week when I've probably bought it.

Upcoming blog posts this year will be best ofs ... movies, concerts, albums, songs, sports moments and my two least favorite developments of the Presidential race (hint: Romney and Huckabee and social issues are involved, even though I say that people should be more concerned with the non-social issues).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Merry Christmas Deux

This is one of my favortie Christmas songs ever. Maybe Xmas ain't purrfect, but it's not supposed to be, is it? It wouldn't be nearly as memorable that way. And so I present The Pogues performing "Fairytale of New York."

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In the spirit of the season ...

Throughout the rest of this month until Dec. 25 I'm going to post some of my favorite recorded musical holiday moments. This is Band-Aid (a boatload of British pop superstars) inspiring entertainers for causes (see USA for Africa's "We Are the World," Farm Aid, Comic Relief, etc.). If you're watching this tonight, thank God it's them instead of you.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

All shootings are sad

As 3,000 people, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, turned out Monday to pay their respects to slain Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor and bemoan the senseless gun violence in this country, I couldn't help but wonder why "leaders" like Jackson don't show up at the tragic funerals of regular people and preach the same message. Draw attention to that, Rev. Jackson, and let's put those killings and shootings out front. Make the public pay attention.

Thankfully, there's Jill Leovy at the Los Angeles Times, who with her Homicide Report blog chronicles at least cursorily the homicides of every person in Los Angeles County. Occasionall, her work still appears in the Times, including this amazing story that appeared in Sunday's paper about a pregnant woman who was shot and has been paralyzed from the waist down.

You can read the story in this blog, but I highly recommend going to the LATimes website and reading it, because you can see Barbara Davidson's pictures, which add the poingancy to this story. Rose Smith and her boyfriend Tyrin Tisdale are who most of us are--hard-working people trying to make their family's life better. Honestly, people who are way more relatable than Sean Taylor.,1,3172307.story
From the Los Angeles Times

Rebuilding a shattered dream

After a bullet paralyzes a pregnant mother in Los Angeles, her family is learning to live again.
By Jill Leovy
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

December 2, 2007

Rose Smith had forgotten the ground turkey for her dirty rice recipe. So the 23-year-old pregnant mother of two waited until their father, Tyrin Tisdale, got home to watch the kids, then headed to the store.

It was May 27 in Watts, and in another hour or so, Smith's life would be shattered. But at that moment, everything was routine -- the way she and Tisdale, 24, liked it.

Raised on the same tough street, the young couple had a shared dream of pulling their young family up and out of the Nickerson Gardens public housing project and of buying a house in a better neighborhood.

That goal required an austere, ceaseless dedication for two people in their early 20s with few resources, no college education and a world of poverty and unemployment at their doorstep.

The rhythm of their lives was like a metronome: Get 2-year-old Mariah and 1-year-old Tyrin Jr. out of bed. Feed them. Dress them. Take them to day care. Go to work, she as a receptionist and he as a mental health worker.

The dirty rice was for one of their few breaks, a Memorial Day potluck with Tisdale's family. Smith hurried through the shopping, then called Tisdale on her cellphone for help unloading the groceries.

Later, both of them would describe what happened as dream-like -- fast and slow at the same time. The children were sleeping in the living room. Smith parked across the street.

A large group of teenagers gathered nearby -- 14-year-olds, black and Latino. Tisdale and Smith both describe a jump in tension, the sound of male voices arguing. Then, like a match dropped in gasoline, a fistfight in the dark. Gunshots booming, close enough to rattle the eardrums.

They remembered the next few seconds differently. Smith's eyes were on the door. The children were awake, standing behind the mesh door, looking out at her. She had one thought -- to get to them.

Tisdale thought the children were still asleep. His eyes were on Smith. He watched her jog across the street. She jumped on the porch and reached for the door handle.

The bullets tore into her one by one, each producing a sharp, burning sensation. Her cheek. Her jaw. Her arm. And there was something else, unlike anything she had felt before. One second her legs were there, the next they weren't.

Even in all the confusion, she knew. "Something in my head had registered that I wasn't going to use my legs any more," she said.

From across the street, Tisdale saw her fall. He thought she was just getting down for safety. "Get up!" he told her as he reached her side. She couldn't.

Tisdale jumped over her, through the door, and called 911. The dispatcher questioned him, saying, "Slow down!" He grew impatient. "My girlfriend's been shot!" he kept saying.

When the police arrived, they wouldn't let Tisdale near Smith.

"Just stand back," they told him.

Lying on the porch, unable to move, Smith felt her heart starting to race. She closed her eyes, willed herself not to panic. She had heard of bullets traveling inside the body, so she concentrated on holding still.

In her ear came the voice of a police officer, bent down close to her. "You look fine. I've seen worse," he was telling her.

At Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital's trauma center, the doctor talked to her. Partly because of reverberation from the bullet's impact, her nerves were so damaged they were no longer sending signals. One technical term would stick with her: The injury was "complete." She would almost certainly never walk again. But the baby was fine.

Smith watched Tisdale's head drop as the doctor spoke. They both cried, Tisdale careful not to become too emotional, for fear the hospital security guards would eject him.

All the way to the hospital, Smith had been thinking, "Is the baby OK? Is the baby OK?" But by this point, she had stopped caring about the pregnancy -- about anything but the pain. "It's sad to say, but it's true. I told them, 'I don't care about the baby right now, tell them to give me medicine!' "

Some medications are too dangerous to use on a pregnant woman. The doctors declined even to X-ray her spine for fear of harming the fetus.

In the coming weeks, Tisdale was back and forth between home and hospital, caring alone for the children, arranging child care, cleaning, cooking.

Doctors at Long Beach Memorial Hospital later operated on Smith's jaw, then wired it shut for four weeks. She was pregnant and very hungry. Tisdale brought her protein-infused Jamba Juice and mashed potatoes and gravy from Kentucky Fried Chicken. He also brought the children. Seeing her cry, Mariah would try to comfort her.

One of the bullets had damaged the nerves around her rib cage, causing constant shooting pain. Smith was still taking limited painkillers.

Tisdale took a leave of absence from his job. He was with Smith every day, watching everything the doctors did, knowing it would soon be his turn. He knew that, from the day she went home, she would have to urinate using a catheter and, with Tisdale's help, empty her bowels using a suppository every four to six hours, even at night.

With help from the state Victims of Crime program, Tisdale moved the family from Nickerson Gardens to an adapted apartment nearby and set it up for the day when she finally went home, July 27. She was nearly four months pregnant.

Their first mistake was to try to put the bed on the floor. It was too hard to get Smith up.

Tisdale felt financial pressure to return to his $8-an-hour job. Then, he worried he would be fired if he was late a single day. He asked for a second leave when the baby came in November and had to produce a doctor's note to get it.

Tisdale became a caretaker around the clock: for severely mentally ill adults at work; for the children; and for Smith at home. She could see how tired he was, and it worried her. But even if he could take a break, he would just worry about Smith, he said. The pace was exhausting. But, "this just seems like something I have to do right now," he said.

Smith was home all day, bored, depressed and in pain. Her legs would jerk uncontrollably and seize up. Friends visited, including Tisdale's family members when they could, but she grieved for all the things she could no longer do -- especially as a parent. How could she volunteer at her children's school now?

"It's going to be OK. You are still here. Your life is not over," Tisdale told her.

They had been happy about the baby, but now her feelings were more complicated. Because of her paralysis, she was scheduled to deliver by caesarean section. Then, she decided, she would have her tubes tied.

On the worst days, home alone sipping juice from a straw and trying to manage the pain with Tylenol and codeine, "it felt like the end of the world," she said. "I had a feeling of being the only soul living, the only soul suffering. I couldn't make up my mind that anyone was in worse condition than I am in."

At the same time, it still seemed unreal. She replayed the events of that night over and over in her head. At night, in secret, Smith would try to move her toes, just in case the doctors were wrong.

On better days, the couple felt a little bit of their old routine returning. Tyrin Jr. saw the wheelchair as a fun new toy. Smith's bosses and co-workers at Timcor, a manufacturer of dome structures, were sympathetic. She would be able to keep her job, and her co-workers held a fundraiser and presented her with a check for $5,000.

During her hospital stay, Smith had gotten to know Det. Linda Heitzman of the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division. Heitzman had a suspect in her case, Evan Rivas, 31, a train conductor who worked in the Port of Los Angeles area. He is believed to have fled and is wanted on an arrest warrant on suspicion of attempted murder.

Heitzman said she was struck by the enormity of what had happened to Smith and her young family. How would they make ends meet with three children and hourly jobs, the detective wondered. How could Tisdale provide so much care without help? How could they adapt a crib so that Smith could lift the baby out?

Heitzman has worked for years in Watts and has long bemoaned the invisibility of victims like Smith. Violent crime is at historically low levels in the city. Even so, shootings are a constant backdrop in some neighborhoods. For every person who dies from homicide in Los Angeles, five survive gunfire: more than 1,700 people just this year.

Four days before Smith's scheduled delivery, two 25-year-old men were struck by gunfire just north of where she lives. One died, the other was left a paraplegic.

Heitzman said the shooting of a child occasionally makes the news. But mostly, "people just don't care, or they think, 'They had it coming,' " Heitzman said. " 'She's just one more number.' But if you want to look at who are the numbers, well, here's a taste. They aren't all gangster thugs. And even some of those are just kids anyway."

On Nov. 16, Smith gave birth to a girl -- addicted to her mother's pain medication but otherwise healthy. Smith named her Miracle.

She and Tisdale remain worried about the future -- about money, their ability to handle all this. But Smith said that in some ways, their relationship has grown stronger. "He saves me," she said of Tisdale. "He is the only one who makes me feel protected and OK."

Tisdale said he had reflected many times that Smith easily could have died.

"I think about if I had lost her. I don't know what I would be doing," he said. "Who would I talk to? Who would I come home to?"

Southeast Det. Linda Heitzman asks anyone with information about the May 27 brawl that led to Smith's injury to call (213) 972-7906.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Who cares about the Constitution?

... apparently not even the ultra-liberal ninth circuit. Seriously, why doesn't anyone seem to care? At least the NYTimes editorial page does.

November 28, 2007

A Loss for Privacy Rights

The Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches, but for this protection to have practical meaning, the courts must enforce it. This week, the Supreme Court let stand a disturbing ruling out of California that allows law enforcement to barge into people’s homes without a warrant. The case has not prompted much outrage, perhaps because the people whose privacy is being invaded are welfare recipients, but it is a serious setback for the privacy rights of all Americans.

San Diego County’s district attorney has a program called Project 100% that is intended to reduce welfare fraud. Applicants for welfare benefits are visited by law enforcement agents, who show up unannounced and examine the family’s home, including the insides of cabinets and closets. Applicants who refuse to let the agents in are generally denied benefits.

The program does not meet the standards set out by the Fourth Amendment. For a search to be reasonable, there generally must be some kind of individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. These searches are done in the homes of people who have merely applied for welfare and have done nothing to arouse suspicion.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, rejected a challenge brought by welfare recipients. In ruling that the program does not violate the Constitution, the majority made the bizarre assertion that the home visits are not “searches.”

The Supreme Court has long held that when the government intrudes on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy, it is a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. It is a fun-house mirrors version of constitutional analysis for a court to say that government agents are not conducting a search when they show up unannounced in a person’s home and rifle through her bedroom dresser.

Judge Harry Pregerson, writing for himself and six other Ninth Circuit judges who voted to reconsider the case, got it right. The majority decision upholding Project 100%, Judge Pregerson wrote, “strikes an unprecedented blow at the core of Fourth Amendment protections.” These dissenters rightly dismissed the majority’s assertion that the home visits were voluntary, noting that welfare applicants were not told they could withhold consent, and that they risked dire consequences if they resisted.

The dissenting judges called the case “an assault on the poor,” which it is. It would be a mistake, however, to take consolation in the fact that only poor people’s privacy rights were at stake. When the government is allowed to show up unannounced without a warrant and search people’s homes, it is bad news for all of us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I slept more than 10 hours last night (with some help from a quick late-night alcohol blitz capped off with a meatless Moons Over My Hammy at Denny's (formerly Perkins) on Maple Road). Waking up today was the first time in literallly months that I felt totally rested. Like completely, uncompromisingly, so powerfully that I'm using unnecesssary modifiers, rested.

I just watched RENT the movie again and despite the critical pans, I love it, I think mostly in the way that something truly Good will persevere no matter what and Jonathan Larson's RENT is just such a thing of that Goodness. Off to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows again. That's a good day ... real rest, some editing, some Project Runway, a Sabres win over the Senators and RENT and Harry Potter 7.

Happy Thanksgiving to all the coasts and points in between. Sure, the actual historic Thanksgiving has much awfulness connected to it (like smallpox, exploitation, gambling) but the idea of being humble and thankful ... that's pretty much always a GOOD thing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Me inkorporated

Work by Erich Foster, owner of Rise Above tattoo shop on Delaware Avenue in North Buffalo.

The words are from my favorite song "Pictures of Success" by Rilo Kiley. "They say California is a recipe for a blackhole/ I say I've got my best shoes on ... ready to go."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thanksgiving travel blues

For a while I refused to check luggage, for fear of lost bags. I became an expert at packing light and since I moved to California all my flights have usually taken me to places where I'd be able to do laundry so I was allowed to pack really light.

However, a few flights ago I realized that lugging my bag though large airports from terminal to terminal when I already had a heavy-carryon (laptop) was sort of a pain. So I returned to checking a bag. And things were fine. Until this trip to see the fam for tofurkey day.

I approached the self-check-in area at the United terminal at LAX. And I swear to God, I had a weird feeling about my bag not making it with me. But a nice woman called out, "who's going to Buffalo?" And took and tagged my bag, so I dismissed my eerie feeling as nothing of import.

When I landed in Buffalo I walked with my fam to the baggage claim carousel for our flight. A few people from my originating Los Angeles flight were also there. A few minutes later they were gone having claimed their luggage, looking happy to be just about finished with a long day of travel. I'm still waiting for my black duffle bag with the blue stripe.

Another flight's bags start appearing on our carousel, but the sign still lists our flight as well. I am hoping that perhaps my bag didn't fit on the truck carrying my flight's bags, so it was like the lone bag put on the second flight. Well, after about 10 minutes and most of flight two's passengers claiming their bags, I know.

I head to the United baggage problem agent and tell her that I am luggageless. As she's typing in my information, she suggests that perhaps because my flight from L.A. was late getting into D.C. that there could have been a problem. I though that for a second, but seeing two people from my L.A. flight get their bags in Buffalo, I dismiss this. Then the news ...

"You bag didn't leave LAX with you." she said. It was flagged by the TSA and so it never made it to Buffalo with me either. Apparently, I'm a terrorist. I wonder if perhaps my electric toothbrush turned on and the buzzing freaked them out?

My bag is supposed to come on the first flight tomorrow morning (technically today local time). In the meantime, I'm without luggage. :(

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Forget the meek inheriting the Earth, I hope it's the young who take it

As Romenesko's column on spreads the doom and gloom of print journalism almost every day, amazing work is still being done at newspapers. Today's amazing example is from the UCLA Daily Bruin's months-long investigation into preferential treatment for donors' relatives at the university's prestigious orthodontics school.

Donations influence admissions

Preferential treatment at UCLA's elite orthodontics program exposed by months-long investigation

UCLA's elite orthodontics residency program has violated University of California policy and standards governing public schools by giving special consideration in admissions to major donors and their relatives.

Hundreds of pages of e-mails and internal documents obtained during a months-long Daily Bruin investigation, along with dozens of interviews, show that the program and the officials at its helm developed a system of preferential treatment over the past five years.

In this unprecedented practice within the School of Dentistry, applicants related to donors giving six-figure gifts were automatically advanced over other students despite their lower test scores and grades.

In one case, an applicant was told by a member of the admissions board that a $60,000 gift could greatly improve his chances.

Orthodontics is arguably the most competitive of dental specialties, and the program at UCLA is regarded as one of the nation's best, typically accepting applicants with extensive research experience and top scores.

But in four of the last five years, major donors' close relatives have landed one of six highly coveted residency spots in the program.

In 2006, real estate developer David Lee pledged $1 million to the school of dentistry. His niece was admitted into the orthodontics program soon after.

In 2005, Dr. Norman Nagel pledged half a million dollars. His son was admitted the next year.

In 2004, Dr. Bruce Molen pledged $400,000. His son was admitted the next year.

In 2003 and 2005, Dr. Thomas Bales helped lead major fundraising campaigns within the School of Dentistry, and in 2001, he pledged a half million dollars as well. The orthodontics clinic is named after him. In 2003, his daughter was admitted.

"I've been on this faculty for 40 years, and I've never seen anything like this," said George Bernard, a professor in the School of Dentistry. "People are scared that residencies are being sold on the open market."


I mean seriously, how fucking good is this? Amazing. And the rest of the story just provides more evidence and context. What else I love ... it's written interestingly as well. Strong verbs. Short sentences. Pacing. And excellent use of quotes. Bravo!

As an editor at L.A. Youth we've taken our summer writing workshop students to the Daily Bruin for years. It's always one of the best days of my year ... as much as I hated the Times Union at the end, I do miss newsrooms. Anyway, I've admired the Bruin for its quality; this is a bottom line business. But that quality comes from an ethic.

Four years ago then-editor Tyson Evans pointed to an amazing Sports Illustrated photo inside of Pauley Pavillion, which was hanging up in the office. Attached was a sheet of paper that read essentially: why the fuck is SI getting this amazing photo in our gym!??!? We should own this stuff!

To that I say damn the torpedos full speed ahead.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The death of common sense

During the "do you have any questions for us?" phase of my L.A. Youth job interview, I noted that the students come in basically on Fridays only yet the editors (who work with the students) are in the office Tuesday through Saturday full time, which led me to ask quite candidly "So, given that you see the students really only about once a week, then, and how do I say this delicately, what do you do every day?"

Working in a small office, I've learned that it's a LOT of everything. Today I copy-edited page proofs, re-sized images in layouts, scheduled a guest speaking visit, corrected an error in the media kit, sat in on an unofficial, impromptu relocation meeting, plugged in our new battery backUPS, panicked about the website in my webmaster role, e-mailed students, blahblahblah. Honestly, no big. I also answered the door when a sales rep knocked.

Now, I'm not trained in sales, in fact I think I'd suck at it. I'm not pushy, can be shy, and can sense when someone else doesn't want me around (and get very uncomfortable when that happens). But, I think a lot of it is common sense and I could probably manage to not totally blow at it.

First off, since I'm selling stuff, I'd remember my lesson from Tommy Boy: They're not just buying your product they're buying you. So I'd shave and make sure that I was dressed appropriately, which is COMPLETELY unlike the dude who knocked on our door. He had stubble. He tripped on his words. His shirt/tie was Zach Morris-style—the tie knot was loosened and the top button of his dress shirt was undone. Are you motherfucking kidding me? I literally had to resist the urge to coach this joker.

And the coup de grace, his partner wasn't even there when guy 1 knocked, but showed up about one minute later. Partner looked like he might tip over with the way his posture leaned and he had the most disinterested face I'd ever seen. It was literally embarrassing to behold.

Yeah, this post was kinda soft, but an e-mail exchange with my friend, Jon, who cares more about writing as craft than virtually anyone I've ever met sparked me. He made me realize that I can't be a hypocrite about writing. I tell students all the time that they won't get better if they don't write. So I figured that if I want to be a better blogger, I need to blog, eh?

Go Sabres!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Sleeping with the enemy

Two lawyers. One soon-to-be medical doctor. Many teachers. Many reporters/writers/editors. Two with PhDs. A pharmacist. A registered dietitian. Music lovers. News junkies. Readers. Great parents. Artists. Civil rights idealists. Hikers. People who are funny.

Those are, in short, my friends. I feel very lucky, especially as someone who believes that a person can be read by examining his/her friends. If I'm reflected in them, then maybe I have been doing things right through the years.

And it's that notion which brings me to today's point. What are our country's values? The Worst President in American History says that this is the century of liberty, yet his regime has supported a military ruler in Pakistan who just declared martial law outlawing freedom of movement, freedom of the press and freedom to assemble in public, granted extraordinary powers to the police (detention without being charged), arrested independent judges and harassed the educated moderates.

Check out this amazing Op-Ed in Monday's Washington Post:

A Second Coup in Pakistan

By Ahmed Rashid
Monday, November 5, 2007; A19

President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule this weekend will only encourage further civil strife, nationwide protests and greater territorial gains by the extremist Pakistani Taliban. Never before in Pakistan's sad history of military rule has a general so reviled invoked martial law to ensure his own survival.

Musharraf and his coterie of advisers -- which includes military officers; Inter-Services Intelligence; Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz; and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League's doyen, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain -- decided on this plan days ago but waited until the weekend so the Supreme Court would not be in session and Western officials would be out of the office.

Musharraf's chief aim was to "cleanse" the Supreme Court. Its judges have been forced to resign, and several, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, have been arrested. The court, which had become a major irritant for the regime, had been due to rule on whether Musharraf could remain president for another five-year term.

The other prime targets were not the extremists terrorizing major swaths of northern Pakistan but the country's democratic, secular elite. Dozens of judges, lawyers and human rights workers have been arrested. Others have gone into hiding. Asma Jahangir, Pakistan's leading human rights activist, is under house arrest. She appealed yesterday for the Bush administration "to stop all support of the unstable dictator as his lust for power is bringing the country close to a worse form of civil strife."

Musharraf has increasingly treated the Supreme Court with contempt -- with devastating implications for relations between the army and the public, which wants an independent judiciary, the rule of law and respect for the constitution. Musharraf has again decided that he is above the law and international obligations, even though his political support collapsed long ago. Lawyers, middle-class professionals and his political opposition have been protesting in the streets for months, demanding that Musharraf hold elections and return the country to civilian rule.

Eventually the United States persuaded him to allow former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to return from exile in the hope that Musharraf and Bhutto together could fight extremists by restoring democracy. But Musharraf's heart was never in such a deal. The massive public turnout for Bhutto when she returned last month convinced Musharraf and the army of the need to avoid a handshake with Bhutto if they wanted to remain in power.

Bhutto, her credibility in tatters, has been forced to do an about-face and condemn the generals. It seems that Musharraf once again took the Americans for a ride.

The government should focus its battle against extremism on northern Pakistan, where a resurgent Pakistani Taliban helped by al-Qaeda, Afghan members of the Taliban and several foreign terrorist groups are conquering territory and expanding the boundaries of their "liberated" sharia state. The army has lost hundreds of soldiers in a wave of frontal and suicide attacks, and at least 400 troops are being held hostage.

Despite U.S. expectations it is unlikely that Musharraf will use his new powers to step up a military offensive in the north. His first concern is political survival. More likely are a flurry of truces and shaky peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban that will leave them in place. As a timely sop to the Pentagon, the arrests of a few high-level leaders of the Afghan Taliban and perhaps an al-Qaeda leader are possible. But the extremists know that the Pakistani state has been irretrievably weakened and that this is the moment to push their offensive.

The key question Musharraf faces is how long the army will continue to back him. Rank-and-file soldiers are keenly aware of the widening gulf between them and the public they are supposed to protect. The army, already demoralized, is unwilling to fight a never-ending war against its own people.

For now, the judges are gone, the media has been censored, the opposition and lawyers jailed and curtailed. But Musharraf's emergency is not sustainable. Ruling by force without any political support will prove impossible.

The international community has only belatedly realized that Pakistan is a haven for terrorism, nuclear proliferation and Islamic radicalism. Afghanistan's stability and the fate of 40,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers depend on what happens in Pakistan. The spread of anti-Western feelings and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism have been fostered by a U.S. policy that has sought to prop up Musharraf rather than forcing him to seek political consensus and empower a representative civilian government that would have public support for attacking the extremists.

The world cannot afford to let Musharraf's second coup go unchecked. So far, the response from Washington and European capitals has been tepid. Unless the international community acts decisively, Musharraf's emergency will plunge Pakistan even more deeply into chaos.

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, is the author of "Taliban" and "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia."

Back to me:
We're in bed with a country whose leader has spent the last seven years doing little more than trying to remain in power, repeatedly putting off democratic elections, arresting or ejecting dissenters and ignoring repeated promises to step down as head of the military. All in the name of fighting the war on terror. Apparently the cliché "the enemy of my enemy is my ally" trumps these admitted-platitudes he delivered to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2004.

For too long, many nations, including my own, tolerated, even excused oppression in the Middle East in the name of stability. The oppression became common, but stability never arrived. We must take a different approach. We must help the reformers of the Middle East as they work for freedom and strive to build a community of peaceful, democratic nations.

As long the oppressors are "with us" apparently, then go ahead and do whatever you want. Maybe Bushie sees this as some form of freedom he's bestowing upon Pakistan, the freedom to give dictator's billions of dollars and free reign.

Now, I understand that what we're dealing with extremely complex and that pragmatism has value. Diplomacy is negotiation and that usually means giving up something you'd prefer to keep or allowing something you'd prefer to prevent. And liberals like me have excoriated the neocons for being too idealistic sounding with their justifications for the War in Iraq in particular rather than being willing to negotiate.

But I'm not saying that we should invade Pakistan because the military dictator President Musharraf has obliterated democracy in his country. I'm saying that we should make a clear statement that we find his conduct unacceptable. And yeah, that opens us up to some risk that we lose an ally in the war on terror. But how valuable is this ally? Al Qaeda runs free more or less in the hinterlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Taliban is gaining strength. Members of the unit charged with ferreting out the terrorists were recently captured without a fight. And since everything he has done has essentially been to maintain his hold on power and we've provided aid to keep this ally in power, why does the United States not use its power of the purse?

Our support for Musharraf hasn't mean photo-op dipolmacy, it means $10 billion in primiarly military assistance since Pakistan declared itself an ally in the War on Terror.

Unfortunately, as this frontpage L.A. Times story points out, most of that aid has gone toward conventional weapons better suited for a war against rival India, while the Frontier Corps (the special unit stationed on the border with Afghanistan) is underfunded and outmanned in its pursuit of al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials quoted in the story.

Here's the excellent story from the Times' Greg Miller:

U.S. military aid to Pakistan misses its Al Qaeda target

The Frontier Corps battling the militants is outgunned and poorly trained, officials say. Funding instead goes to equipment more suited for conventional warfare with India.
By Greg Miller
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 5, 2007

WASHINGTON — Despite billions of dollars in U.S. military payments to Pakistan over the last six years, the paramilitary force leading the pursuit of Al Qaeda militants remains underfunded, poorly trained and overwhelmingly outgunned, U.S. military and intelligence officials said.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cited the rising militant threat in declaring a state of emergency on Saturday and suspending the constitution.

But rather than use the more than $7 billion in U.S. military aid to bolster its counter-terrorism capabilities, Pakistan has spent the bulk of it on heavy arms, aircraft and equipment that U.S. officials say are far more suited for conventional warfare with India, its regional rival.

That has left fighters with the paramilitary force, known as the Frontier Corps, equipped often with little more than "sandals and bolt-action rifles," said a senior Western military official in Islamabad, even as they face Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters equipped with assault rifles and grenade launchers.

The arms imbalance has contributed to Al Qaeda's ability to regroup in the border region, and reflects the competing priorities that were evident even before this weekend between two countries that are self-described allies in the "war on terrorism" but have sharply divergent national security interests.

The situation also has emerged as a significant obstacle as the United States and Pakistan seek new approaches after a series of failed strategies in the frontier region, where Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.

U.S. officials have urged Pakistan to move more aggressively against militants and bolster the capabilities of the Frontier Corps, an indigenously recruited force of about 80,000 troops, half of them based in the tribal areas, that was formed under British rule and is traditionally used to guard the border and curb smuggling.

Even front-line units with upgraded weapons are woefully unschooled in counterinsurgency tactics, other officials said. Late last month, Islamic militants captured dozens of fighters and paraded them before Western journalists, the latest in a series of embarrassing encounters.

Pakistan has recently indicated that it will enlarge the corps and expand its role in pursuing Al Qaeda. But because the Frontier Corps has been all but shut off from U.S. military aid and payments to Pakistan, U.S. officials said the new strategy amounts in some ways to starting from scratch more than six years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The view in Washington is that the Frontier Corps is the best way forward because they are locally recruited, speak the language, and understand the culture, terrain and local politics," said a senior Pentagon official, discussing internal deliberations on Pakistan policy on condition of anonymity.

But transforming the corps into a force that can contend with militants in the tribal area "will take years to bring to fruition," he said.

Partly because of that timetable, the goal of dismantling Al Qaeda and its hub of operations in the border region has given way to expectations among U.S. intelligence and military officials that the United States and Pakistan face a years-long struggle simply to contain the terrorist network and keep it from expanding.

"I think it's worse than starting from scratch," said Bruce Riedel, a former South Asia expert at the CIA and the White House now with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

"The most optimistic of scenarios we're looking at is a very long-term effort to try to stabilize the badlands of northwestern Pakistan," Riedel said. "The alternative is . . . a more or less permanent Taliban state within a state in northwest Pakistan."

Plans to build up the Frontier Corps are not universally supported by U.S. military officials. Loyalties within the corps are thought by many observers to be divided. Members are recruited mainly from Pashtun tribes with long-standing mistrust of outsiders. Most reject militant ideology, and have suffered hundreds of casualties in the fighting. But many also are devoutly religious and feel some degree of sympathy for the Islamists' cause.

"There is a push-back among some that the Frontier Corps is not a reliable ally of the United States," said Seth Jones, a military expert at Rand Corp. "The concern is that you give them additional training and equipment, and they could end up helping militants rather than taking action against them."

Perhaps as a hedge against those concerns, the U.S. Special Operations Command has recently begun exploring efforts to pay off tribal militias in the region that are not affiliated with the Pakistani government, and arm them to root out Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, a source familiar with the discussions said.

"You can't buy them, but you can rent them," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions. "There is a very serious effort to look at this."

The CIA also operates in the area, and has doubled the number of case officers based in Pakistan in recent years, former agency officials say.

Despite the concerns, U.S. officials said there is widespread agreement that boosting support to the Frontier Corps is worth the risk, a position that reflects deep frustration with a string of failed strategies in the border region.

An early failure was a plan to keep Al Qaeda operatives from crossing into Pakistan when U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. That was followed by ineffective forays by thousands of Pakistani regular army troops and aborted peace agreements with tribal leaders who did not fulfill pledges to clamp down on the militants.

By last summer, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the peace deals had given Al Qaeda room to regroup and rebuild its ability to train and plan attacks on Western targets.

Under new pressure from the United States, Musharraf resumed military incursions earlier this year, with Frontier Corps fighters teaming up with Pakistani regular army units. The effort produced a series of bloody and clumsy confrontations that may have strengthened the militants' position in the tribal areas.

Especially demoralizing was the Aug. 30 capture of about 250 troops, most of them members of the Frontier Corps, who surrendered without a fight. Over the next two months, a few dozen were released but at least three were beheaded. Over the weekend, 211 were freed in exchange for 25 militants held by the army.

Taking on Al Qaeda and Taliban militants represents a significant departure for the Frontier Corps, whose members are typically outfitted with castoffs from the regular army. Led by army officers who often disdain the assignment, Frontier Corps units have obsolete artillery pieces, have to travel by foot because they have no ground transport, lack night-vision equipment, and have almost no air power.

"Yesterday they had one helicopter operating," a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad said during a recent interview. "If they had two, it was a good day."

Reluctant to offend a crucial ally, the United States has placed few conditions on the military aid, part of a larger package of U.S. aid and payments totaling more than $10 billion. As a result, Pakistan used much of it to acquire big-ticket weapons systems and other items to shore up its conventional defense capabilities, U.S. officials said.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees U.S. weapons transfers, said that shipments to Pakistan since the Sept. 11 attacks had included some equipment that could be useful in pursuing militants in the tribal areas, including 4,000 radios and 12 refurbished attack helicopters. But even those items went to the regular army, the agency said, and are unlikely to be shared with the Frontier Corps, which falls under a separate branch of the Pakistani government.

The majority of Pakistan's purchases have been of items that would be difficult to deploy in counterinsurgency fights, including harpoon missiles designed to sink warships, F-16 fighter jets, maritime surveillance aircraft and refurbished howitzers that have to be towed into position.

"It's hard to make arguments that the bulk of what is being provided by the U.S. is very effective for counter-terrorism operations," said Alan Kronstadt, a specialist in South Asian affairs at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. "A lot of the military assistance has been much more useful for a potential war with India."

Musharraf's emergency declaration could force a review of U.S. aid, a move Democratic lawmakers said Sunday they would support.

The U.S. and Pakistan have spent part of the last year developing what one Pentagon official described as a "multiyear plan" to bolster the Frontier Corps' capabilities, U.S. officials said.

Pakistan has already begun recruiting more troops, with plans to expand the corps to 100,000.U.S. funding would help pay for the increase, as well as a training center that will focus on counterinsurgency tactics.

The Pentagon has budgeted $55 million in counter-narcotics funds for the Frontier Corps this year to pay for night-vision equipment and communications gear. But the Pentagon is also seeking additional funding in a separate category that could be used for weapons. Officials declined to discuss specifics.

"It's nothing really sexy," said the senior Pentagon official involved in Pakistan policy. "But they need to be at least on par with the militants."

Times staff writer Laura King in Islamabad contributed to this report.

Btw, got to 2,000 hits recently. That's about 1,000 hits per year that I've had the blog.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Annual bonus

I'm going to be asleep in about 60-90 minutes (latest) I wonder what I'll dream about in my extra hour ... electric sheep?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The curse of the humble

It's been my experience that most reporters I've met are extremely humble, almost to a fault. Yeah, they can be difficult and prickly writerwise (read: me), but as people they're usually the first to admit when they don't know something, b/c that's the fundamental part of the job. However, sometimes that deference to others, lets others run roughshod over the truth obscuring it behind a shiny trojan horse of invited-in fuckyou.

So it was with great interest that I read this piece by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute. In it he writes about the need to stand up to the demagogue's assertions and call his or her bluff when she hides behind the "you better quote me accurately" shield of the "make sure you get my side" flag. But he also demands that reporters avoid the easy and lazy of allowing the "newsmaker" to dictate the discourse and insist on the vocabulary. Dumbledore said that we must choose between what is right and what is easy, well deception, distortion, denial, fear-mongering and absolutism are never right. We musn't perpetuate conditions that allow them to thrive.

Poynter online
Posted, Oct. 31, 2007
Updated, Oct. 31, 2007

Covering 'Fascist' America
What's the role of journalism in the face of inflammatory claims?

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

Is America on the road to becoming a fascist state? If so, what should journalists do about it?

Those questions come in response to an elaborate argument in Naomi Wolf''s latest book "The End of America," an argument she summarized in a recent C-SPAN interview. I caught a piece of that interview and heard her use the word "fascism" to describe her fear of where post 9/11 America is heading. Wolf's use of the term is not just name-calling, like Rush Limbaugh's "femi-nazi," or the more current "Islamo-fascism." She is dead serious, subtitling her book "a citizen's call to action."

The question for journalists and the citizens they serve is whether "fascist" is an accurate and appropriate description of the transformation of the American government since 9/11; or whether it is such an irresponsible and insensitive use of loaded language that it requires us to challenge the author — not just quote her.

Having studied the totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, from Mussolini to Stalin to Hitler to Mao to Pinochet, Wolf sees some common signposts on the road to tyranny, compiling a 10-step program for recognizing emerging fascism within a democratic society. Each of the steps becomes a chapter title, so if you want to be the new Fuhrer all you have to do is:

  • Invoke an external and internal threat
  • Establish secret prisons
  • Develop a paramilitary force
  • Subject ordinary citizens to surveillance
  • Infiltrate citizens' groups
  • Arbitrarily detain and release citizens
  • Target key individuals
  • Restrict the press
  • Cast criticism as "espionage" and dissent as "treason"
  • Subvert the rule of law.

You can imagine the examples she uses to show the congruence between these historic expressions of fascism and the actions and policies of the Bush/Cheney administration. It is not the purpose of this essay to argue for or against the points she makes in her indictment. Instead, I'd like to call attention to the dangers of loose language (as I've done in the past with Bush's use of "crusade" or's "General Betray Us" ad).

A word like "fascism ," derived from an Italian word meaning a "bunch" or "bundle," carries a specific historical and political meaning, but over the course of a century now bears a heavy freight, a cargo of associations so overpowering it may have lost its ability to be tested by argument and evidence.

Let me offer a different example, the word "holocaust." I choose it because Wolf asserts, "I had to include Nazi Germany in my scrutiny of repressive governments. Many people are understandably emotionally overwhelmed when the term 'Nazism' or the name 'Hitler' is introduced into the debate. As someone who lost relatives on both sides of my family in the Holocaust, I know this feeling."

Now "holocaust" is an ancient word that denotes the act of "burning something completely," as in a ritual sacrifice. By the 1950s "Holocaust" began to be used to describe the suffering of the Jews under the genocidal machinations of the Third Reich. My guess is that Wolf has heard "right to life" adherents describe millions of abortions as "the Holocaust of our time." I bet that Wolf, as a supporter of women's rights and legal abortion, would detest that use of the word "holocaust."

While the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary supports the use of "holocaust" to describe something such as the effects of nuclear war, opinion shifts when it is used by extension to describe the effects of famine, drought, or disease. The AHD defines "fascism" as "a system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism."

In his book "Interpretation of Fascism," scholar A. James Gregor argues that the term "fascism" has been used so promiscuously that it has lost its meaning except as a generic "term of abuse." He adds that without critical analysis, it has not been helpful to use the word "fascist" to describe a long list of complaints that include "racism, genocide, oppression, anti-feminism, and homophobia."

Wolf's book is full of analysis, some of which any neutral critic would find persuasive. But in addition to her unwise dependence upon words like "fascism," her argument suffers from an affliction that a Shakespeare professor of mine called "Fluellenism." Fluellen was a comic character in the play "Henry V" who speaks in a funny accent, and whose elaborate similes are misunderstood. Near the end of the play, he compares the young King Harry of Monmouth to Alexander the Great. When challenged, he argues that Harry was from Monmouth and Alexander from Macedonia, and that there are rivers in both places, and that salmon swim in both rivers. In other words, the associative imagination lets everyone, including fools and rogues, compare anyone to anything, with little attention to degree.

Can we find comparisons between Bush and Mussolini? Probably. But we can just as easily compare him to Lincoln or Elvis or Ronald McDonald.

My passion for this topic comes from an experience I had in graduate school in the early 1970s. Allard Lowenstein, a brilliant anti-war congressman from my home district in New York, gave a lecture at Stony Brook University on Long Island. America was still mired in Vietnam, Richard Nixon was still president, Watergate was up ahead of us, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were terrible recent memories, a group of National Guardsmen had killed four students at Kent State. In other words, things sucked.

Lowenstein, who would be murdered himself by a crazed assassin, answered an accusation by a student that America was becoming a fascist state. The congressman disagreed, arguing that, in spite of America's terrible problems, to call America fascist was to misunderstand both America and fascism. Another student stood up and threw something at Lowenstein. It turned out to be a water balloon, but in an era of political assassinations, it was a frightening moment.

The balloon hit the lectern and splattered some water on the speaker, who, with the help of a professor, straightened himself out. He then said something like this: "What do you think would happen in a fascist state to a protesting student who threw a water bomb at a government official? Do you think he would be able to sit down in his seat and quietly listen to the rest of the talk?" The audience burst into applause.

A few years later I was in St. Petersburg, and Ronald Reagan was running for president. He was greeted by admirers in a downtown rally, and there were protesters on hand with signs comparing Reagan to Hitler and Republicans to Fascists. With the political savvy that marked his presidency, Reagan called attention to the sign and said something like, "If it wasn't for my generation, young man, you might really be living under fascism."

Finally, I am struck by the narrowness of the audience Naomi Wolf's 10 theses might persuade. Who would be swayed by the argument that America is heading toward fascism -- except those who already believe that? How much more persuasive is the argument of a Francis Fukuyama, who, in his book "America at the Crossroads," argues against the abuses of the neoconservative movement he helped create.

Which leads me to these bits of advice for journalists covering politics and elections at such a troubling time:

  1. Be skeptical of all claims that the sky is falling. Ground yourself in American history so that you can compare and contrast your own times to other troubled times, such as the Civil War, the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Civil Rights era, and Watergate.
  1. Challenge any language and assertions that are fraught with emotional and historical weight. (One morning many years ago on NBC's "Today" show, a celebrity guest kept calling The New York Times "Pravda," and host Edwin Newman showed him the door.)
  1. Challenge any language that sounds like a slogan: right to life, right to choose, cut and run, mission accomplished, freedom on the march.
  1. Analyze political language as part of your reporting process. This is one of the strategies that make "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" so popular and persuasive. They pay close attention to the language of public figures, and, through satire and humor, reveal the "truthiness" of it.
  1. Learn the complex relationship between political corruption and language abuse by reading "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell.
  1. Give special weight to sources and analysts who do not adhere slavishly to a particular ideology. Look for the long time member of the NRA who favors some restrictions on gun ownership. Look for the feminist who is troubled by some of the consequences of legal abortion. People willing to reflect upon and question some of their own normal affinities can offer powerful testimony.
  1. Do not just quote political metaphors and analogies, but test them. Is Iraq another Vietnam? Would leaving Iraq be akin to Chamberlain's accommodations to Hitler through the Munich Pact?

[What do you think when you hear someone like Naomi Wolf comparing America to a fascist state? If you were reporting about her arguments and claims, how would you proceed?