The Answer Guy Online

Providing information to unwitting victims on a "don't-need-to-know" basis since 1974.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Say The Right Things....When Electioneering

As always, I write as a human being first, as a progressive second, and as a partisan Democrat third.

As you may have heard, there were elections over in Iraq on Sunday.

Initial press reports were quick to brand the process a smashing success. To the extent that such reports are accurate, it's a very good thing for Iraq, and ultimately for the United States as well. The primary heroes here are the brave Iraqis who turned out for an election, under at least some degree of threat that they would be targeted for terrorist activity.

Back in the States, the expected people said the expected things, which, unfortunately, in this climate means lots of unfair statements and mischaracterization of positions. I'm not going to characterize all of it as "gloating" - except to the extent that the Right as a group is attempt to tar everyone in the progressive blogosphere as "rooting for the terrorists" or "for the insurgents" or "against the troops" or whatever. I doubt there are really that many people in America rooting against the troops, or against the situation improving in Iraq, or for the "terrorists" or the "insurgents" operating there, however one wants to define those terms. If some of our dire predictions (whether they be public or, like most of mine, kept largely private) failed to come true, that's fine with me.

Except that I am always warning myself (and anyone else who'd listen) not to get to get too caught up in the moment, whatever it might be. Blogging is unique in the sense that it gives the people the chance to fix their thoughts on the Internet in tangible form more or less instantaneously, and among the many risks one takes in doing so is the ease with one can lose a sense of perspective as to where what they have just witnessed fits in with the greater picture.

This is still a country with no democratic tradition; Which doesn't necessarily mean that it's doomed to be ruled by brutal dictators for eternity, merely that the transition in such a case is problematic and an attempt to "impose" a system from without should be considered fraught. More importantly, it's a country of different peoples, who want different things that in some real senses are mutually exclusive - and that's before you consider the influence Iran and Turkey, now with even more power vis-a-vis the fledgling Iraqi state, might want to exert in the process.

Whether the Iraqis consider the government they elected legitimate is far more important than whether I do or don't. And we don't know how that's going to shake out yet. Reports of low turnout in areas mostly populated by Sunni Arabs, and irregularities in some northern areas, are unsurprisng but still vitiate claims that all is sweetness and light.

To state the obvious, the elections are a PR boon for the Bush administration going to the State of the Union address. However, if they are still thinking in terms of what will net them short-term PR boons in foreign (or, for that matter, domestic) policy, it will be to the detriment of everyone involved.

I also haven't forogtten that the administration was cool on the idea of elections at this time, agreeing to them because key figure Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani insisted on them. I also haven't forgotten that an Iraqi democracy might not be as friendly to the United States as many Americans may assume. There were apparently widespread rumors that the receipt of food rations were contingent upon voting, which if true would put at least a little bit of a damper on the whole situation.

Sonmething that I had actually forgotten about until this morning: there were elections in South Vietnam in September of 1967, and the American press took it, and the fact that there was relatively high turnout under vaguely similar circumstances, as a sign that the war effort was going well. That the history of these elections is obscure today suggests how much they accomplished.

Four months later came the Tet Offensive.

Now the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq aren't perfect, but they serve to illustrate that tactical victories do not necessarily equal strategic ones. Ask the French about the Battle of Algiers. (Or, heck, the Tet Offensive was arugably itself a tactical victory for American forces.)

I'm a skeptic by my very nature, but I think I'm entitled to more skepticism than usual in this case. Why? I think It would be strange indeed if the decision makers responsible for this war were as right about how well these elections turn out as many of the initial media reports seem to be suggesting. After all, this crowd been so jaw-droppingly wrong about nearly everything else connected with Iraq: alleged links between Iraq and terrorism; the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction; the equipment needs of the war and occupation; the machinations of Ahmad Chalabi; the very nature of the Iraqi insurgency, specifically the extent to which it was driven by Saddam supporters and/or foreign Islamist terror networks; and the effects of a series of events - the killing of Saddam's two sons, the capture of Saddam himself, and the Fallujah offensive - on the course of the occupation.

I don't think it's unfair or overly dour to ask if this is in some sense "Mission Accomplished" all over again.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Jester Stole His Thorny Crown

Matt Bruce wrote a somewhat provocative reply to my post of a few days back entitled Finite Jest. I'm not that "boils down to 'F*** You' is quite the right - or indeed, a particularly fair, way to read what I wrote.

I do admit that some of the response give me pause, as quoted below:

Really, who's the intended audience when you write a line like that? You can't really claim to be trying to show people themselves the error of their ways; if you won't give them the benefit of any doubt, then they owe you nothing in terms of trying to justify their existence or beliefs to you. What's left over is essentially preaching to the choir, and if I'm not part of that choir...

There are some fair questions in there.

Who was I talking to with "Finite Jest?" There is, to be sure, more preaching to the choir than usually engage in there, and a little blowing off of steam, at a higher level than I normally prefer to do. But that was far from the only thing I was attempting to do there.

The person who firmly believes that we are being run by wise and prudent and brave leaders in America could indeed probably skip the entire essay, since he or she is quite unlikely to care about what I have to say anyway. But neither the world nor the country can be divided so neatly into the "choir" and the "barbarian horde," and so I primarily had another group of people in mind.

I had conceived of a hypothetical person who votes Republican marginally more often than Democratic, and the point of the whole essay was to shed a little light on what I think is something rotten at the core of what is called "movement conservatism."

For this purpose I took three quotes, none of them from the fundamentalist Christian camp, since that wasn't exactly my target for this post. One of them was from a major figure in movement conservatism going back decades, another from a ruling President at the absolute minimum adored by movement conservatives, and a third by an entertainer whom it is reasonable to conclude was hired by movement conservatives. Little's comedy routine is pretty mean-spirited, and I think it says something unflattering about those who approved of it. Bush's line inadvertently speaks volumes about the priorities of his administration; it can't really be an accident that his policies have favored his paymasters to the detriment of everyone else (both inside and outside the United States.) Norquist's sickening comments largely speak for themselves. (And this is no isolated gaffe, either - you could spend an evening reading similarly appalling stuff he's said or written.)

Implicit in my post, I think, is asking the question of that hypothetical person: Is this where he or she really wants to be casting their lot? Depending on your perspective, this may in some sense qualify as "showing people the error of their ways."

As for the benefit of the doubt line that spurred Matt's post...it was probably the worst line in the entire essay. It meant something more specific than I think Matt perceived. There are essentially no honest policy debates taking place in what passes for the political dialogue these days, and the tone is set at the highest levels. There has been a "my way or the highway" approach to governance coming from the Republican Party since the early 1990s, and it has served them well electorally. You can hear eliminationist rhetoric from the ranks of movement conservatives and even from some of their opinion leaders on a regular basis.

All I'm saying is that my guard is up.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Watchmen

A Fox television station in Florida is facing a challenge to its FCC license. It's about time something like this happened.

(Of course, since this is a Republican-dominated FCC, I expect they'll spent less time considering this than they did on Janet Jackson's bare breast, or pixellated cartoon posteriors.)

Two reporters for the station in question did some investigative work that involved the use of hormones in cattle that management determined would have alienated Monsanto (manfacture of the hormones) and the local dairy industry. The reporters alleged that they were ordered by higher-ups to distort and falsify the reports.

The key paragraph is as follows:
That verdict [awarding damages to the reporters against Fox for violating whistleblower protection laws] was overturned in 2003 when an appellate court accepted Fox's defense that since it is not technically against any law, rule or regulation for a broadcaster to distort the news, the journalists were never entitled to employee protections as whistleblowers in the first place.

The station actually argued on appeal that there is no law against distorting the news, or against a televesion station failing to report some bit of news that it should uncover. I suppose that's technically true, but it tells you everything you need to know about how much you can trust corporate media outlets, and tells us that we need all the alternative forms of media we can get.

There's a certain amusement factor here - since this is a Fox affiliate, after all.

When they have to choose between their advertisers and the truth, or between their advertisers and the public interest, these entities going to choose the former more often than not. Which makes a certain sense when you consider that they're not in business to serve the public so much as they are in business to make money so they can pay their shareholders, creditors, and employees.

Except they're doing it with our airwaves. That's right, our airwaves. The increasingly small number of various corporate entities that run our media outlets don't, contrary to what many believe, own the spectrum they use the way a landlord owns a building, or the way you own the digital camera you just bought. They are trustees, and a trustee that abuses its trust and defaults on its obligations ought to be called on it. A democratic civil society depends on the free flow of information, and that's facilitated by a free press. That's the difference between journalism and public relations, and journalism is of no value when it becomes indistinguishable from PR.

For all the talk of a "liberal" media bias out there, these are the sorts of things that drive the real biases in media reporting.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Connected

The Washington Post reports about proposed changes the Bush administration is making to the civil service system of federal government work. Under the guise of "reform," this is a naked power grab by the White House, not only on behalf of itself but on behalf of future Presidents. And lest anyone think that I'm only angry about this because I'm ready to assume the absolute worst about the Bush administration and their every initiative at every turn... the effects of a lot of these changes would stretch far beyond his administration and into Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

How do we know? Because we've been here before.

Andrew Jackson once said "To the victor, goes the spoils." And, in so many words, that was the way it was; patronage was the default way of filling most government jobs.

But in the late 19th Century, our nation decided there was a better way. And that was that - until recently.

The incentive for talented people to take a government job, already limited by lower pay scales than you would find in the private sector, would essentially disappear if the corporate model supplanted the civil service model in government. If you think that government work only attracts people who can't cut it in the private sector now, just wait until these changes are implemented on a grand scale and see what you get. And these aren't all DMV clerks - the first agencies to be most effected by these dubious notions are people charged with keeping us secure from terror among other things. The temptation for an incoming administration to install one's own party hacks and yes-men in key positions would just be too great, especially if that should become an accepted practice again.

Institutional memory would be strongly undermined and high turnover would become the norm further and further down the organizational chart, and while that's fine if you're a fast food operation, it's not what I want to see in an organization placed in charge of keeping America safe. They claim procedures protecting whistleblowers in federal agencies won't be gutted, but if you give politicans and their political appointees a freer hand to go after employees who bring unpleasant facts to light - and let's face it, that's exactly what is going to happen if you give these people control over who gets raises, promotions, and other goodies and who doesn't - it's going to be easier for them, whether Republican or Democrat, to cover up their shenanigans.

There's a certain appropriateness to a President that owes absolutely everything he's ever gotten to being well-connected changing the rules of government to favor the politically well-connected. But the rest of us should know better.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Unchained?

It's always a mixture of humbling and flattering when a magazine essentially writes on exactly the same thing that you've blogged about already - but does it in superior fashion.

In These Times has an excellent article about the consequences of a copyright legal regime designed to serve media conglomerates rather than consumers, or artists, or the marketplace in general. It's a topic that's long interested me, and only a week ago I made my own observations on the topic.

It's not just software pirates and movie bootleggers, or just free-riders, who lose when our goverment (both parties, by the way) gives away the store and grants ever broader and longer monopoly power over the dissemination of culture.

Patriot Games (Part I)

Normally there's not much over at the Answer Guy Annex that's of much interest to anyone other than my personal friends. It's mostly mundane (and purposefully vague) details of my personal life, and lots of goofy web quizzes, because - let's face it - they looked pretty silly and out of place here in the rare instances where they showed up on this space.

But the next two weeks might be a bit of an exception.

My buddy Rick, a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and I, a Patriots fan are giving over large chunks of our respective Livejournals to trash talk each other into oblivion, hopefully to the amusement of other people around us.

Maybe this will rival Lincoln and Douglas, or Burke and Paine, or at least Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman - but probably not. It'll nonetheless be fun to try.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Finite Jest

From a Washington Post article regarding the inaugural festivities that I am so glad I skipped out on, even if I had to go straight into the heart of a blizzard to escape them:

Though there was no official poem for the occasion, impressionist Rich Little, emceeing the Constitution Ball at the Hilton Washington, did provide a bit of inaugural doggerel.

The gist of it was: "Let's get together, let bitterness pass, I'll hug your elephant, you kiss my ass!" And the crowd went crazy.

Little said he missed and adored the late President Ronald Reagan and "I wish he was here tonight, but as a matter of fact he is," and he proceeded to impersonate Reagan, saying, "You know, somebody asked me, 'Do you think the war on poverty is over?' I said, 'Yes, the poor lost.' " The crowd went wild.


(The above came to my attention via David Corn.)

My first thought of course was "Rich Little? He's still alive? Who knew?"

My second thought was that this line of jokes was some awkward attempt at satire, possibly a subversive ridicule of an audience who don't know they are being made fun of. Though reading this Daily Kos thread about the subject led me to believe that true, and, in any case, I've long since tired of giving anyone on the other side of the aisle the benefit of any doubt.

And then, after a third thought that involved me silently lobbing obscene thoughts at Mr. Little, in between congratulating myself for leaving DC and not watching a nanosecond of fawning Inauguration coverage, I had a fourth thought.

Though conservative politicos are usually tight-lipped when it comes to their indifference to and/or their contempt for those among us less fortunate than they are, every once in a while they show their true colors. People of modest means who were somehow convinced that Bush and his cronies stood for "ordinary Americans" while the Democrats are all about elitism are in for a reality check soon. I think this in a small way was such a moment. One of my favorite such moments was documented in Farenheit 9/11:
What an impressive crowd: the haves, and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite, I call you my base.

But I think even Bush can't come close to matching opinion leader Grover Norquist's regular pronouncements.
Yes, because in addition [Democrats'] demographic base is shrinking. Each year, 2 million people who fought in the Second World War and lived through the Great Depression die. This generation has been an exeception in American history, because it has defended anti-American policies. They voted for the creation of the welfare state and obligatory military service. They are the base of the Democratic Party. And they are dying. And, at the same time, all the time more Americans have stocks. That makes them defend the interests of business, because it is their own interest. Because of that, it's impossible to bring to the fore policies of social hate, of class warfare.

Yep, they hated America so much that they saved us from the Axis of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.

These sorts of sentiments can't be particularly popular in "Red America," where there are poor people aplenty, and many more just barely getting by. We're not even talking about people on welfare - we're talking about people who try to make a living on their own on a job, or two or three jobs that offer no insurance, no health coverage, no benefits of any kind. For a bunch of people who generally profess to be devout Christians, these aren't even especially Christian sentiments. Anytime any Republican of any stature says anything that reeks as much of "Let them eat cake" as Little's lame-ass comedy routine, we ought to be shouting about it from the rooftops.

Yes, in the final analysis, Rich Little isn't very important. That's never stopped the other side before; I seem to recall the GOP making a big stink about something Whoopi Goldberg said last year, though no one anointed Whoopi to any party position either. And Grover Norquist has a lot more pull in the ruling party than Whoopi does in the opposition party. (The first thing our side has to learn to do is stop bringing knives to gunfights - though that's a subject for another post.)

There may be nothing I irrationally despise more than right-wing "humor." The powerful picking on the powerless is cheap, easy, and essentially worhtless even without the bigotry that all too often goes along with it, and there's a certain laziness to the obvious (though somewhat legitimate) targets they choose, such as government bureaucrats or airheaded celebrity activists.

It takes guts to mock onself, and even more to take on persons and centers of real power. Sometimes humor is the most effective way one can attack or even simply criticize the powers that be.

Yes, those of us on the left do have a sense of humor. We're the ones who need it the most, because if we couldn't laugh we'd hardly ever stop crying.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Championship Sunday

As we await the coming snowstorm... AFC and NFC Championship games are tomorrow.

It's hard to imagine a warm-weather NFC South team going into cold, brutal, nasty Philadelphia and coming away with a win...but you can't exactly say it's unprecedented, since it happened each of the last 2 years. Does it happen again?
I say no. This Eagles team is better.

Later on that day, on the other side of the Keystone State, the Patriots will try to avenge one of their two losses this season in Pittsburgh for the right to advance to Super Bowl 39. (Roman Numerals - feh.)

Because the Patriots don't seem to invite the same superstitious feelings in these parts as the Red Sox do, it doesn't feel like predicting them to win sets them up for some kind of jinx. The only thing that gives me pause - everyone's on the Patriots' bandwagon after their convincing win over Indianapolis, coupled with the Steelers' narrow win over an inferior Jets team, the same Jets that looked utterly lost the last time they played New England. When it comes down to playing a game in single-digit snowy weather, you have to wonder if a bunch of guys with two Super Bowl rings that everyone outside of Greater Pittsburgh assumes are going to win can bring the kind of game it's going to take to win tomorrow. It doesn't bug me tremendously that the Steelers won handily the last time this game was played, on October 31, in which the Patriots disguised themselves as a medicore NFC team; Corey Dillon was notably absent from that contest. I think that's the difference maker this time. There will be a lot of running, and not many aerial fireworks on either side of the field. I learned my lesson from last week, doubting my home team could stop the Colts - though the weather played a hand in slowing them down as well. The Pats are the champs until someone takes them down for good.

It would be fun to see Boston and Philly, two cities full of insane sports fanatics, work themselves into a frenzy over this game.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Escape Velocity

Well, Answer Guy is reporting to you not from inaugural festivities, but from his ancestral home of New England. Where it's very cold. But they know how to plan for low temperatures and snow in these parts - something they have no idea how to do in the Washington region.

We are happy to report that L.L Bean's Freeport, ME store is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Polarity

Anna Benson, former stripper and wife of New York Mets pitcher Kris Benson, is getting her own "reality" television show. I'm not sure why they call these things "reality" television; it doesn't get much less real than contrived profiles of celebrities, particularly if they are primarily famous for, well, being famous.

She got a lot of attention for claiming on the Howard Stern show that if she caught Kris cheating on her, she would sleep with all of his teammtes, including the coaches and staff. Some people have wondered if this was the reason the Mets seem to be doing so well on the free-agent market this offseason, with Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and possibly Carlos Delgado set to play for that other baseball team in New York.

In the interview linked to above, she now claims there are guys on the team she wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, but of course names no names; maybe it's just that midget that Pedro Martinez started carrying around him last season for good luck.

The interview in general is a comedy goldmine - my favorite part is the part about how Benson is going to get "whatever [sexual favors] he wants" if he wins the Cy Young. Not only is the idea of terminally medicore Kris Benson winning the Cy Young funny, contemplating exactly what they would do is funny. (She does realize that she's married to a pro athlete - who can have with sex with a woman - or a man, for that matter - whenever he wants, right? Right?)

Benson is probably the funniest pro athelete's wife out there right now. One of her main competitors is a woman who is Anna Benson's polar opposite in nearly every wayBrenda Warner, wife of NFL QB Kurt Warner.

She's one of the more unattractive quasi-celebrities I can recall in terms of looks and is (like her husband) a really loud evangelical Christian. She made headlines and entered the realm of the truly ridicule-worthy by calling into a sports talk station to bitch about how her husband was being treated, complete with eminently mockable religious references. Kurt Warner has yet to live this down.

Both their husbands now play in the Big Apple.

If they're going to have a tiresome reality show where Anna Benson gets to show off both her talents (the left one and the right one), I think it'd be much more interesting if it involved both her and Brenda Warner.

I wonder if they'd annihilate each other like matter and antimatter. On the other hand, maybe their powers to annoy are synergistic rather than conflicting.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I Love A Man In Uniform

Your tax dollars at work.

The Sunshine Project has unearthed a memorandum in which the military considered researching the use of aphrodisiacs - particularly if they induced homosexual behavior - as a weapon against enemy troops. (They also considered, inter alia, chemicials that give enemy soliders bad breath, as well as substances that would attract biting or stinging insects.)

Imagine how much fun a chemical that could turn straight men into gay men - really horny gay men - would be at parties. If it could make them good looking, or cultured, or sophisticated, or give them fashion sense, that'd be even better.

Seriously, have these guys ever heard of Sparta? Or American Gladiators? Or, for that matter, the Stonewall riots? (Or, for that matter, the entire concept of "butch" lesbians.) The military is crawling with homosexuals - male and female - in various states of closetedness.

Now I know that this project didn't actually get too far, but it's still hilarious, and a sign of a mindset stuck in the mire of lazy stereotypes.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Prize

Today marks the observance of the birthday of legendary civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His life and works largely speak for themselves, and any commentary I might offer runs the risk of being superfluous.

However, perhaps the most poignant chronicle of the struggle of King and his civil rights brethren, the award-winning documentary film "Eyes On The Prize," may become unavailable to future generations.

Unfortunately, due in large part to mass media consolidation, rights to the archival footage seen in the film, have become prohibitively expensive.

When questions about the consitutionality of the latest blanket extension of the copyright term emerge, or one notes that the various "fair use" exceptions to copyright law are under attack, it's the sort of thing that resonates mostly in the rarefield atmosphere of law journal articles or scholarly journals.

Those of us who believe that the balance of intellectual property protections have shifted too far in favor of the content monopolies are usually stuck arguing in the abstract, and attacked for being on the side of bootleg movies or software pirates.
For me, more than anything else, it's about the continued propagation of culture, of memory - of not allowing an ever-smaller group of media conglomerates effective veto power over the images and words that make up our cultural history and dialogue.
It's rare that we as a people and a culture ever get such a tangible cost to surrendering so much control over our culture to corporate entities as this one, but this case is particularly striking; in that sense, and in that sense alone, is the threat of the disappearance of "Eyes On The Prize" a blessing.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Well, it's my first post of the New Year, and there's so much to write about. I'm sort of like the mythical Buridan's Ass who can't decide between a seemingly infinite number of possible subjects on which to opine.

I figured it would be good to start the New Year and mark my return to blogging with a basic foundation for why my beliefs are what they are, and where they, from a somewhat rational point of view, come from.

Someone asked me why I'm so far left (by American standards) and here's what I came up with...
1. Unless you believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, you believe things could be better.
2. If things could be better, you have to imagine why things aren't better than they currently are.
3. Are you going hold someone or something responsible for why things aren't better than they are? If not, you're more or less at the same place you'd be if you thought we lived in the best of all possible worlds.
4. Does it make more sense to hold people and entities that posess large amounts of wealth and power responsible for why things aren't better than they are, or people and entities largely without wealth or power? I choose the former.

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