Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

8 Out of 10 Americans Still Crazy

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2011

First the good news: The number of Americans who believe that humans evolved over millions of years without God’s active intervention is greater than ever. The bad news: it’s still less than one-sixth the population.

Two and a half times as many—40 percent—hold a strict creationist view that God created humans sometime in the last 10,000 years. The rest hold a hybrid belief that acknowledges evolution while still asserting that “God guided the process.”

Gallup has apparently been asking people since 1982 to choose between

Human beings have developed over millions of year from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process

(1982: 38%; 2010: 38%)

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part of this process

(1982: 9%; 2010: 16%)

God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so

(1982: 44%; 2010: 40%)

I’m characterizing that squishy middle ground as not believing in the theory of evolution, because the theory of evolution makes no reference to God and describes a mechanism that weighs out the future without a divine finger on the scale. But Americans themselves aren’t so clear on what constitutes a belief in evolution. In 2009, Gallup asked this:

Do you, personally, believe in the theory of evolution, do you not believe in the theory of evolution, or don’t you have an opinion either way?

The result:

On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don’t have an opinion either way.

Anyway, the split in the more exacting three-way question runs pretty strongly along party lines. A majority of Republicans reject evolution entirely, while only a third of Democrats do; only 8% of Republicans believe in the theory of evolution, while 20% of Democrats do.

Maybe the most shocking stats of all: 22% of all those with postgraduate degrees are strict creationists, 37% of all college grads are. While those numbers are lower than among those without college degrees, given the strong self-selection that probably takes place, it would seem that college changes few minds about creationism. So much for the powerful liberal hegemony in academia.

Posted in education, language, politics, pop culture, religion | 4 Comments »

The right way to save Detroit is going sound a little leftish

Posted by metaphorical on 16 November 2008

There’s a lot of debate about whether to throw money at the big-three Detroit automakers or just let them go down the drain. I think we can do neither, and still solve two problems at once.

Suppose instead of giving the automakers bailout money or loans, or buying bonds from them, we took on their health benefits obligations. This would dramatically lower their per-car cost of production, going a long way toward making them competitive in U.S. markets and plenty of overseas ones.

As it happens, Obama proposed legislation that would do that back in April 2007.

The Health Care for Hybrids Act would address the unique challenges of the U.S. auto industry and reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil at the same time. This bill would set up a voluntary program in which domestic automakers could choose to receive federal financial assistance to cover 10% of their annual legacy health care costs through 2017. The companies that participate in the program would be required to invest at least 50% of their health care savings into manufacturing fuel efficient cars, such as hybrids and advanced diesel vehicles in the United States, or helping domestic parts suppliers retool their manufacturing plants to produce advanced parts.

To me, that seems like an enormous step in mostly the right direction, though awfully convoluted. If we want to decrease gas consumption and increase fuel efficiency, we already have laws to do that. We already have the CAFE standard, just increase the number. (Step #0: include SUVs.)

As for supporting hybrids, respectfully, I ask, why? I mean, they’re a great set of technologies right now, and maybe the way to go, but why have the government pick the winning technology in advance? This seems like a great area for letting the market decide. The only real example we have of the government picking an alternative energy has been ethanol, a politically-driven disaster of a choice. (And frankly, the U.S. automakers are years behind with their hybrids. We should pray they come up with something better.)

The car companies claim that each and every car “contains $1,500 in health costs that their Japanese competitors don’t face,” according to the libertarians at the Reason Foundation. Another way of looking at it – and the numbers here derive from some at the Labor Research Association, a labor advocacy organization – is that health-care amounts to about 8-9% of the wages+benefits that autoworkers get. So taking on health care would be the same as letting Detroit slash autoworker salaries by that amount, without having to make the slightest dent in autoworker paychecks.

As I say, Obama’s 2007 legislation seems overly complicated. Why don’t we simply put them into the Government Employees Health Association, the same health insurance that millions of federal workers, including Congress itself, has?

It would cost the government something like $6 billion a year, which is in the range of the lump-sum $25-50 billion being contemplated for a bailout (with a smaller up-front cost). Most importantly, it would offer Detroit real relief, helping them compete in the marketplace, while not impeding the forces of market destruction and renewal that ought to be operating here. In other words, if the car companies still fail, so be it. And one thing we won’t have to worry about is a million autoworkers suddenly losing their health benefits.

Finally, it would use the current crisis to jumpstart a process that needs to take place anyway – getting all Americans covered by some form of health care. The problem with Obama’s campaign proposals for health care is the same as the problem with his Health Care for Hybrids Act. Each makes too many concessions to the status quo – they’re not radical enough.

The Health Care for Hybrids Act locks us into hybrid technologies. Similarly, Obama’s health care proposals just lock us further into the absurd system of making employers responsible for health care. Doing so universalizes the very problem that the automakers have – adding the cost of health care to a business’s costs of production, when its foreign competitors don’t have comparable production costs.

Ironically, this problem started in Detroit, so it would be sweet irony to solve it there. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote a couple of years ago in The New Yorker (The Risk Pool), back in 1950, the president of General Motors, Charles E. Wilson,

“was in contract talks with Walter Reuther, the national president of the U.A.W. The two men had already agreed on a cost-of-living allowance. Now Wilson went one step further, and, for the first time, offered every G.M. employee health-care benefits and a pension.

Reuther had his doubts. He lived in a northwest Detroit bungalow, and drove a 1940 Chevrolet. His salary was ten thousand dollars a year. He was the son of a Debsian Socialist, worked for the Socialist Party during his college days, and went to the Soviet Union in the nineteen-thirties to teach peasants how to be auto machinists. His inclination was to fight for changes that benefited every worker, not just those lucky enough to be employed by General Motors. In the nineteen-thirties, unions had launched a number of health-care plans, many of which cut across individual company and industry lines. In the nineteen-forties, they argued for expanding Social Security. In 1945, when President Truman first proposed national health insurance, they cheered. In 1947, when Ford offered its workers a pension, the union voted it down. The labor movement believed that the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible. Walter Reuther, as Nelson Lichtenstein argues in his definitive biography, believed that risk ought to be broadly collectivized. Charlie Wilson, on the other hand, felt … that collectivization was a threat to the free market and to the autonomy of business owners. In his view, companies themselves ought to assume the risks of providing insurance.

Pension systems throughout the U.S. are in bad shape as well. Back in 2006, Gladwell noted

America’s private pension system is now in crisis. Over the past few years, American taxpayers have been put at risk of assuming tens of billions of dollars of pension liabilities from once profitable companies. Hundreds of thousands of retired steelworkers and airline employees have seen health-care benefits that were promised to them by their employers vanish. General Motors, the country’s largest automaker, is between forty and fifty billion dollars behind in the money it needs to fulfill its health-care and pension promises.

If GM’s health and pension obligations were at least mostly funded two years ago, we can only imagine how they’re doing in a stock market that’s lost nearly half its value since then.

This crisis is sometimes portrayed as the result of corporate America’s excessive generosity in making promises to its workers. But when it comes to retirement, health, disability, and unemployment benefits there is nothing exceptional about the United States: it is average among industrialized countries—more generous than Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Italy, just behind Finland and the United Kingdom, and on a par with the Netherlands and Denmark. The difference is that in most countries the government, or large groups of companies, provides pensions and health insurance. The United States, by contrast, has over the past fifty years followed the lead of Charlie Wilson … and made individual companies responsible for the care of their retirees. It is this fact, as much as any other, that explains the current crisis. In 1950, Charlie Wilson was wrong, and Walter Reuther was right.

We could kill another two birds with one stone by fixing and expanding Social Security and folding in all these failing – and soon to be failing – pension plans and 401Ks. But let’s take on only one pair of crises at a time.

Posted in politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Profile of an ex-president

Posted by metaphorical on 15 November 2008

I came across an interesting description recently. Does it sound like our soon-to-be-ex president?

* Glibness and Superficial Charm

* Manipulative and Conning
They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims.

* Grandiose Sense of Self
Feels entitled to certain things as “their right.”

* Pathological Lying
Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests.

* Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt
A deep seated rage, which is split off and repressed, is at their core. Does not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices who end up as victims. The end always justifies the means and they let nothing stand in their way.

* Shallow Emotions
When they show what seems to be warmth, joy, love and compassion it is more feigned than experienced and serves an ulterior motive. Outraged by insignificant matters, yet remaining unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person. Since they are not genuine, neither are their promises.

* Incapacity for Love

* Need for Stimulation
Living on the edge. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal. Promiscuity and gambling are common.

* Callousness/Lack of Empathy
Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others’ feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them.

* Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature
Rage and abuse, alternating with small expressions of love and approval produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused, as well as creating hopelessness in the victim. Believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for their impact on others.

* Early Behavior Problems/Juvenile Delinquency
Usually has a history of behavioral and academic difficulties, yet “gets by” by conning others. Problems in making and keeping friends; aberrant behaviors such as cruelty to people or animals, stealing, etc.

* Irresponsibility/Unreliability
Not concerned about wrecking others’ lives and dreams. Oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they cause. Does not accept blame themselves, but blames others, even for acts they obviously committed.

* Promiscuous Sexual Behavior/Infidelity
Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, rape and sexual acting out of all sorts.

* Lack of Realistic Life Plan/Parasitic Lifestyle
Tends to move around a lot or makes all encompassing promises for the future, poor work ethic but exploits others effectively.

* Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility
Changes their image as needed to avoid prosecution. Changes life story readily.

It’s from a page called Profile of the Sociopath.

Posted in Orwell, politics | Leave a Comment »

For once, spending like there is a tomorrow

Posted by metaphorical on 3 November 2008

A consumer-led recession is upon us, and it
promises to be a serious one.

  — Josh Shapiro, chief economist at MFR,
   a global consulting firm

I’ve been listening to Planet Money, NPR’s daily podcast follow-up to their two wildly, and deservedly successful This American Life episodes devoted to the world financial meltdown. (If you’re one of the three people on earth who missed them, they’re The Giant Pool of Money and “Another Frightening Show About the Economy”.)

There’s a weird thing going on at Planet Money, where they call in expert economists, analysts, and investment gurus to explain what’s going on. To a person, they say, “buy more stuff.” The NPR staffers themselves also continually exhort us to buy more stuff.

If people stop buying, the economy will crash, jobs will be lost, and people won’t have the money to buy anything. So the creepy idea, which they acknowledge, is that the common good dictates we all engage in a behavior that, everyone seems to understand, is individually risky and arguably incredibly stupid, which is to stop saving money for a rainy day when you can already see the lighning and hear the thunder.

That people have stopped spending is undeniable.

The economy as a whole is already off by 0.3% in the last quarter, led by a killer 3.1% decline in consumer spending. Bloomberg reports that that’s “the first drop since 1991 and the biggest since 1980, after President Jimmy Carter imposed credit controls.”

Online spending is also sharply down, according to Comscore. On a monthly basis, online consumer spending growth has declined for five consecutive months. September’s 5 percent growth rate was the smallest increase since comScore starting tracking e-commerce sales in 2001.

And the reasons people have stopped spending seem pretty obvious. People are terrified they will lose their jobs, or their spouses will lose their jobs, or their aging parents will lose their jobs, or their kids just entering the workforce will have to move back home because they lost their jobs or never got one in the first place. A story yesterday asks, quite plausibly, Will US Unemployment Hit 10%? The most recent figure is 6.1% and, as the article notes, will certainly have risen to about 6.3% when the October numbers come out. And that’s taking the government’s bogus numbers at face value. A government-certified 10% would of course be as much as twice that in real life.

The obvious next question, which people haven’t yet really started to ask, is, If people are not spending money in general, what about the Christmas shopping season? If holiday spending falls off a cliff, might that not be enough to push us from recession to depression (if we’re not already headed there anyway)?

An article in today’s NY Times notes, almost parenthetically, that a bunch of big retailers are already in bankruptcy, including Mervyn’s and Linens ’n Things. The focus of the article, Debt Linked to Buyouts Tightens the Economic Vise is that

Private equity firms embarked on one of the biggest spending sprees in corporate history for nearly three years, using borrowed money to gobble up huge swaths of industries and some of the biggest names — Neiman Marcus, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Toys “R” Us.

The new owners then saddled the companies with the billions of dollars of debt used to buy them. But now many of the loans and bonds sold to finance the deals are about to come due at the worst possible time.

That comes in the face of news that Circuit City plans to close 155 of its 700 stores, which broke later today, and some truly grim auto sales figures, led by GM’s “incredible 45 percent decline in its sales.” Even Toyota and Honda were off by about 25%.

Of course, GM’s financing arm, GMAC, is owned by private equity, so there’s a double-whammy all its own. Speaking of which, private equity firm Apollo Management, which owns Linen’s ‘n Things, also owns Century 21, which surely would be in trouble anyway with the real estate market in a deep freeze.

You can just imagine what effect that news will have onconsumer sentiment which is already badly shaken.

The Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumers sentiment dropped from 70.3 in September to 57.6 in October. The measure, in which the larger the number. the greater the confidence, averaged 85.6 last year.

In a further dose of gloomy economic news, the Institute for Supply Management-Chicago reported that its index — a gauge of employment and demand — fell from 56.7 in September to 37.8 in October.

The stories in the news right now are about stores preparing to woo customers for the holidays.

Stores work to attract holiday shoppers

Shoppers To Spend 1.9% More This Holiday, Compare Prices on Internet

U.S. Retailers Use More Creative Techniques In Attracting Holiday Bargainer Hunters (buried within this one is this little tidbit: “Home Depot and Sears Holdings expect an 8 percent reduction in their holiday sales this year.”)

Office Depot and Chase to Help Shoppers Boost Their Spending Power This Holiday Season with the Worklife Rewards Visa Card

But with consumer confidence already at an all-time low and surely headed lower, can’t we just cut to the chase and picture businesses going out of business left and right this winter?

Because the fact is, Christmas spending is about more than just gifts, people buy stuff for themselves, not least because end-of-year bonus checks go both ways. As Paul Krugman pointed out the other day, buried within the steep 3.1% decline in consumer spending is a plummet in spending on big-ticket items: “real spending on durable goods (stuff like cars and TVs) fell at an annual rate of 14 percent.”

To appreciate the significance of these numbers, you need to know that American consumers almost never cut spending. Consumer demand kept rising right through the 2001 recession; the last time it fell even for a single quarter was in 1991, and there hasn’t been a decline this steep since 1980, when the economy was suffering from a severe recession combined with double-digit inflation.

Also, these numbers are from the third quarter — the months of July, August, and September. So these data are basically telling us what happened before confidence collapsed after the fall of Lehman Brothers in mid-September, not to mention before the Dow plunged below 10,000. Nor do the data show the full effects of the sharp cutback in the availability of consumer credit, which is still under way.

So this looks like the beginning of a very big change in consumer behavior. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Posted in language, politics, pop culture | 2 Comments »

Data, data, everywhere, but not a drop to think

Posted by metaphorical on 3 November 2008

Is anyone in the media capable of reporting a story that has numbers in it?

Study: Media coverage has favored Obama campaign

John McCain supporters who believe they haven’t gotten a fair shake from the media during the Republican’s candidacy against Barack Obama have a new study to point to.

Comments made by sources, voters, reporters and anchors that aired on ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts over the past two months reflected positively on Obama in 65 percent of cases, compared to 31 percent of cases with regards to McCain, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

ABC’s “World News” had more balance than NBC’s “Nightly News” or the “CBS Evening News,” the group said.

Meanwhile, the first half of Fox News Channel’s “Special Report” with Brit Hume showed more balance than any of the network broadcasters, although it was dominated by negative evaluations of both campaigns. The center didn’t evaluate programs on CNN or MSNBC.

Let’s look at the numbers.

The center analyzed 979 separate news stories shown between Aug. 23 and Oct. 24, and excluded evaluations based on the campaign horse race, including mention of how the candidates were doing in polls. For instance, when a voter was interviewed on CBS Oct. 14 saying he thought Obama brought a freshness to Washington, that was chalked up as a pro-Obama comment.

When NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported Oct. 1 that some conservatives say that Sarah Palin is not ready for prime-time, that’s marked in the negative column for McCain.

ABC recorded 57 percent favorable comments toward the Democrats, and 42 percent positive for the Republicans. NBC had 56 percent positive for the Democrats, 16 percent for the Republicans. CBS had 73 percent positive (Obama), versus 31 percent (McCain).

Hume’s telecast had 39 percent favorable comments for McCain and 28 percent positive for the Democratic ticket.

So by this account, Hume is objective, while ABC, though better than the other networks, is partisan. Yet by the very numbers being reported, the tilt on Hume’s show is 1.39:1, while, that of ABC is 1.36:1.

But the study doesn’t even say that the media reporting is biased, just that Obama-Biden has come off better. That’s surely true, and should come as no surprise.

If the Obama campaign had lots of good things happen, such as good poll results, or major endorsements (eg, Colin Powell’s), and the press reports it, those are going to count as favorable mentions. And if bad things happen to the McCain campaign, they’re going to lead to reports that get counted as unfavorable. But that’s just reporting on what happens.

The “nonpartisan” Center for Media and Public Affairs is affiliated with the strongly conservative George Mason University, by the way.

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics | 1 Comment »

Obama vs the Military-Industrial Complex

Posted by metaphorical on 31 October 2008

At a lunchtime discussion of the impending election, I mentioned that while of course I was excited by the prospect of a Democratic administration, and thrilled by the idea of a black president, I didn’t have much enthusiasm for the candidate himself. I’ll try to write more about that this weekend.

I’m also concerned by the prospect of the Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress. (Wow, as he dizzily floats through a sea of red herrings, McCain stumbled into a real issue.) What are they going to do about the military budget, for example?

A special report in the new issue of my magazine, “What’s Wrong With Weapons Acquisitions?”, by Bob Charette, couldn’t present the scary question of military procurement more starkly.

The report’s thesis is that while the acquisitions process has been troubled for decades, it is now reaching a crisis point. The amount of money being wasted is staggering: the Pentagon spends $21 million every hour to develop and procure new weapons. The U.S. defense budget for fiscal 2009 is $488 billion, the largest in real terms since World War II and 6% higher than this year’s. And that doesn’t cover combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are presented separately in the federal budge.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of major acquisition programs in the pipeline are either enormously over-budget or well behind schedule — or both. Even if we weren’t in the middle of a global economic meltdown, throwing away many billions of taxpayers’ dollars would be unacceptable, stupid, and now, completely unsustainable.

As the report notes, with a new administration coming to office in January, we may finally have the chance to make much-needed changes. “Reform will have to come,” Charette writes. “Each day that the acquisition process continues to operate ineffectively and inefficiently is another day that the troops are not getting what they need, the country is less secure, and much-needed programs, both civilian and military, don’t get funded.”

Bob Charette spent two years putting this report together. He interviewed dozens of current and former acquisitions experts at the Pentagon as well as defense analysts, historians, and academics. He read scores of books, hundreds of reports, and countless newspaper, magazine, and journal articles. His extensive research and depth of understanding really show in his writing. Bob’s report is comprehensive, compelling, and a good read.

The question is, will the new Obama administration read it? And will they act on it? We’ve seen the Democrats in Congress feast off the fat underbelly of the budgetary hog with the same gusto as the Republicans. They all have military contractors in their districts, other companies whose projects can be funded through the trading of porkbarrel chits, and hungry reelection mouths to feed.

We’ve already been given a taste of Obama the Realist, whose not-nearly-universal medical care proposal doesn’t redesign the healthcare system but rather shores up a few of its most obvious weaknesses. One is reminded of the Army Corps of Engineers doing touch-up work on the New Orleans levee system in the early 2000s. If Obama can’t really take on Aetna and Cigna, how will he he fare against the combined forces of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Halliburton, BAE, SAIC, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the entire VFW?

We’ve seen, for better and for worse, presidents pulled across the political divide, their very weaknesses turning into strengths, their strengths needing to be shored up as if they were weaknesses. A Texan integrated the South, red-baiter Nixon went to China, Carter sent out helicopters on fool’s errands in Iran, Clinton yielded to the DMCA. And it was a five-star general who warned us about the military-industrial complex. Can Obama, already afraid to appear weak on defense, be strong on the question of procurement? The need, as Charette eloquently shows, is dire.

Posted in Orwell, politics, technology | 2 Comments »

Too Clever By Half

Posted by metaphorical on 10 October 2008

THE BRANDING
OF A RESTAURANT
POWERHOUSE

When Triarc Companies Inc., the parent company of sandwich chain Arby’s Restaurant Group, Inc. acquired Wendy’s International, the move created the third largest fast-food company. The company was renamed as Wendy’s/Arby’s Group and required a new brand identity to embody the innovative spirit of both restaurant brands. The new brand identity also needed to illustrate the collective strength of the organization to its employees, franchisees and shareholders.

Wendy’s and Arby’s merged?

KCSA Strategic Communications worked closely with Wendy’s/Arby’s Group management to define the shared, core brand values of both Wendy’s and Arby’s, and articulate the company’s unique value proposition and intangible qualities that surround the Wendy’s/Arby’s name.

“Value proposition” – heh.

“Intangible qualities” – heh-heh.

“Each company’s brand is a valuable strategic asset,” said Joshua Altman, Managing Director at KCSA. “The challenge in this type of situation is to develop a symbolic, clear new brand language that creates new meaning to audiences without losing the tradition, legacy, and the already important values established by the previously separate entities.”

Tradition? Legacy? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity references identifiable visual characteristics from both Wendy’s and Arby’s, structured as a form reflective of the “W” and “A” in Wendy’s/Arby’s Group. The icon and the tagline, “Serving Fresh Ideas Daily”, support Wendy’s/Arby’s Group’s commitment to innovation and high level of quality.

Wendy’s has a new logo?

“The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity is designed not only as an acronym, but as a spiral continuum, maintaining the idea of continuous, flexible movement forward,” said Margaret Wiatrowski, Creative Director at KCSA. “The overall visual direction remains neutral by introducing entirely new elements to the combined entity, both formalistically and typographically. Symbolically, the two entities are combined through a mutual sense of innovation, authenticity and tradition.”

Innovation? Authenticity? Tradition (again!)? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

Wendy’s/Arby’s Group unveiled its new brand to key stakeholders the first week of October, 2008.

Oh, it will have a new logo.

To learn more about this project or how we may serve you, please contact Joshua Altman at jaltman@kcsa.com.

Who wouldn’t want to learn more about this “project?

KCSA, a public-relations firms I’ve worked with, is better than this. Is there anything more inauthentic than saying that you have authenticity?

It’s time to return to the words of the master.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basis, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Key stakeholders,” “valuable strategic asset,” “overall visual direction,” “formalistically,” “value proposition,” “intangible qualities,” “innovation,” “tradition,” and “legacy” are all words that are used to dress up simple statements, give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments, and, as the master would be quick to say, are almost completely lacking in meaning.

Since only “key stakeholders” have seen the changes, it’s too soon to say whether this rebranding effort will be a success or a failure. And there’s no denying that brands are important. GM is trying to sell its Hummer brand, and according to today’s N.Y. Times, hopes to get a few billion for it. Since, in a era of $4/gallon gas, no one is buying Hummers (or cars at all; GM’s and Ford’s stocks jumped out the window yesterday, and even Toyota is going the zero-percent financing route), Hummer’s entire value is that it’s a name that is universally recognized (albeit often mocked).

What KCSA needs to remember, though, is that rebranding isn’t a sexy runway show. Rebranding is a little bit of backoffice sketching, and a lot of sweatshop work – cutting, sewing, ironing, fitting, and resewing. It can’t be dressed up with meaningless words. In fact, for a PR agency to talk of value propositions and strategic assets is like the designer showing up at the runway in a bathrobe.

Come on guys, you’re better than this.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, pop culture, writing | 2 Comments »

Gender, power, and the presidency

Posted by metaphorical on 5 October 2008

It’s impossible to understand John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in political terms, so we’re forced to turn to psychology – just as we are when trying to understand the presidency of George Bush.

If you think about it, in traditional gender-role terms, the vice presidency is a kind of feminized version of the presidency – its external functions are largely ceremonial, while its only power is internal and domestic – almost literally inside the House. For a misogynist like John McCain, Sarah Palin is the perfect personification of this role – as was Al Gore, who, with his concern for the environment was never manly enough for the American voter; as was the castrated Bush 41, who was bullied into endorsing Reagonomics soon after calling it “voodoo economics”; as was Bush’s own tow-haired boy-toy, Dan Quayle. (One of Dukakis’s many, many problems was that Lloyd Bensen was far more presidential – more masculine – than he was.)

The current Bush’s main failings – the events for which he will go down in history as America’s worst president ever – stem from his own late-to-light feminine submissiveness. In Freudian terms, Bush, like most men, was forced to symbolically kill his father in order to complete his own maturation. He did so only imperfectly, however, in the process replacing Pere Bush with other powerful men who mentored him. These are the men who bailed Bush out of one bad business after another, set him up at the Texas Rangers and then stuffed money into his pockets by subsequently overpaying him for his share. Dick Cheney – the most powerful vice president in history and the most atypical one ever – is the latest in a long line of older, powerful men to whom Bush cannot say no.

Is it a coincidence that Carol McCain is a former model, Cindy McCain a former rodeo queen, and Sarah Palin is a former beauty pageant contestant? It’s a commonplace that womanizers are misogynists, and McCain the womanizer – a man who could dump his first wife, saying that after her car accident she was no longer the woman he had married, a man who could call Wife # 2 a cunt – would obviously feel most comfortable with a vice president modeled after the feminine women he has surrounded himself with his whole life.

Posted in language, politics, pop culture | 2 Comments »

Butterflies are free to lie

Posted by metaphorical on 14 September 2008

It’s been two weeks since the Washington Post reported that Sarah Palin was a founding director of one of Ted Stevens’ 527 groups, and as far as I can tell, the story hasn’t been pushed forward much at all. Where are all the investigative journalists who spent a decade rooting around the barren stumps of Whitewater? Where are the Democratic Party’s Swiftboaters and other attack dogs?

Back in late July, “Sen. Ted Stevens, the nation’s longest-serving Republican senator and a major figure in Alaska politics since before statehood, was indicted Tuesday on seven felony counts of concealing more than a quarter of a million dollars in house renovations and gifts from a powerful oil contractor that lobbied him for government aid,” to quote the lead of an AP story at the time.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin began building clout in her state’s political circles in part by serving as a director of an independent political group organized by the now embattled Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

Palin’s name is listed on 2003 incorporation papers of the “Ted Stevens Excellence in Public Service, Inc.,” a 527 group that could raise unlimited funds from corporate donors. The group was designed to serve as a political boot camp for Republican women in the state. She served as one of three directors until June 2005, when her name was replaced on state filings.

527 groups are named for a provision of the IRS code under which “members of Congress can raise unlimited soft money from individuals, corporations and unions,” as SourceWatch puts it. “Under federal election law, members of Congress may raise only limited amounts of ‘hard money’ for their own campaign committees or ‘leadership PACs’ which aid other candidates. They may accept no contributions of more than $1,000 per election from an individual and $5,000 per election from a political action committee (PAC).”

527s are of course exactly the sort of thing the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms tried to reform out of existence. It’s more than a little politics-makes-strange-bedfellows that his running mate got her start on the long road to the vice presidency by cofounding one. For a Senator now under indictment.

Palin’s relationship with Alaska’s senior senator may be one of the more complicated aspects of her new position as Sen. John McCain’s running mate; Stevens was indicted in July 2008 on seven counts of corruption.

It’s just one more thing for which Palin needs to put on her best Janus makeup. According to AlaskaReport:

Palin, an anti-corruption crusader in Alaska, had called on Stevens to be open about the issues behind the investigation. But she also held a joint news conference with him in July, before he was indicted, to make clear she had not abandoned him politically.

On July 10, State Senator John Cowdery was the latest on a string of indictments in Alaska . Palin immediately called for his resignation. Twenty days later, Stevens was indicted on seven felony counts related to accepting illegal gifts. When asked if Stevens should resign, Plain replied that it, “would be premature at this point.” Alaskans received no explanation of why Stevens would be different from any other indicted elected official in Alaska.

Palin’s career has been short, but it already has a signature: a level of abuse of whatever levers of power she has newly wrapped her hand around that is remarkable even by Republican standards. Whether it’s hiring friends and firing enemies, gorging at the hog trough of pork barrel politics as usual (while wearing the shoulder sash of reformism), or simultaneously condemning Stevens and supporting him, she, like her new mentor John McCain, would do the putative flip-floppers of 2004 proud.

If Obama and the Democratic strategists can pin the Republican ticket’s wings to a sign labeled “hypocrisy” like a butterfly being mounted, they will win. There’s no dearth of raw material. But then, by 2004, there was no dearth of evidence of Bush’s incompetence, even before Katrina. What’s needed is for the media to take it all seriously, as seriously as they took the false claim that Al Gore claimed to invent the Internet, as seriously as they took Bush’s absurd talk of compassionate conservatism, as seriously as they took the Dean scream that never was, as seriously as they took the ridiculous charge that Kerry didn’t earn his war medals. For a change, this time they would even have the truth on their side.

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics | Leave a Comment »

Palin vs McCain vs Reality

Posted by metaphorical on 5 September 2008

Creationism

“Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.”

“I’m not going to pretend I know how all this came to be.”

Sarah Palin, Alaska Gubinatorial Debate, October 25, 2006

MR. VANDEHEI: Senator McCain, this comes from a Politico.com reader and was among the top vote-getters in our early rounds. They want a yes or no. Do you believe in evolution?

SEN. MCCAIN: Yes.

First Republicans’ Presidential Candidates Debate, May 2, 2007

Global Warming

“I will clean up the planet. I will make global warming a priority.”
John McCain, Boston Globe, January 7, 2008

“The same human activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Increased atmospheric carbon has a warming effect on the earth.”

—Republican Platform, August 26, 2008

“A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I’m not one though who would attribute it to being man-made.”
Sarah Palin, Newsmax, August 29, 2008

ANWR

“There are billions of barrels of oil underneath the ground up there on the North Slope including ANWR. In Alaska alone we can supply seven years of complete crude-oil independence, and eight years’ supply of natural gas for Americans with ANWR (and) other areas of Alaska that we want to allow for development. That’s proof that Alaska can be a significant player in the world market.”

“ANWR would take five years to begin providing crude oil to our pipeline. But you have to consider that if we’d started this five years ago, then we wouldn’t be in this position right now. And who knows where we’re going to be in another five years.”

Sarah Palin, Investor’s Business Daily, Friday, July 11, 2008

I also believe that the ANWR is a pristine place and if they found oil in the Grand Canyon, I don’t think I’d drill in the Grand Canyon.’’

John McCain,June 2008

Additional oil production resulting from the opening of ANWR would be only a small portion of total world oil production, and would likely be offset in part by somewhat lower production outside the United States. The opening of ANWR is projected to have its largest oil price reduction impacts as follows: a reduction in low-sulfur, light crude oil prices of $0.41 per barrel (2006 dollars) in 2026 for the low oil resource case, $0.75 per barrel in 2025 for the mean oil resource case, and $1.44 per barrel in 2027 for the high oil resource case, relative to the reference case.

—Department of Energy report “Analysis of Crude Oil Production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” May 2008

Off-shore Drilling

“[W]ith those resources, which would take years to develop, you would only postpone or temporarily relieve our dependency on fossil fuels.

John McCain, May 2008

“[Offshore oil drilling would] be very helpful in the short term resolving our energy crisis.”

John McCain, June 2008

The projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.

—2007 Department of Energy report “Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf.”

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, religion, technology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

White men can’t jump – or be terrorists

Posted by metaphorical on 28 August 2008

Compare and contrast:

Police in Aurora, Colorado – 12 miles due east of Denver – stop a pick-up truck being driven erratically the day before the start of the Democratic National Convention.

According to news reports, “In the back of the vehicle, officers found two high-powered rifles, one with telescopic sights, a spotting scope, a flak jacket, camouflage clothing, a bulletproof vest, boxes of ammunition, three fake identity cards, two wigs, two walkie-talkies and a quantity of the drug methamphetamine, a form of speed known as crystal meth.”

The men are, according to the police, members of the Aryan Nation. One of them, named Adolf, of all things, is a wanted fugitive. “He tried to escape by jumping from a sixth-floor window, breaking his ankle in the attempt. He has a long history of convictions for drugs and violence, and when arrested, police found he had the key to handcuffs in one hand and a ring with a swastika emblem in the other.”

Put these guys on hold for a moment. Now let’s recall the Lackawanna Six, the American citizens of Yemani extraction who, according to Dina Temple Raston, author of the book The Jihad Next Door, “were influenced by a known terrorist, Kamal Derwish, who enticed them to travel to Afghanistan – a decision they regretted upon arriving at the camp.”

That’s all those guys did – go to a training camp in Afghanistan in the spring of 2001. True, “investigators recovered a rifle, and a telescopic sight” from the house of one of them. From his house. Not from and erratically-driven car, with a known target 12 miles away. Wikipedia says that even “the FBI Special Agent in charge of the investigation, Peter Ahearn, stated that there was no specific event triggering the arrests.”

One group you pick up as terrorists. The other you arrest on nothing more than a weapons charge. Which is which? The answer is simple and just what you’d expect. The white guys trying to kill a black man get the weapons charge. The six Arabs who haven’t done a single thing during the 4-8 months you investigate them, them you convict of terrorism.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The flip-flop flip-flop

Posted by metaphorical on 19 August 2008

“This is the moment . . . that the world is waiting for,” adding: “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.”

Sounds a bit arrogant, doesn’t it?

But what if the entire quote is this:

It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It’s about America. I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.

Dana Milbank, at that new bastion of conservative politics, The Washington Post, pulled the first quote out of the second and used to make the case that Barak Obama is, if not an uppity black man riding on the backs of hard-working whites, then at least a typical politician obsessed with his place in history.

As the Huffington Post put it,

For Milbank’s part, it was all because he wanted to wedge the statement into his preferred frame: “Barack Obama has long been his party’s presumptive nominee. Now he’s becoming its presumptuous nominee.”

And as Robert Parry over at Consortium News put it, “the true meaning of the Obama quote appears to have been almost the opposite of how Milbank used it.”

To put it as simply as possible, which part of “not about me at all” does Milbank not get?

This post is about events almost a month old, but the media’s misbegotten storyline about flip-flopping just gets more and more embedded in the campaign’s narrative. Parry notes that the Post has yet to retract or at even clarify the quote for its readers. He’s generally worried about the media coverage of the candidates. Referring to another speech given early this month, when the stench of the Milbank misquote was still fresh in the air, Parry pointed out that

Obama gave a detail-rich speech on how he would address the energy crisis, which is a major point of concern among Americans. From ideas for energy innovation to retrofitting the U.S. auto industry to conservation steps to limited new offshore drilling, Obama did what he is often accused of not doing, fleshing out his soaring rhetoric.

McCain responded with a harsh critique of Obama’s calls for more conservation, claiming that Obama wants to solve the energy crisis by having people inflate their tires. McCain’s campaign even passed out a tire gauge marked as Obama’s energy plan.

For his part, McCain made clear he wanted to drill for more oil wherever it could be found and to build many more nuclear power plants.

These competing plans offered a chance for the evening news to address an issue of substance that is high on the voters’ agenda. Instead, NBC News anchor Brian Williams devoted 30 seconds to the dueling energy speeches, without any details and with the witty opening line that Obama was “refining” his energy plan.

The media, Parry says, is all to happy to pick up on the McCain spin that Obama is a flip-flopper, despite all evidence that the flip-flop belongs on the other foot – McCains.

… as for flip-flops, McCain’s dramatic repositioning of himself as an anti-environmentalist – after years of being one of the green movement’s favorite Republicans – represents a far more significant change than Obama’s modest waffling on offshore oil.

In my opinion, the mere fact that McCain could come crawling back into bed with George Bush, after Bush torpedoed McCain from his front-running position early in the 2000 presidential campaign with a particularly vicious smear attack in the critical South Carolina primary. The smear, which made the implication that McCain had fathered a dark-skinned child that he and his wife adopted from a Mother Teresa orphanage, was made all the more successful by its outrageous implausibility. It’s been widely documented, but there’s a particularly good account that McCain’s then-campaign manager gave in a Boston Globe op-ed piece in 2004.

Having run Senator John McCain’s campaign for president, I can recount a textbook example of a smear made against McCain in South Carolina during the 2000 presidential primary. We had just swept into the state from New Hampshire, where we had racked up a shocking, 19-point win over the heavily favored George W. Bush. What followed was a primary campaign that would make history for its negativity.

In South Carolina, Bush Republicans were facing an opponent who was popular for his straight talk and Vietnam war record. They knew that if McCain won in South Carolina, he would likely win the nomination. With few substantive differences between Bush and McCain, the campaign was bound to turn personal. The situation was ripe for a smear.

It didn’t take much research to turn up a seemingly innocuous fact about the McCains: John and his wife, Cindy, have an adopted daughter named Bridget. Cindy found Bridget at Mother Theresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh, brought her to the United States for medical treatment, and the family ultimately adopted her. Bridget has dark skin.

Anonymous opponents used “push polling” to suggest that McCain’s Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child. In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the “pollster” determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator.

Thus, the “pollsters” asked McCain supporters if they would be more or less likely to vote for McCain if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate child who was black. In the conservative, race-conscious South, that’s not a minor charge. We had no idea who made the phone calls, who paid for them, or how many calls were made. Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign.

For McCain to turn around and campaign heavily for Bush in 2004, become a leading supporter of Bush’s surge in Iraq, and defend Bush’s unconstitutional mass wiretaps, is both the height of cynical politics and flip-flopping at its finest. John Dickerson described McCain’s base motives back in 2005. The main one, of course, is money – campaign money, millions of dollars of it.

This is shaping up to be one of those campaigns where it’s hard to see how the Republican nominee has any credibility at all, and yet he could win. McCain and his friend and fellow master-flip-flopper, Joe Lieberman, are almost singlehandedly responsible for Congress’s continued support for, and financing of, the Iraqi war. How Mr War Record could let us leave Afghanistan in media res is one of the great mysteries of this campaign, but it seems the media won’t demand an answer to what should be the res on which the 2008 election turns.

This election will be a close one because a press corps that prefers image to substance is giving the candidate of image a leg up on the candidate of substance.

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Let’s take a moment to remember Warren Harding: publisher, senator, rock climber, president

Posted by metaphorical on 4 July 2008

Fifty years ago, President Warren Harding set out to climb El Capitan. It took him 47 days of repeated assaults, but he finally made it.

I think I need a new blog tag, something like “How Stupid Can You Be?” This time the hapless news network is NPR. (Thanks, Rachel, for the link.) Is there really anyone at that venerable organization who thinks that Warren G Harding, the 29th President, who died in office in 1923 at age 57, climbed El Cap? Fifty years ago? 35 years after the hapless Calvin Coolidge succeeded Harding in the Oval Office, because, you know, Harding had, um, died? In 1923?

Let’s try to imagine the process here as some NPR intern somewhere on the East Coast gets a San Francisco Chronicle report that the speed record for climbing El Cap has been broken. (We’ll leave aside why breaking the old record by a mere 2 minutes, or about a 1.2% improvement, is worth reporting at all.)

The Sfgate story lists all the de rigeur stats for a story like this: how many on El Cap, how many have died climbing the particular route that the record-breaking climbers chose, and, with no other distinguishing description, the name of El Cap’s first ascentionist, which happens to be Warren Harding. Warren J. Harding, the sports-car-driving, rotgut-wine-drinking, rock-climbing, one-time land surveyor, not Warren G. Harding, the the former newspaper publisher, Republican Senator from Ohio, and President of the United States.

How little history do you have to be acquainted with to possibly confuse the two Hardings? If the first ascent of El Cap was 50 years ago, it took place in 1958. Let’s make this really simple. If you know nothing else about Warren G Harding’s presidency, could you at least, dear intern, locate it in the first half of the century? You know, the other one, the one that 1958 isn’t in?

I don’t mean, dear intern, you should be able to definitively rule out the idea of President Harding as the man who spent 47 days over the course of two years climbing an impressive but obscure rock face in central California. No, of course not. I’m just wishing your shaky grip on American history could have at least been firm enough to at have gone to Wikipedia and check, oh, say, when President Harding died.

Oh, here’s another request, dear intern. When you sneak back into the HTML and update your story to delete the word “President,” put a little note on bottom saying that the story was corrected. Someone, after all, might have been industrious enough to take a screen shot of your blinding stupidity.

NPR gets it wrong

NPR gets it wrong

Posted in education, journalism, Orwell, politics, pop culture | 3 Comments »

The inconvenient truth about the war on terrorism

Posted by metaphorical on 19 June 2008

We’re living in a time of inconvenience
Compassion fails me with this
meanness in the air
Our city streets are filled with violence
So we close our doors to the city
And pretend that it’s not there
Here I go again
Back out on these mean streets
The evil seems to cling to the soles of my feet
Cuz’ I’m living in a time of inconvenience
At an inconvenient time

— “Time of Inconvenience,” by Nanci Griffith

How many times must the NY Times be rebuked for misstating the facts about 9/11 and adopting the administration’s lies and misrepresentations? Well, how long are they going to keep doing it? If, after the Times’s endorsement of the war on Iraq, the equation of Iraq and Al Qaeda, the Judith Miller affair, aluminum tubes and all, if the reporters at the NY Times are going to rewrite history yet again, say, last Sunday in a news article about a Supreme Court decision, then they’re going to have to be taken to task yet again.

So it is extraordinary that during the Bush administration’s seven years, nearly all of them a time of war that began on Sept. 11, 2001, the court has been prompted to push back four times. Last week’s decision in Boumediene v. Bush, in which the court ruled that prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have a right to challenge their detentions in the federal courts, marks only the most recent rebuke.

i

Um, no. The war did not begin on September 11. The war didn’t begin on September 12th. Nor did it last anything like seven years.

The war on Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001 with aerial bombardments. By December 17th, the U.S. had declared victory at Tora Bora and the Afghan war was considered over.

On March 19, 2003, Bush declared war on Iraq. By May 1st, he announced that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.

The war on terrorism, on the other hand, is a war without beginning and without end. It is a war that can justify everything and therefore, as the Supreme Court seems bent on pointing out, nothing.

Certainly, the war on civil liberties has lasted for virtually the entire length of Bush’s rule, a war so cynical in intent and bleak in its view of human nature that even the most conservative court in living memory has rebuked the Administration four times, most recently last week. The Times finds it remarkable that the court keeps standing up to the President in a time of war, and surely it is remarkable. But perhaps one factor is that we’re not exactly at war.

We’re living in the age of communication
Where the only voices heard
have money in their hands
Where greed has become a sophistication
And if you ain’t got money
You ain’t got nothin’ in this land
An’ here I am one lonely woman
On these mean streets
Where the right to life man has become my enemy
Cuz’ I’m living in his time of inconvenience
At an inconvenient time

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, politics, Times-watch | Tagged: , , | 7 Comments »

Pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh

Posted by metaphorical on 18 June 2008

Okay, there’s no evidence (yet) that pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh or vice versa. But they can tell them apart. How much evidence of sentience is enough, before we start to rethink the way we treat our fellow sentient creatures?

Self-recognition is found in large primates such as chimpanzees, and recent findings show that dolphins and elephants also have such intelligence. Proving that pigeons also have this ability show that such high intelligence as self-recognition can be seen in various animals, and are not limited to primates and dolphins that have large brains.

UPI has the story on the wires (thank you, Claire, for the heads-up), but more details can be found at Science Daily.

Pigeons Show Superior Self-recognition Abilities To Three Year Old Humans

ScienceDaily (Jun. 14, 2008) — Keio University scientists have shown that pigeons are able to discriminate video images of themselves even with a 5-7 second delay, thus having self-cognitive abilities higher than 3-year-old children who have difficulty recognizing their self-image with only a 2 second delay.

Prof. Shigeru Watanabe of the Graduate School of Human Relations of Keio University and Tsukuba University graduate student Kohji Toda trained pigeons to discriminate real-time self-image using mirrors as well as videotaped self-image, and proved that pigeons can recognize video images that reflect their movements as self-image.

We can argue over the details of how to prove self-cognition, but the article has a detailed discussion of the methods and functional definitions that studies like this one have been using for almost 40 years now.

The wire and other reports of this study make much of the fact that, using these functional definitions, pigeons do better at self-recognition than 3-year-old humans. Personally, I find at least as interesting a fact in the UPI story not even mentioned in Science Daily, that the pigeons can distinguish Chagall paintings from those of Van Gogh.

People with cats and dogs routinely ascribe to them motives, beliefs, preferences, fears, desires, and other complex mental states. People on farms, who spend as much time with cows and pigs and horses as we do with dogs and cats, talk about them in the same way.

Leaving aside the question of eating them for food, how can we confine them, keep them perpetually pregnant, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cement kiln dust, testosterone, progesterone, anabolic steroids, and chicken manure…. how can we hang a 1500-lb animal upside down by its ankle when it’s still conscious?

How can we treat an animal with cognitive abilities that can, at least in some ways, be favorably compared to a 3-year-old with wanton disregard for its obvious suffering?

Posted in animal-rights, language, politics, pop culture | Tagged: , , | 12 Comments »

Destroying the village to save it

Posted by metaphorical on 11 May 2008

Today’s Orwellian phrase is “coercive humanitarian intervention.”

The military regime that runs Burma initially signaled it would accept outside relief, but has imposed so many conditions on those who would actually deliver it that barely a trickle has made it through. Aid workers have been held at airports. U.N. food shipments have been seized. U.S. naval ships packed with food and medicine idle in the Gulf of Thailand, waiting for an all-clear that may never come.

Retired General William Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations says the U.S. should first pressure China to use its influence over the junta to get them to open up and then supply support to the Thai and Indonesian militaries to carry out relief missions. “We can pay for it — we can provide repair parts to the Indonesians so they can get their Air Force up. We can lend the them two C-130s and let them paint the Indonesian flag on them,” Nash says. “We have to get the stuff to people who can deliver it and who the Burmese government will accept, even if takes an extra day or two and even if it’s not as efficient as the good old U.S. military.”

Time magazine is reporting that the difficulties in getting the Burmese government to accept relief aid has led some governments and some relief organizations to consider an extreme alternative: a “coercive humanitarian intervention.”


That’s why it’s time to consider a more serious option: invading Burma. Some observers, including former USAID director Andrew Natsios, have called on the U.S. to unilaterally begin air drops to the Burmese people regardless of what the junta says. The Bush Administration has so far rejected the idea — “I can’t imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday — but it’s not without precedent: as Natsios pointed out to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government’s consent in places like Bosnia and Sudan. “

It calls to mind that other 21st century coercive humanitarian intervention, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If I had to guess the reason the American public has turned against the war it’s that, rightly or wrongly, it ran out of patience with people it sees as unwilling to help themselves, or even let anyone else help them. The Iraqi people had only to accept American aid, this sentiment goes, and if they won’t, to hell with them. Americans will say the same thing about Burma.

It’s hard not agree. “Coercive humanitarian intervention” sounds a little too much like what went wrong in Vietnam, the war in which, writ large, it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics | 1 Comment »

L{peace}VE

Posted by metaphorical on 29 April 2008

Human Rights Torch Relay protest, Union Square, New York City, 17 April 2008

In April 1968, when Mark Rudd and other students took over the halls of Columbia University, I was 12 years old – too young for anything other than hero-worship. So I read the newspaper accounts, watched the news on television, and wrote in magic marker all over my bedroom walls.

I carefully drew peace signs, Rudd’s name, and “Columbia” from the closet at one end of the room’s longest wall to the rear window at the other end. And the word “Love,” scrawled Peter-Max style – big balloon sans-serif letters that overlapped one another, with the “O” being yet another peace symbol. I don’t remember asking my parents about writing all over my walls, and I do remember my mother’s odd smile when I showed her my handiwork.

That year students took over college campuses from Berkeley to Bonn. They drew their energy from the Civil Rights protests that ended Jim Crow and the antiwar demonstrations that ended Lyndon Johnson’s reelection campaign.

Where did that energy go? Where are the protest movements of today? As it turns out, there’s still plenty of energy, and still plenty of protest. What’s missing is the reporting of it. Consider Human Rights Torch Relay, a world-wide ongoing protest that has taken the traditional Olympic torch relay as an occasion for repeated protest of China’s subjugation of Tibet. Yesterday, Reuters published a nice timeline or their protests, beginning with the March 24th Athens torch lighting, and continuing, among other places, in San Francisco, Paris, Bangkok, and, last Sunday, South Korea.

Indeed, the print media has done a pretty good job of covering Human Rights Torch Relay. But where are the television networks? A google search looks in vain for them until the 48th link, where a story by CNN is the first network-based one to appear.

And even if the big wire services such as Reuters, AP, and AFP can cover a big protest like Human Rights Torch Relay, they fall down when it comes to smaller ones. Did you know about a protest at Penn State that has lasted more than two weeks now? They are “demanding improved conditions in the factories where Penn State apparel is made.” Nor has Penn State been the only anti-sweatshop rally in recent weeks; there have been at least three others.

I learned about them at a new blog, http://studentactivism.net/, that hopes to provide a focal point for “News and analysis on student organizing, student activism, and students’ rights.” The blog, which launched yesterday, is maintained by Angus Johnston, whose goal is to fill the middle ground between the mainstream media, which doesn’t cover smaller activist efforts, and student networks, which largely preach to the choir.

Students provided much of the early white support for black civil rights activism, they spearheaded the anti-Vietnam movement, and they’ve never stopped being in the forefront of protest, whether it’s over environmental issues, Nicaragua, corporate responsibility, the death penalty, or the war in Iraq. Whether we agree or disagree with the stances that students take (and they’re by no means all of one mind in their concerns), I hope that many of us will subscribe and link to the site, as I now have.

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture | 4 Comments »

William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008)

Posted by metaphorical on 28 February 2008

I suppose I’m not supposed to mourn the passing of William F. Buckley Jr. but I can’t help myself. Buckley was was a fierce proponent of a sort of spare, consistent arch-conservativism that one almost longs for in these days of big-government, big-business Republicanism.

Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article this week, “On the Bus: Can John McCain reinvent Republicanism?” reminds us, as if we need it, that there are many types of Republican – the radical religious right-wingers who flocked to Huckabee; the strangle-government types such as Grover Norquist; the small-government Goldwater/Reagan types; the oddly pragmatic sort that Gingrich has turned into; the moderates in the tradition of Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller (it’s Lizza’s contention that McCain falls into this category); and the libertarians, such as Ron Paul (except that Paul is also a bat-shit-crazy conspiracy theorist).

While I’ve never been a connoisseur of conservatism, and so I might get this wrong, Buckley struck me as one who straddled the Goldwater and libertarian camps, reminding them both to be at once pragmatic and pure. And while he sometimes wore the same ideological blinders as, say, Reagan, he was also committed to reason in a way that few hard-core conservatives are. And so it is that the moment I remember best about Buckley was also one of his most rational and therefore also, surely, one of his finest.

I couldn’t have been more than about 16. It was, therefore, about 1972, and my grandmother had that still-rare commodity, a color television. I’m not sure that’s why I was downstairs, in her part of the house, while she was out, or whether it was just to watch some TV without arguing with anyone about what to have on. I don’t know why I would have stopped turning the dial at Firing Line, except that in the days of 9 channels and no remotes it was sometimes even harder to find something worthwhile than it is with today’s 999.

And so I sat on her worn couch, watching her Sony television. Any memory of her place necessarily includes the lingering smells of olive oil, chicken livers, overripe bananas, and Chesterfield nonfiltered cigarettes. If it was winter, then her place was also much warmer than the basement couch I slept on.

Certainly the topic itself was interesting – decriminalizing drugs. I’d certainly done my share already, but one certainly knew what a Buckley would think about them, and who needed to hear that? I guess the thing is, I don’t channel surf as quickly as most people do.

I don’t know who Buckley’s guest was. All I know is that he advocated decriminalizing drugs, and he had plenty of good reasons, and he was kicking Buckley’s ass, because he had none. And there was this moment somewhere down near the bottom of the hour, maybe at the 28 minute mark, when you could see this look on Buckley’s face as if he was hearing the guy for the first time and you could see that 2+2 was starting to equal 4 for him.

Wait, you could hear him think. A small government doesn’t care what adults do in the privacy of their own home. Wait, these people are only hurting themselves, if anyone, and a small government is okay with that. Wait, why should a government care about whether people self-medicate with cocaine instead of caffeine? Actually, that’s more of a 1980s thought. But I do think I remember his guest asking Buckley where he would draw the line: what if the government decided to consider caffeine a narcotic?

Right then and there I saw that rare thing, someone listening to the voice of reason enough to switch sides. On television, with millions (okay, some significant fraction of a million) watching. And a hard-line conservative to boot.

But Buckley wasn’t just any hard-line conservative. He was a thoughtful guy. He could hear, and even heed, the voice of reason. And forever that made him and me more alike than different. Farewell, WFB, Jr. Goodspeed.

Posted in language, philosophy, politics, pop culture | 8 Comments »

It’s time to kill the USDA, before it kills us

Posted by metaphorical on 25 February 2008

beef_clo.jpg

We haven’t talked yet about last week’s recall of 143 million pounds of beef, the largest meat recall in U.S. history.

As the BBC and others reported at the time, “It comes from a company in California, which officials said allowed meat from cattle unable to stand at the time of slaughter to enter the food chain.”

Today, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the company, Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., will almost certainly shut down for good.

The meatpacker voluntarily suspended operations in early February, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture began investigating how it treated animals.

What’s of particular interest, from a journalistic point of view, is the step before that – how the USDA came to investigate in the first place.

The USDA investigation began after the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video showing workers at the Chino slaughterhouse trying to make sick or injured cows stand up with electrical-shock devices, fork lifts and high-pressure water hoses. State and federal animal-cruelty laws prohibit such activities.

Federal laws also prohibit the sale and distribution of so-called downer cattle because of the high risk of mad-cow disease. That risk isn’t taken seriously by consumers, in large part because they rely on the government to take it seriously. And the USDA doesn’t do the job its counterparts do in other countries, largely because it’s insufficiently independent of the industry it’s supposed to regulate.

In the days after Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published, the need for government oversight must have seemed obvious, for the safety of the meat supply and of the meatpackers, if not for the short-lived well-being of the animals themselves. Unfortunately, if you read any of that book’s latter-day latter-day counterparts, like Fast Food Nation or Diet For a New America, it’s clear that, 102 years later, little if any progress has been made.

According to KCBS in Los Angeles and others, one-third of the recalled beef went to schools. (KCBS is also the source for the nice graphic at the top of this post.)

Basically, this was a bottom-of-the-market meatpacker that was probably on shaky ground until it got the federal contract to supply schools. Going back to the Wall Street Journal article for a moment,

Until the plant suspended operations, it was earning a modest profit on annual sales of roughly $100 million, he said. “It’s a low profit-margin business,” he said.

In the last government fiscal year, the Agriculture Department paid Hallmark/Westland about $39 million for ground beef for food nutrition programs, including the school-lunch program. Hallmark/Westland was honored by the department as its Supplier of the Year for the 2004-05 school year. It began supplying meat to the program in 2003 after a rigorous application process with the Agriculture Department, which has authorized about 10 meatpackers nationwide to compete for contracts to supply beef to the program.

Quite the rigorous testing if the Humane Society had to do the USDA’s job for them. It might be fair to paraphrase Groucho and say that we don’t want the schools to be supplied by any company that needs the work.

So maybe it’s time to think about the unintended consequences of having an agency like the USDA exist in the first place. Maybe it’s time to notice that inadequate oversight is in many ways worse than no oversight at all.

In a caveat-emptor world, consumers would be warier of what they let pass through their mouths. (The wording is deliberate there; even the most desparate hooker is more discriminating than the average hamburger consumer.) We would come to rely on brands, either of the distributor, or the restaurant or supermarket itself, and those brands would be on the line with every purchase. The A&Ps and Vons of the world would have to either police their food sources themselves or get out of the game. Perhaps third-party inspectors would emerge to do what the USDA can’t or won’t – rigorously examine the practices of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

For as long as we’ve known about mad-cow disease, the USDA has done a poor job of protecting consumers from it. Take this summary report from 2006, for example:

USDA slammed for letting high-risk downer cattle reach consumers

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (Kyodo) U.S. beef inspectors have failed to fully comply with rules banning cattle that are unable to walk to safeguard consumers from mad cow disease, leading at least 29 such animals, including 20 high-risk “downers,” to reach the food chain, according to a recent government audit report.

The failure angered some activist groups in the United States, blasting the U.S. Department of Agriculture for putting consumers at risk of the disease, formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, despite a no-downer policy maintained for more than two years as a protective firewall against BSE.

The first benefit to ending the USDA’s miserable existence would probably be the inspection of each and every slaughtered animal for mad-cow disease.

Japan tests every animal, and in 2003 halted imports of U.S. beef over mad-cow concerns – $1.7 billion worth in 2003, according to an MSNBC editorial in 2006. That was the year that Japan lifted the ban, only to have to quickly reinstate it.

How pure is the U.S. beef supply, really?
By Phil Lempert
“Today” Food Editor
Tues., Jan. 24, 2006.

[….] Last week, just a month after the Japanese government decided to allow the import of U.S. beef into that country, it has once again halted shipments of American beef into Japan because animal spines were found in three boxes of frozen beef being brought into the country.

When the two-year-old ban was lifted late last year, it was with the expressed condition that imported U.S. beef come from cattle no older than 20 months and that spinal cords, brains and other parts blamed for spreading the human variant of mad-cow disease be removed.

There are those who argue that the risks just aren’t high enough for us to mimic the paranoid Japanese. Let’s leave aside a multi-billion-dollar export opportunity for American business, and focus on our own health and safety.

Back in 2005, a California State Senator, Jeff Denham, tried to make the case that universal testing was unnecessary.

Since the first cow tested positive in 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tested over 400,000 cows and only one other tested positive. To put this in perspective, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning this year than a neighborhood cow testing positive for Mad Cow disease.

the USDA is testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease – not just a random sampling. Cattle with the highest likelihood of contracting Mad Cow include “downer cows,” that are unable to stand-up, die unexpectedly, or have other signs of illness are the ones that are tested. So those cattle that are healthy are even less likely to have Mad Cow disease.

Obviously, though, the USDA is not testing those cattle with the highest likelihood of having Mad Cow disease, even though they’re supposed to be.

The cattle industry, and guys like Denham, think it’s just too expensive to test every head as it comes to slaughter.

Some will still argue that those odds are not good enough and that every head of cattle should be tested. With more than 95.8 million cows nationwide, it simply is not feasible and not cost effective.

So how expensive would it be?

As it happens, that calculation has been done, for 10 million head per year, the same as Denham argued against. As it happens, that’s not for the Japanese standard of testing every slaughtered animal, but the European standard of testing those over 30 months. An article here quotes a Wall Street Journal article from 2004 in which the calculation is pretty straightforward.

Test kits cost about $10 a pop…. Add in salaries of lab technicians, the cost of grinding up and delivering cattle brain samples for testing, and the tab would be $30 to $50 per animal, industry experts say. The average U.S. cow slaughtered for food yields meat with a retail value of $1,636.

Each year in the U.S., about 35 million cattle are slaughtered. About 10 million of these animals — those over 30 months of age — would be tested for BSE if the U.S. were to adopt European standards, because age is associated with infection.

The grand total to test about 10 million cows in the U.S. would be $300 to $500 million a year. Considering that Americans spend more than $50 billion on beef annually, that would add between six cents and 10 cents per pound.

I’m not too crazy about the 6-10 cents/lb. calculation, since it’s hard to know what the $50 billion figure refers to. It might include $30 entrees at Morton’s Steakhouse. So let’s look instead at the per-head stats: $50 out of $1686. If spread out per-dollar, instead of per-pound, in round numbers the testing adds 3%. If chopped meat is roughly $3.00/lb, we’re still in the same range, another 9 cents.

So there you have it. The cost to be ensure against mad-cow disease is 10 cents/lb. or less. That still doesn’t do anything about the harmful antibiotics in meat, the other chemicals, the hazardous working conditions in slaughterhouses, the inhumane ways that animals are reared and killed, the befouling of the nations drinking water, the erosion of its land, or any of the other problems of factory farming. But it would solve, or start to solve, the mad-cow disease.

Is the industry really afraid of adding 10 cents a pound to meat prices? Hardly. It’s afraid to find out the extent of the mad-cow problem. And it’s afraid of the costs that might be engendered by the changes needed in the way animals are reared and slaughtered, once the extent of the problem is known.

Basically, the meat industry doesn’t want to find out how many animals are infected. And it doesn’t want the extra work of keeping brains and spines out of the hamburgers we eat. And until we get rid of the USDA, or truly empower it with resources and independence, no one is going to make the industry do anything it doesn’t want.

Posted in animal-rights, food, Orwell, politics, pop culture | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

After 500 years of progress, we’re still waterboarding people and stoning them to death for adultery

Posted by metaphorical on 19 February 2008

Q: Which is worse, adultery or witchcraft?

A: They are equally bad, and should both be punished by death.

That seems to be the news from the Arab world.

A couple of weeks ago, Amnesty International reported on two sisters that face execution by stoning in Iran. Does Iran really stone people to death? For adultery? The answer to both questions seems to be yes. A news report from last July, “Iran confirms man stoned to death,” describes just such a case.

In the case of the two women, Amnesty International seems at least as concerned about some of the legal niceities of the case. For example, there’s the double-jeopardy fact that the women were already convicted and sentenced to floggings and prison.

The five were tried in March 2007 and sentenced to flogging for “having illicit relations”; Zohreh also received five years’ imprisonment for forming ‘a centre of corruption’. But after the floggings were carried out, fresh charges of “committing adultery while being married” were brought against Zohreh and Azar Kabiri-niat. On 6 August 2007. Both were found guilty and were sentenced to death by stoning.

The witchcraft case comes from Saudi Arabia.

Saudis to Execute a Woman for Witchcraft

By DONNA ABU-NASR

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) — A leading human rights group appealed to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Thursday to stop the execution of a woman accused of witchcraft and performing supernatural acts.

Besides sounding more appropriate to the middle ages than the 21st century, what the cases have in common is an appalling lack of due process.

A new lawyer representing the women told journalist Marjan Lagha’i that, “the case has fundamental problems, since a person can not be tried twice for the same crime. Yet these two sisters have been tried twice in the same case, and two sentences have been issued for them… the circumstances that are required to prove adultery – confession by the accused on four different occasions that can be corroborated by the testimony of four eyewitnesses to the alleged crime – are entirely absent, and there is absolutely no legal document in this case that a judge can use to issue a stoning sentence… Given that I view this sentence to be against the principles of Sharia, as well as the criminal laws [of Iran], I have filed an official objection, and I have asked that the Head of Judiciary review the case once again.”

To be sure, in a case of witchcraft, it’s hard to imagine what would actually count as due process.

“The fact that Saudi judges still conduct trials for unprovable crimes like ‘witchcraft’ underscores their inability to carry out objective criminal investigations,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Here in the U.S., we don’t stone people to death or kill them in any other way for adultery, but due process is still a bit of an issue for the Bush administration. And it’s come up in the context of yet another gruesome medieval practice — waterboarding, a favorite form of torture going back to the Spanish Inquisition.

Last week, in testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee, Steven Bradbury, the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, made the case that waterboarding is not torture, at least, it’s not under the laws in effect when the CIA conducted waterboarding. As Muckraker reports:

The CIA’s use of waterboarding was legal and not torture, a Justice Deparment official argued this morning, because it was a “procedure subject to strict limitations and safeguards” that made it substantially different from historical uses of the technique by the Japanese and the Spanish Inquisition.

The question, in other words, is whether the “safeguards” and “strict limitations” make the American version of waterboarding something other than torture.

According to Malcolm Nance a former instructor at the Navy’s training program, they do not. Another Muckraker link quotes Nance as saying:

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to questions shouted into the victim’s face) and the obstinacy of the subject. A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

What’s needed to settle this dispute is some form of due process. In the U.S., that comes in the form of legislative oversight of the executive’s possibly overzealous questioning of prisoners.

The problem is, Bradbury won’t tell the House Judiciary what are the differences between American 21st century waterboarding, and the Spanish Inquisition’s. Bradbury’s reason is that the information is classified, even though the committee members have the highest possible security clearances, and even though, as Bradbury acknowledged, Congress has a Constitutional duty of oversight. The Muckraker story has a link to this YouTube video. The relevant exchange between Bradbury and NY representative Jerry Nadler comes a bit after the 5 minute mark.

Of course, there’s no comparison between actually stoning someone to death, and merely convincing them you’re drowning them. But drawing out subtle distinctions of “time limits” and “medical oversight” sounds a lot like Scholastic angel-pinhead-dancing more appropriate to 12th or 16th century Spain than modern-day America.

Of the witchcraft case, Human Rights Watch says it

underscores shortcomings in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic legal system in which rules of evidence are shaky, lawyers are not always present and sentences often depend on the whim of judges.

The video of Bradbury ducking Congressman Nadler’s questions equally looks to involve shaky rules of evidence and the whims of administration lawyers. That’s no way to call such a government “modern,” whether it’s in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the U.S.. And calling ours a “Justice” Department seems more than a little Orwellian.

Posted in Orwell, politics, religion | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

 
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