Thursday, June 30, 2005

Just What America Doesn't Need

Two recent, related stories out of Washington really bother me. These are not partisan issues; they are things that take democracy out of the reach of 98% of Americans. First, from the Washington Post:

The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 to more than 34,750 while the amount that lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by as much as 100 percent. Only a few other businesses have enjoyed greater prosperity in an otherwise fitful economy.

Great. I have long been concerned that corporations just don't have enough influence on government. The last time I looked, the U.S. Constitution began, "We the People of the United States..." I suppose today we could have another Constitutional Convention and change those words to "We the Corporations of the United States..."

Lobbyists give corporations access to politicians. But how do citizens get access to politicians? Well, certain citizens will have no trouble at all getting access if H.R. 1316 gets passed by Congress. The so-called "527 Fairness Act of 2005," which, as the Washington Post notes, isn't really about 527 groups or fairness, will eliminate those bothersome campaign contribution limits put in place after Watergate when the corruptive influence of money was a big concern. Apparently it doesn't matter now. Here is a summary of
H.R. 1316:

To amend the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to repeal the limit on the aggregate amount of campaign contributions that may be made by individuals during an election cycle, to repeal the limit on the amount of expenditures political parties may make on behalf of their candidates in general elections for Federal office, to allow State and local parties to make certain expenditures using nonfederal funds, to restore certain rights to exempt organizations under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and for other purposes.
Instead of delivering the promised "fairness," it simply makes a bad situation worse. Most of us cannot reach the existing ceiling of $101,400 per election cycle (total including contributions to individuals and parties), but imagine what will happen when the sky is the limit. If a politician gets $1 million from Mr. Billionaire and $50 from you, who do you think he will listen to? H.R. 1316 just gives the very wealthy more power in government, and that will hurt the rest of us. Certain groups are spinning this as a way to "protect free speech for all Americans" because it diminishes the influence of 527 groups. The Washington Post easily refutes this argument:

But the way to address the problem of 527s is to bring them within the rules that govern all groups whose purpose is to influence federal elections--not, as this bill would do, to open the spigots wider for all.
This bill is a bad idea for anyone who lacks the means to buy his or her way into the game. Unfortunately, some congressmen are thinking only of the big sacks of money this law would deliver to them.

Lobbyists put individuals at a disadvantage against corporations in the legislative process, and H.R. 1316 puts lower, middle, and even upper middle class Americans at a disadvantage against the very wealthy. Neither bodes well for democracy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Spam Math

While spam is generally loathsome, occasionally it is entertaining. This morning I was greeted by this subject line in my inbox:

cex + you + now = happy

The misspelling is clearly intended to slip through spam filters. Other than that, I can't say I disagree with their reasoning. Why didn't we ever get to prove equations like this in high school math or science class?

Monday, June 27, 2005

Oh, Pooh

I'm not a "Winnie The Pooh" fan (although I used to have a Winnie The Pooh bank when I was a kid), but this surprising coincidence is worth mentioning:
  • Paul Winchell, the voice of Tigger, died on Friday.
  • John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet, died on Saturday.

South Park Conservatives?

In the article "Oh My God! They Tried to Steal South Park!" Simon Maloy goes after a book of deep b.s. called South Park Conservatives: The Revolt against Liberal Media Bias by Brian C. Anderson. The book claims that the South Park cartoon television show is "overthrowing the liberal media bias and political correctness" because it makes fun of liberals. Sure it does, but Maloy makes the point that is obvious to anybody who watches the program: they make fun of everybody, regardless of political or ideological position. That is one of the things that makes the show so great--it skewers both sides and lets us laugh at ourselves as much as we do our opponents. It's surely the most politically charged program I can watch with my woefully Republican dad without getting into an argument.

Anderson's book sounds like a classic work of selective citation. Maloy provides numerous counter-examples, and it took me, oh, ten seconds to think of more. What about the episode about gay Boy Scout leaders where Big Gay Al is heartbroken to lose his position in the troop? He is replaced by a "manly," military-type guy who orders the boys to take off their clothes. In fact, there are lots of South Park episodes that show acceptance of gays (while mocking and celebrating their idiosyncrasies), which doesn't exactly fit today's Republican agenda.

In addition to poking fun at Pat Robertson (which Maloy notes), South Park has gone after just about every religion. Pope John Paul II was presented as the drooling, nearly dead leader of priests who, when presented with child molestation charges, wanted to find a way to stop little boys from telling on them. The
episode about Satan and Saddam in Hell was particularly ecumenical in its ridicule. Cartman made himself into an evangelist whose only goal was to make ten million dollars from his followers by using the fear of eternal damnation, an obvious jab at TV preachers. Then Satan's director addressed people new to Hell:

Protestant: Hey, wait a minute. I shouldn't be here, I was a totally strict and devout Protestant. I thought we went to heaven.
Hell Director: Yes, well, I'm afraid you are wrong.
Soldier: I was a practicing Jehovah's Witness.
Hell Director: Uh, you picked the wrong religion as well.
Man from Crowd: Well who was right? Who gets in to Heaven?
Hell Director: I'm afraid it was the Mormons. Yes, the Mormons were the correct answer.
The Damned: Awwww...
When Saddam Hussein went to Heaven (Satan asked God for a favor because Saddam and Satan's boyfriend kept killing each other; whenever Saddam died, he came back to Hell--"Well, where was I gonna go? Detroit?"), he was met by a group of Mormons. One said, "We're just about to do a play, about how much stealing hurts you deep inside. Come join us." When Saddam cried out, "Nooo! Nu- nooooooooooo!" we all felt a little sorry for him.

Anderson quotes a student about what being a South Park conservative means:

The label is really about rejecting the image of conservatives as uptight squares--crusty old men or nerdy kids in blue blazers. We might have long hair, smoke cigarettes, get drunk on weekends, have sex before marriage, watch R-rated movies, cuss like sailors--and also happen to be conservative, or at least libertarian.
Maloy deliciously counters that this profile has rather broad appeal:
Forgive the skepticism, but finding college students who drink, smoke, fornicate, and watch Quentin Tarantino films is like finding sand on the beach.
For a supposedly individualistic society, we are hell-bent on shoehorning people into groups and labeling them, be they South Park conservatives, limousine liberals, or beauty salon libertarians. This book just demonstrates that one can write about anything these days, and if it leans right, people will buy it no matter how weak its premise (see Thomas Friedman's pathetic The World Is Flat--its title and thesis unintentionally imply that connectedness has taken civilization backward six hundred years!).

While Eric Cartman is the most quintessential young Republican on television since Michael J. Fox on Family Ties, his political position doesn't always help him, nor is it presented as the preferred choice; it's just who he is. He is hardly a role model, and even his own friends tell him how heartless he is. If this is the image that conservatives want to claim for themselves, then let them. But South Park as a whole? Ridiculous.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Yoga After Midnight

We were walking the dogs past Bloom Yoga Studio today, and their messageboard advertised "Midnight Yoga" next Friday. It features live music, so I suggest anyone who takes the class should request my new version of "Living After Midnight" by Judas Priest:

Yoga after midnight
Stretchin' till the dawn
Meditate till the morning
And I'm calm, I'm calm
Unfortunately, the class begins at 10:30 PM and ends at midnight, so there won't really be any yoga after midnight unless you continue at home.

UPDATE 06/30/2005 A friend responded to this post saying he didn't think Judas Priest was the kind of music they would be playing. I suppose he wouldn't believe me if I said Bloom Yoga Studio was named for Eric Bloom of Blue Oyster Cult either.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Celebrity Train Wreck

I have an idea for a new TV series called Celebrity Train Wreck. Every week will feature celebrities doing stupid things despite the fact that everyone else in the world can clearly see the train wreck ahead. Relationships would be a popular theme since celebrities seem to do more impulsive or stupid things than regular people, or at least they get better media coverage. Think of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. Heck, Britney Spears' Vegas marriage didn't even last long enough to be a real train wreck. Here's the sort of thing I had in mind:

Next week on Celebrity Train Wreck: After a whirlwind romance, will this Top Gun leave his "magnificent"* young beauty up Dawson's Creek without a paddle?
In yet another fast-paced, very public celebrity relationship, Tom Cruise (a man I have always loathed, even before he stole Nicole from me) and Katie Holmes (an adorable woman with the mental powers of a coffee table) are now engaged. When a 26-year-old gets engaged after a few months of dating, there's a good chance that a train wreck is somewhere up ahead. I also find it interesting that Cruise was married to a woman six years older (Mimi Rogers) followed by a woman five years younger (Nicole Kidman), and now he's engaged to a woman 16 years younger. By the time he is 60, he might be married to a seven-year-old (my wife thinks that is sick, but she allows that I may be right).

This news comes hot on the heels of Holmes' announcement that she is getting into $cien+ology. Like I said, she has the mental powers of a coffee table, albeit a cute one. Then again, I never thought Cruise was a genius either, even before he got into his "religion." So maybe they will live happily ever after. Or maybe it's just Cruise's latest attempt to quash those endless gay rumors.

* Cruise has used this adjective several times to describe Holmes. For some reason, this strikes me as an odd word to describe anyone who isn't a magician.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

R.I.P. Karl Mueller

I found out today that Soul Asylum bass player Karl Mueller died Friday morning at home in Minneapolis at age 41. He was diagnosed with throat cancer last year, endured chemotherapy, and went into remission. He was well enough to join his bandmates at a benefit concert held in his honor last October (which featured the reunion of Husker Du's Bob Mould and Grant Hart), but he was in and out of the hospital this year.

Most people remember the band for their hit "Runaway Train" or perhaps for playing at President Clinton's inaugural ball. I have been a fan since I heard the album Hang Time some 17 years ago. They were always a great live band; I have seen them in concert more times than any other artist. Even as their fame waned over the past few years, Soul Asylum managed to come down to Chicago for a gig or two every year. The future of the band, which was searching for a label to put out their next album, is now uncertain.

Karl was the quiet member of the band, but he was a steady bass player. He also must have had a good sense of humor. When Soul Asylum created Clam Dip And Other Delights as a parody of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream And Other Delights shortly after signing with Alpert's A&M Records, Karl was the one who appeared on the record sleeve covered with clam dip.

My thoughts go out to Karl's wife and his bandmates, Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy, who played with him for nearly a quarter of a century.

UPDATE 06/19/2005: In recent years, Karl donated many Soul Asylum souvenirs to the Minnesota Historical Society. See them here.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Spiro Agnew, Seminal Right-Wing Nut

I recently heard some MP3s of Spiro Agnew speeches (part of this collection). Since I was born when he was in office, I knew little about him except that he resigned. His speeches are fascinating listening, particularly in the context of today's political discourse. Agnew as vice president was the equivalent of a modern right-wing talk show host. The rhetoric hasn't changed that much. His pointed rants about "liberal media" are still paraphrased today by conservative talking heads despite the the mainstream media's obvious lurch to the right over the past decade. His derisive reference to "limousine liberals" is evoked by a Republican Party portraying itself on the side of the common man against liberal elitists, the only difference being that liberals apparently drive Volvos instead of limousines these days. The important difference is that back then, most people realized that Agnew was a nut. Nowadays too many people think that FOXNews explains the way things really are.

I have to admit that I like "nattering nabobs of negativism" (actually coined by William Safire as Agnew's speechwriter), but I've always been a sucker for alliteration.

Something You Don't See Every Day

Last night a Goodyear blimp crashed in Florida. The photographs are striking. Check out this one taken while the blimp was still in the air. Here's an unusual sight, and here's another. Fortunately the two pilots emerged uninjured and walked away.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Kalamazoo Gazette Misses The Point Completely

An editorial in the June 14 Kalamazoo Gazette bears the encouraging headline "Make the roads safer for bicyclists." Upon closer inspection, however, the article supports something quite different. After discussing the benefits of bicycling and the Ride for Awareness, which was inspired by an incident that injured two cyclists, the Gazette suggests
In addition to making motorists more aware of the cyclists at the side of the road, we hope the Ride for Awareness will give those who spend transportation dollars renewed interest in finding more ways to segregate bicycle and motorized traffic.
Wait a minute! How exactly does segregation make the roads safer for bicyclists? The editorial should have been titled "Get those #$%^&* bikes off our roads" because that is what they are really proposing. Here is what they should have said:
In addition to making motorists more aware of the cyclists at the side of the road, we hope the Ride for Awareness will give those who spend transportation dollars renewed interest in finding better ways to accommodate bicycles on new and existing roadways. Toward those ends, the "Complete Streets" program promoted by bicycling and walking advocates should be adopted as part of the new transportation bill working its way through Congress.
Doesn't that make more sense?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Chicago's Best Burgers

The Chicago Tribune put 34 judges to work tasting one hundred hamburgers to come up with Chicago's Best Burgers. I have never tried any of the top five, but I have been to three of the eleven runner-up restaurants.

When I worked in far-west suburban Yorkville around 1990, we occasionally ordered burgers from Bristol Tap in Bristol. Bristol Tap looks pretty much like a hundred other small-town Midwestern taverns, and one wouldn't suspect from the outside that they serve such fabulous burgers. It was a 30-minute roundtrip drive just to pick up our lunch, but it was always worth it. The burgers were huge, relatively inexpensive, and incredibly tasty. It's been more than a decade since I ate a Bristol Tap burger, but they really left an impression on me. I'm glad to see the Tribune was willing to go to the edge of the metropolitan area to check them out, and I gather that the reviewers were glad, too.

Another burger I've had several times is Hackney's. I've been to their locations in Wheeling and Glenview, the latter being a favorite meeting spot for my wife's Northeastern Illinois Rose Society. I'm not crazy about flowers, but I always tag along when their meetings are at Hackney's. Hackney burgers are very good, but Bristol Tap's are better.

While I had to drive to Bristol Tap and Hackney's, I could literally crawl to another runner-up, Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill--it's at the end of my block! Rockwell's has only been around for a year, but they honed their burger-making skills previously in Dallas where a local magazine named their burgers the best in town. Oddly enough, I can't remember ever eating a burger at Rockwell's. I love their barbecue chicken sandwich, and their chopped chicken salad is also good. The Tribune notes their great french fries, too. On Sundays, Rockwell's has an exceptional brunch buffet. I guess I will have to crawl on over for a burger sometime soon!

And shame on me for never dining at Square Kitchen, another nearby restaurant that made the runner-up list. I guess I need to get out more. It's hard to get used to living in a hip neighborhood.

Monday, June 13, 2005

All I Have To Say About You-Know-Who

Somewhere in Los Angeles tonight, Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson are going out for drinks together.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Newsweek Was Right!

After denials and scoffing from pompous administration officials led Newsweek to retract an article claiming that the Quran had been desecrated by U.S. guards, new information emerged on Friday evening. Surprise, surprise... Newsweek was mostly right. While no evidence was found that guards literally flushed the Quran down the toilet, they did get Qurans wet with water balloons, and one guard even peed on a Quran (and a prisoner) through an air vent. So I figure water plus urine equals two-thirds of the indignity since there was no actual flushing.

And what about this guard who peed on a Quran? He could become a sort of hero to redneck America. I'm picturing one of those window emblems with a mischievous-looking Calvin (from the Calvin And Hobbes comic strip) peeing on a Chevy/Ford/emblem of your choice, except it has Calvin peeing on a Quran! Then some atheists (not Muslims, since they are already rightfully frightened of retribution) will make stickers with Calvin peeing on a Bible. Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity will claim that all liberals are displaying these stickers because they hate Christians, Christmas, America, etc. This is how political discourse works these days.

What? You didn't hear about this report? Well, it must have been on every network's evening news... No, wait... In a move that surely surprised no one in the media, the military released this information on Friday night after the evening news. This administration more than any other has played the game of releasing bad news when it is most likely to be ignored. They love Friday nights, and three-day weekends are even better (I suspect that this report would have come out last Friday had it been Labor Day weekend instead of Memorial Day weekend).

People have been comparing the Newsweek debacle with Rathergate. Now those incidents have another thing in common: in spite of questionable evidence or sources, both stories were essentially true. Recall that a woman who was the secretary of the officer who allegedly wrote the letter about Bush in Rathergate asserted that although she believed he did not write the letter, she considered the information within the letter to be correct. Similarly, while there is no proof that Qurans were flushed, the military admits that Qurans have been splashed with water and peed on. I wonder how long the Bush administration will get away with this tactic of strongly attacking the media, then meekly admitting guilt. In the legendary words of consummate redneck Earl Pitts, "Wake up, Amurica!"

Thursday, June 02, 2005

My Summer Reading List

Just in time for summer, Human Events ("The National Conservative Weekly Since 1944") has determined the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" as chosen by "15 scholars and public policy leaders." This list is a real hoot, covering every conservative bogeyman of the last 75 years. Number one? Why, communism, of course! Communism is so scary that The Communist Manifesto wasn't enough, so they added Quotations From Chairman Mao at number three and Das Kapital at number six. I'll give them Mao, but I would contend in the case of Marx and Engels that the trouble with communism wasn't so much the concept as its execution (no pun intended for the Stalinists out there). The problem was Communism rather than communism (note the capital "C"). Perhaps some panelists recognized that since Hitler's Mein Kampf came in second. But Nazis and Communists are easy and obvious targets. Let's move on.

Number four is The Kinsey Report (actually titled Sexual Behavior In The Human Male). Ooh, sex is dirty! Let's not think about it, research it, describe it, or explain it. And there can't possibly be as many sodomites as Kinsey contends! Books about sex are dirty! I'm not familiar with number five, John Dewey's Democracy And Education. Does this sound bad?

[Dewey] disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education--particularly in public schools--and helped nurture the Clinton generation.
Oh no, the Clinton generation! I'm surprised Hillary's It Takes A Village didn't make the list! But seriously, are these conservatives so insecure about their ideas and values that they are afraid to give children *gasp* thinking skills? Teaching children to think? We can't have that! And why do they put "skills" in quotes? Though the description above sounds inocuous to many of us, fundamentalist Christians see Dewey's secular humanism as another bogeyman responsible for the decline of religion and morality in America. And what about the bogeywoman of feminism? Sure enough, The Feminine Mystique comes in at number seven. I'll bet panelist Phyllis Schlafly picked that book as her number one! The article notes with great concern

As David Horowitz wrote in a review for Salon.com of Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique by Daniel Horowitz (no relation to David): The author documents that “Friedan was from her college days, and until her mid-30s, a Stalinist Marxist, the political intimate of the leaders of America’s Cold War fifth column and for a time even the lover of a young Communist physicist working on atomic bomb projects in Berkeley’s radiation lab with J. Robert Oppenheimer.”
Perfect! A feminist is associated with communism... feminists are communists... feminism equals communism! See how those thinking "skills" come in handy? A couple of anti-religious books that I don't know well follow: Auguste Comte's The Course Of Positive Philosophy (I've always been rather negative myself) and Freidrich "God is dead" Nietzsche's Beyond Good And Evil. In case you missed the point that the latter is bad, the article adds, "The Nazis loved Nietzsche." Yeah, and they hated Jesse Owens. So what?

Okay, so we've got Communists, Nazis, sexual hedonists, secular humanists (and the Clinton generation!), feminists, and atheists. Who's left? Coming in at number ten by the skin of its teeth (beating Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb by just one point) is General Theory Of Employment, Interest And Money by John Maynard Keynes. I'll admit that it took me a minute to see what was so bad about Keynesian economics. The good folks at Human Events had to explain it to me:

The book is a recipe for ever-expanding government. When the business cycle threatens a contraction of industry, and thus of jobs, he argued, the government should run up deficits, borrowing and spending money to spur economic activity. FDR adopted the idea as U.S. policy, and the U.S. government now has a $2.6-trillion annual budget and an $8-trillion dollar debt.
Of course, FDR and "big government"--a bogeyman and a bogeyconcept! The last sentence is rather galling--apparently no one told these leading lights of conservatism that their heroes, particularly Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, have done more to increase the national debt than any "liberals" in the White House did. Maybe if Keynes had encouraged expanding government solely in the name of crony capitalism, the panelists would like him more.

I was amused to see that no matter how harmful these books allegedly were, Human Events didn't have any problem adding Amazon.com affiliate links to them. Maybe that's in case you wanted to order a few for a book-burning party.

There are twenty more books that get "Honorable Mention." I noted The Population Bomb above, which no doubt is included for espousing (eek) birth control and challenging the long-term viability of resource-consuming capitalism (I think Ehrlich's biggest error is that his dire predictions were several decades too early--let's reassess in 2030, shall we?). Soviet Communism: A New Civilization and Lenin's What Is To Be Done are two more communist tomes for the pile. I was shocked to see that Origin Of The Species didn't make the top ten, but at least it made HM, as did Darwin's other "controversial" book, Descent Of Man. Why is Margaret Mead's Coming Of Age In Samoa on the list? I understand that many question the book's veracity, but what makes it particularly harmful? And what is wrong with Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed? After all, without Nader, Al Gore might be president. I guess anything that argues for government regulation and protection of consumers from business is harmful. And speaking of Gore, the environmentalist bogeyman is represented by Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring. Sigmund Freud made the HM list, too. Sorry, I'm not familiar with the rest so I can't comment.

It will be fun to sit on a park bench this summer and read a few of these. I won't use those helpful Amazon.com affiliate links to fill the coffers of Human Events, but I thank them for showing me the light.