Last Build Date: Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600Copyright: Copyright 2009
Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600Both of which, in fact, George W. Bush did while president. The left went wild over les faux pas du George. Now, it seems, it's the right's turn to display equal pique. When will we overcome? No one of either party has cause for casting stones in these matters. Whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge, Americans are often formidably awkward around monarchs. Do we buss one or both checks? Do we kiss the ring? Do we dare to eat a peach? Do we bow, curtsy, extend our pinkies -- or shine our shoes? It's complicated, this parlor game of politesse. But it does matter. When you're the leader of the free world, every gesture and word counts. It ain't easy being parfait. It is also not in our DNA to bow to monarchs or to act beholden to anyone save God. We kneel before no human. Yet, occasionally, we are required to behave politely in countries that still cleave to their pomp and circumstance. For such purposes, we have hirelings to instruct us in questions of protocol. We wonder lately where they are? Who didn't tell Michelle Obama that one doesn't put an arm around the queen of England, no matter how endearing we renegades might find it? Who didn't tell the president that the United States does not bow, especially not to the rulers of countries where women are less valuable than sheep? Might we need a change of palace guard? Paging Letitia Baldrige? Baldrige, the towering grand dame of all things proper, was the ruling knuckle-rapper during America's Camelot period. Was the Kennedy administration the last time Americans didn't have to worry that their first family might embarrass them? Whatever their other flaws, the Kennedys could be counted on to mind their p's and q's in public. If there were any question, Baldrige -- officially White House social secretary and chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy -- was there to fill in the blanks. Manners aren't complicated, Baldrige once told me. "Manners are simply showing consideration for others." Which is to say, you do as the Romans. Or the Austrians (who speak German, not Austrian, Mr. President). That doesn't mean we compromise our own values in the process. Hence Rule No. 1: Americans don't bow to monarchs. I've now watched the tape of Obama's bow a dozen or more times. It is simply not possible to accept an anonymous White House official's insistence that Obama was merely reaching down to take the king's hand and had to bend over because of the height difference. Not to name drop, but I've met the king and I've met the president. We're not talking Gulliver and the Lilliputians. Even if Obama needed to reach down for the king's hand, why not let the king raise his hand of his own volition? When I shook hands with the king, he seemed to know what to do. To any objective observer, Obama's bend from the waist quacked like a duck. It was ... a bow. Clumsy, embarrassing and unbecoming a president, yes, but not an act of treason or, as one newspaper put it, a gesture of "fealty to a foreign potentate." Obama was probably trying to be respectful and, it appears, may even have lost his balance a little. On a bright note, he didn't throw up on the king, as George H.W. Bush managed to do upon Japan's prime minister's lap during dinner. Quite the unfortunate little mess, that. We elect presidents for a variety of reasons, though not usually for their aristocratic bearings. And few of them are presidential out of the starting gate. We are, alas, commoners, one and all. And proud of it, apparently. Our forefathers, moreover, spilled blood so that we wouldn't have to bow to kings and queens. So it is. And, one hopes, shall ever be. In the meantime, given the season of second chances, we might grant the Obamas a little slack. We might also nudge them to clean house, politely of course, and invite Ms. Baldrige to tea. [...]
Wed, 08 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600
Verily, spoken like men.
What they're really asking is: Did Obama do justice to the fire hydrant?
Call me a mother of boys. Or call Freud, if you must. But would that life were really as complicated and confused as leaders insist it is. Unfortunately, most of world history seems to have pivoted on the balance or imbalance of hormones, with testosterone presenting the greatest challenge. (I note this as a fan.)
In what may prove to be an epochal development, Obama seems to have his under control. He doesn't strut, swagger or flex. He doesn't even notice the hydrant.
If George W. Bush was a cowboy, Obama is a group hug.
He says we should show leadership by listening. That we should work in partnership with others. That we should show humility. This is, of course, pure porn for women. But unfortunately, women don't rule the world. Men still do. And we have to worry whether Obama will be viewed as weak and the U.S., therefore, vulnerable.
And because the world is thus, we are also necessarily concerned whether Obama will respond aggressively enough when appropriate. This is because Americans still don't really know Obama yet. At each turn since taking office, he reveals new aspects of himself.
We now know that he is without qualm when he finds it necessary to fire corporate chiefs. But will he be as bold when rogue nations strap on their Speedos and display their missilery, as North Korea just did?
If life were a playground, one would have to infer that Kim Jong Il needs some attention. What he really wants is respect, according to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who met Kim in 2000. What he got from Obama was what the Chihuahua gets when the Great Dane shows up. Obama played it cool, in other words. He condemned Pyongyang for threatening stability and reiterated his commitment to reduce nuclear weaponry in the world -- but was noncommittal about possible consequences.
For many, he was too cool by half. A Rasmussen poll reported that 57 percent of Americans want military action against North Korea. (Another war so soon?) John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the president's approach constituted "hand-wringing," which is a polite way of saying Obama is "girly."
But was Obama really too cool? Or are we not listening?
Yes, Obama did say that the U.S. will lead the way toward a nuke-free world. But he also said that the U.S. "will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."
Translation: We're going to be sensible and try to rid the world of nukes eventually. But if someone threatens us or our allies, we will hit delete.
Is that not a big enough stick? You can bring 'em on. Or you can calm 'em down.
Obama's outreach to Muslims via his visit to Turkey was similarly inspired. He delivered virtually the same message that Bush did countless times -- that the U.S. is not at war with Islam -- but without the reminder that either you're with us or against us.
It didn't hurt that Obama dusted off his middle name, Hussein, and mentioned having lived in a Muslim country. "I get you," he implied. "We are not enemies."
A man who listens may be perceived as weak by those who prefer to talk big. But playground wisdom holds that showoffs are usually overcompensating, and the strongest one has nothing to prove. To answer the original question: When you're the big dog, you can afford to smile. The saber is understood.
Sun, 05 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600The older generation represented by such icons as James Dobson, who recently retired as head of Focus on the Family, has compromised too much, according to a growing phalanx of disillusioned Christians. Pragmatically speaking, the Christian coalition of cultural crusaders didn't work. For proof, one need look no further than Dobson himself, who was captured on tape recently saying that the big cultural battles have all been lost. Shortly thereafter, in late March, Christian radio host Steve Deace of WHO Radio in Iowa aggressively interviewed Tom Minnery, head of the political arm of Focus on the Family. Minnery, whom Deace described as "the Karl Rove of the religious right," accused Deace during the interview of ambushing him when he had expected a chat about Dobson's legacy. Indeed, Deace was loaded for bear -- or Pontius Pilate. It wasn't exactly a Limbaugh/Obama matchup, but it was confrontational, and corners of America's heartland and Bible Belt have been buzzing ever since. Deace's point was that established Christian activist groups too often settle for lesser evils in exchange for electing Republicans. He cited as examples Dobson's support of Mitt Romney and John McCain, neither of whom is pro-life or pro-family enough from Deace's perspective. Compromise may be the grease of politics, but it has no place in Christian orthodoxy, according to Deace. Put another way, Christians may have no place in the political fray of dealmaking. That doesn't mean one disengages from political life, but it might mean that the church shouldn't be a branch of the Republican Party. It might mean trading fame and fortune (green rooms and fundraisers) for humility and charity. Deace's radio show may be beneath the radar of most Americans and even most Christians, but he is not alone in his thinking. I was alerted to the Deace-Minnery interview by E. Ray Moore -- founder of the South Carolina-based Exodus Mandate, an initiative to encourage Christian education and home schooling. Moore, who considers himself a member of the Christian right, thinks the movement is imploding. "It's hard to admit defeat, but this one was self-inflicted," he wrote in an e-mail. "Yes, Dr. Dobson and the pro-family or Christian right political movement is a failure; it would have made me sad to say this in the past but they have done it to themselves." For Christians such as Moore -- and others better known, such as columnist Cal Thomas, a former vice president for the Moral Majority -- the heart of Christianity is in the home, not the halls of Congress or even the courts. And the route to a more-moral America is through good works -- service, prayer and education -- not political lobbying. Moore says: "In the modern era of the Christian right, we have traded these proven methods for a mess of pottage ... and often in a shrill and nagging manner, which makes our God look weak in the eyes of the world." Amen to that, says Thomas, who made similar points in his 1999 book "Blinded by Might," co-written with Moral Majority platform architect Ed Dobson. Thomas, who speaks with a stand-up comic's clip (and wit), has long maintained that the religious right is in left field. "If people who call themselves Christians want to see any influence in the culture, then they ought to start following the commands of Jesus and people will be so amazed that they will be attracted to Him," Thomas told me. "The problem isn't political. The problem is moral and spiritual." Whether James Dobson's admission of failure -- or Deace's challenges to Minnery -- foretells a crackup of the older Christian right remains to be seen. But something is stirring, and it sounds like the GOP may be losing its bailout money. God apparently has his own stimulus plan. "You have the choice between a way that works and brings no credit or money or national attention," says Thomas. "Or, a way that doesn't work that gets you lots of attention and has littl[...]
Wed, 01 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600The market's up! The Dow plunges! Obama fired the GM CEO! Greta's husband helped Palin!! OMG, Obama's taking 500 people to Europe and Merkel doesn't like his new deal and they're taking our assault weapons and we're all going to be communists!! But first, if your erection lasts more than four hours, contact your physician immediately. The phrase "too much information," a now-cliched talk-to-the-hand deflection, isn't just a gentle whack at someone who tells you more than you want to know about his Cialis experience. It's a toxic asset that exhausts our cognitive resources while making the nonsensical seem significant. TMI may indeed be the despot's friend. Keep citizens so overwhelmed with data that they can't tell what's important and eventually become incapable of responding to what is. Our brains simply aren't wired to receive and process so much information in such a compressed period. In 2006, the world produced 161 exabytes (an exabyte is 1 quintillion bytes) of digital data, according to Columbia Journalism Review. Put in perspective, that's 3 million times the information contained in all the books ever written. By next year, the number is expected to reach 988 exabytes. The massive explosion of information has made us all a little batty. Just ask the congressional assistants who field frantic phone calls from constituents. "Everybody's come unhinged," one told me recently. "They think we're going to hell in a handbasket. And maybe we are." Who knows? The unknowingness of current circumstances, combined with a lack of trust in our institutions, may partly be to blame for our apparent info-insatiability. People sense that they need to know more in order to understand an increasingly complex world. And, of course, it's fun. The urge to know and be known is a uniquely human indulgence. Being connected to friends and colleagues without having to inconvenience one's gluteus maximus surely must stimulate our pleasure center, or else we wouldn't bother. Yet, with so much data coming from all directions, we risk paralysis. Brain freeze, some call it. More important, we also risk losing our ability to process the Big Ideas that might actually serve us better. It isn't only Jack and Jill who are tethered to the twittering masses, after all. Our thinkers at the highest levels are, too. Consider: Who didn't want to surrender his BlackBerry? In fact, brain research shows that we do our best thinking when we're not engaged and focused, yet fewer of us have time for downtime. (If you have to schedule relaxation, is it still relaxing?) Daydreaming, we used to call it. Ask any creative person where they got their best ideas and they'll say, "Dunno. Just came to me out of the blue." If you're looking for Eureka -- as in the Aha! moment -- you probably won't find it while following David Gregory's tweets. Or checking Facebook to see who might be "friending" whom. Or what George Orwell is ... More likely, the ideas that save the world will present themselves in the shower or while we're sweeping the front stoop. What the world needs now isn't more, but less. The alternative to mindless activities for the mindful won't be a less-informed nation, but a dumber one. Unchecked "infomania" -- yes, there's even a term for this instapathology -- can lead to a lower IQ, according to a 2005 Hewlett-Packard study. The research, conducted by a University of London psychologist, found that people distracted by e-mail and phone calls lost 10 IQ points, more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana -- or comparable to losing a night's sleep. Given that the brain is apparently more receptive when less focused, might our myriad problems stand a better chance of creative solutions were we more unplugged? In the literal sense, that is. Back in the day, Timothy Leary urged boomers to "turn on, tune in, drop out," which was his snappy way of encouraging the[...]
Sun, 29 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600No one ever said the multimillionaire isn't idiosyncratic. In a rare interview Thursday, Ahmanson shared some of his thoughts about why he switched parties. In a word, taxes. Specifically, he was offended by the California Republican Party's insistence during a recent state budget battle that there would be no tax increases for any reason, no matter what. "They're providing one issue and it's just a very silly issue," Ahmanson told me by telephone. So, without fanfare, Ahmanson printed out an online form and mailed in his Democratic Party registration. Thus far, he's heard nothing back, but confesses to hoping he'll receive a little card or something. Ahmanson, who was born to and inherited great wealth, has spent a lifetime trying to figure out what to do with his good fortune. It has been, at times, a burden of guilt, complicated by a lonely childhood. He also has Tourette's syndrome, which has contributed to his reclusiveness. Now 58, Ahmanson is recognized as one of the nation's leading evangelical Christians and one of conservatism's most reliable supporters, though he is hardly a Republican talking-point man. He follows his own script and has parted company with social conservatives before. He thinks those who argue for school prayer, for instance, are confusing the moral with the religious. Morality is how we relate to one another, he says. Religion is how we relate to God "and it's not the government's business." One can't mention Ahmanson without also discussing his association with Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony, who believed in a literal application of biblical teachings and is credited with inspiring the Christian home-schooling movement. Rushdoony's ideas captured Ahmanson's imagination in what the philanthropist now calls "my wild youth," but he has mellowed. Ahmanson certainly doesn't believe that homosexuals should be executed, as some of his critics have suggested, but he does believe that gays should "come to Christ and then recover." He is also no longer the welfare abolitionist he used to be, "though I hate the attitude that welfare, once granted, is a moral entitlement that can never be reduced. And Social Security and Medicare are included in my definition of welfare." Ahmanson's conversion to the Democratic Party, following decades of donating millions to conservative think tanks and causes, certainly qualifies as a "shocker" in political circles. "What!!!!!" has been the typical response as I've sought reactions. A few Republicans have e-mailed Ahmanson, but he hasn't gotten around to responding yet. He figures most are curious to understand his thinking. Some also may worry whither goest those deep pockets, though Ahmanson's contributions to individual candidates are relatively modest. As one conservative philanthropist put it: "He's more issue-oriented than party-oriented." Thus, it isn't possible to draw conclusions about the direction of the Republican Party based on Ahmanson's joining the "enemy camp." He did make some observations about the GOP, however, and sees the party's current problems as tension between "the upscales and the downscales" -- the upper middle classes and the lower middle classes. "If I were in the GOP, I'd advocate the party should be downscaling." Heading, that is, toward a populist position. Yes, he liked Sarah Palin all right, but he favors Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. "I'm now a blue dog Democrat for Bobby Jindal in 2012." On Barack Obama, it's too early to tell, he says. "He may do well or he may not do well." Ahmanson was disappointed, but not surprised, by Obama's overturning of Bush administration restrictions on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. It is probably safe to say that when Democrats decided they needed to start talking more about faith and take God back from the GOP, they hadn't quite figured on landing Ahmanson. But Ahm[...]
Wed, 25 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600McCain, just 24, is one smart cookie. In a matter of weeks, she has created a brand, presenting herself as a fresh face of her daddy's party and a voice for young conservatives. Strategically speaking, what better way to launch herself than to challenge the reigning diva herself, Miz Coulter? Madonna, meet Britney. McCain jammed traffic on Tina Brown's site with her charge that Coulter is bad for the party. In a voice that is sometimes, alas, reminiscent of a coed's twitter, she wrote: "I straight up don't understand this woman or her popularity. I find her offensive, radical, insulting, and confusing all at the same time." Claiming that Coulter could be the poster woman for the "most extreme side of the Republican Party," McCain offered herself as the opposite. Bzzzzzt. Give that girl a talk show! Indeed, McCain's generation is more moderate, especially on social issues. This isn't news. Yet, reaction from the more-established right has been a tad intolerant. Among criticism now familiar to anyone who has dared contradict or question the GOP's wisdom is that Meghan McCain is a "useful idiot" to liberals who will use her to further diminish Republicans. Or that she is poking her father's party just to draw attention to herself. 'Tis a fact that McCain has suddenly surged as a popular talk show guest. This happens when one says something provocative in a town where 400 producers are trying to plug 10,000 talking-head spots. And of course, Coulter would never say or do anything provocative in the interest of self-promotion. Calling Al Gore a "total fag," or saying that Jews should be "perfected" by conversion to Christianity, could hardly be construed as anything but profoundly constructive. Next, McCain went after Ingraham, who had parodied McCain on her radio show in a Valley-girl voice: "OK, I was really hoping that I was going to get that role in the 'Real World,' but then I realized that, well, they don't like plus-sized models." McCain fired back at the athletically trim Ingraham with a new blog posting: "Quit talking about my weight, Laura Ingraham." Boom! McCain was on "The View" encouraging women to stop worrying so much about their bodies. In an inspired flourish, she suggested that Ingraham "kiss my fat (ahem)." Well, if McCain doesn't make it in journalism, she has a future in marketing. She has learned, perhaps from a lifetime of observing political strategy, how and when to pick a fight. Trying to provoke Coulter (who so far has gamely ignored her) was shrewd. And engaging American women in solidarity against market-imposed body images was a stroke of genius. Yes, of course, a 24-year-old political pundette doesn't find her way onto "Larry King Live" without a famous name. McCain is interesting precisely because of who she is, not because of what she has accomplished. Liberals found young Ron Reagan equally riveting for the same reason. On the other hand, McCain is also a successful blogger with a following. She has established a voice and an audience. And the GOP is, allegedly, hoping to expand its tent. Moreover, thanks to the "Internets," as our former president liked to say, young people are gaining influence sooner than ever before. One of the smarter, slicker political Web sites, Scoop44, is produced, written and edited by high school and college students across the country. Its editor-in-chief, Alexander Heffner, is a 19-year-old undergraduate at Harvard. As Heffner put it in a February interview, he and his colleagues belong to a generation that was galvanized by Barack Obama to take their civic responsibility seriously. Meghan McCain may be simply another manifestation of that call to engagement. And, she isn't wrong on the substance of her charges. The GOP's extreme voices are a turnoff, not just to young people, but to millions of Americans who might otherwise be[...]
Sun, 22 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600That cliche is awfully busy these days. Most presidents doubtless have to pinch themselves for a while after arriving at the White House. The campaign over, Mr. President suddenly realizes that he is, in fact, in charge. The successful courtship ultimately leads to marriage and reality pitches a tent where hope once crooned the night away. Giving the man his length of slack, Obama has had more reality than most. As he has said more than once, he'd be delighted to have just one crisis or just one war to deal with, but he's got a couple of each. Still, one can't help wishing Obama would pinch himself a little harder and get on with it. The White House mess, to steal a title from a Christopher Buckley book, sure (BEG ITAL)is(END ITAL). Who's in charge over there? "I think they're drinking water from a fire hose even more than we were," a Bush White House official said to me a few days ago. "I actually feel sorry for them." That fire hose apparently is tapped into the Dasani Aquifer. The plugging-leaks-in-the-dike metaphor is no longer adequate to the titanic episode now engulfing the nation's capital. Despite civic rage and political blame -- even death threats aimed at business executives -- there is a carnival air of unseriousness and grotesquery loose upon the land. Life has become one grand, comic burlesque, a vaudevillian game show where plumbers are journalists, war heroes twitter, and the president hits the late-night circuit in the midst of crisis. Obama's appearance on Jay Leno's show Thursday night -- joking lamely that his bowling is "like Special Olympics or something" -- is symptomatic of a broader blending of the serious and the comic that makes sane people feel slightly displaced. Infotainment isn't a new topic, but the lines are becoming increasingly blurred. Tragicomedy, in which gods and men reverse roles, may be an honored dramatic genre, but is this any way to live? Although Obama is the first sitting president to appear on "The Tonight Show," his presence is historically significant only if you believe that Jon Stewart is Edward R.Murrow and Rush Limbaugh is William F. Buckley. I don't begrudge Stewart his artful takedown of CNBC's Jim Cramer, or his role in keeping audiences abreast of the news with humor. We need that. And a financial guru whose program has more bells and whistles than FAO Schwarz at Christmastime -- and treats audiences like kindergartners at a Dow Jones Camp -- is surely fair game. Leave it to the comedian to point out to the former hedge fund manager that the financial market "is not a ... game!" At least we're entertained as we try not to notice that no one's in charge. Except, of course, for Fox TV's Glenn Beck, who is now channeling televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, choking back tears on his Friday the 13th special -- "We Surround Them, You Are Not Alone." On his Web site, Beck asks: "Mob rule in Washington?" while he hawks T-shirts with pithy slogans such as "Hate U" and "Torches and Pitchforks." Whose mob goes there? Yes, we're all angry, especially at the AIG culprits who keep paying themselves bonuses with our money. That the payouts caught Obama by surprise does not bode well for confidence in his leadership, especially when, as Time reports, Treasury Department staff knew of the bonuses as early as Feb. 28, and Secretary Tim Geithner knew at least two days before word reached the president. Even so, a little bit of outrage goes a long way, and those who crank out emotional pleas for populist retribution should beware what they hype. Mobs eventually want a prize for their trouble, and gladiators are in short supply. With the stage so crowded with actors, meanwhile, Obama may want to focus on the role for which he was elected, lest Beck's question become an assertion. Repeat: "I am the president of the United States of Am[...]
Wed, 18 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600There's little profit in criticizing a move to make life better for the fairer sex. Still, one does have to suppress a chortle as we pretend that the First Father's rescue of damsels in distress is not an act of paternalistic magnanimity. Chivalrous, even. Oh, well, irony is hardly a stranger to gender. Neither are exaggeration and myth. If I may ... First, the statistics cited by Obama as rationale for the council weren't quite accurate, though they were, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, truthy. And surely the president can't be ignorant of the fact that boys in this country are in far graver danger than girls in nearly every measurable way. Where's the White House Council on Men and Boys? OK, let men fend for themselves. But boys really do need our attention, not only for themselves, but for the girls who will be their wives (we hope) someday. We do still hope that boys and girls grow up to marry, don't we? Preferably before procreating? Certainly, the Obamas seem to. A model family, they undoubtedly want their girls to excel and, eventually, to marry equal partners. But boys won't be equal to girls if we don't focus some of our resources on their needs and stop advancing the false notion that girls are a special class of people deserving special treatment. There isn't space here to fully critique each statistic mentioned by the president, but here's just one: Women still earn 78 cents for every dollar earned by men. As has been often explained, apparently to deaf ears, this figure is derived by comparing the average median wage of all full-time working men and women without considering multiple variables, including the choices women and men make. A more accurate picture comes from a 2007 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor by the CONSAD Research Corp. Although women do not lead as many Fortune 500 companies (only 3 percent, according to Obama), they account for 51 percent of all workers in the high-paying management, professional and related occupations, according to the study. Women outnumber men, for example, as financial managers, human resource managers, education administrators, medical and health services managers, and accountants and auditors. Otherwise, wage differences can be explained by "observable differences in the attributes of men and women," including, among many, the fact that a greater percentage of women than men take leave for childbirth and child care, which tends to lead to lower wages. Also, women may place more value on "family-friendly" workplace policies and prefer non-wage compensation, such as health insurance or flexibility. The statistical analysis, which included these and other variables, produced an adjusted gender wage gap between 4.8 percent and 7.1 percent. The gap shrinks to almost nothing when men and women of equal backgrounds and tenure are compared, according to another study of young, childless men and women. While no one would argue that women shouldn't be compensated as well as men for the same work, it isn't quite accurate to suggest a widespread problem of wage discrimination. Or, as the Labor Department labor study warns against, to justify policy-level correctives. Whatever imbalances remain should be self-correcting as women and men achieve educational parity, but that's if boys get some help. Indeed, men and women reached educational parity with college graduation rates in 1982. Today, women receive 58 percent of bachelor's degrees and represent half of graduates in medical and law school. Boys, meanwhile, are the ones dropping out of school or being expelled. They're the ones failing, abusing drugs and committing suicide. What kind of men do we expect them to become, assuming they survive? As a father of two daughters, Obama wants to do the right thing by women. A noble purpose[...]
Sun, 15 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600There is surely room for media criticism, and a few bad actors in recent years have badly frayed public trust. And, yes, some newspapers are more liberal than their readership and do a lousy job of concealing it. But the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic. Unfortunately, the chorus of media bashing from certain quarters has succeeded in convincing many Americans that they don't need newspapers. A new study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that fewer than half of Americans -- 43 percent -- say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community "a lot." Only 33 percent say they would miss the local paper if it were no longer available. A younger generation, meanwhile, has little understanding or appreciation of the relationship between a free press and a free society. Pew found that just 27 percent of Americans born since 1977 read a newspaper the previous day. Such grim tidings are familiar to the 80 or so editors and publishers gathered the other day for the annual New England Newspaper Association meeting, where I was a speaker. But what to do about it? How does the newspaper industry survive in a climate in which the public doesn't know what it doesn't know? Or what it needs? Constant criticism of the so-called "elite media" is comical to most reporters, whose paychecks wouldn't cover Limbaugh's annual dry cleaning bill. The truly elite media are the people most Americans have never heard of -- the daily-grind reporters who turn out for city council and school board meetings. Or the investigative teams who chase leads for months to expose abuse or corruption. These are the champions of the industry, not the food-fighters on TV or the grenade throwers on radio. Or the bloggers (with a few exceptions), who may be excellent critics and fact-checkers, but who rely on newspapers to provide their material. As others have noted, the Internet can't quickly enough fill the void created by lost newspapers. In time, some markets simply won't have a town crier -- and then who will go to all those meetings where news is made? What will people not know? In such a vacuum, gossip rules the mob. That newspapers have to adapt to a changed world is a given. But just how much the world has changed is sometimes hard for old-schoolers (like me) to wrap their minds around. Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, tried to break the news gently to the crowd of mostly older men and a few women at the meeting. In the not-distant future, says Jones, the news may be delivered via a video game. Forget the Internet. Forget blogs, tweets and tags. Forget Jim Cramer-style infotainment. Millions of people are already living in computerized parallel universes through games such as The Sims and World of Warcraft (WoW). We may have to toss the newspaper on those stoops -- in the virtual world of fake life. More brandy, please. For those who have been busy with real life, The Sims is apparently popular with women who can create a virtual doppelganger and live life happily in the suburbs. For millions of guys, WoW is a role-playing game that combines fantasy with mythology. One can't help noting that males and females acting out fantasies are drawn to roles frowned upon in real life: Suburban homemaking and warrior-hero play. Hmmmm. While executives ponder the possibly strange future of news delivery, the more immediate challenge is how to keep institutions in place and profitable so that the news can be covered. Whatever business models e[...]
Thu, 12 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600
Unfortunately, the stem cell debate has been characterized as a conflict between science (as though science is always right) and religious "kooks" (as though religious folk are never right). In choosing sides, it is, indeed, easier to imagine lunch with a researcher who wants to resurrect Christopher Reeve (whom Obama couldn't resist mentioning) and make him walk again, than with the corner protester holding a fetus in a jar.
Moreover, as Obama said, the majority of Americans have reached a consensus that we should pursue this research. Polling confirms as much, but most Americans, including most journalists and politicians, aren't fluent in stem cell research. It's complicated. If people "know" anything, it is that embryonic stem cells can cure diseases and that all stem cells come from fertility clinic embryos that will be discarded anyway. Neither belief is entirely true.
In fact, every single one of the successes in treating patients with stem cells thus far -- for spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis, for example -- have involved adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells, not embryonic. And though federal dollars still won't directly fund embryo destruction, federally funded researchers can obtain embryos privately created only for experimentation. Thus, taxpayers now are incentivizing a market for embryo creation and destruction.
The insistence on using embryonic stem cells always rested on the argument that they were pluripotent, capable of becoming any kind of cell. That superior claim no longer can be made with the spectacular discovery in 2007 of "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPS), which was the laboratory equivalent of the airplane. Very simply, iPS cells can be produced from a skin cell by injecting genes that force it to revert to its primitive "blank slate" form with all the same pluripotent capabilities of embryonic stem cells.
But "induced pluripotent stem cells" doesn't trip easily off the tongue, nor have any celebrities stepped forward to expound their virtues. (If only Angelina Jolie would purse those pouty lips and say "pluripotent.") Even without such drama, Time magazine named iPS innovation No. 1 on its "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries" of 2007, and the journal Science rated it the No. 1 breakthrough of 2008.
The iPS discovery even prompted Dr. Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep, to abandon his license to attempt human cloning, saying that the researchers "may have achieved what no politician could: an end to the embryonic stem cell debate." And, just several days ago, Dr. Bernadine Healy, director of the National Institutes of Health under the first President Bush, wrote in U.S. News & World Report that these recent developments "reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells ... are obsolete."
Many scientists, of course, want to conduct embryonic stem cell research, as they have and always could with private funding. One may agree or disagree with their purposes, but one may also question why taxpayers should have to fund something so ethically charged when alternative methods are available.
Next comes a move to lift the unfortunately named Dickey-Wicker amendment in Congress, which prohibits using tax dollars to create human embryos for research purposes. If the amendment is rescinded, then human embryos can be created and destroyed with federal tax dollars.
Good people can disagree on these things, but those who insist that this is "only about abortion" miss the point. The objectification of human life is never a trivial matter. And determining what role government plays in that objectification may be the ethical dilemma of the century.
In this case, science handed Obama a gift -- and he sent it back.
Sun, 08 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600It's all a gamble. The Republican attempts to "starve the beast" -- slash taxes and force government spending cuts -- didn't work because spending never got cut. So now, apparently, we're going to feed the beast. As we cross our fingers (and our toes), our minds warp at the concept of trillions. What is a trillion, anyway? Chris Martenson's online "Crash Course" in economics explains a trillion this way. First, picture a million dollars as a four-inch stack of thousand-dollar bills. A comparable billion-dollar stack is 358 feet tall. A trillion-dollar stack of thousand-dollar bills stands 67.9 miles high. So, yes, that tightening you feel in your gut is a perfectly rational response. Trillions in government spending, while raising taxes on those who do the most to drive the economy (hiring and investing in risky markets, for instance), is a frightening proposition. Or is it? That question led me to a sit-down with Matt Miller, one of the saner voices amid the cacophony. Miller, who so strongly resembles Tom Hanks that you want to ask him about "Wilson," isn't a shouter. A former Clinton budget aide and author of the path-breaking "The Tyranny of Dead Ideas," he finds the current hysteria over Obama's proposed budget misplaced. Upfront, he says that Obama isn't coming completely clean on taxes. Everybody, not just the richest, will have to pay more taxes in Obama's second term (assumptions pending), owing to the strain that retiring baby boomers will put on Social Security and Medicare. Miller figures Obama is hoping that by then, enough people will be pleased with the government his administration has put in place and won't mind paying for it. In the meantime, Miller says the key to assessing whether the budget is terrifying or reasonable under the circumstances is by examining spending, taxes and deficits as a percentage of GDP. Emergency spending in 2009 will raise the percentage of GDP from 21 (last year) to 27.7, which Miller concedes is "scary." But the 10-year spending average under Obama's plan (assuming reasonable recovery) will be at about 22 percent of GDP -- the same as under President Reagan. Tax rates, which will return to Clinton levels (but not until 2011), also shouldn't be alarming, says Miller. "We know from the Clinton boom of the 1990s that marginal tax rates of 39.6 percent put no brakes on entrepreneurship or growth. And the modest limits Obama is proposing on the value of itemized deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations puts their value exactly where they were under Ronald Reagan, which no one would say was a 'socialist' interlude for the US economy. So everyone jumping up and down about how supposedly 'radical' Obama's plan is should calm down and look at the facts." But, I asked, how about this: If deficits are the problem, why not cut spending and taxes, rather than increase spending and impose higher taxes on higher earners to drive the economy? Because businesses and individuals are pulling back and don't have enough discretionary money to stimulate the economy, says Miller. And thanks to the huge deficits bequeathed by the Bush administration, Miller says we have no choice but to run even higher deficits for a few years to get the economy out of the ditch. Feeding the beast, in other words, is unavoidable. But will it work -- or will we all be speaking French and eating moldy cheese in two years? To the "nobody knows" chorus, add at least one strong dissenting voice. Miller says that though stimulus efforts may or may not work, Obama is doing the right thing with the budget. And no, we won't be socialists when it's all over. There will still be room for a "cowboy economy," he says. I can't say [...]
Wed, 04 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600Oh wait, that's right, Barack Obama is the messiah. I get confused sometimes, what with so much deification going on. Limbaugh's 85-minute speech at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), frequently interrupted by grateful applause from a slightly star-struck audience, was, dare we say it, Obama-esque. But where there's deification, there's bound to be demonization. Thus, Rush told conferees that Obama, in essence, is Stalin. And Obama, via chief commando Rahm Emanuel, anointed Limbaugh as leader of the GOP, calling him the "voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party." Talk about damning with praise. El Rushbo can't have minded much, despite his protestations that he was being manipulated and maligned by the White House to distract Americans from the "plunging economy." What could be better for a talking head than to be chosen by a president as his worthy adversary? At least finally both sides certainly should agree on one thing: The Fairness Doctrine is a terrible idea! Who wants fair and politically balanced commentary on the airwaves when being "unfair" is keeping both armies in their Humvees? The body politic, meanwhile, resembles a tempest-tossed ocean liner on which passengers scurry across the deck as the ship pitches. On one side is the president, promising to build a new $3.6 trillion ark. On the other is El Rushbo, clutching the conservative tablature: Thou shalt not raise taxes. Might there be a smallish strait between these gulfs where the storm-weary might rest their oars? (Not to go overboard on the metaphor, ahem.) Don't even think about it. Michael Steele, new Republican National Committee chair, tried to inject a little calm into the discussion and quickly learned that criticizing the omniscient one is an act of treason punishable by public humiliation. After Steele said in a weekend interview that Rush is sometimes "ugly" and "incendiary," the talk-show host conducted a 20-minute, on-air spanking and let Steele know that he, El Rushbo, is the talking-head pundit around here. "Why do you claim you lead the Republican Party, when you seem obsessed with seeing to it that President Obama succeeds? I, frankly, am stunned that the chairman of the Republican National Committee endorses such an agenda. I have to assume that he does because he attacks me for wanting it to fail." The war we're witnessing should be familiar after six years in Iraq. While insurgents battle for supremacy in an unstable environment, Obama achieves chaos in the enemy camp. Which is to say, Limbaugh isn't wrong, but neither was Steele. The GOP will sink as long as criticism is considered apostasy, as more-rational folk run to the lifeboats. If neither Limbaugh nor Steele is the leader of the GOP, then who is? The answer seems obvious: Mitt Romney. It is hard to say "Mitt Romney" without wanting to say "Poor Mitt." He's like the quiet, polite kid who keeps raising his hand with the correct answer -- all his homework neatly arranged in his book bag -- but the teacher is too busy with the rowdies to call on him. Oh, yeah, Romney was at CPAC, too. He also gave a speech and even won the presidential preference straw poll -- for the third straight year. But he notably has stepped out of the frame the past few days, and for good reason. He's taking notes, retooling, analyzing, waiting. Compare Romney's and Limbaugh's speeches and you see who the real GOP leader is. Where Limbaugh wants to slash and burn, Romney wants to build and repair. Where Limbaugh wants Obama to fail, Romney wants "our country to succeed, no matter who's in power. We want America to be prosperous and secure, regardless of who gets the c[...]
Sun, 01 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600I know Bobby Jindal, and that guy wasn't Bobby Jindal. The real Jindal is the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear power plant. The real Jindal has actually read the stimulus bill and can recite its contents. The real Jindal is the sort of politician who promises ethics and education reform, and actually delivers. Stories of Jindal's ability to quickly assess a problem and fix it have become the stuff of legend in Louisiana, as when he was assigned the task of reforming the state's Medicaid program and presented a workable plan the following morning. He was in his 20s. That kind of performance, followed by his bare-hands approach to Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts as a Louisiana congressman, helped him become the nation's youngest governor in 2007. What happened to that guy? Who snatched his body? His staff did. In fact, Jindal did not write his own speech and he's on a choke collar by some well-meaning people who helped him win the governor's race. What worked in Louisiana in 2007 may not work on the national stage in 2016, when Jindal is most likely to run for president. The stage-crafting was amateurish and the speech embarrassing. Jindal is smarter than the guy who criticized "volcano monitoring" as an example of wasteful spending in the stimulus bill, prompting the same cringe reflex that Sarah Palin did when she targeted silly ol' spending -- in France, no less -- on fruit fly research that is, in fact, crucial to medical research. Volcano monitoring may not be a top priority for creating jobs and stimulating credit, which is doubtless what Jindal's speechwriter meant, but it does save lives. Jindal's rendering of a spending eruption metaphor (get it?) merely gave Democrats yet another opportunity to question Republicans' understanding of science and the role of government in protecting the public good. Being the smartest person in the room can be a mixed blessing. Whether it is advantage or handicap for a brainy candidate depends on having the right people around him. At the moment, Jindal seems to be handicapped by handlers who either don't trust their candidate or have no faith in Americans' intelligence. In coaching him to dim the lights a tad, they stole his spark. Dumbing down doesn't come naturally to wunderkinds like Jindal. In trying to sound human, he sounds fake. In attempting to convey everydayness, he comes across as an extraterrestrial. Tuesday's speech was a setback, much like Bill Clinton's droning 1988 Democratic convention speech, but hardly a career-ender. When Jindal apparently slipped his collar and resurfaced Wednesday morning on the "Today" show, the Rhodes Scholar Jindal (who was accepted to both Yale and Harvard medical and law schools) was back. He dropped his "I'm-just-a-regular-guy" shtick and managed to articulate his conservative principles without putting the audience in mind of cookies and milk. Praising Obama's objectives -- while conceding that Republicans have lost fiscal credibility -- he emphasized his preference for policies that help businesses create jobs rather than government programs he fears will require a taxpayer feeding tube in perpetuity. It's a shame that Tuesday was Jindal's first introduction to many Americans, who won't have a clear picture of the man. It's also a shame he and Obama aren't on the same team. Although they differ strenuously on social issues and the role government should play in problem-solving, they are temperamentally similar. Most important, both are pragmatists who promise to seek solutions that work, rather than be bound by ideology. It would be heartening to watch these two serious thinkers craft real bipartisan solutions to our econ[...]
Wed, 25 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600If you don't get it, there's a good reason. It was a bad cartoon. It didn't work. The connection between the two events simply wasn't organic enough to evoke the necessary "Aha!" Moreover, the images carry too much free-associative freight. The mind's eye sees the word "stimulus" and thinks President Barack Obama. The bill may have been written by congressional staff, but it's Obama's stimulus package. The mind's eye sees a dead chimpanzee and ... strays off course, away from the news of the animal attacking a woman to a history of dehumanizing blacks. It may be subliminal, but it's there. And dehumanization is never funny. Cartoonists rely on readers' collective understanding of symbols and metaphor and on their unconscious connecting of images to ideas. Given that dependence, cartoonists have to be aware of the many ways those symbols might be linked within a given time and context. The Delonas cartoon was offensive for other reasons unrelated to race. No sane person enjoyed seeing or reading about police killing the chimpanzee. They may as well have killed Bonzo. Compounding the horror of this poor animal drawn dead and bleeding was the knowledge of its gruesome attack on a woman, who at the time was in critical condition. Not funny. Let's add even another layer of cultural understanding -- the too-oft read headline: "White cop shoots unarmed black." One can parse the circumstances in each case, but the statistical evidence is that these shootings happen too often. Do I think Delonas meant to convey all these layers of meaning? Not at all, though cartoonists have unconscious motivations like everyone else. He may have considered the possible racist interpretation and justified his decision because he didn't mean it that way. Cartoonists make artistic and editorial judgments every day, though some cartoonists have better judgment than others. Even so, outrage is out of proportion to the offense, and demands for retributive justice are more dangerous than a lousy cartoon. Everything I know about cartooning I learned during many long conversations with the late political cartoonist Doug Marlette, a giant of the industry and one of journalism's most eloquent explainers. At times like this, I wonder what he would say, though I think I know. I took notes. If he were alive, I doubt that Marlette would find anything defensible in the cartoon in question. Although he was an equal opportunity offender, especially when it came to religion and politics, being offensive was never his objective. The goal was to be effective; offense was the occasional byproduct. Delonas was offensive without being effective because he had nothing to say. Cops-kill-chimp/stimulus-bill-bad is not the stuff of revelation. It is literal, blunt and unclever. If (big if) Marlette had considered the chimpanzee as a vehicle for some larger point, he never would have made it a pivot point for anything that could be associated with the nation's first African-American president. No one was more attuned to the workings of the unconscious mind, nor more profoundly moved by the civil rights struggles against the terrorist sons of his native South. Two cops shooting an animal historically employed to portray blacks as less than human -- in the context of a black president's seminal piece of legislation -- would have been not only morally repugnant, but just not funny. Nonetheless, Marlette also would have defended the cartoonist's right to fail and to offend others in pursuit of an ideal. He would have reminded all those upset by this cartoon that the freedom to offend is the very same freedom that allows them to protest when th[...]
Sun, 22 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600Obama learned about J.V. Martin, built in 1896, from Ferillo's 2005 documentary, "Corridor of Shame," about crumbling schools along South Carolina's I-95 corridor. Funded by community leaders and foundations, the film highlights problems that were presented as evidence in a lawsuit 36 school districts brought against the state for failing to provide "minimally adequate education" to all students. (The South Carolina Supreme Court is expected to rule any day.) "All" is the operative word as plaintiffs claim unequal treatment. Their evidence is compelling. Plaintiff districts are 88.4 percent minority compared to the state average of 48.1 percent, according to the lawsuit. They are primarily poor with 86 percent of students getting free or reduced-cost lunches. And 75 percent of students in the plaintiff districts scored unsatisfactory or below average on state achievement tests, compared to 17.4 percent of total students in the state. Moreover, teachers in plaintiff districts make less than similarly qualified teachers in other districts and fewer have advanced degrees. Not surprisingly, it's hard to recruit teachers to impoverished areas to teach disadvantaged students in collapsing schools without modern equipment. Ferillo, who heads a public relations firm in Columbia, argues that improving schools not only will help attract better teachers but also raise parent expectations and participation while inspiring children who are aware of their second-class citizenship. Earlier this month, Ty'sheoma Bethea, an eighth-grader at J.V. Martin, wrote Congress asking for help. South Carolina isn't the only state whose rural schools are in trouble, of course. Many of the 1,200 nationwide that Obama hopes to replace with stimulus funds have suffered declining funding in recent years as manufacturing jobs have disappeared, populations have declined and tax bases have shrunk. But problems are exacerbated by an uncomfortable fact most would prefer to ignore: Poor African-American communities are not a top priority. Ray Rogers, Dillon School District superintendent, has been at J.V. Martin for 18 years, during which he has been forced to serve as janitor, fire marshal and handyman, battling the elements within and without. Rags fill holes, buckets capture water. A fire drill sometimes means jogging down hallways yelling, "Fire drill!" Rogers' blue eyes betray battle fatigue and tear up easily as he talks. He says he can take the grief from folks who don't see why he gets so worked up, but he can't fathom how good people can turn their backs on children. He gets plenty of grief. At the Charcoal Grill over a fried chicken buffet, a fellow at the next table calls out: "Hey, you in good with Nancy Pelosi? I hear she's got $30 million to save a mouse." (He was referring to funds for wetlands maintenance that would benefit, among other things, the salt marsh harvest mouse.) Another jovial neighbor notices the wedding ring on Assistant Superintendent Polly Elkins' finger and says: "Hey, does Obama know you got all them diamonds?" It's all friendly enough, but one senses a smidgen of veiled contempt just beneath the banter. These folks remember when nobody ever heard of Barack Obama or Dillon -- and when J.V. Martin was good enough for them. None other than Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a native son, accepted his high- school diploma in the auditorium that's now part of the junior high school. Of course that auditorium, along with one-third of the campus, is now condemned. As it happens, I did not remove my jacket or scarf during a three-hour interview and tour. Although most rooms were[...]