Thursday, August 31, 2006

Truth to power: Keith Olbermann answers Donald Rumsfeld

On his show of August 30, 2006, Olbermann said:

The man who sees absolutes, where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning, is either a prophet, or a quack.

Donald H. Rumsfeld is not a prophet.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarkable speech to the American Legion yesterday demands the deep analysis—and the sober contemplation—of every American.

For it did not merely serve to impugn the morality or intelligence -- indeed, the loyalty -- of the majority of Americans who oppose the transient occupants of the highest offices in the land. Worse, still, it credits those same transient occupants -- our employees -- with a total omniscience; a total omniscience which neither common sense, nor this administration’s track record at home or abroad, suggests they deserve.

Dissent and disagreement with government is the life’s blood of human freedom; and not merely because it is the first roadblock against the kind of tyranny the men Mr. Rumsfeld likes to think of as “his” troops still fight, this very evening, in Iraq.

It is also essential. Because just every once in awhile it is right and the power to which it speaks, is wrong.

In a small irony, however, Mr. Rumsfeld’s speechwriter was adroit in invoking the memory of the appeasement of the Nazis. For in their time, there was another government faced with true peril—with a growing evil—powerful and remorseless.

That government, like Mr. Rumsfeld’s, had a monopoly on all the facts. It, too, had the “secret information.” It alone had the true picture of the threat. It too dismissed and insulted its critics in terms like Mr. Rumsfeld’s -- questioning their intellect and their morality.

That government was England’s, in the 1930’s.

It knew Hitler posed no true threat to Europe, let alone England.

It knew Germany was not re-arming, in violation of all treaties and accords.

It knew that the hard evidence it received, which contradicted its own policies, its own conclusions — its own omniscience -- needed to be dismissed.

The English government of Neville Chamberlain already knew the truth.

Most relevant of all — it “knew” that its staunchest critics needed to be marginalized and isolated. In fact, it portrayed the foremost of them as a blood-thirsty war-monger who was, if not truly senile, at best morally or intellectually confused.

That critic’s name was Winston Churchill.

Sadly, we have no Winston Churchills evident among us this evening. We have only Donald Rumsfelds, demonizing disagreement, the way Neville Chamberlain demonized Winston Churchill.

History — and 163 million pounds of Luftwaffe bombs over England — have taught us that all Mr. Chamberlain had was his certainty — and his own confusion. A confusion that suggested that the office can not only make the man, but that the office can also make the facts.

Thus, did Mr. Rumsfeld make an apt historical analogy.

Excepting the fact, that he has the battery plugged in backwards.

His government, absolute -- and exclusive -- in its knowledge, is not the modern version of the one which stood up to the Nazis.

It is the modern version of the government of Neville Chamberlain.

But back to today’s Omniscient ones.

That, about which Mr. Rumsfeld is confused is simply this: This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely.

And, as such, all voices count -- not just his.

Had he or his president perhaps proven any of their prior claims of omniscience — about Osama Bin Laden’s plans five years ago, about Saddam Hussein’s weapons four years ago, about Hurricane Katrina’s impact one year ago — we all might be able to swallow hard, and accept their “omniscience” as a bearable, even useful recipe, of fact, plus ego.

But, to date, this government has proved little besides its own arrogance, and its own hubris.

Mr. Rumsfeld is also personally confused, morally or intellectually, about his own standing in this matter. From Iraq to Katrina, to the entire “Fog of Fear” which continues to envelop this nation, he, Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, and their cronies have — inadvertently or intentionally — profited and benefited, both personally, and politically.

And yet he can stand up, in public, and question the morality and the intellect of those of us who dare ask just for the receipt for the Emporer’s New Clothes?

In what country was Mr. Rumsfeld raised? As a child, of whose heroism did he read? On what side of the battle for freedom did he dream one day to fight? With what country has he confused the United States of America?

The confusion we -- as its citizens— must now address, is stark and forbidding.

But variations of it have faced our forefathers, when men like Nixon and McCarthy and Curtis LeMay have darkened our skies and obscured our flag. Note -- with hope in your heart — that those earlier Americans always found their way to the light, and we can, too.

The confusion is about whether this Secretary of Defense, and this administration, are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek: The destruction of our freedoms, the very ones for which the same veterans Mr. Rumsfeld addressed yesterday in Salt Lake City, so valiantly fought.

And about Mr. Rumsfeld’s other main assertion, that this country faces a “new type of fascism.”

As he was correct to remind us how a government that knew everything could get everything wrong, so too was he right when he said that -- though probably not in the way he thought he meant it.

This country faces a new type of fascism - indeed.

Although I presumptuously use his sign-off each night, in feeble tribute, I have utterly no claim to the words of the exemplary journalist Edward R. Murrow.

But never in the trial of a thousand years of writing could I come close to matching how he phrased a warning to an earlier generation of us, at a time when other politicians thought they (and they alone) knew everything, and branded those who disagreed: “confused” or “immoral.”

Thus, forgive me, for reading Murrow, in full:

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty,” he said, in 1954. “We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.”

And so good night, and good luck.

Yeah. What he said.

transcript via Atrios and Better than Salt Money

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One year later.

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success .... and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 25.

That pretty much says it all about how we've handled relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Debt We Owe.

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was certified as having been ratified, and signed into law.

Three years earlier, in October, 1917, Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months in the D.C. Jail for obstructing traffic on sidewalks. She and other suffragists had been picketing the White House, protesting for the right to vote, which they had started to do in January. Other women had been arrested on similar charges, starting in June and July. Some were sent along with Paul to the D.C. Jail. Many were sent to the dreaded Occoquan Workhouse for Women in Virginia.

Once in jail, Paul and the other inmates were subject to horrific conditions. The suffragists were quite isolated -- it was even difficult for the women's lawyers to get in to see them (sound familiar?). That the women claimed to be political prisoners made their jailers treat them with even more brutal contempt. The near-starvation diet weakened them to the point of collapse.

The women began a hunger strike. As is usually the case, all that a hunger strike results in is the force-feeding of the inmates. (See also Guantanamo Bay, although it appears that at least at first the force-feeding of inmates at Gitmo may have been more humane than the treatment meted out to the suffragists.)

When she still refused to end her hunger strike, Paul was threatened with a being moved into the jail's psyciatric ward, and then on to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, the government's insane asylum (a truly frightening prospect). When Paul still refused to start eating, she was moved to a tiny cell in the jail's psychiatric ward, where she was kept even though the resident "alienist" (i.e., shrink) said she was not insane. In the psychiatric ward, Paul was subject to sleep-deprivation: a bright light was shone in her face every hour at night. (Torture isn't a new concept in America, unfortunately.)

On the night of November 14, 1917, warden W.H. Whittaker of Occoquan decided to make an example of the suffragists, and sent guards through the prison beating and brutalizing the women. Lucy Burns, who in June had the distinction of being the first suffragist arrested (when she got three days in jail -- she was subsequently arrested for longer sentences), was handcuffed to the bars of her cell all night, with her arms above her head. Dora Lewis was thrown into an iron bed so hard she passed out; her cellmate Alice Cosu believed her dead and had a heart attack.

A few days after the "Night of Terror," many of the women appeared the Alexandria, Virginia courtroom for the U.S. Court of Appeals. The women bore the marks of their recent experiences on them, a fact which was heavily reported in the press. Some of the women were so weak that they could barely stand. The judge ordered the immediate transfer of the women in Occoquan to the Washington Jail pending review of their case. Three days later, the women were released -- no explanations, no apologies.

Not at all surprisingly, the Court of Appeals later overturned their convictions.

Women continue to protest in front of the White House and Congress through 1918. They continued to be arrested, and undergo hunger strikes. Public opinion started shifting, and the 1918 mid-term elections resulted in a pro-sufferage Congress and the passage of the 19th Amendment.

You might want to mention this little-known episode in American history the next time someone says that it's "too much trouble" to vote, or "the candidates are alike, why bother?" The memory of Alice Paul and the women of the Occoquan Workhouse deserves it.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Little known heroes of American history, #37592

On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee legislature engaged in a fierce debate over the Anthony Amendment, which would give women the right to vote. Thirty-five other states had ratified the amendment, and if Tennessee followed suit, it would be enshrined in the Constitution as the Nineteenth Amendment.

Two votes ended in ties. On the third vote, the youngest member of the Tennessee House, 24-year-old Harry Burn, changed his vote -- thus ensuring ratification. Burn later admitted that he had changed his vote because he had received a telegram from his mother, telling him "Don't forget to be a good boy," and "Hurrah and vote for suffrage! "

For his vote, angry suffrage opponents chased Burn around the room. He fled onto a third floor ledge to escape, and managed to hide in the Capitol attic until things died down.

Thanks, Harry. And you too, Mrs. Burn.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Holiday cheer.

Several years ago, Staples ran television back-to-school ads with the Andy Williams Christmas hit "It's The Most Wonderful Time of The Year" showing a dad cavorting down the aisles of the store, followed by a couple of sullen pre-teens.

My husband and I thought the ads were hysterical. My kids, rather predictably, did not.

This week they returned to school (except for the NLDB*, who is still recovering from surgery). Which means my schedule goes nuts. Especially once the NLDB returns to school and has early morning band practice every morning and late afternoon band practice twice a week, and with the other kids' appointments and activities.

Part of me is contemplating the mommy wars and what we do to each other as women and why some stay-at-home-mothers look down on employed mothers (and why don't they look down on employed fathers?), and why some employed mothers sneer at stay-at-home mothers (and does this mean that they feel justified in sneering at paid nannies, since they fulfill similar functions?). And how the media feeds the flames. And how the mommy wars are in nobody's best interest except big business, because as long as it can be categorized as a "women's issue" they don't have to deal with wholesale changes to the workplace to make it less hostile to all parents and families.

Except that's old news. Furthermore, I'm way too tired. I've spent this week in the elusive search for ..... school supplies.

Don't laugh.

I usually do not wait until the night before to get supplies, but we had other issues to deal with (see NLDB, above, and surgery). Usually, I shop in advance, and am able to get to the office supply store before the rush and get everything the schools require us to have. Not this time. Big mistake. Trying to find school supplies the evening before school started was like trying to find that perfect gift at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.**

Each year, the lists from the elementary school seem to get more complicated. And it's not just that my kid is getting older: looking at the list for younger grades, those look more complicated, too. Some of this is a function of reduced school spending which has parents buying supplies that were once bought by the school (such as rolls of paper towels and kleenex). (And Post-It notes: second graders use those?) But it is also more demands on the part of the school about the supplies the parents buy for use by their children.

Now they specify brands. Crayons and colored pencils have to be Crayola ("no Rose-Art, please!"). Magic Rub erasers. Fiskar scissors. Scotch tape. Avery glue sticks. Mead binders and notebooks. Mead composition books.

They specify number, too. Which would be fine, except sometimes the number they specify is either hard to find, or confusing. Apparently, Crayola fine-line markers come in an 8-pack. Funny, none of the stores I was at had them. I sent a 10-pack. Similarly, most places had either 8 or 24 box of crayons, not 16. And I did not send Fiskar scissors, and went generic for erasers and glue sticks. To hell with it.

What I cannot understand is how this insistence on brand-name loyalty advances any legitimate educational purpose. The only purposes I can think of are: a) the school is getting a kickback from Crayola, Avery, etc., b) the PTA makes enough money off of selling pre-orders of school supply bundles that they try to make it as difficult as possible to buy the things on your own, or c) if kids didn't have exactly the same supplies, it would interfere with classroom instruction.

Is it that the kids tease those whose supplies don't make the grade? Or is it that the schools are worried about kids whose parents bought them more, perhaps with a crayon arms race developing? This is not a poor school, and I'm pretty sure provides supplies for kids who need them, so I don't know that it is that.

You know what? This strikes me as a golden teaching opportunity. Maybe instead of insisting everyone has exactly the same markers, we can teach them the virtues of perspective and minding your own business, and worrying more about what you are going to draw with your crayons than how many Jason has. And maybe Jason can learn that having more shades of blue is less important than how you use your imagination.

Of course, what do I know? I'm no teacher. I'm simply a really cranky, middle-aged woman who has had to rifle through one too many bins of Crayola Brand colored pencils, and run out for a calculator because the NLDB lost the TI-83X graphing calculator I bought him last year, and he needed to keep up with the work he's missing in school. (No, I didn't buy him another graphing calculator. We're in negotiation about whether he is going to pay to replace it, and if so, what portion.)

Hey, next week the real fun starts... Homework!

I think I need to go to sleep. Wake me when Christmas rolls around.

*Not so Little Drummer Boy. He's 5'11". Or would be, IF HE DIDN'T SLOUCH ALL THE TIME (are you listening, kid?)

** The Office Depot near where I live even had "extended back-to-school hours."

Monday, August 21, 2006

We write letters....

Dear Sirs,

Peter Ligeti (Letters, August 21) says: "I wonder how federal Judge Anna Diggs Taylor and all members of the ACLU will feel when the next major terrorist act hits the United States. Judge Taylor obviously has not learned from the very recent British example…."

Mr. Ligeti has failed to learn that law enforcement can conduct a successful covert operation without trampling on people's rights. No one, including Judge Taylor, has ever insisted the Administration not be allowed to conduct wiretaps, only that they follow the law and the Constitution and get warrants before doing so. The British were able to uncover a terrorist plot through standard police work, including obtaining all the necessary warrants; does Mr. Ligeti feel that American law enforcement isn’t capable of doing likewise?


[Note: My original letter was much more eloquent and barbed -- and twice the submission limit. Oh, well.]

Fear and Loathing

I've been angry, lately.

Well, more than lately, but you know what I mean. I suppose I have become one of those "angry bloggers" that you read about in the newspapers. My anger comes from pain and sometimes intense fear, but how it manifests says as much or more about me than about the objects of my anger. And I find myself saying, how can I say things like that?

I was reading Adventus this morning, and at the end of a long and thought-provoking post about human nature and whether there is a need for meaning, he ends with
What life have we if we have not life together? And what does "together" mean, if it doesn't include all of humanity, in an increasingly intertwined, "global village" of a world? We all want to feel good about ourselves. But if Donne was right, and "no man is an island," perhaps no man includes no woman, too; and no child; includes everyone, everywhere. Which is no real solution; not in the real world. But there are worse sins you could commit, than to love your enemy.

Far worse; like to not even try. What kind of meaning would that give your life, to just try, every day, day after day?

Good question. It led me to hunt up his previous posts on loving your enemy, here, here, here, and here.

Folks, he's a better person than I am. I grapple with this issue, and time and time again run into it headlong, with little success.

I look at my last post: "If you accept torture as a valid means of controlling people, rather than as a means of information gathering from a single individual, you are morally bankrupt, and rational people should not waste breath on engaging in debate with you." I believe wholeheartedly that that is true, but who am I to decide that they are beyond redemption?

Evil exists in the world. People are capable of believing evil things, and committing evil acts. Yet, I often am able to separate the evil people do and their innate worth as human beings. But not always.

Part of it is that loving your enemies has fallen out of vogue. Hell, civil public discourse, which is but a frail shadow of loving your enemies, seems to have gone the way of the dodo. Anger towards people is a form of self-protection, political or otherwise. But that allows them power to define you, rather than you defining yourself. You become a mirror of those you hate.

You can see this in the current political scene. The hardest task facing Democrats, as they find their voice, and speak with the anger and passion fueled by what they see happening in the country and around the world, is to stay focused on policies and messages, not on personalities. (Attacks on Ann Coulter's looks are out-of-bounds, forceful objections to her hate-filled speech are not.) While it is neccessary to respond -- and respond forcefully -- to attacks equating opposing the president's unconstitutional wiretapping program with supporting terrorism, e.g., it necessary to do so with strength and calm. (If for no other reason than to do otherwise would be playing right into their hands, as Digby observes.) Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming like the angry voices on the right who are so hate-filled. Contrary to media protrayals, Michael Moore is no Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility for such a person to come to prominence. To those who claim that it's just not possible, because we believe in tolerance and individual rights and everything good and noble, well, you have more faith in human nature than I do.

It is more complicated than that.

I am opposed to capital punishment. I do not view murderers as monsters, even though I recognize they do great evil. I do not view non-violent racists, sexists or homophobes as irredeemable, even though I recognize that they do great evil. I am angry at what they do, I do not hate them.

Those who support torture, I view as monsters. Those who would silence liberals and others and generally stifle free-speech, I view with deep loathing. Those who advocate physical violence towards gays and lesbians, minorities, or women, I detest.

The difference is fear.

I fear those would silence me. I fear those who pose an actual threat of harm to me or those I love.

I most fear those I am afraid of becoming.

I am in no danger of being tortured. No one I know or love is in danger of being tortured. Yet those Americans who support or encourage torture engender deep disgust and often abject hatred in me. I am afraid of becoming like them, of listening to the siren's song they sing.

The song which says, "if we just do this one intolerable thing," we will be safe. That it is possible to hold at bay mortality. That all it takes is to make that one little concession, place one's personal safety above everything else, and we will not suffer by it. That morals are for the living -- and all bets are off when following them might increase by some small amount your chance of not meeting a violent demise.

Maybe it's not torture -- I've never been tempted to torture anyone. But maybe it's saying it's okay to decimate the Fourth Amendment, as long as we're safe. That it doesn't matter if we hold people without counsel, as long as we don't have to worry at night. That most of all, we don't have to look too hard at what we're doing, that we can turn our heads and pretend that nothing is wrong, because we're talking about national security, right? That we can stop when we want to.

That we won't lose our souls.

And that's what scares me the most, friends. Losing my soul. And sometimes I worry that with all my anger I have lost part of it already.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Torture: once more with feeling.

In the comments to my post "Obscenity," Anonymous asks
Are you REALLY REALLY saying that you would not torture One person to SAVE the innocent lives of many THOUSAND others.
We will never hide behind our children but we really have to get over the fact that others do.

Would I torture one person to save the innocent lives of many others?

No. I wouldn't. Not ever.

Torture is immoral and reprehensible. Dictators and tyrants engage in torture; free and democratic people reject it as being the tool of despots. To suggest that we as Americans should engage in torture is to turn from our belief in just methods of punishment as enshrined in the Eight Amendment. For America to embrace torture means that the terrorists have well and truly won: they have turned us into the sort of monsters we fight wars against.

There are several reasons states torture, among them to gain information or to instill fear into subject populations (whether that be prison detainees or POWs or religious minorities) so as to create submissive and compliant peoples.

I am not going to discuss the second reason. If you accept torture as a valid means of controlling people, rather than as a means of information gathering from a single individual, you are morally bankrupt, and rational people should not waste breath on engaging in debate with you.*

As a means of information gathering, torture does not work.

Everybody here familiar with Alan Dershowitz's "ticking time bomb" hypothetical? That is would be okay to torture as long as we had "torture warrants" to insure the right person was being tortured, and it was only used in the most extreme of emergencies?

Terry Karney, a professional army interrogator and a voice of sanity and reason on the issue of torture, explains why it doesn't work:

In the scenario you give, it won't work. Unless the bomb is going to go off a long time from now, all the guy has to do is 1: hold out until it goes off or 2: tell a good lie, and trust that the situation won't be resolved until it goes off (a healthy lead, into the area the bomb is would be the best at this, the assumption would be he told the truth and the EOD guys either failed to find it, or to defuse it.

And that is a situation in which you are sure you have the right guy -- what about the situation in which you don't? If you bring in a suspect who in fact has no knowledge of anything, all torture will do is elicit information that is worse than useless: plots that do not exist will be revealed, involving innocent people. Precious time and resources will be wasted on investigations that would be better spent elsewhere. And the potential for injustice multiplies, as innocents named by the first torture victim are brought in, perhaps for their own dose of "interrogation."

Fairness compels me to add that Terry's opposition to torture is based upon more than its failure as a method of interrogation. Terry has been, as he put it in the link above "a still small voice" proclaiming the utter evil of torture, and in addition decrying it for the effect it has on torturers as much as on the tortured.

Often, people who support use of torture against terrorists feel that those of us who do not aren't facing reality. Ah, but we do face reality, and understand that reality is complicated: life does not present us with cut and dried factual scenarios. We don't always know what is going on. This is not a law-school exercise.

When faced with a reality where facts are often unknown and guilt and innocence are murky, all we have, really, to keep us from falling into evil are our moral values. They are who we are. Without them, we are lost.

Lately, some of us have been willing to abandon our principles wholesale out of fear. In the comments to my prior post, I said to Anonymous that there are fates worse than death. Many people would think living under tyranny is one of them. I don't know if that is right, but I do know becoming an agent of tyranny is another.

We, as a country, could be headed toward that fate, unless we step back and reclaim the values that we have always said we stand for.

And if we don't, the terrorists will have won. Completely.

*Although it should be noted that methods such as torture have a way of creating terrorists on the other side: every relative of every torture victim is a potential suicide bomber.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Healthy Anarchy.

I went to a college which had an exchange program with MIT. There was this one MIT student who used to hang around my dorm sometimes -- he dated two different women on the same floor (generally considered tacky, but then again, he didn't seem to care). He was... unique.

His senior year he occasionally engaged in performance art -- I'm not sure if this was out of his own artistic impulses or for some class or simply because he could. On one occasion he sat under a box on the Quad to see what people were saying about the box as they walked past. Another time he hung an effigy of himself in front of the art building, all the while standing next to the effigy wearing identical clothes. After that last stunt, Campus Police escorted him off the campus and told him that he would be arrested if they ever saw him again.

He later went on to be a leading Internet entreprenuer and activist.*

In the rock opera Rent, Tom Collins is a computer genius and anarchist who gets kicked out of MIT for "reprogramming [their] virtual reality equipment to read 'Actual reality! ACT UP! Fight AIDS!'" Aside from the technical and security issues involved, I have absolutely no doubt that could happen. I have met geek anarchists.**

Many geeks are anarchists at heart.

I have yet to meet a geek who did not enjoy creatively breaking things. Rules? We don't need no stinkin' rules, beyond those imposed by Newton and Einstein. Purpose? Do we need a purpose to do these things? Nah. It is enough, as Edmund Hillary allegedly said of Everest, that they are there.

Mostly, there is also a desire to figure out how to make things work better. But not always. Sometimes there is simply a desire to thumb one's nose at authority or one's opposition. Engineering schools, especially Cal Tech, have made the college prank into an art form, with the zenith being Cal Tech's Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961.

Sometimes there is the simple joy of ... explosions. Or smashing things. Or dropping objects from large heights -- the messier the better. (Pumpkins work very nicely in this regard.)

A little healthy anarchy is a good thing: breaking the status quo can lead to new and better technology, and often greater understanding about how the world around us works. People who say "Why can't the system (whether the system is technological or social) do this?" and don't accept "because it can't" as an answer often end up creating new systems that do do "this."

In America, we have been lamenting the fact that our students are falling behind in math and science. We bemoan the threat that this poses to our position as a leader in technological development, when in fact there is a greater threat to our ability to turn out scientists and engineers looming on the horizon.

The threat to our next generation of technical innovation is... our current goal of creating students who can give the right answers, rather than creating ones who can ask the best questions. We prepare, and test, and test again to a fare-thee-well, to show how well our kids are being taught the concepts ... on the standardized tests.

Quick -- which is easier to teach quickly, math facts, or critical thinking skills? Which is easier to test?

And which is less threatening to the adults in charge?

Not to mention that nonconformity is not tolerated as it once was. Zero-tolerance is the watchword, and while it is ostensibly aimed at drugs and violence, its implementation is in many places taking on insane overtones. In 2001, the American Bar Association argued that zero-tolerance policies basically made students into criminals, by taking methods originally intended to control adult criminal offenders and applying them to children. There have been instances of children being charged with "making terrorist threats" for yelling at other children in the lunchroom, and being arrested for writing papers deemed too scary or violent.

Schools do need to keep students safe, and we do need to assess how our schools are performing. But in many cases it seems that we as a society have abdicated our critical thinking skills -- or as it used to be known, plain common sense -- to rely on arbitrary brightline rules devoid of any real room for contextual evaluation. It saves us from thinking, from making difficult calls, from having to support our decisions. And yes, the vaunted litigiousness of American society accounts for some of this, but not all: zero-tolerance policies are, in some cases, being so rigidly and ridiculously enforced that they invite litigation from students unfairly expelled.

We seek to mold students who are quiet, studious, never question authority, and are good test-takers. The danger is that we might succeed too well.

We can't afford to lose that small, healthy streak of anarchy.

*No, I'm not going to identify him. I don't think this story would get me into any trouble -- unless he's changed drastically, he has a wicked sense of humor -- but I really would rather not find out. (And he may well have told the story himself somewhere, but I'm not going to check.)

** I lived one summer in Senior House, at MIT. Admittedly, this was twenty-five years ago, but even then it prided itself on its anarchistic tendencies. Or at least its strangeness. The first time I saw the place, there was a fire in the courtyard (as there often is). Several people were rolling a large wooden spool -- the type used by the phone company for cable -- across the fire. "How stupid," I thought. "That thing's going to catch." (Not realizing, of course, that seeing how long it took for the thing to catch fire was the whole point of the exercise.) It wasn't until I got much closer that I noticed that there was a person curled up inside the spool as it was being rolled over the fire. It was that sort of place.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Rent, San Francisco: a review.

This post is going to be of limited interest because it is of a production that has already closed. Oh, and it has spoilers. And it is really, really long. But I have to write it anyway, because I'm obsessed.

I am a Renthead.

Obsession is never a pretty thing, but this one is relatively innocuous, as long as you don't live in my house and have to listen to "Rent" and "What You Own" on the car stereo all the time.* (The only other public evidence of my obsession is the Jonathan Larson quote over to the side, from "La Vie Bohéme.") I am pretty much older than the standard age demographic for Rentheads, but that's okay... it's never too late to have a happy childhood, as they say; or an angst-ridden, creatively-challenging, bohemian, early-adulthood, as the case may be.

I came rather late to the party, having been introduced to the music by the Rent, the movie . I had gone to see it because Jesse L. Martin (Collins in Rent, Detective Ed Green on Law & Order) is on the short list of actors I would pay good money to see read the phone book. The fact that he can sing the phone book -- and wonderfully -- is merely lagniappé.

I liked the movie. A lot. Then I got the soundtrack for Christmas. Not the movie soundtrack, but the complete Broadway soundtrack.

I fell in love.**

Rent is close to an opera; listening to the soundtrack, you can understand much of the plot. That's not surprising since it is based on Puccini's La Boheme. When my husband got us tickets for the last week of its San Francisco run (third row center, yet!), I was delighted to have an opportunity to see it on the stage.

I left the theatre vaguely disappointed.

Why? Was it overfamiliarity with the material? Was I mentally comparing the actors on stage to their screen counterparts?

No. I was not bored by the material, and the performances I loved the best (by Warren G. Nolan, Jr. playing Collins*** and Tracy McDowell playing Maureen) were the ones that deviated most from their screen counterparts. And there was the joy of seeing "Christmas Bells," my second favorite piece from the soundtrack (which was missing from the movie) actually performed.

Part of it was that Jed Resnick, who played Mark Cohen, the chief protagonist, sang in a very clipped manner, making it difficult to hear him clearly. But mostly it was a matter of chemistry. As in: there was none between the two most significant characters.

You might think, given the play's origins, that the central relationship is Roger and Mimi. It's not.... it's Roger and Mark. Unless you can believe that the two of them matter to each other, that it is more than a relationship born of convenience and the high cost of living in New York, the play loses its emotional center.

In the production I saw, Roger and Mark seemed like roommates, not friends. They were like the people you roomed with freshman year in college and then never really saw again once you moved out and got a room of your own. In the play's climactic confrontation between the two in the moving "Goodbye, Love," (a number which was criminally cut from the movie), Roger should be lashing out in frustration and anger at a friend who is forcing him to face his tendency to run from unpleasant situations. Mark, likewise, should be hurt and angry, but not pitiful. Instead, in the production I saw, Roger was annoyed and disdainful, Mark was ... pathetic, like a puppy cringing, expecting to get kicked.

In an interview with Sirius Satellite Radio host Seth Rudetsky, Rent Executive Producer Kevin McCollum once said that it was vitally important that the characters in Rent never be portrayed as pathetic. Confused, yes, and struggling to find their way, but never pitiful. And he was absolutely right: once the characters become pitiful, you stop caring about them. And I didn't care about the Mark I saw -- I wanted to smack him and say "Get a grip!" (Which is interesting, in a way: in watching the movie, it was Roger --played by Adam Pascal -- who I kept wishing I could slap and say "Snap out of it!")

The magic of theatre is its ability to draw us into other people's lives. But first, those people have to let us know their story is worth caring about. That just didn't happen for me, at least not with Mark. And as good as the other stories were, his is the lens through which the other stories are filtered.

My disappointment with Mark notwithstanding, I still found joy in the performance. There were many wonderful moments: "Christmas Bells" provided a kaleidoscope of sound; "Take Me or Leave Me " had two divas standing toe-to-toe and not giving an inch, singing fire at each other; and "Light My Candle" -- an intricate conversational duet with a Latin beat -- oozed sensuality. "I'll Cover You", with Warren G. Nolan and Ano Okera as Angel, was joyous and exuberant, everything a love song should be; its reprise was heartbreaking.

The most stunning moment was the most unexpected. In the movie, the song "Will I Lose My Dignity?" is sung over a shot of the support group for people with AIDS, showing people around the circle disappearing. It is about people dying from this very grim disease. Very sad. Very moving. Very detached.

In the play, the song is begun by one person in the support group, then another, and then picked up by all the characters... even those without AIDS. The song is not about "them," about people who are dying.... it is about us, about all of us:

Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?

Not just about AIDS, but addiction, loneliness, poverty, depression ... the human condition. Simple. Beautiful. Devastating. I started crying halfway through the number.

That number underscores one of the reasons I adore this work: its charitable and loving view of people. There is a great line (among very many) in "La Vie Boheme" which says "To anyone out of the mainstream... is anyone in the mainstream?" -- a recognition that we are all individuals and none of us fit nicely into boxes.

My love for Rent remains, my less than spectacular night at the theatre notwithstanding. I'm sure I'll have a chance to see it again sometime. And if not? I still have the music. That glorious, challenging, heartrending music.

Viva lá vie Bohéme!

* What you don't hear on my car stereo, at least when my kids are in the car, which is almost all the time, is my favorite number, "La Vie Bohéme." I figure that I can live without getting calls from my youngest son's school saying he is going around singing "'s between God and me..." Given my youngest son, he would, too. It's a catchy melody, he likes to sing -- what's the problem?

** And fell out of like: after hearing the entire Broadway soundtrack, I became really irritated with the movie. The producers played it safe, choosing to do a more traditional "musical" rather than an "opera." One of the consequences of that was the searing "Goodbye, Love," part of which is a confrontation between Mark and Roger: the director said that they couldn't keep it in the movie because they hadn't had Mark and Roger singing together before. The reason they hadn't, of course, was that they chose to jettison the opera format. Cowards.

***As much as I love Jesse L. Martin, his Collins never rang quite true to me. Supposedly a genius computer programmer/anarchist who was kicked out of MIT, he always seemed too ... cool for MIT, in a sort of street cool way. (Okay, yeah, I know, I'm stereotyping.) I could believe he went to Harvard, yes, but MIT, no. When I saw Warren G. Nolan as Collins, I thought "Not only did he go to MIT, he lived in Senior House." His Collins was more ... goofy, playful. I
knew people like that who went to MIT.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


There is profanity. You hear profanity a lot these days. My kids hear it in the streets and on the school buses. You see it on the Internet a lot. Comedy Central has quite a few shows which feature profanity -- South Park, in particular, strikes me as being quite inventive in its use of the words you can't say on television -- except you can, since it's cable and not broadcast.

As a parent, you are supposed to worry about profanity, and discipline your children when they use it, and scowl at adults who use it in public.

Far better, though, that they hear profanity than obscenity.

Obscenities are screamed all the time by all sorts of madmen: they are the shouts of hatred raised by violent extremists, the venom spewed forth by Fred Phelps, by Osama bin Laden. They are like rabid dogs, to be kept in sight and quarantined, but not to be reasoned with.

It is the obscenities softly and gently spoken that do the most damage. The calm voice reasoning that it is surely acceptable to torture one person if to do so would save the lives of many others. That those who allow terrorists to live among them are colluding with acts of terror, and therefore should expect no mercy. That "collateral damage" is merely regrettable.

And then there is .... the clear rational sane civil amoral voice which states that not only is it acceptable to kill children, it is a virtue to do so.

It is rare that a post has made me literally sick to my stomach, but this one did. The calm dismissal of objections as naiveté (stock-in-trade for most who utter these sorts of obscenities); the reduction of war to some sort of exercise in game theory (albeit with deadly consequences); the inability to see the other side as anything other than cardboard cutouts; the blindness to the long-term consequences of such an evil (there is no other word) policy; and, on a much more superficial level, the psuedo-intellectual use of dialogue a lá Plato; all of it enough to make the skin crawl. (My favorite comment, by one Jason, summed up Grim's argument nicely: "It was necessary to kill the children in order to save them." Reading the comments, however, takes a bit of a strong stomach. I wish the commenter who said "Brilliant Satire. Very edgy, avant guarde. Thank god no one actually thinks this way." had been right.)

On the whole, I much prefer profanity. I think I need to go take a shower now; I feel dirty just having read this.

(Link from Atrios)

I don't know how to quit you.

I couldn't do it. I couldn't leave the Internet.

More importantly, I decided that I would be better off not doing it. Not this week, anyway.

I am terribly isolated, in many ways, and Live Journal and Blogger, not to mention other weblogs, provide links to the world of adults.

The isolation is a result of a combination of factors, some cultural (nobody around here knows their neighbors very well, me included), some health-related (I suffer from fibromyalgia which this summer has at times made it painful to even move), but mostly this week logistical: my husband was called away to Cleveland unexpectedly on business, and the live-in babysitter (a.ka., the angsty teenager; a.k.a., the not-so-little Drummer Boy) is at Band Camp. (No, I haven't seen American Pie, but I've heard about it.) It's just me and two pre-teen boys. I am not, for example, able to go do my weekly volunteer stint at a local arts agency, nor am I able to join my friend Carol for coffee. I love my sons, but I need to converse with adults sometimes -- even if it is electronically.

The pre-teen boys decided as well that twenty dollars was not enough of an incentive for them to give up all electronics for a week. We all agreed we would talk about this again after school starts, when there are more stringent restrictions on television and video game usage anyway.

I feel rather sheepish. I do not feel particularly ashamed, however.

It was interesting to me too, how much I need the Internet for mundane things: I originally broke my "no Internet" pledge because I had to go online to get information about the high school band. I also had to go online to check my calendar, and to find benefit information for my health insurance policy. Once online, the siren call of the weblogs was simply irresistible:

It will only take a second...I won't read any of the comments! Just Adventus, and the Mad Monk, and Fred over at Slacktivist, and of course, check out the big political dogs, Atrios and Digby....

Erm. Yeah. And then once I read, it was... I need to write about this...

Well, it's true. I don't know how to quit you.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

I have a series of posts on capital punishment in draft form.
I have a post on why I love the music of Stephen Sondheim that I am about half through with.
I have a review of a local production of Rent written in my mind.

It all has to wait.

I have made a bet.

I bet my younger two children that they could not go an entire week without television, Game Boys, video games, or computers. For my part, I have to foreswear... the Internet. I am allowed to read email and use Word and Excel, but my web browsers have to remain firmly shut.


I'll see you in a week. If I live that long without blogs, that is.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Why I hate SUVs.




And there was a eight-year old boy struggling to his knees, then to his feet, his lower face a bloody mess. He had been struck by a young man in an Izusu Trooper who had been going too fast in a residential area and had been unable to stop in time.

I stopped breathing.

The boy was my son.

That was eight years ago.

I went to the E.R. (More accurately, was driven to the E.R. -- I was in shock myself -- after having dropped off my two younger children with a neighbor.) There are things you never forget in life, and that E.R. visit is one of them.

The doctor told me "The front of his upper jaw has been shattered. His coach saw one of his teeth lying there -- we may be able to do something, but probably not -- he's lost three permanent front teeth."

He paused. "He's one lucky boy. Had that car struck an inch or two higher, he'd be dead."

My son was lying in one of the rooms, waiting to have a CAT-scan done; they had not yet moved him to the ICU yet. When I came in, he turned to me and said "'Ell, I ould al-ays 'ee a 'entilokist." I started sniffling -- the nurse started sniffling. "You're not supposed to be trying to tell me jokes now, you're not supposed to be trying to cheer me up."

They repaired his jaw. He's had a bridge for the past seven years, and in eleven days he goes in for bone graft surgery, the first step to having dental implants, and getting close to whole. We were lucky in other ways as well: there was no trauma to his neck or his brain.

The SVU he was struck by was not going fast at the time of impact (had the road not been wet, the driver might have been able to stop, even though he had been speeding) or my son would be dead. Had he been struck by a car, he would have suffered a broken arms or ribs.

The higher profile of SVU poses a direct threat to pedestrians.* A pedestrian struck by an SUV is more than twice as likely to die as one struck by a sedan.

So, aside from the ecological considerations, and the fact that a many of them are unnecessary (driven by people who need neither the off-road nor the cargo capacity), and the fact that they are a rollover hazard, SUVs are a menace. While I am willing to admit that there are people for whom it is appropriate and neccessary for them to own or drive one (living in isolated areas that get a lot of snow or mud, for instance, or having many kids with sports gear and needing to tow a boat), just as I recognize that double tractor trailer trucks are a necessary evil, I feel that people who own them who do not need them are engaging in anti-social behavior. Not that I'm perfect -- I engage in my own anti-social behaviors. I'm working on them.

I find myself viewing owning an SVU as a sin needing to be forgiven. I do have friends who own them, and I keep my peace. I don't say, "Don't you realize what you're doing?"

But I want to.

*Many of the safety concerns about SVU are just as pertinent applied to pickup trucks with high profiles. And again, there are many people driving around who don't need the cargo capacity of the trucks.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

They're called "CAPTCHA"s -- Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. (That name, by the way, is trademarked by Carnegie-Mellon University, just in case you were wondering.) They are those distorted boxes of text that you see in many places where you have to enter the letters you see in order to prove you are not yourself a computer. It's a whole lot shorter than asking you to, oh, give your opinion on the Iraq war, which would probably likewise prove you are not a computer, but would take longer than ten seconds.

I hate them. Passionately.

Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em. Hate 'em.

I can't read the damn things. Last week, it took me four tries to get one right.

I hate them so much, I started this blog to try and get away from them. Didn't work.

However, there is another thing I hate, too: comment spam. Little Anonymous comments have started showing up which are clearly automated because they all contain the same nondescript text and the same links. I ignored the first few but they are increasing. So far they are behind the times, not showing up in my most recent posts, and I'd like to keep it that way.

So, I am turning on the CAPTCHAs.

Sorry for the inconvenience. I hope this won't keep anyone from commenting.

Stupid spambots.

A letter to Barbara Boxer.

Dear Senator Boxer:

When you campaigned for Senator Joe Leiberman during the Connecticut primary, I was appalled. Here was a man who had been a firm supporter of the war even after it became clear that the war was a disaster, who had been part of the group that refused to filibuster Samuel Alito, thus clearing the way for his ascendancy to the Supreme Court, and who had been willing to badmouth his own party.

It bothered me that you chose to place personal loyalty to a colleague above the best interests of your party -- indeed, of your country. However, I understand that you have worked with Senator Leiberman for a great many years. I decided to view your campaigning for him as a favor done for a friend, as troublesome as that might be.

However, I call on you to respect the primary process. If Senator Leiberman launches an independent bid for the Senate seat from Connecticut, I call on you to support the Democratic Party candidate, Ned Lamont, or failing that, remain neutral. If you choose to campaign or support Senator Leiberman in an independent campaign, I will view you as placing personal considerations above your party and, even more significantly, as disrespecting the primary process and Democratic voters.

Should you choose to do so, not only will I not vote for you in 2010, I will actively work for any reasonable opponent* you may meet in the Democratic primary.


A disgruntled constituent.

* One should never make promises one can't keep: it is not true that I would support just any Democrat against Boxer. Hence, the reasonable qualification -- I would not, for example, support a, um, Joe Leiberman-like politician.

Leiberman concedes in Connecticut

Thus continues the long, long slog to regain the soul of the Democratic Party.

Damn, this feels good.

One thing has confused me about all this -- over the years when the left has bitched and moaned about the influence wielded by the religious right, we've been told that it's because they organize and vote. They use direct mail, they energize their base. This is democracy, I've been told.


How come now that we on the left are doing what they on the right did starting fifteen years ago, except that we use blogs instead of direct mail and church rallies, we are "blogofascists" leading an "inquisition" who are threatening the very existence of the party?

Give me a break. You want to know who's threatening the existence of the party? People like Leiberman, and all the Senators who decided to campaign for him -- even though he spent a great deal of time badmouthing Democrats and acting in general as a Republican lapdog. A man so committed to the democratic process and so respectful of the Democratic voters of Connecticut, that a while ago he announced he would run as an independent if he lost the primary.

And before you say "bipartisanship," why, that's been dead a long time and it sure as hell was not the Democrats who killed it.

Of course, all of what I have just written has been posted ad infinitum for the past however many months at just about any big lefty American political blog you can name. I'm just so giddy I don't care if what I'm saying has been said before.

This is just the start. Those of us on the left have got a lot of work cut out for us.

Let's roll up those shirtsleeves.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I have not been blogging much about the Middle East because a) other people are doing a much better job of it and I have nothing to add that would add much light to it and b) it's very hard to type with tears cascading onto your keyboard.

All I can add are my prayers: for the people of Lebanon, and Israel, for peace. And an apology: for whatever part my government is playing in exacerbating this situation.

In the political circles I travel in, it is not uncommon for people to distance themselves from any responsibility for the government by saying "Don't look at us, we didn't vote for the guy. Either time." I think that's wrong.

The United States is a republic. We are responsible for the people who end up in power, even if we didn't vote for them ourselves: there is such a thing as community responsibility. And so, I apologize for my country to those outside her borders. (I do not do so to those within her borders, who are themselves members of the community; to them I do say "Hey, don't look at me, I didn't vote for the guy." Some members of the community are more culpable than others.)

Is this anti-American? I like to think of it as being adult. Adults take responsibility for the things that are under their care, individually and collectively. When they have done wrong, they apologize and seek to make amends.

We in America have given very much to the world. But right now we are vastly in the world's debt: we have given grievance, have acted like spoiled, bullying children, and we need to be adults, apologize and change our ways.

We complain about human rights infractions in other countries while detainees are kept in Guatanamo Bay, with little chance to challenge their detention. We have invaded a country with no cause -- Iraq (Afghanistan is a different story) -- and have become worse than the tyrants we supposedly went in to destroy. We have acted with disdain toward the rest of the entire world, while basking in our sense of self-righteous superiority.

So, yes, we have much to atone for. I just want to state for the record that one adult, at least, is trying to change things, and that there are many more like me.

I love my country dearly. I love my country enough to want it to be the very best it can be in the world, not merely a piece of puffery. I want us to be the "fairest of them all," in the sense of being the most just, the most merciful, the most honest.

But I want us to be that in reality, not simply for us to say that we are. And right now, we are not just, nor merciful, nor honest. Maybe we've never been, but at least we've made a better shot at it than we're doing now. Maybe the words have always been rhetoric, but there have been times when they have not been completely empty rhetoric.

So some -- many -- of us roll up our sleeves and try to change things. We write letters, we talk to our friends, we vote. Hopefully, things will change sooner rather than later. But it may take time. (And big changes are not likely to happen before 2009.)

So, to the rest of the world, our apologies. We'll let you know how the renovation work progresses.