IMAGINARY THREAT

Posted in Quick Hits on July 11th, 2012 by Ed

Rough night on Tuesday, including some internet/power outages, so this will be somewhat brief and the second installment of the Supreme Court rant will wait one more day.

ProPublica has a great piece on the exaggeration, inflation, and flat-out fabrication of terrorist threats for political purposes. The maligned NYPD has made a habit of boasting about the "14 terrorist attacks" it has thwarted since 9/11, and since it comes straight from the mouth of the police and the mayor, why would the media do anything other than repeat it unquestioningly?

Even a cursory analysis – which, again, no one seems to have bothered to do – reveals what ProPublica generously estimates as three sorta-legitimate threats. The remainder are mentally unstable people who made vague threats but took no real action or, more problematically, suspects who were only able to make progress toward an attack with the assistance of undercover law enforcement. Some nutjob(s) who couldn't plan and execute a gas station robbery decide to plot a terrorist attack and they get absolutely nowhere (because they're idiots, remember) until an informant cooperating with law enforcement or an undercover agent steps in and offers them materials and assistance to advance the threat. Then they are arrested and we are all told about the big, scary threat they presented. Look! They had bomb-making materials! That they got from, uh…well, that's not important.

Describing this kind of rhetoric as dishonest or these terrorist threats as manufactured seems almost too lenient.

SOME PEOPLE SAY

Posted in Rants on July 10th, 2012 by Ed

Don't skip this because you think it's about baseball. It is, but only for a moment. Then it gets interesting.

When I peruse the internet I bookmark pages that I intend to write about, and over the weekend I grabbed an ESPN story about a baseball player who went on a misogynist rant in an effort to belittle one of his opponents. Briefly, Boston Red Sox pitcher Vicente Padilla has been accused by a Yankee, Mark Teixeira, of intentionally hitting opponents with his pitches. Padilla responded as follows (condensed; emphasis mine):

"In this sport, as competitive ball players, we get pretty fired up," Padilla said, according to NESN.com. "So I think, maybe, (Teixeira) picked the wrong profession. I think he'd be better off playing a women's sport."

Padilla then implied that Teixeira had issues with Padilla and former teammate Frank Francisco because they were Latin. (snipped)

In his interview with Deportes, Padilla didn't back off his comments.

"We are all men here playing baseball," Padilla said. "We don't need no women playing baseball."

Padilla added, "He is always crying and complaining. If he has a base hit, he cries, if he doesn't, he cries. I just meant that not even women complain as much as him."

The reason I bookmarked this on Sunday had disappeared by the time I sat down to write about it on Monday evening. The third-to-last paragraph originally read, "In his interview with Deportes, Padilla didn’t back off his comments, which are demeaning to women athletes."

To prove that I am not imagining things, here are two screencaps of the original text, which no longer appears on the ESPN story. The first screencap is from Google, and the second is from a New York sports website that quoted the original ESPN text (click to embiggen):

This was worth writing about, in my opinion, because we are so used to the media playing its game of pretending that all arguments are equally valid that I was shocked to see a phrase as straightforward as, "which are demeaning to women athletes." I found it sad that a goddamn sports website could state that directly, whereas if this story was about politics we'd have CNN and the like telling us that "some people have claimed" that the comments were offensive or perhaps an attribution to an interest group ("according to Mary Smith of the National Organization of Women…") so that readers could more easily discount it. The news is so strongly geared toward not offending its target demographic – old people, white people, males, and old white males – that a reporter flat-out telling the reader the obvious truth ("Hey, this guy said some really sexist shit!") is unusual to us. For obvious reasons, that's pretty sad.

But then ESPN's story changed. Apparently someone got offended, or the editors panicked that the (overwhelmingly male) ESPN audience might get offended, at the relatively straightforward description of Padilla's comments. I mean, you don't have to be a Jezebel editor to see this as offensive. His argument is not complex: Teixeira is not tough. He whines, cries, and is a great big pussy. You know, like a woman!

American media outlets are so hypersensitive to accusations of "bias" that editorial policy now dictates, apparently, that even the most obvious judgment calls are too risky. Yes, the reader can detect the demeaning nature of Padilla's comments without being instructed to do so by the writer. My problem here is the motive and thought process behind editing the original text. Why did the editors feel it inappropriate to characterize sexist comments as sexist? Exactly whom did the editors fear offending by pointing out that calling a male athlete a woman to imply that he is a wimp is demeaning to women?

Both questions unfortunately have very obvious answers.

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THE SUPREME COURT, PART I: PUNTING

Posted in Rants on July 9th, 2012 by Ed

In an introductory American Government course the judiciary will get one chapter and about a week – two or three lectures – of attention before moving on to other topics. I hardly qualify as a master of the subject, but I try to cover one basic theme in addition to the time that must be devoted to the nuts-and-bolts of what the judiciary does and how it works. The American public and media are often critical of the courts, and particularly the most highly visible one, for being "politicized". That is, they appear to be assuming some role other than what we have been taught they are since childhood: impartial arbitrators. The idea that the Supreme Court decides whether abortion is legal or who won a presidential election is understandably disagreeable to many Americans. After all they are unelected and nearly impossible to remove, two characteristics designed to insulate them from politics. Therefore, it follows, they should keep their distance from political questions.

Considering the reality of the Court, however, it becomes clear that anyone shocked to learn that it is political has managed to overlook some fairly obvious red flags.

First, the members of the Court are chosen in a political process and carefully vetted by self-interested elected officials. From the presidents' perspective, these appointments are their legacy. For Congress, nominations are an important position-taking vote.

Second, there is no reason to believe that legal questions will have strictly legal implications. The political process creates the law, so interpreting the law has political consequences.

Third and most importantly, the Supreme Court is and always has been political because the other branches (and states, for that matter) essentially force it, through action or inaction, to resolve political questions.

This third and final point is key, because it gives rise to the one legitimate complaint that exists on this subject: that the Court is becoming more political over time. Simply put, there is a good argument to be made that the Supreme Court is resolving a greater number of political issues because the actual political process – Congress and state legislatures, presidents and governors – refuses to do so. Our elected officials, rather than make decisions about hot button issues and risk infuriating half of their constituents, willingly punt to the guys who can't be punished on Election Day.

Consider the choice facing members of Congress. One option is to introduce a bill about some controversial topic – abortion, gay marriage, healthcare reform, etc. – and then go on record for or against it. Another is to tread water, maintain the status quo, talk out of both sides of one's mouth on the issue, and wait for the Supreme Court to issue a decision that may end up being unpopular. Rational self-interest suggests that the second option is superior for most elected officials. Consider the Republican House majority after 2010, which could very well have debated and voted on one of the "repeal and replace" bills for "Obamacare" that candidates talked about so much during the election. In practice, and recognizing how popular some (but not all) parts of the law are among the public, they decided to wait and let the Supreme Court strike it down. Obviously that strategy failed, although tomorrow we'll talk about how they manage to turn this failure into an asset and undermine the efficacy of our government in the process.

It is popular in recent years to write about the failure of leadership in today's political class, often by resorting to sophomoric references to "common sense" and "guts" (Ed Rendell's ridiculous A Nation of Wusses: How America's Leaders Lost the Guts to Make Us Great or any of Glenn Beck's pablum come to mind). Perhaps it is a lack of resolve; perhaps it is simply a rational response to the incentives laid out in our elections, particularly the financial incentive to placate the greatest number of interest groups to the greatest possible extent. Regardless, the Federal bench and the Supreme Court in particular resolve contentious political questions for an uncomplicated reason: someone has to, and the lawmakers won't.

NPF: CHARIOT OF FIRE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 6th, 2012 by Ed

I have a tendency to develop emotional attachments to inanimate objects. No, not like the guy on Taboo who has sex with appliances. What I mean is, if they are particularly useful to me or I own them for an unusually long time, I feel a little sad to let them go. I'm not a hoarder, I promise. I throw things out. But I do, on occasion, say thank you while I'm doing it. If that makes me crazy, so be it.

Last week I sold the first and only car I ever owned, a 2000 Nissan Sentra. According to the paperwork I unearthed during the process of transferring the title, I bought it new in Madison, WI on July 30, 2000 for $14,072. It had 39 miles on the odometer. I sold it just short of 12 years later for $1,300 with 168,787 miles on it. It took me from age 21 to 33 and it never let me down. It was the definition of trouble-free and reliable through 12 years living in four different states (IL, WI, IN, and GA) and a dozen different apartments.

The first girl I was in love with drove me to the dealership to buy it. A decade later I drove it to my wedding. I drove it to my first real job post-college. I drove it across the country and back several times. It regularly took me from Indiana to central Illinois to see my sister's kids. It took me to dozens of band and comedy gigs. You get the picture.

I've replaced it with a far nicer vehicle, as it is pretty run down at this point in its life. Nonetheless, it was sad to part with it, to watch it drive away and see it for what is likely the last time. I said thanks, not so much to the machine itself but to the people who made it. I thought about the people in some factory in Japan who paid enough attention to what must be a not-very-stimulating series of tasks that I could buy one of the cheapest cars on the market and get 12 hassle free years from it. I appreciate their effort and I wonder if they realize how much benefit I derived from their relatively simple labors.

No, I don't go through this thought process every time I discard something (note: disposing of old underwear is an equally difficult process, albeit for entirely different reasons). But I felt like I owed this hunk of metal and plastic a few moments of reflection for all the major life events it saw me through and all the places it took me. And yes, if you're interested, I recommend a Nissan without hesitation.

TONE DEAFNESS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 5th, 2012 by Ed

Aside from celebrating American independence from whatever country we won independence from – about 25% of American adults don't know – I have been overcome with some sort of sleeping sickness over the past week or two. I've always been a six-hours-per-night-will-do kind of guy and a nite owl to boot, but lately I sleep like it pays by the hour. That and the poorly placed holiday have combined to make this week a total blog fail. I'll get back on the ball tomorrow.

For now, check out this little gem from Mitt Romney last week (emphasis mine):

I think this is a land of opportunity for every single person, every single citizen of this great nation. And I want to make sure that we keep America a place of opportunity, where everyone has a fair shot. They get as much education as they can afford and with their time they're able to get and if they have a willingness to work hard and the right values, they ought to be able to provide for their family and have a shot of realizing their dreams.

I used to think Mittens got something of an unfair rap for making tactless statements depicting him as an out-of-touch plutocrat who doesn't understand the little people. That's unfair in the sense that it describes so many of our elected officials that I saw no real reason to single out Romney. The more he talks, however, the more apparent it becomes that his "misstatements" stem from some combination of his privileged life and his Randian ideology. He should probably know better than to say things like this in public, and he doesn't because he's completely tone deaf. Make no mistake, though: this reflects his underlying belief system. He believes in an America in which everyone gets to succeed in life based on what they can afford, as befits a man who has been trying to buy the presidency for half a decade.

VALUE

Posted in Rants on July 3rd, 2012 by Ed

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a perfectly ordinary summer heat wave strikes across the U.S. and millions of people are without power at the worst possible time. It's something of an annual ritual at this point.

Americans sure are "frustrated" at the thought of experiencing triple-digit temperatures without basic modern conveniences like ceiling fans and air conditioning* but as usual they do not appear to connect the dots. The fundamental problem is that like so much of our infrastructure, the American power grid belongs in decrepit. We have first world prices and a third world grid. The outdated fossil fuel power generating stations look downright modern compared to the transmission system. So Americans – Woo! We're #1! U-S-A! U-S-A! – get to enjoy brown- and blackouts during the height of summer. You know, blackouts; like they have in Uzbekistan and Angola. But I'm sure there's nothing wrong with our grid – the power must be out because the lazy union linemen aren't fixing it. What's beige and sleeps four? The ComEd truck, amirite people? Ha!

I never had high hopes for the current President, but there was some talk during the 2008 election and transitional period about a "New New Deal" type stimulus in which billions would be devoted to the long overdue overhaul of our nation's crumbling infrastructure. It never fails to amaze me how easily most Americans can reconcile our wealth and self appointed greatest-country-ever status with the overall shabbiness of so much of their surroundings – the collapsing bridges, the antique power grid, the slowest-in-the-Western-world broadband internet infrastructure, the 19th Century rail system, the two generations old cellular network, the old (and increasingly privatized) water supply, and so on. Of course it didn't happen. As usual, the only thing we managed to do is fix and repave some highways. And we don't even do a very good job of that.

A summer power outage is neither unprecedented nor unexpected, but it is a very visible reminder of the way that our country as a whole is starting to reflect the saddest aspects of its crumbling cities – the sense that this place was shiny and new in the 1940s and 1950s and it has been all downhill since then. We used to be able to handle ideas like massive government projects (rural electrification, the Interstate Highway System, etc.) to improve our standard of living. Now we sit around waiting for Private Sector Santa to save us; he never quite gets around to it. The idea that we could publicly employ millions of people to make the country less like your grandmother's 100 year old house – the hoarder, not the sweet one with all the doilies – simply doesn't fly before. Even if one rejects Keynesian economics, you'd think there would be some appeal to the idea of not living in a shit hole.

I underestimate our capacity for self-loathing sometimes. Let's start a pool for the first internet hack to call this "Obama's Blackout", with bonus points for naming the first to make it explicitly racist.

*How is Willis Carrier's birthday not a state holiday in the former Confederacy and the Southwest?

UNEXPECTED DELAY

Posted in Quick Hits on July 2nd, 2012 by Ed

I planned to do the first installment of the two part Big Healthcare Post for Monday, but the precarious health status of my best non-human friend has prevented me from devoting much time or mental energy to it this evening. Tuesday it is.

In the meantime, Glenn Beck is leading the totally predictable jihad against John Roberts. Part of me wonders about the odds that going full apeshit on Roberts will turn him into the next Anthony Kennedy – a swing vote despite being mostly shriveled and to the right of Goldwater on the inside. One thing I can't imagine, though, is that turning Roberts into persona non grata in conservative circles will not have some observable effect on the man.