Thursday, August 31, 2006

Olmert = LBJ?

As a historian, when I write something for public consumption (newspaper op-eds, say) I am mostly inclined to think in terms of historical analogies. That tendency is perhaps what initially drew me to Yoav Fromer's New Republic article comparing Ehud Olmert with Lyndon Johnson. It is an interesting argument. But I think the analogy fails.

Fromer hinges his argument on the recent Lebanon/Hezbollah debacle as being akin to Vietnam. But this does not work for me. For one thing, Hezbollah launched missiles into Israel and kidnapped members of the IDF. Whatever one thinks about Israel vis a vis the Palestinians, I cannot imagine how one could not see some sort of response from Israel as justified. And while one might try to justify Vietnam, I cannot imagine how one could see any serious act of provocation justifying war comparable to that Israel experienced, Gulf of Tonkin machinations notwithstanding.

But beyond the clear differences of context, the crucial aspect of LBJ's demise was that it developed over time. In a matter of just four years LBJ went from signing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to resigning to virtually no lamentation. Four years is not a long time, and in fact his collapse seems to have occurred in a flash. But four years is not six months, and Olmert's equivalent to the Great Society was far more directly linked to what Fromer sees as the cause of Olmert's possible demise than was LBJ's. As has often been said, LBJ suffered because of his inability to balance guns and butter. Olmert's Great Society equivalent was always directly tied to the same ubiquitous concern of security that is a tangible reality in every day Israeli life as was the Hezbollah confrontation.

Fromer nonetheless uses the analogy to make a larger point, and that is, as hewrites in his lede, "The last person you'd want to bet on these days is Ehud Olmert." About this, he may be right. But security is still a fundamental issue in Israel, where guns or butter is not a distinction Israelis have the luxury to make, and if Olmert can manage to buy time and convince the populace that he is still the rightful heir to Ariel Sharon's vision, he may yet emerge victorious. If this is the case, an equally flawed analogy might be with JFK and the Bay of Pigs, wherein an unproven president entered office and met with utter failure in his first major Cold War confrontation. JFK recovered until his tragic death just over two years later. Perhaps Olmert can recover too, as just with the threat of Communism in 1961, Israel's threats are not going away any time soon.

Where is the Place Called Hope?

At the New York Times earlier in the week Adam Cohen had an insightful op-ed piece about The Rise of Pessimism. Here is a chunk of the conclusion:
President Clinton was often mocked for his declarations that he still believed “in a place called Hope.” But he understood that instilling hope is a critical part of leadership. Other than a few special interest programs — like cutting taxes on the wealthy and giving various incentives to business — it is hard to think of areas in which the Bush administration has raised the nation’s hopes and met them. This president has, instead, tried to focus the American people on the fear of terrorism, for which there is no cure, only bad choices or something worse.

Part of Mr. Bush’s legacy may well be that he robbed America of its optimism — a force that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other presidents, like Ronald Reagan, used to rally the country when it was deeply challenged. The next generation of leaders will have to resell discouraged Americans on the very idea of optimism, and convince them again that their goal should not be to live with their ailments, but to cure them.

I think there is a great deal to this argument. Talk to any conservative who admires Reagan and one of the first things you will hear is that Reagan restored a sense of American greatness. He restored optimism. He believed that it could be Morning in America again, and that we were a shining city on a hill. Independent of his actual legacy as president, which historians will continue to debate for decades, it would be hard to take seriously any argument that did not give credence to Reagan's disposition, from which so many of his values and policies flowed. Thankfully, the extreme perceptions of Reagan -- the demonization from the left and the canonization from the right -- is steadily giving way to a historiography that acknowledges the man's manifest strengths while taking serious aim at his administration's flaws.

We have not yet reached a similar stage with Clinton, whose reputation is similarly polarizing but will change as time softens (or marginalizes) both his most dogged detractors and his most blinkered apologists. And what I suspect that we will get is a picture of a charming, optimistic, well-intentioned centrist with an overactive libido operating in an increaingly poisonous culture. As Cohen implies, mock the man who believed in a place called Hope all you would like. It will still be hard to taint Clinton as someone who did not carry forward a sense of optimism that worked to such an extent that he could get things accomplished -- welfare reform, say, or inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda -- all the while maintaining, indeed strengthening his hold on, constituencies that seemingly should have been most turned off by such action or inaction.

Think also of LBJ, whose greatest successes stemmed from a profound sense of optimism. Think of his "We shall overcome" reference when he signed the Voting Rights Act, or his "Great Society." These were fundamentally optimistic in spirit and scope. LBJ effectively foundered on the shoals of a loss of this optimism, when it became unsustainable in the face of the morass, both at home and abroad, of Vietnam.

This is not to celebrate optimism for optimism's sake. Scratch an optimist in almost all of these cases and you find a political realist, or worse, a cynic. But it is to say that in maintaining a generally optimistic outloook, these politicians experienced their greatest successes. When that optimism waned, things went awry. But to echo the Cohen piece, and to add an extra historical analogy, hasn't the Bush administration crushed optimism? We hope things will go well even if we feel that maybe we are whistling past the graveyard. The George W. Bush years feel to me a lot like the Carter years. Except that Bush has brought a lot more of the current malaise upon himself.

Two-and-a-half years is a long time. Much can change. But it does not much feel like morning in America, and it's been a long time since many of us have visited that place called Hope.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Lame or Stupid? You Decide.

I cannot tell if this Sportsguy article is supposed to be funny but isn't or is supposed to have a deeper message but is just stupid. I know it may well just be a line to set up the string of lame jokes that follow, but it was clear that we were in for trouble when he gave us this gem: "Shouldn't it be Tiger's job to keep us interested?" Not if by "interested" you mean by doing anything other than playing well.

At Clevelend '64 (And on LeBron)

Tom has a new post over at Cleveland '64 in which he issues forth random thoughts about Clevelend sports. I do take issue with the premise of this, however:
Re: the World Basketball Championships. For the life of me I will never understand why anyone would underestimate a LeBron James-co-led team. I just don't get it. Basketball media and fans seem to have a Michael Jordan hang-up that they can't get over. Michael was the greatest player I ever saw, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the rest of the league wasn't very good by the mid-1990s. Professional basketball is getting good again, like it was in the 1980s, and the revival is being led by James, Wade, and maybe Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and a handful of others. It should come as no surprise that these guys are doing so well so far in the World Basketball Championships.

That said, please feel free to continue to believe that there is some reason besides LeBron that team USA is playing so well.

I do not deny LeBron's rising greatness. But I can think of a couple of "reasons besides LeBron that team USA is playing so well." One is Carmelo Anthony. The other is Dwyane Wade. Both are outplaying LeBron in this World Championships. I happen to think that Coach K has pulled together a team concept that the guys are buying into, and that Lebron's leadership (along with that of Anthony and Wade) has been crucial. But to say that there is no reason other than LeBron when two other guys from the team are in the top 10 in the tournament in scoring and LeBron is ranked 31st just does not wash. Wade's success should come as a surprise to no one. But 'Melo had seemed to take a couple of steps back in the last year, and the fact that he is leading Team USA in scoring is a revelation. Lebron continues to show that he will be an alpha dog. He just is not the alpha dog, and I happen to believe that the play of Wade and Anthony happen to be reasons other than LeBron for the early successes of the US team.

Otherwise, enjoy your travels throught he world of Cleveland sports with Tom as your always-entertaining guide.

Rumsfeld Invokes Hitler

It was only a matter of time. The increasingly shrill and strident Donald Rumsfeld has accused those who oppose the war in Iraq (likely a sizable majority of Americans from both ends of the ideological spectrum and both sides of the political divide) of not only "moral and intellectual confusion," but he also raised the absurdly inapt image of appeasement to Adolph Hitler and refers, sloppily, to "a new form of fascism." He delivered these words at the American Legion's national convention in Salt Lake City. Honest debate has become next-to impossible with this administration. It has always been impossible with Rumsfeld.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Red Sox Debacle

Nick Cafardo has a pretty good rundown of the lost Red Sox season in the Boston Globe. He does a fairly good job of absolving manager Terry Francona of most of the blame. Injuries on top of injuries are the prime culprit, along with the front office's inability or unwillingness to strike a deal at the deadline.

Francona is not blameless -- even acknowledging how thin the team was in the pen, he made some curious decisions handling his relief corps, and his insistence on going back to Coco Crisp at leadoff even in the face of Kevin Youklis' success at the top of the order is nothing short of mystifying. But this is a team that has lost Manny, Ortiz, Wily Mo Pena, Nixon, Gonzalez, Foulke, Varitek, Wells, Wakefield, Delcarmen, Crisp and a number of other guys for various stretches of time this season, some for long stretches. That they are still technically in it is a testament to the fact that this team knows how to contend, but they did not have enough. Obviously I have not wholly lost faith in the possibility of a comeback, but this season feels like the 2001 Jimy Williams-Joe Kerrigan meltdown again, except that in 2001 the expectations were not as high.

Edit: For me being a moron.

Hoop Dreams

Over at Sports Illustrated's CNN-partnered site, Seth Davis has a nice feature on Arthur Agee and, to a lesser extent, William Gates, the two guys at the heart of Hoop Dreams. Things have not gone all that well for Arthur in the years since he was a promising high school prospect. His father died in tragic circumstances, and it was subsequently revealed that he led a fairly dark second life that ended up having lingering effects on Arthur. William Gates is doing better, is a minister, but has also seen tragedy in his family.

I loved Hoop Dreams. It was powerful and affecting and sorrowful and inspiring. When the geniuses behind the Oscars did not even nominate it for best documantary that year, I pretty much abandoned the Oscars as being even vaguely credible. Hoop Dreams set a template for both sports documentaries and sports reportage that lingers to this day. It also does a great job of revealing why sports are so compelling, both for good and for bad. It makes me sad to see Arthur Agee struggling, because I feel as if I know him, and I definitely was rooting for him from the earliest scenes in the film. Similarly, it is a joy to know that through all of the struggles, William has turned into a role model and a strong family man. Neither guy lived their hoop dreams, which makes their lives all the more compelling and cautionary. Most athletes, after all, end up falling short of their dreams, on the court, but sometimes in their lives as well.

Hat Tip to the Thunderstick for the link.

Cliff May and Questions Left Unasked

The latest "News and Notes" is available from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. In it, Cliff May asks some pointed questions about the release of the kidnapped Fox journalists:

FREE PRESS: It is great news that Fox's Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig were released over the weekend. But this incident raises many troubling questions. Here are a half dozen:

1) Both Centanni and Wiig were forced -- at gunpoint -- to convert to Islam. Has any Palestinian religious or political leader condemned that? Has UN Secretary General Kofi Anan said a word about it? (Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the UN Charter.) How about the leading Muslim organizations in the U.S. and Europe? If not, why not?

2) In statements made after their release, Centanni and Wiig emphasized that their experience should not discourage news organizations from covering Gaza, from "telling the story of the Palestinian people...Come and tell the story. It's a wonderful story," Centanni said.

Is the mission of Fox's London bureau to tell the "wonderful story" of the British people? Do reporters cover the White House in order to tell the "wonderful story" of George W. Bush?

This is patronizing and it's pandering. Journalism and public relations are both respectable professions. But there is a difference between them.

3) Will Palestinian authorities prosecute those responsible for this crime? Or have they already guaranteed the perpetrators amnesty and other benefits?

Will the media aggressively attempt to find the answer? Or will the failure of Palestinian authorities to hold criminals accountable not be seen as part of the "wonderful story" that needs to be told?

4) Will journalists investigate whether there is any connection between those who committed this crime and the murder, in 2003, of three Americans who were part of a delegation on its way to interview Palestinian candidates for the Fulbright Scholarship? Those responsible for that crime have never been brought to justice and the issue has been allowed to fade.

5) The fact that Palestinian leaders managed to secure the release of these journalists surely suggests that they could secure the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier as well. Why has that not happened?

6) Finally, can we hope for some self-examination by the media about the extent to which kidnappings and other threats intimidate journalists and influence their coverage, not least in such places as Gaza and Lebanon? I wouldn't bet on it.

I tend to grow weary of blanket indictments of what the media does or does not do. It's a parlor game that "the media" cannot win. There are a million angles to a million stories that will never and realistically can never get covered. Cliff asks important questions. Others might have equally important questions about the elections in the Congo, what the rise of Islamism means in Somalia, and literally thousands of others that have as of yet been unanswered. To expect the media to create a 1:1 scale map of the universe as it exists at the moment of publication and based on one's own biases seems to be both patently unfair and absurd, inclined to make one's grievences seem all the more potent as a result of appearing to be ignored. And in an age when one can rise to prominence outside of the realm of the media, through, say, blogging or any other fairly prominent platform, rather than complain about what others are not doing, why not try to do it yourself?

But on the whole, Cliff raises good and important questions that deserve to be answered because the media has given this issue ample coverage, and as a consequence, the apparent ommissions are ones that we are entitled to think someone would address. In other words, in the midst of all-Jonbenet all the time, this is a case where legitimate questions could have been asked were the media, and especially televised media, and particularly Fox (which, from my random daily samples has been the most committed to the breathless coverage of the decade-old murder of a pretty little white girl even though thousands of children die from violence every year, and which has a dog in this hunt) a little more committed to asking the tough questions.

Update: I exchanged a couple of emails with Cliff May today, and here is what he had to say about this issue and my post:

I think you make a good point re my questions. Actually, I want to hear what Centanni and Wiig say next, after the immediate rush of events has died down, and when they don’t have Hamas officials standing next to them.

At that point, it should be possible to judge whether they understand how they’ve been manipulated -- or not.

This is a very useful argument -- for their own safety and perhaps as the result of something like Stockholm Syndrome, we probably ought not to place too much pressure on them right now, but once they have had time to adjust, see their families, and the like, let's hope they have something to contribute to a discussion that, as May amply argues, we ought to be having.

Obama in Kenya

Barack Obama is in Kenya, visiting the place of his father's birth. He has seen family, including the grandmother he had not seen for fourteen years, and has received a hero's welcome. He also has been saying the sorts of things that many of us have been arguing for some time. For example, in a speech at the University of Nairobi, he told his audience:
"Kenya and other African nations will never thrive if their citizens cannot count on government to deliver services fairly, regardless of their tribal background or ability to pay bribes."

Indeed, not to keep shamelessly pimping it, but I would like to think that Obama might really like this.

I'm absolutely willing to take Obama's trip at face value. But he is surely garnering invaluable publicity, and as a consequence, a more-than-ancillary benefit of the glow in which he is basking in Kenya is that he will accrue serious gravitas points for his almost inevitable run for the presidency, whether that comes in 2008 or beyond. I am a big Obama booster, and am excited about what he might be able to do for Africa if ever given the opportunity.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Hooray, Us!

On Sunday the Honolulu Advertiser published the History News Service article on Iraq and the Congo that Tom and I wrote. (Tom found it first, so I guess I owe him a tip o' the hat.)

Are You Ready For Some Friday Night Lights?

Most of you don't get to live in Texas amidst the spectacle that is Friday Night Lights, a town, a team, and a dream, and all that. But you can read the Odessa American's quite ambitious Permian Basin football preview. The Permian Panthers have not seen the playoffs since 1998, and to make matters worse, Midland High, Midland Lee, and Odessa High, teams Permian once pounded, have all seen fall glory. But hope springs eternal for the boys in black here in tortilla-flat west Texas.

Back From New England

I'm back from my weekend of sin and debauchery in Boston and New Hampshire. I got about twelve hours sleep, total, seriously pushed the capacity of some of my internal organs, and got the gift of lifetime comedy value from a buddy internet messaging a girl the line "Do you like sexy things?" at about 4:30 in the morning. Very smooth. I'm dying right now, and Monday is my epic teaching day this term, so I may be scarce, but will post as I can and should be back in full bloom tomorrow.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bad Flashback

I'm just touching base quickly from God's country, which you better know by the name "Boston." I just saw this story on CNN. I am uncomfortable with claiming to be an "expert" in the areas in which I do work, but let's just say that I know more than a little bit about segregation on buses. I hope that in the next year or so you'll all have the option to buy my book on the Freedom Rides. I'm starting a new book on bus boycotts in the US and South Africa. So when I see a story in which a white bus driver in Louisiana is alleged to have forced the black kids to sit at the back of his bus, it raises my hackles. (I don't actually know what hackles are. But whatever they are, they make me feel pretty ill.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Iraq: Lessons From the Congo

History News Service has distributed an op-ed, For Iraq, a Lesson from Africa that Tom and I have written. It will go out to 300 or so newspapers across the US and Canada. Here is the intro, to tantalize you:
No one's looking, because no one's inclined to look in such an unlikely place. But it turns out that there's much to learn about how to handle the Iraqi quagmire by looking to Africa -- and, of all places, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The lesson is simple and yet has been almost universally ignored by American politicians and military planners alike: If you focus too much on security and the mere appearance of democracy and do not work toward fostering the development of the full panoply of liberal institutions, strongmen will take over, as has happened in Africa. Security and elections are necessary but not sufficient conditions for Iraq's ultimate success. Winning hearts and minds is fine, but creating a vibrant civil society and stable institutions enables true democracy to flourish.

We hope you enjoy it.

I am leaving for a weekend up in New England early tomorrow, and I may be out of touch for a few days. I'll run into the Thunderstick in Boston, which we will terrorize for a couple of days before heading to the old hometown for about eighteen hours. I'll be back Sunday night.

On Bill Clinton and History's Judgment

Robert Rector, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, argues that Bill Clinton was right when it came to welfare reform.
As a conservative analyst who spent much of the 1990s working against most of Bill Clinton's agenda -- including even some aspects of his welfare reform proposals -- it pains me to say this.

Bill Clinton was right.

He deserves more credit for the passage of welfare reform than most conservatives probably care to admit.

No, Clinton didn't play a major role in shaping the policy details of the landmark 1996 act. But he understood something about policymaking that many conservative strategists and policy wonks could stand to re-learn: It isn't enough to get the technical details of a policy right. Words and symbols matter, too.

Indeed, thanks in large part to his effective use of words and symbols that challenged liberal orthodoxy on issues surrounding the poor, Bill Clinton not only helped "end welfare as we know it," but he helped end welfare as we know it before anyone even knew it.

Essentially Rector credits Clinton's rhetoric, his understanding of symbolism, and his vision. And while Rector argues that Clinton did not play a central policy role, it is useful to point out that in addition to rhetorical skills and vision, Clinton was undoubtedly the savviest politician of his generation and possibly the most policy-wonkish president in American history.

As the Monica Lewinsky fiasco fades from view it will be interesting to see what happens to Clinton's reputation among historians and political junkies. One of his potential weak points will have to be how he addressed the impending threat of terror, but no serious critic will be able to attack him for that without seriously considering the response to almost all of his foreign policy initiatives from an increasingly strident and isolationist Congress. Clinton will likely go down as a mixed bag, albeit as a two-term mixed bag, which usually redounds to the credit of the president. For a long time, President Clinton will remain a polarizing figure, but much like Reagan before him, who was equally polarizing in many ways, one can imagine that the passage of a generation will allow for more fair-minded assessments to present a full picture of Clinton's presidency, both its considerable foibles and its manifest strengths.

Shooting the Congolese in the Foot

Violence escalates in the capital. The UN is pleading for a stop to violence. News from the Congo is not good. Yet the most alarming of the bad vibes emanating from Kinshasa has to be the fact that the Kabila-Bemba runoff is not scheduled until October 29.

Even given infrastructural limitations, how could planners not have foreseen this turn of events? We have a fundamentally unstable society that has been promised the possibility of peace, security, and stability. They hold elections with dozens of candidates knowing that only a majority tally will be acceptable for the victor to emerge with legitimacy. Those elections take place under conditions that prove palatable to outside observers. When no one emerges with a clear majority, violence sets in. That violence is escalating. And now the Congolese get to sit and wait for two months while the sitting president and a known warlord rally their supporters, may of whom have access to weaponry.

The UN has weighed in on the violence, which is about all we can expect from the UN these days. But before we lambaste the UN, let us keep in mind that hand wringing is all we will get from outsiders. Joseph Kabila, believing his cause is right and just, will almost certainly use the mechanisms of government for his own purposes and against both Bemba and the incipient democratic spirit. And so it goes in the troubled vastness of the Congo where even the best laid plans and noblest intentions founder on the shoals of chaos.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gumbel on the NFL

Bryant Gumbel has gotten himself in some hot water for comments that he made in his closing remarks on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" last week. Addressing new commissioner Roger Goodell, Gumbel gave the following advice:
"Before he cleans out his office," Gumbel said. "Have Paul Tagliabue show you where he keeps Gene Upshaw's leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch."

Gumbel's lines had the benefit of being fundamentally true, refreshingly candid, and pretty funny. Tagliabue's response, on the other hand, revealed a lack of amusement: "What Gumbel said about Gene Upshaw and our owners is about as irresponsible as anything I've heard in a long time." Let's quickly pass over the rather unseemly idea that Tagliabue is so inured to what goes on in the world outside of professional football that these words qualify as the most irresponsible he's heard in "a long time" except to say that given this sense of perspective, if Tagliabue ever speaks about anything involving events the real world, ever, he should be beaten with a helmet. Someone have him take a look at the news on a daily basis, please. Of more significance, the NFL Network, for which Gumbel is currently scheduled to handle play-by-play duties toward the end of the season, is in consultaton with league officials over Gumbel's comments. This is both absurd and unacceptable. Free speech, even on matters as largely frivolous as the NFL (even if the NFL takes itself way too seriously), ought to be sacrosanct for journalisst, which Gumbel certainly is. It seems that the solons who run the NFL cannot handle a little bit of criticism. I hope that Gumbel has the integrity to tell the NFL to pump sand if the league demands an apology for his comments, which were fully within his rights to say, and which were, again, fundamentally true. Upshaw is by far the least effectual labor representative in major sports, and the NFLPA by far the least effectual such union.

Some Truths

Over at The Boston Globe, Bob Ryan speaks some truths, most of which actually are true.

Richard Hofstadter and the Missteps of Liberalism?

Over at the Washington Post E.J. Dionne tries to explain where liberalism may have gone awry. His answer may surprise you: The wrong turn may have begun with Richard Hofstadter. Dionne works from his recent reading of David S. Brown's Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography:
But reading Brown is also a reminder of where Hofstadter may have misled the very liberal movement to which he was devoted. There was, first, his emphasis on American populists as embodying a "deeply ingrained provincialism" (Brown's term) whose revolt was as much a reaction to the rise of the cosmopolitan big city as to economic injustices.

Many progressives and reformers, he argued, represented an old Anglo-Saxon middle class who suffered from "status anxiety" in reaction to the rise of a vulgar new business elite. Hofstadter analyzed the right wing of the 1950s and early 1960s in similar terms. Psychological disorientation and social displacement became more important than ideas or interests.

Now, Hofstadter was exciting precisely because he brilliantly revised accepted and sometimes pious views of what the populists and progressives were about. But there was something dismissive about Hofstadter's analysis that blinded liberals to the legitimate grievances of the populists, the progressives and, yes, the right wing.

I think Dionne's argument makes some sense, at least to a degree. But it also seems to me that demonizing liberalism really has little to do with liberalism per se (has liberalism gone wrong?) and more to do with a political culture of ad hominems and misrepresentation and winning at all cost. Rather than show where the enemy is wrong, it has become easier simply to depict them as evil and dangerous and preferably as stooges for some uber-enemy. A journalistic culture in which the sound-bite reigns victorious over a supine deep analysis certainly does not help. Most of the lies that conservatives like to spread about liberals are untrue, which does not for a minute stop the proliferators of lies from dospersing them. (The same, by the way, can be said about lies that liberals like to spread about conservatives.)

Lee Siegel and That Self Lovin' Judge

Lee Siegel discusses one of the more odd news stories to cross the wire in recent weeks over at "Lee Siegel On Culture". Here are the opening paragraphs, to whet your whistle:
Sometimes a thing will happen and you just don't know what to do with it. Interpretively speaking. Sometimes a thing will happen that is so striking and singular that it seems, paradoxically, to spread an illuminating light over an entire social landscape, hitherto darkened and obscure. And yet the thing's very singularity makes it impossible to draw such large conclusions. This type of thing is a godsend to a cultural critic, and it is also a cultural critic's worst nightmare.

Specifically, I am talking about Donald Thompson, a former Oklahoma judge. Thompson, who retired from the bench in 2004, was just convicted of using a penis pump to masturbate while presiding over several trials between 2001 and 2003. He was sentenced to four years in prison, and ordered to pay a $40,000 fine.

Let me repeat that. Thompson, who retired from the bench in 2004, was just convicted of using a penis pump to masturbate while presiding over several trials. When, as a boy, I dreamed of being a published writer, I never thought I would write a sentence like that in a non-fictional format. I've been thinking about Thompson's case for days, ever since I read about his conviction. It's not that I don't have finer and more important things to reflect on. It's not that there aren't more urgent or significant events going on in the world. I just can't make sense of Thompson's odyssey on any level.

I am now brought back to one of my standard hobby horses: Why do we know about this story? Yes, it is amusing and disturbing. But a judge wheeling it in Oklahoma really ought not to qualfy as news. It does not signal something about which we can be worried (is it a trend?). It is hardly a human interest story, though it is interestingly prurient. Hell, the crime is not even that egregious (don't get me wrong -- punish the guy, but let's have some sense of proportion).

At the same time, I am outraged that the Jon Benet Ramsey story is back in the news, so I may just be a crank. My cantankerousness notwithstanding, the tragic story of that dead little girl should never have been in the news the first time around. Children die all the time. Why is this one so singularly important? The answer is that she was not, but the media tend to be full of shallow dunderheads who make news as much as report it.

Monday, August 21, 2006

More on "Islamo-Fascism"

Last week I discussed the emerging tempest over the use of the term "Islamo-fascist" to describe islamist terrorists. Over at The Plank, Spencer Ackerman echoes my discomfort and then some.:
I spent the last week in Dearborn, Michigan, home of the largest and oldest Muslim community in the United States, and I have a news flash: President Bush's recent formulation of the enemy in the war on terrorism as "Islamic Fascism," or, as it's more often known, "Islamofascism," is extremely offensive here. Practically everyone I've spoken with in Dearborn, from oncologists to students to clerics, brings up the term unprompted to explain how they feel themselves under collective suspicion from the Justice Department, a tone they feel Bush has set himself by using the phrase. You never hear the terms "Christian fascism," or "European fascism," goes the rejoinder, despite fascism's historical hijacking of Christian (actually atavistic paganism, more often) or ancient European iconography.

Last week in the Weekly Standard, the apparent inventor of the phrase, Stephen Schwartz, dismissed those who'd be offended by "Islamofascism" as "primitive Muslims." That should tell you all you need to know about those who use the term. I confess to using it, if ironically, in a recent piece, and here in Dearborn I learned precisely why you and I shouldn't. The people it infuriates aren't primitive. They're the moderate, pro-American, well-integrated Muslims who form one of the greatest bulwarks against Al Qaeda that the U.S. possesses, and they see the term as draining their Americanness away.

And for what? For a dubious linkage to a much different historical phenomenon? It doesn't diminish the crimes of the Taliban to observe that a Nazi would find Taliban-ruled Afghanistan unrecognizable. "Islamofascism" merely strokes an erogenous zone of the right wing, which gains pleasure from a juvenile reductio ad Hitlerum with the enemies of the U.S. Given my druthers, I'd call the enemy anti-Western Salafist jihadism. That may not roll off the tongue easily, but it has the advantage of relative precision.

We need to come up with another term. The more I think about it, I wonder if "Islamist" is not also too broad -- anything that appears, however inadvertantly, to stain an entire religion and an entire people is problematic and potentially dangerous. It certainly will not aid us in the crucial work of winning hearts and minds.

The Congo Election: Indecision 2006

The Congo election has reached a moment of truth. None of the dozens of candidates in the first democratic elections in the DRC in some four decades received a majority of the vote and so Joseph Kabila (who tallied 44.81% of the vote) and warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba (20.03%) will face one another in a runoff that already has inspired violence. The run-off is welcome inasmuch as it will ensure that whoever loses the race will garner a majority and the concomitant legitimacy that accompanies it. One can also hope that the run-off will reveal Bemba, who at one point led in the early vote count, to have little nationwide support. It still is unclear what a Kabila victory will mean in practical terms, but the validation of a (relatively) free and fair election is at least a baby step toward progress. The violence, on the other hand, shows just how far there is yet to go before the Congo is ready to walk on its own.

More Terrorism Negligence

Round and round it goes, where it stops, no one knows. Today's Washington Post reports the following:
The federal research agency in charge of countering emerging terrorist threats such as liquid explosives is so hobbled by poor leadership, weak financial management and inadequate technology that Congress is on the verge of cutting its budget in half.

The Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate or something very much like it is not a sufficient but surely is a necessary body for countering terrorism. And yet here is another case of internal bungling, lack of direction, lack of commitment, and institutional inertia keeping us from doing the best job we can of keeping people safe.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


In this week's New Yorker Seymour Hirsch has another first-rate article on the situation in the Middle East. I was taken aback when I read the following paragraphs:
The surprising strength of Hezbollah’s resistance, and its continuing ability to fire rockets into northern Israel in the face of the constant Israeli bombing, the Middle East expert told me, “is a massive setback for those in the White House who want to use force in Iran. And those who argue that the bombing will create internal dissent and revolt in Iran are also set back.”

Nonetheless, some officers serving with the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain deeply concerned that the Administration will have a far more positive assessment of the air campaign than they should, the former senior intelligence official said. “There is no way that Rumsfeld and Cheney will draw the right conclusion about this,” he said. “When the smoke clears, they’ll say it was a success, and they’ll draw reinforcement for their plan to attack Iran.”

And this prediction, that irrespective of the facts on the ground the Bush people would claim victory, has proven eerily prescient.

This is just a tough case to buy. Olmert too has argued that this was a victory for Israel, but almost no one in Israel is buying it, nor should they be. This post facto rationalization is nothing more than whistling padt the graveyard. Israel's plan was not to engage in air attacks long enough for a multimational peace keeping force to step in. Israel's plan was not for the UN Security Council to be the deciding factor in this war. Israel's desire was for nothing less than the debilitation at minimum and even moreso the destruction of Hezbollah. This shows yet another example of the Bush administration seeing what it wants to see rather than what is out there.

Another disquieting excerpt from the piece tells us the following:

The Pentagon consultant told me that intelligence about Hezbollah and Iran is being mishandled by the White House the same way intelligence had been when, in 2002 and early 2003, the Administration was making the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “The big complaint now in the intelligence community is that all of the important stuff is being sent directly to the top—at the insistence of the White House—and not being analyzed at all, or scarcely,” he said. “It’s an awful policy and violates all of the N.S.A.’s strictures, and if you complain about it you’re out,” he said. “Cheney had a strong hand in this.”

Intelligence failures helped lead to 9/11. Intelligence failures helped determine the flawed way in which we went to war in Iraq. And now, if Hersch's source(s) can be believed, it seems that members of the administration feel better qualified to guage intelligence matters than the intelligence apparati. This is alarming as a short-term approach and is unacceptable as a long-term plan for addressing terrorism or foreign affairs. Intelligence is too important for this kind of politicization. I want to be optimistic about our long-range plan for the Middle East, but the more I see the more I genuinely worry that the administration only cares about surviving to January 2009, scoring its political points, and settling scores where it can.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Listing the best presidents based on Africa policy is a game not destined to take too long. American policy toward Africa has been riddled with disinterest, selfish interest, and confused interest. Realpolitik failed inasmuch as Africa was never perceived as being in our vital interest. And where the continent played in to our vital interest, such as during the Cold War, we did far more harm to the continent and its people than help. The Cold War turned African nations that worked with us into client states, which worked to the benefit of despots but rarely to the people they terrorized.

Monroe created the conditions that would allow for the establishment of Liberia, a mixed bag at best. FDR began American involvement in the European theater of World War II in North Africa, which had little to do with Africa itself. JFK sent Peace Corps workers across the continent to try to do good works but helped create conditions for our Cold War engagement there as well. Bill Clinton gained a reputation as an Africa-friendly president, which rhetorically and even in his heart he was. So he earns a place on the all-time top-four list even with the atrocity that was America's utter fecklessness with regard to Rwanda. And that's about it for the "good list."

With one notable exception. And it is an exception that comes with caveats -- there has never been a President that has even been tolerable with regard to Africa. We have an atrocious record there. Even the best administrations have long lists of failures in comparison with short lists of successes. That includes the one exception. And that exception is George W. Bush.

As with every one of his predecessors, Bush has had an Africa policy that on balance has been pretty modest. In some cases simpy bad. (The Sudan is becoming Bush's Rwanda.) But that said, Bush earns the distinction, dubious as it may be, of being the best friend to Africa of any president in American history. Today's Boston Globe has a short feature on the good news on AIDS in Africa, news that is good in large part because of American investment in programs to counter the dread scourge and that provides reason to praise Bush gently.

Critics look for reasons to hammer away at this administration's policies, and there is room for complaint. But Bush has done a lot more than Clinton. A lot more than his father. And a hell of a lot more than Reagan, who danced with the devil in sustaining apartheid South Africa. On the whole, the president's record in Africa still leaves a great deal to be desired, and it is true that like its predecessors, the administration has been better with rhetoric than with delivery. But if assessments, however modest and tentative, are to be made from an African perspective, and not from the framework of American politics, where it is true that concern with Africa almost universally tends to come from the left side of the political spectrum and thus would be inclined to look unfavorably upon Bush, the reality remains that Bush deserves some credit, especially when compared with every man who preceded him in that office. We can and must do more. America's record in Africa is shameful (and leadership on the issue has always come from the halls of Congress when it has come at all). But fair is fair. Bush may only deserve a little bit of credit, but a fair assessment will at least grant him that little bit.

Ready for Some Football

I am ready for football. And not just because of the fact that the Red Sox entered what they knew to be the biggest series of the year and decided to roll over and play dead, though that certainly plays a role. But also, I am in Texas, which means that people have been thinking about football for weeks -- how are the Permian Panthers looking so far? Can texas repeat? How 'bout them Cowboys? -- which makes me start thinking about football -- the SI College Preview Issue arrived this week and I've read it from cover to cover. Can Williams beat Amherst and Trinity? Can BC build on last year's impressive debut season in the ACC and continue their nation's best streak of six consecutive bowl victories? How 'bout them Patriots?

I love college football. I love the pageantry, the passon, the tradition. I love the feel of a college campus on Saturday afternoons. I love the way that a big game can infuse a campus, a town, a state into a frenzy. I love the marching bands in full, ridiculous-looking regalia and the tailgaters who treat their debauchery like a sacrament. I love the frenzied stadia and the 100+ guys in uniform. I love it all.

I love the NFL. I love the intensity, the skill level, the blend of power and speed at the very highest level of sport. I love the way that a big game can infuse a city, a state, a region into a frenzy. I love the tailgaters who treat their bacchanalia like a sacrament. I love the frenzied stadia and the fact that each team has honed their roster down to 53 guys wired to explode at kickoff. I love it all.

Today's Boston Globe has one of those great feature pieces that appear at about this time of year, this one on West Virginia and coach Rich Rodriguez that has all of the hallmarks of the genre: Rodriguez is a West Virginia native who played for the Mountaineers and who knew nothing more than that he wanted to avoid the mines in which his father worked. He takes a job coaching at a small college at the age of 24, and within a year they have abandoned the program. He moves on and up and before long he is coaching the alma mater. Last year West Virginia went 11-1 and beat SEC powerhouse Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, raising expectations for this season, which the Mountaineers enter ranked in the top 10 in every significant preseason poll. Every team has a story. Each day brings us closer to kickoff. If you are like me, you can't wait.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

We're Number !!! (Again)

Yet again, Williams College tops the National Liberal Arts Colleges list in the annual "America's Best Colleges" issue of US News and World Report.


Longtime reader and frequent commenter Montana Urban Legend now has a blog, "Dichotomies." Let's all give him a warm dcat welcome!

Friday, August 18, 2006


Over at Fire Joe Morgan, Ken Tremendous just eviscerates a column by the LA Times' insufferable Bill Plaschke. There is some very funny stuff in here, much of it centered around Andre Ethier, last year's Texas League MVP and Oakland A's minor league player of the year for my local nine, the Midland Rock Hounds. Trust me -- this is worth your time, especially if you like to see godawful journalists get their comeuppance.

On Tony C

In today's Boston Globe Bob Ryan has an absolutely fabulous column
on Tony Conigliaro. It is unfortunate that most of you don't know who he is, but on August 18, 1967 Tony C, the local boy made good, the heart-throb, power hitting hero who reached 100 home runs at a younger age than anyone in the history of baseball, took a Jack Hamilton fastball flush in the eye in a game against the Angels in that otherwise magical year for Red Sox baseball.
But Aug. 18 is always a somber date for me, and, I'm sure, for many others. Tony C is the greatest of all ``What-Ifs?" in Boston sports history. When he stepped into the box in that fateful fourth inning, he was 22 years old. He was the Golden Boy, en route to the Golden Career. Who among us wouldn't have traded places with Tony C?

It all changed in half a second, the time it took for a baseball to crash into his handsome face, 39 years ago tonight.

Heartbreaking. The closest parallel to any event in my lifetime might be Daryl Stingley or Reggie Lewis or Len Bias, except in Bias case (and rumors indicate Reggie lewis' as well) it was pretty much self-induced. Read the whole thing.

Good News Alert!

Dcat sends (its? our? their? his?) warmest congratulations out to my friend and colleague Jaime, who just got the word: He has been tenured and promoted to the rank of associate professor. He gives his thoughts over at Cyber Hacienda.

To "Islamo Fascist" or Not To "Islamo Fascist"

National Review Online has a fascinating and important symposium on the use of the term "Islamo-fascism."

I have been meaning to blog about this for some time. First off, I have used the term on several occasions in the past. But I have always been uncomfortable with its usage, with my usage of it. It strikes me as lazy and intellectually dubious. However, it also serves to function as a sort of shorthand reference to a phenomenon for which it has proven remarkably difficult to establish a useful title. I sometimes think simply "Jihadists" would be best, but that too would be inaccurate in its own way.

As a general rule, we have not had to establish names for our enemies -- Nazis called themselves "Nazis," fascists "fascists," communists "communists," and the National Party openly embraced "Apartheid." These thus became labels that we did not impose on others, but rather that they used to describe themselves. Such terms thus had the benefit of being accurate and useful, inasmuch as there was little confusion, and if they became shorthand for evil, that was a result that came about as a consequence of specific actions, behaviors, and ideas. This, incidentally, is what makes the noxious tendency on both left and right to invoke Stalin and Hitler, "Nazi," "fascist," and "communist" as epithets most problematic.

My views toward the NRO symposium participants tend to favor the stance of Andrew McCarthy (a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies -- I hope my own affiliation with FDD does not color my views), though all of the contributors make salient points. I like Judith Klinghoffer's assertion that the use of the word "fascist" seems trite and also tend to agree with her that Tony Blair's term "reactionary Islam" might be the best we have, even if it is still inelegant.

I would like to see us come up with a better phrase, name, or label, simply because I find the fascist analogy almost always to be sloppy and even dangerous. This is a tough enough issue without burdening it with all sorts of historical baggage. I imagine, however, that like the phrase "war on terror," we will continue to struggle with nomenclature here because this is such a different context from anything we have faced in the past, even if the issue of terrorism has been with us for some time, a history that does have much to teach us.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Paging Junior Seau

Never trust an athlete when they say they are retiring. Never blame a retired athlete if he returns. I can tell you from personal experience that the end of an athletic career, however modest, is usually one of the hardest things that a guy who achieves athletic success has to experience. Most of us would give it one last shot in a heartbeat if the body had not long betrayed us.

The latest athlete to undergo this change of heart is future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who, just days after celebrating his retirement back in San Diego (which, Ron Burgundy reminds us, means "a whale's vagina"), where he played the bulk of his career and saw almost all of his most notable successes, is now rumored to be looking into giving it another go. And where might he land? Well, according to, he has spoken with New England and might end up in Foxborough soon.

I am of a mixed mindset over this possibility. Sure, the idea of Junior Seau wearing red, white, and blue strikes a visceral chord with me. After all, for a decade-and-a-half, Seau was a fixture on my television screen during the season, sacking quarterbacks, stuffing runners, sniffing out play-action passes, and pumping his fist after every successful play. But that Junior doesn't live here anymore.

After three relatively marginal seasons as a Dolphin, Nick Saban gave Seau his release and no one seemed to be pounding down the linebacker's door to sign him. So is this an act of desperation or inspiration on the part of Belichick and the Patriots? First of all, let's be clear -- if Belichick signed George H. W. Bush to be our strong safety tomorrow, he would have my trust. He has earned that and more in the last half decade. Our linebackers are depleted and on more than one occasion the Pats have worked their alchemy and spun gold because of their oft-imitated system. There is no reason to think that it cannot happen again. That said, I will guess that Seau's time with the Patriots, however long it lasts, will be little more than a footnote in his distinguished career. He may well help the Pats to a fourth Super Bowl title in six years, but I know I will continue to sacrifice sea monkeys and burn incense nightly in hopes of restoring Tedy Bruscho to full health. I trust Belichick. I just trust him more if his master plan has Seau playing a specified, and perhaps limited, role.

On the Culture of Journalism

Tom, who clearly has been eating his vegetables and getting plenty of sleep, has another great post over at Big Tent. I am going to bet that my copyright lawyer is better than his copyright lawyer and excerpt his piece in full:
A note: this entry really isn’t about me. Really. It's about the punditocracy taking themselves very seriously, and who are taken seriously by others. So stick with it.

This is something I think about quite a bit; it's something about which Derek and I have commiserated many times. Those occasions have usually been triggered by the odd tendency among our journalistic friends, the opinion manufacturers at prominent and not-so-prominent websites, magazines, and newspapers, to ignore, utterly ignore, anything we send them for consideration. Derek and I both hold Ph.D.s; we both have been published in a number of formats. We're reasonably well-informed individuals who write reasonably well. And we can’t even get an acknowledgement of receipt for an op-ed to, say, any mid-level newspaper in the continental United States. Mind you, we’re not necessarily asking for a comment on the op-ed, let alone a clear decision on whether they will try to publish. All we want, for now, is for some sort of proof of life for our baby—evidence that it arrived in one piece. This is frustrating, because for the few minutes out of the day when we’re not talking about shotgunning beer and tossing midgets, we are serious people who want to be taken seriously.

Now look at the list of columns at Most days I peruse this list, read two or three of the columns, maybe link one, and ignore the rest. The same goes for Real Clear Politics. Townhall and RCP are more conservative sites, but the same could go for any list of daily or weekly columns. For a variety of reasons, most opinion pieces by established opinion writers simply aren’t very good. Maybe they have been at it for so long that they feel like everything is a repetition. Maybe they lose clarity in their pursuit of the clever turn of phrase. Maybe they just don’t have anything new or different or interesting to say about the issues of the day.

Look, writing a column is not shoveling coal or plowing fields or anything like that, but it can’t be easy, especially over the long term. So I am more than willing to cut columnists some slack for writing boring pieces, especially when the columnists are older. I assume, perhaps out of naivete, that established columnists did hard work back in the day to earn their relatively comfortable current jobs. No doubt that is the case for many of them.

But I wonder. Folks like Ben Shapiro, Megan Basham, and Ross Douthat make me wonder. Stephen Glass gives me, and should have given everyone, pause. I'm a big fan of Jonah Goldberg, and he obviously was in the midst of a productive career when he got his big break, but it is worth noting that his current position stemmed from the notoriety that came from his mom telling Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky. Obviously, and as with anything, there is quite a bit of luck and who you know in entering the land of the pundits.

This sounds petty, and truthfully there is no small amount of sour grapes to what I've written. I would love to know the right people. A little luck wouldn't be bad either. But--here's where it gets interesting, maybe--who the hell am I to tell people what to think about the most important issues facing the world today?

Sure, I have a Ph.D. And I am certainly an expert in my areas of study and research. That means a lot, but I am also well aware that my degrees did not bring unlimited knowledge. In fact, one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school was just how little I knew and know. On the practical side, the everyday life stuff, I'm married with kids, I've got a house, and I've lived and traveled and worked all over the country. I still feel like I haven't experienced anything. And I seriously doubt that there will ever come a time when I'll wake up and my education sand experiences will have combined to reach the level where I'll feel like I've got it all figured out. But I could be wrong.

So I wonder sometimes about the authority with which younger pundits, especially those in my age range, speak. Again, I'm only going after conservative types here, but what did Ben Shapiro pick up at UCLA and Harvard Law that I do not know about to give him the confidence to assert unequivocally that Israel's ceasefire with Hezbollah was "the most ignominious defeat in Israeli history"? Did something in Meghan Basham's personal experiences or education at Arizona State give her the confidence to be so sure that the movie Old School was an assault on the institution of marriage? Is a Harvard undergraduate degree so thorough that Ross Douthat can so blithely judge the approaches of two popes to Christian morality in the modern world? Does Tom Bruscino really think that reading about events on computer screens in Ohio, Washington D.C., and Kansas gives him the wisdom to insist that we are winning the war in Iraq?

Obviously speaking with authority is part of the game--people will only pay attention if you sound like you know what you are talking about. That said, I can only speak for myself, but no matter what happens and no matter where my work gets published and no matter how much authority with which I seem to speak, I want to make one thing very clear: I am always well aware that I could be wrong.

No education, no experiences, and no age will ever give me absolute authority. Just a humble call to remember humility when bouncing around the opinion world.

Tom hits a lot of salient points here. I don't think it embraces false humility to say that his last point is an important one even if on this blog and in a host of opinion pieces I have written the nature of the game is that you have to take on an aura of authority. Certainly I come across as cocky and worse, but I still think it is worth pointing out that knowing what you do not know is profoundly important. One of the aspects I really like about blogging is that you tend to cite sources a lot. For every time you spout off there are others when you either use evidence from someone who might know more to bolster your opinion or else you simply link to something and say this made me think, or this guy seems to be on to something. It should come as no surprise that so many academics have taken to blogging, because blogs require a certain fealty to sources.

But there is a flip side to this, and that is that while we have to be humble in the face of all that we do not know, there also seems to be a culture within the profession of journalism that hates blogs not for the reason they assert -- that it is not "real" journalism and that anyone can say anything, both of which can be true -- but for quite a different reason: Because journalists are rarely experts in any particular area. That sort of generalism serves them well in many ways, but it also means that some anonymous blogger, or not so anonymous blogger, can call them out at any time. It is a nice trope for them to perpetuate that bloggers are cavalier and unqualified. Their real fear seems to be that quite anumber of bloggers are fastidious and very qualified and they write well.

Tom and I are encountering another aspect of journalism culture that we have found distasteful. As he mentions in his post, we have written an op-ed that we believe makes some worthy points that need to be made. We have both read it quite a lot and criticized it as often, and so we know it is well written. We see what passes for columns and op-ed pieces in dozens of newspapers and magazines and websites across the country. We have probably emailed this piece to three dozen places, liberal and conservative, big and small, newspapers and online journals. We can count on one hand the number of responses we have gotten one way or the other, and none of those followed through and gave us so much as an indication as to whether they liked or disliked the piece. This points to another element of a lack of humility on the part of journalists: the arrogance of simply ignoring people who, even if the piece we submitted was not perfect for the venue, know their topic, know their material, and can write. We both have PhDs and we both can list publications in both academic and non-academic fora. I have published several op-eds. We worked hard on a piece that is especially relevant to a couple of major issues facing the world today. And in some of the places to which we have submitted the article we penned, we have since read absolute tripe.

Tom and I were talking earlier about another aspect of his post. It seems that in some places a good old boys network has yielded right of way to a good young boys and girls network. Tom mentions several conservative examples. There are as many liberal cases. I do not begrudge these people their success. But I do have to wonder about a process of anointing people with an aura that maybe they have not quite earned. I am not saying that I have yet either. In most ways I have not. But given some of the stuff I read on a daily basis, I'm pretty sure that two young PhD's who write an op-ed and send it along deserve at least the courtesy of a personal response even if we are not ensconsed within that inner sanctum that journalists create for themselves.

Dumpster Diving For Fun and Profit

The Thunderstick apparently has lots of time in between "cultivating samples" (heh heh) at his job as a scientist guy to track down the bizarre and disturbing. He just let me know about a strange handbook that Northwest airlines distributed to employees it had just laid off that included sage recommendations such as dumpster diving, asking doctors for free pharmaceuticals, and offering themselves up for prostitution (ok, I made that one up) to help them get through the bad times.

I have good advice for their next ad campaign: "Helpful AND sensitive. We're Northwest airlines."

Your Time Waster of the Week

Are you ready for your day's productivity to drop off procipitously? The Boston Globe presents the "Weekly Whacked," which in this case means a gloriously warped collection of websites. I got ,the tip on this one from the Thunderstick, and like him, "Pimp My Nutcracker" is my favorite, but there is lots of glorious absurdity through which to wade. "Stuff on my cat"? "Socks With Sandals"? Even "Cats Who Look Like Hitler," which I wrote about some time ago? Oh, it's all there. Enjoy.

A Telling Sign?

By now political junkies have thought long and hard, parsed every idea, examined every poll, scrutinized every race in order to try to get a sense of the trends for this fall's midterm elections. In politics, as with sports books in Vegas, it is sometimes wise to take a look where the guys who are paid to know these things are placing the odds. Right now the equivalent of bookies in DC seem to tilt toward the Democrats. Now this might just be hedging bets, but it seems that Republican pressure has really kept Democrats in the wilderness on K Street where the nation's biggest, most powerful lobbyists, in many ways the real power brokers, are clustered. This pressure was only viable when the GOP held firm control over government, which they have enjoyed for more than five years now, and for over a decade in Congress. I'm certainly not ready to make any predictions yet, but this is a trend in which I'd place a lot more faith than any polls.

It's Funny Because It's True

The Onion gets it right: Experts: "Derek Jeter Probably Didn't Need To Jump To Throw That Guy Out"

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

On LBJ's Reputation

In this week's Chronicle Review political scientist Michael Nelson of Rhodes College has a compelling assessment of "LBJ's Waxing and Waning Reputation." Three authors in particular, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, and Randall Woods, feature prominently. There is lots of inside dish on the petty politics of historical scholarship but also a serious argument calling for more interpretations of LBJ, and especially for interpretations that do not tend to skew liberal.

I am pleased to see something of a revisionism of rehabilitation emerging in Johnson scholarship. Vietnam will forever be a blotch on his escutcheon, but in my assessments of the presidency, I at least try to place Vietnam within the context of the Cold War while considering that Johnson ranks with Lincoln in terms of his concrete accomplishments for black Americans and ahead of Lincoln when one takes into account his intent. Whatever failings one might find in some of Johnson's Great Society programs, even those were, on balance more good than bad -- the War On Poverty, for example, saw poverty halved, a happenstance that may not be causal but that surely is correlative.

Tom on Iraq

Tom has a very useful and instructive post up over at Big Tent on the counterinsurgency question.

Tom knows about a million times more about the military angle on this than I, so I will defer to him for the most part. I do disagree with his categorical assertion that more troops would have been of no use -- I've read too much by too many military people and other experts not to take those accusations seriously -- and I can come up with lots of reasons why war supporters (John Keegan, Max Boot, Thomas Ricks, all of whom know a bit about the military themselves) might go wobbly. For one thing, the case the administration made to Congress proved to be fallacious -- maybe not intentionally so, but fallacious nonetheless, and I believe that in a democratic republic where Congress is supposed to give its imprimatur to the administration's military gambits Congress ought to have all of the information at its disposal or at least a fair rendering of all sides going in. Furthermore, while I supported a war in Iaq, I did not support this one, handled as it has been handled. Finally, I'll never be convinced that we had to go to war when we did and the way that we did.

That said, Tom has what I believe to be a spot-on assessment of the big picture, which I will quote in full:

The tough reality is that the war in Iraq is really now in the gray area between a counterinsurgency and policing of a violent region. The insurgents are beginning to look more like criminals than guerrilla warriors. The only way for them to be revived into a serious fighting force is to receive a lot more outside aid from places like Iran and Syria, or for us to misstep and turn the Iraqi people against the new government.

At this point, we need to continue to develop Iraqi security forces. We must draw down our troop levels in Iraq so that we can avoid missteps, but keep enough in country so that we can react when areas inevitably flare up (like Baghdad right now). We must do everything possible to close down supply lines from outside the country (right now there are over 200 border forts around Iraq). Keep in mind also that this is not Vietnam--there are no regular divisions on the border ready to invade at the first opportunity.

And, most important, we must take a very long view of this policing action. It does not take much for a few fanatics to cause a painful amount of death and destruction. The enemy will continue to try to pinprick us until we pull out support for Iraq, at the cost of hundreds of American dead.

Those losses are painful but must not be prohibitive. For all the hand-wringing, no one has ever made a good case that we are not doing the right thing in Iraq.

My own quibbles with interpretation aside, it is a very good blog post. Please go read it.

Archives and Travel

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas Benton (a pseudonym, which is common and I suppose understandable in the careers section of the Chronicle but is something with which I am still somewhat uncomfortable) has an article on visiting archives that might strike a chord with the archive rats among my readership.

I am well aware that digitization increasingly makes many archival trips unnecessary, strictly speaking. But I am of the firm belief that being amidst the archives, that holding an old, pre-digitized finding aid, that following a path from one set of documents to another that might well not be clear from a boolian search, can lead to discoveries that one might not ordinarily experience sitting in front of one's computer screen. I also tend to agree with him about the way that procrastination plays a role in research.

Yet another aspect for my desire to go to archives won't surprise regular visitors to dcat -- I am a traveler. And while many of my trips take me abroad, I also love the fact that research trips will lead me inevitably to university campuses. Given my work, some campuses have become regular haunts, places I have come to know and like -- Oxford, Mississippi or Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the US are examples for me, alongside literally dozens of others. There is something enjoyable about immersing one's self in campus life for a few days, a week. There is something comforting about becoming a regular at an archive, even if only for a few days.

In the next few months I hope to make trips to Baton Rouge, where I last conducted research while working on my MA thesis more than a decade ago (and got into a whale of a fight at a hotel bar) and to Tallahassee, where I last was at FSU to compete at the Florida State Relays back when I was a jumper on my college's track team. (I beat a future Olympic decathlete in one of his his strong events, the high jump -- I believe he still might hold some sort of Olympic decathlon high jump record -- when I cleared my opening height and he missed his, which was some 6 inches higher than where I came in. He also said one of the funniest, crassest things I have ever heard when we all gathered before the event began to have the officials explain the process.) I am looking forward to both trips and am happy that in neither case will most of the documents I need to explore be available to me on line.

Are You Ready For Some Football?

It's now official: Football season is nearly upon us. We have our first epic column from Gregg Easterbrook, aka, Tuesday Morning Quarterback. To little fanfare he is back at's Page 2, where he was cashiered a couple of years ago for some silly transgression to which the suits felt compelled to overreact. He was over at after that but his column could be vexingly difficult to find if you did not access it on the day it was posted. Easterbrook is wicket smart, drops allusions that make Dennis Miller seem like a victim of a head injury, and brings remarkable insights and critical faculty to his weekly columns. And they are epic -- I would guess that this week's AFC preview weighs in at 8,000-10,000 words.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Coddling Syria

Last year (May 2005) on Rebunk, in a post titled "Giving Us the Rope to Hang Them?" I decried our not taking a tougher stance against Syria:
Whatever window dressing and verbiage and pretense they present to the public, Syria is our enemy. They have acted as our enemy for years. They are probably the single-biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, with their fingers demonstrably in the Hezbollah AND Hamas pies, and with enough links to al Qaeda (admittedly more often sins of omission than commission, which is hardly a rousing defense) to make a reasonable person think that Syria, not Iraq, should have been first on the post-Afghanistan hit list. Syria has provided refuge for Iraq’s murderous Baath party officials. Syria has long advocated wiping Israel off the face of the planet. We've coddled Damascas for too long. Syria is an enemy. Now maybe we can begin treating it as such.

Predictably some people took me to task for averring that we had "coddled Syria" at all, which strikes me as bizarre criticism. Today more than ever my stance toward Syria and our approach to it seem valid. Fortunately, this time I have the backing of Cliff May in the latest Foundation for the Defense of Democracies "Notes & Comments", which even uses the word "coddle.":
In an otherwise sensible op-ed in the Washington Post, [Here] Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, criticizes the Bush administration for not doing more to coddle the Syrian regime: "On the diplomatic front, the United States cannot abandon the field to other nations (not even France!) or the United Nations. Every secretary of state from Henry Kissinger to Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright negotiated with Syria, including those Republican icons George Shultz and James Baker."

But where did negotiating with Syria get us? Did it make Syria any less implacably hostile to us? Did it make them any less savage to their own people? Did it stop their perfidious behavior in Lebanon? No, it did not. The only two successes in U.S. policy towards Syria -- the brief, but fleeting, democratic flourishing in Syria in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in March 2005 -- only came after the United States and her allies abandoned what Churchill called "jaw-jaw."

Obviously there is much room for "jaw jaw" in the contemporary political climate -- a lot more than this administration seems to recognize, to the detriment of the United States, our allies, and global stability, but there are some enemies with whom jaw jaw is simply useless, a shell game or worse destined only to buy time for despots at the expense of everyone else. So let me repeat my assertion from last year: We've coddled Damascas for too long. Syria is an enemy. Now maybe we can begin treating it as such.

George Allen: Racist or Idiot?

I suppose that is not exactly the sort of Hobson's choice with which Virginia's George Allen would like to have to see the media wrestle in these late days of his senatorial campaign and early days of what clearly appears to be a presidential candidacy, but really, what other choices are there? Recently the Virginia Senator used a racial slur, for which he has now apologized, against a 20 year old staffer for his Democratic opponent, S. R. Sidarth. Allen either called Sidarth a macaca or a macaque, either one of which is pretty clearly aimed as an ethnic slur. I've addressed the Allen race situation, heretofore a strange romance with the old Confederacy and its neobourbon manifestations here and here in the last few months, and largely in the context of his national ambitions. One would think this recurring theme would be damaging to Allan at the state level as well. We shall see what effect it has on Virginia's voters. The best coverage of this ongoing story can be found interspersed throughout TNR's "The Plank."

Saturday, August 12, 2006

In Which dcat Gets Kinky (With Grandma)

If you are curious what some idiot has to say about the rollicking Texas Gubernatorial race, you can check out this story in the Midland Reporter-Telegram. Given the relative lack of power inherent in the Texas governorship, and given that Texas is a presumed red state, and given that incumbent Rick Perry is still favored to win, it is remarkable to witness both the hype and excitement level around this race. That excitement can largely be traced to the independent candidacies of "Kinky" Friedman and Carole "Grandma" Strayhorn.

Friday, August 11, 2006

San Antonio, And the Blogging is Light

I'm in San Antonio enjoying more of the pleasures of planning for that big day next June. (Forget existential queries: To Seat Cover or Not to Seat Cover, THAT is the question.) Blogging may be light until Monday night.

Dick Cheney and the al Qaeda Smear

Yesterday in discussing the London terrorist attacks I made reference to the unseemly tendency of American politicians and especially those at the helm of government today to demogogue the issue of terrorism. Today's New York Times has an editorial addressing this exact issue. Apparently in an interview session with reporters, Dick Cheney hinted that by supporting Ned Lamont over Joseph Lieberman Democrats were supporting "al Qaeda types." Yes, by supporting one Democrat over another, one who did not support the war in Iraq (which had almost nothing to do with al Qaeda at the time, this administration's protestations notwithstanding, though of course their there now) over one who did, the Democrats are supporting "al Qaeda types." This sort of rhetoric is beyond contemptible. On the list of almost-always unacceptable comparisons, can we not agree that labelling an American citizen an "al Qaeda type" is just as intellectually and morally bankrupt as the Hitler/Nazi/Fascist/Stalin analogies?

This is precisely what I was trying to address yesterday when I mentioned politicians using terrorism for political gain and not to make us any safer. This administration's callous disregard for truth in its quest not to keep us safe bit to gain political advantage would be merely flabbergasting were the stakes not so very high.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Foiled London Plan

By now you all surely are aware that British authorities have thwarted a major planned terrorist attack that was in the late stages of preparation. I've received several emails this morning and as you might imagine have read quite a bit, and I have a few thoughts.

The first is, good for the British officials who consistently seem to do due diligence and who seem far less cynical in their approach to terrorism than ours do. I was in England in the summer of 2005 and wrote a good deal about those attacks, and so I have seen up-close the response of the Brits and was able to get a strong sense both of feelings on the ground but also of the ways in which british officials and police dealt with a serious attack against civilians and infrastructure. Terrorism alert levels have gone up in both the UK and the US after this latest news, and rightfully so, but the remarkable thing to me is to reflect on what appeared to be the very cynical manipulation of the terror alert levels by the Bush administration in 2004. This administraton has consistently used terrorism threats as a political tool, which is at best distasteful and at worst baldly irresponsible. Of course we shall see how the Bush administration deals with these attacks rhetorically and operationally.

One emailer this morning asked a logical question: Why did this take so long? he thought that al Qaeda might want to take a more scattershot approach, to make as many attempts as possible because any damage keeps them in the headlines. But I believe, and all evidence points to this being the case, that al Qaeda is more than happy to be in this for the long haul, and that they do have a plan that relies on more than merely attacking for the sake of attacking. they are a serious and formidable enemy, all the more dangerous because of their shadowy nature and their patience.

Judith Klinghoffer emailed me to give a heads up about her latest post at Deja Vu. She makes a provocative argument that warrants mentioning, even if I do not fully buy its premise. I'll simply quote her:

Shia Hezbollah was getting too much attention for Sunni Al Qaeda to take lying down. Bin Laden and company need to undertake a major operation to prove its superiority in the Islamist terrorist realm and stop the ascendency of Nasrallah. Al Qaeda felt time was NOT on their side and they had to act if they wished to stay in the game.

I am not certain that the neat sectarian breakdown works either descriptively or as an explanation, but it is a fascinating consideration: That internecine rivalries among jihadists fueled al Qaeda's latest attacks. But I think this underestimates the seriousness with which al Qaeda pursues its goals. Nonetheless, what Judith draws from this is spot on: "In other words, give out a sigh of relief but do not let down your guard. They will try again and soon. This has just begun."

In a moment of levity, which may or may not be appropriate, another person emailed, probably inevitably: "Liquid esxplosives are scary. But what are they going to do when terrorists unleash motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane." But pop culture joking aside, don't the 9/11 attacks and the concomitant anxiety that has resulted justify the only reason this silly little film with a seemingly absurd premise able to resonate, beyond the fact that Samuel L. Jackson is a cartoon character?

We will learn much more in the days, hours, and weeks to come, but once again we have been awoken from any somnolence that might have set in. the threat is real. It is active. And its perpetrators always act with malice aforethought.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Quick Hits

Because I am trying to polish off several big projects (and I am feeling blog-lazy) here are a few quick hits based on things I've seen today:

Tribe on Signing Statements: Always controversial and always smart, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe addresses the question of signing statements in today's Boston Globe. His conclusion? It is not the signing statements per se that are problematic. Money excerpt:

To be sure, I believe that President Bush has abused the practice of using signing statements as signals of presidential intentions regarding both ambiguous statutes and ones with embedded unconstitutional provisions. But the fact that the incumbent president has used such statements in ways that expose a certain cynicism in signing rather than vetoing measures that he has no intention of applying and enforcing as Congress intended -- asserting that he regards Congress as having trespassed on his constitutional prerogatives -- is objectionable not by virtue of the signing statements themselves but rather by virtue of the president's failure to face the political music by issuing a veto and subjecting that veto to the possibility of an override in Congress. It is also objectionable on occasion because of the inflated view of executive prerogative that the president has often announced.

Challenging the signing statements themselves, or the general practice of using them, does not represent even a plausible way of contesting this president's manifestly unreviewable decision to sign rather than veto any particular law, however cynical that decision might be and however unconvincing his explanations are. Nor does challenging such statements represent a plausible way of contesting the overblown character of this president's views of his constitutional prerogatives. That is something that can be tested judicially only in a genuine ``case or controversy" that arises out of a decision to carry out the threat of non-enforcement made by his signing statement, and by someone with the constitutional standing to press such a challenge against what amounts to an executive omission to act.

To me there is one logical approach, albeit a controversial one: The line-item veto. Giving the president that option would mean that presidents would have to make tough decisions, would allow them to excise pork and frivolity (and Bridges to Nowhere, one would hope) and would mean that fundamentally good bills with flawed parts could be imrpoved with Congress having an opportunity to override. I would gladly take a line-item veto in lieu of signing statements.

Massachusetts' State Sport?: Again from the Globe, comes news that Governor Mitt Romney has signed a controversial bill.

It was a moment of triumph for fourth-graders from the Joseph P. Mulready School in Hudson. Dressed in oversized Boston Celtics jerseys, they cheered as Governor Mitt Romney, with a stroke of his pen, pronounced basketball the official sport of Massachusetts.

They had proposed the bill for the designation, written to legislators, and testified at the State House. Now, their victory secured, it was time for cake, thick slices of which they devoured in the State House pressroom.

But out on the streets of Boston, despite a solid defense from Romney and other hoop advocates, news that basketball had become the state's official sport triggered disbelief.

Boston loves the Celtics, and during the 1980s Boston was Celtics town. But even then it was never only a Celtics town, and I would argue that at no point has basketball been the favored sport of Massachusetts residents. Massachusetts is a baseball state as Boston is a baseball city. I bet Jack Abramoff was behind this travesty.

African Books:Finally, more on African literature from the Mail & Guardian.

[Denis]Hirson’s new book, White Scars, is also about books -- four in particular that, he writes, “I once needed to read over and over, to the point of obsession.” Even if he read these books incompletely the first time, or didn’t understand them, he says, “these books did not simply interest me; they surrounded me” -- like, one might say, the “walls” of his father’s house.

Books about books. A very meta- concept, but also very dcat. (Every so often dcat likes to go all Rickey Henderson on you.)

Mae Culpa on Lamont

As several of you have kindly pointed out, my "largely baseless prediction" from yesterday about the Lieberman-Lamont contest proved to be completely, well, baseless. Yes, the election proved to be closer than the polling indicated. Yes, Lieberman was closing at the end. But no, he did not close the gap or confound the polls and emerge victorious, which puts the Democrats in the very ticklish position of having to deal with what as of right now appears to be an almost inevitable Lieberman third-party candidacy.

As usual on these matters, your historian-cum-pundit of choice ought to be KC Johnson, whose Cliopatria post strikes all the right notes. And as one might expect, he also takes on the defeat of Cynthia Mckinney in her primary race yesterday, indicating the expected demogoguery for which she has become notorious.

For the record, I still think Lamont might be a cipher, though his appearance on The Colbert Report last week made me see him in a more positive light.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Culture of Plagiarism?

This Chronicle article reports a disquieting and pervasive trend of plagiarism in the engineering department of one of my former alma maters. Fortunately it appears that no other departments are even close to being tainted, but this is a sordid story that only gets worse when it appeared that a large number of engineering faculty and administrators decided to smear the messenger.

African Fiction

The Mail & Guardian has a too-short piece on new voices in African fiction. There is so much great writing coming from Africa, and so few people know anything about it. I hope this article spurs some of you on the go out and explore some of the African writers present and past.

Cote d'Ivoir and the Terrorist Threat

Foundation for the Defense of Democracies adjunct fellow Peter Pham has another important World Defense Review piece on Africa's role in global terrorism, this time focusing on Cote d'Ivoir. This is yet another vitally important contribution in which Pham reminds us of what Africa matters in the conflicts we now face.

A Largely Baseless Prediction

I have no foundation for it, really. Like most of you I have read as much as possible to make sense of the goings on in the Democratic Senatorial primary in Connecticut, pitting upstart Ned Lamont against longtime Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. But I cannot shake the idea that Lamont's support is largely chimerical, a visceral response to vague misgivings about Lieberman that peaked last week, still appeared to have some traction at the time of the latest Quinnipiac poll, but seems to be built on a foundation of sand. Lieberman did not start taking his upstart opponent seriously until very recently, at which point he began feverishly campaigning, and I cannot help wonder if the work he has done has not eppeared in the polls. So as I say, I have no foundation for it beyond informed speculation, but I get the sense that Lieberman is going to win today, and he is going to do so by a more comfortable margin than anyone expects, say 3-4 points, maybe more.

I know this will be in the blogosphere to haunt me forever, but for some time now I have been unable to shake this idea that Lamont is more of a cipher than a real threat. By tonight we should know.

Live Free or Die Hard

The Thunderstick writes the email of the day:
I love that Die Hard 4 is being titled "Live Free or Die Hard". Damn straight--I want my NH license plate changed to say that.

Note: New Hampshire already has the greatest license plates ever. Still, having not read a thing about the newest installment of the series, I really hope that this one involves a plot centered in Concord. Somehow I doubt that will be the case. But it should be.

Monday, August 07, 2006

In Defense of the Word "Sucks"

Slates's Seth Stevenson writes in defense of the word "sucks." This is word wonkiness that does not suck.

Grover Cleveland and New Hampshire

George Cleveland, grandson of Grover Cleveland, is running for the position of democratic state senator in New Hampshire. The Boston Globe has the full story. Apparently the as yet largely positionless Cleveland also impersonates his grandfather, and has an annual gig at the Carroll County democrats' annual Grover Cleveland dinner. I had no idea that such a thing existed, nor that the winner of the 1884 and 1892 presidential elections had such a strong New Hampshire connection. Franklin Pierce, and now this!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

A Long Critique of a Silly Article

The best music critics augment our love of music. They can make you listen to something familiar in a new way or encourage you to buy something new just based on their ability to capture a sound in words. They can be pithy and eviscerating -- think Robert Christgau -- or they can be dense and smart -- think Greil Marcus or, again, when he takes a grander canvas, Christgau. Chuck Klosterman is able to evoke ideas and nods of agreement about music you don't, wouldn't, or never thought you could like.

Fans of anything -- music, sports, movies, books -- tend to read about their passion when not enjoying it. How else to explain the long running success of Rolling Stone or the proliferation of dozens of music magazines with brows from low to high? It is almost hard to imagine a world without Sports Illustrated or People look forward to movie reviews both as a consumer guide but also for themselves -- Pauline Kael made writing about movies itself an art form. And lots of us devour book reviews even if we can never possibly read everything in this week's Times Book Review or New York Review of Books. Indeed book reviewing is its own intellectual world apart that exists tied to but in some ways independent from books themselves. Good book reviews are also about ideas.

I've argued before that we sometimes prefer a well written evisceration to a comparably high-quality endorsement. (See, for example, my letter to Christopher Hitchens from last week.) But the burden on the negative review needs to be high, both because of the responsibility inherent in judging the work to which someone has devoted a long time and because of the responsibility to the reader of the review who expects a fair hearing even if that fair hearing results in a negative verdict.

These were the thoughts that crossed my mind when I read David Hajdu's essay on Starbucks and music in this week's New Republic. I come neither to bury nor to praise Starbucks and its recent forays into music, but rather to address an essay that at too many points seems gratuitously unfair and at points just flat-out wrong. Hajdu has a regular gig as TNR's music critic. He is a facile writer who has never had an opinion or idea stick in my head for much beyond the duration of his articles. His taste in music is neither especially bad nor especially good. He is opinionated, which most pop culture readers appreciate, but not especially witty or insightful. In short, I'll read Hajdu, I just won't go out of my way to do so. He has pretensions to being a highbrow guardian of a fundamentally middlebrow medium, and yet sometimes I think the guy has never left Manhattan, which, as I hope to show, is problematic if you are trying to write for anyone who does not regularly have access to the jazz and rock clubs in the Village.

I want to emphasize a few passages from Hajdu's piece to illustrate what I mean. His words appear in block quotations:

About fifty years ago, when the Soviets who survived Stalin began to accept the gift of his death, the state's cultural overlords started to loosen their choke hold on the country's music. The Communist Party-controlled Composer's Union consented to music other than programmatic works about collective farming, and Pravda acknowledged merit in modernist compositions of Shostakovich that it had previously declaimed as "chaos rather than music." The golden era of musical totalitarianism, a time when the libretto to Tosca could be re-written as The Battle for the Commune, was passing.

Simultaneously in the United States, the postwar atmosphere of sprawling conformity and eight-cylinder conservatism sparked in the offspring of the World War II generation a countervailing interest in all things bohemian. Dark little coffeehouses inspired by European cafés began to open around the country, and their music was part of their appeal. In Cambridge, the prototypal coffeehouse of the era, Tulla's Coffee Grinder, had only a tabletop radio, but the thing was on all day and night, tuned to the Harvard station, which played a lot of bebop. Live jazz (or spirited approximations thereof) flourished in the coffeehouses that followed, the sax and bongo playing sometimes mixed with beat poetry or broken up by a few songs from a folksinger strumming a guitar.

Now maybe I am just an especially wary reader, but from the getgo I saw trouble a brewin'. We start off with a paragraph on the Soviet Union in an article on Starbucks (anyone else see the analogy that is coming about ten steps ahead? So did I.) And then we have what strikes me as a somewhat sepia-toned evocation of an America that probably never was for the purpose, I assumed, of counterpoising it with an America that is not. This portentous beginning has all of the hallmarks of good music criticism -- cogent analogies, a disjunctive starting point, an unexpected parallelism. Yet I had a sense that things were bound to go awry.

A couple of paragraphs later (from here on out I will use ellipses to indicate that I have skipped text):

About fifty years later, there are dozens of coffeehouses in every major city in the United States--more than eight thousand in this country now, plus more than three thousand elsewhere around the world. They are all called Starbucks. That is to say, there is a single coffeehouse duplicated some eleven thousand times. The replicant spawn of Tulla's Coffee Grinder, mutated through savvy marketing, Starbucks exploits the egalitarian, outré cool of the postwar coffeehouses in a low-key empire of flawless, impermeable elitism and conformity.

This is a clever conceit, albeit not the most original one -- we are seeing the Wal Marticization of coffee shops, a sort of Starbucksification of the country (and some might say the world, though apparently having not left New York, Hajdu might not know that one can find Starbucks in Hong Kong and England and many points in between). And no one can doubt that Starbucks has done a hell of a job of becoming ubiquitous in American cities. Though one also has to wonder about the peculiar jolt in coffee consumption that has arisen concomitant with the rise of Starbucks. Has Starbucks in fact fueled demand? And many of us live nowhere near New York. In fact, for all of New York's size, most of us don't live there, and so the question becomes, has Starbucks replaced little Mom and Pop coffee shops all over the country, or has it merely brought coffee shops to places where, in the Starbucks cafe format, they simply never existed? I cannot help but wonder if Starbucks has not in many places created demand rather than destroy a subculture. Not that Hajdu asks such questions -- such curiousity would not much help his burgeoning thesis.

(. . .)

Starbucks is a state for our day, a commercial society organized within psychographic, rather than geographic, borders--parameters that are now more meaningful than the old rivers, mountain ranges, roads, and lines of longitude and latitude that cable TV, the Internet, and cell phones render moot. For its citizens, Starbucks serves as an all-in-one marketplace/social center/hideaway, a corporeal version of the Internet, where they can meet and make friends, date, write notes, pay bills, conduct business meetings, even find solitude in the cocoon of iPod earplugs. While they are in their new habitat, they also purchase some four million drinks per day.

The Starbucks habitués are united in part by age (under thirty, or so they generally appear), race (more Anglo than otherwise, it seems in outlets outside ethnic neighborhoods), and class (middle and above, presumably), though what most unites them is the aspiration to belong to the young, white, moneyed community that we all perceive Starbucks to be. The company does not post its demographic statistics--wisely, for to do so would be to relinquish its allure. The whole point of paying $4.90 for a frappuccino is not to spend twice the reasonable price for a glass of chilled fat and sugar, but to do so as if such an outrageous act comes naturally, as if money means nothing and the word "frappuccino" means something. It is not in conventional measures of value, but in their absence, that Starbucks's customers find worth, particularly self-worth.

These are the sorts of evidenceless generalizations that give sociologists erections. (See? I can do it too!) It sounds so clever: "Starbucks is a state for our day" pseudoprofundity that is about as useless as teats on a bull; and about as astute -- note the generalizations about Starbucks' consumer demographic. (Outside of ethnic neighborhoods, of course, an exception that one would think makes a difference.) But also recognize that these demographic assertions are contained within the covers of The New Republic, which doesn't exactly draw its readership from the hood and among the po' and disenfranchised. I wonder if Hajdu gets the irony of parsing demographics in this way.

As the company's chairman, Howard Schultz, explained the expansion of Starbucks's music business, "Our customers have given us permission to extend the experience." How did they do that, I wonder. Did they sign a slip? Or has Schultz conflated acquiescence with will, as autocrats in coffee, music, or politics are inclined to do?

The "experience" to which Schultz refers is that of the consumption of taste, be it in coffee, creamy fruit drinks, pastries, or CDs. Indeed, he is leading his company to become an official arbiter of taste in the arts as well as in foodstuffs, an institution interested less in satisfying the tastes of its customers than in instilling them. In the realm of its first business, drinks and snacks, Starbucks displayed a belief in the malleability of judgment that approached contempt for the individual's will. Why call a small drink its opposite, "tall"? Why trademark a word for a size, such as "venti"? Why insist on referring to your salespeople by the Italian term "baristas," with its evocation of both legal counsel and guerrilla warfare? Why, if not to press your authority to the limits of irrationality and to test the boundaries of your targets' passivity?

We'll blame the editors for allowing the juvenile "permission slip" joke to pass through rather than chalk it up to humorless writing. But as long as we are asking "why" questions, I'll have a go: Why do we (by "we" I mean "David Hajdu") not recognize that just about every corporate brand establishes its own neologisms? Why are we discussing the "contempt of an individual's will"? (Are New Yorkers forced to march in lockstep into their local Starbucks? I have not been to the city in a couple of years, so maybe things have changed. It's a voluntary association, as far as I know, here in Texas.) Why is he posing nonsense questions and silly answers in the last sentence of the paragraph?

Starbucks produces and markets several lines of CDs, one of which, the Opus Collection, picks up the company's principles of linguistic obfuscation and tactical packaging and carries them into music. The series title appropriates the classical-music term for a collection of concert pieces, in order to conjure gravitas, while meaning, essentially, the Collection Collection. Small matter. The greater problem with the series is its manner of reducing musicians with complex bodies of work to simple images to which young consumers of venti frappuccinos can relate. The Opus Collection takes important artists from jazz and popular music--Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Nat "King" Cole, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Sly Stone, Jackie Wilson, and others--and makes them brands.

Here is the beginning of the actual music criticism from TNR's music critic. Basically what I am getting is that he thinks that collections of pop music -- which antedate Starbucks by, oh, about four decades or so -- reduce complex bodies of work. While undeniably true, it's a picayune truism. He also says that doing so "makes them brands," which is a pretty meaningless phrase, if you think about it. Music has always been to a large degree about marketing. And part of that marketing is, if we must use the business school terminology, about "branding," which is why artists frown upon bootleg cds and bootleg t-shirts. So again, if this "branding" argument is true, and its truth is hardly a profundity, it predates Starbucks by decades. That Rolling Stones tongue icon, for example, is nothing if not "branding."

A great many of the CDs in the Collection focus solely or largely on the musicians' early work, with cover photos that show them young and sexy. (Even when albums include work from late in the artists' careers, as in the Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald CDs, the covers usually present the artists' youthful selves; a notable exception is the Louis Armstrong release, which has a charming photo of a grandfatherly Armstrong mopping his brow.) The Elvis CD, titled Boy from Tupelo, draws from his primordial sessions for Sun Records in Memphis and his earliest recordings for RCA in New York, the second batch made while he still had the Sun sound in his bones. The music is ragged and kinetic, irresistible no matter how many times one may have heard it. The Etta James album, much the same, captures the singer in her early twenties, recording her sultry gospel-blues for Chess Records in Chicago. (The final track on the CD, a rocking version of Randy Newman's "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield," comes from a later session for another label.) The Miles Davis record presents the trumpeter fairly early (though not straight out of Juilliard) in pieces of muted beauty recorded for Columbia between 1954 and 1959.

But wait a second, do these cds reduce "musicians with complex bodies of work to simple images to which young consumers of venti frappuccinos can relate," as you just said in the last paragraph, or does it try to capture them at particular times and places, a la the early incarnations of Elvis and Etta James and Miles Davis in this paragraph. I realize the old saying about foolish consistency and hobgoblins and little minds, but Hajdu has just presented two completely opposed criticisms. It is almost as if he starts off with an essence of an idea -- Starbucks = bad -- and thus will marshal any evidence, however useful to him, to prove that case. But there is more of this nonsense:
The music is fine, the CDs vexing for the way in which they package every artist as an overly simplified cliché: Elvis the wild country boy, Etta the oversexed blues babe, Miles the sensual mysterioso. Youth comes across as an exalted state. But what of the various other Elvises--the sad zombie of all those interchangeable movies, the aging master of "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto," the tragic self-caricature of his final years? They are in many ways as fascinating as the Sun-era Elvis, yet they have no place in the Opus Collection. And Miles Davis--he just started to get wiggy and baffling in the early 1960s, with all his experiments in funk and electronics and even hip-hop to come. Marvin Gaye? We get only the boyish Motown wizard, none of the mad satyr who later wanted to name an album Sanctified Pussy.

So, again, Starbucks is not reducing artists to any essence, but rather seems to be tracing artists back to an early stage of their careers and focusing on that period. And I wonder if Hajdu notices that while Marvin Gaye may have wanted to name his album Sanctified Pussy, he in fact did not. Or his label would not. This is not Starbucks' fault. But more to the point, much of the music the "mad satyr" produced in the 1970s was unlistenable nonsense. Some of it was stunningly misogynistic. In this case Starbucks has made a decision to emphasize some of Gaye's better music. Hardly objectionable.

These CDs make no claim to be encyclopedic, though the very idea of the Opus Collection clearly suggests an intent to be definitive. And therein lies their tyranny.

See that? The cds make no such claim but in the title of the collection Hajdu divines the claim anyway, and thus "tyranny." Tyranny! (Remember that Soviet reference?) Starbucks sells coffee and music that Hajdu sort of likes but would like to see in a different configuration, and so logically he believes this to be equivalent to tyranny. And let me tell you, folks, once you've been in a Starbucks gulag, you know you've been in a fucking gulag.

According to the promotional text on some of its CDs, Starbucks is "dedicated to helping people discover great music." But discovery is precisely what these discs discourage. There is nothing to discover in a predictable collection of highlights from the glory days of a canonical artist. On the Starbucks CDs, the listener escapes discovery, and is insulated against the challenge and the thrill of listening with open ears to artists of all sorts trying--possibly struggling, perhaps failing--to break free of the golden prison of what they do best and what their audiences expect of them. I have no doubt that Howard Schultz would claim that the Opus Collection CDs should serve as a starting point for listeners, and so they should. But I suspect that they rarely will. The CDs do their job too well. In their limited definitiveness, they are likely to be the end of the Elvis or Miles experience, not the beginning.

If that seems an odd criticism, I can amplify it with a brief story. Having copies of all the tracks on the Ella Fitzgerald Opus Collection from their original releases, I gave the Starbucks CD to a neighbor of mine who is a young rock singer. About a week later, I saw her in the lobby of our building, and she said that she enjoyed the album, a solid anthology of standards including "Lullaby of Birdland," "Miss Otis Regrets," and "Don't Be That Way." I brought up the fact that Ella Fitzgerald loved to experiment and stay up-to-date, and that she even did some rock recordings, including a killer version of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love." I asked her if she would like to hear it. "God, no!" she said. "Don't burst my bubble." In music as in blender drinks, Starbucks is in the bubble business.

Let's ignore the absolutely incoherent last sentence for a moment. "There is nothing to discover in a predictable collection of highlights from the glory days of a canonical artist." Yet the only concrete examples Hajdu has given are of artists in the earlier phases of their careers and he does not prove how this is "predictable" at all. But here is the kicker -- what evidence does he use to validate the "discouragement of discovery" argument? His "young rock singer" neighbor who clearly has no business in the music industry. She had never previously heard Ella Fitzgerald? After hearing it and liking it, she did not want to hear more? So not only is Starbucks responsible for trends that existed for decades before it made its first latte (eg -- "branding,"), it is also responsible for the fact that David Hajdu hangs around with douchebags? Basically, Hajdu uses one anecdote to determine a presumably factual assertion -- that Starbucks' music cds discourages further discovery of the artists it features -- and then blames Starbucks for the passivity of its consumers. Breathtaking.

Enacting a twist on the notion of branding popular musicians, Starbucks also markets a series of CDs called Artist's Choice, in which big-name performers present favorite songs recorded by others. The idea is to show the stars as fans, sharing mix tapes with fans of their own. Predictably, some of the choices seem obligatory or designed to impress. Willie Nelson included Django Reinhardt's "Nuages"; Tony Bennett chose the Juilliard String Quartet's recording of Ravel's String Quartet in F Major, II and the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir singing "I Want to Ride That Glory Train." Then, too, a few mild revelations popped up. Sheryl Crow admitted loving Elton John's saccharine "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," and Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones included Brian Wilson's delicate "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." Unfortunately (though predictably, again), none of the Artist's Choice CDs I have heard manages to hang together as a set.

Note the condescension here. David Hajdu, a music critic for The New Republic thinks that Willie Nelson and Tony Bennett have chosen to try to impress with their musical taste rather than believe that these long-respected professional musicians actually have wide ranging tastes. Keep in mind that in the previous sentence he utilized the taste of some nimrod lead singer who had never heard Ella Fitzgerald to try to prove his point about Starbucks discouraging people from further exploration. Yet this second category consists of discs that aim to encourage exploration and now he dismisses them as either "trying to impress" (Willie Nelson, I would surmise, could not give a shit about impressing David Hajdu) or as simply "not hanging together" even though his previous criticism was that the artist collections hung together too well. Sigh.

(. . .)

Starbucks's only new album of significance, Bob Dylan: Live at the Gaslight 1962, is new only as a commercial release. Bootlegs of rough, unedited versions of the recorded performance have been sold on Bleecker Street for years. The CD captures Dylan during a tentative period between his eponymous first album, an earnest recording of traditional songs about death (along with two Guthrie-inspired originals), and its stunningly mature follow-up, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, released one year later. At twenty-one, on Live at the Gaslight, Dylan is just beginning to come into bloom as a songwriter. He has delivered one of his first major pieces, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and he is nearly done polishing "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." His set is still filled with traditionals such as "The Cuckoo," "Handsome Molly," and "Barbara Allen," though he sings and plays them with such quirky fire that they seem his own.

The performance on this CD is so dynamic that it is a bit hard to believe that Dylan dreaded playing the Gaslight, as his old friend, the late Dave Van Ronk, relished saying. The titular Mayor of MacDougal Street and host of the popular hootenannies at the Gaslight, Van Ronk used to say that Dylan never liked any of the coffeehouses. In fact, Van Ronk said, Dylan didn't even like coffee.

This last sentence is supposed to provide an ironic tweak. But first, keep in mind that Dylan's contribution to the Starbucks ouevre is the only "new album of significance" in the Starbucks musical stable. (Yet even this is a backhanded compliment -- for resourceful listeners can get copies of snippets of the cd as rough bootlegs. If you happen to be on Bleecker Street. And shame on you, Starbucks, for pulling this music all together into a listenable format.). But back to that incisive last sentence: One hopes that David Hadju knows that Bob Dylan has an unassailably great radio hour on XM, in which he picks a theme for the hour and then plays all sorts of music and spins periodic Dylanesque yarns based on that theme. Three weeks ago? His theme was "coffee." Dylan more than implied that he drinks the stuff. Take that, vague but supposedly damning closing sentence.

At the beginning I pointed out that I write neither to damn nor to praise Starbucks. The company has opened the door to coffee houses for people who otherwise might not have had that option. I think its selection of music is neither brilliant nor noxious nor pithily categorizable. If I want background music, I may even flip over the XM channel 75, Hear Music, which is basically the Starbucks channel. But usually I won't. Either way, that is not the point here. The point is that Hajdu makes a few nonsense sociological observations with almost no evidence, that his arguments fall apart of their own weight, and that where he is not irredeemably petty he is undeniably silly. This is risible cultural criticism that tells us nothing of the culture; musical criticism that leaves us no smarter about music. It is a Venti serving of self-important sludge.