Said with nothing but love

Dear President Obama --

   Hey.  Nice to see you getting into the swing of things.  I'm hopeful your economic stimulus package will work.  Love the Gitmo closing and Ledbetter law.  All in all, strong work.

   But what's up with your nominees not paying taxes?  This is not good.  Once is bad enough.  Twice is sloppy.  And embarrassing.  And a wee bit worrisome.

   Please don't make more mistakes of this nature.  I have to pay my taxes.  So should your Cabinet.  And preferably before they get nominated for things.

                 Your pal,


Logic Bomb

Wired Magazine, among others, is reporting on what could have been quite the piece of cyber vandalism -- a disgruntled employee at Fannie Mae planted a logic bomb (a malicious piece of software code designed to delete data, crash servers, etc.). Wired reports that
[The logic bomb] would have decimated all 4,000 servers at the company, causing millions of dollars in damage and shutting down Fannie Mae for a least a week
When I first saw the headline, I thought this was a political act -- attacking Fannie Mae for their role in the housing market meltdown. Alas, it was simply that Rajendrasinh Babubha Makwana
was furious at being fired and was trying to get back at his employers. (Allegedly. This is an indictment, not a conviction).

There's a longer bleakonmy post here about good and bad ways to fire folks -- ethical responsibilities of employers and employees. Time is short today, though, so I wanted to ask -- when you line up the images of --
  • an economy based on debt
  • angry middle and working class men
  • large corporations
  • bombs
-- what do you get? That's right, you get the climax of Fight Club... Darn you, Edward Norton! If you hadn't stopped the revolution then, we wouldn't be in this mess now!

Vaccinations: an allegory

Car dealer: What can I do for you today?

Parent: I'm looking for transportation for my child.

Car dealer: Splendid! We have many fine automobiles to choose from.

Parent: Oh, I'm not looking for an automobile.

Car dealer: Come again?

Parent: I've heard too much about people being struck by meteors while riding in cars. I'm not comfortable with the risk that my child might be struck by a meteor.

Car dealer: But that's ridiculous. The car isn't to blame if you happen to get struck by a meteor while riding in it. You could just as easily have been struck by a meteor outside of a car. Most people struck by meteors weren't in cars in the first place.

Parent: I'm sorry, but I'm not comfortable. I've just heard too much about meteors and cars in "People." I want something else.

Car dealer: But cars are clearly the best kind of transportation for your family! They've revolutionized transportation! The difference in transportation before and after cars is indescribable!

Parent: I'm sorry, but I remain uncomfortable. I'd like something more natural for my family. What do you have by way of rickshaws?

Car dealer: Rickshaws?

Parent: Yes. That way, we could see the meteor coming.

Car dealer: We don't have rickshaws. We only have cars. We really believe that cars make the most sense for families that need to transport children.

Parent: My, but you do go on. Fine. I will consider a car. But I prefer to do it my way.

Car dealer: Excellent. We have many excellent options. What did you have in mind?

Parent: I would like my car one piece at a time.

Car dealer: WHAT?!?!?

Parent: Yes. Bit by bit. I haven't heard of any possible axle-related meteor injuries. I feel comfortable with an axle. We'll go with one of those.

Car dealer: ...

Parent: If we haven't been hit by a meteor in two months, we'll come back for a door.

Car dealer: You can't be serious.

Parent: I am. Saw it on "Oprah."

Car dealer: Fine. Yes. Fine. An axle. Who am I to judge? Right this way.

Parent: Do you have it in green?


Well, at least they're not mincing words.

In an earlier post from today, I discussed an argument by Congressional Democrats that the GOP was politically invested in the failure of the economic stimulus package.

Now, I though this was going to be a question of supposition and conjecture. I honestly, in my wildest dreams, didn't imagine that they would just barf their strategy out into the media for the world to see. From HuffPo (via Andrew):

Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and nine other Republicans spoke with reporters Thursday afternoon following their House colleagues' unanimous rejection of President Obama's stimulus package Wednesday evening.

"They can cram down a stimulus package without Republican support," said Kyl, "but if that happens, then when, as we believe, in six months or so, when the American people say, 'Wait a minute, we're not better off. In fact, we're worse off than we were six months ago. Who is responsible for this and what can be done to fix it?' Republicans then are going to be in a position to say, 'We didn't have the input in this and that's why it didn't work.'"

First of all, let us note that this is not an odious toad like Rush Limbaugh talking here. This is the Senate Minority Whip. This is put-near as close to official Republican talking points as you're gonna find.

Secondly, that "we didn't have input" is a load of high-grade garden compost. Remember? One interesting little graf from that article:

In a measure of the complex political dynamic in Congress, House Republican leaders urged their rank and file to oppose the stimulus measure hours before Obama arrived. [emphasis mine]
So, spare me your sniveling "we didn't have a say" crapspackle, Sen. Kyle. Your party was against the package before Obama arrived on the Hill to personally lobby them for support, and there was nothing he could have said that would have changed their minds.

Finally, remember how the initial post was about the comparative political ramifications for failure in Iraq vs. failure with the economy? I will personally pay cash money (not a lot, but enough for selected foot-longs at Subway) to anyone that can show me a quote by any prominent Democrat holding out for failure during the run-up to the war in Iraq. Not criticism, mind you -- openly plotting to make political hay should the invasion fail.

Today's GOP: a darker future for you, a brighter future for them.

A very sad case in point

Poor Ted Haggard. I know I use that phrase ironically much of the time, but this time I mean it sincerely. It's bad enough to base one's value system on a narrow, suffocating, self-loathing ideology. But the man's entire career has consisted of promulgating that ideology, and his only (essentially nil) chance of regaining it is to appease those who espouse it themselves.

He's the subject of a new documentary, airing on HBO.

If you're at all familiar with Ted Haggard's story, you've probably already judged the man badly. In 2006, the founder and former pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., admitted to buying crystal meth and having sex with prostitute Mike Jones. As the leader of the National Association of Evangelicals and a strong supporter of former president George W. Bush, Haggard was against gay marriage and spoke out against homosexuality.

Branded as a hypocrite and exiled by his church, Haggard was forced to move away from his home in Colorado for a year and a half. During that time, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi followed Haggard with a camera and asked him questions about his life in the wake of the scandal. The results form HBO's upcoming documentary "The Trials of Ted Haggard" (premieres 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29).


Pelosi: Pastor Ted, last time I saw you, you were the king of a huge megachurch. Where did all your friends go?

Haggard: They left. I violated the rules. I shouldn't have done that. So we're calling this stage in our life our exile. We've been exiled permanently from the state of Colorado. [The church was] instructed to take me and my wife and our children outside of the state of Colorado permanently to put down roots someplace else.

Pelosi: And how does it feel to be an exile?

Haggard: We're miserable.

Let me make myself plain. Being gay is not a choice. People who suggest that it is a choice are either not gay, or gay and miserable. Neither is it a disease, a form of demonic possession, or any other manner of disorder, perversion or crime against nature. I don't need to link to any studies to validate this, because I know my own life well enough to comment upon it with authority.

Now, I was raised in a very, very conservative church. Probably not unlike Haggard's, come to think of it. I know the people who attend these churches, and I can honestly say that they are generally lovely in a lot of wonderful ways. They are sincere, and earnest, and genuinely concerned for the welfare of humanity's collective soul. They are generous and charitable and hard-working and dedicated in a way that much of secular America could learn from. And churches like those are pure, unadulterated hell for gay people.

I was taught, in a Sunday school class that is still clear as crystal in my memory, that gay people were out to deliberately spread AIDS. I heard at a youth rally in high school that gay people belonged on a desert island. And there has been no greater relief, no more rapturous understanding or more wonderful homecoming than finding that many, many Christians (to say nothing of the rest of society) think God is perfectly happy loving gay and lesbian people just exactly the way they are.

For all of Haggard's role in spreading the same claptrap that now smothers and hounds him, I forgive him. Gay people should forgive him, because so many of us have had the same poisonous vitriol poured into our ears that we know how hard it is to shake. We were told that God hates gay people, and some believed it, to the detriment of they ability to understand and feel joy. Pity this man, and his family. And hope that he, and his family, can come to a peaceful understanding of who he truly is, and can create a new life as it's truly meant to be.


I have no patience, at all, for malarkey like this:

The politician was in his 40s, a rising star, a man with the pilot light of ambition burning bright. The intern was just 17, sorting through emotions about his sexuality, a boy who said he needed someone to mentor him in the political world.


Came the mayor’s race and allegations of the affair. The politician, with the sturdy patriotic name of Sam Adams, denounced the rumors as scurrilous — they played to the worst stereotypes about homosexual predators, he said. How dare you.


It all came crashing down over the last two weeks, a bonfire of pride, lies and hypocrisy. The mayor admitted that he had lied about the affair, had smeared his accuser, and had urged the boy — a kid with the improbable name of Beau Breedlove — to lie as well. He did it all to get elected, he said.


Now Adams, with the support of some in this immensely tolerant city, will try to carry on — the first openly gay mayor of a major American city, with an asterisk.
No. Portland, Oregon may be an immensely tolerant city, but I am not an immensely tolerant man. (Well, not when it comes to crap like this, at least.) It is, indeed, unfortunate that the First Openly Gay Mayor of a Major American City played into the stereotype about Homosexual Predators. But it does nothing good, at all, for gay rights (or basic civic virtue, gay or otherwise) for a man to sexually pursue a 17-year-old intern in his office, and then retain his position as FOGMMAC. It makes not one jot of difference to me that they waited until after the kid turned 18 to have sex. Ick. Ick, ick, ick.

This is sleazy behavior, period. I didn't like it when the sleazebag was from the other party. I was none-too-pleased about it when he was the Commander-in-Chief. Adams should resign.

The economy is the new Iraq

Ben Smith notes a possible resemblance between the way Republicans are approaching the stimulus and the way Democrats were accused of approaching the war in Iraq.

One of John McCain's and other Republicans' harshest charges against Democrats during the debate over Iraq policy was that they were rooting for American defeat, and hoping to profit politically from the U.S. failure.


With the House Republican vote against the stimulus, Democrats are beginning to make a similar argument: That Republicans are politically invested in economic failure.
This is obviously the gist of my argument below. I think the comparison to the accusation against the Democrats is invalid for a couple of reasons.

1) While rooting for a prolonged recession (at least until after the mid-term elections) is not what one would call admirable, it's not nearly as bad as hoping for the deaths of America troops. Maybe I'm horribly cynical, but I'm pretty comfortable accusing the GOP of the former. I would never accuse the GOP of the latter, which is what they accused the Democrats of.

2) The Democrats had no need to root for American defeat in Iraq, because that issue had receded significantly in the minds of American voters. From the ABC News exit polling:

Which ONE of these five issues is the most important facing the country? (8,585 Respondents)

Energy policy (7%)

The war in Iraq (10%)

The economy (63%)

Terrorism (9%)

Health care (9%)

The economy was obviously much, much more important to people when they went to the polls last November, and the Democrats had no need to demagogue on the issue. The GOP, on the other hand, have nothing else to go on right now. The Democrats were in a position of strength going into the elections, whereas the GOP's power right now is limited to simple obstruction. The only possible way they can improve their standing in the near future is for Obama to fail.

3) President Bush was directly responsible for the war in Iraq. He asked for it, and sold it to the American people with spurious assertions about weapons of mass destruction. (We all know how that panned out.) For a variety of reasons, many Democrats supported him. While this was certainly an issue in the last election, I would argue that it made more of a difference in the primary race between Clinton and Obama than it did in the general. On the other hand, Obama is not responsible for the disaster that is our current economic crisis, and hoping that the stimulus fails is the only way to pin it on him. It would allow the GOP to float the meme that it's Obama's recession, instead of (infinitely more accurately) Bush's.

I can see how people would view the two issues, and the political ramifications of failure in each case, but I think the comparison is facile.

Update: I forgot to mention that Limbaugh, he whose ring the GOP must kiss these days, has openly hoped for Obama to fail. Eric Martin has a great post all about the strangle-hold Rush has on the Republican Party.

Makes sense for a politician

From this morning's Times:

Without a single Republican vote, President Obama won House approval on Wednesday for an $819 billion economic recovery plan as Congressional Democrats sought to temper their own differences over the enormous package of tax cuts and spending. [emphasis mine]
Not one, ladies and gentlemen. Not one single Republican was willing to vote for the stimulus package.

This was not for lack of trying on the President's part, mind you. He was willing to drop provisions that the Republicans didn't like. (The family planning funds in question were apparently what John Boehner was referring to here.) He went to the Capitol to personally lobby the GOP on behalf of the bill, where he reiterated a willingness to compromise on parts of it. Reading the article I just linked to, something jumped out at me:

In a session with House Republicans, Mr. Obama said he would not compromise on a central element of his plan that has drawn particular Republican opposition: his campaign promise for a middle-class tax credit that would also go to low-wage workers who earn too little to pay income taxes but are subject to payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. Most Republicans oppose granting such credits to people who do not pay federal income taxes, saying they then amount to a welfare payment.
Is it just me, or is that last statement 100% ideological? Welfare (and anything that we can plausibly describe that way) = bad, and thus we must oppose the stimulus package. Never mind that it might actually work to stimulate the economy, since the people who would receive the tax credit are the most likely to spend it, rather than saving it.

Now, if I were a Republican member of Congress, I would probably be disinclined to vote for the stimulus package, too. This has nothing to do with whether it would be effective. Heavens, no! It has everything to do with the fact that our bleak economy (see what I did there?) is the gravest crisis facing our nation right now, and there is a lot of pressure to get it right. By opposing the stimulus on some ideological ground or another, it allows the GOP Congressmen to distance themselves from it should it fail, pinning it entirely on the Democrats. Is this grossly craven and rankly partisan? Of course it is. Why, did you think things would be otherwise?

Obviously, I hope the stimulus package works for the simple reason that I'd like the economy to recover. But it would also be nice to see the Republican members of the House unable to claim any credit for it. Not that I think they won't try.

Update: Megan, who knows a lot more about economics than I do and is (unlike me) paid by the Atlantic to blog about it, dissents.


Double-Standard Watch

Well, I was going to label it "hypocrisy watch" and then I thought: "That's exactly what's wrong with extremist American politics, a deadly combination of cynicism and absolutism that cries 'Hypocrite!' in every instance that someone finds grey between black and white, or makes an exception to a rule for the greater good." Plus, somewhere buried in there is a pun on 'standard time.'

So, who has best exemplified the double-standard this week? We'll let you vote on the winner; here are this week's candidates:

  • (a) The 75th Secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner, who is in charge of administering the IRS while having "accidentally" forgotten to pay $35,000 in self-employment taxes.
  • (b) The Pope, for graciously de-excommunicating an irregularly ordained bishop , Richard Williamson, who also happens to be a rabidly paranoid, anti-semitic Englishman who believes most of the holocaust was faked. Former Hilter Youth member, Pope Benedict, is rapidly backpedaling from Williamson's statements, but the damage seems to already be done.
  • (c) The Obama Administration for naming William J. Lynn, until a few months ago a lobbyist for major defense contractor Raytheon, as deputy defense secretary -- just a few days after announcing that former lobbyists would not be allowed to government agencies they have lobbied in the past two years. True, Lynn will be subjected to a year of ethics reviews...
  • (d) The congressional GOP for claiming to be the party of Family Values while objecting to SCHIP, which would help provide health insurance for 4 million previously uninsured children.
Look for the poll in the top right hand corner and cast your vote!


Pardon me while I swig a calmative

Via Washington Monthly, I see that the Republicans are having some trouble with SCHIP.

“Our Democratic colleagues have gone back on many of the prior agreements that were reached in creating that bill last year, making this issue more contentious than it ought to be and setting a troubling precedent for future discussions on health care reform,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., said Tuesday.

Democrats’ SCHIP bill would expand the program by $32.8 billion over four and a half years, providing coverage for some 4 million previously uninsured children, they say.


Democrats said the changes they made were needed, and reasonable. They include eliminating a five-year waiting period for new, legal immigrant children and mothers to enroll in the program, slightly loosening identity requirements, and in some cases loosening family income limits on eligibility for SCHIP coverage.
For those of you unfamiliar with this program, SCHIP is the State Children's Health Insurance Program.  It is designed to cover children whose families make too much money for Medicaid, do not have insurance through an employer and cannot afford to purchase it.  Requirements for enrollment vary state by state.

Bush vetoed expanding this program twice, citing concerns that expanding it would have allowed families that could afford to purchase their own insurance to get government coverage instead.  The bill he vetoed would have allowed a family of four that makes less than roughly $62,000 to enroll.  The costs of purchasing private insurance vary a great deal from plan to plan and state to state, but the better plans can be quite costly, and the cheap plans often carry such high deductibles that they're worthless.  I don't know why Bush decided to use one of his rarely-wielded vetoes to be such a skinflint, but he's cooling his heels back in Texas now, so who cares.

But the economy is, as has been noted with some frequency these days, not doing so hot.  Taking the financial burden for insuring their children from families that are struggling seems to be as controversial as supporting free oxygen for everyone, and an odd choice for a game of philosophical chicken.  This bill would cover 4 million previously uninsured children.  Is the GOP so xenophobic that it would fight the bill because some of those children are (legal!!!) immigrants?

Steve King, you are a delight

Oh, mercy. Sometimes people are so stupid, it makes you want to stand up and applaud. Via Andrew:

“Let’s just say that, that, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, is brought to the United States to be tried in a federal court in the United States, under a federal judge, and we know what some of those judges do, and on a technicality, such as, let’s just say he wasn’t read his Miranda rights. … He is released into the streets of America. Walks over and steps up into a US embassy and applies for asylum for fear that he can’t go back home cause he spilled the beans on al Qaeda. What happens then if another judge grants him asylum in the United States and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is on a path to citizenship.” Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa)
In case you don't recall who Steve King is, he's the brain child who wondered why Barack Obama was allowed to use his own middle name during the Oath of Office, but race-baiting political gasbags like himself were not. Not what you'd call a major contender for a MacArthur genius grant.

What I love about the above quote is that it's one-stop shopping for Republican fear-mongering. Coddling terrorists? Check. Activist judges? Check. Lax immigration enforcement? Check. I'm surprised that he didn't go on to suggest that, following his becoming a US citizen, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would then go on to become an abortion doctor for lesbian welfare cheats, but there's only so much room in one soundbite.

Money makes the world go around

A colleague gave me a copy of this editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday, and I think it makes some good points.

Rapidly rising health care costs over recent decades have prompted the application of business practices to medicine, with the goals of improving efficiency, restraining expenses, and increasing quality. In the wake of the current economic crisis and the advent of a new presidential administration, even more attention will be focused on containing costs in the health care system. Price tags are being applied to every aspect of a doctor's day, creating an acute awareness of costs and reimbursement. Physicians are now routinely provided with profit-and-loss reports reflecting their activity, and metrics are calculated to measure the cost-effectiveness of their work. Many business managers believe that clinicians will change their behavior to meet the imperatives of increased efficiency, cost containment, and improved quality only by increasing their focus on the flow of money in their work environment.
I have written about this before, and can verify that the above is true, at least in my experience. I regularly get reports from my employer giving me feedback about my "productivity," which is expressed in terms of relative value units, or RVUs. The higher the complexity of the history, physical and management, and the more RVUs are assigned to a particular patient encounter.

But are there unintended consequences of applying a business mindset to medicine?
Um....yes. I think it is safe to say that many (if not most) medical providers are acutely aware of how much time they have to see their patients, how many they must see to generate the expected revenue, and how scrupulously they most document in order to get the third-party payers to cough up the dough. This obviously has an unintended effect by pressurizing interactions with patients, and inducing a sort of brusqueness of approach. No matter how hard I try to silence the little stopwatch ticking in the back of my head, I am always aware that time is money. That being said, I think the authors overstate their case a bit.

Not long ago, we overheard two colleagues talking in the hall. One physician asked the other for his thoughts on a complex case; despite a busy schedule, he did not hesitate to stop and engage in thoughtful discussion. Now, imagine that they had just left a departmental meeting where the divisional budget was reviewed and goals for individual relative value units (RVUs, the monetary metric of physicians' time and effort) were presented. Would their interaction be different?
Perhaps I am hopelessly naive, but I don't see the interaction above being affected to the degree that the authors imply. I am always happy to discuss cases with other providers, whether in my office or calling for consultation. Similarly, I have almost always been treated with the utmost attentiveness and courtesy when I phone colleagues at other institutions for advice or information.

Researchers have described two types of relationships that involve giving a benefit to someone else.4 In a market relationship, when you provide goods or services, you expect to receive cash or bartered goods of similar value in return. In a communal relationship, you are expected to help when there is a need, irrespective of payment. Such relationships are most familiar among family members and friends, who willingly give time and labor without obliging anyone to pay them. Medicine involves both kinds of interactions. It has marketplace elements that are inherent in any business — a physician receives payment for services. But there is also a communal relationship, an expectation and obligation to help when assistance is needed. We believe that in the current environment, the balance has tipped toward market exchanges at the expense of medicine's communal or social dimension.
I agree with this as well. But I'm not sure how to go about fixing it. No matter how much a person may find medicine fascinating, or go into the field for the love of caring for patients, the market pressures will exist. The authors suggest that a "medical home" model may provide an answer, in which insurers pay a fee for enhanced care for their enlistees, meant to cover the unreimbursed time we spend talking about how to wean kids off the bottle, or counseling depressed teenagers, or discussing the risks and benefits of vaccines, etc. This sounds promising, but I'm skeptical that third-party payers will be willing to subsidize this kind of care at the expense of their own bottom lines. (In my experience, insurance companies bend over backwards to avoid paying for care, and this solution seems a bit too much like pie in the sky.) How high are these fees going to be to take the pressure off providers? What if some insurers are willing to pay these additional fees, and others do not? Do we preferentially enroll patients whose insurers offer them, or do we spend more time with the "medical home" patients? (I think the ethical problems with those possibilities are obvious.)

I think universal health care would go a long way toward correcting this problem. Hospitals routinely write off the costs of those who receive care but cannot afford to pay, and this increases the pressure to maximize revenue from those who can. Insuring payment for all patients and services would help. Will it be enough? I don't know. But I think it would be a start.

I'll give her a pass on this one

Yesterday The Plank called out Susan Collins for her opposition to the nomination of Tim Geithner. Their take:

Doesn't augur so well for the notion that GOP moderates will fall right into line for the new president--although from Obama's perspective better a meaningless protest like this than a more substantive objection to the stimulus or health care reform.
I've written about Collins and Snowe before, and I'm certainly skeptical of their moderate bona fides. (Though I'm also willing to give them credit when they live up to their reputation.) But I'm going to go out on a limb here, and give this one to Collins. Reading the substance of her statement, I think she has a valid point.

Mr. Geithner failed to pay self-employment taxes while working for the International Monetary Fund. He failed to make these tax payments despite the fact that the IMF repeatedly reminded him of this obligation. He signed paperwork acknowledging this obligation. He received extra compensation that he acknowledged at the time was for the purpose of paying this obligation. Yet when he filed tax returns for the years he was employed at the IMF, he did not pay self-employment taxes.

After working for the IMF for three years, Mr. Geithner was audited by the Internal Revenue Service in 2006, which discovered that he had failed to pay his self employment taxes. Mr. Geithner was ordered to correct his tax returns for 2003 and 2004, and he paid the amount that he owed for those years.

But Mr. Geithner had made the same omission in 2001 and 2002, years that were outside the scope of the audit. Yet having been informed by the IRS of his omission for 2003 and 2004, Mr. Geithner took no action to correct the deficiency from 2001 and 2002 -- years for which the statute of limitations had already run. In fact, Mr. Geithner chose not to make the payments until he was being considered for this position at the end of 2008.

I've read somewhere (sorry for the lack of attribution, but I sincerely can't recall where) that Geithner's excuse would be getting much more attention and derision if more people paid self-employment taxes and were thus aware of how unlikely it was that Geithner merely erred. Even the panelists on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" this weekend were making light of the, shall we say implausibility of this argument. Collins highlights this implausibility in her statement, and I have a hard time faulting her for it.

Now, admittedly, she didn't seem to have the same sense of caution when voting to confirm other questionable characters, so I'm not willing to chalk this up entirely to standing on principle. But I'll take her at her word when she opposes the nomination of someone who's apparently going to help fix our economy but can't be bothered to pay his own taxes properly.



Oh, brother. From Reuters:

Pope Benedict rehabilitated Saturday a traditionalist bishop who denies the Holocaust, despite warnings from Jewish leaders that it would seriously harm Catholic-Jewish relations and foment anti-Semitism.

The Vatican said the pope issued a decree lifting the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops who were thrown out of the Roman Catholic Church in 1988 for being ordained without Vatican permission.

Andrew Sullivan has been all over this. He provided a link to this helpful compendium of the various statements of one Mr. Richard Williamson. Some of the real humdingers:

I believe that the historical evidence — the historical evidence — is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolph Hitler


By lies, Judeo-Masonry brought about the first two World Wars.


By lies, Judeo-Masonry is preparing for the Third World War. As the Depression of the 1930’s necessitated WWII, triggered for the US by the supposed treachery of the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, so we see all the conditions created for another much worse Depression in the US, with the supposed treachery of Arabs last year against the Twin Towers in New York already igniting American public opinion to go to war against Afghanistan and now Iraq.


None of you believe that 9-11 is what it was presented to be. It was, of course, the two towers came down, but it was absolutely for certain not two airplanes which brought down those two towers. They were professionally demolished by a series of demolition charges from top to bottom of the towers.

Now, I don't believe in excommunication, period. I don't believe that people can be categorically excluded from the love of God. However, let us take as a given that excommunication is a valid means of executing God's will upon those who stray egregiously. Why is it that being ordained without the Vatican's permission is a grave enough sin to cut one off from communion with the Church, but denying the murder of 6 million Jews (among other ridiculous and ugly assertions) is not?

Via Upturned Earth:

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Bishop Richard Williamson’s views had no impact on the decision to lift the excommunication decree.
This man is a bishop in the church, and his views on the Holocaust have no impact? Really? His extraordinary ordination is a weightier measure to the Pontiff than his views on Jews, Masons, gays, women and the perpetrators of 9/11? Really?

I am not Roman Catholic, and have far too much love for my many good friends who are to associate them with this. (Just as I would not like to be associated with the likes of certain Anglican archbishops.) But I cannot believe that the Vatican has any interest in reconciliation with the world's Jews after this decision.

Update: Commenter John below clarifies that Williamson is not a bishop in good standing, and so lacks the sacramental privileges of that office. While this mollifies me a wee bit, I am still not particularly impressed by the Vatican's approach to him, and think it could have done much more to condemn the particulars of his virulent belief system.

Update #2: I agree, on the whole, with Ross Douthat's take.

In other news, water is still wet

Perhaps you heard a loud thunderclap this morning, as the bounds of human knowledge were torn asunder by the following insight from The New Republic's E.J. Dionne:

Beneath the warm pledges of bipartisanship and the earnest calls for cooperation in the midst of a grave crisis lurks an unpleasant fact: From the moment it loses power, the opposition party turns immediately to the task of getting it back.
I know, I know. I can't have been the only one who believed that, with the inauguration of our 44th President, the Republican Party had been gripped with a fever of blissful comity. I half expected to see Mitch McConnell riding around the Mall on a unicorn while Antonin Scalia fed butterflies with a potion of fairy tears. Anyone else with me? No?

It didn't take long for the GOP to realize that Joseph Lowery's prayer didn't actually include a mystical incantation that compelled them to play nice, and thus they are free to obstruct unfettered.

Republicans plan to test President Barack Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship as his $825 billion stimulus package heads to the floor of the House of Representatives this week, with the House Republican leader saying Sunday morning that many in his party will vote no unless there are significant changes to the plan.


Senator McCain, who lost the presidential election to Mr. Obama in November, said that he planned to vote no unless the bill were changed.

“We need to make tax cuts permanent, and we need to make a commitment that there’ll be no new taxes,” Mr. McCain said. “We need to cut payroll taxes. We need to cut business taxes.”
I know that cutting taxes is the Republican answer to every fiscal question, but I don't think that the last eight years have been particularly validating for that outlook. And I wonder how much sense it makes to cut the means of generating revenue while simultaneously undertaking a massive increase in spending.

However, far more hilarious is this:

Republicans have already settled on a five-letter messaging counter-attack to President Obama's plan to shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year: NIMBY. Within the past few days, John McCain and Karl Rove have helped reinforce the perception that Guantanamo detainees could not be moved to U.S. soil without a popular backlash.


Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, is the military's only maximum-security prison, making it a strong option for the Obama administration during deliberations on the future of Guantanamo's 240 or so remaining occupants. But not if Sen. Sam Brownback has anything to say about it. He and three House Republicans from the state already have introduced bills in Congress that would bar the government from moving detainees from Cuba to Kansas.
I've written about this before, and my response hasn't changed. There are already plenty of very dangerous people already in custody in the United States, and the dangerous ones from Guantanamo do not pose some kind of material threat orders of magnitude greater than those already incarcerated. To introduce legislation that would prevent their being imprisoned at Leavenworth, or anywhere else, is obstructionism plain and simple, and deserves a veto.

I also don't buy the idea of a "popular backlash." Call me crazy, but I actually think few people would even notice if the prisoners were transferred. That is, unless certain lawmakers decide to make a big stink about it, all but implying that terrorists might be released to roam in downtown Wichita.

Memo to Sen. Brownback -- if you're going to accept a whole bunch of federal dollars for your state, you're going to have to accept that nasty people might end up there.

Update: Glenn Greenwald shows pretty convincingly that this is probably not a winning strategy for the GOP.

Speaking of pictures

This is truly amazing. (h/t Sully.)

Update: To clarify, you can zoom in on the picture, which is what makes it so amazing. And yes, Justice Thomas appears to be napping. (I will charitably assume it's just how the camera makes it look.)

If Dickens had been a photojournalist

I don't really have much by way of commentary on this morning's Times article about the efforts of some Nevada brothels to be taxed. (Read the article if you're curious about why.)

However, I had to make sure a perfect instance of symmetry didn't go unnoticed. Gentle readers, straight out of Central Casting, I give you the man who is the lobbyist for the Nevada Brothel Association, George Flint:


The Anguish Language

Quite a bit happened this week in the wide, weird world of the English language.

There was of course the Presidential Oaf, I mean Oath, of Office. Kudos to Harvard professor and neo-Chomskian Steven Pinker -- author of The Language Instinct and the even more impenetrable The Stuff of Thought (and who is desperate for my kudos, I'm sure)... where was I? Ah yes, props to Pinker who, in the NYTimes, pinpointed why the Chief Justice of the United States screwed up in administering the oath:
[The] wayward adverb in the [oath] is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling. Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.

Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.”....

On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb “faithfully” away from the verb.
Take that, you grammar fiends! (Don't get me started on Eats, Shoots and Leaves...). Language is messy, evolving and organic. Stop trying to force it into a narrow box of pedantic rules...

The next bit of language news is the discussion around Dr. Joseph Lowrey's benediction. I thought it was the best part of the whole event -- well, the third best (the best being that moment when Obama became president, and the second being Aretha Franklin). Yet Lowrey is now being reviled for being bizarre and racist.

Speaking as a white preacher, I'd say that a lot of fellow anglo preachers routinely miss the mark on good preaching because we don't think humor is appropriate in prayers (and we miss a lot of the great jokes in the Bible, but that's another rant), and because we don't use music -- both sacred and secular -- in our prayers. Just witness the rather insipid opening prayer from Rick Warren. Controversy broke out because Lowrey's benediction closes with a twist on Big Bill Broonzy's 1949 song about Jim Crow laws:
If you is white, you's alright,
if you's brown, stick around,
but if you's black, hmm, hmm, brother,
get back, get back, get back.
Just because Lowrey's inversion of that 60-year old tune was also funny doesn't mean it was foolish. It's an old trick, using humor where direct speech might have meant the whip, and Lowrey uses humor to make a clear statement that Jim Crow is (God willing) on the way out. Of course, it was read by some folks racist -- because it mentioned race. Heaven forbid we talk about race in America, or treat race with anything but PC fear and trembling.

Rhetorical structure in Lowrey's benediction was interesting too -- he closes and ends with music. My jaw dropped with the realization, a few words in, that the benediction at a presidential inauguration was being taken from James Wendel Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," once adopted by the NAACP as the "Black National Anthem." That sweet cognitive dissonance of something once alternative and subversive being declaimed at the very center of power.

Finally, there was a great article by Hugh Scofeld in the BBC about the new global English. I won't cite it in full -- go read it yourself. But the rhetorical image of the week goes to a quote in Schofeld's article from Jean-Paul Nerriere. M. Nerriere argues that the French need to realize the 'language war' is lost, that a bastardized English (that he calls "Globish") is universal, and those that object, well:
"We're just urinating on the ashes of the fire,"
Now doesn't that just sum up the blogosphere?

Revolutionary Road, the recipe

Take one box Betty Crocker cake mix, any flavor.  Read directions, and bake accordingly.

While cake is baking, read one copy The Bell Jar.

Remove cake from oven.  Allow to cool.

Take one container Duncan Hines premade frosting, any flavor.  Transfer frosting to mixing bowl.  Add liberal amount strychnine.  Mix.  Frost cake.

Serve.  Ice cream optional.


Slumdog Millionaire: the review

Last night, the Better Half and I finally went to the local art/foreign movie cinema to see "Slumdog Millionaire," this year's feel-good Oscar contender.  I loved "Millions," and think that Danny Boyle is remarkably talented, so I had high hopes.  As with so many movies I have seen that were perfectly good, I wish I had heard less hype before I saw it, because I don't think it's quite as good as I'd been led to believe.  (Or, it could be that the dense core of my tar heart is unfit to enjoy quality films.  You decide.)

Don't get me wrong.  I liked the movie.  I genuinely did.  But I think the two adult leads are kind of flat, and I didn't feel as moved by the ending as I was expecting to be.  I thought the morally ambiguous older brother character was much more compelling, and I was more affected by how his story ends than I was by the protagonist/love interest plot.

I also think the movie's biggest punches come earlier, in the various stories about the characters as children.  The child actors are all winning performers, and the drama of their various predicaments eclipses the grand finale.  

And I had a bit of a challenge enjoying what are clearly meant to be some of the more light-hearted moments in the film, during which the kids tout, steal and rook their way to survival.  This is doubtless because the foils during these various scenes are credulous and well-intentioned Western tourists.  I realize that the kids are in desperate circumstances, and are fighting for survival, yadda yadda yadda, so I'm not going to argue that there isn't a justification for their behavior.  But, having been a credulous and well-intentioned Western tourist in India who got to experience (and fall for) the touts and frauds first-hand, it was hard for me to laugh all that hard at the stolen shoes and misplaced generosity and other punchlines.  It would probably really, really suck to have every piece of your luggage stolen in a deeply foreign country, no matter how charming the scamp responsible.  (Those of you who have heard my twenty-minute anecdote about visiting the Taj Mahal will, perhaps, understand my prejudices.)

These criticisms are relatively minor, and the movie is very well-made.  On the whole, I enjoyed it a lot, and the closing credit sequence is lots of fun.  I won't kvetch if it wins Best Picture.  But I wish I had seen it when it first came out, before it was this year's "Sideways" or "As Good As It Gets."


No, seriously... I'm asking

Both the Times and Politico include the following quote from John Boehner in their articles about Obama's efforts on behalf of his stimulus package:

“How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives?” Boehner asked. “How does that stimulate the economy?”
But there's nothing in either article about the stimulus package actually including hundreds of millions of dollars for contraceptives. I haven't seen anything about massive subsidization to provide contraceptives to the American public. (Unless I'm misunderstanding what's meant by "infrastructure spending.") Am I missing something? Is Boehner offering up some kind of bizarre non sequitur? (I really wouldn't put it past the GOP to pretend there's a bunch in inflammatory crap in the stimulus package as a front for opposing it. "We would love to support the President's efforts to revive the economy, but we just can't abide spending taxpayer money to club baby seals." That kind of thing.)

If anyone out there would like to tell me what on earth Boehner is referring to, I would be sincerely grateful. Because right now I just think he sounds nuts.

Well, at least this time it's not a Democrat

I remember being told once that nothing moved in Albany unless Joe Bruno approved of it. (Since I was there to lobby for something or other regarding access to emergency contraception, this meant it was pretty much DOA.) I never met the guy, but I got the sense that he was eminently powerful.


Joseph Bruno, the Republican former Majority Leader of the New York State Senate, was indicted by a federal grand jury today on eight counts of public corruption, reports the Times Union of Albany.
At least he didn't have any say in filling New York's Senate seat.

Hello? "Grey's Anatomy"?

Before last night, I had never seen a full episode of "Grey's Anatomy." I know it's where Katherine Heigl got her start. I know there's a gay actor, and there was some controversy about homophobic remarks between one star and another. Frankly, I never cared all that much. Being averse to medical dramas in general, I avoided this one in particular. Following last night's sample, I plan to continue in the future.

Apparently there was a crossing of story arcs last night, involving a convicted and condemned serial killer with a brain injury, and a dying kid in need of a liver and an intestine. Three guesses where this is headed. Yup. Serial Killer, slated to be executed within a week, is a perfect match for the Dying Kid. I will spare you the various twists and turns, but it all culminated in a scene wherein Dying Kid's doctor implores the Serial Killer's brain surgeon (in the OR... surrounded by OR personnel) to let him die on the operating table so the kid can have the organs. After much pontification and cogitation, Serial Killer is healed and survives long enough to be executed, and Dying Kid's story arc gets another (ludicrously tidy yet dramatic) conclusion.

I realize that griping about "Grey's Anatomy" on medical grounds is roughly as sensible as studying old episodes of "Ally McBeal" in preparation for the bar exam. But I just can't help myself. A situation like last night's climax occurs in real life slightly less often than never. There were more lapses in medical ethics in one fifteen-minute span than I can even accurately recall, and that's not including the surgeon with the broken penis. (Yes, that's right. Broken penis.) A surgeon that would pause mid-surgery while his patient's brain hemorrhages in order to hold forth on his responsibilities qua surgeon is known, in real life, as "fired."

I know that night-time dramas are more concerned with exciting stories than medical veracity. I'm neither hopelessly naive nor ridiculously idealistic. But surely, surely they could make some kind of effort to retain at least a nodding acquaintance with reality.

And don't get me started on "Private Practice."

Risks and benefits

Well, that didn't take long. From this morning's Times:

The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.

The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and passed through a Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists before resurfacing with Al Qaeda in Yemen.
I don't think anyone is arguing that every single person at Guantanamo is innocent. From a different article in the Times:

Among the questions that the White House did not resolve on Thursday were these: What should be done with terrorists who cannot be tried in American courts, either because evidence against them was obtained by torture or because intelligence is too sensitive to use in court? Should some interrogation methods remain secret to keep Al Qaeda from training to resist them? How can the United States make sure prisoners transferred to other countries will not be tortured?

Members of Mr. Obama’s national security team have expressed a wide variety of views on interrogation and detention policy, and there is likely to be robust internal debate before the questions are resolved.
Unfortunately, this isn't sitting well with some members of the GOP. Apparently, "robust internal debate" sounds a lot like "release them into Grand Rapids" when translated into Republican.

But Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the decision to close the prison within a year “places hope ahead of reality — it sets an objective without a plan to get there.”

In offering a warning that was also sounded by other Republicans, Mr. Hoekstra noted that in briefings for Congress, administration officials “could not answer questions as to what they will do with any new jihadists or enemy combatants that we capture.”
Those are obviously very difficult questions. Thankfully, Obama has recourse to some excellent legal minds, and has good people advising him on these matters.

The timing of the al-Shihri piece is not great for Obama, and I wonder how long the Times has had this information. Regardless, there are bad people at Guantanamo, and it's important they are treated accordingly. But the prison itself has become symbolic of everything the Bush administration did wrong with international relations, including torture, extraordinary rendition and black ops detention facilities. Closing it is a foreign policy necessity, which is already being acknowledged.

On a related note, Hilzoy recently wrote a great post about the Pentagon's canard that 61 people have returned to the front since being released from Guantanamo. It's worth reading, and can be found here.

Update: Chris Bodenner at Sully's page has a useful bit of information.

[snip]... the following are just a handful of other convicted terrorists currently held in Florence, Colorado:

Zacarias Moussaoui, Conspirator in the September 11, 2001 attacks
Omar Abdel-Rahman, "The Blind Sheik"; involved in 1993 WTC bombing
Richard Colvin Reid, Islamic terrorist, nicknamed the "Shoe Bomber"
Wadih el-Hage, Conspirator in the 1998 US embassy bombings
Mahmud Abouhalima, Islamic Mujahideen leader, 1993 WTC bombing
Jose Padilla, Convicted of aiding terrorists
Mohammed A. Salameh, 1993 WTC bombing

I think this puts a pretty quick finish to the question of what we do with the dangerous folks at Gitmo.


Since we're already talking about faith

This is absolutely apropos of nothing, really, but I have a need to vent some spleen here.

A while ago, I started the Hollander translation of Dante's Paradiso. I had read their translation of both Inferno and Purgatorio (both of which I enjoyed), so I thought I would hit the Divine Comedy Hat Trick. There are some books that I love, and will read multiple times. There are some that I would consider reading again, if there were some compelling reason. And then there's Paradiso, the reading of which should count as some sort of penance.

For those of you (understandably) indifferent to what some Snot-nosed Twit has to say about a classic of Western literature, stop now. Everyone else, here are three reasons I totally hated this book:

1) Dante has a cracked-out theology of salvation. Now, for someone like me that rejects eternal damnation as an article of faith, this is probably not surprising on its face. However, Dante's theology is so ad hoc, I have a hard time imagining that even he took it seriously.

While the protagonist is strolling around the sphere of Jupiter, home of the theological virtue of Justice, he asks the assembled souls (in the form of an eagle) about a hypothetical person who lives in far-off India. Poor guy, blameless as can be, dies without ever knowing a thing about Christ. Dante wants to know what's just about condemning him to Hell. The answer is, in a nutshell, "who are you to question God?" While this is essentially the same answer Job gets from God in the Bible when he asks about why he is suffering, at least in the Bible God shows up to give the answer Himself (and does so with pointedly sarcastic gusto).

On the other hand, immediately thereafter Dante meets the saved souls of Trajan and Ripheus. The pagan Trajan, because of the prayers of St. Gregory, was resurrected, converted to Christianity and baptized, and then died again, this time in salvation. Ripheus, a ridiculously minor character in the Aeneid, is somehow saved by believing in Christ before Christ was ever born, because he was just that good. This all somehow makes sense to Dante, regardless of the fact that Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, ends up in Limbo for all eternity, despite the prayers on his behalf of no less a personage than St. Paul. Thankfully, Robert Hollander concedes that Dante's theology makes no sense. Which brings us to...

2) The commentary is way, waaaaaaaaay too dense, and is not geared for the average reader. For both the Inferno and Purgatorio, Hollander's commentary was concise and explanatory. If you wanted to know who all the people being slowly roasted were, he gave you historical context. If you wanted to know the difference between simony and barratry, he informed you. (Memo to Gov. Blagojevich -- you should start your penance now. It ain't pretty, otherwise.)

They have since obviously changed their goals, and clearly set out to produce the Definitive Paradiso. The commentary is now dense, long, and predominantly devoted to discussions on scholarly debate about why one word is chosen in translation over another, and which musty Dante scholar preferred which interpretation of the number of times some character speaks. It is arcane, recondite and airless, and patently not meant for the likes of you. (On the other hand, you can't skip it entirely, because there's far too much allegory and history in the text to go without.) Which brings us to the last, and most fatal flaw...

3) Paradiso is stone boring. In Inferno, there is the grim fascination of seeing what gruesome punishment Dante will devise next. In addition, the characters have depth and a tragic sensibility that makes for compelling reading. In Purgatorio, the characters are all on their way to heaven, so they seem relatively happy with being variously crushed, smoked and flambeed, but there's the same kind of narrative progression.

In Paradiso, the protagonist moves from spheres of bright shining to spheres of shiny brightness. The only way the landscape differs is how illuminated it is, and how beautiful Beatrice gets, often described by Dante as being beyond his mortal powers to convey. Occasionally various saints pop up to hector or quiz him about scholastic theology or rail against the pope (and Dante really, really hates the pope), but that's all you get. The final vision of the Divine is brief, once again indescribable, and calls to mind nothing so much as the Entertainment from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

It's probably not much more fun to read me rant about this book than it was to read the whole thing, so I will stop here. But now I see why nobody reads the Divine Comedy beyond the Inferno unless they are forced to do so.

Speaking of faith

Over at Slate, William Saletan asks a provocative question:

Should parents go to jail for believing so devoutly in faith healing that they don't seek lifesaving medical treatment for their children?

Yes. Yes, they should.
Leilani and Dale Neumann of Wausau, Wis., will soon find out. Their 11-year-old daughter died of diabetic complications after they relied on prayer rather than doctors to heal her.
I am all for religious liberty. Wanna handle snakes? Go for it! Prefer to dance around a decorated pole by moonlight instead of getting vaccinated? OK, though I would prefer you not mingle with the rest of us. Keen on venerating Asherah on the steps of your local state capital? Fine, but you and I will probably never be close friends.

However, there is a clear distinction between what one does on one's own behalf and inflicting one's religious beliefs on one's children. If you're a full-grown adult and would prefer to pray to Thoth rather than take insulin, then follow your bliss. But your kid's welfare should not be subject to the dictates of faith.

Faith, as the author of Hebrews wrote, is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. It cannot be objectively verified. The deteriorating health of a child in need of medical attention is seen, and there is a duty to respond when there is a disconnect between what one hopes for and what one sees.

What strikes me most about cases like these is the profound selfishness of the parents involved. (And yes, one must have a certain degree of sympathy for them considering the loss of their child.) They would rather jeopardize the life of their children than the possible fate of their souls. Leaving aside the question of what kind of God would require this kind of austerity, what kind of parents would live by it?

If your faith is worth sacrificing your child's life, then it's only fair to expect it to be worth a jail sentence.

PS> In a supreme irony, the web-based "ministry" to which the Neumann's adhered uses the translation service Babel Fish. Clearly, the crackpots at Unleavened Bread Ministries are not familiar with Douglas Adams.

In which my faith begins its validation

From the Times:

Saying that “our ideals give us the strength and moral high ground” to combat terrorism, President Obama signed executive orders Thursday effectively ending the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret interrogation program, directing the closing of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp within a year and setting up a sweeping, high-level review of the best way to hold and question terrorist suspects in the future.
I don't think the importance of this decision can be overstated. America must not be the kind of place wherein a person can be incarcerated indefinitely without charge and held in secret. It must not be the kind of place wherein people can be tortured to extract information. If we are to restore our shattered international image, we must hold ourselves to the very highest standards of justice.

Which brings me to my next question. How on earth do certain members of the GOP sleep at night? I'm talking about you, Cornyn and Specter. Via Bloomberg:

Holder testified that waterboarding, a technique the CIA used to simulate drowning in questioning three suspected al- Qaeda operatives, is a form of torture. Texas Republican John Cornyn said Holder was ambiguous about whether he would seek to prosecute intelligence agents or those who sanctioned the interrogation methods.

“This is a really critical position with so many enormous questions hanging out there,” Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter told reporters after he sought the delay on behalf of his Republican colleagues. Holder’s testimony raises “big, big issues, which need to be explored in real depth,” he said.

In case this isn't 100% clear, let me restate this. Holder, Obama's nominee to be Attorney General, has stated that waterboarding is torture. (It is. It is also a crime, for which we ourselves prosecuted Japanese soldiers after World War II.) He has also refused to foreclose the possibility that people who engaged in said illegal torture might be prosecuted. Certain Senators are therefor, in an effort to protect those who may have engaged in torture, holding up his confirmation.

I have a hard time imagining the lengths the GOP would have to go to in order to regain my basic respect as a party, much less ever consider voting for them. This is an utter disgrace.

OK, so I still care

Yes, fine. I know that I said that I don't care much about the Academy Awards. And I don't! Not much, anyway. Or as much as I did. But I still maybe care a little.

Because this was otherwise a pretty boring week, I'm glad the Academy has announced the nominations for this year's awards today. I have a few thoughts.

I love Cate Blanchett. A lot. I think she is cool and beautiful and incredibly talented. So, apparently, does the Academy, since they essentially nominate her for smiling the right way, including for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," which was panned. Thus, while I wish her nothing but the best, I'm kind of glad she didn't get nominated again. (She can console herself with the Oscar she's got already.)

On the other hand, can we please give Kate Winslet an Oscar already? I really can't stand seeing her reduced to caring about the Golden Globes. If Julia Roberts and Gwyneth Paltrow each have an Academy Award, Winslet should have about a half dozen by now. I would have preferred to see her nominated for both "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road," thus doubling her chances, but I have high hopes.

And I am also glad to see Marisa Tomei nominated. I can't imagine how unbelievably disheartening it must be to win an Academy Award, and then have that win used as a punchline for the rest of one's career. I happened to think she was charming in "My Cousin Vinny," and while I didn't see any of the other nominated actresses that year except Vanessa Redgrave for "Howard's End" (and I've completely forgotten her performance), I think she's a very good actress. She was fantastic in "Slums of Beverly Hills" and deserved her nomination for "In the Bedroom." I rather hope she wins for "The Wrestler" so her critics can stuff their smug snarking about how Jack Palance gave her the Award by mistake.

This should do for now, until I foist my guesses for who will win on the world.

Morning radio news musings

Driving in to work today, I heard the happy news:

Caroline Kennedy announced early Thursday that she was withdrawing from consideration for the vacant Senate seat in New York, startling the state’s political world after weeks in which she was considered a top contender for the post.
I don't really know what led to this decision, nor do I particularly care. From what I have gathered (largely inferred from commenter Johnv2's oblique references), she was uninspiring when she tried to make her case to the American people. NPR called this the most botched political debut in recent memory (to which I would like to reply -- "Giuliani '08"). Regardless, I'm glad she has withdrawn.

Update: This doesn't really deserve its own post, because it's way too inane, but Obama was given the oath of office again yesterday after the minor stumbling over the words the day before.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. re-administered the oath to Mr. Obama on Wednesday evening, one day after the two men stumbled over each other’s words during the inauguration ceremony at the Capitol.
Why did they bother? Probably because there are morons out there that would say things like this:

On Fox News, Chris Wallace just speculated that President Obama might still legally be regular ol' Barack Obama, because his botched oath doesn't count.
I would like to casually point out that the Constitution stipulates that the president assumes the office at noon on the 20th of January. This apparently does not matter to such paragons or journalistic excellence as Chris Matthews, or other knaves and fools.


Moral Inspiration

My husband yesterday pointed out that Obama has a way of bringing out one's better angels: whenever my husband contemplates doing or saying something wrong, he asks himself what Obama would think of it -- which encourages him to take the better path. I agree. It is notable that no arrests were made at the inauguration, and chants of "O-Ba-Ma" were enough to quell a panicking crowd. Which raised two questions for me: 1) what wrong things is my husband thinking of doing?, and 2) (more relevant to bleakonomy's legion of readers) how does Obama do it?

As a parent and teacher, I'd really like to figure that out. It is not by lecturing or guilt-tripping. Part of it is the moral rectitude he has apparently displayed in his own life. Part of it seems to be the faith he has that we want to be better, and that we will choose to be better if it is a viable option. We want to be what he knows we can be. Is that all it is? Any other thoughts appreciated.

Obama's Rhetorical Superpowers

Everyone assumes that because Obama's (first!) inaugural speech was not as uplifting as, say, his 2004 convention speech, it must be because he deliberately held himself back, worried about inspiring too much hope on which he can't possibly deliver. Maybe. But isn't there at least a tiny possibility that Obama did mean to inspire and uplift us -- and failed? Maybe he was a tiny bit shook up after the botched oath? Or his judgment of the quality of the text was off? Or we're all a bit dulled after having ascended with him so many times before?

I mean, the man gives a good speech. Lord knows I've sniffled my way through countless ones. But he's not a rhetorical god. It is possible for him to intend one effect on an audience, and have another.

Invoking Secularism

Rick Warren's invocation was pedestrian and uninspiring. This was a bit unexpected to me, as I've never heard him talk before - I just know that he does inspire gazillions, so I figured he must have some rhetorical power.

Inspiring or not (and I did dig Lowery): why have an invocation and benediction at all? This is not a religious ceremony; Obama did not receive his position through Divine Right. We (supposedly) have a secular political life. Such a prayer should be as out of place as a creche at a courthouse. The invocation may have been ecumenical to a point, but it was still monotheistic. He also referenced Jesus. Although he threw us Jews a bone by citing the Shema, followers of other religions and atheists were excluded (and props, btw, to Obama, for including non-believers in his speech, as Dan rightly points out)

The point, however, is not inclusion or exclusion, and making sure that the Seven Aphorisms of Summum get their proper hearing. The problem is a public prayer in a secular setting.


"At Last"

There are few songs I love so much.  It has been one of my favorites for a long time and for many reasons, and I never thought I would hear a version that did justice to Etta James.

Beyonce, that was perfect.

In which I reveal my pedestrian sensibilities

I have never claimed to have fantastic taste when it comes to certain things. Given the choice between listening to Bonnie Raitt or David Bowie, I will pick the former every time. Though I'm not what would call a "huge fan," I will admit to liking several Dave Matthews songs unapologetically. And my favorite movie is "Moonstruck." So, really, what the hell do I know?

That being said, I rather liked Elizabeth Alexander's poem for Obama, "Praise Song for the Day." (The full text is here.)

Some lines I liked:

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."
The image of the bus is obviously inextricably linked with the story of civil rights in America, and the language is evocative of family, and of people with limited means. Similarly, the imagery of the teacher is utterly familiar with anyone raised in the American public school system, but is elevated by the context. The prosaic description of a classroom quiz stands in for our hopes of a new but challenging beginning.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

I liked "sharp sparkle," with the twin images of edges and illumination. And I love the intertwining of new possibilities with the power and connection to language, "any sentence begun." And finally, "praise for walking forward," praise for the courage to move ahead into uncertainty, with all its daunting brilliance.

I am just one guy, and smarter people will likely disagree. But I loved the poem.

And odd cause for hope

I had the happy experience of watching the Inauguration at Hattie's Chowder House in downtown Hallowell, Maine's most liberal city. It was a great way of witnessing a part of history, in a small corner of a small state where my support of Obama officially began about a year ago on a cold, snowy caucus day.

Many of the people watching with us were lesbians. (Hallowell is, after all, Maine's gay mecca.) Nobody seemed to have been aware of the whole Robinson prayer brouhaha, televised or otherwise, so I am reclassifying my previous beef as "molehill" and am moving on.

One small thing struck me while listening to the prayer. It would seem an unlikely source for hope for a person like me, who is a believing (if very liberal) Christian, but hopeful it made me.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus--and non-believers.
Obama didn't need to mention non-believers in his speech. Indeed, with the Warren invocation perceived by many to be an overture of friendship to religious conservatives, it was surprising to hear him specifically mention non-believers as equally worthy of our consideration when we discuss the quilt of beliefs comprising our nation's religious history. When I think about the people who matter the most to me, the friends who are like family and whose beliefs are as worthy of respect and protection as my own, I consider myself blessed to have Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and many unbelievers. I was proud of Obama, and heartened in my hope for his administration, to hear him include those often overlooked.

(h/t to the Plank for the quote.)

30 minutes to go

Everytime I turn the radio on and hear an interview of someone standing in the freezing cold of the National Mall, waiting for Barack Hussein Obama II to be inaugurated as our president, I get all weepy (it's not just you, Dan!). Folks who wont' be able to see the event but how just want to be there.

Seems the American Folklife Center is collecting sermons and orations about today's inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States. A great way to get an oral-culture snapshot (heh, heh, he said 'oral') of this historic moment.  Gods, we're all saying "historic" all the time... Anyway, I'm a big fan of the Folklife Center (probably because I have a degree in folklore & mythology), a FDR-era project of the Library of Congress that continues to record the stories, music and art of the American people.

For you Jesus-freaks, you can hear my own sermon on the inauguration here. (Odd trivia:Being painfully jet-lagged and working extemporaneously, for some strange reason I never mentioned Obama by name...)

And yes the Folklife Center is very clear that they want to hear not just from churches but also "synagogues, mosques and other places of worship, as well as...humanist organizations and other secular gatherings."


Shorter Dionne and Woodward

Both the New Republic and the Washington Post have published pieces recently that attempt to glean lessons for Obama from the failures of the Bush presidency. Neither makes the latter look good.

E. J. Dionne, Jr. offers this:

A hyper-partisan domestic politics of us versus them followed naturally from the president's instinct to confuse moral certainty for moral clarity. In his farewell address, he reminded his listeners yet again that "good and evil are present in this world, and between the two, there can be no compromise."

Yes, but the hardest moral decisions are usually not between good and evil but between competing goods (security versus liberty) or lesser evils (a draining war in Iraq versus a messy, long-term strategy to contain Saddam Hussein).

Bob Woodward shares ten lessons from the Bush years, gleaned from his lengthy observations:

Bush sometimes assumed that he knew his aides' private views without asking them one-on-one. He made probably the most important decision of his presidency -- whether to invade Iraq -- without directly asking either Powell, Rumsfeld or Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet for their bottom-line recommendations. (Instead of consulting his own father, former president George H.W. Bush, who had gone to war in 1991 to kick the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, the younger Bush told me that he had appealed to a "higher father" for strength.)


During a December 2003 interview with Bush, I read him a quote from his closest ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, about the experience of receiving letters from family members of slain soldiers who had written that they hated him. "And don't believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that, they don't suffer any doubt," Blair had said.

"Yeah," Bush replied. "I haven't suffered doubt."

"Is that right?" I asked. "Not at all?"

"No," he said.

What say we boil all this down? Barack, don't be an idiot. Our last president was an idiot. A patently unapologetic, swaggering idiot. He viewed himself as some kind of divinely-sanctioned warrior king instead of the elected leader of a free people, and seemed oblivious to the fact that he barely "won" and retained the White House after two very close elections. He saw a mandate where there was none, and couldn't be bothered with trivial details like listening to facts or seeking opinions different from his own. He was a failure because he was intellectually and morally lazy, while simultaneously congratulating himself for being just the opposite.

We expect better. We demand better. And when the gauzy good feelings have passed (and already I am disappointed by you), our expectations will endure. Don't screw this up.