The week (October 27th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the fedora to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WILL THE “72-HOUR CAMPAIGN,” the Republican’s much-heralded get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drive, save this 2006 mid-term election for the GOP? George Mason University professor Michael McDonald argues in the Washington Post that it won’t: “Republican get-out-the-vote efforts could make a difference in close elections if Democrats simply sat on the sidelines. But this year Democrats have vowed to match the GOP mobilization voter for voter.”

I think McDonald is wrong—the Republicans have been at it longer, have spent more time and money on the process, and understand how social networks, especially in “Edge City,” work. So look for the GOP GOTV to keep the upcoming election from being a total disaster for the party currently in power: enough of the conservative base will show up to allow the Republicans to keep control of the Senate.

THE SURPRISING RACE IN FLORIDA’S 13TH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT shows the trouble facing Congressional Republicans. Polls show Democrat Christine Jennings with a slight lead over Republican Vern Buchanan in a West Coast district most recently represented by Katherine Harris and traditionally considered “safe” for the GOP. Buchanan has spent more than $5 million of his own money on the race, and Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush and Laura Bush have campaigned for the Sarasota businessman, all in an effort to retain the Congressional seat for the Republicans.

IF THE HEISMAN TROPHY GOES TO the college football player who matters most to his team’s gridiron success, then Notre Dame’s quarterback Brady Quinn should win. Although Troy Smith of Ohio State, another top-notch QB and the Heisman frontrunner, may be a better player, he can afford an off day and the Buckeyes will still win. Not so with Notre Dame: if Quinn has a so-so day (as he did against Michigan), the Fighting Irish are in trouble. Quinn’s recent performances, against UCLA and Navy, have been crucial for Notre Dame.

BILL O’REILLY SEEMED RELAXED AND CONFIDENT, AND DAVID LETTERMAN came off as testy and overmatched during O’Reilly’s Friday appearance on the “Late Show.” That’s because Fox News Channel talk show host O’Reilly handles direct hostility well; Letterman doesn’t have the depth, or the ironic wit, of a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, and had to resort to insults (calling O’Reilly a “bonehead”) instead of countering O’Reilly with humor.

HOW PHONY DO THE PRO FORMA APOLOGIES sound when a government official speaks his or her mind and then retracts under pressure? The latest example: American diplomat Alberto Fernandez, who apologized for saying that the U.S. had displayed stupidity and arrogance in Iraq, claiming that he “seriously misspoke.” Fernandez, who speaks fluent Arabic and is often a guest on Al Jazeera, backtracked to save his job, but who can deny the role of post-war American stupidity and arrogance in creating the current mess?

ACTOR ALEC BALDWIN apparently fantasizes about becoming governor of New York. Baldwin, a liberal Democrat, told the Sunday New York Times: “I’m Tocqueville compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Baldwin might want to try anger management classes first before any run for office, if this New York Post story about his temper is accurate.

WHAT IS GOING ON AT THE LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY? You would think that security would have been tightened after the Wen Ho Lee incident, but you would be wrong. The Albuquerque Tribune notes: “What appear to be computer devices containing classified information have been discovered outside the secure fence near Los Alamos National Laboratory. This time they were in a mobile home, where police also discovered illegal drugs.” The Tribune editorialized: “No more excuses for Los Alamos security.” Hear, hear, as the Brits say.

MURRAY WEISS of the New York Post reported this week that the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor honored the late Rev. John M. Corridan by naming its first police vessel after the Jesuit priest, who became famous for his stand against organized crime and corruption. Corridan, who died in 1984, was the inspiration for “On the Waterfront,” Elia Kazan’s award-winning 1954 movie.

DID THE CARDINALS WIN THE 2006 WORLD SERIES, or did the Tigers hand it to the Redbirds? Considering Detroit’s sloppy play in the field, the five-game series victory by St. Louis seemed, well, anti-climactic.

THE IRISH WRITER BRENDAN BEHAN once compared critics to eunuchs in a harem: “They know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The porn problem

The question of pornography—and its intrusion into mainstream American culture—has been front and center this week.

There was country music singer Sara Evans withdrawing from ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” because of her failing marriage; she alleges that her husband has a pornography problem (an accusation he denies, saying they watched “adult films” together as a couple).

On CNN, Glenn Beck featured the problem of pornography in a series “Porn: American’s Addiction,” and the self-described “religious, family values conservative” made this admission:

It takes every ounce of willpower I have as a guy not to give into the constant stream of porn that you come into contact with every single day! It is a struggle for me. And I don`t know if it is for you. You`ve got it mastered. I don`t. Porn is a very powerful, seductive and, as you will see, a very lucrative business.

There are signs that the “mainstreaming of pornography,” a trend documented in Pamela Paul’s Pornified: How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families is gathering momentum. More proof? Look no further than a recent piece on “Mad. Ave goes (Soft) Porn” or the recent (much e-mailed) New York Times article on the sexualization of the Halloween costumes women and girls are wearing (outfits described as more suitable for strip clubs than for trick-or-treating…)

Porn attracts—some observers estimate that it accounts for some 25% of Web searches—and it sells, witness the multi-billion dollar industry revolving around it. (Because of its subject matter, this brief essay will most likely reach many more Web readers than anything I might offer on literature, politics, journalism, sports or more mundane topics.)

The porn problem is attracting the attention of both social conservatives and feminists. One disturbing cover story in New York magazine by Naomi Wolf, “The Porn Myth,” (with a sub headline: “In the end, porn doesn’t whet men’s appetites—it turns them off the real thing”) particularly caught my eye. Wolf, a 21st century “Sex in the City” feminist, has a simple argument to make: “The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.'”

Before considering Wolf’s viewpoint, some definitions are in order. She is talking about pornography post-Larry Flynt—that is to say, the hard-core variety, not the Hugh Hefner “girl-next-door” Playboy pin-ups of yesteryear. Wolf notes the pornification of the mainstream, citing the predictions of Andrea Dworkin, the anti-porn feminist activist:

“… pornography did breach the dike that separated a marginal, adult, private pursuit from the mainstream public arena. The whole world, post-Internet, did become pornographized. Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training—and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.”

But, Wolf argues, Dworkin’s fear that men “would come to objectify women as they objectified porn stars, and treat them accordingly” and resort to “rape and other kinds of sexual mayhem” has not materialized. Instead, Wolf writes: “Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.”

Wolf offers a grim view of the psychic impact of porn on the young:

The young women who talk to me on campuses about the effect of pornography on their intimate lives speak of feeling that they can never measure up, that they can never ask for what they want; and that if they do not offer what porn offers, they cannot expect to hold a guy. The young men talk about what it is like to grow up learning about sex from porn, and how it is not helpful to them in trying to figure out how to be with a real woman.

Mostly, when I ask about loneliness, a deep, sad silence descends on audiences of young men and young women alike. They know they are lonely together, even when conjoined, and that this imagery is a big part of that loneliness. What they don’t know is how to get out, how to find each other again erotically, face-to-face.

This concern—that pornography can damage in many different ways—isn’t limited to the young. A growing anti-porn movement in the fundamentalist Christian churches targets men, including pastors, who have been drawn to pornography.

As a First Amendment advocate I can’t support those who wish to criminalize or ban pornography (just try defining it, and you’ll see the first problem with suppression). But I also think that the libertarian position on porn ignores the costs to society and to individuals. There are some legal responses that make sense: Laws that target child pornographers for their abuse of those photographed or filmed, for example, focus on illegal actions and not on expression.

You don’t have to be a social conservative (like Beck), or a feminist (like Wolf), or religious, to recognize something has gone very wrong. When growing numbers of men prefer fantasy to reality, to interact with cyberporn females instead of real women, there’s a sad distortion occuring of one of our most elemental of drives.

What to do? The first step is to recognize that there is a problem, that the incursion of “raunch culture” into the mainstream has negative effects. There is nothing cute about pornified Halloween costumes; pole-dancing contests for college women aren’t “sexy” but sordid.

Pamela Paul has it right when she argues that we should stigmatize porn, that it should be made socially unacceptable. Her approach—“censure, not censor”—preserves free expression while making it clear that rejecting pornography—voluntarily—or keeping it in adults-only spaces, says something about what we value as a society.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (October 20th): Nobody asked me, but…

As Jimmy Cannon, city columnist extrordinaire, used to say, “Nobody asked me, but…”

THE HUMAN IMPACT OF THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ rarely touches most of us, as relatively few Americans are connected with the volunteer military, (those who bear the brunt of the fighting and dying).

Two passengers on the southbound Amtrak Regional caught a glimpse of what the war means for one family this past Thursday. They helped a young mother who had boarded the train in Connecticut mid-route (struggling with her two children, a stroller, and two large rolling bags), to negotiate her way to her seats in Business Class. When one of the passengers asked the young woman where she was going, and she answered “Quantico,” the other asked her whether her husband was in the service.

“He is in Iraq,” she said, and burst into tears, before apologizing. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

The passengers tried to console her, and learned that her husband, a Marine, had been recalled for duty, and was involved in detecting and disarming roadside bombs. Looking over at her children, a girl and boy (five and one), at least one of the passengers offered a silent prayer that her husband would return safely home at the end of his tour.

MOVIE MOGUL SAMUEL GOLDWYN EARNED FAME for his response to those in Hollywood who hoped to make political films: “You want to send a message? Call Western Union.”

That advice was apparently ignored by the producers and directors of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” a one-woman play about the young West Coast left-wing activist killed by an Israeli Army bulldozer in 2003 during a protest of the demolition of a Palestinian house in the Gaza Strip. The reviews of the New York staging of the play—a controversial production because of the play’s perceived anti-Israel slant—have not been kind.

The New York Times theater reviewer, Ben Brantley, expressed lukewarm ambivalence towards the play: “Toward the end of the performance I attended, I heard one man choking back sobs and another snoring. I could sympathize with both responses.” Jeremy McCarter of New York magazine called the play “thin” and offering “no culmulative power.”

The Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout pulled no punches, suggesting that “Politics makes artists stupid” and adding:

Co-written and directed by Alan Rickman, one of England’s best actors, “Rachel Corrie” just opened off-Broadway after a successful London run. It’s an ill-crafted piece of goopy give-peace-a-chance agitprop–yet it’s being performed to cheers and tears before admiring crowds of theater-savvy New Yorkers who, like Mr. Rickman himself, ought to know better.

Teachout concludes: “The script is disjointed to the point of incoherence, the staging crude and blatant, while Megan Dodds’s performance as Rachel Corrie is frankly cartoonish.”

Will I be attending the play? To again quote Samuel Goldwyn: “Include me out.”

THE TERRORIST AND THE TICKING BOMB SCENARIO, often employed in debates over torture, has apparently found Senator Hillary Clinton and John McCain (putative presidential nominees for 2008) taking different stands, according to the New York Post.

The Post poses the question this way: “If an underling of Osama bin Laden were captured and American intelligence had reason to suspect he possessed intimate knowledge of a plot to unleash nerve gas over New York City in just a few short hours, who would you want prying the relevant details from the terrorist?”

Senator Clinton apparently wants a legal right to torture such a suspect; McCain doesn’t (although he suggests that an interrogator who overstepped the bounds in such in a case would receive lenient treatment).

Look for this Clinton “torture exception” to come back to haunt Senator Clinton in the primary season as the Democratic Left attacks her as too pro-war on terror.

WHAT ELSE IS WRONG WITH HILLARY AS A CANDIDATE? Some mainstream Democrats seem particulary nervous about the idea of Senator Hillary Clinton as their 2008 presidential standard-bearer. The latest boomlet for an alternative—Senator Barack Obama, who is flogging his new book as media types like Joe Klein and David Brooks tout his as Democratic hopeful.

Even John Kerry holds out hope for another try, although Boston Globe cartoonist Dan Wasserman captures the disbelief of many Democrats that Kerry is a credible candidate: Wasserman offers this Kerry 2008 slogan: “MY BAD: I won’t blow it this time.”

ACTOR WESLEY SNIPES, WHO FACES SERIOUS TAX EVASION CHARGES in the United States, is apparently away for the time being, making a movie in Namibia. Snipes clearly agrees with Sir Winston Churchill—“There is no such thing as a good tax”—but he may find the American tax authorities hold a different, and more punative, view. Snipes should place a call to Willie Nelson, the country music singer whose battles with the IRS are legendary, for advice.

THE PORNIFICATION OF AMERICAN CULTURE continues (somewhat blithely) with the recent adoption of “risque costumes” for Halloween, with women donning “costumes of questionable taste” that are more “strip club than storybook” according to the New York Times: “The trend is so pervasive it has been written about by college students in campus newspapers, and Carlos Mencia, the comedian, jokes that Halloween should now be called Dress-Like-a-Whore Day.” Linda M. Scott, an academic at the University of Oxford told the Times. “It’s a night when even a nice girl can dress like a dominatrix and still hold her head up the next morning.”

The Gray Lady suggests that this trend may hold darker overtones: “Many women’s costumes, with their frilly baby-doll dresses and high-heeled Mary Janes, also evoke male Lolita fantasies and reinforce the larger cultural message that younger is hotter.”

Note bene: I am not making this up.

SIR PAUL MCCARTNEY, locked in a nasty divorce battle with wife Heather Mills, might very well take heed of author Rita Mae Brown’s observation that: “Divorce is the one human tragedy that reduces everything to cash.”

Think the former Beatle now regrets he didn’t insist on a pre-nupital agreement?

I’M ROOTING FOR THE DETROIT TIGERS over the Cardinals in the World Series, just as I did in 1968 when McClain, Kaline, Lolich and the rest pulled out the win.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The journalist as impartial observer?

Is American journalism in danger of “strangling in its own sanctimony,” as suggested by New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse?

Greenhouse was responding to criticism by journalists and journalism school professors of remarks she made at Harvard in June (comments which received wide-spread attention only recently, when National Public Radio reported on the speech), where she told her audience “our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world. And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”

Greenhouse also added: “I feel a growing obligation to reach out across the ridiculous actual barrier that we seem about to build on the Mexican border…”

That her comments violated New York Times ethics guidelines for news staffers seems fairly clear, an observation made by Times public editor Byron Calame.

The Times’s guideline requires its journalists to demonstrate, to sources and readers, a determination to be an impartial observer by keeping personal opinions separate and private — not pretending they don’t exist. It’s not a unique concept in our society. It doesn’t seem all that different from the way judges and military officers, for instance, traditionally have been expected to exercise restraint in publicly expressing their personal views, especially about politics.

The guideline’s broadest value comes from serving as a formal reminder for Times journalists of their need to be disciplined about personal opinions. Public perceptions of bias, which can be sparked by some nuance in carefully edited articles, are likely to be triggered even more easily by expressions of personal opinion outside the news columns. The merest perception of bias in a reporter’s personal views can plant seeds of doubt that may grow in a reader’s mind to become a major concern about the credibility of the paper.

Most American news organizations require their reporters to function as impartial observers. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics calls for a divide between “advocacy and news reporting,” and maintains that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Greenhouse’s defense has been that her remarks at Harvard were “statements of facts,” not opinions, that “would be allowed to appear in a Times news article.” Greenhouse also said that: “The notion that someone cannot go and speak from the heart to a group of college classmates and fellow alums, without being accountable to self-appointed media watchdogs, means American journalism is in danger of strangling in its own sanctimony.”

It seems, however, that Greenhouse is having a hard time distinguishing between fact and opinion. Is it factual to say that “women’s reproductive freedom is under siege?” It is for those who view any change in the “abortion-on-demand” status quo—such as parental notification laws or moves to restrict late-term abortions—as a reduction in “reproductive freedom,” but many Americans (at least according to the public opinion polls) would disagree. (Greenhouse obviously feels deeply about the question: she was rebuked by the Times in 1989 when she joined in a Washington march in support of abortion rights.)

It is the same for her comment about the government “creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world.” That smacks of the partisan; whether the rule of law has been applied to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib remains a matter of debate (and perception). Haditha—where the military is investigating charges that Marines killed 24 Iraqis in a My Lai type massacre—is another matter. Is Greenhouse suggesting that the U.S. military is operating without any concern for the law? The argument can be made that the investigation of the Marines proves just the opposite, that the military is concerned with protecting the lives of civilians both through its rules of engagement and its prosecution of soldiers who violate them (as has been the case with several convictions of military wrongdoers).

Calame took specific issue with Greenhouse’s remarks about “the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism” and “the ridiculous actual barrier” on the Mexican border, noting that neither would be published in a Times news article.

To date, Bill Keller, editor of the Times has taken no public action in the Greenhouse matter. She will apparently be allowed to continue on her Supreme Court beat. There are some—such as Daniel Okrent, Calame’s predecessor as public editor—who argue that Greenhouse has successfully cordoned off her reporting from her political views. Okrent says that he never received any complaints about bias in Greenhouse’s reporting during his time at the Times, but that proves little. I am sure that many on the political Right might provide examples of what they perceive of Greenhouse’s slant if prompted; the Wall Street Journal called Greenhouse “the alpha liberal of the Supreme Court press pack,” and Federal appeals-court judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative, has argued that some judges have veered to the left to gain Greenhouse’s approval—something he dubbed the Greenhouse Effect.

It may be that Greenhouse has stuck to “objective-means” journalism in her reporting on the Supreme Court. But that she sees her comments at Harvard as “statements of fact,” fit for inclusion in a news article, should be worrisome for the Times news management. Is she credible as an impartial observer? Will sources or readers see her as disinterested or neutral?

There is room for those with strong opinions in American journalism, just not in straight news coverage. So there’s a very simple solution to the Greenhouse situation: the new Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal could offer Greenhouse an op-ed column, allowing her to express her views openly. Greenhouse could join the other liberal columnists—Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich—who made the shift from the newsroom to offering opinions, and the Times could find a Supreme Court beat reporter with less ideological baggage and more journalistic detachment.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (October 13th): Nobody asked me, but…

In the words of New York’s “man-about-town” Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

AFTER AN INTERVENTION, OF SORTS, BY THE DALAI LAMA, supermodel Elle Macpherson has dropped her lawsuit challenging rival Heidi Klum’s right to use the nickname “The Body.” Does this sharing of the nickname mean a global Zen-like harmonic convergence is nigh?

MARK WARNER’S DECISION TO EXIT THE 2008 PRESIDENTIAL RACE makes North Carolina’s John Edwards the big winner, not Hillary Clinton, as some have argued. Warner’s departure from the contest strengthens Edwards’ claim to be the centrist Democrat who can run more than a 16-state campaign.

The Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza sees the surprise move by the former Virginia governor as benefitting Evan Bayh, another moderate Democratic presidential hopeful. But Edwards’ head-start makes him the clear Hillary-alternative for those worried about Mrs. Clinton’s electability.

MARTIN SCORSESE’S THE DEPARTED is great movie-making, with its intertwined Boston Irish cops-and-robbers tale and a cast featuring some of today’s top American male actors; perhaps only the first Godfather film or On the Waterfront boasted as much masculine star power in one movie.

Director Scorsese elicits several memorable performances; he keeps Jack Nicholson just within bounds in his portrayal of a Whitey Bulger-like crime boss; Leonardo DiCaprio summons up a new, appealing toughness; and Matt Damon gives us the classic “young man on the make,” hiding his ruthlessness behind a careerist front. Mark Wahlburg, a South Boston native, makes the easiest acting jump with his foul-mouthed state cop, and Vera Farmiga acquits herself well as the love interest in the movie (though her screen time is limited).

NED LAMONT will spend some $8.7 million of his own money on his bid to unseat Joe Lieberman in the race for the U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut. It will be interesting to do the math after the general election and calculate how much Lamont, the Democratic Party nominee, ends up spending on a per-voter basis. (But, as the saying goes, if you have to ask “how much?” then you can’t afford it.)

JACK BANTA, a former Brooklyn Dodgers’ reliever, died last month at the age of 81 in Hutchinson, Kansas. Banta’s moment of sporting glory came in October 1949 when he won the final game of the season for the Brooks against the Phillies, clinching the pennant for the Dodgers.

It was a redemption of sorts for Banta, because the lanky righthander had blown a save against the Phillies the week before at Ebbets Field, a loss that—at the time—appeared to have knocked the Dodgers out of the National League pennant race. Banta also pitched in three games in the 1949 World Series which the Bums lost to the hated New York Yankees.

HOW ON EARTH DID THE FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION once rule (in 2003) that the “Howard Stern Show” was a “bona fide news interview” program? I missed the ruling when it first came down, but it was cited after California Democrat and gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides asked NBC for equal time on the Tonight show after an appearance by incumbent Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. The New York Times archly noted that:

If a show that regularly features women in various stages of undress, sometimes engaged in lewd acts with fruit, was declared a news program, some legal analysts suggested Mr. Leno’s show might likely pass the same test.

If the “Howard Stern Show” is a news program, then the word “news” has lost all meaning. (Do you think the FEC actually meant “nude program?”)

THE HISTORICAL RECKONING for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will not be kind: his management of the Army in the Iraq conflict does not stand up to close inspection. Bob Herbert of the New York Times reports:

While most Americans are free to go about their daily business, unaffected by the wars in any way, scores of thousands of troops have been sent off on repeat tours into the combat zones. According to the support group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, two-thirds of the 92,000 Army troops deployed this year are on at least their second deployment.

These multiple tours of duty in a combat zone are a result of Rumsfeld’s decision to fight on the cheap. The human costs have been significant.

GONZO JOURNALIST MATT TAIBBI offers a mordantly hilarious send-up of 9/11 conspiracy theories at AlterNet. Taibbi imagines the “conspirators” George Bush, Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney plotting the 9/11 attacks (as many conspiracy buffs believe they did):

RUMSFELD: Well, I’m sold on the idea. Let’s call the Joint Chiefs, the FAA, the New York and Washington DC fire departments, Rudy Giuliani, all three networks, the families of a thousand fictional airline victims, MI-5, the FBI, FEMA, the NYPD, Larry Eagleburger, Osama bin Laden, Noam Chomsky and the fifty thousand other people we’ll need to pull this off. There isn’t a moment to lose!

BUSH: Don’t forget to call all of those Wall Street hotshots who donated $100 million to our last campaign. They’ll be thrilled to know that we’ll be targeting them for execution as part of our thousand-tentacled modern-day bonehead Reichstag scheme! After all, if we’re going to make martyrs — why not make them out of our campaign paymasters? Shit, didn’t the Merrill Lynch guys say they needed a refurbishing in their New York offices?

Taibbi’s piece skewers the 9/11 Truth Movement with wit and spot-on sarcasm.

CAN THE DISGRACED MARK FOLEY, former Florida Congressman and creepy pursuer of House pages, now be allowed to slink into well-deserved obscurity?

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (October 6th): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the fedora to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

BOB WOODWARD, or his editors at Simon & Schuster, deserve credit for a clever book title—State of Denial—with its multiple meanings. The title suggests that President George Bush and his Administration exist in a state of denial (with the word “denial” carrying some ten-step resonance), and, further, the U.S. government (the “State’), also refuses to face reality.

PROOF THAT THE AMISH practice what they preach: consider the news reports that many Amish mourners showed up at the Pennsylvania funeral of the deranged milkman who killed Amish five girls and wounded five others before taking his own life. It is one thing to talk of forgiveness, it is another to truly forgive.

THE KISS OF DEATH FOR THE 2006 YANKEES came once columnists and commentators began comparing New York’s current lineup to the Murderer’s Row team of 1927 that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Not quite: just ask the 2006 Detroit Tigers.

DEVAL PATRICK, Democratic candidate for Governor in Massachusetts has a marvelous life story—a self-made African-American from the mean streets of Chicago who, after Milton Academy, Harvard College, Harvard Law and a successful career as a corporate lawyer, is the odds-on favorite to win in his first try at elective office. David Broder of the Washington Post touts Patrick as a future Democratic political star, a Northeastern Barack Obama.

But will Patrick’s Old School Liberalism play well outside the bluest of states? Patrick is a doctrinaire liberal (think Michael Dukakis), and his support of large government programs, his coziness with organized labor (especially the teachers union), and his positions on illegal immigration and crime will make him an unlikely national figure—unless the country veers sharply to the left.

Patrick may have other problems. While the Boston Globe has been cheerleading for Patrick on its editorial pages, columnist Brian McGrory has recently begun to question Patrick’s “straight-shooter” reputation (“Patrick’s Candor Gap,” and “Time for Honesty“). Patrick’s past support of parole for a convicted rapist (before DNA tests which confirmed the man’s guilt) has also raised eyebrows.

And the one Massachusetts politican Broder cites as supporting Patrick–former State Senate head William “Billy” Bulger—carries his own baggage, including charges that he shielded his brother, James “Whitey” Bulger, a reputed Boston Irish mafioso who stands accused of several murders, from arrest.

BEN STEIN, the actor and writer, has offered an interesting angle on the scandal surrounding former Republican Congressman Mark Foley, who made inappropriate advances on teenaged House pages. Stein’s take:

I hope my readers and fellow humans will not hate me too much if I say that in a world where 3,000 women and children are raped and/or murdered every day in Congo, a member of the United Nations, in which a genuine genocide is going on in Sudan, a member of the United Nations, in which more than fifty men and women per day are being tortured with electric drills and murdered in Iraq, in which two of the world’s most dangerous and insane men, Kim Jong Il and Mohammed Ahmadinejad, are developing nuclear weapons, the e-mail of one deranged middle class white man does not really count to me as much as it might to some other people.

Who can deny that the national media frenzy about Foley—and not the pressing issues of the day—furthers the trivialization of American politics? And to what end? and Higher prurience-driven ratings?

GET OUT THE VOTE (GOTV) isn’t the most exciting facet of American political campaigns. But if the Democrats have really closed the GOTV gap with the Republicans, (as they are claiming) then the November 2006 election could make Nancy Pelosi the next Speaker of the House.

UNTIL I READ HIS OBIT, I didn’t know that the actor James Earl Jones’ father, Robert Earl Jones (who died at 96 in September) had been a sharecropper, actor, prize fighter (he was Joe Louis’ sparring partner), McCarthy-era blacklistee and New York City marathon participant (in 1996, at the age of 86!). An amazing man.

FUTURE POLS BEWARE! Google’s Eric Schmidt predicts that within five years, “truth predictor” software would “hold politicians to account”, according to the Financial Times.

Voters would be able to check the probability that apparently factual statements by politicians were actually correct, using programmes that automatically compared claims with historic data, he said.

Politicians “don’t in general understand the implications” of the internet, Mr Schmidt argued. “One of my messages to them is to think about having every one of your voters online all the time, then inputting ‘is this true or false?’ We [at Google] are not in charge of truth but we might be able to give a probability.”

If only it were that simple. I would argue that in the future the key issue in both European and American politics will not be the question of false claims—but rather the interpretation of a given situation. For example, the answer to the question “Is Islamofacism a clear and present threat to Western democracies?” depends less on verification and more on judgement. Will the Google search engine of five years hence provide a “true/false” answer to that fundamental question? I don’t think so. Voters will have to think it through themselves—and many other complex political issues.

THE NEW REPUBLIC’S PETER BEINART is calling for a “closing of the ranks” by conservatives and liberals alike on threats to free speech. Beinart believes that liberals have not responded strongly enough to the decision by the Deutsche Oper, a Berlin opera house, to cancel the Mozart classic Idomeneo “because it feared Muslims would react violently to a scene featuring Mohammed’s severed head.” Beinart writes that “Idomeneo should be the last straw” and that American liberals “must make the cause of European free speech their own.”

Beinart rightly sees this as an issue that transcends ideology and partisanship, arguing that liberals don’t need to buy into the “clash of civilizations” meme to defend free expression from Islamic radicals (or from zealots of any religion).

THERE’S A MARVELOUS SPANISH PROVERB: “It’s not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring.”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The incredible, shrinking election

Robert Ariail of The State has caught the distressing reality of the upcoming November election in his editorial cartoon of a GOP elephant and Democratic donkey pointing at each other and trading insults: “Terrorist coddler,” the elephant says; “Teenage cuddler,” the donkey responds.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats had hoped to nationalize the election, to make Nov. 7th a referendum on the presidency of George Bush and his conduct of foreign policy, especially his handling of the Iraq conflict. Mid-term elections are traditionally difficult for the party in power; and Democrats were convinced that a “vote of confidence” on Bush (and his proxies, Republican candidates) would let them regain control of the House, and possibly the Senate.

But if the Democrats win in November, it likely won’t be on grand policy issues—instead, this election may be decided, race-by-race, on more local terms and by the bizarre scandal involving Republican Mark Foley and his inappropriate conduct towards House pages.

The Foley scandal is the wild card in this election. The GOP may not only lose Foley’s seat in Florida, but also suffer from reduced support from fundamentalist Christians critical of the Republican leadership’s response to Foley. As Time‘s Michael Duffy points out, the damage may be significant, putting ” a handful of safe Republican seats suddenly at risk.”

Seven days ago, the congressional seats of Foley, Speaker Hastert, Rep. John Shimkus and Rep. Thomas Reynolds were all in the safe column. Now Foley has resigned; Hastert looks to be next; and it is inevitable that Shimkus and Reynolds will have to spend more time talking about how they handled the Foley affair than either imagined a week ago. Every Republican running for office who took Foley’s PAC money — and even some who did not — will have some explaining to do. Seven days ago, it took some clever accounting to see how the Democrats could pick up 15 seats. Now it’s not so hard.

The Foley factor looms in the race for one open House seat in Minnesota, (as outlined by the Associated Press):

Motherhood is hard to miss in Minnesota’s most competitive House race. Democrat Patty Wetterling, whose son disappeared 17 years ago, has grabbed the national spotlight in the fallout from the Mark Foley scandal. She immediately launched a hard-hitting television ad that argued Republicans “knowingly ignored the welfare of children to protect their own power.”

On Saturday, she will deliver the Democratic response to President Bush’s radio address, focusing on protecting children, including Internet safety.

It will be a strange turn of events if voters turn against Republican incumbents because of the mishandling of the Foley situation—and a sign that this election has shrunk in signficance, in some ways, no longer a debate over the future of the United States in a dangerous world, but rather one focused on more domestic concerns.

It may prove hard, then, to figure out what November 2006 means—there may be no mandate for change, no “up or down” vote on the Bush approach, no clear sense of what Americans want from their government. That would be in keeping with most Congressional elections when the presidency is not at stake (the “Contract with America” in 1994 one notable exception.) So it may be that the national debate over the direction of the country will be postponed—until 2008—and the presidential campaign.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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