The week (December 29th): Nobody asked me, but…

To echo that legendary newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SOCIALITE PARIS HILTON topped Google’s list of most-searched-for terms on the search engine’s news site in 2006. Perhaps that should be “newz” site. The late historian Daniel Boorstin would have recognized Paris Hilton as a modern master of the celebrity “pseudo-event.” (Or as Gertrude Stein would have it: “There is no there there.”)

IT’S WELL PAST TIME FOR A FEDERAL SHIELD LAW to protect journalists’ confidential sources from aggressive government prosecutors. Congress should act in 2007 on legislation advanced by two Indiana Republicans, Sen. Richard Lugar and Congressman Mike Pence. Pence, who calls himself a “cheerful right-winger” told the Wall Street Journal: “I really do believe that the framers of the Constitution put a free and independent press in the First Amendment to protect the public’s right to know, and the only way you do that is protect reporters’ ability to keep certain sources confidential.”

ARE GAY MARRIAGE SUPPORTERS hypocrites when they selectively embrace Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rulings? Hard to avoid that conclusion. If you accept the high court’s 2003 legalization of same-sex unions as valid, then (it seems to me) you should also encourage state legislators to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman, a vote that the Court ruled this week they are duty-bound to make.

Those state legislators who want to keep gay marriage legal in Massachusetts have, until now, avoided an up-or-down vote on the initiative; if at least one-quarter of the Legislature approves an amendment in two consecutive sessions then it goes on the ballot. Same-sex marriage advocates fear that, given the chance to choose, Massachusetts voters will ban gay marriage (which currently exists only in the Bay State).

But a constitutional democracy won’t work if citizens decide they can ignore any law or court ruling they don’t like, or if legislators use procedural maneuvers to evade their statutory responsibilities.

Some have argued that basic civil rights should never be put up for a vote—and yet, any political system founded on the “consent of the governed” does exactly that, establishing civil rights through some sort of vote. Look no further than the Bill of Rights, the 19th Amendment (granting women the vote), or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as examples of democratically established civil rights. Look no further than the Congressional prohibition of polygamy (a response to Mormon practice in Utah) as an example of how the democratic process works in establishing social norms.

Supporters of same-sex marriage should not shy from the debate. Arizona voters defeated an amendment to their state constitution banning gay marriage and I wouldn’t bet against Massachusetts, the bluest of states, following suit. (And there’s always the civil union alternative.)

COUNT ON CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS TO OFFER THE CONTRARIAN VIEW, as he does in his Slate piece on the death of Gerald Ford: “Our Short National Nightmare:
How President Ford managed to go soft on Iraqi Baathists, Indonesian fascists, Soviet Communists, and the shah … in just two years.” No worry about Hitchens ever pulling his punches.

SO MUCH FOR THE WONDERLIC INTELLIGENCE TEST IN PREDICTING professional football success. Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Vince Young, who allegedly performed poorly on the test, is shaping up as a superior NFL signal-caller.

THE LAST WORD this week comes from Robert S. Fitzgerald, a marvelous poet and translator (and a generous teacher): “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Diamonds and drugs

Director Edward Zwick’s movie Blood Diamond has raised a host of questions about Western complicity in the “conflict diamond” trade. To what extent has American demand for diamonds been a driving force behind brutal civil strife in Africa? Should Americans feel guilty about buying diamonds?

As with most Hollywood message movies, there’s less concern for the facts, and more interest in identifying villains—in this case, diamond merchants and, by extension, consumers in the U.S., who buy about half of the world’s diamonds.

Of course the notion that Africans fight each other primarily because of corrupting Western influences—such as the diamond trade—is naïve at best, and, at worst, suggests an underlying racism. Tribal and religious warfare existed long before colonization, and much of the unrest in Africa today—whether in Sudan, Chad, the Congo or Somalia—can be traced directly to those causes.

It’s also a stretch to suggest that conflict diamonds are in great supply. The diamond industry says conflict diamonds represent fewer than 1% of the gems on the market today. The Washington Post, in an article entitled “Blood Diamonds: A River or a Droplet?” suggests that Hollywood should have been concerned with the problem back in 2000 and 2001, when it might have mattered, when “rebels in Sierra Leone were hacking off the hands of civilians in a war funded by diamonds” and “activists could barely get Hollywood’s attention.” That war ended in 2002.

Zwick maintains, nonetheless, that his movie will increase public awareness of the problem and help strengthen the Kimberley Process, the international agreement monitoring and certifying that diamonds are “conflict-free.” (Who can argue with that?) Global Witness, the British advocacy group and a leader in the anti-conflict diamond movement, argues that “smuggled diamonds and diamonds mined in abusive labor situations,” along with conflict diamonds add up to some 20% of the total, according to the Post article. That sort of expanded calculation, however, makes the perfect (a completely reformed diamond industry) the enemy of the good (eliminating diamonds as a source of funding for African conflicts).

If Blood Diamond is to have a positive impact, it should be to, in the words of Amnesty International’s Amy O’Meara, “make sure conflict diamonds aren’t being bought in stores,” while not killing demand for the gemstones.

Greg Campbell, author of the book “Blood Diamonds,” told PBS recently that it would be “a disaster if people stopped buying diamonds and turned away from them, because, ironically, now that Sierra Leone is at peace, sales of its diamonds into the global international market is one of the, if not the only, thing that is going to bring the country up to developed standards.”

Campbell noted that the diamond trade has done wonders for Botswana, “a peaceful, democratic country that, in 1999, had the fastest-growing economy in the world.” He added:

So a backlash against diamonds on any type of important or significant scale could certainly impact not just the industry and the wealth of a couple of millionaires scattered around the globe, but also the prosperity of some of the few peaceful nations in Africa.

In short, then, there’s no reason to boycott diamonds, or to feel guilty, or to believe that Americans have some unique responsibility for tribal conflict in Africa.

You have to wonder why Edward Zwick chose the topic of African conflict diamonds for his message movie. There are examples of American complicity in Third World depravity that are much closer to home. How about the link between recreational drug use in the U.S. and the violent drug lords of Latin America? Americans should feel guilty about their role in that multi-billion dollar illicit industry, an industry which causes immense damage to the societies supplying the drugs.

The connection was brilliantly illuminated in the movie Traffic (which was a remake of a British-German collaboration, it should be noted, and not an original American film) and little has changed; American consumption of cocaine and other drugs fuels the drug cartels and the crime, violence and corruption that plagues Mexico, Colombia and other afflicted countries.

That, however, might hit a little too close to home. It’s hard to imagine Hollywood’s party-going elite adopting a position of preachy moral superiority about the use of illicit drugs.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (December 22nd): Nobody asked me, but…

In the words of newspaperman extraordinaire Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THE PEW INTERNET & AMERICAN LIFE PROJECT pollsters are reporting that two out of three American voters received pre-recorded “robocalls” from political candidates during the 2006 election. Watch for many states to seek legislation to curb the annoying practice; it can’t come soon enough, in my view. (And no, there are no First Amendment issues involved here, as you can’t argue that a privately-owned phone is a public space.)

ALLERGY SUFFERERS NOW face limits on their purchase of cold remedies that include pseudoephedrine (an ingredient in medicines like Drixoral, Sudafed and Claritin-D) because of federal and state laws. I experienced the new approach this week, when I had to show my driver’s license and sign for a box of 20-extended release Drixoral. Pseudoephedrine is also a key ingredient in methamphetamines, and the feds are using the law to go after meth makers and their illegal labs.

One Claritin-D user in Illinois, Tim Naveau, spent time in jail after buying some of the medication for his son, putting him over the legal limit for purchases. He was charged with a Class-B misdemeanor for stockpiling the drug.

I don’t downplay the dangers of crystal meth, but there’s also a danger in mindlessly applying the law and, in effect, criminalizing the purchase of over-the-counter medications.

DURHAM DISTRICT ATTORNEY MIKE NIFONG’s case against three Duke University lacrosse players charged with sexual assault of an exotic dancer is collapsing. Nifong has dropped rape charges against the three after the accuser told prosecutors she could not be certain there was “penile penetration” (necessary under North Carolina law for such a charge), even though she had told the authorities repeatedly that was the case. The state will proceed with sexual offense and kidnapping charges–which are felonies.

It’s even money that all charges will be dropped in February after the next court hearing, especially if the accuser continues to have “memory problems.” If that happens, look for huge civil suits from the three accused men against Nifong and the Durham police. They may well ask, however, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?

HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR DAVID ZUCKER is ruffling liberal feathers with his YouTube short film mockery of the Iraq Study Group. Zucker, like actor Ron Silver, is a post 9/11 convert to skepticism about the value of a diplomatic approach to the war on terrorism in the Middle East. The video is a hoot, no matter what your politics.

Zucker’s brother and collaborator on Airplane! and other comedies, Jerry Zucker, has distanced himself from the parody: “Jerry Zucker played no part in its conception, production, or distribution, and the film in no way reflects the political and philosophical beliefs of Jerry Zucker, his wife Janet Zucker or Zucker Productions.”

COLUMNIST FROMA HARROP CHALLENGES THOSE JOURNALISTS who write “sympathetic stories about illegal immigrants who work hard and go to church.” In her provocative piece “Illegal Immigration: A Rich American’s Game,” Harrop writes that the tone would change if reporters faced competition from immigrants the way low-paid American workers do:

“…were a busload of illegals from Australia to turn up at their newspaper and offer reportage at 10 percent below the going rate, the writers would call the authorities so fast that your head would spin. And the publisher’s argument that thanks to the cheap Australians, he’s able to trim a few cents off the newsstand price would make no impression.”

Harrop eyes other highly-paid professionals, and wonders why their jobs should be buffeted from lower-cost competition.

For some reason, the job of keeping prices low has fallen entirely on the shoulders of the most vulnerable Americans. If we banged down CEO compensation and sliced lawyers’ pay by a third, the same thing would happen. Everyone’s prices would drop. The corporation could sell its products for less, and the cost of legal services would fall.

No vocation keeps a tighter lid on immigration than the medical profession. “If we let in 100,000 immigrant doctors,” Richard Freeman, another Harvard economist, recently told a group of journalists, “everyone in this room would benefit.” Except the American doctors.

Immigration is one issue where it’s not hard to find hypocrisy in the positions of Americans on the Right and Left.

IT WON”T BE “SIR BONO,” even if the world-famous rock singer has been granted an honorary British knighthood. The British embassy in Dublin noted that “titles such as ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ do not come with such honorary awards, ‘conferred on citizens of countries of which The Queen is not Head of State.'” U2’s lead singer, whose birth name is Paul David Hewson, is an Irish citizen.

If you were wondering, Hewson was dubbed “Bono Vox” (“Good voice” in mangled Latin), the name borrowed from a hearing aid shop in Dublin, by a friend who claimed Bono sang loud enough for the deaf.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK from Charles Dickens: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (December 15th): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow, once again, from Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

I’M SURE THAT SWARTHMORE STUDENTS and their parents feel so much better now that adminstrators at that elite college outside Philadelphia have proclaimed the school a bargain.

Swarthmore’s managers argued that in a story in the New York Times:

“The half of our student body whose families are paying the full sticker price are paying $41,000 for something that costs $73,000,” said Suzanne P. Welsh, the treasurer. “So they’re getting a great discount.”

The real shocker: Swarthmore calculates that, fully loaded, it costs $73,000 to educate one student for an academic year (which is about eight months). Shouldn’t it be possible to house, feed and educate an 18 or 19-year old for less than that?

Yes, I know the arguments about how expensive upkeep on an aging infrastructure can be, how it costs to keep pace with new technology, and how pricey it can be finding and retaining faculty. The reality: institutions of higher education have not used that technology to drive costs down, or increase productivity, as other organizations have. The result: tuition bills, discounted or not, that are out of control.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO IS BRILLIANT IN the newly released “Blood Diamond” as an emotionally damaged soldier-of-fortune smuggling conflict diamonds in Africa; it’s rare that an actor provides two notable performances in one year (DiCaprio offers top-notch work as a troubled undercover cop in “The Departed.”)

WHO CARES WHETHER A POLITICIAN KNOWS the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread? Some do, but we should be more concerned when the new chairman of the House intelligence committee (Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat from Texas) can not describe Hezbollah and thinks al-Qaeda’s followers are Shia Muslims (they’re Sunni). What’s worse: Reyes has served on the committee for more than five years!

New Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is championing combined Congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies—a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission—but if she reposes trust in subordinates not up to the task, then any reform effort will fail.

BOSTON’S MAYOR TOM MENINO has a “wicked” case of Edifice Complex; he called for a signature office tower to be constructed in Beantown earlier in the year, and now is militating for a new waterfront City Hall in South Boston. True, the current City Hall is one of the ugliest public buildings in America, situated in a desolate plaza, but after the Big Dig, you would think Boston politicians would be wary of construction projects. Not Menino.

GIVE ACTOR GEORGE CLOONEY SOME CREDIT—in recent trips he has he focused on those countries, China and Egypt, who could most quickly hasten an end to the atrocities being committed in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Outgoing United Nations head Kofi Annan and, regretably, the Save Darfur organization, have seemed reluctant to confront the Chinese and members of the Arab League over their support for the regime in Sudan, perhaps believing “quiet diplomacy” would work.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK from composer John Cage: “”I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (December 8th): Nobody asked me, but…

As the late, great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say, nobody asked me, but…

THE DESIGN FOR BOSTON’S NEW INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART HIGHLIGHTS THE WEAKNESS of much of current modern architecture. There’s something very derivative and familiar about the structure. Yes, the Diller Scofidio & Renfro design for the Institute (see here) makes graceful use of glass and steel, but what about it is distinctive? What about it says….Boston? And not Shanghai or Mumbai or Stockholm?

That is not to argue for a reflection of Boston’s colonial past through neo-Georgian or even post-modern brick buildings, which carry their own design dangers. Alex Beam of the Boston Globe has called Machado and Silvetti Associates’ ungainly brick-clad building for Harvard graduate student housing in Allston “the Ugliest Building Ever Built,” and reminiscent of “the old Supreme Soviet building in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.” He’s right: the building is Stalinist ugly, like Boston’s City Hall. Genzyme’s nearby Allston Landing biotech production facility, on the other hand, is a positive example of employing red brick in a post-modernist way.

But could not a structure built at the edge of Boston Harbor more reflect its historic maritime heritage and less of the Internationalist School steel-and-glass tradition?

Want examples of what can be done to integrate modern structures into the tradition of a place? Look no further than the soaring beauty of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, a Christian Menn designed structure whose inverted Y-shaped towers mirror the Bunker Hill monument across the river, and whose cables call to mind a ship at sail. Another model, in a different place: Polshek Partnership’s Seaman’s Church Institute in New York, with its warm embrace of 18th century mercantilism and modern nautical themes.

THE DEBATE OVER LITERARY PLAGIARISM HAS BECOME TIRED, according to Sam Leith of The Telegraph, (“All discussions of the issue of plagiarism are, by now, themselves plagiaristic”). British novelist Ian McEwan has been criticized for some for his borrowing from the wartime diaries of Lucilla Andrews for his best-selling 2002 novel, “Atonement.”

While agreeing that plagiarism is “a cardinal intellectual sin,” Leith isn’t buying the attack on McEwan:

…the Ian McEwan “plagiarism row” seems just rubbish to me. This wasn’t even close to plagiarism. This was using (in the odd place semi-verbatim) a historical source, acknowledged by the author, as the partial basis for an independent creative work.

That may be so, but it’s hard not to believe that McEwan’s fame and prior literary success gives him a “Get Out of Plagiarism Jail Free” card.

WHO ABDICATED AND MADE THE IRAQ STUDY GROUP KING? The American Enterprise Institute’s Reuel Marc Gerecht essentially asks that question in the Weekly Standard, pointing out that the Baker-Hamilton group—and the 9/11 Commission—represents the “undemocratic phenomenon of private citizens assuming the responsibilities and prerogatives of elected officials.”

Gerecht doesn’t care for the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), nor its hyping by the media, but that’s beside the point. He’s right: no voter elected the members of the ISG, and to suggest that somehow its 79 recommendations are anything more than suggestions (which, arguably, President Bush should weigh against all the other advice he is getting) is troubling. While presidential and congressionally-appointed commissions are great for CYA purposes (the Base Closing and Social Security Commissions come to mind), they further erode accountability for those we elect to make decisions.

JOHN MELLENCAMP’s NEW SINGLE “OUR COUNTRY” has been the Chevrolet truck commercial theme song. The commercial obscures the Woody Guthrie lyrics (see the Mellencamp video version here). Here are some of the lyrics:

And poverty could be just another ugly thing
and bigotry would be seen only as obscene
and the ones who run this land
help the poor and common man
this is our country

From the East Coast to the West Coast
down the Dixie Highway back home
this is our country

I guess Mellencamp figures there’s no better platform for his blue-collar brand of populist patriotism than ads shown during NFL football games. It’s a shame that his more telling lyrics get lost along the way.

IS JASON RILEY OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL RIGHT IN ASSERTING THAT LIBERALS HAVE “RACE ISSUES,” based on their gut reaction to his unborn interracial child? Riley, who is black, reports that the common comment his wife receives in liberal social circles (upon disclosing her pregnancy) is: “interracial children are beautiful.” Riley writes:

It is the left’s obsession with skin pigmentation–invoking it everywhere and always, regardless of its relevance–that keeps race front and center not only in our public policy debates but even in everyday life. In his latest book, “White Guilt,” Shelby Steele tackles this phenomenon with his usual peerless eloquence. He describes the endless frustration of dealing with whites “who have built a large part of their moral identity and, possibly, their politics around how they respond to your color.”

Riley may be overly sensitive; speaking from personal experience I think the comments are meant to be supportive, even if they (unfortunately) tend to focus on the mixed race of the child rather than the simple joy of a newborn on the way.

WORDS TO PONDER: THE PHILOSOPHER AYN RAND once asked: “So you think that money is the root of all evil. Have you ever asked what is the root of all money?”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (December 1st): Nobody asked me, but…

With apologies to newspaper legend Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

U.S. SENATOR-ELECT JAMES WEBB (D, VA.) ERRED BADLY in his ill-tempered response to President Bush’s question about the well-being of Webb’s son (who is serving as a Marine in Iraq) at a White House reception for newly elected members of Congress. News reports of the incident surfaced this week.

It was not Webb’s finest hour. He had, he told reporters, been trying to avoid Bush before the exchange. When Bush asked Webb, ”How’s your boy?”, Webb responded: ”I’d like to get them out of Iraq.”

Bush persisted (”That’s not what I asked you. How’s your boy?”), and Webb responded testily: ”That’s between me and my boy.”

Webb shouldn’t have abandoned common courtesy; a civil response—which would still make Webb’s point—could have been: “Thanks for asking about my son. He’s doing fine, but the sooner we can get him and his buddies home, the better.”

A EXHIBIT FOCUSED ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE is packing them in at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, with long lines and record crowds. Don’t underestimate the draw of religious faith, even in a city not know for piety.

MAYBE THE ARMY FOOTBALL TEAM CAN BEAT NAVY next year—but the 2006 Army-Navy game in Philadelphia found the midshipmen winning, 26-14, for the fifth year in a row. Navy now leads the all-time series 51-49-7, but Army coach Bobby Ross appears to have the Black Knights heading in the right direction.

THE LATE NEW YORK SENATOR DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN warned of “defining deviancy down.” Janice Min, editor of US Weekly, told Reuters: “We really live in an era where there is no such thing as bad publicity for a celebrity.” This week certainly proved it: actor Danny DeVito bashed President Bush in a drunken television appearance and singer Britney Spears flashed her underwear-less “nether region” for the paparazzi in several late night appearances. Sadly, it seems that this deviancy will enhance their career prospects…

AN UGLY START FOR MEXICO’S NEW PRESIDENT Felipe Calderon, with fist fights in Congress before, a hurried four-minute swearing-in ceremony, and protest marches across Mexico City. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who attended the ceremony, remarked that “It’s good action,” but the civil unrest in Mexico is no joking matter.

AS MORE DETAILS HAVE EMERGED, it looks like the six Muslim imams removed from a U.S. Airways flight at the Minneapolis airport may have been looking to provoke an incident. After the episode the six claimed bias and discrimination by the airline. But rather than an example of discriminatory profiling or anti-Muslim prejudice (based solely on the men praying before boarding the flight), it now appears that the flight crew was responding to other suspicious behavior.

Richard Miniter reports in the New York Post that:

* An Arabic speaker was seated near two of the imams in the plane’s tail. That passenger pulled a flight attendant aside and, in a whisper, translated what the men were saying: invoking “bin Laden” and condemning America for “killing Saddam,” according to police reports.

* An imam seated in first class asked for a seat-belt extender – the extra strap that obese people use because the standard belt is too short. According to both an on-duty and a deadheading flight attendant, he looked too thin to need one.

A seat-belt extender can easily be used as a weapon – just wrap one end around your fist, and swing the heavy metal buckle.

* All six imams had boarded together, with the first-class passengers – even though only one of them had a first-class ticket. Three had one-way tickets. Between the six men, only one had checked a bag.

Any American who has flown since 9/11 has seen passengers stopped and searched who could hardly present any credible threat (I’ve seen little old ladies and pregnant women with children chosen for extra attention). Why not err on the side of caution?

IT’S FAIR GAME TO JAB AT A CANDIDATE’S MIDDLE NAME in my book, so supporters of Barack Hussein Obama should think twice before claiming the Islamic-bashing card. Just recently we saw James Webb backers mock George Felix Allen for his, well, un-cowboy-like middle name in the U.S. Senate race in Virginia; we have a president known (and sometimes lampooned) for his middle name—“W”.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN HAD IT RIGHT: “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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