March 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama the Adaptive Communicator, the Oliphant cartoon controversy, and other observations

With tip of the umbrella (for borrowing his signature phrase) to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

ALREADY PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA IS SHOWING THE ABILITY TO ADAPT HIS COMMUNICATION STYLE to the audience, occasion, and purpose. Will history see him as the Great Adaptive Communicator?

It’s now conventional wisdom that Obama can deliver a brilliant set speech, although he has often toned down the soaring rhetoric when it doesn’t suit his political ends (witness his somber and workmanlike Inaugural Address). Despite mixed reviews from media critics, the new President has quickly mastered the prime-time news conference, one which plagued many of his predecessors in the White House. Where Obama has struggled, surprisingly, is in less formal settings where he lets his guard down (for example, the Jay Leno Special Olympics kerfuffle or Obama’s “gallows humor” joviality on “60 Minutes”).

Some conservative pundits have mocked Obama for his reliance on the teleprompter in public appearances, but his recent news conferences prove the President can think quite well on his feet without a canned script. He knows he gives a smoother, more telegenic performance with the teleprompter, and that’s why he turns to the device.

I think Obama will prove to be a master of presidential news conferences, as well. Unlike many of his Republican predecessors, he doesn’t disdain the press (or at least openly show that he does), and he isn’t intimidated by the prospect of fielding questions.

What Obama has apparently realized is that the President can control and shape a East Room news conference to his liking. He can pick and choose the questioners. He can slow down the pace of the proceedings by stretching out his answers (which meant just 13 questions in his last hour-long press conference). He can ignore the intent of any given question and, even when pressed on it in a follow-up, always has the last word. And if he keeps his emotions in check, and sticks to his message, he can avoid any “gotcha” moments.

The media hopes for something newsworthy from a presidential “presser”—a dramatic revelation, an insight into the president’s thinking, a policy shift. They are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Obama’s performance at his last formal news conference (before leaving for the G20) was panned as “professorial” by many in the mainstream media. Obama sounded “like the teacher speaking in the stillness of a classroom where students are restlessly waiting for the ring of the bell” according to Peter Baker and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. True, Obama largely repeated his administration’s talking points on the economy, but that doesn’t mean the news conference wasn’t a success—from a presidential perspective.

I’d argue that Obama’s professorial style worked quite well: he projected the three C’s—confidence, competence, and calmness—which is what a national leader must project during troubled times. What about substance? Obama’s long, discursive answers—which annoyed many commentators—signaled that he has a detailed grasp of economic policy, which was enough for his audience—the average voter worried about his or her job and future—if not for Beltway journalists.

POLITICAL CARTOONIST PAT OLIPHANT STIRRED CONTROVERSY in March with Jewish groups objecting to what they called anti-Semitic elements in his cartoon on the Gaza situation. (The cartoon featured a headless goose-stepping soldier and a fanged Star of David looming over hapless Gaza refugees. You can view it here). The Anti-Defamation League called it “hideously anti-Semitic” for using “Nazi-like imagery and hateful evocation of the Jewish Star of David.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center said “the cartoon mimics the venomous anti-Semitic propaganda of the Nazi and Soviet eras.”

As a First Amendment advocate, I’ll defend Oliphant’s right to create and distribute the cartoon. And while likening Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi aggression is both deliberately provocative and ludicrous, it’s not prima facie anti-Semitic. The ADL and others are correct, however, in deploring Oliphant’s choice of imagery because it draws on a particularly ugly and hateful legacy.

ARE ASPECTS OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE (“G”) MORE LINKED TO NATURE, AND LESS TO NUTURE? Here’s how ScienceDaily summarized a recent study (from the Journal of Neuroscience): “…UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.”

Thompson and collaborators scanned the brains of identical and fraternal twins, measuring signal speed, and then compared those findings to results from traditional IQ tests. We inherit how much of a key substance (myelin) we have in our brains that allows for these fast signaling bursts.

IS “DO WHAT I SAY, NOT WHAT I DRIVE” THE MOTTO FOR TOP OBAMA AIDES WHEN IT COMES TO American cars? According to Politico, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner owns a 2008 Acura TSX, and other Obama economic advisors also own Japanese cars (Larry Summers has a 1995 Mazda Protege, Peter Orszag drives a Honda, and Austan Goolsbee, a Toyota Highlander).

Politico also reported: “A survey of West Executive Drive, where White House staffers park, revealed only five American cars out of 23 –a Dodge Grand Caravan, two Ford Escapes, a Jeep Cherokee and a Cadillac.”

And Obama’s car czar, Steve Rattner, apparently favors Mercedes, according to cityfile. (President Obama does own a Ford).

It is a bit awkward for the new administration to advocate massive taxpayer-backed loans for the Big Three when its top staff drives non-American brands.

HOLD THAT OBITUARY FOR CAPITALISM, AT LEAST ACCORDING TO HISTORIAN PAUL KENNEDY in a fascinating Financial Times essay focusing on the wisdom of past economic thinkers.

Kennedy predicts that in the post-crisis economic system:

…the animal spirits of the market will be closely watched (and tamed) by a variety of national and international zookeepers – a taming of which the great bulk of the spectators will heartily approve – but there will be no ritual murder of the free-enterprise principle, even if we have to plunge further into depression for the next years. Homus Economicus will take a horrible beating. But capitalism, in modified form, will not disappear. Like democracy, it has serious flaws – but, just as one find faults with democracy, the critics of capitalism will discover that all other systems are worse. Political economy tells us so.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM CHARLES DICKENS’ NOVEL LITTLE DORRIT: “A person who can’t pay gets another person who can’t pay to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking-match.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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The week (April 20th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of a Yankees (or Red Sox) cap to New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

IS DAVID AXELROD THE NEW POLITICAL GEPPETO for Democrats and is Barack Obama his latest Pinocchio? Two intriguing newspaper pieces—Ben Wallace-Wells’s profile of Axelrod in the New York Times Magazine, “Obama’s Narrator,” and a Scott Helman article in the Boston Globe—suggest that Axelrod, a Chicago political strategist, hand-picked Obama as a presidential candidate and has been grooming him for the run for years.

Axelrod field-tested the themes of personal biography and political hope Obama is currently employing with another successful African-American candidate, Deval Patrick, who won Massachusett’s governor’s seat with an aspirational, issue-free campaign. Sound familiar? The Globe ran side-by-side excerpts of Patrick’s and Obama’s political rhetoric to show the thematic similarities.

And the key evidence of Axlerod’s patient strategy? Wallace-Wells learned that:

For four years Axelrod has had camera crews tracking virtually everything Obama has done in public — chatting up World War II vets in southern Illinois, visiting his father’s ancestral village in western Kenya — and there were days when the camera crews have outnumbered the civilians.

Has any other first-term U.S. Senator had film crews trailing for years capturing footage for future use? Axelrod has been packaging Obama for bigger and better things for quite some time. That isn’t to take anything away from Obama’s accomplishments, only to suggest that his vagueness on issues and stress on uplifting rhetoric and personal biography isn’t as artless as you might think. So the next time a talking head starts praising Obama’s authenticity, think of two words: David Axelrod.

COULDN’T WE SEND ROSIE O’DONNELL TO IRAN as a special ambassador tasked to negotiate an end to Tehran’s nuclear program? After a few days of full-strength Roise, the Iranians would agree to anything just to get her on the plane back to the U.S.

SHOULD AWFUL PUBLIC ARCHITECTURE be preserved? The Boston Globe editorial board apparently thinks so—it recently raved over Boston’s City Hall—”there can be no question that City Hall is a landmark of 20th century architecture”—and worried about Mayor Tom Menino’s plans to raze the building, designed by the architectural firm of Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, and sell the prime real estate the massive structure sits on.

A case can be made, I imagine, for preserving a given building because its design is a prime example of the architecture of its historical period. Boston’s City Hall—which looks like a Soviet maximum detention facility sited in desolate Siberia—may be representative of modernist architecture, but there are other awful structures elsewhere in the Athens of America that could be preserved. I think Menino’s idea of moving City Hall to the waterfront is loopy—tearing City Hall down and rebuilding with something graceful in the same location is a better way to go.

SORRY, BUT COMEDIAN WILL FARRELL just isn’t as funny as he thinks he is. Jerry Lewis doesn’t make me laugh, either.

LOTS OF EXCITEMENT OVER RED SOX PITCHER DAISUKE MATSUZAKA’S recent performances in American’s national pastime. The Japanese hurler is off to a great start and Red Sox Nation is hoping he is the new pitching Messiach. But, as Bill Parcells would say, hold off on the anointing oil and a reserved space in the Baseball Hall of Fame—Dice-K hasn’t been through the league twice. It’s the second time through, after hitters have had a chance to study the videotape and make adjustments from their initial experience, that tells you what sort of player you have.

BILL O’REILLY AND DENNIS MILLER endorsed waiting periods for gun purchasers the other night on “The O’Reilly Factor.” After Miller noted that it took longer for him to get his Starbuck’s coffee than it did for Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui to purchase one of his weapons, O’Reilly agreed: “ I’m with you on that one. I can’t get my dry cleaning back for seven days, and you know, you get a Glock in ten minutes.” Could the tide be turning against the National Rifle Association? The Washington Post reports that the NRA “has begun negotiations with senior Democrats over legislation to bolster the national background-check system and potentially block gun purchases by the mentally ill.”

NEWSDAY’S WALT HANDELSMAN HAS WON THE 2007 PULITZER PRIZE for editorial cartooning. Handelsman took a year to teach himself computer animation—and his brief Web cartoon shorts are very funny (he does all of the voices himself). You can find them here.

Cormac McCarthy was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer in fiction for his novel “The Road.” It must say something about the rest of the field, because it’s not his best work. Perhaps fiction is like wine, in which case 2006 will not rank as the best of literary vintages.

THE KNICKERBOCKER BAR AND GRILL makes great scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. The 100-year old marble bar in the New York eatery is the one on which “Charles Lindbergh signed his contract to fly across the Atlantic.”

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK COME FROM ROBERT F. KENNEDY: “… Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily—whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence— whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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The week (March 23rd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a doffed cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULD TRANSPORTATION SAFETY ADMINISTRATION airport screeners be allowed to unionize? Congress thinks so, but author Becky Akers says in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed piece that the legislation “could add about 50,000 dues-paying members to union rolls while breathing new life into TSA’s unofficial slogan: Thousands Standing Around.” President Bush is likely to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Akers makes a broader point in her piece, “A better way than the TSA,” arguing that TSA, funded by $5 billion in tax money, is incompetent and that privatizing security is the solution:

Privatized protection isn’t a panacea, but it’s better than the TSA. Without that federal straitjacket, security wouldn’t be uniform and easy to game: each airline would adapt its policies to its own routes, destinations, and customers. Meanwhile, experts could design security systems without mandates from bureaucrats who understand paperwork and politics but not planes and passengers. Jets worth billions and the repeat business that comes only from satisfied, living customers will compel the airlines to provide potent protection.

Would a more market-based solution work? I’d argue that it would, but only if airlines’ screeners were subjected to security spot checks (the same tests that TSA screeners have repeatedly failed) with huge fines for failure.

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD HAS DEALT A SERIES OF STINGING DEFEATS to Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, upholding a newsroom vote to unionize in the fall of 2006, and finding against the newspaper on “a string of unfair labor charges, including the unlawful firing of seven staffers engaged in union activities.”

The NLRB rulings are the latest development in the long-running battle between McCaw and her newsroom which began in July 2006 with the resignation of several editors who said McCaw was improperly interfering in editorial decisions. Since then, some 38 employees have quit or been fired. McCaw has also faced criticism from many civic leaders in Santa Barbara for her handling of the dispute.

McCaw singlehandedly is reviving the colorful old image of the newpaper publisher as narcissist, meglomaniac and tryant—in the tradition of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, William Loeb, and Frank Munsey, about whom William Allen White once wrote: “He had the talent of a meatpacker, the morals of a money-changer and the manners of an undertaker.”

”TRIUMPH OF THE FEMBOTS,” MEGHAN COX GURDON’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal mocks the notion that “getting pretty, young, scantily clad women to writhe for the camera is a way of empowering them,“ the rationale for television shows like “Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll.”

Gurdon writes: “Depravity dressed up as empowerment is fast becoming the cultural trope of our times.” She is right to question why feminists haven’t spoken up publicly about the trend.

THE COUNTRY GROUP LITTLE TEXAS, reunited after a six-year hiatus, has released a single, “Missing Years,” a great road song about coming home and appreciating the virtues of small town life, with lead vocals from Porter Howell and an Eagles-like harmony on the refrain. Watch for it to move up the country charts.

THREE CHEERS FOR A FRENCH COURT RULING IN FAVOR of Charlie-Hebdo, a satirical weekly, (and its director), rejecting charges that its reprinting of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed incited hatred of Moslems.

According to the Associated Press, the court ruled that the weekly showed no intention of insulting Moslems with the caricatures, several of which had first appeared in a Danish newspaper and triggered violent protests throughout the Muslim world.

The verdict should also be seen as a victory for France’s Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who sent a letter to the court backing Charlie-Hebdo, saying he preferred “an excess of caricatures to an absence of caricatures.”

As George Orwell once wrote (in the preface to “Animal Farm”): “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

THE WORD FOR THE WEEK is from Yogi Berra, former Yankee catcher and noted American philosopher: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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The week (November 3rd): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the cap to New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

MIKE LUCKOVICH’S CARTOON OF DICK CHENEY subjecting a youthful Halloween trick-or-treater to forcible apple-bobbing (“Confess!”) captures the absurdity of Cheney’s endorsement of “dunking” suspected terrorists (“a no-brainer”) and the subsequent White House denial that Cheney wasn’t backing torture. The entire episode made the Vice President an inviting target for satirists…although his implied endorsement of water-boarding is no laughing matter.

THE “SHY TORY FACTOR,” where voters won’t admit to pollsters that they plan to vote for conservative candidates, makes the outcome of the upcoming midterm elections harder to predict. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, for example, always performed better when real votes were being counted than their pre-election-survey numbers would suggest. Senator George Allen (R, Va.) has to hope that the “shy Tory effect” is masking some of his conservative support in his race with James Webb.

NIKE’S NEW “THE LEBRONS” COMMERCIALS aren’t particularly funny; saturating sports programming with the ads won’t make them any funnier. Le Bron James is a great basketball player—but where is it written that all great NBA stars have to endorse a sneaker line? Is that what “I want to be like Mike” is all about?

IRAQI INSURGENTS ARE HIDING SNIPERS among civilians, apparently more confident than journalist Seymour Hersh that U.S. troops will adhere to strict rules of engagement meant to protect Iraqis.

Hersh, now writing for the New Yorker, told a Canadian audience at McGill University that “there has never been an American Army as violent and murderous as the one in Iraq,” and claimed to have seen a video “in which American soldiers massacre a group of people playing soccer.” (This would not be the first time Hersh made wild claims in front of an audience—in an article in New York magazine in April 2005 entitled “Sy Hersh Says It’s Okay to Lie (Just Not in Print)” author Chris Suellentrop reports that Hersh had told the soccer massacre story before, without providing any hard evidence, along with other lurid, and unsubstantiated tales about American wrongdoing in Iraq).

The reality on the ground is quite different. C.J. Chivers of the New York Times reported in a front-page story that Marines in Anbar had been ordered to show restraint, “a policy rooted in hopes of winning the trust of the civilian population.” Chivers further reported:

Iraqi snipers seem to know these rules and use them for their own protection. They often fire from among civilians, the marines say, having observed that unless the marines have a clear target, they will not shoot. In two sniper shootings witnessed by two journalists for The New York Times, on Oct. 30 and 31, the snipers fired from among civilians. The marines did not fire back.

No doubt there are American soldiers guilty of crimes and atrocities against Iraqi civilians, but the journalism I’ve seen from Iraq suggests that this behavior—in places like Haditha and Mahmoudiya—remains the exception, not the rule, in the way this counterinsurgency is being conducted. Considering that American forces have been stretched to the limit in a “dirty war,” the restraint shown has been remarkable. There was an amazing story this summer of an American medic, shot in the chest by an Iraqi sniper but saved by his body armor, later treating that very sniper who had been captured—alive.

If Hersh has evidence of widespread atrocities, he should publish it, sooner rather than later, and turn it over to the American military so the wrongdoers can be prosecuted.

ANY TIME I DRIVE THE LENGTH OF THE MASSACHUSETTS TURNPIKE this time of the year, I think of James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James” and these lines:

Now the first of December was covered with snow
And so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston
Lord, the Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting
With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go

No snow on the Pike…yet.

IT IS FITTING TO LET THE AMERICAN HUMORIST WILL ROGERS have the last word: “The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that’s out always looks the best.”


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 week (July 14th): Nobody asked me, but…

As New York’s great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say, nobody asked me, but…

BOSTON’S TRAGIC BIG DIG TUNNEL ACCIDENT serves to highlight the incestuous relationship of Big Government and Big Business during America’s most-expensive public works project ($14.6 billion and counting). A concrete panel fell from above and killed a woman traveling through the I-90 connector tunnel Monday night.

In a tough column, Margery Egan of the Boston Herald quoted local politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike) who found themselves given the cold shoulder when they criticized the management of the project. Big Dig critic Joe Malone was told: “This is about keeping the money flowing.” And, as Egan notes: “And flow it did. To law firms. Public relations firms. Ad firms. To neighborhoods and small businesses upset about Big Dig dust and traffic. Remember “mitigation measures”?”

Sadly, many Bostonians were not surprised by the accident, nor by the news that scores of additional flaws have been discovered.

The Boston Globe provided a small window into the “No Show” culture of entitlement that has festered for years in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts public safety commissioner yesterday suspended 20 state building and engineering inspectors for refusing to accept cellphones equipped with global positioning systems.

Why did they refuse? The lame excuse, seemingly backed by the inspectors’ union, was “invasion of privacy.” One of the inspectors told the Globe that they “had a litany of questions that were never answered. This GPS says how fast you’re going, how long you took to stop and eat your lunch. The GPS is an invasion of privacy.”

A government spokeswoman argued that the cellphone policy “is about accountability.” ‘She added: “If you’re doing your job well, there shouldn’t be any concern with it. This allows the Department of Public Safety to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent in an appropriate way.”

According to the Globe, these are the inspectors responsible for “overseeing construction, as well as the maintenance of boilers, air tanks, and amusement rides.”

A WELCOME FREE SPEECH VICTORY as Apple Computer has decided not to appeal its rejection of attempts to “to unmask whoever leaked details about a still-unreleased music accessory.” (As CNET News.com reported, in May, the California state appeals court “rejected Apple’s arguments that the independent reporters were not true journalists. ‘We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes ‘legitimate journalism,” the court said, ruling that California’s journalist shield law would protect the Web reporters.) These developments are heartening news for independent journalists, bloggers and all those exercising their First Amendment rights on the Web.

BRILLIANT FEATURE BY WIL HAYGOOD ON FRANK SINATRA, JR. in the Washington Post, “Frank Jr., the Unsung Sinatra: He’s Got a Big Heart and His Pop’s Voice, but Just A Shadow of His Success.” Nancy Sinatra got most of the press attention, and other than a 1963 kidnapping episode, (his father paid the ransom, although the kidnappers were later caught and convicted) Frank, Jr. has been out of the limelight.

Haygood brings us along as Sinatra croons in front of his father’s faithful fans, and, he tells us, stirs a few ghosts.

WILL THE INTERNET SAVE EDITORIAL CARTOONING? With cost-conscious newspaper publishers eliminating staff positions for editorial cartoonists, it seems the only growth prospects for the art form center on the web. Daryl Cagle’s website is top-notch, and the Washington Post offers an interesting Toles v. Toles feature of Tom Toles’ published and rough-sketch cartoons. Now, Inside Higher Education.com has added a regular cartoonist, Matthew Henry Hall, in a feature they call “Teachable Moments.”

DON’T IGNORE BRUCE ARENA’S RECORD OF SUCCESS as he parts ways with U.S. Soccer and steps down as national team coach. Arena won at Virginia, he won with D.C. United and he won with the U.S. team (a 71-30-29 record, two World Cup appearances, including taking the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002.) Look for him to lead the last-place New York Red Bulls to the Cosmos-like Promised Land.

If Juergen Klinsmann isn’t interested, why not Steve Nicol, former Liverpool star, of the New England Revolution, and his assistant Paul Mariner, another English great? The Revs play an attractive, up-tempo soccer with a bit of an edge.

THE “DATABASE OF INTENTIONS” is technology writer John Battelle’s clever term to refer to the “collective history of Internet searches.” But as David Leonhardt of the New York Times noted in his article “The Internet knows what you will do next,” sometimes those intentions aren’t so lofty, as search engines have surfaced them.

Thanks to Google Trends, the mayor of Elmhurst, a Chicago suburb, has had to explain why his city devotes more of its Web searches to ‘‘sex’’ than any other in the US (because it doesn’t have strip clubs or pornography shops, he gamely told The Chicago Sun-Times).

I am not making this up, I assure you…


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (July 7th): Nobody asked me, but…

With another tip of the cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

AS WE LOSE AMERICA’S GREATEST GENERATION, we also see the passing of the last of the Righteous Gentiles, those who helped save some of the Jews of Europe from Hitler. The Associated Press reports the death, at the age of 88, of Jaap Penraat, “an architect and industrial designer who helped 406 Jews sneak out of Nazi-occupied Netherlands and withstood torture to protect fellow members of the resistance.”

Penraat had a simple explanation for his actions: “You do these things because in your mind there is no other way of doing it.” Sadly, Penraat’s courage stands in sharp contrast to the record in the Netherlands of collaboration with the Nazis, where only some 30,000 Jews (of a population of 140,000) survived. Had there been more Jaap Penraats, had the Dutch (and the French and Poles) acted more like the Danes, many more would have been saved.

The Dutch should remember Jaap Penraat as they consider the shabby treatment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the rise of Islamo-facism and anti-Semitism in Holland today.

SPEAKING OF COURAGE, the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) has announced that its 2006 Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning would be shared by Algerian cartoonist Ali Dilem and eleven Danish cartoonists. The announcement from CRNI is worth quoting at length:

Dilem, a cartoonist in Algeria for over 15 years, has faced jail time and threats to his life more than once. Although under death threats from paramilitary forces and legal pressure from the government, Dilem continues to draw and publish in Algeria. He was recognized for his refusal to choose exile or self-censorship in the face of intimidation.

The 11 Danish cartoonists produced 12 cartoons commissioned by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Last September, the Danish daily published the cartoons because, editors said, there was growing self-censorship in matters related to Islam. The feature triggered a diplomatic standoff between Denmark and several Islamic states by mid-October. In February 2006, riots and demonstrations condemned the cartoons. Dozens of protestors from Afghanistan and Libya to Nigeria and Indonesia died in the resulting demonstrations.

The cartoons sparked a crisis in freedom-of-speech circles that reverberates today. Their lives threatened, the 11 Danish cartoonists live under tight security.

ENGLISH HISTORIAN ANDREW DALBY is arguing that Homer, author of the Illiad and Odyssey, could have been a female, citing “a long tradition worldwide” of women “as makers of oral literature,” according to the Times of London. Dalby makes the claim in an soon-to-be published book “Rediscovering Homer” adding: “As a working hypothesis, this helps to explain certain features in which these epics are better — more subtle, more complex, more universal — than most others.”

Cambridge University’s Anthony Snodgrass, an archaeology professor, concedes that the Odyssey could have been written by a woman, because “a world at peace in general terms, with domesticity, fidelity . . . endurance and determination rather than aggression,” but calls the idea far-fetched for the Iliad with its “endless fighting and killings.”

Peter Stothard of the Times notes that the 19th century author Samuel Butler also believed that a woman had written (or sung) the Odyssey (although his reasoning were somewhat more negative in tone).

I could easily believe that Homer was a woman, primarily because writing talent isn’t gender-dependent. A poet or writer, male or female, can depict the interior or exterior life with sensitivity. As with those who argue that Shakespeare was someone else (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford), how about some evidence, one way or the other?

THE WEBSITE METACAFE.COM offers this rather clever commercial: I never thought the German Coast Guard would make me laugh.

JOHN EDWARDS, former Senator from North Carolina and the Democratic VP nominee in 2004, seems to have Hillary Clinton worried, “running scared,”or at least that’s what Deborah Orin of the New York Post would have you believe. She thinks the recent Washington Post op-ed by Clintonistas James Carville and Mark J. Penn entitled “The Power of Hillary” that touts Clinton’s electability represents a defensive move to counter Edwards’ surprising recent first place finish in the Iowa poll. Orin also argues Senator Clinton is tacking leftward ( “She hired a lefty blogger and cozied up to anti-war activists by pledging to desert pal Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) if he loses a primary over Iraq and runs as an independent.”) to try to appease Democratic left-of-center voters.

It is true that Edwards’ stock has been rising (and Edwards has been visiting Iowa); the National Journal‘s White House 2008 ranking of Democratic contenders now has Edwards in second place, behind Senator Clinton, displacing Mark Warner. (“Non-candidate” Al Gore wasn’t considered for the rankings.) Yet, it is a long, long way to Iowa in 2008…

DEXTER FILKINS’ REPORTAGE from Iraq (“In Ramadi, Fetid Quarters and Unrelenting Battles”), datelined July 4 in the New York Times, offers a disturbing, gritty portrait of embattled American marines in hostile territory. His description of the situation on the ground: “The Government Center in the middle of this devastated town resembles a fortress on the wild edge of some frontier: it is sandbagged, barricaded, full of men ready to shoot, surrounded by rubble and enemies eager to get inside.”

You have to admire Filkins for going into harm’s way to bring back the story; he follows in a long, distinguished line of war correspondents (Ernie Pyle, Homer Bigart, Marguerite Higgins, David Halberstam, Gloria Emerson, and many more) whose battlefield reporting reflected the realities American soldiers faced in combat.

IN PARIS, THE HAUTE COTURE fall/winter 2006 season has kicked off and Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune critiqued collections by Christian Lacroix, Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld (Chanel), and John Galliano (Dior). Menkes loved the Lacroix, I think she liked the Dior and didn’t like the Armani and Chanel, but with the way she writes about fashion, I’m not quite sure.


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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