Saturday, July 31, 2004

It's Either Wonderful or Horrible?

Boy, I'm glad we have those unsigned Washington Post editorials to explain these things to us.
THE FIRST month of sovereign government in Iraq ended badly. A national conference that was to choose a 100-member assembly to function alongside the interim government was postponed for two weeks because key factions refused to participate. A car bombing that killed 70 people and a rash of kidnappings, meanwhile, underlined the fact that security remains a crippling problem. Those in Washington who believe that Iraq is headed for disaster will find confirmation in these events, and they may be proven right. Yet woven through the broader record of the past 30 days are signs that the formal end of the U.S. occupation may have advanced Iraq closer to the goal of stability under a representative government.
Cause for hope? Cause for despair? Cause for both? According to the Post, it seems the answer to all three questions is either "yes" or "who knows?"

Friday, July 30, 2004

Would You Like Perspective With That?

The Heritage Foundation and the "Center for Individual Freedom" have found a new cause for alarm! ("I am writing today to ask for your help on an issue of utmost importance) Subway is using the following tray liner in its restaurants in Europe:
Why are Americans so fat?

In the Michael Moore tradition, New York filmmaker Morgan Spurlock does some deep questioning and self experiments for 30 days on products from the world’s largest fast food company.

Astounding revelations…scary liver levels and horrifying blood levels that would cause any doctor the highest degree of alarm.

In this top satire, which won the prize for best direction from Sundance 2004, Spurlock explores the questions of responsibility between big business and consumers, and the big money which contributes to this “Fast Food” culture, and how to make Americans healthy again. An ironic hit into the stomach that is enriched by fat and facts behind this dubious mega industry.

Passage near Statue of Liberty:

You care about what you eat and everything isn’t equal? Then you shouldn’t miss this film about foolish intake. It will open your eyes.
So Subway recommends a film about gluttony focusing on McDonalds, as a satire (not a documentary) about "foolish intake", and that's the equivalent of a five alarm fire - and "a shameless and anti-American effort to increase sales in Europe"? Okay....

The bulletin from the Heritage Foundation links to information about how Soso Whaley, an Adjunct Fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute who, when starting her own "McDonalds only diet", claimed,
My real purpose is not to prove something, rather, I see this as a unique opportunity to explore food and weight issues and separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what is reported about our health and well being in the media and other sources.
She then demonstrated that by following a strictly calorie controlled diet she could eat at McDonalds every day for a month and still lose weight. Well, duh. (In a most peculiar coincidence, even though she was not out to prove anything, her organization issued a press release describing her project in advance of the start of her "diet".)

Given that most Americans, and by now probably most people in the world, have eaten at a McDonalds, for the most part without any health consequences or noticeable weight gain, perhaps the Heritage Foundation simply believes us (or, more correctly, its subscribers) to be stupid. We're going to forget our own experience, and assume that anybody who reads a tray liner about a "satire" will believe that anybody who eats at McDonalds will become as fat and unhealthy as the producer of Super Size Me. (Surely they don't expect us to believe that Ms. Whaley's experience is typical, do they?)

So it's another "Chicken Little" act from the Heritage Foundation.

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Worse Than Bush?

British columnist Johann Hari recently took on one of the various neverending U.S. wars - this time, the "War on Drugs" - and posits that Kerry may be "even worse than Bush" in advancing that "war".
Kerry made his name as a Drug War hawk. He dedicated an entire senatorial inquiry in 1989 to denouncing the Reagan administration's softness on international drug suppliers. His principal advisor on the subject today - and the man tipped by some commentators to become his Secretary of State - is Rand Beers, who defected last year from his role as Bush's counter-terrorism advisor. Throughout the 1990s, Beers was the primary architect of the US policy of "taking the fight to the drug-growers" - launching massive chemical attacks on farmers in foreign countries in an attempt to prevent their crops ever reaching America's shores.
Personally, I don't think that much is likely to change in the "war on drugs" - this nation's drug policy has been rather stable for quite some time, and I don't expect any significant new initatives regardless of who wins the fall election. Hari essentially concedes that the policy he seems to find most offensive - chemical spraying of crops - was followed by Bush I and Clinton, as well as Bush II.

Hari's core argument is for legalization, but he seems to believe that legalization will transform the underground drug economies of the developing world into highly profitable, taxable, legitimate business income.
Drug prohibition is the largest factor in the collapse of [Colombia and Afghanistan] into gangsterism. It ensures that the biggest chunk of their economies is handed to armed criminals who cannot be taxed, regulated or brought under state control. ... It is only once the drug trade is handed over to legitimate companies - and the gangs slowly bankrupted - that the long process of constructing a modern state can begin.
Yet if drugs were legalized in the west, it is unlikely that there would be much call for either the coca crop or the opium poppy. It is far more likely that the newly legalized drugs would be synthesized at a much lower cost than "natural" production. Pharmaceutical companies have been able to mass produce synthetic opiates for about twenty-five years, and synthetic anaesthetics (such as lidocaine) for even longer. Were major industry to take over the production, distribution and sale of what are presently "street drugs", there would likely be a drastic reduction in the market for the drug crops of peasant farmers in Colombia and Afghanistan, and it is unlikely that there would be a flood of new income into the legitimate revenue streams of either state.

While the costs of the "drug war" in nations like Colombia, and the impact of the "drug war" and the criminal cartels it spawns, interferes with the lives of the citizens of those nations, its end would be much more likely to offer them improvement in their peace of mind than in their economic wellbeing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

College Sports

When I read stuff like this, my sympathies grow for the argument that we should stop pretending, simply let colleges pay their athletes, and complete the transformation of college sports from a recreational to a commercial endeavor.

Compare the best academic scholarship package to the average sports "scholarship" package at any given university, both in terms of value and in terms of the number of scholarships issued, and....

Life Without Google

With Google's recent worm-related woes, we are reminded of some of the ways in which the loss of Google would affect our lives, including:
Stumbling across porn. Never again would your research on the feeding habits of Great Tits in Wales ("in" is a very common word and was not included in your search) lead ineluctably to wholly unintentional distraction. There are no Real Amateurs from the Cardiff area mixed in with the bird books at the Natural History Museum.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Josh Marshall Gets It About Right....

Recently, Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo wrote,
I've never been much for the blog triumphalism that seems always to be so much a part of the blog universe. Blogs make up a small, specialized niche within the interdependent media ecosystem -- mainly not producers but primary or usually secondary consumers -- like small field mice, ferrets, or bats.
Well, perhaps his animal choices might have been a little more pleasant - some of us are more like fluffy little bunny rabbits - but on the whole he is correct. And even when he, a bona fide, published columnist blogs, the quality of his output usually falls short of something he has polished up for formal publication. (And he's hardly alone in that department - although he appears to be far less vain and self-important about his blogging activities than other "name" bloggers.)

That's not to say that I don't appreciate the other ferrets, field mice, and fluffy bunnies, and even the vampire bats - some of them make for fun reading. Some of them are obviously rather brilliant (Hi Paul, Larry), and I get a kick out of reading the product of brilliant minds even when (no, make that particularly when) they articulate why they hold positions I don't share. Or, for that matter, when they reach the same conclusions by a different path.

When I started this blog, I added several links at the side, from the very small number of blogs I had visited up to that time. Since that time, despite some active searching, I have not really supplemented that list. Part of it is that I have never bought into the triumphalism that Marshall describes. Part of it is that, on the whole, I find the secondary analysis of the news from professionally written editorials to be more satisfying than most of what I find on the web. (Granted, part of that comes from reading the columnists once or twice per week, rather than every day - can you imagine how heavy your eyelids would be if you had a daily or twice-daily dose of Safire?) Part of it is that the more prolific bloggers tend to ride the same issue, usually to death, or become little more than partisan clipping services - like truthout or, but with a few fragmentary thoughts attached to the links. (And I'm not going to get into the diary, self-affirmation, and "pity party" segments of the "blogosphere" - I'm on a different continent.)

I have also given a fair amount of time to various bloggers endorsed by conventional wisdom, or "best bloggers" as declared by newspapers, and have generally been disappointed. Some do have moments of brilliance, but I am not interested in adding their more typical product to my daily reading list - I don't have the time to separate the wheat from the chaff. (Besides, if they post something exceptional, they'll probably get picked up by a "clipping service"-style blog and I'll see it anyway.) Others seem like self-righteous blowhards, and hard as I try I can't see how the myth of their genius got started. In some cases, the response of these individuals to anybody who dares question their genius is so over-the-top as to be comical - although the comedy is tempered by the realization that such people are probably very insecure in their beliefs, derive a very large part of their self-worth from the reputations they have secured by blogging, and have enormous anxiety about being "found out".)

A blog I follow, although with no small sense of ennui, recently pointed to an announcement of another blogger's retirement. That blogger first notes,
The real problem; and one that's been growing in intensity over the past year or so, is that there's an increasing lack of debate between various weblogs. Few people really want to challenge their own point of view, as far as I can see. Nobody really wants to debate any longer, they are just interested in scoring points. Some are condescending, some are defiant, some are just plain boring (this, for example). But nearly all of them just want to argue themselves into positions.
Personally, I don't see much value in debate "between" weblogs - you might as well complain that there aren't "letters to the editor" in the New York Times about articles published in the Washington Times.

But if you do look at the equivalent on many blogs - the comments section - you will often see an enormous hostility by the proponents of a blog at those who disagree with their positions. As I previously noted, part of that can be insecurity, but part of it is that many bloggers are no different from the majority of non-bloggers. That is, most people really don't like to think, let alone have to figure out why people disagree with the "obvious truths" that pour forth from their keyboards. So they shut off comments, engage in censorship, insult commenters in reply comments or in subsequent blog posts, and otherwise try to drum the dissenters out of their sphere.

This blogger also notes,
I feel that most of my favourite sites - the ones that have inspired me - have become indicative that we're painting ourselves into boxes. We spend more time talking about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war than about the things that unite the left.
I think that's correct, but in a "bigger picture" sense than "just the Iraq war". Over time, most bloggers tend to rehash the same issues over and over again. This person was initially drawn to the "inspirational" blogs by their war commentary, yet now - sixteen months after the war was launched - their sneering at those who took a different position on the war seems tired, overdone, banal... irrelevant. While some bloggers have different areas of obsession, some of which (unlike "should we go to war in March, 2003") remain topical, you can only cycle through the same set of ideas so many times before.... Before you feel like you're getting that twice-per-day dose of Safire.

After having previously noted that his blog receives significant traffic but not much commentary, this blogger's last contention is,
I don't write here to vent my spleen, but to try and interact with others; to hear how they feel, what they believe.
While many bloggers would endorse that position - that they blog to learn and grow - experience dictates that, for the most part, it isn't true. If it in fact was in this particular blogger's case, it is a shame that he is retiring.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Happy Birthday

Happy birthday, Laura.

Meaningless Labels

Today's Times presents an editorial, the authors of which purport to have ranked the political candidates according to their full voting history.
Assertions that the Democrats' presumptive nominees are extreme liberals fall flat. True, Mr. Kerry's voting history places him to the left of today's median Senate Democrat (Tom Daschle of South Dakota). But he is closer to the center of the Democratic Party than he is to the most liberal senators, including Mr. Kennedy. John Edwards falls just to the right of the median Democrat. In fact, he is nearly indistinguishable from Mr. Lieberman, the Democrats' vice presidential candidate in 2000.

On the other side of the partisan divide, Mr. Bush - like Mr. Kerry - is more extreme than his party's median senator (Richard Shelby of Alabama). He is also noticeably more conservative than his primary challenger in 2000, John McCain. So any assertion that the Democratic candidates are out of the mainstream might easily be applied to the Republicans as well. In fact, if any of the four candidates on the national party tickets this year is out of the mainstream, it is Mr. Cheney, who in his last full term in the House was on the right flank of roughly 90 percent of his Republican colleagues.
So Bush is "noticeably more conservative" than McCain? Does this inspire anybody but me to wonder, "How in the world are they defining 'conservative'?" McCain appears to believe in small government, balanced budgets, responsible spending, removing protectionist barriers from imports from the developing world, and seems wary of discretionary warfare and nation-building. Apart from his campaign promises, Bush has seemingly rejected at all of those values. By what definitioin is Bush more conservative?

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Drunk Driving

In days of yore when I practiced some criminal defense, based upon my experience and discussions with other defense attorneys I drew some broad conclusions about drunk drivers. A significant number of first offenders were people who made a mistake of judgment and happened to get pulled over, but few second offenders fell into that category, and almost no third offenders. The first offender who "knows better" but drives anyway is often an easy target for the police, as he is less experienced as a drunk driver (thus showing more of the telltale signs of DUI) and has a lower tolerance for alcohol (thus also showing those signs at a lower BAC). The cliche about "I was coming home from a wedding party..." is based in fact. A surprising number of first time drunk drivers are coming home from parties or events where they drink a lot more than usual, often at locations far enough removed from their homes that they believe it would be excessively costly to hire a taxi.

Today's Washington Post discusses the costs (financial and personal) for a number of first time drunk drivers, most of whom seem like whiny crybabies. It is only toward end that we hear from somebody who accepts that it was his mistake and his conduct which led to his situation:
"One brings this upon oneself," he said, speaking in Spanish. "Who am I going to be angry at? If they caught me, it's because I did something and have to pay for it."
And (as in so many police reports from drunk driving cases) the BAC's reported in the article often seem starkly at odds with the amount of alcohol the defendants claim to have consumed. ("Four small glasses of wine" for a .14 BAC? "Two strong mixed drinks" for a .15 BAC? "Some beers" for a .17 BAC? C'mon.)

Crybabies? I guess my natural inclination is against those who put the lives of their passengers and of other drivers (and pedestrians) at risk because they don't want to moderate their drinking, don't want to properly designate a driver, don't want to rent a cab, and don't want to "sleep it off" at a nearby hotel. I recall a young man testifying at a sentencing, wearing a brace on his disdended, blown-out knee, describing how an accident caused by a drunk driver had destroyed that knee and ruined his career as an industrial electrician. A year after the accident, his knee was still bloated to twice its healthy diameter. I recall two cases where drunk mothers caused accidents which killed their own children, and caused grevious injuries to others (in one case, a severe head injury to another child; in the other, paraplegia to the driver of the other car). Those are some of the worst cases, but they are far from isolated. My heart just can't melt when I hear drunk drivers complain about their harships.

Fortunately, in my experience (save for a few angry alcoholics who ranted about the evil state trying to take away their right to drive), most first time drunk drivers seem less inclined to minimize or rationalize their conduct, and more inclined to learn from their mistakes. A couple of times, the drunk driving arrest inspired the arrest of what might otherwise have been emerging alcoholism. In one case, as he was discharged from a period of non-supervised probation (with a hearing to ensure that he had attended the ordered AA classes and had not again been arrested - so there was nothing to gain from the speech), a client gave a rather moving speech in which he expressed his gratitude to the court for a sentence which helped him overcome what he had come to realize was worsening alcoholism, to the significant benefit of his work life and his marriage.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Making Better Schools, By....

It has long been suggested that the primary reason for student performance and behavior in better private schools has been the schools' ability to control the composition of the student body. If they do admit a student who is unduly disruptive, expulsion is a powerful tool both to remove the student and send a message to the rest of the student body. In public schools, for a wide range of reasons, expulsion is much less common and typically requires much worse conduct than would be tolerated in a private school.

Britain has been experimenting with "academy schools" to replace "struggling" public schools (using,here, the American definition of "public" - state funded). "In each case the government puts in £22m to set up the academy, with a private organisation donating £2m in each case and taking control of the schools' day to day running." The aim is to have 200 such academies across the nation within five years. And, while not having the same ability as private schools to exclude applicants, they seem to have already learned the value of showing disruptive students to the door:
One of Tony Blair's favoured new academy schools revealed its hard line yesterday when it admitted that its exclusion rate is 10 times the national average.
Which, of course, raises the following question: If the "struggling" schools were permitted similar latitude in expelling problem students, would there be any actual need for the academies? (And this is no surprise - problem students expelled from academy schools are subsequently "taught at neighbouring schools" - which, presumably, continue to "struggle" with that burden.)

I don't really have a problem with state funded "academy schools" for students who are more interested in learning, or who at least have better classroom decorum, but let's not pretend that this type of system is really about improving public schools or easing their "struggle" - if anything, it makes their job more difficult. If you siphon off the smarter, better behaved kids, you make their struggle harder (and you make teaching far less rewarding in the "struggling" schools). If you don't, the smarter, better behaved kids will, for the most part, receive a lesser education. Perhaps to a politician's ear the rhetoric sounds better when it is directed at "improving struggling schools", as opposed to a more accurate description which might sound elitist, or somehow condemnatory of the students who, for various reasons, would be left behind in the "struggling" schools.

Friday, July 23, 2004

"If they don't learn it in school...."

They'll learn it in the school yard? Apparently, once some controls are added to ensure the communcation of accurate information, sex ed works better at a peer-to-peer level.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Darfur Revisited

Today's Washington Post informs us that, despite Colin Powell's high profile visit, the situation in Darfur has not improved. Meanwhile London's Guardian reports that "Tony Blair has asked Downing Street and Foreign Office officials to draw up plans for possible military intervention in Sudan, where more than a million refugees are at risk from famine and disease."

As it is patent that both the U.S. and Britain hope to resolve the situation in Darfur through diplomatic means, and as governments frequently draw up military plans for conflicts they have no intention of actually fighting, we will have to wait and see if Blair's move is an effort to put a bit more muscle behind his diplomatic arm-wrestling, or if he will actually deploy troops if the situation does not improve.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Minorities and the Republican Party

Some Republicans have questioned why so many conservative members of minority groups vote for Democratic candidates, when ostensibly the social conservativism of the Republican party is more in line with their relgious and personal views. The response usually involves an allusion to the Republican Party's tendency to cater to our nation's xenophobes, opponents of immigration reform, and even racists. In today's Post, Harold Meyerson suggests that, despite its noble rhetoric in the 2000 campaign, that impression remains unchanged under Bush II:
Earlier this month, though, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist refused to let the [Ag Jobs immigration] bill come to a vote - so adamantly, in fact, that he willingly doomed the business community's top legislative priority, a tort reform bill, to which Ag Jobs would have been attached as an amendment. Frist has no history of nativist passions; he was simply doing the bidding of the White House.

And the White House, it is clear, has made a strategic calculation. Karl Rove knows perfectly well that the Latino vote is growing and is an increasing factor in such swing states as Florida, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. But he also knows that the president's half-hearted steps toward immigration reform were greeted by a storm of protest from anti-immigrant forces in the very same states, and that Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) actually incurred a primary challenge (which he beat back) because he had co-authored Ag Jobs in the House.

So once again, George W. Bush has decided that the votes he'll fish for are all on the right. Gone are any illusions that he can do better among Latino voters than he did in 2000. Now, it's John Kerry who's campaigning on his support for Ag Jobs and the Dream Act, and immigrant rights advocates who are registering new voters by the tens of thousands in such immigrant-heavy locales as Orlando and Phoenix.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Don't Give *Them* "Special Rights"

There are people in our society who have made a certain "lifestyle choice", and are now demanding that we give them special rights because of their choice. (You know who I am talking about.) I think the conduct of some of these people, and their demands for those "special rights" merits some scrutiny.

If you listen carefully to the media today, you will hear the claim that discrimination and even violence against these people is widespread. They are often depicted as victims of hate crimes or unfair hiring and firing practices - even before any scrutiny has been applied to determine why they might have been victimized. These people and their advocacy groups use these incidents to portray themselves as victims. They demand state support for their lifestyle choices and practices, and demand anti-discrimination laws to protect their lifestyle choices.

It goes without saying that these people have, as their ultimate goal, public acceptance of their lifestyle. One method of achieving this goal is to give their lifestyle choice protection through nondiscrimination legislation, granting them the same civil rights status enjoyed by women, African Americans and the disabled.

A Cause For Concern

To some, protecting these people from discrimination may not sound like such a bad idea. Neither does protecting them from violent crimes. But we must be careful not to miss the real purpose of these efforts by their activists, to portray themselves as victims. Granting them special rights sends a strong message to society. It says that people who make this lifestyle choice deserve the same legal status and protection as someone who is born black or female or handicapped. This amounts to a pretense that their lifestyle is not a choice but a predetermined characteristic. By talking the focus off of their choices and behavior and making themselves victims, these people engender more support for their lifestyle. For this reason alone, it is vitally important that the citizens of this nation understand the danger of granting them special rights.

Legislative Activity

Over the years, a great deal of legislation has been introduced and reintroduced at both the federal and state levels that purport to be about protecting these people from employment discrimination and the violence of hate crimes, while their underlying goal is to keep this lifestyle choice on the list of protected classes, like race and gender. They have been remarkably successful in obtaining the introduction of legislation which favors their lifestyle choice in the context of employment, housing and public accommodation, and even to advance their lifestyle choices within public school settings. They also want legal protections for their choice of relationship, and even legislative endorsement of their preferred manner of sexual relations.

Special protection for these people could also mean problems for landlords. Under the laws they demand, landlords could be sued for refusing to rent to these people, particularly if the landlord was aware of their lifestyle choice. Furthermore, landowners who rent apartments, sometimes even in their own homes, would be told they must rent to individuals who may be committing offensive acts on their property.

A Civil Rights or Moral Issue

The argument that the granting of protected status for these people is a civil rights issue has been used often in this debate. It is a comparison that has angered some in the African-American community. “Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic,” General Colin Powell wrote. In contrast, while this lifestyle choice might be described as "perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics", comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.

The U.S. Supreme Court has laid down three requirements for a group to receive protected status - a shared immutable characteristic, economic deprivation, and a history of political powerlessness. A close look at each of these characteristics reveals that this lifestyle choice does not meet the requirements.

Immutable Characteristics?

Making a lifestyle choice is not the same as being black or being a woman. These are characteristics that can be seen and are not based on behavior.

“The Supreme Court has declared that immutable characteristics are like the shape of the eyes, skin and hair," says Reverend Louis P. Sheldon, president of the Traditional Values Coalition. A similar definition is provided in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There is nothing immutable about this lifestyle choice. It is a behavior-driven characteristic and to align it with minority status is absolutely erroneous. Behavior is not included in the definition.

Economic Deprivation?

Is it even fair to compare the history of the black Civil Rights Movement with this demand for special rights? People in this class often earn more per capita than the average American, woman or black. When you look at the conditions for blacks and other minorities, you must ask yourself:
"where is the discrimination?" These people have tremendous income, enormous economic and buying power, and a lot of discretionary income.

Political Powerlessness?

Does the special rights movement have a history of being politically powerless? If you look at the history of the movement from the earliest days of this nation, this movement has been anything but powerless. This is a group that has wielded an enormous amount of power from the
very beginning, with tremendous influence on state legislatures. Their participation in politics, and their open advocacy of expansive special rights for their lifestyle choice, is accepted without controversy. The major political parties cater to them to try to secure their votes and favors, and have even been known to promise special rights legislation at the national level.

It is obvious that this group does not have a history of political powerlessness.

The Real Issue

Civil rights laws were enacted to offset discrimination against blacks, but these people can claim no victim status as an oppressed, poor minority. They are trying to hijack a movement for their own advantage.

It is clear that these people as a group do not meet the requirements of a protected class. The real issue, of course, is one of choice, not civil rights. A lifestyle choice is a behavior. More importantly, it is a behavior that encompasses a very distinct lifestyle in which specific conduct and actions play a major role. Granting them protection creates both a threat to free speech and a danger to children.

Freedom of Expression

One of the questions that granting these people special rights or protected status raises is, how much of an impact will it have on the freedom of expression? While proponents claim that it will not affect free speech at all, a closer look clearly demonstrates that this is simply not the case. If special rights legislation were passed, a supervisor with different beliefs would be unable to express those beliefs in the workplace. Business owners who reject this lifestyle choice might be faced with difficult choices over whom they hire and whom they fire.

Employment legislation isn’t the only threat to free speech. Hate crimes legislation could also impact the freedom to express deeply held beliefs. Robert Knight of the Family Research Council testified in May before a Senate committee that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999 actually "creates thought crime" because the violent acts are already against the law. Furthermore, some in the media and in the government have begun to interpret public opposition to the normalization of this lifestyle choice as "hate". Special rights advocates have characterized even mild formulations of opposing views as an expression of hatred or as a proximate cause of violence.

Some of these special rights advocates even object to advertisements meant to invite or encourage these people to make different lifestyle choices. Supposedly, these types of messages - undiluted messages of love - instigate prejudice against their lifestyle choices, or lead to crimes of violence against them.

A Threat to Children

Special rights legislation also has the potential of impacting the most vulnerable in our society. This becomes more of a concern in the area of employment. Under the laws these special rights advocates have long demanded, public school systems would not be allowed to hire or fire teachers, principles and guidance counselors on the basis of their lifestyle choice. They are also very vocal in trying to get school libraries to include literature which advances their lifestyle choice, while working to censor anything they believe casts any doubt or negative light on that choice. They won't hesitate to sue a school that won't treat their on-campus activities as if they were any other student organization - as if they were a chess club. They have even been successful in having textbooks changed to reflect their agenda, overriding other people's notions of science and morality for those consistent with their lifestyle choice.

The educational system isn’t the only institution where special rights legislation is threatening children. Even voluntary clubs or youth organizations are feeling the pressure. These people would not hesitate to sue an organization like the Boy Scouts if they were terminated as scout leaders because of their lifestyle choice. This is the type of organization that special rights legislation has an impact on, and this is exactly the kind of organization that special rights advocates want most to infiltrate. How better to shape the future than to mold the minds of the youth?

Worse, these people have a long history of trying to indoctrinate children, and to convince them to share their lifestyle choice. There are documented cases in which special rights advocates, aware that a child's parents reject their lifestyle choice, have nonetheless tried to convert the child to their lifestyle - in some cases through threats.

The Agenda

There is obviously more to special rights legislation than the activists would like us to believe. The push to have their lifestyle choice added to the list of specially protected classes has been a stated part of their agenda for hundreds of years. And with good reason. It is much easier for special rights activists to gain support for antidiscrimination laws than it is for them to gain support for more blatant legislation such as redefining marriage according to their preferred definition.

It must be remembered that this legislation is not really about protecting these people in the workplace or from violent crimes. These people are already protected in these areas just like everyone else. Special rights legislation is simply another, more subtle attempt by special rights groups to legitimize their lifestyle. Making their lifestyle choice a protected class does more than just grant these people "special rights" status. It also poses a serious threat to the free speech rights of millions of Americans who disagree with that choice or find it distasteful - even offensive.

This is the world these special rights advocates want: One in which business men and women who hold other values and beliefs are unable to express those beliefs in the workplace. One in which public school administrators are forced to hire teachers and guidance counselors without consideration of their lifestyle choice. One in which private organizations like the Boy Scouts are expected to make lifestyle choice irrelevant in the selection of scout leaders, and subject to litigation if they refuse. Most importantly, one in which parents will have to watch in silence as their children are placed at the feet of those who push the special rights agenda.

The goal of the special rights movement is to receive social acceptance of their lifestyle. Once a group defined by lifestyle choice receives special rights status, they are one step closer to that goal.

But Who Are These People?

At some point, I may have lost track.... but I don't think I was writing about homosexuals.

[This document is based on "Special Rights For Homosexuals", by the North Carolina Family Policy Council.]

Monday, July 19, 2004

Spinning, spinning, spinning....

According to Bill Safire, the White House should not have distanced itself from its inclusion of the so-called "sixteen words" in the State of the Union Address ("The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa") because there is additional information which supposedly gives credence to the words. Although it seems obvious that, had the White House been aware of any credible information beyond the forged Niger documents, it never would have declared that "the sixteen words did not rise to the level of inclusion in the State of the Union address."

With all due respect to Safire's Nixonian philosophy that "Being Republican Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry", the "new" allegations from the Butler report Safire believes somehow rehabilitate the uranium charge are not inconsistent with the White House's statement. That is, it remains probable either the White House based its statement upon the fact that Britain hadn't advanced any information beyond the existence of the forged documents, or that it didn't deem the information from Britain to be sufficiently credible to support the "sixteen words". Either way, the White House would have been correct to issue its pseudo-retraction.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Donating Cars

Today, George Will takes on a subject he doesn't really understand - the business behind "charity car donations". He correctly points out that some charities take in a lot of money from car donations, and concludes that, as it might reduce the number of donations, the Senate is per se wrong to try to limit the amount of donor deductions to the actual value of the donated vehicle or control for fraud.

There are some charities of sufficient size and scope that they can collect donated cars throughout the nation. There are some local or regional charities which can also collect cars on their own. But most charities who accept donated cars do so through an intermediary - a commercial outfit which collects and auctions the cars, then takes an enormous cut of the proceeds as a handling fee, passing on perhaps 10 or 20 cents on the dollar.

The donors are encouraged by the representation that they can deduct the blue book value of the car, no matter what its actual condition, and can be quite confident that the government won't be able to prove that the actual value of the car, whatever the sale price at auction. As Will notes, it is only where the deduction claimed exceeds $5,000 that an independent appraisal is presently required. Some of the companies which act as intermediaries for charities seem to encourage, albeit through suggestion rather than instruction, donors to exaggerate the value of their cars. They promise a receipt which indicates the make and model of car you donate, but without any indication of its condition or value. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

As long as no independent appraisal is required below a particular threshold, fraud will occur at significant levels below that threshold. It may be that the suggested threshold of $250 is too low, but it is not unreasonable for Congress to be concerned that the present threshold of $5,000 is too high.

Cause for hope?

David Ignatius updates us on the fourth coalition effort to create a new Iraqi army, this time with increased reliance upon officers from the Hussein era military.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

... Same as the old boss ....

If the U.S. was aware of these allegations about Allawi before accepting him as leader of the "interim government", and had any cause to believe the allegations true, I can only ask "What were they thinking?"
Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister of Iraq, pulled a pistol and executed as many as six suspected insurgents at a Baghdad police station, just days before Washington handed control of the country to his interim government, according to two people who allege they witnessed the killings.

They say the prisoners - handcuffed and blindfolded - were lined up against a wall in a courtyard adjacent to the maximum-security cell block in which they were held at the Al-Amariyah security centre, in the city's south-western suburbs.


Before the shootings, the 58-year-old Prime Minister is said to have told the policemen they must have courage in their work and that he would shield them from any repercussions if they killed insurgents in the course of their duty.
I am more than a bit concerned by those who grasp this story as a basis to undermine the "interim" government. And if the accusations are false, given the specificity of the accusations it shouldn't be particularly difficult to prove that the prisoners (all named) didn't exist, that some or all of them are alive, or that Allawi wasn't at the prison on the day they disappeared from the face of the earth. Further, Allawi is alleged to have had a U.S. security detail with him at the time, and those soldiers would be aware of the truth or falsity of this accusation. To date, though, beyond a bare denial there has been little or no effort to refute the charges, either by the U.S. or by Allawi. With all due respect to the possibility that the accusation is false, I would like some assurance that Allawi isn't, at best, "Hussein Lite".

And his point is....

Today, David Brooks yammers at some length about Kerry's references to "values" in his presidential campaign. For those of us a bit sick of that type of rhetoric, and who would rather see our presidential candidates focusing on issues, this argument is not without merit. But... since when was it Kerry who introduced "values" into mainstream politics, or insisted that discussion of "values" come before, say, discussion of important issues or even questions of basic competence? According to ABC Online (Australia):
In a story with echoes of that one, in the US Presidential campaign, the Bush/Cheney team is planning to focus attention on traditional values, especially the hot button issues of gay marriage and abortion. ... Forget Iraq. Forget the war on terrorism. Forget the economy. It's time to run on values and what better for firing up the conservative base than gay marriage.
Before lamenting the passage of the era in which rich people publicly flaunted their extreme wealth and were more concerned about "manners" than "values", Brooks announces,
When Kerry uses the word "values," it's meant to send a message: I am not who I am. I am not the blue-blooded prep-school kid who married two millionaires, dated a movie star and has a prenup and umpteen homes in tony locales; who has spent the past two decades as a moderately liberal senator from Massachusetts; and who likes to snowboard at Sun Valley and windsurf off Nantucket. I'm just your back-fence neighbor in Mayberry, out there in overalls, sidlin' over to the fence to chat: "Howdy neighbor! Would you like to come visit for a spell and hear about my values of faith, hope and opportunity?"

This campaign's version of middle-class values is like the Cracker Barrel restaurant version of a small town: a manufactured replica of a wholesome, down-home America that never existed. A realistic portrait of middle-class values would include tattoos, carb-counting and the purchase of voluminous amounts of lottery tickets by people who dream of escaping from the middle class.
Okay... so Kerry is subject to this rather scathing caricature, because he's a rich boy. Surely, given that Bush has been focusing on "values" from the day he entered national politics, Brooks gives equal time to his pampered, privileged upbringing? Think again:
Both John Forbes Kerry and George Walker Bush — who, let's face it, ain't exactly John-Boy Walton — are going to compete furiously over the next three months to see who is the most spiritually middle class.
Yup. There you have it. David Brooks gives us his version of "balanced coverage".

Friday, July 16, 2004

Those who live in glass houses....

For the "closet" exhibitionist?

Major Danyluk on Iraq

A friend of mine (USAF) once expressed that in his experience, the Marine Corps has some of the best officers in the military and some of the worst, with few falling in the middle. Today's Washington Post provides a perspective from one who appears to fall into the former category.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Mincing Words

The Washington Post today describes the probable torture of terrorism suspects by the CIA:
According to reports in The Post, pain medication for Abu Zubaida, who suffered from a gunshot wound in the groin, was manipulated to obtain his cooperation, while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to "water boarding," which causes the sensation of drowning.
Just to be clear, this is a process whereby a suspect's nose and mouth are covered, and water is poured over him until he is sufficiently oxygen-deprived and has ingested enough water that if the waterboarding process isn't ended he will die.

It isn't that the suspect has the "sensation of drowning" - the suspect is drowning, or is at least suffocating, and if not extracted from the waterboard will die.

Whatever you think of the government's use of torture, why not be honest about what it involves?


When Kerry selected Edwards as his running mate, I heard a Republican campaign operative yammer about how Kerry had really wanted to pick John McCain. The guy even claimed Kerry had invited McCain to be his running mate three times (as if he could know). Similar rumors have been printed in various editorials. Granted, McCain was posed the question by the media, but I have yet to see any credible evidence that Kerry actually would have considered him as a running mate. (Got any?)

More recently, I have heard various Republican armchair advocates suggesting that Bush should dump Cheney - using health as an excuse - and pick a different running mate. They seem to get most excited over the idea of McCain running for Bush. As if that could ever happen. This is John McCain, the "paleoconservative", who still believes in such archaic values as small government, responsible spending, and personal liberties. On Bush's beloved anti-gay marriage amendment:
... Arizona Sen. John McCain put it, that to strip states of their traditional jurisdiction over marriage "strikes me as antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans."
Even if it would not be embarrassing for Bush to dump Cheney, and even if such a move would diminish (rather than magnifying) the various scandals and administration failures in which Cheney has taken a leading role (and I think it would do the opposite), Bush would never pick McCain.

His "values" are all wrong.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Got Your Visa?

A British reporter recounts her treatment by U.S. immigration, when (despite Britain having a visa waiver program with the United States) she didn't apply for an "I Visa" before attempting to enter the country:
After my luggage search, the officer took some mugshots of me, then proceeded to fingerprint me. In the middle of this, my husband rang from London; he had somehow managed to locate my whereabouts, and I was allowed briefly to wipe the ink off my hands to take the call. Hearing his voice was a reminder of the real world I was beginning to feel cut off from.

Three female officers arrived to do a body search. As they slipped on rubber gloves, I blenched: what were they going to do, and could I resist? They were armed, they claimed to have the law on their side. I was an anonymous foreigner who had committed a felony, and "those were the rules". So I was groped, unpleasantly, though not as intimately as I had feared. Then came the next shock: two bulky, uniformed and armed security men handcuffed me, which they explained was the "rule when transporting detainees through the airport". I was marched between the two giants through an empty terminal to a detention room, where I sat in the company of two other detainees (we were not allowed to communicate) and eight sleepy guards, all men. I would have been happy to spend the night watching TV with them, as they agreed to switch the channel from local news (highlight: a bear was loose in an affluent LA neighbourhood) to sitcoms and soaps. Their job was indescribably boring, they were overstaffed with nothing to do, and so making sure I didn't extract a pen or my mobile phone from my luggage must have seemed a welcome break. I listened to their star-struck stories about actors they had recently seen at LAX. We laughed in the same places during Seinfeld, an eerie experience. I was beginning to think I could manage this: the trip was a write-off, of course, but I could easily survive a night and a day of this kind of discomfort before flying back. But then I was taken to the detention cell in downtown LA, where the discomfort became something worse.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Desperate, Pathetic Pandering

But that's just my opinion.
President Bush says legalizing gay marriage would redefine the most fundamental institution of civilization and that a constitutional amendment is needed to protect it.
What's yours?

Declining Customer Service

In today's Post, Howard Kurtz takes on lousy customer service, particularly atrocious telephone support. He provides a tale, which reminded me that this is not a particularly new phenomenon:
A while back I canceled a 30-day trial on a cell phone that had terrible reception and was told I had to wait for the company to send a mailing label so I could return the phone and get the promised refund. The label never came. I called back and was again told the label would be sent out. I'm still waiting. This came after I had called another cell phone company to cancel a contract that had expired after two years. The firm kept billing me. When I called to complain, an agent said there was no record of the cancellation call.
Many years ago, if you're old enough to recall, a certain monopoly company controlled our nation's telephone lines - and owned all of the telephones hooked up to those lines. After deregulation permitted consumers to buy their own telephones, this company benefited from the fact that many customers didn't pay much attention to their bills and continued to lease equipment. I was managing a small business and, when I inquired about the possibility of upgrading the phones, I was told that they were leased. I asked how much the business was paying - $150 per month ($50 per phone). I pointed out that for not much more than the monthly rental price we could get three far superior phones with no recurring fee. This struck the business owner as a good idea, so I called the monopoly to cancel the contract. I was told that somebody would come by to pick up the old phone system.

A month or two later, I received a call from my boss who, after thanking me for saving him thousands of dollars per month across his various locations (having now cancelled all of his leases) told me that he had been billed for the leased phones at my location. I called the monopoly and was told that the lease had never been cancelled. I protested that I had spoken to a representative, had cancelled the lease, and had been told that the cancellation was effective. The reply acknowledged that I had in fact done so, but "That person didn't have the authority to cancel your lease." (When I pointed out that the woman's actual authority had no relevance to a situation where she had exercised apparent authority, the monopoly relented. They knew the law - they were simply trying to give a long-term customer one last screwing.)

If you look at the aspects of a business which are most important to consumers, they boil down to price, quality, and customer service. If you encounter a business which is the best in its field for all three, you are most likely dealing with a monopoly. If the business is not a monopoly and the competition does not respond, it will likely grind its competitors into the dust. But in most fields, a business can only strive to be a leader in one or two of those areas. (For example, if a business chooses to surpass the competition in quality and customer service, it will almost inevitably also be more expensive.)

We can get better customer service - but we have to be willing to pay for it. Businesses have figured out that, for the most part, the quality of customer service is not critical to making the initial sale. Thus, they focus instead on price (and ideally also on quality), and customer service becomes an afterthought.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Gaming Democracy

Local news from a California paper....
Michigan Republicans are helping gather signatures to place independent Ralph Nader on the presidential ballot in the battleground state, irritating Democrats who accuse the GOP of trying to pull votes away from candidate John Kerry.
Do they really think their candidate is so pathetic, he needs Nader in the race to even have a chance?

Thursday, July 08, 2004


Today, George will provides this insipid claim:
It has come to this: The crux of the political left's complaint about Americans is that they are insufficiently materialistic.
He then claims that "the left has largely failed to enact its agenda for redistributing wealth". Um... dimwit... you might want to pay attention to your own argument. If you are middle class (or one of the so-called left-wing "elitists" pundits like Will like to yammer about) trying to redistribute wealth to the working poor and indigent, you are demonstrating what is known as "egalitarianism", not "materialism".

Will's essential quarrel is with an author who proposes that the working poor vote against their self-interest when they ally themselves with the Republican Party, ostensibly because the Democrats would offer them better social welfare benefits. Perhaps that could be described as an indirect appeal to materialism - that the working poor would benefit from voting with the party that would better serve their financial and economic interests. But if you actually speak with the working poor who vote for the Republican Party, you will hear a lot of people arguing that they don't want their money helping the less fortunate. The Republican promise, false though it may be, of letting them "keep more of their money" has a tremendous appeal. The notion of helping their fellow man, a great deal less. I have even heard this argument from a person who had a long history of receiving welfare benefits, and who continued to live in a subsidized housing development, and who had no problem at all signing his teenage daughter up for another generation of welfare benefits when she had a child - if he were smarter, he might be stunned by his own hypocrisy.

Will is essentially arguing that people who prefer not to share their money with the less fortuate are less materialistic than those on "the left" who would do so. Granted, Will's editorials have been pretty lousy for the past decade, but... c'mon. There's plenty to criticize about the "welfare state" without fictionalizing that the people who advocate a strong social safety net are doing so out of greed.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Congressional Dishonesty

Warren Buffett today takes on the subject of executive compensation, and the absurd legislation presently before Congress designed to permit companies to continue to hide the true amount they pay their top executives.
The only reason for making such an Alice-in-Wonderland assumption is to significantly understate the value of the few options that the House wants counted. This undervaluation, in turn, enables chief executives to lie about what they are truly being paid and to overstate the earnings of the companies they run.
(He ads a bit of derision for the "Enronesque accounting" demonstrated by Congress in its own budgets.)

Meanwhile, Henry Waxman takes on the Republican leadership, noting that while no scandal (real or imagined) was too small to justify investigation under Clinton, nothing the Bush Administration does (no matter how outrageous) is deemed worty of investigation.
Compare the following: Republicans in the House took more than 140 hours of testimony to investigate whether the Clinton White House misused its holiday card database but less than five hours of testimony regarding how the Bush administration treated Iraqi detainees.

Medical Malpractice "Reform"

The Washington Post today tells us of a crisis in insurance costs for OB/GYN's in Maryland. After endorsing a reduction of the "damages cap" for "pain and suffering" from $635,000 down to $500,000, the Post writes:
A somewhat tighter limit on awards for "pain and suffering" strikes us as reasonable but inadequate; it needs to be coupled with better provisions for protecting patients from negligent doctors and improving medical care. The goal, as we've said before, should be to protect victims of doctor error as well as victims of unfair lawsuits. That might mean tougher discipline for repeat-offender doctors, better disclosure of errors in care and closer scrutiny of hospitals to identify patterns of errors. Doctors might squirm at that, and trial lawyers might squirm at lower caps on "pain and suffering" awards. But without some compromises, Maryland's health care system may be heading for a fall.
Um... I doubt many lawyers will "squirm" over the difference between a $635,000 damages cap and a $500,000 cap, because any case worth litigating under one cap will remain worth litigating under the other. The person who "squirms" as a result of such a cap is the child who is told to accept $500,000 as compensation for the "pain and suffering" from a lifetime of disability. You never see so-called "tort reform" advocates putting a human face on the babies supposedly "overcompensated" for their very real injuries - a human face would interfere with the charade.

What the Post doesn't ask is whether part of the reason for high insurance costs comes from bad practices by the insurance companies themselves. Irresponsible financial practices which they are passing along to doctors in the form of higher premiums. The Post doesn't even stop to wonder if jury verdicts are increasing, or if there are so many verdicts at the level of the "cap" that a 21% decrease will have any significant impact on premiums. After all, even with "pain and suffering" capped at $500,000, for the most severe cases of malpractice the award for economic expenses - a lifetime of medical care, educational support, attendant care, medical equipment, and dependence - will be ten or twenty times that amount, perhaps more.

Yes, obviously there should be some attention paid to avoiding incidents of malpractice, to weeding out "bad doctors", and to otherwise protecting patients. But there are few groups which lobby on behalf of injured patients, and insurance companies have scores of full-time lobbyists working to limit their recoveries. So it might be reasonable for a legislature to consider patient-centered improvements, but it is more realistic to expect it to cater to the insurance industry.

While it is a competitor, perhaps the Post's unnamed editorialist would benefit from reading Bob Herbert's recent column, in which he took a peek behind the curtain of malpractice "reform"....

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Friday, July 02, 2004

Saddam Hussein - Man, Myth, Both?

During the lead-up to the Iraq war, the war itself, Hussein's capture, and his recent public appearance, various public pictures have been painted of Hussein, often by the same people. He is an iron-fisted tyrant, actively building a WMD arsenal under the noses of the western world, and between whose purges and his cabal of close henchmen had tight control over the entire nation, obviating any chance of revolt by generals too cowed by his network of spies and secret police to ever dream of defying him. He is an out-of-touch dreamer, whose generals actively lied to him about the state of his nation and his paltry weapons arsenal, as he indulged in Viagra and penned romance novels, and has been unable to produce any useful intelligence information despite months of U.S. interrogation. He is a coward, begging for his life (in English) as he was captured by U.S. forces. He is a strong-willed man, in control of his faculties, denouncing his imprisonment as being the result of an illegal war.

I have long been of the impression that some of the pre-war information about "Saddam who cannot be toppled except by outside military intervention" was puffery meant to overstate the necessity of invasion. It is now well-known that the U.S. was in active negotiation with numerous Iraqi military leaders about the possibility of orchestrating a coup, or a prompt surrender in the event of invasion, and it appears that one such officer was Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh of the Republican Guard - the guy who we recently put in charge of Fallujah. At the same time, it would not be at all surprising if a leader such as Hussein took on some megalomaniacal features over time, and there is plenty of evidence of that in his statutes, paintings, Viagra stash, and romance fiction. The coward who tried to surrender while pleading in English? That reeks of manipulation - an (understandable) effort to diminish Hussein's standing in the eyes of the Arab world.

I heard that a recent opinion poll of Iraqis is split, to put it mildly, with about 40% of Iraqis wanting Hussein executed, and another 40% wanting him freed. If true, the trial (and presumably the subsequent execution) of Hussein could prove quite divisive inside Iraq, and could cement his status as a martyr against the west in parts of the Arab world. Whose myth will win?

I have heard it commented that the fact that Hussein will even stand for trial, as opposed to being summarily executed by the new regime, indicates how far Iraq has progressed. But there is a reason why the new regime is often quick to execute the leaders of the old - and it has nothing to do with its "crimes". A quick execution without trial prevents the old regime from using a public trial as a bully pulpit, and from denouncing those members of the "new" regime who are at least as culpable as those on trial from the "old" regime - but just happened to be on the right side of the successful coup.

One thing seems rather clear - the man who used to be Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh's boss, and who was photographed in an infamous handshake with Donald Rumsfeld, possesses a lot of information which could be embarrassing to a lot of Iraqis and western political leaders. Will this trial drag on, Milosevic-style, while all the world watches? Or will the new Iraq's justice be more focused on outcome than on due process? We shall see.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Progress on Darfur?

With the U.S. "Ambassador at Large" for war crimes acknowledging "indicators of genocide" (albeit indicators he pretends have not been confirmed) and Colin Powell scheduled to visit the region, is the Bush Administration finally going to put some diplomatic muscle (if not military might) behind an effort to stop mass starvation?

(The Washington Post provides background information.)

Hussein's Trial

Today's New York Times returns us to the question of whether Hussein should get a fair trial - before he's convicted