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Saturday, May 17, 2003

 
EVERYBODY'S DOING IT

Howell Raines has some serious explaining to do about the embarrassing Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times. ...



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...



Nothing. ...



...



Still nothing. ...



...



Hmm. Still nothing.

Andy Sullivan and Mickey Kaus seem to get such a rush from obsessively criticizing the Times on their Web sites that I figured I should give it a try. Day after day, week after week they accuse, attack and harp on the paper's every column. So I thought I'd see what all the excitement is about. But now that I've tried it, I don't get the allure.

Maybe it only works in conjunction with one of those steroid rubs.


posted by Fred Clark 2:02 AM


Friday, May 16, 2003

 
STATECRAFT AS STAGECRAFT

(Via Cursor)

The White House efforts have been ambitious — and costly. For the prime-time television address that Mr. Bush delivered to the nation on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House rented three barges of giant Musco lights, the kind used to illuminate sports stadiums and rock concerts, sent them across New York Harbor, tethered them in the water around the base of the Statue of Liberty and then blasted them upward to illuminate all 305 feet of America's symbol of freedom. It was the ultimate patriotic backdrop for Mr. Bush, who spoke from Ellis Island.

That's from this article by The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller. She outlines the extraordinary measures taken by the Bush White House to cast the president in the best possible light -- literally.

Take, for example, the president's absurd and unnecessary aircraft carrier appearance. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer eventually admitted that the purpose of the flight was solely -- and I'm paraphrasing only slightly -- "So the president can get his jollies."*

Cynics had also griped that the purpose of the $1 million appearance was to create a visual image for future use in the president's campaign for reelection. This was, of course, a harshly negative view of the Bush administration -- one that portrays the president and those around him as the shallowest, hollowest people ever to gather in the halls of power. This theory -- nasty, negative, and boundlessly cynical -- was confirmed by members of the administration.

The most elaborate -- and criticized -- White House event so far was Mr. Bush's speech aboard the Abraham Lincoln announcing the end of major combat in Iraq. White House officials say that a variety of people, including the president, came up with the idea, and that Mr. Sforza [a former ABC TV producer] embedded himself on the carrier to make preparations days before Mr. Bush's landing in a flight suit and his early evening speech.

Media strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush's right shoulder and the "Mission Accomplished" banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call "magic hour light," which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.


They ain't just shallow and superficial -- they're proud of it. They've raised shallow to an art form. Some of this might be tolerable if it were simply the work of a handful of specialists on the fringe, but as Bumiller's article confirms, it's not. This is the central, primary focus of the administration -- looking good. The president's agenda, itinerary, energy and attention are all shaped by what looks good on TV. The people who ought to be concentrating on leadership -- on reviving the sputtering economy, combatting terrorists and doing something about the million American kids who live in extreme poverty -- are instead concentrating on "magic light" and color-coordinating the wardrobes of the aesthetically pleasing soldiers (none taller than 5' 9") who will surround the military-garbed president, laying palm fronds at his feet and singing "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord."

= = = = = = = = = = = =

* Actual quote from Fleischer: "The President wanted to land on it, on an aircraft that would allow him to see an aircraft landing the same way that the pilots saw an aircraft landing. He wanted to see it as realistically as possible. And that's why, once the initial decision was made to fly out on the Viking, even when a helicopter option became doable, the President decided instead he wanted to still take the Viking."

posted by Fred Clark 3:33 PM

 
GETTING ROLLED

A penny saved is ... almost impossible to get rid of.

So once upon a time my neighborhood bank would let you deposit loose change. You could go in with a big jug of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters and -- during certain off-peak hours -- the teller would pour them into the sorter. The machine would rattle for a minute or so and the teller would hand you a receipt telling you how much your deposit was worth.

This was -- like any other cash deposit -- all free of charge.

Now that same bank charges a percentage -- 3 percent off the top. This is the kind of absurd behavior one expects from sleazy storefront check-cash outlets, not from a bank. You deposit $50, they credit your account for $48.50. That's a heck of a way to do business. If this trend continues, you can expect a bank to start offering to break a $100 by giving you four twenties and a ten.

So forget about the bank, I figure -- and forget about those usurious sorter machines in supermarkets, they charge an even higher percentage than the bank (8.9 percent at the local Acme). I figure I'll just roll the coins myself.

But where to get those little paper rolls? Banks don't just give them away anymore. You can buy them at Staples. A bag of penny rolls there advertises that it contains enough rolls for "3,000 pennies!" [exclamation point original]. Three thousand pennies is $30 worth. That bag costs $3.29 -- or $3.49 with tax. Suddenly you only have 2,651 pennies. That's almost 12 percent off the top. Plus you have to roll them yourself. Do they actually sell any of these? Or does the bank just pay for the shelf-space so their little scheme looks attractive by comparison?

"A penny saved is a penny earned," Ben Franklin said. But at my local bank, a penny saved is 0.97 cents earned. At the supermarket, a penny saved is 0.91 cents. And if you roll your own, it's only 0.88 cents. So what to do?

There's only one option left: spend them.

I've started carrying a few dollars in nickels and dimes in my backpack -- vending machine money. I'm the only guy in the building who can always get a soda, even when the "exact change only" light is lit.

The pennies will be harder to spend, but here's the plan: Wal-Mart.

What better way to honor the spirit of the Miser of Bentonville than by sharing my hoarded pennies with the folks in Sam's Empire? Wal-Mart, after all, is the embodiment of the penny-pinching, customer- and employee-screwing corporate culture that has helped turn the humble piggy bank into such a lousy investment.

Wal-Mart's entire business model is based on the idea that we, the American consumers, are willing and eager to abandon anything in exchange for saving a few pennies here or there. Ideas like fair wages, fair trade, livable communities, neighborliness, healthy local and regional economies -- all of these should be tossed aside, Wal-Mart believes, in pursuit of a price that's a few pennies lower. All values, relationships and ideals, Wal-Mart preaches, should be sold for those few pennies.

So I'm giving those pennies back. After all, no one else will take them.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Arianna Huffington has more on Wal-Mart in her latest column:

You may have heard that Wal-Mart warmed the hearts of its apple pie clientele by pulling three men's magazines off the shelf because they feature scantily clad starlets. But, according to lawsuits, behind the magazine racks, Wal-Mart fosters a testosterone-drenched corporate culture in which strip clubs are considered an ideal place to conduct a business meeting and women aren't promoted because they "don't have the right equipment.”

And why does the business press continue to lionize the company -- Business Week recently headlined a laudatory article "How Wal-Mart Keeps Getting It Right" -- despite the fact that it has a history of firing workers who try to unionize, paying its hourly employees, on average, $7 to $8 a hour, well below the industry standard, and is being sued in more than 30 states for refusing to pay workers overtime and, in some cases, even locking store doors and not allowing workers to leave when their shifts were done?





posted by Fred Clark 3:39 AM


Thursday, May 15, 2003

 
WALK ACROSS DELAWARE (UPDATE)

A quarter of all American adults are couch potatoes, getting virtually no exercise either at work or on the weekends, a government study found.

That's according to this AP report based on a release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The government recommends adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week to fight obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. It wants 30 percent of adults to exercise 30 minutes five or more days a week by 2010.

A worthy suggestion that. A similar impulse was behind the recent "Walk Across Delaware," which I tweaked a bit (good naturedly) in this post, noting that the walk crossed the tiny, flat state at it's narrowest point -- a distance of 13.7 miles.

Dean Dyer, who completed the walk, writes to correct that figure. "The walk was 14.5 miles and took 4.5 hours," he writes. "When was the last time you walked that far?"

(A rhetorical question, but here's the answer: On a business trip to San Francisco, where some poor urban orienteering led me to believe that the walk from the train station to the Golden Gate Bridge and back would be a leisurely stroll. It wasn't -- but oh my is that city gorgeous.)

So anyway, kudos to Dean and everyone else who completed the walk. Crossing any state on foot is an accomplishment not to be belittled. And just spending 4.5 hours out of doors in the state that is home to Metachem and Motiva is a truly courageous act.


posted by Fred Clark 3:51 AM


Tuesday, May 13, 2003

 
INVASIVE SPECIES

I'm a bit reluctant to add to the list of terrorist nightmare scenarios -- did we get the idea of a "dirty bomb" from terrorists, or did they get the idea from our terror alerts? -- but re-reading Quammen's essay just now calls to mind another that's gotten little attention: bioterrorism via invasive species.

The idea doesn't provide the kind of lethal spectacle that gives terror-ism its name, but in terms of overall, long-term economic harm, it seems to me a malicious person armed with a bucket of zebra mussels or snakeheads, or a nursery-tray of meleleuca or kudzu could wreak a great deal of havoc. Such a person could cause immeasurable ecological damage -- and because ecological damage always entails economic damage, an invasive bioterrorist could deal a potent body blow to a region or nation's economy.

Consider, for example, the devastating terroristic effect of Saddam Hussein's cutting off of the Mesopotamian Marshlands. President Bush blames the recent (ongoing?) recession on the 9/11 attacks (even though the recession predated the attacks by a year or so). But how would our feebly recovering economy cope with the loss of a watershed? Or of millions of acres of cropland?

America is relatively vulnerable to such an attack, yet this form of terrorism seems unlikely. Terrorism, after all, is not just about its immediate consequences, it's about sending a message. And most Americans -- particularly those in the Bush administration -- see little connection between ecological and economic disasters. (Heck, many of these folks seem to think that ecological disasters are necessary and good for the economy.) Thus while such an attack would produce real and painful economic consequences, terrorists are unlikely to bother. Why send a message when the recipients are too dim to receive it?

Like Mr. Magoo, we may be magically shielded by our own ecological myopia.


posted by Fred Clark 5:02 PM

 
SOME GOOD NEWS

There's a special providence in the fall of a grackle.

I am happy to report that the pair of grackles nesting in an air-vent about 10 feet from my apartment's patio seem to be the proud parents of a healthy batch of offspring.

I can't be sure of this -- being sure would involve getting a five-story ladder and peering into the vent, which I think is connected to the exhaust fan in my bathroom -- but I think I've heard them chirping (like this, only higher-pitched and with more voices) and the parents seem both more active and a bit warier of nearby humans sitting on their patios drinking coffee.

These are, the bird books all note with a bit of a sniff, common grackles. They are one of those infinitely adaptable "weed" species -- like humans, rats, crows, starlings, grey squirrels, white-tail deer or cockroaches. So, no, it's not as though my new neighbors were a nest of some rare, treasured species like peregrine falcons (it's only a five-story building, after all). Grackles, like humans and starlings and white-tail deer, are thriving nicely -- sometimes at the expense of the other species we're shouldering aside when claiming our habitat.

As David Quammen writes of the weedy lot of us:

What do fire ants, zebra mussels, Asian gypsy moths, tamarisk trees, maleleuca trees, kudzu, Mediterranean fruit flies, boll weevils and water hyacinths have in common with crab-eating macaques or Nile perch? Answer: They're weedy species, in the sense that animals as well as plants can be weedy. What that implies is a constellation of characteristics: They reproduce quickly, disperse widely when given a chance, tolerate a fairly broad range of habitat conditions, take hold in strange places, succeed especially in disturbed ecosystems, and resist eradication once they're established. They are scrappers, generalists, opportunists. They tend to thrive in human-dominated terrain because in crucial ways they resemble Homo sapiens: aggressive, versatile, prolific, and ready to travel. The city pigeon, a cosmopolitan creature derived from wild ancestry as a Eurasian rock dove (Columba livia) by way of centuries of pigeon fanciers whose coop-bred birds occasionally went AWOL, is a weed. So are those species that, benefiting from human impacts upon landscape, have increased grossly in abundance or expanded in their geographical scope without having to cross an ocean by plane or by boat--for instance, the coyote in New York, the raccoon in Montana, the white-tailed deer in northern Wisconsin or western Connecticut. The brown-headed cowbird, also weedy, has enlarged its range from the eastern United States into the agricultural Midwest at the expense of migratory songbirds. In gardening usage the word "weed" may be utterly subjective, indicating any plant you don't happen to like, but in ecological usage it has these firmer meanings. Biologists frequently talk of weedy species, meaning animals as well as plants.

Quammen is essaying, he writes, in search of "answers unvarnished with obligatory hope." And his "Planet of Weeds" is obligatory reading, despite its gloomy tone. Yet hope remains an obligation and I find this unseen batch of hatchling neighbors a delightful, hopeful event.

These brand new common grackles -- like the human tenant from whom they are subletting -- may do little to enhance biodiversity, but that's not the whole point either.

What are grackles for? Grackles grackle, ad majorem gloriam dei. This lot of them is grackling nicely, and I find them uncommonly delightful.

posted by Fred Clark 4:33 PM

 
EXPLOITATION TASK FORCE

"Smoking gun" has become a term of "dark irony."

So apparently "the group directing all known U.S. search efforts for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq" is officially called "The 75th Exploitation Task Force." What the ...? "Exploitation task force?" Who comes up with these names?

These U.S. weapons inspectors are soon to depart Iraq with their tails between their legs, Barton Gellman reports in The Washington Post:

The group's departure, expected next month, marks a milestone in frustration for a major declared objective of the war.

Leaders of Task Force 75's diverse staff -- biologists, chemists, arms treaty enforcers, nuclear operators, computer and document experts, and special forces troops -- arrived with high hopes of early success. They said they expected to find what Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5 -- hundreds of tons of biological and chemical agents, missiles and rockets to deliver the agents, and evidence of an ongoing program to build a nuclear bomb.

Scores of fruitless missions broke that confidence, many task force members said in interviews.


Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei -- although too dignified to do so -- would be wholly justified in holding a joint press conference to declare "Neener, neener, neeeeen-er! We told you so!"

The American inspectors, despite having enormously more resources at their disposal and a far more cowed and cooperative atmosphere, have discovered even less than the U.N. and IAEA teams were able to. This of course does not prove that no banned weapons exist in Iraq, but it does prove that the Bush administration's gratuitous condescension, sneering and mockery of the U.N. and IAEA professionals was inappropriate, im- and pre-mature. The important work of American inspectors -- as with so many aspects of American foreign policy -- has been dangerously undermined by the smirking frat-boy approach of President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.

Motivated and accomplished in their fields, task force members found themselves lacking vital tools. They consistently found targets identified by Washington to be inaccurate, looted and burned, or both. Leaders and members of five of the task force's eight teams, and some senior officers guiding them, said the weapons hunters were going through the motions now to "check the blocks" on a prewar list. ...

Task Force 75's experience, and its impending dissolution after seven weeks in action, square poorly with assertions in Washington that the search has barely begun. ...

Survey teams have combed laboratories and munitions plants, bunkers and distilleries, bakeries and vaccine factories, file cabinets and holes in the ground where tipsters advised them to dig. Most of the assignments came with classified "target folders" describing U.S. intelligence leads. Others, known as the "ad hocs," came to the task force's attention by way of plausible human sources on the ground.

The hunt will continue under a new Iraq Survey Group, which the Bush administration has said is a larger team. But the organizers are drawing down their weapons staffs for lack of work, and adding expertise for other missions.

Interviews and documents describing the transition from Task Force 75 to the new group show that site survey teams, the advance scouts of the arms search, will reduce from six to two their complement of experts in missile technology and biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. A little-known nuclear special operations group from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, called the Direct Support Team, has already sent home a third of its original complement, and plans to cut the remaining team by half. ...


The U.S. inspections effort seems to be fumbling in the dark. Take, for instance, the following observations from Army Col. Richard McPhee:

"My unit has not found chemical weapons," he said. "That's a fact. And I'm 47 years old, having a birthday in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces on a lake in the middle of Baghdad. It's surreal. The whole thing is surreal.

"Am I convinced that what we did in this fight was viable? I tell you from the bottom of my heart: We stopped Saddam Hussein in his WMD programs," he said, using the abbreviation for weapons of mass destruction. "Do I know where they are? I wish I did ... but we will find them. Or not. I don't know. I'm being honest here."


[snip]

The stymied hunt baffles search team leaders. To a person, those interviewed during a weeklong visit to the task force said they believed in the mission and the Bush administration accusations that prompted it. Yet "smoking gun" is now a term of dark irony here. ...

And keep in mind that the sneering snubbery directed toward Mr. Blix and the U.N. inspectors is ongoing, as David Usborne reports in the Guardian:

The United States is continuing this weekend to block the return of United Nations weapons inspectors to Iraq, even though its own teams of experts have so far failed to find any definitive evidence of banned biological, chemical or nuclear materials in the country, let alone any actual armaments. ...

Usborne also quotes McPhee, in a less-candid frame of mind and sticking more closely to the official script:

Colonel Richard McPhee refused to predict that weapons would be found, suggesting instead he would be satisfied with evidence of pre-existing programmes to produce them.

"There's no doubt ... that what we have stopped here in Iraq is a WMD programme that was being run, that was capable of producing chemical weapons, biological weapons as needed by [Saddam Hussein] now or in the future," he said. "I believe clearly there was a capability here that would have kept going." So far Col McPhee's teams have been unable to find any proof that Iraq was indeed involved in the production of illegal weapons.


Before the war, the Bush administration repeatedly asserted (among many, many others) two things:

1. That U.N. and IAEA inspectors were incompetent bunglers.

2. That Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The first assertion has been discredited by the apparent fact that these inspection teams were far more competent than the Bush administration's alternative "exploitation" squads. This does not, of course, have any bearing on the truth or falsity of the second assertion but, as the lawyers say, "it goes toward credibility."

"Even the sharpest skeptics do not rule out that the hunt may eventually find evidence of banned weapons," Gellman writes, and I must agree. I have no doubt that the Bush administration will one day present us with a smoking gun.

And a bloody glove.

posted by Fred Clark 2:11 PM

 
MICKEY? HELLOOOOOO? ARE YOU THERE?

If a black child starves in America, and nobody cares, does she still suffer?

So the Children's Defense Fund puts out this press release on April 30.

The number of black children living in extreme poverty is at its highest level in 23 years, according to an analysis released today by the Children's Defense Fund. Despite several years of a booming economy, nearly one million black children in 2001 lived in a family with an annual income of less than half the federal poverty level (disposable income below $7,064 for a family of three).

For most of the (white-owned, white-directed) mainstream media, no story is more likely to be ignored than one involving extremely poor black children. The media will sometimes pay attention if the story has to do with poor black teen-agers, since that story can be spun into a fearmongering prediction of predatory bogeymen straying out of their neighborhoods to threaten the suburbs. But the children CDF is reporting on are too young to think of as potential criminals -- like all black people who are neither frightening nor entertaining, they are largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Yet however marginal it may be, there is a segment of the mainstream media that covers the child-poverty "beat" -- a topic which these days is more likely to fall under the heading of "welfare reform" (thus creating the bizarre impression that black child poverty in America originated some time in the 1960s as a result of LBJ's Great Society programs).

While many journalists cover the welfare reform beat, none is as obsessive or possessive as Slate's Mickey Kaus. When other journalists report on welfare reform Kaus is usually quick with a critique that often seems vaguely offended -- as though it was a personal insult that someone else had taken up "his" pet topic.

So why, one wonders, has Mickey Kaus not yet commented on the CDF's discovery that welfare reform has helped to produce a record high level of extreme poverty among black children in America? It looks suspiciously like a case of someone ignoring evidence that contradicts/shatters his pet theory, but perhaps there is another explanation.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

One danger of the blogosphere is the temptation to elevate peripheral questions, thereby ignoring primary questions. I seem to be giving in to this temptation here, so let me correct this.

Nearly one million black children in America live in a family with an annual income of less than half the federal poverty level. The important question is not "What is Mickey going to say about this?" Or even "How is Ari Fleischer going to lie about this?" The important question, rather, is "What can be done?"

The first part of an answer is to stop the bleeding -- to fight the efforts in the nation's capital and the state capitals to make further cuts in assistance for the poorest poor children.

A second step is to scream bloody murder until lawmakers and executives are forced to account for themselves, to explain why they should be allowed even one more day in office when a million children are going hungry.


posted by Fred Clark 1:18 PM


Monday, May 12, 2003

 
STUPID RACISTS (cont'd.)

The (Dis)Honorable William H. Rehnquist

So a few folks were wondering why Chief Justice William Rehnquist was paired with Trent Lott in the previous post. Lott's notoriety is fairly recent, but not as many people are familiar with how a young lawyer named Bill Rehnquist made a living in about 1964.

If the truth mattered as much as raw political clout, Dennis Roddy's Dec. 2000 Post-Gazette column on the subject would have led to hearings or some kind of investigation. But it doesn't, and it didn't -- not yet, at least. Here's an excerpt

Lito Pena is sure of his memory. Thirty-six years ago he, then a Democratic Party poll watcher, got into a shoving match with a Republican who had spent the opening hours of the 1964 election doing his damnedest to keep people from voting in south Phoenix.

"He was holding up minority voters because he knew they were going to vote Democratic," said Pena.

The guy called himself Bill. He knew the law and applied it with the precision of a swordsman. He sat at the table at the Bethune School, a polling place brimming with black citizens, and quizzed voters ad nauseam about where they were from, how long they'd lived there -- every question in the book. A passage of the Constitution was read and people who spoke broken English were ordered to interpret it to prove they had the language skills to vote.

By the time Pena arrived at Bethune, he said, the line to vote was four abreast and a block long. People were giving up and going home. ...


"Bill" was William Rehnquist. The Chief Justice denies having been involved in racist intimidation at the polls. Many, many people contradict his claim -- but none of those people have cocktails with presidents and kingmakers, so they must all be liars.

Rehnquist's intimidation of black and Hispanic voters in 1964 seems to have been motivated primarily, if not solely, by crass partisanship. He wasn't simply trampling on the civil rights of black and Hispanic Americans for the fun of it -- he was doing so because he wanted to win an election for the Republican Party. I really don't know whether this makes his actions more or less repugnant.


posted by Fred Clark 5:49 PM

 
SCIENTISTS EXPLAIN TRENT LOTT, WILLIAM REHNQUIST

HealthScout News reports new evidence that Racism really does make you stupid:

THURSDAY, May 8 (HealthScoutNews) -- People who are racist may suffer a temporary lapse in mental capacity after interacting with people who are members of a racial minority.

Researchers from Princeton University and Dartmouth College found that white people with a high degree of racial basis experienced a decrease in "executive function" after spending time talking with black people. Their research appears in the May issue of Psychological Science.

Executive function is a key element of thought that involves the ability to fix attention on certain, high-level mental tasks.

The study included 59 white college students. They were given a test to assess the degree of racial bias in their thinking. The students then spent time talking with either a black or a white person and afterwards were given a test that measured their ability to concentrate on a challenging mental task.

The more racially biased the students were, the worse they did on the mental task after speaking with a black person. But racially biased students who spoke with a white person, even if they discussed racially sensitive issues, had no decline in mental function.



posted by Fred Clark 12:36 AM


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