Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve

No matter how much I like you in real life, chances are I'm going to hate you tonight, at least a little bit.

It's not your fault. It's just how it is on Amateur Night.

New Year's Eve, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, and a handful of other nationally recognized American Drinking Holidays are a part of our yearly celebratory landscape, nights that we, as a society, grant ourselves as individuals permission to go forth and party like it's 1999. To really cut loose, get wasted, and dance with the proverbial lampshade on our heads, until the party's over and it's time to pass out, get laid, have breakfast, or, if you're very lucky, some combination thereof. For those of us behind the bar, well, it's the job in a nutshell; the night you dread having to work, right up until it's over, when the door is locked and the sidework's done and you're counting the money and, because it's over, it suddenly really wasn't so bad after all.

But it was. And it's going to be.

For those of you with square jobs, or who are, at least, not scheduled tonight, my advice to you is to stay in. Or, better yet, find a house party. Surround yourself with friends and loved ones in a safe and happy environment, and ring in the new year from there. Leave the bars and the clubs to the amateurs, because they'll be out in force tonight and they'll feel even less responsible for their words and actions than they usually do. Which is no good for anybody.

For those who are going out tonight, please try and observe those few simple rules that help make everything go smoothly. Know what you want. Have your money ready. Pay cash, or open a tab. Make eye contact. Have a little patience. Tip. If you want good service, go somewhere where the bartender knows you. If you don't know the bartender, tip well early. We'll remember.

Don't wave money at me. Everybody else has money, too. Don't try and order if it's not your turn. If you're ordering for a group, know what everybody wants before your turn comes up. If you must pay with a card, open a tab and settle at the end of the night. There's nothing more frustrating than having to spend time running someone's card a second or third time when there're fifty people clamoring for drinks. Don't order complicated drinks when the bar is backed up. It's rude to everybody. Don't drive home drunk. Don't be a dick.

And if you, like me, are going to be in the trenches tonight, then I salute you. Rock that shit hard. Because tonight is the crucible, that separates the pros from the wannabes. Be a pro. Keep your cool. Prove your mettle. Show that sea of thirsty mouths how this shit gets done. And don't take any shit, from anybody. Remember, this is your house. Own it.

Like I always say: have fun, get rich, and don't let the fuckers get you down.
This is just all kinds of awesome. And I don't even really drink beer.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Good Point from an Old Friend

As a physician....I appreciate the post on your blog. One huge issue that is missing; is the amount of waste that occurs with defensive medicine and end of life care. I know you have heard this before from physicians. I assure you that from the trenches......10 to 20 times is wasted with defensive medicine compared to ...medical errors etc. In fact many preventable events in health care could be avoided if defensive testing and unwarranted procedures were not performed. The system is broken! Unfortunately many feel that medicare is like a blank check and families request unneccesarry procedures and treatments that do not provide better health and only serve to prolong an inevitable death! When this type of coverage is expanded, without rationing, we are all screwed I assure you!
-George E.
George makes a good point, and one I haven't yet touched on in my ongoing bloviations here at the anticontrarian blog.

It's something of a truism that most of the money spent on any given individual's health care is spent at the end. Grief-stricken families with loved ones on their death beds will often, quite naturally, do just about anything to prolong their lives, even if what they're prolonging is the persistence of a vegetative state or simply unalloyed pain and suffering. The case of Terri Schiavo is a perfect example, where the body was kept alive long after the person inside had gone.

Now, this is some dangerous territory we're entering, as I'm quite well aware. After all, people are rarely rational in the face of death, whether theirs or that of a loved one, and George's point that having a blank check to extend that life, no matter what the quality of it is or will be, will inevitably lead to waste and abuse is a good one. The term 'rationing' is a loaded one, freighted with all manner of unhappy connotations, but it's also something that we, as grown-ups, quite frankly need to face up to.

There is, after all, only so much care to go around. Period. And only so much good that can be done for someone who is going to die. Period. That there will be rationing is inevitable, and even just. It sucks, but there really isn't any way around it, at least until there is more supply than demand when it comes to health care. I don't see that happening. Do you?

This is why end-of-life counseling and directives are so important. 'Death panels' nonsense aside (and it is nonsense, another example of willful misinterpretation in the service of scoring cheap political points, which I will not deign to rebut here), it really is important for everybody, and most especially those who're either sick or getting on in years, to sit down and figure out how they want things to go down when the end is nigh. Nobody wants to think about things like that, of course, but it's one of those things grown-ups have to and ought to do, if for no other reason than to see that their wishes are carried out. After all, when the time comes, you might not be conscious or capable enough to make your own decisions, and I can tell you from personal experience that it's a hell of a thing to put on someone else to decide it for you. The Schiavo family can tell you that, too.

Lucky for me, when my mother began her terminal decline, all of the decisions had been made, and the appropriate legal documents drawn up and notarized. She made her wishes crystal clear, which spared me from having to make that decision. She had long ago made her wishes clear to me verbally, and so I knew what she would've wanted, but it was a great comfort to have it in writing, to know that she'd thought it out and made her decision. Things were difficult enough at the time, and even having had the burden of decision taken off my shoulders it was hard enough to make the decision to move her to hospice and to sign the do-not-resuscitate order.

But it was what she would've wanted. What she always said she wanted. She would've been horrified to spend her last days in an ICU, shot through with tubes and surrounded by beeping machinery that could only stave off the inevitable for so long and at great cost, without changing the inescapable outcome.

Personal stories aside, what pisses me off most about the 'Death Panels' meme is the childishness of it. The unwillingness to face the fact that life ends, and that each of us should be able to decide how we want ours to end, if that choice is given us, and to have those choices respected. Why it should be problematic for any- and everyone to sit down with a medical professional and decide just how far they want things to go to draw just a few more breaths when the end is in sight and inescapable is beyond mysterious to me. That the government would be willing to compensate doctors for their time in doing so seems perfectly reasonable.

That there comes a time when it isn't worth it to do anything else but try and ameliorate the pain and ease a dying person's passage into whatever's on the other side is something we all have to face up to. Better to do it proactively, for ourselves and for the sake of our loved ones.

That it makes sense from a policy perspective, too, well, I suppose that just goes to show that life gets better for everybody when the grown-ups live up to their responsibilities. I, for one, would rather not waste finite medical resources to keep me alive in pain or a vegetative state for a few more hours or days when it's my time, not when they could be better used on someone whose life is still ahead of them. I suspect that most of the grown-ups out there would agree.

Posted Without Comment

Post-Christmas-Ball-Bomber, we can finally shed the Mastermind Meme and—for the time being, at least—point and laugh at the guy who strapped some scary powder to his Scrotal Terror Delivery Apparatus and failed to make his plums go pow.

Merry Christmas, al-Qaeda! You’re doing great!
-Bob Cesca

It's the Unions' Fault

One of the things I've learned in the wake of the failed Christmas airline attack:
An attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day would be all-consuming for the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration — if there were one.
Why, you might ask, does the TSA have no head? Seems like a pretty important job, in our post-9/11 world. The kind of post that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle would move expeditiously to fill, given the dangerous world we live in, now that Terror has declared War on us. Right?

Apparently, not so much.
The post remains vacant because Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has held up President Barack Obama's nominee in opposition to the prospect of TSA workers joining a labor union.
Yup. A Republican Senator has such a problem with organized labor that he's willing to filibuster the confirmation hearings for one of the most important positions in the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Without collective bargaining, DeMint said, the TSA has "flexibility to make real-time decisions that allowed it to quickly improve security measures in response to this attempted attack."

If organized labor got involved, DeMint said, union bosses would have the power "to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports."

This is not the only important post in the Administration that hasn't been filled, almost a full year into Obama's Presidency. There are numerous positions over at Treasury, where they're also doing some important work, you know, trying to save the economy and stuff, that are also vacant, thanks to the systematic obstructionism of Senate Republicans.

There's a pattern here, one that goes unremarked in these days of three news-cycles a day. Dots to be connected. Put simply, Senate Republicans are using any and every procedural and parliamentary trick they can get ahold of to keep the federal government from doing its job. Why are they doing this? I'm sure it's partly because they want their distrust of government and its efficacy to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but mostly, they just really hate that Obama guy, who's so darned popular, and they want him to fail, no matter how catastrophic that failure might be for, say, the American people.

It's fucking shameful, is what it is. Erroll Southers, the Administration's nominee, is, by all appearances, eminently qualified for the job. But, because any Senator can put a hold on any political appointee, for any or no reason, we, almost a year into a new Administration, don't have a head of the Transportation Safety Administration, because Jim DeMint would like him to clarify his views on whether or not the people who're paid to keep us safe when we fly should be able to engage in collective bargaining in order to improve their economic lot.

You know, cuz the last thing we would want would be for the people who keep us safe to be happier at their jobs. I'm sure it's much better for them to be able to get screwed over just like Wal-Mart employees. After all, I know I do a way better job when I'm employed by jerks who won't pay me a living wage and don't give a shit what I have to say about improving the workplace. Don't you?

The Ought-Nots

I've noticed, here and there in electronic perambulations, that now that we're to the end of the decade we need a moniker to hang on it for purposes of general referral. So here's my two cents. Given how badly so many things went, and how crazy so many folks went, and how inadvisable it'd be to repeat much of what we did these last ten years, I think the official name of the first decade of the twenty-first century should be the Ought-Nots.

Plus it rhymes.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Good Things the Senate Health Care Bill Does

It's easy to get confused about the health care debate, what with both extremes going to extremes to take it down, and the folks in the middle who are actually trying to solve problems not really articulating the depth and breadth of what they're doing. Even your faithful correspondent here at the anticontrarian blog gets a bit confused here and there.

So mad props to Jonathan Chait at The New Republic for laying it out, debunking some myths, and putting the whole thing in the context of the present fiasco we call Health Care in America.

A few choice quotes:
The salient fact, though, is that the United States currently has, among advanced countries, a uniquely horrible system—twice as costly as the OECD average while producing mediocre results and denying care to millions.
Health reform solves the affordability problem by subsidizing insurance coverage, or expanding Medicaid, for low- and moderate-income families. And it solves the pre-existing condition problem by setting up a marketplace, called an exchange, where insurers must sell policies to anybody, at one price, and cover all basic services. In order to prevent people from going uninsured until they get sick, it also requires everybody to purchase insurance, except in limited hardship cases.
Employer-sponsored health insurance is tax-deductible, while wages are, of course, taxed. This means an additional dollar of health care benefits costs less than an additional dollar in wages—an anomaly that has contributed to runaway health care costs. Taxing high cost plans, which do not produce better health outcomes, will give employers a strong incentive to shop for cheaper plans. Either way, the government would collect revenue—either directly through the excise tax, or (better still) indirectly when employees start getting less compensation in the form of tax-free health care, and more in the form of taxable wages.
Small pockets of high-quality, low-cost care, like the Mayo Clinic, exist throughout the country, but most doctors and hospitals have not embraced the methods that produce this efficiency. Health reform contains a number of pilot programs to encourage more efficient care—such as penalizing hospitals with high infection rates, an easily-preventable failure that causes 20,000 deaths a year, or various provisions to reimburse Medicare providers based on results rather than the number of procedures used. Numerous other experiments abound in the bill.
The sum total effect of this legislation is fairly simple. It would redirect a large chunk of the money sloshing around the health care system away from ineffective treatments and toward providing care for the uninsured. On top of that, it would prod the system, in dozens of ways large and small, to adopt cutting edge methods.

I'll spare you all the laundry list of things I'd've liked to see in the bill that aren't there. But anyone who tells you that this bill doesn't do any good is lying, misinformed, or both. To those on the right, this ain't socialism, and even if it was, our most successful health care system here in America, Medicare, is a single-payer system. Just about everybody who's got it thinks it's just great, and you maybe ought to take that into consideration before you keep spouting off about government encroachment on health care. To those on the left, you maybe didn't get everything you wanted this Christmas, but love it or hate it, politics is the art of the possible, and the one thing that was not acceptable was a continuation of the status quo. I'm not fully satisfied either, but the solution is not to take your bat and your ball and go home, thinking that somehow it'll work out better next go 'round. The solution is to keep up the pressure on lawmakers and to keep making the argument that the more Progressive our health care system is, the better the outcomes will be for everybody. That you're probably right should make it easier on you.

I know it was rough in the Bush years, but just cuz Obama got elected doesn't mean the whole game magically changed.

Your iPod is Terrifying

Richard Reid tried to light a bomb in his shoe with a match, and was quickly subdued by other passengers. There was no real indication that the bomb would've even worked had he succeeded, which he didn't. Ever since, we've all taken our shoes off to go through airport security, even if we're wearing flip flops.

Eight British men planned to fill sports drink bottles with concentrated hydrogen peroxide and detonate them in airplanes, hoping to kill some 1500 people. They were caught before they even got to the airport. Ever since, we've all had to limit the liquids we carry onto airplanes to about the size of an airplane liquor bottle, and to present them all in a quart-sized plastic bag.

Now some joker from Nigeria sets his crotch on fire in an almost hilarious attempt to take down a Nothwest Airlines flight over Michigan, a man so inept that he failed to harm anyone at all besides himself, and rumor has it that the TSA's response will include such measures as no getting up or having anything on your lap in the last hour of an international flight into the US, even if you are incontinent or your four-year-old has to go to the bathroom; being limited to one carry-on bag for some reason; and, get this, no electronics of any sort allowed to be used or even powered up during the flight, no matter how long it is or how much work you have to do (hat tip to John Cole at Balloon Juice for the link).

Ladies and gentlemen, we've officially gone off the deep end at this point. The first two measures were ridiculous enough (and they are, truly, ridiculous), but at least they bore some connection to the supposed 'threat.' Shoe bomb? Check everybody's shoes. Liquid explosives? Limit the liquids allowed. Despite the fact that both plots were highly unlikely to succeed, and indeed were not successful, nor even came close, there is always, in times like these, of fear and fearmongering, the need to appear to be doing/have done something. But I defy anyone to explain how some jackass with a condom full of gasoline strapped to his inner thigh setting his junk on fire means that I shouldn't be able to listen to my iPod on a ten-hour flight. Seriously.

I've always had a big problem with the whole 'Terrorists hate our freedom' meme. Sure, there are some radical conservative Muslims that do genuinely hate the freedoms our civilization affords us, much as there are some radical conservative Christians who genuinely hate those freedoms, too. But the September 11 attacks were not motivated by ideology, they were motivated by geopolitics, by the fact that we as a nation feel it is not only our God-given right, but our sacred duty, to project our military might throughout the world and to meddle in the affairs and bomb the shit out of people in faraway lands who would mostly like, just like most of us, to be left alone to live their lives as best they can.

Terrorists do not hate our freedoms, terrorists hate our actions.

But the real problem with the whole 'Terrorists hate our freedom' meme is that we keep thinking that if only we curtail those freedoms, the terrorists will stop hating us. Not only are we wrong about that, but with every incremental step away from those freedoms, we lose the thing that makes our civilization worth fighting for.

It's easy to go to extremes when you're afraid, and there are certainly those who want you to be afraid, who derive advantage from the climate of fear we've been mired in these last eight years. Al Qaeda for one. The Republican party for another (had this attack happened under Bush's watch, we'd have Senior Administration officials on every cable channel telling us to tape up our windows and go shopping). People who, at the end of the day, lack sufficient faith in the strength of America, both as a nation and as an idea. People who forget that the fourth plane that fateful morning was brought down by ordinary Americans who figured out what was happening and decided 'Not if I have anything to do with it.'

So to the folks at Al Qaeda, I say: Fuck you, you fucking jokers. Your attempts to scare us are more pitiful with each try. Go back to your caves and cower, cuz we're gonna find you, and if you're very lucky, we'll just kill you when we do.

And to the folks in-country trying to scare up some panic so they can try and talk us into giving up our freedom for a little bit of illusory security: Unbunch your panties and man the fuck up. Seriously, you're starting to embarass the rest of us.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Purity and Purges and the War of Ideas

Not very long after the 2004 elections, a friend of mine, a Progressive to his very core, convinced me to attend a Drinking Liberally event at a pub in town. He knew I kept up on politics and the news, and that I've been known to enjoy the occasional free exchange of ideas among friends and strangers alike. He'd been to a couple such events, and said he'd be interested to see what I'd make of the whole thing. Being a one to enjoy both lively discussion and the tipping back of a pint or two, I was happy to oblige.

Now remember, this happened at a time when George W. Bush had just won reelection and been sworn in for another four years, which led, as you might expect, to a great deal more swearing on the part of nearly everyone to the Left of Center in these United States. The folks at Drinking Liberally, doctrinaire liberals to a one (with the exception of myself) were not happy, and, having done a little liberal drinking, were more than happy to vent.

I won't go too deeply into the discussion, as the details didn't really stick even at the time, but the thing that struck me then, and sticks with me now, was the fervor of the crowd, most especially of the two guys who spoke loudest and most (again, with the exception of myself; I am a well-known loudmouth when it comes to a good argument). To be honest, the whole thing was probably more therapeutic than substantial, and while I understand the value of catharsis, I lose patience when it bleeds over into substantive policy discussion.

What really got to me, in the end, was that the proposal on the table, which almost everybody there seemed to accept as just the most natural and obvious thing, was that what really needed to happen in the wake of such a painful electoral defeat was a purge of the unbelievers, the DINOs of the world, who, though they may have registered or run as Democrats, were not sufficiently fervent in their left-wingitude (anybody who thinks the crazy is confined solely to the right extreme of the spectrum is sadly mistaken, alas) to pass muster, and had muddied up the message. These were the folks who'd come out early and hard for Howard Dean, who'd descended on Iowa in their hundreds and thousands, canvassing door to door, phone-banking, handing out literature, sure in their convictions and their campaign's deep, deep pockets, and delivered their man a singularly unimpressive third place finish in the caucuses, but who still became wild enough at the 'victory' celebration to call forth the famous 'Dean Scream' that doomed Dean to sideshow status.

The logic, and I'm not making this up, was that if only the Democratic party could undertake a massive purge of everyone to the right of, say, Ralph Nader, that the Progressive message, muddied as it had been by the fact that the Democratic party is not made up entirely of Progressives, would be allowed finally to shine through, its self-evident awesomeness immediately and uncritically convincing everyone in the country and possibly even the world of its Truth, Beauty, and total Righteousness, therefore causing a massive swing to the Left of the entire country and possibly even the world.

It's one of those things that might make perfect sense in your head, but when you say it out loud, you (or at least the people around you) realize that, actually, it's not really very smart at all.

For a while, after Barack Obama won the election, you could see the same thing happening on the Right. The Tea Party movement, such as it is, represents exactly the same process as the folks at that Drinking Liberally get-together were espousing. In the case of the Tea Party folks, they've even gone so far as to lose their chosen party a seat that it'd held for more than a century, by endorsing Doug Hoffman over Dede Scozzafava, who was too moderate for their tastes, thus handing the seat to Kirsten Gillibrand [see below]. The folks behind the move, like RedState's Erick Erickson, are so loony as to consider it a victory, since the squishy 'moderate' Republican lost the seat, thus sending a message to the rest of the caucus to pander to the crazies or else beware.

[CORRECTION: As JC pointed out in comments, it was actually Bill Owens who won the NY-23 seat, not Kirsten Gillibrand. That's what I get for not double-checking my all-too-fallible memory. D'oh!]

Now we're seeing it on the Left again. It's gotten so out of hand that there have been calls to oust Bernie Sanders, who is a SOCIALIST, from his Senate seat, because he's endorsed the Senate's Health Care bill. I'm sure from the angry place that such calls originate from, it makes perfect sense, but take a step or two away from the crazy and you have to wonder just what these people are thinking. I realize they're upset because electing Barack Obama did not immediately and magically change the nature and rules of politics in America, which most every sensible and right-thinking person does want, but when a Socialist isn't Progressive enough for you, you have gone off the deep end. For realz.

But what I really want to talk about is this: to issue demands, and to call for purges of the insufficiently ideologically pure misses the point of both Democracy and the Free Marketplace of Ideas. To demand that everybody think like you because of the self-evident awesomeness of your ideas and beliefs is childish. To take your bat and ball and go home because everybody else doesn't want to play the game just like you do is even more so. If you believe your ideas and ideology really are the best of all possible ideas and ideology, then you should have faith of their power to convince others, and you should be willing to engage in the competitive marketplace of ideas on a fair and square, level playing field.

Look, part of the basic respect that you're supposed to have for your fellow travelers through this life and this universe includes allowing them to decide for themselves what they think is right and why they might think that. If what you think is right differs from that, well, then by all means engage them in a free exchange of ideas. Open their minds, if you can, to the virtues of your own beliefs, and, even more importantly, open your own mind to what they have to say. There's not a soul in the world that's got this whole thing figured out, and it is not only possible but almost certainly the case that there's something you haven't thought of that'd be worth your time to figure out and maybe even integrate into your own worldview, something that might expand your horizons and make your own living-world richer and more rewarding.

That said, I am still a firm believer in not arguing with fools, not only because passersby might not be able to tell the difference, but because I think it makes you dumber, and, at least in my case, it sure as hell makes me angrier (I find it difficult to suffer fools gladly, especially when they are so fully convinced of their rightness that they're unwilling to even hear out the other side in a discussion). Opinions are indeed like assholes. Everybody's got one, and they all stink. But if you do really have the courage of your convictions, you owe it to your beliefs to engage with those who don't share them. But the object is to convince, not to demand conformity. If your ideas are robust enough to survive the crucible of the War of Ideas, then you shouldn't have to demand they be uncritically accepted. And if you have to demand that acceptance, well, your ideas are probably not strong enough to survive and triumph on their own merits, and you maybe ought to think about reconsidering them.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Take Your Pick

This is just hilarious.

This is just awful.

Posted Without Comment

[H]ow anyone can call a plan to spend $200 billion a year on Americans in need a defeat for progressives is a mystery.
-Paul Krugman

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Posted Without Comment

Was it really that bad? Pretty much, yes. One barely has to give it much thought to remember what made this decade one Americans don't want to remember: 9/11, the Great Recession, two devastating wars, anthrax, Katrina, Tom DeLay and the culture of corruption, Enron, Madoff, sniper shootings, an explosion of debt, the entire Bush/Cheney presidency. Median incomes went down. Poverty went up. Global warming got worse. Fox yanked "Firefly" after 14 episodes, while "According to Jim" aired 182 episodes.
-Steve Benen, at Political Animal

Monday, December 21, 2009

On Being the Good Guys (1)

[T]here's nothing wrong with taking a tough stand for or against what we believe in. But until we're willing to be as immoral and unreasonable as Joe Lieberman, our leverage will be limited.
-Bob Cesca
If there's one thing we've learned over the last few weeks and months, it's that Joe Lieberman is more interested in smacking back the Left than he is in serving his constituents or in helping the American people. Ben Nelson might have grabbed more headlines, but a case can be made that he was, at least, serving his constituents. Nebraska, after all, seems to have mixed feelings about HCR, and, if nothing else, Nelson secured them some $100 million in savings on the cost of the programs in the bill once it goes into effect. Sure, it ain't fair, or right, but part of what every lawmaker is sent to Congress to do is to bring home the bacon for their fair state, and on that, at least, Nelson delivered. Whether or not he had any actual conscientious objections to reforming Health Care in America is between himself and his God, but there seems, at least, to be some excuse for his holding thirty million uninsured Americans hostage. Excuse may be too generous a term. Reason, maybe, would be more appropriate. At any rate, you get the idea.

Joe Lieberman, not so much. For one thing, some 70% of Connecticutians favored HCR. Parse the numbers how you will, but if seven out of ten people agree on something, then it's probably a good idea to pay attention. I should note that seven out of ten Americans do not agree that the Earth is older than 4000 years, and it's probably a close one as to whether seven out ten believe the Earth revolves around the sun.

Now, some have said, and I think there's something to this, that Lieberman opposed HCR because the DFHs were for it. He sure seems to have taken it pretty personally when the Connecticut Democrats declined to nominate him for Senate back in 2006. I mean, he did campaign with the Republican nominee for President last year. Sure, he and John McCain are total BFFs, but it seems not unreasonable to expect that someone who caucuses with the Democrats ought to campaign for the Democrats. They let him keep his Committee Chairmanship, after all. Seems like it'd be nice if he could've at least just STFU.

I guess the personal really is political. Thank you, '90s. And here I thought we were all just circle-jerking with our postmodernism and identity politics while the bad guys tightened their collective grips on the levers of power.

But as much satisfaction as I'm sure Lieberman derived from bucking his caucus and being showered with attention from the media, the White House, and the office of the Senate Majority Leader, and from sticking it to those no good dirty liberal hippies who never gave him more than single-digit support in the '04 Primaries and then almost succeeded in unseating him in '06, at the end of the day, what it comes down to is that Joe Lieberman's self-interest is best served by doing exactly what he did.

It's a bit of a twofer. First off, you've got to ask yourself, 'If this guy's going to get elected again in '12, who's going to vote for him?' Is it the same people who repudiated him in '06? It is not. The only way this guy holds onto his seat, which is probably more important to him than his grandchildrens' souls, is to hold on to the centrist and conservative voters that put him over the top last time around, and to add whatever he can from voters to the right of them. Will it work? It might. By that point, he might just have drifted far enough to the right to get a Teabagger endorsement (though I, for one, would dearly love to see Lieberman teabagged), capturing the far right while holding on to whatever vestiges of Democratic support remain to him. He probably blew it when he agreed to vote for cloture, but I suppose that time will tell. He can probably make up for some of that loss by voting against the bill itself.

The second, and arguably more important, reason Joe Lieberman's self-interest runs counter to that of the American people he is ostensibly elected to serve (or even just the people of Connecticut) is that Joe Lieberman is the Senator from Hartford, where a large number of nationwide insurance companies are headquartered. Put briefly, they pays the bills when it comes campaign time, and only a fool bites the hand that feeds him.

We've now met the first necessary precondition for evil: the privileging of oneself and one's own personal interests over that of the greater good.

Now, obviously we all look after our own, and that's a good thing, both morally and from an evolutionary/survival standpoint. But the game of life and survival is not a zero-sum game. The skeleton is civilization's closet has always been that there's always been plenty to go around, except that certain segments of the population have essentially hijacked the production surplus that allows for civilization itself, largely through the capacity for organized violence.

But that's a thing to be explored later. Here I'm not so much interested in what evil is (though I am interested in that), but in what evil does. And here's where Joe Lieberman comes in as a useful illustration.

As Steve Benen noted, way back in late October, in the Washington Monthly's Political Animal Blog, Joe Lieberman's opposition to the Public Option had evolved through roughly one rationale per month starting in June. Most recently, he stated his opposition to the Medicare buy-in for people over 55, calling it a deal-breaker even though he had come out in favor of it on a radio call-in show not three weeks before.

Take a step back and what you see is an outcome in search of a reason. That the reasons keep changing, as each is refuted by reality's well-known liberal bias, is a clear indication that the man's mind was made up, and that the only way Joe was going to vote for HCR was if he could be convinced that the reform part was going to be more or less toothless.

And that gets us to the crux of what I'm trying to get at here, however circuitously. The short version is simply this: when you're the good guys, a lot of times you have to fight with one arm tied behind your back. People like Joe Lieberman can successfully hold tens of millions of Americans hostage because, at the end of the day, seeing to the continuation of his own political power and the continued economic well-being of his major campaign contributors is more important to him than seeing to the physical and economic well-being of the American people. Progressives feel betrayed, by their President and their Congressional caucus. They feel like they gave away the store, and the base got sold out again, because, at the end of the day, they were not willing to throw the un- and underinsured under the bus to spite their political opponents. This whole kill the bill movement, foolish as it is, is an expression of that anger. After all, the Left thought it was finally going to get to enact its agenda, because when Arlen Specter crossed over suddenly the Democrats had their 60-seat Supermajority and should have been able to DWTFTW.

But that only works if you're willing to enact your agenda by any means necessary. And here's the problem: only the bad guys are willing to do that. At the end of the day, doing evil in the service of good (or even just perceived good) demeans the good you are trying to do, makes it something other than what it is supposed to be. The good guys are, and will always be, at a competitive disadvantage in the throwdown against evil, because the moment they stop fighting fair they stop being the good guys.

That the proponents of Health Care Reform were unwilling to play fast and loose with so many peoples' lives and well-being speaks to the goodness of the cause as well as its partisans. As I've said before, I think that however imperfect the Senate version of the HCR bill is, it's a start, a step in the right direction, and though I would've liked to see a little more back-room arm-twisting on the part of the President and the Majority Leader, at the very least nobody on that side of the issue lost sight of what it was that was at stake. Sure, they could've played their hand a little better, but when your options are limited by your conscience and your determination to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons, well, you have to win with the tools at your disposal. When all you care about is winning and getting yours, well, it hardly matters how you get there, or who you fuck over on the way.

It sucks being the good guys sometimes. But being a bad guy, well, fuck that.

Cloture, not Closure

So I see that Health Care Reform finally got its cloture vote, which from what I've read means that it can now be debated and voted on on the Senate floor, and passed with a simple majority. Sure, it's not over then, as it has to be reconciled with the House version, which is probably more in line with what Progressives were hoping for when this whole mess started, and there'll be some tricky procedural bullshit thanks to the Republicans, who would rather that tens of millions of Americans go without health care (not just insurance, but actual care), tens of millions more go broke trying to pay for health care, and tens of thousands die early every year because they have no health care than for President Obama and those damned pesky Democrats to score a legislative victory, because, let's face it, they're just vicious and spiteful like that, and don't much cotton to losing, even when they richly deserve to, which they did after the last decade or so.

And while I've been paying only marginal attention to the blogosphere lately, because, well, I have a life, I'd've had to've been hiding under a rock to miss the howls of outrage from the Left over the various big sellouts and compromises necessary to get us to this point. After all, Progressives really want Single Payer, which wasn't even on the table. But the Pubic Option looked good, until it was a deal-breaker and had to be scrapped. Then there was the Trigger, which was fine with Snowe and Lieberman et al until it looked like the Dems might actually go for it, then it became a deal-breaker. Then the Medicare Buy-in for those 55 and over, which was Joe Lieberman's idea, until he heard that Russ Feingold liked it, and then suddenly he was totally against it and it had to be dropped to get to cloture.

Big shout-out to the voters of Connecticut, by the way, for sending Joe Lieberman back to the Senate. Thanks, guys. That was awesome.

So what we end up with is, charitably put, a mixed bag. Devotees of conventional wisdom will say that something must be right with it, because the radical wings on both sides of the spectrum are livid with outrage. On the one side, the Teabagger Wing on the Right side of the aisle thinks that government is staging a takeover of their lives and their health care, and that soon government bureaucrats will be getting together over lattes and arugula to decide which old folks are worth saving and which ones are gonna get put on an ice floe and set adrift. They cry 'Socialism!' and 'Keep your government hands off my Medicare!' Unaware, apparently, that Medicare, which everybody who has it loves and is one of the single most successful government programs of all time, is, in fact, a single payer system that works pretty good.

On the Left, the Progressive Wing, who in a truly amazing feat of collective hallucination and projection apparently thought Barack Obama was secretly one of them and would reveal his true colors once safely in office, feel shafted because the Health Care Bill they're getting is not the Health Care Bill that they dreamed about. As if the whole edifice could be torn down and rebuilt according to rational first principles. And hey, don't get me wrong, I would love that, because what we got now is the worst of all possible worlds, which is reflected in the fact that we spend twice what any other developed nation does on Health Care (it's something like 16% of the whole economy), but still get consistently worse outcomes than any other (higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy: you name it, we're worse at it). They feel particularly sold out when they hear that Rahm Emmanuel told Harry Reid "Everything is on the table. Get the bill."

The worst thing is, like everyone on the far end of either side of the spectrum, they're increasingly likely to stay home in 2010 in a fit of pique, like spoiled children holding their breath, and they'll lose what ground they've gained electorally, while the Teabaggers will pick up a seat or ten in the House, and it'll be that much harder to pass Progressive legislation.

I understand the frustration. Believe me, I'm not all that thrilled with the Health Care Reform bill as it now stands. It's beyond imperfect, and it might in the short run turn out to be a giveaway to the insurance companies, who really don't need any more money, whatever their CEOs and shareholders might think. After all, an individual mandate, with or without subsidies, without a Public Option to drive costs down thanks to the Federal Government's access to economies of scale and lack of a profit motive, could shake out to be an absolute windfall for insurance companies.

But let's step back from the trees for a second, and take a look at the forest.

First off, we were never going to get it right the first time. That's not how America works. America's great innovation, there at the start, was the realization that people only very rarely agree with each other over how they ought to live or how government ought to work, and so the best we could do is to set up a framework for hashing it out without resorting to killing each other. And while each side might see the other as traitorous, or dumb as a box of rocks, everybody gets a chance to have their say, and leverage their numbers, and then what gets hashed out gets tested in the crucible of the real world. I absolutely believe that what we'll get will shortly be revealed to be inadequate, and the necessary improvements will become obvious with time. No, it's not the best possible outcome, but I have a certain faith in America that it seems others lack, because Americans are, at their core, pragmatists. We want shit to work, and so when it doesn't, we fix it.

For those disappointed that the legislation is not Progressive enough, well, I feel your pain. I myself tend to have pretty Progressive policy goals, though I come at them from a more pragmatic point of view. I think certain aspects of public life ought to be outside the realm of profit, because they're too important to leave to capitalists to manage.

But for those who deride the Democrats for having the White House, a majority in the House of Representatives, and a 60-vote majority in the Senate, and still not being able to ram through the totality of the Progressive Agenda in Obama's first year in office, well, all I can say is that thsoe folks don't have a very clear understanding of who's a Democrat and how this works. Democrats have a bigger tent than Republicans, which means a broader range of views, some of which, quite frankly, are way more conservative than the base. Remember, that 60-vote majority in the Senate essentially gives veto power to people like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman (who seems to be taking his revenge on the Progressives who denied him the Democratic nomination), because the Republicans have been whittled down to the hard-core and pretty much threaten to filibuster just about everything the Senate tries to do, so for anything beyond passing say, the Defense budget, all 60 Senators who caucus with the Democrats have to be united. As you might expect, this is no mean feat.

But the main thing I think Progressives have lost sight of, now that they've gotten all huffy and started in on the whole circular firing squad thing (which is never attractive), is that now, for the first time ever in our nation's history, we have acknowledged that quality health care is a right, something everybody should have as a result of their citizenship. That was the thing the insurance companies didn't want to happen. That was the thing the Republicans were marching in lockstep against. Yeah, the current version sucks, but you know what? The first draft of Social Security wasn't all that awesome either, nor the first draft of Medicare either. There were all sorts of exceptions, and all sorts of true believers who said their elected representatives sold them out. But nobody has ever seriously tried to walk those programs back, and over the years the gaps have been plugged, and improvements made, and these days no American can really even conceive of a world without them.

So take heart, Progressives. No, you didn't get everything you wanted this Christmas (who did, really?). But what you got is something that will never be taken away, that will improve with age and become a natural part of the American political landscape, a foundation upon which can be built a healthier and more just society. Something had to be done. The tide had to be turned. The present arrangement was unsustainable and, more importantly, morally wrong from an outcomes point of view. And, imperfect though it may be, the first step has been taken, and it's in the right direction.

And for those opposed (at least those not in the pockets of the insurance companies, who I could give fuck-all about), take a deep breath and have a little faith in America. Like Winston Churchill said, she can always be counted on to do the right thing, after every other possibility has been exhausted.

The things you fear will not come to pass. Life will get better as a result of this legislation.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Posted Without Comment

The problem is not that they are idiots, although idiots are certainly well-represented in the upper echelons of our lategreat empire, but that they're bastards.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Posted Without Comment

Honestly. I don’t understand patriotism any longer, and I don’t think I want to. Kicking back a few hundred in tax dollars so your jobless next-door neighbor doesn’t drown in his own lung butter is Socialism, but paying Erik Prince to shoot civilians and skull-fuck the bulletholes is as American as Apple Pie.
-Bob Cesca

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Posted Without Comment

Fiction writers excel at two things: masturbation and lying.
-J.C. Hutchins, writing a The Big Idea at Whatever

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Random Thought for the Day

Those who are determined to fail quite often succeed.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why Capitalism in its Current Form Needs to Die

In 2007 alone, the chief executive officers at these companies collected combined total compensation of $118.6 million—an average of $11.9 million each. That is 468 times more than the $25,434 an average American worker made that year.
-from a report by HealthCareforAmericaNow.Org
When your economic system produces outcomes like this, where the executives of a protected (read: functionally monopolistic) industry make exorbitant amounts of money for figuring out ways to not provide the service which is their companies' reason for being, something is broken and needs to be fixed.

Now don't get me wrong. I am pro-capitalism. I agree with the market fundamentalists that it's the best way to drive innovation, which makes everyone's life better, or at least should. But when the rules are gamed such as to produce outcomes like this (or, worse, outcomes like Goldman, Sachs' current balance sheet less than a year after they helped nearly drive the economy over a cliff, taking themselves with it), then the rules need to be changed.

Myself, I favor the installation of both a ceiling and floor to compensation. I think that, until the entirety of humanity is brought into the twenty-first century in terms of access to education, health care, and economic opportunity (which would solve at least half of the world's problems right off the bat), that anybody being allowed to make more than, say, half a million dollars a year is, quite frankly, obscene.

Yeah, yeah. I can hear the grumbles already, that I don't really believe in capitalism, that I'm nothing more than a dirty fucking Marxist bent on redistributing wealth away from the productive class towards the great unwashed, and hey, to you maybe I am (I consider myself post-Marxist, personally, but opinions being like assholes, everybody gets one). But I'm really a radical democrat (note the small d). I believe that every American citizen, upon paying their taxes, ought to get to say what those taxes go towards paying for. So by all means let corporate boards compensate their executives as richly as they like. They'll take home a half mil and they can decide what the rest should be used for, and that can be their reward for being so high-powered and smart, or whatever justification it is they offer for their ridiculous and obscene compensation packages.

But that's beside the point. The point is that the system we have is broken, and will doom us, both as a nation and as a people (perhaps even as a species) to the inevitable slide into Imperial Senescence and Banana Republic-hood, and if we don't fix it we'll deserve every bad thing that happens as a result.

And no, I won't be happy about it. Schadenfreude's not my thing. I love this country, and all the good things it stands for. It's too bad the fuckers making all that money denying coverage and preventing competition don't feel the same.

Another Brief Thought

The assignment of blame, satisfying though it can be, does not constitute the solution to any problem.

Monday, November 23, 2009

For Kendal

When I was driving home, I listened to this album a lot, and every time this song came on I thought of her.

Shoes and Other Feet

We have heard a lot of outrage over the past several weeks from Tea Party Patriots around the country that no matter how loud we protest, no matter how often we go to DC, no matter how large our crowds are, Congress is not listening to us.
-from an email sent to Tea Party Conservatives (hat tip Tbogg and TPM)
Well, now you guys know how NION felt. Sucks, huh?

Pretty Sure this is Not Satire

Scrooge is skeptical that many would prefer death to the workhouse, and he is unmoved by talk of the workhouse's cheerlessness. He is right to be unmoved, for society's provisions for the poor must be, well, Dickensian. The more pleasant the alternatives to gainful employment, the greater will be the number of people who seek these alternatives, and the fewer there will be who engage in productive labor. If society expects anyone to work, work had better be a lot more attractive than idleness.
-Michael Levin (hat tip to DougJ at Balloon-Juice)
The funny thing is, it almost (almost) sounds reasonable when you read it, horrifying though it is. But then, a lot of libertarianism does, with its cutesy cutting of corners and knowingly limited vision of what society is and should be for. Ebenezer Scrooge is a savvy businessman, and if he has managed to accumulate so much wealth and manage it with only one employee, why, he should be lauded and lionized for his canniness, not hounded in his bed by ghosts who want him to feel bad for the people he's screwed over. For all we know, the man operates the then-equivalent to a modern payday loan operation, lending at usurious rates to those who have no choice but to borrow, whether their circumstances be their own fault or no. Levin even goes so far as to say that Bob Cratchit ought not to have had so many children if he didn't think he could afford them (a very libertarian notion, as libertarians are notoriously anti-child, being not much more than children themselves), and suggests an invented character, Sickly Sid, who also needs an operation, just like Tiny Tim, but who now will not have it, since his father was planning to finance said operation with money that Scrooge is now giving (giving) to Cratchit, out of some misguided sense of charity because he had some bad dreams on Christmas Eve.

That's the thing about libertarians. They're just anarchists who lack the courage of their convictions. They think that humanity clawed its way out of the jungle and built cooperative society and civilization just to recapitulate the state of nature (in the Hobbesian sense). They like the laws guaranteeing their property but don't want to pay the taxes that guarantee the prosecution of those laws. They think it's just fine that society has winners and losers, so long as they are the winners. They think that both parties in any transaction negotiate from an equal position, and that if one party is disadvantaged then it is surely that party's own fault, even when it isn't.

It is, in short, facile bullshit of the worst sort, an after the fact rationalization of the fact that they got their toys and they don't want to share. It makes you wonder what they tell their kids on Christmas morning when there's no presents under the tree.

"I'm sorry, honey, but you didn't earn any Christmas presents this year. I know you think it's mean, but Daddy is teaching you a valuable lesson today. If you want something, you have to go and earn it for yourself. If Daddy let Santa come and give you presents for free, you wouldn't value them as highly as you should, and you might grow up with the expectation that life owed you a living for free. Also, and I hate to have to bring this up during the holidays, but you're late on this month's payment for that playpen you enjoy so much. Remember how Daddy said he would be willing to finance it for you, but you had to pay Daddy back? Daddy gave you very generous terms on that loan, but you're in default now. Your payment is more than thirty days late, so Daddy is going to have to repossess that playpen and try and sell it to recoup his loss. I know you think I'm just a big old meanie, but you'll thank me one day when you're as rich as Daddy because you learned the valuable lessons he's teaching you today. Honey? The kid has soiled herself again. Time to put in some more of that uncompensated labor you seem so fond of."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

There's much in this world that's savage and horrifying, that will break your heart and confound your understanding and shake your faith in the justice and beauty and rightness of things. But there is also magic and wonder and days when the sun bursts through the clouds and suddenly the grey is silver and the silver becomes gold as the gathered clouds are scattered and flee beyond the horizon. Days when levity overcomes gravity's ineluctable pull and loads are lightened for reasons the conscious mind isn't really equipped to understand or make sense of.

I had such an experience recently, and I would like to tell you about it, if for no other reason than because it happened and I can't tell you why, though it may very well have saved my spirit and soul from the muck they were mired in. It was, perhaps, just a coincidence, something that just happened. Something for which there is and was a perfectly logical, rational explanation, that I'm making more of than is really there to be made.

The possibility is very real that that is the case and that I'm just grasping at straws for my own (understandable) reasons. I'll let you decide what to make of it for yourself. Here is what happened:

After my mother's death this past summer, we held a memorial service in her honor, which was well-attended and considered by all to be a success. The arrangements were mine to make, along with some help from my aunt, and we did our best to honor the spirit in which Mom had lived her life. There were pictures, and flowers, and a eulogy, of course, and I and others spoke afterward, celebrating her life and the ways she had touched us all, and afterward many of us retired to her favorite haunt and raised a glass or two in her honor. I think she would've been happy with it, had she been there. And who knows? Perhaps she was.

Shortly after that, I left town and went home for a couple of weeks. It'd been exhausting, all those days and nights in the hospital, all those decisions and arrangements that I had to make, and I needed more than anything to just be away from it all. It was during this time that my mother's wishes were fulfilled and her body cremated, the cremains, as they're called, delivered to the funeral home for me to come and retrieve.

Luckily, another aunt was able to retrieve them for me, and so they were waiting for me when I returned to begin the process of unwinding her life, of going through Mom's things and fixing up her place, and generally taking care of the business at hand. I knew, somewhat, what I thought Mom would want, in terms of a funeral, or at least what seemed to me to be the thing to do, and who should be there, but for one reason or another, it just never seemed the right time, and so Mom remained with me there, set up on a little shrine with some pictures and other mementos. I would talk with her, sometimes, and make her drinks here and there when I was having one, and weeks and even months passed in this way while I lived and worked in her home, getting just a little crazier with each passing day.

It was a difficult time, for lots of reasons, and as the days and weeks passed the pressure inside mounted until I was sure I would burst. It got to the point where I made the decision that I needed just to go, even though there were projects left to do, and so I made arrangements to have them done and prepared to start the long drive home. There was just one thing left: Mom's funeral.

She hadn't said, in her Last Will and Testament, how she wanted her remains to be disposed of. Though she was clear she wanted to be cremated, she'd left it up to me the what to do with the cremains. I'd decided early on to give her back to the ocean. She'd grown up on the water in Riviera Beach, just north of West Palm, and spent her childhood on the beach and in the water, back when Florida was still an underpopulated paradise, before Disney and the developers came and turned it in to what it is today. Indeed one of the things I'm most grateful for, though it makes me cry to remember, and probably will forever, is that I was able to take her to the beach one last time at the end of my penultimate visit, before the end became imminent and she began the business of dying in earnest.

I'd thought at first of renting a boat for the day, whenever it was, and doing the whole burial at sea thing, but it didn't seem quite right, and would have involved getting the various brothers and sisters together in close proximity with no escape for anybody. They're a fractious bunch, and while I'm sure they have their reasons I'm also sure that that was not the vibe I was looking for for my mother's funeral. So I decided that I would give her back to the ocean, but that the ceremony, such as it was, would be held on the beach. My aunt and uncle suggested Phil Foster park, a place where Mom and her siblings had spent a lot of time during their childhood, but when I went there to scout it out it just didn't feel right. It's essentially a giant, paved-over boat ramp these days, and while there is a beach of sorts there, it's under the bridge, and dirty, and just wasn't the place I wanted it to be.

So I did some looking around, and found John D. MacArthur park, a mile-and-a-half stretch of virgin Florida coastline just a little ways north of Riviera Beach, a place where you couldn't see any hotels or beachfront development, without a foot of pavement or big crowds of sun-pinked tourists with their radios and umbrellas and screaming packs of kids and old folks. It was exactly what I was looking for, and I knew as soon as I set foot on the beach that this was the place.

I called the relevant people and let them know, and my uncle did a little research and discovered that the outgoing tide was early in the morning, and so on the day after Halloween we all met in the parking lot at 9 am. I'd been up very late the night before, drinking too much and talking with Mom on the patio, with the fence open so we could see the lake and the sounds of revelry here and there in the distance, but I still managed to be the first one there.

I think Mom would've been proud. She always did want me to get up earlier and be more on time to things.

It was a beautiful day. The sun was out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. The beach was lightly populated, and we only had to walk a few dozen yards to be away from what few people there were. We said what little there was left to say, and I walked her out into the waves, fully dressed, and laid her as gently as I could in the water. We threw a dozen roses in with her, and though the waves were wild and the ocean was rough, only one came back, washed up on the beach to await the next tide. We emerged, dripping with sea water, and that was that.

Now comes the magical part.

It's windy at the beach. Always. The air over the water and the air over the land are different temperatures, and the differential means that the hotter air over the land rises, drawing the cooler air over the water inland. Now mind you, today was not the windiest day, but there was a noticeable breeze even down low near the ground, and I expect that up high it was even windier.

Some friends of the family had brought a mylar balloon, and we'd all written our last goodbyes on it in the parking lot. We said goodbye, and each of us touched it in turn. Then we released it, and something I can't quite explain happened.

Despite the wind, the balloon rose, straight up into the sky. We'd all expected the breeze to carry it inland and out of sight quickly, but instead it floated, almost purposefully, straight up, until we could only just barely see it.

And then it stayed there, directly above us, lingering as we watched, as if Mom were watching us from up there, saying her last goodbyes to us just as we had said them to her. For minutes on end we stood there, just watching in wonder and amazement as it floated there above us, watching us back, it seemed. It moved a bit, yes, but there it remained, almost directly overhead, while we all stood, shading our eyes from the glare of the sun, almost unbelieving that such a thing could happen. It was a very Mom thing to do, that lingering, because we were the people she loved best in all the world, and I knew that she would want to watch us for as long as she could, just as we wanted to hold onto her.

And that wasn't all. As the balloon rose, I felt the weight of the weeks and months that had passed since her death lift from my shoulders with it, as if Mom were taking it with her, a final parting gift to her only son. At a time of great sadness, when by all rights I should have been bawling my eyes out (as I am right now, writing this), I felt as light as the air and as free as the the wind, all the stress and sadness that had weighted me down made light and fluttered away on the breeze.

We waited and watched, the nine of us there on the beach, our grief forgotten in the sheer amazement of the moment, until some strange subliminal signal had passed and we found ourselves back on the beach, looking at each other, all of us knowing somehow that it was time to go. We looked back up, to say one last goodbye, but the balloon was gone. She'd slipped away while we weren't looking, off to whatever was next. Which was also a very Mom thing to do.

A Brief Thought

Those who claim the stimulus package didn't work because the economy hasn't totally turned around in the last six months are like people who think global warming doesn't exist because we still have winter.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the Subjective Nature of Objects

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.
-Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
I've been thinking about things a lot lately.

I don't mean that in the usual sense of the phrase, that I've been thinking about the various happenings and vectors and relationships and narratives in play at this stage of my life, although I've certainly been doing that, too. No, what I mean is that I've been thinking about things; about objects, devices, and artifacts; and most especially I've been thinking about their capacity to take on subjective meaning in the context of their relationship to myself and others as perceiving beings who appear to persist through time. I generally assume that the way it works for me is much the same as for others, but given the wall of unknowability that lies between each of us and the world I'm going to let that particular philosophical sleeping dog lie and presume a certain degree of, if not universality, then at least applicability, in what follows.

Take this, for example:

This is my Pentax K1000 35mm camera. Now, to someone else, this is just an old (some might say classic) 35mm camera, and one's reaction to seeing the picture of it is, if not determined, then at least colored by one's relationship to photography, its history, technology and the history of its technology; by fascination with or lack of interest in old things; by nostalgia for days gone by and a time when technologies were simpler and, paradoxically enough, more difficult to operate; or by any number of possible considerations, which are too numerous in their possibility to even begin to enumerate here. Suffice to say that the object, while remaining itself, provokes different reactions in different people, thanks to each's individual world-view, associational chains, and particularity in space, time, and history.

For me the picture and, more importantly, the object it depicts have a significance that can't be surmised by an other just by looking at them. See, I have history with that camera, and not only that specific one. Allow me to explain.

When I was thirteen, I started working as a soccer referee on weekends, for a number of reasons, not least of which was that they paid me. Now, at that age, having money of your own is (or at least seemed to me at the time) a strange and wondrous thing. Others, perhaps, have had a different experience of life, but for myself the notion of buying things for myself, with my own money, without having to ask my parents to buy them for me, was a new and mysterious thing that I didn't, honestly, quite know what to do with. Being that my needs were simple, I spent very little on myself, and would give anyone in the lunchroom who asked a couple of bucks to buy whatever from the cafeteria. What the hell else was I going to do with my money? For all I knew, money was just for buying things, and there weren't enough things I needed or even wanted to spend all of my newfound wealth on. After all, video games were still just a quarter back then.

But I did buy one thing, one big thing, that I remember and kept and had forever and ever, and that was a used Pentax K1000 camera very like the one in the picture above. I spent $100 on it, a huge sum to me at the time (never mind adjusting for inflation) at a used camera store my father took me to.

It was the first big purchase I ever made on my own behalf, and I used, abused and treasured that camera for many years. I loved it. Loved the weight of it; the old school credibility it exuded in the face of what were at the time incredible new innovations in 35mm photography, things like autofocus and autoadvance of the film in the camera. Loved taking pictures with it, loved the quality of the shots and even the difficulty of having to balance aperture and shutter speed and focus before taking each one. I took it on adventures, documenting strange peoples and the faraway lands where they lived. And though I never really delved into photography as a craft, I loved dabbling in it as an amateur, and I loved my camera, both for what it was, and for what it meant to me. It had, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, taken on an aura, a particularity and authenticity that was unique to its presence and history in space and time, even if that aura was perceptible in full only to me.

And then, shortly after college, or maybe in my later undergraduate years (memory fails me as to the details), I passed through South Florida to visit my mother, and discovered that the lens that I'd bought with the camera had become stuck.

I remember that I'd just returned from some grand adventure or other, maybe the road trip to Central America, or one of the many cross-country jaunts I was so fond of taking at the time. I had lots of film shot, and no money. Mom of course was more than happy to spring for developing the pictures, and I of course was happy to let her. We were getting along pretty well in those days, which we hadn't always. My mother and I did not see eye to eye on some things. It wasn't so much philosophical disagreement as it was a certain incompatibility of temperament, and it had dogged our relationship for most of my conscious life. We'd spent a couple of years not talking during my late teens, when my upswelling adolescent rebellion ran smack into her difficulties in accepting that I was no longer a child, and it was not until a couple of years after I had moved out that we were able to reconcile and grow to love one another again, or, rather, remember the love that was always there and that almost always exists between mother and child.

But the fact remained that there were things about each other we just didn't get, that didn't jibe on a fundamental level. Yes, we were able to work around them in our personal relationship. We were able to get along, and spend time together, and enjoy what we could of one another. But the things we valued and the ways we approached the world remained somewhat at odds, and my camera and its eventual fate became a perfect illustration of the phenomenon.

Like I said, the lens was broken. The metal around the rim had gotten bent somewhere along the way (an unsurprising development, given the cavalier attitude I tended to have in those days towards my things), and the focus was no long adjustable. Or maybe it was the aperture. I honestly don't remember. It's not important. What's important was that I didn't discover that it'd happened until the last day I was visiting. I went to take a picture and found I could not, and I was, as you might expect, not happy about it, as I was broke at the time and could not afford to have it fixed or buy a new lens.

So when Mom offered to get the camera fixed and send it to me after, I was, if not thrilled, then at least pleased. I say that not to belittle Mom's generosity so much as to indicate the degree of entitlement I felt at the time. Of course Mom would get my camera fixed. That was what moms were for, along with laundry, food, care packages, and unconditional love. That she would offer to do that fit perfectly with my understanding of the world and while I was grateful I was also able to sort of shrug it off without recognizing the generosity for what it was.

A week or two later, the package arrived in the mail, and almost as soon as I opened it I realized something wasn't quite right. That wasn't my camera. Sure, it looked like my camera. Was an identical make and model and functionally indistinguishable from my camera. But it wasn't mine. The scratches that made it particular were missing, or in different places. It felt different in my hand. It was, in a word, wrong. I called Mom to see what'd happened and found that she had, in fact, replaced my camera with a different one. I don't remember the details, but the guy at the repair shop had talked her into exchanging my camera, the one I'd bought with my own money in middle school and taken on countless adventures, whose sole flaw was a lens in need of repair, for another just like it. Perhaps it was in slightly better condition. I really don't remember, and I never understood quite what possessed Mom to do what she did. But she'd traded away one of my most valuable possessions for a simulacrum, a copy, however identical, that was most emphatically not the camera I had bought with my own money so many years before.

I know she meant well, and that there must have been reasons. And I decided, there on the phone, to leave it, and never told her how I really felt. But I was furious inside. How could she do that? How could she not understand what that camera, that particular camera and not just that kind of camera, meant to me? I knew she had things that she'd had forever and that she treasured. How could she not understand, intuitively, that I did, too, and that this was one of them? It was further evidence to me of the fundamental alienness of our different natures, and though I felt very mature just dropping it and not making her feel bad, I also mourned the camera's loss, and mourned a little that my own mother did not understand me.

I could, perhaps, begin my philosophical musings at this point. After all, the ultimate purpose of this piece of writing is to think about things in their thingness and how that thingness interacts with the perceiving subject's experience of the thing and its aura. There's certainly enough to work with already, drawing the distinction between the camera as you, the reader, may experience it and the camera as I experience it, with the weight of my personal history crouched upon my shoulders and warping the experience the way that a large gravitational mass warps the fabric of space-time around it. But there's more, a whole new order of meaning that has recently called itself into existence and settled itself athwart this collection of plastic and aluminum and technical know-how.

See, my mother just recently died, and so now everything I associate with her has taken on a new significance. Tempting though it is, I'm not going to poke around the edges of that particular wound right now, not here anyway. But it's added a new layer to the aura of the camera above.

I've had the new camera for years now. Taken it overseas, out in town, and out into the woods. Taken pictures with it that have great significance in my personal life story. It has its own history and chain of associations, which now have taken on an even greater depth than what they had before. Because now the camera is not only a symbol of the place where the Venn diagram of Mom and me failed to meet, it is also a thing that she gave to me, made more valuable now that she's gone, and an object of deeper contemplation for the richness of its meaning to me.

But to the imagined other that you, the reader are to me, the same object doesn't, even can't mean the same thing, even after I've told you the story and explained the history. And, in my long-winded and roundabout way, that's the thing I'm trying to get at.

You see, we rub off on the things around us. Leave a psychic patina of ourselves, the sebaceous oils of our being, if you will, on every thing we contemplate and touch, live with and use. It's not so much that objects are mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected, although it's tempting to go down that road (After all, brain scientists will tell you that your brain will pick out the patterns you are used to perceiving, no matter what the stimulus, and so the act of perception can be characterized as a reflection, since you can only see what it is in you to see, and thus an argument can be made that you only see yourself). But to me this permeability of objects to personal meaning speaks to a similar permeability of ourselves. There's a bond that grows there, not so much a bridge as an intermingling, invisible perhaps in space and time, but there nonetheless. The things around us shape us, just as we shape them, as if Einstein's theory of General Relativity (which is, at bottom, the notion that, through the mystery and magic of gravity, every discrete particle in the universe has a special and personal relationship to every other discrete particle in the universe and affects it, however minutely) also applies to this squishier psychic realm, in ways that haven't yet been explored.

There's no answers here. To those, if any, who've gotten this far in hopes of some amazing insight into life, the universe, and everything, I apologize. I've only really begun to think about these things recently, in response to the process of going through my mother's things. I was amazed at how many of them I recognized, how many were the little boring everyday things that make up any household, but that were the boring everyday things that made up the household I grew up in, that spoke to times long past, subjectivities I'd forgotten, thrown into new and starker contrast now that my world has a Mom-shaped hole in it. I'm still not sure, honestly, what I'm trying to do here, but the persistence in my mind of these things and what they mean to me, and how they come to mean them is something I can't seem to put aside. Perhaps it's only grief, a desire to bring Mom back, or at very least to grasp at the traces she left on the world and thus hold on to what little is left of her. I couldn't say. It isn't possible to untangle all the threads in the fabric of right now and see which is what and why. But we all pass through many selves in the stories of our lives, inhabit many subjectivities, each an outgrowth of all that came before, and just as a song or a smell can bring us back to a self we've left behind or grown out of or even just away from, so too can the things in the world around us take us back, preserve that connection to our histories and those we've shared them with, and there's something there worth exploring, I think. So here we are, and here we go.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Joey, remember. It's socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the poor.
-Joe Biden's Grandfather

Posted Without Comment

For in her latest incarnation, Sarah Palin represents an American stereotype at least as old as the Chatauqua circuit and as new as the American Idol wannabes who get showcased in the early episodes of each new season for their combination of fervent conviction and utter lack of talent. She wishes—she feels entitled—to be Famous, in the way a thirteen-year-old writing fanfiction understands “famous”: Everyone should know her name, and want to be just like her, and love her not for her talents or her achievements but just because she’s Sarah. After all, God wants her to be happy, and how can she be happy if she’s not famous?

-Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice

Friday, November 06, 2009

Jon Stewart truly is the Man

I can't get the clip to embed for some reason, but Jon Stewart's Glenn Beck impersonation last night was the funniest thing I've seen on the Daily Show in a long, long time.

Click here and enjoy.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Posted Without Comment

(hat tip DougJ at Balloon Juice)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Posted Without Comment

Or to put it otherwise, 2.5 million Americans watch Fox News, which means that 297.5 million Americans don’t.
-John Scalzi

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Posted Without Comment

If you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.
-Joe Paskoski (hat tip Heidi P.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Posted Without Comment

SF, at its best, is an exploration of the human condition under circumstances that we can conceive of existing, but which don't currently exist (either because the technology doesn't exist, or there are gaps in our scientific model of the universe, or just because we're short of big meteoroids on a collision course with the Sea of Japan — the situation is improbable but not implausible).
-Charles Stross (hat tip John Scalzi)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Starry Night

The Starry Night has been my favorite painting since college. I've always been a fan of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and of Van Gogh in particular. Several years ago, when I finally got around to doing the backpacking through Europe thing, I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, along with many many others, and got to see a fair sampling of his work in person. Then, on my way home, I stopped through New York to visit some friends and attended the opening of MOMA Queens, where I got to see The Starry Night.

I'd always loved Van Gogh's work, for many reasons, many of which are intuitive, even visceral, and thus very difficult to put into words, but the underlying fuzziness and feeling of motion and movement inherent in the techniques of the time and the particular school of which Van Gogh became something of an exemplar have always appealed to me greatly. The bright daylight colors of Vincent's Bedroom at Arles and the various Sunflower paintings feel like a sunny afternoon encapsulated on canvas, a moment in time made manifest for the ages in such a way as to transport the viewer not there so much as to a sort of higher, vaguely Platonic realm of there-ness. It's the same for his more nocturnal works, like The Cafe at Night, and especially The Starry Night. I have a poster of it in my room to this day, a bit worn around the edges, since I've had it since halfway through college, and it's one of the first things I see when I wake up there. Being a naturally nocturnal sort, I've always had a certain inherent sympathy with the night paintings, and The Starry Night, with its hazy stars and the sense of movement in the air, like the way the air moves when the pressure drops and a storm's coming in, never fails to transport me. And when I saw the thing itself, the actual painting rather than just a mechanical reproduction, it absolutely took my breath away. The thing about Van Gogh that fails to translate in prints and posters is the sheer texture of the work. The man really slapped on the paint. It's almost as if he painted with a putty knife instead of a brush. It was all I could do not to reach out and touch it, though I didn't, of course. But powerful as the poster in my room has always been to me, it pales in comparison to the real thing, in the way that a picture of the woman (or man) you love pales in comparison to her actual presence there with you in the room, her skin available to your touch, her scent on the air, all the tiny secrets of her body there for you to learn and to know.

Anyway, The Starry Night was today's Astronomy Picture of the Day, and so it was one of the first things I saw when I woke up this morning and turned on the computer, and it made me very happy, and made me think of that poster I've had so long, and the time I saw the original there on the wall in Queens, and I thought that I would share it with whoever might happen by the blog today. Enjoy. I know I do.

Alan Grayson Really is My New Hero

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Peace Prize

[I]n his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the peace prize should go "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses."
John Dickerson, writing in Slate
So, unless you've been hiding under a rock today, you've probably heard that Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. So far as I can tell, Mr. Obama and the White House staff were as surprised as anybody, and have handled the news in a perfectly reasonable and dignified fashion. This is not a surprise. Barack Obama is a classy guy, and I'd expect no less from him or the people who work for him. Also not surprisingly, the wingnut fringe has exploded in outrage, without even bothering with a moment of graciousness and congratulation to Mr. Obama and these United States. Glenn Beck even went so far as to say that the Prize should be awarded to the Teabaggers and the 9/12 protesters, which is a hoot, but not a surprise, since that guy has absolutely no shame at all and will say or do anything to get attention, much as a recalcitrant two-year-old will say or do anything to get attention, because to a two-year-old, attention is like publicity: there's no such thing as bad.

And before I go any further, let me just say that this a great honor, both for President Obama and for these United States, and that, as an American citizen and a patriot, I cannot help but be proud that such an honor has been bestowed on a serving American President for the first time since Woodrow Wilson received it for helping to set up the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN.

That said, I have real reservations about the award. And before anybody's panties get all bunched up, let me say that my reservations have way way way more to do with the Nobel committee and its decision than they do with Barack Obama, with whom I have my issues but in whom I am still willing to put a little faith.

First and foremost, I think the award is as much a repudiation of the policies and administration of George W. Bush as it is a positive affirmation of Mr. Obama. It may be that I'm too entrenched in following domestic politics to see just how wonderful the rest of the world thinks we are for electing Obama President, but even the Cairo speech hasn't really moved the favorable view of the US numbers in the Middle East, and while I think it was a good and even historically significant step in the right direction (along with the outreach to Iran, the attempt to reset things with the Russians, the scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile installations in Eastern Europe, and the promise to draw down our troop deployment in Iraq), it's just a step, and bromides about the first step being the hardest or getting you halfway aside, there's a long slog ahead if we're going to make any real progress on any of those fronts.

And while I do understand that the Nobel Committee sometimes awards Peace Prizes as a way to encourage future actions (hat tip to Kim S.), I'm not sure they're really helping themselves or their agenda by taking this action, and, more importantly, I think, honestly, that they cheapen the prize by lowering the bar like that. Maybe I haven't been paying attention, but to me the Nobel Peace Prize should be an acknowledgement of actual accomplishments in the realm of world peace, not just steps in the right direction. And while I understand the way forward the Nobel Committee hopes to encourage, and even agree with it, I think that today's announcement is actually going to make it more difficult to continue taking steps in that direction because of the opposition it's going to engender. Yeah, the wingnuts and the Movementarians are already dead set against anything Obama says, does, or stands for, and maybe, in the end, this won't make a difference. It's hard to see how this puts anybody who was still on the fence over the edge, but it seems like the Nobel Committee could have accomplished nearly as much just by putting Obama on the short list and giving the prize to someone more deserving.

Because, really, I don't think Obama yet deserves the Peace Prize. He may someday, and he certainly deserves encouragement for some of the steps he's taken and some of the unwinding he's done of the previous Administration's encroachments on nearly every aspect of the American experiment that is good and righteous and just and true, but he's only been in office for nine months. That's just not enough time to have accomplished Nobel Peace Prize-grade world-saving.

Furthermore, need I remind everyone that Barack Obama is currently presiding over not one but two wars of aggression? Yeah, we might've had to go into Afghanistan to uproot Al Qaeda and kill Osama bin Laden. I was and remain for that. We were attacked, and while we should've seen it coming and stopped it beforehand, it was justified and necessary to go get the motherfuckers what came and got us. But that was 2002. Now it's 2009, and nobody can say what we're doing there, aside from using southern Afghanistan as a base for our rightfully controversial and highly problematic (as well as apparently effective) program of targeted drone-based assassination of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas of Pakistan. If that's the point, then maybe I'm willing to get behind that, but for right now we're just there because we're there, and our boys and girls in uniform are getting shot and blown up because of that, and that's not okay. As for Iraq, I recall there being some noise about drawing down forces and ending combat operations, but as far as I know we still have tens of thousand of troops stationed there, with equally murky mission parameters.

And yes, Obama did inherit those conflicts. He didn't start them. But the drone-based assassination program was his idea, floated in one of the Primary debates, as I recall, and picked up by the Bush Administration, who were floundering and in need of some good ideas since all of theirs were horribly misguided at best.

In the end, it may be that Obama will do the right thing regarding the wars he inherited from the Bush Administration. There's even a case to be made that the collateral damage and civilian deaths that are a direct result of the drone attacks in Af-Pak are justified and necessary. But war's war, and it just seems odd to me that a man in the middle of waging two of them would win a prize for peace. Yes, there are lots of hopeful signs, and it's a testament to how far and how fast we fell during the Bush years, both objectively and in the eyes of the world, that even just doing some basic diplomacy and not telling everyone else in the world to go suck it can seem like the dawn of a new day, and I hope that it is. I really do. But this is not kids' soccer. You shouldn't get a trophy just for showing up and trying your best. Trophies should be symbols and acknowledgments of accomplishment and not just effort. The Nobel Peace Prize should be the same.

I'd Say This is About Right

[T]he unmistakable message of the award is one of the consequences of a period in which the most powerful country in the world, the 'hyper-power' as the French have it, became the focus of destabilization and in real if limited ways lawlessness. A harsh judgment, yes. But a dark period. And Obama has begun, if fitfully and very imperfectly to many of his supporters, to steer the ship of state in a different direction. If that seems like a meager accomplishment to many of the usual Washington types it's a profound reflection of their own enablement of the Bush era and how compromised they are by it, how much they perpetuated the belief that it was 'normal history' rather than dark aberration.
Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Posted Without Comment

“The salient fact of American politics is that there are fifty to seventy million voters each of who will volunteer to live, with his family, in a cardboard box under an overpass, and cook sparrows on an old curtain rod, if someone would only guarantee that the black, gay, Hispanic, liberal, whatever, in the next box over doesn’t even have a curtain rod, or a sparrow to put on it.”
-commenter Davis X. Machina, from Balloon-Juice

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

I May Have to Reassess this Twitter Thing

"Sometimes life leaves a hundred dollar bill on your dresser, and you don't realize until later that it's because it fucked you."

"The dog don't like you planting stuff there. It's his backyard. If you're the only one who shits in something, you own it. Remember that."

'You don't know shit, and you're not shit. Don't take that the wrong way, that was meant to cheer you up."

from Shit My Dad Says
I don't think there's really much I could add to that. I just hope that when I'm 73 I spout shit half as funny as this guy.