Tuesday, January 31, 2006

State of the Union

George W. Bush tonight delivered his sixth State of the Union address to Congress. While most of the speech was the usual empty blather, there were a few surprises. For example, in naming tyrannical régimes, Bush mentioned Zimbabwe along with Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Burma. Zimbabwe has no oil reserves, nor any military bases useful in securing oil fields in nearby countries.

Here are a few more quotes, interspersed with my reactions.

Today, our nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream. Tonight we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken so long ago, and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King.
Mrs. King and her husband shared a noble dream that America could become a land in which all men and women are created equal. Mr. Bush works to realize a dream of an America in which entrenched divisions of class and wealth become permanent barriers to the aspirations of the majority.
On September 11, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state, 7000 miles [11,000 km] away, could bring murder and destruction to our country.
The "failed and oppressive state," of course, is Afghanistan, but the attack of 2001-09-11 did not originate in Afghanistan, nor did al Qaeda. Viewing the attack in such terms is disastrously pre-9/11 thinking.
One of the main sources of reaction and opposition [to freedom] is radical Islam, the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder, and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder. Their aim is to seize power in Iraq and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world. Lacking the military strength to challenge us directly, the terrorists have chosen the weapon of fear. ... If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat, and there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will, by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself, we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. ... A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, would put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country and show that a pledge from America means little.
America pledged to disarm Saddam Hussein, and we kept that pledge. Men like bin Laden and Zarqawi will be in charge of Iraq only if the Iraqi people allow that to happen. Which is it, Mr. Bush? Are the Iraqi people committed to their own freedom or not? As for our ideals and our courage, neither is served by sending our soldiers to be blown apart by roadside bombs nor by rounding up great masses of Iraqi citizens in Abu Ghraib.
Marine Staff Sergeant Dan Clay was killed last month fighting in Fabiani. He left behind a letter to his family, but his words could just as well be addressed to every American. Here is what Dan wrote: "I know what honor is. It has been an honor to protect and serve all of you. I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to. Never falter. Don't hesitate to honor and support those of us who had the honor of protecting that which is worth protecting."
Unfortunately, Sgt. Clay was mistaken in his "secure knowledge" that those of us here in America would not have to face death. Al Qaeda's determination to attack on U.S. soil has not in the least diminished because of our occupation of Iraq. Indeed, the presence of U.S. soldiers in Iraq has made America a more dangerous place, not safer, just as the presence of Spanish soldiers in Iraq made the Madrid subway a more dangerous place.
Our offensive against terror involves more than military action. Ultimately, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change.
Our use of torture and our indiscriminate detention of innocent civilians serves only to feed that dark vision of hatred and fear, again making us less safe.
So the United States of America supports democratic reform across the broader Middle East. Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning. Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, and protection of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote. The great people of Egypt have voted in a multiparty presidential election, and now their government should open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism. The Palestinian people have voted in elections. And now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace. Saudi Arabia has taken the first steps of reform. Now it can offer its people a better future by pressing forward with those efforts.
Calling Egypt's election "multiparty" is giving it a bit too much credit, but the comment about Hamas and the Palestinians is a bullseye. Saudi Arabia's "first steps of reform," however, are anemic and noncommittal, although having Bush publicly call them to press forward with real reform is a hopeful sign.

Most of all, though, I am struck by the hypocrisy of Bush's actions at home in contrast to his stated vision for other nations. Where are the accountable institutions responsible for misleading the American people into the war in Iraq? Where is the rule of law in abrogating more treaties than the first 42 Presidents combined? Where is the protection of minorities in a Congressional practice of systematically stonewalling 46% of the members of Congress in conference committees?
So to prevent another [9/11] attack — based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute — I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al Qaeda operatives and affiliates to and from America. Previous Presidents have used the same Constitutional authority I have and federal courts have approved the use of that authority. Appropriate members of Congress have been kept informed. The terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al Qaeda, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again.
Neither the Constitution nor any federal statute gives the President the power to override the Fourth Amendment, which this program of surveillance unambiguously violates. Appropriate members of Congress were not kept informed by any remote stretch of the imagination. To begin with, the "appropriate members of Congress" would include at the very least the entire membership of the intelligence committees, not merely the four ranking members. Further, it is clear that those four members of Congress were given an incomplete picture of the program. As for previous Presidents and federal courts, I would like to see something specific, because nothing comes to mind.

The bottom line is that the federal government must monitor communications to and from al Qaeda operatives, but it must do so within the Constitution's clear mandate that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." My e-mails and my telephone calls unquestionably fall into the category of "papers and effects," no matter whether I'm calling the speaking clock or Osama bin Laden. If you want to search or seize my communications, then get a warrant from a judge, period.

Bush goes on to make empty promises about affordable health care, economic expansion, deficit reduction (Never forget, there was no deficit when Bush took office.), Social Security, and energy independence. In all of those areas, I agree with the solid majority of the American people that Bush is leading us down the wrong track.
Our greatest [economic] advantage in the world has always been our educated, hardworking, ambitious people, and we are going to keep that edge. Tonight I announce the American Competitiveness Initiative to encourage innovation throughout our economy and to give our nation's children a firm grounding in math and science.
"Science" includes Biology, Mr. Bush, and the science of biology includes Evolution. You cannot simultaneously give our nation's children a firm grounding in math and science and discount the validity of science and the scientific method.
Drug use among youth is down 19 percent since 2001.
If you believe that, I want to know what you've been smoking. From 1994 to 2004, marijuana use among 12th graders increased by 62%. Their use of cocaine almost doubled.
There are fewer abortions in America than at any point in the last three decades.
There are fewer young women than at any point in the last three decades. That "Baby Boom" thing ran its course and was followed by a lull.
[Many Americans] are concerned about unethical conduct by public officials and discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine marriage.
Many Americans are concerned about unethical conduct by Republican officials and discouraged by reactionaries who try to perpetuate the subjugation of minorities. I'm also discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine "particularly describing the persons or things to be seized" and unethical public officials who try to redefine "commander in chief of the Army and Navy" to mean "supreme leader whose dictates must not be questioned."
Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale.
What about creating human-machine hybrids to travel through time and exterminate us all? Don't we need a law against that — at least until we amend the Constitution to let him become President? And what if I want to create a hybrid between a human and a tomato? What if I create a way to fuel our automobiles with human embryos? Those are at least as realistic as human-animal hybrids.

Happily for the rest of us, Mr. Bush will have at most two more State of the Union addresses.

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Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King, the wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who picked up his mantle to become a civil rights leader in her own right, died last night, five months after suffering a serious stroke and heart attack. She was 78 years old.

Rest in peace, Mrs. King; Rosa Parks saved a seat for you in the front of the bus to heaven.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Short-term and long-term views of Alito

In the short term, it looks very likely that Samuel A. Alito, Jr., will be confirmed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. In the long term, though, the question of Alito's impact on the Court remains wide open.

In the 2000 election campaign, Governor Bush pledged to be "a uniter, not a divider," and to govern from the center. This nomination once again proves that Bush was lying.

By forcing Alito onto the Court, Bush is undermining the American people's already shaken trust in the Supreme Court as an impartial arbiter of questions of national importance. The long-term damage from this short-term victory will be felt for a generation or more.

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To filibuster Alito or not

Of the nine Justices currently serving on the Supreme Court, four were confirmed unanimously, three were confirmed with fewer than 10 no votes, Chief Justice Roberts was confirmed by a more than ¾ vote, and Clarence Thomas squeaked by on a 52–48 vote.

The position of the Supreme Court in the eyes of the American people was severely damaged by the Bush v. Gore case in 2000, with its nakedly partisan outcome. The only way to recover the standing of the Court as a trusted arbiter of the law of the land is to put on the court Justices who are viewed as impartial, and who have the support of a broad spectrum of the people and of the Senate.

As the vote on Samuel Alito's nomination draws near, it appears likely that Democrats will try to mount a filibuster. What remains to be seen is whether either side will make an honest attempt to engage the real question — whether someone whose support is so divided along party lines should sit on the Court — or whether they will simply engage in the usual partisan sniping. The direct meaning of cloture is to cut off debate; how about we extend the debate in a meaningful direction instead of just stalling until the other side gives up?

I believe that Samuel Alito should NOT be confirmed to the Supreme Court, based on both his personal ideology and his judicial record. He does not have the character to be a fair judge. However, more importantly, I do not believe that anyone should sit on the Supreme Court if he or she can't even get 60 votes in the Senate.

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James Frey back on Oprah

The Smoking Gun revealed the details of some exaggerations in James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces earlier this month. As I've said, I'm currently reading Pieces, and I'm reading it because of Oprah's selection of the title for her book club, but I'm still reading it, even knowing what I know now.

On Thursday's program, Oprah had a further interview with James Frey, confronting him directly about the discrepancies in the book. I finally got a chance to watch the show over the weekend.

The greatest outright fabrication is the claim that Frey spent 87 days in jail, when in fact it was less than a single afternoon. The infamous "root canal without anesthetic" scene is also under question, some of the confrontations among patients at the rehab center were exaggerated, and other details were muddied.

I agree with Oprah that the book should be relabeled, "based on a true story," but I stand by my earlier statement that the core elements of James Frey's experience of addiction and rehab strike me as authentic on an emotional level. That's not to diminish the importance of the truth, especially since it is a central theme in Pieces, but simply to say we should not toss the book out as useless just because it was shamefully overhyped.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Stare Decisis, Roe v Wade, and Alito

I'm sitting here on a Saturday night watching ABC This Week from 2005-09-18, specifically the roundtable discussion about John Roberts' nomination. (Don't feel sorry for me, squandering my weekend, though — I was busy last night and have plans tomorrow, so this is enjoying a relaxing evening at home.) The panel had George Fwill joined that week by Cokie Roberts (no relation to John Roberts, as far as I know) and Sam Donaldson. Cokie Roberts is a veteran of NPR, and Sam Donaldson has covered Presidents since dinosaurs roamed the earth. George Fwill is definitely a conservative, but, as I've said before, he is a man of occasional principles. In particular, Fwill went for the jugular against a comment by Tom DeLay. To frame their Roberts discussion in your memories, it took place after the hearings but before the vote. It thus sheds light on our present discussions about Alito.

First a quote from John Roberts himself, in the nomination hearing, replying to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein:

John Roberts: I would begin, I think, if I were in your shoes, with what kind of a judge I've been. I hope that you've looked at my briefs, and my arguments before the Supreme Court, and conclude that that's a person who respects the Law, respects the Court before whom he is arguing, and will approach the law in a similar way as a judge.


George Fwill:
He will be a cautious Justice, incremental, basically respectful of "settled law" (stare decisis), strongly conservative in distrusting judicial power as an instrument of driving social change.

Sam Donaldson: I agree with George, I think he's going to be a minimalist. He's a good conservative, but he's not going to try to "throw that long ball" and reverse things. The question is Roe, isn't it? And he gave both sides something on that.


George Stephanopoulos:
The way Joe Biden put it was, he said, "If I thought [Roberts] was going to be a Scalia or a Thomas, I'd vote no; if I thought he was going to be a Rehnquist, I'd vote yes." But you're saying, George, you don't believe that he'll be a Rehnquist, who really enlarged judicial power over the course of his tenure.

George Fwill: He's not going to be an originalist — that's what bothers some conservatives. An originalist is one who says, the text means what the words meant to those who wrote and ratified them when they wrote them in 1787 and 1789. For example, "free speech" at that time meant freedom from prior restraint, but you can prosecute afterwards. The 8th Amendment [phrase] "cruel and unusual punishment" meant you could brand and flog and pillory and do other things. We're not willing to live under the originalism...

Sam Donaldson: Well, this is interesting. President Bush once said his two favorite Supreme Court Justices, of course, were Antonin Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas, but Judge Roberts told the committee, I'm no ideologue, and I agree we don't want ideologues in the Supreme Court.
I've also written here about my impressions of Judge Roberts' testimony on the question of stare decisis. Here is an example of what I would have liked to hear on the subject of Roe v. Wade, from either John Roberts or Sam Alito:
I personally consider abortion in the abstract to be a bad thing, but I also acknowledge that there can be situations in which abortion is not the worst option. The law leaves it to each person's individual conscience in the first trimester, but I believe that after that stage, abortion requires increasingly dire circumstances to be justifiable. Likewise — although I likely would rule differently in Roe v. Wade, taking the case de novo, or at the very least I would challenge the reasoning of the decision — I take the principle of stare decisis to mean that, having had more than three decades of reliance on a commonly shared understanding of the present state of the law, we would need to have exceptionally compelling circumstances to justify any attempt to permit regulation of first-trimester abortions. I cannot speculate on what circumstances those would be, but clearly with each passing year the bar is raised higher. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, it was clear that Plessy was completely unworkable in the reality of urban 20th-century America, and that the Court had an obligation to overturn a precedent that had held for 58 years. I cannot imagine what circumstances would require overturning Roe, but neither can I state categorically that they could never exist. I can only say that the burden of proof would be very difficult to meet. In particular, it is inadequate only to argue that Roe was incorrectly decided.
That's more or less how I see the question. The Court should not seek to compound its error of legislating from the bench simply by having a re-vote. (Likewise, the Supreme Court should not compound its error of deciding the 2000 election by political, rather than legal, considerations, by meddling for the other side in future.) If the American people want to give the government the right to interfere in first-trimester abortions, we know the protocol: get a Constitutional amendment that allows it. We need 2/3 of the Congress and then majorities in ¾ of the states.

I see Judge Alito in very different terms. In Doe v. Groody, I see an activist ideologue writing an utterly indefensible dissent from a flawed majority opinion. Chertoff and Ambro made a solid case for several "well-settled points of law" that Alito simply brushed aside because they conflicted with his view that we should cut the cops some slack. Seriously — I have read Alito's dissent, and I challenge anyone to defend the sum total of his reasoning; most especially, I reject as absurd Alito's claim that the warrant was facially valid as executed. Alito substituted his own lax judgment for the rule of law he should have upheld.

Furthermore, I think that the Press and the public have too quickly dropped the matter of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. The bottom line is that in 1985 when he bragged about it on his Justice Department job application, Samuel Alito either knew or reasonably should have known that CAP had a national reputation as bigoted, sexist, homophobic, and in general well outside the mainstream. He either consciously chose to associate himself with ideologues, or he played up his association in order to ingratiate himself with someone he believed to be an ideologue. In either case, I agree with Chief Justice Roberts: we don't want an ideologue on the Court.

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An end to filibustering judges

There is one point that the Bushies have been screaming that does actually have some merit. It is a disgrace that so many judicial nominees have been filibustered (or otherwise blocked from receiving an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor) in the last 13 years. Of course, it is also a disgrace that these two Presidents have nominated so many candidates against whom the opposition was willing to mount a filibuster.

The so-called Nuclear Option has been discussed, the idea being that 50 Senators can decide that they don't really need a 2/3 vote to change a rule that says they need 60 votes to approve a controversial nominee.

I thus propose the following modification to the Rules of the United States Senate:

Upon written request by at least one fifth of the members, the advice and consent of the Senate to the nomination of a federal judge shall require a two-thirds vote in the affirmative.
This rule can take effect immediately, with only a simple 2/3 vote of the Senate to pass it. If the Continental Congress could require unanimity for the Declaration of Independence, surely we can get a 2/3 vote for Supreme Court nominees.

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My comment on the Volokh Conspiracy

I just posted a lengthy comment on the Volokh Conspiracy website, in a thread about Judge Samuel Alito, Senator Dianne Feinstein, activist Cindy Sheehan, and Sheehan's pressure on Feinstein to support the filibuster against Alito.

I won't repeat the whole thing here, but let me just add a few things:

  • Having met Cindy Sheehan personally, I really don't think she's crazy. At the very least, I'm pretty sure she's less crazy than George W. Bush. And yes, I do find many things about her actions not only acceptable and respectable but laudable and generous.

  • Sheehan said that if Feinstein didn't support the filibuster against Alito, Sheehan would run for Senate against her. It would be ridiculously naïve to suggest that Sheehan could possibly unseat Feinstein, but her presence in the race would fuel the relentless media spotlight from an angle DiFi would not find flattering.

  • It is downright unpatriotic to suggest that it is a waste of time to seek consensus on the nomination of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. If it isn't worth taking the time to reach a consensus vote of either 50 against or 60 in favor of Judge Alito, then what on earth is worth discussing at all?

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A Sincere Compliment to President Bush

I thought I might expand jeest a li'l bit on what I was sayin' the other day 'bout nitpickin' and nitwits, or picnickin' pit-freaks, or some such. I feel that I should "accentuate the positive," as the song says, by highlightin' the sincere and heartfelt compliment — and declaration of loyalty — I pay to Alleged President George Walker Bush:
I take it as beyond question that George W. Bush is demonstrably more intelligent than the unborn egg of a pubic louse.
He may not have the smarts of a common housecat, but ya gotta admit, he's smarter than the average crab. Oh, that's not to say that President Bush is one of South Park's crab people, mind you; perish the thought! Those were an entirely different kind of crabs, the evil outer-space kind instead of the napalm-in-yer-pants kind.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

The anti-Fatah Intifada

The new political arm of Hamas (How do you say Sinn Fein in Arabic??) appears to have won a decisive victory in the Palestinian elections on Wednesday. Said Alleged President Bush, "I remind people, the elections, democracy is, can open up the world's eyes to reality by listening to the people," and "You'll hear a lot of people saying, 'Well, aren't we surprised at the outcome — or this, that, or the other'; if there is corruption, I'm not surprised if people say, Let's get rid of corruption." Yes, indeed, Mr. Bush, let's get rid of corruption. Excellent suggestion. We'll keep that in mind for November.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Stephen Colbert is destroying America

Right there on his television show, Russ Lieber's arch-nemesis Stepan Coldbear Stephen Colbert went and told the terrorists our dirty little secret: 도급은 매일 증가 이고, 노동자는 열심히 명중된다.

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Socks for President

There was a brief spate of discussion about the qualifications for becoming President of the United States last year, with a serious proposal to remove the requirement that the President be a natural-born citizen, primarily to enable California's Governor Arnold Schwanzenwanger to run in some future election.

I agree that we need to loosen the requirements, to lower the bar somewhat, since we've been plagued with over-qualified applicants. However, I would take a slightly different approach, in my own new 28th Amendment:
  1. The qualifications to hold the office of President in Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States are modified as follows. "No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, or a cat shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States, excepting a cat who shall have attained to the age of three years, and been one year a resident within the United States."

  2. The oath of office for the President in Article II, Section 1, is modified as follows: "Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation: 'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,' or 'Meow, meow, meow.'"
The purpose of this amendment is, as should be the case for all such trivialities as a Constitutional amendment, specific and narrowly limited. I firmly believe that the United States and the world were better served when the Clinton family resided in the White House, but Bill is ineligible (Felons get three strikes, but Presidents only get two!) and Hillary is, quite honestly, almost as polarizing a figure as Dubya. Chelsea won't be eligible until 2016, or she'd be my first pick. That just leaves America's sweetheart, Socks.

Socks Socks Clinton Groucho & Howard Groucho close-up Groucho

I even have the perfect running mate for Socks, on the Feline Prosperity ticket: my dear friend Groucho, pictured in the middle above with his pet Howard, with a face shot on the right. Groucho is no ordinary cat: he comes when you call his name, and he tells you in no uncertain terms exactly where he needs to be scratched or petted or massaged. Groucho's only condition for accepting the #2 spot on Socks' ticket is that Howard be named the Secretary of the new Department of Cat Food. [Howard also has an adults-only website of his own, although it's for a very specific segment of that market. Unless you're already accustomed to using terms like M4M, OTK, and Canadian School in casual conversation, you probably won't enjoy it much. Kids especially, you'll have much more fun over on the Degrassi web site or maybe Monsters, Inc. or Toy Story; trust me on this one.]

With Socks as President, we will bring back honor and integrity (and hairballs) to the White House. We can be assured that the I.Q. level in the Oval Office will rise dramatically, even before Bill Clinton arrives with the morning's PDB. We will finally have a President who gives thoughtful responses at press conferences. We will have a President who won't appoint Michael Brown or Harriet Miers or Charles Pickering, not even as dogcatcher! The only way to go is up.

If Socks becomes unable to perform his duties — most likely due to advancing age — Groucho will be able to step in at a "meowment's" notice.

I realize that The Third Path has already endorsed another candidate, Graham Norton, but regrettably we cannot elect President Norton without also opening the door to a future President Schwanzenwanger. Our ideal ticket of Graham Norton and Alan Cumming must thus remain only a dream. It's time to order new bumper stickers, I guess.

Conflict-of-interest disclaimer: I own a personally autographed photo of Socks, the value of which on eBay would surely skyrocket if he were nominated, not to mention if he were elected.

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A little morning Kofi with your Hamas?

Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations General Assembly, commented on the unofficial projections that Hamas won an outright majority of seats in the Palestinian parliamentary election. [Final results may take several hours or even a couple of days to announce.]

Any group that wishes to participate in the democratic process should ultimately disarm, because to carry weapons and participate in the democratic process and sit in Parliament — there is a fundamental contradiction, and I'm sure they are thinking about that, too.
The Palestinian people appear to have chosen Hamas over Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party. The challenge for the Palestinians, Hamas, Fatah, the Israelis, Likud, Labour, Kadima, and all other parties interested in the fate of Pisralestine, is to find a way to work together towards a negotiated peace.

The Egyptian Prime Minister had this to say:
We have a political process in place and I think we have to look at the positive sides of things and how they will develop later. At least the Palestinians went into a political process, they've chosen a new Parliament, they will have a new Cabinet in place. I think it's important that whoever comes because of that political process in place will be able to represent the Palestinians and will be able to deal with the tough issues ahead of them, irrespective of where they come from.
Thanks to the BBC World News for their thorough coverage of the election.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Stephen Colbert fixed Canada!

Oui, bien sûr, le faux-journaliste a libéré votre nation. Vive le Canada! Vive le Canada Libre! La Ruée de Calgary est arrivée en Ottawa!

Le sept novembre, deux mille cinq, Étienne Colbert a dit [avec sa traduction]:

I am Stephen Colbert.
Je m'appelle Étienne Colbért.
I have balls.J'ai des grands testicules.
If you're lucky, they might just rub off on you.Bonne Chance!
Puis, ce soir, le vingt-cinq janvier, il a dit [avec ma traduction]:
Well, looks like my balls rubbed all over Canada, 'cause they just elected a new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, an America-lovin', healthcare-dismantlin' Bush wannabe. He's a good guy, friend of the show, and I just want to point out that, in less than 3 months, I fixed Canada!Bien, il paraît que mes яйца ont frotté partout le Canada, parce qu'ils viennent d'élire un nouveau premier ministre, Stephen Harper, l'amoureux des États-Unis qui veut démanteler le système de soins-santé pour souhaiter devenir Bush. Il est un bon mec, un ami à notre programme, mais je veux préciser que, en moins de trois mois, j'ai fixé le Canada!
Yup, I fixed Canada in 77 days, but you helped, Nation: you changed the world the old-fashioned way — by watching a TV show.Ouai, j'ai fixé le Canada en soixante-dix-sept jours, mais vous avez m'aidé, Nation: vous avez changé le monde par la voie traditionnelle — par observer un programme sur la télé.
Mes dieux, merci d'Étienne Colbert!!

[Americans who don't speak a word of frahnsay, try the Pacific Gazetteer for the gods' own truth about Canadian politics.]

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Nitpicking Brokeback Mountain

Y'all know what a nit is or why ya might want to pick one? A nit is a louse, as in the singular of lice, specifically the egg that hasn't yet sprouted into a louse, and ya pick the nits out of yer hair (and yes, kids, getting them in the hairs "down there" is one o' the hazards o' gettin' real friendly with somebody ya don't know real well) because they itch worse than any flea bite if ya ever let 'em hatch. Probably not as bad an itch as a kid I knew who got chiggers in his ballsac, but bad enough.

I went to see the movie Brokeback Mountain right when it came out, and I ain't written 'bout it here yet, but that's 'cause I was disappointed in it. I think I should explain why I was disappointed, as well as why I still think it is a good movie worth seein' sev'ral times.

To start off with, on both the plus and minus columns, the stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, are among the best of the best of my fantasy guys, specifically the ones I would pay $10.50 to watch stare at their navels for an hour and forty-two minutes, but they also happen to be talented actors. The upside is that they make a real good-lookin' couple, but the downside is that I really want each of 'em for myself. I'm jealous of Jake for gettin' to be with Heath, I'm jealous of Heath for gettin' to be with Jake, and I hope they appreciate makin' my brain turn to Jell-O. I didn't feel the slow build of their love, both physically and emotionally, but that was because I was pre-occupied by my own unrequited dee-zahrs. (I don't mean to sound greedy, but it's a damned shame neither of 'em is gay in real life. I hope at least that their women friends appreciate their own good fortune.) I guess you could say I 'bout expected their little tent to literally burst into flames from the heat of their passion, so I was disappointed when it only sizzled.

Y'all should go and see this movie — and a few others — especially if you still think, even after Katrina and the Iraqi انتفاضة that Bush is still "doin' a heckuva job."

Oh, and a nitwit is somebody with the intelligence of an unborn louse, which is even dumber than George Dubya Bush, who's too much of a yella-bellied chicken snake to tell ya what he thinks of the movie, 'cause the Glorious Leader of the Free World is scared of a movie. He'd pro'bly go see Friday the 13th or Super Bowl eXtra-Large, but he's too chickenshit to see a story 'bout two all-American cowboys? Yer a wimp if ya run scared from a movin' pitchure, Mistress Prezzy-dent!

[Speakin' o' the Stupor Bowl, Cousin Curveball and I are really lookin' forward to seein' what Michael Moore can pull off at Ford Stadium. If they have any conejos, they'll put him in their official halftime show.]

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The Amazingly Tacky Race

I have a friend who is a great fan of The Amazing Race. He has been to the Pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall of China and many of the other exotic locales the contestants whizz past on their way to the next clue, and he enjoys being able to say, "I've been there!"

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which the race promotes the "Ugly American" stereotype. The contest forces the players to scream "Faster! Faster! I'm in a hurry!" to their taxi drivers and rush past cultural sites and sights in the search for a travel agent to get them the hell out of there to the next country on the list.

A recent installment offered a few glimmers of hope. The contestants all piled onto a small plane to fly over the African countryside, seeing a perspective on Africa that few serious travellers get. In essence, the producers compelled the players to take a moment to "smell the roses," to actually experience their surroundings. The next stop also offered a unique opportunity to experience the local culture, although every single one of the contestants blew it to some extent.

The challenge was to navigate a small town in India and serve tea from a traditional service cart to at least five out of a list of ten local businessfolk. It was an opportunity to experience at least a moment out of the everyday lives of ordinary Indians outside of Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore, and also an opportunity to place yourself for a moment in the role of servant instead of imperious overlord. One of the teams, a pair of grandparents, was even greeted by a throng of eager fans lavishing their affection on these two Americans. Had I been in their shoes, I would have paused a moment to express my thanks to the locals, and then asked them for their help in finding the people on the list. Then I would have served the tea to the first five of the people I could find, but I would have done so without the haste and the "Give me your business card NOW!" attitude. [The business card was the proof of service required to complete the challenge.] After I found the fifth person, I would have asked my fans for their help in delivering the tea to the remaining five names, giving the remaining tea to the gathered locals with my thanks for their assistance. If the owner of the tea concession had complained about my bringing back an empty tea pot and a scant few empty cups, only then would I have played the wealthy tourist card by apologizing and offering to pay out of my own pocket for the losses.

The problem is, I probably would've lost that leg of the race to an elbow-in-the-ribs win-at-all-costs team, and that is precisely the problem with the show. I wish that the producers would find some way to structure the challenges to tilt the playing field against "Ugly American" behaviors. The contestants would benefit, the image of American tourists would benefit, and I even believe it would make better television.

When I travel to a foreign country, even just for a few hours, I try to learn at least a pinch of their language and culture. Most basic is "Do you speak English?" in the local language. Better yet, "I do not speak [your language]," plus please and thank you. Those four simple phrases will open doors for you that won't open for a wad of Yankee greenbacks. 我不講中文, but I don't expect everyone in the world to speak English for my convenience.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

O Canada, Terre de Mes Haïe-jeux

The people of Canada have spoken. The Conservatives, led by Calgary's Stephen Harper, will be forming a new coalition government. Harper has expressed his own personal opposition to both abortion and gay marriage, although he has promised not to challenge the legal status of abortion in Canada. He has suggested, however, that he might ask Parliament to revisit the issue of gay marriage, although that seems likely to be an empty threat, since 8 of the 10 provinces, representing almost 90% of the country's population, sanctioned gay marriage before the federal government finally acted to legalize it nationwide in July 2005.

The mandate given to Harper's Conservative government, though, is even more tenuous than George W. Bush's mandate in the United States. The Tories won only 40% of the seats in Parliament, and the left-leaning NDP jumped from 18 to 29 seats. The loser was the scandal-riven Liberal Party, which had held power for 13 years.

Even though Harper has pledged to be Dubya's bitch, the election in Canada does not entirely augur well for the Republicans south of the border. The effect of the ethical cloud over the ruling Liberal Party should have the GOP more than a little worried heading into this fall's U.S. election, and Harper will be quite limited in his attempts to kowtow to his Washington overlords because of the minority status of his government. Although Canada will tone down its anti-American rhetoric and may even squander some of its military budget on Bush's delusions of a North American missile shield, there is no possibility of seeing Canadian troops in Baghdad or Fallujah any time soon.

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500,000 Little Pieces

I'm almost exactly halfway through James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces, in which he discusses in graphic — and mostly truthful — detail his experiences with drug addiction and rehab. Yes, I've heard about The Smoking Gun's exposé of the embellishments on what was sold as 100% truth. Yes, I bought the book and am still reading it because it was featured on Oprah; her October interview with James Frey recently re-ran. Yes, I'm still reading the book, even though I now know that some of the important details are exaggerated or even fabricated entirely.

James Frey 1992 mugshot

But really, what do you expect from a crack addict? Unadulterated truth?

I've never known any crack addicts personally, but I have known several crystal meth (speed, Tina, crank, tweak) addicts, one of whom was also rather fond of heroin, at least until it killed him. That was my friend Miss Violet Plague, also known to many as Tug, a nickname his parents gave him as an infant for his favorite pastime involving his private parts. Hardly anyone knew him as Frank — outside the criminal justice system, anyway. The name Violet Plague was one he chose himself. Violet was a remarkably creative artistic sort, but also a remarkably obnoxious drunk. His body chemistry came with a simple volume switch: add alcohol to make him louder, add marijuana to quiet him down again. I did my best not to know the effects of speed and heroin on his personality. On one occasion he had been crashing on my sofa for a few days when he announced that, out of respect for my household, he was going to go out and about to do some things he knew I didn't approve of. I wasn't sure exactly what he meant, but I figured it had something to do with finding a vein, so I told him that I'd really rather he not come back still under the influence. My home has a "Speed Limit Zero" policy: not on you, not in you. Violet was very polite and agreeable, respecting my house rules, but all the same he wanted the drugs more than he wanted a roof over his head, so he made plans to visit some other friends for a few days.

Miss Violet even realized the havoc that bad drugs were wreaking in his life, and set about to pull himself out of the gutter in the best way he knew how. He performed a voudoun ritual, invoking every god, demigod, and demon with whom he felt he had some connection, and pledged his very life on a pact: get me a place to live and something to live on, and I will find a way to stay off the speed and the heroin. I won't speculate which loa came through for him, but he managed to get subsidized housing and SSI benefits, just before Christmas 2002. On New Year's Eve, he went out to celebrate his good fortune and his last night of homelessness with one last fling of narcotic bliss. He never saw the sun rise on 2003. Voudoun demigods and demons don't take kindly to being trifled with, I guess.

Some of Miss Violet's ashes now reside on an altar in a pagan sanctuary. The last time I visited, I left a cigarette (one of her less troublesome addictions) pinned underneath the bottle of ashes. I told the others at the sanctuary that if they were ever jonesing for a cigarette, they only had to quite literally pry it from Violet's cold dead hands. I think you'd have to be pretty desperate for a nic fix to take up that bargain.

So I started reading A Million Little Pieces with Miss Violet in mind, as well as a couple of other speed freaks I've known over the years. As The Smoking Gun makes excruciatingly clear, James Frey has a talent for embellishing his encounters with The Law. I don't doubt that some of his other anecdotes were magnified by the lens of literary license. However, much of his elucidation of the inner workings of an addict's mind, rings true to what I've seen in my friends. He delves into the immense emptiness, beyond all hope of filling, that an addict feels.

I've never been an addict, and I've never used the addictive substances Frey tells about (cocaine, methamphetamines, PCP, and glue); I have had alcohol, but never to the point of passing out, much less considering myself an alcoholic. No needle has ever gone into my veins except on a doctor's orders. I've never been to the bottom of the abyss of despair, but I have many times stood on its brink and peered into the darkness, and even occasionally walked a ways down the well-worn trail. I have known the feeling of being completely alone, even in a sea of other people, including family and friends. I have known the emotional certainty that life will never get better, held in check only by the feeble voice of reason telling me to hold on. I've never been arrested for anything worse than 68 in a 55 [110 km/h in a 90 zone], but that's largely thanks to the mercy of the juvenile justice system on a non-violent teenage first offender. I faced a police detective who was determined to have me tried as an adult and sent to grown-up prison; tough guy that I was, I'm sure I would've lasted at least 10 or 12 hours. (Fortunately for me, the officer's superiors didn't share his lust for vengeance, so I got off with probation and psychotherapy and no formal criminal record.) I've entertained the fantasy of being the last human colonist left on Mars, with no one to talk to, but also no one to talk at me. I've never held a gun to my head, but I've often gone to bed wondering why I should bother waking up the next day. Sometimes it's only inertia that keeps me going.

I'd like to tell you about another addict friend of mine, though. He's still alive, last I heard, so I'll just call him Twinkie, since he pretty well embodied that archetype. He grew up in SoCal and moved to San Francisco when he was 18. He was already quite a party boy by that time; when I first met him, he was reclining naked in a leather sling suspended from the ceiling, enjoying the company of a procession of men who happened to wander by that corner of the dungeon. He finally stopped not because of exhaustion or running out of safer-sex supplies, but because he accidentally poured a bottle of poppers up his nose instead of leaning forward to sniff the fumes. (I hate poppers. Just being in the same room with them gives me a sick headache.) Even though I didn't join the procession of men — I prefer to seek sexual congress with partners who view me as something more than "Next!" — I chatted him up while he was getting some fresh air on the back porch. He was cute and bouncy and quite affectionate, and we even had some non-sexual interests in common. I didn't see him again for about four years, though; I gather he bounced back and forth between SoCal and NorCal, but finally came back to SF and checked into rehab.

In the interim, Twinkie had managed to get his own apartment and a computer system capable of doing video editing. On the minus side, he had become addicted to crystal meth and he had been infected with HIV — the one causing the other. As part of his rehab program, he had to submit urine samples for drug testing, but he managed to work around that obstacle. I don't know if he gave up on rehab or vice-versa, but eventually he was back to using. He called me one day as he was coming down off of a four-day speed binge — 96 hours without sleep. I walked him over to Burger King® and bought him a Whopper®, but I also told him a couple of things that I felt needed saying. First of all, if he was only going to call me in the bad times, I wasn't up for that. Friends share good times and bad times. Secondly, he needed to find some way to stop using speed. I told him, I know it's not as simple as "Just say No!" and I don't know that 12 Steps is the answer either, but one way or another he had to find some way to stop. About three weeks later, he called and told me that he had moved to Washington, D.C.

Three years rolled by without word from Twinkie, so I pretty much assumed he had OD'd or succumbed to HIV/AIDS or somehow died an ignoble death. I saw him at a party and found out he had moved back to SF more than two years earlier, without bothering to drop me a line. So much for sharing the good times. On the other hand, I don't know how good the good times are with him any more — he had gone in less than a decade from bouncy, photogenic teenager to haggard, care-worn twentysomething going on 50. It was as if every puff from the crystal meth pipe burned another day off his life, with the HIV and the HIV meds to compound the effect.

Given what I know about them both, I'd much rather spend an afternoon with James Frey than with Twinkie, even if Twinkie is still prettier. Even though James Frey plays fast and loose with some of his biographical details, his tale of addiction and renewal rings truer than Twinkie's hollow life. I also read James Frey and think about Miss Violet Plague and what he could have done with his life.

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America dodged a bullet with Charles Pickering

In all the commotion around Judge Samuel Alito and his nomination to the Supreme Court, a name has resurfaced from a couple of years ago, Charles Pickering. Alleged President Bush nominated Judge Pickering to the federal appeals court twice (he was rejected the first time) and then installed him as a recess appointment two years ago. Fortunately for America, Judge Pickering served less than a year on the appeals court before retiring. Last week, he gave an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network that sheds considerable light on why all Americans should be grateful that this man no longer wears a judge's robes.

Judge Pickering portrays the opposition to his nomination as grounded entirely in his Christian faith, which is quite simply bearing false witness against his opponents — his Christian faith apparently allows Pickering to violate that particular commandment. In fact, opposition to Pickering centered on issues such as his having been reversed 15 times on appeal for violating "well-settled principles of law."

Pickering goes on to say in the interview,

I would change the Constitution. I would get away from this concept of a "Living Constitution" and say that in the future the Constitution can only be changed, as contemplated by the Founders, the amendment process: judges cannot change the meaning of the Constitution by judicial decision. That would take away these hot-button social issues that have made confirmations so controversial. Judges would not be legislating but they would be deciding and interpreting the Constitution rather than changing the Constitution.
That is not only the view of a man who should never have made it onto the federal bench — much less the appeals court — but it is the view of a man who should never have passed his pre-law courses in college.

I haven't yet made up my mind on Judge Alito's nomination, as to whether he's closer to a Charles Pickering or a John Roberts, but Judge Pickering serves to remind us all of what a poor judge of character George W. Bush has proven to be.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

An Especially Cynical Scam E-mail

I get quite a lot of spam and don't even bother to look at most of it, but today one caught my eye. It appears at first glance to be an appeal from a children's charity, but in fact it's a scammer trying to steal your credit card information.

This particular scam targets the Children's Hunger Relief Fund of UNICEF, but that detail is incidental. The scam uses images loaded directly from the CHRF web site to make it appear to be an authentic appeal for aid for children in countries like Rwanda, Kenya, and Sudan, but the link to donate actually goes to a hijacked web site that calls itself "GOD REGINS." [their typo, not mine!]

The CHRF is real, and UNICEF is real, and both send desperately needed aid to children in some of the most devastated communities in the world, so how can you tell whether an e-mail like the one I received is authentic?

The first tip-off is right in the main headers of the message. The return address is childrenshungerelief@msn.com and the e-mail was sent through hotmail.com. There's nothing particularly suspicious about an individual using MSN or Hotmail for personal e-mail, but no serious charity would do either. A more subtle point is that the e-mail originated in Israel, with a British cellphone as a contact number, and a web site in Los Angeles. The hijacked web site domain name, ereigns.com, is unregistered, besides which it is a "dot-com" for a charity — very unlikely. If you pull up the web site, it becomes even more obvious that it is a scam. The United Nations would not risk alienating people of all the various religions of the world by calling its web portal "GODREIGNS AGENCY," and more importantly, the site asks you for your credit card number and other details, but never asks for a donation amount, never tells you what you're buying, and provides no street address, telephone number, or other information about the entity that will bill you some unknown amount.

There are children starving in many parts of the world. I encourage you to support CHRF or other responsible charities, but I also encourage you to watch out for scams that may try to exploit your generosity without sending a single penny to starving children.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Signs of Hope in Iraq and America

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR [cair-net.org], has sent a delegation to Iraq to encourage the captors of American freelance journalist Jill Carroll to free her unharmed. "[CAIR] are the only people who have come from outside of Iraq to call for Jill's release and we are very hopeful [the kidnappers] will hear our message on behalf of American Muslims. Harming her will do them no good at all. The only way is to release her."

CAIR has been stepping up to the plate for some time now, taking an increasingly vocal stand against the extremist views of the small minority of Moslems represented by Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and others like them. CAIR has offered to send anyone in America a copy of the Qu'ran (Koran) in side-by-side translation, to dispel the many misconceptions most Americans have about Islam. I saw portions of CAIR's national conference on C–SPAN last month, and I was impressed by all the speakers.

The battle for the soul of America is not between Christianity and Islam. For one thing, the United States is not now, nor has it ever been, a Christian nation, although the majority of Americans are Christians. We are and always have been a secular nation, dedicated to the principle of religious freedom. Likewise, Islam is not about holy wars to purge the infidels from the face of the earth, or even from the greater caliphate. Islam is about dedication to a religious faith that values tolerance, respect, and peace. Specifically, kidnapping an innocent person is a grievous sin under Islam.

The true enemy is narrow-minded extremism, no matter the direction of the extreme. Osama bin Laden twists a few selected passages of the Qu'ran into a message of violence and hatred. Pat Robertson twists a few selected passages of the Old Testament into a message of division and retribution. George W. Bush twists a few selected passages of the U.S. Constitution into a message of fear and absolute authority. All three forms of extremism pose a grave threat to the United States and to the world.

I stand shoulder to shoulder with CAIR against the extremist forces from, towards, and within the United States. I stand shoulder to shoulder with CAIR against the extremist forces from, towards, and within Islam. I stand shoulder to shoulder with CAIR, facing two extremes and seeking a Third Path.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Alito and McClellan

Wednesday's Daily Show with Jon Stewart highlighted a sound bite from Alleged President Bush's Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

The frivolous lawsuits that you reference [civil liberties groups and others suing Alleged President Bush, claiming that the warrantless surveillance of U.S. persons is not only illegal but unconstitutional] do nothing to help enhance civil liberties or protect the American people.
I know that it's difficult to look beyond the headline sometimes, but read my analysis of Judge Alito's dissent in the case that is referred to by the "strip-search of a 10-year-old girl." To me, the most disturbing aspect of the case was that Judge Alito argued that an unambiguously facially deficient search warrant was completely valid. The primary issue in Doe v. Groody wasn't whether or not the warrant was valid — both parties agreed that it was flawed — but solely whether the police officers involved reasonably believed it to be valid at the time of the search. If Alito had stopped there, at the facts of the case before him, he could have made the winning argument that it was the judge's responsibility more than the police officers to notice the defects in the warrant. Instead, he overreached, arguing, against an impressive array of Supreme Court precedents, that there were no defects in the warrant. Alito went out of his way to be an activist appellate judge.

By the same token, if Scott McClellan had simply said, "We believe that the surveillance program is entirely within the President's authority under the Constitution and the laws of the United States," then it might have been reasonable to suggest that at least the Bush administration believes that it is operating within the law. However, the fact that he so egregiously overreached, stating that any suggestion that the President might have overstepped was "frivolous," serves only to fuel the reasonable belief that the President knowingly violated the Constitution.

Saying that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated" constrains the President's actions, is not the least bit frivolous. Scott McClellan could offer the Bush administration a life ring by falling on his sword for that gaffe, but one way or another, America cannot have a spokesman for the President of the United States suggest that it is frivolous to defend the Bill of Rights.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Unwarranted Eavesdropping

I've given a great deal of thought over the last couple of weeks to the issue of electronic eavesdropping on "U.S. persons" by the U.S. government. Alleged President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to listen in on certain telephone calls and other electronic communications to or from the United States with known or suspected terrorists, completely without judicial oversight of any kind.

The FISA law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, permits the President to order such wiretaps with only one restriction: he must get the approval of a judge within 72 hours after beginning the eavesdropping. The court proceedings for issuing those warrants are classified and immune from public scrutiny — a departure from our national tradition of openness in the administration of justice, necessary to protect national security. However, the fact that a judge must still authorize (at least retroactively) all surveillance of U.S. persons, provides a bulwark against the obvious temptation to abuse and overreach that authority.

Alleged President Bush and his administration claim that the wiretapping is permitted by a variety of legal theories, each of which is transparently false.

  1. Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution makes the President the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, giving him the authority to order them to do anything necessary in the defense of our country. As the Supreme Court pointed out to President Truman, the President is not the Commander in Chief of the entire nation, only of the armed forces, and the NSA is not part of the armed forces. Furthermore, Article I, Section 8, explicitly gives Congress the power to regulate the conduct of members of the armed forces, thus constraining the President's authority. Beyond that, the vague grant of authority in Article II cannot trump the explicit denial of authority in the Fourth Amendment: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated."

  2. The Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress immediately after 2001-09-11 gives the President the authority to take "all necessary measures" to defend the United States against terrorism. First of all, the Congress considered and explicitly rejected language in the AUMF that would have given the President unbridled authority within the United States. Second, the Congress cannot give the President permission to violate an explicit Constitutional prohibition.

  3. The USA PATRIOT Act somehow authorized the President to do whatever he wants as long as he pretends it's necessary to protect us against TERRORISM. Nowhere does the Patriot Act give the President the authority to conduct domestic wiretaps without court approval.
Should the federal government be listening in on the telephone conversations, e-mails, and other communications of people suspected of connection to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups? ABSOLUTELY!

HOWEVER, that eavesdropping MUST be subject to CONTINUOUS and VIGOROUS oversight by the judicial branch of our government. Anything less is unacceptable in a Constitutional democracy, no matter how extreme the external threat.

The alleged President and his apologists often point to the lack of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 2001-09-11 as "proof" that the alleged President's policies are in fact protecting us. He might as well argue that the Patriot Act is protecting us against little green men from Alpha Centauri, since we also haven't been attacked by them [that we know of] on Bush's watch. The last previous al Qaeda attack on American soil was the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Al Qaeda has attacked American forces and American interests abroad several times since 2001. Undoubtedly, the administration has blocked some terrorist attacks, probably including some on our own soil, but the fact that some competent officials are doing their job does not excuse the fact that incompetent officials at the top are failing to do their job and failing to abide by their oath to uphold, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The use of unaccountable, warrantless searches does not make me feel any safer; indeed, it makes me feel less safe, because it suggests that the administration is not only overreaching its legal authority, but also more than likely doing so in a less than competent manner. If the alleged President does not immediately terminate this unlawful program — and perhaps even if he does — then he must be impeached and removed from office.

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We did the right thing, executing Clarence Allen

Clarence Allen, convicted of ordering from prison the murder of a witness to the earlier murder for which he was in that prison, was put to death in the wee hours of this morning.

I oppose the death penalty. I as an individual do not have a right to revenge, and nor should the state, even with due process of law. However, there are a tiny few cases where an individual must resort to deadly force to protect him or herself, and likewise every once in a great while there is a criminal whose threat to society cannot be contained by prison walls. Pope John Paul II said that the death penalty was a sin except "in cases of absolute necessity — in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." [Evangelium Vitæ, 1995-03-25] I took a similar position regarding Tookie Williams last month.

Clarence Allen was already in prison for life for murder. He ordered the murder of a witness to his earlier murder, as part of a scheme to overturn the first conviction. He protested his innocence to the very end, but his claims rang hollow. Yes, he dragged his appeals to the point where he was a broken man, but how can we defend society against the likes of Clarence Allen? Murdering a witness is even worse than murdering a cop. When I was watching one of the Barrington riots unfold in Berkeley in 1990, I was struck that the police who responded — including mutual aid from Hayward to UCSF to UC-Davis to East Bay Regional Parks — expected to be at the focus of confrontation, but the unruly crowd crossed the line when they began throwing rocks and bricks at the firefighters who were trying to put out the bonfire that was literally burning the asphalt off the surface of the street. The cops quite rightly saw it as their job to meet the rabble-rousers eye-to-eye, but the firefighters were out of bounds. That is not at all to say that it is the cops' job to die in the line of duty — quite the opposite. It is to say, though, that killing a civilian witness is an even greater crime than killing a police officer, just as raping a 5-year-old is a far worse crime than raping a 25-year-old.

Officials at San Quentin Prison were prepared for a number of contingencies, most notably the possibility that Clarence Allen might have a heart attack or some other medical emergency before his 12:01 a.m. execution appointment. In that case, Allen would have been resuscitated and his condition stabilized so that he could be executed, and that is as it should be.

Some people believe that the death penalty is always immoral, and I respect that view, even though I do not share it. However, I cannot fathom the logic of people who support the death penalty in general, but who argue that Clarence Allen should have been spared. Subjecting Clarence Allen to the death penalty in his agèd infirmity is absolutely not one whit more "cruel and unusual" than putting Tookie Williams or Jaturun Siripongs to death. It is certainly no more "cruel and unusual" than executing Manual Babbitt or Thomas Martin Thompson, nor especially is it any more "cruel and unusual" than denying Darrell Young Elk Rich's last request for a sacred sweat lodge before his execution. Allen's claims of innocence were less plausible than O.J. Simpson's. Allen's old age and general decrepitude were not the fault of the state of California, but of his own cynical gaming of the appeals process. If we are ever going to execute anyone, then Clarence Allen is near the very top of the list, even ahead of maniacs like Charles Manson.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

From Selma to Monrovia, Happy MLK Day

In the United States, today is MLK Day, in honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who ultimately gave his life in furtherance of his dream "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'" Dr. King was born on 1929-01-15, and today we celebrate his legacy.

Liberia is a small west-African nation created by white Americans to deal with the issues posed by freed slaves and their descendants. In the mid-19th century, some of those free Negroes returned to Africa and established settlements. Of course, many of the locals viewed these settlers as usurpers — indeed, their organization was called the American Colonization Society — but eventually Liberia gained broad recognition as an independent nation. Unfortunately, in recent years, Liberia has been devastated by decades of civil war, thanks to the misleadership of Presidents Tolbert, Doe, Sawyer, and the infamous Charles Taylor. In November 2005, Liberia elected a new President in its first proper election in a generation. The victor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was sworn in this afternoon.

President Johnson-Sirleaf is the first female head of state in modern African history. It is a fitting coïncidence that she should be inaugurated on MLK Day, as we move towards a world where the truth will be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Prattlestar Galaxative comes of age

As a boy, I watched the TV series Battlestar Galactica, setting aside the obvious problems with the plot, the dialog, some of the characters, and the cheesy special effects. When I heard that the Sci-Fi Channel was resurrecting Galactica, I held out little hope that it would be worth the effort. After all, I didn't even bother to see the re-make of Lost in Space, even as a DVD rental. There was nothing in the original Lost in Space worth salvaging. However, I have been nothing short of astonished with what the Sci-Fi Channel has managed to pull off. Gone are the sugar-coated dumbed-down worldview and the little boy with the robot dog, replaced with three-dimensional good guys and three-dimensional bad guys, serious plot development, and grown-up dialog. The highest compliment I can pay the new Galactica is that it is everything I ever imagined the original could be, and more.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Alito and the Concerned Alumni, again

I wrote earlier about "Alito's Mad-CAP Adventures," Judge Samuel Alito's association with the so-called Concerned Alumni of Princeton. As expected, the subject came up during Alito's confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court.

CAP was an organization formed in 1972, disbanded in 1986, devoted to returning Princeton University to its "traditional" ways. Princeton went co-ed in 1969, and was also in the midst of a number of other transformations in the composition of its undergraduate body. Princeton, even into the 1950's, had a well-documented bias against Jews, and was generally a school where wealthy white men had little need (or opportunity) to mingle with other socioeconomic strata. Affirmative action, coeducation, and a consistent effort to recruit students from outside the northeastern prep-school circuit, all contributed to a campus where sons of wealthy alumni were routinely denied admission in favor of the unwashed masses with high SAT scores.

Although CAP was entirely and overwhelmingly anti-coeducation — contrary to the claims of people like former board member Judge Andrew Napolitano — its greatest complaint was in the decline of "legacy" admissions. Alumni children who had dutifully trudged off to hoity-toity boarding schools were being shoved aside in favor of women, Negroes, Jews, homosexuals, and (gasp!) public-school students with the academic merit but not the financial wherewithal — much less the family pedigree — to attend an Ivy League school.

I know rather a lot about CAP, particularly during the era when Sam Alito highlighted his membership as a qualification to work in the Reagan administration Justice Department, because I was a student at Princeton from 1981 to 1985, and copies of CAP's Prospect magazine were delivered gratis to the dorms. The undergrads greatly enjoyed reading Prospect, learning about a time when Princeton was all about making connections with your fellow future captains of industry, rather than about silly distractions like education. We also enjoyed reading some of the letters CAP members (most notably Charles Huber, class of 1951) wrote to the campus newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, or to the official alumni magazine, Princeton Alumni Weekly.

Judge Alito's explanation of his once-proud association with an organization he now shuns, is wholly unsatisfactory. In the mid-1980's, CAP was quite rightly viewed as sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, elitist, and generally completely out of touch with 20th-century reality. His membership in CAP is clearly a deep stain on Sam Alito's personal character, and it also casts into question his claims that his sympathies lie with working-class folks who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, since those people are the very ones CAP fought so hard to put back in their place. "Princeton Charlie" (the respectable but academically mediocre stereotypical student of days gone by) was not the son even of college-educated immigrants. In his opening statement, Judge Alito said, "I saw some very smart people and very privileged people behaving irresponsibly," but it was precisely those irresponsible privileged people that CAP sought to protect.

All the same, I believe that this issue is mainly a sidebar, a detail in the exploration of his personal character. It is my hope that the confirmation hearings will focus more directly on his judicial opinions, such as the controversial "strip-search of a 10-year-old girl" case, and to vital issues such as his views on the balance of power among the three branches of the federal government, as well as between the federal and state governments. Those are the issues that will ultimately mark whether Sam Alito is suitable for our nation's highest court.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

MacWorld, Intel, Hitler, and Colbert

I spent a big chunk of today at MacWorld Expo in San Francisco, trying to get an up-close look at the new Intel-based Apple Macintoshes. I'm also still trying to reconcile Apple's old PowerPC rhetoric with their new Intel rhetoric: is the PowerPC RISC architecture drastically more efficient than the Intel CISC architecture, or not? Still, the specs on the new machines are quite impressive, and running PC programs on a Mac will no longer require clunky, painfully slow software emulation, but just a patch for the system calls. It will be interesting to watch the new generation of Macs unfold.

After MacWorld Expo, I went to see The Producers, the new movie version of the Broadway play version of the 38-year-old movie about Broadway plays. "It's springtime for Hitler and Germany; It's winter for Poland and France...." It's a brilliant show, and as timely a story as ever.

Then I watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, leaving tonight's Nightline plus the Alito hearings plus some other stuff for later viewing. I'll leave you for now with Colbert's closing segment.
You know, a couple of Ivy League economists recently reached some disturbing conclusions about the Iraq war. Normally, I don't trust the Ivy League, but one of these guys won a Nobel Prize, and in my book that's dynamite. (I got that joke from Sam Alito. Confirm him, Senate!) Anyway, these economists estimate that the war will wind up costing the U.S. over $1 trillion, which is why tonight I place upon my bookshelf this piggy bank, and place into its bowels this crisp $1 bill. There you go; delicious. Now, everyone knows that if you start with $1 in the bank and double it every year, you'll get to $1 trillion at some distant time. We might be engulfed by the Sun at that point. So to the next generation I pass this buck symbolically — and literally. You see, there's one thing the Bush administration was very clear on: it's that we would not need to sacrifice at home for this war. So, kids, it's up to you. Around 2050, smash this thing open, see how many dollars are in there, and then trade them for Sino-American Super-Yuans, 'cause I think that's all the Chinese are gonna take. And for those of you over 40: don't sweat it — this one is on the young-uns. So turn up the thermostat, leave the water running, and snuggle into bed.
Actually, if you double Stephen's dollar every year, you'll reach one trillion in the year 2046, with almost a hundred billion to spare, but that leaves us with a little extra for coke and hookers to share with our favorite politico.

With that, I leave you to another night of peaceful slumber, for tomorrow is another shopping spree in the magical land of computer toys.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

MacWorld Blogger Lunch

Remember the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the man behind the curtain talks about "hobnobbing with my fellow wizards"? Well, today I rubbed elbows with a few of my fellow bloggers. I had a bit of an adventure finding them, because I think there may have been two different MacWorld Blogger Lunches today. After not finding the 11:30 A.M. crowd, I wandered off in search of a terminal so I could google the details again. I found the information about the 12:30 P.M. seating and then went to get food before I collapsed of hunger. I found some (self-described) annoyingly cheerful people, some people from companies like Blogger itself (finding new and better ways to make it easy for people like me to blather endlessly) and Laughing Squid (underground art / culture / web hosting), and several people who forgot to bring business cards. We talked, we laughed, we didn't cry but I'll pretend we did, we schmoozed. But then, all too soon, our clique began to dissolve, to wander off by ones and twos and threes, to other meetings, to the Expo floor, or, in my case, off to Kaiser Permanente to find out how my cholesterol is doing.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

John Spencer (Leo McGarry)

Tonight's West Wing was prefaced with an unhappy announcement. Actor John Spencer, who excelled in roles from an airman in a missile silo in Wargames to chief of staff turned VP candidate Leo McGarry on West Wing, died last month. In parallel to his character, the real John Spencer was a recovering alcoholic. Leo McGarry also had a heart attack last season, and the real John Spencer died of a heart attack four days short of his 59th birthday. Although he wasn't a "leading man" type, he was a reliable character actor who made a solid contribution to every film he performed in. He will be sorely missed.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006


Well, I was itchin' to introduce mahself durin' the Rose Bowl. See, I spent the first 18 years of mah lahf livin' in Texiss, so I was sorely hopin' for some sort of a dee-vahn miracle to bring the #2 Longhorns to the drubbing they so richly deserve, and at the hands of the University of Spoiled Children.

However, I naïvely assumed that a big, bad foo-ball game like the freakin' Rose Bowl might've been, oh, I don't know, on a weekend, so I was taken unawares-like when I tuned in just in time to watch the Trojans get dicked by the Schlonghorns. Then, of course, I was in shock that Allah or Satan or Pat Robertson or Ted Stevens or the Flying Spaghetti Monster could abandon the left-thinking people of America by allowing the very embodiment of what is wrong with George Walker Bush to pull a fucking upset victory.

I mean, really, in Texiss, "Born-again Christian" is the #2 religion, behind Foo-ball. When I was a little tyke in north Dull-as-a-Tick's-ass, there were two Astroturf® foo-ball fields in the whole Dee-Eff-Dubya Metroplexxx: one belonged to the Dallas Cob-eyes Pro-feshanal Foo-ball Club (for whom I am named!), and the other belonged to the Plano Independent School District. Those poor PISD-off people decided that their only possible redemption from living in hell on earth, was to win the state haah-school foo-ball champeenship, twelve years running! (No, they didn't make it, but they shore as hell-fahr trah'd!) They graduated over 1,600 seniors out of only one high school in one year. The sole reason was that by having that large a pool to draw upon, they were sure to have a superior foo-ball team. If the boys happened to get an education in between foo-ball practices, that was just gravy, and the main function of the girls was to cheer the boys on to foo-ball glory.

You might have heard about Plano, Texas, for several other reasons. A whole string of high school kids committed suicide there, falling one-by-one like deadly dominoes. It was exactly what we were afraid of if Vietnam "went Red," only real life, and in our own suburbs. The ones that weren't killing themselves, were shooting up smack. None of that pansy-ass marijuana or even cocaine for those rich kids; they wanted heroin. But really, what else was there to do in suburban Plano, Texas, in the 1980s? The other thing that put Plano, Texas, on the map is that a man by the name of George Walker Bush lived there between the time Daddy moved up to the Oval and the time Junior became governor of Texas. That's where he lived when he single-handedly guided the Texiss Rangers Baseball franchise to victory before showing the world how a state government should be run. Leave no mentally retarded child behind, on death row!

So all of that operated as backdrop for my Rose Bowl experience. The provincial hick attitude so deeply personified by New Haven / Andover / Yale's finest, needed its comeuppance. Sadly, the gods don't always bet on the right team in foo-ball. After all, losing by 3 still would've beat the spread for the boys in Burnt Orange. I don't blame USC; it's not their fault that they let the Enemies of Freedom win the Rose Bowl.

So anyway, that was what I wanted to use to introduce myself, but the moment slid by before I could finish writing it. I therefore have a second topic tonight: Recycling.

I've been thinking a lot about recycling lately, and more broadly America's unconscionable greed in terms of natural resources and indifference to pollution. It occurred to me that you can break people down into three basic recycling categories:
  1. people who turn in every bottle and can they find because they want the 2½¢ each

  2. people who try to recycle every bottle and can, but don't much care about the 2½¢ unless they buy by the case


  3. people who just don't much care what happens as long as it's NIMBY.
Myself, I fall into category #2. One time, when I was fresh out of both college and Cal-PIRG, I took my empties down to the recycling station. By the time I accounted for gasoline and the value of my time, I had enough profit left over to buy a single gummi worm. Now I leave the recycling for someone else to pick up. If I find a recyclable can on the street, I'd sooner give it to a guy with a cart full of them than throw it in the trash.

It occurred to me, though, that it is an unreasonable burden to expect me to actually go out and find a homeless crazy person (who else would try to make a living picking up other people's litter??) when I finish a refreshing canned beverage. (For me, it's more likely a Grape Nehi than a Budweiser, but to each his own.) The essence of simplicity would be to simply open my window to the street and toss the empty can, confident that someone will snatch it up before it can clatter to the pavement.

Unfortunately, though, especially with Mayor Newsom's little Care Not Cash program, there just don't seem to be as many homeless people around, although the core of raving lunatic crazy people stubbornly persist. In any case, there simply aren't enough homeless people in San Francisco to adequately cover every single window in the city so that discarded cans will be collected immediately. I therefore propose that we hire a battallion of assistant homeless people — at below-poverty-level wages, of course — to fill in the gaps in our aluminum can safety net. After all, it is vitally important to our civic security to have no aluminum can left behind.

Of course, paying even starvation wages to this mass of pseudo-homeless people will require some source of public revenue. I therefore propose to pay their salaries with the proceeds from raising the Muni fare to $4.50, and adding a $3 surcharge to all BART journeys that begin and end within San Francisco. It's only fair that transit riders assume a disproportionate share of the burden, after all. Any excess revenue collected will be returned to the citizens in the form of a rebate on the gasoline tax.

With this simple one-time measure, subject to renewal every 99 years, we will secure economic justice, environmental paradise, social harmony, blissful mental health, and cheap shopping at Wal-Mart for our children and our grandchildren. Amen.

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Merry Orthodox Christmas

Today is Christmas Day, if you're Eastern Orthodox, so I thought I should mention it here. The Eastern Orthodox (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, etc.) churches still observe Christmas on December 25th by the Julian calendar, which is January 7th by the Gregorian calendar. In the year 2101, Orthodox Christmas will move to January 8th, because 2100 is a leap year in the Julian but not the Gregorian calendar. The date didn't change this century because both calendars agreed that 2000 was a leap year.

Of course, it's all just an approximation to the (northern hemisphere) winter solstice, which now falls on December 21 by the Gregorian calendar. Even if you believe that Jesus Christ was a specific historical individual, no reliable record exists of his exact date of birth, so the decision was made to have a party in the winter when people tend to feel gloomy. Drinking eggnog in the middle of summer would be just plain silly.

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It's Nightline All Day

The holiday season, or, as we pagan hippie freaks call it, "Christmas Week," has given me something of a backlog of source material, even with the lengthy hiatus (singular or plural) for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, so I spent most of today watching Nightline going back about a month. Some of them I had seen already, but several were nights I had missed the show. Watching Nightline and the Bush administration, I feel like I'm watching in slow motion as a tiny leak in a dam turns into a full-scale breach.

It is becoming more and more difficult for anyone to argue that Alleged President Bush has a good track record on much of anything.

Why, then, is the public response still so apathetic? It's the political version of battered wife syndrome.

Never mind your political views, the inescapable reality is that George W. Bush is not doing a good job. He didn't do a good job of making sure that he had solid intelligence before invading Iraq. He didn't do a good job of making sure that we went into Iraq with clear objectives, adequate troop levels, adequate equipment, and adequate planning for the aftermath of the invasion. He didn't do a good job of balancing the national security against individual civil rights. He has never done a good job of answering critics on any issue. He doesn't do a good job of even appearing to know what he's doing at unscripted events.

I openly supported John Roberts and opposed Harriet Miers, based principally on my evaluation of their competence. Likewise, I based my evaluation of Michael Brown on his demonstrated abilities, and I put George W. Bush very much into the same category with Brownie, far exceeding the incompetence of Harriet Miers. (At least Harriet Miers is competent at something, unlike Brown or Bush!)

For that matter, why is America taking the word of George W. Bush over decorated combat veterans in discussions of military matters? It isn't the fact that Bush weaseled out of real military service, but the fact that he's so hypocritical about it. I've never served a millisecond of combat, and I am deeply grateful for that fact. I have never volunteered for the military, and if I had been drafted, I would have resisted. By the same token, there is no way I would ever become a police officer. I am committed to my community and my country, but those are not the ways for me to demonstrate that fealty. I have great respect for the men and women who, by choice or by conscription, have put themselves in harm's way for our nation. They take the risk of being shot or killed, or perhaps even killing another human being. That is why it bothers me deeply to see draft weasels like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith, not to mention their cheerleaders like Limbaugh, criticizing as unpatriotic anyone who doesn't accept their combat expertise.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Inside the SFPD: the Bayview

This is mostly a local issue, possibly of little interest to my international readers, but I think it deals with some broader issues that are applicable well outside the City and County of San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, San Francisco Police Officer Andrew Cohen made a "comedy video" (his description) originally intended for the Christmas party at the Bayview police station. Included in the video were some outtakes ("bloopers," if you will) from Cohen's documentary Inside the SFPD: the Bayview, as well as some staged gags about the life and work of police officers in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.

The Bayview district, located in the southeast corner of the city, often feels like the Land Time Forgot. Most San Franciscans only venture there on the way to a ball game at Candlestick, or in a last-minute dash to mail a tax return before midnight. Most of the news we hear, even within the same city, is about gang violence, drug-dealing turf wars, and homicides. Indeed, the homicide rate just in the Bayview rivals that of many good-sized cities. And yet, many of the police officers who patrol the neighborhood have volunteered for that assignment. Inside profiles the officers and the neighborhood, and clearly makes the case that many of the residents support the work of the police, but they are afraid of retaliation if they speak out against the violent elements.

I've only seen a few fragments of the "comedy video" which generated so much controversy and led to the suspension of two dozen officers. As I understand it, the video contained a number of inside jokes for the specific group of officers to whom it was originally going to be shown, including some staged scenes of interactions between officers and citizens in the neighborhood. The comedy video was rejected for use at the holiday party because of some of those scenes, so Officer Cohen made it available on his web site. From there, it went public, reaching many people who did not understand the context of the inside jokes and who saw the staged scenes as incorporating many insensitive stereotypical portrayals of ethnic minorities, gay people, and homeless people. Some of the scenes I've seen on television were indeed tacky, and, given the reaction, it is certainly clear in 20/20 hindsight that the "comedy video" should never have been released in any form. However, there is at least a silver lining to the controversy: it has drawn attention to the problems of the Bayview, including the problems of policing the Bayview.

The challenge is for San Francisco to keep the focus on improving conditions for the citizens and the officers patrolling the Bayview, rather than on the controversial "comedy video." To that end, I support shifting the focus onto the positive portrayal of dedicated officers patrolling in a neighborhood about which they care deeply. Officer Cohen is making Inside available to churches and other community groups; I hope they will take him up on that offer, and use the spotlight this controversy has shed on the Bayview to start a dialog with all of San Francisco about how to improve conditions in a neglected corner of our city. Inside the SFPD: the Bayview has aired on KRON, channel 4; if it airs again, I recommend it to your TiVo.

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