Friday, April 28, 2006

Why do they hiatus?

The staff of The Third Path will be on hiatus for the next week and a half, doing a bit of travelling, some religious observances, and some camping in the woods. We should return to our regular blogramming on Tuesday, 2006-05-09.

In the mean time, new comments will not appear on the blog. Having been spammed pretty heavily a few weeks ago, The Third Path can't take the chance of leaving the site wide open. You can leave comments, but they will sit in the "pending moderation" sandbox until we return.

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Plagiarizing Colbert's Plagiarism

On Thursday's Colbert Report, Stephen read a passage from his world-famous literary classic Stephen Colbert's Alpha Squad Seven: Lady Nocture, a Tek Jansen Adventure:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, to be called Ishmael. Hello, God, it's me, the catcher in the rye, who, like Harry Potter, knows it is a sin to kill a mockingbird," I thought, as I unholstered my gamma blaster.
As if it weren't already bad enough that all of Shakespeare is being produced by a million chimpanzees typing away on decrepit old Wang word-processor stations, now they're even recycling the monkeys. What is the world coming to?

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Net Neutrality

By a mostly party-line vote, Congress removed a requirement of "network neutrality" for ISP's. Most people don't understand what "network neutrality" really means. Here's a thumbnail sketch for you, and why you should care.

Read more...I have a web site (besides this blog). My ISP charges me for the outbound bandwidth my web site uses. You have an ISP that charges you for your connection to the Internet. Most people don't pay an incremental charge for bandwidth, but at some level your ISP pays for the total bandwidth they have available for their customers. Part of that is the bandwidth that is available within their network, and part is the bandwidth to the outside world. That's how things stand now.

What the ISP's want to do is to charge me for the bandwidth that you use to access my web site. You are already paying for that bandwidth. It is not reasonable to ask me to pay for it again. More particularly, the ISP will be able to send its own content to you without paying for the bandwidth, since it's all free within the company. They want to curtail your choice of what content you want to access by putting any web site that doesn't pay a BRIBE into the slow lane.

Network neutrality simply means that you, the consumer, get to decide what you want to see on the Internet. The alternative is that your ISP gets to extort bribes from web sites to get easier access to your eyeballs.

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Tony Snow on George W. Bush

Tony Snow is President Bush's new press secretary, replacing Scott McClellan. Snow has worked at Fox News, a reliably conservative, almost unflinchingly pro-Bush cable television network best known for its ridiculously biased coverage and outrageously unbalanced panel discussions. Here are a few of the phrases Snow has used to describe Bush within the last few months:

  • Something of an embarrassment

  • A leader who lost control of the federal budget

  • The architect of a listless domestic policy

  • A man who has a habit of singing from the political correctness hymnal
It will be interesting to see what he does as press secretary. Reportedly, Snow insisted on being in the loop on major policy discussions, which would give him a much greater role in formulating policy than his predecessors.

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CBN on the effectiveness of prayer

Harvard Medical School recently released a study showed that prayer did not have any beneficial effect on the participants, patients recovering from heart surgery. The Christian Broadcasting Network, in its CBN News program, called the study into question, focusing on previous studies that appeared to show that prayer did have a measurable benefit.


Gailon Totheroh, CBN Science & Medical Reporter (voiceover): Many people thought the [Harvard] study would answer scientifically whether God intervenes through prayer. The huge study looked at outcomes for various heart patients; some were prayed for, some were not. Patients who received prayer actually fared worse than those who didn't get the special prayers. The researchers were puzzled.

Dr. Jeffrey Dusek, Ph.D.: When we designed the study, we had thought that individuals who were receiving intercessory prayer would fare better than those that did not.

Totheroh: Why didn't prayer work in this new study? Some say you can't put God in a box and study Him. Others say the researchers didn't pick the right people to pray for the sick. And remember, not all prayer studies turn out negative. ...
I'll go with the first explanation. If God were quantifiable, there would be no role for faith. If you ever prove the existence of God, then you will have disproved religion.

Of course, I personally prefer a deeper explanation yet: God is not interested in the day-to-day minutiae of individual lives. He doesn't micromanage the universe; He allows the Laws of Nature to take care of the details. That's why God allows bad things to happen to good people. God isn't the white-robed grandfather figure up in the sky, looking down on His creatures and deciding from moment to moment whom to smite and whom to bless; that sort of theology has no place past nursery school.

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Questioning Lethal Injection

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case challenging not the death penalty itself, but the manner in which it is carried out. In lethal injection, used in 37 of the 38 death-penalty states, the condemned prisoner is strapped to a gurney and then given a series of drugs. The first drug is intended to cause unconsciousness, the second paralyzes him, and the third stops the heart, causing death. The essence of the challenge is that there is some belief that the first drug may wear off before the third drug completes the execution process. In other words, the prisoner may be conscious, awake, aware, and able to feel pain as the final drug stops his heart.

The difficulty, of course, is in figuring out a "humane" way to kill someone. The death penalty is, by its very nature, inhumane; that is precisely the point, in fact. It is reaching back into the deepest barbarism of our history to satisfy the desire of our reptilian brains for bloody revenge. Perhaps we should implement execution by means of paper cuts and lemon juice, to make it as slow and painful as possible.

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We Must ALL Stop ManBearPig

South Park has been on a pretty good roll this season, but this week's episode was truly weak; I'm totally serial. Former Vice President Al Gore comes to South Park to tell the kids about the greatest threat to the survival of humanity: ManBearPig, a creature who is half man, half bear, and half pig. Unfortunately, the entire episode is half-baked and half-assed. Oh, well.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Newest Nuclear Nation

Tonight, another nation joined the "Nuclear Club": the Colbert Nation! Yes, Stephen Colbert displayed his new 50-megaton hydrogen bomb on The Colbert Report on 2006-04-26. First Israel, then India and Pakistan, and now Comedy Central, have nukes. What is the world coming to?

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Reader Rant: The America Sad Denial Case

[The following was posted as a comment on another thread here at the Third Path by a reader. I'm pushing it up onto the blog proper because it raises some interesting points. Links within the text and some formatting were added by the Third Path, but the article does not, as a whole, represent the view of the Third Path. — ed.]

The America SAD DENIAL Case

Your war against Fear is not justified. It is actually a Resource War for oil, and a currency war for the dollar. Global Oil production has peaked and US will suffer the most from this crisis. The United States uses 25% of the world’s oil yet only has 5% of the world’s population. America is heavily in debt and bankruptcy is unavoidable. The coming housing bust will send the economy into a second greater depression.

While the Middle East countries find themselves targets in the "War on Terror," China, Russia, and Latin America find themselves targets in the recently declared and much more expansive "War on Tyranny." Whereas the "War on Terror" is really a war for control of the world's oil reserves, this newly declared "War on Tyranny" is really a war for control of the world's oil distribution and transportation chokepoints.

The dollar is in collapse, the economy is going to crash, oil is getting more scarce every day. America is a nation that has its infrastructure built exclusively to be run on abundant cheap oil, with global demand of oil increasing exponentially and supply decreasing year after year, America has no other choice than to wage a global war on oil and currency and under the ruse of terror and freedom.

What? You don't believe me? Still in denial??

Is your entire country on crack? Are all you Americans out of your cotton-picking minds? Are you completely freaking delusional? Homicidal? Psychotic? Have you lost any shred of a moral compass? WHAT IN THE NAME OF JESUS H. CHRIST ON A CRUTCH IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE!!!!!

Read more...Let me offer up one small datum which may completely change the equation for you: According to the CIA (if they have any credibility left) Iran is at least five years away from a nuclear weapon.

Five years.

Five years is time for diplomacy to accomplish a hell of a lot.

I would also point out that the Atomic Energy Commission, various other international bodies and other inspections have essentially found no sign that Iran is even working on a nuclear weapon.

The only actual evidence that Iran has anything close to nuclear weapons technology is blueprints that the CIA gave to them!

Have you all forgotten that the evidence on Iraq was spectacularly wrong? Have you all ignored the fact that it was fabricated? Why then are we going down the exact same road of stage managed, fabricated pseudo-evidence and wild-ass hysteria?

What is wrong with you people?

This entire crisis has been manufactured, and has been years in the making.

Stop and think back five years. What did we have five years ago? A moderate reformist Iranian government making overtures to the United States, rebuilding its relationship with Europe, liberalizing its society, and modernizing its economy.

Post-9/11 vigil in Iran. 9/11 comes along, the Iranians are overflowing with sympathy. Mass candlelit vigils are held in Tehran. Iran offers aid and cooperation.

Iran hates the Taliban who have executed Iranian diplomats and massacred Afghan Shiites. Iran hates Saddam Hussein. Iran hates al Qaeda which is a Sunni Fundamentalist organization which declares Shiites infidels and subhuman.

Iran shares its intelligence with America — they even arrested Taliban members and handed them over to US custody.

So we've got the Iranian spring; things are finally going to sort out.

And what happens? The Bush administration rebuffs every Iranian overture and does its best to instigate a cold war. Afghanistan is invaded, and suddenly, the Iranians are looking at American troops and allies on their eastern border. Then Iraq is invaded, and American troops and allies on their western border. Then bases and treaties in Uzbekistan, and whoops, there's more American troops and allies on the northern border. The Persian Gulf is filled with American warships and carrier fleets.

Now the Iranians are surrounded. And the tough talk is constant. Iran is part of the "Axis of Evil" and Americans tell each other, "Baghdad, humph, real men go to Tehran." Essentially, America has been threatening military action against Iran for the last five years, and has surrounded the country on every side with troops, bases and allies.

American aircraft invade Iranian airspace regularly, American special forces undertake operations inside Iran, and Americans regularly accuse Iranians of interference in Iraq.

Dick Cheney pontificates about Israel bombing Iran after he has just handed over to Israel the long-range bombers and bunker-busting bombs required to do the job.

Meanwhile, the United States undertakes economic warfare against Iran, interfering with its business dealings with third-party countries, trying to scuttle a pipeline deal with India, and it goes on and on. The hysteria about the Iranian nuclear program is just more of the same.

Now how in God's Bloody Name do you think the Iranians are going to respond to that? Should they concede the nuclear program, abandon their pipeline project? If so, it's not going to do them any good. America will just seek more concessions. Each surrender will be met by new demands. This isn't hard to figure out. It's exactly what Bush did with Iraq.

Perhaps overtures, good will gestures, trying to act like a peaceful nation. Did all those things, doesn't matter. The Bush administration is still on a collision course.

So, the Mullahs are concerned that they're faced with a homicidal crazy state, the Iranian people are scared. When people are scared and faced with an aggressive war-mongering power which keeps threatening to attack them, continually trespasses on its borders and is undertaking economic warfare... who the hell are they going to elect? Ahmadinejad may be a crazy bastard, but you assholes, you utter assholes did every thing you could to elect him short of donating 50,000 Diebold machines and mailing his party the trapdoor codes.

So, having pursued a psychotically aggressive course, you've backed Iran into a corner, and engineered a regime which refuses to back further.

And you are the victims in all this? You are the ones under threat? It's self-defense????

And of course, you goofily believe that you can just bomb or nuke Iran with impunity?

Holy microeconomic theory, Batman! Iran's nuclear facilities are distributed across the country and in hardened sites near population centers. So any strike that cripples a significant portion of Iran's nuclear capacity will inevitably be so large and kill so many people that it's going to be tantamount to inviting full-scale war. [Editor's note: Despite some hyperbolic rhetoric elsewhere in the piece, this bit is an understatement. It is folly to believe that a major strike against Iran would do anything less than provoke an all-out war. I would change the end of this paragraph to, "...that it's going to start a full-scale war."]

Think about that. Iran is 70 million people, an area five times the size of Iraq, not disemboweled by 12 years of sanctions and air raids. On the other side of the coin, America's ground army is busted and tied down in Iraq. There are no troops to throw at a major Iranian military force, so you have to hope that bombing will do the trick. The occupation forces in Iraq are in occupation and not territorial defense mode. And Iraq is 65% Shiites who are probably not going to be happy that you're blowing up their brother Shiites.

Meanwhile, the Strait of Hormuz is so narrow that sinking one supertanker will block it indefinitely, and Iran borders the strait on three sides. Block Hormuz and any naval groups inside the Persian Gulf are trapped there. Any naval groups outside the Persian Gulf are trapped outside. Forget about any oil coming out of the Persian Gulf from Iraq, Kuwait, Quatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or the UAE. [Actually, the UAE has two ports outside the Persian Gulf: Dibba and Fujairah.] Think about what that does to the price of oil, and to the world economy. Think about what that does to dependent countries like Japan, India, China and Europe.

In short, it’s so appallingly stupid and colossally risky that I can see why your idiots in charge might consider using nuclear weapons. But throw a few nukes around and see how the rest of the world reacts. Every dirt-wad country is going to be mortgaging the Presidential palace to get its own nuclear deterrent from Pakistan or North Korea. How do you feel about the Indonesian Bomb, the Malaysian Bomb, the Thai Bomb, the Myanmar Bomb, the Algerian Bomb, the Saudi Bomb, the Egyptian Bomb, the Brazilian Bomb, the Argentine Bomb, the Venezuelan Bomb, the Cuban Bomb, the Japanese Bomb, the Canadian frigging Bomb? You are no longer trustworthy. North Korea, always borderline psychotic, is going to be mondo difficult to deal with. You've just guaranteed yourself a full-fledged nuclear arms race, balls to the wall with both Russia and China, and quite possibly Europe.

And of course there's no guarantee that the rest of the world will allow this. Do you want an armed standoff with the Russians? Suppose they "lend" their finest interceptor jets, pilots and radar systems to the Iranians... Do you want to meet that on a bombing raid? And if you do meet that, what are you going to do when half your planes are blasted out of the skies conducting an illegal raid on civilian populations in a foreign country? Cry? Send a harsh note?

Launch a first strike?

World goes boom. What happens if the Chinese decide to hold Taiwan and South Korea hostage? What do you do? Back off Iran or sell out East Asia?

Hell, in that kind of standoff, someone sneezes and it's not going to matter who launched a first strike.

Or would you like an economic standoff, say with Europe, or with Japan and China. Suppose that the Europeans or Chinese decide "Screw the worldwide depression, you assholes are just too dangerous to have around." Trillions of dollars get dumped on the market, loans get called in, the bottom drops out of your dollar, it's a thousand percent inflation and no manufacturing base and your own trade embargoes. So much for America.

I mean, it’s morally wrong; it’s stupid on every level. And yet here you are discussing why maybe you should get out in front of the Republicans on this, or planning your surrender to [That's it — the author didn't finish the sentence. – ed.]

[Except for comments in square brackets, this article represents solely the views of the author.]

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Rhetoric versus Action, Bush style

Speaking about renewable energy sources, President Bush yesterday said, "You don't have to choose between good environment and good economics. You can have both by the use of technology."

Today, he announced that he is easing environmental regulations related to gasoline in order to moderate prices, in keeping with his general philosophy of gutting environmental regulations at every opportunity.

The mouth giveth, the pen taketh away.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

American Dreamz with a Z

I went to see American Dreamz over the weekend. The film centers on a fictional talent competition reality show that bears an ever-so-slight resemblance to Fox Television's #1-rated program American Idol, with Hugh Grant playing host Martin Tweed, an acid-tongued cynic clearly modeled on Idol's Simon Cowell. Dennis Quaid plays President Joe Staton, a bumbling idiot from Texas who has somehow found himself anointed by God to be President of the Free World. I wonder who that character might represent....

Dreamz was fun and funny, although, as a blogger, I was a little disappointed that it missed many of the opportunities for political satire with a bit more "bite." Still, I recommend it.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Signs of Dissent among the Republicans

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, had some not-so-nice words about President Bush and his administration this weekend: "We have seen what happens in New Orleans when people waited for the federal government. Their response was terrible there and we don't want to be a victim of that." Hmm, the Bush administration's handling of the Hurricane Katrina situation was "terrible," and that's coming from a loyal Republican who spoke at the 2004 convention.

So, how do you suppose Bush is going to "Swiftboat" Ahnold? Do you think the Democrats stand to gain more from seeing Schwarzenegger go down or by seeing Dubya out of the political arena forever? Do you think the Republicans stand to lose more from showing a crack in the solid front or from mindlessly supporting whatever Bush says, no matter how insane or incompetent?

Read more... (including stuff about the New Orleans mayoral election, too)

It's about goddamned time that the Republicans duked it out in public, instead of leaving the Democrats to bully themselves into submission as usual. It's about time that the Governator grew some actual cojones instead of just calling other politicians "girlie men." The measure of your leadership in the history books of generations yet to come will not be your twelve-second sound bite from the evening news, it will be your actual performance of your duties. The Governor of California and the President of the United States both have a duty to the people of California to shore up our levees before they fail, just as the local officials and the federal officials all had a duty to the people of the Gulf Coast to strengthen the levees, oversee an effective evacuation plan, and bring prompt relief to the people left behind.

I see in the news today that the runoff in the New Orleans mayoral election next month will be between current Mayor Ray Nagin and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, both Democrats but in an officially non-partisan race. Nagin won more votes than Landrieu, but not enough to win on the first ballot. All the same, Nagin fell from what had looked like an easy re-election just a few weeks ago. Race will be a major factor in the runoff, whether the candidates like it or not, although it is an issue that cuts both ways. I'm honestly not sure which I would vote for, if I were a New Orleanian. There are questions about Ray Nagin's performance in the immediate lead-up and aftermath of Katrina to which I have never heard satisfactory answers, but the same is true of the state government. Yes, Governor Blanco was the point person, but the Lieutenant Governor should've been in there somewhere. FEMA should've been there, the National Guard should've been there, and somebody besides CNN and Wal-Mart should've been there.

However, that one ain't my battle to fight, nor even to handicap. Will Nagin hold onto his lead over Landrieu, or will his downward momentum continue? The answer ought to depend on which of them can better account for his Katrina performance. I want to hear statements like, "I missed this sign of trouble, and I missed that opportunity to do something constructive, but I clued in when I saw X and then I did Y." It's just a little thing called the politics of personal responsibility.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

What we need to tell children about sex

I've mentioned before that, to my dismay, one of the most popular search engine keywords that brings visitors to The Third Path is "10yo"; I wrote a scholarly analysis of Judge Samuel Alito's dissent in a case involving the so-called "strip-search of a ten-year-old girl." While that blog entry didn't have anything remotely resembling the content that one presumes someone is searching for with the keyword "10yo," it still gets a lot of hits, as I'm sure this entry will also. The situation brings up a delicate question:

What do we need to tell kids about sex and sexuality?

I present the following as a religiously neutral primer for sex education. The first items are appropriate even for very young children; some of the later items are aimed at older kids.
  • Sex isn't bad or evil, but it is often complicated and sometimes dangerous, and best left until you are grown-up enough to handle it. (The same is true of driving a car, by the way.)

  • Having any kind of sex where you and your partner don't really want to is always a very bad thing. (On the flip side, though, just because you and another person really want to have sex, that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea.) You always have the right to say, "No, I don't want to," and expect the other person to respect your decision. You also always have the right to tell an adult that you trust about anyone who tries to have sex with you, or anyone who does anything to you or with you that makes you feel uncomfortable — especially if it involves your "swimsuit area" or theirs.

  • Both boys and girls experience dramatic changes in their bodies and in their feelings as they move from childhood into adolescence. Those changes can be very confusing, but they are a normal part of growing up. Everyone else gets confused by those changes, too.

  • Certain kinds of sex, even between children, can lead to pregnancy. It is possible to get pregnant the very first time you ever have sex. Having a child when you are ready to provide a stable, loving home and take care of the child, is a wonderful thing, but having a child when you're not ready makes your life very complicated, and may be a bad thing for your child. Abortion and adoption are never easy or happy options; it's much better to wait until you're ready before you take a chance of getting pregnant.

  • Having sex can also expose you to certain very unpleasant diseases, some of which do not have any cure. Even forms of sex that do not have a risk of pregnancy may still have a risk of disease. Your partner may appear to be healthy, but may still have germs that could make you sick, even if they don't know it.

  • There are ways that you can reduce the risks of pregnancy and diseases, but they are not foolproof. If used incorrectly, sexual protection may not offer much protection at all. It is also important to know that there are many rumors you may hear about ways to reduce the risk that aren't true. For example, doing it while standing on your head does not reduce the risk at all. Other rumors might not sound that obviously silly, but they may still be just as wrong. When you are old enough to decide that you want to have sex, be sure that you know the truth about how to be careful. It is true, though, that the best way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sex.

  • There are many different ways that people have sex. There are almost as many ways to have sex as there are people. Most people prefer to have sex between a man and a woman, but some people prefer to have sex between two men, between two women, or even among more than two people at a time.

  • Most religions have specific teachings about sex. You should follow your own religious and moral beliefs about whether, when, and how you have sex, but keep in mind that other people may have very different religious beliefs. You should respect other people's beliefs; especially, you should never try to get someone else to do something that violates their religious or moral beliefs about sex.

I recently saw the movie The Blue Lagoon, in which Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields have been stranded on a tropical island without any grown-ups since a shipwreck when they were young children. As little kids, they were told that Santa Claus would bring them presents, that the Boogey Man would get them if they were bad, and that babies come from the cabbage patch. As they grew into their teens, though, those stories no longer served them well. The onset of sexual feelings, without any context for those feelings, left these two kids shipwrecked a second time.

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Bill Maher's panelists on press bias

After the show Real Time with Bill Maher wraps up, the panelists do a special extra segment for webcasting on The panel on Friday 2006-04-21 consisted of General Anthony Zinni, Mort Zuckerman from U.S. News & World Report, and Heather Higgins of the Independent Women's Forum. Their Oh, and One More Thing webcast segment contained some jaw-dropping exchanges.


Higgins: I think the media has a real role to play in the perceptions people have. Michael Brown tells this entertaining story about an interview he had with the newsroom editor of a major place. He said to him, "So, do you think it matters that the news media is 90% one party?" The guy was saying, "No, no, no, it's all fine, because they're very balanced and fair." Michael said, "If they were 90% Republican, would it matter?" "No, no, then they would be biased." The reality is that stories get framed in particular ways. It mattered that reporters were embedded; that made them maybe have a more positive view. Now that they can't get out, maybe it makes them have a more negative view. Plus you have the choice to list the number of casualties you have on our side, but you don't similarly show how many terrorists were killed on the other side, you frame it as a civil war —

Zuckerman: That is nonsense, if I may say so —

Higgins: There's two- or three-to-one negative stories —

Zuckerman: It is not the media's fault. There is something going on on the ground there that the media is covering. Security is a major issue. Security is in terrible shape in Iraq. This is not the fault of the media. It is ridiculous to blame the media.

Higgins: I'm not blaming the media.

Zuckerman: Yes, you are. Yes, you are blaming the media. You're implying that it's a partisan approach — it's nonsense to say that. It really is.

Higgins: Then why are the stories 2- or 3:1 negative?

Zuckerman: Because the stories are 2- or 3:1 negative on the ground, that's why.

Higgins: You asked repor — soldiers who've been there, and they say, "I talk about what I'm doing with water plants or anything else and they have no interest, but they see a burned-out car or a shooting and that they want to cover."

Zuckerman: Oh, please! That is absolutely —

Zinni: I would say that we ought to be careful with all this. Eighty journalists have been killed in Iraq, and a number have been kidnaped and wounded. To blame the journalists for only bad news and skewed reporting when they're putting their life on the line to get the story, I think it will backfire. [... snip ...] I hear these stories about good news — where are they? We have anecdotal stories from the field, and as reporters go out and check them out, they turn out to be not quite the way they're presented.

Zuckerman: Security is the news. Everything in that country is about security. That's why we cut back for reconstruction and put the money into security. That's what the media is covering. That's what they have to cover. That's the story. If we had that many suicide bombers in this country, that's all we would cover.

Higgins: Well, what about the news editor who decides to report on the 7 Marines who were killed, but not on the 50 terrorists who were killed in the same engagement?
Wow. It all sounds so familiar: the measure of victory is killing more Huns Japs Gooks of "them" than "they" kill of us. The good news that's not being reported is how much Ay-rab blood our boys are shedding over there. The other question is, what planet is Heather Higgins from? Look at the local news when there's a plane crash somewhere. "Oh, yeah, about 300 people were killed, which is sad and all, but Joe Schmoe out in Suburb X knows someone whose cousin once gave a haircut to the poodle belonging to the ex-wife of one of the passengers. Let's go to Geraldo Rivera, live in Suburb X with a report on how the Schmoe family is dealing with this tragedy." It's all about the local angle. In the case of American reporting on the situation in Iraq, the "local angle" is the American soldiers. The American viewing public cares about the soldiers as individuals vastly more than they care about even the body count of the terrorists. You may argue that's a bad thing, but you can't argue that it's the fault of the news media that suddenly American viewers are terrifically provincial in their determination of what news they care about.

Beyond that, show me one major national news organization that is anything remotely close to 90% Democrats. I dare you. I double dare you. Even the big bad New York Times is far more than 10% Republicans, and the Washington Post, and CBS News, and all the rest. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Fox News and the Washington Times are 90% Republicans, and that their coverage is openly biased by that political affiliation from the top down, but it would take a whole lot of media organizations being 99.9% Democrat to balance that out. This myth of the "liberal news media elite" is so transparently absurd, and yet it refuses to die.

In any case, using Michael Brown, a victim far more of Republican scapegoating, as an example of liberal media bias, is downright laughable. Brownie didn't do quite as bad a job as everyone first thought. In particular, he did raise alarm bells on many fronts that were ignored by the top brass at Homeland Security and at the White House, and Michael Chertoff deserves at least as much blame as Brownie, but first of all, Brownie did still do a terribly inadequate job, even with the resources he had available to him, and secondly he is anything but a victim of "liberal media bias."

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Did the generals want more troops?

The Bush administration has repeated so many times its talking point that the Pentagon and the White House sent as many troops as the generals on the ground said they needed. The problem is, it just ain't so. General Anthony Zinni was on Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday, 2006-04-21. General Zinni said before the Iraq invasion that — if we were going to invade Iraq — we should send a force of 380,000 troops, more than double the number we actually sent. Back on 2006-01-17, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the interim viceroy of Iraq, was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He recounted a conversation he had with General Sanchez, as recorded in his book My Year in Iraq, in which Bremer asked Sanchez what he could do with 35,000 more troops. General Sanchez answered that he could secure Baghdad.

Baghdad has never been secured in the three-plus years since the initial invasion. As Ambassador Bremer himself noted, "[There was] more than 'some' [looting], [there was] a lot, and it did billions of dollars of damage, but actually the more serious damage was the message that we [U.S. and Coalition forces] were not prepared to enforce law and order, which is, after all, the most fundamental role of government." And yet nobody thought that actually securing Baghdad might be a good idea??? In particular, nobody thought it might be a good idea to do that with 35,000 additional troops in 2003 instead of maybe 300,000 additional troops in 2006??

We did not secure Baghdad after the invasion. The generals on the ground said that we could secure Baghdad with more troops. We needed to secure Baghdad, and securing Baghdad would have done a great deal to stop the enormous momentum of the rising insurgency. Therefore it is absolutely absurd to claim that the generals did not ask for more troops.

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Dana Rohrabacher Whines about Oppressed Christians

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R–Orange County, CA) was on Real Time with Bill Maher back on 2006-03-31. I wrote previously about some of the things he said during the program, but I just discovered the web extra segment on HBO's web site. Congressman Rohrabacher makes some more astonishingly outrageous comments demonstrating his total disconnection from reality.


I disagree with [Bill Maher in his 2006-03-31 monologue] on Christianity and who's repressing who in our society. The only people I know who are being shut up are the ones who are being told you can't say prayers in public school, you can't mention Creationism in public schools. No one is trying to get anybody else to pray, but you can ban other people who believe in prayer from praying in public school. So I see people wanting to take the Ten Commandments off the wall, and it doesn't seem to me to be the Christians who are trying to oppress other people, but it's the non-Christians and atheists who are telling the Christians to shut up and keep your religion to yourselves.
I realize that millions of Americans agree wholeheartedly with Congressman Rohrabacher, but the fact remains that he is hopelessly delusional.

No one is being told that they cannot pray in a public school. What they are being told is that they cannot have organized prayers in the public schools. That is an enormous difference that we must not allow to be glossed over. I did my share of praying in public schools, every time the teacher said, "Pop quiz!," although I supplemented my prayers with actually doing the homework. Sometimes the Lord moves in not-so-mysterious ways, ya know.

So some Christians want to put the Ten Commandments on the wall in a public-school classroom; what's wrong with that? Well, which Ten Commandments are you talking about? The Catholic version or the Protestant version? They're different, you know. Then there's the Muslim version and the Jewish version, just for starters. How do you pick one particular statement of the Ten Commandments without explicitly favoring one religious sect above others on a governmental level? The answer, of course, is that it is fundamentally impossible. Beyond that, atheists and Buddhists and wiccans and voudoun celebrants and other Americans who are outside the Abrahamic tradition are also deserving of respect. Is anyone suggesting replacing the Ten Commandments with a religious text of some other tradition? Not that I've ever seen or heard of.

When it comes to the public schools, yes, the Christians, whether they are Christian teachers, Christian staff, Christian volunteers, and even Christian students, MUST shut up and keep their religion to themselves — exactly like everyone else. All that we are saying is, No "special rights" for Christians! That's not oppression at all, it is resistance to oppression. Trying to post the Ten Commandments in a public-school classroom, or allow a prayer before the football game, or teach Creationism, is oppression by Christians against everyone else, because it is trying to give special status to one particular set of religious beliefs above all others.

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Katrina Kids sing for Bill Maher

Y'all know ah'm frum Texiss, but Nawlins ain't far away. 'Smattera fact, ah gots relatives from places lahk Lake Chahles and I even heard of Plaquemines Parish before all this Katrina hoopla. Friday on Real Time with Bill Maher, there was a group of kids sangin' a song for the First Lady, Laura Bush, when they went up to the Whaht House fer Massa George's Easter Egg shindig.

Here's what the group of kids sang on Bill Maher's show:
Your husband's a great big screw-up,
Now we live out of our car.
Katrina killed my grandma
While he sat and played guitar.
Our city's a disaster,
It's nicer in Iraq;
If you think you've made things better,
You must be smoking crack!
Well, now, wait jessa minute here; Bill Maher is one o' them sat-tire shows, but the actual words the real Katrina Kids sang for the real Laura Bush are even scarier:
Congress, Bush and FEMA,
People all across our land,
Together have come to rebuild us,
And we join them hand in hand.
Ah don't think ah can say it any better'n Bill Maher already did: it sounds like somethin' right out o' Kim Jong Il's North Korea. 대통령은 전능 이다. 대통령은 완전하다. 대통령은 항상 정확하다. 우리는 항상 대통령을 순종해야 한다. Great White Father will be kind to Katrina Kids. Great White Father not speak with forkèd tongue. Great White Father far away in great White House, but Father Bush feels the pain of the Little Brown Ones, just like Great White Father's father did.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

A Personal Tale about Immigration

I was born in the United States, and I'm single, so I've never had occasion to deal directly with our nation's immigration system. For most of my readers — whether in the United States or in any of the 88 other countries in which this blog has been read — the same is true. There are a lot of other experiences that I've never personally had, though, like working in a coal mine; that doesn't mean that I can't try to empathize with those who have. In particular, one friend of mine, a man about my age with a successful home business, had the sort of experience with the I.N.S. that I wouldn't wish upon anyone. By way of James Frey disclaimers, the following is a true story, although I may change some minor details to protect the anonymity of the innocent.

Read more...You see, my friend was a great "Blankophile," where Blank is an unspecified E. U. nationality. He visited Blankland as often as he could. On one of his visits, he met a Blankian. They fell in love, and moved in together in San Francisco. The Blankian lover got his green card and was 100% legal to live here. Times were good. Times were a little too "good" one time, and Blanko Blankovich was infected with HIV; they both shared the religious view that sexual pleasure should not be shared with only one partner. As Blanko's health deteriorated, he was no longer able to hold down a regular job. However, my friend needed a part-time bookkeeper for his expanding business, so he hired his lover. The lover may have had a little bit of a "leg" up in the interview process, but he was qualified to do the job.

But then one day, Blanko went on a visit to his family back in Blankland. His health had stabilized with some new meds, but even so, he knew he wouldn't be able to endure the Transatlantic flights forever. A couple of weeks later, he flew back to San Francisco — or tried to, I should say. When he arrived at the U.S. border control station, he was denied entry, even though he had had a green card for more than a decade, because the government found out that he was HIV-positive. Never mind that he still had health insurance, and at least a part-time job; he couldn't be allowed back into the country because he had a virus in his body and therefore might be a burden on the state, even if not a contagious threat. He wasn't even allowed to stay in the United States temporarily; he was sent right back to Blankland.

My friend had been wanting to move to Blankland in a few years, perhaps, but he wasn't ready to leave his in-home business and try to establish himself from scratch halfway around the world. Well, the thing is, the United States' immigration policy doesn't give any status at all to same-sex life partners. (My friends' lack of monogamy was not in any way a reflection of lack of emotional commitment.) In at least some E.U. countries, it does. Thus, my friend is now a registered domestic partner, living with his same-sex spouse somewhere in Europe, and flying back to America for occasional visits.

America needs to reform our laws about illegal immigration, but we also need to reform our laws about legal immigration. (Of course, we also need to do something about the problems in other countries that create such pressure, or even desperation, to come to America looking for any job you can get.)

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American Dreamz

We're goin' to see American Dreamz later today. It's a brand-new movie about a contest show remarkably similar to American Idol and a bumbling moron U.S. President remarkably similar to George W. Bush. The San Francisco Chronicle review says, in a nutshell, it's good but not fantastic. Check back here tonight to see what The Third Path has to say about it. I promise we'll tell you all about the three diff'rent kinds of Iraqistanis.

The trailer is available in Apple QuickTime format for Windows, Macintosh, and Video iPod.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Happy Columbine Day!

Today is April 20th, the anniversary of several notable events in world history. First of all, Adolf Hitler was born on 1889-04-20, one hundred seventeen years ago today — more than seventeen years before the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Imagine — if only the teenaged Hitler had been sightseeing in San Francisco instead of watching his mother die of breast cancer, we might have been spared World War II. Poor little Adolf could've been standing right on the San Andreas Fault when it breached, and he would've been swallowed alive and crushed into the bowels of hell instead of having to kill millions of people first.

The second anniversary for today is the Columbine High School shooting spree, culminating in the suicide of the teenaged perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, on 1999-04-20. That Harris and Klebold chose Hitler's birthday for their murder/suicide rampage is no coïncidence. Their twisted drawings featured Nazi 卐 symbols, and they singled out some African American students when they started shooting.

However, as horrific as their crime was, we must never make the mistake of pretending that Harris and Klebold were space aliens whose behavior has no context in American culture. There are deep undercurrents that connect the terrorism of Harris and Klebold with the defiant American-supremacist attitudes of the Bush administration and the judgmentalism of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to name just a few.

For a look into the minds of perpetrators of this kind of school violence, I strongly recommend the play Bang Bang, You're Dead! by William Mastrosimone, and the film of the same title that expands upon the theme of the play. If the lives of the 13 people that Harris and Klebold killed, plus the injured, plus the boys themselves — you don't get to pick and choose — mean anything to you, you should see this movie. It's available on Showtime Pictures DVD from all the usual places. Bowling for Columbine only scratched the surface of the killers' minds; BBYD goes for the bone.

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Stephen Colbert is Lincolnish

In the opening credits for The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert is standing in the center of a glass room in a stars-and-stripes motif, with various adjectives plastering the walls. Near the middle, he gestures to one word in particular, and this week's word (as opposed to Tonight's WØRD) is Lincolnish. The previous week, 2006-04-03, it was Megamerican, which it had been for a few weeks. Back in January, it was Grippy.

Personally, I think the meaning is inescapable: Stephen Colbert is giving you all secret messages, telling you to read The Third Path, because Stephen Colbert the Grippy Megamerican is but a humble flatterer of Lincoln Madison. Either that or I've been watching too much South Park.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Bye, bye, Scottie!

Scott McClellan is stepping down as White House Press Secretary. Don't let the door hitcha on the ass, Scottie!

Of course, the public mouthpiece of the White House isn't the real problem, even though he's a lying weasel without a shred of personal integrity. The real problem is at the top, with President Cheney and Vice President Bush, Secretaries Rumsfeld and Rice, and other members of the insane cabal running the administration.

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Centennial of the Earthquake

Yesterday was the 100-year anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, now estimated to have been a magnitude 8 (+/–) temblor. The occasion has shed light on the good and the bad of earthquake preparedness here in northern California. On the positive side, since the 1970's, and moreso with the lessons learned from the Loma Prieta (1989) and Northridge (1994) earthquakes, California's building codes require that structures be designed and constructed to, at the minimum, give anyone inside the building an opportunity to get out without serious injury. I would rather go through a magnitude 8 earthquake in California than a magnitude 7 anywhere else in the world, or even a magnitude 6 in some countries. Also, our bridges and subway tunnels are being retrofitted to survive a major quake.

On the negative side, though, there is still an alarming degree of complacency among the general public. In the event of a major quake in San Francisco, individual citizens are likely to be mostly on our own for food and water for the first three days. I keep water and ready-to-eat foods handy, and rotate them out a couple of times a year. I also have flashlights and a radio which will operate without batteries. In the grand scheme of things, that ought to merit about a C– [barely passing] grade, since it truly is the minimum, but it sets me head and shoulders above the majority of San Franciscans.

Of course, there are worse places to be. Many Californians fled to Portland or Seattle after the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, but the Pacific Northwest is overdue for a magnitude 9 earthquake from a little something called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Oregon and Washington lag behind California in earthquake preparedness.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Interface Enhancements

The Third Path is pleased to announce two recent changes to the "look and feel" of this blog. We hope you will find that they improve your user experience as a loyal reader.

First, the Archives menu has been transformed into a pop-up menu. If you want to look at a particular month's articles, or if you want to look at a quarterly or yearly alphabetical index, just select the appropriate choice from the menu. If you have JavaScript disabled, or if for any other reason the pop-up menu doesn't work, you can use the link immediately below to go to a page that lists all the archive files manually.

Second, long posts (which is most of them) no longer appear in their entirety on the main page. A short paragraph or two by way of summary appears on the main page, accompanied by a link marked "Read more..." Clicking that link should take you to a separate page with that article presented in its full long-winded glory. If the "Read more..." link doesn't work, just click on the "link to the full article" link at the very bottom, which is guaranteed to work. [The "Read more" link is manually entered; the "link to the full article" is automatic.]

Read more...This paragraph is special sooper-seekrit text that was hidden behind the "Read more" link on the main page. You are now privy to the inner sanctum. Woo hoo. Don't get too excited.

Please feel free to leave your comments about these changes here in this thread, along with any other suggestions about what The Third Path can do to increase your reading enjoyment.

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More on Moussaoui

Today a defense psychiatrist testified that convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is a paranoid schizophrenic. I live in San Francisco, so I see paranoid schizophrenics every time I walk downtown. I remember one time waiting in a train station in Newark, New Jersey, watching one of the local crazy people having an animated conversation with an invisible friend about how he had cashed somebody else's Social Security check. Every once in a while — often in mid-sentence — he would turn to his other invisible friend and exclaim, "Count your own dead!" and then resume his earlier conversation. I don't think that Moussaoui is quite that much of a nutbag, but he does seem to be — dare I say it — even less connected to reality than George W. Bush is.

Read more...Indeed, conviction by a jury of his peers notwithstanding, I'm still not convinced that Moussaoui's role in the 9/11 conspiracy was as great as he wants to portray it. Khalid Shaykh Mohammed, "The Mastermind of the 9/11 Attacks," has denied that Moussaoui had any meaningful role at all. If anything, he was training for a "second wave" of attacks, or as a backup for one of the other 19 terrorist scum. Moussaoui's claims about a fifth plane for 9/11 just don't hold up — the only co-conspirator he names for that mission was Richard Reid, the "shoe bomb" guy, who wasn't even in the United States at the time, and we uncovered no connections between the 19 known hijackers and any of their accomplices who, for whatever reason, did not crash their planes on 9/11. There is simply no evidence that Moussaoui was anything much more than a wannabe terrorist, just as he is now a wannabe martyr.

Again I will state my opinion that America and the world will be safer with Moussaoui locked up in a padded cell than with him executed and on the road to canonization as a martyr.

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Reza Aslan nails Stephen Colbert

Noted Islamic scholar Reza Aslan, author of No god but God: the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and recurring guest on shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Real Time with Bill Maher, made his first appearance on The Colbert Report on Monday. He has written a must-read book for anyone who wants to understand the context of the struggles going on within the Muslim world, but he has now reached the true pinnacle of pop culture: he totally nailed Stephen Colbert.

Stephen: Mr. Aslan, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Reza: Thanks for having me. Happy Easter!

Stephen: Thank you very much, and Happy — are you a Christian?

Reza: I am a Muslim.

Stephen: Is there anything you're celebrating right now?

Reza: Umm, Easter.

Stephen: Oh, Easter? Yes?

Reza: Well, you know, we paint eggs and stuff ourselves full of chocolate.

Stephen: Do you really?

Reza: No, no.

Stephen: No, you don't. So you're not like Jewish people doing the Chanukah bush. (No.) You should think about it — Easter's great. (Well, I'll remember that.) It's fantastic. You celebrate the resurrection of the one true Lord.

Reza: Oh, right. Which Lord?

Stephen: Jesus. (Oh, Jesus, right.) God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. You've heard of him?

Reza: I've seen the movie.
That pretty well stumped Monsieur Colbert.

Reza Aslan went on to explain what he and others are calling "the Islamic Reformation," by deliberate parallel to the Christian Reformation. There is a conflict going on within Islam between people who are trying to reconcile their faith and their values with the modern world and get back to the true meaning of Islam, and the people who are manipulating the message of Islam to achieve their own political or military objectives. Who gets to define faith — the institutions or the individual? In that sense, in a strange way, Osama bin Laden parallels Martin Luther: he is promoting the authority of the individual to interpret and define his own faith. There are people coming up with "radically individualistic, sometimes very pluralist, very modernist interpretations of Islam; sometimes very bigoted, very puritanical."

Stephen offers a few suggestions for repackaging Islam for marketing purposes, at least until these great conflicts (within Islam, and between Islam and the West) simmer down: instead of saying Qur'an, just say Bible; instead of Muhammad, just say Jesus; instead of Ayatollah, just say Pope. Reza points out that an Ayatollah is really nothing more than a PhD in Islamic studies: his authority carries no farther than his immediate adherents, placing the structure of Islam in stark contrast to the centralized authority of the Catholic Church.

Context notes for non-U.S. readers: The Colbert Report is a comedy show, focused primarily on political and social satire. The persona of the host is a fiction created primarily to lampoon the unflinching devotion of some Americans to whatever their Bush / Cheney / Republican / Fox News overlords tell them to think. On the show, to "nail" someone means simply to ask that person a question he or she cannot answer, to leave the other person speechless.

سسياق The Colbert Report ملهاة برنامج ، أوّلا سياسيّة هجاء وهجاء اجتماعيّة. المضيفة تخيل يخلق أوّلا أن يسخر التفاني مطلقة من بعض أمريكيات إلى ماذا ه Bush / Cheney / Republican / Fox News يقولهم أسياد أن يفكّر. على البرنامج "to nail someone" أن يسأل سؤال أنّ يترك الأخرى شخص صامتة.

Lincoln is reading No god but God and will have more to say on it when he gets a bit farther along into the book.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Bloodlust is Unpatriotic

I've been having an illuminating exchange with one of the Third Path readers the last few days, on the question of whether or not Zacarias Moussaoui should get the death penalty for his role in the 9/11 conspiracy. My position is clear: executing Moussaoui is wrong, not merely on fluffy spiritual grounds, but also on the basis of steely-eyed pragmatic self-interest.

What is most illuminating about the conversation is the willingness of many people on the right-wing end of American politics to display their naked bloodlust, their bloodthirsty need for revenge, even if it hurts "us" more than it hurts "them," and also their unshakable belief that emotional pandering trumps intelligence, wisdom, or cautiousness.

Read more...First, an anonymous reader suggested that we should not only kill Moussaoui, but do so by the most violent and barbaric means possible: "[Moussaoui's execution] must be so degrading no one would claim him as a martyr." Another reader pointed out that foregoing revenge is one of the reasons we get to call ourselves "civilized." I pointed out that there is no such thing as a death so degrading that Moussaoui would not be hailed as a martyr, although I would admit to the exception of letting him rot in jail and die in his sleep decades from now.

Another reader, Vince, suggested dipping Moussaoui in hot oil as a form of torture, but not actually killing him. He then took offense because I didn't see his idea as worthy of serious discussion. I invited him to make a case for executing Moussaoui without basing it on revenge, but the best he could come up with was, "The state is better off with him dead. Simple as that." Not a very compelling argument. Since he couldn't come up with any real discussion points, he chose instead to throw insults: "Mr 'left wing' Madison has [solved?] all the world's problems solved and if you disagree with him then you show a lack of wisdow." I never made any such claim. However, if you believe that we should boil terrorists in oil, or if you believe that we should kill criminals just to satisfy the desire of our reptilian brains for bloody revenge, then you show a profound lack of wisdom.

Bloodlust is NOT a patriotic virtue. In particular, it causes more problems than it solves. Let's suppose that we execute Moussaoui by lethal injection. If just one jihadist joins up with al Qaeda because of Moussaoui's execution, then it's a net loss for the interests of the United States. Execution will never deter suicide bombers. What — do you think that they are willing to blow themselves to bits, but they're scared of being put to death if they get caught first? Does that idea make any sense at all? Just as an exercise, though, let's suppose that we take the execution far beyond lethal injection or hanging or firing squad or electric chair, and find some vastly more inhumane method to execute a terrorist like Moussaoui. A bullet in the back of the head on Arab TV, being boiled alive in oil, or, as I sarcastically suggested, shoving dynamite wrapped in bacon where the sun never shines and blowing him to bits, then cremating his remains with a pig and using the ashes to write a curse against Allah. Would any of those vicious acts of barbarity make us the slightest bit safer? Would they in any way ever deter a single person from joining up with — or financing — a terrorist group?

The bottom line is quite simple: Revenge never works. It only feeds the cycle of hatred that leads to more violence, more death, and more misery, for all sides. Making al Qaeda unhappy doesn't make us safer. Inflaming the Muslim world doesn't make us safer. If you defend yourself against a hornet's nest with a sharp stick, then you're a moron who deserves a swarm of stings. If you believe that revenge accomplishes anything useful, I can only point to examples of revenge throughout history: Israel/Palestine, IRA/UDF, Montague/Capulet, Hatfield/McCoy, Crip/Blood ...

"Before you set out on revenge, you first dig two graves."

قبل أن يبحث أنت إنتقام، أولى جعلت يتأهّب اثنان قبور۔
The quote is from a James Bond film, supposedly an "ancient Chinese proverb," although I found no corroboration. In Chinese, it would be something like this:
在寻找复仇之前, 第一个开掘二坟墓。 [simplified]
or this: 在尋找復仇之前, 第一個開掘二墳墓。 [traditional]

My goal is to have fewer American graves to dig, and I believe that sentiment is patriotic. Killing Moussaoui — at best a low-level bumbler for al Qaeda — serves only the opposite purpose. If the question is how best to protect America from terrorism, executing Moussaoui is not only immoral, it is also the wrong answer.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Undoing a half century of civil rights

The state of South Dakota has mounted a frontal assault on the famous Roe v. Wade decision that forbade states from outlawing or significantly restricting abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, trying to reverse more than three decades of judicial precedent.

Not to be outdone, the city of Omaha, Nebraska, a skant 160 km [100 miles] down the Missouri River, is taking on a 52-year-old Supreme Court precedent: Brown v. Board of Education. In Brown, the Court struck down the "separate but equal" principle, specifically as it applied to public education, but also more broadly as it applied to public accommodations. Yesterday, Nebraska's unicameral Legislature [unique within the United States] voted to split the Omaha public schools into three separate districts: one predominantly white, one predominantly African American, and one predominantly Hispanic.

The move would not require students who found themselves in the minority within their new district to relocate into their assigned racial turf, and it would even allow Asian Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and other races to attend school in any of the three new districts. The plan, known as LB1024 [PDF], supported by Nebraska's only African American state senator, would divide large school districts into smaller units with a student population of no more than 25,000.

LB1024, as signed by Governor Dave Heineman, removes some interesting language from existing state law:

The Legislature also finds and declares that desegregation and racial integration in the public schools are of critical importance for the future of this state and that those school districts with desegregation plans may, as authorized in section 79-238, adopt standards which deny the educational options for parents and that such school districts are not required to consider, in denying such options, any of the factors [size of schools, distance, availability of transportation, course offerings, extracurricular activities, quantity and quality of staff, and test scores] in subsection (1) of this section or any other factors considered by parents or legal guardians in seeking enrollment for a child in a school district in which they do not reside.
In other words, racial integration in the public schools is no longer of critical importance in Nebraska. That's an interesting legislative finding.

Even I am not willing to wade through the entire 52 pages of mind-numbing legalese of LB1024, but, as I understand it, it would take the various school districts now existing in Douglas and Sarpy Counties [Omaha is in Douglas County; Sarpy County is adjacent to the south.] and combine them into a single Learning Community (a new structure created by this law), but also divide them into smaller school districts. The Learning Community would set a unified tax rate for the entire two-county area and collect the taxes, portioning the revenues out among the various school districts to spend according to their respective budget plans. One point on which I am very much unclear, though, is how the arrangement will create a majority-black and a majority-Hispanic district: ¾ of the students in the Omaha area are white, about 12% are black, and about 8% are Hispanic, plus various other races and mixed-race students. Within the current Omaha Public Schools (OPS), just over half of the students are classified as "minority," but the white students still outnumber the blacks and Hispanics combined.

The OPS has been trying to coerce the other school districts within the city limits of Omaha to merge into OPS, based on a state law establishing the principle of "one city, one school district." OPS feels that its tax base on a per-pupil basis will be significantly enhanced by including the entire city of Omaha. LB1024, though, would be a bizarre combination of merge and divide. Indeed, some existing "school districts" would be preserved, but subordinated to a new layer of bureaucracy, the "Learning Community." It seems that the intent of the new law is precisely to create "separate but equal" school districts — separate in terms of policies and funding priorities, but equal in terms of access to sources of revenue.

Section 41 of LB1024 is the part that would divide the OPS into smaller districts. It was introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers of the 11th district, in northeastern Omaha. His district includes Fort Omaha and the Omaha Home for Boys, but it does not extend east to Carter Lake or the Omaha airport. It also includes Creighton University and the Great Plains Black Museum, but does not extend south to the Joslyn Art Museum, the Convention Center and Arena, or the Civic Auditorium. Senator Chambers maintains that the Omaha Public Schools are already segregated in practice, and that dividing the district into smaller entities will allow minority communities to have greater control over the schools in their neighborhoods. Here is the specific language of his proposal, which is now part of the law signed by the governor:
Sec. 41. (1) On or before July 1, 2007, each learning community coordinating council shall submit a plan to the state committee to divide any Class V school districts in the learning community into new Class V school districts organized around the attendance areas of existing high school buildings which are not currently being used exclusively for specialized programs, with two or three such high school buildings in each new Class V school district. Such new Class V districts shall consist of school buildings having attendance areas which are contiguous. The effective date for reorganizations pursuant to this section shall be July 1, 2008. Such reorganizations shall not be subject to the approval or disapproval of any school board pursuant to section 37 of this act.
Note that "Class V school district" currently refers specifically and exclusively to the Omaha Public Schools, just as "Metropolitan Class City" refers specifically and exclusively to the city of Omaha, although Lincoln is more than ¾ of the way there.

The governor said today that the measure is already having the truly intended effect, which is to get the Omaha-area school boards, PTAs, and other interested parties, talking about how to address the serious inequities of the current framework. It's a sad statement, though, if the only way to bring about that dialogue is by exercising what could reasonably be called a "nuclear option" dropped from the state upon the metropolitan area. In particular, the state attorney general, Jon Bruning, stated officially that the bill may violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that lawsuits will be filed. I'd say that last bit is a sure bet.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Oprah on Schools in Crisis

Oprah Winfrey had a two-day special report on Schools in Crisis this week, in connection with Time magazine. Bill Gates used the word obsolete to describe public schools in the United States, and said he was "terrified" at the implications of the dismal state of the American education system. You should be concerned, too.

Read more...The United States has fallen from #1 in mathematics to #24. So what? Who needs math? You don't need math if you're frying burgers at McDonald's, but you certainly do need math if you want to work with computers or biotechnology or most of the other high-tech "good jobs" of the 21st century. You also need to be able to read, you need to be able to communicate your ideas in both spoken and written language, and you need a solid background in science. You need to have a solid grounding in those subjects in order to study them in college and get a four-year degree, which is ever more pointedly the dividing line between the people who make a good living and the people who eke out a minimum-wage subsistence living. That's not to say that every single person who doesn't graduate college is condemned to a life of poverty and misery, but it certainly does increase the risk dramatically. If you don't have a college degree, and most especially if you don't even have a high-school diploma, you'd better have some real skill at something or you'll be left with menial labor. There aren't nearly enough winning lottery tickets to cover all the high-school dropouts.

Another important point is that the expectations that our society has of our public schools and of our public-school students have dropped precipitously in recent years. We take it as normal that even many high-school graduates can barely read, don't know how to balance a checkbook, can't find the United States on a map of North America, and believe that astrology is a science. We view our public schools as babysitting warehouses in which we house kids until they're old enough to go to prison.

Oprah also had former NBA star Kevin Johnson on the program. K.J. retired from the NBA and returned to his native Sacramento, California, to do something about the schools in his old neighborhood. He formed the Saint Hope Public School System, now encompassing six schools, and has turned around the test scores and the graduation rates and the overall atmosphere of those schools. Here are a few quotes:

I saw the kids of the people I went to school with, who were in jail, on drugs, unemployed, or not living. The cycle was repeating itself. I saw these 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds headed down that same path. I said, I gotta do something. I took a stand for this community and got involved.

There is an educational crisis in America, and we need to start talking about it, and we've got to do something about it. We all have to understand that children's lives are at stake here.

At our school here [Sacramento High School], if a parent does not want their son or daughter to go to college, if they're not willing to do whatever it takes to help their son or daughter get there, this is not the school for you, this is not the choice for you.

If we don't take care of this issue in terms of education in a real way, it will not only impact those kids, it will come to a community near you very quickly. That outrage, that frustration, it boils over. So what happens? We all know the story: your crime rate goes up, your unemployment goes up, your dropout goes up. ... We have a responsibility in our country to make sure our kids not just graduate — that's the first step — we need to prepare our kids for college, for work, and beyond.

We have to have high expectations for every kid. We have to believe that every kid can reach their potential. Is it too much to ask that a kid be reading and doing math at grade level? That's not too much to ask. We've got to raise that bar. There's a direct correlation between parents' involvement and student achievement.

— Kevin Johnson on The Oprah Winfrey Show, 2006-04-12
None of that should be news to anyone, but the issue so often gets swept under the rug. We take it for granted that a huge swath of our young people will never rise above perhaps being the assistant manager at the McDonald's, if they can manage to stay off drugs and out of prison. We don't expect kids to be able to read, write, and think.

The state of Indiana just passed a law that revokes the drivers licenses of students under the age of 18 who drop out, except under specified extenuating circumstances. I agree: there probably aren't three 16-year-old high-school dropouts in America who are capable of earning a living wage to make it on their own. You're just not going to support a decent lifestyle on $5.15/hour. The tradition of letting people drop out at such a young age is an anachronism that we can no longer tolerate.

The issue of immigration ties in, although not in quite the way that Dana Rohrabacher and others believe it does. By allowing our school system to churn out vast numbers of kids who are not equipped for anything but menial labor, we are going to solve the shortage of Americans willing to do the jobs at the bottom of the pyramid. If we want to have anything like full employment for these American kids, we will need to seal our borders with a mile-high electric fence and then embark on massive "public works" projects to move this pile of dirt over into that ditch, and then move it back again. It's basically the kind of thing we might have them do in prison if they were sentenced to hard labor, only it costs less to pay them minimum wage than to lock them up when they're not working.

I am a product of the public schools, but I graduated in an upper-middle-class suburb of Dallas. In fact, my high school alone had more National Merit Semi-finalists than the entire Dallas Independent School District. The headquarters of Texas Instruments was located near our high school, so we had lots of engineers and techie types among the parents, and there was a serious emphasis on college preparation. My senior year, I took advanced placement courses in English, French, European History, Calculus, and Physics, which only left time for one non-A.P. course, Art and Music History. I had friends who were taking courses like Latin, German, Spanish, Chemistry, and Biology, many of them at the A.P. level. More important than the course offerings, though, was the expectation on the part of the parents, the teachers, the staff, and the community as a whole that we were in that school to get an education. 93% of my senior class graduated on schedule, and quite a few others made up in summer school the credits they lacked in the spring. Every school in the United States should have graduation rates rivaling or even surpassing those numbers. Just as we have to believe that every kid can reach their potential, we also have to believe that every school can reach its potential.

[Aside to the language purists: yes, I said, "every kid can reach their potential," which I, too, was taught is incorrect English grammar. However, the usage is ubiquitous to the point that it is empty pedantry to fight it. Besides, there is no acceptable gender-neutral third-person pronoun; just as ye/you expanded from being second-person plural to encompass the second-person singular, so they has expanded to encompass third-person singular of unspecified gender.]

If we leave these children behind, the damage ripples outward into the entire community and the entire nation. Not only will unemployment and crime increase, but America's economic competitiveness will suffer, which will bring an end to America's status as a superpower. The United States will not keep its edge in innovation and technology without a well-educated labor pool. The tremendous success of Ireland in the last 25 years is a mirror image of the decline America is poised to take in the next 25: with a well-educated workforce, Ireland has turned its economy around to the point that for the first time in a century and a half there is net migration from Britain and America to Ireland of people seeking a land of opportunity. If we continue to let our schools decay and turn out dead-eyed illiterates who have had so little expected of them that they believe they are incapable of anything better, then maybe in 50 years our grandchildren will be worried about the flow of illegal immigrants from the U.S. into Mexico.

Anderson Cooper visited an innovative school in Washington, D.C., called the KIPP Academy. (KIPP is an acronym for Knowledge Is Power Program.) The commitment of the teachers at KIPP can be summed up in one simple statement: the kids have their teacher's cellphone number. That's a level of involvement you don't often see in the teaching profession, because teaching has dropped markedly in status as a profession, leading to increasing difficulty in attracting and retaining qualified, dedicated teachers. Yes, there are some excellent teachers out there. I still remember some of mine: J.T. Sutcliffe, James Temme, and Pam Moore, just to name three. I'm sure that there are equally outstanding teachers out there today, but I'm also sure that they are too much the exception rather than the rule. KIPP puts a particular emphasis on setting facts and figures to sing-along call and response; their "three R's" are repetition, rhythm, and rap. One example: to a nursery-rhyme tune, "Six, twelve, eighteen, twenty-four, thirty, thirty-six..." The kids spend 10 hours a day at school, plus a minimum of three hours of homework, plus a half day on Saturday, plus mandatory summer school. I'm not sure that leaves enough time for kids to be kids, but there's no question that it produces results. The kids don't forget everything they ever knew over a long summer vacation, and they are steeped in learning all day long, 5½ days a week.

As I say, I don't think that the KIPP model is right for every school, but it does demonstrate that it is possible to engage the children in the process of learning, and to push them to meet the high expectations that are set for them without grinding down their self-esteem. One of KIPP's mottos is, "Work Hard. Be Nice."

Another quick Oprah factoid for you: A high-school dropout is eight times more likely to land in jail or prison than a high-school graduate. Four out of five prisoners are dropouts. Here in California, we spend more than $34,000 per year per prisoner, and yet the state is pushing to build more prisons even while trying to cut spending for education. Which has "more bang for the buck," a prison which trains people to be better criminals, or a school which trains people to be better citizens, better workers, and better taxpayers?

Sure, there are problems with the schools that will not be fixed just by throwing money at them, but those problems are not going to be fixed without throwing some more money to education. Here in California, Prop 13 is directly responsible for the strangulation of the public school system. Since the passage of Prop 13, California's schools have dropped from being the envy of the nation to being down in the gutter with states like Mississippi. We don't need for every school to be a KIPP Academy, but we do need to have school buildings that aren't falling apart, equipment that is relevant and useful in teaching the knowledge and skills today's students will need to enter the workforce, and teachers who are both capable and dedicated to their mission, and all of those elements require money. Our short-sighted insistence on keeping taxes down puts us in danger of losing our economic vitality. If we raise taxes to pay for schools, and make sure that the money is well spent, then companies will flock to California in search of smart workers who can provide innovation and productivity. We might even be able to scale back our plans to build prisons to lock up even more than the 160,000 or so people currently in our state correctional system — up from fewer than 25,000 a quarter century ago. Nationally, our prison population has tripled in those same 25 years.

Oprah also accompanied Bill and Melinda Gates to a couple of exemplary high schools. The unifying theme was what Melinda Gates called her 3 R's: rigor, relationships, and relevance. Rigor is fairly self-explanatory: in order to get students to achieve, you have to give them the tools to succeed, expect them to succeed, help them succeed, and make sure that they actually have succeeded. Relationships means that each student has a meaningful connection with at least one adult in the school, someone who will take an active interest in the student's success. Relevance means that the material being taught must be connected to the children's lives. That doesn't mean that you only teach them about video games and popular music, it means that you show them how trigonometry and literature and biology and history connect with the reality of being a teenager. The Gates stress smaller schools, although I would say that it can be a two-edged sword. For example, in my school with over 900 students per grade level, we only barely managed to have enough to have an A.P. physics class. If you had cut our school in half, we probably would've had to jettison Latin and maybe German completely, along with Art & Music History, World Literature, jazz band, and several other courses. It is more difficult to have a connection between students and teachers in a large school, but it isn't impossible.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Kevin Johnson are part of a new effort called the Stand Up campaign. Oprah also has resources on her web site,
I believe that education is freedom. And if it is freedom, indeed, then we are literally imprisoning America's future. — Oprah Winfrey
Education is freedom, education is power, education is security, and education is wealth. The education of our children is an important measure of the future success of our society. Furthermore, education needs to be unconstrained by political and religious dictates. "Intelligent Design" is not science, and it must not be taught in a science class. Evolution is science, and it must be taught in biology classes. That distinction is critical if we are to stay at the forefront of biotechnology and medicine. The fight to keep the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance is a distraction from the central mission of our schools, which is not to teach the children to pray to the Christian God, but to teach the children the skills they need to go out into the world and make a decent living. We also have to address as a nation the inequity of allowing well-off communities to have good schools while poorer communities have disgracefully dilapidated, overcrowded, understaffed, dangerous schools — perpetuating the economic divide that stands as an enduring counterpoint to America's professed values of equality, fairness, and opportunity for all.

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