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December 2, 2004, 7:50 P.M.

Another thoughtful communication from reader, Brian M.:

Dear Ed,

Although my usual practice is to address the topics you bring up in your blog, I thought I'd take up the reins this time.

Perhaps I'm merely disappointed with the result of the election, but the result gave me cause to think about our democracy as a larger issue.

My view is that our country is democratic only at the margins. The differences between both major candidates were minor, as evinced by the lack of substantive debate on meaningful issues -- those issues only to be supplanted by such pap as the candidate's military record or lack thereof.

Both presidential contenders were fabulously wealthy, with little to no connection between themselves and the electorate. Indeed, they represented merely two sides of a general political class in our country, with interests often much different from those of the hoi polloi. In order to see where the interests of this class lie, all one needs to do is to read a few issues of the elite "journals" such as Foreign Affairs or Washington Quarterly. I'm often struck by the level of arrogance expressed in these journals toward the rank and file of America.

At any rate, this political class is much the same as any aristocracy as from the days of yore: it needs us only insofar as we advance its need for a revenue stream and insofar as our children act as cannon fodder for their wars, which, by the way, function to increase their position of dominion over the world, both socially and economically.

I am more than a little offended each time I hear of someone else from our community getting killed in Iraq when the children of the political class send their kids to the best schools and make them into quasi celebrities. Why is it not that George Bush's two daughters aren't in Fallujah? Why is it not that the children of the people in Congress, or those of the executives of the big banks and construction firms aren't there as well? The reason is simple: they need to protect their class interests, which includes protecting their gene pool. It is no accident that both Bush and Kerry can trace their lineage back to European royalty.

Right now, I find myself in the position of having to worry about my son being sucked into their murderous practices, as the subject of a draft is regularly bandied about in the elite press. My son should be just about draft age when the public has been sufficiently "prepared" by our leaders to accept the fact of a draft with docility. This is not a worry I want to have, particularly when I know that the bastards who would send my son into their quagmire are making money from it.

In my view, all of these people can go to hell. I do not feel they represent my interests in any meaningful way. Rather, they represent their own interests, with the public participating only inasmuch as sports fans participate in an athletic event going on before them. Sure, it's exciting and one can drink lots of beer, but the result is completely beyond the control of the viewers.

So insofar as democracy is concerned, as I say, our country is democratic only at the margins. Sure, we have a choice between candidates, much the same as we have a choice between Coke and Pepsi: although they're both sweet, they both rot your teeth. Some choice.

Brian

November 29, 2004, 4:00 P.M.

The Blame Game: As the dust begins to settle on the brawl between players and fans at an NBA game in Detroit between the Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, a lot of questions about our society spring to mind. Many of those questions center around personal responsibility.

Ron Artest, star player for the Pacers, has been suspended for the rest of this season by NBA Commissioner David Stern. This will cost Artest about $5.5 million, but at least he will have time to promote a new CD produced by a record label he owns. Artest, it seems, was previously benched for 2 games for requesting a month off from his NBA team to go on the road promoting the CD.

In addition to Artest, his teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine OíNeal were also suspended for their part in the brawl, Jackson for 30 games and OíNeal for 25 games. These suspensions will not only be costly to the players, but also to the fans, the owners and especially to the team and the game. David Stern did what he could, he punished the players over whom he has control. Iím sure that if he had been able to punish the fans, he would have. Everybody in this mess bears responsibility for what happened.

First and foremost, if you throw beer or anything else into the face of a 6'7", 250 pound athlete while running your mouth, you had better be prepared for the consequences. Being an NBA player doesnít make Ron Artest any less of a man, and he does not deserve to be treated the way he was. Fans pay to watch games, not to participate or attack players. Furthermore, once you decide to take your beer-swilling buddies onto the floor, you better expect to get your clock cleaned. Iím sorry, but sometimes a good old-fashioned punch in the nose can be the best and most effective response to abusive and assaultive behavior.

The players are not without some blame here. They are the professionals and should be held to a higher standard, within limits. Taunting, verbal abuse, foul language and generally stupid behavior has, unfortunately, become part of our professional sports culture. Players have sadly some to expect that fans will behave badly. Where the line gets crossed and the abuse gets beyond what the player can take, the explosive response is what gets the coverage, not necessarily the abusive behavior leading up to it. If players are expected to ignore fan abuse, someone needs to explain where the line is. Obviously, getting a beer tossed in his face by a drunk slob in a Pistons jersey was more than Artest could, or would, tolerate. Leaving the bench and walking up into the stands to retaliate was obviously more than David Stern could, or would, tolerate, leaving Artest out a whole lot of money.

The NBA and its members owners bear some responsibility also. Fans obviously canít be trusted not to drink or to behave responsibly when they have been drinking. So why do teams continue to serve drunks at sporting events? Of course this is a rhetorical question because teams keep serving the sponsorsí beer so that the teams, and the sponsors, can make more money and pay players (and sponsorsí executives) huge amounts of money. Unless the NBA wants to see its games played behind glass barriers, they had better get a handle on their drinking problem.

There is certainly enough blame to go around in this incident, and in the hundreds of other, smaller and less publicized incidents at sporting events around the country. A big part of the problem is cultural in that we have come to tolerate a higher level of violence and obscenity in connection with our sports. Violence is permitted, in some cases even encouraged, on the court or field, and fans are often encouraged to participate in the game. Fans, however, donít have the right to treat players the way they did in this case without serious consequences. There is a line between fan and player that should not be crossed. Just as if you were to throw a glass of beer in someoneís face on the street, you would get popped, you should not be surprised when it happens at your favorite sporting venue. You should, after recovering from a sharp poke in the nose, be prosecuted for assault. You should also expect to be banned from the arena in the future. Putting glass around basketball courts will change the game immeasurably and it will punish the true fans and players who are above the brawling and ugliness.

David Stern has punished the players because he could. He has to leave the punishment of the fans to other authorities. I hope that the criminal justice system will pick up where Mr. Stern has left off, and that none of the threatened civil suits will materialize. Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but everyone involved in this mess deserves to be punished. Certainly, no one should expect to be rewarded.

At some point, it becomes a question of personal responsibility. Certain actions will result in certain reactions. If you drink too much and behave stupidly, there will be consequences. If you react violently to someone elseís bad behavior, there will be consequences. That is the message this incident ought to convey. Think before you act, be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions, and quit whining about who is to blame.

November 25, 2004, 12:00 P.M.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is currently under investigation by a Texas Grand Jury investigating charges of possible money laundering and misuse of corporate funds in politics. Three of his aides were indicted on September 21. Delay has previously been admonished by the House Ethics Committee on several occasions for ethics violations. Yet he continues to enjoy the power and privileges of a U.S. Representative.

DeLay is unscrupulous in his exercise of power. He is emboldened by his success in redistricting in Texas and there appears to be no end to the lengths to which he will go (or depths to which he will stoop) to stay in power. What is perhaps more impressive, however, is the number of Republicans in the House who simply march lock-step behind the Majority Leader rather than rejecting him for his transgressions. Perhaps itís fear of his seemingly limitless power (and fundraising ability) or perhaps it is simply now acceptable among our political leaders to push or burst the ethical (and in DeLayís case, legal) envelope to secure and maintain political power.

U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky) recently held a fundraiser to bolster the DeLay defense fund. Clearly, Rogers is interested in the committee or chairmanship appointments DeLay will make this winter. His event raised over $100,000 for DeLayís legal defense from businessmen, most of whom enjoy lucrative government contracts and want to continue to do so. The cancer of corruption that has eaten its way through Texas is spreading.

November 22, 2004, 8:40 P.M.

Back in 1994, the Republicans passed an ethics rule in the House of Representatives requiring members who were under investigation for a crime to step down from any House leadership post until such time as they either went to jail or were cleared. Now that Tom DeLay is under investigation, and possible indictment, for his part in the Texas redistricting scandal, the Republicans have repealed the rule.

Of course the rule is just that, an administrative rule, and therefore the vote is not public and thus Republicans, at least in theory, donít have to answer to their constituents for this type of vote. The new rule, voted by the Republican caucus, allows DeLay to remain in power while he is being investigated. Republicans, including DeLay, say that the rule change is necessary to keep the Democrats from having any control over House leadership. For DeLayís part, he claims that Ronnie Earl, the Travis County, Texas D.A. who has already secured 3 indictments against DeLay aides, is just trying to ďcriminalize politics.Ē Rather than answer questions about his own behavior, DeLay chooses to put his political machine in gear to remove his accuser. Just wait until this guy runs for President!

November 22, 2004, 8:30 P.M.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: I can't reconcile the fact that, when surveyed at the polls, one voter out of every five said the single most important issue to them in making a choice for political candidates was "moral values" with the proliferation of what I would term immoral or unethical behavior in our popular culture. Mondayís New York Times featured an article by Bill Carter that examines the popularity of television shows with violent or sexual content in areas that went heavily for Bush on the supposed "morality question."

Television programs like "CSI," which is apparently the number one show in the nation today, and "Desperate Housewives," which currently ranks number two, draw their audiences from all manner of television watchers. I have never seen "Desperate Housewives" and have only seen portions of CSI while surfing my way between public television and American Chopper (stopping briefly at the History Channel). I can see, however, that in addition to the gore and cleavage, there is some element of a good detective story in there. The shows that really make me wonder what is going in viewersí heads are the so-called "reality" shows.

First and foremost, I canít imagine why anyone would submit themselves to the humiliation, abuse and, in extreme cases, downright torture that these shows dish out for the slim hope that a contestant might win some amount of money. In channel surfing, I have come across programs where people do dangerous stunts, eat repulsive things and try by all manner of means to impress "the boss" in order to secure a job. These programs have one common thread: the most manipulative, aggressive, selfish and deceptive of the participants get the prize. How does that square with the larger issue of morality?

Apparently, it is not okay for two people in a committed relationship to share the legal advantages of marriage if they are gay. That much is clear from the recent election and from the anti-gay marriage laws passed in 16 or so states to date. It is, on the other hand, okay to deceive your family, friends and co-workers into thinking your are about to marry the worldís biggest jerk in order to win $100,000. How does that square up?

Personally, I am not threatened by the concept of gay marriage. I just donít care. I do, however, care that the level of acceptance of deception, manipulation and the ends-justify-the-means approach to life, business and relationships has simply gone off the charts. The message is that, advancement at all costs in not only accepted, but expected.

The current generation of these television shows seems to take the deception to a new level. Now, potential contestants are told that they will win the big prize or get the big job, but the contest itself is fake. Viewers are now treated to the sight of the contestant debasing himself or prizes or goals that the viewers alone know donít really exist. What a hoot! Itís kind of like watching Ted Nugent shoot some kid with paintballs or hose down scantily clad boys and girls for his private pleasure when you know that no one could ever respect the "winner" having seen them sell all of their self-respect and dignity for the delight of millions of viewers.

Something is really wrong here. The moral, and more specifically ethical, fiber of our country is unraveling, but itís not over gay marriage or abortion rights. Itís over hypocrisy, greed, corruption, avarice and deceit. These new virtues are regularly exhibited on the political stage and in the world arena, tarnishing our great countryís reputation. Right now we preach virtue, but we donít practice it. What disturbs me most about that, however, is that while the country seems genuinely divided on issues of politics and war it seems united in its appreciation for the salacious nature of its popular culture. Prurient interest seems to override our country's fundamental belief in the privacy of our own homes.

Of course, when the issue is a television program, a book, a play or a newspaper article, one can simply choose to turn the channel, not read the book, or skip the play if its content is offensive. I donít watch much network television -- frankly, I donít watch much television -- but obviously many people do, judging by the popularity of the medium. It is increasingly apparent that the television image of our society is reflective of the true private face of our morality. The public face is a deception, acceptable as part of the new American cultural pathos. Say one thing, do another. It is the height of arrogance, however, to tell me that who marries whom is more important than lying about why we send soldiers to war, or that deception, manipulation and disrespect as a means to success can pass for entertainment.

H.L. Menken, November 19, 2004, 9:15 A.M.

H.L. Menken, "The Sage of Baltimore," The Evening Sun, July 26, 1920:

"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

If he only knew.

Thanks to Ed Van Dorn and the NHTLA listserve for this one.

November 16, 2004, 6:40 P.M.

Recipe for Disaster: It is hard for me to imagine that the recent shake ups in the Bush cabinet will produce much in the way of change in approach for US foreign policy. In fact, with the President and his folks perceiving the recent election results as some sort of mandate, I expect that sharing the neocon world view will be a prerequisite for cabinet service. Clearly, the nomination of the obliging National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to succeed the moderate Colin Powell as Secretary of State pushes the Bush world view to the political forefront.

There is little doubt that the core power structure of the administration will remain intact. This does not bode well for a speedy resolution of the war in Iraq. Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bush and Rumsfeld wholeheartedly believe that a single, unified, democratic state of Iraq can and will be created behind the shield of American military power. They refuse to recognize the political, religious, cultural and economic barriers to the scheme, even though many former believers in the one state system are beginning to recognize that some other solution might be in order. I see no indication that the administration agrees.

Falluja ought to provide a graphic example of the problems. The Sunnis recognize that, because of their numbers, they will lose power and influence in national elections. Holding on to enclaves like Falluja, Mosul and Baquba will allow them to delay or avoid a national election. The Kurds are also in no real hurry to see elections, and probably wonít respond well to any national elections anyway. The Kurds have enjoyed years of semi-autonomy, since the end of the first Gulf War actually, and will not ever fall in line with a national Iraqi state for the sake of the greater good. They may see some form of national, or better yet, federal government to protect them and their semi-autonomy from Turkish dominance, but itís a game of balance and the Kurds have certainly earned the right to set their own agenda. Unfortunately, the Sunni factions are still drawing most of the attention of the US and provisional governments, and will continue to do so as long as they are able.

The Sunnis will never agree to a state that denies them access to oil. If you look at the geography of Iraq, it is obvious that the predominately Sunni regions, the Sunni triangle, are not the major oil producing, refining or distribution centers. In order for any government to exist that has the buy-in of the Sunni minority, it must envision a method of sharing the wealth.

You canít forget the religious aspects of this thing, either. This aspect of the problem also weighs against the single state model. Unfortunately, the economic, religious and political subtleties of this situation do not fit the Bush model. Itís like they have blinders on and they intend, despite all of the signs to the contrary, to plod along the same path.

There needs to be a fresh vision. A new look at the map. The result might not be a unified, democratic Iraq. But with some vision, there might be a federation or some other confederation of factions that can be agreed upon. Of course, time is against us now because of all of the outside influences being brought to the table. Some factions want nothing more than to resist efforts at normalizing Iraq. Until the majority of Iraqís political factions have a desire to unify in some way, the US will remain mired in Iraqís affairs. What is obvious is that we cannot change Iraq by brute force. We overran Falluja (again) by brute force, but we did not end the Sunni resistance; we simply relocated it.

The President has said that he doesnít do nuance. Iraq is all about nuance and subtlety. Twelve hundred US soldiers have died and tens of thousands more have been injured trying to impose the neocon world vision on Iraq. A change of strategy, and not just a change in people, is warranted in Washington. I just don't see it happening. Staying the course is one thing; staying the wrong course is a recipe for disaster.


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