Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Smilin' John Bolton

Most insiders viewed John Bolton's nomination as Ambassador to the U.N. as a move primarily to get him out of the State Department to limit the damage he could do, not as a reward. Still, the idea that an UN Ambassador could or would need to be "handled," as the Bush administration asserted, appalled many Senators such as Voinovich (R-OH). A good diplomat is someone skilled at handling others, not someone who requires it! And who would nominate such an individual? (Hmm…)

While the infamously pugnacious Bolton may have been briefly cowed and humbled by the prospect of losing the nomination process, this article by Mark Leon Goldberg in The American Prospect shows that he quickly regressed to form. In addition to alienating foreign allies, he continues his pattern of undermining colleagues and picking needless, counterproductive fights. Different management styles can prove effective, but it's hard to see Bolton as much more than yet another ideologue woefully unsuited for a position of true importance, uninterested in effectiveness. (Meritocracy remains among the most radical, revolutionary ideas in the world.)

Bolton has always seemed proud of his tactlessness, likely with the affectation that it makes him "blunt" or a "straight-shooter." When he proclaimed that if the UN building lost 10 of its 38 floors, it wouldn’t make a difference, he gave many politicians and career diplomats concern… but gained cheerleaders elsewhere. Colin Powell apparently thought quite poorly of Bolton, and this no doubt won Bolton further favor with Cheney and Rumsfeld. Thus, moving Bolton from State to UN Ambassador was not just a matter of limiting damage as new realism crept back into Bush's foreign policy. Condeleeza Rice wanted to get rid of Bolton, but Cheney strongly backed him for the ambassador position. The stated rationale was that as a fervent critic of the UN, Bolton was just the man to instigate much needed reform. This always smacked a little of the "It took Nixon to go to China" defense (an argument I've always viewed as rather simplistic and silly anyway). In Bolton's case, however, it may prove to be more like sending David Duke to speak to the NAACP. It is one thing to want to reform an institution, but if one despises the institution, the results ain't likely to be pretty.

In truth, Bolton's nomination really seemed like just another assertion of the bullying, arrogant cowboy diplomacy that still dominates in much of the Bush administration. Jeffrey Goldberg's recent major New Yorker article on George H.W. Bush's National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft delivers one of the most incisive portraits of this mindset yet:

Scowcroft suggested that the White House was taking the wrong advice, and listening to a severely limited circle. He singled out the Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who was consulted by Vice-President Cheney and others after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Lewis, Scowcroft said, fed a feeling in the White House that the United States must assert itself. “It’s that idea that we’ve got to hit somebody hard,” Scowcroft said. “And Bernard Lewis says, ‘I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.’ ” Cheney, in particular, Scowcroft thinks, accepted Lewis’s view of Middle East politics.

Macho rhetoric might be impressive to the True Believers as part of a public performance, but it tends not to be effective in the actual diplomacy that occurs in closed rooms. Asking for a favor after you've hit someone in the face never works that well.

I had not known that Bolton worked for Jesse Helms, but it makes a great deal of sense, considering their shared hostility toward the UN. Mark Leon Goldberg reports:

Helms was a key booster of Bolton early in his career: Bolton began his public service as Helms’ aide, and the two share a warm -- some might say eternal -- relationship. During Bolton’s 2001 confirmation hearing as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Helms famously referred to him as “the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon.”

Helms neglected to mention that he and Bolton seek to instigate that same Armageddon. The final paragraph of the article suggests Bolton actively looks for fights:

After listening to a tirade from Bolton against inefficiency, corruption, and supposed anti-Americanism at the UN during a private dinner, a Sunday Telegraph reporter in the audience asked him what he enjoyed most about the UN, to which Bolton replied, “It’s a target-rich environment.”

When Christmas is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Celebrate Christmas

Will it surprise anyone to learn that Fox News, the network which concocted the false "War on Christmas," actually invited its employees to a "holiday party?" What happened to the fight-to-the-last-man ethos that we should all say "Merry Christmas?" Why was happy, er, angry, Christian warrior Bill O'Reilly originally offering "holiday ornaments" before the web site was changed? Why have George and Laura Bush wished folks "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings?" Didn't they get the memo?

I blame the liberal media.

A few stupidity checks are in order. Calling a Christmas tree a "holiday tree" is stupid, unless it's within your own home and you're definitely not Christian but you and your kids enjoy the whole tree thing (even then it's pretty silly). Insisting that "Happy Holidays" is offensive is asinine, since most Christians celebrate Christmas and New Year's and the phrase covers both… as well as Chanukah and Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice for all those, y'know, pagans. Claiming that institutions must call "winter break" "Christmas break" is stupid, offensive, and discriminatory… not to mention, inaccurate. My "winter break" in college lasted six weeks, starting just before Thanksgiving and ending just after New Year's. Many high school kids and college kids have a week or so off before Christmas lasting until just after New Year's (see the "Happy Holidays" discussion). Yes, at one time Christians could claim persecution… back when they were being fed to lions under the Roman Empire. But does any sane, honest person believe that an American cannot find a safe haven to celebrate Christmas in this country? Who is likely to feel more comfortable during the Christmas season, a Christian or a Jew?

I would argue that, far from there being a war against people of faith, there is a concerted movement against empiricism, science, and religious tolerance. You see, atheists as a whole are not a rowdy bunch, other than perhaps the Bolsheviks in 1914, but the majority of Trotskyites now seem to be Republicans anyway (the "neocons").

So here’s the latest salvos about Fox’s faux war.

By far the funniest (but substantial) performance to date comes from Sam Seder on CNN, who starts with the premise that the “War on Christmas” is the same as the Iraq war and quickly moves to Santa’s al-Qaeda connection and elf torture. To say Seder mops the floor with his opponent is to be too kind to the hapless Bob Knight of the Culture and Family Institute. Oh, and it’s become a general principle of the blogosphere (and debate in general) that when you invoke the Nazis, you’re losing (by the way, while Seder doesn’t mention it, having Knight, a proclaimed “Christian” invoke the Nazis to complain about religious persecution to a Jew is the height of bad taste.) Thanks to Crooks and Liars for posting this gem.

But the funnies don’t stop there. Ruth Marcus penned a nice op-ed in The Washington Post. Over at the Poyter Institute, a former Fox News producer reveals the strategy employed by the station. It’s a must-read.

Bill O’Reilly emerges as the uncontested champion of boobs, however. He wins this honor with a hat trick. He scores his first point by proclaiming that he shall “bring horror” upon the “oppressive, totalitarian and anti-Christian forces in this country”... Because nothing captures the spirit of Christmas like intolerance, hatred, and threats. (As long as Bill wants to fight phantoms, can we have him go off and say, protect the Easter Bunny from the commies in an isolated bunker somewhere?)

For his second point, Bill continues to make friends by casually accusing Madison, Wisconsin of Satan-worship. I wish I was making this up. (I would be surprised if O'Reilly's ratings weren’t eroding... unless folks are tuning in out of a Network-esque morbid curiosity to see if his head will finally explode.)

Still, he really outdoes himself for point three when he claims that a school district in Texas has embraced “fascism” by banning students from wearing red and green clothing. My god, and in the liberal bastion of Texas! Could it be that O’Reilly was... absolutely wrong? Nawh! Why bother to fact-check when there are rational people to slur? Poynter’s Jim Romensko posted the school district’s response here. I’m particularly fond of the polite understatment of the paragraph:

Dr. Otto said that our attorney requested of Mr. O'Reilly that, in the future, he ask his fact checkers to do a more thorough job of confirming the facts before he airs them.

Media Matters has the video here.

The Daily Show sums up much of Fox’s absurdity nicely, spotlighting O’Reilly further here and here. The second, longer item nicely captures a deceptive attack by O'Reilly on... The Daily Show.

Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live was actually funny in a Bill O’Reilly sketch that played on his disdain for fact-checking. You can see it if you hit their website, click on videos, and find the Jason Lee episode... the segment is listed as: “White House leak... Political operative... treason... Who cares?!”

(A final, brief anecdote… in my high school, it feel to the art classes to design the annual school Christmas card, but my art teacher understandably got sick of being caught in between the administration's demand that the card must say "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings," not feature a Christmas tree, and so on, while the kids drawing the things didn't really see what the big fuss was about (about 15-20% of the school was Jewish, I'd say, with most kids, regardless of denomination, celebrating Christmas.) One year, my teacher decided to just post all the card designs on a bulletin board and have the school vote for their choice, democratically. I submitted at least one traditional design, but to mix it up, I also drew one featuring a meditating Buddha with the logo, "Enter into the Kingdom of Bliss." (I actually had to redraw it because in my rush I left the "g" out of "kingdom.") Most people got a good laugh out of the Buddha card, but of course it didn't win. As I recall, the winner (by administrative decree versus vote) was something bland and inoffensive... but at least better drawn than mine.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bizarre Web Ads

Okay, this first one is not that bizarre... just transparent. Hmmm, what might MSNBC be selling here? This ad was all over the web the past few days. Shame on you, porn makers! Shame on you, insidious porn buyers! And, uh... shame on you, viewer, if you miss our titillating, sensationalist (and likely shallow) coverage!

Nothing promises romantic love like a hydrocephalic blonde chick! Everytime I've seen this fairly common ad, all I can focus on is how, through the magic of Photoshop, this woman's head is abnormally large (most likely transplanted onto someone else's body). I mean, I'm sure she's got a great personality and all, and Match.com's apparent policy of accepting folks of all sorts and sizes is cool, but who the hell thought mutant was sexy?

I have dubbed this the "Rasta Grinch" or the "Rasta Home Mortgage Grinch." While this mortgage company runs some weeeeeeird ads in its attempt to be eye-catching, this is the most bizarre. Bah humbug to Christmas, but smoke it up as we gouge your pocketbook with a horrible refinancing deal! Perhaps that's the message... after you're broke, you won't have any money for presents, so to hell with Christmas and toke up so you don't mind so much.

Or maybe he just caught sight of the neon porn silhouette at MSNBC.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Because Jesus Died for My Sins, Not Yours, Ya Damn Hippie!

(Hmm, slow news week. Need to fill the airtime here at Fox News. What to talk about? The burgeoning Republican scandals? Nawh! How about a manufactured crisis? Okay, it’s worked in the past, but what can we talk about? Well, it’s almost Christmas... and we know that liberals are the enemy of all that is good and holy... Hell, this stuff just writes itself!)

Neil Postman wrote in his brilliant essay “Silent Questions” that the questions we ask determine the answers we get. Check out the Fox News topic question here, as submitted to Crooks and Liars by a reader:

If you can’t read it clearly, it says, “ECONOMIC DISASTER IF LIBERALS WIN THE “WAR ON CHRISTMAS”?

I mean, come on. Pretending this question isn’t loaded and biased is like pretending Rush Limbaugh actually does research or Josef Stalin was a humanitarian. The bold shamelessness makes me laugh. “Fair and balanced,” indeed.

As Postman would note, this question is constructed to be answered with a simple yes or no; no complexity or nuance allowed here. Furthermore, the question’s weight is slanted toward a “yes” answer because in classic alarmist fashion, it poses a (fake) crisis. As with manipulative news show teasers, such as “the five signs of cancer that could save your life! The news at eleven!” this is a cheap ploy to create much sound and fury to get people to watch, in this case, idle and vapid chatter about a non-issue.

The question also presupposes several factors. The most glaring and biased idea is that liberals, apparently a monolithic entity, are waging a war on Christmas. They aren’t. (Can one even wage a war on Christmas? Postman would surely ask.)

The second presupposition is that economic disaster looms ahead. Yes, many businesses, most of all toy stores, do the bulk of their business in the Christmas season (I believe 25-30% is fairly common for retail businesses). As I recall, Christmas shopping did fall somewhat in 2001 after 9/11, but all the conservatives crow about how great the economy is now! Has there been some major article plausibly predicting economic disaster I’ve missed?

(Ah. But you see, the liberals want to ruin all that prosperity, because it will make Bush look bad! Liberals hate a strong economy. And they hate Christmas! And we are but their willing slaves unless we throw off their oppressive yoke and reclaim all three branches of government! Er, wait. Let me think of something about those damn hippie atheist teachers. That might play better.)

I know I won’t do any Christmas shopping because of those damn liberals. I’ll stay away from the stores and not even shop online just to spite them for practicing their so-called “religious tolerance," which we all know is nothing more than anti-Christian bigotry! When my mother looks at me with surprised and hurt eyes on Christmas morning, wondering where her gift is, I’ll shout, “Ask Howard Dean about your Christmas present!”

Does anyone truly feel Christmas is threatened? Sure, there may be isolated incidents of politically correct excess on the one hand, or overbearing religious intrusion on the other, but this just ain’t a burning issue. One of my Jewish roommates in college asserted that Chanukah, while celebrating a small miracle chiefly about tradition, cultural identity and not assimilating, was a minor holiday elevated to major status just to compete with Christmas (the big Jewish holidays being Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah instead, or even Passover). Still, most folks will take the care to wish Jewish friends Happy Chanukah versus Merry Christmas (or Happy Kwanzaa if they know one of the comparatively few people who practices it). What’s the big deal? I’ve never known a non-Christian to take offense at being wished a “Merry Christmas,” nor would anyone other than a zealot get outraged at being told, “Happy holidays.” Most devout Christian folks I know object to the crass commercialism of the season more than they fret over a choice of words; getting upset over a “Happy holidays” makes about as much sense as getting angry at someone who wishes you to “Have a nice day.”

(Instead of this focus on a non-issue, how about pressuring the airline companies not to jack up holiday airfare instead?)

But never let the lack of an actual crisis get in the way of hard-hitting news. Even if Fox did the “War on Christmas” story last year too, 'tis the seasonal gift that keeps on giving!

In this Fox News segment (you may have to scroll down a few), Neal Gabler make the point, citing an article by Michelle Goldberg, that the “War on Christmas” goes back at least to 1921 and Henry Ford and is a sham. Notice in this clip how Jane Hall is just yelled over (real gentlemanly behavior, fellas... a great job especially by the host for allowing it, and cutting off Jane Hall from responding to an ad hominem attack from Pinkerton). Pinkerton tries to argue that there is a war on Christmas, between the liberal media elites and the Christian masses; nevermind that you won't find a single major news outlet campaigning against Christmas! Meanwhile, Cal Thomas gets special mention not only for quipping that secularists worship April 1st as their holiday (what an intolerant, dismissive ass), but also for brazenly trying to argue that Jesus was intolerant! (Bravo. Try arguing that at a good seminary.)

The only reason to watch Fox News is those rare moments when the truth breaks through by a guest calling “bullshit” on the Fox crew. Jane Hall and Neal Gabler do just that:

Neal: ...I want to talk about the media angle because we have avoided it-it's the elephant in the room. It's Fox News. Come on-It's Bill O'Reilly, it's Sean Hannity, it's Gibson. They're demogogues who realized that in Christmas time you can-(garbled)- rouse the masses on this issue. They'll do it every Christmas. They did it last Christmas, they'll do it next Christmas.

Neal: We're at war, there's Darfur, there's an AIDS crisis and you're worried about whether people should say Merry Christmas? What world do you live in?

What makes all this hysteria from Fox News so much funnier is that Laura Bush said “Happy holidays” just last week, and the conservative commentators only seem to have caught up with this now, as the White House cards celebrating the “holiday season” arrive. The Washington Post reports:

"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."

Wow! Now that’s Christian! How dare you wish me well in a way that does not proclaim your religion is the same as mine!

Because, let’s face it, what the Christmas season is really about is intolerance. Keith Olbermann picks up on the ludicrousness of "Christian" intolerance as he names Fox News’ intellectual lightweight John Gibson his “worst person in the world” for 12/2/05. Olbermann explains, after discussing the runners-up:

But the winner, and this one comes with great personal pain because we were friends when he worked here and thereafter: John Gibson. Selling his new book about this phony-baloney war on Christmas, John revealed a very ugly side to himself. He is one of those people who think all religions but his are mistaken. You know, the way a lot of these religious nutbag terrorists think. "I would think," Gibbie said on a syndicated radio show, "if somebody is going to be -- have to answer for following the wrong religion, they are not going to have to answer to me. We know who they're going to have to answer to."

I'd tell you which religion John thinks is the only one that's right, but what's the difference? It's not the faith that's the issue; it's the intolerance.

Amen. I also read one blog comment that pointed out that's it rather funny that supposed "Christians" are so up in arms over a "Christmas tree" being called a "holiday tree," when it's just an adopted pagan tradition anyway: "Maybe I need to re-read the Bible, but I don't remember a big evergreen next to the manger."

There will be a lot of heathens burning this winter — Wait! Burning this Christmas! — I can promise you that! (Film at eleven!)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Who's Driving the Car?

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow's latest entry for This Modern World offers an especially pithy and trenchant perspective on Iraq.

Hindsight is not always 20/20. It is possible, and tragically in some cases all too likely, to learn a bad lesson (I will not say wrong) from a momentous occasion, especially a traumatic one. I would argue that one of the essential lessons to learn from 9/11 is the value of human connections and international cooperation, not that a nation should act unilaterally against all advice and invade another country whose threat is already contained. Legitimate arguments existed in favor of invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. However, those arguments were, by and large, not made (probably because it would raise our country's own spotty history with Iraq). I'm currently reading The Assassin's Gate, which shows, as others have before, that the neoconservatives had long wanted to invade Iraq. One school of thought is that 9/11 was merely an excuse for them to take action. Certainly many if not all of the neocons believed that Saddam Hussein was a genuine threat. Some of them even likely believed he was an imminent threat. However, the sincerity of the belief does not excuse the intellectual poverty of the philosophy, nor the manipulation of the Iraq intelligence, nor the skewing of the public debate, nor the lack of a postwar plan, nor the staggering and deadly incompetence of the actions taken. Finally, the sincerity of the belief does not excuse the inability to learn, adjust, and improve, as the neocons stubbornly stick with the same myopic hubris that got us into this mess to begin with.

Al Franken's offered a version of the following analogy: If someone drives a car into a ditch, throws away the tires, and then sets the car on fire, it doesn't make much sense to turn to the passenger and say, "Oh yeah? What's your bright idea for getting us out of this mess?" First thing you do is get rid of the driver. He's obviously not making good decisions, and time has shown that's just not going to change.

If only hindsight were 20/20.