Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How to Hear a True War Story

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Joe Haldeman, a Vietnam vet and award-winning science fiction writer, told the following story in the introduction to a 1986 sci-fi anthology:

A friend of mine in Vietnam took a sniper’s bullet in the back but his life was saved, at least for the time being, by his inability to spell: the bullet lodged in the dictionary he kept in his rucksack to help with letters home. The incident was written up in the Pacific Stars and Stripes, but somehow the dictionary had become a Bible; it was over his heart, not his spine; and the bullet had stopped on the world “peace.”

I love this story, which I view as three stories in one. The first story is what really happened. The second is the fictitious story. And the third story is about how and why someone decided the first story should be changed.

Veterans will likely appreciate the true story of Haldeman’s buddy. Some of them might take the fatalistic view, but regardless, the story’s ironic, and captures the absurdity of war — poor spelling and dumb luck saved the guy. Other people clearly prefer the second story. For them, it might be hopeful, but it also posits the existence of a God and an order to the universe, even in war. It feels like a reward for faith and trusting some higher power. Personally, I’ve always loved the third story the most, because I feel it encompasses both of the others, and I’m fascinated by the mindset that feels the need to essentially improve on the truth. (When I’ve told someone the "first" story, then told them it was re-written, it doesn’t take much prodding for them to guess the book became the Bible.)

Last year's Letters From Iwo Jima was a stronger film than its complimentary film, Flags of Our Fathers, but both tried to tell true war stories. Flags of Our Fathers especially mirrors Haldeman's tale. Examining the truth and mythology behind the famous photo at Iwo Jima, Flags... tried to tell all “three" stories. Whether it's a war, a specific event, or a film or story about an event, some people definitely prefer that second story to the first, true one.

Haldeman’s tale touches on the nature of truth and storytelling. It’s a theme woven throughout the work of another Vietnam vet, Tim O’Brien. In his extraordinary collection of interrelated short stories, The Things They Carried, he has a piece called “How to Tell a Real War Story.” It relates several striking tales. O’Brien writes:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

Throughout the story and the book, O’Brien struggles to convey all the complexities and contradictions of war — and the unwillingness of people back home to really listen to the true stories. Near the end of the piece, he writes:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen — and maybe it did, anything’s possible — even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everyone dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened.

There are at least three reasons why civilians don’t hear true war stories. The obvious, first reason is that some don’t want to. The second reason is they don’t have the experience to understand them. The third reason, most pernicious, is that other people don’t want the greater public to hear true war stories.

The Washington Post has an excellent section called "In Their Own Words." The Post compiles its news on Iraq and Afghanistan, profiles several active duty military personnel, interviews returning vets, and shows "Faces of all the Fallen," all the servicemen and women killed to date in the present conflicts. One of their best pieces, "Back From Iraq," from May 2006, delves into those first and second reasons civilians don't hear true war stories and the complex relationship between war veterans and their old lives:

After three years, there are at least 550,000 veterans of the Iraq war. The Washington Post interviewed 100 of them -- many of whom were still in the service, others who weren't -- to hear about what their war was like and how the transition home has been.

Their answers were as varied as their experiences. But a constant theme through the interviews was that the American public is largely unaffected by the war, and, despite round-the-clock television and Internet exposure, doesn't understand what it's like.

You can't understand unless you were there.

It's a timeless refrain sounded by generation after generation of soldiers returning from combat. But what sets Iraq war veterans apart is not just the kind of war they are fighting but the mood of the country they are coming home to. It is not a United States unified behind the war effort, such as in World War II. There's no rationing, no sacrifice, no Rosie the Riveter urging, "We Can Do it!" Nor is it the country that protested Vietnam and derided many vets as baby killers.

The United States that Iraq veterans are returning to is relatively indifferent, many said. One that without fear of a draft seems more interested in the progression of "American Idol" than the bombings in Baghdad. Sure, there are the homecoming parades, the yellow-ribbon bumper stickers, the pats on the back -- they continue as troops arrive back home.

But for many vets, those moments of gratitude were short-lived or limited to close friends and family. Soon they were joined by bitter impressions of a society that seems to forget that it is living through the country's largest combat operation in more than 30 years.

When Army Reserve Warrant Officer Mark Rollings got home to Wylie, Tex., he didn't expect anyone to treat him any differently because he was a vet. But he couldn't help but notice that the only one to say anything about the newly installed Purple Heart license plate on his Chevy Blazer was the kid who changed his oil at the Wal-Mart.

"For having a global war on terrorism," he said, "everything looks like business as usual to me."

Vets don't always know what to share and what not to. Civilians often don't know what to say beyond a certain depth:

The questions people ask about the war usually don't probe too far, the sort that can be satisfied with rote responses that keep the truth at a safe distance.

But sometimes, people push. What was it like?

"You just try to give a softball answer," said Garett Reppenhagen, who has been out of the Army for a year. "Yeah, it was horrible -- whatever. Or you don't answer the question. You say it was hot. You don't tell them what it's like to kill a man or to have one of your buddies blown up. You just don't go there."

But if they were not sated by the polite demurral and continued to press, he would go there, sparing no detail. Then he'd look up and see an expression that made him think they didn't really want to know after all.

"The look on their face: This is not the light conversation I want to hear at a party," he said.

Sometimes people would say maddening things, antagonistic things, even if they had never set foot in Iraq or been in combat. They didn't have to leave their spouses, miss the births of their children or see their best friend blown to pieces.

Civilians. After the war, they seemed so different, no matter how many war movies or how much CNN they had watched.

Sometimes, they'd ask something so crazy there just wasn't any way to respond, such as when a friend asked Monika Dyrcakz, "Did you go clubbing in Iraq?"

"Some people have no idea," she said.

Sometimes they said: I support the troops but not the war. Or: Do you think we should be over there?

Which is such a dumb question, Tanner, the Army captain, would think. Soldiers don't make those decisions. They do what they're told. They bitch and moan, sure. But when the call comes, they pack their bags and go, knowing they may not come back.

But Tanner doesn't say all that. Instead, he responds this way: "Oh, so you were over there? Because you said, ' We .' Because, I mean, I know I was over there."

Still, a complete understanding is much less vital than a kind attitude:

People may not understand the war, but that doesn't mean they're not grateful, said Master Sgt. Shawn Peno of the Air National Guard. "The support, the comments," he said, "that's real."

Truly understanding may be impossible, but trying to understand and a willingness to connect and be supportive remain important. Given the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder, it's all the more crucial:

Col. Charles W. Hoge, chief psychiatrist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, recently told Congress that 10 to 15 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq have post-traumatic stress disorder and a similar number have symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. The rates are higher for reservists, a distinction that appears to emerge months after troops return home.

Wentworth, who has taken calls from panicked wives and distraught Marines, said: "There's no timeline for anybody to get over this. You look at Vietnam vets -- some of these guys didn't have problems until they retired from their civilian careers. And all of a sudden 20, 30 years later, it all came back to haunt them."

Support for a human being doesn't necessarily have anything to do with supporting a military mission, which brings us to the third reason civilians don't always hear true war stories. Throughout history, there have always been those that don't want them to. Consider the words of White House Press Secretary Tony Snow last November that:

You can’t say, ‘I support the troops, but I hate the cause,’ because that’s why they signed up. And you’ve got men and women who are risking their lives for what they consider a noble cause, which is not only defeating al Qaeda and defeating terrorists abroad, but also creating conditions that are going to allow people in that part of the world to brush aside terror as an unnecessary distraction to building a better life through free and democratic society.”

Snow's comments sharply contrast those of Captain Tanner above, who pointed out that most of the troops don't have any choice in what their mission will be. Steve Benen remarked on Snow's assertion:
It’s almost amazing in the scope of its demagoguery, isn’t it?

Think about the implications. Every man and woman who volunteers to wear the uniform necessarily supports the mission to which they’ve been sent. As such, it’s necessarily true that if you criticize a war, you’re criticizing servicemen and women.

Consider Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) accusing CNN of being "the publicist for an enemy propaganda film" and then continuing to defend his statements when appearing on CNN's The Situation Room, even though he still hadn't actually seen the full segment in question. Hunter closed the segment by saying:

I think that -- I think the question I asked when I saw this, Wolf, is, does CNN want America to win this thing?

And, if I was a platoon leader there, as I once was, and I had a -- and I had a news organization which had shown, had -- had taken film from the enemy, showing them killing one of my soldiers, and they asked if they could be embedded in my platoon, my answer would be no.

I go back to the -- to the -- the days of guys like Joe Rosenthal, who filmed the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, and Ernie Pyle, who was a soldier's reporter, the guys who were on our side -- even though they reported the rough and the tough of the war, they were on our side.

You can't be on both sides. And I would say, if I was that platoon leader, I would say, absolutely not. Take CNN out of there. You can't be on both sides.

The irony of Hunter invoking the Iwo Jima image is especially rich, given that Flags of Our Fathers had just opened wide and challenges Hunter's arguments. He doubtless knew the film was out, and knew the flag-raising image it centered on, which is why he mentioned it. But he probably hadn't seen it, either.

Consider also political operative Lynn Cheney defending torture and echoing some of Hunter's most inflammatory and ludicrous charges:

CHENEY: Well, right, but what is CNN doing running terrorist tapes of terrorists shooting Americans? I mean, I saw Duncan Hunter ask you a very good question and you didn’t answer it. Do you want us to win?

BLITZER: The answer is, of course, we want the United States to win. We are Americans. There’s no doubt about that. Do you think we want terrorists to win?

CHENEY: Then why are you running terrorist propaganda?

BLITZER: With all due respect — with all due respect, this is not terrorist propaganda.

CHENEY: Oh, Wolf.

BLITZER: This is reporting the news.

Before airing the original video, CNN discussed the matter with one of their military analysts, Retired Brigadier General David Grange, and blacked out the actual sniper shots. CNN also contacted the Pentagon to allow them to comment on the footage, and in the segment they interview a trooper in the field about sniper attacks. The goal was to tell an important aspect of being stationed in Iraq without showing a snuff film and without being overly sensational about it. A visceral reaction to footage such as this is only natural. I found the segment disturbing, but valuable. Isn't it important to know what the troops are going through and what they're facing? Someone else might feel similarly disturbed, but feel angry at CNN as well. The press is fallible, of course, and asking, "Why did they air this?" is fair. However, accusing CNN of essentially being traitors is over the top.

It'd be nice to ignore politics in discussing the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation of our troops in the field, and the care of our vets returning home. However, that too would be telling a false war story. Life and death, war and peace should be beyond politics, but sadly, they're not, and probably rarely have been. There's certainly place for honest disagreement about war in general and our current occupations. Yet Hunter's "You can't be on both sides" line is not a plea for more blunt coverage. If anything, our media coverage of Iraq underplays how bad things are. Given this, and the extreme, demagogic nature of Hunter and Cheney's language, even if they care about the troops, it certainly seems their main concern is that accurate reporting will diminish support for a war of choice started and supported by their party. Theirs seems to be a calculated outrage in the same vein as other fear-mongering. It wasn't long ago that George Bush and Dick Cheney were claiming we were winning in Iraq, and they still claim things are improving. To do so, they often contradict their own military's analysis. Given this situation, a near refusal by the key political officials to even try to describe what's actually going on, it's really rather silly to complain about the media's coverage. That's not to mention the record number of journalists who have been killed or injured during these conflicts. Serious discussion of the challenges of media coverage is always welcome, but attempts to shut down coverage are not. The truth is not partisan, nor should it be treated as such.

Shutting down inquiry and giving simplistic and misleading assessments is repellent, but there's also outright fabrication. Jessica Lynch is the most blatant, infamous example of rewriting a war story for public consumption in recent memory. The sad story of Pat Tillman and the cover-up surrounding his untimely and avoidable death also springs to mind. Many members of the press do a fine job, but many of the media's most prestigious outlets were nothing short of embarrassing in their eager gullibility over the Pentagon's manufactured Lynch story (and local news stations plunged to new lows, perhaps only recently surpassed with non-stop Anna Nicole coverage). The rightwingers who first lauded Tillman and then turned on him and his family also puts the lie to their "support the troops" rhetoric. "Support the troops who don't question us" would be more accurate. What's important, telling the true story or what's effective for one's cause? It's essential that the first, real version of a war story gets told properly, and that the second, officially sanctioned version, about Bibles and hearts and peace, isn't the only one out there.

It's important to note that the stupidity and venality of the Pentagon, the administration, the press, war supporters or war opponents do nothing to diminish the honor of troops in the field (a dynamic considered in more detail here). It's also important to remember that military personnel possess a wide range of political leanings and opinions. Some are certainly unhappy with media coverage of Iraq, some support Bush, and some also support Bush's current policy. Others support the idea of military service but don't support the current Iraq occupation any longer. The crackdown on military blogging and diverse military voices is discouraging, but "milbloggers" have vowed to continue, as well they should. It'd be a shame to be deprived of powerful pieces such as "Did we do everything we could?" (via House of the Rising Sons). Other outlets, such as The Sandbox, from Doonesbury artist Garry Trudeau, also allow a place for troopers to speak out.

In a similar vein, Operation Homecoming is an extraordinary project aiding understanding of what war and coming home entails. As their website explains:

The first book of its kind, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families (Random House; September 12, 2006) is the result of a major initiative launched by the National Endowment for the Arts to inspire U.S. Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen and their families to write down and share their personal wartime experiences.

In addition to the book, there's a 15-CD set of readings. National Public Radio has a good piece on it. For Veteran's Day 2006, Dan Froomkin provided a key excerpt from an Operation Homecoming piece titled "The Circle," by Sergeant Sharon D. Allen:

The camp is under red-lens light discipline, which means we can't use an unfiltered flashlight. It severely lessens our evening entertainment options. So, soon after we arrived, we began our strange nightly gatherings. You won't find it on any schedule, but you can set your watch by it. As the sun nudges the horizon and the gravel cools, some of us give up our battle with the ambient light and surrender our reading until the morning. Others collect up their poker winnings or grumble about their losses. And we all drag our chairs and cigarettes and joylessly warm water out to the gravel and talk. We call it "the circle." In the Army there is an incredibly varied cross section of society, and we are a diverse group. We have a couple kids straight out of high school, who'd either joined to get a little excitement out of life or to get a leg up on it so that they could go to college. We have older guys, who've already put in their time. They tend to be either jaded or genial, both in reaction to the accumulated bullshit slung at most soldiers who've been in the service for years. We have everyone from idealists to realists to fatalists, more than a few who began at one end of the spectrum and eventually meandered their way to the other.

I always find it amusing when people talk about "the military" vote, perspective, or whatever. My company has 170-some soldiers, and 170-some opinions. We might have more invested in foreign policy than people back home, but that doesn't mean we all agree on exactly what those policies should be. Two of the guys, Jeff and Sam, are brothers serving together here but in different platoons. They are both slightly to the left of extremely conservative, yet also very anti-Iraq war. Their father threatened to cut off his own head and send it in to Al-jazeera if his sons aren't returned home soon.

Jake is one of my best friends out here, and one of the most infuriating people I've ever known. Jake's a former Marine who comes from a Marine family and whose biggest regret is that this isn't "a real war," something on the scale of World War II or Vietnam. I usually point out to him that we didn't lose many people in the first few years of Vietnam, either. And then I say something about how I'm really [expletive deleted by washingtonpost.com] sorry that not enough of us have died for him to consider this a real war. If I had met Jake in a bar in the States and he had said half the bullshit he says here, well, we definitely would not have become friends. But he's here, too, so I guess he's entitled to his opinion. His son, Joey, will be joining us when he gets out of Basic. I wonder if his opinion will change then.

In the circle, we talk for hours not only about the reasons for this war, but for the previous one, too, and if we were ever justified in coming to this part of the world in the first place. At least in Desert Storm, some members of the circle argue, Iraq was the aggressor. Also, the whole world seemed to support us. Several of the soldiers in my platoon are former Marines and more than a few had been in the Gulf War. Desert Storm, they say, was to keep Iraq from taking over Kuwait. Naked aggression that had to be stopped. Simple as that.

Others shoot back that even so, we have no right to get involved in a situation that was a fiscal, not physical, threat, to us. Now we're trying to change an entire culture? And aren't we being naive or arrogant to think that we will make any long-term difference here, anyway? Tempers can get heated, and on some days, it probably isn't a good idea that we are all armed. Unfortunately, two of the guys, Jeff and Jake, are too big for me to punch.

One night we started arguing the hierarchy of evil world leaders, and where Saddam stood on that list. There are obviously worse men, so why Iraq? Why now? For every Saddam, there are ten more vicious dictators, and we can't get rid of them all. Of course, then we had to delve into Saddam's motivations, and if he's really such a bad guy. For the record, I was on the "yes, he's an inexcusable piece of shit" side of this argument.

Jake, of course, wonders if the country is really less dangerous now than under Hussein. He doesn't think there would be suicide bombers and IEDs littering the roads without our impetus. Haven't we made everything worse? the question is inevitably asked.

You mean worse than when hundreds of thousands of people were executed, gassed, and tortured? the inevitable answer comes.

At least there wasn't so much random violence and bloodshed.

No, under Hussein it was all well-organized violence and bloodshed. People were scared to death to say the wrong thing.

Well, now they're scared to death to walk outside without getting blown up.

If we leave, this place will erupt into a civil war.

It probably will anyway. And it'll be our fault for lighting the fuse. . . .

And around and around we go.


Jeff and others don't think we're here to build a democracy or "make the world safer from terrorism." This led to a heated discussion about Bush's motivations. Halliburton, retribution (for Hussein's attempted assassination of Bush's dad), oil -- they all came up. I refuse to believe that we're only here for oil. A logical, removed argument could outline the reality that Americans do consume oil and need a friendly government in charge of reserves. But Canada and Mexico have oil, and it'd be a hell of a lot easier to invade them.

If we're here for humanitarian reasons, Jeff asked, then why didn't we go into Rwanda?

Yeah, but there's no oil in Bosnia or Kosovo either, someone countered. And we went in there.

I cannot believe that Bush or Cheney are risking hundreds of thousands of American lives so they or their friends can make a little money. Rumor has it they're both pretty well off anyway. Jeff rarely allows any benefit of the doubt when it comes to Bush. I don't think Jeff could say a good word about Bush with a gun to his head -- and some of us have, trust me, entertained the thought.

It gets pretty exhausting after a while. Things would be a lot less complicated if our government was totally innocent and Saddam's was totally guilty. Or if we hadn't been so buddy-buddy with him all those years before Desert Storm.

And speaking of old friends, someone asked if they thought we'd ever find Osama bin Laden. That was the whole point, right -- 9/11? There's hardly ever any mention in the news or by politicians about Afghanistan, and it's like the troops over there have been forgotten.

This last point we could all agree on. Maybe those of us in Iraq would be forgotten too, or worse. The public supported Vietnam for the first few years, too, then it changed. We don't know how we're going to be treated when we get home, but I think most people realize that you can be for the troops even if you're against the war.

Everyone says they are supporting us, but sometimes it seems that civilians have no idea about who soldiers really are. This, too, we all agreed on, that people back home have no concept of what troops go through. We're not robotic killing machines. We're regular Americans, just doing our jobs. This war has really tapped the National Guard, so the average soldier out here could be your mechanic or your plumber. Maybe your dentist. Or the girl at the cash register. I think we're all pretty proud of what we do, and, at heart, we're all patriotic. But we're not brainwashed, and we have differing opinions. And we realize that there wasn't only one reason for starting this war.

At least certainly not one obvious reason.

Because I honestly believe if there had been, in one of our endless discussions in the circle, we would have found it.

Allen's piece presents a military of diverse opinions in a shared situation. It also possesses a complexity missing from ready-for-consumption tales such as the Pentagon's version of the Jessica Lynch story. There's no reason the thoughtfulness Sergeant Allen supplies couldn't be provided by public officials or average political talk shows, but of course most of them don't. Simplistic bullshit is often preferable to nuance and complex truths. Perhaps one rule of thumb for a true war story is, if it goes down too easy, if it doesn't provoke thought, it might not be real. As Tim O'Brien observed, "A true war story is never moral… it does not instruct, nor encourage virtue…"

Having served in the military or being a combat veteran does not automatically mean someone will be a wise leader or politician. Still, it certainly counts to know what it's like. It definitely would benefit us if more politicians had a grasp of what war entails when considering military action. The same is true of the public.

The popularity of pieces such as The New York Times' "Iraq War Ends Silently for One American Soldier" and Time magazine's "The Secret Letter From Iraq" suggest the public does want to understand, even if their attention drifts or their understanding is imperfect. National Public Radio and other outlets continue to cover important war stories, such as the struggle to obtain mental health care in the military, which still tends to view such issues as a lack of character on the part of the soldier or marine (hat tip to Mike Finnigan).

Of course, what the hell do I know? I haven't seen combat. I haven't been over in Iraq. I do know people serving over there. I do worry about them. I do have a former colleague whose husband was killed over there, and I feel for her every time I think of it. We all experience loss, but to lose a loved one to violence is something especially horrific. I might have read a fair amount of history books, biographies and newspapers and spoken with a fair amount of vets over the years, but of course others have a much more direct perspective than I do. Others have suffered and will suffer more.

I do feel it's important to try to pay attention, though. There's a saying that one death is a tragedy, but a hundred deaths is a statistic. It's sadly all too easy to lose perspective on the human costs of war, whether or not one feels the cause is justified or necessary. The folks I know currently over there don't like to talk about it much. I never bring up politics with them. Supporting the troops has nothing to do with their or my political leanings. It's important, I think, to try to know what's going on and to be willing to listen if and when they're ready. Not every returning vet wants to talk right away, but they should be able to talk to somebody, whether it's their friends, family or a compassionate stranger. In cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and similar situations, returning vets and active duty personnel definitely need someone to talk to. There has to be at least one person willing to hear a true war story.

It's ironic that on Memorial Day so many military personnel need to work while most Americans get the day off. It's be nice if somehow we could reverse that. It's an entirely impractical suggestion, of course, but it's good to honor that spirit when possible, regardless of one's feelings about the current occupations, any future or past conflicts, or war in general. To expand on an earlier section of the "Back From Iraq" piece:

Coming home was like one big party.

They were welcomed with parades, with family members waving signs and flags and waiting with open arms. World War II vets greeted them at the airport, making sure to shake all of their hands. Thanking them. There were firetrucks on the tarmac, their lights twirling, a celebratory fountain spraying from their hoses.

"People cheering, handing me their cellphones and telling me to call my family," Army Capt. Fred Tanner remembered. "Random people coming up and shaking my hand."

Greg Seely came home on leave in October 2004 with 200 fellow soldiers. They were walking through the Atlanta airport, when, one by one, travelers dropped their bags and started clapping. Soon there was a spontaneous crescendo. The applause of strangers. A moment he will never forget.

"The media talked so much about how the American people don't support us," he said. "But they do."

People may not understand the war, but that doesn't mean they're not grateful, said Master Sgt. Shawn Peno of the Air National Guard. "The support, the comments," he said, "that's real."

They met generals and were thanked by congressmen. Some even shook hands with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and President Bush. Waitresses and gas station attendants refused their money.

Army Reservist Chris Bain threw out the first pitch of the Little League World Series.

On the airplane home, wearing his Navy uniform, Clint Davis sat in the same row as a 5-year-old boy who got out his crayons and drew a picture of the American flag. "It says, 'Thank you for fighting for our country,' " Davis said. "I'll hang it up on my refrigerator till I die."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Vain Leading the Stupid

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

After the growing disaster that is the Bush presidency, we really need good leadership in the White House. Who will answer the call? Who will work tirelessly for a better America for average citizens and not just for corporations and the rich? Who can rise above partisan politics to be a uniter, not a divider?

Gingrich Slams Current Election Politics

By MIKE BAKER, Associated Press Writer
Thursday 5/17/07

RALEIGH, N.C. - Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says the 2008 White House candidates are "demeaning the presidency" by focusing on the race rather than ideas.

"We have shrunk our political process to this pathetic dance in which people spend an entire year raising money in order to offer nonanswers, so they can memorize what their consultants and focus groups said would work," Gingrich said.

In a speech to the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, the prospective Republican candidate said he will not consider running until he has created a wave of reform.

He plans to spend the next several months preparing for a series of workshops that he will coordinate. They begin Sept. 27, exactly 13 years after he and other GOP leaders released the "Contract With America" that helped their party regain control of the House. Ten Republicans and eight Democrats have declared their candidacy for president. Gingrich took particular issue with how they have presented their ideas in crowded debates.

"This idea of demeaning the presidency by reducing it to being a game show contest ... is wrong for America, and I would never participate in it," he said.

Gingrich told reporters there is room for a him in the race.

"There's a tremendous vacuum of leadership willing to stand up and talk to the country in clear ways about what we have to get done to create a generation of opportunity and what we have to do to avoid a generation for bureaucracy and problems," Gingrich said.

Hahaahahaahahaa. No, seriously.

It's amusing how Gingrich's mammoth ego and ambition surge through even in such a short piece. He would like us to believe there's some groundswell of support for him. He would like us to believe he's a man of principles and ideas. In between the reign of Lee Atwater and Rove/Cheney, Gingrich was probably the single most partisan, divisive, underhanded hack around, bringing new levels of toxicity to American politics in the modern era. In case you're wondering, Gingrich might announce a run for the presidency come November. In the meantime, he's playing coy, perhaps counting on how pathetic the announced Republican candidates look.

Leave aside Gingrich's hypocrisy in leading impeachment hearings against Clinton — against the will of the people — while he was cheating on his second wife. Leave aside the petty vindictiveness that also fueled Gingrich's move. Leave aside his deliberate attempts to use deceptive language and pre-empt honest debate. Leave aside what an awful human being he is (ever hear the tale of his first and second divorces?). Taking just his behavior of the past few months, that still leaves us his desire to keep the rabble out of the public discourse, his bigoted pandering to xenophobia, his willingness to lie about leading Democrats (with a massive dose of hypocrisy, no less), his warning that free speech should be curtailed for national security, and his contemptible keenness to blame the Virginia Tech shootings on liberalism. He can't go a month if even a week without saying something inaccurate, partisan and stupid. Just this past weekend, Gingrich warned Liberty University graduates about "radical secularism," told them how persecuted Christians were in America, and chided that “This anti-religious bias must end." (See takes on this by Melissa McEwan and Norbizness. I also covered some of the underlying issues here.)

Every time I hear Gingrich, or read his assertions, or see him on TV, I have the same reaction: who the hell cares? Why the hell are they wasting time with this vile man? He occasionally spouts sense, but never says anything someone else couldn't say. I agree with Robert J. Elisberg when he relates:

I have a friend who keeps trying to convince me how smart Newt Gingrich is. He doesn't agree with Gingrich's politics - it's just that he keeps saying, "But you have to admit, he's a brilliant guy, the smartest politician out there."

My answer is always the same. No, I don't.

Gingrich is on because he's an eager pundit, and TV needs talking heads. He's known. Were TV bookings decided solely by merit, he'd rarely be on. However, the same is true of many conservative pundits, and media outlets need to book somebody, I suppose. (Of course, having more sane, insightful voices on TV would be a good thing but would put much of the old guard out of business.)

There is not a situation in America or the world that Gingrich would not make worse. He's smarter than Bush, of course, but that's setting the bar awfully low, and he shares quite a bit in common with Cheney and Rove. For the past few years he's roamed about trying to sell a veneer of respectability, but not everyone is stupid enough to buy it. Gingrich is a force driven by towering personal ambition and destructive partisanship, not some thoughtful scholar or public intellectual. Putting Gingrich into any position of political power would be akin to putting an unreformed arsonist in charge of the Fire Safety Board.

There's one good thing I can say about Gingrich, and that's based on his analysis of the 2006 November midterm elections on 11/28/07:

I’ve been talking all week about the “four Cs” – competence, candor, corruption and consultants. They are the four reasons Republicans lost so overwhelmingly in the midterm elections. Today we will focus on corruption.

Hmm, forget anything? Gingrich isn't the only Republican who's wary of discussing Iraq if not outright blind to its importance to the American people. But if all of Gingrich's "ideas" are this brilliantly obtuse, it can only help the Democrats in 2008, and I must echo the wish of Digby and many other liberal bloggers in saying: Run, Newt, run.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rightwing Cartoon Watch #20 (4/30/07 — 5/13/07)

The new installment is here! This time, conservative cartoonists ranged all over the map in terms of subject matter. Iraq experienced a, err, surge in popularity again. George Tenet received some ridicule. Meanwhile, conservatives also noted the impending resignation of a Brit they loved and celebrated — the French?!?

Comey's Testimony

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

(Via Politics TV.) I had thought this story about the White House pressuring a sick man to approve their domestic spying program was bad enough when reading about it. That's not to mention the "You mean even Ashcroft wouldn't sign off on this?" angle. However, listening to NPR last night and hearing Comey's voice, I started getting furious. Here's the video.

Glenn Greenwald has two good pieces on this, "Gonzales' yearlong effort to block Comey's testimony" (5/15/07) and "Comey's testimony raises new and vital questions about the NSA scandal" (5/16/07). Hilzoy has a good examination of some of the key testimony in "When Christ Told Us To Visit The Sick In Their Sickrooms, This Is Not What He Meant."

I think at this point we can dispense with the ridiculous fiction that the Bush administration somehow didn't know what it was doing or possesses any innocence whatsoever. They knew what they were doing was illegal, they knew going through the proper process would stymie them, so they used every trick they could and abused their power to try to get what they wanted. They've blocked investigations, prevented oversight and lied to Congress and the American people to try to get away with this. It's a familiar pattern. Still, the conduct described in this testimony isn't just illegal, it's inhuman. The Bushies aren't just bad public officials, they're bad people. We still haven't obtained the full details of the abuses leading to war (we have the broad strokes), but there's ample evidence that the Bush administration are indeed worse than the Nixon crew and they've committed high crimes and misdemeanors. Democrats have an obligation not only to manage the country in this moral and managerial vacuum, they have a prosecutorial duty to continue to dig, and build an iron-clad case for impeachment. If nothing else, using the government to achieve something positive and just would make a nice change of pace, don't you think?

Update: No surprise, Dan Froomkin's column today, "High Drama — and High Crimes?" is also superb.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"You Don't Make Peace with your Friends, You Make Peace with your Enemies"

(AFP/Peter Muhly)

Peace in Northern Ireland finally seems to be a reality, and a very welcome one at that. On NPR program The World, Lisa Mullens had an thoughtful talk with the Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen, who passed on the intriguing line above.

For more background on the developments in Northern Ireland, here's short pieces from NPR shows All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and a short segment from the same episode of The World. Or, if you prefer, here's a brief AFP article.

Cullen talks about the similarities between South Africa near the end of apartheid and Northern Ireland, and how leaders from Ireland met with South Africans to discuss social and political dynamics. He speaks of talking with Mac Maharaj, who he describes as "the last ANC [African National Congress] fighter to give up." Cullen asked Maharaj about the most important thing he told leaders from Northern Ireland. Maharaj said, "It sounds so simple, it sounds silly, but it really is: You don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies, and the only way you end a conflict is to accept that premise."

In the case of Northern Ireland, Protestant Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, once intractable foes, finally were willing to meet and come to an agreement. Peace is never possible without both parties, or most parties, willing to consider it. Someone has to offer an olive branch and someone has to accept it. Most of all, they all need to talk. Reporter Rob Gifford states in the Morning Edition piece that previous accords had failed because the moderates on either side could come to an agreement, but influential leaders of groups with more extreme positions would undermine them.

As to other conflicts in the world, it's no secret, except apparently to the present American administration, that the no-diplomacy "silent treatment" school of foreign policy doesn't work — that is, if peace is the goal. Peace requires a different vocabulary than belligerence, but certainly requires a willingness to speak in the first place, and more importantly, to listen. As many folks have pointed out, we spoke with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Cullen also talks about "making a different history" to get past bad blood. Generally, average citizens tire of conflicts long before their leaders, because they most feel the effects and live the cost. Sadly, especially when it comes to peace, our political leaders are often not our moral leaders. The wisest among us (who I would argue realize that violence is not the first or best solution) are often not calling the shots. It's our duty as citizens not only to elect better politicians, but also to step into the vacuum and provide that leadership ourselves. Here's to Ireland becoming a positive example for the rest of the world.

(This post was written for The Peace Tree. Also cross-posted at The Blue Herald.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Save Net Radio

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Folks who live in Los Angeles may be familiar with one of its great NPR stations, KCRW. As KCRW reports (emphasis in original):

The Internet Radio Equality Act (H.R. 2060), introduced by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Rep. Don Manzullo (R-IL), would save many independent music webcasters from going out of business by nullifying the decision of the Copyright Royalty Board requiring webcasters to make large royalty payments.

The act provides reasonable royalties for artists and their labels by putting royalties paid by webcasters under the same system and standards as royalties paid by satellite radio services. This act has special provisions to protect public radio webcasters like KCRW and needs your support.

Or, as The SaveNetRadio Coalition puts it:

The future of Internet radio is in immediate danger. Royalty rates for webcasters have been drastically increased by a recent ruling and are due to go into effect on July 15 (retroactive to Jan 1, 2006!). If the increased rates remain unchanged, the majority of webcasters will go bankrupt and silent on this date. Internet radio needs your help!

Here is the text of the bill, which has bipartisan support.

Currently, 52 House members are cosponsoring the bill, but it needs more help. You can find a link to a pdf of the current cosponsors on this page.

To find your congressperson's office number, enter your zip code on this page or call (202) 225-1904 for more information.

As fans of NPR and PBS know, the folks who work there are not making big bucks. There's a lot of love there. KCRW is a radio station, but its website allows visitors to listen to a live stream, a music stream or a news stream. I listen to the radio station, the web stream or both every day. Other webcasters surely provide similar opportunities.

KCRW specifically is unusual for NPR stations in that it plays a great deal of alternative rock, indie bands and world music. I've been a KCRW subscriber since I moved to L.A. a few years ago, I attended their recent benefit concert this April, and I've lost track of how many bands I've been introduced to and how many CDs I've bought due to the station. KCRW was the first U.S. station to play Norah Jones and various acts that have gotten quite big, but it's an unflagging promoter of the local music scene and has been invaluable for promoting many smaller (or previously small) bands, including several whose members I know or have met. (Hell, those TV music programmers essentially just listen to KCRW and rip off the stuff they think will go well under a teary montage on The O.C. or Grey's Anatomy, and I could write a whole other piece on that, but some of the music is quite good and a single play like that can make a big difference for a small band.) Unlike huge corporations such as Clear Channel, KCRW and most webcasters don't have dictated playlists. My main point is that that musicians do get royalties under this act, as they should, but KCRW and other webcasters provide important diversity, promote creativity and help many musicians immensely.

A link kit for this cause can be found here.

Please contact your congressperson to urge them to act (or to say thank you) and Save Net Radio!


Monday, May 07, 2007

Leif Erikson, Anti-Authoritarian

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Back in December when I was visiting back east, I prompted my dad to tell a favorite story. When he was in “grammar school," his class was given a test that asked who discovered America (this was back in the late forties or early fifties). My father had recently read a pamphlet about the Viking Leif Erikson, so he put him down for his answer. He was marked wrong, because the official answer was “Christopher Columbus.”

My father had also retold this incident to a friend who had recently started teaching, and she replied she’d have done the same thing. Her reason? “Christopher Columbus” was what the material taught.

As I told my father (yet again), I strongly disagreed. I had to shake my head at the first teacher, but was horrified by his friend’s answer. Now, I never met the woman, and perhaps she was a nice person otherwise, and a novice teacher (I would hope so!). My stance remains that, first of all, while elementary school teachers typically must be generalists, a teacher should know his or her subject area. The first teacher should have known that Christopher Columbus was not the right answer or the only answer. Much more importantly is that if anything, a student who answered “Leif Erikson” (or even penned a short answer about Native Americans and the funny notion of "discovering" America!) should have been rewarded, not punished. Rather than encouraging independent thought and research, these two teachers asserted that authority trumped empirical truth, and that obedience was more important than honesty and accuracy.

Elliot Eisner has captured this dynamic well in his writings about “the three curricula all schools teach,” namely the explicit, implicit, and null curricula. Basically, the explicit curriculum is the specific knowledge set of a given class, such as the mathematics covered in an Algebra I class. The implicit curriculum is everything the class or school teaches without necessarily stating it outright, such as: “Be quiet, sit in your seats, and do as you’re told.” The null curriculum is whatever the school deems not important by not covering it.

The clash between the explicit and null curricula can be seen in battles in English and History Departments about what belongs in the canon or what perspectives deserve the most weight. However, the implicit curriculum can be just as important, yet is not as often discussed. What sort of conduct is really desired, and what sort of students is the school trying to produce? For high school students and younger pupils, basic discipline is important, and sadly, in some schools, achieving the basic classroom discipline necessary to even broach the explicit curriculum is a major struggle. However, it’s also true that some teachers really want obedience over discipline, teach dogma over knowledge, and favor parroted answers over independent thought. In the aforementioned case of Columbus v. Leif Erikson, the implicit curriculum was that the teacher is always right, even when she's wrong, and do what you're told, kid. The best teachers, certainly at the higher levels, seek to make themselves somewhat redundant by aiding students in developing their critical thinking and other skills, all building towards a greater independence. Similarly, the best teachers of younger students encourage creativity, initiative, and curiosity. A wide gulf separates an indoctrination approach from a true education.

Children and young adults always remember important victories and injustices, and quickly and sometime painfully learn what various adults truly value. Over fifty years later, my father still remembered his Leif Erikson incident. Years ago, I read an article by a woman who “dumbed down her vocabulary” and hid her intelligence after a succession of teachers discouraged her (one told her that “abysmal” was not a real word). I have a friend who tells a story of being in junior high where all the kids involved in a certain incident who told the truth were suspended and all the kids who lied got off scot-free (I imagine the adults were more interested in meting out punishment and "setting an example" than the getting the whole picture). The lesson he learned? Don't tell authority figures the truth. The implicit lesson contradicted the explicit one. I know many people have similar stories. While some such incidents may ultimately prove minor irritants, they can be significant, formative experiences if the overall social system and implicit curriculum consistently punishes curiosity and honesty in favor of blind obedience to dumb and intolerant authority. At the very least, a teacher owes a discussion to any student who ventures outside the approved lines, rather than outright squelching creativity, initiative, and independent thought.

Some teachers can only deal with a certain type of student. Teachers exist who excel with traditionally "good" students but are lost when it comes to reaching those with skill deficiencies or attitude problems. I've also seen hard-nosed teachers who are quite good at developing discipline in “problem” students, but are sadly unable to deal with students who already possess self-discipline and motivation. Such teachers can enforce a “bottom line,” but they rarely inspire. Good students (and potentially good students) starve from too much bad teaching.

In a philosophy course I taught several years ago, our ethics section dealt in part with the Holocaust. One of the students had grandparents who were concentration camp survivors and had fought in the Dutch resistance. The grandfather had done an interview with his local TV station, and I had the student teach class one day. He showed a few clips from the interview, added some more details, and we discussed it as a class. His grandfather said one thing that was particularly striking. He said when he visited classrooms today, he saw students asking teachers all sorts of questions, and in some cases challenging their authority as well. The stereotype of an elderly person is that he or she will complain that 'the kids today have no respect' or some such thing. Instead, he was very excited and encouraged by this dynamic. He said that his generation and the one before him had been brought up to be very obedient to authority, any authority. Consequently, he said — and I still remember his exact words — "when they Nazis came, we were... ill-equipped to resist them."

I'm also reminded of seeing a van of nuns drive by with a bumper sticker that said “Question Authority,” which as a teenager I thought was pretty cool. I have an earlier essay, "Questioning Huck Finn" that touches on many of these themes. As with all things, there's balance, of course. Teachers do need to keep some basic level of order, but a teacher should consider what his or her implicit curriculum is and what it should be. An education that discourages curiosity and crushes spirit is a bad education. A true education is diametrically opposed to indoctrination.

The explicit, implicit and null curricula model has parallels in many other disciplines. In cinema, mise-en-scène literally refers to how a director places people and objects in a scene and how he or she shoots them, but it also refers more generally to what appears in the frame and what's left out, what appears in the story and what's left out, and the director's general approach, style and worldview. In journalism, editors make choices all the time about what to include and what to exclude, and how much focus to give an issue and with what perspectives (these choices obviously are a key focus of political bloggers, most of whom engage in media and news analysis). Meanwhile, these same dynamics can be seen in many a political struggle. Indoctrination is overwhelmingly the purview of authoritarians, every political group has its own assumptions or implicit guidelines, and subtext can be read in most every political speech or debate.

I would hope everyone has had at least one good teacher in his or her life, whether it be a classroom teacher, coach, parent, sibling, friend or mentor. As of 1964, October 9th was declared Leif Erikson Day in the United States (which is a much bigger deal in the Midwest). I think this year, in addition to raising a glass to Leif Erikson, I'll honor grammar school kids who dared to buck the system to tell the truth, and the good teachers out there who honor that spirit of bold exploration.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Cops in Los Angeles

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Monday I received a last minute invite to a Dodgers game that night. The four of us had great seats, the best I've ever had a baseball game, right behind home plate, only three rows back (not counting the super special section in front of us!). Too bad the Dodgers stunk up the joint, with the Diamondbacks winning 9-1 (apparently the Dodgers had played a 17-inning game the previous day).

Two guys in front of us were really friendly, filling us in on a few players and the recent Dodgers record, making jokes, even giving us a spare beer they weren't going to drink — and ball park beer ain't cheap! It turns out they were both cops, from Bakersfield (about 100 miles north of Dodgers Stadium!), and probably the nicest cops I've ever met.

In very sharp contrast, the local news has been airing footage of the police assaulting journalists and demonstrators here in town at a May Day rally this past Tuesday. It's a pretty big local story that only now seems to be trickling into national coverage.

Think Progress has some of the video from CNN here. Photos from The Los Angeles Times are here. Jim Swanson has a short post on it here, and will be covering it in this weekend's Blue Herald podcast.

The Los Angeles Times featured several important stories on these events. From "Police action on journalists at melee is assailed":

One day after several reporters and camera operators were injured while covering an altercation at an immigrant rights rally in MacArthur Park, news organizations condemned the Los Angeles Police Department for its use of batons and riot guns against members of the media, and some said they were considering legal options.

"We are sorry for what happened to our employees and find it unacceptable that they would be abused in that way when they were doing their job," said Alfredo Richard, spokesman for the Spanish-language network Telemundo, of the anchor and the reporter who were hurt during the evening rally.

Other members of the media who were injured included four employees of KVEA-TV Channel 52, a KTTV-TV Channel 11 news reporter who suffered a minor shoulder injury, a camerawoman who has a broken wrist and a reporter for KPCC-FM (89.3) who was bruised by a police baton.

"I was dumbfounded," said the KPCC reporter, Patricia Nazario. "I've covered riots. I've covered chaos. I was never hit or struck or humiliated the way the LAPD violated me yesterday."

Nazario said she was walking away from riot police when she was hit in the back.

Wearing a press pass and holding a microphone, she turned around and told the officer, "Why did you hit me? I'm moving. I'm a reporter," Nazario recalled.

Then the officer hit her on the left leg, she said, knocking her to the ground and sending her cellphone flying.

"I was shocked, trying to scramble to my feet," she said. "At that point, I just started crying…. I just felt totally vulnerable.

This was far from an isolated incident:

Pedro Sevcec was anchoring the evening news for Telemundo when he saw the riot police moving slowly toward the news crews.

A few dozen people had gathered to watch Sevcec do his live broadcast.

"The next thing I heard was the shotguns," he said.

Police knocked over monitors and lights and hit reporters and camera operators with batons, he said.

Sevcec said police hit him three times and pointed a riot gun at his face before pushing him out of the park.

An emergency anchor in Miami took over the broadcast.

"It was so ridiculous," Sevcec said. "They know what a TV camera is. This is not a secret weapon."

Telemundo reporter Carlos Botifoll said he was hit by a baton as he was waiting to go live on the broadcast.

He was carrying a microphone and standing in front of a camera.

"We were obviously reporters," he said. "There could not have been any doubt whatsoever."

The cops also knocked over lights, grabbed cameras and threw them. The article continues:

Peter Eliasberg, an ACLU lawyer who helped negotiate the settlement, said that based on broadcast news reports he has heard and viewed, "the police went way over the line," using force that "violates the law and the Constitution."

Marc Cooper, associate director of the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice in Journalism, said the video he viewed of the clash led him to believe that the use of force by police was "unjustifiable and excessive."

"From what I saw, it just seemed gratuitous to go after the reporters," Cooper said. "They weren't really in the way, they didn't really pose a threat and, of course, they were trying to do their job."

L.A. Police Chief William Bratton has expressed his displeasure. From "Chief vows full inquiry into violence":

"The treatment you received yesterday from some Los Angeles police officers … we can't tolerate and won't tolerate," Bratton told reporters at a City Hall news conference, extending his remarks to members of the public also caught up in the incident.


Questions also were raised about the large number of projectiles fired by officers attempting to control the crowd. At least 240 rounds made of foam, sponge or fiber were fired as police swept through the park about 6:15 p.m. The move came after police clashed with a small group of protesters near the intersection of 7th and Alvarado streets.

"Two hundred and forty rounds with no arrests is of grave concern to me," Bratton said, acknowledging that none of the rounds fired were directly related to the arrests of eight adults and one juvenile during the rally on charges that included assault with a deadly weapon in a rock-throwing incident and public drunkenness. The chief labeled some of the officers' actions "inappropriate."


In footage shot by Fox News and Telemundo reporters, police officers can be seen grabbing Fox reporter Christina Gonzalez and forcefully pushing her out of the way as she crouched to protect her camerawoman, who had fallen after being struck by a police baton. "I am helping her move, sir!" Gonzalez said, her voice agitated.

The officer is heard saying: "Move her back away from the skirmish line or you're under arrest."

As Gonzalez, whose husband is a retired LAPD officer, struggled to regain her footing, an officer pushed her by the shoulders, spinning her around.

"You can't do that," Gonzalez yelled at an officer, jabbing a finger in his direction. "You cannot do that and you know it."

Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter who was at the scene, gives her account here. (The Google map of MacArthur Park is here. You can also switch to a satellite photo view.) Meanwhile, Warren Olney discussed the events on local NPR show Which Way L.A.? (30 minutes long).

This is infuriating behavior by the police. Being a cop can be very dangerous, but when a cop pushes a woman in the back who's already walking away, or grabs a video camera and throws it, or clubs a person who's no threat, absolutely these cops know what they're doing, and they know what they're doing is wrong. It's inexcusable. Some people cannot be trusted with power. A good cop tries to keep the peace and builds community ties. Bad cops abuse their position of authority. Sadly, there have always been people happy for any excuse to beat someone else up, and even more sadly, there always seems to be a percentage of those people in the police force, in the armed forces, and among prison guards. The Brits refer to that attitude as hooliganism (even if they generally don't apply it to cops). Dress a thug in a uniform and give him a badge, but it doesn't make the attitude any more honorable, despite the veneer of respectability. He's still a thug. It's only a question of who he's working for.

According to the Los Angeles Times, there were 25,000-some demonstrators, but only a small percentage were being disruptive. The original rally at City Hall was reportedly much larger, but also overwhelmingly peaceful. Demonstrators shouldn't assault the police either, but throwing a plastic bottle at cops in riot gear isn't remotely comparable to hitting someone with a baton or firing a rubber bullet at him or her — especially when that person didn't throw the bottle! I have no problem with the police arresting those people who reportedly threw debris and such. However, the police went far beyond that, and the video doesn't lie.

New questions continue to emerge and the FBI is now investigating as well. It's encouraging that Bratton, the FBI and others are looking into this, but it's discouraging that it's necessary in the first place.

I'm thinking the Bakersfield Police Department should come down and teach the LAPD something about community relations. This incident has really damaged them here.

Some of the comments on the Los Angeles Times forums about the incident pretty disturbing. It shouldn't be forgotten the L.A. police had a choice. They did not have to react the way they did. Compare the ugly tone they set with the lovely one they destroyed, as described in this Los Angeles Times editorial:

THE TENS OF THOUSANDS who gathered at the base of Los Angeles City Hall on Tuesday bore a blend of messages. Many urged comprehensive immigration reform and complained about the demonization of migrants. Some called for amnesty. Smatterings pleaded for sundry fringe political causes.

But overwhelming all other displays was a sea of U.S. flags, waved cheerfully by people asking to join a country conflicted about their welcome. Other than a Fourth of July on the Washington Mall, it's hard to think of a more full-throated pledge of allegiance.

Choosing between those two tones shouldn't be that hard.

Make sure to listen to further coverage via Jim Swanson's Week in Review podcast, available at 5am this Saturday, 5/5.

Sorry, I Can't Pay for Sex Tonight, Favre is Playing the Bears

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

Yes, even the "D.C. Madam" has better management sense than the Bush administration (make your own joke here; I ain't touching that one). From ABC's The Blotter:

Even call girls get performance reviews, at least the ones who worked for Jeane Palfrey's Washington, D.C., escort service.

"Without being overtly vulgar, a pair of tits and an ass, without accompanying brains, sophistication, LOOKS and carriage, just won't cut it in this business or at least, not with this particular agency!!" wrote Palfrey in a monthly newsletter sent to the women who worked for her.

Calling herself "Miz Julia" or "the management," she regularly offered criticism, beauty advice and warnings about undercover police during the 13 years her business, Pamela Martin and Associates, was in operation.

In a January 1994 newsletter, she wrote, 'Congress is back in session. This always helps to boost business.'

In another edition, she complained, 'That damn Monday night football . . . ruines [sic] business every single Monday night!

(Hat tip to Howard Kurtz.)


(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

National Poetry Month is officially past, alas. However, every day is good for poetry! If you happened to miss this great segment from The Colbert Report, check it out here at Crooks and Liars, as Sean Penn and Stephen Colbert square off in a "Meta-Free-For-All."

This also allows me to give a shout-out to the moderator, former National Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. Pinsky is a great speaker and teacher, with a witty, funny touch, and if you have a chance to hear him speak, I'd recommend it. A previous post mentioned the wonderful Favorite Poem Project, which Pinsky runs with Maggie Dietz, and I can't plug it or them enough.