Thursday, October 27, 2005

Half empty

Normally, I think Peggy Noonan talks out her genteel, Republican ass, but I can't help but think that she's onto something in this dark assessment of the state of American society. Here, she writes of the detached selfishness of the people who run this nation:

I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."

There are a few problems with what she writes. As a friend noted, she's a little too quick to relieve our current president and his predecessor of responsibility for their bad actions, preferring to cast them as victims of historical circumstance. And the successful president to whom she refers, Reagan, did accomplish some good things but also bears responsibility for promoting the everyman-for-himself ethos that Noonan decries.

Still, what she says resonates. I couldn't help but think of a line from the first episode of "The Sopranos", perhaps the last great mafia-as-metaphor drama:

"It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that. I know. But lately I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over."

I don't know, but sometimes I get the same feeling.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Beach house, here I come

And you thought this blog was worthless:

My blog is worth $12,984.42.
How much is your blog worth?

Thanks to Copeland.


As much as I dislike--nay, loathe--the present administration, I find little reason to take joy at the sight of the noose that appears to be tightening around the necks of high-ranking officials such as Karl Rove, Libby Lewis and even Darth Vader himself, Dick Cheney.

Obviously, the most important consideration is whether a crime was committed, or even an abuse of power. Although we don't know everything the special prosecutor knows, it seems very unclear that anyone did anything that was clearly illegal or even malicious, as Jack Shafer over at Slate noted a few weeks ago.

As is so often the case in these matters, the principle players may have incurred the most legal trouble while seeking to defend or hide their actions--the cover-up. This is of course why Clinton was impeached--not because he had sex with an intern, but because he lied about having sex with an intern. But the liberals who see the Fitzgerald investigation as an opportunity for payback should keep in mind that someday, they may actually win back the White House. (It sounds absurd, I know, but not so absurd as it did a few months ago.) Will they want to see the cycle of retribution continue?

That brings us to the larger issue. Whatever visceral pleasure I might take from seeing the vice president in the docks, I'd much rather have an honest government, even one I disagree with vehemently. So there's no reason to be gleeful, even if you believe that the administration may be getting its true comeuppance. And what does it say about the quality of our public servants, and our political culture, that every presidency spends its final years in scandal?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

It's a small world

GTECH, the politically connected firm that Pennsylvania has chosen to run its slots computer system, was involved in a scandal in Texas when it ran that state's lottery system. The chair of the Texas Lottery Commission at the time was Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers:

The possibility of the Lottery Commission controversy being the subject of confirmation hearings is even more daunting for the White House. The story now is only being printed in alternative publications, such as the Dallas Observer of Oct. 13. These reports recalled the lawsuit brought by Lawrence Littwin alleging that Chairman Miers fired him as the Lottery Commission's executive director because he had uncovered corruption involving Gtech, the lottery management firm.

Littwin's federal suit claimed Miers protected Gtech because its lobbyist, former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, as Texas House Speaker had pushed Bush ahead of other applicants for the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Democrat Barnes had been silent until a 1999 deposition by him said he had pushed Bush to the head of the line.

Interesting, no?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Freedom of choice

UPDATE: This post earned a mention at Slate's Today's Blogs column.

During my wife's pregnancy, she and I were confronted with the same choice that all expectant parents face nowadays: whether to undergo the prenatal testing that can determine if a child is likely to be born with a birth defect or disability such as Down syndrome. But what to do with such knowledge?

We made our choice easily if not lightly. We decided to forgo the tests, because we knew we could not terminate the pregnancy, no matter the results. And because the tests are not 100 percent accurate, we did not want to live with a shadow cast over the pregnancy, only to find out when our daughter was born that we had nothing to fear. (Of course, with our daughter only three weeks old, there still is plenty to fear.)

Not everyone comes to the same conclusion, as the mother of a girl with Down syndrome discusses in this moving and troubling Washington Post story:

Whenever I am out with Margaret, I'm conscious that she represents a group whose ranks are shrinking because of the wide availability of prenatal testing and abortion. I don't know how many pregnancies are terminated because of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome, but some studies estimate 80 to 90 percent. ...

In ancient Greece, babies with disabilities were left out in the elements to die. We in America rely on prenatal genetic testing to make our selections in private, but the effect on society is the same.

Margaret's old pediatrician tells me that years ago he used to have a steady stream of patients with Down syndrome. Not anymore. Where did they go, I wonder. On the west side of L.A., they aren't being born anymore, he says. ...

Margaret is a person and a member of our family. She has my husband's eyes, my hair and my mother-in-law's sense of humor. We love and admire her because of who she is -- feisty and zesty and full of life -- not in spite of it. She enriches our lives. If we might not have chosen to welcome her into our family, given the choice, then that is a statement more about our ignorance than about her inherent worth.

I don't want to minimize either the trials of living with a severe disability or in raising a child with one. (I know, from experience in my own family, that neither is easy.) But how we can judge a person's quality of life before they are even born? And what other disabilities--or traits--will we decide are not worth living with, or not worth the inconvienence to those already living? Andrew Sullivan wonders what would happen if medical science allows us to identify a gene for homosexuality in utero. Slippery-slope arguments are of limited utility; as George Will has noted, all of life is lived on a slippery slope. Yet the pace of scientific progress is so rapid that these questions will be upon us sooner than we think. I hope we answer correctly.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

RIP, Adrian

A few days ago I discussed the travesty that is the next "Rocky" movie. I now have an update. While Burt Young will return as Rocky's loser brother-in-law Paulie, Talia Shire apparently will not be back. The sixth Rocky film will apparently feature a widowed Italian Stallion.

Shire, of course, is the sister of famed director Francis Ford Coppola, and outside of her role as Rocky's wife Adrian, she is best known as Michael Corleone's sister Connie in "The Godfather" trilogy. She received Oscar nominations for Best Actress for "Rocky" and Best Supporting Actress for "The Godfather, Part II."

Friday, October 14, 2005

Do you remember your President Nixon

The New York Times is reporting that the U.S. military has been engaged in some fierce firefights with Syrian troops over the past year. Here's the best part:

Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was in the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.


Thursday, October 13, 2005

Hopefully Rocky dies at the end

A long time ago, there was a hungry young actor who wrote a screenplay about a washed-up, journeyman boxer who as a publicity stunt was given a shot at the heavyweight championship. It was a great script, but the actor was unknown, and when he sold the film on the condition that he play the lead, the producers offered him $150,000 to let one of the biggest stars of the day play it instead.

He refused. But his troubles weren't over. When the film was being shot, he had to fight to keep in the movie's most pivotal scene, in which the boxer admits to his girlfriend that he can't beat the champ, but that all that matters is that he goes the distance. Production was running behind, so he had to do it in one take.

The film ended up being one of the greatest of all times. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film's four stars each were nominated for Academy Awards, and the screenplay also netted a nomination.

So what did this actor do next? How many other cinematic masterpieces did he unveil?

None. Instead, he cashed in. He made sequel after bad sequel. He made a sequel with Mr. T. He made a sequel that was thinly disguised propaganda. He made a sequel with Tommy Morrison. And now, at 60, he is going to make another sequel.

Why? Was the first film a fluke? Did he sit down at his typewriter, try to write another Oscar winner, and realize that his talents were fleeting, that he could never do it again? Was it greed? Was it fear that led him to take the easy road? Is he proud of what he's done?

Of course, one great film is more than most people have in them. Every time I watch "Rocky" I can almost forgive Sylvester Stallone for everything that came after.


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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Keeping the British end up

With the exception of "Road to Perdition", I'm largely unfamilar with Daniel Craig's work, but I'm pleased that he is emerging as a favorite to be the next James Bond. He seems to have a dark, brooding quality that I think will give the shopworn character an added dimension. (I feel the same about another candidate, Jason Statham.)

Though I think Pierce Brosnan was a fantastic Bond, I've always been disappointed that Timothy Dalton didn't stick with the character longer. (Despite the fact that he was in one of the worst Bond films.) Dalton's Bond seemed to have a barely concealed rage, simmering below the surface, that threatened to bubble over at any moment. Plus, he was in Flash Gordon.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Stupid Party

I heard a joke during the 2000 presidential election that went something like this: George W. Bush speaks to the American people as though English were his second language, while Al Gore speaks to the American people as though English were their second language.

Gore, unfortunately, was typical of many liberal politicians of his generation, such as John Kerry, in seeming to talk down to the public. During the 1960s, liberalism became severed from its working-class roots, in large part over Vietnam but also because of school busing, welfare and a host of other domestic policies. Liberals fell victim to the caricature of the pointy-headed intellectual, over-educated and severed from the concerns of regular or "real" Americans.

Modern conservativism, which could lay claim to a rich intellectual heritage, took on a populist strain that was adopted by the Republican Party. The GOP, once considered the party of a wealthy elite, claimed to understand the concerns of middle America, while liberals, Republicans said, were the true elitists, who thought they knew what was best for Americans but who treated American values with contempt. Over time, and with the rise of the religious right, this populism has degenerated into full-blown anti-intellectualism, with contempt not only for intellectuals but for the very idea of expertise and intellectual inquiry.

Well, my friends, it seems the conservative chickens have finally come home to roost. The tensions between the populist strain of conservatism and the intellectual strain seem poised to explode over George W. Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Consider the words of the right's own Ava Braun, aka Ann Coulter, who bemoans Miers' lack of qualifications to the bench:

Harriet Miers went to Southern Methodist University Law School, which is not ranked at all by the serious law school reports and ranked No. 52 by US News and World Report. Her greatest legal accomplishment is being the first woman commissioner of the Texas Lottery.

I know conservatives have been trained to hate people who went to elite universities, and generally that's a good rule of thumb. But not when it comes to the Supreme Court.

I see. So qualifications and learning don't matter, except when it comes to the Supreme Court, which, unlike much of the rest of the government, conservatives don't want to demolish but rather control for a generation and beyond. Suddenly, it matters where someone went to law school. (As someone who went to Westminster College, I'm put off by Coulter's snobbery. Smart and ambitious people--not that I'm either one, necessarily--attend all kinds of schools.)

And why does it matter where Miers went to school? It seems to me that to do what conservatives are hoping Bush's judges do, all you need is a subscription to the Heritage Foundation's newsletter and a copy of Rick Santorum's book. Coulter--who I normally do not take seriously enough to acknowledge, but I needed to blog about something--argues that because conservatives want justices who are only going to interpret the law, not make law, they need people with the intellectual firepower to master its minutiae.

Of course, we all know this is not what conservatives really want. What they want are justices who are going to turn back the clock on 40 years' worth of Supreme Court decisions on abortion, the right to privacy, and separation of church and state, among others. This has nothing to do with interpreting the Constitution versus "legislating from the bench" but simply a matter of preferring one interpretation over the other. It has everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with qualifications.

Not every conservative is anti-intellectual, of course, and pundits like George Will are rightly dismayed over Miers' lack of qualifications. (Though he seems to care more about how she spent her career as an attorney, rather than her diploma.) Others are disturbed that the president wants to give a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court to his personal attorney. But no one should be surprised that the president, having listened to his party denigrate intellectualism for decades, has decided to take them at their word.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Our Animal Friends

My latest Pittsburgh Business Times article is here.

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Saturday, October 01, 2005

There's life in those old bones yet

John Dickerson over at Slate contemplates whether the GOP, battered by a slew of recent scandals and growing public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, is down for the count or merely against the ropes. As has been the case for the past five years, one of the party's best hopes for recovery is the sorry state of their opposition. To wit:

Just because people are dissatisfied with Republicans doesn't mean that they're rushing into the warm arms of Democratic candidates. Yes, Democrats are seeing visions of 1994, but Newt Gingrich did more than just tear the face off of Democrats in leadership, he nurtured a farm team and presented a set of ideas that dovetailed with his political instinct for the jugular. Democrats have no Contract with America and have to find a Gingrich or some central figure to pitch their message.

Exactly. Newt Gingrich toppled a corrupt Democratic leadership. But he did it with ideas. True, when Americans read the fine print, it turned out they didn't like a lot of those ideas, especially when they had a charismatic president who was willing to split the difference. But by that time it was too late. The Democrats, on the other hand, haven't had real ideas in years. Oh, sure, they can point to a laundry list of policies they support, and another list that they oppose. But they have no vision. They need a Gingrich. Hell, they could even use a George W. Bush, circa 2000. Where is he/she?

The Big Lie

The Bush administration gets its knuckles rapped for buying good news for some of its policies. Discuss.

The littlest Potts

I'm not one to discuss my personal life on their blog, but I can't help but point you to a picture of the littlest Potts.