Saturday, February 28, 2009

This Post Is Not About Serious People

I had planned to write today about Nostradamus predicting that the Large Hadron Collider on the border between France and Switzerland will cause a black hole and dispatch every last living thing on earth to an ignominious death, but that seems like a mere distraction compared to another black hole known as the Republican Party.

Besides which, you don't need a physics degree to write about the Republicans, who in a never ending series of bad Monty Python skits, reveal themselves to have learned nothing from the drubbing they received last November:

Party pillar of probity Jim DeMint:
"[Conservatives might have to] take to the streets to stop America’s slide into socialism."
Party godfather Rush Limbaugh:
"I'm talking to you, those of you who think Jindal was horrible, in fact, I don't want to hear from you ever again if you think that what Bobby Jindal said was bad or what he said was wrong or not said well, because, folks, style is not going to take our country back."
Party godfather-ette Ann Coulter:
"Obama is becoming the Cal Ripken Jr. of presidents, making history every time he suits up for a game. Recently, Obama also became the first African-American president to order a ham sandwich late at night from the White House kitchen! That's going to get old pretty quick."
Party incredible lightness-weight William Kristol:
"[We] can't allow Obama to make of 2009 what Franklin Roosevelt made of 1933 or Johnson of 1965. . . . [We] can try in any way possible to break Obama's momentum."
Party deep thinker Joe the Plumber:
"Back in the day, really, when people would talk about our military in a poor way, somebody would shoot 'em."
Party media maven Cliff Kincaid:
"Obama is a Communist and a foreigner."
Party mad hatter John Bolton:
"The fact is on foreign policy I don't think President Obama thinks it's a priority. He said during the campaign he thought Iran was a tiny threat. Tiny, tiny depending on how many nuclear weapons they are ultimately able to deliver on target. Its, uh, its tiny compared to the Soviet Union, but is the loss of one American city -- pick one at random -- Chicago -- is that a tiny threat?
Party chairman Michael Steele:
"We know the past, we know we did wrong. My bad."
Party wingnut extraordinaire Michele Bachman:
"Michael Steele! You be da man! You be da man."
No, folks, that parrot's not dead. He's, he's restin'!

Cartoon du Jour

Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

The Dow Doesn't Show Diddly Squat

There may have been a time when the Dow Jones Industrial Average actually reflected the real world, but it has long outlived its usefulness as a barometer of anything other than the fact that the financial world has gone cuckoo.
Example: On Monday the Dow dropped nearly 300 points because of bad financial news. On Tuesday, the Dow jumped nearly 200 points although the financial news was even worse.

So if we chuck the Dow, what do we substitute it with? Some ideas here.

This Is Just So Damned Sad


Is United States Headed For Scrap Heap?

No, not the country, although there are days when I do wonder. I'm talking about the SS United States, the super fast ocean liner that at the time of its 1952 christening was the envy of the seafaring world.

Sadly, the five-block long colossus has been moldering at a pier in South Philadelphia since 1996 and is now up for sale. The owner won't say who would be an acceptable buyer, but there are fears that it is headed for the scrap heap.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Jesper Larsen

Quotes From Around Yon Blogosphere

David Cohen/Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times
Guess I should’ve enjoyed the postracial vacation. Counting from inauguration it lasted, what, three and a half weeks? I mean, that's practically a European-length get-away from race as usual. But this week we find ourselves right back in our cubicles.

And this is what was waiting in the inbox. This cartoon received precious little attention last week, considering the racial clusterbomb that went off in the NYP's offices. From where I stand, this is far more offensive. The Post cartoonist could at least cop to terminal cluelessness about the association of Obama specifically with the crazed chimp. The above offering is a hamfisted shout-out to the most resonant stereotype in American society: the black criminal.

That said. I don’t think that we can or should rally the troops around Obama every time a cartoonist goes off his meds and his editor trips over the boundary between edge and outrage. The reality is that all Presidents are subject to unfair criticism -- though Obama is the first for whom that criticism has taken on a racial hue. Carter and Clinton were both ridiculed as backwater hicks (how often did we see references to Clinton's libido paired with images of his down-home roots?)

Reagan’s advancing years brought with them a harvest of Alzheimer’s jokes: Did you hear that Ronnie announced he has Alzheimer’s . . . Again? Lincoln was ridiculed in Northern newspapers and depicted as (irony of ironies) part Negro and Andrew Jackson's wife was assailed as a bigamist in the newspapers of the day.

At the risk of being cynical, I'm taking it as a good sign that this cartoon was largely ignored. All of us, but especially we black folk, are going to have to develop thicker skin and a shrewder sense of when we go Al Sharpton on some fool and when we offer the empty-heads only the tinny echo of their own isolated voices.


A lot of my work, for those who have followed it over the years, is based on the glories of the English language and it’s many opportunities for satire and manipulation. When I heard about the salary cap proposed by the President, my mind looked for a comparable phrase that might be related and cartoonable. I have personally heard, not only in person, but also in published, broadcast music, the phrase, "putting a cap in yo' ass," not to mention a Chris Rock routine on Comedy Central.

Now, to illustrate that point, I drew a black man pointing a gun at a white man. Not to represent ALL black people; A black person. Every white person that I draw only represents that person, not all white people.

Cartoonists use shortcuts a lot of the time to get a point across; unlike columnists, we don't have a thousand words, so we have to get to the heart of the matter pretty quickly and succinctly.

Were the black man's characteristic facial features, track suit, threatening posture, and gun meant to represent ALL black people?



Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted.

Over the past couple of days, I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused. At the same time, I have had conversations with Post editors about the situation and I can assure you -- without a doubt -- that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation. It was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it was interpreted by many as such.

We all hold the readers of the New York Post in high regard and I promise you that we will seek to be more attuned to the sensitivities of our community.


Civil rights leaders and New York City Council members vowed to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to block New York Post owner Rupert Murdoch's ownership of multiple media outlets in the city.

The leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton of National Action Network, announced their plans on the same day that Murdoch, chairman of News Corp., issued an apology for the cartoon that appeared in the Post, the city tabloid his company owns.

Drawn by Sean Delonas, it showed two police officers, one with a smoking gun, standing over the body of a bullet-riddled chimp. The caption reads: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

Although Murdoch's apology was called "a good gesture" by the civil rights leaders and council members, it didn't go far enough, they said.


Friday, February 27, 2009

The Republican Fear Machine Backfires

Fear has been the Republican Party's greatest weapon, and notably so during the Age of Bush: Fear of people with funny names and skin colors. Fear of people who do not worship a Christian God. Fear of people who are not red-blooded Americans. Fear of people who don't spout patriotic slogans or wear American flag lapel pins. But now the screw has turned and fear has become the Republican Party's greatest enemy.
This fear is palpable practically everywhere you go these days, whether it be a hospital waiting room, PTA meeting, shopping mall or town square.
Americans are fearful of losing their jobs if they still have them or finding work if they don't. They are fearful of being able to make mortgage and car payments. They are fearful of being able to send their children to college. And they are fearful of being able to pay for medical care for their aging parents, let alone themselves and their kids.
It is hardly worth mentioning that these fears are substantially the result of the Bush administration's failed economic, social and educational policies, as well as tax cuts that benefited the rich at a time when the U.S. was fighting not one but two wars.

But I'll mention that anyhow because it should be remembered that a supplicant Democratic congressional
minority pretty much went along with The Decider only to kind of find its voice in the closing days of his administration, which happened to be about the time that an audacious whippersnapper from Illinois came out of nowhere to forge these fears into an electoral mandate that begs comparison to FDR in 1932 at the depths of the Great Depression.

As perverse as it may seem, if fear is now the Republicans' greatest enemy it is Barack Obama's greatest friend.

This is because without the fear that is abroad in the land the chances of him engineering a policy revolution not seen since FDR would be slim to none, and without that fear the "government is bad" meme flogged by Bobby Jindal in his Republican response to Obama's address to Congress -- a tactic that is at the heart of the party's intellectual bankruptcy -- would not have been so discordant to Americans who need their government more than ever.

As it is, reforming health care, easing a disproportionate tax burden on the middle class, bringing energy policy into the 21st century and other initiatives that will cost trillions of dollars while sending the federal deficit into uncharted realms will be difficult enough with the traditional enemies of reform sharpening their knives and the Republicans playing their obstructionist part more for political mendacity than philosophical reasons.

It was FDR who famously said "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That seems a bit simplistic even in this sound-bite day and age, but it is a reminder that exploiting people's fears for political gain rather than trying to ease their fears for the greater good is perhaps the biggest reason that the Republicans' time in the wilderness will be long.


Top to bottom: "The Lifeboat" by Claxton (1862),
"The Triumph
of Death" by Bruegel (1562),
"Nighmare" by Fuselli (1802)

Cartoon du Jour

Tom Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

Getting Their Edmund Burke On

Edmund Burke is getting more shot outs these days than even Slumdog Millionaire, which is pretty good for a guy with a bad 'do and no fashion sense who has been dead for 212 years and never won an Oscar. People ranging from David Brooks, who knows what he's talking about, to Rush Limbaugh, who doesn't have a clue, are citing Burke's opposition to the French Revolution and others writings to argue against Barack Obama's everything and the kitchen sink approach to governing in the teeth of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

As someone whose knowledge and analytical powers fall somewhere in between the New York Times columnist and right-wing Republican talk-radio bloviator, I understand Burke's appeal in these trying times but find it contextually wanting.

Burke argued in his seminal Reflections on the Revolution in France, which like Brooks I read in college and suspect Limbaugh would use as a doorstop, that the revolution would end badly because its supposedly rational foundations ignored the complexities of human nature and society. He slavishly supported the monarchy and had no time for fashionable abstractions such as "liberty" and the "rights of man," instead calling for the codification of specific rights and liberties as a guard against government oppression.

Burke has had great appeal for conservative and neoconservative intellectuals like Leo Strauss and William F. Buckley Jr. who have recast his attacks against the French Revolution as a critique of Communism and socialist revolutionary programs.

But while the revolution that Obama is spawning with a gigantic stimulus package, bank bailout, ambitious health-care reform program and other initiatives that will cost trillions of dollars sets off Brooks' "Burkean alarm bells," it has nothing to do with the French Revolution, let alone Communism or socialism. It is a policy revolution and the times call for nothing less.

And speaking of revolutions, Burke supported the American Revolution. So there.

End of lecture.

Holy Hopenchange, Batman!

The contrast between the Obama and Bush presidencies was bound to be startling, but it still is a shocker when the new administration does something so logical and legal as move ahead with the prosecution of a suspected terrorist in a civilian court rather than strip him of legal rights and leave him hanging in limbo.

Such has been the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah a-Marri, an alleged Al Qaeda "sleeper agent" who is the only so-called illegal enemy combatant imprisoned inside the United States, in this case the brig at the Charleston, South Carolina, Navy Base for the past five years.

It should be noted that Obama's hand was forced by a Supreme Court review of an ACLU lawsuit regarding Al-Marri's indefinite detention, but the change is welcome nonetheless.

Praise For Vitamins: An Update

Yet another study validates the value of vitamins and other nutritional supplements contra an utterly stupid New York Times story that I took apart here.

This study found that women who took a combination of folic acid and two B vitamins for several years had a lower chance of developing macular degeneration, the most common cause of vision loss in older Americans.

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By Exhale

Quotes From Around Yon Blogosphere


President Obama's new budget blueprint estimates a stunning deficit of $1.75 trillion for the current fiscal year, which began five months ago, then lays out a wrenching change of course as he seeks to finance his own priorities while stanching the flow of red ink.

By redirecting enormous streams of deficit spending toward programs like health care, education and energy, and paying for some of it through taxes on the rich, pollution surcharges, and cuts in such inviolable programs as farm subsidies, the $3.55 trillion spending plan Mr. Obama is undertaking signals a radical change of course that Congress has yet to endorse. . . .

"There are times when you can afford to redecorate your house," Mr. Obama said on Thursday morning as he released an outline of the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in October, "and there are times when you have to focus on rebuilding its foundation."


January Durable Goods fell a greater than expected 5.2% (consensus was -2.5%) but ex transports, the drop of 2.5% wasn’t that much worse than estimates. . . .

Bottom line, there is absolutely nothing within today's data to hang one’s hat on as the deterioration continues and the dark tunnel sees no end.


A Zombie Bank is a financial institution whose liabilities outweighs it assets, making its net worth less than zero. ZBs continue to operate because of the implicit or explicit government guarantee -- along with truckloads of taxpayer monies.

Consider the two biggest Zombie banks -- Citigroup and Bank of America. They have each recieved $45 billion in capital from the US government -- far more than either bank is worth. Additionally, the US had guaranteed up to 90% of the bad assets each zombie is holding -- $250 billion and $306 billion respectively.

The term comes from Japan's lost decade following their real estate bubble. The Japanese kept their zombie banks alive, delaying the eventual recovery by a decade.

The reason I favor nationalization is that I hope we here in the US avoid a lost Japan-like decade . . . Keeping these banks propped up with more and more taxpayer monies -- the Obama Administration has proposed $750 billion more in bank-rescue aid -- is not the way out of this mess.


I don't want [Obama] to fail. Anybody who wants him to fail is an idiot, because it means we're all in trouble.


[William] Kristol is reprising his role in the 1994 health reform debate, when he urged Republicans to oppose reform "sight unseen" rather than work toward a constructive alternative. His current advice is equally disingenuous. Kristol is saying that Republicans should raise objections about the speed of legislation, pick fights, point to foreign policy -- but not because they actually care about the speed of the legislative process or the other fights they're going to pick. It will all be a pretext to stop Obama's agenda.

Is this the kind of thing he should be admitting in public?


Louisiana has gotten $130 billion in post-Katrina aid. How is it that the stars of the Republican austerity movement come from the states that suck up the most federal money? Taxpayers in New York send way more to Washington than they get back so more can go to places like Alaska and Louisiana. Which is fine, as long as we don't have to hear their governors bragging about how the folks who elected them want to keep their tax money to themselves. Of course they do! That’s because they're living off ours.

O.K., I'm done.


Gov. Jindal's stories of self-reliance were inspiring. Like Michelle Malkin, who is a big fan of his, he is an anchor baby whose parents arrived here from India to exploit our lax immigration laws but nevertheless proved that people who are different races can be successful if they make an effort to fit in and act like real Americans. Instead of acting angry and entitled like some minorities do, Gov. Jindal was so happy and optimistic I thought he was about to bounce up and down like Tigger the way Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle did when he won the Oscar. Gov. Jindal is America's real-life slumdog millionaire.

But what really inspired me was the story he told about how people in leaky little boats tried to save the citizens of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina even though government bureaucrats tried to stop them. If the government had stayed out of New Orleans entirely and encouraged more people to use their boats or to make their own boats out of things around the house, more people would probably be alive today. And instead of waiting for inefficient government workers to fix the levies, ordinary New Orleans citizens could have patched them up using bubble gum and duct tape and good old American know-how.


Top photograph by Doug Mills/The New York Times

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Legalizing Pot For The Wrong Reasons

With California (of course) taking the lead, decriminalizing marijuana use on a state-by-state basis and even nationally suddenly doesn't seem quite so far fetched. The reason (of course) is not undercutting the rank hypocrisy that permeates government and social policy about a comparatively harmless drug but because there is money to be made from it just as there is with two far more harmful vices -- alcohol and gambling.

That support for decriminalization has grown steadily in recent years in the face of relentless anti-marijuana propaganda from the White House, DEA, and DARE program can be attributed to an increasing number of younger Americans who know someone who smokes pot -- if they haven't done so themselves -- and the awareness that it is far from being the evil gateway drug its opponents portray it as.

I have long supported a "grow your own" decriminalization policy under which it would be legal to grow, possess and use pot, as well as give it away, but legal sanctions on selling or buying it in large quantities would be maintained in the form of fines but not jail sentences.

Where California is headed is a policy driven by its desperate need to raise revenue, as much as $13 billion a year by one pro-decriminalization estimate and perhaps even more when you consider the prosecution and incarceration costs involving pot users and sellers.

Under one bill introduced in the California assembly, this revenue windfall woulld be accomplished by charging growers and wholesales a $5,000 franchise fee and $2,500 annual renewal fee, as well as a $50 per ounce fee for retailers.

Lurking beyond any successful state initiative is that under federal law marijuana remains classified as a dangerous drug, but it is not difficult to image that an Obama Justice Department might look the other way when it comes to decriminalizing personal use by state law since Attorney General already has said that federal raids on medical marijuana dispensaries will be halted.

That certainly was not the case during the Bush administration, which infamously fought back against efforts to decriminalize even medical marijuana through public referenda in 13 states, California of course being the first.

As it is, marijuana is the largest cash crop in America and the gray market that gobbles it up by the ton is so immense that legalization efforts, no matter the motivation, may not have the positive financial impact for California and other ailing states as is imagined.

In any event, we may have a chance to find that out, as well as whether the dubious claim that decriminalization will turn millions of innocents into potheads goes up in smoke.

* * * * *
In case you missed it, I make the case here for hemp seed-based products as terrific nutritional supplements while warning that they could get you in trouble if you were to be drug tested. This is because even industrial hemp is classified as a dangerous drug. And here for a personal story that drives home the ridiculousness of opposing medical marijuana use.

Top photograph by Getty Images

Cartoon du Jour

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Epic Flail For Jindal & The Republicans

The overnight polling on Barack Obama's address to Congress was astounding. The CNN/Opinion Research survey, for example, found that 68 percent of viewers had an extremely positive view of the speech while 24 percent had a somewhat positive view. While I'm not very good at math, I think that means only eight percent of viewers were turned off, which brings me back to the smoking turd handed up by Bobby Jindal in the Republican response.

Not even the talking heads at Faux News tried to put a good face on the Louisiana governor's effort.

But what is worth repeating is that Jindal, who I'm told is a pretty smart guy, was reduced to mouthing the Republican talking points on the stimulus package specifically and economic recovery in general:

No new ideas. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Only yet another recycling of the "government is the problem" meme that the Grand Old Party tries to peddle when it is not in power.

No one -- not even a Grover "Taxes Are Death" Norquist or Michael "Hip Hop" Steele -- would have expected the beginnings of a turnaround from the Republican response to a popular president's maiden address to Congress. Jindal will rebound, but Republican thinking is so small at a time when the opposition is busting a gut thinking big, that it is worth repeating yet again that the party's time in the wilderness is going to be long indeed.

Jindal Versus The Volcano

One of the more bizarre aspects of Bobby Jindal's response for the Republican Party was his claim that Americans will be overprotected from volcanoes because of economic stimulus package pork.

Bizarre because Jindal's Louisiana has had some uncomfortably close encounters with Mother Nature in which monitoring her mischief saved many lives. And because his claim was bogus.

Stop Presses! The Obamas Pick A Pooch

It will be a rescue Portuguese water dog who is "old enough" and a "match" for the family dynamic. More here.

Obligatory Monthly Jen Aniston Post


Beautiful Photograph du Jour

By CathS

Quotes From Around Yon Blogosphere

Sexy women in bikinis really do inspire some men to see them as objects, according to a new study of male behavior.

Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tool use lights up.

Men were also more likely to associate images of sexualized women with first-person action verbs such as "I push, I grasp, I handle," said lead researcher Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton University.

And in a "shocking" finding, Fiske noted, some of the men studied showed no activity in the part of the brain that usually responds when a person ponders another's intentions.

This means that these men see women "as sexually inviting, but they are not thinking about their minds," Fiske said. "The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens."

"Don't bag things you don't understand," said my girlfriend when I told her I was writing about astrology.

Her warning was amiable enough, salted with a touch of condescension, the intimation being horoscopes are written in some kind of Druid rune that I can cast my primate eyes over but will never fully understand.

My girlfriend is very intelligent; she can charm who she chooses, which is why I'm constantly surprised when she interrupts a conversation with a banker or landscape gardener to say "what star sign are you?"

They'll respond "Sagittarius" and she'll say "ahhh" like a neurologist examining a CT-scan that pinpoints why a bloke won't commit or a chick can't confront her domineering mother.

I like rational explanations. If I see a problem, I look for the answer which is why astrology and horoscopes bother me because there is no answer, there's friggin' thousands of them, all supposedly "right."


Your gain, my pain? New research from Japan shows that the human brain treats feelings of envy like physical pain, while schadenfreude -- the pleasure derived from another person's misfortune -- triggers the brain's reward circuits. The findings, published in the February 13 online edition of Science magazine, suggest our brains may be wired to treat abstract feelings much more like concrete physical experiences than was previously thought.

Of all the truly seismic shifts transforming daily life today -- deeper than our financial fissures, wider even than our most obvious political and cultural divides -- one of the most important is also among the least remarked. That is the chasm in attitude that separates almost all of us living in the West today from almost all of our ancestors, over two things without which human beings cannot exist: food and sex.

The question before us today is not whether the two appetites are closely connected. About that much, philosophers and other commentators have been agreed for a very long time. As far back as Aristotle, observers have made the same point reiterated in 1749 in Henry Fielding's famous scene in Tom Jones: The desires for sex and for food are joined at the root. The fact that Fielding's scene would go on to inspire an equally iconic movie segment over 200 years later, in the Tom Jones film from 1963, just clinches the point.


Back in the 1940s, the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner did a famous experiment with pigeons that he thought had some relevance to human superstitions. He put birds in the kind of cages used for training animals by reinforcement -- peck a bar, get some birdseed, that sort of thing. Except in this new experiment, the feed was provided at regular intervals regardless of what the pigeons did.

And guess what? The pigeons fell into certain behaviors all by themselves -- nodding or turning or pecking for food -- although their behaviors had nothing to do with the reward being offered. Skinner wrote: "A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances...The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies to human behavior," said Skinner.

One could go on at length about the implications of this experiment, and I have done so elsewhere. It is a common human propensity to mistake coincidence for causality, which is why science puts such store in controlled reproducible experiment. Some results of superstition are fraught with consequence (appeasing the gods by human sacrifice, Ronald Reagan consulting an astrologer), other are merely silly (Friday the 13th is unlucky).