Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
Richard Ford’s Canada | Mitt Romney’s Cold Showers | Polls and Bigotry | The 47 Percent Attack Ad | Moochers by State | Hubble’s Early Universe | Quote Approval | Their Haters, and Ours | Obama on Letterman | Al Hadeed on the Supremes | Embassy Security | Memories of the Ford Administration | When David Ayres Inhaled | Florida Real Estate | 9/11 and Hiroshima | From Coolidge to Romney | I love Wanda Sykes | “Built to Last,” Like Buchenwald | United States of Amnesia | Romney’s troops | Obama’s dud | Jacques Barzun on American Democracy| August Notebook | Follow me on Twitter
Richard Ford’s “Canada”: One of the many superb passages from Ford’s newest novel, a shoe-in for what ought to be his second Pulitzer (he won it in ’95 for Independence Day). Dell Parsons, his 15-year-old protagonist, is just entering the fog of abandonment, his parents just jailed after an improbable bank robbery. Berner is his twin sister: “It’s odd, though, what makes you think about the truth. It’s so rarely involved in the events of your life. I quit thinking about the truth for a time then. Its finer points seemed impossible to find among the facts. If there was a hidden design, living almost never shed light on it. Much easier to think about chess— the true character of the men always staying the way they were intended, a higher power moving everything around. I wondered, for just that moment, if we— Berner and I— were like that: small, fixed figures being ordered around by forces greater than ourselves. I decided we weren’t. Whether we liked it or even knew it, we were accountable only to ourselves now, not to some greater design. If our characters were truly fixed, they would have to be revealed later. It’s been my habit of mind, over these years, to understand that every situation in which human beings are involved can be turned on its head. Everything someone assures me to be true might not be. Every pillar of belief the world rests on may or may not be about to explode. Most things don’t stay the way they are very long. Knowing this, however, has not made me cynical. Cynical means believing that good isn’t possible; and I know for a fact that good is. I simply take nothing for granted and try to be ready for the change that’s soon to come.” ↑
Mitt Romney’s cold showers: The gift that keeps giving. From Jay Smooth at Salon:
Polls and Bigotry: Just as James Ussher can still claim followers for his biblical fictions, Mitt Romney, a fantasist in his own right, still has diehard believers who claim all the polls are wrong and he’s right: he’s not just tied with Obama (as Romney thinks, as he put it in his appearance on 60 Minutes), but he’s ahead. Way ahead. The fantasy is being spread by unskewedpolls.com, a sort of anti-hero to Nate Silver’s mathematically based analyses of polling data. In a post wonderfully titled “How Mitt Romney is actually defeating Barack Obama in the presidential race,” Dean Chambers at Examiner.com claims that polls are pushing Obama “because the mainstream media-commissioned polls over-sample Democrats to produce skewed results that favor the Democrats.” Keep in mind, even Fox News has its polls showing Obama comfortably ahead. Keep in mind, too, that these are the same polls that called the 2008 election quite accurately. Real Clear Politics’ final average of 15 polls, coming in at a 7.6-point advantage for Obama in the week before the vote, compared to the actual vote of a 7.3 percent advantage for Obama. Pretty damn accurate. But today’s brand of evangelical conservatives, god bless ‘em, have never been accused of flirting with evidence.
So unskewedpolls.com allegedly does what its name implies, and produces the results you see below. (Chambers goes as far as projecting a 54-46 percent win for Romney.) Of course, unskewering.com’s theory could just as easily apply if existing polls were to account for all the bigots voting against Obama because they can’t stomach the notion of a fag-loving Muslim-Kenyan nigger not only occupying the precious linen closets in the White House, but defeating their mostly Christian but assuredly white alternative. Unskew for that, and Obama’s lead would likely be in the upper 60s, which should make whiter Democrats prospecting for 2016 giddy–or finally encourage Harvey Fierstein to run for president. The remarkable thing is that Obama’s lead (going by the legitimate polls, anyway) is as solid as it is despite the claims against him, and despite the not-so-latent racism of a goodly chunk of our electorate. The conclusion must be that for all its noise, for all its tea party brews and evangelical zeal, the racist white vote that did so much for Nixon and continued to do quite a bit for the first Bush is becoming an irrelevant minority, fighting its death throes. Karl Rove figured that out in 2004, when he tried, successfully, to channel the angry white vote through the angry evangelical vote, often the same thing, but with gayed-up causes to come at the polls (2004 was the year of the anti-gay-marriage amendments, one of the high watermarks of American hate in action). But there’s only so much the Atwaters and Roves can do to prolong the life of a dying monster.
It’s not for another generation that the United States will be a minority white nation. But in spirit, it has already embraced its essential pluralism. The re-election of Obama will be–among the many things that it will be–an affirmation of that reality that Strom Thurmond’s descendants cannot accept. But their marginalization, self-inflicted–because it goes against the grain of the American character as it has finally grown–is unmistakable. Here, for laughs, is the how the unskewed see it:
The 47 percent attack ad: It’s finally here: the Obama campaign is making Romney’s 47 percent blunder pay. It took a week, an unusually long time for the Obama war room. Every campaign has an ad it hopes will make the ultimate difference. I’m not so sure this one will: it’s more cluttered than one would expect, and diffuses the message by first pounding the 47 percent,l but then going off on Romney’s other matters–his refusal to release tax returns before 2010 (which to me is not that relevant), his Cayman Islands bank accounts, his 14.1 percent tax rate last year. It ends: “Maybe instead of attacking others on taxes, Romney should come clean on his.” Again, not the most memorable line in the world. In the pantheon of attack ads, few stand out like this one, from the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, still a classic of fearmongering that worked: a little girl is pulverized by a nuclear explosion. Curiously, it’s an American-voiced countdown, presumably that of a Goldwater man, making him, in Johnson’s view, a more threatening child-killer than the Soviets:
This was the classic of the first Bush campaign, the Willie Horton revolving door ad that appealed directly and very successfully to the bigotry Southern whites, always a reliable bloc of racist votes. Here’s the ad with a little extra analysis:
Four years ago there was McCain boasting of agreeing with Bush 90 percent of the time:
So in light of these ads, I’m not sure how effective this one from the Obama campaign will be. Once again though, Obama is helped by Romney’s flaccid response. He has yet to produce a memorable ad.
Not surprisingly, moochers are concentrated in the South:
The early universe: I never get tired of seeing these time-traveling pictures, these stutters of eternity lit up like smudges on creation’s retina. This is the latest from the Hubble Space Telescope. “Like photographers assembling a portfolio of best shots, astronomers have assembled a new, improved portrait of mankind’s deepest-ever view of the universe,” NASA tells us. “Called the eXtreme Deep Field, or XDF, the photo was assembled by combining 10 years of NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken of a patch of sky at the center of the original Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The XDF is a small fraction of the angular diameter of the full moon.” It is disbelief in full, real suspension.
Quote approval: Good to hear from the Gray Lady, though it tells you how low journalism ethics have fallen when our most important news organizations have to write policies about what should be a given: “The New York Times is drawing ‘a clear line’ against the practice of news sources being allowed to approve quotations in stories after the fact,” Margaret Sullivan, the Times’s new public editor, writes. “The practice, known as quote approval, ‘puts so much control over the content of journalism in the wrong place,’ the executive editor Jill Abramson told me in an interview. ‘We need a tighter policy.’” Abramson’s memo: “The practice risks giving readers a mistaken impression that we are ceding too much control over a story to our sources. In its most extreme form, it invites meddling by press aides and others that goes far beyond the traditional negotiations between reporter and source over the terms of an interview.”
It’s not a black and white thing of course. There’s nothing wrong with reading back quotes to the un-initiates, those private people who haven’t dealt with media before: it’s our responsibility as reporters to protect them, not take advantage of them. But it’s an entirely different story with politicians, public figures, business interests and especially PR flackers whose job is to manipulate, spin, lie, self-serve, making it our job to turn on the bullshit meter and limit the damage as much as possible. That includes forbidding quote approval, which is in reality a different way of saying quote manipulation–spin by other means. The always straight-shooting David Carr got to the point in his column Monday, aptly entitled “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval“: “Keep in mind that when public figures get in trouble for something they said, it is usually not because they misspoke, but because they accidentally told the truth.” That was written just before Mitt Romney’s 47 percent bomb. Carr concludes: “Journalism in its purest form is a transaction. But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, we are giving away our right to ask a simple question and expect a simple answer, one that can’t be taken back. It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.” ↑
Their haters, and ours: Thomas Friedman sums up the hypocrisy of the Arab-Muslim world well today, but it’s only half the story, with a convenient veil on its American equivalent. He writes: “I don’t like to see anyone’s faith insulted, but we need to make two things very clear — more clear than President Obama’s team has made them. One is that an insult — even one as stupid and ugly as the anti-Islam video on YouTube that started all of this — does not entitle people to go out and attack embassies and kill innocent diplomats. That is not how a proper self-governing people behave. There is no excuse for it. It is shameful. And, second, before demanding an apology from our president, Mr. Ali and the young Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Yemenis, Pakistanis, Afghans and Sudanese who have been taking to the streets might want to look in the mirror — or just turn on their own televisions. They might want to look at the chauvinistic bile that is pumped out by some of their own media — on satellite television stations and Web sites or sold in sidewalk bookstores outside of mosques — insulting Shiites, Jews, Christians, Sufis and anyone else who is not a Sunni, or fundamentalist, Muslim. There are people in their countries for whom hating “the other” has become a source of identity and a collective excuse for failing to realize their own potential.”
But then there’s this: The Arab-American institute released a survey in August on how Americans view Arabs and Muslims. The results got little attention in the American press, not least because of the source: the Arab-American Institute, because it has the word “Arab” in it, is taken less seriously than, say, Gallup, for the very reasons the survey’s numbers are what they are: bigotry toward Arabs (and Muslims) is a casual fact in American life. The survey found that 42 percent of whites and rate Arabs unfavorably, and 44 percent rate Muslims unfavorably, with Republicans thickening the unfavorable numbers: 57 percent of Romney voters see Muslims unfavorably (compared to 26 percent of them seeing Mormons unfavorably). Just 32 percent of Republicans surveyed said they were confident an Arab could do the job in a position of influence in government. Just 27 percent of Romney voters say so. It’s not flattering to Democrats that just 50 percent of them think so. (See the full survey.)
And in July there was this: The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 17 percent of Americans still think Obama is a Muslim, and 30 percent of Republicans do–double the proportion of Republicans who bought into the bigotry-laced lie four years ago. It’s not that Obama’s religion would be necessarily relevant, but that his association with Islam is designed to be denigrating by the very people who (see above) see Islam as a third-class religion–the same Christians who would, from behind their very glassy houses, since Christianity remains by far the most murderous and blood-soaked religion in the history of humankind. (To the Muslim world, those GIs running around Iraq and Afghanistan for the past decade, those planes raining missiles, are no different than their Crusader forefathers). ↑
Obama on Letterman: It was his seventh appearance. Letterman had no other guest. No Top 10 List. No stupid pet tricks, except when discussing Romney for a segment. We learned that Obama weighs “about 180,” which means 190, and that he would not put a precise number on the national debt as it stands today ($16 trillion, Mr. President). Letterman also asked him who holds all that debt. A lot of it is owed to ourselves, the president said, correctly: All but $4.7 trillion is either owed by the government to itself, or owed to Americans who’ve invested in Treasury bills. The remainder is owed other nations, lead by China ($1.3 trillion) and Japan ($885 billion), and Luxembourg is in there somewhere, in 12th place or thereabout, with $114 billion owed that postage stamp of a nation. Here’s the full list. And here’s the full bit from last night’s show:
Of course Letterman asked him about Romney’s confessions on his road to Damascus, by way of Boca Raton. The full exchange:
Letterman: Now, I don’t know if you have seen the videotape, but I’m sure you know what we’re referencing here. Mitt Romney at a fundraiser, I believe, in Florida, there’s a cell phone videotaping his remarks, and he talks about being – in very dismissive terms, why 47% of the people voting don’t matter to him. And what does that mean? Is that just – is that what rich guys at country clubs are talking about?
Obama: Well, I don’t know what he was referring to, but I can tell you this: when I won in 2008, 47% of the American people voted for John McCain. They didn’t vote for me. And what I said on election night was, ‘Even though you didn’t vote for me, I hear your voices, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to be your President.’ And one of the things I’ve learned as President is you represent the entire country, and when I meet Republicans as I’m traveling around the country, they are hard-working, family people who care deeply about this country and my expectation is that if you want to be President, you’ve got to work for everybody, not just for some…The other thing you discover as you travel around the country is, boy, the American people, they work so hard. I mean, the progress we’ve made since the great recession is because you’ve got single moms out there who are working two, three jobs to help make sure their kids can go to college. And you’ve got small business owners who are keeping their doors open and keeping their employees on even though it means they may not be taking down a salary. And, you know, you go up to Detroit or Toledo and you see auto workers who take huge pride in the fact that they’re bouncing back. But they work hard. And you don’t meet anybody who doesn’t believe in the American dream and the fact that nobody’s entitled to success, that you’ve got to work hard, and so I promise you, there are not a lot of people out there who think they’re victims, there are not a lot of people who think that they’re entitled to something. What I think the majority of people, Democrats and Republicans, believe is that we’ve got some obligations to each other, and there’s nothing wrong with us giving each other a helping hand, so that if there’s that single mom’s kid, even after all the work she’s done, still can’t afford to go to college, for us to be able to give them, you know, some help on a student loan so they can end up being – curing the next disease or making sure that they’re starting the next Google, I think that’s a good investment for America, and that’s – if you want to be President and you want to bring people together, I think that’s the attitude that you’ve got to have. ↑
•Al Hadeed on the Supremes: Here’s something you don’t often get to hear locally, as gleaned from the county’s web calendar: “Al Hadeed, Flagler County Attorney, will be [the] featured speaker on how we select our justices for the Florida and U.S. Supreme Court. The talk is entitled ‘The Law of the Land: The Public’s Role (or not) in Selecting our Justices.’” That’ll be at the Flagler County Library today, Monday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m., part of the 225th anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. From what I know of him, Hadeed–when he’s not mired in the muck of government legalese–has two intellectual passions: history and environmental protection. He is an absorbing storyteller who can get into the trance of his narrative to such a point that somewhere in him must float a few atoms of Billy Sunday. The topic today is especially relevant in two regards: A reactionary group that calls itself the Southeastern Legal Foundation (based in Atlanta), with more Southern than legal foundations about it, has been chasing after three of Florida’s supreme court justices in hopes of booting them off the bench, just because they’re Lawton Chiles appointees. That is, they’re relatively more liberal than the rest of their colleagues. So far the sniping has been unsuccessful. More critically, and I hope Al addresses this, is the fate of the U.S. Supreme Court, should Mitt Romney be elected. Justice Ginsburg is on her last walker: she wants out. But if Romney were to appoint her successor, those occasionally salvaging 5-4 majorities that still give the court a measure of liberal sanity would be history. We would have a court no different than that of the 1920s, when Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis alone faced the equivalent of a Chamber of Commerce board as supreme court justices, led by the rotund William Howard Taft, who at least could be occasionally reasoned with, but also sullied by the likes of Joseph McKenna, one of the great incompetents in Supreme Court history. Taft himself tried to get him to resign several times. Didn’t work–until McKenna’s wife’s death, which got him off the court in 1924. He was replaced by the far better Harlan Fiske Stone, but a minority of three was not enough to overcome the court’s compulsion for legal classicism, which translated into a war on labor unions and civil liberties in the name of business and property rights. We’re already there in several respects, though the present court has been more respectful of civil liberties than its 1920s version. Let’s see how Al takes on the Nine. ↑
•Embassy security: Disheartening pictures from the Benghazi embassy attack in today’s Daily Mail and in the Independent, what looks like a better report on what took place that day than what we’ve read so far in the American press, including this blast of Hurricane Katrina behavior: “According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.” They hadn’t had time in Benghazi to start building an embassy in line with the ugly and expensive fortresses being built around the globe by the State Department for its imperial staff, like that $750 million monstrosity in Baghdad, which sooner or later will have to be vacated if that country continues to go the way it’s going, or the even uglier horror going up in London, that one at a cost of $1 billion, with an architectural evocation of the Middle Ages: one of its security features is a 100-foot moat. No joke. If American embassies have to be guarded the way nuclear plants do, something has gone seriously wrong with America’s image in the world. Stephen Walt in a 2010 Foreign Policy article: “We like to think of our country as friendly and welcoming, as open to new ideas, and as a strong, diverse and confident society built on a heritage of pluck and grit. You know, we’re supposed to be a society built by generations of immigrants, pioneers and other determined folk who faced adversity and risk with a smile and a bit of a swagger. Yet the ‘Fortress America’ approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia. Don’t get me wrong: states in the modern world have to worry about security for their representatives, and we ought to take all reasonable measures to ensure that our diplomats are adequately protected. But as with dangers (such as extremists with explosives in their underwear), it’s possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence.”
But that’s been nothing new since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, or maybe–going by Bill McGuire’s timeline–since 1953, when the CIA toppled Iran’s Mosaddegh. Compare the new London embassy to the one it’s replacing, that one, as Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in an appraisal in 2010, “an effort to project a progressive cultural image abroad, at the height of the cold war. One entry led straight from the street up a broad staircase to a public library and an art gallery that showcased postwar American artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Philip Guston.” I imagine the new embassy will have paintings of Thomas Kinkaid and scenes from “Singin’ In The Rain.” ↑
Memories of the Ford Administration: Anthony Ferreira was a third grader at Henry B. Milnes Elementary School in Fair Lawn, N.J., when he wrote this letter to President Ford, after Ford’s Sept. 8, 1974 “full, free, and absolute pardon” of Richard Nixon, who himself now seems like a third-grade lawbreaker compared with his party’s successors to the White House (Iran-Contra, the S&L scandal, Bush II’s encyclopedic end-runs around the Constitution):↑
When WNZF’s David Ayres inhaled: “Yes I did inhale,” David Ayres, our favorite closet liberal–he’s the general manager of WNZF and joyful host of Free For All Fridays–said this morning on his show, talking about marijuana and the Palm Coast City Council’s stoned decision to chase after sellers of synthetic pot, “but got past that stage in life.” Too bad he did. Radio chat hosts without pot. What do you get? Conservative radio. ↑
Florida real estate: “They took us prospective buyers on a special train out to a barren waste where it was proposed to sell them lots. Hastily thrown-together headquarters–indifferent lunch. But, after lunch, sudden eruption into room of real estate evangelist: he said there were three cardinal sins–fear, caution and delay–and gave them a sermon on those three heads. ‘And if Jesus Christ were alive today, he’d buy a lot right here!’–Inspirational effect on audience–several bought lots then and there. –When everybody else had gone, the promoter complimented the evangelist, who was mopping his brow like Billy Sunday: ‘That’s a great line of bunk you’ve got there! You ought to make a lot of money out of it!’ Evangelist: ‘Yes, it is. And I don’t get paid half enough.’”–From Edmund Wilson’s The Twenties.↑
9/11 and Hiroshima: John McCain, the senator, the former presidential candidate and a man for whom John Hersey might have dedicated one of his books, just released a statementcommemorating the anniversary of 9/11: “Our shock over the enormity of the attack has long passed, as has the nation’s trauma, at least for those of us who did not lose loved ones on that terrible day. But we have not lost, and we never will, our outrage at the inconceivable cruelty, the depravity, it took to plan, organize and execute the atrocities. And let us act on our outrage, and teach our children to do the same, by not only remaining resolute in our efforts to defeat our enemies, but even more so in our efforts to remain the moral opposite of our enemies. Let us be, forever, a people whose respect for the dignity of all human life is our highest and defining value.”
Strange. Apply the very same sentiments, the same sentences, the same outrage and sorrow at the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it would be just as appropriate a statement, at least if you’re Japanese (this past Aug. 6 and 9, the anniversaries of those war crimes passed in the United States with hardly a mention of the more than 200,000 killed in those couple of flashes.) Just goes to show that no one has a monopoly on sanctimony, or the moral high ground.↑
From Coolidge to Romney: It happened with Ronald Reagan, when that great fabulist said he’d eliminate all tax brackets but two and cut the top marginal tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent (and reduce the other rate to 15 percent). Reagan said he’d do that and balance the budget. By the time those brackets and rates were fully in effect, from 1988 to 1991, the federal budget deficits he’d promised to erase went from $55 billion (in 1979) to $255 billion in his last year as president, and $375 billion a year later. The nation went from the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor. The national debt went from under $1 trillion in Jimmy Carter’s final year to $3.2 trillion in Reagan’s last–more debt accumulated on his watch than by all presidents before him combined, the enormous spending of World War II and World War I combined and included. Yet Ronald Reagan is still Republicans’ hero of fiscal responsibility. He’s certainly their role model, too. (See all marginal tax rates from 1913 to 2011 here.)
So it happened again with the second Bush. When he was running against Al Gore, he claimed he could cut taxes from Bill Clinton levels (39.6 percent for top wage-earners, still among the cheapest rates in the western world) and not only preserve the federal budget surpluses he’d inherited from Bill Clinton, and a projected $5 trillion surplus over 10 years, but help pay down the debt and save Social Security and Medicare. Paul Krugman called him a liar, since the math simply did not add up. Bush went on to win the election and lose the economy: the deficit in his last year was $472 billion, the deficit in the following year, Obama’s first, but largely driven by the wreckage of Bush’s economy, was just under $1 trillion. And the national debt had literally doubled on his watch (it had tripled on Reagan’s), from $5.8 trillion to $12 trillion.
Now it’s happening again with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Not only does that odd coupling claim to be able to balance the budget (eventually), and restore fiscal responsibility, but it’s doing so by almost precisely replicating and compounding the Reagan and Bush approaches: first, make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Then reduce all marginal tax rates by 20 percent, which means reducing the current top tax rate of 25 percent to 28 percent–back down to those Reagan-era levels, which, not so incidentally, happens to be the lowest top marginal tax rate since when? 1929, when it was 25 percent. Please don’t think the Coolidge-Hoover years were the norm in tax rates: they were, like the Depression they seeded, aberrations. Before Coolidge, and from 1917 to 1923, the top tax rate was between 67 percent and 58 percent. So our current Coolidge-Hoover reenactors want to bring back the 1920s in tax laws, despite the lessons of the 1980s and of the 2000s. It gets worse. Romney claims his plan can be revenue-neutral. In other words, federal revenue won’t drop. He says he’ll eliminate tax breaks to make it work. Nothing else. But when he was asked on Meet the Press on Sunday which tax breaks he’d eliminate, he didn’t say. Not one. Not a single example. How’s that for trusting the blind? Yet he claims he won’t raise taxes on anyone, including the middle class. “The problem, tax analyst say,” the Times reports today, “is that it is mathematically impossible to do all three of those things.”
Can’t cut taxes for all, eliminate tax breaks and keep it all revenue neutral while not raising taxes for anyone. Cannot be done. In other words, in good Reagan-Bush style, Romney, good Mormon that he is, is lying. Yet he’s still taken seriously by half an electorate that claims to want honesty and responsibility in government.
Calvin Coolidge, too, had been governor of Massachusetts. ↑
I love Wanda Sykes:
“Built to last.” Frightening to discover that that phrase, a centerpiece of the Obama campaign (stolen from GMC’s monster-truck ads), was once used by Ed Murrow in a radio dispatch from Europe, on April 15, 1945, after his visit to Buchenwald: “It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last.”↑
United States of Amnesia: It’s not just pandering. It’s forgetting. Nobody really cares that the Afghan war is still going anymore than anyone gave a snot about the Iraq war once the economy here began to sour (ironically, in good part because of those wars, which sucked the blood out of the fiscal soundness of the treasury). I referred to this last month, but the words of a Marine, Sgt. Damon Cecil, at the funeral of a fallen soldier from Iraq, put it best: “‘I feel like the world has changed the channel,’ he said. ‘When the soldiers started dying at the beginning, it was like this big movie on the screen. And now it’s like it’s gone to DVD. It’s on the shelf….Those yellow stickers, it was like they were cool for a while, but everything seems to come as a fad, a big wave. But the wave crashes.’” Cecil is quoted toward the end of Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute, the excellent book by the Rocky Mountain News reporter who covered military funerals and followed the lives of victims’ families and survivors back home over a year. He won the Pulitzer in 2006. The photographs in the book are equally powerful, shot by Todd Heisler, who won a Pulitzer for them and was eventually hired away by the New York Times. The Rocky Mountain news went out of business in 2009. Sheeler is now a professor at Case Western Reserve University.↑
Romney’s troops I’m no fan of Romney, and he didn’t help himself when given a chance to explain, but too much is being made of his not pandering enough to troops at the Republican National Convention while democrats went porno on pandering at theirs. Sheer exploitation. First send them off to get killed and maimed for absolutely no useful purpose, not even to the nations on whose soil they’re dying (do I really want to spill blood to protect Afghanistan’s regressive religious rule? I don’t mean the Taliban, but the reigning tribes and the existing government, whose oppression is different from that of the Taliban only in degrees, not in principle.) Then they use them as props. What’s left of them, anyway. The country spends altogether too much time indulging in that sort of tumescent militarism, a sad commentary on what Andrew Bacevich (a conservative) refers to the country’s “path to permanent war.” ↑
Obama’s Dud: I sure hope Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention isn’t an indication of his next four years, should he win. The speech was a dud regardless. Coming after Bill Clinton’s, Michelle Obama’s and Joe Biden’s, it bombed: uninspiring, cliche-ridden, unliterary, tired, light-weight. We expect that from Republicans, who have no idea how to turn a phrase, making more glaring the vacuum at the heart of their policy ideas, such as they are. We don’t expect it from Obama. Maybe he’s become too self-conscious about his alleged eloquence, the charges of “soaring rhetoric” at the expense of solid ideas. But his convention speech abandoned both. I didn’t need him to tell me what he’ll be doing over the next four years. That’s what he’s being criticized for, but that’s beside the point. We pretty much know what he’ll be doing. I was wanting to hear him tell us what method he’ll use to get done what he wants to get done, since method hasn’t been his strong suit in his first term, despite considerable achievements: he waited too long (two and a half years) to finally realize that Republicans weren’t interested in governing with him, but in screwing him at every turn, as Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, put it candidly and cynically in July 2011 (“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”). Obama didn’t have to wait until July 2011 to learn what we all learned weeks into his administration, when not a single House member and just three senators voted for the stimulus package that, speaking of achievements, prevented a second depression. But it wasn’t bold enough to lift us out of the enduring recession. The convention speech sounded as mired as his governing style. He can use an awakening. For now he’s relying too much on the Democrats’ Great White Hope: Romney’s astounding vacuity.↑
From Jacques Barzun, “Of Human Freedom”: “The United States is a free democracy, but we who live in it are still afraid of discussion. We prefer kindness to intelligence, boosting to knocking, conformity to criticism. We dread unpopularity and so court one another with lies, as minions used to court princes, to their joint peril in this world and the next.” ↑
“Moderation in all things. Not too much life. It often lasts too long.”
–From H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks.
| Jefferson’s religion | Norwegian welfare | Emerson on Rabelais| Bare necessities | Flagler’s primary election day | Spanking Vidal | Losing AC | canoeing John Updike’s Florida lizards | Afghan indifference | Clint Eastwood’s endorsements | Flaubert’s retardation | September Notebook | Follow me on Twitter
Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
A Thomas Jefferson line that never gets old: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (From his Notes on Virginia) ↑
Norwegian welfare: Watching Elling, a Norwegian movie released in 2001 about two misfits who learn their ways in the world, but not without the generous care and subsidies of the Norwegian government’s welfare state. The humanism of the characters’ slow self-realizations aside, that’s one of the striking things about the movie, the more so because it’s not at all part of the plot or the director’s intention. The normalcy of the welfare state’s safety net is just there, taken for granted and to be taken for granted, like air to breathe and water to drink–and a livable, roomy apartment to live in, and time, with government checks coming, to learn to make one’s way after living in an institution for two years. It’s part of that Norwegian matter-of-factness, a combination, in that national character, of supreme self-assurance–they didn’t call their nutty ocean-braving ancestors Vikings for nothing–with unapologetic social responsibility. It helps to be the world’s 13th biggest oil producer, and to have a population smaller than Colorado’s. But Norway is the only oil-rich country that hasn’t corrupted its government or its social functions on its crude riches. It has used them to, refine, above all, itself. ↑
Emerson on Rabelais: A nugget from Emerson’s DeBeers quarry of diamonds (meaning his journals): “Rabelais is not to be skipped in literary history as he is source of so much proverb, story & joke which are derived from him into all modern books in all languages. He is the Joe Miller of modern literature.” If only I knew who the hell Joe Miller is. There were all sorts of baseball-playing Joe Millers in Emerson’s time. ↑
Bare Necessities: Not much debate about it. In the pantheon of the greatest music ever written, for me it’s a tie between Bach’s St. John Passion and this. ↑
Primary election day: I’ll be glad come 11 p.m. when all the numbers and stories will have been put to bed, me with them. But it pisses me off how even candidates who should know better–Colleen Conklin, for one–still go around talking about voting as a privilege. “Come what may.” Colleen wrote Monday evening on her Facebook page, “I’m looking forward to Wednesday morning! Please, please make sure you go out and take advantage of your opportunity and privilege to vote!” What privilege? It’s a goddamn right if there ever was one. Casting it as a privilege plays into the Republican fraud of the last few years, which has so successfully made voting more difficult–and a privilege, rather than a right–under the guise of fighting (non-existent) fraud. Voters buy the bullshit, too, whether it’s about voting being a privilege or about its alleged abuses. Meanwhile where there are issues with voting fraud (absentee ballots are the problem, and Republicans vote that way far more than do Democrats or Independents), Republicans do nothing. Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, summed it up in The Times on Aug. 5: “I have not found a single election over the last few decades in which impersonation fraud had the slightest chance of changing an election outcome – unlike absentee-ballot fraud, which changes election outcomes regularly. [...] Pointing to a few isolated cases of impersonation fraud does not prove that a state identification requirement makes sense. As with restrictions on absentee ballots, we need to weigh the costs of imposing barriers on the right to vote against the benefits of fraud protection.” There is a solution: “We need to move beyond these voting wars by creating a neutral body to run federal elections and to ensure that all eligible voters, and only eligible voters, can cast a vote that will be accurately counted on Election Day.” But the partisans–Democrats or Republicans–won’t allow it. What makes too reasonable sense in terms of voting rights is toxic to the political advantages of one side or another, which of course have nothing to do with rights and everything to do with the essential fraud at the heart of the current system. ↑
Spanking Vidal: Speaking of Vidal, I love this little review of his Judgment of Paris, in the London Times of April 4, 1953: “Mr. Gore Vidal, one of the younger American novelists of whom perhaps too much has been made in this country, continues to ask for more than the normal amount of indulgence given to his clever and demonstrative kind. He has an egocentric shrewdness and unusual fluency of expression, and some of the more restrained passages of comedy in The Judgment of Paris are entertaining enough in their not altogether adult way. But the novel as a whole is high-pitched and pretentious, and in the reading becomes increasingly tiresome.” Odd: I’ve felt the same way about every novel of his I’ve read, his historical novels included. Only the essays sparkle, and even then, it takes constant effort to look past the slabs of Vidalian ego. The Times continues: “Mr. Vidal’s variation on the Jamesian theme of the essential American in contact with the culture of Europe is robbed of real point by his preoccupation with the conventionalities of vice and by the intrusion of his somewhat large and unoriginal personal opinions.” Unoriginal is an unusual word to find in anything to do with Vidal. ↑
Uncool: We’ve lost our air conditioning on the second floor here, where all our operations are wired. Something about a coil leaking gas, and dollars. The repairs will be as expensive as a trans-Atlantic trip in high season. We don’t spend the money on that sort of thing out of prudence or lack of it, but a coil springs a leak, and there it is. Spent. Either that or we bake. It’ll make working in sauna conditions interesting. Faulkner of course didn’t have air conditioning either in his stifling Oxford, but he managed to write a few pages once in a while. And there’s always the downstairs air conditioner, which still works. Until this thing is fixed, our stairway to heaven goes downward. ↑
Updike’s Florida lizards: “No sooner do Russian scientists claim that they have revived two lizards that had been frozen in the Siberian tundra for five thousand years than American scientists announce that there is no life whatever on Venus. In a way, we’re relieved, for there’s so much life in France, Cuba, and the subway these days that it’s a comfort to know there are still a few undeveloped areas in the universe.” From a March 1963 fragment by John Updike, reprinted in his forgotten Assorted Prose (1979). And that was before he discovered the lizarding of Florida. I haven’t quite gotten used to the planet being without Updike. He wasn’t great. But he was grand enough, for these times, and he had at least ten books left in him. And he was a bit of a literary parent, which counted for more than what it sounds considering the premature deaths of my other parents. I had to pick a few subs. Gore Vidal’s death last week wasn’t fun either, though he’d more than had his time, and he really was spent. Unlike Roth or Updike, he’d had nothing left for at least ten years, probably more. He stopped being interesting when his boyfriend died, or when he left his villa in Ravello. But as Updike himself would remind us, “men die, each father in turn has lost a father, it is unmanly and impious to persist in unavailing woe.” ↑
Afghan indifference: In March a Times/CBS poll found, about 11 years and a few dozen thousands of deaths too late, that 69 percent of Americans think the United States shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, a number snug with hindsight. The more relevant number is how little Americans care. When Gallup asked its open-ended question–”What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today–72 percent cited the economy, 72 percent cited economic problems, dissatisfaction with government got 12 percent, 11 percent cited the federal budget deficit, and everything else was in single digits. The gap between rich and poor? 1 percent. Corporate corruption? 1 percent. And Afghanistan? 1 percent. The war in Afghanistan might as well not exist anymore. “In marching, in mobs, in football games, and in war, outlines become vague,” Steinbeck wrote in The Moon is Down, “real things become unreal and a fog creeps over the mind. Tension and excitement, weariness, movement–all merge in one great gray dream, so that when it is over, it is hard to remember how it was when you killed men or ordered them to be killed. Then other people who were not there tell you what it was like and you say vaguely, ‘Yes, I guess that’s how it was.’” Afghanistan might as well be a past season’s football game, though chances are more people will remember the scores of every game their team played last year than know the number of dead in Afghanistan so far this year (209 American soldiers, 63 coalition soldiers, a few thousand Afghans. It’s always a few thousand Afghans, whose deaths register even less. ↑
Flaubert’s retardations: Flaubert in his youngest days appeared, to his father, “hypersensitive and intellectually retarded,” Henry Troyat writes in his Flaubert biography. “At every turn he isolated himself in a sort of stupor, a finger in his mouth, his look vapid, deaf to whatever was said around him and incapable of pronouncing a single phrase correctly.” This was the man who gave us Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, reinventing realism and the novel along the way. I wonder how he would have done on the FCAT. No, I don’t. He’d have failed, intentionally. Genius doesn’t suffer idiocy. ↑
I’ve been asked why Andraste’s comments in the John Pollinger-Anne-Marie Shaffer case were approved, considering their lavish innuendoes and borderline slanders. I’ve asked myself the same thing. The decision bears explaining as a case study of this site’s comment policies and what we may be looking at through the end of this year’s distinctly foul election season.
The issues Andraste raises aren’t new. The matter of the Pollinger-Don Fleming “deal” (that the two Republicans are hoping to split the vote in Fleming’s favor, leaving Ray Stevens in third place) was reported here in an April 26 story. Considering the amount of money Pollinger is pouring into his campaign from his own pocket, it’s an outlandish claim. The matter of Pollinger’s retirement-resignation controversy in New Jersey was first reported in Flagler County on FlaglerLive in a January 4 story. It didn’t go further than that because it didn’t need to: a man’s quarter-century career with hardly a blemish isn’t defined by an end-of-life smash-up with the town manager, which clearly had more to do with two massive egos (Pollinger’s and the manager’s) clashing than any earth-shattering revelations about the character of either.
There is such a thing as news judgment, which also explains why the American Legion business was not worth reporting: insider-baseball type issues of the sort happen all over the place, whether the individual involved is Mother Teresa or Ray Stevens or John Pollinger. It’s gossip. It’s not news, however “true” it may be. And in this case Andraste’s account is quite far from the truth, from what I’ve learned: Pollinger will have his version told soon.
Same thing with Andraste’s innuendoes about the Dennis Craig-John Pollinger connection. Without naming her, Andraste was referring to Ann Martone. So she apparently worked for Judge Craig’s election, and is now working for Mark Dwyer, who is a lawyer in Chiumento’s firm, the firm that represented Pollinger. Dig a little deeper and we might find that Ann Martone was in a movie with Kevin Bacon. So what? This is the sort of conspiratorial dot-connecting that attempts to suck scandal out of implications, where there’s no there there. Absolutely none. For us to report that sort of thing would itself have been verging on slander, or whatever it is that the check-out counter gossip rags do. Ann Martone—with whom I’ve had nothing but disagreements over the years, incidentally—has as much right to work for whatever campaign she pleases as Andraste does, without being turned into a pawn to someone else’s conspiracy hysterias. I don’t see her hiding what she does, either.
No one is “gang-raping” Shaffer, as Andraste claims. She filed a lawsuit in the most high profile race in the county. What did she expect—an appearance on Dancing with the Stars? Amazing how certain people want to have it both ways: fire their artillery but claim absolute innocence and victimhood on a pile of apple pies.
This site could not possibly have spent more time reporting the Shaffer-Pollinger case, essentially giving Shaffer a broader platform than she could have dreamed of (though that was the intent of the lawsuit) and Ray Stevens more exposure than a month’s worth of community appearances, until Craig’s decision. Shaffer was repeatedly contacted for comments about all this even before the suit was filed, when we heard it was coming. She refused to speak with FlaglerLive, though she’s commented here under an assumed name (itself a deceptive tactic for someone involved in the news in which she’s commenting).
Ray Stevens has done the same. He used to speak with me, and had no issues doing so when his motives weren’t being questioned. No longer. His choice. But let’s not claim one-sidedness and poor victim status when the subjects involved are themselves choosing not to tell their side of the story while bitching about the one-sidedness of the press and relying on nameless proxies like Andraste to keep the artillery going, and pile on the claims about one-sidedness. I can also assure you, knowing the folks there as I do, that there’s no intention at either the Observer or the News-Journal to “smear” Stevens or Shaffer. (Their staffs are stretched enough to report basic news. The effort required for a smear campaign is simply not in their budgetary means.) Simply going by what the record has revealed through this lawsuit—simply going by what’s in the depositions, what’s been said in the courtroom—the smearing has been self-inflicted. Let’s not now pretend to dress up damage control as fault-finding with everybody else.
I could care less what Republicans and Democrats do to each other, or within their ranks: I don’t know what has been more contemptuous this season—the juvenile idiocies of Republican ideology and infighting, or the hide and seek antics of Democrats, who don’t even have the courage of their convictions. My only concern is the credibility of this site and the relevance to a broad readership of what’s being reported. So let me address Andraste directly: You’ve been granted this broad platform to make your claims. Fine. It’s borderline permissible. It’s politicians we’re talking about, and the threshold of the permissible when politicians are in play is quite low. But it’s not non-existent. To call what you’re doing “vetting” is stretching the definition of the word. It’s closer to sniping. To use everyone else, the press included, as a whipping boy, to do it behind a mask, and to do it here, jeopardizes our own credibility, and cheapens the debate.
I would much prefer that you unmask yourself, given the extent you’ve gone to speak of and for candidates, their proxies or the supremely ironically named Ronald Reagan group. The I-have-children-in-the-community argument doesn’t wash. So do I. You know them. One of them is hanging on my shoulders in the image above. We all have our stake in the community. We stand by them, honestly and openly. There’s always a place for anonymity, and in most cases it doesn’t matter one way or the other when ideas and policies (as opposed to people and reputations) are being discussed. That’s no longer one of those cases: these anonymous comments are like nameless financial contributions to campaigns, exploiting advantage without accountability. They’ll still be allowed. But much less permissively.
Pollinger is going to be given a chance to respond, and his response will be featured prominently. Beyond that, comments regarding these and all other election issues—the county judge’s race especially—will be moderated much more strictly. Discuss, debate, take on a candidate’s policies and ideas all you like. But sail your swift boats elsewhere.
It’s Lord of the Flies on a school bus. Four middle school boys unrestrained by any sense of civility or compassion revert to a primitive state, savaging their prey: a 68-year-old woman, ostensibly their bus monitor. The boys taunt, insult, demean, often in language inspired by slasher movies: they speak of torturing her, eviscerating her. The only thing that may have kept them from becoming physically violent is the presence of a bus driver, or other students on the bus: witnesses, though it doesn’t appear as if either the driver or other students are concerned with the assault, which goes on for 10 minutes. The four boys have become a pack, feeding on each other’s frenzy as they exult in their cruelties.
The woman is Karen Klein of Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. The students are seventh graders at Athena Middle School, a middle school like any other. Klein is sitting on her own, against the window, alternately looking out, glaring at the students, or, even more painful to watch, trying to engage them in what seems to interest them, a perverted, heartbreaking sort of Stockholm Syndrome in microcosm. It only encourages them to pile on. They ridicule Klein’s gestures, taunt her with something she’d like to read, seize on the seeming poverty of her purse, on (to put it politely) the effects of her 68 years on her body, though she is the prototypical woman of advanced age we see every day in Florida. She is the norm, nor the exception. She could be any of the children’s grandmother. Or the grandmother of the very child they bullied at school that day.
“Unless you have something nice to say, don’t say it at all,” she says at one point, her arms crossed, leaning over.
A boy’s reply: “How about you shut the fuck up?”
And on they go:
“What’s your address so I can friggin’ piss all over your door.”
“You friggin’ just touched her arm flab.”
“It’s probably all stinky and smelly.”
“She probably fucking eats deodorant because she can’t afford her own food.”
“She’s going to die of fucking diabetes because she’s so damn fat.”
“You’re a troll.”
They “joke” about stabbing her in the stomach, about how “a whole value meal is going to be coming out of McDonald’s.”
They ridicule her “sweating.” She is actually crying. “She probably miss her box of Twinkies,” they say.
“Maybe she is an elephant.”
One of the boys talks about his yearbook. “She’s going to pick out which kid she’s going to rape next.”
“Karen you have herpes?”
“Why are you looking at me like that, you want to rape me?” one of the boys says.
“I’ll send you a donut, fat ass.”
“Did you get that purse on lay-away?”
“Naah, she got it in a fucking garbage can at Walgreens.”
One of the students recorded almost the whole thing and posted it to YouTube under the boastful title: “Making the Bus Monitor Cry.” The video went viral, as such things do. More than 4 million views in two days. It triggered an odd backlash. Someone set up an online fund-raiser to send Klein on vacation. The goal was $5,000. The fund raised $537,000 by Friday afternoon. There’s vindication in that, a sense of collective fury that transcends the helplessness one feels when watching the video. Klein’s Facebook page had 146 friends before the incident. She must’ve received almost 5,000 friend request since, because none are accepted anymore. There’s also a measure of disproportion, and a question. How can a bus monitor be so easily persecuted, if not for having been miscast as a bus monitor? Middle schoolers’ barbarity is not news to anyone.
The students meanwhile have seen their identities leaked. They’ve been subjected to death threats. The police in their town has had to patrol their neighborhood to protect against acts of vigilantism. And of course the global court of public opinion is weighing in. The original video amplified the offense to a world audience. The disproportion is boomeranging in spades.
There’s no question the students flirted with the savagery of Golding’s characters on their lost island. Their punishment should include reading the book. But 13 year olds are responsible for their behavior only up to a point. They’re still more than not the reflection of their homes, their school, their society. Prejudices are not yet their own. They’re trying out the prejudices they’ve witnessed the way they try out idiotic hair styles and degenerate behavior. They’re acting out the persecuting spirit that christens their daily lives. It’ll be easy to point fingers at schools. That’s the scapegoat with the most currency these days, schools being the extension of that other bugaboo of small minds: government.
But schools are not at fault here. Parents are. Parents and their prejudices, reflected in their children, or prejudices parents are too lazy to check. Not once, at any point in the assaults on Kline, does one of the children intervene to temper the mob, to cool down, to protect. It’s a quiet fear among the children, the fear of going against the grain, itself also a reflection of parental submission to that mob mentality that cheapens our culture and what we accept it to be.
Listen to the attacks: Kline’s weight, her supposed poverty, her age, even her sexuality. The most common ammunition in any bully’s bag of crud, but also a reflection of the most common prejudices of our culture. She is no different than a 13 year old they might have bullied at lunch, except for the twist of age, which to the students doesn’t make a difference. Bullying isn’t about the victim. It’s about the bullies’ cowardice, which—like compassion—is either taught or inherited more than it is inherent to a child’s sensibilities. The scene on the bus is itself a window on our culture so rich in persecutions, so poor in individual valor that dares break the mold. In that sense, even the redemptive fund-raiser on Kline’s behalf is, aside from its original creator, the result of a different type of mob mentality, however positive and joyful the outcome.
Then there’s what’s sure to follow. The inevitable post-game show. The soul-searching discussion about the whys and hows, which is never a bad thing, but also the exaggerated claims of the downfall of American civilization, the hyperbolic claims about an epidemic of bullying in schools (schools are far safer today than they were a generation ago, when bullying was more typically ignored as a rite of passage), the usual condemnations of younger people who, no matter how you slice their cruelties, could never in a billion years match their elders’ more subtle savageries, wrapped as they are in political sanctimony.
There’ll also be the parading of the children, who even now may have been hit up by savvy marketer and agents. There’ll be talk shows. There’ll be People magazine profiles. Dancing with the bullies. Almost certainly a few joint appearances between bullies and Ms. Kline on, if not an Oprah special, something approximating the national therapist’s couch. There’s money to be made here. Before it’s over Klein and the children might well want to run off to a desert island of their own.
Together, now that they’re joined for good for what remains of Klein’s life.
In a Rose Garden speech earlier today President Obama announced the very sensible reversal of long-standing American policy. People who entered the United States illegally when they were under 16, who’ve lived in the country for more than five years and are under 30, will no longer be deported. Rather, they’ll be granted work permits and, presumably, a way to citizenship, formalizing what they already do: attend college, hold jobs, pay taxes, serve in the military, keep this country vibrant and true to its heritage. The policy directive mirrors the Dream Act, held hostage to congressional demagogues for years. Obama’s breakthrough doesn’t trump congressional prerogative. Human rights trump gridlock. Congress can sort out the details while human beings are no longer unjustly deported. If Obama is buying votes in an election year, there are cheaper, much less politically risky ways to do it.
The decision is worth debating—if there was room for that debate. It’s not just Congress that’s refused. Obama’s announcement was itself hijacked by a reporter who, five minutes through Obama’s 9-minute speech, heckled the president. That story, on the strength of a single reporter’s crass act, is now more fatly headlined than the immigration breakthrough.
The reporter is Neil Munro, who works for the Daily Caller, a legitimate, D.C.-based online news and commentary website created by Tucker Carlson, the columnist and former co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, where interruptions were part of the show’s gimmickry. That the Daily Caller is conservative is irrelevant. It has a reputation for being aggressive. Its readership is broad. Its legitimacy unquestioned. That’s not at issue in today’s incident.
Munro’s method, and Carlson’s justifications for what Munro did, are at issue and ought to be.
The Rose Garden announcement was an Obama speech, not a press conference. He might have taken questions at the end. He might not. When presidents deliver speeches—or governors or county commissioners or aunt Hilda’s great-uncle at a bar mitzvah for that matter—interruptions are not acceptable. Heckling, an accurate description of what happened today, even less so. Not even if the president being interrupted is Richard Nixon (which he never was during a speech, even in his decomposing phase in the summer of 1974. When Dan Rather had his famous exchange with Nixon at a broadcaster’s conference that March, it was during the Q&A phase, and the exchange was prompted by applause from the audience when Rather rose, and by a snide jab of Nixon’s own).
Munro was not a reporter at that moment. He was a heckler, even though his question—“Mr. President, why do you favor foreign workers over Americans?”—while clearly baiting and tendentious, was legitimate. As is ridiculing, lampooning, lambasting, bitching out or even calling the president a liar, but in the proper context. Shouting it out during a State of the Union address, as Joe Wilson, the degraded South Carolina congressman, did three years ago, is adding insult to grandstanding. The attack on the president is of much less consequence than the attack on the office, on the moment, on the process, of which Wilson is allegedly a part: the insult was as much on himself as it was on republican principles (note the small ‘r,’ please.)
So it was with Munro. He wasn’t asking a question. He was grandstanding, insultingly and purposely, and mostly for the attention it would trigger, effectively derailing the moment. He succeeded. Carlson’s defense added to the ploy. In fairness to Carlson, who was traveling on a plane when questioned about the incident, he hadn’t seen the speech. He was reacting to what he was being told. He came to his reporter’s defense. But he did it badly. He’s not a fool. He knows the difference between heckling and asking questions. He’s been to innumerable speeches and news conferences. He also knows the buttons to push to frame the debate his way, on the sympathies of uncritical audiences who’ll only hear the Woodward-and-Bernstein spin of Carlson’s explanation, not its Joe Wilson boorishness: “He was doing what reporters are supposed to do — get their questions answered,” Carlson told Politico. “Presidents come out and they expect the press to act as stenographers — dutifully take down their every word and they retreat back into the White House. It’s very frustrating that they sit there every day and act … as politicians’ stenographer.”
The press, the right-wing and left-wing press both, did exactly what Carlson was describing from 2001 to 2003 and beyond, when—in press conference after press conference, and with Carlson in the amen corner—President Bush’s giant follies in Afghanistan and Iraq were indulged by reporters who’d abdicated their responsibilities in the name of the White House’s version of vote-buying, which back then took the form of patriotic pandering.
So Carlson is right. But he’s also being deceptive. Carlson is not only conflating method and circumstance, and hoping the public doesn’t notice. He’s slurring journalism by equating means and ends, by erasing the difference between method and propriety. No one is asking his reporter not to ask the tough questions, to be a ball-buster if necessary. Politicians and their handlers are asses by nature: it takes being an ass to crack the slime and get at the slivers of truth they’re occasionally capable of. But that’s what one-on-one interviews are for, or even news conferences, however phony and controlled those tend to be. Munro isn’t for that sort of grub. So he goes for a rhetorical Molotov cocktail.
And Carlson fuels it up, with superb effect. An “illegal” immigrant would have behaved more honorably.
Friday, June 15, 2012, Rose Garden, 2:09 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient, and more just — specifically for certain young people sometimes called “Dreamers.”
These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life — studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.
That’s what gave rise to the DREAM Act. It says that if your parents brought you here as a child, if you’ve been here for five years, and you’re willing to go to college or serve in our military, you can one day earn your citizenship. And I have said time and time and time again to Congress that, send me the DREAM Act, put it on my desk, and I will sign it right away.
Now, both parties wrote this legislation. And a year and a half ago, Democrats passed the DREAM Act in the House, but Republicans walked away from it. It got 55 votes in the Senate, but Republicans blocked it. The bill hasn’t really changed. The need hasn’t changed. It’s still the right thing to do. The only thing that has changed, apparently, was the politics.
As I said in my speech on the economy yesterday, it makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans — they’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country — to expel these young people who want to staff our labs, or start new businesses, or defend our country simply because of the actions of their parents — or because of the inaction of politicians.
In the absence of any immigration action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system, what we’ve tried to do is focus our immigration enforcement resources in the right places. So we prioritized border security, putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history — today, there are fewer illegal crossings than at any time in the past 40 years. We focused and used discretion about whom to prosecute, focusing on criminals who endanger our communities rather than students who are earning their education. And today, deportation of criminals is up 80 percent. We’ve improved on that discretion carefully and thoughtfully. Well, today, we’re improving it again.
Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people. Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.
Now, let’s be clear — this is not amnesty, this is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stopgap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people. It is –
THE PRESIDENT: — the right thing to do.
Q — foreigners over American workers.
THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, sir. It’s not time for questions, sir.
Q No, you have to take questions.
THE PRESIDENT: Not while I’m speaking.
Precisely because this is temporary, Congress needs to act. There is still time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act this year, because these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two-year increments. And we still need to pass comprehensive immigration reform that addresses our 21st century economic and security needs — reform that gives our farmers and ranchers certainty about the workers that they’ll have. Reform that gives our science and technology sectors certainty that the young people who come here to earn their PhDs won’t be forced to leave and start new businesses in other countries. Reform that continues to improve our border security, and lives up to our heritage as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.
Just six years ago, the unlikely trio of John McCain, Ted Kennedy and President Bush came together to champion this kind of reform. And I was proud to join 23 Republicans in voting for it. So there’s no reason that we can’t come together and get this done.
And as long as I’m President, I will not give up on this issue, not only because it’s the right thing to do for our economy — and CEOs agree with me — not just because it’s the right thing to do for our security, but because it’s the right thing to do, period. And I believe that, eventually, enough Republicans in Congress will come around to that view as well.
And I believe that it’s the right thing to do because I’ve been with groups of young people who work so hard and speak with so much heart about what’s best in America, even though I knew some of them must have lived under the fear of deportation. I know some have come forward, at great risks to themselves and their futures, in hopes it would spur the rest of us to live up to our own most cherished values. And I’ve seen the stories of Americans in schools and churches and communities across the country who stood up for them and rallied behind them, and pushed us to give them a better path and freedom from fear –because we are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids.
And the answer to your question, sir — and the next time I’d prefer you let me finish my statements before you ask that question — is this is the right thing to do for the American people –
THE PRESIDENT: I didn’t ask for an argument. I’m answering your question.
Q I’d like to –
THE PRESIDENT: It is the right thing to do –
THE PRESIDENT: — for the American people. And here’s why –
Q — unemployment –
THE PRESIDENT: Here’s the reason: because these young people are going to make extraordinary contributions, and are already making contributions to our society.
I’ve got a young person who is serving in our military, protecting us and our freedom. The notion that in some ways we would treat them as expendable makes no sense. If there is a young person here who has grown up here and wants to contribute to this society, wants to maybe start a business that will create jobs for other folks who are looking for work, that’s the right thing to do. Giving certainty to our farmers and our ranchers; making sure that in addition to border security, we’re creating a comprehensive framework for legal immigration — these are all the right things to do.
We have always drawn strength from being a nation of immigrants, as well as a nation of laws, and that’s going to continue. And my hope is that Congress recognizes that and gets behind this effort.
All right. Thank you very much.
Q What about American workers who are unemployed while you import foreigners?
2:17 P.M. EDT
Angels don’t make a habit of visiting Upstate New York, particularly to talk books, even more particularly one called Mornoni, and in late September at that, when it gets pretty nippy in Upstate, so it was quite unusual that one did in 1823, dropping in on a young Joseph Smith with a preview of the Book of Mormons. It was a warm-up act to another revelation that starred no less than Jesus and God, neither of whom had ever made an appearance for, say, Mohammed in his dreamy phases, or Black Elk, or the encyclopedic number of men and women who, before Hollywood serialized storytelling on screen, imagined visions for millions.
With that advantage Smith pulled a Horace Greeley and went west, but only as far as Missouri and Illinois, where his bent for authoritarianism and silencing dissenting opinion got him jailed before fanatics of a different sort murdered him in his jail cell. It was left up to Brigham Young to carry on to Utah and carry through the establishment of the Church of Latter Day Saints, now 12 million strong worldwide and one of the fastest-growing Christian sects in the United States, ahead of Catholics (Islam currently holds the Speedy Gonzales title worldwide; Presbyterians are in the loss column). Joseph Smith begat Mormonism, Mormonism begat–as cults from Catholicism to Southern Baptism to Shiitism usually do–its share of mysterious rituals, elaborate belief systems, famous progenies, not least among them Mitt Romney, Harry Reid and Glenn beck. Roseanne Barr used to be a Mormon but didn’t like the male totalitarianism of its one-way streets and quit.
Romney’s prominence of course is giving Mormonism plenty of publicity, good and bad. J. Spencer Fluhman, assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University and the author of the forthcoming book, ‘A Peculiar People’: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in 19th-Century America, takes on the “fear” of Mormons in a column for The Times today. The column, oddly, lays out the many peculiarities and prejudices of Mormonism without refuting them. Rather, Fluhman appears to justify them by way of relativism: “Making Mormons look bad helps others feel good,” he writes. “By imagining Mormons as intolerant rubes, or as heretical deviants, Americans from left and right can imagine they are, by contrast, tolerant, rational and truly Christian. Mitt Romney’s candidacy is only the latest opportunity for such stereotypes to be aired.”
But religions making Hatfields and McCoys of each other is the oldest trick in the book, the books of Mormonism included (“let them apostatize, and they will become gray-haired, wrinkled, and black, just like the Devil,” Brigham Young writes in a double-whammy at religious transgressors and blacks. Among the innumerable dogmas Mormonism and Islam have in common is the disdain for those who leave the faith.) Fluhman at any rate doesn’t corrrect the record, but rather diagnoses it: “Any religion looks weird from the outside, but the image of Mormonism seems caught somewhere between perpetual strangeness and strait-laced blandness,” he writes. “Liberals were outraged by Mormon financing of Proposition 8, the 2008 ban on same-sex marriage in California. They scoff at Mormonism’s all-male priesthood and ask why church leaders have yet to fully repudiate the racist teachings of previous authorities.” Yes, but what about that financing? what about the all-male priesthood (no different, let’s be clear, than Catholicism) and the absence of repudiations for past bigotries? Southern Baptists crossed that line back in 1995.
“Some big-hearted evangelicals have recently reached out to Mormons with genuine understanding, but they must now fend off charges of getting too cozy with Satan’s minions,” he continues, a set-up for a swipe: “Because evangelicals are hard pressed for unity to begin with, and because they have defined themselves less and less in terms of historic Christian creeds, their objections to Mormonism might carry less and less cultural weight.”
He concludes: “Many conservatives, in fact, seem more concerned with Mr. Obama’s political heresies than with Mr. Romney’s religious ones. It may be that Mr. Obama’s unpopularity will prove a key factor in Mormonism’s continued mainstreaming. With politics and religion so inextricably linked in our culture, a Romney presidency would entail lasting effects for Mormonism and its image. Segments of the religious right might finally make peace with, if not quite accept, Mormonism’s various heterodoxies. The left may struggle to comprehend a steadily diversifying faith that has increasingly global reach. [...] But until Americans work through our contradictory impulses regarding faith, diversity and freedom, there is no reason to believe anti-Mormonism will go away anytime soon.”
Especially if the contradictory impulses are inherent to Mormonism, and primarily unresolved from within.
In an interview with Oui, the late porn mag, in April 1975, the soon-to-be-late Gore Vidal was asked: “Why do you despise the heterosexual dictatorship?” Because it is a dictatorship, Vidal replied: “To hear two American men congratulating each other on being heterosexual is one of the most chilling experiences—and unique to the United States. You don’t hear two Italians sitting around complimenting each other because they actually like to go to bed with women. The American is hysterical about his manhood.” Why is that, Oui asked. “A lot of it,” Vidal replied, “is bullshit from the old frontier, where the only way you could judge a man was if he could knock somebody down—and of course the heterosexual male’s obsession with cock is far beyond that of any fag.”
It’s fun to see that what was once the domain of porn magazine interviews does on occasion descend to the somewhat lower form of journalism known as the Sunday chat show, as it did on Sunday when the Vidalesquely eponymous Dick Gregory played Oui to Joe Biden, the nation’s occasional vice president who, on Sunday, bared his pair on national television and sent the Obama White House scrambling. Biden, you see, had declared himself “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage.
Obama is not absolutely comfortable with gay marriage. Obama, supreme hypocrite that he can be on some issues, still thinks Plessy v. Ferguson has validity when it comes to gays: they can have their civil unions, but they can’t marry. The bigotry rests on two untenable assumptions, if the Constitution is of any concern: gays are second class citizens; and government may define marriage from a religious, as opposed to civil, perspective (the entire crock about marriage being “between a man and a woman” takes its legitimacy from religious writings, not law). It’s almost a given that Obama will, or would, in a second term, make a turn for gay marriage, but one of the reasons his second term looks unlikely is precisely because of the kind of spineless stunts he’s been pulling on ay marriage: he’s a president of calculated half-measures, not a president of altar-worthy convictions.
The administration immediately described Biden’s comments as off-the-cuff, though they didn’t at all appear to be off the cuff in the Gregory interview: Gregory set up the subject carefully, narrowed it precisely, and asked Biden directly–as directly as he’d asked him about his certain place on the Obama-Biden ticket for 2012 moments earlier, as certainly as Gregory had asked him to describe what would be wrong with a Mitt Romney economy before that. The administration didn’t scramble to unscramble Biden’s comments when he said the rich need another tax cut “like they need another hole in their head.”
Here’ by the way, is the word for word transcript of Gregory’s Oui act with Biden:
DAVID GREGORY: You raise social policy. I’m curious. You know, the president has said that his views on gay marriage, on same-sex marriage have evolved. But he’s opposed to it. You’re opposed to it. Have your views– evolved?
BIDEN: Look– I just think– that– the good news is that as more and more Americans become to understand what this is all about is a simple proposition. Who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what– what all marriages, at their root, are about. Whe– whether they’re– marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals.
DAVID GREGORY: Is that what you believe now? Are you–
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: That’s what I believe. I– I– look, I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction– beyond that.
DAVID GREGORY: In a second term, will this administration come out behind same-sex marriage, the institution of marriage?
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, I– I– I can’t speak to that. I– I– I– I don’t know the answer to that. But I can tell you–
DAVID GREGORY: It sounds like you’d like to see it happen. If that’s what the president would get–
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: Well, the president continues to fight, whether it’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or whether it is making sure, across the board, that you cannot discriminate. Look– look the the executive orders he’s put in place. Any hospital that gets federal funding, which is almost all of them, they can’t deny a partner from being able to have access to their– their– their partner who’s ill or making the call on whether or not they– you know– it’s just– this is evolving. And by the way, my measure, David, and I take a look at when things really begin to change, is when the social culture changes. I think Will and Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far. And I think– people fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand. They’re beginning to understand that this as a base–I– I was with– speaking to a group of gay leaders in– in Los Angeles– la– two, two weeks ago. And one gentleman looked at me in the question period and said, “Let me ask you, how do you feel about us?” And I had just walked into the back door of this gay couple and they’re with their two adopted children. And I turned to the man who owned the house. I said, “What did I do when I walked in?” He said, “You walked right to my children. They were seven and five, giving you flowers.” And I said, “I wish every American could see the look of love those kids had in their eyes for you guys. And they wouldn’t have any doubt about what this is about.”
DAVID GREGORY: Let me ask you on another topic about the politics– of national security.
I’m reminded of a different exchange, in December 1952, at the United States Supreme Court, when Paul Wilson, the Kansas assistant attorney general, appeared before the court to defend school segregation in his state. He told the court that separate but equal was the law of the land, unless 21 states and the District of Columbia “have been wrong for 75 years.” That’s the very same argument Islamists and their Christian equivalent brandish today in the face of gay-rights arguments: could the Bible have been wrong for two millenniums, or the Koran wrong for a millennium and a half? The natural-law answer, as opposed to the scriptural cop-out, being a resounding yes, echoed in the Supreme Court’s own answer as it re-interpreted the 14th Amendment in 1952, in a squirm out of the bleak box it had built for itself and the nation under Plessy v. Ferguson. Here’s that exchange:
JUSTICE BURTON: Don’t you recognize it as possible that within 75 years the social and economic conditions and the personal relations of the nation ,ay have changed so that what may have been a valid interpretation of them 75 years ago would not be a valid interpretation of them constitutionally today?
WILSON: We recognize that as a possibility. We do not believe that [the] record discloses any such change.
JUSTICE BURTON: But that might be a difference between saying that these courts of appeal and state supreme courts have been wrong for 75 years?
WILSON: Yes, sir. We concede that this court can overrule the [...] Plessy doctrine, but nevertheless until [it is] overruled [it is] the best guide we have.
At that point Felix Frankfurter, one of the squirliest justices in the court’s history, tried to sound like Solomon and ended up sounding like an Obama in training wheels, slicing hair in four instead of owning up to 75 years of idiocy and moving on (as the Warren decision finally did a year later): “As I understood my brother Burton’s question or as I got the implication of his question, it was not that the court would have to overrule those (separate but equal) cases; the court would simply have to recognize that laws are kinetic, and some new tings have happened, not deeming those decisions wrong, but bringing into play new situations toward a new decision.”
And you thought Bill Clinton, that beefy heterosexual, was being imaginative with his definition of is.
The parallels with the early 1950s were all over that Meet the Press interview on Sunday. Moments before going into the gay marriage business, Gregory had also asked Biden: “What’s more important to this administration? Standing up for freedom in China or maintaining a very delicate relationship with this emerging power?” Biden’s answer: “Standing up for freedom.” That had been FDR’s answer to fascism in the 1940s and Truman’s and Eisenhower’s answer to communism in the 1950s, even as blacks were being terrorized, lynched, murdered, and reminded at every turn that they were second class citizens. Let’s stand up for freedom for 1.3 billion Chinese today, just as long as 30 million gay Americans are still asked to bend over and take legalized discrimination up their Vidalias.
Sandra Fluke is a third-year law student at Georgetown University. Last week she testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on contraception, after she was blocked from testifying before another committee the previous week (in a hearing that featured only male panelists testifying on women’s health).
Her point: excluding contraception from health insurance coverage is a discriminating penalty on women. (Anti-impotence pills like Viagra, incidentally, are covered by most insurers, most insurance companies being led by older men on intimate terms with flaccidity.) “Without insurance coverage, contraception can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school. For a lot of students who, like me, are on public interest scholarships, that’s practically an entire summer’s salary. Forty percent of female students at Georgetown Law report struggling financially as a result of this policy.”
She went on: “In the worst cases, women who need this medication for other medical reasons suffer dire consequences. A friend of mine, for example, has polycystic ovarian syndrome and has to take prescription birth control to stop cysts from growing on her ovaries. Her prescription is technically covered by Georgetown insurance because it’s not intended to prevent pregnancy. Under many religious institutions’ insurance plans, it wouldn’t be, and under Senator Blunt’s amendment, Senator Rubio’s bill, or Representative Fortenberry’s bill, there’s no requirement that an exception be made for such medical needs. When they do exist, these exceptions don’t accomplish their well-intended goals because when you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose aren’t, a woman’s health takes a
back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.”
Most of her testimony focused on just such stories. Needless to say, Fluke wasn’t speaking for unbridled sex (though it wouldn’t have been anyone’s business to judge her if she were, there being no difference between sex in the missionary position on Mondays and Thursdays, and sex at the drop of a drawer and whenever fancy strikes, except in the minds of those who can’t get any and will do their damndest to ensure that others don’t either). Nor, incidentally, did she speak about sex–hers or others–in terms of frequency: you won’t get less pregnant if you take more contraceptive pills, contrary to Rush Limbaugh’s understanding of sexuality (“She’s having so much sex, she’s going broke buying contraceptives and wants us to buy them,” is how he put it).
Fluke wasn’t even speaking for sex, though that’s how her testimony has been debauched on the shout-radio circuit, with Rush in lead. She was there speaking about fairness in contraceptive rules, and against the latest joint Republican-Catholic assault on women’s health. (You can watch Fluke’s full testimony below.)
And for that, Rush Limbaugh called her a slut. In full: “Well, what would you call someone who wants us to pay for her to have sex? What would you call that woman? You’d call ‘em a slut, a prostitute or whatever.” The defended his remarks. Then he piled on, with a few lesbian fantasies to boot:
Is it any wonder, Clinton wanted to go to this law school and why Hillary went to Wellesley? Is it any wonder? Where are the guys here? Do they not have a role here? We assume they’re having sex with guys. (interruption) Well, we’re talking about birth control, Snerdley. So you gotta assume having sex with guys. So, do they not have some responsibility? (interruption) Well, two women… I have to ask sex expert Snerdley on this, but I’m not aware that two women without another device can get pregnant on their own using naturally endowed accoutrements. I don’t think times have changed that much. (chuckles)
Now, I am 61. Maybe something I haven’t heard about that two women together would need contraception. That’s a whole new ball game if that’s the case. But I don’t think we’re talking about that. So it means there are men involved and that would mean there’s some responsibility on the part of the men. Do they not have condoms? Why don’t these women go ask the men to buy them contraception? Why go before a congressional committee and demand that all of us — because they want to have sex any time, as many times and as often as they want, with as many partners as they want — should pay for it? Whatever, no limits on this. I mean, they’re going broke having to buy contraception! They’re getting back-alley pills, folks. That’s what this leads up to.
They’re getting back-alley pills, folks. This from a pill-popping addicts who, while excoriating drug addicts on his show and hiding his pill-popping from his wife but not hesitating to use his maid (a woman, of course) as his runner, had bought 30,000 hydrocodone, Lorcet and Oxycontin pills and illegally fed his addiction. Now, this paragon of honor and integrity–whom cops subsequently detained a few years ago for carrying Viagra pills he’d not been prescribed–is calling Sandra Fluke a slut.
There was not so much as a disapproving murmur from the Catholic church, naturally–women, with Eve’s apple-seduction for evidence, being natural-born sluts in the church’s eyes–or from those congressional Republicans who’d been trying to give religious organizations and private businesses the right to opt out of including birth control–but not Viagra–in their insurance plans. Not so far, anyway, though condemnations from less reactionary circles have been more promiscuous.
At least the Senate stopped the exclusionary ploy Thursday. But that farce of a controversy over contraception isn’t over. Not with Rush whipping it out and Republicans, delirious over their disappearing chances to have a competitive run at Obama in November, scrounge for bogus issues to keep the illusion of opposition going. If there ever was a need for a prophylactic to syphilitic discourse, this is it.
It’s not enough that Palm Coast is unemployment and foreclosure central in the national eye. Add now wife-shootings by husbands dumb enough to be playing with their AK-47s during a child’s bath time: I just finished taping a half-hour segment on Nancy Grace—CNN’s equivalent of a prosecutorial Panzer division of one—who’s taking on the case of William Merrill’s shooting of his wife in tonight’s show. So much for Palm Coast urging Americans to find their Florida here.
She wanted FlaglerLive to provide whatever scraps of information may not yet have been over-reported by now. None has. (The story is making the rounds of the world’s time zones and should by dawn reach Voyager II in the Kuiper belt.) I was happy to oblige anyway, my previous CNN appearance having taken place in the dead air of a Saturday afternoon (during oil-spill season) when a total audience of seven in North Dakota might’ve been watching. So it was nice to hear FlaglerLive’s name repeated a few times for a prime-time double-header (she’s on at 8 and 10 p.m.) Not to worry: I declined appearing on camera, the idea of shlepping it to Jacksonville again to speak 73 words in exchange for losing four hours out of my work day having about as much appeal as, say, hearing Hannity howl for five minutes, and my Skype connection–CNN’s other option–being too annoying to bother with. Stick to phone line and mug shot.
I might have dropped in three sentences here and there when she asked what we know so far—nothing you don’t know by now—and a couple of words about Merrill’s arsenal (he had 20 guns in his house, 14 of them rifles, counting the AK-47, including a .50-caliber piece). But Grace, who had me silenced at “20 guns,” was already at the sentencing stage.
I gave an answer she did not seem eager to hear when she asked whether it was true that Merrill had changed his story: the version on record so far is that he was pointing the gun at his wife, Stefanie, and chatting up the brightness of the laser beam when he pulled the trigger, supposedly not knowing it was loaded. Somewhere along the way a TV station reported that he’d initially told detectives that he was cleaning his gun, though there’s no word of that in the 7-minute 911 call where he describes himself pointing the gun at Stefanie.
Grace asked me what there was to the story. We don’t know that, I told her. Cue the editing shears. She turned to one of her producers for more fleshy details about the cleaning-the gun angle, then took that and went at one of the two defense attorneys she’d invited on the show, ridiculing the oldest excuse in the book: “I was cleaning my gun.” She does not like defense attorneys.
References to the AK-47 dropped like bullets in Beirut (I really should update that simile to something more current). She had a weapons expert on the show, who showed the weapon and how to chamber a bullet. When she asked him what the AK stands for, he didn’t know. She filled in the answer: “It stands for assault.” Close: Automatic is more like it (though it’s been mis-reported as standing for Alexander, after the gun inventor’s name, but there is no Alexander in “Mikhail Kalashnikov,” and the guy got his K in there for recognition. The 47? That was the year the gun was approved for mass production in the Soviet Union by one of the century’s great mass murderers: Josef Stalin. I’m surprised Nancy didn’t drop his name for effect, the show being nothing if not about effect.
I would have loved to bring up a disturbing detail in Merrill’s past: In July 2007 (a year after he was arrested for head-butting his wife, a case dropped when Stefanie asked the State Attorney’s office to drop the charges), when he was arrested for grand theft, he told the investigating officer that he was a felon—and that he had two .22 caliber Lady Derringers at his home. The officer asked him if he knew that it was against the law to own guns as a felon. Merrill knew. “Mr. Merrill stated that he would call his wife Stefanie Miller to gather the guns and turn them over” to the officer. The officer went to the Merrill house at 61 Westminster Drive and collected two .22-caliber Lady Deringers “and several boxes of bullets.”
The state attorney did not pursue charges.
One other detail, which Nancy Grace would have had no reason to be interested in, but which should be relevant to Flagler County readers: the arresting agency in the grand theft and weapons charges was the Bunnell Police Department. And the arresting and investigating officer? None other than John Murray, the same John Murray who, three days after the fatal shooting of Stefanie Merrill, copped a plea in Flagler County Circuit Court on six felony charges, down to a no-contest plea on a marijuana possession charge. He’s now on 18 months’ probation.
I never got the chance to tell her about “finding my Florida.” In light of what William Merrill was doing, literally playing around in his Palm Coast home, the opening lyrics of that clunky little jingle now serving as Palm Coast’s marketing pitch have a sound too ominous for comfort (see below). Considering the attention this case is getting, and may continue to get, the city’s marketing platoon might want to think about a little rewrite of that opening line: “You can feel at home while you play as you please.”
Tell that to Stefanie Merrill.
Palm Coast’s Unfortunate Jingle:
Frequent commenter Will dropped a few lines last night about the Jason DeLorenzo-Waste Pro matter, referring to today’s Observer re-endorsement of DeLorenzo as “fair and balanced with a historical perspective that’s completely missed by most of the writers above.” From the looks of it the fair-and-balanced talking point is the Sesame Street parody of the day (see the full comments here and here).
Invoking the Palm Coast Observer in these pages and knocking my commenters all in one breath was ballsy of Will if not quite with a full pair. In these matters signing one’s name and affiliations would be nice, considering the irony of speaking of objectivity and disclosures behind a fake name. Speaking of disclosure: I have nothing against Jason personally and little against him politically. Based on his less-than-Methuselahan age alone I’d have been happy to give him my vote unreservedly. If there’s an issue with his campaign with the $500 donation he pocketed from Waste Pro, as there must be, it’s entirely of his own creation.
So is the reserve he’s inspiring in those who’d have otherwise voted for him, though this morning Jason told me that he will (unequivocally) return the $500 to Waste Pro. That’s a good re-start.
Back to you, Will. Since it’s not only Jason’s judgment that’s in question here but how and why this story is being reported and commented on, I have to jump in. The historical perspective you’re referring to is a red herring. This is about the timing of a donation in the here and now that raises serious questions of ethics and judgment, questions that should be raised even more by Jason’s subsequent explanations and hedging. And that history of yours is no feather in Jason’s cap. To the contrary. The Observer’s contorted explanation about Jason’s opposition to the 10 percent franchise fee on commercial haulers (the bit about the fee giving national haulers an advantage and benefiting Waste Pro has to be a distinguished entry in the classics of disingenuity) couldn’t have made the point better: he was a shill for those companies and against the city’s financial soundness. Residents pay that franchise fee, masked as it is in the city’s 7 percent skim off the Waste Pro contract. Why shouldn’t commercial haulers?
Jason later said that I’d misunderstood: It’s not the franchise fee that gave the large haulers the competitive advantage, exactly. He had a problem with the fee because it was a tax hidden as a fee. “If you’re going to tax me, just tax me, don’t hide it in my garbage bill.” Agreed. Nor would the haulers have been allowed to line-item the fee. The annual fee would have been about $2,500 a year, a steep fee for smaller haulers, and the haulers would have had to show the city their books. I still don;t have an issue with the fee, let alone with haulers showing their books: they’re doing what is essentially a very public business. They should show their books.
The Observer piece then argues against itself again and again with its examples: “Holsey Moorman is on the board of the Florida Hospital Flagler. Does that mean he can’t be trusted to vote on issues regarding the hospital?” Of course not. Example: last year, without ever mentioning for the record that he was on the board, he unsurprisingly dissented in the 3-2 vote preventing the hospital from having its electronic sign out front. He just took a nice $400 donation from Dave Ottati, the hospital CEO. The Observer quotes Frank Meeker’s employment with the St. Johns River Water Management District. “Does that mean he can’t be trusted to speak objectively on lawn-watering policies or desalination?” Meeker’s uncritically swallowing desal’s boondoggle-rich potential aside, you really think he could have regained his job at the district with all that lobbying he did—after being laid off a few months ago—if he hadn’t been the district’s advocate? You get the idea, though to say that we live in a politically dirty town isn’t saying much. Dirty politics is a tradition as old as the first humanoid habitats of East Africa. So is the papering over of the dirt—in this case, with the convenient intercession of a trash hauler—with ingenious rationales, kind of like those Clinton invoked in ’93 and Cain is invoking now against their bimbo eruptions. Let’s just not pretend that those rationales make everything hunky-dory.
You’re right: the Observer piece is as “fair and balanced” as any work of journalism that lives down to that conceit can be, understanding that it was a re-endorsement: papers have a long tradition of doing what they can to get their favorites elected. More power to them, but let’s not confuse the meaning of endorsement from a paper whose owner’s daughter is running Jason’s treasury.
And there is that matter of journalism, and that snide little jab at Dennis Cross in the second graph—Cross “who first noticed the donation,” as if to suggest that Cross was up to a little smearing all on his own, though these financial reports are detailed and public for the asking. Again, the Observer argues against itself and the quality of its journalism—and mine, and the News-Journal’s: the failure here is ours as local media. That financial report came out a couple of weeks ago. I’m in the habit of looking at those reports religiously. I failed in this case. I hadn’t even requested it. The donation had to be pointed out to me (hold your britches: it wasn’t Cross, though it would have been irrelevant had it been him), the point being that the Observer, the News-Journal and FlaglerLive should have been falling all over each other in their analysis of those reports and reporting their findings immediately. Instead, we were asleep, displaying once again the reliably shoddy quality of our local journalism and having to play catch-up. No wonder dirty politics thrives in this town. With media like ours, the foxes must be ecstatic.