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.
One of the pleasures of going to work when I started as a reporter some 21 years ago was my commute: I had none, at least none comparable to the 45 minutes, one way, I’d logged in the New York subway in the seven years I went to high school and college there. In Beckley, W.Va., where I took my first newspaper job in the fateful fall of 1989 (and a fall it was, for the Soviet empire), my $230-a-month hovel above a roofing business on City Avenue (heat and water included) was ten minutes away from the newspaper office–close enough for jaunts back home for lunch, for the occasional need to play hooky with a book that was more interesting than anything I was covering that day, for the occasional mid-afternoon tryst with a visiting girlfriend, also generally more enticing than anything I could possibly cover: journalism has always been a turn-on, but it has its limits. The short distance to work was also easy on my cars, two of the first three having more in common with temperamental mules than reliable machines. Sparing them was a matter of survival.
None of that would have been possible with a longer distance to work–the sort of distance I’ve had to contend with for almost ten years, living in Palm Coast and navigating the infernal traffic of I-95 and Daytona Beach to make it to the newspaper there.
No more. This morning’s commute, from home to government complex (hub of most things governmental in Flagler: county commission, school board, courts) was 3.1 miles, most of it unimpeded even by Palm Coast’s reputedly unbearable traffic (the unbearable is limited to two arteries, themselves unbearably pimply with traffic lights: Belle Terre Parkway and Palm Coast Parkway. The “parkway,” needless to say, is a parody of the word). It’s as if I’m gaining an hour a day. I’m looking forward to these non-existent commutes. The only drawback is that I can’t possibly get into the sort of audio books I’ve gotten used to hearing on I-95. Then again, those meetings I’ll be covering are for the most part duller than a mosquito’s naps on a summer’s day. There’ll be plenty of time for Tolstoy.
It was neither a great speech nor a bad one, neither reassuring nor inspiring. All those empty words (pressing the rest button, reclaiming the agenda, setting a new tone) are just as empty this morning. As we wrote in today’s News-Journal, “Barack Obama is channeling Ronald Reagan in too many ways. A centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union message last night was rhetorical snake-oil — a freeze on government spending that exempts four-fifths of government, including defense and “homeland security,” both of which should be leading the list of spending cuts. Irresponsibly, weakly, Obama is shilling for those who think the government can still make up for a decade of reckless tax cuts, impulsive wars, speculative credit and the near-depression they caused without raising taxes and cutting defense and entitlement spending.”
Because in the end we never heard word one about getting the deficit under control and paying for the profligacy of the Bush years, for those trillions in deficits that Obama was careful to say he inherited when he “walked in the door.” He had his I-never-promised-you-a-rose-garden moment (“I never suggested that change would be easy”), but that’s not quite what we want to hear from a president, is it? It’s not that change should be easy. It’s that we have, or should have, a president capable of doing what’s necessary to accomplish the promised change. So far: nothing.
In sum I’m not nearly as impressed as the general sense of the punditocracy seems to be. There’s too much reaching for the old magic–which is just the problem: this lunge for “magic,” this desire to make the impossible real, when it should be the other way around. We’re surrounded by too much dismal reality that Obama’s policies have yet to transcend, or conquer. I still admire more about Obama than not, but these days he’s a slave to the political strait-jacket he’s enabling–the GOP’s hold on his agenda–by submitting to the illusions of bipartisanship.
Here’s a sampling of opinions on the speech (which you can read in full here):
Simon Reid-Henry in Britain’s New Statesman: “Obama seemed to track his way across a spectrum of different roles, first setting himself up with almost Blair-like enunciative stretch as local man, to deliver a variant on Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain’ moment, before shifting into family patriarch mode to remonstrate with those who have been causing him more than a little pain of late, and finally re-appearing as a born-again politician in some semblance of control amidst the melee going on around him. It was a deliberate rhetorical arc chained to a new variant on his message of Change. “Yes it can” became “let’s get it done”. But for all its rhetorically artful repositioning of the President, the message sounded strangely unconvincing.”
Robert Scheer in The Nation: “The state of the union is just miserable, no matter how President Obama sugarcoats it. He will claim that progress has been made in stabilizing the markets, increasing national security and advancing toward meaningful healthcare reform, but he will be wrong on all three counts. What he will be right about is that none of these problems were originally of his creation, and that the opposition party wants to exacerbate rather than solve any of them–believing, as they do, in that destructive maxim of desperate losers who find their salvation in the stumbles of the winners.”
Megan McArdle in the Atlantic: “I think we saw two serviceable speeches tonight. Obama was his usual, excellent caliber. Bob McDonnell did not utterly humiliate himself, which is a big win for a SOTU response. There were a couple of minor “That’s interesting” moments with financial reform and gays in the military, but mostly it was both sides saying, “I wish you’d help me enact my agenda, America.” Which is not exactly surprising. In the end, maybe Obama gets a transitory bump on the strength of his delivery, but I don’t see it really moving the needle on any issues. Nor do I think that the Republicans are going to rally behind McDonnell’s stirring rhetorical presence and storm the nation’s capitol. So everyone sleep easy . . . the world will still be much the same when you wake up tomorrow.”
The Wall Street Journal: “So much for all of that Washington talk about a midcourse change of political direction. If President Obama took any lesson from his party’s recent drubbing in Massachusetts, and its decline in the polls, it seems to be that he should keep doing what he’s been doing, only with a little more humility, and a touch more bipartisanship. That’s our reading of last night’s lengthy State of the Union address, which mostly repackaged the President’s first-year agenda in more modest political wrapping. “Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved,” he said, in his most notable grace note.”
I don’t find it particularly so. What am I saying? It’s not at all offensive in light of Harry Reid’s barely, marginally idiotic (and only for having been spoken too publicly) comments about Barack Obama’s speech and skin tone. Reid said in 2006 that Obama could become president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Reid wasn’t wrong. This is still an essentially racist country. A black individual with skin darker than Obama’s or speech patterns more identifiably black, no matter his intellect, would unquestionably have had less of a chance than Obama (resurrect Martin Luther King and see for yourself). And “yes,” as John McWhorter writes in a fine essay on black English for the New Republic, “there is a such thing as Black English.” Reid’s mistake was to misjudge the juvenile media and political establishment, which is even more idiotic than the country is racist. What Reid said had the appearance of something vaguely inappropriate, and in an age of compulsive sanctimony, the country can’t go a day without finding one target or another to condemn as inappropriate. Tag you’re it, Reid.
The offense of the day though is the Omaha World Herald’s censoring of the above cartoon (that World Herald, former home of William Jennings Bryan and Ernest Hemingway). “Concerns were raised as to how the cartoon might be interpreted so my editor pulled it,” cartoonist Jeff Koterba told nealo.com. There was also something about color reproduction and the cartoonist intending the individuals Reid is addressing to be gangsta rappers, though the indeterminate hues must have also been part of the joke. Or should have been. Either way, spiked.
Thomas Fleming, a former president of the Society of American Historians, writes an excellent piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the history and stupidity of Prohibition, the 13-year binge of sanctimony that a minority of eugenics fans, exploiting the anxiety of World War I and racist sentiment against Germans, imposed on the majority.
The column’s brief history lesson is a reminder that Prohibition wasn’t an overnight sensation but a slow process dating back to the late 19th century, when the minor craze for eugenics (the idea that you can refine the human race the way you can, say, beets), a craze even the likes of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes eventually fueled with his nutty decision on “imbeciles,” combined with a leading economist’s nuttier notion that an alcohol-free America would be 20 to 30 percent more productive to launch prohibitionists’ zeal. By 1900, 37 states had adopted dry laws. Instead of talk radio’s imbeciles rattling off falsities to the four corners of America, you had 20,000 Anti-Saloon League (ASL) speakers fanning out all over the place, drunk on their misinformation–and enebriating a good many people who heard them.
When World War I started and Woodrow Wilson opted to join the war to end all wars, the prohibitionists saw a terrific occasion to exploit their cause. How could American soldiers perform under the influence? Drinking in the military was banned (it actually still is, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq). Then, since thousands of wheat farmers in the United States were of German descent, the Anti-Saloon Leaguers portrayed it as unpatriotic to sympathize with “Huns” (or let grain be diverted to alcohol production when it could make bread for hungry soldiers and allies).
Woodrow Wilson could have vetoed a law that would have established national prohibition by July 1919. He didn’t, worried that he’d offend his dry-state constituents. He offended his Democratic majority anyway, which he lost in the congressional election of 1920, and with it the chance to better influence the post-war years. Then came the Volstead Act, which specified in clearer detail how alcohol would be prohibited (down to the maximum level of 0.5 percent allowable in any liquid, which lopped off beer and wine, too). Wilson vetoed that one on Oct. 27, 1919 but the House overrode him two hours later (176-55)–with 31 of New York’s 43 representatives and 24 of Pennsylvania’s 36 representatives absent. Most of those would have been “wet” votes whose participation would have defeated the override. The Senate overrode the next day, 65-20.
It wouldn’t have mattered that much anyway, had the override not gone through. The 18th Amendment, which Congress passed on Dec. 22, 1917, was becoming effective on Jan. 16, 1921. The Volstead Act merely spelled out how the nation’s police could go abouit cracking skulls. As Fleming writes,
For the next 13 years, Prohibition corrupted and tormented Americans from coast to coast. A disrespect, even contempt for law and due process infected the American psyche. Rather than discouraging liquor consumption, Prohibition increased it. Taking a drink became a sign of defiance against the arrogant minority who had deprived people of their “right” to enjoy themselves. The 1920s roared with reckless amorality in all directions, including Wall Street. When everything came crashing down in 1929 and the long gray years of the Great Depression began, second thoughts were the order of the day. Large numbers of people pointed to Prohibition as one of the chief reasons for the disaster.
Fleming himself goes off the cliff in his last paragraph, when he warns that “with talk of restructuring large swaths of our economy back in vogue, Prohibition should also remind us that Congress, scientists and economists seized by the noble desire to achieve some great moral goal may be abysmally wrong.” It’s a dishonest conclusion. It conflates good science with the imbecility of eugenics as if all scientists today are, even as they weren’t at the turn of the last century, as misguided as eugenicists of yesterday. It conflates the specious conclusion of one popular economist in the previous century with the work of all economists today. And it suggests that Prohibition–the wholesale banning of a right on moral, and morally indefensible, grounds–is comparable to congressional regulation, which bans little, and has nothing to do with morals and (we hope) everything to do with tempering the amoral excesses of the market.
As a lesson in Prohibition though, Fleming’s piece is worth a case of Carlsberg.
It’s evening, the day after Christmas. Beginning at about 8 a.m. the day before Christmas, the internet connection here at the house, which is also the internet connection FlaglerLive, my other jobs and everyone else here at the house depends on, started acting strange. Certain sites didn’t load–among them, ironically, the News-Journal. It hadn’t sold, at last check, and cost-cutting hasn’t been so dire that the company’s Time-Warner cable bill was going unpaid. Google, too, was acting up. Sometimes it would load, sometimes not. Google News was on and off. And chess.com, my occasional addiction. It wouldn’t let me log in.
I thought the problem was at my end. I checked for news stories about internet issues. Nothing. I had a look at Brighthouse’s web site, thinking that, like Florida Power & Light, it would let its customers know if there was a pattern of problems they were aware of, and hopefully working on. Nothing. I set to work trying to resolve the issue at my end. You know how those things go when you start. Computers save time, theoretically. When they’re not working properly, they devour time like a black hole. I once spent a week’s vacation trying to fix a memory-card problem with Dell on the ophone, day after day, only to narrow down the issue and fix it on my own. This internet problem began to look like the same time hog.
I deleted cookies, temporary files, caches, histories (material and time-saving history I’d accumulated for years). Rebooted at every turn. I messed around with things I never knew existed (what the hell is MTU size? I learned it, changed it from 1500 to 1492, then to 1450, even to 1400). I messed around with my computer’s registry, which is like juggling IEDs. I eliminated firewalls, Windows’ and my router’s. None of it made a difference. I finally exhumed my old dial-up connection with at&t, my very first from 1995, which I never got rid of. I found the old password, set it up, dialed in. Lo (or ho, considering the occasion) and behold: Google worked. The News-Journal came up (what’[s left of it, anyway). Chess.com worked fine. On a 56k dial-up. So it wasn’t my problem. It was, is, Brighthouse’s.
I figured it was the router. I went to Staple’s, bought a new one, spent another six hours trying to run it properly. No dice. Periodically I would check the web for news, even checked Brighthouse’s web site. Cheryl live-chatted with a Brighthouse customer service representative yesterday. He blew her off, immediately concluding that our lines were fine, so it was our computers’ problem, not his. Cretinry on Christmas.
Finally tonight I dialed in for my own live chat with a Brighthouser. There were 39 people ahead of me. I had a few live-chatting chess games with my children as I waited. Finally, “Sandra” came on. I explained my problem. Here’s what she had to say: “Many customers from your area are reporting this issue.It seems to be an Outage and we should get an update very soon. I request you to try accessing your Cable Service after some time and the issue should be resolved from the server end once it is reported.”
“It would have been nice,” I wrote back, “if you’d put up a notice on your web site about what you just said, so you might have kept customers like me from spending three days trying to resolve the issue in the dark.” I added a “damn it,” but it was automatically replaced with stars. They can’t get their act together, but they sure know how to filter frustration, though I did wish poor Sandra a merry Christmas all the same, since she had nothing to do with the problem. Damn it. But she did have the gall to add this: “For your information, you can visit this link anytime to get more help and knowledge about the products and services offered by Road Runner: http://help.rr.com and check for online FAQs.”
I did. We all did. Repeatedly. To no avail. Including this site, which claimed all along that “At this time the network is operating normally.” It wasn’t. That’s Brighthouse for you. Patent deception from start to finish. So much for a “$350 million, 16,000-mile cable network.” Reminded me of why we quit Brighthouse cable years ago and went with Direct TV. But it’s a small world after all. There’s no other broadband service in my area. It’s Brighthouse or nothing.
Update: Sunday morning. Day four. Still no fix. It looks like Brighthouse’s tiff with Fox over football coverage is sucking up the company’s energy at the expense of its more essential services. And yes: proper internet coverage is more essential than whether you get to watch Tim Tebow and the Sugar Bowl. Also, on Sunday morning, Brighthouse had a new message for customers looking to live4-chat with their support staff: “Agents unavailable.” No shit.
Could it be? Democrats appear to have the 60 votes they need to surmount a Republican filibuster on health care. They’ve reduced health care reform to an approximation. But that’s how it goes. Whatever the thing is that’s making its way through the Senate, it’ll need intensive care for many years before it resemble something more civilized. But I’ll take it wither way. For all the missteps, for all of Obama’s prevarications and defanged tactics, the end result will (should the bill pass) vindicate whatever he did, however he did it. What was bound to be a colossal battle turned out to unravel the worst and little of the best about America. Something that could be said of the Civil War. Still, Obama will be able to say that he’s achieved what no other president has, which is no small thing.
It took some revolting compromises, including one on abortion that won’t or shouldn’t stand up in court (an opt-out provision for states to cover abortion costs, and a requirement that those that do make individuals paying for abortion costs write checks separate from checks written for other forms of care, a form of scarlet-lettering of abortion-seekers). That’s to please Ben Nelson, the sand-hilled senator from Nebraska. The state is also getting extra Medicaid money, which should send other states’ senators wondering if they shouldn’t make last stands of their own (Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu also got her state an extra $300 million). Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s reactionary-in-chief, called the bill “a monstrosity full of special sweetheart deals for a few states.” He’s right, but every bill out of the Senate is a monstrosity of sweetheart deals. For once, the deals will benefit lower income people. That’s what Republicans find monstrous. Their till, their entitlements, were raided.
If Democrats hold on to their majority (and Republicans’ implosions are making it easy for them), they’ll have a few more years to fix it up. But let’s not ignore the ready value in the bill as it is. Besides its new mandates that will prevent insurers from ending coverage of the sick or imposing lifetime caps and discriminating against pre-existing conditions, there’s this, from the Congressional Budget Office analysis, for the uninsured and for children, as well as for states’ budgets:
Starting in 2014, most nonelderly people with income below 133 percent of the FPL
would be made eligible for Medicaid. The federal government would pay all of the costs
of covering newly eligible enrollees through 2016; in subsequent years, the federal share
of spending would vary somewhat from year to year but would average about 90 percent
by 2019. (Under current rules, the federal government usually pays about 57 percent, on
average, of the costs of Medicaid benefits.) In addition, states would be required to
maintain current coverage levels for all Medicaid beneficiaries until the exchanges were
fully operational; coverage levels for children under Medicaid and CHIP would have to
be maintained through 2019. Beginning in 2014, states would receive higher federal
reimbursement for CHIP beneficiaries, increasing from an average of 70 percent to
93 percent. The legislation would also provide states with additional CHIP funding in
2014 and 2015.
The latest from the Department of Labor:
In the week ending Dec. 5, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 474,000, an increase of 17,000 from the previous week’s unrevised figure of 457,000. The 4-week moving average was 473,750, a decrease of 7,750 from the previous week’s revised average of 481,500.
The advance seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate was 3.9 percent for the week ending Nov. 28, a decrease of 0.2 percentage point from the prior week’s unrevised rate of 4.1 percent.
The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending Nov. 28 was 5,157,000, a decrease of 303,000 from the preceding week’s revised level of 5,460,000. The 4-week moving average was 5,416,500, a decrease of 123,500 from the preceding week’s revised average of 5,540,000.
The fiscal year-to-date average for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment for all programs is 5.767 million.
They’re practicing as I’m writing–the Flagler Youth Orchestra’s four music teachers (Jonathan May, Jack Jeffe, Justin McCulough and Linda VavBuren–in preparation for tonight’s inaugural concert of the new season: the quartet is putting on a few pieces of its own for the occasion, including, from what I hear, a Christmassy jaunt or two.
It’s barely two hours out from the opening piece. The stage is set, the students are beginning to arrive. Cheryl and the volunteers already here have their concert faces (and dress) on.
That’s Tara Dills, the Fair Lady, below.
Several years ago when Cheryl and I were none too thrilled with the school district’s continuing obsession with the FCAT (the standardized test lesser known as the Florida Comprehensive Test Assessment but mostly known as the ultimate waste of students’ and teachers’ time and taxpayers’ dollars) we decided to pull Sadie out of school for the week of testing. She wasn’t going to miss the tests. She’d just take them over two days during the make-up period rather than be part of the week-long follies that invariably attend regular test-taking, from idiotic pep rallies to artery-clogging feedlot breakfasts to angst-inducing testing sessions. It’s a wonder half the students don’t volunteer to be Baker Acted.
Instead Sadie and me would trip it up I-95 and spend the week in Philadelphia, Washington and New York City, paying our respects to two very important kinsd of national monuments: national monuments and parents. So we did.
It was then that I discovered why Sadie suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It all came out when we took our walk around the Vietnam Monument. She didn’t react especially when we walked along the Wall and its 57,000-some names of the dead. They were just names to her, or endless carvings in cool-looking granite in which she could see a brownish approximation of herself. But when we happened by the more recent addition of the monument to the women of Vietnam, the truth came out. She still hasn’t recovered. Nor have I.
It all explains why her teen-age years have been such an infernal reenactment of nightmares and napalm.
Feeling better yet?
Corporate profits, which logged some record-breaking soars during the Bush years, are back to their not-so-old form: 10.6 percent in the third quarter, four-tenth better than the national unemployment rate. That’s not all. Productivity, still at 1.8 percent in 2007 and 2008 despite economic slowdowns, was up 6.9 percent in the second quarter this year and 9.5 percent in the third. If you’re still employed, you’re working harder, doing the work of those around you who’ve been fired, and you’re doing it for less. That’s how you get corporate profits in double-digits blowing a big raspberry to the unemployed.