Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2005 March 8-31

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Lebanonism's Greatest Hits

It's worth noting that throughout the recent assertions of Lebanese political independence and cultural exceptionalism, a striking video has been hovering near the top of the region's music and video charts: Issa Ghandour's Min Safer ("We Travel"). Ghandour's song is a moody evocation of the meaning of place, and the spiritual costs of forced exile from that place. According to the lyrics, the singer, in losing his now-unattainable home, has been exiled as well from his soul.

Neither Ghandour's lyrics nor the video's images make specific reference to Lebanon, but no one who has seen the video is likely to miss the obvious connection, and not only because Ghandour sings in the unmistakable Lebanese accent. The video -- which was directed by Leila Kanaan -- evokes in miniature Lebanon's violent recent history, and surrounds Ghandour (who is making a futile attempt at return) with the wariness of those who stayed behind, and with the taunting ghosts of his unlived, might-have-been life. Ghandour's personal tragedy of exile, suggests the video, is also Lebanon's national tragedy of loss. In the sense that Lebanon's opposition demonstrators want their country not only to resume its full independence but also to resume its interrupted history, the Ghandour video is drawing on the same cultural sources as is the political opposition. They are both manifestations of a national exceptionalism that may be called "Lebanonism."

"Lebanonism" is a term used by different people to mean quite different things. To such thinkers as Benjamin Barber, it describes an ongoing state of tribal friction. To some economists, it describes the policies that allowed Lebanon to achieve impressive prosperity in a limited time. To some Pan-Arabists, it is an offensive formula for Christian domination. But to others, it is embrace of social pluralism and of difference -- libertine and synchretic -- from Lebanon's neighboring cultures.

Thus, when spontaneous opposition demonstrations broke out in the immediate wake of Rafiq Hariri's assassination, some observers claimed the phenomenon of Christians, Druze, Sunnis, and others linking arms was a manifestation of a "new Arab nationalism." Not so, wrote Tony Badran. "This is not an Arab nationalist revolution. This is a 'Lebanonist' revolution! This is about the coming together of the Lebanese (Druze, Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, etc.) for Lebanon and the idea of Lebanon as a plural society." That's the Lebanonism I'm addressing, too.

The Lebanonism of pluralism and difference draws on many sources. For example, Lebanon has been an emigrant culture for a very long time, and its cultural artifacts feature dimensions that may be rare elsewhere. Ghandour's video reflects an aspect of that emigrant vein. So did Fadl Shaker's 2003 song and video, Ya Ghayab, a song addressed longingly to one who has left. Shaker is from Sidon, and usually sings in a traditional style. Ya Ghayab, however, crossed into pop and gained a wide following. Shaker's video consisted of a straightforward recording of him singing before a live club audience. What makes the video noteworthy is the crowd: an apparent mix of Muslims and Christians who clearly know the song well, and who seemingly share an identification with the transcending national experience of separation. It's a Lebanonist crowd.

Lebanonism is far from the only exceptionalist movement the region has witnessed: Egypt's Pharaonism of the 1920s also attempted to build a national alternative to the period's Arabism, while Anton Sa'adeh's fascistic "Syrian Nationalist" movement of the mid-20th century was flagrantly anti-"Arab." (Lebanon itself has featured Phoenicianism, a maximalist cultural-difference movement.) There's a long history of struggle to escape the Arabist straightjacket.

Lebanon, Fouad Ajami recently wrote in the WSJ, "was where Arab modernism made a stand." Perhaps contemporary Lebanonism can best be understood as a self-conscious embrace of that fact. While not necessarily opposed to an Arabist identity, Lebanonism provides a vital alternative that has long been an irritant to those Arab nationalists who have sought to subsume the different cultures of the Mideast into a single political/historical narrative; Arabists are inclined to disparage this rival as shallow, bourgeois, and even racist. It's a threat to them, and its political success will make it an even greater threat, because it may become a model not only for political change, but also for cultural change.

Only Syria remains as a failing bulwark of political Arabism; the issue may now be the survival of cultural Arabism as the dominant regional model. There is already evidence that many citizens of post-Baathist Iraq have rejected the old totalist Arabism, and it is very likely that in a liberalizing Egypt (where playwright Ali Salem is seeking to revive a Mediterranean-oriented outlook), Arabism will merely be one voice among many. In the meantime, Lebanonism, in all its free and libertine disorder, remains on daily display in Martyrs' Square.

Note: I wrote at length about libertine Arabic music videos and liberal values here. As the piece notes, many of the early libertine videos featured Lebanese performers. Since that piece appeared, the phenomenon of these libertine videos has grown to include performers from Egypt and Tunisia as well.

"Call John Gilmore and show him how to get on a plane without ID"

Reason has been ground zero for all things John Gilmore for years now, especially his battle against mysterious government ID regs for air travel. Well, they just got a whole lot stranger, at least to me.

Cryptome has posted an account from someone who says they have figured out how to fly without showing ID, or at least greatly reducing your chances of being carded. The key, says "Brad," is never refuse to show ID to the airline. They can demand it as a condition of the ticket. Everyone else, airport rent-a-cops, TSA, etc. can search you but not ID you. Go straight to the gate and chances are the airline will not ID you in the crush of boarding.

I have a hard time understanding why the airlines could not close any such loophole by simply stipulating everybody in the airport acts as their agent for purposes of ID. Still, it is an amusing story and perhaps someone else will care to try to re-enact it.

PS - Tasers sting like the devil.

Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair

A San Francisco superior court judge has ruled that the state's ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Several wire services' court people, by the way, clearly need to get busted back to J-school, because after scanning half a dozen news articles, I had to read the opinion itself to discover: (1) the relevant constitution is California's rather than the federal Constitution, and (2) the court issued a two-tiered ruling: It applied "rational basis" scrutiny and found that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples lacked a rational basis, but also held that, in fact, the stricter scrutiny applicable to cases in which the government discriminates according to "suspect classes" (in this case, gender) applied, making the discrimination a fortiori impermissible, since the state would need a compelling interest, never mind a rational basis, to pass muster.

Interestingly, as wtih the federal Constitution, the state constitution's privileges and immunities clause seems to have become inert, even though it seems pretty relevant:

A citizen or class of citizens may not be granted privileges or immunities not granted on the same terms to all citizens.

Now, glancing at the relevant part of California's constitution, I don't see any terribly significant difference in its equal protection language that would've led to a different ruling had the case been brought under the federal Constitution. But my understanding (someone correct me if this is wrong) is that since it's not a ruling under the federal Equal Protection Clause, the California Supreme Court is the last stop for this one. Which is probably a good thing. Unlike my friend James Joyner, I can't get terribly upset that "gay marriage has been enacted by judicial fiat rather than the democratic process." That's what constitutional rights guarantees are for: To flip the bird at the democratic process when majorities don't feel like treating minorities fairly and equally. But at this stage, a push for a federal decision on gay marriage would likely reinvigorate the loathesome Federal Marriage Amendment, which would be thoroughly counterproductive.

Anyway, at least as interesting as the substance of the ruling here is the standard of scrutiny applied. The ruling that discrimination against gays lacks a rational basis in the marriage context has implications only in that context, so far as I can tell. That discrimination involving gay relationships is to be treated as (prima facie invidious) gender based discrimination demanding a compelling state interest seems to be of broader importance.

Update: This Brian Doherty column from way back in nineteen-dickety-seven is actually pretty relevant on the state-vs-federal constitution front.

Censoring Your Phone

A gloomy forecast from Adam Thierer:

So, will cell phones be next on the feds' censorship wish list? You better believe it. I'll make a prediction now: Within the next two years, legislation will be introduced proposing the extension of the FCC's current clear-as-mud indecency rules to mobile content and devices.

Fisk on Hariri's Murder

As a follow-up to my exchange with Raimondo in an earlier post today on the how's of the Hariri assassination, this piece by Robert Fisk in The Independent (taken from the Aounist movement's website) suggests that the theory of a suicide bomber is, at best, questionable.

The UN's Irish, Egyptian and Moroccan investigation team has now been joined by three Swiss bomb experts following the discovery that many of the smashed vehicles in Hariri's convoy were moved from the scene of the massacre only hours after the bombing and before any time for an independent investigation.

The article also notes:

Some members of the Hariri family have been told that the report of the UN enquiry team will be so devastating that it will force a full international investigation of the murder of 'Mr Lebanon' and his entourage.

Will the agnostics believe Fisk? He's one of theirs, after all.

Heaven Forfend!

It took 36 years, but George Will and I finally agree on a baseball matter. His showtrial-bashing column includes this extra flourish of conservative-on-Republican rhetorical slappery:

The Government Reform Committee, formerly Government Operations Committee, took today's name in 1995, during the Republican revolution to restore limited, modest government. [...]

Stanley Brand, attorney for those the committee has subpoenaed, says the House rule granting the committee's jurisdiction "provides no indication" that the committee is empowered "to review a collective bargaining agreement between private parties." Not even the National Labor Relations Board, he says, evaluates "the substantive merit of collective bargaining agreements." But imitation is the sincerest form of congressional behavior, so now Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, warns all sports everywhere, "If you don't clean it up, we're going to clean it up for you." That is the voice of another conservative who has gone native in Washington.

New at Reason

Rep. Henry Waxman's hoping to bask in golden showers of media attention by demagoguing the steroid issue and subpoenaing drug test data; Matt Welch suggests he keep his eyes in his own stall.

Bigger Street Scenes, or Another Bad Day for Assad

Today's opposition demonstration in Beirut seems to be bigger in numbers than last Tuesday's Hizbollah turnout: The CBC says it "easily exceeded the pro-government rally of some 500,000." Estimates range from hundreds of thousands to 800,000 to "nearly two million." These numbers are apparently coming from the traditional opposition, as neither Nabih Berri nor Suleiman Franjiyeh nor any other Syrian allies I know of have bolted to the opposition yet.

Meanwhile Robert Fisk reports, without any attribution, "The UN investigators have become convinced that there was a cover-up of evidence at the very highest levels of the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence authorities."

Bush, State Dept., Teddy Kennedy All Agree...

... that Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, who is visiting the U.S. for a little St. Paddy's Day green-sponging, can basically go to hell. State told Adams he better not do any fundraising here; Kennedy canceled a meeting; and Bush chose for his holiday Irish companionship the family of Robert McCartney, the Irish Catholic who was brutally stabbed to death outside a bar by some IRA thugs six weeks ago. What's the world coming to, when the political leader of a terrorist group can't raise money in the U.S. at will, or eat corned beef with the prez?

When Goth-Lolis Get Pragmatic

This fun article on Gothic and Lolita fashion was gearing up to follow Sunday Style Section Formulae -- women sport Tokyopop-meets-Nabokov fashion statement, Gwen Stefani busts it out on MTV, cool kids recoil in horror as freakishness turns mainstream. But something bizarrely sunny happens at the end:

...some fans are warming to the idea that the trend is not solely theirs anymore.

"We should all be flattered that the style is reaching mainstream," read one recent post online. "Fashion is a free right."

Also, Ms. Lam pointed out, the more mainstream the look becomes, the more available the clothes will be, and more affordable, too.

The Big Money Boys of Campaign Finance Reform

The New York Post's Ryan Sager has a fun slam at John McCain and the other big money boys and influence peddlers of "campaign finance reform" over at TechCentral Station. It includes revelations about an issue of the American Prospect dedicated to the matter funded with $132,000 from the Carnegie Corporation (undisclosed to the magazine's readers), and John McCain's links with the Reform Institute, a 501(c)3 whose president is Rick Davis, head of McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, which boasts McCain himself as head of its advisory committee, and to which businesses with business with Sen. McCain donate amounts of money far in excess of what they could legally donate to Sen. Campaign Integrity himself. (McCain denies that donations to the Reform Institute could have any influence on him whatever. When you sign up for the Institute'e email list online, one of the four choices for what you are interested in is "Attending reform events with Senator John McCain.")

You Aren't My Sunshine

It's Sunshine Week, ladies and germs, which means time to assess how various guvmint agencies inside these United States are responding to Freedom of Information Act requests to peak underneath the State's hood. The Associated Press took an extended looksie at the "about 130 annual FOIA reports submitted to the Justice Department by the 15 executive departments between 1998 and 2004," and found that:

The percentage of requested information that is eventually released in full has been declining since 1998 at the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Interior, State, Transportation and Treasury departments. The Justice Department began reducing the information it releases in full after the 2001 attacks.

At the CIA, just 12 percent of the FOIA requests processed were granted in total in 2004, down from 44 percent in 1998. The FBI gave people asking for records everything they asked for just 1 percent of the time in 2004, compared to 5 percent in 1998.

A Domino Effect of Questions

Do you believe that Druze leader Walid Jumblatt may have been opportunistic when he said that the Mideast's "process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq"? If so, here is the liberal Arab journalist Mona Eltahawy on the same subject.

Eltahawy has been a consistent critic of the war and of American aims in the region. As she put it in Sunday's WaPo, "There is a way to talk about the effect of the Iraq war on the rest of the Arab world without actually supporting that war. This time last year and the year before, I marched in demonstrations in New York against the war on Iraq, which I did not believe was launched in the name of democracy and freedom. But we would be lying to ourselves if we didn't acknowledge that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is a major catalyst for what has been happening lately, be it in Egypt, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia."

"The invasion of Iraq," she writes, "was the equivalent of a bucket of freezing water thrown in the face of an Arab world in deep slumber." Eltahawy wants the anti-dictatorship efforts of Arab activists (who received little support from past U.S. administrations) to be recognized as well.

The overthrow of Iraq's Baathist regime has led many Arabs to question their own systems; the war, she says, has sparked a "domino effect" of such questions. As an example, Eltahawy offers an Egyptian's point of view. "The U.S. invasion," that source told her, "revealed the ability to overthrow one of the worst tyrants around and led to this question: If this regime collapsed, why not the others? Why shouldn't Syria leave Lebanon? Why shouldn't we change the Egyptian regime? Isn't it enough (kifaya) already?"

In fact, quotes much like this have been around for some time. The Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay told the NYT on March 20, 2004 what the overthrow of Iraq's regime meant to him: "The myth of having to live under despots for eternity collapsed."

"When you see one of the two Baath parties broken, collapsing, you can only hope that it will be the turn of the Syrian Baath next," he told reporter Neil MacFarquhar. Indeed, Amiralay soon started working on a documentary film with the working title, "Fifteen Reasons Why I Hate the Baath" (the harsh critique was eventually called A Flood in Baath Country). Watching the overthrow of the Iraqi regime, he told the NYT, "gave me the courage to do" the film.

Amiralay, by the way, made the only documentary about Rafiq Hariri, L'Homme aux semelles d'or.

New at Reason

Jonathan Rauch recovers a memory of how due process and the presumption of innocence are supposed to work in our criminal justice system.

Arrogance and Aid

Jeffrey Sachs thinks we can end extreme poverty by shelling out $150 billion and giving the poor a "big push" to jumpstart economic development. In Sunday's Washington Post, William Easterly calls Sachs "the world's greatest economic reformer" and then rips into his plan:

What's the alternative? The piecemeal reform approach (which his book opposes) would humbly acknowledge that nobody can fully grasp the complexity of the political, social, technological, ecological and economic systems that underlie poverty. It would eschew the arrogance that "we" know exactly how to fix "them." It would shy away from the hubris of what he labels the "breathtaking opportunity" that "we" have to spread democracy, technology, prosperity and perpetual peace to the entire planet. Large-scale crash programs, especially by outsiders, often produce unintended consequences. The simple dreams at the top run afoul of insufficient knowledge of the complex realities at the bottom.

Daniel Drezner is respectfully skeptical, and Tyler Cowen compares "the end of poverty" to Dow 36,000.

New at Reason

From our March issue: Nick Gillespie talks to Fox News' Judge Andrew Napolitano.

An Awful Lot of Hummus

I just returned from the opposition demonstration in Beirut, and can safely say Lebanon never saw anything like it. Of course, the first thing that will be done is to compare numbers with the Hezbollah demonstration of last Tuesday. Last week's rally probably brought in around 250,000 people, whatever the absurd numbers thrown up by the media (inflation that was as visible in estimating earlier opposition demonstrations). I would guess--and it's just that--that this was double what Hezbollah brought in, if not more. The demonstrations covered an open space roughly double that covered by last week's rally, as well as dozens of side streets, a fifth of the square that Hezbollah had used, and a four lane overpass. People came in from all over Lebanon, and as of noon, they began descending in huge crowds on Beirut's city center.

Ultimately, however, one should look beyond the numbers, since the Lebanese problem won't be resolved solely in the streets. But it is with considerable satisfaction that I expect to read the shit-eating explanations of all those who sneered at the opposition rallies, calling them a "hummus revolution" or, in reference to the stylish clothing of some of the demonstrators, a "Prada spring." Perhaps, too, we will hear the latest take of those analysts who will swallow whatever line they are fed by the Syrians, or who doubted the significance of the opposition in past demonstrations because there were, quite simply, too many Christians and too many middle class protestors for the whole thing to somehow be "authentic".

Well, today there was, well, everybody: Christians and Muslims from all around Lebanon, from all social strata. The professional doubters will, of course, double back and try a vain counterattack, but this is a historic day for the Lebanese, even if the Syrian government and its local appointees do what they have systematically done whenever faced with popular protests: ignore it all. Their time is over.

The latest news is that the government wants to, henceforth, ban all demonstrations. I can see why.

Art? Yeah, We Got Art

Reason cartoonist Peter Bagge will be having his first solo art show this weekend at the MF Gallery in New York City. Peter writes:

The opening is on Sat., March 19th at 7pm, and the gallery is located at 157 Rivington St. in the Very Lower East Side.

I'll be signing the brand spanking new Buddy Bradley Doll from Presspop, as well as copies of the new Buddy Does Seattle and Apocalypse Nerd #1.

Another exhibit ought to interest anyone who enjoyed my article on Michael Thompson and Michael Hernandez de Luna, the two artists who made their own stamps and then tried, often successfully, to mail letters with them. Hernandez de Luna has organized Axis of Evil, a show featuring stamps by several artists, which opened at the Nexus Gallery in Philadelphia on March 4 and is running there until March 29. I haven't been to the show yet, but I've seen the catalog, and some of the work is very striking. The theme of the exhibit is evil, so the stamp topics range from 9/11 to pedophilia, from Nazism to napalm, from a series of American politicians to a series of "the Baader-Meinhoff Girls." And of course, Evel Kneivel.

After its Philly run, Axis of Evil will appear at the Glass Curtain Gallery in Chicago from April 8 though May 11. Then it goes to the Lawton Gallery in Green Bay, Wisconsin, from September 15 though October 6.

The Jewelry That Is in Thy Brother's Eye

What is it with Illinois legislators and weird ornamental surgery? First they went after forked tongues. Now it's eye jewelry. Their guiding principle: If thinking about it makes you wince, it ought to be illegal.

[Thanks to Nicolas Martin for the link.]

What About Your First Prediction?

Sorry to nitpick, but two days ago defense attorney Barry Hazen was all over the news giving color commentary in the search for Brian Nichols. On one of his appearances (I can't find the transcript but I saw him say it), he declared that Nichols would "not be taken alive." Yesterday he was back on tv, giving more expert commentary, and he didn't even bother noting that his first prediction was totally wrong. I'm glad the situation was resolved peacefully, and I respect lawyers who represent notorious and unpopular clients, but come on!

The Nine Billion Names of God: Part 2

Some of you were whining that we didn't give you a Friday Fun Link yesterday. Fine -- here's one for Saturday.

Will Bashar Survive?

One of the subtexts of the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, and the beginning of a Syrian military withdrawal from the country, is what this will mean for the Syrian regime in the future. Will Bashar Assad survive? In Amman and Riyadh, I hear, they recently gave the regime only a few months more, and that was before the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the start of the Lebanese crisis.

In Damascus on Thursday, some 200-300 critics of the Syrian regime (I'm taking the figure from the more detailed Arabic version of the English article linked here, published in the Beirut daily Al-Nahar) gathered at the invitation of the National Coordinating Committee for the Defense of Fundamental Freedoms and Human Rights. While the numbers were small, the protestors showed considerable courage in that they were set upon by pro-government mobs using sticks, and by police. Several people, including women, were beaten, in what was, in fact, an unusual display of violence. In the recent past the Syrian authorities had been careful to avoid the overt use of force.

The slogans thrown up by each side said a great deal. Here's what the pro-Bashar crowd chanted: "Death to America, death to Israel; Oh America, put away your dogs, the Syrian people are not scared of you." "America, out! Out!" "Oh Bush, you pig." "Oh God Almighty, protect the leader Bashar." "Oh Bush, where are you? Where are you? Bashar puts you to shame"; or its variation, "...Hassan Nasrallah puts you to shame."

The protestors, on the other hand, sang this: "No to fear and terrorism." "No to discrimination in all its forms." "No to [religious] sectarianism." "Yes to reform from inside." "Yes to freedoms and to a free country." "No to corruption, unemployment and the lack of opportunity." "In favor of a free and democratic Syria."

While liberty starts with a step, it might be a fairly large step to presume today that the Syrian regime is most threatened by its domestic liberals. Unfortunately, the likelihood is that if the regime were ousted, it would probably be ousted, at least in a first phase, by its own--alarmed at what a hash the Assads and their cousins, the Makhloufs, have made of things, both in Lebanon and internationally.

One should also observe the pragmatism of the Syrian business class. The Assads and Makhloufs are not indispensable to its survival, and any movement away from the regime will have to pass through the private sector at some stage. With the economy searching for a lifeline, and privatization and banking reforms hardly advancing at all, there is surely disgruntlement there. I'm not suggesting a coup is in the offing (who knows?), but the pillars of the Assad regime are eroding: the Alawites are worried; the business class, particularly Sunnis, were disturbed by the Hariri assassination and are, clearly, making less money today; and the political elite as a whole may soon lose a very profitable venture in Lebanon.

The months ahead will be interesting.

Reason on the Boob Tube Saturday (Charlton Heston Allusion Edition)

Hey, that's not Corey Feldman on the ultimate reality TV show, The Lehrer NewsHour. It's Contributing Editor Michael Young, who runs the op-ed page at Lebanon's Daily Star and has filled our pages with excellent, on-the-street analysis about the Middle East. Go here for a transcript, streaming audio, and streaming video.

And on the cable dial, tomorrow on C-SPAN's BookTV at 10:30AM, you can check out Reason's own Omega Man, Ronald Bailey, talking up "The State of Science Journalism."

And who's that moderatin' the gabfest, which also features The American Prospect's Chris Mooney and American Enterprise Institute's Sally Satel? Let's just say it's not a newscaster turned mutant hippie who spouts great lines like, "Definition of a scientist: A man who understands nothing until there was nothing left to understand."

Stop Making That Orfful Noise

An article (reg. req.) in the Globe and Mail takes on a question that has been at the front of nobody's mind lately: Is it appropriate to get down with the driving sounds of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana? The most popular piece of classical music of the twentieth century was composed in Germany in 1937, at the height of the Nazi cultural program, and in recent years anti-Orffians have been arguing that that shrill chorus, those pre-metal power chords, and that galumphing rhythm are all...well, you get the idea:

Orff became an important symbol for the Nazis, as living proof that the Reich was not entirely opposed to modern music -- or conversely, that modern music was not entirely "decadent." He was given a monthly salary by the music-loving Nazi governor of Vienna, offered projects by Goebbels's film bureau, and received a full exemption from military service -- one of only 12 given to composers during the Third Reich...

Orff's supporters are inclined to say that the composer's only "mistake"...was to feel the artistic necessity of a kind of music that just happened to appeal to violent ideologues such as Goebbels. They point out that the Nazis also approved of Bach and Beethoven, both of whom wrote "pure" music that needs and accepts no external political program. Surely Orff should be heard likewise, as pure music.

Orff, however, didn't see it that way. He saw modernity as a played-out remnant of a red-blooded past, whose vitality could be retrieved only by creating music (or theatre or painting) that was filled with potent lessons about how life should be lived. "In everything I do, I am concerned with spiritual, not musical, debates," he said. His thoughts on the spiritual significance of accepting favours and awards from a regime that killed or exiled many of his colleagues were not recorded.

Recent critical discussion has tried to determine whether, in effect, the Nazis were right. Was Carmina Burana "the original Springtime for Hitler," as musicologist Richard Taruskin has suggested, and is it somehow dispensing a toxic mist of Nazi mythology over all who hear it?

The question is complicated by the way some critics become overwhelmed by their conviction that Orff was a populist second-rater who owed his success to his ability to rip off Stravinsky. Stung by the music's irritating popularity, they grasp for any reason to prove it guilty of something.

"Orff's rhythms are uniformly foursquare, his melodies catchy, his moods ingratiating," groused Taruskin in a New York Times article, not seeming to notice that these are also attributes of Vivaldi's Four Seasons and of most pop music. "[The music] reverberates in the head the way propaganda is supposed to."

Therefore, Taruskin concludes, Orff was a propagandist, not just for the Nazis, but for anybody, advertisers included, with an evil message to pound into your head. "His music can channel any diabolical message that text or context may suggest, and no music does it better. . . . It is just because we like it that we ought to resist it."

I don't want to defend Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, which I would like to hear never; and it's better that Orff bear the Nazi stigma than Wagner, who whatever his failings as a human being, was dead before Hitler was born. But there's something misguided about efforts to read unsavory signage into art that has an unsavory history. "Method" acting and the neo-realist school of drama and cinema it belonged to had solid Soviet Socialist credentials, but the only lesson most of us learned from Marlon Brando was that it's forbidden to interfere with human history.

If critics wanted to ask a more fruitful question, they'd consider why "fascist" aesthetic ideas (an ill-defined concept, even by the fascists themselves, but basically a collision of wooly-headed romanticism and fake neo-classical propriety) continue to be appealing to people. Let's face it: No Hitler, no Star Wars. Even the idea that you can sniff the politics in this work is bogus. If Orff had never written these songs, and some movie composer came up with them as a score for Titus or The Lord of the Rings, nobody would think anything of it.

The discussion of politics ignores a more obvious reason for the work's appeal. The G&M claims Orff's hit has been used in the soundtracks for "more than a dozen films," but the usage everybody knows and identifies the work with is in Excalibur. But when people refer to Carmina Burana, they're really only talking about one song, the "Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi" that everybody's heard—and everybody's heard it because you can tap your foot to it. What left classical music high and dry in the twentieth century was the rediscovery of rhythm, and it's no coincidence that of the handful of classical works that caught on with the public in that time, most of them—The Rite of Spring, Bolero, the "Mars" section from Holst's Planets, etc.—are all works that use the orchestra as a percussion instrument. This disconnect has been heightened in the last few years, as classical radio stations try to stay alive by providing the "sonic atmosphere" that Muzak used to provide, which is pretty much anathema to driving rhythms. What the Nazis couldn't defeat, the free market has laid low!

When Belly Stars Weren't In Style

Apparently, the Sneetches with stars upon thars were plotting against America.

UN Not Nincompoops?

Via Plastic, the Web concept that helped kill Suck and Feed and soldiers on as a very interesting news portal and discussion site, comes this Rand Corp. report that gives one-and-a-half thumbs up for the United Nations in its peacekeeping role. The remaining half of thumb is put into the eye of the United States.

From Rand:

Among those studied, two-thirds of UN nation-building operations can be counted as successful at this time, compared with half of such U.S. operations. In large part the lower U.S. success rate can be attributed to the more demanding nature of the American-led operations. But the difference also reflects the UN's greater success in institutionalizing past experience, establishing a doctrine for the conduct of such missions, and developing a cadre of trained personnel who carry over from mission to mission.

Whole thing here.

The Economist
gives a shout out to the UN for helping Liberia here.

New at Reason

Chuck Freund says, "I am Jorge Luis Borges. Now despise me."

New at Reason

Is Senator McNasty's war on the first amendment something new, or just the latest version of some old patterns? Jacob Sullum finds the continuity in John McCain's struggle for incumbent rights.

From the State That Gave Us Devo and the Tafts

Remember that Ohio Patriot Act? The state senate just passed it unanimously.

The Senate is a Vast Wasteland

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report on kids' media consumption pattern has been tossed on the engine fires of another predictable round of moral panic, with senators from both parties (including Hillary Clinton, whose recent clumsy lurches to the right appear to be part of a deliberate rebranding) calling for a $90 million study of media's effect on children. Michelle Cottle at The New Republic urges all concerned to calm down, have some dip.

Drug Czar, Above the Law

Montana officials want to know why the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Scott Burns, thinks he doesn't have to obey state campaign finance reporting law regarding his campaigning against the victorious Montana medical marijuana initiative I-148. Burns regularly swoops down on states to campaign against any proposed changes in marijuana law, and regularly refuses to report expenditures involved in his campaigning to state governments--Burns has similarly insisted Nevada's campaign finance regs don't apply to him. Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices Gordon Higgins has asked Burns for "information about the scope of your responsibilities as Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy that may lead you to claim immunity."

[Link via Rational Review.]

Field of Screams

The federal government's dangerous addiction to steroids show trials worsened noticeably this week, when the scarequote-worthy "House Committee on Government Reform" issued seven subpoeanas to current and former players (including bloody-footed Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, whose main qualifications appear to be that he's a pro-Bush Christian World Series champeen who loves the sound of his own voice), to swear on the Holy Bible that they indeed know the text of the Fifth Amendment.

Even if you think that the subpoenaed Rafael Palmeiro -- accused by disgraced Bash Brother Jose Canseco of taking steroids -- deserves whatever punishment he can get for all those Viagra ads, there are several interesting precedents at play. First, the Government Reform Committee is demanding to see "the names, disciplinary action taken and reason for suspension for all drug-related violations since 1990," even though those tests were conducted on the condition of secrecy and privacy. Not particularly comforting news for the 50 million or so Americans who pee in the jar every year.

Second, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who pushed for the March 17 hearings, has openly admitted that the impetus for the hearing is to "find the truth" in the allegations made in Canseco's book. I look forward to the Committee's similar fact-checking on whether George W. Bush snorted coke at Camp David, Bill Clinton raped Juanita Broaddrick, and Al Gore inhaled epic amounts of pot before enthusiastically putting his shoulder into the wheel of the Drug War.

Third, Congress has concocted an interesting claim of jurisdiction: "Under the rules of the House," the Committee warned Major League Baseball in a letter this week, "'the Committee on Government Reform may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.'"

Intriguingly, Major League Baseball and its eternally oppositional Player's Union have united under one lawyer to challenge the subpoenas -- all the way to the Supreme Court, they vow -- on grounds of out-of-control jurisdiction, constitutional invasion of privacy, and interference with an ongoing criminal investigation (the BALCO case up in San Francisco).

And I would hope they add Criminally Bad Taste to their bill of particulars. Waxman's horrid little letter calling for the hearings begins with an unabashed reference to arguably the most cynical film ever made:

In the movie Field of Dreams, Terrence Mann, a writer, explains the unique role baseball has had in American life:

The one constant through all the years ... has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time ... this game is part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.

This is not a good time, however, for baseball.

It's an excellent time, however, for baseball to tell Congress to get bent. UPDATE: Here's the Committee's finger-wagging response (PDF) to MLB's challenge of its author-i-TAY. The Drug War is cited.

Fools Rush In

In a piece about the omnibus appropriations bill back in November, I suggested that one factor driving wasteful legislation is the speed with which bills are passed, not only foreclosing debate but rendering it effectively impossible for most legislators to have even read the laws they're voting on in any detail.

Now Matt Yglesias has posted a handy-dandy chart from Rep. Louise Slaughter's report on procedural abuses by House Republicans [PDF] showing just how little consideration time some major legislation gets:
I'll repeat the suggestion I made in the November piece: We need a cooling-off period, maybe a week, between the time legislaton's introduced and the earliest date it can be voted on.

UPDATE: Commenter Chris Monnier notes that the group Downsize DC is lobbying for legislation to do just that.

The Living Encyclopedia

I'm late to note it, but the March Wired includes a smart profile of Wikipedia by Daniel Pink.

Garden State Stupidity

Yes, I know from growing up there that New Jersey produces the best corn, TV mobsters, and toxic landfills in the country. (And yes, the three products are probably all related to one another.)

And some of the dumbest, most annoying lawmakers in both the free and unfree world. A couple of decades ago, it was trying to make Bruce Springsteen's get-outta-here-anyway-we-can-baby anthem "Born to Run" the "unofficial" state song; just a few days ago it was declaring the tomato the state vegetable.

Now comes word via Rogier van Bakel at Nobody's Business that a lawmaker wants televised poker shows to cough up money to treat gambling addicts.

Why stop at poker shows? ESPN could be made to pay into a healthcare fund for people with sports injuries. Maybe the Playboy Channel should start paying the therapy bills for sex addicts. And since mob shows could push the gullible into a life of crime, why don't we order HBO to send a check to the Crime Victims Fund for every new episode of The Sopranos?

Whole thing here.

You Can't Embarass A Shagger

The friendly loons over at Fark are having a good snicker over lawmakers in my home state of North Carolina looking to create a "shagging" vanity plate. Shag, in Carolina beachspeak, refers to a slow dance particularly beloved by the golfing set now entering their golden years. This group may or may not be aware of the Austin Powers' popularized use of "shag," but trust me, they would not care.

For evidence, check out this recent shag event announcement:

PROCEEDS TO HALL OF FAME FOUNDATION & HARRY DRIVER JUNIOR SHAGGER SCHOLARSHIP. FOR FURTHER INFO CONTACT COOTER DOUGLAS

I mean, these people call each other "cooter" and do not bat an eye.

Now the truly obscene thing is that money raised by the sale of NC license plates would evidently be routed by the state to a foundation headquartered in South Carolina. What's up with that? Sounds like somebody is swinging a big hairy driver around.

Court to Taxpayers: Go Ahead, Ignore the IRS

Interesting development in the world of tax rebellion, starring Bob Schulz of the We The People Foundation, prominently discussed in my May 2004 Reason feature story on the "tax honesty" movement--those people and organizations who argue for a dizzying variety of reasons that the income tax is not legally binding.

Schulz is in the midst of legally challenging IRS summonses on him; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rules against Schulz, on the interesting grounds that he had no real cause of action regarding these IRS summonses because, in the language of its Jan. 25 decision, "absent an effort to seek enforcement through a federal court, IRS summonses apply no force to taxpayers, and no consequence whatever can befall a taxpayer who refuses, ignores, or otherwise does not comply with an IRS summons until that summons is backed by a federal court order." Although a technical defeat for Schulz, he was delighted to have that notion on the record.

The Justice Department, understandably, was less delighted and has filed a motion to amend that decision. From that motion: "This will undoubtedly result in taxpayers asserting that they are simply free to ignore IRS summonses and are under no obligation to comply with them. The fair and effective administration and enforcement of our tax laws may thereby be significantly impaired." The motion goes on to cite the Supreme Court's 1964 Reisman v. Caplin and the Second Circuit's 1958 U.S. v. Becker decisions as precedents that indeed we have to ask how high when the IRS says jump.

Rosen to Press Corps: Evacuate the White House!

PressThink's Jay Rosen has a solution for journos who complain about the White House's stand-offish 'tude to the press: Quit the press room and talk to non-admin sources who will cough up information.

When being inside gets you nowhere, you have nothing to lose by developing a more "outside" approach to the beat. If the White House is thinking post-press, (a description I believe accurate) then the press room becomes a space the Administration has already vacated. And that is the sound you hear when Scott McClellan steps to the podium. Instead of venting about the awfulness of the briefing, recognize that the decision to empty it out was made a while ago. Bush already left the marriage.

In an outside beat, you still try to find out what's going on with the Bush Administration; you stay with the story. The title, White House Correspondent, does not change. But you abandon hope of getting there the inside way. Instead, you interview "around" the White House, which means investing primarily in other sources who have parts of the puzzle. Most especially this means sources in Congress. Sometimes the agencies. Sometimes the opposition. Sometimes it is the American people who are the outside source because they always have parts of the puzzle.

Whole thing here.

A Reminder of Why I Hate Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is worried about sex and violence in popular entertainment. "It is a little frustrating when we have this data that demonstrates there is a clear public health connection between exposure to [fictional] violence and increased aggression that we have been as a society unable to come up with any adequate public health response," the junior senator from New York said at a Kaiser Family Foundation forum this week.

Leaving aside the fact that the link to which Clinton alludes is anything but clear, the quote illustrates how meaningless the phrase public health has become. Why would a connection between, say, watching The Sopranos and whacking people in real life be a "public health connection" requiring a "public health response"? (Isn't violent crime a public safety issue?) In this context, the phrase gives Clinton's dislike for certain forms of entertainment a scientific veneer and obscures the government remedy she has in mind (some form of censorship, presumably).

It is a little frustrating when we have these data that demonstrate a clear public health connection between fuzzy collectivist thinking and bad policy that we have been as a society unable to come up with any adequate public health response. Maybe we could quarantine Clinton.

Is Reason Becoming the Susan Lucci of the Western Publications Association "Maggie" Awards?

I'm happy to report that Reason is yet again a finalist for a Western Publications Association "Maggie" Award in the Politics & Social Issues category. The other finalists are HIV Plus, Mother Jones, Sierra, The Advocate, and The Sacramento Union.

Congrats to the other finalists. Mother Jones took home top honors last year.

This marks the third or fourth straight year that we've been a finalist. Yet like soap queen Susan Lucci, we realize we may be years--even decades--away from taking home the prize.

Sonic Archeology, for Your Entertainment

For Reason readers and lovers of neglected music in the greater Los Angeles area, I'll be appearing at another group reading from the book Lost in The Grooves, an anthology edited by Kim Cooper and David Smay, to which I contributed 19 mini-essays. The book is an encyclopedia of neglected but brilliant records, celebrated by a wide variety of record enthusiasts and rock critics. I'll be reading three or four of my entries--will I cover the Cowsills? Hackamore Brick? The Vulgar Boatmen? Ron Nagle? John Phillips? The Chills? Miracle Legion? Paul Kantner? Even I'm not sure yet.

WHERE: Vroman's Bookshop, 695 E. Colorado Blvd, Pasadena, CA 91101
WHEN: Saturday March 12, 4 p.m.

The who and what are covered above--close to a dozen of my fellow contributers to this encyclopedia of wonderful but historically neglected records will also read, and Jackson Del Rey of the wonderful L.A. band Savage Republic will close the show with a musical tribute to the band Pearls Before Swine.

New at Reason

What was Mickey doing hanging out with the censors at CPAC, and does Minnie know about it? Radley Balko finds out.

Unholy Alliance

In one of the passages from Wealth of Nations less frequenly quoted by free-market fans, Adam Smith wrote:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

There's a corrolary for politicians, I think: Officeholders of opposing parties seldom agree on anything unless it shores up their mutual interests as incumbent powerholders against the general public. The phrase "broad bipartisan support" should be spinetingling. Had David Broder mulled that over, he might not have written, with apparent surprise, in today's Washington Post:

One of the unexpected results of this bipartisan excess is a resolve by senators of both parties, led by Lott, chairman of the Rules Committee, to clamp down on 527s before the next election.

John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who teamed up to sponsor the major campaign finance reform bill passed in 2002, can hardly believe the support they are getting for their new legislation restricting 527s. McCain-Feingold became law only after years of fierce battles, with Republican regulars fighting it every step of the way and some Democrats quietly hoping for its demise.

But of course, it makes perfect sense. McCain-Feingold may have been good for incumbents on net, but there was also the dicey matter of fussing with the pols' own cash flow, which made at least some nervous. No such reservation when what's at issue is only clamping down on the political speech of others. Anyone who's in the politics game is apt to have a metastasized will-to-control to begin with. Who wants all these interlopers throwing a wild card into the mix? Bonus amusement points here:

The legislation being drafted for the Senate has to walk a narrow constitutional line, because the reformers, including Lott, do not want to inhibit communication to voters by more traditional advocacy groups pushing particular issues or causes. But that's a matter of drafting, which can be solved.

Maybe it can in some ad hoc way, but can anyone give me a principled distinction here, aside from the fact that MoveOn is new and the Sierra Club is old?

Thanks for Your Service, Now Go Directly to Jail

When people learn about the Kafkaesque nightmare that confronts people (including, on occasion, women) who are falsely accused of fathering children they've never met, the usual response is "That can't be true!" Many of the illiberal provisions also do damage to the correctly named fathers as well, though who the hell wants to lift a finger for Deadbeat Dads? Well, maybe when people see how it's affecting American soldiers, they'll give the issue at least a second thought.

Reservists' child-support orders were based on their civilian wages, and when they are called up to active duty, that burden doesn't decrease. Few can get court modification before they leave, modifications are seldom granted anyway, and even if a father applied for modification before deployment the debt continues to grow until the case is decided much later.

These servicemen fathers cannot get relief when they return because federal law forbids a court to reduce the debt retroactively. Once the arrearage reaches $5,000, the father becomes a felon subject to imprisonment plus the loss of his driver's and professional licenses and passport.

More horror stories here. (Link via Radley Balko.)

Beyond Decriminalization

A Vermont legislator has introduced a bill that would legalize marijuana possession, cultivation, and sale. Residents 21 and older would be permitted to possess up to one ounce, which they could obtain from licensed and regulated retailers. The Marijuana Policy Project says this is the first bill of its kind, going well beyond "decriminalization" laws that typically reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts to a modest fine. The MPP press release (not online yet) quotes the bill's author, state Rep. Winston Dowland, who says:

My hope is to spark an honest conversation about marijuana prohibition--both locally and nationally....Prohibition simply has not worked. Marijuana was virtually unheard-of when its sales were first banned in Vermont in 1915. Now, after 90 years of prohibition, nearly 10% of Vermonters use it each month. Nationally, arrests for marijuana possession are running over 660,000 per year--more than the entire population of Vermont--and what is the result? Eighty-seven percent of high school seniors tell government survey-takers that marijuana is easy to get. How many more billions of dollars are we going to spend on this failed policy before we stop and consider whether there might not be a better way?

New at Reason

Michael Young wonders why Bashar al-Assad is trying so hard to hang on to a country he doesn't even like.

What Ever Will Iraqi Voters Think of us?

Los Angeles had a mayoral primary election Tuesday, resulting in a runoff repeat of the 2001 race: Bland career civic politician Jim "Jinky" Hahn, now the mayor; versus rock-starish lefty bromide-dispenser Antonio Villaraigosa, who again seeks to be the city's first Latino mayor since back when they spoke Spanish at City Hall. There really are no national or libertarian implications I can think of, beyond the fact that both candidates, like the vast majority of L.A. politicians, think that government is the best way to solve any problem you might have except the ones you care about.

But this L.A. Daily News woe-is-our-democracy thumbsucker, bemoaning the fact that only 28 percent of registered voters bothered to show up to the polls, has too many laff lines to keep to myself. Such as: "Voters were largely uninspired to go to the polls despite a smorgasbord of five legitimate candidates." A smorgasbord of legitimacy! The best/worst stuff comes from Tom Hollihan, associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, which is a well-funded old-folks-home for former Mondale staffers and retired L.A. Timesmen, and which used to cut me checks now and then.

"It's a real tragedy citizens don't get engaged. We proclaim we're building democracy in the Middle East and show so little regard for it here." [...]

As more voters stay away from the polls, they might also start to disengage from other civic responsibilities, from willing participation on juries to respect for civic institutions.

"It's a warning sign of danger for society at large. If people don't participate in organized politics, how does that translate into other behaviors in civil society?"

Yeah, like exercising personal freedom and stuff without wasting time on buzz-harshing local politicos! Icky! The article goes on to mention without comment that the highest recent turnout for a mayoral election here was the whopping 66.2 percent of registered Angelenos who voted in 1969. What it neglects to add is that '69 was a race-riot of a race, with white Mayor Mad Sam Yorty calling the black contender Tom Bradley a pro-Black Panther pinko, and warning ominously against the "black bloc" influencing elections. While I fully expect the despicable Hahn to continue trying to conflate the image of Villaraigosa with a crack-smoking gangbanger, and for Antonio to continue saying little about the public policy issues caused by mass immigration while croaking We-Are-the-World paeans to the American Dream, I have faith that we will likely be spared from the kind of crises and rancid rhetorical hellbroth that produces high voter turnout the world over. (Pre-emptive Lonewacko link about Villaraigosa's MEChista past here.)

The Circle of Trust

Document classification nearly doubled during President Bush's first term, says Information Security Oversight Office Director William Leonard.

Based upon information furnished our office, the total number of classification decisions increased from 9 million in FY 2001 to 11 million in FY 2002, 14 million in FY 2003 and 16 million in FY 2004.

New at Reason

A new Peter Bagge cartoon considers the case for Seattle's genuine, bonafide, electrified, six-car monorail.

Steve Irwin, English Professor

Malaysia's Education Ministry has some advice for parents who want to raise English-speaking kids: Plant them in front of the tube. That sounds about right, until you consider the proposed lineup:

"We cannot dismiss the role of television," said Education director-general Datuk Dr Ahamad Sipon.
"It is important. Students should watch more television, especially educational English programmes such as Animal Planet."

I've never understood the Asian love affair with Animal Planet, a channel that carries the crushing boredom of the outdoors right into your living room, but I assume it has at least something to do with the lack of any intelligible language.

A Valediction; Forbidding Mourning for Dan Rather

So Dan Rather, the anchor (as in weighing down an entire enterprise) of the CBS Evening News, signed off for good last night, the night before, or more than a decade ago, when he was secretly replaced by a Disney animatron deemed far more life-like that the real McCoy. Insert "Kenneth, What is the frequency?" joke here.

Rather was a great bizarro presence on TV (and journalistically, I'd say he was no worse than high-hat hacks such as Murrow, Sevareid, Cronkite, et al). He was to news shows what Phil Rizzuto was to sportscasting, a highly visible joke who made us all feel a little bit smarter and smugger about ourselves. (True, Rather, unlike the Scooter, never appeared on a record as big as Meat Loaf's great pop opera "Paradise By the Dashboard Light." But Dandy Dan did help make an early DIY pastiche, The Evolution Control Committee's "Rocked By Rape," possible; go here to listen--and listen you must.)

But more important, Rather was increasingly irrelevant not because of anything he did or said (though the sweater vests certainly contributed to the loss of faith in the "institution" of TV news every bit as much as NBC's Dateline faking GM truck rollovers with rigged explosions and Geraldo Rivera burrowing into Al Capone's vault and writing his Eyes Wide Shut-esque memoir, Exposing Myself).

One sign of irrelevance? In the late '90s/early '00s, Reason used to send out a direct mail package to potential subscribers touting the fact that our magazine told you stories that "Dan, Connie, Peter, and Tom would never tell you!"--an allusion to the then-anchors of the broadcast news shows (recall that Connie Chung, now working the aromatherapy tent at the Judge Crater Dude Ranch for forgotten celebrities, briefly coanchored--as in weighing down an entire enterprise--CBS's newscast). The package performed pretty well, so we left it alone. A couple of years later, when we went back to freshen it up, it took my then-publisher and I a couple of minutes to remember who the hell Dan, Connie, Peter, and Tom were.

Broadcast news as an institution has declined in its importance not for anything Dan Rather did or didn't do. Fewer than 40 percent of households watch such programs nowadays, down from about 75 percent in 1980. That's as much a sign of liberation from tyranny as the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are more and better news sources available than ever before. Or, as important, it's easier to escape "news" altogether if you want to. So as a retiring Dan Rather gets put on the ice flo, let's remember him fondly. Or, more honestly, let's pretty much forget he--and broadcast news--ever existed. If nothing else, the end of broadcast news may mean the end of Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment, which is something that everyone can get behind.

But good luck to his replacement, the Nosferatu newsman--and longtime host of undead Sunday morning "news" show Face the Nation--Bob Scheiffer.

Karen Ann Quinlan Out, Tomato In As New Jersey State Vegetable

I realize that simply mentioning this story underscores this blog's demonized propensity to wax lyrical about New Jersey, but screw it:

Members of [New Jersey's] Assembly Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee yesterday approved a measure designating the treasured Jersey tomato as the official state vegetable. A similar proposal is pending in a Senate committee, and has yet to be considered by the full membership of either chamber.

Sponsors of the measure get around the fact that the tomato is considered a fruit by using a century-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that slapped a vegetable tariff on tomatoes, similar to the tax placed on cucumbers, squashes and beans. In squeezing tomatoes into the vegetable category, justices on the 1887 high court reasoned that if it's typically served with dinner, and not as a dessert, it must be a vegetable.

"Botanically, it's a fruit; legally, it's a vegetable," said Sen. Ellen Karcher (R., Monmouth), who is cosponsoring the Senate version of the bill. "Any of these bills that promote statewide pride is something we should embrace."

Fascinating that taxes play such a role. Whole thing here.

For Jerseyans of a particular age, this pathetic waste of legislative energy (similar to the attempt to make Brooce Springsteen's "Born to Run" the unofficial state song, whatever the fuck that means), brings to a close an era of mean Karen Ann Quinlain jokes.

We sail on into history, certain only of this: "When America was on its knees, either Russell Crowe's character in Cinderella Man or the actor who played Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies brought us to our feet."

Go here for info on the five major fruits of the Garden State (no McGreevey jokes, please).

The Mysterious Decline in Black Recruits (Crap Journalism Edition)

Today saw a raft of stories about the perilous decline in black military recruits (go here for a list of such stories).

The basic take? This Wash Post piece is representative. Headlined "Steady Drop in Black Army Recruits: Data Said to Reflect Views on Iraq War," it notes that blacks now make up less than 14 percent of recruits, down from 23.5 percent in 2000.

Let's leave aside for the moment whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. After all, blacks made up about 12 percent of the US population in the 2000 Census and there's a perennial argument that their historic overrepresentation in the all-volunteer military meant such a system was worse for them than a draft. It may simply be expected that over time, any given ethnic group's representation in the military will approach its proportion in the population at large. Who knows?

But there's a couple of elements of crap journalism in the general spin of this story. The Post also notes:

Hispanics have increased from 10.4 percent of new recruits in 2000 to 13 percent in 2004; whites went from 61 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2004; and Asians or Pacific Islanders made up less than 1 percent of new soldiers in 2000 but nearly 5 percent in 2004.

So the story might have been headlined something like: "Asians and Pacific Islanders Bursting with Patriotism, Increase Number of Recruits 5X." Or something touting the increases, in percentage terms, of white and Hispanic recruits.

More important, neither the Post story, nor any of the others I skimmed, actually gave raw numbers of recruits. Instead, all we get are relative percentages. Which is fine, but also woefully incomplete.

How many total recruits were there in 2004 vs. 2000? I mean, if the number of total recruits doubled in those four years, it would mean that, in absolute numbers, there were more black recruits in 2004 than 2000. Without those figures, there's no way of knowing. Have recruitments been flat? Or what? It shouldn't have taken a reporter very long to find out and report that along with the percentage shifts.

Not Since Broadway Joe Wore Pantyhose...

...has professional football's hold on squarejawed manliness looked more precarious. Rogier van Bakel ponders why you can't put the word "gay"—and a whole lot more—on a custom tshirt from NFL.com. The official site maintains a voluminous list of forbidden words:

The delight (or horror) of the list is that I learned just how uninformed I am when it comes to dirty language. If I use my imagination, I can understand what 'glazed donut' might refer to (I think), and after some pondering, 'Hershey Highway' also seemed to surrender its initial mystery. But what's juggalo? Lady Boog? Pocket pool? PWT? Yellowman (other than the reggae singer)? Nooner? EVL? G-Unit?

The real question: What happens when some nudge-and-wink type tries to get a shirt made up with "Kemp," "Largent," or "Kopay"?

Addendum: As commenter phocion notes, you really need to see the list of banned words to get the full effect.

Mr. Pot, Mr. Kettle. Mr. Kettle, Mr. Pot

Former commie chief, leader of bloody late-empire crackdown in Baltic states, lectures successor on good government:

Gorbachev also said Putin should beware of people in his entourage who believe the government can suppress public anger by cracking down on democracy and basic freedoms.

New at Reason

In an intriguing new consideration of income and living standards, Ron Bailey discovers that even when everything isn't rising, it must converge.

Good News/Bad News In Massive Hizbollah Demo

In theory, a news event that puts a crimp in Bush administration self-congratulations and infuriates my in-laws should leave me pleased as punch, but I think yesterday's huge pro-Hizbollah demonstration in Beirut was a pretty lousy development. In fact, to invoke the increasingly popular concept of writing people out of rational debate, can we all at least agree that Hizbollah's putting 500,000 or more people in the street was not good news? We can concede that many of those people may have been bussed in, some possibly from as far off as Syria. We can dismiss it as a fascist display. We can note that it took a lot more courage for the opposition to put tens of thousands of people in the street in protest against the occupying power than for Hizbollah to put hundreds of thousands in favor of it. We can dispute the official figure of 1.6 million demonstrators. After all that, it was still a goddamn big demonstration, and to dispute that is just wishful thinking. If for no other reason, it was bad because momentum is the one thing you never want to lose in these people power movements, and the narrative of the Lebanese public rising as one against the Syrian occupiers is now a much more difficult play. Coupled with the return of the never-popular prime minister Omar Karami, this is a serious setback to what was looking like a relatively smooth transition.

Other bad news: The vast, if unsurprising, range of factions willing to demonstrate on Hizbollah's behalf. Maronite stooge Suleiman Franjiyeh came out for Hizbollah. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party or "Hizbalkawmi" came out for Hizbollah, as did Nabih Berri's Amal party, the other big Shi'ite political organization. (For reasons too complicated to go into, the Hizbalkawmi are not actually a Syrian party but a disarmed North Lebanese militia with members in Parliament; you can read more about them in Daniel Pipes' Greater Syria.) It may be that Lebanon's Shi'ites are not as tied to Hizbollah as they seem (recall how Muqtada al-Sadr, supposedly a wildly popular Robin Hood figure to Iraq's Shi'ites, went busto like Howard Dean in Iowa once Iraqis actually voted), but at the moment I don't see anybody else holding the reins of this enormous demographic.

That's (some of) the black cloud. Now for some silver lining. The defining aesthetic characteristic of the demonstration (on TV at any rate) was the prominence of the Lebanese flag. Apparently these were handed out by Hizbollah members to demonstrators, but even if was a calculated gesture, it's significant that they thought to make the gesture. The thinking may have been that the demonstration would go down better both with the media and with the demonstrators themselves if the overall mood was one of patriotic excitement rather than loyalty to the occupier, pan-Arab or pan-Syrian fervor, etc. (That's at the high level anyway; the content of individual placards and pictures was less encouraging. Click the Hizbalkawmi link above for some examples, and also for one pic of a really out-of-place looking floozy in a tight pink shirt.)

It's also more than likely that the support for Syria on display yesterday (and in this poll, which is open to dispute) is not as big as it looked. By this I'm not referring to the talk about inflated figures or people being coerced into demonstrating. But there's another obvious angle here: This demonstration wasn't really about Syria at all, but about Hizbollah and its place in the post-occupation country.

Michael Young makes a very plausible case that Hassan Nasrallah, ambitious to become an international leader, has misjudged the winds. But if you posit that Hizbollah's real goals are mainly domestic (something they always say themselves), yesterday's demo makes perfect sense. In fact, it seems long overdue. For at least five years I've been wondering why Hizbollah, which has the power, the reputation, and apparently the popular support to run the country, was apparently content to get by with 12 out of 128 seats in parliament. Young accurately refers to Nasrallah's contempt for ordinary Lebanese politics, and there's plenty to be contemptous about, but that may be changing. If I were Nasrallah, I'd be calling now for a census of the population of Lebanon, an end to "confessional" representation, and direct voting. I assume he's got his reasons for not doing that, but those are the effective conditions of the "Taif" agreement, which also calls for Syria to leave and the militias to be disarmed. As far as I can see, Nasrallah's in the catbird seat: He doesn't disarm until he wants to, and when he does, he can start taking heap big control of the government. As time passes, I suspect people are going to forget that the we're-glad-Hariri's-dead march was ostensibly about the cobwebbed Syrian regime and see it as Hizbollah's coming out party.

I guess that's not actually good news. Looking at the pictures I can't help thinking "Go ahead and march on that street and that park, you fucking slobs. Hariri built every inch of that, and it's the last good thing you'll see in your fucking miserable lives." We could go to Pipes again to argue that American policy is doing nothing but empowering shiekhs, ayatollahs and raving lunatics. (Not that the bastards will ever thank us: Read this interview with Hizbollah's Mohammed Fneish, wherein I doggedly try to get him to admit the Iraq war was good for Shi'ites in general and his group in particular, and he churlishly refuses to admit it.) And if the May elections take place in an environment where Syria has "redeployed" but is still working out its ever-complicated troop withdrawal schedules (not an impossibility), will the U.S. do anything? Ultimately, is Lebanon really that important to the U.S.?

But a few more bits of good news:

• Bush continues to lay on the get-outta-town rhetoric. I don't think (nor do I hope) that he actually intends to back it up, but Bashar should be given no wiggle room.

• Yesterday's march won't have much impact on the overall People Power trend (if there is such a trend) in the Arab world.

• Things are still relatively peaceful in Lebanon. (This talking point, which I've heard a lot today, is overrated: Since 1990, almost everything in Lebanon has been relatively peaceful.)

• Ultimately, this is democracy in action. There are a lot of Shi'ites in Lebanon, and from what little I know about them I don't find them very interesting. But in a democracy the masses get to have their voices heard, or so I've been told.

• There's been so much Lebanon shit around here lately that it feels like the grand old days of the early 90s, when Michael Young was still putting out his wonderul Lebanon Report, which boasts my favorite magazine cover of all time.

All in all, I'd trade all of the above for Hariri still alive.

A Brief Taxonomy of Middle East Crowds

The rapidly spreading phenomenon of the Middle East crowd requires some distinctions, especially between the different kinds of crowds that have lately been assembling for different purposes. These gatherings are not all reflections of a newly emerging sense of popular empowerment, and they don't all yield the same meaning.

My colleague Jesse Walker has observed that some Bush supporters have ripped some of these phenomena from their contexts and imposed a political meaning on them. In some cases, I agree with him. A recent, large gathering in Morocco, for example, has been cited as yet more evidence of political ferment in the Arab world. In fact, that crowd -- which demanded the release of Moroccan prisoners being held by Algeria -- appears to have been a familiar nationalist crowd; any greater political meaning involving change would appear to be limited at best.

By obvious contrast, the groups that have been demonstrating in Cairo and Kuwait are far, far smaller -- hardly "crowds" at all -- but they yield greater potential political meaning: That such popular-empowerment groups have assembled at all represents a challenge to long-standing, top-down political norms. Indeed, the significance of the Egyptian Kifaya protests is not that they involved tens of thousands of marchers, but that they were an unanticipated phenomenon that quickly went from negligible to noticeable. No one doubts that Egypt's Mubarak could conjure up a counter-crowd of a million people to chant his name, but that wouldn't change the significance of the smaller protest gatherings.

Just such a conjured counter-crowd is what marched Tuesday in Beirut. The Hizbollah crowd that gathered to protest U.S. and French pressure for a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon (and also against UN Resolution 1559, which would disarm Hizbollah) has impressed some Bush critics by its size. The size of the crowd matters -- it reflects the strength of the crowd's organizers -- but so does the nature of the crowd. Indeed, the point of such conjured crowds is that they are about their organizers far more than they are about their participants. (The Lebanese blog Bliss Street Journal observed that the Hizbollah march was really about its speakers, and not -- in contrast to opposition marches -- about the participants. [Link Via Across the Bay.])

The various Lebanese opposition rallies that have taken place since the murder of Rafiq Hariri have also featured a degree of factional group organization (the flags of certain factions have been visible), but I've yet to see anyone argue that these now-famous events are not essentially popular expressions. These crowds are about their participants, not their organizers. Indeed, the original Beirut outpouring following Hariri's murder may actually have been a "natural," self-organized phenomenon. As far as I know, a "natural" crowd sympathizing with Syria has never formed in Lebanon since Hariri's murder, though a small and violent outbreak in Tripoli consisted of followers of the country's resigning premier.

To use Elias Canetti's terminology, Lebanon's opposition crowds are "open" crowds, originally self-organized and constituting a popular challenge by much of the Christian, Druze, and Sunni communities to Syrian domination. Hizbollah's crowd on Tuesday was a "closed" counter-crowd, created to be poured in front of Beirut's UN offices by those who benefit from the current power arrangement. Different crowds, different meanings.

"Journalist Sgrena detested yankees"

Not the Bronx Bombers, 'Mmericans. Or at least that is what the combination of a free Web translating site and a Dutch dispatch on the Sgrena affair relate.

If I read the Yoda-speak results correctly, a Dutch correspondent says the Italian journalist told him she had no fear of being a kidnap target in Iraq because, "We stand on the side of the suppressed Iraqi people." Oh.

More according to Harald Doornbos' account of their conversation during the flight into Baghdad from Beirut, by way of our trusted Yoda-izer:

"You get the situation not. We are anti-imperialists, anti-capitalists, communists," said she. "The Iraqis only kidnap American sympathizers, the enemies of the Americas have nothing to fear."

And this tidbit as picked up by the Command Post:

"The Americans are the biggest enemies of mankind."

This thing just keeps getting better and better.

J.G. Ballard in Iraq

La Repubblica says it has photos of the car that was carrying Giuliana Sgrena when she encountered those American bullets in Baghdad. If the pictures are legit, Sgrena's account of the shooting simply can't be accurate.

Jim Henley notes that the photos undercut the official U.S. story as well. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reviews the larger topic of checkpoint shootings in Iraq.

Lawmakers Writing Software Again

From a true friend of freedom, Ed Felten, comes word that California's attempt to regulate p2p networks has morphed into a requirement that net-ware include copyright and porn filters.

Felten points out all kinds of practical problems with the bill's language, just one being that it assumes that software hawkers somehow control the underlying architecture of the product. Not in this world.

Then there's the clumsy attempt at defining the "primary purpose" of software yet unknown, as Felten notes:

A program's author may have one purpose in mind; a distributor may have another purpose in mind; and users may have a variety of purposes in using the software. Of course, the software itself can't properly be said to have a purpose, other than doing what it is programmed to do. Most P2P software is programmed to distribute whatever files its users ask it to distribute. Is purpose to be inferred from the intent of the designer, or from the design of the software itself, or from the actual use of the software by users? Each of these alternatives leads to problems of one sort or another.

Isn't someone in Sacramento the least bit embarrassed by this stuff?

Colorful Journey to Nowhere

Omar Karami, who resigned nine days ago, has been renominated as prime minister by Lebanon's pro-Syria parliament:

A total of 69 deputies from the 128-member chamber named Karami in consultations with President Emile Lahoud, the sources said. The pro-Syrian president was now bound to appoint Karami, who resigned last week, as prime minister-designate.

Meanwhile, pro-government demonstrations spontaneously erupt in Damascus and witnesses see signs of Syrian redeployment from town of Batroun, but in the surest sign yet that the opposition is finished, former SOS Madeleine Albright has joined the chorus of officials calling for Syrian withdrawal.

Eastern Europe as Conservative Tax Paradise?

Tax reform devotees in the U.S. are looking to formerly Communist nations of eastern Europe for the realized joys of a flat tax. Others in the E.U. think it just isn't fair. From a Christian Science Monitor report:

Last January, Slovakia became the sixth Eastern European country to adopt a flat tax, which means all income-earners pay the same rate. Since then, Romania and Georgia have followed suit, creating a global proving ground for the concept. In the process, flat-taxers have moved Eastern Europe from a Communist backwater to an investment spring - pressuring its higher-taxed Western neighbors to adapt to the new environment.

.....Eastern Europe's cheaper labor market and growing reliance on flat taxes leave Western European economies struggling to compete.
......
Leaders such as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder say that the Eastern European countries steal business with their low tax rates while at the same time benefiting from European Union (EU) aid.

Last year, former French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said that if the new states were "rich enough" to introduce a flat tax they wouldn't need EU funds. France and Germany want to harmonize tax rates within the EU, and bring flat-tax rebels under a unified code.

Book 'em, Danno

The poet Philip Larkin famously declared, "Books are a load of crap," but for Luis Sanchez, mayor of Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, books are the key to better police work and crime-solving. All 1,100 of the city's flatfoots will be required to read one book a month. The reading list ranges from light (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince) to heavy (Carlos Fuentes' Aura), to physically heavy (Cervantes' Don Quixote) to job-related (the crime fiction of Paco Ignacio Taibo II).

Sanchez believes that too many cops are rude to citizens and that by reading, they will become better mannered, more communicative and thus more welcome in the neighborhoods they patrol.

"Reading makes us better people, more sensitive, more able to express ourselves," said Sanchez, a bibliophile who belongs to the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. "Better persons give better service."

Police will be tested and graded on their reading each month — as they will be on six traditional proficiency standards, such as physical fitness, ethics and arrests, the mayor said.

"The majority of us are confused because other mayors have come and made promises that haven't been fulfilled," patrolman Jose Luis Avila objects. But before you scoff, The Los Angeles Times points out that under Sanchez, the crime rate in the felony-ridden Mexico City suburb has dropped by 20 percent. (The city's former chief of police is now doing hard time after being convicted of heading a local drug syndicate).

My favorite quote from this Guardian story:

Mexico's police officers are often portrayed in the media as ineffective good-for-nothings who munch tacos on corners and demand bribes for minor offences.

What the Guardian is afraid to report: Mexico's civilians are often portrayed in the media as swift, fast-talking mice who wear sombreros and rescue their lazy, siesta-addled amigos from predatory cats.

To the Barricades, Zane Grey Fans!

Here's a three-handed slap, delivered by the New Yorker's Adam Kirsch, in a critical look at Charles Bukowski's poetry:

Bukowski is best read as a very skillful genre writer. He bears the same relation to poetry as Zane Grey does to fiction, or Ayn Rand to philosophy -- a highly colored, morally uncomplicated cartoon of the real thing.

Our cover package on the highly colored, morally uncomplicated philosopher-cartoon is here. (Link via L.A. Observed.)

Think the DMV Is Bad?

Try getting a driver's license in Germany. (Link via A Fistful of Euros).

What Your Storage Space Says About You

The self-storage industry is booming, the Christian Science Monitor reports:

"It's a $17 billion-a-year business devoted entirely to finding a place to store our abundance," says Daniel Pink, an author and culture watcher. "It's bigger than the motion picture production industry."

But what's any trend without gratuitous social critique?

"Storage units are a symptom of a much deeper malaise," says Peter Whybrow, director of the Neuro- psychiatric Institute at UCLA and author of "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough."
"Where there's no clearly defined social hierarchy other than money, the acquisitive nature gets maximized by the need to create one's own social standing," he says. "[So] you keep what you want to flaunt and you put the rest away - because you can't bear to give it away."

Striking a Blow Against Cheap Smokes

The Chicago Tribune has an interesting update on state efforts to collect cigarette taxes from people who buy smokes online. New York, Michigan, Illinois, and other states with high taxes have begun to subpoena sales records from online merchants and send bills to startled smokers. The Tribune cites a Michigan woman who opened an envelope from the state Department of Treasury to find a demand for $4,798 in back taxes ($2 a pack in Michigan) owed by her boyfriend for cigarettes he bought over the Internet. She complains that smokers were not given adequate notice that looking for cigarette bargains on the Internet is illegal and that smokers are being unfairly singled out, given all the people who evade state sales taxes by ordering stuff online. "It's not politically correct for anyone to be a smoker right now," she says, "so they'll come after us."

The Tribune reports that "44 state attorneys general will meet in Washington this month to discuss the problem of tobacco sales over the Net." Maybe the problem is exorbitant cigarette taxes.

New at Reason

Nick Gillespie gives thanks for the hypnotic power of Janet Jackson's nipple.

Another Difference Between American Newspapers and British Newspapers

My local daily would never begin an article with the phrase, "The strange case of the homosexual necrophiliac duck."

Banzhaf: I Think I Put It Best

My favorite John Banzhaf press release of the last few hours carries the headline "Ronald McDonald Compared to Joe Camel." The anti-smoking activist turned anti-fat crusader, whose love of litigation comes second only to his love of seeing his name in print (I know--I'm just encouraging him), reports that "using Ronald McDonald in a new campaign as a 'Health Ambassador' and 'Active Lifestyles Advocate' to teach children that an active lifestyle, rather than cutting down on overeating and fattening foods, is the key to avoiding obesity has been compared in the Financial Times with using Joe Camel to teach children how to inhale less deeply to avoid lung cancer while smoking." See if you can guess which clever wag, identified in the press release only as "a critic," drew this insightful comparison in the Financial Times. Needless to say, Banzhaf did not acknowledge his rhetorical debt to Yale obesity maven Kelly Brownell, who has been comparing Ronald McDonald to Joe Camel for years.

Small-Government Communists

China's leaders have discovered a mysterious connection between Communism and bureaucracy:

China now has 46 million government bureaucrats, new statistics revealed yesterday, a number almost as great as the entire population of England.
While the country is used to outdoing the rest of the world for sheer numbers, the explosion in officialdom is alarming its ruling Communist Party.

Whole thing here

Via Club for Growth

Ranger Rick, Landlord

England's first new national park since the 1980s is also its first new Enclosure Act since the nineteenth century. Little Red Blogger describes Hampshire's New Forest as one of the few places "where land enclosures were successfully resisted and the tradition of commoners using common land persisted for over a thousand years," with rules enforced by customary law and voluntary associations. The national park, Tory MP Julian Lewis tells the BBC, will "remove a consensual system, a system of checks and balances, that has been in place for centuries and replaces it with a single overarching body."

[Via Kevin Carson.]

Al Qaeda vs. Cinderella Man (Your Tax Dollars at Work Edition)

More signs that we're living in a Philip K. Dick novel: Reuters and other sources are reporting that

Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe said he may have been a target of an al Qaeda kidnap plot in early 2001, part of a bid by the militant network to "culturally destabilize" the United States.

The Australia-based Crowe told GQ magazine in an interview that he received FBI protection throughout the filming of "A Beautiful Mind" and for part of "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." He also was flanked by undercover agents at the Golden Globe awards ceremony in 2001....

"I don't think that I was the only person (targeted). But it was about -- and here's another little touch of irony -- it was about taking iconographic Americans out of the picture as a sort of cultural-destabilization plan," he said.

Story here.

I assume that the FBI, like the rest of the free world, simply fell asleep part way through Master and Commander. Or perhaps the agents on Crowe detail found themselves enmeshed in a web of equally implausible kidnap plots and sexual tension, not unlike his character in the 2000 actioner, Proof of Life.

Judging from the squib about his latest project, al Qaeda has become far craftier since 2001, figuring it will be far more dispiriting to Americans to simply let Crowe star in shitty movies.

To wit: Cinderella Man, which, according to the IMDB, tells "the story of Depression-era fighter and folk hero Jim Braddock, who defeated heavyweight champ Max Baer in a 15-round slugfest in 1935." The film's gag-inducing tag line? "When America was on its knees, he brought us to our feet."

And when there was only one set of footprints in the sand? That's when Max Baer, Jr. carried us on Jethro Bodine's shoulders.

Nasdrovya? Nyet!

Continuing the Stalin-nostalgia theme: Probably the only good thing to come of the Soviet Union was sponsorship of some interesting visual art. Boing Boing points to this gallery of anti-alcohol propaganda posters.

New at Reason

A public service announcement to citizens of the Pajama Nation from Cato's John Samples: Legislators have a funny habit of reining in any new medium that threatens political incumbents.

Sometimes, One Death Is Not A Tragedy

Since Big Joe Stalin seems to be coming back into vogue, I'm reminded of a what-if exercise Nick Gillespie and I did a while back: What if all the Soviet villains had died in dramatically appropriate ways? Lavrenti Beria is closely inspecting the ice sculpture at some state dinner when the sculptor slips and accidentally drives his ice pick into the NKVD chief's head. On a walking tour of a Ukraine footwear factory, Nikita Kruschev is killed as a rogue shoe pops out of the machinery and bonks him on the head. As the Heinkels bomb Moscow, Stalin sits calmly in his bomb shelter, but a shock wave tips over a bookcase full of heavy volumes of statistics, crushing the the Secretary General. And so on. Suggestions welcome.

New at Reason

As we all know, other countries exist primarily to provide ammo for partisan political debates in the U.S. Still, Jesse Walker suggests it may be worth trying to analyze democratic reform in the Middle East on its own terms.

"Hyperjingoistic Douchebaggery" And Your Children

A few weeks ago reader David Rimple sent in this link to a video of Brick Township, NJ high school teacher Stuart Mantel making a jackass of himself in front of his classroom. I didn't think much of the video because you can hardly see anything, I was pretty much unsurprised that a baldheaded, mustachioed, Heinrich Himmler-looking rageaholic would be teaching a technical class at a New Jersey high school (that's just about only variety of teacher we had back at dear old ACHS), and I was only curious about how long it would take before Mantel's catchphrase "I don't wanna hear a SOUND not a SOUND!" showed up as a regular sound effect on the Howard Stern show.

But I guess Rimple has a better news sense than I do, because Mantel's hissy fit continues to take the nation by storm. The anti-Mantel side of the debate says the teacher is a dangerous lunatic who should be punished, while pro-Mantelists (including, believe it or not, Bill O'Reilly) claim the kids themselves were a bunch of punks who needed to be disciplined. (Inevitably, there now appears to be a Rodney King-esque missing section of tape that we are to imagine reveals the authority figure as a great hero undone by the out-of-control forces of political correctness.)

I don't see how one argument cancels out the other. Can't the kids be punks and the teacher still be an idiot? For better or worse, in loco parentis customs are normal at the high school level, and on that basis alone, Mantel clearly belongs in another line of work: Whatever stern measures or even physical punishment might be necessary to discipline your kids, throwing a spaz attack is not one of them. It's simple: If you're going ape while the kids you're supposed to be controlling are having an extended laugh at your expense, you've lost.

Since none of my own Mantels of sainted memory ever got canned for this kind of stuff, I'm not expecting such a reaction here. What's more interesting is Brick Township's proposed solution to the problem: Banning cell phone use by students. Is this a variation on the old "Doctor, it hurts when I do this" joke? What are these publicly-funded teachers getting up to that they have to be shielded from public scrutiny? There's also a safety consideration: It's not clear that cell phones actually saved any lives during the Columbine shootings, but it is clear that public high schools are institutions of involuntary confinement where kids spend the day getting hollered at by idiots. You want your kid out of contact the next time some Private Pyle cracks under the strain?

Shallow Throats

Every now and again, I'll hear a libertarian or conservative rail against the views of someone like Catherine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin. And every time, I think: "That's great, but when was the last time either of those people mattered? Who gives a shit what MacKinnon or Dworkin think anymore?" Pretty much nobody, as The Boston Globe observes: feminists dropped out of the old Baptist-bootlegger anti-porn coalition a while ago. The article suggests that the key may well have been technology: Since it's no longer relegated to seedy urban theaters, many of the educated women who might previously have joined an anti-objectification chorus will actually have, like, seen some porn, maybe even liked it. Anyway, an utterly wholesome (if you'll forgive the term) development worth noting.

UN Bans Human Cloning

Not really. After a 4 year effort to get the United Nations to adopt a treaty to outlaw both therapeutic and reproductive human cloning, all cloning opponents like the Bush Administration could come up with is a tepid General Assembly resolution. The resolution, adopted today, urges member states to enact legislation "to prohibit all forms of human cloning in as much as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life." The resolution also demands that countries "adopt the measures necessary to prohibit the application of genetic engineering techniques that may be contrary to human dignity." The vote 84 to 34 with 37 abstentions.

What could be more contrary to human dignity than prohibiting the production of perfect transplant tissues by means of cloning and outlawing the use of genetic engineering to prevent disease, disability and early death?

"Everyone Makes Mistakes"

With three monuments of old Uncle Joe in the works, Stalin nostalgia appears to be spreading in Russia. Says one young man:

"Look, everyone makes mistakes," Mr Vassilyev said. "Stalin wasn't a saint, but he was a great man who built up a strong state.

"After years of lies about him, the truth is coming out. We owe a lot to him. He turned the Soviet Union into a superpower that was feared and respected. A man like Stalin is what Russia needs now."

Putin, well, you know, he tries, but it's just not the same, is it?

Save the Children: Send Their Parents to Prison

California Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian (R-Stockton) has introduced a bill that would make it a felony to smoke pot or use other illegal intoxicants in the presence of your kids. Even though the offense need not involve exposing minors to any actual harm, notes Dale Gieringer of California NORML, the penalty Aghazarian wants, 16 months to three years in prison, is much harsher than the penalties for child endangerment--and surely more harmful to children than witnessing illicit drug use.

Foreigners Out! Uh, We Mean, the Other Foreigners!

It's nice to see that even in the world of putatively objective news reporting, there's room for a touch of dry wit here and there. From the Washington Post's coverage of the Hezbollah-run pro-Syria protests in Lebanon:

"We have come here to affirm Lebanon's independence, sovereignty and unity ... and say no to the flagrant foreign interference in our affairs," he said.

Participants stressed that the foreign influence they referred to was from the United States, France and other countries, not Syria, which they welcomed.

Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference

Reason is proud to once again be a media sponsor of the 15th annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, which will be held from April 12-15 in Seattle, Washington. This year's theme is Panopticon.

For more details on what USA Today has called the "most important computer conference you've never heard of," go here.

I Fought the Mob and the Mob Lost

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jonah Goldberg dances around the politics of giving freed ex-felons the vote -- Marion Barry! It's a Democratic ploy! Hillary Clinton! Advocates are exaggerating! Willie Horton! Opportunistic Blue-state federalism! What's racism got to do with it? It's a stalking horse for letting prisoners vote! Did I mention Marion Barry? -- before reasonably settling on federalism as the best way to deal with the issue. Then he closes with this:

The principle behind Clinton's proposed legislation [...] is that the nation's democracy is "enriched" when more people vote.

Who says? If you are having an intelligent conversation with somebody, is it enriched if a mob of uninformed louts, never mind ex-cons and rapists, barges in? People who want to make voting easier are in effect saying that those who previously didn't care or know enough about the country to vote are exactly the kind of voters this country needs now.

While Goldberg's distaste for Jeffersonianism is touching (as is his bizarre analogy of voting as "an intelligent conversation"), his description of what enfrancishement advocates "are in effect saying" is wrong, at least in my case. The principle isn't that ex-sodomites or first-time drug offenders who've served their time will vote well, or Democratic, or even at all, but rather the quaint notion that taxation of free citizens should be bundled with at least the option of representation. Also, there are way too many damned felonies.

Goldwater Democrats, Take 3

The Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman noted the federalism switcheroo late last month:

For the last 70 years, conservatives and liberals have argued whether assorted powers should be centralized in Washington or entrusted to the states. The debate is still going on, but with a strange twist. Somewhere along the line, the two factions switched sides. The result is like watching a version of "The Odd Couple" in which Jack Lemmon is the slob and Walter Matthau is the neat freak.

Chapman cites the No Child Left Behind Act, and opposition to it, as a prime example. His conclusion is hopeful:

Still, if liberals keep championing the rightful powers of the states, they may develop a lasting attachment. Lately, in two cases before the Supreme Court, they've been telling Washington busybodies to take a long walk off a short pier.

One case concerns a federal raid on a Californian who was growing marijuana for medical use, as allowed under California law. The other involves Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, which lets doctors prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients, and which the Justice Department wants to overrule.

In these instances, conservatives want faraway bureaucrats butting into local affairs, while liberals say that maybe Barry Goldwater was right about the dangers of big government.

"It was such a safe, predictable world"

Post-war balance of power? Pre 9/11? Kinda. Letitia Baldrige laments the passing of the upscale department store.

But is the fawning, personalized attention Baldrige recalls from her youth really gone or just tucked away in trendy little shops somewhere? I have no idea as I don't even know where the trendy shops are located.

New at Reason

How did Sgrena get sprung? When will Buffett stop droning? Will Hawkeyes phone home? Get all the answers, in Reason Express.

What Is Leon Kass Up To Now?

"Conservatives Draft a 'Bioethics Agenda' for President," reads the Washington Post headline today. Apparently dissatisfied with inept efforts to ban all human cloning by his pro-life ideological allies on Capitol Hill, Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, is circulating an alternative proposal.

The Post has not apparently laid hands on an actual copy of Kass' new proposals, but I suspect that they mirror those made by the conservative majority of the President's Council on Bioethics' 2002 report Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry. In that report, the conservatives came out in favor of establishing "a national agency...with broad oversight, advisory, and decision-making authority" to regulate biomedical research. Furthermore, the majority on the Council favored a 4 year moratorium on human cloning to produce transplant tissues, declaring "Our society needs more time to explore the full moral significance of taking such a step, to debate the moral and practical issues involved, and to seek a national consensus -- about all research (emphasis mine) on early human embryonic (and fetal) life (not just that formed through cloning techniques)."

Kass told the Post, "The rapid advance of new technologies makes it urgent to look afresh for successful ways to defend human procreation against a broad range of degrading practices and to protect nascent human life against creation solely for research."

As I asked when the report was first issued: What does Kass mean by all research? "Is this an effort to turn back the clock on such beneficial technologies as assisted reproduction or pre-implantation diagnosis of genetic diseases in embryos? Does this debate include another fruitless and contentious effort to force a national consensus on the morality of abortion and contraception? Kass lost the debate on assisted reproduction in the 1970s. Is this a way for him to reopen that debate for a second round in which he hopes to fare better?"

So the answer to my question is yes, Kass is trying to turn back the clock. It is clear that he has never given up on trying to deny the benefits of safe reproductive and biomedical technologies to future generations and that he never will.

Children of a Much Lesser God

Hezbollah and pro-Syrian parties are holding a massive demonstration in downtown Beirut right now, against UN Security Council Resolution 1559 (which calls for a Syrian departure from Lebanon and the disarmament of armed groups, meaning mainly Hezbollah). The Syrians and their Lebanese allies will use this episode to say that Syria still has much support in Lebanon, but are not likely to admit the absurd caveat to that argument--namely that Syria has support to maintain its hegemony over Lebanon.

I think this is an essential moment in the history of Hezbollah (the demonstration is no more than an effort to flex Shiite muscles), which has spend a decade and a half during Lebanon's postwar period setting itself above the fray of Lebanese society. Pumped up by conceit, but also by a remarkably adept leadership, the party successfully sold its resistance against Israel as a reflection of its being at the center of a national consensus. Even when the party engaged in the most partisan behavior, it would invariably regard itself as something of a supranational organization that was, somehow, too good for Lebanon.

Perhaps it was, but today Hezbollah has completely undermined that premise in the eyes of its fellow countrymen. There is little doubt that a majority of Lebanese--Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims (particularly after the assassination of Rafik Hariri), and not a few Shiites (how I recall that the most violent postwar confrontations with Syria occurred between Syrian soldiers and Shiite soccer fans after matches in which Syrian and Lebanese teams competed)--want an end to Syrian domination. Today, the truth is clear: Hezbollah seeks to become the Praetorian Guard of a Syrian-dominated order in Lebanon for after Syrian soldiers withdraw. In that context, the killing of Hariri also becomes clearer: it was preparation for what Damascus understood would be an inevitable Syrian pullout, ensuring that a strong Sunni, with a national project for Lebanon (who could also have threatened the stability of the Alawite regime in Damascus), would be eliminated.

The flip side of that strategy is giving Hezbollah ever more power in a post-Syrian-withdrawal Lebanese state. That's perhaps why a senior Lebanese politician told me recently: "I do not consider it out of the question that Hezbollah played a role in the assassination of Hariri, on Syria's behalf."

Can such a plan work? I rather doubt it, given the anger of Syria's Lebanese adversaries and international wariness, but unless Hezbollah refuses to get further sucked into such a project, it will both lose its national credibility and might carry Lebanon into a period of prolonged crisis as the party tries to protect its gains. On top of this, fears in Riyadh, Amman and Cairo of a so-called "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon (via Syria and its support for Shiite Lebanese power), will make the Sunni Arab states redouble their efforts to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. If that happens, where will Hezbollah be?

Ultimately, the party's destiny is within Lebanon, not forever tied to the interests of Iran or Syria. But the party's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, is devoured by hubris. He's an astute leader, but also someone utterly contemptuous of parochial Lebanese political life. The irony is that Hezbollah has only been imperfectly able to play above its size. It has helped arm and train Palestinian groups, but that has posed two problems: first, the Palestinian fight is exactly that: a Palestinian fight, not Hezbollah's; secondly, the Palestinian Authority has openly called on Hezbollah to stop arming Islamist militants.

In Iraq, Hezbollah has also shown poor results. It is believed to have, or to have had, ties with M