Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2005 May 15-31

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Hezbollah and Hariri

Kuwait's Al-Siyassa is reporting an interesting piece of news that could have dramatic consequences for the UN investigation into the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The report is in Arabic, but here are the first two paragraphs:

Senior American and European sources at UN headquarters in New York have revealed to Secretary-General Kofi Annan "highly dangerous and sensitive information that confirms that an important Lebanese political grouping was implicated in the ... Hariri assassination."

The sources indicated that this information, confirmed by personal testimonies, has embarrassed the international circles involved in Lebanese affairs and in the repercussions of the Hariri assassination, because the mere implication of this group will provoke great political tumult in Lebanon and will represent a new factor that will dovetail with the clauses in Resolution 1559 that have not yet been implemented.

Security Council Resolution 1559, which was what the international community used to force the Syrians out of Lebanon, also calls for the disarmament of militias in the country, primarily Hezbollah. While the newspaper did not come out and say it, what it clearly was referring to as "the grouping" was Hezbollah. It went on to suggest that the group played a role in Hariri's assassination at the operational level, presumably in preparing and triggering the bomb, on behalf of the Syrians.

Al-Siyassa is notoriously hostile to the Syrian regime, so that any such accusation must be treated with caution. However, I know for a fact that the paper was on the money in a number of reports following the Hariri assassination (while others were unverifiable). I also know that suspicion of Hezbollah involvement has been circulating in the political class here in Beirut since the killing. One very senior politician told me a few weeks after Hariri's death that "I do not discount Hezbollah involvement", and pointed to the fact that Hariri's regular meetings with the party's secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, may have been used to lull him into a false sense of security. I also know that other politicians have privately mentioned their concern about Hezbollah's involvement.

What would the party's rationale be? Much the same as the Syrian one--to get rid of a man who threatened to undermine the Syrian order in Lebanon because he was on the verge of winning a major election victory. As a "strong Sunni", Hariri certainly disturbed Damascus, but he was also seen by the Syrians and probably Hezbollah as a supporter, if not more than that, of Resolution 1559.

If the news is true, and for the moment nothing confirms it, it would be the accusation most people dare not mention. As Al-Siyassa makes clear, this could embarrass a lot of people, but more significantly it could lead to significant tension between Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites. Indeed, as elections approach, Hezbollah candidates are on slates either directly sponsored by or allied with the Hariris. The news item may never be confirmed simply because no one wants it to be.

New at Reason

Charles V. Peña says don't listen to porky politicians trying to stay on the defense gravy train.

New at Reason

The DEA is trying to kill the buzz of America's AWOL booze huffers. Jacob Sullum says slow down and enjoy your drink.

Friday Fun Link

Or maybe Friday Fascinating Link ... this Theodore Dalrymple mind-bender is best summarized in Doktor Frank's also-fun (or fascinating) link to it:

a Church of England vicar gets his book published by a for-women-only specialty division of a publishing house by managing to leave the impression that he is a young, female Muslim of Indian origin. The hoax is discovered, and the book is "disappeared." And the world "loses" a minor literary masterpiece.

If that's not fun enough for you ... how about Dr. Vendyl Jones announcing that he's digging up the Ark of the Covenant? (Via Boing Boing.)

On the Record In Syria

"A clutch of brave pro-democracy activists are daring to speak out in Syria," Canada's Globe and Mail reported earlier this month, "emboldened by intense pressure on Bashar Assad."

Nearly all the dissidents interviewed by reporter Paul Koring asked to have their names affixed to their comments. "If they had said those things a few years ago, and especially if they said them for attribution, they would have just vanished," one surprised Syrian told the Canadian reporter. (Koring's piece is here, but it is now behind a screen requiring would-be readers to sign up for archive access.) These critics and activists have apparently decided that their goals are better served with their names out there. Here are their comments.

Muhammad Kamal al-Iabwani, a physician and a member of a group of 10 activists who call themselves the Damascus Spring, told Koring that when Assad came to power, he "promised us reform and democracy, and then we found ourselves in prisons. We must see some changes, not just hear promises." Al-Iabwani was in jail for three years. Six other members of his group remain imprisoned.

Dissident Louay Hussen told Koring that "The government is only still in power because there is no alternative, no parties, no popular movements. . . . All the excuses, all of the rationale for this regime is gone."

Machouk Alkhaznawi, a Kurdish cleric who has repeatedly denounced Assad's regime during Friday prayers, said, "Either the regime will change, or the regime must go." He added that "I couldn't have said this five years ago because the Americans weren't in Iraq five years ago. The reason I and others can speak out is because the Americans are trying to get rid of dictators and help the oppressed."

Yassin Yassin al-Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in prison, distanced himself from the U.S. "Our agenda is not the same as the Americans," he said. "We who are interested in the future of democracy and the future of Syria must be patient." He added that, "When the regime was strong, it suffocated the country, but it was also the cement that held our society together . . . People are afraid, but now they are afraid not of the regime, but of the collapse of the regime."

One dissident who spent years in prison and who preferred to stay anonymous told Koring that, "If the outside pressure continues, then the barriers of fear will be broken . . . The regime is losing its grip because of outside pressure, but that pressure must be maintained."

Crystal Koran-o vs. Piss Christ

Is the flushing of a prisoner's Koran the equivalent, give or take, of Piss Christ? Matthew Bargainer draws some distinctions:

[There's a] critical distinction between activities one finds distasteful and activities one is forced to participate in. Since I always like to help lost sheep, I offer the following handy pocket-sized guide to consent and coercion.

Taking a photograph of one's own justly acquired religious item in bodily fluids: Highly offensive to many, but no coercion involved. OK from a purely libertarian standpoint.
Holding, say, a born-again Baptist against her will and forcing her to watch you excrete bodily fluids on the Bible: Offensiveness to anyone but the non-consenting party is morally irrelevant -- after all, rapists don't find anything icky about rape. Not OK by any decent standard.

Eating pork: OK.
Dousing an Orthodox Jew or Muslim with pig blood: Not OK.

Humiliating oneself as part of a fraternity initiation: OK.
Building nude pyramids at gunpoint: Not OK.

Smoking cigarettes: OK.
Tying a suspect to a chair and putting out cigarettes on his flesh: Not OK.

Physical intimacy with a willing adult of the same sex: OK.
Sodomizing a 17-year-old, then shooting him 11 times: Not OK.

Whole thing, including links to some of the above, here. I'll only add that I for one don't think a good Koran-flushing or coerced Christ-pissing is "torture," and I don't know many people who do. It would seem to be a rather counter-productive activity, unless you used it to successfully defuse one of those non-existent "ticking time bombs" we've heard so much about, but then I've never been a big believer in the quality of information extracted under duress.

South Park Republicans?

That's Sploid's wicked, brilliant headline to an incredibly disturbing NY Times account of US soldiers tormenting an Afghan captive.

The soldiers kneed the [retarded Afghan] man repeatedly in the legs and, at one point, chained him with his arms straight up in the air, Specialist Callaway told investigators. They also nicknamed him "Timmy," after a disabled child in the animated television series "South Park." One of the guards who beat the prisoner also taught him to screech like the cartoon character, Specialist Callaway said.

Sploid page here.

Times account here.

The Oobleck Hits the Fan

Uzbekistan updates:

Gateway Pundit has a news roundup.

Hey Dude Whoa is publishing e-mails from the front.

The Washington Post talks to a baffled political prisoner.

The Independent has a dispatch from Korasuv, the town that liberated itself and then was retaken by government troops. The BBC reports that the locals are still restless.

Russian apologist John Laughland says the revolution is a western conspiracy. Justin Raimondo, heretofore inclined to endorse Laughland's arguments, says it isn't.

Johann Hari suggests an oil connection.

Scraps of Moscow continues to translate relevant articles from the Russian press, as well as offering its own analysis.

Video Games: Not Art, Not Media...Just Plain Evil

Courtesy of Gary DuVall comes this anti-video game attack in the Land of Lincoln:

"Video games are not art or media," says Illinois state Sen. Deanna Demuzio. "They are simulations, not all that different from the simulations used by the U.S. military in preparation for war."

Demuzio is the sponsor of a successful bill that would, in the AP's summary, "require store owners to determine which games are too violent or sexually explicit for anyone under 18. Anyone selling them to a minor could be fined." Gov. Rod Blagejovich is in favor of the law and a version of it has passed the state legislature, too. All they're haggling over now is whether you could get jail time for selling Grand Theft Auto to an underage kid.

Most laughable (we're crying on the inside) are the on-the-record quislings in Springfield:

Other senators said the courts have already struck down similar laws elsewhere. They predicted the Senate-approved measure would never take effect and the state would end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Still, even some critics said they would not vote against the measure for fear it would be used against them politically.

"I'm going to vote for this bill, but I'm voting for it for one reason -- because this is a political bill," said Sen. Mike Jacobs. "If I vote against it, it will show up in a campaign mail piece."

Whole profile in courage here.

Bias Is Not a Bug...

...it's a feature of news in a competitive marketplace, argues former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel in a great new New York Times col.

If bias is a product flaw, why does it not behave like auto repair rates, declining under competitive pressure?

In a recent paper, "The Market for News," two Harvard economists look at that question. "There's plenty of competition" among news sources, Sendhil Mullainathan, one of the authors, said in an interview. But "the more competition there has been in the last 20 years, the more discussion there has been of bias."

The reason, he and his colleague, Andrei Shleifer, argue, is that consumers care about more than accuracy. "We assume that readers prefer to hear or read news that are more consistent with their beliefs," they write. Bias is not a bug but a feature.

Whole thing here (reg. req.)

VP's blog here.

Billionaires' Boondoggle

In the first Bob Herbert piece I've read all the way through in recent memory, the New York Times columnist lays into Mayor Michael Bloomberg's outrageous plan for a New York Jets stadium on Manhattan's West Side:

The rail yards on which the stadium would be built are owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the development rights have been valued by the M.T.A.'s own appraisers at $923 million. But the M.T.A. has agreed to sell the rights to this publicly owned property to Mr. Johnson and the Jets for a mere $250 million. That's a subsidy of nearly $700 million for the mayor's fabulously wealthy buddy.

When you add that subsidy to the $600 million in public funds that the mayor and the governor had pledged from the beginning to hand to [billionaire Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV], we're talking about a giveaway of $1.3 billion. The rascals used to do this sort of thing in back rooms, while worrying about headlines, indictments and handcuffs. Now they've figured out how to do it legally....

What we have here is a multibillionaire owner of a sports franchise that is so successful it is completely sold out for a decade. And he has the brass to come to the city and the State of New York with his hand out. It's like Donald Trump's asking the Partnership for the Homeless to help finance one of his luxury towers.

In Reason's May issue, Daniel McGraw finds grounds to hope that boondoggles like this one day will seem as quaint as Tammany Hall-style graft.

I See London, France, Saddam's....

underpants.

Courtesy (?) of Drudge and The Sun.

One question: What's he looking for in his trousers?

One more: How will the Sun retract this if it starts anti-Brit riots?

Update: President Bush and other US officials have condemned publication of the photos and have supposedly already launched an investigation into how the skin shots got away from the military.

The Sun's source, according to Reuters? "The Sun quoted U.S. military sources as saying they had handed over the pictures 'in the hope of dealing a body blow to the resistance in Iraq.'"

Murder Ballads

This may be old hat to those who (unlike me) pay attention to evolutionary biology, but University of Texas Psychology Professor David Buss has an interesting op-ed in today's L.A. Times saying that his research leads him to believe that "our minds are designed to kill," that "mating is inextricably intertwined with murder," and that "murderer's genes prevailed over those of their unfortunate victims, and we are their descedants." This conclusion also leads him to praise modern law, and condemn some modern criminology:

If we all have mental mechanisms designed for murder, why don't more of us kill? For one thing, killing is so costly for victims that natural selection has fashioned finely honed defenses -- anti-homicide strategies -- designed to damage those who attempt to destroy us. We kill to prevent being killed, so attempting murder is a dangerous strategy indeed. Second, we live in a modern world of laws, judges, juries and jails, which have been extremely effective in raising the cost of killing. Homicide rates among traditional cultures lacking written laws and professional police forces are far higher than those in modern Western cultures. Among the Yanomamo of Venezuela and the Gebusi of Africa, for example, more than 30% of men die by being murdered.

It may be disturbing to think of killing as evolutionarily adaptive and part of human nature, but this does not mean approval or acceptance of murder. I would suggest instead that those who create myths of a peaceful human past, who blame killing on the contemporary ills of modern culture and who cling to single-variable theories that have long outlived their scientific warrant are the ones who tread on dangerous moral ground.

"Even the Kids at Fat Camp Will Make Fun of You"

That's The Hatemongers Quarterly's take on something called the Student Environmental Action Coalition's Activist Training Camp.

We strongly suggest you forgo Camp Trail of Tears this year in favor of Activist Training Camp. After all, why would a kid want to play tetherball with some noxious suburbanite-in-training when he could be busy "confronting the legacy of racism and other forms of oppression and their manifestations within the environmental movement today"?...So drop your water wings, kids, and get ready for a "two-day anti-racism training, continued with forums for discussing and planning anti-oppression work."

Hatemongering here.

Activist camp here.

Sam MacDonald, Agonist

Reason's former Washington editor, Samuel A. MacDonald, has his first book out. The Agony of an American Wilderness (Rowman & Littlefield) examines the continuing struggle over the Allegheny National Forest between environmentalists, industry, and the locals who have lived and worked in the area for generations. Sam's book starts off with the 2002 destruction of the Forest Service lab, a fire allegedly set by Earth Liberation Front adherents that destroyed 70 years of research and did $700,000 worth of damage, and goes on to weigh the sometimes passionate arguments about the forest's future. The Allegheny is not an old-growth forest, by the way; the region was mowed flat long ago. Among the arguments: whether the valuable hardwoods forest that grew back is the "right" forest.

The real strength of Sam's work is that he keeps his focus on the people whose lives will be shaped by policy determinations. Sam, who is from western Pennsylvania, wrote the book there under a grant; I played the (mostly useless) offstage role of "mentor." Amazon reports that as of today, only two copies remain in stock (with more on the way). Better order now.

Even a Victory Would Be Embarrassing

The trial in the Justice Department's lawsuit against the leading cigarette manufacturers is winding down, with the government's last witness, Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, testifying yesterday. Myers was there to outline the differences between the 1997 proposed settlement resolving state lawsuits against the tobacco industry, which fell apart when Congress declined to go along, and the 1998 settlement, which was finalized without congressional approval even though it effectively imposed a national cigarette tax and national restrictions on cigarette advertising and promotion. The New York Times explains some of the ways in which the 1998 agreement was laxer than the 1997 agreement:

For example, the 1998 agreement allows each company to attach a cigarette brand name to one event or series of events, like the Winston Cup auto races. The 1997 agreement would have banned all sponsorships.

The 1998 agreement did not address in-store cigarette advertising. The 1997 agreement would have banned the use of color and set limits on the size and number of signs.

The 1998 agreement allowed free samples to be distributed in adult-only sites. The 1997 agreement banned all free samples.

The point of Myers' testimony was to show there are some additional restrictions that U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler could impose as remedies for the industry's "racketeering." So this is what the case comes down to, after six years and hundreds of millions of dollars: no more cigarette samples in bars, color-free retail signs, and a new name for a car race. And maybe yet another stop-smoking program. That's assuming the government wins the case and gets everything it's asking for.

No matter what happens now, the Justice Department has suffered a humiliating defeat, which it richly deserves for pursuing a case that had no basis in the law. Even before the trial started, Kessler ruled that the government was not legally authorized to demand that the tobacco companies pay tens of billions of dollars for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses under Medicare. This year a federal appeals court nixed the Justice Department's attempt to force "disgorgement" of $280 billion in allegedly ill-gotten gains, since no such money grab is permitted by the provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act under which the government filed suit. Now the government is reduced to quibbling about the size of Marlboro signs at the 7-Eleven.

Your Congress on Steroids

Over at Ragged Thots, NY Postman Robert George beholds Congress pumping ire at steroids and turns away like Lou Ferrgino on a bad day:

Want a double-standard? Consider this: DeLay is strongly critical of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for using international law as a guideline in several court cases. Yet, the law House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis says could be introduced as early as next week would conceivably overrule any negotiated labor agreements by an American sports league and their players -- in favor of an international standard.

And after going for sports leagues, what's to stop Congress from determining that the "marketplace" is taking "too long" in other industries as well?

Lock up your kids, ladies and gentlemen. This is not a pretty sight. This is your government on steroids.

Whole thing here.

Reason's own Matt Welch has a thing for steroids. Or maybe just jockstraps. Figurative jockstraps.

For White Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Ewoks on Endor Ain't Enuff

This sort of thing is surely one of the reasons why the terrorists--not to mention the Tusken Raiders of Tatooine--hate us. The only thing missing is blog-jock Jim Lampley pronouncing that he hopes Lord Palpatine "and his jackals carry the day. Let them remove those safeguards which have assured the minority party a continuing voice in the Senate, and then let them fret about it for thirty years after the pendulum swings back our way in 2008."

Frank Gorshin, RIP

I'm not certain, but I think Frank Gorshin introduced me to idea of actors as real people. My little 4 or 5-year-old brain vividly seized upon the fact that the guy who was the Riddler on the 60s Batman TV series seemed to be the same guy in the wild black-white face make-up in that Star Trek show -- and boy was Bele sweaty!

Gorshin carved out a successful decades-long career based on his sheer energy and a knack for doing impressions. That and he stayed married for 48 years. Sounds like a good life all around.

Reason Writers Around Town

Ron Bailey, for one, welcomes our new Korean clone overlords over at TechCentralStation.

Ahem! Ahum! Ahhhrrrllllccchhhh! Hm-hmm Hcccchhhhm!

If you can't get enough science fiction-related excogitation today, and you're not yet ready to join the Cult of Admiral Piett (the ruthless but strangely likeable Imperial Fleet officer played in a record-setting two Star Wars films by Ken Russell regular Kenneth Colley), you will certainly be encouraged by this snippet from a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go by highly regarded (or is that mildly retarded?) book critic James Wood:

Works of fantasy or science fiction that also succeed in literary terms are hard to find, and are rightly to be treasured — Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark" comes to mind, and H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and some of Karel Capek's stories. And just as one is triumphantly sizing up this thin elite, one thinks correctively of that great fantasist Kafka, or even of Beckett, two writers whose impress can be felt, perhaps surprisingly, on Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. And how about Borges, who so admired Wells? Or Gogol's "The Nose"? Or The Double? Or Lord of the Flies? A genre that must make room for Kafka and Beckett and Dostoevsky is perhaps no longer a genre but merely a definition of writing successfully; in particular, a way of combining the fantastic and the realistic so that we can no longer separate them, and of making allegory earn its keep by becoming indistinguishable from narration itself...

Given that Ishiguro's new novel is explicitly about cloning, that it is, in effect, a science fiction set in the present day, and that the odds against success in this mode are bullyingly stacked, his success in writing a novel that is at once speculative, experimental, and humanly moving is almost miraculous.

Indeed, one wonders what's really on the embarrassingly fawned-upon critic's mind with that line about "bullyingly stacked."

Why is this encouraging? Because in an era of universal hipness and widely distributed self-awareness, it's heartening to see somebody who still thinks he's impressing people when he does this kind of pompous throat-clearing. You could, of course, take him to task for a view of literature in which the works of Philip K. Dick, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and maybe a few other books by H.G. Wells (I hear he has a few good ones) all fail to measure up as literature. You might also savor that precious "some of" that modifies "Karel Capek's stories." (Even in praise, Wood is never less than judiciously measured.)

But why bother? The real question is, on what fucking planet does this kind of dismissal of a literary genre still impress anybody? And why are there so few people who recognize James Wood for the utter and obvious fake he is? At any rate, it's good to know this kind of flimflammery is still possible.

They'll Die For You, But They Can't Vote

I just received a press release from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), with some statistics about immigrant military personnel, and their quests to obtain American citizenship. Always good to file away for the next time you hear generalizations about "dual loyalties" and whatnot:

Since President George W. Bush signed the Expedited Naturalization Executive Order on July 3, 2002, USCIS has naturalized nearly 16,000 service members.

So far during fiscal year 2005, more than 2,000 service members have become United States Citizens.

To date, USCIS has granted posthumous citizenship to 59 service members stemming from the War on Terror.

There are currently more than 40,000 members of the U.S. military who are eligible to apply for naturalization.

Mercury and Autism

Over at Spiked, Michael Fitzpatrick weighs in on the increasingly popular theory that mercury in vaccines causes autism in children. In a review of David Kirby's new book, Evidence of Harm, Fitzpatrick--who is both a doctor and the parent of an autistic child--writes:

The so-called 'epidemic of autism', which some parents blame on vaccines, is better explained by the increased recognition of the condition among both parents and professionals and by the expansion of diagnostic categories. Though campaigners claim that the symptoms of mercury toxicity are similar to those of autism, on closer inspection, they are quite distinct. Mercury poisoning typically causes an unsteady gait and slurred speech, visual disturbances and numbness in fingers and toes. None of these features is characteristic of autism.

Whole thing here.

New at Reason

As the final Star Wars flick bursts onto movie screens like 10,000 supernovas, I remind us all that you can't spell Sith without s, h, i, and t. And I ask "the question that catches in our collective throats more fully than one of Chewbacca's hairballs: Why the hell do we still care about Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Anakin, Obi Wan, and the guy played by Jimmy Smits?"

China Envy

OK, this will be my last post for a while either about steroids or the Puffington Host (I can quit anytime, honest!). But nothing better demonstrates the horrifyingly illiberal mindset of the government-enabling jock-sniffers than, well, Jim Lampley:

In China, sports authorities deternmined after the disqualification of the women's swim team at the 1992 World Championships that they wanted to be on the clean side of this controversy. So these days in China if a state-supported athlete tests positive for an Olympics-banned substance they face a fine and a jail term. The second positive test brings a lifetime ban. When the Chinese try to win the medal count from us at the 2008 Beijing Olympoics, they will be competing cleanly. Will we?

I hear they've also got great ideas about population control and campaign finance reform, Jimbo.

For those of you who don't give a rat's ass about sports, and don't see harassing millionaire athletes as any kind of big deal, just realize this -- Congress is currently considering setting up federally required random drug tests for amateur athletes as well, even down to the high school level. That knock on your front door could be because your teenager has the audacity to play organized soccer. And because John McCain has the audacity to use the federal government like Al Capone used a baseball bat.

I Did Not Know That!

There's a Darth Vader carved in the National Cathedral. (Link via Dr. Frank.)

Subscription Pitch—Unveiled!

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Read the press release here.

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Bill O'Reilly and Snopes.com (Now We Can Finally Shut Up About Hanoi Jane Edition)

Here's me and The O'Reilly Factor's eponymous host mixing it up a couple of nights ago over whether Hanoi Jane Fonda gave notes passed to her by American POWs to their North Vietnamese captors:

GILLESPIE: That story has been debunked.

O'REILLY: By whom?

GILLESPIE: By--if you go to Snopes.com. The urban...

O'REILLY: Who?

GILLESPIE: Snopes.com.

O'REILLY: Snope? See, look, I'm believing -- I'm believing the guys who were there. I'm not going to believe Snope.com.

And here's Bill O making nice last night:

Time now for "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day." Setting the record straight on Jane Fonda. Now, last night I told Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine that I was not willing to give Ms. Fonda a pass on the accusation she turned over notes from American POW's to the North Vietnamese during her trip to Hanoi.

A web site called Snopes.com has investigated and debunked that accusation. They say it's not true.

Well, we decided to research it. We spent the day doing it. And the indication is that Snopes is correct! The story is bogus. So at this point, lacking any definable evidence to the contrary, Jane Fonda did not turn over any POW notes to the Vietnamese.

We're happy to clarify the record. It would be ridiculous not to do so. All right. Way to go, Snopes.com.

Both transcripts courtesy of Nexis.

Past Hit & Run stuff on same deader-than-Ho Chi Minh-topic here.

Drop of a Hat (Or a Hoodie)

"Hoodie bans" are making headlines in Britain. A Kent mall that banned hooded tops and baseball caps (also, swearing, smoking and leafleting) has seen a jump in traffic. Tony Blair is on board. Why the anti-hood prejudice? Alan Cowell of The International Herald Tribune says hoods are "the tribal mask of an underclass," emblematic of "thuggery, hoodlumism and unbridled drunkeness" and "the icon of a failed youth" being blamed for everything short of losing the empire.

Mark Steyn has a different take--hood as protest against a surveillance society:

The British are the most videotaped people in the history of mankind, caught on camera by official surveillance devices as they go about every humdrum public manoeuvre....Perhaps teen clothing will undergo another evolution, and the youth of the nation will be hanging out dressed like John Simpson in that burqa he wore to liberate Kabul.

Whole thing here.

The Banners' Red Glare

Two revealing quotes about Congress' ideas on limited government and federalism, from yesterday's latest steroids hearings in D.C.:

"I really think there needs to be a federal standard," said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas. "We have gone far too long asking the marketplace to do it. ... We're going to try to set up a federal standard that does it." [...]

"Disparate policies tailored for and by each league are at risk of being overwhelmed by newer, more sophisticated threats like designer steroids, gene doping and more creative drug-masking techniques," Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., the bill's chief sponsor, said at the hearing.

That bill, H.R. 1862, would force every single professional sporting league to ban first-time offenders for two years, and second-time offenders for life. What's more, there's other legislation coming down the pike that'll be even more harsh:

House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., promised that the legislation he's drafting with ranking Democrat Henry Waxman of California and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., "will have more teeth than other bills introduced."

New at Reason

While politically correct westerners go around apologizing for the Crusades, Michael Young apologizes for Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven.

A Bus Stop with Bells and Whistles

Senator Theodore "Uncle Ted" Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has managed to appropriate $1.5 million for a bus stop in Anchorage. While the senator claims "it is supposed to be a lot more than a bus stop," it does not feed children or heal the sick; it is merely a place for buses to stop.

Free As In Talking Beer

In Technology Review, Lawrence Lessig and Richard Epstein are debating intellectual property, free software, and digital rights management.

Not (Ward) Churchill's Finest Hour

"If he's had the goods to prove himself a Keetoowah Cherokee, he'd be in our files...I don't know what he's thinking."

That's Marilyn Craig, spokeswoman for the Keetoowah Band in Tahlequah, Okla., talking about University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who famously called the victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns." "He's never been a member of our tribe," Craig told the Washington Times.

In responding to a university committee investigating whether he lied about his heritage on his 1978 application to Colorado, Churchill had claimed membership in the Keetoowah Band. The Keetoowah had given Churchill an honorary "associate membership" in the '90s precisely because he could not prove any Cherokee ancestry, according to a statement from the group's chief.

Ah well, if Churchill does get canned for lying on his application, there's always room for one more B-list celeb at The HuffPost (I suspect Jim Lampley and Churchill would have a good time talking on the lunch line).

A Bit More About Arianna Huffunpuffstuff (Let No Celebrity Brain Fart Go Unnoticed Edition)

At first read, I thought my colleague Matt Welch had done a funny job of paraphrasing the celebrity doucheblogs over at The Huffington Post (see below). But just so there's no confusion: Those are actually direct quotes from the various supergeniuses themselves.

Like sniffing glue, baiting bears, and the initial season of The Osbournes, The Huffington Post is great fun for a while, but I suspect we'll all be tired of it by this time next week. So it's worth getting in all the commentary on it we can stand before we go back to pushing needles in our eyes.

La Huff was on CNN's Reliable Sources this past Sunday, yapping about the essential public service her site bravely provides. The Wash Post's Howard Kurtz ran down the list of Huff Compost contribs and noted that the Larry Davids, Bill Mahers, and Walter Cronkites of the world "don't need an online forum, they've got TV shows and columns and access to the media...you are giving voice to people who are already famous." To which AH said:

I believe the blogosphere is so important, it is changing the way we receive information so dramatically that I wanted to make sure that those people, who, as you say, have other platforms, would also have an online platform, because the truth is even though they could probably all write a column and send it to "The New York Times," the chances are they would not do that. They are busy, they have other things to do, but they can blog a thought that they have, a reaction to something that is happening. They can express a passion, because that is the beauty of blogging.

Your thought doesn't have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It can be put out there. Others respond. It can start a conversation and you can get on with the rest of your life.

Whole thing here.

Given the first week or so of material, I'm starting to believe that Huffington is actually a deep plant for the GOP, that she never actually changed her politics from her old Republican days, when she was playing Angela Lansbury to then-husband Michael Huffington's Laurence Harvey (perhaps Al Franken was the Frank Sinatra in the low-stakes Manchurian Candidate ripoff that was MH's thankfully short political career?). As Matt W suggests below, all you have to do is scan the site to realize that it reads like a red state parody of blue state jackassery, one that can only do damage to liberal causes worldwide.

Or maybe it's just the latest Andy Kauffman project.

Remember Smoot-Hawley

I'm not saying this is a sure thing, but look for the equity markets to tank tomorrow on news that the U.S. will impose new restrictions on Chinese exports of men's and boy's clothing.

Markets had rallied on news that the Treasury Department, while calling on China to cease yanking the yuan around like a White House reporter at a press briefing, had stopped short of actually doing something about the yuan yanking, like imposing trade sanctions.

When governments signal that they intend to stop markets from working, markets tend to respond.

The Rumsfeld Diagram

Greg Beato offers a handy map of who needs to watch what they do and who needs to watch what they say.

Will the Next Album Feature Tiny Violins?

Reader Ari Spanier forwards a link to this story in London's Evening Standard, in which Coldplay's Chris Martin aspires to prove that he can be a second-rate Radiohead knock-off in the political arena too. Sez the bojillionaire musician:

I think shareholders are the great evil of this modern world....It's very strange for us that we spent 18 months in the studio just trying to make songs that make us feel a certain way and then suddenly become part of this corporate machine.

Martin also bemoaned "the slavery that we are all under to shareholders," presumably before hopping the limo back to his hotel suite. Maybe we can get a rousing "Let My People Go" for the encore.

Brian Doherty wrote about "the strange politics of millionaire rock stars" back in 2000.

Washingtonienne: Sloppy Seconds

Remember the micro-scandal over Washingtonienne, the Capitol Hill kiss-and-tell sex vendor whose copiously blogged exploits roiled the Beltway last summer? (No? Lucky you.) Well, now there's a little coda, and it's actually more interesting than the former senatorial assistant's inventories of receiving a toaster for anal sex or a pearl necklace for a pearl necklace.

One of her former paramours, an attorney in the office where she worked at the time, is now suing her for infliction of emotional distress. I'd be interested in comments from some of y'all with legal training: Is blogging about your personal life actionable? They guy wasn't a public figure—though he's now ensured that his name will be back in the news—but it seems strange that relating (at least approximately true) stories about your own sex life, however inconsiderate it might be, could be a tort. Isn't that just one of those chances you take when you go to bed with someone?

New at Reason

Ron Bailey looks forward to better living through chemistry.

Generation Gap

Robert Richards won "Most Whipped" for 2005 at Boynton Beach High School in Florida. The yearbook picture given to this prestigious award winner features Richards in chains and shackles being held by his girlfriend, Melissa Finley. There is only one hiccup: Richards is black and Melissa is white.

Jacqueline Nobles, Richards' mother, thinks that's racist. But her son, the bound boyfriend, doesn't think there's anything wrong with the picture. The older generation, he argues, is simply more conscious of race than his is. If his case is typical, I'd say he's right.

Of the approximately 700 yearbooks that were printed, 240 have already been distributed. The principal is holding the remainder hostage while the school investigates the photo. Mrs. Nobles wants the other copies recalled.

Exciting Innovation or Subway/Driveway Rot?

Attention D.C. readers -- I'll be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-88.5 FM at 1:22 EDT sharp, talking about the rise of the free tabloid daily for 38 minutes or so, along with the Washington Times' Chris Baker and the American Journalism Review's Rem Reider. You can even call in to harass me, at 1-800-433-8850, and there'll be an audio link up later at the website.

Big Brother Spins Off "Big"

Remember the good old days, when Internet companies could just gobble up entire packs of Old Media dinosaurs at will? Well here's a funny story from a couple days back:

Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons said he'd consider spinning off AOL as a separate stock if the division's latest strategy doesn't pan out, according to the latest issue of Fortune magazine.

And what's this "latest strategy" for conqueror-turned-loser America Online? "The goal is to launch a free 'portal' Web site." It's 1999 all over again, except without the money and optimism!

And it's another nail in the coffin of media-consolidation Chicken Littles who rarely meet a merger they don't like to call dictatorial. As I wrote just after AOL's brief swallowing of Time Warner,

If this is the "new totalitarianism" (as [Norman] Solomon has suggested), then we're the freest slaves in the history of tyranny.

And as I reminisced two years later:

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, warned The Associated Press about "a new era in American communications that sees the end of an independent press." Hartford Courant columnist Susan Campbell thundered against "the monopoly of ideas that rests in the wicked little hands of a sullied few." Two days later, columnist Robert Scheer, writing in the Online Journalism Review, groused it was time to "forget the Internet as a wild zone of libertarian freedom."

And so much for that. What are the Media Consolidation fear-mongers doing in the wake of their awful predictions? Holding a National Conference for Media Reform to agitate against FCC deregulation. (Top link via The Progress & Freedom Foundation.)

Great Moments in HuffPostery

From the last 36 hours in the life of the world's most strangely compelling celebrity blog:

  • Kathryn Ireland: Can anyone tell me, are they going to bring back the draft? I have three sons -- all nearly teenagers -- and am terrified that they will. Why don't they make it that just Republican kids get called up?
  • Cable Neuhaus: People will come at this from different angles, but I think I F***cked Ann Coulter In the A**, Hard is a satirical work of middle-brow political genius.
  • Norman Mailer: Who, indeed, was Isikoff's supposedly reliable Pentagon source? One's counter-espionage hackles rise. If you want to discredit a Dan Rather or a Newsweek crew, just feed them false information from a hitherto reliable source. You learn that in Intelligence 101A.
  • Arianna Huffington: As a student of Greek mythology, I know that when a detail in a myth doesn't make sense, the problem is not with the myth, but with me.
  • Diane Keaton: And the fact is, Los Angeles is a city.
  • Jim Lampley: It's excruciating on a day-to-day basis to have to endure the social divisiveness, elitist arrogance and blatant media control of creeping fascism in America.

The Quran in the News

Slate's Jack Shafer notes a history of poorly-sourced stories about Quran desecration going back (on Nexis) to 1983. One of the stories he cites is verified; the others may or may not be accurate.

While Shafer thinks that Newsweek made a major error when "It let its anonymous source predict the contents of a future government document," he also wonders why the magazine wasn't "more skeptical about Quran-desecration charges."

Reviewing the history of these charges, Shafer asks, "Could it be that the Gitmo prisoners lied or exaggerated about the Quran story, pushing forward the most outrageous meme in their inventory, and that their inflated charges percolated up to Newsweek? The Abu Ghraib photos and reports from various U.S. military lock-downs around the world should prepare us for the possibility that U.S. handlers committed such sacrilege. But if the original source of the allegations turns out to be prisoners, we might want to view their charges with the same doubts we apply to any testimonies about prisons from prisoners."

Note: I know Michael Isikoff, one of the Newsweek reporters at the center of this maelstrom. We once worked in the same newsroom (though not together); his investigative work was justly held in high regard. While I'm at it, Jack Shafer is a long-time friend; I've written for him at two publications.

Disengage for Democracy!

Yesterday, President Bush extended the "national emergency with respect to Burma," a government whose actions apparently "pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States." Who knew? That means another year of unilateral economic sanctions, which have worked wonders since they were first imposed against the same government in 1997.

As is his habit, Burma-obsessed Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced the resolution to renew the sanctions, then threw in some bad information. He says the SPDC poses "an immediate danger to the entire region" partly "through the trafficking of illicit drugs." The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is run by a bunch of thugs, but they surely aren't running the drug trade these days, which is operated by oppositional minorities on the Northwest border. McConnell goes on to claim that Burma has a "rising prisoner of conscience population" (not true) and insist the U.S. is part of a "growing chorus for political reform in Burma" (doubtful). Considering that the SPDC manages to rack up new human rights abuses daily, why pass on false accusations?

Here's a nice closing sentiment from Mitch:

"There is no more definitive expression of support for democracy and human rights--for solidarity with those struggling for freedom--than an import ban."

Meanwhile, Myanmar's information minister is trying to explain away some recent bombings in Yangon with a clever game of "guess who?":

"It is crystal clear that the terrorists . . . and the time bombs originated from training conducted with foreign experts . . . in a neighbouring country by a world famous organisation of a certain superpower nation."

No Muppet Left Behind

This morning, through arduous investigative work involving a toddler and a TV, I discovered that Sesame Street, one of the most successful children's shows in history, is brought to us partly by a No Child Left Behind grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The show itself, which is highly popular and generates lucrative licensing fees for its producers, presumably would exist without taxpayer support. And the PBS station that carries it in D.C. already runs ads from McDonald's and Beaches Family Resorts before and after the show, so there's no use pretending this is commercial-free TV. Under what rationale does Sesame Street on PBS rate a government grant, while Maisy on commercial-free Noggin (which my daughter lately prefers) does not? If that seems like comparing apples and oranges, how about Sesame Street on PBS (subsidized) vs. Sesame Street on Noggin (not subsidized)? Instead of using our money to air a show that manifestly does not need subsidies on channels that have no reason to exist (since everything they do is done as well or better on for-profit cable channels), why not use it to buy cable TV for families that can't afford it? It might not cost any less, but it would make a lot more sense.

DHS's Casting Couch

Remember the old "$100,000 job" bit from Albert Brooks' super-duper flick, Lost in America? It was the oversized compensation figure that Brooks' assoholic former ad man character cited to a bemused paper-shuffler in a small-town unemployment office.

Well, the folks at the Department of Homeland Security have their own version of a $100,000 job, and it's a doozy. From the Wash Times:

the Department of Homeland Security has hired former actress Bobbie Faye Ferguson, as DHS's 'liaison to the entertainment industry,' " says a memo from the Republican Study Committee.

Salary for the GS-15 position "could top $136,000 plus benefits. Ferguson's new role as Homeland's connection to the stars began in October 2004," reports the committee, which is the Republican conservative caucus on Capitol Hill.

The Hollywood liaison's job description includes "reviewing movie scripts" and identifying "opportunities for proactive outreach to the entertainment industry," according to the memo.

Whole thing here (scroll down). The Times' notes that Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) is trying to kill the position and redirect the dough allocated for it elsewhere. "'With $100,000, America's first responders could purchase ... 165 bulletproof vests or 40 Level A [hazardous material] protective suits,' according to Mrs. Musgrave's office."

For a taste of Bobbie Faye's filmography--we loved her as "Cranky Lady" in parts 1 and 2 of the legendary "Bees Can Sting You, Watch Out" sequence on the watershed comedy Hearts Afire--go here.

And then weep for your country, your Constitution, and your sitcoms.

The worst part of this? They could have gotten Margot Kidder for half that much. Or, for that matter, Albert Brooks, the sole person involved in Finding Nemo to see his Q score tank faster than Billy Zane's did after Titanic.

Did Hanoi Jane Pass Notes Handed to Her by US POWs to Vietnamese Captors?

Those of you who caught me on The O'Reilly Factor last night might be wondering that very question, as it became the sticking point between the Big O and yours truly. Here's the discussion of the matter from the widely hailed and authoritative site Snopes.com:

The most serious accusations..., that Fonda turned over slips of paper furtively given her by American POWs to the North Vietnamese and that several POWs were beaten to death as a result, are untrue. Those named in the inflammatory e-mail categorically deny the events they supposedly were part of.

"It's a figment of somebody's imagination," says Ret. Col. Larry Carrigan, one of the servicemen mentioned in the 'slips of paper' incident. Carrigan was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and did spend time in a POW camp. He has no idea why the story was attributed to him, saying, "I never met Jane Fonda."

The tale about a defiant serviceman who spit at Jane Fonda and is severely beaten as a result is often attributed to Air Force pilot Jerry Driscoll. He has repeatedly stated on the record that it did not originate with him.

Mike McGrath, President of NAM-POWs, also stepped forward to disclaim the story:

Please excuse the generic response, but I have been swamped with so many e-mails on the subject of the Jane Fonda article (Carrigan, Driscoll, strips of paper, torture and deaths of POWs, etc.) that I have to resort to this pre-scripted rebuttal. The truth is that most of this never happened. This is a hoax story placed on the internet by unknown Fonda haters. No one knows who initiated the story. Please assist by not propagating the story. Fonda did enough bad things to assure her a correct place in the garbage dumps of history. We don't want to be party to false stories, which could be used as an excuse that her real actions didn't really happen either. I have spoken with all the parties named: Carrigan, Driscoll, et al. They all state that this particular internet story is a hoax and they wish to disassociate their names from the false story.

The whole Snopes account, which is extremely critical of Fonda's actions during the Vietnam War, is here.

Urban Legend's take on the same matter here. This also concludes that Fonda did not hand over messages from US POWs.

Both the Snopes and Urban Legend versions confirm that a prisoner, Michael Benge, was beaten by Vietnamese captors for refusing to meet with Fonda.

My review of Fonda's autobio is here.

[A shout out to H&R commenter Sage, who threw in most of the above in the discussion below of Hanoi Jane, Bill O, & Me.]

New at Reason

Pork, wine, and Islam: Always an explosive mix, and even more so when it's the topic list in Reason Express.

Reason Writers Around Town

At the New York Sun, Nick Gillespie takes a dangerous dose of Katherine Eban's Dangerous Doses.

Tropical Trade Winds

Earlier this month in Brazil, a conclave of Latin American and Arab leaders declared that the world's trade rules "widen the gap between developed and developing countries." From Tarek El-Tablawy's report in Business Week:

Pushing a goal he has pursued since becoming the country's first elected leftist leader, [Brazilian president Lula] urged participants to fight for free trade rules that improve life for the developing world's masses instead of benefiting just wealthy nations and corporations.

While the leaders stressed commitment to protect intellectual property, the declaration said "intellectual property protection should not prevent developing countries from [access to] basic science [and] technology."

Given the gathering's leftward tilt, it's interesting that the one example El-Tablawy gives of a change they'd like to enact would make the global economic order less restrictive, not more so. The AP's dispatch cites another area where the summiteers are less statist than the global establishment: agriculture subsidies.

The AP also reports that the leaders endorsed "an agreement between the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Mercosur, a South American economic bloc, leading to negotiations for a free trade area linking the two regions." That brings the world somewhat closer to Lula's 2003 proposal that the developing nations form a trade zone of their own.

You can download the full Declaration of Brasilia here. As you'd expect, the document is a mixed bag. The most interesting thing about it is that it exists at all.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill...

The Senate approved the pork-swollen $295 billion Highway Bill by 89-11, and Congress is getting set to force all commissioners of professional sports to answer the eternal question, why shouldn't we pass a federal law requiring each and every private-sector professional athlete to urinate on command at least once a year, without warning? (No, there's no provision requiring Congress to follow the same rules, though they are thinking about imposing the rules on amateur athletes as well.)

New at Reason

Cathy Young asks why in the name of Allah social progressives are standing up for anti-liberal thugs in Holland.

New at Reason

I interview economist Paul Seabright, author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life.

Bill O, Hanoi Jane, & Me (Fox News Channel Edition)

It's not quite Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds. Or even Pocahontas, Marlon Brando & Neil Young. And certainly not Mother, Juggs, & Speed.

But I'll be on The O'Reilly Factor tonight, circa 8:40PM ET, to discuss my thumbs-up review of Jane Fonda's memoir, My Life So Far. (La Fonda, no doubt rolling around on top of the $23 million her new J. Lo-enhanced movie, Monster-in-Law pulled in last weekend, will only be there in spirit.)

Why We'll Miss Dan Rather

"Never give up, never back up, never give in while pursuing the dream of integrity filled journalism that matters."

That's Dandy Dan receiving a Peabody Award (hmm, who got the Sherman?). "I don't have a legacy. I'm not going to have a legacy, and I shouldn't have a legacy. I work in news," continued the retiring news and ratings anchor.

Whole thing here.

Tip o' the pen to El Chupacabra.

The Howlersphere

I don't have much to say about the Newsweek hubbub that hasn't been said elsewhere. Many other people do, though, and a few of them even make sense. Jim Henley, for one, makes an important point:

The "Newsweek riots," as the warhawks are calling them, seem to be confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Out of the entire Ummah, only there. Not even in Iraq. No Sadrists in the streets. THAT is interesting.

As Henry Louis Gates put it years ago regarding African-American urban legends, subcultures aren't scared and angry because they believe conspiracy theories; subcultures believe conspiracy stories because they are scared and angry.

From the above I'm inclined to conclude that conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan were ripe for an anti-American atrocity, of whatever truth-value, to ignite protest in a way they aren't elsewhere in the Muslim world. Why that is would probably be worth finding out if one's concern were that the government succeed in its aims in those countries.

Meanwhile, in the comment threads of this very blog, the mysterious stranger who calls himself Thoreau makes another point:

The MSM [sic] is being bashed for allegedly not doing enough fact-checking before going public. Fair enough, but let me ask the bloggers this question: How would a blogger handle it?

Since most bloggers don't have the same extensive contacts and army of reporters and interns and fact checkers as a typical major news magazine, I always understood that the blogosphere relies on "distributed expertise": A story starts to circulate, and as it circulates more and more people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise weigh in on it.

That's certainly how Dan Rather's memos were revealed as fakes. It wasn't any single source that persuaded me (indeed, there were a few supposedly knowledgeable people who initially said that the right kinds of typewriters were available in the 1970's). It was the sheer volume of evidence: Such typewriters, though available, were rare; no typewriter had the same combination of features; it was a perfect match to Microsoft Word; it didn't use appropriate military jargon; etc.

So my understanding is that the blogosphere's way of operating is not to sit on stories. Rather, it's to let information circulate and be exposed to analysis by many different people.

Anyway, the point in all of this is that, as I understand, the blogosphere's approach to this story would have been to let it circulate just as Newsweek did. The provocative nature of the claim suggests that it would have circulated quite widely in some circles. Some angry guy in South Asia still could have picked up on the story and started telling people, local newspapers could have then run with it, and the whole sordid affair could have unfolded in the same way.

I don't know that the blogosphere approach to reporting would be any more responsible than the approach of consulting a few government sources to verify. It would still get out.

Of course, verifying stories is not the only distributed activity that transpires in the blogosphere. As Henley notes, "these pack assaults, like the organized screamings of a pack of howler monkeys, aim to intimidate the press into an even more servile relationship with the government than it presently enjoys." That's how an affair like Newsweek's sourcing troubles gets ballooned into a major scandal, while the same mob ignores more significant stories -- like, say, the Downing Street memo.

Update: In a follow-up post, Jim Henley offers an explanation that could partly, though not completely, account for why the riots were concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Piling on the "MSM"

Salon (annoying ad firewall) hits roughly what I've been thinking about the Newsweek flap:

On the first question, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann makes the point as clearly as anyone: Given everything else that's happened at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, is it really possible that some interrogator hasn't tossed a Quran into a toilet? "Everybody in the prosecution of the so-called 'war on terror' has done something dumb, dating back to the President's worst-possible-word-selection ("crusade") on Sept. 16, 2001," Olbermann writes. "So why wouldn't some mid-level interrogator stuck in Cuba think it would be a good idea to desecrate a holy book?" Seriously, how could anyone think otherwise? Imagine the conversation: "Hmm, we can waterboard these guys. We can put collars around their necks and make them walk like dogs; we can make them wear panties and let them think we're smearing menstrual blood on their faces; we can force them to pretend to masturbate for the camera. But no, flushing the Koran, that's definitely off limits."

You don't want to take detainees at their words, obviously, but there was nothing intrinsically implausible about reports of this sort of stuff when they aired previously. Now it's outrageous that Newsweek ran one more report because their source thinks he might have read about it in this document rather than that one? Give me a fucking break. Olberman also points to this briefing:

GEN. MYERS: It's the -- it's a judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eikenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran -- and I'll get to that in just a minute -- but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his Cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan. So that's -- that was his judgment today in an after-action of that violence. He didn't -- he thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine.

If I see one more irate toddler whining about how journalists are insufficiently patriotic because they're not willing to be ideological hacks, I'm going to be ill.

Addendum: I should clarify that I don't want to imply Newsweek shouldn't catch flak for shoddy sourcing. What's galling is the speed and enthusiasm with which people want to leap on this in an attempt to shift blame for violence to the media rather than (1) a pattern of actual abuses that make reports like this one highly credible and more inflammatory around the world, and (2) fanatics who think flushing a book is an excuse to kill people become violent.

Do Butterflies Have Stronger Wings?

For those looking for a blow-by-blow deconstruction of Newsweek's peculiar sourcing in the Koran Flusher story, Jay Rosen's your man.

As is my annoying habit, I'd like to pull out one of Rosen's side claims:

Under these conditions, it is imperative that journalists in the United States raise their standards for reliability, because the consequences of being wrong--for themselves, for their profession as a whole, and for others far removed--are graver.

Italics his. I agree with the first part, and who wouldn't, even though I'd also throw in my crude guess that if you had some way to measure reliability, the dominant media (large dailies, newsweeklies, evening newscasts) would be shown to have slightly increased said reliability bit by bit over time, even though their public reputation has taken a battering. And though "the consequences of being wrong" are indeed greater for themselves, largely because it's thankfully so easy for them to get caught and shamed, I'm not convinced that the consequences are greater "for others far removed."

It would seem to me common sense that when you eliminate scarcity in media, the potential impact of individual news items decreases, despite the greater possibility for global distribution. Every day there are tens of thousands of reports on National Security matters alone -- including previous articles on Koran-flushing -- that quickly sink down the memory hole. It is a frequent complaint of reporters, and of regulationists like Ralph Nader, that investigations and gory eyewitness reporting lead nowhere, in terms of response. Or maybe the average & median impact of a given story has been drastically reduced, but the set-up of a worldwide distribution channel, plus the magic of network effects, has created vastly greater kinetic potential for a few isolated reports to shoot like an electric current through the world's consciousness. Anyway, I'd be curious to hear what the rest of you think.

Our Amazing Anti-Nicotine Vaccine Is Slightly More Effective Than a Placebo!

If the unimpressive early performance of Cytos Biotechnology's anti-nicotine "vaccine" is any indication, we may not have to face the Orwellian possibilities of such drug use preventatives anytime soon. In Phase II clinical trials, Earth Times reports, 40 percent of subjects receiving the vaccine—which is supposed to stimulate production of antibodies that bind with nicotine molecules, making them too large to pass the blood-brain barrier—"were able to quit smoking for nearly six months." By comparison, 31 percent of the subjects who received the placebo "were able to stop smoking for 24 weeks"—i.e., nearly six months. Granted, these trials are intended mainly to demonstrate safety, but an effectiveness only slightly better than that of a placebo does not match the hopes of drug warriors who dream of taking their fight to our bloodstreams, although it may be enough to win FDA approval.

Notice, too, how the lead researcher misrepresents the way the vaccine is designed to work. He says smokers who receive it "don't feel that they have to take a cigarette to feel better," implying that the product somehow eliminates their cravings. But even if it were 100 percent effective, it would not make the cravings go away; it would just make it impossible to satisfy them.

Has TV Gone Too @!$%&! Far?

That's the question that occasional Reason contributor Drew Clark will be debating on Wednesday at 7PM at an America's Future Foundation roundtable on "broadcast indecency."

Has TV gone too far? What should the government do about it? Should it regulate cable and satellite like it does over-the-air broadcasting, or should it loosen speech restrictions on the latter? And how does media consolidation fit into the indecency debate? Those are the questions we'll be trying to answer at AFF's next roundtable discussion. Speakers will include Drew Clark of the National Journal, former broadcaster Ken Wolfe, and Marvin Johnson of the ACLU. Jerry Brito of AFF will moderate.

Go here for details. Wardrobe malfunctions optional.

Drew Clark's web site here.

A Little Thrift

The Department of Defense has proposed closing 33 major military bases across the country, a move it says will save $49 billion over the next 20 years. Next: watch roughly 33 congressman scramble to save their constituents' jobs and their own political lives.

Remember When Microsoft Had a Monopoly on Browsers?

Firefox, the new freebie browser, continues to gain on Microsoft's Internet Exlporer:

A May 10, 2005 report by web analytics company WebSideStory estimates usage in the United States of Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser to have fallen to 88.9% by April 29, 2005, from 89.9% on February 18, 2005. Microsoft's strongest competitor, Mozilla Firefox, improved its market share from 5.7% to 6.8%.

Whole thing here. Overall, Mozilla-based browsers are pulling 9 percent of the market.

You gotta wonder: Are Microsoft execs dreaming of the plunge that Netscape took only a few years back, when its market share went from 80 percent-plus to effectively 0 percent in just five short years?

If past is prologue, look for Microsoft to really get hammered as a monopoly right at the moment it no longer dominates any market.

The Man Who Destroyed Baseball, Part XXVIII

Not really. But the Wash Post today carries an obit for Charlie Muse, the baseball exec who is credited with creating the baseball helmet, which became required equipment only in the mid-1950s:

Muse was nicknamed "The Colonel" because of his all-business approach, and it was his military-like ability to improvise that helped speed the invention of the batting helmet.

Until former Pirates general manager Branch Rickey pushed in the early 1950s for the creation of a protective helmet, batters traditionally wore only their cloth caps to the plate. At the time, Rickey owned American Baseball Cap Inc., and he chose Mr. Muse to run the company and design a suitable helmet.

"It [the development] was more difficult than people would think," Mr. Muse told the Associated Press in a 1989 interview. "The players laughed at the first helmets, called them miner's helmets. They said the only players who would wear them were sissies."...

The Pirates were the first team to wear the helmets in 1952 and 1953, and their adoption was speeded after the Braves' Joe Adcock was beaned so severely by the Dodgers' Clem Labine in 1954 that he was unconscious for 15 minutes.

Whole thing here. I love the way Branch Rickey, like some latter-day Ben Franklin, managed to do well by doing good--in broad daylight, too.

I'm always amazed by baseball purists who bitch and moan about every development and change in how the game is played. If you're a fan of baseball, you've heard the arguments about how artificial turf, the designated hitter, the changing of the strike zone, expansion teams, the live ball, the dead ball, free agency, steroids, ad nauseaum, have killed the game. Why not attack the the batting helmet (which clearly gives an advantages to batters save those in the beanball brigage such as Joe Adcock, Tony Conigliaro, Paul Blair, Dickie Thon, etc.)? Or mitts with actual webbing and pockets?

Baseball purists--you know you're out there--are as tedious as Catholics who pretend that the Church has never modified, adapted, or changed in its long history (though baseball as sport gets the nod for better in-stadium eats).

RIP, Charlie Muse. We salute you for a good, pre-cyborg solution to one of baseball's thorniest issues.

Kuwait: Blue Comes Through

You can put a check next to Kuwait's "Blue Revolution." Women in that Gulf nation have been actively seeking political rights since the 1990s. In March, they managed to gather a crowd of some 500 supporters outside the parliament, where a conservative majority had for years been blocking efforts to give them the right to vote and to seek political office.

On Monday, the parliament finally passed the legislation. (Link via Instapundit.) "The result," reports the BBC, "was greeted with thunderous applause from the public gallery where backers of the amendment were gathered."

Next: A Kuwait where Destiny's Child can perform.

New at Reason

Poor folks have cell phones, billionaires are running around in shades and baseball caps... It's hard to tell who's a lowlife anymore in this crazy, hill-of-beans world, but The New York Times can try, and Ron Bailey can make fun of them.

The Saudi Option

Gerald Posner writes in his new book, Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection, that the Saudis may have rigged their entire oil and gas infrastructure to self-destruct at the push of a button, according to this Daniel Pipes column. Why? To deter invasion, either from a hostile neighbor, in the manner of Saddam's treatment of Kuwait, or even from an apparent ally, the U.S. having failed in the past to rule out the possibility of military action against its friends in the KSA.

Furthermore, given that the U.S. was able to extinguish Saddam's huge Kuwaiti oil fires in a brief time, the Saudis have supposedly made sure that their oil will stay unavailable for decades by making the destruction absolute, including (quoting Pipes here) "pipelines, pumping stations, generators, refineries, storage containers, and export facilities, including the ports and off-shore oil-loading facilities." Indeed, if what Posner writes is true, even many habitable parts of the KSA will become uninhabitable thanks to the use of radioactive materials in this self-sabotage.

But is it true? Posner reportedly is working from intelligence intercepts; he leaves open the alternative that all this information could be a Saudi bluff. Pipes writes that other nations will nevertheless have to act as if it is true, and offers a scenario in which the KSA falls into the hands of Taliban-like Islamists who push the button (if there is one) specifically to throw the West into economic free fall (presumably leaving the holy places of the Hijaz uncontaminated).

Of course, there's also the beach-novel alternative: Somebody will try to fake out the current Saudi leadership, plotting a way to make the KSA push its Doomsday button without the risk of retaliation to themselves, so as to rearrange the entire world order at one stroke. All sorts of figures might be interested in such a scenario: A Chinese Sun Tzu, perhaps, or a Russian Machiavelli; an out-of-control Zarqawi (or one under someone's control), or a well-placed Revelations obsessive who seeks to hasten the Kingdom of Heaven. (Feel free to fill the holes in this plot -- or to come up with a better one -- in Comments, and we can all split the book and movie money.)

Posner's book will be officially released tomorrow.

What Did You Do When the First Amendment Died?

The Issy Hissy, right on schedule, has already produced several fully formed mountains of armchair bullshit. My favorite part so far is how people who are pounding Newsweek for attributing information to an anonymous government source who was either misconstrued or changed his story post-facto, have reckoned that the best way to respond to this mistake is by blatantly mischaracterizing it as a deliberate "lie." We may yet come to discover that the Newsweek reporters knowingly misstated the truth, but I've seen no evidence so far. Also, I've heard rumors before that government officials have been known to lie in the name of National Security.

Rather than deal with any of that, I would like to zero in on an arcane side-argument from Glenn Reynolds:

I WARNED EARLIER that if Americans concluded that the press was on the other side, the consequences would be dire. [...] I'm a big fan of freedom of the press. I think it's too bad that the journalistic profession is ruining things for everybody through the hubris, irresponsibility, sloppiness, and outright agenda-driven bias of its practitioners.

There are three things to respond to here. 1) If Americans conclude that "the press was on the other side," I am utterly, 100 percent convinced that Americans would be wrong, a point I tried to make last July, when Reynolds was praising a Mort Kondracke column that claimed "The American establishment, led by the media and politicians, is in danger of talking the United States into defeat in Iraq." Why do I think it's wrong? Because I've known maybe 300 American journalists fairly well in my life, and not one -- really, 0 out of 300 -- could accurately be described as being "on the other side," actively rooting for the United States to lose wars. There's a selection bias, I'll grant you, and I'm not the sharpest cookie in the barnyard, but realize also that the majority of those people are on the political left, and quite a few on the Progressive Naderite end. If the press was indeed on the other side, wouldn't at least, I dunno 100 of those people be rooting against the home team? Or are they all just sleeper agents? (Reynolds also knows scores of journalists; I wonder how many he considers to be Benedict Arnolds....) 2) If "Americans concluded that the press was on the other side," not only would Americans be wrong, but it would be their own damned fault, and not because "the journalistic profession is ruining things for everybody." Why? Firstly because the journalistic profession, as we are reminded daily by people like Glenn Reynolds, has less and less power to do anything, let alone ruin things for everybody. But mostly it's because people are responsible for their own behavior, especially in a society blessed with as much information and freedom as ours. If they choose to form their opinions based on those who are too quick with the Treason card ... that's on them. If I choose to support the shredding of the Second Amendment, is it my fault, or the fault of the NRA, or of legal gun owners who commit crimes, or of a media that feeds me anti-gun messages? I vote me. 3) Without question, there will continue to be more, not less, "outright agenda-driven bias" in journalism, as the market becomes richer with choice. And much of that output will continue coming from the right side of the political spectrum, as a corrective to the fish-don't-feel-the-water bias of the dreaded MSM. If that's a key factor in undermining public support for the First Amendment, then we're in for some rough seas ahead.

Reynolds has written on this theme many many times before, usually asking leading questions like, "What happens if the public comes to regard the press as untrustworthy and un-American?" Well, the legal climate for speech may continue to contract (even as the practical climate expands), and each and every person who actively participates in the de-liberalization should be called very nasty names from a distance of 10 paces. And yes, I can see where journalists would have some soul-searching to do about their own unwitting contribution to the process (though my beef is more with their fair-weathered support of the First Amendment, their enthusiasm for McCain-Feingold, and their eagerness to expand police power). But if we're to ladle out blame for the pending First Amendment collapse on journalists who have a dispute with one source, let's save a drop or two for commentators who have encouraged their readers to believe the falsehood that professional reporters have been showing up to work all these years to carry out a specific agenda to undermine America.

A Raspberry for Sowell and Dyson

In today's Washington Post, columnist William Raspberry plays Don King and pits two champion black intellectuals against one another for a few rounds on the topic of "getting beyond racism".

In this corner is cranky economist Thomas Sowell, author of a zillion books, most recently Black Rednecks and White Liberals, which argues, in Raspberry's telling,

The plight of have-not blacks in America's urban ghettos...can be laid at the feet of white people....If you've followed the writings of Sowell for as long as I have, you'll know that he's not saying anything as simple as racism accounts for today's black poverty....[White rednecks are] the people who formed the culture -- the speech patterns, preaching styles, social behaviors, propensity for violence and attitudes toward schooling -- that became the culture of Southern blacks, Sowell claims....The redneck culture has been a developmental millstone for both blacks and whites imbued with it---witness the lower academic achievement in the Deep South. But he says it has been preserved most faithfully in the black ghettos....[I]n a fascinating switcheroo, the redneck culture has become, to many of its defenders, the authentic black culture and, on that account, sacrosanct.

And in this corner is U of Penn professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of the new Is Bill Cosby Right?. This latest Dyson tome is not about America's favorite Dad's alleged dope and grope strategy; it's about Cosby's widely publicized claims last year that black social dysfunction was mostly self-generated.

Raspberry summarizes:

Dyson, who can coin a phrase with the best of them, spends a large part of this work defending the "knuckleheads" of Cosby's inelegant description against those who (like Cosby) believe their refusal to adopt the manners and language of the middle class is holding them back.

Or as Dyson puts it, defending the Ghettocracy from the Afristocracy.

The point, as he is at great pains to make, is that there's nothing wrong in the ghetto that an end to racism wouldn't fix. For Cosby to suggest that slovenly language and dress have anything to do with the trouble that black youth are in is to blame the victim and "let white people off the hook."

And Cosby, whom Dyson "deeply respects," etc., has been letting white people off the hook for years -- with his universal (rather than an authentically black) approach to humor and even with his toweringly successful Huxtable family (which reassured white TV viewers that the nightmare of racism had ended and that it was safe to lay their guilt aside).

At the end of his col, Raspberry calls it a draw between Sowell and Dyson, but his heart plainly seems to be with "Uncle Tom" (as Sowell was once called by the NAACP's former head, Benjamin Hooks) and the embattled auteur behind Leonard Part 6 rather than with the author of Why I Love Black Women.

As Raspberry concludes, "Maybe we haven't laid racism to rest, but we have reached the point where what we do matters more than what is done to us." That is one of the major themes of much of Sowell's writing on the black experience in America.

Whole thing here.

"The banality of good health"

Too-infrequent Reason contributor A.S. Hamrah takes a look at several new books on cigarettes, and comes up with a conclusion sure to make the Surgeon General cough up a lung:

The principle lesson of "Smoke" may be that wherever tobacco has been smoked it has also been railed against, massively taxed and banned. At the same time as the kabuki-mono were wreaking havoc on Japanese mores, King James I was trying to stamp out the mania for tobacco in England, claiming that it made its users unfit servants of the state. (Smoking, he wrote in his 1604 tract "A Counterblaste to Tobacco," was "a custom lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.") To help them break their habit, James increased the tobacco tax 4,000 percent. That these earlier smoking restrictions never lasted may provide cold comfort to smokers already shivering outside while their drinks get warm inside, but the fact is that even when the punishment for smoking was execution, people from cultures across the globe continued to do it.

So light up for liberty, and let's all try to use the word "Counterblaste" more often in our daily lives. (Smoking-woman fetishists may also appreciate the pic of a ciggy-wielding Rita Hayworth attached to the article, which can be read in its entirety here.)

Tom Frank's Intellectual Hole

Via Arts & Letters Daily comes this scathing Raleigh News & Observer review of Thomas Frank's bestselling What's the Matter with Kansas?:

The contemptuousness of Frank's analysis does not make it wrong. Perhaps rafts of his fellow Kansans -- and working-class Americans across the country -- are gullible pawns, so out of touch with the reality of their own lives that voting has become, for them, a form of self-immolation....

Rather than interview a representative sample of these folks to understand their thinking, Frank arrogantly concludes that they suffer "derangement." What else but a mental condition -- and a healthy dollop of ignorance -- could prevent them from seeing Frank's light?

This lack of curiosity and empathy is particularly troubling. If we no longer see the point of understanding one another, how can we bridge the gaps between us?...

For Frank...politics hinges less on measurable results than emotional perception. Liberalism has not declined because people prefer alternatives, they maintain, but because Republicans have seized control of reality itself -- twisting truth to demonize their saintly opponents and cover their horns and tails with a Wal-Mart halo.

Thus, liberals do not proclaim that President Bush is wrong or misguided but that he's a liar and a con artist -- throughout his book, Frank refers to conservatives as the "Cons." The suggestion is that Bush and his allies do not believe what they say, that deep down they know the liberals are right. Driven by dark and evil forces, they deceive the people for their party's selfish ends.

"What's the Matter With Kansas?" is a lazy, self-satisfied work. It is also an important one. It shows how deep an intellectual hole liberals have dug for themselves. Its success suggests how hard it will be for them to crawl out from it.

Whole thing here.

Reason's Jesse Walker reviewed the same book here.

The Devil Bat

Before the skies were buzzing with anal-probing Greys, there was Popo Bawa, described by Reuters as "the most feared spirit-monster of the Zanzibar spice islands." William Maclean reports:

Vacationers on the Indian Ocean islands tend to smile dismissively at accounts in guidebooks of the bat-like ogre said to prey on men, women and children. But for superstitious Zanzibaris a visit from the sodomizing gremlin is no joke.

Although no one ever has seen it, belief in the monster and his unnatural lust is so strong that entire villages will sleep out of doors for protection: Popo Bawa (Swahili for Bat's Wing) prefers to attack behind closed doors at night.

In huts set amid rustling groves of jackfruit and mangoes on Zanzibar's Pemba island, victims told Reuters in interviews that they detected a bad smell, became cold and went into a trance in the moments before they felt the creature's inhuman strength.

Like Karl Rove and Bob Shrum, the randy batman is especially active at election time -- "a habit," Maclean writes, "that is testing nerves ahead of polls due in October."

More Whizzinator Product Placement (DC Edition)

The geniuses behind The Original Whizzinator continue to set the pace in guerilla marketing. Fresh off the publicity of NFL running back Onterrio Smith getting stopped while packing dried urine and everyone's favorite prosthetic penis, the Whizz's makers are now heading to Washington, DC to appear before Congress:

Rep. Ed Whitfield, the Kentucky Republican who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations panel, said he is determined to ban the phony phallus, which has been a boon to potheads everywhere. "It is a risk we simply cannot tolerate," Whitfield said in a statement. "This panel will uncover how widespread these products are and recommend the necessary steps to end their use."

Whole thing here. What's next? John Bolton declaiming the Whizzinator at the UN, beating one against a table while he talks?

Journalistic "New Coke"

That's Kevin Drum's characterization of the New York Times' decision to put its op-ed columnists behind a subscription firewall come September. William Strunk once said that to air one's views gratuitiously is to suggest that the demand for them is brisk. Well, in our age of blog, there's a lot of gratuitous airing, and one can't help but suspect that—if the laws of supply and demand hold—that makes it a less-than-propitious time to start trying to charge for 800-word opinion squibs. That's especially the case because there are network effects involved in writing of that sort: Part of the value of reading, say, Paul Krugman or Tom Friedman is that you expect other people to be reading them, and you want to be prepared for what folks are going to be chattering about over drinks after work (well, in D.C. anyway) or around the blogs. Attenuating that discussion by raising barriers to open linking could create a kind of negative feedback loop—and maybe grant Maureen Dowd the irrelevance she so richly deserves.

Social Anxiety Disorder Patients May Be Avoiding Docs

I know it's a serious matter, but I can't help but chortle at the above headline on the press release about a new study on social anxiety disorder in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry. People who are afraid to interact with other people avoid doctors? Astonishing! Who would have thought it?

New at Reason

Holiday Dimitri explores how an anatomically-incorrect icon was a fertile source of economic growth in the developing world.

I'm STILL Not Drinking Any Merlot!

The Supreme Court has ruled that state bans on interstate wine shipments unduly burden interstate commerce. Raise a glass and toast the two-fisted litigators at the Institute for Justice on a big win. You can read the full decision here.

Propaganda and Pork at the ONDCP

In a report issued last week, Citizens Against Government Waste blasts the Office of National Drug Control Policy for wasting taxpayers' money on ineffective and illegal propaganda. The report concludes that the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign "violated federal propaganda laws, did not reduce drug use amongst America's youth, and has produced no significant results." It also criticizes the so-called High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program as a pork-filled boondoggle and faults the ONDCP for trying to interfere with state policies regarding the medicinal use of marijuana. "After 17 years of operation and funding," says CAGW, "ONDCP has not achieved its objectives of reducing 'illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence, and drug-related health consequences.'"

[Thanks to Dan Forbes for the link.]

Ouch!

Radley Balko has a brutal takedown of DEA Administrator Karen Tandy's attempt to defend her agency's scorched-earth approach to pain doctors. After an ass-whuppin' like that, maybe someone should get her a Percocet?

New for Summer: Higher Prices

"There are economic isolationists in our country who believe we should separate ourselves from the rest of the world by raising up barriers and closing off markets. They're wrong."

That's President Bush alluding to an unnamed isolationist back in March 2004. Incidentally, late last Friday, the Bush administration announced a plan to slap new limits on clothing imports from China. Quotas on Chinese textiles had ended in January according to a 1995 agreement, following a decade-long grace period. Free trade lasted four months. After increases topping 1000 percent between January and April, new imports in some categories will be capped at 7.5 percent a year.

Angry Chinese response here.
Angry American response here.

Uzbek Uprising

Central Asia's wave of unrest has hit Uzbekistan, one of the region's more brutal despotisms. At least one town seems to have liberated itself, at least temporarily:

On Saturday, as news of the violence in Andijan [where troops massacred protesters] filtered into Korasuv, local people went to the mayor demanding that a border crossing to the Kyrgyz side of the town, shut down by the authorities two years ago, be reopened.

Correspondents say locals saw the closed border as an attempt to grind them down by denying them access to the thriving market on the other side.

When the mayor refused, he was beaten. Angry crowds set fire to the militia headquarters, the road police and the tax inspector's office -- the three most visible representatives of the central government....

Korasuv residents have been meeting to discuss how to run their own affairs. The town is currently reported to be calm, but there is apprehension that the central authorities may move to take control...

Gateway Pundit has a roundup of Uzbekistan stories here. Scraps of Moscow has been translating Russian coverage here.

Alterman, Novak, and the Narcolepsy Factor

Robert Novak, who had been scheduled to debate Eric Alterman about media bias next week, has pulled out, declaring that he didn't realize Alterman was going to be his opponent, that he "won't appear with him publicly," and that Alterman is "obsessed with me." The precipitating factor was Alterman's May 23 column for The Nation, which apparently criticizes Novak.

I say "apparently" because I've tried to read the thing several times now, and I can't get past the first sentence:

If you agree with John Dewey (and Jurgen Habermas) that democracy depends on a series of institutional arrangements that enable the public to form its own values and judgments on a variety of questions--and I do--then you cannot ignore the importance of civility in allowing these institutions to function.

Such a lede serves as a wall, an impermeable barrier protecting the remainder of the article from our prying eyes. It's possible that Novak, who's getting a little long in the tooth, wasn't offended by Alterman's critique so much as he was afraid he'd slip into a coma during his sparring partner's opening remarks. Emergency assistance would eventually arrive, but only after the audience itself wakes up, and who knows how long that might be? Better not to chance it.

Yet Another Reason To Cancel That Newsweek Sub

Matt Welch alludes to it below, but Newsweek has now announced that its "Periscope" item about U.S. interrogators in Gitmo flushing pages from the Koran down the toilet is...well, maybe not so true, and uh, well, we're really sorry, if it is false, then we categorically are sorry, but just to cover our sorry little asses, "We're not saying it absolutely happened but we can't say that it absolutely didn't happen either" ....because you know in this topsy-turvy, post-9/11 world even the Red Sox have won the World Series, so you can never say never...

Newsweek's weasely non-admission is spectacular in its bad timing, almost seemingly calculated to maximize rotten effects. If the original piece was thinner than the skin stretched over Ann Coulter's bones, then what the hell did they run it for, even in "Periscope," a section that rivals the "Dog Gone Funny" panel of Marmaduke comics for credibility and laffs quotient? The single source was an unidentified "knowledgeable government source" who later admitted he couldn't verify the story.

And now, in the wake of widespread violence after the factoid became public, Newsweek retracts the piece, which makes the mag look like it's just trying to pour oil on troubled waters, thereby diminishing press credibility in general while in no clear way exonerating the U.S. military.

The final insult? It makes those of us who are critical of government sources, largely because they are quicker to lie than they are to tell the truth, agree with the Pentagon (!) spokesman who said of the mystery source, "People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said. How could he be credible now?"

But don't delay: Over at Newsweek's site, they've got a rip-roarin', straight from the headlines article about "rediscovering George Washington" on display. (If you're hankering for another expose of whether Jesus wore socks or whether the dinosaurs had cholesterol, etc., just wait for the next week's issue.)

And here's the editor's note about the Gitmo fuckup.

Side bets welcome: How long will it take before some sagacious media critic blames the problem on the unhealthy marketplace competition that degrades the journalistic standards once upheld by even classified writers of the days of yore and/or the Internet?

Context Clues

A reporter from a respected Western news organization hears a shocking story from a trusted source about events in a foreign land, and decides to publish it. Word translates and travels fast, and soon hundreds of thousands of furious people are in the streets. The reporter learns that his source was wrong, but it's too late -- the deed is done.

Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, writing about Guantanamo? Nope! It's Reuters' Michael Zantovsky reporting inaccurately that Communist police in Prague killed a student demonstrator on the night of Nov. 17, 1989. Here's Ben Bradlee's retelling of Zantovsky's story, from July 1990:

Soon, he received a phone call from Peter Uhl, a Civic Forum activist who now heads the Czechoslovak News Agency. Uhl told him that a student had been killed by police.

"I asked him if he was sure and he said he had an eyewitness and that the eyewitness is completely reliable and that he was 100 percent certain that a student was dead," Zantowsky [sic] continued.

Almost at once, Zantowsky filed the story, and just as quickly it was broadcast by Voice of America. The world knows what happened next:

"This incident probably as much as anything else caused huge demonstrations on Nov. 20 -- about 200,000 people," Zantowsky said. "That started the whole thing and got the ball rolling. Now the government of course went absolutely wild and went to great lengths to deny that anything like that took place, but after 40 years nobody believed them and that was the end of the government."

The problem was that the story wasn't true.

"There was no student killed and actually it turned out that there was a secret policeman who lay down on the ground and let himself be covered and pretended that he was killed," Zantowsky continued.

"Why this happened -- why this very intricate provocation or ruse was played -- is still not quite clear. But in any case the story was not true. Peter Uhl went to jail and I didn't sleep at home for two or three days. Peter was released only after the revolution was over." [...]

But, "it all went well," he concluded.

Egypt: Judicial Revolt

Here's an unexpected wrinkle in the continuing saga of Egyptian electoral reform: The BBC is reporting a "judicial rebellion" on the Nile. "Judges in Egypt," says the Beeb's lede, "have refused to oversee September's presidential election unless new legislation is passed guaranteeing their independence."

The judges also want "to oversee all stages of the electoral process." In previous uncontested presidential referenda (the BBC refers to these as "elections"), the judges were limited to overseeing the actual casting of ballots. Although they apparently observed opposition supporters being prevented by police from entering polling places, the judges lacked legal standing to intervene. In short, they were used by the Mubarak regime as a legal cover to legitimize its presidential circus. Their refusal to continue to be used in this way "is an unprecedented show of defiance to the Egyptian government."

Essentially, they've taken hostage Mubarak's severely hedged electoral reforms that purport to make contested presidential elections possible. Unless Mubarak agrees to their demands, the judges won't supervise the elections; that will leave Mubarak without a legal cover. The Kifaya movement had already denounced Mubarak's reforms, and began calling for an electoral boycott that, if successful, would embarrass a regime claiming to be democratizing. Now the judiciary is using the reform debate for its own purposes.

Obviously, democratization in the region will require not merely the constitutional enumeration of rights (many regional despotisms have long featured worthless constitutions), but independent judiciaries that will protect those rights. In that context, a challenge to the regime by Egypt's judges is potentially a significant development. Now it's Mubarak's turn. The judges say they will meet in September to consider any concessions from the regime.

Thanks to Tony Badran for the link.