Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2005 October 22-31

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Friday Fun Link, Unless You Know the Lady In Question, In Which Case I Offer My Deepest Sympathies

The AP reports from Delaware:

The apparent suicide of a woman found hanging from a tree went unreported for hours because passers-by thought the body was a Halloween decoration, authorities said.

Plame's Name: Was it Cheney or a State Department Official?

I'm having trouble reconciling this sentence from a WashPost piece on the Plame case:

According to the indictment, Libby learned Plame's identity from a senior State Department official in June 2003 and was told by Cheney that she worked in the CIA's Counterproliferation Division.

With this one:

Although the focus has been on Rove and Libby, Cheney himself has been publicly implicated in recent days in the chain of events that led to the exposure of Plame. The New York Times reported Monday that Fitzgerald possesses notes taken by Libby showing that he learned about Plame from the vice president [on June 12, 2003] a month before she was identified by Novak. The White House did not dispute the report.

Where did Libby first hear of Plame? From a State Department official or from Dick Cheney? What difference does it make? Maybe none, but one thing doesn't make sense in all this: Libby evidently lied to try to protect Cheney, by saying he had learned of Plame's identity from journalists. Why didn't he just say he was first told by a State Department official? Wouldn't that have mitigated Cheney's risk in being involved?

Blackface Beyond the Pale

Over at Ragged Thots, occasional Reason contributor Robert A. George lays into blogger Steve Gilliard who posted a fucked-up, Photoshopped blackface shot of Maryland Lt. Gov Michael Steele. Steele, who is African American, recently announced his candidacy for a US Senate seat. Gilliard, who is also African American, declaims Steele as a "Sambo" because the pol refused to condemn Gov. Robert Ehrlich's appearance as a golf club that up to that point never accepted a black member.

George's first post on the matter is here. A snippet:

Yes, I know that Steve Gilliard is black (this isn't the first time that we have sparred over racial language; this post has links to some of our previous exchanges). That doesn't change the fact that, in my view, he was happily trading in racist imagery as an attack against Michael Steele. Rather than try to even consider Steele on issues, it is far easier to mock and denounce his very existence as a black man who chooses to be Republican.

And here's an update from George:

1) The real-life political world is very different from the blogosphere; 2) the across-the-line offensiveness of Steve's words and imagery were objectively apparent -- and politically self-destructive. Explaining to most people that they were created by a black person criticizing another black person just doesn't cut it. Certain things are, ahem, "beyond the pale".

More here.

More Than Half a Million Drug War Prisoners

Based on the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Drug War Chronicle estimates that more than 530,000 people were behind bars for drug offenses in the U.S. at the end of last year. Drug offenders accounted for about 25 percent of jail inmates, 21 percent of state prison inmates, and 55 percent of federal prison inmates. The total number of people behind bars was about 2.3 million, an all-time record, giving the U.S. an incarceration rate of 724 per 100,000--the highest in the world, according to the Chronicle, which says we even beat out China this time.

So Much for Journalist Shields

The whole case against Scooter Libby turns on his conversations with Tim Russert, Matt Cooper and Judith Miller; most of the juiciest evidence against him appears to have come from Miller. I think Kevin Drum is right when he says: "Apparently Libby figured he'd never be caught out because the reporters would stay mum and go to jail on his behalf. He lost that bet."

Now, journalist-shield laws usually have some exemption for conversations that in and of themselves constitute a crime. But Libby's conversations with reporters (so far, at least) are not the criminal events; it was his lying to the FBI and under oath about the content of those conversations which was illegal. His only protection was promises of confidentiality by journalists he lied about under oath.

All of which to say is, whatever political oxygen was pumping up the idea of a federal shield law certainly got deflated today. Not only is there the reporter-friendly outcome of a key White House aide being charged with multiple felonies, but all indications point to a powerful sleazebag trying to launder his lies with journalism traditions exercised by despised reporters.

Speaking of which, I wonder if Judy still considers Scooter a "good-faith source," in light of his weasel-words in this Sept. 15 letter to her in jail: "[T]he public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me."

Is It the THC That Makes It Mellower?

A staple of anti-pot propaganda in recent years has been the implication that marijuana poses more of a cancer risk than tobacco because a joint contains more carcinogens than a cigarette. One problem with this scare tactic is that it ignores patterns of use: The typical pot smoker lights up far less often than the typical cigarette smoker. Another problem is that epidemiological research has not verified an elevated cancer risk among people who smoke only marijuana. A research review in the October 18 issue of Harm Reduction Journal suggests one possible reason for this (aside from dosage): THC, marijuana's main psychoactive ingredient, seems to reduce the effect of carcinogens in pot smoke, whereas nicotine seems to enhance the effect of carcinogens in tobacco smoke.

The Price of Publicity?

At National Review Online, Radley Balko notes that Florida pain patient Richard Paey, who is serving a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking even though he never trafficked in drugs, seems to have been punished for seeking media attention. After he gave an interview to New York Times columnist John Tierney, he was transferred to a prison farther from his family and threatened with loss of the pain treatment he is receiving through a morphine pump. Paey's supporters are hoping publicity will pressure Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to pardon him.

UPS Goes Smoke-Free

Under pressure from New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, UPS has agreed to stop delivering cigarettes to consumers. The ban is part of an effort to prevent smokers from avoiding the state's $1.50-a-pack cigarette tax (a burden raised to $3 by New York City's local tax). Spitzer also has strong-armed DHL into eschewing cigarette deliveries and pressured credit card companies to stop processing payments for online cigarette purchases, which are illegal in New York. The next logical step is for Spitzer to demand that offline merchants in lower-tax states stop abetting tax evasion by selling cigarettes to New Yorkers. Shouldn't every tobacconist, supermarket, and convenience store have to do residency checks on cigarette buyers? And how long will it be before a similar approach is used to prevent people from avoiding sales tax by buying anything online, or by buying products while visiting other states?

SarbOx at NYU

Man, my timing is off. At the end of my freshman year at NYU, they knocked down Loeb Student Center, and didn't manage to finish the big fancy high-tech gee-whiz replacement until after I'd graduated. Then last year, they launched the NYU Journal of Law and Liberty. But at least I get to partake virtually: They've got a blog, where they're currently hosting a symposium on Sarbanes-Oxley.

Social Responsibility Redux

Our October issue's Milton Friedman/John Mackey/T.J. Rodgers debate on corporate social responsibility provoked more reader mail than any other cover story I can recall; now it seems to have kicked off a blogospheric discussion. Tyler Cowen appears to view Friedman's famous dictum—that the only responsibility of business is to maximize profit—as more of a rhetorical move than a genuine position. Professor Bainbridge disagrees, and links to a paper defending the Friedman view. And Mark Kleiman offers what strikes me as a pretty good reductio of that position.

Because If The New York Times Doesn't Report It, It Will Just Go Away

Editor and Publisher reports that a military spokesperson asked major newspapers to ignore Wednesday's gruesome milestone:

Going against the expressed wishes of the Pentagon, several top U.S. newspapers treated the tragic arrival of the 2,000th American military death in Iraq as a major milestone Wednesday...

On Tuesday, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a military spokesman in Iraq, wrote in an e-mail to reporters, "The 2,000 service members killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone. It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives."

Whole thing here.

Libby Likely, Rove Unclear

From the New York Times:

Lawyers in the C.I.A. leak case said Thursday that they expected I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, to be indicted on Friday, charged with making false statements to the grand jury.

Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, will not be charged on Friday, but will remain under investigation, people briefed officially about the case said. As a result, they said, the special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, was likely to extend the term of the federal grand jury beyond its scheduled expiration on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal reports the same thing.

My prediction? After Libby resigns, Cheney will be pressured to take a fall. Why?

1) The sudden resurgence of damning articles and columns about legal intransigence and cabalistic behavior coming out of the Vice President's "Gestapo office."

2) The Cheney-as-werewolf meme, propagated by old-timey anti-war critic Brent Scowcroft:

"The real anomaly in the Administration is Cheney," Scowcroft said. "I consider Cheney a good friend -- I've known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don't know anymore."

Which channels Colin Powell:

Powell detected a kind of fever in Cheney. He was not the steady, unemotional rock that he had witnessed a dozen years earlier during the run-up to the Gulf War. The vice president was beyond hell-bent for action against Hussein.

3) The new (to me) storyline of Bush finally losing patience with ol' Big Time, especially as reported by scooptastic Beltway insider Liz Smith:

[Only days ago], everyone was preoccupied with reporter Bob Woodward's theory that Vice President Dick Cheney would decide to run for president in 2008. (Mrs. Cheney denied this to Newsweek [sic] just this week.) But this week, the talkers and rumormongers are saying that regardless of the fate of Karl Rove or Scooter Libby (aides to the president and vice president respectively) -- it is Dick Cheney who will take the fall -- and resign from office over it.

The other part of the tale has the president and vice president very much "on the outs."

4) The aforementioned Woodward, who for some reason has been trying to scare people about the unlikely prospect of Cheney 2008 since May, has been giving increasingly ominous-sounding lectures about the "secret government":

The big worry that we should have about the country is not terrorism or hurricanes or Karl Rove or George Bush or whoever, the real thing that will bring us down as a country is secret government.

Hmmm, not Rove, not even Bush.... I wonder who exactly is running that dreaded, worse-than-the-threat-of-terrorism secret government? And before you dismiss Woodward's Cheney vs. Bush semantics as the wishful thinking of some damned MSMer, ask yourself how many recent Republican presidents have managed much of a second term after the old Naval Intelligence hand punished them for leaning too hard on the FBI and CIA?

Dumping the entire Fitzgerald mess on Libby's lap without splashing at least some of the dirt on Cheney seems improbable at best. The spook agencies -- a source of independent government power in their own right -- are smelling blood in the water. And an increasingly despised White House needs someone else to blame for all the other bummers coming home to roost. With the usual caveat that all my political predictions turn out wrong, here's two cents you can take to the bank: Cheney's a goner by 2006.

Cyclops Gives Pro-Mutant Senate Testimony: Neuharth asks "Who moved my blur tool?" Hacks have fun with P-Shop

The blog From the Pen catches USA Today pulling a Daniel Lee with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During her Senate testimony on Wednesday, America's top shoe aficionada gave the Senators this stern look:


But when McPaper got through with her, the secretary of state was flashing insane, feline, demonic, disturbingly sanpaku glares at an innocent nation:


USA Today has swapped out the altered pic, with the following explanation:

Editor's note: The photo of Condoleezza Rice that originally accompanied this story was altered in a manner that did not meet USA TODAY's editorial standards. The photo has been replaced by a properly adjusted copy. Photos published online are routinely cropped for size and adjusted for brightness and sharpness to optimize their appearance. In this case, after sharpening the photo for clarity, the editor brightened a portion of Rice's face, giving her eyes an unnatural appearance. This resulted in a distortion of the original not in keeping with our editorial standards.

Plausible? Maybe. As an editor, I consider it a matter of principle to run the most absurd and unflattering pics of public figures I can possibly find. Thus I believe the the Photoshop sharpen tool (the clear culprit here) does not make politicians ugly; it merely reveals the ugliness of their souls. A close look at the altered Rice photo indicates that not only her eyes but her entire head was sharpened—though there appears to have been a particular concentration on the eyes. Here's what the original photo above looks like if you sharpen the whole head once, and the eye area one additional time:


Not an exact match, but pretty close, and considering I was working from the published version of the image and not the one USA Today used in the first place—which presumably was of a different size and thus would have yielded different results when they were Photoshopping it—I'd say there's sufficient room for doubt. We can't say with certainty that USA Today was acting with malice aforethought. When somebody recuts store security camera footage of Condi trying on her Ferragamo shoes into a clip of an impromptu victory jig, I'll really be impressed.

Update: Robert A. George critiques another photo, this one posted by rageaholic Steve Gilliard. Close examination of the photo in question indicates it may in fact have been altered.

Judging This Book by its Cover

Not long ago I highlighted Christopher Hitchens' "dubious ... rhetorical achievement" of coining the term Islamo-fascism, which, I argued, was a

violate-Godwin's-Law-for-free card, which a grateful pro-war nation has embraced, providing yet more evidence that there is no Lefty rhetorical trope the Right will despise enough to avoid co-opting completely.

The fruit of his labors? This book.

I wonder if Amazon has a computer program, so that when a political hatchet-job title first gets leaked it automatically generates its reverse & spits it out in an e-mail to the relevant partisan publisher. What brave hack will now write Conservative Communism: The Totalitarian Temptation From Adolph Hitler to George W. Bush?

UPDATE: Commenters point out that the better alternative-universe title would substitute Stalin for Hitler. Or maybe one of those smaller-country inter-war totalitarians ... nominations welcome.

Missed it by That Much

This morning's predictable news renders goofy this post-Fitzgerald White House spin strategy, as reported by the L.A. Times:

White House officials and allies are hoping that intensive news coverage of the Fitzgerald investigation will be short-lived. On Nov. 7, they predicted, attention would shift to the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers.

"Let's say something happens in the next 48 hours," said one official. "It will dominate the news cycle until the 7th of November. Then a new cycle begins: Harriet will be the news."

John Ford vs. Laura Ingalls Wilder

If I went through every point in Ryan McMaken's bourgeois critique of the Western, listing which ideas I agree with and which ones I don't, this blog entry could balloon to the size of a book. Instead I'll just link to the piece, and invite your comments.

The End of Race, The Beginning of True Individualism?

From the AP via the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Scientists have mapped patterns of tiny DNA differences that distinguish one person from another -- an achievement that will help researchers find genes linked to heart disease, diabetes and other common illnesses.

The map represents "a real sea change in how we study the genetics of disease," Dr. David Altshuler, a leader of the project, said yesterday during a major conference on gene research in Salt Lake City.

Hyper-individualized disease treatments won't be available for five to 10 years, say the doctors, but they are definitely just down the pike.

The wider social implications of this sort of biomedical technology are pretty staggering, I think, and will almost certainly lead to significant shifts in how we perceive already-fluid group identities such as race and ethnicity. One way to read the broadly defined modern period--from the Enlightenment on, say--is as a large shift away from the group toward the individual: the classical liberal world was one which allowed individuals of all types to make more decisions about their lives, whether in politics, culture, or economics. One brutal irony, among many, is that Enlightenment political and economic discourses helped emancipate people from traditional tribal and group affiliations even as it attempted to codify racial differences with an appeal to science, genetics, etc.

Hyper-individualized genetics won't mean that people won't share commonalities, but it seems likely that they will cut across the traditional ways that we identify with others, especially if we all become effectively our own individual races.

Whole thing here.

And the Winner of the First Foster Brooks Award in Jurisprudence Goes To...

...Fairfax, Virginia county Judge Ian M. O'Flaherty, who is waging a one-man campaign against his state's drunken driving laws as unconstitutional. From the Wash Post account:

"The Fifth Amendment," said O'Flaherty, 59, "is an absolute protection against requiring the defendant to say or do anything in the course of a trial. . . . The Fifth Amendment means the defendant can sit there, not say or do anything, and at the end of the case say, 'Can I go home now?' "

No other judge in Fairfax -- or elsewhere in Virginia, as far as can be determined -- has joined O'Flaherty. But the judge said some other jurists have told him they agree with him. "I had one judge tell me, 'I'd rule that way, but I don't have the guts to,' " O'Flaherty said. "I told him, 'You should be driving a truck.' "

O'Flaherty--did he have to be Irish?--is particularly incensed over the way the burden of proof in DWI cases is routinely shifted back to defendants. Critics say he's abetting a public safety problem by letting boozing drivers get away with impaired driving. He's saying something else:

O'Flaherty said that he was not disregarding blood alcohol results and that he allowed them as evidence when they were properly obtained. But he said alcohol affects people in different ways, so presuming someone with a .08 blood alcohol content is drunk might not be correct.

Similarly, the judge said, "sometimes these tests are taken two hours after" an arrest, and there's no evidence of the blood alcohol content at the time of the traffic stop. O'Flaherty said one way to quickly obtain a blood alcohol reading would be to have a mobile van available with breathalyzer equipment, though he realized that would be costly.

"Criminal law shouldn't be built around saving a buck," O'Flaherty said. "We shouldn't convict people because it's cheaper and easier."

Have a snort and read more here.

Reason's Jacob Sullum questioned the wisdom of 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration laws here. And I argued for a lower legal drinking age here.

Foster Brooks requiem here.

Chucky's Cheese

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has a way of poking his head up at regular intervals to remind me why he's on my list of five most-repellent members of the Senate—and he was just on TV to do the job for fall '05. First he denounces the Miers withdrawal as a sign of Bush's capitulation to extremists, wackos, the radical right, and so on. Now, as I suggest below, however worried some conservatives might've been about not getting their preferred outcomes, it's clear that the furor we saw couldn't have happened if it weren't for Miers' astonishingly thin qualifications. Schumer and other Dems did the strategic thing: Let the right form a circular firing squad and loot the corpses. But let's be real: If they were remotely principled, they would've been howling just as loud about the cronyism and lack of qualifications too. Indeed, part of the point of presenting this as exclusively a dust-up about whether Miers would vote the "right" way is to divert focus from their strategic silence on those important questions.

Anyway, Schumer next makes the argument that the real problem here was a lack of consultation, and urges Bush to reach out more aggressively to Senate Democrats. Now, that's not just mistaken, it's not even coherent. You can't blast Bush for capitulating to pissed-off conservatives, then suggest that the solution is to cozy up better to Democrats—unless you're acknowledging that they were waiting to mount an opposition if the conservative backlash hadn't prompted a withdrawal.

It's Been Real, Harriet

The news channels are reporting that Bush has "reluctantly" accepted Harriet Miers' request to withdraw her nomination. Looks like they're using as cover the combination of the White House's refusal to hand over internal documents and the (frankly rather serious) issue of how often Miers would have to recuse herself from hearing cases about policy she'd had a hand in forming. Which may be a sign that, unlike Trent Lott, the White House does read blogs, since that's more or less the exit strategy the conservative blogs have been pitching. Seeya H.

Addendum: The narrative emerging seems to be that this was, above all, about Miers' failure to meet the right's litmus tests—in particular, uncertainty about whether she'd overturn Roe. But that just doesn't make sense in a lot of ways. For one, the widely loved (on the right) Roberts doesn't seem to have been any more of a sure thing on that front—certainly not after he described Roe as a "settled precedent" that is "entitled to respect." Is it that hard to buy that this really was, at least in significant part, about her thin resumé? Heaven forfend we should concede that not everything is explicable through the lens of horse-race outcome-oriented politics, that some people actually have a principled commitment to a competent Court.

New at Reason

Nick Gillespie works himself up into a meth-induced rage and fires back at Newsweek's editor.

Update: Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker responds to Gillespie's response:

Dear Nick

I never chided On the Media for hosting a critical conversation on this issue. In fact, in a portion of my note to Bob and Brooke that they chose not to include on the air, I said that I thought the debate was fair game and that reasonable people could disagree about the extent of the meth crisis. My only beef was your contending that Newsweek would publish a cover story without any statistics to back it up. You can parse what you said all you want, but that was clearly the implication that you left with everyone I know who listened to the show. Beyond that, I had no intention, and have none now, of engaging you or Shafer in an extended public discussion of this subject. As usual, we've been praised for our reporting by some experts and attacked by others, but that's par for the course for us when we take on controversial subjects.

Regards,
Mark

And Gillespie's final note in the exchange:

Mark,

Thanks for your response. I respectfully disagree that it's "parsing" to reiterate what I actually said or to throw into question whether the stats you cited supported your story.

Yrs,

Nick

You are Cordially Invited to a Party in Honor of Satan and Hell

Via America's Newspaper, AP exposes the great European backlash against the "American habit" of Halloween (a holiday, last I checked, with European roots). And by "backlash," they mean menacing remarks by a crazy Swiss mayor, an Italian theologian, and "an Austrian who backs the small but strident boycott movement" :

In Sweden, even as Halloween's popularity has increased, so have views of the holiday as an "unnecessary, bad American custom," said Bodil Nildin-Wall, an expert at the Language and Folklore Institute in Uppsala.

Italy's Papaboys, a group of pope devotees who include some of the young Catholics who cheer wildly at Vatican events, have urged Christians not to take part in what they consider "a party in honor of Satan and hell," and plan to stage prayer vigils nationwide that night.

Papal groupies notwithstanding, Americans themselves are perfectly capable of recognizing that Halloween is a vast conspiracy of chocolate industry lobbyists, sexual predators, and whatever you call the guys who stick needles in candy corn.

Whole thing here. Tim Cavanaugh notes that "Satan has a way of winning every holiday season" here.

A Time to Vomit

So there's a new Beltway novel out about a feisty little Blue-state Senatress who courageously opposes a Republican president's nomination of an underqualified woman to the Supreme Court. And you'll never guess who co-wrote it -- Botoxed pepperpot Barbara Boxer! The L.A. Times description sounds gruesome:

In "A Time to Run," the main characters from the reigning "blue states" -- Josh from California and Ellen from equally reassuring New York -- are liberal, altruistic, sane. Their affluent families are caring and sharing.

Their red state-born buddy, Greg, is the son of an emotionally abusive Ohio hardware seller former Marine who lost his favorite son in Vietnam. The red states that Greg heads to after graduation are interchangeably dull Siberias where Greg hangs out with the menfolk, bonding over beer, football and hunting.

Josh and Ellen become Left Coast do-gooders. Greg becomes a sociopathic neoconservative journalist, the go-to guy for character assassinations conjured by a right-wing California senator. Boxer said that although she didn't intend for the characters to represent the American political equation, "I hope people will understand the issues I raise about why people are blue or red or purple."

Her literary intrigues are not all political: There's also some bodice-ripping, with a love triangle between Greg, Ellen and Josh, and physical congress, tastefully suggested by euphemisms in which bodies "mesh."

Quis Custodiet?

One of the reasons we weren't supposed to worry about the surveillance powers granted law enforcement under the PATRIOT Act was the vigorous oversight to which uses of those powers would be subject: Someone would always be watching them watch us. But a Washington Post article from earlier this week suggests that they haven't been as meticulous as they might have been about meeting those requirements. You can check out the details in documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center [PDF].

How Bush Embraced Government, Reconnected with the Middle Class, Saved Conservatism, and Earned the Approval of Over 30% of the Country

David Brooks stands by his man:

Bush hasn't abandoned conservatism; he's modernized and saved it....Almost single-handedly, Bush reconnected with the positive and idealistic instincts of middle-class Americans. He did it by recasting conservatism more significantly than anyone had since Ronald Reagan. He rejected the prejudice that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and he tried to use government to encourage responsible citizenship and community service. "Government should help people improve their lives, not run their lives," Bush said. This is not the Government-Is-the-Problem philosophy of the mid-'90s, but the philosophy of a governing majority party in a country where people look to government to play a positive but not overbearing role in their lives.

Ruled By Geniuses!

An interesting tidbit in James Surowiecki's column in this week's New Yorker:

Last year, Alan Ziobrowski, a professor at Georgia State, headed the first-ever systematic study of politicians as investors. Ziobrowski and his colleagues looked at six thousand stock transactions made by senators between 1993 and 1998. Over that time, senators beat the market, on average, by twelve per cent annually. Since a mutual-fund manager who beats the market by two or three per cent a year is considered a genius, the politicians' ability to foresee the future seems practically divine. They did an especially good job of picking up stocks at just the right time; their buys were typically flat before they bought them, but beat the market by thirty per cent, on average, in the year after. By those standards, Frist actually looks like a bit of a piker.

The full study doesn't appear to be online, but here's the abstract. Surowiecki goes on to consider arguments against insider trading laws, but concludes that insider trading ought nevertheless to remain a crime. Brian Doherty took the opposite position back in 2002.

How Many Dead Iraqis?

As the U.S. mulls over the meaning of 2,000 dead servicemen in Iraq, the question of exactly how many Iraqis have been killed in the war has come back into conversation. Not particularly credible early estimates (read: worst-case scenarios pushed by opponents of Bush and the war) ranged as high as 100,000.

Here's an update from the Austin American-Statesman:

The U.S. military death toll is dwarfed by the number of Iraqi civilians killed. Estimates of Iraqi deaths since the start of the war vary widely, but Iraq Body Count, a group that counts civilian Iraqi deaths primarily through media reports, puts the figure between 26,690 and 30,051.

And Lord knows we're not supposed to think about Vietnam (damn, did it again) when talking about Iraq, but the AAS adds this graf as well:

The U.S. toll in Iraq doesn't approach the 57,702 Americans killed in the Vietnam War. In 1968, the costliest year of that war for Americans, 14,314 U.S. soldiers died, an average of 1,193 per month. U.S. fatalities in Iraq have averaged 65 per month.

Not sure if that sort of body counting is supposed to spook or soothe us (among other things, I'd be interested in knowing what the dead-per-month rate was in Vietnam in, say, '65 or '66).

But here's something more to chew on, too: The AAS also notes a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released this week that asked 1,000 Americans whether it was a "mistake" to send troops to Iraq. Forty-nine percent said it was and 49 percent said it wasn't. The bigger news: A month ago, 59 percent said it was a mistake.

If support for the war or, more precisely, lack of anger at the war, is moving in Bush's direction, I think we can all agree it's Cindy Sheehan's fault.

More here.

A few years back, in a kinder, gentler America (that is, March 2002), Reason's Matt Welch explored "The Politics of Dead Children" and tried to figure out how many Iraqi kids died because of U.S. sanctions. His answer is here.

Update: Reader Caleb O. Brown sends along a link to Vietnam casualties broken down every which way but loose. Check it out here.

Who Will Be the Next Mayor of Pompeii?

Choose your champion: Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. Just understand that whoever wins will still lose.

The fight between rival DVD formats will most likely end with the extinction of disks as video devices, as downloaded and on-demand movies become the vehicle of choice for a new generation of viewers. "Every month this battle wages, more and more people are getting used to getting video in other ways. That's the real enemy of this indecision," Richard Doherty, an analyst with Envisioneering, tells Reuters.

Let me fire up my old DIVX player and tell you about the glory of obsolete formats. As an absolute cheapskate, I get the bulk of my movies from the public library (even though, as a libertarian, I believe public libraries are a crime against humanity and I should be indicted for using one). Thus I still make frequent use of VHS cassettes, and I can tell you there's nothing worse than watching VHS when DVD exists. Nor is on-demand necessarily a step up: Last night I watched an on-demand showing of the Jim Kelly kung fu/blaxploitation/voodoo/jetpack picture Black Samurai, and it looked as bad (washed-out print, lousy sound transfer, obvious edits for content) as anything from the bad old VHS-only days. By any yardstick, DVD has been a Jolly Green Giant step forward. If there's a secret culprit in the end of the video disk, it may not be the forward march of technology but the DMCA regulations and onerous copy protections that have made disks a geek-unfriendly format—a point only Bill Gates manages to raise with Reuters:

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates backs HD DVD and has called Sony's Blue-ray format "anti-consumer" because of a protection scheme.

"The inconvenience is that the (movie) studios got too much protection at the expense of consumers and it won't work well on PCs," Gates was quoted as saying in an interview with The Daily Princetonian earlier this month. "You won't be able to play movies and do software in a flexible way."

Still, Gates said he regarded the debate over the formats almost as an afterthought.

"Understand that this is the last physical format there will ever be. Everything's going to be streamed directly or on a hard disk," he said. "So, in this way, it's even unclear how much this one counts."

The problem for me isn't just the extinction of the format but the fact that we're nearing the end of yet another medium without the studios' having tried to exhaust their libraries in any serious way. I'm not just talking about really obscure stuff: What kind of world are we living in where Nicholas Ray's cautionary tale Bigger Than Life, a Gillespie favorite with James Mason as a mild-mannered schoolteacher driven mad by cortisone treatments, has never been available on any home-viewing format? Where is the DVD, or the VHS, or even the laserdisc, of the 1932 version of Madame Butterfly with Cary Grant as Pinkerton, Sylvia Sidney as Cho-Cho San, and a script by Joseph Moncure March? A world without a home video version of Ernst Lubitsch's last film, the sterling Jennifer Jones girl-plumber dramedy Cluny Brown, is what Krusty the Clown meant when he said "survivors would envy the dead." The beauty of DVD was that it coincided with and helped inspire vast institutional support for exploiting back catalogues. Gone were the shitty prints and full-screen atrocities of the VHS era; in came the vogue for complete collections, crisp transfers, and rediscovered sleepers. But the job is not yet done, and I suspect the market for DVD will run out before the back catalogues do. Whatever the hell Blu-Ray is, I already hate it because it slows down the rollout of the back catalogues. They're fighting over the deck chairs on the Titanic. (Speaking of which, James Cameron guarantees that the new Titanic ultimate DVD is the absolutest finalest most ultimatest Titanic DVD yet.)

Pictures of Gerry Todd, the original king of video, here.

PS: I didn't really have a DIVX player but I am writing this post on a manual typewriter, and you're lucky I've run out of paper because I was just going to start telling you how warm my vinyl records sound with all the pops and skips.

All Bets Are Off

I was taking bets just this morning, but since it's already at least a four-way tie, we're going to need an instant replay challenge:

Inevitable? No doubt, but a few of the artists on the Cagle Rosa Parks page actually managed some variations on the Parks/bus/seat theme. Here's hoping a busload of editorial cartoonists might meet with a Sweet Hereafter-style tragedy sometime soon.

And Then You Look for the President With the Dog Poopie on His Shoes!

Not much new in former Colin Powell deputy Lawrence Wilkerson's L.A. Times update to his ballyhooed "cabal" speech of last week, but he gets style points for violating the president's "public scatology" ban:

At least once a week, it seemed, Powell trooped over to the Oval Office and cleaned all the dog poop off the carpet. He held a youthful, inexperienced president's hand. He told him everything would be all right because he, the secretary of State, would fix it. And he did

Brian Doherty threw dog poop on Colin Powell's shoes ("the feckless alleged 'opposition voice' in Bushite foreign policy") in a strangely prescient column back in January.

Cheney: At Least Let the CIA Keep Torturing, John!

Lame-duck veep Dick "Go Fuck Yourself" Cheney has proposed some exceptions to John McCain's bill barring Americans from torturing people.

Cheney's proposal is drafted in such a way that the exemption from the rule barring ill treatment could require a presidential finding that "such operations are vital to the protection of the United States or its citizens from terrorist attack." [...]

"This is the first time they've said explicitly that the intelligence community should be allowed to treat prisoners inhumanely," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "In the past, they've only said that the law does not forbid inhumane treatment."

McCain rejected the exemption, the Washington Post reports.

That Great Sucking Sound

The Wall Street Journal looks at the federal spending on disaster relief down New Orleans way:

Within 10 days of Hurricane Katrina's slamming of the Gulf Coast, President Bush and Congress rushed with rare speed to provide an unprecedented $62.3 billion in disaster aid -- twice the annual budget of the entire Homeland Security Department. White House budget director Joshua Bolten predicted the money would last only "a few weeks."

Six weeks later, the government has spent or signed contracts totaling $16.2 billion, about a quarter of the money. [...]

Despite FEMA's unspent balance, the White House and Congress already are considering a third emergency appropriations bill of about $20 billion.

It's Like a College Fraternity Prank

Andrew Sullivan points to a report on an ACLU investigation of 44 deaths of detainees in U.S. custody. They conclude that 21 should be classed as homicides, at least eight of which resulted from abusive interrogation tactics. You can check out the ACLU press release and archive of autopsy reports obtained by FOIA request.

Truth Hurts (Ann Coulter Unintentionally Persuasive Edition)

Ann Coulter, speaking at a "Ronald Reagan Black Tie and Blue Jeans BBQ," makes quite possibly the best argument ever made for repealing the First Amendment:

"They're always accusing us of repressing their speech," she said. "I say let's do it. Let's repress them."

She later added, "Frankly, I'm not a big fan of the First Amendment."

Her statements received applause, and many attendees said they enjoyed her speech, but some added that they think she's somewhat extreme.

"She's not very subtle, but I always enjoy her talks," Republican Senate candidate Travis Horn said. "They're very hard hitting, but the truth hurts."

Whole thing here. Sara Rimensnyder explored Coulter's "perverse appeal" here.

Today's Authoritarianism Brought to You by the Letters Q and W

A friend passes along this story, which if I didn't see the CNN banner I'd swear had been excerpted from Bend Sinister:

A Turkish court has fined 20 people for using the letters Q and W on placards at a Kurdish new year celebration, under a law that bans use of characters not in the Turkish alphabet, rights campaigners said.

Will 2006 = 1994?

Over at Tech Central Station, New York Postie and former Reason intern Ryan Sager says parallels between 1994 and 2006 may be ominous for a Republican party that has grown fat and complacent. He cites a memo recently sent out by Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who is the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. In the memo, Reynolds is trying to soothe jagged nerves over the mid-term elections, as some GOPers fear what they did to the Dems in '94 may happen to them in '06.

[Reynolds] hauls out a chunk of argument that looks increasingly stale and irrelevant: the idea that though voters are exceedingly upset with Congress as a whole they're still eager to send their own congressmen back to Washington, D.C. Reynolds cites a Pew poll from September showing that 57 percent of Americans would like to see their Congressman returned to office, versus 25 percent who would not.

But if Reynolds or his staff had done any digging into the poll numbers from 1994, he probably wouldn't have cited the Pew poll -- at least not if he wanted to disprove the 1994/2006 connection. Roll Call columnist Stuart Rothenberg did some digging and found that a similarly worded poll from 1994, conducted by Yankelovich Partners, found the exact same breakdown: 57 percent to reelect, 25 percent to throw the bums out.

So, there's no particular reason to believe that voters are any less ready for a change of party in Congress than they were twelve years ago. In fact, another poll (by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research) shows voters preferring Democrats to Republicans by 6 points nationally, even when the question is phrased using the names of their incumbent congressmen.

Whole thing here.

"The Olsen Twins of the White Nationalist Movement"

Maybe it's just the jaded former teen magazine editor in me, but I find ABC News' recent article about the "Prussian Blue," a neo-Nazi teen singing duo whose repertoire features ditties about Rudolph Hess and "Aryan Man Awake," something short of disturbing. Or even newsworthy for that matter. From the ABC News account:

They may remind you another famous pair of singers, the Olsen Twins, and the girls say they like that. But unlike the Olsens, who built a media empire on their fun-loving, squeaky-clean image, Lamb and Lynx [Gaede] are cultivating a much darker personna. They are white nationalists and use their talents to preach a message of hate.

This isn't to say that the 13-year-old twins aren't spectacularly retarded and offensive as a concept--and they've yet to record the inevitable album of David "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fascist" Bowie, Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, and Sid Vicious covers. But the whole story seems so fake, a clear and cynical attempt to titillate the press regarding the supposed lure of dangerous ideas on the rise somewhere in red America. Like the "meth epidemic," neo-Nazis--double losers who inevitably pledge allegiance to the utterly defeated Confederate States of America and the Third Reich--are a topic mainstream media turn to on slow news days.

But as in many of these sorts of stories, ABC News fails to deliver the goods on these Ilsas She Wolves of the SS in training bras. According to the story, they've got "one album out, another on the way, a music video, and lots of fans." But the story never drops even the vaguest hint of what "lots of fans" means or how much merchandise they've moved. The same utter vagueness goes for other bands signed to Resistance Records, which is apparently the label of choice for musicians channeling Henry Gibson's character in The Blues Brothers. Indeed, the story points out that the girls' attempt to send clothes and supplies to the "white victims" only of Hurricane Katrina was so unpopular that "the supplies ended...[[being] dumped at a local shop that sells Confederate memorabilia."

Until Prussian Blue gets an audience that extends beyond their mother, their record label's owner, and ABC News--or form a band with Prince Harry (hmm, Tony Orlando and the New Dawn?)--I don't think the Olsen twins or Americans have too much to worry about.

It's for from the Children

How can we combine tax cuts and ballooning spending? Connie Mack, the former Republican senator from Florida, has a few thoughts:

Well, the U.S. government has to get money from somewhere. As a two-term former Republican senator from Florida, where do you suggest we get money from?

What money?

The money to run this country.

We'll borrow it.

I never understand where all this money comes from.

When the president says we need another $200 billion for Katrina repairs, does he just go and borrow it from the Saudis?

In a sense, we do. Maybe the Chinese.

Is that fair to our children? If we keep borrowing at this level, won't the Arabs or the Chinese eventually own this country?

I am not worried about that. We are a huge country producing enormous assets day in and day out. We have great strength, and we have always adjusted to difficulties that faced us, and we will continue to do so.

Drugs, Not Hugs (Special Drug Policy Conference Edition)

Reason is proud to be a sponsor of the 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, November 10-12, in Long Beach California.

From the site of the conference's organizer, Drug Policy Alliance:

This coming November, more than 1,000 people from across the country and around the world will gather to learn more about drug policy reform issues. No better opportunity exists to strategize and mobilize for reform....

Who should attend? Anyone who believes the war on drugs is doing more harm than good! The diversity and expertise of our audience is what will make this conference a success. If you are a community activist, elected official, criminal justice professional or reform advocate, public health administrator, health care or drug treatment professional, educator, student, person in recovery, or a family member or friend of a drug war prisoner this conference is for you! We plan to apply for Continuing Education Units for counselors, social workers, attorneys and physicians. If you would like to be placed on our mailing list to receive a conference brochure, email DPA@KessJones.com or call 1-888-361-6338.

Full info here.

And yes, Reason's own Jacob "Saying Yes" Sullum is confirmed as a speaker.

When Satire Goes Meta

The Onion gets a letter from the White House (really):

"It has come to my attention that The Onion is using the presidential seal on its Web site," Grant M. Dixton, associate counsel to the president, wrote to The Onion on Sept. 28. (At the time, Mr. Dixton's office was also helping Mr. Bush find a Supreme Court nominee; days later his boss, Harriet E. Miers, was nominated.)

Citing the United States Code, Mr. Dixton wrote that the seal "is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement." Exceptions may be made, he noted, but The Onion had never applied for such an exception.

The Onion was amused. "I'm surprised the president deems it wise to spend taxpayer money for his lawyer to write letters to The Onion," Scott Dikkers, editor in chief, wrote to Mr. Dixton. He suggested the money be used instead for tax breaks for satirists.

New York Times account here.

Baseball Non-Sequituring Political Metaphor of the Week

Forgive me Father for I am linking to Hugh Hewitt writing about George Will, but this bit was too weird to pass up:

I joke[d] with Dennis Prager a week ago that George Will's instant rejection of Miers was part of "baseball envy" on Will's part. I am not sure who knows more --really knows-- about the game, Bush or Will?

But I don't think W ever second guessed his manager when, in the top of the sixth, the manager made a decision the owner found inscrutable.

That's the difference between an owner and a sportswriter. One lives to win. The other lives to write good copy.

I knew the conservative crack-up would be entertaining; I just didn't count on the surrealism.

Link via Andrew Sullivan; my take on Bush v. Gore in the 2000 World Series here.

Because Maybe it's Not Good to Head the Judicial With Someone Paid to Help the Executive Get Away With it?

Today's chapter in the slow-motion stillbirth of the Miers nomination is about how President Bush is refusing to hand over notes from her work as White House counsel.

Here's a way out of the pickle -- How about not nominating White House counsel?

A Man's House Was His Castle

Leonard Ford sends along this BBC bit about England seizing vacant homes and turning them over to local councils who will then lease them out for up to seven years before kicking back to the owners. Sez one gov't spokeschap:

"Poorly maintained empty properties are magnets for vandals, drug users, squatters and even arsonists.

"Bringing empty homes back into use reduces opportunities for low level anti-social behaviour."

But wait, is he talking about derelict homes or castles belonging to the House of Hanover Windsor? Is there that much of a difference?

The BBC bit here.

And isn't it about time the Royal Family thanked the Sex Pistols for making them relevant again? I mean it, man--since that song hit the top of the UK charts nearly 30 years ago, it's been onward and upward for QE2 and her regression-to-the-mean brood of freeloaders. Who would have guessed in 1977 that it would have been the House of Lords what was on the chopping block?

U are Su Fructed

According to an L.A. Times article, officials working on rebuilding New Orleans are considering an Eminent Domainish policy called "usufruct," which would allow government to take over damaged homes -- by force, possibly -- clean 'em up, rent 'em out to government workers with subsidized housing allowances, take over the mortgage payments ... and then maybe allow the original owners to come back in a few years, but only if they repay the government for its hard work. Connosieurs of coercion-bias in newspapers will enjoy the wording of this front-pager:

Officials and community advocates are quietly planting the seeds for an enterprising program that could give the government temporary control over thousands of privately owned homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

An increasing number of Louisiana housing authorities believe the proposal, based on an arcane legal concept called "usufruct," could be a key to determining whether New Orleans will again be a seminal American city or whether it will stagnate with a population, like it has now, equal to that of Duluth, Minn., and Fort Smith, Ark. [...]

The proposal would require deft legal maneuvering and could be controversial, largely because the Constitution severely restricts the government's ability to control private property.

Alt Together Now

In another sign that the "alternative weekly" newspaper format is about as fresh as Grandpa's cologne, the longtime hated rivals at the New Times chain and Village Voice Media have merged, regulators willing, with the NT cookie-cutters seizing control of Norman Mailer's creaky ship.

This will trigger some amusing political gymnastics, as union shops merge with Labor-free zones, and smart-ass "radical centrists" make nice with the earnest lefty graybeards they've been mocking all these years, but you can expect the most entertaining reactions to come from cranktastic San Francisco Bay Guardian poobah Bruce Brugmann, who is quoted by Howard Kurtz as saying the New Times will export its "desert libertarianism on the rocks, with sprigs of neocon politics."

More links over at L.A. Observed.

Liberation Biology Reviewed

Brainwash, an online publication of America's Future Foundation, has a review of Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey's Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution. A snippet:

As Bailey documents, biotechnology offers incredible possibilities for alleviating human suffering. Soon, we may be able to cure devastating genetic diseases, treat degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer's, help the world's poor to grow enough food to feed themselves, perform organ and tissue transplants without the risk of rejection, and prevent the spread of epidemics. Failing to pursue those treatments would be just as immoral as allowing children to die from smallpox. Bailey shows that, far from undermining human dignity, biotechnology will expand the options available to individuals and "enable people who would otherwise be 'dehumanized' by disease, disability, or death to survive and flourish."

If anything can be said to be the essence of humanity, it is that we work to liberate ourselves from biological constraints. From fire to agriculture to antibiotics, the history of our species has been a story of technology. Refusing to push forward with biotechnology wouldn't protect human nature--it would defy it.

Whole thing here.

More on Lib Bio, including purchase info, here.

Update: And here's another new review from The Indianapolis Star.

The Week of the Long Knives

I live about a trillion miles from Washington, D.C., but it sure seems like someone blew the Beltway Dog Whistle, instructing all the little yappers that it's now safe to say "Oh, I never really liked that Bush fellow anyway."

With Patrick Fitzgerald preparing his (we presume) indictments, it's now the Week of the Long Knives, where Poppy Bush's best pal Brent Scowcroft tries to outdo Lawrence Wilkerson in the blade-plunging department while Bush lashes out at Cheney, the White House prepares for turnover, the 2,000th U.S. soldier prepares to die in Iraq and Richard Holbrooke snickers ruefully in the Washington Post.

Now we can expect a festival of Clinton-impeachment switcheroos, with Dems learning to love perjury traps while Republicans ditch the "rule of law"; and everyone trades places on the wisdom of having a sitting president testify in a civil suit. Coming up: Besieged complaints about the vast left-wing conspiracy, and true-believer laments that the president's detractors "refuse to accept the results of the election." Good times.

Over at the New York Times it's a fearful foursome on top of Judy Miller, with Editor Bill Keller, Ombudsman Byron Calame and even reluctant, steak-buying Pinch Sulzberger trying (and failing) to outscratch Maureen Dowd, as Little Miss Run Amok pens desperate little notes of dismayal.

But the real sign that the winds have changed came with my morning coffee, as I read Niall Ferguson -- he of the "America! Embrace your inner empire!" argument -- wash his hands with this sentence. "By definition [Bush] is replaceable, in 2008 if not before."

If not before! At least Ferguson, unlike the vast majority of the conservative pilers-on, found it within his vast intellect and moral conviction to arrive at Bush skepticism before another kind of Beltway Dog Whistle blew way back in those distant days of November 2004.

Smoke a Joint, Lose Your Child?

The government of Alberta is proposing legislation that would allow the authorities to seize the children of drug addicts. It's not clear from the CTV and Canadian Press stories exactly what the criteria would be, but the fact that the law singles out illegal drug users suggests that the threshold would be lower for them than for parents who drink or who eschew all psychoactive substances. I see no sense in that, especially if the law lets the government decide whether parents are addicts and if that determination is sufficient to trigger removal of their children, whether or not there's evidence of neglect or abuse. Such a policy could easily do more harm to children than it prevents. In short, there are strong reasons to be concerned about the double standard embodied in this sort of legislation.

Alberta's premier, Ralph Klein, disagrees. "I don't know who would challenge it other than the bad guys," he says, pre-emptively slandering his critics. "You know--the people who have an interest in feeding drugs to children." I assume he's not referring to pharmaceutical manufacturers.

[Thanks to Nicolas Martin for the tip.]

Sign Up Already for Reason's Vegas Event, November 4-6

Reason's Dynamic Cities Conference
Las Vegas
November 4-6, 2005

And introducing Reason After Dark

Join Drew Carey, Christopher Hitchens, Joel Kotkin, Burt Rutan, Nick Gillespie, Bob Poole, Adrian Moore, Jacob Sullum, David Nott and many others for an interactive weekend of ideas and fun.

How do policies based on freedom and choice make a city great? Where are those cities? Who's winning the War on Pleasure? What can Las Vegas teach the liberals and conservatives who fear and loathe it?

Enjoy Director John Stagliano's award-winning Fashionistas dance show, the spectacular Penn & Teller, poker, shopping, great food, cigars, innovative speakers, panel discussions, and more at Reason's Dynamic Cities Conference and Reason After Dark special events.

November 4-6, 2005
The Mirage
3400 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109

Details, Registration, Etc. here.

If the above isn't enough to get you to attend, note that the Seigfried and Roy of Reason magazine, Tim Cavanaugh and Matt Welch, will also be speaking over the course of the weekend.

Message Movies Redux

Reader Eric Dzinski calls attention to this USA Today story on the latest crop (hmm, is that the right vowel?) of message movies emanating from Hollywood. (Apparently, Tinseltown execs must think the box office isn't suffering enough.)

"Storytelling has an enormous effect on people's lives," says Ricky Strauss, president of Participant [Productions]. "You're sitting in a theater and having this collective consciousness as a group. Movies make you emotionally more charged."

If we're talking collective consciousness and the role of pop culture in edifying audience automatons, then I prefer we go with Adorno and Horkheimer's rap against Disney: "Donald Duck in the cartoons...[gets his] thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment."

Back when the thankfully repressed movie John Q. was making the case for Soviet-style healthcare, Reason's Tim Cavanaugh limned the essence of latter-day message movies:

Too often the issues are presented not as fodder for stirring speeches or rabble-rousing drama but because their makers seem to believe the audience needs remedial education. John Q's end titles even lay out nationwide statistics on insurance coverage and transplant waiting lists.

Hollywood dilettantes are a particularly ill-chosen group of spokespeople for uninsured families, oppressed minorities, and other huddled masses; the reliance on statistics and abstracts, rather than drama, to deliver messages may be an indication of just how far, in shared-experience terms, Tinseltown is from the people for whom it speaks. As a result, the message movie is not only back but simpler and more didactic than ever. The only question is whether audiences will be slow enough to follow along.

The title to Cavanaugh's piece offered advice that still rings true: "Shoot the Messenger." Whole thing here.

Well, Excuuuuuse Him (Steve Martin Hasn't Been Funny Since Cocaine Stopped Being Popular Edition)

That collective yawn you heard emanating from Washington, D.C. over the weekend? That was the response to Steve Martin being honored with the eighth annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center on Sunday.

Martin joins other has-beens and comic milquetoasts such as Richard Pryor and Carl Reiner in taking home the prize, which certifies that you haven't been truly funny for at least the past 20 years. When Pryor became the first ex-comic to be entombed with the Twain award in 1999, some wise fool advised America to "Send Out the Clowns," including one Steve Martin:

The ex-wild-and-crazy guy, who once spoke in a stoned manner of "getting small," devoted album sides to banjo playing, and made clever movies such as Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains, has fully achieved his goal of becoming Woody Allen West. That is, he's a "serious" artiste now, having appeared in a Broadway - yes, that serious - production of Waiting for Godot, penned his own dramedy about Einstein and Picasso meeting in Paris, and contributed to The New Yorker, all without ever once inspiring laughter, amusement, or entertainment - or for that matter, any insight whatsoever into the existential human misery to which he has contributed significantly (Sgt. Bilko is a surer sign that God is dead than anything Jean-Paul Sartre could cook up). In short, Martin has become every bit as mummified - and in clean-and-sober hindsight, every bit as unfunny - as the King Tut he once sang about with such reckless abandon.

More here.

Motor City Madness—and Gov't's Role in It

Wash Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby has an excellent col on why U.S. automakers (and their vassal-like suppliers such as Delphi) suck when it comes to economic performance:

Hourly pay may be a little high: It averages about $27 at GM and Delphi, compared with the $17 average for American manufacturing. But health and pension benefits are the real killers. Once you've counted those, workers cost $74 an hour at GM and $65 an hour at Delphi.

But Mallaby's larger point is not simply that "dumb managers" screwed things up by producing "clunky designs" and giving away the store in terms of worker compensation. He rightly calls attention to the massively distorting effects of government policies that give firms incentives to load up on "non-wage carrots" including health care and pensions that escape most or all taxation:

Companies provide benefits nonetheless because government encourages them to do so. Historically, it did this by imposing wage controls, forcing employers to find non-wage carrots to lure workers. More recently, government has pushed the same way by sheltering pension contributions and health premiums from taxes. The resulting company-based welfare system is widely accepted as the way things ought to be. But it's based on a myth of lifetime employment at one firm. And its tax breaks are unfair to self-employed workers who don't get them.

Why did carmakers get to the point where they not only offer pensions and health care, but where these benefits account for the majority of workers' total compensation? Again, the answer has to do with government. The law allows firms to reward workers with valuable benefit promises today, but pay for these promises later. In the car industry, just as in other industries facing a cash crunch, this promise-now, pay-later option has proved irresistible.

Among many other things--all of them bad--this arrangement leads to employees (or retirees) getting screwed down the line, when the firms are no longer competitive (due in large part to legacy commitments) and then either go bankrupt or cut benefits to retirees at the moment they're likely to cash in on deferred benefits. Last week, for instance, GM forced its pensioners to suck up major cuts in benefits.

Well worth reading. More here.

UN Stops the One Invasion Where They Actually Do Welcome Us With Flowers

Ryan Posly hips us to UNESCO's latest plan to stop what The New York Times' Alan Riding calls "cultural invasion" and "the homogenizing effect of cultural globalization." By a vote of 148 to 2, the UN cultural body has approved the "Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions," a proposal giving signers an unspecified authority to take steps to protect their own cultures. Israel and the United States voted against, while Australia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Liberia abstained.

It's not clear what the convention actually means. Riding claims it will permit participants to use "subsidies and quotas" to keep out American popular culture, but the convention contains no such language. Here is the operative section:

Article 8—Measures to protect cultural expressions

1. Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 5 and 6, a Party may determine those special situations where cultural expressions on its territory are at risk of extinction, under serious threat, or otherwise in need of urgent safeguarding.

2. Parties may take all appropriate measures to protect and preserve cultural expressions in situations referred to in paragraph 1 in a manner consistent with the provisions of this Convention.

3. Parties shall report to the Intergovernmental Committee all measures taken to meet the exigencies of the situation, and the Committee may make appropriate recommendations.

Variety calls the vote "a slap in the face to the U.S.," which recently rejoined UNESCO, but it would be more accurate to say that the vote is a slap in the face to the approving countries' own populations. Common sense dictates that there'd be no need for this convention if nobody were buying American products, and the specific case indicates there's a lot more love than hate in what The Washington Post calls "the world's love-hate relationship with Hollywood, Big Macs and Coca-Cola." The convention was sponsored by France and Canada, and French "culture czar" Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres se vante that "We are no longer the black sheep on this subject."

Hey, Renaud, while you're winning the rest of the UNESCO apparatchiks over to your side, take a gander at the movies your own countrymen chose to spend their Euros on this year. And while you're at it, tell the Canadians—who are forced by their government to pretend they know your language—that they're also doing a heck of a job showing their disapproval of American cultural products.

All Brent Out of Shape

Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser to Presidents Ford and Bush Sr., is coming out against Bush Jr. with guns blazing in a New Yorker piece due to hit newsstands this week—and the blogosphere is already atwitter. Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation has excerpts.

Cuban Missile Crisis: Son of K. Gives View From CCCP

In American Heritage, Sergei Khrushchev gives his father's view of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. (The article is from 2002, but I haven't seen it before.) As you might expect, in Krushchev's telling the Soviets are just a bunch of peacable guys minding their own business when the Yanquis start causing trouble, but the article contains some interesting bits for aficionados. Krushchev notes that the famous meeting between Robert F. Kennedy and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin was not the first time those two got together during the crisis. (Either that or he's claiming the entire RFK/Dobrynin negotiation channel gets "almost no mention" in the popular histories, which is not true: Even the movie 13 Days makes that negotiation a major plot point.) Amid all the hubbub about Judy Miller's allowing herself to become a White House tool, it's also instructive to remember how ABC correspondent John Scali was acting on specific government instructions in sending messages to the Russians. But the most interesting thing is what a major wild-card role Fidel Castro played before and during the crisis. According to Krushchev, in the 1959-60 period, when the U.S. was still trying to figure out whether Castro would go commie, the USSR was equally in the dark:

The arrival in Havana of the partisan fighter Fidel Castro on January 1, 1959, and Fulgencio Batista’s flight, attracted little attention in Moscow. When Father asked for information about Cuba, it turned out there was none to give him. Neither the Communist Party Central Committee’s International Department, KGB intelligence, nor military intelligence had any idea who Castro was or what he was fighting for. Father advised them to consult Cuba’s Communists; they reported that the newcomer was a representative of the haute bourgeoisie and working for the CIA.

In 1960 Father decided to send his deputy Anastas Mikoyan to Cuba to discover what motivated Castro. Mikoyan was an intelligent man and an outstanding negotiator and diplomat. He visited Father at the dacha on the eve of his departure, and I remember one small episode. A group of us went for a walk, and one of Father’s aides reported on Castro’s recent trip to Washington to meet President Eisenhower. No one had any reliable information. The aide tried to persuade the group that Castro was an American agent, or at least ready to dance to the White House’s tune. You couldn’t trust him: That was the Kremlin’s view of Castro at the time.

(Whole article here.) Castro continued to be an unpredictable asset for the Russians during the missile crisis. In this version, most of the big crisis moments—shooting down the U2, firing on the F-8Us—were either ordered or strongly encouraged by The Beard, against the wishes of the Kremlin.

Krushchev, on the other hand, emerges once again as the Cold War's Rommel—the principled commie who earns the grudging respect of the West. (Speaking of which, here's an interview between a July Plot buff and the Desert Fox's son.) The possibly fake memoir Krushchev Remembers is a book with a million highlights, well worth the 43-cent Amazon price.

No Future In Miller's Dreaming

If, as Matt Welch suspects, you're reaching your limit of Judith Millerism, relief may soon be on the way. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller's staff memo sure doesn't sound like something you'd write about an employee you're fixing to retain:

I wish that when I learned Judy Miller had been subpoenaed as a witness in the leak investigation, I had sat her down for a thorough debriefing, and followed up with some reporting of my own. It is a natural and proper instinct to defend reporters when the government seeks to interfere in our work. And under other circumstances it might have been fine to entrust the details _ the substance of the confidential interviews, the notes _ to lawyers who would be handling the case. But in this case I missed what should have been significant alarm bells. Until Fitzgerald came after her, I didn't know that Judy had been one of the reporters on the receiving end of the anti-Wilson whisper campaign. I should have wondered why I was learning this from the special counsel, a year after the fact. (In November of 2003 Phil Taubman tried to ascertain whether any of our correspondents had been offered similar leaks. As we reported last Sunday, Judy seems to have misled Phil Taubman about the extent of her involvement.) This alone should have been enough to make me probe deeper.

Miller lawyer Bob Bennett comes back with the Mr. Blonde argument—that Miller deserves a job because she did time for her boss: "She may be controversial in some things, but the bottom line is she spent 85 days in jail, mostly on a principle which the New York Times fully encouraged her to assert."

Will Miller burn down her Massa's house? One Joe Gandelman, who ominously identifies himself as "someone who was in daily journalism for some years," considers that possibility:

What's at stake? REPUTATIONS:

  • Miller wants to write a book. If she emerges from this with her reputation destroyed, her book will wind up remaindered like that of serial plagiarizer and quote-inventor Jayson Blair. He left the Times in disgrace, had a book highly touted on TV but, despite publicity (from media types such as Katic Couric), it bombed at the bookstores. Miller also wants to be able to emerge from this with some kind of a journalistic future. Right now even Fox News might think twice.
  • The Times has been battered by a series of scandals over the past few years and a sense that its best days as "the paper of record" were behind it. The new administration wants to reverse this trend and some of the issues raised by Miller's involvement raise questions about the quality of its administration in terms of scrutiny of employees — and its judgment calls.

So reputations — and big bucks - are at stake here.

I think the Times has little to lose in all this. Standing by an embattled reporter, giving the benefit of the doubt to a Pulitzer winner, and getting lied to by a trusted employee are all actions that should generate sympathy for the paper. Not that a big institution wants to be pitied, but I don't think there'd be much of a case for casting the paper as the bad guy for firing Miller at this point.