Jan 122010
 

Via CNN I see that President Obama has considerately taken into account the date of the season premiere of LOST in deciding when to hold the annual State of the Union address:

Fear gripped the hearts of fans when it was announced that the president wanted to push back the annual State of the Union address – typically held in late January – to February 2, which everyone should know by now is the premiere of the ABC drama’s final season.

Crazy talk! Doesn’t he know people have been dying to find out what happened to the castaways?

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assured viewers Friday he “doesn’t foresee a scenario in which millions of people that hope to finally get some conclusion in ‘Lost’ are preempted by the president.”

This non-news was not, I confess, particularly interesting to me, until I started reading the comments beneath it.

And boy, is America unhappy.

Remarks seem to be conforming to the following general categories:

(1) “Americans are pathetic. I can’t believe LOST is more important to some people than what the president has to say.”

(2) “Obama is pathetic. I can’t believe he’d change the date of his speech to suit a bunch of sheeple LOST fans.”

(3) “Politics and politicians of any stripe are pathetic. LOST will be more interesting and more factual than the heard-it-all-before SOTU.”

(4) “You’re all pathetic. Ever since the SOTU has been televised, presidents have taken into account conflicts with the normal viewing timetable.”

(5) “Everything is pathetic. LOST? State of the Union? Who gives a shit.”

The general malaise and negativity displayed in these 470 (yes, 470 comments) is breathtaking. In full awareness of the fact that this is anecdata, I’m still going to postulate that the Change which Obama hath wrought has been, on the whole, not so good. By far the most illuminating of the comments are the ones that express a deep and weary scepticism about why the date of this regular address is in question in the first place. The State of the Union is traditionally delivered in late January; the suggestion of postponing it until February (and thus creating a conflict with the LOST premiere) has led many people to believe that Obama wishes to be able to extol a successful healthcare reform bill therein. As far as I know, this sort of manoeuvring is rare; the whole point of the SOTU is to describe, duh, the state of the union at regular intervals. It loses much of its impact if the president gets to decide to describe the state of the union whenever he judges that state to be most positive.

Not to mention that Obama has been, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the most speechifying presidents I can remember, having addressed the nation in this way at least three times that I can think of already in his first year of office. I realise these speeches have been topical, rather than holistic, but when you put them all together, we’ve had his words on education, healthcare, and the on-going wars in the Middle East. Possibly the economy as well, though I don’t remember that specifically. I think Americans are pretty up-to-date on the state of their union.

I suspect that much of the negativity and cynicism stems from the fact that Obama has gone about his presidency in entirely back-asswards fashion. Having campaigned on a platform that consisted largely of reversing the mahoosive mistakes of the Bush administration, once in office, he immediately set out to… not reverse any of them. Patriot Act? Still there. Guantanamo? Still there. Wars? Still there. Bailouts and stimuli? Still there. Discontinuing these things, while difficult, would have been popular on both sides of the political divide, as well as with the mythical ‘independent’ voters. Obama would have been seen to be cleaning up the mess and providing himself with a fresh slate, correcting the massive loss of civil liberties and doing his best to get the country back on its economic feet.

Instead of pursuing these popular campaign policies, however, he has spent the vast majority of the last year shilling for his Congressional party members and their ridiculous healthcare reform. A task as huge as the overhaul of the nation’s health infrastructure should have been begun cautiously, slowly, and thoroughly, with cost/benefit analyses, input from providers and consumers, multiple scenarios of best practice, and above all, genuine bi-partisan contribution. What Obama has allowed to happen, however, is the creation of a massive, cobbled-together bill based on the barest minimum of research into the health market, the barest minimum of input from the industry as a whole, and containing almost innumerable lines inserted solely to get this or that special interest group onside, or this or that senator. The legislation is a gigantic fucked-up mess that appears designed, not to represent a unified vision of healthcare or emulate best practice elsewhere in the world, but to prove that the Democrats in Congress have done something, dammit, and it looks plausible if you stand back from it and squint a bit.

And Americans are not impressed. Yes, healthcare needed reform. Yes, Obama promised to do it. But did it have to be done so quickly, and in so slipshod a fashion, and at the expense of so much good he also promised?

Few presidents have had as unsuccessful a first year as Obama; even fewer have been almost the sole authors of their own failure. I do not envy the man, but I do not pity him, either. If Americans are unhappy, it is because Obama misjudged them; it is because he believed his initial popularity meant he didn’t have to conform. Ultimately, I think, Americans do not want a cult of personality. They want what they have always liked best: a competent, steady leader, with a sure hand on the helm and an appropriate sense of solemnity for the huge responsibility he bears. Obama has lurched from crisis to panic to embarrassment, and while he’s handled it with fairly good grace, he may at last be discovering that, to Americans, only Mr President deserves respect and confidence. Barack Obama will receive the same when he remembers that they come, not in response to his personal charms, but by grace of the office he holds.

Jan 072010
 

H.R 808 The ‘Shining City on a Hill with Cuddly Puppies and Unicorns’ Bill is still in committee.

After routing its way through Foreign Affairs and Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, the bill is now being considered by the sub-committee for Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

You may wonder why the education sub-committee had its furry little paws all over this piece of bogroll; if so, recall that one of its provisions is the establishment of a ‘peace education curriculum’ and a Peace Academy under a special Office of Peace Education and Training.

Every time I glance through this bill, I see something new to horrify me. On my last reading, I somehow managed to miss out on Section 110, Office of Human Rights and Economic Rights. On the ‘human rights’ side, this would somehow involve upholding and promoting the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. On the ‘economic rights’ side, the secretary of this office would be required to:

(5) conduct economic analyses of the scarcity of human and natural resources as a source of conflict and make recommendations to the Secretary for nonviolent prevention of such scarcity, nonviolent intervention in case of such scarcity, and the development of programs to assist people facing such scarcity, whether due to armed conflict, maldistribution of resources, or natural causes;

(6) assist the Secretary, in cooperation with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury, in developing strategies regarding the sustainability and the management of the distribution of funds from international agencies, the conditions regarding the receipt of such funds, and the impact of those conditions on the peace and stability of the recipient nations;

(7) assist the Secretary, in cooperation with the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Labor, in developing strategies to promote full compliance with domestic and international labor rights law;

…which is basically international redistribution writ large.

The other piece of insanity I noticed for the first time this evening is the appropriation:

There is authorized to be appropriated to carry out this Act for a fiscal year beginning after the date of the enactment of this Act $10,000,000,000 for each fiscal year. Of the amounts appropriated pursuant to such authorization, at least 85 percent shall be used for domestic peace programs, including administrative costs associated with such programs.

Ten billion squeed a year! Obviously this is but a drop in the bucket compared to the US budget as a whole, but $10 billion is still a lot of money. For purposes of comparison, an American earning $25,000 per year (which, keep in mind, is lower than the median wage in the US) would have to work for 400,000 YEARS to earn ten billion squeed. That’s, like, longer than homo sapiens has existed.

On the other hand, that same American, could he live so long, would get to experience the joys of Peace Day 400,000 times:

The Secretary shall encourage citizens to observe and celebrate the blessings of peace and endeavor to create peace on a Peace Day. Such day shall include discussions of the professional activities and the achievements in the lives of peacemakers.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Ah, if only $10 billion a year and sponsoring this bill could make one divine!

Alas for Dennis Kucinich, for it is indeed he whose brainchild this is, this bill will not make him a child of God, because it is an abomination unto reasonable people everywhere. I wonder if he ponders the irony of using the coercive power of the overbearing state to fund and promote what is supposed to be the most non-coercive principle on earth.

Nov 072009
 

Via the West Virginia Rebel, I am directed to some commentary about the recent shooting at Ft. Hood.

For those of you perhaps not au fait with this, as it happened on 5 November, a US army psychiatrist recently promoted to the rank of major and about to be deployed to the Middle East entered a building on the base at Ft. Hood and opened fire on the soldiers and civilians there, killing 13 people and injuring at least twice that number. He himself was wounded but not, apparently, killed, and is in hospital.

Mark Noonan, who should himself perhaps consider seeing a psychiatrist, reacts with all the illiberal, childish venom I’ve come to expect from American political discourse:

A terrible event – but I don’t want anyone to call it an “act of violence” or “a terrible tragedy”. It was an attack – one or more men decided with malice to attack a US military base. We need to get right down to the bottom of this – and, liberals, if the stories of accomplices in custody are true, this is where harsh interrogation might be needed: whoever was involved in this most emphatically does not have a right to remain silent.

This shooter, however heinous his crime, is an American citizen and, before two days ago, would have been just as staunchly defended by these types as a patriot to be supported with the ubiquitous yellow ribbon.

Now, apparently, he deserves torture and the loss of his constitutional rights. Why?

Because (a) he shot some soldiers, whose lives are evidently de facto more valuable than anyone else’s, at least when they’re on home soil. And because (b) he happens to be a Muslim.

I’ve read no credible reports to suggest that this shooting was any more a ‘terrorist’ attack or any more religiously or culturally motivated than, for example, the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. What I have read is that the man is a natural-born American and served his country for decades before choosing this destructive course of action. That he is a Muslim, or the child of immigrant parents, means nothing.

Mark Noonan and his commenters, many of whom are crazier than he is, would deny this man the protections the law gives him because they don’t like what he did or the reason for it which they ascribe to him. Shooting people is a dreadful thing to do – one for which I am hard pressed to express my feelings – but overturning the rule of law because you’re a pissed-off little prick is arguably more dangerous. A gunman can only harm people within the range of his gun; a mockery of a justice system propped up by a democracy that excuses torture harms everybody.

Nov 032009
 

I’ve yet to see any evidence that the American polity is avid for more sophisticated public policy discussion. Frankly, they seem a lot more interested in plausible enemies and improbable free lunches, which is the level on which both parties are mostly campaigning.

Megan McArdle

American political debate consists almost entirely of Us and Them scare tactics in which talk show hosts appear to be the face of party policies more than the politicians themselves. Imagine, if you will, a Britain in which Jeremy Paxman thinks Cameron is Hitler and Melanie Philips thinks Gordon Brown is a Communist, and that is all people know or want to know about either of the main parties. That’s basically America at the moment. Reason does not hold sway, to say the least.

Sep 212009
 

The BBC has posted a link to part of an interview George Stephanopoulos had with Barack Obama in the wake of the Jimmy Carter ‘People oppose Obama because they’re racists’ declaration.

In the bit of the video that you can watch, Obama actually says something that surprises me, not because it’s not correct, but because it is – Obama has demonstrated in under two minutes that not only does he understand why so many people oppose his policies, he’s also willing to say so when it would be easier not to:

Obama:Now, there are some who, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right. And I think that – that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol –

Stephanopoulos: That, are you going to raise their taxes.

Obama: It – well, it goes beyond taxes. Anytime there is a president who is proposing big changes that seem to implicate the size of government, that gets everybody’s juices flowing.

Leaving aside the indelicacy of mentioning flowing juices – whatever he means by that – it’s quite obvious that Obama understands the conservative position vastly better than his supporters, including Stephanopoulos by the way, who are busy ejaculating accusations of racism and greed all over the place rather than taking issue with the fact that many Americans simply do not agree that the federal government has any legitimate role in the provision of health care, however unfair or unworkable the current system might be. When Stephanopoulos opines that such people are only interested in the number on their tax returns, Obama rightly corrects him. It’s not all about taxes.

Every now and again, Obama says little things that like this which indicate to me that he may actually be willing to engage with the meaningful criticisms of his policies – that he may actually acknowledge that the size of the state, and the extent to which it interferes with people’s activities and behaviour, is a topic worthy of reasonable debate. And I feel a little bit of this much-vaunted ‘hope’ well within my breast, because I very rarely encounter anyone from the other side of the political divide who is willing to debate that without resorting to calling me an anarchist (‘We need government to rein in people’s baser natures! Hobbes said so!’), a hater of democracy (okay, so this one’s kind of true), or a tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoiac (‘Bitch, please – this idea that governments want to turn us all into serfs is just a crazy conspiracy theory. Run off to your log cabin in the mountains with your shotgun, why don’t you’).

Then I remember that Obama said this, too, and the tiny, fragile, puppy-dog-eyed bit of hope curls up and dies.

Obama: But I don’t want the folks who created the mess – I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking. [crowd cheers madly] Am I wrong, Virginia?

[crowd shouts ‘No!’]

Sep 142009
 

I’ve read one or two things today indicating that there may have been a march on Washington DC to protest Obama’s healthcare reform. But how many protesters were there?

The BBC says tens of thousands.

The Daily Mail says both one million and two million.

Glancing around other news organs, ‘tens of thousands’ appears to be the consensus, with 75,000 the estimate given by the Wall Street Journal via the DC emergency services.

So where is this Daily Mail number coming from? Were there a million? There’s a world of difference between 75,000 and 1,000,000. Does anybody really know?

And may I also add that even in the American newspapers I checked, in none of them does this protest appear to be on the front page (of their online editions, at least). Why isn’t this bigger news? Everybody knows middle America, bovine herd that they are, never normally protest…

UPDATE: Apparently I’m not the only one wondering what the attendance numbers were…

UPDATE 2: Still nobody seems to know what the numbers were. Google ‘how many people at washington protest’ and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a nasty debate going on, with supporters claiming that national media outlets deliberately underestimated, and opponents claiming not. From what I can tell, there were enough people at the protest to suggest that this should have been a bigger story than it was.

This source offers a nasty little quote (although I can’t speak for its accuracy:

On Sunday, White House senior adviser David Axelrod said of the protests, “I don’t think it’s indicative of the nation’s mood. You know, I don’t think we ought to be distracted by that. My message to them is, they’re wrong.”

I say again: given middle America’s general antipathy toward protesting, David Axelrod et al. could probably stand ‘to be distracted by that.’

Sep 082009
 

Continuing with the recent philosophy that learning has to be justified by national utility, President Obama gave a televised speech this morning aimed at schoolchildren. Most classrooms in American schools have television sets (books? why are you asking about books? this is multi-media learning), and so I reckon, though I cannot be sure, that all state schools were required to show this broadcast, on what is for many children their first day of the school year.

As a teacher, I cannot over-emphasise what a massive pain in the backside I would have found it to spend even fifteen minutes of precious class time on frivolous speeches. The curriculum is too vast, and the school year too short in comparison, to give up even a moment of it. For purposes of comparison, consider that, four years ago when Pope John Paul II died, I was a Catholic teaching in a Catholic school and I still resented the single day the school closed for mourning.

But Obama’s speech was not simply frivolous; it was a collection of egotistical bromides couched in terms no child could fail to understand: if you don’t do well in school, you’ll never have a comfortable life, and the nation will be doomed. How do you mean, egotistical, I hear you ask?

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

‘I, I, I. I’m you, American schoolchildren. I’m Everyman.’

Except that, of course, if you’re a kid, you’re thinking hmm. The president is telling me he goofed off and got in trouble and wasted time, and yet he still became the president. So clearly there’s no penalty.

And Obama puts the weight of a huge responsibility on these children’s shoulders. They’re not to have an education so they can be open-minded, well-rounded, happy people, oh no. They’re to have it so they can be of economic and civic benefit to the country:

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies with solar energy power to protect our environment as Solar power is the key to a clean energy future. Every day, the sun gives off far more energy than we need to power everything on earth. That’s why we’re investing heavily in solar plants.

Image result for clean environment

You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

‘Your mind exists to serve others. Your talents exist to serve others. Your achievements will go toward serving others. Because the absolute height of existence, the pinnacle of morality, the one necessary and sufficient incentive any human has or should have, is to serve others.’

There is a lot of talk about not ‘quitting on yourself’ in this speech, but no definition, unless it’s that quitting on yourself means you won’t be able to make money (lawyer, architect) or devote yourself to other people’s welfare (doctor, nurse, police officer, scientist, teacher, soldier, job-creator). I’m not saying he’s wrong – it’d be difficult to do any of those things without an education – but there is no talk of the personal satisfaction of setting goals and achieving them; the rewarding of curiosity; the simple joy of learning a skill and putting it to use, whatever the skill, whatever the use; the opening of the mind to ways of finding pleasure in any activity or experience. There is no focus in this speech on how you can use what you learn to give your life meaning – there is only offered the prospect of future usefulness.

And Obama is a bit out of touch with the heroes of today’s youth:

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

As much as I might find Michael Jordan impressive, he is not even a hero of my youth, seeing as he had retired from basketball before I left high school. He also – let’s face it – is not really the poster child for education; he dropped out of university to play professional basketball and finished his BA in tiny chunks in the years thereafter, finally ending up with a degree in geography. Funnily enough, this little nugget about Jordan’s perseverance comes right after the part in the speech where Obama says:

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

Kids are not stupid. They will perceive the contradiction. On the one hand, Obama tells them they’re unlikely to succeed in those professions where an education is not necessary. On the other hand, he uses as an example of success and a role model one of the very people who did just that. Hmm.

That said, Obama does offer one piece of good sense:

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

Unfortunately, he follows it with this:

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Argh.

Aug 202009
 

Dick Morris on Fox News:

The Democratic Party is composed of building blocks, interest groups. Republicans aren’t. They’re just a group of people who think the same on issues. But Democrats are blacks, plus Hispanics, plus women, plus young people, plus labor unions, plus the elderly. And when one of those blocks turns against what the Democrats are doing, the party gets scared to death.

Ha! Ahahaha!

Democrats = interest groups consisting of blacks, Hispanics, women, young people, old people, and labour unions.

Republicans = a group of people who think the same on issues. But who are neither black, Hispanic, women, young people, old people, or labour unionists. Which leaves middle-aged, white, white-collar men.

‘Cause that’s not a building block or interest group at all. Just a group of people who think the same on issues.

[bella goes away, shaking head in bemusement]

Aug 072009
 

Not too many weeks ago, I ran across a blog, the name of which I cannot now remember, in which the author posted a hypothetical government ban on books – not because of their literary content, but because as old books decay, they could release fibres and other toxins which might be inhaled by the reader, thus damaging the reader’s health. He was using it to illustrate, if I remember correctly, the way the government wishes to restrict or ban anything which gives us pleasure and justifies doing so on rather spurious ‘health’ grounds.

If anybody knows the blogger I mean, do let me know, because I’d like to give him a head’s-up:

Congress to ban sale of children’s books printed before 1985

Why? Because they are hazardous to the health.

UPDATE: Yes, it was Frank Davis.

Aug 032009
 

1. Everything in America is huge.

2. Including the creepy-crawlies.

3. American healthcare costs what it does because of (a) widespread, mild hypochondria and (b) creepy-crawly-borne diseases.

4. American food is now too rich for my palette.

5. Big weddings are more trouble than they’re worth.

6. A supportive family can turn a hell into, if not exactly a paradise, at least a reasonably tolerable purgatory.

7. Virgin Atlantic is my new favourite airline, and I won’t hear a word spoken against Sir Richard ever again.

8. It’s good to be back home in the UK, for another 28 days anyway.