Asleep at the switch

June 21st, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

A house near mine has a sign up in its window, obviously dating back to September 12 or so, that reads as follows:

God Is In Control

and He is
mourning with us

Are we to understand that God was not in control on the morning of September 11? Had He stepped outside for a quick smoke break? Should we be mad at Him?

Veracity vacuum

June 3rd, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s press secretary, has a breathtaking ability to ignore the truth whenever it fails to serve his employer’s interests.

It could be worse, though; he could be Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary. Timothy Crouse describes Ziegler well in The Boys on the Bus:

[A]t thirty-three, Ziegler was the compleat flack. He started as a press agent for the Southern California Central Republican Committee and later, as an executive at J. Walter Thompson in Los Angeles, he touted Disneyland. In 1968, he had watched public relations men win the election for Richard Nixon, and now he saw them beginning to rule the world. …While many flacks were former journalists who secretly loathed themselves for sinking into the whoredom of press agentry, Ziegler gave every sign of considering public relations a profession superior to journalism; after all, journalists merely wrote what flacks told them. …

Ziegler was the perfect spokesman for the Nixon Administration. He was totally loyal to his boss and he treated the press with a bland contempt that was quite genuine and unaffected. At the briefing lectern, he was smug, condescending, and relentlessly evasive, often refusing to answer the simplest and most innocuous of questions. He talked in a kind of flackspeak that would have given Orwell nightmares. He sometimes accused reporters of “trying to complexify the situation,” and he reversed White House positions by the simple expedient of announcing that he had “misspoken” himself in the past.

Fake persuaders

May 21st, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

Do you think that scientific papers should be retracted because of the machinations of a public relations firm? Would it bother you to learn that just such a thing happened recently?

Big Larry is watching you

April 14th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

Today’s New York Times Magazine included a great article about Silicon Valley’s post-September 11 rush to help the federal government track its citizens (l/p: pinchydotorg), including a scary interview with some Oracle executives:

As the databases are consolidated, I asked, who should decide the proper balance between privacy and access? How do you avoid a situation in which someone could be kept off a plane because he had skipped jury duty or had an overdue parking ticket? A hush fell over the room, and people looked awkwardly at their sandwiches.

Finally [Tim Hoechst, a senior vice president for technology at Oracle,] spoke up. “You’ll notice that we all became suspiciously quiet when we started talking about policy questions,” he said. “At Oracle, we leave that to our customers to decide. We become a little stymied when we start talking about the ‘should wes’ and the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows,’ because it’s not our expertise.”

The Tom Lehrer song about the Nazi rocket scientist who defected to America popped into my head: “‘Once ze rockets are up, who cares where they come down?/That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun.”

The war of the settlements

April 8th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

From the New York Review of Books, an excellent history lesson in a nutshell, explaining the events that made the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians inevitable.

No relief

April 3rd, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

From Salon, an article about America’s crackdown on pain medication. Important though it may be to prevent abuse of drugs like OxyContin, it’s simply cruel to deny appropriate medication to someone who suffers from chronic pain or terminal illness.


March 22nd, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

On March 10, 1945, American airplanes killed 100,000 Tokyo residents with 1,665 tons of napalm bombs. More people died in Tokyo than in Nagasaki, the second city on which the United States military dropped an atomic bomb.

The stories of the survivors are devastating.


March 16th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

Guess who wrote this:

There is a concern that the Internet could be used to commit crimes and that advanced encryption could disguise such activity. However, we do not provide the government with phone jacks outside our homes for unlimited wiretaps. Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web?

The protections of the Fourth Amendment are clear. The right to protection from unlawful searches is an indivisible American value. Two hundred years of court decisions have stood in defense of this fundamental right. The state’s interest in effective crime-fighting should never vitiate the citizens’ Bill of Rights.

Give up? It was written by (or ghostwritten for) John Ashcroft in 1997, when he was a United States senator. (The full article is online.)

I guess civil liberties are important only if Democrats are threatening to take them away.

Straw man

March 14th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

The United States Senate just voted to let the Bush administration choose mileage standards for automobiles. Talk about letting the fox guard the henhouse.

Here’s an example of the fine reasoning that led to the passage of this bill:

“This is still America,” said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who illustrated his point with a photograph of a bright purple European-made minicar. “We should be able to make our choices. We shouldn’t have the federal government saying you’re going to drive the purple people eater here.”

My goodness, Senator Lott is witty! And he is certainly devoted to my freedom to pollute!

If you’re interested, you can read more of the floor debate in the Congressional Record (click on “Page: S1825″).

The utility of it all

March 10th, 2002 § Comments off § permalink

The March issue of Metropolis featured an article (not online) about collectors of African utilitarian objects, including ladders made from forked tree trunks. Collectors pay $250 or more for these ladders. The art dealers who bought them from African farmers paid about $5 apiece:

So if you buy a Tamberma ladder, you are certainly purchasing a utilitarian object with an authentic connection to the rhythms of life in a premodern society. You are also helping to fetishize those objects such that, when sold to Westerners, they are worth vastly more than anything the people who actually use them could ever produce from them.

That’s not intrinsically wrong; most aesthetic judgments fetishize their subjects to some extent. The problem is the unequal distribution of benefits. The solution, obviously, is to pay the farmers more for their ladders.

It’s not a bad model for globalization as a whole. In a recent American Prospect article, Amartya Sen argues that

the main issue is how to make good use of the remarkable benefits of economic intercourse and technological progress in a way that pays adequate attention to the interests of the deprived and the underdog. …It is not sufficient to understand that the poor of the world need globalization as much as the rich do; it is also important to make sure that they actually get what they need.

That goal doesn’t seem like it should be difficult to achieve. Which shows you what I know.

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