Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What's The Matter With Being a Republican in Kansas?

You know those sayings like "That'll be the day" or "When pigs fly" or "Over my dead body"? Well, apparently Kansas' number one Republican, the guy who worked like a maniac to see Sam Brownback (R-Leviticus) get elected to the Senate, switched party affiliations today. If you're too crazy a political organization for the whitest-bread political hack in America... well, there's a hard rain coming is all I'll say. A quote:
Republican House Speaker Doug Mays said he was disgusted by Parkinson's lack of loyalty to the party that made him chairman, but he isn't surprised by the rift.
Far be it for me to butt in, but let me just say that when your state party web site has the headline "Democrat Ethics Breakdown" on the front page and your "About the Party" link makes two mentions of freeing the slaves as the party's vision for America, you're a little more out of touch than you're ready to hear.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What Have I Been Reading? Thanks For Asking

I've made a conscious effort to do more reading and writing lately, going so far as to sit down and write a letter by hand to my sister last weekend, and let me tell you, everyone should do this. It feels good for you, like you're doing something you should have done a long time ago. If books aren't your thing, then at least you might want to peruse the periodicals, and not just the newspapers. There's a whole world out there to learn about, people. Get cracking. You only live once.

Anyway, this conscious effort led me down a fun alley when I was busily sitting at Murky Coffee near Eastern Market last Saturday reading a collection of Osip Mandelstam's semi-fiction about growing up in pre-Soviet Russia, translated as The Noise of Time. I do occasionally wonder whether reading this sort of thing is really worthwhile other than as a way to pass the hours, and I always come away thinking a good book is a good book, no matter where or when you read it. People are always just people, after all, and reading about bygone eras isn't so much different than the magical feeling some people get when they're reading the Bible, so what's the difference? If you stick to reading about the here and now, you'll just get depressed and won't take a very long view of history. The thing about Mandelstam in particular, though, is that he was a very, very good writer in addition to living an interesting and tragically shortened life (the Soviets nabbed him for having an imagination), and you can never read too much good writing -- he was mostly known as a poet, and it shows even when he's talking about the usual stuff of walking around with his nurse when he was a kid, seeing military parades, noticing unusual people, wondering what was going on in the rest of the world, etc. It may be a little writer-geek of me, but I can't get enough of this stuff these days. I've gone through a phase of buying books about the first three or four decades of the twentieth century and actually sitting down immediately to read them and loving them. (Joseph Roth's Report From a Parisian Paradise, which I mentioned previously, is another of these. And Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise is sitting by my bed waiting its turn.) This is not unheard of, since I do tend to read books in blocks rather than completely at random, but it's been a while since something stirred my blood. I usually read from the neck up. This has been a little more enjoyable.

Speaking of neck-up, I started picking at, of all things, David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which I bought because it was on sale for practically nothing and have actually enjoyed so far. It was written about three hundred years ago, so you'd expect the thing to be a little prosaic and clunky, but it's surprisingly light on its feet. It's written as a conversation between three characters (who have names from Greek antiquity but never really existed) with three distinct positions on the existence of God, and that's it. They talk about whether and how to prove God's existence. It's not long at all -- just enough to make Hume's point without going overboard, I suspect, although I haven't gotten very far and I don't know what the point is yet.

Without delving too deeply into the meaning of faith, let me share an anecdote: about nine months ago, maybe more like six, I was talking to a friend who told me she used to be interested in Islam but had lost that interest after taking a religious studies class. It just no longer appealed to her. Her boyfriend has always been a dabbler -- some of you readers will recognize who I'm talking about -- and had taken her along to mosque a few times, but neither of them were really living it, just experimenting, and she wondered aloud about why she'd been attracted and then repulsed by what had essentially not changed a bit in the span of her contact with it. Sort of put on the spot to reply, I said something like "You know, religions have their strong points, and they speak to something most people feel deeply in some way or other. They may be more or less internally coherent, and you can have a world view including the teachings of a religion and still live a normal day-to-day life. But to me, if you step back, you don't need any of it. You can be a good person and just take life as it comes." And this struck her, for whatever reason. I think a lot of people have never thought of it that way. There's this idea that the Search For Faith is something that starts driving you at some point, and you either take up the call and lead a spiritually meaningful life or you don't heed it and live in some impoverished wilderness of the shallow. That's a total crock of beans, friends. You don't have to be actively faithful, in any religious sense, nor a militant atheist in order to make sense of what's really going on in the universe. No one ever can really make much sense of it no matter what they do or how hard they try anyway, so you shouldn't beat yourself up if you don't pick and choose a world view and stick to it. Take experience and what it teaches you, and listen to the questions you ask yourself, don't discount the unlikely and don't forget to look at the night sky -- that's my prescription.

I also kind of go back and forth on the certain value of physical, non-"religious" habits like meditating. I like to sit and be quiet, and when I do it I generally make an effort to keep my back straight. Sometimes I'll light incense, and usually I'll keep the window open. But I don't think of myself as having a meditation practice, the way Buddhists like to think of it. I don't make a daily effort to sit on my bed and clear my mind. I don't doubt that it has certain objective benefits, but then again so do pushups, and I know a lot of Buddhists who don't do enough pushups. There's no one thing or set of things that everyone has to do to live a meaningful and creatively relevant life. I think we should all remember that.

Headline Roundup, From The Sublime to the Ridiculous

Political news, everyone: Tom DeLay uses a Stephen Colbert video clip to raise money because he thinks Colbert is being serious. (When Colbert, with his tongue in his cheek, asks the guest "Who hates America more, you or Michael Moore?" apparently DeLay's people thought "Yeah, that guy's one of us.") The link, mind you, isn't to the clip itself but to a heartening rant at Firedoglake (one of the underrated lefty blogs) about why this sort of idiocy means we'll win in the long run. Whether that's true or not I don't know -- we've apparently underestimated the power of stupidity in numbers -- but the whole thing is too funny to go unnoticed.

Science Saturday: A bunch of lab mice, in a nod to completely forgotten genetic theorist and scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, have inherited a trait from their parents that they themselves don't have the gene for. This has been going on, quietly, for some time in labs and has turned genetics on its head.

"Monumental" blunder?: I warned you all about Belarus, but you wouldn't listen. I kept putting it on the list of countries with seriously awful governments that we should pay attention to, but no-ho-ho, they were "contained." They didn't have the scrap metal for it, you said. Well, looks like the nasty president-for-life, Aleksandr Lukashenko, may be getting his way after all: he just built a monument to the founder of the Soviet secret police. Think what it must be like to wake up in Minsk the day THAT headline hits the papers. A quote from a government stooge:

"We shouldn't be afraid of our history and people who gave birth to a new state, fought for it and were heroes," he said. "Dzerzhinsky was not an odious figure, he is someone who merits respect."

Sort of like Bush merits respect for giving birth to a new Iraq.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Who says the Finns don't rock?

Whoever they are, they're wrong.
UPDATE: Courtesy of Sadly, No!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Fine Time Was Had By All -- Now for Bill O'Reilly and Some Jet Lag

I recently spent a week in Arizona, as most of you faithful readers are probably already aware, and let me just say that there is nothing like seeing your family, long-lost girlfriend and many comrades of yore to get you psyched up for another 6 months of vacation-free reporting on how the military pays people not to tell you about Agent Orange. Thank you one and all for the fantastic time, which was literally full of wine, women and song. (Which I am sorry to say northern Virginia just doesn't have enough of these days. Except wine. I have found the joys of a bottle of Zinfandel and reruns of The West Wing to be an unexpected luxury I shan't soon forget.)

A few certain someones will be hearing from me on the phone machine, just as soon as my charger cable is returned to me via post from the house where I left it in my unfortunate haste out the door. My phone has been dead for several days, since I have to use it occasionally, and there is literally no way I can call anyone from home now. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that in a land where everyone depends on cell phones, the government should just hand out new ones on the street corner and save us all the embarassment. When did we abandon land lines? The reception is crystal clear in comparison. And Verizon gives away names and contacts of journalists these days anyway, which is not going to look good for DOD Comptroller Tina Jonas in a few weeks when they start wondering why I know so much about the fiscal year 2007 Formerly Used Defense Sites restoration fund appropriations.

Anyway, I'm not one to regale you with anecdotes that are mostly meaningless out of context, so let me just say the following to sum up my trip: I had more fun than I even expected to have. I dropped the ball on one major score that I'll remedy in the most spectacular way possible, on which point no more information will be forthcoming here. I was able to attend the following, in no particular order and not in any way a comprehensive look at my activities: dinner out for my father's birthday, lunch out with my mother, a graduation ceremony for Stephanie, a surprise party, a not-surprise party, a Scottsdale wine bar with a jazz band and a disappointing 1,600 wines on the menu, the hip-happenist movie of the year (Brick, which makes every other effort look like spiritless, so-sad-it's-funny hackery in comparison), a productive trip to a bookstore (and by productive I mean I only bought two books, a bar of chocolate and some matches instead of trying to leverage a hostile takeover), one of the most fun and romantic dinners out I think I've ever executed, several nostalgic trips down memory lane with friends I hadn't seen -- including the delightfully just-like-her repeated failure of one friend to call me back -- and with Mexican dishes I thought I might never taste again. . . Anyway, you get the picture. Arizona is for lovers.

So what greets me when I return to the Cesspool on the Potomac? An impulsively purchased copy of Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O'Reilly and the impossibility of EVER getting to sleep at a reasonable hour again, EVER. I have been falling asleep at 3:00 and waking up at 9:00 every night since, and let me tell you, I think the first thing to suffer has been my racquetball game. Wednesday's 15-10, 15-8 loss, while not out of character for me against this traditionally formidable opponent from work, had all the hallmarks of jet lag: uncontrollable crying, shaky hands, not seeing the ball, legs giving out, napping, forgetting the rules (when did serving short once and then hitting the back wall become a two-error handover? I mean, HELLOO), not coming back from a water break, going back to work mid-point, etc. etc. If this doesn't sound like any jet lag you've ever had, try working five minutes from the Pentagon mind control tower and let me know how your hand-eye coordination feels in a month. You'll be lucky if all you do is start slapping yourself.

So, I've already finished the book, which true to the reviews is almost painfully hilarious to read in parts. The thing is, these guys aren't quite cut in the Al Franken/Joe Conason/Paul Krugman mold, the general hope of which is to influence as well as inform and if possible amuse in the process. Franken's schtick is funnier than usual, but he's making essentially serious points, and he does a lot of original research (or at least LexisNexis searching) to come across as reliable. These guys, however, let it all hang out -- they make no pretense to being interested in the finer points of policy-making or holding any sort of office whatsoever, and are able to describe O'Reilly and his crazy antics any way they damn well please. And they are devastatingly good at it. I still don't know why I bought the book -- I already think the man's a douchebag -- but it may have had something to do with my father's comment during my trip to the effect that "I just hate Bill O'Reilly so much I can't even watch Outfoxed." This struck a sympathetic chord with me. The next day I decided to do something about it, and I wasn't disappointed. Buy it and read it more as a comedic than as a political purchase. O'Reilly just provides the raw material for the authors' ability to write well and be funny at others' expense, which is really all he deserves anyway.

In other news, you ask? Well, there is no other news, except a bunch of office gossip I'm not supposed to know anything about but do. (In fact, I clued in one of the bigger editors on the finer points the other day. That felt good.) What are we supposed to do, not bother to ask? We're journalists. It'd be like expecting Paris Hilton not to know which Indonesian liquor magnate playboy throws the bitchingest Full Moon Party. I don't know the answer to that question, and she doesn't know who's taking over for the guy who's headed to Congressional Quarterly. A place for everything, that's what I say.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Funniest in a Long While

Just go read The Onion. You'll thank me.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Amerika Uber Alles

I didn't even know the Senate recently passed a resolution declaring that the national anthem should be sung only in English, which is such a fucking dipshit stupid move that I am literally slavering on the keyboard right now. This is fucking fascism in a fucking suit, you people. English-only? For the national anthem? The Founding Fathers are not just rolling in their graves, they're weeping. Their beautiful dream of a country is going down the toilet almost as fast as the turd that is Cheney's approval rating. We are led by a group of racist warmongers. Period.

That having been said, watching these congresspeople screw up the words to the national anthem -- which, by the way, you Republicans who are wondering, I can sing very beautifully and have even done so on karaoke night -- is just depressing. Even Chuck Hagel pretends he's too busy. Chuck Hagel. The darling of the center-left wing of the Radical Center. If anyone knows what this guy's politics actually are, please let me know.

Anyway, the tally in case you don't watch the video: Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) nails it from start to finish; Reps. Mark Kennedy (R-Min.), Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), and another from each party all flub badly, while they don't show whether McCain gets it all right (I assume he does, although I would have thought it was a no-brainer for anyone who gets to vote in Congress) and suggest that Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) did well.

I may have to start following this ugly nativist trend, especially given my current reading of a great book by the Austro-Hungarian writer Joseph Roth on his time between the world wars in France and Germany called Report From a Parisian Paradise. As with all his work, the title sort of has ironic overtones but is also very sincere. Unlike the cries of pro-American patriotism now erupting in Congress, for instance.

The Ghost of Milosevic

There's really not much pith to add to this one -- an essay from a reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which at one time was a place I'd hoped to land a job. (The language demands, for one thing, would be a mite difficult to get over. It takes more than plucky know-how to follow the proceedings of a Serbian war crimes trial. Still, I can dream.) An earlier post, which I won't look up now, mentioned my esteem for IWPR reporter Ed Vulliamy, who originally broke the story of the Omarska concentration camp to the world. This essay is another in a long line of important IWPR contributions to Balkan justice, and as an idealist I wish them the best of luck. As a journalist, I can only salute them and bide my time.

A snippet to get you started:
Animosity towards The Hague is also exacerbated by Serbian daily newspaper headlines which further fuel the story that Milosevic was poisoned by the Hague "executioners". Some of them bear the headline "Killed".

Killed, they say, because the Hague "hangmen" were running out of time to prove his guilt. Those engaged in this latest anti-tribunal offensive tend to forget four wars - all of them lost, with a quarter of a million dead, many more maimed and injured, the worst brain drain in the country's history, and economic devastation which will not see Serbia return to its pre-war levels for at least another decade.

Serbs fail to recognise their own responsibility for sustaining Milosevic through several elections.


It has to be said that the indictment against Milosevic was too wide-ranging, and made it possible for him to present to the world the version of history many Serbs believe to be true. It has to be said that the boundaries between what was and was not relevant became unclear during the trial, and an ordinary observer from Serbia watching his televised ramblings would have been forgiven for thinking that he was at times prosecuting the case rather then defending it.

It also has to be said that some of the court's decisions served to strengthen Serb prejudices. One instance of this is the tribunal's agreement to allow Ramush Haradinaj – the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader and Kosovo premier - to take part in public life while awaiting trial on war crimes charges. This, just as negotiations on the future status of the entity begin and local Serbs come under attack from Albanian extremists.

The Finns and Star Trek: Which is More Fun?

The answer: both at once, of course. Leave it to my ingenious countrymen to come up with something so sublime and ridiculous as a Star Trek spoof being shown free on the Interweb. It was made with very little money by amateur filmmakers who now want to leverage their fifteen minutes of fame into a web site where people from all over the world can help each other with their movie projects. This is a noble idea that -- if you read between the lines of the story -- may not be such a favorite of the big movie studios, who are already spooked about online movie piracy and don't really want to see the dilettantes get any better at this fil-um mac-king thing than they already are.

By the way, for those of you wondering what's up, I'm out of town for a few days. Back in a jiff.