Thursday, March 31, 2005

On What Everyone Thinks

The Detroit Free Press declares:
Everyone thinks of downtown Detroit as a place for sports, concerts and opera. But, gradually and unobtrusively, the area is asserting itself as a theater district with six theaters in easy walking distance of the stadiums -- the Gem, Century, Music Hall, Fox, City Theatre and 1515 Broadway.
Everyone? Well, have you gotten around to thinking it yet?

On Stimulatedly Serving Stimulants

If we are what we eat, what becomes of the people serving us our identities? Do they go through a transformation too? Phuong Tran, a Seattle barista competing in an upcoming international barista competition, seems to have become something she might not have, had she not started serving coffee.
Tran becomes one with her inner gunfighter. From this moment, it's all about nuance and speed.

When she tamps the espresso grounds, is her elbow at a 90-degree angle? (It's the only way the water evenly permeates and extracts the coffee.) ...

Tran was in Japan for three weeks training baristas at Zoka's new coffee shop in Tokyo. She returned March 5 with just one week to finalize her routine and signature drink for the U.S. Barista Championship.

The night before the competition, Tran returned to work after dinner to practice. She stayed up all night perfecting her routine, save power naps in-between.
The article says that the competition entails making 12 drinks (four cups of three different drinks), all the while having a good style that produces aesthetically pleasing and tasty coffee--in under two minutes! It's neat that the barista enacts the quickness and alertness that coffee is thought and said to provide.

On How Differing Groups Can Come Together

Sometimes, the easiest way to get people together is by leaving some people out:
International gay leaders are planning a 10-day WorldPride festival and parade in Jerusalem in August, saying they want to make a statement about tolerance and diversity in the Holy City, home to three great religious traditions.

Now major leaders of the three faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - are making a rare show of unity to try to stop the festival. They say the event would desecrate the city and convey the erroneous impression that homosexuality is acceptable.
In an ironic way, it seems that the WorldPride festival has promoted tolerance. It just happens to be a type that appears to build bridges between faiths rather than a bridge towards homosexuals.

On A Neat Game

If you have a few minutes to step back many years, try out this little game (via Just another false alarm). Be wary of being too merry towards handsome gentlemen in the park!

On Running on the Web

A Philadelphia university professor has started his 2006 campaign for senator and is relying heavily on blogs.
[Chuck] Pennacchio and his small, Web-savvy staff have been leaving footprints across dozens of blogs during the last month, hoping their Internet presence - combined with traditional campaigning - builds a loyal grassroots following to rival Casey's stranglehold on the establishment.
Even though the web is nothing solid--just a bunch of ones and zeros dashing from hub to hub on thin fiber-optic paths--people still seem inclined to use concrete imagery that suggests a more solid place is somewhere, out there. Of course, sometimes the detail doesn't seem to fit, even by the web's somewhat looser standards:
Curly-haired and low-key, Pennacchio offers himself as a citizen candidate with convictions, but not an ideologue. He favors gun control, abortion rights and a balanced-budget amendment. He opposes the death penalty, except in terrorism cases, and gay marriage. But he supports civil unions as a way to grant gay couples the same federal rights as married couples.
Though I don't get the connection between the kink in his hair and the plank in his platform, I'm sure Pennacchio must be glad for any description that might help potential voters to recognize him outside the web.

Oh, here's one more physical detail to ground the web for you, if you need it:
It [the Pennacchio campaign] hit Google with paid ad links, Internet yard signs of sorts that flash Casey's Web address in the right column when users search for "Chuck Pennacchio."
As much as language may succeed at recreating the physical world we live in, there is still one difference between the real and the ethereal: senate candidates would never pay to have real campaign signs put on real lawns!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

On Building Vignettes

What a fun site!

On the Tu Quoque Fallacy

In light of the news that former Boy Scouts of America director, Douglas Smith Jr., pleaded guilty to child pornography charges, many have drawn connections between Smith's behavior and the BSA's policy against gay scouts and scouters. The general argument seems to be that the Boy Scouts' policy on homosexuality, in light of Smith and his behavior, is especially ridiculous--here's a guy talking so forcefully against gay people in scouting and, when no one is looking, he's downloading child-pornography! Implictly flowing from this line of reasoning seems to be the claim that the Boy Scouts shouldn't be banning gay people from scouting.

I wonder how much this sort of argument could fall under the tu quoque fallacy? It seems to me that the Boy Scouts' position regarding homosexuality is separate from the behavior of its members; just because Smith was deviant doesn't mean that the moral values and reasoning behind the Boy Scouts stance on homosexuality are logically invalidated.

Despite this, however, these comments about irony and hypocrisy resonate and make sense. If a parent who smokes tells us not to smoke, we naturally scoff and probably do so with good reason. However much I respect logic--always admitting that I have never demonstrated it that well!--nicely separated from reality and easily syllogized, I think that context--and in this case, character--plays a significant role in our arguing and reasoning. Artistotle, after all, had three types of appeal, and only one of them dealt with logic.

Given that Smith was a leader in an organization largely dedicated to establishing, developing, and maintaining moral values and character, it seems worthwhile to examine the character of its members, using the standards of evaluation that they have articulated for themselves. It certainly feels like it makes sense, at least.

On a Horizontal Hourglass

Jesse Jackson said something nice, well, when talking about Terri Schiavo:
"This is a global issue, and oftentimes the big issues of life are reduced to a single person who brings clarity," he said. "Conservatives and liberals can find common ground. It's a transcendent moment and a transcendent opportunity."
I like how he moves from the big issue to the single person and quickly broadens things again by talking about conservatives and liberals getting together to create something "transcendent." Very Lincoln-like.

On Imagining the New Yorker Laughing

When will cities forget about NYC? I'm all for humility and modesty in self-assessment, but I sort of cringe whenever I hear people talk about their cities--particularly the Midwestern and Southern cities--and who seem compelled to conjure up the urbane and haughty specter of New York. Like this fellow from St. Louis, who is proud of his city's redevelopment:
The market is beginning to show signs that it can also attract an older, more wealthy buyer. Craig Heller, one of the first loft condominium developers downtown, recently sold a penthouse condominium for $750,000 - or $225 a square foot. "Somebody reading this in New York would laugh, but for us it's good," he said. "It's a nice thing because it shows this kind of living is not just the kids."
I think New York is a good city that is big and bustling. But, I also think that it's goodness is not a function of it's size or sense of activity. City is a broad enough term that makes room for places like New York and Milwaukee. A good city cannot, then, be just New York. Goodness must come from other qualities.

A city is a space with meaning attached to it; it's a place that we construct and maintain through physical and less tangible means whenever we take up residence in the shadows of its buildings--no matter how long they are--and nod to the people walking down its sidewalks or stepping into its shops or eateries. Cities are places with living people, clashing and making-up in streets filled with memories past and yet to come; in a sense, cities are living entities themselves. In as much as we would say it was unhealthy to constantly define ourselves in relation to others' beauty and liveliness, why would we want to do that with our city's body and identity?

St. Louis has its own culture, history, and sense of self. Surely its goodness or badness can be established without looking over its shoulder at what New York has done or is doing. There was, after all, a reason for why St. Louis was established and developed--it was a gateway city to the West for all of those people leaving supposedly wonderful Eastern cities, like New York!

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

On A Rhetoric Lesson in Johnnie Cochran's Obituary

The New York Time's obituary for Johnnie Cochran offers a nice little lesson in rhetoric:
In the trial's aftermath, Mr. Cochran's name became a sort of shorthand, but one that meant different things in different contexts. To some, it stood for legal acumen. To others, a masterly rapport with the jury. To others still, the vexing role of money and race in the justice system.
Reading that exposition on Cochran's name, I'm reminded of Leah Ceccarelli's definition of polyvalence, found in her November 1998 Quarterly Journal of Speech article, "Polysemy: Multiple Meanings in Rhetorical Criticism." A polyvalent text is one that allows different audience members to:
contest the valuation of [its] denotation ... what is under dispute is not a literal meaning of the text, but the "attached connotations" that are drawn upon when the text is judged from within particular value systems ... polyvalence represents an attitudinal gap, a break in how two or more readers feel about the text ... polyvalence is about judgment and whether or not people are persuaded by messages. (398-99)
Of course, Cochran isn't a text, but a name for a person. Still, it's clear that when most people *read* Cochran, they are quick to attach some value to it.

Interestingly enough, the LA Times had an obituary that offers an example of polysemy, a concept closely associated and often confused with polyvalence:
When it was finally over, the jury acquitted Simpson, but many in the public did not. A Times poll indicated that half the American public disagreed with the verdict. And the majority believed the defense used the issue of race inappropriately to help free a defendant whose controversial saga began unfolding when he fled police in a nationally televised slow-speed freeway chase.
In this passage, the narrative of O.J. Simpson is being read differently by the jury and other folks throughout the country. According to Professor Ceccarelli, paraphrasing Celeste Condit,
Polysemy is the condition where there is more than one denotational meaning for a text. (398)
That's sort of neat: Cochran's name becomes polyvalent, while the case that came to define his career--and name--examples polysemy.

On Prince Charles

I don't suppose I have ever given much thought to Prince Charles--he isn't my prince, after all--but I found this piece in the Washington Post a fun read, and was struck by how Prince Charles' outlook is described:
Underpinning all of these activities is his passionate belief in eternal values such as community, responsibility and respect for nature. The prince believes humankind has lost its connection with the natural world and fears it could destroy itself unless harmony is restored. He harbors a deep suspicion of modernism and its agents, whether scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators or architects.
I suppose it must be no uncommon thing for members of royalty to have deep suspicions of modernity's trappings, since the Enlightenment and Age of Reason didn't work so well for monarchical rule. But, this description of the "natural world" losing its "harmony" sounds downright Elizabethan.

Another thing in the article that struck me was how involved Prince Charles seems to be with charity-work:
Over nearly three decades -- ever since he left the Royal Navy in December 1976 -- Charles has turned the title of Prince of Wales into a public institution. He maintains a connection with 17 main charities and a host of smaller ones that with his help raise nearly $200 million per year. Foremost among them is the Prince's Trust, Britain's largest youth charity, which seeks to help disadvantaged young people with training, mentoring and financial assistance. Last year he gave 50 major speeches, visited 59 countries and undertook 517 official engagements.
I remember back when Princess Diana was still living, doing all that work with landmines and world poverty; whenever you (as an American, at least) thought of Charles, it was always as if he was some sort of moral foil contrasted with the innocent and valorous image we had of Diana, that woman perpetually wronged . Prince Charles, if thought of at all, was cast as some sort of the anti-Princess Di: a cold and passionless fogey of a man, whose distance and separation from the people seemed a function of his separation and distance from Princess Diana.

Who knew--or even thought to ask--that Charles was struggling so hard not to be the lout we always thought he was?

On Rev. Jim Wallis

The LA Times had a nice piece on Rev. Jim Wallis, an Evangelical minister who seems to blend conservative values with progressive policy.
Stout and silver-haired, Wallis is a longtime social activist, author and executive director of Sojourners, a Washington-based Christian ministry best known for its monthly magazine on faith, politics and culture. He confounds stereotypes of evangelical Christians by arguing for conservative social morality but a dovish foreign policy and an economic agenda focused on helping the poor.
He's just published a new book, and has started offering advice to both Democratic and Republican senators. Some religious people, frustrated by the "religious right," find him appealing:
Martin Yuson, a 35-year-old Pasadena political independent and physical therapist, explained Wallis' appeal. "A lot of evangelicals and Catholic Christians are tired of the right-left dichotomy," Yuson said. "I myself can't seem to fit in either side. I'm anti-war but pro-life. Jim Wallis bridges that divide."
Doesn't the idea of the "bridge" still conjure up the "right-left dichotomy," if only to make the "bridge" possible?

Even though Wallis has attracted quite a following, I wonder how much this talk of "bridges," "left," and "right" just ends up drawing more attention to the political arena--at the expense of deemphasizing the religion in religious arguing. Now, it's not so much that I question the inclusion of religion in debate, I don't. Instead, I am unsettled by the close connections that Wallis seems to be developing with politicians and the political system. Granted, it could have been just the way the article was framed, but it seems that Wallis is becoming quite a mover, shaker, and a symbol-of-sorts for a new type of public religious leader. Such talk makes me wonder what it means to be "in the world" but "not of it." Jesus, after all, never went to Rome, and if he did, I doubt that he would have been welcomed in the Senate.

Skepticism aside, Wallis does offer some examples of how the left and the right could come together on public policy issues.
Wallis said he aims to reach all sides and promote practical solutions. On abortion, for instance, he argues that adoption reform or more financial and emotional safety nets for pregnant women could reduce abortions more significantly than arguing about the legal right to them. He supports restrictions on abortion — among them parental notification for most minors — but opposes criminalizing the procedure, in part for fear that it would force women into risky back-alley abortions.
Looking at this position, I wonder how likely Wallis will be able to attract the conservatives who might agree that it is vital to help pregnant women by providing financial safety nets but who still find it difficult to accept the idea that the government would permit or restrict abortions. Aren't there significant, symbolic, and principled reasons to allow or prohibit abortion? Doesn't this dedication to the pragmatic side of policy-making create something of a moral hole in the debate? Isn't it just a bit too nuanced for a prophetic voice? And, in trying to walk this delicate line between the left and the right, could it work? Some say no:
"I don't think it will succeed," argued Aaron Collins, 25, a youth pastor and graduate student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. "It will alienate both sides. The right won't want to raise taxes and the left won't outlaw abortion."
And in the process, will religion be muddled and muddied?

Monday, March 28, 2005

On New Yorker Elitism

Perhaps I just don't appreciate enough that satisfying sensation that some people must get when they thrust their hands deep into their mailbox, sifting through all its Ethan Allen, Pottery Barn, and Sharper Image catalogues in order to pull out the week's newest New Yorker. I don't chuckle with thoughtful and ironic understanding after seeing the mostly incoherent and stupid cover art that graces each issue. And I hardly ever notice the pen and pencil cartoons flush with that short unrhymed poetry and those Italian villa rental ads. Instead, I peak around Talk of the Town and skim the longer articles (I never read Fiction--too long!)

Given my plebish reading orientation, it makes sense that I'm not well disposed towards paragraphs like this in David Owen's "Playing Out of the Snow" (a too-long article about City golf courses--in the boroughs, no less!):
Ten years ago, I had to fly overnight from Phoenix to Newark by way of Las Vegas.
Thanks for clarifying that; I'm sure you wouldn't want your readers to think you were actually visiting Las Vegas on your own volition!
The crowd that boarded the the plane in Las Vegas consisted mainly of guys with beards and leather jackets who hadn't brought anything to read and women with arm tattoos trying to jam bottles into the mouths of crying babies.
Whooh, I lucked out! I always have something to read. Sometimes, I even bring a New Yorker to read on the airplane. Double Score. But, yikes! What a horrific description of these tattooed women, forcing food down the gullets of those mewing youths.
The plane smelled of cigarettes, even though no one was smoking. These passengers, I decided, represented three filtrations of human desperation: they had elected to use family vacation time to travel more than two thousand miles to lose money playing slot machines; they had decided to fly home after midnight so that they could get in as much money-losing as possible without having to pay for one more night in a hotel; and they lived in or near Newark.
Thank goodness that some distanced and detached observer is willing to provide us with his all-knowing interpretation!

On Humor in The New Yorker and Elsewhere

The New Yorker I got in the mail today offered a brief piece, by Larry Doyle, consisting of humoress bits. Here are two that I thought were striking:
Tracy Hanky and Jerome Panke began dating last November based on a shared amusement at the though of their potential hyphenated surname. In late February, Ms. Hanky extneded the riff to include "having a little Hanky-Panke," at which point Mr. Panke felt the joke had played itself out.
I wonder how much longer punchlines in elite, liberal, North-Eastern magazines will be able to rest on such explicit gender assumptions?

And I wonder if this type of humor will only continue to grow:
Ivy Wheeler has declared her torrid six-year affair with Kyle Brindley to be all a figment of Mr. Brindley's fevered imagination. Mr. Brindley responds that Ms. Wheeler is simply angry about his recent fling with the Bush twins.
Just a few days ago, the Bush twins were used by Maxim to introduce a new segment in the magazine. Similarly, during the election, it seemed a lot of attention was placed on the hotness--relative, comparative, and otherwise--of the Bush twins, Kerry daughters, and, ocassionally, the Heinz sons. There was even a rather embarassing photograph circulating and talked about throughout the internet and traditional media outlets of Alexandra Kerry wearing a dress to the Cannes Film Festival that became translucent underneath the flashes of cameras.

It seems that our simultaneous emphases on sex and politician's personal lives have moved beyond just paying attention to the extramarital sex politicians have. Instead, we have taken it upon ourselves to enact a form of sexual gaze and attention on politicians' children. It's even gotten so far that the sexual identity of Mary Cheney can be used as a form of evidence by a presidential candidate at a presidential debate!

Though there must naturally be some sort of burden of attention placed on these children--as well as numerous benefits (few of us get to go on some multi-stop tour of Africa--I think it shouldn't be that difficult to draw some lines. There must be enough young and attractive people to talk about and upon to allow us to ignore the children of our government's more visible public servants.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

On An Apple Commercial

This ad for Apple's newest IPod, the Shuffle, seems to contradict the spirit of minimalism and smooth integration that the player might be assumed to represent. Watching the shadowy figures in this commercial shuffle about, seemingly chained and defined by the bright white IPods and their cords, lassoed around their ears and necks, I conclude quickly enough that the Shuffle is not some little music player that I can seemlessly fit into my everyday life.

On "Inaudible Whispers"

At Easter Mass, the Pope attempted to say a blessing.
Pope John Paul II made a relatively long appearance before tens of thousands of worshipers here this Easter Sunday, but when he tried to speak, only an inaudible whisper came out of his mouth.
Is it possible to produce an inaudible whisper? If the crowds couldn't hear the pope, how did the reporter know that an actual whisper had escaped? I think that classifying something as a whisper--in this context, at least--demands that some of the sound gets through to the listeners.

Even still, as is generally true with spiritual matters, a form of communication occurred that transcended the traditional senses:
"Even though he couldn't speak, it was a message that I heard inside me," said Cristiana Cojazzi, 39, a doctor whose eyes welled up watching the ailing John Paul II at his window above the crowds on St. Peter's Square. "It was not disappointing. It was as if the message was heard inside my heart."

Saturday, March 26, 2005

On Mr. Kristof on Religion

Nicholas Kristof wrote a column about Christianity developing in developing countries. He describes some of the adversity believers in Africa face in order to practice Christianity. He goes on to draw a comparison between the rise of Christianity in places like this with the decline of religion in Western Europe. In he his peroration, he writes:
Yet conservative Christians in the U.S. should take heed. Christianity is thriving where it faces obstacles, like repression in China or suspicion of evangelicals in parts of Latin America and Africa. In those countries where religion enjoys privileges - Britain, Italy, Ireland, Spain or Iran - that establishment support seems to have stifled faith.

That's worth remembering in the debates about school prayers or public displays of the Ten Commandments: faith doesn't need any special leg up. Look at where religion is most vibrant today, talk to those who walk five hours to services, and the obvious conclusion is that what nurtures faith is not special privileges but rather adversity.
I don't agree. I don't think his conclusion is "obvious." There isn't anything necessarily causal about adversity and the nurturing of faith, at least when adversity is negatively defined in relation to the privileges that Mr. Kristof alludes to. After all, there must be places where adversity exists and faith does not; most evangelicals would even say that a lack of faith is a state of adversity!

And I don't know if Western Europe’s religious climate is a very good contrast to draw. The religious climate here is one shaped and molded by our own history, one that intersects with religion differently from Europe’s. (And I don't get that Iranian reference Mr. Kristof tacks in at the end. However much clout the "Religious Right" may have in the US, America's hardly a theocracy like Ayatollah Khamenei's Iran is!)

In addition, just like Mr. Kristof makes a logical leap (of faith?) when he claims that adversity nurtures faith, he fails to make the case that state support causes the atrophy of faith. Certainly, I take his point that religion doesn’t need the state, but he shouldn't be so quick to assume that any decline in faith is a function of how much the state grants religion privileges. There might be something else leading to Europe's decline in religion.

Yes, these parting paragraphs seem out of place—more like parting blows, than anything else. I presume that Mr. Kristof has used the adversity that Africans and Chinese (though he spends very little time developing the Chinese struggle) face to create a parallel with the Unites States and some of its religious people's attempts to foster religious values and morals through government. But there seems to be a different sense of the adversity experienced in Kenya and the privilege that religion might have in the West. Kenya's adversity seems to be rooted in poverty. The opposite of this kind of adversity is prosperity--the situation Europe and the United States do find themselves in. So, what religious people in the U.S. might be worried about is a state of prosperity that would sap people of their religious faith--something that makes sense and is echoed throughout some of today's Church and its people.

Now, it seems to me that many of the religious people attempting to place the Ten Commandments or prayer in schools are doing so because they are worried about the prosperity that is connected to consumerism, hyper-sexualism, and all that jazz. Sure, it’s questionable that this type of involvement will work; Jesus, after all, never went to Rome. But, as Mr. Kristof concludes his column, this idea isn’t well made. Instead, he quickly and simply inserts a relationship between faith and adversity: the more of the latter, the more of the former. Instead, Mr. Kristof should recognize and acknowledge that when some religious folks attempt to legislate values, they do so because they are attempting to curb much of the prosperity that this country seems to have blessed with--not to grant religion privilege.

Friday, March 25, 2005

On Enactment and the Pope

Being a big fan of enactment, that rhetorical concept wherein a speaker performs the point he or she is making in the process of making it. That's one of the reasons that I am impressed by what the Pope is doing as he steadily walks towards death. The LA Times has an article that describes the point well:
The pope is using the final chapter of his life as a parable for the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics. He wants his public suffering to convey the value of human life, even in its decline. Especially during the time Christians recall the crucifixion of Jesus, the church is emphasizing the symbolic parallels between the pope's ordeal and that of Christ — an analogy John Paul and his aides have been keen to make.
What a nice phrase, "his life as a parable." It works well with the symbolism that infuses Christianity generally, and Catholicism, from what I understand, even more. Actually, enactment seems to work very well with Christianity. So much of faith, I've found and experienced, is in the performance. Not in some superficial Chorusline performance kind of way, but a very real sense that to have faith is to act faith, hoping and knowing that eventually you'll act in faith.

On News Coverage and China

Growing up in a conservative home and area, still dedicated to Cold War rhetoric, I always thought China was more red than yellow, filled with little books by and big pictures of Mao. Going off to school and being around and befriending many Asians and Asian-Americans taught me that Chinese Communism was a much more nuanced and negotiated concept than I had thought--free marketing but still fairly restricted, as far as free speech was concerned.

But, looking at this google news search about the Bush Twins suggests a far less censorious society than I thought. Out of the four news search results (one of the results is a blog), two were from China! Fifty percent of the news produced and archived on the web, then, occurred in that country that still seems to take a pretty hard stance on freedom of speech. Apparantly, editorial standards, at least, have loosened up!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

On A Current Affair

Yikes! My local FOX affiliate has replaced its 10:00 pm airing of Seinfeld with A Current Affair with Tim Green. I remember watching this show with Maury Povich about ten years ago, but I don't remember it being this bad. Maybe it's this Tim Green fellow. He doens't really have his delivery and tone down too well; he pauses at the wrong times and tends to accentuate the suggestive lines like a pimply extra delivering his one line in the high school production of Oklahoma!.

Plus, the script is terrible. After "reporting" on the Texas Congressperson who is oppossed to "sexy" cheerleading, Green concludes, with something like, "I get you, it's not the bumping, but the grinding." Yes, like how I was grinding my teeth after hearing you talk like that. Or, when doing a segment on Whitney Houston, Green reminds us how we used to think she "could hold a note until the sun came up." And when she got involved with Bobby Brown and rumors began circulating about her drug abuse? Green speculates that the real problem wasn't that she was addicted to "crack, or pot, but to Bobby Brown." I bet.

Now, I don't expect A Current Affair to be brilliant--I don't expect perfection from any news show on television (with the exception of The News Hour, of course!) I just didn't expect it to be this bad, filled with poor delivery and shoddy lines. Plus, that wretched sound and graphic whenever they get down with a new segment! Aren't J-Schools just churning out hordes of TV journalists who can't find real jobs and in need of a nearly honest dollar? Can't one or two of them take a try at this stuff, maybe improving it in the process?

On Hunger Striking for Others

Apparently, some students at Georgetown University ended a hunger strike after the university decided to meet some of their demands and raised the wages of contract-staff, like janitors and cafeteria workers, and offered the workers benefits like library and shuttle use. How interesting that the students were striking for another group AND that their demands were met.

In a way, I find it rhetorically unsettling that the janitors and cafeteria workers were being spoken for by people other than themselves--kids attending an elite private school, no less. After all, Suffrage, Abolition, and Civil Rights were spoken up for by more than just white men. That is one of the reasons the movements were so powerful; by having the disenfranchised speak for themselves, they refuted the other side’s claim that women, slaves, and African-Americans were somehow not able to enact full citizenship—citizenship that would include public arguing. But, maybe wage issues in financially tense times are just different. Regardless, I think it must have been a very tough road to walk for the students striking. On the one hand, they had a position of power being that they were smart kids paying more than $30,000 at a top-ranked private school. On the other hand, they were smart kids paying lots of money at a good school; one can faintly smell dilettante-ism in the air.

Here at Minnesota, there is work being done to establish a union for graduate students and, naturally, thoughts occasionally turn to the idea of one day striking for higher wages and lower healthcare costs. Would graduate students ever be able to expect or even hope that undergraduates would stop eating for eight days, just for them? I don't think so I'm told that in the past, at other universities, when grad students struck, some undergrads stopped attending class (very noble!) or organized sit-ins; but, I think that might be the most grad students could entertain possibly happening. Perhaps graduate students striking strikes many as being silly to begin with, so adding an undergrad hunger strike would only add to the perceived chaos on the campus. Or, perhaps there is something more fitting and righteous about fighting for janitors and cafeteria workers.

On A New Device

But, can you blog on it?

On Ellipses

The Post interviewed Christopher Browne, Dulles International Airport's new manager, and got this out of him:
[Interviewer]: Dulles and National each have their own characters and personalities, don't they?

[Browne]: Clearly, the two airports are very different. We have a very high volume of business travelers here at National as opposed to Dulles, which has a lot of connecting passenger traffic, a lot of it going overseas. And Dulles has a much higher percentage of low-fare air carrier opportunities. . . .
Ouch! What are those ellipses all about?

On Size Mattering

The Washington Post reports that a 15-pound lobster for sale in a Potomac seafood store did not sell. Instead, it produced a great deal of sympathy from people who would otherwise blithely order an 8- or 9-pound lobster:
"I've never had a lobster that big at this store before, and I won't have one that big again," said Grolig, owner of River Falls Seafood Co. and a 21-year veteran of the seafood trade. "About 30 percent of the people who saw him in the tank expressed concern. A few customers were really unhappy. . . . I'm really torn about the whole idea of these big lobsters. Does it really make sense to sell them?"
I don't know what it is about a lobster's size that makes the prospect of boiling it alive any more or less sad, perhaps it's because size appears to be a function of age with crustaceans.

If it is the case, though, that we grimace on account of the lobster’s age, I have to ask, “why?” I assume that most of us feel sad at the thought of hurting animals because, to some extent, we empathize with their pain; we identify with the animal. Why then, in a society that generally views an older person's death with less sorrow than a younger person's, would we all of a sudden tear-up at the prospect of allowing a lobster in its golden years to be dipped into its golden butter? Shouldn't we get more worked up about the younger one?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

On Having a Conversation with the President

I've noticed that the White House is pretty good about providing transcripts of the speeches President Bush makes on a daily basis. Most of the speeches are, boiler plate--long on introductions and graciousness, short on *substance*--but, I bet that most of the government policy being talked about is much the same. So, it must be fitting. Today, I noticed one of his speeches, was labeled a "conversation." That got me thinking about whether or not one can have a conversation with the President of the United States, you know, the Leader of the Free World.

What is a conversation? It seems to me that conversation, as a term, denotes an exchange between people about some topic. Neither the exhange, nor the topic probably needs to be all that serious, you just got to have some people talking. In as much as I generally look at conversations as being something like that, I generally assume that the people talking are pretty much equals. After all, you don't ever really have a conversation with your boss; she normally calls you in and you listen politely while quickly deciding whether or not your joke is appropriate for the occasion. If this is generally how conversations are concieved and born, than how much harder would it be for the president to have one with any one else? It's hard to have an equal go at the conversation when you're talking to someone whom you have to refer to as "Mr. President." Bush seems to acknowledge as much here:
A couple other points I want to make. Laura told me -- by the way, she's doing fabulous. I'm a lucky man to have married Laura Bush. (Applause.) She just said, make sure you remember there's others on the stage who need to talk, too. (Laughter.) In other words, keep it short. But I'm just getting wound up. I've got a couple other things I want to share with you.
See. How can you have a conversation with someone who wields all that power? This isn't a conversation, it's a speech. And why wouldn't we want the president to do the latter more than the former?

Maybe we ought to get it in our heads that the president is just not one of us and stop expecting him or her to where flannel and have little conversations with us.

On Being Not Quite So

I love the little puff pieces that the New York Times puts about halfway down their webpage--the ones with the little pictures above their links--they remind me of the Style articles I used to read first when I lived in Virginia and could read the Washington Post in hardcopy everyday. Articles of this variety take something, anything, and gives it its full and thoughtful due. This article about a little resturant tucked away in an old Sears building in downtown New York is certainly no exception.

Take a peek, if you please. But, if not, at least appreciate this passage, about the resturant's austere and commericially bereft atmosphere:
Tucked away on the third floor where its only neighbors are the store's photo studio and a seasonal H & R Block office, accessible only by very slow elevator, the Munchbox is so underpublicized that its name is not even displayed anywhere on the premises. But the absence of brand awareness does not daunt Carl Coke.
No brand awareness? Why, just look at the owner's name!

On Prognostication

As a result of the "weakening dollar," the hot and hautter European fashions are more expensive for patriots than ever:
"Things are so expensive overall that it's really extraordinary," said Julie Gilhart, the fashion director at Barneys New York. "If you want a well-tailored suit, don't even think of anything less than $2,000. If you want an evening gown, you're talking close to couture prices. And if you want a well-made handbag for less than $1,000, you'll be hard-pressed to find it."
Naturally, I presciently realized the cause and its effect very early on and am as proud as I am prada to report that my hamper's fullness is only slightly more so than my wallet's.

Of course I realize that this is a funny little article written for an even funnier and smaller crowd, using sources who are even more obscure in their perspectives and declarations. But, surely, Ms. Gilhart must feel a just a smudgen of silliness when she says things like this, right?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

On Translating a Religious Symbol

President Bush demonstrated a little translation today, when he took a predominantly religious symbol--the Trinity-explaining shamrock--and made it mean something that lots of people, regardless of their faith could appreciate:
St. Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the mystery of the Trinity. The shamrock has also come to represent the unity that people can achieve when they commit themselves to peace and freedom.

In America, we have a phrase for that -- it's called e pluribus unum, out of many, one. You'll find that on the great seal of the United States, which, by the way, was largely designed by Charles Thompson, a native of Derry. The hearts of the Irish burn for freedom and they brought that love for liberty to America. The Irish fought in our nation's war of independence, and over the past two centuries they devoted their blood and sweat to defending and building America.

On Smoking

From the Washington Post:
Ina Garten, of Barefoot Contessa cookbook fame, doesn't make a fuss if someone smokes at dinner parties at her East Hampton home. "I want my friends to feel welcome to do anything they want at my house. That's why I invited them in the first place."
The Virginian in me has found yet another reason to admire this woman!

On McDonalds in Russia and an Incredible Generalization

The New York Times had a piece about McDonalds' significant real estate holdings in Russia. I know that there is something fantastically interesting about the former USSR having the busiest McDonalds in the world, but I think there is something even more striking about this little passage in the article:
But McDonald's here has been able to avoid some problems that have troubled it in the West.

The "Super Size Me" controversy, and accusations that fast-food chains like McDonald's promote obesity, are not issues for Russians, some of whom demand mayonnaise with 40 percent fat content. Nor does McDonald's low pay seem to bother many here - Russian wages average $250 a month.
When did Moscow's membership in the West lapse? Sure, Europe's eastern boundary is fluid and debated, but not so much so that the Times should be able to get away with such a breezy and unqualified statement.

And speaking about unqualified statements, what's this about Russians not being concerned with obesity? Surely, in all of that vast and exotic eastern Russia, there must be one or two folks watching their weight, right? In fact, I am so certain of this that I am willing to say that I think it would have been better had the article's writer written "most Russians," instead. Of course, given that the reporter brings up the so-called "'Super Size Me' controversy" in the first place is probably indicative of a person prone to over-generalization. (at least I hedged my generalization with a probably!) After all, it seems like the only people who really know or think about this "controversy" are of the more self-satisfied elite class who actually go to documentaries like that. (You know, the type that thinks it is nobler to get fat off of hummus and curry than getting big from Big Macs.) Now that I think about it, I bet that there are probably a lot of folks in the West who might actually enjoy a fattier mayonnaise and who have never even heard of some funny little documentary that showed up primarily in big cities and college towns.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

On a Certain NY Times Reporter

It seems that the reporter I occassionally critique for stylistic reasons has gotten more of the same kind of attention elsewhere. Of course, I am not the only one to pick on her.

On Religion on Our Trays

Chris, over at Crooked Timber, had a post that led to some heated comments. Apparently, Alaska Airlines places a Bible verse on its meal plates and has offended or irritated non-Christian passengers. Here are a few comments that struck me as interesting and reasonably representative of the discussion thread.

Nick Fagerlund, in the 13th comment, says:
>_< >_< >_<
Jet, can you, in all seriousness, imagine a US-based airline putting holy texts from any – FU[**]ING ANY, mind you – other religion? Maybe there’s an even chance of you being told a little something about the eightfold path next flight you take? Or a little bit of poetry from the Koran? Hell, even the relatively agnostic Tao?
No? Then it’s an example of Christian Privilege. Look, I’ll freely stipulate that there are currently other, bigger things to worry about. But don’t go on about how there’s no problem here and we just need to swallow it. Captive proselytization like this is crass, obnoxious, and arrogant. (Legal, maybe; no one’s disputing that. But boorish in the extreme.) If you’re a Christian business and fully intend to preach the word, the least you can do is work a little Jesusfish into your logo or something. Don’t masquerade as secular.
Matt McGrattan, in the 7th comment, writes:
You don’t have to want to BAN the Biblical verses. It’s not a free speech issue. It’s an issue of crass proselytizing in a context where one might have reasonable expectation that one might be free from it. So all the libertarians can get off their high horse.
Keith, in the 30th comment, writes:
I find it odd that More Christians don’t find it offensive that their holy scripture is stencilled on in flight bags of patato chips, hamburger wrappers and everything else. But hay, why stop there? Why not biblical verse on the toilet paper and airsick bags as well.
Chris [different from the poster, I think], in the 41st comment, says:
I recently saw a TV commercial for the Jaguar automobile based on a “seven deadly sins” theme. I think a similar ad has appeared in print. E.g., you “lust” after its smooth curves, the reclining seats let you indulge your “sloth,” etc. Is everyone offended by that, too? I mean, you don’t like reading Christian messages on your airplane napkins, and the Christians don’t like using their religion as a joke to sell fancy cars. It kind of seems like folks on the secular left need to decide which it’s going to be: are we all to avoid offending one another’s religious or areligious sensibilities in public, or are we to treat religion as a subject like any other, appropriate fodder for public debate, public jokes, and sincere public statements as well?
If pushed, I think that I would say Chris and and Keith's posts resonate with me the most. What's your take on the issue?

On A Series of Cut(r)e French Cartoons

I found this cartoonist while looking at this neat site. Look around for the Ferris Wheel short, it's cute.

On Analogy and the Male Gaze

Much scholarship has been done regarding the Male and Scientific Gazes. I have read none of it, apart from an odd reference here and there. But, from what I gather, critiques of the Gaze(s) rest on a claim that women are isolated, objectified, and dominated by men who look at their bodies in pornography, film and advertisement, or the examination room. I wonder what scholars might say about this odd little analogy I stumbled aross while visiting Instapundit:
In an article published after the flight 587 crash, Professor James Williams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world's leading authorities in this field[composite material], said that to rely on visual inspection was "a lamentably naive policy. It is analogous to assessing whether a woman has breast cancer by simply looking at her family portrait."
In this analogy, Williams seems to have yoked the Male and the Scientific Gazes together in a way that might make people groan and/or object. How analogous can airplane inspections and breast exams be? It might be even worse that the expert has made a scientificesque point by imagining a breast exam and a doctor looking at the woman's portrait.

On Grassley's Position on Religious Argument

In the LA Times, Robert Scheer had an interesting editorial about the bankruptcy reform bill recently passed by the Senate. In his piece, Scheer sees incongruence in the reasoning Senator Grassley uses for this law and other positions he has taken:
A key sponsor of the bill, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), actively opposes abortion and same-sex marriage on biblical grounds yet believes the Good Book's clear definition and condemnation of usury is irrelevant. The Old Testament, revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, mandates debt forgiveness after seven years, as was pointed out earlier this month by an organization of Christian lawyers in a letter to Grassley.

"I can't listen to Christian lawyers," said the senator, "because I would be imposing the Bible on a diverse population."
Unfortunately, I can't read any of these statements or place them in their appropriate contexts. How do I know it's not the case that senator Grassley just opposes abortion or same-sex marriage laws on biblical grounds but argues against them from secular ones? What does this "actively oppose" business mean? Rather than deal with all of that, I choose to avoid commenting on the hypocrisy side of Scheer's critique. Besides, it seems hard to imagine any politician not dabbling in this kind of incongruity every now and then.

What seems worth looking at, however, is Grassley's explanation for why he cannot listen to the Christian lawyers. Grassley seems fairly categorical in his declaration here: he can't listen to Christian lawyers, and presumably, their arguments, because that would be "imposing the Bible on a diverse population." Surely, Grassley's objection cannot be with imposition, since laws are basically impositions on the whole country to begin with. No, it seem that the real crux is the Bible and the diverse population parts.

Now, from the look of things, it seems that Grassley hails from the great state of Iowa which makes me wonder what population Grassley is speaking about. As a Senator from Iowa, voting on a domestic issue as likely to influence his constituents as any farm subsidy bill or agriculture exemption would be, isn't there a sense that Grassley can just claim to be representing his constituents? If this is the case, and if 90% or more of Iowans classify themselves as Christian, can Grassley be all that worried about a "diverse population"?

I don't really like that argument, it seems a little too majority-rule-at-the-expense-of-the-minority for me, but I don't know if that's any reason to toss it out, since it relies on some notion of representation that fits nicely enough into our conception of how democratic-majority governance works. Doesn't any law create a minority oppossed to it?

Still, maybe an even stronger case can be made if you choose to grapple more with the notion of "imposition." This, of course, is the the *big* issue: what constitutes imposition? Is the reasoning we use enough to impose a particular religion or worldview on a society? If Grassley gets to policy A by reading the Bible and Grassley's atheistic constituent can get to the same policy by relying on other reasonable means, I wonder if there is any reason that either Grassley or his constituent should care. In a policy situation, where compromise, concession, and finite resources tend to blur or ignore principles and values in favor of practicalities, do we need to get worked up about the how so much, just so long as we have a policy? I don't know.

What I am willing to say, however, is that I don't see a huge distinction between religious argument and any other system of reasoning. If how we reason is significant, what distinguishes religious reasoning from ultiltarian, humanitarian, or any other perspective an arguer argues and reasons from? When Alan Greenspan talks and argues about supply, demand, and interest rates, I don't understand what he is talking about, nor am I altogether certain that economics is the best well from which to gather evidence. But, I don't think that I walk away from listening to Greenspan an economist any more than I expect a Unitarian to walk away from Grassley's religious reasoning a 7th Day Adventist.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

On The Rhetoric of Representatives

It's frequently said that representatives and senators must represent their constituents. But, less is said about how constituents are represented by their representatives and senators. How do these people talk about us in the House and Senate? What got me wondering was a statement made by Senator Bill Frist during the Bankruptcy Reform Bill debates:
It’s fitting that as a Senator from Tennessee I am talking about this issue. As it happens, the city of Memphis in my home state has become to be known as the “Bankruptcy Capital of America.” Memphis ranks number one in personal bankruptcy filings compared with 331 other major metropolitan areas. The total personal bankruptcy filing rate in Memphis in 2004 was roughly 26 people per 1000 residents – well over three times the national average.

Bankruptcy has become so common it has largely lost its stigma. It’s seen as just another method to get out of debt. Some folks have even been known to plan their bankruptcy. They buy a house, a car, furniture and whatever else they need, and then file a bankruptcy form. They figure they can get the big ticket items up front and for everything else use cash.

It’s not altogether an accident that the Memphis bankruptcy system is what one attorney calls a “well oiled machine.” It was Memphis’s very own US Representative Walter Chandler who established a chapter of bankruptcy law with the 1938 Chandler Act.
The gentleman from Tennessee seems to come down pretty harshly on Tennessee and airs a lot of dirty laundry. Is this just a senator using his unique knowledge and authority as a Tennessee senator to make a point, or, is he being too much a Majority Leader and too little a representative of his home state? I don't know, but it makes me wonder how my own Senators are talking about me and my state.

On Making Yourself Feel Better

The New York Times had a neat piece on how people respond to everyday annoyances like Starbucks' funny cup sizes or the prevelance of junk mail. Look at what some people do:
When Seth Shepsle goes to Starbucks, he orders a "medium" because "grande" - as the coffee company calls the size, the one between big and small - annoys him.

Meg Daniel presses zero whenever she hears a computerized operator on the telephone so that she can talk to a real person. "Just because they want a computer to handle me doesn't mean I have to play along," she said.

When subscription cards fall from magazines Andrew Kirk is reading, he stacks them in a pile at the corner of his desk. At the end of each month, he puts them in the mail but leaves them blank so that the advertiser is forced to pay the business reply postage without gaining a new subscriber.
I especially like the last technique, though it seems a little over the top when it's taken to extremes:
Wesley A. Williams spent more than a year exacting his revenge against junk mailers. When signing up for a no-junk-mail list failed to stem the flow, he resorted to writing at the top of each unwanted item: "Not at this address. Return to sender." But the mail kept coming because the envelopes had "or current resident" on them, obligating mail carriers to deliver it, he said.

Next, he began stuffing the mail back into the "business reply" envelope and sending it back so that the mailer would have to pay the postage. "That wasn't exacting a heavy enough cost from them for bothering me," said Mr. Williams, 35, a middle school science teacher who lives in Melrose, N.Y., near Albany.

After checking with a postal clerk about the legality of stepping up his efforts, he began cutting up magazines, heavy bond paper, and small strips of sheet metal and stuffing them into the business reply envelopes that came with the junk packages.
At that point you seem almost a little too driven. And, I wonder about whether or not an individual's sense of annoyance isn't given too much weight, at the expense of others' interests, in cases like this:
To coexist with loud cellphone talkers, the Web offers hand-held jammers that, although illegal in the United States, can block all signals within a 45-foot radius.

Mitch Altman, a 48-year old inventor living in San Francisco, said that in the last three months he has sold about 30,000 of his key-chain-size zappers called TV-B-Gone, which can be used discreetly to switch off televisions in public places. "When you go to a restaurant to talk with friends, why should you have to deal with the distraction of a ceiling-mounted television?" Mr. Altman said.
But, all in all, I think that one person can make a difference--if only in his or her mind.

On Applying Internal Standards of Evaluation

Today, the LA Times has a commentary which argues that, unlike other presidential papers, Richard Nixon's papers ought to remain under the control of the U.S. Archives, rather than his presidential library. Of course, Nixon's case is different from those of other presidents. Apparently, when Nixon was leaving office he destroyed some of his papers and attempted to take others with him, prompting the federal government to take control of them and denying the Nixon Library a chance to administer them, denying the Nixon Library status as an official presidential library within the presidential library system. In 2004, however, Congress approved a request to include the Nixon Library with the rest of the presidential libraries, a vote that would hand control over of the Nixon papers to the library.

David Greenberg, historian and author of Nixon's Shadows argues that Nixon's library is not able to responsibly handle these papers. Primarily citing the Nixon Library's recent decision to cancel a conference on Nixon and Vietnam, Greenberg points out that the Nixon Library is too devoted to crafting a particular image of Nixon to be trusted with the papers.
The cancellation provoked an uproar. The library claims that tickets weren't selling well enough, but most observers see political motives at work — more of Nixon's old concern with shaping his reputation.
Though there are probably constraints on the space Mr. Greenberg can take up with his arguments, (not so much the case with me and this blog!) I don't know if a historian who lauds the gathering of multiple viewpoints and perspectives on evidence should be so breezy with the evidence that lies at the heart of his own claims. Is it really appropriate to jump the gun and assume that the library is being deceptive and that this deception is part and parcel of a larger move to recraft Nixon’s image? It seems almost Nixonesque of Greenberg to conjure up this image of "the old" Nixon's hands reaching from the dirt to continue crafting his image. Now that Nixon is dead, do we have to hear from historians anthropomorphizing inanimate objects?

And it seems pretty bad form to talk about Newt Gingrich and Ari Fleischer like this:
Today, the museum's events typically include book-promoting speeches from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Ari Fleischer. The rare invitation to a serious historian will pair him or her with a far-out Nixon defender, like conspiracy theorist Len Colodny, one of the authors of "Silent Coup," which denies the basic facts of Watergate, maintaining it was a crisis imposed on Nixon, not a crisis Nixon imposed on the country.
Yikes! The likes of Gingrich and Fliescher--hardly the type to be confused with the serious historians.

Sometimes, I think this article reads like transcript of a bitter paranoiac seeing conspiracies and enemies around every door and window!

Monday, March 14, 2005

On Using Ministers as Evidence

I'm interested in how people argue religiously in public on public matters. Over the past couple of presidential elections the role of religion and the rise of "moral voters" has only heightened that interest, as well as the interests of many other folks far smarter than myself. If the Constitution guarantees us the right of practicing (or not) any religion or belief system of our choosing, then it only makes sense that people will take advantage of that right. And, people do. But what happens when it comes time to legislate for everyone, regardless of his or her religious practices and beliefs? How does religion fit into our public debate and reasoning? Do we argue in public the way we argue in church, quoting the Bible or Augustine? Do we "translate" our religious reasoning into more broadly accepted reasoning, and is this possible or even desirable? These, and many other questions seem to appear in the debate over how we debate.

Given how easy it is to get lost in all these questions, I think it's good to just take a peak every now and then at what people are doing. Look at what Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has to say about the budget:
Mr. President, earlier this week, I met with a group of Ministers from a host of Protestant denominations. They were very concerned about the budget, and shared with me a story from the Gospel of Luke about a rich man and the poor man who lived at his gates named Lazarus. In life, the rich man lived a grand life and paid no attention to the poor man, refusing to come to his aid. But in death, it was Lazarus who went to Heaven and the rich men who suffered in Hell.

Their purpose in telling me the story was to point out the immorality of turning a blind eye to economic injustice. And they wanted to make a larger point about the Bush 2006 Budget, which, as they put it, has “much for the rich man and Little for Lazarus.”

And when you examine the Bush budget through a moral lens, as these ministers have done, you can clearly see the injustice and the lack of values in it.
How, then, has the head Senate Democrat decided to talk religiously?

First, he did so through the words of others. Rather than speaking on and from his personal religious experience, Reid relied on the words of a "host of Protestant denominations." Not only did Reid avoid having to establish a personal connection to religion, he was able to be ecumenical with his use of religious beliefs. There were many different Protestants, not a few, so Reid might not have alienated people in the way he might of had he been just quoting Evangelical or Mainline ministers.

He continues this distancing-of-sorts through a narrative that suggests discovery, rather than familiarity in regards to the story from the Gospel of Luke. In Reid's telling, the ministers are cast as active agents, bringing a passive Reid a story from the Gospels that Reid is happy to pass on to us, his readers. Even though the Gospels are far more familiar to Christians than the rest of the Bible (save for the Garden, the Ark, and the Whale), Reid comes across as almost surprised at the story that appears in the Bible and he seems eager to present it in all of its curiousness.

Second, Reid places the action in the story on the religious leaders, not himself. Even though he actively went to the ministers in his telling of the events, as his narrative continues the ministers become active agents that are eager to present their interpretation of scriptures and its applicability to the U.S. budget. This seems to suggest that Reid isn't too involved with religious reasoning on public affairs, creating a distance between him and claim that he might be violating any church/state norms.

Third, Reid's statement suggests that religious reasoning is sufficiently accessible to people, since it can be understood as a "lens" through which we can look and see "clearly "injustice" and a "lack of values."

What Reid's statement establishes and maintains, then, are a particular set of implied rules and norms regarding religious argument in public debate. It seems that religious reasoning can be used by a politician, but it's best if it is done in a distanced way, so that a politician seems almost curious about the religious argument, rather than committed to it. Reid's statement also suggests that religion isn't all that exotic a strand of argument since it has wide applicability to public concerns and that many can use it sucessfully.

What Reid's statement doesn't do, however, is suggest ways that a deeply religious politician might use his or her religious beliefs for public reasoning--without having to bring up someone else as a vessel to carry it in.

On Creating Urgency

I've noticed that one of the more difficult things about debating social security is how tough it is to create a sense of urgency. After all, if there is a finite amount of time and effort that any society can devote to public issues, than it only makes sense that the stuff that we decide to talk about is pressing and significant. When the president addresses the country there might be a sense that he needs to get us riled up and energized--something that you probably won't become after hearing this conclusion:
Whatever changes we make, we must provide a better and stronger system for younger workers. And that is why I have proposed allowing younger Americans to place some of your payroll taxes in voluntary personal retirement accounts. You would have a choice of conservative bond and stock funds, with the opportunity to earn a higher rate of return than is possible under the current system. If you earn an average of $35,000 over your career, you can build up nearly a quarter-million dollars in your account, on top of your Social Security check. This would be real savings you own, a nest egg you could pass on to your children.

The American people did not place us in office to pass on problems to future generations and future Presidents and future Congresses. I will work with both parties to fix Social Security permanently. Social Security has been there for generations of Americans, and together we will strengthen it for generations to come.
Nest eggs, passing things on to children, voluntary accounts, hardly the stuff of soaring and inspiring rhetoric. Of course, it's hard to create too much urgency because then you will be accused of scaring senior citizens or threatening to leave them behind or something like that. Tricky stuff: legislating for many tomorrows from now, today.

On Low Humor in High Places

The Washington Post has a piece about the increasing amount of humor to be found in President Bush's second term speeches. One of my favorite jokes included in the article goes like this:
At a town meeting in Little Rock last month, Bush was joined onstage by Gloria Bennett, a part-time food inspector.

"I'm from De Queen, Arkansas," she told the president.

"That," Bush replied, nodding, "is right next to De King."
At the risk of affirming the consequent, I'd like to point out that I have told jokes that are frequently received poorly. Perhaps I could be president! What I really wonder about affirming, however, is the use of humor in these speeches. Is it decorous for the President of the United States to be delivering not just jokes, but bad ones? Is a president's material different from a stand-up's? Doesn't social security reform or energy policy demand a more austere atmosphere to be created by the president's words? In the end, Mark Leibovich article doesn't dwell too much on these questions, apart from pointing out that politicians frequently use humor. But Liebovich does at least offer a psychological hook for readers:
But people close to Bush say his recent comic releases reflect a noticeably more relaxed presidential disposition. Since the Iraqi elections in January and his well-received State of the Union speech a few days later, Bush, according to aides, has been much more willing to toss out what-the-heck quips in public, reflecting the attitude of someone who has nothing to lose, or run for.
Actually, all of this humor from high places reminds me of an interview in this week's New York Times Magazine. Deborah Solomon interviews Charlie Jarvis the next CEO of a senior citizen activism group, USA Next and former under secretary of the Department of Interior. Many of Jarvis' answers are funny:
[Solomon] You previously worked for Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian group that recently dubbed Sponge Bob Square Pants a promoter of homosexuality.

[Jarvis] I call him Sponge Robert Square Pants because I don't know him well.

[Solomon] Do you care if your sons vote Democratic?

[Jarvis] They have to make those decisions for themselves. I mean, I am going to beat them with a rubber hose if they do!

[Solomon] As a leading critic of Social Security, how do you plan to support yourself in your old age?

[Jarvis] I'm 55. I don't think of myself as getting older. I think of myself as maturing.

[Solomon] Your comment suggests that you are currently immature.

[Jarvis] My wife insists that I am.

On Disney's Growth and Control

This LA Times article offers analysis on Michael Eisner’s departure from Disney and suggests that the appointment of Eisner’s protégé, Robert Iger, indicates the significant degree of clout an embattled and embittered Eisner still wields within Disney. It also suggests that Eisner’s legacy will continue at Disney, since Iger seems unlikely to create much change within the company. James Bates writes:
The board’s decision [to select Iger] revealed Eisner’s genius for managing and protecting his legacy at Disney, which under his watch grew from a $1.5 billion-a-year company to a $30 billion one. But then he’s well known for his attention to detail—including such minutiae as the color of the curtains in Disney’s hotel rooms, which he personally selected.
If Eisner had much to do with causing that significant growth, I’m not certain that his leadership can be fully encapsulated with the watch metaphor. This seems too passive, like Eisner was at the night watch, making sure that the Disney ship didn't run aground or hit an iceburg. Perhaps, if the nautical theme was necesaary, "at the helm” might work better, since it might connote more control and navigation than mere “watching."

Also, I don’t know if it follows that an “attention to detail” is necessarily or sufficiently relevant to Disney’s multi-billion-dollar-a-year metamorphosis. Of course, I do like that little tidbit about the curtains and it seems to be a characteristic of the entire Disney machine. Attention to detail was shockingly evident in a recent Food Network special where a couple had a Disney wedding for … $70,000! I beginning to see where much of that billion dollar success comes from. Why, if Disney gets any bigger, I’d be afraid that its next CEO will be picking out the colors of my house’s curtains!

On Extending a Metaphor too Far

A lengthy article in the LA Times about China’s struggle to maintain authoritarian control over an increasingly capitalist society uses a recent gold medalist's treatment by the Chinese authorities as an example of the way China dealing with this tension. Apparently, Tian Liang, a gold-medal diver from the 2004 Olympics is being prevented by the Chinese authorities from parleying his Olympic gold into a more spendable variety of gold. Naturally, the journalist offers some word play and crafts this paragraph:
Tian, a national symbol symbol of tremendous propaganda value, is swimming against a new political tide as he is made an example of for a policy on full display at the National People’s Congress which ends today.
Given that Tian Liang is a diver and not really a swimmer, maybe Mark Magnier could have gone with something like: “he has belly flopped in his attempt to profit,” or “he jumped head first into a shallow pool of scapegoating,” or “he got in too deep and over his head,” or something like that.

Of course, given that Tian Liang hasn’t been so successful in his attempts to make a profit off of his name, perhaps it is altogether fitting that the metaphor used to describe his attempts don't line up with his identity too well either.

On Struggle

In a LA Times article, the wife of Dr. Richard Olney, a Lou Gehrig’s Disease researcher and patient, describes her struggle with her husband’s debilitating disease:
”Life is overwhelming at the moment,” she says. “I try to get some pleasure out of each day. I don’t look forward because I get scared. I don’t look back because it’s too sad. So I put one foot in front of the other.”
This is as beautiful an expression as it’s sad. The separation from the future and past that compels her to live in only present must be a jarring and uncomfortable temporal space, though it’s the one we physically inhabit all the time. And how fitting the description at the end. Given that her husband can barely walk, it seems appropriate and touching that she can only do so with such will and focus.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

On Color Enactment

The Times had a brief piece on the rise of "colorized revolutions" as exampled by the Ukraine's Orange Revolution, President Bush's comment on Iraq's Purple Revolution, and the preponderance of pink being warn by Iranian women. Karen Beckwith, a political science professor at Ohio's Wooster College comments on the use of color:
"How does the state respond to it?" she asked. "It's very hard to defeat. You can't go around making people take off their clothes. Also, the state can't tell who's organizing it. And it shows incredible solidarity. You know that you're not alone. You don't even need to carry a sign. The person himself or herself is the protest."
I especially like that last line, since it reminds of me of my favorite rhetorical device, enactment wherein the speaker becomes the argument. This color thing, though seems different. Usually, when I think of enactment, I think of a speaker, a rhetor, a person at the front, active and all of that. Wearing a color is powerful only in light of the rest of the people doing the same thing. It can only work within the context of a group--the audience. It works with and reminds me of something Professor Goodwin once told me:What's the difference between a mob and a protest? A protest is filled with people who look around, recognize, and say that they are all there for a reason and purpose.

Friday, March 11, 2005

On Stalinist Measures

It's probably a good idea to make school food healthier, but I don't know if I like the implementation:
Students at the beginning of the school year were weighed, their height measured and their blood pressure and pulse recorded. Those same measurements will be taken in April. The institute has paid for the $10,000 extra cost. Hollar said the obesity rate at the school hadn't been calculated.
Can't we just assume that kids would be better off with healthier food being served to them? Lining up little elementary school kiddos to be weighed and measured seems as grim a scene as the dishes being served.

On Those Crazy Quaddafis

From this article:
Mr. Qaddafi [Saadi el-Qaddafi, Muammar el-Qaddafi's son], of course, comes from a colorful family used to making headlines. His only sister, Ayesha, is studying law in Paris and has signed on to Saddam Hussein's defense team. His youngest brother, Hannibal, has a penchant for speeding and getting into scuffles with the police: earlier this year he reportedly brandished a 9-millimeter handgun after beating up a woman in a Paris hotel. Another brother, Moatassim, was caught four years ago trying to buy tanks and short-range missiles for his personal army brigade. "My father said, 'These are very aggressive weapons and you are still young, maybe when you get a bit older,' " Mr. Qaddafi said, laughing.
Read the Libyan leader's response one more time. It alternates between hilarious and horrifying, and probably in that order.

On Better Ways of Saying Things

Wouldn't it be better if we could do it over lunch or dinner instead?

On Presidential Analogy

Speaking at Centenary College of Louisiana, President Bush talked about Social Security. He said,
It's a big issue. It's a big issue because it affects everybody's life. First, let me start off by telling you FDR did a good thing. Franklin Roosevelt did a good thing when he set up the Social Security system. You know why I say that? I say that because it's helped a lot of retirees. It has worked. It has worked, and, therefore, one of the things that I want to tell the people here in this audience and all across Louisiana and in east Texas, and whoever else is listening: if you're getting a check, nothing will change; if you have retired, not one thing is going to change when it comes to Social Security. The United States government will keep its commitment. I don't care what the advertisements say. I don't care what the political pamphlets say. I don't care what the politicians say. Nobody is going to take away your check.
In this section, President Bush accomplishes at least two things. First, he establishes Roosevelt as an active agent, the one who established Social Security. Second, he creates social security recipients of the past as passive figures. He then uses his contemporary audience as stand-ins for those passive recipients of the past. In this way, the retirees (a demographic defined by a stopping of work) of the past are represented by a body of passive listeners. At the same time, Bush, like FDR, is cast as an active agent, telling--assuring--his passive listeners that they will not lose their checks. In the process, however, Bush is compelled to simultaneously cast himself as a passive figure too. In Bush's words, the active agents are the commercials, pamphlets, and politicians who actively imply that Bush is a threat to their social securitym not Bush. The only way to assure his audience, then, is by declaring his own passivity; Bush promises not to do anything to their checks. So, despite all of his active talking, Bush is ultimately a passive figure.

In short order, however, Bush offers a humorous bit:
Since the 1950s, a couple of things have happened. People are having fewer babies and the baby boomers are getting ready to retire. I happen to be one. As a matter of fact, I turn 62 in 2008. That's a good enough time for me to retire. (Laughter and applause.) Just about right timing. (Applause.) And there's a lot of me, people like me. There are a lot of baby boomers; I'm just the beginning of the baby boomer ear.
The audience laughs at this joke (according the White House website, at least) and I assume it's because they think the line is funny. And it is a funny line, but not just because everyone knows that Bush's retirement is not the typical kind of retirement.

It's also funny because it doesn't seem to fit well, for two reasons. One, as the previously discussed passage suggests, Bush's text attempts to create a passive role for the president. Now, with this joke, Bush has to upset this carefully crafted passivity by acknowledging his very active role as President. Two, it doesn't work because Bush cannot easily stand in for the average person on this issue. In trying to use his body as a form of analogy, Bush underscores the difference between himself and his audience; that's why we laugh. The line is only funny because it is odd to think of the President as retiring since it's ordinary folk who retire, not the leaders of the free world.

The problem that appears within the text is a tension that might be repeating itself everywhere within the debate on Social Security. I think that very few of us expect Senators Kennedy or Kerry to really rely on their social security checks, but the universalizing nature of social security rhetoric, tends to create an awkwardness for the policy makers who are making the speeches and decisions. It's certainly not that I expect that these leaders shouldn't or cannot talk about the issue because they are the leaders, it's precisely because they are the leaders that they have to talk about the issue. No, I would just like them to show a little more care in using themselves as forms of evidence and analogy. The issue, after all, is not all about them.

On Insanity

Reading about the arrest of a teenage suspected in causing Wednesday's California train derailment, I thought it was natural to ask, "why would a kid do that?--if the person did, of course." I guess there might be many reasons and probably few good ones, but some might say that the teenager wasn't right in the head. I can buy that. And I also know that there are some that say a society can and should be judged by how it treats its people with the least voice and competencies.

But I wonder how far this logic can go. It seems that whenever young adults, teenagers, or kids commit a crime, especially a heinous one, there's always a strand of argument that says we cannot punish them as sternly or harshly as we would adults. People under the arbitrary age of 18 or 16, so the reasoning goes, just don't have mental capacity developed enough to know fully from right or wrong. Sure, this makes sense. It's probably a good idea that folks don't get to drive until their 16 or vote until their 18. But when bad crimes like this are committed, I wonder about this reasoning. Not that I am saying that a crime as nasty like this requires the devious and devilish mind of a cold, calculating, and scheming adult or super-child. Instead, I'm wondering where the distinction comes at the other end. I would think that committing most crimes require a diminished mental capacity since the person committing the crime doesn’t seem able to distinguish between right and wrong. More simply put and asked: aren't most criminal acts like murder or rape indicative of a limited mental capacity on the part of the perpetrator--regardless of age? Isn't criminal action in-and-of-itself evidence of a certain form of insanity?

On A Flight Attendant

Having walked down the aisle as the plane flew up, she places soda in carts now to be handed out later. Out went her hand, placing a glass in mine. I looked up at her before downing my drink.

On AirLines

Many have commented on the increased and then decreased security that accompanies a trip through an airport.

Shortly after September 11th queues as slow as they were long would snake along the rope line paths, pressing together the worried and wearied who were momentarily sharing the same space on their way to a different place. Shoes came off for x-ray as boots marched by for security; the suspected eyed the suspicious skeptically; and nearly all walked, stood, and sat thinking about the tragedy. But it hardly made sense for folks to wait so long to ride things that were so fast. It is as unsymmetrical as it intolerable. Frequent flyers complained frequently and old women stood still indignantly as young men at the gates looked and felt too close for things that might be hidden. The security reforms were reformed, eventually, and business tried to be as usual as it could.

Now the only thing that looks different are the lines going into the security checkpoints--a rather grandiose term for a suitcase CT and radioactive doorway. Signs are posted, enumerating to the pin point what we can’t bring through and two people stand by making sure that our tickets, pictures, and identities are just so; this is the line of defense most of us walk everytime we are at the airport and the one most of us dread. Local eyewitness coverage has long established the now worn topos of the sluggish security checkpoint line, crammed with grumbling travelers afraid of missing their flight and getting their toes stepped or rolled over by wheels on carry-on bags which, by every common sense notion of decorum, one would have expected to be checked-in and tucked-in its airplane’s belly. If you can look past your own misfortune at being caught in an extra long line, you might also notice a little sign that I don’t remember being there before all the extra security was added. It’s innocuous enough not to draw the attention of few but its intended readers. Each airline has a different color and pattern, but the message is always the same:
First and Business Class Passengers use this line.
In case you're uncertain, it’s always the shortest line. Apparently given a fair degree of autonomy in such things, airlines have decided to create separate security check-lines for their most valued customers.

Now, please don’t get me wrong; I am not opposed to the class system, I’m a teacher for heaven’s sake. Far be it for me to stand in the way of a company deciding to reward its best and most frequent customers, like most I long for the unexpected upgrade enough to want first class to be the last thing to go. But, I think that there is a significant difference between class distinctions within an airline’s gate areas, boarding practices, and seating charts. There is no federal mandate requiring that airlines establish and maintain such distinctions. There are, however, federal laws requiring everyone to go through a security check before getting into the airport’s terminals. Though it’s probably no rare thing for the government to allow some people to get better versions of things we are all supposed to have (public schools funded on local property taxes strikes me as one significant example) there is something unique about the line system in place at airlines. Everyone--of all classes--are placed together in relative proximity, the rules are enforced for our mutual safety (we’re all in this together, you might say), and we come from a culture that generally scorns line-cutters. It just don’t seem democratic.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

On Dan Rather's Retort Re-done

My earlier post about Dan Rather's famous retort to Nixon at the 1974 press conference cited CBS's transcript of last night's special, Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers Special. On the CBS site's transcript the Nixon/Rather exchange looks like this:
Rather: Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather, CBS News. Mr. President ...

Nixon: Are you running from something?

At that point, Rather says, "I was thinking at the time, you know, don't let him throw you off. ... And that's when I said what I did."

Rather: No sir, Mr. President. Are you?
Most other sites, however, have transcribed Nixon as saying for, rather than from.

Though probably a typo, I don't think the transcription is any less ironic. It's funny that the special that honored a famous news anchor—one compelled to retire due to inaccurate reporting—was transcribed inaccurately. It seems even more amusing that this misquoted exchange involved an indignant Rather taking on an earlier Republican president who stirred-up so much controversy. It might even be a fitting coda to the entire affair.

Thanks for the tip, Eggy.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

On Dan Rather's Retort

I was watching the Dan Rather Special tonight and they played that scene at a press conference where Nixon and Rather went at it.
In March 1974, Rather reported on President Nixon's trip to Houston, Texas, Rather's hometown. "By this time," says Rather, "President Nixon was beginning to get cornered by the facts."

President Nixon held what was billed as a news conference, but Rather recalls, "It was designed to be not a news conference. It was designed to be a political rally in support of the president."

In that atmosphere, when the president called on Rather, "there were some cheers, but there were a lot of boos."

Rather: Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather, CBS News. Mr. President ...

Nixon: Are you running from something?

At that point, Rather says, "I was thinking at the time, you know, don't let him throw you off. ... And that's when I said what I did."

Rather: No sir, Mr. President. Are you?

"What I meant was, let me get on with my question. That's what I'm here to do. And I think it's fair to say, there was some hell to pay after that," recalls Rather, of his exchange with President Nixon. "My only regret about it, that whole thing, is that everybody remembers that exchange where I wish they'd remember the question I asked."
He got applause, but I think it would have been even better if he said: "No, but are you running from something?" You know, Watergate accusations and all of that. But, maybe that was the idea he was getting across, given that it was the idea that came across my mind.

On Food Network Eroticism

I've noticed a trend in some of the shows I watch on the Food Network. On Ina Garten's and Giada De Laurentiis' shows I've begun to pay attention to a scene where each of them will determinedly turn on their sink faucets, squirt soap, and scrub their hands to rhythmic music. It's rather sensually done and hardly relevant to the day's recipes. I suppose, on some level, the shows are just encouraging good hygiene practices in the kitchen. But, if it's all about cleanliness, why do I feel so dirty when I watch?

On Bush on Clinton and Market Scanners

Nina Camic writes about George H.W. Bush's comment that Bill Clinton was like the "Energizer Bunny" during their goodwill tour. Initially, when I read the post I thought, "Wow, Bush has really gotten up to date, knowing about the 'Energizer Bunny' like that. I recall that when he was president he didn't know about supermarket scanners." Well, looking for a link to make that point I came across Bush's own account of the scene:
I'll give you a personal example. It was alleged that I was out of touch. "Bush is a President that's out of touch. He came from a privileged background, doesn't understand the hurt around this country." I went down to see a technology show and one of the items in the show was a brand new technology for check-out counters. It showed a machine that had never been invented before and, if my recollection is correct, wasn't even on the market at this point. The guy brought in a crumpled milk carton and ran it across this scanner and it did something that no other scanner could possibly do.

I made some comment. "Amazing, this is a wonderful thing." And the people that produced this were saying, "This is the state-of-the-art, and we've got more to come." It was wonderful.

A lazy little journalist with a famous name working for The New York Times, the son of a decent and honorable father, but a lazy little journalist, was sitting in another room. He didn't see this. He wrote that, "Here is Bush, he's out of touch. He saw a scanner. He didn't even know that at supermarkets you can scan something." It played right into the hands of the press that wanted to show I was out of touch and it was picked up.

We pointed out to the press afterwards that, one, the guy wasn't there; two, this was brand new technology. CBS, not my favorite, came and defended me. Another one of the wire service reporters said that I got a bum rap, but the people don't remember that. What they remember is that I was out of touch, that I didn't even know what a grocery scanner was. You can't fight back against that kind of thing. You can do a better job in communicating.
These complaints against the "MSMs" have been floating around for quite some time, haven't they?