Friday, December 30, 2005

Last Post of the Year

I've been searching for something to write about for my last post of the year, and I haven't really found it. So I'm going to fall back on something I'm always ready to write or talk about, the Greatest Fight of All Time.

It's a good year for such talk; the fight happened 30 years ago this past September. It was the third meeting between Ali and Joe Frazier, and every single thing about the fight was absolutely perfect.

It's actually almost weird when you start running down the various aspects of the whole spectacle, and realizing that even in hindsight there is absolutely no possible way you could have ever made the fight better.

The fight itself was great enough, and we'll get to that. But just the setup was incredible. Here's a quick list of things that happened before the bell ever sounded to set up the greatest fight ever.

1) Both guys in the best possible shape.

Anybody who watches modern heavyweight boxing knows that nowadays this basically never happens. Part of that is the fact that modern heavyweight boxers generally aren't that athletic; if they were they would be linebackers. But even for the era, the shape Ali and Frazier got into was breathtaking. Ali looked like a god. Frazier's cardio conditioning and weight management was probably the best anybody has accomplished in the history of the sport.

All you really need to know about the shape these guys were in was an exchange between Ken Norton and Don Dunphy before the fight started. Don speculated that Ali would be coming in at 219 pounds on fight night, and Norton corrected him, saying that given the conditions in the arena Ali probably needed to come in with a little extra weight to sweat off. Norton said Ali was probably coming in at 220.

Nowadays if a heavyweight fighter comes in in no more than 5 or 6 pounds over his normal fighting weight, he's considered to be in OK shape for the fight. Ali and Frazier's weight was being managed right down to the ounce.

2) The Ringside Announcers

If he hadn't soured on boxing and gone into hiding after his third fight with Ali (he did continue to compete), I truly believe Ken Norton could have become the greatest color analyst in boxing history. He has a beautiful voice, he's incredibly intelligent, boxers really like him so they tell him all kinds of inside stuff, just a perfect combination of attributes for somebody in the booth.

Meanwhile the blow-by-blow was being done by Don Dunphy, who was an old boxing guy from way back who had been at basically every significant heavyweight fight going back to the beginning of Joe Louis' career. He wasn't a great broadcaster by this point, so late in his career (though I'd be excoriated by a lot of boxing people for saying that), but his august presence was really felt at key moments in the fight, and his objectivity became a great foil for Norton's obvious pro-Frazier point of view late in the fight.

3) Ali's Prefight Antics

Without #1, this would have been just the same old shit Ali always pulled. But given the training he put himself through to get in that kind of shape at 33, you know that Ali was taking the fight very seriously, and that he knew he would have to be at his very best to win. Yet before the fight he's as loose as can be, clowning with the crowd and even going so far as to run over and steal the gold trophy that Ferdinand Marcos had made for the winner. A real comic moment, especially given the fact that the promoters obviously didn't think it was very funny.

Whenever I watch that I think of an interview I saw with Bruce Lee once. Lee talks about the fact that one of the big things people do that hurts them in fights is they are very tense. And when you're tense, you are basically blocking your own punches, making them slower and less powerful. When you throw a punch, only the muscles involved should be tense, and then only at the exact moment of striking.

Ali was like that just as a matter of personality. He understood the gravity of the moment better than anybody, but it wasn't yet time to strike. So he relaxed, and waited for his chance. Amazing.

4) The Two Idiots

For some reason, the broadcast team consisted not only of Norton and Dunphy but also of two other guys: Flip Wilson, a sort of B-list comic actor, and Hugh O'Brian, who was a biggish action star at the time (he was actually in Game of Death with Bruce.) These two guys bring nothing to the table at all in terms of analysis (though Wilson at least prerpared a catchphrase, "Joe is starting to smoke!") but they are essential to viewing the broadcast because they give some perspective on what it was like to be a regular person there watching this ridiculous fight.

Dunphy and Norton are both pretty reserved. Both do describe the fight at one point as as one of the greatest of all time, but for the most part their professionalism keeps them on a pretty even keel. Whenever they pass the mike to Wilson or O'Brian, they are just flabbergasted with how incredible the fight is, almost to the point of speechlessness. O'Brian at one point says of Frazier "It's unbelievable the amount of times he got hit on the head, that he could keep coming," which despite being a pretty clunky comment sums up Frazier's performance pretty well. What's really incredible is that he says this I think at the end of round 9 or 10, when the worst of the beatings (in rounds 11, 13 and 14) are yet to come.

5) The Conditions

The fight was contested in Quezon City in the Phillipines, just north of the equator, inside a building just large enough to hold the spectators, and the building did not have air conditioning. It was so sweltering that spectators were passing out from the heat. For that reason you can't really get a total sense of what the fight was like on television, because you had to be there to appreciate the extraordinarily tough conditions under which these guys were competing.

6) Historical Implications

It's easy to forget that at the time the fight was made, Ali was still fairly fresh off a spectacular but very weird win over George Foreman in a fight in which Ali had been a fairly heavy underdog. In the months then Ali had turned in lackluster winning performances against a couple of B-minus type fighters and appeared to have lost a lot of his skills. Frazier and Ali's second fight had been OK, but it wasn't a great fight and it was marred by some poor refereeing.

Had Ali lost the fight, he probably would have gone down as maybe a top-five all-time heavyweight, behind Marciano and Louis and probably a couple other guys, maybe even Floyd Patterson.

After the fight, there was no question that Ali was either the very best ever or just slightly behind Joe Louis. With one great performance fight Ali leapfrogged over almost all of boxing history.

The Fight Itself

I encourage people to watch the fight, so I won't describe it in detail. If you are interested in seeing it let me know; I can arrange it. The list I'll provide here can function as sort of a viewer's guide to help you get the most out of your viewing experience.

1) The First Round

After the first round Flip Wilson proclaims "I do NOT think this will go fifteen rounds." It's a humorous statement for two reasons - one, it's completely obvious, and two, it basically turns out to be wrong. In any case the first round is among the fastest first round in the history of heavyweight championship fights. There is no "feeling-out" period of any kind; the fighters just go at it.

2) Frazier's Fight Plan

Eddie Futch, Frazier's trainer, came up with a great fight plan for Frazier, and he executes it extremely well. Basically the idea is to wear Ali down with precise body punches without throwing himself out when Ali is shelled up in a defensive posture. In theory, Ali should run out of gas in the middle rounds, which actually happens more than once, but Ali is too great, and he's in too good of shape. Joe can't quite take advantage and Ali recovers quickly each time.

3) The Middle Rounds

The middle rounds are easy to overlook when you know the outcome, but it strikes me each time I watch the fight just how close Frazier is to turning the fight around in the sixth, seventh and tenth rounds. If he could have landed any left-right combinations he could probably have knocked Ali out. Unfortunately for Joe, he lands punches only one at a time.

4) The Final Rounds

Though Frazier's performance was great for a lot of reasons, the most amazing thing about it is the fact that he was able to remain on his feet for the whole fight. In the 13th round, Joe is hit with so many brutal punches that even knowing the outcome it's easy to think several times that he's going to go down. The 14th round is even worse. An unrealistic beating.

5) Norton and Dunphy

Norton and Dunphy are a great pair in this fight because Dunphy has gotten old and a little blind (on the two separate occasions that Frazier loses his mouthpiece as a result of a right hook from Ali, Dunphy misses both), but is very objective, while Norton is in his physical prime but is extremely pro-Frazier.

The upshot of this is that in the early going, Norton's analysis is right on and he is able to correctly call a few things that the other announcers miss. After the eighth round, for example, Dunphy seems convinced that Frazier won the round or possibly evened it up in the final minute, but in reality Ali landed many, many more clean shots in the round and was definitely ahead, which Norton points out. This is actually the beginning of Norton's bias seeping through, as he says pleadingly "Joe has got to find a way to stop getting hit so much."

(It's worth noting that the judges did award some even rounds and 8 was probably one of them. The Filipino judge actually scored three rounds even, which is insane in a fight with this much action, but Dunphy wasn't totally off base.)

In the later rounds, though, as things start to get a bit desperate for Frazier, Norton stops being able to see the most ominous developments for what they are. The clearest example is after the 12th round; Dunphy observes that Frazier seems finally to be tiring, and that when he had Ali on the ropes he didn't seem to be able to generate any power. Norton counters by saying he thought Eddie Futch had told Joe not to throw himself out on the ropes, just to score to the body. But Futch must have known by that point, as Norton did, that the chances of Joe winning a decision were essentially none. His only hope was to knock Ali out, and he wasn't going to do that by throwing shoe-shiners to Ali's ribs.

In reality Dunphy was wrong, too; Frazier's conditioning never gave out in the fight, but Ali had landed a right hand to Frazier's jaw at the end of the eleventh round that didn't look like much, but which was essentially the straw that broke the camel's back. Joe is't tired in the 12th so much as his coordination is shot - he is never quite able to shake the cobwebs after that punch (which came at the end of a long series of scoring combinations by Ali.)

You can't fault Norton too much for rooting against Ali - Ali had taken an extremely close split decision from Norton in their rematch in 1973, in a fight that many people (including Norton) thought Ken had won. After Norton got knocked out by Foreman and Ali regained the title, Norton felt that Ali was ducking him, and even up to the Thrilla in Manila Ali was saying that he planned to rematch Foreman and then retire, without fighting Norton a third time. In a little "insult to injury" moment the previous March, Norton had knocked out Jerry Quarry to win the shitty alphabet belt Ali had vacated when he recaptured the world title from Foreman.

Add to that the fact that Norton and Frazier were close friends, and that Norton was a Marine and Ali was the poster child for the antiwar movement, and you can see why Ali was not Norton's kind of guy.

In the end Ken would get his wish. Almost a year to the day after the fight in Quezon City, Norton and Ali fought a rubber match for Ali's world title. They fought in Yankee Stadium in New York, about two weeks before I was born. It was a great fight, but sadly, we're out of time. Maybe next year.

Happy New Year everybody.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

No Holds Barred

Agressiveprogressive over at Kos brings us an op/ed from the normally execrable Bob Barr, whose commitment to civil liberties, while somewhat malleable, turns out to be sincerely held. I won't say that's unique among prominent Republicans, but it's rare enough to be refreshing.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mission Accomplished!

The Kurds are preparing to secede from Iraq, according to Knight-Ridder.

The Kurds have readied their troops not only because they've long yearned to establish an independent state but also because their leaders expect Iraq to disintegrate, senior leaders in the Peshmerga -- literally, ''those who face death'' -- told Knight Ridder. The Kurds are mostly secular Sunni Muslims, and are ethnically distinct from Arabs.

Each successive round of triumphalism among war supporters - the first after the Mission Accomplished stunt, the second after the "transfer of sovreignty" stunt, the third after the capture of Hussein, the fourth after the January 15 elections, the fifth after the semi-adoption of a semi-constitution in October - has been progressively more pathetic and counterfactual.

But the crowing on pro-war op/ed pages after the recent elections in Iraq handed almost unchecked control over Iraq to allies of the most powerful hostile theocracy in the region (as That Other Blog predicted at the beginning of 2004) really takes the cake, not only because the elections were a resounding defeat for all of the U.S.'s supposed goals in Iraq, but also because the picture you get from reading actual eyewitness reporting from people inside Iraq is now so bleak, so explosive that there is a sense that absolutely anything could happen, and that it probably won't be very good.

Now we learn from Knight-Ridder that the Kurds, our putative allies, are mounting an actual fifth column inside the Iraqi military (which your tax dollars are paying for, by the way) with the intent of turning on the central government at a decisive moment and plunging into an inevitable pissing match and probably an eventual hot war with Turkey over the fate of the Turkish Kurds.

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, in the South...

[The Kurds'] strategy mirrors that of Shiite Muslim parties in southern Iraq, which have stocked Iraqi army and police units with members of their own militias and have maintained a separate militia presence throughout Iraq's central and southern provinces. The militias now are illegal under Iraqi law but operate openly in many areas. Peshmerga leaders said in interviews that they expected the Shiites to create a semi-autonomous and then independent state in the south as they would do in the north.

Hey, look on the bright side, America. At least we got Afghanistan licked.

The winter fight is the latest sign that a group now calling itself al-Qaida in Afghanistan is trying to emulate the aggressive tactics used against U.S. forces in Iraq.

Messages from the Afghan group have recently appeared on the same jihadist Internet sites as those of al-Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, said terrorism expert Rita Katz.

"They see in Iraq what's successful, so they say, 'Let's do the same thing in Afghanistan,'" said Katz, who heads the SITE Institute, which seeks to educate the public about Islamic terrorists.

It's the Reverse Flypaper Theory! We fight them over there so they can go over there to that other over there, and... Ah, fuck.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Spelling out the Letter of the Law

One of the great things about the Internet age is that when there is a specific legal dispute in the news, we can all become experts. All you have to do is to look up the text of the law, compare it to the facts of the case, and make your own assessment.

Right about now the Bush-allied press is gearing up for a real head-in-the-sandathon regarding Bush's blatantly illegal orders to the NSA to spy on Americans. And unfortunately that portion of the "liberal" press that makes its money by speaking in measured tones and qualified language about absolutely everything is singing from essentially the same hymnal.

The new script is "only crazy people think Bush violated the law." The idea is that there is this arcane law on the books and there are complicated quesions about what it says, and big minds are wrestling with it, etc. If you want the prototype column, Krauthammer helpfully brings it to us today.

In an attempt to assess the valdiity of this new script and determine if in fact the Ape Man is crazy for thinking Bush obviously violated the law, let's excerpt some key passages from the 1978 law Bush is accused of violating.

US Code

(1) Notwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year if the Attorney General certifies in writing under oath that—

(A) the electronic surveillance is solely directed at—

(i) the acquisition of the contents of communications transmitted by means of communications used exclusively between or among foreign powers, as defined in section 1801 (a)(1), (2), or (3) of this title; or

(ii) the acquisition of technical intelligence, other than the spoken communications of individuals, from property or premises under the open and exclusive control of a foreign power, as defined in section 1801 (a)(1), (2), or (3) of this title;

(B) there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party; and

Let's run through this quickly. The president, through the AG, can authorize warrantless wiretaps. So far so good. Bush is in the clear! But we go on.

The communications intercepted must be exclusively between foreign powers! Well, in this case, the communications were always between a US person and a foreign power, except in a few accidental cases where they were between a US person and another US person. Let's go on further.

The AG must certify that there is "no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a US person is a party." OK, well that's a problem, because in this case of course the wiretaps were explicitly wiretaps of communications to which a US person was a party.

Uncle Kevin was on yesterday alleging that these laws are "dubious." He provided no explanation for what he meant by this, other than that "Congress and the public may not be willing to support them." I'm not sure what evidence there is of that, particularly since Judiciary and Intelligence are already gearing up to hold hearings. There is certainly no evidence at this point that "the public" doesn't support the law, since the story didn't even break long enough ago to do reliable polling.

I'm not sure what to make of this, other than to guess that it's the typical intellectual torpor that seems to afflict the older generation of liberals, and makes them next to useless in any political fight. Everything is ambiguous by definition, so no judgment can ever be rendered and no stand can ever be taken. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding him, but seriously, if you can't draw the line here, you basically have no principles at all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bad Math

In my travels I've found several bloggers discussing possible penalties for Bush's illegal spying on American citizens. A few point out quite correctly that in fact Bush would face one count per instance of federal spying. So if that 18,000 number is correct, Bush is on the hook for approximately 90,000 years in prison and $180,000,000 in fines.

Good News From the Judiciary and Intel Committees

Here's an early sign this wiretap scandal is playing to a different script than previous scandals. Five Senators delivered a letter on December 19th to the chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees asking for joint hearings on the issue of Bush's warrantless wiretaps.

On the Judiciary side Arlen Specter, who is not a Bush loyalist, is probably willing to get started right away. Pat Roberts, who is the Intel Committee chair and a shameless Bush bootlicker, will almost certainly refuse. However, as noted at the linked page, since there are five committee members requesting the meeting, they can call it themselves after seven calendar days, which would mean next Tuesday (Monday is a federal holiday.)

These hearings would be a really big deal, though of course any impeachment proceeding would have to originate in the House.

Daou Report Predicts Disappointment

Salon's Daou Report is predicting that this Bush scandal will follow the predictable pattern.

I can't say he's wrong, but I do dispute the following:

10. The story starts blending into a long string of administration scandals, and through skillful use of scandal fatigue, Bush weathers the storm and moves on, further demoralizing his opponents and cementing the press narrative about his 'resolve' and toughness. Congressional hearings might revive the issue momentarily, and bloggers will hammer away at it, but the initial hype is all the Democrat leadership and the media can muster, and anyway, it's never as juicy the second time around...

The difference here is that in the eyes of many of Bush's supporters, there is no long list of scandals. If you mentioned such a thing to a Republican they would probably have very little idea what you were talking about, as they believe that those scandals are essentially made up by a Bush-hating press.

In this scandal, the wrongdoing is undeniable. The only questions are legal ones, not factual ones.

This seems disorienting to those in the "reality-based community." To us, Bush's twisting and massaging of intelligence in support of his already-decided policy of invading Iraq is a fact. Bush's coverup of the burning of a CIA operative is a fact. Bush's directive to Justice to write legal briefs in support of torture is a fact.

To the right, these things are not facts. They simply deny them, because it is possible for them to do so as long as their hero continues his lame denials. In this case there are no denials to be made. Bush approved illegal, warrantless wiretaps of American citizens. He admits this. The report now is that some 18,000 people were spied on without a warrant.

There are two positions to take here - either it is all right for the government to spy on its citizens without a warrant or it is not. I have lost a lot of faith in the institutions of American society, but I do not think they can truly swallow this.

In the coming weeks we will find out for sure.

The Law Bush Broke

There was a question in comments earlier about exactly what law Bush broke when he authorized warrantless wiretaps of US persons. You can read the text of the electronic surveillance portion of the statute at this Cornell webpage.

My favorite part is excerpted below:

(a) Prohibited activities
A person is guilty of an offense if he intentionally—
(1) engages in electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute; or
(2) discloses or uses information obtained under color of law by electronic surveillance, knowing or having reason to know that the information was obtained through electronic surveillance not authorized by statute.
(b) Defense
It is a defense to a prosecution under subsection (a) of this section that the defendant was a law enforcement or investigative officer engaged in the course of his official duties and the electronic surveillance was authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order of a court of competent jurisdiction.
(c) Penalties
An offense described in this section is punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than five years, or both.
(d) Federal jurisdiction
There is Federal jurisdiction over an offense under this section if the person committing the offense was an officer or employee of the United States at the time the offense was committed.

Federal prison for not more than five years. Sounds about right to me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

More Ape Man Litmus Tests

From James Wolcott:

If you hate Ali, your soul is shriveled and dead.

Bush the Uniter

One of the worst things about Bush - and it's a long list - is how he alienates people from one another. The combination of his strange cult of personality and his massively irresponsible leadership creates a situation where I am routinely forced to look around at my fellow Americans, including some that I know well and respect, and wonder what on earth is wrong with these people that they aren't positively sick to their stomachs over what Bush is doing to the country.

I always feel conflicted in these moments. My friendships are more important to me than politics. But in this particular moment, as I'm trying to digest the information that Bush authorized secret, warrantless wiretaps and then concealed it (to the point of materially lying to the public about it several times) for years, I can't help but feel that from this moment forward, it will be very hard for me to spend any significant amount of time with anyone who is not openly outraged by this behavior to the point of wanting George W. Bush immediately impeached and thrown in prison.

Ethridge explained earlier how people can justify Bush's behavior to themselves. And that's fine for them; it's between them and god, or their ego and their superego or whatever. I myself cannot countenance such an attitude, not pushed to this extreme. I am not a nationalistic man, and it takes a great deal to stir any nationalistic ardor in me. But today I must stand up and say that supporting the illegal, warrantless use of a federal spy agency to eavesdrop on phone coversations is a crime against America and everything it stands for. From this day forward, if you are a supporter of this president you are an enemy of this country.

Often we on the left get accused of hating America. Well, I love America. Of all the societies in the world, this is the one I would most want to live in, despite all its many faults. Indeed, that's why I live here. But if we cross this line, today, and fail to hold our president accountable for abusing his office and violating the rights of every single American, then we're just a warm, rich Russia or a big, temperate Cuba.

We mowed down the amber waves of grain years ago. The spacious skies are long since choked with smog. All we've got now is an experiment with rule by the people and their representatives serving at the people's pleasure, instead of rule by the wastrel sons of the idle rich.

I once believed in a far-off but attainable national unity. I believed that we were all essentially after the same goals, but stubbornly insisting on pursuing them in different ways. I believed that in time, with great difficulty, we could become truly one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

That dream is fading today. If George W. Bush serves out his term of office, the Republic is dead.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

So Far Only Bill Kristol Smart Enough to Use Ape Man Defense

A lot of right-leaning Democrats LURVE Bill Kristol. Whenever they're asked to name some fundamentally freaked-out right-wing nut sandwich that they agree with (agreeing with a few fundamentally freaked-out right-wing nut sandwiches is how right-leaning Democrats maintain "credibility" with their corporate constituencies) most Blue Dogs will come up with Bill Kristol.

Let me say at the outset that I am not in this group. I don't like Bill Kristol on any kind of human level. However, I have to say, the man is a brilliant political tactician and media man. He has an image that the left desperately needs someone to cultivate - radical policy positions, moderate image. What we get on the left is the opposite: guys like Howard Dean (whom I like), who has moderate polcy positions and a radical image.

In any case, I have to give Kristol tactical credit for being the only right-winger I've seen so far try out The Ape Man Defense on the domestic spying issue. Think Progress brings us the story of Kristol on Fox saying how we should all be thankful that President Bush had the moxie to authorize a domestic spying program.

This is a great defense. Not because it makes sense; in fact precisely because it doesn't. Since this is such a black-and-white issue (the president broke the law, full stop) the best hope for the right wing is to use their considerable media empire to advance the argument that Bush broke the law because he had to do so in order to save Americans. Of course this is idiotic - the President controlled both houses of Congress and could have easily had the law changed. It's the political equivalent of pushing all-in with a pair of fours. But the White House has lived for the last five years on the principle that if it pushes all the chips into the middle at the right moment, the Democrats will fold, no matter what hand either side holds.

The Republicans have made the decision to stand and fight on an issue that is, on the merits, a total loser, to the point of threatening to undermine the legitimacy and political solvency of the entire Republican party.

If recent history holds, the Democrats will back down. If that happens, I think I speak for a lot of the party's hated "activists" when I say that will be the final straw. I am as committed to major-party politics as any political radical can possibly be, and I will say unequivocally that if the Democrats allow the GOP to get away with illegal, warrantless NSA investigations of American citizens, I will never vote for another Democrat as long as I draw breath.


Friday, December 16, 2005

Washington Post: Bush is a Criminal

This report actually originates with the New York Times, but I like to link to the WaPo because they have this nifty little thing that links back to your blog when you link to one of their stories.

In any case, they are reporting that Bush broke the law. Not "may have broken" or "allegedly broke" or any of that happy crappy. Bush told the NSA to spy on Americans without a warrant. There are laws against that and while there are some grey areas, they aren't big enough to fit this conduct into.

We are about to witness, of course, the very counterfactual contortions to which I alluded in the Froomkin piece I wrote for DU the other day. It won't do to cover this story straight, because there really is no "other side." The United States has laws. Bush broke them. There's not really much else to it.

But of course it won't do in modern journalism to cover the story this way. We must be objective, by which we mean of course ignoring objective reality and bringing you the subjective interpretations of "both sides." If there aren't two sides, you have to invent one.

We can't say for certain what form that will take, but I have a guess. Debate in the dailies and on the weekly screaming head shows will focus on whether or not it was a good idea, in a broad sense, for the NSA to have the right to spy on Americans. Republicans will no doubt argue that in the "War on Terror" law enforcement needs new expanded powers and blah blah blah.

Of course, all of this GOP blather will be completely irrelevant. If the president feels he needs to do something that is currently against the law, his recourse is to have the law changed. This avenue is particularly open to a president whose party controls both houses of Congress AND is enjoying, as Bush was at the time, the more or less blind support of nine-tenths of the electorate. Indeed, much about US law enforcement WAS changed back then, by a piece of legislation called the PATRIOT Act, which is currently up for extension in the Senate.

Put differently, it's fine to have a debate about whether the president ought to be able to order warrantless wiretaps of American citizens, or whether he ought to be able to authorize torture, or whether he ought to be able to call Dominoes in a disguised voice and order a hundred pizzas to be delivered to Ted Kennedy's house.

We can talk about any and all of those things. But we have to have the conversation before the president does it. If there's a law, and someone breaks it, there's no conversation to be had at that point about the prudence of the law. It's a crime. Period.

And unfortunately for the GOP (and, even more unfortunately, for the sanity of the discourse), there's no way to cover that in a balanced way. Bush is a criminal. You can count on journalists like Dan Froomkin to tell you that, and to call others to account for trying to obscure it. That's why you won't find his work in any major print daily.

Get Left Out

As regular readers may already know, my favorite male nonfiction author is Joshua Frank. His book "One Market Under God" changed my life completely, totally shattered my entire political philosophy and forced me to construct a completely new one, which process is still ongoing to this day.

What's the Matter With Kansas is possibly the most misunderstood book I've ever read, probably because a great majority of the people who took time to pass judgment on it never bothered to actually read it.

Now Frank has another book out called Left Out, Frank's analysis of the 2004 election and what really caused the Democrats to lose an election to probably the most beatable incumbent Republican in recent history.

I haven't read a word of it, but in the tradition of critics of What's the Matter with Kansas, I'm going to go ahead and call it the most insightful, fact-based analysis of the 2004 presidential election yet written. Of course the difference here is I'm probably right.

If I don't get the book for Christmas I'll buy it and review it in January.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Abject Apology

One skill that I have that's in fairly short supply in the general population is the ability to recognize when I'm acting like a jerk and apologize for it. I had to do it this week at work (I remote-controlled a colleague's machine in a pinch, thinking he was out to lunch - in fact he was at his desk) and I am going to do it again on the blog. I'm not going to read any response to my earlier comment on the Guacamole post because I wish I hadn't made it, and I don't particularly care to see what exact form my well-deserved comeuppance might have taken.

The baby is sick with a fever and I'm obviously spoiling for a fight, for no good reason. I apologize to Ethridge and to the rest of the readership, and I'm going to leave it there. My bad.

Instead of dwelling on all of that, let's turn our attention to a long-delayed DU article that happens to be about Dan Froomkin and Eugene McCarthy. What do they have to do with each other? Well, actually nothing. But read the article anyway.

The Froomkin Effect.

Two Tuesday Gems

I stopped reading the Poor Man for a while after he posted something pretty heartless and mean-spirited about someone that I know in passing. However, I eventually went back, and today I'm glad I did. Here's a spectacular and unusually heartfelt post about the nonexistent Katrina reconstruction effort.

These are our friends, our colleagues, our treasured national history that are being kissed off without the problem of how to help them even being considered on the most base level. As a nation, is that our character? We’ll let this happen? We’ll let some drunk jackass with no life skills surrounded by jackals and petulant royalty completely blow this off? I wish, after the last five years, I was surprised.

It's still very disorienting to me that there are people, not just out there somewhere in the ether but actual people that I actually know, that do not consider the Bush presidency to be among the worst management disasters in human history. I've asked before, but here it is again - what has to happen before we accept that Bush is a horrible, awful, transcendently inept president? Does an American city really have to get nuked? Is that what it's going to take? I'm sure happy I don't live in the prime candidate anymore. Jeebus.

On a much lighter note, Sam Seder was on CNN yesterday taking on Bob Knight (not the basketball coach). The subject - the War on Christmas.

As regular readers no doubt know, I am unusually uncomfortable with "culture war" issues because I find the common liberal prancing and preening on most of these issues to be way beyond distasteful and counterproductive. I think the single greatest thing that could happen to the Democratic party is if all our great minds could stop making fun of poor, assumed ignorant southerners and actually sit down and figure out what is behind the unfocused anger that drives so much of our cultural discourse. There are a lot of legitimate grievances there, but because Democrats don't understand them and aren't interested in them except as a punch line, the Republicans are able to continually channel all that anger into these ridiculous wedge issues that kill us at the polls time and time again.

All that said, this is really, really fucking funny.

Take a look.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Politics of Guacamole

As a big believer in making food from fresh, scratch ingredients, I am often taken aback by Americans' alienation from their kitchens. I'll be the first to admit that I don't cook for myself nearly enough, but I do my best, and it's always rewarding.

[shit, that reminds me i need to soak the lentils. be right back]

One of the most illuminating experiences I ever had was the first time I made pancakes from scratch. If you've never done it you won't believe me, but here it is - pancakes from scratch is no harder than making them out of the box. The difference in quality isn't mind-blowing, but it's significant. And you can make them out of ingredients you probably stock at all times.

There's a different but unrelated strain of curmudgeonliness that I also suffer from, and that is my somewhat agrarian-minded offense at the market's overwhelming preference for extremely storable, shippable foods.

This is one of those areas that free-market enthusiasts like to pretend don't exist. The preference of the market for storable, shippable food is a direct consequence of the industrial export system, not the result of any set of consumer tastes. I could go off on the Red Delicious apple here, but I will restrain myself. Suffice it to say that no one, or almost no one anyway, actually prefers this abomination to a real eating apple, yet it's the biggest-selling apple on the market despite not being significantly cheaper than the much better apples. According to free-marketeers, this cannot happen.

Instead I will sing the praises of a food that flies in the face of every market reality, that should without any question have dropped off the face of the planet decades ago but which endures and grows in popularity even today because it is just so fucking good.

Yes, I'm talking about guacamole.

Guacamole is literally impossible to ship or store. Many, many attempts at creating shippable, storable pseudoguacamoles have been made; all have failed utterly. If you try to store real guacamole you'll find that the absolute longest you can store the stuff in the refigerator and have it still be edible when you take it out is about 12 hours, and you'll only achieve that after you've been working with the stuff for probably years. Your first several attempts to store guac in the fridge will probably buy you about an hour before the stuff turns brown.

[In case you're interested, here's the secret - you have to put the pits of the avocados in the guac, and the container must be exactly big enough to hold all the guacamole. If there's an air gap between the top of the guac and the top of the container, you might as well not cover it at all.]

As I said, it's always rewarding to cook for yourself. But when you make yourself a really good soup or curry or something, you know in your heart that there's a can or a box out there that could do a passable version of the same dish in about a tenth of the time.

When you make guacamole, you eat it with the knowledge that there is no other place in the world that you can buy or steal anything like it, other than your own kitchen, with your own hands.

And nothing is quite so delicious as that.

Culture of Corruption

Whenever a lot of high-profile scandals shake the government, the party in power is always at pains to portray the problem as one of a small number of individual bad actors who did not taint the institution itself, or the party running it.

Certainly in the abstract this explanation is possible, if not always plausible. And it can be very difficult to really prove anything to the contrary, since perception of the big picture is always at least partially a matter of feel, and subject in the mind of the perceiver to great influence by emotional and other factors.

There is more than the usual amount of evidence, however, that the scandals currently plaguing the House, Senate and White House are truly the product of a culture of corruption in the halls of power.

What's striking about many of these cases is not the grandiosity of them but the opposite - the petty, almost careless way so much of these bad acts have gone down.

Take Bill Frist, for example. He's accused of intervening in his supposedly blind trust to save himself some unknown amount of money that is almost certainly negligible in terms of his total net worth. Frist would never, ever have taken such a foolish risk unless it didn't occur to him that what he was doing - which he no doubt knew to be illegal - could possibly have any serious negative consequences.

In other words, the very facts of the Frist case strongly indicate that what Frist was doing was not at all unusual among powerful Republican members of congress, and that such "sighted" blind trusts have been at least an open secret for some time.

Even a better example is this rather hilarious example brought to us by Josh Micah Marshall. Bob Ney apparently tried to hide a bribe by pretending he turned $100 into $34,000 on two hands of some card game in a casino.

Leaving aside the fact that there is no card game in any casino I've ever been to that pays out at 18:1, a TPM reader points out that Ney's cover story is actually lifted directly from one of the most famous movies of all time, Casablanca.

What this means is that Ney believed that he could use essentially any cover story at all, no matter how ridiculous or obviously fabricated, and that he would never be caught because no one would bother to even read it.

This is a serious sign of decay at the root of our democracy.

Michael Kelly and the War

In comments last week RBP asked about my opinion of Michael Kelly and his involvement in selling the Iraq war.

I've tried several times to comment about it and what I write never comes out with quite the right tone. I think that's true a lot of times when a political opponent dies who was not one of the Bad Guys. I would never write a Thompson-style Nixon obit for a guy like Kelly.

At the same time, I have nothing nice to say about the man. I wish he hadn't died in the Iraq war, but then, I wish that about a lot of people. I think it's best to leave it at that.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Tips on Being an Employee

Note: These are not tips on being a GOOD employee. In fact, if you're a good employee you probably don't need these tips nearly as much as the rest of us. But I realized today that I have picked up some skills along the way that are difficult to practice, but that can really help you.

1) If you say you're going to contact someone, do it, even if it's just to say you didn't do what you said you were going to do.

People hate being ignored on a personal AND professional level, whereas they only hate being behind on a professional level.

This is one of the toughest things to do for me. The fantasy is that "maybe they forgot." They didn't forget. Call them and tell them they aren't going to get what they were expecting. Half the time you'll find the person is relieved they don't have to do their end of things right then.

2) If you screw up, take ownership of the mistake BEFORE someone else blames you for it.

This is so crucial, and it took me several jobs to discover it. Not only will your boss or coworker appreciate this behavior for its own sake, it puts you in a position to be able to suggest ways to avoid the situation in the future WITHOUT your suggestions sounding like excuses.

2a) "I screwed up, BUT..." is not taking ownership of your mistake.

In fact, it puts your boss or colleague in the position of having to tell you that your screwup was unacceptable, even though you admitted screwing up. It's the worst of both worlds. It's hard to say "I screwed up, and I need to do better" and leave it at that, but when you do it you'll find that's often the end of it, as long as you don't make it a habit.

3) When someone else makes a mistake, it is not necessary to blame them, or even to mention them.

This is somewhat unfair advice for me to give because my boss is very astute. She knows whose fault something is. So if something gets screwed up and I say "I should've double-checked it" she knows that in reality the mistake was made by the person who did it, not the person who didn't check behind them.

If you have a bad boss, you may feel the need to point out when something is someone else's fault. The problem is that your coworkers will of course also feel the need to do this. Eventually you will find yourself in a terrible work environment. The other problem is if you have a bad boss, he's not making decisions on any rational basis anyway, so you might as well keep your soul intact. In the end he's going to act like an ass no matter what you do.