Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bushier than thou

The escalator to nowhere

Our silly president commissioned a report from the Iraq Study Group, a council of learned elders and retreads from previous administrations, when all he really had to do was chat up Stephen Oakley of Fair Oaks. Mr. Oakley disdains the defeatist talk coming from the ISG because he can solve all of our problems in Iraq with a snap of his fingers and his own personal Fourteen Points (equal in number, but not in tenor, to Woodrow Wilson's).

From the December 14, 2006, Letters to The Bee [with interpolated snarkiness by yours truly]:

How to win this war

Re “Twin car blasts kill dozens in Baghdad,” Dec. 12: Please, no more special commissions staffed by blow-hards and political hacks from the '60s. Here's my advice to Bush for a course correction:

1) Assert American interests. [Those being?]

2) Dump the Iraq Study Group report in the garbage. [Already done by Bush!]

3) Tell former Rep. Lee Hamilton to just accept retirement; go home; don't come back. [The ISG chair was James Baker; how did you overlook him?]

4) Lock Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her office from the outside. She's another incompetent academic. [Hey! You got one right!]

5) Find radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; drag him out of his “mosque” and hang him. [Yeah, once he's a sanctified martyr for the holy cause, Sadr will have no impact at all!]

6) Fire and replace the current crop of field generals and John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East. [The top commander is our commander-in-chief. May we please fire him, too?]

7) Rebuild the Iraqi police from the ground up; implant identity chips in the graduates. [The U.S. has been doing a bad job of rebuilding Iraqi law enforcement for years. Why didn't we realize the problem was lack of ID chips?]

8) Level every single “mosque” in Iraq if weapons are stored there or a single shot has been fired from a minaret. [In the good old days of the Know Nothing Party (not, despite what you might think, the immediate predecessor of the GOP), Roman Catholic “convents” were known to stockpile weapons, conveyed from parish to parish under the long habits of gun-running nuns. Oh, if only we had destroyed them all when we had a chance!]

9) Arrest and hang every imam who preaches rebellion. [Sounds easy. Clerics in Iraq aren't entitled to any of that due process stuff, are they? Didn't think so. By the way, against whom would they be preaching “rebellion”?]

10) Throw the American media out of Iraq and bar them from returning. Let them subcontract their propaganda from Al Jazeera. We'd never know the difference. [Yeah, the America-hating liberal media deserve this for credulously reporting Bush administration “intelligence” on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction in the months leading up to our invasion.]

11) Disarm the “civilians.” Then, search and destroy houses with contraband. [I bet that would work well in this country, too. Can we get the NRA's endorsement?]

12) Arrest, summarily execute and transport to the landfill armed militiamen and phony road-check thugs. [Do we have to kill them, or could we just bury them alive? After all, our supply of nooses is tied up with the hanging imams.]

13) Send Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki packing. [How big a golden parachute would you suggest? There's billions unaccounted for by now. Maybe we could leave some of it on his dresser on our way out.]

14) Tell the United Nations and free-loading Europeans to stuff it. [Already done by the heroic Yosemite Sam—sorry, I mean John Bolton. Say, whatever happened to him?]

Stephen G. Oakley, Fair Oaks

See? Victory in Iraq is so easy that even George Bush could do it. Problem solved.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

All things to all people

Confusion over community colleges

Some of my colleagues get upset whenever they hear the words “junior college.” The consider it a put-down, which indeed it sometimes is. Also, it reinforces the notion that we are nothing more than the first two years of postsecondary education, training freshmen and sophomores to go off into the world of four-year colleges and universities. You know, the real colleges.

While I don't have the same disdain for the designation “junior college” (Modesto JC and Santa Rosa JC wear the title with honor, after all), I can see how the two-year versus four-year confusion obscures a significant part of our mission. Community colleges are the open-admission gateway to higher education. The students themselves determine what their postsecondary education goals are, although we probably should do a better job of advising them. Still, we are not simply the first two years of a college education. We are that—and a great deal more.

The venerable Peter Schrag, former editorial-page editor of The Sacramento Bee, turned his attention to the plight of California community colleges and their students in an editorial published on November 29, 2006. Schrag referred to an important new report on community colleges by Ria Sengupta and Christopher Jepsen of the Public Policy Institute of California. In his editorial, Schrag takes particular note of the report's finding that only about “15 percent of full-time community college students eventually transfer to a four-year college.” Furthermore, notes Schrag, “Half of entering students never go past the first year.”

A searing indictment? Well, we shouldn't forget that many of our students never intended to go to a four-year college in the first place. One or two semesters may be all they were looking for in the first place. Simple measures of transfer rates to four-year institutions do not accurately gauge the success or failure of the community colleges in achieving their mission of making higher education available to every adult who could benefit from it.

We do have higher attrition rates than we would like. In particular, 33% of our entering students plan to transfer to institutions that grant bachelor's degrees, but only about 15% actually do it. Do half of these students simply change their minds and their priorities during their community college education—or do they flunk out? There's important work to be done, but a key aspect of that work will be identifying the nature of the problems we're trying to solve. “Success” is a highly individual standard, varying from student to student, and we have yet to capture that as accurately as we should.

Schrag acknowledges this point:

A large percentage of students enroll for only one or two courses to improve job skills or to learn English, or to cultivate a hobby. And because it's hard to determine what many students' goals are, or if they really have any, the numbers are squishy and not precise indications of success.

While he endorses the idea that we need to encourage the heightened attention being paid to defining student success and finding the means to measure it accurately, Schrag has a fuzzy appreciation of what the community colleges actually do. He reveals this while citing a research project now in progress under Nancy Shulock at California State University, Sacramento. Schrag identifies what he thinks is a significant problem:

The University of California and the California State University make clear what course preparation they want. The community colleges send as many signals about preparation (109) as there are colleges.

But this is exactly in keeping with the mission of the community colleges! We are not a unified statewide system, nor should we be. Each college must reflect the needs of its own regional community. As noted on the California Community Colleges website, we operate under a very broad brief stipulated by the Education Code of the State of California:

By law (link to Education Code Section 66010.1-66010.8) the California Community Colleges shall admit any California resident with a high school diploma or the equivalent and may admit anyone who is capable of profiting from the instruction offered.

Would you like to come up with statewide community college standards that would cover all possible different situations? The only real requirements for admission to a community college are age (you're supposed to be an adult, with rare exceptions) and likelihood of benefit (you're ready to learn). If you do plan to transfer to a campus of the California State University, then our expectations of you are the same as those at any campus of CSU system—but you don't have to meet them coming in, just going out, when you're ready to transfer. Ditto for prospective University of California transfers.

Unfortunately, Schrag accepts the position of the Legislative Analyst's Office that community college tuition is too low.

The California Legislative Analyst has pointed out that if California's community college fees were higher, many students would be entitled to higher federal student grants, which would in effect generate more funds for the system but cost students little. In effect, California taxpayers are subsidizing the federal treasury.

If we raise fees, enrollments go down. We have seen this over and over again. Must we travel that same road one more time? Of course, “many” students would qualify for federal student grants, so we could squeeze some dollars out of Washington, but “many” would not. They'll drop out. When Pete Wilson was governor, he agitated for a sharp increase in student fees and was largely beaten back by a Democratic legislature, but even the smaller fee increases that were enacted hit our student numbers. Furthermore, as Schrag admits, the community colleges don't even get to keep the fees they collect: the state soaks them up. Frankly, I wish we'd go back to the days when the fee was zero.

Community college students pay for their educations after the fact, in the taxes they pay after their wages go up in direct consequence of their improved educations. Fee increases kill the golden goose, yet friends of public education like Schrag keep suggesting we hike our fees. This is bad medicine, previously administered and spit up with much retching.

Chancellor Brice Harris, the executive officer of the Los Rios Community College District (which includes American River College and its three sister colleges), tried to explain some of the varying measures of student success in a letter to The Bee, which was published on December 6, 2006.

The role of community colleges

Peter Schrag's column (“Community colleges in dire need of finishing touches,” Nov. 29) is yet another example of a lack of understanding about the role of California's community colleges. We don't transfer enough students? Well, according to the report Schrag cites in his article, 33 percent of all UC graduates and 66 percent of all CSU graduates started at a community college, so we must be doing something right. The fact is that California's community colleges are the most accountable system of higher education in the state. It is that accountability that provides all the data so many “experts” are chewing on.

Yes, many of our students lack adequate preparation and need remediation, but guess what: All of us in higher education are struggling with underprepared students.

The report to which Schrag refers is complimentary of California community colleges, but you wouldn't know it from his column. According to the report, attending a community college increases a person's earnings by 8 percent to 10 percent, even if he or she doesn't get a degree or transfer. Earnings increase even more with graduation. Schrag also suggests that our system would be improved by charging students more tuition in order to leverage more federal financial aid. This approach has been tried in recent years, and the net result has been to drive literally hundreds of thousands of students out of our colleges. California's community colleges are providing taxpayers the best return on the dollar of any higher education system in the state.

—Brice W. Harris, Sacramento
Chancellor, Los Rios Community College District

At a subsequent meet-and-greet at American River College, Chancellor Harris noted that the Public Policy Institute report was “85% complimentary toward the community colleges and 15% critical, but news reports all concentrate on the critical part.” Harris suggested that community college staff and faculty needed to be more active in “pushing back” by raising people's awareness of the nature of our broad-based mission and resisting efforts to put us in a neatly defined box.

There are lots of well-meaning people out there who want to help out the California Community College system. In return, let's help them understand who we are and what we do. In the end, it will help our students and forestall those who would destroy us in order to save us.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Little John

The self-eponymous Doolittle

The only thing that might save Congressman John T. Doolittle is the partisan makeup of his district, drawn to order to send a Republican to Washington, D.C. This year, though, it may not be enough.

Doolittle has his first credible Democratic opponent in years, at least since Patricia Malberg came within two percentage points in 1990 of preventing his move from the State Capitol in Sacramento to the U.S. Capitol. That was in the old 14th congressional district. Doolittle's friends in Sacramento helped him out the following campaign cycle with the new 4th district, reconstructed in an incumbent-protecting scheme to shelter him from future political assaults. The longtime congressman is counting on his registration edge to help him turn back the vigorous campaign of Charles Brown, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. (Doolittle was otherwise occupied during the Vietnam war era, like many other hyper-patriotic chickenhawks.)

Sleaze: As it was in the beginning

I remember Doolittle's arrival on the political scene particularly well, since I was on the legislative staff of state Senator Albert S. Rodda when the upstart young Republican upended the gray-haired dean of the senate and terminated Rodda's distinguished legislative career. The Sacramento district represented by Albert Rodda suddenly went from having the most experienced legislator, a retired college professor with a Stanford Ph.D., to having the least, a newly minted lawyer who had never practiced law. Doolittle was helped mightily in his campaign by two factors, one outside his control and another in which he probably colluded.

The first circumstance was the Reagan romp of 1980. The former California governor trounced President Carter in the presidential vote and the Republican tide assisted several GOP candidates, especially on the West Coast, where Carter's early concession speech depressed the Democratic turnout. The second circumstance was a deft political ploy that involved the indictment of a state senator. Sacramento's district attorney, a Doolittle ally, indicted state Senator Alan Robbins, a legislator from southern California, in the days just before the general election. The charges involved lewd and lascivious behavior with high school interns in the senator's State Capitol office. Robbins was accused of having solicited oral sex from teenage girls.

The phones began to ring in Senator Rodda's office. People were horrified that “that dirty old man” had molested underage girls. Rodda's staff patiently explained to those who called that Senator Alan Robbins and Senator Albert Rodda were two entirely different people, but the damage was done. Doolittle, of course, was running a campaign in favor of “family values,” which was convenient in those days of the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell's campaign stop in Sacramento.

On election day, Albert Rodda lost his re-election campaign by a narrow margin. We noticed, however, that he had carried the absentee vote. It's still true today that the absentee vote trends more Republican and conservative than the election day balloting, but years ago the difference used to be even more dramatic. A Democratic victory in the absentee vote in the 1970s and 1980s used to be a sure harbinger of victory. Rodda's defeat in the face of his absentee win was as sure an indicator as possible that the carefully timed Robbins indictment had served its purpose. Doolittle was now senator-elect. (The Rodda forces regrouped in the next race for district attorney and administered a drubbing to incumbent Herb Jackson, who slunk off into retirement, but that was only a minor consolation.)

The redistricting of the state senate was unkind to Doolittle, a junior senator in the minority party, and he was forced to run again in a new district in 1982, only midway through his first term. A veteran Democratic assemblyman knocked him off. Since Doolittle's original electoral term had yet to expire, he remained in office as a man without a district. During the remaining two years left to him, he set his sights on a fellow Republican, a senior member of the upper house, and managed to knock him off in the GOP primary. Doolittle had now managed in two successful campaigns to remove some of Sacramento's most experienced legislators, dramatically reducing the level of governmental expertise under the golden dome of the State Capitol.

For a while, however, it looked as though Doolittle had picked the wrong fight. The defeated Republican incumbent dusted himself off after the fractious primary and filed for re-election as an independent. Since the Democratic nominee was a nobody, who had won his party's nomination by default, the November contest was shaping up to be a grudge match between the senior incumbent and the pugnacious youngster who was a neo-con before people were calling them that. Democrats and independents were wooed by the incumbent's campaign and Doolittle was looking at trouble.

Just before election day, however, the unknown Democratic nominee suddenly came into a lump of campaign cash and launched a barrage of political mailers. They denounced the incumbent's independent campaign and attacked Doolittle, too. The fliers exhorted loyal Democrats to line up with their party's nominee against the twin evils of Doolittle and his incumbent rival. No Democrat who received the flier was ever likely to have voted for Doolittle. Democratic votes were leaning toward the incumbent, but several heeded the clarion call of the official Democratic candidate and marked their ballots for him. The incumbent state senator's vote tally fell short as Democrats failed to vote for him in the anticipated numbers and Doolittle's Republican votes carried the day.

Only after the election was it revealed that Doolittle had funded the Democrat's campaign. The secret transfer of campaign money had violated the law, so Doolittle had to pay a fine. He undoubtedly considered it the price of doing business.

Since consolidating his position in congress, John Doolittle has continued to be creative in his approach to public service. His wife runs a one-person fundraising organization through which the congressman's campaign contributions are funneled. This makes it possible for Julie Doolittle to skim off a 15% commission before the money goes into the campaign treasury. The congressman hastens to point out that this is not actually illegal. The Doolittles appear not to be bothered by the question of whether it is ethical.

Congressman Doolittle's seat in the House of Representatives is at risk for the first time in many election cycles. President Bush has even made one of his rare trips to California to campaign on Doolittle's behalf and to appear at a fundraiser. Was 15% skimmed off by Julie for the household bank account?

Doolittle's legal and ethical failings are by no means enough to deter his fanatical admirers. The congressman is in favor of God and good stuff like that, and opposed to Satan and evil stuff like that. What more does a dull voter need to know?

From the October 5, 2006, Letters to The Bee:

The case for Doolittle

After reading the various letters condemning Rep. John Doolittle, I stand with Doolittle, and I'll tell you why.

Doolittle stands with President Bush on the war on terrorism, and yes, we are engaged in a war! President Bush has taken the initiative on this war on terrorism and is using some bold and different initiatives to win. Rather than wait for the terrorists to attack us again, he has carried the battle to them.

The Democratic leadership has shown no initiative at all in winning this war except to expound their “cut and run” strategy and return to the failed policies of the past. According to the dictionary, a traitor is defined as a person who commits treason by betraying his or her country. And treason is defined as the crime of giving aid or comfort to the enemies of one's government. That is exactly what the Democratic leadership has been doing.

Terrorists are not dumb; they are waiting to exploit the division in our ranks that the traitorous Democratic leaders are fostering on the American public.

Remember, a vote for Doolittle is a vote to win the war against terrorism and assure that America remains a beacon of freedom in this world.

Les Polette, Auburn
Got that? John Doolittle supports a president who fights terrorism. Very ineffectively, of course, but I guess it's the thought that counts. And his rival? Well, if we're in a war, perhaps we should try to benefit from the expertise of an experienced military man like Charlie Brown. In the eyes of Doolittle's supporters, though, Brown is disqualified because he supports civil rights and carries an ACLU membership card. Frankly, given the way the administration in Washington is going, we had all better watch out for our civil rights. It's that “beacon of freedom” stuff, Mr. Polette.

Update: You can read much, much more about the reasons John Doolittle doesn't belong in congress at Dump Doolittle, a blog supporting his opponent.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Those silly Christians

Religious taxidermy

Beleaguered Christians must be breathing a sigh of relief at this small victory in their frantic defense against the great War on Christianity. A judge on the U.S. District Court decided not to act against the national motto “In God we trust.”

From the June 17, 2006, Letters to The Bee:

Amen to ‘In God we trust’

Re “Judge upholds ‘In God we trust’,” June 13: U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr.'s decision that the motto “In God we trust” has “nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion” has three cogent implications. It implies that “God” is not exclusive to any one religion, that “God” can be viewed as the source of all religions and that no one person or religion speaks for God. I would say this is a monumental decision to which we can all say, “Amen.”

Burt Wilson, Sacramento

I do not for a moment question Mr. Wilson's sincerity, but I question what he is celebrating. Damrell's ruling is just another instance of the acceptance of the “ceremonial deism” argument, which faithful Christians should actually disdain. The idea is that public affirmations of such religious sentiments as “In God we trust” are basically meaningless—superficially devout but in reality leached of all significance. Wikipedia provides the following brief definition:

Ceremonial deism is a legal term used in the United States for nominally religious statements and practices deemed to be merely ritual and nonreligious through long customary usage.

Examples include reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and In God We Trust on U.S. money.

Those Christians who don't like living in a secular society think that they can use their majority status to compell the adoption of their favorite words and symbols in public life. They feel put upon—indeed, warred against—whenever the judiciary frustrates their attempts to privilege their sectarian interests. The Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic organization, in 1952 adopted the goal of inserting “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Although they were initially unsuccessful, the Knights and other religious lobbyists were able to take advantage of that brief period when President Eisenhower enjoyed a Republican majority in Congress. The Pledge was amended in 1954. (Today's “defenders” of the Pledge conveniently forget that it was a secular composition by socialist Francis Bellamy.)

The simple fact remains that religious practices are drained of their content whenever they are imposed on those who do not share the associated belief system. The wall of separation between church and state is as much a wall of protection as anything else. It not only protects the state from undue entanglement in religious matters, it certainly protects religion from the state. Is there any better way of killing a religion than making it part of the civil government? I doubt it. Devout Christians should blanch at the notion of the United States being “officially Christian,” as this would most assuredly turn the practice of that faith into mere lip service. Do you want your beliefs stuffed and mounted for public display, a dead thing on a pedestal? This has happened before, in matters great and small. Religionists should beware.

And with that I bid you goodbye—which, by the way, used to mean “God be with you,” but has long since become an empty and conventional salutation that atheists can use as casually as the most fervent believer.

You've been warned!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The saucy goose

Take a gander at this

Ann Coulter is on the bestseller lists again with her book Godless. You might think that this would be one of the signs of the apocalypse, but instead it's just a signal for her fans to strut their stuff and join their heroine in their favorite past-time: lying.

I should be more charitable (unlike Ann). Perhaps Ann's fans are entirely sincere and can't tell when they're being fed propaganda. Are they dupes or confederates? It can be quite difficult to tell.

From the June 16, 2006, Letters to The Bee:

Common tactics of the left

Re “Ann Coulter and the GOP,” letter, June 12: I have a suggestion for Michael Meredith-Saunders regarding his opinion of Ann Coulter and how “the good, decent people of the GOP need to take their party back” by ridding the influence of Coulter. He might try actually reading what she has to say before forming an opinion.

Coulter generates so much outrage from the left mainly because she has the courage to take on liberals' sacred cows. She has not trashed the 9/11 widows known as the Jersey girls. She has in fact expressed sympathy to them for their loss. But since these widows have used their celebrity to be outspoken critics of the Bush administration and the New York Port Authority, Coulter feels they should not be exempt from criticism of their words and actions.

This is a common tactic of the left. Like using Cindy Sheehan to slam President Bush. Critics of what she says are accused of being mean and hateful since she tragically lost her son in Iraq.

Scott Nichols, Rescue

We should all thank Mr. Nichols for explaining to us that Coulter is merely responding to a “common tactic of the left” when she heaps abuse on others. Oh, wait a minute! He said that she does not do that: “She has not trashed the 9/11 widows.” Thanks for the heads up, Scott! Where we did we get that false impression? I wonder.

As Media Matters for America has noted, on Page 103 of her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Crown Forum), Coulter unleashed the following attack on the 9-11 widows who criticized the Bush administration's handling of terrorism: “These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much.”

Let's see now: “These broads,” “enjoying their husbands' deaths” well, I sure don't see any trashing there! And we know that Scott Nichols doesn't either. He is a true Coulterite.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Stung by The Bee

This was so predictable

After decades of research and controversy, there is still no significant evidence that anyone possesses so-called “psychic” powers. There's a lot of evidence, however, that I don't.

When I complained to Allen Pierleoni about his puff-piece interview on Allison DuBois, a professional medium and “profiler” who is currently reaping the rewards of a book tour and the dramatization of her life by the NBC series Medium, I hoped to get something better than the curt acknowledgment he sent me. (“Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, Anthony, and share your thoughts.”) Well, given that Pierleoni had been the author of the credulous article in the first place, perhaps it was unrealistic to expect him to take seriously the disappointment of a skeptic.

I sent a copy of my comments to Armando Acuña, the public editor of The Bee (a position that used to be called “ombudsman”). It's the public editor's job to provide a view of The Bee's journalistic endeavors that is professionally informed (the public editor is a newspaperman, after all) and independent of editorial oversight (his column is officially off-limits to The Bee's editorial staff and management). No doubt Acuña would share some of our concern over the use of the newspaper's Scene section for the irresponsible promotion of charlantry.

Boy, was I wrong! From the June 25, 2006, installment of The Public Editor:

And reader Anthony Barcellos of Davis asked: “Does a feature writer have responsibilities different from those of a news reporter? I know that the Scene section … is devoted to entertainment rather than hard news, but I think even entertainment articles should be scrupulously factual.”

Here's what I think. Yes, the story could have been more skeptical, though there is a deliberate element of tongue-in-cheek to some of the “serious” questions that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Like this one: “Isn't seeing dead people sometimes frightening?” Or this one: “Sometimes you have uncontrollable mental flashes, such as seeing a woman murdered while you're grocery shopping. And you constantly get mental impressions from people around you. I can see where your ability might be a day-to-day hassle.”

Mainly, though, I think people should lighten up. We're talking about ghosts after all.

Yeah, we're talking about ghosts. And seeing dead people. And problems while grocery shopping. Acuña thinks it's all kind of silly—and I do, in fact, agree— but he does not see that there is a problem in the way his newspaper is treating the story. To me, this is the comment that exposes Acuña's real blind spot:

It's a straightforward discussion with a successful author peddling a new book on a subject most people find ludicrous.

There's no mystery about DuBois's claims or intent by the paper to portray her as something more than she is. Writing about her in this way doesn't give her more credibility, despite the criticism.

If you believe in this stuff, you will continue to believe. If you don't, you still won't.

You see, folks—just between smart people like you and me—only idiots take this sort of thing seriously. So it's okay to give it a “straightforward” presentation in the entertainment section of the newspaper, because the only folks who will be fooled by it are already imbeciles. In a follow-up comment to Acuña, I explained why I thought this was a really bad excuse:

What continues to bother me is the notion that The Bee is dishing out goo for its more gullible readers while giving a sly wink to those who aren't as credulous. “If you believe in this stuff, you will continue to believe. If you don't, you still won't.” The “this stuff” believers are beyond reach anyway, you say, so I guess it's okay to pander to their delusions about yet another financially successful psychic. What's the harm? We can ask that question again when the ill-informed go to thin-credentialed psychics instead of board-certified physicians for healing, but since we've given up on them, it's their own hard luck.

Acuña wrapped up his column on the DuBois controversy by contacting staff writer Pierleoni and giving him the opportunity to respond to the criticisms:

“The point of the piece was to interview an author who was touring for her new book,” explained Pierleoni....

“The critics want me to do an investigative piece to show that is a fraud or for me to challenge her and accuse her of being a fraud,” Pierleoni said. “But that's not the point of the piece.”

Pierleoni talked to DuBois for about 40 minutes and did a quick turnaround on the story. He said he was well aware of the skepticism about her claims and asked her in his story how she responds to the skeptics.

“She says I am what I am ... accept me for what I am or not,” he said. “I never said I believed or disbelieved. My concern was interviewing a woman who has made a good living doing what she does.” ...

“Skeptics,” he said, “they jump all over this stuff. And I wonder how many of the letter-writers have actually read the books.”

Hmm. Well, that sounds sort of fair. We should read her books with an open mind and then decide. Except that I prefer not to waste the time. Her supposed validation in a university's parapsychology lab has been thoroughly shot down. Why should we buy her books and enrich her purse when she and others like her (I'm looking at you, John Edward!) have never produced any reliable evidence of their abilities? I'm afraid that Acuña has a point when he says believers suck this up without question—but we doubters have ample reason for our doubts.

On the Friday after The Bee's publication of Acuña's column, I attended my usual end-of-week lunch group. It includes a number of retired Bee journalists, who teased me about getting blown off by their paper's public editor. The Bee's former book editor also contributed a telling observation: “Oh, Pierleoni? I know him. He's a believer!”

Hey, even without psychic powers I was picking up those vibes!

The real Ground Zero

x = 0 marks the spot

It's time for an episode of “Short Attention-Span History,” courtesy of the letters column in The Sacramento Bee. The city's mayor committed a grievously insensitive faux pas the other day. Or so some would have you believe.

From the June 17, 2006, Letters to the editor:

Respecting ground zero

Re “City OKs subsidy for K Street revival,” June 14: I was disappointed that Mayor Heather Fargo described the 700 block of K Street as the city's “ground zero.” We all know where ground zero is. As bad as we may think the 700 block of K street is, it could never compare to the real ground zero.

Kathleen Winkler, Sacramento

Nice try, Ms. Winkler, but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to distort it, as Santayana once almost said. Far be it from me to retard the secular sanctification of the World Trade Center site, but now that Ann Coulter has pointed out how much the 9/11 widows are enjoying and benefitting from the deaths of their spouses, perhaps we should rein in the genuflections. “Ground zero” is not a term specific to the atrocities of September 11. From Wikipedia:

Ground zero is the exact location on the ground where any explosion occurs. The term has often been associated with nuclear explosions, but is also used in relation to earthquakes, epidemics and other disasters to mark the point of the most severe damage or destruction. Damage gradually decreases with distance from this point....

The term was military slang—used at the Trinity site where the weapon tower for the first nuclear weapon was at point ‘zero’—and moved into general use very shortly after the end of World War II (see Manhattan project).

I'm thinking that perhaps people could find something more substantive over which to criticize Mayor Fargo than this instance of supposed insensitivity.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Keeping an open mind

Oops, my brain fell out!

The Sacramento Bee runs entertainment and lifestyle articles in its Scene section. It's obviously not a venue for hard news. Nevertheless, you might hope that something approximating journalistic standards would still apply to its contents. On June 19, 2006, however, The Bee dispensed with such niceties as balance or fact-checking and published The medium has a message, a credulous puff piece by staff writer Allen Pierleoni The article took the form of an interview with self-styled medium Allison DuBois, the woman on whose supposed exploits the NBC drama Medium is based. The interview could have been written by Dubois's publicist, taking at face value any claim—no matter how far-fetched—that DuBois cared to make:

These days, the nationally known medium donates most of her time to helping locate missing children, conducting readings for people who have lost loved ones (“I'm not teaching people about death, I'm teaching them how to live”) and working with law-enforcement agencies as a profiler. Until she became famous for “Medium,” she also worked as a jury consultant for district attorneys' offices.

Many professional psychics claim they work with law enforcement and say they can use their powers to find missing children, but the documented record is extremely sparse. Most of the time we hear post hoc justifications that try to reconcile the circumstances of the recovery of a child (or the child's body) with whatever the psychic said beforehand. Law officers are nearly unanimous in disdaining the help of psychics, since they are more of a distraction than anything else.

You can judge the seriousness of Pierleoni's interview by the softball questions that he lobs at DuBois, some of which don't even bother taking the form of a question:

In your late 20s, you spent four years, on and off, at the University of Arizona in Tucson as part of a program that studied psychic phenomena. Afterward, the head researcher emphatically stated that you're the real deal.

Why do the dead contact the living through you?

Where do you believe your ability comes from?

Sometimes you have uncontrollable mental flashes, such as seeing a woman murdered while you're grocery shopping. And you constantly get mental impressions from people around you. I can see where your ability might be a day-to-day hassle.

In your first book, you predicted your father's death.

While the kid-glove handling of the subject is apparent, at least the item concerning the University of Arizona looks promising. Unfortunately, we get nothing of substance there either. DuBois trots out the common “I was a skeptic, too” gambit in response:

I was skeptical of myself, which is why I went to the laboratory and let scientists make me jump through hoops. I wanted to prove to myself that I really wasn't doing what I was doing—communicating with the dead and seeing the future. If I was only mediocre, I wanted to return to law school. But I ended up testing to where the scientists' jaws dropped. I was hoping it would have been the other way.

Since then, I don't question (my abilities). I decided that some things are not meant to be fully understood—not yet, anyway—but to be embraced.

I did a little searching (it wasn't difficult) and quickly established the identity of the scientist in question. Professor Gary Schwartz is the author of The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life after Death. While one might expect “breakthrough scientific evidence” to have a major impact, Schwartz's work has been persuasive only to those who are already believers. His methodologies and conclusions have been roundly criticized. While DuBois speaks as if she astonished an entire team of research scientists, the reality is that Dr. Schwartz is her only significant science-trained advocate. Even Schwartz admits that substandard experimental controls were in place during his investigation of DuBois's abilities, but he dismisses those shortcomings as unimportant. They are, in fact, crucial, since the absence of rigorous controls renders his experiments meaningless. The Bee does not see fit to report any of this, as it would tend to undermine the credibility of the celebrity being profiling. The implication to the contrary notwithstanding, Allison DuBois has not been thoroughly scientifically vetted and she does not have the support of the scientific community.

She seems to be doing fine, however, with more mystical forms of validation.

I'm lucky. I love talking to (the spirits) who come through. They make me feel how much they love the (living) person sitting in front of me.

Dubois was given an opportunity in the interview to address her critics, an opportunity she seized with relish:

Q: How do you answer the skeptics?

A:I can agree to disagree with people and respect their beliefs. I just ask them to respect mine.

There are different kinds of skeptics. There are those who haven't lost anybody and have no reason to believe, and there are people who are strictly academic-minded.

Then there are the angry skeptics who turn red in the face. I'm like, ”Yeah, don't ask me to bring you through when you die.”

Many skeptics like to yell and hear themselves talk, and I don't have time for that. I've never heard of a skeptic helping anybody with their skepticism. To a large degree, they just want to shame somebody so they can feel greater than them. But they're not going to shame me. I'm very proud of what I do.

Did you notice her “reason to believe” argument? This is a tiresome but common ploy among superstitious people of all kinds. Don't you want to communicate with departed loved ones? Then you must believe a medium can help you do it. Don't you want to live forever in eternal bliss? Then you must believe in one of the life-after-death cults—preferably one of the more popular ones, like Christianity. She also dismisses the “academic-minded,” although she doesn't hesitate to cite the University of Arizona in support of her awesome psychic powers.

Reading the Dubois interview in The Bee was a pretty disappointing experience. I'm obviously not the only one who felt that way. This critical missive appeared in The Bee's Letters to Scene, June 23, 2006:

‘Medium’ a miss

Wow. When I started reading The Bee this morning, I thought someone had pulled a fast one and inserted a copy of the National Enquirer instead of the Scene section (“The medium has a message,” June 19).

How can any reporter write such an article without checking the facts? Allison DuBois claims a lot of things—being tested by scientists, working with law enforcement agencies—but confirming these statements is yet another thing. There are lots of places to start looking at what skeptics have compiled about her supposed abilities, but you could start with

Yes, lots of people believe in mediums. But it's another thing for The Bee to suggest that people like Allison DuBois actually possess such abilities. This is The Sacramento Bee, after all, not Fox News. I expect fair and balanced reporting from my newspaper.

Jim Eaton, Davis

While I did not write my own letter to The Bee, I did take the trouble to write an e-mail message to Allen Pierleoni, the staff writer responsible for the DuBois article. In it I made some of the same points noted in Eaton's letter and specifically cited the reputation of Dr. Schwartz as something that would have been included in a more responsible story. Pierleoni replied very promptly and very politely to my message:

Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, Anthony, and share your thoughts.

That's it. His entire response. I bet he says that to all his readers.

Note: I updated the URL in Eaton's letter so that the link to The Two Percent Company works.

Body count arithmetic

Only 500 to go

There are few less appealing tasks than trying to keep track of the body count in the Iraqi war. We are naturally fixated on our own fatalities, now above 2,500 American military personnel and rising steadily, but there are tens of thousands of non-fatal casualties and a much greater number of deaths and injuries among the Iraqis (combatants and otherwise).

The Bush administration has offered several different rationales for our invasion of Iraq, each new one being cobbled up after its immediate predecessor is discredited. First, of course, it was our great war on terror and Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The flow of rationalizations has never stopped.

I thought, however, that the “flypaper” excuse had fallen out of favor, so it surprised me to see it resurrected in the letters column this morning. From The Bee's Letters to the Editor for June 21, 2006:

Bravery there for safety here

I write with deep regret and sympathy toward the troops and families who have sacrificed so much for this war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will always hold a special place in my heart for their bravery. With that said I find the 2,500 troops dead during the war in Iraq to be a curious milestone statistically for many reasons.

First, reported in the U.S. uniform crime report over the same three years since the war began, there have been more than 48,000 people in the United States murdered. Also more than 4 million Americans have been victims of violent crimes. That comes to 1.8 people per 100 lives disrupted in the United States every year. These are murders and violent crimes where we live. This does not include how many people die in auto accidents or natural disasters.

Considering the fact that 3,000 people died on 9/11 because of a terrorist attack and zero in the United States since, I hold a selfish logical conception that our brave 2,500 troops gave their lives over there to allow us to live our lives in virtual safety in our homes over here.

Ken Steers, Cameron Park

Mr. Steers really should be more careful about throwing around the adjective “logical” to describe his notion that spilling American blood overseas is keeping us safe at home. He's saying we've swapped civilian casualties for a similar number of military casualties, but these military casualties do not represent any net benefit to our nation. These were mostly young men and women, torn away from their families and friends and sent on a fool's errand to Iraq. (In case that was too subtle, the fool's name is George Bush.) Are we to be pleased that these young people are dying conveniently out of sight? (That, too, is Bush administration policy.) How nice that we are also spared any of that messy collateral damage involving buildings and vehicles. Our people are now being blown up over there, not here. What a brilliant strategy.

At the current rate of American fatalities, we'll still be ahead of the game until we reach 3,000 dead soldiers (presumably in about 8 or 9 months at the current rate).

No attacks in the U.S.

There is a reason that the United States has suffered no homeland attacks since the singular events of 9/11. The main one is that al-Qaeda exhausted many of its resources in this one big hit. The most dedicated jihadists among their ranks died with their victims, making it a costly undertaking. (Good riddance to you, Atta and company.) Furthermore, the combination of terrorist fanaticism and Bush administration inattention (“Bin Laden determined to strike in the U.S.”) was a rare alignment of hostile opportunity and domestic incompetence. While the will for another massive attack is undoubtedly there, some tricks work only once. An entirely new approach is needed in the wake of hardened airliner cockpits and the on-board presence of federal air marshals.

Our biggest continuing problem is that George Bush is still in office, appointing hacks and cronies to lead important federal agencies like the Homeland Security Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. (Even some of the most extreme right-wingers have found cause to complain about Bush's unqualified nominees.) Fortunately for us Americans, there are legions of dedicated men and women in the lower ranks who do their work behind the scenes to preserve our domestic tranquility while the clown show continues in the executive suite. Still, we are plagued by delays and inattention when it comes to progress in homeland security. One of the most significant examples of Bush administration malfeasance (or nonfeasance?) is the vital issue of port security. Years later and almost nothing has been done. At least our nail-clippers are still being confiscated at airport security checkpoints.

As for the idea that terrorists have been irresistibly drawn to the conflict in Iraq and are therefore too busy to plot against targets in North America, it should not be that difficult to see that most of the activities in Iraq are purely homegrown. Opportunists like the late al-Zarqawi have taken advantage of the situation, of course, but Iraq now has an abundance of citizens who are willing to fight against the occupation. In the latest news we hear about how our soldiers are being killed by the very Iraqis whom they trained. Our presence in Iraq is resulting in the deaths of our soldiers, but it's highly questionable that it's done anything for homeland security.

Flypaper is for household bugs, not foreign policy.

Goring the messenger

Lies or misunderstandings?

It's always difficult to tell whether right-wingers are liars or ignoramuses. Do they know they're spouting falsehoods or do they actually have no clue? Beats me. While perusing the San Francisco Chronicle over breakfast this morning, I was treated to a new entry in the cavalcade of conservative confusion. But is confusion the letter writer's goal, or is it his condition?

From the Chronicle's Letters to the Editor, June 21, 2006:

Gore's message

Editor — Al Gore's movie on global warming has hit rock bottom in the weekly box-office ratings, while “Cars” by Disney grossed millions of dollars. Poetic justice, or do American theatergoers know a lemon when they see it?

W. Grossi, Alamo

I presume that Grossi was referring to the June 9–11 receipts for the weekend when Cars made its debut. The Disney movie came in at #1 and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was down at #11. How humiliating for the former vice president! Oh, the shame of it all! But what do the box office receipts actually show?

Cars pulled in an average of $15,086 per theater while being shown in 3,985 theaters. (For the math-challenged, that works out to a weekend gross of more than $60 million.) That made Cars the #1 movie that weekend. At the same time, Gore's movie was pulling in an average of $12,333 at each at 122 theaters (a gross of more than $1.5 milion). The overall rankings are based on gross receipts, not the per-theater average. An Inconvenient Truth would have been a strong runner-up in the #2 spot if ranked on per-theater average. The performance of Gore's documentary is truly phenomenal.

The June 16–18 box office results are also out. Cars is still #1, although its weekend gross fell by nearly 44% compared to the weekend before. As for An Inconvenient Truth? It retained its #11 position among all movies in national release and increased its gross take by 27%. It's also increasing the scope of its distribution. Next weekend the movie opens in Sacramento and I'm looking forward to seeing it. An Inconvenient Truth is already showing in San Francisco. Grossi should go. And maybe learn something.

Update: The poor-mouthing of Gore's movie is now a full-fledged right-wing meme. Like the first swallow of spring, Grossi's letter was just a harbinger. Fodder for the neo-cons is being provided by Moonie-owned UPI (which is now merely a propaganda arm of the Unification Church), which published a negative report on An Inconvenient Truth, although it at least acknowledged that Gore's movie ranked high among documentary films: “Yet despite its failing numbers, the film has brought in $9.6 million to date, making it one of the most successful documentaries to date.” The always reliable Powerline blog (no, I'm not linking to those creeps) quickly picked up the UPI item, although spinmeister-in-chief Hindraker (affectionately known as “Assrocket” in blog circles) carefully omitted the one positive point from UPI's article. The grown-ups are beginning to weigh in. Tim Lambert at Deltoid (always one of the best places to separate science fact from neo-con fantasy) put up a post this morning with a graph that illustrates the monotonically increasing weekend grosses for An Inconvenient Truth. (Hi, there, Deltoid readers. Thanks for visiting.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

Hurray for sleaze!

More stalemate please

It can be quite refreshing to read a new take on an old problem. The conventional wisdom needs to be questioned occasionally. However, I'm pretty certain that it does us little good to replace the conventional wisdom with unconventional stupidity.

But I could be wrong. There's a pretty big “government is inherently evil” crowd out there. They are the people who celebrate gridlock and inaction (at least until an earthquake or hurricane or tornado hits their neighborhood).

From the June 18, 2006, Letters to the Editor:

Fallacy of political compromise

Re “Filling a need: moving beyond hardball politics,” June 15: Morton Kondracke decries “ugly, unproductive” partisanship and yearns for a new third “unity” party. Political compromise is the art of betraying those who put you in office in order to claim that you are above politics.

The Clintons, masters of sleaze, even invented a word for their twist on duplicity: triangulation, meaning they knew how to screw you three ways instead of the usual two. Bipartisans are like bisexuals: unable to make a clear choice, always wanting to have things at least two ways, depending on who is at the party.

America needs more partisanship, not less. Partisan gridlock is a thing of beauty. It stops the government from inventing new ways to collect and waste taxpayer money, and it's the only form of entertainment that costs less to indulge in than to avoid.

So three cheers for Rep. Tom Delay, four cheers for Ann Coulter. Send a brick to your congressman and a can of gasoline to your senator; stand back and enjoy the show. And pray for our sake that they never get along.

Richard Lavallee, Sacramento

Okay, I agree with Mr. Lavallee that Kondracke is a fool to think that a third party is a miracle solution for our political problems. If you want to get something done, take over one of the major parties and don't waste your time messing around with the psycho fringe. The Goldwaterites seized control of the Republican Party in 1964 (only to discover that the general public did not share their enthusiasm for extremism). The McGovernites outhustled the competition to put their stamp on the Democratic Party in 1972 (although they found out to their dismay that the American voters weren't ready to support a peace party). Both intra-party insurgencies experienced cataclysmic political defeats, but both major parties bear the stamp of those movements. They were just ahead of their time. In fact, the GOP is now the captive of neo-cons that dramatically out-Goldwater Goldwater. (May their tribe soon experience a defeat similar to that of 1964 or 1974.)

Other than our shared disdain for the notion of a third party, however, I think that the letter writer and I agree on rather little. Lavallee celebrates gridlock. It's a simplistic political philosophy: “That government is best which governs least.” The quote is from Thomas Paine, so it has a respectable American heritage. Paine, however, was writing in a time when it was possible to entertain such libertarian fantasies. Things have gotten considerably more complicated since the eighteenth century.

Californians need to learn this lesson. When the state government fails to act, the electorate takes matters into its own hands. Or thinks it does. The initiative measures enacted into law as ballot propositions are mostly written by lobbyists who wish to bypass the scrutiny of our elected representatives. The famous Proposition 13 certainly saved a lot of people's homes in 1978 by slashing the property tax, but it also effected a shift from corporate properties to personal properties (commercial properties don't change hands as often as homes and thus aren't reassessed under the provisions of Proposition 13 for higher property taxes as often as residences). Even worse, Proposition 13 gutted local control (by gutting the biggest local revenue source) and put the state government in charge of the remaining purse strings. Did you think Proposition 13 was a people's rebellion against high taxes. Only in a way. The actual vote was certainly fueled by that sentiment, but the proposition itself was written by owners of large commercial properties. They did very well under Proposition 13, thank you very much.

Why didn't California enact a more balanced property tax reform measure? Gridlock. Deliberate gridlock in Sacramento fostered by allies of the Proposition 13 sponsors. Gridlock is not a solution. It is, rather, a mechanism for circumventing the state government and allowing the monied interests to promote their special causes as ballot propositions. If you include a sweetener for the general electorate, you can get your preferences into state law. Yay for gridlock!

Lavallee's slightly incoherent rant includes some internal contradictions. He lauds Tom DeLay? The indicted former majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives is the exact opposite of gridlock. DeLay epitomizes the strong-arm approach to governance, using the congressional majority to ram through measure after measure. You'd think that Lavallee would prefer to celebrate someone who can't get things done. DeLay's downfall should be an occasion of joy. (It sure is for me!)

By contrast, Lavallee finds it necessary to snipe at the Clintons for their successes. President Clinton's “triangulation” (a term actually popularized by former presidential advisor Dick Morris, who now prefers to shill for the Republican right) enabled him to cobble together support from different sectors for some of his policies. I didn't always approve of the result, but I'm more liberal than Bill. In Lavallee's eyes, Clinton's greatest sin was a modicum of success. By that standard we can be sure that President Bush is his hero.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Death and taxes

A “sin” tax?

Relabeling is a very useful political tool. Just as candidates are warned not to let themselves be defined by their opponents, people must take care not to let their rivals define the terms of a debate. A good current example is the wrangling over the president's plan to abolish the estate tax. Of course, that's not how his allies describe it. Rather, they prefer to call it the “death tax.” Surely no one would want to support something with so chilling a label.

This morning I was browsing the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle. (Yes, I read that newspaper in addition to The Bee. For that matter, I also subscribe to The Davis Enterprise. Don't worry, I don't try to read every page of all three papers. For one thing, I save a lot of time by skipping the sports sections.) An upset reader was taking David Lazarus to task.

From the June 18, 2006, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, Letters to Business:

Estate tax is immoral, hurts private economy

Editor — Columnist David Lazarus says that without the estate tax, “we're heading for financial catastrophe” (“Killing estate tax could be deadly to federal budget,” Lazarus at Large, June 11). What nonsense.

There are two things wrong with the death tax. First, it is immoral. What right does society have to impose this kind of law selectively on one segment—the rich? They or their forebears have earned the wealth and paid progressively high taxes on it. But in Lazarus' mind-set, the government automatically owns a dead person's wealth, and letting the heirs keep it is “handing out cash to the rich,” a “giveback to the wealthy.”

Second, almost everything heirs can do with their inheritance helps the economy—the private economy, that is. I would rather see an heir provide jobs for, say, a house remodel, or money for a startup company than see the government spend the money for the likes of the 33rd Robert C. Byrd freeway in West Virginia, or think up another “bridge to nowhere.”

Thomas Letchfield, Palo Alto

I believe we can conclude that Mr. Letchfield is not sympathetic to the view attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” I also note a curious omission in the conclusion of his letter He's willing enough to heap his abuse quite specifically on Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, dean of the U.S. Senate and a leading Democrat, but he lapses into uncharacteristic reticence when he cites the infamous ”bridge to nowhere,” a notorious Alaskan boondoggle sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican, and supported by Governor Frank Murkowski, another Republican. No doubt this was an innocent oversight.

There is, by the way, nothing so special about about the estate tax that it should be any less or more immoral than an income tax, or a sales tax. Sure, Letchfield says that the deceased “paid progressively high taxes” on the estate being taxed, but this specious argument need not give us pause. It's a variation on the peculiar bête noire of double taxation, suggesting that an estate should be free and clear of “further” taxation. This same argument suffices to demonstrate that your employee's income should not be taxed because you're paying them with money you've already paid taxes on. (For some reason, I never hear this version of the argument being made.)

As Lazarus points out, outright repeal of the estate tax would punch an additional $1 trillion hole in federal revenues over the next ten years for a benefit that would pour into the accounts of super-rich heirs. Please note, the estate tax is not a tax on the dead person. It's a tax on the heirs. They're getting wealth they didn't earn, didn't work for, and have no special right to beyond the willingness of their forebears to leave it all to them (which some, of course, choose not to do). The bogus claim is that high-value but cash-poor estates like family farms will be ground under the boot heel of the estate tax, but those estates are already sheltered by a $2 million exemption. As the value of the dollar shrinks, it may be necessary to revisit the level at which that exemption is set, but the danger to the family farm is just an excuse for abolishing the estate tax. It's not an honest argument. The ultra-rich are spending their money to lobby a Republican Congress and a Republican president to pander to their base, the morbidly obese fat cats.

Mr. Letchfield decries the estate tax's impact on this tiny—but hugely privileged—segment of society. No doubt he considers the estate tax a form of class warfare. If so, I think he may be right. Instead of lamenting the specter of class warfare, however, I'll just point out that it wasn't the middle class that declared war.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Big bloggers in our backyard

I get published

There are a lot of unvisited blogs out there. This one, for example, gets only a few visitors each week. Daily Kos, however, gets about half a million hits every day. Its proprietor, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, is a young Berkeley resident who has devoted himself to kicking a little Democratic ass in hopes of stirring up the party into a fighting mood. It's time to stop rolling over and taking the crap dished out by the Bush administration and its congressional lapdogs.

Markos came to Sacramento to pitch his new book, give a talk, and answer questions. The Bee, however, didn't notice. So I wrote them a letter.

From the June 11, 2006, Letters to the Editor:

Meanwhile, here at home ...

Re “Bloggers enter—stage left,” June 7: Thank you for the front-page treatment of bloggers in politics, but The Bee appears ignorant of what's going on in its own backyard.

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, cited as one of the most important progressive bloggers on the Internet, was in Sacramento on May 30 giving a talk and signing copies of his book Crashing the Gate. Dozens of people poured into Tower Books to meet him, alerted by the announcement on his Web site, but The Bee runs an article out of Washington instead.

I suppose people can go to or Google to search out more information, but they should have read about it in The Bee.

Anthony Barcellos, Davis

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Rules for thee, but not for me

Privilege & exceptionialism

Although the writers are addressing different subjects, one complaining about opponents to the war in Iraq and the other decrying U.S. arms control policies, they provide a neat juxtaposition of views. The first writer wraps up her letter with a perfect statement of the doctrine of American exceptionalism.

From the June 10, 2006, Letters to the Editor:

Nabobs of negativity

There is no doubt: Bad things happen in war. But what is the emphasis on every negative report about our war effort and our troops designed to accomplish? I am suspicious of the extensive coverage of possible wrongdoing by our troops, the tone of which is positively giddy as the left continues to hope for our defeat.

I've had it with platitudes like “We support our troops but not the mission,” and “It's a sacred right in this country to dissent and to disagree.” Having a certain right does not mean it is always prudent to exercise it. Sometimes it's OK to just support this country to secure its continued special place in the world and in history, which it holds in spite of those that would without hesitation relinquish that uniqueness.

Karin Jones, Citrus Heights

I hope you caught the key point made by Ms. Jones: The United States is “special” and “unique,” and its citizens must not do anything to risk that privileged position. In many respects, Jones is quite correct. Although we are no longer the society with the greatest freedom, thanks to our unitary president and his doctrine of being above the law, certainly the United States continues to be the wealthiest nation on earth. Our per capita consumption of the world's natural resources continues to outpace any other nation. We are a fortunate people (most of us, anyway) when it comes to material considerations.

However, the doctrine of American exceptionalism leads to hubristic policies that cause some Americans to feel an arrogant sense of entitlement. We can do what we want because we're above petty concerns like international agreements (so much for the Geneva conventions) or bilateral treaties (hence our unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty with Russia) or even our own laws (that is, if the president doesn't like them). Pride goeth before a fall, as it says in Proverbs, and marching along with our nose in the air is just begging for a tumble. Who will get hurt when it happens?

Actually, many would say the war in Iraq is already a big tumble in its own right. I would say that. And the people getting hurt are our troops, as well as an even larger number of Iraqis. Now Jones is exasperated with people who say they support the troops but oppose the mission to which the troops were assigned. She wants us to shut up and allow our silence to connote assent to the administration's war games. Sorry! The men and women of our armed forces are being killed and maimed because of a misbegotten mission, complete with such travesties as limited supplies of body armor and armored transport vehicles (the ubiquitous HumVee is notoriously vulnerable to IEDs without major hardening of its structural components). There is a distinction between wanting better for our troops on the one hand and denouncing Bush and Rumsfeld on the other.

This is just a guess, mind you, but I suspect Jones found it easier to distinguish between patriotism on behalf of one's country and support for the man in the White House during the previous administration. Just a a guess.

Now here's a letter-writer who sees clearly what we, as a nation, are up to:

We get to make the rules

Re “Blix pins the blame on U.S. for growth in nuclear arms,” June 2: Do as I say, not as I do. Is that the U.S. creed? As the only nation having actually used nuclear weapons on an enemy, why do we get to have WMD when other nations like Iran don't?

Because we are the superpower, do we get to make and abide just by our own rules? We only torture and shoot those from alleged enemy states; we wouldn't nuke them. Trust us! And stay out of our business when we do unto you. God bless America.

Carolyn Parks, Rocklin

Ms. Parks, meet Ms. Jones. She'll tell you that the answer to your question is “yes.” We're the United States, by golly, and our exceptionalism permits us to do whatever we want. So there!

I suspect that Parks is being ironic with the last line of her letter. It could, however, be a fervent prayer.

Big gay weddings threaten life as we know it

Straights are such sissies

The comedian Dick Gregory had a lacerating routine that often elicited an uncomfortable laughter from his audience. His pointed observations about race relations in the United States included a reference to the Jim Crow laws of the southern states: “You put a sign on the restroom door that says ‘Whites Only’ and then you call the black man a filthy animal when he messes himself.” I'm dredging that quote up from memory, so it's only approximate, but you get the idea. Perhaps you can also tell where I'm going with this.

Gay men are routinely denounced as promiscuous hedonists, chasing after multiple anonymous sex partners day after day. Mainstream society demands that they stop screwing around and settle down. Some of them say, “Okay, maybe I'll get married.” Then folks like George W. Bush cry out, “Oh, dearie me! We must protect marriage!”

It's not as though straight people have done right by marriage during the time it's been their exclusive privilege. Half of all marriages end in divorce. When Congress was debating the Defense of Marriage Act back in 1996, Representative Barney Frank asked its author, thrice-married Representative Bob Barr, which of his three marriages he was defending. Congress passed the measure anyway. Marriage, you see, is fragile and easily destroyed by gay people, even if it's managed to survive the depredations of straight people.

From the June 9, 2006, Letters to the Editor:

Saving marriage

Marriage is an institution that deserves special recognition and protection. Marriage benefits the government and the country, not to mention that it is the best-case scenario for all involved in procreating and lifelong commitment. The proposed amendment would give marriage its deserved separate and distinctive recognition.

Marriage is a choice of commitment. It cannot be shaped into another form of partners, unions or shack'em up dwellers. Redefining institutions is revisionist history, as well as social engineering.

There is a need for the federal government to control the judiciary. Judicial activists should not be allowed to social engineer from the bench just as legislators shouldn't legislate morality.

What this amendment would do is preserve a moral, healthy institution. If we can spend time, create legislation, spend money and go to ridiculous efforts to save the “spotted owl,” then we should do the same for the best institution on the face of the earth, marriage.

Eric Hogue, Roseville

Hogue is a local radio talk-show host with a bad case of Limbaugh envy. He's in the Sacramento market where Rush got his start, but he's on a much weaker station. Eric, you see, thinks the sacred institution of marriage is in grave danger, but he failed to notice who was actually damaging it. Obviously, it's impossible for a heterosexual man to enjoy being married to a woman if he knows that other men are getting married to each other. It's kid logic: I really liked my bike until my parents got my brother one just like it!

Would gay marriage be so fabulous that it would leach all of the fun out of straight marriage? Oh, please. Besides, gay things aren't necessarily fabulous. Try self-hatred, for one:

Beyond sexual orientation

The gay marriage issue is one I support the president on. As a gay man, I must stand up and say: Those who center every aspect of their lives around their sexual orientation are insane.

Homosexuality is simply not the norm and never will be. Even as a gay man, I understand that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. That is how God created it. If you're gay, fine. But there's a time and a place for everything, and it's not in our schools or parades. It is this type of blatant activity that create [sic] homophobia.

Being gay is OK. To love and accept one's true self is quite healthy. But to promote public homosexual agendas endangers all gay people.

Scott R. Hadley, Sacramento

Poor Scott. All hung up on norms. Redheads will never be the norm either, but it's not a generally oppressed minority (unless, of course, “Ginger Kids” is the opening shot). By most estimates, by the way, there are more gay people than there are redheads, in case you were missing my point. Norms!

It seems right now as if it's the right-wing straight people who are the most obsessed about centering every aspect of their lives around their sexual orientation. By Scott's rubric, these people are crazy. Hmm. He may have a point! But when a gay man can speak in consecutive sentences about accepting one's true self and the dangers of the homosexual agenda, we have one thoroughly confused puppy.

My favorite line, however, is the one where Scott says we cannot allow homosexuality “in our schools or parades.” Parades! This goes beyond self-parody. Scott, honey pie, have you ever even been to a parade?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Sauce for the gander

High stakes testing

A fellow up in Mount Shasta is right on my wavelength. Legislators are responsible for writing and passing the laws under which we live, but all too often they're inclined to avoid applying those rules to themselves. There's a rule in California, for example, that employees must be paid semi-monthly, but the state government exempts public agencies from this standard. As a result, my colleagues and I get paid once a month because our college is a public school. See how that works?

High school exit exams have become popular in some government circles. I don't think they're necessarily a bad thing, but I worry about their implementation. High stakes tests are risky business and tend to distort school curriculum toward “teaching to the test.” Exit exams are not a magical solution to educational deficiencies, although they may play a role in improving the situation. Still, isn't it marvelous how legislators ordain things for others, secure in the knowledge that they won't be troubled by their own innovations?

From the June 3, 2006, Letters to the Editor:

Qualifications for public office

Re “Appeal fails on exit exam,” May 27: While there is much to debate about the state exit exam and how it warps the entire curriculum, there is one situation in which that test could be beneficial and effective. Mandate that anyone filing to run for any public office must take—and pass—the test first. Not only would this relieve voters of the burden of trying to avoid morons who believe that cutting taxes will reduce deficits or that Thomas Jefferson wanted Jesus to have supremacy over the Constitution, but those voters would have the assurance that comes from knowing their candidates could determine the area of a circle, conjugate a verb or tie their own shoelaces.

Those may not be very high standards, but they're better than what we've got. Now, any moron can run, and many do. Just think how much American history would have been changed for the better had this law existed at the federal level in 2000.

Bryan Zepp Jamieson, Mount Shasta

Hear, hear, Bryan! Hear, hear!

Blaming the teachers

Yeah, you're a big help

At times such as these, I'm especially grateful to be teaching at the college level. My fellow educators have a much rougher row to hoe in the primary and secondary schools. The pressure is particularly bad now at the high schools, given the on-going drama of the exit-exam requirement for graduation. Fortunately, some people know what to do.

From the May 30, 2006, Letters to the Editor:

Holding teachers responsible

Why are people criticizing students for not passing the exit exam? When are teachers going to be held accountable for not doing their jobs?

How often are the teachers tested? You can't teach what you don't know. You don't start with the student; you start with the teacher.

I am not speaking of teachers who are not afraid to step outside the box to make a difference in a student's life, or teachers who take more than their lesson plan to the classroom each day. There are some great teachers. However, the principals should hire teachers with people skills, not just academic skills. The students need teachers with broad minds who knows how to communicate their subject matter effectively.

A. Pittman, Sacramento

Oh, geez. Is Pittman really recommending that we test teachers each year? First of all, you can't even become a teacher without a credential (in your subject area) earned from a recognized educational institution. (I know there are a bunch of “emergency credentials” out there, but the shortage of teachers is a whole 'nother problem.) That is, we test teachers before they even begin the job. Then, of course, we have continuing education guidelines, both for staying current and to earn salary advancement. If anyone is worrying that teachers don't know their subject matter, they're focused on one of the less significant problems in education. (By the way, if you want to attract those less-qualified teachers, vote against funds for your schools so that they can't afford to hire fully credentialed staff.)

Finally, what is this business of shifting responsibility away from the students? Sure, most students need plenty of instruction and assistance if they are going to succeed in school, but success is always ultimately up to the student. As someone once said (please tell me the source, if you know): “Good teaching is most effective in the happy circumstance when it's not even necessary.” We can't teach students against their will. We can inspire or cajole them only so far.

Perhaps Pittman has children who are not doing well in school and is looking for someone to blame. Try looking in a mirror. Do you follow your children's progress, encourage them to do their homework, and provide study space away from distractions where they can concentrate? But maybe complaining about teachers is easier.

Immigration oxymorons

Try thinking about it

Civil libertarians have plenty to be concerned about these days. The Bush administration is notoriously negligent toward individual rights, using the excuse of the “global war on terror” to justify any intrusion it pleases into the personal affairs of citizens and noncitizens alike.

Legitimate concerns about illegal immigration may be exploited to further erode our freedoms. It has been a point of pride that Americans are not burdened by such requirements as the “papers” long favored by totalitarian regimes. I'm talking about internal visas or domestic passports that you are required to produce whenever any government agent demands it: “Your papers, please.” The “please” is just for show, of course. As some people try to hype the immigration situation into a clear and present national crisis, demands have been heard for increased use of ID cards. I've noticed a particular phrasing popping up in the debate. Perhaps it is a new talking point from the GOP National Committee, rolled out, snapped up, and mindlessly repeated by those in their thrall. Or maybe Rush used the words on the radio and his ditto-heads are playing monkey-see-monkey-do.

The magic phrase is “tamper-proof ID.” It appeared in two different letters in The Bee earlier this week (and I underlined the words for you below). From the May 29, 2006, Letters to the Editor:

The tamper-proof solution

After reading the provisions of both the Senate and House bills on immigration, one glaring fact remains: If you want to illegally immigrate to this country, all you have to do is make it over the border. You don't even have to cross the desert. Just obtain a visa and simply over stay. Want to work? Just show your phony ID to the prospective employer and submit a phony Social Security number. It's worked for more than 7 million illegals. Want welfare? Just start having babies, who are U.S. citizens, and start collecting food stamps and Medi-Cal.

Given the fact that more than half of the population of Mexico and Central America wants to come here, this is just the beginning. Trust me, in another five years we will be having the same debate about what to do with another 7 million illegal immigrants. The only solution is a tamper-proof ID for legal workers and strict enforcement of employer sanctions.

W.J. Sullivan, Carmichael

A simple solution

There is a simple solution to the immigration “problem” which could be implemented in less than a year. It consists of simple elements:

• All noncitizens are issued a tamper-proof ID card if residency legally allowed.

• All citizens must obtain a passport.

• Employers are fined $10,000 per employee who can't produce a valid passport or ID and isn't in a national database of valid holders.

• A noncitizen registered to vote and voting is deported upon conviction.

• All educational and health and welfare services paid for exclusively via sales tax revenues to ensure all pay their fair share.

Of course, the open-border folks think anything short of welcoming all is racism, but what they really fear is a loss of votes from those illegally voting for their candidates.

Jerry Pasek, Rancho Murieta

Hello? Hello? “Tamper-proof”? Is that like “fail-safe” or “kid-proof” or “sure thing”? Do you even have a clue? These things don't exist. If you think we can make the best of a bad bargain and agree to universal ID cards because that would at least end our illegal immigration difficulties, wake up! You'll get stuck with the necessity of carrying an ID at all times and it won't solve the problem. Sure, it will make forged identity materials a little more difficult for a while and a little more expensive for those who need to acquire false documentation. But tamper-proof?

Give me a break.

Update: Well, that didn't take long. The June 5, 2006, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle carries an Associated Press story whose eye-catching headline is “In a world of phony documents, a national ID isn't exactly scary.” Now, what did I tell you? The story carries Peter Prengaman's byline. Here are the first paragraphs:

LOS ANGELES—Luis Hernandez just laughs as he sells fake driver's licenses and Social Security cards to illegal immigrants near a park known for shady deals. The joke—to him and others in his line of work—is the government's promise to put people like him out of business with a tamperproof national ID card.

“One way or another, we'll always find a way,” said Hernandez, 35, a sidewalk operator who is part of a complex counterfeiting network around MacArthur Park, where authentic-looking IDs are available for as little as $150.

Got it? The “tamper-proof” national ID is not a solution—it's an illusion!