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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Posted By on Tue, Sep 9, 2008 at 5:19 PM

So my Post-Gazette this Sunday came with a copy of the New Testament inside. And strangely enough, Jesus doesn't sound like columnist Jack Kelly at all.

Actually, the delivery didn't come as any surprise. We'd been warned about it awhile back, and there were a handful of P-G readers who threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Despite the uproar, though, there was a noticeable absence of "hallelujahs" or sudden sidewalk conversions on my street this weekend. 

I'm not in a position to criticize the P-G for the ads it takes. For one thing, my own paper accepts ads from "open-minded transexuals," strip clubs, and PNC Bank. With a motley crew like that, I'm not going to fault the P-G for making a buck off the Gospels. I only wish Jesus would advertise with us -- at least there'd be no danger of preaching to the converted. 

I guess it sounds like I'm not taking this very seriously. I've heard from friends who were irked by the insert, and there are people for whom being proselytized to is painful -- a reminder of historic oppression. As someone who once helped teach Sunday school for awhile -- I'll pause and let that sink in -- I suppose I'm less likely to feel that insult. Even so, those of us on the left ought to show the same religious tolerance we ask for from the right. Is it really so oppressive to see Christianity marketed as if it were a white sale? 

****

If any media story DID bug me on Sunday, it was the realization that CBS has opened up some restaurant near Foxboro Stadium, home of the Northeast Region Patriots (as Penn State professor Michael Berube calls them). It's not just the rampant product-placement I'm going to loathe -- it's all the Patriots-related vaporings we'll apparently be forced to hear all season long. Already, my Steelers-watching experience was marred by jokes like -- "It's easier to get a great meal from the CBS Scene than it is to get an injury report from the Patriots!

Haha. Ha. Heh. Hrrrrrrr....

***

In other media news, my old friend -- and former coworker -- Jim Quinn has again drawn the attention of Media Matters for America, the liberal media-watchdog site. MMFA has begun diversifying its targets from the usual Limbaugh/Hannity/Colter suspects to more regional voices, who otherwise tend to run below the radar. Now the group has started given an ear to Quinn, retaining a hapless intern to listen in. On the plus side, this means Quinn's silliness will be on display for all to see. Then again ... this means Quinn's silliness will be on display for all to see.

But the latest MMFA post is an amusing read, especially when Quinn gets pissy and starts acting tough. "[W]hat did I get busted for last week?" Quinn asks. "Oh yeah, 'The Bitch Is Back,' the Hillary theme song. Apparently this intern that they've got listening to our show every day, Greg Johnson, just started listening because we've been using that theme song for, oh, upwards of 13 years."

Let me get this straight: You've been doing the exact same shtick for 13 freaking years, you've finally found someone who hasn't heard it before -- and you're complaining?

*****

A final note. An interesting piece in today's New York Times that asks, "Is the definition of companies that are 'too big to fail' getting broader?" As the piece notes, financial companies like Bear Stearns and Fannie Mae are getting bailouts, while "the once-powerful American steel industry was allowed to shrink to a shadow of its former self." 

It got me to thinking: In my lifetime, this country has been content to shed many of the industries that generate wealth by actually, you know, making stuff. Whereas the financial firms, which merely shift wealth around, get all the attention. 

There are economic reasons why the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout was inevitable. For one thing, if the housing giants had failed it would have pissed off foriegn investors -- and they're about the only ones who still have any faith in this economy. So as much as it sucks to think my tax dollars are going to be spent preserving the assets held by a Russian plutocrat, I guess the alternative is worse. 

Even so, I'm reminded of the wisdom of Western Pennsylvania native Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire. "When the biggest, glassiest buildings in town belong to banks," he said, "you know that town is in trouble."

That's been Pittsburgh's fate for the past quarter-century. And now it's America's too. Our economy is more dependent than ever on what is often called the FIRE sector -- Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. None of these businesses produce anything; they just find new ways of "securitizing" the wealth generated by others. It's a very slender thread for an economy to hang on ... but as we've seen, politicians are much more sympathetic to Wall Street titans than they are to, say, steelworkers from Monaca. And so billions of taxpayer dollars will be spent on bailouts -- not to make steel mills more competitive, but to "restore consumer confidence." 

You know what other business venture falls apart when people lose confidence in it? Ponzi schemes.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Posted By on Mon, Sep 8, 2008 at 7:23 AM

Yes, Virginia, there is a Sergeant William Vollberg. And while he's too busy to show up at public hearings to investigate his conduct, he apparently DOES have time to write letters to the editor denouncing the ACLU.

In case you missed it, yesterday's Post-Gazette featured a letter from William Vollberg ridiculing the civil-liberties group. The ACLU recently complained to the P-G that on numerous occasions, Pittsburgh police have cited citizens for swearing at police, giving officers the bird, and so on. For this exercise of free-speech rights, the ACLU contends, nearly 200 Pittsburghers have been slapped with charges of disorderly conduct in a period of 20 months. 

Vollberg's wrote in to denounce the lawsuit, and the Post-Gazette editorial board -- or, as he puts it, the ACLU's "sycophantic followers on the Post-Gazette editorial board" -- for echoing the ACLU's concerns.

Vollberg contends the law makes being a jerk a criminal offense, should an officer see it that way. "Perhaps your newspaper should interview the residents of our city's neighborhoods and ask them if they appreciate our efforts in maintaining civility on our city's streets," his letter concludes.

Hearing Vollberg trumpet the cause of civility is a nice bit of irony. See, although Vollberg's letter didn't mention it, and the Post-Gazette didn't note it, Vollberg's own public conduct has been sharply questioned. Last August, antiwar demonstrators complained that Vollberg assaulted a protester at a Shadyside demonstration

Vollberg then blew off not one but two subpoeans issued by the city's Citizen Police Review Board, which is charged with looking into complaints of miscondcut.  As he told City Paper at the time, Vollberg "was working. I answer to the taxpayers."

Nice to see the taxpayers give Vollberg enough time off that he can compose rants for the daily paper. Let's hope he has time to send a nice note of apology to the taxpayers for blowing off their review board. And I hope he uses only clean language in it -- I'd hate to have to send a cop over to charge him for dirty words. 

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Friday, September 5, 2008

Posted By on Fri, Sep 5, 2008 at 5:52 AM

I think I lost my lest shred of respect for John McCain last night, and ironically, it came during one of the few passages of his speech that I agreed with. 

"If you find faults with our country, make it a better one," McCain said. "If you're disappointed with the mistakes of government, join its ranks and work to correct them. Enlist in our Armed Forces. Become a teacher. Enter the ministry. Run for public office. Feed a hungry child. Teach an illiterate adult to read. Comfort the afflicted. Defend the rights of the oppressed."

Fine sentiments, no doubt. But, ummmm .... didn't your running mate, and several other prominent Republicans, recently ridicule Barack Obama for doing just that?

You may recall that early in life, Obama took a job as a community organizer to help laid-off steelworkers. You may recall this because McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, mocked Obama for it, suggesting that the job had no responsibilities. Rudy Giuliani made fun of it as well. So much so, in fact, that "community organizer" has now been rendered a catch-phrase -- like "flip-flopper" and so many others -- meant to stand in for Democratic effeteness and eliteness.

Ordinarily, this would just be your garden-variety political hypocrisy. Like, for example, the duplicity of Palin's speech, in which she praised herself for having taken on the "big oil companies" (boooooo!) within moments of urging that they be allowed to drill wherever they wanted. After all, she said, "We need American energy resources, brought to you by American ingenuity, and produced by American workers." (Yaaaaaaaay!) You'll note the rhetorical sleight-of-hand there: When you want to critique the oil industry, you talk about "oil companies"; when you want to pander to the oil industry, though, you talk about oil workers

But the attacks on Obama are more than just standard political BS. If Republicans believe in people trying to  help each other out -- and they sure don't think government should take the lead -- why make fun of Obama on this basis at all? Why attack him on the basis of something their own nominee admits is a noble thing to do? 

Part of the answer, of course, is that Palin's own credentials are questionable, so the Republicans have to deride Obama to bolster her own credibility. But more importantly, there's that Rovian strategy at work as well -- attacking your opponent's strengths, not just his weaknesses.

But I'm going to argue that the Rove strategy is far more damaging than most of us assume. And that it damages not just the candidates, but the rest of us too. I'm going to argue that attacking Obama for his strengths is un-American. 

In the old days, you'd attack a rival for making a gaffe during a speech. But the GOP attacks Obama for NOT making gaffes. He's TOO GOOD a speaker, see. And thus the snide insinuations: Do we really want someone who talks well to be our president? Do we want a leader who attracts large crowds of foreigners, and who might inspire people? That's the sign of a cult! 

Then there was the whole tire pressure thing: Early this summer, Obama noted that Americans could save fuel by making sure their tires were properly inflated, and suddenly GOP activists began mocking the notion.

Everyone -- from the folks at Triple-A on down -- recognizes that properly inflated tires improve fuel economy. If we were all checking this regularly, we could reduce domestic oil consumption by as much as 3 or 4 percent nationwide. And unlike offshore drilling, it would have an impact right now. What's more, this is something people can do themselves, without government's help.

In other words, you'd think that this was just the sort of self-reliant approach the GOP would embrace. John McCain himself noted that it was a good idea ... but as with his speech last night, he only did so after his lackies had ridiculed it. Which just means he gets to have it both ways, benefiting from the attacks and from seeming to rise above them. And of course it's the attacks that everyone will remember: People will remember how the GOP ridiculed Obama's idea for a lot longer than they'll recall how McCain endorsed it.

McCain's speech last night pledged to take good ideas from either party, but when his minions laugh at the most non-controversial idea imaginable, how can we believe him?

What we're seeing from the Republicans is The Sneer. No matter what Obama does -- make a good speech, make a modest suggestion -- the reflex response is to denigrate it. To mock the very presumption of speaking well, of trying to help the unemployed, of taking a small step to reduce the demand for oil. If Obama walked across water, Sarah Palin would deride him for having a Messiah complex.

And the effect of all that is to devalue the very things McCain claims to want -- a thoughtful politics, a caring community, individuals working to make America a bit stronger, more self-reliant.

If you attack a strength as if it were a weakness, you basically erase the difference between the two. You cheapen the political debate, and society as a whole -- even more than the run-of-the-mill negative attack does. Voters get the message that even the most modest step to improve fuel efficiency is just a big joke. Kids of all races get the message that if you really do learn to speak well for yourself, you'll be held up for ridicule. And people everywhere get the message that community organizing is a dishonorable career. 

Conservatives like to say that ideas have consequences. So does campaign rhetoric. And Rove's tactic -- attacking your rival where he is strong -- has the consequence of making the country weak.

As Obama noted during the tire-pressure thing, "It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant." Which would be fine ... except they are making us dumb as well. 

I get the politics here. The Republicans just don't have many weapons at their disposal. After the past 8 years, they can't run on their record, and the speeches made by McCain and Palin prove that they have only the haziest vision of the future. The Sneer -- that reflex assertion to mock not what is worst but what is best -- is all they have left.  

But it's still a despicable, empty-headed way to run a campaign. 

I used to have some regard for John McCain. His military service, and much of his career in politics, has been honorable. But he is running a dishonorable campaign, one that is cheapening the very values he claims to be fighting for.

If McCain wins, it won't be the end of the world: He probably will be better than Bush -- no great accomplishment -- and it seems likely that a Democratic Congress will be able to check his worst impulses. But I'll despair anyway. Because it means that these tactics will have worked. And at the very time we desperately need clarity of word and deed, a majority of Americans will have turned their backs on those virtues. They will have decided, again, that they prefer to indulge in the lazy, ironic smirk.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 2:46 PM

I'm a pretty emotional TV watcher. Not that I cry or laugh excessively, but I get pretty attached pretty quickly to certain shows. Sometimes my infatuation lasts and other times, it wanes as soon as something even a little better comes along.

I had a brief infatuation with the NBC show Chuck and I'm really embarrassed to say, the Friends spin-off, Joey. But other loves have stayed. I still watch my DVDs of WKRP in Cincinnati and the Ken Wahl classic Wise Guy like they were still on every week.

There aren't that many current shows that keep me completely enthralled -- Lost, House, and the king of them all, The Shield. There's not a better-scripted, better-acted, more gripping show on television. And last night it all started to come to an end with the series finale.

I knew in the first 10 minutes of this series that I'd probably be hooked for as long as the FX show survived. And in the last 10 minutes of that episode -- when Michael Chiklis' character Vic Mackey raised his pistol and shot a fellow cop in the head to hide his criminal behavior -- there was no doubt I was in for the long haul.

And while I'm excited to see how this series will end, I can't seem to convince myself to get the train rolling. I didn't watch the first episode of the final season last night (it's a hard thing to watch before bed), so I got up early to check it out before work. But I couldn't do it. I knew once I pressed play in the DVR that I was bringing to an end what arguably could be called my favorite television show of all time.

That's what a great cast of characters -- Chiklis, Walt Goggins, Jay Karnes, Michael Jace, CCH Pounder, Benito Martinez, Catharine Dent and David Rees Snell -- will do. They suck you into their world. Over the years, the cast has been filled with top-notch actors with incredible performances by Forrest Whitaker, Glenn Close, Anthony Anderson and my favorite, former regular Kenny Johnson.

But that's it. Once I hit play some time this evening, there will be no more action, no more drama, no more chewed fingernails from walking the tightrope with Vic and the rest of the characters. I have to admit, I'm interested to see what happens: How it will all end. How do you dispense with characters that are likeable but also have to receive their comeuppance for all of the bad stuff they've done over the years?

Lucky for the viewer it was a lot of really bad stuff that made for really great television.

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Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 2008 at 8:46 AM

Well, Sarah Palin's ascension to the status of GOP vice-presidential candidate has accomplished one thing at least: It's given the media yet another "identity politics" debate this election season. And it's given the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette an excuse to plug the "PittsburghMom.com" site the paper recently acquired.

In a front-page story by Mackenzie Carpenter today, the P-G frets over what Palin's nomination -- and the ensuing revelations about problems in her family -- mean for the "mommy wars." Carpenter quotes a "blogger identifying herself as 'Suzeet'" who opines on PittsburghMom.com that she "would DEFINITELY NOT run for VP ... if I had a very young special-needs infant and a pregnant minor."

Carpenter's story makes no mention of the fact that the P-G owns the site, which it purchased last month. Which means that, by using the time-saving miracle of the Interent to gauge public opinion, Carpenter also managed to plug a P-G property on its own front page, without disclosure. That's the kind of thing you'd expect from, well, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which routinely cites "expert sources" from think tanks bankrolled by publisher Dick Scaife.

I don't want to single Carpenter out. Overall, her story offers a well-rounded treatment of the issues raised by the Palin brouhaha: Do gender roles mean that female candidates are held to a higher standard when it comes to caring for their families? Such questions are being asked around the country, and as Carpenter shows, from both ends of the political spectrum. 

Still and all, I'm cringing at this whole issue. Barack Obama's take -- a candidate's family life is off-limits, especially when it applies to kids -- is exactly right. And while Palin's situation does raise issues of gender and work/life balance, we can't debate them in this context without infringing on the work/life balance, and privacy, of Palin's family. Which does a huge disservice to her children.

Besides, there are plenty of "mommy wars" that CAN and NEED to be fought in a political campaign. Like what Palin's running mate is going to do to provide health insurance to them and their children. (Answer: not a hell of a lot, and far less than Obama.) Or what Palin believes their kids should be taught in school. (Answer: religiously-inspired, scientifically bankrupt "alternatives" to evolution.) Can we find time to talk about those?

Of course we can't. It's so much easier, and more fun, to hash that out these issues that everyone can have an opinion on. 

It's actually the evolution thing that really drives me crazy. We're about to get our lunch eaten by the Chinese, in part because our kids are falling behind in math and science. The LAST thing we need is to elect someone who wants to suck up class-time with a bunch of faith-based idiocy. Everytime I hear someone urge the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design" in our schools, you know what I hear? A backwoods fiddle playing "Turkey in the Straw" while Rome burns. 

But I guess when WE'RE the ones sewing soccer balls together for 12 cents an hour in a sweatshop, we can have all the debates about work/life balance we want.

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