Free Speech in the 21st Century

The award for Least Surprising News Story of the Day comes from page A02 of tomorrow’s (Aug. 22) Washington Post. Peter Baker recounts the tale of an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of two people arrested in West Virginia at a Fourth of July event. Their crime? Maybe you remember this one: they wore anti-Bush t-shirts.

A Presidential Advance Manual from October, 2002, provides an interesting glimpse inside the Bush administration’s policy toward free speech:

Among other things, any event must be open only to those with tickets tightly controlled by organizers. Those entering must be screened in case they are hiding secret signs. Any anti-Bush demonstrators who manage to get in anyway should be shouted down by “rally squads” stationed in strategic locations. And if that does not work, they should be thrown out.

But that does not mean the White House is against dissent — just so long as the president does not see it. In fact, the manual outlines a specific system for those who disagree with the president to voice their views. It directs the White House advance staff to ask local police “to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably not in the view of the event site or motorcade route.

The manual came to light recently under subpoena from the ACLU, and seems to reinforce a common perception of duplicity about the Bush administration, that since dissent cannot be suppressed outright, it ought to be marginalized. It is one thing to say, “You have the right to express yourself,” and quite another that, “You can express yourself only in ways that will not be heard, and cannot influence events.”

Throughout Bush’s presidency, the administration has notoriously restricted access to presidential events in order to frame a rosy picture for the American people, to promote the false notion that all is well, and the president enjoys robust and diverse support. If the softball questions and mindless applause for pabulum answers did not tip folks off, let this latest chapter have its say. As ACLU attorney Jonathan Miller stated, it seems that the White House “has a policy of excluding and/or attempting to squelch dissenting viewpoints from presidential events”.

Guidelines for event staff and volunteers include screening audiences for signs and other potential items of protest that the Secret Service does not bother with, and also assembling teams to artificially challenge natural protests; that is, while one side may well be protesting genuinely, the opposition is coordinated by advance staff and volunteers.

Yes, it’s dishonest. No, we should not be surprised.

Perhaps most discouraging what comes when I consider that this is a sign of aging. Suddenly I wonder what ever happened those odd decades when heavy metal music, and then rap, compelled so many people to say, “You have the right to free speech, but that doesn’t mean you get to offend anyone.” A disgusting compromise, yes, but at least there was a pretense of moral offense. In the twenty-first century, the limits of free speech seem to have more to do with political convenience than anything else.

Even more disgusting, although a commonplace notion these days, is the note that the U.S. government settled the t-shirt lawsuit for $80,000 while refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing. This trend is just sickening: “Here, have some prize money. But remember, this is just because we’re such nice, generous people. After all, nobody actually did anything wrong.”


As I’ve noted before, I do try to write stories from time to time, and that’s where my focus has been this week.  I’m trying to get ready for some sort of conference, though I admit the name of the thing slips my mind at the moment.

In the meantime, though, I’ve got a couple of pieces that are giving me headaches.  One is about the Hillary Clinton campaign and how we are all afraid to admit that her gender really is a problem; the other covers the indignity of the war in Iraq.  Neither of these topics will abate before I get the pieces finished; in fact, the rate at which the discussion grows is part of what gives me headaches.

I’ll get these to you as soon as possible.  In the meantime, I can only offer my humblest apologies.

Iowa Straw Poll: Thompson, dignity first casualties of GOP race

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz may have a point about the Iowa Straw Poll. Blogging for The Trail, Balz points out that, “As political theater, it’s hard to beat the Iowa Republican straw poll,” and considers whether or not the gathering has run its course. Balz considers the fairground atmosphere, the free food and entertainment, vendors, and even attractions to keep the kids entertained that run from inflatable slides and moon bounces to an artificial, indoor rock-climbing wall. And the candidates themselves put on shows of their own; Ron Paul brought a fife and drum corps for the patriotic feel, while former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee followed in Bill Clinton’s footsteps with a more rock and roll presentation, playing bass for a rendition of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”. From afar, it sounds like a county fair atmosphere. All that’s missing from Balz’s description is the scones and the fortune-telling graphology computer.

Politically, however, what was missing from the famed poll in Ames seems more significant. Turnout was down this year, with a bit over 14,000 votes cast–compared to the 40,000 expected by GOP officials–while three candidates did not deign to make appearances.

For starters, turnout this year declined sharply from the 1999 straw poll. That year, more than 23,000 Iowans–only Iowans are allowed to vote, though anyone is welcome to come to Ames–cast ballots. On Saturday, only 14,302 votes were cast. Why should an event that draws only 14,000 people be given the significance the straw poll receives.

Next, this year’s contest was notable as much for who didn’t participate as who did. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson all chose not to compete actively. Their opponents say the reason is they feared a poor finish would damage their candidacies. There’s some truth in that, but it begs the question: if three of the top four candidates in national polls are not competing, how meaningful is the prize?

Additionally, Balz considers a 1999 article by David Broder that questioned why Iowa, already a determined bellwether in the presidential field, should have get two swipes at the candidates. After all, part of the rush among states to move up their primary and caucus dates comes from the feeling that, all told, their votes didn’t really count; a late primary is a necessary gesture to the people, but is generally looked upon merely as a process to affirm the inevitable.

Indeed, the Ames poll has already struck its first blow, with former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson dropping out of the race after his poor showing. That’s the power of a fraction of Iowa’s registered voters some five months before the contest begins in earnest.

There is another reason, though, to reconsider the status and necessity of the Straw Poll ritual: it embarrasses Iowa, the Midwest in general, and that nebulous concept so powerful in 2004, “middle America”. The swath of red that covered the midwestern portion of the American voting map was derided as “Jesusland” in the wake of a difficult election. The “middle America” platform, in a year allegedly focused on terrorism and the Iraqi Bush War, was described as “God, guns, and gays”. And to top it off, the region demonstrated its taste for character assassination and affirmed anti-Kerry crusader Paul Galanti’s implicit assertion that truth is un-American.

This year, we need only look at the results to wonder what is going on in Iowa. While Mitt Romney came away the clear and expected winner at 31.6%, the anti-Catholic campaign run by Mike Huckabee placed second with a strong 18.1%. Dan Balz notes that Huckabee’s stature has raised considerably despite low spending in Iowa; a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll put Huckabee at only 8%. To the other, though, Iowans are not uniformly haters of Catholicism. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, the target of the Huckabee campaign’s slurs against the world’s billion-plus Catholics, drew just under 2,200 votes, enough to place third with 15.3% of the vote.

Fourth place is even more bizarre: Colorado Representative Tom “The Mad Bomber” Tancredo drew 13.7% of the vote. Apparently, nuking Saudi Arabia sounds like a good idea to many Iowans. Hizzoner Giuliani finished miserably, with less than a fifth of dropout Thompson’s total, and McCain continued his familiar crash and burn, netting less than 1%.

Given that Iowans launched the candidacy of George W. Bush to prominence in 1999 with the Straw Poll, one must wonder about the wisdom of the event. Do Iowa Republicans really feel that strongly about Catholics? Is the idea of obliterating Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia really anything more than marginal? On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that the state’s entire delegations of Catholic-haters and nuclear-war proponents turned out to vote in the Straw Poll, but the result is difficult to ignore. Romney was an easy call, but Huckabee and Tancredo? Is this an ideology that the GOP is comfortable with?

Hello, “middle America”? What the hell is going on over there? The rest of Iowa ought to be horrified, or at least embarrassed.

Evolution of language and the way of the dodo

I have, for about ten years, maintained a low-key campaign against the use of the word “transition” as a verb. Indeed, the intransitive verb is in our dictionary, but if anyone can remember the days when American dictionaries labeled certain words “americanism”, this is how I regard the verb “transition”; in other words, if enough people insist on using a word in a certain way, it will become accepted use.

I accept the idea that language is dynamic and evolving, but mark that word: evolving. We tend to regard evolution as improvement, although it is possible to “evolve” right out of the scheme: if an adaptation is disruptive enough, or inadequate in response to changing environmental demands, extinction becomes possible. Of long-extinct animals, we say, “They just didn’t evolve.”

It seems to me, then, that if language is dynamic and evolving, that evolution ought to improve the language. As the function of language is communication, it seems reasonable to assert that improved language should result in improved communication.

This is why such things as spelling and punctuation are important. I have seen, for instance, the word “capiche” spelled “koppish”, and while the placement of the word in the sentence made it clear what the word was, I did, actually, ask what “koppish” meant. When it was clear that the word was the famous mobster-stereotype word for “understand?” I made the hideous mistake of admitting I’d never seen it spelled that way. But language is dynamic, I was reminded. Vry wel. But I wud lyk to mak a poynt her. This iz not a gr8 way to komyunik8. If we all adapt our own ways of spelling words, we will find greater difficulty understanding one another. This does not reflect an improvement in the function of communication. Yes, some need it spelled out for them: An “improvement” to the function of communication should make it easier, not harder, to understand one another.

punctuation of course is a different matter as lynne truss pointed out in her amusing and enlightening volume eats shoots & leaves punctuation is vital to understanding exactly what we are saying the title of the book comes from a joke that apparently made it into the house of commons in england in which a panda shoots up a restaurant and justifies his actions by a badly punctuated wildlife guide that says a panda is a large black and white bear like mammal native to china eats shoots and leaves give it a read if you find the time or inclination but without punctuation it is difficult to explain the difference between potatoes and potatoes call me a luddite if you want ill thank you

So just think about it, please. We need not complain about the profanity or arrogance of colloquial speech; slang is intended to be exclusionary, and those who wish to be separate ought not be surprised when they find their “evolution” of the language renders them unintelligible to their neighbors. It’s not necessarily racism, or that you’re stupid, that you get a bad grade on a term paper, or fail to get a job. But when you make a point that your teachers shouldn’t be able to understand you, don’t be surprised if they don’t. And when you’re asking someone to give you money in exchange for your labor, it’s not exactly to your benefit to suggest that your American boss ought to learn a new language called “English”; it counts against you because miscommunication inevitably reduces productivity, and that’s the bottom line employers are supposed to answer to.

And, for the record, what brings this issue to mind today is an old story from USA Today I happened to read this morning, and let me disclaim that the politics are beside the point. Halliburton may wish to be a UAE company, but in this case, I’m wondering when the word “office” became a verb:

“Halliburton is opening its corporate headquarters in Dubai while maintaining a corporate office in Houston,” spokeswoman Cathy Mann said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “The chairman, president and CEO will office from and be based in Dubai to run the company from the UAE.”

Anyone? Anyone? I doubt this is the first example in history, but I could be wrong.

The People vs. The People

Even though I hold conservative politics responsible for the ongoing decline of our governmental processes, it is impossible to ignore the role of the moderates. (When actual liberals have their turn at running things, we’ll see what happens; through the remainder of this post, the shorthand of Republican or GOP will be used to indicate the conservatives, while Democrat will suffice for the moderates.)

The problem is that even the most honest of Democrats is simply afraid to say, “Okay, it’s over. Tomorrow we start anew.” The Democrats in general know that making this concession will hand the GOP an electoral victory; no matter how much the People claim to despise underhanded politics, dishonest attack rhetoric only tends to hurt the Democrats. In other words, when it’s the GOP, the People seem to rally around it. Take the Swift Boat controversy in 2004; even though the anti-Kerry faction was demonstrated to be lying, and even though the anti-Kerry faction went so far as to suggest that truth was un-American, the People continued to run with the attack, and it cost Kerry tremendously. Additionally, much criticism of his handling of the situation centered around his initial response, which was to attempt to ignore dishonest and hateful politics. The Democrat ignores the dishonest and hateful, he must have something to hide, say the People. The Democrat responds to the dishonest and hateful, and he’s stooping to meet what he despises and rejects, and is therefore a hypocrite, say the People. Yet the Republican who is caught in a hateful lie … is rewarded.

Democrats are, indeed, flummoxed. If they meet the People’s demands for answers, they’re ignored. If they match the GOP’s successful political tactics, the People reject them. It’s no wonder that polls continually suggest that the government is situated to the right of the People on banner issues like abortion, the Second Amendment, civil rights, and health care. The answer seems simple: The People don’t elect politicians who will give them these solutions.

But this begs a more complicated question. Why? I once theorized that the People elected George W. Bush because they prefer to elect the candidate they are more comfortable despising and disowning. This is far too general a thesis, but it would serve to explain at least a part of how our elected representatives continually fail to find a way to give us the things we ask for.

Of course, in another context, we get exactly what we ask for. Except that many of us don’t ask for it. Perhaps we might have been equally screwed under a Kerry administration, but we’ll never know.

Inasmuch as we get what we ask for, though, it is obvious that the first party to concede the quagmire will be hurt politically, and almost everyone involved can be said to think that would hurt the nation at all levels. This is especially true of the Democrats, for reasons considered above. Because our descent into political madness appeals to the less rational side of humanity–it is easy to demonize and criticize–the first concession will most likely be seen as an admission of sole guilt. Certainly, the other side will attempt to exploit it as such. Unless, of course, the People start electing the officials they say they want.

Do the people sound neurotic? Of course they do. And well they should. Remember, one of the reasons American communists sound like such blithering idiots is that the majority of them still work with an American-born myth of communism that ignores the historical truth. While people fretted about whether or not Charlie Chaplin was a communist, the historical truth seems to be that he was too far to the left of the reds. While people fret about the liberal path to Soviet-communist hell, the historical truth includes the fact that Lenin once responded to suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst in a book called Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. The People are attempting to reconcile mythical distortions of history with their own empirical experiences. It is certainly easier to criticize and complain than penetrate the myths and discover the history hidden beneath.

The Canon – Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus

Excerpt: “The Myth of Sisyphus”, by Albert Camus

If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of melancholy rises in man’s heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus, Oedipus at the outset obeys his fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment, blind and desperate, he realizes that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous remark rings out: “Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” Sophocles’ Oedipus, like Dostoevsky’s Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism.

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. “What! by such narrow ways–?” There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one for which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be a master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye, and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.


Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus”. The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays. 1942. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage, 1955.

National beer run

Who says government never does anything for its people?  Some German soccer fans would certainly disagree.  Coming in from,

Germany’s national railway wasn’t about to risk sending a trainload of soccer fans to a German Cup match without beer.

Federal police said Monday that the beer tap failed aboard a special train carrying Bayer Leverkusen fans to Hamburg on Saturday. The fault was discovered half an hour into the journey.

“In order not to endanger the good mood” of the passengers, railway officials halted the train in Wuppertal for 25 minutes and had a replacement part delivered by taxi, a police statement said. It added that there was no trouble among the fans.

What can I possibly add?


The ongoing war of words between Democratic presidential candidates (and U.S. Senators) Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seems somewhat unappealing, and may account for their recent six-point slides in an Iowa poll. But some comfort may be found in the idea that at least they’re bickering over substantial issues pertaining to defense and terrorism.

On the GOP side, however, the sniping has descended into something that looks like a schoolyard slappy-fight. The New York Times reports:

The fight is for second place in the Aug. 11 Iowa Straw poll, a traditional bellwether that signals the strength of Republican campaigns, and it pits Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, against Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. And it could mean life or death to either of their candidacies.

The current tensions stem from an e-mail message sent to two Brownback supporters by Rev. Tim Rude, the pastor of an evangelical church in Walnut Creek, Iowa. In the message, Mr. Rude, a Huckabee volunteer, compared the religious backgrounds of Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, and Mr. Brownback, who is Roman Catholic.

“I know Senator Brownback converted to Roman Catholicism in 2002,” Mr. Rude wrote. “Frankly, as a recovering Catholic myself, that is all I need to know about his discernment when compared to the Governor’s.”

The message struck some as an attempt to highlight Mr. Brownback’s Catholicism in a state with a large Protestant electorate. After the message found its way into several blogs last week, Mr. Huckabee issued a statement on Wednesday saying that his campaign neither disseminated nor condoned the message. He called Mr. Brownback a “Christian brother” and added, “As believers, we don’t have time to fight each other.”

But the matter did not end there. After the Brownback campaign cried foul, Mr. Huckabee’s campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, a Catholic, said, “It’s time for Sam Brownback to stop whining and start showing some of the Christian character he seems to always find lacking in others.”

He continued, “If Brownback is going to fall to pieces every time a supporter of the Governor says something he doesn’t like, he clearly isn’t tough enough to be President.”

Now, in the first place, I have no religion. To the other, I generally support the Democrats. What is this petty sniping supposed to mean to me? What should I take away from this exchange between Republicans? Does the Huckabee campaign expect to ride to victory on an anti-Catholic revival? Should we expect a campaign season riddled with accusing tracts and semi-pornographic insinuations? Is this the sort of thing where we’re going to have to put “No solicitors, missionaries, or Republicans” signs on our doors?

The thing is that I do consider religion when voting. A snake-handling Pentecostal revivalist would be less likely to get my vote than a Quaker. More reasonably, a Missouri Synod Lutheran would have greater obstacles to winning my vote than … um … a Lutheran who is not part of the MS. (Really, I’m a confirmed Lutheran, but I don’t even know which version of Lutheran that is, which should tell you something about the value of confirmation.)

It’s not the religious label, though. It’s what comes with it. I’ve heard some horrible things in various churches over the years. If anyone ever gives my daughter the “You’re born with black icky stuff inside you that only Jesus can cleanse” speech, there will, literally, be hell to pay. The difference in voting is whether or not a candidate believes such crap, and whether or not they intend to make it a part of their office. No more of this “God told me to invade” crap. No more of this argument that religious folks are discriminated against because public schools won’t teach creationism as a science. (Hint: If it doesn’t have an hypothesis we can test, or at least work toward testing, it ain’t science.) A candidate pushing such ideas, or using religious leverage against homosexuality, abortion, or free speech, doesn’t get my vote. It’s not the religious label, but how that label translates into practice.

Even this raises the occasional accusation of bigotry against Christians. So what should I think when the Huckabee campaign goes after an entire sect of Christianity? What can we say when someone smears at least 67 million Americans and over a billion people worldwide just to take a petty shot at a candidate with little, if any, chance of earning the GOP ticket?

And what does it say about the campaign’s integrity to trot out a campaign manager who happens to be Catholic in order to further the bigoted attack?

In the meantime, since we’re on the subject of religion and voting, I think former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney owes the Huckabee campaign some thanks. To further consider the role of religious outlook in my assessment of a candidate, I fully admit that Romney’s Mormon faith trips an alarm bell in my head. But the fact is that, despite the necessary confession that the entire LDS endeavor strikes a dissonant chord with me, I am well aware through prior acquaintances that we need not fear people simply because they are Mormons. Romney has done a good job, so far, keeping his political positions political; if his religious faith is to be a specific issue, it will be because he directly invites that consideration. It seems well enough to disagree with his politics instead of fretting over some seedy superstition about his sect. And the bigotry now staining the Huckabee campaign will only help other Americans look past their own superstitions about the Latter Day Saints. Mitt should make sure to send the Huckabee campaign a big thank-you card and some flowers.

Oh, and so should the Democrats. This whole mess can only help them.

Son of a whore, and other political niceties

To be honest, I don’t know quite where to start. The nexus isn’t so much confusing for the number of pathways that come together, but for the number of roads it offers. Rather than charging blindly up any one road, wisdom suggests that I should take it slowly, ease my way into it, much like mounting Jonah Goldberg’s mother. (There we go. See? It wasn’t so hard.)

Thus, a starting point. Over at the Huffington Post, writer Chris Kelly takes a few moments to consider the wisdom of the National Review’s cruise up the shores of our great neighbor to the north.

I hope Canada doesn’t forget that it’s all just for laughs. That the National Review isn’t really a magazine at all, it’s just a club where a certain kind of chin-challenged endomorph can sniff deeply of his own fingers and experiment with cruelty as a counterintuitive answer to everything ….

…. I hope Canada still doesn’t have it’s back up about the National Review cover story that called the whole country “Wimps” ….

…. Of course, they didn’t mean it when they ran it. Same goes for the cover line about “whiny and weak.” They were just kidding around. Like when they said Saddam Hussein had WMDs ….

…. You have to take it in the spirit of fun. Like when I say that Jonah Goldberg fit right in, going to a girls’ school, because he was born in a whorehouse. I’m just being provocative. But he really was born in a whorehouse.

It is a strange sort of trip, when viewed from Kelly’s perspective. At first, I was simply amused that Seattle, a city that makes many conservatives nervous, should be the starting point for a National Review holiday in Canada. Take either Seattle or Canada there. The whole thing seems silly, if not absurd.

However, I mention the Kelly article largely because it is the impetus. I’ve been sitting with a story from a local newspaper that I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with. Add to that the gnashing self-rebuke that came when I realized that the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen had picked up a bit about GOP might-be Fred Thompson that I had passed on; rather than indicting the Post for taking up what I considered not worth worrying about, I have taken the note, accepted the lesson, and am still trying to figure out what it means.

But enough about me. Believe it or not, this whole blog entry has to do with Democratic candidate and former Senator John Edwards. I confess, the Kelly digression was worth it, in large part because the local article I’ve been sitting here wondering about has to do with a cocktail party in Seattle, part of the National Review’s cruise to Canada. Paul Constant, in this week’s edition of The Stranger, writes,

These people think I’m one of them. We’re at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in downtown Seattle, schmoozing under the auspices of the National Review. Founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955, the National Review is a biweekly conservative magazine that has remained staunchly right wing through Nixon and Reagan and Clinton and the Bushes, defending the upper-class white man against all comers: Bra-Burning Feminazis, Welfare Queens, the Homosexual Conspiracy, Do-Nothing Mexicans, and other assorted Democrats.

They’ve been successful enough at conservative punditry that, this year, they’re hosting a week-long Alaskan cruise, wherein lucky well-to-do National Review readers get to share the same ship as the magazine’s editorial staff. This steak-house reception is the kickoff ….

…. Hillary Clinton’s name is mentioned more than anyone else’s. Some are defending her recent debate dustup with Barack Obama, adding that they never thought they’d support a Clinton, but most think she’s going to win the Democratic nomination and then lose the election ….

It has long been a belief of mine that there is one potential problem with the Hillary Clinton campaign: we’ve taken the bait for a GOP plot. Now, I’m not going to say that Hillary Clinton would not make a fine president; indeed, if she is the candidate, I will certainly vote for her. And she has plenty of time to convince me to support her in … well, okay, we’re caucusing this year, so I need to remember to actually prepare for that. Point being that conservatives have been wondering publicly from the moment she decided to run for Senate whether Hillary would run for president. They’ve spent years sharpening their knives for this one. They think they’re ready. She will ride the buzz that the GOP has generously provided over the years, and then be eviscerated in the general election.

One would think, then, that giving the nod to Edwards or Obama might throw their plan into disarray. And it would be easy enough to think of Mr. Spock, in the second Star Trek movie, reminding Captain Kirk to maneuver in three dimensions instead of two. The GOP, like the villain Khan (except considerably less appealing in any human context), might be so set on taking down Hillary that they will stumble if called upon to fight a different battle.

It would be speculative to say they’ve planned for it. But I don’t think it too far out on the limb to say that they’re aware of the possibility. They’ve been aware of the possibility since the 2004 election cycle. They’ve known because they can’t possibly have not noticed.

See, the thing is that my first reaction was that Constant’s article was a work of fiction. The actors played their roles too well. But the counterpoint is that such stereotypical dross isn’t exactly unfamiliar to my ears. Even if we pretend that every nutsack conservative posting to this or that message board, or calling in to give hallelujahs to talk radio, is a misguided liberal provocateur with no clue about the magnitude of damage such schtick is causing, it is very difficult to let go of the faces that speak the words. So when Constant recalls the PR executive who thinks the Border Patrol’s job is to shoot people, or the churchgoing housewife fretting about Mexicans trying to con Americans at Christmastime, or even the hackneyed call for a return to the “politics of shame”, it isn’t hard to imagine that he is, in fact, reporting real events. For instance, I know damn well I’ve heard someone say that children exploited for dangerous labor ought to be thankful to have a job at all.

So the idea that Hillary’s name is a frequent mention among conservatives does not seem so difficult. That conservatives support Hillary’s run for the Democratic ticket is certainly not implausible. They think they’re ready for Hillary. But now there is a greater threat to their dystopic aspirations, and, like any paranoid critter, the conservative beast has taken notice.

They are frightened senseless of John Edwards.

The attack against Edwards’ legal career has been thus far disorganized. Throughout his political career, critics have taken shots at his medical malpractice history. These salvos ranged from critical anonymous sources to embittered doctors wanting to blast Edwards for personally ruining health care in North Carolina, and, by proxy, the entire nation. Generally, one criticism sought to characterize in John Edwards the indiscriminate greed reputed of all personal injury attorneys. There was another attack that blasted Edwards for being selective about the cases he took. Put together, it’s an interesting contradiction. Indiscriminately greedy, as shown by only pursuing cases that he could win? If Edwards was the problem with health care in North Carolina or anywhere else, I would have expected him to have sued everybody for any reason. Meanwhile, should we cross former prosecutors off the list of potential presidents? After all, they, too, decide whether to go forward with a case based in part on the question of whether or not they can win.

A 2004 CNS News article by Marc Morano relied on an anonymous source to accuse Edwards of using “junk science” in his legal arguments. To be sure, the anonymous source was also described in the article as “a political critic”. A 2001 Washington Monthly article by Joshua Green reminds,

… before running for Senate, Edwards had a team of doctors and nurses privately screen his record to make sure that no case he’d brought to trial could be considered frivolous: “When they got significantly into [their review], they decided he’d never come close to violating the standard.”

And this is the thing that worries the GOP. Green’s article quoted a GOP consultant, Charles Black, as saying, “Edwards has got a lot of Bill Clinton in him—without the ethical or moral problems.” Attacking Edwards’ greatest weakness, the fact that he has been a personal injury attorney, may well see conservatives raking the muck and demeaning children who suffered grievous injuries; even the purest conservative knows this would play about as well as a GOP Q&A barbecue with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the ghost of Saddam Hussein as the panel.

Indeed, I would have loved to see shades of the trial lawyer in 2004. I admit that Edwards was my pick then, and for the time is now. I would have delighted at the spectacle of Senator Edwards carving President Bush in the 2004 debates. But even with the likes of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani in the race–or not, in Thompson’s case–very little about the GOP field suggests that any of the candidates have the proper combination of perspective and charisma to overcome a John Edwards performing under the ultimate spotlight.

It’s no wonder they want Hillary. They think they can beat her. They’ll take Obama; they believe they can outmaneuver him, expose his youthful weakness. But John Edwards just plain scares them; while they’ve been sharpening their knives over Hillary, the former Senator from North Carolina has been polishing his defense of his career.

They expect to be outgunned, outmaneuvered, and simply outclassed. Perhaps, if they pray hard enough, God will bless this country with a Democratic candidate they can slander mercilessly.

A note to Sir Elton: Did you really just say that?

Sir Elton,

First of all, while you well may be a Luddite, I would like to add my voice to that of your fellow Englishman Mark Steel when he suggests that the pejorative nature of the term seems incorrect. Enough said about that, because there are a couple of other things that seem a tad more important.

The first is the obvious: the internet is here to stay. In fact, our lives are so dependent on networks that in even making the suggestion, you are registering yourself in people’s minds as being simply absurd. And this is the problem. In the first place, you are embarrassing yourself. Now, I’m not the kind of fan who will squeal and swoon over a chance encounter with someone of your stature, but I am the kind of admirer of art that develops what some would suggest is an illegitimate bond with the artist. That it makes me sad to hear that you have said such things is my own problem, but what makes me sad is that someone I admire is embarrassing himself. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to listen to your music any less. I’m not going to start pretending I don’t know the words to “Rocket Man”. But you’re embarrassing yourself with such statements, and unlike politicians or the latest famous-for-being-stupid celebrity, it actually kind of stings.

But more importantly, the suggestion registers so poorly that people will miss the more important issues you’ve raised in an August 1 article from The Sun:

He claims it is destroying good music, saying: “The internet has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff ….

…. “Let’s get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home and blogging.

It is an interesting time, but compared to the last years before the rise of the internet, sitting home and blogging is at least marginally better than sitting home and playing pinochle. The exchange of information empowered by the internet is a tremendous part of what has led to protests in the streets; without the internet, the constant harassment of the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and other institutions would most likely be limited to a few marginalized socialists. Introspective social studies are rather quite needed right about now. People are finding out that the world is not nearly as simply arranged as the myths of their upbringing and education has suggested. While people may be suffering from information overload, they are at least receiving information. Sorting out their positions in such tempestuous seas is a tricky feat. Retreat from the technology will create and enforce a sense of isolation.

Introspective art is inevitable. Modern technology has brought artists, especially musicians, incredible opportunities. You can record an album on a desktop computer, Sir Elton. You can distribute it to the world from that same desktop computer. The idea that this opportunity should present itself without a generation of artists, who have seen it coming and waited the most of their lives for it to arrive, diving headlong into the abyss is counterintuitive. Nature abhors a vacuum. That industrial concerns exploit the technology to generate pabulum is also inevitable. The corporate tendency in music does more to foul artistic output than the current introspection.

And that’s the other thing: It will pass. The introspective fascination will pass. Think of what happened to synthesized sound in the pop music of the 1980s. Musicians got over it, moved on to more dignified considerations. There were at least a few good songs buried in all that artificial noise, but with the tools available, how were artists not supposed to accidentally go overboard with it? It passed. You have some appreciation for synthesized piano notes. And you don’t need the thing to wolf-whistle or make laser noises. And what of jazz? Does not the electric piano have its own merits as an instrument? Have jazz musicians done so poorly by the technology? Every time musical technology advances, a good many artists will jump on, and somebody at least will go too far with it. But the trend passes, and life goes on.

In time, artists in isolation will tire of the isolation and either come out and play with others or do other things entirely. It does not necessarily bode poorly for long-term artistic vision; many of these artists will be forced to end their isolation because they cannot fulfill the vision on their own. Production and distribution technology might be pulling a lot of free souls out of the daylight, but I can only beg you to not overlook what this price can buy. Students applying to prestigious art and music schools might arrive with three albums and some good touring experience in their portfolios, saying, “I can do this, but it’s not good enough. How do I do this better?” This is a far cry from a generation ago, when the question seemed, “Hear how well I can play, listen to what I’ve learned about theory; now what?” The competition is more fierce because more people are trying to do it, and they’re doing it better because they must. The technology is inspiring as much as it is forcing an ever-dynamic standard. Was it Francis Ford Coppola, in the Apple commercial, who said that he would like to get three million iMacs and give them to three million young people, and maybe we would see the next Mozart emerge? The appearance of self-obsession will pass, the quality ratios of artistic expression will improve.

And so it is with the social introspection. The next generation will be more comfortable with the information exchange. Their relationship with it will be more efficient. And at some point, even the current generations will come to a point where they are comfortable enough with their position that they will be able to say, “Okay, I think I see what’s going on, and, seriously, you’re kidding me.” They will stand up. They will stretch their legs and wander into the sun and make their way down the the state houses and say, “What the hell is going on?”

In the United States, protest action and civil disobedience have fallen into disrepute better exploited as comedic fodder than employed as a means to any given end. The information coming across the network is often confusing and overwhelming for many. They will damn well be sure of themselves before they buck the trend and wander into the ideological combat zone that is public demonstration. But it is the same information exchange that is driving people indoors to introspection that will eventually conquer the self-reproach and coax them back out into the light.

I believe you’re looking at a snapshot, a still-frame taken of a dynamic condition, and imagining the captured conditions echoed and extended into perpetuity. What is happening is an inevitability, and it will pass. And while it is a fair question as to what condition people will find when they look outside again, I think you’re worrying too much about a static condition that does not exist.

So, come on. Please? Enough with this bit about shutting down the internet for any period whatsoever. Not only is it obviously infeasible, but it is so absurd a notion that you should expect to hear some vitriolic and hurtful retorts. And I promise you, these aren’t slings and arrows that anyone need endure right now. These trends that trouble you will pass. I can only urge you to be less troubled by them. They can lead to better things, and would be better served by our encouragement than rebuke.