Tuesday, January 31, 2006

State of the Onion

My humble predictions for tonight's State of the Union address:

President Bush will propose a whole slew of new and innovative ways to micromanage American lives under the guise of providing a better future for ourselves and our children, none of which he has any power to implement under the Constitution.

Despite the multibillion-dollar cost of these brave new programs, he will propose a tax cut of unprecedented proportions.

Wild applause will greet his latest plans to gut our self-evident freedoms because, he will argue, slashing our liberty will make us safe from the terrorists.

He will say nasty things about anyone who would stand in the way of making USAPATRIOT permanent.

Six months from now, even if our lives depend on it, which they won't, no one will remember anything Bush said tonight.

The coverage in The Onion will be more compelling than anything the mainstream media has to offer.

And twice as many people, including myself, will watch "American Idol" than the address.

UPDATE: Oops, it seems Fox plans only a one-hour "Idol" and will break away at 9 for the prez. Oh well, two hours of TV on a Tuesday night gets old anyway.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I don't think I believe this, but it's weird enough to share

Nothing like a little paranoia to chill your bones: I got to thinking the other day that as oppressive as the federal government has gotten, with a big help from snoopy corporations, we do still live in a country where we can say and write, "Hey, things are getting pretty oppressive out there these days," and I drew some temporary comfort in the thought that freedom of speech and the press is still alive, albeit on life support.

The paranoia came in when I started thinking about novels like Ender's Game and Asimov's Foundation trilogy, where folks behind the scenes are manipulating events in a way that inevitably leads to a certain conclusion. Then I started thinking about something I heard a Clinton administration official say about 10-11 years ago, sounding almost guilty that America has become the last and biggest superpower. It seemed to me Clinton spent a lot of time shoring up China, as if to fill the void left by the USSR's collapse. Then I started thinking about George H.W. Bush's New World Order, which his son has adopted with such vigor even if he doesn't use the term out loud much.

And finally I started thinking that if the idea is to set up a New World Order with a huge, sprawling centralized government, why is dissent tolerated to the degree it is? I mean, we who cling to the principles of freedom are not in jail. And then the paranoia kicked into high gear.

What if the folks playing the chess game with history are thrilled with the idea of a decentralized U.S. government because they have something else to fill that void? Have you noticed how powerful China has become?

Don't get me wrong, I still believe people in general are happier in smaller groups. The bigger the organization, be it a government or a business or a church or a Kiwanis club, the less importance each individual has. The founders of the American experiment clearly meant this to be a united group of free and independent states - and I believe they meant for those states to be independent of each other, not just independent of the British Empire, with the federal government there to accomplish a few administrative tasks in their common interest, like protect the shores and deliver the mail, not to lord it over the states.

But there's a paranoid little thought rolling through my head that it would be easier to assimilate 50 small countries than one superpower, and maybe nuthatches like me are allowed to keep chirping because making Washington less powerful would serve someone's interest at the same time it would bring us closer to the original purpose of a group of united but independent states. The question is who would be doing the assimilating, the New World Order or China?

Now how paranoid is that? I choose not to believe in vast conspiracies, but it would explain why a growing evil would permit opposition voices to continue our yapping more or less unabated. On the other hand, maybe after all these years I finally have the seed of that Great American Novel I've been meaning to write.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Rockwell on immigration policy "reform"

B.K. Marcus excerpts some thoughtful comments by Lew Rockwell about whether we really want the feds to crack down on illegal immigration, comments which turn out to be part of an interview by Karen Kwiatkowski.

Says Rockwell to a caller: "... even though I think you're making a legitimate point, I worry about the idea that we should further empower the federal government. I don't think there's any excuse ever to give the federal government more power for any reason whatsoever! I don't care what the excuse is. We need to be focused on decommissioning them."


Thursday, January 26, 2006

The disconnect between politics and logic

On second thought, I do want to add to the basic news story about the Emory University study that studied brain activity and concluded that emotions, not reason, take over when people are presented with unpleasant facts about their chosen political party - because it explains so many things that have, well, defied reason over the years.

It explains why the same people have different reactions to President Clinton's illegal wars and President Bush's illegal wars, why the same person who defended Clinton bombing Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction is so offended by Bush bombing Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

It explains why the people who joined Clinton in decrying the Reagan years as the "decade of greed" are willing to explain away Clinton's atrocities and crimes by pointing to how well the economy performed in the 1990s, and why people who poohed-poohed Iran-Contra are appalled by the Clinton administration's crimes.

It explains why people believe Congress is full of money-grubbing power mongers but "my" congressman is a hard-working good person who cares about the people.

It even explains why public schools are not graduating kids with the basic tools necessary to survive in the real world, but "my" kids are getting a great education at the local public school.

On third thought, I'm back to my first thought: We needed a scientific study to "find" this? Partisan irrationality has been part of human nature since dirt, and while it's interesting to have scientific proof of it, what's the practical application?

All it does is prove how tough it is to wake people up to the fact that there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two major political parties, and - whoa! - how hard it might be to convince a guy like me when there are differences.

If nothing else, it helps us remain patient. My basic frustration has been in showing both sides of the aisle that when it comes to expanding the federal government's clutches and assaulting our basic freedoms, the major parties are a two-headed snake. It's small comfort to know that folks have simply failed to engage their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, but it helps me live with the contradictions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

'A total lack of reason in political decision-making'

OK, just this once I'll admit that sometimes taxpayer-supported scientific research comes up with something, although again - Did we really need to research this to know it's true? This is so self-evident there's no need for me to add anything:

Researchers asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. The subjects' brains were monitored while they pondered ...

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."

The test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted, Westen and his colleagues say.

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained.

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The delicate bludgeon of PR spin

There are days I think it might be fun to get into the supposedly cushy world of public relations and marketing, and then there are days when I find the whole idea extremely revolting. Yesterday was one of those days.

The headline, of course, is that Ford Motor Co. has announced plans to eliminate 25,000 to 30,000 jobs as part of a corporate restructuring that's supposed to fix what ails the company. (Hopefully building a better car has occurred to these geniuses, too.)

But look how the official statement of these intentions is spun:

DEARBORN -- Ford Motor Company today announced details of a comprehensive plan to restore profitability to its automotive business in North America no later than 2008. Ford will apply lessons learned from consumers and the company's successes around the world to strengthen its Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands and deliver more innovative products while simultaneously reducing costs and improving quality and productivity.

There is a vague reference to "painful sacrifices" in the third paragraph, but not until Paragraph 17 do you find the bottom line:

Plant-related employment is reduced by 25,000-30,000 people in the 2006-2012 time period, in addition to salaried personnel reductions and a reduction in the company's officer ranks.

I don't think I could do a job where I'm required to so cheerfully cover up the fact that one in every four of my co-workers will be out of a job soon.

Monday, January 23, 2006

There is no freedom from other people's freedom

I hate the smell of diesel exhaust. Gives me a headache. Makes me gag. If I find myself behind a bus or diesel truck, I will drop back in traffic or risk a ticket to speed past it. No doubt those big vehicles are spewing carcinogens that aren't doing my lungs or the rest of my body any good.

It never occurred to me that I might get my Town Board, County Board or state Legislature to ban diesel engines.

I don't smoke. Tried it once at 16, hated it. But what some well-meaning fascists are doing to smokers is just outrageous.

The state of New Jersey is in the process of forcing business owners to ban smoking on their premises. It's not enough to segregate smokers, it's not enough to warn the public that smoking is allowed on the business owner's private property. No, allowing patrons to light up is about to become a crime.

I don't even know why I'm bothering to write this. I'm either preaching to the converted or inviting the fascists to attack me with irrelevancies. "Obviously you've never had an asthma attack triggered by someone's use of tobacco." "Obviously you've never suffered through a loved one's horrible death by lung cancer." Nope, you're right. Should we criminalize every product and every behavior that can be blamed for someone's health troubles? Ban peanuts. Ban fatty foods. Ban diesel engines.

The assault on smokers is not the most blatant example of the ham-handed mugging of our liberty. It's just one of the most irritating, probably because the proponents of smoking bans simply fail to comprehend what they're doing. "I have a right to be free from tobacco smoke." No you don't, no more than I have a right to force the truck driver and the bus driver to turn off their engines.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

B.W.'s Book Report: Ender's Game

Don't ask me how I managed to go this long without reading Orson Scott Card's masterpiece Ender's Game. I just did. Often, the timing of these things is perfect, and this was the time of life when I needed to read Ender's Game. Not 21 years ago when the novel was first published, not 29 years ago when the story first came out in novella form, not last year. Now.

Once again my Firefly/Serenity obsession had something to do with the choice of finally picking up a book I had heard buzzings about forever. It was Card who wrote, "I'm not saying Serenity is the best science fiction movie, ever. Oh, wait. Yes I am." And Card wrote that a major reason he has not yet allowed Ender's Game to become a film is that Hollywood usually does not make science fiction films as intelligent as Serenity.

Last month when we watched the new film The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I found myself wondering why warfare plays such a dominating role in our fantasies (not to mention, as the saber-rattling continues over Iran, our realities). I've never sat down with C.S. Lewis' series of children's books, and I was surprised that the movie was so reminscent of Lord of the Rings with its epic-scale battles between fantastic creatures. Did Lewis really emphasize the importance of swinging a battleaxe and handling a bow? Can't we all just get along?

So I was drawn to Card's story of a little boy who is robbed of his childhood and trained to be the greatest military strategist of his generation. At least this time the battles would not be treated as a glorious Klingon spectacle; there would be soul searching and regret and even examination of the thought "Can't we all just get along?"

And there was this eternal dilemma that is not unique to warfare or even to childhood:

"And the despair filled him again. Now he knew why. Now he knew what he hated so much. He had no control over his own life. They ran everything. They made all the choices. Only the game was left to him, that was all, everything else was them and their rules and plans and lessons and programs, and all he could do was go this way or that way in battle."

In his 1991 introduction to the "Definitive Author's Edition" that I read, Card notes how creative work tends to gain new meanings as readers react, and he concludes, "If the story means anything to you at all, then when you remember it afterward, think of it, not as something I created, but rather as something we made together."

So to me, perhaps reflecting the themes I've been writing about lately, Ender's Game has much to say about maintaining your individuality in a world where individual rights are increasingly devalued, about maintaining some semblance of control in your choices. And in the final scene that sets the stage for the first sequel, Speaker for the Dead, Card neatly addresses my discomfort with war as the default solution of conflicts.

I can understand why Card would revisit this group of characters in seven other novels over the past couple of decades; this is meaty stuff and they are memorable people. Based on its reputation, I dove into Ender's Game fully expecting one of the best novels I've ever read, and I wasn't disappointed.


I didn't know him

But after reading this and this and this, I'm grateful he lived.

My heart and soul ache for you who knew him and mourn.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Objectifying celebrities

This sure seems inevitable in this day and age - Michael Axelrod gets in an altercation with the wife of New York Knicks player Antonio Davis, and next thing ya know:

"Axelrod's attorney, Jay Paul Deratany, said he planned to sue Davis and his wife for more than $1 million. Deratany said he was writing the papers Thursday for a battery suit against Kendra Davis and a slander case against Antonio Davis, and planned to file them Friday."

Davis gets a five-game suspension without pay for walking up to Axelrod and his wife and making sure she wasn't being assaulted, and Axelrod tries to win the lottery. Ain't litigious America grand?

"When I go to games, I cheer as hard as I can for the Bulls, and I boo as hard as I can for whoever they're playing," Axelrod said. "I don't feel comfortable if players are allowed to easily jump into the crowd whenever they feel like it's necessary."

What he doesn't feel comfortable with, perhaps, is that he used to think players were inanimate objects he could verbally abuse with impunity, and now it turns out they're human beings who can get angry and/or concerned when they perceive their spouses are threatened. Even if you accept Axelrod's version of the incident, Kendra Davis got mad about something Axelrod bellowed at the referees, and Antonio Davis placed himself (nonviolently!) between his wife and someone he feared could be a threat.

Davis committed the unpardonable sin of breaking the invisible wall between the stage (the basketball court) and the audience. Practical considerations created the wall, but the wall creates the illusion that the performers are separated from us mere humans in many ways. We lose track of the fact that they live and breathe and love and hurt just like we do, and so we feel comfortable verbally abusing them and invading their privacy - until something reminds us of their humanity. I think that's why paparazzi photographers always seem surprised and offended when an actor or actress turns around and slugs one of them.

I'm not sure how much to make of the fact that Axelrod's father is a bigtime political campaign guru, except that it seems appropriate that the situation involves the son of a guy who makes his living objectifying his opponents and trashing their reputations. It makes sense that such a guy would sit on the sidelines and treat an opposing athletic team as if they were enemies of goodness and truth.

Most of the public debate I've encountered is about whether the National Basketball Association's action against Davis is appropriate. It seems to me that he was merely reacting to a situation he didn't start. Maybe Axelrod needs a five-game suspension, too, and if his description of the events is accurate and Kendra Davis really did scratch his face, maybe she should be kept away from courtside for a much longer time. Our obligation to treat one another with respect (or at least without violence) doesn't get suspended in the sports arena.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


I think my brain may have shifted gears a few weeks ago when Sunni Maravillosa pointed out that even the Constitution is a statist document. It wasn't a sudden downshift into reverse, more like shifting from first gear into second or some such.

But I found myself suddenly in a small clearing where it seemed irrelevant what my philosophy of government is. All this talk about liberalism and conservatism and libertarianism and statists and individualists and anarchism and agorists and Randism and Rothbardists and Istism is kind of interesting - but in the end we are 6 billion people who view life 6 billion different ways.

All of these "isms" make for intriguing conversation, but they're limiting, and they can create diversions as we strive to be consistent within our chosen ism. How can I be a libertarian if I'm pro-life, for example? Or how can I be tolerant of gays if I profess to be a born-again Christian? Such questions help me hone my beliefs and understand where I'm coming from, no doubt, but the questions themselves imply that I'm being not being true to my pigeon hole.

More importantly, perhaps, somewhere in there is an implication that one or the other of these philosophies needs to triumph in order for humanity to thrive. My belief, for example, was/is that if only the U.S. government were structured along the lines the Constitution set out, things would be better. But millions if people are content to live under the nanny government - who am I to insist that they live without airport screeners and corporate welfare and college grants and all of the other unconstitutional amenities of everyday life?

I keep coming back to Serenity and Malcolm Reynolds' statement to the government assassin: "I got no need to beat you. I just want to go my way." I have no need to impose my view of the good life on the rest of us; I just want to seek out that life for myself.

More and more, I think that means ignoring or avoiding the government as best as I can and just trying to "go my way," rather than try to conjure a way to change it to suit my vision, which seems like a minority view anyway.

The trouble, as the fictional Reynolds found, is that the busybodies of power just don't seem to be willing to leave well enough alone. I'm still working on that particular dilemma.

The various isms provide a convenient shorthand - "I'm mostly a libertarian" is easier to say and write than repeating the several paragraphs above. But when all is said and done, I don't believe exactly as Ayn Rand or Robert A. Heinlein or Murray Rothbard or even Mahatma Gandhi did, so embracing them as great thinkers does not endorse every thought they ever had. I am mostly a libertarian, but I am free to diverge from libertarian philosophy if another view makes sense to B.W. Richardson.

Maybe that's my philosophy: I won't pigeon-hole you if you won't pigeon-hole me. Call it Richardsonism if you have to. Just don't hold me to it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

This explains a lot

"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier - just as long as I'm the dictator."
- George W. Bush, Dec. 18, 2000

All Things Must Pass, Dammit All Anyway

You Don't Know What You've Got (Until You Lose It)
Ral Donner
Written by George Burton and Paul Hampton
Peaked at # 4 in 1961

You don't know what you've got until you lose it
You gave me you-your love but I abused it
And now I'm sorry for the things I didn't say
`cause I know now I acted in a foolish way
(oh yeah) uh-huh-huh (oh yeah) oh-oh-yeah

"Holy cow, this is a great catalog, I really need to browse through it and buy a bunch of this stuff. One of these days. When I have some extra cash. Someday. Soon. Eventually."

Who knew Loompanics wasn't going to last forever?

I try to be an optimist, but this is two body blows out of Port Townsend, Wash., in a month: First the death of R.W. Bradford, and now Mike Hoy's announcement that the most eclectic source of freedom lovers' reading material will soon be no more. This hurts. I feel bad taking advantage of the 50-percent-off closeout sale, but money is a finite thing and this is our last chance. I'm sorry I didn't start buying sooner and do my little bit to delay the inevitable.

Thanks, Mike. We don't know each other, but you inspired me and a lot of other folks, and you did a great thing for 30 years.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Messages from another time

I went to an antique shop on an impulse Sunday afternoon and found a time capsule.

Three editions of Readers Digest were tied together and on sale for a buck - nothing unusual, I guess, except they were from June 1935, March 1939 and November 1941. They're like no Readers Digests I had ever seen - no advertising, few illustrations and no slick paper, the only embellishments a somewhat heavier-stock cover and the words "Articles of Lasting Interest" under the name of the magazine on the cover, which also served as the table of contents.

The articles are of lasting interest because of what they tell us about those times. An early review shows two especially interesting articles in the 1935 edition. In "Better Days Are Coming," B.C. Forbes ("Since 1916 editor and publisher of Forbes Magazine") argues that while more families were living on public relief than at any time in the nation's history, there were signs of life in the economy.

"Despite the drain of five painfully lean years, our savings deposits amount to $22 billion, a reduction of only 21 percent from the peak reached during the wild 1928-29 boom ... In 10 recent weeks fully $350 million of foreign gold poured into America. Our banking laws and regulations are such that each $100 of gold can theoretically be made the basis for granting $1,000 of credit. This means that recent importations of gold alone are sufficient to finance almost the entire $4 billion Congress recently allocated to President Roosevelt for work-giving purposes."

Ah, Roosevelt. Things are looking up, but "this promising forward movement suffered a jolt when President Roosevelt announced that he hoped to see the government establish all over the country public-utility experiments similar to the Tennessee Valley Authority, to compete with existing companies." Still, Forbes believed that once Americans regained their confidence and resume normal spending and living, "we shall reach heights of prosperity beyond anything enjoyed in 1928-29 or in any earlier period in our history."

The real eye-opener in that 1935 magazine is the seven-page excerpt from Gen. Smedley D. Butler's book "War is a Racket," in which the World War hero catalogs the skyrocketing profits that some corporations enjoyed from 1914 to 1918, while the war was in progress. It seems at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires made their fortunes during the war.

"The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are 6, 8, 10 and sometimes even 12 percent," Butler wrote. "But war-time profits - ah! that is another matter - 20, 60, 100, 300 and even 1,800 percent - the sky is the limit. All that the traffic will bear. Uncle Sam has the money. Let's get it."

Butler warned that war drums were starting to be beaten over the threat of Japan, and - well, I probably should return to his article another day or this piece will be way too long. The man who had been decorated for his actions in combat two decades earlier cautioned against being talked into waging a new war for the benefit of those war profiteers.

Times changed. In 1939 there were articles about Hitler's buildup of air strength, the mysterious life of the emperor of Japan, and pro and con articles on the question "Should We Act to Curb Aggressor Nations?" By November 1941 the "cons" were silent; the edition opens with an entreaty by Wendell Wilkie, candidate for president the year before, that America take the initiative against Hitler, and there are articles called "Japan Risks Destruction" and "Need We Fear Our Alien Population?"

Another 1941 article warns that morale among soldiers is at an alarming low: "So far as the men can see, the Army has no goal. It does not know whether it is going to fight, or when or where ... Few of the men believe that the emergency is as serious as President Roosevelt insists."

As I said, a time capsule. It'll be interesting and instructive to spend more time with these old magazines, knowing how the drama played out.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

'Only idiots and losers would use our product'

Have I lost touch with what's funny, or has Anheuser Busch? While putting my brain on hold and watching the NFL bread and circus Saturday, I again found myself amazed at what appears to me to be the wondrously unfunny ads for the "Bud Light Daredevil."

In the latest episode, their hero takes on the daring task of going shopping with his girlfriend while there's a playoff game on TV. In the next scene, an extremely attractive woman is seen checking out items in a clothing store while the daredevil clutches the racks for dear life, finally collapsing into a heap. Paramedics rush him into an easy chair in front of a widescreen TV. I don't laugh. And I reach for a Miller.

I seem to detect a growing trend in TV ads, where the message seems to be: Only idiots and losers would use our product. The other example that springs to mind is the roomful of nerds who don't know how to protect their computers without the kindly men of America Online. In real life, the Bud Light man would not need to worry about shopping with his girlfriend. He wouldn't have one.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The power of paying for health care

The insurance company hired by my employer has been trying to bribe me into abandoning a business person with whom I have developed a relationship of trust over a period of years.

The business person is my local pharmacist. I take a number of medications regularly to keep my blood pressure within acceptable limits. The cost of these medications is about $135 a month. The reason I know this is that last year, I stopped using the prescription drug benefit provided by my employer.

The insurance company will cheerfully reduce my monthly expense to $60. All I have to do is end my relationship with the local pharmacist and instead use a mail-in service, which coincidentally is operated by the insurance company.

Fortunately, for now I'm in a financial position where I can afford to make up the difference. But no doubt there are hundreds of thousands of people who have come to depend on their employers' subsidy of their medication and cannot take that kind of hit, so they give up the right to look their medicine supplier in the eye, ask questions and kibitz about sports or the fate of the nation.

I'll tell you, though, it actually feels empowering to pay full freight for those pills. The reason is simple: I now have control. I decide who pockets the money and who provides me the service. As long as I can afford it, it's worth the extra $75 a month to me.

It also may be better for me in the long run: My doctor would like to get me on yet another expensive long-term prescription, but since I'd be paying for it I finally have been starting to work on the diet and exercise advice she gave me a long time ago, the advice she said would help me avoid the new medication. My interest in saving money this way likely will benefit my health in the long run.

And there, I think, is the solution to our health care cost crisis. When someone else pays the bills, you don't really pay attention to the cost, and so the payee really has no incentive to keep the cost under control. The "someone elses" of the world are now raising their own prices to a level where the rest of us are growing alarmed. It seems counterintuitive, but I suspect if we all had to pay full freight, the drug companies and doctors and everyone else in the health care industry would start getting serious about providing excellence on a more cost-effective basis.

I'm not advocating that, mind you - so many years have gone by under the current system that most of us couldn't afford suddenly being required to pay full freight. I'm just stating it as a personal goal. In a sense this is the price for staying alive, so I don't mind paying the bill as opposed to having a couple of fancy meals or new DVDs and other toys.

And I'm aghast at what the state of Maryland is about to impose: A law that requires employers to spend a minimum of 8 percent of their payroll costs on health care. Aimed at Wal-Mart, the law is being pushed as a way to keep Medicaid costs down (while having the added "benefit" of punishing the eevil Wal-Mart empire).

But what it really does is say that if an employer finds a way to provide adequate health care coverage for its workers for, say, 5 percent of the total payroll, it will be in violation of the law. And should an employer feel motivated to give its workers raises - to give the workers greater economic power - it has to be careful that those raises don't reduce the health insurance contribution below 8 percent.

I don't pretend to be an economist, but my instinct is that this latest attempt by a government to run businesses is going to do more harm than good in the short and long terms. It seems to me to be just another artificial way to keep health care costs rising.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I heard it on the radio, oh woe woe woe woe on the radio

* As I was driving home last night, the news guy on the radio made me laugh at a tragedy.

"A little girl is shot at recess by a stray bullet."

Here it is, further proof that we need to repeal the Second Amendment and round up all the guns and ammunition: Rogue stray bullets are roaming the streets shooting little girls.

Not funny, I know. The tragedy of the little girl is worse than the tragedy of imprecise language. But by making the bullet the culprit, rather than the idiot who misused a gun, the writer-anchor reinforces the illusion.

"People don't kill people; bullets kill people. If that bullet hadn't been available, the little girl would still be alive." That may not be what he meant, but that's what his words said.

* I used to believe this before I actually sat down and read the Constitution: Heard a guy on a national talk radio show say that the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade invented a right to privacy that isn't in the Constitution.

The Ninth Amendment says everything you need to know about rights that aren't listed in the Constitution: "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

The Constitution with its Bill of Rights is not a comprehensive list of individual rights. It's a comprehensive list of the powers and limits of U.S. government power.

That's why it should not surprise anyone when the head of that government refers to the Constitution as a "goddamned piece of paper." The only way he (or any of the last dozen or so presidents) can wield the power he does is by ignoring that piece of paper.

* I've come to the conclusion that the 1960s were a lost time in popular music that only produced around 200 songs that were worth hearing. That's the only explanation I have for the playlists on oldies stations.

First example that comes to mind: Buffalo Springfield released three albums, and yet the only track I ever hear on the radio is "For What It's Worth." Now it's a brilliant song whose theme boils down to my favorite advice: "Refuse to be afraid." But you'd think a band that featured Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay and Jim Messina among other great musicians could come up with more than 2 minutes and 39 seconds of good stuff.

They did, of course. It's just disappeared from the airwaves. That's why so many people have turned off the radio and seized control of their playlists.

It's a good sign.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Keep your dreams flying

What keeps a dream in the air?

First, know what you want. The most useful self-help books emphasize that you can't help yourself find your dreams if you're fuzzy about what those dreams are. The best of them give you a little exercise to help you figure it out. The ones I've written about, Do It! Let's Get Off Our Buts by Peter McWilliams and How to Kill the Job Culture Before It Kills You by Claire Wolfe, both have good goal-finding exercises.

But in this society afflicted with mass attention deficit disorder, with so many distractions it's almost impossible to focus like a laser on anything for more than a few minutes, do you know what keeps a dream in the air?

Mal: Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I'm about to say.

River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.

Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you don't take a boat in the air you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

OK, there I go again into a Firefly/Serenity reference. But Joss Whedon gets to the heart of it, and so do McWilliams and Wolfe who emphasize, as Wolfe says: "Love what you do. Do it with passion."

Will Rogers said it, too: "To be successful, you must know what you're doing, you must love what you're doing, and you must believe in what you're doing."

In an interview somewhere, I've heard Whedon say he doesn't want to create stuff that people like, he wants to create stuff that people love. Since he knows what he wants to accomplish, no wonder his best stuff has such a following: He had a goal, and he accomplished it. But more important, love was at the heart of it.

Know what you want to do. Love what you do. Do it with passion. Love keeps a dream in the air. Find out what you love, and you've started the journey towards your dream. Love will keep you flying when you ought to fall down.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The big, big question

"Can men and women really be friends, or does sex always get in the way?"

The reason When Harry Met Sally is one of my favorite movies is first, because it poses this question, and second, because it answers the question. Sally thinks she can be "just friends" with Harry, but then sex gets in the way.

In the end, the answer is: Sex with your closest friend is the best.

In the middle, Harry reveals to Sally the truth - men are just hard-wired to consider sex with just about every woman we encounter. It's not that we actually intend to try seducing every woman we meet, and it's not that we can't be friends - you just have to accept that from time to time, no matter how hard we try not to think about it, we will wonder what you're like in the sack.

"You mean men can only be friends with unattractive women?" Sally asks incredulously.

"No, we pretty much want to nail them, too," Harry replies matter-of-factly. And he's right.

How screenwriter Nora Ephron figured us out, I don't know, but that's one of the most honest (and funny!) scenes in film history.

Blessed are the mates who are also best friends. That's as healthy a life as you can have, methinks.

A new resource

It's now a federal crime to irritate someone via e-mail without using your "real" name.

Joshua Frank reminds us that MoveOn.org doesn't seem to have a problem with Democrats who support illegal wars and invasions of civil liberties.

There are new calls to impeach Dick Cheney and Tony Blair on our way to the big kahuna.

I found all these articles in a new Web site called "Big Brother Watch: Monitoring Assaults on Civil Liberties." It looks pretty good early on, although I'd like to hear more about its author's vision of "global economic sustainability" before I fully endorse it. [UPDATE: I read that wrong; make it "global ecological sustainability." I still want to know more about how he intends to accomplish such before I jump on the turnip truck.] On the other hand, you don't have to fully embrace a fella to know he's performing a service.

Here's a news release about it that I got from a friend in the Badger State:

Is Freedom Dead? Big Brother Watch Launches from WI

New Web Site Dedicated to Monitoring Assaults on Civil Liberties


By Free Earth Internet, Contact: Dr. Glen Barry

(Denmark, Wisconsin) - Domestic spying, government sponsored torture and imprisonment without charges by the Bush administration merely continues the global trend towards government usurpation of civil liberties in the name of security. A new nonpartisan web site entitled "Big Brother Watch" at http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org/ and based in Wisconsin has been launched to monitor government assaults upon civil liberties and human rights.

Big Brother Watch is an Internet search tool that provides access to reviewed civil liberty news, information retrieval tools, and in the near future will offer original analysis and protest opportunities. The site seeks to turn the tables on increasing government intrusion into the private lives of its citizens. While Big Brother Watch is national and international in scope, it is based and run from the Green Bay, Wisconsin area

"Living in a Bush dominated world is downright creepy - something right out of the book 1984," explains Dr. Glen Barry, the site's creator and Denmark, Wisconsin native. "Authoritarian government threatens us all."

"Big Brother Bush and cronies have undermined the liberty and freedom that are the very basis of America's liberal democracy, while loosing a state of perma-war upon the world. There are other manners to address murderous fanaticism that do not require dismantling civil liberties. It is vital that freedom from government spying and other abuses in America and the rest of the free world not be permanently lost in order to provide a false sense of security. Then the murderers have won."

Big Brother Watch is a personal project of Dr. Glen Barry, who makes environmental portals with Ecological Internet ( http://www.ecoearth.info/ ). In discussing his motivations for launching the site, he notes "liberal democracies are by definition turbulent, and there is always death and conflict. Civil liberties are not a luxury to be enjoyed only in the good times. Liberty and freedom are a way of life that must be exercised as more than rhetoric at all times or they may be lost forever."

"Threats to civil liberties and the environment are so grave that all right minded people must sacrifice now for their protection, or there will be little real freedom and operable ecosystems within our lifetimes. As an ecologist, it has become clear to me that Bush's militarism and authoritarianism makes progress towards global ecological sustainability nearly impossible."

Big Brother Watch will work to ensure that freedom and liberty are not traded for a false sense of security. There can be no lasting, real security without liberty, freedom, peace, equity, ecosystems and justice.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The emperor moves to dissolve Congress

You try just to have a life and ignore the nuttiness that is our U.S. government in action, but then another outrageous act surfaces that demands someone stand up and say, "Um, excuse me? You can't do that." Since the beginning of the Bush-Clinton era, it seems like one outrage after another, and eventually outrage-fatigue sets in. How long can we stand this before we simply sink into apathy and accept our role as stooges?

A report by Knight Ridder Newspapers (and maybe this is why so many short-sighted Knight Ridder stockholders want to sell out) begins, "President Bush agreed with great fanfare last month to accept a ban on torture, but he later quietly reserved the right to ignore it, even as he signed it into law."

The way he thumbed his nose at the new law was to issue a "bill-signing statement" that said Bush would interpret the law "in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president." Get it? Bush's warped view of his "constitutional authority" trumps any effort by legislators to rein him in. By his actions, we know Bush has never read the Constitution.

As Knight Ridder analysts Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn explain, "Because Bush has already claimed broad powers in the war on terror, legal experts and some members of Congress interpreted the statement to mean that he would ignore the torture ban if he felt it would harm national security."

It turns out "Bush has used signing statements to reject, revise or put his spin on more than 500 legislative provisions," Hutcheson and Kuhnhenn report. The bottom line: Congress passes the laws, and Bush explains why he won't abide by them.

A little cabin as far away as possible from the clutches of this runaway rogue emperor is sounding better and better every day. Thank God there are still some reporters willing to stand up and say, "Um, excuse me? You can't do that." Too bad the alleged lawmakers and most of us mere subjects are silent.

In other news today:

Homeland Security is opening our mail and not even bothering to be discreet about it.

"'Goodman is no stranger to mail snooping; as an officer during World War II he was responsible for reading all outgoing mail of the men in his command and censoring any passages that might provide clues as to his unit’s position. 'But we didn’t do it as clumsily as they’ve done it, I can tell you that,' Goodman noted, with no small amount of irony in his voice. 'Isn’t it funny that this doesn’t appear to be any kind of surreptitious effort here,' he said."

Sunday, January 08, 2006

I enter the Buffyverse

Sweetie last night got her first exposure to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and while she's not immediately enthusiastic about it, I think she'll come around if I try hard enough. I was the same way.

Having becoming an unabashed browncoated fanatic over Joss Whedon's brilliant but short-lived series Firefly and its miraculous movie sequel, Serenity, I have of course heard much about Whedon's previous (and far more successful) efforts, Buffy and its spin-off, Angel. So I took advantage the last week in December when the DVD set of Buffy's first season went on sale for $19.96 at (don't shoot me) Wal-Mart.

Within a week I had run through all 12 episodes and asked Netflix to start sending me Season 2. Rather than wait for Sweetie to catch up, I gave her a quick synopsis and we watched the first two second-season episodes last night.

"This is a weird show," she said. "It's a mix of teenage life and vampires, and why aren't more kids scared about all the monsters in town?" I have some of the same questions but am a little more willing to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the ride.

All told, she vastly prefers Veronica Mars, the current teenage life-mystery mix that seems to owe some of its sensibilities to Buffy. At this stage so do I, too, but I enjoy the Whedonesque turns of phrase and plot, and it'll be fun to see how he lets things unfold given 12 television seasons (between the two vampire series) as opposed to 14 TV episodes and a two-hour movie.

Of course, the adolescent nerd in me has fallen for Willow. I'm dimly aware she has some interesting character development ahead. I expect it to be fun; that much, at least is guaranteed when Whedon's at work.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Who'll get fooled again?

Pete Townshend, the great guitarist/songwriter of The Who, warns about the potential harm done by frequent use of headphones in a "Pete's Diaries" post on his Web site.

It's not the loudness of the music he plays that has permanently damaged his hearing, Townshend says, so much as the use of headphones in the studio - and then he tosses out a warning about the increasing use of earphones and ear buds in our world:

"Hearing loss is a terrible thing because it cannot be repaired. If you use an iPod or anything like it, or your child uses one, you MAY be OK. It may only be studio earphones that cause bad damage. I only have long experience of the studio side of things (though I've listened to music for pleasure on earphones for years, long before the Walkman was introduced). But my intuition tells me there is terrible trouble ahead."

I can attest to his concern because I spent a couple of decades in the radio business. My habit was to drape the headphones so I was listening to the on-the-air signal with my left ear and my right ear was open to hear the other sounds around me. I now have significantly better hearing in my right ear than my left - it's not so bad that I need hearing aids, but it's a noticeable difference.

My thought for today is: In our litigious society, how long will it be before some slimy lawyer conceives a class-action suit against Apple on behalf of those too stupid to ignore warnings, who claim it never occurred to them that constantly placing their eardrums in close proximity to extremely loud sounds may make them deaf? After seeing the success of those who got rich by claiming they never knew smoking could wreck their lungs, anything goes.

By the way, cruising Townshend's site to find the post (which was mentioned in a news story) was fun, and I plan to check back there more often. Anyone who loved Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a spiritual friend of mine.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Janis, Bobby McGee and Freedom

What an interesting statement Kris Kristofferson wrote and Janis Joplin sang into immortality: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose; Nothin' ain't worth nothin', but it's free." I got to thinkin' yesterday whether "Me and Bobby McGee" did any favors for the concept of freedom.

Not that it's not true. There's something liberating, in a desperate way, about being broke, or alone, or out of a job. When you have nothing to lose, no one else you're responsible for, you're free to try anything, go anywhere. It's hard times, but you're free, and that feels strangely good.

But that word just puts a big qualifier on the statement. If freedom is only accessible when you're broke and alone, who wants to be free?

Joplin's life seemed to exemplify the free spirit, and she died young. If it means working and playing so hard you're dead before you're 30, who wants to be free?

Please don't get me wrong: I loved Janis Joplin. Not just her music; Wally Conger's musings about his new Dick Cavett DVD set brought back memories of the first time I heard her sing "Move Over," when she made my adolescent hormones rage, and then as she talked and I thought I felt an unspeakable sadness and loneliness behind her bravado, I wished I could rescue her from the demons that made her sing the blues so well.

But if freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose, maybe being a well-fed and comfortable slave is a better life.

The thing is, freedom's not just another word for nothin' left to lose. On the other hand, it's a good inner image to have: If you treat life as if you have nothing to lose, you likely will find you have everything to gain. Our fears of losing our fat and sassy lifestyles lurk behind our reluctance to set ourselves free - and oh, by the way, it is you who sets the limits on your freedom most of the time, not some government or other external force.

Refuse to be afraid, live like you're dying, live like you have nothing left to lose, and you'll find the path to freedom.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Thinking harder about social contracts

I have been tickled lately by the support of no less a light of freedom than Sunni Maravillosa, who recently gave these humble environs a very nice review, and now has some thoughtful responses to yesterday's musings about social contracts and the Bill of Rights.

Writers write for a number of reasons, and one is to express ideas that we think deserve to be voiced. But any writer who's not a moron also puts ideas out there to be tested, to see if they really stand up to scrutiny or if they need revision. I love blogging because this kind of analysis can happen almost instantly.

When I wrote that "I, too, have often wondered if freedom and liberty can work in a world where 'most times people do not act rationally,'" of course I was begging for someone to come along and tell me that they can indeed work, and/or that my assumption is wrong. After all, the idea that people don't always act in their best interests, i.e., rationally, is central to nanny government and tyranny. Sunni does me an enormous favor and suggests my assumption indeed needs to be examined more carefully.

"That assertion is put forward by researchers time and again, and I cringe whenever I hear it, for it's insidiously destructive. The first definition of rational in my dictionary is 'based on reasoning.' But any individual with a modicum of experience in human interaction knows that individuals' reasonings can be widely divergent -- sometimes even though they lead to the same result ..."

Sunni also has some thoughts about my description of the Constitution as a contract that means what it says:

"But the Constitution doesn't allow men and women their full freedom; it set up a system of governance and taxation that of necessity constrains peaceful people's liberty."

That's a really good point and gives me a chance to bring up an awesome essay that was recently brought to my attention that I've been meaning to write about - one that introduced me to the concepts of "positive" and "negative" freedom and reminded me the "default" position is freedom: We are inherently free beings, and manmade contracts and institutions are designed to set restrictions on that freedom. I don't know yet that I embrace all of this writer's points, but it's thought-provoking and that's always good.

Sunni concludes: "Don't get me wrong -- living in a society where the Bill of Rights is respected would be much better than the current USSA. It just isn't the end point I'm working for." My first instinct is I think I agree. Thanks, Sunni, for helping to clarify my thinking.

The other big Sunni news is that her Freedom Summit talk, "Things You Need to Know About Freedom - But Probably Don't Want to Hear," is now available for download thanks to Kirsten and the Poddy Talk podcast - along with a lengthy conversation between Kirsten and Sunni. I'll be listening in during my morning commute today - sounds like a great way to start the day.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Bill of Rights as a social contract

A friend of mine recently had an e-mail exchange with a friend of his who happens to be a loyal Democrat, one who is so loyal he has often gotten himself into trouble by pointing out the idiotic self-defeating behavior of key party members and officials.

Democrat friend sent out a general e-mail with a link to Jim Hightower's recent column where he wrote, "Where the hell are the Democrats," in which the former Texas congressman took his fellow Dems to task for not better opposing some of the shenanigans ongoing in Washington.

My friend's response: "The answer to Hightower's question is that they've changed their name to the Republican Party. The reason I lost my faith in the GOP is that they've adopted the big-government, we-know-better-than-you-do attitude with which the Dems ran Washington for the previous 40 years. I might quietly root for some Democratic victories for the sole purpose of creating gridlock - because a government that can't do anything is safer for us - but I have no illusions that either of these parties will do anything but make it worse once they have the reins." With that he provided a link to Claire Wolfe's "O Little Town of Hardyville."

Democratic friend's reply goes to the heart of my main concern about the libertarian philosophy, which my friend and I heartily embrace. "Well, I know you are a libertarian at heart, and if all men acted rationally, I would be right in there with you. I would agree with one thing: The Dems HAVE overreached on what government can and should do and they DO seem to like to micromanage. Still, I think the role for government is broader than libertarians claim, especially given that most times people do not act rationally. How much of that supposedly irrational behavior is in some kind of response to overreaching government is, to me, a question that all those who are in politics should take a hard look at."

My friend's response shows why I like the guy: "We're very alike and yet different. I agree: If all politicians and other government employees acted rationally, I'd be right there with you, too. I agree that all men don't act rationally, which is why I would prefer a system where the irrational are unable to centralize their power over the rest of us. The Bill of Rights is an extremely good start, but then we need a general agreement that we're going to live by those rules. We ain't."

Finally, Dem friend offers a reply that begs me to butt into the conversation and offer my two cents: "Sounds like you are searching or asking for a new or reinvigorated 'social contract.' Wow, big job. I think that takes a total collapse of the old one. I kind of think the Great Depression did that, and that was the start of our current contract. Like all contracts, it has gotten frayed and out of date. To an outside observer the next few years ought to be interesting. Of course if you are one of the lab rats in the great social experiment it looks different. I guess we shall see."

It's interesting when a discussion is boiled down to the brass tacks (pardon the ancient vernacular) - my friend and his Democratic buddy turn out to have a basic disagreement over what our "social contract" ought to be. The FDR-style Democrats believe that in the wake of the Depression, government made a commitment to take care of us. My friend (and I) believe we as members of the human race do have a "social contract" to take care of the truly needy, but that government of all human institutions is least equipped to handle the job. Its primary function is the use of force, and caring for the needy is a gentle job, one which requires personal and individualized attention, not the one-size-fits-all mentality and brutality of a central bureaucracy.

I, too, have often wondered if freedom and liberty can work in a world where most times people do not act rationally." A social contract where my right to do as I please extend only to the moment where my fist connects with your nose - that says our rights are absolute and nonnegotiable as long as we each don't infringe on anyone else's rights - assumes that the vast majority of us are reasonable and willing to abide by that contract. For example, Gandhi was able to succeed in throwing off British rule nonviolently because the British invaders were more "civilized" than, say, Hitler or Stalin's invaders would be.

But my friend is right when he points out that, yes, most times people do not act rationally, and government bureaucracies are comprised of people. Therefore the safest government is one bound by "social contract" to leave us the hell alone, one that does not have the power to interfere with us unless and until we infringe on someone else's rights.

Once upon a time the Constitution was considered to spell out the terms of that contract. Then we had leaders who were considered public servants (or perhaps, like all things that begin "Once upon a time," the idea that the Constitution once meant what it says is a fairy tale itself). Now (and perhaps for a long time before now) our leaders consider themselves our rulers, for whom the Constitution is an inconvenient "goddamned piece of paper."

The time has long since come for free men and women to act as if the Constitution with its Bill of Rights is a contract that means exactly what it says. The rulers have done a good job of convincing many people that "Like all contracts, it has gotten frayed and out of date." But just like the Mark Twain quote I posted New Year's morning, just because something was written a very long time ago doesn't mean it isn't still brimming over with truth. It's time we stood up and said so.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Day

Territorial Enterprise, January 1, 1863



Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

[reprinted in The Works of Mark Twain; Early Tales & Sketches, Vol. 1 1851-1864, (Univ. of California Press, 1979), p. 180.]

[Copied & pasted from a forum I frequent from time to time.]