Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sculpt Me, Baby, One More Time

This has to be the most disturbing news item in years. I don't know which is more amusing - that someone made a sculpture of Britney Spears, or that the artist is trying to pass it off as art with a pro-life message...

Election Yom

Israel went to the polls yesterday to select a new Knesset and, by extension, a new Prime Minister. It was somewhat of a foregone conclusion that Ehud Olmert, successor to Ariel Sharon and leader of the centrist Kadima party, would get the prime ministership. The election was a question of 1) who would share the government with Kadima, since there's absolutely no chance in hell a single party can get anywhere near a 60-seat majority in Israel's parliament, and 2) how well the right wing would hold up in the aftermath of the Gaza withdrawal.

So let's look at the results (61 needed for a government):

1) Kadima - 28 seats
2) Labor - 20 seats
3) Shas - 13 seats
4) Yisrael Beiteinu - 12 seats
5) Likud - 11 seats
6) Arab parties - 10 seats
7) National Union - 9 seats
8) Pensioners - 7 seats
9) United Torah Judaism - 6 seats
10) Meretz - 4 seats

There are a couple of reasons to be frightened. The first and most obvious is the success of Yisrael Beiteinu, an ultra-nationalist party headed by Moldovan immigrant Avigdor Lieberman (in Israel, much like in the U.S., everyone's an immigrant from somewhere). Lieberman is the Israeli answer to Jean-Marie Le Pen; he wants to redraw Israel's borders to exclude all the Arab citizens of the state. He is openly hostile to the Arab presence in Israel, and there's obviously enough support for his wingnut ideas that he's now a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics. Lieberman would probably support the unilateral withdrawal plan, which will make it tempting for Olmert to include them in his coalition. Such a temptation should be resisted; an avowedly racist presence in the government can only inflame tensions even further.

The second is the good position Shas has left itself in. The ultra-orthodox party will likely join the inevitable Kadima-Labor coalition. They're flexible on the Palestinian issue, but they will probably keep trying to push through their obnoxious bill limiting the Law of Return (which allows all Jews to become Israeli citizens if they so choose). On second thought, though, there is little likelihood of this - Israel knows that it needs U.S. support driven by American Jewry, and that support would vanish were such restrictions placed on the Law of Return.

There are a couple of other conclusions we can draw as well. The first is the increasing influence of social issues on Israeli elections. The surprising showing of the Pensioners' Party (an unheard-of quantity before now) and the resurgence of Labor underscore Israelis' commitment to a strong social safety net. Indeed, the Likud probably lost a lot of support because of its capitalist reforms that didn't go over so well in a socialist-leaning state. Indeed, the ruling coalition might very well be made up of Kadima plus a social coalition of Labor, Shas (who, like most religious Jews, tends toward the economic left), Pensioners, and Meretz, with UTJ (a Shas-like Ashkenazic party) thrown in for good measure.

Also, it proves once and for all the utter futility of the Arab vote going to separate parties. The 18% Arab minority has long clamored for equal rights, but they are shooting themselves in the foot by voting for smaller parties with no influence. The reality of Israeli politics is that no one will form a coalition with the Arab parties. As a result, issues of concern to Israel's Arab citizenry go completely ignored. Now had the Arabs voted as a bloc for one of the other parties, they would be able to stake a claim to some of their legislative goals. In fact, had they cast their support as a bloc to Labor, we'd be talking about Prime Minister Amir Peretz and a Kadima-Labor coalition that wouldn't need the ultra-religious parties or the ultra-nationalists to build a government. As it is, discrimination against Arabs is bound to continue for at least another government.

Furthermore, the Gaza pullout completely shattered the right wing. There are still a lot of rightist voters out there - rightist/nationalist parties claimed 32 seats - but they are split between the varying strategies of YB, Likud, and the National Union party. Meanwhile, the left, while smaller in number (24 seats), mostly coalesced behind Labor, giving it an almost certain spot in the government. So while the right grew in number, the left grew in power... how odd.

And what does this mean for the peace process? Labor's power might push Olmert towards trying a little harder for a negotiated peace, but the consensus right now is that Israel really doesn't have a partner to negotiate with. Talks with Abbas might continue, but thanks to Hamas' parliamentary victory earlier in the year, they probably won't go anywhere. So expect a West Bank withdrawal similar to the Gaza one to take shape later this year and to be carried out mid-2007, and expect the fence to continue being built. Though if that happens and attacks continue (as they are from Gaza), we might see a far-right government by 2010... shudder. This may be a center-left government, but the right is waiting to pounce should it fail to produce peace. Olmert, Abbas, you got one shot. Don't screw it up.

It seems we'll have to wait until after Passover to see who Olmert ultimately puts into the coalition. Labor is pretty much a given - the nationalists won't support his unilateral withdrawal plan, and a Labor-less coalition without the nationalists would be tough to pull off. Should Shas join, that'd make a 61-seat majority, and my money's on Pensioners and Meretz joining too for a nice, solid, 72-seat government.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Immigration Showdown

Yes, I know that title sounds like a game show or something. But, my faithful readers (ha!), you knew I was going to comment on the immigration reform before Congress. So here goes.

The House has passed a bill that deals with border security and enforcement but ignores the illegal immigrants here already. Not surprisingly, Tom Tancredo (the most infamous of the sodomites) is a major supporter. That being the case, I don't think sodomy is the main driving force behind this bill, though it certainly is a driving force. I wandered over to RedState to read their discussion on the issue, and it was (surprisingly enough to my liberal mind) mostly free of nativist sentiments. In fact, one poster even lamented the fact that nativists were going to distort their side of the debate.

(There were the people who thought that everyone who comes here to work should take an exam on English and on American history. News flash: most Americans would fail an exam on American history. And the exam in English is called "looking for a job that pays more than a subsistence wage.")

The House bill is driven by security and law-and-order concerns. Ironically enough, a House bill that is concerned with stopping illegal immigration and securing our borders will do neither. Woodhead's Fourth Law: If you build a better wall, someone will build a better ladder. The motivation to sneak in remains as strong as ever.

My point is that there is a difference between those who sneak into the country with honest intentions and those who sneak into the country with dishonest intentions. Those who sneak in would enter via an honest route were one available to them. Those with dishonest intentions would sneak across anyway. The key is to focus enforcement on those with dishonest intentions, and that means giving the honest ones the ability to enter the country and work.

Which brings me to the Senate Judiciary Committee's (and W's) guest-worker program, which I'll refer to as McCain-Kennedy after its sponsors. McCain-Kennedy offers current illegals the ability to stay here legally after paying a fine, and allows companies to hire guest workers who can then change jobs if they wish. The guest workers also would have an avenue to become permanent immigrants (and, presumably, citizens) should they choose to do so.

This is a better law than the House bill because it makes our immigration laws enforceable. I'm a bit worried about that fine, since I don't know how many illegals could afford to pay it. But companies are allowed to exploit illegals now because of their undocumented status - by making it possible for an undocumented worker to become legal, it gives them some rights under our system. And since previous participants in guest worker programs tended to outstay their visas, the path from guest worker to permanent resident is a good innovation.

To be quite honest with you, I still think that the idea of "illegal" immigration is somewhat un-American. I would like to see a complete liberalization of our immigration laws. Getting a work visa should be a relatively painless process occurring at the border, open to anyone who wants one. But I know that's not happening anytime soon - there are too many people (honest blue-collar workers) afraid for their jobs and too many people (sodomites) who think Latinos are a threat to our society, whatever the hell that means.

There's no proof that immigrants "take" jobs from the native-born population - in fact, the presence of immigrants may even help to create jobs. But it's easy for me to say that - I'm not the one who's afraid of having my job go to someone willing to work for less money. Furthermore, economists are divided on the issue (what a surprise) - some say that immigrants do take jobs, some say they don't. I personally think that the reason companies hire illegal immigrants is that they're easily exploitable, and ensuring that everyone here is documented would help limit that exploitability, thus taking away the competitive advantage immigrant workers "enjoy."

The best illegal-immigration-limiting policy, of course, is to help strengthen the economies of Latin American countries. That means getting rid of our farm subsidies and instituting fair free-trade agreements that benefit workers throughout the Americas. But that's not even being talked about.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Someone Just Got Fired

Here's an amusing little tale from the land of Congress - the Senate omnibus spending bill that cut such programs as Medicaid and student loans (you know, the unnecessary stuff) was not entered into the House ledger correctly. As a result, the House technically didn't pass the same bill.

The mistake was a misplaced number - a change from a 36-month limit to a 13-month limit on permanent medical equipment for Medicare recipients. Still, the law wasn't the same, and the error is significant to the tune of $2 billion.

(It would have been nice if the mistake had gone in favor of, say, student loans or Medicaid rather than Medicare. But that's another story.)

I was opposed to this bill, and would like nothing better than to see it crash and burn because the President and the Speaker weren't paying attention. I would laugh my ass off (while hoping that It seems to me that it should go back to the House, and that the efforts to keep it from doing so are just sheer laziness on the part of the Bush administration. To be sure, if it goes back for passage now, it might fail - it only passed 216-214.

I don't know how fair this is - a budget approved by both houses goes by the wayside because of a clerical error. I don't think any House members said, "well, I wasn't going to vote for this bill, but it's got a 36-month limit instead of a 13-month limit on medical equipment, so what the hell." But the rules are the rules, not that the Constitution really matters to this administration anyway.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Patriot Games

Let us take a moment and revel in a couple of facts:

1) I did not pick a single Final Four team correctly in either the NIT or the NCAA. I rock.

2) No #1 seed made it to the NCAA Final Four. Awesome.

3) George Mason. George fucking Mason. Consider me a bandwagon jumper (though I half-assedly rooted for them before, seeing as how GMU is down the street from my high school). I saw a GMU game once. They were playing William and Mary. The Patriot Center had fewer people in it then than it did for my high school graduation. I took the GRE at George Mason. I took waltz lessons at George Mason (don't ask). The coolness of this cannot be described.

4) During the GMU-Wichita State game, the announcer said the following regarding a GMU player: "He's coming out for a blow." No wonder GMU's in the Final Four.

Update: Fuck you, ESPN, for stealing my post title. Yeah, it was a blindingly obvious pun, but I thought of it first, dammit!

Friday, March 24, 2006

You Only Need To Watch The Last Minute

Wow. After the Colbert Report last night, I got treated to some awesome basketball. First I watched West Virginia hit a last-second three to tie the game... only to have Texas hit a last-seconder three to win. Then, I saw UCLA beat Gonzaga in a crazy follow-the-bouncing-ball finale. (Though that had to be the worst officiated game of the decade. Seriously, the stripes were making up fouls on both sides of the ball. That last one on Batista was completely pulled out of the refs' asses. It was worse than FSU-USC's game clock issues.)

I'm going to bed now. Later.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Pointless Rant

Allow me to rant on a very delicate topic, and thus offend numerous people.

For weeks, even months now, I have been not-so-patiently awaiting the publication of Colson Whitehead's new novel. If you are unfamiliar with Whitehead, I encourage you to check him out. His two novels, "The Intuitionist" and "John Henry Days," are two of the most imaginative books I've read. He's currently #3 on my list of favorite authors (behind Tom Robbins and Margaret Atwood). And his new book, "Apex Heals the Hurt," came out this month. So I was stoked.

I walked over to Borders to pick up a copy. I looked in the "literature" section where most non-mystery and non-scifi/fantasy authors can be found ("literature" includes everyone from James Joyce to "Shopaholic" Sophie Kinsella). No "Apex." Not even "The Intuitionist," which was a relatively popular book. Confused, I used the "Title Sleuth," Borders' in-store computer directory. I discovered that Whitehead's books were in the store - in the "African-American Fiction" section.

"African-American Fiction?" Why the hell is my bookstore segregated?

Seriously, does Borders think books like "Invisible Man" or novelists like Toni Morrison and Richard Wright - and Colson Whitehead - are only accessible to people with a certain skin pigmentation? I know I'll never experience personally the kind of soul-crushing discrimination and abuse related in "Invisible Man" - but that doesn't make the book any less powerful or any less great.

Here's my point - it is an insult to black authors, or any group of authors, to place their books in a separate section because of their ethnicity/skin color/what have you. Not only that, it sends a message to non-black readers that these books "aren't for them." Chaim Potok isn't just for the Jews, Margaret Atwood isn't just for women, and Amy Tan isn't just for Chinese-Americans - why should Zora Neale Hurston be just for black people? The segregation of black authors "otherizes" them and their work and takes away from what should be considered, quite simply, great literature.

Is This A Bad Sign?

Is it a bad thing when you read the headline "Cardinals Meet to Advise Pope" and begin wondering how Tony La Russa pulled that off?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Ben pointed out that I had managed to put up my last post twice. Sorry about that. Problem is now fixed.

What Is It Good For?

Three years ago Sunday, our country embarked on a war it was not prepared for. Now, we find ourselves wondering what to do with the mess we've made.

And make no mistake, it is a mess. The media do make things look worse than they are, but that doesn't mean that things are good over there. The bombings are still a daily occurrence. There may not have been an al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the war, but there sure as hell is one there now. The whole country is beset by sectarian tensions that make the Northern Irish look like campfire hippies. Ayad Allawi himself says Iraq is in a civil war. Worse, our leaders don't seem to have any idea what's going on.

The question often arises of what the hell we should do now. Should we pull out and pretend like this never happened, hoping things work out for the best? Should we stick around for a while and see if we can make things a little bit better? Should we occupy the place indefinitely?

Well, I personally don't think immediate withdrawal is an option. Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" may not be the policy at Pottery Barn, but it's proving to be the policy with invasions. We made a mess, we clean it up. The weaker we leave the central government, the more influence radicals and terrorists will have.

The threat of an unstable Iraq is bad, but is the threat of an Iranian-controlled Iraq worse? That's a possible path if we help stabilize the central government. However, I would rather have an Iranian ally in Baghdad than mass chaos. You can deal with an organization better than you can deal with disorganization.

We have the further problem that our very presence empowers the radicals who feed on nativist sentiment and occupation self-pity. Which means we need to lower our ostensible footprint in the country, but not leave it completely. We're left with an unfortunate choice between being seen as an oppressor and being seen as an abandoner. Which means we have to be there as nothing more than the muscle - political theorists would call us the "monopoly on force" - for the elected Iraqi government.

So I think we're there now, for better or worse, whether or not we should have been there in the first place. I am extremely worried that we're afflicted with a president and a civilian leadership who aren't doing their job in assessing the situation and coming up with strategy. We can only hope that they don't actually believe the bullshit that they're feeding the media, that Cheney doesn't actually think that the current state of affairs in Iraq is how liberators are generally welcomed, etc. Don't hold your breath, though - I don't think we can expect competent leadership in Iraq until 2009 at the earliest.

And don't expect victory to look like we want it to look. Chances are that we're not going to end up with a pluralist democracy that respects minority rights. Islamic law will likely be instituted in some way, shape, or form. The best we can realistically plan for right now is stability - after that, we can work for human rights.

Which brings me to Afghanistan. Folks, this is pretty scary, if not surprising. I don't think that anyone expected the Afghanis to accept freedom of religion overnight, but this proves how important the religious conservatives still are. If the supposedly moderate central government that we're supporting can do this sort of thing, what, exactly, did we accomplish? Is our silent disengagement from Afghanistan allowing them to slip back into the cold comfort of extremism? Or is our footprint there creating a backlash similar to the one we're experiencing in Iraq?

I don't know. I don't think anyone does.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Ban The FCC

Yes, folks, the Full of Crap Commission has issued a new round of fines, and the Washington Post's editorial page is there. Among those things fined: Martin Scorsese's documentary of the blues. Apparently someone somewhere cussed. It didn't follow the "Saving Private Ryan" rule of necessary profanity.

Because the most disturbing thing about "Saving Private Ryan" was the profanity.

I'm reminded of the words of Mrs. Broflovsky from "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut": "Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words."

Seriously, do we even need the FCC anymore? Now that we have satellite radio and cable, someone somewhere will be making some family-friendly programming. It's out there now, even if you have to keep the TV tuned to ABC Family and the Disney Channel. And now that previews for TV programs and ratings are easily accessible to most people, parents have unprecedented control over what their kids are able to watch.

Oh, and there's also other forms of entertainment that are not on the tube. As Peter Falk says in "The Princess Bride": "In my day, TV was called 'books.'"

So seriously, FCC. Come down from your stupid power trip and stop pretending like your inane little rules matter.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

More Drug War Silliness

I wonder how much money the U.S. government wasted bringing this guy to justice. I'm not a big fan of marijuana, but I have absolutely no idea why it's illegal. Even if we do accept its illegality, I certainly don't think we ought to be trampling on the sovereignty of our closest ally in order to enforce one of our less important laws. If this guy were a mass murderer, a terrorist, a counterfeiter, sure. But a marijuana peddler? We invade Canada to shut down a pot shop? Stupid, stupid, stupid.

What also bugs me is that the DEA was trying to deal a blow to the marijuana legalization movement. I don't know how the DEA thought it had the duty to quash dissent on this issue, but that's a notion it needs to be relieved of post-haste. Honestly, if I were a DEA agent, I'd welcome the legalization of marijuana... less work for me.

On an unrelated note, congratulations to Eliot Spitzer and the rest of the state AGs for successfully getting the courts to strike down Bush's weak pollution standards. Of course, Congress will probably repeal the old ones anyway, but it's good to know that at least someone thinks that the President should listen to Congress on something.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Whether Right Or Wrong, You Belong

A lot of criticism has been leveled at the NCAA tournament selection process in recent years - and this year seems to have created a larger firestorm than usual. The exclusion of teams like Missouri State, Michigan, and Cincinnati in favor of Utah State, Air Force, and Bradley got a lot of criticism. The inclusion of four teams from the Missouri Valley and two teams from the Colonial got even more. And the automatic-bid rule for conference champs is always fodder for controversy.

The former criticisms may be justified, especially because Utah State and Air Force were soundly beaten. (As I write this, Bradley is leading Kansas midway through the first half, but I don't expect that to last.) But one expects 12/13 seeds to be soundly beaten, and there's no reason to believe that Michigan or Cincy would have fared any better against two teams that are only a year removed from being #1 seeds.

The problem is not that the wrong teams get in, but that there are so many teams that could be right. To this point, only one team in this entire tournament - A-Sun champ Belmont - looked like it didn't belong. Auto-bid winners have held their own; Northwestern State shocked Iowa, Winthrop played even with Tennessee, Oral Roberts gave Memphis a scare, and Albany led Connecticut by twelve late in the second half before finally succumbing. Those mid-major at-large teams haven't done too badly either; George Mason beat Michigan State even without their cock-punching guard, Northern Iowa gave Georgetown all they could handle, and Wichita State soundly trounced Seton Hall (another questionable inclusion).

Throw in the excitement created by Monmouth, Davidson, and (as of now) Murray State and Bradley, and this is probably the most even top-to-bottom tournament field in years. Sure, at least ten NIT teams could be here, but I don't think their inclusion would make things significantly more competitive. So let's cut the selection committee some slack, because all the teams they picked have proven that they belong in this tournament.

Update: Bradley ended up beating Kansas, 77-73. So much for that being a dubious pick. I humbly accept your extended central manual appendage, Bradley Nation.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

What's The Matter With Kansas?

This question was posed some years ago by political scientist Thomas Frank. I think Campus Progress just answered: sexual frustration.

There are so many things wrong with this law that I don't know where to begin. First, criminalizing any consensual sexual act is incredibly moronic. Second, presuming that all sexual contact between teenagers is "abuse" is a ridiculous premise. I know I wouldn't have considered it "abusive." Third, there's that whole right to privacy thing. Fourth, and most inanely, the dumbass pushing the law says that it's there to "help" sexually active teenagers.

You want to help horny young people? Teach them protection methods. But for the love of God, let young people decide for themselves how to handle their own sexuality. Big Brother shouldn't be in anyone's bedroom, Little Brother (and Sister) included.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Long Time, No Blog

Since I haven't blogged in a while, there's a couple of short things I'd like to say, just so you know I haven't vanished off the face of the earth...

First: Russ Feingold. Whatever you think about his attempt to censure the President, you have to admit that the man has large brass balls. The fact that the Democrats can't get behind this motion means that it's doomed to blow up in his face, but you can't fault the man for trying.

There's a lyric from a Garth Brooks song I like (shocking, I know) that was written right after the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil back in 1995. The line is: "what I do is so this world will know that it will not change me." Feingold is one of the few who realizes that the terrorists must be told in no uncertain terms that they are not going to change us. The terrorists should not be allowed to turn us away from our democracy or our system of government complete with separation of powers, transparency, and all that other cool stuff. Perhaps surveillance programs are necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, but there are legal avenues we can pursue to put effective security programs in place. By circumventing the legal avenues for approval of such programs, and by asserting executive authority where there previously was none, President Bush has fundamentally changed us, and as a result, has made our government less American. For that, he deserves a censure.

Feingold's stand is representative of a different point of view - we won't let the terrorists change the way we do things. We'll keep our homeland secure and still respect our Constitution. In that sense, he's the strong leader Bush aspires to be.

Now if only the rest of his party would

Second: Dubai. So apparently most Americans didn't care that our port security would have still been run by the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs. Or that the same longshoremen would still be unloading the containers. Or that the real problem with port security was the fact that some 5% of containers are inspected before they are unloaded. Nope, all most Americans cared about was the fact that a company owned by Arabs would be making money off of our ports. As a result, we've tarnished an alliance with one of the few stable states over there and made ourselves look even worse in the Middle East than we did before. Good job, folks.

And furthermore, could you stop saying that two of the 9/11 hijackers were from Dubai as if that's something important? Timothy McVeigh was from New York State. Guess that makes all New Yorkers threats to bomb federal buildings.

Third: NCAAs/NIT. Vandy plays Notre Dame tonight. Go 'Dores!

As for the tournaments themselves, read Andy's blog about them. The NIT promises to be a good tournament this year, with Maryland, Cincinnati (sp?), Michigan, Oklahoma State, Louisville and RPI top-20 Missouri State all playing. We have the sheer breadth of this year's NCAA bubble - and the utter mediocrity of any team not named Duke, Connecticut, or Villanova - for this. I honestly wouldn't be too surprised to see Oral Fixation... er, I mean Oral Roberts make it to the Sweet 16.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

I Wasn't Using That Freedom Anyway

Leah links to a story about how only one in 1,000 Americans can name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Meanwhile, Wonkette notes that apparently our armed forces - or at least the Marines - don't actually get to enjoy those freedoms. Hmmm... those protecting our freedoms don't get to enjoy the freedoms they're protecting. Yeah, that seems fair. Refreshments fans, you know what I'm referring to.

Of course, high school kids still don't understand the First Amendment. This is probably because adults don't get it either. You also have to wonder how many people know what the Fourth Amendment guarantees. Or used to guarantee, before the Bush Administration turned it into so much parchment confetti.

One wonders why the ACLU gets such a bad rap. I guess it's tough to get the adulation you deserve when you're defending rights people don't even know about. Like the free exercise of religion. Or free speech. Or Rush Limbaugh's right to privacy.

I wonder how many people out there are waving the "free expression" banner about the cartoon thing while simultaneously supporting laws making flag burning illegal. Well, if that article Leah links to is right, 999 out of 1000.

Oh well. At least this is spiffy.