Monday, January 24, 2011

Bring Back Partisanship!

Just because Nancy Pelosi can't count votes and Harry Reid lacks the stomach to put the nutwing in its place and a part of the electorate thinks Glenn Beck is the new Aristotle, it doesn't mean that it's wrong to be partisan as an adherent to a cause.

Granted, the Republicrats in Congress don't much cotton to causes, beliefs or allegiances of any substance. Their goal in life is to get re-elected and protect the gravy train for wealthy people like themselves.

Conservatives say they are for principles. But let's look at the record. Being red-meat macho about war didn't prevent George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from running away from Vietnam like pansies. Nor did the much vaunted family values keep Newt Gingrich from adultery with a choirsinger while his wife was dying of cancer. Larry (men's room staller) Craig became the poster child for closeted homosexuality, against homophobic speech he's ever delivered.

And all Republicans claim they're all against abortion, but they never passed a ban while they were in the majority in both houses of Congress.

The liberals are not much better. They're for the common man, except when they're making zillions off tort litigation at his expense (John Edwards) or being unable to find a health insurance lobby they didn't like (Max Baucus). They promise change, except when they don't (Barack Obama).

Most, like famous drunken driver Ted Kennedy, were born with a silver spoon and if all their posturing doesn't help anybody, well that's no skin off their noses.

So let's stop pretending to make nice by avoiding the word "kill" in figurative senses, such as the poorly named Repealing the Job-Killing Health-Care Law Act, which they knew damn well would not repeal a damn thing.

Americans disagree profoundly about important things. We have a constitutional right to disagree and to express that disagreement, even in tasteless or hyperbolic terms.

We also have a right to be represented. I don't want the people's representatives pretending we all love each other, when we really don't. There's an good fight to be fought. They're wrong and we're right. Bring it on!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Good ol' Kafka University tells me I never graduated

Imagine that you're an established professional of many years. You get nostalgic for the days of yore and go to your alma mater's Web site, find that unlike every other school, they don't sell bumperstickers and other alum stuff. Then you see an offer of a free alum card ...

I can't resist a freebie. With this card I can go use the gym for free. Of course, the trip there would cost a bit, what with the two-hour flight (or was it three?) from my present lair to the haunts where I wrote faux-beat poetry.

But then, a kindly soul in the alumni office tells me that there doesn't seem to be a record of my graduation. I knew there was a reason they wouldn't admit me to MIT's PhD program in rocket science!

All these years I thought I was at least a university graduate. Do note: in Canada, my spiritual homeland, we go to "university," not merely "college." And in Montreal they have (had?) something called Collège d'Enseignement Général Et Professionnel, that everyone calls merely CEGEP (say-JEHP), so that a B.A. or B.S. takes five years, not four.

That's one way to keep youth unemployment down, eh?

Anyway, by now we've exchanged the requisite correspondence and thanks to VG and AR (you know who you are) I have just had my Dustin Hoffman moment: I'm a graduate!

OK, so it's 35 years later, but who's counting when you're having fun.

Kafka University prepared me well for life. I've had my identity stolen years before anyone knew of such a thing (try to imagine a Social Security Administration staffer showing you your record, then asking, "Are you sure that's not your mother?").

I am a walking, talking opposite profile of The Unknown Citizen, of whom W.H. Auden wrote
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint
Yet my record keepers at Kafka University, along with the denizens of various bureaucracies through which I have traversed, unwillingly likely share the view Auden's citizen-keepers
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

A headline's echo of 1963

For years grizzled old journalists bored cub reporters with the tale of the wire correspondent who became nearly incoherent one November Friday afternoon in Dallas. Yesterday, the French paper Le Monde offered an echo of what happens when the media megaphone tries to react to unexpected tragedy.

You could find it in the feed*  hours later.

As news flashed around the world of the shooting of Rep Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz), some editor in Paris stuck with the Saturday morning shift assumed the worst and dashed off this headline for the Web:

Une parlementaire américaine tuée dans une fusillade

Translation — An American legislator killed amid gunfire.

Indeed, the first graf of the initial story said: Une parlementaire américaine et six autres personnes ont été tuées samedi dans l'Arizona par un tireur qui a ouvert le feu au cours d'un meeting. (U.S. congresswoman and six others were killed Saturday in Arizona by a gunman who opened fire during a rally.)

It's an easy mistake to make. Indeed, that was initial assumption. Who survives a gunshot to the head?

Anyone who has ever been stuck in the middle of breaking news knows the initial cacophony right after a startling, shocking and unexpected event. I witnessed the oh-so-macho George W. Bush White House employees skitter out in what was an obvious panic attack in the first hour of the Sept. 11, 2001, events. Even chicken hawk Georgie Porgie himself scrambled to a bunker in Nebraska.

Of course, some people simply act in disregard of their own well-being. Such as the now-dubbed "hero intern" Daniel Hernandez whose quick moves essentially saved Gifford's life.

In journalism, such adrenalin-pumped responses are not uncommon among war correspondents. One reporter whose family I knew got himself blown up as he tinkered in fascination with an improvised Viet Cong grenade.

Then there's the surviving film by a Swedish-Argentine video journalist Leonardo Henrichsen in Santiago, Chile, during the Pinochet 1973 coup. He was manning the camera.

You see the images keeps rolling as soldiers approach to shut his filming (for Swedish television), it tumbles and shows the lens-eye's last skaky views, then it goes black. Henrichsen was killed on the spot.

Now if you click on LeMonde's feed on the Gifford shooting you still get the dramatic, but more accurate

Etats-Unis : une députée entre la vie et la mort après une fusillade

Translation — United States: a congresswoman between life and death after a fusillade.

By the Orwellian magic of the Web, the newspaper goof never happened. Except it did.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Pound foolish about welfare fraud

A new year's clean slate and little happening forces the journalist to end up burrowing through piles of audits to find news. Here's my perennial beef about almost all of the investigating: it's all focused on penny-ante small-time pilfering by individuals, not the big money corporate ripoffs.

An appointee steers contracts to favored consulting firms? The fine tooth comb is used to qualify everything until the misdeed is found either negligible or not subject to proof.

But let someone, usually someone none too smart, chisel a dime here or there to feed his or her family and the Marines get called in. There was even a Republican president who lied and slandered and racially stereotyped people with a claim about an alleged "welfare queen" that turned out to be false.

We could give away public assistance to everyone who said they needed it (frankly, it's not much to begin with), without verifying their papers and we'd save tons on paperwork and bureaucracy, to which a substantial portion of the money goes.

All told the real and significant corruption is corporate, not individual.They get contracts for millions for services they perform poorly, at very low cost or not at all. In contrast, the average individual gets, at most, a below-poverty income. Time to refocus accountability on the private sector's use of the public dime.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Consumer Rights in a Corporate Internet

Now that the Internet is about to be swallowed up by governments and giant multinational corporations, let's assert some basic rights as consumers. After all, if it's just going to be a service we pay for, let's get our money's worth, at a minimum.

If the United States of MicroVeriGoo will be in charge, on our dime, let's demand:
  • no more tweeting and status-updating involving the trivia of everyday life (we don't care what you're cooking for dinner);
  • no more endless comments by people who obviously have never read the words they're attempting to write (we do so need edyucashun);
  • no more scams, by Nigerians or European software companies alike; and
  • no more spam.
If the USM can't do that, let's just take our business elsewhere. (Fidonet, here we return ...)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011: the year without heroes

Call me naïve, but for most of my life I have had heroes, seemingly immutable principles, beliefs and hopes and even faith. Each has peeled off me like the skins of an onion until coming to believe in nothing much, eschew hope, deem most principles self-serving and finding malleable clay at the feet of all my heroic statuary.

My first heroes were, of course, the simple projections of a child. John F. Kennedy, John XXIII. Later I reveled in the contemporary literary figures such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Heinrich Böll, Nikos Kazantzakis. As a journalist, my patron saints were H.L. Mencken and I.F. Stone and Seymour Hersch.

Indeed, the latter's Dark Side of Camelot, which I lacked the stomach to finish, slayed the moral standing of my beloved Bobbie Kennedy as surely a St. George skewered the dragon. Robert F. Kennedy remains at best an outstanding stylist, as evidenced in the exquisitely prose in Thirteen Days -- assuming it was not the work of a ghostwriter, as his golden speeches were.

There were many other admirable figures, Alexander Dubcek, Pierre Trudeau, Hannah Arendt, over the years but none set in bronze or stone as notably as the first ones. None all that larger in life than the professors or most brilliant fellow students or colleagues.

By the time Barack Obama came along in 2008, with oratory that exuded an inspiring whiff of Camelot, the hero was a relatively pedestrian figure, no longer riding a grand white horse. Obama promised -- he did promise, whatever the White House hacks now want to say -- to set in motion at last many of the much needed changes in our society and, indeed, the world.

To say he has disappointed is an understatement.

We are entering this year an age of mental midgets and grand demagogues and no religion, ideology, or idea has been left standing to hold up as a yardstick, a goal or an aspiration. 2011 is the year without heroes, without hope, the year of muddling through.