Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Economist Gets It Wrong

The Economist issues its diagnosis of what's wrong with America's governing system and declares it is because Obama hasn't given enough ground to the Republicans.
It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours. If, instead of handing over health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill.
Wrong!  Obama did offer to negotiate over tort reform and was rebuffed by the Republicans.  And what of the three months was given over to Finance Chair Sen. Max Baucus to come up with a bipartisan healthcare reform bill?  The strategy of the Republicans, which Sen. Grassley, minority leader of the committee, explicitly gave away, was to slow the process down and hope that lighten would strike and kill the bill.  Sure enough, lighten struck in Massachusetts, but didn't quite kill it.

But for the Economist to totally absolve the Republicans for any responsibility for the gridlock in Washington is laughable.  They are tacitly portrayed as this poor, ignored collection of principled conservatives.  When, in fact, they are a wrecking crew, bent on the destruction of the Obama presidency.

As Obama has learned, it is very hard to find common ground with people whose fondest wish is your utter failure.

Bye, Bye Bayh

Robert Borosage nails Sen. Evan Bayh for his sanctimonious exit:

The harsh reality is that Bayh has been wrong about virtually everything. And the country suffers not because partisanship blocked action, but because the establishment consensus got too much of his agenda enacted.

Bayh supported the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. He joined the bipartisan celebration of banking deregulation. He favors more military spending. He favored tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in an age of Gilded Age inequality. He was an advocate of corporate free trade policies that encouraged multinationals to ship jobs to a mercantilist China willing to subsidize them. He's a champion of bipartisanship -- bipartisan folly.

Even in his departing, he got it wrong. Bayh announced on CBS's Early Show that he was looking for a job in the private sector because "If I could create one job in the private sector by helping to grow a business, that would be one more than Congress has created in the last six months," This echoes the Republican assault on the recovery plan as summarized by newly elected Senate Scott Brown of Massachusetts, that the stimulus plan "didn't create one new job."

These moderates are so damned frustrating.  They build their identity around the fact that the best policy lies somewhere between what Democrats want and what Republicans want.  If all sides were operating good faith, this might work some of the time.  But when what one party wants is for the other party to fail, the concept breaks down.  Then, all the moderates do is facilitate a nihilistic approach to government by creating gridlock.

So, here we are the Republicans, who handed Obama two unfinished wars and an economy heading into another depression, have had some success painting Democrats as either incompetent failures who can't get anything done or successful socialists who are taking the country into the dictatorship of the proletariat.  And the result, if achieve their goal, will be to hand the government back to them to do it all again.


Thursday, February 18, 2010


I saw the movie Avatar and liked it a lot.  Of course, it is visually dazzling.  Despite the hype, it lives up to expectations in the 3D viewing.  You very quickly forget you're watch 3D and just become immersed in the movie or, more specifically, in the planet Pandora.

I haven't read a lot of reviews of Avatar, but, just through scanning, I have some familiarity with various issues and controversies surrounding the film.  So, I'll just touch upon my view on a couple of them.

The plot, while very satisfying, is also very familiar.  If you go to the effort, you can pretty much figure out everything that's going to happen in the movie after the first few minutes.  My advice is, don't go to the effort.  It's more fun.  Let your "willing suspension of disbelief" take over.

The religious overtones of the movie are interesting.  I've heard some Christians have criticized the movie as a paean to pantheism, which, in their minds, is barely one step up from atheism.  I disagree. Pantheism is the believe that everything is God and God is impersonal and inscrutable.  In this movie, the deity, while inscrutable, does actually seems to intervene in nature when asked to do so by the Na'Vi, much like Christians believe their God does.  If anything, contrary to the Hollywood stereotype, I thought the movie showed a great respect for religion.

One aspect of the movie, however, confirms the Hollywood stereotype of the "self-hating American."  The movie clearly depicts American-type characters as the bad guys.  It's no mystery why this movie is so popular in China. People wait for hours there to get in to see it. It can really be seen as an allegory on Western imperialism.  The top military bad guy is a caricature of the ugly American.  And the civilian businessman is even worse, since he clearly knows what they are doing is wrong and is too timid to stop it.  Of course, even Director James Cameron succumbs to American movie stereotypes, since the hero is also a white American male who saves the seemingly powerless natives.  And, while the religion does not contradict Christianity, in my view, it does seem more Eastern than Western, which would also appeal to Chinese sensibilities.

So, the plot, while predictable, is deep enough to generate controversy and discussion. That's good.  But it's not about the plot.  It's about the visuals, which are stunning.  You can truly understand why this movie took ten years to make.  While I didn't even know it was in the making until it came out, it was worth the wait.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sid Ceasar Does Beethoven

The Huffington Post has a great feature, the 29 funniest music videos of all time.  Many are familiar, like Steve Martin's King Tut, Andy Kaufman's Might Mouse and Monty Python's Bright Side of Life.  But my favorite combines my love of Beethoven with that of black and white TV (broadcast TV at its best).  It's probably from the 1950's and has Sid Ceasar conducting an marital argument to the First Movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  It is hysterical.  You really have to watch the whole 5 minute clip to appreciate it.  It's done so well that it looks like Beethoven had this in mind when he wrote the piece.  Check it out.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A Star is Born

I hope this Rahm Emmanuel spoof becomes a regular feature on SNL.  This guy is good!

Ted Koppel at 70

Today is Ted Koppel's Birthday.  He turns 70 years old and I'm sure he's going strong. 

I met Ted Koppel briefly some years ago.  We were both on a small plane going into Marco Island, I think.  I was attending the meeting of my client, the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS).  Ted looked like he was heading for vacation.  As we walked across the tarmac to the terminal, I used the opportunity to test a proposition.  As PR consultant to STS, I had been telling them that a big problem they had was that nobody knew what they did.  In fact, nobody knew what the word "thoracic" meant.  As a result, despite their life-saving activities at the very top of the medical profession, they had little public support when they complained that payment for their services was actually declining, just when we would be needing them most.  For the record, "thoracic" means chest area.  They are heart and lung surgeons.

So, I thought, "I wonder if a very smart and influential guy like Ted Koppel knows what a thoracic surgeon does?"  So, this exchange took place:

"Mr. Koppel, hi, I'm Bill Black.  I'm a consultant for the thoracic surgeons.  Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"No, go ahead."

"Can you tell me what a thoracic surgeon does?"

"Sure.  Operates on the throat."

"Sorry, no.  They are heart surgeons and you've given me a great anecdote."

"Fine," Koppel says with a disgusted wave of his hand, "There's your anecdote."  And he marched off, clearly pissed.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

My Kind of Weatherman

He LOVES this!


There are few things in life more transcendentally beautiful than the morning after a big snowstorm. And there is nothing in life that brings such beauty to your doorstep.

I experience this beauty this morning at about 7 am with vigorous trudge three blocks to Rock Creek Park. The sites and sounds were exquisite. While there was the muffling effect of snow and a low wind, there were also, surprisingly, bird calls. What hardy creatures to have made it through a night of blizzard conditions.

The snow was above my knees, which made trudging laborious. In some spots it reached my upper thigh. One neighbor was out shoveling to "get ahead of the storm." He explained that he had shoveled the night before and all his work was blown away. Of course, there's supposed to be another blast this afternoon, which will likely blown his morning's work away, as well.

I'm such a snow junky that my expectations are rarely satisfied by the actual storm. This one did it. And it ain't over yet.


Friday, February 05, 2010

A Beautiful Reminiscence

A very sweet column in the Washington Post by Rachel Machaud remembering snowstorms past.  It truly resonated with me.  I have deep, but vague, memories of confronting the snow with my father.  Unlike Rachel's Dad, my father didn't get paid for his work.  He was the one everyone called to get their stuck car moving, to put on the chains, etc., etc.  But it was friends and family.  And I was his sidekick.  Of course, I hated it at the time.  But I do have fond memories of being up before dawn with him on snowy mornings when school was canceled.   Here's Ms. Machaud's memory:

It is still dark when my father shakes me, cold seeming to radiate from his outside clothes. He touches my shoulder, not wanting to wake my sister in the twin bed.

"I'm awake. I'm awake," I say.

He leaves, and I go to the bathroom, where I put on layers of clothes, nothing good that will get dirty or torn. I walk downstairs and head out to his truck.

While my specifics are different, the mood is very familiar.  It honestly brings a tear to my eye as I think about, and miss, my father.  Another such memory is evoked by a poem by Robert Hayden called, Those Winter Sundays.  Here's an excerpt:
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Then with cracked hands that ached
From labor in the weekday weather made
Banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.
My father died at age 52 when I was 17 years old.  He remains with me in spirit. Maybe it's these kinds of memories that make me love the snow.

Bring it on!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

This is why I love Andrew Sullivan

New Favorite Blog

I've only recently discovered The Capitol Weather Gang, a Washington Post weather blog.  Finally, weather reports that don't bemoan the terrible weather we're about to get.  Or that celebrate the fact that "we dodged the bullet." 

I want the bullet!  Bring it on!  I love big snowstorms and so, apparently, do the people behind the Capitol Weather Gang.  With a mega storm coming, I'm checking it almost as much as I check Talking Points Memo.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Reality Check

I truly love this post by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.  I get very frustrated with all the "experts" who know what the Democrats should or shouldn't do to improve their political situation.  They all seem to have this view that the Democrats on the Hill, both House and Senate, are a bunch of dummies.  Having worked there, I know that there are very smart, well-motivated people running the Congress.  And those of us on the outside can't possibly know the problems they confront, both in terms of policy and politics.  Yes, it is clear that Republicans are more ruthless and more cynical in how they conduct themselves.  I'm fine with us being less ruthless and less cynical.  Josh is truly an adult who keeps things in perspective when he writes:
But I don't think anybody with half a brain (and maybe that excludes more people than it should) doesn't realize that the Democrats problems are overwhelmingly tied to the fact that we're in the midst of the worst recession since the end of the Second World War. Whether it's 75% of the problem or 80% or 90% I sort of go back and forth on in my mind. But clearly this is overwhelmingly the issue.
That said, for the life of me, I can understand why they haven't passed the Senate bill with the reconciliation fix on healthcare.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Religion as a Means, not an End

I am a fan of C.S. Lewis, particularly his Christian apologetics. I find him to be the most intellectually satisfying defender of Christianity that I have read. He is brilliant, creative and honest. And he gives due deference to contrary arguments from skeptics. One of his most creative works is The Screwtape Letters, a book in which the "narrator" is a senior level demon, working for Satan, who is advising a "nephew," an up and coming demon, on how to lead a particular human away from God and toward the dark side. So, he cleverly describes various modes of thinking and behaving that tend to lead humans astray and explains how his nephew can encourage those behaviors.

I've been re-reading Screwtape and was struck by the following quote, which I think effectively describes the Christian Right in America in the last 30 years. They use their religion as a political weapon to achieve temporal ends. Bear in mind, Lewis is writing this during World War II and Screwtape is explaining how to push a mode of thought that leads to evil. If C.S. Lewis has it right, these "Christianists" are in for a surprise on judgment day. (emphasis added)
Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the "cause", in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more "religious" (on those terms) the more securely