Tuesday, September 30, 2003


The GOP seems to have moved on from remarks made by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy about Iraq. For a while, the entire party seemed to be writhing wild-eyed, frothing at the mouth, over Kennedy’s assertion Sept. 18 that the Iraq war “was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud.”

Now, President Bush happens to go to Texas a lot, so if it matters where the plan was made up, Texas is as good a guess as any. And anyone who doesn’t think Bush had made up his mind in January that we were attacking Iraq might want to, at the very least, check out that month’s State of the Union address. It’s also not so farfetched that Bush would have told fellow top Republicans. And, in fact, it’s undeniable war is good politically for the party in power.

And a war could reasonably be called a fraud if it was based on threats of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare in the hands of a man linked to 9/11 perpetrators Al Qaeda ... but results in no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or meaningful links to Al Qaeda or 9/11. Especially if defectors, U.N. weapons inspectors, CIA agents and special envoys to Africa offered intelligence that the war was unnecessary, but were brushed aside.

Anyway, here were some Republican reactions to Kennedy’s words, with my snippy comments:

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens: “Anybody who has been to as many funerals as I have of Colorado soldiers who've died serving their country in Afghanistan and Iraq has to in fact find what Senator Kennedy said today to be extremely disturbing and at significant variance with the facts.” (Owens could attend a thousand more funerals of soldiers who died in Iraq, but they still wouldn’t have anything to do with what Kennedy said -- except that it would be a thousand more people who died for no other reason than that Bush wanted a war.)

U.S. Sen John Warner, of Virginia: “I think some of those comments have no place in the dialogue of the Congress of the United States when it is our mission specifically to protect the men and women of the armed forces and their families.” (Another complete non sequitur, if that’s not too redundant, but it should be pointed out that a good way to protect the men and women of the armed forces is not to send them off on a pointless war of choice.)

Vermont Gov. James Douglas: “To undermine or to impugn the motives of the president and all those who voted to do this and call it a political game or calculation I think is totally out of bounds, totally inappropriate.” (No comment needed.)

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: “I hope that we will not fall into the temptation to establish political policy or take political shots based on what we find out after the fact.” (No, by all means, let’s not say anything based on new information. In fact, why find out anything ever? I think we know enough stuff now, and we can just keep talking about that.)

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay: “A new low ... (comments) as disgusting as they are false ... it's disturbing that Democrats have spewed more hateful rhetoric at President Bush than they ever did at Saddam Hussein.” (No comment needed.)

White House spokesman Scott McClellan: Kennedy's comment “obscures the real policy debate, which is how we make America safer in a post-Sept. 11 world. Sept. 11 taught us we need to confront new threats before they reach our shores.” (Actually, Kennedy’s comments were dead on concerning how to make America safer in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, since Bush painted Iraq as a threat, which he wasn’t, and since the war has arguably made America less safe by enraging, and creating, Islamists and terrorists.)

And my favorite, yet another classic non sequitur:

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas. “I have great respect for Senator Kennedy, but I think that is a slur on my home state. I want to remind the people of America that Texas is a patriotic state.” (Good thing Kennedy didn’t bring up Waco or the assassination of President Kennedy! Because we all know that if something happens in a state, the entire state’s to blame for it. A fine attempt by Hutchison to smear Kennedy by implying he smeared Texas.)

The comments of Boston Herald columnist Cosmo Macero Jr. were far more measured and reasonable. Although he compared Kennedy’s words with treason (“Kennedy has rolled a live grenade into the tent,” Macero wrote on Sept. 26, alluding to an attack in late March in which a U.S. Army soldier was accused of doing just that to fellow soldiers), Macero used his column to chide Kennedy for making statements that put military funding for his home state at risk.

“The Soldier Systems Center, otherwise known as Natick Labs, was already vulnerable to the latest Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure process -- for which criteria will be established by February,” Macero wrote. “And the fallout from this folly may not be limited to Natick, either. Hanscom Air Force Base -- which generates $3.2 billion for the regional economy and employs 3,500 -- is the focus of a major public/private drive to steer Pentagon officials away from closing or downsizing the Bedford base.”

Macero also quotes state officials in despair over Kennedy’s comments (“He is deliberately provoking the Pentagon and Bush administration at a time when we should be courting them to help save the state's economy,” one says of Kennedy).

But Kennedy’s been around too long to have spoken recklessly. My guess: He knows what he’s doing, possibly saying for the military what the military can’t say itself, possibly just because he has so much power in the Senate or political capital in general that he knows he can save military spending in Massachusetts no matter what the fallout -- but he’s not going to clue in Republican state officials whose boss twits him about taking “political shots based on what we find out after the fact.”

The military doesn’t like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Perhaps the brass are finding Bush’s hubris, for which U.S. soldiers are paying the price, just as tiresome and unwelcome.

Also, although base-closing criteria will be set in February, final recommendations don’t come until May 2005, and by then there’s likely to be a new administration in place. The president may even be a certain general who seems as unhappy with Bush, and the Iraq war, as Kennedy.

Monday, September 29, 2003


The White House had a public relations blitz going on Sunday, and I was so focused on the Condoleezza Rice angle that I missed Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comments. He appeared on ABC-TV’s “This Week,” also issuing the line of the day in defense of U.S. intelligence that seemed to justify going to war with Iraq.

Powell said, referring to Iraq throwing out U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998, that “From 1998 until we went in earlier this year, there was a period where we didn’t have benefit of U.N. inspectors actually on the ground, and our intelligence community had to do the best they could. And I think they did a pretty good job.”

This is incredible.

There were, in fact, United Nations inspectors in Iraq from late November 2002 to mid-March 2003 looking for -- and failing to find -- Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but Powell acts as though they were not there. (If you read his comment about “until we went in” to refer to inspectors, his comments make no sense, so I have to assume he’s talking about military force.)

Somehow the inspectors in Iraq until 1998 were worthy providers of intelligence, but the inspectors in Iraq for those recent three-plus months were not.

It’s worth pointing out that on Feb. 25, inspections chief Hans Blix told the United Nations that Saddam Hussein had made “positive” gestures, The Washington Post noted, “including providing new documents describing its disposal of banned weapons programs in the early 1990s,” consistent with what defector Hussein Kamel had said, and with what scores of Iraqi military officers and scientists have told us since. But “only minutes” later, Bush spoke to brush that apparent progress aside, saying to the United Nations that Hussein had “been successful at gaming the system, and our attitude is it’s now time for him to fully disarm ... now is the time.”

Inspections then: vital. Inspections this time: ignored. Yet they were one of our few sources of new intelligence, and apparently some of the only intelligence upon which we could rely.


My small museum of supermarket oddities includes a U.K. soup mix that induces giggles in the colonies. I can only guess that some supermarket manager was amused by it and slipped it into the grocery's orders. I must also guess that everyone who bought a packet bought one merely because they were amused by it. As evidence, take a look at the blog of a Floridian with whom, I swear, I've not discussed my purchase of, yes, Cock Soup.

Sunday, September 28, 2003


The wires are abuzz with excerpts from a “Fox News Sunday” interview with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. National Security Adviser, who insists President Bush had “very good intelligence going into the war” and that “nothing pointed to a reversal of Saddam Hussein's very active efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, to have very good programs in weapons of mass destruction. It was very clear that this had continued and that it was a gathering danger.”

This is nonsense.

Before our recent Iraq war, the United Nations sent inspectors into Iraq in search of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The inspectors found nothing. It was the United States, expressing impatience with the inspectors’ inability to find what it was convinced was there, that forced the end of inspections and the launch of the war.

In addition, the United States had the testimony of Hussein Kamel, who was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and had run Iraq’s weapons programs for a decade before his defection. Proponents of war used information from Kamel to discuss how large Iraq’s WMD programs were, or, rather, had once been -- without noting that Kamel had also said that “after the gulf war, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them,” according to a March 3 article in Newsweek.

Why were they destroyed? Because Saddam Hussein didn’t want U.N. weapons inspectors finding them.

Funny, isn’t it? Rice went on to say today, according to the Fox News transcript, that “Obviously, after the inspectors were kicked out (by Iraq in 1998), one source of information about his programs was lost.” But the United States clearly didn’t value inspectors as a source of information in 2003, instead deriding their efforts because they couldn’t find the weapons the Bush administration wanted them to.

Not only were the inspectors validated in finding no weapons of mass destruction; they apparently prevented Saddam Hussein from making any.

Almost as though the war was unnecessary -- at least for the reasons for which we were told we were fighting.

Saturday, September 27, 2003


The worst aspects of the federal government and New York Times were on display today, as the Census Bureau released information on U.S. poverty and the Times covered it with the all-too-typical coolly appraising smugness of a slightly brain-damaged lapdog.

Poverty is up, as expected, with those living below the poverty line rising 1.7 million people, to 34.6 million, or 12.1 percent of the population. Median household income fell by 1.1 percent. This bad news, while not that bad compared with hits the poor have taken in past recessions, was sent out with cover anyway; for the first time, it was released on a Friday (it’s usually released on a Tuesday), when media are less able to reach analysts and experts and have three days of coverage on which to concentrate -- Saturday, Sunday and Monday -- instead of one. The release also happened to coincide with the release of the latest Gross Domestic Product data, which were typically positive.

Although the White House seized the opportunity to take questions about poverty yet give answers about GDP, its official line was that the timing was a coincidence.

Here’s how the Times played it:

“This year the bureau scheduled the release for a Friday, the first time it has done so, and moved the news conference from the centrally located press club to the bureau's suburban headquarters in Suitland, Md. The switch prompted some advocates and lawmakers to speculate that the government agency had been pressured by the administration to move the date and place so that that the results, which most people expected to be worse than they were last year, would generate less attention in the weekend news cycle ...

“Census officials maintained that the delayed release had to do with nothing more than a work backlog.

“ ‘We were running into technical problems getting it all done; we were running behind,’ (a Census Bureau official) said. ‘So we decided, hey, how about some more time.’ ”

Right. The Times gets credit for citing the timing. All that credit is taken away for failing to point out that giving the bureau “more time” has sod-all to do with moving the announcement to the suburbs on a weekend afternoon/evening.

The national Press club is about a mile away from the Washington, D.C., bureau of The New York Times, or less than five minutes by car, if a reporter would have to take a car at all. The Census Bureau is 12.4 miles away by car, or about 25 minutes -- ignoring the area’s traffic, especially on a Friday rush hour, which causes weeping in otherwise stoic adults and cancer in laboratory rats.

The Times also failed to note that the figures released by the bureau are suspect, compiled with the same formula that’s been in use since the 1950s, even though the formula uses expenditures for food as its basis, and expenditures for food have dropped as a percentage of income as such things as housing and health costs have risen, and risen dramatically. This was noted in an op-ed piece the previous day in, of all places, the Times (but, as reporters anywhere will tell you in reference to their employer, “I don’t read this paper”).

The worst of this really falls to the U.S. government. It uses sleight of hand to brag about continued growth in Gross Domestic Product, showing that the economy is getting better, but GDP simply measures all production of goods and services in the United States, which has been relentlessly on the rise even as 2.7 million jobs, about 2.4 million of them in manufacturing, have been lost.

So the country is able to do more with fewer people working; after so many quarters of increasing unemployment coupled with rising productivity, why is that suddenly cause for relief? The economy has been a contradiction for at least two years, defying the predictions even of the people driving it, and I’ve certainly seen no one state that we’re at a tipping point where market behavior suddenly does a U-turn, much less starts behaving the way the president wants it to.

The Times doesn’t note, either, the essential meaninglessness of the White House’s juxtaposition of the two data sets, possibly because its coverage was rushed. It’s a disappointment, regardless -- a half-assed effort of covering officials who are trying to makes asses of all of us.

Friday, September 26, 2003


President Bush's appearance before the United Nations this past week was one of the most humiliating experiences this nation may ever have experienced.

It felt good.

Not because I hate my country, but because I love my country -- and because, like most other people, I find it a crowd-pleaser when a bully is humbled. Here's to a 2004 election that returns us to the path of lawfulness and righteousness, away from the path of deceit and arrogance.

After the election, of course, George W. Bush can tend to his ... uh ... he can, well ... well, he can give speeches, I guess. Hell, I don't know: What's Dan Quayle doing now?

Thursday, September 25, 2003


The New York Times started it: It ran a story this week about Gov. Mitt Romney’s efforts to bring the death penalty to Massachusetts. What the paper didn’t say was why Romney wanted to do so.

The Boston Herald put the death penalty effort on its front the next day, and I found that, once again, there was no motivation given. So I did a Factiva search for every Herald article including the name “Romney” and phrase “death penalty.” I looked at all 59 and found only one in which Romney states his motivation.

To read Romney’s words, you would have to go back to May 29, 1994.

There was a single other article that explains his motivation: Spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom explained it far more recently, in the June 23 issue -- but that’s still a bit of a stretch, considering it’s late September.

(The Boston Globe, with 92 articles including “Romney” and “death penalty,” is far better: Unlike the Times or Herald, it explained Romney’s reasoning in the Sept. 24 article introducing his new push. Before that, Romney was quoted Oct. 30, 2002, explaining that capital punishment “has everything to do with deterrence. I think ... you have to make sure that you send a statement loud and clear, to terrorists, to cop killers, to people who brutally mutilate and kill children, these people should know that if we find them, and if we can prove that they are guilty, that they will be subject to the ultimate penalty. People who are intent on destroying human life, and destroying everything that is valuable that we treasure ... have to recognize that they will be forced to pay the highest price.” I didn’t keep on looking through the Globe articles; I get the sense these two recent mentions aren’t flukes.)

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure. I know the Herald has published literally dozens of articles that say Romney is in favor of the death penalty, without saying why, and I feel comfortable in guessing this is a problem that goes beyond this one newspaper.

It’s a problem because it limits analysis. Romney may believe in “an eye for an eye,” and some may consider that bloodthirsty and repellent -- but buy the idea that capital punishment is a deterrent to other criminals. Romney may believe it’s a deterrent, and some may disagree -- but feel victims and their families deserve justice, to the extent that a violent criminal deserves death.

Either way, when motivation isn’t explained, readers don’t get the opportunity to assess whether they agree with the reasoning behind a policy. Without knowing Romney believes the death penalty to be a deterrent to crime, why would anyone ask if it actually is?

Motivation counts. It’s reasonable to wonder, after dozens of articles, what motivates the Herald to discount that idea.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003


Since I vented the other day about the misuse of “terror” -- meaning the word, not violent political discourse -- I may as well get “prior to” out of my system. If only I could.

“Prior to,” of course, looms large in our obsession with transforming words into other kinds of words. Some of this is acceptable, usually when language is confronted with something new and must adapt: “Google” has become so ubiquitous it’s moved from proper noun to verb, and we’re urged to “Google it” when, well, whenever anyone asks pretty much anything.

But “prior to” has no such justification, and that’s probably why it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. What the heathen have done is taken an elegant way to place something in time (“the prior day”) and twisted it into a complicated, shambling mess, a Frankenstein’s monster of a phrase (“the day that was prior to this one” or, to be more fair, “the day prior to this one”).

Even The Associated Press Stylebook urges writers to stay away from “prior to” -- a lot of good it does. The phrase is common enough that it goes unquestioned now, to the extent that sometimes the word it replaced seems to have been forgotten. I once admonished a friend for using “prior to” in an e-mail and he asked blankly, “What’s wrong with prior to?”

“What’s wrong with ‘before’?” I snapped.

A newspaper editor once noted that there is, actually, a reason to use “prior to” instead of “before,” which is to distinguish between the time element and when someone, for instance, is to appear “before the Supreme Court,” meaning “in the presence of.”

I gaped. I was astonished, because he’d completely obviated the idea of context (anyone appearing “before the Supreme Court” in the other sense would have to pop into existence in or before -- er, prior to -- 1788) and ignored the fact that most words have varying meanings. If you need creamed corn, you’ll have to open a new can, but that’s not where you go if you have to use the can. Although, I guess, if you want to, you can.

A good test of that nonsense is to consider the corollary to “prior to,” which I guess would be “subsequent to.” If the editor’s caution were a good one, this would be used in place of “after” as a time element, since “after” can also be behind physically or in rank; in search of; as a result of; in spite of; in the form of, or in honor of; or showing concern, as in someone “asking after” someone else.

Doesn’t happen. A Factiva search comparing use of the two phrases in the last year in the Boston dailies found 2,400 uses of “prior to” and -- dig this -- 10 uses of “subsequent to.”

So why is the time element “before” going the way of the dodo, while the time element “after” thrives?

Google it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003


Perhaps the headlines should have read “Media giants cruelly attacked by American people.”

That was the gist of the comments made by Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a Monday interview in The New York Times. Powell, in considering the hostility that met his commission’s deregulation of media ownership rules, whinged that:

“There was a concerted grass-roots effort to attack the commission from the outside in.”

An odd complaint, but one consistent with the Bush administration’s belief that it’s far more efficient for it to do the thinking for the nation. Powell seems unhappy that more than 750,000 people wrote to protest the deregulation, especially since, according to the Times article, “he believed that many of the comments ... were mass-produced by a handful of groups, like the National Rifle Association, which are less interested in the policy merits of the debate than in using the controversy for their own fund-raising purposes.”

Ignoring the fact that opposition to the new rules was extraordinarily diverse, including such groups as Common Cause as well as the NRA, how could those “handful of groups” benefit from a controversy, whether on the merits of policy or not, unless their members were opposed to it? Somehow, Powell is making the argument that “grass-roots” opposition to deregulation isn’t valid, and nor is opposition by groups representing large groups of people.

Who remains?

In fact, even medium-sized media companies opposed the new rules, which passed anyway in a 3-2 vote on June 2. The vote was party-line, Republicans against the Democrats, approving regulations that Powell considered "modern rules that take proper account of the explosion of new media outlets for news, information and entertainment, rather than perpetuate the graying rules of a bygone black-and-white era."

That’s the rationale for the change: that the new media options, on cable, satellite and the Internet, make the business environment too challenging for the traditional media. As the Washington Post wrote June 3, “companies such as News Corp. and Walt Disney Co. said their businesses were hamstrung by obsolete rules that prevented their broadcast networks and stations from competing effectively with the burgeoning cable industry. In order to keep providing free, over-the-air programming, broadcasters claimed to need the additional revenue brought in by owning more television stations, which are among the most profitable of media properties, routinely reaping yearly profit margins of 20 to 50 percent.”

One reason those stations are so profitable is that the companies have to pay to be on cable, whereas the “free” programming (the stuff packed with paid commercials) is broadcast over airwaves that have been given away. But, in another oddity, the largest media corporations are all over cable television and the World Wide Web, which they present as an enemy from which they need defense. According to The Wall Street Journal, the top 20 news Web sites are owned by 16 media giants, with the top five sites getting more hits than the next 15 combined.

If new-media outlets are such a danger, which implies they are a success, why can’t the largest media companies make enough money from them to make up for their inability to absorb more old-line media such as newspapers, radio and other television stations? They could buy a bunch, as much as they wanted, since they're not regulated like old media. I haven’t seen this addressed, although it probably doesn’t matter, because the challenge to the new rules that began in the U.S. Senate is likely to die in the House of Representatives.

House leadership is confident it will never reach a vote. President Bush has vowed to veto any legislation against the new rules, anyway. It would be his first.

Part of the crew defending the FCC’s new rules is House Energy and Commerce head William “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.). To help understand his thinking, note a quote from Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson from the May 14 edition of the Boston Herald, in which Johnson notes that the United States doesn’t seem to need any more diversity in its media voices:

“There is more programming than ever before aimed at African American audiences, at Hispanics, women, sports fans, even home shoppers,” Johnson said, in a comment that is either breathtaking in its stupidity -- or in its cynicism. Do Johnson and Tauzin really think that’s what “media diversity” means? Or were they merely striding alongside Powell as he stepped boldly into that world where grass-roots opposition is bad?

Taking back the deregulatory rules “would bring no clarity to media regulation, only chaos. This is a harm the FCC's media rules were designed to avert,” Powell said in a statement in May.

Looking around at today’s media landscape hardly reveals it to be in chaos, even if its regulations are, but it does reveal opposition.

Perhaps that, to Powell and his ilk, is what chaos means.

Monday, September 22, 2003


In my exasperation over the ongoing degradation of the English language, I thought I’d pass on an e-mail conversation I had with New York Times style guru Allan M. Siegal in November 2002, when I could no longer stand seeing the Times slumming in language worthy of a Southie dockworker.

Here's the exchange, starting with what I sent to the Times on Nov. 19:


My question concerns the words "terrorist," "terrorism" and "terror," which The New York Times seems to consider interchangeable; if there is a rule governing their use, I've been unable to discern it.

So we get the "war on terror," for instance, although occasionally it is the "war on terrorism." And there is a flurry of "terror attacks," amid which sometimes there will be a "terrorist attack." Et cetera.

I oppose the use of "terror" when the word should be "terrorist" or "terrorism." It seems to be just another example of the sloppiness that is blurring distinctions between words these days, to the point I fear that soon all English will have left is jargon, slang and mush. "Terror" and "terrorism" are different things, and when people write that "they've experienced terror," I don't want to have to wonder if it's from an Al Qaeda bomb or a fear of spiders. When I read of a "war on terror," I merely wonder what emotion we're declaring jihad on next: horniness, perhaps, or ennui?

As much as the Times' blurring of "like" and "such as" bothers me -- if I remember correctly, the entry in the most recent style manual doesn't even bother to explain the reasoning behind it -- at least it's done consistently. The unending blurring of the "terror"-root words doesn't even offer that faint comfort, and the Times is helping spread the problem.

So, at long last, my question is this (actually, I've more than one question): Is there a Times style for the use of "terror" as a synonym for "terrorism" and "terrorist"? What is it? Is it subject to review?

If there is a rule, I fervently hope it can be changed. Every time I see (what I consider to be) improper use of "terror," I wince -- like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard.

Thank you,

Marc Levy


Siegal, an assistant managing editor at the Times who has overseen style and usage there since 1977, wrote back the next day:


Dear Mr. Levy,

Our reference dictionary, Webster's New World, fourth edition, accepts "terror" without reservation as a synonym for terrorism or terrorist. Here's the definition, pasted from a CD-ROM version:

n. ME terrour < MFr terreur < L terror < terrere, to frighten < IE *ters-, to tremble (> Gr trein, to tremble, flee) < base *ter-, to wriggle
1 intense fear
2 a) a person or thing causing intense fear b) the quality of causing such fear; terribleness
3 a program of terrorism or a party, group, etc. resorting to terrorism
4 [Informal] a very annoying or unmanageable person, esp. a child; nuisance; pest

Another dictionary I esteem, the American Heritage fourth edition, says this:

n. 1. Intense, overpowering fear. See Synonyms at fear. 2. One that instills intense fear: a rabid dog that became the terror of the neighborhood. 3. The ability to instill intense fear: the terror of jackboots pounding down the street. 4. Violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes. 5. Informal. An annoying or intolerable pest: that little terror of a child.
[Middle English terrour, from Old French terreur, from Latin terror, from terrre, to frighten.]

Apart from the acceptability of the usage in those two dictionaries, I think it is made unavoidable by its ubiquitousness in public discourse these days. And of course it is shorter than "terrorism/terrorist" -- an important consideration for headlines.

As for the use of "like" as a substitute for "such as," I had the same inculcation as you in grade school and beyond, but I have learned late in life that English teachers, while insistent, are often not "correct," to use a term I distrust. When we were rewriting the stylebook, a colleague who is a painstaking writer challenged me on the distinction; he considered "such as" stilted. When I researched the question, I found that no current edition of a respected American dictionary observed it, and several important usage authorities disparaged it. So we eliminated it. And the question is indeed discussed in the stylebook, as follows:

such as. In introducing an example (multinational companies such as Coca-Cola), the phrase is stilted, and should usually be replaced by like. The phrase is slightly less stiff when a noun falls between the words (such companies as PepsiCo), but like remains more fluid. (Some writers believe that like, in this sense, can be used only to compare a group to an example outside the group: in other words, that Coca-Cola, in the illustration above, should not be introduced by like because it is one of the multinational companies. Usage authorities dispute that rule.) [Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company.]

I don't labor under the illusion that everyone will agree with our style choices (indeed the stylebook acknowledges in a few places that some will disagree), but you can count on our having researched them. And we are always willing to explain them.

Allan M. Siegal


Gee, he really had me on the ropes. But I rallied to reply the next day:


Dear Mr. Siegal,

I appreciate your reply very much, but am disappointed by it. I always considered words to be valuable because they can be used to discriminate between different concepts, but it seems that -- according to the dictionaries and experts you cite -- is getting to be old hat. My problem with "terror" and "like" are the same: When a word means too many things, it means less.

To address "like" first (and, yes, I understand your time is valuable and apologize for wasting it on such issues), I have to draw your attention to the commercially available hard-bound New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, from the same year as yours, which says simply (page 190):

"Like is the preferred expression (rather than SUCH AS) in this kind of phrase: painters like Rubens."

It's a funny example, because it reveals what's wrong with the rule. Of course painters *like* Rubens. Plumbers like him, too, and so do many other kinds of people, because he was so darn good. Anyway, who were the painters *like* Rubens? I guess that would be Pieter Breugel the Elder and Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who were also Flemish, lived at roughly the same time and, at least in the case of Van Dyck, painted religious works in the baroque style.

I don't deny that the tide has long since turned against specificity, but it honestly mystifies me why so many people are so eager to let go of such valuable and simple concepts: "like" means "similar to" (along with a bunch of other things) a person, place or thing; "such as" includes the person, place or thing being discussed. To me, at least in written English, it seems as valuable a distinction as "one" and "none."

As to the complaint that "such as" is stilted -- well, that's a strange confession of defeat coming from a newspaper known to hire some of the finest writing and editing talent in the world. It's also, I'm sorry, a little funny coming from a newspaper that's *also* known to produce some of the longest leads in the world and to refer to, for instance, the late grunge legend "Mr. Cobain."

If anyone could overcome the stiltedness, or embrace it, I would think it would the Times.

But, to be clear, I do not expect this to change your thinking. And the "war on 'terror' " I'm conducting is an obvious loser, as well, since it's the lexicographers providing ammunition for the other side. Except that dictionaries, as you know, are not in the business of standing firm against popular usage; they only list how people apply a word. That's how we wind up with two opposite meanings of "sanction," for example, and I note that the Times style manual I bought forbids one of those uses (page 296 in the hard-bound edition). That is, not to put too fine a point on it, it forbids a use listed in dictionaries.

I'm not asking for one of those Chicago Tribune-like experiments (phonetic spellings that created "frate" instead of "freight," et cetera), just the possibility that the Times would consider setting a standard, or holding a line, on these topics as it does on others. At the moment, "terror" usage just seems arbitrary, and I feel that raises questions. I'll leave you with the first three paragraphs from the Gore story that ran on page A22 on Thursday (with emphasis mine):

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 20 -- Al Gore said today that the United States had failed to destroy Osama bin Laden and dismantle the network of Al Qaeda because President Bush spent the fall campaign "beating the drums of war against Saddam Hussein" instead of prosecuting the WAR ON TERROR.

As a result, Mr. Gore said, Americans are as much at risk of a terrorist attack now as they were before Sept. 11.

Mr. Gore said that while the administration had stumbled abroad in dealing with Al Qaeda, it had undertaken the "most systematic invasion of privacy of every American citizen that has ever been taken in this country" with the expanded use of wiretapping and secret court proceedings in the WAR ON TERRORISM.

Two uses in three paragraphs!

Marc Levy

P.S. When is "dis" going to start being used as a verb in newspaper copy, and especially newspaper headlines? It's in common usage, it's in the dictionary and it's so short! I keep suggesting it at my employer, the Boston Herald, but for some reason no one seems to take the suggestion seriously ...

P.P.S. ... even though my fellow copy editors use "terror" as arbitrarily as anyone.


And I woke up to a reply from him saying simply,


Dear Mr. Levy,

We're not going to embrace stiltedness on my watch.


Allan M. Siegal


Anyone still reading at this point will detect that Siegal decided to glibly answer one of several points, and he chose, I think, one of the only points he could answer glibly. This is along the lines of a 5-year-old being found at 3 a.m. on a cliff under a tree during a raging lightning storm wielding a footlong, razor-sharp knife about to slice the throat of his 2-year-old sister as a sacrifice to Cthulu. In answer as to why he’s doing so, he replies, “I couldn’t sleep.”

Sunday, September 21, 2003


Just to catch up, knowing full well no one cares -- especially now -- I’d like to share my thoughts on two matters. At the very least, I consider these items to be experiments in pithiness. At the most, they’re sentiments I heard no one utter so simply while they still mattered.

On Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, now suspended for refusing a court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from his courthouse: A federal judge who refuses to follow the law, citing a higher law, is sure to be popular with all sorts of defendants. On the downside, Moore’s stand invalidates our court system and the idea of law in general.

On U.S. actions in Liberia last summer: In the face of a deadly conflagration, Liberians called for the firefighters. We vowed to rush right in to help -- just as soon as all flammable materials were removed from the premises.

Saturday, September 20, 2003


It is stunning, this cranky, selective myopia of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

He revealed Thursday that intelligence agencies hadn’t been skulking through the records of libraries and bookstores, even though the USA Patriot Act’s section 215 allows it.

“The fact is, with just 11,000 FBI agents and over a billion visitors to America’s libraries each year, the Department of Justice has neither the staffing, the time nor the inclination to monitor the reading habits of Americans,” Ashcroft told a Memphis, Tenn., gathering of police and prosecutors. “No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don't care.”

“The charges of the hysterics are revealed for what they are: castles in the air built on misrepresentation, supported by unfounded fear, held aloft by hysteria,” he said.

An almost pretty sentence, except for the tautology that charges of hysterics were held aloft by hysteria, and almost convincing, except for the largish facts that: during the writing of the act, someone asked for section 215 to be included (even though “we just don’t care”); it was; it exists; and that just because it hasn’t yet been used, that doesn’t mean it won’t be.

Ashcroft and the Bush administration ask for what they get, but they are blind to the connection. They demand secrecy, for instance, in matters big and small, involving national security or not, but are angry when people don’t trust them. The Patriot Act says section 215 can be used without revealing it is being used, and Ashcroft resisted until now breaking the silence. Since he admits it hasn’t been used, Ashcroft finds himself, again in the style of a surly Mr. Magoo, in the middle of another Bush administration conundrum:

If his defense of section 215 is that it hasn’t been used, why need it exist? Since it’s clear (so far) that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were allowed to happen by a stultifying bureaucracy and failure of analysis, not lack of data or warnings, it’s entirely unclear what benefit the nation gets from the new powers of its intelligence agencies.

Especially, of course, the ones not being used.

Friday, September 19, 2003


I’ve just signed up for misleader.org, which promises to tease the truth out of what’s said by President Bush and members of his administration. The site’s backers ran a full-page ad in The New York Times recently, but it was my father who turned me on to the site; it’s good for a father and son to share things, even if it’s bemused skepticism (and sometimes outright alarm) over the people running our country.

I was skeptical of the site itself, fearing it would be a Web knockoff of the “They Misunderestimated Me!” calendar, which provides a jeering minority with an example each day of Bush tripping over his tongue. For instance, the March 24 page of this year’s calendar quotes Bush from a Feb. 27, 2001, speech on a proposed federal budget, which I saved from a friend’s wastebasket because it concerns my topic from Monday, the deficit: “My pan plays down an unprecedented amount of our national debt.”

It’s cute to be reminded of Bush’s silver spoonerisms, but I’m more concerned that, to make us feel more comfortable about his series of tax cuts, Bush claimed to want to pay down our debt.

Fortunately, misleader.org isn’t glib. It’s as substantive as one would hope. It’s scrupulously footnoted from a variety of newspapers and primary source material, well written and runs smoothly.

It also is educational, and includes good stuff I didn’t know existed. In summarizing the collapse of the administration’s implied link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it also goes on to note that:

“This week, (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld reversed earlier statements claiming that the U.S. knew where Iraq's weapons of destruction were located. When asked why the weapons hadn't been found, this past Tuesday Rumsfeld said, ‘What do you mean? You're talking about a country the size of California.’ Yet months ago, just two weeks into the war, Rumsfeld said, ‘We know where they are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.’”

That last quote, from the March 30 “This Week” talk show on ABC-TV, was new to me, but feeds my endless pleasure in parsing how carefully the Bushies speak. “We know where they are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad,” Rumsfeld says, and then, in a phrase so delicious it’s like caramel coating my tongue: “And east, west, south and north.” And, in the final scrumptious morsel, an orgasm of semantic butter and sugar that leaves me nearly helpless with delight: “Somewhat.”

Thursday, September 18, 2003


Tomorrow is Talk Like a Pirate Day, a fact I wasn’t aware of myself, despite my years-long love of pirates and pirating, until alerted recently by my friend Jennifer Johnson. What with Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” being -- incredibly -- one of the more celebrated films of the summer, it’s already been a good year for pirates, and perhaps the best for quite some time. (Unless there’s a “Pirates” sequel? A television series? A fashion craze?)

But the chickenhearted disclaimers posted at http://www.talklikeapirate.com/ threaten to kill my buzz. Avast:

“Before we go any further, there's something we need to be clear about. Pirates were and are bad people. Really reprehensible. Even the most casual exploration of the history of pirates (and believe us, casual is an accurate description of our research) leaves you hip deep in blood and barbarity. We recognize this, all right? We aren't for one minute suggesting that real, honest-to-God pirates were in any way, shape or form worth emulating.”

Perhaps the site creators’ research should have extended to the work of Don Carlos Seitz, whose “Under the Black Flag” apparently includes the following admiring passage:

“Captain Mission was one of the forebears of the French Revolution. He was one hundred years in advance of his time, for his career was based upon an initial desire to better adjust the affairs of mankind, which ended as is quite usual in the more liberal adjustment of his own fortunes. It is related how Captain Mission, having led his ship to victory against an English man-of-war, called a meeting of the crew. Those who wished to follow him he would welcome and treat as brothers; those who did not would be safely set ashore. One and all embraced the New Freedom. Some were for hoisting the Black Flag at once but Mission demurred, saying that they were not pirates but liberty lovers, fighting for equal rights against all nations subject to the tyranny of government, and bespoke a white flag as the more fitting emblem. The ship’s money was put in a chest to be used as common property. Clothes were now distributed to all in need and the republic of the sea was in full operation.

“Mission bespoke them to live in strict harmony among themselves; that a misplaced society would ajudge them still as pirates. Self-preservation, therefore, and not a cruel disposition, compelled them to declare war on all nations who would close their ports to them. ‘I declare such war and at the same time recommend to you a humane and generous behavior towards your prisoners, which will appear by so much more the effects of a noble soul as we are satisfied we should not meet the same treatment should our ill fortune or want of courage give us up to their mercy ....’ The Nieustadt of Amsterdam was made prize, giving up two thousand pounds and gold dust and seventeen slaves. The slaves were added to the crew and clothed in the Dutchman’s spare garments; Mission made an address denouncing slavery. holding that men who sold others like beasts proved their religion to be no more than a grimace as no man had power of liberty over another ....”

William S. Burroughs uses Seitz’s information as a launching point for his “Cities of the Red Night” (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), which is populated by pirates as well as his usual cowboys, cops and Clem Snide. The pirates come off better than most.

Anyway: Arr!

Wednesday, September 17, 2003


I wish I could remember whom I bet that Gray Davis would survive the recall and stay governor of California. What quickly seemed reckless, although I couldn’t remember what I’d bet, either, now seems canny -- almost punditlike.

Feeling my oats, now, I’m going to go out on a limb and go double or nothing with every living person on Earth that the new venture by Russell Pergament, a driving force behind the local Tab and Metro papers, has no teeth: It will not make it from New York to Boston.

With the backing of the Tribune Co., Pergament is vowing to create a free, five-day daily newspaper for 18-to-34-year-olds in Manhattan. Little else is known about it, except that Pergament hopes to grow it to other communities with similar demographics and mass transit systems. He has the power to gain Tribune Co. backing because of his past successes, including the Metro, which is described as having a 166,000 circulation in the greater Boston area.

Not only do I say amNewYork, the new publication, will not make it out of New York, thanks to the quality of the competition there; but also that were it to make to Boston, it would find no purchase (so to speak), thanks especially to Pergament’s success establishing the Metro. He wants hawkers to hand out free copies of a fast-reading tabloid newspaper aimed at advertisers’ key demographic? He’s going to have to find a way to differentiate it from his Metro, with its hawkers handing out free copies of a fast-reading tabloid newspaper aimed at advertisers’ key demographic.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003


The industry response to Tufts University’s report on the “Costs of Preventable Childhood Illness,” and the push for a law it inspired, has left me burning with rage.

The law “would offer state incentives to companies that agree to use” less-dangerous chemicals, Jennifer Heldt Powell writes in today’s Boston Herald, and necessarily “require(s) companies using chemicals to determine if there were safer alternatives.”

Opponents complain of “a costly bureaucratic process” that would drive away industry, and that such a process “unfairly discriminates against companies doing business in Massachusetts.” Robert Rio, of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, also says that the bill “doesn’t make clear what would be considered a safer alternative.”

Powell imputes the best of motives to Rio and the industries he represents and, in suggesting their fears aren’t unfounded, describes prohibitive costs at which her article only hints.

But the history of business in America is rotten with profitmongering at the expense of workers. And Rio’s responses stink of self-serving sophistry. They beg the questions: Industries such as dry cleaning don’t try to gauge which chemicals it uses are dangerous? It doesn’t care? It considers gauging the dangerousness of chemicals, whether in Massachusetts or anywhere in the nation, to be just “a costly bureaucratic process”? And that line about the bill not delineating safer alternatives is ridiculous. If it’s the place of a law to do so at all, I’d say a “safer alternative” is one that tests show isn’t as dangerous as another. (And, well, duh.)

The first example at hand illustrating my suspicions comes from Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber’s “Trust Us, We’re Experts!” (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001) describing chemical manufacturers’ response to proof that vinyl chloride causes liver cancer. Manufacturers said new federal regulation would cost 2 million jobs and $65 billion. “The standard is simply beyond compliance capability of the industry,” their trade association said. But, the authors note, after the regulation was forced on vinyl chloride use, “the industry continued to flourish, without job losses and at 5 percent of the industry’s estimated cost.” This kind of alarmism over regulation is common, and consistently proven to be simply that: alarmism.

What’s even more striking about Rio’s response is that it comes as I.B.M. and other semiconductor manufacturers have been hit with dozens of lawsuits claiming that chemicals in their workplaces were dangerous, resulting in premature death and a score of horrific birth defects -- and that the manufacturers knew it. Bob Herbert has been writing about this in The New York Times for the past couple of weeks. The manufacturers deny responsibility, because they deny a problem exists, and are presenting their defense through Jones Day, one of the law firms used by the tobacco industry to fight smoker lawsuits.

It’s a mystery why industry doesn’t just do what it can to avoid liability, thus avoiding the public relations and legal nightmares, as well the moral implications, that inevitably follow. Actually, it’s not: The return on investment must be better than doing the right thing.

Monday, September 15, 2003


Newspapers today were filled with the grimaced words of Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to back President Bush’s request for $87 billion for our efforts in Iraq.

“This is not just about Iraq. This is a continuing operation in the war on terror,” he said, later iterating, for those that missed it, “That $87 billion is part of the global war on terror.”

It’s true that members of terrorist organizations have gone to Iraq to fight United States soldiers, which is distinct from terrorists fighting the United States, but Cheney’s quotes hinting at the retrofitted “flypaper theory” just blurs further the fact that Iraq has never been shown to export terrorism (with the possible exception of an assassination attempt against President George H.W. Bush). The United States being in Iraq never had anything to with fighting terrorism, except by the thin rationalization that attacking it would allow us to remake the Middle East and eliminate the terrorists spawning in its various countries.

No, the $87 billion the president seeks from Congress is part political cover for an occupation hurting the president and Republicans in general, part continuation of the other reason for the Iraq war: draining the country of its ability to pay for social services.

They’re already at risk. New estimates show the country in a $553 billion shortfall next year, which would put the 2004 deficit at 4.8 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That office and those of the Treasury and Management and Budget say that percentage of GDP was last hit or surpassed in 1986, when it was 5 percent. The year before that, it was 5.1 percent. (And in 1984 it was 4.8 percent again, and the year before that, a painful 6 percent.) And, as Reuters said in July “Democrats and some analysts say that when Social Security is set aside, the actual deficit could approach $600 billion, or 5.5 percent of GDP.”

This is okay, the administration says, because economic growth will keep the deficit low as a percentage of the gross domestic product. This is not okay, notes William D. Ferguson, an economics professor at Grinnell College, because it’s not true. (Ferguson of Iowa, eh? Well, while Ferguson may not be a very noted economist, at least he’s not noted for lying, either, as is the current administration.)

“The swelling deficits of the 1980s proved the ‘supply-side’ arguments of that era badly mistaken,” he wrote in the May 15 edition of The Baltimore Sun. “In 1980, before the Reagan tax cuts, the federal deficit stood at $73.8 billion. By 1990, at the end of a long economic expansion that, all else equal, should have reduced the deficit, it had jumped to $221.2 billion. That historical experience indicates the sad and costly error of current tax cut arguments.” It was a rise; the 1980 deficit, in 1990 dollars, would have been only $115.8 billion.

What makes it worse is the screaming hypocrisy of Bush and his administration, who were deficit hawks on the campaign trail and early in their time in the White House.

“A deficit will hurt economic vitality,” candidate Bush said.

“We cannot go down the path of soaring budget deficits. We must meet our defense and homeland security needs, and hold the line on other spending,” President Bush said in his Aug. 17, 2002, radio address -- a significant time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and assault on Afghanistan.

The rhetoric has changed, first with Mitchell E. Daniels, then of the Office of Management and Budget, telling us in January that “We ought not to hyperventilate about this. By any historical measure, these are manageable deficits,” ending in February with various White House spinners saying deficits were actually good, because they encourage smaller government.

Sound familiar? It’s a progenitor of the flypaper theory. Now that we’re in Iraq and all sorts of ne’er-do-wells are flooding the country in the hopes of killing some Americans, White House apologists are claiming that was the idea all along, because it saps energy terrorists would otherwise use to attack innocents. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld alluded to it on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, saying it was “better to be fighting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan than it is in the United States.” No one’s sure whether it works, but it almost certainly isn’t true that it was the intention of the White House.

Which is not to say the Bushies are entirely inconsistent. Cheney’s insistence yesterday that the $87 billion (which is just for the “foreseeable future”) is “part of the global war on terror” is perfectly in tune with what former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in July when defending the gargantuan, growing deficit in general: “What is the cost of a country that is attacked? What is the price that the American people would have to pay if something like (9/11) were ever to happen again?” What is offensive here isn’t the inconsistency, but the level of rationalization, since the tax cuts accounting for a large part of the deficit had nothing to do with our security and sure as hell haven’t created the jobs they were supposed to.

White House personnel can go on making it up as they go along. But the attack on Iraq was not an attack on terrorists, just a willful experiment foisted on the American people, Iraq and the world at a vulnerable time. Thanks to Bush administration hubris, now we have to spend what it takes to get out of Iraq and leave it better than we found it -- and it looks like the expense will go some distance toward wrecking life for many Americans.

But I’m still waiting for someone to call the White House on why funding for Afghanistan, where we actually did take on terrorists, is less important (because fewer people are paying attention, of course). And to point out that the $87 billion was a completely avoidable expense at a time we really could benefit from avoiding one.

Sunday, September 14, 2003


Eric Convey’s review of the 2003 Ford Expedition “luxury car” sport utility vehicle in the Sept. 13 edition of the Boston Herald speaks for itself:

“Like earlier Expedition editions, the 2003 offering is big.

“It’s almost 19 feet long bumper to bumper, and nearly 7 feet wide.

“And it’s heavy, tipping the scales at about 5,300 pounds. Mileage is a low-but-predictable 13 mph city, 17 highway ...

“Owners of earlier Expeditions also might be troubled by the 2003’s low frame. The Expedition is not especially well-suited for off-road driving.”


Saturday, September 13, 2003


If only there were an icon for the U.S. Constitution that could serve as an alternative for the U.S. flag.

Use of the flag and flag symbols, visual shorthand for a claim of patriotism, blossomed after 9/11 and again with the recent war in Iraq, just as it does in every such situation. But since Americans aren’t known for restraint, many people using one flag were likely to supplement it with another: two stickers or more for the car, and possibly one for each side to stick up from the window; one on the front-lawn pole and one to hang from the porch.

In emergencies such as 9/11, the flag becomes a way to claim unity, and emergencies seem no time to question authority. But when the authorities summon a rallying in a nonemergency, such as the Iraq war, the flag becomes divisive. Those who buy the crisis and believe there’s an emergency will respond with a flag, or two, or more. Those skeptical of the crisis see no reason to rally and don’t increase their flag-based consumerism.

And suddenly the flag-wavers are the patriots -- the more flags, the more patriotic -- and those without flags are, well, not on the team.

The flags become a challenge, and one without an answer. It’s like the political candidates who boast they are pro-family: Who isn’t? Of course, it’s even more like the people who boast of being pro-troops, and so recently held Iraq-war rallies to “show support for the troops”: Who didn’t support the troops, those largely underclass kids who signed up in peacetime and are required to follow orders, whether it be to drop and give someone 20 or go to Iraq and battle the Republican Guard?

But with the dramatizing of support for the troops, suddenly anyone who didn’t follow suit, by default, must not have been supportive. With the glitzing up of homes, cars or chests with American flags, anyone who doesn’t, by default, must not be patriotic. Not displaying support of the nation in manufacturing and prosecuting a war becomes, in this visual shorthand, not supporting the nation.

So, suddenly, wearing or displaying an American flag assures the world of support for the war. Since there’s no obvious way to modify the flag icon to transmit love of country without support for an individual action, anyone feeling that way is presented with a choice of involuntary messages, neither appropriate to their emotion. The obvious choice, an American flag flying upside down -- which is supposed to signal distress -- is invariably seen as unpatriotic, as inflammatory as the burning of an American flag.

The choice of colors doesn’t work, either. While red ribbons became recognized as support for fighting AIDS, pink ribbons with breast cancer, yellow for anyone whose safe return is desired, there is no color scheme that can be applied to the American flag that universally suggests patriotism without blind support for whatever crisis it flies in. Indeed, since the flag is synonymous with its colors, replacing them couldn’t help but be an ambiguous commentary. Red is associated with blood, but it’s already on the flag. White is associated with peace, but it, too, is already there. Black is associated with death, so its use would be negative, not positive. Green is environmental. Yellow speaks of cowardice (despite its use in the ribbons). Pink and purple are seen as gay, or at least cute. Orange is, well, meaningless.

The flag has been de facto hijacked by the unquestioning patriot.

The skeptical ones, then, are left with the Constitution, which is not a symbol at all, but a living list of rights and endorsements of policy. It doesn’t say “My country, right or wrong,” or “America: Love it or leave it.” It tells Americans to check and balance, to vote their conscience, speak their mind, resist dogma, assert their rights.

More than a symbol of America, it actually is America. But such complexity is difficult to capture in an icon.

That’s a pity. Constitution flags, lapel pins, T-shirts and bumper stickers are sorely needed as an alternative for those alienated in the semiotic debate dominating short-attention-span America.

It would also be a rebuke to those who claim the high ground by behaving as though our rights are wrong -- a rebuke just as is the Constitition itself.

Friday, September 12, 2003


This could quickly become a regular gig. In the speech given by President Bush on Sept. 10 at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., our leader displayed his administration’s usual skill at saying something without saying it:

“Under existing law, the death penalty applies to many serious crimes that result in death, including sexual abuse and certain drug-related offenses. Some terrorist crimes that result in death do not qualify for capital punishment. Sabotaging a defense installation or a nuclear facility in a way that takes innocent life does not carry the federal death penalty. This kind of technicality should never protect terrorists from the ultimate justice.

“These and other measures have long been on the books for other crimes. They have been tested by time, affirmed by the court, and what we are proposing, they are fully consistent with the United States Constitution.”

I’m not sure he actually got around to proposing anything, but he seems to be suggesting that terrorists should be killed for their crimes.

Is it really ultimate punishment to kill people who have shown repeatedly that they hope to die for their cause?

I also like the “tested by time” line, since Bush doesn’t say whether capital punishment has passed or failed. (Hint: Crime persists.)

Thursday, September 11, 2003


Things are going bizarrely well in Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce, where I lived and worked for a mercifully brief period in 1993. It’s hard to believe the area is all that different from when I was there, but there has been the undeniable sound of two shoes dropping since I left.

First was a New York Times piece -- a front-page article, no less, in the Jan. 21, 2002, edition -- focusing on Port St. Lucie because it “has had the fastest growing economy in Florida, and Florida has had the fastest growing economy in the United States ... In the last year, as the nation's economy lost more than a million jobs, Florida gained 138,000 jobs, a 1.9 percent increase that is higher than in any other state, according to the Labor Department in Washington. In the Port St. Lucie metropolitan area, which includes Fort Pierce to the north, jobs have increased 4 percent.”

Now, according to a piece this month by real estate columnist Kenneth R. Harney, “The top appreciating housing markets now include an unexpected leader: Fort Pierce-Port St. Lucie on Florida’s booming Atlantic Coast. Average prices there jumped 14.7 percent in the last 12 months, and at a torrid 18.2 percent annualized rate during the last quarter.”

Be that as it may, I can tell you that the region provides exactly three points of interest:

There is no fort, and no port;

Zora Neale Hurston is buried here (in Port Fierce, also known as Fort Pus);

The day after graduation, all the high school girls are mysteriously married, unhappy and the mother of two (and twins are on the way).

So why is the area so hot? One theory is that people can’t afford to buy in the Metro Boston area and are thus being forced to the, um, suburbs. Another is that, as the Times noted, the area is experiencing an economic miracle! Here there be jobs! And many pay $7 an hour! For anyone who wants to be a grapefruit picker or telemarketer, Fort/Port is Mecca. But they fry their salad and think the natural state of theater is that it occurs with dinner and lite beer.

(As a post script, I acknowledge that it would be a little more obvious to write today about the post-9/11 world. I’m counterprogramming. I wrote yesterday about the Bush 9/11 dote-udrama, though, and without even realizing the significance of the timing. Still, to all those disappointed 9/11 fans, I apologize.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2003


My lack of cable television has kept me from watching the Showtime channel movie “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis,” which follows President Bush as he learns of and reacts to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This is a pity. I have a strong interest in experiencing the perverse and possibly disgusting, and would even have seen “Gigli” had I been able to swing a date. I rented “Showgirls” knowing of its awfulness and even shared such an experience early on with Radio Free Michael Scott Moore, the critic, novelist and essayist, for the movie “Ishtar.”

(Come to think of it, I ignored a very strong warning that the film “Lost in Space” was agonizingly bad and wound up actually, uniquely regretting it. While I thought that nothing could be as bad as the warning indicated, the film really was awful. Really. God, it was just bad, bad, bad.)

Where was I? Right: I haven’t been able to see “DC 9/11,” which is running throughout the month on Showtime, but reviews and articles have painted it as a piece of pro-Bush propaganda. It was done with the help of the White House -- director Lionel Chetwynd even scored a sit-down with the president -- and, somehow, Bush comes out of it looking like a hero. Go figure.

I wasn’t with Bush on that day in 2001, either, so I obviously don’t know firsthand how he behaved. But somehow I lean toward suspecting that “DC 9/11” is about as true to life as, well, “Lost in Space.” (The movie, not the television series. I’m not going to smear an innocent, unpretentious television show.)

My suggestion for anyone about to strap themselves down and prop open their eyelids for “DC 9/11” and a bit of the old Ludwig Van is that they also read through the Bush timeline at cooperativeresearch.org. Compare and contrast. Painstakingly pieced together from public and primary sources, all faithfully linked to, the timeline follows Bush’s actions on 9/11, inconsistencies, contradictions and mysteries in place.

Cooperativeresearch.org is an incredibly valuable resource, and it’s looking for donations to help keep it afloat. Check it out and see if it’s worth supporting. I think it is, and I plan to send a check.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003


I just noticed that in his Sunday, Sept. 7, speech, President Bush said:

“We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength; they are invited by the perception of weakness. And the surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans.”

Right! We must have learned that from Israel.

Monday, September 08, 2003


With health care costs spiraling out of control -- I’ve always wanted to use that phrase, and I’d like to thank health care costs for making it possible -- it seems sensible to ensure that our health care dollars are being spent wisely.

But that’s not so easy, apparently, so instead we find ourselves being pressured to accept such insane notions as a $250,000 cap on medical malpractice payoffs. (Insane because the caps would apply in cases in which a doctor had actually been found guilty of malpractice. Clearly insurance companies, which endorse the caps, could continue to pay off those diminished amounts comfortably, meaning they would be less of a financial burden and therefore less of an incentive for doctors to not commit malpractice. It actually goes a great distance toward invalidating the free market’s impact on health care, but for some reason is generally backed by Republican politicians. Other than these three things, the caps make perfect sense.)

This comes up because the Journal of the American Medical Association posted a report last week concluding that evaluating and rating doctors’ competency has a long way to go.

“Even then,” the report says, it “may be technically impossible to accomplish in a valid and fair way.”

Well, if it’s difficult to say who’s good, can people shopping for a physician at least be told who’s bad? Physician Sidney M. Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, blames doctors' failure to police their own through state boards. “From 1990 to 2002, just 5 percent of doctors were involved in 54 percent of the payouts -- including jury awards and out-of-court settlements -- according to the National Practitioner Data Bank of the Department of Health and Human Services,” Wolfe writes.

And it’s states who don’t discipline doctors that suffer insurance crises most severely, Wolfe notes, because bad doctors go on practicing.

The records of doctors, including the bad doctors causing so many problems, can be seen by hospitals and medical boards, but not by consumers. We don’t get to see it, Wolfe says, because “thanks to pressure from the American Medical Association, Congress forbids it.”

Still, check out http://www.questionabledoctors.org/.

Sunday, September 07, 2003


I note with astonishment that NBC’s new sitcom starring Whoopi Goldberg -- cleverly titled "Whoopi," it will show Tuesdays at 8 p.m. -- takes place in part in a hotel lounge called the Nappy Dugout.

Now, while it is fantastic that the network is providing a home for a show about which “The first thing you notice ... is its militant lack of political correctness,” as noted today by Boston Herald television critic Monica Collins, it will be interesting to see how long Whoopi gets to keep the name of her lounge.

As a slang term, “nappy dugout” is obviously doing pretty well, despite its age: Funkadelic popularized it on its “Cosmic Slop” album in 1973. The term is not only being kept alive on Whoopi’s new show, but immortalized in the 1998 Warren Beatty movie “Bulworth,” as a cocktail (hmm) and as a challenging climb at Rifle Mountain Park in Colorado.

I do wonder how many NBC executives have given a recent listen to Ice Cube’s “Givin’ Up the Nappy Dugout” from his 1991 album “Death Certificate.” I wonder how many even know what the term means.

Something to do with the vagina, by the way.

Saturday, September 06, 2003


I'm going hiking. There will be no thinking done today.

Friday, September 05, 2003


The idea of the media and public relations office has spun a little out of control.

As a nonwriting journalist, I’ve learned repeatedly that thinking like a journalist keeps me from getting screwed: that I should have kept notes when speaking with people who turned out to be adversaries, that I should have paid attention to the time something happened, that I should have been looking for the holes in someone’s story rather than filling in the gaps. I’m also just generally skeptical and curious and a strong believer in getting my facts straight. Otherwise I’m forced to insert frequent lame qualifications in my conversation and admit (if only to myself) that I don’t really know what I’m talking about, or at least that I may not have the full story.

So I try to find things out. When I was curious whether the Central Intelligence Agency felt its intelligence was abused to justify attacking Iraq, I called to ask. When I wondered at a price-control process that allowed a smallish milk to cost $1.70 at Logan International Airport, I called to find out how the process worked.

The CIA was interesting in that it treated me with contempt as a citizen; it was only when I claimed to be a reporter that I got any traction. The situation at Massport, which runs the airport, is more common. I spoke with a staffer there who -- unless there’s a problem with the phones at Massport that continues to this day -- literally hung up on me when she suspected I was a member of the press.

“I don’t really have permission to speak with the press,” she told me, and I could hear the coldness and tension growing in her as we spoke. She thought I’d tricked her into talking, because she talks to people; talking to the press is what the press office does.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? If a citizen has a question about how Massport’s airport pricing works, you talk to one person, but if a reporter has the same question, they talk to someone else. That someone else, of course, is trained in handling the press, but not knowledgeable about the topic under discussion. They can either ask an expert and pass on that knowledge, hoping nothing gets lost in translation, or allow a reporter to speak with the expert one on one (now that the conversation is known of and given an official okay).

But the press is the people. Nothing elevates the press above a citizen except that it knows that the information gathered will soon be disseminated, usually, to however many people pay attention to a given publication. One person calling gets answer A; but 5,000 people, or 1 million, get answer B.

This is dishonest, and the press is just as at fault as the media relations industry. The roots of journalism -- suggested by the name itself -- is in personal experience, whether it’s Nellie Bly pretending in the late 1880s to be insane to get inside an asylum (she also “worked in a sweatshop, got a job as a chorus girl, and had herself imprisoned, all in order to write exposes,” according to Stephen Bates’ “If No News, Send Rumors”) or Rick Guinness diving into a Connecticut quarry in the late 1990s to experience what other divers had (before dying from striking bottom in too-shallow waters). But despite journalism’s origins, personal experience had become frowned upon, considered unprofessional somehow, certainly by 1977, when the Chicago Sun-Times was assailed for running its own bar to find out firsthand whether city inspectors were corrupt. Now, except for a few holdouts, such as Guinness, most reporters sit in newsrooms and make phone calls, which they use to elicit stories from sources, explanations from officials and even emotions from the folks who are proposed to, attacked, reunited or forced to flee their homes (thank God for cell phones!).

Reporters are trained to ask for media relations offices and happy to talk to the people staffing them. It’s like eating at McDonald’s. Media relations people are happy with the arrangement too, because they’re in control, serving those meals, filling but laden with empty calories, on tidy trays with great efficiency. No one seems to think there’s anything wrong with a system that puts responses, those meals of varying flavor and substance, in separate boxes, one marked “the truth,” one marked “for the citizen” and the last marked “for the press.”

I know we’ll very rarely be handed the contents of the first box, but the press is supposed to represent the citizens. Giving it its own box is antithetical to its mission. In a very real way, if the answers are different from citizen to press, from box to box, the press can’t actually be representing the citizens paying attention to it.

We may all have to call to get our own answers. I’m sure the media and public relations industries would love that. They’d probably consider it out of control.

Thursday, September 04, 2003


Friends suggested I create and run a blog. At least they say they're my friends, although a blog could well be a huge waste of time I could better spend on other things -- and, possibly, money, as well. Since I get in the habit of checking other blogs daily, I could suffer guilt from not posting daily myself; once hooked on a free program, I could find myself craving harder stuff, such as the ability to post images, and paying for the thrill. It's not a frivolous fear, because I don't usually just leave off doing something when I get bored or defeated by it. (I'm the kind that refuses to do something in the first place.)

But there was curiosity, too, and I faced and flinched at what is essentially peer pressure: I'd better do what what everyone else is doing, experience what everyone else is feeling. And God forbid I fall behind technologically.

Although, come to think of it, after a series of power outages made a mockery of my VCR clock setting efforts, I joined the millions who don't bother. I never figured out how to set the time on later players. And technological advances are increasingly setting time automatically and making our puny human clock setting efforts useless.

So I win on that one.

But here I am doing a blog anyway.