Monday, February 28, 2005


Wichita, Kan., is reeling over news that Dennis L. Rader has been arrested as a suspect in the killings of at least 10 people between 1974 and 1991. In one of his many grotesquely playful letters and poems over the years, the killer named himself BTK for the way he liked to operate: bind, torture, kill. The tone of his communications, as much as the slayings themselves, had the area in the flexing grip of paranoia for three decades.

Wichita is the 50th-largest city in the United States, a wholesome place where 82 percent of county voters wanted President Bush reelected. “Wichita still has all the qualities that make a smaller city appealing,” boosters say on a local Web site. “What better place to raise a family!” Somewhere among its 344,284 people was the killer, and everywhere else were his potential victims.

So where was the killer hiding? If it’s Rader, BTK could be found in suburban Park City, where he raised a son and daughter with his longtime wife, Paula, held a job with city government enforcing local statutes — height of grass, barking dogs and such — with humorless zeal, worked for a security company, ran a Cub Scout pack and served as president of the council at Christ Lutheran Church. Last Wednesday he brought food to a church event even though he couldn’t stay; he was off to the hospital to see his mother.

Family man. Devoted son. Law enforcer. Hard worker. Civic volunteer. Churchgoer.

Serial killer?

Members of Rader’s church are as shaken as anyone, of course, but their responses differ slightly from the usual ponderings of “what if.” His peers at Christ Lutheran are also facing the possibility that Rader, whom pastor Michael Clark calls “devout ... a very active member of the congregation, both in leadership and participation,” was essentially, unavoidably evil.

It’s there in Christ Lutheran Church, in Wichita, in President Bush, in the Cub Scouts. In this red state’s “Blue Velvet” road show, it is worth noting that the computers tending the official city Web site have something slightly off-kilter to say about this great place to raise a family: Its most popular links are for docket searches; warrant searches; attorney tracking; bondsman tracking; and drug court.

As Clark urges his flock to “show compassion and love towards our brother, Dennis Rader,” listen hard for the sound of 399 congregants praying for an adequate rationalization to arrive.

Undoubtedly it would be listening in vain for rationality itself, that which demands the pious to look beneath a wholesome surface and act — and vote — accordingly.

Friday, February 25, 2005


The suddenly ironic term “Afghanistanism” has long been used for newspapers writing about things that are far away and of little local interest. This goes on because it’s more dangerous to write and have opinions about what people know than what they do not: Write a scathing editorial about your mayor taking graft and there’ll be a firestorm, and that makes you vulnerable; write a scathing editorial about corruption among Afghan warlords and there probably won’t even be a sandstorm. And if there is, so what? It’s in Afghanistan.

This correlates to a possibly apocryphal poll in which readers were asked how accurate their newspapers were on matters local, statewide, national and international. Readers thought them entirely unreliable on local issues, but, strangely, the less local the coverage got, the more wise and accurate readers considered it.

Because, of course, they had no way to judge.

Now we come to A.O. Scott, of The New York Times, who went to see Keanu Reeves in “Constantine,” apparently just to make fun. Jeering at Keanu Reeves is about as controversial, easy and rewarding as frowning on child molestation, and this makes it easy to trash any movie he’s in. The problem is that “Constantine” was not that bad, and that Scott apparently couldn’t be bothered to actually watch the movie he’d decided to trash.

The movie has “a promising opening,” Scott wrote Feb. 18, when “a dusty scavenger finds a pointy object (a bit of preliminary text has dropped the clue that it might be the Spear of Destiny) and is promptly crushed by a car that drops from the sky.”

This is all of five minutes into the film. The car does not drop from the sky. It very clearly drives into the dusty scavenger, who crossed the street without looking.

This is important because the scavenger survives and walks off — the spear makes him superhuman — and the car is trashed. A car falling from the sky make no sense. That Scott accepts that a car would do such a thing reveals him as either stupid or cynical, too cool to bother to pay attention even five minutes into, what is, after all, just a Keanu Reeves flick.

It gets worse. Scott writes:

Meanwhile, John Constantine is wearily patrolling the border between this world and the one below — a landscape bathed in flaming caramel syrup in which there seem to be an awful lot of cars. (Are cars capable of sin, or do some sinners get to take their wheels with them to hell? This is one of many intriguing doctrinal questions never answered by “Constantine.”)

But the movie makes it, again, very clear that heaven and hell overlap Earth, meaning that our physical world is mirrored in hell. The cars that exist here exist also in hell. But they look, well, like hell.

My irritation at this sloppiness more than doubled when, prodded by the death of Hunter S. Thompson, I happened to read the Times’ 1998 review of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which insists that

because a different actor narrates the story, [Johnny] Depp’s largely nonverbal role seems more like a pantomime than a three-dimensional portrait.

The reviewer — Stephen Holden — has misinterpreted the credits. He thought the narrator of a brief film within the film was actually the narrator of the entire “Fear and Loathing.” But he tried to make it into a serious point. Depp’s performance may still seem like a pantomime to Holden, now that he knows the truth, but it isn’t because a different actor is narrating (as did, in fact, take place on the 1996 audio version of the book, with Harry Dean Stanton as the narrator and Jim Jarmusch doing Raoul Duke’s dialogue).

There’s something brutally revealing about these errors — criticisms based on inattention from people who expect to be taken seriously as professionals and speak so from the most exalted of pulpits. It would be easiest for these filmmakers to be outraged, and rightfully so, but it’s also worth wondering what it says about critics and the critics’ relationship with (or obligations to) their readers.

They’re writing, after all, on pop culture. On films people are expected to see, not on obscure rubbings available to visitors who risk death trekking to some crumbled temple outside Kabul.

Keanu Reeves may be the new Afghanistan, but we expect our critics to actually go there. Contract a disease, suffer from heat exhaustion, get a sunburn, get bored, whatever. At least pay attention for the two hours required for the journey.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling are increasingly ignored. So why is it that certain words, phrases and writing styles are so common in U.S. newspapers when no one is insisting on them, let alone formally passing them on? And why do they all tend toward the stilted and pretentious?

I’ve already ranted about “prior to.” As a copy editor, when I see this phrase, I change it to “before.” The phrase “adjacent to” is also dead on arrival. It becomes “next to.” I show occasional mercy to “due to,” but I always test to see if “because of” isn’t better. (This is one of the few on which I’m suspicious of my own suspicion, as “due to” is shorter than its substitute.)

Those are just the beginning.

Newspapers frequently have people “receiving” something. I make them “get” it. Newspapers are also full of the “purchasing” of things. “Buying” is my replacement.

Why do reporters write in ways so alien to how people talk, even on the simplest of phrases? President Bush yesterday defended the invasion of Iraq. The city council last week passed an amendment to a zoning law. And what’s the origin of the classic two-word abomination “said Smith”? Wept Jesus!

There are always exceptions to rules, and I can think of necessary exceptions to many of the things I’m protesting above. Most every time, though, these are indefensible, or at least needless, linguistic misdemeanors — tropes writers fall back on despite it being just as easy, or easier, to write in ways that make more sense.

For instance, why load stories down with unnecessary and redundant time elements? Stories are clogged with things that are “new,” even if context already makes it clear. A sports team wants to build a new stadium, even though they couldn’t build an old one. The mayor is unveiling a new plan, but it’s unclear why he’d unveil an old one. (Then the writer goes on to refer, over and over again, to the “new” this and “new” that. Yes, yes, yes! We know!) Similarly, we’re frequently reminded of when people were “first introduced.”

“Yesterday” is another burdensome word. A lot of news is based on things that happened the previous day, and the newsworthy occurrence is pointed out at the beginning of an article — which will then go on to note reactions to that occurrence, most of them painstakingly annotated with “yesterday.” A car crash took five lives yesterday, and relatives of the dead said yesterday that they were devastated.


Okay. I’m done.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


The Bush administration’s way of shrinking the $427 billion deficit — cut $15 billion in spending while bringing on massive new debt — has caught the attention of Congress, members of which are coping with a $720 billion Medicare drug plan by forbidding erection medication.

Viagra, Cialis and Levitra are expensive, up to about $11 a pill. The Veterans Administration paid for about 1.9 million prescriptions for it last year, at a negotiated $5 per pill, but only up to four pills a month. The Medicare drug law, however, was passed with the understanding that there would be no negotiating prices with drug companies; erections and price controls are for veterans, not civilians, so they can’t even expect $38 million worth of the good stuff to match the military’s.

The justification, as defined by New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, is that “there’s no reason we should be covering lifestyle drugs for senior citizens.” In the same New York Times article quoting Gregg there’s amplification from Daniel J. Callahan, of the Hastings Center, because for some reason we should care: “This is not a good way to spend a limited amount of money, at a time other medical needs are greater. In many men, impotence is simply a function of age, though it may also be a result of disease.”

This is supposed to make a difference.

What these hypocritical men are missing — in this time of limited amounts of money! — is that medication for depression is also a “lifestyle drug” and, for that matter, so is medication for arthritis, and both are covered by Medicare. Who cares if some old codger can do his crossword puzzle? Who cares if he can muster the enthusiasm to get out of bed in the morning? Staying in bed under the covers is a far cheaper option, and television is free, whereas a newspaper with a crossword puzzle can cost up to $1.25 a day. And it doesn’t matter if someone has a legitimate reason for being depressed or if the arthritis is, you know, “simply a function of age.”

It really has nothing to do with whether these medications are “lifestyle drugs.” The real issue is that the Bush administration has plenty of money for Iraq and less for domestic issues. It’s choosing between Iraqi elections and U.S. erections.

Either there are so few Medicare members needing the drugs that the savings would be negligible or there are so many that there’s going to be hell to pay in midterm voting. A few million old men, half of our country’s most reliable voting bloc, angry and bitter over two years without sex?

Hard decision? Vote carefully.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


It seems obligatory to mourn the death of Hunter S. Thompson, but any sadness is for the loss of a person, not a writer. Tellingly, most obituaries yesterday referred to Thompson as the writer of “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” all written and published more than three decades ago, although there have been some 11 books since, not to mention ongoing, unanthologized writings in everything from Rolling Stone to

Thompson’s writing atrophied rapidly after the mid-1970s, slipping quickly from audacious, swashbuckling defiance to autistic, limping parody. Whether trapped within misfiring synapses or the straits of fame, in which he couldn’t report without overwhelming whatever story he was on the scene to observe, Thompson began to repeat himself, reflexively and predictably lashing out at people, engaging in baroquely meaningless hyperbole, leaning on mood rather than data, capitalizing things with ponderous preciousness.

Countless writers, including myself, made the mistake of trying to write like Thompson, and so did Thompson. It’s an easy mistake to make: The early writing is genius.

His stuff is exhilarating, hilarious, freeing. One of my all-time favorite pieces of journalism — it is a credit to Thompson that I cannot immediately name any others — is “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” a long look at racial troubles in Los Angeles that is nearly as notable for being the work interrupted for Thompson’s life-changing trip to Las Vegas. In addition to being a masterpiece of tone and exposition, “Strange Rumblings” shows there’s value in breaking the rules, especially when up against impossible odds. This was important to La Raza in its fight against an oppressive culture, to Thompson as a reporter dealing with liars and to Thompson as a journalist inculcated in an impossibly rigid structure of third-person narrative and inverted-pyramid leads. There is no way Thompson could have done justice to the story without mentioning himself in it; to avoid doing so would have hobbled it cruelly and pointlessly.

But not every story needs that, and Thompson found himself unable to work any other way. As much as he relied on the style, editors demanded it; Running magazine, for instance, sold Thompson on covering the Honolulu Marathon by calling it a “Gonzo gathering of Body Nazis.” In an ideal world, perhaps he would have discovered this for himself.

No one could keep up with Thompson’s intake of alcohol and drugs, not even Thompson himself. (He told George Plimpton that “Obviously, my drug use is exaggerated or I would be long since dead.”) And no one should replace their own natural style of writing with Thompson’s. Again, not even Thompson.

I wish Thompson were not dead. I wish things were otherwise. I mourn him. But the mourning started long ago.

Monday, February 21, 2005


Reading through Craigslist’s casual encounters section recently — for entertainment value, not a hookup — I stumbled across this rather foreboding item:

Looking for a a M or W whose into Roman Play...if you don’t what i’m talking please don't email me...looking experienced people....
holla back

A few Google searches did nothing to illuminate me as to what “Roman Play” was, and it wasn’t until telling friends about it during dinner (and I apologize to them) that the meaning became horrifyingly clear. There seems to be only a few things that set the Romans apart in such a way they could be represented in sex play.

One is Roman noses, but the concept of nasal sex seems farfetched. Or am I just naive?

The second option was, of course, the Pax Romana, the period of Roman Peace from 27 B.C. to 180 A.D., encompassing the life of Christ, which in terms of sex I can only imagine as involving dominance and submission, but with occasional flurries of activity in isolated body parts that are soon stilled again. This also seems farfetched.

The third option: eating various absurdly exotic foods, such as otter’s tongue. Expensive and sexually devoid of interest, although much of the absurd exoticism seems to be exaggerated from actual history.

The fourth: wearing togas. Big deal.

The fifth: crucifixion. Unlikely.

The sixth: orgies. Unlikely for a different reason — that there’s no reason not to come out and say “orgy,” and seeking a single man or woman who wants to have an orgy is about as efficient as seeking a single other person who wants to form a giant human pyramid.

That leaves the seventh, staggeringly unappealing final option, which concerns vomiting.

This is almost certain to be it. But it’s almost impossible to contemplate, let alone to imagine applying on a practical basis.

If anyone has any other theories, or knowledge of the practice as suggested above, please let me know.

Friday, February 18, 2005


News that we just dropped another $85 million on a third failed missile test in a row — this time the rocket just wouldn’t launch — comes as absurdly obvious counterpoint to North Korea’s recent saber-rattling. Especially since that saber-rattling is considered one of the key justifications, or at least one of the key rationalizations (as a correspondent pointed out Feb. 10), for our “missile shield.”

For some reason, though, I’m not seeing North Korea mentioned in the context of preemption. Iraq was the Axis of Evil member we attacked to demonstrate that policy, with White House spokesman Ari Fleischer telling us on Oct. 16, 2002, that:

The risk is how long do you wait for Saddam Hussein to grow stronger, to develop those weapons and acquire nuclear weapons, before it’s too late? Do you only act after he has used them? Or if we had known that 9/11, for example, was coming, would we have acted to stop it? Of course we would have. Now, with Saddam Hussein the president has to ask similar tough questions. Can we know with certainty what Saddam Hussein is going to do? Only Saddam Hussein knows with certainty what he’s going to do with all the weapons that he’s growing and acquiring. And the risk of inaction is it means we have to trust Saddam Hussein to use wise judgment and discretion, something he has never shown an ability to do.

But Hussein never had the weapons. The United Nations inspectors told us so; Iraqi defectors told us so; even envoys of Hussein himself told us so, desperate to avoid a war.

North Korea, though, along with an insane, unpredictable and paranoid leader and a predilection for torturing political dissidents, has nuclear weapons. The North Koreans boast of it, and they sell nuclear knowledge and material to other countries. And we know it.

And our response is to install a missile shield that we can’t make work.

I once asked some friends if Iraq weren’t exactly the wrong way to launch a policy of preemption, since the weakness of our cause there made the next U.S. case at preemption much more difficult to sell. For some reason, the argument didn’t go my way. But the argument also hasn’t gone away.

Perhaps it’s time to try again: If we’re so afraid of North Korea attacking us that we must spend $50 billion over the next five years on missile defense, in addition to the $90 billion we’ve spent on it since 1985 ... why aren’t we attacking North Korea preemptively?

We could eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, punish it for sponsoring terrorism, if not being a terrorist state itself, enact regime change by overthrowing insane despot Kim Jong-il and even give its people democracy.

I suspect we’ll wait for North Korea to attack. And it won’t — as Iraq wouldn’t, although Iraq had additional reasons — and we’ll be relieved, because missile defense doesn’t work.

Relieved and impoverished.

Thursday, February 17, 2005


To Martina, whom I have grievously offended, but do love.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


I’ve never had the endurance to slog through political party platforms, but finding a couple of gems of absurdity in them is made easier by excerpts in “Take Them at Their Words: Shocking, Amusing and Baffling Quotations from the G.O.P. and Their Friends, 1994-2004,” by Bruce J. Miller with Diana Maio (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2004).

This first quote is from the North Carolina Republican Party platform adopted in 2002:

We believe homosexuality is not normal and should not be made an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle either in public education or in public policy. We oppose special treatment by law based on nothing other than homosexual behavior or identity. We therefore oppose actions, such as “marriage” or the adoption of children by same-sex couples, which attempt to legitimize and normalize homosexual relationships. We support the Defense of Marriage Act.

North Carolina hicks, right? But the hicks were actually more clever in phrasing their platform than the witty, urban sophisticates who wrote the 2000 Republican Party platform (“Renewing America’s Purpose. Together.”), part of which is quoted here. Read carefully:

We support the traditional definition of “marriage” as the legal union of one man and one woman, and we believe that federal judges and bureaucrats should not force states to recognize other living arrangements as marriages. We rely on the home, as did the founders of the American Republic, to instill the virtues that sustain democracy itself. That belief led Congress to enact the Defense of Marriage Act, which a Republican Department of Justice will energetically defend in the courts. For the same reason, we do not believe sexual preference should be given special legal protection or standing in law ...

Perhaps careful reading isn’t necessary after all. Any idiot knows that men preferring to have sex with women and vice versa is, by definition, a sexual preference, making this plank in the platform self-defeating, since the Defense of Marriage Act gives heterosexual marriages special legal protection and standing in law.

The North Carolinians get around this by opposing “special treatment by law based on nothing other than homosexual behavior or identity.” Unfortunately, the Defense of Marriage Act is just that, because it’s a law based on keeping homosexuals (or those with more exotic preferences, theoretically) from marrying.

Nice try, idiots. Better luck next time writing around this little logical fallacy.

Monday, February 14, 2005


Echoes again in Porter Square as two businesses renovate, but the sound is confusing — suggesting either waste and folly or an admirable sense of completism. The businesses: the Qdoba Mexican Grill replacing the McDonald’s in the heart of the square; and the Bread & Butter minimart replacing a White Hen Pantry on its outskirts. Both have gutted the interiors of their predecessors and are rebuilding almost from scratch.

For Qdoba, a step up from McDonald’s in atmosphere, this makes some sense, although it was startling to see the kitchen demolished recently along with the cold plastic dining area. But for Bread & Butter ... well, it will be worthwhile to visit when it opens just to assess how significantly the work changes the minimart experience.

There are plenty of places where real estate is more valuable than the property on it, and that could be what’s in play at Qdoba, where the kitchen was undoubtedly designed so specifically on a McDonald’s model that the evisceration — if not exenteration! — is required. But at the Bread & Butter, what’s taking shape inside looks disturbingly familiar.

If it’s worth tearing down completely, is it worth rebuilding exactly?

Friday, February 11, 2005


Where Beech Street meets Massachusetts Avenue, at the base of stately St. James Episcopal church, where school buses stop each afternoon to release distracted droplets of children, a siren blares, chased immediately by a single police car, dark and unmarked, blue light at the dashboard, lone man inside: an action figure, driving full-tilt toward a shootout, a crime scene, possible death and certain drama. Dirty Harry.

Three other cars follow, marked, unmarked and marked again, all sirens and speed and lone men of action inside, gapped, a moment of silence between each. But as the first car passes, I am at Beech with the crossing guard, virtually alone. The speeding cop has the green; there is only one car traveling on Beech toward Massachusetts Avenue, and it’s already slowing for the red.

The crossing guard is a stout young man marching stolidly toward middle age. He wears a hearing aid and bright orange vinyl vest over his officer’s outfit, doesn’t smile, has hair so short it’s nearly shaved. He steps into the crosswalk and his hands float out in warning — he’d be clearing the way for the speeding plainclothesman, blocking traffic if only there were any. As that first cop car clears the intersection, gone almost before we can react, the crossing guard’s bulk turns in place to follow it. His eyes are squinting and expressionless, but the face has an adolescent looseness that mutters just loudly enough.

His car is parked on the opposite side of the street. It is a small Subaru Legacy station wagon, dark gray, also in a clear decline into middle age. In the back there is a festive, folded baby stroller. Its pink plastic legs and wheels stick up.

Thursday, February 10, 2005


Which is better — a presidential administration that can’t correctly calculate the cost of the Medicare drug benefit within, oh, a mere $320 billion? Or a presidential administration that lies about the cost of the Medicare drug benefit by $320 billion? I mean, it does almost double the cost of the benefit.

Either way, it makes the administration a wee bit difficult to trust on anything having to do with money, an awkward thing to acknowledge as its $2.57 trillion budget comes up for a debate.

Well, here’s hoping the figure’s closer to correct this time, right?

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


President Bush cuts deficits like a little boy angry about chores. Instead of putting his toys away, they’re shoved under the bed. Forced to take out the trash, he kicks the cat.

Bush promised to cut the $400 billion-plus U.S. deficit in half by the end of his second term, but also wants to expand it significantly to privatize Social Security, make old tax cuts permanent and add more. So he petulantly and destructively responds with $15 billion in cuts to domestic programs, many of which are needed by the poor and middle-class.

One program that will be cut entirely, if Bush gets his way, is Even Start, which would cost taxpayers $257 million next year to keep helping poor people learn to read. If ending the program sounds cruel, it is not without justification, according to the president.

“Families in Even Start have made no more progress toward literacy than a similar group of families outside the program,” he told the Detroit Economic Club yesterday. “Even Start is not working, and so I’ve asked that the program be eliminated and focus resources on things that do work.”

An example of “things that do work,” apparently, is missile defense, which, in reality, does not work. The most recent test failed, remember, at an $85 million price tag, unable to even get off the ground to take down a dummy missile that, if past tests are any indicator, had a homing device that would have allowed the Missile Defense Agency to fake success.

Missile defense doesn’t work. It may never work. It makes very little sense in an era when a nuclear bomb can be packed into a suitcase and driven across a border. But it is funded next year — to the tune of $7.8 billion. Buh-ill-ee-yunnn.

The administration says this is justified by the long-term need for missile defense, which means failures can be tolerated because they point the way toward improvement and ultimate success. This reasoning is somehow inapplicable to Even Start, the failure of which is far less cut and dried than Bush’s assertion suggests.

Mr. President, missile defense is not working, and so I’m asking that the program be eliminated to focus on things that do work. Ending the missile defense program on its own, I note, is fully half of all the deficit savings being proposed for fiscal year 2006.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


I’m in something of a funk. Despite the amazing stuff going on these days, such as the Bush administration efforts against Social Security, it’s hard to be interested in reading the news, copy editing it or even researching and writing a posting to this blog — which is saying something, considering how little research some of these entries take.

But instead of going on hiatus with my ill temper, I can at least link to good stuff while I wait for the mood to go away.

And I do have good stuff to link to, today, anyway.

Remember the bulge under the jacket of President Bush when he first debated John Kerry? Remember how stories about the bulge never got traction, suffering from rejection by major mainstream media? Remember how the most likely solution to the mystery — to the extent that it almost didn’t qualify as a mystery — was that Bush was getting answers from someone backstage via an electronic receiver?

Well, you’ll be happy to hear that Dave Lindorff, who wrote about “Bulgegate” for Salon, has returned to the topic at the Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting Web site, looking mainly at the media’s reaction to the story.

But there’s also good reminders of the facts of the story itself:

The Bulgegate story originated when a number of alert viewers of the first presidential debate noticed a peculiar rectangular bulge on the back of Bush’s jacket. That they got to see that portion of his anatomy at all was an accident; the Bush campaign had specifically, and inexplicably, demanded that the Presidential Debate Commission bar pool TV cameras from taking rear shots of the candidates during any debates. Fox TV, the first pool camera for debate one, ignored the rule and put two cameras behind the candidates to provide establishing shots.

... The suspicion that Bush had been getting cues or answers in his ear was bolstered by his strange behavior in that first debate, which included several uncomfortably long pauses before and during his answers. On one occasion, he burst out angrily with "Now let me finish!" at a time when nobody was interrupting him and his warning light was not flashing.

While Lindorff’s piece is a good, compelling read, it’s probably the worst thing I could have stumbled across, given my mood. Reading how the top newspapers in the United States, including The New York Times, blew off what could have been an incredibly important story is hardly a balm for my funk, and really just drives me deeper into it.

Which reminds me, there’s a piece in the Times today about people moving to Canada.

Monday, February 07, 2005


Tabloid newspapers give high priority to mud-wrestling bouts featuring young female soldiers in bras and thong panties. You can hardly knock the New York Daily News for running big with it Feb. 5 with the tip-off headline “Out of control at Camp Crazy!” (And the subhead “Female soldiers dress down & get dirty for mud romps.”) Two pictures are included, glistening women in the foreground, cheering male soldiers in the background.

I mean, this is shameless — almost as shameless as how much I relished the image. This is good old-fashioned fun. It made me proud of my country. I wanted to chomp on a fried pork rind and hear perhaps two-fifths of a Kid Rock song, this being about as white trash as I can get in public before the natural order reasserts itself. But there’s no part of me that wouldn’t cheer some nice half-naked female mud wrestling. Nor the nearby room that was apparently being loaned out for sex.

Too bad it’s a scandal.

You read it right: Despite the randy headline, the article itself, quoting shocked, shocked military officials, portrays the rasslin’ as “a disconcerting lapse in discipline at a time when Army brass was touting the camp as a model of reform.”

The location of this debauchery was Camp Bucca in Umm Qasr, Iraq. The time was late last October. This was, the News notes, around the time of the abominations taking place at Abu Ghraib, where other high-spirited young soldiers were torturing innocent Iraqi prisoners. (This makes it odd as to why the camp was being touted as a model of “reform” for crimes going on at the same time. Reform usually comes after, doesn’t it?)

The Daily News makes a rather weak effort to link the two, noting also that this was “the same period when enemy detainees were being transferred to Camp Bucca from Abu Ghraib,” although “the Camp Bucca pictures document no such abuses.”

The News revisited the story today, squeezing every last salacious drop out of it by quoting the widow of the soldier for whom the camp is named as saying that “Just because a few individuals did not behave honorably, that is not reason to lose faith in the soldiers at Camp Bucca.” It reiterates that Army brass considered the party “a serious breakdown in military discipline.”

And yet no one has been punished, the News says, its objectivity obviously strained by outrage that these rowdy youths, whose widow-identified dishonor has so painfully besmirched our flag, are getting away with it.


It’s all well and good to run hot pix of stripped-down American chicks grunting and aggressively rubbing their bodies all over each other. And it’s fine to come up with a rationale for doing so, like censors who must watch racy movies so others don’t have to.

But let’s not get all red in the face pretending there’s something wrong here. Abu Ghraib was also, just by way of contrast, another example of military discipline breaking down, a few bad eggs taking matters into their own hands in contradiction of Army policy — although no one’s ever proven this is true, or even admitted whether the White House counsel’s infamous draft memo on torture was policy or not. (Although if it wasn’t, one would think the White House would be eager to say so.) Abu Ghraib was the outrage. Abu Ghraib was the atrocity.

Camp Bucca was just a good time.

Friday, February 04, 2005


I found this entry in one of my notepads. It’s dated 2:25 p.m., Wednesday, 18 December 2002.

Enter Downtown Crossing, pass a panhandler constantly, aggressively ringing cup with change. End by passing a Salvation Army bell ringer doing, essentially, exactly the same thing. In between is an aggrieved man, in the center of an intersection, with a baseball cap, puffy jacket and a white mustache who’s holding a book — a Bible? — and yelling, with no one listening, although three cops walk past, eyeing him in a friendly but jocular way.

“The day you become comfortable with moral corruption in your life,” the man yells, “is a sad day.”

Sometimes it astounds me how meaningful and meaningless things seem simultaneously, with random occurrences suggesting patterns and the most pointed of statements saying, ultimately, absolutely nothing.

And now, sushi.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Discussing his plans for Social Security, President Bush said rather an audacious thing last night in his State of the Union address: “We have to move ahead with courage and honesty, because our children’s retirement security is more important than partisan politics.”

This is hardly a president known for “honesty,” so it’s a safe bet that if he uses the word, a lie of undreamt-of proportions is about to be thrust upon the nation.

Bush and his administration are very good at this stuff. But I would bet my life, literally, if it came to it, that privatization plans for Social Security would collapse completely after a single debate: two hours, say, with no breaks; broadcast nationwide on free television in prime time; all pertinent questions answered immediately; with immediate vetting and reality checks by attending nonpartisan Social Security trustees and representatives from the General Accounting Office; with any number of administration officials, be it 10 or 100; against Paul Krugman.


I’m going to e-mail Krugman, the New York Times columnist and economics professor, and suggest that he issue an invitation. If you want to join in, he can be e-mailed at

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Craigslist has rattled my faith.

On Jan. 26, at 12:01 p.m., someone posted on the topic “Craigslist reveals its true political agenda.”

But don’t go looking for it. The posting is gone. And it’s not one of those things where you click on the link and find out it was “deleted by the Craigslist community”; it’s just gone. The only sign it was there was an asinine reply an hour and 25 minutes later that, if it’s not already gone, soon will be, ephemera lost to the fast-moving world of the anthropologically interesting and otherwise saddening and worthless Craigslist rants and raves.

What was wrong with the posting? Did it espouse an extraordinarily offensive ideology, such as Nazism or apartheid? Did it delve too deeply into a sexual no-no, such as pedophilia or rape? I fortunately had the page cached, so when I went back to the bookmark, I had something to look at — and to copy into a word processing file, and to make screen captures of. So you can judge for yourself the crime this anonymous writer made. Here it is, without corrections:

After the latest round of officially incorporated cities, it now becomes clear that Craiglist intends to create a link between all Aryan, English speaking cities in the world. Shunning its liberal and progressive roots, Craiglist is now poised to be the favorite website for conservative and white supremacist organizations. How else could one explain the incorporation of Brisbane over Rome, Auckland over Madrid, Cardiff over Beijing? As it stands now, Buenos Aires is the only Spanish speaking Latin American country in the secondary city list; Mexico City has been deleted, even though Hispanics continue to be the largest growing minority in the US. There is not a single African country and only 3 Asian token cities. What’s next: censorship? spyware? account temination? Hitler could not have done a better job; apparently his failure was due to the fact that he did not speak English.

In your mission statement, you claim that you want to be “inclusive, giving a voice to the disenfranchised, democratizing”. Yet, you insult the Hispanic community by not even officially incorporating a single Spanish speaking city to Craiglist. DO THE RIGHT THING!

You also claim that you want to be a “collection of communities with similar spirit, not a single monolithic entity” Yet most of the cities incorporated are in mostly white, English speaking countries. DO THE RIGHT THING!

Whenever someone asks that a place like Mexico city be added, it gets short and vague answers. In contrast, if someone asks that Sweden be added, it gets long and encouraging words. DO THE RIGHT THING!

You claim that technical consideration such as memory capability, hardware, etc. is given when picking out your next city. Yet, if a city like Buenos Aires, Puerto Rico, or Mexico City is not going to generate that much traffic, then it should NOT overburden your memory or technical capabilities. DO THE RIGHT THING!

The criteria is not the same for every city. Brisbane had fewer than 10 posts when it was activated, mainly from the same person soliciting sex. Mexico has more than 20 posting and it has now deleted from the runner up list. DO THE RIGHT THING!

You have blundered, but that is not unusual. We all make mistakes. It takes a bigger spirit to accept that we have done wrong and we are willing to change. Now, GO AND DO THE RIGHT THING!

So what the poster did is accuse Craigslist of racism. And the Craigslist response was to disappear the posting as though it never existed.

I’ll throw in the concern of a correspondent:

The last time I checked the Internet country statistics, many of the countries that s/he mentioned weren't as “connected” as many of the countries currently on Craigslist. I haven’t really bothered to think too much about how or why Craigslist chooses its countries/cities. I doubt if it is a conspiracy per se. There may also be some legal reasons why Craigslist sites aren’t in some countries. I know people like that the Internet is beyond the bounds of local, state and countries laws, but that isn’t entirely true.

I think it is interesting that the poster singled out Mexico and Africa, however, but what about China and the countries in Russia? I guess s/he didn't seem to care or notice that they were missing, too.

It’s true, the possible inadvertent cultural bias revealed by the poster is interesting. And I’d consider asking the person about it if I could ask him or her anything at all, but when the post disappeared, so did the ability to e-mail the sender.

How many people would even have seen the posting, given the flood of text roaring through Craigslist sections daily? How injurious could the posting possibly have been?

Craigslist, as a private company, has the perfect right to control what appears in its listings, but if it can defend allowing the worst kind of racist and sexist bilge — and as a First Amendment fan, I think that's the proper stance — it should be able to justify self-criticism as well. Allowing anti-Semitic rants to flourish with the implied justification that the Internet’s self-corrective capabilities will kick in implies as well that Craigslist criticism will also be corrected, if it should be. The correspondent’s reply alone indicates that would have been an appropriate move, a worthy entry in the marketplace of ideas.

Coming from the world of newspapers, many of which are relatively good at posting corrections to the record, covering their own scandals, talking to media critics such as Mark Jurkowitz or Dan Kennedy, giving ombudsmen free rein or allowing blisteringly critical letters to the editor to be published without editorial comment, I suspect that Craigslist could benefit from the same self-examination.

At the most paranoid, the deletion of the post worries me most not because it suggests a close-mindedness hypocritical to the Craigslist mission, such as it is, but that it suggests a defensiveness that, in turn, suggests that the poster struck a nerve by making a valid point. (At my less paranoid, I consider it almost certain that the decision to delete was made at a far lower level than that of those making decisions about where to launch sites. It was undoubtedly a soldier taking initiative so the generals aren’t bothered. But there’s a chance it’s policy, as well.)

Tuesday, February 01, 2005


On the very bright side, the Bread & Butter minimart coming to 2245 Massachusetts Ave. will be open 24 hours, just as the White Hen Pantry there was before closing forever early last month.

One the very, very dark side, now that the signs have gone up, it turns out it’s a Bread & Butter “Konvenience” store.

Ugh. “Konvenience.” Good lord.