Thursday, September 29, 2005


I know this is shameless, but I’m actually reposting.

See, when I originally wrote this, in November 2005, Blogger didn’t offer cheap bastards such as myself, who don’t pay anything for the privilege of blogging, the ability to post pictures with words. Now it does.

Once again, then, with color art:

At the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, I used a bathroom stall intended for the disabled. Like all such stalls, it was spacious, so someone in a wheelchair could roll in and shift himself onto the toilet. There was something a little odd about it, too: The toilet paper dispenser was on the wall far to the right of the toilet, which was on the left of the stall, and getting to it would require a ridiculously long stretch, one almost certainly overextending and unbalancing the person stretching. That’s silly, I thought, why make it so far away? Oh right, I realized, the wheelchair goes in that great space. Right! That’s where the wheelchair goes — between the toilet and the toilet paper dispenser, at exactly the height where the seat, arms and possibly motor get in the way of the effort. Brilliant. Has this stall ever been used by someone in a wheelchair? I’ll bet it wasn’t designed by someone in a wheelchair.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Dunno when it happened, but the venerable pharmacy on Huron Avenue has closed. That means Cambridge has lost its two best unintentionally funny business names.

First the city lost the Long Funeral Service.

Now it’s lacking the sign telling people “Huron Drugs.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


Cambridge homeowners can relax. Last night’s unanimous city council vote sends to the state Department of Revenue a plan that freezes or reverses most city property tax rates — a needed salve after last year’s brutal revaluation.

Under the city manager’s plan, $10 million of the city’s free cash will be used to pay for various needs, with the bulk of it — $6 million — directly easing the pain of tax bills due Oct. 13 after rote state approval. The average single-family home will be assessed at 2.9 percent less than last year; the average two-family at 15.3 percent less; and the average three-family at 7.6 percent less. The average condo assessment will not change.

The owner of that average two-family home will save $718, according to figures provided by city manager Robert Healy.

Those seeing increases of $500 or more, city officials said, were those who’d done major renovations in the past year. They represent less than 2 percent of city property, or 312 parcels out of Cambridge’s 17,785.

The two-hour hearing was full of councilors expressing gratitude for the work of Healy’s office, including near-unanimous praise for fiscal management giving the city $53 million in free cash this year and, as more than one councilor noted, the lowest tax rate in the state. The only dissonant note from the council came from Ken Reeves, who noted a tax freeze does little to help people whose houses were reassessed to nosebleed value but can’t afford to pay the higher tax bill.

“I’m glad you’re so house-rich, but if you’re not also bank-rich, it doesn’t help,” Reeves said, calling the forcible enriching of retired, middle-class people who scramble to keep up with payments “unfair, and I’d say it’s un-American.”

Reeves suggested the city could do more to protect those hurt most by last year’s revaluation. Alluding to the three explanatory tax brochures being sent by the city, and those noting it was not in Cambridge’s nature to cut services to avoid tax hikes, he rebuked his peers by noting that “the best government doesn’t just explain why you just got run over by a car. They want to keep you from getting run over by a car.”

That seemed to earn an allusion in return from Mayor Michael A. Sullivan: “How anybody can say this body hasn’t done anything is beyond me,” he said. “It’s self-serving.”

But Reeves better captured the feeling of the public comments, which warned against taking money from free cash while bringing on debt to build city projects and, most stridently, blasted the city’s deferral of too-high taxes for the disabled, poor and elderly. One member of the public called it “another shell game where you take the property of elders who have taxes deferred.”

Brian Murphy, the councilor who leads the city’s finance committee, agreed the deferrals — now to be for people with income of up to $40,000, from $20,000 — weren’t ideal. The deferrals pile up over the years to up to half the value of a house, essentially leaving a lien that causes massive debt for the inheritors.

Unfortunately, he said, reform must go through the state and is years away. But the process has started.

Monday, September 26, 2005


Go to the Great and Secret Comedy Show as soon as possible. The Walsh brothers, the amiable hosts of the late-night ImprovBoston show, may soon leave for bigger things in Hollywood or New York. No more free shows. No more free beer. Worst of all, no more Walsh brothers — no more of the amazing alchemy that makes a couple of Charlestown underachievers standing around on stage so astonishingly funny and winning.

The humor is more or less irreproducible. That is, the brothers can reproduce it, but it’s pointless to try to share a Walsh brothers joke on paper: One-liners and jokes are the least part of their act, and their personality is the rest. No theater company will be casting Great and Secret comedy franchises like they do Blue Man Group.

David shuffles around the stage, chews on his thumb, looks thoughtful, smiles wryly. Chris struts more, yells, leaps, being more prone to physical comedy, and his smile is wider, more boyishly enthusiastic. They tell stories about growing up, their life now, what they’ve been doing.

And, barring a bit of standup and sketches from guest comics, and even more rarely, very funny sketches from the brothers, that’s pretty much the show.

It’s great that comedians come to The Great and Secret Comedy Show to try out material, but their desperation when a joke or series of jokes go poorly only makes what the Walsh brothers do all the more amazing. While more traditional comics hone material from performance to performance and eventually arrive at perhaps 15 minutes of killer material, the Walshes have more than an hour’s worth of new stuff each week, and it takes several shows for bits to reappear.

The brothers host some very funny comics in the more traditional observational vein, proving all the more that not everyone can or should do what the brothers do. It is still striking to see comics get up to do a few minutes of material, some checking their watch or their cheat sheet of topics with sweaty desperation, and compare it with the brothers’ winning shiftlessness. The comics can cover 20 topics in five minutes in a kind of swirling panic, while the brothers come on and riff for an hour with cool ease, keeping an audience not just chuckling but regularly laughing aloud. The comics strain for their material to be funny. The Walshes simply are funny, and they get material out of it. But they’re still funny, it can seem, without material.

The trick seems to be that deceptive ease: The Walshes go low-key and take the pressure off.

What’s deceptive about it is that the Walshes are under tremendous pressure. They’ve commandeered the latter half of their show to recount a meandering story about sneaking over the Canadian border to a comedy convention, having already used more than a half-hour of stage time that night. They rely on fleshing out details of the story, and on each other’s amplifications, to fill an hour — and come out the other side without finishing the story. The audience is so amused, charmed and intrigued by the provenance of what it’s hearing that it leaves pleased, not at all put off by the lack of resolution. If energy lags during a show, the brothers simply talk until they find their rhythm again.

It’s hanging out with and hearing the stories of two enormously likable guys, not a series of hit and miss jokes. And it’s great.

But it’s probably not secret enough. Not if Cambridge is to keep the brothers to itself.

The Great and Secret Comedy show runs 10 p.m. to midnight on Thursdays at ImprovBoston, 1253 Cambridge St., Inman Square. The closest T stop is in Central Square, and parking is a bit hellish. Call (617) 576-1253 for more information, or go to Suggested donation: $5.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Local alternative media are united in their disregard for Sidekick, the new Boston Globe section serving as a “Guide to a Better Day” with comics, puzzles, television listings, things to do and assorted junk. The Boston Phoenix calls it “muddled” and “confusing.” The Weekly Dig reached these conclusions first in a piece marked by a tone of revulsion over the Globe “groveling” in establishing the section.

In general, the complaint is that Sidekick lacks identity, which smacks of the media’s usual overthinking when confronted with something pushing the boundaries, however incrementally, of U.S. journalistic tradition. There’s a meaningful kind of navel gazing that goes on when, for instance, advertising and marketing invade once sacrosanct parts of a newspaper or the reporting process. It becomes narcissistic — if not downright masturbatory — in examinations such as this, about Sidekick, from the Phoenix’ Mark Jurkowitz:

Some features — those steering people to nightlife, music, and food — are apparently designed for younger, hipper folks ready to hit the town. But others — such as the comics and TV listings — were newspaper nomads looking for a home and happened to find one in Sidekick. Do the demographics of people who like crossword and jumble puzzles and bridge columns match those of readers who send in messages trying to hook up with people they spotted at Supercuts or Avalon? Or those debating whether Snoop Dogg or Metallica produced the best album of the last 20 years? I’d guess not.

Like the panicky probes into what stories can jump from what pages, this kind of media criticism is along the lines of arguing over the proper way to diagram a sentence instead of looking at whether a sentence works on its own merits. Were Sidekick a standalone publication for which people paid daily, such criticism might matter. But Sidekick is just a section in a newspaper that crams together a bunch of features that may or may not work well together, but are needed or wanted wherever they are. If it anchors features, allowing readers to find them easily, Sidekick is doing its job. And by serving readers, the Globe is serving advertisers.

Cramming together a bunch of features into an uncomfortable package is, frankly, what newspapers do. That’s how they include something for everyone — and a fair amount of nothing for a whole hell of a lot of somebodies.

It’s easy to tell critics just need something to write about when the Dig spends a paragraph on this:

First off, the name. Sidekick? Sidekick? Who the fuck named this thing? It’s promoted as “Your guide to a better day.” Your guide. Save for Sherlock Holmes and Don Quixote, who is guided by their sidekick? A sidekick is a occasionally clever little guy who follows you around. He’s not a leader. He’s not the hip, young dude who turns you on to the hottest trends (ick). He’s a sycophant, a tagalong, an ancillary character. Robin to your Batman. Messina to your Loggins.

This may be funny, but it’s supposed to be funny because it’s true. This is less funny because it’s weak, and you can tell the argument is weak when this staff-written piece begins by making allowances for Holmes’ Watson and Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza.

Without thinking too hard you can add Indiana Jones’ Short Round and Salah, both sidekicks by whom our hero is guided, Wang Chi in “Big Trouble in Little China,” Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” Ron Eldard’s fellow workers in the “Blind Justice” television series and Grover in Gregory McDonald’s “Flynn” detective novels. In short, any time a protagonist ventures into unknown territory, the friendly person who leads them is their sidekick and guide. It’s just not that rare or odd, which makes the Dig’s point somewhat ... pointless.

There may be nothing all that right with Sidekick, but there’s nothing all that wrong with it, either.

Our local media critics would do better to contemplate why they’re spending time on such minutiae.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


I figure I should get this out, so to speak, before I lose the opportunity to claim it as original — if, in fact, it is original, which I seriously doubt.

Not being a serious artist, I wouldn’t dare undertake this, but it’s a serious art project that pretty much anyone could do. Especially anyone with a Polaroid instant camera.

The project:

Find a wide open exhibition space, preferably something industrial that has a nearly endless expanse of wall. Every time you make a bowel movement, take a picture of it. Take the Polaroids, carefully label them with date, time and whatever other information you feel is appropriate and adhere them to the wall. This should go on for at least a year, or until the wall is full. Affix the images in chronological order at first, but let the project evolve by its own, internal logic. It may stay strictly chronological. My guess is that eventually patterns will suggest themselves, about the artist’s health as well as about the project’s aesthetic possibilities: color, texture and so on.

This is not just crudity for the sake of crudity. The project could show all sorts of interesting things and even be a valuable tool for diagnosis. From a distance, the flow and range of colors should be intriguing and possibly even beautiful. Up close, obviously, is another story.

I conceived of this idea as fiction, with an artist only reluctantly revealing his work to a date. At the end of the revelation, scanning a factory’s width of small, square patches of filmic yellow and brown, she tells him wryly that “Your work is shit.”

For an idea of how objectionable this kind of project can be, consider Rate My Poo, which is almost like a “hot or not” Web site for bowel movements. Dana advises you not to look at all. I didn’t get beyond the home page, just long enough to bookmark it for this posting.

I would consider looking further if someone can convince me it’s art.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


All right, that’s it. I’m turning on the Blogger spam zapper, and my apologies to those who wish to comment and must now leap another hurdle to do so — typing in the magic random word that people can see and spam generators can’t. Yet.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Whatever Somerville’s Davis Square T stop is saying about newspapers, it isn’t good. There’s a row of forlorn, neglected news boxes there for The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today, unfilled, unused and informative in an utterly unintended way.

One thing being said is actually quite clear. In the window of the abandoned USA Today box sits that paper’s bastard child — the Metro, which followed USA Today’s path of bright color and short stories even as USA Today walked off toward more serious journalism. But with newspapers struggling for market share against a gargantuan number of competitors in various media, those in the journalism business must do what they can to make it to better Times. USA Today has arrived, more or less, but the Metro does what it must to survive. It’s not Metro’s fault that desperation, garish makeup and spending a short, efficient time together feels more like whoring than a relationship.

This creates resentment among those who feel the papers, heavy on entertainment coverage and light on substance, pander. So while the majority has voted with their dollars to let newspaper vendors surrender the Davis boxes to decay, an angry minority has written in opposition.

“Metro” is scribbled out. The proper name of the publication, apparently, is “The Idiot Paper for People Who Move Their Lips When They Read.”

Monday, September 19, 2005


Dumbstruck in the checkout lane, mind sent spinning at the sight of the latest Us Weekly.

BABY NEWS! it cries, misplaced amid candy and gum, over a picture of a pregnant Britney Spears filched from an Elle photo shoot.

HEIDI KLUM names son Henry

JENNIFER GARNER 2 months to go

It is a tired bit of pretension to contrast the vapidity of popular culture with dire current events. But it is also almost impossible — I certainly failed — to think of cataclysm in Iraq and catastrophe after Hurricane Katrina (among other things) and comprehend it being news at all that a celebrity is seven months pregnant, especially considering that roughly 30 days ago we knew she was six months along. And Heidi Klum, well, she named her son Henry. Not Ishmael, Sunshine or Britney, not Michael, John or Joseph, but Henry.

Inside, presumably, is a six-inch sidebar story on the likelihood of his chums calling him Hank.

We may be more desperate than ever to escape our ever more obvious limp toward total collapse, but can it really be escapism to find out celebrities are mind-numbingly dull?

Friday, September 16, 2005


Why don’t people buy American? Rent a new Dodge Caravan and find out.

It’s the minivan of choice for the Avis rental-car agency, and buying one costs up to $27,000. But for a minivan it’s surprisingly cramped, and for a fairly basic vehicle it’s surprisingly confounding. Why won’t this chair move? What’s wrong with this door? Where the hell is the release for the parking brake?

My parents rented a Caravan at night, and Avis had taken the driver’s manual from the glove compartment. Still, even if these count as excuses, there simply aren’t that many drivers who want a car they have to figure out. Having to wrestle a door or seat into submission imparts the unsettling feeling that there’s some soft of “feature” that turns your headlights off if you’re driving faster than 55 miles per hour after midnight.

Just as an example: On other cars in which the parking brake is controlled by a pedal rather than hand-operated lever, it releases when you shift into “drive.” Or you put light pressure on the pedal to make it spring up. Or there’s an obvious handle to pull, usually black plastic with a white icon sticking out from the dashboard.

On the Caravan, the parking brake release is molded to be part of the dashboard’s underside. You pull it with your left hand to release the brake.

It feels and looks like part of the dashboard, though. The driver must know it’s there, as even a concentrated search can be frustrating, especially at night, when arched dark plastic blends almost seamlessly into a whole span of identically colored, congruently arched dark plastic.

Odd that after so many years, U.S. auto manufacturers must be reminded to check out what the Japanese are doing. While the big three shares shrink, even amid big incentives and “employee discounts” for all, Honda, Toyota and Nissan are doing just fine without the desperate gimmicks. What could it be? The lower gas mileage? The reliability?

The ability to just get in one and drive?

Thursday, September 15, 2005


President Bush finally taking responsibility for something? Incredible. But what’s unbelievable, especially in light of his new, disastrous polling numbers, is that as recently as his Monday press conference, Bush was making this same old tired lie:

Now, as far as my own personal popularity goes, I don’t make decisions based upon polls. I hope the American people appreciate that. You can’t make difficult decisions if you have to take a poll. That’s been my style ever since I’ve been the president.

This is nonsense and always has been. Bush spends millions on polling, just like other presidents and politicians. As the Washington Monthly reported in April 2002, he leans most heavily on Market Strategies, of Southfield, Mich., which has been around since the first Bush presidency, and Voter/Consumer Research, of Washington, D.C., which has worked with Bush since his 1991 campaign to raise a Texas sales tax to help pay for his baseball team’s stadium.

Article author Joshua Green notes that the “Bush doesn’t do polls” policy even extends to the president’s pollsters ...

who are discouraged from identifying themselves as such. The strategy seems to be working. A brief, unscientific survey of White House reporters revealed that most couldn’t name [Jan van Lohuizen, of Voter/Consumer Research] as Bush’s primary pollster (most guessed [Matthew] Dowd, who doesn’t actually poll). For his part, van Lohuizen sounded genuinely alarmed when I contacted him.

In addition to rejecting the idea that polls help him make decisions, Bush says polls don’t help him “fine-tune” political or PR messages, which is exactly how pollsters help Bush most, Green shows. This is confirmed in the coldest of fashions a couple of years later when, at the time of his testimony before the Sept. 11 commission, Bush refuses to express regret or admit mistakes regarding the government’s reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“One [Bush] adviser said the White House had examined polling and focus group studies in determining that it would be a mistake for Mr. Bush to appear to yield and apologize for mistakes,” said a New York Times article printed April 15, 2004.

At least this all makes for some darkly funny irony.

“If I tried to fine-tune my messages based upon polls,” Bush is quoted as saying, “I think I’d be pretty ineffective.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Book publishers are beginning to steal ideas from the makers of digital videodiscs, even offering readers “deleted scenes” and trailers. Above is an example of this from an ad for Brian Freeman’s “Immoral” in yesterday’s New York Times arts section.

Just like on most discs, these deleted scenes promise to be mostly junk that slowed down action, made the story too long or just didn’t fit. Stuff gets deleted for a reason, you know, and there’s a great distance between Julie Andrews mattress surfing in “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” and fleshing out Middle Earth to an epic nine hours in “The Lord of the Rings.”

In this ambiguous spirit, here’s stuff I cut yesterday because it slowed down the action, made my posting too long and just didn’t fit. I also suspect it’s all been said before.

The recovery from Hurricane Katrina is almost universally a horror. The thing that comes closest to even grim fun is watching the Bush administration and its ideological toughs get stuck in what they were punching at: the tar baby of federal responsibility. The more they struggle, the more they get caught up in it. So despite arriving touting small government, this gang has enlarged it considerably, first by creating the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, then with its Medicare drug benefit and now by essentially proving, again, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a vital role in protecting the nation.

Thinking state and local governments are going to fulfill the agency’s role by sending help to troubled neighbors (or even farther) means expecting cities and states to have resources and rescue workers expendable enough to send away and do without for lengthy periods. This is unrealistic, and should be especially so to fans of small government, even though they’re the ones espousing such plans. Without a federal response to natural disasters, taxpayers in Cambridge, for instance, would be expected to pay for more police officers, firefighters and equipment than the city needs. They would have to do so even in tight financial times to help in future emergencies in, say, Connecticut, Florida and Michigan, knowing that if they didn’t, the chances of getting emergency help in response are weakened.

That’s a tough sell. It inevitably brings the rational thinker back to the realization that in a country of 50 states and 3.7 million square miles, including Alaska and Hawaii, a patchwork of aid decided by annually revised tax revenue, local need and political expediency might run a distant second to a federal agency whose sole job is to coordinate and implement disaster response.

President Bush wants faith-based initiatives and small government. Reality — or, in Bush’s case, God — seems to be making this goal very difficult to achieve.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


As many have noted, the Bush administration’s fetish for smaller government made it lethally slow and ineffective in responding to Hurricane Katrina. Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman suggested yesterday that the weakening of Federal Emergency Management Agency infrastructure that caused this is also going on in (at the least) the Food and Drug Administration, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Treasury Department and even the agency’s parent, the Department of Homeland Security, and this means weaker infrastructure for the entire nation.

Seeing this, it’s hard not to fixate on Bush adviser Grover Norquist’s infamous comment that he doesn’t “want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” And now we get a glimpse of what the United States looks like with Bush implementing Norquist’s vision: like New Orleans and parts of Mississippi after Katrina, like everywhere before the New Deal and Great Society.

It’s working, too. Donations to help victims of Katrina have been huge, far bigger and faster than after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and today Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, told the Times why: “I really think the biggest reason has got to be people seeing government agencies not doing the right thing, and that drove them to support a private response.” Eventually, taxpayers will wonder why they’re giving so much money to the federal government when private-sector groups are doing all the work. (It’s sort of like being taxed twice.)

But there’s an undertone that’s even more ominous than Norquist’s “bathtub” comment, and an image of America that’s even uglier.

Consider that FEMA’s list of volunteer agencies accepting Katrina donations comprised 25 groups, perhaps three of which are secular, such as the American Red Cross, rather than religious, such as televangelist Pat Robertson’s controversial Operation Blessing. Among those left off the list was Operation USA, which has been helping nations recover from disasters for more than a quarter of a century — and is, in fact, accepting donations and helping victims of Katrina.

This isn’t so strange from an administration pushing “faith-based initiatives” since before it seized the White House. (It is strange from a group of politicians that claim to be interested in the intent of the nation’s founders, though. All the way back in 1811, President Madison vetoed a bill that would have given federal money to a church helping the poor, saying the funding “exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions.”) The message from this administration is that it values the help of religious groups and wants people to rely on them more than they do secular groups. And surely some of the emotionally, physically or financially injured people getting help from religious groups in especially trying times will become more religious; it’s the principle on which missionary work rests.

The image of America that arises, then, is of a nation whose government is too poor to provide for people and whose religious groups make up for the lack. At its most extreme, the image is that of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where people have little choice but to send their kids to madrassas, where room and board is free and the education is strict and religious, where children become fit for little but more religion and jihad, except that in the United States the education would be Christian rather than Islamic.

Christian conservatives have long been fans of vouchers so kids can escape failing public schools, the prime alternative being, not so coincidentally, religious schools. The faith-based initiatives effort is the same, but for social-service and safety-net needs rather than for education.

They are a patient bunch, these religious conservatives, but every time they elect one of their own to high office their need for patience diminishes. Now they’ve got Bush, who said God wanted him to run for president, who declared a Jesus Day in Texas and who feels that “Events aren’t moved by blind change and chance [but] by the hand of a just and faithful God.”

Despite this, and despite FEMA’s transparent attempts to steer money toward religious groups, there are signs the conservatives must still wait for their fully Christian nation. As of Sept. 11, about 75 percent of money donated for Katrina aid went to the secular American Red Cross — $584 million out of $738 million.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Okay, so perhaps there is reason to worry about President Bush’s nomination of John G. Roberts for the Supreme Court.

First came Bush citing Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas as his model for future court appointments, because Scalia and Thomas believe in convenient interpretations of “original intent” to decide issues. Roberts hasn’t admitted to or boasted of being an originalist, though, instead saying in written comments during his 2003 federal appeals court confirmation that:

I do not have an all-encompassing approach to constitutional interpretation; the appropriate approach depends to some degree on the specific provision at issue. Some provisions of the Constitution provide considerable guidance on how they should be construed; others are less precise. I would not hew to a particular ‘school’ of interpretation, but would follow the approach or approaches that seemed most suited in the particular case to correctly discerning the meaning of the provision at issue.

This is very reassuring, if one can get past suspicions raised by Bush nominating him at all. It doesn’t help when conservative religious kingpins such as Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, says “The president is a man of his word. He promised to nominate someone along the lines of a Scalia or Thomas, and that is exactly what he has done.”

Belief in Biblical inerrancy is a warning sign that beats even belief in the right’s version of original intent, and Roberts certainly hasn’t come out espousing inerrancy.

This isn’t all that reassuring, though, remembering what Bush said in the summer of 2002:

We need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. Those are the kinds of judges I intend to put on the bench.

And for some reason Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) gets angry at Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) for asking Roberts about his religion because “We have no religious test for public office.” Cornyn should be at least equally angry with Bush for appearing to violate Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution. (Whether Bush actually did violate the Constitution is up for debate, but Roberts is described as being a devout Catholic. One almost begins to hope Bush is as bad at vetting Supreme Court justices as he is at vetting leaders for Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

Where this comes together, raising all sorts of alarms, is in a 1992 case called Lee vs. Weisman, in which Roberts wrote:

History suggests that listening to a religious invocation at a civic ceremony was seen not as an establishment of religion by the government but, on the contrary, as an expression of civic tolerance and accommodation to all citizens.

It is hard to imagine what Roberts meant by this, especially given the reasonable assumption that he is familiar with the constitutional clause promising equal protection of the law. How can a religious invocation at a civic ceremony offer accommodation to citizens who don’t believe in God? By definition, a religious invocation has no role at a civic ceremony, just as a mayoral vote or similar civic function has no role at a church ceremony. Religious invocations are allowed because they’re popular, not because they’re right, and that’s exactly the constitutional problem with them.

It’s hardly reassuring that to argue for religion at graduation ceremonies Roberts looks to “history” rather than the Constitution itself, but it’s interesting that he looks to history rather than to “intent.” Keep an eye on how his decisions rove between these three justifications — enabled by his, um, catholic way of discerning “an appropriate approach” to a case in a justification that suddenly seems even more sinister than straight orginalism.

History suggests many things, including many abhorrent to modern people. Roberts’ abuse of history in this instance makes it seem as though Bush has, indeed, done exactly as he promised for his conservative constituency, and that’s hardly an accommodation for us citizens who reject religion’s role in our government.

Friday, September 09, 2005


The bookstores are creeping back to Harvard Square. The recent losses of Wordsworth and the travel-focused Globe Corner Bookstore left mainly the venerable Harvard Book Store, Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Coop and Schoenhof’s Foreign Books, but Raven Used Books is coming to JFK Street, due to open late next week. Looks like the Raven of Northampton and Amherst alighting in the east.

Thursday, September 08, 2005


The usual hypocrisies were on display at yesterday’s service for William H. Rehnquist, chief justice for the Supreme Court, some inspired by grief for the dead, some by a political agenda. The most notable was by Cardinal Theodore W. McCarrick, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington, who hailed Rehnquist as “a tireless champion of life.”

It really depends, doesn’t it? Consider this from Monday’s edition of The New York Times:

“The existence of the death penalty in this country is virtually an illusion,” [Rehnquist] declared in a typical dissent in 1981, complaining that “virtually nothing happens except endlessly drawn-out legal proceedings.” No other member of the court joined him.

But eventually not only a majority of the court but Congress as well — due in part to Chief Justice Rehnquist’s advocacy from his platform as head of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the judiciary’s policy-making arm — agreed that there were too many procedural obstacles blocking states from carrying out the death penalty. Through the interaction of legislation and Supreme Court decisions, the pace of executions quickened sharply through the 1990’s.

At least the cardinal could have qualified his words somewhat, crediting Rehnquist instead for being “a tireless champion of some life” or “indisputably innocent life” or “a tireless champion of the right of unwanted babies to have lives that could someday lead them to kill others and be executed for it by lethal injection ... or not.”

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Somehow the Labor Day blogging break became extended to yesterday. Today, I’m simply not sure what to say.

Everything worth saying about the current national disasters is being said already, and it’s hard to counterprogram without coming off as frivolous and out of touch, especially when others are suffering or heading off into danger, sacrifice and hardship.

This is why punditry is all the rage — not just because technology allows people to learn about anything anywhere and talk about it immediately, but because people seize desperately on that technology to say something, anything, new, knowing it’ll remain so for a few minutes, an hour, a day at best.

What alternative is there? Writing on timeless topics seems a waste when the point of your lengthy essay is captured in a single centuries-old sentence from a book of quotations. Expressing an opinion on breaking news looks like a good deal in comparison, so long as you’re fast enough to get credit for saying something before anyone else.

After all, people aren’t born tired of being asked why the chicken crossed the road.

I could go on, but the point eludes me. As you’ll find in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Or, as Terence said in “Eunuchus” some 150 years before the birth of Christ, “Nothing can be said nowadays which has not already been said.” Or, to quote Mademoiselle Bertin, dressmaker to Marie Antoinette, “There is nothing new except that which has been forgotten.”

Thanks, book of quotations.

To think there was a time when every thought was new, every plot original, every comment startling, every note groundbreaking.

That’s impossible to sustain, of course, and eventually someone lost to history became the first schlub to inadvertently repeat someone else’s thought. Imagine the withering looks. The crushing presumption of inferiority.

Which brings us back to punditry.

Friday, September 02, 2005


I’m still bemused every time I see the latest addition to our police cruisers: the Web site address


Shouldn't that be dot-gov?

It’s a bit of a stretch, I suppose, but it makes the police sound like a business, which raises the specter of quotas on parking tickets and moving violations ... which means I’m not sure why it’s not instead of, because this White House is sure as hell open for business.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Having been in love with Boston during my time at Emerson College, I'd stuck close, eschewing even a semester abroad in Europe. By the end of the four years, during which Charles Stuart's murderous lies revealed a readiness to fear and humiliate black males, Southie kept reeling from busing tensions and reverberations hit when Rodney King's assailants largely escaped punishment in Los Angeles, I was feeling claustrophobic, all too aware of Boston's hermetic whiteness and how it ended in a shock crossing the street into Roxbury and Dorchester. Just as one can go to the Museum of Science and be entertained by hopping back and forth Boston-Cambridge-Boston-Cambridge while looking out at the Charles River, it was possible to play a grimmer version on these dirty streets: white boston-black boston-white boston-black boston. The scale of the city had seemed cute, and the ability to walk from one well-defined section to the next seemed charming. At the end of the four years, though, they felt cloying and I felt caged.

In a white, middle-class, liberal kind of way, that is.

It took leaving Boston to appreciate it anew, and the city's increasing diversity is encouraging, although some of it is taking place with the taint of gentrification, more an invasion of black areas than a mutual crossing of boundaries. I'd already crossed the river for Cambridge anyway and found it incrementally more soothing. Slowly, I am learning to understand why. In fact, slowly, I am learning to understand all of this better.

So. Another piece of that growth in understanding, from "A Tale of Three Cities in One," by George H. Hanford (Cambridge Historical Society, 1996):

In the 1880s Boston was engaged in a bitter fight over the issue of segregated versus integrated public schools. Segregation won, with the result that many African-American families moved to Cambridge, whose schools were integrated.

More than a decade after the Civil War, Boston, home of the great abolitionists, voted to segregate its schools.

Cambridge, to my great relief, did not.