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Monday, February 28, 2005

The following issue of the Mideast On Target newsletter found its way into my IN Box, early in the morning on February 25. The comments of my young Israeli correspondent that I included in my post of February 22, arrived earlier this month. And of course in that post, I expressed my own reservations about the Gaza pull out being the best road to peace.

Here’s what Israeli observer and Mideast On Target author Elliot Chodoff had to say just before the outrage in Tel Aviv :
Palestinian terrorism has disappeared from the headlines, giving the impression that all is quiet on the West Bank and Gaza Fronts. The illusion of calm serves the interests of all the major players in the Middle East at the moment: the US, the Israeli government, the new and improved post Arafat Palestinian Authority, and last but not least, the terrorist organizations.

The US, Israeli, and Palestinian leadership all need to maintain an image of tranquillity so each can pursue its policies. The US, trying to get the Europeans on board for the long haul in Iraq (with Iran and Syria waiting in the wings), needs to show progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, if only as a sop to the pro-Palestinian governments of Europe. The American administration knows that Israeli concessions are out of the question if terrorist attacks continue, and that without them a breakdown in the newly resurrected "peace process" is inevitable. Quiet is a crucial component of this policy.

The Israeli government, having decided on the evacuation of the Gaza and northern Samaria settlements, faces serious and possibly violent confrontations with Israelis who oppose the decision. At the same time, the US has made clear that every effort must be made to shore up Abu Mazen’s position, including release of terrorists and limitations on counter-terrorist operations. The Israeli leadership knows that it will be hard pressed to implement the withdrawal decision, and continue with good will gestures to Abu Mazen in the face of a wave of violence, risking the ire of the US administration if it fails to deliver the goods.

The PA leadership has no interest in confronting the terrorist organizations in its midst, especially since it has more than enough internal conflict to keep it occupied for the foreseeable future. The bloody settling of scores between old and new guards, between Arafat loyalists and opponents, and plain old-fashioned warlord turf battles has only just begun. This is no time for Abu Mazen to have to face down Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

And, last, the terrorist organizations need a breather after suffering a long string of defeats at the hands of the IDF and Israeli security forces. The elimination of the top leadership, which decapitated Hamas and drove the survivors underground, the thwarting of hundreds of terrorist attacks, and the constant pressure of IDF incursions have combined to leave the terrorists in disarray. Now is the time to regroup, reorganize, and rearm. The terrorists are taking full advantage of the declared break in the action.

But the most serious problem with the "cease fire" is that it is an illusion. The press has taken the governments’ lead and is simply not reporting that terrorist attacks continue to be thwarted by the IDF on a regular basis, that Hamas has stepped up its Qassam rocket production (compensating for a shortage of materials by tearing up traffic signs to use the pipe for rocket bodies), and calls for shahidim (martyrs) continue unabated in the Palestinian media. The game seems to be to continue business as usual and hope the other side is blamed when the quiet is shattered by a terrorist attack.

The situation today remains highly volatile, with all sides publicly pretending that everything is moving on the right track while behind the scenes everyone knows that there is a powder keg waiting for the spark to set it off. In the meantime, all are content to play the game of "out of sight, out of mind," but the indicators show that with the terrorists continuing to reorganize, the real game being played by the Israeli government is "They’re out of sight? Am I out of my mind?" As we have learned tragically over the years, ignoring terrorists will not make them go away.
And the game being played by the terrorist groups is "How far can we push Sharon before he orders the IDF to strike back and the world condemns him for "breaking" the "peace process?" And perhaps the most dangerous game of all is the one being played by George Bush, who wants a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to be a part of his legacy.

I would be happy to let history record him as the statesman who finally broke through the logjam and found a way to bring the two warring sides together. As long as he remembers the primary rule of the game he’s playing.

Peace is better than war, but a phony peace is a way to assure only that the war is bound to continue.

Friday, February 25, 2005

An interesting op-ed piece by Ruben Navarrrette of the San Diego Union Tribune, citing the "all or nothing" approach to politics and just about everything else by radio talk show hosts from the left and from the right - though of course mostly from the right because of the sheer number of conservatives filling the nation’s airways.

Navarrette uses Clint Eastwood’s frustration over the attacks on his "Million Dollar Baby" movie by some right wing talk show hosts as the hook for his theme, but then gets into the meat of his topic and the critical question of why political opinion of the right or left has to be "all or nothing." He quotes Eastwood as saying there was a time when politics was more cordial, when you could disagree with people and still be friends. But not any more. Now if someone disagrees with you, he’s a moron and an idiot. Navarrette says that’s one of the biggest problems with political discourse in this country and it needs to get fixed.

I can’t disagree with that conclusion, but it does suggest an interesting question about this black and white or all or nothing attitude. The right wing ranters and ravers on the radio need no reason for their hatred. They are in a constant attack mode no matter who is in power. It was non stop during all eight of the Clinton years - and to hear them talk now, you would think that Democrats - or even worse - liberals were still in power.

But what about many of the people who voted for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004? Can they be supportive of Mr. Bush and his ideas and policies - or at least "nuanced" about then - if they believe that the attack on Iraq had zero legitimacy, regardless of the subsequent collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime and moves toward the possible election of a democratic government in that country?

Let me ask that same question in terms of a political figure from the past. Could you be supportive of ideas and policies of a leader that improve a nation’s economy, get the trains to run on time and raise national pride, if that leader launches an unprovoked war against his neighbors and nations thousand of miles away? Could you have had a "nuanced view" of Adolph Hitler as Navarrette speaks with admiration of John McCain’s nuanced view of the Bush administration?

It’s worth re-stating what Mr. Bush did vis-à-vis Iraq. Without any provocation, without being attacked by that nation, he decided that the United States would invade Iraq and overthrow its leadership. He gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum. He could avoid being invaded if he would stop beating his wife and when Saddam insisted that he didn’t have a wife, the Bush response was - we gave you a chance to avoid being crushed and you didn’t take it, so we’re coming. He got one other nation to go along with him and some token support from a few other countries. And the world stood by and let him get away with it. There were protests at the United Nations, but there was no way to prevent the onslaught of the United States military juggernaut, once our leader gave the order to attack.

(Oh - and unless you’re a congenital idiot, in which case you shouldn’t be reading this blog, you know that the Saddam wife beating reference is allegorical.)

Absent the attack on our soil of 9/11/01, the attack on Iraq would have had no more legitimacy than Hitler’s march into Poland - albeit for different reasons. But in a post 9/11 world, manufactured legitimacy has become part of the political currency which Mr. Bush keeps claiming he has now earned by virtue of his reelection and is determined to spend in total before he leaves office.

Add to that his frequent references to his relationship to "God" and what "God" wants for the world and what "God" wants him to do, and it isn’t difficult to understand why proposals and policies emanating from this White House that might have stand alone merit, are colored by the overall message of a man on a messianic mission and for many people, turn what could be shades of gray into unrelenting blackness.

It isn’t that Mr. Bush is looked upon by those who vigorously oppose him as moronic or idiotic. He may be inarticulate on occasion, but he is not unintelligent. But he gives the impression of being convinced that everything thing he does, every decision he makes, as being unquestionably right. And that those who disagree just don’t understand. I can’t think of a President in living memory who projected that kind of scary image on the landscape.

But since I’ve made the case - or tried to make the case for why those who oppose Mr. Bush see his politics and theirs in black and white rather than shades of gray - and since it’s Friday and I’m heading into a birthday week-end - (I’m old, old) - I’ll try to finish up by saying something nice about the President. Along with millions of others, I heard some of the secret recordings made by Doug Wead between 1998 and 2000. I don’t know what the recordings that haven’t been released might reveal, but the ones that have, reveal someone we all know. George W Bush in private is the same as President George W Bush in public. What you see is what you get. He is what he appears to be. Whether one agrees with what he "is" or not, I think that’s to his credit.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Journalists Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller are one step closer to jail this month after the US Court of Appeals poured cold water on their first amendment arguments. This is the case of the "outing" of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative by ultra conservative columnist Robert Novak. Plame of course just happens to be the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson who publicly dissed President Bush about Iraq trying to buy uranium from Niger.

A coincidental connection? Sure.

This whole affair has had a nasty smell to it from the very beginning. For my money, just about anything connected to Robert Novak has a nasty smell to it. I felt that way when it was Evans and Novak and I feel the same way today. When I watch him pontificating on The Capital Gang , shivers run up and down my spine. That’s how visceral my reaction is to what he says and how he says it.

But my personal feelings about Novak aside, the case that Patrick Fitzgerald, on leave from his post as US Attorney for Northern Illinois, is supposed to be pursuing to see who in the White House committed a crime, reeks of being one of political dirty tricks and revenge ordered up from on high - and for my money, Novak’s role has been more one of a co-conspirator than a journalist. It has been widely reported that the leak about Plame was "shopped" to several journalists, but only Novak did the dirty deed and cooperated in the crime.

Cooper revealed nothing. He reported on the controversy after it broke in Novak’s column. Judith Miller never wrote anything about it. All she had was notes for a possible article, but it was never written. Now the prosecutors want to get access to her phone records. Looking for phone sex numbers no doubt!!

While all this is going on and these two are being harassed to death by Fitzgerald, who has impressed me as a modern day Javert ever since he arrived in Illinois, heralded by his champion, the recently retired Republican Senator from Illinois Peter (no relation) Fitzgerald, as the white knight who would rid the state of all crime and corruption, we hear nothing about where Robert Novak fits into his investigation.

No judges or prosecutors are talking about or seem to be doing anything about the Novak role in the case.. He’s very visible. He’s out there working. He can be seen and heard on CNN every week spouting his conservative views and finding no wrong in anything that anyone in the Republican administration says or does. But he doesn’t seem to be under any pressure from Mr. Fitzgerald and no court is threatening to hold him in contempt and send him to jail - and he won’t say anything about the case.

Cooper and Miller were interviews on PBS radio today. Novak was invited but declined.

And we are all left to ask questions. Has he been subpoenaed? Has he testified in front of a Grand Jury? Did he refuse to reveal his source for the story or did he fold and tell all? And if he revealed his source, is the source being investigated? Has the source been called before the Grand Jury? And if he has revealed his source for the story that only he exposed, why do we only hear about Cooper and Miller who never wrote anything about having a source that provided them with sensitive information?

Of course, refusing to comply with a court order or to answer a question posed by a Grand Jury, is as flowing blood to a shark for a prosecutor like Fitzgerald. But one has to wonder if the real story, upon which Cooper and Miller may ultimately shed very little light, is being pursued with the same vigor.

Fitzgerald was brought to Illinois by the other Fitzgerald because he had the reputation of being incorruptible - the antithesis of the "go along, get along" US Attorney - and for that reason was handed the case when John Ashcroft, now conveniently out of the picture altogether, recused himself.

Still, I might be persuaded to take an even money bet that the focus will continue to be on Cooper and Miller and that ultimately, it will be announced that the investigation has reached a dead end without any conclusion being reached and that no high level White House operative will go to jail or even be prosecuted for what many have described as an act of treason.

I hope I'm wrong, but I have a feeling that the only people who will suffer will be Cooper and Miller and Novak will continue to smirk his way through the Capital Gang program every Saturday evening.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

It’s almost to the point where I could create a weblog dealing just with the disintegration of what used to be merry old England. It seems that just as our first cousins across the pond reach the point of recovery from one assault on their national character and traditions, another crops up to take its place.

I must say I was somewhat relieved to learn that Prince Charles and Camilla would not be getting married at Windsor Castle. My wife and I were in the castle a few years ago while repairs were still underway following the disastrous fire of November, 1992. For the couple to get married in that royal setting while Camilla’s ex is still around, would desecrate the ancient structure in far worse ways than the damage caused by the fire. When we were there, almost everything had been restored. In my view, there would be no way to erase the stain on British royal history that would be caused by a Windsor Castle wedding between - as ABC’s London correspondent Linda Albin put it so aptly on the radio this morning - an old fart and an old tart!! Way to go Linda.

Now they’re going to have the wedding at a town hall and the Queen mum is mad. She wanted them to get married at the castle - and now she’s not going to show up at the wedding at all.

And of course they can’t get married in church, because the marriage is against the rules of the Church of England, yet the church has given its blessing to the marriage and of course, when Charles ascends to the throne, he will be the titular head of the Church of England.

I told you the whole place is going downhill.

Not quite royal, but a position that calls for traditional English values of decency, fair play, politeness and noblesse oblige, is that of the Mayor of London, a position currently held by an oddball by the name of Ken Livingstone.

It appears that Mr. Livingstone cares nothing for preserving the dignity of the position of the Mayor of the great city of London . This foul mouthed nitwit became annoyed with a reporter from a London newspaper who happens to be Jewish - and proceeded to ask him if he was a "German war criminal" and accused him of being like a "concentration camp guard." He’s been asked to apologize by just about everybody, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, but he says no - no way. He’s got nothing to apologize for.

This is the same Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, who hosted a visit to London of the notorious Sheik Yusuf Al Qaradawi - embraced the son-of-a-bitch like a long lost brother - and called on the British press and others to apologize to him for the nasty things they said about him.

I may be in the old country in the not too distant future. I hope I’ll still recognize it.. And for sure I hope I don’t run into Ken Livingstone.

Shenanigans here too??

An editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune applauding the conviction of attorney Lynne Stewart for "supporting terrorism." It evoked a strong response from a law professor that appeared in the "voice of the people" section of that Newspaper today.

As this blog’s readers know, I’m often critical of the selection of letters to the editor that appear in some newspapers and I’ve made some critical comments about the Chicago Tribune in particular. But when they publish something worth reading, I’m the first to recommend it. - and rather than insert a link to the letter that might disappear over time, here is what law professor Leonard Cavise says about the issues involved:
That was an absolutely vicious editorial about attorney Lynne Stewart, who was convicted recently in New York for supporting terrorism . It puts the Tribune squarely on the side of those who would destroy the right to counsel when the defendant is unpopular, those who would eavesdrop and tape conversations between attorney and client, those who would put law-enforcement officers in the very room where attorney and client are conferring.

Members of the Bush administration created rules that they say allowed them to do all of those things. And not just to terrorists. Any federal prisoner, and his or her lawyer, is subject to precisely the same rules. No judge approved those rules. No legislature passed them into law.

The Ashcroft Justice Department decided to make the new rules the condition upon which Lynne Stewart could even see her client. When he gave her a statement for the press, she took the statement and gave it to the press. She didn't surreptitiously pass it on to people who then engaged in terrorism. She didn't espouse anything in the press release. She didn't pass any secret codes or messages from her client to someone else. She gave the statement to reporters.

Ashcroft said that action violated his rules. None of those rules even existed before Ashcroft and the Bush administration. Stewart challenged those rules. Anyone interested in preserving the right of a lawyer to advocate for the client should challenge those rules. Test them in court. Ask a judge if those rules violate the 1st Amendment. If the new rules hold up, then we have to live with them. Violations of administrative regulations may subject the violator to administrative sanctions.

But prosecuting Stewart for materially supporting terrorism? Sending her to jail for doing what any self-respecting lawyer would do for his or her client? When did the Tribune decide that the attorney-client privilege and the 1st Amendment are two more freedoms that we can do without?
One of the reasons that the letter impressed me enough to re-print it here, is that I let that editorial go by with a "ho hum" - just as I gave little serious thought to the issue when I saw attorney Stewart on the news after she had been convicted. She looked like a radical from the sixties - about as un-feminine as a woman can get - and I’d pretty much accepted the allegation that she had broken some law. That’s what comes of being influenced by appearances and not paying enough attention to the fine print of a story.

Professor Cavise raises an interesting question. How can a lawyer be sent to jail for doing what he or she is supposed do for a client, just because the client is a despicable individual and because the Attorney General of the United States decides to impose restrictions on the traditional attorney/client relationship?

The case wasn’t presented to the jury in that manner of course. It was presented as a case of "providing material support" to a terrorist group. I don’t know what went on in the courtroom, but if what Professor Cavise describes as her activity for her client was interpreted to the jury in that way, it bodes ill for any attorney trying to represent any of the people being held at Guantanamo that a court has ruled do have constitutional protection under US law. They may have, but would any attorney representing them?

It’s an interesting question and an interesting reflection on the times we’re living in and the administration in power.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Now that it’s happened, I must say that I’m not overjoyed. In fact, I am probably just a little more skeptical that any long term peace can take hold.

I’m talking about the Israeli cabinet vote in support of pulling settlements out of Gaza beginning in July. Those who have long believed that there would be peace if only Israel pulled back to its 1967 borders and removed Jewish settlements from all territory outside of those borders , are of course ecstatic. President Bush is making pronouncements wherever he stops on his European tour about peace between the warring sides now being a very real possibility. As if he’d lived among them for the last fifty years and really knew what it was that divided them. As if anything remotely resembling peace ever existed before 1967.

Ultra orthodox factions of course are against any withdrawal from any part of what they consider to be the land of Israel. And there are plenty of secular critics who don’t buy the idea that this is a first step that will ultimately leads to peace.

I’ve been having an e-mail dialogue with a young Israeli girl that I met doing genealogical research. There’s a possibility that we may be distantly related. She was fifteen when we first made contact and now she’s almost eighteen. I made some comment to her the other day about the hope that she could grow up in a country no longer at war. Here’s what she said about that in one e-mail:
"Just two words about the peace.. you may or may not agree with me, but personally I see no peace coming here. I, like many more around me believe that what the Palestinians are doing is simply a diversion to something else. Until now they wanted us out of here and suddenly they changed their minds? I don't believe in this kind of rapid change in beliefs. There’s this ancient saying that says: When talking of peace, prepare for war. It's when the situation is natural you can be calm, not when it's unnatural."
And a couple of days later:
"Now, politics is a very dirty thing. I believe that if they'll see fit, they'll open a war, just because it serves their interests. We're not counting on the leaders really. Most of them are there for the power and the money anyway. All we hear is promises but nobody takes care of the real problems. About the Palestinians, I'm not too worried as long as they talk about kicking us out, that's normal. But when all of the murderers in the Arab government (or whatever it is over there) turn suddenly into angels and promise they'll be good to us (of course only as long as we free their 500 prisoners who apparently are poor and miserable souls who were sitting in prison for no reason at all), then I'm uneasy. Now, one of our major problems here, is that we are rapidly dividing amongst ourselves and nobody gives a damn. This worries me more."
This from a young kid who has grown up in Israel.

My skepticism is because of the Palestinian insistence that there can be no peace if Jews live among them. The opposite may be true - the model that they can see across the border between Gaza and Israel - that Arabs live among Jews and Jews live among Arabs and while they may disagree and argue - often with great passion and anger - they do not attack and kill each other. Inside of Israel, there are no troops protecting Arab neighborhoods from attacks by Jews and there are no troops protecting Jewish neighborhoods from attacks by Arabs.

But that appears to be of little consequence to the Arab leadership or, I guess, to the average Palestinian Arab. Withdrawal of all Israeli military personnel from Gaza and ceding total military and civilian police control to the elected Palestinian leadership is not enough. The civilian Jews living there must go too.

Well, you might say, what I’m talking about are some of those hateful settlements!! And that’s true. The Jews living in Gaza are living in "settlements" - small communities that they have built. A total of about eight thousand Jews living among a million and a half Arabs. And yet, there can be no peace unless they leave.

A million Arabs can live in Israel. Thousands of Palestinian Arabs can cross into Israel daily to work. But once all the Israeli military personnel leave Gaza, the Jewish civilians must leave also or there can be no peace. Or they will be slaughtered by the people with whom Israel is in the process of making peace.

President Bush is insisting that any future Palestinian state have "contiguous" territory in the West Bank and I absolutely agree. But if "contiguous" means no Jews living in "settlements," then the foundation on which this peace between the two states is being built, will still be resting on a sea of hatred and discrimination.

Those who are less skeptic than I may say that "hard choices" have to be made to achieve peace - and maybe after Israel has made the hard choice of removing all Jews from areas heavily populated by Arabs and after the two sides have lived for a few years side by side without going to war with each other, Arabs might decide that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if a few Jews lived among them.

I hope with every fiber of my being that the planned Gaza pull out is the beginning of something that won’t fall flat on its face like every other effort to jump start a "peace process" for the last half century, but I’d be a lot more sanguine if the first step was an immediate withdrawal of military forces from Gaza - and between now and July, the handful of Jewish settlers could work on their move without a single one of them being murdered.

And for a postscript, I’d like to include a link back to my tongue in cheek yet still serious suggestion of how to solve the whole stupid problem if only there were people on both sides who could sit down at a table and say to each other, "How about if we use something revolutionary in our approach to solving our differences. A common sense way of making common cause!!!"

Monday, February 21, 2005

It’s a holiday today - or at least it is for all our dedicated government workers, so out of respect for them, I’m not going to write or even think about serious topics such as what is going on in Iraq and the Gaza strip or the budget or the Bush tapes or which country Bush is bashing this week Instead I’m going to talk about and take advantage of one of the wonders of the Internet.

The wonder that I’m talking about is the ability of anyone with a computer and access to the world wide web, to memorialize any thought, picture, literary work, description of an accomplishment or anything else that can be presented in print or graphic form - and have it available to be viewed by anyone, anywhere in the world, now and for the foreseeable future.

Assuming that the site containing such information is registered with search engines, anyone researching a topic or surfing the web, could come upon it and become a reader by accident. And of course anyone who knows the URL can visit the site anytime as long it exists. And even if or when it’s no longer an active site, its pages can still be found by search engines.

Of course there are also disadvantages to this wonderful utility. You have no control over things that you’d rather not be memorialized on the Internet. For example, if you go to a search engine and type in "Monster A-Go-Go" + Jeff Smith, you’ll see me connected to one of the worst movies ever made. It’s a long story that I won’t bore you with at the moment, but clicking on one or more of the URL’s that come up will probably tell you most of the story. That a movie started to be made in the sixties - the producers ran out of money - someone bought the scenes that had been shot, changed the name of the film - went out and shot a bunch more scenes that had very little to do with the original story and finally released it under the Monster name. My name should have been taken off of it once the project was abandoned and resurrected as something else, but it wasn’t something I could control and 40 years later, there it is on the Internet.

But I was very disappointed to find out recently that no reference could found anywhere on the Internet to a television program that I created and produced many years ago and of which I was very proud. So on this Presidents day, I will use my whatsallthisthen blog to correct this unconscionable error.

But first an admission. I "stole" the title and the general concept of the program from an old BBC radio program - The Brains Trust.

My version of the program was broadcast on WTTW, Channel 11, the PBS television outlet in Chicago in the early sixties with an original revolving "cast" of Alec Sutherland, Director of Continuing Education at the University of Chicago, Paul Haggerty, a former vaudevillian, musician and raconteur, Robin Pearce, an artist, film maker, lecturer on the fine arts and a world traveler, Paul Schilpp, a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, Dick Applegate, foreign correspondent, TV newsman and commentator, Dan Q, Posin, De Paul University Professor and host of his own television program on WTTW, "Dr. Posin’s Universe," Nathan Schwartz, Philanthropist and raconteur, Ralph Eisendrath, lawyer and civic leader and moderator Don Bruckner, at that time a labor writer for the Chicago Sun Times and for many years after that, a theater critic for the New York Times. Only four panelists plus the moderator appeared on each program.

It was a panel discussion show that could have been the great grandfather of John Stewart’s "Daily Show" on the Comedy Channel. The concept was simple. Viewers would send in questions on subjects ranging from the threat of nuclear annihilation to why there are so many Jewish comedians - from the role of God in politics to why it takes so long for Ketchup to come out of the bottle - and the panel members would "answer" them. The questions chosen for any given show were precisely that kind of mix and the panelists were chosen for the unique contributions each could bring to the subject matter - from the most erudite and serious to the most irreverent and comedic. The Chicago Tribune called the program "five panelists versus the universe."

It wasn’t scripted as is the Daily Show and of course, with questions mailed in by a viewing audience that were tackled weeks after their submission, we couldn’t deal with day to day news. But though the conversation was free wheeling, how each panelist might answer a question was discussed at what could be loosely described as a rehearsal , so that we were able to come up with the right kind of provocative and entertaining mix week after week and become one of the most popular shows on the air at WTTW. We did it live and in front of a studio audience.

Those were the days when the Chicago PBS television outlet was a struggling youngster, broadcasting from space at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, using whatever equipment and studio sets it could scrounge from the commercial stations in town and from other sources. It was a labor of love. No one got paid . And it could have gone on for years. But the management of the station began to get cold feet at some of the (in those days) very controversial topics that the panel tackled. They wanted to start screening the questions that we planned to use on the program and to decide which topics were permissible and which were not.

I put up with it as long as I could, but by February of 1964, I’d had enough and sent a letter of "resignation": to the station. We had a gentlemen’s agreement that either side could cancel the program with four weeks notice. I gave that notice and they promptly pulled us off the air immediately. Typical of commercial outlets but a big disappointment coming from a PBS station. I subsequently sent a press release to the local media, which partially read as follows"
The concept of the Brains Trust when it made its debut on WTTW was unique. It was that we would discuss only what the audience wanted us to discuss, whether it was the price of toothpaste or the problems of foreign aid. The concept was accepted by Channel 11 at that time.

The station management no longer accepts this concept and despite its overwhelming approval by our audience, has been forcing us to change it. We believe that this is an attack upon our integrity and that ignoring the acceptance of this concept by the audience is an even greater attack upon them. This last point, this apparent disdain for the opinions of the viewing audience, was so alien to us that we were forced to withdraw.

It should be noted that The Brains Trust appeared for eight months without any cost to Channel 11. Our only asking price was freedom of expression. We were not paid, and, like any other group of red blooded Americans, we quit.
And now, the basic story of our American version of The Brains Trust has been appropriately memorialized on the Internet and when people go looking for that phrase, hopefully they’ll come to this site.

And a happy President’s Day to one and all.

Friday, February 18, 2005

As readers of this blog know, I don’t hold the "Letters to the Editor" section of metropolitan newspapers in very high regard. Often, the reasoning behind the selection of a letter for publication eludes me completely. However the reasoning behind the selection of a letter that appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune was fairly transparent. The editor of the letters page likely thought it was clever - it wasn’t - and that it lent itself to a snappy headline - it did.

It also lends itself to a response from me which I wouldn’t send to the Tribune because I’m almost certain that they wouldn’t print it. I won’t go into the "why’s" of that conclusion. Maybe later. Meanwhile, here’s the letter in it’s entirety.
"Yes, Saddam Hussein is a brutal dictator but…."
"Yes, the Iraq elections were inspiring but………"
"Yes, Social Security faces a funding crisis but….."
Perhaps we should call them "Conjunctive Democrats" from now on.
Now isn’t that special? The letter was from one John Knoerle of Chicago.

Whether or not you agree with his cavalier dismissal of opinions that differ from his, you have to grant that he has come up with an interesting political attack genre.

Let me see if I can expand the genre just a little and take it "beyond the but." Maybe Michael Moore will grab onto that phrase as a title for his next documentary

"Yes, thousands of people are being slaughtered in Darfur but…… the UN is looking at the whole situation and having meetings and making pronouncements and we have to trust that the UN knows what they’re doing. Besides, we’re tied up in Iraq and we just can’t get involved in the Sudan right now…."

"Yes, Robert Mugabe is a dictator who has made it a crime to say anything insulting about him and has managed to lower life expectancy into the thirties and has confiscated white owned farms and has brought Zimbabwe to the brink of agricultural and economic ruin but….. it’s a sovereign country and we really can’t go around interfering in countries just because we don’t approve of the way they are run. And besides, we’re kind of tied up in Iraq right now."

"Yes, the recent "elections" in Saudi Arabia were a joke and this is a country totally run by a Royal family that promotes a form of Islam that considers all who practice other religions, including other forms of Islam, to be "infidels." And yes, women there can’t vote or drive or be seen with males in public and we know that most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis and we know that Saudi money funds terrorists but…… heck, they’re our friends and good oil buddies and we do urge them to change their ways and there’s not much more we can do with friends. Besides, we’re pretty tied up in Iraq right now….."

"Yes, we know that there are repressive governments all over the place and that very likely there are people in Burma and Belarus and Turkmenistan and Libya and Sudan and Egypt and Kenya and Rwanda and Yemen and plenty of other countries who would love to be free and who heard Mr. Bush say that he supports their longing and are wondering when he’s going to come and help them but……..we’re kind of tied up freeing people in Iraq right now."

"Yes, we know that Social Security isn’t facing any funding crisis and we know that letting people take tax money and use it to invest for themselves is a concept right out of a Lewis Carroll fantasy and yes, we know that taking tax money out of the Social Security system will make it less financially secure, not more. But…..we want to get rid of this left leaning, pinko Social Security idea altogether and the crisis thing worked for Iraq, so why not use the same tactics for this?"

"Yes, we know that we’re running deficits that no tax and spend Democrat ever dreamed could reach this high, but……we’ve got a war and a peace to win over there in Iraq and we’ve got to spread freedom around the world and we’ve got some tax cuts to make permanent and maybe come up with a few more to help out some of our buddies - and all that stuff costs a lot of money, but heck, that’s what credit is for. If you tax and spend Democrats ever want to get back into power, you need to learn how to pay for the things you want to get done. You cut taxes and borrow and let other people worry about paying it back long after you’re dead and gone. Maybe even when the otherparty is back in power so they can take the blame. "

"Yes we know the cockamamie prescription drug plan that we dreamed up that will benefit pharmaceutical companies more than senior citizens, is going to cost way, way more than we said it would when our leadership kept the House going all night while arms were twisted to get the bill passed and the cost keeps going up and up and there is talk of killing the bill altogether but……. Hey, the pharmaceutical folks are out friends. They give us millions of dollars. And if we can’t help out our friends, who can we help?"

And finally, "Yes, we know that serious people like to look at all sides of problems and that they know that most issues are more defined and understood in shades of gray rather than black and white, but……. If we make things look simple and make all issues choices - between good and evil, straight and gay, baby showers and abortion clinics, God fearing and Satan worshipping, war and appeasement, fiscal responsibility and tax reductions - and write simplistically cute letters to newspapers, we’ll fool enough people to keep getting our people elected and stay in power forever."

And we’ll call ourselves the conjunctively empowered.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Unintentional double-entendre headline of the day: MICHEL JACKSON IS SICK


I watched a little bit of the Westminster Dog Show the other day - my wife watched the whole thing - and for my money, ALL the dogs were great. I’m a dog lover and I can’t imagine how anyone can proclaim that one dog is "better" than another except for the dog that is a member of one’s family. I’m sure Carlee is a wonderful dog, but she couldn’t hold a candle to our dog Cody who we wouldn’t dream of entering in any show. She wouldn’t qualify anyway. She’s a mutt.

I have no objection to dog shows. The dogs seem to enjoy themselves. The owners and trainers seem to be people who like dogs. And I could watch dogs do almost anything for a couple of hours and enjoy myself - as the audience at this year’s dog show seemed to do.

But what was all that nonsense at the end about Carlee being "America’s dog?" I know there are strange people out in the hinterlands who would actually rush out and acquire a dog of the same breed that wins a dog show, but these are people in need of a mental health professional.

There are people who acquire dogs for all kinds of reasons, some of them evil. But a dog lover acquires a dog because he or she falls in love with it.. Anyone who rushes out to "buy" a dog for the cockamamie reason cited above is in some other category altogether .And I put the word "buy" in quotes, because a dog lover adopts a dog as a member of the family. The fact that money changes hands is incidental. It changes hands when we adopt human children too, but we don’t talk about them being "bought."

So woof.

Commercials that drive me nuts - another continuing commentary

Back on December 1, 2004, I expressed my disgust for a couple of advertising campaigns. One was the series of commercials for "Cortislim" featuring "Dr." Greg Cynaumon. Amazingly, a variety of commercials for this product - all featuring the same "Doctor" are still running on radio and television, despite problems the company has had with the FTC and other agencies. For the latest twist and turn in this man’s career, go to this site and click on the link next to the "doctor’s" picture.

The other was the sing-song Patrick Stewart commercials for Crestor. As far as I know, those commercials are no longer running and Crestor, along with other statin drugs, is in trouble

On December 6, 2004, I wrote about a ridiculous commercial for the Hummer, which also is no longer running. Maybe a few people besides me voiced their opinion on the poor taste of that ad.

Now here’s another to add to my personal Advertising Hall of Shame.

It’s a radio commercial that I’ve been hearing for months now for a product called SKIN ZINC or SKIN ZINK - I’m not really sure of the spelling. I also don’t know the name of the company that’s doing the advertising. If you look for skin zinc on line, it seems to be a generic name and dozens of companies are selling it. It’s supposed to help clear up psoriasis.

As with Cortislim, I don’t know anything about the efficacy of the product, but my complaint is with the commercial. The outfit doing the selling has only one radio commercial and it plays over and over until you want to scream. If it was a funny commercial or a soothing commercial or a musical commercial, it would perhaps be tolerable, even after you’ve heard it for the five hundredth time. But it is none of these things.

It’s a commercial that features three actors pretending to be psoriasis sufferers who have been miraculously cured by the product. Each actor begins by saying "my name is" - followed by a first name, after which they tell their story in a matter of seconds. So we have "Brian," "Jeannine" and "Mark." "Brian" and Jeannine" are recorded "live" and Mark is presented as a user of the product calling in his accolades ( from where to where??) on the phone.

I have no objection to commercials using actors pretending they are users of a product. It happens all the time. If they’re well presented, it’s obvious that the people involved are actors and it’s not in the least bit bothersome. But when a commercial is not well presented and it’s repeated without alteration ad nauseum, it becomes a serious irritant.

This commercial is presented in a manner that asks you to believe that Brian, Jeannine and Mark are people suffering from psoriasis who are endorsing the use of a product that cured them rather than three actors who are reading lines written by a copywriter. As such, they break faith with the listening audience because they are telling an obvious lie - and the way this single commercial is being used, over and over and over, one begins to positively hate Brian and Jeannine and Mark as though they were real people, and I personally want to see them develop incurable psoriasis from head to foot and relegated to a third rate act in a traveling freak show operating out of Transylvania.

Of course if they are real psoriasis sufferers or three actors whose names really are Brian, Jeannine and Mark who happen to be psoriasis sufferers, all I can say, in the immortal words of Rosanne Rosanna Danna, is …….never mind.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

There are times when I want to scream and keep screaming until my voice gives out.

For four years, our illustrious President, who wants to re-shape everything, including such things as the governmental systems of countries he doesn’t like, and how our own government spends our tax money, hasn’t vetoed a single spending bill. In fact he hasn’t vetoed any kind of bill.

But now, when there is rumbling in Congress that the boondoggle prescription drug bill that his genius advisors dreamed up last year, the estimated cost of which is growing like Topsy, may get killed, he threatens a veto. Don’t you mess with my Medicare "repair job" he says, or I’ll take out my blue pencil. Or is it a red pen? Whatever they use to try to kill a Congressional bill.

Well - I have to hope that Congress does vote to rescind the bill, that Bush vetoes and that Congress overrules. It could happen. Dubya is a lame duck President, but members of his party want to keep getting re-elected and they are likely to weigh support for their leader against what will help them at the next election.

This crazy quilt bill needs to go and someone needs to figuratively shake every member of both houses until they come to their senses about what really needs to be done.

Day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year, the problem is attacked from a series of wrong angles. The problem is a simple one. There are drugs available that can help to cure illnesses. There are drugs available that people need to take that will keep them alive. These drugs are owned and controlled by pharmaceutical companies whose raison d’être is to generate profits for themselves and for stockholders. The prices they charge for their drugs have zero relationship to the needs of patients. The drugs are available at a price for those who have the money - and that’s where the relationship begins and ends.

Now that would be a perfectly logical arrangement if the product was luxury yachts or tennis balls or bowler hats. But the product is medicine.

What would happen if municipalities started charging a thousand dollars a month per household for their water supply? Assuming we all agree that water is essential to life. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear some crazed right wing radio nut deny that we need water at all. Would the President send a bill to Congress calling for water insurance for seniors? Pay $30 a month for the first 200 gallons, have "Water-Aid" pay for the next 300, pay the next 400 yourself (the Water-Aid Gap) after which the rest of your monthly water supply would be paid for.

Unless you’re for a laissez faire society based on the survival of the able and too bad about those who can’t make it, the answer of course is that you don’t mess with ridiculously convoluted solutions to a problem of such magnitude. You clamp down on the municipalities and threaten that unless they reduce the water bills to under twenty bucks a month, you’ll send up legislation to Federalize the water supply and take it out of the hands of local governments.

We have that kind of problem facing our nation today. There are millions of us who need certain medications to keep going that we simply can’t afford to pay for. When we have to take two or three or four pills a day that cost three or four or five dollars each - and we’re on a fixed income, or we’re working but earning only a modest salary, we are thrust into a world of madness, where we are forced to decide between food and medicine or rent and medicine and hope - if we choose food or rent - that we can somehow survive .

When arsonists set fire to buildings, we don’t just respond by putting out the fires and look for ways to make buildings more fireproof. We try to catch the arsonists. When Bank robbers rob banks, we don’t just concentrate on making sure banks have plenty of insurance and bullet proof teller cages - we try to catch the robbers and send them away.

Instead of looking for ways to ameliorate the onslaught of ridiculously exorbitant drug prices, we need to find ways to bring those prices out of the stratosphere and down to a level where mere mortals live.

Look at the madness that is the pharmaceutical industry today. You don’t need to look much further than your television set. Commercial after commercial urging you to ask your doctor about different drugs. From different companies. Often about drugs for treating the same disease that are basically the same as each other - except for the name and the marketing approach.

Does this make any sense to you? That millions of dollars are spent by rival companies to induce you to buy or to persuade your doctor to prescribe their version of more or less the same drug? Millions of dollars that you have to pay for in the retail price of those drugs?

Well, you might say - if you’re one of those laisez faire types - doesn’t competition bring us better drugs? I can’t imagine how. It’s supposed to be research that brings us better drugs, but a great deal of research that ends up producing new medications is funded by the federal government and many big money making drugs are simply licensed from foreign companies. And drug companies spend more money on advertising and entertaining doctors than they do on research.

If the problem is ever to be solved, it needs to be tackled at the source. The drugs leaving the manufacturing plant have to be priced at a level where insurance and other plans can take them on and make fiscal sense. If Mr. Bush really wants to try to do something to help the citizens of this country afford the wonder drugs that could keep them healthy or keep them alive, he needs to acknowledge the source of the problem instead of blithely ignoring it - and start thinking about how government and private industry can get together to come up with a program that benefits the nation as a whole and not just the executives and stockholders of pharmaceutical companies and the politicians who take their money and turn a blind eye to their gouging of the citizenry.

Monday, February 14, 2005

There seems to be some disagreement over who said "there’s one born every minute," but whether it was Barnum or someone else, the truth of the meaning gets reaffirmed year after year and decade after decade.

Right now, the whole world is watching the reaffirmation of the axiom that you can sell ice cubes to Eskimos if you tie them in red ribbons and call them something else..

It’s the latest "work of art" by that fun couple of the art world, Christo and Jeanne-Claude - the Gates of New York.

I have to say right off the bat that I think it’s a lot of fun. Seeing those 7500 frames with cloth curtains flapping in the breeze winding through Central Park for 23 miles has got to bring a smile to your face and a "wow" to your vocal chords. It’s going to be there for sixteen days and I would imagine it’s going to pull huge crowds to the park - including people who rarely go there and some who’ve never been there. I think it would be great fun to be there and maybe take a horse and buggy ride and snap a few picture, but I have no plans to be in New York during the next couple of weeks.

So what’s all this about what P.T. Barnum did or didn’t say? Just that this whole fun endeavor is being called "art" in just about every newspaper story and every commentary and interview of the industrious couple. I suppose you can call anything "art" if you want to, but if you do, then words lose their meaning. It’s a spectacular event - but so is the Super Bowl. Does that make the Super Bowl "art?"

Christo and Jeanne-Claude appear to be stinking rich. The Gates reportedly cost twenty million bucks and they footed every penny of the cost themselves - just as they’ve done in the past, picking up the cost of wrapping buildings, sticking umbrellas in the ground and erecting cloth fences.

These two obviously have a knack for thinking up unusual projects and they have the tenacity and the funds to convert them from wishful thinking to reality. I just wish they wouldn’t call these kinds of projects "art" and I wish people who you’d think would know better, would stop getting sucked into the notion that these projects are "works of art."

I would imagine that there are lots of wealthy people around who indulge in their personal fantasies because they can afford to do so. They can hire an architect to put up some incredibly huge and garish mansion that indulges their fantasy of what a rich person’s house should look like - but should we then do a picture spread in the Sunday paper, calling it Roger Moneybag’s latest "work of art?"

What if Bill Gates could persuade the appropriate authorities to allow him to affix a battery operated fluorescent replica of the Windows logo to every tree in Kew Gardens, otherwise known as the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew? (That’s over in England for the geographically impaired). At dusk and at night it would certainly be a spectacular sight. I can visualize telecasting aerial shots of the panorama below and some breathless narrator comparing it to the image of the great wall of China as seen from the space shuttle. What a spectacular work of art Mr. Gates has created!! Except all he did was write the check and give the go ahead to the factory that turned out the fluorescent logos and the work crews that installed them.

What if Donald Trump decided to spend a few millions realigning the windows on all of his buildings so that no matter which side of a building was in view, enough windows would be re-shaped so that they spelled the phrase "You’re Fired" from top to bottom? Of course he wouldn’t do any of the actual work. He’d just come up with the idea, make sure that it didn’t violate any building codes - and then just give the order and write the check. What would the headline be? "Real estate tycoon creates work of art?"

Come to think of it, you wouldn’t even have to be rich to suck in the big brains who decide what is and what isn’t art.

What if the keeper of the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo spread canvas on the floor of all the monkey cages after closing time one day - slipped open cans of different colored paint through the monkey cage doors and in the morning, when the zoo opened, called television stations and newspapers to come and watch as visitors ooh'd and ah'd at the spectacularly colorful sight.? Would that be the zookeeper’s "work of art?" I can’t see why not. It was his idea and he even put his hands on the actual materials.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain. As I said, I think the sort of things that Christo and Jeanne-Claude do are fun, even if they are nonsensical. And we’re already living in a world where "rap" is described as music and eating a plate full of worms and cockroaches is presented on television as "entertainment."

I’d just like to see what they do called something that distinguishes it from what we are accustomed to thinking of as "art." Maybe some combination of "fun" and "art." It’s a pity that "fart" already has a meaning. But I’ll think of something.

Friday, February 11, 2005

This has been some week.

I haven’t really tried to read or analyze the Budget that the President has submitted. For one thing, its sheer size scares me to death. And then I’m not a numbers cruncher so I probably wouldn’t understand most of it anyway. But one thing leaps out from the pages that leaves me shaking my head in sadness.

Without the hundreds of billions of dollars allocated for defense - which of course encompasses military offense, there would be no Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid "crisis" at all. There would be ample funds available to fund old age and disability pensions far into the foreseeable future. And there would be money left over to establish a national healthcare program.

But those kinds of conditions of course could only exist in a world at peace , with the chances of armed conflict between nations close to zero. Or in a totally rational world - unthinkable.

The world of course is far from rational, as witness the events of this past week, with North Korea announcing that it has atomic weapons and Iran saying that nothing will deter it from pursuing its nuclear program and threatening dire consequences if we try to stop them with military force. I’m not sure that anything that Condoleezza Rice did or said about these problems during her whirlwind trip was of any help, but obviously something needs to be done before we have a domino effect with one country after another concluding that they too must have atomic weapons to deter others from attacking them - and pretty soon you have a recipe for a potential Armageddon.

In the short term, there’s probably little more to be done that what we are doing. Applying increasing diplomatic pressure. Using carrots and sticks. But it doesn’t solve the long term problem.

For years, these third world nations have been neglected and exploited by the west and they posed no danger to us other than the minor damage they could inflict on our interests and our people living and working in their countries. But today, with the ability of almost anyone to move from one point on the globe to another in a matter of hours and with materials for the production of weapons of mass destruction available for sale to the countries ruled by dictators or religious fanatics, these are the very nations and cultures that pose a threat to the entire world.

So I can imagine why superior beings - and one would have to assume that any beings from some other part of the cosmos who are able to travel to and observe our world are indeed superior - have no desire to land anywhere on the planet and communicate with us. Except maybe on some river bank in Mississippi or Arkansas to abduct the odd Billy Bob for medical experiments.

They would think that we are totally mad. They would see some nation states controlled by single individuals who suppress and brutalize the country’s inhabitants and they would ask the logical question. How could such things happen and why don’t the people kick the dictators out and establish some other, non-suppressive form of leadership? We can answer the "why" of that question of course, but remember, we’re talking about superior, logical beings to whom no explanation that we would come up with would make logical sense.

Then they would see nations ruled by religious fanatics who impose restrictive codes of behavior on the populace and they would ask the same question about them, plus another. Where did these people get these crazed ideas about Gods and prophets and paradises that they use to mesmerize and terrorize their populations ?

It’s interesting that when science fiction writers dream up stories of other worlds, they are almost always worlds with advanced societies speaking a single language and almost never a mirror image of our world with hundred’s of nation states in conflict. And they’re probably right . We’re able to understand what a logical world should be. We’re just not able to figure out how to create one for ourselves.
Speaking of illogic, the Saudis have made their first small move in the general direction of democracy with municipal council elections. It’s a very small step, since the voting would only elect half of the councils. The other half will be appointed by the ruling House of Saud.. Still, reformists, including Crown Prince Abdullah are said to be disappointed because Islamist backed candidates won a majority of the seats. Some of the losers are crying foul. I think the word "fraud" has been mentioned But what the results are saying is - if you decide to go whole hog for democracy, this is going to be an Islamic state, and the Mullahs will be calling the shots, not the royal family.

So where was the illogic? Simple. Only men could vote - and not even all adult men at that. What would have been the outcome if women had been allowed to vote? Reform and reform and reform!! Off with the Burkas, out with the Mullahs and clear the roads because madam is driving today.

But as I said above, there’s nothing very logical about this world and if nothing else would scare the aliens off, Saudi Arabia surely would.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Following up on my comments yesterday about Ward Churchill. Last night I watched him on CNN giving a speech to several hundred students, defending his nutty views and his infamous essay which you can read in full here and make up your own mind about what he’s saying.

Watching and listening to him served to confirm the impression I had already formed of the man. A nut case. I don’t know anything about the routine for professorial lectures at the University of Colorado, but I would doubt that the usual set up isn’t what I observed last night - a phalanx of bodyguards behind and in front of the man while he was speaking. It was more reminiscent of a speech by Louis Farrakhan or a taping of a Jerry Springer show.

There wasn’t any trouble, but obviously there’s an anticipation that whenever this man opens his mouth, physical violence is a possibility. I know that universities strive for diversity and the free exchange of ideas - no matter how far removed from the mainstream - but when that quest for diversity results in the poisoning of young, impressionable minds , it would seem to me that the quest is doing more harm than good.

A perfect example is the hatred of Israel being preached by professors on many U.S. campuses, resulting in young people having little understanding of the history of the region and having a distorted idea about who the Palestinian Arabs are and how the current impasse came about. And as a result, Jewish students have been attacked on college campuses, pro-Israel student speakers shouted down, and lectures by prominent speakers canceled because of the danger of physical confrontation.

There has to be a balance between both the good and the harm that can come from the unrestricted airing of ideas and opinions by those entrusted with the responsibility of molding the minds of our young. Sometimes the pendulum needs to swing away from the protective umbrella of tenure and the first amendment and stop at that point on the spectrum known as common sense.

Putting Mr. Churchill where he belongs - out of the classroom and off campus, would be a good start.
Wedding News

I guess I’m not terribly shocked by the news that Prince Charlie is going to marry his hatchet faced lover who Diana called "The Rottweiler," but I am dismayed beyond belief at the way the news has been greeted - by the Queen, by Tony Blair and many others. They seem to think it’s a grand idea and a s far as I’m concerned, this is absolute confirmation of the continuing deterioration of the England I once knew.

Obviously all of the main characters knew about the announcement way in advance and I would imagine that much of the response has been carefully choreographed to take the string out of the nastiness of it all. After all, this was the woman who was as much a part of Charles’ former married life as was Diana.

I never could imagine what the attraction was for Charlie. She must have something special to offer that I wouldn’t want to speculate about on these pages. I have some young readers whose sensitivities I would not want to bruise. But even so - have you looked at this woman lately?

But I guess my biggest disappointment is that there is no sense of noblesse oblige to the whole sordid affair. It’s already been decided that Charlie can go ahead and inherit the throne and we’ll just make Camilla the "Princess Consort." How the wife of a King can be a Princess consort, I don’t know. But they’ve got it all worked out.

Sixty Nine years ago, Charlie’s grand uncle Edward was in a similar position. He too had a lover who was a divorcee - a twice divorced lady in fact. And an American to boot. And he was already the King, though not yet crowned. But he didn’t get the kind of pass that Charlie’s getting. There was no "Princess Consort" title waiting for Wallis Simpson. Edward had a choice - be the King without your lover, or hang on to Mrs. Simpson but find some other line of employment. Edward chose love and abdicated - and Charlie’s grandfather George became King.

If Charles wants to marry Camilla and can stand waking up to that face every morning, I say good luck to him. But he should do the right thing and abdicate the throne.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

O.K., they weren’t downing a beer together, but as I suspected and dreaded, they were shaking hands. I want to believe that this has real meaning. I want to believe that at last, some kind of compromise is possible between Israel and Palestinian Arabs. But I’ve seen these handshakes before. Meier and Sadat. Begin and Sadat. Rabin and Arafat. Barak and Arafat. It’s a time to be hopeful but not over exuberant about the prospects. The mutual promises of non violence are a fine beginning, except that Abbas can’t make any commitments on behalf of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah or any freelance nut who believes his destiny is to drive Israelis into the sea by blowing himself to bits.

If by some miracle, terrorist attacks stop and some manner of calm prevails on the so called West Bank and Gaza, the two sides will have a chance to produce their own miracle - a two state solution in an area for which two states should never have been solution. But it is too late for what should have been - an expanded Jordan, an expanded Egypt and Israel. And no such thing as a "Palestinian State."

Even now, trying to establish a Palestinian state on two disconnected pieces of land and totally separate that state from Israel, including the omission of any Jewish settlements from its sovereign territory, is a formula for disaster. In my tongue in cheek "solution" to the conflict that I wrote here on October 10, 2003, I suggested an open border, cooperative coexistence approach as a solution that might work as opposed to total separation. And it would work if the two sides have enough imagination and creativity in their hearts.

What any kind of possible peace requires from both sides is a strong dose of sanity and practicality. Ancient arguments about who has what right to where will achieve absolutely nothing. Attitudes like those of Joel Katzman, whose letter to Condoleezza Rice appeared on the Israpundit blog, accomplish nothing but exacerbation of the hostility that already exists.

There are two distinct peoples living in this area and both have had a presence here for hundreds of years. Going back in history to make claims in 2005 based on conditions that existed in 1,000 BC, is nonsensical and will never achieve anything but the continuation of the argument,

I’ll come back to the subject when there’s something worth saying.
And now for something completely different…..

Here’s an interesting comparison of life in 21st century America.

The establishment media is beginning to catch up to the blogosphere on a few stories. I wrote about the WEYCO company that is firing employees who can’t pass or refuse to take a test to prove they are non-smokers on January 29, 2005- second item. Last night, Peter Jennings featured the story and today it’s all over the newspapers.

My suggestion was that lawyers busy filing class action suits should represent four ex-employees who got bounced from this company because they do smoke (except when at work), and sue the pants off of WEYCO.

But the stories about the Simon Legree who runs WEYCO, point out that in many states, Michigan among them, employees have zero rights. Or at least non union employees have zero rights. Employers can fire or refuse to hire anyone for any reason. If they don’t like the look on his face. Or the way she dresses. Or if they smoke.

Out in Colorado, we have another employment controversy that has hit the news - that of America hating professor Ward Churchill, former Chairman of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He’s the "former" chair because he just resigned that post. But he’s still at the University of Colorado.

He’s the guy who wrote an essay pretty much saying that we got what we deserved on 9/11/01. People are calling for his head, but this professor, who has a BA and MA but apparently no Ph.D., has tenure . He also has all kinds of supporters including editorial writers in major newspapers, saying that he’s protected by the first amendment, and much as we may hate what he says, that’s part of the price we have to pay for the freedoms we enjoy.

Of course if this guy worked for WEYCO in Michigan, he’d be out in a New York minute with his tenure folded five ways and shoved into a place where the sun never shines. But oddly enough, if the fired WEYCO workers had worked for a company in Colorado, they’d be protected by that state’s laws which say you can’t fire people for what they do outside of the workplace.

Professor Churchill is also protected in two other ways. His tenure and the first amendment. But in my view, neither is a reason to let him stay on at the University of Colorado and affect young minds with his poison. Even if he isn’t teaching it, students are aware of who and what he is and they will be affected by it. I would find it hard to believe that students at Northwestern University find it a joy to attend classes taught by Holocaust denier Arthur Butz - other than those who agree with his evil views, but he too is protected by his tenure and his right to free speech.

I say it’s all bogus. Even tenured professors can be fired for incompetence or gross misconduct and I would think for both Churchill and Butz, a case could be made for "gross misconduct." The real reason why universities won’t fire such idiots has less to do with academic freedom than with fear of lawsuits. So they could be fired if university presidents had more guts. Which leaves the first amendment.

Freedom of speech is a sacred right in America, but it is not a guarantee against losing your job if your boss doesn’t like what you say. With some very narrow exceptions, it is a guarantee against being hauled off to the hoosegow if government doesn’t like what you’re saying. That wouldn’t apply to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, and it wouldn’t apply to threatening the life of the President of the United States. And there may be other instances. But in general, the first amendment protects your right to hold any views you want and to express them all over the place. It doesn’t mean anyone has to listen and it doesn’t mean that someone can’t fire you or refuse to hire you because they don’t like the way that you think.

Churchill and Butz belong at the fringes of society where the nuts hang out, training with muskets in the woods, waiting for "them" to come. For my money, "they" should be men in white suits.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Although I’m a confirmed skeptic, events unfolding around the world are almost of sufficient import to persuade me to believe that just about anything is possible. That Iraq can become a thriving secular democracy and establish warm diplomatic and trade relations with Israel. And of course that Israelis and Palestinian Arabs will live side by side in blissful harmony in their Benelux type sister states.

Indeed it is one event above all others that leads me to this rose colored conclusion. The British Empire having long since joined those nations of the world where the sun indeed does set each day, the United Kingdom has finally decided to join its former colonies by allowing the sun to set on one of the last remaining traditions that made England England.

It is a sad, sad day indeed , the end of a long downward spiral that has brought my one time homeland to the depths of unrefined modernity.

I’m not sure exactly where it started. Very likely the appearance of McDonald’s carry outs on the High Streets of London. Maybe it was all the hamburger meat that didn’t agree with English stomachs, but it wasn’t long after the McDonald’s invasion began when British behavior patterns began to change.

I spoke with horror on June 6, 2003 of the vision of London Bobbies being allowed to wear Turbans on duty because of their religion. I spoke in that same post of the equal horror of ordering tea in a tea shop, only to be told that "they didn’t do tea!!"

And subsequent behavioral changes led me to ask the question on September 18, 2003 - "What on earth has happened to the English?"

Through all of World War ll, while high explosive and incendiary bombs fell on London, the Windmill theater in the West End proudly displayed it’s slogan - We Never Closed. And it didn’t. It was the only theater that stayed open throughout the Nazi blitz. Its answer to the onslaught from the skies was to hurl tradition in the face of the enemy.

The Beefeaters still guard the Tower of London. The Horse Guards still parade with awesome precision . The Queen still opens Parliament, Barristers still wear wigs at the Old Bailey. But for how long??

How long can any of these traditions hold up under the onslaught of change that has been battering the shores of blighty like a perennial hurricane now for decades? And is there any doubt that they will eventually have to change or in some way adapt to the new era that has just been ushered in by new pub laws which allow British pubs to stay open 24 hours if they so desire? According to news reports of the change, almost none of Britain’s thousands of pubs have applied for a license to remain open at all hours and that news is gratefully received. But eventually pubs will start to nibble away at the current restrictive hours and the final outcome is inevitable. The traditional discipline of the old English pub will be gone forever.

For decades, British pubs operated under a strange set of laws. I don’t remember the exact times that they were open years ago, but I do remember that they used to open and then have to close for a couple of hours in the afternoon, then re-open early evening and have to close up shop by 11 p.m. As I recall, the strange hours were designed to keep working men from getting drunk during the day, but apparently, the early closing is resulting in young people indulging in binge drinking and an increase in crime as they are forced to leave the pub and pour out into the street en masse at 11 p.m. I guess the theory is, if they weren’t rushed, they wouldn’t pour the booze down quite so fast. On the other hand, if they can stay as long as they like and keep drinking, they’re going to get just as drunk - maybe drunker. Of course that may be the idea - to allow the problem drinkers to get drunk enough to pass out. Then the local gendarmes can cart them off to the hoosegow for the night. - and voila - street crime goes down.

There was nothing terribly convenient about the old opening and closing times. In fact, in many ways it was darned inconvenient. And during the hours when you were able to indulge, the beer was warm, the sandwiches old and requests for ice brought suspicious stares. But there was a certainty to it all. It was like the rising of the moon and the setting of the sun and the predictability of the tides. There was something so very English about the Publican’s voice admonishing that it was "time gentlemen please," at around ten minutes to eleven. It said that no matter what other changes were going on in the world, here in an English pub, time could be suspended and the traditions of old, however antiquated, maintained and respected forever.

And now they want to change it all. They’ve already done away with that early afternoon break and now they want to take away the ancient nightly ritual of gently easing the boozehounds out into the night air and pointing them in the general direction of their homes.

What will come next I wonder? The Super Bowl played at Wembley Stadium? The World Series at Lords?

Sharon is meeting with Abbas. If I see a picture of them downing a beer together in tomorrow’s newspaper, I’ll retire to Bedlam.

Monday, February 07, 2005

While President Bush is busy trumpeting a "solution" for a Social Security "crisis" that doesn’t exist, he’s found time to suggest ways to exacerbate a very real crisis - that of health care.

His budget proposals are asking for all kinds of cuts in domestic programs. I guess this is his way of trying to fulfill his pledge to cut the deficit in half in four years. Of course all the numbers crunchers are saying it’s going to keep increasing no matter what he promises, but he’s plunging ahead with his budget cuts nonetheless - among them 45 billion that he wants to squeeze out of Medicaid health programs for the poor.

As I’ve noted hear before, we don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to proposing solutions for our very real health care crisis. Just about every proposal that I have seen is so damned convoluted, that I’m sure they do little but add to the confusion and probably to the skyrocketing costs of all kinds of healthcare. Which is what I want to discuss today.

I think it’s become pretty clear by now that we are being ripped off for medical care of all kinds, and, as I’ve just discovered, it isn’t confined to human health care!! My dog has developed a chronic nose bleed that our vet can’t diagnose, so it was suggested that we see a specialist. Yes, vets have their specialties too. What she needed was an MRI and a rhinoscopy. We checked with the specialist group - there’s only one in our area, so we couldn’t shop around - and asked what we’d be looking at in the way of cost. $1,400 for the MRI and between $800 and $1200 for the rhinsocopy. As much as $2,600 for s single visit!! Since our dog seems happy and healthy in every other way, we declined and we’ll just watch her closely.

Is that nuts or what? What possible justification can there be for those kinds of costs? I know an MRI machine is expensive to buy - ranging from a few hundred thousand to seven figures, and costs maybe a hundred thousand dollars a year to run. But how many MRI’s at $1,400 a crack - for a dog or a human, does it take to cover the purchase and maintenance cost? What kind of profit margin do you think the equipment would generate after the first 1,000 scans?

But how many of us question these costs? How many of us ask the hospital or the doctors or the insurance companies to explain why the cost is so high?

My wife has just been given a prescription for Mobic, which seems to be the new darling of the anti-arthritis drugs. When it first came onto the market, it was cheaper than former darlings Vioxx and Celebrex, both of which have been clobbered recently - Vioxx of course going off the market altogether. Now, manufacturer Boehringer Ingleheim figures it can ask whatever it wants for Mobic and nobody can or will do anything about it. There are two strengths available - 15mg and 7.5 mg. The average wholesale price for the 15mg tablet is $4.61 PER PILL and for the smaller dose $3.26 PER PILL. I don’t know what the cost is to the patient because we have insurance and only pay a set co-payment - but I agree with what Dr. Sidney Wolfe of Public Citizen said - that this is exploiting the public. In other words, a rip-off.

Almost everywhere you look in the field of medicine, you find similar rip-offs. Some years ago I consulted a chiropractor who advertised a particular treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, which I thought I had. During the course of a number of visits, he poked, prodded and manipulated various parts of my body and when the bill for the visit was generated, each poke, prod and manipulation was billed as a separate "procedure," sending the total bill skyrocketing into the stratosphere. That was bad enough but my medical insurance, which is Blue Cross, aids and abets these kinds of rip-offs by going along with the ridiculous notion that pulling on my wrist is one "procedure," cracking my neck another - and so on, up and down the body.

I could go on and on, but the stories would all be the same - from the $5 aspirin you might take while you’re hospitalized to the four figures I was charged for a certain kind of shot I got in a doctor’s office. As long as there is no real action by government to try to bring these crazy costs under control, they will continue to be out of control. And what does the Bush administration give us? One of those previously mentioned convoluted plans to help cover part of the cost of prescription medications which most experts say is little more than a gift to the pharmaceutical industry - and a 45 billion slap in the face to poor people, most of whom have no medical insurance at all.

It’s a national disgrace and totally out of step with the rest of the western world, where national health plans are common. You can say what you like about all the pitfalls of national health or single payer insurance programs and how bad they are and how they "ration" healthcare and how Canadians come across the border seeking care they can’t get at home, but no one in Canada or England - particularly senior citizens, has to think twice about whether or not they can afford to go to see a doctor or has to choose between filling a prescription and eating or paying rent.

We’re not going to see any real pressure being brought to bear on pharmaceutical companies or any part of the healthcare industry that gouges the public, or anything approaching a national health proposal during the second four years of the Bush administration. But, in poll after poll, healthcare is the number one issue of concern to the American public and it is an issue that needs to be brought up week after week and month after month by anyone having the slightest inclination to run for President in 2008. It’s time for those who want to lead our country to stop avoiding the subject and to stop kowtowing to those interests that make huge profits from medical misfortune and who pour substantial amounts of it into getting the "right" people elected.

Once and for all, we need to know that our next President understands that there is a healthcare crisis and what he or she intends to do about it.

Friday, February 04, 2005

George W Bush may not have the charisma of a Bill Clinton, but I don’t think "Slick Willie" could hold a candle to Dubya when it comes to peddling snake oil.

Right now, the President is on the road selling his Social Security "plan" that no one understands - to enthusiastic audiences who he hopes will lap up the simplicity of his "something for everyone" created out of whole cloth.

It’s brilliant really. He tells young people that we have to do something or there won’t be any social security when they’re ready to retire. And what is that "something?" A gift. Instead of paying your social security tax, you can take part of that tax money and invest it in the market - just like a 401K or some other retirement plan. And young people who believe the gloom and doom scenario about Social Security, are going to welcome the gift with open arms.

At the same time, he tells people 55 and over that their Social Security won’t be affected at all. They’ll get every dime that’s coming to them. And since the investment plan will be available not just to young people but to any worker under 55, he’s got everyone covered. The older folk who usually vote in larger numbers than any other demographic group. And the younger crowd who might be persuaded to vote to keep people in office who support this snake oil plan.

I’m not going to analyze or criticize the Bush plan - beyond what I’ve already said that is - but I want to latch on to an aspect of the plan that could change the very nature of this country if it could be applied universally - and I’m going to propose that it should be applied to all citizens of the United States.

Think about what the President has proposed for a minute. For the first time in history, he is advocating that some citizens be given the right to decide how part of their taxes should be used. That’s right, TAXES!! The money deducted from paychecks for Social Security is a tax - not a contribution to a personal savings account.. And he wants anyone under 55 to be able to exercise control over where part of that tax goes.

Well I call that discrimination of the highest order. I’m over 55 and I want in on this deal. I pay taxes all over the place - Federal Income Tax - State Income Tax - sales taxes of all kinds and heaven knows how many other kinds of fees and taxes. And I too would like to decide where to apply some of the taxes that I pay. In fact, all of them.

The President has opened this Pandora’s Box and I think we should all get behind him and follow it to its logical conclusion.. We probably shouldn’t look beyond Federal Income Tax to begin with, but if that works successfully, we might be able to extend it to all taxes.

Here’s how I see it working. Attached to Federal Tax forms - the 1040’s and the rest, would be a list of the Federal Departments and their budget requests Just in broad outline form. Defense. State. Education. Energy, HUD, Justice, Labor etc. It wouldn’t make sense to list every office and agency of every department. Just take a look here at what that would entail!

After we’ve finished filling out our tax forms, we’d turn to the department list, to be known as the "Assignment Supplement" and list our preferences for how the amount of taxes that we’ve paid should be spent. Those of us who are anti-war could assign zero percentage of our tax dollars to Defense for example. This wouldn’t harm our defense capabilities because those of us who are gung ho on spreading freedom and democracy to the world through military force could assign 100% of our taxes to the Defense budget.

This system would be a true expression of democracy. It’s one thing to elect a President and Senators and Representatives that you think most closely represent your views, but once they’re in office and spending your tax money, you have zero influence over how it’s spent. Much of the time, they’re spending it and they don’t really have a handle on where the money’s going and why. Except for their "personal initiatives" that is. There are plenty of times when they vote on bills without having any idea what’s buried in them. With everyone expressing their preferences in broad categories, the President and our elected officials would at least know the limits of what they could spend on each department.

And of course a special exception would be made for Social Security. It would be listed along with all of the major departments and we’d be free to assign as much of our Federal income tax payments to it as we like. There isn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that the Social Security "crisis" would be eliminated overnight.

Of course, once this purely democratic system gets underway, it won’t be quite so easy for a President to casually ask Congress to hand over 80 billion dollars to fund some overseas adventure on which he has embarked. It just wouldn’t be there. Of course if it was an issue that involved our vital interests, I suppose Congress could vote to borrow the money from one of the department budgets - perhaps that extremely well funded branch of government - Social Security.

Which, as the moviegoer asks as the feature rolls for the second time - "isn’t this where we came in??"

Here's a web site you should look at. An interesting perspective from a female blogger in Baghdad. And click on the link to history professor Juan Cole's take on Iraq at the bottom of her January 27 entry.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Actually, that’s not quite true. I did watch a little television last night and during commercial breaks, I grabbed quick glances at the ritual going on in the House chamber.. Mostly, it seemed that I tuned in at moments of applause for some just delivered lofty promise or claim of great success or the introduction of an honored guest..

I was pretty close on my estimate of the total time. I came up with 57 minutes and I think it ran a little longer. Maybe the Daily Mirror will come up with a breakdown of speech and applause minutes, but so far, all they’ve done is report their take on the speech with the lead line "Warmonger George Bush prepared the world for more death and destruction last night." The Mirror is a tabloid of course, as I said yesterday, and you really can’t expect to find traditional forms of reporting on their pages. But they seem to be going a little overboard in their obvious dislike of our President and are preaching their invective to more than 3,000,000 readers!!

I think I might have been off on the "God" references. I was listening to some sound bite on the radio this morning and I guess God got some mentions before the traditional "God bless the United States" close. The possible widow of a fallen warrior turned out to be bereaved parents, but thematically, it was exactly as I - and I would imagine thousands of others - predicted.

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of the speech. I don’t think it’s available on line yet and I wouldn’t want to comment without reading what he said. But I will comment on something that I know was in his speech and in his past speeches and in Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Addresses and Reagan’s and just about every President in modern times. Hyperbole. Exaggeration. Rhetorical overstatement. Grand, sweeping proposals. Super embellished claims.. And of course the human props in the audience, a practice introduced by Ronald Reagan - a product of the make believe world of Hollywood. All of it punctuated by irrational bursts of applause

I have watched State of the Union addresses in the past, and one of the most ridiculous things about the spectacle, is a room full of the leaders of our country - the cabinet, our elected officials, supreme court justices and others, jumping up and down and applauding at the slightest pause in the speechmaking, as though controlled by a marionette master. Call me a cynic, but I find this to be an embarrassing sight, on a par with the nonsense that goes on at national political conventions.

We obviously have a need in this country to engage in majestic ritual at the highest level of government. We want our leader and the trappings that surround our leader to be symbolic of the spirit of our nation. The flag isn’t enough. We need a living embodiment of our national pride and love of country - something that doesn’t carry the burden of party affiliation.

Across the pond - pardon my frequent references to our British cousins, but they serve as perfect examples of what I’m talking about - they have a Queen who, theoretically at least - is politically neutral. One of her jobs is to open Parliament every year with a speech presenting the government’s plans for the forthcoming session. The speech is written by the government, but she, as the symbolic head of the nation, is the one who delivers it. In a way, it is the British version of the State of the Union address.,

The difference between the Queen opening parliament and the State of the Union address, is that all the ritual is focused on the apolitical symbol of the nation and no one in the audience will hiss, boo, cry "shame" or sit on their hands.

Similar divisions of government and symbolic heads of state work successfully in many countries of the world. Japan has an emperor - Emperor Akihito, but like Queen Elizabeth, he is above the political fray. The same with Mary McAleese of Ireland, Moshe Katsov of Israel, Horst Kohler of Germany and many others.

I have written here before of my discomfort with the dual responsibility that falls upon the shoulders of Presidents - that of chief executive and symbolic head of the nation. I might be more inclined to watch and listen to the State of the Union address more often, if it wasn’t wrapped up in all of the ritualistic fol-de-rol that surrounds it and if those in the audience didn’t feel the need to act like sycophants at a royal court.
Israel’s rule of law

I haven’t written anything about Israel for a while, but I’ll probably have some things to say in the near future. It looks like the stirrings of something potentially positive going on, but I’ve witnessed this sort of thing before, so I’m not as sanguine as I’ve been told Mr. Bush was last night when he was talking about the situation. And I doubt that Condoleezza Rice’s visit will be much help. One would think this would be the time to stay away and let Sharon and Abbas do things at their own pace.

Staying away from commenting on Israel and the Palestinians, doesn’t stop incoming comments of a negative nature and I do get them from time to time. For that reason, I refer those who see nothing good in anything that Israel does to this piece in Haaretz. It’s been in the American press too, but I like to read it here.

Israel operates under the rule of law. The government wanted to take over some properties in East Jerusalem under a law on the books. The anti-Israelis cried foul - land grab - apartheid. But the Israeli Attorney General said Uh Uh. You’re interpreting the law the wrong way. You can’t grab the property. Bug out.

When Iraq reaches the level of that kind of system, I’ll join in the cheers that Mr. Bush has been leading non-stop since last Sunday.