Slicing the pork–and the constitution

•March 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Dueling healthcare accusations flare testily over CSPAN. At the heart of the Republican objections lie charges of deficit-busting spending and creeping socialism. Here, Bill Posey argues that if the American people wanted a European system, they would “never have left Europe.” There, Mike Rogers denounces “sleazy” sweetheart deals and claims that costs will spiral out of control. Devin Nunes tosses out accusations of totalitarianism and socialism like beads at Mardi Gras.

Over and over, conservative members indicated that while they did support healthcare  reform, the current bill contained too many earmarks, such as the quaintly named “Lousiana Purchase” and the “Cornhusker Kickback.” Well. One looks in vain for the Platonic ideal, the earmark-free bill. Our system just doesn’t work that way, no matter which party controls Washington.

Recently, strange bedfellows Russ Feingold and Paul Ryan dredged up the line-item veto once more, arguing that it would curtail budgetary abuses. President Obama salivates at the prospect. Of course, the Supreme Court struck down the constitutionality of the procedure in 1998, which means that it would require a constitutional amendment to ressurect the line-item veto.

On its face, such an amendment sounds attractive. After all, it would allow the executive to remove boondoggles such as the Bridge to Nowhere and wooden arrows and keep the more attractive parts of a bill. The practice would compel members of both chambers to vote up or down on the substance of the legislation rather cut quid pro quo deals. Multi-thousand-page bills might morph into lean, readable documents.

Nevertheless, such an amendment would place far too much power in the hands of the president. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

Further, it would erode the separation of powers to such an extent as to render the legislature virtually obsolete. The president could target not only earmarks but substantive elements of the legislation as well. The president, not the congress, could control the budget. The president could punish the minority party mercilessly. Further, Richard Kogan suggests that the line-item veto might even increase pork barrel spending because members might pad presidential priorities.

So, as messy, oily, dirty, slimy as the process might be, pack up the line-item veto and pass the pork: 219-212 .

Nice work, Nancy!


Plugged into culture

•March 20, 2010 • 3 Comments

A  few days ago, a CNN Quick Poll asked readers to select whether television, the interstate highway system, or the Internet “has had the most enduring impact on your life.” The poll results (ignore the results on the archived link, as they only show 80 votes) tapped the Internet as the winner: “More than 303,000 people voted; 58 percent selected the Internet as the most enduring innovation, 29 percent selected television, and 14 percent selected the interstate highways.” Interesting.

Television? Eh. Sure, it glorifies visual culture, brings us the delectable Mad Men, drops national politics in our laps, stirs up demand for chia pets, allows pathetic solo dwellers the illusion of company—but it’s too damned passive, reality show voting notwithstanding.

I almost clicked the Internet; after all, I use it constantly. It swallows television, drains it like frat boys consume tequila shots on Saturday Tuesday night. The Internet revolutionized communication, culture, and education, all of which ripple through nearly every sphere of life. Democratizing and decentralizing knowledge, the Internet allows users to tap into the energy of centuries’ worth of knowledge—and misinformation. In their pajamas, citizens may easily access world-class research libraries (and quacks of all types), shop for chocolate, share their memories, take breakdancing classes, pay their bills, chat up a friend, waste hours on Perez Hilton, surf for porn, defraud the elderly, and so much more.

At the last second, though, I voted for the decidely low-tech interstate system, which fundamentally reorganized American life. Commenced in 1956, the interstate system provided a physical link between cities and states that allowed Americans an unprecedented mobility. We could drive further and faster, commute 175 miles a day without blinking or worrying about 25 mph speedtraps. Sleepy burghs transformed into bustling suburbs, where 75% of Americans now live. Families scattered diaspora-like across the plains and over the mountains.  Industries grew because trucks—without waiting for rail schedules—could ship goods (televisions and Internet modems, say) to meet immediate demand. Negatively, the interstate system contributed to the gutting of American cities, fostered an addiction to fossil fuels, encouraged untold tons of carbon emissions.


The poll didn’t include my real winner, though, the electrification of rural America. Now that’s lasting impact. Try plugging in your television thingy or your fancy computer gizmo without any juice.

How would you vote?

Bandini warms up

•March 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.

Rogers Hornsby

Tiny cloudbursts of expiration,  numb-blue fingers, mist-slick grass,  47 blustery degrees: a perfect scene for the first catch of the year. The hell with Madness and the Final Four; the initiated know that March really means grabbing your glove, tossing the ball around the yard, and dreaming about legging out a gapper into a double.

Saturday afternoon, ED, AD, and I (SD being on injured reserve and awaiting her second hip surgery) ignored the three inches of mud caked on our shoes, formed a wide triangle, and played catch for a solid hour. The light, chilly rain impacted our grip on the ball, of course, resulting in some interesting spin and a few errant throws, some of which ran down the hill into a six-inch puddle. Mainly, though, we threw on target, ball snapping pocket, bodies barely needing to adjust a centimeter. Glorious.

Our first toss of spring recalls John Fante’s Arturo Bandini, a baseball nut who longed for the solace of the infield forsaken under  frozen white mounds:

He hated the winter. He could picture the baseball diamond behind the school, buried in snow, the backstop behind home plate cluttered with fantastic heaviness—the whole scene so lonely, so sad. (51)

While the Winter Olympics certainly offered some rousing moments, their mixture of ice and sweat and catastrophe fail to match the optimistic spray of soggy turf as cleats inadvisably dig past third base, point toward the unmasked behemoth towering over the plate as a whitish blur hurtles through space: a simple physics experiment revisited each March with varying results. Force, meet immovable object. Only sometimes the ball whimpers itself to sleep; sometimes it explodes off-line and ricochets against the backstop; sometimes it squirms out of its leather nest and falls harmlessly to the ground; sometimes the bramble patch of limbs and leather and sanitary socks confuses the umpire just enough that he boots the call; sometimes the slide—so, so perfect—defies the odds and a bruised pinkie barely scrapes the edge of the plate before glove thwacks the contortionist on the ass, face, arm. Sometimes that foolhardy runner with the arthritic knees and the Thome-like speed looks up and hears “SAFE!” Try looking for THAT on a curling sheet . . .

March thaws the frost within and heralds the sanguine melody of fresh beginnings, 0-0 records, and a shot at the title. Play ball!

Dogma, or, parallel rants

•March 14, 2010 • 6 Comments

Reading the comments at the end of an article on the new Texas Board of Education history standards, I encountered several delightful sentiments, propagated by both “liberals” and “conservatives,” such as

Nothing like creating history to suit the political values of a few morons with some power.

Congratulations Texas knuckledraggers!

Next thing the liberals will want us to honor all the Al Qaeda terrorists that have been killed.

The Bolshevik liberals and the lesbocracy are wielding too much influence in society and trying to indoctrinate the children to be little hate-America firsters.

As an educator, I blush with pride at such nuanced, well-crafted arguments. As a citizen, it fills me with confidence that such obviously talented and erudite folks have their hands on the pulse of our republic.

Grassroots political discourse, whether at work or the world at large, fascinates me, and I often avoid completing my obligations by wading through the discussion boards appended to articles on controversial issues. If I want the temperature of the populace on a given question, such posts shed raw, passionate insight about what people really think. Invariably, my discussion board reading yields, on both sides of the political spectrum, ugliness, prejudice, bile—the sort of rhetoric that distresses (and angers) EB.

Politically, many of the comments disgust me, but I find them invaluable because they remind me that no matter how polite people might be in public, no matter how reasonable they might seem in a face-to-face discussion, they’ll often harbor unspoken resentments that they take with them into the voting booth. The anonymity of the Web offers an outlet for such frustration and bias, lets the hidden anger burst onto the screen, and forces us to confront difference.

Unfortunately, while the panoply of voices reflects the diversity of the English-speaking world in all its repulsive and beautiful splendor, the degree of argument rarely rises above the level of what child development experts refer to as parallel play. The writers tend to use weak-sense critical thinking to advance their own agendas, and they frequently ignore contradictory evidence. The rare well-reasoned case (no matter what the ideological stripe) finds itself ridiculed and attacked with ad hominem arguments. In short, most of the writers exit with the same beliefs that they entered with, and true intellectual synthesis rarely occurs.

Many, such as Daniel Wood in this provocative blog, decry this phenomenon, and during every election cycle one reads commentary to the effect that “things are getting worse.” Well, while it’s difficult to argue that close-minded political partisanship aids participatory democracy, as a nation we’ve experienced it from the start. Dewy-eyed nostalgia for the golden age of political civility flies in the face of the tradition of anonymous political invective that the founders imported from England. In many ways, the anonymity of Internet discussion boards echoes the pseudonymous, hate-filled pamphlets and articles that checked the facts at the door. Before Swift Boats and racist push polling,  Alexander Hamilton was Tom Shit and Andrew Jackson was an adulterer whose wife was a bigamist. Ah, the good old days of Jefferson and respectful political discourse . . .

Of all the damsels on the green,
On mountain, or in valley,
A lass so luscious ne’er was seen,
As Monticellian Sally.

Yankee Doodle, who’s the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock,
The blackamoor’s the dandy.

Spring beckons . . . blogs shrink

•March 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Louise Glück crystallizes the day in three lines:

Winter was over. In the thawed dirt,

bits of green were showing.

Come to me, said the world.

65 degrees. Sunny. Finally.

Humiliation: A Party Game for Geeks

•March 8, 2010 • 4 Comments

During a swampy run this morning, my mind wandered to David Lodge’s Changing Places and academic novels (props to my boy KW) in general. One memorable scene involves a parlor game called Humiliation. Lodge’s Desiree Zapp explains the rules:

The essence of the matter is that each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it. (135)

In the novel, Howard Ringbaum wins by declaring that he never read Hamlet, a disclosure that the rest can’t believe. Given that the world’s total number of published books lies between 74 and 175 million, even the best-read folks can participate in this activity, and it’s fun to consider why we’ve resisted certain famous texts.

Lodge’s characters only play three rounds, but I’ll up it to ten. Remember, you need to pick books that you think other people have read but that you somehow avoided.

In no particular order, but humiliating nonetheless:

1. Hard Times, Charles Dickens (I loathe him and the time I’ve wasted on his books.)

2. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas (I’ve seen, like, a thousand film adaptations, but no dice on the novel.)

3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (Isn’t War and Peace enough? Really.)

4. Angels in America, Tony Kushner (Gulp. No excuses.)

5. Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (I’ve read every other Pynchon novel save this one and the new one; my theory is that my paperback copy is just too cramped and ugly.)

6. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand (I know that I should read this because Bert Cooper wants Dick Draper to read it, but I hated her tiny Anthem and just can’t get up the energy to tackle 700+ pages of a book I might not love.)

7. Dune, Frank Herbert (How I finished high school without reading my best friend’s favorite book, I’ll never know.)

8. The Professor’s House, Willa Cather (Oh, the shame. I own it. Damn.)

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (I totally want to read this. Who knows why I haven’t.)

10. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (I love Howards End,  and I own this book, but I suspect it’s dull as dust.)

FAIL!! Will I get kicked out of the club for this? One could adapt the game for films, too, and I know that I’d score big with E.T.

 So, how many points do I earn?

HSN throws a strike

•March 7, 2010 • 1 Comment

My parents, mall junkies, would flit back and forth between high-end stores, while I wandered aimlessly looking for ways to burn up the four or five hours between my long-gone fiver and the trip home. South Coast Plaza, circa 1976, frequently brought big-time sports stars to lure in the crowds, and I, for free (sic!!!), received autographs from the likes of Brooks Robinson (whom I see has gone corporate) and Ken Norton (ditto).

One day, however, the Pickwick bookstore scheduled my all-time baseball hero, Nolan Ryan (damn it, him, too) to appear and sign autographs. Oddly, they slated Ryan’s appearance in the middle of a school day, but, miraculously, my father pulled me out of school and off we went.

Big stuff, this, what with the chance to shake hands with the fastest pitcher in baseball, a man I had witnessed throw his record 383rd strikeout a few years earlier in the nose-bleed seats at the Big A.

Well, surprise, my father got us there like two hours early, so we waited . . . and waited . . . and waited some more. Hours later, management announced that freeway traffic prevented NR from attending the signing. My vocal, pissed-off father somehow failed to salve one crushed little boy’s disappointment. So, so close. I pined about it for weeks.

Flash forward to 1990 and a mouse- and roach-infested Chicago apartment. MM has the Home Shopping Network on, and it switches from an ad for clothes, or whatever she was looking for, to a signed Nolan Ryan baseball like this one:

In graduate school and newly married, I knew better than to blow $40 on a useless ball, but, one messy fight later, I called the number on the screen. Total self-indulgence and reckless selfishness? Yes. Poor fiscal management? Check. A ridiculous line in the sand given my weak-kneed propensities in more important arenas?  Affirmative.

None of that mattered, though, when, ignoring the fierce glare from the sofa, I unwrapped the package, took the ball in my hands, and felt waves of emotion (silly but authentic) sweep over me.

Fourteen years late, the boy got his hero’s autograph, but he’s still waiting for that handshake.