Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Losing Entry

While I can apparently write like Jeanne Zelasko, I didn't make the cut in the Write like Dick Cheney contest. The contest asked how Cheney would spin the global climatic disaster posited by the movie The Day After Tomorrow. Here's my entry, though:

Thank you all for that "warm" welcome. Well, not so warm anymore, ha ha ha. It's always great to be back in South Carolina, especially at this time of year when the ice is thawing so beautifully. Happy Flag Day, too, everybody.

The President and I want to thank everybody for the genuine Old South mittens we received from the Ladies Auxiliary of your organization. The President wanted me to ask you if you could knit a muffler for Senator Kerry, ha ha ha.

[Audience: laughter.]

These are not times for leaders who shift with the political winds, whether it be the recent F5 the folks up in Davis county experienced or the even stronger hot wind coming from Senator Kerry, ha ha ha. It seems there are some who would blame the misconduct of a few meteorologists on the entire National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Senator Kerry has called for an investigation into the alleged failures of intelligence by our magnificent NOAA, this after he voted 39 times to cut out the appropriate for the space-based weather tracking system. I'm happy to report that we have conducted the investigation already, and we've cleared everybody except for a few holdovers from the previous administration. This is about looking forward, not backwards at the advancing ice pack.

I hear an awful lot of nay-saying and attention being paid to those pictures of the St. Louis arch underwater. To those who would focus on the past, I say: where's the attention being paid to all the positive news? Like the followers of Al-Sadr being drowned in Fallujah? Or the incredibly successful irrigation program undertaken by the 1st Armored Division. Iraq, under our reconstruction efforts, is a desert no more. One need only look at Lake Redemption and the new Iraqi Sailing School founded by elements of the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit.

When I look into the happy faces of those Iraqi children who have never know the freedom of yacht racing under Sadaam jibing into that 70-knot wind, I wonder why Senator Kerry thought to vote against the Weather Enhancement of Terrain act of 2004. Does he hate children? Or does he just hate freedom? Which is it? Or maybe he voted for it, ha ha ha. I leave it to Senator Kerry to explain his inconsistency.


He is consistent about some things: perhaps Senator Kerry could explain why he voted against the President's Energy plan on 117 different occasions. It seems to me the Artic Wilderness is doing very nicely these days, and we sure could use a lot more of that pleasantly warm fossil fuel down there. If Congress hadn't voted it down, I don't think any of these stories in the news media would get a second glance.

The President and I are grateful for your hospitality here. We look forward to receiving your votes in November, and I'm asking each and every one of you to shovel your way out to get to the polls that day. Can we really trust a Senator from New England in times like these? From a state like Massachussetts well known for its snowfall? Well, it will be a cold day know...


God Bless America.

Revising Brown's Meaning

There's been a lot of discussion this month about the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, and whether desegregation has been good for American schools, whether the manner of it worked, etc.

I fear lost in the discussion here is main effect of Brown: it wasn't just about desegregating schools. The decision was about a fundamental principle of American life and values, which is we're not supposed to draw distinctions among people, most especially in public life as defined by the government.

On that point, Brown was deeply and fundamentally conservative, in that it clearly articulated the idea of equality as being one of equality of opportunity, of treatment, and of basic standing before the law and government. No matter that the outcomes may not have been what were intended for the schools, or that unintended consequences blighted the attempt to reform schools.

I'm always concerned about the fate of the public school system. Common education really was a founding principle, and free public education was one of the great innovations of the 19th century that the US brought to the world. I don't have the magic bullet for inequality. But I do know without the guiding principle of equality in the first public institution a person experiences, and arguably the fundamentally most important of one's lifetime, we are subject to petty divisions that become major ones.

it makes me pause in this election year to think that the two major candidates are both elite prep schoolers, with as much direct feel for the shared experience of a public education as I have for skiing vacations at Vail or duck-hunting junkets with Supreme Court justices.

At the same time, more than the schools, what seems lost in these retrospectives is a clear sense of how we return to e pluribus unum. That's the meaning of Brown.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Book Review: Sinister Pig by Tony Hillerman

There's always a conundrum involved with picking up the next volume in a series that one has grown to love knowing it's likely to be a disappointment. In the case of Sinister Pig, one is left with the sort of feeling that, I suppose, fans of Friends might've felt after the last episode.

I don't know that this is the last of the Chee-Leaphorn books, and honestly, I hope it isn't. For one thing, I think Chee and Leaphorn need a grand philosophical send-off, and this book is more along the lines of 'happy endings for everybody'. Warning: spoilers follow, but if you've been reading the series, you know in your heart of hearts what's there already.

Along the way, it's a little sad to report Hillerman just sort of breezes through the motions. I don't think if this were a first MS it would've had a second reading from an editor. The "mystery" is easily solved, and isn't anything particularly interesting. In order to further his schtick along, Hillerman has to change the jobs of not one but two of his characters, sending Bernie Manuelito down to the US-Mexican border as part of the US Border Patrol and Cowboy Dashee (for reasons never explained) is no longer a deputy sherriff but an enforcement agent for the Bureau of Land Management.

There's all sorts of potential in the basic outline, but it's fleshed out to the approximate extent that a screen treatment might be. As I was zipping through this, for some reason I envisioned the best version of this work as a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh, along the lines of The Limey. A film director, for instance, might eliminate all the living room set pieces - Leaphorn leaves his couch and coffee pot only long enough to rummage in the garage.

Perhaps more problematic is the introduction of a cartoon villain, all the way from the cesspool of corruption, Washington, DC, who gets what we used to call 'Hawaiian Capital Punishment'. (The origin of this phrase: Hawaii 5-0. Back in the days of the TV series, Hawaii had no capital punishment, and a very large number of the episodes ended in a murderer being brought to justice by being shot by Steve McGarrett or one of his minions -- justice done in the old west style without the messy issue of the judicial system coming into play.)

The action doesn't have much at all to do with the four corners area, traditional native american culture, or the tension between the idea of a 'reservation' of traditional language and culture and the modern world which underlies so much of the best parts of the Chee-Leaphorn series.

So, the happy ending, of course, is: Leaphorn is apparently content with his relationship with Louisa; Chee and Bernie finally get together, and we know they're going to settle in the exact place where Chee's had his trailer all these years, content in traditionalism, but with a real house instead. Somewhat disappointingly, despite Hillerman's attempts to set up Bernie as capable and independent, the deus ex machina which brings them together is Chee and Cowboy Dashee coming to Bernie's timely rescue and Bernie forsaking a future law enforcement career.

In terms of sketching out the future obituaries of the characters, this at least seemingly settles the main characters' conflicts in a way which is settling to their souls. Leaphorn and Chee, representing two ends of the spectrum in terms of their beliefs in the old ways of their culture, are seemingly reconciled, or their differences are buried.

If I were writing the next book in the series, here's how I'd go about it. Hillerman should take as much time as he needs to flesh out his finale, if ever there will be one, from Sinister Pig's few hundred scant pages to whatever the text will bear. Chee needs some sort of final, ultimate crisis to reconcile his belief in traditionalism and his need to be part of the hierarchical apparatus of law enforcement; something focussed on the essential aspects of justice and what it means to be part of a culture. It should put him up in vital opposition to Leaphorn, and maybe the author can even kill off the Legendary Lieutenant to further things along. Chee could even be solving Leaphorn's murder, using his notes and effects to do so, to provide a nice retrospective of Leaphorn's career. But it's got to be something that gets to the heart of where the Navajo people are in the early 21st century: that looks forward to where they might be, surrounded by the Belagana, in a hundred or a thousand years. These are the sorts of things we look to our elders to prophesy, and what I'm hoping Mr. Hillerman will produce as a coda to this wonderful series.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Chain Chain Chain

(you fill in the rest)

Apropos of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal...

  • The general of the 800th clearly deserves to be cashiered for failure to maintain the chain of command properly. But somebody sent the 800th to duty for which it was, by accounts of General Toguba, completely untrained. That general officer also ought to be cashiered for egregious negligence.
  • The dual chain of command, between intelligence and the military police unit, shouldn't exist anywhere.
  • The reservist SSGT who was apparently at the center of handing out the abuse was a prison guard in civilian life. This leads to the interesting question: is what he lead the other enlisted personnel into reflective of how he did his job as a prison guard? Or did something about the situation in Iraq lead him to become a sadist?
  • While much is being made of the US Army report on the Abu Ghraib incident, little attention is being paid to the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch reports. There's a strange game of who's crying wolf going on -- the irregularities and indeterminate status of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the Jose Padilla Case (currently before the Supreme court, where a US citizen arrested on US soil as a terror suspect was designated an enemy combatant and not entitled to any rights, either as part of the regular judicial system or under the Geneva convention) present a slippery slope that, if not necessarily directly contributing to this particular abuse, has created an aura where rights are not absolute but "granted". In this particular instance, Secretary Rumsfeld, for example, stated to congress that 'detainees' in Iraq aren't prisoners of war but they decided to treat them under the Geneva Convention, anyway. These kind of nuances were probably lost in translation down the chain of command, since I don't really understand how you can 'grant' a 'right'.
  • Why don't we just call them 'prisoners'? 'Detainees' and 'Detention' sounds like they're being held after school for throwing spitballs.
  • I am pretty sure there's some sort of screening process at play here, but it hasn't been made public. Having some openness about how the accused Iraqis are separated into guilty and dangerous vs. not guilty but dangerous vs. innocent, and what the 'sentencing' is for prisoners in various categories, would go a long way towards restoring confidence in the quasi-judicial system in play.
  • I've heard it suggested that the Iraqi judicial system start taking over Iraqi prisoner processing. What Iraqi judicial system? How can you invent a system of justice where none existed before? My feeling here is if we're going to have an imperial presence, apply the full weight of the US judicial system and checks and balances to the system -- impose the judicial system, let the Iraqis pick a political system.
  • Apropos of internationalization, I don't see how intelligence goals would be hurt if we figured out a way of turning over the current judicial and detention system to a third party -- let's get the Swiss or Swedes in here. That's the kind of ceding of power in a meaningful area that might help our profile in Iraq and the world that wouldn't affect our ability to act as a police power. Very much the way that (at least, in theory) district attorneys operate independently from the police in prosecution, if you had an international "DA" and warden of prisons, then we could focus on the bad guys.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

I Won't Be There for You

Among my many achievements in life, I have never seen a single episode of "Friends", and I don't intend to break that streak anytime soon.