Archive for December 2009
My simple wishes for 2010:
1. Alaskans would stop whining about taxes. Alaska has the lowest combined state and local tax rate of any state in the nation. It has enjoyed that status for more than 25 years. It’s an historical aberration, linked to taxes on the oil industry, but it’s indisputable. So stop whining about it.
2. TSA would stop punishing the passengers when TSA screws up and lets a terrorist on a flight. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came pretty close to blowing up an Northwest Airlines jet on final approach at Detroit. Scary. The passengers on that flight helped save the day. He was on board because of a failure of intelligence (he’d been busted by his own father, but allowed to board) and a failure of screening. But instead of fixing what’s broken, all passengers will be punished: more intrusive screening, forced to sit the last hour of any flight, nothing in our laps but our hands. So that the suicide nut cases will make their attempts earlier in the flight? I don’t need to post a screed against this folly; Christopher Hitchens has written a fine one.
3. Sarah Palin would just shut up. Incredibly divisive, dishonest, narcissistic and ignorant, she represents everything reprehensible about about politics in general and the Republican Party in particular.
4. George W. Bush would announce, “I was wrong. Global warming is real. It’s a terrible threat to America and requires immediate action. I was wrong to try to suppress the research showing it was a threat. The Republican Party needs to join with the Democrats and develop a serious, drastic response now, even if the U.S. has to go it alone.”
5. Just a single member of Congress who is willing to say, “The issues facing the country are too important for partisanship. I’m working across the aisle to serve America, not my personal interests or the interests of the party.” We know it’s not Joe Lieberman. Anyone?
6. A year without a single Alaska elected official being indicted.
Bad odds on all of them, I’m afraid. But it’s a New Year. It’s okay to hope. All the best in 2010, everyone.
I can summarize the year in religion by setting out, in full, a January 29, 2007 letter to editor of the Kenai Peninsula Times, from an alleged human being named Alice Shannon, of Soldotna, Alaska.
It’s time to stomp out atheists in America. The majority of Americans would love to see atheists kicked out of America. If you don’t believe in God, then get out of this country.
The United States is based on having freedom of religion, speech, etc. which means you can believe in God any way you want (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, etc.), but you must believe.
I don’t recall freedom of religion meaning no religion. Our currency even says, “In God We Trust.” So, to all the atheists in America: Get off of our country.
Atheists have been the ruin of this great nation by taking prayer out of our schools and being able to practice what can only be called evil. I don’t care if they have never committed a crime, atheists are the reason crime is rampant.
/s/ Alice Shannon, Soldotna
Nothing I could possibly write could better describe the state of religion in the United States in 2009: entrenched ignorance, intolerance and illogic.
The Chicago Cubs finished 7.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. One hundred one years and counting. Some team from the east coast ended up winning the World Series. The American League continued to play some other game where the pitcher doesn’t bat. And yet another MLB star was outed as a user of performance enhancing drugs. On the brighter side, Major League Baseball survived another year with Bud Selig at the helm.
There are other, less important sports than baseball. Let’s see. Another sports hero bit the dust when Tiger Woods crashed his Cadillac Escalante, his reputation, his integrity and possibly his marriage. In the words of The Capitol Steps, he couldn’t keep his bowsers truckled.
American football, at all levels, was revealed to be a cumulative long term hazard to the health of the players. Repeated concussions, even symptom-free concussions, can cause very severe brain damage. Amazingly, this came as news to the National Football League.
The National Basketball Association playoffs lasted into mid-summer. Presumably, some folks watched to see who won. I didn’t.
Apparently auto racing, and specifically NASCAR, is now the most popular sport in the U.S. I’ve never understood sitting in stands for hours, watching internal combustion engines waste fuel. Is this a southern thing? Is it a white thing? I don’t get it.
ESPN, the Eastern Sports Network, continues to believe there are no college football teams worth noticing west of the Rockies except Southern California. Despite two humiliations (Oregon, California) and four losses, finishing fifth in the Pac 10, USC remained ranked in the top 25 and defeated Boston College, which finished second in the ACC. That’s more a criticism of Boston College and the ACC than anything flattering about USC. Five Pac 10 teams were ranked in the BCS. Seven teams are in post-season bowl games. Boise State was again undefeated. Yet EPSN pretends the west doesn’t exist.
And despite the buckets of ink, petabytes of digital content and the passionate beliefs of a depressing high percentage of Americans, none of it really matters. It’s entertainment. Usually farcical. In the case of the Cubs, almost always farcical.
We’ll open the review of 2009 by focusing first on politics. That should make everything else more tolerable. It was a bad year, even for the low standards of American politics. Take your Dramamine(tm), assume the crash position, and follow along:
Rod Blagojevich was impeached. As a former Illinois resident, I have a lingering interest in the continuing farce that is Illinois politics. Of all the reports, Dave Barry’s is probably best:
Elsewhere in politics, a team of specially trained wildlife agents equipped with nets and tranquilizer darts manages, after a six-hour struggle, to remove Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office. He is transported to an undisclosed swamp, where he is released into the wild and quickly bonds with the native ferret population.
We learned that “hiking the Appalachian Trail” is a euphemism for sexual hijinks with an Argentinian bombshell, courtesy of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. This is the same man who voted to impeach former president Bill Clinton, and called Clinton’s sexual escapades “reprehensible.” A great many prominent Americans were captured this year while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
And Sarah Palin quit as Alaska’s governor so she could pocket a few million dollars as an advance for her ghost-written memoir. The usual word salad was served at her surprise announcement. I skipped the resignation party.
The scandals weren’t limited to governors. Senator John Ensign – a member of Promise Keepers and a champion of family values – had an extra-marital affair with one his top aide’s wife. And then bribed the aide not to talk about it. Ensign, while a member of the House, called on then-president Clinton to resign, too.
I could go on – there’s no shortage of additional scandals – but it’s too depressing. After the high point of the Obama inaugural, American politics pretty much went to hell the remaining eleven months of the year. For elected officials, it was the Year of the Hypocrite.
You get the feeling that the Milton Bradley deal with the Cubs was doomed from the start. Bradley, a guy who hurt himself wrestling with his first base coach, who was trying to keep him from attacking an umpire. Clearly, the guy has a lot of issues that have nothing to do with his ability to play baseball. Let’s look at Paul Sullivan’s “Eleven Worst Bradley Moments” and see if there is anything to be learned:
April 16: After getting standing ovation at Wrigley Field before his first home at-bat, Bradley is called out on strikes and ejected by plate umpire Larry Vanover, who alleges Bradley made contact with bill of his cap. Later suspended by MLB for infraction.
How to burn your good will at the first chance. Of all of the baseball player affectations, the one I loath the most is the failure to accept personal responsibility for your decisions. Dude, the bat was on your shoulder.
April 22: Booed by Cubs fans for not running out ground ball in his first start at home, then refuses to talk to media afterward.
Major League Baseball is so strange. Grown men – admittedly, not emotionally mature men – are paid millions to play a child’s game. There are rules, some written, some not. Making nice with the press is one of them. Maybe if you are a truly great player, you can ignore the unwritten rules, although it didn’t work for Barry Bonds.
April 23: Asked how his injured groin feels after game, Bradley cracks, “I feel like 30 million bucks” while walking away from reporters.
You want the love, you have to give the love. Game Board clearly craves the love.
May 24 : Tells Tribune that umpires have vendetta against him: ” ‘We’re going to get him any time we can. As soon as he gets two strikes, we’re going to call whatever and see what he does. Let’s try to ruin Milton Bradley.’ “
See comments to April 16 incident.
June 12: Throws ball into bleachers after making two-out catch against Twins, allowing run to score. “Sue me,” he defiantly says afterward.
If you make a bone-headed mistake, and someone is paying you thirty million bucks to play the game right, at least give some thought to what might help make it right. Saying indirectly that you don’t care will and did alienate everyone, including your teammates.
June 26: Tells Tribune he feels like he’s “afloat on an island” because his teammates have isolated him: “They say all the right things, but it’s just b.s.” Later creates dugout scene after popout and gets into confrontation with manager Lou Piniella, who calls him “piece of (expletive)” and sends him home.
See comments to June 12 incident. Honestly, I’m surprised they would stand by you for the national anthem.
July 12: Declares himself “back” after poor first half and says “negative” media is only thing stopping Cubs: “Don’t read the newspaper. Don’t watch TV. Just play, because we have everything we need right here. If we stay together in here, cut out all the outside b.s., we’ll be fine. There’s way too much hoopla, there’s way too much talk. There’s way too much speculation.”
Paulie, this one hangs on the media’s ears, not Game Board’s.
Aug. 26 : Suggests he has been victim of racial abuse in interview with beat writers. Asked for specifics, he facetiously shouts: “America doesn’t believe in racism.” Also rips Chicago waiters[sic] for “bad-mouthing” him.
The race card and the victim card. Paulie, tell Game Board that unless you meant “writers” and not “waiters,” Chicago waiters give lousy service to everyone. It’s not racist.
Sept. 17: Takes himself out of game without pinch runner ready, refuses to answer questions afterward, repeating: “What else ya got? What else ya got?”
It’s a team sport. It’s not about Milton, it’s about winning.
Sept. 19: Takes himself out of starting lineup and refuses to pinch-hit, leading to heated confrontation with hitting coach Von Joshua. Beforehand, he complained of “negativity” in organization in Daily Herald interview.
About as self-destructive as behavior can get, without physical scarring. See comment to September 17 event.
Sept. 20: Suspended for final 15 games and sent home by GM Jim Hendry. Cubs players stand by Hendry’s decision. “Sometimes you just have to look in the mirror and realize that maybe the biggest part of the problem is yourself,” Ryan Dempster says.
Dempster, as usual, nails it. And pretty much makes it impossible to Bradley to ever play as a Cub again.
Milton Bradley is a very talented baseball player. But his narcissistic qualities and self-destructive behavior make it impossible for him to realize those talents and perform to the level he could. Hendry’s signing him was a bad idea. I’m happy to see him gone, even if it means the most expensive batting practice pitcher in the history of baseball. Good luck to the Mariners. I hope the Cubs can move on.
Book Review: Hiroshima, by John Hersey
Hiroshima was published in 1946 – a year after the bomb was dropped – in New Yorker magazine. Uniquely in its history, the magazine devoted its entire issue to the late John Hersey’s 30,000 word essay. Only later was it turned into a book; the final chapter on the subsequent lives of the six subjects wasn’t written until 1985.
Hersey set out to put a human face on the consquences of the atomic bomb. All earlier news accounts, articles and stories had been focused on the statistics, the science, and the effort that led to the nuclear weapon. Understood in that context, understanding what Hersey was trying to do and say, the book is even more remarkable.
It is not a novel; a novel is a work of fiction. It is an essay, a work of reportage. This story is true. The book is all the more remarkable because Hersey was born and raised in China, the son of missionaries, and had no reason to be sympathetic to or about the Japanese. A war correspondent for Time, he earned a commendation from the U.S. Army at Guadacanal. He cannot fairly be accused of anything but supreme objectivity. By telling the true stories of six survivors in an absolutely straightforward way, without judging the decision to use the bomb, he put an intensely human face on the consequences.
He was criticized at the time and is criticized today for taking the events that day out of context. The bomb is supposed to have saved a million American casualties (a highly suspect figure today). It was supposed to have shortened the war by a year or more. Those critics are themselves missing the true context. At the time, the historical events leading to Truman’s decision were well known (although recast in February 1947 by Stinson). Hersey’s goal was to make the story real in a new way. Those facts are well and good, Hersey is saying, but there were bad consequences as well. In the process, he created a remarkable book.
I was glad to see New York University recently named Hersey’s Hiroshima as the best single work of reporting in the 20th century. As events unfold in the escalating nuclear arms race on the Indian subcontinent, everyone needs to understand the human consequences of the use of nuclear weapons. By helping keep Hersey’s work before us, perhaps we can avoid another Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
In Alaska, ethics regulations are written by the Attorney General. AG Dan Sullivan, in response to complaints about alleged abuses of the ethics rules by the former governor, has proposed modifications.
Before looking at the modifications, let’s look at the myth and the reality of Alaska’s ethics rules. The first myth is that they were somehow recently made more stringent, that new rules were applied to the former governor. Um. No. The reality is that the current regulations, in substantially the same form, have been on the books since 1994. Everyone else has been able to muddle through for more than 14 years.
The second myth is that the former governor didn’t deserve to be held to a higher standard. Um. No. She famously ran against the old white guy network that called itself the “Corrupt Old Bastards Club.” She ran against a demonstrably crooked group of legislators. She asked us – she insisted – that she be held to a higher standard. It was a platform of her campaign. It was what she wanted. At least until she was elected.
The third myth is that complaints were filed against her were all things that prior governors had done. Um. No. No governor has ever charged the State per diem for living in her own house. No governor has ever charged the State to fly her kids to New York. No governor has woodshedded a Commissioner of Public Safety because he wouldn’t fire your ex-brother in law. No governor has ever encouraged her supporters to develop a legal defense slush fund. I could go on but Alaskans know the complaints already. When you take extreme positions, you invite attacks.
If you insist upon living in a glass house, it’s prudent not to distribute stones to people who don’t like you. When you run for office promising to set a new, higher level of ethical behavior, it’s prudent to be exceptionally ethical.
So the need for “reform” of the ethics regulations isn’t all that clear. But in that context, let’s examine some of the proposed changes.
First, the changes would permit an elected official to be reimbursed by the State for defense costs if the complaint was found to be without merit. One problem with this change is that it’s rarely so simple. Take the complaint about traveling with her kids. She settled by reimbursing $8,000 to the State, and the rest of the complaint was dismissed. Is she entitled to be reimbursed her attorneys’ fees in that situation? If you have to reimburse the State for even part of the money, have you been “exonerated”?
Second, new rules would define when the State will pay for your family to travel with you. But the new rules are pretty muddy, and don’t even seem to resolve the cases the former governor presented. Can an ethics complaint be resolved if you get a request after the fact to bring the kids along, as the former governor is reported to have done? Are there really any circumstances in which the governor really needs his or her kids along at State expense?
And it’s the same thing with the other proposed changes. They all amount to effort to address issues that arose from the former governor’s . . . special circumstances. They don’t seem to really be necessary. They don’t seem to really resolve the supposed issues.
I respectfully suggest that Alaska’s ethics rules aren’t broken, and don’t need to be fixed. The problem resolved itself some months ago.
Birding is a little thin in Idaho this time of the year, and avian photography even thinner. Not as pitiful as interior Alaska, I’ll grant you, but still a little slow. I was reduced to landscapes in the McCall area.
In Boise, I spent a couple of hours over two days at Veteran’s Memorial Park and along the Green Belt that winds along the Boise River. There were Hooded Mergansers on one of the ponds, but they were extremely spooky and weren’t having anything to do with photographs. A bicyclist passing by mentioned he had seen a Great Blue Heron near the bridge across the river, so on my way back to my car I trudged up to see what was there. I have lots of photos of GBHs already; I wasn’t enthusiastic. More like bored. I took a pretty straightforward portrait, more because I didn’t have anything else before leaving.
I found the Heron, about 200 feet upstream from the Veteran’s Memorial Parkway bridge. I took the portrait shot – the bird was pretty calm having me near – and headed back to my sister-in-law’s house. When I checked the photo out, it was pretty decent, so I posted to Nature Photographers Network and headed out again to try for Gray-crowned and Black Rosy-Finches at Lucky Peak Dam (found them, too).
When I got back and checked the NPN site I found emails and comments pointing out I had posted a photo of Tricolored Heron, not a Great Blue. I had seen what I was told I’d see, not what was there. I had let some guy on bicycle tell me what I’d see, instead of seeing for myself. Very embarrassing.
It turns out that it was only the second documented Tricolored in the state of Idaho. And a pretty good photo. But the whole incident is somewhat humiliating…
The bird was rare enough that it attracted a number of serious birders the following morning, including an ornithology professor from Boise State University. Everyone congratulated me on the rarity, which was even more embarrassing. And, when I left after two hours of bone-chilling searching, no one had found the bird.
Stephen Crane’s remarkable poem, In the Desert, has a certain value in interpreting the current Republican political strategy:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter–bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
The Republican party doesn’t seem to have any strategy, except to attack President Obama. For example, New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg has reportedly developed a manual for fighting health care reform. It’s more evidence the Republicans don’t have a real proposal for cleaning up the health care mess; their reaction is to frustrate reform. Their strategy is an effort to regain power, not solve the problems facing the country. If, by their efforts, they can prevent any health care reform, then President Obama will have been “unsuccessful” and should not be re-elected.
You can see the strategy everywhere. The effort to pull the economy out of the recession, dealing with the federal estate tax, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan; all of the Republican efforts are to prevent President Obama and the Democrats from succeeding. Not to solve the underlying problems. Rather, to regain power at the expense of all Americans who are suffering as a result of the problems facing the country.
It is particularly galling that the Republicans have anchored their objections in large part because “we can’t afford it.” The Republicans point to the huge national debt, and moan about the price “our children” will pay. In most cases, that’s an utterly bankrupt argument. The last Republican administration and Congress famously turned the Clinton Administration surplus into the current deficit by cutting taxes, increasing spending and permitting a concentration of economic power without regulation, creating businesses that were “too big to be permitted to fail.” The Republican bailout of Wall Street, GMC, Chrysler and others is overwhelmingly the largest single factor in the current debt.
The “price tag” argument is morally and logically flawed in another important way, especially in the context of health care. If we don’t fix health care, the growth in the cost of health care is going to kill the economy all by itself. We can’t continue to do nothing without creating even greater problems than we already have. It’s not simply a matter of extending health care to everyone as a social goal. The unrestricted growth in the cost of health care, whether as a cost to employers, cost of medicare and medicaid, or simple direct cost to the consumer, cannot be sustained. The Democrat’s health care plan may be expensive, but it is much less expensive, in the long run, than doing nothing.
The voters aren’t that naive. The Republican “strategy” presumes a level of incompetence in the Democrats and stupidity in the voters that’s not in evidence.
Which is why I find Stephen Crane’s image so appropriate. The Republican party, for the most part, is lost in a political desert, gnawing its own heart. It’s hardly surprising the taste is bitter.
I am blessed to have married into a large, close family. One of my wife’s nieces married on Thanksgiving, and in addition to a charming, delightful wedding, it was an extended family reunion among the nicest people you could hope to have as in-laws.
The ceremony was conducted by the bride’s younger sister, who apparently wrote the vows herself (“You may now kiss my sister”). The entire event was a delight and a treasure.
Thanks, Hailey and Justin, for reminding me of the blessings I have. And my warmest congratulations and very best wishes to you both.