Sunday, June 30, 2013

Don't lie in your song

Ever since I first heard Conor Oberst's (Bright Eyes) "No Lies, Just Love" a number of years ago, I've been ambivalent about it. The subject is attempted suicide, always a winner in my book. The ending was a letdown, but that didn't fully explain my reaction.

Tonight it finally hit me: the song is a lie, from beginning to end.

It's virtually a parody of the suicide motif. Oberst's narrator asks his family to forgive him, says his (still unstated) act was not their fault, delays his plan in order to enjoy a spring day, then cancels it altogether when his friend threatens to follow suit. The song ends with the narrator, fully redeemed, holding a baby in his arms, promising the newborn "no lies, just love".


A good suicide song doesn't have a happy ending.

A good suicide song doesn't ignore the suicider's pain.

A good suicide song doesn't deliver a stupid moral.

You want to know a good suicide song? Try "The Ledge" by the Replacements or "Song for Adam" by Jackson Browne.

You want to write a song against suicide? Fine. Say something meaningful in it. Truly believe life is worth the living. Say so in a way that convinces me, too.

Don't claim somebody guilt-tripped your protagonist into pulling out of the deed. Don't have your protagonist solemnly swear to be a force for life and love as he stares into a baby's eyes. In other words, don't write Hallmark-card drivel.

You don't contemplate suicide unless you're in deep, deep pain. You don't stop thinking about suicide in a flash. If you survive — either because you never quite reach the brink, or your attempt fails — the pain remains. As a songwriter, the least you can do is to respect that. Paul Westerberg and Jackson Browne did.

I don't happen to believe suicide is wrong. I think there are times and reasons it could be a valid response to pain, physical or psychological. I know most people don't agree. I know most people think everything that can be done to prevent it, should be done.

I'm okay with that.

What I won't stand for is sentimentalizing it.

No lies, Conor.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The complicit FISA court

The New York Times' Bits blog posted a short entry last night, "Secret Court Declassifies Yahoo's Role in Disclosure Fight".
Yahoo fought a part of FISA known as the Protect America Act, elements of which were folded into a 2008 amendment to FISA. Yahoo argued, unsuccessfully, that broad, warrantless Internet surveillance violated the Constitution. Yahoo appealed at the secret court of review, and that court also ruled against Yahoo, writing in its decision that “efforts to protect national security should not be frustrated by the courts.”
[emphasis added]

I'd love to see the original decision by the court of review. Was there any effort to qualify "efforts"? Must they, for instance, be "reasonable efforts"? Or might the previous word have been "any"?

As things stand, the reasonable conclusion is that any effort to protect national security will "not be frustrated by the courts". The logical followup question is, "Then why bother with the courts at all?"

The answer obviously is, "Because the courts provide political cover."

The FISA court is complicit with the executive branch and the intelligence community.

The FISA court system is designed to thwart anyone interested in genuine, thoughtful and critical oversight of the intelligence community's surveillance activities. I defy any member of Congress, or any of the FISA court's judges, to prove me wrong.

The game's rigged, kids.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Archbishop's hopelessly muddled thinking

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Garofoli. On 16 June 2013 Garofoli posted excerpts from a set of pre-interview questions submitted to the archbishop in writing.

To the question of what Cordileone would do if the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, Cordileone replied in part:

Too many children are being hurt by our culture’s strange and increasing inability to appreciate how important it is to bring together mothers and fathers for children in one loving home. The basic question is: does our society need an institution that connects children to their mothers and fathers, or doesn’t it? The only institution that does this is marriage. Redefining marriage will mean that our society will have given its definitive answer: “no”; it will mean changing the basic understanding of marriage from a child-centered institution to one that sees it as a temporary, revocable commitment which prioritizes the romantic happiness of adults over building a loving, lasting family. This would result in the law teaching that children do not need an institution that connects them to the mother and father who brought them into the world and their mother and father to each other.
I get that the Catholic Church is deeply concerned about the welfare of children (no irony, in spite of the child sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Church). Yet how does gay marriage harm children? Cordileone doesn't say anything remotely convincing on that score. He would have to show that opposite-sex marriages that produce children are somehow harmed by gay marriage. He doesn't show this, because, of course, he can't. No such harm exists except in the fevered imaginations of Cordileone and those who think like him.

How does gay marriage lead to the proposition, "Society doesn't need an institution that connects children to their mothers and fathers"? Cordileone's answer seems to be that marriage now, under the law, "prioritizes the romantic happiness of adults over building a loving, lasting family".

Wow. I didn't know legalizing gay marriage did all that. (Not that we've actually legalized it as a nation, mind you.) I guess that means that every marriage before 26 June 2013 produced children and endured forever.

Oh. Wait. What was that statistic again? The divorce rate is "slightly more than 40 percent", according to an article by the Public News Service from 20 March 2013. I can't find the percentage of childless marriages, but I'm certain that's nonzero, too. It's not gay marriage that prioritizes the romantic happiness of adults over building a loving, lasting family. It's society.

Good grief, how can you even say that creating a family is automatically better than not creating one? Haven't we all known people who should never have had kids? I'm sorry, Archbishop, but if you're saying marriage is solely about raising kids, you need to extract your head from your hindquarters and (1) count how many people this planet is already failing to support, and (2) take a long, hard look at your flock to see if you can't pick out even a few who have no business being parents.

Now, Cordileone might have a valid point when he says that prioritizing adults' romantic happiness leads to "the law teaching that children do not need an institution that connects them to the mother and father who brought them into the world and their mother and father to each other". However, that point doesn't apply to gay marriage. It applies to divorce. The number of gay couples who wish to have their own children through surrogacy (violating Cordileone's pronouncement that a child needs its mother and father) is going to be a lot smaller than the number of couples, gay and straight, who wish to divorce, so if your concern is all about children, you should exert yourself where the greatest benefits could be reaped and fix the nation's divorce rate. Archbishop, your aim is off.

Homosexuality is a problem for Christianity: the Bible's injunctions against it are well-known. Those injunctions, though, run head-first into the modern era's willingness to look beyond old strictures, to ask why those strictures exist. When you ask "why", you find no good, convincing answers. Believers quoted on a local newscast argued that gay marriage undermines our notions of "right" and "wrong", and one woman went so far as to utter a variant on the silly slogan "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve".

Fine. Believe that if you will. But don't expect these Bible-originated arguments to mean jack to me or to the increasing number of people who think like me.

If religious believers want to turn the tide on gay rights, they'd better find arguments that don't come out of their holy texts. They'd better find arguments that mean something to those who don't think like them.

I doubt they can.

[UPDATE: Added the link to Garofoli's blog post.]

[2nd UPDATE: Fixed the corrupted last sentence in the third-to-last paragraph.]

The chore of voting

Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker has a cynically funny take on Monday's Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act (i.e., the federal law that made it possible for blacks to vote in the old South).
In conclusion, Justice Scalia wrote, “Our message today to the American people is simple: we are voting so you won’t have to.”

Monday, June 24, 2013

FEMA denies Texas

Surprisingly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down Texas' request for some of the disaster aid it requested to recover from the West, TX fertilizer plant explosion.

To be clear, the federal government will still be sending a fair bit of money Texas' way. It's just that the state won't get all of the money it has requested.

Unsurprisingly, Texas, and Texas Republicans in particular, are outraged. They're accusing the federal government, and President Obama in particular, of abandoning them.

Observers, though, support FEMA.

“This was a very easy turndown,” said Frances L. Edwards, a disaster response expert, professor at San Jose State University and former municipal director of emergency services. “The State of Texas is not a poor state. They have significant revenues. The philosophy is that federal money should only be used as a last resort where there really is no reasonable alternative.”
It's ironic that Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an ardent states-rights-ist just as all far-right Republicans are, is whining about not getting enough federal aid. Hey Rick, you've been bragging about Texas' robust economy for a few years now, and during your short-lived presidential campaign you gave a Texas-sized middle finger to the idea that the federal government has a reason to exist outside of the national defense. Hell, you've made noises of sympathy to those who want Texas to secede from the Union.
The Texas governor raised eyebrows when he said, "When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation," adding, "And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again."
Though you, according to the same article, "[do] not stand behind a secession petition filed with the White House", I assume you still believe Texas can stand just fine on its own. Do you believe your own rhetoric, or are you just another small-federal-government-and-my-state-uber-alles-except-when-I-need-help hypocrite? Are you telling us that Texas can't pick up the balance for a disaster within its borders that your lax (some would say "nonexistent") state regulatory regimen very likely fomented?

I feel for the survivors of the West disaster. Their state elected officials, though, should shoulder their responsibilities and stop bitching about not getting federal dollars the state doesn't need.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Josh Marshall on Deen

Not to pile on or anything, but if you, like I, weren't sure how to feel about former TV cooking personality (you can't call her a chef) Paula Deen's racially insensitive remarks (see my last entry), Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has a pretty clear-eyed take. Usefully, he puts Deen into context by recounting how a genuinely conflicted white man, Lyndon Johnson, behaved in the throes of the civil rights movement. Read Marshall's post to get the full story. I'll wait.




Done? Okay.

On the surface, Johnson's behavior wasn't that different from Deen's. However, Johnson showed both immediate awareness of his uncivil behavior and genuine remorse for it. Moreover, he was fighting a half-century's worth of instincts developed in a deeply racist culture.

Paula Deen? Not so much. As Marshall notes,

Paula Deen was born in 1947. So she was 8 or 9 during the Montgomery bus boycott, sixteen for the March on Washington and twenty-one when Martin Luther King was assassinated.
In short, one can understand Johnson's conflicted mindset: he was born in 1908. Having spent her formative years in the midst of the civil rights struggle, what's Deen's excuse?

Elsewhere, Marshall called Deen a "racial Mr. Magoo". That's about as apt, and as kind, a characterization as you're likely to find.

I still think her profiteering (see that previous blog entry of mine) is by far the more despicable behavior. However, I'm no longer willing to let her racially insensitive remarks slide. She claimed she had absolutely no idea that her attitudes were deeply retrograde. A half-century ago, during Johnson's lifetime, the obliviousness defense might have been valid. Not today.

In fact, her obliviousness is most likely a pose. After all, she also claimed to be oblivious to her blatant profiteering. Yet she has been savvy enough to make a multimillion dollar business not only for herself but for her family (her sons also appear on Food Network). You do not achieve what she has achieved by being clue-impaired. You can achieve what she has achieved while lacking a conscience, though. To me, that's a lot more plausible than her Mrs. Magoo act.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Karma catches up with Paula Deen

Food Network personality Paula Deen has had a lousy week. First there was the (likely unexpected) splash that was made by her admission in a deposition that she not only had used the N-word in conversation — an admission that I can't imagine too many people have clean enough hands to make hay about, by the way — but that she had fantasized about making her brother's wedding a "Southern plantation" kind of celebration, complete with middle-aged black men in shorts and white shirts with bow ties. Yeah, that's quite an image.

(If you're wondering why the conversation wandered into this decidedly offbeat terrain, it's because the lawsuit, filed by an ex-employee of the restaurant Deen and her brother jointly own, alleges racial discrimination on the part of the restaurant's management.)

And now the not entirely unexpected other shoe has dropped, which is a neat metaphor in this case because the other shoe is Food Network dropping Deen.

A network spokeswoman said it would not renew Ms. Deen’s contract when it expired at the end of June.
Now, for my part Deen's (hitherto) deeply internalized insensitivity to, and seemingly profound ignorance of, racial stereotypes actually isn't such a big deal. She apologized, for one thing, and not using the mealy-mouthed "if I offended anyone" formulation that unapologetic but reputation-sensitive boors employ.
“I was wrong, yes, I’ve worked hard, and I have made mistakes, but that is no excuse and I offer my sincere apology to those that I have hurt, and I hope that you forgive me because this comes from the deepest part of my heart.”
Perhaps if her deposition remarks had been the first blot on Deen's escutcheon, I'd be angrier. They weren't, though, and the other well-publicized blot makes this one look like a mere water stain.

You see, she suffers from Type 2 diabetes. This would earn her my sympathy except that she concealed the news of her illness for three years, only announcing it after she had secured an endorsement deal for a diabetes medication. I blogged about this last year when the news broke. I was incensed then, and I'm still incensed now.

She refused even to risk damaging her brand until she was ready to spin the news to her profit. And that profit will come right out of the pockets of those whose health suffered by being her fans. Yep: first they paid for her cookbooks, now they'll shell out for her drug. Talk about getting it coming and going.
To be racially clueless, or even bigoted, pales in comparison to being an opportunistic vulture who first makes people sick, then profits from their illness.

Food Network should have dropped her last year, when she announced that despicable endorsement deal. Still, I'll take what karmic justice I can get.

Good riddance, Paula. You've done more than enough to deserve your current woes.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On the NSA surveillance

I've read a lot about the NSA surveillance revelations, and have my own strong opinion about the wrongness of what the NSA and the Obama administration are doing. However, I'll spare you my overwrought prose in favor of John Oliver's succinct take, on his first day as substitute host of The Daily Show:
I think you're misunderstanding the perceived problem here, Mr. President. No one is saying that you broke any laws. We're just saying it's a little bit weird that you didn't have to.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Our" father?

There's a story making the rounds about a South Carolinian high school student who ditched his prepared (and pre-approved) graduation speech and recited the Lord's Prayer instead, apparently to protest a school district decision to drop prayer from the ceremonies. It went over well with the audience, exclusive of the staff. You can find the thing on YouTube, no doubt.

Within his First Amendment rights? Absolutely. Is the school district's decision "to no longer include prayer at graduation" a First Amendment violation? Given the phrasing, I'd guess the district's decision passes Constitutional muster. It sounds like the district simply no longer sets aside a time for prayer in the program, not that the district is prohibiting any of the scheduled participants from conducting such activities.

(I don't provide a link for the above quotation because I'm pretty sure the article, like most of Yahoo!'s content, is highly perishable and won't be available a month from now.)

I suspect I'd be more supportive of a student who chose to highlight the tragedy of the Syrian civil war, or the ongoing discrimination against LGBTIQ youths in high schools across the country. Reflecting on my bias, I think I'm probably wrong to feel good about any of these outbursts.

I'm a big believer in propriety on such public occasions, not for its own sake but because it is a sign of respect to one's audience. They're gathered there for a purpose that has nothing to do with your political, religious, or other beliefs. You have been given the privilege of speaking, and in return they extend to you the courtesy of listening. To lecture them just because you know they're not going to deny you the courtesy they promised, violates that implicit bargain.

"But the Lord's Prayer isn't a lecture!" Oh, yes it is, certainly in this case. The student's action was clearly a protest against the district's decision.

But even if you sincerely believe that his recitation was merely a prayer, you can't argue it was a harmless act.

His prayer pushed his religious beliefs front and center, as did the audience's reaction. He and most of the audience — for all I know, it could have been all of the audience — may believe that high school graduation deserves a religious component. That doesn't make their belief right. In our pluralistic society, it is at best impolite to permit one faith a more prominent role in non-denominational ceremonies than other faiths. This was a public high school graduation, not a graduation from a private, religious institution. Any non-Christians in the audience likely felt marginalized by the recitation and the boisterous response it received. Those non-Christians didn't deserve to feel marginalized. They attended the ceremony to see a loved one graduate, not to be reminded of the overwhelmingly Christian makeup of the local population.

That's exactly the sort of coercive influence that the First Amendment was designed to prevent government from facilitating. In this case, of course, it wasn't the government taking action, it was a private citizen. That means the action was legal. But being legal doesn't make it right. Such a public display of faith during a non-denominational ceremony is simply bad manners. And just so we're clear, taking sides in the Syrian civil war or demanding equal rights for LGBTIQ youth during a graduation speech would be just as rude and inappropriate.

Students are there to graduate, not to proselytize, no matter how worthy the cause.