Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Colbert smacks down Gohmert

Speaking of dangerous stupidity, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-TX) received the other kind of "Colbert bump" on Stephen Colbert's 28 October 2014 episode. It made me feel warm all over. After a few snippets of Gohmert's diseased ravings, Colbert summed up thusly:
People have said to me, "Stephen, you gotta understand, you don't even know your history. You're dumb. You're dense. You're a mental midget with the IQ of a butter dish whose mind is a black hole that sucks all surrounding thought into it in an infinite singularity of pure stupidity. Stephen, I'm surprised you can even dress yourself. I bet you have to rub peanut butter inside your lips to remember to open your mouth to breathe! I have never met, and I hope to never meet again, a man so pervasively, astoundingly, unyieldingly ignorant!"

To which I say, "Well then, you haven't met Louis Gohmert."

Left unsaid, unfortunately, was what Gohmert's presence in the U.S. House of Representatives says about those Texans who vote for him. They, too, need an epic smackdown.

The dangerously stupid response to Ebola

Once upon a time, there was a mandatory quarantine order if you entered New York or New Jersey after visiting west Africa.

Then there wasn't.

Talking Points Memo has the sorry details in a piece entitled, appropriately enough, "The Blundering Rise And Epic Fall Of The Christie-Cuomo Ebola Quarantine".

The crux of the epic failure here seems to have been the politically motivated decision, taken without consultation with one another (so far as I can tell) by Govs. Cuomo and Christie, to enact the mandatory quarantine. The decision also was taken without consultation with, well, seemingly anyone. In particular, local officials, the ones who would be responsible for doing the dirty work, knew nothing until the governors' official announcements. The poor conditions in which the first victim of the policy was held were, in other words, the result of a last-minute scramble to accommodate an order no one knew was coming.

But what we have here is more than a failure to communicate. What we have here are a couple of prominent elected officials playing to the fears of their most ignorant constituents. The governors defied the best scientific evidence and, at least in Christie's case, proudly stigmatized the health care workers who are our best hope for containing and eventually suppressing the outbreak in west Africa.

A popular meme on the right these days is, "I am not a scientist". The problem is, that's never where the proud know-nothings stop: they always add a "but ..." and proceed to say, and in this case do, stupid things because they're playing to stupid, uninformed people.

Hey, guess what? If you're not a scientist (or a doctor, or somebody else who knows something), you don't know more than them about what they do. So stop pretending you do, Governors. Stop saying and doing stupid shit! Stop playing to the dumbest in the crowd and do your goddamned jobs. Do the things that will objectively make things better, not what your most ignorant constituents bleat.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Don Young the braying jackass

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) addressed a high school assembly Tuesday. It didn't go well.
Zachary Grier, 17, a senior at Wasilla High School, asked Young during the assembly why he still opposed same-sex marriage, even after a court struck down Alaska's ban on same-sex unions. Young responded by asking Grier, “What do you get when you have two bulls having sex?” When Grier answered that he didn’t know, Young told him: “A whole lot of bull.”
This is the remark that has gotten a lot of media attention. It's asinine, no question, and Young's attitude is patronizing to boot — ironic, considering how much smarter these kids are than he.

However, this is the reason Young should be kicked in his posterior until he begs, borrows, or buys a clue.

Even more shocking, Grier said, was the way Young talked about suicide less than a week after a high school classmate took his own life. Young told the assembly of about 130 students that suicide was caused by a lack of community support, which angered a close friend of the deceased student. When the student interrupted Young to say that wasn’t true, the congressman called him a “smartass,” Grier said.
Strike that — Young doesn't need a clue, he needs a fucking heart.

Don Young sure as hell wasn't closer to that student than the classmate was. He has some goddamned nerve not just being on his fucking soapbox, but then smacking down the student's grieving friend like a heckler at a comedy club.

I get the feeling Young thinks what he did is tough love, telling hard truths to ignorant young people. It's not. What Young said and did was simply heartless. He thought he knew more than his audience did. He was cruel out of moronic arrogance.

This isn't the first time Young has been an arrogant, ill-mannered boor. Back in 2011 I commented on a contretemps during Congressional hearings on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A witness had the temerity to interrupt Young in order to correct Young's misstatement of his name; Young, with the self-righteousness only a lifetime in Congress could bring, retorted, “I'll call you anything I want to call you when you sit in that chair. You just be quiet.” At that time I wrote:

Don Young, if you were anywhere near as smart as the people who testify at Congressional hearings, you'd have a real job. Instead, you're a sorry little man desperate for respect, and you use your public office to extort it from people during hearings.
Apparently Young is a sorry little man desperate for respect when he's outside the halls of Congress, too.

Young would be lucky if he had the brains of the "smartass" who interrupted him. Alas, he's just an ass(hole).

[EDIT: To clarify who Don Young is (representative of Alaska) and to include a prior reference to him in another post.]

Friday, October 17, 2014

R.I.P. Sista Monica

Monica Parker, who performed as a blues and gospel singer under the name Sista Monica, passed away on 9 October 2014. She was 58.

You probably haven't heard of her, but she got some exposure here in the Bay Area. She had a powerful voice, one I liken to Shirley Johnson, and I absolutely loved it. KCSM's Kathleen Lawton dedicated the first forty-five minutes of "Crazy 'bout the Blues" tonight to Sista Monica and it was glorious (though sad). She absolutely owned her songs with her big, muscular, confident pipes.

She left us too soon, but at least her voice will remain with us.

25 years ago today: Loma Prieta

It doesn't feel like that much time has passed. It still feels like a "just yesterday" event. But no, twenty-five long years (to the day) have passed since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. It was the most recent moderately big quake to rock the Bay Area; with apologies to the residents of Napa, their jolt earlier this year just wasn't in the same league.

Four years ago I set down my memories of the day.

The Bay Area has become a magnet for cash-flush newcomers. It would be a good thing in the long run if these well-off folks would invest in making their homes (and for companies, their offices) quake-safe. There are a lot of older buildings that still aren't ready for the next big one: witness the damage in Napa. If gentrification is going to happen, there should be some kind of upside.

As for the rest of us, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Loma Prieta is as good a time as any to take stock of quake preparations. Ready.gov has a list of steps, as does the USGS. Bay Area-specific info is available at the Bay Area Earthquake Alliance's site.

Even if you don't live in California or other states known to be quake-prone, you should take a look at the quake preparedness tips. According to the USGS, of the fifteen largest quakes in the contiguous 48 states, three of them happened in New Madrid, Missouri and one in Charleston, South Carolina.

No, he can't

Professor Sophia A. McLennen's piece in Salon (I relapsed and checked it out today) is "Bill O'Reilly finally admits it: I'm really obnoxious!". The title says it all. But McLennen (and apparently Jon Stewart) wants more from Bill:
Maybe this exchange with Stewart will lead him to come out as a rational human being. Stewart closed the interview saying, “You, Bill O’Reilly, can lead the flock of the Fox faithful to a better place.”
Yeah, um ... no. One guy isn't going to counteract Fox News' relentless anxiety-inducing, "other"-demonizing propaganda.

Anyway, he's not even going to try. O'Reilly's not about to bite the hand that feeds him. He made his peace with who he is (or plays) a long time ago.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Supreme Court fears free speech

The New York Times article is "First Amendment Limit: The Supreme Court's Plaza", by Adam Liptak, the paper's Supreme Court correspondent.

The piece is an unflattering depiction of a Supreme Court that holds the First Amendment's protections to be absolute — except on the Court's own steps. The prohibition on political speech within the building or on its grounds stands in sharp contrast to a number of decisions the Court has issued protecting speech that many consider odious (protests at military funerals and anti-abortion activists confronting patients outside abortion clinics, for instance).

The Court's stance unavoidably raises the question: what are the Justices afraid of?

Liptak demolishes the two primary reasons proffered for the ban: the fear that the Justices could be improperly influenced by the protesters, and the fear that, even if the Justices aren't influenced, the public might think they were. Without using the word, Liptak effectively calls these reasons stupid.

The unavoidable conclusion is, the Justices don't particularly like free speech near them — probably because free speech can get boisterous and messy and loud. It might disrupt their gentle sensibilities. Poor things. They just don't have the robust constitution of the average poor woman seeking an abortion, who can skip blithely past a gauntlet of screaming, borderline violent anti-abortion protesters calling her a murderer.

But here's Liptak's most damning finding.

The Supreme Court is not even particularly consistent in how it treats speech on its plaza.

In a sworn statement in 2012, Timothy Dolan, deputy chief of the Supreme Court’s police force, conceded that “the court allows attorneys and parties in cases that have been argued to address the media on the plaza immediately following argument.” The court also occasionally permits “commercial or professional filming on the plaza,” he said.

It seems that people with power or connections can use the plaza.

Nice reputation, that. I'm sure it makes you proud, Chief Justice Roberts.

The Court's attempts to justify hypocrisy have never worked out well: Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. United States — these are shameful blots on the Court's history. The broad ban on political speech on the Court's own doorstep doesn't rise to that level of infamy, but it's not a rule in which the Justices should take any pride, either. It brands them cowards and hypocrites, unwilling to suffer what they (or at least the reactionary majority in their recent cases) righteously deem as politically necessary medicine.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Stop the country, I want to get off

The New York Times article is "From Mid-Atlantic to Midwest, Voters Express Frustration and Fatigue".

From one West Virginia farmer, talking about Washington, D.C. politicians:

“I want to see our political leaders standing out here with us, finding out: Why is it that our tomato crop failed this year?” he said. “What can they do to help us next year? Why is it that the local print shop had to lay off 12 people this year?”
What makes this guy think anybody in D.C. should be able to answer his questions? It's for his local pols to act as the interface between him and D.C.

Here's an Indiana church worker:

“Instead of being a country that’s leading from behind, I would like to see us spearhead an all-out assault on ISIS,” she said, referring to the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that controls large portions of Iraq and Syria and has claimed responsibility for the beheadings of two American journalists. “I would like to see every one of them dead within 30 days. And after we’ve killed every member of ISIS, kill their pet goat.”
She "said she got much of her information from Fox News". Color me shocked.

Is the average resident of this country as self-centered as the West Virginia farmer, or, worse, as outright stupid and belligerent as the Indiana church worker? I'd like to think not. I believe this country could not have accomplished all that it has if we, the people, were as idiotic as some of those quoted in this piece. Why, then, are the idiots so prominent these days? Two reasons: first, they're eager to be squeaky wheels; and second, reactionary media like Fox News have expanded their numbers and their general level of agitation.

This is why our politics are so screwed up. We are fighting against an astonishing amount of sheer stupidity, and that fight is sapping much of the energy that might otherwise be directed in useful, fruitful directions.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Casablanca endures

I'm watching Casablanca for the umpteenth time, this time on TCM. I own it; I can watch it any time I like. I ought to go to bed: I have to get up early. Yet here I sit, enjoying every well-remembered moment.

"You played it for her: play it for me!"

"You despise me, don't you?" "If I gave you any thought I probably would."

These and a hundred other lines are so well-known, they ought to come off as parody in the original. Yet they don't: they're as meaningful and emotionally resonant as the writer and director intended them to be.

It's a brilliant film that has outlasted the norms of acting and storytelling that it so beautifully showcases. Why? I don't enough about film to say. I'm just delighted it has.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Institutional trust

So on the one hand, we have effusive praise for the expertise and efficiency of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, particularly in how it is handling the threat of Ebola entering the U.S. from travelers coming from western African nations, notably Liberia.

On the other hand we have the U.S. Secret Service. Putatively one of the best protective agencies in the world, it's now being rocked by daily revelations of incompetence.

These agencies do crucial work. We expect them to do it well. We need them to do it well. Every time one of them screws up, it erodes our belief in the possibility that any big institution, but especially government, can work well.

That's a powerful incentive to hide malfeasance, especially in our blame-first media environment. That's apparently what the now-ex-Secret Service director tried to do, until she was caught out by the press and had to 'fess up.

We need these agencies to come clean not just with us, but with themselves. The Secret Service, for instance, seems to be under the impression that its lapses are being overblown. Those who think so are wrong, and they need to understand that. As the saying goes, the first step is to admit you have a problem.

These agencies aren't perfect and they will make mistakes. What counts is how they respond. Earlier this year the CDC was rocked by its own scandal, it apparently having lost track of a cache of the smallpox virus kept for research purposes. After a week or two of uncomfortable scrutiny, the story died down. I'm pretty sure that's because no more losses have been uncovered; I doubt any more losses could have been concealed. The result? We're all looking to the CDC to keep Ebola from getting a foothold in the U.S. We trust the agency.

The Secret Service is going to have to work its ass off to regain the same level of trust. And it had better succeed. It's not just the Presiden't life on the line, it's trust in governmental institutions as a whole. After all, if the Secret Service can't live up to expectations, what agency can?