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 Friday, August 25, 2006

If you’re looking for Michael Burton’s astute, incisive, brilliant and yet eerily humble insights and observations, you need to go to his new blog, brainrow. It's, like far out, man… brainrow...

Well, actually, it’s not really all that far out. Just… just… you know, just click the link and see for yourself, okay?

Hope it doesn’t, like, totally blow your mind.

Not that that’s even remotely likely.

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 Sunday, August 6, 2006

When I signed up for high-speed internet service years ago, storage space for a personal web site was thrown in as part of the deal. I chuckled a little when I saw that. I’d never had a web site, and never needed one.

But it was free. And there was this constant world-wide clamor to know everything about me, and what I thought about different stuff. And besides, all the cool kids were setting up websites.

So I created a home page. I didn’t know anything about designing or writing for the web. I didn’t have any programs that could help. I had a lot to learn just to put up a simple first page. It looked pretty bad. I imagined anonymous web-surfers forming harsh first impressions of me based on that page. So I gave it an apologetic name: Michael Burton’s Pathetic Home Page.

As time went by, I learned more about web design; I bought programs to help create better-looking web sites. I used templates designed by people with better taste than my own. Yet everything I’ve done online has been pathetic. It’s… uh… it’s branding. Yeah, that’s it — branding.

Now it’s time for a re-branding. In recent months, server performance on the ol’ weblog has been even more pathetic than successful branding requires, so I’m moving this blog to a new host. And besides, all the cool kids are getting their own domain names, so I’ve got one, too: brainrow.com.

The word “brainrow”, of course, conjures up images of a forbidden wing of a nightmarish futuristic prison, where the brains of prisoners are kept alive in glass jars, wired together into a giant organic supercomputer used by the totalitarian government to keep track of everyone and control everything. The brains are all fully conscious and aware, but powerless to do anything because of the way they are wired into the computer grid. Until…

Or, uh, maybe it makes you think of happy, colorful rainbows. Those are nice.

All the blog posts have been moved to brainrow. At this point, comments have not been moved. It might not be possible to move them. I fixed a number of glitches after the move, but I may have missed others. If you see a post that doesn’t look right, send me email.

Long-time readers can rest assured: this blog may have a new name, and a new address, but, deep down, it will always be pathetic.

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 Friday, July 28, 2006

Books, books, books!

From the very beginning of Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine comes this quote from Thomas Jefferson:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.

John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience quotes Professor Robert G. Vaughn summarizing Alan Westin:

Authoritarian governments are identified by ready government access to information about the activities of citizens and by extensive limitations on the ability of citizens to obtain information about the government.

See, if the people aren’t well-informed, they can’t be trusted with their own government, and that means full employment for those who keep tabs on the citizens.

Finally, a long passage from Paul Krugman’s 2003 book The Great Unraveling:

Back in 1957, Henry Kissinger … published his doctoral dissertation, A World Restored. One wouldn’t think that a book about the diplomatic efforts of Metternich and Castlereagh is relevant to U.S. politics in the twenty-first century. But the first three pages of Kissinger’s book sent chills down my spine, because they seem all too relevant to current events.

In those first few pages, Kissinger describes the problems confronting a heretofore stable diplomatic system when it is faced with a “revolutionary power” — a power that does not accept that system’s legitimacy.… It seems clear to me that one should regard America’s right-wing movement — which now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media — as a revolutionary power in Kissinger’s sense. That is, it is a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system.

Am I overstating the case? In fact, there’s ample evidence that key elements of the coalition that now runs the country believe that some long-established American political and social institutions should not, in principle, exist — and do not accept the rules that the rest of us have taken for granted.

… If you read the literature emanating from the Heritage Foundation, which drives the Bush administration’s economic ideology, you discover a very radical agenda: Heritage doesn’t just want to scale back New Deal and Great Society programs, it regards the very existence of those programs as a violation of basic principles.

Or consider foreign policy. Since World War II the United States has built its foreign policy around international institutions, and has tried to make it clear that it is not an old-fashioned imperialist power, which used military force as it sees fit. But if you follow the foreign policy views of the neo-conservative intellectuals who fomented the war with Iraq, you learn they have contempt for all that — Richard Perle, chairman of a key Pentagon advisory board, dismissed the “liberal conceit of safety through international law administered by international institutions.” They aren’t hesitant about the use of force; one prominent thinker close to the administration, Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, declared that “we are a warlike people and we love war.” …

… The separation of church and state is one of the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution. But Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, has told constituents that he is in office to promote a “biblical worldview” … (DeLay has also denounced the teaching of evolution in schools, going so far as to blame that teaching for the Columbine school shootings.)

There’s even some question about whether the people running the country accept the idea that legitimacy flows from the democratic process. Paul Gigot of The Wall Street Journal famously praised the “bourgeois riot” in which violent protesters shut down a vote recount in Miami. (The rioters, it was later revealed, weren’t angry citizens; they were paid political operatives.) Meanwhile, according to his close friend Don Evans, now the secretary of commerce, George W. Bush believes that he was called by God to lead the nation. Perhaps this explains why the disputed election of 2000 didn’t seem to inspire any caution or humility in the part of the victors. Consider Justice Antonin Scalia’s response to a student who asked how he felt making the Supreme Court decision that threw the election to Bush. Was it agonizing? Did Scalia worry about the consequences? No: “It was a wonderful feeling,” he declared.

Suppose, for a moment, that you took the picture I have just painted seriously. You would conclude that the people now in charge really don’t like America as it is. If you combine their apparent agendas, the goal would seem to be something like this: a country that basically has no social safety net at home, which relies mainly on military force to enforce its will abroad, in which schools don’t teach evolution but do teach religion and — possibly — in which elections are only a formality.

Yet those who take the hard-line rightists now in power at their word, and suggest that they may really attempt to realize such a radical goal, are usually accused of being “shrill,” of going over the top. Surely, says the conventional wisdom, we should discount the rhetoric: the goals of the right are more limited than this picture suggests. Or are they?

Back to Kissinger: his description of a baffled response of established powers in the face of revolutionary challenge works equally well as an account of how the American political and media establishment has responded to the radicalism of the Bush administration over the past two years:

Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework. the defenders of the status quo therefore tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the existing legitimacy by overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions. Those who warn against the danger in time are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane…. But it is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion.

As I said, this passage sent chills down my spine, because it explains so well the otherwise baffling process by which the administration has been able to push radical policies through, with remarkably little scrutiny or effective opposition.

In recent months, some Republicans have tried to back away from Bush and some of the policies Congress has been rubber-stamping for years. Mustn’t lose control of the House or the Senate in November’s elections. If they manage to hold their majorities by even a single vote, rest assured their radical agenda will be right back on the front burner.

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 Thursday, July 27, 2006

I think the single most important U.S. battle of World War II was not D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge, but the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in North Africa in February 1943. It was the war’s first major encounter between U.S. and German forces, and it was a shocker. The U.S. forces held out, through superior numbers (and British reinforcements), but the battle showed that the Germans were more disciplined, more experienced, tougher, better-equipped, better-trained, and better-led than the Americans.

Virtually nothing had gone according to plan. It seemed suicidal to send this U.S. army to face the German army in Europe. We weren’t good enough.

The thing that made the Battle of the Kasserine Pass so important was what happened next. U.S. leadership acknowledged the problems and went back to the drawing board. Ineffective officers were replaced. Coordination of forces was improved. Tactics changed. Battlefield commanders were given greater authority to deal with rapidly-changing situations on the ground. Soldiers griped as they were drilled, and drilled, and drilled and drilled, but the U.S. Army that landed in Europe on D-Day was a far more formidable force than the one that faced the Germans at the Kasserine Pass. Without that early setback, and the corrective measures taken as a result, we might not have been good enough to win the war.

Imagine, if you will, that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld had been in charge then. Would they have made the necessary changes, or would they have insisted on the policy they follow in Iraq: repeat the things that fail until they succeed?

The Washington Post says we’ve forgotten the lessons of Vietnam:

[T]here is … strong evidence, based on a review of thousands of military documents and hundreds of interviews with military personnel, that the U.S. approach to pacifying Iraq in the months after the collapse of Hussein helped spur the insurgency and made it bigger and stronger than it might have been.

On May 16, 2003, L. Paul Bremer III, the chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-run occupation agency, had issued his first order, “De-Baathification of Iraq Society.” The CIA station chief in Baghdad had argued vehemently against the radical move, contending: “By nightfall, you’ll have driven 30,000 to 50,000 Baathists underground. And in six months, you’ll really regret this.”

He was proved correct, as Bremer’s order, along with a second that dissolved the Iraqi military and national police, created a new class of disenfranchised, threatened leaders.

“When you’re facing a counterinsurgency war, if you get the strategy right, you can get the tactics wrong, and eventually you’ll get the tactics right,” said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a veteran of Special Forces in the Vietnam War. “If you get the strategy wrong and the tactics right at the start, you can refine the tactics forever, but you still lose the war. That’s basically what we did in Vietnam.”

[R]etired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, an expert in small wars, was sent to Baghdad by the Pentagon to advise on how to better put down the emerging insurgency. He met with Bremer in early July. “Mr. Ambassador, here are some programs that worked in Vietnam,” Anderson said.

It was the wrong word to put in front of Bremer. “Vietnam?” Bremer exploded, according to Anderson. “Vietnam! I don’t want to talk about Vietnam. This is not Vietnam. This is Iraq!”

Bremer got a medal from George W. Bush.

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Is there a special circle in Hell — some special kind of condemnation — for those who remember the past, but deliberately choose to ignore it?

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 Wednesday, July 19, 2006

This pathetic little blog doesn’t get many visitors, most of the time. Today has been a little different. I notice a number of people coming here today via searches for “Michael Burton” combined with words like “kills wife” and “murder.” You’d be surprised how that makes a fella feel.

Tip: If you’re searching for a recent news story, you might want to try Google’s news search. I just did, and I’m relieved to say it’s not me.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been mistaken for someone else with the same name. Some years ago, there was a male model here in Columbus named Mike Burton, and from time to time a local newspaper or magazine would run a feature story on him and his booming career, complete with photos. I could tell when these stories had appeared, because my phone would start ringing. Suddenly there were lots of people in town who wanted to meet me — male and female in about equal numbers — and it could be tough to convince some callers they’d reached the wrong guy.

One of my friends said I should take some of the ladies up on their offer to meet me, but I never did. I couldn’t have handled the look of disappointment in their eyes.

Poking around on the internet, I see there are lots and lots of Michael Burtons out there — some very admirable ones, and others not very admirable at all. It’s probably inevitable that there will sometimes be some confusion over this — hey, in 2004 I got a White House Christmas card and a letter of thanks from George W. Bush.

Folks, if you must confuse me with another person of the same name — no crimes worse than supporting Bush in 2004, please.

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 Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Via Backup Brain: The Huffington Post has a list of 50 Easy Questions to Ask Any Republican. The idea is to carry the list and pull it out “next time someone begins quoting from a Republican talking points memo.”

Anyone can ask tough, intricate, confrontational questions. But all that ever does is start an argument, and it gets people nowhere. On the other hand, these are...well, easy. These are friendly questions. These are questions that allow another person to actually explain their thoughts, and explain fully. And to do so in as comfortable, as simple a way as possible.

Personally, I don’t think I’m going to work my way through the list with anyone:

16. Do you like the government collecting personal data on you without a warrant?

17. How much money do you have in your bank account, stocks and investments?

18. What’s your partner’s favorite sex position?

19. If you have nothing to hide, why aren’t you answering?

Is that more likely to open the other person’s eyes, or to get me a sock in the eye?

I’m tempted to say “this list is for entertainment purposes only,” but there are some worthy questions in the list — tough, non-confrontational questions that might make people think. Questions to keep in mind for when the occasion presents itself.

I’d like to see a list of non-confrontational, thoughtful questions for Republican congressional candidates — questions to ask when the candidate appears before a community group, for example. Confrontational questions tend to turn off listeners who don’t share the questioner’s burning passion to nail a devious politico.

The ideal question would force the candidate to think, and not just lean on some pre-programmed sound bite. It would give him a real chance to shed light on the subject, and it would clearly delineate the area we want illuminated, in such a way that everyone will know if the answer doesn’t shed any light at all.

I like this question from the Huffington Post list:

3. After three years thus far, when do you think Iraq might be able to “stand up” so that America can “stand down”?

This is how I might put that question to a congressional candidate:

We’re all hoping for the Iraqi government to “stand up” so that America can “stand down.” Is there any objective way to measure progress toward that goal? Is there any way to set milestones so we can tell whether things are going well or poorly? Or is this just one of those “I’ll know it when I see it” situations?

Yes, it’s three questions. Yes, the candidate can answer “Yes, yes and no.” No, I don’t think he would score any points with undecided listeners by answering in that way. A good candidate might knock that question out of the park, ideally by shedding actual light on the subject. That’s good, isn’t it?

Can we come up with a list of tough but fair questions for congressional candidates of both parties?

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 Friday, June 30, 2006

A few years ago, while pleading poverty on many other things, the Ohio State University (OSU) found money for a massive renovation of Ohio Stadium. They added club seats and luxury skyboxes. Gone were the Stadium Dormitory, which once provided non-luxury accommodations for scholarship students, and the stadium’s track, where OSU alumnus Jesse Owens had once competed. Total seating capacity increased by almost 20,000. Construction took more than a year and cost almost $200 million, or roughly $10,000 per additional seat.

The stadium renovation was controversial at the time, because there are so many other things that could have been done with that much money. For example, you could pay for a single day of the war in Iraq.

Maybe the Bush Administration can learn from OSU, which sells “naming rights” to parts of the stadium and other facilities. Just think of the branding potential — every day, on every network, in every newspaper, we would hear reports like this:

Today in the Halliburton War in Iraq, dozens of Iraqi civilians were killed when a terrorist truck bomb exploded just blocks from the Hilton Hotels Green Zone. Meanwhile, sectarian violence raged in a village just north of ExxonMobil Baghdad.

You can’t buy that kind of blanket exposure — at least, not until the Administration starts auctioning naming rights. Don’t you suppose someone would pay a pretty penny to own the raid that killed terrorist al-Zarqawi? How does “the Microsoft airstrike on Zarqawi” sound? Ka-ching!

Of course, when it comes to real money, OSU and its piddling $200 million just isn’t in the game. Warren Buffett recently pledged $31 billion to charity through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With that much money, he could have bought five whole months of war — enough to stretch from the unsuccessful AT&T Regime Decapitation Airstrike of March 20, 2003 to the Lockheed-Martin “Mission Accomplished” photo-op of May 1, 2003, with more than three months to spare.

Instead, Buffett decided to spend it fighting poverty, ignorance, starvation and disease. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but where’s the zazz? Where’s the earth-shattering Kaboom?

Bush and Cheney have different priorities. Forget poverty, ignorance, starvation and disease. Expect no shortage of earth-shattering Kabooms.

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 Friday, June 23, 2006

The world is very complicated. There are bad things happening all the time. But there are good things happening all the time, too. Sometimes bad things come disguised as good things. Sometimes good things look like bad things. It’s tempting to see only the things you want to see, or only the things you expect to see, and thus to deceive yourself.

The New York Times periodically reviews progress in Iraq by looking at the numbers on the ground. The results, like reality, may seem contradictory, giving cause for hope, and cause for hopelessness. Here is the latest update on The State of Iraq. The chart pops up in a separate window, and covers a number of metrics from May 2003 to May 2006. The economy seems to be growing. So is violence, particularly against civilians. As the authors note:

it is increasingly hard to describe Iraq as a glass half-full.

No wonder some of us prefer virtual reality to actual reality.

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Rev. Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics, tells how to recognize members of Congress among the many people on Capitol Hill: they’re the ones holding a wet finger in the air, testing which way the wind is blowing.

The great practitioners of real social change, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, understood something very important. They knew that you don’t change a society by merely replacing one wet-fingered politician with another. You change a society by changing the wind.

Wallis says that shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King went to the White House to urge President Lyndon Johnson to take the next step, a voting rights act that was essential for real change. Johnson told King he had used up all his political capital to pass the Civil Rights Act, and it would be years before a voting rights law could be passed.

King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began organizing — in a sleeply little town nobody had ever heard of, called Selma, Alabama.

On one fateful day, King and the SCLC leaders marched right across the Edmond Pettis Bridge, alongside the people of Selma, to face the notorious Sherriff Jim Clark and his virtual army of angry white police. On what would be called Bloody Sunday, a young man (and now congressman from Atlanta) named John Lewis was beaten almost to death, and many others were injured or jailed.

Two weeks later, in response to that brutal event, hundreds of clergy from all across the nation and from every denomination came to Selma and joined in the Selma to Montgomery march….

The whole nation was watching. The eyes of America were focused on Selma, as they had been on Birmingham before the civil rights law was passed. And after the historic Selma to Montgomery march for freedom, it took only five months, not five or ten years, to pass a new voting rights act: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King had changed the wind.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes about a moment of clarity in Washington:

Once in a while the fog machine that’s kept on “high” around here to obscure everyone’s real intentions breaks down. There’s always a mad rush to crank it up again, but for the briefest moment we can see our elected representatives for what they really are, not what they pretend to be. Wednesday we had one of those rare high-definition moments, when the House Republican caucus defied its leaders and refused to back renewal of the Voting Rights Act.

That tells you about all you need to know, doesn’t it?

The renewal probably could have won easy approval on the House floor, since Democrats would have voted for it, but Hastert’s policy is to not bring out any bill that lacks majority support from Republicans, so he had no choice but to yank it.

So much for the erstwhile “party of Lincoln.”

Sometimes you may need to change the wind. But there are other times when all that’s needed is to throw the bums out. This, clearly, is one of those times.

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 Thursday, June 22, 2006

Nobody plays The Game quite like Bush political advisor Karl Rove. He plays for keeps. The lives of Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers are only pawns in Rove’s game.

Officials at the White House say they had always planned to use the formation of a new, permanent Iraqi government as a lever to seize control of a debate that had been slipping away from them. The killing of the top terrorist in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, provided another useful lift. And, they said, Democratic calls for speedy troop withdrawal provided an opening for them to use a “cut and run” argument against Democrats, which Mr. Rove used last week in a speech in New Hampshire.

Apparently, there are some people in Washington who think that war is not a game. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, like Rove a Republican, said this on the Senate floor:

There is no issue more important than war. The war in Iraq is the defining issue on which the leadership of this Congress and this Administration will be judged. The American people will demand a serious debate about serious issues from serious leaders. They deserve more than a political debate. This debate should transcend cynical attempts to turn public frustration with the war in Iraq into an electoral advantage, and it should be taken more seriously than to simply retreat to focus-group tested buzzwords and phrases like “cut and run.” Catchy political slogans debase the seriousness of war.

Of course, unlike Rove, Hagel is a veteran. Those folks always seem to take war and casualties pretty seriously. They get all worked up when U.S. soldiers are used as pawns. With that kind of attitude, how do they ever expect to play The Game?

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From Tuesday night’s episode of Frontline, here’s Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s bin Laden team:

The test of an intelligence officer is not so much the ability to accumulate information; it’s to judge between different pieces of information. There is what you could call “intelligence information” available to prove almost any case you wanted to prove, if you were a non-discerning intelligence amateur.

The Bush Administration continually starts with the conclusions and then carefully picks facts to support those conclusions. That might be a good way to win an argument, but it’s a terrible way to fight a war. They may not have much respect for “the reality-based community,” but in real life-and-death struggles, reality keeps trumping fantasy, and real people pay with their lives.

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 Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Back in 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush needed to pick a running mate. He asked Dick Cheney to look over all the prospective candidates for vice-president and get back to him.

Mr. Cheney labored long and hard over the assignment, then reported the results of his intensive search to George: “I’m the guy. Big time.”

George agreed readily, thinking “Gee, that was easy.” If Mr. Cheney knew anything, he knew that George likes stuff easy.

And it came to pass that George came to be called President, and Mr. Cheney came to be called Vice-President. And Mr. Cheney continued to work hard to keep stuff easy for George, becoming a sort of co-president.

Tonight on PBS, Frontline examines Cheney’s role in the role on terror, the war in Iraq, and beyond.

There’s so much garbage on television that it’s tempting to think television is nothing but garbage. But Frontline is consistently superb. My DVR is programmed to automatically record every episode. Sometimes I’ll read the summary of an episode and be tempted to erase it without watching it. But I don’t think there’s been a single episode of Frontline that wasn’t well worth watching. It’s true educational programming, because I learn something every time I watch it.

Many stations run Frontline more than once. If you miss it tonight, see if there's a repeat showing on your local station. If you have a high-speed internet connection, you may be able to watch this program and other programs online at the Frontline website.

(Thanks to Crooks and Liars for the link to this episode.)

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 Tuesday, June 13, 2006

While I stood in line waiting to vote in November 2004, I overheard two poll workers puzzling over why there weren’t as many voting machines for this high-turnout presidential election as there had been two years earlier for the low-turnout midterm election. “Probably because the turnout was so low for the midterms,” one said. He thought there was an innocent explanation. So did I.

The truth was not so innocent. Elections in Ohio were run by Ken Blackwell, the Secretary of State and co-chair of the Bush campaign in Ohio. He was determined to keep Bush in power by hook or by crook, and one way to do that was to make it hard for Democrats to vote. Throughout Ohio, there were shortages of voting machines in Democratic-leaning precincts.

I thought about Blackwell when the telephone woke me up this morning.

The caller said he was from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The DCCC is raising money to win back Congress from the Republicans. Just a couple months ago, I made what, for me, was a large contribution. I told the caller that I’d already made a contribution, and couldn’t give any more right now. He renewed his spiel, and again I said I couldn’t give anything now. Once again he started to tell me how important this election would be. I said, “OK, that’s it,” and hung up.

Those campaign solicitors can be relentlessly pushy. Because I’ve made some significant donations, in the past most callers have been very polite to me, unlike today’s caller. You don’t annoy your friends. I was annoyed. I found myself wishing I’d said, “Put me on your do-not-call list. I don’t want any more calls like this.”

And that’s when I thought about Ken Blackwell.

Political contributions are a matter of public record. If you know where to look, anyone can find out how much I’ve given to particular campaigns and organizations. I checked my caller ID, which said “Unknown call.” Last time the DCCC had called me, it said “Democratic Cong.”

Maybe some Republicans are trying to poison the well, purposely annoying people who have contributed to Democratic causes in the past, and pinning the blame on those same Democratic causes.

I could be wrong. Democratic fundraisers are certainly capable of being overly pushy. Caller ID doesn’t always work. Maybe I’m just paranoid. But given the shady way the past two elections turned out, I’m no longer inclined to accept the innocent explanation. A little paranoia feels just about right.

Consumer tip: Don’t assume a caller soliciting a political donation is who he claims to be.

Another consumer tip: Don’t give your credit card information to anyone who called you, unless you know the caller personally. Even with caller ID, you can’t be certain that the caller is who he claims to be. For political donations, ask to be mailed a pledge form. Anyone who won’t mail you a form doesn’t get your money.

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 Thursday, June 8, 2006

Deep down, I’m a very old-fashioned person, and I’m not comfortable taking joy from the death of a fellow human being. But for this guy I can make an exception.

By the way, according to some informal back-of-the-envelope figgerin’, this unofficially marks the 710th turning point in the Iraq War. Only four more turning points, and the war’s turning point count will be tied with Babe Ruth’s home run record. The war is on a pace to pass Hank Aaron’s amazing 755 homers later this year.

(It has been pointed out to me that turning points in the Iraq War have absolutely nothing in common with baseball home run records. That’s true. I would just note that every home run has three turning points, and ends up right where it started.)

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Cartoonist Mark Fiore says core values training shouldn’t be limited to the military.

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 Tuesday, June 6, 2006

There’s a lot of hype about today being 6/6/06. Scary, huh?

Might be a good time to remember this:

Satanists, apocalypse watchers and heavy metal guitarists may have to adjust their demonic numerology after a recently deciphered ancient biblical text revealed that 666 is not the fabled Number of the Beast after all.

A fragment from the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament, dating to the Third century, gives the more mundane 616 as the mark of the Antichrist.

That’s right. We should have been all frantic and paranoid last Thursday, and we missed it! Dang!

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At the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, after he introduced the band who had come from all around the world to perform for free, George Harrison stopped suddenly and shouted, “We’ve forgotten Billy Preston!”

No, we haven’t. In 2004 I saw Eric Clapton in concert. The keyboard player looked like a middle-aged minister, but man, could he play. Midway through the show, Clapton introduced his band, and the crowd let out a roar when he came to the great Billy Preston.

I was sorry to hear that Billy Preston died today, and that he had been in a coma since November.

I saw Preston in concert early in the 1970s. At that time, I wouldn’t stand up and clap my hands to the music at a concert. I wouldn’t sing along. But somehow, Billy Preston got me on my feet, clapping my hands and singing along to “That’s the Way God Planned It,” and I’ve never been quite the same since.

He sure could dance. I think you had to see him in person to understand just how amazing his dancing was. In the film of Concert for Bangladesh, the cameramen lost track of Billy when he stepped out from behind the keyboards during “That’s the Way God Planned It.” You can hear the crowd roar, but the cameras miss almost all of Billy’s amazing footwork.

I saw him again in 1976, at a Rolling Stones concert, where he sang one of his own songs and danced across the stage to the cheers of the stadium-sized crowd. At one point he went to the side of the stage and pulled out someone to dance alongside him. I felt sorry for the poor victim, who seemed awkward and fumbling next to Preston’s fancy footwork. It took a moment to recognize the poor victim was Mick Jagger.

I’m going to be playing a lot of Billy Preston songs tonight.

10:03:22 PM  #  
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From last night’s NewsHour on PBS, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla talked with economics reporter Paul Solman about global warming and the choice of doing nothing:

Khosla: I won’t contend that I can prove with 100% certainty, but 98% of the scientists, maybe more, believe that we have a serious climate problem. … You can’t prove that your house is gonna burn down.

Solman: No, I don’t think my house is gonna burn down.

Khosla: No, you don’t. But you still pay — every year, year after year — your insurance premiums, to make sure, just in case. Are we willing to take that kind of risk at the planetary level, for earth, and not buy any insurance?

6:03:43 PM  #  
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The PBS program Frontline recently observed 25 years of AIDS by airing a 2-part, 4-hour program on the subject. Very enlightening. I especially liked this, from Rev. W. Franklin Richardson of Grace Baptist Church, about churches that turned their backs on AIDS and AIDS sufferers:

“Bad Bible” is what I called it. We used to do Bad Bible, and make HIV some kind of plague that God had sent upon homosexuals. It was a terrible time for the church.

In his book God’s Politics, Jim Wallis tells how he and several fellow seminary students “scoured the Old and New Testaments for every single reference to poor people, to wealth and poverty, to injustice and opression, and to what the response to all those subjects was to be for the people of God.” They found thousands of verses.

After we completed our study, we all sat in a circle to discuss how the subject had been treated in the various churches in which we had grown up. Astoundingly, but also tellingly, not one of us could remember even one sermon on the poor from the pulpit of our home churches. In the Bible, the poor were everywhere; yet the subject was not to be found in our churches.

Then we decided to try what became a famous experiment. One member of our group took an old Bible and a new pair of scissors and began the long process of literally cutting out every single biblical text about the poor. It took him a long time.

When the zealous seminarian was done with all his editorial cuts, that old Bible would hardly hold together, it was so sliced up. It was literally falling apart in our hands. What we had done was to create a Bible full of holes.

I began taking that damaged and fragile Bible out with me when I preached. I’d hold it up high above American congregations and say, “Brothers and sisters, this is our American Bible; it is full of holes.”

It seems to me there’s a lot of Bad Bible going around these days, and the proponents of Bad Bible seem awfully quick to call down condemnation on those who resist.

Susan B. Anthony was onto something:

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.

5:48:30 PM  #  
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 Thursday, June 1, 2006

Cartoonist Marc Fiore brings us the Ethics Liquidators Congressional Sale-a-bration! How do we keep our prices so low, and corruption so high? Volume!

10:35:32 PM  #  
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Too busy to read? From email, here are four books that won’t cut into your busy schedule.

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 Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I’ve never been a fan of country music, but I bought Taking the Long Way, the new album from the Dixie Chicks. It’s good.

We Americans like to think that we stand up for those rebellious souls who dare to think for themselves, to say what they mean, and to stand their ground when powerful forces try to silence them.

As I said, we like to think we do that. But every few years, it seems, mobs gather across America to toss records into bonfires, or to run a steamroller over a pile of CDs. Every few years, it seems, a few big radio chains declare that they will no longer play some popular artist’s music because that artist said something unpopular. Every few years, it seems, groups pop up to declare a boycott not only of some rebellious soul’s work, but of any business that doesn’t join in banning that rebellious soul’s work.

And every few years, it seems, some of those who dare to speak their minds in America face death threats and worse.

Three years ago, when the Dixie Chicks criticized George W. Bush, the Iraq War had not yet begun. Bush was still saying that war was a last resort, but everyone could see that he wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of his “cake walk” war.

The war was a popular idea then, and radio chains banned the Dixie Chicks for daring to think for themselves and say what they meant. CDs were plowed under. Death threats came in.

The past three years of the Iraq War and a long list of other Bush fumbles would seem to have validated the Dixie Chicks’ criticism, but many country music stations continue to ban the group from their airwaves.

The Dixie Chicks new album, Taking the Long Way, came out on May 23. Time magazine wrote:

Whether the Dixie Chicks recover their sales luster or not, Taking the Long Way’s existence is designed to thumb its nose at country’s intolerance for ideological hell raising, and buying it or cursing it reveals something about you and your politics — or at least your ability to put a grudge above your listening pleasure. And however you vote, it’s tough to deny that by gambling their careers, three Texas women have the biggest balls in American music.

The verdict is coming in. From Variety:

For the third time in their career, the Dixie Chicks roost on the top of The Billboard 200. The Columbia album “Taking the Long Way” tallied 526,000 copies in its first week of U.S. sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the trio’s best-selling week since 2002’s “Home” debuted with 780,000.

And while country radio has remained cool to the group in the wake of a 2003 boycott following comments group member Natalie Maines made about President Bush, “Taking the Long Way” also nabs the No. 1 spot on the Country Albums chart…

At this moment, the album is number 1 in music on Amazon.com, and is the top album in Apple’s iTunes Music Store.

Is it possible that this country is better than the boycotters and record burners?

7:40:47 PM  #  
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I quoted Andy Rooney’s comments on Veteran’s Day:

There is more bravery at war than in peace, and it seems wrong that we have so often saved this virtue to use for our least noble activity - war.

Via Crooks and Liars: A 15-year-old named Ava Lowery has a website called Peace Takes Courage. And it does. After she posted this video, called What Would Jesus Do (go watch it!), she started getting hate mail (warning: strong language) and ominously threatening emails. One of the cleaner messages:

You are a TRAITOR to your country and should be executed for treason.

Nice, huh?

I used to believe that we should listen to and respect every person’s opinion. But when you’re trying to bully and intimidate a fifteen-year-old girl just for speaking out against injustice, I suspect even Jesus might lose patience with you.

4:02:40 PM  #  
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