October 11, 2006

Sometimes, we can just all get along

The small town of Mitchell, South Dakota is best known (when it is known at all) as the home of the Corn Palace and a Cabela's that can be seen from seemingly miles away. It's also the home of Dakota Wesleyan University, the small college George McGovern attended in the 1940s. DWU has a new library -- George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service -- which was dedicated last week.

I find it both ironic and heartening that a small town in South Dakota, among the reddest of the red states, is now proudly the home of a library dedicated to the McGovern legacy. My home state has not given liberals much to be proud of recently, but it's nice to be reminded that once upon a time, South Dakota gave liberals (and the country) George McGovern, whose passion and ideals continue to make a difference.

Posted by at 10:23 PM

August 31, 2005

Coffee clash

In the midst of all the dire and horrifying news of the week, it's reassuring to know that the Concerned Women for America can still get their undies in a bunch over something trivial. The Seattle Times reports that the CWA's latest crusade is against Starbucks, which has the effrontery to feature a quotation from gay author Armistead Maupin on coffee cups. Maupin's quotation is one of many featured on the cups, which Starbucks intends to serve as conversation-starters among coffeeshop patrons (or some such hogwash).

The CWA is kindly asking Starbucks to stop being liberal, already, so as not to alienate conservative caffeine addicts everywhere. As for Starbucks, they claim not to be of any particular political persuasion, even though gives them a 100% "dark blue" rating for their executives' political contributions.

Even if it weren't for that, Starbucks's spokesperson gives them away in the article, saying, "Embracing diversity and treating people with dignity is one of the guiding principles of our corporation." Aha! The D-word! A sure sign of liberal sympathies.

Well, if the CWA wants to encourage conservatives to avoid a tasty, incredibly healthy beverage like coffee, I guess that's their business.

Posted by at 1:45 PM

June 28, 2005

Obama speaks

One of the highlights of the ALA conference (and one of the few events or meetings not directly related to my work that I was able to attend) was the opening general session featuring a speech by Illinois senator Barack Obama, current darling of the demoralized national Democratic party. Obama's speech predictably hit on issues near and dear to the hearts of librarians, such as the right to read, intellectual freedom, the USA Patriot Act, and the importance of literacy -- but it was a rousing speech, greeted with enthusiasm from the crowd (there are conservative librarians, but, um, not very many -- and I doubt most of them were among the thousands present for Obama's speech). The Chicago Sun-Times summarizes Obama's speech here.

Posted by at 3:03 PM

June 22, 2005

I do -- not, without a budget deal

With a state government shutdown imminent, couples with weddings planned at Minnesota state parks (including the Fort Snelling Chapel) found themselves in a bad, bad position: high potential for no access to the venue they probably reserved more than a year ago. Well, let it not be said that the governor and legislature can't accomplish anything: at Gov. Pawlenty's direction, the Department of Natural Resources has found a way to accommodate couples with state park wedding plans over the July 4th weekend.

I'm sure all of those families are breathing a huge sigh of relief, and are probably glad they don't have to find a way to make the state reimburse them for their losses should the state parks have been inaccessible. But what I'm wondering is this: assuming there is a government shutdown, and it isn't resolved any too quickly what with the holiday and all, what about couples with state park weddings planned for the second weekend in July? Or the third weekend? Are they frantically calling alternate venues (and all of their guests) trying to find another place to do the matrimonial deed?

This is a great example of the impact when a less-visible, "nonessential" state service shuts down. Libraries (though not to my knowledge facing closure because of state budget woes) are the same kind of thing. People take these services for granted, until they suddenly disappear.

Oh yeah, I just have to make one snarky comment here: the bride-to-be planning to marry at the Fort Snelling Chapel on July 2 says (in the Strib article linked above), "The governor apologized for my trouble." Well, isn't that nice. Is the governor also planning to apologize for the trouble of all of the Minnesotans he'd have lose their health insurance?

Posted by at 10:36 AM

May 4, 2005

I guess I don't get to decide

Not that I'm really surprised, but the Strib reported yesterday that anti-contraception pharmacists refused to fill the birth control prescriptions of two Minnesota women in unrelated incidents.

This looks to me like a pretty dangerous slippery slope. If pharmacists can refuse to dispense birth control based on their moral objections to it, why couldn't a wingnut cashier at Target or Walgreen's refuse to let me buy condoms, sponges, or any other form of birth control available over-the-counter? After all, if the issue is that being party to the distribution of contraception is morally objectionable, why would it apply only to pharmacists? I don't even want to think about the scary places this could end up. Someone tell me I'm just being paranoid...

Posted by at 1:18 PM

April 30, 2005

The National Weather Service: a threat to the American Way?

I'm an oh-so-typical Minnesotan in at least one regard: I'm obsessed with the weather. But some of our friendly Congresscritters (led by Rick "man-on-dog" Santorum of Pennsylvania) want to strike a blow against weather junkies everywhere, by making it illegal for the National Weather Service to compete with non-governmental weather forecasters like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel. What does it mean? Among the possibilities are that NWS would have to stop offering forecast and climate information on its website, and that its forecasters would have to stop granting interviews to news organizations that want a little in-depth exploration of trends like drought or dangerous weather.

The NWS would still be allowed to provide warnings when hazardous weather, like a tornado or a hurricane, is imminent. (What a relief!) But as one NWS administrator says, "If someone claims that our core mission is just warning the public of hazardous conditions, that's really impossible unless we forecast the weather all the time," Johnson said. "You don't just plug in your clock when you want to know what time it is."

So here it is, fellow citizens: our tax dollars at work. If this bill becomes law, the National Weather Service will continue to collect and analyze weather and climate data, so they can warn us when something really bad is about to happen. But if you want to see that data that you've already paid your fair share to see produced, you're out of luck. Way to go, Congresscritters.

Posted by at 10:58 AM

March 30, 2005

On Grokster...

I have studied copyright law just a little -- enough to know that I am extremely unlikely ever to thoroughly understand it. That does not, however, stop me from having an opinion. With the Supreme Court hearing the MGM v. Grokster case, any number of people in the great somewhere out there have said this better than I ever could. So in case you care:

The best thing I've read so far on the case: Matthew Yglesias

The best bon mot on copyright in general I've seen in a while:

It can’t be said often enough. Copyright isn’t a “right” in the sense of the “rights of Man.” Copyright is a bargain. The object is to foster a society in which innovation is encouraged and rewarded. It isn’t to create a source of perpetual rents for an owner class. -- Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Posted by at 6:20 PM

March 29, 2005

News flash: academics are liberals

In the coming-as-a-shock-to-no-one category: a new study finds that college faculties are overwhelmingly populated by self-described liberals. Even engineering and business departments, generally regarded as more conservative than other disciplines, were found to have many more faculty describing themselves as liberal than as conservative. The study was done by respected academics, but funded by the right-wing Randolph Foundation.

Conservative commentators have already begun indignantly presuming that this imbalance exists because liberal senior faculty and administrators discriminate in hiring against those who hold different political views. While I would never assert that this doesn't happen (and I have heard tales of this kind of bias going the other direction), I have a hard time believing that that could really be the primary cause of the imbalance between liberals and conservatives in academia.

What I suspect is that academia is rife with liberals for similar reasons that the fields of K-12 teaching and librarianship are: people who choose those fields are frequently willing to sacrifice earning power and worldly prestige in exchange for working in a field that seems (at least initially) not to require a total values compromise. Not that academics who really make it don't earn well and have a decent amount of social capital: they do, but compared to what's possible in the private sector, the possibilities in academia are relatively limited. The typical liberal dedication to education, tolerance, and free speech means that liberals feel right at home in college and university environments, where, at the very least, a whole lot of lip service is paid to such values and their exercise.

It's still a chicken-and-egg problem in a way, though. Would more conservatives choose academic careers if the environment was friendlier to their beliefs? Or does (over)education really turn people into liberals? I don't know the answer, but the accusation of discrimination is simplistic, weak, and fails to consider a huge number of more likely explanations.

Posted by at 5:59 PM

March 2, 2005

How can you keep them down on the farm?

Some small Great Plains towns are offering free land and other perks to anyone who will move there. Watching their populations dwindle as more and more of their residents move to urban areas, towns like Crosby, ND are using creative means (well, okay -- good old-fashioned bribery) to attract new citizens.

What I don't understand about this approach is how the newcomers are expected to support themselves. I assume that a major reason -- probably the primary reason -- why people don't stay in small, rural towns is that jobs are scarce, especially good jobs that pay a reasonable salary and hold a little bit of interest. It's all well and good to try to lure people in with free land, cheap houses, and other incentives, but unless they're independently wealthy, they will need gainful employment -- as as far as I know, opportunities for such are sorely lacking in most small towns.

Even my hometown of Rapid City, SD -- a relatively prosperous small city with a population of over 60,000 -- offers precious few employment possibilities for an educated person. Service jobs are plentiful, since Rapid City is a regional retail hub, and I hear it's an excellent place to set up a medical practice (taxes are low, low, low). But otherwise, opportunities are minimal. I personally don't wish to live in Rapid City (despite its proximity to the Black Hills and its gorgeous climate), but I know other ex-Rapid Citians who might like to return, but who simply can't find decent jobs.

If jobs are a problem in a small city that serves its entire region, what must the situation be like in a truly small town? I sympathize with the plight of these towns, but I wonder if there's a place for them in the 21st century economy. I also wonder how our culture will be poorer if they don't survive.

Posted by at 11:41 PM

February 5, 2005

When "Because I said so" isn't good enough

Not only are abstinence-only sex ed programs rife with scientific inaccuracies and ridiculous generalizations, but as it turns out, they also don't work very well. The headline of this Reuters story pretty much says it all: in Texas, teenagers who had abstinence-only sex education became increasingly sexually active at the same rate as their peers who did not take abstinence-only classes.

I don't know about the rest of you, but this finding doesn't strike me as terribly surprising. Social pressures and teenage hormones being what they are, it seems obvious that simply saying to teens, "you really should wait" is unlikely to change their behavior. Even as adults, our best intentions can disappear in a cloud of emotion and instinct during the heat of the moment. Expecting teens to have better self-control than adults just isn't realistic. Plenty will abstain, for a variety of reasons, and I don't think there's anything wrong with presenting abstinence as the safest and wisest choice. But many won't abstain no matter what they're taught. It seems almost criminally negligent in this day and age not to inform teens of how they might reduce their chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and/or becoming pregnant. This is hardly a new insight for those of us living in the reality-based world -- but maybe studies like this one can change the minds of a few of those who've drunk the social conservatives' kool-aid on this issue.

Posted by at 10:55 AM

December 9, 2004

Sex for dummies (or vice versa?)

Wondering what kind of sex ed programs are receiving federal funding these days? Look no further than this report. The whole thing is a doozy, but my favorite part has to be the examples in section E, "Abstinence-only curricula treat differences between boys and girls as scientific fact." Choice quote: "While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation." Yes, you read that right -- hours. (Thanks to DuVernois Blog for the link.)

Posted by at 8:26 PM

December 4, 2004

Un-American activities

Gerald Allen, an Alabama lawmaker, is pushing legislation (at the state level) that would ban books with gay characters from public libraries (including libraries at publicly-funded universities) throughout the state. But wait, there's more:

If the bill became law, public school textbooks could not present homosexuality as a genetic trait and public libraries couldn't offer books with gay or bisexual characters. When asked about Tennessee Williams' southern classic "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof," Allen said the play probably couldn't be performed by university theater groups. . . . The bill also would ban materials that recognize or promote a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy and sexual misconduct laws of Alabama. Allen said that meant books with heterosexual couples committing those acts likely would be banned, too.

It's hard to imagine such a law passing, even in Alabama -- and if it did pass, it's highly unlikely that it would survive legal challenges. The knowledgable attorneys and librarians over at the LibraryLaw Blog say what should be obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of the Bill of Rights: "The government cannot prohibit speech on the basis of viewpoint, even in a nonpublic forum."

What gets me about this is the breathtaking unsubtletly of this lawmaker's actions. He must understand that what he proposes is absolutely contrary to core American beliefs and values, and he doesn't even pretend to care. There are, of course, plenty of threats to personal liberties and basic freedoms from various quarters in the U.S. Congress (not to mention the White House and the Justice Department), but at least there's lip service paid to maintaining balance with the rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution. That someone like Gerald Allen, who proudly demonstrates blatant disregard for fundamental American ideals, can be elected to public office does not speak well for the political health of our country.

Several years ago in a hermeneutics class, I read a philosopher (I'll have to look up the name when I have access to my bookshelf at home) whose basic premise was that even severe disagreements or differences in interpretation within a cultural group are healthy and not really threatening, because they occur against a vast background of agreement, common values, and shared understandings. For me, this has been a helpful way to approach American politics: I generally assume, unless there is proof otherwise, that those with whom I don't agree are acting in good faith, because at a basic level, we hold the same truths to be self-evident -- we just disagree about the best way to go about putting those truths into action. But faced with someone like Gerald Allen of Alabama, I can't maintain my belief in the good faith of my opponents. His is a way of thinking that is totally alien to mine, and I'm terrified by the possibility of many like him reaching positions of power.

Posted by at 10:48 AM

November 23, 2004

Consequences for big babies

Two cities are about to suffer them, barring some kind of intervention: Salinas, CA and Buffalo-Erie County, NY are both faced with financial situations that appear to make it impossible to keep their libraries open.

The situation is bad in Salinas, where the failure of two tax measures on the ballot earlier this month leaves a $10 million hole in the city budget. The result: all three of the city's public libraries will be closed, since their $3 million budget is one of the things the city simply can't afford anymore. Several possible solutions are being explored, but the circumstances are not promising.

Things may be even worse in Buffalo-Erie County, where community shock and outrage has followed the announcement that all 52 of the county's public libraries will close if a proposed county budget -- which includes an 80% cut to the library system's budget -- goes into effect. Library director Michael Mahaney says that what's left after the cuts may not even be enough to shut the libraries down in an orderly fashion, let alone to keep just one library open.

The big question -- and one that we as a society have been trying to answer for years -- is whether public libraries are valuable enough as a public good to be worth reasonable support from taxpayers. Judging by the shock and anger of people in Salinas and Buffalo, a lot of citizens are complacent in their belief that government will always find the funds to keep non-essential but highly regarded services like libraries going. These closings are a wake-up call: this could happen anywhere, an increasingly likely consequence of voting against the latest tax increase or bond issue.

Michael Kinsley published a collection of essays in the mid-90s called Big Babies. In the title piece, Kinsley takes to task all of those who think they can have their cake (low, low taxes) and eat it, too (expensive and plentiful government services):

They make flagrantly incompatible demands -- "cut my taxes, preserve my benefits, balance the budget" -- then explode in self-righteous outrage when the politicians fail to deliver. They are, in short, big babies.

I'm not saying it's unreasonable to want to pay lower taxes. I'm just saying that you have to be ready to walk the walk that comes with that -- no libraries, poor schools, less police protection, no safety net. Too many Americans seem to think that government will always manage to find a way to provide the services to which they're accustomed. As the citizens of Salinas and Buffalo are learning, that simply isn't the case.

Posted by at 7:27 PM

November 9, 2004

Warping fragile little minds

The great state of Texas has forced textbook publishers Holt and McGraw-Hill to change language in health textbooks for high school students regarding marriage. Prior to the changes, the textbooks used gender-neutral phrases like "individuals who marry" and "married partners." The Texas Board of Education is insisting that the textbooks strictly define marriage as occurring between a man and a woman, and the parties involved as husband and wife.

Although this story is interesting (if disheartening), it's merely a minor example of an ongoing outrage. Texas, as the second-largest purchaser of K-12 textbooks in the nation, has a huge influence on the content of those textbooks. A little over a year ago, I read the excellent The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn" by Diane Ravitch, an education historian at NYU. In it, Ravitch exposes how interest groups from the left and the right and state boards of education have forced textbook and standardized test publishers either to adopt the blandest possible language in many cases, or specifically to include language that interest groups see as supporting their agendas.

I don't think enough people are angry about this, so I strongly recommend The Language Police to anyone interested in how children are educated. Not convinced? Visit the link above, and read the excerpt there from the book's first chapter, which gives some bizarre, almost unbelievable examples of reading passages that were removed from a standardized test because of bias or lack of sensitivity. You'll want to read the whole book to learn how pervasive these practices are.

Posted by at 4:15 PM

November 3, 2004

Take comfort (or discomfort, if you're a Republican)... the fact that Minnesota did itself more or less proud. Stunningly high voter turnout, solid support for Kerry (no, Governor Pawlenty, the suburbs are not a right-wing monolith!), and +13 seats for the DFL in the state House of Representatives. Patty Wetterling lost, but by a much smaller margin than the polls showed -- nice performance against a well-funded incumbent with attack dogs at the ready.

My brother-in-law (former Minnesotan) has claimed for a long time that politically, Minnesota was on its way to becoming "South Dakota with pro sports." I hope we proved him wrong yesterday.

I'm afraid. I'm very afraid. But I'm proud of my state.

And I promise to stop writing about politics now.

Posted by at 7:05 PM

What helps?

So far, for me, not much -- but look for updates to this post when I come up with more.

  • Schubert's late string quartets, particularly the A minor ("Rosamunde") and D minor ("Death and the Maiden"). Neither is a particularly cheery work, but both are by turns sad, angry, and hopeful -- and always brain-meltingly beautiful.
  • Interesting and unusual recipes (Warning: only for those with strong stomachs. Thanks, Kristi!)
  • News blackout. No web, radio, tv, or newspapers for me today. I need to keep myself sane, not make myself more angry and depressed (hi, Dr Dregs!)
  • Planning a fabulous party for a dear friend and her wonderful fiance (hi, Wendy and David! Aren't you glad you could help dull the pain?)

Posted by at 2:53 PM

November 1, 2004

Picked up from another U blogger...

Check out this item over at Winter in the Cities. Apparently, at a rally for President Bush last week, Governor Pawlenty used a U of M flag in a troubling and inappropriate way. I'm pretty appalled, especially in light of Pawlenty's antipathy toward University funding.

Posted by at 11:26 AM

October 30, 2004

Pre-election Schadenfreude special

I don't blog about politics much, because I don't have anything to contribute to what the legions of dedicated political bloggers already come up with. But I am strangely compelled to link to this story, which describes House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as "embattled" in his current campaign. Although DeLay is still expected to win, because of strong challengers (not just a Democrat, but also a Libertarian and and independent), he may win with only a narrow plurality as opposed the 60-plus percent majorities to which he's become accustomed.

My favorite part of the story describes DeLay's shock and outrage at the intensive efforts of Democrats nationwide to defeat him:

DeLay said he is fighting against a vitriolic campaign by national Democrats to oust him.

"I've never had a campaign where the entire nation has tried to destroy my name," he told the Houston Chronicle. "They are going after me in the most personal and vindictive way. It's gutter politics."

Welcome to the world you helped create, Mr. DeLay. I guess there's some truth in the old adage: you really do reap what you sow.

Posted by at 11:30 AM

October 21, 2004

Daily question(s), #7

Have you seen any interesting or odd political yard signs in your area?

Observed in my neighborhood, among a large number of assorted Kerry-Edwards yard signs and a few standard issue Bush-Cheney yard signs:

  • One homemade Kerry-Edwards sign, consisting of a bumper sticker stuck to a piece of poster board on a stake in the yard
  • A Bush-Cheney sign in one yard, neighboring a yard with a sign reading, "Impeach Bush"
  • One Dennis Kucinich sign
  • A Bush-Cheney sign stuck to someone's front fence that has been altered to read, "Bash Cheney"
Posted by at 6:13 PM

September 12, 2004

Three years, seems like thirty

I wasn't going to say anything about 9/11 until I saw that Selling Sno Cones at the Beach felt the same way I did: what is there to add to what has already been said? But I did have kind of an odd experience yesterday, so I'll share it.

I was at the 9/11 tribute at Lake Harriet last night, not because of some overwhelming sense of patriotism, but because John was playing in the orchestra. I missed the beginning of the concert since I was out on my bike having a lovely ride around Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, and Lake of the Isles, so when I sat down to listen to the concert, I couldn't get anywhere near the bandshell. So I chose a spot at the edge of the lawn where I could still hear and settled in, alternately listening and reading a book until the light went completely.

About an hour into the concert, I was approached by a guy toting a camera and a bunch of other equipment. He said he was from Channel 5, and would I be willing to say a few words on camera about my thoughts and feelings on the day? I turned him away, since I didn't think I really had any thoughts -- profound or mundane -- on the day (besides, I looked terrible, having just been on the bike for over an hour). So TV guy moved on to the people sitting next to me, an attractive family with two young children who were happy to speak their minds on camera.

I thought about it, though, after the TV guy left. The weirdest thing about it was how normal everything was. It was concert in the park on a beautiful night, just like any other summer Saturday at Lake Harriet. As usual, passing bikers, skaters, and dog walkers would pause to listen for a little while before going on. Kids ran and played in whatever bits of space they could find around the outskirts of the crowd, occasionally shushed by their parents when the music got quiet. Strangest of all, jets passed overhead on their landing approaches every couple of minutes, and nobody took the slightest notice. Suddenly I became hyper-aware of those jets -- what if one suddenly crashed into the bandshell? I knew that one wouldn't, but I kept imagining it over and over, trying to force myself to comprehend in any real way what it must have been like three years ago for those people in New York and Washington.

I remember being terrified three years ago, even way out here in the middle of the country. I remember agreeing with the conventional wisdom that nothing could ever be the same, because it seemed so obvious at the time. But here we are, the horrors of 2001 having receded (at least for those of us who only saw them on television), and things are the same. Our daily lives haven't substantially changed because of what happened. Sure, it takes a little longer to get on an airplane, but that's minor. We have to go on as we always have, partly because we haven't been given a reasonable alternative, and partly because to do anything else is almost as unthinkable as another attack the magnitude of 2001's.

I had these thoughts, and felt guilty and unpatriotic for having them. But then after the concert, John and I grabbed some food at Famous Dave's in Linden Hills. The server noticed John's t-shirt, emblazoned with the 9/11 tribute logo. She asked him what that was all about, and she said, "You know, it's so weird how far away that feels. Everything seems so normal now, you can't even remember what it was like that day." And I felt better, because I realized that I wasn't the only one experiencing that sense of disconnection from how I felt that day and during the weeks afterward. Is it just the passing of time that causes these rifts, or is there something else going on here?

Posted by at 12:14 PM

August 29, 2004

Would you like freedom fries with that?

A group of Republicans, concerned about indirectly supporting the Kerry campaign by buying Heinz ketchup, have begun selling W Ketchup. A mildly amusing idea, but really a pretty futile exercise, since Teresa Heinz Kerry is not directly involved in the management of Heinz. In fact, her only real connection to Heinz is her position as chairwoman of The Heinz Endowments, which holds only about 4 percent of Heinz stock. So even if you and your family eat a whole lot of ketchup, the most the Kerry campaign might possibly receive must be an infinitesimally small amount.

The irony in this is that partisans of any stripe probably indirectly contribute far more to the campaigns of those they oppose through everyday spending. Most people don't have the time or energy to verify that businesses at which they spend money give money only to causes they support. And in the cases of businesses owned by multiple individuals, or companies whose stock is publicly traded, it becomes even more difficult to restrict your spending to whatever you consider "politically correct."

And what about the lowly employees of any company? They are, of course, free to give their hard-earned cash to whichever candidates or causes they choose. So Republicans should go ahead and buy that Heinz Ketchup. John Kerry isn't going to get squat from that. What you should really be worried about is the supermarket cashier donating her $50 to liberal causes.

Posted by at 11:26 AM

August 12, 2004

Music to vote for change by

Today's Salon has an amusing write-up about the, well, lame music choices of the Kerry-Edwards campaign on the trail. A crowd waiting for the candidates to appear in Jefferson City, Missouri was treated to such masterpieces of American pop music as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," which drove another reporter covering the event to ask, "Can Republican music be any worse than this?"

The question is, what music could the Kerry campaign play that would be upbeat and just a little bit hip, but not so much that it alienates middle America? I'll be thinking about that. So far, all that comes to mind is a tune that I'm sure many political campaigns have trotted out over the years: Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." Kerry would need a nice, peppy, swingy version, possibly even a new remix of a classic rendition of the song. How about it? What other songs should Kerry and Edwards use? It sure sounds like they need some help choosing!

Posted by at 10:10 AM

August 9, 2004

A 21st-century political reference service

Have liberal or progressive leanings? Need to do a little fact-gathering to prepare your case against conservatives, but can't find the time to do it? Check out Radical Reference. Submit your question, and the 50+ volunteer librarians affiliated with the site will find your answer (if one is to be found). The service began as a way to aid activists and protesters preparing for the Republican National Convention later this month, but the mission has expanded. Even if you don't have a specific question, you might learn something useful just by browsing through the answered questions.

Posted by at 4:53 PM

That's Poli-tainment!

Here's a nice summary article from the Palm Beach Post about the trend toward "poli-tainment," under which general heading the author places everything from the Vote for Change tour to The Daily Show to The West Wing to Rush Limbaugh. The article makes the argument that the blending of entertainment with politics -- sometimes a little light on facts -- was pioneered by conservatives, with liberals only now really beginning to produce a lot of their own poli-tainment.

There's a lot of commentary and opinion about this issue right now, stemming from events like the recent announcement of the Vote for Change tour and lineup of artists. People on both sides of the political fence have argued that poli-tainment is a bad trend, either because celebrities outside politics should not use their position to push their political views, or because audiences for poli-tainment don't get the whole story. As I've previously written, I think the first argument is silly: celebrities ought to be able to address whatever issues they choose, so long as they're prepared for the potential consequences. As for the second point contra poli-tainment, I'm pessimistic (or realistic) enough to believe that some of those becoming "informed" through shows like The Daily Show, The West Wing, or even Rush Limbaugh are highly unlikely to seek out news and information through other means -- and some information is better than no information.

Also -- and maybe this is just postmodern Gen-X cynicism talking -- I'm not totally clear on the line between some of the things the article describes as poli-tainment and other things that purport to be respectable sources of news and opinion. Much of the content on Fox News comes immediately to mind, of course, but to be fair I would also include shows like MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Depending on your views and the stories of the day, these may be fun to watch, but they're the junk food of news: you'll probably learn enough to get by, but you're not doing yourself any favors by restricting your news diet to such sources.

I will, however, add the forthcoming book by former CNN editor David Mindich to my reading list. Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News will potentially provide some insight into whether the trend toward poli-tainment is actually something to worry about.

Posted by at 2:05 PM

July 28, 2004

Exciting news: Gay artists get their very own Death Tax!

Rolling Stone documents yet another injustice perpetrated on gays and lesbians by discriminatory marriage laws. Apparently, U.S. copyright law does not allow artists, writers, composers, etc., to leave the rights to their creations to the person of their choice. As the article puts it, "No matter what an artist's intention, spouses, children and grandchildren, in that order, are the first in line to recapture the copyrights, followed by next of kin, executors and administrators." There is essentially no way for copyright owners to reliably pass along those rights with the remainder of their estates. The situation is such that some couples are resorting to adopting one another to ensure that copyrights end up with the person the artist intends.

This angers me from the perspective of basic rights and freedoms, but also because it's yet another demonstration of how wretched, contorted, and generally screwed up U.S. copyright law is. I despair of seeing it fixed in my lifetime, for all of the usual reasons: powerful interests have a lot at stake in keeping things the way they are, and Congress can't be bothered to grapple with the complexities of copyright in the digital environment.

As if trying to change copyright law weren't a daunting enough task, a law professor quoted in the article believes that fixing this would also require amending the Defense of Marriage Act. I can just see Congresscritters lining up to avoid that one! What a mess--time for a few more "activist judges," I guess.

Posted by at 10:56 PM

July 20, 2004

"My job is to, like, think beyond the immediate."

I'm not usually one for cheap shots at politicians, even ones as richly deserving of them as George W. Bush, but this is too good to pass up. The title quotation seemed appropriate -- it's good to learn that Shrub does have a concept of what his job is all about, after all. Like Slate's regular Bushisms, this gives me the pleasure of seeing someone impaled on his own words whose existence in a position of power depresses me to no end.

Posted by at 5:07 PM

July 19, 2004

Politics + music = outrage!

In just under the wire for Monday...ran across this item from Reuters via Apparently, Linda Ronstadt (singer who had a lot of big hits in the 70s: think "Blue Bayou" and "You're No Good") dedicated a performance of the song "Desperado" to Michael Moore during a performance at the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas. She was greeted with a near-riot by some of the audience members, a quarter of whom left the concert, apparently demanding their money back. Following the show, she was escorted from the premises with the message that she would "not be welcomed back."

This reminds me of last year's Dixie Chicks incident on a smaller scale. I can see why the Aladdin wouldn't want their performers alienating paying customers with political screeds, but a song dedication hardly qualifies as deeply offensive. Really, why shouldn't musicians (actors, writers, whatever) use their bully pulpits to slip in a political message now and then? If music is essentially a means of self-expression, why is anyone surprised and/or offended when musicians tell us what they really think? I say, get over it. I don't see how Linda Ronstadt's politics have anything to do with her singing. I mean, she isn't the Indigo Girls. It's not like she decided to spend the whole show giving political speeches instead of singing -- she just dedicated one song to a controversial figure. The extreme reaction of the audience says something pretty appalling about the level of maturity and sophistication in our political discourse.

Posted by at 11:26 PM

July 15, 2004

"Community. Identity. Stability."

Thanks to Ethan Bunke for pointing out today's Barbara Ehrenreich column in the New York Times: an examination of groupthink, its dangers, and its increasing prevalence in American society and politics, which also manages to throw in a few nice anti-war sentiments on the side.

On the one hand, I think Ehrenreich is right to be alarmed. On the other hand, my sketchy knowledge of history tells me that deviation and speaking out have always been unpopular choices (often resulting in punishment) when a nation perceives itself as under attack. I'm thinking especially of the McCarthy era, during which even suggesting that the USSR and/or communism might have a teeny tiny bit of merit could get a person blacklisted. And am I just too young to remember a time when politicians weren't regularly accused by their opponents of being out of step with the attitudes and opinions of their constituents? I'd like to think that no matter how splintered and niche-heavy the views of the electorate might be now, there never was a time when everyone really agreed on all of the issues of the day.

So maybe we just need to wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way. Still, though -- don't we like to think of ourselves as having "grown up" enough as a society not to punish dissenters purely because they dissent? Maybe the deeper point lurking in Ehrenreich's piece is that contemporary groupthink is even more insidious because the punishments meted out to its deviants are met with such weak protest. We say nothing not so much because we're afraid of retaliation, but because we're too apathetic, too anesthetized by the details of our daily lives, and too convinced of our inability to change things to object. It's a pretty chilling thought.

Posted by at 7:29 PM

July 14, 2004

Primary colors

Here's an entertaining diversion from Slate, a quiz that purports to determine your personal level of "red" or "blue"-ness. We're not really talking politics here, but culture.

It's an amusing little quiz. I came out in the middle, which I attribute to an awareness of the geography of the Upper Midwest (questions on Door County, the UP, and the Quad Cities -- incidentally, all of these are "blue state" places, at least according to the results of the 2000 "election"), as well as just knowing stuff. I mean, are there really people out there who can't identify Lee Greenwood, Jed Bartlet, Jon Stewart, and Laura Schlesinger? People living in America who have been vaguely sentient during the last decade? I refuse to believe it.

Anyway, I suppose it is Midwestern-ness that puts me in the middle (literally as well as figuratively. Ha!) The quiz does have another regional bias, though: I can identify several New York/East Coast questions, but I don't see any California/West Coast questions. Since knowing the answers to the New York questions places one toward the blue side of the spectrum, are Californians and Pacific Northwesterners (definitely culturally "blue" places by the quiz's methodology, I'd guess) at a disadvantage? A burning question if ever there was one.

Posted by at 4:44 PM

July 6, 2004

Oh, say, can you change that key?

This guy wants to change the key of The Star-Spangled Banner from Bb to G. The major advantage is that the highest phrases of the melody would fall into a reasonable, singable range for most people (personally, I like Bb -- but then, my singing voice is a high soprano, so I have no trouble reaching the highest notes).

It's not a terrible idea, but I wonder if Mr. Siegel (who says he is not a trained musician) has considered the impact this would have on high school and community bands across the country. These groups love Bb. They'd play everything in Bb if they could. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but unless things have changed a lot since I was a beginning clarinetist, kids learning band instruments learn the Bb major scale before any others. For some, it's probably the only scale they ever learn. Many casual players of band instruments are puzzled if not stymied by other keys (particularly sharp keys). As things stand, almost any band in America can learn to play The Star-Spangled Banner passably well -- because it's in Bb.

Of course, the key change wouldn't cause any problems for pro or near-pro groups like military bands. And G is certainly an easier key for a full orchestra. But there's something quintessentially American about an amateur wind band's rendition of the national anthem. I don't think we should make it any harder for them.

A couple of other observations: perfect-pitch boy John no doubt has a more informed opinion about this, but I think that The Star-Spangled Banner melody in Bb offers a necessary brightness or brilliance that G lacks. And as long as we're talking about changing the national anthem, how about adopting America the Beautiful instead? A majestic, attractive, singable melody coupled with a lovely, optimistic, stirring poetic text -- this is our ideal national anthem.

Posted by at 4:46 PM