Monday, October 31, 2011

Clearing the Decks

Today's big political story -- i.e., today's big Politico story -- about the sexual harrassment charges made against Herman Cain by former employees back when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association certainly deserves to be taken seriously, and warrants further investigation. But I have to say, to me, the whole thing has about it the air of fly-swatting by the establishment right. Despite Cain's suggestion that the story was planted and spread by the liberal media, the fact remains that Politico is pretty widely seen (by those who pay attention to these things) as a somewhat right-leaning outfit, or at the very least no carrier of water for liberal causes or the Democratic party. A few swift strokes of Occam's Razor cuts down to a more likely scenario, I think: Politico wants Herman Cain to disappear. Not for any reason that Cain or his seemingly sincere and indisputably multiplying followers might conjure: not racism, or liberal bias, or anything like that. No, Politico wants Herman Cain to disappear because they know he will not, under any foreseeable circumstances, be the GOP's nominee for president -- and they, like most members of the GOP establishment, are growing tired of this protracted game of candidate whack-a-mole that voters keep playing. First Bachmann, then Perry, now Cain. Iowa isn't far away, and Republicans have yet to coalesce around one of the two acceptable options, Perry or Romney, either of which the candidate-making machine is ready to spit out once the mandarins give the go-ahead and the right button gets pushed. A story like this, appearing on a website like Politico, makes me think less of dirty tricks and more of the kinds of annoying but necessary preliminary things you have to do before you can get to the real work that's ahead of you. Taking out Herman Cain is the GOP primary version of sanding, then priming, then putting that blue tape all over the baseboards and door trim before you can actually paint the walls the cool color you've picked out.    

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why "The Pesky Serpent"?

For those of you wondering about the name of this blog:

"The Pesky Sarpent" (sic) is an old American folk song that seems to have emerged from New England in the years right before the Revolutionary War. It details the sad story of young Tommy Blake, who goes out to cut the grass one day in front of his house in rural Massachusetts, gets bitten by a rattlesnake, and runs immediately to the house of Molly Bland -- his true love -- for help. Resourceful Molly, who apparently knows a thing or two about venom extraction, bravely sucks the poison out of her lover's wound in an attempt to save him. But it turns out Molly has an infected tooth, and the poison gets inside of it and ends up . . . well, you can sort of see where this is going.

My personal reasons for loving this song have a lot to do with my novel, also titled The Pesky Serpent, which will soon be making the rounds of publishers here in New York. I'll save talking about the book for another day. Meanwhile, though, I think we need to go ahead and inaugurate this blog's first weekly tradition. I hereby christen today -- and all future Fridays -- to be "Pesky Serpent Friday." The occasion will be marked each week by the sharing of a freaky/funny/discomfitingly graphic snake-related video.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, are some insane people wrestling a giant anaconda, for fun, at Florida's "Ross Allen Institute" (!!!) circa 1957.


In Defense of Journalistic Bias

When I was a reporter at The Washington Post, the newsroom was guided (through some tense times, I should add) by the sure and steady hand of our executive editor, Len Downie. Unlike his predecessor Ben Bradlee -- whose combination of profane swagger and sure-I'm-a-lot-older-than-you-but-I-could-still-break-your-goddamn-neck-with-my-bare-hands physicality could silence you, or even Dustin Hoffman, with a sidelong glance -- Len was a much more low-profile personality. Let's put it this way: the gravel-voiced and enjoyably menacing Jason Robards was born to play Ben Bradlee. If they ever decide to make a movie about the Post newsroom set during the 1990s or early 2000s, Bill Paxton's agent will probably be getting lots of phone calls.

Anyway, one of Len's very few eccentricities -- maybe the only one -- was that his dedication to the journalistic ideal of even-handedness extended all the way from his editor's chair to the polling booth. Len famously refused to vote in presidential elections (and maybe in all elections; I'm not actually sure), citing an inherent conflict of interest. His reasoning presumably went something like this: People would rightly be furious if they found out that the executive editor of The Washington Post was contributing money to a candidate, or volunteering for his staff, or providing him favorable coverage in the paper. But a vote is the most direct and necessary form of support that any individual can give to a candidate. Ergo: I won't vote while I work here. Implicit, of course, was his belief that his editors and reporters who covered politics shouldn't vote either, although I never heard reports that he ever pressured anyone about it.

I thought of Len recently when I followed this live-chat thread with Jack Shafer, one of my favorite journalists. Jack was at the indispensably wonderful Slate for many years before being let go early this year; because he's so good, he was snapped up immediately by Reuters, where he continues to share his slightly curmudgeonly, often hilarious, and always astute observations about politics and media. Here's a quote from Jack's live chat that I found especially provocative:

We're kidding ourselves and kidding our readers when we pretend that journalists have no opinions and no biases. My view is that journalists can't be objective, because as human beings we are all subjective. What we can do is employ an objective method in the reporting and writing of the news: To be fair, to be accurate, to be comprehensive. If a reporter pledges to do that, I have no problem with them having opinions. In fact, some of my favorite journalists work at opinion magazines--National Review, Nation, New Republic, Weekly Standards--and they're able to break stories because they're not shackled to an ideal of "objectivity."

I think this is spot-on. You can't ask journalists to be unbiased. You can ask them, if you wish, to report without bias -- and for many news organizations, that's an understandable and even admirable goal. But speaking for myself, as a reader, give me good old biased, opinionated reporting -- from the right or the left -- any day. When a journalist is too worried about whether she'll come off as biased, she writes bloodlessly, pulls her punches and inevitably traffics in the bane of good journalism: false equivalence. But when a journalist honestly believes that she knows the truth, and isn't afraid to express that truth in her story, her writing is much more likely to sparkle and captivate. If we as readers are too lazy to ask ourselves: Do I agree or disagree with the "biased" subtext in this piece? then we really just ought to go back to reading about Lindsay Lohan's latest parole violation or watching another cat video on YouTube.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Give That Texas Public Servant a Raise, Rick Perry!

The deputy director of the Office of Water at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is on record as stating that man-made climate change is "unsettled science."

More on that in a minute. First, though, a bit of background for those who are curious about TCEQ, as it's commonly referred to. According to The Texas Observer's Forrest Wilder, who wrote a cover story about the commission back in May, TCEQ
boasts a $600 million budget, some 3,000 employees, a sprawling Austin headquarters, and 16 regional offices. In 2008, the agency conducted more than 100,000 investigations, issued more than 14,000 violation notices, and levied $16.9 million in penalties. By the numbers, Texas’ environmental agency is the second-largest in the world, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Wow! That's incredible! But wait a minute -- in Texas, you say? The state currently led by the fervently anti-regulation, fervently pro-business Rick Perry? Are you telling me that this governor and presidential candidate, who vows daily to make government smaller and weaker and less intrusive, oversees an environmental agency that is second only to the EPA in terms of size, budget, and regulatory muscle?

Well yes, in fact, he does. Although as Wilder's story goes on to reveal, TCEQ operates in practice much more like a customer-service center for the state's polluters and developers than a commission charged with protecting the environment from degradation by same. (Wilder points out that in the commission's corporate-inspired internal lingo, the companies whose activity it ostensibly regulates are known as "clients." Get that? The everyday citizens of Texas -- those aren't the commission's "clients." That term is reserved for the oil and gas companies, among others, who know that TCEQ is there, first and foremost, to help them dot all their i's and cross all their t's.)

Anyway, back to the case of L'Oreal Stepney, whose TCEQ bio reveals that she holds a pair of degrees from the University of Texas, one in aerospace engineering and one in environmental engineering. Having risen through the TCEQ ranks, she landed the second-to-the-top spot at the recently created Office of Water. Among her duties there is the commissioning of reports, such as the one TCEQ recently commissioned on rising water levels in Galveston Bay.

Long story short, the report comes in, and it says pretty much what everybody knows it will say: Yes, in fact, water levels are rising in Galveston Bay, at a rate much higher than they should be rising. Something really must be done about it immediately. All in all a pretty uncontroversial report -- except, I guess, for the part in which John B. Anderson, an oceanographer at Rice University who's spent almost three decades studying the ways that climate change has affected the ice and water levels in Antarctica, had the temerity to link the rising water levels in the bay to man-made climate change.

And that, apparently, was too much for TCEQ.

A fantastic report on NPR's "Morning Edition" today covers the story, and affords listeners the priceless opportunity to hear Ms. Stepney say, during a recent public hearing, that man-made climate change isn't "settled science," and therefore her department was justified in editing out any and all references to it in the final version of the published report. Which, it should go without saying, they did. And which, it should also go without saying, pissed off John B. Anderson, who knows a thing or two about this particular subject.

Because for him -- just as it is for the overwhelming majority of people in his field and related fields-- man-made climate change is settled science. And more to the point: To say that you're going to address the problem of rising water levels without acknowledging the actual source of the problem is, basically, to avoid doing anything about the problem at all.

If I had to guess, Ms. Stepney knows full well that man-made climate change is at the root of the problem. A certain timorous note in her voice as she issued TCEQ's "official" statement on the matter gave her away. She's playing the part of the good soldier here. But I have to ask: Which is worse? A higher-up at a state environmental protection agency who honestly believes that the jury's still out on man-made climate change, and who, until the final verdict is in (which will be never, since skeptics will never accept a verdict they don't like), can always find ways to justify the suppression of science? Or a pitiful coward who doesn't want to lose her job, and who is willing to disgrace the two science degrees she has earned in order to placate her politically ambitious boss, his corporate string-pullers, and the anti-science voters he's counting on to get him to the White House?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Bookstores

Two bookstores -- one in LA, the other in NY; one three stories tall and part of a giant corporate conglomerate, the other tiny and independent; one popular with readers looking for discounted best-sellers, the other popular with hipsters and academics looking for semi-obscure offerings from smaller publishers -- both imperiled.

Word comes today that the Barnes & Noble at the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles will be closing its doors, its enviable space (inside a popular shopping mall, nestled in a prime LA neighborhood, and overlooking one of the busiest stretches of Pico Boulevard) to be filled by an H&M. On the same day, we also learn that the legendary St. Mark's Bookshop in New York's East Village has lost a battle to reduce its insanely high rent -- now reportedly up to $20,000 a month -- and is actively seeking a new space in which to sell its devoted clientele its unique mix of titles, many of them hard-to-find.

I realize that as a good indie-minded progressive, I'm supposed to feel no pang of sympathy for a big-box chain bookstore in its final days -- just as I'm supposed to shed no tear for the disappearance off the face of the earth of Barnes & Noble's closest rival, Borders. But I do. I think it's bad news, every bit as bad as the news that the St. Mark's Bookshop is in trouble and may not be able to get out of it alive. Because what's really in jeopardy here isn't the brick-and-mortar physical space in which books are being bought, whether that space is owned by a literature-obsessed bibliophile or a giant, profit-minded corporation. What's in jeopardy is the idea that books, as we know them, are a cultural commodity worth printing, buying and selling. 

Before you accuse me of Luddism or the undue fetishization of dead-tree media: I'm okay with the e-reader revolution; I really am. I know that's where things are headed, and I'm actually happy to think that it's only getting easier and easier for people to find the texts they want, instantly and (relatively) cheaply. But I can't help but feel like these two bits of bad news, on the same day and from opposite ends of the retailing food chain, amount to an ominous portent for people who still like to, you know, read a book. 

With apologies to Martin Niemoller: First they came for the independent bookstores, but because I didn't really buy most of my books there anymore, I did nothing. Then they came for the big chains, but because I had started buying most of my books on Amazon by that point, I did nothing.

Then they came for the books.

Can't Spell "Treason" Without "Reason"

There's a pretty stunning -- in my opinion, at least -- new Gallup poll out that gives us a snapshot of the GOP presidential horse race, as of today. The big story, of course, will be the rapid upward trajectory of Herman Cain, who has risen to the top of the pack in terms of popularity and likability, especially among the prized middle-aged, mustachioed, vaguely creepy white male smoker demographic. Secondary takeaways will be about Romney's continuing struggle to gain the trust of conservatives, Bachmann's and Perry's inability to gain much-needed traction, and maybe even moribund Newt Gingrich's surprising signs of life -- like the guy in South Africa who lost consciousness after an asthma attack and woke up in a morgue with a tag tied to his toe.

But what's stunning to me is the sad, sad story of Jon Huntsman, which has become to my mind the overarching meta-narrative of the contemporary GOP. The former Utah governor has the highest unfavorables and lowest favorables of all the candidates; he's the only member of the pack with a "positive intensity score" that's actually in the sub-zero range, at -2, which would seem to mean that his breathtaking unpopularity has called into question the integrity of the esteemed polling firm's metrics: even his positives are negative. I keep picturing a giant 1950s-era IBM-style computer at Gallup headquarters vibrating first, then shaking violently and eventually smoking, as it tries futilely to process Huntsman's unprecedentedly bad numbers.

Huntsman probably didn't do himself any favors by skipping the last debate in Nevada, citing a weird and largely unnecessary solidarity with New Hampshire's frustration at having their slot in the primary schedule threatened by insurgents. And I suppose you could add that to a long list of unforced errors that has alienated Huntsman from the right, even as it has endeared him to some liberals, many moderates and most journalists. First and foremost among them, of course, was his willingness to serve as Barack Obama's ambassador to China, a post that most reasonable people would characterize as service to one's country but that has nevertheless been characterized by the majority of rage-filled GOP primary voters as consorting with the enemy: the enemy, of course, not being China -- a nominally Communist country and our chief economic rival in the world -- but rather the president who appointed him. Then there was that Tweet last August, in which he announced his belief in both evolution and climate change in fewer than 140 characters, and facetiously invited voters to "call him crazy" for doing so (implicitly calling them crazy for not doing so). On top of all this, he's a Mormon, which for the evangelical Christian GOP rump is just the icing on the no-confidence cake. (And just wait until Hank Williams, Jr. finds out Huntsman's a Captain Beefheart fan.)

The thing is, though, that Huntsman really is a conservative. As The Daily Beast's McKay Coppins pointed out in a piece last May, his records on abortion, gun rights and deficit reduction would -- in a normal election cycle -- actually place him pretty safely within the comfort zone of right-wing voters. But this isn't a normal election cycle: the right is now so inflamed, so convinced that any sign of bipartisanship or a cooperative spirit is actually a sign of weakness or worse, that Huntsman's reasonableness comes off as treasonous. Which is why he's dead in the water, and will never rise, Lazarus- or even Gingrich-like, to rejoin the living. (And which is also why, incidentally, we're all being treated to the spectacle of Mitt Romney -- who is temperamentally and ideologically, not to mention theologically, Huntsman's twin -- contorting himself to seem as intransigently conservative as he can make himself out to be, with the results usually being comical.)

Ronald Reagan, when he occupied the Oval Office, frequently had long and laughter-filled lunches with House Speaker Tip O'Neill -- whom he considered to be a dear friend, despite the fact that they bickered constantly and that most of the country perceived them as political enemies. The two Irish-Americans always got together on St. Patrick's Day; when Reagan was near death after his assassination attempt, a solemn O'Neill came to the hospital to comfort his "enemy," knelt at his bedside, recited with him the 23rd Psalm, and kissed him on the forehead before he left.

But don't let Republican voters -- or presidential candidates, for that matter -- know this about their idol, whose identity and history have been revised and redacted so much that he's been reduced from a man to a mythological figure: someone who never really existed, except for in the fevered imaginations of the faithful. His positives would probably dip into negative territory, too. Just like Jon Huntsman's.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mark Block Wins the Day

Everybody's talking today about the new so-bad-it's-viral campaign video from Herman Cain, in which Cain's chief of staff, the richly backstoried Mark Block, sings his candidate's praises before taking a long drag from his cigarette -- seriously -- and staring down you, the viewer, in much the same way that Clint Eastwood stared down Lee Van Cleef in the showdown scene of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" before (almost) all the guns went off. It's like he's daring you to be cool enough to vote for Herman Cain. Cue the requisite inspiring musical ode to American exceptionalism -- and then, at the very end, cut to Cain himself, whose barest semblance of a smile slowly morphs into a rictus of self-satisfied, I've-got-your-number pleasure. Did I just say it was "so-bad-it's-viral"? I take it back. It's the best campaign video ever made. Now I'm actually thinking about voting for Herman Cain. And taking up smoking. And adopting Block's frumpy, sad sack, quick-cigarette-break-out-in-front-of-the-building sense of personal style as my own.

Brand Theft Fail: Huffington Post

The Huffington Post recently stole Lisa Belkin away from The New York Times, where her parenting blog, "Motherlode," had been quite popular for the last three years. Upon leaving the Grey Lady for the Greek Lady, Belkin summarily began blogging for her new employer, offering readers the same mix of comforting commiseration and smart advice that had made her first blog such a success.

The new blog's name: "Parentlode."

Now: Putting aside for the moment HuffPo's rather brazen attempt to cash in on a brand that The New York Times has spent several years and many thousands of dollars developing -- an attempt that has earned them a friendly cease-and-desist letter from the lawyers at the Times -- there is, I think, another aspect to this story that merits discussion. And that, quite simply, is the fact that "Parentlode" is the worst name ever -- for a blog, for a column, for anything. It's just downright horrible, and the editors at The Huffington Post should immediately write back to the lawyers at The New York Times and thank them, sincerely, for providing them with a reasonable-sounding cover to scrap the vaguely excretory-sounding "Parentlode" and come up with something else.

I have a blog now, and what good is having a blog if you can't issue the occasional categorical imperative? Here's my first attempt: Editors must never allow their slyly referential headlines to move more than one degree away from their referents. Or to put it another way: "Motherlode" works because (a) it's an actual word, and (b) it's the title of a column about the presumably rich vein of (figurative) gold to be found in the job of mothering. See? The title takes you back to the referent in one clean move.

To go from "Motherlode" to "Parentlode" -- even for the very good reason that having stolen a writer, you now want to steal her readers by semi-stealing the name of her column -- is to go from cleverness to nonsense, from A-ha! to WTF? "Parentlode" is not a word, not even close to one, and the semantic steps that are required in order to imagine it as one are such that the amount of time it takes to do so is exactly the same amount of time it takes to lose interest and click on another piece of hard-hitting HuffPo news.          

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cheney the Would-be War Criminal

In Cavalcade-Of-Self-Serving-Bush-Administration-Memoir news, this week sees publication of No Higher Honor, Condoleezza Rice's contribution to the rapidly growing genre. Here's a telling snippet from Peter Baker's advance look at the book in the NYT.

First as national security adviser and later as secretary of state, Ms. Rice often argued against the hard-line approach that Mr. Cheney and others advanced. The vice president’s staff was “very much of one ultra-hawkish mind,” she writes, adding that the most intense confrontation between her and Mr. Cheney came when she argued that terrorism suspects could not be “disappeared” as in some authoritarian states.

Well, then. I mean, is there really anything else that needs to be said about Dick Cheney? Stop and think about that for just a moment. The secretary of state had to sit down and inform him at one point that no, actually, he could not simply "disappear" terrorism suspects -- that's her word, by the way: a normally intransitive verb that only takes the transitive form in the horrific vocabularies of murderous South American despots -- and would have to follow that whole annoying rule-of-law thing that the goody-goodies at the Hague were always nattering on about.

In Cheney's memoir, he tried to make Condoleezza Rice look like a weak crybaby whose distaff emotions got in the way of making the tough decisions. Her riposte is to paint Cheney as the American Pinochet. Advantage: Rice.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Travelin' on the One After 909

Herman Cain has modified his tax-reform mantra! "999" is now "909" -- with an asterisk over that new zero in the middle, apparently, whenever we're talking about really, really poor people, whom Cain -- compassionately? pragmatically? -- says shouldn't have to pay any income tax at all. Now that he's destroyed the numerological elegance of his plan, I imagine we can expect to see it modified even further, perhaps to something like "90(9 minus x, where x = state-imposed sales tax)," once conservatives who claim to love his current plan figure out that the 9 percent national sales tax he's proposing will be added on top of whatever existing sales tax their state already levies. Rolls right off the tongue, don't it?