Sunday, March 13, 2005

SLC Library Recommendations

The Salt Lake City Public Library has several sets of recommended books on their website. Their nonfiction favorites for 2004 consist of 11 books. Having known many librarians and how voraciously they usually read, I curiously dug for more information on the second link in their list, "Worse than Watergate" by John Dean. My research certainly led me to some confusion. I haven't read the book. My comments here are reaction to the reaction. At, one of their "Top 10" reviewers wrote:
"For a convicted felon, John Dean is an exceptional author. I remember reading his own recollections of the Watergate affair and his own association with the subsequent events that led both to his own denouement and the resignation of Richard Nixon in disgrace in "Blind Ambition" in the mid 1970s. Once again he weighs in impressively by building a very strong circumstantial case for the investigation and possible prosecution of President George W. Bush for criminal actions that Dean terms to be indeed, "worst than those of Watergate". Culling from public records and the recollections of other eye-witnesses, Dean shows how Mr. Bush has systematically exaggerated, embellished, and engineered a series of preverifications and outright lies to the American public in an effort to convince us of the need for military intervention in Iraq."

So far so good. I read a little further. Another reviewer, one of Amazon's "Top 500", wrote:
"The most amazing revelation I found in Dean's book (though it had apparently been reported somewhere) is that the COG was activated after 9/11. COG (Continuity of Government) was a secret plan for reconstituting the U.S. government in event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Hundreds of federal employees were relocated to secret bunkers after 9/11, as part of the secret COG plan! What else is the Bush Administration doing that the public knows nothing about?"

So, if I'm understanding correctly, the book (and this reviewer) are critical because proper procedures were followed when it was believed that our country was under military attack? I don't see the problem, or how this makes it "worse than Watergate." Intrigued, I decide to dig a little further. I find a positive interview with the book's author at NPR. The blurb on the linked web page is mostly the opening narration to the interview. In the introduction, Liane Hansen says, "In 1973, Dean revealed the deepest secrets of the Nixon White House." Well, that is mostly what she says. In the actual audio, she actually doubles the length of the sentence by saying, "In 1973, Dean revealed the deepest secrets of the Nixon White House, sending the president into a spiral toward his resignation." Was the latter part of this sentence removed from the web page because it isn't true? I don't know the facts of Watergate well enough to know what role Dean played in the uncovering. If the first reviewer quoted above is correct, Dean was convicted of a felony, presumably in the Watergate affair.

The existence of the book, and the coverage of it beg the question, "Is being secretive a crime worthy of impeachment?" The author, according to quotes from reviewers, conflates the issue of secrecy with the issue of conspiracy. Being secretive doesn't necessarily imply conspiracy.

I kept reading and found another review of the book that was mostly positive but contained this bizarre quote that is purportedly from the book.

"The other two branches have long had their own continuity plans (in case of a nuclear catastrophe), but they rely on the executive branch to tell them when to duck and cover...Or did Bush and Cheney want only the executive branch and the presidency to survive? Or maybe they wanted succession to jump over Hastert and Byrd (both Democrats) to Powell, who is next in line -- or merely get around Byrd, since Denny Hastert’s son works for Cheney and may have been told about the COG (continuity of government plans) efforts?"

Could an author that wrote these words really be taken so seriously by someone at the SLC Public Library? Presumably the recommender actually read the book. I hope Dean will let Dennis Hastert know that he is now a Democrat. The Republicans in congress that elected him Speaker will surely be very disappointed to find out! Somebody should also let Dean in on the conventional leftist wisdom that Powell and Bush are actually enemies. This paragraph is apparently the "amazing revelation" that reviewer #2 above was talking about. You really have to be a fringe thinker to believe that Bush and company want to abolish the constitution and leave only the executive branch of government behind. Entertaining and passing along ideas like these earn the book a preemptive thumbs down from me and a second thumbs-down to the SLC Public Library for recommending it. There's nothing wrong with recommending a partisan book so long as we can accept the credibility of the author.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Minority Rules No More

John Barnes provides the most awesome summary of breaking the minority rule in the House of Representatives over 100 years ago. It was interesting to read about Representative Reed who refused to be a Speaker of the House who couldn't pass legislation. He destroyed the process of the "silent filibuster". Essentially the trick of the minority was to avoid answering when a roll call was taken to deprive the body of the quorum needed to do business. Reed started answering for them and caused quite and uproar. The whole article is worth a read. Perhaps the US Senate will follow suit in this session.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Are indefensible opinions even worth airing on public radio?

NPR : Does Bush Deserve Credit for Latest Moves Toward Democracy?

No. And here's an example.

I enjoy National Public Radio, even though I am used to disagreeing with most of their commentary and many of their experts. The slant they put on their stories is usually to the left of my personal beliefs. But usually I can give the experts their due—they are, after all, experts. Not so with this story, about the amount of credit the Bush administration deserves in the recent events in the Middle East. The first expert interviewed, Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University, expounds the most unrealistic opinion: (note: this is a rough transcript from the audio file on NPR’s website—I tried to make it as accurate as possible)

Robert Siegel: “Has a Bush Doctrine put wind in the sails of Middle Eastern democracy advocates, or are we witnessing events in Lebanon, and Egypt, and elsewhere that would have been just as likely absent the war in Iraq and the election that followed?...Is there a Bush Doctrine that’s really animating the spirit of democracy in the Middle East today?”

Professor Rashid Khalidi: “I think there is some effect of the Bush admin pushing this, in some cases positive, in other cases really only in the nature of window dressing. I think that what we are seeing so far in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, are cases where very gentle Bush admin nudging has led to purely cosmetic changes, and it will be interesting to see whether there’ll be major changes. I would suggest that, as everywhere, democracy is an indigenous internal process. It can be encouraged, but it will be up to the Egyptians and Saudis and others”
[He then speaks about Lebanon briefly, commenting on their long history of parliamentary government.]

[Robert Siegel then asks about Iraq and Palestine, with their recent elections and “real parliamentary politics”]

Professor Rashid Khalidi: “In the case of Iraq, the Bush administration can take some small credit. I think Ayatollah al-Sistani is the one who really deserves the credit. He is the one who forced the Bush administration, after a year of pigheaded stubbornness, into doing the right thing. So if anyone really deserves the credit, it is the Iraqi people, and in particular those who forced the Bush administration to do this. In the Palestinian case, the Bush administration hasn’t done the slightest thing in its four and a half years in office to foster Palestinian democracy. That’s to the credit of the Palestinians themselves.”

Now, I’m not really in a position to debate the intricacies of this situation with him—I’m sure he is vastly more educated in this subject than am I. But his main point is indefensible: he claims that the Bush administration deserves little to no credit in the successful Iraqi elections, and the emergence of Iraqi democracy, and that the Ayatollah al-Sistani deserves the credit. I have no disagreement with the point that the Ayatollah deserves much credit, and the Iraqi people even more, but to say that the Bush administration deserves none is ignoring history. If the Bush administration had nothing to do with the emergence of democracy, then why didn’t it happen before the Iraqi war? Why didn’t the Iraqi people, led by the Ayatollah, overthrow Saddam Hussein during the last “election” he held? Surely Professor Khalidi cannot honestly believe that it is a coincidence that these things happened after the Bush administration overthrew Saddam? It’s a lot like believing that Kennedy and his administration, and Johnson and his administration, deserve no credit in putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Sure, Kennedy and Johnson weren’t there, on the moon, with those men; they weren’t in mission control or at the laboratories making the spacecraft, but they certainly deserve some credit for this remarkable feat. And history isn’t shy about giving it to them.

As for the Palestinian elections and remarkable progress, it is ridiculous to say that the Bush administration “hasn’t done the slightest thing” in 4.5 years. By refusing to work through Arafat (who proved during the Clinton years unable or unwilling to deliver on his promises), the Bush administration left the Palestinian people to deal with the mess their leaders had made. By the time Arafat died, the Palestinian people were ripe for real change, and it seems they are demanding it. From the moment the new Palestinian government was elected, the Bush administration has been right there, offering help and encouragement, and trying to get the “roadmap” to peace back on track. I don’t believe that the influence the Bush administration has had on this particular process rises to the level it does in the Iraq situation, but, again, to claim they have done nothing is pure blindness.

The second expert interviewed (Professor Fouad Ajami from Johns Hopkins) took a much more moderate view on the situation. While he discusses the (huge) contribution the countries and people themselves are making (“this is an Arab drama”), he acknowledges that much credit must be given to the Bush administration for their actions in Iraq and encouraging Lebanon (“Every single Arab I speak to insists on the seminal role that the Bush administration has played.”). And, as is often the case, because I agreed with much of what he said, I don’t have much to say about it. I definitely encourage you to listen to the entire interview yourself.

But I can't say that I am impressed by NPR's broadcasting of Professor Khalidi's opinions. In this matter, he is so far to the left as to be out of the realm of the believable.

One of these things is not like the others

From EU Commissioner Margot Wallstrom's blog about International Women's Day (March 8):

Indeed, what is there to celebrate? The TV is showing a weeping Indian girl who would have liked to go to university instead of getting married to someone she has never met before. Or Lilya from Lithuania, victim of so called trafficking (sounding like innocent transportation, but meaning prostitution) having to “serve” 10 – 12 men per day. Why not call it by it‘s right name – sex slavery! Turkish women attacked by police all over with teargas and stopped from demonstrating – No, Turkey, this won‘t do if you want to come closer to the EU! So many women all over Europe feel overworked, underpaid and tired, tied up in their many roles between job and family and – some time for themselves! Every year thousands of women are beaten to death by their husbands. The issue of violence against women and children in the home is a huge hidden problem. Domestic violence is, according to Amnesty International figures, the major cause of death and disability for European women aged 16 to 44. It accounts for more death and ill-health than cancer or traffic accidents.

I REALLY don't think that you can/should compare forced marriages, prostitution, repression, murder, and violence with feeling overworked, underpaid, and torn between job and family.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Lessig gives a lecture

Lawrence Lessig gives a wonderful speech here that is absolutely worth viewing if you don't already believe that our copyright laws need a serious overhaul. The speech is sprinkled with video clips which makes it more fun to watch.

Essentially, I think (and Lessig wisely follows my lead) that copyright law is a good thing. It encourages the creation of art because the creator knows they have an opportunity to make money. For example, without copyright law, Wal-mart could find good (or popular) books, have them printed in China and them sell them without paying the author a cent. They have a powerful distribution channel and could easily sell more copies of the book than the author could on his own. They would be stealing the fruits of his labor. Copyright stops this from happening, and rightly so.

On the other hand, copyrights that last too long or prevent the reuse of material are bad. They mandate an artificial scarcity of a resource. There is no monetary harm to an author if I make a copy of her work; I will have borne the costs of reproduction. The only harm would be the disincentive to create. I'm told that the original copyright laws gave an author 14 years. That seems entirely reasonable and would preserve a good balance between incentives to create and the natural growth of the public domain.

Lessig gives an example in his speech of a movie that cost a boy a few hundred dollars to create. It sounds like he ran around with a camcorder for a few years and then mixed the clips into a movie worthy of winning an award at Cannes. Further research showed that it would cost this young man over $400,000 to secure the rights to reproduce the songs that were playing in the background in different scenes in the movie. This is a tough case and I'm not sure how I'd come down on it. I lean toward agreeing that the boy should pay the artists for using their music if it goes into a commercial creation. But only music created recently. Trying to track back rights to a song created 70 years ago, for instance, is a barrier to creativity rather than an enhancement.

Let common sense prevail. Let's bring copyright law under control.

Bad joke or bad blood?

The Boston Herald's Thomas Keane doesn't have a very keen sense of humor. Here is a quote from an article he wrote March 2nd:
Take the bashing of Massachusetts. A typical comment was Romney's line to South Carolinians that in Massachusetts "being a conservative Republican is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention."

In high dudgeon, the state's political establishment pronounced itself offended. He's "making fun of the state," Treasurer Tim Cahill griped.

No he wasn't, Tim. He was making fun of Democrats.

Huh? I thought it would be obvious to anyone that Romney was just joking about being a minority. I watched the whole speech and I think he was no more rancorous than any other partisan speaking to a partisan crowd. (The comment is about 13:00 into the video clip.) I don't remember him saying anything mean at all. With 85% of the seats in the MA legislature (according to Romney's speech), you'd think they'd be a bit less sensitive.