Monday, December 31, 2007

A New Year's Tale Of Two Rock Stars

By Manifesto Joe

I'm not a well-traveled person, having been limited by early poverty and then by later responsibility. But I got around as much as I could; and there are two incidents I recall, each involving rock stars, that seem revealing as to the general direction in which Western culture has been drifting.

Many years ago, my wife and I were walking on a summer night in Deep Ellum -- for those unfamiliar, that was the bohemian district of Dallas in those days. We were just trolling around for cheap entertainment and something good to eat. I remembered that Paul McCartney had played a gig in Reunion Arena that night.

We saw a long black limo cruising by slowly. A back-seat window went down, and a man flashed a V "peace" sign at those of us strolling on the sidewalk. We got the briefest glimpse of the face, and it hit us that this was Sir Paul McCartney. His driver had apparently taken him to what was reputed to be the "hip" part of town, and he gave us a small salute.

Then there was this other time I have in mind. We were on the freeway between Dallas and Fort Worth, and a long limo with a sunroof passed my economy car on the left. A long-haired blond man popped through the sunroof, shirtless, waving to everybody around him on the freeway, posturing and appearing to be singing, or at least talking loudly and stridently.

I remembered that Van Halen had played a gig that night at Reunion Arena. I looked again, and saw the mane of windblown blond hair and the brash face. It was David Lee
Roth. He kept waving to his many fans on the freeway, on his way to some party that would surely take him one more small step toward oblivion.

Perhaps one could argue that it's almost obligatory for rock stars to do decadence. But Jim Morrison did that with much more class and style, and he's even regarded as having been a poet of some substance. No one will ever accuse David Lee Roth of that.

Anyway, we recall Sir Paul much more fondly, even though some of his solo music has been cheesy. And yes, David Lee Roth is now struggling for gigs. But there have been many similar "artists" to take his place for short times. It seems like folks could be more discriminating in their pop culture taste. Some of the "idols" clearly don't last.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

It Must Be Sleeting In Hell: I've Heard Some Hip-Hop That I Love

I'm not likely to ever be a hip-hop fan, but this music video shows that there can be excellence in just about any style of music. Understand that I'm 51 and behind the times, but I'm trying to catch up a little these days. This was a terrific jazz/hip-hop dance hit that charted on the U.S. top 10 in 1994. Codger that I am, I just heard it on Internet radio for the first time recently, and loved it. This is Us3, and the song is Cantaloop.

Boy, have I got some catching up to do. (By the way, I was surprised to learn that this is a British group. And the video is great.) -- MJ

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Ghosts Of Christmas Present: Waiting To Get On Disability

By Manifesto Joe

So you've enjoyed that turkey and dressing, and lingered by the fireplace with family members over a glass of Chardonnay. But if you're a Web addict, you eventually log on and check out what's happening on the blogs. If you drop by this one, I'll be your Jeremiah this Christmas Day, and with a little Dickens added for flavor.

As I write this, there are hundreds of thousands of disabled Americans who are waiting, sometimes for years, to get on Social Security disability. In the era of Bush, the system is no longer funded in a way in which claims can be processed in a reasonable time.

The New York Times recently reported:

Steadily lengthening delays in the resolution of Social Security disability claims have left hundreds of thousands of people in a kind of purgatory, waiting as long as three years for a decision. ...

Some have lost homes, declared bankruptcy or even died, say lawyers representing claimants and officials of the Social Security Administration. ...

"It's been hell," said Belinda Virgil, 44. She waited three years for her hearing in November and is awaiting the outcome. Virgil is tethered to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day and has no home of her own. "I've got no money for Christmas, I move from house to house, and I'm getting really depressed," she said. ...

State agencies initially turn down about two-thirds of the roughly 2.5 million disability applicants each year. But of the more than 575,000 who appeal ... two-thirds eventually win a reversal.

The problem is that there simply aren't enough appeals judges to handle the caseload. The backlog is now 755,000, compared to 311,000 in 2000. (Hey, wasn't that the year Bush was appointed president?)

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Many of these people couldn't survive in either of those settings.

So, what's being done? Not much. The Times continued:

The agency wants to hire at least 150 appeals judges, but the plan has been delayed by the standoff between Congress and the White House over domestic appropriations. Without new hirings, federal officials predict even longer waits ...

... in November, the Democratic-controlled Congress voted a $275 million increase for the agency. But Bush vetoed the bill, calling it profligate.
(So, like, he knows that word?)

I'm sure Bush is enjoying his turkey and dressing today. Too bad he's never had to go down to the local mission house to get it.

OK, I'm nearly done playing Jeremiah, and Dickens, too. Merry Christmas -- enjoy the rest of the day, in its true spirit. I, for one, go back to work tomorrow, thankful that I am able to do so. These are grim times for those who are not.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Manifesto Joe's Great Moments In Conservative History, Chapter 6: J. Edgar Hoover Proposed Mass Arrests

By Manifesto Joe

Fellow Murkans, you can thank whatever gods may be for the feisty soul that was Harry S. Truman. If the schlump we have in the White House now had been there in 1950 ...

The New York Times reports:

A newly declassified document shows that J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI, had a plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison some 12,000 Americans whom he suspected of disloyalty.

Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, 12 days after the Korean War began. It envisioned putting suspect Americans in military prisons.

Hoover wanted President Truman to proclaim the mass arrests necessary to "protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage." The FBI would "apprehend all individuals potentially dangerous" to national security, Hoover's proposal said. The arrests would be carried out under "a master warrant attached to a list of names" provided by the bureau.

The names were part of an index that Hoover had been compiling for years.

Harry Truman was far from a flawless decision-maker -- the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing countless civilians, looks pretty damned bad in hindsight -- but we can thank his ghost for this one.

Hoover went on to worse things over the next 22 years, until his long-overdue death ended his 48-year dictatorship over the bureau. This from Wikipedia:

In 1956, Hoover was becoming increasingly frustrated by Supreme Court decisions that limited the Justice Department's ability to prosecute Communists. At this time he formalized a covert "dirty tricks" program under the name COINTELPRO. This program remained in place until it was revealed to the public in 1971, and was the cause of some of the harshest criticism of Hoover and the FBI. COINTELPRO was first used to disrupt the Communist Party, and later such organizations such as the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s SCLC, the Ku Klux Klan, and others. Its methods included infiltration, burglaries, illegal wiretaps, planting forged documents and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations. Some authors have charged that COINTELPRO methods also included inciting violence and arranging murders.

Hoover was on the verge of being fired by a succession of presidents, of both parties. More from Wikipedia:

Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson each considered firing Hoover but concluded that the political cost of doing so would be too great. Richard Nixon twice called in Hoover with the intent of firing him, but both times he changed his mind when meeting with Hoover.

In addition to having been considered a national hero in the 1930s gangbusters era -- he had been put in charge of the newly created bureau in 1924, at age 29 -- Hoover was said to have amassed files over decades that contained potentially damaging information about many powerful people. So, the old bulldog was left to lord it over his fiefdom until he croaked at age 77.

I won't go very much into the widespread speculation about the sex life, or lack thereof, of lifelong bachelor Hoover. He had one very close male companion, but whether it went beyond being good buddies is pretty much tabloid material. I will spare his soul that, hoping that the commonly envisioned brand of eternal torment would be enough.

But Americans can be genuinely grateful that a nightmarish convergence of power didn't take place. It's been bad enough watching Bush and Cheney plotting "policy" with the likes of Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Ashcroft and others. Hoover and Bush, together, would have forged the executive branch from Hell. And then, in the Senate, there was this fellow named McCarthy ...

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

This Is The Capitulation Congress -- But All The More Reason The Right-Wing Rascals Must Be Thrown Out

By Manifesto Joe

As though they hadn't caved in on so many other things like SCHIP and the war budget, our Democratic Congress tucked tail and backed down yet again Wednesday, this time on the issue of adding $51 billion to the national debt by indexing the Alternative Minimum Tax with no deficit-proofing.

But even though it's been a discouraging year, it's important not to lose sight of this: What's needed is a 60-vote Senate majority, and a Democrat in the Oval Office. Hell, even a Republicrat might do, if the stiff would be willing to sign some key bills.

The House leadership initially talked tough about the AMT issue. Steny Hoyer called the Republican measure fiscally irresponsible, which it is. But I can understand what probably went on in closed-door sessions: If we go on fighting this, the reasoning would go, the Republicans will hit us with it over and over next year, and more than 20 million families are affected if we don't pass some kind of indexing.

But surely they understand what it looks like for the public to see congressional Dems running like whipped dogs, over and over. The leaders either aren't picking their battles wisely, or they just lack the stomach for a rumble. Maybe it's some of both.

Many of the major news outlets, including The New York Times, apparently didn't even bother to report the roll-call numbers. I finally found something on The Associated Press site. The vote was 352-64 once the Dems decided to cave. Democrats for: 157. Republicans: All 195 who were present voted for. I am happy to say that from my home state of Texas, Democrats Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Gene Green of Baytown voted no.

A major aggravation is that the Democrats weren't generally opposed to some kind of indexing. It's the way it is going to be done, with no compensatory action such as closing a loophole on offshore tax havens. And, the indexing probably goes further than it should. It's a little hard for me to get worked up about a household making between $100,000 and $200,000 a year -- that is an estimated 12 million of the filers -- facing a higher tax bill.

But the bigger long-term problem is that corporations and extremely wealthy individuals pay a fraction of the federal income tax they once paid. That is, when they pay anything at all. It hasn't been unusual for them, in recent decades, to get a complete pass. Upper-middle-class taxpayers have largely persisted in voting Republican, not realizing that they have made themselves one more group of ineffectual dupes blaming the wrong people for their difficulties.

Back to the congressional Democrats: What this year's "leaders" have reminded me of is a blast from the Republicans' past, Sen. William E. Borah of Idaho (1865-1940). Borah held one of Idaho's Senate seats from 1907 until his death. He was widely regarded as a "progressive" Republican back in the days when there was such an animal. And he was a thunderer, highly admired for his oratorical powers.

But there was a big chapter in the book on Borah that did not escape observers' attention. When a tough issue for progressivism came to the Senate floor, he would start out applying all his skills as a speechmaker for the cause. But as the fight went on, he would start bending to the GOP leadership's pressure. And often, in the end, he would capitulate and vote the conservative party line.

Our current Dems don't even have the rhetorical muscle of a William Borah, so it's easy to grow even more disgusted with them.

But progressives fighting among ourselves aren't going to change anything -- unless one subscribes to the idea that if misgovernment and economic mismanagement grow much worse, there will be general insurrection, eventually to good effect. I would like to see such suffering averted if it can be.

I concur with some other bloggers that it's time to focus the vast bulk of blame on the Republicans. This year they have been the most obstructionist congressional minority in recent memory. It may be that Democrats need different leaders, but we'd better stick with the same party. It's time to put those who have so egregiously misgoverned the republic in the crosshairs, and (figuratively, of course) send them out on platters. Elephant steaks, anyone?

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Newest Buffoonery From Governor Goodhair: Criminal Background Checks During Hurricanes

By Manifesto Joe

Imagine: You're one of the several million people who live in the Houston area, and there's a massive Category 5 hurricane headed straight at you. You're trying to get on an evacuation bus, but officials must first run a criminal background check on your ass.

You have outstanding warrants for parking tickets -- so they separate you from the decent folk. You eventually get loaded onto the "Group W" bus. (Apologies to Arlo Guthrie.) Meanwhile, everybody, decent or otherwise, waits.

This is more or less what would happen in Texas under a new state plan, one that was hatched during Rick "Governor Goodhair" Perry's re-election campaign of 2006. (Maybe you remember -- that one he won with about 40% of the vote.) Apparently they had such a terrible problem with moe-lesters preying upon children, handicapped folks and the elderly during past evacuations that it became imperative to do something like this, once and for all. No more moe-lestations on inland-bound buses. We put them on separate buses, where the pre-verts can commit their pre-versions on each other.

As much as I don't want to see innocent people put on the evacuation bus sitting beside the next John Wayne Gacy, this seems like a bureaucratic nightmare in the making. The implementation alone seems very daunting. This is from the report from The Houston Chronicle:

The idea, according to Jack Colley, (the state's emergency management director) is to keep sex offenders and others who may be wanted by police off the same buses used by the most vulnerable during an evacuation: the elderly, disabled residents and children.

"This will allow us to help them evacuate," Colley said of sex offenders and others wanted for crimes. "We're not going to leave anyone."

Though the intent is to make sure vulnerable evacuees aren't victimized, Colley acknowledged that culling sex offenders and other criminals from a herd of evacuees during a potentially chaotic evacuation comes with plenty of challenges.

"We'll be able to do it," he said of the task, declining to be more specific about the process because of safety concerns.

Again, the main idea is to separate the most vulnerable evacuees from wicked predators, a manifestly noble concept. But there are problems in the making. Here's more from The Chronicle:

Earlier this month, it was announced AT&T Inc. has contracted with the Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management to provide electronic wristbands for those residents wanting them, before they board an evacuation bus.

The wristbands would be scanned by emergency management officials and the person's name would be added to a bus boarding log. That person's name and their bus information would be sent wirelessly to the University of Texas Center for Space Research data center.

When the evacuee arrives at a designated shelter, the wristband would be scanned again to help state employees respond to inquiries from the public about the safety and location of evacuated family members.

The decision to wear a wristband is purely voluntary. But anyone who boards an evacuation bus will have to provide a name. There will be no requirement to show an identification card, such as a driver's license, but officials may ask those boarding for an ID.

Colley confirmed that all of those names will be checked against existing sex offender registries and other criminal background databases. Colley said officials are not interested in evacuees' past criminal convictions, only if they have outstanding warrants, are sex offenders or parolees.

After Hurricane Katrina, nearly 1,700 parolees failed to check in with authorities in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

I suppose the wristband policy will placate people whose concern is efficiency. Perhaps tattoos could be considered, but I guess those are too permanent. People can backslide, you know.

The notion seems to warrant some rethinking. I have been diligent in paying what few parking tickets I have been cited with in my time. But my memory isn't flawless; I may have forgotten one or two from my somewhat misspent youth. Suppose it came up during evacuation time, and they make me sit in the "Group W" bus next to John Wayne Gacy? That "outstanding warrants" stipulation seems to leave much room for interpretation.

Just chalk it up to Governor Goodhair's many pendejo notions. This is a man who graduated from Texas A&M with a 2.3 grade-point average, and his major was animal husbandry. He usually has to get even his bad ideas from advisers, so the plan probably wasn't even his.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how this is implemented. More from The Chronicle:

What the state is doing, is perfectly legal, according to at least one expert.

"Since it's a government record they're checking you against, there is not the same invasion of privacy concerns that may come up in other contexts," said professor Charles Rhodes, who teaches constitutional law at South Texas College of Law. "I think the need for it would outweigh any privacy concerns. This is a public safety issue"

Rhodes' only reservation would be the system itself, whether it's set up to handle, perhaps, a false match indicating someone had a criminal record when they did not. He also wants to know how smoothly such checks could be processed.

"It's going to be interesting to see how this is implemented in the time of an emergency," Rhodes said.

No shit.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Baseball Scandal May Be Metaphor For A Dark Side Of The American Dream

By Manifesto Joe

It was explained to me long ago by a Republican lawyer ex-friend. This was an old-time high school bud whom I was taking to task for, during private political discussions, not adhering to standards of formal logic or straight-line reasoned discourse. He even admitted to me, under one-to-one "questioning," that he resorted quite regularly to logical fallacies (such as the old "either/or") while at work in the courtroom.

If you wish to be a gentleman, to play by the rules, that's your prerogative, he explained to me further. The important thing, he went on, IS TO WIN.

A subculture of jocks juicing up on steroids may at first seem to have little to do with this inclination in American culture. And I'm sure the tendency to cheat is not exclusive to ours. But this man, competing on a very different playing field, summed up what was, and is, wrong in terms of values. Many among us are competitive types who love to win. I am no exception. But shouldn't it be a meaningless, hollow victory if you've cheated to do it?

By now Americans have pretty much heard from the MSM on former Sen. George Mitchell's report about past steroid abuse in Major League Baseball. The findings were far-reaching, and should be enough to sour a lot of formerly ingenuous hero-worshipping kids on this sport for a generation, since we now know that many of the records, Cy Young Awards and MVPs of the past 20 years were likely dope-fueled.

The names include Bonds, Clemens, Giambi, Justice, Pettitte, Vaughn, and on and on. It reads like the roster for a couple of All-Star teams.

What struck me is that this seems to reflect only one dark aspect of the greater American Dream, as if a metaphor for a seamy bigger side of it.

This seemed to start happening about the same time in politics. Politics in America, admittedly, has always been a full-contact sport. In the 1988 presidential campaign, the late Lee Atwater (He of the malignant brain -- I always thought that tumor was probably benign) set a new standard of slime with the Willie Horton smears against Michael Dukakis. Then the Clinton administration wasn't spotless by any means, but it was subjected to eight years of constant harassment by people alleging everything from "the Vince Foster murder" to Clinton supposedly holding up air traffic while getting a haircut. (That turned out to be an astounding urban legend, yet many still believe it.)

Corporate behavior started growing more malefic around that time, too, and got much worse. The names on that report would include Enron, Arthur Andersen, Tyco International, Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, HealthSouth, Siemens AG, etc. In other words, the All-Stars of Corporate America, caught cheating.

Then, we have American politics, Part II: a president who was essentially appointed to the job by the Supreme Court. An administration that lied our way into a war, for purposes that executives at Halliburton might be able to explain better than Bush's mouthpieces can. An administration that is robbing middle-income people while giving rich individuals lavish breaks. An administration that is covering up for torture methods and is rolling back constitutional rights. An administration that collectively smiled like a Cheshire cat while right-wing kooks "swift-boated" men like John Kerry and Max Cleland. An administration that feels quite justified in saying anything, anytime, without respect for the truth, because the important thing IS TO WIN.

The tainted baseball jocks may seem to some a metaphorical stretch, but I don't think they are. They personify a loss of basic honor, a thing that has gone tragically wrong with the American character, on all sorts of playing fields.

It is great to win. But it matters HOW, and it is of fundamental importance that America rediscovers this. Ask Barry Bonds in about 20 years -- or for that matter, Hank Aaron right now -- if they believe that the ends truly justify the means.

Postscript: I noticed that John Rocker was on the list of implicated baseball players. What Rocker needed was a performance-enhancing drug for his brain. That would have been far more valuable to him.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Fiscal Responsibility Update

By Manifesto Joe

Those tax-and-spend Democrats are at it again. Their budget bill has $11 billion more than Bush's proposal, and would squander it on useless programs for education and health research. That figure is almost what the U.S. spends on the Iraq war every month. Just think of the waste.

The White House didn't tarry with a veto threat on this. It came Saturday, before they had even seen the bill. The Associated Press reported White House budget chief Jim Nussle (wouldn't you just love to have this bozo's job?) as saying: "This so-called compromise would result in more excess spending than even the Democrats' original budget included. This is not fiscally responsible."

This from an administration that, aside from the Iraq war, is ready to add $50 billion to the annual deficit to keep upper-middle-class people from having to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax. (See previous post.)

To put this in bigger perspective, the $11 billion that the Bushies are talking about is part of an appropriations bill that hovers around $500 billion plus. We're talking about an increase of around 2% to help out some underfunded domestic needs. Hearing them label this as fiscal irresponsibility is, at best, cartoonish, considering the tax bonanzas they have handed out to the wealthy during the very time when shared sacrifice should have been stressed. And, to repeat myself, there is the cost of this (very needless) war.

I have long given up on the Bush administration's public minions ever talking like they remember what happened yesterday. They assume, rightly, that much of the public doesn't. But some people manage. I hope many will remember come November.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

AMT: It's Time For All The Tax Insanity To Stop

By Manifesto Joe

The latest skirmish is, as Yogi would say, just the latest. (It ain't over till it's over.) But the madness that has become the U.S. income tax system is coming front and center, and it's time to stop all this while there's still time.

The Alternative Minimum Tax, passed in 1969, was never indexed for inflation, and as a result now threatens to hit many millions more people. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., expressed misgivings about being one of 88 senators (5 against) who voted Thursday for a bill to block this effect for one year. He said, according to The Associated Press, that 12 million people in the $100,000 to $200,000 income level would be hit by the AMT without the fix, and "we need to stop that from happening."

Well, for starters -- poor, poor babies. It's such a sad-ass bitch to get by these days on $100,000 a year.

The problem on Capitol Hill is that there are Democrats in the House, some who refer to themselves as "Blue Dog" (more fiscally conservative) Democrats, who don't like the idea of passing something like this without some measure to make it deficit-neutral. You know, raising taxes elsewhere, or closing loopholes. It's a coalition of 47 Democrats who generally vote like moderate Republicans.

But in this case, the more liberal House leadership is solidly behind them. AP reports further that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fully supports their opposition to this measure, which would add an estimated $50 billion to the federal deficit. The AP report continued:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Republicans "complain that we pay for this legislation by closing tax loopholes. Their solution? Just add the costs of the AMT fix ($50 billion) to the deficit and national debt. I absolutely reject this fiscally irresponsible approach."

Baucus was unintentionally eloquent, likening the unindexed AMT to the Frankenstein monster. "Unless we act, it will destroy the entire tax system," he said according to AP.

I've got news for Max -- it was already in shambles, a body pieced together from warmed-over remnants of the dead.

I won't go into a lot of statistics on the subject, but a crucial one appeared in the Barlett and Steele classic America: What Went Wrong? In 1959, corporations paid 39 percent of all U.S. federal income tax revenue. By 1989, that was down to 17 percent. I would have to check, but that percentage has likely decreased significantly since. The authors cited IRS stats as their source. And, I don't recall the U.S. being in any economic trouble in 1959.

Upper-middle-class people in America are the ones who now come under the gun from the bracket creep of the AMT, and they have actually been the biggest dupes of the 25-30 year assault on the American standard of living by the supply-siders. They have done well enough so as not to be too badly affected by the shift in the tax burden or the decimation of decent jobs. Now that they are in the crosshairs, their political clout is surfacing.

But maybe not for long. A complete overhaul is what's needed, in which the big corporations that used to pony up for a bigger share will be made to do so again. This is going to entail a long and nasty fight, probably involving some local-level violence, similar to the 1930s. It can only be postponed for just so long.

Americans, this is just one more wake-up call. If Congress ends up doing what the Senate just voted for, that will be $50 billion more that the children of the working class will have to pay off in time. Smell the coffee, right now -- just plain old Joe, no lattes. In time, you won't have money to pay Starbucks for many of the latter.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Just When It's All But Dead In The US, Bush & Co. Plan A New Deal For The Forgotten Iraqi

By Manifesto Joe

Amid grotesque news about the CIA destroying torture videos, and Bush pretending he didn't know until last week the "latest" intelligence about Iran's supposed "nuclear program," the irony of this item may have been lost on some. It wasn't lost on me. The Washington Post reports that:

"The U.S. military plans to establish a civilian jobs corps to absorb tens of thousands of mostly Sunni security volunteers whom Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has balked at hiring into local police forces.

"The new jobs program marks a sharp departure from one of the most highly touted goals of the so-called Sunni awakening, which was to funnel the U.S.-paid volunteers, many of them former insurgents, into Iraq's police and military. ...

"The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has lagged in hiring the volunteers, more than three-quarters of whom are Sunnis. Sectarian concerns are "still an obstacle. I won't lie to you about that," said Col. Martin Stanton, who tracks the program for Petraeus's command. "They're deeply suspicious of any organized group of Sunnis," Stanton said of the government. ...

"He said the pilot program would be called the Civil Service Corps and compared it to the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps, the Depression-era federal public works program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt."

Shiites, you have nothing to fear but Sunnis themselves.

This program will probably be administered as though Warren G. Harding's administration had been placed in charge of the New Deal, and then expected to run it in a war-torn country that ill-conceived U.S. occupation has turned into a disaster area. For all the horse manure in which the Bush administration has tried to veil this move, the bottom line is that the Shiite-led government doesn't trust Sunnis with police powers, and so they will have to be "put to work" in civilian capacities.

Not that a country so ravaged couldn't use that, but don't expect the al-Maliki government to start putting up money for it anytime soon.

The money pit, and the military quagmire, just keep growing deeper. But maybe by the time the Iraqi version of the CCC has disbanded, they'll have some decent bridges in that country. After 70 years, we don't have so many of those here.

(If you want to get technical, yeah, I know: That was the WPA. My grandfather worked for them.)

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Newspapers And The Age Of McNugget Journalism

By Manifesto Joe

Yesterday I was contemplating the front page of a major metro daily newspaper. Above the fold: "Less holiday cheer at most corporate parties this year" -- a short teaser piece about how cost-cutting is affecting office parties, with a "refer," as it is known in the profession, to a long story on the business cover.

Right below that, a colorful "centerpiece," as newspaper designers call it: "It's LSU against Ohio State after season of ups, downs" The centerpiece is the most prominent feature on a cover page. This one really belonged on 1D, the sports cover.

This stuff was above the fold. Below, I found a short teaser piece about how Venezuelan voters narrowly rejected constitutional changes that would have allowed President Hugo Chavez to run for re-election indefinitely.

We all have our priorities. And one could argue that if I thought the Chavez item was more important, I should subscribe to The New York Times. But I couldn't help but observe the almost complete lack of substance.

The late, great Molly Ivins wrote a few years back, "I don't mind so much that newspapers are dying -- it's watching them commit suicide that pisses me off."

I read a good while back, 15 or so years, that newspapers won't become extinct. They will make a painful transition to an ancillary role, the way theatrical movies have. They will have to offer many services via the Internet, but they will still have their place as suppliers of facts and guardians of the public interest. What they lack in glitter, they are supposed to make up for in substance.

Only some of that has come to pass. Newspapers have been adapting for many years, but not with emphasis on substance. They are desperately trying to compete with TV news, and now the Internet, by trying to look like print versions of TV and Web news graphics, and by emphasizing fluff.

In the early 1980s, a journalism avant-garde led by Gannett's USA Today awakened newspapers to the endless possibilities of splashy color, eye-catching page layout, "McNews" nuggets for short attention spans, and very short stories. I call it "Newspaper Lite": twice the graphics, half the content.

There was resistance. I heard one publisher say that USA Today looked "like Walt Disney threw up on it." But almost all newspaper executives now regard those changes as inexorable. No realist expects newspapers to ever revert to a New York Times visual style.

USA Today has been a huge commercial success over 25 years, and that's hard to argue with. But like magazines, its market is national, not local.

And in the long run, stressing competition where competing media are strongest seems strategically unsound. It's analogous to a boxer fighting the other boxer's fight.

On today's front pages, one sees modular, packaged layout, ultrahip graphics, and more than a hint of tabloid titilation. Below the glossy surface lurks an odor of decay.

In literature, decadence is characterized by a triumph of style over substance. And the decline of literacy and factual knowledge has crept into newsrooms. One can see this in the number of corrections newspapers run -- that is, when the editors choose to run corrections.

I never met an editor who said he or she didn't admire and value "the old pencil skills." But people who specialize in such skills are taken for granted in the profession, like an old, familiar spouse neglected in favor of an exciting new lover. I have seen this firsthand. And in a profession that offers night-shift hours and much more stress than money, there's no incentive for "old school" journalists to plod onward, watching the latest graphic design whiz kid get on the fast track.

The emphasis on graphic flash and dash is not merely corrosive to traditional journalism standards. Editors and publishers who think this fluff is going to preserve the print editions of newspapers are betting on a delusion.

The fact is, most people can read, but no longer do. Evidence is everywhere. It is common to see "potatoe" on a restaurant menu, even after poor, forgotten Dan Quayle took such a long, well-publicized drubbing for that gaffe. The problem isn't just basic literacy. Many contemporary adults pay no attention whatsoever to public affairs, let alone read a newspaper. They are not illiterate, or semiliterate. But they are nonliterate. They can read, but it's mostly online. They spell phonetically and are at a loss when challenged to think critically.

To the remnants of newspapers' natural readership -- the truly literate minority -- the erosion of standards has not gone unnoticed. If you're getting the same neatly packaged and illustrated pablum online, why have debris tossed onto your front lawn every day?

What one sees on a typical front page nowadays reveals a trivial herd mentality, not news judgment. And I suspect that some of the surviving literate are dropping their subscriptions in disgust. If you cannot find refuge from the lowest common denominator by reading a "respected" newspaper, where can you find it?

Newspapers that are going online will survive, and perhaps even prosper. Most people will still want things like restaurant guides, classified ads, and lots of sports news. They will locate the bite-sized information they want, then leave the genuinely literate to read on.

History runs in cycles. With good intentions, a generation of editors has cheerfully dressed and painted up newspapers like the town chippy in vain hope of enticing nonliterate "readers." At the risk of fighting windmills, I suggest it's time to re-emphasize what newspapers do best -- get the facts carefully, then present them intelligently and in sufficient depth. Some ex-readers might even subscribe again, for old times' sake. Then they can wrap the fish.

Manifesto Joe Is An Underground Writer Living In Texas.