Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Whose Side Is She On?

There was a time when I would have enthusiastically supported Hillary Clinton for president, but no longer.

She has provided no leadership in getting us out of an illegal, immoral, stupid occupation of a nation that had nothing to do with 9-11. Of course, she's not alone there, but with a majority of Americans now in support of withdrawal (vindicating those of us who said three years ago that going in was a mistake), we need elected officials who can stand up and do the right thing. Men like John Murtha. Women like Nancy Pelosi. Someone has to stand up to this administration of corrupt chickenhawks, and I don't see Ms Clinton doing it.

The last straw was her sponsorship of a bill to make flag-burning illegal. This is insane. Why pander to the superstitious know-nothings? Not only is flag-burning an extremely rare and victimless act, but to even think about it while we're in Iraq, and while the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, is grossly irresponsible for an elected official.

Ms Clinton either needs to stand up on the side of reason, humanity, and liberty, or just join the Republicans.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Watch Your Backs, Dover!

It looks like Pat Robertson just blew his chances of ever being named grand marshal of the Dover, Pennsylvania Christmas Parade. Earlier this week, the citizens of Dover wisely voted out a school board that had been leaning toward introducing intelligent design as a alternative to the theory of evolution, and Robertson took the opportunity to cast judgment on them. “If there’s a disaster in Dover, don’t turn to God,” he said. “You’ve just rejected him from your city.”

(To which I would add “Don’t turn to FEMA, either, because it’ll take them three weeks to respond and they’ll probably go to Dover, Delaware first.” Or not, since FEMA jokes are pretty much outdated by now.)

Robertson went on to recommend that if the citizens of Dover run into any future problems, they should call on Charles Darwin. “Maybe he can help them,” he said. I’m sure he thought that was a clever quip, and I have no doubt that he had a shit-eating smirk worthy of George W. Bush on his face when he said it, but let’s face it, if a disaster were to hit Dover, nobody would be calling on Charles Darwin, because, well, he’s not alive. They’d call the Red Cross, and they’d call the local rescue squads, and they’d pitch in and help each other out, just the way human beings do whenever a disaster hits anywhere.

And if a miracle happened and someone claiming to be God showed up to help, I’m pretty sure his first words would be “Pat Robertson doesn’t speak for me.”

Who does Pat Robertson speak for? One would hope the number of deadheads who believe everything this guy says would be declining steadily, for a couple of reasons, the cynical being that he’s conned them out of so much money that they can no longer afford the ramen noodles and Alpo they were using for sustenance, and the optimistic being that even the most sheeplike fundamentalists have the wherewithal to recognize that when their “religious” leader starts calling for the CIA to assassinate foreign presidents (as Robertson did a few months ago), then maybe, just maybe, he’s crossed the border into Kookyland.

Pat Robertson is worlds apart from the Christianity I grew up with, and I’m betting he’s worlds apart from the Christianity followed by sincere believers today (this would not include the George Bushes of the world). Robertson is a self-worshiping fame whore who absolutely will not pass up a chance to call attention to himself, especially when it gives him a chance to pretend to be an Old Testament prophet: “Yea, verily, the Doverites have sinned against the Lord, and lo, they’d better watch their backs.”

But Pat, what about the people who voted to keep the superstitious school board members in office? Surely God would pluck them out of a disaster, right? “Yea, verily. I’m pretty sure.”

Robertson’s little tirade served no purpose other than to get his mug in the newspapers again. At one point he said the citizens of Dover had “voted God out of the city,” which is the sort of thing zealots trot out every so often to scare people who haven’t had an original thought since the first time they set foot in Sunday School. But, honestly, Pat, which the hell is it? Is your gravy train omnipotent or not? What kind of deity lets himself get voted off the island?

Kudos to the people of Dover for standing up to the backwards thinkers who want the magical theory of creation taught as science. And kudos to the media who reported Robertson’s latest nonsensical outburst. The more you can expose this charlatan as a crazy old coot, the sooner he can wither away.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Congratulations on Your Use of the Language, George

Normally when I hear George W. Bush’s voice on the radio I just turn it off, on the assumption that whatever he says is either going to be (a) hyperpatriotic mush or (b) patently untrue. This morning, however, I was in the process of dressing and couldn’t get to the snooze button in time to avoid hearing him announce Samuel Alito as his latest Supreme Court nomination.

The fact that some people are calling Alito “Scalia Lite” is probably enough reason to devote an essay to him, but that’s not the topic here. What I want to discuss is what Bush said at the end of his speech this morning. He turned to Alito and said “Congratulations on your nomination.”

And I thought: “Did this dumbass forget he was the one who nominated him?”

You don’t congratulate someone for something that wouldn’t have happened to him if you hadn’t made it happen. Other people can come up to Alito and congratulate him on his nomination, but it makes absolutely no sense for Bush to do it. Bush can congratulate himself if he wants to.

This would be like a baseball player hitting a grand slam and then congratulating the runners who were on base: “Way to go, guys—way to score those runs!”

You know, it’s not that hard to use the language in a thoughtful, logical way. The alternative is to do what Bush does and repeat stuff he’s overheard in other conversations and hope it’s appropriate.

And by the way, how would you like to be the second choice behind Harriet Miers?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Now That's What I Call Rapture

Back when I was a churchgoin’ sort of fellow, there was a pretty catchy hymn I liked that contained the lyric “When we all get to heaven/What a day of rejoicing that will be.”

That sounded pretty good to me at the time: all your old friends and relatives gathered around, praising God, whooping it up, looking forward to an eternity of more praising God and whooping it up. It seemed to me that anyone who had the opportunity to get in on something that sounded like so much fun would be crazy to take a pass on it.

Yes, sir, after praising God for a billion years, you’re just getting warmed up for the next trillion.

Anyway, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these days I take a more rational view of the world. There are enough solvable problems on this planet that everyone ought to be able to find a niche in one of three categories: (1) people trying to solve the problems, (2) people trying to entertain the people trying to solve the problems, and (3) people who have sense enough to stay out of the way of the people trying to solve the problems.

But the way I see it, there’s a fourth category of people who want you to believe that it doesn’t matter if anyone solves these problems or not, because in just a few years it’ll all be over anyhow and several million people will be taken up to heaven in something called the rapture.

What a day of rejoicing that will be—particularly if you have any inclination toward looting. But I digress.

Sad to say, there’s a lot of energy diverted from problem-solving into rapture-preparedness. I refer you now to a website known as Rapture Letters (www.raptureletters.com), a site for people who are convinced they’ll be among the raptured. These people are encouraged to submit the names and email addresses of people they’re pretty sure won’t be raptured, so that when the big day comes, an automatic email will be sent to these people, explaining that their friends and neighbors have been taken up to heaven and offering them an opportunity to get on the right track, too, for whatever comes next. The post-rapture, maybe, or the rapture wrap-up.

Now, call me a cynic, but I think they’re collecting those email addresses for a whole ‘nother reason. I think they’re just trying to build the world’s largest database of heathens and free thinkers. If you read the site carefully, nowhere does it say “We will not spam the person whose email address you send us.”

If you haven’t checked out the site yet, here’s how it’s supposed to work: You send in the name and email address of your unbelieving buddy. That address is added to the database of people scheduled to get the “rapture letter,” which begins “This message has been sent to you by a friend or a relative who has recently disappeared along with millions and millions of people around the world. The reason they chose to send you this letter is because they cared about you and would like you to know the truth about where they went. This may come as a shock to you, but the one who sent you this has been takenup to heaven,” etc etc.

Now, the superpowered mainframe computer at Rapture Letters Headquarters has been programmed to send the rapture letter to the entire database every Friday—unless the head man in charge manually resets it before then. Naturally, the man in charge has no doubt he’s going to be raptured, so if he’s not around to hit the reset button, there can be no other explanation: It’s rapture time.

(The website says that the mailing list will receive the rapture letter on the first Friday after the rapture. So if the rapture happens on a Saturday, it’ll be six days before you get your letter. You could drop a note in the corner mailbox on your way up to heaven, and it'll get there faster than the email.)

The website doesn’t indicate whose brilliant idea this was, but I just imagine that someday, many years from now, the programmer on his deathbed will call his firstborn son to his side: “Son—I’ve been pressing the reset button on the rapture letters program every Friday for the last 57 years. I’d like you to take over for me, son.”

“I promise, Dad.”

And then two hours after the funeral, delete goes the database and Dad’s old computer gets tossed in the landfill.

It’s free to have a name added to the database, but there’s also a section of the website that says they accept “love offerings.” They assure us that only 10 percent of donations are used for administrative costs, while 90 percent are used to “further the kingdom of God.”

I suspect that furthering the kingdom of God covers about as much ground for these people as it does for charlatans like Pat Robertson.

If you think a rapture is going to occur in your lifetime (and it would pretty much have to, if they don’t want all those emails to bounce back), by all means, send the folks at Rapture Letters a name or two and pat yourself on the back. But once you’re done doing that, take a look around and see if there’s something helpful you can do now.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Grasping For A Harriet Miers Analogy

To help you fully understand my position on George W. Bush’s nomination of his personal legal counsel Harriet Miers to a seat on the Supreme Court, I have to take a paragraph or two to discuss a game called Strat-O-Matic Baseball.

Strat-O-Matic, or Strato, is a simulated baseball game using one red die, two white dice, charts for fielding and baserunning, and individual cards that reflect each player’s statistics for the previous year. There are three columns on each card: The hitters’ columns are numbered 1, 2, and 3; the pitchers’ 4, 5, and 6. Under each column is a list of 11 possible baseball results (strikeout, single, groundout, etc) numbered 2-12. Let’s say Bob Gibson is pitching to Carl Yastrzemski, and you roll a 4 on your red die and a total of 7 on the two white dice. You look under Gibson’s 4 column, find the 7, and note that Yaz has struck out.

That’s Strato in a nutshell. Every year you can buy all the major league teams from the previous year, replay the whole season or part of it, trade players between teams without hurting anyone’s feelings, and jot it all down in a notebook—or, if you played as much as I did, in dozens of notebooks.

Basically, playing Strato is how I spent a great deal of my time from eighth grade on through college. I was the manager of 24 big-league teams, and even though I had unlimited power to throw games, make lopsided trades, or shred the cards of players I didn’t like, I maintained the integrity of the game by keeping it as realistic as possible. There were no light-hitting shortstops batting cleanup in my leagues, no iron-horse pitchers throwing all four games of a series.

It was a clean game, by golly. I wouldn’t let myself play favorites.

But usually, somewhere late in the season, I’d get the urge to do something a little strange—and usually it involved giving some lame middle reliever a spot start, even though he had a horrendous ERA, an embarrassing strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a tendency to give up a couple of home runs every time he pitched. We’ll call this incredibly luckless pitcher Harry Myers.

Harry would spend most of the season in the bullpen, only coming in to get some mop-up work in games his team was leading or trailing by ten runs or so. I wouldn’t put him in a close game because it’d look like I was throwing the game to the other side. He was just there to fill out the 25-man roster.

But then once in a blue moon, just to see what would happen, I’d let Harry Myers start a game. The imaginary fans would go berserk: What’s Myers doing in there? What’s the manager thinking? Who in their freaking right mind thinks this weenie-armed righthander deserves a start?!

At no time did Harry Myers ever reward my confidence—he always got shelled. There was a possibility, of course, that the dice could have fallen the right way every time and he could have defied the odds by twirling a three-hit shutout. But he never did. In the whole league, there were dozens of middle relievers who would have performed better in a spot start—but in my more impish moments, I decided to start the worst possible pitcher.

So I don’t know if Harriet Miers would be a good Supreme Court justice or not. She’s been quoted as saying George W. Bush is the smartest man she’s ever met, which would seem to indicate she’s not that bright herself (that or she’s carrying one hell of a torch). All I know is that this nomination is the work of a complete dingleberry, a guy who’s just screwing around, a guy who won’t put out the slightest mental effort to do the right thing. From Iraq to the Supreme Court, he’s like a kid who starts playing with a chemistry set without reading the instructions: “Let’s see what I happens when I do this!”

You think there might be a handful of brilliant, experienced jurists with slightly better qualifications than Harriet Miers? Two or three, maybe? It doesn’t matter to this president. At least when I started a goofball pitcher in a game of Strato, it had no effect on the other 250 million Americans.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

One Nation Under Whatever

Last week a federal court in San Francisco declared the phrase “under God” unconstitutional in the pledge of allegiance. This prompted the usual suspects to put up their usual clamor, as in “This is another example of the persecution of Christians!” and “We’re playing right into the Soviet Union’s hands!” (Seriously—everyone raise a hand who knows someone who thinks the Soviet Union still exists. I have a family member who said, when the Berlin Wall came down, “It’s a trick.”)

In the midst of all the clamor, I don’t see anyone stating the obvious, which is the fact that complaining about “under God” in the pledge of allegiance is like complaining about finding a fishhook in your tainted salmon. The pledge is a ridiculous waste of schoolchildren’s time, whether it’s two words shorter or not.

As a reminder, here it is: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Now, surely I’m not the only person who realizes that everything after the word “stands” is fluff. It’s irrelevant. It’s nothing more than a description of the republic for which the flag stands, and as such it’s unnecessary. You’ve already pledged allegiance to the flag and the republic, so there’s no need for a commercial at the end. It might as well say I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, the land of the free and the home of the brave, a place with 50 states, and the birthplace of jazz, professional baseball, and David Letterman.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a believer or not: “Under God” has nothing to do with what you’ve pledged allegiance to. It’s fluff, and it’s fluff that was crammed into the pledge in the 1950s to show the Russians that we were just as good at indoctrinating kids as they were. I'll assume there were protests at the time, protests that they should be taking stuff out of the pledge instead of putting stuff in, although now that I think of it I’m sure that would have prompted a visit from HUAC.

So now for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the fluff is gone, and that the pledge is down to its bare bones: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands. Now what do we do with it?

Do we make people say it every day? Well, that seems silly. It’s a pledge. Once you’ve pledged something, you’ve pledged it. If someone comes along and tries to make you pledge it a second time, your reaction should be “No, thanks, I’m good—I already pledged that.”

That’s especially true of allegiance. Unless you see a second-grader sneaking off to pledge allegiance to Great Britain or Antarctica or the “Soviet Union,” I think we can safely assume that his or her allegiance still lies with the country it was pledged to yesterday.

And that brings me to my final point. Does anyone believe that even the smartest kindergartener has the slightest idea what he’s doing when he says the pledge of allegiance? Good lord, no. When I was in fourth grade, we had to write a one-page paper on what the pledge meant to us. As I placed my essay on the teacher’s desk, I noticed that the kid ahead of me had titled his “The Pledge of the Legions.”

So here was a guy who thought he’d been saying the Pledge of the Legions every day for the last five years—which had to mean he thought he was saying “I pledge of the legions to the flag…,” which isn’t exactly common English syntax, which means he didn’t have a clue what he was saying.

Just like the rest of us.

All the energy expended on pursuing a court case to remove “under God” from the pledge of allegiance seems misguided to me. It’s aiming at the wrong target. Take out “under God” and you’re still left with a pointless exercise, because no pledge is valid if someone makes you stand up and say it.

If the goal is to create loyal Americans, I suggest discarding the pledge and using that time to study the Constitution. The short-term benefit of that is less wasted classroom time. The long-term benefit is a more conscientious electorate.

One Additional Thought on Pointless Exercises

+ I’ll never forget that time in grade school when that KGB agent disguised as a set of monkey bars offered me five bucks for a map of the locations of Defense Department missile silos. I told him I’d have to ask my mom and dad, but heck, now I know I should have said “Sorry, man, I just pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands—for the 387th straight school day.”

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Profiles in Leadership, or Not

I blame George W. Bush for the atmospheric conditions that caused Hurricane Katrina.

OK, not really. I’m kidding. I figured I might as well say it, because any criticism of Bush’s performance in the hurricane’s aftermath tends to draw out devoted Bush-lovers with one absurd comment after another: “Leave it to you liberals to blame Bush for a natural disaster.”

So let’s get it out in the open. If you hear any rabid Bushie accuse liberals of blaming the hurricane on Bush, just pat him on the head and remind him that you were young and your opinions uninformed once, too.

There’s plenty of blame to go around—not for the hurricane, but for the slow response, the inability to get food and water to stranded people, the bureaucratic foul-ups, etc. I’m not going to cover that here. What I want to talk about is leadership, and what passes for it these days.

Anyone with internet access knew what was going on in New Orleans when the 17th Street levee was breached. We knew the streets were filling with water, we knew people were heading to the Superdome, and we knew that some people didn’t make it. We knew people were tying dead bodies to utility poles to keep them from drifting too far from their homes. We knew something tragic was happening on a historical scale.

And the president of the United States flew into action—if by flying into action you mean flying into San Diego to get his picture taken strumming a guitar. Look at the picture up there: He’s got his trademark smirk on, he’s acting like the Singing Cowboy and yukking it up for the crowd, and he doesn’t have a care in the world.

This to me is the most damning photograph of this bonehead’s presidency. I never thought anything could top his deer-in-the-headlights look during the reading of “My Pet Goat,” but this one nails it. It helps to know the context, which is why so many websites have juxtaposed this photograph with shots of the horror going on simultaneously in New Orleans, but when you do, this picture screams “I have let this country down and will continue to do so again and again.”

You know, there was a big flood in New Madrid, Missouri in 1790, but then-President George Washington had an excuse for not making immediate comment on it: His cell phone wasn’t charged. There’s no excuse for Bush not knowing. His handlers had to know. His handlers—who seem to be penisheads in their own right but at least cognizant of what constitutes both good and devastating PR—should have insisted that Bush cancel this appearance and act like a president.

When you look at that picture, you see a man who’s either clueless or uncaring and probably both. You see a man, a leader in name only, who is not responding to the destruction of a major American seaport.

No one expected Bush to go to New Orleans and plug the breach himself, or distribute food and water, or take charge of a triage unit. All he had to do was put down the goddamned guitar and take something seriously.

He didn’t. And I’m not sure he’s knows he’s supposed to. He does have to get on with his life, after all.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bill Shanks and the Cosmic Finger of Death

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fanatics were out in full force. A Louisiana pastor named Bill Shanks said the devastation in New Orleans was God’s way of wiping out the rampant sin in the city, including but not limited to abortion, Mardi Gras, voodoo, and a six-day gay pride event called Southern Decadence. The Columbia Christians for Life claimed that a satellite photo of Katrina resembled a six-week-old fetus, and drew the logical conclusion that God was wreaking vengeance on New Orleans’ abortion clinics. And, of course, numerous folks have thanked God for his mercy in sparing them while their neighbors down the road got whacked.

Come to think of it, there’s one thing all these people have in common. They’re alive.

The people who lost their lives in the hurricane and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans had no response. Were they in a position to comment, I suspect they might say “But I’ve never had an abortion,” “But I don’t practice voodoo,” or “But I’ve never attended a six-day gay pride event.”

I doubt if that’s even crossed Bill Shanks’ little mind. To Bill and his self-righteous brethren, if you happen to get caught in God’s crossfire, then it’s tough luck, amigo. I’m still amazed that the same people who believe in an omniscient, omnipotent god don’t see how incompetent he is when it comes to wiping out these alleged sinners. Where are the lightning bolts? Where is the cosmic finger of death? Where’s the planning?

If Bill Shanks’ god was so upset at Southern Decadence, he could have dropped a meteor on New Orleans in the middle of that event. But no, the supreme all-knowing master of the universe instead decides to kill 10,000 poor people and hope the sinful survivors get the message. This is truly an example of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. “I killed who?” said Katrina/God in a rare interview. “Well, shoot, that wasn’t the idea at all.”

The Columbia Christians for Life are every bit as delusional as Shanks, but in a different way. Their god is a surrealist artist who takes the time to shape invisible atmospheric elements so they’ll sort of appear to sort of look sort of like a six-week-old fetus in satellite photos. This is truly a god that needs a hobby, a god that doesn’t see the value in keeping it simple.

Let’s face it. You know why the Joker kept getting caught by Batman? Because he was too damn concerned about decorating his hideout and providing matching sweatshirts for his henchmen. He’d have been a much more successful criminal if he had lost the clown makeup and the pink suit and started committing his crimes on the sly. Same deal with the Columbia Christians’ god. If he’s got something to say, let him say it without fancying it up.

I'm not holding my breath on that one.

And by the way, I saw the satellite photo in question, and I didn’t see a six-week-old fetus. I did, however, see Pac-Man and that little dog from the Pooch CafĂ© comic strip.

Basically, I wish people like Bill Shanks and his ilk would stop seeing every destructive force of nature as divine vengeance. We know what causes hurricanes, and we know they don’t chase down gay people and voodoo practitioners. They do leave people homeless and hungry, though, so if Shanks wants to do some good in the world, maybe he can organize a food and clothing drive. Crazy idea, huh?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Throw On Another Blanket Generalization

Recently I was surfing around at HuffingtonPost.com, a relatively new site that combines news items, liberal columnists, and the unmoderated commentary of any knucklehead with a keyboard (though of course that last feature is, frankly, sort of what makes the internet the internet), and I fell into a debate about who had the greater claim to morality, Republicans or Democrats.

A poster calling himself The Christian Right summed up his feelings about those of us on the left, to wit: "You must come to the realization that you are irresponsible, you have no self discipline, you have no shame, you have no moral compass, you have no objectivity, you have no plan, you are not forward thinking, you have little value in a civilized society, you reside on the lunatic fringe, and you cannot legitimately defend that position."

Golly. What bad people we must be. (But you know, as misguided as this person is, at least he used the serial comma.)

I couldn't help responding to this Christian Right person, because I think part of the problem we liberals have right now is that we don't make enough effort to counter such lunacy. Even when we're maligned by people like this, people who are blinded by ideology, people who feel marginalized, we should still let others know that his opinions and the truth are miles apart.

Here's how I responded.

* * *

The Christian Right is not right at all.

He says "you're irresponsible," but I'll bet he hates Planned Parenthood, which teaches people how to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

He says "you have no self-discipline," but fails to notice that his blanket generalization is a classic example of undisciplined, immature thought.

He says "you have no shame," but supports the most shameful leader in our country's history, a president who openly lies about his reasons for sending young Americans to their death.

He says "you have no moral compass," but pridefully believes his moral compass is good enough for everyone to use.

He says "you have no objectivity," yet he can justify one president's lies over another's, because that president believes the way he does.

He says "you have no plan," but has no interest in considering a plan that would improve living conditions for the poor and middle-class, no interest in considering a plan that doesn't conform to his exceedingly narrow and superstitious worldview.

He says "you're not forward-thinking," simply because our thinking is aimed at avoiding Armageddon, not inviting it.

He says "you have little value in a civilized society," without regard to the fact that progressive thinkers are the ones that advanced the cause of civil rights, ended slavery, enfranchised women, and guaranteed his right to practice the religion of his choice.

He says "you reside on the lunatic fringe," which, whether it's true or not, is a far more moral place to reside than among the self-righteous and narrow-minded.

He says "you cannot legitimately defend that position," but I can, and I have, and so can everyone in this blog who believes in American ideals. There's room for everyone in our tent, Christian Right, but you cannot in good conscience say the same.

* * *

I might have gotten a little heavy-handed toward the end, but hey, the good news is that I suddenly remembered I have a blog. Perhaps I won't go five months between posts next time.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Straw Man Maker of the Week

The Electron Runes is proud to present its first Straw Man Maker of the Week award to editorial cartoonist Dick Wright of The Columbus Dispatch. This award will be presented on a semi-regular basis to the person who best exemplifies the philosophical “Straw Man” fallacy, so Dick, this one’s for you.

If you’re not familiar with this fallacy, here’s a definition from www.nizkor.org: “The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of that position.”

In other words, why settle for having an opinion when you can completely fictionalize the opinions of those you disagree with?

Dick’s winning entry is a two-panel cartoon. In the first panel, a young man is solemnly reading from the Ten Commandments, which are mounted on a stone pedestal. He reads “Thou shalt not swear. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not murder. Honor thy father and mother.” In the second panel, a fat, mustached, ponytailed man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase labeled “ACLU” is shrieking “That religious rotgut has no place in government buildings!”

Well, as much as Dick might want to believe it (or more importantly, as much as he wants people who aren’t exactly critical thinkers to believe it), the ACLU hasn’t been referring to the Ten Commandments as religious rotgut. Looks to me like Dick chose that phrase to get the biggest rise out of readers who already feel their religious beliefs are under fire. Had the ACLU man in the cartoon calmly said “We feel the Ten Commandments are an important part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, but that displaying them in a government building is tantamount to government endorsement of religion,” the cartoon would have been more accurate (and more bland, though no less unfunny), readers would still have had room to disagree, and Dick wouldn’t have won this award.

But wait, there’s more. I’m awarding Dick a Special Citation to go along with his inaugural SMMW honors, because he very slyly set up two straw men in this cartoon. Calling Old Testament statuary “religious rotgut” was certainly the most obvious, but let’s not forget that the character in the first panel was intoning the commandments about lying, stealing, killing, and honoring one’s parents. Hey, wait, that makes it look like the ACLU thinks an admonition against killing is religious rotgut! Otherwise Dick could have drawn the cartoon in one panel, with his demonized ACLU man shrieking at the monument standing alone.

Dick, you sly fox, that straw man was subtle, but I caught it and so will most people who haven’t been brainwashed by the Karl Rove spin machine. Congratulations on being the first recipient of the Electron Runes’ Straw Man Maker of the Week award, and be sure to keep rousing that rabble. We wouldn’t anyone to calm down and notice that removing the Ten Commandments from government buildings won’t make one damn bit of difference in their lives, now would we?

Random Thoughts on the Big Ten

+ Did you notice that in Dick’s cartoon, he subtly changed the commandment from “Thou shalt not kill” to “Thou shalt not murder”? Makes it a whole lot easier to justify invading foreign countries that way.

+ Even though they say nothing against rape, child molesting, giving tax breaks to corporate polluters, and operating commercial establishments in residential zoning areas, I think the Ten Commandments are basically good enough to be posted in any church that wants to post them.

+ Some people who want the Ten Commandments displayed in government buildings have rather disingenuously altered their argument to claim the Ten Cs have historical significance. If they can prove that Moses brought the tablets down from Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July, 1776, I’d consider that a valid argument. Otherwise, they need to stop pretending that they aren’t trying to push their religious beliefs off on everyone else. If the Ten Commandments are significant to American history, then so are Hammurabi’s Code, the Magna Carta, the cave paintings at Altamira, and Plato’s Republic. Put ‘em all in an exhibit called “Stuff That Happened, But Not Here.”

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Antichrist Dead, Film at 11

I read in the paper this morning that a man in Nebraska was sentenced to life in prison for the first-degree murder of his four-year-old son. He had a good reason, though: He believed the boy was the antichrist.

According to the story, when the man confessed to the killing, he claimed the boy had the number 666 on his forehead. Of course, since the body has yet to be found, we have no way of knowing if Dad wrote it on there with a ballpoint pen or a Sharpie.

Now, the most likely scenario is that the murderer, probably an abuse victim himself, made a habit of beating his son, went too far one day, then figured he could get off by claiming the victim was the antichrist. After all, everybody hates antichrists, right? What judge would convict a man for killing the antichrist?

I’m sure his lawyer suggested something a bit more plausible: “Bob, I think you’d be better off saying the kid slipped and fell in the bathtub. Yes, even though you hid the body, it’s got more legs than the antichrist thing. Trust me.”

Let’s face it. The “my son, the antichrist” defense might have worked in ninth-century Europe or present-day Vatican City, but fortunately, here in the mostly rational world it doesn’t fly.

However. Let’s pause for a moment and give the murderer the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he sincerely believed the smudges on the kid’s forehead said 666 and jumped to the eschatological conclusions. It doesn’t make him any less twisted, but it does raise an interesting point. Since you have to take the Book of Revelation seriously to even believe in the concept of an antichrist, it follows that you think the whole “end times” interpretation has to play itself out, lest (gasp) the bible be proven fallible. I mean, you either believe in Revelation as prophecy or you don’t, so if you honestly believe your kid is the antichrist, where the hell do you get off killing him? Where’s the verse in Revelation that says “Then the antichrist will be born in Nebraska but will be slain before he can do anything much worse than leaving his dad’s tools out in the driveway overnight”?

Somewhere in a Nebraska prison, a big convict named Bubba has “the antichrist killer” cornered in the shower room: “When I heard you say you killed the antichrist, it made me doubt the theological beliefs I hold so dear—and I don’t appreciate that, bitch.”

I feel sorry for the victim. Whether his dad was abusive or delusional, he got cheated, badly. So parents, stop killing your kids because you think they’re the antichrist. They aren’t. Nor are they Zeus, Harry Potter, or Huckleberry Finn. Your kids might be cranky, they might need a nap, they might need a visit from Supernanny Jo Frost, but for crying out loud they aren’t the freakin antichrist.

Monday, February 28, 2005

And Now the Non-News

(Or, How the Media Can Redeem Itself)

An unidentified but technologically proficient ne’er-do-well hacked Paris Hilton’s T-Mobile cell phone and posted the contents on the internet yesterday. Among the electronic swag were celebrity phone numbers, private email correspondence, and suggestive pictures of the blonde socialite and a female friend. “I think it’s disgusting that someone would do such a thing,” said Hilton. “Though in retrospect, it’s hardly as disgusting as invading a sovereign nation on false pretenses and sending young men and women there to die.”

Opening arguments have begun in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial. Prosecutors opened with a litany of the King of Pop’s quirks and accused him of exposing the 13-year-old victim to a variety of strange sexual behavior. In a surprise move, Jackson’s defense attorneys responded with a question: “Why are there so many reporters covering this trial when they could be writing stories about how the White House knowingly leaked classified information to a neo-con operative and gay prostitute?”

Are they or aren’t they? Just weeks after separating, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston shared a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day, leading to speculation that reconciliation is imminent. Dining at their Los Angeles mansion, the estranged couple enjoyed Chinese food from their favorite restaurant and expressed utter disbelief that the President of the United States thinks people are ignorant enough to fall for his “Social Security crisis” routine.

In local news, firefighters in West Smalltown rescued 93-year-old Mildred Fern’s cat Spunky from a tree Tuesday afternoon. “We’re always glad to help people in need,” said Fire Chief Rex Putnam. “It sure beats taking away individual freedoms in favor of corporate interests and religious fundamentalism like a certain Bush administration I can think of.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Amazingly Wrong

One fine day in 1978 when I was alphabetizing my collection of vinyl records, I noticed that quite a few of them had notches cut in the cover, about a half-inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. First I thought it was the work of my younger brother, but then I realized that for someone to cut that many notches in the exact same fashion would have required the diligence, precision, and devious mind of a crop circle maker, and that just wasn’t his style.

Eventually I learned that I was the owner of several “cut-out” records, which, as I understand it now, were records that didn’t sell well during their first release and were thus notched and marked for the bargain bin.

That explained how I could afford so many records. “You mean this copy of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s ‘Works Volume 2’ didn’t sell out the first time? Gee, I just thought it was a temporary price reduction.”

It was in the bargain bin that I found an album, incredibly cheap, by a group I’d never heard of called Amazing Blondel. There were vague references to English folk music and Elizabethan instruments on the cover, so I figured for 99 cents I couldn’t go wrong.

I took the record home and slapped Side One on the turntable, and what came out was the dreariest, most soulless, most godawfully boring music I’d ever heard. I actually checked to see if I’d accidentally switched the turntable speed from 33 1/3 rpm to 16.

My brother came in and had a listen, and fell asleep standing up.

For the next 25 years, he and I shared an in-joke: Whenever the subject of bad music came up, we’d look at each other and say “Amazing Blondel.”

We spent a quarter of a century defaming the name and sullying the reputation of a group we assumed split up and took non-musical jobs shortly after recording that tedious first album.

But a couple of months ago I was surfing around the All Music Guide site, and just out of curiosity I looked up Amazing Blondel’s page. They hadn’t given up music. In fact, they’d put out quite a few albums and were still appearing at festivals throughout Europe. This can’t be true, I thought—you can’t build a career on a fan base of insomniacs.

So I listened to a couple of samples from the group’s second and third albums, “Evensong” and “Fantasia Lindum.”

And damn. They were good. They were, I hate to say, amazingly good—good enough for me to get out my debit card and order both CDs. For the next three weeks, that’s all I listened to in my car. They harmonized beautifully, and they played their Elizabethan guitars, lutes, citterns, harmoniums, and ocarinas with a light airy touch that made you feel as if you were romping through the English heather with the stablemaster’s daughter.

Well, that’s how it made me feel, anyway.

I called my brother and had him listen to one of the songs, “Spring Season,” to see if he could guess who was playing it. He didn’t have a guess, but said it sounded good and asked for a hint. When I said “I believe in second chances,” he didn’t miss a beat: “Amazing Blondel.”

So I don't know what I was expecting from that bargain bin album, and frankly I don't even remember now what I heard. I can't guarantee someone didn't slip an Elizabethan garage band's demo disk into an Amazing Blondel sleeve. But now, as reparation for past snap judgments, let me go on record as saying those Amazing Blondel CDs have enhanced my music collection—and, what the hell, they’ve enhanced my life as well.

When I’m wrong I’m amazingly wrong, often for 25 years at a time.

Monday, February 21, 2005

An Inauspicious Debut

Last night a friend of mine said "I'm surprised you don't have a blog."

I said "Really? Cause I'm not surprised in the least, given the number of notebooks I've purchased for journal-writing purposes and then abandoned after one or two pages. I'd hate to go to the trouble of starting a blog and then have it sit gathering cyberdust after the obligatory 'Welcome to my blog' entry."

But then I got to thinking about it and decided that I might as well try it, if only because I don't have a good outlet for expressing my contempt for the "Alley Oop" comic strip.


I'm passionate about a lot of things. I think George W. Bush is the worst president in history. I think Jerry Springer is at least partially responsible for the decline in civil behavior, and I wish SNL would go back to featuring more eclectic musical acts. I believe that elected officials who seriously consider amending the Constitution to outlaw flag-burning probably don't have the brains to be in office, and should consider refunding a portion of his or her salary commensurate with the time spent thinking about something so flagrantly unconstitutional.

At some point I plan to write at length about all those things. But right now I just can't believe how ridiculous Alley Oop is.

In the category of Comic Strips Set in Prehistoric Times, Alley Oop holds last place only because the self-righteous and preachy B.C. does still, on rare occasions, fire off an amusing gag.

Alley Oop spends most of his time in the land of Moo, acting as bodyguard for King Guz and romping with his pet dinosaur Dinny, who, along with the numerous other dinosaurs that appear in the strip from time to time, forgot to become extinct before the evolution of primates. Now, I like a good anachronism as much as the next guy, but some consistency would be nice. The soldiers in the land of Moo wear helmets made out of turtle shells, but in today's strip there's a guy wearing a visor. Is it made of rock? The pelvic bones of a dinosaur? It's hard to say--it just looks like a 99-cent plastic visor from Wal-Mart.

Why? Because apparently the cartoonists just thought this character needed a visor.

In a recent series of strips, Alley Oop and his cave-girlfriend Ooola travel as they often do to the future, courtesy of the brilliant physicist Dr Wonmug (one mug = Ein stein, get it?). Wonmug plans to use his time machine to send Alley and Ooola on a romantic trip to Paris, but just at the moment of intertemporal molecular transportation, a can of soda drops on the control panel and changes the coordinates to the 15th century. The wacky cave couple lands in Paris, all right, but when they try to exchange their dollars for euros, they're met with sneering suspicion by all the Parisians save one, a friendly hunchbacked bellringer from the nearby Cathedral of Notre Dame. Alley realizes that he's not in modern-day France at about the same time a mob of peasants accuse Ooola of being a witch. The neighborhood cleric loses no time sentencing Ooola to be burned at the stake.

Alley Oop ponders Dr Wonmug's general time-traveling warning not to change the course of history, as if the presence of a couple of homo erectus dressed in J.C. Penney casual wear hadn't already caused a few 15th-century Frenchmen to question their sanity. He disguises himself as the hunchback, rescues Ooola, and graciously lets Quasimodo take the credit.

We're left to wonder what the bloodthirsty mob did to Quasimodo after the cavepeople left.

Now, while Alley Oop is cavorting around France, Dr Wonmug is assaulted and tied up by two thugs named Heck and Marko, as part of their evil scheme to become millionaires through the illicit use of the time machine. Just what do they have in mind, you ask? The theft of the original Mona Lisa? Pillaging the gold of ancient Peru? Buying Microsoft stock at an IPO?

No, Heck and Marko plan to go back to caveman times, lure every dinosaur into a pit, and fill it in, thus creating the first do-it-yourself oil deposits. Part 2 of the plan is to return to the present and drill for the oil they "planted" lo those many years ago.

They might be criminals, but by golly they aren't above doing some hard work and getting their hands dirty.

Their plan is foiled by Alley Oop, fresh from his trip to the 15th century. And--good lord, did I just write ten paragraphs about Alley Oop? Ahem--how about that George W. Bush, huh?

More soon. And don't get me started on the Family Circus.