Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Random Thoughts on Cal Thomas

No, not Cal Ripken. Cal Thomas. Sorry.

As “America’s most widely syndicated op-ed columnist,” Cal Thomas has always failed to impress me. He’s one of these guys who treats any liberal idea with a condescending pat on the head, as if it’s something to grow out of. He’s smug and snide and he comes off as a right-wing Mr Belvidere, without the wit and charm of a Clifton Webb.

Cal recently weighed in on last week’s CNN YouTube Debate, in which the Democratic candidates answered questions from among thousands that had been videotaped by concerned Americans and then uploaded to YouTube. Now, I don’t know about Cal’s regular readers, but any warm body who follows the campaign process even casually should be well aware that these televised Q&A sessions are technically not debates. I don’t think it’s necessary to keep pointing this out, but Cal, not wanting to pass up a chance to be pedantic, makes sure to note that “As before, this was not a real debate.”

He does give CNN credit for trying to liven up a dull and “too-long” campaign season with the YouTube format, but then complains that “This was a boring version of ‘American Idol,’ or worse, a political rip-off of ‘The Price is Right’ (How much do you think each candidate is worth? Come on down!)”

Talk about padding the column. How was it like American Idol, Cal? How was it a rip-off of The Price Is Right? It was the same thing it always is: A question is asked, the candidates answer, and you move on to the next question. That’s been the format for years. With nine candidates competing for time, you’re not going to get deeply nuanced answers, you’re not going to get much in the way of follow-up, and you’re probably not going to hear anything that’ll make you change your mind about your favorite candidate. At best—especially with the first caucus still more than five months away—you’re going to get the urge to read up on a candidate you might previously haven’t thought much about.

Cal goes on:
The problem with televised cattle calls is that the moderator and audience take at face value what politicians tell them. It is as if they are expressing themselves for the first time on every subject and Democrats are rarely asked about contradictory positions they’ve taken and whether it was conviction, or focus groups, that “converted” them. Republicans are always asked such questions.

Those italics are mine, by the way. It might be true that Republicans are always asked about their contradictory positions, but I’m not aware of any planet in this solar system on which it’s happening. Ever since the Poor Dope took office in 2001, there’s a very obvious contradiction that I don’t remember any Republican (including the Dope himself) being asked: “Why did you swear to defend the Constitution—and then not?”

I wonder if Cal would agree that that’s a contradictory position Americans deserve an answer to.

Cal also manages to pontificate on the old “We’re fighting them over there” nonsense, noting that if he had been the moderator of the debate, or televised cattle call, or whatever, he would have asked Hillary Clinton “Do you now believe the insurgents and terrorists would not take over the country [after U.S. withdrawal] and use it as a base to come after us here?”

I don’t know how Sen. Clinton might have responded to that, but I do remember enough about my “Non-Democratic Regimes” political science class in college that terrorists wouldn’t know what to do with a country if they did take it over. These are radical extremists, not revolutionaries looking to topple a regime and install their own government. Suicide bombers aren’t really looking for ways to make the trains run on time—or in this case, to provide electricity and water to a country in ruins.

Terrorism, in short, isn’t a system of government. It’s a tactic. The Poor Dope and his War on Terra supporters of the Cal Thomas variety are doing a great job pretending they don’t understand that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Back before it was legal to turn right on a red light, there was no such thing as a “No Turn on Red” sign. It would have been like a sign that said “No Ramming Other Cars” or “No Running Over Pedestrians,” because, obviously, there are just some things so illegal you don’t need to be reminded of them. You don’t see a lot of signs that say “No Murder,” “No Arson,” “No Embezzling,” etc.

I was living in Indiana when it became legal to turn right on red, and my dad used to share his theory about why the law was passed. He always said it was because some sign company had a surplus of No Turn on Red signs and needed to get them out of the warehouse.

I could see his point. Shortly after the law was passed, No Turn on Red signs popped up all over in Crawfordsville (the largest city close to us, and for a long time the largest city I wasn’t afraid to drive in). We had this great new law designed to improve traffic flow, but somebody was arbitrarily deciding which intersections it couldn’t be used at.

Because, my dad joked, or half-joked, someone got a good deal on those signs.

The first moving violation of my life came in 1986 in Decatur, Illinois, when I failed to notice the No Turn on Red sign at the corner of Woodford and Garfield. I came to a stop, made sure nothing was coming, and turned right onto Garfield Avenue—on red. Busted.

I don’t know why you couldn’t turn right on red there; after all, if you looked to your left you had a pretty straight shot down Garfield. So even though I was driving safely and endangering no one, the City of Decatur hit me up for a few bucks thanks to an arbitrary sign placement.

The maddening part about that ticket was that one block west of the Woodford/Garfield intersection, there was just a stop sign at the cross street. The visibility was worse than it was on Woodford, but if you wanted to turn right onto Garfield you were free to do so at your discretion.

Laws that promote the general welfare are good. Laws that are just revenue-generators are not.

Here in the Des Moines metro, we’re in the fifth year of a five-year plan to revamp and expand I-235, the freeway that runs through the middle of town. The project has included rebuilding a number of bridges and widening the exits (two turn lanes in each direction on some of them—big-time!).

The problem is that when they rebuilt some of the bridges, they extended the little concrete wall between the road and the pedestrian walkway across the bridge. They extended them so much that when you came off the exit and wanted to turn right on red, you couldn’t do it without taking your life in your hands.

Because the wall stuck out so far it was impossible to see if traffic was coming.

The sensible solution would have been to shorten the walls a little bit. However, the sensible solution lost out to the cheaper solution. Apparently that warehouse still had lots of No Turn on Red signs, because now half the exits off I-235 forbid turning right on red.

It was the right move for safety reasons. But with gas over $3 a gallon and awareness of energy conservation on the rise again, we have hundreds of cars idling at these exits every day. Does that make sense?

Iced Coffee and Lazy Copywriting

McDonald’s has a radio spot running right now that drives me up a wall. The setting is a business meeting of some sort, and the chairman says “All in favor of taking a break for some iced coffee from McDonald’s, say Aye.”

A chorus of Ayes goes up, because honestly, who’s going to vote against any kind of break in the workday? The chairman then asks “All opposed?” and one lone guy says “Nay.”

There’s a brief pause, and then a voice that sounds like it belongs to a 12-year-old boy shouts “Get him!” The meeting-goers then turn into an angry mob and presumably thrash the guy who dared vote his conscience about the friggin iced coffee break.


Why is there a 12-year-old boy in this business meeting? And why, when the Ayes have clearly won the vote and the iced coffee break is all but written in the employee handbook, is the boy so vindictive?

Does he hate the man who voted No? Or is it just lazy copywriting without a shred of integrity?

Every time I hear this—which is pretty much every morning—it makes me glad I don’t write advertising copy for a living. Then I remember I do write advertising copy for a living and it makes me wonder if the guy who wrote the McDonald’s spot is making more money than I am.

Because if true, that would be wrong.

Actually it makes me think he’s got something on his creative director, some blackmail pictures or something. Because honestly, if you’re working on a high-profile account like McDonald’s and you can’t come up with anything better than “Get him!”, you might be in the wrong business.

One More Thing

Another quick story about the advertising business. My old boss back in Decatur used to sum up the agency/client relationship thus: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't keep him from pissing in it."

This is true. But sometimes you can't even get the horse's attention. From 1995-97 I did some freelance copywriting for clients in and around central Illinois, and when I wasn't busy (which was, sadly, most of the time), I'd go through the newspaper or listen to the radio, trying to find prospects in dire need of better creative. I'd then write them a letter, send them a brochure and demo tape, and ask to be given a crack at their next advertising project.

I didn't get a whole lot of business that way, but of all the business I didn't get, my favorite was a store that sold auto parts in downtown Decatur. These guys had run an ad in the Herald and Review that was not only hand-lettered and hand-illustrated with a pencil, but hand-erased as well. I mean the illustration was right out of Napoleon Dynamite's notebook, and you could see the erased lines in the newspaper ad itself.

I wrote and offered my services, but they didn't see the value in it. They were apparently quite happy with their in-house marketing department, eraser lines and all.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Opposite of the Height of Hypocrisy

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
—Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

And today, class, that word is “hypocritical,” a word most popular with people who have only the slightest inkling of its definition.

I happen to have an example right here, because it’d be a pretty short post if I didn’t. This observation was posted in the comments section at the Rolling Stone website’s coverage of last weekend’s Live Earth series of concerts:

I thought Gore said that people need to use less energy and depend on fuel less to help put a stop to global warming. So lets put together a set of concerts that use tons of lights, problably the amount of electricty it takes to power several towns. Also, How did the artists get to these concerts? They had to take jets and then either a car or a bus to get to these venues. These concerts were so hypocritical, it just further proves how stupid some of these artist really are.

This comment comes from someone named Teabag, who lives by the old axiom that spelling, punctuation, and subject/verb agreement don’t matter on the internet, though of course he’s hardly the only member of that club. Teabag says it’s hypocritical for people who want to raise awareness about global warming to use any energy at all in their attempt to spread the word.

Now, I suppose it’s possible that the old Teebster actually means what he says, that he’s opposed on general principle to large well-lit gatherings to which the attendees traveled on anything other than bicycles. He might well walk to work, reuse the same brown bag for his lunch day after day, and use a hamster-powered generator to fire up his laptop long enough to rail against the wasteful ways of those jet-takin’ musicians.

But that doesn’t seem likely, does it? No, Teabag seems more like one of those global-warming deniers whose favorite talk-radio guy told him it was a hoax and gave him a few talking points for doing battle with us bleeding-heart do-gooders. (“One of the concerts was in Antarctica, which, if you liberals haven’t noticed, is covered in snow year round—some global warming, huh?!”) Teabag also shows his true colors by trotting out that old standby of the pretend-confused: “But I thought Al Gore said people need to use less energy!” (You can get away with the “But I thought you said” ploy until you’re about six years old. After that people know you’re fibbing.)

And of course, there’s the hypocrisy angle. Concerts involving “tons of lights,” or gatherings where people have to come by jet or bus, are okay as long as nobody involved states a political view that conflicts with those Teabag holds dear. The poor guy can’t get his head around the fact that people who understand how important it is to raise awareness of global warming would actually make an effort to raise awareness of global warming. Each musician could have stayed home, played songs on the front porch, and relied on his or her neighbors to pass the word along, but somehow the concert organizers thought it might be more effective to reach, oh, two billion people at once.

I think that’s the part that bothers old Teabag. Whatever energy was spent on producing the Live Earth concerts will be counteracted in the long run as more and more people get the message and adjust their lifestyles. That’s how raising awareness works, and there’s nothing hypocritical about it.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Easy on Those Fireworks

This essay first appeared on the op-ed page of the Chicago Tribune back in 2002. I was going to write a new piece about the proliferation of fireworks displays, but lo and behold I realized I still had this one on my hard drive. It’s five years old but even more applicable today.

On April 26 [2002], the Portland Beavers beat the Iowa Cubs 7-5 in a Pacific Coast League game. The temperature was down in the high 40s by the time the game was over, but a couple hundred of us stuck around anyway to see the post-game fireworks.

And it occurred to me while I was sitting there in a sweatshirt and jacket and hat and gloves that there’s something very strange and disconcerting about watching fireworks on a chilly night in April. In fact, it might be even more strange than the fact that a baseball team from Iowa is playing in the Pacific Coast League.

It’s strange because when I was growing up, fireworks were reserved for special occasions. Well, one special occasion, actually: the Fourth of July. You could see them on the third, too, between movies at the Ben-Hur Drive-in Theater, but for the most part you had to wait until Independence Day itself to ooh and aah over the big professional fireworks. We were told they were expensive as all get out, which is why it was a good thing they were only needed once a year. I don’t have any idea how much fireworks cost in 1970s dollars, but it was enough that we were supposed to feel grateful we got to see any at all. I always imagined we had a choice: one more cannon cracker or a fully staffed fire department for the rest of the year.

Not only did we have to wait a whole year between fireworks displays back then, there were also excruciatingly long character-building intervals between individual rockets. I remember one Fourth when the people in charge shot off one rocket every twenty minutes like clockwork. And you’d hope, watching that rare rocket streak to its apex, that it wouldn’t be another one of those little ones with the tiny explosion and fewer sparks than you could get from a Bic lighter—but that’s generally what it was because that, for the most part, was what the fireworks committee could afford.

Still, though, they’d manage to throw in a huge one now and then, the kind where the sparks shoot out in the shape of a gigantic boutonniere, and the crowd would ooh and aah in legitimate awe. If it was a particularly good display, there would always come a moment when people in the audience realized they were all saying “Ooh” and “Aah” in unison. From then on there would be self-conscious attempts to add other sounds to the mix, like “Ohhh” and “Wow” and “Neato” and what-have-you, but when you’re truly impressed by a fireworks display, nothing really beats or sounds more natural than “Ooh” and “Aah.”

And if you were lucky, there’d be a grand finale.

Some, of course, were grander than others. Depending on the budget.

These days you don’t have to wait a year to see fireworks. (Evidently they aren’t as expensive as they used to be—that or a whole lot of sponsors have a whole lot of money in their explosives budgets.) Minor league teams regularly schedule post-game displays to help get people in the seats (even on chilly nights in April), and you’ll occasionally see them advertised as part of other events that have nothing to do with Independence Day. I don’t know if this is good or bad, although I can say without a doubt that the fireworks themselves have come a long way from what I grew up with. There’s no booster club member taking twenty minutes to set up the launcher and then realizing he’s out of matches, so there’s no waiting between rockets. Today the whole display looks like a hundred grand finales from 25 years ago, one rocket after another, sometimes a dozen going up at once in a non-stop spectacle of dazzling light and tremendous noise. They’re synchronized to music these days, too, usually a medley of stirring, brass-heavy songs from Star Wars or Aaron Copland. You don’t see a lot of fireworks displays set to Leonard Cohen.

But the most strange and disconcerting thought that occurred to me on that chilly night of April 26 is that I’m afraid someday we’ll reach a point of diminishing returns on our expanded fireworks season. I’m afraid someday we won’t even hear the self-conscious oohs and aahs because the most astounding displays will have become too commonplace to astound people anymore. I’m afraid someday we’ll see people leaving the game after the last out because, hey, we saw fireworks last week.

I like the idea of saving fireworks for a special occasion, and wouldn’t mind seeing them with less frequency.

Especially (and I apologize for resorting to this phrase) if it keeps people from being burnt out on them.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Zack Hill and the Unelected Judges

Q. When is “unelected” a pejorative term?

A. Whenever a court makes a decision that right-wingers don’t agree with, at which point they insist that “unelected judges” are a threat to the very fabric of society. The people who blather on about unelected judges would have you believe that anyone off the street can stumble into a courtroom and declare himself the judge.

They’re absolutely silent on the issue of not being elected when it comes to decisions they support, of course. Last week the Supreme Court ruled that schools could restrict the speech of students at school-sponsored events (the infamous “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case), but those who agreed with the decision somehow forgot to mention the five “unelected judges” who wrote the majority opinion.

It would never occur to me to take issue with unelected judges. I paid enough attention in Mr Hart’s junior-high history class to know that judges are appointed—and that they’re appointed by Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and whoever else happens to be holding the office in charge of appointing judges. It is absolutely irrelevant that judges aren’t elected: You might as well complain about unelected umpires at your local Little League game.

Which brings me to a comic strip called Zack Hill, by John Deering and John Newcombe. Zack Hill is a funky-haired 10-year-old who makes pithy observations about life and growing up and whatnot. He has a crush on an apple-cheeked classmate named Tanja and he’s pursued by a Goth-like girl named Winona. His widowed mom runs a boarding house full of wacky characters. There’s occasional political humor, but it’s always been fair-minded—and it’s never fallen into the category of blindly partisan, hideously unfunny tripe like Mallard Fillmore.

However. Today’s strip got my dander up. (Much of the Runes has been written in a state of heightened dander.) It’s a four-panel Sunday strip and it shows the four main kid characters reciting the pledge of allegiance. (For my thoughts on the validity of forced pledges, see here.) When it comes to the part where most people reciting something by rote would say “one nation under God,” the rebellious Zack says “one nation under unelected judges who rule we can’t acknowledge God in public.”

Oh, Zack, Zack, I know you’re only ten years old, but your cartoonists have led you down the horseshit path for reasons I can’t fathom. First off, there’s the whole “unelected judges” thing I covered earlier. But then it gets worse: When did any judge ever say you couldn’t acknowledge God in public? Such a ruling would be unconstitutional, Zack—you’ve been sadly misinformed.

Forcing the words “under God” into the pledge—and forcing children to say them—was an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. Beyond that, you’re free to evoke God and Zeus and Cthulhu to your heart’s content, and pretending you’re not is disingenuous.

The last panel shows Zack saying “…and liberty and justice for all judges.” It’s not really funny and it doesn’t make much sense, so maybe Deering and Newcombe just wanted to point out that 10-year-olds don’t have a firm grasp of political nuance.

Seems like an odd way to go about it, though.