A small victory for the environment

Anyone who can advance the cause of cleaner air from within the Bush administration deserves a little respect. As the NYT lauds today, Christie Todd Whitman achieved One Huge Step for Cleaner Air by toughening the rules on diesel emissions. This includes “non-road” equipment used in construction and farming. The regulations, when fully in place, will reduce these emissions by 90%. So we can all breathe easier– somewhat comforted by the knowledge that not everyone in the Administration is willing to gut the planet for the sake of Q3 earnings.

My desert-island all time top five presidential candidates

One of the best lines in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is about how Rob, Hornby’s avatar in the story, had determined some years ago that it wasn’t so much what you were like that mattered, but what you like. To wit, you could judge a person by their musical taste well before you had to waste a lot of time getting to know them, only to find out they were the sort of dullard whose musical knowledge extended only as far back as Britney Spears’ second top-ten single. He eventually recants this particular belief, realizing that there are people out there worth knowing who still have Spandau Ballet tapes in their actively played collection.
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Where is Raed?

A citizen of Baghdad who calls himself Salam Pax is somehow still updating his blog Where is Raed ?. As the Guardian reports, speculation among the worldwide blog community (and now even mainstream journos) is rife. Where does he live? Is Raed his gay lover? Who knows, and who cares? It’s a fascinating read.

Hitch on the cowboy cliche

I’m going to avoid commenting on the State of the Union Address, other than to say it could have been worse. I hope it goes without saying that I think it would have been better if Gore or McCain were delivering it.

I do awfully enjoy seeing Christopher Hitchens– British wag, former Marxist, Kissinger-indictment-ringleader– defending Bush against the charge that he is a reckless cowboy in this excellent Slate article. I have to agree with Hitchens that this characterization is fair neither to cowboys nor to Bush. To wit:

To have had three planeloads of kidnapped civilians crashed into urban centers might have brought out a touch of the cowboy even in Adlai Stevenson. But Bush waited almost five weeks before launching any sort of retaliatory strike. And we have impressive agreement among all sources to the effect that he spent much of that time in consultation. A cowboy surely would have wanted to do something dramatic and impulsive (such as to blow up at least an aspirin-factory in Sudan) in order to beat the chest and show he wasn’t to be messed with. But it turns out that refined Parisians are keener on such “unilateral” gestures—putting a bomb onboard the Rainbow Warrior, invading Rwanda on the side of the killers, dispatching French troops to the Ivory Coast without a by-your-leave, building a reactor for Saddam Hussein, and all the rest of it.

While I do think we can afford some more time to carry out inspections and show some evidence to convince our more peaceable (or naive) allies why Saddam is dangerous, I am damn tired of the French riding around on their multilateralism high horse. As Hitchens points out, they are the last to talk.

Oh, wait. Actually, wouldn’t the Germans be the last to talk– or does the Hitler-Mussolini pact count as multilateralism? (Sorry, low blow.) Hitchens’ comments on Schröder are flawless as well:

It’s true that Bush was somewhat brusque with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, but then Schröder is a man so sensitive that he recently sought an injunction against a London newspaper for printing speculation about his hair color and his notoriously volatile domestic life. What we are really seeing, in this and other tantrums, is not a Texan cowboy on the loose but the even less elevating spectacle of European elites having a cow.

Shades of Borges’ Map

Am I the only one who has found the ever-present backdrops that Bush administration officials speak in front of a tad Orwellian? With rubrics like “Defending Our Homeland” printed a thousand times, they seem to be designed to ensure that even citizens who watch the evening news with their TVs on mute get the not-so-subtle message that Bush is in charge and on target. But this week the backdrops became both more sinister and more hilarious. It was revealed by numerous outlets including the AP and the Seattle PI (with a much cheekier article) that the “Strengthening America’s Economy” backdrop was a creepily perfect simulacrum of the actual warehouse scene it covered, down to shelves and stacks of boxes in jaunty array. Except, of course, that the backdrop boxes read “Made in America,” while the actual, hidden boxes all read “Made in China.”

Anytime I read about an actual-size replica of a thing covering the thing itself, I can’t escape comparisons to Borges’ Map, “so detailed that it ends up covering exactly covering the territory.” Inevitably, it is the map, and not the true territory, the people come to love and trust– the simulacrum instead of the true thing. When the map decays, they miss it and feel “lost,” even in the presence of the land itself. You can be certain that if the Washington spin machine stopped for even a day creating its confectionary cover of actual events, we would all be alarmed by the strange country lurking underneath.

But my ur-text for political image manipulation has to be the passage from an essay in The White Album where Joan Didion visits Nancy Reagan in the California Governor’s Mansion on a day when she is accompanied through her daily activities by a TV crew. As an eloquent Geocitiesjournaller recounts:

As Didion records it in her essay, the newsmen tell Mrs. Reagan to go about her normal activities. But might not one of these normal activities be picking flowers, one of them suggests? Yes, Mrs. Reagan affirms. Perhaps a rose, another newsman suggests? At this point, Mrs. Reagan seems to be aware that reality (her public persona) is being constructed because she says she could pick the rose, but she would be more likely to use a rhododendron. Just as the reader sighs in relief that at least there are limits to how much historical fiction a person will participate in, the following happens:

‘Fine,’ the newsman said. ‘Just fine. Now I’ll ask a question, and if you could just be nipping a bud as you answer it…’
‘Nipping a bud,’ Nancy Reagan repeated, taking her place in front of the rhododendron bush.
‘Let’s have a dry run,’ the cameraman said.
The newsman looked at him. ‘In other words, by a dry run, you mean you want her to fake nipping the bud.’
‘Fake the nip, yeah,’ the cameraman said. ‘Fake the nip.’ ( White Album 91)

Of course, we now know it is endlessly naive to imagine any limits to how much historical fiction political figures will generate around themselves. If we are good capitalists, we must believe that there must be voracious demand balancing this endless supply of carefully crafted unreality. And that is a depressing thought indeed.

Switch to Canada

For those of you for whom Apple’s Switch campaign was not enough, now there’s John’s Switch to Canada. It’s pretty flawless.

I’ll admit it. Every time I visit Vancouver, I wonder about it. Every time I hear George Bush (or Trent Lott) speak I think about it. Every time I think about John Ashcroft shredding the Bill of Rights, it dawns on me that someday I might not have much of a choice. I love the ideal of America, but the country I love is being eroded– nay, stolen out from under us– and there are times when my frustration reaches the point of despair.

All this reminds me of a favorite Pedro the Lion lyric, from the song “Of Up and Coming Monarchs” from the amazing EP Progress:

There once was a time
One could flee to the north
But canada’s not what she used to be
Boycott the war
Well she could not afford to
Thanks to the new American queen

Obscure, to be sure, and basically innacurate. According to Immigration Canada’s online test, I qualify to immigrate based on my status as a skilled (and moderately Francophone) worker. I would need to pay CDN$525 to apply and have $9,186 to support myself for 6 months upon arrival (that sounds a bit low), but these do not seem to be huge barriers.

So I’m not packing my bags, but as Pedro the Lion sings, “It’s good to have options.”

Out-Bushing the Bushes

Just when you thought no politician could make wring less sense out of the English language than George H.W. and son Shrub have managed to do, Trent Lott comes along and stammers his way through an interview on BET. Slate has this deservedly merciless critique of the whole painful episode.

All of this makes me long for an Orwell among the punditry, someone who could write an essay like “Politics and the English Language” for today. To quote that masterwork:

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Damn Lies

Warning: rant about graphing data to follow!
Check out today’s entry in rightwingnuts.org about Bush’s plan to reduce that oh-so-odious tax burden on the rich, as reported in the Washington Post. The Seattle Times also picked up this one, and attempted to liven the debate with an illustrative graphic. Of course, they screwed it up totally. The 1% bar is already represented by the 5% bar, and they missed out the entire middle class (60-95% quantile of income)! (Hint to graphic artists: if you’re going to draw a bar chart of percentages, make them add to 100%.) I re-did the chart in Excel, and you can see that a real chart tells a very different picture: actually, it’s the middle classes that carry the greatest share of the tax burden, however you look at it. Poor Tufte must be rolling in his grave (I heard he was killed when one of his sculptures toppled on him.)