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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Advice

Letters — I get letters. And some of them ask me for advice. Now generally I'm too busy living my own life for me to live yours for you, certainly on an unpaid basis. But on occasion I receive an inquiry so poignant that I feel a deep inner calling to respond as a service to the community — not to be confused with Community Service, which I am pleased to say I completed in the wake of what I now prefer to call simply the regrettable Milwaukee events. Readers whose queries appear in this space are of course free to disregard my counsel, just as in the final analysis we all have the right to confused, backward, even abject lives. In this regard I gladly offer myself as a role model. Dear Keith: My elderly father is being kept alive by artificial means: he takes heart medicine. Dad has no quality of life to speak of. He spends his waking hours watching a continuous loop of a 1996 episode of The McLaughlin Group, shouting obscenities whenever John McLaughlin talks over any of his guests. This means Dad has become pretty much a continuous fount of profanity. Plus, he has psoriosis, and uses salve. If he didn't use the salve, he would scratch. Maybe scratch himself to death. Where's the dignity in that? (That's just a rhetorical question — my advice-seeking question follows.) Last Thanksgiving, my father took one look at his TV dinner (which I took great pains not to thaw before cooking — not just because that's what the instructions said, but also, you know, as an attentive son) and proceeded to stab at an asparagus spear with his fork while shouting, "I hate asparagus, I've always hated asparagus, why do you keep giving me asparagus!" Naturally, I took this to mean: "I wouldn't want to live like a vegetable." It goes without saying this food group is what he has been reduced to by continuous exposure to Eleanor Cliff, plus the gooey indignity of the salve. When dad becomes history (the very thought fills me with grief etc.), I will inherit his sizeable fortune. One of my goals is to improve the quality of my life by buying a Porsche. But enough about me. My real concern is what's best for dad. Question: Would it be a "conflict of interest" for me to take away his medicine, which might be considered a feeding tube? —Broke in Bolinas Dear Broke: You're quite right to focus on the medicine — it prolongs your father's misery in the most insidious ways. In a recent poll of humanist ethicists (redundant!), a majority agreed that throwing an aging, obsolete (oops, there I go again) parent from a stone wall is more humane than a post-useful person having to endure endless iterations of John McLaughlin calling for the "exit question." The salve is but an additional ... indignity I think was your word. Speaking of exits, you will want to get a court to sign off before taking steps to ease your father's transition to a Cliff-free zone. Your concern about conflicts of interest is well taken, but you'll be pleased to learn that the Schiavo case established fairly wide latitude in this regard. For instance, consider an attorney who claims to hate religious zealots but who writes a book recounting tales of souls of disabled people who request that he help them slip their mortal coils. Furthermore, consider a superior court judge with longstanding ties to the hospice where Terri expired, which judge chooses not to consider afadavits of witnesses whose tiresome blathering about alternative diagnoses might slow the coil slipping process. And then, there's the odd timing of Michael Schiavo's attorney's campaign contribution to the judge in the case. If these interlocking relational factors don't constitute a conflict of interest, anything short of your taking a Scott Peterson approach on your dad's behalf is likely to find you on solid legal ground. Savvy? From your understandable reference to the Porsche (way cool wheels, dude) I discern that you may hope to cut costs. Accordingly, consider making use of a small claims court as a way to save both money and time. (I'm sure we can all agree from the Schiavo case: keeping the lawyers at a distance is best.) If you're lucky enough to live in Florida, you can speed things even further by stopping by a local public library and asking for an "E-Z Go" coupon. They'll explain how to proceed. Bring your library card for identification. (Note: An unresolved Florida technicality precludes the possibility of the compassionate termination of a blood relative until overdue library fees are paid in full. So be a good citizen: Fess up and pay up!) If you have any remaining questions, I suggest that you pick up a copy of Klaus von Bulow's spine-chilling yet tender memoir of his own years of existential inconvenience, With a Nudge and a Wink: Say No More, Sunny. Broke, my heart goes out to you. I used to drive a Ford Escort that burned oil. I also share your sentiments about asparagus. (Yecch!) However, in the interest of precision, let me be clear that I'm talking literally about that particular item of food. Please spread the word so as to reduce the chances that enthusiastic hospice workers might misinterpret my views about vegetables as an invitation to make an undesired house call. I'm not ready for any personal coil slipping at this time! — Keith

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Safe Kids

News reports of the Illinois father arrested for the brutal murder of his young daughter and her best friend go beyond the pale of comprehension. It seems clear these girls had no realistic way to defend themselves. They were overpowered in every sense of the word. Each and every day, there are things we can do as parents — and as loving uncles, aunts, and grandparents — to try to make the world safer for kids. As I wrote in an article a couple of years ago, there are things kids can learn to reduce their likelihood of being victimized. Here's an overview of key points:
  • "Never talk to a stranger" is not advice your kid needs. Lost children need to know how to ask an adult (ideally an adult who's with kids) for assistance.
  • Your kids need to know it's totally OK to say "No!" to any unwelcome adult — including a relative or friend who should be deserving of trust. "You are not my parent!" is a phrase kids need to know they can shout out loud if and when any unauthorized person attempts to get them into a car.
  • Consider enrolling your kid in a martial arts class — not because he or she needs to be afraid, but because self-defense skills build confidence.
  • Ask hard questions of authority figures, including your kids' school principal. Find out whether background checks have been run on all teachers and school staff.
  • Trust your intuition — the part of you that knows, without knowing exactly how you know.
  • Own your fears. Don't project them onto your kids.
I'm aware I've used the word "kids" a lot. It sounds redundant; the writer in me thinks I should go back and try for greater variety. To hell with that. I'm writing as a dad. That's what they are: kids, children, offspring, dependents. We know more than they do about the ways of this world, and they need us to teach them in sane, grounded, calm ways. The best protection we can give them is presence. Not constant hovering, but the force of our true being. That's a huge part of how they learn to develop a sense of presence all their own, and more, learn to trust it. Then someday they'll teach the same to the next young ones who come along. It's what smart mammals do in a sane nation.

Where's Suze?

Has anybody else noticed that Susan Estrich seems to have disappeared, or at least stopped talking? I haven't heard her distinctive voice in the past few weeks. Could be she's regrouping in the wake of her notorious gender politics dust-up with Michael Kinsley, which has got to be one of the worst career moves since Martha Stewart returned that call from the FBI as she thought to herself in that familiar Leona Helmsley way, "Lawyer? I don't need no stinkin' lawyer. Watch me brush these idiots off." Estrich came on the national political scene nearly two decades ago as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis's memorable presidential quest. After that stellar endeavor, Susan turned her considerable talents to espousing what has become one of her favorite themes: Men are pigs. The unstated though logically obvious corollary: Women are sheep. Translated from these unnecessarily highbrow terms: Attorney Estrich enjoys arguing that women can't be held accountable for their actions, when accountability would otherwise be assumed (of, you know, grown-up female humans), because centuries if not eons of Patriarchy have robbed today wimmens (technical biological term, or maybe I mean amusing folkloric reference, I confuse the two a lot) of the capacity to be full capacity moral agents. OK, so that's an inference. I don't "know" what Susan Estrich enjoys, and it is almost certainly piggish in that very male way to confuse my inference with a fact. Correction: Susan surely seems to enjoy arguing for female persons as lacking the capacity to make informed choices, given her seeming "Oh, look: another chance to run my victim-feminist racket" approach to choosing opportunities to utter in public. For instance: A few years ago, when self-styled pragmatic feminist Camille Paglia mocked young coeds who believe “I should be able to get drunk at a fraternity party and go upstairs to a guy’s room without anything happening,” Estrich spoke up for gender-focused feminists who “would argue that so long as women are powerless relative to men, viewing ‘yes’ as a sign of true consent is misguided.” In the same spirit, Susan recently went to bat for the miasma of cultural incoherence known as identity politics. This is the quaint doctrine that says you must be black to say anything about blacks; you hve to be gay to know anything about being homosexual; you've got to be a woman to explain anything about women. It happens that within each demographic domain lurk subtle degrees of authenticity. Which brings us back to the LA Times imbroglio. Estrich (a woman, who therefore knows) publicly scolded Times op-ed editor Michael Kinsley (a male, who therefore cannot) for not publishing enough essays by women. Upon completion of a gender tally, it turned out Estrich had refused to count some Kinsley-commissioned articles by (conservative) women because those women didn’t write with “women’s voices.” So there are women, and then there are Women, essentially. It was probably the second group that Helen Reddy heard roar. I began noting Susan hasn't been around any of her usual media haunts of late. I hope her absence is temporary, as I love the mental workout following her almost Talmudic conceptual convolutions on gender issues. I'm guessing Karl Rove probably misses her, too. I can't help but think Bush's demonic inhouse genius is secretly hoping Estrich will step forward soon to explain why Janice Rogers Brown lacks qualifications for the D.C. Court of Appeals because she doesn't think like a correct black person or a correct woman person. (Ms. Rogers Brown: Although you are an associate justice of the California Supreme Court, would you be willing to reassure us by producing a valid passport, so that we can set aside any lingering doubts that you are, well, you know — one of us? Thanks so much, and have a great day!) Not to take anything away from Rove, by the way — no doubt he's quite clever. Still, how much "genius" does it take to read what the wacked out cultural left actually says on TV in the newspapers, and then simply use it? Remember late Lee Atwater? He was another alleged evil genius of right-wing political strategy. Atwater wouldn't have been able to craft the now-famous Willy Horton TV ad (featuring convicts walking out of prison through a turnstile) if the then-governor of Massachusetts (Mike Dukakis!) hadn't authorized a real-world furlough program that allowed actual convicted killers to take weekends off on "good behavior." By the way, I'm guessing neither Rove nor Atwater would have thought to put Dukakis in that army tank and ride around with a goofy helmet smiling and waving like Mortimer Snerd, back in the '88 presidential campaign. No, coming up with that media opportunity required a mind that understood the importance of reassuring defense-oriented male voters that Dukakis had the right stuff to be commander in chief. It took psyche with remarkable empathy for the male imagination to put together that remarkable instance of political stagecraft. Hurry back, Suse. You are so missed.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Hillary

It's normal for the allure of the next presidential election to heighten as any incumbent president's lame duck limp becomes more obvious. This is not to say Mr. Bush won't get anything accomplished legislatively during term two; it is rather to say he's heading into that familiar territory where sands slipping through the hour glass inevitably cause political capital to dissipate. What's new about the new presidential election cycle is that has begun so soon. I'd say "breathtakingly" soon, but "stultifying" seems closer to the mark. Hillary. We'll be hearing about Hillary from now on. Joe Klein's latest Newsweek column about why she shouldn't run gets it right on every point. Money quote:
She has a clenched, wary public presence, which won't work well in an electorate that prizes aw-shucks informality; she isn't a particularly warm or eloquent speaker, especially in front of large audiences. Any woman running for President will face a toughness conundrum: she will constantly have to prove her strength and be careful about showing her emotions. She won't have the luxury of, say, Bill Clinton's public sogginess. It will take a brilliant politician to create a credible feminine presidential style. So far, Senator Clinton hasn't shown the ease or creativity necessary to break the ultimate glass ceiling.
Hillary will run — her whole life has been leading up to it, back to the Yale days when she and Bill agreed he would go first. Faced with reminders of ghosts from Bill's W.H. tenure, Hillary's spin machine will counter that all the past scandals and rumors of scandals have been thoroughly investigated and laid to rest. If her enemies could have gotten her indicted they would have; and on and on. Sounds good, but in today's political environment the absence of fire doesn't make smoke less relevant or less useful. Translation: Expect highly effective Swift-Boat type anti-Hillary advertising campaigns to begin if she runs for a second senate term or if she steps aside to start early in Iowa and New Hampshire. The ad campaign won't have to prove Hillary crossed any particular criminal boundary during her two terms as co-president (or during her tenure at the Rose Law office — remember the Little Rock years?) No, it will be enough for her political enemies to place her past ethical skirmishes in full view. Unkind? Defnitely. Unfair? Probably. Effective? Almost certainly. Key word: "almost." It's still very early, and much can yet happen. Remember when Kerry's campaign was predicted to collapse during the early '04 primaries? Or how about that young Arkansas governor, who was laughed at by pundits who said no Democrat stood a chance of defeating Bush 41 after the Gulf War? He was counted out early, and then again when Jennifer Flowers blossomed. (We know the rest: Comeback Kid, who kept on coming back — thanks in no small part to the buffoonery of a historical footnote named Sister Soulja during the primaries, and Ross Perot's general election vote tally, which arguably cost Bush the Elder a second term.) "The conventional wisdom is not just sometimes wrong, it's always wrong." That's what my friend Fred Harris used to say, before launching his longshot 1972 "New Populist" campaign for president. Laughed at by the experts, Fred said he would depend on the "little people" to rise up and teach the political big wigs a lesson. "I guess the little people couldn't reach my name on the ballot" was the former Oklahoma senator's playfully charming explanation — offered as he left the race after doing badly in the early primaries. Which is to say that if Hillary begins to face an onslaught of Klein-type bashing, resulting in conventional wisdom decrees that her goose is cooked, ironically that may help propel her forward. So, this word to those who want to stop her: Start encouraging Hillary's every move. Spread stories that her campaign's looking hard to beat, that nobody's got a chance of derailing her success. Meanwhile, there's going to be no stopping the punditry from this point forward. For as others have pointed out before me: 2008 is the first presidential election since 1952 in which neither party has an incumbent president or vice president ready to make the race. That alone is remarkable. One last thought: I'm not a betting guy, but if I were I would lay odds on this scenario: Look for a billionaire candidate to launch a credible Perot-style candidacy. "Credible Perot-style" may sound oxymoronic, so let me add this qualifer. I'm thinking of someone sane (necessary but not sufficient). An appealing candidate with a grasp of issues, a civic background, no skeletons in the closet; strong on defense, centrist on social issues, fiscally conservative. Someone with enough personal money to fund a winning campaign, start to finish. Capable of wearing well on the American populace, rather than unraveling before our very eyes ("decompensating in full public view," as the shrinks might say). I don't have any such candidate in mind, and no knowledge of anyone planning to run. But I would look for a Jon Corzine type, some smart Boomer who made serious bucks when there was still air in the Internet balloon. He might be an elephant or a donkey or an independent. Where would such a candidate emerge? Keep your eye on Larry King's program notes. That's where Ross Perot came from. Remember his "reluctance" to run, but his willingness to "listen to what the people want"? 2008: all even numbers, and most of them round. What does that mean? Nothing — it's numerology, it's fun, it's full-blown gibberish! Get ready, the White House silly season's fixin' to commence again. Oh, this is going to be so good.

Marriage talk

The debate about gay marriage has gotten about as polarized as a debate can get. One side argues that forbidding civil marriage rights to same-sex couples can't be justified constitutionally, while the other side argues that marriage is by definition is between a man and a woman. The closest thing to middle ground in this debate is the idea of civil unions: extending most if not all legal benefits to same-sex couples in relationships that don't constitute legally recognized marriages. It seems worth pointing out that the fact of our society having this debate is an indication of how highly marriage is valued — by both sides. And to that extent, the very debate is evidence of the well-being of marriage as an institution — a foundational institution. Same-sex couples attest to marriage by wanting to participate; opponents of that option base their position on wanting to defend marriage. One need not agree with Andrew Sullivan's argument that the best case for gay marriage is a conservative one, just as reasonable folks can disagree with Bill Bennett's call for preserving marriage as traditionally defined and practiced. Both men clearly believe that because marriage is important we should proceed not casually but with the greatest deliberation. That the debate is bringing into awareness the manic rise divorce rates is likewise a good thing. That Sullivan and Bennett have fundamental disagreements is obvious. Where they agree is that the future of marriage is a matter of great moral and civic significance. To my lights, this makes all the more necessarily some acknowledgment that what we (as a society) are having here is a conversation about what nearly everybody agrees is a matter of great moral and civic significance. This stands out for me because it doesn't look like the gay marriage debate is likely to become less polarized anytime soon, what with judges affirming same-sex marriage from the bench while voters in state after state are saying no. I continue to wonder whether leading proponents of same sex-marriage are giving serious thought to the political consequences of winning their battles in courts of law rather than legislative halls. Proponents may be correct that public opinion is shifting slowly in their direction on this issue. Yet it seems to me that opponents continue to have the upper hand, because the dynamics of amending state constitutions tend to be in their favor. That is, whenever a state legislature votes to say yes to same-sex marriage, or whenever a state court votes to extend marriage to same-sex couples, opponents can simply collect enough signatures to let the voters of that state decide whether to amend the state constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman. When voters say yes in those elections, their decision has the effect of making traditional marriage constitutional, rather than unconstitutional. Of course, that still leaves open what the U.S. Supreme Court will do. When (not if) the Senate confirms a Bush appointment to the high court, that new member will likely be a proponent of traditional marriage. Yet he or she is also likely to be a federalist — an advocate of state sovereignty. And the hallmark of federalism is a preference for letting states decide on issues lacking specific federal (national) jurisdiction. All the more reason why the stakes are so high in the filibuster controversy.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Manifesto

Having described my writing, let me say something about my politics. I'm a liberal. A proud and unapologetic personification of the L-word. Now let's define our terms. Liberal comes from the Latin word liberalis: “free, befitting a free person.” It also means “independent,” which is why I refuse to abandon the word just because it has become synonymous in the popular mind with its antithesis: coercive commands from caretaker elites, ever in search of new populations to bring into the fold of learned helplessness and victim status. All the better to bolster caretakers' self-image as Good, Decent, Compassionate Persons. "You sound more like a conservative." Fair retort. It's true we hear about self-responsibility more often from conservatives these days, than from self-styled progressives. "Progressive," of course, is what liberals became after the L-word got trashed by conservative talk radio, as well as after sixties radicals retired to the faculty club for self-congratulatory conversation about "inclusiveness" and "diversity." (Oh, and by the way: The conversation stands a better chance of remaining coherent provided we can all just agree to exclude individualism, capitalism, logic, the Enlightenment, science, Judeo-Christian values, the concept of personal achievement, and the feasibility of objective knowledge. Thanks for understanding.) Quick overview of liberalism and the left: Once upon a time, the two were functionally synonymous — for instance, when they led America to face up to making equality of opportunity real for black people. Likewise, the left got out front in the quest for women's legal and civic equality. Both movements manifested American liberalism at its highest and best. But then something strange began to happen. Circa mid-1970s, many of the very activists who had carried the day for equal opportunity suddenly changed the rules of the game. Equal opportunity no longer sufficed. Nothing short of equal outcomes would remedy the damage caused by America’s legacy of previously legal yet immoral (and unconstitutional) discrimination. From this day forward, any racial “inequity” (or “disparity”) would be considered prima facie evidence of culpable bias, regardless of other factors. The logic of this argument has become a familiar part of the social landscape, notes Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. “Victim-group X is not proportionally represented in some field; therefore the field's gatekeepers are discriminating against X's members. The argument presumes that there are large numbers of qualified Xs out there who, absent discrimination, would be proportionally represented in the challenged field.” But it took one additional step to seal the deal. The newly race- and gender-conscious movements set about shifting America’s attention from the wrongness of racism and sexism, to a demand that white Americans and male Americans be made to atone for past injustice. (For a powerful chronicle of this tragic political and moral miscalculation, spend some time with Shelby Steele.) Long story short: The cultural left (aka the Progressive Movement) essentially gave up on authentic liberalism. Causes I once championed began a slow and tragic descent into a politics of victim-centered resentment and learned helplessness, with a huge dose of narcissistic entitlement and a visceral hatred for anything remotely resembling the values associated with mainstream culture, received wisdom, traditional values, or even plain common sense. Charming, and sometimes quite festive. Yo, Larry Summers! I'll be exploring these sorts of issues in future posts, as I'm at work on a book about leaving the left precisely in the name of liberalism. I didn't intend to go on quite so long here, but then the header "Manifesto" was probably a fair warning. All in all, it's probably a good idea to get a few things clear right from the start: core values, unabridgable convictions, that kind of stuff. Enjoying the ride so far? We're just getting started. If you get bored or perturbed, that red button on the dashboard activates the ejection seat. Please give me advance notice before pressing it, so I can put down the convertible top. Repairing the roof is expensive — plus, you know, there's your head.

Take Two

Hello again. I unplugged the phone. So, for the past decade my focus as a writer has been cultural and social issues, ranging widely from here to there to yikes what's this. That includes religion, ethics, science, gender politics, child development, business, law, health and fitness. Recent topics and themes:
  • the unwise logic of moral equivalenceissues facing the next generation of young Americans ("Gen Why");
  • restitution as a missing element in criminal justice;
  • how to train effectively to run a marathon;
  • medicinal marijuana as a federalist issue;
  • disgraceful anti-father bias in child custody politics.
  • Last but not least: how all the efforts to explain UFOs invariably reveal more about the explainers than the explained. (I wrote a book about that, called Angels and Aliens.)
Phew; stop me before I name more. That's what a writer's Web site is for: Thompson at Large.

Hello

Welcome aboard the Sane Nation Express. As I pondered how to begin my blogging career on an elevated level, I was reminded of a comment by Kierkegaard, who of course disagreed with Hegel about whether the world soul includes (pause to answer phone)...
"Hello? Oh, hi mom. Fine, you? (Pause.) Hey, can I call you back, I'm writing my blog. Biting my dog? That's funny. No, it's a blog, writing online. "Who'll read it? Oh, derelicts, misfits. Hard to say. People have got to find it. Online. Right, I know you aren't interested in computers, you've mentioned that before. Many times. "You say my readers will be strangers? I guess you're right, I never thought of it that way. But magazine readers are also strangers, and that never stopped me. (Pause.) Mom, you're probably not the only reader who felt James Michener was writing to her personally. But even so... "Right, blogging. Agreed, not very poetic. It's short for Web log. Yes, what Andrew Sullivan does. Hey, how did you know he has a blog? Oh. I thought you didn't like Chris Matthews. (Pause.) Matthews talks over all his guests, mom. It has nothing to do with Andrew Sullivan being from England. Trust me. I mean, think about it... "What do you mean, 'Is blogging dangerous?' No, I won't put my home address online, thanks for that advice. No, I'm not being sarcastic. Yes, I know you feel you don't need a computer, I respect that. Hold your ground, mom. "Yes, the Terri Schiavo story has definitely faded, I think her dying changed the whole... "Really, mom: can I call you back?..."