July 2008 Archives


Hart, Mickey & Fredric Lieberman. Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music (Petaluma, CA: Grateful Dead Books, 1999)

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart has assembled (along with Fredric Lieberman) a wide-ranging book of quotes about music, interspersed with reflections from Hart on his long and continuing career. Hart quotes philosophers and poets, composers and conductors, and more than a few fellow musicians on various aspects of music and its magic. Hart barely scratches the surface of the subject in his two hundred pages, but he shares some brilliant insights along the way. Here are my favorites:

"It took me twenty years of study and practice to work up to what I wanted to play in this performance. How can she expect to listen five minutes and understand it?" (p. 38, Miles Davis, when an audience member complained that she didn't understand what he was playing; from Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress, p. 244)

"Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." (p.46, Berthold Auerbach)

"Music sobs for you. It laments, it rejoices, it explodes with vigor and life." (p. 159, Anaïs Nin)

Whether you are a musician or an inquisitive listener, you will probably find some thought-provoking words in Hart's compendium.


Moore, Alan & Brian Bolland. Batman: The Killing Joke (The Deluxe Edition) (New York: DC Comics, 2008)

In honor of the new Dark Knight film--featuring Heath Ledger's final (complete) film role--I revisited a classic from the Batman comics canon: the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland tale The Killing Joke. The newly recolored hardcover "Deluxe Edition" may seem unnecessarily extravagant at $18 for a 46-page story, but its brilliance outweighs its brevity. Van Jensen's ComixMix review says:

The Killing Joke is without question one of the greatest encounters between Batman and his nemesis, and the real reason is that the story serves both as a zenith for the Joker's depravity and for his pathos. [..] It makes a Joker that's more real, and more terrifying.

The Killing Joke isn't nearly substantial enough to be classified as a graphic novel, but it's a very successful short story and a great example of what talented creators can produce within the comics medium. (This edition also includes an 8-page Batman tale, "An Innocent Guy," from Batman: Black & White. Bolland wrote, drew, and colored this story; it fits well with The Killing Joke, and helps add a little more bang for the buck in this slim volume.)

I read the new Killing Joke side-by-side with the original version, and noted a few minor artistic revisions: the yellow oval around the symbol on Batman's chest is gone, and Bolland admits that "every page has something slightly different on it from The Killing Joke of 20 years ago" (such as the inclusion of a new background figure in one of the panels--can you find it?). Heidi MacDonald discusses the coloring at Publishers Weekly, and Jon Haehnle has several well-chosen recoloring comparisons here. My favorite compare-and-contrast example is this one from the Joker's origin sequence:


While John Higgins did a dramatic job with the original colors, Bolland goes for more contrast (and for bleeding eyes, as many observers have noted):


I'm largely a fan of the newer, more subdued color scheme, although Higgins' more expressive work on the original wasn't bothersome either then or now. Bolland's scene-to-scene transitions remain some of the best I've ever seen, being almost uniformly excellent. Here are the two transitions (pp. 6-8) which bookend the Joker's flashback from his purchase of a dilapidated circus to an incident with his wife about a failed nightclub gig:


After she consoles him, the Joker snaps back to the present:


The first and last panels of the story are identical, which ties the story together nicely. (I wish the Deluxe Edition had preserved the original use of the rain-puddle image on the endpapers, rather than using sickly green.)

Is The Killing Joke the perfect Batman/Joker story? No, although it's one of the best I've ever read. Batman's reaction on the last page nearly ruined the ending of the story for me, seeming quite out of character. <SPOILER> A silently dismissive response from Batman would have been more appropriate and would have echoed the tale's opening in a very intriguing manner. However, doing so may have required changing the story's title.</END SPOILER> The overall excellence of the rest of the book is still thrilling and explains why I--and, apparently, many others--still hold The Killing Joke in high esteem since its initial release two decades ago.

I would have more trouble believing that it's really been twenty years since The Killing Joke came out, but that same time period also saw the Grant Morrison/Dave McKean Arkham Asylum, and the Frank Miller/David Mazzuccelli Batman: Year One story. (Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns is slightly older at 22 years; without the reinvigoration of the Batman franchise provided by it--and, of course, by The Killing Joke--we may not have seen the 1989 Tim Burton film or any of its successors.)

The legacy of Bob Kane lives on!

[chronology errors fixed]

The current issue of Dissent has more than the usual share of high-quality articles. Lew Daly's "What Would Jefferson Do?" (pp. 59-66) nicely explains the folly of conservatives' claim that the limited government favored by Jefferson and the other Founders would be a laissez-faire plutocratic paradise like that promulgated by the Cato Institute and their cronies. While proving his case, Daly noted the following:

Indeed, as a proponent of public works and social investment, Jefferson openly celebrated the collective benefits of taxing the rich. In an 1811 letter to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, he wrote," Our revenues once liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, &c., and the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rice alone, without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings." Today such a view is called "class warfare." Jefferson called it democracy. (p. 65)

Another gem is this passage from Kevin (Liberalism for a New Century) Mattson, from his multiple-book review "Has Conservatism Cracked Up?" (pp. 108-111):

"What makes conservatism so unpalatable today is its [sic, the] inability of its adherents to accept responsibility for the results of their own ideas and the consequences of their political theories. The conservative mind dreads having the historical tables turned on it. Since 1968, conservatives have blamed liberals for a failed track record--arguing, for example, that the Great Society didn't tackle the problem of poverty and sometimes exacerbated it. Now with the track record of George W. Bush plain to see, conservative intellectuals fear liberals can return the favor." (p. 111)


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If you enjoy the snark of Demotivators calendars, then check out some-e-cards for their great reinventions of normally-bland e-cards (h/t: Rebecca at SkepChick). Here's a SFW sample:


While researching the Knoxville terrorist attack, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Association website and discovered that the late Randy Pausch (obituary and book review) was a member of the UU Church. Here's a snippet from a Q&A:

UUA.org: What is your religious background, and what is it about being a Unitarian Universalist that attracted you to this faith?

Pausch: I was raised Presbyterian and attended church regularly until I was about 17. I like the fact that [Unitarian Universalism] appeals to reason and thought more than dogma.

He mentioned having been a Presbyterian in his book, but--unless I missed it--he didn't mention the UU Church.

As children were staging a performance of Annie for the congregation Sunday morning at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (Knoxville, TN), terrorist Jim Adkisson burst into the sanctuary and began shooting. Like other like-minded terrorists (Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, Eric Rudolph) Atkisson was consumed with hatred for "the liberal movement" (according to the as-yet-unreleased note found in his vehicle) and decided to take manly and decisive action against the liberal UU congregation, killing two people and injuring seven others.

The Knoxville News Sentinel suggests that Adkisson's perception of reality was skewed rightward by the wingnut books (Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Reilly) that were found in his apartment:

Adkisson targeted the church, [Knoxville Police Department Officer Steve] Still wrote in the document obtained by WBIR-TV, Channel 10, "because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets."

Adkisson told Still that "he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them in to office."

My condolences go out to the Knoxville congregation, their extended families, and their liberal allies in Tennessee.

Tennessee's GLBT newspaper Out & About has more information
so does RawStory

"Step right up and see the one, the only, the stupendous, Pika-cooch..."


Who thought this was a good idea? (h/t: Bay of Fundie)


Pausch, Randy. The Last Lecture (New York: Hyperion, 2008)

In The Last Lecture, noted CMU professor Randy Pausch tells the story behind his famous last lecture, paralleling much of the lecture itself as he does so. (Despite the repetition, perhaps the only way to improve this book would have been to include a DVD of the lecture.) Pausch's recent death propelled his book The Last Lecture over several others in my to-be-read stack; reading it was a sadder experience than it would have been just a little while ago, but that is more a testament to what Pausch wrote than the time in which I read it. Indeed, his sentiments may outlive the rest of us much as they did him.

The Last Lecture isn't a depressing tale of surgery, chemo, and radiation, but rather a celebration of living well in a limited time--Pausch writes about achieving our own dreams and enabling those of others. One needn't be staring down the barrel of a terminal disease to get a great deal out insight from this book, and I have more praise for it than perhaps any current best-seller I've ever read. In a book filled with wisdom about life, love, and parenting, it is difficult to highlight just a few representative passages. I will confine myself with one that spoke deeply to me, these words on the importance of maintaining an inquisitive household:

...my dad had an infectious inquisitiveness about current events, history, our lives. In fact, growing up, I though there were two types of families:
1) Those who need a dictionary to get through dinner.
2) Those who don't.

We were No. 1. Most every night, we'd end up consulting the dictionary, which we kept on a shelf just six steps from the table. "If you have a question," my folks would say, "then find the answer."
The instinct in our house was never to sit around like slobs and wonder. We knew a better way: Open the encyclopedia. Open the dictionary. Open your mind. (p. 22)

A world filled with dream-achievers such as Mr Pausch would be an immeasurably happier place; spend some time with his book to find out why. (But watch his lecture first!) After you've read The Last Lecture, share it with someone you love.

Randy Pausch on Wikipedia
CMU's Entertainment Technology Center
Alice Project
Pausch's role in JJ Abrams' upcoming Star Trek film


Vonnegut, Kurt. Armageddon in Retrospect (New York: Putnam, 2008)

Consisting of a thirteen previously unpublished pieces, Armageddon in Retrospect is the first Vonnegut collection to appear since his death last Spring. This is only the third of his books I've read (A Man without a Country and Slaughterhouse-Five being the other two), so I can't claim to be an expert on Vonnegut's writings. Armageddon in Retrospect is an interesting book, but not an essential one.

The book leads off with Vonnegut's first letter home after his POW experiences in Dresden, followed by a commencement address from 2007. The remaining eleven pieces are short stories that deal with various aspects of war and the bellicose mentality. While Armageddon in Retrospect is enjoyable, I didn't find any of the selections compelling enough that their absence from his published oeuvre would have constituted a great loss. The following sentiment, though, is as fitting a capstone for Vonnegut's career as any:

Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him.
It was music.
I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization. (p. 233)

high crimes

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This interactive Venn diagram from Slate shows the power of information design to illuminate the Bush scandals:


Very well done...bravo!

Famed professor Randy Pausch died this morning; here's his obituary at CNN.

Several million people have heard the story of his "last lecture" at Carnegie Mellon in the face of a pancreatic cancer death sentence garnered him national attention. I can't recommend Pausch's insights highly enough; he's not maudlin or mawkish, but meaningful in ways that touch on deep issues seldom discussed in public. His book The Last Lecture is still on the best-sellers list, where it has resided since its release in April. I haven't finished reading it yet, but these words from his lecture are my Quote of the Day:

"We're not going to talk about spirituality and religion, although I will tell you that I have experienced a deathbed conversion; I just bought a Macintosh. [laughter] I knew I'd get 9% of the audience with that..."
(Randy Pausch, at about 2:30 in the video of his lecture)

I offer my condolences to his family, friends, and former students.

Randy Pausch's website
The Last Lecture

lapham's quarterly

The third issue of Lapham's Quarterly, "Book of Nature," has the expected environmentalist voices (Emerson and Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey, and--of course--Al Gore) along with a few surprises: Pliny the Younger's description of his famous uncle's death in Pompeii (pp. 36-7, Letter LXV to Tacitus, online here), Jack London's reportage from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (pp. 47-8; the full article is online here), passages from Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau, and extracts from Lucretius and Newton. It is in the breadth of its selections that Lapham's Quarterly truly shines; I know of no comparable magazine.

This section of Montaigne's "On Cannibals" (p. 52, online here) is my Quote of the Day:

"...every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things."

Seemingly lost in the Joker-worship and box-office-gross-hype for The Dark Knight is the trailer for Watchmen that preceded it. Like many (most?) other comic-book geeks, I loved the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons Watchmen graphic novel. The choice of Zack Snyder as director for the Watchmen motion picture is potentially problematic given some of the issues with Frank Miller's 300, but I was nonetheless excited by the costume designs released a few months ago. The Watchmen trailer (released last week) looks quite spectacular, and gives me hope for a good film:


Entertainment Weekly's "Exclusive First Look" cover story displays an array of adjectival effusions about the book

• "the smartest, most subversive superhero story ever created"
• "Watchmen is many things -- a jittery expression of Cold War anxiety, a chilling meditation on human nature, an intricate murder mystery"
• "a piercing deconstruction of superhero mythology told with a sophistication unprecedented for the genre"

but more interesting is the link from the EW website to iTunes, where you can download the complete first issue of Watchmen done in "motion comics" style. Jamie Trecker at Newsarama eviscerates the animated-comics attempt, calling it "simultaneously beguiling and repellent...it's as mesmerizing as a car crash." I wouldn't quite equate it with a disaster, but it's an artistic failure even if it fulfills its purpose as a marketing tool.

(One aspect left unmentioned is the implication of the episode's 25-minute running time. The pacing was pretty much spot-on, which when applied to the 12-issue series would yield a five-hour film. One wonders what Snyder will cut from the novel--and restore for the Director's Cut DVD?--in order to keep the film's running time under 3 hours.)

Firefox Download Day (which I mentioned a while ago) was a huge success, with over 8 million downloads and a world record! Here's the official announcement:

Thanks to the support of the always amazing Mozilla community, we now hold a Guinness World Record for the most software downloaded in 24 hours. From 18:16 UTC on June 17, 2008 to 18:16 UTC on June 18, 2008, 8,002,530 people downloaded Firefox 3 and are now enjoying a safer, smarter and better Web.

Ever since Firefox was launched in 2004 we've relied on our community to help us spread the word, and thanks to projects including crop circles, newspaper ads, giant stickers, videos, blogs and more we now have over 180 million users in more than 230 countries.

Congratulations to everyone!

Greta Christina writes about anonymity and manners on the Internet here, and she makes several good points. She sees "some truth" in the common lament that online anonymity can lead to rude remarks and cruel comments, but she also sees the benefits that Internet detractors tend to overlook:

The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn't just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies -- or stay silent in the face of them.

And that, I think, is a good thing.

I've felt this pressure myself. In person, I've definitely backed down from arguments -- dropped the subject, changed the subject, agreed to disagree, whatever -- to keep the social engine running smoothly. And I haven't always felt proud of myself for doing so. I've compromised my honesty and my beliefs, let stupid and terrible and patently false ideas slide unchallenged, in order to defuse conflict and awkwardness in social situations. And I think most of us have.


There are thousands -- millions -- of people for whom the online world is the only place where they can speak their truth, and explore the questions and details and complexities of their truth, without fear of reprisal. Not just fear of social disapproval, either, but fear of actual, practical, losing- your- job type reprisal. There are thousands, millions, of people who have no place other than the 'Net where they can safely say, "I'm queer," "I'm an atheist," "I think the way I was brought up is stupid and evil." For them, the fact that there's a social arena where it's okay to disagree and argue and not fret too much about what other people think or whether your opinions are hurting their feelings... it's not just a relief. It's a sanity- saver.

As someone with a writing style self-described as "pompous asshole," I know that I've definitely sent emails and written blog posts that are much more honest than they would have been had the conversations been held in person. The ability to consider one's words, to research the evidence before speaking, to wait for that moment of l'esprit de l'escalier before commenting allows many of us to express ourselves online where were would be habitually silent offline.

We can celebrate the ability of technology to provide an anonymous (if we want it to be) forum even as we mourn the dwindling of face-to-face conversations--whether for reasons of convenience, of comfort, or even of safety.

(Like Greta Christina and her readers, I am also searching for a secular alternative to "godsend" as a description; the Internet means that much to me.)


Wynton Marsalis & Willie Nelson. Two Men with the Blues (Blue Note, 2008)

Cross-genre musical projects (e.g., symphonic rock music, Sting's Blue Turtles albums, various jazz "remixed" CDs) are often hit-or-miss affairs, whether from ego issues or just because some combinations--whether for idiomatic or idiosyncratic reasons--just don't mesh well. Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson have none of those problems, and their collaboration is a solid hit.

Wynton & Willie jammed on some classic songs during two evenings last January at Lincoln Center, and Blue Note was there to record it all. The result is this disc of jazz and blues standards, ranging from "Basin Street Blues" and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" to "Stardust" and "Georgia on My Mind." (I recommend purchasing this CD at Borders, as their version contains two bonus tracks, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Sweet Georgia Brown.")

Two Men with the Blues is a delightfully laid-back session, with enough fire in the up-tempo portions to keep it engaging. Until the DVD arrives (sometime this fall?) I can't say for certain that Wynton & Willie were enjoying themselves on stage, but it sure sounds as if they were. Their performance on Leno last week (The Tonight Show, Thursday July 10th) was well worth watching...what I saw of it, anyway. (My POS DVR stopped recording halfway through "Bright Lights, Big City." Thanks, Comcast, for not knowing the stop times of the programs you broadcast!) [Thankfully, YouTube has the video here.]

The most fascinating aspect of Wynton & Willie's collaboration--aside from the sheer pleasure of listening to two masters making magic together--is how the band is "tight but loose" simultaneously. Their musical rapport is neither forced nor lackadaisical, but consistently finds that sweet spot where their give-and-take is a joy to hear.

This CD is contagiously fun, and one that deserves to reach a broad audience. Give it a listen!


The Willie and Wynton website is here

A teaser clip for the upcoming DVD is here

Nate Chinen wrote about the first concert's "somewhat tentative start" in "Just a Couple of Guys Dressed in the Blues" at the NYT

Will Layman's review at PopMatters observes that "the concert pits Marsalis's extraordinary jazz group against Nelson's gorgeously laconic sense of time. The result is close to sublime. [...] Marsalis and company sound natural, loose, gritty, and certainly inspired."

Willie Nelson sang with Wynton and the LCJO last week at the Hollywood Bowl; the LA Times review is here

According to the JALC website, Wynton and Willie are getting together for a one-night reprise in the Rose Theatre on 9 February 2009

not worth it

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A while ago, Tony Blankley asked "Was Iraq Worth It?" over at ClownHall; his answer was as disingenuous as one would expect. Here are a few the holes that Swiss-cheese his column into incoherence and irrelevance:

Blankley admitted "it is doubtlessly true that our invasion of Iraq (and Afghanistan) helped al-Qaida's recruitment," after claiming "it is reasonable to assume that we have killed [...] between 800 and 1,900 non-Iraqi terrorists who otherwise would have been plying their trade elsewhere." Juxtaposing those statements makes it clear that these current terrorists wouldn't be "plying their trade" anywhere if we hadn't invaded Iraq, for the obvious reason that they wouldn't have been recruited into terrorism.

Blankley's claim that "Fighting and winning always impress. Even merely fighting and persisting impress" is true only where justice has been observed; unprovoked aggression, for example, not only fails to impress but is justifiably criticized. Coupled with his segue into a conversation with a former Soviet general, Blankley's point is muddled even further. The general's reaction to our invasion of Vietnam (58,000 dead) is described as "They thus calculated that they'd better be careful with the United States. What might we do, they thought, if our interests really were threatened?" Are we to extrapolate from this example and be impressed by the Soviet Union's ten-year persistence (15,000 dead) in Afghanistan? They didn't prevail--as we didn't in Vietnam--but is their persistence categorically impressive to Blankley? By his own statement, it should be.

If Bush were impressed enough by the Soviets in Afghanistan--after being sure to avoid his own service in Vietnam--he might give up on hunting terrorists in Afghanistan and instead help create more of them during a lengthy and disastrous occupation of an unrelated country. [Oops...perhaps that shouldn't be phrased as a hypothetical example.]

Blankley was nonsensical yet again when concluding about disagreements over Bush's Iraq policy that "This is a debate worth having before November" only two paragraphs after writing that "The full effects of the vigorous martial response of President Bush [...] will not be known for decades." The inherent contradiction here is as obvious as Blankley's subtext: we need another "vigorously martial" president (McBush, perhaps?) to avoid a repeat of the calamitous peace and prosperity that one hopes will distinguish the incoming administration from the current one.

If he were liberal, a hack like Blankley would not be a prominent columnist.


Wheaton, Wil. The Happiest Days of Our Lives (Arcadia, CA: Monolith, 2007)

After enjoying the hell out of Wil Wheaton's first two books (Dancing Barefoot and Just a Geek, reviewed together here) I was itching to get my hands on a copy of his third book, The Happiest Days of Our Lives. That itch has now been scratched, and it feels GOOD!

The book's highlights are "Exactly What I Wanted" (about a Sunday ice-cream trip with his kids) and "Let Go: A Requiem for Felix the Bear" (about saying goodbye to a beloved family pet). They are perfect little episodes that evoke just the right emotional notes; I laughed out loud at the first and teared up at the second. You can read them online (here for the first story, here and here for the second) or in print (pp. 33-35 and pp. 107-118) while you sit in the bookstore's coffeeshop waiting for the checkout line to shrink down to a tolerable length. If you like those stories, then buy the book already; if you don't, then...you suck. Give up and go home.

Seriously, though: Wheaton is a great writer, and I'm now eagerly waiting the announcement of a publication date for his next book (or at least a convention appearance near me, so I can tell him in person how much I enjoy his work). When Wheaton writes that "I have been able to touch people's lives as a writer in ways that I never could have when I wore a spacesuit, just reading the words that other people thought I should say" (p. 104, "The Big Goodbye"), he's not exaggerating. It's great to have a Niven-reading, taiko-loving unrepentant geek writing such great slice-of-life stuff. Even when Wheaton writes about gaming and poker (two habits I never acquired) he does it so well that even a newbie can grok what he's saying.

Do yourself a favor and check out Wheaton's blog; then go read his books. For some levity, here are two Quotes of the Day that made my inner geek laugh:

My core cast [of Star Wars figures] was Han Solo (in Hoth and regular outfits), Luke Skywalker (X-wing fighter or Bespin version), Greedo (shoots second, goddammit, version), Obi-Wan Kenobi (I lost the plastic robe and broke the tip off the light saber version), Princess Leia (pre-slave girl "man I wish I could hit that" version), C-3PO (tarnished version), and R2-D2 (head stopped clicking a long time ago version). (pp. 43-5, "The Light Special")

...we had D&D fever, and the only prescription was more polyhedral dice. (p. 81, "A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Geek")

[typo fixed]


Lakoff, George. Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

I've read a few of Lakoff's previous books (Moral Politics, Don't Think of an Elephant, and Thinking Points), and Whose Freedom? is perhaps the best of them: a tightly focused book that covers its territory both succinctly and thoroughly. In it, cognitive linguist Lakoff looks at the contested meanings of freedom and illuminates the subject with his customary insight. (Don't worry if you haven't read any Lakoff before; his section on "The Mind and Freedom" on pages 9-15 will quickly get you up to speed with the relevant cognitive theories.)

Chapter 12 ("Bush's Freedom," pp. 229-242) has Lakoff dissecting Bush's notorious second inaugural speech in detail, and is the book's best chapter. I noted Bush's linguistic sleight-of-hand at the time, but only in passing:

Bush's continual repetition of the words "freedom" (33 times) and "liberty" (16 times) in a 2,000-word address is inconsistent with the administration's well-documented abridgement of civil liberties, disdain for the rule of law, and tacit approval of torture.

The effort Lakoff puts into his analysis of the speech makes this chapter alone worth the price of the book, and there are many other sections to sweeten the deal. One example, my Quote of the Day, is from his advice to counter the Right's framing of judicial issues:

You can defuse the conservative frames of "strict construction" and "judicial activism" without mentioning them. Whenever a case reaches a high court, it is because it does not clearly fit within the established categories of the law. Judges have to either extend or narrow those categories, and when they do they change the law, in one way or another. The question is whether they change it in the direction of greater or lesser freedom. Are they expanding--or narrowing--voting rights, civil rights, education of the public, scientific knowledge, and other aspects of the public good? Do they want to take us back before the expansion of our freedoms or forward to a greater expansion of our freedoms? Are they profreedom or antifreedom? (pp. 245-6)

Lakoff's work on economic freedom is also excellent:

Part of the economic liberty myth is that employers "give jobs" to employees. The flip side of that is a deep truth: Working people provide profits to those who pay their wages, and it is the work by workers, even low-skilled workers, that provides profits to employers. (p. 162)

As a wise man once observed, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." (Anatole France, The Red Lily, 1894) Conservatives may see such an "equality before the law" as the summum bonum of American freedom, but liberals need to do better than that. This book suggests some of the ways in which we can re-frame the subject of freedom both more accurately and more effectively than how it is currently treated in the media.


Although Lakoff's book is quite comprehensive, I'd like to offer a few observations on the difference between symbolism and substance that illustrate the liberal/conservative divide on the related issue of patriotism:

• Reading the Declaration of Independence every July 4th doesn't protect our inalienable rights;
• Venerating a parchment facsimile of the Constitution doesn't form a more perfect union;
• Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't actually create liberty and justice;
• Singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" doesn't make our nation the land of the free or the home of the brave;
• Flying the flag from your porch (or sticking a pin through your lapel) doesn't mean that you love your country; and
• Attaching a "support the troops" bumper sticker to your SUV doesn't mean that you value either the members of our armed forces or their military service.

Patriotism may be inspired by words and symbols, but it is in political and civic works where it truly lives. In each of examples listed above, it is conservatives who value the symbols of freedom (such as the flag) over actual freedom that they represent (such as the right to burn a flag in protest). While freedom and patriotism are contested concepts, I find it interesting that conservatives worry so much about the trappings of patriotism; I also wonder if conservatives have corresponding observations about liberals.

I would love to see Lakoff address the framing of patriotism in a sequel to this book.


I received an email castigating me for being liberal:

"Regarding your liberal viewpoint - I consider it to be like braking with your left foot. It's novel and different, but sooner or later you outgrow it."

My initial reaction was to pen a dismissive response to this conservative condescension, perhaps quoting Christopher Hitchens: "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." ("Mommie Dearest," Slate, 20 October 2003) Upon further reflection, I decided to write a more considered response. Bear with me as I address the three problems in the criticism above: the automobile analogy, the novelty accusation, and the maturity argument.

"like braking with your left foot"

This analogy is so inapplicable to political ideology that I hardly know where to begin. Its main flaw is the presupposition that there is exactly one right way (the Right's way, of course) to do something, and that any attempt otherwise is definitionally incorrect, improper, or (perhaps) sinful. "That's the way we always did it" is hardly an empirical position; if it were, we would still be--to stick with automobiles--hand-cranking the starter motor and manually adjusting the choke as we drove (slowly) on dirt roads.

It would also take us much longer to get anywhere, if we could get there without road signs, AAA maps, and GPS; if we could tolerate driving long distances without climate control, power brakes, and power steering; and if we survived the trip without ABS, seat belts, and airbags. This brings me to my next point:

"novel and different"

It behooves us to remember that every advance in human knowledge, every miniscule bit of progress from the status quo, every invention that improved our quality of life, was--in the beginning--novel, different, and untried. Only the liberal dissatisfaction with life as it is, our idealism that it can be better, and our willingness to ask questions and strive for improvement has made our (liberal) American experiment in freedom possible. Accordingly, here are some liberal Quotes of the Day:

"Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?" (James Madison, Federalist 14)
"I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, 12 July 1816)
"Nothing is wiser than that all our institutions should keep pace with the advance of time and be improved with the improvement of the human mind." (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac Harby, 6 January 1826)

"you outgrow it"

Since liberalism is as much a methodology as an ideology, I'm unconvinced that one could "outgrow" it without foregoing necessities like skepticism and critical thinking (although perhaps not everyone considers those things necessary). Because liberalism relies on analyzing arguments rather than simply accepting or rejecting them based on preconceptions, it can lead to conservative conclusions--if warranted by the facts. The liberal-heart/conservative-brain trope to which many I'm-more-mature-than-you conservatives refer (often misattributed to Winston Churchill, with many variants) is unsupported, as it relies on two errors.

The first error is the association of conservatism with intelligence, or sometimes with education. Liberalism is actually somewhat correlated with higher education, as one would expect when previously sheltered students are exposed to thoughts and arguments that differ from those of their family and neighbors. From the 2005 Pew study:

Liberals have the highest education level of any typology group: 49% are college graduates and 26% have some postgraduate education. But the Enterprisers also include a relatively high percentage of college graduates (46%), although fewer Enterprisers [Pew's name for the far-right typology] than Liberals have attended graduate school (14%).

The second error, the conflation of conservatism and maturity, is factually questionable at best. One recent study (mentioned here at LiveScience) observed exactly the opposite, that liberalism is something that one grows into rather than grows out of. "[N]ew research has debunked the myth that people become more conservative as they age:"

By comparing surveys of various age groups taken over a span of more than 30 years, sociologists found that in general, Americans' opinions veer toward the liberal as they grow older.

"All the evidence we have found refutes the idea that as people age their attitudes become more conservative or more rigid," said Nicholas Danigelis, a sociologist at the University of Vermont. "It's just not true. More people are changing in a liberal direction than in a conservative direction."

[Caveat: I've only read the LiveScience article and the abstract, so I'm off to the library to find the whole paper!]

If calling my general outlook "liberal" is supposed to frighten me into silence or equivocation in the face of conservatism's (claimed, but unproven) superiority, it has not worked. In a very real sense--despite my lack of wealth, notoriety, and power--I am one of conservatives' worst nightmares: I am a liberal who is not afraid to be called by that name because I know what it means--and the meaning of liberalism has nothing to do with the caricature that conservatives use for their villainous vilification. Even a casual reader of this blog will note that when I attack conservative positions, I do so by confronting errors with facts. (In fairness, let it be remembered that I also criticize Democrats and other putative liberals for their failures; for example, I did so yesterday in reference to the FISA scandal.)

[typos fixed]

This t-shirt design is wonderful (h/t: Homosecular Gaytheist):


So is the commentary:

Cut the dude some slack for not being Jesus and you'll probably be a lot happier with him. The most inspiring politician in the world is still a politician.

There's also the chance that McCain will win... but even the cynical t-shirt copywriter in me doesn't want to contemplate that.

damn it!

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Well, it's official. The Senate caved in yesterday afternoon and passed the FISA amendment bill with the telecom immunity fully intact, and Bush signed it earlier today. (I discussed the issue of retroactive immunity for their warrantless wiretapping several times, most recently here.)

I was glad last October when Obama's spokesperson Bill Burton declared:

"To be clear: Barack will support a filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies."

Obama himself wrote in January:

"I strongly oppose retroactive immunity in the FISA bill. No one should get a free pass to violate the basic civil liberties of the American people -- not the president of the United States, and not the telecommunications companies that fell in line with his warrantless surveillance program [... T]hat is why I am proud to stand with Sen. Dodd and a grassroots movement of Americans who are standing up for our civil liberties and the rule of law."

I got a bad feeling when Obama caved in last week, assuming that his figurehead status within the party would signal to the other Democratic senators that voting for the "compromise" immunity bill would be an acceptable decision.

They followed his lead and voted for it, and that's not acceptable. As Glenn Greenwald observed:

Those who support this bill, by definition, support both warrantless eavesdropping on Americans and the right of the President and private corporations to break our laws with impunity.


The political class has made as clear as can be that it is intent on supporting a limitless erosion of core constitutional liberties and the creation of a two-tiered justice system that exempts the political elite from the rule of law. Neither the "opposition party" nor the establishment media are the slightest bit interested in, or capable of, stopping any of that. Battling against that is the responsibility of citizens who find these political trends dangerous and intolerable.

Congress has let the American people down, and they didn't have to. Bush only threatened to veto any FISA bill without immunity because immunity is (to him, his cronies, and their co-conspirators) the bill's most important provision. Why each Democratic senator couldn't locate a pair of [gender-neutral] gonads to filibuster this travesty of justice is beyond me.

Why any of them deserves re-election is also beyond me, although few people outside the blogosphere seem bothered by this scandal's disappointingly quiet denouement. Here's
Greenwald again:

"Anticlimactic" is a mild description for a scandal that began with disclosure that the President of the United States and the telecom industry were committing felonies for years in how they spied on American citizens, only to end with a Congress controlled by the "opposition party" legalizing the surveillance, protecting the lawbreakers, terminating the only meaningful process for discovering what really happened, and embracing the premise that the President has the power to order private actors to break the law as long as, in his sole discretion, he decrees that doing so is legal.

As always, the ACLU is on top of the FISA scandal; they will challenge the law in order to protect the Fourth Amendment against the Bush administration, and the EFF will do likewise. Both organizations deserve our support for their tireless work in defense of freedom.


There was a big flurry of concern at Atheist Nexus (which I joined two days ago) this morning about whether or not the site was a Christian front (h/t: vjack at Atheist Revolution). The site's designer just emailed all the members with this:

Hi, All!

There has been some concern arising from an apparent connection between
Atheist|Nexus and a Christian entity. I would like to quickly put out the fires, so here's my explanation:

I am a web design freelancer in my other life - see me at XenonVisual.com. The website DivineChristianCenter.org showed my company's contact information by default - as you can see, the site is not complete pending more information from my client. The only affiliation between myself and the church is a professional one. While I remain strongly and actively opposed to religion (Christian or otherwise), I do not discriminate when selecting clients.

The concern is understandable, but rest assured that Atheist|Nexus is truly the work of atheists, with no other motive but to connect atheists.


I hope that this furor settles down, because the potential for A|N is HUGE... freethinkers tend to resist joining groups, and these kinds of questions make us even warier.

After seeing it plugged all over the atheist corner of the blogosphere, I finally broke down and joined Atheist Nexus today. Billing itself as "a social network for atheists, humanists & freethinkers," the site has potential that may or may not be fulfilled.

We'll see...

This is a classic example of the Right's historical revisionism: Bush quoted Jefferson last week, but left out Jefferson's rather poignant criticism. Ed Brayton quotes from Bush's speech and offers an analysis:

On the 50th anniversary of America's independence, Thomas Jefferson passed away. But before leaving this world, he explained that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were universal. In one of the final letters of his life, he wrote, "May it be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."

Now let's look at the full quote, including the part that was cut out. This is from a letter he wrote to Roger Weightman reflecting on the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (which, it turns out, was the day both he and John Adams died):

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

Jefferson made many such statements, of course. Clearly they are best edited out by those who advocate nothing if not monkish ignorance and superstition.

[typo fixed]

There are several ways to remember the long public career of the late Jesse Helms. One way, the delusional linking of Helms' pathology with the Founders' patriotism, is represented by Billy Graham:

In the tradition of Presidents Jefferson, Adams and Monroe -- who also passed on July 4th -- it is fitting that such a patriot who fought for free markets and free people would die on Independence Day. As we celebrate the birth of our nation, I thank God for the blessings we enjoy, which Senator Helms worked so hard to preserve.

Another way, less polite but far more accurate, is by the Rude Pundit's fantasia on "Jesse Helms in Heaven:"

Frankly, he was as surprised as anyone that he ended up in heaven. Jesse Helms had been sure that all the Christ-loving in the world wouldn't undo the harm that he knew he had done: his support for El Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, about whom he had said, "All I know is that D'Aubuisson is a free enterprise man and deeply religious;" his support for the apartheid government of South Africa and antipathy to the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela; his support of Augusto Pinochet during and after the revelation of the horrific abuses of the dictator's regime. Yes, any of those actions, let alone his bigotry and hatred, should have meant that when his demented, crippled body finally gave out, his corrupt soul would have plunged immediately into the flames of hell for an eternity of being forced to give blow jobs to insatiable barbed-dick demons who'd plunge their spur-topped cocks so deeply into his mouth that they'd rip through the back of his head.

(There's plenty more rudeness where that came from...) In a somewhat lighter vein, the story of the giant inflatable condom that ACT-UP erected over Helms' home back in 1991 (h/t: Andy at Towleroad) should perhaps be replicated on his tombstone; it would be a fitting final "protection against Helms' bigotry and ignorance."

At 3:33pm local time (UTC+1) today, an organ in Halberstadt Germany changed from one chord to another. The musical piece being played, John Cage's "As Slow as Possible," began nearly seven years ago and will continue for the next six centuries. Dale McGowan explained this unusual musical performance to his young daughter Delaney this way:

"It started playing seven years ago on September 5th, 2001. But the music starts with a rest -- a silence in music -- so the first thing you heard was nothing! For twenty months!"

"Haha! Weird!"

"And right in the middle of that silence -- you were born."

"Awesome," she whispered.

She was right. Somehow, juxtaposing her birth and that silence was awesome. Even better: The bellows sprung to life on that day in September, and pumped away for twenty months as the only sound in the church. Once again, music without music.

"Then one day in the middle of the winter, when you were one and a half, the first notes started to play. Hundreds of people gathered in the little church to hear the notes start. Most of the time, though, the notes are playing with no one there. Little weights hold down the keys. Then every two years or so, it's time for the notes to change again, and people come from around the world to hear it."

"And it's still playing right now?"

"Yep, it's playing right now. And here's the thing: It will be playing on the moment you graduate from high school and when you graduate from college. It will be playing when you get your first job, when you get married, and when your kids are born.

"The music that started the year you were born will still be playing at the end of your life. It will be playing when your grandchildren are born and when they die, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and on and on, for 639 years."

McGowan mentions a NYT piece that's useful in a factual way, but isn't nearly as inspirational as his post. Thanks to his thought-provoking post, I now want to make two musical pilgrimages to Germany: the first to experience Wagner's entire Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival, and the second to visit Halberstadt for a chord change in Cage's "As Slow as Possible."

In response to a recent comment on my review of William Martin's What Liberals Believe, I was asked to share a few of my favorite quotes from the book. I was going to share a "top ten" list, but decided to go for a baker's dozen instead:

Here's a wonderful retort to small-government conservatives:

"Other than telling us how to live, think, marry, pray, vote, invest, educate our children, and, now, die, I think the Republicans have done a fine job of getting government out of our personal lives." (p. 36, editorial page, Portland Oregonian, 19 June 2005)

I used this quote when criticizing George Will's ANWR errors:

"That's what happened to Jimmy Carter--he asked Americans to take responsibility for their profligate ways, and promptly lost to Ronald Reagan, who told them once again that they could do anything they wanted." (p. 125, Jane Smiley, "The Unteachable Ignorance of the Red States," Slate, 4 November 2004)

Although I'm an atheist, these two pro-Christian quotes are well worth pondering (the second one I had read a long time ago, but hadn't added to my commonplace book):

"Liberalism is secular Christianity." (p. 115, anonymous)

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth can save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." (p. 128, Jesus, The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas)

I laughed out loud over this one:

"Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich were shaking hands congratulating themselves on the introduction of an anti-gay bill in Congress. If it passes, they won't be able to shake hands, because it will then be illegal for a prick to touch an asshole." (p. 248, Judy Carter, "Editor's Bit," BC Magazine, 16 June 2005)

TR would be appalled at the depths to which his (former) party has sunk over the past century:

"There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental actions, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations." (p. 279, Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive Principles: Selections from Addresses Made During the Presidential Campaign of 1912)

Mencken was a hell-raiser of historic proportions, and funny to boot:

"It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry." (p. 340, H.L. Mencken, Minority Report, 1956)

So was the great anarchist Emma Goldman:

"The most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought." (p. 380, Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, 1910)

Krugman does a great job here:

"If Bush said the earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: 'Shape of the Earth--Views Differ.' Then they'd quote some Democrat saying that it was round." (p. 364, Paul Krugman, interviewed by Terence McNally, "The Professor Takes the Gloves Off," AlterNet, 12 November 2003)

This was depressingly prescient concerning Jonah Goldberg's screed Liberal Fascism:

"Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal." (p. 636, Ronald Reagan, Time, 17 May 1976)

We could really use a Schlesinger today:

"Human rights is not a religious idea. It is a secular idea, the product of the last four centuries of Western history. ... The basic human rights documents--the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man--were written by political, not religious, leaders." (p. 33, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 1989 speech at Brown University, quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief)
"The great religious ages were notable for their indifference to human rights in the contemporary sense--not only for their acquiescence in poverty, inequality and oppression, but for their enthusiastic justification of slavery, persecution, torture and genocide." (p. 506, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History, 1999)

These words are especially apropos for this coming weekend:

"It occurs to me that my patriotic duty is to recapture my flag from the men now waving it in the name of jingoism and censorship." (p. 395, Barbara Kingsolver, "And Our Flag Was Still There," San Francisco Chronicle, 25 September 2001)

A commenter at FriendlyAtheist mentioned a note on Carlin's website, which I hadn't visited since last week. According to Carlin's wishes, it looks like the Phelps clan won't have anything to picket:

I wish no public service of any kind.

I wish no religious service of any kind.

I prefer a private gathering at my home, attended by friends and family members who shall be determined by my immediate surviving family (wife and daughter).

The exact nature of this gathering shall be determined by my immediate surviving family (wife and daughter). It should be extremely informal, they should play rhythm and blues music, and they should laugh a lot. Vague references to spirituality (secular) will be permitted.

Is US law based on the Ten Commandments? Fundies would like us to believe so, but--as usual--the facts are not on their side. Marc Berard's excellent article at Skeptic Report (h/t: Bay of Fundie) analyzes them one-by-one, and concludes:

Out of the 10 commandments, 4 (1, 2, 3, 10) are counter to American laws. 3 (6, 8, 9) are part of our legal system, but are part of just about every legal system in history. 2 (4, 5) are not a part of our laws. And 1 (7) may or may not be a part of state or local laws. Even in a state that has laws concerning #7, that still means less than half of the 10 commandments carry any legal weight, and an equal number are illegal to enforce.

Those that claim the 10 commandments are our basis for law apparently do not know the law very well. The only thing funnier is those that want it posted illegally in schools "to teach children respect for the law".

(The voice in my head is reading Berard's words in George Carlin's voice...I like that a lot.)

Mark Klein, who exposed AT&T's illegal cooperation with Bush's warrantless domestic spying, calls the impending telecom immunity bill (HR 6304, also known as "The FISA Amendments Act of 2008") "a Congressional coup against the Constitution:"

The surveillance system now approved by Congress provides the physical apparatus for the government to collect and store a huge database on virtually the entire population, available for data mining whenever the government wants to target its political opponents at any given moment--all in the hands of an unrestrained executive power. It is the infrastructure for a police state.

Section 802 of the bill, "Procedures for Implementing Statutory Defenses," is the odious portion that would grant retroactive immunity. Short of reading the entire 114-page bill, Patrick Keefe's "Five Myths about the New Wiretapping Law" piece at Slate is a great debunking of the pro-administration spin about the bill:

...the bill effectively pardons the telecom giants that assisted the Bush administration in the warrantless wiretapping program. They will now be shielded from dozens of civil lawsuits brought against them after their involvement was exposed. [...] For the suits against them to be "promptly dismissed," they must demonstrate to the judge not that what they did was legal but only that the White House told them to do it.

If you don't agree that the telecoms should receive retroactive immunity for their warrantless wiretaps, then tell your Senators to oppose HR 6304 in the spirit of the regularly-celebrated-but-infrequently-read Declaration of Independence. Their contact information is here, and the EFF suggests some language to use:

I'm a constituent and I urge you to oppose telecom immunity.

Vote "no" on the FISA Amendments Act, which contains blanket immunity for telecoms that cooperated in warrantless government spying. It is very important to me that Americans have their day in court against lawbreaking telecoms.

Supporters of telecom immunity will tell you the bill is a compromise but it's not. The changes have been purely cosmetic, and your constituents can see right through it. False compromises that grant the telephone companies immunity for participating in warrantless wiretapping are unacceptable.

Do it today! This vote means more to the future of freedom in America than all the festivities and fireworks which will occupy our weekend. Do we care about the substance of freedom, or only about its trappings?

Note: While researching this issue, I found the excellent OpenCongress website, which includes both the status and the text of the bill. (It's also a one-stop shop for all your Congressional information: the status of pending legislation, vote breakdowns by party, Congresscritters' voting history, campaign donations by industry, etc. I highly recommend it as a resource for keeping an eye on Congress, as it's far more user-friendly than any of the official government websites.)

Over at Jesus' General, patriotboy highlights two GOP senators' hypocrisy (h/t: Towleroad) in co-sponsoring the anti-marriage "Marriage Protection Amendment:"

larry craig

david vitter

That's exactly the kind of snark we need...bravo!

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