Archive for September, 2007

The Thinker

MoveOn.org is betraying the progressive cause

Back in July 2004, I took MoveOn.org to task for what I thought was a serious lapse in judgment: pressing the Federal Trade Commission to go after Fox News for promoting itself as “fair and balanced”.

I agreed with MoveOn that Fox News was neither fair nor balanced. What disturbed me was the group’s attempt to use the power of the government against Fox News. Frankly, its attempt gave me the willies and was very Big Brother-ish. Had they succeeded what ghoulish precedent would this have set? Would some future FTC go after the New York Times for, in its judgment, not serving all the news that it thought was fit to print? Would the government assume it was now permitted to decide whether any media outlet was covered by freedom of the press? I thought MoveOn “got” liberal values. We liberals welcome a diversity of opinions and perspectives, even when they do not agree with us. The last thing we want is the government mucking up our freedom to hear different points of view.

Somehow, Eli Pariser, the current executive director for MoveOn, read my little blog entry and left this pithy little comment:

Liberals like to think that ABC, NBC, etc. are in fact ‘fair and balanced’ while citing Fox as the source of distortions. Emphasis on one bit of information while ignoring other salient bits is the hallmark of the liberal media and something you are obviously unable to admit. Pundit my ass!

More recently, MoveOn published its now infamous “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” ad in the New York Times. The good news is that the ad succeeding in garnering a lot of attention. The bad news is that the ad was very counterproductive. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. No less than the Senate of the United States, when it could have been doing things like ending the war in Iraq, instead overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the advertisement. Rather than helping to facilitate an end to the war, it caused Republicans to circle the wagons. It also gave moderate Democrats a reason to be very wary of embracing change.

It did not have to be this way. The ad could have been just as effective without being inflammatory. For example, it would have shown President Bush next to General Petraeus and asked, “President Bush: Why are you making this patriot a scapegoat for your failed policy?” The ad was factually correct. Unfortunately, it pinned the tail on the wrong donkey. MoveOn does not appear to have anyone in charge with sufficient political shrewdness to know when they it has stepped over the bounds of good taste and decency. In doing so, it undercuts both our desire to end the war and gives pause to moderates who might be leaning toward progressive causes.

Has anyone on the MoveOn staff actually served in the military? I have not, but I have spent nine years in the Pentagon working with soldiers from airmen to four star generals. One thing I know without a doubt: while the military is overall a conservative group of folks, they faithfully and slavishly follow orders. As much as MoveOn would like to paint him as such, General Petraeus is not a politician. He is a military officer. He was directed by his chain of command to implement a policy. His job is to salute and do the very best he can to make the policy work. One can quarrel with his methods, but not his patriotism. Policymakers should be taking the rap for a failed policy. Generals can and should be held accountable for failing to properly execute their mission. They should not be tarred for the policy itself. Failure for the policy belongs squarely on President Bush, not General Petraeus.

At the time, I said:

This campaign with the FTC is just mean spirited harassment and worthy of Bill O’Reilly at his worst. MoveOn.org in this case should just shut up. In fact, it should do more than that. It should admit this campaign was a mistake and a serious lapse in its judgment. And then it should, well, move on.

MoveOn did not take me up on my suggestion. This latest ad three years later shows they have learned nothing in the intervening years.

Since I wrote that first blog entry, I have given an additional $350 to MoveOn and its political action committee on the hope that cooler heads were prevailing. No more. If MoveOn is still not savvy enough to know when certain lines should not be transgressed they deserve neither my money nor my support.

Instead, I will give my money to organizations that, in my judgment, have the maturity of vision to know how to promote solid progressive candidates and causes and know how to persuade people rather than inflame or antagonize them. If I have any spare cash left over, I will be giving it to organizations like Progressive Majority and Emily’s List rather than MoveOn. Perhaps some day saner heads will prevail at MoveOn and I can give money to them again. Right now, that day appears to be far off.

 
The Thinker

Sort of Enfranchised

If my 50th birthday in February was a big deal because the number was a very big and very round then arguably my daughter’s 18th birthday tomorrow is a much bigger deal.

My turning 50 included neither new responsibilities nor privileges. Perhaps AARP membership could be construed as a new privilege. However, the AARP no longer requires you to be age 50 to join. On the other hand, when you turn 18 then like it or not you become a (mostly) official member of the tribe. Should you transgress the law, there is no juvenile court for you. At age 18, while you cannot drink you are free to do other arguably stupid but legal things like smoke with impunity.

It used to be that at age 18 or so your parents were helping you pack your bags. Often you would move from your parents’ house to the local YMCA or YWCA, which was something like a community halfway house. There you could find single room housing, people about your age with perhaps some sense of morality, some older adults to keep an eye on things and cheap weekly rents. While you established yourself in the adult world, you had some structure. I imagine there are still YCMAs that offer such a service, but I do not know of any. Our local YCMA is merely a health club. Moreover it is hardly restricted to young Christian males. Old men, women and children can hang out at our YMCA. I am not even sure you have to attest to being a Christian in order to be a member. One thing is for sure: our local YMCA has no SRO housing for young adults.

When I turned 18, while I could probably have survived on my own, it would have been a rough and angst filled transition. Today, modern life is both more complicated and more expensive. In addition, young adults have upgraded both their expectations and lifestyles. Since they are used to convenience, they expect convenience. Since they never had to pay the freight to live a convenient life, they expect that their parents will help subsidize their transition into adult life. Generally, we parents, out of parental love but also out of necessity, have bought into this new vision. Sending your young adult off to college with a couple lockers stuffed with clothes, knickknacks and a thick collegiate dictionary is no longer enough. Today’s collegiates require ATM cards, health insurance, prescription drugs, and laptop computers and maybe even a car. These may not actually be essentials, but the likelihood of their failure appears to increase if they do not have them.

If there is good news for this change of life, it is that you are finally allowed to vote. My daughter has registered to vote for our election this November. Although she accompanied me many times when I voted, she may find the actual voting process underwhelming. She may want to vote for a new president. Instead, she will have more ponder more prosaic choices, including who should be Clerk of the Court. In addition, she may discover that being one voter among millions generally means your vote does not matter too much. If you want your vote to matter, it is better to move to a swing state like Ohio and Florida. She will learn that attempts to change the course of government mostly fail. They may bitch about things, but rarely does this mean they will vote out the incumbent.

When I turned 18, I was fully enfranchised. My new privileges included the right to buy out all the booze at the local ABC store if so inclined. Since that time, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers have succeeded changing those laws. While newly liberated adults like her can vote, they cannot legally imbibe. I hope I am not the only adult to be troubled by this inconsistency. If we are going to prohibit drinking until age 21, it is far more honest to also raise the voting age to 21. In addition, some states have other asterisks next to this change in life. For example, here in Virginia while our daughter can get a driver’s license, she must get a certificate from a state approved driving school before an examiner will test her. A year from now when she turns 19 this will no longer be an issue.

Therefore, tomorrow she really becomes a qualified adult. Although she has committed no transgressions, she is an adult under probation. She has all the responsibilities of full adulthood without necessarily all its privileges.

For her parents there are some benefits to her change in life. She becomes responsible for her actions, not us. However, there are also downsides. She is harder for us to declare as a dependent. It is more difficult for us to tell her what to do, and likely counterproductive should we actually demand it. There are both legal and natural forces at work. These forces are impelling her to take full responsibility for her actions and her life, whether she is ready or not. For my wife and me these are reminders that parenting is a limited mission. Our daughter, while much loved, is really a passenger on our train. We have punched her ticket. The train is slowing. She needs to get her off the train.

As a young adult in her gap year, she now often navigates by herself to the local Books-a-Million. While she shelves books for a bit over the minimum wage, she ponders what she really wants to do with her life. Our evenings, which used to be consumed with monitoring her homework and Internet usage, are starting to become quieter. The cat, who is very bonded with our daughter, pouts because his human is spending more and more time away from her. Meanwhile, I am envisioning a much quieter and lower-key life in my near future. I am seeing a time when her bedroom morphs into a guest room or a study. Indeed, I am seeing a time when our house goes on the market and we retire to some place smaller. I am seeing my wife and me with grey hair, living in a retirement community and going to Elder Hostels. While this vision still seems quite a way away, what is new is that we can see it clearly now.

Our cat will not be happy by our daughter’s change in life but he will adopt. My wife and I will experience a mixture of feelings, but will move toward acceptance. Our lives will continue to intersect with our daughter’s, but invariably we will see less of her. There may come a day when we call her regularly just to find out what is going on with her. There may come a day when our relationship devolves into occasional Thanksgiving dinners and exchanging Christmas cards.

We have to let her go. She has to let us go. That is just the way it is. Meanwhile, we can expect measured steps by her toward self-sufficiency and many more evenings and weekends free of the distraction of supervising her life, while not entirely free about worrying about her choices.

 
The Thinker

A West Wing Retrospective

It has taken me about eighteen months, but I finally made it through all 156 episodes and seven seasons of The West Wing. As I mentioned in my review of the first season back in April 2006, I never bothered to watch the show when it was broadcast. Indeed, when I popped the first DVD of the show into my DVD player the final episode was being filmed. Freed from the innumerable commercials and the necessity of watching it (or at least taping it) at inconvenient times, I was free to view it from a different perspective.

What follows is a number of random thoughts and observations on the series.

Overall, the acting was superb. As in any series lasting seven years, there were uneven moments. I would like to assign a best actor to the series but I cannot. It is a dead even three-way tie between John Spencer (Chief of Staff Leo McGarry), Richard Schiff (Communications Director Toby Ziegler) and Allison Janney (Press Secretary, and subsequent Chief of Staff C.J. Cregg). What is true of all the actors though is that from the beginning their performances were measured and consistent.

A few characters and subplots did grate on me. The unstated sexual tension between Donna Moss and Josh Lyman annoyed me more than intrigued me. For much of the show I found Donna Moss (played by Janel Maloney) annoying. The same was true with Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) who was perhaps not quite buttoned down enough to be anyone’s Deputy Chief of Staff. I will say though that he was dead on with his portrayal of an overly caffeinated, sleep deprived, Type A Washingtonian. Nor was I terribly impressed by Dulé Hill (Charlie Young, President Bartlett’s personal aide). Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) struck me as miscast from the start. Unfortunately, his replacement Will Bailey (Joshua Malina) annoyed me even more. At least there was some chemistry in the Josh/Donna relationship. The “chemistry” between Will Bailey and National Security Advisor Kate Harper (Mary McCormack) near the end of the show simply was not there.

As for how well the show portrayed the actual West Wing, while I have never worked in the White House, I have worked at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I also worked in a few headquarters buildings so I have had infrequent and occasionally regular access to senior staff at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense. I know political types. Overall, I think series creator Aaron Sorkin was eerily accurate in his portrayal of the Washington culture and Washington politicians in general. I suspect they are not that different from many Hollywood producers. However, I am sure the real West Wing is far more complex than this series let on. For one thing, there are a lot more deputy, assistant and special assistants for every senior official than the story writers can show. This is understandable because even with a show with classy production values it is impossible to render the level of bureaucracy that actually exists.

Another thing the show does well is convey just how smart many in politics actually are. We tend to think of Washington as full of inept buffoons. Sorry to bust your balloon, but this is not typically the case. Granted there are politicians, including many in Congress, who are little more intelligent than a fruit fly. At the staff level though, whether they are political or not, people are uniformly incredibly bright and perceptive. If it seems otherwise it is because working around the bureaucratic kudzu of Washington is not for the faint of heart. It has developed over two hundred years and has its own culture that will continue no matter how much the Ross Perots of the world complain. I am no fan of Republicans, but I can say that the same is true regardless of party. In fact, arguably Republicans are much more effective at governing than Democrats. That does not mean what they are trying to do for the country is necessarily in its best interest. I am more than a bit astonished, for example, that President Bush, as bungling as he has been and as low as his poll ratings are, can still whiplash the Congress on national security issues and the Democrats fall sheepishly in line. Republicans know how to exercise power through intimidation.

The West Wing of course is fictional, and portrays an almost idealized progressive administration. Administrations like the Bartlett Administration never happen in reality. Perhaps the closest was the Roosevelt Administration. I think the series creators modeled Bartlett as a mixture of Roosevelt and Kennedy. Even the Republicans on the show are hard to hate. In some episodes in the middle of the series, a Republican congress tries to bring down Leo McGarry (chief of staff) for various sins related to being an alcoholic. Yet one prominent Republican staffer has the guts to stop the hearings when it clearly is about to go over the line. In real life, a Republican congress would have given Leo McGarry the equivalent of a public lynching. In addition, near the end of the series a libertarian conservative senator (Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda) wins the Republican nomination. I am tempted to say this would never happen in real life, but current Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani comes close. We will see if he actually is nominated. Anyhow, Arnold Vinick is one of the few Republicans who I might actually be tempted to vote for.

Mostly The West Wing is a classy show, of the sort that is increasingly rare on television. It may be the last of its kind on network TV. Overall, the writing, directing and acting were excellent. The show can be loosely organized into two parts. The first three seasons document the first term of the Bartlett Administration. This is “classic” West Wing before some of the established characters like Rob Lowe decided to move elsewhere. The second half of The West Wing feels transitional. Much of the last two seasons involve the waning days of the Bartlett Administration and the presidential campaign to replace him. Much of the continuity from the classic show was gone by this point. Near the end of the show, there are hardly any of the established characters left in the White House but Janney and Martin Sheen (who played the president). Still, the rough and tough world of running a presidential campaign is quite well portrayed, in a rather idealized way, of course. The series creators do their best to close the many hanging plot lines and relationships. It largely succeeds. The Donna Moss/Josh Lyman tension appears to be resolved. C.J. Cregg appears to be finally won over by the aggressive Washington Post reporter Danny Concannon. Democratic Party nominee Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) of course has to win the presidential election, but just by a hair. In addition, President Bartlett, despite some misgivings, pardons Toby Ziegler for disclosing that the military had a space shuttle.

The best of the show was probably its first two seasons. The fifth season was notably its worst, yet was far better than I anticipated. The last season often seemed a chaotic mess, but campaigns are typically this way. The series concluded in proper Hollywood style with all the loose ends wrapped up neatly. Alas, if only administrations actually worked that way.

Overall, my eighteen month adventure into The West Wing was worthy of my time, attention and money. My thanks go to my brother Tom, who hooked me with the first season, and supplied the last three seasons.

Some part of me wishes they had just kept The West Wing going with the fictional Santos Administration. The sets were already there, and many of the characters would have stayed on. Mostly though I am glad they had the good sense to end it after seven years. Their ratings were poor anyhow. Like After M*A*S*H which tried to keep actors employed when M*A*S*H finally ended, any subsequent version of The West Wing would likely be a poor imitation of the original and quickly canceled. Moreover, while the original had many blemishes, the blemishes are easy to overlook. Fortunately, excellence was typically what we viewers got.

I perhaps will go through the whole series again some day in more detail. Meanwhile, I ache for a Bartlett Administration in real life. Maybe someday we will be worthy of one.

 
The Thinker

Democrats choose pragmatism on Universal Health Care

I find it remarkable how much the health care debate has changed in the last few years. Not long ago, it was anathema for many mainstream politicians to even suggest that Americans needed universal health insurance. Now, every Democratic candidate for running for president has his or her own plan. Republican candidates, while rejecting the idea of “government run” health care plans are proposing tax credits and other incentives which they believe will make health care easier to acquire.

By big margins, Americans are saying they have had enough with our current health care “system”. They no longer buy into the notion that America has the best health care. Perhaps it does, if you are independently wealthy. The rest of us are stuck with either substandard insurance through our employer, paying through the nose for our own policy or spending much of our free time praying that we do not get severely ill. Every year, assuming we do not join the ranks of the uninsured, our premiums and deductibles rise. Moreover, the list of covered procedures grows smaller.

Doctors and employers hate our health care “system” too. Unless they spurn insurance altogether, they generally are paid a fraction of their fee. For doctors, it seems like they spend more (uncompensated) time hassling with insurance companies than seeing patients. Insurance companies frequently override their recommendations for patient care. Patients like my wife, who have had several major operations, are sent home after just a night in the hospital. Ideally, surgeries are done on an outpatient basis. As for employers, providing health insurance becomes more problematic every year. Many small businesses do not even bother.

Movies like Michael Moore’s Sicko have documented how other countries are successfully providing universal health care. The fear mongering tactics of the insurance companies and HMOs no longer frighten us. How could anything the government comes up with be scarier than what we already have? How often do you see senior citizens bitching about Medicare? Now we understand that the money insurance companies saved by kicking us out of the hospital too soon is being used instead to coax congressional representatives and senators into making sure the system does not change. Finally, so many years later, it looks like our representatives are finally developing a backbone. Providing we elect a Democratic president and Congress in 2008, the chances for having universal health care in this country are excellent. It is about freaking time.

But which way to go? To me the Republican calls for tax credits are ludicrous and fully worthy of derision. They certainly do not provide universal health insurance. Health care savings accounts are fine if you have sufficient income to put money into them, but they are hardly a panacea to rising health care costs. If you are living from paycheck to paycheck, they are useless. One of the reasons I am so optimistic that Congress will go Blue next year is that Republicans still subscribe to ridiculous ideas like these. It is like saying they believe in the tooth fairy. Get real, Republicans! Not all problems can be solved by the marketplace. That is why governments exist: to step in where the public needs are not being addressed adequately by the private sector. It is right there in our constitution: our government exists in part “to promote the general welfare.”

As a liberal, revolutionary change excites me. Like many liberals, a single payer health care system strikes me as ideal. So why can I not fall in line behind it? I cannot because I know that, at least in this country, massive changes like this one tend to bollix up the whole system rather than solve the problem. Health care in America is too big and too institutionalized to change radically. It will doubtless cost us more, but to effect change that will actually work, we have to incrementally change what we have now, as imperfect as it is.

I spent some time today reading the health care proposals of Democratic candidates. With the exception of known eccentrics like Dennis Kucinich, the candidates are proposing measured and evolutionary changes in order to provide universal health care. Republican candidates are merely sticking their toes in the health care waters. Democratic candidates, on the other hand, are offering pragmatic and workable plans that build on the existing system.

Hillary Clinton was the latest candidate to release her health care proposal. Sometimes being last is best. Perhaps because of her presumed front-runner status, her proposal received a great deal of media coverage. It showed that she had thought through the mistakes she and her husband made in the 1990s. With her plan, if you are satisfied your current health plan you can keep it. If you do not like it, you can select from the many plans that are available to us federal employees, all of which have to take you no questions asked. Otherwise you are free to enroll in a public plan that will look a lot like Medicare. Her plan requires that every American purchase health insurance coverage but premiums are limited to a percentage of income. Rolling back some of the bigger Bush tax cuts for the very rich will help pay for her plan. She also thinks a lot of money can be squeezed from current inefficiencies in the system.

Will all of her savings be realized if enacted? Probably not. Many of these “savings” are likely smoke and mirrors. At this point, our health care system is so complex that it makes our tax code look simple. However, her plan and the many like them proposed by other Democratic presidential candidates are pragmatic steps that provide the universal coverage we need. Making the uninsured pay for even a portion of the cost of their care should mean that you would be paying less for your health care. Your premiums are so high in part because you have been indirectly subsidizing the uninsured all along.

Perhaps over time we can evolve into a single payer system. If so, it will likely take many decades. We will still be envious that other developed countries like Canada, Great Britain and France can provide better care at lower cost through their single payer systems. At least we will at last have some form of universal health insurance. It will not be a perfect system but it will be good enough. Doctors will keep billing. Insurance companies will still take their slice of the health care pie. Yet overall, it will be better. Employers can concentrate on making profits instead of worry about how they will afford double-digit health insurance premium increases. I hope that our doctors will spend more time with patients, and less on the phone haggling with insurance companies. While it will not be perfect, only multimillionaires will want to revert to the health care mess that we have now.

 
The Thinker

The hidden power of Google Docs

The application designers at Google rarely fail to disappoint. Some of their products have failed to capture much market attention, but all of them have been interesting. If their designers are disappointed that useful applications like Froogle have not captured the public’s fancy, other ideas like Google Earth and Google Maps swept us away.

I have spent quite a bit of time lately looking at and pondering Google’s recent offerings. This weekend I belatedly signed up for a Google GMail account. I do not know why I procrastinated so long. Admittedly, it is not a perfect application. The ads served based on the content of my email still spook me a bit. I am also a bit leery leaving all my email on their servers, no matter how convenient it is to search my email using their search engine. While their privacy policy looks reassuring enough, there is no law that requires Google to keep my email messages private. Since the NSA arm-twisted telephone companies like Verizon into opening up their calling records, in spite of the illegality of doing so at the time, I have to wonder whether Big Brother is also searching my GMail.

Still, GMail is slick. Spending some time using it makes you shrug off your paranoia. In fact, once you have it, it is hard to revert. Like all Google products, GMail is hardly flashy. Google likes white backgrounds, ordinary fonts and lots of white space in its pages. However, Google is not after flashiness; it excels at usefulness. While I can bemoan their capability to search my private email messages, having it hosted inside their 3 gigabytes of free server space also means that all my mail is available wherever I can access the web. The first time GMail threaded my email I was jolted, then I wondered why email programs generally do not thread email.

GMail has many other useful features. If your cell phone is Internet capable, you can receive and reply to email on your cell phone. Its spam detection is excellent. You can segregate important emails by “starring” them. You can teach GMail to assign labels to various kinds of emails. In fact, “email” is a word that Google makes obsolete. Since all your emails are threaded, it correctly refers to your email box as a collection of “conversations”. Importing my address book, a fundamental step for being useful, was not much of a chore. I simply exported my address book from my email client into tab-delimited files, and then read them into GMail. I can use it as a vacation responder. I can POP (download) email from other accounts, or download my GMail into my email client through a secure POP connection. I can add filters to segregate common kinds of emails. Many third party applications have been written for GMail. For example, you can install a notifier program. It tells you when you have new mail by placing an icon in your system tray. However, you may not want to install the notifier. Simply leave GMail in a browser tab and the tab title will let you know if you have new email. What is the cost for all this wonderfulness? Aside from the minimal advertising, unless you want to use more than 3 gigabytes of server space, it is free.

GMail lead me to try out Google’s news feed reader called Google Reader. Previously I had been using the now antiquated Bloglines as my web-based newsreader. Google Reader is magnitudes better than Bloglines. Adding a new feed is easy, and if you are having trouble thinking of a feed to add you can select from a list of canned feeds organized by category. Your Google Reader home page consolidates a list of recent feeds for your easy viewing. As you scroll down through a feed, Google Reader assumes you have read the item. You can “star” items in the feed like you can emails. By “starring” them, they become the equivalent of temporary bookmarks. Of course, all your feeds are instantly searchable. In addition, you can choose to share with your feeds with friends. Of all the newsreaders I have used, both web based and installed, Google Reader is by far the most usable. As with GMail, if I have a browser, I have instant access to all my news feeds.

Google has many other interesting applications, many of which have yet to take off. The Google Talk application is a Johnny come lately. With AOL and Yahoo holding dominance in these markets, it is unclear how it can overtake them. (There is an open application programming interface (API) for Google Talk, which could help.) However, if you can convince your friends to use Google Talk, you have one interesting feature: the ability to transparently save and search your own chat sessions. Google’s language translation tool, built into its search engine, is eerily accurate. Google has purchased some of its competition. As you may have heard, Google now owns Blogger and YouTube. Its attempt to compete with Windows on the desktop has thus far proven futile. However, its Google Desktop Search tool allows you to search your own computer with transparent ease.

What is Google’s next big thing? I think it is already here. It is Google Docs and Spreadsheets, soon to be renamed Google Docs. It aims to be a web-ified version of Microsoft Office. Should Microsoft be worried? No, they should be panicked. They should be panicked not because Google Docs will likely be able to build a better word processor or spreadsheet (although that may emerge over time) but because for most of us 90% of the functionality is more than adequate and free is an excellent price. Microsoft should also be worried because these documents inherently reside inside the Google hive. Consequently, they are easily and transparently shareable. Microsoft may be worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and its MSN network may be impressive, but it is a 98-pound weakling in the infrastructure hosting business. Google is the 800-pound gorilla. Moreover, Google Docs has something in common with Google Talk and, in fact, many of its applications. It has an API that can manipulate it. This means we are likely to see all sorts of small but clever applications used to serve particular vertical markets that will be at its core Google Docs documents.

Most computer users understand spreadsheets. Keeping track of tabular data (data formatted in rows and columns) is now second nature. Yet a database, even a simple one like Microsoft Access, is still relatively complex and generally too much trouble to use for the sharing data. Extensible Markup Language (XML), while certainly portable and easy to read, is still not simple to consume or process for a particular use. It depends on relatively sophisticated programs on both the sending and receiving end to make use of the data. A Google Docs spreadsheet on the other hand, needs no installation. If you can use Word or Excel, you can quickly learn to use a Google docs word processor or spreadsheet. If your use is personal, it does not cost any money. Since it is hosted in the Google infrastructure, you can easily share your Google Docs, unlike Microsoft Office documents. Generally, if you want to share these documents, you email them. And when you email them, you lose your ability to update them. This is not true when they exist inside Google.

Consequently, Google Docs is something of its own platform, but since it is an open platform anyone can write an application that works with it. You can sort of do this with Microsoft Office, but you have to write to a Microsoft API (generally Visual Basic for Applications). Google Docs is easier to interact with than XML documents (in fact, Google Docs stores its documents as XML) and can be programmatically extended using open source AJAX technology and the Google Docs API. Once this fact sinks in, Google Docs should become the de-facto means of sharing relatively simple structured data. It will create a brand new market that will make it easy to collaborate online using readily understood metaphors (spreadsheets, documents, presentations).

This is something Microsoft cannot presently do except through some of its costly and proprietary solutions. To even compete in this new market would take Microsoft many years, and would probably not succeed, given Google’s gigantic head start. It is likely that in time Google Docs (perhaps assisted by the OpenOffice suite) will crack the Microsoft Office monopoly. If you are a business, the fact that Google Docs is already hosted may very well be compelling. Why pay people to go around, install and troubleshoot Microsoft Office when they could do the same work online with just a browser? Whatever Google charges for a commercial service will likely be a small fraction of Microsoft’s costs. Moreover, you will not have to pay a help desk to support these applications.

Often it is the prosaic things endure the longest. Documents and spreadsheets are prosaic, but essential to information sharing. We were wowed a couple years back by Google Earth. I think that Google Docs, by extending the Google infrastructure to the applications level, will be seen as Google’s most significant innovation since its search engine. While it may not kill Microsoft, Microsoft may well emerge a shadow of its former self.

 
The Thinker

Here is how to really end the war

According to an email I received today from ImpeachBush.org, approximately a hundred thousand antiwar protesters descended on Washington on Saturday in a mass protest to end the Iraq War. Most likely, the actual number was half this but it is hard to say for sure. While the crowd was undoubtedly large, it did not exactly fill the Mall. In addition, as usual the main targets of their protest were out of town. Bush was likely at Camp David. Cheney was at his usual undisclosed location. Most of Congress had vacated by Thursday anyhow, which is when their weekend usually begins. So the antiwar crowds demonstrated peacefully with largely only police and a small collection of noisy counter protesters to hear them. A few hundred protesters were arrested for sitting of the front lawn of the Capitol. While press articles about the rally were plentiful, they generally appeared well inside the A section. The demonstrators themselves apparently felt a little let down by the lack of a larger turnout.

Where were the Vietnam War era crowds? Yes, there was noise. Yes, there were speeches. Yes, there was Cindy Sheehan and Ramsey Clark at the podium. There were people from International ANSWER who had organized the protest and many mostly preprinted protest signs available for protesters to hoist and wave. Yet somehow, rather than seizing the nation’s attention the event was felt more like a footnote.

I did not to attend. I retrospect I should have, but frankly it dropped off my radar. I probably get a dozen emails like it a day and for some reason this rally did not stand out. From the sound of it, the protest was somewhat smaller than the march I did attend nearly two years ago. Many of the same speakers were at both rallies. Cindy Sheehan, then someone brand new to the protest movement, spoke passionately about the pointless loss of her son Casey in an unwinnable war. Ramsey Clark spoke eloquently about the need for Bush’s impeachment for his war crimes. There was certainly energy in the crowd on that day two years ago. I suspect the same was true during Saturday’s rally. Yet two years later, this and other rallies are not enough. While the tide has turned in the court of public opinion, the war drags on. It continues even though the people who want to end the war now control Congress.

Perhaps that is how these things go. Large antiwar protests during the Vietnam War did not materialize in size until 1968 or so. While I was too young to attend these rallies, I did watch them on the news. By the standards of that era, Saturday’s protest was simply anemic. Perhaps as a consequence today’s protests seem to have less impact.

Why is that? Is it that people are less upset with the Iraq War than the Vietnam War? Is it because the movement still has not developed a full head of steam? Vietnam did not involve troops in any sizeable level until 1963 or so. In that sense today’s antiwar protesters are faster and more agile. They are able to mobilize sizeable crowds much more quickly. Tools that were unavailable back then, like the Internet, no doubt have helped.

Still, the antiwar protests to date have paled in comparison to those of the Vietnam War. It is not as if some Iraq War protests have not come close. A protest shortly before our invasion nearly filled the Mall. Downtown Manhattan was overwhelmed with protesters during one major antiwar protest. These rallies though were the exception rather than the rule. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, campuses were regularly overtaken over by protesters. Protesters barricaded the Pentagon. Workers literally had to step on them to get to work.

The Vietnam War though had a few crucial differences compared with the Iraq War. Draftees largely fought the Vietnam War. This war is being fought entirely by volunteers. Moreover, these recruits come disproportionately from rural and conservative areas. During the years of the Vietnam War, people you knew personally died over there. Mostly people who did not want to serve fought the war.

When only those who choose to fight a war are sent, it is harder to feel the pain. I read in the newspaper of people in my county who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they are rare. I do not know one of them personally. Of the people I encounter regularly, I know of only two who have sons serving in these theaters. Although the more than three thousand American soldiers killed in over four years in Iraq in a sobering number, these numbers are relatively small compared with the number of soldiers who died in Vietnam. Thankfully, today we are better at saving the lives of the wounded.

While there are exceptions like Cindy Sheehan, most of those who are marching to oppose the war are doing it on ideological grounds, and not because they have been personally affected by the war. While polls show that a majority of Americans want the war to end, feeling this way and actually by taking action to end it are two different things. Because I live near Washington, attending that rally two years was not that big a deal. Had I lived a bit further out I am not sure that my outrage would have been large enough to find the energy to attend.

The downside of fighting a war with volunteers is that you do not necessarily have enough soldiers to fight the war on the scale needed to accomplish the mission. Yet there is an upside. Aside from likely having a better class of soldier, because citizens are less vested in the war it can be harder to stop. When the War on Terror started, President Bush told us not to change our habits. He told us to spend and act as if the terrorists had never hit us. We took his advice to heart. The images of the burning Twin Towers soon faded. The War on Terror become more of an abstraction that a reality. Supporting the troops meant putting stickers on the back of your car and of course not raising your taxes to pay for the war. If you had to pay additional taxes for the war, you might have felt more attached to its outcome. Instead, only the patriotic or desperately poor had to actually put their lives in danger.

This war can be stopped, but it will likely require much more direct engagement from those of us who are against it. Contribute what you can in money. Regularly write your senators, representatives and newspaper editors to let them know how you feel. When they are in your district, take time to attend events where you can question them. Speak to power.

These things, however good, are simply not enough. Take the time to attend antiwar rallies. You need to feel vested in changing the course of the war, and you will not feel that way writing checks to MoveOn.org. Not all of you can make it to the nation’s capital, but there are likely rallies closer to home that you can attend. By attending rallies, not only will you find strength in numbers but also you will find motivation to keep fighting to end the war. You will understand that there is strength in numbers.

Only our politicians can end this war. Politicians will not end it until they believe they must end it or they will be voted out of office. An opportunity to vote them out is about a year away. In the meantime, they can demonstrate right now that they are willing to end the war. There are three ways this can be accomplished. First, Congress can rescind its war authorization. Second, it can pass a bill specifying a date by which all combat troops must be withdrawn from that theater. Or third, it can refuse to fund the war. Any of these actions can be thwarted by a presidential veto. Regardless they demonstrate real commitment from those who can do something about it. Sorry, but passing a bill requiring the president to come up with a plan for withdrawing troops indicates spinelessness, not commitment.

In short, the war will end when we hold accountable those who keep it going. No matter how much you may like your representative or senator here is what you have to tell them: I will vote you out of office unless you end it.

 
The Thinker

The transition

Some adolescents are eager to sample adult life long before they are physically and emotionally ready to do so. Others prefer to have little to do with growing up and might not grow up at all without firm parental involvement. My daughter is likely in the latter category. After she graduated in June, my wife and I set the firm expectation that she had to get a job.

Our daughter Rosie is part of an emerging trend: the gap year. A gap year is a year “off” (at least from education) between the end of high school and the start of college. My wife and I supported her decision. For a young woman for whom most life changes are a challenge, a year dealing with a regular job should help her clarify her choices. It was our hope that if nothing else this job would show her what life might be like if she did not go to college.

Rosie had managed to graduate high school without working a real job. The summary of her job experience was occasional babysitting and volunteer work. Both my wife and I held part time jobs in high school. Both of us needed the money. As one of eight children in a middle class household, I knew that if I wanted a college education, I would have to pay for most of it myself. I started working as soon as I was legally allowed. My parents chipped in a few thousand bucks toward my college education. I had saved about $7000 from working part time. Student loans and a cheap public university filled the rest of the gap.

Frankly, it irked me that Rosie had managed to get through high school without having had a real job. As I remarked in another entry an entry-level job, aside from providing a source of money was an invaluable education in life. High school has its stresses but it is surreal. Mopping floors at 10 PM or listening to surly customers bitch about their woes while maintaining a pleasant smile was real. Perhaps sensing that real life was not much fun, she seemed content to be a slacker.

There is no lack of entry-level jobs in our area of Northern Virginia. Yet many of them were simply unacceptable to our daughter. With threats of pain and suffering, we could have forced her to apply at a McDonalds or a Target. That tack seemed counterproductive. Since she would have to navigate her own way through real life, we felt it better to work with her than against her. My wife and I became her coaches. Still there was a big gap between our expectations and hers. Ours were that as soon as graduation was over she would be pounding the pavement. Hers was that a couple of times a week, and only if we nagged her and drove her around, she would apply at places where she wanted to work. After applying at a few places, she preferred to wait to see if they would call her. They did not.

To make a long story short she mostly managed to slack off all summer, sleeping in past noon and staying up nearly until dawn. She applied with lackluster enthusiasm at places like the local drug store, but really wanted to work in a bookstore. An interview with a Barnes & Noble though never resulted in a call back. She was this close to being forced to apply for a job at Target when, after a second interview the local Books-a-Million finally offered her a job. If she was relieved, it was hard to tell. My wife and I felt like popping the champagne. It had been an aggravating summer.

We are still nervous. For a young woman who spent most of her summer in a comfy chair with her laptop computer, a real job was going to be a big change. Could our daughter go from slacker to productive retail drone overnight? The answer appears to be yes. She has only finished four days on the job but we are amazed by the transition. While we wait to pick her up in the parking lot after her shift, we can watch her through the large open windows, scurrying from place to place. Her legs hurt, she says. This is not surprising, since they were little used all summer. Already she navigates around the store as if it were a second home, working with intensity and energy that astounds us. She often finds the working at the store interesting. She likes her coworkers, finds many of her chores boring but is too busy running from one task to another to care too much.

I guess underneath that slacker young woman was a woman ready to engage life, but scared by the transition. Now much of that fear is behind her. She has learned to apply for jobs and to interview. She did not like it, but she has acquired a life skill all of us but Paris Hilton must learn. Our job was to encourage first then coax and cajole when necessary. While the process took longer than we expected it is gratifying to see the fruit of her efforts at last. From navigating the buses, (they run only during rush hours) to vacuuming the store after it closes, she has moved from inertia into full engagement. She is learning to leave work at 12:15 in the morning and be back at 10 the same morning for another eight-hour shift. Moreover, she is doing so with both grace and a pragmatic attitude.

While I am still wondering if the other shoe will drop, I am beginning to relax. I know there is much more to this parenting business but I am also seeing that it does eventually end. Flush with her own money (she still must pay us $200 a month in rent, since she is not going to school) she is beginning to make her own choices in the real world. At the end of the month, she turns eighteen. Our joint account will become her own private account. Her checks have arrived. Her check card is already in use.

She still has some catching up to do with her peers. She has expressed little interest in getting her driver’s license. The State of Virginia requires anyone under 19 to go to a driving school, even though my wife and I have taught her how to drive. She will decide if she wants to accelerate the process or wait until she is 19 to take her driving test. The hassle of taking the bus to work (when it runs) or depending on her parents to drop her off and pick her up (when they are not running) may force her to rethink her lackadaisical attitude.

Over the next year, her hazy plans for becoming an English teacher may well change. She understands that public school teachers do not make much money. Working for modest wages may put this choice into context for her. I would not be surprised if her career plans take a new and unexpected path over the next year. For now, she keeps her goal modest: she wants to save up enough money to buy a Vespa. Unlike my wife and me, she will probably not have to worry about how she will afford college. We can give that one gift. She can graduate college and likely start debt free.

This coaching business is challenging for me. I certainly know what I would do if I were in her shoes. Yet I will never be in her shoes. She has treaded a different path in life than mine. My job is to express confidence, provide unconditional love, give an unvarnished picture of the road ahead and, if she asks, help her think through some tough choices. I am sure that she will have some stumbles along life’s path. Perhaps her cautious attitude is now something of an asset. Modern life is incredibly complicated, so caution is warranted, provided it does not amount to dysfunction. Yet life cannot be avoided forever. At some point, it must be engaged. It is heartening to see her engage it at last with a surprising spirit of determination and vigor.

 
The Thinker

Desperately seeking Reagan

Wanted: Republican presidential candidate. Must be tall and have gravitas in his voice. Must convince Americans that it is Morning in America again. Dyed, slicked back hair optional but highly preferred. Former actors and governors preferred. Must be a rich white Republican male. Apply at Republican National Committee.

Good news for disgruntled Republicans: Former senator and Law & Order actor Fred Thompson has decided it is not too late to run for President. Fred belatedly but officially kicked off his campaign last week, spurning a debate with fellow candidates in New Hampshire for a folksy chat with Jay Leno instead. Fred is now hitting the Iowa and New Hampshire campaign trails hard. Desperate Republicans are rushing to check Fred out. They are all wondering the same thing: is Fred our next Ronald Reagan?

Sadly for Republicans, it appears not. To this Democrat, listening and watching Fred last week revealed that he sounds and behaves a lot more like George W. Bush than Ronald Reagan. It is not that Fred does not know how to act. He proved that on Law & Order. What he is missing is the ability to articulate. When handed a script and coached by competent directors, Fred made a convincing district attorney. However, on the stump he comes across as bumbling. He struggles to articulate a coherent message and often reverts to platitudes. His grasp of the facts often is appalling. If he is to be the next Reagan, Republicans will be forced to project a lot more into him than is actually there. His Southern accent and rambling style also reminds me of George W. Bush. After eight years of Bush, I doubt most Republican want to replace Bush with someone who looks and acts a lot like him.

Better to go for someone without the muddled southern drawl, someone more handsome and with better hair. In other words, maybe it is time for Republicans to hold their nose and vote for someone from the liberal northeast, i.e. Mitt Romney. In addition to being handsome, he is also tall and articulate. His Mormon faith is still viewed with suspicion by many Republicans, but at least he is a faithful family man. He has also walked away from conservative principles from time to time, but perhaps these instances can be forgiven. After all, he had to work with a Democratic legislature. Mitt has been through Republican hell and back. At least he has been battle tested.

Although blessed with a huge personal fortune, Mitt may be missing a bit in the style department. This may explain why former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani leads among Republicans in nationwide polls. Unfortunately, he is missing the needed Reagan hair. Perhaps he can talk with William Shatner, who can point him to a place that will give him a good price on a toupee. Among all the candidates, Rudy at least sounds the most like Ronald Reagan. He can swagger without it looking insincere. He may lack Reagan’s self-deprecating style, but he sure knows how to sound sure of himself. If only he were, well, better at being faithful. Maybe it does not matter anymore, since the Republican candidates are rife with questionable moral character issues. Unfortunately, in Rudy’s case there are moral red flags everywhere. Stepping around on the missus can perhaps be forgiven provided it is done with some discretion, but when done so flagrantly it is hard to excuse. Giuliani can at least be given credit for having nerve. Stepping around with another woman and inviting the press to witness it all at least showed he had nothing to hide. Moreover, that gay couple he lived with for a while, well, perhaps they were Log Cabin Republicans. Anyhow, the image of Rudy standing by the ruins of the World Trade Center six years ago with a bullhorn in hand is indelible. He sure looked and sounded commanding at the time. If he became president, clearly Giuliani would not be a limp-wristed Jimmy Carter type who might agonize over tough decisions. Above all a Republican president must charge decisively forward. This apparently is what leadership means to Republicans.

Sam Brownback has great hair but suffers from being in the back of the pack with little in the way of accomplishments. John McCain is reliable but too old and has taken too many controversial positions. Campaign finance reform? How the heck are Republicans supposed to win if they cannot have an uneven playing field?

Then there are all these congressmen running. You know the Republican Party is in deep doo doo if three of their candidates are congressmen. These include Duncan Hunter, Tam Tancredo and Ron Paul. Ron Paul at least is enough of a gadfly to liven up their otherwise dreary presidential debates.

This leaves only Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. Here is a word of advice for Republicans: if you want a chance of actually winning the presidential contest next year, nominate Huckabee. You can also have a good time with it because he will probably run against Hillary Clinton, and you loath both Bill and Hillary anyhow. It would be karmic justice to nominate him. He followed Bill Clinton as governor of Arkansas and like him was born in Hope, Arkansas. Huckabee also has the advantage (how to put this nicely) of being the only Republican candidate who comes across as mainstream rather than extreme.

Sadly, although he has nice hair he neither looks nor sounds much like Reagan. So Republicans need to give the Reagan thing a rest. Perhaps by applying enough voltage to Reagan’s grave he will emerge in a zombified state to lead the free world again. Perhaps he could even run for president again. I am sure our newly conservative Supreme Court that could issue an appropriate ruling.

Jesus came back from the dead but Ronald Reagan does not appear to have his powers. Therefore, Republicans will just need to accept the sad fact that there is no new Ronald Reagan waiting in the wings out there. Even if there were, America is not the same country it was in 1980. Cherish his memory. Overlook his mistakes. Perhaps you can carve his image on Mount Rushmore. Reagan can perhaps be impersonated, but he cannot be equaled. It is time to give up the foolish Reagan fantasies and to make your best pitch from the candidates you have.

 
The Thinker

How the political game on Iraq will play out

If you want a likely playbook of what will follow, possibly as soon as next year, think of the diaspora that occurred when Great Britain decided to turn greater India into India, and East and West Pakistan. Where there are pluralistic communities inside Iraq, expect them to become single ethnicity. Shi’ites are mostly already where they already need to be. Sunnis living in predominantly Shi’ite territories will beat a hasty retreat toward predominantly Sunni areas.

Occam’s Razor, How Iraq Will Dissemble, August 10, 2005

Having recently offered up my strategy for Iraq, I thought it might be more relevant to explain how our presence in Iraq is likely to play out over the next few years. Of course, my strategy will garner no attention from the Bush White House, the Joint Chiefs or Congress. After all, I am just a blogger and consequently irrelevant in this policy debate.

First it is important to understand why the current Iraq debate is being framed the way it is. Liberal Democrats are particularly incensed that the Congressional Democratic leadership will not take real action to end our involvement in Iraq. Instead, Congressional Democrats seem to be surrendering on the issue. For example, recently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested he was willing to work with Senate Republicans to fashion some sort of compromise strategy on Iraq. The same dynamic is occurring in the House of Representatives. Finding a way out of Iraq has devolved into maybe finding enough votes to require the president to begin putting together a report on how our forces could be withdrawn.

The Senate is burdened by a rule that requires 60 senators to vote to end a filibuster. Clearly, there are not 60 Senate Democrats. This means that unless there is consensus among 60 senators a bill cannot advance to a vote. Any bill sent to the president can of course be vetoed, requiring 67 Senate votes to override.

In the House while most Democrats want to end the war, Democrats are fractured on how to end it. While it is easier to vote on legislation in the House, it suffers from the same problem as in the Senate. Both need a two third vote to override a presidential veto. Consequently, the power to end the war actually rests in the approximately one sixth of Congress that is needed to override a presidential veto but which is currently inclined to support the President. The bulk of these members are Republican. Until they are persuaded to vote against the President, the political dynamics on Capitol Hill are unlikely to change much.

The political dynamics could change depending on events in Iraq. If the situation worsens in Iraq, it becomes easier to find Republicans who will buck the President’s strategy. As next year’s election nears, barring some major successes in Iraq, it also becomes riskier for Republicans to keep backing the President. Despite relatively modest success from the surge, the polls have not budged much. Today’s ABC News-Washington Post poll bears this out.

However, Democrats do control the agenda. They could refuse to bring an Iraqi war supplemental bill to come to a vote, effectively cutting off funds for the war. Unfortunately, the Iraq war debate has been effective framed by the Republicans as “if you do not fund the troops in their mission then you are not supporting the troops”. What “support the troops” means is very wishy-washy. If cutting off funding were interpreted by the public as endangering our soldiers’ lives, the fear in Congress is that the American people would subsequently vote the Democrats out of power. Above all else, Congressional Democrats want to avoid losing power in Congress in the 2008 elections. So however odious it is to keep funding the war, they will find that it will be a necessity to do so. Hence, there is no serious talk of cutting off funding for the war, and guarded talk about a bipartisan limp-wristed compromise instead.

At the White House, the fear is that things will markedly worsen in Iraq. If that happens the political dynamics become malleable again. In that event, moderate Republicans are likely to bolt. Thus, it becomes essential to the White House to keep enough of their base on their side to ensure that a presidential veto cannot be overridden. Hence the political necessity of trumping the virtues of the surge while downplaying or ignoring lack of success elsewhere. Hence also the need to keep the maximum number of troops in Iraq to mitigate the risk of events worsening.

The result is that the marginal progress in Iraq will be enough to keep Republicans in line with the President. There may be a symbolic troop withdrawal later this year to suggest that real long-term progress is being achieved. Since the surge cannot continue without further extending already overstretched troop deployments, most analysts think that by April of 2008 some force pullback must take place. I am not so sure. Recently the Army met its recruiting goals in part by giving a $20,000 enlistment bonus to new recruits who will join the Army immediately. This might have the effect of allowing force levels to be maintained, or to be drawn down less than expected. In addition, having extended troop deployments a number of times already, there is no reason the Secretary of Defense could not do so again.

In short, during 2008 expect the war to continue at its currently obscene funding levels and expect that any troop withdrawals that do occur will be very modest. The Bush Administration already knows that Iraq will be a failure. They want to run out the clock so the next president will be tarred with its failure. Democrats on the other hand are leery that if they cut off funding now, then when Iraq fails they will be tarred with the failure. Both sides thus find it politically expedient to drag their feet and see how the voters will sort it out next November. The obscene effect of these political dynamics of course is that more American soldiers will end up dead or maimed because neither party wants to be tarred for Iraq’s eventual failure, which all sides tacitly agree is going to happen.

Whatever Democrat wins the White House next November (and I am convinced it will be a Democrat) do not expect that the troops will suddenly be ordered home. First, unless we want to leave massive amount of equipment in control of forces in Iraq, such a withdrawal would be wasteful and counterproductive. Just to execute an orderly withdraw would probably require at least a year. Of course, Iraq is hardly orderly. Our withdrawal would give fresh energy to insurgents over there to increase attacks against us. It will take direct presidential leadership to accomplish our withdrawal in a timely manner. He or she will have to take significant heat however it is executed.

I would be amazed if any next president could get our troops out by 2010. In any event, the next president will have to accommodate the political realities in the region. This means that sizeable number of our troops will be in the area for a long time. I hope that they will at least move away from the cities and toward the borders. I also hope that their mission will become more humanitarian than military. Even as Iraq ceases to be a country, the consequences of our involvement and the necessity to do something (even in a limited fashion) will become inescapable.

Whether we want it or not, Iraq will continue to entangle us militarily and diplomatically for many years to come.

 
The Thinker

My Widened Stance

It is not often that I am bothered by the downfall of a Republican politician. Yet I am troubled by the on again, off again (currently on again) resignation of Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. Craig pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge that occurred in a men’s room at the Minneapolis airport on June 11th. Allegedly, he was making signals to an occupant of an adjacent stall that he was interested in engaging in homosexual conduct. For tapping his feet, moving his feet partly into an adjacent stall (the “widened stance”) and allegedly peeking into a neighboring stall, he pled guilty to a misdemeanor. (Craig is now trying to retract his plea.) For this minor transgression, he was arm-twisted by his fellow Republicans and asked to resign from the Senate.

If Craig is a closeted homosexual, of course he is also a hypocrite. He has plenty of company on Capitol Hill. It is virtually impossible not to be a hypocrite and be a politician. Even the most ideological Republican though is not stupid. They know murkiness exists in all human beings. The hastiness by which the Senate Republican leadership are hustling Craig out of the Senate is far more unseemly than any alleged conduct that Craig may have conducted in Minneapolis. Fairness dictates waiting for an impartial review of the facts at a Senate ethics committee hearing. Yet the Senate Republican leadership could not wait. The Republican brand may be a fading brand, but it is a brand nonetheless. Homophobia remains one of its key values, subsumed under their alleged commitment to “family values”. Such a hasty action merely reinforces the opinion of most Americans that Republicans have no sense of fair play.

I do know one thing from fifty years of living. Humans are complex and multifaceted creatures on all levels, including sexually. Kinsey documented half a century ago that virtually none of us are exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. We may have strong preferences in either direction. Many of us may choose not to act on these pulls but that does not mean they are wholly absent. Yet sexual preference is just one tiny aspect of our sexuality. Some of us have strong sex drives. Others have non-existent sex drives. Some of us are not attracted to any gender; we are effectively asexual. Some of us are dominant, others are submissive, and many of us like to switch roles. Some prefer anal sex and others do not. Some take erotic pleasure wearing diapers or dressing as the opposite sex. Some older men prefer younger women. Some older women prefer younger men. Some of us will probably always be attracted to illegal expressions of sexuality like pedophilia.

We are all sexually multihued. If our sexuality were a painting, most of us would have strange patterns consisting of many overlapping and mixed colors. Larry Craig’s failing was apparently for being exposed for not having a black and white canvas. If his alleged behavior actually describes his own sexual preferences, he likely finds some attraction to his own gender. On the Kinsey scale, he is utterly ordinary.

You would be very unusual if you never had even one incident where you did not find someone of your gender attractive. I know I have. Having an occasional tug does not mean I feel compelled to act on it. When it happens I acknowledge it and go on with life. Larry Craig may be wholly accurate when he says that he is not a gay. Like most of us, he is probably bisexual. We are all sexually expressive creatures. Most of us are content to dine at our favorite restaurants. Eating at a different restaurant on occasion does not necessarily make us food deviants. Neither does an occasional incident where we partner with someone of our non-preferred gender. Given the prevalence of infidelity in American, occasionally mating with someone other than our own spouse is more normal than not too. The issue is not the inclination, which is wholly natural, but dealing with the angst, guilt and dysfunction that results when our natural impulses move us in one direction but society requires us to choose a different direction.

So Larry Craig is probably just another multifaceted sexually complicated person. In other words, he is a lot like you and I. Please raise your hand if you have been completely faithful to your spouse, never even had a stray fantasy about another person during your marriage, are completely content with sexual intercourse only in the missionary position and, since marriage at least, have never masturbated. Also raise your hand if you never went beyond chaste kissing during your dating years. I am sure there are some of you out there and that is fine. It is either your preference or supposed societal norms overrode these impulses. However, you represent just a tiny portion of the public. Your values are fine for you but are not in the least bit mainstream. I hate to tell you this but if you are an ordinary human being you are likely a lot more like Larry Craig than not.

It is hard to put myself inside Larry Craig’s brain. However, I am completely certain that wherever it is at, it is consistent with the person he is as he has evolved. Personally, a restroom would be the last place I would go to solicit for sex, but I am not inclined to find someone of my own gender with whom to have sex. If I were a prominent person like Larry Craig and driven by such demons I would look for safer forms of behavior. (I doubt he is the only senator with such inclinations.) Rather than look for it in a Minneapolis men’s room, perhaps I would solicit it on Craigslist. Maybe part of Craig’s sexuality is to be turned on by anonymous sex. If so, he has plenty of company.

I do not want to be solicited for sex by men in men’s rooms or anywhere else. In restrooms, I simply want to do my business and leave. When I am solicited by my own gender, which does not happen very often, I simply say, “No thanks.” It should not be unlawful for one person to tell another person you want to get it on with them. It is certainly impolite in most contexts, but it should not be unlawful. I do care about being mugged or sexually abused in a men’s room. I hope that we prosecute these lawbreakers. I do think there is an expectation of privacy in a men’s room stall but it would astonish me if this were codified into law. If Craig, as alleged, actually was peeking through the cracks of men’s room stalls then he should be held to account. I would note though that two men urinating at adjacent stalls, even if one of the men checks out the other guy’s package, is not a crime. Having to pay a four-figure fine for such an “offense” seems excessive. It should not amount to more than a parking ticket and should never go to court.

The Craig incident simply illustrates to me that many of us cannot yet accept people for being the complex sexual creatures that we all are. Private conduct between two consenting adults is simply none of our business. I wish that Senator Craig had more spine. Bullies usually remain bullies until someone stands up to them. Senator Craig could do people everywhere a favor by standing up for himself. He should draw a clear distinction about official duties vs. private conduct. The voters can throw him out if they find his personal conduct offensive. His fellow senators should not.

Someone needs to tell the people who run our nanny state when they are out of bounds. As a final act of leadership and courage, Senator Craig could forever change the political dynamics. He could do it by boldly asserting his right to be judged solely based on his job as senator. He did not deserve this shabby treatment.

 

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