Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Bilingual Education Fantasy

Former Speaker of the House and possible Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, speaking to a meeting of The National Federation of Republican Women earlier today, recommended that bilingual education be abolished in the United States. In his remarks, Gingrich was quoted as saying that "The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. ... We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."

The reaction to his remarks was what you would probably expect. Peter Zamora, co-chair of the Hispanic Education Coalition - a group which supports bilingual education - said that, "The tone of his comments were (sic) very hateful. Spanish is spoken by many individuals who do not live in the ghetto."

In spite of the fact that Mr Gingrich chose his words poorly, I believe he makes a valid point.

Proponents of bilingual education claim that it teaches students reading, arithmetic and other basic skills in their native language so they do not fall behind while mastering English. I disagree. In my opinion (and I do have a degree in Linguistics and some experience both as a student and a teacher of languages), teaching students in a language other than English only delays their mastery of the language of their adopted country. Mr Zamora claimed that research has shown that bilingual education is the best method of teaching English to non-English speakers. This is not true. Bilingual education may help some students with courses other than English, but many years of experience have clearly shown that an immersion technique is, in fact, the best way to teach a foreign language, particularly to young students at the prime age for language acquisition. I believe that bilingual education and extensive language accommodation (such as printing official documents in multiple languages) only hinder the mastery of English, and do a serious disservice to both the immigrant community and the great majority of American citizens.

The immigration crisis in the United States isn't going to go away, and endless accommodation to the specialized needs of particular language groups won't help anyone: it costs governments at all levels money that could be used for other, more important services, and it offers a security blanket to immigrants that allows them to remain comfortable on their own linguistic islands, never needing to adapt themselves to the country they expect to change for them.

Bilingual education may be necessary or useful in limited circumstances, but it is ludicrous to contend, as Mr Zamora does, that it is the best way for non-English speakers to learn the language. Education funds are limited, and would be better spent on intensive, immersion-style English classes that are of proven value.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 30, 2007

Guests of the Ayatollahs

The topic of discussion today is Iran. Please set your watches back 1,000 years.

Just when you think people and governments in the Middle East can't get any stupider, another candidate surges to the front with a strong showing. The new front runner is Iran, which - already under fire from virtually every corner of the world because of its intransigence over its nuclear program - has now brazenly kidnapped fifteen British sailors and marines and paraded them on state television in a disgusting show strongly reminiscent of the shameful treatment of American hostages after the fall of the shah in 1979. And not only have they violated every norm of civilized international law by taking the hostages in the first place, they go on to complain (with straight faces) that negative international reactions to their ploy are the reason they won't release their hostages. And, of course, it didn't take long for the rent-a-crowds to show up in the streets of Teheran to chant threats of death-to-whoever-our-ayatollahs-are-mad-at-today. The gentleman in the photo below demonstrates the typically helpful Iranian approach to resolving the incident.

If you've followed the modern history of Iran as I have, you can recognize the touchy mix of strident nationalism and religious fervor that has turned a once great nation into a dangerous joke. For a good depiction of what the British hostages are probably enduring, read Mark Bowden's superb book Guests of the Ayatollah, the story of the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran by Iranian radicals and the subsequent arbitrary and brutal treatment of the Americans held hostage. I think it's not surprising that the Iranians chose to seize British personnel, rather than Americans...knowing that the British were far more likely to respond diplomatically than the Americans, whose rules of engagement (and memories of Iranian hospitality toward hostages) would probably have resulted in the complete destruction of the Iranian attackers.

It's hard to deal with a headstrong and intransigent nation like Iran. The mixture of religion and nationalism, combined with the unpredictability of the ultra-radical Revolutionary Guards (who seem to have been responsible for the seizure of the British personnel) makes for a very difficult political situation. The situation is eerily similar to the incident in March 2001 in which a Chinese fighter harassing an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft over international waters accidentally rammed the American plane, which made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in China. The Chinese pilot was killed, and the incident resulted in an extended diplomatic dance in which China insisted on a US apology for the accident (which was clearly the result of the Chinese pilot's unsafe tactics) before releasing the aircraft and crew. The US finally made a statement expressing regret for the death of the Chinese pilot, which was deemed face-saving enough for the Chinese to unpaint themselves from their diplomatic corner.

One hopes the Iranians will realize that their actions are not helping their international image and standing, and will release the captured British sailors and marines soon. Unfortunately, the prickly and strident Iranians don't appear likely to respond that way. I fear that the unfortunate British captives will be unwilling guests - and diplomatic pawns - of the ayatollahs for some time.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Thinking About the Crusades

A staple of the "Muslim rage" that we hear about constantly is reference to The Crusades, repeated attempts by various Christian armies over a period of about 200 years to recapture the city of Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from the Muslims. The Muslims, of course, had seized these areas from the original Christian and Jewish owners in the year 1076, but that part of the history is generally overlooked. Islamists continually harp about the evils done by "Jews and Crusaders" as justification for the outrages they themselves perpetrate, as if one evil justifies another.

Let's take a minute to look at the history. There is general historical agreement that eight "Crusades" (nine, counting the so-called "Children's Crusade") were carried out between the years 1096 and 1270, with a general goal of breaking Islamic control over the Holy Land and making it safe for Christian pilgrims. Although the original intent of the crusades was considered to be holy, and they were sanctioned by Popes beginning with Urban II, they frequently degenerated into savage bloodletting and mere quests for plunder. Tens of thousands of people - Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike - were said to have been killed upon the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, and many thousands more were killed during the entire period of the Crusades.

Clearly, the Crusades brought out the worst of both sides. Terrible massacres were perpetrated by Christians and Muslims alike, often (in the case of the Christians) against their own people. Religious passions, then as now, drove ordinary people to do awful things.

But let's take a minute to look at something that appears to have been lost on today's Islamists: the last Crusade, the Eighth, took place in the year 1270. Simple subtraction tells us that it has now been more than 700 years since the last Crusade, the last organized attempt by Christian forces to use violence to free the Holy Land from Muslim occupation.

By contrast, radical Islamist clerics today - 737 years after the last Crusade - urge their followers every day to murder Christians and Jews. Suicide bombers murder dozens of people each week in the Holy Land, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But as far as the bearded and turbaned prophets of death and destruction are concerned, that's all right...because they're killing infidels. They're killing people like you and I because we're "Jews and Crusaders," conveniently forgetting that the Crusades have been over for more than 700 years.

Of course, if you're fired up with righteous religious passion, and you absolutely believe what your religious leaders tell you, things like justice, logic, compassion, and common sense can conveniently be suspended.

People of good will and common sense must stop making apologies for murderous radical Islamists. They must stop making endless accommodations to Muslims in the West as if feeling a need to atone for actions taken many hundreds of years ago. It's time for everyone to remember that the Crusades are long over, but that evil done in the name of religion is still alive and well. Radical Christians in this country occasionally murder doctors who perform abortions and bomb the clinics where they work. Radical Jewish settlers believe in their right to own the whole of the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, and to kill those (including Israeli leaders) who disagree. But these groups pale in their propensity to violence compared to the radical Muslims who cheerfully murder hundreds, if not thousands of people every year...for the crime of being "Jews and Crusaders."

Unfortunately, if you are a Muslim, the Crusades never ended and everyone in the world who chooses to worship God in a way other than yours is an enemy, an infidel worthy only of death or subjugation. Sauce for the Islamic goose is not sauce for the Christian or Jewish gander.

And that is a poor recipe for peace and religious tolerance.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Perfect Metaphor for the Middle East

If you've been reading this blog for long, you know that I've long been aghast at the enormous bigotry and stupidity that fuels the endless conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Both sides claim to want peace, but each wants to have it on its own terms, and the religious fanatics on both sides are driving the train, throwing gasoline on the flames each time it looks like there may be a chance for a real breakthrough. My standard metaphor for the twisted political-religious morass has been the snakepit. Sadly, a better - and, perhaps, the ultimate - metaphor for the region has now arisen.

The Associated Press reported yesterday that the earthen embankment surrounding a huge cesspool above the village of Umm Naser in Gaza had ruptured, flooding the town with raw sewage and killing at least three people, injuring many others, and completely submerging at least 25 homes. Local officials blamed the disaster on shoddy maintenance and a lack of proper public health and water processing services. In fact, foreign donors had funded several major sewage treatment projects for Gaza, including one in Umm Naser, but these were frozen after Hamas, the militantly anti-Israel group widely designated as a terrorist organization, won last year's election.

As metaphors for the disastrous political situation in Gaza and the larger Middle East go, a village buried in sewage is somehow very appropriate. In a region where hating your neighbor is more important than taking care of your brother, where no good deed goes unpunished, where visceral hatred of "the other" is the order of the day, there's nothing like a flood of raw sewage to make a point about ideas and relationships. When the Israelis withdrew from Gaza, they left behind a great deal of useful infrastructure: towns, farms, greenhouses, waterworks, and so on. And what happened? Much of it was wantonly destroyed by the Palestinians because it had been built by the hated Israelis. Never mind that it might have served many Palestinian families well. Never mind that the it provided an initial economic investment on which more could have been built. It was more important to hate than to build.

Again, if you've been reading this blog over the past year of its existence, you will know that I'm not an apologist for Israel. I hold both sides of the dispute in equal, general disdain. But for utter, hopelessly hard-headed stupidity and mindless hatred at the expense of suffering people, it's hard to match the "ready-aim-shoot foot" attitude of the Palestinian leadership. The Fatah party lost the confidence of the Palestinians in Gaza for its relentless corruption, and so was voted out in favor of the less-corrupt but more religiously and politically intransigent Hamas, with predictable results.

If it hasn't happened already, the United States will surely ultimately be blamed for the disaster at Umm Naser. We will be accused of cutting off the funds that would have repaired the cesspool. Hamas and its apologists in the region and across the world will claim that Gaza could be a blooming, happy showcase if only the United States weren't so prejudiced against the Palestinian people. They will ignore the responsibility of Hamas and the militant factions on both sides for creating the situation that led to this horrible tragedy. They will not see that the flood of sewage that has ruined a small town provides a perfect metaphor for the actions of hard-line Palestinians and Israelis alike.

The cesspool at Umm Naser may eventually be repaired. The larger cesspool that is political and religious bigotry in the Middle East will only expand until men and women of goodwill decide that it's more important to help their own people than to hate their neighbors.

But, as I often sadly remark, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Student Writing in the Time of Wiki

When I was in high school and college in the late 60's and early 70's, ads in the back pages of comic books advertised "research services" which were actually mail-order stores which would sell a struggling student a term paper on any particular topic. You filled in the coupon, mailed it in with the appropriate fee, and received in return a paper prepared by ... someone. It was cheating, and it helped many poor students achieve academic credentials they would never have been able to earn on their own.

Today's version of the coupon in the back of the comic book is a dizzying array of online services offering the same "research assistance," and millions of websites offering information on any conceivable topic. You can easily download a paper on any topic - frequently for free - or lift blocks of text from documents or websites and plug them directly into your own academic work. As an article by Jason Johnson in last Sunday's Washington Post says with tongue in cheek, "Cut and Paste Is a Skill, Too" (read the article at

When all the information you need is available online, able to be instantly Googled, cut, pasted, formatted, and turned in hours (even minutes) into the paper previous generations of students labored for weeks to research and write, what's the problem? Doesn't it produce the same paper while saving lots of time that can be used for other things?

Well, yes and no. Using Google or other search engines to find information online doesn't contribute to the ability to do proper research, sift and evaluate information, and properly cite sources. You never know for sure who created the website you pulled your information from, what that site's original source of information is, and how accurate it might be.

And cutting, pasting and reformatting blocks of text from other documents to kludge together a new document of your own doesn't help you learn to write clearly and convincingly. Every day in my job I see example after example of awful writing done by people who supposedly have college educations: sentences that don't make sense, paragraphs that wander without focus, egregious spelling errors (the spelling checker doesn't help you if you use "too" instead of "to" or "two"), subjects and verbs that don't agree, and so on. People you've never met will make judgments about you on the basis of what you've written (especially if it's a resume). If all you know to do is cut and paste, you won't sell yourself very well.

If you're a parent, one of the best gifts you can give your child is the ability to write well...not just grammatically, but clearly and convincingly, buttressed with solid and well-documented research. They'll hate you now, but they'll thank you later. And when I have to read and act on what they've written, I'll thank you, too.

Have a good day. Write something. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 26, 2007

What You Thought You Saw

In yesterday's Washington Post, film critic Stephen Hunter wrote a lengthy article in response to the outpouring of criticism of his negative review of the movie "300," the comic book-based, largely computer-generated recreation of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. I didn't read his original review, but yesterday's article, which considered how "300" might have been better made by famous director Fred Zinnemann ("High Noon," "A Man for All Seasons," "From Here to Eternity") was a brilliant examination of what makes a great film...and what today's audiences seem to want.

The gift of computer generation has been the ability to get the impossible on film. If you saw the spectacle of a quarter-million screaming orcs and trolls besieging the city of Minas Tirith in "The Return of the King," you know what I mean. Even a director as great as Fred Zinnemann (or as over-the-top as Dino de Laurentis) would have had a hard time recruiting, paying, and directing a quarter-million extras. Computer generation can help make great epic drama and mind-blowing science fiction, but if the heart of the film - great acting guided by sure-handed directing - isn't there, the film falls flat. It's all spectacle, no heart. One of the greatest movies of all time, "High Noon," had no computer generated imagery - just the relentless tick of the clock counting down the minutes until sheriff Gary Cooper, abandoned by the people of the town he had sworn to protect, had to face vicious killer Frank Miller alone in a hot, dusty street. For my money, there's never been as suspenseful and gut-wrenching film...and there's not a drop of blood in it.

That's why I like watching recent films, but don't really enjoy them. In many ways, I prefer reading and listening to old-time radio dramas to watching movies, because they let your imagination work. What you think you see is often much more entertaining than what's shoved into your eyes in all its computer-generated glory. Alfred Hitchcock understood this. Fred Zinnemann understood this. And even as unabashedly gory a horror story writer as Stephen King understands it (read the cogent analysis in his books Danse Macabre and On Writing).

One of the most horrifying moments I ever experienced in print, radio, or film came from Stephen King's novel "The Shining." In a minimally-written scene, caretaker Jack Torrance checks out the hotel room in which his son claims to have seen a dead woman floating in the bathtub. He enters the room and walks to the bathroom, where the tub is hidden behind a drawn shower curtain. He pauses a moment, then draws the curtain back to see - nothing. He pulls the curtain closed, turns, and walks out of the bathroom. As he reaches for the doorknob to leave the room, from the bathroom behind him, he hears the shiiinnnggg of the shower curtain being drawn back...and he refuses to turn to look. He leaves the room, closes and locks the door behind him, then stands in the hallway and watches the knob of the locked door slowly turn, left and right, left and right...

Why is this scene so frightening? Because of what's not shown. King lets your imagination fill in the blank. What's behind the door? What does your mind tell you? Chances are, what you can imagine is much worse than what King could write, or a director could put on film.

You may well disagree with me, particularly if you're of an age when you've always had special effects and computer-generated imagery. But for me, What You Thought You Saw will always be more interesting than what's handed to you on a visual platter.

Have a good day. Enjoy the movies, but try reading or listening to radio drama, too. I think you may find you agree with me.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 25, 2007


It's about 7:45 AM, Eastern Daylight Time, as I write this, and it's a glorious spring morning outside my study window.

At the end (I hope) of a typically wet and miserable Northern Virginia winter, I always look forward to spring: to air that (at least early in the morning) is fresh and cool, and to the sounds of birds singing happily in the trees. This is one of the best times of year in this area, when the mornings are cool and the afternoons pleasantly warm, when you can go outdoors without gasping in the damp heat that makes you think you need a snorkel just to walk down the street.

No deep thoughts today - just a few words of appreciation for a season that makes you feel good to be alive. Enjoy it!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Condition of Anonymity

The Condition of Anonymity is a routine part of present day political and investigative reporting. Its mention implies that the information given by an anonymous source is true, or at least more authoritative than, information freely given and admitted to. Reporters insist that they must offer their sources anonymity so that those sources will be willing to provide information, usually concerning things they are not supposed to discuss.

I believe the Condition of Anonymity is a serious mistake.

Historian and commentator Victor Davis Hanson, among many others, has expressed concern about the use of unnamed or anonymous sources in modern political and historical writing. His point is a good one: how can a future historian check the facts provided by an anonymous source? And taking the concern a bit farther: what is the motivation of an anonymous source? Altruism? Revenge? Spite? Righteous Anger? The motiviation of the source is key to understanding the meaning of the information provided...but an anonymous, unnamed source doesn't allow us that critical context. We can't evaluate his or her information.

Many news stories contain statements which begin with the words, "Speaking on condition of anonymity because...". Consider some of the reasons which often appear after the word because:

"...he/she is not authorized to speak on the issue."

"...the information is classified."

" was a private meeting."

Each of these three becauses has one thing in common: the violation of a trust. The owner of this information decided that this individual was sufficiently trustworthy to be allowed access to it. Someone decided that this individual had sufficient integrity to protect the information to which he or she was allowed access.

And the individual betrayed this trust by giving the information to someone not authorized to have it.

So I see two problems with the Condition of Anonymity: the lack of ability to gauge the motivation of the source; and the lack of integrity shown by the anonymous source's willingness to betray a trust.

Many of you who read this will disagree. You will point out that anonymous whistleblowers are often the only source of information on crimes that would otherwise go unreported and unpunished. I agree. I would argue, though, that there's a difference between the individual who witnesses a crime and reports this information to the authorities, and an individual who disagrees with a policy and deliberately leaks inside information in an effort to undermine it.

The Condition of Anonymity can be a shield for the hero who takes a stand against crime and injustice, or it can be a mask to hide the motivations of a vengeful employee. Our problem is that we can't judge the truth if the individual refuses to stand behind it.

And someday, historians will be unable to understand what happened any better than we can today.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 23, 2007

The Right to Not Be Offended

If you read the Constitution (something few people do, although they firmly believe they know what it says), you will find that it enumerates a long series of rights granted to the citizens of the United States. The Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) grants rights of free speech and assembly, the press, religious belief and expression, private ownership of weapons, freedom from 'cruel and unusual punishments,' and so on.

The Constitution does not grant you The Right to Not be Offended.

I've been thinking about this topic for a long time, and was prompted to write this little essay by an article from the San Francisco Bay Times forwarded to me by my friend Jake. The article details the apology tendered by author and radio personality Garrison Keillor for remarks he made which were interpreted as being a slur against homosexuals. The Keillor passage in question is this:

"Gay marriage will produce a whole new string of hyphenated relatives. In addition to the ex-stepson and ex-in-laws and your wife’s first husband’s second wife, there now will be Bruce and Kevin’s in-laws and Bruce’s ex, Mark, and Mark’s current partner, and I suppose we’ll get used to it. The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men—sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small weird dog and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control. Parents are supposed to stand in back and not wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts. That’s for the kids. It’s their show."

Now, as slurs go, this one appears to me to be pretty tame. I actually think it's pretty funny, and if that offends you, or strikes you as a lame stereotype, well, get over it. Whether on the basis of sexual orientation, religious belief, national origin, hair color, or whatever, you do not have a Right to Not be Offended.

We have gone far overboard in our reaction to what are perceived as negative comments about aspects of our origins, religion, or personality. Muslims, gays, Jews, left-handed-cross-dressing-Montenegran dwarfs, everyone nowadays is spring-loaded to take offense at the least hint of even mild criticism or satire. Ethnic jokes, once a staple of the entertainment industry, are a no-no...unless, of course, they are made by the right people. The howls of outrage from the black community about any comment that could be remotely considered "racist" are immediate and overwhelming...but outrageously racist jokes about whites and Asians are a staple of black radio programming. Any criticism of Muslims immediately unleashes the wrath of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a charge of "Islamophobia"...but the most foul slanders directed by Muslims against Christians and Jews appear to be perfectly all right. Criticism of homosexuals for any reason will result in your being charged with "homophobia."

We live in the time of the thin skin. We are no longer allowed to poke fun at each other's foibles. A joke that once might have been funny may now result in a lawsuit. We seem to have an implied Right to Not Be Offended.

This is stupid.

When I was young, I went through the standard childhood agonies of being picked on for being smaller, less athletic, and more bookish than most other children. I got used to being called all sorts of names. And my mother in her wisdom pointed out that such treatment said more about the character of the name-caller than it did any damage to me. In so many words, she was telling me that I had no Right to Not Be Offended.

And neither do you.

The world is full of people who are mean-spirited and shallow and will result to insult in the absence of the intelligence to do anything else. It' s also full of people who are intelligent and witty and use humor and satirical comment to poke fun at others. If you're willing to dish it out, you need to be willing to take it. The automatic reaction of "that's racist," "that's Islamophobic," that's "homophobic," "that's anti-Semitic," or whatever is foolish. Any intelligent person can tell the difference between a good joke to be laughed at and a base slander to be considered objectionable.

The problem appears to be that we suffer from a shortage of intelligent persons.

Have a good day. Enjoy a joke at your expense. If you can't laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at others. You have no Right to Not Be Offended.

Enjoy the coming weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Telling the Truth

If you are an American who wants to be able to respect and trust your government, you have to be pretty depressed lately. I refer, of course, to the disgusting mess over the firing of eight US Attorneys and the subsequent urinary olympiad between Congress and the President over the investigation thereof.

I'm appalled at the attitudes of both sides, but particularly that of the President. The latest movement in this ridiculous kabuki dance is Mr Bush's offer of "cooperation" by allowing Karl Rove and Harriet Miers to "discuss" the firings with Congressional investigators, but in private, not under oath and without any written record being kept. His view seems to be that these are saintly people with nothing to hide who will so obviously tell the truth that it's ridiculous even to think one might need to place them under oath or record their testimony.

Where I come from, this is what we call baloney.

American history offers an instructive lesson. Tomorrow is the birthday of Grover Cleveland, the only man ever to be elected president for two nonconsecutive terms. Cleveland was known as a hardworking man of complete honesty and integrity, and when the fact that he had fathered a child out of wedlock came out during his first presidential campaign he didn't try to spin or bury the story. His guidance to his campaign workers was clear and simple: tell the truth. They did, and the story quickly disappeared from the newspapers.

Unfortunately, Mr Bush seems unable to take a page from Mr Cleveland's book. He seems not to realize that by dodging and weaving and insisting on executive privilige without saying the words (which, of course, conjure up the unwanted ghost of Richard Nixon), he continues to give the appearance of a man with something to hide. Of course, the Democrats aren't blameless here - they studied well during the years of Republican rule and are now well able to flex their muscles and use their majority status to make political life as miserable for the Republicans as the Republicans made it for them. The only difference is that the howls about partisanship and complaints about cheap political shots are coming from the other side of the aisle.

Tell the truth. Let Mr Rove and Ms Miers stand up in front of Congress, raise their right hands, take an oath, and promise to tell the truth. Shine a little sun into the dark and cobwebby corners of the administration. Show that there's nothing to hide. Political die-hards will spin the story no matter what happens, but Mr Bush will have claimed the moral high ground and shown himself to be above cheap politics...something he thus far appears unable to do.

We may never know the full story of why the eight US Attorneys were really fired, but at this point it doesn't matter any more. It's important only because it has set up yet another opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to trade cheap shots instead of concentrating on the critical business of the nation. The Gulf Coast still needs rebuilding, the Alternative Minimum Tax still threatens the middle class, war still rages in Iraq, and dozens of other problems need Congressional attention.

Unfortunately, these are hard problems. Political bickering and sound bites are easy.

Remember all this when you cast your vote in 2008. Assuming, of course, you manage to find someone worth voting for by then.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Functional Illiteracy in Washington, DC

No, this isn't a joke about Congress - it's a sad, true story about the miserable level of education of people in the nation's capital.

A story reported by the AP yesterday cited a recent study which showed that about one third (36%) of the adults in Washington are functionally illiterate, compared with a nationwide average of about one fifth (21%). As defined in this study, a functionally illiterate person is unable to do things like fill out job applications, read maps, and understand bus schedules. The study blamed the high functional illiteracy level in part on the growing number of Hispanic and Ethiopian immigrants who aren't proficient in English, and bemoaned the effect of this deficiency on the regional economy because of the lack of qualified applicants for jobs.

This is a disgrace, and it has many causes.

One, as noted in the study, is the high number of immigrants who lack fluency in English. But this isn't the whole story. In years past, immigrants to this country struggled to learn English and to fit into the social fabric of America - my paternal grandparents are good examples, as are many millions of others. Today, however, many immigrants never feel the need to learn English. Federal, state, and local governments and businesses cater to immigrant populations, particularly Hispanics, by providing them forms, publications, and assistance of all kinds in many foreign languages, at great cost to the taxpayers. Schools provide classes in foreign languages, rather than focusing on helping immigrant children learn English. The English language is slowly losing its value as a unifying element for a diverse population.

Another cause of the problem is the dismal state of funding for education. In Washington, DC, many school buildings are in a chronic state of disrepair, with no money made available to keep them in a condition conducive to good education. Meager funding forces dedicated teachers to spend their own money on books and supplies for their classrooms...and teachers in this country are already disgracefully underpaid.

The "feel good" society also contributes to the problem of functional illiteracy. Parents complain about the negative impact on their children's feelings when they are graded down for poor work, and so many students advance to higher grades on the basis of work riddled with mistakes that should have been vigorously corrected. Educational time which could be spent on basic math, science, and reading and writing English, is spent on feel-good classes like obscure foreign langages and cultural awareness that contribute nothing to basic literacy.

I understand the value of knowing a foreign language. I speak German and have an elementary knowledge of Russian. But I am a citizen of the United States of America, and my first language is English. All children, whether immigrants or natives, need to learn English.

A major source of the greatness of America is its rich culture, a wonderful stew with ingredients contributed by immigrants from every nation on earth. But a nation made up of people from hundreds of different lands needs a unifying factor. This is the English language. If we denigrate the importance of English, if we make it easy for new immigrants to simply transfer their own langages and cultures to a new place without encouraging them to fit in, we contribute to a disastrous balkanization of the country.

You have more than likely been stuck in a checkout line behind someone who couldn't figure out how to calculate a payment or write a check. This is the practical impact of functional illiteracy. It must be stamped out, and it's not just the government's problem to do it. Every parent, every teacher, every person has a role to play.

The cost of not fixing the problem of functional illiteracy is just too high - today, tomorrow, and into an uncertain future.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Dancing with the Stars Returns!

With all the troubles and problems and serious issues about which I could write, this morning it's time for fun: the fourth season of the hit TV show "Dancing with the Stars" started last night, and it was worth the wait!

If you've read my profile or have been following this blog long enough, you know that my wife and I are avid ballroom dancers and long-time Pro-Am competitors (Agnes is the Pro; I'm the Amateur). We love dancing as a sport and are well able to appreciate the hard work that goes into dancing at a competitive level. With that in mind, we approach Dancing with the Stars each season expecting to see a little bit of great dancing, a lot of average dancing, and a few competitors you wish the floor would just open and swallow up. The show is as much a popularity contest as it is a dance event, and we approach it that way.

The lineup of stars was, as usual, lacking in the "A-list" stars we might want to see, but virtually all of them did a great job. The music was good, the choreography generally excellent, and all the color and energy of competitive ballroom dancing were there. We really enjoyed it! It's hard to pick a favorite so early in the season, but I felt the standouts were Laila Ali and Paulina Porizkova among the ladies, and Ian Ziering and Apolo Anton Ohno among the men. The only outright loser I saw was Billy Ray Cyrus, but he's got another week to show if he can really perform.

This season we have a bit of a personal connection to the show, as Agnes and I had the opportunity to meet and have a private lesson with Tony Dovolani (partner of Leeza Gibbons) while we were competing at the Grand National Championships in Miami last October. We found him to be a demanding instructor, but a great performer, a real gentleman, and a lot of fun. If there's a professional we're rooting for, it would be him. Here's a picture of Agnes and I with Tony during our lesson:

So, no heavy thoughts today...just a recommendation for you to tune in Mondays and Tuesdays at 8:00 PM Eastern time for two hours of glamour and fun as a group of B-list celebrities learn that ballroom dancing is both fun and a lot more work than they imagined.

Have a good day. Keep dancing. More thoughts coming.


Monday, March 19, 2007

The Unrepresented Center

I have long lamented that there isn't a political party in this country for someone like me: a centrist who sees value in some of the positions of both the conservative Republicans and the liberal Democrats. There's no group that speaks for someone who is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but isn't aligned across the board with the philosophies of political parties which are being driven by their most extreme elements. There hasn't been a halfway-realistic third party movement in this country since John Anderson's strong showing in the 1980 election.

There appears, though, to finally be something close an alternative. The group which calls itself Unity 08 professes to speak for the political center by advocating a mixed ticket of centrist Republican and Democratic candidates and attempting to drive the national agenda away from domination by single-issue interest groups back toward the fundamental interests of the great majority of Americans in the political center...the Silent Majority, to use an old and somewhat shopworn expression.

I only learned about this movement yesterday, and haven't had a chance to thoroughly check it out and evaluate its philosophies and electability, but a quick scan of its website ( is promising. If, like me, you are tired of whining Democrats and arrogant Republicans (or, since the midterm elections, arrogant Democrats and whining Republicans), take a look at the "what we believe" section of the Unity 08 website and see if it doesn't ring a bell with you.

We are a year and a half away from the 2008 presidential elections, and America is in crisis. We have vast problems on our agenda that the major political parties are unable to solve because they are locked into rigid philosophical positions because of the pressures of their supporting special interest groups. No single party can solve illegal immigration, environmental degredation, political accountability, and the myriad other problems we face. It's time for the unrepresented center to speak up and let the major parties know that neither of them speaks for us.

It's time for a government of common sense, not sound bites and bumper stickers. And it's time for us to send that message loudly and clearly to the Republican and the Democratic leadership alike. I don't claim the Unity 08 movement is the answer, but the fact it exists at all is a promising development. Check it out, and think about what you really want in 2008: more of the same, or a change to government that speaks for you - the only special interest that matters.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Casino Royale

Last evening we finally got to see the most recent James Bond movie, Casino Royale. We did it in the most enjoyable fashion, too, sitting in front of the fireplace, eating dinner while watching the action on the big-screen TV...much better than dealing with the rude punks, crying children, and chattering cell-phone junkies in the theater.

Much has been written about this movie and the suitability of Daniel Craig as the new face of James Bond. Opinion seems to have been equally divided between those who think Mr Craig is awful and those who think he's made for the part. I'm in the latter category.

While I found some of the twists of the plot a little difficult to follow, there's no doubt in my mind that Daniel Craig is the best portrayer of the fictional Bond since Sean Connery...and I think he may be better. He played the role with a barely-contained savage energy that convinced me he was a man who could and would kill without remorse. One look at the icy eyes and the calmly rigid face made me glad I wouldn't have to meet this man in a dark alley.

I have enjoyed all the James Bond movies through the years, even as they turned ever more outrageously campy. But the new Casino Royale was brilliantly done because it turned more on the characters and the physical action than on the unbelieveable gadgets churned out by Q in his lab. I could see this action happening in a real world of relentless good guys hunting remorseless terrorists. I could believe the story.


No deep thoughts today, just my observations on a great movie. If it's the sort of thing you like, they don't come much better. If not, well, there are lots of other movies out there. And as for me, I can't wait to see Daniel Craig in action as Bond again. I only hope they stick to the Casino Royale formula and keep James Bond as the believeable character Craig so superbly made him.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Past Exonerative Tense

Back in college (shortly after the earth cooled, according to my funny coworkers), I majored in Linguistics - the science of language. I've always found language and communication to be fascinating; the fact that I can speak and write and you can understand is one of the most amazing marvels of the evolution of the human mind and body. And because I find language so fascinating, its use (and abuse) are at the root of many of my observations about current events.

Yesterday I was listening to a reporter on the radio explain the furor over the firing of eight US Attorneys for what appear to be purely political reasons. The reporter, noting the Attorney General's statement that "mistakes were made," commented on Mr Gonzalez's use of the passive voice and laughingly referred to his statement as being in the past exonerative tense.

Those of you less fascinated with language than I probably suffer from glazed eyes during discussions of verb forms. Past, present, future, perfect, imperfect, active, passive, transitive, intransitive, reflexive - who cares? Actually, you do, but you don't think about it in normal conversation because your brain processes it all without any effort on your part. But let's talk for a minute about the passive voice, the exonerative tense, because it's very important to your understanding of the political drivel that gushes from Washington every day.

When you speak in the active voice, your listeners know that the subject of the sentence performed some action. If I say "I made a mistake," there's no doubt in your mind who made the mistake - I did. If, however, I resort to the passive voice and say "Mistakes were made," who was responsible? Was it me? My next-door neighbor? Some unpatriotic and obstructionist Democrat/Republican? The Attorney General? The President? You don't know...and in Washington, not knowing can be every bit as important as knowing for sure...just for different reasons.

The passive voice can be used to obscure discourse, confuse issues, and deflect responsibility. It's the exonerative tense because it protects actors from owning up to the consequences of their actions - a mistake was made, but since we don't say who made it, nobody has to be held responsible. The Attorney General could have said:

"I fired these people because their performance was not up to standards;" or,

"I fired these people because they were not sensitive to the political implications of some of their cases;" or,

"I don't know exactly why these persons were fired, but I'll find out and let you know."

But he ducked the issue by resorting to the passive voice and simply saying that "mistakes were made." He didn't say, "I made a mistake by firing these people for inappropriate reasons;" or "I was wrong because I didn't ensure that proper procedures were followed." He said only that "mistakes were made." We don't know who made them, why, or what the consequences will be.

The passive voice has a perfectly proper role to play in communication, but it shouldn't be to protect the guilty. The passive as the exonerative tense doesn't belong in anyone's grammar...especially if they're holding positions of great public trust. We're not linguistic fools, and we deserve better.

You are wished a good day. More thoughts will be published later.


Friday, March 16, 2007

The Crocodile Tears of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

If you have not read the transcript of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at Guantanamo Bay, you should. You can find it here: It's long and, in places, boring, but it offers a look at two versions of the world: that of the West, and that of those like Mr Mohammed who hate the West and what it represents.

Civil libertarians will object to the nature of the hearing and the allegation (fact, probably) that Mr Mohammed was tortured while in US custody. Many well-meaning but naive people will be concerned that Mr Mohammed's rights have been violated by his arrest, detention, and interrogation. They will point to his long, rambling statement to the Tribunal as evidence that Mr Mohammed is a man with legitimate grievances and a fighter against an oppressive and imperialistic America. They will point to his statement that "...I'm not happy that three thousand been killed in America. I feel sorry, even. I don't like to kill children and the kids...I don't like to kill people. I feel very sorry they been killed kids in 9/11."

My mother would have said that Mr Mohammed is crying crocodile tears. He is very sorry that children were killed on 9/11...but not sorry enough to keep him from murdering more than three thousand people, at least some of whom were certain to be children. Of course he is sorry. He has been captured and called to account for his crime.

Mr Mohammed brags of the acts of violence and terrorism he planned, and claims responsibility for the gruesome murder of New York Times reporter Daniel Pearl. What kind of man proudly claims responsibility for murder?

We can - and will - argue for many years about responsibility for 9/11. We can - and will - argue about whether or not the detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere is legal and fair. We can - and will - argue about whether the trial of these persons in front of military tribunals is proper. My personal view is this: Mr Mohammed coldly planned the murder of thousands of people and proudly claimed responsibility for the beheading of Daniel Pearl. He did not offer any of these victims the opportunity to make statements in front of a tribunal. He did not ask any of them if they opposed the actions of their government or supported his twisted views of the world. He murdered them in cold blood to make a political statement.

Let Khalid Sheikh Mohammed cry his crocodile tears today. I look forward to the day he cries for mercy as he faces the judgement of the God he claims to serve - the mercy he wouldn't show to children. He has Hell to look forward to, and I hope he enjoys it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Complications of the Wired Life

I had been frustrated for the last few years at having to pay four different bills for related services: we had different providers for local phone service (Verizon), long distance phone service (Sprint), cable television and Internet service (Cox Communications), and cellular phone service (Cingular). Seeking to simplify my life a bit, I looked into consolidating the four services with one provider, and ended up settling on Verizon because they offered the largest total savings per month. The only service I haven't changed over yet is my cell phone, but only because our contract isn't up until October of this year, and the financial penalties for breaking the contract are severe.

So, I'm saving money and paying only one bill instead of three. That's good. On the other hand, I have come to realize just how many people and businesses have to be notified that we have changed our e-mail address. The number is huge, and many of the business accounts can only be changed when we log into their secure websites...which means I have to remember the logins and passwords for a slew of sites I don't visit very often. For a fifty-five year old guy who most days feels like eighty-five, this is no trivial task.

All of our wonderful modern benefits we enjoy come with a cost, in money or time or complications of one sort or another. I'm reminded of a scene from the wonderful play "Inherit the Wind," written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. The play depicts the clash between lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the famous Scopes "Monkey Trial" of 1925. At one point, the Clarence Darrow character says to the jury,

"Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You've got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man behind the counter who says, 'All right, you can have a telephone, but you'll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote, but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powder-puff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.'"

Well, the birds have never lost their wonder for me, and the clouds are still as beautiful, but the jury is still out on the telephone...particularly the cell phone, which I view as a necessary evil, but a major nuisance.

I've traded convenience and monetary savings for the complication of figuring out whether I've remembered to tell everyone who needs to know that my e-mail address is different. It's a trade I'm willing to make...although I've lost the goodwill of the people at Cox and Sprint who no longer enjoy receiving my checks each month.

But I guess they'll get over it.

Have a good day. Try to avoid unnecessary complication in your life. You'll live longer and enjoy each day more.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Right to Bear Arms

Every few weeks I go through an intellectual kabuki dance with one of my friends on the subject of gun control and the constitutionally-guaranteed right to bear arms. If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that while I don't support "gun control" per se, I do oppose the fanatically, nearly religious ardor with which the NRA and its adherents revere firearms ownership and oppose the least effort to bring some sanity to the gun control debate. See my post from February 25th for the cautionary tale of Jim Zumbo and what happens when you cross the NRA.

My friend's latest salvo in our argument consisted of sending me extracts from the constitutions of five states which gave their take on the right to bear arms. Two of them were, I thought, interesting, and are quoted here (italics are mine):

"That a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state, therefore, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power" (Virginia Constitution, Article I, Section 13).

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; and, as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they shall not be maintained, and the military shall be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power. Nothing herein shall justify the carrying of concealed weapons, or prevent the General Assembly from enacting penal statutes against that practice" (North Carolina Constitution, Article I, Section 30).

What I found interesting is the highlighted sections, which allow citizens to keep weapons without restriction, but state that standing armed forces are dangerous and must be tightly controlled by the civil authorities. These would be the same civil authorities that are not permitted to restrict ownership of weapons by citizens not likely to be as well trained and tightly controlled as the standing armed forces.

This goes back, of course, to the founding of the nation and the fear of a king with a monopoly of power who could run roughshod over his subjects. If the citizens are armed, the theory goes, the king will think twice about trying to abuse them.

In my opinion, as I've written before, I'm in a lot more danger from a coked-up, well-armed street thug than I am from the United States Army. I realize that many other people don't share my view, and that reasonable people will agree to disagree on the subject of firearms ownership. My personal opinion is that people ought to be allowed to own firearms suitable for hunting and target shooting (not automatic weapons, military assault weapons, bazookas, ICBMs, etc)...but that the criminal penalties for using a firearm in the commission of a felony should be extremely severe. I'm not sure how the gun lobby would argue against that, but I'm sure someone would.

As we approach the warmer days of spring and summer, I'd rather think about beautiful ladies in sleeveless blouses baring their arms, rather than camouflage-clad activists bearing arms. Sadly, the important issues of gun ownership, gun-assisted crime, and civic responsibility can't be so glibly dismissed. One can only hope that at some point, the hysterical rhetoric on both sides can be toned down and a realistic discussion of the issue can be held.

But, as with so many other issues, I'm not holding my breath. The Second Amendment gives us a clear right to own deadly weapons. It doesn't give us the brains to exercise that right responsibly.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Murdering Knowledge

This past Monday, a huge car bomb devastated the Mutanabi book market in Baghdad. As always, many people were killed and many others wounded, but the larger victim was one you wouldn't normally think about. It was Knowledge.

There is a long and sad history of despots destroying books and works of art they don't think you should read or enjoy. In the lifetime of many readers of this blog, the Nazis burned great heaps of books they found objectionable, many of which were classics of world literature. The Taliban of Afghanistan destroyed books it found un-Islamic (whatever that means). Less destructive but more insidious, in this country religious fundamentalists argue that certain books should be kept out of school libraries because they don't think you should read them.

These people are guilty of murder. They are murdering knowledge, murdering your right to know and experience the world around you, depriving you of the ability to experience the accumulated culture on which our civilization is built.

George M. Trevelyan once said that "Education has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading." Life is short, libraries and bookstores are huge. How do you distinguish what is worth reading? Who decides what you should read? I maintain that parents (and grandparents - see yesterday's post) should help their children develop the sense of right and wrong, cultural appreciation and - yes - outrage, that lets them decide what is worth reading. And then, encourage them to read everything they can.

My mother was a voracious reader, and she passed that on to us. When Mom passed away nearly six years ago, I inherited much of the huge library she'd accumulated in a long life. Added to the books I'd already purchased but not yet read, and the books I continue to buy almost every day, it means that I'll have to live darned near forever to read them all. But that's fine - because books are a window to other lives and worlds that I might never otherwise experience.

Unfortunately, there are those out there - like the murderers who killed the Mutanabi book market - who would close that window. People who would impose their low concept of culture on the rest of us to create a joyless and sterile world. Don't let them murder knowledge. Don't let anyone dictate what you should read. Make your own decisions.

Life is short. Books help you enjoy and appreciate it. Read all you can.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 12, 2007

The Grandparent Shortage

One of my recurring pet peeves, as regular readers of this blog know, is the lack of common courtesy in modern society. It manifests itself in many ways: the ridiculous liberal-vs-conservative diatribes that are a staple of talk radio; the thunderous blare of top-volume stereos from the car beside you at the traffic light; and the insistence on receiving "respect" while being unwilling to give it are just a few.

Author and commentator Peggy Noonan published an article in last Friday's Wall Street Journal titled "That's Not Nice," which took an interesting approach to this issue. She noted that much of what we hear in daily discourse makes us wince, and that it was our grandmothers who taught us to wince, grandmothers who said disapprovingly, "that's not nice!" Ms Noonan is right: it's "nice" that's missing from current social intercourse.

When I first became a grandfather nearly seven years ago, my first thought was "I'm too young for this!" But my second thought was, "Am I ready for this?" Both of my grandfathers died before I was born, but I was blessed with two wonderful, "traditional" grandmothers. They didn't do yoga, they didn't have face lifts and botox injections to hide their age, and they didn't try to maintain the lifestyles of their youth. They were proud grandmothers, matriarchs of their expanding families, and set the example for us. They taught us to be nice.

I think that one of the reasons we have such a lack of common courtesy is that we have a grandmother shortage. The elderly, respected ladies who once taught us to wince are getting younger every year, and the new grandmothers don't want to be elderly. They want to keep on as they did in their youth, pushing off the ravages and the responsibilities of age as long as possible. The very thought of being a grandmother is horrifying to the new generations of tattooed, buffed young ladies. The very thought of a Paris Hilton or a Britney Spears as a traditional grandmother is beyond my poor mind's ability to grasp.

We also have a grandfather shortage. Grandfathers set the example of successful lives for new generations of young men, and if they don't teach us to wince, they teach us how to be successful men, to provide for our families, and to know right from wrong. Grandfathers used to be old. They used to command respect and honor as they passed their wisdom down to us. But like traditional grandmothers, traditional grandfathers are also in short supply. Can you imagine almost any overpaid athlete, obnoxious rap singer, or street thug as a grandfather?

Part of the problem is distance. Families no longer tend to remain in the same areas and grow larger over time...they expand geographically, and the influence of grandparents tends to diminish with distance. My father lives in Pennsylvania. My sons are in Ohio and California, my daughter lives about 45 minutes away, and my parents-in-law are in Germany. It's hard to be a good grandparent when distance works against you. It's not an excuse, it's a sad reality.

For me, my father is the Gold Standard of grandparent: strong, gentle, funny, and full of wisdom it took me many years to appreciate. My grandmothers, long gone now, are the female equivalents. Whether or not I can live up to their standards is a matter of some debate, but I'm trying. I hope I can encourage my grandchildren to be nice.

You can read Peggy Noonan's article that inspired this post at It's worth your time.

Have a good day. Plan to be a good grandparent when the time comes. And try to be may discover you like it.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Daylight Savings Time

If you are reading this and you live in the United States (except for Arizona, Hawaii, and the US Territories), you should have set your clocks ahead one hour before you went to bed last night. If you didn't, you will be an hour late for your appointments today, tomorrow, and until you reset your clocks.

Welcome to Daylight Savings Time, 2007.

This year, by writ of Congress, Daylight Savings Time is starting three weeks earlier than usual in order to help save energy. Whether such energy savings actually result is a matter of some debate, with arguments raging on both sides. In the meantime, some religious groups object to the change because it interferes with prayer times, airlines object because it throws their schedules out of kilter with the rest of the world, and my wife objects because it deprives her of an hour of much-wanted sleep. Computer geeks have been beating the Drum of Doom for weeks, warning of Y2K-like catastrophes lurking because computers will be confused by the change and will wreak all sorts of havoc on the wired world.


When I woke up this morning, the sun had risen as expected, birds were singing happily in the trees, my PC's internal clock had reset to the correct time, and - as far as I could tell - the world continued to spin on its axis as if nothing had happened.

My personal feeling about Daylight Savings Time as an energy-saving move is that it makes no difference. I think that any savings realized by extending the period of daylight into the evening to keep us from turning on lights will be offset by the extra miles we drive to the places we will enjoy those extra hours of light. I believe in the old joke that compared Daylight Savings Time to the slightly dim old fellow who cut a foot off the top of his blanket and sewed it on to the bottom to help keep his feet warmer.

But of course, no one asked my opinion, and we all know that Congress knows best.

Have a good day. Enjoy your extra hour of daylight. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Appreciating Wounded Warriors

In all the words that have been written and hot air that's been blown in Congress and the media about the conditions and bureaucracy facing wounded veterans at Walter Reed and elsewhere in the Veterans Administration system, one thing that is missing is the face of the average Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or Airman at the center of the issue. We've seen the faces of the few who testified before Congress, but what of the others? Who are they?

I work in the Pentagon, and one of the things that has been started there since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan heated up has been a program under which combat-wounded veterans and their families are brought from Walter Reed Hospital to the Pentagon for VIP tours and lunches with top Service military and civilian officials. The dates these visits are scheduled are announced within the building, and everyone is encouraged to come out and greet the troops when they arrive.

Yesterday was one of those days.

I went down to the Corridor 3 entrance at about 11:00 AM, and was amazed at the size of the crowd that had turned out to greet the vets. While these visits always attract many well-wishers, this time the crowd was truly huge, lining the corridors four- and five-deep, with more people coming all the time, and the roar of applause could be heard a long distance off, even in the cavernous Pentagon.

The wounded soldiers, some with their families, some accompanied by nurses or other escorts, made their way down the hallways. Every man and woman who could walk, with crutches or canes or assisted by a nurse, came proudly, if slowly, down corridors echoing with applause as well-wishers surged forward to shake hands or give hugs. Young men and women in wheelchairs, unable to walk, seemed to receive special attention. And I have to tell you that I had tears in my eyes.

These terribly wounded warriors, some missing legs, arms, or eyes; some terribly burned, have paid an awful price for doing a hard and brutal job most of us never see, understand, or appreciate. They gave up much of their lives in the service of a country whose shallow President asks for sacrifice only of those in the military.

A VIP visit to the Pentagon and a greeting by cheering crowds is small payment for what these brave souls have lost. Regardless of how we may feel about the war in Iraq (and regular readers of this blog know that I have opposed it from the start for practical military and political reasons), we can and should show our appreciation - now and into a difficult future - for those who have sacrificed so much.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Big Numbers

It's federal budget season in Washington, which means it's the season of Big Numbers. Those of us who live here are used to Big Numbers all around us, the cost of living in the nation's capital being what it is, but when you talk about the federal budget, you talk about really Big Numbers. It was former Senator Everett Dirksen who once said something like, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon it adds up to real money." And so it does.

Columnist Joel Achenbach wrote a tongue in cheek article in yesterday's Washington Post titled, "Crunched by the Numbers," which looked at the almost unimaginable vastness of the federal budget. Your government will spend almost 3 trillion dollars this year, and the federal deficit - the amount the government will spend that exceeds its income - next fiscal year is estimated to be 239 billion dollars. When you and I spend an amount that exceeds our checkbook balance, the bank comes down on us like the proverbial ton of bricks, beating us about our fiscal head and shoulders with fines and fees. It must be nice to be able to run a deficit of 239 billion dollars without penalty.

As I wrote in earlier posts about the tons of cash our government sent to Iraq, enormous numbers like these quickly cease to have any meaning for Real People like you and I. They become background noise. And that background noise fades even more into the background because the people who drive those incomprehensibly huge numbers don't talk to you honestly.

Consider this common real estate sign here in Northern Virginia: "New single family homes from the low 700's." Developers, builders, and real estate agents don't really want to say New single family homes starting at seven hundred and twenty-nine thousand dollars, because that's a scary number to someone with a five-figure income. It's much more palatable to say "low 700's" because people can imagine holding $700 in their hands, or seeing a balance of $700 in their checkbook. Seven hundred twenty-nine thousand isn't a meaningful number at the level of day-to-day living.

The federal budget is essentially meaningless to most people, except as it contributes to a sense of unreality about huge numbers. If the government can run a deficit of two hundred thirty-nine billion dollars, what's wrong with a lower-middle income family having four maxed-out credit cards with a combined balance of a mere eighty thousand dollars?

The difference, of course, is that you and I are eventually expected to repay that eighty thousand dollars to a lender, while the federal government simply borrows more money to cover its existing and future debts...which, of course, means fewer available dollars for you and I to borrow when we need them.

I don't pretend to understand economics on a governmental scale. I don't even pretend to understand it on my own small scale. If my checkbook balances to within about $10, I run out and buy myself a celebratory beer. But I wish I did understand more, because these numbers are scarier than any city-stomping monster on the late-night chiller theater.

Mr Achenbach's article, which you can read at, notes that the printed copy of the President's Budget comes in four huge volumes, with an appendix which alone runs to 1,237 pages of tiny type in two-columns per page. How can you and I know what this means? How can we understand what our government is doing with the money it takes from us in taxes?

We can't. But it doesn't matter, because the numbers are so vast we can't comprehend them, anyway.

I'm happy when my checkbook shows a four-figure balance and the numbers are all on the left side of the decimal point. It must be nice to have so much money that your budget figures can be rounded to the nearest billion dollars.

Have a good day. And don't bounce any checks. The government can do it with impunity. You can't.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Betrayal at Walter Reed - Part 3

Mr Don Carr, a Public Affairs Director at Ft Belvoir, Virginia, posted a lengthy comment to my blog entry yesterday concerning the mess at Walter Reed. His comments are worth reading, because they correct some misconceptions I had about the status of Walter Reed under the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. I wrote, as have others, that the BRAC recommendation to close Walter Reed had contributed to the poor maintenance at the facility (why spend the money on maintenance when you're going to close the facility, anyhow?). Mr Carr noted that the BRAC recommendation was to "realign," rather than to "close" Walter Reed, saying that "...I don't believe that's any parsing or play on semantics. As it's written, the services and treatment available to patients are NOT closing!" He goes on to note that the services and facilities of Walter Reed will be realigned to a new hospital to be built at Ft Belvoir, and to an upgraded Bethesda Naval Hospital, and concludes with the assessment that alarmist comments about the status of the Walter Reed facility are unhelpful and don't help "...(find) and (solve) problems that have little with the BRAC list at all."

As far as my comments about the role of the BRAC decisions in the situation at Walter Reed, I stand corrected and thank Mr Carr for his thoughtful and comprehensive comment...the sort I love to receive. I would note, however, that it will be a long time before the new hospital is built at Ft Belvoir and the upgrades are ready at Bethesda, during which time Walter Reed must continue to serve our wounded soldiers. As far as the role of poor leadership and management of the facility, I stand by what I've written.

One of my friends forwarded me a message from one of his correspondents, an Army veteran who opined that the leadership and management problems at Walter Reed are simply a manifestation of the old Army philosophy which can be summed up as "Just suck it up, soldier!" While this may be a useful way for dealing with a healthy, but whiny individual, it has no place in the care and treatment of a soldier terribly wounded in his country's service. I will say it again: this is a massive failure of leadership and concern for the troops on the part of the Army's senior leaders. The contrast between the acceptance of responsibility for the situation on the part of General Weightman, the current commander who was fired last week, and the despicable evasion and denial of responsibility by General Kiley, the previous commander on whose watch many of the problems grew, speaks volumes about the variations in quality of leadership. General Weightman, who inherited a bad situation and was trying to improve it, accepted his responsibility like a man and apologized to the soldiers and their families for not doing more; General Kiley dodged and weaved and tried to deflect any responsibility.

As a 23-year veteran of the Air Force, I've served under commanders I would have gladly followed anywhere into any danger, and I've served under commanders who were little more than scheming ladder-climbers. You'll find bad apples anywhere. But the commanders and leaders responsible for the substandard treatment of wounded soldiers...and the politicians whose fiscal decisions contributed to their malfeasance, deserve our most severe condemnation.

"Suck it up, soldier," just won't cut it. It's time for heads - the right heads - to roll.

Don't let this issue die. From generals and senior civilians who don't do their jobs to a President happy to put the burden of a war on the backs of brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen without asking for the least sacrifice from the rest of the nation, we suffer under poor leadership. Make your voice heard. Demand better for those who have sacrificed their lives or their bodies for your future.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Betrayal at Walter Reed - Part 2

The ongoing scandal over the treatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed hospital continues to be news in most of the country. The story is still in the news for several reasons: members of Congress see it as a chance to grandstand in front of the cameras; Republicans and Democrats alike see it as a chance to beat each other up; and - most important - it strikes a chord in the hearts of average Americans. This country has a tradition of standing up for the underdog, and the sight of horribly wounded veterans shabbily treated tends to rouse the best of our instincts.

But citizens being concerned doesn't fix the problem, and neither does the standard Congressional response of holding hearings at which hapless witnesses can be berated in front of rolling cameras. Two things will fix the problem: leadership and money.

The vast and unexpected cost of the war in Iraq has led the Army - and the Defense Department in general - to strip funds from day to day operating accounts to pay the war tab. The routine "operations and maintenance" accounts which provide the funds to maintain infrastructure are being pillaged to buy new and repair damaged equipment and to pay the costs of maintaining a huge force in a high-intensity fight. An article by Paul Eaton in yesterday's New York Times notes that the Army last year had a $350 million shortfall in its budget for upkeep at installations around the world. This is the money that removes the mold and traps the rodents and exterminates the insects that have been the focus of the Walter Reed scandal. He also notes that Walter Reed has been selected to close by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), the kiss of fiscal death which means that the Army will be unwilling to invest money in a facility with no future. Finally, and most shocking, Mr Eaton documents that Congress, in the 2007 appropriations bill for the Pentagon, cut by 50% the financing for the Army's research and treatment program on traumatic brain injuries...which are, as has often been reported, some of the most prevalent injuries suffered by soldiers in Iraq, and which program was conducted at - Walter Reed!

No one has covered themselves with glory in this appalling scandal: the Army leadership, the Administration, the Veterans Administration. There's plenty of blame to go around. So what's to be done to fix the problem?

First, spend the money. That's easy to say at a time when the Services are scrambling to pay the huge cost of the war and also trying to field expensive new weapons (such as the Air Force's F-22 and F-35 and new ships for the Navy). In his article cited above, Mr Eaton says that "The money to care for our soon-to-be-veteran soldiers should not come from the Defense Department budget." Perhaps not. But where, then, should it come from? The Department of Health and Human Services, which is itself chronically underfunded? The State Department? The Interior Department? Where? For one thing, the President could take a double shot of reality and start raising taxes to pay for the war, instead of cutting taxes to advance a feel-good political-economic philosophy aimed at buying votes.

This leads to the second fix: show leadership, starting with the President who has thus far refused to treat the cost of the war as a visible part of the Federal budget. The Army's senior leaders, backed up by the Secretary of Defense, need to stand up for their soldiers and insist on the funding for the treatment they deserve. Generals don't just get to wear nice uniforms and sit in huge offices - they have a solemn responsibility to care for those who sacrifice limbs and lives. They need to speak truth to power.

This is a time for strong leadership and hard choices. Strong leadership doesn't just mean standing in front of cameras and sternly intoning means making the tough decisions on where to find money and how to spend it. It means making politically difficult choices that are morally right. It means keeping promises made to the young men and women who go in harm's way, no matter how hard it is.

It means having leaders with integrity and courage. These, sadly, are in short supply.

The Walter Reed scandal is a very hard one to resolve. But that's why we elect political leaders and promote generals - to work together to solve those impossible problems.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Rap RIP?

Two articles caught my eye on the CNN website yesterday. The headline of the first asked, "Has Rap Music Hit a Wall?"; the other was, "Delivery of Kanye West's Meal Costs $3,900." Taken together, I think they offer an interesting look at an important issue.

My musical tastes are pretty varied, ranging from classical music to classic and contemporary country, soft rock, some hard rock, and a wide variety of international music. The one style of music I have never been able to stand, though, is rap, which has always struck me as nothing more than skull-splitting, pounding base driving shouted, grunted, violent, racist and misogenistic lyrics. The very "culture" (if I can use the word in this context) of rap and hip-hop, with its grindingly negative treatment of women and whites and its glorification of drugs, violence, and thuggery, poisons relations between the races and the sexes. At a time when America's black citizens are struggling to overcome a legacy of discrimination and poverty, one has to wonder why so many young people have chosen to glorify a musical style that's seems to glorify offending the largest number of people.

But that seems to be changing. According to the first of the CNN articles I cited, the allure of rap music and culture seems to be slipping. The article quotes rap insider Chuck Creekmur, who runs the web site, who says he got a message from a friend recently "asking me to hook her up with some Red Hot Chili Peppers because she said she's through with rap. A lot of people are sick of rap ... the negativity is just over the top now."

The negativity is just over the top now. This seems to sum up the problem with rap and hip-hop culture. You can only take so much of poorly-dressed, thuggish louts shouting violent and intolerant lyrics over a bass track. The CNN report goes on to note that rap music sales are slipping, with sales down a staggering 21% from 2005 to 2006, and that for the first time in 12 years no rap album was among the top 10 selling albums of the year. One can only hope that good musical taste and a growing sense of respect for others has begun to fill the cultural void that was rap.

The other article told the story of a dinner for rap star Kanye West, ordered from a restaurant in Wales for delivery to his affair in New York at a cost of almost $4,000 - not counting the travel and accommodations for the restaurant's head chef who will accompany the food for final preparation and serving.

Some overpaid and self-centered stars of music, movies, and television give us outrageous examples of excesses of behavior and consumption; others take stands on social and political issues and try to make the world a better place. Not paying much attention to the swamp of rap and hip-hop affairs, I don't know what else Mr West may do with his money and his time. But I think it's offensive that anyone would spend that much money on a dinner that would, according to the story as reported, cost about $17.50 if bought at the restaurant.

Conspicuous excess isn't a characteristic only of rap and hip-hop stars, of course - you can find examples in any musical, theater, or movie genre. But combined with an in-your-face style that maligns other races and sexes, it has to make one wonder just what such people really stand for, and whether they respect anyone or anything.

Rap is hopes. Happily, there's a world of real music out there to replace it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, March 05, 2007

Betrayal at Walter Reed

The scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in DC, with its revelations of terrible housing conditions and mind-numbing bureaucracy imposed on our combat-wounded veterans, is a national disgrace. The sacking of the Walter Reed commander and of the Secretary of the Army is fully justified, and the Army owes it to its soldiers to fix the problems immediately.

Now, let me put the above in context.

I am a veteran of 23 years service in the Air Force. I was never in combat, and was never treated at Walter Reed. Nevertheless, in those 23 years I was seldom dissatisfied with the quality of the medical care I and my family received at any military hospital anywhere in the world. My daughter was an in-patient at Walter Reed on several occasions, and I never found her care there to be anything but the very best. I felt strongly enough about her treatment at Walter Reed that I at one point wrote a letter to the commander, specifically commending many of the doctors, nurses, and technicians who cared for her.

So what happened?

I think the problems at Walter Reed probably stem from one thing: continuing budget cuts. As the war in Iraq has ground on relentlessly, the Army has needed more and more money to purchase new and repair or replace old equipment. To augment the funds received from Congress, the Army moves money between accounts to cover shortages...and I am willing to bet that military medical care (other than immediate battlefield and theater trauma care) has been decremented to fund other needs. In addition, the Veterans Administration, responsible for the long-term care of our wounded veterans, has been underfunded for many years - witness the periodic exposes of poor care and bad conditions at regional VA medical centers.

The issue of bureaucracy is another matter. The military may not have invented bureaucracy, but it has tried to perfect it, and any veteran can tell you horror stories about the vast amount of paperwork needed to accomplish almost anything. But when bureaucracy stands in the way of getting care for those who have been grievously wounded in the service of their country, when amassing all the right paperwork is more important than ensuring prompt and compassionate care for our veterans, something is very, very wrong. Much of the dreaded paperwork is, in fact, required by laws enacted by Congress and implemented by military regulations to prevent fraud and ensure that those who seek treatment are entitled to it...but we must find a way to streamline the process to take care of our wounded soldiers. They deserve no less.

Here in the Washington, DC, metro area every second car sports a nice red-white-and-blue ribbon urging everyone to "Support Our Troops." Magnetic ribbons are cheap. Care for badly wounded veterans is expensive. But we have a moral responsibility to spend whatever it takes to care for them.

Have a good day. Thank a veteran for the freedom you have to enjoy it.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Politics of Personal Insult

CNN is reporting this morning that conservative columnist and commentator (how alliterative for this early in the morning, eh?) Ann Coulter is under attack for referring to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards as a "faggot" in an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

As readers of this blog know, I have long been dismayed at the lack of common courtesy (not to mention common sense) in much of our current political discourse, and this latest incident just proves the point. Especially as we enter the early stages of a presidential campaign, in which we hope to gather enough information to evaluate potential candidates and make an informed choice on the one we want to hold the highest office in the nation, we don't need to hear ad hominem attacks...we need to hear clear and unambiguous information on the issues of the day. If Ms Coulter had had some point to make about Mr Edwards' stand on a particular issue, it would have been worth listening to. Instead, she chose the language of personal insult, leaving us knowing nothing about how Ms Coulter evaluated Mr Edwards position on the facts at hand. We know more about Anne Coulter's lack of civility than about John Edwards' qualifications to be president.

Once again, I recommend you read Deborah Tannen's fine book, The Argument Culture, for some insight into where we are and where we need to go in public discourse.

In the meantime, I'm sorry Anne Coulter isn't running for President, so that I could have the pleasure of voting for someone else.

And that's my cheap shot for the day.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, March 03, 2007

War of Values

There's a very interesting and provocative article in the new issue of Air and Space Power Journal that's worth your time to read. It's by Col William Darley, U.S. Army, and it's titled Strategic Imperative: The Necessity for Values Operations as Opposed to Information Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can read it online at

Col Darley takes a historical look at conflicts between incompatible systems of cultural values, and draws conclusions for the success of our present war against radical militant Islam. He builds his thesis from the idea of "civil religion," defined as "the key centrifugal cultural force that unifies people in ethnic and national identity and shapes their values." In the context of the current conflict, he defines the cultural religion of the West as one of individual rights and liberties, as opposed to that of Islam which "denies the existence of individual rights and demands submission to the dictates of God as interpreted by a de facto Islamic priesthood in charge of government." Loosely stated, there is no Western-style separation of church and state in the Islamic world, where the mosque and state are inseparable.

Col Darley's basic point, which he buttresses with historic examples from the Roman Empire to Nazi Germany, is that existential clashes between completely incompatible systems of values can only be won when one side is able completely to impose its system on the other. The Romans successfully conquered many diverse nations and tribes by forcing (or, at best, coercing) them into adopting Roman values...sometimes by the incorporation of elements of the conquered culture into Roman society. Germany and Japan were utterly crushed in World War II, and were rebuilt as modern, progressive democracies by a complete eradication of the previous regime (in the case of the Nazis) and by retention of the emperor in a much-reduced figurehead role (in the case of Japan). Col Darley has a pessimistic view of our ability to create Western-style democracies in Islamic lands, noting that "...we must recognize that we can successfully establish democratic pluralism in countries that have never known it only if we broadly supplant cultural values at a grassroots level that currently makes cultural acceptance of democracy virtually impossible due to Islamic literalism." He notes that "current conflicts can be resolved only by clearly recognizing them as strife between civil religions and understanding them as primarily a test of strength of conviction by each side in the rightness of that civil religion...Western democracies will require strong resolve combined with a supporting values campaign to transform Middle Eastern populations to a civil-values system that establishes individual liberty as the core cultural value in democratic societies."

I'm not sure we can do that. Islam offers a seductive system of belief that claims to offer all the answers to all the problems of the world in exchange for total and uncritical belief in a system of values based in the culture of the 7th century Arabian desert. The civil religion of Western democracy is much harder. Individual liberty demands a great deal of the individual, with no recourse to the shoulder-shrug of insh'allah ("if God wills it") that summarizes the fatalistic attitude of the Islamic cultures. I don't think we in the West still have the capability for utter ruthlessness that allowed the ancient Romans, and even the United States of the 1940's, to impose its will on a defeated enemy and completely supplant its culture.

Our enemies, unfortunately, do.

Please take the time to read the article by Col Darley, think about it, and let me know your comments. I think it's one of the most important and thought-provoking pieces I've read in a long time.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, March 02, 2007

363 Tons of Cash - Revisited

On February 8th of this year, I wrote an article in this blog titled 363 Tons of Cash, in which I talked about the vast amounts of money sent to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion - an amount of money so huge it was measured by weight and shipped on pallets in military cargo aircraft. I was horrified then, and remain aghast now, not just that so much money was shipped to Iraq, but that so much of it has evidently disappeared without adequate accounting.

A few days ago, John B. Taylor, Undersecretary of the Treasury from 2001 to 2005, wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times titled "Billions Over Baghdad," in which he provided a ringing defense of the cash shipment, the purposes for which it was intended, and the spectacular feat of accounting for it under difficult conditions. Some of his comments have caused me to change my original opinion; others have simply reinforced my original concern. You can read his article online at

Mr Taylor noted, as I failed to do in my earlier post, that the 363 tons of cash was actually money that belonged to Iraq. It was withdrawn from Iraqi acounts in the United States which had been frozen after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and, by executive order from President Bush, shipped to Baghdad to pay Iraqi civil servants and pensioners and keep the Iraqi government running in the immediate postwar period. Mr Taylor claims that the Iraqi government had managed to maintain its payroll records despite the widespread looting at the end of the war, and that American Treasury officials who oversaw the payment process reported "a culture of good record-keeping." He goes on to claim that the introduction of the New Iraqi Dinar was a spectacular success, such that the dinar has appreciated against the dollar even during the last few months, and concludes his article with this statement: "...facts show praise rather than ridicule is appropriate: praise for the brave experts in the United States Treasury who went to Iraq in 2003 and established a working Finance Ministry and central bank, praise for the Iraqis in the Finance Ministry who carefully preserved payment records in the face of looting, praise for the American soldiers in the 336th Finance Command who safely kept found money, and yes, even praise for planning and follow-through back in the United States."

It's clear and understandable that Mr Taylor wants to put the best face on the situation, but lipstick does only so much to improve the appearance of a pig. While acknowledging the heroic efforts of some Americans and Iraqis, many other reports have cast serious doubts on the adequacy of accounting for the cash sent to Iraq and the extent to which it has actually been used to rebuild Iraq and establish a functioning government. I believe a very serious investigation is in order to determine what, in fact, actually happened.

My original point remains valid, I think – it’s bad enough that the average American can’t comprehend the enormous sums of money we are pouring down the Iraqi drain. To someone whose take-home pay is measured in the low hundreds per week or low thousands per month, figures in the millions, billions, and (soon) trillions don’t mean anything. But the idea of an amount of cash so enormous that it has to be measured in tons and transported on pallets in military aircraft adds some visual impact to the abstraction. I would like to think that, as my friend Jake thought, “10000 other people (besides me) complained about the cash,” but somehow I think it just passed by in that brief flash of indignation that, in the American public, quickly turns into the ho-hum of bad news background noise.

And, despite Mr Taylor’s depiction of a brilliant financial coup that would have been worthy of an Alexander Hamilton, I don’t think anyone really knows where all those tons of cash went.

For the tax year 2006, I owe Uncle Sam $213 above my withholding (which was already very impressive). The idea that we are spending that money on a bunch of religiously insane morons who hate us only slightly less than they hate each other is repulsive. We could be fixing our education system and rebuilding our own infrastructure with that money, instead of spending it on improvements in Iraq which are promptly attacked because it’s more important to hate Americans than to help Iraqis.

Perhaps if I act like a lunatic, the government will send me a few tons of excess cash. But I doubt it.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming this weekend.