Monday, June 28, 2010

Gen. McCrystal and the art of being stupid in public

Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan got fired last week.

And deserved it.

McCrystal's offense was essentially being stupid in public. In a profile written for Rolling Stone, the general and the circle of frat boy sycophant junior officers he maintained around him were captured making derogatory comments about the nation's civilian leadership.

Their bosses.

So McCrystal had to go. This wasn't even a matter of military discipline. You or I would get fired for making public statements like that about our boss too.

McCrystal wasn't the first casuality of the incident. Even before President Obama called McCrystal to the White House and kicked him to the curb, the civilian public relations person who set up the interview with Rolling Stone was let go.

Right, because it was his fault that McCrystal and his cronies decided to tank up in front of a reporter and let their inner macho wannabes out.

First, never drink in front of a reporter. What you actually think might come out of your mouth.

Second, the problems apparently stem from McCrystal and his circle being senior military men who are obsessed with what tough "warriors" they still are. I've been in the military, there are some legitimate warriors in the U.S. military. None of them wear a general's star. In fact, most of them aren't officers at all. For a 56-year-old man to still be trying to impress some journalist with how "tough" he is, is rather pitiful.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Ten reasons to be glad summer is here

While sweltering in Virginia's typical 95-degrees-with-117-percent-humidity weather, there are still a few reasons to be glad the seasons have turned and that summer is here. Actually, you might not notice. We seem to be losing our springs and falls and going right from furnace to air conditioning weather these days.

In any case, these are the reasons that I'm looking forward to summer:

1. New, more interesting Williamsburg City Council - On July 1, the era of consensus and 5-0 votes ends. With the swearing in of recent College of William & Mary grad Scott Foster and hotelier Doug Pons, the city will finally have two members of council who are not members of the Colonial Williamsburg-W&M-Chamber of Commerce power structure. That should make for some interesting council meetings.
2. Vampires and Werewolves, oh my! - HBO's True Blood is back for its third season and, if the first two episodes are any indication, we're in for a wild ride. Bill's in trouble again. Can the lovely Sookie Stackhouse get the sinister Eric to quit drooling over her long enough to help rescue him? Can Jessica learn to find happiness as the hottest redheaded jailbait vampire in Louisiana? And what of my personal favorite, Eric's acid-tongued lesbian second-in-command Pam? Will she stay perennially amused at the outrageous goings on around her? And will Sookie's friend Tara ever stop whining? And this year there are werewolves too! Good times are ahead in Bon Temps.
3. Baseball being very, very good to me - I'm a big baseball fan. As we get deeper into summer the other unimportant sports fall out of the headlines (World Cup? Isn't that a coffeehouse in Richmond?) and we get down to what matters. And it looks like a very good year. As the days heat up, so do the pennant races and we seem to have some good ones with some surprise teams looking very real. The Atlanta Braves were supposed to be in a rebuilding phase. They've rebuilt themselves right into first place in the National League East. The Cinncinatti Reds haven't been any good since 1990. They look pretty good this year. The Texas Rangers haven't ever been any good, but they look like a contender too. It doesn't look like such a great year for my teams, the Red Sox and the Cubs. While the Sox have played better of late, that just doesn't look like a championship team to me. Hopefully the Rays can beat out the Yankees in the AL East just so I don't have to listen to insufferable Yankees fans (or is that redundant?) all off season.
4. More miracles from Baseball Jesus -- I know it's still baseball, but Stephen Strasburg deserves his own bullet point. Through three games, the Washington Nationals new starting pitcher looks like some unholy amalgam of Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Cy Young. Striking out 32 guys in 18 innings of work would be a hell of an achievement for baseball's best veteran pitcher. Stiking out 32 batters in  your first 18 innings of work? That's a miracle. Hence Strasburg's Baseball Jesus nickname. The last guy who was anywhere close to this dominant at the start of his career was Bob Feller. If World War II hadn't cut Feller's career short, he'd probably be the yardstick we use to gauge pitching excellence today. Stasburg's potential is unbelievable. It will be fascinating to see if he can keep this up all summer.
5.Congressional races heat up - We've got two tight Congressional races in Virginia, in the 2nd and 5th districts, that could go a long way toward determining which party controls the House of Representatives after November. In an interesting turn of events the Republican nominees in both races, who've spent the last six months trying to appeal to Tea Party activists, are trying to keep independent candidates associated with the Tea Party out of debates for the general election. It's easy to see why they'd want to do that. The Republican primary in Virginia's 1st District, in which Rep. Rob Wittman handily beat Tea Partier Catherine Crabill, demonstrated that about 10% of the Republican electorate is stone crazy and will vote for a candidate who advocates violent revolution and mutters about putting Congressmen in front of firing squads. While 10% of the Republican electorate might not sound like much, it could mean as much as 5% of the vote in the general election. Which could be enough to tip either of the close elections in the 2nd and 5th and send an embattled Democratic incumbent back to Washington with a plurality victory. We won't have much a race in the 1st. Nothing against Democratic nominee Krystal Ball. No Democrat can win the 1st as its currently drawn, just as no Republican could win the 3rd or the 8th.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Bob McDonnell's Speakeasy

Like a Prohibition-era speakeasy, you apparently need to know the password to get into the room where Gov. Bob McDonnell's real plan to privatize Virginia's liquor stores will be hatched.

And if you are a member of the public you are definitely not invited.

Although the governor, with a great deal of hype, named an august bi-partisan commission to review and streamline state government, which was expected to come up with the privatization plan, that's not going to be the case.

That body, which holds public meetings, might prove too independent.

Instead the governor's plan will be hashed out by a small working group, meeting behind closed doors with the governor's policy staff and then presented to the larger commission for its rubber stamp.

If you want to get into that inner sanctum where the real privatization plan is being served, you'll need the password. And it's apparenlty, "I'm with the booze industry." Aside from a few representatives of the Religious Right and McDonnell staffers, the working group is made up entirely of representatives of distillers, alcohol distributors and beer and wine retailers.

Maybe I'm just a cynic, but I have a hard time believing they'll have the taxpayers' interests at heart.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Mind your own damned business

“If I want to honky tonk around 'til two or three
Now, brother that's my headache, don't you worry 'bout me.
Just mind your own business
(Mind your own business)
If you mind your business, then you won't be mindin' mine”
-Mind Your Own Business
By Hank Williams (the real one)

Minding your own business is a concept that’s gone completely out of fashion in America, with consequences for our commerce, our culture, our politics and our government.

The right to be left alone, all though it got left out of the Constitution somehow, is one Americans have always cherished. And, in fact, it wasn’t so much left out of the Bill of Rights as more politely stated. The net effect of the first sixth amendments is to spell out that the government, unless it has a good reason to intervene, should leave us alone. The Ninth Amendment points out that the rights spelled out in the preceding eight amendments are not be taken as an all inclusive list. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade confirmed the existence of a constitutional right to privacy.

But that doesn’t mean we really have any privacy in this day and age.

Recently Facebook was embroiled in controversy over changes to its privacy policy that made it easier for users' information to be accessed by a third party. That’s not a surprise.

I’m a latecomer to Facebook, but I quickly became addicted to it. I’ve gotten in touch with friends I’d thought forever lost, renewed old friendships and learned that some people I’d thought of as merely acquaintances were much more interesting than I’d previously known. It’s an interesting source of off- beat news and more than a little humor. I’m a pretty happy Facebook user.

But I never expected the company to do much to protect my privacy. That’s because their whole business model is to sell their users’ data to advertisers. They don’t charge you to use the service. You aren’t their customer. You are their product. The idea is that if advertisers know what you like, who your friends are and what they like, they’ll be better able to design advertising that will appeal to you.

I’ve got my doubts about how well that works. I’m not sure too many American of average intelligence or better who are over 12-years-old believe anything they see in advertisements. After all, modern Americans are deluged with advertising 24-hours a day, from the cradle to the grave. It makes most of us a little cynical. Maybe a lot cynical.

After an uproar from Facebook users, the company walked its privacy policy changes back. A little. Call me cynical, but I expect they’ll slip the revised policies through in the future. Because their real clients want them.

Apparently we’re not so cynical that we don’t cling to the belief that we should have some privacy. Even in the age of Google – where you can find out practically anything about practically anyone – we cling to the notion that other people should have the good manners to mind their own business.

Even if we aren’t minding our own.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Going to Hell in a handbasket

     First, did you ever notice that nobody ever goes anywhere else in a handbasket? Apparently, handbaskets are an even more inefficient transportation system than Virginia's highways, which only take you from one pothole to the next.

Now, let's count the ways that the world is going to Hell this week.

  1. The BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast: As crude oil washes into Louisiana wetlands and threatens the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida, it's apparent that this is an environmental catastrophe on a scale we haven't seen before. And, so far, BP's repeated efforts plug the hole have all failed. The frustrating thing about this situation is that only the industry that caused this disaster has the know-how to fix it. The federal government does not, although they've assembled a team of experts and big thinkers including, believe it or not, "Titanic" and "Avatar" director James Cameron, to brainstorm solutions. We might profitably ask why we let a foreign company operate a well with the potentially disatrous effects of this one off our coast, at least without a better plan as to what to do should something go wrong. Because something will always go wrong. Technology isn't perfect. It's made by humans. A sound "Plan B" would have gone a long way in this situation. The answer to that is that the oil industry and the people who are supposed to be regulating the oil industry have had way to cozy a relationship for at least the last 30 years. The spill has become a political issue, with Republicans looking to make it "Barack Obama's Katrina." While there's nothing Obama, or any other president, could have done to prevent the spill, his response has been weak. He should be threatening to seize all of BP's assets to pay for clean up of the spill and to compensate those damaged by BP's failure to properly operate their well. He's continuing to be "no drama Obama" when the country could use a little fire and drama from its chief executive. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the spill is that it has put the brakes on plans to drill off the coast of Virginia. So Virginia Beach will be spared the devastation currently going on on the Gulf Coast. I'm not all that "green." I could have been persuaded that drilling off the coast made sense. But that would have required a reasoned analysis showing that potential benefits to the Commonwealth outweighed the potential risks. In the rush to "drill, baby, drill," that analysis was simply not done. Maybe now oil industry advocates will realize that a slogan does not an energy policy make.
  2. Israel's botched raid on the "humanitarian aid" flotilla to Gaza: Israel is one of our major allies and, like the U.S., sometimes they make it hard to root for them even though you know they are the good guys.  Boarding the ships taking aid to Gaza in contravention of an Israeli blockade was an extreme reaction and probably caused more public relations damage to the Israeli cause than the negligible security benefits warranted. That said, it's important to remember that Israel is involved in a seemingly endless war with an enemy that believes using suicide bombs to blow up children and indiscriminantly firing missles into civilian settlements are legitimate means to wage war.
  3. Rand Paul: Republicans in Kentucky really just nominated a candidate for the U.S. Senate who disagrees with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically Paul, the son of former GOP presidential aspirant Rep. Ron Paul, disagrees with the portion of the law that forbids private businesses from discriminating as to who they will serve. He thinks restaurants and hotels, for instance, should have the right to refuse to serve patrons on the basis of race. He's wrong. He's not just morally wrong and logically wrong, he's legally wrong. That issue was argued thoroughly before the Supreme Court after the Civil Rights Act passed. Paul's side lost. But he's likely to win his bid for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by senile baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, because Kentucky is a very red state.
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