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Notes and observations on the press, politics, culture, technology, and more. To sign up for e-mail delivery, click here. To send an e-mail to Dan Kennedy, click here. For bio, published work, and links to other blogs, visit www.dankennedy.net. For information on Dan Kennedy's book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes (Rodale, October 2003), click here.

Friday, January 31, 2003

Myths and images from a strange mind. Nearly 100 percent of what I know about the literary critic Leslie Fiedler comes from reading the obituaries in today's New York Times and Boston Globe. I love the detail that he once attended a Bob Dylan concert with O.J. Simpson -- surely a better choice than, say, attending an O.J. film festival with Mr. Z.

Last year, while doing research for my book on dwarfism, I came across Fiedler's Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978). I wasn't able to do much with it. As Jacqueline Ann Clipsham, an artist and political activist who's also a dwarf, has written, Freaks is "a horrendous book, not about people with disabilities but unwittingly about the author's own narcissism and prejudicial fears."

This morning, in looking over the notes I'd taken on Freaks, I came across one passage I thought was worth sharing. Mind you, I'm not endorsing it. But it is a pretty good example of an unusual mind at work. Fielder is writing about the transition of the dwarf community from a gaggle of Freaks (his word, and his capitalization) to an organized interest group, from jesters, sideshow performers, and even gods to agitators for normality and equal rights. He continues:

Looking back over their five thousand years of recorded history, it seems to me that the Dwarfs are, in a real sense, the Jews of the Freaks: the most favored, the most successful, the most conspicuous and articulate; but by the same token, the most feared and reviled, not only in gossip and the popular press, but in enduring works of art, the Great Books and Great Paintings of the West. They have been, in short, a "Chosen People," which is to say, a people with no choice at all; but they have begun, like the children of Israel, to choose at least to choose. How appropriate, then, that they, who began their escape from oppression via the back doors of the great courts of Europe and have prospered in show business in America, take the lead now in organizing for mutual defense, consciousness-raising, and social action.

If, like some Jews, some of them long to disappear into the "normal" world around them, even this seems to me finally fitting and proper.

Odd stuff. To me, at least, this sort of thing sounds thought-provoking, but means little or nothing when you hold it up to scrutiny.

posted at 9:54 AM | link

Thursday, January 30, 2003

"Shock and Awe" and death and revenge. Today's Phoenix includes a column I wrote on the media's one-dimensional reaction to Monday's reports by UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei. There's one point I want to expand on -- a report, which I found on Dan "Tom Tomorrow" Perkins's weblog, that the Pentagon has already decided to open the war against Iraq by bombing Baghdad into a pile of rubble, occupied by no one except the dead.

According to the CBS News report that Perkins cites (via a story in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald), the strategy has been labeled "Shock and Awe." I found this description on a Department of Defense website, ascribing it to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. But what the Pentagon has in mind goes way, way beyond what those military thinkers ever could have imagined. The Herald piece continues:

... between 300 and 400 cruise missiles would fall on Iraq each day for two consecutive days. It would be more than twice the number of missiles launched during the entire 40 days of the 1991 Gulf War.

"There will not be a safe place in Baghdad," a Pentagon official told America's CBS News after a briefing on the plan. "The sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before."

The idea, according to the Herald, is to break the Iraqi people "physically, emotionally and psychologically." (The paper uses quotation marks around this phrase, but the attribution is unclear.) This is sick, outrageous, and -- more to the point -- completely counter to US interests.

The original CBS News report contains still more horrifying details:

The battle plan is based on a concept developed at the National Defense University. It's called "Shock and Awe" and it focuses on the psychological destruction of the enemy's will to fight rather than the physical destruction of his military forces.

"We want them to quit. We want them not to fight," says Harlan Ullman, one of the authors of the Shock and Awe concept which relies on large numbers of precision guided weapons.

"So that you have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes," says Ullman.

Think about this: Ullman is explicitly saying that the US is willing to kill vast numbers of Iraqi civilians in order to terrify the Iraqi military into surrendering. Am I twisting this? Is the real intent to destroy buildings while sparing lives? Well, look again. It's Ullman who makes the Hiroshima analogy. I assume he was choosing his words carefully.

It is difficult for someone with no background in military matters to speak out about such things, but each of us has an obligation to think hard and not remain silent. Remember, they're doing this in our name. I oppose George W. Bush's obsession with invading Iraq. But let's face it, it's going to happen. There are ways to do it that would enhance our international reputation, bringing down Saddam -- one of the worst people on the face of the earth -- and doing it with a minimal loss of civilian lives. The Iraqi people would be liberated, sanctions would be lifted, and rebuilding would commence. (And Saddam might blow up his oil fields, launch missiles at Israel, and dispatch terror teams to the US.)

Trouble is, the right way to do it might involve the deaths of more American troops than would "Shock and Awe." Thus it's a terrible argument that I am trying to make: that it is worth the lives of some unknown number of US soldiers in order to avoid a holocaust in Baghdad. What an offensive, arrogant thing to say! To which I respond, if this war can't be prevented, then we should at least do it in such a way that will result in the fewest American casualties -- not four weeks from now, but over the next 20 years.

The reaction of the Iraqi people, and of the Arab world in general, will depend a lot on whether the US behaves as a liberator, or as an imperialist power bent on wreaking "Shock and Awe."

In his State of the Union message this week, Bush spoke of the hypothetical threat of an Iraqi terrorist team entering the US with a small quantity of weapons of mass destruction, the sort of weapons that could take many more lives than the attacks of 9/11.

"Shock and Awe" would surely make such an attack more likely.

posted at 10:32 AM | link

Romney buys time. So Governor Mitt Romney bought himself another month, announcing last night that his cuts for the current fiscal year won't be nearly as bad as what he had led us to believe a couple of weeks ago (gee, what a surprise), and putting off until late February or early March his proposal to reorganize state government. That gives him another few weeks to figure out how he's going to explain that his reorg won't accomplish much, and that he really is going to have to slash "core" services, raise taxes, or both.

But give the governor a break. There's no such thing as a bad day when it includes MDC commissioner David Balfour's being told to hit the bricks. Even better, Romney wants to do away with the MDC entirely. (Click here for Globe coverage, and here for the Herald's take.)

Meanwhile, the Globe's Frank Phillips today has a useful analysis of how inaccessible Romney has proved to be, especially when compared to his four immediate predecessors -- Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republicans Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, and Jane Swift. To update Harry Truman, Romney already knows he can't stand the heat, so he's staying out of the kitchen.

posted at 10:31 AM | link

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Seen but not spoken of. More tax cuts for the rich? Well, what did you expect? War with Iraq? Whatever. The real news in last night's State of the Union address was in what President Bush didn't do. For the first time in nearly a generation, the president eschewed the treacly practice of introducing the guests who get invited to sit with the first lady.

Last year, in his first State of the Union address, Bush had no choice: the wounds of 9/11 were still raw. He paid tribute to Shannon Spann, the widow of CIA agent Michael Spann, who was killed during an attempted jail break in Afghanistan; the newly installed Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, and his minister of women's affairs; and the flight attendants who stopped would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

This time, though, his guests were seen but not acknowledged. And thus a cheap publicity stunt begun two decades ago by Ronald Reagan, and continued by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, was finally brought to a close, if only for one year. George W. may yet ruin the country, but at least he restored a bit of dignity to a solemn occasion.

posted at 10:48 AM | link

What was he thinking? I'm still trying to wrap my brain around something that Syracuse University television scholar Robert Thompson told the Globe's Mark Jurkowitz, who weighs in today with a piece on new 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager. Noting that 60 Minutes' ratings have been falling during the last few years of the Don Hewitt era, Thompson said, ''Once 24-hour cable television kicked in, 60 Minutes couldn't stay in the same cultural positioning it once had.''

Now what, exactly, is Thompson referring to? The lamebrained idiocy of the Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes? The tabloid trash of Connie Chung's show on CNN? The breathless efforts of the well-meaning Phil Donahue as he fails in his attempt to prove to MSNBC that he's still relevant?

There are a few good shows on cable news, but not many, and precisely zero with the deep reporting of 60 Minutes. Or perhaps Thompson was thinking of MSNBC Investigates, with its hard-hitting stories on tattoos and -- gasp! -- the shocking things that are picked up by in-store security cameras.

As Fager himself told Jurkowitz: "It's amazing how much crap makes it on TV."

posted at 10:47 AM | link

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Farewell to David Shribman. The Globe's soon-to-be-former Washington-bureau chief, David Shribman, has his last weekly "National Perspective" column in today's edition. It's a moving piece about his uncle, who was killed on a PT boat in World War II, and the relevance of his heroism to the all-but-certain war with Iraq. Whether you agree with Shribman's conclusion will depend, in part, on where you stand on President Bush's aggressive foreign policy:

At stake are not only the freedoms that the nation was founded on and the freedoms that generations of Americans have fought to add to our national culture, but also, as the World War II generation used to put it in an evocative shorthand, the right to boo the Dodgers. At stake are all those things, plus -- and this is what makes our home-front war different -- the right to go to a Dodgers game or to the mall or to the airport in safety.

I don't buy Shribman's notion -- suggested but not quite explicitly stated -- that Bush's eagerness to launch a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein is the moral equivalent of World War II. But his appreciation for his uncle's sacrifice is beyond argument.

Shribman now assumes the reins as executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and will continue writing a weekly column. According to the Globe, that column will appear on the Globe's op-ed page "periodically." Well, gee. Shribman is one of a tiny handful of columnists ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for the Globe, and he's got local roots as well, having grown up on the North Shore. If the man's going to write a weekly column, you'd think it would be a no-brainer for Globe editorial-page editor Renée Loth to run 'em all.

posted at 9:22 AM | link

Backhanded compliment. An odd column today from the Herald's Wayne Woodlief, who devotes half his space to an analysis of how Governor Mitt Romney is handling the budget crisis. Woodlief praises Romney for his "fast and stylish start," but what appears to impress Woodlief most is Romney's ... disingenuousness:

Romney and his aides are playing a great game of good-cop, bad-cop on some $500 million in cuts the governor is set to make this week to meet an emergency revenue shortfall in the state budget for the fiscal year that ends in June.

In orchestrated leaks to the press, aides revealed that Romney has decided against cuts in basic education aid under Chapter 70 to some poorer schools (of course, the state might have been sued on constitutional grounds if they had been cut) -- and also rejected slashes in money for veterans.

Yeah, great job, Mitt. Woodlief might also have noted that Romney got elected, at least in part, by being the only candidate for governor last year to claim that there wouldn't be a budget crisis in the first place.

posted at 9:21 AM | link

Who's a neocon? Regarding my post yesterday on the antitrust investigation of the LA Weekly and the now-defunct New Times LA, reader CS writes: "First Meyerson, and now you. Whatever else NT was, it was NEVER -- by any stretch of the imagination -- neocon. Jeez!"

I should have made it more explicit that I was attributing that judgment to LA Weekly columnist Harold Meyerson. As a side note, I am reliably told that Meyerson is, indeed, still at the American Prospect as editor-at-large, and that his position at the Weekly is strictly part-time. The LA Times' description of Meyerson as the Weekly's executive editor was wrong.

posted at 9:19 AM | link

Monday, January 27, 2003

The politics of media antitrust enforcement. The Justice Department's decision to end its antitrust probe of the alt-weekly chains Village Voice Media and New Times Media -- and to settle on the cheap -- raises some troubling questions.

On the one hand, the deal that the two chains reached last fall would appear to be classic collusion. Each agreed to shut down a weekly paper rather than continue to compete. New Times closed New Times LA, a market long dominated by the Voice-owned LA Weekly. In Cleveland, Voice Media stopped publishing its Cleveland Free Times, ceding the market to New Times's Cleveland Scene. Moreover, Voice Media paid New Times a reported $8 million for its LA disappearing act; New Times, in return, paid a much smaller sum to Voice Media for the Cleveland deal.

On the other hand, you've got to wonder what the motivation was for John Ashcroft's Justice Department to get involved. As Richard Karpel, executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, told the NY Times' David Carr, it is indeed "odd that the government decided it must prevent two small newspapers from closing after it stood on the sidelines for years as the AOL Time Warners of the world swallowed entire industries."

I'm not about to start criticizing any effort by regulators to do something, at long last, about media consolidation. But as Tim Rutten reported in Saturday's Los Angeles Times, there are reasons to believe that Justice's unprecedented quick action had as much to do with politics as it did with the economics of antitrust law. The LA Weekly's respected political analyst, Harold Meyerson, reports the details in a column this week.

The key passage in Meyerson's piece is his assertion that "according to people close to the case to whom I've spoken, the government is concerned that the assisted suicide of New Times in Los Angeles reflects a narrowing of political perspectives in the city, and that it is the government's responsibility to create more ideological space." This is, as Meyerson observes, a breathtakingly broad view of antitrust law." Both the late New Times LA and the LA Weekly are free papers; the law is intended not to protect political viewpoints but, rather, advertisers, who would presumably be hurt by the monopolization of the alt-weekly market in a given community.

If that sounds crass, consider the absurdity of requiring publishers to keep putting out free papers, against their will, in order to protect a certain political viewpoint. Yet the Justice Department may have come perilously close to doing just that, particularly in LA, one of the nation's leading media capitals. Surely it's no coincidence that New Times took a neoconservative stance, and that the LA Weekly is a left-leaning paper. And surely it's no coincidence that -- as Carr reports -- Voice Media, as a result of the settlement with Justice, had to agree to help former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan launch a new conservative weekly in Los Angeles later this year.

By the way, what's the deal with Meyerson? It's 5:45 a.m. on the West Coast as I write this, so I'm not going to call him up. But has his incredibly shrinking job with the American Prospect shrunk still further? Meyerson was hired away from LA in June 2001 in order to become the executive editor of the Prospect. Rutten's LA Times piece describes him as the "executive editor" of the LA Weekly, the job he held before moving to Washington. But the Weekly's online masthead describes Meyerson as the paper's "political editor," a position he could presumably hold while continuing to work at the Prospect. And the Prospect's Meyerson bio calls him the magazine's "editor-at-large," the position he assumed last year because (a) it was just an incredibly wonderful opportunity or (b) he had clashed one too many times with co-editor Robert Kuttner.

Inquiring minds want to know: did Rutten make a mistake, or has Meyerson packed up his bags and moved back to LA?

posted at 9:09 AM | link

Paranoia runs deep. Reader YH told me to check out the latest from Peggy Noonan on OpinionJournal.com. It includes this passage:

Four months ago a friend who had recently met with the president on other business reported to me that in conversation the president had said that he has been having some trouble sleeping, and that when he awakes in the morning the first thing he often thinks is: I wonder if this is the day Saddam will do it....

Which begs the question, what does Mr. Bush know that he hasn't said about Saddam's intentions and ability to strike America?

Of course, Noonan is prepared to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt, and then some. What's interesting, though, is that even a sycophant such as Noonan acknowledges that Bush hasn't even begun to make a case for why war is necessary. What seems not to have occurred to her is that perhaps there isn't a reasonable case to make.

posted at 9:09 AM | link

A strong critique of the MCAS. Boston Herald political editor Joe Sciacca today has a good column on what's wrong with the MCAS, arguing that high-stakes testing makes no sense in a time of deep cuts in the education budget. And he offers this advice to Governor Mitt Romney: "If the governor truly wants to do something bold, he will revisit MCAS and ask, honestly, whether it is realistic to pump resources into a single and expensive high-stakes test at the expense of overall educational quality."

posted at 9:08 AM | link


Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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