Monday, February 26, 2007

Politics at the Oscars®

Most years, I make a point of avoiding watching the Academy Awards® (and all the other award shows, too), but this year I watched, and I was rewarded with several moments of political note. Vice President Al Gore was there, of course, because An Inconvenient Truth was nominated in several categories, but he also co-presented an award with Leonardo diCaprio. Immediately afterwards, Leo asked Al if he didn't have some other major announcement he wanted to make, while the whole world was watching. Mr. Gore said that he hadn't really planned to, but Leonardo was so convincing, so, "My fellow Americans..." Just then, the orchestra swelled and played him off the stage. Through the rest of the telecast, no announcement of political candidacy was forthcoming. Later, when Melissa Etheridge won for best song, also for An Inconvenient Truth, she started off by thanking her wife and their four kids for their support. In a sane world, that would be par for the course, but in the polarized climate of American politics, with equal rights for gay Americans being used as a wedge issue by cynics pandering to bigotry, it was unmistakably a political statement. What I was left with most, though, was the thought of what a "dream team" I might assemble for the Al Gore White House.

I would put Barack Obama in as V.P., giving him a seat to gain the experience he will need to be a successful President in some future election. There's always the danger of having the running mate outshine the nominee in charisma, but, first of all, Al Gore isn't nearly the dead fish he was in 2000, and second, I think we need to have a little "audacity of hope" in the White House as a counterbalance to Darth Cheney's legacy. Barack Obama has the ability to inspire a lot of people to be excited about politics, and specifically about Democratic politics.

I want Hillary Clinton to be the Secretary of State. Hillary wouldn't be the first woman Secretary of State — I have great admiration for Madeleine Albright, and Condoleezza Rice is female — but I think she'd be an excellent choice. The public face of diplomacy is all smiles and curtsies and "Your excellency," but behind that veneer we need someone who is a solid dealmaker, somebody who can bring a mix of brass knuckles, a sugar tongue, and a horse trader's knack for splitting the difference. As polarized as the American people are towards Hillary Clinton, it's clear that on the world stage she could sit down with friend and foe alike and hammer out some solutions. I'd like to see her tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for humanitarian reasons, but also because it is a thorn that continues to fester anti-American sentiment around the world. I'd also like to see her work on repairing our relationships with our allies, and on building better relations with the "people on the street" in countries whose governments are aligned with us but whose citizens hate us. We have to realize that the terrorists will never be defeated as long as they can vanish into a sympathetic crowd, and that means we need more than just official cooperation. We need a broad willingness on the part of the people of Pakistan to turn in Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, for example.

I previously endorsed Joe Biden for President, primarily because of his experience in foreign policy. Unfortunately, his longshot candidacy took a big step backwards on its opening day with his badly misphrased compliment to Barack Obama, pushing him more into the "snowball's prayer" category with Governor Vilsack. However, I want to see his experience put to good use. The position that comes to mind is National Security Advisor. It's a less public role than he's used to — he'll probably spend much less time on the Sunday morning talk shows — but I think his keen eye and wealth of experience would enable him to give the President solid advice on where the threats are, where we should apply hard pressure, and where we should use soft power and diplomacy.

For Secretary of Defense, I would put forward General Wesley Clark, but under 10 USC 113(a) he's ineligible until 2010. (The SecDef must not have been an active-duty member of the armed forces for at least 10 years; General Clark retired in 2000.) He could certainly serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, bringing some much-needed gravitas to that post, to ensure that the lip service paid by the Bush Administration to "supporting our troops" doesn't evaporate, leaving our veterans in the lurch. Another strong possibility for Secretary of Veterans Affairs would be someone like Tammy Duckworth.

I would put Bill Richardson back in his chair as Secretary of Energy, but task him specifically with moving America dramatically towards energy independence. Our long-term homeland security is hopelessly undermined by our dependence on foreign oil, especially from such volatile regions as the Middle East and Africa. We need a bold and broadly based initiative, with a strong emphasis on federally funded basic research but also with an eye towards commercial viability. Balancing those demands will require the kind of experience that Bill Richardson could bring to the job.

There are still some significant blanks to fill in — Treasury, Attorney General, Homeland Security, Labor, HHS, HUD, and others — and I'm very aware that I've only named one woman (plus an alternate) so far, although State is a major post. My point, though, isn't to put forward a specific list, but rather to illustrate the kind of caliber of competence and gravitas that the Democrats need to demonstrate in order to be taken seriously as a party that can tackle the many problems facing the United States in the 21st century.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

DVD Pet Peeve

I bought a couple of DVDs the other day. To my consternation, in spite of taking what I thought was reasonable care to get the items I wanted, I got the "full-screen" versions instead of the "wide-screen" versions. The problem is that many titles are issued on separate discs for the two formats, compounded by having "rated" and "unrated" versions of the same film. It's not unusual to have four different slots on the shelf for the same movie, without even getting into the newer formats like Blu-Ray or HD-DVD. The studios go to some lengths to make sure you can distinguish the "unrated" version, but they seem to go to equal lengths to make it difficult to tell the aspect ratio. On one of the discs I bought, the only indication that I wasn't getting the wide-screen version were the words FULL SCREEN on the side (nowhere on the front!) of the package. Only the copyright notice was in smaller type.

It's particularly frustrating when the solution is so simple and so unbelievably obvious: just create some little icons for the different aspect ratios. I banged out the graphics above in about two minutes, but, even at half size, they would make it easy to tell at a glance whether you had the right format. So why the obfuscation?

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pardon our dust

The Third Path, along with much of the Blogspot community, is in the midst of migrating to a "new and improved" system, which should result in faster page loading and all sorts of other good things. Unfortunately, in the interim, a few features (article summaries, hit counter, Google ads) are in need of some tweaking. Your patience is appreciated.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

War Debate

The U.S. House of Representatives today began its debate on a resolution expressing no confidence in President Bush's "surge" proposal. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R–San Diego County, CA) said this:

Our soldiers are engaged in combat right now. The worst disservice we can give to them right now is to retroactively blast and degrade the mission that they are currently undertaking. There is no good role, there is no good purpose, that is served by this, so I would ask all my colleagues, let's get behind not only our troops, let's get behind their mission. Let's vote no on this resolution. — Rep. Duncan Hunter (R–CA) 2007-02-13
Congressman Hunter's comment is absurd and insulting to the troops and to the American people. The reality is that the mission on which our troops have been sent needs to be changed, because it can never succeed. The prospect of success is zero — not remote, not even snowball's prayer, but zero. The time to talk of "winning" in Iraq has come and gone and will never return. The mission our troops are on was ill-conceived, inadequately planned, inadequately staffed, inadequately provisioned, incompetently executed by the White House and the Pentagon, and fundamentally misguided. The overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people — along with the overwhelming majority of the American people — believe that the best way forward for the United States is to do an about-face on this mission and withdraw our troops. The greatest disservice we can ever do to our troops is to leave them in an untenable position when we know that their mission needs to be scrapped.

If your mission is to knock down a brick wall by banging it with your head, your lack of success isn't from lack of will, it's from having undertaken a stupid mission. The lack of success our troops have had in bringing long-term stability to Iraq isn't from lack of dedication, nor is it from lack of support on the home front. It is because the mission is wrong. It is wrong to believe that U.S. military force can stabilize Iraq, now or a decade from now.

How exactly does it serve our troops to pretend that there is nothing wrong with the mission on which they have been dispatched? That sounds like the rhetoric of left-wing educators advocating "social promotion" because it would hurt the schoolchildren's feelings to tell them when they haven't made the grade. If you can't give me any better reason than "troop morale" for holding my tongue on criticizing the mission, then it is you, not I, who fail in supporting the troops.

The good purpose served by criticizing the mission is that it serves the necessary goal of changing the mission. The bottom line is, you either support the mission or you support the troops — you cannot do both! The Congress must pass this non-binding resolution against the surge in order to then begin the work of taking real action to reverse the Bush Administration's course in Iraq.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

NCMEC ditches Billo

Bill O'Reilly, host of The O'Reilly Factor on the Fox Noise Channel [as Keith Olbermann calls it], has repeatedly and insistently questioned what prevented Shawn Hornbeck — the Missouri boy who was kidnapped, abused, and raped over a 4-year period — from escaping from his captor. I have said in this blog that the detailed answer is undoubtedly complicated, but the short answer from Shawn himself is that he was terrified. Bill O'Reilly, though, maintains that Shawn must have, at least on some level, enjoyed his captivity. Billo's outrageous statements led the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to cancel a scheduled appearance by Billo at a NCMEC fundraiser. I say kudos to NCMEC.

We know that Shawn Hornbeck was given considerable freedom of movement and at least some access to the Internet. Given that his alleged captor had a full-time job, there were countless occasions in the course of four years that Shawn was left unsupervised. It would only have taken one phone call to 911 or to his parents' home. Why on earth didn't he take advantage of even just one of those many opportunities to escape? What held him back?

Bill O'Reilly and others, including one commenter on my previous article, discount or even dismiss the notion that Shawn was paralyzed by fear, preferring the easy answer that "he must've liked it." Let me ask you something: which is more plausible?

  1. Shawn was terrified for 4½ years, without interruption

  2. Shawn was having a great time for 4½ years, without interruption
Simply put, a kid will get bored, annoyed, pissed off at his parent (or pseudo-parent), and any number of other emotions that don't fit the framework of "having a great time." Heck, kids in loving families often run away at that age, even if it's only for a few hours. The idea that Shawn was having a terrific time playing hooky for 1,558 days, without anything more than a momentary pang of nostalgia for his family, just doesn't pass the most basic plausibility test for anyone who has ever been or ever known a teenager. On the other hand, it is (sadly) entirely plausible that a boy of that age could be terrified practically every one of those 2.2 million minutes.

Let's go back to the core question: why didn't Shawn run away when it seems such an obvious thing to do? In college, I participated in a peer-to-peer counseling program. One of the first things in the training was the admonition to avoid giving facile advice. Ask yourself this: if the solution to the problem is really that obvious and that trivial, then why is the person looking for advice? There must be some complication that you haven't heard about yet. The same goes for leaping to the facile conclusion that Shawn didn't run away from Michael Devlin because he didn't want to escape. There has to be some other element in the equation. Shawn may not be Einstein, but he's not an imbecile, either. We know that Shawn knew that his parents were still searching for him, because we know he visited the web site they set up. We know that one of the neighbors asked him directly if he was Shawn Hornbeck. We know that Shawn was allowed outside with a bicycle. He apparently had means, motive, and opportunity to escape. However, we also know that Shawn was snatched by a child predator — something no one would ever wish for — and we know that his alleged captor has been criminally charged with sexually abusing Shawn. Given those facts, does it make more sense to say that there was something "not right" with Shawn, or that there was something "not right" with his abductor? Even the fact that Shawn apparently had a certain rapport with Devlin doesn't discount the claim that he was too terrified to make any attempt at escape, and I'm not necessarily talking about "Stockholm Syndrome."

Bill O'Reilly's comments about Shawn Devlin were so offensive, so inhumane, so insensitive, and so profoundly inappropriate, that the NCMEC had no choice but to disinvite him. Having Bill O'Reilly speak about missing and exploited children would have as bad as having Mark Foley, the former chair of the House Republican caucus on missing and exploited children.

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