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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Coups are dumb

Julie Beth is half of Friday Chick Blogging. You can read more of her at It's an Outrage.

Allow me to repeat: Coups are dumb.

Let's examine the logic here. Or rather, not here, but in Thailand. Some People (not Everyone, not even close to Everyone) think their democratically-elected leader is bogus, a fraud, a bad man, a lying, cheating son of a bitch. It certainly sounds like he might be. I'll give that to Some People, if they'll grant me that George W. Bush is a lying, cheating ... well, you get it.

So Some People say, "This isn't democracy. This isn't the way it's supposed to work. We want democracy!"

Some People happen to have access to very large guns and tanks and plenty of yellow ribbon.

And in rabid pursuit of democracy, they use their weapons and pretty bows to surround the houses of government in the middle of the night while the Bad Man is out of town. Then, these self-proclaimed democracy lovers instantly rip up the constitution and warn the press that they will be arrested for saying or printing anything that interferes with Some People's ability to assemble a new, democratic government. Which might take a year or so. But in the meantime, no more than five people are allowed to assemble for political purposes, because that's what democracies call "a redress of grievances" and Some People can't have that. After all, they just redressed the grievances of Everyone for them.

How nice of Some People to take the initiative. Isn't it great how that works out for you, Some People?

Coups are dumb.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Love, hate and low prices

(updated below)

Despite my dislike for Chicago's big-box-retailer law, among my friends and family I'm a well-known Wal-Mart hater. The only two times I've ever shopped there were in Scottsbluff, Nebraska and White Sands, New Mexico — sometimes, there's just nowhere else to buy firewood.

But ever since I first heard the argument that Wal-Mart's low prices actually help the poor more than enough to make up for its low wages, I've been a bit waffly. I love the idea of capitalism making people's lives better just by letting the market work its magic.

Hear yea, hear yea, behold the power of the free market: $4 prescription drugs!
Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, said it would begin selling generic versions of widely prescribed drugs to its workers and customers at sharply reduced prices, a move that could force rival pharmacies to do the same.

The giant discount chain, which has used its size to knock down the costs of toys, clothing and groceries, will sell 300 generic drugs for as low as $4 for a one-month supply. On average, generic drugs cost between $10 and $30 for a 30-day prescription.
I'm big on the power of technology to improve the lives of the world's less fortunate, whether they're living in the inner city or Sub-Saharan Africa. Though most its ability to offer lower prices comes from the leverage of being the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart has also done a lot to revolutionize logistics. You can guarantee no one knows how to move toilet paper from California to Connecticut for less than they do. That's what's happened here — Wal-Mart claims the drug savings are coming from making the supply-chain more efficient, rather than from pressuring manufacturers.

Since the federal government abdicated its role in bargaining with drug companies for lower Medicare drug prices, I guess it's up to Wal-Mart to save our healthcare system. Maybe they can start offering $10 checkups, too.

Goddamn you, Wal-Mart. Life was so much easier when I could just hate you in peace.


Target is going to match Wal-Mart's generic drug prices. Boo-ya.

I guess we shouldn't get too carried away with the significance of this. The discounted drugs will mainly benefit those who pay for their drugs themselves, rather than through insurance. CVS, the nation's largest drugstore chain, says that cash sales represent less than less than 0.5 percent of its pharmacy sales. But it's a start.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

This ain't Mickey Mouse

Oh, don't blow your top.
It's come to my attention that the Iranian Holocaust Cartoon Contest is not as widely-known as I assumed.

After the furor over the Muhammad cartoons earlier this year, many angry Muslims stressed that the West was hypocritical regarding freedom of speech, citing that Western media is quick to publish offensive renderings of the Prophet but would never print anything against the Holocaust.

In response to this, Iran ran a cartoon contest this past spring, asking people to send in cartoons about the Holocaust, offering rewards and opening a museum display specifically to showcase the best. Their rationale was that the Holocaust is an "unmentionable" subject in the West, and that this cartoon contest would not get much press.

In the end, it proved true that the Holocaust cartoon contest went mostly ignored by Western media (especially compared to coverage the Muhammad drawings) for any number of possible reasons: no following riots, global exhaustion with controversial cartoons, general Western squeamishness about Holocaust banter.

But instead of exploring these reasons today, I thought it might be interesting to show some of the better-drawn and more representative Holocaust cartoons the light of day — maybe because I'm Jewish, maybe because I'm a cartoonist, or maybe because sometimes it's constructive to grab controversy by the balls.

That being said, below are 11 of the more thought-provoking Holocaust cartoons I've seen. But this is just the tip of the iceberg; check out hundreds of Holocaust cartoons here.

A standard way of showing that Jewish actions today are the same as the Holocaust, only worse.

I'd say at least a billion people in the world believe the Holocaust is merely an excuse for UN inaction against Israel.

Jews are dung beetles and the Holocaust is a load of shit--doesn't get more straightforward than that.

The key to this is that the Holocaust hangs one Jew and the Jew hangs two Arabs, again suggesting that Israel took the Holocaust and stepped it up a notch.

This one's pretty intricate: the Holocaust elevates the Jew to a protected, lordly place, while they forbid any "needles" (probably representing "the truth") from coming near the fragile Holocaust balloon. Oh, and Arabs' heads keep the Jew balanced.

For me, the notable thing about this one is the artistic style--not the most flattering representation.

The Jew steals the wings and halo to fake goodness and victimhood. Again, what a scathing drawing! You don't see this artistic style much in West.

This one is pretty deep: the Holocaust is a prison that keeps the Palestinians down.

Uncle Sam is both Hitler (the moustache) and a Jew (the curly lock of hair). You'll see a lot of cartoons about how America is either Jewish or a tool of the Jews.

This one impresses me: no mention of the Jew at all, just shows that the Nazi legacy is making the Palestinian path brutal (I assume via the Holocaust).

Among these comics, you'll see a recurring image of this "world" character, obviously representing the entire world outside of Jews and Arabs. The "world" is often shown to be simple, misguided or distracted from today's harsh reality.

Respect rankings

The Respect Rankings are the brainchild of Billy Joe Mills and Brian Pierce at Urbanagora, a list of those politicians who best embody what you're looking for in a public official.

While Billy Joe's list is based on "respect, integrity, character and honesty," I'm a pragmatist. The politicians I respect are not necessarily those who are most morally upstanding, or ideologically pure, or even honest — they're generally the ones who are the most effective. While not being complete assholes.

I feel like I'm biting off them even more because two of my four are taken from Pierce's first list, but what can I say — he's got good taste. And yes, my liberal sensibilities are vaguely bothered that these are all white males.

Man, is this one long. In no particular order:

Mayor Richard M. Daley

To paraphrase the Stainless Steel Rat, just as a snake is a perfect snake and a lion is a perfect lion, Daley is a perfect Chicago politician. Criticizing him for being corrupt is like criticizing a snake for biting you — we knew his nature when we elected him, so no one should be surprised.

A word here about political corruption. It may be hypocritical to overlook local corruption, even on the scale of Chicago's, while harping on corruption on the national level. But there are several reasons for this.

For one, corruption on the local level, whether it's Chicago, Des Moines or Nome, is primarily concerned with greasing the wheels. With so many ingrained interests, it's almost impossible to actually get something done in Chicago without taking care of the right people. Try to clean up Chicago politics and what you'll get is ineffective government.

Corruption on the national level is much more disturbing. The most obvious reason is the sheer scale — more than $50 billion has been handed out to private companies in Iraq, with little to no oversight. That's about ten times Chicago's entire budget.

More insidiously, most federal corruption is not about hooking up a senator's boyhood friend, or getting the secretary of labor's neighbor a job. It's about rewarding your campaign contributors, mostly large corporations, by passing or rewriting fundamental legislation that effects every citizen of the country for the worse.

But back to Daley. Chicago is, to put it simply, the greatest it has ever been. The Hog Butcher to the World has been remade into a financial center, tourist mecca and burgeoning technology hub. Chicago has been designated one of the world's ten "alpha cities," and most long-time residents will tell you that the city has never been cleaner, more crime free or just damn nice to live in. I could do without some of the gentrification, but if that's the price we have to pay for the ascendancy of my city, I'll take it.

All this has come about because of Daley. He's corrupt, yes. But much more than that, he loves Chicago and ultimately does what's in the best interests of the city and its people. Some taxes dollars may go awry in the process, but the net result is positive improvements.

Plus, he's a lot like a benevolent dictator, which is my favorite form of government.

Russ Feingold

I may be a pragmatist, but I love Feingold mostly for his stubborn adherence to his principles. He's been more than willing to buck the leadership of the Democratic party, introducing a censure motion when the rest of the Democrats were (are) too pussified to say "boo" to Bush, and has been one of the few members of Congress to talk openly about impeachment.

But where he really shines is his crusading on the subject of campaign reform. I like to think of myself as a free-speech absolutist, but I guess I'm disqualified because I don't believe money equates with speech, especially in the realm of elections. Legal bribing of candidates is a must greater threat to democracy than limitations on contributions.

So I'm all down with campaign finance reform, though I understand why a lot of people on both side of the aisle (including my beloved ACLU) are against it. Whatever you think of it, however, you have to admire and respect Feingold's willingness to face re-election with self-imposed spending limits. Check out this description from Wikipedia:
During his 1998 re-election campaign, Feingold once again eschewed big-money campaigning, despite the fact that the National Republican Senatorial Committee had targeted him for defeat. Feingold placed a cap on his own fundraising, refusing to raise or spend more than $3.8 million (one dollar for every citizen of Wisconsin) during the campaign. In addition, he placed the same limits on his fundraising that he would have faced under the McCain-Feingold bill. He refused to allow his party to raise any soft money to air ads favoring him and he requested that several special interest groups, including the AFL-CIO and the League of Conservation Voters, refrain from airing pro-Feingold "issue ads." His Republican opponent, Congressman Mark Neumann, also limited himself to $3.8 million in spending, but allowed soft money to be used in his favor by a variety of pro-Republican groups. Other Democrats and supporters were angry at Feingold for "putting his career at risk" with these self-imposed limits. On election day, an extraordinarily strong showing in the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison allowed Feingold to win by around two percent.
If you wrote a "Profiles in Courage" based on elections rather than governing, that would be right up there.

Elliot Spitzer

I'm generally in favor of business deregulation, but there are a lot of laws on the books that exist solely to protect consumers from unethical business practices. The various federal agencies responsible for this (the Securities and Exchange Commission in particular) have really fallen down on the job, especially since the Bush administration took over. (See: Enron, Worldcom, etc.)

Enter Elliot Spitzer. Almost single-handedly as attorney general of New York State, Spitzer has managed to force sweeping changes upon several industries that effect almost every person in the country.

How? Well, most financial firms have their headquarters in New York, which gives Spitzer jurisdiction. And the state's 1921 Martin Act gives wide-ranging power to the New York attorney general unavailable to prosecutors anywhere else. By making an example of leading firms, and skillfully using the effect his investigations have on companies' stock prices, Spitzer has managed to managed to make entire industries stop uncompetitive and dishonest practices they'd been using for years.

He cleaned up securities trading, the mutual fund industry, price fixing in computer-chip manufacturing, payola, and even got $50 million in unpaid royalties given back to musicians.

It's refreshing to see that one man really can make a difference, given the right tools. Though there's obviously plenty of self-interest involved (he's going to be elected governor of New York in a couple months, after all), I've yet to see evidence that Spitzer is anything but a dedicated public servant. If we had a few dozen more of him look out for consumers' interests, I'd be a lot less worried about the future of our country.

Howard Dean

I was a Dean supporter from not long after he first emerged as a possible Democratic presidential candidate. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative and a supporter of Second Amendment rights to boot — my kind of guy! The only reason he was tagged as a left-fringe candidate was because of his opposition to the Iraq war, a view which now puts him in the solid majority of Americans.

But what I really admire is his choice to seek and win the leadership of the Democratic National Committee after his failed presidential bid. There were undoubtedly a lot of options open to him with his new-found political fame, but he chose the one where he could make the greatest impact — while simultaneously guaranteeing he would be out of the political limelight. I doubt one person in 50 could tell you what Dean is doing right now if you asked them. He's certainly not helping any future aspiration for political office he might have.

He's also making a lot of enemies amongst the current Democratic leadership who were pissed that an outsider got control of the DNC and don't agree with his "50-state strategy." I love it, though. I wouldn't call myself a Democrat, but considering what the Republican party has become over the past six years (home of theocrats and authoritarians), I'm all about defeating them through any means necessary.

Here's my description of the 50-state strategy from an e-mail exchange I had with Josh Rohrscheib:
It's not about winning, it's about competing. When you make Republicans spend money and resources to defend states and districts they normally win going away, that leaves them less resources to attack the Dems in areas that are more competitive.

At first this might not make any sense: "Yeah, but if the Democrats spend money in order to make the Republicans spend an equal amount of money, then it's a wash."

But what makes this plan genius is that, like everything else, returns on political investment are diminishing. So the first $100,000 you spend in a state will be to be a lot more valuable then the tenth $100,000.

And in states like Mississippi and Alabama which the Democratic party essentially abandoned a long time ago, Dean was pretty much starting from ground zero. So that first infusion of money might set up a new statewide office, recruit a bunch of volunteers and hire a full-time political coordinator, all of which instantly puts tons more pressure on the Republicans. They might have to spend three or four times that much to counteract it. Take the California 50th: Republicans had to spend twice as much money as the Dems, not to mention send 200 volunteers, just to defend a reliably Republican stronghold.

And you know why the Republicans can't afford to just not respond? The Republican national Committee knows damn well that Bush is incredibly unpopular, and that the GOP champions a lot of views that don't jibe with those of most Americans. A lot of people would like to oppose the GOP, but there isn't any sort of real Democratic party organization in their area.

Just look at Kansas. There's been a spate of high-profile defections in recent months as people grow fed up with the religious right. Which, surprise surprise, is a small minority in this country. The book was called "What's The Matter With Kansas?" for a reason, but it seems like people are finally starting to wake up.
Maybe his role at the DNC will eventually end up working to his benefit, but it seems to me that Dean sacrificed a lot of his political capital to work for the good of the party, and ultimately, the nation.

Just missed the cut

Barack Obama. I love Obama (who doesn't?), and am proud to have him as my senator. But I need to see a bit more of what he can do. Like Brian, I think he's still too unproven to judge.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Not-so-quiet riots

What Gordon the Gnome
really looks like.
Stop rioting. Seriously. Just stop. Civilized people don't firebomb churches when they hear comments they don't like.

The pope quotes a 14th century text and suddenly, before you can blink, fires break out all over the Middle East. And surprise surprise, everyone from Al Qaida to Iran is egging on the raging masses.

So is this how it's going to be from now on? Something is said about the Prophet and we have to just accept that hundreds of thousands of people rioting, breaking things and burning people in effigy is a reasonable response?

Well guess what: it's not a reasonable response. That's not how we do things in the 21st century. I don't care how much it offends you or your God, I don't care if it's cartoons about Muhammad or cartoons about the Holocaust—if you want to be viewed as a "people of peace," just write a complaint letter, organize a peaceful demonstration or attempt to form a representative government.

And only when that last option is impossible in your country, it may be time to grab your torches.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pretty pictures

Camels in the desert.

This photo by George Steinmetz was taken from directly overhead. The black outlines are just the shadows — the actual camels are the small white lines. More information at Snopes.

The pictures below, of microscopic sculptures by Willard Wigen, are also from Snopes.

Carved from grains of rice and sand and made of dust particles and sugar crystals, these sculptures are measured in thousandths of an inch. Most can only be viewed through a microscope. Yes, those are needles and pinheads.

Jeff Goldstein is a wanker.