Fulcrum Ruminations

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Free Speech

It's time to consider the First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Mostly what I'm concerned about here is the freedom of speech and, to a lesser extent, freedom of the press. For convenience I'll refer only to freedom of speech, but keep in mind that I'm actually referring to both of them.

Now, contrary to some arguments I've heard, the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the US, for those of you unfamiliar with such things) is about the rights of individuals, not states or other constructs. It was felt at the time the Constitution was adopted that it did not spell out the rights of the people with sufficient clarity, and so the Bill of Rights was appended.

Lately the freedom of speech has seen some rather impressive swings of the pendulum. You've got magazines like Penthouse publishing explicit sex photos, you've got Dennis Franz showing his ass on television, and you've got the big one - the explosion of the World Wide Web and its "anyone can publish anything at any time and anyone else anywhere in the world can see it" magic. No medium in history has the reach of the Web, because it's the first medium that anyone can use from the comfort of their own home for a trivial cost. Witness this very blog, and those linked over there at the right side of the page, and all the others out there in the vast (and rapidly expanding) blogosphere. Ordinary folks posting their thoughts and opinions for the whole world to see and, in many cases, comment upon - in real time.

What a time to be alive, eh?

But, as with all things, there is another side to the issue.

Our government, as governments are wont to do, is making efforts to restrict this freedom of expression. For one thing, it's long been my opinion that governments in general are scared to death of the idea of a free and open flow of information. It means their spinmeisters don't get a chance to massage things, remove "incorrect" ideas, and so forth. Given the nature of the web, it also means that as soon as one web-enabled person knows something, the rest of the world knows it too. Doesn't matter if it's true or not, any idea instantly has an audience on the web. Think up the goofiest conspiracy theory you can imagine and I bet you'll find at least one website (and now a bunch of blogs) dedicated to it. Pro and con, which also doesn't matter because the idea is already out there and everything else is Monday morning quarterbacking.

The point is, we here in America have this Constitutionally protected freedom to express ourselves as we see fit. This freedom is not absolute - hence our laws covering slander, libel, and the hoary "fire in a crowded theater" thing - but the Supreme Court has historically held this freedom to as wide an interpretation as practical.

Except, of course, on broadcast media. The argument as I understand it is that since the airwaves are a public asset, the government has a responsibility to regulate that asset for the good of all. Lately that "good of all" bit has come to mean "a few large conglomerates" as the television and radio industries have undergone a wave of consolidations. You've got radio in particular now dominated by a handful of major players. ClearChannel and Infinity and their ilk. Television is going the same way, with only a couple major providers and a handful of small fry in the cable market. In both industries the rules governing who can own how many broadcast outlets in any one market have been severely weakened under former Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell (son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and don't think Daddy's position didn't have something to do with Junior's appointment).

Now here's where we get to the meat of my essay.

It can be argued that the biggest personality in radio is Howard Stern. Stern has been a major innovator of format and content and has been hugely successful. His daily radio show draws something in the neighborhood of twelve to twenty million listeners. The televised version of the show on cable's E! Entertainment channel has consistently been that channel's largest revenue engine and ratings hit. Stern generates hundreds of millions of dollars for Infinity Broadcasting and E! He's made more millions in the book and movie industries, and even more with the television shows he's produced. Mention his name anywhere in the country and you can be reasonably certain that the people around you will know who Stern is.

The problem is that Stern's show is . . . racy. Crude. Profane.

Stern talks about stuff that some people would prefer he didn't. That their radios all have on/off switches and tuning knobs never seems to enter the calculations, oddly enough. There's a small but vocal minority who have decided that Stern is EVIL and have campaigned for years to get him removed from the airwaves.

To very little effect, at least until recently.

Sure, there've been fines imposed by the FCC, but the monetary amount has been trivial compared to the revenue Stern brings to his corporate parents. In other words, he's had economic top cover.

Recently however Congress changed the rules. Fines once in the tens of thousands of dollars and directed against corporations are now in the millions of dollars and directed against individual broadcasters and on-air personalities. Like Stern. All in the name of "decency", a highly subjective and mutable standard. This trend really exploded following Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Superbowl in 2004.

Wait. Let me boil that down for you.

The country went into apoplexy because someone saw a blurred booby on television for a couple seconds.

Yeah . . . ooooookay . . .

Not to get distracted from my main argument, but that's a pretty sorry response to such a trivial thing, isn't it? We really need to get over this prudish tendency in America . . . but maybe that's a topic for a future posting.

Back on topic, the amazing thing about the situation is the way the broadcast industry has rolled over and accepted the restrictions. The standards for what constitutes "indecent" content are not just blurry, but almost completely undefined. It's the "I know it when I see it" argument, which is no kind of standard to base laws upon. In some cases, stations that didn't buckle right away were threatened with not having their broadcast licenses renewed. In effect, broadcasters like Stern are being forced to exercise prior restraint to keep the FCC at bay.

That should not be how we do things in America.

As I noted above, all radios and televisions have on/off switches and tuners. If you don't like what you're getting, you can turn it off or switch to a different program. No-one is forcing you to watch or listen. And, thanks to the magic of the market, if enough people decide not to watch or listen, that program will go away. In the case of television, it will go away very quickly - within weeks.

The FCC, which after all was created simply to apportion the public airwaves so that you didn't wind up with multiple broadcasters operating on the same frequency in the same area, does not need to regulate content. Market forces will do that. And the First Amendment basically says that the government needs to keep its nose out of such things in any event, as a free press is necessary to the health of the country.

What's really scary is that certain elements both within and outside of the government are now attempting to extend this already-unconstitutional regulation to pay services such as cable television and satellite radio. In other words, these people want to dictate the content of something we make a conscious choice to purchase. Something that requires not only a positive action to access, but also requires us to spend our own hard-earned money to receive.

Imagine if someone was following you around a library and telling you that you couldn't read certain books because they thought the content was objectionable. How long would you tolerate that? Or worse, suppose they were leaning over your shoulder as you read your book, running a black marker across words, sentences, paragraphs, or whole pages so that you wouldn't see them?

This is sheer lunacy.

Many people who should know better have gone along with this. "It's only Howard Stern. I never liked him anyway" is a common sentiment. Well, what happens when the next target is someone you do like? Suppose the FCC decides that Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken are too incendiary for the public airwaves? What if some faceless government stooge decides that words like "hell" and "eternal damnation" are too caustic to our oh-so-delicate sensibilities and levies fines against your favorite television evangelist?

What if they pull the license of a television station that airs a news item about something the government would prefer to keep quiet?

At some point the public must take a stand and let the government know that we have, in fact, read the First Amendment and we know that what they're doing is unconstitutional. Frankly, I find it astonishing that prominent broadcasters have mostly ignored this story up until now. This is their bread and butter. Take away their ability to comment freely and their livelihood is destroyed.

The television news program Sixty Minutes is currently working on a piece about Howard Stern and his move from terrestrial to satellite radio. Hopefully they'll cover this angle of the story. This should be an issue that both left and right can agree upon . . . it's one of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution, after all.

It's been said that the Second Amendment is the one that guarantees the rest of the Constitution. But the First Amendment is the ultimate balance point of the entire American experiment. Without the personal freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment, the character of America would be radically different . . . we'd hardly be a democracy at all. Whatever your political alignment, opinion, or point of view, this is the fulcrum upon which it balances.

Big Round Number

I present this without comment one way or another. Draw your own conclusions.

Event Noting the 2000th American Combat Death in Iraq

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Catching Up With Recent News

I've been remiss in my blogging. I've got some things I want to touch upon, so I'll just blow thru them, okay?

The Iraq War and WMDs

Here's a little perspective on the Iraq war and the justification for it. This is from the Washington Post, tho, so you have to be registered to see the whole article.

It Wasn't Just Miller's Story by Robert Kagan. I'll quote the first paragraph or so to get you rolling:

The Judith Miller-Valerie Plame-Scooter Libby imbroglio is being reduced to a simple narrative about the origins of the Iraq war. Miller, the story goes, was an anti-Saddam Hussein, weapons-of-mass-destruction-hunting zealot and was either an eager participant or an unwitting dupe in a campaign by Bush administration officials and Iraqi exiles to justify the invasion. The New York Times now characterizes the affair as "just one skirmish in the continuing battle over the Bush administration's justification for the war in Iraq." Miller may be "best known for her role in a series of Times articles in 2002 and 2003 that strongly suggested Saddam Hussein already had or was acquiring an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction." According to the Times's critique, she credulously reported information passed on by "a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on 'regime change' in Iraq," which was then "eagerly confirmed by United States officials convinced of the need to intervene in Iraq." Many critics outside the Times suggest that Miller's eagerness to publish the Bush administration's line was the primary reason Americans went to war. The Times itself is edging closer to this version of events.

There is a big problem with this simple narrative. It is that the Times, along with The Post and other news organizations, ran many alarming stories about Iraq's weapons programs before the election of George W. Bush.
(Emphasis mine)

Here's another snippet, also pertinent:

Many such stories appeared before and after the Clinton administration bombed Iraq for four days in late 1998 in what it insisted was an effort to degrade Iraqi weapons programs. Philip Shenon reported official concerns that Iraq would be "capable within months -- and possibly just weeks or days -- of threatening its neighbors with an arsenal of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons." He reported that Iraq was thought to be "still hiding tons of nerve gas" and was "seeking to obtain uranium from a rogue nation or terrorist groups to complete as many as four nuclear warheads.

This, remember, is before George Bush was elected. Oh my. You mean people had Evil Thoughts About Iraq before the Boogeyman In Chief came along? The hell you say.

Here's one more, just to keep the pot stirring:

On Jan. 29, 2001, The Post editorialized that "of all the booby traps left behind by the Clinton administration, none is more dangerous -- or more urgent -- than the situation in Iraq. Over the last year, Mr. Clinton and his team quietly avoided dealing with, or calling attention to, the almost complete unraveling of a decade's efforts to isolate the regime of Saddam Hussein and prevent it from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction. That leaves President Bush to confront a dismaying panorama in the Persian Gulf," including "intelligence photos that show the reconstruction of factories long suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons."

Wow. I think what they're trying to get at is that Bush and his Evil Neocon Cabal aren't the only people who thought that maybe Saddam was up to no good.

You see, gentle reader, why this whole WMD fiasco troubles me so. It isn't that our current President lied or dissembled our way into the Iraq war. It's that there were long-term and systemic problems with the intelligence being fed to the President - several Presidents, in fact - that grossly inflated the threat. This sorta bears out the old saying that you should never ascribe to evil intent what can be more readily explained by plain stupidity. Simply put, the majority of the world's intelligence services (and press) thought that Iraq had WMDs. Saddam actually encouraged this idea, for whatever reasons. He wrote the fate of his regime with his own twisted pen.

The full story of the Iraq war will probably not be known until Dubya is long gone from office, but this version of events which declares it a horrible disaster that we were hoodwinked into by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld is almost certainly not going to survive long-term scrutiny.


More on Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans Levees

Once again from the Post, this time an article by Joby Warrick and Michael Grunwald that points out something else that might not be as easily blamed on Bush as some would prefer.

Investigators Link Levee Failures to Design Flaws
Three Teams of Engineers Find Weakened Soil, Navigation Canal Contributed to La. Collapses
By Joby Warrick and Michael Grunwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 24, 2005; Page A01

The nuggets buried in this story are as follows (pardon my selections - you can go read the whole thing if you like):

In 1965, the Corps completed the 76-mile-long, 36-foot-deep Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a larger dirt-moving project than the Panama Canal. The outlet -- known locally as MRGO, or "Mr. Go" -- created a navigation shortcut to the Port of New Orleans, although a little-used one that averages fewer than one ship a day. But the outlet also amounted to a funnel that would accelerate and enlarge any storm surges headed for the city's levees.

Mashriqui also found that in the areas where the outlet had wiped out marshes and other wetlands, levees and floodwalls were much more likely to fail. In areas where the natural buffers remained, the manmade defenses held, even when they were overtopped.

"Without MRGO, the flooding would have been much less," he said. "The levees might have overtopped, but they wouldn't have been washed away."

In the 1980s, the Corps began constructing concrete floodwalls on top of older earthen levees to give the city's northern neighborhoods better protection from storm surges from Lake Pontchartrain. Soil tests in the 1980s detected trouble 20 feet below the surface: a thick layer of spongy, organic soil called peat. Soft and highly compressible when dry, peat becomes even weaker when saturated with water.

A 1988 document reveals that Corps officials took careful measurements of the peat layer and tested the soil in a laboratory to calculate its relative strength, according to Robert Bea, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the NSF investigating team. Based on those calculations, the Corps designed a concrete-and-steel floodwall anchored to the earth by steel pilings driven to a depth of 20 feet.

In 1994, the now-defunct Pittman Construction Co., a New Orleans firm involved in levee construction, claimed in court documents that floodwall sections were failing to line up properly because of unstable soils. An administrative law judge dismissed the complaint on technical grounds in 1998, without specifically addressing the allegations about weak soils.

So the story of the New Orleans disaster goes all the way back to 1965. Hmm. Kind of hard to pin that one on Bush, huh? As usual, the rush to point fingers points them at the wrong target . . . or at least, those pointing fingers skip over a whole bunch of worthy targets depending on your preconceived ideology.


More on the Situation in Iraq

Since we've got a whole lot of people here in the major media who take apparent delight in the things going wrong in Iraq, it falls to others to illustrate that things aren't as bad as we're being led to believe.

San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Robert Caldwell tells us of More Good News from Iraq. A quote -

Ten million Iraqis, defying terrorist threats and calls for a boycott, trooped to the polls Oct. 15 to vote in a national referendum on the new constitution drafted by Iraq's transitional government. Unofficial returns show this commendably democratic charter passing by huge margins in the Shiite and Kurdish areas that together encompass 80 percent of Iraq's population. Most – but, significantly, not all – minority Sunnis voted no. Yet, their participation in the election signifies at least tacit acceptance of the democratic process that is empowering Iraqis to govern themselves after decades of dictatorship.

And more -

Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon consultant and harsh critic of U.S. military mistakes in Iraq, nonetheless offered a heartening review last week of the progress made in training and fielding capable Iraqi security forces.

By Cordesman's careful tabulation, 116 Iraqi military and special police battalions (of about 750 men each) are now operational. That's an increase of 22 battalions in just the last three months. Cordesman calculates that 28 Iraqi battalions are fully capable of combat operations, more than double the number of six months ago. In all, 192,000 Iraqi soldiers and police have been trained and equipped and are steadily taking over security missions from U.S. and other coalition forces.

So the job is getting done, slowly but surely. The Iraqis are taking advantage of the opportunity to vote and make themselves heard. They're participating . . . in fits and starts, awkwardly, and with a healthy measure of cynicism, but they are participating.

Along these same lines, San Francisco Chronicle writer Debra J. Saunders brings us the tale of The Major's Disappointment. It seems that ARMY MAJOR Steven Warren, 39, is not happy, because he believes the media are painting an inaccurate picture of what's happening in Iraq. The long and the short of it is that the guys who are actually in-country dealing with the situation are a bit more upbeat about the future than the talking heads back here in the States.

There's more stories like this out there, but you have to look hard.

In the story Stryker Brigade Finds Huge Weapons Caches, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner writer Margaret Friedenauer tells us of an Army unit that's making good progress against the insurgency.

As always, the lesson is not to believe the first reports or the "instant analysis." Wait for the details to come out.


Speaking of details coming out, it's looking worse and worse for Vice President Cheney, his chief of staff "Scooter" Libby, and Karl Rove. The leaking of the identity of former CIA operative Valerie Plame seems to have originated in Cheney's office. As I sit here writing this, anyway. Like I have said before, wherever this trail leads, those responsible need to be held to account. You simply do not compromise a clandestine agent. Period. End of story. If it began with Cheney, then Bush needs to live up to his promise to "deal with the leak" and ask for the VP's resignation. Bush would probably pardon Cheney for any wrongdoing to keep him out of jail, and that's certainly within his perogatives, but it wouldn't be a good idea. Outing Plame is the sort of half-assed politically motivated bullshit move that needs to be prevented from happening again. We should expect better discretion from our leadership.


That's how I see things on 25 October 2005.

Civil Rights Icon Passes

Civil rights icon Rosa Parks died yesterday of what is reported to be natural causes. She was 92.

Ms. Parks was a case of "greatness thrust upon them." All she did was refuse to give up her seat on a bus, but that simple act shook the world and helped spark the great civil rights crusades of the 1960s.

It's like a huge chapter of history has now closed. May flights of angels sing her to her rest.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Early In the Race Yet

But here's a candidate we can - nay, will - all get behind.

General Zod in 2008. Why settle for half-efforts?

Actually, Zod probably wouldn't be much worse than whoever the two major parties run in '08.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Once More Unto the Breach

So the Iraqis have voted again despite all the protestations and doomsaying of the chattering classes here in the States. First blush looks like very little insurgent violence and very high turnout - even among the "they'll never go for it" Sunnis. Of course, the Sunnis seem to be mostly voting against the new Constitution, but that is after all the point of the process . . . for the Iraqis to decide for themselves what they want to do.

Democracy is in the air.

I'm sure the Left is already planning how they're going to convince us all that another free Iraqi election is somehow a dismal failure, and how Evil George has hoodwinked the American public and that this triumph of policy is in fact a total disaster . . . but right now, let's just savor the spice of a people freed from a despot's clutches taking the opportunity to make their voices heard.

Iraq may very well go up in flames yet. It might all turn to ashes on us. One never knows. But it looks promising at this point.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Shenanigans - AGAIN

Okay, the wedding is all behind me now. BUT, I'm home sick with a cold or flu or something. I just want to sleep. So this will probably be short.

One - Bush appoints Harriette Miers to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. Huwah? Now, I know that plenty of Supreme Court Justices have been appointed in the past without having any judicial experience, so there's ample precedent for that. But this one reeks of cronyism. Worse, it reeks of short-term thinking. Bush seems to be concerned only with having someone personally loyal to himself on the Court, and is not giving sufficient consideration to the fact that, barring unforseen circumstance, Miers will be on the Court and contributing to its decisions for probably the next thirty years. If she gets confirmed.

Because there's also rumblings from both sides of the spectrum that she's not what either fringe is looking for. There also seems to be the beginnings of fractures in the Republican party being exposed by this nomination. Apparently having learned nothing from the flailings of the Democrats over the last decade or so, the Republicans are now going to engage in self-destructive nonsense.

Ah well. Bush was never a real conservative anyway, so I suppose I should have seen this coming. The 2006 elections should be instructive, at least. Hopefully the Dems' continuing habit of telling half the electorate that they're stupid will continue to backfire on them. Then again, I expected a real ugly fight over the Roberts nomination and he sailed thru with barely a hiccup.

Two - Tom DeLay gets himself indicted again. The first one was the catch-all "conspiracy" thing, which looked very much like politically motivated "gotcha!" rubbish. But now there's actual money-laundering charges floating about. Of course, DeLay has stepped down from his leadership position as required by the Republicans' own rules. This is probably the end of his political career, since in this day and age the simple announcement of the indictment is taken as proof of guilt by the masses.

I myself am in the odd position of being married to someone who knows Tom DeLay in person, and she assures me that in real life he is an absolute asshole . . . arrogant, vindictive, and just plain nasty. Since I don't know him personally I have no basis to refute this assessment. Either way, it looks like the end of another once-mighty politico, brought down by dirty dealings.

How many more times are we going to see this circus played out? Is there no-one at the upper levels of government with clean hands? Both major parties have had their cases of exposed shenanigans bringing down bigshots. I wonder if the office corrupts the person, or if the person is already corrupt and just brings that to the office?

These things depress me, because I'd like to believe that the people running the country are trustworthy. Unfortunately, I'm shown time and again that they're just another bunch of idiots flailing about in a sea of their own incompetence. *sigh*