The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Lengthy post on conspiracies and coincidence

"[I]t has been a nervous year, and people have begun to feel like a Christian scientist with appendicitis."—Tom Lehrer

We live in a nation founded by a conspiracy. A group of committed, passionate, and intelligent men met in secret for years, plotting and scheming, until finally they took arms against their own country and set up a radical left-wing government that subsequently became the model for the rest of the world. Grandchildren of those revolutionaries tried to do what they believed was the same thing, and got squashed in the bloodiest war the world had ever experienced.

Back and forth we've gone for almost three centuries now, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, but always with groups of committed, passionate, intelligent people on every side, convinced of their absolute correctness and moral authority, and unwilling to compromise their most cherished beliefs.

Surrounded by these groups are what Nixon called "the silent majority," who basically don't care. The committed, passionate, intelligent people fighting for their beliefs think the silent majority are, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. Why else would they not agree with the committed, passionate, intelligent people on our side?

Nixon, I hate to say, was correct. There is a largely silent majority in this country, who generally don't care about politics as long as things are going relatively well. There's food in the fridge, there's something on TV, the kids are a little weird but otherwise aren't doing anything we didn't do at their age, why worry?

Except, when you look a little deeper, the silent majority almost always gets it right. Or, at least, when viewed through their self-interests, they don't get it really very wrong.

I can think of only two major exceptions, times when a functioning democracy got it disastrously wrong: Germany in 1933 and Argentina in 1945. Except, these were barely-functioning democracies in shattered states, with huge numbers of formerly comfortable people who were, for reasons they didn't truly understand, now very uncomfortable. The governments that enacted Jim Crow and Apartheid, the Guillotine and the machete, while democratic for some, were not truly functioning democracies.

But looking at other "failures of democracy" it turns out the people tend to vote in their own best interests almost always. Looking back on Watergate, we wonder how Nixon got re-elected. We forget that by 1972 he was already bringing the boys home from Vietnam, and that his opponent—a true statesman, I need to add—was a horrible candidate. And we forget that "Watergate does not bother me," as Lynard Skynyrd sang, pretty much summed it up for the part of the country that was still seething about the Democratic party's reversal on Jim Crow.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."—Upton Sinclair.

The 2000 election, like the similarly-contested 1878 election, came during a period of relative calm and prosperity, and featured two lacklustre candidates with no apparent fundamental differences. (They actually did have fundamental differences, but most people ignored them. More on that in a moment.) There was a little voting fraud, but not really more than usual, and certainly not as brazen as the fraud in 1960 that put Kennedy in office. And yes, Gore won the vote, but Bush won the office through existing Constitutional processes, and—I can't emphasize this enough—most Americans were OK with that.

Failure of democracy? No. Success, I think, because the vast majority of the country realized that contesting the election past the Supreme Court's decision would cause more harm than good. Our choices were to obviate the Supreme Court, or accept a flawed decision, and it was clearly in the long-term interests in our country to do the latter.

Of course, people who were paying attention knew that a number of right-wing think-tanks had nurtured relationships with Republicans since the early 1970s. These think-tanks, for example the American Enterprise Institute, had come up with coherent and compelling arguments to reduce the size of government, devolve power to the states, free business from regulatory interference, and bring these ideas to the rest of the world.

Then there's the Christian right, which has waxed and waned in power for, oh, 2000 years. Fundamentalists (of any religion) have always had a coherent and compelling argument: "God said so." There's really no arguing with that point of view. A religious fundamentalist has a clear, unwavering belief in his own correctness on the point, that almost nothing can shake (since God frequently tests the faithful in mysterious ways).

"Every revolutionary is a closet aristorcrat."—Frank Herbert

Both groups, as is the rule for ideologues, are convinced they're right, everyone else is wrong, and if people just heard the message they would understand, too. We have the answer; don't listen to the "other side" because there is no "other side." There is simply truth and falsity. You're either with us or against us. Someday, you'll understand, and agree; but for now, we need to be in control, to show you the truth.

Since the 1970s, these two groups have worked together. And for the most part, since their opponents were in control of either the legislature or the executive throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they didn't succeed. But they perservered, they compromised, they made deals with people they couldn't stand, until in January 2001 when their guys finally controlled both the legislature and the executive.

But this is no more because of a conspiracy than the circumstances that put the Democrats in power in 1933. (Or that put the Republicans in power in 1861. Or that put the Democrats in power in 1801.)

When people are out of power, they are much more likely to make compromises than when they're in power. I could write an entire essay on why this is so (and perhaps I will later), but what the Right did from the 1970s to the 1990s is simply pool any power they had and leverage it. And they waited, getting their pieces in place, making connections, raising funds, organizing. This is politics. But isn't this also a conspiracy? Yes, in the strict sense that two or more people acting in concert constitute a conspiracy. But no, in the broader sense that there was anything secret or malicious about it. In fact, and here's what we need to remember, they told everyone what they were planning the whole time.

People in 2000 who didn't know what the Bush presidency was going to be like were either not paying attention, or they just didn't care. And this applies as much to the people who should have cared and paid attention, like the Gore campaign, as to the general public. Partisans on our side think most people weren't paying attention, but really, they just didn't care.

And why should they have cared? What messages did people hear? Both candidates were, in their own ways, neither coherent nor compelling. So the voters gave them an even split, figuring that neither would be around very long, and in 2004 we might get better guys to run. Come on—you thought the same thing, even if you had a "Gore" sticker on your car way back in 1988. "He's not my first choice," you thought (about whichever of the two you supported), "but he's better than the other guy."

Since 2000, of course, we've seen a needless foreign war, the systematic dismantling of the Federal government, outright theft of billions of dollars, a stifling of political discourse, and a declining economy. You can't say the Republicans didn't warn us. It's what they've always done.

"The answer is most likely the 'omnibus explanation:' stupidity."—Jerome Leitner

Since 2000, also, our party has fallen apart. It's a lot harder to take responsibility for a loss than a win; this is human nature. So every constituent group in the Democratic party, barely together when we had power, fell completely to bickering and finger-pointing when we lost it. We look at two candidates who couldn't figure out which constituency's message was most important, and consequently blew—yes, blew—two elections that should have been cake-walks for us, and we blame...the Republicans?

Some, including some of my dearest friends, see this state of affairs as evidence of an evil conspiracy.

But it's not, really. It's evidence of our opponents being in power, and doing the things that people have always done to stay in power. Both Roosevelts slapped the press around. Johnson rammed civil rights down his party's throat by stifling dissent and harrassing anyone who disagreed with him. Clinton outmanouvered the opposition partially by embracing their programs, a practice called "compromise" that is universally hated by partisans everywhere. Carter, in contrast, couldn't bring himself to play the game and got schooled by a senile nincompoop.

Moreover, the "conspiracy" is so inept it's failing spectacularly. Patrick Fitzgerald is a Republican, and he brought down the Republican majority leader and the Republican vice-president's chief of staff. John McCain is a Republican who will, mark my words, make life a living hell for the ideologues after the next election when he starts running for President again. A growing number of Republicans are standing up and saying that, no, forcing people to be Christian is not Christian, and smothering the press is not "small government."

Two mine disasters in a month is a horrible coincidence, but people now see that the probability of a mine disaster goes up when the agency responsible for mine safety is run by a former mining executive. The spectacular thefts and failures of Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Delphi, and other companies hurt hundreds of thousands of people, people who now see that private enterprise does not always do things better than government. As the number of dead soldiers in Iraq creeps toward the number of dead in the World Trade Center attack, as the truly frightening regimes in Iran and North Korea get the bomb, people now see that committing our entire military to getting rid of one tinpot evil-doer does not bring us security. As Abramoff squeals like Ned Beatty in his underwear, as Diebold's malfeasance is explained clearly enough that my mom understands it, as New Orleans lies in ruins, as the ideological purity of the right-wing think tanks hits the messy realities of life, people now see that voting has consequences.

As soon as the Democratic Party stops trying to be everything to everyone, they'll have something to vote for.

Next: Ideas about how that can happen.

More on Google

Adam Sharp, of Maryland-based Sharp SEO, actually read through the Justice Deptartment's Google subpoena. He posted a blog entry excerpting and linking to the actual Google subpoena which is, in turn, hosted on Ziff-Davis' website:

In Google’s understanding, Defendant would use the one million URLs requested from Google to create a sample world-wide web against which to test various filtering programs for their effectiveness. Google objects to Defendant’s view of Google’s highly proprietary search database—the primary reason for the company’s success—as a free resource that Defendant can access and use, some levels removed, to formulate its own defense.

Now here's my take on Internet privacy.

Astute readers may notice that Sharp's blog has no link to biographical information, nor does his "under construction" corporate site. Really astute readers will notice that he has a link to my blog entry on this topic and figure out how I knew about his blog.

When Sharp linked his blog to mine, our blog engines shook hands, and my blog engine made a log entry commemorating the event. I saw the log entry and clicked on the referring link to find out who was linking to me. I expect he's going to do exactly the same thing in reverse shortly after I hit the "Post to Weblog" button.

Since I wanted to link back to his blog, I wanted to give him proper attribution. I haven't written for a newspaper since college, but I like to think I still retain some journalistic sense about sourcing my material. So I first looked on his blog for an "About" page or some other identifying material. Finding none, I browsed to his corporate website and found the "under construction" page. No info there.

Next, I ran a WHOIS query on his domain name, and got exactly what I wanted: his name and state of residence, which is sufficient for proper attribution.

(I also found out, in preparing this post, that my own registration is quite out-of-date. My apologies to any stalkers who have wasted time lurking in the wrong place.)

My point is this: Privacy on the Web is difficult to maintain. You have to take active steps to limit what people can find out about you, especially where public databases like the Internet registry are concerned. And, every Website you visit logs your IP address, browser, referring page (where you were when you clicked on the Website's own link), and click-stream (how much time you spent viewing each page, and in what order you viewed them).

That said, if someone wants to find you, they will. The Internet doesn't really make that any easier than it was 30 years ago when most people could be found by calling 411. Oh wait: most people can still be found through 411. Never mind then.

We as a people have always given up certain kinds of privacy as a cost of having an open society. Ours was the first country where land records were made public, the better to have good title to property, which helps everyone. Corporate documents, including personal information about coporate ownership, is public information: it encourages corporate responsibility, among other things.

The Internet is the same. You get all this information at your fingertips, but in order to give it to you, the provider needs to know where to send it (your IP address) and how (your browser type). If you want to have your own piece of the Internet, you need to tell some registrar somewhere who you are—at the very least so you can pay the registrar.

This is a complicated topic on which I will write more after I shovel the walk.

Google is not evil

I'm shaking my head over the report Federal prosecutors want Google search data. It seems a little poorly-timed, coming as it does during an escalating row over the government's domestic spying (reg.req). Kudos to Google for refusing to turn over the data. Google's press office doesn't have anything up yet, but I'll keep checking. Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported:

"This is the government's nose under the search engine's tent. Once we cross this line it will be very difficult to turn back," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a [Washington]-based nonprofit group that advocates privacy protections. "If companies like Google respond to this kind of subpoena... I don't see why the next subpoena might not say, 'Give us what we asked for the last time—plus a little more.'
"Google has always been a kind of ticking privacy bomb because Google retains personally identifiable information," he added. "Even though Google may intend to protect online privacy, there will be circumstances beyond their control that will place Internet users at risk, and they include government warrants, as in this case, or future security breaches which have plagued the financial services sector over the past couple of years."

In an unrelated report of Bush administration political meddling with science, evidence that whale beachings in North Carolina may have been caused by U.S. Navy sonar tests disappeared between drafts:

The federal court order to release the report came at an awkward time for [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the Navy, which has been holding public hearings on its controversial plan to build an underwater sonar training range.

Only 1,096 days left in this administration...

Tribune news roundup

The Chicago Tribune had several stories of interest this morning.

Meterologist Tom Skilling noticed more daylight, possibly because he reads my blog. Unfortunately, he got the number of minutes more daylight a little wrong, because he only looked at half the equation, and even still didn't subtract correctly. First, the difference between 4:23 and 4:50 is 27 minutes, not 28; second, sunrises got later before getting earlier, so we actually have 9 hours 35 minutes of daylight now, which is 26 minutes longer than December 21st's 9 hours 9 minutes.

Technology writer Steve Johnson has a primer on starting a blog, which wasn't any more or less than expected except it had a notice about the Chicago Blogger Meetup on February 21st. (Of course, has nothing about the meetup, and mentions it for February 15th. I've emailed the author about the discrepancy.)

Finally a news item about a high-schooler expelled for a doodle, showing that McHenry County schools exemplify the Peter Principle in action:

The drawing is of a cross, with a spider web on one side and a crown at the top. In the middle of the cross are the initials "D.L.K." The teen, whose full name is Derek Leon Kelly, said the initials are his. School officials have alleged that they could stand for "Disciples Latin King," his mother said. The Latin Kings and Latin Disciples are rival gangs.

Forgetting Occam's Razor for a moment, I must ask, what's going on here? Even if he was drawing gang symbols, that's not the same as being in a gang--which is actually irrelevant, because freedom to assemble is in the same amendment as freedom of speech. Sure, expel him if he brings a weapon to school, or gets into an actual gang fight. But for drawing? That's just stupid.

Update, 11:26 CST/17:26 UTC: Steve Johnson replied as follows:

Suspect what you saw may have been an earlier, tentative date (or maybe a different meeting, but I don't think so).
Hey, if you blog about my piece (and I hope you'll take into account the severe restrictions of a 100-line limit), maybe I'll blog about the blogging. And so on, until the whole Internet crashes under the strain of extreme self-reference.

So, to clarify, any implicit criticism of his column I may have had should be directed rather at Tribune Co. for imposing an unrealistic size restriction on it, rather than at the writer, who did a good job with the space he had.

Let's hope the Internet can keep up with us...

President appoints yet another fox to guard a hen-house

The President today appointed Nicole Nason head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, apparently to reward her for her good work lobbying against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This is like appointing Al Capone to run the Women's Christian Temperance Union, or Mike Brown to run, well, anything.

This is another in the President's long history of appointing people totally unsuited for their jobs, but unsuited in a particular, deliberate way. The appointments guarantee incompetence, either by accident through the character of the appointees, or deliberately through the agendas of the appointees. I imagine someone in the West Wing cackling gleefully at yet another appointment that will (a) harm the reputation of the Federal government enough to make people take it less seriously and (b) make us on the left howl in protest. I fear the strategy is working.

If our party could just stop self-immolating, I have no doubt that we could win elections based on this history of whittling away government's effectiveness. We could point out, for just one example, that FEMA under Clinton actually saved lives when major disasters struck.

As Tom Lehrer once said, you begin to feel like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis.

Update, 3pm CST/21:00 UTC: The Washington Post has (a) corrected the article to say that Nason was not, in fact, a lobbyist on transportation issues; and (b) has added a link to this posting.

The corrected article still contains this sentence:

Nason, as assistant secretary of transportation, acted primarily as a lobbyist for the Bush administration in opposing safety proposals that the agency now has the responsibility to enforce, said Joan Claybrook of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

If Claybrook is correct, then my earlier conclusion stands: Nason has opposed the NHTSA's mission in the recent past, which makes her unsuitable to run the agency, which in turn makes her a typical Bush nominee.

So many clichés, so little time

The Washington Post reports that the Republicans are now proposing restrictions on lobbying. This news comes shortly after Charlie Pace threw his "last" package of horse into the fire.

Some lawmakers say GOP leaders are blaming lobbyists rather than examining the legislative processes that have invited corruption, such as the proliferation of home-district pork-barrel projects that have become prime ways to reward campaign supporters.

So, let's review: The majority party, that set up a lobbying program the scope and audacity of which the world has never before seen, a program so disgusting even the Republican-controlled Justice Department has been moved to indict more than one Republican congressman, now wants to turn off the tap?

Stop them before they bribe again.

Say what?

"There are SBA loans for this. And I understand for some the word SBA means Slow Bureaucratic Paperwork. I hear it loud and clear."
—George W. Bush

Reported in today's Doonesbury Daily Dose.

Secrecy protects incompetence, not us

Former Vice President Gore's address to the Liberty Coalition yesterday is worth reading. He draws a direct line between the authoritarian mindset and incompetence. This is not a casual relationship; the executive's power grab encourages incompetence and lessens our security. Says Gore:

In the words of George Orwell, "We are all capable," he said, "of believing things which we know to be untrue and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right." Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time. The only check on it is that, sooner or later, a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
Two thousand two hundred American soldiers have lost their lives as this false belief bumped into a solid reality. And indeed, whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable, it almost inevitably leads to gross mistakes and abuses. That is part of human nature. In the absence of rigorous accountability, incompetence flourishes, dishonesty is encouraged and rewarded. It is human nature, whether for Republicans or Democrats or people of any set of views.
Last week, for example, Vice President Cheney attempted to defend the administration's eavesdropping on American citizens by saying that, if it had conducted this program prior to 9/11, they would have found out the names of some of the hijackers.
Tragically, he apparently still does not know that the administration did, in fact, have the names of at least two of the hijackers well before 9/11 and had available to them information that could have led to the identification of most of the others. One of them was in the phone book. And yet, because of incompetence, unaccountable incompetence in the handling of the information, it was never used to protect the American people.
It is often the case, again, regardless of which party might be in power, that an executive branch beguiled by the pursuit of unchecked power responds to its own mistakes by reflexively proposing that it be given still more power. Often the request itself is used to mask accountability for mistakes in the use of power it already has.
Moreover, if the pattern of practice begun by this administration is not challenged, it may well become a permanent part of the American system. That is why many conservatives have pointed out that granting unchecked power to this president means that the next will have unchecked power as well. And the next may be someone whose values and beliefs you do not trust. And that is why Republicans as well as Democrats should be concerned with what this president has done.

Read the rest. It's worth it.

Supreme Court upholds Oregon assisted-suicide law

I got all excited that the Roberts Court had upheld Gonzalez v. Oregon, until I realized the Chief Justice was in the minority with Justices Scalia and, you will be surprised to know, Thomas. Rehnquist would have voted with the majority, I think, so this signals Roberts may not be the Warren some of us were naively hoping for.

I'll have more salient analysis shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court publishes the opinion online. For now, I'll just have to go on the Associated Press report, which appearsto miss the real holding in the case. I say that because the quotes from Kennedy sound awfully more like dicta than holding, but I could be wrong.

The A.P. reports on the dissenting opinions:

Scalia said the court's ruling "is perhaps driven by a feeling that the subject of assisted suicide is none of the federal government's business. It is easy to sympathize with that position."

To which I say, yes, assisted suicide is none of the federal government's business. Later today I'll figure out if that's what the majority thought, too. I am surprised that Scalia thinks it is the federal government's business, when he's usually more of a states-rights guy.

Then there was this unintentionally amusing line:

Thomas wrote his own dissent as well, to complain that the court's reasoning was puzzling.

I just don't know which half of the sentence is funnier.

Update, 5:35pm CT/23:35 UTC: The opinion is available (406 kB, PDF), and I shall now read it.