Friday, February 25, 2011

Picket Lines: Wisconsin, Unions—and a Nation of Immigrants Unsurprisingly Forgets Where It Came From

Note: unlike many guest pieces on Et tu, Mr. Destructo? today's article was co-written by a real, live person. Idi Amin Dada has a Bachelor's degree in political science, the rank of Field Marshal and was the last ruler of a free Uganda. Since his exile at the hands of imperialists, he has busied himself researching topics ranging from politics to philately. In the coming days, he hopes to explore labor issues in America in "Picket Lines," and he invited Mobutu Sese Seko to pitch in. Neither author has eaten anyone since 1980.

Solidarity, 2011

It's extraordinarily upsetting that so many Americans broadly oppose unions without giving much thought to the reasoning behind their opposition. In the case of Wisconsin, critics of union workers are especially difficult to understand. Newly elected Governor Scott Walker wants to use a budget crisis to not only crush the take-home pay of unionized state workers, but to strip public employees of the right to collective bargaining.

His supporters assert that Wisconsin public-school teachers net much more in salary and benefits than private-sector teachers. And despite the fact that this is not true, and that Walker's initiatives to give out generous corporate welfare actually caused significantly exacerbate the crisis he's attempting to capitalize on, public sector employees have already agreed to tough concessions with respect to pay and benefits. Even these concessions are not enough for Walker, who refuses to budge on stripping collective bargaining rights, a move that would have no impact on the state's finances whatsoever, but would effectively destroy unions as a force for the middle and labor class.

One could argue that in the long-run, Walker's stance saves the state money, as public unions periodically negotiate contracts to obtain higher wages and more benefits at the state's expense. Two polls regarding this issue are available at the moment. The first comes from the firm Clarus Group and shows 64% of Americans think that government employees should not be represented by labor unions. However, the firm admits that its phrasing may have swayed responses with language seemingly mirroring that of deficit hawks.

Another poll, this one conducted on behalf of the right-leaning group "We Ask America" shows that those in Wisconsin actually oppose the bill by 51%, with 43% supporting it. However, this same poll also shows that 55% of Wisconsinites want Democratic senators — who fled to Illinois to avoid giving the bill a quorum — to return to the state to vote on the bill anyway; only 36% of those polled disapprove of the idea. Such an action would make the bill pass, as Republicans seem unwilling to compromise, already have the votes they need, and Walker's disdain for those opposing him remains unwavering.

His attitude might make sense if not for conservatism's twin enemies of history and math. Wages for American middle and lower class workers have been all but stagnant since the 1970s, compared to the actual productivity and output of their work; meanwhile, profits for corporations and bonuses for CEOs annually reach record highs. At a time when many states desperately need funds — and corporations reaping record profits pay little to nothing in taxes — the acceptable course of action, according to a vast majority of Republicans, most Independents and some Democrats, is to point to the household working paycheck-to-paycheck and say, "Their desire to negotiate for fewer sleepless nights might hurt the state's finances. It's belt-tightening time."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wailing Walls: Death On The Nile

Note: As Egypt struggles toward democracy, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East and slowly learning Arabic, focusing especially on settlement activity in East Jerusalem. In his free time, he enjoys saying very little about himself, because he's terrified of Kachist/Islamist extremist internet aficionados.

Out, Out, Long Candle

There was a joke in the mid-nineties among CIA functionaries about how to brief Bill Clinton on the prospect of regime change in Iraq. "Mr. President, we cannot definitively predict the identity of Saddam's successor, but we know his first name: General."

You'll remember, dear reader, that far from his pre-2008 Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner assertion that he had "opposed the Iraq [War] from the beginning," Clinton had in fact been an open, rather zealous proponent of icing Saddam Hussein's leprous mafia government once and for all. Bubba spent two terms as president dropping thousands of tons of bombs on Iraq, financing all sorts of creepy, terroristic exile groups and engineering a truly monstrous sanctions program which succeeded only in enriching Ba'athist cronies and killing a few hundred thousand kids. While most people have forgotten about the sanctions (with some exceptions), the joke became newly relevant this past week. As with all CIA information on Iraq, the Langley water cooler brigade were totally wrong with their "Saddam successor" joke. But replace "Saddam" in that punchline with the name of Hosni Mubarak, and by Allah, that joke is dead-on. It explains exactly what finally happened last week.

Mubarak was going to survive so long as the Army didn’t view his continued presence as constituting an immediate liability. And Mubarak’s unbelievable Mr. Magoo speech two Thursdays ago — an incoherent word salad of Arab nationalist boilerplate and paternalistic condescension — finally did the trick. The media was awash with leaked assurances that Mubarak was about to submit to the inevitable and bow out, a buzzing zeitgeist playing soundtrack to the odd new images of the day. The Supreme Council of the Egyptian military — which last met, I think, when Ariel Sharon’s tank column was surging towards Cairo during the 1973 War — suddenly convened a televised meeting, in which Mubarak and churlish dungeonmaster Umar Suleiman happened to be absent. Hassan al-Roueini, the general tasked with security in the Cairo Governate, had the most fun assignment: go to Tahrir Square and tell all the protestors, "All your demands will be met today."

Monday, February 21, 2011

'The Chicago Code': The Myths of Depth and Caring

THERESA COLVIN: (voiceover) As a detective, I pulled 12-year-old Antonio Betts off the street and made sure he got an education. As a captain, with his mother's blessing, I handed 19-year-old Antonio Betts an application to be a Chicago police officer. When I became Superintendent of Police, I asked 24-year-old Antonio Betts to be my driver and bodyguard. Tonight, 25-year-old Antonio Betts put himself in front of two bullets to save my life. I didn't just lose an officer and a driver tonight. I lost a confidante and a friend. (Scene changes to hospital.)
MRS. BETTS: Who the hell did this to my baby?
COLVIN: I don't know, but I promise you I will not let a single officer rest until I find out.
The Chicago Code, "Hog Butcher"
From Shawn Ryan, the creator of the gritty show The Shield comes The Chicago Code, a show that has grit, plus rough edges. It isn't glossy. It's gritty. This is a gritty show. It's also very earnest, sincere and full of being serious about the things it is genuinely sincere and earnest about. It delivers grit-meaning with one-dimensional intensity. It's like playing the first level of Super Mario Brothers, only you play it really fast, and you take speed, and you listen to a metal cover of the theme music on an iPod really loud, so you can experience exactly what you expected, but with orders of magnitude more meaningful intensegrittity. It is also a bad show.

Eighteen years ago, NBC aired the first episode of Homicide: Life on the Street and, by rights, should have created a sea change in the structure of police procedurals. It explored a conceit fundamental to police station houses, one amply demonstrated in David Simon's non-fiction book, on which it was based, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The conceit was this: caring is mostly a myth. Yes, granted, there are cops out there who want to bust bad guys because they want to make a difference, clean up the city, bring solace to victims, etc. But by and large, cops are like people in any other job.

Many cops find themselves where they are for reasons far from the philosophical or civically upstanding. Maybe this was the only job in their town that had healthcare benefits and a pension, or the best-paying one for someone with their education. For whatever reason, they're there. In many cases, the factors motivating their dedication to the job have nothing to do with the city they're meant to protect and serve. In fact, as Simon's book and the show demonstrated, most of the good cops wanted to catch bad guys out of sheer bloodyminded resentment that some dumbfuck thought he could kill someone in their town and get away with it. Screw speaking for the dead: I'm smarter than this asshole, and now I'm going to prove it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

GOP Whackjob Throwdown: Gaffney vs. Norquist

President of the American Center of Spiritual Flames and Security Warmth and friend of the site Frank Gaffney made the news again this week, boycotting the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and alleging that it has been infiltrated by a secret cabal of agents of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These were damning charges, tying the kickoff weekend of conservative mendacity's 12-month regular season with an Islamic internationalist group whose breakaway factions have included some of the most notorious terrorists of the last quarter century. But Gaffney went one better, claiming that the prime agents in this conspiracy were Grover Norquist, his wife and Suhail Kahn, a man who spearheaded pro-Muslim outreach for the George W. Bush White House. There was only one problem with Gaffney's boycott of CPAC: he wasn't officially invited to it.

Take it away, Think Progress:
Gaffney was actually prohibited from participating in CPAC — disinvited from speaking this year by conference organizers fed up with his increasingly vicious attacks on fellow conservative leaders. Indeed, Gaffney appears to have invented the entire theory about the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating CPAC as a pretext to explain his absence from the event.

A source close to conference organizers told ThinkProgress that Gaffney was “specifically not to be invited” to speak at the conference this year because CPAC Chairman David Keene and other conservatives were “sick of him” attacking other conservatives. “The whole boycott thing was just to save face,” the source said.
This is the sort of thing that happens to policy center presidents when they don't walk everywhere bearing a flaming scepter of insinuation and purified anti-Muslimry.

It's hard to tell whose side to take. Not even appearance makes one distinct. Variations on a theme of cuddly keep Dana Perino's deadly idiocy slightly cute, while Ann Coulter's deadly idiocy seems like the spikes in a North Vietnamese pit trap, but here neither man stands out. On the one hand, you have Gaffney's supercilious faux-academician "Tweed Spock" persona, one eyebrow perpetually theatrically raised over a herringbone ensemble. On the other, you have Norquist's vibe of the eternal midget anti-tax vampire, which he seems to try to change up every few years by adjusting the length on his Norelco beard trimmer, but which nevertheless fails to hide the fact that his contract with the devil has kept him ageless.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wailing Walls: Nile Style

Note: As Egypt struggles toward democracy, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East and slowly learning Arabic, focusing especially on settlement activity in East Jerusalem. In his free time, he enjoys saying very little about himself, because he's terrified of Kachist/Islamist extremist internet aficionados.

The Slow Death of A Fat Failed Pharoah

The Mubaraks are finished, and have been for over a week. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt thought they would live on, even after death. Staring at Ramses II's mummy in the Egyptian Museum, it is difficult to see how. He certainly seems dead. Yet a fringe of blonde ringlets, rolling over his leathery forehead, is visibly preserved, a final concession to the vanity of an old man. His rotted teeth and crackling blisters are preserved in the jaw. Here was the father of Egypt, his brains pried from his nostrils in expectation of immortality. Since he got dragged out of his Luxor tomb, Ramses has been guarded by Tourist Policemen, like the mustachioed, swarthy sergeant at the front gate giving me two thumbs up. "Obama good!" he beamed.

I wonder what he thinks of Obama now; certainly he was pressed into action near Midan Tahrir, only a stone's throw away from his post. I wonder if he was one of the goons cracking heads in the square this week, all truncheon and tear gas. I wonder if he was one of the faceless looters who mysteriously materialized the moment the police presence evaporated. If so, the policeman's new duties weren't too dissimilar from his old assignment. Mubarak, the ancient authoritarian, thinks like a pharaoh, thinks the world is owed to him. You can almost smell the mothballs and dust when he opens his mouth to speak. He thinks he is going to live forever, even if it takes killing everyone in his country. Hosni Mubarak is a dye-job Dracula, his inky hair as contrived as that mummy's perm.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

'Christine Falls': Irish Quincy and Slumming Literary Lions

Years ago, when I worked regularly with lots of different lawyers, I started to notice interesting speech patterns in members of legal-support staff who frequently interacted with the same people. When we'd talk about certain advocates, the words "lawyer" and "attorney" would be used along a spectrum of professional and ethical probity. A lawyer was just some viper that an asshole plaintiff hired to sue over an orange tree dropping unwanted fruit over a shared fence. An attorney was a serious person, something even the constitution said you had an inviolable right to speak to.

There were exceptions to this pattern, of course; I even heard more than a few people make a similar argument with terms reversed. But I found myself adopting this distinction. Lawyers are the sharks that boorish people tell you you'll be getting a call from. Attorneys are the urbane guys, too reserved and confident to be ashamed of still carrying around leather valises with buckles on them, the sorts of people your granddad would sit in wing-backed chairs with and talk about Korea. If I used the term "lawyer" and spoke of someone I esteemed, I almost always prefaced it with his type of practice. "Oh, he's an appellate lawyer; he fights cigarette companies through the appeals process." I believe lawyers buy into this denominational barrier, too. There's got to be a reason why the most predatory and shameless of their ilk officiously refer to themselves as "Personal Injury Attorneys."

For me at least, this same linguistic separation carries over to the field of writing. Practically anyone can be an author; the ability to string together a narrative from A to B to C is something within most people's wheelhouse. That's just relating data, basic structural stuff that we intrinsically learn from our parents' teaching us, from overheard conversations, from all kinds of entertainment, religion and reporting. But just as the term "attorney" seems to signify that, beyond structural talent, an intellectual and ethical light is on and somebody is at home, there is something more important to the term "writer." (Of course, people have made the inverse of this argument, too. Quick joke: what's the difference between an author and a writer? An author is someone people will actually pay to read.) It bespeaks some artisanal distinction, some craft and spiritual intent that transcends the sum of all the data and incidents in a story.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Box We Want Boffo Big Ben to Bust

Normal people of any stripe should not watch Super Bowl pregame shows. They offer bad history, bad biography, bad analysis and bad logic. Just when they finish laying waste to all of these, they also manage to be a bad version of Entertainment Tonight, country music concerts and daytime talk shows.

If you managed to overhear this year's pregame show while getting ready for a party or waiting seemingly forever for the game to start, you probably heard a lot of faulty analysis and logic about Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Most fans of American sports can diagnose the bad analysis easily enough: "Ben Roethlisberger is one of the all-time greats because he just wins ballgames." But the bad logic was the more compelling. FOX NFL host Curt Menefee kicked off a theme that was carried throughout the pregame and into the game broadcast: this was Big Ben's "redemption season," and winning the Super Bowl would complete that redemption.

It takes an awful lot of question begging to construct any scenario wherein winning a particular ballgame can redeem anyone of anything, let alone two separate accusations of rape. What's more interesting is the converse implication, one the broadcast didn't address. To wit: if winning a Super Bowl morally redeems an alleged two-time rapist, then doesn't losing it confirm that he's just a piece-of-shit rapist? More importantly, why would anyone have any interest in an argument that tortured? What do they earn from that, and from whom?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Murder, Suicide, Fire, Theft, Racism and Boners: Cait Murphy's Case for Baseball's Greatest Season

At the heart of Cait Murphy's very entertaining Crazy '08 is a simple thesis: that the 1908 baseball season is the greatest in the history of the game. To prove this, she combines daily results for a handful of teams over the 154-game season with character studies of the richly idiosyncratic founding fathers of the national pastime and a selective but enlightening contextual look at American culture and baseball at the turn of the last century. Both approaches have their benefits and shortcomings, and while simultaneously pursuing them provides a natural counterpoint that helps to pace the season and deepen our understanding of it, both elements can at times inhibit the other from feeling fully realized.

On an "and then what happened?" level Murphy's approach is efficient and fairly easy to grasp. She focuses on a team's fortunes over the course of a few weeks, then switches to another team, allowing us to watch the see-sawing of luck, injury, slump and serendipity peculiar to baseball's long season. Non-fans frequently make the complaint that this is exactly what's wrong with baseball — its interminable pace both in-game and over the course of the year. These people are idiots. To the purist or even a lightly engaged fan, this is the essence of baseball: a long journey that inevitably wrenches honesty from the performance of its players, tempering hot streaks during (then) 154 games with their counterparts, the slumps, at the end giving us a fairer idea of the capabilities of all involved.

Thus Murphy shows us the New York Giants on a roll and then suddenly dropping games to weaker opponents. Pitchers lose "their stuff" for a few games and give up heartbreaking losses. Giants legend and Hall of Famer, the gentlemanly Christy Mathewson, comes into a game with an arm that feels like jello, or meets a batter whose owned him for years now and gives up another hit. The Pirates, Cubs and Giants rise and fall in the standings, while other teams languish in the basement. Of course, even under the best of circumstances, this style of recap doesn't always work.