Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Observations

Many people have taken the day off. Some of my friends are traveling to a gaming weekend (where doggies are not permitted). Humans have no sense of humor.

So the dog and I are alone for the weekend.

The political frenzy approaches it's final apoplexy. My favorite board has been plagued by bots. Cyberattack? a new form of political warfare? In any case, most of my ramblings have been there, not here, since the Inquisition (on the board) hasn't been doing very well, lately.

The leaves are finally starting to come down.

I haven't been able to enjoy the fall as much this year, due to work. I haven't even read the almanacs, something I normally do by mid-September. Being sick twice this month has not helped.

I bought a bus/Metro pass for this month, and have used it once. Too often, I have needed to travel between work sites, overtime, from work to home or event, been too ill to ride, etc. Looks like I'll have to bring the bike in for the winter. Damn.


Why in HELL does The Game HAVE to be MONDAY FRAKKING NIGHT?!?. Mondays are the worst, for me, since everything that has broken down over 2.5 days is waiting at 0800 Monday Morning, plus the usual Monday Panic. And why does it have to be at 1815? I have to cross town twice, first to relieve doggie, then to the game. Assuming a 1700 launch from work (dubious) I'll burn an hour and a half just running my ass off.

The answer is, of course, is that we're all in our mid-to-late forties, and are unwilling to sacrifice weekends. Monday holidays, Tuesday-Thursday classes, and Wednesday sports games all combine to make the worst night of the week the only night of the week that can be sacrificed for going back to the days of unlimited leisure. It does not help that I only get a fraction of the generous vacation time that my group's other players' employers ladle out. Plus, there are at least two regular campaigns going at any time, so a missed game means a month's wait anyway.

A monthly Saturday game would work well. The occasional Wednesday games work OK. Better to have a good day, and a good game, than to have a time clock punched weekly.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Sunday afternoon, Mom and I had a dinner to celebrate her 73rd birthday. Max enjoyed it most of all, with the food and attention. It was a lovely fall afternoon.

Monday morning, I had a sore throat, nausea, stomach pain, headache, and GI problems. Called in to work, and visited the healthcare system for another merry go round. Had a 99.9F temp. Tried going back to work today, had recurrence of GI problems and nausea. According to the medical people, this new form of gastro virus has been making the rounds.

The dog is happy, since he's had me for four days. Sickeningly enough, I want to go back to work... :)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe the Plumber Gets More Attention

The New Word For The Last Several Weeks

the good word: Language and how we use it.
Epic Win- Goodbye, schadenfreude; hello, fail.
By Christopher Beam
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008, at 11:55 AM ET
A demonstrator holds a "fail" sign at a Senate hearing on the financial crisis.

When Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson testified before the Senate banking committee last month about Paulson's proposed bailout bill, a demonstrator in the audience held up an 8.5-by-11 piece of paper with one word scrawled on it in block letters: "FAIL." Earlier in September, Sarah Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson was dubbed by some bloggers an "epic fail." Grist magazine invoked the phrase when John McCain told a Maine TV reporter that Sarah Palin "knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States." And just last week on the Atlantic's Web site, Ta-Nehisi Coates found the theory that Bill Ayers ghost-wrote Barack Obama's memoir so "desperate" he called it an "Epic Fail."

What's with all the failing lately? Why fail instead of failure? Why FAIL instead of fail? And why, for that matter, does it have to be "epic"?

It's nearly impossible to pinpoint the first reference, given how common the verb fail is, but online commenters suggest it started with a 1998 Neo Geo arcade game called Blazing Star. (References to the fail meme go as far back as 2003.) Of all the game's obvious draws—among them fast-paced action, disco music, and anime-style cut scenes—its staying power comes from its wonderfully terrible Japanese-to-English translations. If you beat a level, the screen flashes with the words: "You beat it! Your skill is great!" If you lose, you are mocked: "You fail it! Your skill is not enough! See you next time! Bye bye!"

Normally, this sort of game would vanish into the cultural ether. But in the lulz-obsessed echo chamber of online message boards—lulz being the questionable pleasure of hurting someone's feelings on the Web—"You fail it" became the shorthand way to gloat about any humiliation, major or minor. "It" could be anything, from getting a joke to executing a basic mental task. For example, if you told me, "Hey, I liked your article in Salon today," I could say, "You fail it." Convention dictates that I could also add, in parentheses, "(it being reading the titles of publications)." The phrase was soon shortened to fail—or, thanks to the caps-is-always-funnier school of Web writing, FAIL. People started pasting the word in block letters over photos of shameful screw-ups, and a meme was born.

The fail meme hit the big time this year with the May launch of Failblog, an assiduous chronicler of humiliation and a guide to the taxonomy of fail. The most basic fails—a truck getting sideswiped by an oncoming train, say, or a National Anthem singer falling down on the ice—are usually the most boring, as obvious as a clip from America's Funniest Home Videos. Another easy laugh is the translation fail, such as the unfortunately named "Universidad de Moron." This is the same genre of fail that spawned Engrish, an entire site devoted to poor English translations of Asian languages, not to mention the fail meme itself. A notch above those are unintentional-contradiction fails, like "seedless" sunflower seeds or a door with two signs on it: "Welcome" and "Keep Out." Architectural fails have the added misfortune of being semipermanent, such as the handicapped ramp that leads the disabled to a set of stairs or the second-story door that opens out onto nothing. Even more embarrassing are simple information fails, like the brochure that invites students to "Study Spanish in Mexico" with photos of the Egyptian pyramids. These fails often expose deep ignorance: One woman thinks her sprinkler makes a rainbow because of toxins in the water and air.

The highest form of fail—the epic fail—involves not just catastrophic failure but hubris as well. Not just coming in second in a bike race but doing so because you fell off your bike after prematurely raising your arms in victory. Totaling your pickup not because the brakes failed but because you were trying to ride on the windshield. Not just destroying your fish tank but doing it while trying to film yourself lifting weights.

Why has fail become so popular? It may simply be that people are thrilled to finally have a way to express their schadenfreude out loud. Schadenfreude, after all, is what you feel when someone else executes a fail. But the fail meme also changes our experience of schadenfreude. What was once a quiet pleasure-taking is now a public—and competitive—sport.

It's no wonder, then, that the fail meme gained wider currency with the advent of the financial crisis. Some observers relished watching wealthier-than-God investment bankers get their comeuppance. It helped that the two events occurred at the same time—Google searches for fail surged in early 2008, around the same time the mortgage crisis started to pick up steam. And the ubiquity of phrases like "failed mortgages" and "bank failures" seemed to echo the popular meme, which may have helped usher the term out of 4chan boards and onto blogs. It's rare that an Internet fad finds such a suitable mainstream vehicle for its dissemination. It's as if LOLcats coincided with a global outbreak of some feline adorability virus. The financial crisis also fits neatly into the Internet's tendency toward overstatement. (Worst. Subprime mortgage crisis. Ever.) Only this time, it's not an exaggeration.

Most Internet memes have the lifespan of fruit flies. But there's evidence to suggest fail is here to stay. For one thing, it's easier to say than failure. (Need for brevity might explain why, in Webspeak, the opposite of fail is not success but win.) And there's a proud tradition in English of chopping off the endings of words for convenience. Between Old and Middle English, many nouns stopped being declined, says Anatoly Liberman, an etymologist at the University of Minnesota. Likewise, while Romance languages still conjugate their verbs, English keeps it relatively simple: I speak, you speak, we speak, etc. It's also common for verbs to become nouns, Liberman points out. You can lock a door, but it also has a lock. You can bike, but you can also own a bike. There was great fuss a century ago among readers of the British magazine Notes and Queries when it used the word meet to refer to a sporting event. It's not surprising that failure would eventually spawn fail.

It wouldn't be the first word to owe its ascendance to the Internet. The exclamation w00t—an interjection expressing joy—gained mainstream recognition when Merriam-Webster crowned it Word of the Year in 2007. The phrase pwned, a perversion of owned used by online gamers, made it into an episode of South Park—not quite the OED but still authoritative—and enjoys broad ironic usage. And of course, Google is no longer just a noun.

Unlike those words, though, fail has the luxury of pre-existing forms. It already exists as a noun in the phrase "without fail." It's therefore likely to gain quicker entry into most people's lexicon than, say, a word that includes digits.

In other words, fail will win.

Friday, October 10, 2008

This Would Never Be Misused

Note: MOD=Ministry Of Defence

Story Image

Data of Armed Forces personnel has gone missing

Friday October 10,2008

MPs have demanded a "cultural change" in public sector data handling as it emerged that a computer hard drive possibly containing the private details of Armed Forces personnel was missing.

In the latest Whitehall data embarrassment, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said its IT contractor, EDS, could not account for the portable drive.

It could contain the names, addresses, passport numbers, dates of birth, next-of-kin and driving licence details of up to 100,000 Army, Navy and RAF personnel.

An urgent investigation by the MoD is under way to establish what the drive actually contains. Officials stressed that they were currently treating the case as a "potential" data loss.

Ministers are understood to be "furious" at the development and insistent that it is resolved as quickly as possible.

Downing Street described the loss of the data as "regrettable".

It is only the latest information security breach to hit the MoD.

In July it admitted 658 of its laptops had been stolen over the past four years and 26 portable memory sticks containing classified information had been either stolen or misplaced since January.

Tory MP Nigel Evans, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Identity Fraud, said: "This is yet another example of the serious implications the loss of personal data can have for the general public.

The Liberal Democrats described the loss as a "disturbing breach of security" and called for an urgent inquiry into how it had occurred.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Where We're Going After Loss-Of-Empire

From The Sunday Times
October 5, 2008
Let’s put the drink down and just talk
New Yorker Sarah Lyall voices her shock at the British dependence on the bottle for relaxation
Sarah Lyall, New York Times London Correspondent

Most Octobers I cover the Man Booker prize, an occasion where members of the literati converge in an elaborate medieval banqueting hall in London to hear who has won the country’s most important fiction award so they can proceed to attack, sneer at and feel jealous and insecure about the decision. The dinner beforehand tends to drag and when you are seated next to someone who has nothing to say and seems weary of his (and your) very existence, you feel you should have spent the evening at home watching CSI: Miami reruns in your pyjamas.

I felt this keenly at one of these dinners when the man on my left, a moderately successful publishing executive, turned out to be a twitching parody of a tongue-tied Englishman spooked by normal social interaction. He answered in monosyllables. He failed to initiate topics of conversation. He stared at his bread roll, shuffled in his chair, fidgeted with his napkin. Aside from the occasional phlegm-displacing sound he was a silent companion.

But by the time the main course arrived, a strange transformation had taken place. Mr Silent had become Mr Forthcoming, even Mr Amusing. He listened to what I said, told complex anecdotes with memorable punch lines, spoke expansively about literature, leant in close for a tête-à-tête.

I had drawn him out, I thought; I was finally getting the hang of this place. But it wasn’t me. It was the wine. By the time we got our coffee, my man had had too much and his conversation flowed down the path to nowhere. He started and abandoned subjects. He spoke in nonsequiturs, repeated himself, grew sweaty and red-faced. Finally he went quiet again, clutching his glass in contemplative desperation.

By British standards, of course, this man was not a hopeless drunk, not even close. Meeting him taught me that you should take advantage of a man’s lucid middle period during this type of meal because you won’t get much before or after it. His performance also helped to illustrate the benefits and drawbacks of alcohol as a tool and a prop and a backdrop to British society.

In a nation of the chronically ill-at-ease, alcohol is the lubricant that eases the pain of frightening social encounters, an essential prelude to relaxation, to joie de vivre and even, at times, to rudimentary conversation. But because Britain has what is known as an “ambivalent alcohol culture” – which means the British haven’t worked it out completely – they can take their drinking too far, too fast, with corrosive consequences to health, happiness and productivity.

I have many British friends who in America would be considered functioning alcoholics – the equivalent of 1950s Cheeveresque businessmen from suburban Connecticut who greeted the end of the workday with a couple of predinner martinis before moving on to wine and whisky. Heavy drinking is part of the fabric of their lives and it would be considered rude to comment on it.

I had come from New York, a city where this kind of drinking is reserved for the weekend and drinking to the point of insensibility is an activity only for the very young or the very likely to be headed for AA. By contrast, Britons seemed to drink all the time. It was a shock to see how enthusiastically they knocked back the booze at Sunday lunches in the country and how high their tolerance was. It was a shock to see, after we’d had our first weekday dinner party (everyone stayed until 1am, never mind their jobs), that the table was covered in twice as many empty wine bottles as there had been guests.

Britons love to drink and love to boast about drinking. Like hungover students who wake up sick on sticky, beer-soaked floors with someone else’s underpants on their heads but then brag about their awesome night of partying, they have an amused tolerance for drunken high jinks.

One of the reasons the late Queen Mother was so beloved was that she spent the last decades of her life in a benign alcoholic haze. For the British, alcohol is a relaxant, an emollient, a crutch, a relief, an excuse. If they go overboard, it is the get-out-of-jail-free card that allows them to throw up their hands, palms out, and disavow responsibility.

Per capita drinking across most of Europe has decreased in the past 40 years, but in Britain it has increased. People start younger, drink more and are increasingly likely to binge-drink. Government figures released last year show that British adults on average drink the equivalent of 11.4 litres of pure alcohol a year – translating into 130 bottles of wine or 1,137 pints of beer. The government has estimated that the total cost to society, in medical bills, missed work, clean-up charges and increased policing, is about £20 billion a year.

“There’s no social group that’s immune to binge drinking except the elderly – although we recently had a 90-year-old who drank five pints and fell down as he tried to leave his local pub,” Dr Paul Atkinson, a consultant in the A&E department at Adden-brooke’s hospital in Cambridge, told me. “It’s very common to have head injuries. I’ve had people who’ve inhaled their teeth into their lungs.”

The effects are all too obvious to anyone brave enough to take certain trains late at night, to stand outside pubs or clubs at closing time or to venture into town and city centres late on Friday or Saturday nights.

Drunken Brits are one of the country’s most visible exports, too. Other Europeans sometimes feel as if Britain treats their continent as one huge pub, followed by one huge bath-room. One day I decided to go to Prague on easyJet (price of last-minute ticket: £50) on a flight that left at 6.15am. Most of the passengers – groups of young men in matching shirts with stag-party slogans – seemed to have been up all night in the pub. When I tried to talk to some of them, they were like schoolchildren: embarrassed to be singled out, staring glassy-eyed through the window.

Why did they choose Prague? “We looked on the internet and these were the flights that were available,” said one guy, maybe 35, whose breakfast, three cans of Kronen-bourg, was lined up in front of him. He snickered: “I thought we were going to Barcelona.”

His even more unfriendly friend, unshaven and paunchy, finished his first round. “Bring the trolley to me with a big straw!” he shouted to the flight attendant, who seemed unperturbed.

If the atmosphere on the plane was unpleasant, the atmosphere in Prague was poisonous. Rocky O’Reilly’s, a transplanted Irish pub just down the street from my hotel, was filled with British men drinking for drinking’s sake. A group were attempting to flick sugar cubes into water glasses. One man wore a plastic headpiece in the shape of a turd because he had expressed annoyance about something – or “got a turd on”. So he had to wear the hat until someone else got annoyed, whereupon he could then pass it on.

These were men in their early thirties whose touristic research had consisted of printing out lists of Prague drinking establishments and strip clubs from the web. They explained that British society no longer allows for male-only activities, except possibly for football matches, so stag weekends are important bonding opportunities. “It’s the extreme end of men’s behaviour,” said one guy, who admitted that he couldn’t have a real conversation with his pals without a drink in his hand.

Robbie Norton, the owner of Rocky O’Reilly’s, told me about a party of 23, fresh off the plane, who had consumed 180 vodkas and 60 cans of Red Bull in a single Friday. Sometimes the British embassy was taking 60 drunken calls a night from Brits who had lost their wallet or could not remember the name of their hotel or what city they were in.

I hate to sound like a spoil-sport, but it’s hard not to feel there is a large problem here that many people simply refuse to confront, no matter how much doctors warn about cirrhosis or the government enacts new laws about antisocial behaviour. It’s also hard to expect the public to change its attitude when many of the people it most admires – sports stars, younger members of the royal family, politicians – spend so much of their time getting publicly trashed.

Extracted from A Field Guide to the British by Sarah Lyall, published by Quercus at £14.99. Copies can be ordered for £13.49, including postage, from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Death Knell for Politics As Usual

The 3T political structure is collapsing.

Fukuyama Says 4T

Florida Envious Of Rock Hill MO,0,6871280.story

$1,000 fine for speeding 50 mph over limit takes effect in Florida

By Michael Turnbell and Sallie James | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
October 5, 2008

Brazen motorcyclists and drivers now will be clobbered with a fine in the four figures — $1,000 and up — if they get busted for excessive speeding on Florida roads.

And for the bikers, there are additional new rules, including a ban on "popping wheelies," or lifting the front wheel off the pavement.

Under a Florida law that took effect this month, drivers face a $1,000 fine for going 50 mph over the speed limit.

Get caught a second time and you'll fork over $2,500 and lose your license for a year. You'll pay $5,000 for the third offense and forfeit your license for 10 years.

Previously, the harshest penalty was $250 for exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 mph. That penalty is still in effect.

On the second day the new law went into effect, officers using airplanes to track traffic cited 80 people for excessive speeding in a 1 1/2 -hour period Thursday evening on the southern end of the Palmetto Expressway in Miami-Dade County.

One motorcyclist was clocked at 150 mph. A Ford Mustang hit 145 mph.

"I expected we'd see two or three, but there was one right after the other," said state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, who drafted the new law to deter speeders from turning highways into racecourses.

Lopez-Cantera's bill initially targeted reckless motorcyclists on racing-style motorcycles. But the Legislature broadened it to include all motorists after motorcycle riders complained it was discriminatory.

A second part of the law requires that motorcyclists keep both wheels on the ground at all times. Bike owners also must attach their license tags horizontally.

If the plate is mounted improperly, officers can fine the rider $1,000. The intent was to penalize riders with "flip-up" tags that can be turned so the tag isn't readable — a ploy used by speeders.

But it also might hurt riders with customized bikes, such as choppers with designs that might make normal plate mounting impossible, said James Lesniak, president of the southeast chapter of the local motorcycle rights group ABATE.

"You get a guy who pays $80,000 for his bike, rides it out of the shop the first day, and a few blocks away gets a $1,000 ticket," Lesniak said. "I think this is absolutely ridiculous."

"Big Ed" Youssef, president of the Outsiders Motorcycle Club, a sports bike club with about 50 members, said the law is unfair but probably necessary.

"You have a lot of independent riders going out there doing whatever they want," Youssef said. "The machines are so fast, police can't keep up with them. Unfortunately, a lot of good riders are going to get caught in the crossfire."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Waiting for Schadenfreude

October 2, 2008, 10:02 pm
Waiting for Schadenfreude

A couple of years ago, at the height of the boom, a friend in New York publishing described to me the indignities of being a five-figure employee commuting daily from suburban New Jersey on trains packed with traders, stock brokers and hedge-fund types.

“These were the guys who, in college, I used to step over on Sunday mornings when they were lying in a pool of their own vomit,” he said. “And now they’re earning millions and millions – in bonuses alone.”

The image, as you might imagine, stuck in my mind. For it summed up so well a certain kind of resentment and sense of injustice that a particular class of non-monied professionals in the New York area came to feel sometime in the late 1990s.

The feeling of injustice wasn’t just about money, though it was partly about being more than solidly middle class and still struggling to pay the bills, as New York writer Vince Passaro captured so well in his “Reflections on the Art of Going Broke” (“Who’ll Stop the Drain?”) in Harper’s in 1998.

It was, rather, about a sense that the wrong people had inherited the earth.

They had taken over everything. Their salaries (and bonuses in particular) had pushed real estate costs and living expenses sky-high. Their values had permeated every aspect of life. And their choices seemed to have become the only acceptable — even viable — ones possible.

In the 1970s, even in New York, it had been financially possible for a middle class family to survive if parents — even one parent — built a professional life around something other than purely making money. In the 1980s — even in the “greed is good” (which was of course meant to be a damning phrase) 1980s — it seemed respectable, honorable and, dare I say, valuable to do things other than make a lot of money. But by the late 1990s, in New York, if you weren’t in the financial industry, it was hard to survive.

And so it went, in a more general way, throughout the country, in the whole winner-take-all-era ushered in by the boom years of the late 1990s. The model for success narrowed. The goal posts marking success grew more out of reach. For all the people who did something with their lives other than doggedly, single-mindedly — and successfully — pursuing wealth (“You mean, some people’s jobs are just about making money?” Julia once asked me in the course of one of our “What the World is About” conversations), life got harder and scarier and more confusing.

Many of us who’d proudly decided, in our twenties, to pursue edifying or creative, or “helping” professions, woke up to realize, once we had families, that we’d perhaps been irresponsible. We couldn’t save for college. We could barely save for retirement. If we set up a “family-friendly” lifestyle, we threw our financial futures down the drain.

So, like just about everyone, we worked hard and treaded water, but felt we were entitled to do better than that. And if we lived in the New York area, or another similarly wealthy area where the spoils of the new Gilded Age were constantly thrust in our faces, we felt, like my friend on the train, a little something more: we knew that we were losers.

(“The Big L,” a friend, an art school grad turned design consultant, declared last week, calling me in tears after her stockbroker told her how little she cared about her modest portfolio. “Why not just brand it right on my forehead and be done with it?”)

This financial crisis is supposed to be a big moment of reckoning. “666-Mark of the Beast” and “Root of all Evil” the End-of-World Web sites are shouting, quoting prominent economists on the demise of the American banking system. “Wall Street, R.I.P.”, a headline in The Times proclaimed last weekend. “The Master of the Universe Era is over,” New York magazine chimed in.

For those of us who have hated this period — the wealth worship, the wealth gap, the elevation of everything suspiciously shiny and irrationally bubbly and stupidly ebullient, there should be some feeling of vindication. But it just isn’t coming. A great emptiness — and a gnawing kind of fear — has taken its place.

After 9/11, psychologists said that the tragedy and trauma would magnify whatever emotional state people were already experiencing. Depressed people would become much more depressed. Anxious people would become much more anxious.

The current financial crisis has, I think, proven to be a similar sort of emotional Rorschach test. People who felt impotent feel even more powerless. Those who felt lied to see new levels of conspiracy. Demagogues are engaging in even more demagoguery.

And those of us who felt, well, like losers, are feeling like even bigger losers, as we shove our unopened 401K or (if we’re double-loser freelancers) SEP-IRA statements into bottom desk drawers and wait for a cathartic burst of schadenfreude that simply refuses to come.

Schadenfreude is impossible because the fat cats — the ones who bent the rules, the ones who pushed the envelopes, the ones who paid lower taxes because capital gains were most of their income, the ones who opposed regulations on the banking and mortgage industries — are taking us down with them.

The very wealthiest are, as always, likely to do just fine. Real, hard-core Wall Street, as Tom Wolfe reminded us last weekend, long ago decamped for the hedge funds of Greenwich. The political leaders who allowed this mess to develop have turned into the great defenders of “Main Street.” (If I have to hear the juxtaposition of “Main Street” and “Wall Street” one more time, I will be the one drowning in a pool of vomit.). It’s a whole host of other people — vulnerable middle class homeowners and small business owners and, now, universities unable to make payroll — who are hurting.

I called my friend in publishing yesterday to ask him how things were going on the train.

“There’s a lot of rueful chuckling. There’s a lot of talk about riding this out, about maintaining,” is all he had to say.

It was 23 years ago that Tom Wolfe introduced us to the Masters of the Universe. They were curiosities then — remote, very rich, and decidedly not like you and me. But now, the world of Wall Street has become our world; there is no outside to it, there is no other option than to pay and play. Our fortunes rise and fall together to a degree like never before, and our values are enmeshed like never before. The language of Wall Street — of cost-cutting and efficiency, self-interest, using each situation to maximize profit, is the language of everyday life and social interaction.

We’re all losers now. There’s no pleasure to it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Worse Than Bush As A Pilot?!?

Once, after Bush's failures had gotten to the point that no one could deny them, I asked my fellow conservative friends who was the better pilot and military leader.

They actually had to stop for a minute, and concede the point.

Now, there is somebody worse.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Family Values!

Pregnant and Addicted to Heroin
Expectant Mother Is One of Many Addicts in America's Heartland
RICHLAND COUNTY, Ohio, Sept. 29, 2008

Merry Doerr has spent her whole life in the American farmbelt, a rural pocket of green tucked into the middle of Ohio. She's close to her family, living with her mother and 4-year-old daughter.

With her blond hair and blue eyes, Doerr embodies the classic American look -- and says she grew up with classic American values.

"When I grew up, my mom had raised me in Christian beliefs," she said, "and I knew ... right from wrong based on the Bible. I was a cheerleader. I had a lot of friends."

But life is different now. Doerr, who is five months pregnant and preparing for her second child, is not like other young mothers. She's a heroin addict.

"I wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning, dope sick with my stomach in cramps and sweating," she said, describing the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. "I have to get up out of bed at 4 o'clock in the morning, and go and use. And then I go back to bed and I wake up a few hours later and have to go use again."

"This is what I need to be normal," Doerr said. "You know I have to do dope every day to be normal. If I didn't have my dope this morning, I would be laying in bed right now thrashing around and vomiting. I wouldn't be able to function. I need [heroin] to function every day."

'Snowing Heroin' in Rural Ohio

It turns out that in the rural heartland of Ohio, halfway between the big cities of Cleveland and Columbus, heroin is everywhere.

"I would say it's up to epidemic proportions as far as the heroin," said Dane Howard of the Huron County Sheriff's Office. "Everywhere you go, it's like it's snowing heroin."

People here say heroin is indeed blanketing the main streets of tiny towns such as Plymouth, Ohio, where Doerr grew up. Doerr's mother, Patti Case, a schoolteacher, said so many people in their town of 1,800 were addicted to heroin that she moved her family, hoping to distance her daughter from the problem. But they found that the problem stretched across the region.

"There's probably not a family here, not just Plymouth but the surrounding area, that hasn't been touched by heroin," said Charlie Doan, chief of the Plymouth Police Department. "I think a lot of that started with Oxycontin."

In the mid-1990s, OxyContin, the highly addictive prescription pain killer, was being widely abused in rural communities like this one.

"About a decade ago, OxyContin got a strong foothold here in this whole region" said Howard. "The dealers drove the price up."

Cheap and Easy

As the street costs of OxyContin rose to about $80 per pill, drug dealers introduced heroin, which provides a similar high for less money.
The Richland County Sheriff's Department regularly confiscates drug paraphenalia from drivers who inject heroin on their way back from buying the drug in Columbus, Ohio.
(ABC News)

"Nightline" heard the same story over and over from addicts who started on painkillers and ended up hooked on heroin.

"I started out snorting Vicodins or Percocets," said one former heroin addict, who now works as an undercover informant for local police. "[I] eventually went to Oxycontins .[Heroin] was a lot cheaper and a lot better high than the Oxys."

The informant is now clean and asked that his identity not be revealed.

He assists police by cooperating in undercover drug buys. "Nightline" rode along with him and the police to Columbus, about an hour and a half away, where he buys black tar heroin directly from what he and police say is a network of Mexican dealers.

"The guys I get it from sell it in what's called balloons," he said. "Some of the guys sell it in actual balloons, but the guy I'm getting it from today, he wraps it in tinfoil. They still call it balloons because that's the street name. Typically, people get seven to 10 of these balloons for $100, or $20 apiece."

He later slipped into the dealer's car, and bought $100 worth of heroin while driving around a leafy, residential neighborhood in broad daylight. The informant said when he was actively using drugs, he would make this trip at least once a day, buying enough drugs to support his own habit and also to sell to other heroin addicts in his town.

'It's Like a Plague'

Doerr has been making that trek to Columbus for years. In fact, when ABC News first encountered her in July, she had just come back from a trip to Columbus with her on-and-off-again boyfriend. They have been shooting up together since they were high school sweethearts in Plymouth, Ohio. He asked us not to reveal his name.

"I mean, when I'm not using drugs, I'm a totally different person," he said. "Really, I mean when I'm on dope it's just like, it twists me inside out, and I just become a totally different person. I'm ruthless, I'm conniving, I'm a cheater, I'm a liar I'm ..."

"A thief," Doerr chimed in.

He said, "It's become an epidemic," describing the heroin abuse in his hometown. "It's like a plague, seriously. People I went to school with are no longer around, dead [or] in prison." He said he knows 17 people who have died from using heroin.

Later, the two shoot up, mixing a hard chunk of heroin with water and boiling it down into a dark, brown liquid that filled their syringes. Doerr struggled to find a vein that hadn't already collapsed, and as she looked for one, she showed us the bruises that cover her body, evidence of her seven-year heroin addiction

But she said she wanted help. And soon after that, Doerr was treated at a Columbus hospital in a detox program specifically designed for pregnant addicts.

The hospital got her off heroin using the drug methadone -- which is accepted as a safe method for pregnant women, and their unborn children, to wean their bodies off a narcotic. But there is no methadone clinic back at home for her to maintain that treatment.

The next time "Nightline" met up with her, in August, she was shooting up again.

Doerr said she resorted to heroin because she can't quit cold turkey.

"It's like food to my baby," she said. "It's like food everyday. That's why I'm saying it has to have it everyday. Just like I do.

"The fact that I've been using for seven years, each time you get strung out and each time you go through detox it gets worse and worse," she says. "And the fact that I'm using, you know -- the amount that I'm using a lot -- I've cut back half of what I was using. I was using six balloons a day. Now I'm using maybe three."

Detox Facilities Hard to Find

Total detox, Doerr says, is unbelievably difficult.

Inside the crime lab at the Richland County Sheriff's Office, an officer shows "Nightline" black tar heroin. The heroin is wrapped in wax paper and then tied into a balloon or sometimes wrapped again in tinfoil. This is then sold as a "balloon". The street value of one balloon in Columbus, Ohio is about 20 dollars. In the background sits a whole bag of balloons confiscated by the Sheriff's department during a drug bust. Collapse
(ABC News)

"I might make it to the second day and I'm just spazzing out and panicking. And the second day I'm trying to find a fix. I can't do it," she said. "People say, 'Well, if you love your daughter, you will shape up.' It's not really a question of loving my daughter. I'm a mother. I love my daughter as much as any mother could love their daughter. It's a matter of loving myself enough and doing what I have to do, you know? It's not a matter of how much I love her."

Doerr often contemplates if her decision to raise Riley, her 4-year-old, was wise.

"Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't have given her up for adoption," she said, crying. "Because she has to see me come in and out of her life, and it's not fair. It's not fair. And it gets harder the older she gets. ... As a parent nobody wants that for their daughter."

Doerr's mom, Patti, has custody of Riley, and cares for her while desperately trying to find help for her daughter. But help is hard to find in the heartland.

Despite the rampant heroin abuse here, there is no detox facility in the entire county, meaning most addicts must wean themselves off of the drug at home. Experts say while heroin detox is painful, it's not usually dangerous in the way other drug withdrawals can be. So emergency rooms usually turn down heroin addicts looking to detox, because hospital supervision is rarely considered medically necessary.

For most addicts, staying clean after detox requires a long-term rehabilitation program. And many of those programs require insurance, something few addicts have.

As a result, jails have become makeshift detox centers. "When I get out I'm going to try and stay off it," said one Richland County Jail inmate in Mansfield, Ohio. "Because this is the longest I've ever went without using it. I mean I've tried to quit several times but I never went past a week, if I even made it that long. I've been in here since June 4. It's been over two months."

"[This] is the longest I've ever been clean," said Sue Mills, another inmate who had been without heroin for eight days since getting into jail. "They don't have any methadone clinics here. They don't have needle exchange programs. You can't buy needles in Richland County. So it's a neverending cycle of sharing needles and hepatitis. It's just a nightmare."

It's a nightmare not just for the addicts but also for local law enforcement, which is overwhelmed by the crime heroin has brought to their communities. They've seen it affect all kinds of people.

"It could be the person that you know played football in high school," Doerr said. "It could be the person next door. It could be, you know -- just everybody is strung out, you just don't know anymore. You hear everyday stories of, oh, this person, so and so is using drugs. You know mostly you hear about mothers talking to mothers, just so many of their kids. So many people my age are strung out. But even people my mother's age in their 40s are strung, too, it's caught them too."

'I Have No Life Right Now'

Doerr said she is desperate to break free of the grasp heroin has on her.

"I have no life right now," she said. "I try to maintain a halfway normal life where I go and get what I need and I come back and I take care of my daughter. But even now I'm not fully here.

"I am sick much of the time even when I have dope. I'm sick all the time. I sleep all the time," she said. "Seeing myself clean is not out of sight yet. [And] I can't lose that. If I lose that then I have nothing."

For information about how to help those suffering from drug addiction, please visit the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

So Perfect At Describing Two CF's

MD Recruits Face Culture Shock in Appalachia
Doctor Shortage Draws Foreigners Who Find 'Hillbilly Heroin,' Highest Mortality Rate
Oct. 2, 2008

For 25 years, Dr. David Avery has been practicing medicine "solo" in West Virginia -- the only state entirely situated in Appalachia, the heart of America's rural poor. Until recently his caseload was 4,000 to 5,000 families across 40 isolated towns.

But today, because of a campaign to recruit new primary care physicians, Avery has more help, working alongside a growing number of foreign doctors at the Ritchie County Primary Health Group in Parkersburg.

Lured by "exchange visitor" visas, these doctors -- hailing from Pakistan to the Philippines -- are often greeted as "rock stars," but in the isolated hollers of Appalachia, they face a mountain of cultural and medical challenges.

"It's very hard," Avery told "These people don't want to trust anyone who hasn't lived here for years. It's hard enough for U.S.-trained physicians to come to a little town. They are very protective, and if you are not one of them, they can chase you out of town. You're not accepted."

With doctors like Avery, 54, who are approaching retirement, and medical students choosing lucrative specialties, the nation as a whole faces a shortage of primary doctors. In Appalachia, a federally declared Health Professionals Shortage Area, the need is particularly acute.

Foreign doctors may obtain a J-1 visa if they relocate to an underserved area for three years. After that, they can practice anywhere in the U.S.

'People Won't Go to Them'

"We find more and more of these places are filling up with foreign doctors who don't have as much debt as the American ones," said Avery. "Doctors come to these small towns, and there are language barriers. The problem is that people won't go to them, even if they are perfectly well-trained."

The new doctors encounter a proud and protective population that is used to "taking care of their own," according to Avery, who serves on the board of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Nowhere is the need for medical care more striking than in Appalachia -- a 200,000-square-mile swath of mountains that touches on 13 states from New York to Mississippi. The region of 23 million people, which has been vilified in stereotypes, is one of the most historically neglected in the nation.

"They are hardworking people, some of the friendliest in the country, with a strong sense of community and strong sense of purpose," said Louis Segesvary, a spokesman for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which for the last half century has addressed the region's economic depair.

Avery acknowledges some of the stereotypes -- including incest. "Some of that's real," he said. "There are a lot of social issues in small-town families -- domestic abuse and a more isolated redneck attitude."

The region leads the nation in rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as the abuse of prescription drugs. Overdoses of the painkiller oxycodone are so common, it's called "hillbilly heroin."

Avery's patients seldom ask for medical help, and when they do, their diseases are more advanced. Mothers shortchange their own health to take a child to the doctor before themselves, and families forgo follow-up visits because of the extra expense for X-rays, lab work and prescriptions.

"The people are generally poorer, eat worse, don't take care of themselves as much and tend to be stoic individuals," Avery said.

Their culture of clannishness encourages Appalachians to avoid mental health professionals and solve crises within the family, according to Avery.

In Sisterville, a poor town of 1,500, a local drunk was "protected" for years until he sexually assaulted a woman from another family and ended up in the emergency room with a skull fracture.

"Things either get very bad before we see them, or someone finds out about it," said Avery. "It's an intra-family thing. The man was supposed to be a contractor but spent most of his time drinking -- until he got drunk at someone else's house and caused major harm to one of the family members.

"He took advantage of a woman and then the family went and beat the daylights out of him," he said. "They protect their own."

'It's a Somewhat Bleak Life'

In some of these small towns, foreign doctors outnumber local doctors 2 to 1, according to Avery, a trend that is seen in other parts of Appalachia, such as Tennessee.

Recruits like Dr. Ryan Guanzon, a native of the Philippines, are attracted to the beauty of the mountains, the "slower pace of life" and the low cost of living.

"I knew I would be a better doctor if I came here," the general practitioner from Tazeville, Tenn., recently told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "They have a lot of problems, both healthwise and their personal situations. Sometimes I have to get both."

Guanzon added, "I always tell [my patients], 'This is something common that I deal with every day, nothing to be ashamed of. And you can tell me everything, because this is a safe place to be. It's a doctor's office. I won't tell anyone about your problems."

Many of those problems have been evoked in both literature and film, but the reality is more nuanced, according to Jeannette Walls, who wrote "The Glass Castle," a memoir of growing up in persistent poverty in the small city of Welch, W.Va., in the 1970s.

"It's a somewhat bleak life, and the employment opportunities and chances for an optimistic outlook are so slim," said Walls, who left Appalachia at 19 to work as a journalist in New York City. "I lived at the bottom."

In her book, Walls described a mountain home with dirt floors and without plumbing. When rainwater poured through the roof into the kitchen, she and her siblings suffered intermittent shocks when brushing against the one modern appliance, the stove.

"The entire time I lived in West Virginia I didn't go to the dentist or the doctor a single time," said Walls. "It's a combination of poverty and living outside the system. I always thought that people who went to hospitals were wusses. You scrape your knee, you take care of it. You get a boil, you pop it and put mercurochrome on it, and you're all set to go."

Economic conditions have improved in the nearly half century since the federal government created the Appalachian Regional Commission to address the precursors to poor health -- low income, limited education and geographic isolation. But new reports show that mortality rates for those under 65 are the worst in the nation.

"The mountains shape people's lives both literally and figuratively," writes Bruce Behringer in the 2006 report "Appalachia: Where Place Matters in Health."

Mortality Rates Highest in Country

Death rates in Appalachia in the 1960s and 1970s were below the national rate, but now the under-65 mortality rate --by both gender and race -- tops the nation, said Behringer, an assistant vice president for the division of health sciences at East Tennessee State University.

Lack of exercise, obesity and smoking all contribute to Appalachia's record as the heart disease capital of the United States. Tobacco is also an entrenched part of the culture, and lung cancer rates among all groups are 20 to 30 percent higher than the rest of the nation.

"Appalachia is a very, very unhealthy place," Behringer told "They are dying more frequently at an earlier age."

Mountain families remember tobacco as the "Christmas crop" because payments from auction come at the holidays. Some studies show half of all primary care patients have some connection to the tobacco industry.

It's not unusual to see pregnant women smoke. One-third of all women report they are in abusive relationships and smoking is a "coping skill," Behringer said. "Mama is working. You can't take the baby to the doctor or get a pap smear -- you have to take a day off from work."

Mental health issues exceed the national average but are rarely addressed. "Everybody knows your truck, and if go to that building, everyone knows it's you," he said.

"There's no lack of technology in mountains," Behringer added. But "good, efficient and effective communication" is lacking between doctor and patient. "You don't ask, it's part of the culture, a lack of assertiveness with your own health."

That passive culture makes the job of foreign doctors more difficult, as many patients fear they will not be understood by a non-native speaker.

But finding American-born doctors is difficult because of the rural isolation, said Dr. Don Brady, assistant dean for graduate medical education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

"If someone wants to have an academic career, they're going to be remote -- too far from a [nearby university] and from discussion," he told "There are fewer colleagues to share stories and questions with."

Social isolation is also a problem. "Single doctors are looking for a spouse and want to go where they can meet a partner, marry or raise children," he said. "If they are married, it affects schools and what the environment you raise your kids in."

Doctors Don't Stay Long Enough to Form Relationships

Many foreign doctors stay only the three years and move on to sub-specialty fellowships. "Then the town isn't gaining a primary doctor, but a 'doc-in-the-box,' someone who is there just a short time and they don't really develop a relationship," Brady said.

And for a region with such great medical needs, the loss of primary doctors who are aging and retiring is catastrophic. "We are losing general internists," Brady said. "They are the real quarterbacks of someone's care."

Meanwhile, Dr. Avery relies on his foreign colleagues to help with the "desperate" medical needs at both the Sisterville emergency room and the Ritchie County health center. Those who come with an open heart and no "big city snobbery" are eventually welcome, he said.

Avery said, "It's a really friendly group, and I enjoy working with them."

The Brits Say: "4T"

The US democratic-capitalist model is on trial. No schadenfreude, please
This week the demands of American democracy clashed with those of American capitalism. And China's premier smiled

o Timothy Garton Ash
o The Guardian,
o Thursday October 2 2008
o Article history

As Meltdown Monday (September 29) follows Meltdown Monday (September 15), the mountain of American capitalism is changing shape before our eyes. Like Krakatoa, nobody knows how it will look when the eruptions are over.

"Democratic capitalism is the best system ever devised," George Bush informed his fellow Americans in a solemn televised address last week, striving to win Congressional support for a $700bn bail-out package to save "our entire economy". But this Monday, as the House of Representatives voted down the package, causing the Dow Jones index to lose $1.2 trillion of value in a single day, democracy collided with capitalism. To be precise: the urgent demands of the contemporary American version of democracy clashed with those of the contemporary American version of capitalism.

Crucially, it was House Republicans who defied their president's appeal. For some, the choice was ideological. They would rather die than vote for an expansion of government's economic role which they regard as tantamount to socialism. No, Bolshevism. Listen to Representative Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, chair of the House Republican policy committee and co-sponsor earlier this year of a resolution urging the president to make 2008 "The National Year of the Bible", as documented in the Congressional record of Monday's debate: "The choice is stark, and it was put forward in the book by Dostoevsky. In The Brothers Karamazov, the grand inquisitor came to Jesus and he said: 'If you wish to subject the people, give them miracle, mystery and authority; but above all, give them bread.'

"It has always been the temptation in a crisis especially to sacrifice liberty for short-term promises of prosperity, and it was no mistake that during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution the slogan was Peace, Land and Bread. Today you are being asked to choose between bread and freedom. I suggest that the people on Main Street have said that they prefer their freedom, and I am with them."

Main Street Jesus against the Dostoevskyan Bolshevik bail-out. Who was it said American reality trumps its own fiction? The fact that the vote came in the midst of a presidential election didn't help. Both sides pretended not to be playing party politics while playing party politics.

Mainly, though, those Congressmen and Congresswomen who voted against - Democrats as well as Republicans - were afraid of losing their own seats. All are up for re-election on November 4, the same time as the presidential ballot. Most had faced a tidal wave of emails and phone calls expressing public anger at letting those responsible in Wall Street and Washington off the hook. So they felt they had to demonstrate to those furious voters that they, too, were mad at Wall Street and the friends of Wall Street in Washington. (That is, in the case of many House Republicans, themselves until only recently.) Humbug, you may say. Lowdown politics rather than high-minded statesmanship, you may sigh. You may be right. But don't tell me this is not democracy, a system in which the people choose their representatives.

Why did so many ordinary Americans react this way? Most Europeans' first reaction would be: state, ride to the rescue! But this is America, where the geysers of anti-Washington and anti-Wall Street populism have deep historical springs. And this is early 21st-century America, where the rich have got richer while the poor have got poorer, and the middle class - whose plight Barack Obama is evoking very effectively - have struggled to make ends meet. The rich who have got richer include the architect of the original bail-out plan, treasury secretary Henry "Hank" Paulson, former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, whose stake in that firm was said to be worth about $500m when he cashed out in 2006.

I write on Wednesday, while the House of Representatives is in recess for Rosh Hashanah. By the time you read this, the House may have repented, and be preparing to pass a revised version of the bill agreed in the Senate. It may be that this restores sufficient confidence for banks to start lending again, and another Great Depression will be averted. Or maybe not; we shall see.

Even if it does, the question about democratic capitalism remains. A quarter-century ago, near the beginning of what came to be known as the Reagan revolution, the American Catholic social theorist Michael Novak published an influential book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. It argued that capitalism is "compatible only with democracy". "While bastard forms of capitalism do seem able for a time to endure without democracy," wrote Novak, "the natural logic of capitalism leads to democracy." And true capitalism requires moral virtues such as "temperance and prudence, fortitude and justice".

In 2008, China's undemocratic capitalism looks like one hell of a bastard. What's more, its leaders claim that it embodies some of those very virtues that Novak specifies for democratic capitalism - and which the American model seems spectacularly to have lacked in recent times. Temperance! Prudence! Justice! In a remarkable recent interview with Fareed Zakaria, which you can see on CNN online, China's premier Wen Jiabao argues that China combines a market economy with macroeconomic guidance by government.

Amazingly, he illustrates his argument by reference to the two main works of Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations, said Wen, highlights the need for the invisible hand of the market, while The Theory of Moral Sentiments shows the need for the visible hand of government, in the interests of social equity and harmonious development.

In reality, of course, China has massive inequality and corruption, and the claim that its model of capitalism without democracy - the real thing, I mean, not just the label - is a better, more durable and more moral alternative may turn out to be baloney. Although Wen makes his case more articulately than President Bush, I think Bush is still more likely to be right. To adapt Churchill, democratic capitalism is the worst possible system, apart from all the others that have been tried from time to time.

But democratic capitalism is now on trial. It faces huge homemade problems and formidable competition. Fortunately, there are many variants of democratic capitalism, not just the one that is erupting in the US. For some Europeans, it will be tempting to say: "Ah, if only you Americans had adopted our nice, humane, equitable version of social democratic capitalism!" Indeed, when the dust cloud has cleared and the lava has stopped flowing, the role of the state in the US economy may look more like that in some European countries. But against any easy claim of superiority, we have to remind ourselves that most European economies are struggling to generate jobs, innovation and entrepreneurship as the American economy has succeeded in doing for much of this quarter-century. Anyway, there's not just one European model but many - and other variants elsewhere. That's a strength, the strength of pluralism.

The challenge to American democracy today is nothing less than to prove it can reform its whole model of democratic capitalism, and make it better.

Pray that it can.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

You've Got Mail

To Postal Workers, No Mail Is ‘Junk’

With revenues falling, the post office owes its future to stuff we throw out.
By Caitlin McDevitt | NEWSWEEK
Published Sep 27, 2008
From the magazine issue dated Oct 6, 2008

These are tough times for the U.S. Postal Service. It's being pummeled by high fuel costs. The soft economy is crimping the overall volume of mail, which fell 5.5 percent in the past year. Its business is also falling as Americans opt for e-mail over birthday cards and thank-you notes. Now comes another threat: consumers like Colleen Plimpton of Bethel, Conn. Earlier this year Plimpton became tired of the credit-card offers, catalogs and advertising fliers that clogged her mailbox. So in February she paid $20 to GreenDimes, a firm that helps consumers reduce their inflow of "junk mail" by contacting businesses on their behalf. "[Junk mailers] are cutting down trees willy-nilly, and that has got to stop," says Plimpton.

To the post office, consumers like her are a serious threat. "Efforts to convince people not to receive mail are really going to hurt," says Steve Kearney, a Postal Service senior vice president.

The Postal Service lost $1.1 billion in its latest quarter. That number would be even larger if it weren't for direct mailings, which now constitute 52 percent of mail volume, up from 38 percent in 1990. Revenue from direct mail "is the financial underpinning of the Postal Service—it could not survive without it," says Michael Coughlin, former deputy postmaster.

But 89 percent of consumers say in polls that they'd prefer not to receive direct-marketing mail; 44 percent of it is never opened. That's why 19 state legislatures have debated Do Not Mail lists, which would function just like the federal Do Not Call list. But partly due to opposition from postal workers, not a single bill has passed. When Colorado state Rep. Sara Gagliardi held a public meeting on a bill she was sponsoring, she was surprised when a crowd of postal workers showed up to express vehement opposition.

Both the Postal Service and the Direct Marketing Association say direct mail is a key source of customers for small businesses. "Advertising mail is a very valuable product to many consumers," says Sam Pulcrano, Postal Service vice president for sustainability, who points to two-for-one pizza coupons as especially welcome surprises. To blunt opposition, the DMA recently launched the Mail Moves America coalition to lobby against the restrictions.

GreenDimes founder Pankaj Shah isn't sympathetic. Not only is his company providing a service to consumers, he says, but it has also used its fees to plant more than 1 million trees. "We're all about giving consumers choice, not about bringing down the post office," he says. Still, as more consumers opt out of junk mail, rain, sleet and gloom of night may seem like the least of mail carriers' problems.

© 2008

Damn that Liberal American Prospect!

The Coming Conservative Crack-up

The Republicans' split over the bailout bill is the latest example of the party's internal divisions. Unless the GOP figures out what it stands for, it's headed for civil war and electoral disaster.

Paul Waldman | September 30, 2008 | web only

In Washington over the last week, there were lots of ideas about what a bailout of Wall Street ought to look like. But none had less chance of becoming law than the plan put out by the core of the House GOP caucus, the conservatives known as the Republican Study Committee. The members of this group (which has more than its share of extremists and buffoons) offered as the cure to our current woes the removal of regulations on businesses and a suspension of the capital-gains tax, as though they were the congressional equivalent of those Japanese soldiers hunkered down on remote islands, unaware that the war had ended years before and that their side lost.

Not that anyone much cares what the Republican Study Committee thinks. But its desperate attempt to head off government intervention into the smoothly humming operation of the free market, comical though it might be, tells us something about what our politics will look like after this election. The conservative movement that has dominated American politics for the last three decades is sputtering toward the end of its relevance. Its various factions, so willing in the past to put their differences aside in service of the goal of obtaining and holding power, are heading for a civil war. Whether the movement can remake itself will determine whether progressives are beginning their own long period of ideological supremacy.

Unless something truly extraordinary happens to change the subject -- the outbreak of nuclear war between Pakistan and India, or perhaps Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan getting trapped together in a well -- the economic mess will dominate all political discussion between here and Election Day. Given the unpopularity of President Bush and the particular nature of this crisis, the most likely outcome of Nov. 4 is a dramatic repudiation of Republicans at all levels. Even the staunchest Republican partisans acknowledge that it's a bad time to be a member of their party. In Washington state, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi successfully moved to be listed on the ballot as "prefers GOP party," lest voters see the dreaded "R" word next to his name.

To some in the conservative movement, a crushing loss would be just what the doctor ordered. If a defeat comes, they hope it will be a cleansing one like 1964, one that leads to a dramatic rebirth. After Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by 22 points, there were more than two Democrats for every Republican in both houses of Congress. Yet four years later the GOP took back the White House, and 12 years after that, a politician nurtured in the conservative movement that had championed Goldwater became president.

In his quest for this year's Republican nomination, John McCain was blessed with a particularly unpalatable group of competitors -- the shape-shifting Massachusetts governor with all the sincerity of a used-car salesman, the repellent New York City mayor who grew more unpopular with each passing week, the goofy ex-pastor who has now found his true calling as a TV host. Simply by sticking around until they all fell away, McCain got his party's nod, but he never had to unify his party's factions in any meaningful way. The national-security conservatives (whom we might call the party's Buck Turgidson wing) loved McCain for his evident thirst for endless war, while the business conservatives, ever pragmatic, looked at McCain's economic plans and knew he would be their guy. It was the social conservatives -- the ones who actually get out the vote -- whom McCain needed to woo.

And woo them he did, by picking one of their own as his running mate. But now there is something of an anti-Sarah Palin revolt going on among establishment conservatives, particularly as she seems to grow less informed with each passing day and the novelty of a politician with moose-butchering skills wears off. George Will, perhaps America's most influential commentator, lamented the Palin pick (it had something to do with the Federalist Papers). Kathleen Parker, a conservative whose syndicated column runs in over 300 newspapers across the country, wrote of Palin's disastrous interviews, "My cringe reflex is exhausted," and called for Palin to pull herself off the Republican ticket: "Do it for your country." David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, agreed that Palin is grossly under-qualified, but also put the problem in more explicitly ideological terms. "So this is the future of the Republican Party you are looking at," he wrote. "A future in which national security has bumped down the list of priorities behind abortion politics, gender politics, and energy politics. Ms. Palin is a bold pick, and probably a shrewd one. It's not nearly so clear that she is a responsible pick, or a wise one."

Bumping abortion and other social issues to the top of the Republican agenda isn't how things are supposed to work -- those issues are supposed to be the opiate for the Republican masses, doled out generously at campaign time with the understanding that they'll have little importance once power is obtained. Palin, in fact, is the first Republican vice-presidential nominee drawn from that wing of the party obsessed with what other people are doing with their dirty parts. Look at the GOP running mates since Watergate: Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole. All may have had the appropriately conservative positions on social issues, but each was far more concerned with economics and foreign policy.

If McCain loses the election, each of the three main conservative factions will have a case to make about the others' failure. The war the neocon dreamers cooked up turned out to be a disaster, one in which virtually every Republican was implicated. Future Democrats will only need to say, "Oh yeah? Well you thought the Iraq War was a good idea!" in order to put Republicans on their heels. The Palin pick will no doubt be seen as one of the worst in memory, more embarrassing than even Quayle, offering a rebuke to every social conservative who embraced her with such lip-quivering joy. And the economic disaster that came right before the 2008 election convinced nearly the entire country that deregulation failed, the free market can't be left to its own devices, and government must be the guarantor of economic security.

In other words, all the pillars that have held up conservatism for so long are crumbling. When the dust settles, it will be difficult to know just what it means to be a conservative. Is a conservative who doesn't proclaim the perfection of the free market and the evil of government still a conservative? What about a conservative who thinks his comrades ought to quit yapping about gay marriage and get into the 21st century? What about a conservative who wants to accede to the public's desire for a less bellicose foreign policy?

One of the right's greatest strengths in the last few decades was that they knew precisely what the answers to these questions were (no, no, and no, in case you're wondering). But if they go down to defeat five weeks from now, they won't be so sure. And nothing is less appealing to the public than a political movement that doesn't know what it believes.