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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Once the party of Lincoln, now the party of torture

So now we know the answer to my earlier question about why the Christian right isn’t upset about atrocities at Abu Ghraib.  It’s because one of their leading legal minds, U.S. Air Force General Counsel Mary L. Walker, came up with the rationale for torture as well as the argument that the President is utterly above the law in his capacity to authorize it.  56 pages of the memo are available here, though I’d like to excerpt one or two highlights:

In order to respect the President’s inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign, 18 U.S.C. 2430A (the prohibition against torture) must be construed as inapplicable to interrogations undertaken pursuant to his Commander-in-Chief authority. . . .

As this authority is inherent in the President, exercise of it by subordinates would be best if it can be shown to have been derived from the President’s authority through Presidential directive or other writing.

A footnote to the previous sentence adds:  We note that this view is consistent with that of the Department of Justice.

Josh Marshall and Michael Froomkin spell out the Constitutional implications-- namely, that this memo argues that Bush may wield what Monty Python would call “supreme executive power” (and, need I add, his is not a supreme executive power that derives from the mandate of the masses).  Marshall writes that the claim about power “inherent in the President” should “prompt a serious consideration of the safety of the American republic under this president”; Froomkin says, “everyone who wrote or signed it strikes me as morally unfit to serve the United States.  If anyone in the higher levels of government acted in reliance on this advice, those persons should be impeached. If they authorized torture, it may be that they have committed, and should be tried for, war crimes.”

Let me try to tally up.  Bush has sole authority to designate people as enemy combatants, and to declare that the prohibition of torture in United States law is “inapplicable” to his decisions as Commander in Chief.  Indeed, he should issue a Presidential directive to allow us to torture detainees so as to shield all American torturers, and their superiors, from prosecution.  And this view is consistent with that of the Department of Justice.

OK, I’ve had it.  Never mind the election.  Try ‘em all for treason, and try ‘em now.  Mary Walker, Alberto Gonzales, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, George Bush.  The whole rotten bunch.  For this, my friends, is well beyond what George Mason and James Madison had in mind when they settled on that phrase (much abused in the late 1990s), “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Finally, I want to apologize to Christian fundamentalists for suggesting that they were indifferent to the question of torture, when in fact some of their number were working doggedly to institute and justify it.  This humble blog stands corrected.

Posted by Michael on 06/08 at 06:30 PM
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Stanley gets a tan

I’m not going to say I told you so to all you hockey-blogging fans who insisted that the Flames would win this series, because, in fact, I did not tell you so (I called Tampa Bay in six).  I wasn’t even rooting very hard for the Lightning, personally-- I just thought, on the basis of the first three rounds of the playoffs (and the last three months of the season), that they were a slightly better team than the Flames.  I’m perfectly willing to admit that the Flames outplayed them in games one, three, four, and five, and I would have been perfectly happy if they won it all last night.

But they didn’t deserve to win it last night, and they know it.  I started off watching the game with Penn State Ph.D. and fellow blogger Marianne Cotugno at Champs Sports Bar, an institution that seems to have roughly the same relation to sports bars as the Wang Chung song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” has to actual fun.  It’s cavernous, characterless, corporate, and-- get this-- their TV reception was lousy.  No kidding, the picture was full of snow.  What is this, 1956?  The game was on in high-def, people.  There’s no excuse for not having a video system that allows-- or compels-- me to see every hair in Jarome Iginla’s scraggly playoff beard.  The one good thing about the place was that a mess of local hockey players showed up, including some of my more talented teammates (these would be the 19-year-olds who are now playing in Junior A in their real lives), and we said hello midway through the first period.  Most of them were pulling for Calgary, and when they asked me if I had a dog in this fight, I said, “Tampa Bay, I guess, but right now I’m just rooting for shots on goal.”

I wasn’t kidding, and I rooted in vain for two periods.  Is there a decent explanation for why the Flames managed only seven shots in the first forty minutes, and only one or two in the next eight?  It’s not like the Lightning have a smothering defense-- though I have to admit they did a first-rate job of backchecking, and didn’t allow an odd-man rush for two periods.  On the Bolts’ side, what was up with Cibak shoveling a pass over to Cullimore when he was 15 feet from the net, with a clear shot and Kiprusoff already cheating off the post?  Sure, Cibak’s not a sniper, but then, neither is Cullimore (each of them scored two goals this year).  Seriously, if it weren’t for Fedotenko’s extraordinary hand-eye coordination on the first goal (it’s impressive that he even got his stick free, never mind spinning and slapping home a crisp-- and luscious-- rebound) and Lecavalier’s deft skates-and-stick pass to Fedotenko on the second, we’d have been looking at a scoreless and mostly juiceless game seven.

So for the third period we abandoned Champs for the darker and seedier Sports Cafe (I swung home and picked up Janet, delivering her from essay-revision hell), where we ran into a bunch of serious hockey fans and English doctoral students.  That was fun, as were the final twelve minutes of the game.  When the Flames got that power play with 11 minutes to go, Steve Schneider (serious hockey fan and English doctoral student) suggested that they take a page from the early-90s Penguins and put five forwards on the ice; I swear on my blogging honor that I replied, “yeah, they could put Conroy on the point-- that would work” about fifteen seconds before Conroy scored from the point, having drifted back to cover Leopold’s spot on right D as Leopold fought for the puck along the boards.

A word about the penalties, especially for you Calgary fans who feel you wuz robbed.  Yes, the call on Ference with a minute to go was a terrible call.  Marty St. Louis got cut and banged up, but it was a legal hit-- a good deal more legal, ahem, than the skull-crushing hurt put on Fedotenko by your Robin Regehr in game three.  And Flames coach Darryl Sutter’s complaint about the five-minute boarding call on Ville Nieminen at the end of game 4 (you’ll recall that Sutter suggested that the NHL had some inexplicable desire to throw the series to Tampa Bay) was, for me, the low point of the series.  Look, you throw a man’s head into the glass, you get penalty, you go in penalty box, you feel shame.  I don’t care whether it’s the preseason or the Cup finals.  But while we’re on the subject of questionable calls, exactly how was Bolts D Nolan Pratt interfering with anyone on that interference call-- you know, the one that led to Conroy’s goal and the only real excitement in the game?

Last but not least, Gelinas’ phantom goal in game six was just that-- phantom.  Let’s not have any crying in the Labatt’s over that one.

OK, back to game seven.  Here’s another question:  how did it come to pass that the Flames’ best chance to tie the game came from defenseman Jordan Leopold?  (On that one, the entire bar exploded: we could all see that Khabibulin had given up a huge rebound, and that Leopold had at least half the net to shoot at-- and then, just like that, he had no net to shoot at!  Sheer athleticism on Khabibulin’s part, and it saved the game.) Leopold took another good shot a few minutes later-- and you know what?  He and fellow defenseman Rhett Warrener were the only Flames to get more than one shot on net in the third period.  Iginla almost made a beautiful play late in the game, juking around two befuddled Bolts, but finished the game without a shot.  And it was the consensus of our table that Shean Donovan’s absence from the lineup in games 6 and 7 made a real difference, just by decreasing the Flames’ aggregate speed and forechecking intensity.

To put all this in historical perspective (as Fred Shero wrote in The Political Unconscious, always historicize!):  the two best teams met in the finals, and that’s a positive good in itself.  It’s rare that that happens, though thankfully it’s getting less rare:  you could say the same about the Devils-Avalanche (2001) or Devils-Stars (2000) final.  But for most of the league’s last thirty years, it’s seemed as if the playoffs were designed to get the best series out of the way early on.  It’s also rare that the finals themselves go seven:  from 1972 to 1993, only one series went the distance, and that was only because the 1987 Oilers forgot that they had to win four games.  (The Flyers climbed back from 3-1 thanks to incredible goaltending from Ron Hextall, but c’mon, folks, there was no doubt about that series, not really.) At the Sports Cafe last night, Tony Ceraso (serious hockey fan and English doctoral student) and I agreed that the 1994 finals were qualitatively different from the ‘87 finals (even though both involved heavy underdogs coming back from 3-1), precisely because there was no sense whatsoever that the Rangers would-- or could-- blow out the Canucks at will.  That, plus the fact that the Rangers had given up last-minute tying goals in three recent playoff games (games one and seven against the Devils in the conference finals, game one against the Canucks), and could not sustain a two-goal lead into the third period, made 1994’s game seven truly entertaining.  I’m sure former Canuck Nathan LaFayette remembers very well how he hit the post with the score 3-2 and five minutes left, having beaten Mike Richter cleanly to the glove side.  But for a mind-blowing, ESPN-Classic-worthy game 7 in the finals, you really have to go back to 1971, when the Canadiens came back from 2-0 on Chicago ice to beat the Black Hawks 3-2.  (And this blog will do just that, in a way, sometime next week.)

So all in all, not a great game seven.  Not a snooze like last year’s Battle of the Teams Whose Home Cities are Parking Lots, and not a genuine thriller either.  But for half the third period, a fine and fitting ending to a genuinely surprising and (therefore) enjoyable year.  I wish it had gone into overtime, I really do.  But congratulations to the Lightning and their fans, even those of you who don’t really know what you’ve won.  And a sentimental cheer for the grey-bearded Dave Andreychuk, whose impressive lifetime stats are available right here.

Posted by Michael on 06/08 at 10:23 AM
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Monday, June 07, 2004

A wingnut credo

In 1979 the United States was a sorry place.  Inflation, high interest rates, hostages in Tehran (and a failed rescue attempt the next year), and a sorry-ass President who told us to wear sweaters and eat malaise sandwiches.

Then came Ronald Reagan.  From the day he kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with a stirring defense of states’ rights, I knew that it would soon be morning in America again-- especially for us white people.  Reagan’s sunny optimism and traditional values brought America together again in a time of national self-doubt, and his decision to open his campaign in the little town where James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered only sixteen years before, championing “states’ rights” in a way that every Thurmond-loving Dixiecrat would understand, let us know that the period of Negro domination of government was finally coming to an end.  It’s true that Reagan himself wasn’t openly opposed to any individual black people-- just things like the Voting Rights Act-- but then, he didn’t need to be.  We knew perfectly well what he was talking about, even if he didn’t.

Ronald Reagan brought America back from the brink-- and completed the conversion of the Solid South, while bringing the ways of wonder-working Providence into the federal government for the first (but not the last!) time.  He was not a man who would let a little thing like the rape and murder of American nuns get in the way of an important hemispherical political alliance, and his willingness to bypass petty Constitutional technicalities in order to trade arms to Islamist mullahs in exchange for American hostages and divert the profits to the equivalent of the Founding Fathers in Central America will always mark him as a man of conviction and strength.  Just as important, he was a fair and balanced man who knew when discretion was the better part of valor-- which is why, unlike so many of his shrillest critics, he never descended to finger-wagging and grandstanding when it came to our dealings with important allies like Iraq and South Africa.  In so many ways, he paved the way for the restoration of American power and the global moral clarity we enjoy now.

We cannot thank him enough.  Though it might be a good idea to put his likeness on every denomination of U.S. currency we can think of, for a start.

Posted by Michael on 06/07 at 01:13 PM
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Sunday, June 06, 2004

Azkaban blogging

Yes, it’s true, I’ve read all five Harry Potter books and I know my Flitwick from my Umbridge.  I resisted mightily at first, partly for the reasons the Onion gestured at in its December 2001 headline, “Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up In Harry Potter Craze.” (I’d link to the story—it’s hilarious—but it requires Onion Premium or Onion Advantage or something.) Also partly because of that weird brand of American Anglophilia I associate with PBS, A&E, and Moynihan liberals.  Also partly because I thought I’d already read all that stuff back when it was written by Roald Dahl. 

I realize that parental reading habits in these matters depend heavily on the age of the children; I believe the last book I read with Nick, actually with him, night by night, was the quite wonderful Racso and the Rats of Nimh, and that would have been sometime around 1992.  From that point on, he was on his own. So when he became one of J. K. Rowling’s faithful readers, buying Goblet of Fire the day it appeared and devouring it in one all-night reading marathon, I didn’t even look over his shoulder.

Then I took Jamie to the first Harry Potter movie, and I was stunned—partly by the story, which was at once darker and more charming than I’d anticipated, but mostly by Jamie, who completely got it.  I suppose it helped that Jamie was 10 at the time, and that his glasses look a great deal like Harry’s, so that he began talking about attending Hogwarts when he turned 11, and practicing the “wingardium leviosa” spell now and then.  As for me, after we saw the movie I was curious enough to read the dang book at last, and I was fairly impressed.  I’ve since heard that Harold Bloom, that learned old gasbag and self-designated arbiter of all written words, despises the book and has said so at least once every six months for the past five years.  Well, alas, Bloom, my good man—leave aside the sorry spectacle of the world’s most famous literary critic spending some of his dwindling energies trying to squash J. K. Rowling like a bug, all because of a series of books whose readership extends to eight-year-olds, for god’s sake (would Lionel Trilling have behaved this way with A Wrinkle in Time, do you think?), and let me put it this way:  you style yourself after Falstaff, but you have no sense of humor whatsoever.  You never did—and your Rowling snits seal the deal.  Now, what do we call people who think of themselves as latter-day Falstaffs, but who have never uttered a funny thing in their lives?  Don’t think Shakespeare—think Restoration comedy.

Back to Jamie.  After Jamie and I had seen Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ten or twenty times, I suggested to him that we read the books together.  Jamie doesn’t really read on his own, unless you count his various coffee-table books about the Beatles, and I wasn’t sure that he would be able to follow a narrative of 300, 400, or 700 pages on the basis of nighttime bedside reading, which might cover seven or eight pages on a good night.  But then, I didn’t think he’d follow the plot of the first movie, so what do I know?

Well, I don’t want to say too much more here, because (this is my first conflict of blogging interest in five months) I eventually want to write something about this experience for some nonacademic journal.  But suffice it to say that the Harry Potter books have extended Jamie’s capacity for narrative by powers of ten.  We started in early 2003 and we’re now a third of the way through Order of the Phoenix.  I read to him (sometimes Janet does), and I annotate and explain where necessary—not only with regard to unfamiliar words, but more important, with regard to narrative questions not broached by the films (for example, Harry and the Weasleys’ discussion, early in Chamber of Secrets, of whether Dobby the house elf might be lying to Harry, since, after all, he works for the Malfoys).  Once in a while I ask him questions about things that happened hundreds of pages ago, or in other books, and I’m astonished at how much he retains.  He’s also expanded his emotional repertoire as well, though I really shouldn’t say which character he sometimes feels sorry for, or whom he’d like to invite to the Yule Ball, without his permission.  But I will say that he’s come to understand, via Professors Dumbledore, McGonagall, Sprout, etc. that his own parents are Professors too, though without the whole robes-and-hats-and-wands regalia.  As the books delve further into the problems associated with the idea of individual autonomy, seriously (via the Imperius Curse) and comically (with Hermione’s S.P.E.W.), we have to stop and discuss what’s what and who’s who (those of you familiar with the plot twists at the conclusion of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire know what I mean), and of course Jamie has to protect me from dementors with his patronus every now and then.  But for the most part, it’s going amazingly well.

So yesterday he and Janet and I went to see the new movie—a milestone of sorts, since this is the first time Jamie’s read the book before seeing the film.  I made him promise to hold my hand when the dementors came so that I would not be scared, and he did, but I think even he was a little surprised at how ghastly they are, and didn’t have all that much comforting left over for me.  I won’t bore you with a full review of the film (after all, I have to bore you on Tuesday with a recap of the Cup finals!), but I will say that

-- the lovely Garman Theater in Bellefonte, PA is a great place to see movies, especially when your tix are taken by a young man who looks exactly like Professor Snape, and who has obligingly dressed the part;

-- Alfonso Cuaron is a more subtle director than Chris Columbus, but nonetheless, the film demands so much compression of the first nine-tenths of the book (in order to do justice to the concluding sequences) that it may be the first movie in the series for which a knowledge of the book is a prerequisite.  I know you can’t have kids’ movies coming in at the length of Berlin Alexanderplatz, now, but still, slightly more should have been done with Hermione’s inexplicable disappearances, and the Crookshanks - Scabbers subplot, so critical to the novel, is given about eight seconds of screen time; and

-- we all love Alan Rickman.

Kudos to Rowling, by the way, for broaching the issue of having an out gay man—er, I mean, a werewolf, cough cough—teaching at Hogwarts.  Note that Hogwarts’ only competent Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (over a five-year span!) is chased from his job by a hate campaign mounted by the Malfoys.  If I recall correctly (it was only yesterday, after all), the film makes matters slightly more explicit than the novel, by having Lupin attribute his resignation to the fact that parents will not want “someone like me” teaching their children (he does not use the word “werewolf").  She’d already broached the racism of the Malfoys in Chamber of Secrets, and when we get to Goblet of Fire we’ll come up against the brutal stigma faced by those among us who are half giant.  I just gotta love Rowling—she’s managed to piss off the insufferable Bloom and the insane fundamentalist right, and she has no patience with Daily Prophet reporters who rely lazily and uncritically on sources like the Malfoys or Ministry of Magic apparatchiks.  What’s not to like?

Posted by Michael on 06/06 at 07:35 AM
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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Game five

All I want to say is that anyone who’s not watching the Stanley Cup finals tonight-- we’re just at the end of regulation time (never mind the post date-- this server is on Greenwich Mean Time), with the score 2-2-- is missing a fine, fine display of athleticism and speed and mad skills.  It certainly beats watching the NBA playoffs-- in the East, what was with those 64-61 final scores?  did they have to fish the round ball out of the peach basket each time the Pistons and Pacers scored?  --and in the West, what’s the point of watching Shaq backing inexorably toward the hoop and the championship?  Yes, b-ball has amazing athletes and great buzzer-beating dramatics, but (a) structurally, it’s like hockey slowed down to human speed; the only time a hockey team gets to “set up” an offense, and pass the puck around the perimeter, is when it’s on the power play (and even then it happens less than half the time), and (b) someone who loves basketball-- not me-- has to do something about all those timeouts, commercials, timeout commercials, and commercial timeouts.

For those of you who don’t bother with this site’s hockey blogging:  believe me, I know full well that the game is almost unintelligible on television.  The appropriate TV sports analogy is baseball, in which you simply don’t see what fielders do unless you’re at the park, where you can see the catcher lug it down the first base line on a ground ball or watch the infield prepare for a relay throw from left center.  But in baseball, 90 percent of the game is conducted between the pitcher and catcher, and that’s not all that hard to capture on the small screen.  Hockey is considerably more elusive.  For example, one of the things you don’t see on TV is one of the most crucial features of the game, namely, line changing.  You know how basketball coaches get all kinds of props for creating matchups, resting key players, putting out a fast and small squad or a couple of big men against the other team’s subs?  Yes, well, hockey coaches make those decisions every 45 seconds, and they do it without the benefit of play stoppages.  (Tampa Bay has been trying, all series long, to make sure that they always have someone on the ice to counter the Flames’ superstar Jarome Iginla.  Tonight it’s defenseman Darryl Sydor.) Even more amazing are coaches’ mid-game decisions to break up and rearrange their offensive lines:  for instance, tonight, for the crucial third period, with his team one goal down, Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella front-loaded offensive stars Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier on the first line.  But you wouldn’t know this if you weren’t paying attention to the rhythms of the series as it’s developed so far.  The result, on TV, is that hockey is a little like literary theory, unintelligible to the uninitiated even when presented the most fan-friendly format.

Anyway, once the Cup finals are over I’ll try to explain more fully why hockey, for all its terrible brutality and general inscrutability, strikes the ideal team-sport balance between luck and skill, pattern and chance, team effort and individual heroics.  Right now I’ve got to go watch overtime-- there’s nothing like it in all of sports.  Turnovers can happen anywhere, and it only takes five or six seconds to skate the length of the ice. . . .

UPDATE:  Flames win 3-2, and prove my point about individual/team effort.  Iginla gave the Flames a 2-1 lead all by himself late in the second period, spotting an errant Tampa Bay pass in his defensive zone, sprinting to the puck as it skittered down the ice, and firing-- almost from the right boards-- an insanely sharp shot off the far post and in.  In OT, just after another Tampa Bay rush and turnover (and at the end of what must have been an exhausting shift), Iginla got a chance in the Lightning zone, held onto the puck, sliding subtly from right to left from 35 feet out until he got an open shooting lane, just long enough to fire a blistering shot on Khabibulin; Oleg Saprykin picked up the rebound Khabibulin couldn’t control, and fired it home.  But the interesting thing is that after Iginla, Saprykin was the Flames’ best forward all night, and he clearly deserved-- that is, created-- a break like this.  He repeatedly beat the Lightning to loose pucks, and when he didn’t beat them outright he harassed them and forced turnovers.  He and Iginla and Shean Donovan and Chris Clark have all the speed the Lightning can handle, and Craig Conroy and Martin Gelinas and Stephane Yelle have created open ice out of nothing on every other shift, even though they’re unknown, journeyman players to everyone except serious hockey fans.  So after the Cup finals are over I’ll try to explain the Zen aspects of hockey, and why it’s important to accelerate to the puck all game long even if your efforts never show up on the stat sheet.

Um, I’ll also explain why I was clearly wrong to predict the Lightning in six.

Posted by Michael on 06/03 at 04:46 PM
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Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Miller out, Chalabi in at Times

CREDULUS, NY, June 2-- The New York Times announced today that Judith Miller, the controversial reporter who has been responsible for most of the paper’s coverage of alleged WMD programs in Iraq, will be replaced by Ahmad Chalabi as of June 30.

A senior editor at the Times, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the hiring of Chalabi does not raise any “insuperable ethical problems” for the newspaper.  “He’s no longer on the Bush administration payroll,” said the editor, “so it makes sense to eliminate the middleman-- Judy, in this case-- and go straight to the source.  Besides, Ahmad is knowledgeable, forthcoming, and thoroughly fluent in the politics of the region.  He’s also, quite frankly, a lot more fun to be around, and we’re looking forward to working with him.”

Sources say the paper’s editorial staff is planning on a smooth transfer of power, with Chalabi assuming “full sovereignty” over Iraq coverage by the end of the month.

Posted by Michael on 06/02 at 07:51 AM
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