Monday, August 31, 2009

Question: Parts Is Parts?

I've been getting into genetics lately. It's a long story. Suffice it say that I'm getting really close to completing a little project that I like to call "Human 2.0". It's nothing you should be concerned about. . . trust me. But out of curiosity, if you could eliminate one body part or add one body part to your average human, what would it be? [+] Read More...

Congress, The RIAA and Your Rights

I despise the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and their paid whores in Congress. I despise them because of what they’ve done to our judicial system.

The Music Industry Acted Stupidly

As you know, the music industry was caught flatfooted by the invention of the internet. As people learned to upload their music onto their computers, it was obvious to everyone that they would soon be passing those files around. This was the moment of opportunity for the music industry. If they embraced the new technology, by creating websites like iTunes, most people would have happily begun legally downloading music one song or album at a time.

But the music industry, like most oligopolies, didn’t want their profit model to change. They liked charging people almost $20 for cds that contained one worthwhile song and a whole bunch of crap. They didn’t want people picking and choosing which songs they wanted: “Heaven forbid that Britney Spears fans begin paying only for two songs, we might have to improve our product or lower our prices!”

So they fought the technology. And as they pushed against the waves of progress, they learned what all stagnant oligopolies learn, if you don’t change with the times, you die. Soon millions of people were illegally downloading music. Then it was tens of millions. Then hundreds of millions. Then disaster struck: so many people had gotten so used to downloading music for free that it became culturally acceptable, world-wide, to download music for free. The music industry had blown it. They had ignored consumer desires for so long that consumers moved on to something else.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending downloading. This is stealing. Absolutely. People who download copyrighted music are violating the copyright holder’s rights. There is no disputing that. But what happened next was despicable.

The Music Industry Visits A Prostitute

When the music industry lost its war against downloading technology, it decided to try to stop people from downloading files. But that’s a difficult prospect under the state of modern copyright law. So the music industry struck upon a bright idea. If they could buy enough Congressmen, they could change the law. And so they did. Before contribution laws were changed, the television/music industry contributed $18.7 million dollars in “soft money” to political candidates in 2000 and $27.7 million in 2002. They also gave (and continue to give) “hard money” to Republicans and Democrats alike.

And Congress delivered. First, Congress passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998, which gave the RIAA the power to file subpoenas to seek the identity of downloaders without notifying the downloaders, without needing to go through a court, and without presenting any proof -- the mere allegation of infringement was enough. This is a serious break from 1000 years of Western jurisprudence, which has always required that anyone be notified before they can be sued, so that they have a chance to defend their rights. This also violates the fundamental principles that plaintiffs must provide some proof to a court before the plaintiff can avail themselves of judicial powers. But what’s a 1000 years of law when compared to a lobby with a lot of money that wants a little something special put into the law for them?

Yet, even this was not enough for RIAA. All this let RIAA do was spy on you. When it came to suing you, RIAA still could only do what you and I can do now, that is to sue the infringer to get a court order enjoying them from further infringement and collecting damages. RIAA wanted more. So they went back to Congress.

Once again, Congress delivered. This time they passed the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 (“Digital Theft Act”). This act set statutory levels of damages for downloading in the amount of $750 to $150,000 per song. This is rotten, and again is largely unprecedented under the law.

Now, many of you are no doubt saying, “well, these people shouldn’t be stealing.” And I agree with that. But think about this.

You all know the stories of people who go into grocery stores, pretend to fall down, and then threaten to sue. This works because it is cheaper and safer to pay these people a small sum rather than defend the suit (which can cost tens of thousands of dollars) and run the risk of a huge verdict. “Frivolous suits” against doctors or manufacturers work the same way. These are called “strike suits,” where the plaintiff threatens to sue or actually sues, with the intent of being bought off. Again, these plaintiffs know that it is simply too expensive and too risky to defend against these suits, even when they clearly have no merit. Thus, they sue for a large sum, but offer a small settlement that makes it cheaper to buy the plaintiff off rather than defend the suits.

The Digital Theft Act Leads To Insane Verdicts

What Congress did with the Digital Theft Act was to give the RIAA the right to file such strike suits against individual Americans. Consider this. If you are sued by the RIAA, you no longer face the chance of being enjoined from downloading music and having to pay some level of compensation commensurate with what it would have cost to buy the music you downloaded (and possibly attorneys fees). Instead, you now face the prospect of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And that’s how this law has worked out. In RIAA v. Tenenbaum, the jury awarded $675,000 for 30 songs being downloaded. In RIAA v. Thomas-Rasset, the jury awarded $1.92 million for 24 tracks. There are many more. Since the law passed, RIAA has brought more than 30,000 suits. The exact number is not known because the bad publicity from these suits made the RIAA reconsider announcing their numbers.

This situation is so out of control that one judge, who awarded the RIAA $220,000 against a single mother of two who was found liable for downloading 24 songs, implored Congress to revise the Digital Theft Act to lower the statutory penalties. In 2006, the Eastern District of New York, a Federal District Court, found the statutory damages to be unconstitutional because the actual harm to the RIAA was only $0.70 per song. However, this suit was dropped before it could proceed, which coincidentally keeps that decision from having any real precedential power.

The Real Problem Is The Potential For Extortion

But the problem goes much deeper than the suits. Because people face these potentially huge verdicts, and because most people can’t afford what it costs to defend these suits -- and they can’t find lawyers who are as knowledgeable of the law as the RIAA’s lawyers who wrote the thing, people tend to settle rather than fight. To encourage settlement, RIAA sent each person they targeted a letter noting the potential damages and then proposing to settle the matter for around $11,000. Naturally, this has been effective. In 2003, when the RIAA had only brought 231 suits, it had already settled with 28,000 people. Most of these settled for around $3,000, with RIAA apparently accepting payments by credit card.

This is exactly how strike suits work. Even the numbers are similar. “I’m going to sue you for a million dollars, but I’ll settle right now, quietly, for $11,000. It will cost that much just to get a lawyer.” This is no different that the slip and fall plaintiff who pretends to fall down in your store.

There Are No Safeguard To Prevent Abuse

And lest you think there are safeguards to make sure that only people who actually download are being sued, the RIAA’s poorly targeted approach has been quite well documented. They have sued dead people, and demanded settlements from families. They have sued little old ladies for downloading gangster rap. They have sued people who don’t even own computers, and who didn’t have internet service.

The RIAA knows that some of the people they target are innocent, and they don’t care. Said one RIAA spokesperson, “when you go fishing with a driftnet, sometimes you catch a dolphin.”

What’s even worse, they have used abusive tactics and they have rarely backed off, even when presented with proof that the person they targeted was innocent. Take the case of Mrs. Sarah Ward, a 66 year old sculptor accused by the RIAA of sharing gangsta rap. Even though the RIAA learned that this woman did not listen to gangsta rap and cannot even run the service on which they claim she was file sharing, because it was not compatible with Macs at the time, the RIAA dragged their feet about dismissing the suit (which should not even have been filed), and then issued the statement that they would “reserve the right to refile the complaint against Mrs. Ward if and when circumstances warrant.”

Or consider the case of John Paladuk, who was accused of downloading files in Michigan, even though he lived in Florida at the time and had suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and disabled. Despite this knowledge, the RIAA sued him. Or the case of the college student who was sued because of downloads that occurred two to three years prior to her moving into that room; again, the RIAA demanded a settlement under threat of suit.

Now new groups are starting to use the Digital Theft Act. Recently, it was learned that a vendor of hard-core gay pornographic videos, Titan Media, was using the same process employed by the RIAA. Titan contacted their targets and offered the choice of either being named in a lawsuit or of purchasing the Titan videos in exchange for “amnesty.”


All of this is obscene. The Congress has given these industries powers to extort money from any American they choose to pick. This not only tosses aside 1000 years of carefully developed legal principles, but it flies in the face of everything Americans believe about justice and law. Congress has allowed the RIAA to make a mockery of the court system. Congress should repeal this law immediately.

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YOU SAY POTATO. . . Differentiating Between Literary and Genre Fiction

By Writer X

When I asked my agent how he’d define literary fiction, he said, “I just know it when I see it.”

Okay. That’s helpful.

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of vague explanation you get from experts—the people who read manuscripts all day long and get to decide whether or not a book has publishing potential. Sadly, this ambiguous explanation among the literati is not as uncommon as you think.

Literary fiction isn’t necessarily harder to write than genre fiction (e.g. thrillers, mysteries, romance, chick lit, science fiction), but sometimes it can be more difficult to read—and not because an author went overboard with a dictionary and thesaurus or used a writing style that requires a secret decoder ring. To compare literary to genre fiction is like staring at a Picasso versus a Normal Rockwell painting: The meaning of one may be more difficult to divine than the other. As with a Picasso, sometimes you have to take your time with literary fiction (or read it more than once) to appreciate its meaning.

That’s because, in my opinion, literary fiction is more character-driven while genre fiction is more plot driven, although that doesn’t mean you can get away with writing one-dimensional characters or plot-less stories in genre fiction. It might mean, though, that a literary novel’s characters and conflicts are less obvious; it might require that you look at the world in a different way. And it might also mean that the author takes more liberties with his writing style. Example: I remember reading a book a few years ago by a debut author where she used nouns as verbs thereby creating almost a new language. Quirky book. Now, I can’t remember the author’s name or the book’s title or even what the book was about. And I haven’t seen her work since on the store shelves. That’s probably not a good thing but kudos to the agent/editor who believed in her and tried something new. It doesn’t happen very often.

Additionally, don’t always expect a happy ending with literary fiction or the resolution of every conflict as you do with most genre fiction. Those “loose ends” alone turn off most people to literary fiction.

A publicist told me last week that literary fiction is currently not selling well in today’s marketplace.


Truthfully, I’m not sure if literary fiction ever sells consistently well but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from writing it. The world can always use one more good book, don’t you think? The same publicist also told me that if a person isn’t a seriously brilliant writer or doesn’t have at least a Masters of Fine Arts degree from one of the well-known writing colleges like Columbia or Iowa, he shouldn’t even attempt to write, much less sell, literary fiction. To that, I say: Hogwash.

An MFA doesn’t guarantee success just like a Bachelor degree doesn’t mean that a person is instantly employable or a law degree mean that a person will become a brilliant lawyer (Note: LawHawk and Andrew, naturally, are excluded from this analogy as their brilliance knows no bounds). That doesn’t mean college degrees or advanced degrees are a waste of time either. They can help to provide framework but they’re not a guarantee of success.

In my view, a person should write what they love; anything less and the reader will see through it, whether it’s literary fiction or a romance novel. Or even a children’s picture book.

That said, if a novel lacks a story and compelling characters, good luck trying to sell it or worse—trying to find people who’ll plunk down hard-earned cash to buy it. And a publisher may be less inclined to purchase your next manuscript if your last one generated only meager sales, despite the exceptional writing.

So, given a choice, what type of book would you rather curl up with on a couch during a rainy afternoon? The classics? A spicy romance novel? Something from the New York Times bestseller list? More importantly, what holds your attention: The writing or the story?

The answer to that might tell you whether you prefer literary fiction or genre fiction, either as a reader or a writer. Or both.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Giving It Back To The Indians

Max Baucus received more than one unwelcome series of hard questions from Montanans, and they weren't all in town halls. Some were in tribal councils. Even before finding himself embarrassed at a town hall meeting which he thought would be an easy mark for the Obamacare proposals, Baucus thought he would at least be safe heading into Native American territory where most medical care is either provided by the federal government or paid for by the federal government.

Democrat Baucus is one of the architects of Obamacare, as well as one of its leading prophets and apostles. He doesn't seem to know his fellow Montanans very well, however. Before being dressed-down by the descendants of the pioneers at the Museum of the Rockies while trying to sell his "Make Health Happen Montana" snake oil, Baucus took his show to the Flathead Indian Reservation near Pablo, Montana. And much like Obama's Little Big Horn surprise in Bozeman, the Native Americans weren't buying the snake oil. It may only be a movie staple, but the men and women on the reservations know "this white man speaks with a forked tongue."

Apparently thinking that the Flathead Reservation (Blackfoot, Cree, Chippewa and other) Montana natives are still living in the Nineteenth Century, Baucus planned on handing out a few beads and a secret stash of whiskey and having the Injuns do a rain dance and leave. The Senator found out quickly that he wasn't in a Republic Films B-Western. The Three Mesquiteers weren't going to come to his rescue, and the cavalry was back in Bozeman preparing for the Great Chief from Washington to arrive. Instead, he encountered a very modern and very focused crowd of disbelievers.

Interestingly, there were two different groups of Indians there to oppose Obamacare, though their common goal was the same. About two-thirds of the tribal members were there to protest the straight-up government care they were getting, and the other one-third was there to represent the tribal members who have received federal funds but have provided the care through their own tribal medicine councils and native doctors.

For either group, the IHS (Indian Health Service) is a bane. The IHS provides approximately $2100 per Native American for health care. This is about one-third of what it costs the average American for health care costs, but it is on the same level as Finland, Japan, Spain and a few other western social democracies. For the Indians who depend on the fully-governmental care, the numbers are not good. Infant mortality is 1.4 times as high as non-Hispanic whites, HIV/AIDS rates are thirty percent higher, and liver cancer kills at a rate twice that of non-Hispanic whites. Diabetes kills four times as many Native Americans. Among the rural Indians, the rates are about 20% worse. And lung cancer for rural Indians kills at a rate 67% higher. Life expectancy on the reservation in nearby South Dakota is 58 years, compared to our national average of 77.

The horror stories of long waits for medical treatment, resulting in death or permanent disability are legion. Mis-diagnoses after hours, days or weeks of waiting to see a doctor are more like the rule than the exception. As a good liberal-in-conservative's-clothing, Baucus responded to these questions with his promise to declare a "health state of emergency" on the Fort Peck Reservation, and to investigate the use of IHS funds while promising more of the same. Two months later the Government Accountability Office reported that the IHS had "lost" $15.8 million worth of medical equipment, supplies and support materials. Where it could trace the money in other cases, it found things like $700,000 worth of computers which had been ruined by bat dung while being poorly-stored before delivery to the local "health" offices. So naturally, the answer is to spend more money instead of promoting governmental efficiency and honesty. Ladies and gentlemen, the Native Americans have seen the final preview of state-run health care.

The alternative to straight-up government run facilities is funding by the government, but administration by the local Indian tribes. These do much better than the others, but still have a poor record compared to the outside. However, the locally-administered plans cannot be blamed entirely on the people working in them. Now we look at the "low cost" of the allotment per native and find out that the cost in dollars may be low, but the cost in lives is high. The money, however carefully and faithfully administered by the Indians, usually runs out in late spring or early summer. The saying on the reservations is "don't get sick after June."

Tribal-contracting, as this method is called, is about as efficient as it can be, given its inadequate funding. And unlike many outsiders blaming "the system" for all their ills, the Indians running the programs tend to be quite realistic. Kelly Eagleman of the Chippewa Cree Band on the Rocky Boy's Reservation says "We tend to want to blame a system, but we don't look at ourselves. We all smoke. We lie on the couch. But when something happens to us, we're the first to point and say the the clinic should have fixed us." Wouldn't that be refreshing to hear from the government medical lobbyists and legislators who are blaming McDonalds and Burger King for health problems resulting from obesity?

The Cree Band has used the federal funds to provide its own health care. Dr. Dee Althouse at the Rocky Boy's Reservation says that she often finds herself working to save lives and limbs, deferring routine health care until there is money available. But even at that, their success rates in every category far exceed those in the IHS-run system, which receives exactly the same amount per native per year. Unlike the IHS-run system, the Chippewa Cree Band runs its own hospital, hired a registered dietician who convinced the local grocers to label shelves with nutrition information and recommendations, have a wellness center wth a gym, track, basketball courts, and swimming pool. This alone has cut diabetes rates by an amazing twenty-plus percent in five years.

The wholly-owned and operated IHS system has shown that government-run medical facilities are less than useless. The tribal-contracting model has shown that money is simply badly allocated along with supplies, facilities and staff, and that determining necessary medical care solely by adding columns of figures is not a good way to go. After applying "cost-benefit" analysis, the government has determined that both the amounts and the allocation of resources is just about right. In neither model is a combination of individual, government and private funding and administration even considered. A thousand dollars more per patient each year is going to make no significant difference. The money will simply be badly spent, although it would be of some help to the tribal-contracting groups.

Senator Baucus, I think the Indians have given it back to you. Their knowledge of publicly-run health care is not theory--they live it, as long as the system doesn't kill them. Like the rest of us, they want health care reform, but not government-run, government funded health services. They've seen it, and they know it doesn't work. You later called the protesters at the Museum "the closest thing to a mob you've ever seen." At least you had the good grace not to call the Native American protestors a "bunch of wild Indians."

I used the beautiful painting of the Indian medicine man (above) to illustrate two sad truths. The medicine being practiced by the IHS is far more expensive, and no more effective. And at least the medicine man truly cared what happened to his people.
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The Meaning of Life

Over the past year, Commentarama’s Philosophical Thought Unit has queried various experts regarding the meaning of life. Today, we reveal our findings. . .

But first, we need to talk about your Commentarama Membership. Commentarama is free to the public, because we are part of the Public Blogging Service (PBS). And that means we rely on you for support.

It’s not cheap to keep providing you with the kinds of free, high quality programming that Commentarama provides every single day: like our expose on South-Western North Dakota Jazz, or our fifteen part series on why blog series become boring, or our award winning docu-drama “All Sharks Go To Heaven.”

People, we don’t like interrupting these blog entries, nobody likes interrupting blog entries. But unlike commercial blogs, we can’t accept commercial sponsors. That’s right. That’s why we can’t take money from people like the Happy Bunny Munitions Company, maker of the world’s first anti-personnel exfoliator. If it says Happy Bunny, you know it’s quality with extreme prejudice.

So here’s what we need. We need five people to hit that “follow” button during this break, and we can’t go back to solving the meaning of life until you do. Come on, everyone hit the follow button. We have volunteers standing by right now, ready to process your button push.

If you act in the next five minutes, we might send you one of our PBS Commentarama Totes. It’s made from high quality hemp, by the children of hippies who live on a commune in Oregon. It’s perfect for carrying an organic potato or a bio-degradable bamboo cup of soy milk.

And for those of you pledging at the two minute level, we have an old Yawny CD, signed by Michael Bolton’s chauffeur. Who doesn’t love Yawny?

Come on people, our board shows that no one has clicked follow yet. Is it really so much to ask for all this high quality programming that you just can’t find on commercial blogs?

Hit the button. . . come on, just hit the button.

Ok, fine. . . that’s it. If five people don’t hit the follow button in the next five minutes, I’m going to get very upset. I might just start a letter writing campaign or organize a boycott. You’ve been warned. . .

Oh, and the meaning of life? People aren’t wearing enough hats.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Americans Are Conservatives, Not Republicans

If there was ever a time to call yourself a liberal, this should be it. The Republicans made a mess of the last eight years and now find themselves leaderless and seemingly without hope. Supposed titans of capitalism declared that capitalism "fell off the rails." The free market is said to have failed and the era of Reagan was declared over. The Democrats hold the White House, most governor’s mansions, the House of Representatives, and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

But something has gone wrong. Even with the penchant of so many people to jump on any bandwagon they can find, the country is shedding liberals like a bear sheds in the woods.

Conservative America

Now, it should come as no surprise to anyone who has read our prior discussion on how conservative Americans really are that many Americans identify themselves as "conservatives." But what is surprising in the following data (from Gallop), is just how large that group has become:

In all 50 states, more people describe themselves as “conservative” than describe themselves as “liberal.” Only the District of Columbia has more liberals than conservatives.

And this difference is not just a matter of a couple points. The conservative advantage ranges from +1 to +34 percentage points, with conservatives holding a statistically significant lead in 47 of the 50 states, leaving only Hawaii, Vermont and Massachusetts as possibly even. Click on the chart to the left to see the numbers broken down by state.

Or take a look at the following map. This map demonstrates just how dramatic the conservative advantage is. In the darkest green states (“most conservative”), the conservative advantage is 25% points or more. In the medium green states (“more conservative”), the conservative advantage ranges from 20% to 25% points. The conservative advantage in the light green states (“somewhat conservative”) ranges from 10% to 19% points. Finally, the conservative advantage in the pale green states (“less conservative”) ranges from 1% to 9% points.

When you look at the number of electoral votes represented by these groupings, the hurdle a liberal faces is staggering. A party needs 270 electoral votes to win the Presidency.

Below are the number of electoral votes held by each grouping of states:
Most Conservative = 108
More Conservative = 116
Somewhat Conservative = 162
Less Conservative = 149
Liberal = 3
Thus, if we exclude moderates for the moment, the conservative candidate will win a landslide election by an electoral count of 535 to 3. If we exclude the states within the statistical margin of error, the conservative candidate still wins by the electoral count of 516 to 3, with 19 votes undecided.

Even if the country suddenly experiences a 10% shift to the left, the conservative candidate still wins by the electoral count of 386 to 152.

Now let’s factor in the moderates:
• If the conservative can attract half the moderates, the conservative will win 50 states, totaling 535 electoral votes.

• If the conservative attracts only 40% of moderates, the conservative candidate will win 39 states, totaling 376 electoral votes. New Hampshire ends in a tie.
It is not until you fall close to the level of 35% support among the moderates that the conservative candidate loses the election. Thus, all the conservative candidate must do to prevail is to pull in the conservative support plus 40% or more of the moderate voters.

Is such a thing likely? Absolutely. As we’ve noted before, unaffiliated voters tend to hold opinions that are much closer to the Republican position than the Democratic position. On most issues, around 60% of these unaffiliated voters state a preference for the conservative position (click to see our chart). That is fertile ground for a conservative candidate.

In any event, combining this polling data with the prior findings that Americans overwhelmingly continue to express conservative opinions on all major issues -- and that the Democrats are the outliers -- finds that liberals are indeed a rare breed in America. And given all of the advantages liberals should have at the moment, this finding is all the more interesting and all the more damning.

The Republican Problem

However, there is a big caveat to this data. If the Republicans are unable to attract these conservatives, then their electoral success in 2010 or 2012 is far from assured.

The reason this becomes an issue is that Republican affiliation trails conservative identification by wide margins. In other words, more people describe themselves as conservative than Republican. Indeed, Republicans only hold a registration advantage over Democrats in six states, as compared to the forty-three states where the Democrats hold the advantage (twenty-nine of which are sizable). Compare that to the advantage conservatives hold in all 50 states. (Click on the chart to the left to see the comparison broken down by state.)

The Democratic advantage is clear in the chart below. The red states are those where Republicans hold the advantage (dark red = 10 point or greater advantage; bright red = 5-9 point advantage), the grey states are about even, and the blue states are those where the Democrats hold the advantage (dark blue = 10 point or greater advantage; bright blue = 5-9 point advantage).

Compare the Republican misery in this chart against the conservative sweep in the green map above. Unlike the conservative who wins by 500+ electoral votes, the Republican loses to the Democrat 24 to 259, with 75 votes remaining undecided.

So what does this mean? It means that liberalism has not caught on with the public. It means that Americans remain a deeply conservative people. It also means that Republicans have done a poor job of attracting self-described conservatives. Maybe they should ask themselves why that is?

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First Avowed Marxist In An American Administration

A short while ago, I posted an article in which I did some chatting about the McCarthy era and how the expression has come to mean "witch hunt." But I have good news for you. We no longer need McCarthy. For the first time in American history, we now have an administration official who is an open, public, avowed Marxist. I have provided you with a peek at the new official White House uniform.

Glenn Beck, David Horowitz and Michelle Malkin have been on this story for awhile, but I think it bears repeating here, along with a short discussion of just how far to the left the Obama administration has really gone.

Meet Van Jones. President Obama has appointed him to be one of the multiple czars in his administration, although it's probably more appropriate to call him commissar. Jones is in charge of developing green energy policy. What are a few convicted felons and communists in your administration if it means we're all going to have our energy needs fulfilled without the necessity of oil, coal, water, nuclear facilities, or any other technology currently known to man?

Jones first came to public attention during the Rodney King riots. He was a leader and organizer for "black justice." Their cry was "no justice, no peace." He was arrested, tried and convicted of inciting to riot, and went off to jail. Like most rioters, he didn't spend a lot of time incarcerated. But he was there long enough to know he had found his people and his true calling. In one of his sort-of autobiographical works he declared: "I met communists and anarchists and decided this is what I need to be part of. I spent the next ten years of my life working with a lot of those people I met in jail, trying to be a revolutionary."

Recognizing that Los Angeles wasn't the top environment for revolutionaries, he came to my neck of the woods. He became an active member and occasional leader of several Marxist groups in the San Francisco Bay Area. He joined STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), a Marxist-Maoist cell staffed by members of several different revolutionary/radical not-for-profit groups. Several STORM staffers were also involved in the activities of antiwar groups "Not In Our Name" and "International ANSWER." Jones brought his Ella Baker Center for Human Rights into the larger body. He had founded the Baker Center for the purpose of diverting black convicts from prison sentences into "public service" activities which were actually nothing more than daily seminars on Marxist revolutionary rhetoric with a black "liberation" twist.

STORM eventually became the umbrella group which controlled many of the smaller organizations. Using an old communist tactic, many of the groups used words like "peace," "antiwar, "racism" and "justice" in their names, and rarely allowed the satellite groups to use communist phraseology in any of their literature or public statements. In fact, though carefully watched by their Marxist overlords, many non-communists and just plain radicals joined the satellite movements without any knowledge of the true underlying purpose of the parent organization.

But STORM itself has no such reservations. In a semi-manifesto entitled Reclaiming Revolution: Standing Together to Form a Revolutionary Movement," the organization used all the old-time Marxist lingo. "We are a revolutionary cadre organization that understands that revolutionary Marxist politics would be central to the development of a successful liberation movement in this country. We are committed to Marxist-Leninist politics." Nothing in this mission statement has ever been rescinded or modified by STORM. Clear enough for you?

Too clear, in fact. These are dedicated communists but they are not entirely stupid. They recognized that many deluded liberals and radicals were looking for causes, but they were generally hostile to the old revolutionary style and not educated in or committed to traditional communist ideology. So they've simply changed the public face of the satellite groups into "women's groups," "peace groups," "green energy and conservation" groups, and "anti-racism" groups. And the second-echelon groups are "working together for unity." "Unity" is the word used to replace "revolution."

And yet even there, it doesn't take a genius to see the connections which Jones and Storm lovingly embrace. There are close ties to the South African Communist Party, a break-off group from the American Communist Party, and other "socialist" and "collective" groups. And lest we forget, there is the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism" whose main hero was the ruthless Marxist leader of the revolutionary movement in Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, Amilcar Cabral. Should anyone think that Cabral was a mere socialist, he called Lenin "the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples." I'm sure you've all heard the short definition of communism: socialism in a hurry. Cabral fits that mold perfectly. Van Jones in 2006 named his newborn son Cabral.

If 2006 is too far back for thinking that Jones is still an active Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, how about 2007? In 2005, Jones specifically denied any break with his communist friends in the East Bay Express (the Daily Worker for really dumb Oaklanders who obviously don't work). His words were "I still consider myself a revolutionary, but just a more effective one." Jones authorized the article's re-print as a revolutionary pamphlet in 2007.

Meanwhile, STORM has developed intertwining relationships with both the SEIU and ACORN. Jones has maintained his position with STORM right up to the time of his appointment, and will not disavow its goals in any event. Glenn Beck has been doing a series on the leftist takeover of America, and according to several independent sources has attempted to elicit a direct answer from the White House as to whether Obama and his advisers were aware of and/or approved of Jones's connections. The non sequitur which came back was that "Van Jones is focused on one policy goal: building clean energy incentives which create 21st Century jobs."

You don't have to be a lawyer to want to scream "Objection! That answer is non-responsive." Maybe the White House doesn't know the old communist mantra that the ends justify the means. Or maybe it knows it all too well. And the end in question with Jones is the economically and socially critical area of energy. What socialist programs of make-work, public employment and destruction of energy production does Jones intend to use in his March to Marxism? Or as the leftist detractors of Ronald Reagan's policies of keeping America safe used to say, "What did Obama know about Jones, and when did he know it?"
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Friday, August 28, 2009

San Francisco Diary--Journal Of An Exile

San Franciscans (present company excepted) are wandering around like zombies the past two days, utterly bereft over the death of the Lion of the Senate, Edward M. Kennedy. The problem for me, of course, is that they haven't provided as much material as usual for my Diary. And even worse, my favorite stream-of-consciousness cuckoo, Mark Morford of SF Gate, has been on vacation in Las Vegas. Since his usual writing style would get him put on a 72 hour mental hold anywhere but here, he's been very quiet.

NOTE: The San Francisco Municipal Transit system ("Muni") has been conducting a sting operation on buses and trains to catch fare-cheats. Muni is shocked--shocked!--to find out that tens of thousands of riders have not been paying their fares. The article is accompanied by a photo of Heather Ferguson, self-proclaimed fare evader. I can understand that in modern America we don't make people wear scarlet letters anymore, but since she posed for her picture, on a Muni bus, freely gave her name, and admitted to cheating on her fare, is there some reason why she's not getting a ticket?

Said one 17-year old rider, who had the good sense to remain anonymous: "I almost never pay; it's just too easy." He did mention specfically which bus he ordinarily rides, so that should help some in finding him. "I don't think these sting operations are going to make it any harder," he says, "I'll just hop on whenever I feel like it and get off when the cops are gone." That pretty much sums up the attitude of a major portion of the bus and train-riding San Francisco public. And it points to one of the things the officers don't seem to be catching, but any Muni regular can tell you for a fact.

The bus and train operators play a major part in this daily loss of many thousands of dollars in fares. There is a strict rule that nobdy can board the bus or train by the exits located near the center of the buses. It is rarely enforced. There is a strict rule that transfers must be current, issued for a limited time period, and viewed by the driver before the rider can be allowed on the bus. This rule is routinely ignored. The fare for adults is $2.00. Regular mooches will throw fifteen or twenty cents into the coinbox, give their daily excuse, and the drivers just let them hop aboard. Monthly passes must be current, and senior and disabled passes must at least seem to match the persons offering them. Daily, healthy and happy strapping teenagers hop on the bus after flashing an expired pass, or one with a clear senior or disabled designation. It's also common in the seedier parts of town for the rider to be allowed on because he or she is "only going a few blocks," and can't pay the fare.

So why is it that when I board with a crowd packed together like sardines, I and people like me with valid, current passes which we have had out are routinely rudely singled out and shouted at by the drivers to "come back, you didn't pay your fare?" And when we, for the second time, show the valid pass, get told "I didn't see it." Meanwhile, twenty non-fare payers have pushed ahead of us, and taken the last of the seats, including the senior and disabled seats. I'll leave it to your imagination as to why my little group are the ones being singled out. Hint: We are not members of the same groups as 95% of the overpaid public employees operating the buses and trains.

NOTE: A San Francisco Supervisor who was an illegal alien when he showed up in our fair city many years back, has proposed a new ordinance and city policy which would enhance The City's already illegal sanctuary policy. Supervisor David Campos is using the excuse that ""some decent kids" might get sent back to their proper homelands "for walking down a block during a gang fight, or just getting arrested for a minor crime." Well, yeah. That's the law, you idiot.

Mayor Gavin Newsom is, as usual, speaking out of both sides of his mouth about the issue. He freely admitted releasing to the press a confidential memo from City Attorney Dennis Herrera to Supervisor Campos detailing the legal violations which would result, as well as inviting even further costly lawsuits and damage cases which have already been filed against The City. But the twist he gave it was that the public needed to know about the ugly consequences of, get this, "openly weakening sanctuary practices." The sanctuary policy, which was then, as now, illegal was originally put in place in the early 80s as a reaction to the multiple bloody civil wars which were taking place in Central America.

The results of this mass influx of illegals and its attendant dangerous consequences were withheld from the public for years at every level of city government. If an undocumented teen was actually turned over to [then] INS, they were sent home on a plane trip paid for by the citizens of San Francisco, or sent to porous Southern California halfway houses that couldn't be easier to escape from. Some would join their friends in Los Angeles, but most simply came back to San Francisco since benefits for illegals are the best in the state.

Then last year, the whole sordid ill-kept secret broke into front page news. Illegal immigrant and MS-13 gang member Edwin Ramos, who was arrested multiple times as a teenager in The City for various violent criminal offenses, was repeatedly released as a result of the dangerous "don't tell the feds" sanctuary policy. He then murdered Anthony Bologna and his two sons after a minor traffic accident. Law 'n Order Newsom, caught with his pants down, immediately ordered City authorities to report all crimes of youthful illegal immigrants to the federal authorities. At least that's what he said publicly. And if he meant it, why is he supporting an even looser sanctuary policy?

NOTE: Anthony Lagarde is a local "homeless" person who has gained considerable fame lately. He is the kind of guy San Franciscans love to tell warm and fuzzy stories about. He has a BA in developmental economics from Berkeley. But he started on the steep road to decline about the time he got his degree. He had been diagnosed as mildly bipolar (actually manic-depressive at the time he was a teenager), and took medication for it. But he didn't like the medicine, and was at the same time unaware that his condition was worsening, with or without the medication. He started drinking heavily, and ended up broke and on the street. He has gotten his life back in order, at least to an extent, and is taking his medication. He is working on a teaching credential at San Francisco State. But he is still homeless, and that's where this otherwise uplifting story of hope takes its San Francisco twist.

An immigrant from France, Lagarde was a soccer wiz in his homeland, and continued to play soccer after he came to the United States, but stopped as his alcoholism became debilitating. And now he's back. Glide Memorial Methodist has multiple outreach programs for homeless people, and one of those programs is soccer. He is now a member of the national Homeless Soccer Team. Yes, you read that right--national Homeless Soccer Team. There are teams in 16 American cities, but you gotta know San Francisco has the best. After all, we have the best-fed, best cared-for and most-pampered homeless people in the nation (as well as the highest per capita population of homeless people).

Now I'm pleased that this man is getting his life together, but I have a few serious questions. First, who is paying for all these programs? Second, what incentive does this man have to continue getting his life in order and getting off the streets? If he has a home, he can't be in the Homeless Soccer league, now can he? And finally, considering how expensive San Francisco State University has become, how is an unemployed, homeless soccer player paying for this education?

NOTE: District Attorney Kamala Harris wouldn't ask for the death penalty in a cold-blooded cop-killing, urges no jailtime for repeat misdemeanor offenders, and supports the most extreme of sanctuary rules (she will make the determination as to whether or not the triple-murderer above will face the death penalty, or even murder charges). But she has her priorities straight. She is determined to put one Lina Magailalo, a thirty-three year old mother in prison. Her crime? Battery on a parking officer. Never mind that most of us would consider Magailalo's actions to deserve a public award, this is a case of overzealous prosecution. Facing an angry union, what's a girl to do? How about tempering justice with mercy, Kamala? Magalailo was at the local Obamacare-style general hospital, waiting to see a doctor for her ill eight-year old daughter. She had been waiting for nearly three hours. She repeatedly had to go outside to feed the parking meter. On one of the trips, carrying her child with her, she didn't make it in time. The meter had just expired as the meter maid showed up. She saw Magalailo rushing to feed the meter, and wrote a parking ticket anyway.

The frustrated Magalailo then proceeded to pummel the meter maid. Not a good idea. But the damage was confined to a few scratches and bruises, and a questionable dislocated shoulder (not exactly a permanently-disabling injury, even if true). No question that Magalailo broke the law, and deserves punishment. But look at the circumstances. Magalailo has a child to care for, and an absolutely clean criminal record. She had offered to pay the ticket without any court fight, and only asked the meter maid to acknowledge that she had seen her rushing to the parking meter. No dice. The meter maid cut her off in mid-conversation, and proceeded to drive away. Not far enough, apparently.

So the same District Attorney's office which let an illegal immigrant with a history of violent crime go back on the street multiple times until he committed a triple murder is now determined to send this woman to prison for two years. And then, in defense of this travesty, Harris's office issued the following announcement: "Everyone is entitled to the right to work in a safe environment--parking control officers are no exception. They should be able to perform their duties without fear of threat or harm." Yes, and apparently union employees being overpaid to do a moron's task have lives which are more valuable and in need of protection that those of mere citizens like Anthony Bologna and his two dead sons.

NOTE: And then there's the other side of the coin. New Police Chief George Gascon has reviewed scores of disciplinary files, and is considering dismissing charges against approximately 75 officers with discipline cases pending before the civilian Police Commission for minor misconduct. Gascon was known in his previous jobs as a tough boss for cops who go astray. But he was also known for his fairness. The cases he is considering for amnesty include charges of "inappropriate language in the course of an arrest," "being discourteous," failing to fill out a police report properly, and in one case, a first-offense misdemeanor driving under the influence charge which was unrelated to his duties as a police officer (the Chief has no intention of interfering with any punishment the officer may receive from the court).

The reaction to the Chief's announcement was largely predictable. Outrage from the cop-haters in the ACLU, NAACP, every ginned-up victims' rights group, and about half the Board of Supervisors. Welcome to San Francisco, Chief. You'll find out quickly that lowlives and criminals have far greater standing in this city than your officers.
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Film Friday: Ghostbusters (1984)

Everyone likes Ghostbusters. It’s one of those rare comedies that has held up through the years and never gets old no matter how many times you see it. There is a reason for that. Just as interesting, much of what makes this movie so enduring almost didn’t happen. Ghostbusters should be dubbed the “Accidental Movie.”

** spoiler alert **
The Critics Blow Another One
Ghostbusters was generally well received by the critics, though they considered it light fare. Said the New York Times, “Its jokes, characters and story line are as wispy as the ghosts themselves, and a good deal less substantial.” Newsweek called it “summer nonsense.” And The New Yorker said that besides Murray, “nobody else has much in the way of material, and since there’s almost no give-and-take among the three men, Murray’s lines fall on dead air.” Yet, despite these assertions of vapidity, Ghostbusters struck a chord with the public. It spent seven weeks at number one and eventually became the highest grossing comedy of the 1980s. Even today, it is often ranked on “best of” lists. AFI ranks it as the 28th best comedy of all time. IGN named it the greatest comedy ever. Entertainment Weekly voted it the funniest movie of the past 25 years.
The Secret To Comedic Endurance
So what gives Ghostbusters its staying power? The answer is simple, though not intuitively obvious. What makes a comedy successful over the passage of time and repeated viewings is not the jokes, but the strength of the story and the relationship of the characters. Indeed, many of the best comedies could have been written as dramas, with the humor edited in later.

The Ancient Greeks, who invented comedy as a written form, did not think of comedies as particularly funny. To them, a comedy was simply a story with a happy ending. Today, a comedy must provoke laughter. But there are many ways to get laughter and modern comedies come in many forms. Some are stand up routines, some are slap stick. Some are parodies or satire and some can best be described as simply not-dramas. Most of the comedies with staying power fall into the last category for the following reasons:

Humor is fleeting and difficult to achieve, because humor is based on emotion. To get another person laughing, you need to find a way to activate the correct emotional state. Sometimes that can be done by telling jokes. Sometimes it requires the surprise of slapstick. Some prefer intellectual humor, while others enjoy seeing discomfort. What one person finds funny, another may find insulting or boring. Thus, finding the right trigger to bring on the emotional state of humor is very difficult. Moreover, what we find funny changes as we age. Further, because humor is often based on shock or surprise, e.g. revealing the unexpected, it loses its impact the more it is seen. Thus, not only is it difficult to accurately target the funny bone, but it gets harder and harder with each passing viewing to keep hitting that funny bone.

Consequently, the more a comedy relies on pure humor, e.g. jokes, to attract an audience, the more difficult it will be for the film to gain any longevity because the jokes will get stale, leaving nothing else worth watching. This is particularly true where the humor is referential to current events or then-existing social norms. Cartoons, stand-up routines, and parodies typically fall victim to this, as do gross-out films and films that are little more than disguised sketch comedy.

But the "not-drama" comedy can avoid this fate becaue that form of comedy treats the story and the characters as paramount, and only interjects humor carefully where appropriate to serve the story. Because this type of comedy relies on the story and the relationships of the characters to attract the audience, rather than the jokes, the audience can still enjoy the movie just as much as they did initially, even long after they have stopped laughing at the jokes.
Ghostbusters Is A Story/Character Based “Comedy”
Ghostbusters is such a comedy: It is driven by the plot and the characters, not the humor. In fact, if you remove one or two lines from a handful of scenes, cut out a few seconds of recognizable comedic acting (like the slapstick manner in which they flee the ghost librarian), and change the Stay Puft Marshmallow man and the green slimer into something more menacing, Ghostbusters becomes a drama or even a horror movie.

Indeed, all the elements are there for Ghostbusters to be an effective dramatic movie about four men who hunt ghosts for a living. It is only through the addition of a handful of humorous lines, the inclusion of brief moments of easily recognizable comedic acting, and the choice to add a level of ridiculousness to the final confrontation that the drama disappears seamlessly into a comedy. And since we enjoy the movie because we like the story, because we like the relationships built by the characters, and because we enjoy the world they have created for us, rather than because we are waiting to see a series of jokes executed by the actors, we can re-watch this movie over and over.

And if you think this isn’t a dramatic movie first and foremost, consider the scene where the Ghostbusters are called to the Mayor’s office, where they confront Peck. With the exception of Bill Murray, nothing in that scene tells you this movie is a comedy. The scene is heavy and dark, and the characters act just as they would if they were in a drama. Even when Murray smarts off, the other characters don’t react in any of the traditional comedic styles, they react in a realistic manner, just as one would react to someone who has told the truth, but in an insulting way. Thus, the humor is delivered, but the dramatic tension of the scene is maintained. In other words, you get to laugh, but you never lose your place in the story.

Ghostbusters also deals with some very heavy, i.e. “dramatic”, themes, the types of themes that can’t be handled in a pure comedy. Specifically, consider the discussion between Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd regarding God, Jesus and Revelations. No jokes are made during that discussion and the issues aren’t raised as set ups for future jokes. This is a true dramatic moment, which gives the viewer context for the multitude of ghosts suddenly appearing. If this scene was transferred directly, without change, into a John Carpenter movie, this would be considered the payoff scene that sets up the terror about to be unleashed, no one would recognize it as coming from a comedy.

Even the effects are often much scarier than one would expect for a comedy, and the soundtrack is scored as a drama, a concept that gained notoriety after John Landis asked Elmer Bernstein to score Animal House as if it were a drama. Bernstein scored Ghostbusters as well.
The Character Relationships Are More Dramatic Than Comedic
The character relationships also are more like a drama than a comedy. In a more joke driven comedy, like Beer Fest, the characters must all have unusual traits that come into play to make various scenes work throughout the movie. Their reactions are exactly what is needed to make each joke work.

In Ghostbusters, by comparison, the characters act realistically, i.e. as they should when confronted with events around them. The humor is then woven into the dialog, as appropriate, rather than having the scene built for the humor. And what this does, is it allows us to respond to the characters on an emotional level, something you cannot normally do in a humor-driven movie.

For example, we feel comfortable and welcomed by the ease of the relationship between Ramis and Aykroyd, and by Aykroyd’s childish innocence. We feel inspired by Ernie Hudson’s discussion of faith. We long for the slowly developing romance between Murray and Weaver to pay off. And we pull for the oblivious, but good-natured Rick Moranis. These are the types of responses you don’t get in a more joke-based movie. Ask yourself, which character in Airplane makes you feel welcomed or inspired? Do you really care about the romance between Striker and Elaine?
The Accidental Movie
This is why Ghostbusters has been so successful, because it is first and foremost the story of five or six characters, who happen to be involved in the business of hunting ghosts. It is that story and the relationship of the characters that keep viewers coming back, the jokes are secondary.

Thus, it is interesting to learn that the things that make Ghostbusters tick almost weren’t part of the movie. For example, as just noted, the realism of the story is what connects us to the movie. But the original concept for the movie was not very realistic. Aykroyd’s original concept called for the Ghostbusters to act as a sort of SWAT team, traveling through time in a flying car to fight ghosts. But because this would have been too expensive to shoot, Reitman brought in Harold Ramis to re-write the script and bring it into modern times. If CGI had existed at that point, Ghostbusters would have been a very different movie.

Further, when the movie was originally written, Aykroyd wanted John Belushi instead of Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy instead of Ernie Hudson, and John Candy in place of Rick Moranis. Belushi died, opening the door for Murray, and, frankly, probably saving the film. Murray and Belushi are hardly interchangeable, and I have never seen evidence that Belushi could carry off the leading man role that Murray delivered so perfectly in Ghostbusters. Indeed, compare the “romance” between Belushi and Carrie Fisher in The Blues Brothers against Murray’s romance of Weaver, and you can see how a key element of the film would have changed.

Similarly, replacing the understated and dignified Hudson with the scene stealing Murphy (who rejected this project to shoot Beverly Hills Cop) would have killed the triangular dynamics established by the writers between the three original Ghostbusters. Likewise, John Candy, who was to play a straight-laced conservative neighbor of Weavers', cannot deliver the “little guy” character that Moranis so brilliantly gave the audience. Moranis' character was vital because he put a heart into the possession scenes, and he humanized what was happening. Candy's more outlandish style would have yielded very different results. Fortunately for us, Candy refused to commit, and in stepped Moranis.

Ramis also did not originally intend to play Dr. Spengler, until they could not find anyone better. And many of the names considered, like Christopher Walken or John Lithgow, again would have seriously changed the chemistry that became so important to the film. Have you ever seen a movie in which you felt Walken was someone you wanted to befriend?

Any of these changes could have dramatically changed the tenor and feel of this film. Thus, ironically, much of what has given Ghostbusters its longevity could well be considered an accident. Fascinating.

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Question: Cast Yourself!

We’ve been busy casting “Commentarama: The Movie.” So far, all we’ve got is Janeane Garofalo playing Lawhawk. She kindly agreed to step in when the whole Michael Jackson thing fell through. I suspect Lawhawk will be thrilled to hear this. In any event, if you had to cast someone (living or dead) to play you in your biopic, who would it be? And tell us what role(s) they played that made you choose them. [+] Read More...

Obama Tries To Break A Bucking Bronc

Bronco Barack Obama decided to take his socialized medicine show to Bozeman, Montana. He figured the locals would be a pushover for his Chicago Wranglers and Union Rustlers. "Well, howdy pardner" said the real cowboys and Big Sky residents. And they proceeded to show the city slicker that you don't push Montanans around that easily.

In my final year of law school, I got so annoyed by all things California that I looked into the possibility of getting out of Dodge. One of several locations I looked into was Bozeman, Montana. What a place! Unfortunately, my wife got out her Sunset Gardening Book, and when she discovered that orchids didn't grow well in the Montana climate, my adventure was over. But when I read some of the reports of the Obama fiasco there, I at least had an idea of where he was and what he was facing. The people in the Bozeman area are not that far removed from the pioneers who built the West. They're courteous, but they're tough. And they don't take well to people coming into town to lecture them and bamboozle the rest of the nation into thinking that Montana is the alternate Obama heartland.

Those of us who don't live in the Rockies don't realize that Bozeman, with a population of less than 40,000 is considered a fairly large city by Montana standards. This is a state of great vistas (it's not called Big Sky Country for nothing), climate extremes, and great expanses of land between population centers. Fresh from his grand tour of the Grand Canyon, Obama took his show on the road and headed for Montana. He assumed that folks who were not from Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City wouldn't know a stage show when they saw one. And what a staged show this was.

Obama's impending visit was officially barely publicized. Bozeman and Belgrade both have arenas with places for parking, gathering, and seating. They are only large gymnasiums or auditoriums, but then you're not going to get a crowd of 100,000 to attend an Obama town hall photo op if you depend entirely on the locals in Montana. Still, Bronco Barack was taking no chances that even 3 or 4 thousand angry citizens were going to show up for his town hall lecture on socialized medicine. So he very quietly scheduled the meeting to take place at the airport which is located in a somewhat isolated area between Bozeman and Belgrade. On top of that, the meeting was to take place in an even more isolated hangar on the outskirts of the airport.

Lack of general notice to the public doesn't mean that the Obamacrats hadn't given notice to someone. How many SEIU members, ACORN workers and other paid operatives could there be in a state as sparsely populated as Montana? I don't know the answer to that question, but somehow they all managed to show up on schedule for the Obama arrival. And along with a contingent from Planned Parenthood, electronic bullhorns, and professionally-produced pro-Obama signs and tee-shirts, they arrived in large groups. In buses, and caravans.

But the Montanans are not the ignorant rubes that Obama had pictured. To start with, 94% of the citizens of Bozeman have high school diplomas, and 50% have bachelor's degrees or higher. Can Chicago say that? A few employees at the airport got wind of the visit, and the word quickly spread to Bozeman and beyond. Neighbor called neighbor, and pretty soon the word had gotten out all over the state. They were largely annoyed by Obama's tax plans (there had been earlier tea-party protests throughout the state, including the capital at Helena). They were even angrier about the Obama socialized medicine plan. But they were angriest of all about the way Obama and his press corps and community-organization thugs had set things up to make this town hall meeting look like Montana was Big Obama Country.

About 150 pro-Obama shills from the SEIU and other groups arrived in the middle of the night before the meeting. The locals hadn't organized themselves yet, so they were a bit surprised to find all the choice spots taken up by people that none of the locals recognized. The locals started arriving early the morning of the Obama Snake Oil show, only to find that outside squatters were already trying to control the venue. The local police ordered the shills to disperse from the central area in order to allow proper crowd-control and to give everyone an equal chance to get into the choice spots. The SEIU simply out-shouted and outnumbered the police and the early local arrivals.

Once again, the word spread quickly that this whole thing was nothing more than a giant photo op set up by the Obamists. That got the Montana adrenalin flowing. People began arriving from all over the state (and that's one helluva big state to drive around in). Meanwhile, the locals began to organize voluntarily (unlike the paid shills from the Obama camp). From being outnumbered three or four to one in the early morning, the protesters had by late morning or early afternoon more than equaled the number of the Obama paid apparatchiks. Eventually, to counter the SEIU bullhorns, some of the locals showed up with a fire truck to use as a stage, complete with a very loud public address system.

The SEIU members were very menacing in the early stages. But as the numbers of the protesters began to swell, they realized that their physical and obscenity-laced vocal threats were falling on deaf ears, and that they would soon be outnumbered. More Obama plants continued to arrive, always in groups, but the disparity in numbers continued to favor the protesters, and in ever-growing numbers. No organized groups showed up to protest. Just individuals, and families, and friends in small numbers that added up to bigger and bigger numbers. At least two of the SEIU thugs appeared to have gotten orders to start a fight. The locals were not the least bit intimidated, but refused to to rise to the bait. They knew that the paid photographers from the Obama groups would use a fight to prove that these ordinary citizens were actually vicious fascists using violence to shut down a peaceful Obama assembly.

By the time Bronco Barack arrived, the crowd was running about three or four to one against the President's message. Many had come completely neutral, prepared to ask hard questions, and ended up with the protesters because of the manner in which they were pushed out of the way by the Obama thugs. The Fund for Public Interest with its Montana headquarters in Missoula, had been paying its recruits $10 to $15 per hour to "go out into the communities and help make change happen." They were well-represented and well-paid at the Obama show. But none of their organized and funded activities were sufficient to overcome the spontaneous outpouring of local activism. The "community organizers" failed to make this an easy Obama victory.

Not only did the Obama photo op fail, but they weren't even smart enough to see what was coming. The Sunday before the Obama show was set up, Montana Senator Max Baucus had showed up at a protest meeting at the Museum of the Rockies. As one tea-party participant described it: "Baucus, who acted like John the Baptist clearing the way for the arrival of the Chosen One, was in town to promote the Make Health Happen Montana conference." Baucus got a real earful. The protesters credited Baucus with the courage to show up, and allowed him to speak. But he wasn't expecting the grueling question session that followed. So in order to cover his failure, he told the local newspaper that this was "the closest thing to a mob that I've ever experienced in my life." He then proceeded to tell an outright lie about a contingent of paid protesters being bused in from Texas.

So the airport photo op went terribly awry. The SEIU brigades on one side, and local cowboys, nurses, doctors, merchants, and other ordinary citizens with hand-lettered signs and serious questions on the other. Obama's Big Sky plan turned into the Obama Cow-Pie in the Sky town hall.

To all my fellow American citizens in Bozeman and throughout Montana, this San Franciscan says: "I love the smell of horse manure in the morning. It smells like victory!"
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Health Care Townhalling

Writer X has an interesting write up today over at her place of a telephone townhall meeting held by her representative last night. Here's the link. [+] Read More...

No Vacation Goes Unpunished. . .

It’s been a difficult vacation for Obama. His worshipers won’t leave him alone: CNN, ABC News, CBS, they’ve all followed him, fighting for just a glimpse. They gushed over his reading list -- all white male authors, by the way. They’ve gushed over Michelle’s shorts. And they’ve sung his praises for choosing a vacation spot like Martha’s Vineyard, where the ultra rich mingle freely with the moderately ultra rich. . . it’s true Americana. But while he’s basking in the glory, things haven’t been going so well at the office.

On Tuesday, Obama’s economic team finally conceded what the rest of us already knew: he understated the deficit. Rather than being a trifling $1 trillion next year, the deficit will in fact be $1.5 trillion. Wow, $500 billion off! That’s nine times what they claim health care reform will cost each year.

Team Obama also admitted that they’d under-estimated unemployment. . . again. Unemployment will now hit 10% instead of the 9% estimated in July, which was itself an increase from Team Obama’s original maximum estimate of 8% for unemployment. No word this time if nobody could have seen this coming.

These direr numbers caused members of Team Obama to suggest that a second stimulus could be needed -- a “ministimulus” of only $250 billion. But Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) shot that idea down quickly.

Feingold, apparently taking out some frustration on Obama’s agenda, also stated that Team Obama’s proposal to revive the assault weapons ban “would die a quick death in the Senate.” Feingold also will oppose legislation to require gun registration.

And the bad news didn’t stop there. Feingold stated that there would be no health care bill in the Senate until Christmas. . . so much for the August deadline. He also rejected an effort to use federal funds to pay for abortions: “There’s no way we’re changing this to offer public funding of abortions. Nobody wants to open up that issue in the middle of this. That’s one thing you won’t have to worry about.” Truly, he has become a right-wing extremist. Welcome Senator.

Then the thinkable happened: Ted Kennedy (D-Masshole) died. So what you ask? Well, suddenly the Democrats lack a supermajority in the Senate. And because of some nasty legal maneuvering by Kennedy a few years back to try to deprive Romney of the chance of appointing a Republican until a special election could be held, no one can be appointed to replace Kennedy until a special election is held early next year.

However, the real ObamaCare-killer is not the actual lack of the supermajority. We all know that when ask comes to nudge, certain Republicans can be counted on to support whatever bill the Democrats want. Thus, the supermajority is safe. But the Democrats are nervous beyond the extreme about ObamaCare. They blew it, they lost the people’s trust on this issue through a series of missteps. Now they don't want to touch this bill for fear that it will terminate their careers with extreme prejudice. But not ramming through socialism will anger their base.

So whatever will they do? They will claim that without the sixty seat majority, it would be hopeless to bring this bill to a vote. . . pay no attention to the two Democratic-groupies from Maine. Thus, tragically, they will claim, this issue must be put off until 2010. . . er, 2011, after the election. Team Obama and their friend The Pelosi will use the corpse of Ted Kennedy to pressure these Democrats, but fear of the dead is not as strong as fear of a lively electorate. And this may be the final nail in the coffin for ObamaCare.

Finally, as if all of this wasn't enough to ruin his vacation, we now hear that Afghanistan is falling apart. It’s been a summer of rising casualties, divisive elections, and falling support. This week, even Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Afghan situation as “serious and deteriorating.”

What else can go wrong for Obama? Wait a minute, has anybody seen his dog lately? Wasn't he tied to the back of Air Force One. . . never mind.

Maybe Obama shouldn’t have gone on vacation. . .

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Captioning: Head Of The Fed Lock. . .

Tim Geithner announced this week that they are creating a new Obama quarter. To ensure that it stands out, they decided to make it the size of Ben Bernanke's head. In the photo below, Geithner explains the headlock maneuver he used to verify the size of each quarter. At least, that's what my unreliable local paper said. . . but they could be wrong?

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The Great Gun Shouting Match. . . er, Debate

Readers ask, Commentarama delivers: today, we talk about guns. The problem with the gun debate is that it is dominated by misinformation and myth, and is fought on emotion and false reasoning. Let’s cut through it all and talk about the facts.

The Anti-Gun Arguments

At first glance, the pro-gun people seem paranoid. Every time someone suggests some reasonable restriction to make guns safer, they start screaming about this being the proverbial nose under the tent for the eventual banning of guns. But there is a very rational basis for their fear. Many on the left are seeking to ban guns. Indeed, it doesn’t take long to run an internet search to find groups dedicated to banning guns. Or take, for example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), who stated:
“If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them, Mr. and Mrs. America turn them all in, I would have done it. I could not do that. The votes weren’t there.”
Many of the anti-gun groups talk openly about incrementalism, eliminating guns one step at a time. Other groups, like the Brady Campaign, are dishonest about their motives. They specifically state that they are not opposed to gun ownership, but then advocate the banning of almost every type of gun and the enforcing of such restrictions that gun use would be virtually unattainable by average citizens.

And why do they want to ban guns? In many ways, guns, like cars, represent a boogey man for the left. A gun is power. Leftists do not believe that individuals should be trusted to exercise power. They believe that only the state and its panels of experts should be allowed to exercise power. Thus, allowing individuals to retain such power is anathema to leftists, particularly because the power afforded by guns is the power to hold off or to make timid the state, which the left thinks should be free to call the shots.

But leftists rarely frame the debate in this manner because that’s a losing proposition in America. Thus, they argue instead that guns are dangerous. They note particularly that “automatic weapons” and “assault weapons” are menaces to society and particularly the police. They argue that guns cause crime -- particularly mass killings, and that gun ownership is unsafe because it leads to accidental death and suicide. Most of these arguments are myth.

Debunking The Myths

Sadly, what most people know about guns comes from Hollywood, and Hollywood is about as inaccurate as you can get when it comes to guns. And these inaccuracies are mindlessly repeated by reporters, who get much of their information from anti-gun groups. The myth of the automatic weapon and the assault weapon are the two largest of these inaccuracies.
The “Automatic” Weapon Myth
One of the biggest myths regarding guns is the myth of the “automatic weapon.” An automatic weapon is a firearm that discharges multiple bullets when you pull the trigger. If you accept the image offered by Hollywood or the media, everyone has an automatic weapon and they are using them in street fights every day. Nothing about that image is true.

The National Firearms Act of 1934 placed restriction on the ownership of automatic weapons. These included background checks and registration of owners. In 1968, it became illegal to import automatic weapons. In 1986, the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986 made it illegal to manufacture automatic weapons. Since the passage of the 1934 Act, only a handful of people have been killed with automatic weapons.

What the media is really talking about are “semi-automatic” weapons. A semi-automatic weapon discharges only one bullet per pull of the trigger, just like a revolver. It does not “spray” bullets.

Nevertheless, anti-gun groups routinely describe semi-automatic weapons as “spraying” bullets. For example, the Brady Campaign states in their FAQs that “semi-automatic assault weapons are designed to be spray-fired from the hip.” Similarly, every Hollywood criminal or villain uses automatic weapons to randomly spray bullets everywhere. Watch any news report and you will hear about the latest criminal to use or carry an “automatic” weapon. These reports often end with pleas from the reporter to ban such evil weapons because cops just can’t compete with the guys who can “spray” hundreds of bullets per second. This is all false.
The “Assault” Weapon Myth
The second biggest myth regarding guns is the myth of the “assault weapon.” The anti-gun groups and the media love to attack “assault weapons,” which are typically described as identical or nearly identical to military weapons. And if you listen to the media, these are the weapons of choice for criminals. But again, this is all myth.

First, the idea of the “assault weapon” is actually a nonsensical concept. Under Federal law, what distinguishes an assault weapon from a regular weapon is largely cosmetic. For example, does it have a bayonet mount (I dare anyone to find the last causality from a bayonet charge in the United States), does a rifle have a pistol grip, or is the gun a copy of another weapon that is fully automatic. In other words, does it look like (not function like) something that the military would use. Of all the items listed, the one that does actually increase the performance of the gun is the inclusion of a “high capacity” magazine. This would presumably give the gun an advantage over other guns that need to be reloaded more often. But that advantage is slight when you consider how long it takes to reload a gun (even revolvers have autoloaders that allow all six/eight chambers to be reloaded simultaneously).

Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that these are the weapon of choice for criminals is simply wrong. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and explosives (ATF), prior to the “assault weapons ban”, assault weapons were used in only 4.8% of gun crimes. After the ban went into effect, this percentage fell to 1.6% of gun crimes.

Similar percentages were found by law enforcement agencies throughout the country. For example, Connecticut found that only 198 of 11,002 firearms confiscated were “assault weapons.” Florida found that only 17 of 7,500 firearms used in crimes were “assault weapons.”

Despite this verifiable fact, various newspapers across the country reported that “assault weapons” were used in 10% of all gun crimes.

Moreover, gun-control advocates, such as Denver Police Chief Ari Zavaras, continued to state: “assault weapons are becoming the weapons of choice for drug traffickers and other criminals,” even though only 14 of the 1,248 weapons then in the custody of the Denver police were assault weapons. That’s 0.6%. And of those 14, only one had been used in a crime of violence.

Anti-gun groups also claim that police officers are being gunned down by assault weapons. This too is a myth. Between 1975 and 1992, of the 1,534 police officers murdered in the line of duty in the United States, only 16 were killed by assault weapons. Of this, the Journal of California Law Enforcement noted:
“It is interesting to note, in the current hysteria over semi-automatic and military look-alike weapons, that the most commons weapon used in the decade to murder peace officers was that of the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum revolver.”
Prevalence of Gun Crime

The anti-gun groups also would have you believe that guns are the tool that allow people to commit guns (some actually think they cause the temptation). But these claims are illogical, are not supported by the statistics, and ignore the benefits that guns provide.
Guns Are Not “The” Cause Of Crime
What percentage of crimes involve guns? If we are to believe the media or Hollywood, all criminals are armed and most use their guns. But a Department of Justice study found that only 36% of criminals convicted of homicide, robbery or assault were armed with a firearm. That’s right, only 36%.

According to DOJ, in 2007, there were 445,000 robberies in the United States, but only 154,000 of those involved a firearm. There were 157,000 aggravated assaults involving a firearm, and another 574,000 that involved some other weapon or no weapon at all. Clearly, crimes occur without the temptation of guns.

Even for murders, where guns were more prevalent, only 10,123 of the 16,929 murders that took place in 2007 involved a firearm of any sort (including shotguns).

And while that may sound like a lot, consider this: First, because of the size of our population, this means that only 1 in every 29,635 Americans will be murdered with a gun. Moreover, to put this into perspective, there are 2.5 million deaths in the United States annually. The 10,123 gun deaths represent 0.4% of the total deaths in the United States. This would place gun murders 43rd on the list of causes of death in the United States behind such other causes of death as diarrheal diseases, maternal conditions, malaria, measles, falls, drownings, and poisonings.
Defensive Use
Further, you need to weigh these deaths against the defensive benefits of gun ownership. Anti-gun groups routinely omit these benefits from their discussions, or try to claim that there are no such benefits. Yet, that is another myth.

Criminologist Gary Kleck co-authored a comprehensive study of defensive gun use. Examining FBI and DOJ data, he concluded that “defensive gun uses by crime victims are three to four times more common that crimes committed with guns.” Another study for the Justice Department found that 34% of felons had “been scared off, shot at, wounded or captured by an armed victim” and that 40% of felons had “decided not to do a crime because they knew or believed that the victim was carrying a gun.”

Indeed, the banning of guns has been shown to increase crime, including murder. When England banned private gun ownership in 1996, crime rates skyrocketed. According to American Enterprise Institute economist John Lott, an examination of information released by the British Home Office showed that the violent crime rate rose 69% following the gun ban (with murders increasing 54%). Interestingly, in the five years prior to the ban, such crimes had been falling consistently.

A county by county examination by Lott of crime rates in the United States, found that right-to-carry states experienced (on average) lower rates of violent crime (27% lower), murder (32% lower), robbery (45% lower) and aggravated assault (20% lower) than states with more restrictive gun laws. Other studies conducted at Vanderbilt University, SUNY Binghamton, Claremont-McKenna College, George Mason University, and the College of William and Mary, have supported Lott’s findings.
Mass Shootings
Anti-gun groups also point to mass shootings, particularly at schools, as evidence that guns are dangerous. But here’s what they don’t tell you. First, many of these shooting sprees could have been stopped if any of the victims had been armed. Secondly, these shooting sprees are very rare. Indeed, while these are highly emotional events, they are statistically insignificant. In the last 10 years in the United States, there have been seven shooting sprees at schools that resulted in three or more deaths. Interestingly, there were only five such shooting in the 23 years before that. This indicates some change in society that should be addressed. But before you blame guns for that change, consider that in the same ten year period that saw seven such shooting in the United States, there were six such shooting sprees in gun-banned Europe, with generally higher body counts.
Accidental Discharge
Anti-gun groups also like to point to “accidental discharges.” They will throw out statistics like the one that firearm related deaths for children in the United States are nine times higher than in the 25 other industrialize countries. Yet, they don’t tell you that almost all of those 25 countries ban gun ownership. And the number of accidental gun deaths pales in comparison to other accidental deaths. Each year, around 1,500 people die from gun accidents. This doesn’t even rate in the top 100 causes of death in the United States. And if guns were as dangerous as claimed, you would think that with 300 million of them floating around the US, these numbers would be much, much higher.
Anti-gun groups also like to point to gun suicides. Yet, many of the same people who point so accusingly to gun suicides, also support euthanasia. Blaming the gun for something they think is already acceptable is at best disingenuous.

Moreover, their statistics are garbage. There are around 30,000 suicides each year in the United States. Of those, approximately 12,000 (40%) involved firearms. However, the anti-gun groups claim, only 30% of Americans own guns. Thus, gun suicides are over-represented. Ergo, guns cause suicides. However, this assertion wrongly assumes a causal link that cannot be shown. Indeed, one would assume that there would be a preference for guns as a suicide method because they are 90% effective when used for suicide, as compared to other methods like jumping from high places which is only 34% effective. Ergo, guns do not make people suicidal, suicidal people prefer guns. Further, ownership does not mean access, unless you assume that gun owners all live alone. Thus, the entire basis for this claim is bogus at the outset.

The Philosophical Case For Guns

So what is the pro-gun case? Pro-gun groups make three arguments (excluding the Constitutional issue discussed below). The first is that guns are merely tools, like hammers, knives or a box of dynamite. Blaming guns for gun crime is as intellectually wrong as blaming money for theft or fertilizer for the Oklahoma City bombing. It is the human actor who is at fault, not the product. Further, arguments that guns are inherently unsafe are also irrational as all products are inherently unsafe to one degree or another. Intellectually, this argument is correct. Though, it must be noted that such an argument does not justify the continued existence of guns, if their dangers are outweighed by their benefits.

The second argument is that guns are “the great equalizer.” They protect the weak from the strong. Many years ago, in discussing the issue of women in combat, the Commandant of the Marine Corp told a very annoyed Patsy Schroeder (D-Mars), that “the average American male can kill the average American female with his bare hands in under a minute.” With a gun, those odds are evened. This argument goes hand in hand with the idea that individuals have a natural right to defend themselves.

The counter argument to this claim is that people with guns are more likely to be the victims of gun death. But such claims are false (and irrelevant). First, these claims typically include suicides. Secondly, they fail to account for the adverse selection problem, where people who live in dangerous locations are more likely to buy guns to protect themselves -- thus, it is not the gun causing the crime. And third, they never factor in the defensive benefits of guns.

The final argument is that guns protect the people from their government. When a government knows that it could meet armed opposition if it tries something truly evil, like rounding up certain citizens, governments are reluctant to engage in such activities. It is no coincidence that one of the first things totalitarian regimes do is to round up firearms. Indeed, this was the primary reason the Founders included the Second Amendment: their belief that a disarmed populous is helpless to resist a government and to prevent it from turning tyrannical.

The counter arguments to this typically point out the level of gun crime and/or demonize people who make this argument as militia nuts. But as seen above, the crime statistics are vastly overstated, the image the anti-gun groups try to promote of guns is false, and demonization is the lowest form of argument and should be dismissed out of hand.

The Constitution

Finally, we come to the question of the law. This is really the only theory that matters.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. For years, the left argued that this right extends only to state sponsored militia. Yet, only 20% of the population accepted that view. Seventy-three percent believe this Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to own guns.

More importantly, however, the Supreme Court now agrees with the people. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm for private use.

However, contrary to what many pro-gun groups claim, this right is not absolute. Indeed, the absolute position asserted by many pro-gun groups does not make sense when examined closely. For example, if no government regulation were allowed with respect to guns, then wardens could not keep prisoners from own guns, and the police could not legally disarm suspects.

And, in any event, the Supreme Court has rejected this argument in Heller:
“like most rights, the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. . . [This decision] should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
This is indeed typical of all rights. Even the most fundamental rights are subject to regulation. The question is the level of scrutiny that will be applied to the regulation. Some regulations are reviewed only on a “rational basis” test. Under this standard, if the government can come up with a rational reason for the regulation, the Court will uphold it. But more fundamental rights are typically examined under a “strict scrutiny” or “compelling interest” test, where the state must show that it has a compelling interest in the regulation and that it could not have achieved those results by imposing some lesser restriction (the regulation must be narrowly tailored).

At this point, the Supreme Court has not chosen the level of scrutiny that will apply to gun regulation. Instead, the Court found that the District of Columbia’s regulations in Heller were illegal under any of the possible levels of scrutiny. So this issue remains to be addressed in the future, although the court made it clear that such regulations could not interfere with the right of self-defense (the reason it rejected the District’s requirement for trigger locks). Thus, I suspect that the Court will eventually need to adopt the stricter standard.


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