The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Going Where To Do What?

Obama’s Olympic Sales Trip Is a Horrible Waste of Presidential Time and Prestige

Pundits these days are busy writing columns full of analysis on what President Obama is doing wrong. Since they represent a wide array of ideologies, they have proposed a wide array of helpful solutions. Yet in analyzing the root cause of Obama’s difficulties, they find surprisingly easy concurrence. The President, they maintain, needs to spend less time on television and more time “governing.”

Howard Fineman, not noted for overly critical views of Obama, led the condemnation this week in the current issue of Newsweek. “If ubiquity were the measure of a Presidency,” he muses, “Barack Obama would already be grinning at us from Mount Rushmore.” For Obama to string together enough genuine successes to win re-election and assure his legacy, Fineman advises he must “rely less on charm, rhetoric, and good intentions and more on picking his spots and winning in political combat.”

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen dourly echoes the same advice this morning. “Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the President of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way, appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the Presidential candidate he no longer is.”

Without doubt, Obama is unafraid to weigh in on any aspect of government, politics, or popular culture. In an increasingly media-driven society with an ever-shortening news cycle, the line between using his office as an effective bully pulpit versus an irrelevant soapbox is often a blurry one. The question is not whether Obama must expose himself to media coverage but whether he suffers from overexposure. The strategy is sound – the disagreement is the proper degree and frequency of its execution.

Well, I have now found an example in which I am fully in agreement with Obama’s critics. The White House announced yesterday that the President would fly to Copenhagen Denmark this Friday as part of the official U.S. delegation supporting the City of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

The reaction to this news by every American, regardless of political or ideological leanings, ought to be an amazed and indignant, “He’s going where to do what?”

This will mark the first time a U.S. President has appeared before the International Olympic Committee in the role of campaigner-in-chief. In fairness, heads of government/State appearing before the IOC to plead for their countries, although a recent trend, has quickly become de rigueur. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair traveled to Singapore to help London win the 2012 Summer Games.

Likewise, government heads will be in Copenhagen for the other cities competing against Chicago. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will be making the case for Rio de Janeiro. King Juan Carlos of Spain and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will both attend on behalf of Madrid, and newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will be supporting Tokyo.

In spite of this, Obama originally announced he would not attend, explaining the contentious healthcare reform debate required his full attention in Washington. White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs explained the President had subsequently decided that current Congressional healthcare negotiations were “in a better place,” thus making the trip possible. Alternate scuttlebutt suggests a growing confidence that the IOC’s preference was leaning toward Chicago perked Obama’s interest.

Several Olympic spokespeople agreed Obama’s presence would be a plus for the U.S. bid because most IOC committee members were curious and excited to meet him. On the other hand, Obama’s presence also ups the pressure and exacerbates a sense of failure if the IOC chooses elsewhere.

If Obama chose to attend the Denmark trip due to the hint of a potential political/national victory, it would be an example of what Cohen sees as a disturbing trend in his prioritization process. “A President has to be careful with [his] language,” Cohen explains. “He better mean what he says. The trouble with Obama is that he gets into the moment and means what he says for that moment only.”

A less diplomatic way of saying this is that Obama lacks the discipline to avoid distraction by the issue representing the shiniest pair of keys dangled before his eyes at any moment.

I like the Olympics as much as the next person and I would be proud if the IOC chooses Chicago to host them. However, given the relatively high percentage of games hosted by the United States and Western Europe over the years, I do not see their loss as such a tragedy to warrant the President of the United States flying there in emergency mode to try to charm the committee members.

Would it really be so terrible if one of the other cities won – especially Rio de Janeiro, since South America has yet to host a single Olympics on its continent?

This seems particularly true with healthcare reform still months away from a vote, Cap and Trade stalled if not already dead, a war to wind down in Iraq, one to fight in Afghanistan, and nuclear hot spots to handle in North Korea and Iran. Obama deserves admiration for his willingness to take on a full plate but he is violating the rules of the buffet by going back for seconds before barely starting, let alone finishing, his first portion.

One may argue that Obama can do no harm on this trip, even if he is ultimately unsuccessful, because, in the larger scheme of things, whether Chicago ever gets to host the Summer Olympics is not that important. This, I would counter, is exactly the reason it makes no sense for Obama to go.

If the IOC leadership and the Danes are all eager to see a real, live charismatic and powerful American of color, they can content themselves with Oprah Winfrey. Stay at home, Mr. President!

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Few Bad Nuts Are Still Too Many

ACORN Simply Grew Too Large to Control Its Own Staff

Now that the trickle of shocking videos appears to have dried up, perhaps right-wing attacks against the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) can be reasonably evaluated as to what they have and have not proved. James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, with a mere $1,300 budget, brought a hidden camera into a series of ACORN offices across the country and conducted a sting operation against the organization.

Posing as a pimp and prostitute, they sought advice from ACORN employees about how to buy a house intended for use as a brothel, exploiting teenage girls from El Salvador no less. In at least a half-dozen locations – including Brooklyn, Washington DC, Baltimore, and San Bernadino – they encountered ACORN staff who seemed sympathetic to their nefarious faux plot and offered helpful advice on how to skirt the law on getting a mortgage loan and avoiding tax payments.

After compiling their evidence, they contacted Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Washington Times columnist who had just started a new website, The videos’ content amazed Breitbart and he began releasing them through his site. The subsequent public outcry rocked ACORN’s leadership and left them scrambling.

Some have complained that O’Keefe and Giles are not journalists but hardcore conservative activists, whose purpose was not to objectively inform but rather entrap and destroy a rival liberal organization. These charges are probably true but do nothing to change the disturbing nature of what they uncovered. On the contrary, it underlines how freedom of the press can allow virtually anyone, no matter how small, to bring down large and powerful institutions that deserve chastisement.

However, the pair’s presentation skills were considerably below their investigation skills in terms of journalistic excellence. Breitbart suggested slowly releasing the videos as a series, rather than all at once – allegedly to prevent the story from being buried but also, of course, to accentuate and prolong its shock value. Post-release vetting has also found inaccuracies in the videos, with everything from unfounded rumors to conservative talking points reported as fact.

Nor did O’Keefe and Giles ever mention about the ACORN offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia that turned them away. An ACORN worker in Philadelphia even called the police on the pair.

Another staffer in National City California, who counseled the pretend prostitute and pimp, later called a relative in law enforcement to ask if they had crossed legal lines in doing so.

The outrageous claim of a San Bernadino ACORN worker, reassuring the scammers that she had once murdered her ex-husband – an assertion easily proven false by local police – tends to reinforce her subsequent contention that she was simply playing along with what she believed was a prank.

Again, O’Keefe and Giles deserve credit for their chutzpah and efforts in confirming that some of their own worst fears about ACORN had merit. However, conservative haughtiness is misplaced that an Obama-worshipping mainstream media has much to learn from them, unless it be lessons in what not to do.

And what about the oft-moaned conservative complaint that professional journalists have consistently sought to ignore ACORN?

Peter Dreier, Professor of Political Science at Occidental College and Christopher Martin, Professor of Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa, just completed a study of ACORN news coverage by newspapers and television networks over the past two years. They found no less than six hundred and forty-seven separate stories had run over this period alleging voter fraud against ACORN. What is more, Dreier and Martin report, “Only a handful of the stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal went on to report that actual cases of voter fraud were very rare.”

If the mainstream media is guilty of any complacency regarding ACORN, it was their passivity in allowing right-wing pundits and politicians to dictate the accusatory tone of reporting that dominated coverage of the organization. Yet even after putting these misrepresentations in perspective, I am forced to admit they are little more than quibbles against the main conclusion to be drawn – namely, that ACORN has proven itself unworthy of continued financial or any other kind of support.

ACORN’s chief executive, Bertha Lewis, famously vowed, “I will clean this house.” Alas, she finally sees the need for dusting after the property has been condemned; she brings a broom where a wrecking ball is the proper tool.

There are two defenses offered on ACORN’s behalf. A liberal blogger’s entry, quoted by Kathryn Jean Lopez in National Review, exemplifies the first, more extremist defense. “It’s also important to keep in mind that ACORN’s workers are coming from the same low-income neighborhoods the organization serves, with all that entails . . . So the flaws conservatives are pointing out about ACORN are not so much problems associated with that organization per se but more about the problems of being poor and minority in urban America.”

Nobody denies poverty is difficult but the role of community organizations must include teaching the disadvantaged responsibility and discipline as well as empowerment. Even the relatively small sampling of ACORN officers visited by O’Keefe and Giles reveal far too many ACORN workers as poorly trained and/or disinterested about operating within the laws of the neighborhoods and cities they serve.

The second, more reasonable defense argues that it is unfair to punish an entire organization for the unfortunate actions of a few employees. However, what was just uncovered goes far beyond self-policing the sloppy work of day hires doing voter registration. This is blatant criminality by core ACORN staff and it is not the first behavior of such extreme severity in the group’s history.

None of this erases ACORN’s legacy of good work. But it seems clear ACORN has been almost too successful for its own good. Having grown large and complex, its top leadership appears consistently unable to control its staff or infrastructure.

It was not always so. A group of impoverished mothers in Arkansas first formed ACORN in 1970 as an attempt to acquire school supplies for their children. As documented yesterday by Harold Myerson in the Washington Post, ACORN has been a leader over the years in such areas as raising the minimum wage, limiting interest and fees that banks charge homeowners, and, yes, registering new voters.

Today, ACORN has become a behemoth – with nearly half a million dues-paying members, chapters in over one hundred cities across forty states, and employing more than a thousand full-time staffers.

The videos made by O’Keefe and Giles, in and of themselves, do not prove corruption within ACORN is systemic, although they do argue strongly for further investigation. This is beside the point, however. A few bad apples or, more appropriately in ACORN’s case, a few bad nuts are still too many. Conservative activists and news coverage may exacerbate their actions but the damage done by them is now too extensive to repair.

“ACORN's name has become toxic,” stated Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker on Wednesday. To that end, I am happy to see sufficient number of Democrats in Congress have voted to block further federal funding to ACORN, happy to see the Census Bureau cut all official ties with ACORN, happy to see President Obama call for an investigation of ACORN, happy to see ACORN select former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to lead an independent self-investigation.

Like its large corporate peers riddled by scandal, ACORN will not be destroyed by its current plight but will instead slowly dissolve into the woodwork for awhile, only to eventually re-emerge in smaller, trimmer versions under new names or be absorbed into other organizations. Such downsizing will only benefit the sincere and honest workers within ACORN. First, it will reduce the huge sums of money flowing through limited numbers of hands. Second, it will prevent the harm of corruption in one city or neighborhood from spreading nationwide through a common name.

When addressing its current troubles, ACORN would do well to remember its own mantra – all problems are ultimately local problems and best solved locally.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Skin of Our Eyeteeth

The Human Spirit’s Capacity for Cleverness Is Surpassed Only by Its Inextinguishable Kindness

From time to time, I am reminded that I live in an age of miracles. Last night, I received two such reminders. The first came as I listened to NPR’s All Things Considered, as I rode home on the bus. It was the story of Sharron Kay Thornton from Smithdale Mississippi, a woman with a tooth in her eye.

Thorton went blind over ten years ago as the result of a rare genetic disorder that caused extensive scarring of her corneas. Her family’s search for a cure led them to the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami. Thorton underwent a series of innovative procedures there, including stem cell treatments, without success. Then, Doctor Victor Perez decided to try a rarely used surgical procedure, called modified osteo-odonto keratoprosthesis, which he first learned about in Italy.

The surgery involves cutting a slit through the scar tissue and inserting a narrow tube to let in light, analogous to a telescope. However, the tube needs something to hold it in place within the eye, something the eye would not reject as foreign matter. The best candidate for that was another part of Thorton’s body.

As it turns out, tooth bone and ligament can thrive quite nicely in eye tissue. Doctor Perez began by removing remove a tooth and part of Thorton's jawbone. He shaped the tooth and drilled a hole through its middle to hold the tube. He implanted the amalgamation into Thornton's chest for several months, allowing its components to bond. Finally, he made the incision in Thorton’s cornea and implanted the tooth/tube over it.

Three years after surgery, Thorton has one of the most peculiar-looking eyes you can imagine but experiences 20/70 vision with her prosthetic. Eventually, Doctor Perez believes her eyesight will be almost normal. The surgery is so rare that doctors have performed it only about six hundred times worldwide. This marked its first use in the United States.

Coincidentally, the tooth chosen by Doctor Perez, due to its shape and size, was one of Thorton’s upper canines – commonly known as an eyetooth.

This story struck me as miraculous partly because it exemplifies how human beings have used our cleverness and technology to set nature on its head. We peer inside our bodies using (ultra)sound. We play music on CDs using laser light. Now, we can see with our teeth.

We have all heard the famous dictum by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We can use technology to accomplish things formerly attributed to magic, like making blind people see again. Of course, our old stories of such acts do not refer to them as magic but as miracles.

Paul of Tarsus was no stranger to preternatural physical experiences, given the purported nature of his conversion to Christianity. Yet he consistently maintained in his teachings to judge acts as miracles not by their ability to astonish but rather their ability to increase faith.

Perhaps what I found so miraculous in Thorton’s story was the way it refreshed my optimism and faith in our ability as a nation and a species to find a better way. Surely, if doctors can discover such an extraordinary means to save a person’s sight, they can come together with politicians, insurance companies, and lobbyists to figure out a way that anyone and everyone who needs healthcare can afford to get it.

The second reminder came when the bus arrived at my stop – a strip mall parking lot about a mile or two from my house. Bob got off the bus with me. Bob is a soft-spoken but friendly man, about fifteen years older than I am. As we walked along the sidewalk toward our cars, we came upon a bottle that someone had smashed. Several large, jagged hunks of glass lay on the sidewalk.

Bob’s face twisted in a grimace when he saw them.

“Those look nasty,” he remarked.

“Yes,” I said. “Someone could cut themselves pretty badly on that.”

Bob reached down and scooped up the worst of the pieces, placing them in an outer pocket of his briefcase.

“I’ll throw these away when I get home,” he explained.

Sometimes it is hard to keep optimism and faith refreshed. This is particularly true at present. The use of “hope and change” as a partisan political slogan has generated a counter partisan political movement that cynically holds them as well as those individuals acting as their agents to be foolish and naïve.

Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Skin of Our Teeth, examines whether the human race ought to look at itself with cynicism or optimism. The main characters are a seemingly typical contemporary family and their maid but, as in the earlier Wilder play, Our Town, they are archetypes for broader, basic ideas. The characters go through a series of avant-garde adventures, in which they repeatedly just escape disaster, only to try again.

The play suggests humanity repeats itself across history, often plagued by both natural and man-made adversities. Wilder marvels at humanity’s ability to continually re-invent and even improve itself but also questions how many more catastrophes we can survive. He also ponders whether we even deserve the opportunity, since our basic nature – and our capacity for good and evil – remains fundamentally unchanged.

It is easy to see how the Great Depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and the advent of the Second World War caused Wilder to begin doubting the folksy optimism in humanity expressed by Our Town. Yet for all his doubts and all humanity’s repeated tragedies, Wilder still seems to side with thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. that the arc of history “is long but it bends toward justice.”

This is what I found so reassuring last night. Healthcare reform may pass as meaningless drivel or fail to pass altogether. The ideological stubbornness, greed, and hubris of our leaders may cycle around again to doom it. But even if it all comes crashing down around us, there still exists within the human spirit an inextinguishable, unselfish kindness that will cause enough of us, like Bob, to pick up the jagged pieces so the future can pass through unscathed and try again.

An age of miracles, indeed.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jackass – The Nation

Watching Public Stupidity Punished Has Become Our Favorite Entertainment

A “jackass” is what President Obama apparently believes Kanye West to be for rudely interrupting the VMA Awards to express his disagreement with Taylor Swift’s win over Beyonce Knowles. Obama used the euphemism during informal banter prior to an interview with CNBC’s John Harwood. Former White House correspondent Terry Moran of ABC News overheard the remark and, not realizing Obama was speaking off the record, Twittered it to the world. ABC deleted the tweet within an hour but it was already being widely reported.

For some, the incident raises continuing concerns that Obama is insufficiently dignified and circumspect in his Presidential conduct. On the bright side, an African American President calling out a successful African American rap star for what most people agree was atrocious behavior undercuts the argument that Obama is a closet reverse racist, excusing offenses by black people while criticizing whites for similar mistakes.

There was plenty of impolite black behavior in the news over the weekend. In addition to West, African American tennis star Serena Williams threatened to shove a tennis ball into one of several possible orifices of a line judge after the official called her for a foot fault during play in the U.S. Open.

Yet it was the outburst by Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina during Obama’s address to Congress last week that was saddled with new dimensions of hostility yesterday. The House Democratic leadership chose to rebuke Wilson officially after he refused to apologize formally on the chamber floor (Wilson already offered Obama a personal apology that the President accepted). Then former President Jimmy Carter told NBC News he thought Wilson’s actions were rooted in racism.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward [Obama] is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African-American,” said Carter. “Many white people, not just in the South but around the country, [believe] that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

Most people agree that Wilson’s display of disagreement was just as inappropriate to the occasion as that of West or Williams. Wilson’s wife Roxanne admitted that when her husband got home that night, and not realizing he was the guilty party, the first question she asked him was “Who is the nut?” that heckled the President.

Bad behavior does not deserve our tolerance, through either approval or even silent acceptance. Yet I cannot help but feel the responses to all of these indignities have contained healthy doses of overreaction.

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times disagrees with me. This morning she wrote that Wilson’s rebuke “was a rare triumph for civility in a country that seems to have lost all sense of it.” Likewise, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post worries, “Civilization is a fragile and delicate idea, held together by a few mere threads, bound together by little more than a wisp of mutual consent. Frays in those threads are daily apparent.”

However, Michael Kinsley, also of the Washington Post, believes overreaction has exacerbated annoying interruptions from our daily debates into dangerous distractions.

“No matter how important or otherwise the underlying issue may be, it seems that about three-quarters of American politics can now be distilled down to ‘How dare you say that!’ Taking offense at someone else's possibly over-vigorous exercise of free speech, demanding an apology and so on has replaced much serious discussion . . . Umbrage is so much easier.”

As Kinsley points out, this is more than a problem of overly delicate sensibilities. “Umbrage is itself, generally, a lie. The ostensible victim of the offensive remark is actually delighted at the opportunity.” In other words, we too often use an offensive faux pas committed by the other side on often-unrelated argument B to win argument A, rather than winning A on the merits. “The rules of the game are perverse but simple – I scream with pain until you cry ‘uncle’.”

I agree with Kinsley’s evaluation but approach it from a different perspective.

Perhaps you remember the MTV series Jackass. The show was so popular it went on to spur two movie releases. In it, a group of stuntmen and would-be actors who seemed to pride themselves on their own stupidity – at least where their personal safety was concerned – undertook to perform a set of equally outrageous and stupid exploits. The boys seldom pulled off their tricks with complete success. Instead, the fun of the show came in watching them fail in extremely painful, sometimes life threatening, fashion.

It was not just that watching stupid people hurt themselves made us feel superior about ourselves, although this was unquestionably part of the appeal. In a world where we routinely watch rich businesspeople doing things that would get us sent to jail and instead earns them million dollar bonuses, paid by our taxes in the form of federal bailout money, Jackass provided a harshly comic, cosmic justice.

It is a basic human desire that has come to pervade all reality-based television. There is nothing anyone likes better than seeing an unpopular, unlikable characters receive their comeuppance during a show’s proceedings.

I think this spirit has made its way into our viewing of the news and other events as well. When those with wealth, power, and influence screw up, we find their embarrassment, confessions, and acts of contrition are not enough for us. We want their abject humiliation; we want to see some punishment dished out. It makes our own positions seem more correct, more intelligent, and nobler.

Defending himself against any need for a further apology, Wilson told his House colleagues, “I think it is clear to the American people that there are far more important issues facing this nation than what we're addressing right now.” This is no excuse for his behavior but it is a legimate point about the validity of attempting to guess the motivations behind that behavior and punish him for them.

It is the same argument offered by President Obama following his “jackass” remark. Sensing he may have gone too far, Obama immediately pleaded with those present to “Cut the President some slack. I've got a lot of other stuff on my plate.”

Despite his solid liberal Democratic credentials, Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts voted “present” rather than to rebuke Wilson. While he deplored Wilson’s actions, Frank said, “I think it's bad precedent to put us in charge of deciding whether people act like jerks. I don't have time to monitor everyone's civility.”

Is it obvious that West felt Knowles made a better video than Swift because they are both black and Swift is white? A far more reasonable assumption is that West’s bias runs more favorably toward Knowles’s R&B style than Swift’s pop-country sound (I know my own does). Likewise, Wilson’s outburst seems far more reasonably motivated by sincere political disagreement with Obama, no matter how inappropriately expressed, than by racism.

Yet the need to judge and feel superior pervades both reporting and viewing. When Moran passed on Obama’s overheard remark, he followed it with the smug observation, “Now THAT’S Presidential.”

Our sports and music stars are supposed to entertain us. Our politicians and government officials are supposed to serve us. Their flare-ups, temper tantrums, and gaffes are supposed to be discomforting intrusions into those primary purposes. Instead, they seem to have become part of the entertainment, perhaps the main part and the public’s respect steadily declining as a result.

Yes, Obama was indiscreet if accurate to call West a jackass but Moran or anyone else did far worse in their rush to report it. Yes, Wilson committed an egregious error by shouting out his disagreement with Obama but Carter did far worse by assuming its attribution to racism.

I am forced to conclude the sum total of politics and pop culture have been reduced to one incredibly inane reality program, entitled Jackass – The Nation. We have every reason to expect better behavior from our public figures. However, if we want the tone of partisan rancor to tone down, we also have a responsibility to turn off the spectacle. We cannot punish stupidity into rationality; it views our attempts to do so as a desirable form of attention. After a proper admonishment, bad behavior is best ignored.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Bleeding the Fifth

We Cannot be Forced to Testify Against Ourselves but Our Blood Can

Today, about twenty percent of Idaho motorists pulled over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated refuse to take a breathalyzer test. Defense attorneys there have long advised clients to refuse in all cases. As a result, a large percentage of drunken driving cases in the Boise area wind up going to trial, a protracted and expensive resolution.

Back in 1995, Arizona was experiencing the same rate of breathalyzer rejections as Idaho. That state solved its problem by switching to blood tests. The Phoenix Police Department now relies exclusively on blood testing for DUI cases, with three to four hundred blood tests performed every month. The Arizona refusal rate has dropped to a mere eight or nine percent.

Eager to duplicate those results, a federal program is training police officers in parts of Idaho and Texas as phlebotomists, in order to determine if blood testing directly performed by law enforcement can be an effective tool in convicting drunk drivers. If successful, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will encourage its use nationwide.

The program has attracted its share of worries and criticisms. The training received by police officers is not as long or extensive as that given to hospital or clinical phlebotomists. While legal experts agree blood tests are generally more accurate than breathalyzers, improperly stored blood can ferment, artificially boosting its alcohol content. Then there is always concern over possible mixed-up or misplaced vials.

Moreover, the program would seem to raise a completely new array of ethical questions and legal challenges. The Fifth Amendment protects defendants from, among other things, “[being] compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against themselves.” Yet is not blood, extracted from a person’s body against their will, compelling part of a person to incriminate themselves?

It is true that police routinely use biological forensic evidence gathered at crime scenes to prove guilt. But the blood, semen, skin cells, hair and other samples used in this manner are broken off or otherwise discarded pieces of a human being; by the very state of their separation they are no longer part of the body. Carelessly leaving behind fingerprints is not the same as being forced to point fingers at ourselves.

The air we exhale into a breathalyzer remained in our lungs for only a few seconds and never became as incorporated with our bodies as our blood cells and plasma. Even the oxygen absorbed by our blood is no more a part of us than any alcohol we ingested.

In spite of this, you will not hear much protest about legal rights to refuse alcohol level blood tests. Incredibly, while most state and federal courts withhold the right of police to coerce us to blow into a tube against our will, the 1966 Supreme Court case of Schmerber v. California long ago established their right to draw our blood into a tube, even against our will.

While driving his car, Armando Schmerber got into an accident requiring his treatment at a hospital. A police officer smelled liquor on his breath and directed a physician to take a blood sample, despite Schmerber’s refusal to give consent. The blood test indicated intoxication and the court admitted this as evidence at trial, resulting in Schmerber’s conviction. Schmerber sued to overturn, claiming denial of due process, privilege against self-incrimination, and the right not to be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure.

The Warren Court, despite its reputation for liberality, voted five to four to uphold the conviction. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan noted the requirement by Miranda for government “seeking to punish an individual produce the evidence against him by its own independent labors, rather than by the cruel, simple expedient of compelling it from his own mouth” in order to “maintain a fair state-individual balance.”

Despite this, Brennan maintained, “The privilege protects an accused only from being compelled to testify against himself or otherwise provide the State with evidence of a testimonial or communicative nature and that the withdrawal of blood and use of the analysis in question in this case did not involve compulsion to these ends.”

The dissenting opinions in this ruling are well worth noting.

Chief Justice Earl Warren pointed back to his dissenting opinion in the 1957 case of Breithaupt v. Abram, in which a suspected drunk driver, receiving treatment at a hospital, had blood extracted while unconscious on a police officer’s orders.

In that case, Warren wrote, “We [are not] concerned with the defendant's guilt or innocence. The sole problem is whether the proceeding was tainted by a violation of the defendant's Constitutional rights . . . One may consent to having his blood extracted or his stomach pumped and thereby waive any due process objection . . . But where there is no affirmative consent, I cannot see that it should make any difference whether one states unequivocally that he objects or resorts to physical violence in protest or is in such condition that he is unable to protest.”

Another dissent, written by Justice Hugo Black and joined by Justice William O. Douglas, attacks the reasonableness of Brennan’s logic. “To reach the conclusion that compelling a person to give his blood to help the State convict him is not equivalent to compelling him to be a witness against himself strikes me as quite an extraordinary feat.”

Black went on to argue that the results of the blood test were “testimonial” in nature because “The sole purpose of this project which proved to be successful was to obtain testimony from some person to prove that petitioner had alcohol in his blood at the time he was arrested.” Likewise, the results were “communicative” because “the analysis of the blood was to supply information to enable a witness to communicate to the court and jury that petitioner was more or less drunk.”

In a third dissent, Justice Abe Fortas was plainer and more direct, simply asserting, “In my view, petitioner's privilege against self-incrimination applies.”

Over time, the court as a whole apparently came to agree with Warren’s characterization of invading the body for evidence as “brutal” and “offensive.” In the 1985 case of Winston v. Lee, Rudolph Lee shot a shopkeeper whose store he was robbing but also received a gunshot wound in the process. Police found him eight blocks from the scene and took him to the hospital, where the shopkeeper identified him.

The Commonwealth of Virginia then asked a state court to order Lee undergo surgery to remove a bullet lodged under his left collarbone, asserting it was evidence of Lee's guilt. Expert medical testimony assured the surgery necessitated only a small incision, required only local anesthesia, and posed “no danger.” Lee protested and the court initially agreed but he went on to lose in appeal, despite the fact that the bullet subsequently proved lodged deeper than originally believed, requiring general anesthesia and introducing risk.

The Berger Court, not so noted for its liberality, held that a compelled surgical intrusion into an individual's body for evidence was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, even if likely to produce evidence of a crime. The majority opinion concluded, “The reasonableness of surgical intrusions beneath the skin depends on a case-by-case approach” and invoked a “balancing test” established by Schmerber.

The author of this opinion was none other than Justice Brennan. Nearly a full two decades later, he still discerned some bright line in which breaking a person’s skin with a scalpel against their will was a gross indignity and violation of their rights, even if done in order to prove a crime, but breaking that same skin with a needle posed no problems so long as a police office felt the person in question looked a little tipsy.

We all know it is unsafe to “drink a fifth” and then drive. Those whom police catch so doing deserve punishment, especially if their recklessness causes harm to others. Likewise, anyone in our country who stands accused of a crime may “plead the Fifth,” thus making their conviction more difficult for law enforcement. This is because the Founding Fathers understood justice is best guaranteed when prosecuting the guilty is balanced against protecting the innocent.

In light of this, it seems inconsistent at best that the law knowingly ignores our right to the latter Fifth by allowing police to forcibly take our blood, but not our breath, in an attempt to determine whether we imbibed in too much of the former fifth.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Still Believer

Obama’s “Turning Point” on Healthcare Is a Refusal to Budge

“I still believe we can act even when it's hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things and that here and now we will meet history’s test. Because that is who we are. That is our calling. That is our character.”

So concluded President Obama in his Joint Address to Congress on healthcare. Conventional wisdom ran that this speech had to be a game changer; polls show falling support for both the plans currently working their way through Congress as well as the President’s own popularity. Obama, as seems his wont, responded strongly but unexpectedly. Rather than calling for the “do over” that Republicans demanded and many conservative Democrats hoped, Obama instead vowed that 1) healthcare reform was not a game and 2) he was not changing his core positions on anything.

He outlined what he called “his plan” but as a set of goals rather than specific policies. He spoke out robustly and specifically against the lies, distortions, and fear mongering practiced by his critics but remained frustratingly vague on exactly how he would pay for reform. In its place, he offered an exact price tag and sworn promises not to increase the federal deficit or raid Medicare. He remained open about a government-run “public option” but gave his most convincing arguments to date on why one was necessary as well as why Americans need not fear it.

As an orator, Obama ran the gamut. At times, he was genuinely inspiring, the most notable example of which was quoting a posthumous letter from the late Ted Kennedy and using it to develop a moral argument for reform. Such an appeal could have backfired in mawkish sentimentality and perhaps it did outside the Beltway. Inside the House Chamber, however, even Republicans sat in rapt attention during the last ten minutes of Obama’s speech.

At other times, Obama was guilty of some of the most cringe-inducing rhetoric of his career, the most notable example of which was referencing the acrimonious debate of the past several month with the phrase, “While there remain some significant details to be ironed out . . .” That earned him mocking, and deserved, laughter from the GOP side of the aisle.

Obama offered several rebukes to Republican lawmakers. He also offered olive branches by drawing on an idea first proposed by Senator John McCain of Arizona and promising to re-institute Bush Administration test programs aimed at medical liability tort reform. However, these were mere tokens, tendered more in the hopes of toning down Republican opposition than acquiring their bipartisan support.

Obama seemed finally to understand that Republican cooperation on this bill is a lost cause. Democratic legislators have offered their GOP counterparts virtually no significant concessions and Republicans have shown zero interest in supporting any Democratic plan that differs significantly from their own agenda. The gridlock may be mutual but that only makes it all the more complete and unyielding.

Republicans seem to get it too. They chose Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana to deliver their response, presumably hoping his credentials as a former practicing heart surgeon would offer gravitas. What is more, Boustany is firmly a member of the far-right wing of the GOP. In spite of this, his rebuttal to Obama’s long address was curiously short in length and passion – more flat than fiery, more sullen than irate.

Obama’s real targets were the American public and his own Party. His job with the former was to reassure and re-inspire some of the desire for change that swept him into office. Current polls show a majority still favor reform yet disapprove of Obama’s handling of the matter. This disconnect is complicated further by the public’s competing fears that Obama’s proposals go too far yet opposition to them will keep anything from getting done.

Within his Party, Obama had to convince Blue Dog House members and moderate Senators that the costs of doing nothing, both economically and politically, outweigh the $900 billion cost of progressive reforms. Moreover, he needed to tell liberals that while he sympathizes with their aims, he needs them to sit down and shut up a little more. As he did the latter, Nancy Pelosi beamed behind him and nodded so vigorously that it was a toss-up whether her face would crack before or after her heart.

If Obama is successful and Congress passes some version of healthcare reform before year’s end, it will unquestionably be less than what progressives once aspired but I suspect it will also be more than what many conservatives who have already written off reform as dead on arrival expect as possible. Whatever passes will also be rammed through Congress, as its true costs and cost savings will never be sufficiently clear to anyone’s satisfaction.

Last night’s speech was only the start of that fight but Obama made clear his own role and it is not that of the irresistible force but rather the immovable object. Foremost, Obama stubbornly maintains that writing legislation should be the duty of the Legislative Branch of government. As much as this has come back to bite him several times already, I cannot help but hope that both he and future Presidents continue adhering to this principle.

Obama wants to provide leadership on this issue as well as countless others in the future. The question is whether he can do so and how he will go about it. As the New York Times wrote this morning, “It is one thing to create and surf a political movement . . . It is quite another to lead an uneasy country and a politically divided Congress toward tough decisions that create winners and losers.”

Whether he can do so remains unanswered but, last night, Obama defined the how. Rather than leading bloody charges in Congress, Obama chooses to stand as the still point in the center of the mêlée, the fulcrum against which competing viewpoints can throw themselves until achieving balance.

This approach rests on two fundamental beliefs held by Obama. The first is that momentum for healthcare reform has reached a critical mass, such that it is unstoppable. The second is his ability to bear the pressures this momentum/mass will place upon him without breaking.

We already know from his campaign and speeches that Obama is a believer. The crucial test of his Presidency is whether he has the depth of stillness within himself to govern from that belief.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Republican Talks to Kids

They Get An Official Response to Every Other Speech Obama Makes, So . . .

President Obama gave a speech to America’s schoolchildren today. Some parents did not want their children to hear it because they said it would take time away from learning and they have a valid point with that complaint. Others said partisan political speeches have no place in schools. That argument also has merit. Even if Obama never mentions a controversial policy or issue, his mere presence in the classroom is still airtime that adds to his recognition.

However, some parents, often inspired by conservative talk radio and some Republicans in Congress, objected to the speech because they feared it would be used to indoctrinate their children in Democratic (i.e. socialist) ideology. They continue to insist on this point even after the President’s remarks were published, arguing that the indoctrination might be subtle but still present.

Having read the speech, which is mostly platitudes on the value of education and hard work, I am hard-pressed to find anything harmful in it. If there are parents out there who oppose the values mentioned, I cannot help but wonder about the ones they endorse.

Sadly, this speech, unlike the President’s joint address to Congress Wednesday night on healthcare reform, will not feature an equal-time Republican response. However, since they oppose whatever Obama endorses, I took the liberty of providing one for them. Read closely, since the liberal press will not be broadcasting it on any mainstream media outlets for some darkly suspicious reason.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Howdy, kids! My name is Representative Ezekiel Bullclog, from the great sovereign state of Alatennesippi. And this here is my sockpuppet Tinky-Woo.

Hola, muchachos!

Huh? What the hell are you talkin’ in Muslim fer, Tinky-Woo? Get out of here, you socialist Islamic Nazi bastard. I knew this sorta thing would happen if we used a Muppet from PBS. Now then, as I was sayin’ . . .

That clean-cut young colored boy from Nigeria who is currently pretendin’ to be Pres’dent of these here United States just finished a-talkin’ to y’all about edjumacashun. We Republicans know that he was speakin’ not as our Head o’ State but as a partisan political candidate. We know about dirty tricks like that because we pulled the same one when Pres’dent Reagan and the last Pres’dent Bush’s daddy wuz Pres’dent. So we got the networks to give us equal time for a Republican response. Thet’s why ah’m a-talkin’ to y’all today.

Let me start out by sayin’ y’all shouldn’t even be a-watchin’ me, just like you shouldn’t been a-watchin’ President Blackman, I mean “Obama.” It takes times away from yo’ teachers teachin’ you ‘bout how to pass them thar’ appty’tude tests that the No Child Left Behind Act uses to determine whether your school don’t get no money as punishment for yo’ performin’ so poorly or whether it don’t get none because it don’t need it on account ’o yo’ performin’ so well.

Has y’all turned me off yet? No? Damn’d socialist Islamic Nazi public school systems! All right then, listen up!

I know that fo’ you littlest ones, today is the furst day of school. Fo’ others, it’s yo’ furst day in a new school. And fo’ still others, it’s yo’ furst day in any school ever. It’s understandable if you in this last bunch are a little nervous, so just raise yo’ hands so we can welcome you.

(Aside) Okay, boys, those are the illegal imm’grants. Rush em!

Now while the nice men from the Imm’gration and Natcherelization Service is removin’ the undesirables from among your classmates, let me tell the rest o’ you lovely chillun what my Party, the Grand Ol’ Party, stands for as regards your edjumacashun.

You heard Pres’dent Hussein, I mean “Obama,” talkin’ ’bout ’sponsibility. We Republicans believe in ’sponsibility too. For example, it’s the ‘sponsibility of each one of you to learn to shut up and do as yo’ are told.

We just don’t believe guv’munt should be given too much ’sponsibility. Like Pres’dent Jefferson wrote in the Declamation o’ Indyannapolis, the role of guv’munt should be limited to fightin’ wars against Nazis, socialists, and Islam – which are all part o’ the same big anti-Christian conspiracy, by the way – and protectin’ the corporations who are really in charge o’ things against other dangerous agents . . . like guv’ment.

Pres’dent Muslim, I mean “Obama,” jawed ’bout how he was raised by a single mama. You may know other black boys and girls with the same problem – not enough men in the household. Where I was raised, white boys and girls got the opposite problem. Our daddies also tend to be our mamas’ brothers or daddies. So our daddy is also our uncle or grandpappy. We got too many men in the household . . . not to mention the piece of trash our mama is now sharin’ her trailer with, who ain’t no relation to us at all.

The point bein’ it’s tough all around. But you don’t hear us white Republicans askin’ fo’ no guv’munt handouts. Well, ’ceptin’ to be able to buy smokes and liquor with food stamps and keepin’ entrance requirements for the all-volunteer army as low as possible . . . but that’s jus’ respectin’ long-standin’ traditions.

You also heard Pre’dent Socialist, I mean “Obama,” a-jawin’ ’bout second chances. He named some people who took advantage o’ sech chances. People with names like “Jazmin,” “Andoni,” and “Shantell” – socialist Islamic Nazi names. Thet’s the biggest problem with guv’munt today, in the opinion of the Republican Party – it keeps the local sheriff from bashin’ in the skulls o’ people like that. Instead, it gives them jobs, just for being colored, that ought to had gone to my cousins (many of whom are also my siblings/chillun/constituents)­, just for being white.

Pres’dent Terrorist, I mean “Obama,” told you that you could overcome your disadvantages through hard work. We wish he’d shut the hell up with fool talk like that. As a great father, Homer Simpson, once told his young’un, “No matter how good you can do a thing, there’ll always be about a hundred thousand other people who can do it better.” Why would you look to edjumacashun as the answer fo’ all yo’ hopes and dreams when we already got Wal-Marts fer that. Plus, edjumacashun almost nevah gots Slush Puppy machines conveniently located near the exits.

Sure, J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published but she’s an occultist Satanist socialist Islamic Nazi who is going to burn in hell for it, so what did that really get her? Sure, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team but I’m pretty sure that’s a lie – I’ll have to watch Glenn Beck tonight and check on it.

Pres’dent Hitler, I mean “Obama,” talked about the story of this country. He used words like “revolution,” “Depression,” and “war” – socialist, Islamic, Nazi words, every one of ’em. And we Republicans think it’s no accident that he used ’em in the same sentence as “civil rights.”

We likes to call America a “melting pot” but the fact is we are a white, Christian, capitalist nation by tradition and by the will o’ Jesus H. Christ, as interpreted by Big Oil and Big Tobacco. “All men are created equal” in the sense that each of us has equally got no right to be a-rockin’ that boat. Women got no right to be in the boat.

However, we do agree with the Pres’dent on one point. “The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough.” No, suh! It’s the story of people who sat down on their hands in the mud and refused to move again until they got exactly what they wanted. It’s the story of this here Republican Congressional Minority. It’s how we got to be a minority – by defending the status quo – and, God willin’ we’ll be a minority for a long time to come. I’m proud to be a part of it.

Thank you, God bless you (if you’re Christian), God bless America (the Christian parts), and may God bless the sovereign state of Alatennesippi. Say goodbye, Tinky-Woo.

Adios, muchachos!

There you go speakin’ a foreign language agin’. We got no room for that in a patriotic nation like this one; you wanna talk, you talk English. So, goodnight, kids! And Viva Honduras!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Happy Maestro

Erich Kunzel, 1935-2009

It seems that I have been posting about death all too often recently. However, I would be remiss if, as a native of Cincinnati, I failed to note the passage of Erich Kunzel, the founder and leader of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra for the past forty-four years. Kunzel died this Tuesday at age seventy-four, following an April diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

I could call Kunzel a showman but this would be a little bit like calling Enrico Caruso a singer or Niccolo Paganini a fiddler. He combined the grandiosity of Arturo Toscanini with the humbuggery of P.T. Barnum; the only human being I have ever met with a genuine twinkle in his eye. Everything about Kunzel was larger than life – his wife’s name was Brunhilde and he lived in huge home overlooking a lake in Swan’s Island Maine. He was a ball of energy dedicated to promoting music, his orchestra, and the city of Cincinnati.

Born in 1935 to German immigrant parents, Kunzel graduated from Dartmouth and went on to earn a Master's of Arts degree at Brown University. He continued graduate work at Harvard and eventually became conducting assistant to legendary French conductor Pierre Monteux.

Kunzel quickly earned acclaim conducting opera. When he joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as Max Rudolf’s assistant in 1965, he began conducing the Cincinnati Opera as well. Kunzel might well have settled into opera as his vocation but Rudolf was only too happy to hand him the over the Eight O’clock Pops series. Although Kunzel never gave up conducting opera altogether, the Pops were to become a lifelong calling. In the words of former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, a frequent collaborator, Kunzel had “a vision that grew.”

The Cincinnati Symphony trustees established the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in 1977. Kunzel was the de facto choice for its conductor. Kunzel repeatedly took the Pops on tours across the country and around the world. They were the first Pops orchestra to tour mainland China and the only American orchestra invited by the Chinese to play concerts during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops made eight television specials for PBS. For the past two decades, Kunzel conducted the National Symphony Orchestra on the U.S. Capitol lawn for PBS-broadcast national Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts.

Kunzel received the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony in 2006. This year, he was one of five artists inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

Three aspects of Kunzel’s long Pops conducting career deserve genuine appreciation and recognition.

First, Kunzel was a natural populist at bringing music to the masses. He instituted a much-loved tradition whereby the Cincinnati Pops played free concerts outdoors each summer at a variety of Cincinnati and Hamilton County park venues. The final concert at Miami Whitewater Forest’s lakeside pavilion, always featuring the 1812 Overture, complete with real canons, easily drew twenty to thirty-thousand listeners.

Kunzel saw nothing stuffy about orchestral music. Indeed, his love of spectacle was so great and his sense of embarrassment so non-existent that it often appeared there was nothing too kitschy or over-the-top in his playbook.

A Halloween concert found Kunzel and his musicians all wearing trick-or-treat costumes and Kunzel making his entrance by rising from a coffin wheeled onto the stage. A Thanksgiving concert provided a kick line of chefs, dancing vegetables, and the University of Cincinnati cheerleaders. A Christmas concert gave us two dozen clogging Santas, multiple local elementary school choirs (not to mention the May Festival Chorus), and sparkle lights. I once attended a concert that included Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, featuring numerous walk-ons by Cincinnati Zoo residents.

Second, despite his often-corny attempts to make orchestral music accessible to the public, Kunzel never sacrificed the quality of the music itself in the process. In fact, he made great strides increasing the range of genres included in the Pops’s repertoire.

Prior to his ascendancy, most Pops concerts still consisted largely of traditional light classical pieces with a few special arrangements of popular songs thrown in. Kunzel reached out to include serious compositions from jazz, country-western, Broadway musicals, and Hollywood film scores. In the process, he introduced audiences to a hitherto unknown set of contemporary and/or American composers.

Kunzel was dedicated to fine arts education that went beyond its mere promotion. He conceived and tirelessly promoted a new School for Creative & Performing Arts in Cincinnati’s impoverished Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Due to open next year, it will be the nation’s first K-12 performing arts public school.

Finally, Kunzel is due special remembrance as a recording pioneer. His teaming with the Telarc label led to the popularization of digital recording in the 1980s. His seminal first album with the Cincinnati Pops, featuring the 1812 Overture (what else?), set new standards for quality artisanship and technical innovations. It broke all records for time on the charts. Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops went on to release eighty-nine Telarc albums, with over ten million recordings sold.

Kunzel’s final appearance with the Cincinnati Pops was this past August 1, at their outdoor summer home at Riverbend Music Center. Although in good spirits, Kunzel was visibly thin and tired. He only had sufficient energy to conduct the second half of the concert and then sitting down.

At the end, he returned to a standing ovation and led the Orchestra in an encore of God Bless America, during which he exhorted the crowd of ten thousand people to sing along. Upon its completion, he gave a jubilant thumb up and then waved to the crowd as he walked off the stage with assistance. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Janelle Gelfand reported, “A sea of thousands of hands waved back. They were saying goodbye.”

The conducting peers who knew him best paid many fine tributes to Kunzel. Paavo Järvi, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s current music director called him “a remarkable spirit and a tremendous musician.” Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops and former assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Pops under Kunzel, said, “Erich represents the true gold standard among pops conductors.” James Conlon, music director for Cincinnati’s prestigious May Festival, stated, “I think that serious musicians should realize he was an extremely accomplished musician.”

Yet perhaps the most heartfelt and apt tribute came from former Joint Chiefs Chairman and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who worked with Kunzel for eighteen years on the annual Memorial Day concerts. “He was a magnificent musician. Above that, he was a happy musician, always with a smile on his face and joy in his heart for the music and the people who came to listen.” After hearing so many politicians eulogized over the years as a “Happy Warrior,” it was a pleasure to hear a true warrior understand and honor the life of one who contributed so much to the fine arts and popular music.

Former President John F. Kennedy once famously prophesied, “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered, not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Erich Kunzel was a sometimes slightly silly but always important contributor to that legacy. He was the Happy Maestro.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rush of Light

Contemporary American Conservatism is a Laser Warming Up with Unpredictable and Potentially Devastating Results

I heard two seemingly unconnected stories back-to-back last night on NPR’s All Things Considered that got me thinking. I marveled how the first seemed almost an advisory caution for the latter.

The first story was a science piece on a new category of super-small lasers becoming practical realities. Lasers light is created by a process known as stimulated emission, in which an electron, agitated by a photon, creates a second photon with the same phase, frequency, polarization, and direction of travel as the original photon with no apparent loss to the original. Trap the created photons in a reflective chamber and eventually a cascade effect results.

In order words, laser light is just ordinary light allowed to bounce around inside a box, where it builds power until released in a rushed beam of extraordinary intensity and sometimes-devastating outcome. Most academics assumed this limited the degree of laser miniaturization possible, since the box needed to give photons sufficient room in which to bounce.

However, Mark Stockman of Georgia State University had a revelation six years ago. He realized a single, rapidly vibrating electron, sitting on a metal surface, could produce laser light all by itself. Stockman called such lasers “nanopendulums.” Other scientists dubbed them “plasmons.” A research team at Norfolk State University recently developed a plasmon laser out of a bead of gold a mere forty-four nanometers across – about one thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

Lasers this small could capture images of the molecules inside our bodies, in order to understand things like cancerous tumors from the inside out. Figure out how to connect a series of these lasers together, as other teams are currently studying, and a new generation of computers emerge that can store information with a thousand times the current density and process it a thousand times faster.

From tiny potentialities, huge outcomes are possible – toward both productive and destructive ends.

The second story was a political piece, consisting of an interview with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, about his new book, The Death of Conservatism. Understand that Tanenhaus is not writing off conservatism as an American ideology or political movement. Instead, he chronicles its death “as a really vital contributive force to the serious political conversation of our time.”

Understand further that Tanenhaus is writing without any sense of schadenfreude. In fact, he believes liberals should bemoan rather than celebrate conservatism’s declining influence. Tanenhaus argues the role of classical conservatism is to “ask the tough questions, to be very skeptical about the idea of an ever-growing [federal government], not because it isn't a virtue in and of itself, but because it can get out of control.”

Tanenhaus sees the current U.S. conservative movement as having “degenerated into a hollow echo-chamber of . . . die-hards and talk show hosts, disconnected from the broad public, which until recently it spoke for.” What is more, conservatives have “declared war on everything outside their shrinking island of movement politics.” Tanenhaus refers to them in their present state as “revanchist conservatism” – the politics of resentment, anger and revenge.

Tanenhaus views this degeneration of conservatism as a genuine shame for both liberals and the country as a whole. I would go a step further and call it something unpredictable and potentially very dangerous indeed. Consider the language used by Tanenhaus. He describes contemporary conservatives as a small number of individuals, trapped and bouncing around inside the box of their own ideas. This sounds remarkably like a laser, albeit during its initial, “warming up” state.

The problem is the initial state of lasers is not steady state. Instead, they begin to cascade and we have already seen signs of this from U.S. conservatism in the form of last year’s McCain/Palin rallies and this year’s “tea parties” and angry town hall meetings over healthcare reform. The crowds at these meetings are angry and this is understandable. However, the dangerous part is anger’s use not as a means to communicate disapproval or offer alternatives but its encouragement simply for its own self-satisfied release.

We see it in the constant repetition of fear-based rumors and fear-mongering lies. We see it in the demonizing not of specific political policies but specific politicians. We even see individuals encouraged to bring and display firearms and other weapons, in order to make their anger even more intimidating.

It is a recipe to turn angry individuals within crowds into assassins and angry crowds into mindless, destructive mobs. The devastation that could result if the anger continues to cascade and then releases in an intense beam of hatred is incalculable. Moreover, it takes nothing more than a few nanopendulums, in the form of far-right pundits, such as Limbaugh, Beck, and O’Reilly, and a few far-right politicians, such as Rove, Palin, and Gingrich, to start the process

Traditionally, conservatives were the keepers of the status quo in this country, portrayed in cliché as affluent, white, card-carrying members of the GOP, who concerned themselves with issues such as civil rights, poverty, and entitlements only to the extent necessary to keep the middle class stable and non-white, impoverished minorities from rioting.

Years of reckless control on their part left more and more of the middle class sliding into poverty. At the same time, immigration, both legal and illegal, is slowly transforming non-white Americans into the new majority. We already see some of the initial developments from this shift in the election of a progressive African-American President and the first Democratic Congressional majority in many years.

Such change threatens the old status quo. Fear and resentment are currently ricocheting within plasmon chambers of right-wing talk radio and Congressional cloakrooms. Conservatives still number a greater proportion of the affluent among their numbers but it would be ironic if, in the new revolution, the old keepers of the status quo are the ones chanting, “Burn Baby Burn!”

We can be sure of only two things. First, the conflagration they release will be to the benefit of no one, least of all themselves. Second, the ignition for their inferno will come not from a match or flinty spark but from a rush of light.