Little Orphan Annie’s Observations on Stephen Bloom’s Iowa

When Stephen Bloom described Iowa’s population as a foreign land of meth addicted waist-oids and skuzzy slum towns, it prompted the writer to chat with a spunky, red-headed little girl who shared her thoughts on gravity, journalism and the night Bloom announced he’d invented a new genre.

– I – 

(Those who already know the story may wish to skim down to section two.)

IOWA CITY — On December 9, The Atlantic magazine published an article by Stephen Bloom, a professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, that trudged through rural stereotypes, factual innovations, dichotomous worldviews and long sentences comprising entire paragraphs – whatever it took – to convey to readers that the State of Iowa and its first-in-the-nation caucus status is the most rootinist, tootinist, hog-wild hootenanny of anachronistic political wackiness this country has ever known.

If you’re reading this, you already know it was poorly received. A happy holidays greeting card to the state it was not. [1]

After national media found the story, Bloom announced he’d retreated Dick Cheney-style to an “undisclosed location” adding he would not be bullied and would return to the classroom at the University of Michigan where he’s a visiting professor, and had turned down opportunities to appear on several national talk shows because it would not add to the discussion.[2]

This stance changed upon hearing from NBC’s 30 Rock Center with Brian Williams [click for video] which flew him to New York City so the ten Americans not watching college football could watch Willie Geist ask him about the description of rural Iowans as:

“the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”

Bloom defended the article saying, “Gosh I raised some unspeakable truths. In my mind, they’re opinions, and it raised a firestorm.” Having stated that an opinion in his head and the truth are synonymous, he protested he’d been misunderstood. Of the Little Orphan Annie line and the article, previously identified as journalism, he said, “I’m sorry; this is the way I do it. This is called satire. This is called parody.”

Dubious definitions of satire and parody aside, what caused pause in this observer was the business about only fools not knowing the sun, reportedly, will not be coming out tomorrow. I’m no journalist, but this sounds like it fits the criteria for news. Or satire. Or maybe even parody.

– 2 – 

Which brings us to current Iowa resident, Little Orphan Annie.

What, you may ask, does a spunky, red-headed little girl living in rural Iowa have to do with astrology, physics and an analysis of why some people still become quaintly upset about questions of accuracy, truth and trust?

Fortunately, I asked her that very question the last time we went on one of our weekly walks around Iowa City. “Walk n’ Talks,” we call them. Continue reading

Governor Perry, meet your advisor, the very Special Planner, Douglas J. Feith

Earlier this summer, Douglas J. Feith flew to Austin to help Texas Governor Rick Perry brush up on international affairs. Some reports have him working for his campaign in that capacity but I’ve not been able to confirm this as true. He is not a national figure and though he was, for a time, critically important to a rather huge decision, few people recall his name so when it’s reported that Feith is advising Perry, the public is left to conclude that, “Okay, Perry’s talking to some former Bush people so perhaps there’s some overlap, where’d I put my coffee cup…”

Left unreported is the utterly fair reminder that Douglas J. Feith was Undersecretary to Defense Policy who supervised the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, a since-disbanded office that has been under investigation for lying to Congress. The big lie being his hand in repeatedly inventing evidence that lead us into Iraq. Joining Feith on his trip to Texas was William Luti, who was Feith’s direct boss while both were in the Bush Administration.

A refresher seems in order.

As you’ll likely recall, the Bush Administration repeatedly claimed 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta met with a top Iraqi diplomat in Prague as evidence of a link between Al-Quaeda and the Iraqi government. This claim, along with others, came from an “Alternative Analysis on the Iraq-Al Qaeda Relationship” authored by the Office of Special Plans. This bit of evidence along with the rest ignored, as Robert Scheer succinctly put it in The Nation, “the consensus of the intelligence community that the two natural enemies–one a secular Arab government, the other a fundamentalist terror group bent on destruction of same–were not, nor ever had been, working together, despite a shared enmity for the United States.” (Scheer’s article relies heavily on a report issued after an investigation into the Office of Special Plans and headed by Sen. Carl Levin.)

The implication has always been that at the behest of Vice President Cheney, and possibly President Bush, Feith was tasked with cobbling together information from various CIA sources to create a justification for war. He did as asked, ignoring the fact that he was using information the CIA had already decided was unreliable.

In November of 2003, Cheney continued to cite reports produced by the Office of Special Plans. The most egregious example being his assertion on Meet the Press that an article in the Weekly Standard provided clear evidence of the existence of WMDs. The article cited a “top secret U.S. government memorandum” provided to the editors at the Weekly Standard who then ran it as the basis for an article called “Case Closed: The U.S. government’s secret memo detailing cooperation between Sadaam Hussein and Osama bin Laden thus citing an article created with evidence he’d ordered created for the purpose of giving it to news media and done so as a means of circumventing the FBI, CIA and everyone else who are tasked with the actual gathering and assessment of intelligence. Feith, as the article states, is the author of the memo which he sent to senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee (the article doesn’t mention how they got it).

The report was, in the words of one former CIA analyst, “total bullshit.” For an excellent expansion on the above tale of intrigue, see “Cheney’s Favorite Leak” by Eric Boehlert in Salon.

[Note: except when otherwise noted, much of what follows comes from “Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks,” Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post. ]

Feith is a neocon but people who agreed with him ideologically still described him as a “gofer” for Rumsfeld and explain his views as heavily influenced by being a first-generation American and son to a Holocaust survivor (his father). He studied at Harvard and, in the grand spirit of anti-government conservatives, went to work for government shortly thereafter within the Reagan administration where, in the second term, he worked for Richard Perle. In Fiasco, those sympathetic to him describe him as someone who in having always seen himself in the minority, as an immigrant, he has greatest faith in the minority view on any subject — the fact that they are minority views convinces him he’s all the more correct.

As evidence of his stance on Iraq, others have often referenced him as one of the co-signers of a letter to then-President Bill Clinton calling for a war on Iraq to oust Sadaam Hussein. When he moved into the Bush Administration his D.C. law firm formed a partnership with an Israeli-based firm creating “Fandz International Law Group” which advertised itself (a private firm) as “assisting American companies in their relations with the United States government in connection with Iraqi reconstruction projects.” Washington Post columnist Al Kamen noted their web site advised interested parties contact them through their web site — a site for  Feith & Zell, P.C., Feith head of reconstruction matters in Iraq (Sourcewatch).

Of Feith, Ricks writes in Fiasco:

Rumsfeld, who rarely seems to go out of his way to praise his subordinates, did so with Feith, later defending him as “without question one of the most brilliant individuals in government…just a rare talent. And from my standpoint, working with him is always interesting. He’s been one of the really intellectual leaders in the administration in defense policy aspects of our work here.”

Not everyone was so impressed. Senior military officers especially seemed to be rubbed the wrong way by him. Franks, the Central Command chief, called Feith “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.” Jay Garner, the retired Army lieutenant general who reported to Feith for five months as the Bush administration’s first head of the postwar mission in Iraq, came to a similar conclusion.” “I think he’s incredibly dangerous,” Garner said later. “He’s a very smart guy whose electrons aren’t connected, so he arc lights all the time. He can’t organize anything.” Remarkably, Feith was the person in charge of day-to-day postwar Iraq policy in Washington–the official that Franks was told would handle the postwar end of things. A man who couldn’t run his own office very well, by many accounts, was going to oversee the rebuilding of an occupied nation on the other side of the planet.

Feith resigned in 2005 and has, in years since, written occasional articles for the standard GOP organs, been a fellow at the Hudson Institute, written a book on his version of events and for two years and was a “Professor and Distinguished Practitioner in National Security Policy” at Georgetown. (Go Hoyas!)

Which is a pretty impressive recovery for “the dumbest fucking guy on the planet.”

If Tommy Franks was right, we’d probably be better off. And while his incompetence as a manager is a persistent theme, Rick Perry (one hopes) hasn’t invited him onto his staff because he wants to discuss his “fussiness” over memos and how it was defended as a reflection of he and Rumsfeld’s desire for precision in writing rather than an ability to prioritize.

To put it in the most inevitable way possible, why would Rick Perry have faith in Feith?

This is not a question I can answer, but as this is the Internet and speculation is the name of the game and we are after all talking about someone who made stuff up to justify a policy he’d decided was defensible and necessary many years in advance, I hereby grant myself a little leeway.

So. The only explanations I can think of are:

1) Perry doesn’t know

2) Perry doesn’t care

3) Perry cares but thinks it was justified — he knows ol’ Doug made a mistake but he was just doing his best and he’s a good fellow and the right people say he’s smart and the “liberal” media has been critical of him so he must be okay.

I’m going with option three (shocking, I know). If correct, it’s similar thinking to that of the assumption that — as Feith himself was described as thinking — if one holds the minority view it must be accurate. This trap, and appeal, to counterintuitive thinking is something I understand. It makes a person feel original and smart, irrespective of reality. To add another level of speculation as to the thinking of people like Feith, I find it interesting that militaristic adventurism might be framed as a “minority view,” especially within an Republican administration. Or maybe the idea is if someone wants to feel like an original thinker, and the mindset within a particular group is already pretty far to the right (in this example) the only place to go is farther right if you want to stay within the group yet still feel like an independent thinker; knowing the idea is controversial becomes as appealing as the idea itself.

I think this might be a really bad way of making policy.

And a good time was had by all – dropping in on the Phelps Supreme Court case

Herein lie my impressions from a little accidental listening via CSPAN to the Fred Phelps/Snyder Supreme Court hearing:

Fred Phelps articles on the NY Times.

Caveats:

1. I’m not a lawyer!

2. The following quotes haven’t been checked against a transcript!

3. I only listened to a few minutes of the arguments!

4. But what the heck, I share it anyway! Because I can.

“We don’t follow people around…we were a thousand feet away.” — Margie Phelps

Margie Phelps (serving as their lawyer) tried to stay rooted in the facts of the case about “this little church in Kansas” but the judges wanted her to talk in general about the law and where distinctions could be made; to me she was a little slippery as to the most important parts of her argument which was basically that both proximity and questions of public vs private speech are what matters, the slipperiness coming in with which mattered more and where the lines were. Several justices asking, in various ways, “Who’s a public figure?” When pressed, she said in part, “I don’t know if in the context of a war where everyone is thinking about these soldiers every day I can give a definitive answer to that.”

So if there’s a war on everything someone might decide relates to a war is public speech, it’s almost as if she’s saying, “If I imagine many people are thinking about this then it’s public speech.” The real question: what’s the distinction between what they imagine is true in their head and what’s reeeeeeeal……..

The only thing I heard where they might have a case for protection was in saying the Snyders, because they made some public statements about the war and being against it, made themselves and by extension their son and his funeral into public figures, but it didn’t sound like the justices were convinced by this point. Roberts, among others, asking about hypotheticals like if someone put an obit in the paper and nothing else would that be public speech and enough to make them a target? She said no it wouldn’t be public speech but they wouldn’t target that person [which wasn’t the question, Roberts saying, well, right because that wouldn’t give you maximum visibility]. She also clearly didn’t want the decision to rest on her interpretation of the Snyders as having made themselves public figures since it didn’t sound like anyone was too convinced. Now that I think about it, she should try and be a lot clearer on this point and in protecting her free speech openly advocating for what she would see as violations of privacy.

Related: Breyer said he wanted her to help him find a distinction, a couple others did to — not wanting, I presume, to have this stupid case end up resulting in unforeseen restrictions on public speech; to allow this tort [intrustion claim] to exist but not allow for it to interfere with an important public message.

Sotomayor said she could see the signs as being political and directed as public speech but “what you have not explained to me is how your speech to the Snyders is defined as public speech….at what point do we take personal attacks and call it public speech?” Which seems to be a good question. If the signs don’t mention the guy or his family by name but the only reason they are there is because of him then is the publicly framed speech still public or private? Margie Phelps said she did not agree with how Sotomayor framed the issue but didn’t have much of a comeback.

Phelps repeatedly talked about proximity and how “You’ve got to be up in the grill” and referenced abortion cases where people blocked access saying the question there was if the speech could be avoided through practical means, close the blinds, so to speak — so by extension since they, the Phelps’, could easily be ignored it was okay. (I guess this is the “We’re such lousy protesters it’s easy to miss us” argument and while silly it’s also something I’ve mulled over for almost a full minute since it links effectiveness to physical proximity. I think.) Also at issue, in my own head, is the relevance of the location itself to the protest. Abortion protests, obnoxious as they may be, at least follow some logic in where they locate themselves whereas The Westboro Baptist Church cast a much wider net in terms of relevance and location. Since, in their view, anything and everything relates to God and they have him on speed dial that seems to mean little if nothing is off limits including going to West Virginia to claim the coal mine explosions were the work of a god angered by email messages sent to their church from somewhere in the state of West Virginia.

The question I wish someone on the Supreme Court would ask Margie Phelps is: prove it. Prove what you say is true. That’s clearly not the standard and I’m glad it’s not for a lot of reasons but it would make CSPAN all the more thrilling.

Important: If depressed or otherwise out of sorts after having read this, please watch: Louis CK on gay marriage (YouTube; 3.33 minutes). Not work-friendly, but neither is Fred Phelps.

The (weird) economics of music and higher education

I don’t know why, but I seem to post things in twos…. person x and person y…maybe I’m infected by some pro/con Fox News virus. If so, the following doesn’t quite fit as these two articles are mostly unrelated, but excellent.

How to Make a Documentary About Sampling — Legally (by Kembrew McLeod in The Atlantic)

Bottom Line Shows Humanities Really Do Make Money (by Robert N. Watson in UCLA Today by way of The Chronicle of Higher Education).

A curiosity with Lewis Terman and George Stoddard

I heard of Lewis Terman and George Stoddard’s argument while mulling over a quiet disaster.

For five Saturdays over a recent semester I taught an “Advanced Language Arts” class to seventh and eighth-graders identified as gifted. Hosted by a nationally-known program advocating for gifted education and selected after advertising the class to an unspecified number of schools, our group was small, five girls and two boys, and met for three hours at a time. Our focus was creative nonfiction: personal narratives. No grades, no testing, just exercises, encouragement and feedback. Looking back on it, I shouldn’t have been surprised the class didn’t go as planned but these children had been identified as gifted, they were giving up several Saturdays to meet, their parents had paid three hundred bucks for the privilege and—this is where I made my first mistake—I accepted the assertion by one of the administrators in the program that I should assume they could read and write at the same level as the first year college students I’d been teaching for the past few years.

Continue reading

Godwin’s Law (1994)

Why I post this now can’t be easily explained other than that I’m amused by the idea and way he writes about something both silly and disturbing. The writer, Mike Godwin, is Wired magazine’s legal counsel and the article Meme, Counter-meme appeared in their October 1994 issue.

Opening paragraphs:

It was back in 1990 that I set out on a project in memetic engineering. The Nazi-comparison meme, I’d decided, had gotten out of hand – in countless Usenet newsgroups, in many conferences on the Well, and on every BBS that I frequented, the labeling of posters or their ideas as “similar to the Nazis” or “Hitler-like” was a recurrent and often predictable event. It was the kind of thing that made you wonder how debates had ever occurred without having that handy rhetorical hammer.

Not everyone saw the comparison to Nazis as a “meme” – most people on the Net, as elsewhere, had never heard of “memes” or “memetics.” But now that we’re living in an increasingly information-aware culture, it’s time for that to change. And it’s time for net.dwellers to make a conscious effort to control the kinds of memes they create or circulate.

Continue to article

Sarah Palin vs. Family Guy

Utterly silly but the actress’ retort to the former governor did give me a laugh (links to Huffington Post explaining the latest silliness).