Saturday, October 30, 2010

Apres le Deluge: It’s NaNoWriMo time

Hi everyone,

Well, here's to a weekend of missing journalistic ethics at the Daily News.

I was told I couldn't write anything political this weekend, the weekend before the election, because it was too close and that people wouldn't have enough time to respond via letters... so I put together this bit of Halloween candy instead (still fun, but not what I wanted to say 2 days before we test the corporate effectiveness of the Citizens United case).

Disappointingly, the op-ed across from mine this morning was a piece of Hoover Institution flapdoodle "proving" that tax cuts for the rich are good for everyone... so, like... huh.

I guess we now know what the real editorial policy of the Daily News is.

In any case, this week's bit is on the upcoming NaNoWriMo, starting Monday. This may be the best cure for Tuesday's outcome, regardless of how things go! :^)

Political buckthorn or garlic mustard invading your lives this week? Plant grape vines to strangle them. It works.

They chopped some material out of my column this week, so, here's the original.

Apres le Deluge: It’s NaNoWriMo time

With Tuesday’s election only two days away, this weekend becomes a quarantined journalistic island on the op-ed page -- no politicking with regard to Tuesday’s elections allowed. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a prescription to help carry you through the rest of the month, regardless of your state of mind on Wednesday morning, after your worst fears have been realized -- or dodged. During November this year I’m making plans, along with nearly 200,000 other lunatics, to write the first draft of a novel. November is National Novel Writing Month.

If you ever thought you had a story to tell but could never muster the courage to start writing it, here’s a way to get started. Begin at the National Novel Writing Month website,, for all the details.

The basic idea is simple: 30 days, 50,000 words, rough draft, no editing. That’s right: no editing.

Why would anyone do something like this? Simple: to get ‘er done.

The enterprise got started in 1999 when Chris Baty and 20 other writers in the San Fransisco area decided that they needed a one month writing binge to get past their procrastination and to get a rough draft of something, anything, finished. It didn’t have to be great, it just had to be over 50,000 words. They assumed this would be a grueling, desperate, and over-caffeinated month long slog into misery, but that’s not what happened. Even though only six clambered across the 50k-word finish line to “win” the marathon -- and this was the important part -- they all had fun. As Chris describes the event, it turned out to be “half literary marathon and half block party.”

From there, things started to escalate. Participation climbed to 5000 (with 700 winners) by 2001. By 2005, 59,000 people participated (with 9,769 winners). Last year: 167,150 participants with 32,178 successfully clearing the 50k word-mark. In fact, 1295 K-12 schools participated last year and NaNoWriMo, now run by a 501(c)(3), Office of Letters and Light, has even established a Young Writers Program. I’ve been trying to remember to sign up for the last few years, but always missed the November 1st deadline. But not this year.

It’s been exhilarating to wander around the website’s forum and discussion areas, and watch the old timers meet up with each other. And I’ve felt a bit like a Martian anthropologist, trying to make sense of all the sort of tribal groupings and strange divisions inside the NaNo universe. The Mac vs PC war rages good naturedly throughout the place. There seems to be an ambient anti-Microsoft bias in favor of simple, non-distracting word processors, but a lot of participants are using novel-writing and idea-organizing specific software like Scrivener or OneNote. User forums are set up to handle questions about how surviving the week after week grind, to channel advice from old hands to the newbies (like me!), to answer questions related to researching your plot (what kinds of useful neurotoxins can you find in fish? What was the name of Amelia Earhart’s first airplane?) and on the proper use of semi-colons (linking two independent clauses). Different tribes have already set up their own electronic campsites: the hipster iPad users hang out together, as do those who will be writing throughout November using only their phones. And then there are the Old School Hard Core brigades who have pledged to complete this journey writing on (gasp) typewriters and, crazier still, by hand. I love writing with a fountain pen but this is prose, not poetry: I’ll be typing on a netbook and using DragonWare’s NaturallySpeaking dictation software.

The fun, however, lies in meeting, socializing, and writing with other local “WriMos.” Here in Washington County we fall under the heading of “Wisconsin::Elsewhere” and have already started a group on campus up at UW-Washington County. We’re experimenting, using NaNoWriMo, with a “campus write” (as opposed to a more common “campus read”) to try to engage as many of the students as possible in the experience of marathon writing. And here, officially, I wanted to invite anyone in the area who might be interested in this adventure to join us!

If you or anyone you know has always wanted to give this a whirl, the easiest route is to log in to the NaNo website, sign up, and meet up in the Wisconsin Elsewhere regional forum.

Whether your party does well or ill on Tuesday, this is a great way to let your creative seeds take root as winter falls.

That website is and here's the direct link to the Wisconsin:Elsewhere forum. Join us!


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rand-y Republicans threaten Republic.

Hi everyone,

Right, the headline I asked for was simply "Rand-y Republicans." That would have been plenty. My editor had other ideas.

In the meantime, Saturday's column

‘Me the People’

Conservatives follow Rand road map and threaten Constitution and Christian ethics

I was going to vote against Ron Johnson simply because he’s just another millionaire tycoon who wants my money, but he tipped his hand during the Oct, 11 “debate” with Sen. Feingold. Now I have an even better reason to vote against him: he’s a follower of Ayn Rand.

Ayn Rand, author and celebrity, is showing up all over the conservative universe these days. Earlier this year Paul Ryan confirmed that she was a major component in the development of his political understanding and, everywhere you look, her theories promoting overthe-top radical individualism are popping up like magic mushrooms.

Personally, I loved Ayn Rand when I was 14. She appeals to everything a 14-year-old loves: 1) an obsession with individualism and personal liberty and 2) the attending conviction that your interests are infinitely more important than anyone else’s. If I thought I deserved my own car at 14 and my parents said “no,” well, that was a problem with my parents, not with me. They were clearly acting irrationally. That year, my freshman year in high school, I read “Anthem” and “Atlas Shrugged” and every word rang true – because I was 14.

But Rand quickly fell away into the pile of other early adolescent discards, soon to be replaced by cars and girls and more adult reading like C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, and JRR Tolkien. During my confirmation year in church I also had my first exposure to real philosophical thinking in the works of Kierkegaard and Martin Buber.

Rand’s books sat next to my well-thumbed, and discarded, copy of “Catcher in the Rye.” Once her “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” was published (in 1979, the year I went off to graduate school), and I was old enough not to be impressed by her inflated and kitschy jargon, she’d proven beyond any doubt that while her work was adequate as literature, it is useless – in fact, toxic and amoral – as political or economic theory.

Professional philosophers don’t spend any time on Rand’s work because it’s simply not coherent enough to be considered worth the trouble. Even in discussions of ethical egoism – an ethical theory more appropriate to whining children than adults – we don’t waste our students’ time with more than about two minutes of the stuff: just long enough to point out it’s glaring inadequacy. Here it is: Rand splits the universe of ethics into two, irreconcilable, sides.

The first is her preferred worldview, one in which the world is thought to be better off when everyone follows only their own self-interest. The second is what she calls the “ethics of altruism” and contains everything else. Any ethics not grounded in selfinterest is consigned to the “ethics of altruism” bin.

For Rand, altruism is considered self-destructive because altruism asks individuals to act in the interests of others. For Rand this is no different than asking someone to sacrifice themselves and, since no rational person can be expected to sacrifice themselves, anyone who supports the ethics of altruism expects others to make sacrifices for them. Altruism, therefore, makes you a parasite or a freeloader. Or crazy.

Whenever you hear someone say “I shouldn’t have to pay taxes to support someone else!” you’re hearing Rand. You can see how this would be particularly attractive to free-market economics, which rests on a kind of divine command to be self-interested and the belief that “Greed is good” rather than a sin.

Speaking of which, you’ll notice that the ethics of altruism includes Christian ethics – and the divine command to look after those less fortunate than you are – or, to make this even more obvious, consider parenting. No parent can possibly believe their self-interest is more important than the interests of their child. Or consider the soldier who throws him- or herself on a grenade to save their buddies. Such an action is, as the list of Medal of Honor recipients makes clear, the most compellingly heroic and altruistic act possible. But for Rand, altruism – looking out for others – is always misguided.

See the red lights flashing?

But we don’t have to chase this pig this far. Rand’s universe is built on the sand of a false alternative. Complete and debilitating self-sacrifice isn’t the only alternative to raw self-interest. It turns out that you can look after your self-interest AND still be willing to make sacrifices for your children, your neighbors or your country.

There, that took less than two minutes.

Ron Johnson’s favorite author promotes an extremist libertarianism that is, nonetheless, popular and attractive – and for all the reasons a worldview is always attractive to 14-year-olds – because it tells them they’re the most important thing in the universe and that their concerns are the only things that matter. Under this worldview, you have responsibilities only to yourself.

I don’t want someone like that in power. Greed and selfishness do not make for good economics or good civic life. Rand’s theories and the commitment of her followers, like plastics tycoon Ron Johnson, are set to turn “We the People” into “Me the People.” That’s not a country anyone over 14 should have to live in.

Many thanks to my colleague Evan Kreider for the 2 fruitful minutes he spent (in a class I visited last week) reviewing the fallacies churning away like irritable scorpions in the sand beneath Rand's worldview.

And so it goes.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Oshkosh recognizes the ‘plastic packaging of Ron Johnson’

Oshkosh recognizes the ‘plastic packaging of Ron Johnson’

Ron Johnson’s defenders are, for the most part, people who do not know the man.

His most powerful critics, on the other hand, are the people who know him best.

The millionaire candidate who is trying to buy a Wisconsin Senate seat without actually coming into contact with Wisconsinites keeps getting bad reviews from folks in Oshkosh.

His hometown newspaper summed things up in a profile of the candidate that ran Oct. 3.

“Little is known about the millionaire Oshkosh business owner outside of details released by a carefully scripted campaign and a small number of public comments and interviews granted by Johnson, whose campaign did not respond to multiple requests for interviews for this story,” observed the Oshkosh Northwestern.

Oshkosh recognizes the ‘plastic packaging of Ron Johnson’

Oshkosh recognizes the ‘plastic packaging of Ron Johnson’

Ron Johnson’s defenders are, for the most part, people who do not know the man.

His most powerful critics, on the other hand, are the people who know him best.

The millionaire candidate who is trying to buy a Wisconsin Senate seat without actually coming into contact with Wisconsinites keeps getting bad reviews from folks in Oshkosh.

His hometown newspaper summed things up in a profile of the candidate that ran Oct. 3.

“Little is known about the millionaire Oshkosh business owner outside of details released by a carefully scripted campaign and a small number of public comments and interviews granted by Johnson, whose campaign did not respond to multiple requests for interviews for this story,” observed the Oshkosh Northwestern.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The right to bare arms.

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column.

The right to ‘bare’ arms
Even better: We don’t have to exercise 2nd Amendment right

Two weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon in West Bend, several dozen citizens met at a local coffee shop to demonstrate their right to openly carry legal sidearms. This “casual open-carry get-together,” organized through, the “premier resource” for right to carry, went off without a hitch. Holsters and weapons were polished for the occasion, the police were in attendance to monitor the situation, just in case; and the coffee was delicious.

This wasn’t a protest, really, since there is nothing to protest. Article 1 section 25 of the Wisconsin State constitution, enacted in 1998, states that “The people have the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation or any other lawful purpose.”

Moreover, the June 28, 2010, federal Supreme Court ruling, affirming its interpretation of the Second Amendment, now guarantees that individuals may bear arms whether they’re in a militia or not. Openly carrying your constitutionally protected firearms isn’t a protest, but a display of rights guaranteed by the Constitution and federal courts and so, despite the police presence, these citizens simply met up at a local coffee shop in exactly the same way antique car fans — or model train aficionados — show up at local burger joints: to have fun and to compare muzzle velocity and stopping power.

The event was covered by the press and the local blogosphere.

But, during that week and in the weeks that followed, an even more remarkable demonstration was under way, completely under the radar of the national or even the local press.

In the weeks since the Open Carry demonstration, not dozens, but thousands of people entered that same coffee shop, bought coffee, and even talked to their friends — wait for it — completely unarmed.

Remarkable? I’ll say. But even more astonishing is that, during this past week alone, as many as 30,000 people in West Bend went shopping, picked up dry cleaning, drove to work, and even attended church — yes, unarmed.

So many people participated in this society-wide demonstration that nobody even noticed.

While I could have celebrated my right to openly carry a sidearm while enjoying a monster nerve-jarring latte (three shots and whole milk please),

I chose instead to celebrate an even more remarkable American privilege: the privilege of not having to carry weapons anymore.

We no longer have to protect ourselves as we did in the days of the Wild West. Not only is it safe nowadays to play poker with friends, or even walk your dog, without strapping on a six-shooter, we no longer have to fight off bears — or coyotes. Or pumas.

Or desperadoes. We don’t even need to defend ourselves against bandits now that we have a police force. In fact, it turns out that it’s a lot safer to let the police handle all of that for us.

One of the better, more recent studies on gun ownership (by the University of Pennsylvania Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology from October 2009) found that, in Philadelphia at any rate, those who carried guns were 4.5 times more likely to get shot, and 4.2 times more likely to get killed than those who don’t.

Recent numbers from the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics (2007) indicate the greatest number of deaths from handguns are, in fact, suicides.

Gun lobbyists will argue with any numbers related to the defensive use of handguns, but you can’t argue with dinner. Just remember that every day you’re able to eat a cheeseburger without reaching for your Ruger LCP or Glock 19, you’re part of a much larger, much quieter demonstration: a daily celebration of nationhood where you have a right to bear arms, but don’t need to.

I'm not happy about the secondary headline that my editor added -- probably assuming the pun in the original headline needed clarification. I didn't want to say that not-exercising ones Second Amendment rights was "better" but that it's an even greater privilege not to have to carry a weapon when picking up a cup of coffee.

It'd be okay to note that a counter-demonstration was in the works but was scrapped because of safety concerns. It involved a phalanx of 10-year olds wielding super-soaker squirt guns, but there was some parental concern that a few of the kids might actually shot by the honorable yahoos who needed to show off their... pieces. So the squirt guns got scratched.

I guess the Open Carry folks got their message across after all.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Ron Johnson Plans "Re-education" of America


The Washington Monthly

Elsewhere in the Politico piece, VandeHei asked what kind of innovative ideas Johnson might pursue as a U.S. senator. Johnson skipped right past substantive issues, and committed himself to a "re-education of America."

Are you kidding me? Can you even imagine what the response would be if a liberal Democrat vowed to pursue a "re-education of America" if elected to the U.S. Senate?

Maybe Wisconsin voters just don't know what they're getting themselves into; maybe they do and they're angry enough not to care. Regardless, Johnson may not get the exposure some of his extremist allies get in Nevada, Delaware, and Kentucky, but the differences between his right-wing worldview and theirs are practically non-existent.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Palin proof that Darwin got it wrong.

From the Borowitz Report
OSLO, NORWAY (The Borowitz Report) – Two of the theory of evolution’s most vociferous doubters, Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell, may be living proof that Darwin was wrong, leading scientists believe.

A conference of the most prominent evolutionary scientists in the world has concluded that the apparent evolution of Ms. Palin into Ms. O’Donnell suggests, in the words of Dr. Hiroshi Kyosuke of the University of Tokyo, “that Darwin got it backwards.”

“We still believe that evolution is more than a theory and is, in fact, a very real thing,” said Dr. Kyosuke. “However, in the case of Palin and O’Donnell, it seems to be moving in a reverse direction.”

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Is foreign money buying a Republican victory in Wisconsin's Senate race?

Hi everyone,

Yep, looks like it is.

Saturday's column.

Election exchange
Chamber ‘system’ banks on foreigners to bankroll Johnson

Back in 2002, Sens. Russ Feingold and John McCain worked together to produce the kind of campaign finance reform that made it difficult for foreign governments or corporations to buy American elections.

Today, foreign money is pouring into this year’s election. Some of it is being spent to help the plastics millionaire from Oshkosh run against Feingold – the guy who got in their way. As usual, there’s a tragic irony in this: that foreign money is being funneled into the United States, and now into Wisconsin, by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The McCain-Feingold bill made it illegal for any foreign national to — and watch this — “directly or indirectly” spend any money for the purposes of creating an “electioneering communication.” The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ads aimed at unseating Feingold are pretty much the definition of an “electioneering communication.” Based on current law, these commercials might well be illegal.

But it gets even worse. Not only is it illegal for foreign nationals to spend money on buying elections, or make contributions to fund election-time commercials, it’s also illegal for anyone to ask for such funds from foreign nationals – precisely what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seems to have done in its solicitation of funding from foreign corporations and governments. Now, in fairness, the Chamber has claimed it has “a system in place” to make sure that the money they take in from overseas is kept separate from the money they’re spending on domestic election campaigns, like the one against Feingold, but the money’s coming out of the same general account.

This sounds a lot like the “system” my little brother used to use to keep the carrots in his serving of peas-and-carrots from touching the peas in his serving of peas-and-carrot: a bit of mashed potato and lots of imagination.

The beauty of this for the Chamber is that, as a 501(c)(6) trade association, they can spend as much money as they want and never reveal the donors. Think of the possibilities for foreign corporations, or governments, that want to influence the outcome of an American election. It’s a dream come true. As of Sept. 15, they’d already bankrolled 8,000 commercials across the United States on behalf of Republican candidates for the Senate. Their list of happy GOP recipients now includes the Republican candidate in Wisconsin. Feingold isn’t just running against a plastics millionaire from Oshkosh – now he’s running against commercial interests from India and Bahrain.

It isn’t surprising that these
interests would target the senator who Washingtonian Magazine listed as the number one enemy of lobbyists in Washington. And it isn’t surprising that Feingold’s millionaire opponent got the endorsement of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Washingtonian Magazine ranked as the No. 1 friend of lobbyists in Washington. Johnson, in addition to spending his own wealth on the race, has enjoyed $1.3 million worth of “electioneering communications” pour in from outside groups, but there’s more. He’ll also be able to look forward to some of the $464,000 that the National Republican Senatorial committee has already set aside for him. It’s good to be rich and have rich friends. You can do the math from there.

One final, completely practical, observation: commercial and corporate powerhouses in China, India, and Brazil have no interest in keeping jobs in Wisconsin, so why would their candidate? Why would a foreign corporation whose profit motive dictates taking jobs out of America, push for Ron Johnson? Because they expect him to vote in ways that will support their profits. Of course. That’s just good business.

Also, it was nice to see that even millions of foreign dollars can't make you look smart in a debate.


Robert Reich: The Secret Big-Money Takeover of America

More proof that the Tea party has it's wires crossed, and likes it that way.

Robert Reich: The Secret Big-Money Takeover of America

Excellent comment section: "Perhaps the greatest irony is the fact that the original Tea Party fought against corporate tyranny via The East India company. It wasn't just about taxes, it was a tax that specifically favored the East India company and was seen as a direct attack on the small business enterprises in the colonies. Today's Tea Partiers are fighting to allow the corporatists to complete their takeover and they have no idea how far from the original party they are."

Monday, October 04, 2010

Cry babies: People who make $250,000 or more a year can afford a tax hike.

Sorry kids, quit being cry babies.

People who make $250,000 or more a year can afford a tax hike.

They just can't stand losing the idea of themselves as sovereign nations.

Ron Johnson’s Government Assistance despite his protest.

He can run, but he can't hide.

Ron Johnson’s Government Assistance

Johnson opposes tax cuts for 95% of Wisconsin working families, tax credits for Wisconsin small businesses and extending unemployment benefits for Wisconsinites still looking for work, but when it comes to government assistance for him… he is all in.

Finally, in lock step: all GOP Senate candidates deny global warming

Now all GOP Senate candidates deny global warming 

Because consistency proves you're right.

Texas our Texas, all hail the mighty state!

As usual, Texas leads the way.

Texas Hammers EPA on Science of Global Warming

Is stupidity contagious?

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Secret World of Extreme Militias

Because the Left is just as racist and xenophobic.


The Secret World of Extreme Militias - TIME

P.T. Barnum was right: Obama is a Muslim

Hi everyone,

Okay, I take it back. We live in a nation filled with people either so afraid or so exhausted that anytime someone passes around the tray of Oxycontin-covered conservative memes, they just grab a handful and swallow 'em without chewing. The result? The extremes start to seem tastier after a while. To call us dumber than sheep is offensive to real sheep.

As Nietzsche pointedly suggested, the skill required to understanding anything beneath the wrapper of synthetic opium is one that humans lack, but which even cows possess: the ability to ruminate.

Check to see if anyone next to you is wearing Big Shoes.

Saturday's column.

P.T. Barnum was right: Obama is a Muslim

Last week I gushed about the quality of the students I get to see here in the Little-University-on-the-Prairie Division of the University of Wisconsin System and, on Monday night, I was relieved to see the School Board invest in the hope, rather than fear.

A new academic year usually brings hope for the future of our democracy. Usually. But this year my hope is tempered by mounting evidence that Americans are more gullible, more taken in by the tricks of slick advertising and more likely to swallow the candy-covered marketing memes of corporatist think-tanks, than ever. Maybe H.L. Mencken was right. Maybe America is really just an “Eden of clowns” – except it looks like we’re becoming an Eden of brain-eating zombie clowns, attempting to spread intolerance like a virus among anyone not yet affected.

My fears for the future of education in the United States red-lined last month when the Pew Center released a poll – followed rapidly by polls from Newsweek and Harris – indicating that an increasing number of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim. They found that about 18 percent of Americans believe Obama is Muslim, an increase of 7 percent since March 2009. Harris found that among Republicans “57 percent believe Obama is a Muslim, 22 percent believe he ‘wants the terrorists to win’ and 24 percent believe he is the Antichrist.”

Right. That’s where we are.

The last time I had this experience was in the months following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq when polls revealed that as many as 70 percent of Americans believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I stumbled on this number completely by accident after a number of students in my ethics course handed in their first papers (Topic: “How would Aristotle criticize the 9/11 terrorists?”) and a number of them identified the terrorists as Iraqis.

My own surveys confirmed the numbers. I wrote to my colleagues across the UW Colleges to ask their students to identify the terrorists’ country of origin. Dozens wrote back confirming the same jaw-dropping misinformation. Polls immediately following 9/11 had shown that only about 3 percent of Americans thought Saddam might be responsible.

So how had Americans come to believe, falsely, that Hussein was responsible despite the fact that news reports had made the truth completely clear that the planes were flown by Saudis?

They didn’t come up with these ideas on their own. It was a well-oiled on-message propaganda effort. And how have an increasing number of Americans come to believe, falsely, that Obama is a Muslim? They didn’t come up with that idea on their own either.

It isn’t entirely new. During the campaign in 2008 I canvassed a house just outside of West Bend where the resident, a McCain supporter, told me he would not vote for Obama because 1) Obama was a Muslim and 2) because of the things Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had said about 9/11. When I pointed out that Obama was a member of the United Church of Christ and that this might be a reason to suspect that Obama wasn’t a Muslim, this local resident said that UCC members weren’t really Christians.

This example of zombie clown insanity was an isolated incident two years ago. Today, 18 percent of Americans (and 57 percent of Republicans) act, and will vote, in response to a patently false belief. So what’s to be done?

We could follow the sound advice in a speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave 66 years ago this week, over the radio to the Herald Tribune Women’s Conference on Current Affairs. In light of the ongoing triumph of complete nonsense, one bit in particular bears repeating.

“More and more men and women are looking up their own facts and forming their own opinion. And equally important, we are learning in these days to discriminate between real news and mere rumor. As a people, we put our tongues in our cheeks when a fact, or a series of facts are distorted, no matter what motive is the cause of that distortion. We as a people, throughout the length and breadth of the country, are less and less inclined to believe those who would create fear or encourage panic. We as a people pay small attention to those gossip mongers who invent tales, generally of course, with a selfish objective behind the tales. You and I, as sensible Americans, know of daily instances which mar rather than help our common efforts for calm discussion of current problems.”

Now, go check your nose in the mirror. Be honest with yourself. Is it big and round and red?