One undeniable fact demonstrated by this year’s presidential campaign is the overwhelming need for term limits. Not for politicians — for played-out, barely functional political columnists. Like David Broder.

Ignatius in Orbit

June 29, 2008

Have you been lying awake at night all excited at the thought of having one of the presidential debates in Dubai? Neither have I, but WaPo’s David Ignatius thinks it would be just the keenest thing:

Yes, I know: This is America’s presidential campaign, not a traveling roadshow to be shared with foreigners. And if the candidates can’t even agree on a schedule of town meetings out in the American heartland, why should they travel to a sheikdom that’s 7,000 miles from Washington — and a short boat ride from Iran?

But the idea of a Dubai debate is appealing, not least because it would link the epochal 2008 campaign with a world that cares passionately about where America is heading. The United States is unpopular abroad these days in part because of a perception that we’re arrogant — that we don’t care what the world thinks. An overseas debate would help change that perception.

The idea is appealing to Ignatius because he’s a rich, out-of-touch media drone who would be perfectly happy to live under a religious dictatorship as long as the shopping was good and the air conditioning never cut out.

As for the sheiks, they can afford the fuel to fly out to America. Not many of us are in the position to return the favore these days.

A Smear Is Born

February 17, 2008

Republican strategists, intellect-shill talkers and punditosis-stricken columnists have created their smear for Barack Obama: He’s a creepy cult leader. Will the Obama Cult Of Personality have the same radioactive half-life as Al Gore Says He Created The Internet and Hillary Is An Ice Queen Ballbuster? Only slime will tell.

The Lumber Yard

January 7, 2008

You’d think that after Andy Rosenthal stood up and took a lot of criticism for the decision to give Bill Kristol a spot on the New York Times op-ed, Kristol would at least feel obliged to deliver an original, eye-opening debut column. Dream on. Remember how George Orwell likened political cliches to sheets of lumber that were dragged out and nailed into place? On this basis of this column alone, Kristol could open his own lumber yard.

ADDENDUM: Already, the Times’ investment in Kristol is paying dividends. Turns out the voice of American conservatism can’t tell the difference between Michelle Malkin and Michael Medved. For future reference, of the two M&Ms of wingnuttery, Medved is the one who hasn’t been featured wearing a Catholic schoolgirl uniform in a widely viewed YouTube clip. At least, I’m pretty certain he hasn’t. And if he has, I really don’t want anybody to send me the link.  

If you want to know why Time magazine pundit Joe Klein is referred to as “Joke Line” in blogland, just get a load of the way he’s getting plastered by Glenn Greenwald in Salon.

It started when Klein wrote a column smearing the Democrats for their feeble attempts to bring the Bush administration’s electronic surveillance program under even a modicum of oversight. Klein’s core notion (it hardly rises to the level of an argument) that telecoms should essentially do whatever the Sun King tells them to do is, alas, pretty much in line with pundit conventional wisdom, as was his standard-issue warning that Democrats were making themselves look like a bunch of weak-minded hippies on the brawny, manly issues of national security. For Joe Klein, the Sixties are like Jason in the Friday the Thirteenth movies — a monster that must be killed over and over, regardless of what’s actually going on in the real world.

Trouble is, Klein’s facts were not simply wrong, but ridiculously so, and when Greenwald and others called him out on it, his simultaneous attempts to cover his butt while implying that the objections were too trivial to warrant serious attention drew him deeper into the quicksand. Klein’s remark that he has “neither the time nor legal background to figure out who’s right” is a real jaw-dropper. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when a columnist was expected to know what he was talking about before he wrote his column. Klein, who presumably knows how to operate telephones and use e-mail, is apparently too busy being a Big Time Journalist to worry about doing real journalism.

In the mindset of a Big Time Journalist like Joe Klein, the little groundlings of blogland are hardly worth sneering at. Every now and the, as he sees it, he might peer over the railings of Parnassus to sneer at the rabble down there and, if he’s in a whimsical mood, tip out a couple of chamber pots. Well, in this case the journalists are the ones on the ground who’ve actually read the legislation Klein dismissed so cavalierly.

How long will it take, do you think, before Klein amends his column yet again to note that he’s being criticized from the right and the left, so he must be doing something right?

Lie Another Day

October 10, 2007

Praise for Andrew Sullivan, I’m sorry to say, is always premature. No matter how much sense he’s been making in his attacks on the Bush administration’s multiple offenses against American decency, any mention of the Clintons sends him into a full-froth mode that Michelle Malkin would be hard-put to match. He is also playing some amusing memory games over (among other things) his behavior during the fight over Hillary’s healthcare proposal. Ezra Klein does the necessary work of keeping Sullivan from throwing the facts down his private memory hole.   

Rachel Rachel

September 22, 2007

A couple of years ago, when wingers at Human Events Online published their preposterous list of “The 10 Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries,” I was a little puzzled to see that Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental work Silent Spring was listed as a runner-up title. Little did I realize that I was seeing only the tip of the iceberg on a typically dishonest and distorted line of attack aimed at all environmentalists.

As Aaron Swartz points out, it is now an article of faith among wingers that Silent Spring led to wholesale banning of the use of the pesticide DDT in the United States and around the world, which in turn led to increase incidence of malaria and countless deaths throughout the undeveloped world. This in turn has fueled a spate of articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere suggesting that silly environmentalists and their politically correct attitudes are responsible for the wholesale death of innocents:

At one level, these articles send a comforting message to the developed world: Saving African children is easy. We don’t need to build large aid programs or fund major health initiatives, let alone develop Third-World infrastructure or think about larger issues of fairness. No, to save African lives from malaria, we just need to put our wallets away and work to stop the evil environmentalists.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy.

For one thing, there is no global DDT ban. DDT is indeed banned in the U.S., but malaria isn’t exactly a pressing issue here. If it ever were, the ban contains an exception for matters of public health. Meanwhile, it’s perfectly legal–and indeed, used–in many other countries: 10 out of the 17 African nations that currently conduct indoor spraying use DDT (New York Times, 9/16/06).

DDT use has decreased enormously, but not because of a ban. The real reason is simple, although not one conservatives are particularly fond of: evolution. Mosquito populations rapidly develop resistance to DDT, creating enzymes to detoxify it, modifying their nervous systems to avoid its effects, and avoiding areas where DDT is sprayed — and recent research finds that that resistance continues to spread even after DDT spraying has stopped, lowering the effectiveness not only of DDT but also other pesticides (Current Biology, 8/9/05).

“No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored,” Carson wrote in Silent Spring. “The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse….Resistance to insecticides by mosquitoes…has surged upwards at an astounding rate.”

Unfortunately, her words were ignored. Africa didn’t cut back on pesticides because, through a system called the “Industry Cooperative Program,” the pesticide companies themselves got to participate in the United Nations agency that provided advice on pest control. Not surprisingly, it continued to recommend significant pesticide usage.

When Silent Spring came out in 1962, it seemed as if this strategy was working. To take the most extreme case, Sri Lanka counted only 17 cases of malaria in 1963. But by 1969, things had once again gotten out of hand: 537,700 cases were counted. Naturally, the rise had many causes: Political and financial pressure led to cutbacks on spraying, stockpiles of supplies had been used up, low rainfall and high temperatures encouraged mosquitoes, a backlog of diagnostic tests to detect malaria was processed and testing standards became more stringent. But even with renewed effort, the problem did not go away.

Records uncovered by entomologist Andrew Spielman hint at why (Mosquito, p. 177). For years, Sri Lanka had run test programs to verify DDT’s effectiveness at killing mosquitoes. But halfway through the program, their standards were dramatically lowered. “Though the reason was not recorded,” Spielman writes, “it was obvious that some mosquitoes were developing resistance and the change was made to justify continued spraying.”

But further spraying led only to further resistance, and the problem became much harder to control. DDT use was scaled back and other pesticides were introduced–more cautiously this time–but the epidemic was never again brought under control, with the deadly legacy that continues to this day.

Instead of apologizing, the chemical companies went on the attack. They funded front groups and think tanks to claim the epidemic started because countries “stopped” using their products. In their version of the story, environmentalists forced Africans to stop using DDT, causing the increase in malaria. “It’s like a hit-and-run driver who, instead of admitting responsibility for the accident, frames the person who tried to prevent the accident,” complains Tim Lambert, whose weblog, Deltoid, tracks the DDT myth and other scientific misinformation in the media.

Gee, what a surprise — conservative pundits spouting lies concocted by corporate lobbyists. Who’d a thunk it? Could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that one.

It is but a tiny flap of the wings to go from blaming Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for DDT deaths to blaming Jane Fonda’s 1979 thriller The China Syndrome for global warming because it supposedly led to a public outcry that halted the expansion of the nuclear power industry. There it was in the New York Times under the heading “Freakonomics,” though only the first syllable turned out to be accurate.

I happened to have been in college at the time The China Syndrome came out, and while it was a good movie (a relic of the days when Fonda was putting her star power to use for ambitious, left-leaning thrillers like Rollover) it was on its way to box-office oblivion when the near-disaster at Three Mile Island took place. After years of being told there was no point in worrying about nuclear power because so many big-brained people had planned for every possible problem, word that the core of the TMI reactor had indeed partially melted down during the accident didn’t do much to burnish the nuclear industry’s image (nor did that little mishegos at Chernobyl). As for The China Syndrome, it derived little benefit from the TMI connection — the producers refused to widen distribution, and even pulled the film from some theaters, to avoid the appearance of exploiting a real-life situation.It is a footnote to the disaster, and a non-factor in the decline of the U.S. nuke industry, which proved quite capable of engineering its own downfall.