The Home Of The Brave?

[ Posted Tuesday, October 21st, 2014 – 16:47 PDT ]

Right after I post this column, I am going to go watch the first game of the World Series, which (thankfully, unlike the rest of the postseason) will actually appear on broadcast television. Now, while I personally was cheering for an "all orange-and-black" World Series (right before Hallowe'en!), sadly the Orioles did not make it past the Royals -- even after posting a spectacular season, where they wound up around 15 games ahead of the New York Yankees (with the Red Sox in the basement). That right there is an almost-miraculous season in the toughest division in the baseball, so to get within one step of the finals was spectacular enough for Baltimore fans. At least, for this one. This is all one way of saying I will be rooting for the San Francisco Giants against Kansas City this evening (another big reason is to promote marital bliss, since my wife is a big Giants fan).

But I didn't sit down to write about baseball. Instead I'm going to just use it as a shameless hook to talk about something entirely different. Before tonight's game commences, as with all sporting events in America, we will be presented with a moment of civic pride. Tonight, the crowd will all stand and sing our national anthem -- in the bicentennial year of it being written, no less. Our national song's first verse (the one everyone knows the words to) is composed of two questions, much like a Jeopardy! response. Both ask essentially the same thing: "Is our flag still there? Can you see it?" The final question asks resoundingly: "O! say does that star-spangled Banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?" So while I admit it is a common journalistic affectation (one I use probably far too often) to transform a provocative statement into a headline question just by adding punctuation, today I can correctly say that the question mark in my title is actually part of the quote itself.

I have shortened this line to the part that asks the question that really needs asking right now (which is another way of saying my roundabout introductory ramblings are about to actually get to the point): Are we still "the home of the brave"? Are we, really? Or have we become a nation that responds to every perceived threat with nothing short of outright panic? One wonders what Francis Scott Key would say today were he to witness the metaphorical collective loss of sphincter control that seems to accompany each "crisis" that comes down the pike. Another way to ask this question is: Has America truly been showing its chops as "the land of the brave" to the rest of the world lately? Or have we fallen just a wee bit short of that lofty goal?

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Contemplating A Republican Senate

[ Posted Monday, October 20th, 2014 – 17:40 PDT ]

As frightening a prospect as it is for progressives and liberals and other assorted Democrats, it is now impossible not to contemplate what two years of a Republican-led Senate would be like. While Democrats are still putting on a brave face about their chances in the 2014 midterms ("Our ground game is going to win the day!"), the possibility of Republicans picking up the six Senate seats they now need to gain control of the chamber is very real and even (according to many election forecasters) probable. But what would this mean for President Obama's last two years in office?

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Friday Talking Points [324] -- Don't Panic

[ Posted Friday, October 17th, 2014 – 17:42 PDT ]

That headline, of course, quotes the cover to the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: "Don't Panic." This week, it seems like timely advice, as the news media and American politicians go into full-blown panic mode over one death and two illnesses within the United States.

We'll get to all that in a bit, since we will be pre-empting our talking points this week for my own "Don't panic!" rant (which, for science-fiction fans who were already thrilled with this week's title, will also quote the learned philosopher Ellen Ripley). But first let's quickly run through some other political news, before we get to the idiocy of the "travel ban fever" running rampant among American politicians.

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[ Posted Thursday, October 16th, 2014 – 17:15 PDT ]

Ebola is in the news these days.

This is what is known as a satirical understatement, which I use mainly because these days, it seems, Ebola is the news -- all the news, pretty much all the time. It has not only been the lead story on the nightly news for the past three weeks or so, the story has grown to overwhelming proportions on the airwaves. And that's not even counting what's going on over on cable news, where they have a full 24 hours to fill each day rather than just 30 minutes each night. Fear of the unknown, of course, sells a lot of newspapers, attracts a lot of viewers, and draws a lot of eyeballs to websites. This has always been the case, and it obviously hasn't changed (although the metaphors continue to evolve -- once, just "sells a lot of newspapers" would have been enough).

For one television news personality, at least, things are getting so out of proportion that he had to issue a call to reason. Shepard Smith of Fox News (of all places), recently begged his viewers to ignore what all the other "journalists" have been guilty of, lately:

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Senate Still Up For Grabs

[ Posted Wednesday, October 15th, 2014 – 17:06 PDT ]

Welcome back to my intermittent overview of the 2014 midterm Senate races. On that note, I should add that from this point forward I'll be doing these columns on a weekly basis, right up until the Monday before the election when I'll make my final election predictions.

The past week was a busy one out on the various campaign trails, as many candidates participated in televised debates. There were no monumental gaffes or screwups (so far) in these debates -- at least, not ones that gained national attention. Mitch McConnell did (hilariously) try to convince Kentucky voters that Kynect was somehow separate from the Obamacare he's sworn to try to kill "root and branch" (technical note: it is not separate, it is part of Obamacare and would not exist without Obamacare), but that was about it, really.

Some races moved towards Republicans this week, and others moved towards Democrats. A third-party candidate died in a plane crash in Iowa this week, but the media (following the "ignore all third parties, all the time" rule, no doubt) barely took note. The Republican candidate down in Georgia may have torpedoed his own chances of winning, by proudly noting his own personal history of outsourcing jobs, and the Democrat in Kentucky seems to be getting a bit desperate.

The big question is whether Republicans will be able to take the six seats they need to gain control of the Senate. This is still a largely unanswerable question, as they've only locked up two pickups and only clearly lead in three others -- leaving them one short.

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Voting By Mail

[ Posted Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 – 17:29 PDT ]

The Colorado Senate race this year will be a close contest (no matter who wins), if the polling is correct. Poll after poll shows a very tight race. However, pollsters' predictions of who exactly will "turn out" to vote may be flawed this year, in this particular state. Because Colorado, for the first time, will be joining two other states in the West by conducting their election by mail. Every registered voter gets a real ballot (not just a "sample ballot" or a "practice ballot") in the mail, and will be able to easily return their filled-out ballot by mail. They won't be "turning out," one might say, instead they'll be "turning in."

The other two states with full vote-by-mail elections are Oregon and Washington. In 1998 Oregon passed a voter initiative which changed their system to all-mail voting. Washington changed their election law in 2011. In Colorado, 2014 is the first election to be conducted under the vote-by-mail scheme.

In all three states (I believe), voters who are offended by change -- call them "traditionalists" -- still have the option of going down to the local polling place to cast their ballot. Except that it's not really a polling location anymore, so much as a "drop box" for filled-out ballots to be handed in. But for those who consider voting to be a civic rite, a trip down to the polling spot is still possible (this also benefits procrastinators, too -- people who wait until the last minute to vote).

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Good News From The Vatican

[ Posted Monday, October 13th, 2014 – 17:00 PDT ]

I considered just taking Columbus Day (or Indigenous People's Day, take your choice) off today, but an article in the morning news caught my eye. So I decided to instead run two extended clips -- one I wrote a while ago, and today's news from the Vatican.

The Catholic Church is contemplating some rather big modernizations, led by the charismatic Pope Francis. How far-reaching such changes wind up being remains to be seen, but so far the indications are that Francis intends to significantly move the Church's direction on a number of subjects. Today's news is a preliminary move toward this new direction (which we'll get to in a minute).

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Friday Talking Points [323] -- Is There Anybody Out There?

[ Posted Friday, October 10th, 2014 – 17:37 PDT ]

I address this desperate attempt at communication to any remaining survivors in America of the apocalyptic scourge that is Ebola. Is there anybody still out there? Because, according to my television for the past few weeks, the death rates have been climbing so high that hundreds of millions of Americans should be pushing up the daisies by now. So, with full sorrow for the uncounted lives lost over the past few weeks, I humbly wonder whether anyone is left on the internet to read this lonely missive.

What's that? There's only been one death? No... wait, that can't be right....

The American news media, already a shadow of its former self, has discovered once again that there is simply no reason not to operate in full-blown panic mode, all the time. Instead of "the apocalyptic scourge that is Ebola," we have "the scourge that is media hyperventilating over Ebola in apocalyptic tones." Panic draws eyeballs to the screen. Panic sells. This spills over into the world of politics on an even more primitive level, one that harkens back to Machiavelli: "fear works." It is easier for politicians to get the populace to fear than it is to love. 'Twas always thus.

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D.E.A. Identity Thieves

[ Posted Thursday, October 9th, 2014 – 16:41 PDT ]

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article commending Apple and Google for introducing smartphone technology that encrypted user information so well that federal police couldn't access it even if the phone was confiscated under a search warrant. I began the story with a rather extraordinary viewpoint, from the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations:

James B. Comey is upset because Apple and Google have recently announced that they will be providing privacy -- via strong encryption -- as a feature in their personal computing products. Comey reached out to the companies to convince them to change their minds about their decision to, as he put it, "market something expressly to allow people to place themselves beyond the law."

One counter to the argument I made in this article (which was basically: "Go Apple! Go Google! Right on!") is to wonder why any upright citizen would object to police searching their photos and data, especially under a court-ordered search. It's not like the cops are going to misuse that data, right?

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Senate Election Overview

[ Posted Wednesday, October 8th, 2014 – 16:48 PDT ]

Welcome back once again to our ongoing pigeonholing exercise for this year's midterm Senate races. The big question, of course, is whether Republicans will pick up the six seats they need to wrest control of the chamber from the dastardly (according to them) Harry Reid and his Democratic minions. The answer to this pressing question is still not clear, and it actually may not be definitively answered until long after election night (for various interesting and wonky reasons).

Still, that doesn't stop the punditocracy ("wonkocracy," perhaps?) from making our predictions, so let's just dive in and make some rash and reckless prognostications, shall we? As always, in making these determinations I use the criteria of: news I've read about each race, all polling data available, and a good dose of common sense. That last one could also be read as "what my gut is telling me about each race," I fully admit.

The public is increasingly paying attention to each individual race, and in many states public debates have been held in the past week or so. Some races have firmed up as a result, and some are more chaotic than ever.

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