Down the Rabbit Hole

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 11:15 AM EDT

From Matt Yglesias:

Dave Weigel notes that Senator Jon Cornyn (R-TX), in charge of helping GOP Senate candidates, is being surprisingly friendly with former Rep. Pat Toomey who’s mounting a challenge-from-the-right to Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). Dave notes that “it becomes much, much harder to hold the seat if Specter loses.”

Matt goes on to say that this is pretty similar to what happened in the Virginia senate race last year and wonders why the GOP is essentially committing suicide.  It's a good question, and despite the general wankery involved it makes it almost irresistable to try to psychoanalyze the current Republican soul.  It's all just too weird otherwise.  Having gone crackers during the Bush years, and getting convincingly drubbed at the polls for it in 2006 and 2008, the almost unanimous reaction among conservatives has been to double down: focus even more on tax cuts to the exclusion of everything else; focus more on pure obstructionism; focus more on defending torture and insisting that it works great; focus more on gun nuttery even though Obama plainly has no intention of doing anything dramatic about guns; focus more on the absolute craziest pundits.  It's as if they're convinced, so deep in their souls, that America couldn't have really turned against them, that they can't even conceive of any strategy other than amping up the lunacy even further.

I dunno.  It's all crazy.  I can't even begin to understand it.

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Dick Cheney's Big Mouth

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 10:07 AM EDT

Lately I've been trying to figure out why Dick Cheney can't keep his mouth shut about President Obama's torture-related moves since his inauguration. And then Greg Sargent nudged me toward a conclusion:

Cheney and company are working to shift the debate onto the narrow question of whether torture “works,” and as Ben Smith notes, this is probably not an argument Obama wants to have right now.

Nonetheless, Cheney’s high-profile entry into the debate is a net win for Obama and Dems. It makes this whole fight is about Bush’s — or, worse, Cheney’s — legacy, at a time when Republicans want it to be about the current Commander in Chief and whether he has what it takes to keep us safe.

So Cheney wants to talk about whether torture worked. This makes sense for him because it lets him talk about how be believes torture did work, and it doesn't matter if it did or didn't.

Why? Because it lets him act as though he was just looking out for the best interest of the country. This sounds much better than Cheney telling Hannity, "Well, Sean, I had no problem with the CIA torturing prisoners because I'm a vindictive asshole with little regard for the rule of law."

But Cheney must know he can't just say, "We were trying to keep America safe." He can't win that argument, because we have little evidence that waterboarding Abu Zubaida 83 times in a month, for example, protected us from further attack. He has to take the sophism a step further, calling for Obama to release more memos that allegedly prove torture did work.

This brings me back to Sargent's post. Cheney saying something like this is, indeed, a net loss for the Republicans. (How many Republican talking heads are more odious right now than Dick Cheney?) But for Cheney it's a net win. Why? Because it gives his original justification for torture two shoddy legs on which to stand. It doesn't matter if these new memos actually exist. Assuming they're just a conjured slice of Cheney's imagination, Cheney can just keep claiming Obama and Hillary Clinton are keeping them secret because they can't admit he's right.

Obviously, it's a completely cynical way of thinking. It's also a bit fantastical; Cheney might as well have demanded Obama release evidence proving Saddam Hussein was in Al-Qaeda. But why stop there? Cheney's selling himself short. Remember, wishes are free. In his whimsical world, he can wish for anything he wants. And as long as Cheney's wishing for a new reality, he might as well wish that he was right about everything and throw in a wish for a pony, too. That's what I'm wishing he'd do publicly. Then, at least, he'd be providing a sideshow rather than a talking point.

After 100 Days of Obama, Optimism Returning

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 10:02 AM EDT

A new AP poll shows that more Americans believe the country is moving in the right direction (48 percent) than those who think it is moving in the wrong direction (44 percent). According to the AP, this marks the first time since Saddam Hussein's capture in January 2004 that "right direction" has out-polled "wrong direction." NB: The "right direction" number was just 17 percent in the fall of 2008.

The AP makes it clear that Americans are still deeply worried about the economy and unemployment; for the first time in a long time, though, many of them have faith in our leaders' ability to fix the country's most pressing problems. One might even say it is morning in America.

Negotiating With Pirates

| Thu Apr. 23, 2009 1:27 AM EDT

Treasury's last offer to Chrysler's bondholders was 15% of the total value of their debt.  The bondholders sneered.  They wanted 65%.  Today, Treasury upped their offer:

The Treasury now proposes that the banks and other lenders accept as payment 22% of the $6.9 billion they are owed plus a 5% equity stake in Chrysler, said several people familiar with the matter.

....The new government offer leaves the U.S. and Chrysler lenders at least $3 billion apart with one week left before an April 30 Treasury deadline to determine the auto maker's fate. The two sides are also far apart in how big an ownership stake the lenders would get in a restructured Chrysler.

Who will blink?  I'll predict that they end up at, oh, 30% and a 20% equity stake.  Put your guess in comments.  Whoever comes closest get an autographed 8x10 of Lee Iacocca.

New Music: Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 8:28 PM EDT

Depeche Mode is not New Order, although you could be forgiven for mixing them up, I suppose, if you're not paying attention, or just looking at their keyboards, or maybe their career arcs. Actually, Depeche Mode's unlikely, meteoric rise to super-fame and subsequent plateau most resembles The Cure's: minimalist, early '80s experiments give way to mid-'80s "alt-culture" idolatry, then early 90's chart-topping mega-success, and finally a semi-retirement based on recycling (with varying degrees of success) the motifs of their earlier output. But there's a reason New Order gets their own section on my record shelves, while D-Mode languishes on the '80s shelf: they've always been a little, well, obvious for my taste, I guess, with their Peoples are Peoples and Personal Jesuses and I Expect to Find God Laffff-ing. Plus, what may be their artistic peak, 1990's "Enjoy the Silence," was basically a New Order homage, at best. But, weirdly enough, Sounds of the Universe, their 12th and latest album, achieves an intriguing complexity by looking to the lessons of early New Order, i.e., being a little obscure might not be such a bad thing.

Insurance Industry Plants Astroturf for Medicare Advantage Plans

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 7:02 PM EDT

With the subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans--private insurance provided at public expense--under attack by the Obama administration, the insurance industry is rolling out the astroturf. Their  PR campaign posits a phony "grassroots movement" by seniors who want to protect their beloved Advantage plans from a greedy federal government, which has had the gall to ask insurance companies to provide decent coverage at a reasonable cost.  

I recently wrote about the fake "community forums" for oldsters, complete with free food and door prizes, that are actually cheerleading and sales sessions for Advantage plans. The latest scam is even creepier--and it's being run by a former operative in John Kerry's presidential campaign.  

A Massachusetts newspaper, the Eagle-Tribune, recently discovered  that it was receiving phony letters to the editor supporting Medicare Advantage, using the names of real elderly people as signatories. "Some of those seniors are unaware that they have sent any such letters to newspapers. Some of them hadn’t even heard of Medicare Advantage,” writes Ken Anderson, a reporter for the paper.

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Awl Aboard

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 5:29 PM EDT

Here's one reason I'm digging the newly launched Awl, started by former Gawkerites Choire Sicha and Alex Balk:

Remember how when blogging started to get attention the whole gang of print journalists would snort derisively about how it wasn’t “really writing”? And then, a couple of years later, when their papers were dying off and ownership was so desperate for anything to staunch the flow of red ink that it forced them all to start blogging, and they were like, “Holy shit, blogging is hard!” Well, there was a certain protected class of columnists and reporters who, because they were so established, were not made to sully themselves by coding HTML and searching for pooping dog videos. You don’t make a Maureen Dowd blog, particularly when Jennifer 8. Lee will do it five hundred times a day and happily twitpimp the results.
So don’t worry if Maureen Dowd doesn’t like Twitter; it’s not for her. There are plenty of other journalists who desperately need it (and some who definitely need to be weaned from it—David Carr, you are FILLING UP MY DASHBOARD, YOU HAVE TO CHILL). Let the Dowds bury their Dowds; the rest of us are stuck slapping up the minutiae out of fear that we will otherwise become invisible. Which is, of course, the worst thing of all.

Can't really beat a line like "let the Dowds bury their Dowds." Go Alex Balk. When did Gawker start to feel like established biggish media, anyone know?

Happy Earth Day

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 5:19 PM EDT

Music Inspired by J. G. Ballard

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 4:48 PM EDT

If you go by numbers of books, J. G. Ballard takes up more room on my shelves than any other author other than Philip K. Dick, and while I don't know if that makes him my second favorite writer, I have enjoyed his work my whole life. The British writer died on Sunday, and while his fame was assured by his novels that became movies, Empire of the Sun and Crash, it was his dystopian science fiction work (usually short stories) that I always found most compelling. Their shocking ideas were often powerful precisely because they were aspects of our world taken to their logical—if extreme—conclusions. "The Concentration City," for instance, imagines an entirely enclosed conurbation so large its residents believe it to be infinite, while "Billenium" looks forward (almost quaintly now) at an overpopulated Earth so crowded with people the protagonists are stunned to discover a single hidden, empty room.

Whether it was his mind-blowing subject matter or edgy style, Ballard's fiction has always appealed to musicians as well, and his work has served as inspirations for songs, albums and even band names. After the jump, a couple examples and their connections (or lack thereof) to Ballard's work.

China Cracks Down on Pesky Names

| Wed Apr. 22, 2009 3:41 PM EDT

Remember Tiki Tiki Tembo, the story of the unfortunately named Tikki Tikki Tembo-No Sa Rembo-Chari Bari Ruchi-Pip Peri Pembo, the Chinese boy with a name so extensive it was hazardous to the boy's health?

Well, China's had it with the unique names. Earlier this month Mother Jones reported on the wacky story of Texas legislator Betty Brown, who recommended that Asians adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with." Now China itself thinks it's time to simplify its citizens' names. According to Monday's New York Times, the People's Republic of China is upgrading the country's identity cards; its Public Security Bureau will replace the handwritten one currently used with a new card with color photos and embedded microchips that can be read by a computer. As the article explained: