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SNL Gets Gay

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 5:29 PM EST

mojo-photo-snagglepuss.jpgNot to be all-Prop-8-all-the-time over here on the Riff, but there was some surprising, funny, and surprisingly funny stuff on SNL Saturday night, and some of the best bits seemed to be inspired by the sudden re-emergence of gay rights as a newsy topic. In fact, homosexuality was pretty much the running theme of the whole episode, from the overly-kissy family opening sketch (which culminated in a jaw-dislocating open-mouth snog between Andy Samberg and Fred Armisen) to the baffling-but-hilarious digital short featuring Samberg and host Paul Rudd painting each other's naked portraits, Titanic-style. Justin Timberlake's lispy cameo as one of three terrible male dancers in leotards in a Beyonce video also might count. By the way, somebody give Justin Timberlake a variety show—his two-minute version of himself hosting the show was pretty mind-blowing.

After the jump: Heavens to Murgatroyd!

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Detainees Fear Transfer to Iraqi Government Control

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 3:59 PM EST

With a draft "Status of Forces" agreement having been accepted by Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet, the timetable for US withdrawal is close to being set. American forces will pull out of Iraqi cities by next June and will leave the country entirely by January 2012. The agreement next must be approved by the Iraqi parliament and a three-member presidential council before it becomes law. But with things seemingly on course for official approval, new concerns have arisen over one of the draft agreement's provisions: the transfer of insurgent detainees form US to Iraqi custody.

Basil al-Azawi, head of the Baghdad-based Commission for Civil Society Enterprises, is calling for amendments to the agreement, ensuring that detainees will be protected from abuse. From al-Azawi:

As parliament represents the Iraqi people, it should act in line with the interests of Iraqis... Absolute justice must be achieved and Iraqi and international laws must be implemented when dealing with those detainees in Iraqi prisons... A suitable life inside the prisons must be guaranteed according to the Iraqi constitution and law. More visits to Iraqi prisons must be allowed by international and local human rights activists, and the treatment [of prisoners] must not be based on their sectarian background.

Under the draft agreement, anyone captured by US forces must be turned over to Iraqi custody within 24 hours. There are already 17,000 detainees in US-run detention centers in Iraq.

Jason Bentley to Replace Nic Harcourt as KCRW Morning Host

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 3:52 PM EST

mojo-photo-jasonbentley.jpgSanta Monica-based public radio station KCRW has announced that longtime evening host Jason Bentley (right) will be taking over for Nic Harcourt as Music Director and host of the influential "Morning Becomes Eclectic" when Harcourt leaves on December 1. Harcourt's exit was just announced last week, and included a vague notion of "expanding on other activities" which to me seems code for "I didn't have anything else lined up," but what do I know.

Harcourt came to KCRW from Woodstock, New York's WDST in 1998, and over the past ten years used the morning show to introduce artists like Coldplay, Dido and Franz Ferdinand. Bentley's promotion will excite fans of groovy beats, as the DJ and producer has focused much of his career on electronic music, with his KCRW show "Metropolis" and a long-running Saturday night show on Los Angeles alternative juggernaut KROQ. We'll see how well his laid-back late-night DJ persona translates to 9am.

Iranian Arms Update

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 3:36 PM EST

IRANIAN ARMS UPDATE....Gareth Porter reports on the findings of Task Force Troy, which was set up earlier this year to look for evidence of Iranian-made weapons in Iraq:

According to the data compiled by the task force, and made available to an academic research project last July, only 70 weapons believed to have been manufactured in Iran had been found in post-invasion weapons caches between mid-February and the second week in April. And those weapons represented only 17 percent of the weapons found in caches that had any Iranian weapons in them during that period.

....The caches that included Iranian weapons [] represented just 2 percent of all caches found. That means Iranian-made weapons were a fraction of one percent of the total weapons found in Shi'a militia caches during that period.

To be exact, Iranian weapons accounted for 0.36% of all weapons found during the six-week period examined by the task force. What's more, the task force also looked at large caches of supposedly Iranian weapons uncovered in Basra and Karbala during April and May and concluded that they weren't Iranian after all. Cernig provides more:

Left out of the list of Iranian-made weaponry were 350 armour-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) found in Iraqi weapons caches. Despite the lurid claims of US officials, the task group couldn't ascribe an Iranian origin to a single one. Which along with press reports about finding EFP manufactories inside Iraq explains why, since mid-Summer, we've heard nothing about Iranian-made EFPs whereas before official reports and statements were full of them.

....Iranian equipment is less reliable and more expensive than Eastern Block materiel that flooded the region after the 2003 invasion — something which a certain imprisoned international arms dealer, ex-CIA and ex-US military contractor and supplier to despots and terrorists, Viktor Bout, may well know a fair bit about. It's a buyer's market and the Iranians are seeing market forces exclude their produce, with the exception of simple artillery rockets. They're more expensive than the Pakistani arms bazaar's copies coming down the old Silk Road routes and far less effective than easily available and comparitively-priced black market US weapons too.

There's no question that Iran has substantial interests, both political and military, in Iraq, and has been assisting various armed groups there over the past few years (some of them allied with Maliki and the U.S. government). But evidence is evidence, and the evidence that they've been providing anything more than token amounts of weaponry to Iraqi fighters is very thin indeed. It's time to move on to some other bugaboo.

Stimulus Dreams

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 2:17 PM EST

STIMULUS DREAMS....Clay Risen recommends a piece in New York magazine about the virtues of using a trillion-dollar infrastructure program as economic stimulus. It's by architecture critic Justin Davidson, and it argues that a building plan would do more than just stimulate the economy:

A new New Deal, equipped with an Obama-era version of the Works Progress Administration, could put millions back to work, modernize the country, nudge the economy towards recovery, and produce a barrage of working monuments. It would be a stimulus package that keeps on stimulating long into the future.

This late-model WPA would take advantage of a moment when great architecture, buoyed by a long construction boom and debilitated by the bubble's pop, is looking for a purpose. The international corps of architectural auteurs, who have spent a decade or two dreaming up fantastical museums and ever more luxurious condos, could be challenged to build in American cities — particularly ours — on the grandest possible scale. They should be given the chance to tackle society's most massive, crucial, and abiding projects: viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges.

I have my doubts about this. In the first half of the 20th century, huge engineering projects were viewed as symbols of economic power and national greatness. Each skyscraper was taller than the one before, each bridge longer, each highway more miraculous. But here in the industrialized West anyway, that's just not true anymore. We've done too much of it, and it's become too routine. Individual pieces of architecture still have the power to inspire, but building programs qua building programs just don't kindle the same passions they used to.

This is especially true given the nature of the stuff we'd be building (or repairing): "viaducts, junctions, sewage plants, power plants, and bridges." There would probably be a few chances to build beautiful new bridges — Davidson mentions the new Tappan Zee bridge as an example — but they're going to be few and far between. For the most part, we've already built all the big bridges we need, and the vast bulk of any federal building program will instead be on inherently prosaic projects. Even on the bridge front, most of the projects will be straightforward roads, like the infamous I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, not gossamer creations spanning rivers and mountain gorges.

Which is too bad. I love beautiful bridges, and if we do allocate money for infrastructure, I hope we allow it to be used to create works of art when and where it's possible. For the most part, though, we don't need grand new projects so much as we need to repair old ones — and the new ones we do need are going to be things like windmill farms, electricals grids, and rail systems. It'll stimulate the economy, and be an excellent investment in the future, but it's asking too much to think it will be much more than that.

Movement Drivel

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 1:36 PM EST

MOVEMENT DRIVEL....After listening to George Will this weekend, Brad DeLong is confused:

I have never been able to make any sense at all of the right-wing claim that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by creating a "crisis of confidence" that crippled private investment as American businessmen feared and hated "that Communist Roosevelt." The crisis of confidence was created by the stock market crash, the deflation, and the bank failures of 1929-1933. Private investment recovered in a very healthy fashion as Roosevelt's New Deal policies took effect.

There's a good reason Brad has never been able to make sense of this claim: it was never made in good faith in the first place. Movement conservatives don't like the New Deal, so they did what they always do when confronted with something they don't like: they went searching for some content-free but semi-plausible argument against it that they could use to con the rubes. Then, once they found something glib enough to pass muster, they repeated it often enough that it took on the patina of conventional wisdom. Conventional enough even for the likes of George Will.

For the first time in a while, though, liberals have the luxury of mostly ignoring this nonsense. In this case — George Will spouting economic drivel on ABC's This Week — Paul Krugman batted down the nonsense in the course of a few seconds and the conversation moved on. End of story. Very refreshing.

So today's moral is: make an argument in good faith, and it will (or should, anyway) be engaged. Spew movement nonsense and you will be quickly corrected and then ignored. It's a good system.

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The Military-Conservative Complex

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 1:17 PM EST

THE MILITARY-CONSERVATIVE COMPLEX....Via TPM, Bernard Finel writes about military-civilian relations:

In the mid-1990s, congressional Republicans, concerned that the Clinton administration was allowing the Department of Defense to run on inertia, mandated the Pentagon produce a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)....The roots of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dicey relations with the uniformed military stemmed from his refusal to accept a fait accompli in the form of a [2000-01] QDR largely drafted without his input. The consequences of the rift were severe.

This has since changed, of course. The QDR review is now conducted not in the last year of a presidency, but in the first. The next QDR will be conducted in 2009, and released in early 2010. It will be an Obama-influenced product from start to finish.

Or will it? Finel says that the uniformed services have already tried to hijack the process by teaming up with conservatives to make sensible defense spending a political impossibility:

Earlier this year, briefing slides showing $60 billion to $80 billion per year in new expenditures started making the rounds inside the Beltway, supported by a public campaign by conservative think tanks and politicians to establish a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP.

The uniformed services are trying to lock in the next administration by creating a political cost for holding the line on defense spending. Conservative groups are hoping to ramp up defense spending as a tool to limit options for a Democratic Congress and president to pass new, and potentially costly, social programs, including health care reform.

....There are so many things wrong with this emerging process that it is hard to address the issue concisely. Promoting overspending on defense in order to forestall popular social spending is undemocratic — it creates a false tension between national security and other public policy goals.

The informal alliance between the services and conservative think tanks threatens to further politicize the military. The abuse of national security arguments to win political arguments is both morally suspect and threatens the security of the nation by delinking strategic assessment from public policy.

This is nothing new. The Pentagon has been highly politicized pretty much forever, and has worked hand-in-glove with hawkish conservatives for its entire existence. The fact that the service chiefs want more money and are laying the groundwork to get it is entirely unsurprising.

Which is why Obama's most important cabinet appointment probably won't be either State or Treasury, but Defense, where his personal experience is at its lowest. It's also what makes the possibility of Robert Gates staying on so interesting. In his favor: he has the background and conservative cred to fight off the kind of power play Finel writes about. On the other hand, the QDR he produces would set Pentagon priorities for four years. Does Obama really want a Bush holdover wielding that kind of influence?

I'm not sure myself. But here's an interesting observation: there's been loads of scuttlebutt about who Obama's picks for State and Treasury will be, but very little about his pick for Defense. There's been lots of talk about whether Gates will or won't stay, but not so much about who's in line for the job if he leaves in January. Why is that?

Obama Meets McCain: What Will Come of Today's Meeting?

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 1:09 PM EST

President-elect Obama is hosting John McCain in Chicago as I write this. Over at his other space, David speculates on how that conversation is going. Here's a snippet:

B: Can I get right to the point?
J: Straight talk? Sure, fire away.
B: It was a tough campaign. But now it's over. And as I said on the campaign trail, I respect all you've done for this country. All you have given and sacrificed. I do. But now it's time to talk about what comes next. For you.
J: (Slightly sarcastic.) Thanks for thinking of me.
B: John, you're not going to have a lot of friends back there. There's Lindsey, Joe and...well, that's about it--
J: You don't have to worry about me--
B: I'm not worrying--
J: And you want to be my friend now?
B: Not your friend. Your partner. Listen, there's a lot we disagree on. But there are several big things we see eye-to-eye on. Guantanamo, torture, global warming, political reform. And I'd like to ask you, what would you now like to accomplish? What legislation would you like to pass? What do you want your legislative legacy to be?

I think this raises a great point. What direction does John McCain take in the post-presidential period of his life?

Comparing Obama to Hitler on Right-Wing Radio

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 1:06 PM EST

Anomalos Publishing, a company that puts out conservative and Christian works and describes itself as "created for authors who...have a talent for writing but have not found a publisher," has announced that one of its authors will appear on right winger Michael Savage's nationally syndicated radio show to compare Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. From the press release:

Nationally-syndicated talk show host Michael Savage is set to interview former German member of the Hitler Youth, Hilmar von Campe this Tuesday, November 18.
The program will focus on similarities, which von Campe sees between the rise of totalitarianism under Hitler and the current social and political trends inside the United States.
"Every day brings this nation closer to a Nazi-style totalitarian abyss," writes von Campe, now a U.S. citizen, and author of "Defeating the Totalitarian Lie: A Former Hitler Youth Warns America."
"Today in America we are witnessing a repeat performance of the tragedy of 1933 when an entire nation let itself be led like a lamb to the Socialist slaughterhouse. This time, the end of freedom is inevitable unless America rises to her mission and destiny."
Hilmar points to events surrounding the election of Barack Hussein Obama as reminiscent of the way the Nazi regime came to power.

Von Campe was one of a bevy of conservative authors who in the weeks before the election whipped up the fear that Obama was the modern-day version of the Nazi dictator. In an October 28 WorldNetDaily column, he wrote, "Socialist Hitler destroyed free society in a few months. Socialist Obama is close to his steppingstone. The following is an attempt to clarify the issue."

Savage, of course, is an over-the-top purveyor of extreme rhetoric. He recently questioned whether welfare recipients should be permitted to vote. Weeks before the election, he proclaimed, "I fear that Obama will stir up a race war...in order to seize absolute power." In July, he created a fuss when he claimed that autism is a "fraud, a racket. ... I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out."

Quote of the Day - 11.17.08

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 12:08 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From the Mormon church, reacting to protests against their campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California:

"People of faith have been intimidated for simply exercising their democratic rights. These are not actions that are worthy of the democratic ideals of our nation. The end of a free and fair election should not be the beginning of a hostile response in America."

I'm afraid the church elders have it exactly backward here. Churches have every right to involve themselves in political issues, but if they do then they're going to be treated as political actors. Protests, boycotts, op-eds, blog posts, and marches are exactly the democratic ideals of our nation, and being on the receiving end of them is what happens to anyone who enters the political fray. It's a little late for them to pretend they didn't know this.