The Chuck Cowdery Blog 2006

December 20, 2006

For me, one of the highlights of the holiday season is my annual visit to Uncle Fun, a unique store here in Chicago.

Today, as I ran some other errands first, and a light drizzle began to fall, the holiday spirit was not much in evidence on the mean streets of the big town. I pulled over to let an ambulance pass and a Lexus SUV (naturally) took that opportunity to sprint past me, ignoring the sirens and flashing lights. Everywhere there was much impatience, honking of horns, and gnashing of teeth.

At Uncle Fun, the atmosphere changed completely.

Uncle Fun is a tiny store on a nondescript part of Belmont Street. A nearby landmark those familiar with Chicago will recognize is Schuba's, a popular bar, restaurant and live music showcase.

The merchandise at Uncle Fun is mostly toys, also books, postcards and assorted bric-a-brac. Most of it is cheap, 50 cents to five dollars. Much of it is ancient, from the 70s and earlier, rendered all the more amusing for being so out of context. Candy cigarettes "Just Like Dad's," for example, or Topps "New Kids on the Block" trading cards. Lots of Elvis stuff, and souvenirs from Hawaii. There is a certain sensibility to all of it, hard to describe but you'll recognize it when you see it. The word "campy" is not much used these days, but it would be appropriate.

There are some special items too: authentic Mexican wrestling masks hand made in Chicago by an authentic Mexican wrestler, collectible mechanical metal toys from China, and what must be a complete assortment of Pez candy dispensers.

But Uncle Fun is more than that. Quite simply, it's fun. Although the store is terribly cramped, there is no pushing and shoving. Everyone is smiling. They say, "excuse me" as they wriggle past you. Everyone is browsing, filling their little plastic baskets with goodies at a leisurely pace, and chilling out in the process. The employees, hard to distinguish from the customers except for their cash register access, are always cheerful.

Uncle Fun isn't just for Christmas, it's open all year. So if you're ever in Chicago and in need of a little good, clean fun, give Uncle Fun a try.

Uncle Fun
1338 West Belmont
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 477-8223

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December 19, 2006

The following sentence is from a lead story on today's Chicago Tribune web site: "Ten ambulances were sent to the scene of the derailment, which forced the evacuation of the train."

No explanation was offered for why the presence of ten ambulances forced the train's evacuation.

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December 14, 2006

Here comes another bout of nostalgia.

Probably the greatest invention of my lifetime is the remote controlled garage door opener. I am just barely old enough to remember how it was before them. Garage doors are heavy. In those days, they were equipped with springs and counterweights to make lifting them easier and closing them more controllable. Still, it took some muscle. More than that, you had to get out of the car to do it. I'm remembering this from my childhood, so I wasn't driving the car and was functioning as a human remote controlled garage door opener myself.

Motorized garage door openers existed, but to activate them you had to press a button that was connected to the motor by a wire. Not many people had them. When wireless remote controls came in, everybody got motorized garage door openers.

The same technology, integrated circuitry, that made transistor radios possible made the remote controlled garage door opener possible too. Being able to open the garage door from inside the car, without even opening the window, made all the difference.

Most American children have never opened a garage door manually.

I live in Chicago, not downtown but definitely in the city. I share a garage with about 50 other people. Even though the garage is detached from the building and I still have to walk outside after I leave the car, I consider indoor parking with a remote controlled garage door opener to be the ultimate urban luxury.

Fun, too. When that door rolls up, I feel like I'm entering the Bat Cave.

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December 12, 2006

One thing you start to notice after a certain number of years on the planet is the frequency with which people bemoan the loss of something or other that was once so much a part of life that you took it for granted, but now it is going away, and isn't that sad. I'm not talking about my short-term memory, I'm talking about, in this case, music stores.

In today's Chicago Tribune, art critic Alan G. Artner mourns Tower Records, particularly as its closing "leav(es) Chicago without a single good store for classical music for the first time since the debut of the LP in 1949."

With my advanced age, I try to distinguish in these situations between history and nostalgia. Although a loss is always a loss for nostalgia, it can indicate something good for the course of history. Artner's theme seems to be that what is lost is the opportunity for discovery. The stores he loved combined selection with knowledgable personnel. The reason this was precious then and is less so now is because, back then, knowing what was available in that store at that moment was crucial knowledge. Today, since everything is available all of the time, everywhere, force of habit and nostalgia are the only reasons to browse a music store.

Not to give nostalgia short shrift. I too have fond memories of hanging out in what we called record stores. It's almost impossible today to imagine what it was like then, when you might have to visit several stores to find a copy of a certain record, even (sometimes especially) a recent release, when it was almost impossible to walk or drive past a record store without popping in for a few minutes to "see what they have."

Today, you can almost obtain music by just deciding you want it. Even if something you want is not available for instant download, the web is the best place to find it in some form, even on vinyl. I can't remember the last time I bought a CD in a store and I'm of that generation. I like that sort of thing. I still buy CDs, in addition to downloading music, but I buy them online. If I want background information about an artist or recording, I can easily find that online too.

But what about the loss of human contact? The truth about record stores is that they really were not sociable places and often the best clerks had a singe-mindedness that precluded interaction on any subject other than music and records. The ability to listen to something before you bought it was never that big of a deal either. The exception would be the number of times I bought something after hearing it for the first time over the store's sound system, but that was usually serendipity, not a salesperson deliberately playing something for my benefit.

Book stores, which you might think destined for a similar fate, seem to have a purpose still. Books are "objects," separate from their contents, in ways that LPs approached but then CDs lost. Books haven't really changed much in hundreds of years, but since the birth of commercial recording less than a century ago, the delivery medium has changed completely about every other decade. My very first records were 78 rpm discs. Then came LPs and 45s, magnetic tape, CDs, and now iPods and iTunes.

When I first started to buy records, the retailers truly were "music stores." They sold musical instruments, taught you how to play them, and also sold sheet music and records. While I was still in high school, these began to be replaced by stores that primarily sold records. The music stores didn't go out of business necessarily, they just got out of the record business. The new record stores catered to young customers looking for the rock and roll lifestyle as much as for the music. More often than not they were part head shop too. Mine was the generation gap generation. Mom bought her Perry Como records at Sears. I bought my Beatles and Stones at stores like Tower.

I bought Jefferson Airplane's "Crown of Creation" at Montgomery Ward, which made me feel dirty.

So now things won't be like they were, but that has always been the case with music. Even Artner called his brief article "a vest-pocket requiem," meaning, I assume, that his grief would be momentary, a nod rather than a bow.

That sounds about right.

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December 5, 2006

Cook is the county that includes Chicago. You might also think of it as the county that surrounds Chicago. Some of what Cook County does applies to the whole county, including Chicago. Some just applies to the non-Chicago parts.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners is the governing policy board and legislative body for the county. The Board consists of 17 commissioners, elected from districts. County voters also elect a president and other county officials. The president presides at meetings of the commissioners and is often called the "County Board President."

Cook County is big. It operates the largest unified court and criminal justice system in the nation, the largest single-site jail in the United States, the oldest and one of the largest juvenile justice systems and facilities, and the third largest public health system in the nation. Its annual budget is about $3 billion.

Much has been made recently about political corruption in Illinois, after the federal felony conviction of our last governor and the multiple federal investigations of our current one. As always, Chicago has its share of high profile scandals too.

Typically, corruption investigations have to do with activities that are illegal and kept out of sight. Look at what Cook County's highest elected officials have been doing legally and out in the open.

In May of this year, John Stroger, the 76-year-old president, suffered a stroke one week before the primary election. Few details were released about his condition. He remained on the ballot and won the nomination. Much discussion ensued about whether or not he would stand in the general election. Details of his condition continued to be closely guarded (as they remain to this day). In July, in letters released by his family, Stroger resigned as president and requested that his son, Todd, replace him on the November ballot.

The county board duly accepted the resignation and appointed one of its own, Commissioner Bobbie Steele, as interim president. The Democratic Party's ruling body duly gave the nomination to Todd Stroger and he duly won the election. After the election but before the new terms of office began, Interim President Steele announced her retirement and asked that her son, Robert, be appointed to her commission seat. By retiring as president instead of commissioner, Steele doubled her annual pension to $136,000 a year.

Steele was just re-elected as commissioner in last month's election. The job of replacing her fell to the Democratic Party's ruling body, with the voting weighted in favor of committeemen elected from Steele's district. Robert Steele won handily.

All of this was done out in the open and according to the rules, but it also stinks.

The only other fact someone reading this might need to know is that none of this could have been done without the approval of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. If you live here, you already know that.

Yes, Todd Stroger won an election and Robert Steele will face the voters eventually, but with the advantages of incumbency and endorsed by the powers that be.

That who gets city jobs is still decided on the basis of political influence surprises no one. That the county's system can be gamed to enhance retirement earnings and facilitate dynastic succession surprises no one either. But surprise is not a necessary condition for outrage.

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December 1, 2006

Earlier this week, the Federal Appeals Courts (7th Circuit) ruled that George Ryan, the former Illinois governor convicted of massive corruption, may remain free while his appeal is pending. Some say he could still be behind bars as early as next spring, others say he will dodge it for years.

I would love to read the story of how corruption like this happens, how a young idealist who only wants to do good gets drawn in, little by little, as it becomes clear that a bit of back-scratching is the price of admission. Thus the descent into the pit begins. Was George Ryan ever a young idealist? I don't know.

It's hard to walk through a swamp and not get wet. We get glimpses of this in Obama’s story, and in Blago’s weird mix of naiveté and self-blinkering. Are either of them struggling to stay clean, as they sometimes seem, or just struggling to look that way?

The high jacking of American democracy by generations of kleptocrats -- both the politicians and their contract-seeking buddies -- is one of the great tragedies of our time. How does it begin? How did George Ryan get that way? How does anyone?

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November 30, 2006

People who are arguing now about whether or not to describe the current situation in Iraq as a "civil war" are arguing about the wrong question and looking at the wrong page in the dictionary. The pertinent question is not "is it a civil war?" The pertinent question is, is it a war? All definitions of "civil war" will describe it in a way that distinguishes it from other kinds of war. That's irrelevant. If the current violence in Iraq is a war, it can be described as no other kind.

But is it a war?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines war as: "a state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties." According to Wikipedia, it is: "the armed contention of one or more political units against one another. This can take the form of one or more states contending with one or more other states or of a state contending with armed groups from within its own borders."

Does anyone disagree that the current violence in Iraq is open, armed and prolonged? Does anyone deny that the Iraqi government is "contending with ... armed groups from within its own borders"? The parties are identifiable, at least as to the interests they represent. The militias are fighting each other as well as the legal government and the legal government's mercenary army (that's us). All parties are well-equipped with deadly weapons. There is a daily death toll. The pattern is more attack/counter-attack rather than the fighting of set piece battles, so call it an urban guerilla war it you want to, but it's a war.

How can it not be a war? The only way to argue that it's not a war would be to say that it's not quite severe enough now and either is being contained or can be contained so that the risk of significant escalation is small. Okay, maybe. That, at least, is subjective, a matter of opinion, not a matter of definition.

So, assuming that you consider it severe enough to be called "war," you have to agree that it is a "civil war." I have trouble imagining a credible, counter-argument.

The Bush Administration is stuck on a dilemma. By not calling it a "civil war" they are perceived as dissembling, at the least, and that's never good, but other than that, giving it the "civil war" label is contrary to U.S. interests, primarily because conventional wisdom says outside powers have to butt out of civil wars. That prejudice seems to weigh more heavily than the obvious semantic obfuscation. I think they would be better off to say (and I can hear Tony Snow saying it), "Okay, it's a civil war. So what? What does that change?" But that, again, is a matter of opinion in which one could reasonably take either side.

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November 29, 2006

A few more thoughts about how we "crown" a national champion in college football and what I mean by "the true nature of big time college athletics." (See November 20, 2006.)

There has been a consensus "national champion" crowned for a long time. The BCS system was invented as a way to produce a "national championship game." Now, instead of consensus (i.e., polls) picking the champion, the BCS uses consensus plus some new objective criteria to pick #1 and #2 for a playoff, i.e., a national championship game.

Critics want to change the system, maybe adding another round of games, then using something like the current BCS to pick #1 through #4 for a two-game tournament. Whatever. Is a four-team, two-round tournament really a better way to pick the national champion than the pre-BCS consensus system?

This is releated to what I mean by "the true nature of big time college athletics." What I mean is that college football and basketball, plus some other sports to a much lesser extent, feed the professional leagues. It's training and seasoning. It's also a showcase, a meat market for pro scouts. Other academic disciplines cooperate with the industries they serve, why can't the college football programs whose players regularly make it to the NFL cooperate with the NFL to produce a system that is both fan-pleasing and good for the NFL's purposes? I like the "super league" proposed below, but there might be better ideas out there.

The problem is, colleges still categorize sports as extra-curricular. There are no Football Majors, only Criminal Justice Majors who play football.

Colleges should face up to the fact that some of their students are there primarily to prepare for a pro-football career. Not practical? Because so few college football players will make it to the NFL? We don't use that argument to prohibit people from majoring in Art or French Literature, or other fields in which future employment opportunities will be extremely limited and highly competitive.

You wouldn't have to major in Football to play football, and Football Majors (like all other majors) could be required to take a certain number of non-football courses.

I guess I feel everyone is spending a lot of energy fussing about the wrong problem, wrong because it will never be solved unless the real problem is solved. As it is, we expect most college students to pick their majors carefully, but for football players it's treated like a joke. Reform that system, starting by letting them major in football, and maybe we'll have "student athletes" after all.

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November 20, 2006

First, full disclosure.

I was born and raised in Ohio. Because I was properly raised, I am a fan of Ohio State and hate Michigan.

I read today that Florida coach Urban Meyer says a rematch between Michigan and Ohio State would be cause for immediate change to the BCS. "If that does happen, all the (university) presidents need to get together immediately and put together a playoff system," he said. "I mean like now, January or whenever to get that done."

Clearly, Coach Meyer needs some kind of counseling. All of this "National Champion" stuff is overblown. Ultimately, so what? What interest is really served by determing a consensus national champion in college football? Sure, it's important to Coach Meyer in terms of recruiting and his own career, but does that mean it should be important to you and me? I don't think so.

The BCS system is flawed because there is an inherent flaw in the premises, first the premise that it is of vital importance to determine a national champion in college football, and second that it's possible without a major realignment.

The only realistic way to determine a national champion would be to transform the BCS into something like a super conference, a college football "major league" whose members would play a series of games against each other over the course of the season. These game would be in lieu of some part of the normal schedule those teams would play, i.e., maybe six games. The holes in the schedules of the opponents would be plugged by the other teams similarly inconvenienced and the "super league" would compensate those schools for the inconvenience, to defray their additional travel costs, for example. So that, in a given year, in the place where Northwestern might have OSU on its schedule, and USC might have Stanford, OSU and USC would play each other and Northwestern would play Stanford.

The system would include a process, similar to the current BCS rating system, that would determine who plays in the "super league" in any given year. A similar promotion and relegation system is practiced in many football (i.e., soccer) leagues.

The national championship game, then, would be between the two "super league" teams with the best records at the end of the year. The other BCS games would be similarly allocated to determine the final rankings that would be part of the next year's promotion and relegation.

I don't expect anything remotely like this to happen. Instead, I expect people will continue to bitch about the BCS system and that system's architects will continue to tinker with it. Meanwhile, everyone will continue to keep their heads in the sand about the true nature of big time college athletics.

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November 17, 2006

About a month ago, I posted some thoughts about Jim Beam's advertising claims on the discussion board at I posted essentially the same musings on this blog here.

That day or the next, I decided I should give Jim Beam (i.e., the company that owns the brand, Beam Global Spirits & Wine) a chance to respond. Here's what I wrote:


To Whom It May Concern:

In the current issue of the Jim Beam “Brotherhood of Bourbon” newsletter, the following statement appears: “Jim Beam is the only American whiskey that has been made the same way, following the same recipe, for 211 years.” Other forms of this claim appear in all current Jim Beam advertising.

What is the support for this claim? What exactly did Jacob Beam do in 1795 that is still done the same way in making the Jim Beam bourbon of today, that no other American whiskey maker does?

Where is this “recipe” and how has it been authenticated?

How can Jim Beam be “the only American whiskey that has been made the same way … for 211 years” when Jim Beam Bourbon has been made for only about 70 years and 1795 was 69 years before Jim Beam was born?

In other words, I’m asking for the official defense of the brand’s current ad claim. Thanks for your help.


Here is their official reply:

Dear Mr. Cowdery:

We received your recent e-mail message and appreciate your interest in Jim Beam. For competitive reasons, we don't discuss the details of recipes or production techniques for any of our brands. We consider such information to be proprietary.

Thanks again for contacting us.


I also received a telephone call from a Beam executive. We had what diplomats call "a frank and friendly discussion." Really, he was very nice, but said the above is their official position. I told him, very nicely, that I found that position disingenuous. I told him I don't care about the recipe's contents (the proprietary part), I care about its historical authenticity.

Here's the other thing. I already know the answer. There is no 211-year-old "recipe." On what, then, is the claim based? The company refuses to say.

So, the fundamental question remains. What exactly did Jacob Beam do in 1795 that is still done the same way in making the Jim Beam bourbon of today, that no other American whiskey maker does? As I told the executive, there is nothing unusual about advertisers being asked to justify ad claims. As it stands, I asked, they refused.

We didn't even get into the subject of Beam distorting the true historical facts to keep all of their "history" in Jim Beam's direct lineage. For example, I have seen the letter in which Margaret Beam Noe asks her first cousin, Carl "Shucks" Beam (and not her brother, Jere), to teach her son, Booker, how to make whiskey.

The saddest part of this is that the true history of Jim Beam bourbon is terrific. The company should try using it.

That's where we are. If there are further developments, I'll let you know.

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November 15, 2006

"Twenty Good Years" is a situation comedy about two men, lifelong friends, who have just turned 60. Instead of settling in to spend their "golden years" in passive pursuits, they decide to grab for the gusto and live life to the fullest. The show stars Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow. It's very funny and, as a 55-year-old man myself, I can say that a lot of the humor comes from the truth of the characters and situations. I can relate.

Funny line from the first episode. "Jeffrey, now that we're living life on the edge, women will often strike us."

I saw three of the first four episodes and decided this was "appointment TV" for me, probably the only show on television, and certainly the only new 2006-season show, that I would make a point not to miss.

So, naturally, it was quickly cancelled.

With a few exceptions, shows that appeal to a 50+ age group are the kiss of death on advertiser-supported television. Advertisers want young viewers because that's when brand preferences are established. Older viewers tend to have developed a resistance to advertising. Yes, we have money, but we're not so easily parted from it.

Who did NBC think was going to watch this when they greenlighted it in the first place? Sure, there are some younger characters, but they're mostly there as foils for the two stars. I wouldn't expect anyone much younger than 40 to even get it. But cancelled after four episodes? That tells me NBC had a contractual obligation to buy the show and put it on (maybe Lithgow had a production deal as part of his "3rd Rock" contract), but they never really believed in it. Too bad.

I think they should do one final episode about how the guys, in their quest to live large, have all but stopped watching television until they accidentally discover a show they like, that's about people their age, that's smart and funny, that then gets cancelled because advertisers don't care about people their age.

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November 9, 2006

Come January, the executive branch of the U.S. government will remain in Republican hands while Democrats assume control of the legislature. That's called "divided government."

I've always liked divided government, for what is a classically conservative reason. True conservatives (as opposed to those statist posers in the White House) believe that "the government that governs least governs best." The rap against divided government is gridlock, but on the theory that most of what government does is detrimental, gridlock is good. The less government does, the less harm it causes.

A couple years of legislative paralysis may be just what this country needs.

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October 30, 2006

A couple of people to whom I have mentioned that I am going to the Ohio State - Northwestern game (11/11) have said they wouldn't be interested, because it won't be a good game. What was there about Saturday's 44-0 shutout of Minnesota that wasn't good?

The only sports fans who don't enjoy watching their team steamroller its opposition are the ones who have never experienced it.

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October 19, 2006

Whiskey makers tend to puff up their history. Maker's Mark founder Bill Samuels did not invent wheated bourbon, by baking bread, or otherwise. W. L. Weller didn't invent it either. Wheated bourbon had been around for years.

Elijah Craig did not invent bourbon. Evan Williams was not Kentucky's first distiller. Jack Daniel's was not America's first registered distillery.

Marketing puffery is part of the game, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't call them on it. Sometimes it just goes too far and sticks in the craw.

These days, the worst offender is Jim Beam.

For example: "Jim Beam is the only American whiskey that has been made the same way, following the same recipe, for 211 years."

I took that statement from their "Brotherhood of Bourbon" newsletter, but they use variations of it in all of their advertising.

That statement is, at best, a stretch. The claimed date for Jacob Beam's first whiskey sale is 1795, which is where the 211 years comes from. That date claim is based entirely on "family lore," i.e., it is undocumented. But, okay, Beam family members have been saying it for a long time and it is credible. I'll concede that Jacob Beam was making whiskey 211 years ago and his descendants have been making it ever since, but the claim says more than that. It says that Beam has been making whiskey "the same way" for 211 years, and that Beam's consistency in this regard is unique among American whiskey-makers.

No one who knows anything about American whiskey-making history would make such a claim.

Two-hundred-and-eleven years ago, the only kind of still was the pot still. For the last 150 years or so, Beam distilleries have used column stills. Two-hundred-and-eleven years ago, distillers used whatever grain was available, not the set mash bills of today. Two-hundred-and-eleven years ago, distillers were lucky if, through multiple distillation in pot stills, they could achieve 50% alcohol. Today, Beam and most other distillers distill out at between 70% and 80% alcohol. Two-hundred-and-eleven years ago, malt was the only source of enzymes. Two-hundred-and-eleven years ago, the Beams were in Washington County, today they're in Bullitt and Nelson (different water). Two-hundred-and-eleven years ago, whiskey was rarely aged. The list goes on and on.

Part of the problem with these claims for "old recipes" (Beam isn't the only offender) is that whiskey back then wasn't nearly as good as it is today. I wouldn't want to drink whiskey made "the same way" whiskey was made in 1795 and neither would you.

But Beam says they're following the same recipe, right? What recipe? That part of the claim is based on nothing, except perhaps an assumption that the "Beam way" of making whiskey has been passed from father to son since Jacob. Is that the same as a recipe?

Fact is, there is no "recipe," certainly nothing documented, so to claim that Jim Beam is made today exactly the same way Jacob Beam made whatever he made 211 years ago is simply preposterous. It just ain't so.

Another historical distortion is calling the house at the Clermont, Kentucky, distillery the "Jere Beam house." Jere Beam was Jim Beam's son and, presumably, he lived there at one time, but in reality that was the Master Distiller's house, because the Master Distiller was on-call 24 hours a day. Park Beam lived there with his family, including sons Carl and Earl, and Carl lived there with his sons, David and Baker.

The brothers Jim and Park Beam had a distillery before Prohibition that was owned by the family, mostly by Jim. He was the money man, Park made the whiskey. After Prohibition they found some investors from Chicago. The new investors owned the company then, the Beams did not, they were employees. Park and his line were the whiskey-makers. Jere, who like his father was the business side, had no children. His sister, who married a guy named Noe, did and her son, Booker, went to work for the company. Beam's official history says his uncle Jere taught Booker how to make whiskey. Sorry. It was Carl "Shucks" Beam who taught Booker how to make whiskey, while he was teaching his own sons.

Now Booker is dead, and David and Baker are retired. Booker's son, Fred, is employed by the company primarily as a spokesperson. Fred is a nice guy and I don't want to say anything bad about him, but if he ever walked into a distillery and started to tell people what to do...well, it wouldn't be pretty.

The Beam company, which is part of Fortune Brands and based in a suburb of Chicago, has decided there are no Beams that matter except those in a direct line to Jim and then back to Jacob through him, which pisses off the approximately 200,000 other descendants of Jacob Beam.

Take, for example, Parker Beam. He, as an active whiskey-maker descended from the whiskey-making side of the family, has a much better claim to that 211-year legacy than anyone else, but the Beam company essentially owns the name "Beam." For a long time, Heaven Hill was forced to call him "Mr. Parker" for fear that Beam would sue their pants off. Eventually it was decided that it was okay for the man to use his own name.

And, finally, the Jim Beam brand itself is a Post-prohibition newcomer. The company that was actually owned by the Beams prior to prohibition never sold a whiskey called "Jim Beam," their brand was Old Tub.

I'm just sayin'...

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October 6, 2006

It wasn't my fault, honest. I ran out of gas. I had a flat tire. I didn't have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn't come back from the cleaners. I was drunk. I was gay. I was molested by a priest. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN'T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD. ( Mark Foley, with apologies to Jake Blues)

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September 26, 2006

Ever wonder why so many TV dramas are either crime shows or hospital shows? It's because nothing in that weekly hour-long series format seems to attract audiences without life-and-death situations to create instant drama. Successful genres of the past, such as westerns and war shows, have that life-and-death juice too. Even Star Trek had it. Soaps often get it by injecting crime or medical subplots. Romance isn't enough.

Watching "Studio 60" last night on NBC, it occurred to me that Aaron Sorkin's novel insight into the possibilities of weekly hour-long series television is that you can get the life-and-death effect if the characters give the situations life-and-death importance. If we believe it is life-and-death to them, it will as good as life-and-death to us.

Sorkin tested this theory on "The West Wing." It was a smart test because, in the White House, some things really are life-and-death. Still, Sorkin's presidential aide characters very believably made everything seem like life-and-death because they believed it was.

It will be harder to bring this off with a TV show about a TV show, but maybe not. From what we, the viewers, 'know' about Hollywood, we know many people there do give everything life-and-death importance, so the premise is at least believable. The risk is that these characters will appear too over-the-top to be sympathetic. Making the mark up on an ag bill seem life-and-death is one thing, getting that crazy about making a weekly sketch comedy show may seem, well, too crazy.

Sorkin probably doesn't think of himself as a tragic figure, he probably thinks he is living his dream, but he might inadvertently show how delusional he is in that belief. More than that, can an ode to lives out of balance compete with crime and hospital shows?

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September 25, 2006

Writing Tip: One person’s reinforcement is another’s redundancy.

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September 5, 2006

Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories, by David Whiteis (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2006), is a personal meditation on the recent and present Chicago blues scene by someone who knows it as well as anyone, and who thinks and writes about it much better than most. This is definitely not an introduction to the blues, but if you are a fan of the music, especially of the artists who are still getting it done in the Windy City, and if you have ever done any big picture musing on what the blues is all about, then this will give you a lot to muse about. I loved it. Trade Paperback. 322 pages. (ISBN 0-252-07309-6)

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August 27, 2006

An open letter to the Illinois Restaurant Association.

To Whom It May Concern:

Regarding the foie gras issue, I believe spokespeople for the restaurateurs are mis-stating the argument as to why the City of Chicago has exceeded its authority in banning the sale of foie gras. It is not because foie gras is not produced in Chicago, it is because the ordinance's only beneficiaries are not within the City's jurisdiction, and the ordinance benefits no person (nor fowl) that is within the City's jurisdiction. Therefore, the ordinance provides no benefit whatsoever to any interests which the City is charged to serve.

The ordinance causes a hardship to at least some citizens of Chicago, by denying them a foodstuff they would choose to consume, without providing any offsetting benefit to any citizens or other denizens of Chicago. Persons who agree with the aldermanic position regarding foie gras can choose not to purchase it, so they are not benefited in any way by the ban.

The City overstepped its authority because they enacted an ordinance that can have no positive effect within the city limits of Chicago, therefore it is none of the Council's business.

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August 22, 2006

Today’s Channel 7 Moment. Janet Davies, doing an entertainment news segment, talked about Oprah Winfrey’s sponsorship of a school in Johannesburg, South America.

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August 21, 2006

A correspondent asked me how I got into writing, both personally and professionally. My answer follows.

Writing is something I have always done, at least ever since I learned how. It wasn't something I ever decided to do, it was just something I did. In addition to being how I make my living, it has become how I process things. At some point in my thinking on just about any subject, I will write.

Like most kids with a creative bent, I tried my hand at just about everything: writing, acting, painting, music. Just by responding to feedback (positive and negative) and going where I felt most comfortable, writing became my main thing.

The experiences you have as a kid are so important, so shaping. In my case, there were always kids around me who were better students, better athletes, better artists, better musicians, what-have-you, but nobody was a better writer. I also had one particular teacher who gave me encouragement at a very early age, which I think was crucial. I wasn't that successful at much else at school, so being told I was a good writer really gave me something to latch onto.

I have done other things in my life, and still do, but writing has always been there as part of it.

I also get more pleasure from writing than I do from just about anything else. People talk about being "in the zone," usually in reference to sports. I experience that when I'm writing. Not all of the time, but sometimes. When I'm really into it and really flowing, I can work for 12-15 hours straight, maybe more, and not even notice the passage of time. I'll wonder what time it is, take a guess, and be off by five or six hours. In addition to being a good indication that you are doing something that suits you, that experience is intensely pleasurable.

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August 15, 2006

Today in Tehran, Iran, an art gallery opened an exhibition of cartoons that western reporters describe as "mocking" the mid-20th century slaughter of European Jews known as The Holocaust. The exhibition is hosted by a group called Caricature House and co-sponsored by the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri. It was mounted in response to February's furor over a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons ridiculing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

By tradition, Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet to be blasphemy. The Danish cartoons sparked worldwide protests, some of which were violent. Other publications, including a few in the United States such as the student newspaper at the University of Illinois, subsequently printed the cartoons as an assertion of "free speech" liberties.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspired the exhibition when he called the Holocaust a "myth" and said Israel should be destroyed. The 204 cartoons on display were selected from 1,200 submitted from Iran and throughout the world, including the United States. The exhibition runs until September 13th and the winner will receive $12,000.


Bravo Caricature House. Bravo Hamshahri. Bravo Iran.

You got the point.

The free speech tradition says that the correct response to speech you deem to be wrong or harmful is not to suppress the speech or attack the speaker but to answer it. In other words, the best response to bad speech is good speech. "Good" and "bad" are subjective, but that's the point. Speech should be answered with more speech, not violence, not censorship.

The speech in this case may seem somewhat juvenile, but there was something similarly juvenile about the original Danish provocation.

Despite what you may think about this choice of subject matter or of the cartoons themselves, the sponsors of this contest and exhibition should be praised for correctly grasping the free speech principle. This is how civilized people in free societies are supposed to respect speech rights.

Just to be clear about my own point of view here, I am not a Holocaust-denier. The Holocaust happened, it was an unspeakable crime and a massive human tragedy. My praise for this exhibition has nothing to do with the subject matter, The cartoons are no doubt despicable. What I am praising is the Iranian's responsible and civilized answer to what they considered offensive speech. If you find this exhibition offensive then, by all means, respond, but respond in a comparably civilized and appropriate way.

The editors of Hamshahri say they want to test the West's tolerance for drawings about the Holocaust. Indeed, the West's response should be very interesting and, maybe, instructive to us as well as to them.

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August 10, 2006

Today, after the news broke about a foiled plot to blow up planes flying between Great Britain and the United States, President Bush made some brief remarks. He said the plot was "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation."

He immediately caught flak for using the term "Islamic fascists" from Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

That is just one guy, albeit with a title, but I hope other American Muslims will show better sense. I'm with Bush on this one, 100 percent. The term "Islamic fascists" is fair. "Islamic nihilists" might be better, but everyone would know W didn't think that one up by himself. Most people probably can't define the word "fascist," but at least they know it's something bad.

If there is a Council on International Fascism, they are keeping quiet.

Here is what the dictionary says. A "fascist" is a person who favors a "government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism." An "Islamic fascist" would be a person who favors that sort of government with an Islamic theocratic slant.

Sounds about right to me.

So, the term is fair and appropriate, and the offense being taken to it is completely unfair and inappropriate. Bush did not say that all Muslims are fascists, he used "fascist" to distinguish violent extremists from ordinary civilized Muslims. That's what I heard.

There is an article in the current Atlantic that makes some good points about terminology. For example, jihadist and mujahideen have generally positive connotations to Arabic speakers, like calling rebels in a guerrilla war "freedom fighters." The author suggests alternative terms such as hirabah ("unholy war"), irhabists ("terrorists"), and mufsidoon ("evildoers"). He suggests that perhaps Bush's use of the term "evildoers" in the past has been deliberate, since there is a direct translation for it into Arabic.

Believe me, I don't say this often, but Bush is right on this one. The enemy is Islamic fascists. Good choice of words, good call.

Let's hope the Reuter's headline ("Muslims bristle at Bush term 'Islamic fascists.'") is wrong and the only muslim who bristled was that one dope.

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August 3, 2006

Reading The Economist just now inspired me to jot down a couple of thoughts.

First, about The Economist itself. I have my brother to thank for turning me on to this terrific publication. Although it is published in Great Britain, it covers world news and even American news better than any American-based news weekly. It puts them to shame, really. Time, Newsweek and even U.S. News and World Report come off like People or Us by comparison. All fluff, no stuff.

I have been a Newsweek subscriber for 35 years or so. I grew up with Time and still see it from time to time too. Except for the occasional national story by one of their star reporters, Newsweek and Time are a waste of paper and ink. (I'm lumping USN&WR in there too. Although I see it seldom, I'm not impressed when I do. My impression is that if you prefer USN&WR over Time and Newsweek, then you'll really like The Economist.)

Among the things I like about it are frequent historical perspectives (e.g., a good article on the 1956 Suez Canal crisis in the current issue), coverage of world news even when no Americans are involved, and a writing style that is both intelligent and witty. One small criticism is the tendency to post stories about ongoing events that change little from week to week and feel like filler.

They do have a lot of space to fill because most of the magazine's 90 or so pages are devoted to...gulp...words! Not big pictures and dumbed-down graphics.

Second, in addition to noting the 50th anniversary of the Suez crisis, they have an article noting the 10th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reforms. It struck me, reading that article, that certainly since the Clinton administration the United States has had a two-party government consisting of conservative Republicans, now known as Republicans, and moderate Republicans, now known as Democrats.

I'm not complaining about this state of affairs. I probably would count myself as one of those moderate-Republicans-now-known-as-Democrats on many issues. I point this out mostly to rebuke those conservatives who still flail away at the "liberal" boogey man. Talk about beating a dead horse! Yes, there are still a few true liberals and progressives about, even a handful of them in Congress, but they are at present irrelevant to national governance.

In some ways, this has happened because many of the left's favorite positions have been decisively discredited. As The Economist points out, the political left predicted a humanitarian disaster when welfare reform passed. It didn't happen. This is not to suggest, and The Economist does not, that all social problems relating to poverty have been solved, far from it. But the 1996 reforms generally improved the situation, they didn't make it worse as the left predicted they would.

Whenever you hear conservatives talk about "liberal-this" and "liberal-that" just remember that means they're blowing smoke and demonstrating their tendency to intellectually-dishonest grandstanding.

Issues such as the Iraq war and the Katrina response are about competence, not right/left politics. Other issues, like NSA spying and other anti-terror excesses, are about the rule of law, which shouldn't be a matter of partisan politics either.

Let's talk about things that matter.

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August 1, 2006

I will let someone else talk about Mel Gibson's substance abuse problem, his anti-semitism problem, the special treatment/cover-up issue, and any other serious issue anyone else wants to talk about.

What I want to talk about is how come Mel Gibson, in a mug shot (reproduced below), after a bender and a skuffle with police, still looks better than I do (and, dare I say, most of us do) on my best day. Talk about special treatment!

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July 24, 2006

It was reported in the news today that "Survivor" Richard Hatch has been sent to the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City. The Federal Transfer Center is a federal prison that also is used as a distribution point for federal inmates. Hatch was sent there from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Massachusetts, where he has been held since his January conviction on multiple federal income tax evasion charges.

Do you remember Hatch? He won the first season of the CBS game show "Survivor" in 2000. (I refuse to call them "reality" shows, since there is nothing real about them. Call them what they are; game shows.) Arguably, Hatch's on-screen antics put that show and, with it, the whole genre on the map. David Letterman dubbed him the "naked fat guy" because he played most of the game nude. He was arrogant but articulate, and made the most of his screen time. He also made sure everyone knows he is a gay man.

Hatch was not likable, but he played the game to win. Most of the other players seemed to think the object was simply to "survive" the privations of their circumstances and win the little "challenges" staged by the producers. Hatch figured out that the real object was to "survive" the other players, manipulating the voting to his advantage. By the end, when it was the eliminated players who chose the ultimate winner, he was viewed as the lesser evil. He won and received the cash prize of $1,000,000 plus a new Pontiac.

Because of the fame he achieved on "Survivor," Hatch appeared on Letterman and many other talk shows. He was on a reality-show-themed edition of the game show, "Weakest Link." He got a gig as a radio talk show host in Boston and appeared on several other game shows, including a "Survivor All-Stars" series. After six years in the spotlight, he seemed well on his way to creating a real, if bizarre, career for himself out of his "Survivor" notoriety.

But Hatch was in legal trouble from the beginning. Stupid stuff. After "Survivor" finished taping, but before he was declared the winner, he was arrested for roughing up his 9-year-old adopted son. In August of 2001, he was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic assault charge for roughing up an ex-boyfriend. Nothing came of either charge. He filed some suits for false arrest, but not much came of that either.

Then in January of 2005, he was charged with federal tax evasion. He quickly cut a plea deal but by March he had changed his mind and decided to fight it. In September, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for filing false tax returns and underpaying his federal income taxes for the years 2000 and 2001 by hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was tried and convicted on that indictment in January of 2006, and sentenced in May to 51 months in federal prison. He also was ordered to pay $475,000 in back taxes.

Hatch gets points for brass but loses most of them for stupidity. His "scheme," if you can even call it that, was brazen but doomed from the start. All he did was grossly underreport his income, apparently hoping no one would notice. He made very little effort to actually conceal the unreported income or otherwise cover his tracks. What he was thinking is a question still unanswered. The best explanation, based on what we all saw of him in 2000, is that he simply thought he could outwit, outplay and outlast the Internal Revenue Service and federal prosecutors.

He was mistaken.

Now Richard Hatch is in federal prison, and he's not doing Martha-time. Whether or not it will be truly hard time is still not known. The news stories say he is scheduled for release on October 7, 2009. Back 51 months out from that and you get July 7, 2005, but he hasn't been locked up quite that long. When he was indicted in September he had to turn in his passport and stay in Rhode Island, except for trips to Houston, Texas, to meet with his attorney. After his conviction in January, the judge declared him to be a flight risk. He has been in the county lock-up ever since. I can't explain why he's supposed to get out in October of 2009, rather than April of 2010, but that's still a serious sentence.

Maybe Hatch will wind up in a "Club Fed" like Martha did, that's what his lawyers are pushing for, but he's not in one now. He and his people don't know where he's going and the feds aren't saying. He might be staying in Oklahoma City. It could be hard to get him assigned to a "camp," as the minimum-security federal prisons are officially known, because he's already been deemed a flight risk. Prosecutors have argued that he lied repeatedly throughout the trial, so they won't be quick to agree to any leniency.

Hatch's attorney has filed notice that he intends to appeal the conviction.

The news stories, both in May and today, reported just the bare facts: Hatch never paid taxes on the $1,000,000 from "Survivor," and some other income.

The story is a lot more interesting than that.

The Smoking Gun web site, as it is wont to do, has published the full text of the federal indictment. It is fascinating reading. Here is a synopsis.

In August of 2000, Hatch received from Survivor Entertainment Group, a $10,000 appearance fee for being on the finale episode of "Survivor," as did everybody else. Then he won the $1,000,000 prize. Hatch deposited the million into his Newport, Rhode Island checking account and endorsed the $10,000 over to a construction company that was doing some work for him. Survivor Entertainment Group filed a 1099 with the IRS showing it had paid $1,010,000 to Hatch in 2000, and sent a copy of the 1099 to Hatch, as they are required to do.

In March of 2001, Hatch hired a local Newport, Rhode Island, accounting firm to prepare his taxes. They did and told him he owed $374,831 in federal income taxes and $66,670 in penalties and interest. He owed the penalties and interest for not making estimated tax payments as soon as he got the money. The accountants gave him the returns to file. He said he would, but never did.

In December of 2001, Hatch hired a local self-employed accountant and gave him the 1099 showing the $1,010,000 in income from "Survivor." He also told this accountant about a rental property he owned, but said he hadn't received any income from it. He told this accountant about some other income he received in 2000, but not everything he told the first firm about. In March of 2002, this accountant told Hatch he owed $234,807. He gave Hatch the completed forms. Hatch said he would file them, but never did.

In fall of that year, Hatch went back to the second accountant and asked how much he would owe if he didn't include the "Survivor" prize. The accountant prepared a return using just the information Hatch told him to use, but he told Hatch it was "informational" only, not to be filed with the IRS, and the accountant didn't sign it. (Paid tax preparers are required to sign tax returns that are going to be filed. They can be prosecuted for preparing what they know to be false returns.)

Hatch's "informational" return showed income of $41,087 and asked for a refund of $4,483. Although the indictment doesn't say, this presumably is what Hatch made in 2000 from the training business he had before the "Survivor" show. Hatch signed and filed this return.

We already know he failed to report his "Survivor" winnings. Here is what else he omitted.

Hatch did, in fact, own a rental property in Newport, and received $18,078.50 in income from it between January and August of 2000, which he failed to report.

It gets better.

In fall of 2000, because of his "Survivor" fame, Hatch was approached to do a TV pilot called "For Goodness Sake," a show intended to promote charitable giving. For his participation, the producers would give him $25,000 to give to any charity of his choosing, specifying only that it had to be a charity that was recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. He selected a charity called "Horizon Bound."

Only thing was, there was no such organization until Hatch created it. He subsequently filed articles of incorporation for a not-for-profit by that name with the Rhode Island Secretary of State, and eventually opened a bank account in that name, but that was about it. He never got around to registering for a 501(c)(3) with the IRS, at least not during 2000 and 2001.

Hatch appeared on the "For Goodness Sake" pilot as agreed and they gave him a check for $25,000, made out to "Horizon Bound." He deposited it into his personal account after adding his own name to the payee line. According to the indictment, Hatch spent all the money but none of it was spent "on any charitable purpose."

That's Count 1 of the indictment, which covers 2000. Count 2 is about 2001.

That year, Hatch filed a timely return declaring $228,077 in income and showing a refund due of $43,296, so presumably he had made some estimated payments and was actually paying some taxes. Unfortunately, in addition to what he reported, the feds found out about six other sources of income that he did not report, which had paid him an additional $374,510.

Most of that was his salary from co-hosting a Boston radio talk show, "The Wilde Show." The rest was more rental income, the value of a Pontiac Aztek he got for "Survivor," and three more donations to Horizon Bound, including $10,000 for appearing on a reality-show-themed edition of the game show, "Weakest Link."

To get the "Weakest Link" money, Hatch sent NBC, at their request, a completed W-9 form, which he signed as "Ralph Magee." I say "signed," the indictment says "forged." He used the "Ralph Magee" signature again on another document requested by NBC.

What I have just recounted is the federal indictment. It's extremely well documented, apparently supported by bank records and all that, but an indictment only tells you what the feds allege. What was Hatch's defense when he went on trial in January?

According to a couple of CBS News-Associated Press stories, during Hatch's trial his lawyer claimed that, during the 2000 "Survivor" taping, Hatch threatened to go public with information that several players were cheating, by having friends sneak food to them. The lawyer said CBS agreed to pay Hatch's taxes in return for his silence about the alleged cheating, so that's why he didn't pay the taxes on his "Survivor" winnings, because he thought CBS had paid them. Of course, CBS replied that no such arrangement was made and Hatch had been told all along that the taxes were his responsibility.

Hatch also blamed his tax troubles on "the behavioral problems of his son," which had distracted him. Blaming it on your kid is the ultimate slimeball defense. (See the story of 2004's almost-Illinois Senatorial candidate, Jack Ryan.)

Did Hatch admit to anything? Yes, he admitted to being "a lousy bookkeeper," "the world's worst bookkeeper," according to his lawyer.

That's where it stands now. I don't know if there is any big lesson in this story, although people who think the IRS is always the bad guy might benefit from realizing this is the sort of thing the IRS has to deal with all the time. Most Americans have their taxes withheld from their paychecks and couldn't pull a stunt like this if they wanted to. There are plenty of people making $40,000-$50,000 a year and paying maybe $8,000-$9,000 of that in taxes, so it should gall you first of all that guys like this, who make more than ten times that, think they should be able to get out of paying their share.

The way it was reported, you don't really get the sheer arrogance of it, the outrageousness piled on top of outrageousness, the miserable excuse for a human being-ness of it all. We should all feel like Hatch has been spitting in our faces. He was, after all, stealing from us, you and me. He got what was coming to him and we should be glad.

Is there anything else we should take away from this? I'm not sure. If I think of something else I'll let you know.

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July 19, 2006

Barry Goldwater was wrong.

In 1964, the Arizona senator was Republican nominee for president, opposing the eventual winner, Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater's campaign theme was "In Your Heart, You Know He's Right." While that statement may or may not have been true, it was not ratified by the voters. Johnson received more than 60 percent of the popular tally and 486 electoral votes. Goldwater captured only his home state and five in the Deep South.

Goldwater returned to the Senate in 1969, where he remained until his retirement in 1987. He is revered as father of the Reagan Revolution and the modern conservative movement.

Readers under age 50 will find this difficult to believe, but many at the time considered Goldwater too conservative for even the Republican Party. His main primary opponents were Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York, and William Scranton, Governor of Pennsylvania. Both portrayed Goldwater as an "extremist" while he called them part of the "Eastern liberal establishment."

After winning the nomination, Goldwater knew the Democrats would repeat the extremism charge in the general election. Instead of denying it, he embraced the "extremist" label with a line in his acceptance speech that became his most famous utterance:

"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

The line was a bell-ringer, at least with his partisans, and even though it didn't win him many votes, most people at the time, and since, probably have accepted it as both an accurate statement and a noble, patriotic sentiment. His phrasing of it as a "reminder," a part of the quote usually omitted, is evidence that, at least for rhetorical purposes, he believed its truth to be self-evident; that "extremism" in pursuit of a righteous cause such as liberty is commendable, even essential, and "moderation," in similar instances, is justly condemned as insufficiently zealous.

Goldwater is hardly alone in this attitude, nor is it confined to his political ilk. Jim Hightower, a Texas politician who can be hard to categorize but who, it is safe to say, probably lines up to the left of Goldwater, entitled his 1997 book, There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.

In light of the Oklahoma City bombing, September 11th, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Westboro Baptist Church, Ku Klux Klan, and countless other examples, isn't it now clear that extremism, in every form and directed to any end, is at the heart of the problem? Isn't it extremism, in all of its forms, that is making the world such a violent and dangerous place?

I wrote, in 2003, that "for decades, maybe for centuries, bored and alienated (and generally affluent, safe and comfortable) adolescents have adopted nihilist poses, but now that we see the real thing in all its glory, the pose isn't so easy to shrug off. Nihilist wannabes need to give that some real hard thought. The rest of us do too. How tolerant should we be of casual nihilism? "

Nihilists are people who believe that society can be improved only by destroying what currently exists, by violent means if necessary. There are various schools of thought as to what should come next, from creative chaos (anarchy) to state socialism (totalitarianism). People who turn airplanes into bombs to destroy office buildings, who bomb commuter trains to inflict as many casualties as possible, or who lob missiles more or less at random into population centers, can fairly be described as nihilists.

The word "nihilism" describes a strategy. The word "terrorism" describes a tactic. The underpinning of both is extremism. The question is, how tolerant dare we be of extremism of any kind, even if it is not conspicuously violent?

Although America was not innocent of home-grown terrorism prior to Oklahoma City (the genocide of the American Indians; the bombing, burning and lynching of African-Americans; the violent suppression of the early labor movement), we have entered a new era since then. And although the September 11th terrorists were not American citizens, they all had lived among us for years and perpetrated their atrocity on American soil, blurring the distinction between "home-grown" and "foreign" terrorism. Further blurring that distinction is the fact that Al-Qaeda itself was created by the CIA to harass the Russians in Afghanistan.

You reap what you sow.

While "terrorism" has been the main watchword since September 11th, "extremism" is its essential predicate. A terrorist is nothing more than an extremist who has adopted terror-producing violence as a tactic.

Terrorists are inevitably extremists but are all extremists necessarily or inevitably terrorists? Let's examine that question.

First, what is an "extremist"? The dictionary says it is, "one who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm, especially in politics." Not very useful, especially since "norm" is such a subjective concept.

I submit that extremism is characterized, most of all, by closed-mindedness, by the absolute and inviolable conviction that one's beliefs are correct in their entirety. When you believe that your truth is the sole truth, and is an absolute truth, then you must believe that anyone who thinks differently is wrong. It is a short jump from "wrong" to "dangerous" and from there to "kill the bastards."

The extremist's ideology can be either secular or religious. The content is, ultimately, inconsequential. What prompts violence is absolutism, the conviction that the righteous cause can and, indeed, must be advanced by any means; that the rightness of the ideology, coupled with the high importance of achieving its goals, justifies any action that can be taken, no matter how extreme. In other words, the end justifies the means and it doesn't matter who gets hurt.

My conclusion is that extremism, for any purpose and in any form, is the source of our world's most deadly problems; and moderation, where one tries to be an advocate for a certain point-of-view while remaining open to other possibilities, always respecting and behaving decently toward the other person or group, is the only answer.

So Barry Goldwater was wrong.

In fact, "extremism in the defense of liberty" is not only a vice, it is a logical impossibility, since the intolerance inherent in extremism is incompatible with the pluralism that is essential for liberty.

As U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William J. Brennan wrote in his dissent to Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 U.S. 110 (1989):

"We are not an assimilative, homogeneous society, but a facilitative, pluralistic one, in which we must be willing to abide someone else's unfamiliar or even repellent practice because the same tolerant impulse protects our own idiosyncrasies. In a community such as ours, 'liberty' must include the freedom not to conform."

So Barry Goldwater was wrong, dangerously wrong.

There are no good extremists. Extremism, even in defense of a cause as noble as liberty, is a vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice, or anything else, is a virtue.

Extremists advance their cause, not through persuasion, but by conquest; that is, by imposing their beliefs on others. They give you a stark choice, reminiscent of the Inquisition: convert now or die. The inevitable outcome of a successful extremist campaign is totalitarianism, since that is the only way to enforce an imposed orthodoxy.

The easiest way to identify groups or individuals that have totalitarian aims is to look at their attitude toward dissent. For an extremist, disagreement with their beliefs and opposition to their policies is infuriating, intolerable, treacherous and treasonous. Who does that sound like, Ann Coulter?

My criticism of right wing extremists should not be construed to suggest that I do not recognize there are equally dangerous extremists on the left, in the United States and elsewhere. Some of them can be found on the Daily Kos. Earth First is another example, as is much of the anti-globalism movement.

The right complains about the "Blame America First" crowd and while I might compose the list differently, I concede that such a point-of-view does exist, here and abroad. Believe it or not, the Socialist Workers Party is still in business, both here and especially in Great Britain. Go to any large anti-war protest and they, and similar groups, will be passing out leaflets. They are also among the principal organizers of those events.

While most opponents of the Iraq War are not socialists, nor affiliated with any socialist group, those groups, though very small, are well-organized and tenacious, and usually play a large role in the organization and promotion of such events. This was true during the Viet Nam War and has been true ever since. I know this from direct, personal experience. It is not a secret and they are not trying to hide it. Go to a demonstration or volunteer to help with one. You'll find them soon enough.

These groups view large street demonstrations as recruitment opportunities, and as opportunities to tarnish the government of the day. They don't care if that government is Republican or Democrat, Labour or Tory.

So, yes, there are right wing extremists and left wing extremists, religious extremists and secular extremists, white extremists and black extremists. The content of their ideology doesn't matter, their extremism is the problem. It is characterized by absolutism, intolerance, disrespect and disdain for non-believers, and a propensity to advance their cause by any available means, including violence.

That extremists also will lie, cheat and steal goes without saying.

So Barry Goldwater was wrong. Extremism is bad. Moderation is good. We must reject extremism of all kinds. That may be our only hope.

We hear a lot today about asymmetrical warfare, how a group such as Al-Qaeda, or a nation such as North Korea, although it would be annihilated in a conventional face-to-face battle with the United States, can use tactics such as terrorism or nuclear blackmail to accomplish its goals and deflect, if not actually defeat, a much more powerful foe.

Moderation, and its related values, can be viewed as a similarly asymmetrical response to violent, intolerant extremism. Many have argued that Gandhian non-violence can only be effective against certain kinds of opponents. Maybe so. I am not, however, saying that moderation must necessarily be non-violent. Throughout history, the principle that war should only be used as a last resort has been observed most often in the breach, but that doesn't invalidate the principle, nor should it convince us that moderation necessarily equals pacifism. Let me be clear that I am talking about force that is both enabled and restrained by law.

Similarly, I do not buy the argument that the United States is "terrorizing" Iraq or that Israel is every bit as much a "terrorist group" as Hamas or Hezbollah. I don't agree with every policy of the Israeli government and neither do many Israelis, but they aren't thrown in jail, or worse, for saying so. In this country, the Bush administration has done its best to demonize dissent, but it hasn't succeeded in criminalizing it...yet.

The type of moderation I advocate means doing the right things for the right reasons, and it means adhering to our principles, such as our commitment to rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to privacy, equality of opportunity, and liberty and justice for all, even when doing so starts to feel uncomfortably dangerous.

And if we die, well, "it is better to die on your feet than to live forever on your knees." Who said that? Not Barry Goldwater, it was Dolores Ibárruri, also known as La Pasionaria ("the passion flower"), leader of Spain's Communist Party until her death in 1989. Or how about, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." That's Kris Kristofferson. There is a pithy saying for every occasion, but words such as "freedom" and "liberty" mean something, they aren't just synonyms for "American," and we have to live up to what they really mean.

Words have consequences and extremist rhetoric can lead to extremist behavior. I am not suggesting censorship, I am suggesting moderation. People who indulge in overheated rhetoric to sell books should not be tolerated, they should be shunned and condemned as the dangerous provocateurs they are.

Barry Goldwater was wrong. Extremism is the problem, not the solution. What we need is moderation and lots of it.

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July 18, 2006

Soldiers on the march appropriate food and other supplies, leaving their victims bereft at the onset of winter. Upon arrival at its destination, the army makes arrests without warrants, usually in the middle of the night, and holds its prisoners indefinitely, without charges, in horse stables and cattle pens. Many captives are tortured and threatened with imminent execution. Potential witnesses are pressured to falsify evidence against the accused.

The scene of these outrages? Western Pennsylvania in 1794, as described by William Hogeland in his new book,The Whiskey Rebellion; George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty (Scribner, 2006).

Although both the book and its subject have "whiskey" in their titles, anyone looking for insights into the methods or products of frontier distillers will be disappointed. What you will find instead is a refreshingly unsentimental look at the origins of the United States, an entity that truly began, not with the Revolution of 1776, but on March 4, 1789, when the Constitution took effect and created the federal state.

The new nation found itself deep in debt. Most of its notes were held by wealthy merchants in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. One of the wealthiest, Robert Morris, also just happened to have been Superintendent of Finance for the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Some might call him America's first and most amoral war profiteer, others might call him a patriot. He may have been both.

Appointed by President Washington to the newly-created post of Treasury Secretary in 1789, Morris declined, suggesting that his protégé Alexander Hamilton be given the job instead.

As Hogeland's narrative begins, Hamilton, in his capacity as Treasury Secretary and one of President Washington's closest advisors, sets out to serve the private interests of Morris, himself, and the rest of what Hogeland calls the "creditor class." One tool he employs is the U.S. Army.

It is tempting to compare Hamilton and Washington's show of force to other horrific invasions, because that is what it was like: a foreign invader from a strange and distant land, come to force the locals into submission; an overlord putting down a rebellion in one of his outlying territories.

The difference is, not one rebel was put to the sword. Washington, Hamilton and the rest of the Federalists wanted to play just rough enough to show everybody who was boss. As the struggle between a central government and an insurgent region it had the makings of a real civil war, but the insurgency was suppressed quickly and with minimal bloodshed. Seventy years later, the nation would not be so lucky.

As you read Hogeland's book, it instantly becomes apparent that this is not the American History you learned in high school. This is American History for grown-ups. There aren't just two sides to every issue, there are dozens, involving many different actors with nuanced and often fluid motives.

Washington, for instance, believes deeply in the rule of law, but also hopes to pump up the value of his western land holdings and, besides that, his back hurts. Hugh Henry Brackenridge wants to be a player in the new republic, but he also wants to stay alive. Herman Husband is a visionary and, oh yeah, he's nuts.

These are just a few of the characters who do their best, and sometimes their worst, in tough situations in a wild place where a crude, un-oaked rye whiskey is one of life's few consolations.

Of course, it isn't difficult to tell a rip-snorting yarn when there is cussin', fightin' and hard drinkin' going on. Hogeland's greater achievement is making a disquisition of various public finance theories a page-turner as well.

History is at its driest when the writer tries to stay neutral. Hogeland is anything but and his narrative is compelling as a result. One should not be neutral, but one should be fair, and Hogeland is. Many of the event's participants wrote extensively about it and Hogeland generally lets them speak for themselves. His end notes, which are more than just the customary references to sources, are worth reading. In them, he even cites alternative interpretations, generously allowing those who might take exception to his theories the last word.

In the end, rumors of the approaching army are enough to break the Rebellion's back. Though many of the locals are handled roughly, no one dies. Hogeland ends his book with what appears to be a decisive victory for Hamilton and the Federalists.

What Hogeland does not address is what happened next. That is not a criticism, you have to stop somewhere. But the fact is that much of what Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists built, including the excise tax itself, was undone by Jefferson just a few years later, and even more so by Jackson, after whom the nation reached something close to the balance between economic justice and laissez faire capitalism that we have today.

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July 15, 2006

I shudder each time this administration justifies another expansion of its executive powers because "we are at war."

John Yoo, one of the chief authors of the Bush administration's anti-terror legal doctrines (now a law professor), has criticized the Supreme Court's recent Hamdan ruling as another example of the "imperial judiciary" sticking its nose where it doesn't belong, referring specifically to matters of "war."

If wartime status, declared not by a legislature but by an executive, can be used by that executive branch to justify virtually any expansion of its powers, then the incentive to maintain a permanent state of war will be irresistible.

The United States is unique, even among the world's democracies, in our system of checks and balances. This administration is doing everything it can to undermine that system and using fear of terrorism as its main wedge to get otherwise reasonable people to look the other way.

The Bush administration is run by a cabal of statists posing as conservatives.

Speaking of "labels", it might be fair to ask, what am I?

The terms "liberal" and "conservative" have different meanings in different political cultures, even today. Both terms came into common use in Middle Europe in the last third of the 19th century, with "conservative" meaning supporters of the divine right of kings and "liberal" meaning proponents of democracy, rule of law and associated values. In recent times, the right has been very effective at defining "liberal" as synonymous with "leftist."

When I was growing up my father, who always has considered himself to be a conservative, defined conservatives as supporters of the status quo and liberals as people who want to change things. Liberals, he felt, were people who thought change generally made things better and conservatives were people who thought change generally made things worse.

Today, for better or worse, the self-described conservatives have captured the labelmaker, to the point where it has become almost as simple as "conservative-good, liberal-bad," and anything done in the name of conservatism or by someone who self-identifies as a conservative is rationalized as conservative, therefore good, even when it flies in the face of traditional conservative principles.

Also in my youth, many self-identified conservatives were racial bigots, which strongly alienated me from that term.

On the other hand, I equate "leftist" with at least a leaning toward socialism and have found from experience that many on the so-called "left" are at least generally sympathetic to socialism, which I find odious. My problem with socialism is the big role of government. That is where I link up with libertarianism; I have a strong bias in favor of small government. Where I break ranks with libertarianism is what I call the "selfish prick factor."

I guess labels are useful, except I've never been able to find one that works for me.

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July 6, 2006

The question was posed, "Why are we here?"

My answer:

I think we're here to see what we can make of it. I don't believe there is any grand design or that there is some superior entity that has us as part of its "plan." I just think we're here, we have what we have with which to work, and the objective is to get as much out of it as you can, whatever that means to you.

To me, part of that is living in concert, rather than in conflict, with my fellow beings as much as possible, but that's a personal choice. I think it's nicer that way.

Does what we're experiencing here ultimately add up to something after we die? Maybe. I don't consider disbelief in God incompatible with belief in an afterlife. There is also whatever mark we leave behind.

There is so much to enjoy and enjoying it is so enjoyable, why can't the enjoyment of life be an end in itself? It's a beautiful day today, temperatures in the high 70s with low humidity. I'm inside but there's a nice breeze blowing in through the open window. It's sunny, the trees are green, the lilies are starting to bloom, the neighborhood girls are showing a lot of skin, I have many bottles of bourbon, I have new tires and a new suspension on my Buick, my soccer team has a wonderful new stadium.

Life is good.

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July 3, 2006

The American legal system, like American democracy itself, is not perfect, but it is the best system of its kind the world has yet known. Something to ponder on our nation's birthday. The greatness of the United States is not embodied in noble-sounding platitudes and it is not in our military might, it is in our many institutions that uphold the rule of law over the rule of the momentarily-powerful.

Many people credit capitalism for America's success, while others argue that it is our greatest fault. I believe that capitalism, or "free enterprise," as we understand and experience it in the United States, works as well as it does because we have enacted laws to temper its unrestricted exercise with a dollop or two of social justice. Capitalism without the rule of law -- so-called laissez faire capitalism -- is an exercise in winner-take-all brutality that leads to luxury and security for a minuscule few, slavery and misery for most. Capitalism without law is tyranny, a specific type of tyranny known as oligarchy.

Some people contend that the present situation still overly favors capital while others believe social justice (a term I am using for want of a better one) is unduly favored. That we have achieved a reasonably commodious balance between the two is a blessing and one of the great strengths of our republic. Perhaps more important is that we have mechanisms for adjusting the balance as necessary.

When compared even with the world's other ostensibly capitalist economies, the United States remains the easiest place for the ambitious entrepreneur to launch and build a new enterprise. If you think small businesses are too heavily regulated in the United States, try to start one in France or Sweden. Conversely, one of the failings of many of Asia's rapidly expanding economies has been the weak to non-existent protection of contract and property rights caused by weak or corrupt judiciaries.

One of the principles that makes this system work as well as it does is that citizens must respect the law and the institutions that are empowered to ensure its fair application. This is why it bothers me so much when people try to demonize and undermine the U.S. Supreme Court, or courts generally.

Have I ever broken a law? I never said I was perfect, that doesn't change the principle. The main point of that principle is that we can't pick and choose when it comes to law, just ignore the ones we don't like and rationalize away their violation. Every type of lawbreaker uses that argument, that the law is unfair as it applies to them and that is why they violated it. Our prisons are full of innocent men and women. Just ask them.

We celebrate the Fourth of July because it is the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but if all that had amounted to was one elite declaring its nominal independence from another, without a commitment to values such as equality of opportunity, it would have meant nothing to the history of humanity. A better date to celebrate might be March 4, the date (in 1789) when the Constitution took effect and created a federal state bound together by a common body of laws.

A better date symbolically, perhaps, but I'd still rather have the cookouts and fireworks in July.

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June 12, 2006

The Chicago Fire, our Major League Soccer team, has a new home: Toyota Park in the southwest suburb of Bridgeview, Illinois.

Chicago's official motto is "city in a garden." The official motto of Toyota Park could be "stadium in an industrial park." That quip, though true, doesn't do either the stadium or its setting justice. From the upper deck seats you have a great view of the downtown skyline and can watch planes landing at nearby Midway. The stadium itself is fabulous, just perfect. A great place to watch soccer.

As the match progressed, I jotted down a few of the new stadium's "firsts."

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June 2, 2006

The cost of health care in America is high and getting higher. It is now at sixteen percent of Gross Domestic Product and still growing. Many efforts have been made to control health care costs, but nothing seems to work.

A company here in Chicago has, seemingly by accident, stumbled on an interesting solution. Although it has no actual effect on health care costs, it may affect how people feel about paying them.

The company is Resurrection Health Care, a not-for-profit Catholic organization sponsored by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and the Sisters of the Resurrection. It operates numerous hospitals and physician offices in the Chicago area.

My doctor practices in one of their offices and when the bills come, they say, "make check payable to 'Resurrection Services.'"

Every time I write one of those checks, I think to myself, "no matter how much they charge, it can't be too much for 'Resurrection Services.'

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May 26, 2006

American democracy is 230 years old and yet, at every level, our governments are run by crooks and idiots. We all know this, so why does anybody believe we have the authority to run around the world telling other people how to govern themselves? It's preposterous, of course, but what can we expect from a government run by crooks and idiots.

There are crooks and idiots in the private sector too, but is the proportion the same? It seems like crooks and idiots are more in evidence in government. I wish I could figure out a way for us, as an electorate, to elect fewer crooks and idiots. There's a worthwhile project for the long weekend.

Don't get me wrong. I don't mean to suggest that everyone in government is either a crook or an idiot. Many are both.

For this week, the private sector may be leading, though government certainly is holding its own.

Examples abound. Here in Chicago, we finished watching our former governor get convicted of massive corruption, just in time for a new high level city corruption trial to begin. Meanwhile, in the private sector, yesterday Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay were convicted for their parts in the Enron mess.

Today, it was revealed that septuagenarian Christian evangelist Pat Robertson claims that when he isn't raining damnation down on everyone who disagrees with him, he is in the gym leg pressing up to 2,000 pounds. I'm not making this up, it's on his web site.

Pithy conclusion? I don't know anymore. It's crazy. Then there's the whole immigration thing. How bad must the rest of the world be that everyone wants to come here?

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May 16, 2006

Pictures of college girls, in T-shirts and panties, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, their flesh decorated with graffiti images of penises, among other things, in some cases simulating sex acts. Click here if you like that sort of thing.

If you want to know what I'm talking about without viewing the pictures, I will explain. Yesterday, the website posted photographs of a hazing ritual performed on first year members of the Northwestern University women's soccer team.

This is interesting to people for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it is pictures of college girls, in T-shirts and panties, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, their flesh decorated with graffiti images of penises, among other things, in some cases simulating sex acts.

Second, Northwestern University (located just north of Chicago in the city of Evanston) is considered an elite school with very high academic requirements, even for its student-athletes. This isn't just girls gone wild, this is smart girls gone wild.

Third, Northwestern has an official policy forbidding hazing of any kind. Consequently, the University immediately suspended all activities of the women's soccer team, pending an investigation. (As it happens, the team's only official activities right now are training-related. The spring season is over and the fall season doesn't start for several months.)

In case you are still debating whether or not to click on the links above, I will tell you that the pictures are pretty mild. They fall well short of the last big hazing news story to hit the Chicago area, in which suburban high school Senior girls doused blindfolded Junior girls with pig guts, among other things.

There are two points I would like to make:

(1) Young people especially should realize that everything today is photographed and everything that is photographed gets posted on the web. If the photographs are of teenage girls in their underwear, you can be certain that they will receive wide distribution and a lot of attention. If you are smart enough to get into Northwestern, you should have figured this out for yourself.

(2) Although hazing is officially and correctly banned by most high schools and colleges, many adults who ought to know better turn a blind eye to it, either because they think it's harmless fun or because they believe it actually does some good. It isn't and it doesn't.

Hazing is a vestige of the first stages of military training. This is not hard to see, since most team sports and the training for them have military roots. In the service, the purpose of various acts of degradation and humiliation in the initial stages of training is to break down the individual's personality so it can be reconstructed in the manner most suitable for a soldier. In particular, it conditions new fighters to obey orders without hesitation. In battle, this conditioning can save your life.

Is it also beneficial for a soccer player? Like most vestiges, modern hazing is so far removed from its origins that none of the benefits remain. The virtues usually cited, like group cohesion, can be achieved a lot more successfully in many other ways. If it has any benefit at all, a very dubious proposition, it is in the general category of "that which does not kill me makes me stronger." For a few kids, it might be just the thing to help them get over some fears and inhibitions, but for too many others it reinforces harmful feelings of self-hatred and self-doubt. In some, it encourages sadistic impulses that are better off suppressed.

I'm sure there will be commentators who will decry the sensationalizing of stories such as this. They'll say it should be left up to school officials and parents. If these stories help people realize both (1) and (2) above, then publicizing them is a good thing.

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May 11, 2006

My sole religious belief is that, in heaven, you still have to eat vegetables, but they taste like bacon.

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May 2, 2006

This is a story about how public schools are failing their students. It may seem like an odd story, but it involves me directly, so I can vouch for all of the facts.

I have been receiving telephone calls for Cesear for years, first from Roberto Clemente Community Academy High School and just today from Gordon S. Hubbard High School. Both schools are here in Chicago and part of the Chicago Public Schools system.

When Cesear was at Clemente he had attendance problems, as most of the calls were related to him missing class that day. Today's call was from a recruiter for the U.S. Marines, who is assigned to Hubbard. He wanted to know "how Cesear has been doing since graducation."

I did not speak to the Marine representative today, as my answering machine picked up the call, but I took many of the calls for Cesear from Clemente over the years. In each case, I explained to the caller that there was no one here by that name, that it was a wrong number, and that the number they called has been my number since 1987, so it is doubtful that it ever was Cesear's correct number.

So, each time there was some need to contact Cesear or his family by phone, someone dutifully pulled up his records and made the me. In no instance did they ever reach Cesear at that number, nor could they be bothered to find out his correct number nor, at a minimum, to delete the clearly incorrect number from the database. People followed procedures and "did their jobs" according to the book, but to the extent that it may have been important to actually reach this student by phone, it never happened and nobody cared.

Cesear apparently did okay. At least his record says he graduated but, then, we already know how accurate his record is.

To date, Cesear has not called for his messages.

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May 1, 2006

I find Bill O'Reilly hysterical. I enjoy Stephen Colbert, but O'Reilly is his own best parodist. My favorite bit is when Bill badgers a guest--even one who agrees with him--to make the exact point Bill wants him or her to make. His immigration debate with Ann Coulter was priceless.

Commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly used to make me furious, until I figured out they are supposed to be funny. When you get yourself in the right frame of mind (and now we know how Rush does it), they are a hoot.

I haven't managed yet to do the same thing with Sean Hannity, but I'm beginning to warm to the comedy stylings of Lou Dobbs and I can't tell you how much I am looking forward to press secretary Tony Snow.

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April 11, 2006

Maxwell Street blues musician and singer Piano C. Red (real name James Wheeler), was shot on Thursday evening, March 23, in a robbery at a gas station in South Holland, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. He was selling socks and towels out of the trunk of his car, a Chevy Corsica, when he was approached by two young men. They demanded his car keys. He refused. One of them then shot him in the back. He is now paralyzed from the waist down.

Red, who is 72, is well regarded by area musicians and once played with Count Basie. A picture and more detailed biography is here. Red is like a lot of local bluesmen. The fact that he never made much money at it and is still hustling to make a buck (he is a cab driver too) takes nothing away from his talent or accomplishments. Red is the real deal.

I know Red from Maxwell Street. Whenever we asked him to be part of a protest or other event, he would be there. He would also be there just about any other time when he could expect a crowd. It is a chance to play before an audience that gets his music in a place where he feels at home.

Here is my favorite Piano C. Red memory.

In June of 1998, on Sunday of that year's Chicago Blues Festival, the Maxwell Street Historic Preservation Coalition (MSHPC), of which I was then president, produced a small event at the new Maxwell St. Market, which is on Canal at Roosevelt. The event is supposed to start at 9:00 AM and my sole job is to MC it. I get there a little after 9:00, figuring they will already be playing. They aren't. Red is there as are Jimmie Lee Robinson and Dan Marmer, the guy from the Coalition who organized the event. Iceman Robinson and another guitar player, Daryl the bass player, some other MSHPC people, and Red's two assistants are all milling around, and I eventually determine that the drummer has not shown up and Red is trying to line-up a different drummer. Red's van is blocked in so I volunteer to drive. This has taken a very leisurely amount of time. I lived in Kentucky for nine years and know what the Southern pace is like. This is what it is like. The process just described has taken about an hour.

As Red and I are leaving, Jimmie Lee and the rest of the guys start to set up. They have picked a spot of sidewalk near the Port-o-Lets, about 50 yards north of Roosevelt on Canal. They will play without a drummer, which Jimmie Lee usually does anyway. Daryl, I quickly learn, is the only one who knows anything about any of the equipment. Dan is having trouble with the generator but Daryl knows it has a cutoff valve at the gas tank that has to be opened before it will run. He gets it going. Janelle (another person from the Coalition) has a tour getting ready to walk over to old Maxwell Street. They are gathering over by the White Palace Grill. She has about 15 people. Red waits with them as I walk to my car, parked at the top of the Roosevelt Road bridge.

The market, of course, is very busy on this warm, late Spring Sunday, so it is impossible to tell who has come for our event and who has come for the market. We distributed about 3,000 flyers at Blues Fest. If people came, enjoyed the Market, and maybe went over to Maxwell Street on their own, I would be happy with that and consider the event a success. If they got a tour or heard some of the propaganda we mixed in with the music, all the better.

Red and I drive in my Geo Tracker to 87th Street, around Halsted, where we cram Michael, the replacement drummer, and his kit into the back of my tiny car. Again, the pace is very Southern. Michael is half asleep. Now we have to go to Cicero and 70-something to get a head for the bass drum, but Guitar Center is closed so we go to Sunkist Music at 63rd and Pulaski. Michael doesn't have enough money for the head so Red pays, explaining to Michael how the debt will gradually be deducted from his band earnings. Then we stop to pick up some refreshments, Old Grand-Dad and Sprite for Red and me. I don't know what Michael is drinking, but the stop is his idea. I'm trying to ignore the clock, knowing I am helpless to change the pace at which events are unfolding, but it is after 11:00 AM.

Still, I am enjoying the ride. It is a beautiful, sunny and comfortable Sunday morning. The company is good and the conversation is about music, instruments, what this or that neighborhood used to be like, etc.

When we get back to Canal Street, Jimmie Lee, Iceman and the other two guys are playing and there is a nice crowd listening. One of Red's guys, with him for 25 years, skillfully works the crowd for donations, using a chained and padlocked tackle box with two small holes cut into its plastic top as the 'hat.' This is the band's money, not MSHPC.

As the original ending time for our event approaches, Red is just about to begin his set with the full band. A fuse is seemingly blown in the old Fender amp head they're using as a PA. Someone is dispatched to find another fuse. I am dispatched for more refreshments. The fuse doesn't do the trick and the amp head is relegated to propping Michael's bass drum so it doesn't slide forward on the pavement. Some loose chunks of concrete are also pressed into service for that purpose. The microphone gets run through the bass amp, with limited success, but at least the whole band is now playing. There are no takers for the scheduled noon tour of old Maxwell Street. I am able to make the Maxwell Street pitch a couple of times. I get some good responses back from the crowd and feel a little like an old Maxwell Street preacher, which I guess I am, at least for those few minutes.

It is now well past the original noon end time, but so what? Certainly the band doesn't care about a schedule. They have been oblivious to it all along. They came to play and make some money from the 'hat,' so as long as there are people there they will keep playing. They sound good despite the technical deficiencies. Jimmie Lee is working the crowd to great success, selling quite a few of his CDs. He looks pleased as he sucks on an Old Style, his arm around a pretty young fan. This is the real deal, Maxwell Street busking as it always was, including the warm sun and the crowd and the whole scene, with the Chicago skyline in the background. I overhear someone say "we don't need to go to the blues festival, we have it here," and they're right.

The band plays a few numbers and decides to take a break. I talk over the loudspeakers about the cause, then join Red in the van. Red tells me about his brief recording career with Chess and his philosophy of life. No one (including me) thinks about the fact that the generator is still humming away. After the break, the band starts up again, after some more fruitless messing around with the broken PA amp and trying to run the vocals microphone through Red's piano amp, rather than Daryl's bass amp, also to no avail. Almost as soon as they begin, everything abruptly goes silent. The generator has run out of gasoline. An assistant is dispatched for more. (There is a station just around the corner.) The nozzle on the gas can leaks badly so Daryl removes it, but passes it to me to pour because he says his hands shake too much. I guess you don't need steady hands to play bass. I get most of it into the tank and Daryl wipes off the excess with a rag. The generator is soon humming away again.

The crowds start to thin out about 3:00 PM and the band calls it a day. I help a little with the load-out, especially with the generator, and head out myself. I go home, take a nap, go to a friend's house for the Bulls game, then to Rosa's Lounge for more blues. A good day.

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March 29, 2006

Every time some new action is justified "because we are at war," a voice in my head says, "no, we're not."

The Constitution of the United States gives Congress alone the authority to declare war. It is a simple statement, without elaboration, in Section 8: "The Congress shall have power to…declare war."

The last time we had a congressional declaration of war was at the onset of World War II.

The legal basis for military action in lieu of such a declaration is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says the president, as commander-in-chief of the military, may "recognize a state of war" initiated against the United States, which allows him to send U.S. troops into battle without a congressional declaration. It is on that authority that we have entered every 'war' since WWII, including the present 'war' in Iraq.

Still, absent a congressional declaration, isn't the Iraq 'war' just a euphemism, like the 'war' on drugs or, for that matter, the 'war' on terror, and not a 'real' war, which can only be declared by Congress? If anyone should know it would be Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said in Freiberg, Switzerland, on March 8 that, "War is war, and it has never been the case that when you captured a combatant you have to give them a jury trial in your civil courts."

Fair enough, but when is a war not a war? If a presidentially-declared war is war for all legal and practical purposes, then doesn't that gut the constitution? What, then, is the point of a congressional declaration of war or of the Constitution's assignment of that role to Congress alone? There would appear to be none.

Scalia, the famous champion of "original intent," would be a good person to answer these questions. Why did the framers give only Congress the power to declare war, and what harm is done in ignoring their intent by the current practice?

The justification for allowing the commander-in-chief to engage U.S. troops in hostilities absent a congressional declaration is expedience in the best sense of the word. If we are being attacked, it makes no sense to withhold our response until Congress deliberates and makes a declaration of war. But the 'war' in Iraq has just entered its fourth year. Vietnam went on for eight. In both cases, Congress had ample time to take the quotations marks off and make the 'war' a war as the Constitution seems to require. Presumably they didn't because it doesn't matter, but perhaps it should, especially since we are now engaged in a 'war' that could last for decades.

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March 28, 2006

This is a continuation of yesterday's post about lying weasels who claim to be Christians.

Yesterday I wrote about pharmacists who object to dispensing certain prescription drugs, typically contraceptives, on religious grounds. The debate of the moment centers on the so-called morning-after pill, or emergency contraceptive, which some argue is a type of chemical abortion. This claim is itself debatable, as many contend that the morning-after pill is no different from any other contraceptive.

Not that a resolution of that debate would resolve the issue, as the Roman Catholic Church forbids the use of contraception of any kind, even condoms. In other words, the pharmacist who relies on Roman Catholic teachings to justify a refusal to dispense the morning-after pill, but who routinely dispenses birth control pills, is picking and choosing already, a religion unto herself.

But my immediate complaint is not with any of that. It is with lying weasels, like the Peoria pharmacist in yesterday's report, who accomplish their resistance through deceit, much like the lying weasel "Christian" fundamentalists pushing Intelligent Design in the Kitzmiller case.

How can you promote a moral principle through such unprincipled tactics?

Back in the late-1960s, early-1970s I was active in the movement against the Vietnam War. During that time, I was instructed in the principles of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is the act of breaking an unjust law in order to call attention to its injustice, so that the law will be overturned. When a pharmacist who believes a certain pharmaceutical is morally wrong refuses to dispense that product, he or she is engaging in civil disobedience.

But one of the hallowed principles of civil disobedience is that you have to perform it out in the open, making it clear what you are doing and why, and you have to be willing to accept the consequences. That last--acceptance of the consequences--is the part many activists in many movements have struggled with, but without that the act has no moral weight. That is how one demonstrates the "courage of your convictions," not through deception and fraud.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is often cited as the main proponent of civil disobedience in our time. His inspiration was Gandhi. One of the most enduring essays on the subject was written by Henry David Thoreau in 1848-49. Entitled simply "Civil Disobedience," it is conveniently available on the web.

Even a person who sympathizes with the Peoria pharmacist's dilemma must admit that it is hard to support a person whose principled stand is fundamentally undermined by her unprincipled tactics. Lame is what that is, lame and cowardly.

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March 27, 2006

Here comes another report about lying weasels who claim to be Christians.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that the Illinois Board of Pharmacy has filed a formal complaint against a downstate pharmacist, alleging that she tried to skirt state rules in January by telling a customer that the morning-after pill was not available, when it was.

Illinois law requires pharmacies that sell contraceptives, including the morning-after pill, to dispense them without delay when presented with a valid prescription. The law was enacted after several pharmacists refused to dispense contraceptives, citing religious objections.

The pharmacist charged in the current case did not return the Tribune's calls seeking comment. She faces a fine and possible license suspension.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich says that pharmacists opposed to dispensing the morning-after pill have told state officials they plan to use similar tactics to prevent other women from obtaining the pill. The governor is proposing that signs be posted in all pharmacies to explain what options customers have in buying contraceptives. The signs will include a phone number that customers can call to make complaints or obtain additional information.

Let's not even get into the whole question of whether or not pharmacists should be permitted to pick and choose what prescriptions they will fill, based on their religious beliefs. My simple conclusion about this incident is that if you have to be dishonest, to the point of violating the rules of your profession and lying to your patients, in order to adhere to the tenets of your religion, then there is something seriously twisted about the way you are interpreting what that religion requires.

I'm not a big religion guy, but I seem to remember "Thou shalt not lie," or something, somewhere. Command? Commandment? Did I dream that?

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March 23, 2006

I had a meeting today in Deerfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, about 25 miles north of the city. When I got into the car after the meeting, I decided I was thirsty. I resolved to stop at the first convenient gas station or Walgreens, somewhere I could run in and get a bottle of water quickly.

As it happened, the first really likely place I saw was a small, strip-mall liquor store, Otis & Lee Liquors, 1026 Waukegan Road, in the adjacent suburb of Northbrook. “That will work,” I thought to myself. I went in, grabbed a bottle of water and, naturally, walked over to check out the American whiskey section.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the practice of trolling liquor stores to find old dusty bottles of rare whiskey at cheap prices, here is the deal. Generally speaking, whiskey has an unlimited shelf life. As long as the seal stays reasonably tight, it will never spoil. Retailers know this so they don't worry very much about clearing out old stock. It can sit there until somebody buys it. Chain stores generally will clear out old stock, but small independents sometimes don't. Yes, it can sit there for 30 years or more, frequently bearing the same price it bore 30 years ago.

In other cases, a retailer or distributor will find a case or some loose bottles that have been forgotten in a warehouse. When they're discovered, they put them on the shelf and hope someone buys them. Some people hunt for these "finds" as a pasttime, others like me just take a few minutes to look whenever they're in an unfamiliar store. That's what I did tonight.

The first thing that caught my eye was the distinctive Stitzel-Weller barrel bottle, but with an unfamiliar yellow label. It read "Weller’s Antique Reserve, Original Barrel Proof." It was, in fact, 110 proof and 10 years old. The price was $29.99.


But now I was looking with more intensity. I spotted an Old Fitzgerald decanter, then another and another and another, ten in all (counting the Weller). One of the Fitzgerald decanters had a broken seal and a loose stopper, so I left it. (It’s there if you want it.) The Weller is missing its tax stamp (residue shows it had one at one time) and someone seems to have deliberately obscured the dates on two of the Fitzgeralds, but the rest were made in 1964 and 1967, and bottled in 1970, 73 and 74. My guess would be that the other three are from that same basic time frame.

A friend who has the Monticello tells me it was made Fall, 1962, bottled Fall, 1968.

The details are below.

This story has a couple of morals. First, when you have a chance to buy Stitzel-Weller whiskey at just about any price, you should. When you have a chance to buy it for between 10.99 and 29.99, you should say a prayer and kiss the proprietor too.

Second, even if you don’t make a habit of combing liquor stores for these sorts of finds (I don't), when you’re in one anyway, take a look. It just takes a couple of minutes and you never know what you might find.

Third, there is still terrific stuff out there, and even some terrific values. Never stop looking.

Though I did not myself kiss the proprietor, I did ask him where the bottles came from. He said a friend found them in his basement. I did not question him further.

You may notice that most of the bottles say "Stitzel-Weller Distillery," but the ones bottled in 1973 and 1974 say "Old Fitzgerald Distillery." The VanWinkle family sold the company in 1972, so it looks like that's when the name of the distillery officially changed.

The details:

Old Fitzgerald
Monticello Decanter

Tax stamp is intact but someone deliberately obscured the dates, both “Fall” Season.
Bottled in Bond, 4/5 Quart, 6-years-old
Distilled and Bottled by Stitzel Weller Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky, DSP. KY. 16

Old Fitzgerald
“Old Ironsides” Decanter

Tax stamp is intact but someone deliberately obscured the dates, both “Fall” Season.
Bottled in Bond, 4/5 Quart, 6-years-old
Distilled and Bottled by Stitzel Weller Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky, DSP. KY. 16

Old Fitzgerald
“Golden Bough” Decanter

(Illustration, literally, of a partridge in a pear tree)
Tax stamp is intact, made Fall 1964, bottled Fall 1970
Bottled in Bond, 4/5 Quart, 6-years-old
Distilled and Bottled by Stitzel Weller Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky, DSP. KY. 16
10.99 (three)

Old Fitzgerald
“Hospitality” Decanter

(Illustration of vines surrounding a crest, crossed by a key, with a small fleur de lis in the upper right corner)
Tax stamp is intact, made Spring 1967, bottled Fall 1973
Bottled in Bond, 4/5 Quart, 6-years-old
Distilled and Bottled by Old Fitzgerald Distillery, Inc., Louisville, Kentucky, DSP. KY. 16
10.99 (two)

Old Fitzgerald
“Hospitality” Decanter

Same as above except made Fall 1967, bottled Spring 1974

Weller’s Antique Reserve
Original Barrel Proof

Tax stamp has been removed but foil capsule is intact.
Gold-veined barrel bottle
110 proof, 4/5 Quart, 10 years old
Distilled and Bottled by Stitzel Weller Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky

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March 8, 2006

To simplify the argument I made here last Friday, science can reasonably be defined as the pursuit of non-supernatural explanations for observed phenomena.

As matters of definition, then, supernatural explanations come under the heading of "religion" while non-supernatural explanations come under the heading of "science." Introduce supernatural explanations into "science" and it ceases to be science. It becomes something else.

People who make the Intelligent Design argument seem to honestly not understand why God can't be "part" of science. They think our protests that He cannot are arbitrary and bigoted. They are not. If I have a red room and paint one wall green, it ceases to be a red room. It may be a red and green room now, but it is no longer a red room. A science class that includes supernatural explanations may be a "science and religion" class, but it is no longer a science class, because content about supernatural causes is outside the realm of science.

You don't need science to propose a supernatural explanation for various phenomena. Humans have been doing that for thousands of years. For most religious people, as well as most scientists (since most of them are not atheists) science helps explain how God created the world and everything in it. In that, the prevailing view since the advent of scientific inquiry, science and religion coexist in perfect harmony, each in its own exclusive sphere.

Scientific explanations cannot be modified to conform to religious teachings. Religious teachers are free to teach to those results however they choose, but the science is what it is. If the Creation Science/Intelligent Design advocates are ever successful, the result will be the replacement of science by religion, not the creation of a more religion-friendly science.

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March 7, 2006

Sports talk radio last night was full of fat guys vowing to take off weight, inspired by Kirby Puckett's death. Interesting story, Puckett's. I especially like the part about the kid from the projects who paid his way through college selling copies of a book he wrote entitled The Day I Met Kirby Puckett. Too bad the guy lost his way so badly in his post-baseball life.

Puckett is the second-youngest person to die already a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Only Lou Gehrig, at 37, was younger.

Losing weight is a good message to get, but I speculate that he probably had untreated and undiagnosed high blood pressure. Losing weight is hard. Getting your blood pressure tested, and treating it if it's too high, is really easy. Blood pressure tests are important because the first symptom of high blood pressure could be dropping dead of a massive stroke at age 45.

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March 3, 2006

Use God in an argument if you want a short discussion and an easy victory.

God is the ultimate trump card. No matter what the argument, God always wins. The other side lays out a hypothesis, observations, tests, and conclusions. You say "God" and you win, every time.

Try it yourself. It's easy. Think of a question. Why can birds fly? Why is winter cold? Why is your boyfriend so moody? Isn't God the simplest, easiest and most satisfying answer to all of those questions?

If God is on the table as a possible explanation for a natural phenomenon, or anything else, God will always win. How can God not win? There is no better explanation for anything than God. How did life begin? God! How did everything begin? God! Why do living things change? God! Why is the sky blue? God!

God, God, God.

Science doesn't stand a chance.

Having God on your side is like playing rock-paper-scissors, except in this version rock tears paper to shreds while still smashing scissors to bits. Rock always wins. Rock versus rock? Well, then the One True Rock defeats the False Rock, pretty much by definition, but it always leaves a big mess.

Just to put my own cards on the table, I believe "God" is a human construct and no such entity exists outside the imagination of human beings. "Higher power," maybe, who can say? But "God" as He is normally described and envisioned, a God who requires worship, hears prayers, and intervenes supernaturally in the world? I don't think so. To put a label on it, I am a religion-friendly atheist. People who need religion are entitled to it. I have no problem with that. People can practice their religion as long as they don't hurt anybody else, a condition to which the religious often do not adhere, but that is not a terminal fault.

I like science but not in lieu of God. My unbelief in God is not a result of my belief in science. In fact, get this: Even though I don't believe in God, and I like science, if made to choose between God and science, I would choose God.

How can that be? How can it not?

I would choose God because science is no match for God. In a battle between God and science--even a non-existent God--science must concede. Batman versus Spiderman, maybe you have something to discuss. Superman versus Spiderman, no contest.

Science's complete capitulation is the best argument for why God should never be on the table when you are trying to study and explain natural phenomena. Since science can't trump God, ever, if God is available as a possible explanation for a natural phenomena, God will always be the explanation. God will always win, hands down. Where God begins, scientific inquiry has to stop. Science has to fold its tent. When God is on the table, science is done, a pointless enterprise. If God is dealt a hand, God takes the pot, always. If forced to compete, God and science cannot coexist because science is no match for God. Never has been, never will be.

If belief in science could compete with belief in God then God (as a construct) would cease to exist, but that is not the case. Science is no match for God either in theory ("if God exists, then…") or reality (made to choose, most people choose God).

Science is no threat to God, but God is a threat to science.

Before you put yourself down for God in that fight, think about this: Maybe you don't like the prevailing scientific explanations for the development of species, the beginning of the universe, or why some people don't work quite right, but science also has produced useful things such as the internal combustion engine, modern medicine, computers and so forth. If for you it's God-or-science and you can't have both, then it's got to be God, but why can't you have both?

I believe you can. Furthermore, I believe it is vital that you demand both.

You can love and worship God and still enjoy the benefits of science, but only if you keep God out of science's business. If you don't, then God will destroy science. If people are forced to choose between God and science, the majority will choose God and science will die. The only hope for science--and we who love its contributions to our comfortable lifestyle--is for science and God to coexist peacefully. For that to happen, God has to give science a sphere in which to operate. Science cannot be asked to compete with God because science is unable to compete with God. If science is forced to compete, science will lose, and we lose science and its benefits.

Don't think it can happen? Human history is not a record of uninterrupted progress.

If you let God destroy science, God won't be any greater--God is already omnipotent--but the death of science may take with it such good things as clean water, electric lights and year-round tomatoes.

Science, by the way, did not pick this fight and never would. Most scientists, most American scientists, at least, believe in God. No, the people who tell you to choose are the turf-protecting priesthood, and by "priests" I don't mean just those who use that term. Science doesn't ask you to choose. It knows better.

The people who want you to choose between God and science are really asking you to choose the 15th century over the 21st. We Godless can't protect toaster strudel all by ourselves. We need the Godly to join this fight. Demand God and science. Your next jet airplane trip to Cancun may depend on it.

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February 28, 2006

Today is Mardi Gras. In French, Mardi means 'Tuesday' and Gras means 'fat,' hence 'Fat Tuesday,' the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This is worth noting because many people call the entire celebration, which lasts about two weeks, 'Mardi Gras' although, at least technically, that term applies to today only.

The celebration leading up to 'Mardi Gras' is called 'Carnival,' which is itself a combination of two Latin words meaning 'meat' and 'to remove,' a reference to Lent's traditional deprivation. Like many Christian observances, carnival predates Christianity by centuries, maybe eons.

The last day before Lent begins also is known as 'Shrove Tuesday,' a much less celebratory appellation. 'Shrove' is the past tense of 'shrive,' which is the act of confessing sins and receiving absolution for them, another good way to prepare for the Lenten season.

This is all a little bit French and very Catholic, two things that make it foreign to most Americans. Although pre-Lenten carnivals are common in Latin America and even some other parts of the U. S. Gulf Coast, they are most associated in American minds with New Orleans. Growing up Catholic, as I did, we always had a little Mardi Gras, even in Ohio. The conservative German Catholic stock from which I arose didn't cotton to exuberance of any kind, but a little self-indulgence before Lent's deprivations commenced seemed appropriate. I seem to recall some brightly colored cupcakes. Since most protestant denominations don't observe Lent, Catholics 'get' Mardi Gras a little better, even if it's not directly a part of our tradition.

The story of this first post-Katrina Mardi Gras is a natural for the news media. The CBS Evening News yesterday did a feature on Katrina-related humor in New Orleans, as demonstrated by everything from parade floats to souvenir shop t-shirts. A lot of the gags featured Mayor Nagin's "Chocolate City," which may ultimately join "The Big Easy" and "The City That Care Forgot" as standard nicknames for New Orleans. As politically tone-deaf as it seemed at the time, "Chocolate City" could yet become a positive touchstone for the new New Orleans.

Unfortunately, like being French and Catholic, being chocolate is another thing that separates New Orleans from most Americans. These many ways in which New Orleans is 'other' to many Americans have as much to do with the ongoing response to Katrina, or lack thereof, as the city's sea level shortcomings.

This is, as much as anything, a meditation on why I care about New Orleans a lot, more I think than many other people. I've always enjoyed its European-ness, its Catholic-ness and, yes, its chocolate-ness.

"Politics makes strange bedfellows," it has always been said. Add religion and race to the mix and they only get stranger. Although many on the Protestant Right have made common cause with conservative Jews on Israel and conservative Catholics on abortion, gay marriage and other social issues; anti-Semitism and anti-Catholic prejudice still exist among many protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals. My Catholic background makes me comfortable in places like New Orleans where Catholicism is the dominant brand of Christianity.

Although I am white, I've also always been comfortable in "Chocolate" New Orleans, as I am in the more "Chocolate" parts of Chicago. The more I think about New Orleans as "Chocolate City," the more I like everything that term suggests, from the creative culinary possibilities of chocolate in a city that loves to cook and eat as much as New Orleans does, to the presumably intended statement about the lovely milk-chocolate skin tone of the city's mixed race population, which is also often called "café au lait."

Although he said it in full back-peddle, damage control mode, Mayor Nagin was right to point out that chocolate, as it is normally enjoyed, i.e., as milk chocolate, is a mixture of white (milk) and black (cocoa). That is, at any rate, how I like to regard the metaphor, as inclusive and more nearly balanced than the usually quoted nationwide 5:1 ratio of whites to blacks. I like it as a metaphor for what we can do together, as equals. The combination already has given us jazz and zydeco, Cajun and Creole cuisine, unique art and literature, and so much of everything else that has made visiting New Orleans such a pleasure.

Yet if political expediency can't quite erase old hatreds toward Jews and Catholics, what chance is there for true reconciliation between white and black, in New Orleans or anywhere? The "Chocolate City" I see isn't just a good place for blacks, it's a good place for blacks and whites to be together, equal, each relishing what the other has to offer. There are people of each skin tone who like that idea and people of each skin tone who don't. Count me among the ones who do, who think "Chocolate City" sounds mighty tasty and appealing.

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February 14, 2006

Rarely would I characterize any judicial decision as a "great read," but Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District is that exception. My compliments to Judge John E. Jones III.

(The link above opens an Adobe Acrobat [PDF] file of the memorandum decision, which was issued 12/20/05. Right click on the link and choose "save target as" to download the PDF rather than opening it. Click here if you need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader.)

If perhaps the name "Kitzmiller" doesn't ring a bell, this is the case of the school district in tiny Dover, Pennsylvania (it's near York), that tried to introduce "Intelligent Design" into the system's 9th grade biology classes. As the decision correctly finds, "Intelligent Design" is merely the latest name for "Scientific Creationism," which was itself just another name for "Biblical Creationism."

Not to spoil the ending for you, but Judge Jones rules that the school board's "Intelligent Design" (ID) Policy "is unconstitutional pursuant to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution," so, naturally, I agree with the ruling, but more than that, Judge Jones does a terrific job of tracing the roots of "ID" back to the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the 19th century and exposing the truly despicable tactics its proponents today use to foist this pseudo-science onto the public.

If it seems to get off to a slow start, with a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo about jurisdiction and parties, just skip ahead to page 7 and "C. Federal Jurisprudential Legal Landscape."

What struck me most of all was what lying weasels these supposed "Christians" turn out to be. Does your God really want you to lie and cheat to advance His cause? Really? Whenever I read something like this, the so-called "Christians" remind me of nothing so much as Islamic extremists. People who are determined to force their beliefs on others are all pretty much the same, regardless of the content of those beliefs. Although the Christian Fundamentalist extremists have so far stopped short of terrorism, many of their other tactics are the same and the sheer dishonesty of them is what gets me the most. Any religion that requires its adherents to lie like that doesn't have much to recommend it.

I have read a fair amount about this issue but have never understood so clearly that not only is ID not science, it represents a deliberate attempt to fundamentally undermine the principles of scientific inquiry. It becomes clear that these most extreme Christians share extreme Islam's affection for the Middle Ages. If you think that sounds too strong, read the opinion.

Like radical Islam, which many argue is a corruption of true Islam and actually anti-Islamic, I believe the same can be said of the proponents of ID. They are not just bad Christians (i.e., lying weasels) but anti-Christians, whose beliefs bear no resemblance to the actual tenets of Christianity.

And just in case you assume that Judge John E. Jones III must be some liberal "activist" judge, you may also want to read his biography. He was appointed to the Federal bench by George W. Bush in 2002.

This is why I genuinely do love the law and why the rule of law is probably the best thing we have going for us, the true cornerstone of our liberty.

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February 10, 2006

The University of Illinois student newspaper, the Daily Illini, published the Mohammed cartoons in its Thursday edition (i.e., yesterday). It is one of the only publications in the U.S. to do so. The Chicago Tribune says it isn't publishing them because "editors decided the images inaccurately depicted Islam as a violent religion, and that it was not necessary to print the cartoons in order to explain them to readers."

Do you think Cartoon Network might have something in development?

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February 9, 2006

A big news story this week has been the violent reaction in the Muslim world to publication in Denmark of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The rationale for soliciting and publishing the cartoons seems somewhat perverse. If their purpose was to promote reasoned discussion of relevant issues they have failed spectacularly.

Since any depiction of the Prophet is blasphemy, the actual content of the cartoons is irrelevant to the protestors. Since the content is irrelevant, one is entitled to question if they would be considered protected speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution, the legal basis for free speech protection in the United States. An argument can be made that they represent unprotected "fighting-words" and not protected speech.

The Fighting-Words Doctrine was first articulated in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942). Chaplinsky was convicted of violating a New Hampshire statute that prohibited offensive, insulting language directed toward persons in public places after he made several inflammatory comments to a city official. The Court, in upholding the statute as constitutional, wrote that:

    There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words - those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

Since Chaplinsky, the Court has reaffirmed the Fighting-Words Doctrine several times but has declined to uphold any convictions under it. Each mention of it has made its application narrower than the original statement. In Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), the Court concluded that speech which merely causes anger or outrage does not amount to fighting words. Such speech is protected unless the expression is "likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious intolerable evil that rises above mere inconvenience or annoyance."

In Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576 (1969), the Court again noted that fighting words must present an actual threat of immediate violence, not merely offensive content. Go here for more.

So, are the Mohammed cartoons protected speech or unprotected "fighting-words"?

The Danish newspaper that solicited and published the Mohammed cartoons did it as a kind of experiment in free speech. It might be interesting if a U.S. publication announced its intention to publish the cartoons and then invited the government to censor them under the Fighting-Words Doctrine. The news of the past week would go a long way toward proving that their publication presents "an actual threat of immediate violence."

What I expect (i.e., hope) the Court would rule is that while the mere depiction of Mohammed is blasphemy to a Muslim, and is virtually guaranteed to produce violence, the depictions themselves contain other content (i.e., criticism of Islam or commentary about its adherents) that is protected. Such an exercise would show what most students of the First Amendment believe, which is that the Fighting-Words Doctrine is interesting but toothless.

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February 5, 2006

Okay, maybe it is about something else, like the contemporary plague of excessive credulity. Why is it that so many people just accept as true anything they read or hear that supports their beliefs? They aren't skeptical, they don't check, and when they're proved wrong they aren't embarassed. The discrepancies in the Franklin quote seem harmless enough. Whether or not Franklin originated it, whether it was in 1755, 1759 or 1776, and whether it actually began "Those who would" instead of "They that can" seems to make little difference. The point is that you can't trade liberty for security and anyone who offers you such a deal is probably getting ready to deprive you of both.

But there seems to be a relationship between this and the James Frey incident. There seems to be a conspiracy between readers and "content producers" to stop worrying about "getting it right." Every raconteur jokes about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, but the line seems to have moved. "The Smoking Gun" web site wasn't the first to question the veracity of Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Much of it was implausible on its face. But a lot of people liked the message of self-help redemption. For some hard-to-grasp reason, the majority of readers did not find it fundamentally implausible that a guy with open wounds was seated on an airliner, or that he gave himself a root canal, or whatever else he supposedly did that was highly unlikely.

Personally, I had not heard of Frey nor of his book until "The Smoking Gun" thing broke and I learned most of the story from reading that article, which started with a litany of the claims they were about to refute. I live in the Midwest, not far from most of the places Frey's antics supposedly took place. My first thought was, why haven't I heard about this guy before now? If he actually did all of this stuff, this book wouldn't be the first we'd have heard about it. There would have to be at least a couple of local news stories, easy to find with a Google search. Of course, the publishers didn't need to do that Google search, because they knew all along the story was fiction.

As a writer, I sympathize with a guy grabbing his main chance to get published. Since it was revealed that Frey actually wrote the book as a novel, many have re-reviewed it in that light and found it damn good. The fact that he had to dishonestly position it as a memoir to get an audience says more about the publishing industry than it does about him. I can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing. In the past there have been "fake" non-fiction books, but they were done with a wink and a nudge. Everybody played this one straight, counting on cognitive dissonance to work its magic.

I know I probably trot out cognitive dissonance to explain too many things, but ever since I read a book about it 30 years ago I see it everywhere.

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February 4, 2006

Nothing seems to help a political discussion along better than a pithy quote from one of the founding fathers. The current debate about domestic wiretapping in the name of fighting terrorism has revived this warhorse from Benjamin Franklin: "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

We have all seen this quote a lot recently, and I have noticed some variation. "Those who would" instead of "They that can," and "to purchase" instead of "to obtain" being two examples.

So, I did a little research on the quote. When something is oft-quoted and some variation slips in, I like to see if I can find the original. If I can't find the original text easily, a quote that actually cites to the text is the next best thing.

Of the sources I checked, I got the most from Bartlett's, which provided the following version, plus the cite:

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Historical Review of Pennsylvania (1759)

That's what my copy of Bartlett's had. However, on the web I found an earlier (1919) edition of Bartlett's that has the same quote, verbatim, and the same attribution but also includes the following footnote:

"This sentence was much used in the Revolutionary period. It occurs even so early as November, 1755, in an answer by the Assembly of Pennsylvania to the Governor, and forms the motto of Franklin's 'Historical Review,' 1759, appearing also in the body of the work." -Frothingham: Rise of the Republic of the United States, p. 413.

Frothingham's book was published in 1910.

Senator John Sununu has the following on his web site:

In 1755, Benjamin Franklin observed that, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Note the capitalization and over-punctuation. So 18th century.

Although Sununu does, Frothingham does not seem to attribute the 1755 usage directly to Franklin and I'm not too tempted to believe Sununu researched his use scrupulously. My conclusion is that, as Frothingham writes, the sentence was "much used in the Revolutionary period" and came to be attributed to Franklin due to his use of it in that significant 1759 work. A friend of mine says the Franklin character says it in the musical "1776," which may account both for some of the variations and to some people believing it was first said or written in that year.

All of this is apropos of nothing except a little historical curiosity.

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January 31, 2006

Tonight in his State of the Union speech, President Bush once again promised "stonger levees" for the Gulf Coast. As I have written about here before, "stronger levees" is a dodge and it needs to be called out. "Stronger levees" is a formulation that does not promise what the American people should demand, which is a world class storm defense system for the Gulf Coast. "Stronger levees" is a promise of improvement only, not of ultimate performance, nor does it necessarily satisfy the actual need.

Stronger levees, by definition, are better than what the Gulf Coast had before, but that's all they are. Are they the answer? If "stronger levees" is all they're promising, probably "stronger levees" is all the Gulf Coast will get, even if what it needs is much more than that.

Since I'm suggesting decision-makers are knowingly courting another Katrina disaster you're entited to ask, why would anyone in their right mind do that? It's a roll of the dice, a gamble. Regardless of what is ultimately promised or built, they're betting nature will spare them another Katrina within their political lifetimes. Weigh that against the almost certain political suicide of suggesting that nothing less that the single greatest and most expensive public works project in American history might be needed to adequately protect the Gulf Coast.

Eventually, after these "stronger levees" are built, there will be analysis and predictions. We can hope their first tests will be with smaller storms, so their performance can be assessed. Maybe in the long run, "stronger levees" will equate to "world class storm defense," but I wouldn't bet a beach house on it.

I worry that the people promising "stronger levees" are aware of what they are and are not promising. I just hope the American people are too, and understand the difference.

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January 27, 2006

Back before Christmas, on December 6 to be exact, I got into it with some people about donating money, rather than food, to a food pantry and I wrote about it here.

Today I received a letter from my neighborhood hunger charity, Lakeview Pantry, that contains some more fuel for the fire. They wrote, "we have set a goal of collecting 1,000,000 pounds of food between April 2005 and March 2006. Every gift of $10 enables us to purchase 100 pounds of food. We have raised over 700,000 pounds to date."

They continue: "Financial donations also allow us to provide free second-hand clothing and household goods, a home delivery service for our clients who are homebound, and a case management program to assist our clients in obtaining services such as housing and employment. Between our two sites, we serve 1,800 people each month."

The gist of my argument is that if you give money to a hunger charity it goes a lot further than if you go to a supermarket and buy food, and then give that food to a hunger charity. I'd like to see you or me buy 100 pounds of food for $10. I have nothing against food stores and food manufacturers making a living. We don't have a choice about shopping there for our own food. But if you want to help a food pantry and you want the biggest bang for your buck, give them money, not food.

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January 24, 2006

I cannot be hanged in Fort Smith, AR.

I was in Fort Smith, Arkansas, this past weekend to conduct a whiskey tasting and give a little speech about bourbon and blues.

It was a lot of fun and very well received. Everyone was very nice and made a big fuss over me. The mayor proclaimed January 21, 2006 as "Charles Cowdery Day," gave me a ‘Key to the West’ plaque, and named me an honorary citizen of Fort Smith, but the best thing is the proclamation above. Fort Smith’s claim to fame is as the location of the legendary ‘Hanging Judge’ Judge Isaac C. Parker. From 1875 to 1896 he sentenced 160 persons to death for various offenses.

True story. After the event I am sitting in the hotel bar by myself, having a Wild Turkey before I go upstairs to bed. A man comes up to the bar to pay his tab. The bar is practically empty so I noticed him and a woman in a booth when I came in. After he finishes paying the bartender he looks over to me and says, "you look exactly like my father-in-law, so much so that I still can’t believe you’re not him. I really freaked out when I saw you come in, because that woman isn’t my wife." Bizarre on so many levels.

Should I have given him my pardon?

Another highlight of the trip came the next day. Fort Smith is on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. About 10 miles into Oklahoma is a place called Spiro Mounds, a site significant to the same Native American group that built the Cahokia Mounds here in Illinois, the Mississippians. I worked on exhibits for the Cahokia Interpretive Center about 20 years ago. A lot of research I did for that project included Spiro, so I was thrilled to go there. Because of heavy rain, walking the site itself was out of the question, and the museum was very small and didn’t have much to show. However, the archaeologist who runs the place was working the desk and the place was empty except for the two of us, so he gave me a two-hour seminar on the site and what they have figured out. It was great.

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January 18, 2006

Outrageous, or just confused?

The speech by Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, at a Martin Luther King Day event on Monday was not so much outrageous as confused. Here is AP's summary of the most controversial passage:

"During the speech Monday, Nagin, who is black, said that the hurricanes that hit the nation in quick succession were a sign of God's anger toward the United States and toward black communities, too, for their violence and infighting. He also said New Orleans has to be a mostly black city again because 'it's the way God wants it to be.'"

Offensive? Maybe. Outrageous? Probably. Confused? Definitely.

I saw the video and what I saw was a man reaching for eloquence and falling short. Maybe he was speaking off the cuff, articulating a partially formed idea. Maybe he was exhausted and not thinking straight. Maybe he, like most of us, should just keep his innermost thoughts to himself.

Even as he was speaking, it sounded like his words weren't coming out right, like what most people heard was not what he meant to say.

The political challenges before Nagin are enormous. "Rebuilding New Orleans" is not the hardest thing he has to do, "preventing another Katrina" is. The city probably could handle rebuilding by itself, but rebuilding cannot begin until decisions have been made about flood protection. Those aren't purely or even mostly local decisions. Any flood protection plan will require state and federal money, which means those other governments will have major roles, probably lead roles, in that decision-making. What is a mere mayor to do?

As you can track through some previous comments of mine on the subject, I argue that there is a number, an amount of how much it will cost to protect all of what used to be New Orleans from any future flood event. And there is another number, an amount of how much it will cost to protect all of a reconfigured New Orleans from any future flood event. "Reconfigured" means abandoning the areas that are most expensive to protect, hence the second number will be lower than the first. How much lower probably will--and probably should--dictate which plan is adopted. Maybe a case can be made for the higher number, but it is a tough case to make. Regardless, the discussion needs to be about those two numbers and all of the ramifications of adopting either approach. Everything else is a meaningless distraction.

That said, there aren't just two possible numbers but thousands, as in every number in between the high and low amounts.

Making it as easy as possible for all people who want to return to New Orleans to do so should be the top priority of city government. That means making it practical for people of all income strata to come home. New Orleans has already seen how desperately it needs its low wage workers, who need a way to get back, a place to live when they get there and possibly other support for getting their lives back on track. Does where they live necessarily have to be where they lived before? .

Making it practical for all people who want to return to do so is more important than preserving an African-American majority in New Orleans. It is also more important than achieving a European-American majority, as no doubt is the goal of some equally misguided souls. Perhaps Mayor Nagin was trying to say that if we rebuild New Orleans the right way, it will just naturally remain majority black, so that isn't something we have to worry about. Maybe that is what he meant by "God wants it." Like I said, he was reaching for an eloquence he couldn't quite grasp. I hope that is what he meant.

No displaced person has to return to New Orleans, but it will be nice if most people who want to return can find a realistic way to make that happen.

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January 17, 2006

I've written a couple of times here that we need to look to The Netherlands if we want to prevent "another Katrina." Well, a delegation led by Louisiana's governor is there now. Here's a good story about it, from the BBC.

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January 16, 2006


I remember as a child coming into possession of some small plastic statues of the U.S. presidents. I think that's what it was. A little statue of something. What I remembered today, after seeing a similar object, was that the package for that long-ago toy had boasted it was "hand-painted." Sure enough, it bore the obvious imperfections that proved the claim. Even then, at a young age, my first thought was disbelief. How could what I knew to be a cheap toy be hand-painted? I don't know how old I was, but old enough to have some sense of jobs and pay and the value of different kinds of work.

My second thought was what a crappy job that must be, hand-painting those stupid little statues for what could not have been any kind of money.

At that stage in toy technology (we're talking 40+ years ago) they could still have people paint them for less than some automated solution. Since such products always identify the country of origin, I knew the painters weren't here. I felt badly for them.

Am I trying to claim some early, instinctive solidarity with the oppressed workers of the world? I don't think so. It just popped up today, as such memories do, when I noticed that a similar toy had a similar imperfection. I guess someone is still doing it. It's probably still a shitty job, but now I know there probably are even worse jobs in that person's society.

Another bad job that is not the worst job in the world, but still pretty bad, is the job of painting the "original oil paintings" that sell for $59 every weekend at a Holiday Inn somewhere in the suburbs. Some are playfully called "Starving Artist" Art Sales, and that much is true. A friend of mine told me about when he was a starving art student, he and his friends would make money by working for minimum wage at these "painting factories," where they would be placed at easels with a painting to copy. They probably weren't paid minimum wage per se, but the piecework equivalent, if there is such a thing. They weren't paid much.

Since you can find everything on the web, I searched "sofa size oil paintings" and found Art, offering "oil paintings, portraits and reproductions." Want a Paul Cezanne, painted on canvas with oil paint, by someone not Paul Cezanne? Prices start at $145 for a 16" x 20". Remember: "Each of our professional quality grade oil painting is an investment."

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January 13, 2006

I haven't read Carl Sandburg's poem Chicago in a long time. I happened to read it just now. It was first published in 1916, 90 years ago, and it still seems modern and fresh and, most of all, true. Still true, most of it, though perhaps not literally. The stockyards are gone, but the Board of Trade is still here.

True, and no longer protected by copyright, so I can share it with you here.

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,

Building, breaking, rebuilding,

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,


Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

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January 12, 2006

Back on September 21, 2005, I wrote about Marshall Field's here in Chicago having its name changed to Macy's and how the same fate befell an old client of mine, Lazarus in Columbus, Ohio, several years ago. Just now it occurred to me that the store which is now called Macy's did better than my former employer, Byer & Bowman Advertising, which is now a parking lot.

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January 11, 2006

Q: Charles, just for clarification, what are the rules for the use of the term "bourbon"? It is not a legal rule that only that stuff made in Kentucky can be called bourbon, is it?

A: The federal regulations are as follows.

27 CFR 5.22 (b)(1)(i) "Bourbon whisky," "rye whisky," "wheat whisky," "malt whisky," or "rye malt whisky" is whisky produced at not exceeding 160 proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored at not more than 125 proof in charred new oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.

No mention of Kentucky. Must be made in USA, though. Hope this is helpful.

Q: One more thing. Is this statement true? "The malted barley releases its sugars much more easily than the corn. This is how it gets the fermentation process going. I believe all the distilleries in the U.S. add some malted barley to the mash." True?

The discussion was about whether malted barley is a standard ingredient in Bourbon.

A: Malted barley has been used to make beer since the beginning of time because the malting process (i.e., the germination of the seed) produces an enzyme that converts starches into sugars. You can't ferment starches, only sugars, so all grains require this conversion before fermentation can occur. Cooking also helps. Any grain can be malted, but only barley is routinely malted and malted barley is readily available everywhere beer is made, because it's the essential ingredient. I'm guessing there are some other reasons why malted barley is the preferred source for this enzyme, as opposed to say malted wheat, but I can't say exactly what they are.

American whiskey makers routinely use a small amount of malted barley in their mashes expressly for this purpose. Nowadays, some also use commercially-produced enzymes to affect a faster or more complete conversion. A typical bourbon mash is 75 percent corn, 15 percent rye and 10 percent malted barley. They are milled separately then combined (with water) in the cooker. Corn is added first and cooked at the highest temperature. The temperature is reduced before the rye is added, then reduced again for the barley.

Fritz Maytag makes Old Potrero from 100 percent malted rye, and some other micro-distillers are using other formulas, but all of the major American whiskey producers use a small amount of malted barley as described above so, yes, malted barley is a standard ingredient in bourbon.

Q: Is there a law that states that ONLY Kentucky is allowed to use its name on the label in conjunction with the word bourbon, i.e., there can never be a label that says "Virginia Bourbon"?

I've never seen any law stating this, but it is widely believed.

A: The only applicable laws that I know of involve basic truth in labeling. You can't call something "Kentucky bourbon" if it was made in Georgia. As for your example, there is in fact "Virginia Bourbon." It is called Virginia Gentleman and it has been around since the 1930s. It isn't widely distributed but I can buy it here in Chicago.

Virginia Gentleman does not call its product "Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey." It says just "Straight Bourbon Whiskey."

It doesn't, but could it legally say, "Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey"? Virginia Gentleman may be a special case. Ever since the company moved from Reston to Fredericksburg in 1988, they have been buying bulk whiskey from Kentucky, redistilling it and aging it there. Virginia is on the label, obviously. It's in the name, but it's not in the product description. If the product was 100 percent made-in-Virginia and met the other requirements for straight bourbon, could it be called "Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey"? I don't know why not, but I'm checking around.

Bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. The bourbon industry in Illinois, centered around Peoria, once rivaled that of Kentucky. In the past, by which I mean as recently as the 1960s, there have been distilleries in Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and several other states that made bourbon although, obviously, they couldn't call it "Kentucky bourbon."

Distillers outside the United States can make something they call "bourbon" but it cannot be sold here under that name. This is a matter of treaty, i.e., we won't try to sell them American Cognac and they won't try to sell us French Bourbon.

As for straightening out these misconceptions, I find a lot of people will give me very fierce arguments about some of these issues, even though they have no supporting facts, like a lot of other bullshit things people believe. "Cognitive Dissonance" is what psychologists call it.

I hope this is helpful.

Q: Someone was pretty definite that it couldn't be called Virginia Bourbon (and wasn't) but couldn't produce any documentation that said it was a legal rule. I'm hard pressed to believe that the Federal Government would create or enforce such a rule.

A: I've searched Title 27 (the federal codified regs) and the word "Kentucky" does not appear, nor does the word "Tennessee." It may be some uncodified agency reg involving label approval.

Kentucky might have such a rule, but that would only be enforceable in Kentucky and subject to a pretty convincing Commerce Clause challenge, I believe. I'll check around.

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January 5, 2006

Doctors said Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is being kept in a medically induced coma. "It seems to be working so well for the American president, Prime Minister Sharon thought he'd try it," said a government spokesman.

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The Chuck Cowdery Blog 2005

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