Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Atheist's Christmas in the Bronx

Even though my relatives and I were atheist Jews in a predominantly Christian country, I rarely felt as if I was out of the mainstream. Mom, Dad, and Nanny were just as American as anybody else, although maybe just a little louder. OK, a lot louder.

Up until the time I was six, I even imagined that I believed — as much as any fundy kid did — in Santa Claus. I had already dismissed the idea of god, because it just didn’t make any sense. But Santa Claus was different. I mean, the guy was all over the TV screen. He prattled on and on about good conduct with Pinky Lee and Rootie Kazootie, paid surprise visits on cowboys and spacemen and cartoon animals, and even joked snidely about Mrs. Claus with Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason. From the comfort of my living-room, I'd actually seen him ride down Broadway in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; every kid in New York knew that he was on the way to his big throne in the world's most famous department store. And he never said, "Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas — except for atheist Jews." He greeted us all, boys and girls of every persuasion. Santa's sole criterion for toy-distribution was a kid's behavior, not his heritage.

Mom, who was always a sucker for family togetherness as depicted in Norman Rockwell illustrations, encouraged my belief. She made a small bow to Chanukah by giving us chocolate gelt, pieces of candy money wrapped in "gold;" sometimes we even lit the menorah. But her obvious opinion, one which we kids shared, was that Chanukah couldn't hold a candle to Christmas. If it had been entirely up to her, we would have all gathered together like a perfect television family, to sing carols and drink eggnog under the mistletoe. Santa Claus was coming to town, and our household was on his itinerary.

Dad went along with her, but only because he didn't have the energy to fight. As a mailman, he worked particularly hard during the holidays when the post office was flooded with thousands of cards from those “meshuga goyim.” I think he reluctantly enjoyed the message of peace on earth, goodwill to men: "Do me something, but that Jesus must have been a real mensch. He was a Jew, d'ja know that?"

Still, Dad could never resist reminding us that we were strangers in a strange land.

"If some fat Christian in a red suit ever snuck up on my grandparents during the night, they would have thought it was a pogrom. But go ahead and believe what you wanna believe. Just remember, Santa Claus is poor this year."

In our house, we never had a Christmas tree. A few families in the community had Chanukah bushes, but not us. Dad hated Nature, and complained constantly that Mom's snake plants were stealing his air. He was sure that bringing a whole tree into the apartment would make it impossible for us to breathe. His main objection, though, was that it would be too much trouble.

"And who's gonna put it together? You?"

"There's nothing to put together, Dad. It's a tree."

"Listen, Sonny Boy, I work hard all day. I don't need to be monkeying around with all those momzer lights and doodads and that shiny stringy stuff—what do the goyim call it?—and having to remember to water the damn thing and not knock it over when I wake up in the middle of the night to pish. You want a tree, move to the forest."

Mom, who took on more and more of a "Babes in Toyland" persona the closer we got to the holidays, who walked around the apartment singing Hit Parade carols like "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," would have loved having a Christmas tree. And she probably could have prevailed easily over Dad if she'd insisted. But she worried about how she could smuggle it in without the neighbors seeing.

"Mom," I'd reason, "who cares? You buy ham and bacon at the store all the time, and we never go to shul."

"A Christmas tree is different."

"What's different about it?"

"Well, bacon is not about Jesus. But a Christmas tree ... that's a very, very Christian thing. It's a whole big megillah about stuff we don't believe in. Mrs. Tannenbaum downstairs would have a conniption if she saw us. I'll hang a stocking and we'll put out a little table for Santa to leave toys on. Nobody has to know."

And that's what she always did. On Christmas Eve, she'd tape two of her nylons, one for Risa and one for me, to the window of our bedroom. We had no chimneys in our project, which worried me. But Mom swore that Santa would ring the doorbell once we kids were asleep, and that he'd give all our toys to her. It never occurred to me to ask why we bothered going through the whole rigmarole with the stocking if he was just going to show up with the stuff at our door like an overweight version of the Seltzer Man.

What I did think to challenge, however, was the plethora of Santas. Everywhere I looked, there he was. He chatted with millions of children in every single department store in New York City. Mom's explanation, which worked for a few years, was that the guy kept running back and forth across the street between Macy's and Gimbel's, stopping this relay only occasionally to take the subway uptown to the Bronx for a stint at Alexander's. And, she added, when he wasn't holding court in some toy department, he was hopping from street corner to street corner to ring a bell for the Salvation Army, or racing to a TV studio to sit for a few minutes with Arthur Godfrey.

But by the time I was six, I was already well on the road to skepticism. I tallied up all the Clauses and thought: How can this be?

It was Nanny who came up with an intricate Santa Claus Classification System, an organizational hierarchy that sounded reasonable. She explained that the real, honest-to-goodness Santa Claus was the one at Macy's, except during the week she had a falling-out with the store because it had run out of My Sin perfume, during which time the Genuine Article had moved briefly to Gimbel's. He was also the one who appeared on prime-time television shows, as long as the star was somebody she liked.

"Oh, yeah," Nanny said, "the Jack Benny Santa Claus is definitely the real one."

"But who's at Macy's while he's on TV?"

"He puts up a sign: Out to Dinner. What, you don't think he has a nice supper every night, with that belly?"

"But if he was on with Jack Benny," I asked, "when did he eat?"

"Always with you it's questions. Listen, they gave him a tongue sandwich and a cup of red Jell-O backstage."

"So that's what happened when he visited Ed Sullivan, too?"

"No, no, use your head. That was an Actor. The real Santa Claus is gonna go on with that shmo? What are you talking?"

"What about the Santa Claus at Alexander's?"

"A Substitute. Santa has a big family, they all look like him. Y'know, like me and my sisters. His brothers go to all the stores, the managers never know the difference."

"Oh, so the one at Klein's is also a substitute, right?"

"Klein's? Feh? That one's a Faker. You'll sit on his lap, he'll try to sell you some shmatta. They're gonna get the real Santa Claus when they can't even clean their bathrooms properly? Who fills your head with such nonsense?"

"So what about the guys who ring the bells?"

"Helpers. Santa gives them a couple of bucks and they work for him."

"But they all look just like him."

"Yeah, so what? Santa's dumb? He advertises to hire, and it says they have to be fat. Except that skinny zhlub standing there by the subway entrance with his beard falling off. Listen, stop hocking me with Santa Claus and help me pick out a Chanukah present for your cousin Marty."

It was a lot of work using Nanny's elaborate taxonomy, and sorting each Santa into his proper slot nearly drove me nuts. But I was good at puzzles and games, and enjoyed the challenge of figuring out who was who. The Santa who had posed for the Coke ad in Life Magazine was, obviously, the Genuine Article; the one who had posed for Pepsi was an Actor. Canada Dry Ginger Ale's Santa was an acceptable Substitute, particularly when I'd had an upset stomach one day, but 7-Up's was a blatant Faker if I ever saw one.

* * *
Regardless of who stood in for Santa on other occasions, I knew that he, himself, was gonna be the one to show up with the loot. That Christmas Eve when I was six, my sister and I were ushered to sleep in a state of near-delirium. Mom had been unusually Christmas-y all night, coyly crooning a medley of the great Yuletide standards written by Jews: "White Christmas," "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire," and her own version of a Jerome Kern classic:
They asked me how I knew
Santa Claus was true.
I of course replied,
"Santa has to hide —
Toys get in your eyes."
Even Dad joined in the festive spirit, using a lit cigarette to conduct Mom. My sister, who was only a year and a half old, had caught the excitement, and kept screaming "Santa Claus, Santa Claus," a mantra that eventually conked her out in mid-shout. Shortly thereafter, she was nestled all snug in her bed, dreaming, no doubt, of sugar plums, even though no one in my family had any idea what they were.

But I stayed wide awake, now and then ducking under the covers to check my glow-in-the-dark watch, a practical Chanukah gift I had received from an uncle with connections in the jewelry business. A half-hour eternity must have passed while I waited and waited and waited for the sound of the doorbell announcing Santa's arrival.

Mom peeked her head into our room. "You kids asleep?" she whispered.

I had recently learned that my fake snoring fooled no one, so I just lay there, perfectly still. Mom and Dad tiptoed quietly in. Mom was frequently subject to fits of giddiness, and was evidently in the throes of one. She couldn't stop tittering. Dad banged his knee on the little table they'd put in the center of the room, dropped what sounded like a 20-megaton toy, and yelled out


Stifled snickering from Mom, who tried unsuccessfully to turn serious. "Did it break, Hon?"

"How the hell do I know? It's wrapped."

"I mean the table. It sounded like it went flying."

"Nah. It just slid along the floor a little."

"Do you think it scratched the wood?"

"It scratched my leg, I'll tell you that."

"You're not bleeding on the toys, are you?"

"Who cares about the goddamn toys, f'cryinoutloud? I'm wounded here. You and your farkockteh Christmas."

"Sha. Die kinder."

The next thing Dad did was to pull down a curtain rod on the window when he went to fill the stocking.

"Agghhh. Shit."

"Sha." Uncontrollable giggling. "What happened?"

"I got caught on the drapes."

"Don't break the window."

"Do you wanna do this, Babe? Do you wanna do this?"

Mom made a noise that sounded like she was being tickled unmercifully.

"Don't put a run in my stocking."

"Just tell me if you wanna do this. What are you, some secret shikseh, the Christmas maven? Owww. Goddamn radiator. It's hot, f'Chrissake! These chocolate cigarettes are gonna melt before the kids wake up."

"Gimme them. I'll put them on the table."

"What else goes in here?"

"The yo-yos and the sock puppets. Can you squoosh the puppets in?"

A ripping sound revealed that he couldn't.

"What'd you rip?"

"Your stocking. Relax."

Hysterical cackling. "That's a good stocking."

"Oh, and my knee wasn't a good knee?"

"Your knee, you can cover up. My stocking, everybody sees."

"So do me something. Next time we go out, you can wear the sock puppets. Are we done with this mishegoss?"

“I think the kids are up. Are you up?”

Aha! A trap. Mom expected me to say “no,” like I usually did. But I just lay there. Miraculously, I had managed to keep totally quiet through all the mayhem. I hoped I could resist the urge to get up right away and check whether all my new toys were still intact.

Mom whispered, "Well, I guess they’re sleeping. Gut yontif" — "Happy holiday" — and I could hear kissing. I hoped it was happening far enough way from my toys that they didn’t get any lovey-dovey cooties on them. I knew that in the morning, the room was going to look like it had been attacked by an army of Subs and Zhlubs, Helpers and Actors and Fakers. But as my parents walked through the door, both chuckling now, I lay there in my bed, a real atheist at last, proud of my discovery: Mom and Dad, and they alone, were the Genuine Article.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Puzzling Atheists #8: You Are Not Alone

Some alleged humanists have been whining that "agnostics, atheists, and other types of nontheists" feel "a little alone" during "the holiday." Why? "Because of its association with traditional religion." (Read this dumb story, if you don't believe me.)

Duh. It's fucking Christmas. It's not "associated" with traditional religion, it's a holiday rooted in religion. That holds true whether one celebrates Christ's birth, the coming of Mithra, a visit from a fat saint, the barbaric Maccabees' victory over civilized Hellenistic culture, the hedonistic pleasures of Saturn's rule, or the rebirth of the sun. Religion, religion, religion. Accept it, you numnuts.

In any case, most of the atheists I know don't need any excuse for having a damned good time. So I'm jumping the gun a little on Christmas to prove my point.

The following pictures can be combined, in groups of three, to form the names of eight characters whom we'll either hear from or about this Yuletide. The images are scattered around. Your job is to figure out which ones go with which. Some of the combinations are straightforward. For example: a picture of (1) a knee, (2) Tim Russert, and (3) a necktie could be combined to form: tie+knee+Tim = Tiny Tim. Other combinations require both your indulgence and your ability to hear yourself as you read aloud. For example: A picture of (1) a gull, (2) a can of Crisco, and (3) a wedding band could be combined to form Crisco+ring+gull = Criscoringull = Kris Kringle.

Please do NOT put your answers in a comment. Send them to me via email. Show your work. Anyone identifying six or more of the clued personae will get an honorable mention. That ought to make you feel less alone, huh?

[Honorable Mentions:
The team of Oobie Doobies - Ubi Dubium & Ubi Dubius (8 correct)
Laurie (8 correct)]

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Forget Remembering Hypatia

I love reading about history, but I hate most historical fiction.

For me, fictionalizing history is justified only under three circumstances:

  1. The book, story, or play is terrifically written, and great art in and of itself. It’s full of memorable characters, vivid scenes, and lip-smacking language. Examples: Shakespeare’s “History” and “Roman” plays, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
  2. The fictional work is set in a past time as an excuse for the author to examine universal ideas. Examples: The Name of the Rose, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
  3. The fictional work shines a new light on allegedly “familiar” history. Examples: Gore Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” series, Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” trilogy, Doctorow’s Ragtime.
Obviously, there’s quite a bit of overlap among those categories. All the works I mentioned could easily fit into any of the three. I have no idea where to place T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, or Scott’s Ivanhoe, or even the spy novels of Alan Furst. But I like them.

Remembering Hypatia, on the other hand, is a book best forgotten. It’s written in such a lackluster fashion, by an author (Brian Trent) with a tin ear for language, no sense of drama, nary a deep thought, and, basically, a clear disrespect for the intelligent reader. I’m not going to justify my broad assertions with details here; I don’t have time to waste on that drivel. You can either trust me on this, or you can say “fuck you” and vote for four more years of the same illiterate Bush literary policies.

Now a word about the future of Nonbelieving Literati. I’ve tried to nurture this “club” for about a year and a half, and I’ve enjoyed doing so. We’ve had some interesting inter-blog discussions, and some of us have read books that we might not have otherwise picked up. But I’m unable – and unwilling – to continue being the energy source behind the scenes. It would be great if one of the members could take the initiative and choose the next book, bearing in mind that it should be a work of real literature that will have wide interest, rather than a simple atheist screed. If it were up to me, which it’s most definitely not, I’d pick Huckleberry Finn, the title character of which is a real free thinker whose ideas soar above those of so-called “civilized” society. But perhaps the new leader will have a better idea; I’m game to start reading anything, although I can’t promise I’ll finish it.

As far as No More Hornets is concerned, I will continue to post, but only sporadically. Economic exigencies have made it impossible for me to spend as much time writing for my own – and, I hope, your – entertainment. I, for one, have never needed any convincing to be an atheist, and I’m no longer interested in reading, writing, or commenting on poorly limned arguments against the existence of any gods. We’ve heard them all, dozens of times. The concept of gods is so stupid as to be beneath contempt; I’m tired of pretending to have rational “debates” with idiots who think there’s a higher power somewhere. My little blog is not going to convince the smug theo-thugs that they’re wrong. I’m hoping that my writing ability, however good or bad it may be, can be put to better use than spewing nonsense to flit around the ether.

Thanks for visiting here. I look forward to amusing you again soon.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Cynic's Endorsement of Obama

I don’t mean to upstage Colin Powell or Warren Buffett or Matt Damon, but Barack Obama has now earned perhaps the most important endorsement of his political career. After a long and agonizing debate with myself, in which I’ve employed every dirty trick in the book to win me over, I’ve decided to end my campaign for the presidency. I’m releasing all my delegates as soon as I can find the key to their leg irons. In addition, I’ve decided to stop urging my readers to vote for a third-party candidate or, for those who can spell, to write in their own names. I hope that, like me, they’ll lend their support to Barack Obama.

I’m not completely happy about this decision. Obama strikes me as a spineless Machiavellian liar, not unlike almost every other person in Congress, particularly the current breed of Democrats who, for political expediency, chose not to try to impeach a pair of known dangerous criminals. As I’ve written here often, many of Obama’s ideas and policies make me gag. I’m disgusted by his intertwining of religion and politics, and I’m dead-set against faith-based initiatives, which he gleefully supports in flagrant disregard of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I’m still pissed off about his vote giving telecoms immunity against prosecutions for the spying they did on American citizens, acts which flout the Fourth Amendment. I’m frightened by his saber-rattling against Pakistan, an alleged “friend” of the United States, and his knee-jerk support, without any substantive explanation, of Georgia against Russia. I’m uncomfortable with his wishy-washy stands on abortion, gun control, and the death penalty. And I hate that he was one of the loudest voices in favor of the sucker-punch known as the “bailout.”

But, in the total picture, I think that Obama is at a moral level so far above John McCain as to make it imperative that he win. For one thing, a world increasingly at odds with – and afraid of – America will breathe a sigh of relief if the “Country First” candidates fail. The McCain/Palin campaign, with its constant thuggish chant of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.,” has been exploiting the worst crypto-fascist instincts in the jingoistic portion of our citizenry. And, while Obama’s overwhelming support among blacks is an indication of a kind of racism, it’s definitely not the same kind to which the Republicans have been playing. With its demonization of Obama, right-wing speechifying often sounds, to my ears anyway, like a veiled encouragement of lynch-mob mentality: He’s not one of us. They can throw hundreds of cute winks, adorable smiles, and thumbs-up gestures into that rhetoric; they can intone, over and over again, the falsely amiable my friends and the phonily homespun doggonit, youbetcha all they want; they still convey one message: He’s not one of us. The implication? Run him out of the neighborhood.

After eight years of monkey government, we clearly need a leader now. One of the best yardsticks we have for measuring a candidate’s ability to lead is the kind of campaign that he or she runs. McCain’s campaign seems as if it’s being conducted by people who have ADD; it lacks focus, and constantly shifts its tactics in reaction to the polls. Obama’s campaign, on the other hand, has stayed on-target since the first: It’s my time, now. That was the strategy when he announced his candidacy, and it hasn’t wavered. His people have been throwing around that extremely effective bullshit for almost two years, and it has resulted in unheard-of contributions – both from the usual favor-shoppers and the so-called “little guys.” A seeming nobody has successfully taken on the power brokers in both parties; can anyone doubt that he knows how to lead?

Normally, that kind of leadership, built on empty promises, would be chilling. Under usual circumstances, I’d look at it as potentially dangerous, the bedrock of a tyranny. But Obama’s calculatedly anti-divisive speeches have taken off some of the edge. With the exception of the Democrats’ usual bugbear, big business – and, of course, the obviously crooked and incompetent Bush administration – he singles out no group for scorn, blames no one for our two wars (three if you count the bogus “war on terror”), our economic fiasco, our catastrophic energy policies, and our infrastructure disasters. In America, big business can always take care of itself; it needs no help from presidents, or the congress, or my wallet. I don’t have to protect it through my vote. And the Bushies, as far as I’m concerned, should be brought to justice for their crimes against the state and humanity.

My final reason for throwing my admittedly trivial support behind Obama is the specter of a Sarah Palin presidency. John McCain’s age, in and of itself, doesn’t put me off. But, clearly, he has health issues; anyone who has watched his performances during the entire campaigning process can’t fail to be aware that he’s not as well as he should be. He dodders, hems and haws, spouts words that he has to weasel out of sometimes only hours later, exhibits an impatience that may well be generated by the slowly failing workings of his body. If he’s elected, and if he dies or becomes unable to perform the duties of his office (two possibilities that seem unnervingly likely to me), a proudly ignorant, unworldly, religious fundamentalist hockey mom will take over in the White House. She’ll bring her “go team” sports mindset with her. Everything she does will be filtered through her glib us-against-them vision. When issues arise that can’t be divided simplistically into two sides, she’ll do so anyway, and take one of them quicker than you can say “Joe Sixpack.” She wouldn’t be a president to inspire national trust at a time when we so badly need to feel that; she’d be a hometeam fanatic, rooting unreasonably for Americans who are “one of us.” I’m not – and neither are you. By definition, no freethinker is.

Do I agree with everything Obama says? Nope, not by a long shot. Do I believe that he’s honest? Hardly. Do I think that he’ll solve all our problems – or even most of them – in four years? Give me some credit for not being a moron.

But the alternative is so horrific, so unthinkable to me, that I will vote for him. I hope you will, too.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Solutions to Non-Existent Puzzles

  1. The Hindu drank the chai, the Christian had the iced tea, the Wiccan purchased the pumpkin frappuccino, the Muslim ordered the nonpork vanilla latte, and the Jew asked for just a free glass of water. Therefore, it was the atheist who stole the caramel macchiato.

  2. The two words are “numnuts” and “fuckwad.”

  3. 666 [number of hypostases of God (3) x total number of episodes of Highway to Heaven (111) x number of brachiosauruses that Noah invited onto the ark (2)]

  4. Graham, Robertson, and Warren are the liars.

  5. Buchanan = c. (homosexual); George W. Bush = b. (moron); Jefferson = f. (atheist); Kennedy = a. (womanizer); Madison = e. (midget); Obama = d. (Muslim terrorist liberal)

  6. SNEEZUS has a runny nose, PLEASUS is winking his left eye, TWEEZUS has no eyebrows, BREEZUS has unkempt hair, FREEZUS has an icicle hanging from his right earlobe, and CHEESUS is grinning. So, SQUEEZUS and JESUS are the two who are exactly the same.

  7. God [Note: Other solutions may be possible.]

  8. seven [one to notice that it’s dark, one to ask the Lord to show them the way to the light, one to collect donations to buy supplies for doing the Lord’s work, one to drive the truck that says “Jesus Loves You” to WalMart, one to preach the gospel to other shoppers, one to change the lightbulb, and one to shout “Hallelujah.”]

  9. In order, from left to right: Deuteronomy, Revelation, Leviticus, 1 Chronicles, Casey at the Bat, 2 Chronicles, Bambi, and Wasilla

  10. a. (none of the above)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Do Words Matter?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

George W. Bush
The only thing we have to fear is ... you know ... being scared. In other words, don’t be scared.

Nancy Pelosi
I've said it before and I'll say it again. In the new year, with a new Congress and a new president, fear will be off the table.

Barack Obama
Well, so here’s. What I would say. The only thing we have to fear. Is four more years. Of the same. Failed. Uh. Economic policy. And fear. Uh. Itself.

John McCain
The point is, the only thing we have to fear, my friends, is — as I found out years ago in a prison cell — fear itself.

Joe Biden
When I walked through the streets of Scranton, a senior citizen, an ex-millworker named Bob Pastaverde, living on social security and a small pension, he stopped me and he asked, “Senator Biden,” he asked, “do we have anything to fear?” And I told him, “No, Bob, nothing. The only thing we have to fear, you and me, is, as my mother would say, God bless her, fear itself.”

Sarah Palin
With a team of mavericks like John McCain and me, and also the strong American workers in those small towns just like Wasilla all over this great country of ours, also, well, doggone it, the only thing we have to be afraid of is just plain ol’ bein’ afraid, youbetcha.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Questions for Obama – or His Cheerleaders

Although, I would never even consider voting for the intolerable and untenable McCain/Palin ticket, I’m finding it extremely difficult to work up any enthusiasm for – or trust in – Obama/Biden. I’m trying to do so, though, because I live in Florida, where my vote will matter much more than it would if I still lived in New York.

Yes, the Democrats’ platitudes are articulated better than the Republicans’, and, superficially, sound far more appealing. But even a cursory reading of the transcript of last night’s tea party (only an idiot would refer to it as a “debate”) demonstrates that Obama’s words are just as meaningless and empty as McCain’s.

So the following, organized by category, are some questions that I’d like to hear Barack Obama answer. I even invite any reader who's a member of the "We Love Obama" fan club to stand in as his proxy, as long as you can provide some cogent evidence that you're speaking for him. Please don't waste your time telling me how bad McCain would be; I already know that.

Economic Policy

  • You’ve spoken a lot about wanting to “fix” our energy system. Can you tell us about five specific actions toward such an end that you would either take directly as president or push Congress to adopt? Can you give us an estimate of the cost of these actions, and give us particulars about where the money and manpower would come from? If any of these actions would require a degree of government administration and/or oversight, can you explain in detail how that would work?

  • Same questions about fixing our health care system. Again, please be specific rather than speaking in generalities.

  • Same questions about our educational system, with the same requirement for details.

  • How, exactly, do you plan to prevent lobbyists from influencing government actions? What do you mean when you refer to “special interests,” and can you name any interests that aren’t special?

  • You’ve said over and over again that you would cut taxes for the middle class, and raise taxes for those making more than $250,000. Are you talking about gross or net income, and how would you specially ensure that there isn’t a huge loophole disparity between those amounts? What kind of dollar figures are you talking about for those cuts and those raises, and what will be the end result in total revenues collected each year through federal taxes?
Constitutional Issues
  • How will you go about deciding whom to appoint as a Supreme Court justice, should a vacancy occur. Without speaking in vagaries, what criteria will you use?

  • Assuming that a pregnant woman is healthy both mentally and physically, at what point does her fetus’s potential future trump her right to choose? How would you justify, constitutionally, ever denying a woman the right to make decisions about processes occurring within her own body?

  • Can you explain, exactly, how the faith-based initiatives you’d propose would work? Can you also explain how such initiatives would not conflict with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

  • You voted to give telecoms immunity from prosecution after they had colluded in spying on American citizens. Can you explain how you justify that vote? If your answer is related in any way to realpolitik, can you clarify why that should take precedence over the Fourth Amendment?
Foreign Policy
  • What specific advantages in “the war on terror” do you think will be gained today by killing bin Laden? What specific advantages will be gained by capturing him and not killing him? Are there any other persons whom you would like to kill or capture? Why or why not?

  • Which countries do you currently consider America’s friends? Explain. Which countries would you like to bring into America’s circle of friends, and how would you do that? Explain. Which countries are most dangerous today to America, and how would you make them less dangerous? Using specific details, please explain that answer as well.

  • How do you envision an Iraqi democracy working? Can you support your ideas with examples drawn from Iraqi history, culture, or religious beliefs.

  • The Palestinians democratically empowered Hamas. Is that OK with you? Why or why not? Should the United States be more committed to worldwide democracy or worldwide freedom? Can you elaborate on the distinction between democracy and freedom?

  • Do you believe that all Jews worldwide are represented by Israel? If so, how? If not, then given that Israel is a quasi-theocratic state and not representative of an entire ethnic or religious group, how can you justify using the loaded phrases “never again” and “Holocaust” in statements supporting that country?

  • Do you agree that many of the problems in the 21st century world are caused by religious extremists? Why or why not? In what way are the beliefs of religious extremists different from the beliefs of other theists? What steps would you take to curb religious extremism around the world and in our own country?
Other Relevant Matters
  • Using as an example at least 25 votes during your years in the Senate, in what ways have you personally stood up to the Bush Administration? What was your own reasoning for casting those votes? Again, using as an example at least 10 votes during your years in the Senate, in what ways have you personally stood up to the majority of your own party? What was your own reasoning for casting those votes?

  • Under what circumstances would it be all right for a president to lie to, or mislead, the American public? If you answer “never,” then under what circumstances would it be all right for a presidential candidate to lie to, or mislead, the American public? If again you answer “never,” then can you explain your pro-FISA vote and your decision to bow out of the public campaign financing system, both of which you'd promised not to do.

  • As president, will you represent atheists as well as theists? If you agree to get advice from, and/or speak privately to, religious leaders, will you also seek advice from, and/or speak privately to, avowed atheists? Have you consulted on public policy with any representatives of atheist groups, or appeared at any atheist functions? If so, with whom, where, and when? What was your rationale for agreeing to appear at a public circus sponsored by Saddleback Church and hosted by its pastor, Rick Warren?

  • Whom are you thinking about for various cabinet and advisory positions, and whom are you considering for your presidential staff? Again, without speaking in vagaries, what criteria will you use to select these men and women?

  • Under what circumstances should a president seek evidence from experts rather than consulting opinion polls? Do you think the majority of the American people have ever held "wrong" opinions? What opinions are those, and why, in your view, were they wrong?
Those are 20 straight-talk opportunities. I’d be satisfied if Obama addressed himself to any four of these items — a mere 20% — in the next month. But I’ll bet he won’t. Any takers?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sarah Palin Haiku

Sarah’s running against the Democrat’s highfalutin eloquence by speakin’ in homespun haikus.
Maureen Dowd, "Sarah's Pompom Palaver"
The New York Times, October 5, 2008

So nice ta meetcha.
I heard a lot aboutcha.
Can I call ya “Joe”?

Are things bad or good?
I went to a soccer game
to find out from moms.

You know what I heard?
Fear about their investments.
“Goshdarnit,” I said.

Did I mention yet:
John McCain is a mav’rick.
I’m a mav’rick, too.

I’m from Wasilla,
in middle America!
It's right near Russia.

Some of my best friends
Are homos or Democrats.
Don’t let ‘em marry.

Global warming’s bad,
but don’t blame Americans.
It's Roe v. Wade's fault.

Corruption, darn it.
I saw that in the paper.
Don’t ask me which one.

Our third-grade students
are the strongest in the world.
Too bad they can’t vote.

Two years ago, there,
John McCain sounded a bell.
What a mav’rick, hey?

He carries that bell,
ringin’ it real loud for change
wherever he goes.

May I say something
more about bells and taxes?
Is that all right, Gwen?

If I had a bell,
I would never ring it for

And we must make sure
Eye-ran doesn't get a bell,
'cause they're not mav'ricks.

As for Israel?
I won’t second-guess my friends.
Jesus will do that.

Gen'ral Petraeus.
Have you ever heard of him?
Well, I have also.

I’ll say it again:
We are a team of mav’ricks.
I’m from Wasilla!

Just remember that.
Youbetcha, America.
Say it ain’t so, Joe.

Sometimes my eye hurts
from all this winkin’ I do.
Mav’rickin’ is hard.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Lend Me Your Earmarks: A Quiz

The 451-page bailout bill is loaded with earmarks. Earmarks are governmental gifts, either through the direct dispersal of funds or the granting of tax exemptions. Even our simplest bills are chock full of these little presents to companies, states, and groups of people.

In a more honest country, the insertion of earmarks would be seen for what it is: blackmail. A senator or representative says to his or her colleagues: “Gee, I’d really like to vote for the bill authorizing the funds needed to explode that asteroid hurtling towards Earth. But, golly, I can’t do so unless you let my friends in the toilet bowl industry get a tax break on their kids’ Halloween costumes.”

All of our congresspeople claim to despise earmarks. But the extortion continues. Why?

I think it's because references to earmarks permeate our culture. In the following quiz, for example, I’ve isolated ten products, services, places, or groups for whom earmarks were sneakily entered into the bailout bill. Your job is to correctly identify the earmark recipient in each quote. As an extra help, I’ve given the source of each item, plus the page number on which the earmark appears in the bill. (Warning: not all the earmarks in the bill are referred to in the exact same words I’ve used.)

Just one answer per comment, please. And no more than two answers in total per commenter.

  1. Bring me my earmarks of desire!
    (William Blake – p. 300. Sec. 503)

  2. If such as came for earmark, sir, went home shorn,
    Where is the wrong I did them?
    (Robert Browning – p. 295, Sec. 325)

  3. De Camptown earmark five miles long
    Oh doo dah day.
    (Stephen Foster – p. 290, Sec. 317)

  4. There’s nought, no doubt, so much the spirit calms
    As earmark and true religion.
    (George Gordon, Lord Byron – p. 279, Sec. 308)

  5. No one ever went broke in earmark underestimating the intelligence of the public.
    (Elsa Maxwell – p. 298, Sec. 502)

  6. In a cavern, in a canyon,
    Excavating for a earmark
    (Traditional – p. 280, Sec. 310 & 311)

  7. The earmark [2 words] is miles away,
    And the day is loud with voices speaking
    (Edna St. Vincent Millay – p. 289, Sec. 316)

  8. I could never tell for sure whether I was in America or Earmark.
    (Paul Theroux – p. 279, Sec. 309)

  9. One little, two little, three little earmarks
    (Traditional Children’s Song – p. 288, Sec. 314 & 315)

  10. She stood in tears among the alien earmark
    (John Keats – p. 182, Sec. 202)
I'm hoping you don't bail out on this quiz. So, I'm promising all correct answerers a tax exemption — as soon as I'm elected to Congress.

[Update (as of 10/06/08, 1:15 p.m. EDT): Fictional Treats from the Federal Treasury for — Gareth McCaughan (#1); DB (#3); yinyang (#4); yunshui (#5); Chicken Girl (#6); yinyang (#8); 1minionsopinion (#9); Gareth McCaughan (#10)]

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Not-So-Live Blogging the Debate

9:00 p.m.
Jim Lehrer greets the audience and explains the rules of the debate. Basically, he will ask questions and the candidates will then be free to talk about anything they choose in response. They lose points if they actually refer to the question posed. Obama and McCain step to their respective podiums. Jim Lehrer calls out “Hey, Exterminator, where are you?” The Exterminator enters with a mouthful of Good ‘n’ Plenty and says “Mffff mfffnfm mffn.”

9:01 p.m.:
Lehrer asks about the financial recovery plan. Both Obama and McCain are for and against it. The Exterminator pledges to help Main Street through this crisis, and also gives a shout-out to Elm Street, Oak Street, and Chestnut Drive. He reaches into his back pocket, pulls out his wallet, and shows the audience its contents: $5.67 and a snapshot of his cat who died in 1983. When asked to explain, he offers to split his funds with the American people and urges Obama and McCain to show “What’s in your wallet?” When neither of the other candidates take him up on his magnanimous offer, he looks at Lehrer through a piece of Saran Wrap and says “I’m for transparency.”

9:07 p.m.:
Lehrer urges the candidates to talk to one another about the recovery plan. Obama pulls up a chair and begins to chat with McCain, who rudely takes a phone call on his cell. The Exterminator tells a few jokes to himself and laughs uproariously.

9:13 p.m.:
Jim Lehrer asks the candidates if there are any “fundamental” differences between them on their reactions to the bailout plan. McCain points out that Obama is black, and Obama retaliates by stating that McCain is old. Then they trade made-up figures. The Exterminator demonstrates conclusively that he’s the only one on stage who’s wearing a Bugs Bunny tie.

9:16 p.m.:
Lehrer reminds the candidates that there’s a fiscal disaster happening and asks them what programs they would be willing to give up if they’re elected. The Exterminator unhesitatingly vows to stop spending the taxpayer’s money on repeats of The King of Queens. Obama says he’s willing to give up some programs, and then proves it by rattling off a string of initiatives that will apparently be paid for only by the richest 5% of Americans. McCain promises to cut wasteful spending, and immediately calls his real estate broker to put Obama’s and the Exterminator’s houses on the market.

9:40 p.m.:
The economic portion of the debate is over. Both Obama and McCain rush to get in touch with their accountants. The Exterminator bends over to pick up a dime he dropped. Lehrer polls the audience to see which candidate should be given the Miss Congeniality award, and McCain loses.

9:41 p.m.:
Lehrer asks the candidates about the “lessons of Iraq.” McCain praises the surge and sings “You Light Up My Life” to David Petreus. Obama wonders why we haven’t yet killed bin Laden, and carefully avoids saying “Osama.” The Exterminator calls for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from the United States.

9:44 p.m.:
McCain raises a number of points and Obama responds by praising Joe Biden and the surge. McCain and Obama get into an argument about the difference between strategy and tactics, and Lehrer suggests that they play a game of chess while millions of Americans watch. The Exterminator counts his money again.

9:48 p.m.:
Lehrer asks about Afghanistan, so the candidates retire briefly to watch a screening of The Man Who Would Be King. Obama talks smack about Pakistan and worries about the exploding flower trade in that part of the world. McCain reviews the entire history of the region, and pronounces “Waziristan” correctly. He also urges Obama to keep his mouth shut about U.S. plans to invade Pakistan. The Exterminator does a pretty good Sean Connery impression, but can’t seem to master Michael Caine.

9:55 p.m.:
McCain points out that he voted against James K. Polk’s war with Mexico. Then both McCain and Obama show off their jewelry. The Exterminator explains why bracelets give him a rash.

9:56 p.m.:
Lehrer tells the candidates that they’ve both wasted exactly the same amount of time, but laughingly chastises them for taking too long not to answer the questions. The Exterminator wonders aloud whether that’s a strategy or a tactic.

9:58 p.m.:
Obama and McCain are both worried about an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and they both enunciate “nuclear” perfectly to distinguish themselves from George Bush. The Exterminator suggests that we start calling the country “Persia” again, and fuck ‘em if they don’t like it. McCain would not sit down at the table with Ahmadinejad. Obama, on the other hand is willing to send someone to sit down at a different table with a different person, but acknowledges that he doesn’t expect anyone to serve matzo ball soup. The Exterminator reserves judgment until he sees what the meal is, and hints that he might be willing to eat standing up.

10:09 p.m.:
McCain and Obama argue about what Henry Kissinger said when he was drunk the other night. The Exterminator amuses no one by speaking in a thick German accent.

10:16 p.m.:
Lehrer asks the candidates about Russia. All of them know where it is. The Exterminator volunteers that he once read The Brothers Karamazov and has eaten borscht many times. Henry Kissinger calls Lehrer and asks him to come over for some caviar and infused vodka after the debates.

10:22 p.m.:
For the 147th time, Obama says that McCain is absolutely right about everything and then calls him a liar. McCain accuses Obama of not understanding anything, and to be fair, demonstrates his own lack of understanding. The Exterminator tallies his change one more time.

10:27 p.m.:
Obama informs America that his father was from Kenya. McCain reminds viewers of his own history: apparently, he was once a P.O.W. The Exterminator tells a long, pointless anecdote about Nanny.

10:30 p.m.:
Obama and McCain hug their wives. The Exterminator searches the audience in vain for Mrs. Ex, who has fled the premises in embarrassment after noticing that her husband’s fly was open throughout the entire debate. Lehrer calls Kissinger to accept his invitation, but only on condition that Ahmadinejad will not be there.