Friday, June 30, 2006

Bloomberg for President? I Think So.
In the same week that New York City completed its budget with a record surplus and millions in new spending for vital social service programs like the Summer Youth Employment Program, a new set of rumors has bubbled up that Mayor Mike Bloomberg might be thinking about a 2008 presidential campaign.

Mayor Bloomberg has privately said he has more than enough money to run for President - and now he may have a potential entry strategy.

Bloomberg's main political adviser, Kevin Sheekey, indicated that the mayor would be unlikely to challenge Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) - a friend who has been successful with the same category of independent voters to whom Bloomberg would appeal.
"If John McCain gets beaten to the right - which is possible in a conservative Republican primary - and if Democrats elect someone through a primary who Democrats generally view as unelectable, there's a large segment of the American electorate that is looking for something different," Sheekey said.

That disaffected segment could translate into "36% of the vote in enough states to give you an electoral win," he added.
The comment adds to the evidence that Bloomberg is seriously considering a run as 21st century version of Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who briefly led polls for the presidency in 1992 and finished with almost 20% of the vote.

Democrats are starting to take Bloomberg's aspirations seriously - and view them warily. A Clinton adviser, Howard Wolfson, dismissed Bloomberg's presidential aspirations as "insane."

"He couldn't win," Wolfson said. "But unlike Perot, he would end up doing a lot more damage to a Democrat than a Republican."

Bloomberg has started to cast himself as an antidote to the nation's partisan divide.

"Both ends of the political spectrum share the blame" for the partisan paralysis, he said at the University of Chicago commencement this year. "And both seem unwilling to change."

First of all, Wolfson's a putz, and as a Village Elder of the Tribe of Hillary Consultants he's not exactly a neutral observer here (as Ben Smith should have pointed out at more length; maybe he did and the editor pulled it). But his comment about a Bloomberg candidacy potentially hurting the Democrat more than the Republican is very defensible. Indeed, the biggest reason I can see against a Bloomberg candidacy is that it might divide the left/center electorate and open the door for a crypto-fascist dimwit like George Felix Allen Jr. or Sam Brownshirt–-I mean, Brownback–-to win with 38 percent of the vote, or in the House of Representatives.

But unless the Democrats nominate someone really compelling--Obama, Clark, maybe Warner if he shows more charisma in the primaries, possibly Edwards--I think I'd be on board anyway. (And frankly, in such a situation I don't think Bloomberg would run; his whole thinking seems to be predicated on Hillary Clinton as the Dem nominee.) A Bloomberg presidency would be supremely good for this country. He's a fiscally responsible, socially progressive problem-solver without the baggage that any nominal Democrat would carry into the race: the degradation of the brand after thirty years of Ailes/Rove slimebaggery, and all the special-interest commitments that a Democratic presidential nominee must take on as the price of entry. The same factors, in other words, that have made Bloomberg a near-ideal, and almost universally admired, mayor of NYC.

That said, I have very serious doubts whether he could win. For one thing, he's Jewish, and he's unmarried (though his longtime girlfriend is a New York State banking official, so it's not like she'd be an embarrassment). For another, it seems like the guy has had a lot of sex--and, according to his 2001 mayoral opponent Mark Green, once told a partner who had gotten pregnant to "kill it." Beyond that, I think he's probably made a lot of uncouth remarks-–all stuff that our infantile "gotcha" press will seize upon.

But basically his candidacy would advance a message this country badly needs to hear: "Grow the fuck up."

In other words, stop worrying about whether you'd like to have a beer with the president, or whether he'd be comfortable in your church, or whether he agrees with you on a laundry list of issue positions. Pick someone who's competent and honest–-no more ideologues and charismatics.

Hey, a guy can dream.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

No More "Good Things"
More than a decade after exploding out of the Pacific northwest, Sleater-Kinney is evidently calling it a career:

After eleven years as a band, Sleater-Kinney have decided to go on indefinite hiatus. The upcoming summer shows will be our last. As of now, there are no plans for future tours or recordings.

We feel lucky to have had the support of many wonderful people over the years. We want to thank everyone who has worked with us, written kind words about us, performed with us, and inspired us.

But mostly we want to extend our gratitude to our amazing fans. You have been a part of our story from the beginning. We could not have made our music without your enthusiasm, passion, and loyalty. It is you who have made the entire journey worthwhile.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a band bondly as strongly with its fans as did these three women, probably because first and foremost they were music fans themselves. I probably saw them about eight times between 1997, opening for Guided by Voices at Summer Stage in Central Park, and 2005, at the Trocadero in Philly; the band's growth and change over that time was as remarkable as the music they made. Sleater-Kinney didn't play it safe; their last album, "The Woods," was a radical departure from form that often sounded more like early-'70s metal than the bratty Riot Grrl punk that served as the band's starting point in the mid-'90s.

I'm bummed because the final shows I could conceivably catch, in Philly on July 31 and NYC two days later, seem both to be sold out. Of course, that's also an indication of how much money the S-K'ers could have made were they inclined to simply cash in and no longer worry about their own satisfaction as artists. That they aren't going that way is another tribute to a band that joins the thin ranks of the Clash, Husker Du, and a handful of others as having Mattered.

(Thanks--I guess--to The Navigator for the tip.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Good News in the Senate
Two pieces of news out of the Senate today showed both the extreme fragility and enduring strength of the institutions of governance that, for the most part, have served the United States so well for 217 years now: a constitutional amendment to limit free expression by giving Congress the power to outlaw flag burning failed by one vote, and Minority Leader Harry Reid announced that he and Senate Democrats would block the implementation of a previously approved congressional pay raise until the body votes to increase the minimum wage, which hasn't risen since 1997.

Let's do the proposed flag burning amendment, perhaps better known as the Idolatry Act, first. In the Washington Post today, Dana Millbank captured just how mind-bendingly stupid this whole "debate" has been:

The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.

The number has increased to four, from three.
"I think it's important to focus on the basic fact that the text of the First Amendment, the text of the Constitution, the text of the Bill of Rights is not involved," [PA Senator Arlen] Specter argued. The Judiciary Committee chairman did not explain how he could add 17 words to the Constitution without altering its text.

Fortunately, the Senate will have plenty of time to discuss that matter. The chamber has scheduled up to four days of debate on the flag-burning amendment this week. If that formula -- one day of Senate debate for each incident of flag burning this year -- were to be applied to other matters, the Senate would need to schedule 12 days of debate to contemplate the number of years before Medicare goes broke, 335 days of debate for each service member killed in Iraq this year and 11 million days of debate on the estimated number of illegal immigrants in the country.

Unfortunately, the Senate has only 49 days left on its legislative calendar for the year.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) saw the calculus somewhat differently.

"They say that flag burning is a rare occurrence; it is not that rare," he told the chamber. An aide hoisted a large blue poster detailing 17 incidents of flag desecration over three years. Hatch, citing "an ongoing offense against common decency," read them all. "That's just mentioning some that we know of; there's a lot more than that, I'm sure," he said.

Never mind that, in most cases, the perpetrators could be prosecuted for theft or vandalism. For Hatch, this was sufficient evidence of the need for an amendment. "Now, I have to tell you," he vouched, "the American people are aggrieved."

Well, not so much. Take a look at any survey of what voters are concerned about. I defy you to find any sentiment about this "issue"--especially when one considers that, as Millbank notes, laws already on the books can punish most acts of flag desecration. (Not to mention that I doubt any jury out there would punish anyone who kicked the shit out of a flag-burner, presuming any of the three to four desecrations per year were witnessed.) While the case can be made that the country has entered an age of "post-material politics," I don't think we're at a point where we can afford to spend all the time and resources already wasted on this non-problem. Hell, we might be better off if the Senate scheduled days of debate on "Ultraviolet" vs. "Aeon Flux".

(Let the record note that I haven't seen either movie, nor read the comics or whatever they're based on. It's just that from the ads, they seemed kind of the same thing.)

As for the minimum wage/congressional pay raise gambit, it's theatrics--but so is the flag-burning nonsense, the gay marriage farce, and most everything else the congressional Republicans push, and at least a minimum wage increase would help people. A flag-burning law, in addition to the potential damage we would invite by writing limitations on free expression for the first time, would just put the U.S. into a dismal category with Iran, China and Cuba--the only three nations that have such laws on their books. (Current, that is; Saddam-era Iraq and Nazi Germany were also in that group.) I hope all Americans, regardless of their politics, would agree we're better than that.

Reid and the Senate Dems are offering a very clear choice about priorities, and doing it with the attention-getting flair they haven't shown since forcing the Senate into closed session last fall over Pat Roberts' endless toadying on the issue of pre-Iraq War intelligence. For the first time I can remember, the leadership seems to grasp that politics is about contrast and drama:

"Congress is going to have earn its raise by putting American workers first: A raise for workers before a raise for Congress," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Democrats in the House and Senate want the $5.15-per-hour federal minimum wage, in place since 1997, to rise in 70-cent increments to $7.25 by January 1, 2009.

In arguing for the minimum-wage increase, Democrats are emphasizing that salaries for members of Congress have risen $31,600 during the time the minimum wage has been frozen.

They complain that rising costs for gasoline, utilities, education and food have taken a chunk out of minimum-wage paychecks, which sometimes have to support entire families.

Republicans in Congress have blocked numerous attempts to raise the minimum wage, saying it would backfire by causing small businesses to hire fewer entry-level workers.

Which is, to put it briefly, crap: here in New York, where we've raised the wage in stages over the past two years, the most affected economic sectors have enjoyed faster job growth than the overall average. If the debate brings that point into the public awareness, we're doubly ahead.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

From Class War to Crackup
The 1950s weren't the Golden Age that so many Republicans and cultural conservatives seem to believe they were. The perpetual fear of the Cold War, McCarthyism and the stifling cultural conformity it helped perpetuate, and the concentrated racial injustice of pre-civil rights America all cast shadows over the decade.

Nonetheless, the decade stands out to us now as a time when America was figuratively on top of the world, by a greater margin than anytime before or since. Politics in particular was almost unimaginably less contentious than is the case today: for most of the decade a moderate Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, sat in the presidency while moderate Democrats, led by Lyndon Johnson in the Senate and Sam Rayburn in the House, controlled Congress. The result was relative consensus, as the county committed to an interstate highway system of tremendous value, moved to respond to the non-military aspect of the Soviet challenge by massive new investments in education, and even took the first baby steps toward internal reform through the Supreme Court school desegregation decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and other measures.

Why was it so much easier to find consensus and move forward 50 years ago than it is today? Paul Krugman has an answer, one that I've been thinking about for years: as more people found themselves in relatively similar economic situations, they also found much common ground in thinking about how America should act at home and in the world:

[F]or the past century, political polarization and economic inequality have moved hand in hand. Politics during the Gilded Age, an era of huge income gaps, was a nasty business — as nasty as it is today. The era of bipartisanship, which lasted for roughly a generation after World War II, corresponded to the high tide of America's middle class. That high tide began receding in the late 1970's, as middle-class incomes grew slowly at best while incomes at the top soared; and as income gaps widened, a deep partisan divide re-emerged.

Both the decline of partisanship after World War II and its return in recent decades mainly reflected the changing position of the Republican Party on economic issues.

Before the 1940's, the Republican Party relied financially on the support of a wealthy elite, and most Republican politicians firmly defended that elite's privileges. But the rich became a lot poorer during and after World War II, while the middle class prospered. And many Republicans accommodated themselves to the new situation, accepting the legitimacy and desirability of institutions that helped limit economic inequality, such as a strongly progressive tax system. (The top rate during the Eisenhower years was 91 percent.)

When the elite once again pulled away from the middle class, however, Republicans turned their back on the legacy of Dwight Eisenhower and returned to a focus on the interests of the wealthy. Tax cuts at the top — including repeal of the estate tax — became the party's highest priority.

As if on cue, I turned on C-SPAN for a minute this morning to see Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) talking about the urgent need to repeal or limit the "death tax"--the federal levy on the estates of the rich that hits a vanishingly small--but politically powerful--percentage of Americans. (As of 2009, when the exemption rises to $3.5 million per individual or $7 million per couple, just 3 in every 1,000 Americans will pay any estate tax.) This is the same Congress that again shot down a proposed minimum wage increase in the Senate yesterday, days after voting themselves another pay raise. Given the country's mounting problems on fronts from debt and trade, to demographic transformation in the workforce and super-expensive entitlements, to foreign affairs and rising crime, I can't decide if this obsessive focus on further enriching the richest is more stupid or vicious.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating a return to a top marginal tax rate of 91 percent, or suggesting that a program of massive income redistribution to get us back toward the "Great Compression" of the 1950s would be either feasible or successful. The country's economic hegemony of that decade was largely a function of having come through the war in vastly better shape than any of our notional global competitors, and the political factors--about a third of the private sector unionized in the aftermath of the Depression, some pressure to pursue equity as part of the ideological struggle against Communism--cannot be replicated. But what we have now is a government that looks at the issues of the country as if in a funhouse mirror. If the Republican Congress is to be believed, the most important concerns of the United States are amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage and flag-burning (of which one incident was reported in 2005), and ending a tax that the overwhelming majority of Americans would love to have to worry about.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Useless Idiots
Scanning the Yahoo! headlines this evening, I saw the following:

Austria's Haider says Bush is a war criminal

Big deal, right? Lots of people think Bush is a war criminal. I don't, but that's more because I don't think that's really a phrase one can ever operationalize with a straight face than that I think his (administration's) conduct in Iraq was in any way justified. As the point was made so vividly in "The Fog of War," you never see a victorious leader tried as a war criminal; while I think the Nuremburg trials were appropriate and perhaps necessary to help Europe close the door on World War II, part of that was to let the German people off the hook and advance the politically useful fiction that a few evil men, rather than the majority of a relatively "advanced" nation, were to blame for the atrocities of the Nazi state.

The story was highly rated on Yahoo! I've seen this enough to get a sense of the trend: whenever something critical of Bush appears on that service, a lot of users give it five stars to ensure its visibility. At this moment, the story has a three-and-a-half star rating, and it's been on the top three stories list for at least eight hours or so. Here's the passage I suspect those anti-Bush surfers responded to:

Haider, whose group is part of Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's government coalition, said Bush's meeting with his European peers on Wednesday was pointless as he did not expect the U.S. president to pay attention to what Europe had to tell him.

"He is a war criminal. He brought about the war against
Iraq deliberately, with lies and falsehoods," Haider said in an interview with Austrian daily newspaper Die Presse.

"The Iraqi population is suffering terribly. Bush took the risk of an enormous number of victims," said Haider.

What's the problem? The problem is that Joerg Haider is a fascist with Nazi antecedents and sympathies, who's been described as "the Austrian David Duke."

To his supporters, Haider is a breath of fresh air, promising job security, social benefits, and a new breed of politician who follows through on his election promises. The charismatic populist promises to eliminate corruption, curtail abuses of the welfare state, and protect Austria's national interests from being overrun by illegal immigrants and unchecked global markets.

To his opponents, Haider is a dangerous right-wing extremist who exploits Austria's disenchantment with the perennial ruling parties to advance his xenophobic, racist and intolerant policies. Throughout his public career, Haider has consistently parried accusations of anti-Semitism. His record, however, reveals numerous statements utilizing Holocaust terminology and legitimizing Nazi policy and activities.
Haider has a long public record of defending the policies of Nazi Germany and of justifying individual actions during those years. Haider has utilized terminology reminiscent of the Nazis, announcing, for example in October 1990 a "final solution to the farm question." Upon his election to the leadership of the Freedom Party, Haider rejected comparisons with the German Nazi Party, saying "The Freedom Party is not the descendant of the National Socialist Party. If it were, we would have an absolute majority."

It's one thing to oppose, even to hate Bush. It's quite another to embrace someone who's far more hateful in doing so. By advancing a crypto-Nazi as a voice of anti-Bush sentiment, even in such a slight manner, those who oppose the president in this country risk playing into his hands yet again. Joerg Haider has no place in any serious debate, about any serious topic, and progressives should find him particularly abhorrent.
I'm at the Hampton Inn in Buffalo, having driven Rob here to participate in the North American Guitar Competition. Four hours in the car last night--we stopped somewhere called Cortland, a town where gas is much cheaper than Brooklyn but seemingly without all that much else to recommend it--and three more this morning and today. The actual event isn't until Monday night--Rob's birthday, if luck counts for anything--so I'm not sure exactly why we had to spend three days here. There was some meet-and-greet today, the competitors get to practice for an hour or so with the backing band tomorrow, and then the big dukaroo on the 19th. Nothing against Buffalo, but this is supposed to be, y'know, me time. And I've got the proverbial crapload of work.

After five hours or so in this hotel, though, I think my concerns were overstated. I spent two hours editing this afternoon, another hour in the hotel gym, came back here, got online, might listen to the Phils in a bit. Wherever we are now, same stuff--same resources, leisure options, cable TV. I'm hardly the first to make this point, and it's probably not even the first time I've made it. But maybe it's the convergence of virtual living (clunky phrase) this weekend that has me thinking about it: Annie's already e-mailed twice from Ireland, a friend of mine has gotten into a pretty hot relationship--phone, computer camera, hours a night, nudity and adult situations--with a girl who lives in Vancouver that he's yet to meet in person.

Aside from not being able to feed our cats, Asshole and Frau Poopenheimer, I'm not sure it really matters where I am this weekend, or pretty much any other time.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Some Choice This Is
I haven't given money to Democrats this campaign cycle, I haven't volunteered for anyone, I mostly delete the half-dozen e-mails I get every day from candidates and groups after money, time, signatures on virtual petitions, and whatever else.

Then I read something like this and I almost want to get more involved:

For nearly a decade, Allen Raymond stood at the top ranks of Republican Party power.

He served as chief of staff to a cochairman of the Republican National Committee, supervised Republican contests in mid-Atlantic states for the RNC, and was a top official in publisher Steve Forbes's presidential campaign. He went on to earn $350,000 a year running a Republican policy group as well as a GOP phone-bank business.

But most recently, Raymond has been in prison. And for that, he blames himself, but also says he was part of a Republican political culture that emphasizes hardball tactics and polarizing voters.

Raymond, 39, has just finished serving a three-month sentence for jamming Democratic phone lines in New Hampshire during the 2002 US Senate race. The incident led to one of the biggest political scandals in the state's history, the convictions of Raymond and two top Republican officials, and a Democratic lawsuit that seeks to determine whether the White House played any role. The race was won by Senator John E. Sununu , the Republican.
[H]e said the scheme reflects a broader culture in the Republican Party that is focused on dividing voters to win primaries and general elections. He said examples range from some recent efforts to use border-security concerns to foster anger toward immigrants to his own role arranging phone calls designed to polarize primary voters over abortion in a 2002 New Jersey Senate race.

``A lot of people look at politics and see it as the guy who wins is the guy who unifies the most people," he said. ``I would disagree. I would say the candidate who wins is the candidate who polarizes the right bloc of voters. You always want to polarize somebody."

Raymond stressed that he was making no excuses for his role in the New Hampshire case; he pleaded guilty and told the judge he had done a ``bad thing." But he said he got caught up in an ultra-aggressive atmosphere in which he initially thought the decision to jam the phones ``pushed the envelope" but was legal. He also said he had been reluctant to turn down a prominent official of the RNC, fearing that would cost him future opportunities from an organization that was becoming increasingly ruthless.

``Republicans have treated campaigns and politics as a business, and now are treating public policy as a business, looking for the types of returns that you get in business, passing legislation that has huge ramifications for business," he said. ``It is very much being monetized, and the federal government is being monetized under Republican majorities."

That's the Republican Party. You see it in Ann Coulter's latest pile of vomit; you see it when Grover Norquist runs primary challenges against moderates; you see it when Karl Rove makes speeches about how Democrats don't care about defending the country. Divide and conquer; keep people angry and keep that anger focused at The Other (gays, Muslims, immigrants, liberals); better to win dishonestly than lose with honor. We are seeing the results.

I think the Democrats would be slightly better, but as I said to someone recently, mostly just in the sense that the rate at which things get worse would slow down somewhat. They're venal, stupid, and self-dealing too. If you don't believe me, check this out.

Moran will win re-election; if William Jefferson, the crooked Democrat from Louisiana, runs again, he might win too. (Remember Jim Traficant; he served nine terms, and was a crook before he ever took office.)

Our democracy doesn't work because too many people, from Tom DeLay, to the members of the Congressional Black Caucus who want to go to the mattresses for Jefferson, to the rabid right-wing loser who sometimes trolls here, to the thousands of liberal bloggers who are just coming back from Las Vegas, put party ahead of country, self-dealing ahead of the common good, and righteous, angry purism ahead of consensus and compromise.

I do think the Republicans are mostly to blame for creating this climate of unprecedented polarization--when your top thinker makes statements like "bipartisanship is another name for date rape," it's hard to draw any other conclusion--in which big and little scumbags and ideologues flourish. But I don't know how the Democrats, or more moderate and principled conservatives, would change that. Or if they'd want to.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Have Sex, Deserve Death
Some good news today from Washington: Cervical Cancer Vaccine Is Approved

WASHINGTON, June 8 — Federal drug officials today announced the approval of a vaccine against cervical cancer that could eventually save thousands of lives in the United States and hundreds of thousands in the rest of the world each year.

Called Gardasil, the vaccine is the culmination of a 15-year scientific effort that began at the National Cancer Institute and a research center in Australia, and it may one day be seen as one of the great health advances of the early 21st Century.

Cervical cancer is the second-leading cause of death in women across the globe, affecting an estimated 500,000 women and killing 300,000 each year.

Widespread use of Pap smears in the developing world has reduced its toll there. In the United States, about 10,000 women contract cervical cancer each year, and some 3,700 die from it.

Unfortunately, the news isn't all good. The vaccine isn't cheap: according to the article, Merck plans to charge $120 for each of the three shots necessary for innoculation. Some children insured under federal health programs will get the shots; others, covered by less generous state programs, will not because of budget limitations--a dilemma that one doctor quoted in the piece characterizes as "a Sophie's Choice."

And of course, there are the--what's the technical term?--murderous pseudo-Christian psychopaths who'd prefer that nobody get innoculated, because then they could have dirty, dirty sex with impunity and immunity from cervical cancer, and apparently the Baby Jesus doesn't cry as much when slutty hellbound girls suffer and die as a result of their unauthorized fucking.

Think I'm being hyperbolic? Just read the quote:

Religious groups have expressed opposition to proposals to require vaccinations with Gardacil because cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted virus.

"We can prevent it by the best public health method, and that's not having sex before marriage," said Linda Klepacki of Focus on the Family, a Christian advocacy organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The thought process--I won't say "logic"--is pretty straightforward: these champions of family values don't want to innoculate children because doing so evidently would increase the odds that they'd "commit" pre-marital sex. The risk of cervical cancer, then, might decrease said odds. Presumably, the chance that one or two impressionable Carrie White types might be deterred from dirty dirty touching is worth however many dozens or hundreds who fail to tread God's Chosen Path of pre-marital celibacy.

Don't get me wrong: if parents don't want their child vaccinated in accordance with this worldview, I think that's a morally hideous choice... but one that's within their rights to make. What's not in any way defensible is these "Christians" deigning to make this decision for families of all beliefs and perspectives.

These people should be marginalized, scorned, and placed side by side in the public view with the Islamic theocrats whose repressive worldview they essentially mirror.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Last Words?

If you're reading this, the world hasn't ended. Yet.

While some of us might find today significant for the possible bellweather special congressional election out in California's 50th district, the return of Phillies phenom Cole Hamels to action tonight in Arizona, or simply the natal anniversary of a friend, a few folks out there think that the whole show might conclude today, that the date of 06/06/06 signals The End.

To my disappointment, this group evidently does not include the proprietors of the Rapture Index, who last updated their site yesterday--are these guys in Hawaii, or do they just profoundly lack any sense of occasion?--to put the Index at 157. Site guidelines note that whenever it's above 145, it's time to "Fasten your seat belts" because the Holy Shit could go down at any time, so that's something... but already this year, the Index has been as high as 159. If 6/6/06 can't even top the yearly high to-date, let alone approach the all-time high of 181 (9/24/01), then what are we all getting worked up about? The site does note that "The occurrence of the 06/06/06 date has increased interest in
numerical date speculation"... yawn.

On a more serious note, today's date does offer an opportunity to point out some of the sillier aspects of this brand of hysterical Christianity. (And you thought only the gay marriage Constitutional amendment sham debate now current in the Senate did so--but I'd argue that, given everything else going on, the gay-hate measure is more tragedy than comedy.) Here's one piece in today's Philadelphia Daily News that explicates one of the problems: is this scary number even the right one?

Some say it's the "Devil's number," or the "most enduring prophecy of evil in all of the Western world," mentioned in the Book of Revelation of the Bible.

Of course, you must decide which of the estimated 11 versions of the Bible currently in use here you intend to use. These Bible publishers can't even decide how to write the number: is it 666, or six hundred and sixty-six, or six hundred, threescore and six? All three are mentioned.

Last Jan. 15, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia site, was vandalized changing 666 to an alternate number, 616, related to an argument historians have waged for centuries.

The number, 666, was first written in Greek, though some say Hebrew. Historians debate whether the original number was 666, or 616, because of the alternate spellings of Greek words, or perhaps because it was just miscopied. Regardless, 666 (or in some cases, 616) has the proverbial 666 meanings, inasmuch as it's a hotly debated topic around the world. And to make matters more confusing, Revelations says the same number refers to both beast and man.
More recently, scientists weighed in, pointing out that all organic life comes from carbon 12, composed of six protons, six neutrons and six electrons, or 666, an implication suggesting that trees, beasts and man share the same nature. An evil tree?

Conspiracy theorists suggests that people will be imprinted with the Universal Bar Code, which they claim has a 666 in it, but that theory has been debunked. Just in case, however, Thomas Heeter, obtained a U.S. Patent in the event that humans will be tattooed with the barcode for e-commerce purposes.

Historically, the 666-tattoo could only be placed on the right hand or the forehead. If placed elsewhere, it would not hold its magical powers. And that, in turn, debunks the theory of a microchip implant planted in everyone's head: the mark must be seen, not invisible.

Still, there's no reason not to be careful. If Francine Busby really does win Duke Cunningham's old Congressional seat, how long will it take for Preacher Pat Robertson to credit Satanic intervention? If Cole Hamels no-hits the D'backs tonight, will it be his killer change-up or forces from below that post the zeroes? And if you're set to give birth today... well, at least for that one, the Landover Baptist Church has got you covered.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

72 Virtual Virgins?

Five or six years ago, on a Friday night with little else to do, a few friends and I rented "Left Behind: the Movie," a filmic adaptation of the best-selling series about the Rapture and subsequent struggle for control of the world between the remaining Christians and the Anti-Christ, who comes to prominence as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. It was, in a word, awful--not even really enjoyable as kitsch, and kind of troubling in the moral absolutes it flourished.

But then, that series of books did sell 60 million copies, despite probably having less literary value than Saddam's romance novels and about as much redeeming social quality as any of Ann Coulter's prose defecations. So I guess there's an audience for this.

The question I have now might be whether that audience plays XBox:

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

As the video game industry gathers at the Los Angeles Convention Center this week for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, a devout group of publishers is praying for a direct strike on their elusive target: the eternal souls of game players.

One game, "Left Behind: Eternal Forces," which debuts today at the expo, features plenty of biblical smiting, albeit with high-tech weaponry as players battle the forces of the Antichrist in a smoldering world approaching Armageddon.
" 'Left Behind' has the Antichrist, the end of the world, the apocalypse," said co-creator Jeffrey S. Frichner. "It's got all the Christian stuff, and it's still got all the cool stuff."

That's why industry watchers predict that titles like "Eternal Forces" will find a broader audience in the same way Christian houses of worship like Pastor Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest have attracted followers — in part by not being overly doctrinaire.

"The reason that I think this game has a chance is that it's not particularly preachy," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. "I will say some of the dialogue is pretty lame — people saying, 'Praise the Lord' after they blow away the bad guys. I think they're overdoing it a bit. But the message is OK."

The game is based on the best-selling series of "Left Behind" books, which offer an account of the end times as predicted in the biblical book of Revelation. One of the series' authors, Tim LaHaye, said the game had the potential to communicate ideas such as salvation to people who might not think of themselves as particularly interested.

"We hope teenagers like the game," LaHaye said. "Our real goal is to have no one left behind."

The 14 "Left Behind" books, which LaHaye wrote with Jerry B. Jenkins, have sold about 65 million copies. Lyndon and Frichner recognized that the series had all the elements of a successful game — namely, action and conflict.

It took 18 months to raise enough money to secure the license from Tyndale House, the Christian publisher of "Left Behind," in 2001. They financed the early game development themselves, with Lyndon mortgaging his home twice and Frichner selling his house to raise cash. Some programming is done in Kiev, Ukraine, to limit costs. After the commercial success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," the two were able to raise the money to finish the project.

"There's an audience here," said A. Larry Ross, president of a Dallas-based Christian public relations firm that helped to market Gibson's "Passion" and three movie adaptations of the "Left Behind" books.

"In addition to the youth audience — that's the primary target — there are parents who are concerned about what their children are exposed to and are encouraged by products that are biblically based," Ross said. "I would assume, if there is violence, it's the cosmic struggle of good versus evil, not gratuitous violence."

At the Carpetbagger, where I read about this yesterday, some readers have suggested alternate titles to follow up on the success of "Left Behind: Eternity Force." (He also references the wonderful Simpsons episode in which Rod and Tod Flanders, grieving for their late mother, play "Billy Graham's Bible Blaster!" with Bart, in which you have to shoot the heathens to convert them; a non-direct hit makes them Unitarians.) One is "Inquisition"; another is "Kill the Jews." I'm guessing that "Inquisition" is more of a strategy/role-player, where "Kill" is more of a first-person shooter title.

Others noted the parallels between the righteous Christian violence of this game and the deplorable Muslim violence we see all too often in the real world. But they don't develop the concept; that's why I'm here today. If only there were a viable videogame market in the Arab world; suicide bombings and terrorist attacks also have those vital elements of "action and conflict."

Just imagine a whole series of these games: starting with "Jihad: Resistance!," you train in the Afghan base camp, master small arms, explosives and basic insurgency techniques, and then attack the infidel occupiers. Then in "Jihad: Martyr!" you run suicide bombing missions: first the Israeli schoolbus, then the nightclub in Amman, and finally the U.S. Army barracks. Finally, in "Jihad: Sheikh!" you get to *play* bin Laden, directing your finances from sympathizers in oil ministries throughout the middle east and elsewhere, recruit planners and operatives, and finally draw up and carry out spectacular attacks that kill thousands and set the stage for that battle of civilizations you've been aching for.

Hey, it's the cosmic struggle of good vs. evil. What's a little violence thrown in?