Canal Water Review

"To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing." Hypatia "Yeah. That pretty much sucks canal water." cwr

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Language of Politics

Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall is, once more, tracking the Republican use of language on an issue. He spent quite of bit of time a while back looking at how Republicans discovered that "privatization" of Social Security was not selling well with the American public, so they switched from talking about "private accounts" to "personal accounts" (and blaming the former terminology on the Democrats). Marshall had entry after entry detailing the shift in media reports as they followed the Republican Party line about labels for the same old sow's ear.

Now Marshall is tracking the use of the term "nuclear option" as it refers to a change in Senate rules on the use of the filibuster. The term was coined by Trent Lott, used widely by Republicans, quoted by Democrats and the media. Then, Republicans discovered that it wasn't selling well with the American public, so they are trying to change the label for the rule change to "constitutional option" (and blaming the former terminology on the Democrats).

Marshall's efforts are more about media actions and than how successful the strategy of changing labels works. There is something revealed in the process he apparently believes (and so do I) that tells us about the degree to which the corporate media are lazy, duped by party press releases and repetition, and/or corrupted by association with power.

The interesting thing about both of these label shifts is how blatant they are. The shifts are easily documented and clearly reflective of deliberate strategy. There's nothing subtle about it.

Even more interesting, however, is the failure of both linguistic campaigns to move public opinion on the issues. The public still doesn't like the proposed changes to Social Security. They still don't like the changes to Senate rules. And it's not like the public fully understands either issue. It more like the choice of label or frame really does set things up in people's minds; you can call it by another name, but the first one has already determined attitudes.


There are plenty of other analyses of this amendment, including records of live-blogging from In the Pink Texas and PinkDome. I could join in on the statements about hate and bigotry. I could really join in on the sarcastic comments about terrorists attacking marriage in church fellowship halls.

For a moment I was cynical enough to think that this amendment was simply a means to boost conservative turnout for the 2006 election, but Charles Kuffner, thinking the same thing, found a correction in his comments that reminds us both that the election which would decide the fate of this amendment will be held in November 2005, not 2006. At least I am not alone in my cynicism about this.

The wonder (for Texas) is that 29 House members stood up for their principles and voted against the amendment.

I'm now trying to think what I can afford to do to reward their courage. I could only afford two stuffed bees to give to our Killer D's, so I chose to give one to Garnet Coleman and the other to Eddie Rodriguez, both favorites of mine and both courageous on many issues, not just redistricting. This time around, I'd like to give them all something.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Deja vu all over again

I took a trip down memory lane last week when I went to a meeting of Austin's zoning and platting commission. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was more or less a regular at those meetings. Zoning and platting were hot items in my part of the city in those days, and heady days they were.

We had massive zoning "studies" going on wherein the city would zone three or four thousand acres in one big zoning ordinance. We had limited purpose annexation and regular purpose annexation. We had neighborhoods versus developers, developers versus environmentalists, environmentalists versus neighborhoods. We had city planners with fire in their eyes. We had virtual blood baths every Tuesday and Thursday and most days in between while we worked our way through obscure zoning codes and wrangled over watersheds.

Then the real estate market tanked or something, and things slowed down. That gave us time for Austin Plan, a sector by sector plan for the whole city--which came to not much of anything after months and months of meetings and public hearings. At one point, I think I had 11 linear feet of Austin Plan on my bookshelves. Fortunately, the city had begin residential recycling by the time I realized that I could no longer afford to devote my shelf space to a slice of local history.

Then things really slowed down--and my job took up time--and I wasn't involved in local things so very much anymore. Until a couple of weeks ago when my neighborhood association decided that it was time to have another meeting. Once a year is about how often we meet to talk about dog poop and kids playing in the street versus cars driving on the same street. This meeting was a little early, but why not, I thought.

At the meeting, one of my neighbors mentioned that he had received notice of a zoning case near his house. My ears perked up, and I realized that it was a big honking office development that would affect us all if we weren't careful about it. And that put me back in the middle of things I had long ago forgotten about.

It was interesting from several perspectives to see the differences that time had wrought. Meeting with the city meant going to a rabbit warren in a high rise office building. In the old days, there was less rabbit warren and less high rise. The old cubicles had been replaced by actual offices--and we met in an actual conference room. Instead of hauling out huge maps, the planner just called up plats and aerial photographs on his computer.

Meeting with the developers to discuss the case was similarly different. I had dealt with the company in the past when it had a different name, but I recognized the conference room. The company representatives were different--and younger than me this time around. The atmosphere felt different this time, though. Perhaps the combination of age and experience gave me confidence. Perhaps the simple cordiality of the meeting was more pleasant than my memories of past conflicts. In any case, it was prettty much--what can we do to make this work? So we told 'em. And they agreed to what we asked and more. I mean, who gets a 750 foot setback without asking?

The next step was to get a formal motion from the Zoning and Platting Commission to say what we had agreed to. There was some shuffling in the background with my neighborhood. I really don't want to take on any more responsibility much less leadership, but there was a bit of a vacuum there for a few days. I slipped into the role of representative without much strain--but only for the one hearing, we all agreed.

The Commission still meets in City Council Chambers, but, of course, Austin has a new City Hall and new Council Chambers. This was my first visit. I arrived early to scope out the parking issues--which turned out to be pretty simple since there is now an actual parking garage. The next hurdle was getting through security. This surprised me, although I suppose it shouldn't have. Still, there's no metal detector at the Capitol these days, so I was startled by the metal detector and x-ray machine for bags and three guards on duty.

Entering the Chambers took a bit of time, since sign in is still required for testimony. The hall was caretainly bigger than the old one and made even larger by the presence of actual windows. Lots of them. Whole glass walls of them. The distance separating the audience from the dais had also increased. There were several monitors and screens around for projection, but no evidence of what might be showing on Cable Channel 6. (Does the Commission still show up there anymore?) I think that someone making their first visit to the Chambers could be intimidated by their arrangement--and the entry hassles. I was just fascinated by the change of venue and atmosphere.

Since we had worked out prior agreements with the developers and city staff had concurred with those agreements, our case would have been voted on by "consent" (without discussion) had Save Barton Springs not appeared to lodge a protest against development in that part of the city. At that point, everything fell back into place for me, and I was exactly where I remembered being. In fifteen years, nothing has changed after all.

The staff presented the case. The developer's agent stated his position. SBS made their case. I presented the neighborhood view--and slipped in a little history. The Commission approved the case and passed it on to City Council. I am told that SBS will have a "substantial presence" at the Council hearing on the case.

And what's at issue? A large office development in an environmentally sensitive watershed. The development could generate a lot of traffic at peak hours, which means air pollution that eventually pollutes the water. (Yes, your car pollutes the water you drink as well as the air you breathe. And a poor road system makes it worse.) SBS wanted to see single family residences on one-acre lots instead of the proposed 3-4 story office buildings limited to 20 percent impervious cover.

Oh, dear. And there I was, mentally screaming: Do you realize how much those houses would cost these days? Do you have any idea how much the county will raise my property taxes because of those fancy-assed houses? And who's gonna tell those rich neighbors you want me to have to forego fertilizing their lawns or propertly dispose of used motor oil? And why do I have to put up with more neighorhood noises 24/7 when the office workers would go home--somewhere else--at 5:00? And--well, the list goes on. I've been down this road before. Literally.

All of it brings back those same old problems. My neighborhood shouldn't exist. It's the oldest subdivision in the area, platted in the 1940's. Houses weren't built until the 1960's. It's small and secluded. There are still a few vacant lots in the subdivision, but they will soon be built out. Even so, one of my neighbors still has a few goats in a side lot. We only got a sewer lines within the last five years. Before that, our aging septic tanks were probably worse than any traffic in the area for pollution. The earlier residents of the neighborhood (in 27 years, weve lived there longer than just about everyone else) were independent-leave-me-alone kinds of folks. Many of the current residents still are.

So. This neighborhood shouldn't exist because it's built on a sensitive watershed. In a karst area. In an aquifer-recharge zone. With drainage problems that suggest that some tributary or some creek or other is being frustrated by the presence of houses where water really wants to flow.

Still it exists. Which means that those of us who generally had no clue about the enviromental sensitivity of the area when we sank our life savings into our property--which was rural in those days before the city sprawled out to capture us with annexation--have to figure out how to continue to live in the area and protect our steadily eroding quality of life.

Much has changed in the past fifteen years--and nothing has changed. The city even says they will start a new planning study--a neighborhood plan--for our area this fall. I can hardly wait.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Texas Shield Law for Journalists

Rep. Aaron Pena has proposed HB 188, a shield law for journalists. The bill was heard in the Judiciary Committee on April 18. I didn't attend the hearing, since the bill is not one that I would normally track, and I haven't listened to the broadcast, since I'm using a dial-up connection (broadband is too expensive for a retired Prince and the bride-who-works-for-a-nonprofit).

Having said that, I still (of course!) have an opinion. Or at least some pressing questions. As I read the bill, it really doesn't cover the kind of situation that we see with the Valerie Plame case. In that case, a federal law against revealing the name/identity of a U.S. spy is prohibited, but someone at the White House did so, telling several reporters Valerie Plame's name and identifying her as a CIA operative. This was done for political reasons. The actual investigation by the federal prosecutor seems to be over, but there have been no public announcements that tell us what the results are. The reporter who actually revealed Plame's identity seems not to be suffering any ill consequences of his bad act, but two others, facing jail time for not revealing their sources, are appealing to the Supreme Court.

I've written about the Plame case before. It just really irks me, and not merely because it all arose for political reasons. As much as I disdain President Bush and his administration and pretty much all he stands for and just about everything he has done as president, the issue for me is something else altogether.

The First Amendment protects freedom of the press. More than that, it tells us that one of the core values of our nation is that the press be free to speak the truth, that our democracy depends upon that. For someone like Robert Novak to toss that core value aside for purely partisan reasons, to do so in conspiracy with others, is an attack on the Constitution and our nation. Now to hide behind that same First Amendment and claim immunity from revealing his co-conspirators is a abominable act. And, oh, yeah, by the way, people's lives were jeopardized because of his criminal act, a career was trashed, national security was damaged, and we're still losing American lives because he was party to a conspiracy to dupe the American public about the justifications for war.

I guess you could say that I feel rather strongly about this issue.

And, yet, I can see the need for a shield law in Texas. My question is this. Let's pretend for a moment that the Governor makes a speech about an issue and includes incorrect information. Let's pretend that someone had already given him the correct information and, upon hearing the incorrect information in the speech, chooses to publish the correct information on her own via an op ed. Suppose then that the Governor, unhappy with that, decides to take retribution by discrediting the op ed writer and, in the course of doing so, knowingly reveals that the op ed writer's spouse is an undercover narc for one of our regional drug task forces--and reveals his identity. What then? If a reporter participates in that kind of partisan activity, committing a crime in the process, would the proposed shield law protect him/her? Should it? Or should I just get over it and accept the fact that a higher principle is at work because, even though it might let one scumbag get away with trashing the Constitution, it's important to maintain that higher principle?

I guess I've answered my own question. The higher principle should win. But, still, I am just so irked with Robert Novak. I hope he gets a pimple in a tender place.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

If it's all about sex . . .

The headline reads: AIDS groups, gay activists dismayed over new pope. The blogs are dissing back and forth about a response to Andrew Sullivan's dismay that said: "It's always about sex with Andrew, isn't it?"

And I'm just thinking that sex is the issue. Not necessarily for Mr. Sullivan. Not even, as Atrios points out:

The question isn't why for Sullivan or me or anybody else it's "always about the sex." The question is why in contemporary society much of religion is all about the sex, and especially gay sex. Last I checked there were all kinds of sins and all kinds of sinning going on. The Church may never stop considering homosexuality to be a "moral evil." But, they consider lots of things to be "moral evils." Why the obsession with hot gay sex?

Rather, in the matter of using condoms to prevent HIV:

"The use of prophylactics is unacceptable even as a solution to the problem of AIDS, because the objective is the fight against fornication," said Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican's health secretary.

"The sixth commandment says it clearly: do not fornicate. It's not a negative position. We are doing it to defend life," he said, while recognizing the right of a spouse whose husband has HIV/AIDS to demand that he use a condom.

Not being a Biblical scholar, I can't really speak to what the sixth commandment might have said or meant in its original Hebrew. However, I should note that there is some question about whether the sixth commandment is actually "Thou shalt not kill" or "Thou shalt not commit adultery." The Cardinal's statement seems to support both interpretations since he speaks of the "fight against fornication" and "defend[ing] life" as reasons to oppose the use of condoms. And, of course, there is some question whether "fornication" includes "adultery" and vice versa.

Whatever. Shrug.

Condoms prevent the spread of HIV. They don't cause or even encourage people to have sex (fornicatory or adulterous or even marital). If having sex is the issue, then talk about that. Talk about it until you're blue in the face if that's what it's all about. But don't demonize condoms. They are just a means of preventing the spread of disease--if used consistently and correctly--not an aphrodisiac.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Popular Culture, Democrats, Policy

I'm in a hurry, so there's no hope of being creative on titling or extensive in references. Atrios (link above) refers to Amy Sullivan's response (link in Atrios) to Matthew Iglesias' response (link in Sullivan's response) to something Amy said (hellifiknow what that link is) about Democrats, popular culture, and public policy. [whew] Sullivan apparently thinks that Dems need to talk more about the broader community's concerns about the coarsening of popular culture to show how we identify with those concerns--even if there is no actual public policy solution to those concerns. A lot of folks pile on in slamming Sullivan's essay; Atrios and Iglesias essentially say that there are more important things to be talking about.

So I agree with most everything all of them are saying (even the slammers--though not with the ad hominem comments) to some extent--but not to the extent that I want to see Democratic office holders or candidates for office start using those evil Hollywood movies to distract people from the real issues that we need to be addressing in this country. The entertainment industry is, in general, a means of pacifying the masses and distracting them from those issues anyway; when we don't like the pacifier, complaining about it can also be a distraction if we use it as a way to avoid looking at the underlying problems.

What I think is that there is a lot of crap out there in movie theaters and on the airwaves. I don't watch it or listen to it--by choice. There are a few programs on television that I like to watch. Survivor I have already discussed (and wasn't last week's episode one to make you think a bit?). CSI (not the clones) is another that I like. I can pretty well tell when they are about to close in for one of the gory shots--and I literally cover my eyes so that I don't have to see it. These are "low culture" and widely dismissed as part of the "decline" of network television. On the other hand, I had little use for Frasier, which is said to be a fine show, because I just don't like wasting my time on sit-coms. I make the odd exception when I accidentally run across "King of the Hill" (I think that's its name) late at night. My car radio is tuned to either classical or oldies rock or NPR. The rest is noise. And the radio is usually off anyway. Most of the movies that we see are purchased, usually when they have been around for quite a while. We tend to like romantic comedies for joint viewing; tear-jerkers for me to see without the Prince. From this you can tell that the occasional flash of skin is not a problem, violence is. And we vote with our pocket books--to the extent that we contribute to commercial entertainment at all--to show that it's only the occasional flash of skin that is acceptable and never the violence.

There's still lots of stuff out there that we wouldn't watch or listen to willingly, but it's still there. Someone likes it. Someone is spending large amounts of money to support it. The market is voting. I don't much like their favorites. In fact, I actively disapprove of some of the things that I know are showing up on movie screens and on radio and television. I think the radical body makeovers are sickening and exploitive. I think the violent movies are disgusting. I'm not really sure how four-letter words can be musical and--while I am familiar with the F word and know how to put it to effective use--I really don't think it needs to be coming out of anyone's radio. Nonetheless, I know that to some people there is some artistic merit in this dreck. Or at least they find it entertaining. I don't see how criticizing their taste in popular culture or attacking those who provide it for them will address the underlying issues that are being met in the popular culture that they consume.

No time now to look at rap music, but let's consider for a minute the violent movies that are out there. Bruce Willis Hard Something movies. Things exploding. Bodies flying. There's probably a simple plot. Good guys versus bad guys. Good guys win, but first there's a lot of gore. The audience for this movie is more male than female. The audience is younger more than older. They're watching the movie because they've been well attracted by advertising that is geared to their demographic. They're watching the movie because there are no more attractive alternatives for their time, such as sports or family or community activities. They're watching the movie because there are fantasies of male success that cannot be fulfilled in other ways being played out on the screen.

There are precious few public policy solutions that would be effective in turning this audience away from this product. Maybe some more money to support sports or community activities would be helpful. More funds to help young folks go to college. But it's really up to the families to say what is good and valuable and what is not. The values that say it's pleasurable to watch people explode come from home, not from the movie producer.

I couldn't watch the first half of Saving Private Ryan. I believe that there were important messages in that movie. I believe that I got them. I just couldn't bear to see how all of them were portrayed. Not with my eyes. My mind knew those images from long ago. Bruce Willis has appeared in some really crappy movies. Tom Hanks has appeared in some great ones. Which ones should we censor? Which ones should Democrats complain about?

Nope. This is personal values and personal responsibility.