Thursday, June 28, 2007

Summertime Means New Shows on Basic Cable

[NOTE: I have been asked to become a contributing columnist for WILDsound, a new entertainment website. My beat will be network and basic cable television. The article below is my first submission to the site.]

Summer used to be vacation time for the television industry. Reruns ruled the airwaves, with the hope that viewers would take the time to catch up on some shows they missed during the busy season. Not anymore. Summer is now just another scheduling season for television, a time when the networks throw out a smorgasbord of reality series in an effort to provide some mindless fun.

But, as we know, the "mindless" part usually far outdistances the "fun," a fact that has not been lost on basic cable channels. Dominated most of the year by hand-me-down reruns from the networks, basic cable has sailed in to fill the void of new fiction shows, using the summer as its season to roll out original programming. Since they lack the publicity machines of the networks and the freedom to push the envelope on sex, language or violence (or, in the case of "The Sopranos," all three) of pay cable outlets, basic cable channels have to find other ways to distinguish themselves. It seems they have found the answer in that they are fortunate enough to work with the ratings bar set far lower, so they can offer programs that appeal to a niche viewership.

There are exceptions to this rule. TNT's "The Closer," for example, offers a network-style police procedural with network-level production values, so it has been able to reap network-size ratings. However, two programs that debuted on basic cable channels this summer illustrate the niche-appeal strategy that basic cablers can embrace.

On June 6, TBS, a station dominated by reruns of bygone comedies like "Friends" and "Everyone Loves Raymond," debuted "House of Payne," the new sitcom (sadly, I don't get to write that phrase very often) created by the king of niche marketing, Tyler Perry. For those of you not familiar with Perry, he attracted underserved rural and suburban African Americans looking for a more wholesome brand of entertainment when he toured with his plays, routinely performing to sold out houses. When Perry sought to turn his "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" into a film, the studios didn't know what to do with him, despite his large, loyal audience. So, Perry went it alone, raised the relatively modest $5.5 million budget, and was rewarded with a nearly $22 million opening weekend, despite bad reviews and a limited release (the movie showed on less than 1,500 screens, half the scope of a major release by the studios).

Perry has now brought his unique sensibilities (and sizable audience) to the traditional family sitcom genre with "House of Payne," about a young father (C.J., played by Allen Payne) who moves with his two children into the home of his Uncle Curtis (LaVan Davis), Aunt Ella (Cassi Davis) and ne'er-do-well cousin Calvin (Lance Gross). Is the show any good? The question is almost beside the point, given Perry's success in the face of bad reviews before. But, everything about "Payne" is amateurish and trite, from the high-school-play quality sets, to the haphazard casting (Davis looks more like Payne's brother than his uncle, and nobody in the family looks like anyone else), to plot lines that would be too done-to-death for "According to Jim" (are they paying Bill Cosby for ripping off the patriarch-wanting-the-kids-out-of-the-house routine?), to the over-the-top characters (Uncle Curtis is so broad and clowning, he makes George Jefferson look like Colin Powell). Seriously, if a white writer put together this show, he/she would (rightly) be condemned by every civil rights group in the country.

But, of course, Perry doesn't care one bit what I (or most mainstream writers) think, because we are not in his target audience. He has done just enough to tweak the traditional sitcom structure to endear the show to his fans. In one episode, after Uncle Curtis spends ten wacky minutes celebrating C.J.'s decision to move out of the house, the plot turns on a dime when C.J.'s crack-addicted estranged wife (Demetria McKinney) shows up at the front door begging for help. The scene plays more melodramatic than gritty (if being addicted to crack leaves you looking as pretty as McKinney, I fear women will start running to their local drug dealers as part of their beauty regimens), and it feels odd that the traditional sitcom complication, which would usually entail something benign like money being left in pants sent off to the cleaners, would turn on someone's drug addiction.

Despite my reservations about his show, I would advise Perry to ignore every word of criticism I listed above. Why? Because Perry has demonstrated that he knows what his audience wants, and he is more than able to deliver it to them. The show is hugely successful by TBS's standards, attracting 5.2 million viewers for the debut episode, and 5.8 million people tuned in for the second installment that ran right after the first one. Perry has successfully brought his loyal audience with him to television.

Meanwhile, over at USA, the home of reruns of the "Law and Order" spin-offs and "JAG," "The Starter Wife" launched on May 31. Like "Payne," "Starter" is intended for a niche audience, in this case women (who, by numbers, shouldn't be a niche, but that is how the industry treats them, because, the belief is, women will watch "men's" shows, but men won't watch "chick" shows). Where the "Payne" cast is filled with less-than-household names (Allen Payne's claim to fame was playing Lance on "The Cosby Show" ... hey, maybe that's how they stole the Cosby premise!), "Starter" stars "Will & Grace" vet Debra Messing, who is surrounded with well-known co-stars like Joe Mantegna, Judy Davis, Anika Noni Rose, and Miranda Otto.

The show plays like a chick-lit novel come to life, which is not surprising since it's based on a book in that genre written by Gigi Levangie (soon-to-be ex-wife of uber producer Brian Grazer). "Starter" centers on a Hollywood wife (Messing) who is dumped by her husband via a late night phone call and cast out from her social set. She moves into a house by the ocean owned by one of her only loyal friends (Davis, stealing every scene she's in), where she is joined frequently by her other two best friends (Otto and Chris Diamantopoulos). Messing's character also takes in the complex's college student/security guard (Rose) and her grandmother (Novella Nelson) after they are evicted from their fleabag motel.

"Starter" feels like a "Sex in the City" for Los Angeles, with a dash of "Will & Grace" (Diamantopoulos's character is gay) and "Ally McBeal" (Messing's character has flights of fantasy) thrown in. The "Starter" women are nicer than Carrie Bradshaw and her buddies, but they are also less accomplished, as none of them have a job. The show is, in many ways, a cliche of women's fantasies: A group of women (and the requisite gay man) living in a beautiful Malibu beach house with plenty of time on their hands and no money concerns, with their only problems involving their less-than-adequate husbands (well, Davis's character does have a drinking problem, but she is so cool, you almost feel like it's okay, at least until she wraps her Prius around a telephone pole).

Of course, Messing's character has knights in shining armor to save her, like the rich and kind movie mogul who fakes his own suicide (Mantegna) or the homeless guy (Stephen Moyer) who is nevertheless noble, protective and attractive (maybe Malibu dry cleaners provide free dress shirt pressing to the homeless as a service to the community?). The rest of the men are equally two-dimensional and uniformly unlikable, ranging from cold and thoughtless (Messing's husband), to clueless and unfaithful (Otto's husband), to cold and bumbling (the policemen investigating Mantegna's character's disappearance), to just plain evil (the motel landlord).

Much like "Payne," however, none of my criticisms matter, because as a straight male, I am not in the "Starter" target audience (although, maybe the executive producers should be a bit concerned, since despite my gender and sexual orientation, "Gilmore Girls" occupied the top spot on my TiVo Season Pass list until the show ended in May). And, like "Payne," "Starter" scored with its intended audience, drawing 5.4 million viewers for its first airing.

"Payne" and "Starter" are hits because they are summer-debuting shows on basic cable networks that have lower standards for determining how large an audience has to be to constitute a success. To put it in perspective, Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was pulled from NBC's schedule when its ratings fell to "only" 7.7 million viewers in February (from its debut of more than 13 million viewers), and CBS canceled "Jericho" after its numbers dipped from more than 11 million watching its pilot to 8.1 million tuning in for its finale (the network later changed its mind and ordered seven episodes for early 2008).

Dearly departed shows like "Arrested Development," "Sports Night," "Studio 60," "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" all drew audiences large enough to be hits on basic cable. Alas, they all aired on networks. But the success of shows like "Payne" and "Starter" could open the door for these kinds of "cult" shows to find a life before they are snuffed out prematurely by networks in need of monster hits. That's a good thing. You never know, maybe next summer, a basic cable channel will air the next great show in the tradition of these favorites of mine. If it happens, I'll have Tyler Perry and Debra Messing to thank for it. And I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Thompson's Approach to the Truth Would Make Him W, Part Two

I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil. ... What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he's around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I'm semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation ...
- Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) talking about news reporter Tom Grunick (William Hurt) in the 1987 film "Broadcast News," written by James L. Brooks

As usual, with CNN tied up covering its attractive-woman-in-peril story of the moment yesterday, I had to go in search of "real" news online. While trying to find out what was happening in the world beyond the murder of a pregnant Ohio woman, I read a Yahoo!/AP article about former U.S. Senator (R-Tenn.) and future presidential candidate Fred Thompson's comments addressing his past as a lobbyist, work that earned him, according to the article, more than $1 million.

According to the article, Thompson said, "Nobody yet has pointed out any of my clients that didn't deserve representation." Then, that very article noted that he had represented deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (a proponent of "necklacing," the killing of people by placing gas-soaked tires on them and lighting them on fire), as well as "a savings-and-loan deregulation bill that helped hasten the industry's collapse and a failed nuclear energy project that cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars."

A June 7 USA Today article revealed that Thompson lobbied for "Equitas Ltd., a British reinsurance company set up to handle billions of dollars in claims by asbestos victims," working with Harold Ickes, a Clinton aide he investigated while chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs. According to a article, the goal of working with Equitas was to "limit its liability from asbestos lawsuits."

Thompson might be proud of his lobbying record, but it's quite clear that he wasn't pushing for clean air, safe cars or the airing of more "Law and Order" spin-offs.

Now, nobody is accusing Thompson of doing anything illegal. He is allowed to cash in on his government service by exerting his influence on behalf of causes that are legal, even if they may be distasteful to most people. After all, the tobacco companies are staffed up at every level with people willing to make their livings off of something they know is killing massive amounts of people.

But, Thompson is about to toss his cowboy hat (the one he wore as he campaigned for the Senate in Tennessee as a "country lawyer") into the ring for the presidency, so the nature of his past work is fair game in deciding if he is fit to hold the highest office in the country. Republicans are quick to point out that John Edwards was a personal injury lawyer, so it must be relevant that Thompson worked for savings-and-loan criminals and a dictator (according to the Yahoo!/AP article, Aristide said of necklacing, "The burning tire, what a beautiful tool!") and against asbestos victims.

Unfortunately, Thompson seems to be adept at running plays from the George W. Bush playbook, building a persona that has no basis in reality, but one that the American people would nonetheless buy into.

Bush was the son of a president and the grandson of a U.S. Senator (from Connecticut of all places!), and yet he passed himself off as one of the guys, just a jovial shit-kicker with a ranch in Texas who would rather clear brush than hang out with elitists and intellectuals (you know, people that know stuff and, gasp, read newspapers). Bush then campaigned as a "compassionate" conservative, but based on his policies, the only things he seems to be compassionate to are rich people, oil companies and funeral homes. He certainly didn't show much compassion to the people of New Orleans, nor is he showing any compassion to the Reserves and National Guard troops who have essentially been drafted for a misguided escapade in Iraq. And, most of all, Bush portrayed himself in 2004 as being the man most deserving of serving as commander in chief in a time of war, even though he used his family connections to weasel out of having to serve in Vietnam, and then couldn't even complete his cushy Guard duty handed to him to avoid having to see action.

Thompson is a career politician and lobbyist whose allegiance is to the same people Bush has bowed down before and served for the last six-and-a-half years. But, like Bush, Thompson is portraying himself as an outsider, someone Americans can view as "just like them." Being a professional actor, especially one typecast in roles of tough-but-fair authority figures, doesn't hurt his ability to fill out a persona that is appealing, even if it is wholly false.

Albert Brooks's character in "Broadcast News" might as well have been talking about Thompson when he gave the speech quoted at the top of this article. Thompson is an engaging, folksy, likable, comforting figure as an actor, but just like his work in film and television, as a politician, he is playing a role. After all, if he came out and said, "I'm a hard-line, right wing, extreme conservative who will fight for the profits of corporations before the day-to-day problems facing average Americans, and I will push through a religiously-influenced, conservative social agenda that is not supported by a majority of the country's citizens," he could not get elected. (Although, that stance might guarantee him the Republican nomination.)

Thompson is trying to lull Americans into a sense of comfort, so he can lift their wallets and send their young adult children off to war. It worked for Bush, so why wouldn't it work again? One of the commentators on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos last Sunday made the argument that in 2000 and 2004, the electorate voted for the more "likable" candidate. But, after six-and-a-half years of one disaster after another in the Bush administration, in 2008, Americans are looking for competence over personality. It's a nice theory, but, sadly, I don't buy it. The premise of his argument is that Americans are paying attention, but I'm not sure that's true. I saw on television recently that 40 percent of Rudy Giuliani's supporters didn't know his stance on abortion. When push comes to shove, it's going to be about Thompson's folksy charm for too many voters.

Which brings the discussion back to Thompson's lobbying history. Everyone has to earn a living, but it takes a certain kind of person to be able to completely compartmentalize the morals of a client in order to make a fast buck. Thompson might be charismatic, but he had no trouble shilling for a brutal dictator and white collar criminals. The fact that he's made those choices, to me, shines a light the size of the sun on who he is and how he would govern as the president. Unfortunately, for every one person that read even one of the articles on Thompson's lobbying history, there are thousands (maybe millions) who have followed the murder of the pregnant woman in Ohio, as if that was the important story of the day. How many Americans even know Thompson was a lobbyist? As a result, Thompson will mostly likely be able to thrive without his work history so much as slowing him down.

Brooks's "Broadcast News" character, Aaron Altman, doesn't get what he really wants, the love of Holly Hunter's Jane Craig, who chooses to run off with William Hurt's Tom Grunick instead. But, Aaron does figure out that Tom had to fake crying while doing an interview with a rape victim, and his tip to Jane leads to her dumping Tom before they leave on their island vacation. It's up to the Democrats, in Aaron's position, to make the American people, taking Jane's place, understand that Thompson, like Tom, is the devil. Like Jane, the American people will not fall in love with the Democrats, but, like Aaron, the Democrats have to do just enough for the American people to see Thompson's true nature. It's their only chance for a quasi-happy ending.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bush to Blame for Henry Leaving Arsenal ... In a Way

Gerald (Tom Wilkinson): One, two, three-- No! No! No! Jesus Christ! All I want to do is get you in a straight bloody line! What do I have to do?
Horse (Paul Barber): It's the Arsenal off-side trap, isn't it?
Gerald: The what?
Horse: The Arsenal off-side trap. Lomper here is Tony Adams, right? Any bugger looks like scoring... we all step forward in a line ...
- The guys learning their dance routine in the 1997 film "The Full Monty," written by Simon Beaufoy

Most Americans reading the headline of this article will assume "Henry" is someone's first name, like, say, home run king (steroids-free division) Henry Aaron, while "Arsenal" refers to a storage of arms in a third world country like Iraq, North Korea or Crawford, Texas.

In fact, the "Henry" of the headline is French soccer superstar Thierry Henry (pronounced "ON-ree"), and "Arsenal" is the North London-based club for whom he has played for the last eight seasons. Arsenal was mentioned in the film "The Full Monty" (see the quote above). And, more importantly, Arsenal is the team I have supported since I started watching English football (soccer) in 1998.

(How did I choose Arsenal? I'll tell the story at the end of this article.)

Now that the nomenclature is set, am I really saying that President George W. Bush is responsible for Henry's decision to leave Arsenal for Barcelona of the Spanish Primera Liga? Yes. Am I exaggerating? Well, yes. But, there is a kernel of truth in my statement.

A brief history lesson is in order. England's Premier League is the most lucrative and, arguably, best soccer league in the world (for those of you who are fans of Spanish or Italian football, your leagues have equal right to make that claim). As money has found its way into English football over the last ten years or so, businessmen from other countries have been attracted to buying English soccer teams. This has resulted in three of England's top four teams being purchased by foreigners, first when Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea before the 2003-2004 season, and later when American Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United (think the Yankees of English football) and American Tom Hicks and Canadian George Gillett (both NHL owners) teamed up to buy Liverpool (think the Dodgers of English football). That left Arsenal, controlled by a "veddy English" board of directors chaired by Peter Hill-Wood (it wasn't enough for him to have one traditional English last name, he needed two), as the last English-owned team in the "big four."

After buying Chelsea, Abramovich went on a shopping spree for players that made the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox look like the Pirates, Devil Rays and Marlins. Unlike in U.S. sports, European soccer teams buy the rights to players from each other, sometimes for crazy sums of money. The poster child for this excess was Ukraine and AC Milan striker Andrei Shevchenko, for whom Chelsea paid 30 million pounds (just under $60 million) before last season. Glazer and the Hicks/Gillett partnership also provided big money to their managers for player purchases.

Arsenal, while a wealthy team compared with most of the other teams in the English Premier League, does not have the resources of its "big four" rivals to splash out crazy amounts of money for stars. Instead, the Gunners (think the Braves of English football) rely on the smart talent evaluation of their French manager, Arsene Wenger, who has been at the helm of the club since 1996. One of Wenger's early and smartest moves was to sign Thierry Henry, a player he coached while the manager of Monaco who was floundering on the bench of the powerful Italian club Juventus. Wenger changed Henry's position from winger to striker (kind of like moving a number-two hitter to the clean-up spot in the batting order), and Henry developed into one of the top players in the world. Under Wenger's stewardship, Arsenal has won three Premier League titles (I guess the Braves comparison ends there) and three FA Cups (a major English tournament played throughout the season). Only Manchester United has won more league titles during that time.

But the football environment was changing, a fact not lost on Arsenal vice chairman David Dein, the football brains on the Arsenal board and the man who brought Wenger to North London. A season after Abramovich bought Chelsea, the Blues reeled off back-to-back Premier League titles. This year, Manchester United won the crown with Chelsea placing second. Meanwhile Arsenal, which had won the 2003-2004 title by going the entire season without losing a game (26 wins, 12 draws and no defeats), had been reduced to back-to-back fourth place finishes. In fact, in the 2005-2006 season, Arsenal needed a win on the last week of the season, combined with a food poisoning-induced loss by their arch rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, to sneak into the all-important fourth place position (the top four teams in England are invited to compete in the lucrative Champions League European competition the following season). In other words, two years after a perfect season, Arsenal was a plate of bad seafood away from the financial and reputational hit of missing out on the top European competition.

More importantly, as Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool made big splashes in the player transfer market, Arsenal watched many of their veteran players depart for greener pastures (financially, not better kept fields), filling in with young, promising, but inexperienced players. Miraculously, Wenger guided the baby Gunners, loaded with players in their early 20s, to the Champions League final in 2006, where they nearly pulled off an amazing upset of Barcelona, even though they played most of the game with one fewer player than their opponents after their goalkeeper was ejected for a foul early in the contest (the new keeper saved the ensuing penalty, and Arsenal scored first, only to surrender two late goals as the players tired).

But Dein knew that Arsenal's miraculous run was an aberration, and that for Arsenal to keep from slipping permanently behind Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, he needed to take action. He had guided the move to a larger stadium, which would net the club an estimated 20 million additional pounds a year, but Dein knew that Arsenal needed a deep-pocketed owner to compete. As a result, he embraced the interest of American billionaire Stan Kroenke, husband of a Wal-Mart heir and owner of the NBA's Denver Nuggets, NHL's Colorado Avalanche and MLS's Colorado Rapids. Kroenke purchased a 12 percent stake in Arsenal in April, but instead of congratulating Dein for his foresight, the Arsenal board freaked out, forced Dein from the board, and signed a pledge that board members (who owned nearly 50 percent of the club) would not sell their shares for a year, all but scuttling a Kroenke takeover.

Hill-Wood was quite clear in his feelings about Kroenke: "Call me old fashioned, but we don't need his money and we don't need his sort" (you can see the quote in this Daily Mail article). This was not an owner making a business judgment. The "his sort" comment said it all. This was a very English gentleman expressing his outrage that a, gulp, common American might own his beloved Arsenal.

Which brings us to my original point, that it's Bush's fault that Henry left Arsenal. Wealthy Englishmen didn't need help from Bush to view Americans as boorish, but Bush's policies have not exactly endeared the U.S. to the rest of the world. While Bill Clinton put a friendly face on the U.S. and was embraced when he traveled abroad, in most European countries, Bush is reviled as a go-it-alone, mentally-challenged, religiously fanatic, imperialistic, war-happy, cowboy president. Had an American tried to buy Arsenal in 1996, I'm sure there would have been substantial resistance. But, I have no doubt that Bush's assassination of the U.S.'s foreign reputation added to the anti-American feelings generated by Kroenke's interest in the Gunners.

After all, while the Manchester United fans rioted when Glazer made his interest in the Red Devils known (the club was publicly traded, and Glazer took them private), in the wake of United's subsequent success, there was hardly a peep of protest when the North American owners took over at Aston Villa and Liverpool. Those fans saw the potential for investment in players. Hill-Wood, on the other hand, faced with a potential U.S.-based investor, saw a boorish American rolling into the Arsenal board room and redecorating it in a Western theme with a bull's head over the entryway, rather than a financial savior for his club and his ticket to staying in the upper echelon of the English Premier League.

The exit of Dein, who was not only extremely close to Wenger and Henry but was viewed as the real leader of the club, was the beginning of the end for Henry at Arsenal. Henry spoke out vociferously against Dein's exit. And then, after Wenger refused to extend his contract beyond June 2008, Henry, who had rejected a move to Barcelona before last season, last week responded to the tug of his mortality as a player (he turns 30 in August) and decided to pursue his first Champions League title surrounded by stars like Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto'o in Barcelona rather than leading a bunch of promising youngsters in North London.

It's not a stretch to say that hyperbolic, anti-American fears on the part of the Arsenal board forced Dein out. And, it's a straight line from Dein's ouster to Henry's exit. So, I feel comfortable blaming Bush (a little, anyway) for the departure of one of the best player's in the world from my favorite football team.

It is fascinating to me that Hill-Wood never saw this chain of events coming. And, it could get worse. If Wenger goes, Arsenal becomes a team that lacks both the resources of the other "big four" clubs and the manager with exceptional abilities in spotting talent and developing young players that allowed the club to compete despite its financial limitations. And, if Wenger goes, many of the top young players on the Arsenal squad, like superstar-in-waiting Cesc Fabregas, may follow him out the door. Some pundits are even asking if Henry's departure is the beginning of the end for Arsenal's status as a major club.

And to think, Arsenal's possible self-destruction has come from its board's disdain of Americans.

Not surprisingly, Hill-Wood has recently done a 180-degree turn and met with Kroenke in New York earlier in the month, and one can only hope that at some point in the near future, Kroenke and his Wal-Mart inflated checkbook will be welcomed into the Arsenal family. But the damage has been done. Henry was more than just a great player. Unlike many players that dip into town, take the big paycheck, but never bother to become part of the culture or even learn to speak English, Henry embraced London. His English is flawless. He married an English woman (the model Nicole Merry). He was Arsenal's captain, a leader for the young players to learn from. And now, he's gone. The 16 million pounds Barcelona paid Arsenal for Henry will allow the Gunners to buy a decent player, but there is no way to replace everything Henry brought to the club.

I already viewed Bush as the man who valued religion over science and logic, and who has failed the American people at every turn, especially in his criminally incompetent handling of Iraq. But, who would have ever thought that he would play a role in an English soccer team losing its French captain? It seems Bush's ability to mess things up is limitless. At least that's what I'm going to take from Henry's departure. It's better than looking forward to a season of Arsenal football without Henry's magic.

*****Footnote: How I Became an Arsenal Supporter?*****
In England, you are not a "fan," you are a "supporter," which recognizes the important role the public plays in the success of professional sports teams.

After the 1998 World Cup, I became very interested in soccer, especially English soccer. I knew my wife and I would be visiting England later that year (we eventually went to an English Premier League game, West Ham United at Coventry City), and I began reading up on the English league on the Internet.

I decided I should choose a team to root for. I believe you should support teams in your home town, but since I didn't see the English Premier League placing a team in New York any time soon, I decided my team should be from London, a city I had visited and loved. With many teams in the capitol to choose from (at the time, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, Wimbledon and Crystal Palace were all in the English Premier League), I chose Arsenal for two primary reasons.

First, my favorite player from the 1998 World Cup, Dutchman Denis Bergkamp, played for Arsenal, as did the only English player I had heard of before the World Cup started, striker Ian Wright. Throw in Dutch winger Marc Overmars and English goalkeeper David Seaman (and his 1970s porn star mustache), and I knew more players on Arsenal than on any other club.

But, the main thing that attracted me to Arsenal was its tradition of playing tough defense. Other teams' fans would sing "boring, boring Arsenal" during games, making fun of the team's defensive style, but, to me, that was a compliment. While many soccer fans talk about "the beautiful game," meaning the passing of the ball and the offensive-minded approach to the game, I felt like I should not give up my beliefs as an American sports fan in my new sport, and I had always pulled for teams that played good defense. I viewed it as a character issue. Offense is glamorous and easy to get excited about. Only true team players embraced defense. And, in 1998, Arsenal started four, tough English defenders, including captain Tony Adams, in front of Seaman and his mustache. They were so iconic, they were held up as the definition of organization in the "The Full Monty," as quoted at the top of this piece.

Ironically, in the years that followed, as Wenger put his stamp on his team, he recognized that English players cost more money just because they carried a British passport. So, to compete without a ton of money for transfer fees, he imported players from other countries (he was one of the first English club managers to embrace players from Africa) and moved to a more continental, offense-oriented style. As a result, Arsenal now routinely sends a starting 11 onto the field with no British players in the line-up. Only youngsters Justin Hoyte and Theo Wolcott will compete for a starting spot next season, unless Wenger brings in another British player during the off-season.

But it doesn't matter if they play 11 Englishmen or none, or if they play attacking football or tough defense like in the days of Tony Adams, I am an Arsenal supporter. And I will continue to be an Arsenal supporter, even with Thierry Henry in Spain. But, he will be missed.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Firefighters' Caskets Are Fit for TV, But Soldiers' Coffins Are Off Limits

There's a reluctance to confront reality and a desire to soften unpleasant realities ... by giving them slightly different names. The various areas where euphemistic language -- euphemistic usages -- crop up are meant to hide the truth, soften reality, make something a little more pleasant or less unpleasant.
- George Carlin to CNN, October 29, 2004

Last Friday, one image dominated CNN's coverage: Nine flag-draped coffins, in a row, containing the bodies of the firefighters killed in a South Carolina furniture store fire. (A still photo of the image accompanied many news articles, like one by Yahoo!/AP.) It's completely understandable why CNN ran the image so often. It summed up, succinctly and touchingly, the magnitude of the loss.

While the loss of the firefighters is certainly a tragedy, as I watched the image of the flag-draped coffins, I couldn't help but think of the fact that those nine bodies represented about one-four-hundreth of the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. And, that those nine flag-draped coffins were nine more than we've seen of Americans killed in Iraq. That is, of course, because the Pentagon has made it policy that flag-draped caskets are not to be photographed by the media.

The argument, articulated by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) in a 2004 AP article (and supported by President Bush, as noted in an MSNBC article) is that the policy is for the privacy of the families. But, really, that argument is a crock. Showing a flag-draped coffin does not single out the identify of the soldier, nor does it invade any inner sanctum. What the Republicans have a problem with is that they know the same thing that CNN knew when showing the firefighters' coffins: that it humanizes the victims. It makes the scene more personal and more poignant, and it makes the loss more palpable and more real. That effect is exactly the opposite reaction the Republicans want, because they know that the more the 3,500 plus soldiers that have perished in Iraq are humanized, the more they are people and not stats in a photo-less article, and the harder it will be for the American people to support the war that is causing these deaths. It is the same kind of manipulation George Carlin was talking about in the quote at the top of this piece.

In the 2004 AP article, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) points out that "during the Kosovo conflict President Clinton was on the tarmac to receive the dead," and that even during the Bush administration, flag-draped coffins were filmed during the war in Afghanistan. Lautenberg pulled no punches about the reasoning for the Pentagon's policy, calling it "an outrage" and asserting that the policy was instituted before the war in Iraq to prevent "the American people from seeing the truth about what's happening."

It seems to me that with the war into its fifth year, and with no end in sight to the bloodshed, it seems relevant now, more than ever, for Americans to have a chance to feel and understand the country's loss because of the president's insistence on pursuing a failed policy. The 2004 AP article was about the failed attempt of the then Republican-controlled Senate to overturn the Pentagon policy. The Democrats are now in control of Congress, and, in light of the microscopic size of Congress's approval ratings, it seems to me that they desperately need to show they understand the American people's frustration over the war. The 2004 vote was 54-39 against repealing the Pentagon policy, and that was at a time when 837 soldiers had been lost in Iraq. With the number now more than four times that figure, maybe it is time for the Democrats to revisit the issue.

I am sure that the Republicans will jump up and down and call any effort to overturn the Pentagon policy a ploy and an affront to the soldiers and their families. I would say that showing the reality of the war, that young men and women are being killed on a daily basis, is not a ploy, but is the press doing its First Amendment job of reporting what is happening to the American people, and doing so in the most effective way possible, just as CNN showed the flag-draped coffins of the South Carolina firefighters. Besides, what could be more of an affront to the soldiers and their families than the incompetence, stubbornness and lack of respect shown by the Bush administration in the (lack of) planning and execution of the war?

Nine deaths of firefighters in South Carolina resulted in top-story coverage by the media outlets, and that coverage included images of flag-draped caskets. It seems to me that the deaths of soldiers in Iraq, in addition to being far more numerous, are equally tragic (and equally senseless) and deserve equal treatment. Only Republican desires to dehumanize the loss in a way that is straight out of the diversion book Carlin talked about are keeping the Iraq deaths from television screens and newspaper pages. Well, that and CNN's obsession with the apparent murder of a pregnant woman in Ohio. The Republicans have an unlikely rival in exploitative news coverage that could trump any change in the Pentagon policy. Somewhere George Carlin is nodding his head in sad agreement.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Should New Zealand Couple Be Allowed to Name Their Kid "4Real"?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
- From Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Walter (Gib) Gibson (John Cusack): Elliot? You're gonna name the kid Elliot? No, you can't name the kid Elliot. Elliot is a fat kid with glasses who eats paste. You're not gonna name the kid Elliot. You gotta give him a real name. Give him a name. Like Nick.
Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga): Nick?
Walter (Gib) Gibson (John Cusack): Yeah, Nick. Nick's a real name. Nick's your buddy. Nick's the kind of guy you can trust, the kind of guy you can drink a beer with, the kind of guy who doesn't mind if you puke in his car.
- An exchange in the 1985 film "The Sure Thing," written by Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts and directed by Rob Reiner

According to a Yahoo!/AP article I read today, authorities in New Zealand have prevented a couple, Pat and Sheena Wheaton, from naming their baby "4Real." After recovering from my explosion of laughter, I thought to myself, "Where do I come down on this?" (other, of course, than concluding that people in New Zealand clearly do not have many real problems if they are spending time on this issue).

On the one hand, the First Amendment supporter in me feels like the couple has a right to express themselves however they want. If parents can name their children "Hope," "Faith" and "Chastity," what is the problem with "Real" (with a "4" in front of it)? It's not like they tried to name the kid "War," "Douchebag" or "Dick Cheney."

Little 4Real would join a rich pantheon of crazy names that have entertained me over the years. As a child in 1980, I couldn't stop laughing and telling everyone I knew when I heard that basketball player Lloyd B. Free had legally changed his name to World B. Free. I learned the tough lesson that name changing could be bad when 1970s Nebraska running back I.M. Hipp announced he wanted to be known as Isaiah. Sure, it was his real first name, but to take away the enjoyment of hearing the name I.M. Hipp on broadcasts from a child like me was just cruel. While not his actual name, running back Rod Smart supplied the only positive thing to come from the WWE's XFL when he put He Hate Me on the name space on the back of his jersey. And, who could forget the mother of all baby names, George Costanza's desire to call his yet-to-be-conceived offspring "Seven" in honor of Yankee great Mickey Mantle.

Of course, baby 4Real is not a professional athlete or fictional, so odds are his ride would not be as smooth as those enjoyed by Free, Hipp, Smart and the unborn Costanza child. First days of school would be especially interesting: "James Walton. Do you prefer James or Jim? Timothy Weir. Do your parents call you Tim? 4Real Wheaton. Sweetheart, do you like to be called 4Real or Four?" Not to mention on the playground, when the other kids would undoubtedly say to him, "Are we going to beat the living daylights out of you today and every other day for the rest of your school life? Yes, for real."

Then again, it's not illegal for parents to set their children up for a tough life through the names they choose. It's not like a stripper can sue her parents for deciding her future by naming her Destiny, and a junior high school boy named Nimrod cannot seek personal injury damages from his parents for the brain trauma brought on by excessive beatings by his classmates.

The use of a numeral in the place of a word does pose a problem for me, since I bemoan the loss of appreciation for the language showed by parents in naming their kids. Poor Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat basketball star, has to go through life with his first name misspelled. And I have no patience for the one-"T" Brets (like Poison lead singer Bret Michaels), one-"N" Glens (like country singer Glen Campbell), and last-letter-"I"s (singer Nanci Griffith, actress Kelli Williams and singer Danni Minogue, to name three) running around in the world. These variations to traditional names are not cute or unique, they're typos.

The 4Real situation poses an interesting dilemma. It's commendable that the authorities in New Zealand would look out for little 4Real Wheaton's health and welfare, but then again, are we doing him any favors by sending another Jacob, Michael, Joshua, Ethan or Matthew into the world (the five most common baby boy names, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration)? (In case you're wondering, the top five girls names are Emily, Emma, Madison, Isabella and Ava.) Talk about a confusing situation on the first day of school, or even the potential for danger. I can see the headline now: "Teacher Trampled to Death in Classroom," with the subhead, "Rookie instructor made mistake of asking 'Jacob and Emily' to come to her desk."

Maybe the answer is a waiting period, like when you buy a gun. Give the parents a few days to make sure they really want to start screwing up their kid's life in the first days after he or she is born, rather than waiting until the kid can actually engage in cognitive thought (like most parents). At the very least, it would give time for any legal or illegal substances clouding the parents' judgment to wear off. Because there is no doubt in my mind that the Wheatons know how to use hallucinogenics to enjoy their down time.

Apparently, for now, the dye has been cast. The Wheatons will have to find another name. I have a suggestion: They should use Seven, not for Micky Mantle, but for New Zealand rugby captain Richie McCaw. I'm guessing that in rugby-crazy New Zealand, even stoners watch the national team. And based on the Wheatons' choice of 4Real, it's safe to assume they would say that Richie just doesn't cut it. Seven is the answer. All they have to do now is fight off Costanza for it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

While CNN is Mesmerized by a Missing Pregnant Woman, Real News Goes Uncovered

My agent has a hot prospect -- the number two station in Portland. The general manager says he wants to be every bit as good as the networks. Personally, I think he should aim higher.

- Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) on his decision to leave his network reporting job in the 1987 film "Broadcast News," written by James L. Brooks

You can just feel the excitement over at CNN. I have visions of a modern day Paul Revere, likely an Ivy League graduate in business casual or a Joan Cusack go-getter from "Broadcast News," running through the halls in Atlanta screaming, "A pregnant blonde woman is missing! A pregnant blonde woman is missing!"

The disappearance and potential death of an innocent mother who is expecting another child is sad. I don't mean to in any way disparage the importance of the events to the woman's family. But the vast amount of hours CNN is devoting to this story is irresponsible.

While CNN has been distracted with the Texas floods and the missing woman in Ohio (stories that affect thousands of people), there are important national news stories going on that have managed to slip a bit under the radar, even though they affect the lives of millions. While my readership is slightly less than CNN's audience (or any other audience, for that matter), I figure the least I can do is shine a light on two of these stories.

Yesterday, a Yahoo!/AP article revealed that for President Bush to maintain his "surge" in Iraq through spring 2008, it will most likely be necessary to yet again extend the combat tours of soldiers. The fact that the administration would even consider such a move shows its complete lack of respect for the people who have chosen to serve in the armed forces. The military is calling it a "last resort," but the other options they floated, like using already overtaxed Reserve and National Guard units is equally unjust and odious. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has proposed a bill restricting the length of troop deployments. It will be interesting to see how Republicans go on the record with a vote on the issue.

The strain on the forces demonstrates how out of control the war in Iraq has spiraled. On Sunday morning, I heard Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos explain why he believes the U.S. should remain in Iraq, essentially arguing that the U.S. has a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not devolve into civil war and genocide, allowing Islamists to take over, with a domino effect ensuing in the rest of the region. I found Graham to be more responsible and honest in his approach than the stream of misinformation and diversion that comes from the White House, but I also found his argument to be misguided.

First of all, it is a nearly 60-year-old thought process, and one that was used to support the wars in Korea and Vietnam. We were told that if Vietnam fell to the communists, it would start a chain of events leading to communism taking over in Asia. Well, the communists won in Vietnam, and the dire warnings of the Red Menace on the march turned out to be nothing more than Chicken Little predictions of doom.

More importantly, I challenge Graham's underlying assumption. Who is to say what will happen if we pull out of Iraq? The Republicans would have you believe genocide would be certain, but, as Bill Maher frequently says, these predictions are coming from the people that have gotten every single prediction wrong about Iraq so far. It's hard to believe them now.

Graham's argument also assumes that the goal (a free, democratic, peaceful, secular Iraq) is a possible outcome of America's military involvement. As I wrote in this space on June 13, Muslims are killing each other all over the Middle East, with pro-Syrians blowing up anti-Syrians in Lebanon, the government battling Islamists in Lebanon, the Turkish army trying to squash the Kurds, and Hamas destroying Fatah in Gaza (with footage of Hamas forces marching Fatah fighters in their underwear through the streets, and reports of summary executions of Fatah fighters by Hamas). It seems far-fetched that the United States, especially with its reputation spoiled in the wake of Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay and its military fraying from being stretched beyond its abilities, is in any position to prevent the Shia-Sunni-Kurd battles in Iraq. Our mere presence in Iraq is one of the causes of unrest.

I am not arguing that there will not be a genocide in Iraq if the U.S. leaves. What I am saying is that it is not the foregone conclusion the administration and its supporters would have you believe. And, more importantly, are we supposed to send U.S. soldiers to their deaths indefinitely to keep the Shias and the Sunnis apart in Iraq? Nobody would support that. So, the assumption behind Graham's point is that if we stay there long enough, they will eventually kiss and make up. The arrogance of thought that the U.S. can effectuate this end to hostilities that is raging all over the Middle East is not only ridiculous, but, more importantly, it's dangerous and bad foreign policy.

Also flying under the radar thanks to CNN's obsession with pregnant women in peril is Bush's veto today of a bill to remove limits to federal funding of stem cell research. As I wrote here on June 7, Bush has repeatedly put his religious beliefs ahead of the good of the country and the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly support stem cell research. CNN is obsessed with the tragic flood in Texas that killed five people (according to a Yahoo!/AFP article) and the disappearance of one pregnant woman, but how many millions of people have had their lives and quality of lives put in danger because research into cures for their conditions will not be conducted at full potential solely because of the minority, religion-based views of the President? It seems clear to me which story is more important, but I guess vetoing a bill isn't as much of a viewer magnet as scary video of people being pulled from raging waters or still photos of an attractive pregnant woman.

The quote from Albert Brooks's character in "Broadcast News" that opened this article is 20 years old, but, sadly, it is even more applicable today. CNN should aim higher, because when they dish out non-news stories as if they are important, the truly important news events go by with virtually no coverage. As a result, the press's constitutional role of keeping watch on what the government does goes unfulfilled. If nothing else, CNN should worry that video of water is less interesting than footage of people being rescued. With so many Guard and Reserve units in Iraq, who will be around to save people the next time a town is flooded? What will CNN air then? Would they have to, gasp, cover the news? We know they don't want that to happen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Saving the World, One CD Case at a Time

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
- Laozi, a Chinese philosopher and leading figure in Taoism, who lived in the fourth century B.C.

Someone told me over the weekend that she wanted to see Michael Moore's new movie "Sicko," but she felt like Moore has been a failure in that, ultimately, his films haven't changed anything. After all, she said, President Bush was re-elected in 2004. She went on to say that Moore's movies, along with Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," are only watched by people who already agree with the films' arguments, but the people who need to be convinced do not watch thems and remain unaffected.

I respectfully disagree with that assessment. I admit that Moore and Gore (sounds like a law firm in a Dr. Seuss story) have not been able to have a quid pro quo impact on their subjects, causing the corridors of power to collapse and move to the points of view espoused in the films. But, I think that in a larger, less direct way, "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "An Inconvient Truth" were opening salvos that, over time, have spawned subtle (but pronounced) changes in the culture.

Much of Moore's argument in "Fahrenheit 9/11," mainly that Bush and his administration lied in an effort to support invading Iraq, while not explicitly accepted in November 2004 when Bush defeated John Kerry, is now a commonly held belief amongst Americans, including a big chunk of people that don't like Moore or his work. In November 2006, two short years after Bush was elected, the Republicans were voted out of control of Congress almost entirely on the Iraq war issue. Moore started an argument that, over time, woke up much of the country.

I think the same can be said of "An Inconvenient Truth." When Gore ran against Bush in 2000, Bush would not even admit that global warming existed. By 2006, Bush had shifted gears, admitting that global warming was a problem (although his new dodge was to throw up a smoke screen on the non-issue of whether or not man had anything to do with causing it, as this quote to People Magazine attests). Sure, Gore's film did not immediately lead to Congress adopting a 50-mile-per-gallon fuel standard or the President supporting the Kyoto Treaty, but it started the ball rolling that has, at the very least, established global warming as an important and dangerous problem facing mankind.

In that vein, I saw several news articles today that made me think that we have made progress, and that leave me hopeful of better environmental policies taking hold in the future.

According to a New York Times article, a minor league soccer team in eco-friendly Boulder, Colo., has become "The World’s First Carbon Neutral Soccer Team." The team, which is affiliated with Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids, takes various steps to stay in tune with the environment, ranging from training on fields that are not painted with lines and holding most practices locally rather than taking the hour-long bus ride (and the emissions that come with it) to the Rapids' more professional facilities in Denver, to paying for carbon offsets. The team even wears warm-up jerseys that feature the slogan, "Kick Global Warming."

One of the men behind the Colorado team's eco-friendly campaign suggests in the article that while the actions of a minor league soccer team in Colorado are a tiny step, he would love to see the team's practices progress to MLS, and then to the bigger leagues like the NBA and NFL, and even, someday, taking in the poster child for emitting greenhouse gases: NASCAR. It may seem crazy, but these things have to start somewhere. According to the article, in what is probably a coincidence, but one that indicates positive movement on the issue, the English football club Ipswich, which plays in the League Championship (the second-highest level in England), has declared itself "the U.K.’s First Carbon Neutral Football Club." Right now, Ipswich and the minor league team in Boulder are pioneers, but several years from now? Who knows?

I also read today a Yahoo!/Reuters article about independent record labels that have moved to more eco-friendly packaging. Craig Minowa of the Minneapolis band Cloud Cult started his own packaging facility when he could not find one that was environmentally responsible. His Earthology Recordings uses geothermal and wind power, recycles materials for the CD cases, and engraves the packaging with soy ink. He notes in the article that the major labels won't use eco-friendly processes because it would cost them pennies more per CD, which add up to a large additional expense. Given the financial downturn the labels are facing, it's hard to blame them. But other indie labels are also going the environmentally sensitive route.

(As an aside, I checked out the Cloud Cult myspace page and really liked the band's music. The "Garden State"-friendly, achingly beautiful, Shins-like acoustic-rock songs drew me in.)

The Yahoo!/Reuters article notes that Kufala Recordings in Los Angeles uses transparent cigarette paper instead of cellophane to wrap their discs, and Seattle indie powerhouse Sub Pop (once the home of Nirvana and the Shins) purchases vouchers from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to subsidize the use of renewable energy and switched from plastic CD cases to ones made from recyclable paperboard.

What the indie labels and the minor league soccer team have in common, and what might put them at the head of the curve towards a more eco-friendly approach to doing business, is that their decisionmaking did not shy way from economic realities, but in fact embraced them. While they all want to do right by the environment, they also view their processes as being effective for their long-term business goals. For example, while the paper CD boxes cost Sub Pop an extra 30 cents per unit, they are also saving 25 cents a unit on mailing costs. The economics of going green is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. For corporations to be more environmentally responsible down the road, they will need to address and embrace the economic side of operating in a green manner.

It's not just the little guys who are looking out for the environment and their bottom lines at the same time. I read no less than three articles today on Google's recent green efforts. A article described Google's decision to spend more than $10 million towards the development of vehicles that get from 70 to 100 miles per gallon. Also discussed was Google turning on its solar collection panels, which can generate 1.6 megawatts of power, making it the largest corporate solar project in the U.S. (A Yahoo!/ article addresses the Google solar project in more detail.) And, another article describes Google's partnership with Intel to make more energy-efficient personal computers and servers.

Just as the debate on global warming has taken a quantum leap forward in a few short years, it is entirely possible that the recent actions of some early adaptors, from little guys like a minor league soccer team and some independent record labels to a major corporation like Google, will be looked at as the pioneers for a new way of doing business that can help address the looming threat of greenhouse gasses. They have taken the first few steps on the journey described by Laozi in the quote at the top of this piece. Importantly, the pioneers are also demonstrating that being eco-friendly and business-minded are not mutually exclusive. A path has been set for other businesses and individuals to follow. Will they? Only time will tell. But, if Bush can admit that global warming exists, anything is possible.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Auction of Boy Band Guru's Possessions Feels Like Justice

Carson Daly: Amazing. Now how many of those bands are you still managing?
Lou Pearlstein: None. Not one. Not one band…he-e-ere’s the thing – I take’em to the big time, I break’em in, and then they leave me.
Carson Daly: That’s not cool. What’s up with that?
Lou Pearlstein: I uhh…like to wet the beak, I like to give a taste, I like to double dip.
Carson Daly: I…don’t understand.
Lou Pearlstein: I embezzle. I take their money.
Carson Daly: Oh, I see.
Lou Pearlstein: And then these kids, they got parents, lawyers, and…err…police, and child endangerment laws and judges and he-e-ere’s a tip. If you delete something from your hard drive, it’s not gone! It’s not! The FBI can still find it!!
- Jon Stewart as Lou Pearlstein and Jimmy Fallon as Carson Daly in a sketch on the March 9, 2002 episode of "Saturday Night Live"

I read a news item last week that brought a big smile to my face (so you know it had nothing to do with anything going on in Washington, D.C.). A Yahoo!/AP article described an auction of the possessions of Lou Pearlman, the mastermind behind the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. Creditors liquidated Pearlman's estate after he disappeared, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in debts and approximately 1,000 investors he allegedly defrauded.

Why would this news make me happy? Because since the mid-1990s rise to fame of boy bands (and their close relatives, the solo teen pop singers), I have become convinced that they are the cause of all evil in the music industry. I would also blame them for all the ills on the planet, if only I could find the elusive missing link from Nick Lachey to bird flu, Michael Bay movies, and Karl Rove.

The masses picking through Pearlman's possessions seemed like a fitting punishment for the man who infected the music industry with the mindless, soulless, heartless, edgeless crap for the tween masses that polluted the airwaves for too many years, and then apparently stole money from, well, everyone. It also felt like the last step in the crumbling of the teen pop empire, which has been in full swing over the last few years. Like the boy band world's beheading of Marie Antoinette or knocking down of the Berlin Wall. Other than Justin Timberlake (who is still just a lowly boy-bander to me), not a single boy band alum is currently enjoying any kind of career in the music industry. Instead, teen pop refugees have provided a reservoir of "talent" for reality shows, regional musical theater and rehab facilities.

The girls have fared a bit better, with Christina Aguilera now an established artist and Mandy Moore working her way up to the A list for actresses. But more have followed their male counterparts into oblivion, with Britney Spears now known more for her freaky behavior than for her singing, and Jessica Simpson thought of as "the reality TV idiot who thought Chicken of the Sea tuna was made of chicken." I know I am not the only person who didn't recognize that it was Simpson in a DirecTV commercial where she plays a waitress stomping on a rude bar patron while acting, here's a stretch, dumb.

As I wrote in a March 15 article in this space, rock music has been on a downturn since the rise of the group of bands (like Pearl Jam and Green Day) that emerged after the success of Nirvana in the early 1990s. What pushed rock aside at the end of that era? Yes, boy bands. So, am I blaming boy bands for killing rock music? I'd like to, but it wouldn't be fair. As the March 15 article argues, it was the record companies, flush with teen pop money, who forgot how to nurture artists and, as a result, have to take the ultimate responsibility. But the soullessness, mindlessness and lack of originality of boy bands makes them antithetical to everything that is good about popular music.

So, you will forgive me if I smiled reading about people invading Pearlman's former home and buying his gold records, photos and mementos, like his key to the City of Orlando, which for a while, thanks to Pearlman, was the crap music capital of the world. I smiled as I read that he is under investigation by the FBI and IRS, as well as state authorities. I smiled at the news that his $8.5 million home was the next thing to be sold out from under him. And, I smiled at the legal setbacks he has already faced. It felt like the ultimate vindication that the man I viewed as a criminal for ruining popular music was an actual criminal.

I remember enjoying the "Saturday Night Live" sketch quoted at the top of this piece when it first aired. Now, I can really enjoy the real-life demise of the czar of the boy band empire. Pearlman's demise won't fix the carnage he has already perpetuated on the music world, but it did give me a bit of joy that he won't live happily ever after in his House That 12-Year-Old Girls Built. In fact, in his honor, I'll have to buy a couple of good rock CDs by bands from anywhere but Orlando.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Commissioner's Threat to Suspend Giambi Is a Joke reported today that Commissioner Bud Selig has informed Jason Giambi that if he does not cooperate with Major League Baseball's steroids investigation headed by former Senator George Mitchell, he will be suspended for remarks he made to a USA Today reporter on May 18. Giambi told USA Today that, "I was wrong for doing that stuff" (obviously referring to steroids). More importantly, Giambi went on to say, "What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said: 'We made a mistake.'"

Selig's demand on Giambi is a farce from several different angles. From a legal standpoint, Selig and Mitchell can give Giambi immunity from punishment by MLB, but their amnesty powers do not extend any further. Presumably, the government can subpoena anything Giambi tells Mitchell. No competent defense attorney would advise his client to discuss illegal activity if the testimony could be used to prosecute the client at a later date.

Further, Selig's threat is toothless, since baseball has no grounds to suspend Giambi. Not only did he not explicitly admit to steroid use, under Selig's spineless leadership, players could not even be suspended for steroid use until 2005. So, what would Selig suspend Giambi for doing? For implying he did something that did not violate MLB's rules at the time that he did it? It is unlikely that any disciplinary action taken by Selig against Giambi for his remarks would survive an arbitration challenge.

Selig is being hung by a rope he himself created. Selig, the owners, and the general managers sat back and watched players bulk up and pound home runs at an aberrantly increasing pace, and they turned their heads and let it happen, basking in the financial benefit while cruising in a blissful state of denial.

After all, baseball was in trouble. After a labor impasse led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, baseball was at its lowest point when it returned in the 1995 season. Two events are often identified to as turning points in baseball's resurgence: Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" consecutive games played record, and the 1998 march on Roger Maris's single-season home run record by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, a journey that we now know was taken on a road littered with syringes. McGwire's testimony before Congress, where both his voice and spirit were broken and he could only manage lame demurrals to every question that he only wanted to talk about the future, changed forever the way he and his records are viewed. When McGwire was up for election to the Hall of Fame this year, he didn't even come close to election, a result that would have been thought impossible at the time of his retirement five years ago.

Any assertion that Selig and the rest of MLB didn't know about the influence of steroids is simply disingenuous. After all, Giambi's agent had the Yankees remove the word "steroids" from the slugger's contract when he signed his seven-year, $120 million deal with the club before the 2002 season. For Selig to act like Giambi's statement was some kind of revelation is just ridiculous. The quote was as big of a scoop as Alex Rodriguez's admission in spring training that he and Derek Jeter weren't close anymore after A Rod pathetically ripped Jeter in a 2001 Esquire interview.

In light of the admissions of a handful of retired players and leaked grand jury testimony from the BALCO investigation, it is now a foregone conclusion that steroids were a common scourge in baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s. It's not like the revelations were a shock, after watching players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds not only smash longstanding home run records, but blow up to the size of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade floats.

Baseball stood by, let the players do their steroids, and never fought to enact any kind of anti-performance-enhancing drug policy. It wasn't until Congress hauled executives and players up to Capitol Hill for a hearing and threatened to take action on its own did Selig and players union chief Donald Fehr come up with a policy, one that was so weak that they had to agree to bolster it shortly thereafter.

Selig's appointment of Mitchell to investigate steroids was not only years too late, but was symbolic at best, since Mitchell has no subpoena power and, as we've seen, players are being advised that they can put themselves in legal jeopardy by cooperating.

And now, Selig has the nerve to act surprised by Giambi's statement and try to discipline him for it, playing the part of the innocent guardian of fair play in baseball. Is he that self-deluded? Or, does he think he can pull a fast one now that baseball is resurgent, breaking attendance records across the country?

Giambi is no saint, having cheated his way to a long-term, big-money contract, and then, with his financial future secured, watching as his body broke down, presumably, at least in part, from the drug abuse. But, his statement recognizes a key point, that ownership was just as complicit in the rise of steroid use as the players were. In this instance, he is right, and, even more importantly, he gave Selig an opening to take some blame and establish some credibility on the steroids issue going forward. Instead of making toothless threats and acting holier-than-thou (with the blood of the steroids massacre still fresh on his hands), all Selig had to do was say, "We certainly wish we had been more aggressive on this issue early on. While I don't condone Jason Giambi's actions, I will take this opportunity to say that we regret our inactivity on performance-enhancement drugs in the past, and I pledge that in the future, baseball will fight to eliminate them from our game, both for the good of fair competition and for the health of our players."

If Selig had stood up, taken responsibility, and moved on, he would have walked away with a pocket full of credibility. Can you imagine the leverage he would hold over Fehr on the issue? But, by acting as shocked as a professional wrestler accused of using a foreign object he just threw under the ring, he is left with as much credibility and respect as Vince McMahon.

Giambi is no hero, but he is nevertheless being unfairly treated by Selig. More importantly, Selig is making a bad situation worse by failing to own up to his role in a disgrace to baseball that will stay with the sport for years to come. Selig can be mad that Giambi spoke out, but he would be better off taking a bit of his advice. And so would the game of baseball.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sunni-Shiite Battles Underscore Bush's Ignorance of Islam and the Middle East

I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavor for what's moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves.
- Geroge W. Bush, Sept. 21, 2003, according to mutliple Internet sites, including this one

In the last few days, we have seen the same story, played out over and over again, in different parts of the region. Fatah and Hamas are at war in Gaza, even though they are both groups of Palestinian Muslims. In Lebanon, the Muslim government is fighting a bitter war with Islamists in Palestinian refugee camps. Also in Lebanon, pro-Syrian Muslims are killing anti-Syrian Muslims, with an anti-Syrian member of parliament killed in an explosion today. In Turkey, the Kurds have fought a long war against the government, with the Turkish Army operating in northern Iraq to root out Kurdish rebels. And, in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are not just killing each other, but today Sunnis blew up (for the second time) a sacred Shiite mosque in Samarra.

It makes you wonder, how could we have walked into this intra-religion warfare in Iraq without seeing it coming? The answer is simple, and it goes back to the 2000 election, when then Governor of Texas George W. Bush was able to eke out an electoral college victory over then Vice President Al Gore to secure the White House, despite losing the national popular vote.

[For those of you pounding your desks screaming, "He didn't win! He didn't win! the Supreme Court, Katherine Harris and a bunch of senile old ladies in Palm Beach County stole the election!", I will only say that while you're probably right, the fact that Gore ran such a lousy campaign that let Bush get close enough to steal the election eliminates most of my sense of outrage. More on this later.]

The victory defied logic, in that Gore was the sitting Vice President in a popular administration that had romped to re-election four years earlier. Polls showed that Clinton would have won again if he was constitutionally permitted to run in 2000. And, while Gore had a resume that included a tour of duty in Vietnam, stretches in the House and Senate, and two terms as Vice President, Bush's CV was as weightless as Nicole Richie after a purge. He benefited from his father's influence to avoid Vietnam by being assigned to the National Guard (duty he could not even complete), knocked around with virtually no work experience until he bought the Texas Rangers baseball team, and finally served as Governor of Texas (only after being turned down in his quest to be the MLB Commissioner), a position that is largely ceremonial and lacks the clout enjoyed by the chief executives of other states.

Simply put, Gore ran an awful campaign. He distanced himself from the Clinton administration, failed to talk about the issues that meant the most to him (Mr. Global Warming barely mentioned the environment on the stump) and behaved like a crazy person during the debates (the moment he wandered over to Bush's side of the stage, his face fire engine red, as Bush spoke, you could feel the election slipping away from him).

The election, though, turned on the candidates' demeanors and images. Even though both candidates were children of powerful politicians and grew up in wealthy families, Gore allowed himself to be portrayed as a distant, intellectual wonk, while Bush, with his crooked smiles, folksy expressions and mangling of the English language, convinced voters that he was a regular guy, someone who could fit in well at the dinner table as the discussion turned to Jesus, guns and football.

Put another way, the American people made a conscious choice to value personality over intellect. There was no argument that Gore was smarter than Bush, but, contrary to basic logic, Gore's intellect was looked at as a negative. So, we were left with a leader that had virtually never left the United States, didn't read newspapers and looked to the bible more than any other book to determine his policies.

And it is that value judgment, made six-and-a-half years ago, that is being felt right now, especially in Iraq.

For Bush to start a war to overthrow the leader of another country without understanding that the nation's citizens, while all Muslims, were from three different cultures with centuries of hatred between them, is mind-boggling in its ignorance. I promise you that Al Gore knew about the history of the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq. What is shocking is that Bush didn't have to leave his family's compound in Kennebunkport to learn the lesson. After all, his father made the decision not to topple Saddam Hussein in 1991 because he said that the result would be chaos, since there was division in Iraq and no stable force waiting to take over the government.

So now we're caught in the middle of a civil war in Iraq, more than three thousand American soldiers have been killed, the military is so stretched that we cannot exert force anywhere else in the world (and, in some cases, in our own country, with the National Guard unable to help with natural disasters), and the world has lost respect for us after the atrocities of Abu Graib and the shame of Guantanamo Bay.

All because we chose personality over intelligence.

As I discussed in the first paragraph, all over the region, Muslims are killing each other. And yet, Bush believes that these same Sunnis and Shiites can kiss and make up and sit together in a government. Why? Because he wants them to? No, because he was not smart enough to see that the situation in Iraq (and throughout the Middle East) is far more complicated and nuanced than the simple idea that Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator. There is no way to know if Gore would have been a good president or not (it's hard to imagine he could be any worse than the disaster that is George W. Bush), but it is certain that he would have known that if Hussein was removed, the Sunnis and Shiites would not dance hand-in-hand through the streets of Baghdad.

We are in a no-win situation in Iraq because of the ignorance of the President. If it wasn't so tragic, it would be pretty entertaining.

Where do we go from here?

I would love to hear a Presidential candidate from either party stand up and say, "Here is the deal. It was a big mistake to overthrow Hussein, and the aftermath of the toppling of Hussein was poorly planned. But, the purpose of the war in Iraq was to topple Hussein. We accomplished that goal. We won. Hussein is gone. Now, we have hung around Iraq for five years, providing some measure of security for the Iraqi people to decide how they are going to handle their post-Hussein independence. It's up to them. They can come together, share the oil revenue, and move forward in peace and prosperity. Or, they can fight centuries-old tribal battles and kill each other. They have had five years to decide, and their time is up. We are not spending another dollar or American life on people that seemingly can't get their acts together. We gave them a chance. We're done. It's now up to them."

That wouldn't be "surrendering," like the Republicans like to term troop withdrawal dates. On the contrary, we can manipulate language to frame the debate, something the Republicans normally are experts at doing. We won, the ungrateful Iraqis lost. In fact, it would be great if the Republican propaganda masterminds would help with the "we won" campaign. It would be worth it, knowing that no more Americans would die for the ignorance of a President who didn't know a Kurd from a Shiite, and who probably thought that Sunnis were the funny-looking bald guys passing out flowers in the airport.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Democrats Have Nobody to Blame But Themselves for Low Approval Rating

You are what your record says you are.
- An oft-quoted rule of football coach Bill Parcells

I guess the old saw about old dogs and new tricks is correct, at least when talking about the Democratic party. Today's Los Angeles Times reported that in a poll the paper conducted with Bloomberg, 27 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, a rating lower than that of the unpopular, lame duck President.

I can't pity the Democrats, since they have brought this on themselves with their gutless approach to "leading" in Congress. In fact, after Congressional Democrats caved and passed a war funding bill without a troop withdrawal provision, I wrote an article in this blog (on May 22) predicting that the fallout for the party would be catastrophic.

The Democrats are repeatedly portrayed by the Republicans as being weak. I wish I could argue that the charges are part of the Republican propaganda machine, but as much as it hurts to admit it, they're right. It's a really messed up, circular dynamic. The Democrats, beaten up for years for being weak, are terrified of ever appearing weak. So, in an effort to avoid looking weak, they play into the Republicans' hands on issues and abandon their positions, thus looking (and being) weak. It's like the Democrats need to attend some kind of political version of Al-Anon.

The Democrats' dismal approval ratings can be traced back to the decision to lie down on the Iraq funding bill. According to the Los Angeles Times article, 63 percent of the respondents said that the Democrats are running Congress in a "business as usual" manner, not making the changes that they promised on their way into office. And nowhere is that lack of change felt more than on the issue of the Iraq war.

When the Democratic Congress asserted itself and passed war funding legislation with limits and troop withdrawal dates, it was following its marching orders. The Democrats were sent to Washington in November 2006 almost entirely on the Iraq war issue. Americans were tired of the war and wanted someone to stop Bush.

The Bush administration, as it always does, moved to divert the issue, accusing the Democrats of being weak and not supporting the troops. Faced with a difficult fight (with only a one-vote advantage in the Senate), the Democrats had two choices: Cave in to avoid being painted as troop haters or keep on fighting, even if it meant keeping any war funding legislation from being passed.

Here is where the messed up dynamic kicked in. If you were in the Democrats' shoes, simple logic would tell you to fight on. The American people told you to fight to end the war. And, the people calling you troop haters were the very people who dropped the troops into the middle of a five-year civil war with insufficient planning, insufficient troop levels, and insufficient supplies; instituted a back-door draft, calling National Guard and Reserve units back time and time again for extended tours; and welcomed home the troops to shoddy medical treatment facilities and insufficient benefits.

But, suffering from some odd political version of post-traumatic stress disorder, the Democrats, terrified of being painted as weak, stopped the fight and passed war funding legislation, making sure nobody could say they weren't supporting the troops. Well, they got what they wanted, as nobody is talking about the Democrats failing to support the troops. Of course, the price they paid is that the party is being painted as being weak for not continuing the fight for their proposed policies, and, even worse, doing a bad job in running Congress.

The Congressional Democrats were given one job by the American people: Stop Bush on Iraq. But, they decided not to follow through on it, and they are paying the price. You can't blame the electorate for being pissed off. After all, if you hired an employee for your business and gave him one job to do, and he didn't do it, how would you feel? You would fire that employee faster than Bush hands out no-bid contracts to Haliburton.

And that is how and why the Democrats find themselves with a 27 percent approval rating. Worse, they have made it hard for themselves to retain Congress in 2008, and handed an additional set of barriers to Democrats seeking the White House in that election. What makes the situation so outrageous is that, by all rights, the Democrats should be romping to victory in 2008. The war and other issues have left this Republican administration in ruins, and it would have taken the most basic effort of not shooting themselves in the foot for the Democrats to step in and take the reins. Unfortunately, that blast you heard was the Democrats wounding themselves by playing into Republican hands and failing to keep up the fight on Iraq. This is being called a "change" election, but there will be no change if the Democrats make the American people want to change them even more than the Republicans.

My fears expressed in my May 22 blog article are coming true before my eyes. I'm not sure if it's too late for the Democrats to salvage things, but they better get going and show some backbone if they want to try and get back in the game. To use a sports expression, they have to stop "playing scared." They have to remember their marching orders and move forward, confident in the fact that if they stick to the policies they were elected to fight for, no amount of rhetoric from the Republicans can stop them.

I am not optimistic. Bill Parcells's quote is very apt. Bush has been allowed to continue pouring money and American lives into the war, so the Democrats have failed. There are no acceptable excuses. The Democrats are who they are. At least, that is, until they're not. They can still fight back, and they can do what they were elected to do. Let's hope they get the message and become who they need to be. If they don't, it's the American people who will pay the price.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Revival of "Jericho" Shows Power of the People

Say you want a revolution/We better get on right away/
Well you get on your feet/And out on the street
Singing 'power to the people'
- "Power to the People" by John Lennon (1971)

The most powerful people in television are not the network executives who choose the shows, the executive producers who run them, or the actors that perform in them. No, the most powerful people in television are the millions of consumers who decide to watch a show (or not to, as Aaron Sorkin can tell you). Especially the viewers in the coveted 18 to 49 age demographic.

Nothing happens without the viewing public. If people watch something, the network executives will give them more of it, and the industry flows from there. Without viewers (or the hope of attracting viewers in the future), shows (and genres, like the sitcom) go off the air. It's that simple. The viewers run the industry. There is, of course, both a positive and negative impact of the audience holding such absolute control over the content of television.

On the negative side, the reason why CNN has evolved from a serious news organization to the Celebrity News Network, tracking the exploits of the latest talentless media whores du jour (welcome to the limelight Paris Hilton; don't let the door hit you on the way out to rehab Lindsay Lohan), is that Paris and Lindsay get higher ratings than George W. Bush and Harry Reid. If people watched CNN when they ran actual news stories, CNN would run actual news stories. But, because people clamor to hear more about Lindsay Lohan passed out in her car or Britney Spears shaving her head and melting down in a tattoo shop, CNN gives the people what they want. Power to the people.

Luckily, the door of power swings both ways. When the television networks announced their schedules for the 2006-2007 season, one of the evident trends was the popularity of serialized shows that carry a storyline through an entire season, thanks to the success of hits like "Lost" and "24." Most of the serials were soon cancelled. "Heroes" became a hit, and the CBS show "Jericho," about a small town in Kansas caught in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world, was fairly successful, too.

"Jericho" premiered to strong ratings, but suffered from another trend of the 2006-2007 season, the hiatus. The network took shows like "Jericho," "Heroes" and "Lost" off the air for a long period of time, and then brought them back to finish out the season. The networks' thinking seemed pretty sound. People hate reruns, and by airing the show in two continuous blocks, reruns could be avoided. Only, what the networks found was that absence did not, in fact, make the heart grow fonder. Instead, it was more of a case of out of sight, out of mind, as the serials all took rating hits upon their returns. For "Heroes" and "Lost," the drop was disappointing, but the shows were still hits. "Jericho" was not so lucky. When it returned without a big chunk of its post-hiatus audience (falling from 10.5 million to 8.1 million viewers), CBS decided to pull the plug on the show, choosing not to renew it for the 2007-2008 season.

For most television programs, such a decision marks the end of the story. History is littered with the carcasses of critically beloved, low-rated shows with rabid fan bases ("Arrested Development" is a recent example) that are cancelled and never heard from again. But in the case of "Jericho," the fans did not take the cancellation decision lying down, following John Lennon's call to arms and asserting the power of the people. Taking a cue from an expression of one of the characters on the show, fans inundated the network with peanuts. Yes, the fans sent peanuts through the U.S. Mail to CBS, 20 tons of them according to USA Today. As a result, according to a Yahoo!/AP article, the network picked up the show for a short seven-episode run next year, with the chance to return for a full run the following season if the level of viewership warrants it.

That's they key: While the peanut-sending "Jericho" fans succeeded in showing enough people power to accomplish something rarely done, getting a network to reverse its cancellation of a show, the power only extends so far. In the end, the larger body of viewers has to watch the show, or no amount of nuts or other food products will save "Jericho" again. As CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler said in the Yahoo!/AP article, "You got our attention; your emails and collective voice have been heard ... But, for there to be more 'Jericho,' we will need more viewers."

I've only seen "Jericho" once. Aside from "Heroes," I'm not a fan of the serials. I watched an episode of "Lost" once and found it to be exceptionally well-written and well-acted, but I was put off by the level of commitment needed to keep up with the characters and storylines. While "Jericho" was far less confusing than "Lost," I still wasn't sucked in enough to make the time investment necessary to be a fan. But I was thrilled to read of CBS's decision to pick up the show for next year. "Jericho" is obviously a quality show, worthy of a slot on the schedule, certainly more than the 17 variations on reality series with the theme "So You Think You Can [Fill in the Blank]" (or the celebrity versions thereof).

Even more importantly, it's nice to see a network realize that the power of the people doesn't always reside in the statistically-questionable Nielsen ratings, and that power can be asserted through the organization and passion of a smaller group of fans. I'll be rooting for "Jericho" to attract an audience that meets or exceeds the 10.5 million it originally attracted, if for no other reason than to inspire more displays of people power when good shows are canceled in the future. Of course, as Tassler noted, the effort will be for naught if the numbers for "Jericho" slip into the single-digit millions. The power of the people only extends so far, limited only by the power of the Nielsens.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Bush Needs to Remember He Is President, Not Pastor

Erecting the 'wall of separation between church and state' absolutely essential in a free society.
- Thomas Jefferson, 1808

Religion has a way of taking over debates in this country and clouding the central issues. According to the First Amendment and an array of U.S. Supreme Court opinions, there is supposed to be a separation of church and state. While that theory might be applied in explicit incidents involving prayer or religious symbols, religion is at the heart of numerous policy decisions made by the Bush administration.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent out an email on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee today in which he urged people to oppose President George W. Bush's threatened veto of a bill that would lift Bush's restrictions on stem cell research. The proposal has passed in the U.S. Senate and, according to Schumer's email, will pass the U.S. House of Representatives this week.

There will be lots of rhetoric from the Bush administration as to why this is bad legislation, but at its core, the issue is really quite simply the placing of his religious beliefs ahead of the good of the country. While no medical research path is guaranteed to produce results down the line, there is close to uniform agreement that stem cell research could potentially lead to treatments for conditions ranging from Alzheimer's to multiple sclerosis and paralysis. The American Medical Association has supported stem cell research, including the cloning of stem cells for research and treatment purposes. So, there is no objective reason to oppose the proposed legislation. Unless, of course, your religious beliefs tell you that stem cell research is wrong.

What's happening is that the religious views of a vast minority of Americans are holding up a promising course of medical research. (According to the Schumer email, surveys show that two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans support stem cell research.) Or, more accurately, the religious views of one man, the President of the United States, are dictating policy to the country in violation of the beliefs of a vast majority of the citizens. Remember, the limits on the federal funding of stem cell research targeted by the legislation Schumer was writing about were not enacted by Congress, but instead resulted from a Bush executive order. In a society with a barrier between church and state, the religious beliefs of one man standing in the way of potential medical breakthroughs is appalling.

The notion of a President imposing his personal religious beliefs on the country is not a good precedent to set. What's next? A Jewish or Muslim chief executive banning ham and bacon because it's not kosher or halal? Bush's actions on stem cell research are no less ridiculous, but far more damaging.

Any doubt that the country, by and large, disagrees with his stem cell stance can be seen as states scramble to fund their own stem cell research programs, trying to fill in the gap left by the federal government. But that very fact shows the failing of the Bush administration. On important problems, we are supposed to look to the federal government to lead the way, not to throw up roadblocks for states to maneuver around.

Bush has injected his right-wing religious beliefs into virtually everything he has done as President, from making policy to appointing judges and government officials. (As I wrote about in an April 16 blog article about competency in government, 150 graduates of Pat Robertson's university, ranked in the bottom quartile by U.S. News and World Report, work in the U.S. government.) And, Bush is still going strong. Today, a Yahoo!/AP article related that Dr. James Holsinger, Bush's nominee to be Surgeon General, the highest-ranking medical official in the government, has some disturbing views on homosexuality. According to the article, Dr. Holsinger wrote in 1991 that homosexual sex is unnatural and unhealthy, and that he helped found a Methodist congregation that believes that homosexuality is a choice that can be cured. Not surprisingly, in addition to being a medical doctor, Dr. Holsinger holds a master's degree from the Asbury Theological Seminary.

Just as someone can believe that stem cell research is wrong, Dr. Holsinger has the right to hold any beliefs on the nature of homosexuality that he desires (no matter how disgusting, narrow-minded, self-righteous, and illogical someone like, say, me, might find those views to be). But, we're not talking about Dr. Holsinger's private beliefs. Dr. Hoslinger has been nominated to serve the American people as Surgeon General. And, like with the stem cell issue, his religious beliefs clash with reality. While Dr. Holsinger might believe that homosexuals can be "cured," the American Medical Association believes the exact opposite, stating in its Official Statement Concerning Homosexuality that it "opposes, the use of 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy that is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder or based upon the a priori assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation."

These two recent news stories illustrate Bush's continuing insistence on forcing his religious beliefs on the country. For the minority of Americans that agree with him, they are being well-served. But, for the vast majority of U.S. voters who disagree with the President's policies, it is important for them to keep in mind this increasing trend of religion in government. At a recent debate, three of the ten Republican Presidential candidates declared that they did not believe in evolution. Americans need to stand up and say, "If religion clouds your judgment to the point that you turn your back on objective facts and conclusions in favor of dogged faith in unprovable beliefs, you are not fit to lead this country." A country, again, with a constitutional directive separating church and state.

It's time for U.S. voters to stand up and demand that its leaders act based on the evidence in front of them and the desires of the electorate, not the religious dogmas that they subscribe to. The Bush administration says they are fighting Islamist extremists in the war on terror. It's time for Americans to fight religious extremists in this country who are carrying out a war on common sense.