Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Brief Rise and Quick Fall of Ben Domenech

The Washington Post's online arm, last week decided to expand their readership and hire a rabid conservative. Their choice for this noble purpose was a young, home-schooled former speechwriter named Ben Domenech. Three days after his first post, he resigned due to allegations of plagiarism.

A brief synopsis of the furor in the blogosphere was published on Editor and Publisher. And the entire run of Benny's column can, at the moment, be found here. Three days, six posts (seven, if you count his self-aggrandizing bio), and a resignation notice from the editor.

During those three days, left-leaning bloggers everywhere went digging through his earlier writing, and turned up ample evidence that Benny wasn't always as original as he could have been, and often had a difficult time with that elusive concept, "the truth." Atrios discovered that Spinsanity had mentioned him - by name - for lying, back in 2002. His fascinating point of view was trotted out into the open, as was his taste in movies. And Talking Points Memo actually managed to link him to Jack Abramoff. By the time they were done, even the equally-rabid Michelle Malkin couldn't back away from this kid fast enough.

Under his pen name, "Augustine," Benny wrote a relatively pissy retrospective of his brief mainstream-blogging career, wherein he explained "I am a conservative, not a partisan," among other fascinating insights into his attitude toward the truth. One of the excuses he offered for, in this case, plagiarizing P.J. O'Rourke, is as follows:
But the truth is that I had met P.J. at a Republican event and asked his permission to do a college-specific version of his classic piece on partying. He granted permission, the piece was cleared with my editors at the paper, and it ran as inspired by O'Rourke's original.
Strangely enough, if you do a little research and dig up the article in question, nowhere does it mention P.J. O'Rourke, nor does it reference his book "Modern Manners," the source of Benny's column.

Let's compare. Here's Ben Domenech, from his Flat Hat article:
Real parties vary tremendously in type and style, but I've noticed they all share certain things in common.

- Real parties don't start until after midnight. - No friendships or romantic relationships should survive a real party fully intact.
- Neither should much furniture.
- Someone should be wearing undergarments on his head by 2 a.m.
- By 3 a.m., someone should have called the police.
- Someone else should have called George Bush long distance to invite him over.
And here's P.J. O'Rourke, from Modern Manners:
Real parties vary tremendously in type and style, but all share certain things in common.

- Real parties don't start until after midnight.
- No friendships or romantic relationships should survive a real party fully intact.
- Neither should much furniture.
- Someone should have underpants on his head by 2 a.m.
- By 3 a.m., someone should have called the police.
- Someone else should have called George Bush long distance to invite him over.
I see the difference: Benny added "I've noticed" in the first line, and used "undergarments" instead of "underpants." It's a completely different bit. (That's called the "Vanilla Ice defense" - claiming that a single changed note at the end of a line made "Ice Ice Baby" entirely different from David Bowie and Queen's song "Under Pressure.")

The Flat Hat, the student newspaper of William and Mary College, where Ben got his extra-domiciliary education, was the source of many of the plagiarized articles in question. The Flat Hat editors refuted Benny's claim that they were either complicit with or responsible for Domenech's plagiarism.

So many examples of Domenech's repeated acts of literary theft were turned up that only one question is left. In the bio on his deceased WaPo blog, we find the following statement:
Ben is now a book editor for Regnery Publishing, where he has edited multiple bestsellers and books by Michelle Malkin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Hugh Hewitt.
So you have to ask yourself: what are Regnery's standards, and how do they feel about plagiarism?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Len Hart on H.L. Mencken

I seem to be posting other people's work as often as my own, of late. But we have here, in the midst of a longer pro-Mencken piece by Len Hart, in his blog The Existentialist Cowboy, a literate description of the problem with American discourse these days.

Dr. John Lienhard, whose Engines of Our Ingenuity is a nationally syndicated radio program, called Mencken a brilliant iconoclast "...who knew language and who wielded it like a surgical laser." To be honest, I wish I had that gift. I would turn it upon what appears to be a deliberate attempt to water down the language, rob it of its power, and reframe debates to right wing advantage.

Terms like "pro-life" and "death tax" are conservative inventions designed to tilt the debate. Progressives lose by merely using those terms. Doing so legitimizes them; liberals lose. Pro-life is deliberately intended to disguise conservative hypocrisy with respect to partial-birth abortions —itself a misnomer designed to reframe the debate. [See: About "partial birth abortion" (a total misnomer)]. The term pro-life tends also to restrict the debate; those opposed to conservatives must, therefore, be opposed to life. It is easier to get away with non-sequitur logic if the very terminology seems to compel it. The modern right wing uses language like Edward I used the archer's fussilade into melees in which his own soldiers were embattled. He was willing to sustain the loss of life for the ultimate victory on the field.

In fairness, anyone claiming to be "pro-life" must also be anti-aggressive war, especially when that war causes the violent deaths of thousands of civilians —many just kids and infants. But perhaps for the pro-life crowd, life is only sacred when it's still inside the womb, but fair game once birthed.

In his day, Mencken towered above his peers. But because Mencken would not countenance or buy into the sloppy use of language today, he would be hard pressed to get published in the corporate media which would subject it to focus groups, tedious research, and the gospel of PC. It is our loss.

Sadly, Mencken seems all but forgotten among the general populace, and, among those who know his name, he is often thought to be liberal. Mencken was, in fact, a libertarian and an individualist.

Mencken's audience was not one of poltroonish ignoramuses; rather, he wrote for the intelligent few. Clearly, his intention was to make a difference by making a point among those who could make a difference with the mere public expression of an informed decision. Surely, he hopes to help shape that opinion. There is no way of knowing whether or not he succeeded.

It is for that reason, obviously, that Mencken wrote more about the American Language than anyone. He would be angered by the meaningless platitudes that often parade as literate speech or political debate; he would snort at puffed up slogans like family values and compassionate conservatism; he would slice and dice pure bunkum like supply side economics.

The best example is still the word liberal —the successful debasement of which spelled doom for the liberal movement. Now liberals feel obliged to change the name of their movement to progressive.

Liberal once meant "free" but that predates Joseph McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and the current occupant of the Oval Office. In each case and many more, language itself is attacked, exploited, degraded and debased by those motivated to cloak a disingenuous agenda.

The word Liberal derives from the latin "liberalis", meaning "pertaining to a free man". Other words from that root are "liberty," "liberation," and libertarian, and, of course Liberal. It is the "liberte" in the French rallying cry: "Liberte, Fraternite, Egalite." To be "Liberal," therefore, is to be free, to believe in freedom. Those opposed to liberal are therefore opposed to "freedom". That describes the American right wing, its recent bent toward totalitarianism, its successful attempts to link Liberal with waste, communism, Keynesian economics, and big government. It is ironic that both big government (under Reagan) and Keynesian economics (under Bush) have ostensibly been embraced by the Republican rank and file even as they denounce the "liberals" who presumably espouse it. I think the word for that is hypocrisy —a word not found in the modern conservative lexicon.

The epithet "big government Liberal" in the mouths of a Republican is oxymoronic, hypocritical and ludicrous. Nixon said "...we're all Keynesians now" and it was Nixon, of course, who is known for the very un-conservative imposition of wage and price controls, a draconian measure of big government if there ever was one. The biggest U.S. governments since World War II have all been of GOP creation. It was the Democrats who were tarred with the label "tax and spend", but, in reality, it is the GOP that presided over the largest military build up in the world and it has done so upon the backs of those who can least afford it.

Proportionally, the biggest tax burdens have fallen upon lower and middle income earners —the very groups who lost ground over a period of some 30 years. It was over that period of time that the incomes of the upper one percent of the U.S. population increased exponentially. Only the upper quintile prospered; everyone else lost ground.

Bush doesn't do nuance. And that is a shame; someone, somewhere feels pain everytime Bush fails to do a nuance. Can you imagine explaining Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, or Keynes to G. W. Bush —a man who claims to be conservative but would be hard pressed to tell you why?

What is to be said of someone who refuses to be informed? Is this the root of Bush antipathy to the Constitution —or is his ignorance a disingenuous act to conceal the real reasons that he would subvert the underpinnings of American democracy? I am, admittedly, overly fond of quoting Bertolt Brecht on this point but no one makes that point more succinctly:

A man who does not know the truth is just an idiot but a man who knows the truth and calls it a lie is a crook!
—Bertolt Brecht
Iconoclasts are always misunderstood; truth telling has become un-patriotic. Were he alive and writing today, Mencken would be assailed for telling the truth. But Mencken had the verbal ammunition to take them on. As Mencken himself said, "One horse-laugh is worth ten-thousand syllogisms." Mencken would dispatch Bill Frist with a single phrase: "Puritanism —The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy."

Which pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Prejudice, the 82nd Airborne and Brokeback Mountain

Let's talk about homosexuality for a moment.

First, let's consider the Christian perspective. That's the excuse that a lot of people choose to structure their personal dislike of homosexuals around. "It's in the Bible! God hates fags!" Of course, there are a number of answers to that. The easiest is to find out if they ever eat pork or shellfish, or mix two different fabrics together. Those are also banned by the Bible, but very few people pay attention to those issues.

Secondly, let me give you two other Bible quotes. Matthew 7:1-3. “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

That's the King James version. I may not be especially religious, but I've always preferred the poetry of that language.

Here's an even better verse, though. Mark 12:29-31. “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

Seems pretty plain to me. (Even if King James thought "there is none other commandment" was proper sentence structure...) Like I said, I'm not all that religious. But if you're going to claim to be a Christian, shouldn't you pull the rules for your life from the New Testament instead of the old one? Otherwise, you should just convert to Judaism.

But the military has fallen fully in line with the bad Christians who make up the "Religious Right," and the ban on gays in the military is fully in effect. I actually had a briefing from the Legal Office a few years before I retired (shortly after Dubya was elected), where the military lawyer tried to explain that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" was not official military policy. But, you don't ask somebody what his sexual preference was, and if they don't tell you that they're gay, then you don't go after them to find out if they're gay.

I'm serious. He was doing his best Scotty McClellan, trying to tell us that, although "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue" was not policy, you still weren't allowed to ask or pursue, and the homosexuals who didn't tell would be just fine. Honest.

And what has this led to? What we have, just under a month ago, is seven members of the 82nd Airborne, one of the Army’s most elite units (no, really, “most elite” makes sense. It does. It just seems redundant because you don’t think like the military does. See, they took the phrase “elite unit,” and instead of it being descriptive – “elite” – of the group of people – “unit” – they drained all of the meaning out of it, so that “elite unit” is now a philosophical construction, and the best of the people in that group… oh, never mind. Just trust me, they understand it)…

Where was I again?

Oh, right. Anyway, what we have is seven members of the 82nd Airborne, a group of Special Forces paratroopers (I really want to go off on a tangent about “special education,” but I’m too easily distracted anyway) are getting kicked out of the military for making videos that were simultaneously both pornographic and homosexual.

Now, let’s be real for a second. If these guys can still fight and kill, what excuse is there for kicking them out of the Special Forces? After all, they proved that they can work as a team, right? But the military has this stupid prejudice against homosexuality, which probably stems from the fact that they’re pretty heavily repressed themselves.

I mean, look at them. Big leather boots, polished like mirrors... crisp, starched uniforms... berets perched on their closely-shaven skulls... working out all the time, so they’re obviously fixated on the male physique... Come on! It’s like they’re auditioning for the Village People twenty-four hours a day.

And because of this extreme self-loathing, the military has to kick out anyone who brings out a PING on their gaydar. Even if it means that they have to kick out every Arabic translator right before they invade an Arabic-speaking country, they aren’t going to let things like logic get in the way of their prejudice.

(In case you’re curious, they get around this little problem through the all-American habit of “out-sourcing.” When I was in Iraq, all of the translators I met, outside of a few locals hired as secretaries and the like, were contractors, hired at ten or twenty times the price of keeping the military translator and ignoring his sexual orientation. Makes sense, doesn’t it?)

But despite this hatred of all things gay, somewhere out there is a requisition form that might just include the line “Videotape, homosexual, one each.” Because… well, we’ll just let the news article speak for itself.

Military interrogators posing as FBI agents at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, wrapped terrorism suspects in an Israeli flag and forced them to watch homosexual pornography under strobe lights during interrogation sessions that lasted as long as 18 hours, according to one of a batch of FBI memos released Thursday.
That’s right. They set up an S&M disco in Guantanamo. And think about it for a minute. Somebody had to actually audition the videos. Somewhere out there, some colonel had a big stack of movies, probably smoking a big cigar (because, after all, sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar…), saying things like “Nope. Not gay enough. Next!”

And he had to watch them all the way through, right? You’ve got to make sure that it’s gay from top to bottom (so to speak). You can’t let any straight sex scenes sneak in, can you? Wouldn’t that ruin the effect of the movie?

And those prejudices can pop up in a number of places. Here's a question for you. It almost seems like it isn't related, but if you think about it for a while, maybe you'll see that it is. Because Hollywood has taken a number of hits lately from the right wing about how liberal they are. So did they cave in to pressure?

If a man is given the Best Director award, wouldn't you think that the only movie that he directed that year, a product of his vision and a tribute to his directing talents, would be the best film that year? Especially if the script is the "Best Adapted Screenplay?" (Not to mention that it had the "Best Original Score"...) Doesn't that seem to follow? So, we have Ang Lee, the Best Director, using the Best Screenplay (that was taken from another source), and setting it against the Best Original Music out there. But despite that, his film Brokeback Mountain was not the Best Picture?

It's just a thought.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Pay too much and you could raise the alarm

OK, I usually post my own thoughts. But I want to do my part to make sure that this story doesn't just disappear from the Internet. It's from the Providence, Rhode Island Journal, and written on 28 February, 2006 by Bob Kerr for the Scripps Howard News Service.
Walter Soehnge is a retired Texas schoolteacher who traveled north with his wife, Deana, saw summer change to fall in Rhode Island and decided this was a place to stay for a while.

So the Soehnges live in Scituate now and Walter sometimes has breakfast at the Gentleman Farmer in Scituate Village, where he has passed the test and become a regular despite an accent that is definitely not local.

And it was there, at his usual table last week, that he told me that he was "madder than a panther with kerosene on his tail."

He says things like that. Texas does leave its mark on a man.

What got him so upset might seem trivial to some people who have learned to accept small infringements on their freedom as just part of the way things are in this age of terror-fed paranoia. It's that "everything changed after 9/11" thing.

But not Walter.

"We're a product of the '60s," he said. "We believe government should be way away from us in that regard."

He was referring to the recent decision by him and his wife to be responsible, to do the kind of thing that just about anyone would say makes good, solid financial sense.

They paid down some debt. The balance on their JCPenney Platinum MasterCard had gotten to an unhealthy level. So they sent in a large payment, a check for $6,522.

And an alarm went off. A red flag went up. The Soehnges' behavior was found questionable.

And all they did was pay down their debt. They didn't call a suspected terrorist on their cell phone. They didn't try to sneak a machine gun through customs.

They just paid a hefty chunk of their credit card balance. And they learned how frighteningly wide the net of suspicion has been cast.

After sending in the check, they checked online to see if their account had been duly credited. They learned that the check had arrived, but the amount available for credit on their account hadn't changed.

So Deana Soehnge called the credit-card company. Then Walter called.

"When you mess with my money, I want to know why," he said.

They both learned the same astounding piece of information about the little things that can set the threat sensors to beeping and blinking.

They were told, as they moved up the managerial ladder at the call center, that the amount they had sent in was much larger than their normal monthly payment. And if the increase hits a certain percentage higher than that normal payment, Homeland Security has to be notified. And the money doesn't move until the threat alert is lifted.

Walter called television stations, the American Civil Liberties Union and me. And he went on the Internet to see what he could learn. He learned about changes in something called the Bank Privacy Act.

"The more I'm on, the scarier it gets," he said. "It's scary how easily someone in Homeland Security can get permission to spy."

Eventually, his and his wife's money was freed up. The Soehnges were apparently found not to be promoting global terrorism under the guise of paying a credit-card bill. They never did learn how a large credit card payment can pose a security threat.

But the experience has been a reminder that a small piece of privacy has been surrendered. Walter Soehnge, who says he holds solid, middle-of-the-road American beliefs, worries about rights being lost.

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to others," he said.
Welcome to America in the 21st century. George Orwell was just 20 years early.