For a long time now I’ve been saying that the readers of the world have to step up and defend the value of the written word. Don’t be didactic, but by all means, be a little bit elitist. When your friends start talking about Dancing with the Stars, talk about a book or magazine article that you’ve read. I see John Waters is of exactly the same opinion, although he seems to draw his line at a somewhat later point in the relationship. (I shouldn’t say that–maybe for him it’s not later.)


In The Atlantic, Jared Keller has assembled a rather brainy slide show–a collection of literary references in The Simpsons. Many of my favorites are here, including Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chambon, George Plimpton, Gore Vidal, Robert Caro, The New Yorker, Tom Wolfe, The Economist, and William L. Shirer.Somehow Keller missed the episde in which Lisa mentioned the end of Spy.


In The Washington Post today, Matt Miller argues for the need for a third party. “There’s a staggering void in the debate,” he writes. “The parties act this way because their core constituencies have a stake in a failed status quo. But where does that leave the majority of us who are not in the Republican or Democratic base? Where does it leave the country? Daniel Patrick Moynihan wisely observed that if issues can’t be discussed, they can never be advanced. Given the abdication of both parties, and the pinched boundaries of debate we’re thus left with, the only way to learn if a constituency can be built for a bold agenda to renew the country is for independent candidates to try to do just that in 2012. This doesn’t mean both parties are equally to blame for Washington’s dysfunction. But they’re unacceptable and disappointing in their own ways.. . . [W]ith America on the road to slow decline, the stakes are too high for “inadequate” and “retrograde” to be our only choices.”

Miller is right in his analysis but more than a little dreamy in his solution. The obstacles to a third party are exhausting to consider. My preferred solution, which is plenty dreamy enough, is reapportion reform. If independent agents redrew the election districts in the states with the mandate to minimize the number of safe seats for either party, and to maximize the number that would be competitive, most of the extremism that characterizes our politics today would disappear. Both Democratic and Republican candidates would have to compete for the big middle. All views would still get aired, and the hardcore elements of both parties would still have influence. But no longer would they be able to shut down the political process as the GOP did during the debt ceiling issue.

Is this idea too dreamy? Not really. Fair play is a core American value, and instinctively we repel against the most extreme of the gerrymandered districts, regardless of which party we favor. Moreover, increasing competition is a neat market solution is an inherently comprehensible path to take in a country that likes market solutions to problems. This is a path that would open up with only a little pushing. Already California has moved in this direction, and as California usually goes, so goes the nation. It’s too late to do anything about reapportionment this time, but reform should be advanced now, while the concept is fresh in the public’s mind.

Above: Illinois’s laughable, reprehensible Fourth District, taken from an excellent slide show that appeared in Slate in 2009.


Occasioned by the premiere of The Playboy Club on NBC and Pan Am on ABC, the folks at the Canadian Broadcasting Company thought they wanted to talk about the sudden burst of nostalgia for the sixties, and invited me to appear on their prime time talk show Connect with Mark Kelly, to, ah, connect my thoughts to Mark Kelly’s. I was a little downbeat, I think, but I really didn’t agree with the premise of the segment. I don’t think there’s a sudden burst of nostalgia for the sixties. I think there’s an ongoing flood of copycatism. If one show about the cool sixties can be a success, why can’t another one–a stupider one, for that matter–also be a hit? Why not, indeed? But I kind of doubt anybody’s going to watch these shows. They seem to be all about the past; Mad Men, of course, is all about the present. (Thanks to Ken Smith for snagging the video from the CBC websitea.)

JMal CBC from Kenneth B Smith on Vimeo.


A couple of years ago, half paying attention to the ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week, I noticed that the announcer John Miller kept referring to Mariano Rivera, the peerless closer of the New York Yankees, as “the great Rivera.” I don’t think he meant the words to be capitalized, as though we were speaking of some circus performer. I think Miller meant it as a scientific description, a simple use of a common word that in this case conjured profundity. In recording his 602nd save yesterday, Rivera became the all-time leader in saves, and in doing so, established statistically what has been known for at least a decade: he is the best closer in the history of baseball.

I could go on, but I’ll leave it to Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, who captured the essence of the Rivera experience two years ago, as the Yankees were winning their most recent World Championship:

“There’s no stadium in baseball quite as relaxed and certain as Yankee Stadium in the ninth inning with a lead. Rivera has not been perfect in his remarkable 15-year career … but close enough. He has been so good that New York fans have grown almost unaffected by the tension and fear that is supposed to afflict the body in the ninth inning of a close game. With other closers — even the best closers — there’s a jolt of adrenaline that runs through the stadium. It’s like the beginning of a Springsteen concert. Here we go! This is going to be great! You rock!

“But with Rivera — even if he does enter to the strains of Metallica’s Enter Sandman — the feeling is different. It’s more like the feeling of a superhero arriving on the scene. `Thank God you’re here, Superman!’ In New York, the game is won when Rivera steps on the mound. The rest is performance.”

It’s always a privilege to see greatness, and it’s been a privilege to have been able to watch the great Rivera.


Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, doesn’t like the Buffet Rule because “It will attack job creators.” John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, says that the administration should stop threatening to raise taxes, and thus “end the uncertainty plaguing job creators.” Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, while opposing tax hikes, says that “The last thing we should be doing is raising taxes on the job creators.”

I don’t know for a fact that “job creator” is one of those fiendishly clever euphemisms that Frank Luntz regularly lobs into the political debate, but in this period of high unemployment, transforming “rich people” or “owners” or “fat cats” into magical “job creators” from whom all blessings flow is a beautiful piece of rhetorical prestidigitation. If Luntz isn’t the author, then kudos to whatever evil word wizard is responsible.

It’s a wonderful image: the rich guy who isn’t actually safe and secure, but who is highly vulnerable to a little tax. And this is a problem for the rest of us, because this “job creator” is the goose who lays the golden egg, the god from whom all blessings flow, the owner of the economic pixie dust. He’s got the vision, he’s got the energy, he’s got the drive, and the rest of us are just plain lucky to be the serfs in his shire, because we could be serfs down south where there’s flooding, and the duke there is a lousy jobs creator.

But just a couple of decades ago, back before the Market Ideology totally captured all political dialog in this country, we used to call these people something else: employers. And they were honored and valued. They got paid more than anyone else, and they generally got some or all of the profits. It didn’t seem necessary to protect them from taxation as well.

And the jobs creator? That was somebody else–the guy creating the demand.

Think of it this way: David Koch, radical right wing extremist zillionaire, owns Brawny paper towels. He employs a bunch of people. I’m sure that he thinks he has created all those jobs.

I, on the other hand, have no one in my employ, but I’m pretty sure I’m a jobs creator. I’m the one who gets up in the morning and spills his orange juice, and then reaches for a paper towel. By doing so, I create the need, and the need leads to the product. If I and everyone else like me suddenly chooses to let the orange juice puddle congeal into a sticky paste that sits there until a colony of ants comes by to take it away, then after a while David Koch is going close his factory. Why? Because instead of creating jobs for paper towel workers, I’ve chosen to create jobs for ants.

But let’s face it, I’m not really the ultimate jobs creator. That honor falls to all those men and women out there, in bedrooms, and hotel rooms, and the back seats of Buicks, and the lavatories of airplanes, who are industriously copulating. Because from that comes a baby, and if every one is lucky, about eighty years of wants and needs that the rest of humanity earns its keep by fulfilling.

Jobs creation: it’s all about where you start the carousel.


Last week, Pat Robertson, the sanctimonious, judgmental TV witch doctor, made news in which he condoned the right of a husband or wife to leave a spouse who is afflicted Alzheimer’s disease. His comments instigated an angry backlash, especially among other evangelical Christians. As Rene Lynch reported in the Los Angeles Times:

“The controversy stems from comments Robertson made recently on the “700 Club” program on Christian Broadcast Network. His comments came in response to a caller who said that a friend had begun dating other women while his wife lies seriously ill with Alzheimer’s, and justifies it by saying that “his wife, as he knows her, is gone.” Robertson said he agrees with the man: “What he says basically is correct. I know it sounds cruel, but if he’s going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her.” His co-host pressed Robertson about whether that violates the marriage vows. Robertson responded that Alzheimer’s “is a kind of death” and added, “I certainly wouldn’t put a guilt trip on you” for choosing divorce in such a scenario.”

Just asking, but doesn’t this constitute a foray by Robertson into the death panel game, spiritually-wise? I mean, Pat may think it’s okay for a man to withhold further affection from his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife, provided she continues to receive custodial care, but if a doctor decides to withhold life-prolonging treatments from the woman, provided she continue to receive custodial care, we’ve got ourselves a death panel!

Looks like dementia could be the new abortion–a medical issue, fraught with emotion and moral content, and in this case, as the Boomers age, capable of bankrupting the country. Somebody better figure out how to make it go away.


At the CNN/Tea Party Express Republican debate the other night, Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about health insurance: What should happen if a healthy 30-year-old man who can afford insurance chooses not to buy it—and then becomes catastrophically ill and needs intensive care for six months? In the face of one of the most painfully vexing questions of our time, Paul hemmed and hawed, and finally dusted off the golden days before Medicare, and talked about freedom and risk and why should all take responsibility for ourselves. “But Congressman, are you saying the society should just let him die?” At which point, what sounded like a pretty substantial percentage of the audience shouted “Yeah!”

But if I’m not mistaken, isn’t this pretty much the same crowd that cheered Sarah Palin in 2009 when she accused the President Obama’s health care reform package of containing provisions that would require elderly Americans or people with such afflictions as Down syndrome, “to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care”?

So it’s not making judgments about a person’s worthiness to receive health care that bothers these people. It’s that they don’t want government bureaucrats using some cold criteria to do it. They would prefer that the job be assigned to a juiced-up mob!