The Week’s Tweets (2010-01-24)

  • Starting to wish Montana had a Democratic representative-but only so that I could vote against him this fall. #
  • Dishes Fairy: feel free to stop by anytime this morning. #
  • Montana family dies for lack of working smoke detectors. #
  • So was it the road less traveled by? Or had the passing there worn them really about the same? #
  • RT @kottke: Myths of the Revolutionary War, including "Washington was a brilliant tactician." #
  • Great news for Missoula! (Potentially.) RT @missoulian: Missoula company, others want to study airfare disparity #
  • Hasn't the New Yorker heard that Malcolm Gladwell is over? #
  • Thinking we need to get rid of the "progressive" wing of the House. #
  • Nate Silver ranks the "blame" for Coakley's loss: national environment 13, Coakley 14, special circumstances 4. #
  • From my blog: how did Brown win? Because he ran like he wanted it. #
  • I think Brown's victory mainly tells us that people get excited to vote in elections they perceive to be game-changing. #
  • What referendum on health care? Brown supports Mass.'s plan, which is largely same as national plan. #
  • Brown's victory comes from "structural factors," but don't expect political reporters to discuss that. Too boring. #
  • Nate Silver says Brown has a 74-percent chance of winning the MA-SEN special election. #
  • Newberry Awards for 2010: #
  • Intrigued by stories of adoptions imperiled by Haiti quake. Here's one with a happy ending: #
  • Donate, but not to Haiti. #
  • I would tell you where a certain speed trap is, but I can't wait to see your inconsiderate ass get pulled over. #
  • Some actually useful thoughts about MLK day (as opposed to much of what you will read about this day). #

But Don’t Call It Montucky!

My latest column over at Went West reports on a list of demands that 175 residents of the next county over from Missoula have forwarded to their sheriff and county commissioners. Here’s my favorite:

Implement a requirement that the sheriff press county residents 18 and over into a militia, for which he will organize training three weeks out of every year. The Missoulian quotes some amplifying detail from the questionnaire: “Women must serve, but not in a combat capacity unless the men are in danger of being overrun.”

You’ll want to read the rest, especially if you’ve never heard of the “constitutional sheriff” movement.

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Bloggers Take Note! But Not Just Bloggers!

It’s weird. I was just trying to put my finger on why I feel so uncomfortable playing the role of “opinionated political columnist,” and then I stumble across this observation on the fascinating blog Overcoming Bias.

“[T]o promote rationality on interesting important topics, your overwhelming consideration simply must be: on what topics will the world’s systems for deciding who to hear on what listen substantially to me? Your efforts to ponder and make progress will be largely wasted if you focus on topics where none of the world’s “who to hear on what” systems rate you as someone worth hearing. You must not only find something worth saying, but also something that will be heard.

Yes, existing who-to-hear systems are far from perfect, but that fact simply does not make it rational for you to work on topics where a better system would approve you, if only such systems existed. Wishes are not horses.”

Per my title, this little bit of wisdom seems pertinent not only to blogging but to basically every corner of everyone’s life. What is the world ready to hear you out about? Who is listening-and, more importantly, what can you say that will keep them listening, instead of causing them to tune out? If no one is ready to hear about your political principles and ideals, maybe they are ready to see how you actually live them.

Worth thinking about.

Happiness Project: Some Further Organizing Thoughts At The Outset

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve begun poking around on a blog called The Happiness Project. You can learn more about the project here; and here are some of what the blog’s author, Gretchen Rubin, considers her best posts.

But the basic idea is that, a few years ago, Ms. Rubin began to think systematically about the question “what do I want from life?” Her answer turned out to be “I want to be happy,” which sounds a little uninspiring, but the project that she commenced found that-in order for her to be happy-she needed to do some things that seem pretty worthwhile to me. In other words, the kind of “happiness” we’re talking about isn’t some abstract feeling of joy that keeps a smile on one’s face constantly, but rather the feeling of satisfaction that comes from doing what you’re best at, making time for the worthwhile things (and recovering pointlessly wasted time), and so forth.

In other words, it’s the kind of personal examination that philosophers and other thinky types have been engaged in for just about all of human history. To pick a random example, there’s Descartes, whose book Discourse on Method seems to represent pretty much the same kind of effort as Rubin’s. That’s not to say that I think people will be studying Rubin’s book three hundred years from now. But I think Rubin’s framework and approach are a useful enough way for me to begin thinking a little more carefully about what I believe and how to live. If I’m plunging into this philosophical pursuit because of something a little trivial and silly, so be it.

At least I’m plunging in.

Tomorrow: some thoughts on Rubin’s first personal commandment, “Be [Yourself].” (It’s better than it sounds.)

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No One Left Roses On Poe’s Grave Last Night

Yesterday was Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday.

As you may know, beginning in 1949, someone has marked the occasion every year by leaving three roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac at Poe’s grave by Baltimore’s Westminster Hall.

The midnight visit was a Baltimore tradition-except, last night, it didn’t happen. For the first time, no one came.

Some speculate that the visitor was David Franks, a Baltimore poet known as a prankster who died this year.

But he couldn’t have been the only one: he would only have been 11 months old at the time of the first visit.

The mystery abides. Poe would have loved it.

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Congratulations, Mr. Brown

I’m hearing a lot of talk on the radio this morning about how “stunned” Democrats are at Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special election. Count me out of that category, and-if you’re among those feeling “stunned”-you might want to keep it to yourself. It just proves you haven’t been reading the newspaper (or, more importantly for matters related to political polling, The polling has been pretty clear for a couple of weeks now.

So, how did a little-known former nude model win Teddy Kennedy’s seat for the GOP?

Because he ran like he wanted it, and the Democrat didn’t. (I mean, no tracking polls?)

It’s that simple. And I suspect old Ted would be the first to appreciate the ironies in the situation. One begins to understand the malice lurking in the allegedly Chinese alleged curse “may you live in interesting times.”[1]

There are some other factors. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the economy sucks right now, and that’s never going to help a party retain power.

I also think that the excitement felt by so many Brown supporters has something to tell us about most people’s relationship to politics: with the exception of residents of just a handful of states (and while I’m no expert, I don’t think Massachusetts is one of them), most people feel as if their votes don’t matter much. So when an election comes along that feels like it can turn things upside down, or when the kind of candidate who never usually wins is suddenly within spitting distance of the victor’s crown, people get energized. (I think this was a factor in Obama’s victory, too.)

But I don’t want to make excuses. One side considered this election a must-win, and the other didn’t. As usual, the game goes to the one with more heart.

Speaking of games, I hope the blame game that seems to be consuming various factions of the left lasts about five more seconds, and that then they just get back to work. There is still an opportunity to pass health-insurance reform,[2] and the election of a man who only opposes national health-insurance reform because Massachusetts already has its own similar system is no reason to back down now.

What the situation needs is not more bipartisanship or moderation: Obama ran on reforming health care and won-by a lot-and he has yet to see the first hand extended in true fellowship from the right side of the aisle. (He didn’t even get a single vote in favor of continuing the Bush stimulus program, mere days after being inaugurated.) After the election of 2006, widely seen as a denunciation of Bush’s Iraq war, what did Bush decide to do? Reach across the aisle? Listen to criticism? No: he “dramatically expanded the US troop commitment in Iraq.”

The GOP has said it wants to scuttle health-insurance reform in order to cripple Obama’s presidency. If he and the Democrats do not have the mettle and discipline to pass this bill, that outcome will be nothing less than what they deserve. They will have demonstrated that they are not fit to lead, and I’ll be the first to admit it.

1. Speaking of “interesting,” the Wikipedia entry on this “curse” is worth a read. No one can prove it’s actually Chinese (of course; I suspected that would be the case before I looked it up). But I enjoyed learning about two other curses that are supposed to be related to this one. The “interesting times” curse is lowest in curse intensity, followed in ascending order by:

  • May you come to the attention of those in authority (sometimes rendered May the government be aware of you).
  • May you find what you are looking for.

Scary stuff!

2. The safest[3] course of action is for the House to simply pass the Senate bill, because there is no telling how soon Brown will be sworn into the Senate, probably dooming to death-by-filibuster any effort to pass changes to the bill there. Don’t be deceived: the official rule is that the Senate doesn’t have to swear him until Massachusetts certifies him the victor. Massachusetts doesn’t do that until all the votes are in, and in Massachusetts absentee and military ballots aren’t due on election day. But even if this process takes weeks and weeks, do you really want to give Democrats at least two additional opportunities (one vote in the House, to approve changes to the Senate bill, and then one vote in the Senate-which will take at least five days, because of the inevitability of a filibuster) to prove how disorganized and feckless they can be?

Ironically, though, there is a precedent for swearing him in right away: an exception to the certification requirement was made for Teddy Kennedy himself back in 1962. Woops! The world really is wild at heart and weird on top!

3. Depends what you mean by “safest,” of course. My usage encompasses all of those congressmembers representatives who are aware that they are in Washington to do the people’s business, and that the people really, really need this bill. On the other hand, it seems possible that many vulnerable House members will see Brown’s victory as reason to retract their support for the bill, lest their own seats not remain “safe.” Obama once said he was willing to be a one-term president if that’s what it took to pass health-insurance reform. Here’s hoping that enough potentially wayward House members will follow this example.

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“The Happiness Project”


I have a dirty little secret.

I’ve recently gotten into a blog called The Happiness Project.

Normally, I would be skeptical of the lame-sounding Oprahness of this title, but then again, it’s not that uncommon for me to actually watch Oprah these days. Maybe I’m turning soft. (Actually, I just sometimes have a baby sleeping on top of me and can’t do anything else.)

Or maybe-since philosophy can be described as figuring out how to live and die well-maybe we could call The Happiness Project a work of practical philosophy and then all of us intellectual snobs can feel better about reading it. This way of thinking about it appeals to me, because when I try to imagine the best reason for writing in public like this, it’s to figure out what I believe and how to act on those beliefs-how to live and die well, in other words.

Anyway, there’s a lot of good advice there, and I like the spirit of the project: someone deciding something was missing in her life, and making a concerted effort to study what that thing was and how to get it back. The author has some pretty sensible “personal commandments” she’s arrived at over the course of her reflection. They’re for her, not you, if that makes the concept sound less annoying, but she has tips for designing your own. (If you think all of this sounds New Agey and lame, be advised that it’s the kind of thing Benjamin Franklin worked on, too. Thinking of it this way makes it easier for me to play along.)

I find some of her personal commandments to be rather compelling, though, so before I work on my own, I thought I’d commit myself to reflecting in public on those of her commandments that stir something in me. More posts to follow!

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Add-On Resolution

As I said earlier, it’s stupid to wait for an arbitrary date before resolving to improve yourself. In that spirit, I’d like to share my first-ever January 19th Resolution.

It’s going to take some explaining, though.

I recently got myself needlessly tangled up in knots with some people I care about over a recent column of mine over at Went West. Someone emailed a George Will column to me, I wrote a detailed-enough critique of it that it seemed to make sense to turn it into a column, and things went downhill from there.

By “downhill” I mean only that I found myself in the position of defending my remarks on a subject I don’t know much about, and that turned into a larger political argument. It was actually a good discussion and I’m glad it happened, but that doesn’t change the fact that (1) it’s not really my brief over at Went West to discuss national politics and (2) I know enough about national politics to have some opinions, but-as good a game as I talk-I am not qualified to be making blanket statements about what should or shouldn’t happen, what policies should or shouldn’t be adopted, who is or isn’t “deceptive or just lazy.” (Neither are 90 percent of the people who get listened to about politics in this country, but if I’m not going to accept Coen’s saying “but everyone else does it” when he gets in trouble on the playground, I should begin to demand the same standards of myself.)

You can’t live your life by cute aphorisms and fables (or can you?), but I’m grateful to my Washington Times Communities colleague John Creighton (who seems like a hell of a guy; I hope to meet him some day) for passing along a story that Martin Luther King, Jr. related in a sermon. Apparently, King and his brother were driving at night, and oncoming cars failed to dim their high beams.

“In frustration, Kings’ brother declared that the next passing car that left the lights on high beam would receive the same treatment in return (how many of us have done this?).

King chided his brother, asking what good that would do except put passengers in both cars at greater risk of an accident.

American politics, these past 16 years, has been blinded by the high beams of anger and spite. In the 1990s, Republicans were consumed by their loathing of the Clintons. This decade, Democrats can barely see beyond their visceral distaste for the Bush Administration.

Both sides devote countless hours to belittling one another. A book and talk show industry are built on these practices. Imagine what might have been accomplished, if the creativity devoted toward proclaiming how much we loath one another had been directed toward a constructive purpose.”

So, here’s my resolution. In the various public forums where I have the luxury of pretty much picking what I write about, I want to start making more of an effort to write with the purpose of improvement, either of myself or the conversation I’m taking part in. That’s not to say that I’ll never criticize another George Will column, but-if I do-it will only be consistent with this resolution if I do it humbly, acknowledging what I do or don’t know about the subject, and not attributing to malice what can be just as easily explained by haste, miscommunication, or some other more innocent cause.

But this resolution does have implications for my subject matter. It’s not clear to me that posts countering George Will are a very helpful contribution to the political conversation. For one thing, it lets other people pick what I’m going to talk about, and I think I have enough imagination to come up with my own material. I’d rather be talking about what I’m for rather than what I’m against.

In a different life, I would have made a very good political columnist. I’m glad I’m not living that life, though, because I’ve come increasingly to think that it doesn’t achieve anything important to wade into partisan arguments and score what feel like some hits for your side. (If the hits are a result of your careful and conscientious research, then by all means, swing away-but I’m not engaged in that level of research when it comes to politics, and I need to concede that fact more often.)

The next book on my reading list is Howard Gardner’s Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. I suspect already, however, that he will not say that the best way to do it is to tell people they are wrong.

Instead, I suspect that you influence people by showing that you are genuinely curious, humble, and not wearing ideological blinders. It also helps if you stick to talking to what you know about, or at least what you are genuinely interested in learning about.

What am I genuinely interested in? The intro I wrote to Went West still stands, I think.

“So that’s what Went West is about: what my new vantage point in the Rocky Mountain West is helping me learn about myself, about how to live, what to believe, and how best to act on those beliefs.”

To this end, I think I need to keep my writing more personal, more informed by what I actually know (rather than what I hope is true), and more respectful and humble. I hope readers will feel free to call me on it when I miss this mark. (Disclaimer: I will still be sarcastic from time to time.)