Friday, October 28, 2005

The Hot Topic: The Death Of Cooking?

The latest from the crack Hot Topic team, of which I am a proud member. I seem to only have time for group collaborations these days, but I'll try to get a smoothed out writing groove going next week. Look for a new stand-alone political column soon, name of Dumpster Bust Politics (catchy, eh?).

I've fallen way off the television writing lately, but I will be getting back to that at some point. At present, mighty efforts are being directed toward, which among others things sports a fresh new design these days and a revamped About / Press Page area!


From the fevered minds of a loose grouping of self-appointed cultural commentators comes a weekly side-swipe at the issues of the day, providing a pithy and often heated debate on pop culture as they see it. Welcome, friends, to The Hot Topic...

This week's burning issue: Do You Buy Into The Demise Of Cooking?

From: Bennett Dawson
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

In an age when it looks like microwavable foods are taking over the gastro tracts of the world, I wonder if I'm part of a vanishing breed that still cooks food the old fashioned way.

Not owning a microwave, it seems to me that these little radiation ovens have created their own captive market. A market based on reducing questionable concoctions into a sterile and banal fuel for the ever growing population of lazy lard-asses, and it makes me fear for the future of the classic, home cooked meal.

My local supermarket is devoting increasing shelf space to brightly colored packages of food designed to be cooked only in a microwave. The cooking instructions assume that you will use a microwave, and there are no directions for using a conventional heat source. In fact, many of them have the words "Oven or stove top - not recommended".

And I'm not talking about regular frozen vegetables here, 'cause I see nothing wrong with frozen corn or beans as a side dish if fresh veggies are out of season, and admit to being in love with Green Giant frozen Creamed Spinach. I can even go for the frozen oriental meals (just add meat) that come with an icy chunk of mystery sauce. The veggies end up soggy and bland, but sometimes the trade off (freshness for convenience) works out. I have to admit that the pictures on the boxes are first class, and make the food look so damn tasty! This is a marketing lie, as it never comes out looking like the picture.

But it's the new generation of microwavable main courses that gross me out, the precooked foods sitting on the shelves of the supermarket at room temperature. Some of these vacuum wrapped entrees have chunks of chicken or beef in 'em, am I the only one who finds this disturbing?

Meat - frozen or refrigerated, okay? Room temp for weeks or months in a plastic envelope? C'mon folks, this is a crime against nature! How is this different from a can of soup, you ask? From a purely sterile point of view, it's probably no different, but my mind rebels, knowing that a CAN is safer, more secure, physically impenetrable. How DO they sterilize those plastic bags 'o food?

Whenever I see a box with a plastic envelope containing "Chicken Goulash" or "Jasmine Rice With Raisins" sitting on an unrefrigerated shelf, it gives me the creeps. Check out the shelves, Rice-a-roni has a new line of precooked rice in little plastic envelopes, as if cooking up Rice-a-roni was a big chore in the first place!

The new development to all of this is that the CAN is on the way out too. Yesterday I saw little boxes of soup. The same package that they use for little kids "sippy juices" is now the package for tomato soup, beef soup, Hungarian goulash... In this room temp packaging revolution, what's next?

I was raised in a pretty healthy food environment. Microwaves hadn't been invented yet, and my mom was a health food nut when that sort of thing was just getting started. Raw milk, unstabilized peanut butter, real bread, and collard greens... Wonder Bread never graced the shelves in my childhood home. Instead, we had handfuls of vitamins to choke down, liver and onions, yogurt and granola. Ya know? It's a long road from that to "just microwave and enjoy!" This said, I have enjoyed my share of microwave burritos, to the ultimate distress of my lower GI tract.

If I owned a microwave, would I feel any different? Would I trust in "the rays" to make everything safe and harmless? Would I get used to bread that felt like shoe leather in my mouth? Sauces that separate and look wrong? Meats that show no evidence of being cooked?

My ultra-healthy brother claims that microwaves remove everything that is good, all sustenance, any shred of valuable nourishment contained in food. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but I am deeply suspicious of the changes that take place in food that gets "waved".

How about you? Do you cook from scratch? Do you use your oven to prepare food? Do you buy your meat, vegetables and sauces separately and put them together yourself? Do you cook for the creative satisfaction? Do you cook for the flavors?

Or do you swear by the Microwave? Your culinary requirements satisfied by plastifoil envelopes of pizza pockets, eggrolls, chicken nuggets, and popcorn? Should I think about the time you're saving, or the rising rates of colon cancer?

From: Greg Smyth
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

You seem to be making two main points:

1. Microwaving food is potential unsafe

2. Convenience foods probably aren't terribly healthy.

As for the first, the anti-microwave stance seems, to my scientific eye, to be a load of superstitious radiation bunkum. Sure, the way microwave ovens work isn't perhaps conventionally 'natural' but, to my knowledge, exactly no studies comparing the effects of microwaved food against otherly-heated food in rats, humans whatever. Maybe there have been and I've missed them, but I'm sure that if they'd come out in the negative the popular press couldn't have waited to run another pseudo-scientific health scare-story.

Until someone proves that a problem exists, I'm cynical (although, admittedly, the testing should have been carried out before microwaves were introduced to our daily lives). As to whether they ruin most of the nutrients in food during the cooking process, my recollection is that it does and more so than other methods too. However, "is it safe?" and "is it healthy?" are two totally separate, though both important, issues.

Point two: are microwave meals, or any other types of convenience food, healthy? Hell, no! Even the so-called healthy options have been processed to within an inch of their lives and, I'd imagine, any nutritional content remaining is negligible. Obviously, what would be preferable is if everyone cooked low-fat, low-salt fresh food every day. But, in today's increasingly stressed, no-time lifestyle, that's unlikely.

Personally, I'd love to spend time making proper meals and, hell, I enjoy cooking. But, by the time I get home from the day job, cook a lovely meal from scratch and then do the washing up, exactly when do I get to have a life outside of work and eating?!

There's another advantage. of sorts, to ready meals, and one that might be of interest to the tubbier amongst us: portion sizing. Put simply, a ready meal is an easy way of taking in a known amount of calories, fat, salt, whatever, enabling the slower amongst us to make slightly more educated and sensible choices. That, to me, is no bad thing.

From: Mark Saleski
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

Hmmm, well...i'm not sure that the microwave is the culprit.

I say that only because it wasn't, food historically-speakin', the first step toward 'convenience'.

TV dinners were probably the first....followed by all sortsa stuff that you could boil in a plastic pouch.

That said, there are all sorts of modern factors that push hard (maybe 'relentlessly' is a better word) against real food. this one is the worst:

The Demise of the Family Dinner

Kids have amazing and maddeningly complex schedule these days. A soccer practice here, a drama club rehearsal there. Couple that with the fact that both parents often hold full time jobs outside of the home and whole reason for owning a dining room table goes away. It's kinda sad, really...though i don't have any answers there.

So if kids never get into the habit of sitting down to dinner with the family, they're not likely to value such activities later in life. Why go to the 'hassle' of buying flour tortillas, beef, cheese, lettuce and whatever when you can just pop a frozen burrito into the microwave?

Me, i sure as hell cook from scratch...with as much locally grown food as I can get my hands on. But of course I feel attached to the whole "slow food" movement in part because the family dinner was a big part of my little kid-dom and the social aspects of hanging around in the kitchen are very important to me.

Then there's the evil of 'corporate food' (Chili's, TGI Fridays, Applebees, McDonalds, KFC...blah blah blah)...lets not even go there today!

From: Mat Brewster
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

I'll take my cue from Greg and divide this into two sections covering those points.

Personally, I love my microwave. The convenience far outweighs any negative aspects. Now, I'm not one of those eats every meal via the microwave guys. In fact, I don't really do much cooking with it at all. In a pinch, it heats the water for a cup of tea in the morning. It gives a little defrost to the meats coming out of the freezer. I prefer my soups to be cooked on the stove, but during a fast lunch break, the microwave does it just fine. And then theres leftovers. I've never met a leftover that didn't love a microwave.

I've heard the rumors that microwaves kill all the nutrients out of a meal, but I've never seen any real documentation on this. Not that I've really looked that hard for it. But given the choice between a micrwaved bowl of minestrone that's been zapped of all its healthiness and a Big Mac, I'll take the minestrone every time.

As far as cooking goes, I've got about four good meals. Some people say they really love to cook, I'm not one of those people. It's just too much work. Luckily I married a lovely lady who enjoys the art of cooking. She's got shelves full of cook books and enjoys spending an evening reading them and coming up with something new. I'm kind of a finicky eater, so I don't always love the zucchini sandwiches, but I'll suffer through a few not-so-tasty meals for the succulent surprises.

We're slowly trying to get more natural and organic. It helps that the in-laws have a nice sized garden and often visit with bountiful bundles of fresh vegetables. They also order in bulk from an organic co-op and fill our pantry with the overflow. The local farmer's market also provides some healthy, tasty treats. Man, we still eat our share of convenience foods, but it's nice to be able to eat something that isn't so full of preservatives it will outlast the cock roaches after a nuclear disaster.

All of this reminds me of something my Belgium friend Daniel used to say.

"In America they eat to live, in France they live to eat."

And though it is a broad generalization, it does sum up a large chunk of our cultural concept of eating. We're so busy with EVERYTHING these days. We work long hours, the kids have soccer, scouts, chess club, fencing, always demanding to be driven to practice, and cheered on, and on and on, and on. Many a day I get home and the last thing I want to do is spend an hour cooking a meal, only having to clean up afterwards. It is so much easier to zap a frozen pizza. It even comes in its own little throw away plate.

Even our restaurants are convenient and fast. And I'm not just talking about McDonalds here. Even your nicer, sit-down restaurants get you in and out quick. The food is pre-prepared, the cook ready to fix the plate in under 15 minutes, the waiters move quickly. On your lunch break? Try the Speedy Gonzoles. Catching a movie afterwards? You can eat and have the check in half an hour.

Everything is prepackaged, ready to serve. They've mixed the jelly with the peanut butter. Heck, they've even got premade PB & Js now. Soup in a bowl, frozen pizza, hamburgers, nachos ready to go. Hit the drive through, eat while you drive. I'm waiting for new meals in an IV. Inject straight into your stomach. Saves all that chewing and swallowing. I don't know, it all seems a little crazy. I mean I understand how it happens. We are busy, the food is convenient. I'm part of it. I'd like to say I cook all of my meals. I'd like to say my pantry is filled with fresh, organic foods straight from the local farmer. But that stuff aint the truth. I'm working towards that goal, but I'm a long ways away.

So, do I buy into the demise of cooking? No, there are some lovely, wonderful chefs out there. Good people, cooking marvelous foods for their people. It's more like a little secret society these days. But they are out there. Like everything else in this world, the meals can get better, but it's gonna take work.

From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: Microwave Foodstuff

I'm part of the first generation that took for granted the convenience of the microwave. Whereas my parents grew up in the age of the icebox and stovetop, the "nuker" was an omnipresent fixture of my early years and remains a vital cog in my daily life.

And I fully admit that I'm addicted to the thing. From heating water in the morning for the first of two mugs of instant coffee to late night heating of whatever happens to be lying around the old refrigerator, it's hard for me to imagine life without easy access to heating stuff up.

My current addiction is Lean Pockets - as brilliantly over-processed and under-priced a food item as one is likely to find (someone should do a study, I say!) - particularly the Pepperoni Pizza variety. Here's how I break it down: three minutes for the two luscious pockets (inside their cozy "protective sleeves"), then the frozen mixed vegetables for 1:45 (if I had two microwaves I could double productivity at this stage). Combine the two items and add marinara sauce (note: the sauce comes straight from the fridge, which provides a reaction in which the sauce warms up and the aforementioned and partially completed entrée cools down.

Perfection - a Blue Plate Special of the Gods, served to man for a reasonable fee on the quick.

But seriously, the processed food thing is over-the-top and a serious problem in gluttonous, convenience-addicted America. As you can see, I'm a card carrying member of the club.

But to address your disgust of room temperature foods, Bennett: are you sure that these are items meant for the hallowed halls of microwavity? There are a bunch of products put out for campers and outdoorsy types nowadays that only require heated water. You boil water, throw it in the bag, mix up and seal, and a few minutes later you have yourself quite a tasty little dish. Seriously, I've had curry and stews whilst camping that are far better, dare I say, than my lovely Lean Pockets could ever aspire to.

The bloggers have had their say, now it's your chance to chip in!

Do you cook your own food, or do you 'wave' your tasty morsels? Is what you eat important to you, or would you prefer to take a pill and get on with the party? Do you care? Or perhaps more importantly, could you care less?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

In the Middle: CIA Leak Case

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left 
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
Subject: CIA Leak Case

Phillip, it's late on a Tuesday night as I write these words. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has not yet announced the results of his two-year investigation into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. But it's coming soon, as soon as Wednesday, so I think this is as good a time as any – as Washington waits and the press freaks itself out in anticipation and the President talks about "background noise" and
some make allusions to "worse than Watergate" – to ask:

What's it all really mean, then?

A lot hinges on whether or not anyone – and particularly high ranking officials – gets indicted, obviously. If no one gets indicted, the White House breathes a huge sigh of relief and hopes that the darkest night has passed. If there are indictments, much hinges on whether or not top aides I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff) and Karl "Bush's Brain" Rove fall in that group.

If Libby, Rove, or both get indicted, it will be at the least a damaging blow to an administration that has been beset by failures (see: Social Security reform), bungles (see: Harriet Miers), and charges of incompetence (see: “You’re doing a hell of a job, Brownie) throughout 2005.

So I ask: if there are high-level indictments, will it mean that the Bush administration will be put on trial (by the media and, to an extent, the public) for misleading the nation into war with Iraq?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Already on Wednesday, I'm reading that no indictments are due today, so it seems that the mystery and the tension will ratchet up a little tighter over the next day or two. The grand jury investigating the leak of Valerie Plame's name, role, and relationship to Joseph Wilson expires on Friday, so we're down to the wire.

What's it all about, Alfie?

In one sense, I think it is seriously "inside baseball." I bet a survey of even registered voters would reveal that a miniscule percentage of people are even aware of the issues in play here, and that even fewer actually care. If indictments are brought, that could change, but for now, one has to work pretty hard to get too excited about this. The idea that this could be "worse than Watergate" seems to be pure political posturing on a number of levels. So far I've seen nothing which suggests that this will even rise to the level of scandal that plagued the Clinton administration, and most of those "scandals" went nowhere.

Consider that, for better or for worse, we have different expectations from the White House than we used to. Consider also that the Watergate scandal involved actual crimes being indisputably committed, the sorts of crimes you or I would spend time in jail for committing. I don't think that the American people are going to get too excited about the idea that someone mentioned that an ideological opponent might have had a not-so-obvious axe to grind, even if that someone is the Vice President of the United States of America. If true, it might be even be illegal, but it is hardly the sort of law that you or I would expect to encounter. If true, and if illegal, crimes should be prosecuted, but I don't expect the average person on the street to care very much. Not any more than they cared about Martha Stewart's "insider trading," say.

All of that said, President Bush campaigned on a platform that included "restoring integrity to the White House," and in so doing I think he set a high standard for himself, a standard he has not been able to meet. He promised to hold his staffers accountable, but it is beginning to appear that when it comes to this leak, he either knew something on which he didn't act, or deliberately didn't ask questions to avoid knowing it, or that he was lied to, in which case he should act to remove the liar from whatever position he or she holds. Anything less is an about-face in his stated policy.

I suspect that he will not do anything of the sort, and has therefore failed in his goal to "restore integrity to the White House."

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I have to disagree with you on the "inside baseball" description, Phillip. While most Americans likely don't understand the specifics of the case, I believe many are aware that high level members of the government may have been involved in the outing of an undercover agent for political gain and in an effort to cover up parts of the campaign that led to the war in Iraq, most notably President Bush's famous 2003 State of Union declaration that Saddam Hussein had attempted to obtain uranium yellow cake from Niger.

Therefore, there's a Perfect Storm that could erupt as early as today, Wednesday now: a government campaign to expose an undercover agent in order to cover up lies made in an effort to push us into war. That's huge stuff in my book, much much bigger than anything Whitewater could have become.

In that vein, I find it laughable that some conservatives are already griping that if Fitzgerald comes back with indictments for perjury, as opposed to other crimes, that it means that there was no wrong doing. President Clinton was nearly impeached for just this: covering up an affair in the midst of an investigation into a real estate deal! And
of course, Republican Washington cheered it on, pushed it on, dreamed it all on.

In any event, indictments will certainly end any kind of phase in which the public is not interested in this story (which seems impossibly hard to believe already). Bush's and Congress's poll numbers are already kerplunk in the tank, and indictments now have the real capability of setting Washington into deep freeze until the 2006 elections.

So I find it interesting that you seem to think that possible crimes in the White House are "not a big deal" on the one hand, and yet indicate that Bush may not have lived up to a key campaign promise on the other.

In the end, this case may be about the distinction between hard, clean Machiavellian politics and crossing the line. Many, and I include myself in this group, believe that Bush and his supporters have been close to or crossed this line many times in the past, from character assassinating fellow Republican John McCain in the 2000 primaries all the way through the Swift Boat nonsense of 2004.

If laws were broken, those responsible should be punished. This is an administration that has hinged itself on integrity and protecting our national security. If an undercover CIA agent was exposed to advance a political agenda, it is a severe wound to the office of the presidency and our national reputation. If misleading statements were made to lead us to war, it's very possible that our government has blood on its hands.

This smallish story from 2003 has the real potential to topple a presidency and make us all look long and hard on who we want in power and how we wish to be governed.

Looks like I get the Big Picture award this week!

What say you?

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Somehow, and most people blame talk radio, the American people by and large developed the opinion that our last president was plagued by scandal. Misunderstandings, half-truths, and outright lies were mixed up with things that really did land people in jail, and the whole thing became huge. It is possible that something like that could happen here, but it certainly doesn't seem to have happened yet, and I think it would take an indictment of Libby, Rove, or Cheney to even have a chance of happening.

Of course, I think the similarities are even more interesting than that, because so many of the attacks against President Clinton were driven by partisan rancor, and it seems from my perspective that a lot of that is true now with President Bush as well. I mentioned in last week's column that statements made in the heat of a partisan debate have a tendency to come back to haunt, and the idea that perjury is either "no big deal" or "worth impeachment" is one example. It would make me laugh if it weren't so sad!

The problem here is that there are many, many unanswered questions, and an indictment won't necessarily answer most of them. Was Valerie Plame undercover? It's a matter of debate among people who should clearly know, so I have to assume partisanship is involved. Was Joseph Wilson ideologically driven? Again, it seems to be an issue, though it probably shouldn't be. Does it matter if the spirit of the law was upheld while it was technically violated? It usually doesn't, unless one has grounds to protest the wording of the law up through to the Supreme Court. What is the actual chain of information? Possibly Cheney told Libby, who told Rove and also New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Someone presumably in that chain told syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who spilled the information into the public. Did Cheney know that Plame was undercover? Did Libby? Does the law make any distinction? Indictments, if they come, will be just the beginning of a long process, and through it all, a lot more people will become involved.

The problem with your vision of a Perfect Storm, as I see it, is that too many people are in the middle of it. Many leading Democrats were as involved in the lead up to the war in Iraq as Republicans, including several of the party's most likely candidates for 2008. Politically speaking, while many people would like to see President Bush pressed as hard or harder on this as President Clinton was during his term in office, the potential collateral damage may prove to be too high a price for the Democratic Party to want to pay.

My distinction between the one hand and the other rests entirely on the difference between my personal opinion (which is that President Bush has already blown it by not upholding his campaign promise of integrity) and how I read the world around me (which says that most people don't really care, at least not at this point). A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll yesterday reported an even split between those who feel that administration officials acted illegally, and those who feel that the administration officials acted legally but unethically. More importantly, in my view, is that the percentage of people who feel that the administration's ethical standards are "excellent" or "good" has fallen from nearly 75% three years ago to 51% this week.

I would hope that we can elect political leaders who will avoid this kind of scandal, but I am beginning to fear that it might be impossible. The people with the integrity we claim to want simply won't run, and the ones who run, we tear apart!

You've been careful, it seems, to use terms like "misleading," which I appreciate. Even so, I think that if the Bush Administration willfully misled the world, rather than falling prey to its own assumptions, they would have taken a different path. I see the situation as one in which the majority of both parties honestly believed the information they were given about Iraq as a threat, though whether we will remember that is doubtful if this eventually turns into the political circus for which some are hoping.

The bottom line for me is that President Bush made a promise he has failed to fulfill, whether anything illegal was done in the end or not. Whether or not a different response to Wilson's July 2003 article would have made a difference in how our country approached Iraq, it certainly would have made a difference in how our country views this president.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I'm not sure where you got your numbers from, Phillip, but according
to the Washington Post:

A new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll reminded the White House of the damage the CIA leak case has already inflicted: Eight in ten people surveyed said that aides had either broken the law or acted unethically.

So, this story is very much on the radar for most people. And as a tense week of waiting rolls on, there are rumblings that we'll be hearing from Patrick Fitzgerald on Thursday. You've taken the position, Phillip, that things won't be serious – or rise to the level of the Lewinsky scandal if I'm reading you correctly – unless Libby, Rove, or Cheney are indicted. Well, I think the chances of that happening (Libby and likely Rove, but not Cheney) are exceedingly high. Much of the political calculations I expressed earlier relied upon this scenario, and it looks as though it will come to pass very shortly.

Now, I see your point about perjury: either it's a bad thing that should be punished, or it's not a big deal. Legally speaking, it shouldn't matter if it's with regard to sex with a White House intern or blowing (if you'll pardon the pun) a CIA agent's cover to hide potentially embarrassing actions by an administration in the run-up to a major war. I take the position that it's a bad thing, particularly when the stakes are so high. President Clinton was nearly impeached because he lied under oath. The circumstances were ludicrous and the prosecutor was clearly on a partisan witch hunt, but that still doesn't make it right.

I also agree (see how I'm trying to find In the Middle ground, kids?) that the circumstances in the Plame Affair, as we currently understand them, are murky at best. It's up to the prosecutor – who by all accounts is apolitical and tough-as-hell – to sort out the facts and prosecute any misdeeds. I doubt that with the spotlight as bright as it is that he will turn in indictments that stand on flimsy factual evidence or legal precedent.

I disagree that Democrats will take much, if any, "collateral damage" from this incident. Polls already show that if elections were held in November 2005, we'd see Democrats trouncing Republican foes across the board. Don't forget that there are a myriad of woes riding on Republican shoulders at the moment: Iraq, high gas prices, continued fallout from Katrina, and so on.

I'm glad to hear you clearly state that you are disappointed in the president's leadership. I also appreciate how you parse out willful lying on the part of the Bush administration pre-invasion from "falling prey to their own assumptions." This is an important point. I'll make the argument that there was a melding of these two factors. September 11, 2001 and early success in Afghanistan led to an exuberant neoconservative faction hell bent on toppling Saddam Hussein and transforming the Middle East into a democratic utopia.

Three of the top neocons who held and continue to exert heavy influence over the president? Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Scooter Libby.

This debate is just getting started and will likely continue over the coming months. Overall, I think a rehash of the why and how we got to where we are is a healthy thing.

New information is going to come out over time, which will help us to put the puzzle together. For instance, Knight Ridder has a rather fascinating piece out called "CIA leak illustrates selective us of intelligence on Iraq":

A Knight Ridder review of the administration's arguments, its own reporting at the time and the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2004 report shows that the White House followed a pattern of using questionable intelligence, even documents that turned out to be forgeries, to support its case - often leaking classified information to receptive journalists - and dismissing information that undermined the case for war.

The State of the Union speech was one of a number of instances in which Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their aides ignored the qualms of intelligence professionals and instead relied on the claims of Iraqi defectors and other suspect sources or, in the case of Niger, the crudely forged documents.

Now I leave it to you for the last word, good sir.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

Amazingly, that poll, from which I quoted earlier, doesn't report than anybody is unaware of the case. And yet The Tonight Show can send a camera crew out on the streets of Los Angeles any afternoon and round up hours of footage of people who can't remember who the Vice President is! I suspect the poll is leaving out a large group of people who responded with something like, "Huh?"

Perjury – lying under oath – should be prosecuted, always. Lying to the American people – which it is possible Cheney has done while not under oath – isn't illegal, but based on the standards Bush has claimed to operate under, should result in Cheney stepping down. That's not me being harder on the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, that's me taking up the gauntlet President Bush threw down.

As far as Democrats needing to be careful politically, I think you radically misestimate things, but time will tell. That majority of Democrats voted in favor of invading Iraq, just as Republicans did. That won't be forgotten, and efforts by Democrats to distance themselves from their votes or blame others for misinformation won't play very well with the American people. Senator Kerry's "I voted against it before I voted for it" is something a lot of people remember, and nobody likes it when adults act like children in trying to avoid responsibility.

Yes, polls indicate that an unnamed Democrat would beat President Bush (who cannot run for re-election) right now (with no campaigning from Bush). But name a specific Democrat, and those numbers will change; they always do. Many have suggested that Bush has finally quit campaigning, since he can't be reelected. That could change, too. I'd be careful about reading too much into those numbers; I seem to remember Bush being beat easily by the same standard before the 2004 election. Then the "unnamed Democrat" became Senator Kerry, and things weren't so close.

There seems to be no question that many people, including politicians and career intelligence officials, let assumptions shape their response to intelligence. There were dissenters as there always are, of course, and since the general perception is that things are going badly, the crowd of dissenters seems to be swelling as quickly as the pool of people who attended Woodstock, whether bona fide or not. All of that forms a backdrop for the issue at hand.

It is easy to say that documents turned out to be forgeries, or that intelligence was questionable in retrospect. The question that should be asked is whether they should reasonably have known that. The answer to that question, I fear, will depend more on partisan politics or the general perception of how the war is going in Iraq than on the actual facts of the case.

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous editions of In The Middle include:
* Bill Bennett
* Harriet Miers
* Iraq as “Media War”

We are now looking for good writers from right or left who are willing to discuss important topical issues respectfully. Please contact us or leave a comment if you are interested.

Friday, October 21, 2005

You Know What Time It Is

In today's Washington Post piece that details the latest in White House preparations for potential coming indictments in the CIA leak investigation, the following is related:

Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. gets up each day at 4:20 a.m., arrives at his office a little over an hour later, gets home between 8:30 and 9 p.m. and often still takes calls after that; he has been in his pressure-cooker job since Bush was inaugurated, longer than any chief of staff in decades. "He looks totally burned out," a Republican strategist said.


Burned out?

I'm just saying.

The Hot Topic: Coffee and CDs

I'm part of a new group column type deal called The Hot Topic. Music and pop culture and conformism are first up on the agenda. And coffee -- you just can't say no to that...


From: Greg Smyth
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

Dear Gang,

I've been hanging out in my local Starbucks way too much lately and I was perusing some flyers for their latest exclusive CD offering (a hideous slight on Herbie Hancock's genius). That set me wondering about if, were they actually selling anything I might want to purchase, would I be willing to buy my music from a coffee company?

Starbucks' appeal is that it sells you back the very thing you can get for practically no dollars right in your own living room - a cuppa joe in a homely environment. Setting aside the deep and potentially disturbing personal problems that might make you feel the need to buy into this fake lifestyle in the first place, part and parcel of the patented Starbucks experience is the idea of fitting into this Americanized, homogenized idea of respectable alt-cool. The idea being that, if you're in Starbucks, you're Hip and you Belong.

So far, so much bullshit. Now, to me, Starbucks selling music isn't actually the most devilish thing Corporate America has foisted on the world (a CLOWN, selling HAMBURGERS!? WTF?) and it fits with the whole Middle Of The Road aspirational lifestyle that also brought us GAP. The thing is, while Starbucks keeps plugging a new Alanis Morrissette album, I really couldn't give a rat's ass. I wouldn't buy it if they paid me. Likewise, the whole Dylan pseudo-controversy left me nonplussed, simply because (as good as he is) Bob Dylan is part of that whole Pasteurized American Monoculture.

So, when would it start bothering me? Well, call it cultural snobbery if you like (*hands up in surrender*) but the very second they start trying to flog me something cutting edge or indie or FUCKING GOOD, then I'll be pissed. If, assuming it ever sees the light of day, I was to walk into one of Newcastle's multiple Starbucks and find the debut album by Babyshambles going for a tenner when you buy a Venti Decaf Mochalocofrangipanifuckaluckachino with Soya Milk. THEN, I won't be responsible for my actions.

Good day.

From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

I'm thrilled to be taking part in this little (dare I say alt-cool?) experiment. That said, let me hereby dish some chips as per request.

A great topic you've hit upon, one that's strangely and nearly disturbingly universal: Starbucks and monoculture and coffee (ah, an item close to my heart, that) and world dominion. And music! You had my head spinning, what with memories of crisscrossing the American south in the '90s and seeing the same set of megastores at every stop (Wal Mart, Old Navy, K Mart, Waffle House, next!), the first brilliant third of Fight Club, and many an afternoon huddled over a scribble pad (oh, how dark and mysterious he is, they think – writing a novel no one will ever read, let alone pay for – and drinking coffee in public, all at once!) at my local Starbucks. Well, there are technically two local Starbucks in my neighborhood, but I think you get my meaning.

And I hear you, as an avowed Starbucks junk fiend, with regard to purchasing music there. I suspect you'd agree that it would be akin to more securely and precisely positioning one's soul over the corporate hell pits. Just one Ray Charles & Friends compilation away from eternal damnation, right? We're all forced to tow the line in this scrambled advertisement-rich modern culture, I suppose.

The weird thing (the temptation, perhaps?) is that some of the music played at Starbucks is good. I've heard some great reggae and jazz and African rhythms that I'd likely never get the opportunity to experience otherwise, I'm (very) sorry to say.

So on the one hand, I might boil the Big Picture question to: how much of our souls are we willing to sell?

But then I'm forced to counter myself, Devil's Advocate-like, with: it's just coffee and music, so chill out, eh?

From: Aaron Fleming
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

It's hard not to repeat the frequent rhetoric espoused by anti-corporate activists and, well, anyone in the condition of sanity, but let me begin by saying corporate powerhouses (like Starbucks) will commence with any proceedure that has the chance of increasing profits, the bottom line is the most, and only, important unit in this equation. You could argue about governmental laws (national and international) but that only goes so far, and it could be easily stated that subliminal methods used in advertising/marketing/etc are much more powerful tools within the intention of profit maximisation (to which I'd agree).

With vast departments of employees working in these areas, the corporations are constantly evolving and developing new strategies, no demographic or sub-culture is safe from it's roaming tentacles. If I were feeling particularly anarchic right now I'd call for a major uprising to combat the machine, or at least for people to continue to strive for constructing a wall of defence against it. Of course there is plenty of that evident in society (anti-globalisation groups etc), but clearly far from enough to have any substantial effect, and, as corporate power expands, it only increases in difficulty.

So to Starbucks. This company has clearly hit gold with its image, the proliferation of music retail is just another part of this. Eric says that he has heard decent music in the outlets, consider that another success bestowed on the heads of those advanced marketeers. It's all image construction, as is the entire "Middle Of The Road aspirational lifestyle" that Greg discusses.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not faining some personal invincibility here, I too have heard commendable music in Starbucks, and have enjoyed sitting within it's stylish interiors (planned down to miniscule detail no doubt). I probably wouldn't buy music CD's in there, that's simply due to my musical tastes, but to use a hypothetic situation and assume there were a CD of liking seen to me, then I guess if it were a favourable price then I might indeed purchase said item.

Eric asks: how much of our souls are we willing to sell? The writhing consumerist chunk out to attain a bargain is my answer.

From: Mat Brewster
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

My initial, gut reaction is, why would anyone buy anything from Starbucks at any time? It's a giant corporation trying to pretend it is a local, place for hip cats. It's a faux-trendy mega-store selling brown sludge with a 200% mark-up.

Confession #1: I don't like coffee. I hate the look of it. I hate the smell of it. I hate the whole hipster-trendy feel of it. And I certainly, without a doubt, hate the taste of it. And for all you people out there ready to offer me the new vanilla/caramel mocho-choca-froca latee-achino with a twist, claiming it tastes just like hot chocolate and you can't even taste the coffee - stop wasting your time. It tastes exactly like coffee, and it is all nasty. Guess what? If I want something that tastes like hot chocolate, I'll buy some freaking hot chocolate.

The confession comes in because not liking coffee kind of puts a damper on actually wanting to go to a coffee shop. I don't think I've ever actually set foot into a stand alone Starbucks shop.

Confession #2: I have actually made a purchase at Starbucks. It wasn't at a stand alone Starbucks, but one of those coffee bars inside a Barnes and Nobles, or Borders or whatever giant book corporations they set up shop in. And I know, I know, giant book selling corporations are evil too. I do frequent my fabulous local book shop, but I still like the big corporations for the lounging, browsing opportunities they provide.

Sitting in those giant leather chairs with my Calvin and Hobbes collection, or the complete works of Raymond Chandler, I often feel the desire to have a warm, chocolaty beverage. When this happens, I have to admit, I pay way too much for a little cocoa, and sometimes that cocoa comes from a Starbucks.

Confession #3: I bough a coffee at a Starbucks just yesterday. I went through the drive through, thus not falsifying my "never been to a stand alone Starbucks" schpeel, and the coffee was for a friend, whom I happened to owe a couple of bucks.

Enough ranting and onto the question at hand, would I ever buy music from Starbucks? Not frequenting the franchise that is hard to answer. I honestly, didn't even know they sold music. So, I think I'll change it around to something like:

What if the Antichrist herself, Oprah, put one of my favorite authors books in her book club, would I buy it?

In both cases, I think it comes down to whether or not the product is available from any other market. I'm not buying a rehashed Ray Charles greatest hits package from Starbucks, because I can get his music elsewhere. I don't need to buy any Steinbeck from Oprah, either. There are plenty of other copies around. But if Lyle Lovett puts out a Starbucks only disks, then I guess, I'd have to start drinking coffee.

In the end if Starbucks, or Oprah are bringing wonderful artist to a broader audience than they'd ever get without them, that's a good thing.

From: Bennet Dawson
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

You gotta look at the birthplace of Starbucks (the rainy Pacific Northwest), and the original market of the super-strong coffee industry to understand a bit about why this phenomenon has taken hold. During my days in Seattle, the chill, the numb, and the gray and cloudy week, after week. It sucks the life outta your day and you need stimulants or you will die. After a year my personal Cobainesque urge to end it all was barely held at bay by the six caffeine-charged bevvies that I picked up at whatever chichi outlet happened by, and there's one on every corner. Double shots of espresso mixed into frothy hot milk, plain dark coffee, or some choco-latte richness that sustains and excites both my body, and my weather dulled synapses.

The strong coffee addiction persists to this day, even though I've moved on to sunnier locales. French roast brewed strong enough to melt a plastic spoon, a Krupps Mini-Espresso Machine for those all night jitters of creative madness, the *click* of my brain turning on (after only a half a mug) in the wee hours of the morning, and the unparalleled ability of a strong "cuppa joe" to push the haze of too many late-night beers into the distant past.

All hail Caffeine! And to the purveyors of ultra-strong brews I say Thank-ya! Turkish? Oh yeah.

Living in a rural area, the closest Starbucks is now a distant hours drive. It's tucked into the streetside corner of a Barnes & Nobles, and I see it only when looking to expand my library. But the allure is gone. The hapless yearning to meet someone interesting no longer drives my life. The biscotti beckon, but the corporate atmosphere pales when compared to the warmth and comfort of my own private place. Alas, I hear no music as I chase the register down and scoot out of the store with something guaranteed to provide hours of pleasure and escape. CD's? Music? If they're selling, I'm not buying.

Years ago, perhaps. But only if I was still single, still looking for the One. And only if the gal behind the counter looked like a potential snuggle. "Alternative? Sounds great!" But she'd have to smile real purty, and suggest that the purchase would bring us closer to the love, closer to the end of the numbness that comes with living in Seattle.

From: Duke DeMondo
To: The Hot Topic
Re: Coffee and CDs

What this whole brouhaha has me remembering is the time I was sat in Starbucks back in the day, sippin some gargantuan mug a foam and reading some toss or other about zombies. What happened was that next thing I knew, holy shit, it’s Cold Roses by Ryan Adams And The Cardinals blaring out the speakers!

(Well, whispering out.)

What in fucks name to do?

It felt odd, and this gets back to Greg’s concern. I don’t mind shite or at least Old Stuff That Everyone Knows fillin the airwaves in these places, but hearin the new Ryan Adams record in such a cripplingly bland, safe, pseudo-BoHo hive, it did the arse of my soul a good deal of frazzlement.

In the end, what I did was I made sure everyone could see that I knew every word, and the smugness afforded by this, well, it made it all worthwhile.

But you have to start worrying when Starbucks are endorsing records, because not only does it mean that said records have become incredibly hip amongst the kinda vacant terrors who yack about “World Music” (yeah, I’m with David Byrne on that one), but also, it means they’re probably fairly safe and unthreatening.

But part of me also thinks it’s a good thing that these cats are getting turned on to Dylan and the like whilst huddled round the tables sharing a thimble-fulla yak’s milk on account of they’re all school-kids and broke.

It’s the old Us And Them thing. I fucking hate the thought of Our Stuff being bounded ‘pon by these faceless fucks, but at the same time, I’d rather hear Ryan Adams when I’m sippin an overpriced milk / mint / caffeine abomination than, say, 50 Cent.

It would, however, pain me to find out the next Todd Snider record was only available at Starbucks, for example, because not only does it mean he’s gone back on all that leftist pot-soaked banter and instead focused on making money offa leftist-for-a-day pot-soaked posers, but it also means One Of Us has gone gotten snared by the fuckers.

It’s bad enough that Jack White’s writing songs for fucking Coke.

I mean I exist on nothing BUT Diet Coke, but God Almighty, I don’t want Jack White writing the advert music.

(And yeah, it pains me also that Ryan Adams did the GAP ad, that Dylan did Victoria’s Secret, and the whole Bill Hicks “Off the artistic roll-call forever” thing would apply if not for the fact that fuck my eyes, it’s Dylan and Ryan Adams! They can do whatever the hell they want.)

Still, I never did buy that Starbucks Dylan CD. I woulda done had it been the complete Gaslight tapes, but ten tracks when I already have the 17-track bootleg seems like a whole lotta nothing. Even WITH enhanced sound.

And I must point out that I have yet to see that Morissette record in a Starbucks, but it’s in the HMV in town. Curious…

Alas, I can’t go into the why’s and wherefores of how come I can’t get a fucking “large” anything anymore, on account of the ladies at the door needin a crate of speed for the weekend.

(Being sober has it’s advantages, since the ladies know they can trust a fella to get the job done efficiently and with little or no puke.)

Okay people, chip in! This week's burning issue in the pop culture milieu is: Would you buy music from Starbucks? Are exclusive coffee shop albums hurting sales in mainstream record shops? Do you agree with HMV Canada boycotting Dylan's back catalogue in response? Discuss.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

In The Middle: Iraq as a "Media War"

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
Subject: Iraq as a "Media War"

Let's talk about Iraq.

Saddam Hussein's first trial began yesterday, while the votes are still being counted from last weekend's surprisingly peaceful constitutional referendum. On the other hand, while there was much less violence (and much more Sunni participation) than expected this weekend, there are still nearly 2000 American soldiers dead in this fight. People are asking themselves if this is worth it, and perhaps primarily because of that, President Bush's approval rating is at a record low.

I have a theory that no major war can ever be fought again in the age of near-omnipresent news coverage. That the American people in an age of edgy prime-time TV just aren't willing to accept even a single human life spent on any war that isn't taking place on American soil. And that the natural way of things (not any sort of conspiracy or bias, just business) will always result in the news reports being dominated by the bad news, while the good news is rarely reported. I don't intend to complain about this, because I think it is just the way things are. I'm the same way about many things: I expect instant results and get concerned about things I hear without checking them out in detail for myself.

However, I think things are actually going remarkably well in Iraq, considered from a historically-aware perspective. Unfortunately, that perspective suggests to me that we may have several years go by and several hundred (or even thousand) more U.S. soldiers killed before we see the sort of stability we would all like to see in the Middle East. What worries me, then, is that the American people will lose their collective nerve and pull out of Iraq precipitously, leaving behind nothing but ill-will, and sowing the seeds of our destruction in the future.

How much effect do you think that non-stop media coverage is having on the general American perception of Iraq?

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

I'm reminded of a line from the brilliant Three Kings, a film that took place during the first Gulf War:

"This is a media war, and you better get on board!"

But that cuts both ways, doesn't it? While we don't see a lot of good news from Iraq, things like building schools and bridges and that sort of thing, we also don't see the body bags and severed limbs that were standard evening fare during the Vietnam era. While there's lots of media coverage, the American public doesn't get to actually see a lot. The result is a 24/7 cable news and Internet vacuum that inevitably gets filled with speculation, analysis, and the occasional smattering of truth-wielding.

That said, I see increased media coverage of all stripes as a good thing. The threshold for going to war should be very high, and I think much of the downbeat feeling in this country toward the war and the Bush administration can in many ways be traced back to the reasons we went over there in the first place. Whether it was WMDs or spreading democracy or fighting 'em (whoever the nebulous "'em" might be) over there so we won't have to fight 'em here, we're now several years in with thousands of American lives lost and seriously wounded.

So to answer your question, I think the "non-stop media coverage" has only sped up a process that grew organically out of the reasons we were given for going to war and, particularly, the messy and many unexpected consequences we've encountered since.

While I don't think pulling out our troops at this time would be useful, and it would likely precipitate a massive and destructive civil war, it is possible that dreadful scenario will occur nonetheless.

That's why I think it really is time for a serious and thoughtful debate on the wisdom of developing a timetable for withdrawal.

I disagree with your assessment that things are going "remarkably well" in Iraq, but I'll let you respond first before getting into that!

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I love Three Kings; fantastic movie!

I agree completely that our President's poor communication skills are largely responsible for the current generally negative attitude toward the war effort in Iraq. Just after 9/11, he made a case to the American people that instead of just going after the perpetrators of that heinous attack, we would instead go after all sources of terrorist activity around the world. On the basis of that argument, Saddam Hussein was an easy target, but that isn't the basis most people remember. Most people remember Powell's speech to the United Nations Security Council, easily one of this administration’s biggest mistakes.

That said, I'm not sure that I can agree that the rest is inevitable. In the current mix I see more political posturing — on both sides of the issue — than actual thoughtful analysis. People make quick and easy (and often inaccurate) comparisons to America's war in Vietnam, but avoid any comparisons to America's involvement in World War II. Why? I think it is because thoughtful analysis doesn't play well on TV, or even on NPR. Blogs and newspapers should have an advantage here, but TV seems to drive the pace of everything these days, and so the thoughtful analysis takes a back seat.

We lost in Vietnam for many reasons, but one of them is surely the very images you mentioned. More than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam war, an average of 526 per month, and the war went on for more than seven years. So far in Iraq we've lost fewer soldiers than in any other major war, less than a third of the soldiers we lost every single month during World War II, but it seems to matter more now. Because of the way we got into the war? I think it might have more to do with the coverage than that.

Of course, if one of the soldiers killed in action is a friend or family member, it hardly matters at all that he or she is part of a very small group of people. Each death weighs heavily in the scales of war, and people want to see things done. Completely. Now. I understand that.

And yet consider: the Civil War lasted four years, as the Union pursued what must have seemed to many to be a pointless goal. More than 3800 people died per month for four years! But we fought, and "we" won. Our part in World War I lasted nearly two years and resulted in more than 100,000 dead American soldiers. World War II is perhaps the most drastic example, as that nearly four year war took more than 400,000 young American men. Today few would argue that the cause wasn’t worthwhile, but the protests were strong at the time. Even after the "end" of the war, insurgents fought on for years, and we still have American troops in Germany today, more than 50 years later!

Is this war more like Vietnam, or more like World War II? It's easy to pick and choose points of comparison, but no war is exactly like any other. This war has so far demanded the lives of many fewer soldiers than either of those wars, and the gains have so far come more quickly than in either of those wars, too.

If CNN had been broadcasting from London or Berlin in 1943, I don't think we would have continued as we did. While in Iraq today we control more geography than ever before and continually make progress against insurgents (as they also become increasingly effective against us), things seemed to actually get worse daily during World War II. Yet in the end we won, while I fear that the collective will of the American people is not strong enough to stay the course in Iraq. That is, according to various reports, exactly what some leadership on "the other side" is counting on.

Times change, and so Iraq isn't allowed to take as long as we did to write up a Constitution, and we aren't allowed as long to bring peace to Iraq as we took to bring peace to Europe in World War II. I understand the need for progress, but I wonder if people are expecting a resolution in under two hours, just like in the movies, not realizing that while life is nasty, brutish, and short, war can be dreadfully, painfully, long.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

If CNN had been broadcasting from London in 1939, I believe it would actually have stirred the American public to want to go to war faster. We would have seen, I believe, England as the last bastion of democracy in Europe holding on against the terrible and imminent peril of Nazi Germany.

This gets into the question of what is a "good war" with World War II on the good end of the spectrum and Vietnam on the bad.

I think it's fair to make the comparison that the United States finds itself in a situation in which a large number of its soldiers are deployed in a foreign nation without a clearly defined path to victory, let alone resolution. This state of affairs rejects the Powell Doctrine, which really makes the former Secretary of State's story a tragic one in light of the United Nations speech you mention and his part in leading the nation to war.

You've referred several times, Phillip, to the "gains" we've made in Iraq. I'm curious to hear what those are, exactly. Then, I'd like to know what you would consider a successful resolution to the Iraq War.
Would the creation of a (democratically elected) theocratic Republic with close ties to Iran be considered a success? Would losing X number of American troops and no more be considered a success?

While I feel the world and Iraq are better off without Saddam Hussein, it's clear now that there were no WMDs and that Iraq had no real ties to Al Qaeda. So the much-ballyhooed "central front in the war on terror" is very possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn't it?

Is our presence making things worse instead of better? We won't and can't stay there forever. So the real question now is when and how we will get out.

It's the job of a good journalist to ask the right questions. I think this administration can do a better job with providing some answers.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I think that a sizable percentage of the American public sees the current "war on terror" in terms very similar to how you describe World War II: with the rise of Islam, most worrisomely the militant subset of Islam, threatening to dominate all of Europe, and England standing as one of our few allies in recognizing the threat. Instead of tanks and bombs, the attack is on liberality and freedom. Instead of always from without, the attack is sometimes from within. And England has seen homegrown terrorists strike on British soil, which is a bit of a different from the 1940s as well.

In World War II, I think most people now believe that no amount of American soldiers lost would have meant retreat or surrender, because the evil was so great and the stakes were so high. Is it fair, I wonder, to view our current conflict in the same way? Leaving aside Iraq as the theater for now and considering the wider war on terror in general, is this a war we can lose? I'd like to hope for the two-hour happy ending as much as anyone, but I fear that we might be seeing a repeat of the militant Muslim encroachment of a thousand years ago that was ended only by the Crusades, and that nothing less than a military defeat will allow moderate and liberal Muslims (whom I believe make up the mostly-silent majority) to regain their religion and live in peace with non-Muslims.

Of course, it's possible that things aren't so dire, and that we could safely lose this war. It's also possible that we could have safely lost World War II, separated as we were from Europe by an ocean. I personally don't think either is a safe bet.

With that as background, I'm saying that the way forward is to win the war. Not because of political considerations, but because I don't want to think about the world my kids will live in if we lose. I believe we need to see a "tipping point" in the world's perception of terrorism. I don't think we truly have any other option, not long-term. And yes, for me that means winning at nearly any cost, though our costs have been relatively low so far.

War is nasty and terrible, and I loathe it. Having committed ourselves to it, however, I think we need to fight it and win it so that we don't have to fight another one in coming decades. World War II followed World War I, after all.

You get the last word this week, so I'll try to answer your specific questions briefly.

In my mind (and hopefully somewhere in the Pentagon) is a map of Iraq, with markers identifying attacks on coalition forces and known locations of insurgents. When I consider that map at the time of the initial incursion into Baghdad, and compare it to that same map now, I think we've made major progress. Every few months, coalition forces circle around another insurgent stronghold and close in, gaining control of a new city. As they do, they nab insurgents and weapons, and (often, but not always) build good will with the local Iraqis. If you split the map up with two colors, our color is spreading over the map, while the other color is shrinking with time. This is the kind of long-term strategic thinking that I believe military commanders are doing, but which our media sources aren't. And for that matter, I don't know why the Bush administration isn't communicating these sorts of things to the American people as well. I blame President Bush's poor communication again, and political miscalculation on his part.

Since I consider the war on terror a must-win war, I don't have any idea about the loss of X number of American troops. I know a couple of people fighting in Iraq, and if they lose their lives it will hurt people I know very deeply. I'm eager for the war to end and for all of our troops to come home. But I don't want them to come home defeated, but rather as victors.

Our victory in the war on terror, and therefore in Iraq, is the end of terrorism as a successful tactic. I look for a tipping point in world consensus on the "wisdom" of negotiating with terrorists. I look for people around the world to call for a cease-fire, as Hamas has recently done with Israel. The peaceful trial of Saddam Hussein is also good, as are two successful elections in Iraq.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Saddam Hussein was an easy target in the war on terror, as he was a known sponsor of terrorism. Not with Al Qaeda, it turns out embarrassingly, but in Palestine. After Saddam was removed from power, not only were the people of Iraq better off, so were the people of both Palestine and Israel, as the dried-up funding and support led quickly (among other factors) to a sharp reduction in suicide bombing in Gaza.

I think that the question about the effect of our presence is not phrased well. This isn't a hypothetical situation in which we can debate the merits of invading or not invading Iraq. That's done, and while you and I may disagree over whether that was the right thing to do, the question now is "What would happen if we pulled out of Iraq before defeating terrorism there?" Remember that we have had troops in Germany for more than 50 years! I can see that happening with Iraq as well, though I expect that 50 years from now people will want to be stationed there, as they do now in Germany, to enjoy the culture and the food and the music and so on.

I agree that the administration has done a lousy job communicating. That's my number one complaint about President Bush, and has been since even before 9/11. In my view, the administration should hire people like Victor Davis Hanson to help get their message across. I also agree that a good journalist should ask the right questions. I don't think most journalists are doing so right now.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

So I see you're the one who decided to go Big Picture on us this week!

I see the struggle against terrorism as more like The Cold War than World War II. The main difference is that there will never be a true military defeat, and events will play out — many behind the scenes — over decades. That's why I've always supported the bolstering of our intelligence services and Special Forces.

The problem with attempting to achieve a complete military victory is that you run the risk of creating more enemies than you defeat. And that's a real danger with the way we've gone about business in Iraq. I think the government has realized over the last year the need to have friends all over the world.

Looking forward, we both agree that we have to win the war in Iraq. But I'm still confused about what that even means at this point. Even many of the staunchest "Neocons" now admit that the original goal of the war — a secure, stable, and democratic Iraq — may be well out of reach for the foreseeable future.

Phillip, while you may see a map in your mind with little circles and arrows denoting the progress of Allied forces (a la Europe, 1944-45, perhaps?), this isn't the reality on the ground. As this Bloomberg piece relates:

Roadside bombs are killing more American troops in Iraq, as the frequency and sophistication of insurgent attacks may be outstripping U.S. efforts to increase protection for soldiers.

This is an area where there are clear similarities to the conflict in Vietnam. We have the military capacity to defeat any enemy in a straight up battle. But the trick, trick, trickle of guerilla-style attacks will undeniably affect morale and force us to constantly reassess the sanity of our mission.

I must also point out, Phillip, that you seem to refer to the war in Iraq and the wider war on terror interchangeably. This implies that you bought into and continue to buy into the Bush administration's philosophy on this issue. In my mind, they're two different things. Saddam Hussein, heinous tyrant that he was, did not ally himself with Islamic terrorists. Pulling troops out of Iraq right now will likely trigger a civil war and destabilize the region. It would also allow Iraq to become a haven for terrorists and Al Qaeda. So I draw back to the self-fulfilling prophecy of our involvement in Iraq.

You've also pointed out several times that your main problem (or so it seems) with the current administration is that they've done a poor job communicating with the public. I actually disagree with you here! I think they sold the public on the war, sold the public on Bush as Protector to defeat Kerry in 2004, and only in late 2005 is the broad mainstream of the American populace starting to take a hard look at many of the assumptions that were made during the dark days after 9/11.

I do agree that over the long term, there might be an overall and profoundly positive impact caused by the invasion. However, I think there's a rocky road ahead, with the biggest obstacle being the threat of civil war between Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish factions over the next few years. That tension will be matched by a strong desire by both the American right and left to begin announcing troop reductions leading up to the 2006 and 2008 elections.

In the meantime, our soldiers are caught over there in the morass.

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

Previous articles from the In The Middle crew address Bill Bennett and Harriet Miers.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Run's House: A Castle Constructed of MTV Ten Spot Reality Show Dreams

Reverend Run of Run-DMC fame has made it back to the MTV spotlight, new and improved and in celebrity reality show treatment form.

Run's House, which premiered Thursday night at 10:30 after the jubilant return of P Diddy's Making the Band III, centers upon the Reverend's home and family life.

It's a large brood, which means there will likely never be a lack of material for MTV's battle-honed reality editors to hook a storyline around. Wife Justine helps the good Rev. to raise Vanessa, a college student; Angela, a new high school graduate and the focus of the debut episode; and three younger boys: JoJo, Diggy, and Russy.

In the middle of it all is the Rev., of course, who combines life lesson-level observations with the street knowledge and repartee that helped to create one of the most famous hip hop acts of all time. While Rev. and co. seemed slightly stilted in front of the cameras at first, things soon settled in upon the normal drama and tension you'd expect at an upscale mogul's sprawling home.

Due to her stellar grades, Angela has been granted a high school graduation party. Ah, but she has stars in her eyes: a glass floor over the pool for disco dancing, fireworks, and goody bags replete with iPods (just the Shuffle variety, mind). Daddy Run is forced to swoop in, however, to mandate his version of the festivities: music ("DJ High School," and not Funk Master Flex as Angela had desired), barbeque, swimming, and a few decorations.

By the second time we see Run discussing a family crisis involving the kids with his wife while lounging about in bed, it had become clear to me that MTV was looking to replicate The Osbournes successful model of iconic-music-star-confronts-domestic-strife.

There's more than that at work, however. Angela's ultra-party dreams brought in elements of another guilty pleasure of an MTV staple, My Super Sweet 16, in which uber-rich soon-to-be-society gals plan opulent parties that cost more than New Zealand's GDP. And because Sean Puffy P Diddy Fellow Mogul Combs is the Executive Producer of Run's House, we can expect a fair amount of reality show co-mingling over the coming weeks.

In the end, the Rev. was proud that Angela accepted the lower ($6,000) budget party with good grace and cheerfully enjoyed her graduation festivities. So proud, in fact, that he laid the keys to a brand-spanking red Mercedes Benz on his 18-year old daughter.

At Run's House, it pays handsomely to keep it real.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

In the Middle: Harriet Miers

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
Subject: Harriet Miers

I'd like to propose a simple question this week that's likely not so easy to answer from my side or yours:

Should Harriet Miers be confirmed as Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court?

The political winds are shifting. The latest blast finds some conservatives at significant odds with President Bush for the first time. For those of Democratic leanings, it might be tempting to make strange bedfellows with the likes of George Will and Charles Krauthammer by joining in the growing chorus now slamming the president's nomination.

Increasingly, it's looking as though a great deal will play out during the confirmation hearings. Though he likely regretted it and later backed off his statement, even Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R – PA) stated that Miers might do well to take a "crash course in constitutional law."

Shouldn't anyone nominated to sit on the highest court in the land be somewhere in the neighborhood of Expert (if not Wizarding) Level when it comes to constitutional law? Cases that come before the Supreme Court require spectacularly potent intellects and experience gained over a lifetime of considering such matters. In the wake of Katrina and the failures of FEMA, Bush had to know that he'd be vulnerable to charges of cronyism.

So should moderates and progressives want Miers to get confirmed? It's a complicated question, but I'll open by saying that I think the consensus will be: let the Republicans bruise and batter one another, but hope that Miers makes it through… because the alternative could be far worse.

And then we will promptly set the hope-ometer to Breathtakingly Optimistic that she'll turn out to be far more Souter than Scalia once on the court.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

You're right, that's not very easy to answer. I'm certainly glad that I don't have to vote one way or the other on Harriet Miers, because I really don't know what I would do.

Let cut to the chase here, shall we? Hardcore conservatives want the two new justices to tip the scales on Roe v. Wade, so that a future case goes 5-4 to overturn rather than 5-4 to uphold, while hardcore liberals want to preserve the status quo with regard to abortion.

There are many other issues with which the Supreme Court deals year in and year out, but this is very nearly the only one that is considered when evaluating a nominee for the court, and all of the other arguments and questions are designed to get at the issue from odd angles.

I happen to think that Roe v. Wade serves conservatives more than liberals, though most people don't see it that way. To the conservatives ready to reject Miers for fear she won't be firmly in their camp on Roe v. Wade, I say this: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!

In the real world, though, abortion isn't nearly the only issue of importance.

You asked a very specific question about qualifications for Supreme Court Justice. I don't know the answer. Once someone puts on those black robes, they seem to become "something else." We suddenly expect them to be impartial on issues about which you and I feel passionately, and to never make mistakes. In reality, politics plays a much stronger role in decisions than any of us like to think about, and the court makes mistakes constantly. What percentage of the court’s decisions have ever been unanimous? I don't know the answer, but I bet it's a very, very low number. Does that mean that there tend to be members of the court that are stupid? Or that different judicial philosophies, consistently applied, result in different decisions? Or both? Is one worse than the other?

Supreme Court Justices have come from many different walks of life, and some have seemed more qualified than Miers and tanked badly, while others have been purely political appointees and done well with time. If she lacks experience, can Miers recognize that and learn on the job?

That may be the biggest question of all. Not, "Can she think?" but, "Will she think for herself?" Conservatives with their eyes on "the prize" for the first time in a long time are desperately wondering if she'll go with the party line on abortion, and I think they're missing the point.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

There would indeed be a seismic shift in the political landscape if Roe v. Wade was decisively overturned by a conservative Supreme Court. While social conservatives would lose one of their favorite and most enduring issues, a broad swath of voters would surely be ignited, if not enraged, for some number of years to come. And I'm not even going to get into the real world implications of such a decision, which would, in the very least, be dreadful. From a practical and policy standpoint, it serves conservatives best to try and chip around the edges of Roe.

But back to the main point. Will Harriet Miers serve the interests of the Bush administration as well as those of the social conservatives, who are nearly ready to make her walk the judicial plank?

I think it's important to remember that the conservative movement, which is most often traced back to the Barry Goldwater days (George Will went further on This Week by half-jokingly crediting National Review founder and prolific writer William F. Buckley, Jr. for sparking the movement that presided over the fall of communism), felt at the precipice on triumph. Roberts as the new Chief Justice replaced another conservative in recently deceased Chief Justice William Rehnquist. That left the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to be replaced, a key swing vote on many important issues before the court – and not just abortion rights. This was the moment, as "Paleocon" Pat Buchanan and others call it, for a return to "constitutionalism," or a tightly defined construction of the Constitution. Roe was likely viewed by many as the crown jewel in a conservative movement begun during an age of liberal social programs and government largesse.

I believe President Bush badly misinterpreted this historic moment. While Bush presidency architect Karl Rove, Vice President Cheney Chief of Staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and others were busy defending themselves from investigations, George W. Bush (perhaps influenced by Chief of Staff Andy Card) decided to go with his instincts. And that meant choosing a hyper-loyal associate with whom he felt comfortable. Bush's instincts also called for maximum secrecy and an element of surprise, which may have come from some inclination to prove that he's not married to the social conservative camp.

By nominating an arguably unqualified non-judge with no paper trail and strong support from only George "Trust Me" Bush himself, most conservatives feel as though they've been served thin gruel and not he filet mignon they'd been cooking up for forty-odd years. Pat Buchanan summed up this sentiment on Meet the Press:

"We were on the precipice of victory in the battle to return the Supreme Court to constitutionalism," Buchanan said. "And the president of the United States picks a woman with no known judicial philosophy who has never taken a stand on any of these great questions, who has never written or said anything about Supreme Court rulings, and we have been told to take it on faith."

While Miers may well be a "stealth candidate" who will follow Justice Antonin Scalia into the promised land of conservative judicial activism, no one — on the left, right, or in the center — can be sure.

Phillip, you asked, "If she lacks experience, can Miers recognize that and learn on the job?" I think most would argue that the American people needn't take this chance if there are dozens of qualified judges (or other constitutional scholars, politicians, etc.) who would hit the ground running with a proven track record.

But from my center-left perspective, I'm left feeling dazed and ambivalent. The long term Machiavellian play from the Democratic side is to allow her to get through but to hope for a further weakened Republican majority in the process.

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

I go back and forth on this, so let me tell you both of my views.

One the one hand, I wonder if Bush blew it big-time. We really don't know anything about Harriet Miers, but what little is leaking out makes her sound like a relatively weak candidate. It could be that our collective expectations have been raised by Chief Justice Roberts, who was a surprisingly strong nominee, but even so, the appointment of Miers seems to be purely political. If so, however, why pick a candidate about whom both sides seem so uneasy? It doesn't make much sense, and that's unlike President Bush.

On the other hand, I wonder if this is all a big political game. Perhaps Bush is gambling on an unknown, hoping that he can keep her views quiet until she's confirmed, and then knowing that she'll vote exactly the way conservatives want her to. His biggest risk, then, is that the few conservatives that are in on the secret will accidentally leak the plan and let the whole country know that Harriet Miers is firmly on the hardcore conservative side. His second-biggest risk is that Miers will surprise him once confirmed.

Frankly, neither option fills me with confidence!

When it comes down to it, I think that Miers is probably a "stealth candidate," a committed conservative who is masquerading as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. She'll be hard-pressed during the confirmation hearings as both sides do their best to untangle the knot. And in the end, she'll be confirmed.

I think you're overly pessimistic on Roe v. Wade, by the way. Assuming I'm right and Miers votes with the majority to overturn that decision, I think that you would see, nearly overnight, the vast majority of all 50 states pass state laws legalizing abortion. And this time, there would be no mysterious cabal of black-robed justices against which to inveigh in fundraising literature! The pro-life organizations would have to fight fifty battles in fifty states, and against duly-elected legislatures. In addition, I think several states would quickly put the issue to vote in elections, and that the elections would almost certainly maintain legalized abortion. My hope is that we might see more sensible laws than we have now, because right now pro-choice extremists are carrying the day. But overall I suspect that the elimination of Roe v Wade would essentially ensure abortion as "settled law" in most states.

From: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left
To: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that no one — Democrats and Republicans both — knows what Miers would do once on the court. While this is true of many Supreme Court appointees, Harriet Miers is certainly an extreme case.

While we both agree that Miers may well be a stealth candidate, I can't help thinking that this nominee was a poor political calculation by a White House wracked by scandal and vulnerable to charges of incompetence (see: the war, the Gulf region) and, significantly,

George W. Bush has been likened to a "riverboat gambler" for his bold and sometimes brash approach to politics and governing. From neoconservative ideology in the Middle East to supply side economics on the home front, Bush has never been one to back down from a challenge. With the case of Harriet Miers, I believe that Bush badly miscalculated what he saw as a safe bet: an attorney who was the first woman to head the Texas bar association and who had almost no paper trail for Democrats to pick through.

The challenge from the right on the Miers nomination blindsided the Bush administration, perhaps when it least expected it. I'm reminded of a scene from Goodfellas, one of my favorite movies. Henry Hill, a mobster with both the police and his fellow wise guys out to get him, explains to the audience that your friends — the people who have loved and taken care of you your whole life — seem to come after you when you're at your weakest and in need of the most help.

So, back to the original question: do I think Harriet Miers should be confirmed to the Supreme Court? I can't say with any certainty, just like everyone else! I hope that the Senate confirmation hearings are meaningful. I expect the nominee to get grilled from both sides on her experience and credentials, and she should be. I think the burden is on Miers to prove why she should get awarded this lifetime appointment.

And if she can't prove it, I think all Senators have an obligation to vote against her. For Democrats, that might mean facing a Scalia clone on the next go round, but there are really no risk-free options anyway.

By the way, you bring up an interesting point about Roe, Phillip. I certainly see your point, but I think you might be overly optimistic, particularly when considering the makeup of state legislatures in some culturally conservative states. Personally, I wouldn't want to take the risk of Roe v. Wade getting overturned!

From: Phillip Winn @ Center-Right
To: Eric Berlin @ Center-Left

If reports in this morning's New York Times and Washington Times hold up, then clearly you are right: President Bush made a serious political mistake in nominating Harriet Miers.

I'm not at all sure that she isn't the right person for the job. I'm still half-convinced that the only reason these Republicans are pushing so hard against her is to draw Democrats into accepting her nomination without serious question. Or perhaps these are the Republicans who haven't yet had (or can't be trusted with) a secret briefing with the White House on Miers as a stealth candidate.

It is interesting that you think the burden should be on Miers. Would the same be true of a relatively-inexperienced Democratic nominee, I wonder? Life has a funny way of demonstrating double standards, and I suspect that statement might someday come back to haunt you!

Miers has a law degree from SMU. Here in Dallas, SMU is well-respected, though clearly it isn't quite Harvard Law School. She practiced law for many years, but mostly commercial litigation, so she has little experience with U.S. constitutional law. She has, however, been White House Counsel for about one year. What does this relative lack of experience mean?

I don't think it means much. As I mentioned before, we tend to view Supreme Court Justices as somehow different from the rest of us, but they usually aren't. Historically, I think that there have been less-experienced nominees than Miers who served our country well, if not with distinction. From what I understand, less-experienced Justices tend to vary quite a bit from their initial views over time, which would suggest that Miers may move more to the left the longer she serves on the court. But that still leaves the big question that few people want to really come right out and ask: How will she vote on abortion?

By the way, from my perspective, my view that nearly all 50 states would pass laws protecting abortion on demand isn't "optimistic" at all, but rather a pessimistic realism.

In The Middle is an attempt to focus more on what unites us than what divides us. Can two reasonable people from opposite ends of the political spectrum put aside partisanship and meet in the middle? We think so. A topic is picked, e-mails are exchanged, and the results are published here.

In The Middle is a Blogcritics experiment. We're trying to talk about things civilly, and we strongly request that all commenters do the same. We seek polite comments and questions, not ideological rhetoric or personal attacks.

Be passionate, think before you write, respect others, and have fun!

In the Middle debuted last week, with Bill Bennett’s controversial remarks on abortion taking (the middle of) center stage.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Top Ten TV Shows: Fall 2005

Getting that Digital Video Recorder over the summer turned out to be a blessing and a curse both. No longer could I sit back and slush off the subtle guilt of not keeping up with any number of shows on the air. After all, I was able to say to myself under the cold glare of a nightmare's blackness of blank televised screen, you can only see one show at a time, right? And who has the human capacity in this Busy Age to actually haul bottom in front of a set week-after-week anyway for more than a handful of programs?

The DVR changed everything. I hate to admit it. Something involving the damned Box of Dreams and Failures changed my life forever.

That's my prefix for saying that I've watched at least a little bit of many of the shows on the air for this Fall 2005 season. Enough to have a read on what's good, what's bad, and what's ugly.

Let me preface right up front so we don't have any confusion:

Shows I don't watch and don't plan on catching anytime soon

CSI: The Franchise
Law & Order: The Franchise

Anything with Kirstie Alley
Anything on Lifetime
Any reality show that begins with So You Wanna or So You Think You or Gilligan, etc.

Without further delay, DeLay, or delusion, I give you my Top 10 shows, followed by some other nuggets of goodness most tasty.

#10 — Prison Break
Prison Break is a delightful departure from reality… and into the confines of a maximum security prison. It's as fine a roller coaster ride of thrills and chills as you're ever likely to find inside of prison walls. That said, the plot is at many points wildly implausible:

Exhibit A, your honor:

* Dude commits a crime so that he can bust his brother out of prison, who's on death row for the murder of the Vice President's brother
* Dude just happens to be a structural engineer
* Dude's death row con bro (who's really innocent, of course) just happens to end up in the prison that dude helped to design
* Dude tattoos his body with the prison's architectural schematics, robs a bank, gets hauled off to the clink, and we're off to the races

And that's just for starters! But it's fun, really!

The acting is strong, the pacing is nearly always pulse-pounding, and there's just enough off-beat humor to make you forget the plot holes (Exhibit B: the attractive female doctor, who just happens to be the Governor's daughter, is left alone with prisoners with nary a guard in sight) you can drive an armored truck through.

#9 — The West Wing / Commander in Chief
Okay, so I'm cheating already!

Both of these fictional shows of presidential life and political machinations are well worth tuning in for.

I'm way back into The West Wing saddle after a few years of catching the occasional rerun on Bravo. It's come alive by focusing upon the kinetic energy of a presidential race, in this case to replace our beloved and dear leader Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen). This was an outstanding decision, matched expertly with MTV-style quick cuts, fast-paced music, and freeze frames.

New or recent additions to the cast such as presidential combatants Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) bring a lot to the table, but I absolutely love how much screen time Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) has snagged as Santos' beleaguered yet crafty vet of a national campaign manager.

The B story line, which deals with a White House press leak, is downright ho-hum in comparison, but things are looking up as it looks as though everything is going to dovetail into the presidential madness.

Speaking of madness, I'm mad about Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen in Commander in Chief. While The West Wing has tended to focus on the wonky day-to-day minutiae and grind of American political life at the highest level, Chief – in its early stages – is taking a page from fine films such as Dave and The American President by focusing upon the human side of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And there's plenty to explore, what with the first female President of the United States (and an Independent to boot!) learning the ropes, a First Gentleman trying to find his bearings, and a missing diary by one of the kiddies that might expose family secrets if left in the wrong hands!

There's also some nice political machinations in the works, with Harry Lennix, Donald Sutherland, and the great Peter Coyote (who just recently turned in superior work on The Inside) clearly having fun in their roles.

#8 — The Real World
This guilty pleasure is still very much guilty and still very much a pleasure to tune in for each week. Ah, the angst and apathy and trials and tribulations of the youth-type set. Much of which seems to center around Austin, Texas' Dizzy Rooster bar this time round. That place is certainly getting a lot of free pub.

In any event, the focus is on coupling in this iteration, with Mel and Danny finally seeming to work things out, and the cocksure Wes and mercurial Johanna on some kind of an ill fated rendezvous of love.

The gang is supposed to be producing a documentary on the South by Southwest music festival, but that all seems entirely secondary to getting one's party and love on.

Casting is king in Realityville, and The Real World is still sovereign over that there castle.

#7 — The Apprentice: Martha Stewart
Yes, I'm aware that this may qualify as my Surprise Pick, but I dig it, so there it is.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart really does a good job of improving upon the original model, constructed by the tag team of Mark Burnett and The Don himself, El Senor Trump. By softening Trump's rough-and-tumble style ever so slightly, Stewart has very much energized this stalwart of realitydom.

I think what I like the most is that the audience is allowed to see more of the thinking process behind the hiring/firing process. Stewart is actually winning me over (I was skeptical about having to put up with her coming in, I'll admit) with her thoughtful, team-based approach. Sure, she's a little bit full of herself and her hand written note to the loser del week is dopey, but I'll manage to get over it.

And there's a requisite super crazy dude on the Creative Team to get worked up about, so that always helps.

#6 — My Name Is Earl
It's the laid back storytelling and general zonked out lunacy that make this quest for redemption and karma (of the good variety) worth tuning in for. Plus, it's funny as hell and has a great cast fronted by Jason Lee. Just press B7, sit back, and enjoy.

#5 — Extras
Looks like I picked the right time to get back with the HBO.

Ricky Gervais (BBC's The Office) has triumphed again, this time as a loveable loser trying to make good in show business. Unlike the gaudy slapable showoff he played so brilliantly in The Office, here he's largely the straight man, albeit a self-centered one who in no way can get out of the way of his self-made social disasters. The surrounding cast (Ashley Jensen particularly) and guest stars (hilarious turns by Kate Winslet and Ben Stiller thus far) power a wonderfully unique comedy that really matches the greatest heights of British comedy.

#4 — The Office
While this might sound heretical to some, the American version of The Office may already be outshining the awkwardly brilliant original in some ways.

Comedy is often about chemistry as much as writing and acting, and here we're treated to a simply great blend of slapstick, romantic comedy (the interplay between John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer each week is delightful), and cringe-inducing humor (which is in vogue right now with pioneer Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras also on the air). The pseudo-documentary style and reactions (cringing, eye rolling, smiling) toward the camera are second to none and lend a huge amount of humanism and humor to the proceedings.

Sorry Ricky.

#3 — Rome
Forget the history for a moment. If you like backstabbing revenge and adultery and sword fighting and bloody carnage and hedonistic trysts in full view of the slaves until a conniving schemer breaks it up by commissioning artists to spread the word via lewd (and we're talking big penis lewd) graffiti all about town, you're gonna dig on the Rome.

And that's just for starters!

This is one you have to watch from the beginning or at least catch several episodes and hang with them. It all comes together eventually. The large cast and multiple story lines will eventually get you to the point where you will make the transition from pointing out "that guy who's married to the cheating woman with the brother-in-law" to "Ah, that's Vorenus."

Overall, Rome is a great mix of historical epic and involving soap opera, with just enough playful humor to keep you on your toes and honest.

And watching out for them graffiti folk!

#2 — Veronica Mars
The recent recipient of's Buffy Award picks right back up at the start of Season Two. While Veronica is finally back in the fold with the rich kids of Neptune, you knew it wouldn't be long before she was forced back into her detectivizing ways.

The writers didn't waste much time, either, in giving our high school girl sleuth a pile of mystery to wade her way through, ending the premiere with a spectacularly surprising school bus plummeting off a cliff. A school bus, mind, that our girl should have been on.

In the meantime, Miss Mars finds plenty of time to get with the dating and boy scoping in between classes and murder investigations. Now that she's been through Logan and Duncan, could Weevil or Wallace be in the offing?

All of the above shouldn't distract us from the fact that the writing – and particularly the dialogue – are nearly the best in the game, and the quirky and off-beat comic flavoring belying deep intrigue and mayhem remind strongly of the early adventures of Miss Buffy Summers herself.

And that's saying something.

#1 — Lost
For the second season in a row, getting Lost is the best hour you can spend in front of the television.

Show creator J.J. Abrams (Alias) has perfected a storytelling vehicle in which a action-oriented plot with a mystical underbelly supports a large cast that's allowed to undergo meaningful character development and sharp writing.

As the expertly doled out back stories mesh with the immediate dangers on the island, more questions spring up every week than are answered. And we all can't wait to come back for more each week.

Questions, questions, questions:
* Who the hell are The Others?
* Why does Desmond listen to cheesy non-supersounds of the 70s?
* Why is Desmond super strong... like that other dude who wasn't in the manifest during the first season and got shot by the hothead dope fiend hobbit?
* Why did the bloody shark have the logo of the corporation on its tail (anyone else notice that?)?
* Did Locke get more out of the Orientation Video the second time around than the first?
* How creepy was that Orientation Video?

The big question is how long Abrams can keep the plates spinning. Alias was a hell of a ride for two or three seasons, but petered out dramatically after that as it had, it seemed, told the story and revealed the answers that it needed to tell.

I have a feeling Lost won't go that route, and will keep its rapt audience watching and waiting and wondering for some time to come.

Honorable Mention

Curb Your Enthusiasm
Still very good, but showing signs of wear and tear.

The Apprentice: The Donald Edition
The new wrinkle of having teams vote for whether or not the winning Project Manager gets exemption doesn't add a lot. It's still well worth watching.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the premiere. Benjamin Bratt and (still cranky, still eccentric) Dennis Hopper are fun as Pentagon insiders fighting for truth, justice, and female underlings to get them coffee.

Just so you don't get the impression that I like everything, I give you…

Dishonorable Mention

Kind of boring body snatcher melodrama. I uttered the following circa Episode Two:

This is the slowest god damned invasion I've ever seen.

I'm not planning on catching Ep Three

More space aliens in the water killing people and freaking out the masses.

If we could get a Surface Invasion show going, we might be onto something.

What I've been really, really waiting for all along
The return of Making the Band III with the Diddy.

Now we're talking!