[the palaverist]

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

[sex and violence]

There has long been a debate over whether pornography encourages rape by normalizing misogyny and arousing passions, or discourages rape by providing an alternative outlet for lustful urges. Unfortunately, this debate has generally been religious rather than clinical: instead of basing their positions on data, partisans have created moral edifices around their underlying sense of what should be true.

According to an article in Slate, there is now meaningful evidence that access to Internet pornography reduces the incidence of rape. There is also evidence that violent movies reduce violent crime. Really. Check out the article and make up your own mind.

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Monday, October 30, 2006


Mistress of Disguise | Seven X Eight | Feline Woman by Anjali

Twelve long years have passed since Portishead first unleashed Dummy upon an unsuspecting world, tapping into a deep, hitherto unnoticed craving for ethereal female vocals over moody, noir-tinged tracks with sophisticated electronic production and hip-hop beats. Eight years after Portishead's final album, the revelatory PNYC Live, where can one turn to satisfy this peculiar, overly specific jones?

Well, if you're willing to forgo the extraordinary Portishead scratching in favor of some sitar and don't mind your spy movie music taking on an Austin Powers vibe, I suggest you give Anjali a try.

Formerly the drummer in UK Riot Grrl band the Voodoo Queens, Anjali Bhatia now claims descent from the Bhatti line of maharajas of Jaisalmer. Whether that's true or not, her music has ventured as far from Riot Grrl radicalism as her identity. One can hear traces not only of UK trip-hop, but also of Cibo Matto and other late-nineties electronic experimenters, not to mention heavy doses of Anglo-Indian fusion, tinged with old-fashioned Bollywood goodness.

Find more MP3s at Bazaar Sounds, Anjali's Beggar's Banquet Site, and her personal web page.

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[ny times endorses harrison]

In the race to represent New York's 13th district in Congress, the New York Times has given Harrison about the most resounding endorsement one could possibly give. Check it out.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

[is pot good for memory?]

In Dan Savage's sex-advice column this week, wedged in there with all the raunchy stuff, is this remarkable quote:
Google "marijuana" ... and wedged in there with the stories about this week's numerous, ineffectual pot busts — so many pot busts, so little trouble buying pot — you'll find this: A study conducted by the reputable Scripps Research Institute in California found that marijuana's active ingredient — tetrahydrocannabinol or THC — is more effective at preventing Alzheimer's disease than any of the legal drugs on the market today.
Sure enough, here's the Scripps press release. How ironic would it be if marijuana turned out to be good for your memory?

Disregarding the larger debate over legalizing recreational possession and use of marijuana (Nevada and Colorado will be voting this November on whether to do just that), the Scripps study strikes me as yet more evidence that the federal government's opposition to even medical use and study of marijuana is faith-based — and not necessarily in good faith, either. It's just one more way our government is replacing science and factual evidence with fantasies and baseless fear.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

[agast report]

For all those in search of my AGAST report, don't worry. It's on the way, but it'll take me some time to organize all my notes and write the thing up. If you're one of the many artists I met on Saturday and Sunday, thanks for stopping by, and I'll send you an email when I post the article.

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[brooklyn and queens by the numbers]

Gothamist has a fascinating post that demonstrates just how closely population density is related to subway access in Brooklyn and Queens. The graphic, unlike the official MTA subway map, is to scale, and it reveals just how much more to Brooklyn and especially Queens there is beyond the reach of the trains.

Most of us who live subway-oriented New York lives have little notion of what exactly is out there in those territories beyond the subway. Who lives there? Where do they work? How do they get around What do the neighborhoods look like?

It also raises the question of what, if anything, the MTA is doing to expand subway service and bring those less densely populated areas into the NYC fold, so to speak. After all, population pressures are intense along the main subway lines, and the whole purpose of the subway from its beginning was to get people out of the overpopulated sections and spread them across the five boroughs.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

[naturally queer]

In India, I was fascinated by the wild monkeys that live among humans. They are remarkably like us: visual rather than scent-oriented, omnivorous, given to games and amusements. And one of the most startling things I saw was homosexuality. I watched as a monkey attempted to mount its companion and assumed the latter was a female, but a moment later the situation was reversed. Clearly these males were attempting to mount each other.

One of the more common arguments against homosexuality is that it is unnatural. Clearly, the argument goes, our genetalia are designed for male-female procreation, so why sanction the supposedly deviant practice of homosexual genital stimulation? But it has always seemed obvious to me that human genitalia, and our fascination with our own, go well beyond any procreative imperative.

A tremendous amount of human energy is devoted to socialization. Our ability to cooperate in ever larger and more abstract groups has been a spectacular success evolutionarily, and socialization has been posited as the primary purpose of language. (The older, utilitarian hypothesis is that language developed as a tool for coordinating action on big game hunts, but it has been pointed out that among modern humans, something like 95 percent of conversation is social and only about 5 percent is directly utilitarian in a "pass the salt" sort of way. The more recent hypothesis is that language is useful because it allows you to "groom" more than one person at a time.)

Our sexual drives are also intensely social, far more oriented towards pairing up with appealing partners and satisfying our own desires than towards making babies. Is there any biological reason why sexual socialization shouldn't follow the same patterns as conversational socialization in terms of gender distribution? Whatever the specific details might be, it seems clear that homosexual erotic desire is common enough in humans that to label it "unnatural" is to distort the very concept of what we mean by nature.

What brings all this up is a BBC report on a natural history exhibition in Norway entitled "Against Nature? An Exhibition on Animal Homosexuality," which documents homosexuality and even long-term homosexual pairing among species as diverse as penguins and bonobos. The latter, in fact, are probably the closest relatives we have in the animal kingdom, and they appear to be wholly bisexual.

Of course, I've often thought that the whole debate over whether homosexuality is natural or not is beside the point. Lots of urges are clearly natural — desires to smash the heads of people who anger us, desires to have sex with attractive strangers, desires to defacate when we're in inappropriate settings — yet we proscribe them. Much of the point of civilization, in fact, is to teach people how to repress their natural urges. (On this topic, Freud was absolutely correct.)

So the question of whether homosexuality should be socially acceptable shouldn't hinge on whether it's "natural." A gay gene wouldn't give homosexuality any social legitimacy, any more than a genetic predisposition to pedophilia would make such acts acceptable. What should give homosexuality social legitimacy is our liberal tradition of support for individual freedom. Homosexual acts are consensual and do not impinge on anyone's liberties. As such, there is simply no legitimate reason to ban such behavior. Indeed, genuine support for liberty requires that we protect the rights of all adults to engage in consensual homosexuality as they see fit, just as it requires that we protect other rights.

(This doesn't resolve the question of whether gay marriage should be legalized. I personally believe that the state should get out of the marriage business entirely — that's really for individuals and their religious institutions — and simply allow domestic unions among any two persons, including close relatives, with shared property, shared child custody and all the other attendant rights. I recognize, however, that this is totally unrealistic. As such, I believe that gay people should have the same rights as straight people to choose their legally recognized life partners, and we should call it by the same name when they do.)

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[agast reminder]

Just a reminder that this Saturday and Sunday is AGAST. Be there or be un-Gowanusy.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

[why i have a job]

"Now I stand before to you deeply touched and bumbled by the honour and responsibility bestowed on me."

You can't make this stuff up, and I definitely don't have to.

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[seeing spots]

For some great coverage of the Fossella-Harrison contest in New York's 13th District, check out Blue Spot, a Democratic blog covering New York politics. You can even watch a complete Harrison-Fossella debate, if you're feeling masochistic.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

[it's official]

His Excellency Mr. BAN Ki-moon, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Republic of Korea, is now United Nations Secretary-General-designate.

Beyond the big question of how his tenure will unfold, we now face the insidery game of figuring out precisely when Minister Ban will step down from his current post — he has until January 1, when he takes his oath of office as Secretary-General — and who will replace him.

Do I have any idea? I do not. The interior working of South Korean politics are, alas, still pretty opaque to me.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006


So The Information is out, and my considered opinion is that it's very good — far more coherent and emotionally resonant than the scattershot Guero. That album felt like a sub-par rehashing of older Beck tropes. The new record certainly draws on themes Beck has been working since the beginning — indeed, I've often thought that if you pulled the lyrics from any given Beck song and put them over the right backing music, you could comfortably fit it into any Beck record — but it also strikes out in some new directions.

For one thing, there are serious raps here, which is something new. But more than that, what's new is the overall feeling. In much the same way that Mutations, Vultures and Sea Change each had their own character, introducing us to a different way of hearing Beck's recurring lyrical tropes (how many times can one artist sing the words "plastic," "garbage," ghetto-blasting," "devil" and "hollow log"?), The Information has its own peculiar flavor.

To me, what Beck writes are travel records. I think of the early Beck records, especially Mellow Gold, as being about the deteriorating backwaters of America, particularly the South, and I fondly remember listening to Mellow Gold on my Walkman on bus trips during college, when it seemed particularly apt. Odelay continues to work these themes, mixing in a curious fixation on Texas ("Going back to Houston / To get me some pants").

Mutations came out after my first visit to India, but it immediately lodged itself in my mind as the soundtrack of that experience. (The actual soundtrack of that experience was the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, which, juxtaposed against the fluorescent-lit incomprehensibility of India's highway nightscapes, was suitably millenarian.) Beck has claimed, implausibly, that an album named after a Brazilian psychedelic band, containing a song called "Tropicalia" and references to mangroves, mynah birds, magistrates, holy mountains and trains, is about Los Angeles. It is not. On Mutations, Beck moves his old fascination with decay to the tropics, to the Third World as viewed by outsiders whose very presence is morally questionable.

Midnite Vultures, Beck's most misunderstood album, was superficially a return to the funkier sound of Odelay. Thematically, however, it broadened still further the theme of global decay and displacement, with references to Israelis, the Baltic Sea, "pop-lockin' beats from Korea," riots and refugees. (Another important theme throughout the record is the blurring of male and female sexuality.)

Looking at Beck's albums this way, it becomes clearer how Sea Change might be the radical break its name implies. For the first time, the album looks inward, charting the latter stages of a devastating breakup and the first glimmers of hope beyond. Guero continues the introspection, if less successfully, and some of the rehashing of old musical themes came off as somehow autobiographical. The emotions of Sea Change were raw and unmediated; Guero felt like a self-conscious stock-taking.

So what next? On The Information, Beck takes off again — this time into outer space. With the increasing publicity around celebrity Scientologists, one might be tempted to see all the space talk as unironic Battlefield Earth-style lunacy, but it's hard to see lines like "We're in spaceships / Take a visit to the Pyrenees" as entirely straight. (Likewise, one could read the mentions of tin cans as references to E-meters, although Beck has been talking about cans in various contexts since the beginning of his career, generally as part of his trash trope.) As for the long, spacey conversation at the end of the record, which The Guardian reveals is a chat between Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, one should keep in mind Beck's habit of ending records with jokes and noise (Mellow Gold: squawks; Odelay: more squawks; Mutations: "Diamond Bollocks" as a hidden track; Midnite Vultures: "Debra"). Just because Beck is a Scientologist, that doesn't mean he can't use sci-fi imagery in non-creepy ways. Indeed, while the more outré aspects of Scientologist cosmology are utterly silly as a personal belief system, they're actually pretty cool as a source for some rock-lyric imagery.

I'm still not exactly sure what The Information is about, but it does have a pervasive sadness and unease that feels somehow related to the high-tech, information-overloaded world we live in. And it's quite lovely. Unlike Guero, whose surface I never felt like a penetrated, The Information has lodged deep in my skull, where I'm sure it will continue to resonate for some time.

Oh, and do check out the Guardian article. It's a smarter take on Beck than just about anything else I've read on him.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

[foley funfest]

Outside of all the gloating Democrats have been doing about the perfect timing of Representative Mark Foley's scandal, there is the very real question of what exactly that scandal consists of.

Here's the thing: Foley flirted online with boys who were above the age of consent in Washington, DC, and who were not working directly for him. So what Foley did wasn't attempted statutory rape or sexual harrassment. Nor did he cheat on his wife or lie under oath about his actions. The only law he seems to have violated was one he himself sponsored, which goes after Internet sexual predators.

None of this quite excuses Foley's behavior. He is a middle-aged man in what is clearly a paternal role towards the young pages with whom he flirted. Had they been 19 and female, it would also have been deeply troubling.

But as troubling? In the first days of the unfolding scandal, I couldn't help wondering whether we were all grossed out because it was gay May-December sex. I wouldn't be surprised if the religious conservatives found the homosexuality particularly troubling, but liberals also seemed to react with a revulsion far stronger than we have felt towards older politicians who have messed around with younger women.

Andrew Sullivan, a gay conservative commentator, seems to have gotten to the root of the issue in this New Republic article. In his view, it is not the homosexuality in itself so much as the pathology of the closet that is so creepy about the Foley case. If Foley had been an openly gay politician who hooked up with a couple of young but legal hotties during spring break in Key West, it might've been splashed all over the news, but it wouldn't have been nearly so disturbing to me, or I think to most people who consider themselves sex-positive or pro-gay. It's the weird secrecy of it — the lurking-uncle, secret-touching-game quality — that is the problem.

Well, that and the fact that the Republican leadership seems to believe that homosexuality is best kept in the closet. Because they label all homosexuality as deviant and wrong, it's harder for them to make distinctions between the good kinds and the bad kinds.

For another gay perspective from a very different part of the political spectrum, here's Dan Savage's view.

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[security of the first world]

The Onion reports that retired S1Ws are being recalled to active duty. After all they have already done to fight the power, you'd think we could let them enjoy their golden years.

Here's a zany clip of the S1Ws in full effect.

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[this is just horrible]

According to a statistical study of mortality rates in Iraq, there have been roughly 665,000 extra deaths there since our invasion on March 20, 2003. That's more than 500 deaths a day. The study will be published in The Lancet, the UK's premier journal of medicine.

That's 2.5 percent of the population that is simply gone. One out of every 40 people. If the United States lost an equivalent number, that number would be 7.5 million.

When the president says we'll stay the course, please be aware that this is the course we're on.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

[why i love my job]

I just pencil-edited Minister Ban Ki-moon's acceptance speech for the United Nations Secretary-Generalship. I have no idea whether any of my edits and interpolations will make it into the final draft, but when Ban stands at that rostrum and delivers his speech, I'll know that I had a hand in. It's my tiny little sliver of history, and I'm excited about it.

A link to the speech will of course be provided once it has been delivered.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

[that inscrutable asian]

The Guardian assesses the "faceless" Ban Ki-moon.

Actually, it's a very informative article. My main quibble is in blaming low staff morale on the choice of Ban Ki-moon. No, his selection hasn't immediately fired up the troops, but at the moment he's working with damp wood anyway. The morale of UN staff has been low ever since the reform movement got rolling, and possibly since before then. They work for stagnant wages in crumbling, overcrowded, underheated, under-air-conditioned buildings, in a bureaucratic environment that rewards very little. Kofi Annan hasn't managed to fix this problem, so laying their depression at Ban's feet seems a bit unfair.

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[sign of hope?]

According to the New York Times, "there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers."

The article unfortunately goes on to point out that this fear is, like so many aspects of Evangelical culture, largely an article of faith, built around an obscure pronouncement with no particular basis either in science or in Scripture.

Still, I have long held out hope that many of the children of Evangelicals would find their parents' intolerant, narrow vision of Christianity intolerably narrow. The growth of Evangelical churches in recent decades will not necessarily continue indefinitely.

And please keep in mind that this post is not a paean to the shallow MTV lifestyle the article depicts these kids rejecting. I'm all for a youth culture that has more to offer than hooking up and listening to Chingy. I just hope it is something that also has room for positive approaches to sexuality and homosexuality, respect for science, openness to other cultures and less social pressure to embrace one strain of religious faith unquestioningly.

Like, maybe the government could even start funding schools of some kind that would be open to the public — you know, with art and music and humanities and science programs. It's so crazy, it just might work!

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

[the compression obsession]

Ever put a bunch of CDs on random in your disc changer, only to find yourself scrambling for the remote to turn down the volume when you go from a relatively quiet record to one that blasts? Ever wonder why different CDs are mastered at different volumes?

DKNY once explained to me that record companies have for years been pushing new CDs ever louder, in the belief that louder somehow equals awesomer. And it's true that on cheap stereos and crappy headphones — the sort of equipment owned by, say, teenagers — the additional loudness can give a record some extra power.

Unfortunately, the effect is achieved through a process called compression, in which the dynamic range of the recording is squeezed, so that the quietest sounds become louder and the loudest sounds become quieter. Then the whole reduced-range package is given a higher overall volume. An article in the Austin-American Statesman goes into greater detail about both the technicalities and the industry issues behind them. This tends to smooth the music into a roaring mass of sound that is fatiguing to the ears. It's a trick Phil Spector used and was probably right to use: he was making three-minute ditties to be played on AM radio, surrounded by far less densely recorded songs. But it's why entire CDs of Spector hits are so exhausting. Eventually the wall of sound crushes you.

On today's 70-minute pop CDs, though, the effect can be intensely wearing. So why do producers do it? Partly there's an element of competition: when your disc comes up in the changer, you want people to hear it. Likewise when they listen to your song in MP3 form in the car or the subway, where it has to compete with background noise. And I will admit that while commuting, I often skip songs with a lot of quiet bits in them.

Music has always been affected by the requirements of loudness. Jazz went from tuba to upright bass when electrical amplification made the latter audible over the uproar of the brass, and this allowed a looser rhythm that became known as swing. Louis Armstrong's trumpet and Caruso's tenor had the clean, clear wave forms necessary to punch through the static of 78s, while new hi-fi technologies ushered in the crooners of the 1950s. Electrification of guitars was initially a way to make them louder, with distortion considered a problem to be avoided, as its name implied; only after Jimi Hendrix did musicians start using distortion as its own instrument. And I have posited that the high-treble tendencies of 1970s heavy metal — the squealing guitar solos and Robert Plant-inspired screeching — had much to do with the fact that people listened to this stuff on FM radio in their cars, where bass notes and baritone voices would be buried under the rumble of engine noise.

Will we pull back?

Trends in recording come and go, and we are in a moment that has particular respect for sheen. It's an 80s retro moment, among other things, and 80s pop production was awfully shiny and bright. En Vogue and Paula Abdul and Def Leppard and Bon Jovi had very, very clean, slick production. Ultimately that's much of what made them sound ridiculous. Late-80s pop was knocked off its perch by the inheritors of a countercurrent in 80s rock: the post-punk murk and dynamic range of Steve Albini and the Pixies. Nirvana made their fortune from dynamic range, and alternative acts and labels with decidedly unshiny production — SubPop, Beck's Mellow Gold, Pavement — took over the mainstream.

For a while, no record was complete without pointless feedback and studio noise tacked on. (Did we really need that extra three seconds of amp hum at the end of the song?) But like anything else, grunge ran its course, and artists who demonstrated auditory discipline and sophistication and songcraft began to sound fresh and new instead of stale and packaged. At the same, technology created another shift in the way young artists were creating music. For the first time, it became cheaper and easier to assemble sophisticated soundscapes on computer than to buy a guitar, a bass, two amps, a trap kit and a four-track. Guitar-driven garage rock lost its claim to superior authenticity, and anyone with a computer could be a record producer. To stand out as professional — to protect the guild, as it were — actual record producers have had to go searching for things to do that kids in their basements can't do. And as far as I can tell, compression and loudness are the marks of professional as opposed to amateur CD production.

I suppose the big question is whether artists and record companies will be willing to risk musical moments that get lost when tracks are converted to low-grade MP3s and played in noisy environments. My guess is that they will, and that quieter CDs with more dynamic range will eventually be seen as a mark of sophistication. Why? Because pop music is always looking for a new sound, and its pendulum is always swinging. Some record with phenomenal dynamic range will sell a gazillion copies, and suddenly everyone will be demanding auditory Easter eggs, hidden sounds that only show up at high volume. ("Telephone call for Mr. Jones!") It's as likely as anything else.

Well, almost anything else. The one really unlikely scenario is that pop music will keep sounding like it does today.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

[harrison for congress via kos]

Steve Harrison, Democrat for Congress, has a blog up at Daily Kos. Let's hope it brings in some campaign contributions and generates some attention where it's needed.

And the race must be getting competitive, because incumbent Republican Vito Fossella has agreed to not one but four separate debates. Considering that his main tactic so far has been to avoid discussing his own record and try to label Harrison as some kind of nut (he's not), the debates are a sign that Fossella's people are getting nervous.

These aren't national debates, of course, but local events, meant to sway local voters. That means Harrison needs supporters to pack the seats. If you can make it to any of the debates, I'm sure it'd mean a lot to Steve and his campaign. The dates and locations are on Steve's homepage.

Nice work, Steve!

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[the two koreas]

Today's top story involving Korea ought to be Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon's likely appointment as UN Secretary-General.

Indeed, last night's annual reception for National Foundation Day was packed, attended by far more dignitaries, of far higher rank, than in past years. United States Ambassador John Bolton was there — Jenny remarked that he is shorter than she expected — as were the ambassadors of the other permanent members of the Security Council, as well as Japan's ambassador, who is currently the president of the Council. The big crowd was there, I am certain, because of the news that had come out less than an hour before the reception began that South Korea would be providing the next SG. Already the appointment was having one of its desired effects: raising South Korea's profile in the world.

At the moment, however, the big Korea news is that the North is planning a nuclear test. The timing is fairly typical of North Korea — these are the same people who managed to stage a naval incident in 2002, killing four South Korean sailors right around the climax of the World Cup hosted in South Korea. Whether today's announcement is meant to derail Minister Ban's appointment or merely overshadow it is unclear, but it is certainly bad news.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

[ban's the man]

So it looks like Ban is the man. In today's final Security Council straw poll to determine who the Security Council will recommend for Secretary-General, Minister Ban Ki-moon of South Korea received only one "Discourage" vote, and received "Encourage" votes from all five permanent members — the only Security Council members with veto power.

So barring either a surprise shift in the Security Council or an even more unlikely rebellion by the General Assembly, which ultimately has the decisionmaking power — technically, the Security Council only recommends candidates, though historically they have recommended just one for an up-or-down vote by the General Assembly — Ban Ki-moon will be the next United Nations Secretary-General.

Update: New York Times says "Korean Virtually Assured of Top Job at U.N."

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[bad company]

Here's Representative Vito Fossella of Staten Island at a photo op with everyone's favorite disgraced Congressman, Mark Foley, who's in trouble for coming on to underage male Congressional pages.

The bigger story, of course, is that the Republican leadership knew for months and months about Foley's bad behavior and covered it up. Apparently heterosexual blowjobs between consenting adults are impeachable, but attempted homosexual pedophilia is something the public doesn't need to know about.

And did Vito know about Foley's shenanigans? Does it even matter? These are his friends, this is the moral environment in which they operate. This is why I'm working for Steve Harrison's campaign for Congress: because the current Congress is repugnant.

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Previous Posts

[things i'd like to write about but haven't]
[drop the red lantern]
[how not to apply for a job]
[pop is the new alternative]
[what does it all mean?]
[national fears]
[lies, damn lies, and sound effects]
[our pakistan moment?]
[how to fail like an olympian]
[cold winters]


July 2006
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