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After Jon Stewart’s hilarious take on Bush’s reading of Albert Camus’  The Stranger, I really had to dig a bit deeper and discovered that his entire summer reading list is available on the C-Span website. 

For those that are making much of this, however, The Stranger is a relatively “quick read,” as I believe that the President himself said, and an easily digestible read, if one doesn’t understand much about existentialism.  One needn’t know much about philosophy to appreciate the story as a parable, I suppose, albeit a parable with a rather flat ending.

But, apparently, Bush discussed the novel’s theoretical underpinnings with Tony Snow, who now reveals himself as no intellectual slouch, tutoring the President in the finer points of existentialism, as it were.  Now, really, could you see Scott McClellan doing that?  Apparently, Mr. Snow wasn’t hired just for his good looks.

The President’s list, which may exceed most in number if not depth, includes much history (American, alas, not Mideast) and some baseball. Surprisingly, toward the bottom of the list, are two of the more widely-appreciated Shakespeare plays, Macbeth and Hamlet.  One must assume that the President is giving these challenging works a second, more mature read since he studied them in boarding school, prior, of course, to his admission to Yale.  Now, at his press conference, the President said that he read “three Shakespeares.”  So unless the President was confounded by the length of Hamlet and only thought that he read three plays rather than two, we must assume that he enjoyed Hamlet and Macbeth so much that, on his own initiative, he proceeded to read a third play, one that wasn’t even on the list!  If only the average high school student could be so self-directed.

And only a week or two ago, Scarborough Country devoted a whole show to the question “Is President Bush an Idiot?”  Perhaps there was some confusion there; perhaps they meant to report that the President was reading The Idiot?

I don’t know, but it is obvious that the President has come a long way since My Pet Goat, and, were he reading Hamlet instead, one could better understand his inability to pull himself away from it for eight whole minutes, given the footnotes and all. 

Yesterday’s Morning Edition on NPR featured a story on parents’ use of Global Positioning Systems technology or “black boxes” to secretly track their children’s movements and monitor their driving.  Black box or “car chip” devices are, unbeknownst to many consumers, now standard on higher-end vehicles.   

So, using any computer, parents can monitor not only their kids’ locations, but the speed at which they are driving and their rate of acceleration and deceleration.  If the kids are aware that they’re being monitored, parents can honk the horn or flash the lights in warning.  Similar tracking chips are able to be hidden in cell phones, and, soon, cell phones will be available with hidden cameras that can transmit images back to Daddy’s laptop at work. So much for necking in the back seat of the car. 

It isn’t so much the technology itself that I find troubling; it’s the temptation that parents will have to use it furtively, as did the parents who were featured on the radio spot.  Too much control is not necessarily a good thing.  Tracking a six or eight year old by installing a GPS chip in his belt might make sense and might provide enormous relief to parents with reasonable fears about small ones getting lost or abducted.  But even the smallest child needs his own private space—a spot to which he can comfortably retreat and know that under reasonable circumstances it won’t be trespassed, even by those who mean him well.  Such autonomy, gradually increased with age, is critical to children’s development, allows them to learn from their mistakes, and teaches decision-making and judgment.  As Steve Shlozman, a child psychiatrist that was interviewed for the spot, says: 

 . . . kids need enough slack to learn to make good choices on their own, not just because they know Mom and Dad are watching. . . that’s the moment of growth — and you lose that if you monitor them . . . they won’t grow up; they’ll get stuck developmentally.

But, even if you don’t agree with this particular philosophy of child-rearing, even if you believe that constant monitoring is an indication of constant love and protection, you must agree that secret surveillance sends kids the wrong ethical message.  It basically sends the message that if authority figures, regardless of their competence or own sense of good judgment, determine that it is in your best interest, they can violate your right to autonomy and privacy without your knowledge.  They can engage in deception, can lie through omission, and breach your trust.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  If Big Daddy Cheney had his way, secret monitoring devices would likely be installed in the cell phones of not only suspected terrorists, but in those of their associates and family members, regardless of probable cause and without a court order. 

As noted above, such chips are now standard in many new autos and have been used after major accidents, by police and insurance investigators, to determine culpability.  Not such a bad idea, except that the people involved were not even aware that the chips were in their cars.  Proposed legislation is still trying to grapple with this.  KeepYourSecrets.com  (and I can’t vouch for the credibility of this source) provides the following anecdote:

EDR [Event Data Recorder] technology burst out into the public eye in a big way in 2002, when Walter Rhoads was successfully prosecuted in Pennsylvania (in May 2002) using data taken from his cars’ EDR.  The Pennsylvania Highway patrol, without Rhoad’s permission, took the EDR information from his wrecked car and used it to prove his speed and braking just prior to the crash.     In this instance, Rhoads had been driving far too fast and tried to brake only 2 seconds prior to the accident.     However, despite the specifics of Mr. Rhoad’s bad driving habits, the mere fact that data from his automobile was taken without his permission and then used against him in court…creating a troubling precedent and raises the question…. To whom does the information in your car’s EDR belong??
 

Children, adults, and especially teenagers have always and will continue to test limits, to their greater or lesser peril.  I see this every day when I observe nitwits driving 10-20 MPH over the speed limit and tailgating others.  They are putting not only their lives at risk, but mine as well.  But would I advocate installing sensors in their cars that would emit ear-piercing high-frequency warnings every time that they transgressed?  Tempting, but no.  Limit testing is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and, particularly for teenagers, is a way of learning what is bad and what is good.  Criminals violate rules, but so did early scientists, without whom we wouldn’t have this technology in the first place. 

If parents want to track their kids, they should inform them that they’re tracking them, and then they can sit down and have a discussion about responsibility, freedom, and consequences, if they are the type to have such discussions.  If they are not, then that may be the reason they need the tracking devices in the first place.  And if the kids, consequently, turn off the cell phone so that they can visit that restricted friend, then so be it.  They will at least feel that their trust has not been violated and will have a chance to develop into capable, strong-willed individuals, right or wrong, scathed or unscathed.


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Last night on Larry King Live, Bill Maher complained vociferously about the overblown cable news coverage of the latest chapter in the JonBenet Ramsey story, referring to the coverage as “eye candy.”    

Eye candy, of course, is standard on cable TV news.  News anchors and commentators, particularly female ones, are nearly indistinguishable from mannequins.  Their appearance is so extraordinarily polished and perfected that most supermodels, placed next to them, would appear more flawed and natural.  Add to this the surreal colors and lighting of the newsrooms; the careful selection of compelling images regardless of relevance to content; and busy, complex graphics, and you have a recipe for visual fixation and mental distraction.  Maher is disappointed by this because he was brought up, as he said, to think of cable news as news for “smart people.”  Come now, Bill, PBS and C-Span is news for smart people, not CNN.  A whole team of makeup artists could work on Margaret Warner, and she would still look like the neighborhood librarian, god bless her.  And I suspect that most “smart people” prefer her that way, given her necessarily serious and authoritative role.

But this is neither new or surprising. What shocked me is that Maher proceeded to provide a more specific example of “eye candy” by suggesting that the revival of the JonBenet story gave the media the chance to show images of the child “prancing around like a whore,” as he put it.  Now, this was a remarkable statement, even for Bill Maher, and I expected Larry’s switchboard to light up with outraged callers defending the child’s and, perhaps, even the parent’s innocence.  But either those calls weren’t put through or they were never received, perhaps because too many agreed with Maher’s assessment to comment.  But what exactly might they have agreed with?

This statement, “JonBenet prancing around like a whore,” particularly within the context of its reference to constant media coverage and image repetition, is remarkable for a number of reasons:

First, it suggests that the child was so successfully fetishized and sexualized that her image fascinates people to the point of obsession;

Second, it suggests that an innocent child, when fetishized in such a manner, appears “whore”-like and thus, by definition, sexually provocative to an adult male onlooker—a clear taboo;

Third, it suggests the public voyeurism that is inherent in such a display, which is both remarkable and hypocritical in a culture in which pedophilia is so demonized that its perpetrators are literally cast out of society, even after they have served their time;   

Fourth, it openly acknowledges the culture’s obsession with what is, according to Maher’s characterization, taboo imagery intended to titillate or at least fascinate even a “normal” man; and

Fifth, it imparts some of the blame on the victim, or, in this case, not the poor child but the parents who were complicit in her victimization by using her in such a manner.

Public and law enforcement suspicion of the parents’ involvement in the girl’s murder, which has never really let up since the beginning, is a direct consequence of item five.  Any mother who would treat her child as a doll and display her as such might be tempted to objectify her in more perverse and horrible ways.  So it goes. The Boulder D.A.’s latest efforts to vindicate the parents led to the current fiasco—a first-class trip out of Thailand for a very creepy, but apparently innocent man.  As has been pointed out countless times, had this been a poor black child that was so murdered, her case would be long forgotten, as would any efforts to vindicate the parents.  Her image would not fascinate in the same way as that of the blonde-haired blue-eyed child whose defiled innocence captured the imagination of those such as Mr. Karr and John and Jane Q. Public, who were raised to admire the fair-haired, fair-skinned face and regard it as the cultural standard for beauty and wholesomeness.

As for CNN, eye candy, and tabloid TV—nothing new.  What is troubling is what lies beneath the surface, the subtext of the imagery, whether it is Nancy Grace’s highly buffed and plasticized face or JonBenet’s dolled-up one.  Those who would object to open and natural depictions of human sexuality (within the context of a narrative about and for adults, for example) will continue to be fascinated by imagery that fetishizes the individual and thus obscures reality and distracts from the conscious awareness that is the essence of civic and political involvement and responsibility.  Such imagery might be appropriate in entertainment, but not in the news.


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I was very amused when I came across this article about “Crocs,” because I had recently purchased a pair of black rubbery shoes with holes in them for wearing in the garden so that I wouldn’t track dirt in the house. As it turns out, they are not so practical, because dirt and water actually gets IN them, and your feet get very dirty if you’re not wearing socks. They are cute in a funny sort of way, but essentially ugly, I thought, and not smart for wearing beyond the backyard. I purchased them at a local supermarket for around eight dollars, not, apparently on sale (an “everyday low price”) and, actually, I thought that was too pricey for plastic clogs.  Among the bright colors offered, I selected the understated and more sophisticated black ones (figuring they would get dirty).  I wore them once beyond the garden, when shopping, and imagined that people were looking at my feet.

So, imagine my surprise when I was visiting Boston and saw the same exact shoes on sale at a vendors stall in the fashionable Quincy Market for $29.99, before tax.  And imagine my further surprise when I saw a number of people wearing them, and in all the vivid colors, no less. And then I came upon this article in which a city resident bemoans what he deems an ugly “fashion trend,” these “clown shoes” that he calls “crocs,” and remarks that some people will pay as much as $35 for them. He complains that he can’t get away from them and that people even wear them in restaurants.  Of course, I googled “crocs” and found that I was hopelessly out of touch here and those plastic things I purchased were actually Croc knock-offs, sans the little crocodile emblem on the button!   

This article, by the way, is followed by 26 pages of comments, mostly by Croc devotees defending their odd shoes, some who own five pairs in various colors.  I am now pleased with my Croc-offs, and might even venture to wear them beyond the garden.

 

'Crocs' shoes, available at Whole Foods for $29.99.

Yesterday’s NY Times featured an article, followed by well over 200 comments, on the use of behavior observation to screen airline passengers.  Security personnel observe body language, facial expressions, and general signs of anxiety to single people out for further interview and search.  Paul Ekman, a psychologist who has devoted his life work to decoding facial expression and non-verbal communication, helped the TSA design this program. As I understand it, Ekman’s work has successfully linked facial movements and expressions and other non-verbal cues to precise emotions and behaviors such as lying, but has not made any connection between these non-verbal cues and subsequent behaviors or actions.  As far as I know, no studies have been done linking body language, particularly the body language of travelers or persons under stress, to subsequent behavior of any kind. 

Therefore, it seems that the basic premise behind this program is that if a person’s body language says that he is nervous or afraid, his nervousness or fear alone indicates he is a possible terrorist and worthy of further scrutiny. Numerous commentators on this article pointed out something that anyone who has traveled quite a bit already knows—that travel itself is stressful and, for some, frightening.  Many people look anxious and unhappy at airports, mostly due to the generally-acknowledged stresses and discomforts of traveling, compounded these days by security screening–necessary, yes, but sometimes extremely aggravating.  Add to this the fact that you KNOW that you’re being scrutinized as you wait in line, juggling your passport, your ticket, your bag, your shoes, and your child, and you become one anxious, harried, and highly self-conscious person to boot. (Or you are the rare person who behaves like “patience on a monument,” who, thanks to your superior character, escapes interrogation.  You are the person, who, when searched, thanks the security official for so thoroughly protecting you.  You smile broadly at him.  You are, you think proudly to yourself, not a “whiner”). 

I would argue that this program also promotes a class-based form of scrutiny.  The well-heeled business traveler, who arrived at the airport in a taxi or limo, handed his bag to a skycap, stood in line not for a second before boarding, and downed a very fine Scotch whiskey before walking through security, will more likely pass through wearing the expression of the just and righteous, and, given his status, will more likely be waved through any way, even if he doesn’t. 

Other commentators pointed out the culturally biased nature of non-verbal cues.  Well, Ekman claims that the cues he has identified are universal, sort of hard-wired into the brains of those of the human species, untainted by cultural and ethnic social norms.  Just as German-raised and Italian-raised dogs (or Rottweilers and Neapolitan Mastiffs, if you like) both wag their tails when they’re happy, so do German and Italian people both raise their eyebrows when frightened.  Fine, but we still have the image of the fidgeting German or Italian man at the airport, fidgeting because he is naturally impatient and antsy, being observed by a highly-trained individual and determined to be, well, fidgety and antsy, and thus being singled out for additional search and delay. Doesn’t seem very scientific to me, or very effective.  Perhaps a fidgeting young Arab man flying from London to Washington should be singled out?  Some would say that this is racial profiling and some would say that it’s just common sense.  But the real problem with singling any person out, as noted by some commentators, is that it addresses the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. 

Why do people want to blow up British airplanes, en route to America and full of mostly Anglos and Americans?  Why don’t they want to blow up planes flying from, let’s say, Oslo to Zurich filled with mostly Norwegians, Swiss, and sundry other more neutral Europeans?  Well, it’s fair to say that the people intent on blowing up planes have “issues” with Americans and Anglos, valid or invalid, far beyond “they hate us for our freedom.”  Maybe we need a government that is willing to study the nature of terrorist anti-Americanism and the forces that have shaped this phenomenon.  Maybe we need a government that is willing, not only to study this phenomenon, but to shape policy designed to address it and deal with it in a broader fashion. 

Add to this the fact that all of these elaborate security screening mechanisms cause the stressed to be further stressed, the discomfited to be further discomfited, and the harassed to be further harassed.  The indignity of being searched will be amplified by the indignity of being singled out (as in the kindergarten from hell), for a frown, twitch, smirk, or nervous giggle.  The sanctity of the individual and his individual space (an illusion, yes, but a necessary one), will be further violated.  Our free movement through public space will be further restricted, and those who would make war with us will have won the small battle.  The fear that is manipulated so skillfully by the Republicans will be reinforced by elaborate procedures that tell us (non-verbally, I might add) that we have reason to be afraid. 

Add further that Americans are, statistically, more  likely to die in a car accident than die in a plane blown up by a terrorist, even if they travel frequently.  As one vehement post, written by an Arab-American man who is tired of being pulled aside, put it: “you are 500 times more likely to die in a car accident — why don’t you start ‘profiling’ the three big ugly SUVs sitting in your big ugly suburban garage?”  Profiling a bit himself there, isn’t he, but, alas, is correct.   


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This from Zogby International:

More Americans know Snow White’s dwarfs than U.S. Supreme Court Justices; Homer Simpson better known than Homer’s Odyssey; Harry Potter better known than Tony Blair.

Snow White’s Dwarves vs. Supreme Court Justices – How Many Named?  

Dwarves

Named 2

77%

Named 1

10

Named 0

12

 

Justices

Named 2

24%

Named 1

15

Named 0

61

scalia.gif   thomas.gif

      Dopey                                  Grumpy                 

 alito.jpg       roberts.jpg

             Sleepy                              Bashful

A fascinating Seymour Hersh article in the current New Yorker outlines Bush administration involvement in strategic planning that led to Israeli air strikes on Hezbollah and Lebanese targets.  Such involvement would clearly explain the administration’s initial complacency in response to the bombings and its ensuing support for them.   According to the article, Israel, acting with Bush administration knowledge and backing, was waiting for an incident that would justify the air strikes, and Hezbollah’s kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers fit the bill.  Bush and Israeli strategists anticipated that the air strikes would wipe out Hezbollah and distance civilians from the organization, leading to the installation of Lebanese troops at the border.  Bush/Cheney & Co. supported this campaign, particularly since they saw it as a test run for a planned similar campaign in Iran, in which air strikes would destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and turn Iranian popular sentiment against its hawkish and outspoken President:

The Bush Administration . . . was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preëmptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.

This plan backfired because the Bush and Israeli “strategists” underestimated Hezbollah strength and passion and were reluctant to follow through with ground troops.  Instead, they battered civilians, seemingly punishing them for accepting Hezbollah charity and assistance in their own communities, and, consequently, outraged not only moderate Arab states, but much of the civilized world.  The Saudis’ late July push for a cease fire is most likely what turned the tide toward US endorsement:

According to Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State in Bush’s first term . . Israel’s campaign in Lebanon, which has faced unexpected difficulties and widespread criticism, may, in the end, serve as a warning to the White House about Iran. “If the most dominant military force in the region—the Israel Defense Forces—can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of four million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of seventy million,” Armitage said. “The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”

According to Hersh’s sources, this cynical and brutish scheme was encouraged primarily by the office of the Vice President, which seems to serve as an independent arm of the executive branch, directing foreign and national security policy as it sees fit.  Apparently, Cheney and his staff, blind to mistakes that have already been made, have been working closely with Israeli officials to develop strategies for dealing with Hezbollah and for altering Mideast power relations:

“ Israel began with Cheney. It wanted to be sure that it had his support and the support of his office and the Middle East desk of the National Security Council.” . . . The initial plan, as outlined by the Israelis, called for a major bombing campaign in response to the next Hezbollah provocation, according to the Middle East expert with knowledge of U.S. and Israeli thinking. Israel believed that, by targeting Lebanon’s infrastructure, including highways, fuel depots, and even the civilian runways at the main Beirut airport, it could persuade Lebanon’s large Christian and Sunni populations to turn against Hezbollah, according to the former senior intelligence official.

And:

Cheney’s office supported the Israeli plan, as did Elliott Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser, according to several former and current officials . . . Cheney’s point, the former senior intelligence official said, was “What if the Israelis execute their part of this first, and it’s really successful? It’d be great. We can learn what to do in Iran by watching what the Israelis do in
Lebanon.”

The Vice President seems indifferent to the innocent human life that is always the price to be paid for these tactics.  The images of Katrina destruction that so horrified the American public are nothing compared to some of the images that have come out of Lebanon—images of bombed apartment buildings and entire civilian neighborhoods, dead children, and ordinary people forced out of their homes and turned into refugees—refugees, that word that Americans found so distasteful when applied to themselves. 


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Thanks to Chuck Schumer for introducing legislation that would reign in the predatory “Rent-to-Own” business, which contributes to the cycle of poverty by leasing products for as much as three times their market value to consumers unable to pay in full or unable to obtain credit. I wonder if he read that Brookings Institute Report that I wrote about last week.

In essence, customers are paying huge interest on items that they don’t technically own and that could be immediately repossessed, even if they miss their last payment. “Leasing” the items, rather than selling them on credit, allows Rent-A-Centers to skirt state usury laws that limit interest to 30%. It also allows these predators to easily repossess items even if they’re almost entirely paid off. Contract terms are not always fully disclosed or easily accessible, which makes those with the least consumer education vulnerable to what is essentially fraud. If consumers understood that they were paying as much as 200% interest to buy that washing machine that they need, they might decide, instead, to continue using the laundromat.

These rent-to-own scams hurt cash-strapped consumers tremendously because they dig themselves into a deeper hole, one that they sometimes can’t get out of and that they pass on to their children and grandchildren. The perpetuation of poverty hurts the whole economy.

It’s really rather sad to think that a single mother, for example, who only wants to see her child have a computer for his schoolwork, might have to work two jobs in order to pay off this and similar kinds of debts. Sure, she should pay interest, but 200%? That is the worst kind of exploitation. The greed of this industry is unfathomable.


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For those who need to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, Human Rights Watch has recently issued a report called “No Blood, No Foul”: Soldiers’ Accounts of Detainee Abuse in Iraq.  Many of the soldiers interviewed stepped forward to report abuses that outraged and angered them, but that they could do little about due to their systemic nature: “Standard Operating Procedure” as some soldiers called it.  Soldiers reported that when they expressed concern over the abuses, they were threatened and intimidated by commanding officers, told that their email was being screened, etc.

The report includes numerous accounts of horrors, such as the following:

Standard procedure, when I was there, you [i.e., the detainees] had twenty-four hour inside the Conex [container] . . . you’re blind-folded, you’re zip-stripped, your hands are behind your back; your feet usually weren’t, unless there was a particularly volatile prisoner—somebody who’d caused a lot of trouble, they’d hitch the feet as well. You were there, twenty-four hours: no sleep, no food, no water . . . Early on, when I first got there, it only got up to about 115, but by July and August, we were regularly between 135 and 145 [Fahrenheit]. [Inside the container] it was really extremely hot, to the point where it was irritating to go into the back of the Conex to get somebody out to use the restroom, which is usually the only thing they were allowed to do. . .

Nick said that the MPs were instructed to keep the detainees awake for the initial 24-hour period, by forcing them to stand in the metal shipping container: It was your job to make sure that they weren’t sleeping. . . .

At night time, a lot of the guards would walk by, unload the magazine from the rifle, bang on the side [of the metal container] for a little bit to make sure that you know, everybody was awake. And you’d catch them if they’d fall asleep—they’d fall over because they’re bound. You see, they’d try to lean their head against the wall [but] you’d slap on [the container] to make sure they lift their head back up off the wall, or do whatever it took to make sure they’d stay awake.

Other soldiers reported severe beatings and the use of dogs to terrorize.  Many of the techniques used could have been life-threatening, and, in at least one case, resulted in death. 

Some of these detainees had allegedly been involved with setting off IEDs, despicable yes, but the phenomena of insurgent activity and IEDs was a direct result of US occupation of a country that was oppressed but stable under the rule of a dictator.  Corrupt autocracy was not exclusive to Iraq.

These detainees are not the people that were responsible for 9/11 or the Madrid bombing.  Iraqi insurgents, sometimes under the rubric of Al-Quaeda, use mayhem to destroy their own country, their own people, and the occupiers that never had any business being there in the first place. 

These interrogation techniques, beyond being morally reprehensible and in violation of international law, have been more a part of the problem than the solution, as evidenced by the escalating violence and ongoing chaos that is part of the daily life of far too many Iraqis.


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As the Bush administration continues to do a whole lot of nothing about the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, employing a “hands off” policy as it’s now being called, Iraq, now relegated to the bottom of page one or the top of page two, continues to teeter-totter on the brink of civil war, if not having already fallen in.   

A  startling UN report, which was issued shortly after the Israel-Lebanon crisis began, reported that an average of 100 Iraqis per day died during the month of June.  Most were victims of the sectarian violence that has been a direct result of the US occupation.  These astonishing figures have been mostly ignored by the mainstream media.  It’s not their fault; it’s just that they can’t do more than one thing at a time, and that one thing is usually whatever is hot at the moment.     

What a fortuitous fringe benefit for the Bush administration.  Almost makes you think that the Israel-Lebanon-Hizballah hostilities might last until . . . maybe November?

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