Thursday, August 14, 2008

Justice: Wall St. Journal vs. the Economist

One thing I've always liked about The Economist, in spite of the fact that I've never shared their sometimes too-fervent worship of the market, is the basic humanity that they hold up.

Though the liberal, free-market tradition has all but disappeared in the US, where being a free-marketeer seems to mean you must be narrow minded and provincial, in England it still seems to be possible to be an enthusiastic capitalist and to be tolerant, broad-minded, and able to admit to mistakes.

This article below is an example of the Economist at its best, I think

Sarah Conlon, campaigner for the innocent, died on July 19th, aged 82

Pacemaker Press

GOD knows she did what she could to keep her son Gerry safe. She called him to be in by seven for his tea, to stop him thinking he might wander down to Gilmartin’s pub or to the card-schools on the corner. . . . Sarah Conlon wanted their life to be respectable, holy, and quiet.

Guiseppe, her husband, was too ill to do much. He had worked at Harland & Wolf red-leading the hulls of ships, but the lead had got into his lungs and damaged them. . . .

When she last saw him in 1980 he was in Hammersmith hospital, dying. But he was handcuffed to a bed like a cage, with two warders guarding him. He had been in prison for five years, sentenced because the British police believed he had something to do with the IRA bombings at Guildford and Woolwich in 1974. In truth he had had nothing to do with it at all. He had been in England to get Gerry out of trouble, and it was not the first occasion.

And almost the next time she saw him he too was in prison in England, not for burglary, which he deserved, but for five counts of murder and conspiracy. Her son was now one of the “Guildford Four”, her sick husband one of the “Maguire Seven”, together with her brother Paddy, her sister-in-law Annie and her two schoolboy nephews. The British police, desperate to frame whoever they could, said Annie had a bomb-making factory in her kitchen in Kilburn. But Mrs Conlon knew how tidy she was, her house impeccable, and with a picture of the Queen on the wall.

All the years that Gerry and Guiseppe were in jail she tried to do what she could. . . .“Pray for the ones who told lies against you… It’s them who needs help as well as yourself.”

Prayer definitely helped. Had she not been doing the Stations of the Cross in the cathedral three nights a week, and had a priest there, Father McKinley, not noticed her crying when the 1977 appeal was turned down, she might never have been able to get her campaign going to free her relations and the others. But within a short time, many others helping, she was harrying MPs and ministers, the taoiseach and Cardinal Basil Hume himself, until in 1989 she was at the Old Bailey, a white carnation in her hand, to see the Guildford Four’s convictions quashed as unsound. The Maguires’ were overturned two years later. And she was not done yet. She had always wanted the British government to apologise, and in 2005 a petition was signed by more than 10,000 people. Tony Blair said sorry, and sent her a copy; and though she never sought the cameras, she posed for them with Gerry and the letter.

I've edited that, and it's well worth reading in its entirety.

Thank goodness no one in our country would think of manipulating the justice system to influence public opinion: to make people think there's a threat and that the threat is well in hand.

And no one in our country would think of excusing the jailing of innocents, or treating schmoes like Gerry Conlon as if they were big fish criminals, the worst of the worst.

And certainly no newspaper editor could countenance justifying these sorts of things.

The Hamdan Validation
Wall St Journal editorial
August 9, 2008; Page A10

On Thursday, a war crimes tribunal sentenced Salim Hamdan to a mere five and a half years in prison, which, with credit for time served, means that Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and driver could be released as early as January. To borrow the obligatory media idiom, this "raises questions" about the process -- namely one: Could anything happen at Guantanamo that isn't "a stunning rebuke" or "an embarrassing blow" to the Bush Administration?

The sentence came down a day after Hamdan was absolved of the more serious of the two charges leveled against him. The prior political narrative was that the commissions amounted to a new Inquisition. But never mind. Some eminences claimed that Hamdan's partial acquittal really meant he had been found "guilty as ordered." Now a panel of senior military officers has rejected the 30-year sentence prosecutors requested -- and we are told that also counts as a strike against military commissions.

If anything, Hamdan's sentence again validates the fairness and due-process safeguards embedded in the system. The jury was independent and conscientious in its deliberations -- to a fault, perhaps. Hamdan, after all, was far from the hapless chauffeur his white-shoe lawyers portrayed. During his trial, the prosecution played a 1998 video that showed Hamdan guarding bin Laden with a machine gun. Presumably al Qaeda's leader didn't hang around with armed personnel he didn't trust.

Hamdan could be held indefinitely as an enemy combatant, but the political explosion that option would touch off makes it all but untenable. In five months, he is likely to be repatriated to Yemen. What's bizarre is that even the release of a member of al Qaeda won't convince the anti-antiterror movement of the legitimacy of military commissions.

And not a word about the administration that asked for a 30-year sentence for this man (and would have asked for the death penalty, no doubt, if they thought it would fly)?

It's a good thing these guys are manning the barricades in defense of justice. We wouldn't want anyone to be unfair to the Bush administration. Surely it is unfair to exaggerate the degree of their abuse of and contempt for every principle this country was founded upon.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I started to write a piece on Andrew Klavan's Wall Street Journal editorial piece back before everyone else pointed out how stupid it was. Then I figured there wasn't much point in writing to say that I think Klavan's piece is stupid, too.

But, over the weekend I finally went to see The Dark Knight and I thought it might be worth writing on this general topic after all.

First, let's get this out of the way. The stupidity of this piece far exceeds even its august venue's standard for stupid.

A cry for help goes out from a city beleaguered by violence and fear: A beam of light flashed into the night sky, the dark symbol of a bat projected onto the surface of the racing clouds . . .

Oh, wait a minute. That's not a bat, actually. In fact, when you trace the outline with your finger, it looks kind of like . . . a "W."

There seems to me no question that the Batman film "The Dark Knight," currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.
It's . . . curious? surprising? appalling? Yes, I think it's appalling that at this late date we still see this witless neoconservatism on the hoof.

For a while after 9/11 it seemed that there was a certain impulse, an irresistible impulse in some circles, to trump what was with what they preferred to be true. While the occupation of Iraq may not turn into a complete and utter foreign policy catastrophe for the US, the experience has been one long clinic on how the neoconservatives who told us what we could expect when we invaded, what would ensue and what good we'd get for invading we're pitifully naive and utterly incompetent.

And so now Iraq policy seems to be in the hands of people whose expertise extends beyond movies and comic books and maybe we'll escape Iraq having made it into a country something like Iran but a lot more unstable.

But still the role-playing warriors of the right are with us, some more shameless than others. For instance, Kenneth Pollack, who championed the war in 2002, at least now has the decency to admit the the war has been a colossal fiasco, regardless of its justification.

Klavan seems to be more of a Hitlerian sort of propagandist: just keep telling the big lie. In this case the lie is that the Iraq war had anything to do with the War on Terror aside from being a distraction from it.

And it wasn't an accidental distraction. George Bush simply chose to fight a war other than the one that, if carried out vigorously, was going to bring him toe-to-toe with an already-existing nuclear power: Pakistan.

In short, Bushman has already given up on the fight against the Joker and he did so a long time ago. He's no hero: he made a pragmatic decision to not force a lot of dangerous issues in Central Asia, but he was too much a coward to face the inevitable criticism he would receive for being pragmatic, so he quickly left for another venue he thought would allow him to play the hero at small cost.

After having seen the film and read many of the reviews, it is interesting to me to see how eagerly viewers embrace the idea that the "terror" against which we are at war is nihilistic.

The truth is that it isn't: Osama bin Laden has a pretty specific agenda--he wants to eliminate the influence of the West in the Islamic nations and he wants those nations to more closely follow the tenets of Islam. He isn't just in it to watch the world burn.

So what do we seem to want an adversary like that? Because the implied critique is less pointed? Better to be mere hypocrites that the joker points out than to be the object of legitimate grievances (no matter how badly acted-upon)?

[edit: added link for Kenneth Pollack]

Monday, July 21, 2008

Jimmy Breslin

I come to Jimmy Breslin late in life--very late in his life (he's 77), pretty late in mine considering I come from a working class family and I grew up not far from Breslin's stomping grounds.

Right now I'm reading his latest book, called The Good Rat. I'm enjoying it, but I'm running into a lot of the same mixed feelings Breslin has always inspired in me.

A bit of background:

I am from a similar background to Breslin, only a generation later. I, too, was raised among the ethnic working class. I, too (though Breslin probably would have a harder time admitting it), became non-working class through education and the opportunities/different associations that brought to me. And for both Breslin and I, our working class credentials are important and proudly held.

One big difference between us, though, is that I take my alienation from the working class as a given. Breslin seems to be at pains to pretend that at heart he's just a stevadore with an Underwood typewriter.

And this bit of self-delusion is tied in with a whole load of other illusions--mostly visbale in the rose-colored shades he tends to look at the old neighborhood life with generally.

Not that ethnic neighborhoods didn't have their upside . . . just that they weren't quite as Breslin would have them.

For instance, the policemen there were absolutely not typically paragons, by any measure. And the two cops in Breslin's story--two cops who became mob assassins--were really different only in degree from what is taken for granted among police. Essentially a large number urban police behave as if they were in a gang. This breaks through hen Breslin tells us that his virtuous cop hears locker room talk that fellow officers Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa are workiong with the mob, and doing hits for them. But no one seems to consider sharing this information with someone who might put a stop to this enormity.

It is more important to hold up the police version of omerta than to protect the public or the integrity of the police force. The hard truth about those cops are, they were (and are) racists; they were (and are) first and foremost concerned about themselves and the rackets they've got working; they were (and are) often the worst the working class has to offer, not the best.

I know because my family has rubbed shoulders with cops--from patrolmen to captains--all my life. And it's surprising how many of them have suspiciously big houses . . . and suspiciously big beach houses.

But Breslin's love of the mobster (in spite of his show at being contemptuous, Breslin loves the attention and acceptance he gets from lazy, deceitful murderers and swindlers) shows that he's drawn to the worst, and doesn't have the eye to depict the best as much as his adherents would tell you. His "good" characters all seem to have something of the whore with the heart of gold in them . . . something out of bad fiction.

Whether Breslin is fooling himself with his romantic, nostalgic pap about working class life or just his willing readers, I don't know. But, personally, as depressing as life in parking-lot land can be sometimes, I don't need lies and tall-tales and slight fictionaliztions about the old neighborhood to buoy my spirits.

And I don't think it does the old neighborhoods and the old characters and the old way of life much good for it to be gilded in myth--they're worth remembering accurately. They shouldn't be turned into crutches for unfulfilled suburbians to lean on.

The Obama Candidacy

Yesterday, the New York Times published yet another parsing of the now infamous New Yorker cover:

This time we hear from Lee Siegel about how this cover somehow constitutes something to get very very upset about. This time because it isn't good satire:
It was a gnawing permanence of everyday life that the satirist lampooned — i.e., punctured — to provide a general catharsis. . . .If you accept this definition of satire, then the reason The New Yorker’s cover seems to have fallen short is precisely that it brought out into open, respectable space an idea of the Obamas that is still, happily, considered contemptible. The portrait of them as secret Muslims, in cahoots with terrorists and harboring virulent anti-American sentiments, exists for the most part either on the lunatic fringe or in what some might call the lunatic establishment: radically partisan entities like Fox News. If, on the other hand, this newspaper began politely referring to Senator Obama’s radical Islamic sympathies, then a full-blown exaggeration of that insinuation into ridiculous satire would be just what the doctor ordered.

In other words either the new Yorker should have a) ignored the unpleasant but not mainstream stupidity that figures Obama as the 21st Century Manchurian candidate or b) depicted the holders of that belief in an obviously negative manner.

Option A is out of the question--there will be lots of money spent making sure no one is unaware that some people believe crazy things about Barack Obama.

Option B, it would seem to me, is just one technique among many for dealing with the fact that A is not a viable option.

Siegel concludes his little piece:

By presenting a mad or contemptible partisan sentiment as a mainstream one, by accurately reproducing it and by neglecting to position the target of a slur — the Obamas — in relation to the producers of the slur, The New Yorker seems to have unwittingly reiterated the misconception it meant to lampoon.

Siegel points to Swift's "A Modest Proposal" as a more well-done satire . . . one less likely, we imagine, to raise the hackles of sensitive readers.

Of course, the opposite is true. Many 19th-century readers considered a Modest Proposal to be a product of incipient insanity (Swift was later declared incompetent). Readings of "A Modest Proposal" have caused public disturbances.

Siegel's piece is yet another of the tiresome rationalizations that people roll out to excuse what is really a pathological strain in the whole Obama phenomenon.

Whether or not the New Yorker cover is good satire (it's OK, in my opinion, but it's not Swift) what generated this furor is not anything special about the cover: it's the extreme, irrational sensitivity of the Obamas and their supporters.

Still, at this late date, we have Obama-ites and supposedly detached observers who insist that Hillary Clinton talked about Barack Obama getting assassinated when she did no such thing. (Rather, certain people in the Obama camp, and certain people in the media, have some unhealthy fantasies regarding Mr. Obama, but that's another facet to the Obama phenomenon.)

The increasing perception is that the Obamas and their supporters are a bunch of sissies, who can't help but react "angrily" (a word I see often used to describe their spokespeople) to any form of criticism or disagreement that they deem, ex cathedra, to be "over the line."

In many ways, Obama looks like a shoe-in to win this race. McCain is a very weak candidate. The Obama campaign has shown itself to be capable. The tide definitely seems to be turning in the Democratic direction.

But the sort of sensitivity--or is it arrogance?--that leads to these sorts of dust-ups seems to be a distinct (glaring) weakness in the candidacy. I hope Obama has the sense to put a leash on it.

I should add that I will be voting for Mr. Obama come November and that I preferred him to Hillary Clinton in the primary. Lunatic fringe links that may be at the top of this page are strictly the responsibility of Google.

[Some small edits, mostly spelling. One added sentence 7/22/08]

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Itching To Get Beaten

Austin Dacey is a philosopher by training and an active secularist not only by conviction but by profession as well: He is a representative at the United Nations for the secularist Center for Inquiry.

That he has written a book titled “The Secular Conscience” is not surprising. That his book is subtitled “Why Belief Belongs in Public Life” has lifted quite a few eyebrows — to say nothing of his claim that “secularism has lost its soul” by putting a “gag order on ethics, values and religion in public debate.”

Mr. Dacey argues that secular liberalism has come to hold that because conscience is private or personal, its moral conclusions must be subjective, and because conscience should be free from coercion, its moral conclusions must also be free from public criticism.

This combination of what he calls the Privacy Fallacy and the Liberty Fallacy has led to the conclusion that controversial religious and moral claims are beyond evaluation by reason, truth and objective standards of right and wrong, and should therefore be precluded from public conversation.

This has also led to what Mr. Dacey calls the Bracketing Strategy, apparent in Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court decided that it could settle the question of abortion rights while bracketing, or setting aside, the issue of the status of fetal life. The success of the Bracketing Strategy, Mr. Dacey argues, “has convinced generations of secular liberals that the way to deal with moral problems in our shared life is not to deal with them.”

But in fact the Bracketing Strategy has left abortion rights “in constant peril,” he writes, because it “circumvented a broader public debate on the moral issues that might have produced a more stable national consensus.”

Don't know how many folks may have caught this article in the New York Times over the weekend.

It gets to a few issues that are very important to me as well. I agree with Austin Dacey that there is a regrettable tendency among those on the left to appeal to courts other than the court of public opinion. So much so that it sometimes seems that those on the left have completely lost the gift of rhetoric (rhetoric as in persuasive speaking, not as in bullshit).

Examples: the degree to which the leftist agenda (particularly in the 1960s and 1970s) moved forward through court cases. Granted, these cases do sometimes have had a legislative basis, but often (as in Roe v. Wade) these cases have involved novel applications or interpretations of constitutional rights. Granted, too, that some of these "novel applications" were pretty much there but unacknowledged (I would put the right of privacy in this category).

This reflex to circumvent or countermand politics has not only led to a great deal of resentment of liberals, it also has to some degree crippled the left--we no longer seem to know how to win consistently in the political realm.

Another example would be the degree to which academia has absorbed the energies of political radicals. Academia has become something of a wildlife preserve, where political species rarely if ever seen in the wild seem to thrive. While I think that there may be something to be said for the "hothouse" environment of academia, I think the freedom from criticism and question many beliefs enjoy in academia is unhealthy . . . and I don't think the isolation of academia does anyone any good. But leftists seem to value this fiefdom greatly, and spend a fair deal of energy defending it. In spite of the fact that from a social standpoint their fiefdom is irrelevant and probably doomed.

So, yes, liberals DO have too strong a tendency to "bracket," as Dacey says.

But on the other hand, Dacey doesn't seem to realize that bracketing is absolutely essential to liberalism. The idea that people have inalienable rights to, say free speech, regardless of what the present day consensus on the matter is is bracketing. Liberalism has always held that the majority should rule and they've always held that the rights of the minority should be protected against the power of the majority. THAT is what liberalism means.

John Stuart Mill wrote long ago on tolerance--and here again, tolerance is a bracketing technique, where you say that certain disagreements are just to be set aside and aren't to be made the subject of constant (and useless) public dispute.

The bracketing can be strong or weak--we may frown severely upon religion or politics as dinner table conversation; or we may engage in religious and political dispute knowing that there is no existential question at stake--we know as wrong as a religious or political idea might be, our opponents have a right to hold it.

When to invoke bracketing is a judgment call. It'd be illiberal (and insane) to just throw it away.

This hostility to bracketing is quite similar to the general hostility to the liberal tradition we see in neo-conservative thinkers like Leo Strauss and in harder to classify anti-statists like Sheldon Wolin.

One curious thing is that Dacey's hostility to bracketing dovetails with the pugnaciousness of the new atheists and points out again that many folks of the Dawkinsian stripe are either a) neo-conservative or b) make very big assumptions about the liberal order: that it is natural or that its existence can just be assumed (as H. Allen Orr points out in his review of Steven Pinker's Blank Slate).

Not only are these folks itching for a fight they'll probably lose, they don't understand what's at stake.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Classic Record-Eaglism

Complaining about the newspaper can get kind of tiresome, but I couldn't resist commenting on this editorial:
After all, they'll reason, a Meijer attorney has already said the firm committed possible criminal violations of state law and a host of people may have perjured themselves; but if the secretary of state doesn't seem to think that's a big deal, why should we? Incredibly, that's also the attitude of state Sen. Michelle McManus, R-Lake Leelanau, who uttered one of those totally inane assertions that serve only to change the subject: "Campaign finance laws are about transparency, they are not about criminal action," she said. Right. Except when they are about criminal actions, of course.
That's why state law, as weak as it is, allows the secretary of state to ask the attorney general to conduct criminal probes of suspected campaign law violations. Her stance is pure nonsense. But it's the kind of nonsense that ensures continued good relations with Meijer and state Republican leaders. McManus is believed to be positioning herself for a run for Land's job two years from now.
And then, immediately following this . . .

Current law actually reflects McManus' elitist "no harm is too big" attitude. The law -- which appears to have been written by campaign fundraisers -- instructs the secretary of state to pursue "soft action" to resolve violations through informal agreements. Once such an agreement is made, further prosecution is impossible.
As much as I don't like Senator McManus, and as much as I respect her as a regular source of "nonsense," I have to say I find it amusing that the writer of this editorial didn't perceive the irony in telling us in one paragraph that McManus's comments were "nonsense" and then telling us in the very next paragraph that they actually reflect the spirit of the law.

The fact is McManus is right: the law was not written to encourage criminal prosecutions, it was written to make investigations (and subpoenas) possible and to lead ultimately to slaps on the wrist.

The Record-Eagle may not like it--it may mean that the paper won't be able to tiresomely drive this story into the ground for the next 2 years--but I'm afraid the editorial board of the paper has been thoroughly outclassed here by Senator McManus as far as grasp of the facts and reasoning power go.

Can we imagine a more powerful indictment of this group of people? The different brands of stupid on offer in RE editorials make me think they are written by a committee of eight people with maybe half a brain amongst them.

Just to fill you in on the background, this potential prosecution has to do with the supermarket company Meijer and their long-sought second outlet in the Traverse City area (in Acme township, to be particular).

This new Meijer outlet has been bitterly and closely contended before the zoning boards, the courts, and the electorate. Meijer has had limited success so far in shepherding their plans toward fruition.

A few months ago Meijer had to concede a legal harassment lawsuit against one of the anti-Meijer Acme trustees AND was outed for having funded a recall effort against said trustee and his allies.

This last is a crime in Michigan, but not a particularly serious one, much to the Record-Eagle's chagrin.

The newspaper has been persistently anti-Meijer throughout the struggle. A couple of years ago they ran a story of the proposed Meijer building site at Lautner Rd. & M-72, and they ran a picture of the site. Understand that this site is a few hundred yards up the road from one of the busiest and (in Summer) most congested intersections in the region.

The Record-Eagle ran a picture pointing the other direction (toward the several disused farms/future construction sites to the East) calling it "a rural area." The "rural area" of Acme is served by its own sewage treatment plant, a rarity around here. And there are three more shopping centers planned within or bordering on Acme. (Admittedly, the capacity of the sewer plant would have to be considerably enlarged to accommodate all the planned development.)

The newspaper has spent most of its time cheerleading for anyone who is against the evils of development, even if they are--as is the case with some of these Acme folks--duplicitous, unreasonable, delusional, and selfish.

For years, these same folks dragged their feet on encouraging residential development (unless it was at the near-seven-figure mark) and then when the school district axed their school because of the low potential enrollment in their area, they--lo, and behold--suddenly became interested in housing development.

And now they tell us that they must stop the Meijer development because they have all these great plans for a real downtown (just like the 100+ year old towns of Suttons Bay and Elk Rapids) that will be ruined by a modern shopping development.

Only, there's no way in hell any such "real downtown" is ever going to get built. And, in all likelihood the best they can hope for is another project they've been obstructing for years that Meijer used to be involved with.

The fact is that the anti-Meijer forces in Acme have a (not so well-kept) secret agenda: to obstruct any and all commercial development in their area. It is essentially a not-in-my-backyard movement: eventually all the developers will get frustrated and move on and build in the next township over--Williamsburg.

In short, some folks would rather see regional sprawl than see Acme become more developed.

The newspaper has done a very poor job of reporting on what motivates the anti-Meijer folks in Acme, and has done a very poor job of questioning their tactics. What they've mostly done is gladly accept selective leaks from one of the commissioner's lawyers.

They haven't had much time to ask questions like: Is the Acme board of trustees and zoning board enforcing existing zoning law or enforcing their personal preferences? Or, have the Acme trustees ever violated the open-meetings act by, say, discussing active matters outside of board meetings? And just what has the role of outside advocacy groups been in making zoning decisions for the township? What will ultimately be the effect of Acme fighting to keep it's idle or barely utilized farms undeveloped?

But how much can you expect from a half-wit paper?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Newspaper

Editorial: There's a silver lining in Federated's rain cloud

Federated Properties told city officials last week it wouldn't pursue an extension to a special land-use permit at 145 W. Front St. in Traverse City, effectively penning the obituary for a project borne of backroom deals designed to enrich a few while leaving taxpayers in the dark and potentially holding the tab.

This always was a grand scheme packaged as a dream, a 100-foot tall, nearly block-long monolith featuring pricey condos with a view of the bay. Just the tonic Traverse City needed during wobbly economic times, the developers and local pols cooed.

But all the would-be prosperity came with a slight caveat. Taxpayers were expected to ante up to $16 million in bond guarantees to build a 500-space-plus public parking deck and related improvements -- in truth Federated's get-it-off-the-ground foundation, both literally and financially.

When first pitched, the Federated deal seemed to demand extraordinary, sheep-like conformity and generosity from taxpayers. Local public officials, with the exception of city Commissioner Deni Scrudato, asked virtually no probing questions of a developer with exactly zero similar projects under its belt. Most city honchos, in fact, acted more like Federated's cheerleaders and apologists than hawkeyed guardians of the public good.

The Federated project in early 2006 appeared inevitable, a slick, done-deal product waiting for city commissioners' rubber stamp.

Then along came state Sen. Jason Allen, who unwittingly, spectacularly changed everything.

When local developer Gerald Snowden in January 2006 decided to make a run at some of the parking deck loot the city dangled at Federated, Allen, a Traverse City Republican, quietly stepped in and short-circuited Snowden. Behind closed doors, far from the public's prying eyes.

And Allen did so at Federated's bidding. Its CEO, Louis P. Ferris Jr., had pumped $20,000 into Allen's campaign coffers, and an eyes-on-the-prize politician like Allen wasn't about to ruffle a golden goose's feathers.

But word of Allen's shenanigans leaked, the Record-Eagle broke the story in February 2006, and brick-by-brick, buck-by-buck the Federated dream turned nightmarish, leading to a crushing August 2006 election defeat for a parking deck bond and ultimately voters' November 2007 sacking of pro-deck city commission incumbents.

It's an astounding story, one in which city voters and taxpayers raised a collective voice against ham-handed politicians, cronyism and the attempted pillage of public dollars.

In doing so, newly empowered city residents acted akin to a controlled forest fire, ridding themselves of dead wood in order to engender new growth.

Federated's sister project at 124 W. Front St., meanwhile, clings to life, but likely only until someone else takes over payments. And as Federated itself may always symbolize bad government and questionable deals, its ultimate, ironic legacy may be that it spurred the public to stand tall and retake its local government.

I recently expressed my growing impatience with our local paper at scienceblogs. The above editorial pretty much sums up what is good and what is bad about our paper.

  1. They are skeptical of local officials
  2. They aren't afraid to ruffle feathers
  3. They stick with a story

  1. They don't cover central questions (such as: did these guys have financing lined up for this project or not? You won't find out from reading the newspaper--more on this below)
  2. They love a good story WAY more than they love the truth
  3. They love the opportunity to tear someone down and/or pat themselves on the back.

Bad 1 is, I suspect, an effect of Bad 2 and 3: they don't report on a lot of details BECAUSE it would rob them of the opportunity to tear down the established powers and praise their own all-seeing wisdom.

My bet is that this project, which wasn't all that big--It would have been bigger than several similar projects already built or underway but would only merit the word behemoth in the mind of an editor with no discernment and a well-thumbed thesaurus--probably did have financing.

Part of the real story of Federated is the fact that credit conditions have changed so much since they proposed this big project: they may well have had credit lined up for the project as initially envisioned, but it expired in the time elapsed since revisions were made necessary to the plan. Now, with billions soaked up by the sub-prime mortgage mess and subsequent retrenchment, creditors aren't so anxious to fund real-estate speculation as they once were.

But telling this part of the story makes Federated seem less villainous, so let's not, shall we?

And this: "When first pitched, the Federated deal seemed to demand extraordinary, sheep-like conformity and generosity from taxpayers," is frankly just stupid. The deal was a deal. The taxpayers would have had to support a bond issue, but the revenue generated by the development was supposed to cover that, and the city would have gotten the parking lot--there are many, many details to this deal, but it was a proposed business deal, like it or not. The suggestion by the paper that this was some sort of giveaway is plain bullshit. And I write this as someone who absolutely HATES the way this town does business. (see here and here)

But what I hate even more is the way the paper has gotten into the habit of slinging half-truths, innuendo and self-congratulation. (It doesn't take a genius to see the subtext of this article: congratulations to us for leading this town on the path of righteousness!)

But this newspaper is woefully understaffed, does a crappy job of covering the basic facts of stories (nearly every story they cover leaves crucial facts uncovered: how did that money-pit septage plant ever get built in the first place? We may never know . . .) and the persona of their editorial page is turning into a very unpleasant combination of self-righteous prig and surly drunk.

This is probably an effect of having more people in editorial board meetings than they have covering the basic news: this paper is long on opinion and short on facts. Long on theatricality and short of brain power.

Unfortunately, there is little to be done: the paper exists for one reason: to deliver profits to its Alabama-based parent company. Providing decent basic news coverage is simply not part of the business plan.

Self-important, mad-at-them, grandstand rants on the editorial page are less expensive than more reporters.

And, hey, the fewer facts, the better! Who needs reporters?