Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Rachel Maddow, reluctant sex symbol


by Judy Berman

Why do we -- men and women, gay and straight -- find Rachel Maddow sexy? Daphne Merkin's "Butch Fatale" about the newly minted MSNBC icon, hidden among the overpriced handbag porn and fluffy profiles of last weekend's New York Times T style magazine, is more complicated than it appears.

As Merkin writes, it isn't often that mainstream culture celebrates the attractiveness of butch lesbians. Sure, we admire femmes like Portia de Rossi and Lindsay Lohan. But for the most part, lesbians who wear suits, cut their hair short or otherwise don't conform to traditional standards of beauty -- the Ellen DeGenereses and Rosie O'Donnells of the world -- have to remain culturally neutered in order to participate in public life. Though we find classic representations of gay male beauty in the films of Luchino Visconti and the writings of Oscar Wilde and Thomas Mann, says Merkin, "It's much harder to envision a lesbian icon without coming up against Fran Lebowitz, looking surly and bored."

The problem with lesbian archetypes, according to Merkin, is that "both categories -- butch and femme -- borrow from gender-influenced dichotomies of beauty." And this is where Rachel Maddow, supposedly, is a revelation. "She may not be one of Hefner's Girls Next Door, exactly, but she is no bare-faced, unstylish dyke either, however she chooses to characterize herself," says Merkin, going on to coo over the way Maddow combines a light dusting of makeup with "Poindexter glasses, Jil Sander pantsuits and Converse sneakers" and concludes that "she's willing to prettify her image sufficiently to endear her to male viewers."

Here's where I disagree with Merkin: I don't think Maddow's TV appearance is particularly calculated to attract male viewers. The makeover doesn't seem like a ploy to sex up Maddow; rather, it's a concession to appearing on television, where everyone has to wear makeup and dress like a professional. According to a New York magazine profile, Maddow's partner, Susan Mikula, is responsible for her wearing makeup: "Without it, 'she looked like a dead person,'" Mikula said. And as for the designer suits, it's not as if MSNBC was going to let Maddow -- or Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews, for that matter -- go on the air in a ratty button-down and carpenter jeans. Meanwhile, Maddow makes no effort to hide her casual, butch off-screen appearance, either. In this pre-New Year's video, also for New York magazine, a bare-faced, hoodie-clad Maddow gives a lesson in mixology.

See the hilarious debate here.

Spurious arrest of the week

With United States on its knees, why are we still at war?


The singer Edwin Starr, who died in 2003, had a big hit in 1970 called "War" in which he asked again and again: "War, what is it good for?"

The U.S. economy is in free fall, the banking system is in a state of complete collapse and Americans all across the country are downsizing their standards of living. The nation as we've known it is fading before our very eyes, but we're still pouring billions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with missions we are still unable to define.

Even as the U.S. begins plans to reduce troop commitments in Iraq, it is sending thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan. The strategic purpose of this escalation, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged, is not at all clear.

In response to a question on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Gates said:

"We're talking to the Europeans, to our allies; we're bringing in an awful lot of people to get different points of view as we go through this review of what our strategy ought to be. And I often get asked, 'Well, how long will those 17,000 [additional troops] be there? Will more go in?' All that depends on the outcome of this strategy review that I hope will be done in a few weeks."

We invaded Afghanistan more than seven years ago. We have not broken the back of al-Qaida or the Taliban. We have not captured or killed Osama bin Laden. We don't even have an escalation strategy, much less an exit strategy. An honest assessment of the situation, taking into account the woefully corrupt and ineffective Afghan government led by the hapless Hamid Karzai, would lead inexorably to such terms as fiasco and quagmire.

Instead of cutting our losses, we appear to be doubling down.

As for Iraq, President Barack Obama announced last week that substantial troop withdrawals will take place over the next year and a half and that U.S. combat operations would cease by the end of August 2010. But, he said, a large contingent of American troops, perhaps as many as 50,000, would still remain in Iraq for a "period of transition."

That's a large number of troops, and the cost of keeping them there will be huge. Moreover, I was struck by the following comment from the president: "There will surely be difficult periods and tactical adjustments, but our enemies should be left with no doubt. This plan gives our military the forces and flexibility they need to support our Iraqi partners and to succeed."

In short, we're committed to these two conflicts for a good while yet, and there is nothing like an etched-in-stone plan for concluding them. I can easily imagine a scenario in which Afghanistan and Iraq both heat up and the U.S., caught in an extended economic disaster at home, undermines its fragile recovery efforts in the same way that societies have undermined themselves since the dawn of time -- with endless warfare.

Obama Wasn’t Kidding About Health Care

Obama Wasn't Kidding About Health CareIn his big non–State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama pledged that health-care reform couldn't wait another year. And based on the budget he's submitting to Congress today, it's clear he wasn't joking around — it includes $634 billion over ten years as a down payment toward creating a universal-health-care system. The details of the new system will be worked out with Congress later on, but Obama does spell out how he'll pay for this vast reserve fund: Half will come from savings on government spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and other health-care costs, and the other half from tax increases on those making $250,000 or over a year. That provision, not surprisingly, will be unpopular with a lot of people, but you can't make a health-care omelette without breaking some eggs.

• Igor Volsky says that the "fund is a good start, but it's certainly not enough to reach universal coverage." Even so, it's promising that, unlike the Clintons, who "didn't include any money for health reform in the budget, and left Congress to digest a 700+ page health plan, Obama and Congress will fill in the details of reform." [Wonk Room/Think Progress]

• Jonathan Cohn notes that the investment is "pretty big — more, I believe, than any president has proposed setting aside for coverage expansions to the non-elderly since Clinton tried for universal health insurance in the 1990s." But that still "will not be enough to finance full universal coverage," and it's unclear "how much more would it cost to get everybody (or nearly everybody) covered by decent insurance." [Treatment/New Republic]

• Ezra Klein is excited that "the language in today's budget is something entirely different: Not an idea, but a directive. Not a document to win a campaign, but a document to kick start the congressional process." [American Prospect]

• Jennifer Rubin thinks that with all this new taxing and spending, we'll "see just how huge a debt we can run up and just how anemic an economic recovery we can have, I suppose. Taxing people in a recession? Sounds rather anti-stimulative." [Contentions/Commentary]

• Paul Krugman writes that "[i]t's beginning to look as if Obama's really going to go through with this — and if he gets us to universality, his legacy will be secure." [Conscience of a Liberal/NYT]

Banks of the living dead

Clinton pledges to press for Palestinian state

By Sue Pleming

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged on Tuesday to press hard for Palestinian statehood, putting Washington on a possible collision course with Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We happen to believe that moving toward a two-state solution is in Israel's best interests," Clinton told a news conference with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Netanyahu, whom Clinton met later, has spoken of Palestinian self-government but has shied away from saying he backed a U.S. and Palestinian vision of statehood that has been at the heart of Middle East peace talks.

Clinton, on her first visit to the region as secretary of state, said Washington believed "the inevitability of working toward a two-state solution is inescapable." She promised the United States "will be vigorously engaged" in its pursuit.

Iran asks Interpol to arrest top Israeli officials

TEHRAN - Iran has asked Interpol to arrest 34 top Israeli political officials and 114 military commanders on charges of war crimes in the Gaza Strip, Fars news agency reported Sunday.

The list, compiled by the Iranian prosecutor general's office, includes outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.

The latest initiative by Iran, which supports Gaza's ruling Islamist militant group Hamas, was taken on the eve of a Palestinian Conference to be opened on Tuesday in Tehran, aimed at once again condemning the three-week Israeli military operation in December and January in Gaza.

I wrote that article

In Praise of the Sales Force

by Cory Doctorow

Hardly a day goes by that I don't get an e-mail from someone who's ready to reinvent publishing using the Internet, and the ideas are often good ones, but they lack a key element: a sales force. That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs. When I worked in bookstores, we had exceptional local reps, like Eric, the Bantam guy who knew that I was exactly the right clerk to give an advance copy of Snow Crash to if he wanted to ensure a big order and lots of hand-selling when the book came in (He also made sure that I got ARCs of every Kathe Koja and Ian McDonald novel — Eric, if you're reading this, thanks!).

This matters. This is the kind of longitudinal, deep, expensive expertise that gets books onto shelves, into the minds of the clerks, onto the recommended tables at the front of the store. It's labor-intensive and highly specialized, and without it, your book's sales only come from people who've already heard of it (through word of mouth, advertising, a review, etc.) and who are either motivated enough to order it direct, or lucky enough to chance on a copy on a shelf at a store that ordered it based on reputation or sales literature alone, without any hand-holding or cajoling.

The best definition I've heard of "publishing" comes from my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who says, "publishing is making a work public." That is, identifying a work and an audience, and taking whatever steps are necessary to get the two together (you'll note that by this definition, Google is a fantastic publisher). Publishing is not printing, or marketing, or editorial, or copy-editing, or typesetting. It may comprise some or all of these things, but you could have the world's best-edited, most beautiful, well-bound book in the world, and without a strategy for getting it into the hands of readers, all it's good for is insulating the attic. (This is the unfortunate discovery made by many customers of vanity publishers.)

The SSD Project

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has created this Surveillance Self-Defense site to educate the American public about the law and technology of government surveillance in the United States, providing the information and tools necessary to evaluate the threat of surveillance and take appropriate steps to defend against it.

Surveillance Self-Defense (SSD) exists to answer two main questions: What can the government legally do to spy on your computer data and communications? And what can you legally do to protect yourself against such spying?

After an introductory discussion of how you should think about making security decisions — it's all about risk management — we'll be answering those two questions for three types of data:

First, we're going to talk about the threat to the data stored on your computer posed by searches and seizures by law enforcement, as well as subpoenas demanding your records.

Second, we're going to talk about the threat to your data on the wire — that is, your data as it's being transmitted — posed by wiretapping and other real-time surveillance of your telephone and Internet communications by law enforcement.

Third, we're going to describe the information about you that is stored by third parties like your phone company and your Internet service provider, and how law enforcement officials can get it.

In each of these three sections, we're going to give you practical advice about how to protect your private data against law enforcement agents.

In a fourth section, we'll also provide some basic information about the U.S. government's expanded legal authority when it comes to foreign intelligence and terrorism investigations.

Finally, we've collected several articles about specific defensive technologies that you can use to protect your privacy, which are linked to from the other sections or can be accessed individually. So, for example, if you're only looking for information about how to securely delete your files, or how to use encryption to protect the privacy of your emails or instant messages, you can just directly visit that article.

Repair Manifesto


Foreign troops can't defeat Afghanistan's insurgency: Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told CNN television host Fareed Zakaria that Afghanistan cannot be governed or controlled by any foreign power indefinitely.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told CNN television host Fareed Zakaria that Afghanistan cannot be governed or controlled by any foreign power indefinitely.

The insurgency in Afghanistan will never be defeated only by maintaining an international troop presence in the country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a U.S. television interview Sunday.

"We're not going to ever defeat the insurgency. My reading of Afghanistan in history is that it's probably had an insurgency forever of some kind," Harper told Fareed Zakaria of CNN.

Harper wouldn't say absolutely whether Canada would agree to an extension of its combat mission, set to end in late 2011, but he did say emphatically that Afghanistan cannot be governed or controlled by any foreign power indefinitely.

"Ultimately the source of authority in Afghanistan has to be perceived as being indigenous," he said. "If it's perceived as being foreign — and I still think we're welcome there — but if it's perceived as being foreign, it will always have a significant degree of opposition."

Harper said he welcomes plans to boost the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but was cautious about entertaining any request for Canada to alter its commitments. On Feb. 17, U.S. President Barack Obama said he'll send an additional 17,000 American soldiers to Afghanistan this spring and summer, a 50 per cent increase to the 36,000 soldiers who are there already.

Harper said if Obama were to ask Canada for a larger contingent or a continuation of the existing contingent of about 2,500 Canadian soldiers, he would ask the president what his plans are for leaving Afghanistan and allowing Afghans full control over security.

"If we think that we are going to govern Afghanistan for Afghans, or over the long-term be responsible for day-to-day security in Afghanistan and see that country improve, we are mistaken," Harper said.

More must be done to protect Afghan civilians

KABUL, March 2 (Reuters) - All sides in the war in Afghanistan must do much more to protect civilians who will face the brunt of any increase in violence with the arrival of thousands of new troops, a top Red Cross official said on Monday.

Ordinary Afghans were now more at risk from the fighting than at any other time since the start of the war in 2001, said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Kraehenbuehl told a news conference unless much more was done by the different parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law "the ICRC seriously fears that the Afghan population will bear the brunt of the announced and potential escalation".

Violence in Afghanistan surged last year with some 5,000 people killed, including more than 2,100 civilians, a 40 percent increase on the previous year, the United Nations says.

President Barack Obama has ordered 17,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bolster some 70,000 foreign troops, including 38,000 U.S. soldiers already in the country fighting a resurgent Taliban.

Although more reluctant than the United States, NATO countries are also expected to send some more troops this year to help provide security for the presidential election.

But more troops will likely lead to more violent clashes between international and Afghan forces and the militants causing even more difficulties for civilians, Kraehenbuehl said.

Repugs in the ring