The worst sentence ever: “Mistakes were made”

In my day job as a journalist and editor, I eradicate a lot of passive voice. Let’s face it, 95% of passive voice usage is bad writing. It’s the easiest thing to attack when I first sit down to edit something. Find the passive voice construction, figure out what the subject and predicate of the sentence should be, rewrite. It’s the fastest way to improve someone’s writing. The next step? Strip out adverbs. Third step? That’s a trade secret.

Anyway, I highlighted some wisdom from Stephen King in my blog recently. He once wrote that the use of passive voice is a sign of a timid and insecure writer. I absolutely agree with him.

But there is one example of a passive voice sentence that is not indicative of timidity. “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is a dodge. It’s an example of political obfuscation, cowardice and cunning. Countless politicians and hacks have used this sentence construction to admit fault without actually pinning any blame to themselves. Look at the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? This sentence certainly doesn’t explain it.

Wikipedia has a helpful list of historical uses of the sentence. President Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of it while discussing corruption in his administration. Richard Nixon used it quite a bit during the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan used it while discussing the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton used it while discussing some fundraising shenanigans.

“Mistakes were made” is a slippery phrase people both in and out of power use to avoid accepting full responsibility. My fellow journalists should not allow politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats to get away with it. If you are at a press conference and you hear a senator or a CEO utter those words, interrupt him or her.

“Mistakes were made.”

“Excuse me, Senator. Who made those mistakes.”

“Um, I did.”

That’s right. Pin those people down. Their communications directors and pollsters have trained them to never actually say “I made a mistake,” and civil society suffers as a result. These people are avoiding accountability. Someone might counter and tell me, “Oh, we know what they mean. We know they made the mistakes.”

Well sure, we know it. But we have to extrapolate that truth for ourselves. We’re not really hearing an admission of guilt from Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. There is no accountability in their statements. Language is a powerful thing. There is a reason why they are using passive voice in this case. They know what they’re doing. And we should call them on it.

Just contemplate the emotional reactions you have when you read these two sentences.

“Mistakes were made.”

“I made a mistake.”

You cannot deny the power of that second sentence. The person speaking those words is taking a stand. They are claiming responsibility for something that went wrong. We, the listeners, hear and accept that admission of guilt. And in some small way, we accept it. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to fix whatever went wrong.

The person speaking the passive voice is hiding in the shadows. We may be angry about those mistakes, but the speaker is being slippery. Maybe he made the mistake. Maybe someone else did. We can’t be sure because no one and standing up and taking the blame. So we feel cheated. We feel lied to. And the person who speaks the words gets to dodge blame in some small way. It has to stop.

“Mistakes were made” is the worst sentence in the English language. We need to kill it.

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NPR’s Kai Ryssdal’s essential interview with Donald Rumfseld

Old man Donald Rumsfeld has emerged to flog another book. He’s making the rounds on various media outlets to promote Rumsfeld’s Rules. Unlike his memoir, this book has no narrative. Instead it’s a set of dozens of rules that he’s come up with over the years as guiding principles for his management philosophy.

When he walked into the NPR  American Public Media (apologies for conflating NPR and APM) studio recently to do an interview with Kai Ryssdal, host of the network’s business and economy show Marketplace, Rumsfeld probably wasn’t expecting a hard-hitting interview, but that’s exactly what he got in the six minutes he spent on the air. You can hear the whole interview by clicking this direct link to Marketplace.org.

Actually I’m surprised that Rumsfeld could have expected anything less than a grilling based on how things started out. Ryssdal’s first question asked Rummy to expound on the origin of one of the rules in the book: “It’s easier to get into something than it is to get out of it.” That the management philosophy of the man who ran the Defense Department during the invasion and initial years of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that we are still trying to extract ourselves from more than a decade later.

Rumsfeld said he came up with that rule when he was the Middle East envoy for President Ronald Reagan during the bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 U.S. Marines.

Rumsfeld: I concluded then that the United States has to be careful about putting ground forces in [a country] because we’re such a big target. And I also over the years came to the conclusion that the United states really wasn’t organized, trained and equipped to do nation building.

This is a shocking revelation from the man who was the Secretary of Defense during the launch of two wars that both had no exit strategy. Ryssdal did not let it go.

Ryssdal: I sort of can’t believe these words are coming out of your mouth ten years later. So this was on your mind as Iraq was bubbling up?

Rumsfeld: Absolutely.

Ryssdal: And yet here we are.

At this point, Rumsfeld tried to deflect, as Republicans so often do when confronted by the foreign policy and war policy disasters of the Bush Administration. He said the United States had only 23,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan during his time in office and President Obama ramped that deployment up to 100,000. This deflection is pure cowardice. Obama ramped up that deployment for a variety of reasons, one being that for the first decade of our occupation of Afghanistan countless experts chafed at how undermanned our mission was in that country. Any gains that were made couldn’t be held because the Bush Administration and Rumsfeld devoted too many resources to Iraq.

Modern political rhetoric is trapped in this cycle of never accepting full responsibility for anything more consequential than a sex scandal. Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. It’s the attitude that led to politicians and bureaucrats to use the phrase “Mistakes were made.” The passive form of that sentence in itself is a dodge. It allows someone like Rumsfeld to admit fault without actually having to say “I made a mistake.” It’s cowardly and it’s weak. I wish we had leaders who actually owned their mistakes. But here we have a master of obfuscation. The intelligence was bad, so mistakes were made.

After deflecting the Afghanistan question by hiding behind Obama’s surge, Rumsfeld argued that his and Bush’s foray into Iraq was also done with careful consideration about putting troops on the ground.

Rumsfeld: We had a relatively small footprint and we changed the [Iraqi] regime, which was the policy of the United States in the Clinton Administration. Once you get a mission creep where people start attempting to do things well beyond that, that’s obviously not something the Department of Defense is trying to do.

I am astonished. Did you see how he tried to hang Iraq around Bill Clinton’s head, as if Clinton might have advocated an invasion? I’ve heard Bush apologists make this connection before, but I’m shocked that Rumsfeld is trying to do it in this context. Clinton wasn’t the one who failed to come up with an exit strategy. That’s all on Rumsfeld and the rest of that administration. Ryssdal doesn’t let him get away with it.

Ryssdal: I will do you the favor, Mr. Secretary, of assuming you are not trying to shift any responsibility here.

Rumsfeld: I’m not, it’s just reality that when you do something, then someone wants you to do something else, and then something else. And then over time the mission histrionically creeps into something other than was initiated at the outset.

Now Rumsfeld seems to be throwing the whole Bush regime under the bus. It wasn’t his idea to try building modern democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps not. But it was the U.S. military that was asked to do that job. And he was in charge of our military.

Finally, Ryssdal gives Rumsfeld to a chance to demonstrate some legitimate reflection and take ownership for at least some of his mistakes. No mention of the torture policy he administered. Ryssdal isn’t going into Rumsfeld’s warm crimes. Just his poor leadership and management. And yet, Rumsfeld just can’t take himself there.

Ryssdal: I do wonder whether you read Robert McNamara’s memoirs when they came out — The Secretary of Defense during Vietnam.

Rumsfeld: I have not. I served in Congress during that period.

Ryssdal: That book was widely seen as an apology for his role in Vietnam. And I looked in this book pretty hard for any rule that you had about apologizing and I couldn’t find it.

Rumsfeld: And what’s your question.

Ryssdal: Did you ever think about apologizing?

Rumsfeld: My goodness, you know, as Napoleon said, I’ve been mistaken so many times I don’t even blush for it anymore. Sure you see things that don’t turn out the way you hoped.

And that, folks, is the closest Rumsfeld is able to come to apologizing for the disaster he participated in — two wars that cost us trillions of dollars, thousands of lives and so much more. The Republican party still needs to come to grips with its role in driving us into that ditch. Until it does, it is not fit to govern our nation.

IT’s easier to get in to something than it is to get out of it.
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When will Republicans reclaim their party from right-wing radio?

The ideological rigidity of the Republican party has become unbearable. It refuses to compromise on anything. It says no to everything. GOP politicians are afraid to even have a photograph taken shaking President Obama’s hand.

Part of this is driven by right-wing media, particularly the radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, whose millions of listeners form the diehard primary voters that are pushing the party further and further to the right. These radio hosts do a good job of publicizing and publicizing Republican ideas, but they also demand ideological purity. Cross the line with them, and they will crush you. You’ll face a tea party opponent in you next primary.

Limbaugh in particular reminds me Jabba the Hutt. Republican politicians are terrified of him. So many times we’ve seen a Republican say something critical of Limbaugh, only to appear on his radio show a few days later to apologize or disavow his statements. He’s like a crime boss. You cross him and you sleep with the proverbial fishes.

But what if Republicans collectively stood up to these guys? What if they presented an alternative point of view that was less extreme, more flexible? Could they make the party more reasonable and pull the base of their party away from the fringe? We’ll never know until they show some courage and do something about it.

Frank Luntz displayed a profound lack of courage recently. He is the master of GOP messaging. He finds a way to change how people about something by changing the language associated with it. Does oil drilling sound dirty and destructive? Change it to “energy exploration.” Does the estate tax seems too benign? Tell Republican operatives to call it a “death tax.”

But when it comes to right-wing radio, Luntz has very little to say on the record. While speaking to a small group of students recently at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, a student asked him about the problem of political polarization in the United States. Luntz said he had something to say about the subject, but he wanted to go off the record. A student reporter in the room turned off a tape recorder, but one student decided to record what happened next on his iPhone. That recording then made its way to Mother Jones. Luntz  complained about right-wing radio’s corrosive effect on civic discourse and its hold on Republican leadership.

[T]hey get great ratings, and they drive the message, and it’s really problematic… If you take—Marco Rubio’s getting his ass kicked… He’s getting destroyed! By Mark Levin, by Rush Limbaugh, and a few others. He’s trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn’t the traditional Republican approach, and talk radio is killing him. That’s what’s causing this thing underneath. And too many politicians in Washington are playing coy.

“Coy” isn’t the word that I would use. Cringing might be more appropriate. Republican leaders need to stand up and push back against these media types. Too many Americans see Limbaugh and others as the real faces of the Republican party. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the supposed leaders of the GOP caucus on Capitol Hill, are little more than political operators whose profile barely extends beyond the Beltway. Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin. These guys call the shots because millions listen to them every day. It should be the other way around. But no one will take a stand. It’s painful to see a hateful, ignorant creature like Limbaugh wielding so much power over our country’s leaders. How much better off would be as a country if the people who were voted into office were courageous enough to call the shots.

 

Guns for self-defense: What are we afraid of?

Gun rights advocates tell us the Second Amendment is the people’s guarantee that their freedoms cannot be taken away, whether by criminals or a tyrannical government.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It is the possibility of an criminal entering one’s home or otherwise assaulting one’s rights that motivates many to keep assault weapons that can inflict massive causalities. They also argue that their ownership of these weapons is a check on government tyranny. Never mind the fact that an AR-15 will do little to stop tanks and helicopter gunships.

But the fact remains that millions of us don’t own guns and we get on just fine without them. We don’t live in fear of someone breaking into our homes. We know its a possibility, but we also know that the police for the most part keep our streets safe. Many of us distrust our government, even despise our government, but we don’t feel the need to keep an AK-47 in the closet just in case.

So why do some of us need these guns and others don’t? I can’t pretend to know the answer to that. But the fact that I don’t feel that need to own a gun for self-defense keeps me from fully understanding the point of view of someone who feels otherwise. It makes it very hard to debate the issue when people are divided by a feeling that is so ingrained in their very fiber.

Still, of all the wealthiest, industrialized democracies in the world, gun ownership — and gun-related deaths — are far too high in the United States. Western and Central Europe are mostly free of gun violence. The United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Australia.

Our country has always been a special case with gun ownership, I suppose. We rose up, after all. We drove out the British. We formed militias, distributed muskets. And when the war was over and the British were gone, we held onto those muskets. We expanded West.  Guns were essential for self-defense and hunting and the occasional murder. Guns became a sport, too. They became a family tradition. Many fathers passed down guns from one generation to the next.

But assault weapons are something new. Semi-automatic High capacity magazines. Capable of firing off hundreds of rounds in a in a few minutes. Capable of wiping out a school or a movie theater or a church. These aren’t muskets. These aren’t hunting rifles. These aren’t for sport, even if some have adopted them as such.

When gun control advocates push back against the pervasiveness of guns that aren’t built for sport, gun rights advocates go back to the Second Amendment. They talk about self -defense and tyranny. The very act of restricting the size of a clip on an AR-15 is construed as tyranny. It will prevent someone from defending their home, they say.

Again, a lot of people tell me the right to bear arms should not be abridged because people need to be able to defend themselves. Why? Nathan Hegedus, a Stockholm-based writer who once lived in the U.S. recently wrote:

Buying a gun in our times, especially for self-defense, seems to me an aggressive or defensive act—a statement by the purchaser about how he feels about his community, his neighbors and his country. It means he doesn’t feel safe in his bed at night, that he doesn’t trust the police to stop the criminals, and he doesn’t trust his fellow citizens not to attack. You can mask it with talk of freedom or the Constitution but underneath it all is fear. Firearms have become a manifestation of a massive distrust of both government and the wider society, a physical manifestation of a deepening societal and political divide.

Hegedus points out that our country is going through tremendous change. It has been for much over the last fifteen years. We face globalization and post-industiralization. We’re on our way toward being a majority-minority society. Feminists and gay rights advocates are changing family structures. We have a black president! This country has changed so much. And yet, there are a lot of people who are not a part of this change because the United States is a very big place. There are communities and individuals in this country who feel like they’re being marginalized. Where they once felt mainstream, now they feel like they’re being pushed to the fringes. If you’re not connected to these changes and not sympathetic to them, how can you feel safe in such a place?

A gun advocate commenter on my blog recently wrote that in this world there are sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. He says he took this from the writings of retired army Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a scholar of violence, particularly the effects of training soldiers to kill. Most of us are live-and-let-live sheep, the commenter claims. But there are wolves among us who hunt and kill, steal and rape. Finally there are the sheepdogs, who keep watch over the sheep with their shotguns and their AR-15s. This is what this gun advocate would have me believe.

This commenter would have me believe that I am the sheep and he is the sheepdog. I disagree. I’m not afraid to defend myself. I’m not afraid to let out a little bit of the wolf if I need to. I just don’t feel the need to own a gun.

I think it comes down to faith. I have faith in my neighbors and my community. I have faith in the institutions of law and order. I have faith that many of the changes our country is seeing are good.

But I also face the reality that there are bad people out there and that there will always be a risk, however slight, of someone trying to do me harm. I’ve narrowly escaped bad situations before. They could come again. But I’m not going to let it dictate how I live my life. I’m not going to keep an assault weapon or even a handgun in my home. And a year from now when they run the Boston Marathon, I’ll take the day off from work and head down to Boylston Street and cheer on thousands of others who refuse to give into fear, too.

Is the best argument for unfettered gun ownership fear?

Fear is the mind killer. Frank Herbert wrote that in his novel Dune.

I don’t think he had America’s obsession with deadly firearms in mind when he wrote it, but the observation is apt. Gun rights advocates have countless arguments for keeping military-style assault weapons in the hands of civilians in this country. One that I hear most often is fear. We’d all feel safer if we were all heavily armed. Give guns to teachers and DPW workers, marathon runners and cashiers. It’s the only way we can be safe, the National Rifle Association argues.

My blog about the tasteless tweet by Arkansas politician Nate Bell has drawn some interesting counterarguments from readers. As a reminder, Bell tweeted the following while Boston was under lockdown during the search for one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?

One commenter raised a common Republican talking point – that President Obama’s decision to push for gun control after Newtown was equivalent and just as ill-timed. I shot down that false logic in a subsequent post. Another commenter wants to argue that the heart of Bell’s tweet is right: people would feel safer if they had an AR-15 to hold during the 24 hours we were trapped in our homes. Commenter Abner Clark writes:

Nate Bell made a good point. Owning a gun in that situation would have calmed at least some folks’ fears and could have made them safer. It feels like the author is trying to call foul just because he disagrees on gun policy. Someone isn’t wrong simply because they are offensive. The blogger hasn’t claimed this but has also not offered any other reason why Bell is wrong.

So we should allow unfettered access to military weapons in order to allow certain people to feel safer, the reader argues.  I would argue that sucking one’s thumb also makes some people feel more secure, but it doesn’t do them much good.  If the main argument for owning a military-style assault rifle truly is to gain some measure of feeling safe, I worry about where where that logic could take us. I suppose some people would like to mount a .50 caliber machine gun on the roof of their house to feel secure. That doesn’t mean we should let them.

The NRA would have us all armed. This logic pushes us toward a permanent cycle of escalation that has no end. The only real winners would be the gun manufacturers who bankroll the NRA. We don’t need to be heavily armed and a great many of us don’t want to be.  I would feel a lot safer if it were more difficult to own weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.

In the 24 hours that I was stuck in my house last week, I was not dreaming of owning an AR-15. In my mind, that’s an adolescent fantasy indulged by people who enjoyed Arnold Schwarzenegger movies too much in the 1980s. Its a fantasy that might make you feel safe right up until the moment that you need to point that gun at someone. And then you’ll know fear again. Patrick Blanchfield figured that out in 2008 when he tried to point a shotgun at a would-be burglar in 2008. In the dark he fumbled to load the weapon. Only the sound of him pumping the gun scared away the burglar. In the New York Daily News he wrote:

But on that night in 2008, I learned something else. I learned how guns relate to fear, and not just the fear my gun inspired in the would-be-burglar. Owning guns had given me a sense of security, but all that was a fantasy that imploded in a few terrifying seconds.

Sure, I had frightened away an intruder, defended my castle. But I could have just as easily been killed by him or accidentally shot myself or my partner. Hundreds of hours of range time didn’t mean anything in the confusion of the moment.

Blanchfield gave up his shotguns, handguns and AR-15 after that night because he realized that the fantasy of defending one’s home from a bad guy with deadly weapons is dangerous and largely unrealistic.  Too many people in this country cling to that fantasy and arm themselves accordingly. But they don’t have the training to make themselves safe. Taking lessons at a firing range doesn’t do it. Gun safety training doesn’t do it. We are not cowboys on the frontier. We are citizens of one of the most powerful, advanced democracies in the world. Crime is dropping. Terrorism is rare. We are relatively safe. We need to stop giving into fear. Fear is not a good enough reason to keep assault weapons in our homes.

 

Debating gun control with false equivalence

Is there a difference between callous, gutter partisanship and working hand in hand with the victims of a tragedy to make a difference? Some people would say no. But that’s because they choose to debate issues of national importance with fallacious logic and false equivalence.

This week I blogged abut the Arkansas politician who sent out the following tweet while me and the rest of my community were trapped in our homes as police hunted for the at-large suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. The politician, Nate Bell wrote:

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?

This garbage infuriated thousands of people, including me. We were not cowering. We were not dreaming of holding a gun. We were waiting for the police to do their jobs. And they did.

Some people want to defend Bell by saying liberals are just as guilty of scoring political points in the face of tragedy. Perhaps some liberals are guilty of that, but one commenter on my blog would have me believe that demanding stricter gun control in the wake of tragedies like Newtown is no less repugnant.

Commenter David D. wrote:

How is this different than Pres. Obama using small children from Newport [sic] Connecticut to further his agenda? Do you condone this type of action, so long as it coincides with your personal beliefs, but respond with righteous indignation when someone dare do or say something that hits to the right of your viewpoint?

Let’s assume that David D is referring to Newtown, and not Newport.

Never mind the fact that the parents of those Newtown children who were murdered by a lunatic with an AR-15 are demanding stricter gun control, as are the victims of the Aurora shootings, the Tuscon shootings, the Virginia Tech shootings and many, many more.

Instead, let’s look at David D’s logic. He would have me believe that Bell’s cynical statement about “Boston liberals cowering in their homes” and “wishing” for AR-15s is somehow equivalent to Obama standing up with the parents and siblings of murdered children to demand meaningful gun reform. There is no comparison.

Bell’s statement was a cheap shot at the expense of people who were under siege. Obama’s actions were a response to a demand for reform by the victims and their families.

Describing our people as “cowering” “Boston liberals” was meant as a pejorative slur, and I think Bell knows it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have deleted the tweet. A truly equivalent statement from the left side of this debate, would be something distasteful and callous. Something such as:

I bet all those police officers who are getting shot at in Watertown right now are wishing we had stricter gun control laws.

Isn’t that disgusting? If someone truly said this in earnest, I would happily condemn him. But I didn’t see such a statement. Did you?

I also expressed my frustration with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s eagerness to withhold the bombing suspect’s Constitutional rights by designating him as an enemy combatant. I asked why Republicans are so eager to defend the Second Amendment while they trample upon the rest of the Bill of Rights.

David D. disagreed with me again.

Let’s turn this around shall we, why is it that Democrats and other liberals [are] so protective of the First Amendment’s free speech, but so blithe about eroding the protections of the rest of the Bill of Rights, especially those rights afforded by the Second Amendment? Why is it that Mr. Bell can write words that so many find offensive, and you can publicly criticize a government official, and neither of you are even the least bit concerned about being yanked from your beds at night and thrown in jail?

Again, this logic crumbles under scrutiny. Liberals are not blithe about the Second Amendment. We just look at the entire text of that amendment and demand intelligent interpretation. The amendment begins:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state…

Liberals do not want to infringe on the right to keep and bear arms. We just think regulation of that right is justified. And none of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights are completely unfettered by reasonable controls, including the First Amendment that David D. referred to.

As we all know, I cannot stand up in a crowded theater and falsely yell “Fire!” without facing legal consequences. I cannot slander someone without facing legal consequence. I cannot invade the privacy of an individual and publish the results of that violation without facing legal consequences. The right of free expression does not allow for such abuse.

I argue that that owning weapons that are designed to inflict mass casualties, such as an AR-15 with a large-capacity magazine, is an abuse of the Second Amendment that should be curtailed. I do not say that “blithely.” I say that soberly. I say that as a reasonable person who is offering compromise. I am not asking that gun owners give up their hunting rifles and their handguns. I’m asking them to submit to background checks, national gun registries and reasonable restrictions on lethality (assault weapons bans, clip size limits).

David D. also wrote:

I also thank God each day that we don’t live in a perpetual war zone where the need to keep and bear arms is a necessity and not a right.

He is right. We don’t live in a war zone. So why are we armed to the teeth?

Political lowlights of the Marathon bomber manhunt

I spent nearly 24 hours trapped in my home because a heavily-armed, murderous terrorist was hiding in a boat just miles from me. I spent most of that time watching the news, following police scanners, digging into social media and texting my neighbors in a desperate attempt to be informed about the crisis that was facing my community.

While all of the Boston metropolitan area was in lockdown so that authorities could hunt for the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, some people decided to use the crisis as an opportunity to score cheap political points and to further flawed policies.

In Arknansas, state representative Nate Bell, a NRA-loving Republican, called Boston liberals cowards in this since-deleted tweet.

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?

Bell managed to crassly politicize an ongoing tragedy by dragging the whole crisis down into the muck of gun control partisanship. He also managed to call Boston liberals cowards.

Never mind the fact that the ongoing investigation will undoubtedly reveal that stricter gun control probably would have prevented these two young men from arming themselves with assault rifles.

The Tweet ignited a firestorm of criticism, which prompted the cowering Nate Bell to delete his original tweet. Then he posted a non-apology on his campaign Facebook page.

I would like to apologize to the people of Boston & Massachusetts for the poor timing of my tweet earlier this morning. As a staunch and unwavering supporter of the individual right to self defense, I expressed my point of view without thinking of its effect on those still in time of crisis. In hindsight, given the ongoing tragedy that is still unfolding, I regret the poor choice of timing. Please know that my thoughts and prayers were with the people of Boston overnight and will continue as they recover from this tragedy.

So he doesn’t apologize for calling Boston liberals cowardly. He doesn’t apologize for his crude attempt to score political points in the face of tragedy. He only apologizes for doing it while the Boston area was still under curfew. When would the timing be appropriate? After more people have died? After more bombs have gone off? After the amputees have been released from area hospitals? After the hundreds of people affected by these events have finished treatment for PTSD or completed a one-year period of mourning?

The bottom line is that there is no good timing for when to behave like a partisan hack and call the people of the city which fired the first shots of the American Revolution cowards. Centuries ago Boston bled so that the Constitution could be born and Bell’s precious Second Amendment rights could be codified. Boston is the crucible of democracy and freedom. Boston was the first city to drive British soldiers from its soil.  Boston is the city whose people ran into the carnage on Marathon Monday and used their belts and shirts as tourniquets while the smoke still hung over the bleeding masses.

But Bostonians cowered in their homes and dreamed of owning AR-15s? I don’t think so.

Speaking of the Constitution… aren’t our national leaders sworn to uphold that document?

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, took to Twitter to pressure President Obama to treat the surviving bomber as an enemy combatant and withhold his Constitutional rights, such as a right to a trial by a jury of his peers?

If captured, I hope Administration will at least consider holding the Boston suspect as enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes.

It’s become clear that the government will use the public safety exemption to delay reading the bomber his Miranda rights, but the president also made it clear that the kid, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, will be tried in a civilian criminal court. This is a good thing, because we are a nation of laws. We have a Constitution.

Still, Graham and other Republicans will continue to push for this kid to get the Gitmo treatment, because it’s a political position they have staked out since 2001, never mind the damage it might do to our Bill of Rights.

Why is it that Republicans are so protective of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, but so blithe abut eroding the protections of the rest of the Bill of Rights. Treating a U.S. citizen as an enemy combatant takes away the rights guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. Why is Senator Graham so ready to toss out those rights while fighting any legislation that tries to make reasonable changes to the Second Amendment?  Votes. Republicans have relied on the politics of fear ever since 9-11. They’ve relied on it since gay people started demanding the right to marry. They’ve relied on it since African Americans demanded an end to Jim Crow.

In fact, fear is common thread that runs through the politics of both these crass political hacks. One man would have us cling to guns in fear. The other would have us sanction torture and indefinite detention of a 19-year-old out of fear.

I am not afraid. I don’t need a gun to feel safe. I don’t need to waterboard a boy to feel safe. Last night as I listened to the sirens  and the urgent radio calls of police officers under fire, I did not give in to fear. I simply waited for justice. Both of these politicians would have us pursue a path that would deny that justice. Rather than try this boy, they would shoot him, torture him and throw him in a hole. That’s not what our country stands for. That’s not what our Constitution demands of us.

Zombies and politicians, Oh My! Mira Grant’s Feed

Have you ever forced yourself to finish a terrible book just to confirm to yourself that you are right: It really is terrible?

I picked up Feed by Mira Grant after it scored a Hugo nomination and a lot of good buzz from the science fiction press. It featured an intriguing premise: A political thriller set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse, told through the eyes of a blogger/journalist. I love politics, I’m a journalist, and I’ve recently renewed my interest in zombie literature after becoming a fan of The Walking Dead comic. So, I thought I’d enjoy Feed.

Unfortunately the experience of reading this book is like a clinic on how NOT to write a book. I suffered through all 571 pages primarily to emphasize to myself what I should avoid in my own writing.

Let’s start with the exposition. The information dump is the most treacherous trap in genre fiction writing. When you are building a world and placing your characters in it, you have to explain how that world works, whether it be some alien world, a sword and sorcery kingdom or a zombie-infested United States. The best authors do this efficiently and with subtlety. Mira Grant does not.

Her narrator dumps information relentlessly. She dumps info on everything. The nature of the zombie virus, the complicated and absurdly unbelievable mechanics of the blogging industry in her future, the process of earning a license to go out in the wilds of a zombie-infested world, the construction of zombie-proof buildings and vehicles, the laws about how to handle people who have been infected.

It seems like Mira Grant is more interested in information dumps than she is in telling a story, because when she does set out to tell the story between information dumps, almost nothing happens. There’s a scene late in the book where the narrator is setting up a video conference session with dozens of fellow bloggers to discuss a huge conspiracy. She devotes pages and pages to the details involved in setting up the conference call and securing it and getting everyone into the call. Then the video session commences and NOTHING HAPPENS. Seriously, you’re expecting her to tell her colleagues something interesting. She doesn’t. She fires everyone, then rehires them in some sort of contractual procedural madness that doesn’t matter to the plot. Then she pulls a couple people aside for some one-on-one discussions that, again, involve nothing interesting. I was expecting some plot advancement. In the end, all there was were empty dialog and information dumps. End of chapter.

What’s a good way to get a story going if you’re struggling with your plot and need to get out of information dump mode? How about some dialog? Mira Grant doesn’t know how to write dialog. Her main characters are bloggers in their early, early 20s (youth is fetishized intensely in this book). The main characters, narrator Georgia Mason,  her brother Shaun and their colleague Buffy are all kids. And they are all extremely unlikable. Mira Grant believes that snarky repartee makes for good dialog and character development. She is dead wrong. Get it? Dead.

Here are Georgia and Shaun and colleague Rick investigating the cause of a zombie horse outbreak at a ranch:

If anything odd happened here, we might find signs of it around their stalls,” [I said].

Under the six hundred gallons of gore,” Rick muttered.

Hope you brought a shovel!” Shaun called, sounding ungodly cheerful.

Rick stared at him. “Your brother is an alien.”

“Yeah, but he’s a cute one,” I said. “Start checking the stalls.”

And here are Georgia, Shaun and Rick reflecting on a tense encounter with soldiers pointing big guns at them.

“That really upset you, didn’t it?” [Shaun asked.]

“What, you mean the part where the nice guys with the big guns demonstrated over a live feed that I can be incapacitated by taking my glasses away? That didn’t bother me one bit.” I shoved Shaun’s feet off my lap. “Sit up. This isn’t a cruise.”

“Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn’t had her beauty sleep,” said Shaun, pushing himself upright. Twisting around to face Rick, he said, “So, Ricky-boy, you seen your ratings? Because I have some ideas to spice things up. Let’s start with nudity.”

Don’t you just want to spend 571 pages with these people? Cocky, pseudo-journalists who don’t report the news. All they do is self-aggrandize and editorialize and toss impersonal snark back and forth. The reader knows this because every chapter is book-ended with excerpts from their blogs. Ugh.

Next problem? Repetition! In a world where fears of viral zombification are constant, everyone is constantly getting their blood tested to prove that they’re not about to go undead. Entering a restaurant? Blood test. Checking into a hotel? Blood test. Entering your own house? Blood test. Unlocking the door to your car? Blood test? Entering a highly secure area? Blood test, blood test, blood test. That’s right, multiple blood test check points, where the character gets their fingers pricked by a needle and light flashes back and forth from red and green before settling on a color (Hint, red is bad. It means a bullet to the brain).

After the first few chapters, the reader is clear. Blood tests are everywhere. After 400 pages, I don’t need the author to devote a page or two in every chapter to the details of every blood test. I don’t need the narrator describing the different brands of blood test kits. Let’s give it a rest. Get to the story. Oh, that’s right, there is NO story.

The repetition doesn’t start and end there, either. Don’t get me started about narrator Georgia’s medical condition, related to the zombie virus, which has rendered her pupils permanently dilated and forced her to wear sunglasses everywhere. Rather than have nightmares about hungry zombies, I’m going to have nightmares about the countless pages devoted to Georgia’s light-induced headaches, moments where she gropes around for her sunglasses in the morning, and misunderstandings at security checkpoints where dudes with guns demand that she remove her sunglasses. Please, make it stop!

I could go on with the reasons why this book falls on its face… like its horrible inconsistencies. For instances, Georgia’s eye condition has disabled her tear ducts, which means she can’t cry with tears. She even remarks late in the book about how she wishes she could cry, but the virus that damaged her eyes have robbed her of that. How poignant… and yet, in the middle of the book she does cry. With real, live tears and everything. Anyway, moving on. Let’s get to the heart of why this book is a whole lot of suck.

There is no payoff. You suffer through all this mediocrity expecting to see some sort of revelation that is mildly interesting, but there isn’t one.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

This book is about a muddled, half-developed conspiracy. Georgia and Shaun and their follow bloggers are part of the press corps traveling with a front-running candidate for the GOP nomination for president, Senator Ryman. He’s an aw-shucks, down-to-earth, country boy with “straight white teeth,” who is about as one-dimensional as a line on a sheet of paper. His eventual running mate is Governor Tate of Texas. This guy might as well have “bad guy” tattooed on his forehead.

The book turns into a quest to find out why someone is trying to assassinate Ryman and/or derail his campaign by murdering the people around him — murder them with ZOMBIES!. Of course the bad guy is Tate, the asshole running mate who spouts off constantly about propriety and morality and God all the time… all while being really really really mean to Georgia and her fellow dirty bloggers. Any reader who is spoiled by the previous sentence should really get a blood test for the zombie virus, because you are BRAIN DEAD.

Anyway, in this book it’s up to Shaun and Georgia to discover he’s the bad guy and prove it. Why the CDC, the Army, the Secret Service and just about anyone with half a brain missed the obvious clues is beyond me. At one point a clue literally gets stuck in the bottom of Shaun’s shoe. No joke!

Even worse, when the bad guy (Tate) is confronted and revealed, his only explanation for why he was trying to kill Ryman and do assorted other bad things was to say that someone had to restore the “moral fiber” of America. Oh, please. Don’t we hear enough of this stupidity on MSNBC and Fox News?

Oh, and did I mention that this is the first book in a sequel about bloggers in zombie apocalypse? The next one is called Deadline, in which our surviving heroes seek out the conspirators who helped Tate do all his dastardly deeds.

This book is awful. After I read it, I tried to find some reviews. I’d only heard glowing endorsements, so I needed to dig deeper. I’ve been shocked by the majority of reviews that rave about it (mostly blogs and genre sites since no mainstream reviewing bodies have bothered to touch it). User reviewers are mostly positive, too. Probably 80% of Amazon reviewers gave it four or five stars. This is where you need to look hard at the bad reviews. The one- and two-star reviews. Read them closely and see if the complaints made by disgruntled readers (like me) are reasonable.

Don’t believe the hype on this one. Feed is terrible. I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone, even a diehard zombie fiction fanboy. Just don’t do it to yourself.

Reading a complete history of a world gone mad in World War Two

You were our liberator, but we, the diseased, emaciated, barely human survivors were your teachers. We taught you to understand the Kingdom of the Night.

Those are the words of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. He wrote them about the American soldiers who arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945 and freed him and other ragged survivors of Nazi Germany’s brutality. His words are quoted by Martin Gilbert in his epic and sorrowful book, The Second World War: A Complete History.

I grew up with a father who was always fascinated by the history of World War Two. We would watch John Wayne movies together when I was young. He had a tattered copy of a Time-Life book on the history of the war that I would page through occasionally. I remember it mostly for the black and white photos, particularly the graphic images of dead soldiers lying on beaches and meadows, their eyes closed and their mouths open in some unending gasp of pain.

For all I knew of the war, I never fully understood the scale of it, nor the mechanics of how it all happened. Who attacked whom and why? How did the different alliances form and collapse? How did Germany and Japan go from unstoppable conquerors to cowed and shattered occupied nations?

To get a better picture of all that happened, I decided to pick up Gilbert’s complete history.

How can you capture a “complete history” of a war that spanned six years, killed more than 45 million people and engulfed an entire world? Gilbert did it within 750 dense pages. It’s a blow by blow account. It isn’t a deep reading of events. It won’t tell you why Adolph Hitler came to blame the Jews for all the world’s miseries, nor why Germany decided to follow him down a path of murder and depravity.  You can go elsewhere for those answers. You can read any number of books about D-Day at Normandy, the struggle of the Allies against the Japanese in the South Pacific, or the battle of Stalingrad. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt. They’ve all had their biographers. Their deputies and generals, too. There are so many stories to tell.

But Gilbert takes a high-level view of the war. From beginning to end he summarizes every major battle in a few sentences or paragraphs. He explores the major events and the grand strategic decisions.  And he lists the dead. He offers name after name of people who lost their lives in battle, who were exterminated in death camps, who were tortured in dungeons, who drowned at sea. And he lists the nameless, too. One hundred gypsies dead on this day, 475 Jews dead on the next. The numbers just grind you down. The scale of the madness and murder is heartbreaking.

German soldiers rounding up Jewish women and children in the Warsaw ghetto

This book was a journey into the horror and the evil that was unleashed on the world in 1939. It is a portrait of a world gone completely insane. This book reveals Elie Wiesel’s Kingdom of Night, where madmen and banal cynics built gas chambers and crematoriums to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals and anyone else they could blame for their own dreadful failures to live as decent human beings in a challenging world.

That madness lurks in our world still. There is so much hatred and fear. And there are still evil men who are more than happy to bend that hatred and fear to their will in pursuit of power and satisfaction of petty, ugly urges. Jihadism is an expression of that madness. So is the backlash against peaceful Muslims by bigots who firebomb mosques and beat up dark-skinned shopkeepers.

The eyeglasses of victims of the gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp

This is why I read history. I like to learn lessons from the past. They say learn from the past so you don’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before you. Well, I say you learn from the past so you can see what’s coming. Madness, hatred, fear, stupidity. It’s a toxic mix that lurks around us. Seventy years ago it drove grown men to line up hundreds and thousands of innocent men, women and children against walls in hundreds of cities and shoot them dead, all because they were different. They worshiped the wrong god. Their skin and their hair was a little too dark. They spoke Yiddish or Polish or Russian. Is it so hard to imagine it happening again? Did it really ever end?

The final line of Gilbert’s history of the war talks about unfinished business. “The great unfinished business of the Second Word War is human pain.” That pain never went away. It festered. It is still with us. It expresses itself in the Sudan, in Southeast Asia, in Mexico and on our own streets. Pain breeds hatred and with hatred comes madness. There is so much hatred in this world. A war wasn’t able to kill that hatred. Who knows what could. But hatred can be defeated by good-hearted people who have the courage to stand up and shout down the cynics and the demagogues. In 1939 there weren’t enough voices ready to drown out the ravings of Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini. Who offers up their voices today?

An angry republic

So many bullets flew in Tuscon, Arizona on Saturday. A little girl died. Grandparents died. Someone’s future husband died. A judge died on his way home from church. A congresswoman was crippled and maimed while meeting with her constituents in a grocery store parking lot. Isn’t that sad?

That horror sounds very sad to me. So why have I felt so angry?

The political right in this country is angry because the duly and lawfully elected president has implemented policy that is somewhat left of center.

The political left in this country is angry because the political right uses inflammatory and violent rhetoric that certainly intimidates people and possibly influenced a lunatic who was bent on violence.

The political right is even more angry because the political left says they should tone down their rhetoric.

Do you see a pattern here? It goes back and forth like a tennis match. And it just won’t stop.

I’ve been angry for a few days at people who talk about bullets and ballots and use rifle crosshairs on maps. I’ve been angry with radio talkshow hosts blubbering about how people like me are happy that this happened because it gives us a chance to attack right-wingers. I’ve been angry at people who refuse to consider thoughts like, “Hey, maybe I should stop demonizing people who disagree with me.”

But after listening to President Obama talk tonight, I feel really, really sad. And that’s so much harder to deal with than being angry.

It’s so easy to be angry. It feels kind of good to hate something. You let it all out. You let all the bad feeling flow through you and at someone else.

It’s so much harder to feel sad. It’s hard to let yourself feel the pain. To take it in and deal with it. It’s hard to think about that little girl who died because some lunatic had so much hate pouring out of him. It’s hard to feel sad for her because it can hurt. But maybe hurting like that is good for you. Maybe it teaches you a lesson.