Monday, August 27, 2007

Sykes’ Free Ride


The free ride for Charlie Sykes continued this past Sunday in the Journal Sentinel, where book editor Geeta Sharma Jensen treated the small, thin book like a legitimate piece of homey literature. "And so, we have his rules," she gushes, "spawned by common sense, aimed at parents, and designed to give teens a dose of reality."

Golly, even I might want to read that. Too bad the book itself is a mean-spirited continuation of Sykes’ radio poison, having little of the "common sense" or "reality" proclaimed by Jensen. Sykes has created a world of his own manipulative design, featuring the usual straw-men, phoney assumptions and false "solutions" for problems that either don’t exist or that have since the beginning of time.

But, I guess, if you are a local high-profile media "personality", you get to put out a book and do the media tour without really being challenged for the substance of the product itself. It’s like coddling the local rock-n’-roller who really isn’t that great, but, hey, he’s our guy. Apparently, as long as Sykes shows up with the book, smiles and doesn’t get too smarmy like he does on his radio show, hey, a couple of books will be sold.

The 50 Rules, Sykes’ says, began with 10, then 14, then, whatever. At 50, the book is stretched as thin as the book’s 161 white-spaced pages. "Don’t forget to say thank you" and "look people in the eye" reads more like Miss Manners than the sanctimonious societal scold Sykes pretends to be. My favorite throw-away Rule is "learn to deal with hypocrisy". I think this means Sykes is not going away and we will have to learn to deal with him.

The most-discussed Rule is the one about that great wing-nut canard, dodgeball, which, according to Sykes, is more like life "than your gym teacher thinks". Leaving aside the cheap shot at teachers that Sykes knows nothing about – again, the premise of the book is based on a lie about schools in the first place – this idea that "dodgeball is life" is ludicrous. The kids who succeed in dodgeball are the same who succeed in sports generally – good hands, quick response, good arm. Combine the good athlete with a bully, and you have a pretty obnoxious situation in dodgeball, but those guys are out there acting like jerks anyway.

If you want to say "life is dodgeball", you might as well say "life is sports" (even more so with the dedication, practice and skill development in regular sports), and we know that’s not true. Some athletes succeed off the field and some don’t. Many athletes off the field are not on top of life, as much as they need to get one.

Because Sykes holds himself as some sort of get-over-it tough guy, I’m guessing what he is getting at with the whole dodgeball nonsense is that kids need to deal with over-powering, bullies. Well, sure, and so what? Dealing with bullies is only a part of life, not life itself. Bullies also will need to learn to deal with other types of people, eventually – even the corporate world trains for and demands teamwork and will get rid of punks, no matter how talented. Maybe Sykes, the radio bully with the government-regulated megaphone, thinks that everyone needs to get over his own mostly un-earned media position. "You are offended, so what," goes one of the Rules. But that’s what you’d expect to hear from a bully, isn’t it?

On the polite media tour, Sykes is able to spout the nonsense about dodgeball, coddling teachers and parents and all of the historical sins of youth without being challenged. The questioners nod their heads and take it all in, as if Sykes is only stating the obvious. He walks out of every media studio he enters unscathed, as if his wisdom has been received and acknowledged. Legitimacy is therefore brought for the price of a vanity book, and the rest of the media just plays along.

For his part, Sykes takes his enhanced intellectual heft to the microphone and continues to influence local elections and parrot daily talking points on behalf of Republicans everywhere. Mission accomplished.

UPDATE: In a comment on Tuesday, one Dr. Blogstein invited me to call in to his talk-blog when he was having a discussion with Sykes that night. I did, and here is the audio link. (Push the "play" icon next to Sykes; I start at 35:35). They kept me on for about 15 minutes. Any attempts I made to engage Sykes were rebuffed by Sykes and the hosts (I don't know where they were from -- out East, maybe) by claiming I was taking his words too seriously, apparently. Sykes talks and writes, like all wing-nuts, to reach the level of guys in a bar, and the Blogstein crew was more than willing to play along. Sykes' issues were "apolitical", according to Blogstein. I argued that Sykes sets up straw-men by pointing out anecdotes and extrapolating out to the whole teaching profession. They were having none of it -- they know what they know and, if they think kids are being coddled ("bubblewrapped", according to Sykes), well, that's what they think. It is (or should be) Sykes' motto: Never let the facts get in the way of a good argument. Anyway, I was basically advised to lighten up.

Anyway, this is the kind of free ride Sykes gets on his book tours. He knows that he is poisoning the well for future attacks on public education, but he poses like just some gentle soul commenting on known truths. When you challenge any of his false premises, hey, lighten up. The Blogstein crew couldn't put this in the context of his radio antics, but he knows what he's doing.

Interesting moment: early on, Sykes invited me to write my own book. I said I would, if I had the same kind of corporate support he gets from groups like the Bradley Foundation and the Wisconsin Public Policy Institute. Later, Sykes seemed to plead poverty as a reason to write the books. Ha.

The free ride continues, even on blog-talk-radio.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sykes' 50 Rules: Small, Thin and Wrong

It has been said that I provide a particular service to the blog-reader community: I listen to talk-radio so you don’t have to. It is an ugly job, but someone has to do it.

As an extension of that, I also like to keep track of the wing-nuts away from the microphone. This includes attending debates that they have with people opposing their radical views in public forums. Hah! Gotcha! The right-wing-nuts wouldn’t be caught dead in a real debate that they don’t control in their sheltered studios with those expertly-timed mute and hang-up buttons for any caller who might manage to challenge the "arguments" of the self-righteous and happily-unchallenged radio "hosts".

Sometimes, wing-nuts choosing to pose as educated or erudite will get so full of themselves that they will actually commit to a book-writing exercise. So it is with local king-of-all-media Charlie Sykes, who we all know has written a book deceptively-titled 50 Rules Kinds Won’t Learn in School. "We all know" this because Sykes has been yapping about it on his show and everywhere else he can self-promote for the past month. I have always been amazed how WTMJ and other stations let themselves be used for un-paid Republican propaganda day-in-and-day-out without getting paid or at least reporting in-kind contributions. It’s the same thing when Sykes does something like write a book. Is Sykes’ publisher (St. Martin’s Press) being billed for all this free advertising? Shouldn’t TMJ management do something about this rampant hucksterism by its middle-age Boy Wonder?

Anyway, although I could have waited until 50 Rules hits the cut-out bins in time for Xmas, I felt it was my duty to seek it out, buy it and review it. So you don’t have to, see? I thought long and hard about this course of action – after all, it is indeed possible that $5 of my money will land in Sykes bank account. For instance, I refused to buy Christopher Hitchens’ interesting-looking God is Not Great screed because he is such a vicious idiot on the Iraq war. (Instead, I bought The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which is a particularly horrible bit of writing.) So, to slightly assuage my (yes) liberal guilt about the Sykes purchase this morning, I made sure I went to a locally-owned bookstore with a humanitarian give-back program (Schwartz). I also bought a new book by someone who, unlike Sykes, really does know something about what is and isn’t going on in the schools, Jonathan Kozol’s Letters to a Young Teacher.

Sykes’ 50 Rules is a remarkably thin and small book – in more ways than one. It is almost a pamphlet at 161 pages, including what is known in the trade as a generous use of white space. Like most of what Sykes does on the air everyday, the book purports to knock down a straw-man of his own creation. In this case, the pretend-villain is a fictitious school system, which he claims, based on deliberately sloppy inuendo and falsehoods, somehow coddles our young and protects them from the realities of life. Never mind the inconvenient fact that many of Sykes’ supposed rules actually are discussed – often – in schools throughout the country.

Despite the hysterical title and the attempted demonizing of unstated and non-existent schools, Sykes seems just as concerned with what he sees as indulgent parenting, again creating parental anecdotes out of whole cloth to show how we got to this supposed nadir of teen-age existence.
Mostly, though, Sykes seems to hate the kids – how they behave, how they dress, how they insist on their dog-gone individuality and independence. In this, Sykes is just like any other parental scold through the ages, complaining about the tough adult life they have inherited and howling in jealousy about the indulgent sins of the young and the failed authorities who enable them.

The Rules themselves are tediously crafted and sloppily presented. Smug asides like "get used to it" and "stop whining" are tacked to the end of several, as if the Rule itself and its implications are not obvious enough. "Life is not fair" says Rule 1, and it’s all downhill from there. Claiming that "the average teenager uses the phase ‘It’s not fair’ 8.6 times a day", Sykes does not really say what is exactly new about this, even if it were true. Oh, "they got it from their parents", he says. In one of his longer Rule explanations (a whole 3-and-a-half pages), he goes off about Stephen Hawking, the severely-disabled physicist, who, apparently, has declined to utter the scurrilous phrase. That may be, but perhaps a certain level of brilliance and world-wide acclaim count for something.

Even in the very first Rule, Sykes fails to explain what the schools have to do with any of this and he certainly doesn’t admit in any of the Rules that teachers in the schools do, in fact, counsel about the fairness or lack thereof of the Cold Cruel World that Sykes embraces. Self-esteem, he proclaims in Rule 2, has become "an obsessive fixation", leading to – gasp! – a substitution of purple for red correction pens in some school somewhere. For this proposition, he includes a footnote to – wait for it – himself! (A dead link no less.)

Like most of the selective, isolated anecdotes masquerading as a trends in the Sykes oeuvre, if it happened somewhere, it is happening and charactorizes the teaching profession everywhere. Rule 30 informs us that "Zero tolerance = zero common sense" and relates as typical various fluky rule enforcement efforts, such as a 3rd grader suspended for having a butter knife in his lunch-box. Let’s see...5 incidents, over 100,000 schools in the U.S....yep, that’s a problem, alright.

I’ll write more about 50 Rules in the next couple of days, but, even for a quick lunch-time read (after you are done with the Onion, of course), it is disappointingly thin gruel. Sykes just goes off on various rants about the Sins of the Young and, in most of the pamphlet – er, book – doesn’t even bother to link any of this to the schools and what they supposedly are or are not teaching in the classroom. Sykes knows little and cares less about what actually happens in America’s schools. His phony stories and sanctimonious lecturing, like so much of wing-nut posturing, is simply designed to tear down institutions that are designed to give rich and poor alike a fair chance at the basic skills needed in a complex society. True equal opportunity is a threat to those feeding the wing-nuts their talking points. And Charlie Sykes is here to do his part to make sure that never happens.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Rove and Tommy: Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out

On a short trip to Washington D.C. this past week, we happened to come in on the same day that Karl Rove and Junior gave each other a goodbye man-hug on the White House lawn. As we tried to get within sight of the mansion that afternoon, there was little indication of any earth-shattering development earlier in the day – just a soulless, barricaded monument, still occupied (when not on vacation) by the same losers who have spent the last seven years taking us down, ever further. Rove the Architect left behind a political house of cards and toothpicks, a thin veneer of lies, poison and personal destruction that wobbled in the wind of ‘06 and will soon find itself well downstream when the GOP levee breaks in ‘08.

Like all Rove-ian schemes such as the gay-marriage hysteria of ‘06, the racist appeal to quash "illegal" immigrants of ‘08 will serve only to stem some of the damage and will ultimately further marginalize Republicans into a box of their own making. The anti-immigrant talking-point is Rove’s failed victory lap; a last, desperate effort to fire-up a base that can’t carry the party anymore. Let the increasingly-comical Mitt Romney run on a pandering platform of anti-immigrant, no stem-cell research, anti-evolution, pro-Gitmo and continued Iraq-quagmire. Does he even carry Utah with a program like that?

As they will before a storm, the dogs are howling and the rats are seeking higher ground. Even dim bulbs like former Delay-puppet Dennis Hastert know better than to stick around while the Democrats solidify their majority, bring sense and dignity back to the White House and start cleaning up the mess the elephants left in their disastrous wake. If toiling in the dark tunnels of a new permanent minority is not enough to send former power-mad congressmen on their way (are you listening, Jim Sensenbrenner?), there has never been a better time for Republicans to try to parlay their Washington connections into better paychecks. Well, I mean a better time post-Abramoff, that is – I mean, that was just too much fun, was it not?

Speaking of cashing in, our own (well, your own) Tommy Thompson was doing very well in the cashing in on his public experience in private sector before he decided to make a ridiculous run for president. I’m sure my friends in WPEC, the state-employee union I worked for in the ‘90s that represented the state’s IT workers, noticed that last year Thompson took in more than $1 million from Deloitte & Touche – the firm to which he farmed out much of the state computer work to during his mid-‘90s privatization push. No coincidence, I’m sure. Many of Thompson’s private connections involve medical companies, something he certainly had no connection with before he sat on Bush’s cabinet regulating just those companies. People like Tony Snow can complain all they want about the supposed poverty wages of government work, but they all get paid – and better – eventually.

Thompson continued to add clients and corporate board responsibilities during his quixotic run, making some wonder whether he was really a serious about running for president as he collected more potential conflicts along the way. Even former-chief-Tommy-handler Jim Klauser groused early in the so-called campaign that Thompson could not be considered serious as long as continued to carry six different cell phones to keep track of his business interests. Thompson learned the meaning of the word "loyalty" with Klauser, who had already signed up with Romney by the time he "got serious" in Iowa and didn’t give Tommy a dime for a phone call.

But run Tommy did, spinning his wheels in the gravel of all 99 counties in Iowa for months before his entirely predictable denouement last weekend at the Iowa pay-to-play circus, er, Republican straw poll. Thompson put all his eggs in this dubious basket and ended up coming in behind even anti-war protest candidate Ron Paul. It was a well-earned and just result for Wisconsin’s would-be "favorite son", who never belonged and showed himself to be clearly in over his head, even with this inept and doomed bunch of Republican candidates.

One week after the straw-poll, Journal Sentinel reporter Katherine Skiba, who was stuck on the Tommy-in-Iowa beat for most of the time, issued the obligatory obituary on the campaign, continuing the J-S’s oh-so-serious treatment of Thompson’s efforts. Amazingly declaring the straw-poll result "not predictable" (although I did), Skiba blames Thompson’s failure as a result of "too little money...too many gaffes". So, let me get this straight: if he had managed to get money out of someone other than Gerry Boyle and Mequon gas-station magnate Darshan Dhaliwal and not been such a buffoon during debate appearances, then we’d all be celebrating the Tommy Juggernaut, and he would be the one earning the privilege of being annihilated by a Democrat in November next year?

Um, no. I think it was a little more that money and gaffes that doomed Thompson to the dustbin of historical trivia answers (Q: Who is the former governor of a neighboring state that finished a humiliating 6th in the Iowa straw-poll in 2007?). For one thing, Thompson’s record as governor of Wisconsin was nothing to be proud of and never would have withstood the scrutiny of a national campaign. His time in office was rife with cronyism and pay-for-play rewards. His version of "welfare reform" was a miserable failure, serving only to create more poor people. Likewise, "school choice", which has not improved the education of inner-city kids in Milwaukee one bit and has only enriched private vendors like the Catholic Church, the Edison Company and various other charlatans. Like Ronald Reagan, he has benefitted by home-state affiliation, collective amnesia and revisionist history, treated in the newspapers like his years in office were sunshine, roses and fairness for all. No, no and no.

Also, it hasn’t really been mentioned (and I’m sure some will pull this out as the main point of this post, which it isn’t), but Tommy Thompson was the most physically unattractive candidate since Steve Forbes. He seems to have had some things buffed and tweaked – badly – since he was governor and still speaks like it’s all he can do to call up the words from somewhere below his diaphragm. His smile is pained and forced. Better that, perhaps, than the phony perfection of Robot Romney, but you still have to be able to look at the guy to take him seriously. I predict this same problem will ultimately doom the other Thompson, Fred, who looks like the kind of guy who your boss would assign you to work with only if he/she wanted to punish you.

I doubt the Journal Sentinel will be apologizing any time soon for dragging us through almost 40 articles in the past year, trying to convince us how oh-so-serious a candidate Tommy Thompson was. I’m still waiting for the inevitable editorial about how "proud" they are about his run and how the nation is worse off to reject the generous offer of his services. Despite hundreds of inches of free validation from the paper, Thompson actually had the nerve to complain just before the poll that "negative stories" in the J-S had "dried up the money". I don’t know what he was reading – every damn article in the newspaper during the campaign was excruciatingly deferential and blind to the doomed nature of his campaign.

Tommy Thompson will recover easily enough – there are more corporate boards to join, more money to be made. But it will take time for the Journal Sentinel to recover from this misplaced bit of homer-ism. Its editorial and political judgement has shown itself to be, shall we say, seriously wanting. Again.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Plaisted Blogs Baltimore

My son and I have gone out looking for America again this summer, as we do every year, through the prism of baseball parks and the cities that host them. This year, a couple of games in Baltimore this weekend and, maybe, a game Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., where "hardball" has a different meaning.

As I write on Sunday morning, we are trying to put off as long as possible the 95-degree sauna that awaits us outside the hotel walls. Rooms in Baltimore this weekend are at a premium, as Red Sox fans have descended on the city to catch a glimpse of their beloved team. Our (relatively) moderately-priced breakfast-in-the-morning site is filled with people in "B" hats and red jerseys of all varieties.

Like Packer fans following their team on the road, the Sox faithful are friendly, fun-loving, sometimes drunk and enthusiastic. Although certainly male-centric, spouses and kids are often along for the ride. Like the Cubs visiting Miller Park, they have overwhelmed Orioles fans in number and volume in the stadium this weekend. Saturday morning brought much grousing in the breakfast bar about a blown opportunity (the Os won in the bottom of the ninth) and grousing about late-season addition Eric Gagne, the new set-up guy, who set up nothing by giving up most of a 4-run lead in the 8th. Relief of a different kind was evident last night after the Sox prevailed against the vastly over-matched Orioles.

A scarcity of tickets at Fenway and a huge market that includes all of New England compels them to make the 6-to-8 hour trip for a weekend series in the nearest American League city (New York doesn’t count, of course) with a beautiful newer-but-aging ballpark. Except when they are in the stadium, the Boston faithful swarm the restaurants and shops of Baltimore’s impressive Inner Harbor. Natives here tell me that it is the same when the Yankees come to town.

The Inner Harbor is a blessing and a curse for the out-of-towner, it being the only obvious place to hang out and everybody knows about it. Lines form everywhere – you can walk or swim anywhere faster than it takes to get on the usually-fun Water Taxis – and the broad walkways are often impassable.

Out here in Airport Land, we are imprisoned by a lack of amenities and dependence on the shuttle and light-rail that gets us from this Nowheresville to Somewhere. The non-Hilton or Marriott version of hotels around here are remarkably free of non-breakfast food and newspapers. Convenience stores – heck, convenience itself – appears to have been zoned out of the area.

At the airport light-rail station, hundreds of hotel-dwellers, plopped there by their respective shuttles (ours is the only one with a little Orioles hat on the top) line up to buy train passes at only two terminals – cash-only and exact-change required. On our first trip to the ballpark on Friday, this technological impasse caused everyone in line, even the law-abiding, to just get on the train when it came by. Conflict was avoided when no one checked for tickets after we got on. A clear conscious (and a murky lesson in situational ethics for my son) was achieved by buying a round-trip ticket once we got downtown. Nobody checked on the way back, either.

At Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the now-15-year-old stadium – the earliest entry in the recent trend of ballpark construction – the park is showing its age. The bright green paint that covers metal throughout the park has faded a bit and the concrete on the ramps is starting to crack and discolor. Electronically, fans of County Stadium will recognize the yellow-on-black lettering on the main scoreboard and the not-quite-Diamond-ness of the video screen. The park is also wonderfully bereft of the video "ribbon" that runs under the upper-decks of most stadiums these days. The park maintains my favorite area in and ballyard anywhere – the concourse of concessions that runs under the warehouse along the outfield wall. It is also the best-smelling ballpark in the Major Leagues, depending on how you feel about pork products.

Tomorrow, it’s off to our nation’s capitol. Junior Bush made a point of fleeing from the city last week, on another one of his record-setting vacations. I think he knew we were coming. Wimp.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Tommy Plays the Empty Room

Tommy Thompson walks into the conference room of the Super 8 off I-29 in Onawa, Iowa like a man astride the world.

As Wisconsin’s Favorite Governor™ bounds to the podium, his ear is trained to one of many cell phones he carries to keep track of his many real-world business interests. "OK, no. When that item comes to a vote, I’ll vote no, right? What? The majority of the board will support it? Yes, then. Certainly yes!" He flips the phone closed with the authority of a confident executive slamming the black dial phone into its cradle.

His volunteer advance man pulls him aside. "Listen, sorry about the turnout. We made all the calls and even promised cupcakes, but..." Thompson brushes him aside with the unworried look of a ship captain. "Relax, Skippy," he says. "This is fine, just fine."

After taking a swig of bottled water (oh, for the beer of the endless Wisconsin campaigns of yore...), the Man From Elroy steps up to the podium and takes his first good look at the banquet hall that will play host to the long-anticipated Hoffman-Meyers reception later this weekend. Looking up from his notes, he sees rows of empty seats and just one occupant in the front row, smiling, reporter’s notepad at the ready.

"Uh, hi there," he says sheepishly.

"Hi, Governor," says the reporter, with a gleeful, hey-he-knows-me tone. "How’s the campaign going?"

"Great. It’s going remarkably well. But this isn’t a press conference, so..." The reporter breaks out in peels of laughter. "Right, right," he says, still stifling the chuckles. "Go ahead, don’t mind me." More laughs.

"Well, we have a busy schedule, so I’ll get started," he announces to the otherwise empty room. "You know, this reminds me of the time when I bought an old Ford for my first campaign, so rusted out, you could see the road under the floorboards." The reporter scribbles furiously. "Back then, if I saw a wedding, I stopped in, kissed the bride and got in the picture."

"Really?" says the reporter, clearly inspired.

"Well, yeah," says Thompson. "I mean, we were all over the place and, sure, we’d see a crowd and we’d go in there..."

"No, but, really, you’d kiss the bride?"

"Well, depends on the bride."

More guffaws and scribbled notes. "Hey, do me a favor, will ya? Could you not write that down?"

"Gothcha, guv," says the reporter, with a sly smile. In the corner of the room, the C-Span cameramen roll their eyes.

Thompson continues, undaunted by the lack of attendance on an obviously busy Tuesday night in Monona County. He runs through his experience as a chief executive, cabinet secretary and, now, successful board-member-for-hire. Late in the speech, he finds hope in a older man in work clothes who stands in the back of the room, apparently paying rapt attention. After the speech, Thompson invites him up to get his picture taken with him. "No thanks," says the man. "Just waitin’ to clean up."

As he takes another drink of water and gathers his notes, Thompson winks knowingly at the reporter from the largest newspaper in his home state. "Runnin’ something on Sunday?" he asks. "Yes, sir, of course. Good luck, sir!"


It was to be at least the 38th article committed to the Thompson campaign by the Journal Sentinel; almost one article for each committed Thompson voter in Iowa – or anywhere, really. One wonders, for instance, if the Arkansas papers are going quite that ga-ga over the only-slightly more legitimate bid of their former governor, Mike Huckabee. With Thompson’s self-appointed run-in with reality in the form of the straw poll in a couple of days, the Journal Sentinel will have to find another way to work out its ludicrous Tommy obsession. Coming next week: What’s Next For Tommy?, featuring speculation about running for Senate, Governor, blah-de-blah-de-blah-blah.

This Sunday, Thompson appeared with other Republican candidates at a "debate" on ABC television. Thompson, who previously had to apologize for saying making money was a "Jewish tradition" and for supporting workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, decided to play doctor. According to the J-S (and only the J-S bothered to report anything Thompson had to say in the televised cattle-call), Thompson promised "right now to end breast cancer by the year 2015 for all the women in America". Quite a claim. Does he know something we don’t know?

The fact is that the Tommy Thompson campaign had legitimacy in only one place in the world – on the pages of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The J-S’s fealty to all things Thompson is a mystery, and Thompson’s performance on the small, brief national stage was an unqualified embarrassment.