Sunday, May 8, 2005

Sunday Reading

  • Another far-right preacher wraps himself in the flag.

    In his home town of Pearland, Tex., Baptist minister Rick Scarborough was tireless in promoting his conservative Christian way of thinking.

    He attacked high school sex education courses, experimental medical treatments and transsexuals trying to change their gender identification. He recruited like-minded candidates to run for the local school board and city council. He crisscrossed the country to protest the ousting of Roy S. Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, for installing a Ten Commandments tablet at his courthouse. And Scarborough created a network of “Patriot Pastors” to lead evangelicals to the polls in 2004.

    Now he has set his sights on bigger stakes: pushing Senate Republicans to change the rules so that Democrats cannot block President Bush’s judicial nominees. The fight over the judgeships was once a largely academic argument over the constitutionality of the filibuster. But now it provides a fiery new front in the culture war. And Scarborough is emblematic of the Christian right leaders who have been drawn to the fray.

    Scarborough and other grass-roots conservative religious leaders believe the federal courts are trouncing Christian values on marriage, abortion and other right-to-life issues raised in the Terri Schiavo case. While he lacks the name recognition of more prominent religious activists, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and evangelist Pat Robertson, Scarborough is a potent force with close ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and influential Senate conservatives.

    In just the past two weeks, Scarborough has recruited 2,000 more Christian ministers for his Patriot Pastor network, boosting total membership of the three-year-old alliance to about 5,000 members. The Senate returns tomorrow from a one-week recess, and the showdown over judges could come sometime in the next few weeks.

    It is a key test of the Christian right’s political clout since last year’s election, when Bush won a second term and Republicans strengthened their hold on Congress — thanks in part to a record turnout of so-called “values voters.” Anytime Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) or other GOP leaders appear to be backing away from a showdown with the Democrats over the filibuster, Scarborough and his backers are there to give them a shove. This helps to explain the protracted nature of the dispute and the challenge to GOP leaders to work out a compromise.

    “One of my goals in life is to give the Republican Party courage,” Scarborough said in a recent interview. “We have a lot of gutless wonders who wear the tag conservative Republican. Anytime there’s any amount of fire, they crater.”

    If Frist, as is expected, mounts a campaign for president in 2008, he will need the strong support of Christian conservatives to win his party’s nomination. But for now, the verdict on Frist is still out, according to Scarborough.

    “I’ve admired him for his unwavering commitment” in confirming Bush’s judges, Scarborough said. But the senators whose offices he calls most often are Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), both conservative Catholics who also may run for president in 2008.


    Some GOP activists not affiliated with religious groups worry that their original intent of challenging the judicial filibuster on constitutional grounds is now being perceived as more of an effort by Christian groups to impose a religious test on judicial nominees.

    “We understand their frustration,” says one Republican activist, who works closely with the religious groups. “But we’d rather keep the rhetoric constructive and not fire-breathing.”

    During his news conference last week, Bush distanced himself from the views of some religious groups that Democrats were blocking his judicial nominees because of differences in faith.

    And here we sent troops to Afghanistan to root out the sources of religious terrorism. We should have invaded Texas.

  • Michael Kinsley warns us about the decline and possible extinction of a rare species.

    In this great country, there are newspaper editorial pages of every political stripe, from nearly insane far-left rantings to the Wall Street Journal. But when the United States faces a danger to its most important institutions and values, Americans can count on the newspaper industry to put aside petty differences and speak with one voice.

    Now is such a moment. The enemy is invisible, indeed inexplicable, but could be fatal to all we hold dear. In short: Some evil force is causing people to stop reading newspapers! Newspaper circulation figures, which had been drifting decorously downward for years, have started to plummet. At the current rate of decline, the last newspaper subscriber will hang up on a renewal phone call that interrupts dinner on Oct. 17, 2016. And then it will be over.

    This alarming possibility threatens all of us, because reading newspapers is, in the end, what makes us Americans. We are prudent, practical, common-sense people. And what could be more common-sense — more downright American — than chopping down vast swaths of trees, loading them onto trucks, driving the trucks to paper mills where the trees are ground into paste and reconstituted as huge rolls of newsprint, which are put back onto trucks and carted across the country to printing plants where they are turned into newspapers as we know them (with sections folded into one another — or not — according to a secret formula designed for maximum mess and frustration and known only to a few artisans) and then piling these finished newspapers into a third set of trucks that fan out before dawn across every metropolitan area dropping piles here and there, so that a network of newspaper deliverers can transfer them to smaller trucks or cars and go house to house hiding newspapers in the bushes or throwing them at the cat, and patriotic citizens can ultimately glance at the front page, take Sports to the john, tear out the crossword puzzle and throw the rest away?

    Newspapers are essential to every American, and none more so than the fools and ingrates who have stopped buying them. It is up to us, as members of the last generation that experienced life before computer screens, to make sure that future generations of Americans will know what to do when it says “Continued on Page B37.” In a recent survey of Americans younger than age 30, only 26 percent said “Look in Section B,” and a pitiful 13 percent chose the correct answer, which is “Look FOR Section B. It’s around here somewhere.” As a service to humanity and because I like my job, here is a seven-point plan to save the newspaper industry.

    Point one: The government must step in to stabilize the newspaper market through a program of “newspaper circulation supports.” These would be similar to the agricultural price supports that have preserved a treasured American lifestyle (working from dawn to dusk seven days a week, except for a few brief hours a day down at the diner in town complaining about big government and welfare chiselers). Wide fluctuations in newspaper circulation are not good for anyone, although we in the industry accepted decades of upward fluctuation with stoic silence. By paying newspaper publishers not to publish newspapers, the government can reduce the dangerous excess supply and preserve the beloved journalistic lifestyle (drinking at lunch, ruining the reputations of innocent Republican politicians and filling out expense reports).

    Point two: We must establish a Strategic Newspaper Reserve to reduce the nation’s dangerous dependence on foreign news. At a time when brides in this very country are fleeing their marriages on buses and pretending to be kidnapped, it is nothing short of scandalous that so much ink is being spilled about some war in distant Iraq. As with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the government would buy vast quantities of newspapers on the open market and store them somewhere for a rainy day (when they can be delivered sopping wet, as the newspaper industry prefers whenever possible). One possible location for the reserve might be my mother’s apartment, where there are already neat piles of newspapers dating back to Watergate that she is going to get to soon. If you go to inspect the reserve, please don’t tell her how the 2000 election came out. She wants to be surprised.

    Point three: The No Child Left Behind Act must be amended to guarantee that every young person in America graduates from junior high knowing how to read a newspaper. Skills such as turning to Page D3 while standing at a bus stop with a Starbucks latte in one hand and an umbrella in the other are in danger of fading away as the younger generation is seduced by the siren glow of the computer screen. When a tradition like fighting over the comics or noticing that your ex-wife has married that guy — unbelievable! — disappears from our shared national memory, it is gone for good.

    Point four: Floyd Abrams, the nation’s most prominent and enthusiastic First Amendment lawyer, must come up with a reason why canceling your newspaper subscription, or failing to renew it, is unconstitutional. C’mon, Floyd — you’ve kept a straight face through claims about the rights of journalists that are almost as audacious as this one. Now is your chance to go for the gold.

    Point five: Find someone else to come up with three more points.

  • The Florida Legislature puts a turd in Jeb’s mailbox.

    The 2005 legislative session that began nine weeks ago with Gov. Jeb Bush prodding legislators to think big and pass bold ideas collapsed as Bush’s worst session ever.

    So disappointing was the outcome for the two-term Republican governor that when GOP leaders embraced in the Capitol Rotunda late Friday for a noisy, hands-held high celebration of the session’s end, Bush had already gone home to watch the final deliberations on television.

    He didn’t leave work pouting. But there sure wasn’t a lot for him to cheer about.

    By the time the session closed out, legislators had given Bush mere crumbs — tokens of the major policy changes that he had personally lobbied legislators, especially on the last day, to get done.

    Because of a Bush-skittish state Senate, the Legislature smacked down some of the governor’s headiest requests, killing education changes that he sought and diluting versions of his two top legislative initiatives — a Medicaid overhaul and growth management plans.

    And despite a major campaign-style push by corporate interests to help the governor win passage of more than two-dozen bills geared toward restricting lawsuits against businesses, the Legislature accepted only two of Bush’s much-vaunted “tort reform” bills.

    One Bush-backed bill that passed would curtail lawsuits against manufacturers of products with cancer-causing asbestos and another would protect power companies from lawsuits stemming from accidents caused by damaged streetlights.

    Almost instantly, the stunning rebuke of so much of the governor’s agenda provoked Democrats to optimistically suggest that he’s no longer an omnipotent leader of his party.

    “The governor has pretty much exhausted all of his political chits and it’s a new game in Tallahassee now,” said Sen. Walter “Skip” Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale. “From here on out, he’s got to come begging.”

    The governor’s troubled session has also invited predictions from many legislators and lobbyists that next year’s campaign-season session — Bush’s last — will be nothing short of a wild ride.

    “This session has ended with a real edgy feeling between the two chambers and the governor, and it may only get worse with the governor trying to eek out attention amidst the statewide campaigns,” said Barney Bishop, a top lobbyist for the Associated Industries of Florida. “Next year, no doubt, will be even more of a tumultuous, hairy, anything goes session.”

    But we did get a whole bunch of cool new specialty license plates.

  • Meanwhile, South Florida continues its reputation for sleazy business practices.

    No place does spamming and scamming quite like South Florida.

    Together, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties are home to more spammers than any country on Earth. And it’s not just the annoying pitches for mortgages and sex pills. Increasingly, law enforcement officials are finding that junk e-mail is a favored weapon of predators, an easy way for criminals to target a world of potential victims from behind a wall of anonymity.

    More than a quarter of about 180 hardcore spammers tracked by watchdog group Spamhaus are based in Florida, and most of those are in the tri-county area. The city with the most spammers in the world is Boca Raton. Eleven are listed by Spamhaus as based there, though anti-spam groups say they think that figure misses dozens who send spam at least part-time.

    Why South Florida? Spammers and anti-spam groups cite a combination of reasons. They include the warm weather and laid-back lifestyle, lenient bankruptcy laws, proximity to Internet data centers, a history of telemarketing and e-mail marketing, and the state’s longstanding image as a good place to do dirty business.

    South Florida is so notorious that some experts attributed a short-term decline in global spam after last year’s hurricanes to the assumption that the storms disrupted spammers’ operations.

    And the FBI’s North Miami office receives so many fraud complaints that only major cases get the bureau’s attention. “If you come in with a $1 million case, we’ll put you in line with all the others,” said LeVord Burns, supervisory special agent.

    The FBI has found spam to be a natural accomplice for scammers. Unlike direct mail and telemarketing, e-mail is cheap, global and often untraceable. “You can hit a button and reach millions of people,” Burns said. “It’s like fishing. You just dangle a line out and wait for someone to bite on it.”

    All too often, the trails lead to South Florida. When Sandra Allen and tens of thousands of other victims bit on a work-at-home spam, the Federal Trade Commission investigated and found a South Florida operation at the heart of the alleged scheme.


    South Florida had a reputation as a Shangri-La for hucksters long before spam became a scourge. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, so many scammers were selling penny stocks by cold-calling from so-called boiler rooms in Boca Raton that a stretch of Federal Highway in the city was known as the “maggot mile.” The area has also been known as the center of the legitimate and sleazy sides of the telemarketing business.

    The perception that South Florida is a spam capital is well-ingrained. A dropoff in spam after last year’s hurricanes caused some to wonder whether spammers had been temporarily shut down.

    See, the 2000 election wasn’t an anomaly — it was an old South Florida tradition.

  • Let’s put on a show! The high school musical goes mega.

    Plunked down in front of an $18,000 mixing console, the two eighth-grade boys looked terrified. They had never run a sound board before, and suddenly here they were, one Monday last month, up in the balcony of the 900-seat auditorium at New Albany [Indiana] High School, desperately trying to tame the blinking, glowering, 40-channel behemoth. Reading dials and pushing slides, with a stage manager constantly calling cues in their earphones, they started to fumble and sweat as the cast of “Into the Woods,” way down below on the stage, went through a tech rehearsal. Nothing seemed to work right. Hideous feedback alternated with thunderous explosions each time a word began with P. Microphones came on in midsentence or while the actors were still offstage discussing homework. And there were only three days left until opening night.

    Though they couldn’t quite feel it, the two hapless boys were far from alone. For in New Albany and beyond, high school theater – that land of expressionistic face-painting and galumphing tap routines, that refuge of nerds and spazzes, directed by former nerds and spazzes in endless cycles of “Annie” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” – has evolved into something far more elaborate. The facilities at New Albany include closed-circuit television monitors, 30 fly rails for raising and lowering set pieces, a large scene shop with its own loading bay. Forget cardboard sets and costumes made from sheets; New Albany’s “Beauty and the Beast” last fall featured flying teenagers and motorized vehicles and cost $165,000.

    As the year’s “small” show, “Into the Woods” would not be on that level; the budget for the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairy-tale musical was only about $25,000. Still, this was no “Waiting for Guffman Jr.”; when you adjust for the labor provided free by the student cast and crews, plus adult volunteers and school faculty on minuscule stipends for extracurricular work, New Albany’s expenditures were not far removed from those of, say, an Off Broadway theater. Sometimes not far removed in quality, either. The 2003 production of “Crazy for You” that began at New Albany transferred for a weeklong run at a professional summer stock amphitheater in Louisville. Three times in the last eight years, New Albany has been invited to attend the Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Neb., a showcase for the best student productions, where participants get an eyeful of the competition and colleges scout for fresh talent.

    While New Albany may be an extreme case – most high schools don’t own their own fog machines – it is part of a national trend toward the supersizing of school-based theater. Castle High School in Kaneohe, Hawaii; Shorewood High School in Shorewood, Wis.; New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pa.; and Las Vegas Academy in Las Vegas, Nev.: these and many others can spend more on one show than they do on the drama teacher’s annual salary. Because they are pouring more into their musicals – and thus having to sell more tickets, at higher prices – schools are becoming big business for licensing companies like Music Theater International and R&H Theatricals, which in the past made nearly all of their money from professional productions. Freddie Gershon, chairman of M.T.I., estimates that licensing for the school market is now a $75 million to $100 million annual business.

    When did it stop being enough to put a kid in his dad’s old vest and have him sing “Sue Me” in a Noo Yawk accent? Probably sometime before puberty. Today, even grade school students (and their schools) are being cultivated with “junior” versions of Broadway shows from M.T.I. and the “Getting to Know You” series from R&H. (Yes, fourth graders can now do a 70-minute “King and I,” albeit without the deep kissing.) By the time they return from high school drama club trips to New York, they want to perform the sophisticated roles, and replicate the increasingly dazzling effects, they enjoyed as audience members.


    If programs like New Albany’s do sometimes seem to be learning the wrong lessons from Broadway, they have not lost the sweet, seat-of-the-pants quality that can make even the humblest high school production lastingly meaningful. In terms of pure devotion and uncritical support, the theatrical life never gets much better. Already by college, shows are regularly panned by snarky campus newspapers, and when you’re a professional, the circle of love is mostly broken. Whereas here, once Sara Snelling, the heroic 17-year-old stage manager, put everything back on track, all was forgiven. Even the sound system worked perfectly (it turned out all it needed was a new battery); the eighth-grade boys up in their aerie had tamed the behemoth. Onstage, the leads extracted every laugh and gasp from their parts, and spun lovely music from their songs. There was something touching about children so eager to be adults playing adults who could not stop acting like children.

    “This is really a magical time, when they’re still doing it for the joy of it,” said Guy Tedesco, a professional who’d designed the costumes for “Beauty and the Beast,” beaming as he left the auditorium. “From here on out, it’s prostitution.”

    For me, one of the hardest parts of teaching high school theatre was the incredible expectations a lot of students — and their stage parents — had when they caught the stage bug and thought that their portrayal of Curly or Laurie in “Oklahoma!” was their ticket to Broadway. While there are many highly-talented kids in high school theatre programs — I’ve taught some who have gone on to actually make a living in the business — the ratio is roughly equal to a high school football quarterback making it to the NFL, and the disappointment of slamming face-on into reality was very tough. So I made it clear to my students that the first goal of my classes wasn’t to get them a Tony; it was to get them ready to walk into any college-level theatre class and know what the professor was talking about, and to find out what they really wanted to do in theatre…and if they actually wanted to go into it at all. (It wasn’t until I had graduated with my degree in acting that I realized I was really a playwright.) All the rest is just a show and the goal was to have fun and not take it too seriously — after all, it’s just a play.