Category Archives: Culture

Christina’s Andrew, 1917-2009

Andrew Wyeth was the first real artist I found for myself. I had Michaelangelo, DaVinci, Rafael, and the like thrust on me either at school or at home (my father disliked art but thought a “rounded education” meant I ought at least to be able to recognize a renowned masterpiece when I saw one) but Wyeth I found for myself when an English teacher made a passing reference to “Christina’s World” as a painting done by an artist who lived part of the year in Maine. I lived in New Hampshire, as un- if not anti-artistic a state as exists. Mississippi thinks more of artists than New Hampshire and Maine where they were considered flakes, bums, drug addicts, and wastrels dodging a decent day’s work. The idea that one of these despised ones had actually chosen to live surrounded by the people who despised him was fascinating. I went to the local library and looked him up.

christinas_worldThere was a full-color, two-page repro of “Christina’s World” in an art book and I spread it in front of me on the empty library table and stared at it for a long time. I think I must have been expecting a Norman Rockwell-ish sentimentality but there was nothing sentimental about Christina. A cripple, she made her way around her run-down farm and dilapidated house by pulling herself along with her hands, her useless legs dragging behind her.

She was 55 at the time, an aging recluse who stubbornly refused any kind of aid, glorying in her pain and privation as if it somehow proved her worth. The picture Wyeth painted was generally considered to show her courage, determination, and independence. It doesn’t really, at least it doesn’t show those things any more than it shows her overweaning pride, her satisfaction in playing victim, or her vicious puritanical streak. All it shows is, as the picture title says, her world – as much of her hardscrabble farm as her strong if scrawny arms could get her across and then back to her house again in a single day.

It is – and was then – an extraordinary picture to me precisely because it looked unflinchingly at Christine yet made no judgments about her or her world except for the most important one: how limited they were. Christine’s world was the world of her farm, a world to which she was content to be chained, modern contrivances like wheelchairs be damned. It is the bleak, restricted world of people who live bleak and restricted lives and don’t see any point to changing them. Many assumed Wyeth admired them, but if so why aren’t they fleshed out, their joys lit next door to their fears, their hopes as much a part of the picture as their despair?

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Simple Socialism

Johnny and I were standing outside the tennis courts in Forsythe Park watching some of the regulars try to revive their backhands and discussing Obama’s win. I asked him if he was excited.

“Why? Because a black man is president?”

“Um, yeah.” Duh.

He shook his head. “Just because I’m black don’t mean I’m impressed.” Then he leaned in as if he was fearful of being overheard even though there was no one around except the players who had enough on their hands discovering top spin. “I’m a socialist,” he said in a near-whisper. “You know what that is?”

We’d been talking politics all summer but he’d never said the word before. “I’ve heard of it,” I said non-commitally. “What is it?”

“It means taking care of people. Socialism is people first.”

Over at Slouching Toward Organia, Organian began a discussion of socialism by very sensibly defining her terms. “What I Mean by ‘Socialism’” lays out the classic, fundamental economic definition very well but I must say I like Johnny’s definition better. In a comment I said:

[T]he definition above is the commonly accepted depiction of Communism, while the commonly accepted definition of socialism has come to resemble what you call “European Democratic Socialism”. Might there be some good reason to accept these definitions rather than go back to Square One?

I was thinking of Johnny when I wrote that.

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The Mind of a Biologist: Big Meanings in Tiny Animals

It’s hard to know where to begin with a book like Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. As slim as a mystery novella (the chapters are very short, the longest a bare 9 pgs), Lives of a Cell is packed with low-key language that disguises world-changing ideas. It took me a week to read a book that would ordinarily have taken a day simply because each short chapter generated so much I needed to think about that I couldn’t digest more than one at a time. It was like eating a meal so brilliantly prepared, balanced, and spiced that even though there wasn’t much bulk to each course one didn’t want to disturb the pleasure of the last by moving onto the next until one’s mouth and taste buds had been thoroughly cleansed and were ready for the richness to follow.

For instance, the two macro-notions that more or less underpin the book each could – and most likely have – engendered many deep philosophical works that discussed the ins and outs, pros and cons from the many different directions each of them suggests. I can’t possibly do justice to them here. I barely have the space to explain them let alone the many and various lines of thought they open up.

For example, one of the book’s two major themes is the idea that it is possible that mankind is a sort of superorganism, that, like certain kinds of social insects, when organized into a social marcrocosm we become, like ants and termites, capable of far more than we could ever hope to accomplish on our own – when we are operating on what he calls “our conjoined intelligence”. In the chapter titled “On Societies as Organisms” he writes:

Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The familes of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus garden. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.


A solitary ant, afield, cannot be considered to have much of anything on his mind; indeed, with only a few neurons strung together by fibers, he can’t be imagined to have a mind at all, much less a thought. He is more like a ganglion on legs. Four ants together, or ten, encircling a dead moth on a path, begin to look more like an idea. They fumble and shove, gradually moving the food toward the Hill, but as though by blind chance. It is only when you watch the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence, a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for its wits.

The concept of mankind as a single organism unaccountably split into its component parts with each individual retaining its species cohesion while at the same time celebrating itself as the owner of a unique piece of the puzzle is not new. The entomologist William Morton Wheeler coined the term “superorganism” in 1911 to explain the phenomenon of insect intelligence when grouped together and science fiction writers have been playing with the idea ever since. The most recent well-known example is probably the Borg. But for a biologist to be toying with such an unorthodox interpretation of scientific data is unusual in 2008 and was near unheard of in the 70’s when this book was written.

Nor is that the only heretical idea Mr Thomas had up his sleeve. Continue reading

Apparently, I’m Responsible for McCain’s Win

This arrived in the mail.

You too can intimidate, embarrass, or humiliate your friends into voting for Obama by pre-blaming them for a McC win. Just click “Customize This Video for Your Friends” and fill out the form. You can send it to dozens of shirkers li8ke me and nmake them feel really bad. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

The Aftermath of the Davis Stay

The front page story – top dead center – of the Savannah Morning News wasn’t about Troy Davis’ stay of execution but about how disappointed Officer MacPhail’s family are that the execution has been put off.

Tuesday’s last-minute stay of execution for murder convict Troy Anthony Davis has left the victim’s family disheartened but still hopeful justice will be served.

“It hurt, honestly,” said Mark Allen MacPhail Jr. “It’s a big disappointment.”

I can understand why they’d want it to be over after all this but don’t they even want to make sure it’s the right guy before they fry him?

The thirst for revenge – on anybody, doesn’t matter who – is the reason the law was developed as an objective force rather than a nemesis. The hopelessly misguided (or deliberately obstructionist and vindictive) movement to make the families of crime victims “part of the process” has injected an element of revenge into our judicial process that is poisoning criminal law. It is less and less about justice than it is about getting back at somebody for a wound.

Frontier justice is attractive in the movies but only because they’re NOT REAL. In the actual world, it’s the next thing to vigilantism and shouldn’t be encouraged.

The Bush Commencement Speech: Hypocrisy in Greenville (Updated)

There is, I think, nothing more maddening for me than to watch or listen to or even hear about one of this president’s moralistic speeches, the ones wherein he  counsels everyone to “be true to American values”. I didn’t have to watch it or hear it but he just did another one, a commencement speech at Furman University in Greenville, SC, in which this defender of torture, this moralist who publicly admits he’s willing to let sick kids die if it means protecting insurance company profits, this ex-addict who abused booze and did so much coke he couldn’t remember if he’d done any, lectured the graduating class on living a “culture of responsibility” and told them “they would never find fulfillment in ‘alcohol, drugs or promiscuity.'” Easy for him to say. He’s had his already. Decades of it.

The hypocrisy at Furman must have been hip-deed on the ground, like wading through a basement after the sewer pipe bursts.

“A culture of responsibility means serving others,” Mr. Bush said. “To all of you, my call is to make service to others a way of life. Wherever you live, whatever you do, find a way to give back to your communities.”

To understand this clap-trap, we need a Bush Interpretator. I offer my services. I will explain the above quote by defining key words that don’t quite mean the same thing to Mr Bush that they do to you and me.

For instance, when we say the word “community”, we generally mean our community – the town we live in, the county, the state, perhaps the region. When Mr Bush says the word “community” what we know from his actions he really means to say is “business community”. For example, eRobin wrote about his intention to veto a Medicare Bill that he says protects doctors and patients “at the expense of private insurance companies.” Can’t have that in BushAmerica.

Then there is that lovely word “others”. If we are to decide who he means when he says “others” we have to look at who he has chosen to serve, and in that case the overwhemling answer would have to be “corporations” because Mr Bush has spent his entire presidency working to make things easier for them. He hasn’t lifted a finger to help anyone else. Of the weak and disenfranchised, from poor, sick kids to the refugees from Katrina to the elderly to the unemployed, he has been unavailable at best and actively hostile at worst. One of the biggest and most fervent of his crusades was the one to abolish the Social Security system and force everyone to win their retirement money through the slot-machine-type lottery of the stock market.

Therefore, if we are to take Mr Bush at his word defined by his actions, his translated comment would have to read:

“A culture of responsibility means serving corporations,” Mr. Bush said. “To all of you, my call is to make service to corporations a way of life. Wherever you live, whatever you do, find a way to give back to your business communities.”

Of course, I’m not the only one who sees through the Bush mask. The students and faculty of Furman itself were less than thrilled at his decision to pontificate at them.

[E]ven here, in a reliably Republican state, the president’s visit prompted protests by students and faculty members, who complained in recent weeks about his selection as a graduation speaker. The event at which he spoke on Saturday evening was open only to ticket holders.

More than 200 Furman professors and students signed a statement criticizing Bush administration policies and the Iraq war.

“Under ordinary circumstances, it would be an honor for Furman University to be visited by the president of the United States,” the statement said. “However, these are not ordinary circumstances.”

The statement said the Iraq war had “severely damaged our government’s ethical and moral credibility at home and abroad.”


Mr. Bush…ignored about 15 faculty members who stood silently, wearing T-shirts that bore the words, “We Object.”

I bet. That’s what he usually does. What surprises me is that the 15 were allowed into the event in the first place. He usually protects himself from dissenters by having them blocked from attending and the ones wearing critical t-shirts are normally arrested.

But the most hypocritical moment in a hyper-hypocritical speech has to be this one:

 Mr. Bush said[,] “There is no shame in recognizing your failings or getting help if you need it. The tragedy comes when we fail to take responsibility for our weaknesses and surrender to them.”

(emphasis added)

This would be poignant if there was a scintilla of a suggestion that he was looking back on his own disastrous tenure with an inkling of understanding, but of course there wasn’t because he isn’t. At the end of his abominable presidency he is as certain that everybody else on the planet but him is wrong as he was at the beginning. He may actually believe, this president who has successfully ducked taking responsibility for any of his actions practically from the day he was born, that his avoidance of it is the apex of responsibility, that his blind stubborness represents the height of true strength.

Although I have to admit that in the Most Hypocritical Statement Sweepstakes, this one would give the previous one a run for its money:

Mr. Bush said: “Our country needs corporate responsibility as well as personal responsibility. So my call to those of you entering the business world is to be honest with your shareholders, be truthful with your customers and give back to the communities in which you live.”

One is forced to wonder what he could possibly mean by that, this man who has spent the last 7 years actively helping corporations avoid responsibility for their actions, lie to their shareholders, rip off their customers, and steal resources from every single community in which they’re located. How does one square this statement with the reality of his refusal to allow the SEC to investigate his buddy Ken Lay for 2 years? Or with his turning over of virtually every once-watchdog govt agency to lobbyists and corporate lawyers who come from the very industries those agencies are supposed to police? Or with the fact that his Justice Dept has investigated fewer cases of corporate malfeasance than any JD since the Teapot Dome scandal?

One can’t. They aren’t squarable. One is forced to the conclusion that this man who has escaped accountability for everything his entire life fully expects to continue escaping for whatever remains of it. Or else he is so incredibly dense that he actually believes white is black, down is up, and bad is good simply because he says so and the sycophants he has surrounded himself with echo it as loud as they can. “Mr President, you’re a genius. Of course you’re right, Mr President. Yes, Mr President.”

Bush White House: Sycophants-R-Us.

There is so little self-awareness in Bush that one simply can’t reasonably suspect that he isn’t what he patently is: a spoiled brat who has no more concept of the real world than a mushroom. Yet people pay to hear him speak riddles and hypocrisies and lies in a mangled English that is the best he can manage, this so-called Yale graduate.


UPDATE: (6/5/08) One rather astounding section of Bush’s speech escaped the notice of the fawning NYT reporter but not the sharp ears of Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Scot Lehigh: George W Bush warned the students about…going into debt.

I couldn’t make this stuff up.

But here’s what took the commencement cake: Bush’s warning to graduates to avoid amassing too much debt.

“You can strengthen our country by showing fiscal discipline in your lives,” he said. “It may sound funny coming from a visitor from Washington, D.C., but it’s important to your futures and the future of our country.”

Although that quote suggests the president has some inkling that he’s an unlikely messenger on this topic, it didn’t keep him from offering this counsel: “My advice to you is not to dig a financial hole that you can’t get out of. Live within your means.”


Having inherited a budget in surplus and a declining national debt, this president pushed through a series of tax cuts and presided over spending increases that have left us awash in red ink.

Publicly held federal debt has gone from $3.4 trillion when Bush took office to $5.3 trillion. Add in the trillions owed to government accounts like the Social Security Trust Fund, and our total national debt is now $9.4 trillion, up from $5.6 trillion in 2000. That’s more than $30,000 for every American citizen. Meanwhile, since 2001, long-term unfunded liabilities and commitments have ballooned from about $20 trillion to more than $50 trillion.

“We have gone from a point where we had current and projected budget surpluses to where we have large and growing deficits,” says former comptroller general David Walker, who led the Government Accountability Office from late 1998 until March of this year. “And we have gone from a point where we were projected to pay off all the federal debt and have fiscal sustainability for 40-plus years to a point where we have large and mounting debt burdens and the simulation model that is used by GAO to project fiscal sustainability crashes in about 40 years.”

ZERO self-awareness factor, ZERO irony quotient.

Comes the Excuse: Surveillance Cameras in Boston

The City of Boston installed surveillance cameras in some high-crime areas like Chinatown three years ago, and now they’re citing two murder cases in which those cameras played a key role to justify the installation of even more cameras.

The department has 25 cameras, each costing about $20,000, that can pan, tilt, and zoom, and can be attached to a wall or roof in less than an hour. Regulations require approval from property owners before police can mount the cameras. The department purchased the devices in 2004, and they were first used at the Democratic National Convention.

But in point of fact, it isn’t efficacy that’s driving the camera surveillance boom in police work. It’s conservatives and their demands for low-taxes.

Chris Ott, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned the emphasis on fancy gizmos to replace old-fashioned police work.

“For whatever reason, there is a tendency to look at technical solutions to nontechnical problems,” Ott said. “We’d encourage people to ask questions about whether there are simpler methods, perhaps better lighting or more community policing.”

Dunford said that while community policing is a priority, the funds do not exist to put more police on the streets.

“The cameras are a force multiplier,” he said. “We try to put out as many walking beats as we can, and then enhance those units with the cameras.”

(emphasis added)

Simple as that. There’s no money, thanks to Prop 2 1/2 and the Big Dig, to add patrols even though everyone knows patrols are more effective than cameras.

Michael Wong, coordinator of Chinatown’s crime watch program, said how effective the cameras are remains a mystery to many area residents.

“After the police put them up, we haven’t heard anything from them. I don’t know if they have anybody to watch them,” he said. “The crime here has gone down a lot, but I don’t think it is because of the cameras. We’re walking the streets. If criminals see our crime watch, they go away.”

That’s bad enough, but buried inside the story is the news that Homeland Security also has a camera system installed in Boston, independent of the police system.

The department can also tap into other camera surveillance systems, including those provided by the Department of Homeland Security to monitor areas of the city that may be susceptible to terrorist attacks such as the harbor, parks, and evacuation routes.

(emphasis added)

This is an all-but-open admission by HS that it is allowing local police to access its surveillance equipment, equipment we were promised would be used only against “terrorists”. But like the rest of the Bush Administration’s promises, that one was a crock, too.

All of this in the name of saving money. Apparently we’re not only willing to trade our civil liberties for the illusion of “safety” and protection from imaginary hoards of Islamofascists, we’re prepared to sacrifice them for something as menial as lower taxes.

Maybe we deserve what we’re going to get.

So What Do WE Do About It? (Updated)

In a comment to the last post, Laura asks that and it’s a fair question.

What do you think WE can do? I realize optimism isn’t your strong suit, but since you write, I’ll assume you hope. Any strategies you might recommend…?

Of course. I’ve been sort of making tactical suggestions all along, piecemeal as it were, but maybe it’s time to put it all together and fill in the gaps.

First, I need to stress that there’s nothing magical about what needs to be done. It’s all obvious, fundamental shit, and it’s called “being a citizen”. Second, “hope” has nothing to do with it. I’m an analyst, basically. That’s how I think. As a reasonably capable analyst, I can assure you these tactics/strategies will almost certainly work – barring a military response that turns the US from a virtual dictatorship into an overt dictatorship, which is unfortunately possible but fortunately unlikely for a variety of reasons.

“Hope” has to do with a single question: Will enough people get off their asses to make a difference? My cynicism tells me they won’t, but I hope they will. eRobin, an activist and expert optimist thinks different.

The thing that gets me about us is that we as a nation do respond when challenged by our leaders. FDR did it. Kennedy did it. Even History’s Greatest Monster, Carter, did it and we set peak oil back a decade.


With the right leader, (our greatest sin is that we are dependent upon being led) we would rise to the challenge of universal single payer health care, global warming and the need to remake our economy and go green instead of turning into a nation of service workers.

Well, we don’t have real political leaders any more. We have, in both parties, corporate employees who are beholden to the corporatocracy that buys them with campaign money because of the way we insist on funding elections with private bucks, so the leaders are going to have to come from the bottom. From us. As I’ve said time and again lately, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We’re on our own.

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OK’s Idea of a Good Time: Bury a Belvedere

Oklahoma, a state which, it’s been claimed, once revered common sense and had both feet planted firmly on Mother Earth, seems in the last 25 years to have completely lost its collective mind. For example, it has foisted such outstanding examples of political and intellectual looneyism on an unsuspecting nation as Sens Jim “Global Warming Is a Liberal Scam!” Inhofe and Tom “There Are Lesbians in the Lavatories!” Coburn. Whatever common sense existed in OK has clearly fled, looking for less arid pastures.

But the CW may be wrong yet again, for it seems Oklahoma has always nursed a strain of loopyism comparable to that found in the lesser films of the Ritz Bros. Case in point:

In 1957, Oklahomans buried a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere wrapped in a sheet. Why? Ah, to celebrate their 50th anniversary as a state, of course.

If the connection between a 1957 Belvedere and Oklahoman statehood doesn’t immediately leap to mind, join the crowd. There isn’t one. If they’d buried a John Deere, that would at least have reference to their farming history. But no. They buried a car that was built in Michigan and named after an English butler in Connecticut. They thought it would be “fun”.

On Friday, in a paroxysm of long-suppressed glee and amidst a carnival of news photographers and media attention the likes of which we haven’t seen since Paris Hilton got into a car last week, they dug it up again. It’s the 100th anniversary of statehood, you see, and when they celebrate great moments in their history, that’s what Oklahomans apparently do. They bury things and then dig them up.

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2100 Yr-Old Garbage and Bush

“Why am I bothering you with this?” you may ask.

TOKYO – Archaeologists digging in western Japan have excavated what they believe to be the oldest remains of a melon ever found, an official said Friday.

Based on a radiocarbon analysis, researchers estimate the half-rounded piece of fruit to be about 2,100 years old, said Shuji Yamazaki, a local official in the city of Moriyama.

The remains are believed to be the oldest of a melon that still has flesh on the rind, Yamazaki said. Previously, the oldest such find was believed to be remains found in China that date back to the fourth century A.D., according to local media reports.

The melon might have been so well-preserved because it was in a vacuum-packed state in a wet layer below the ground, an environment hostile to microorganisms that might otherwise have broken down the remains, Yamazaki said.

Read that last paragraph again. Those are the conditions under which we store hundreds of millions of tons of our garbage in landfills across the country.

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The Coke Museum: A Corporation Worships…Itself

The corporatization of American culture has just taken another step toward total immersion.

Tomorrow, Coca-Cola is opening what I think is our first corporate “museum”. Called, modestly enough, The World of Coca-Cola, it mimics a real museum in every respect with exhibits, Coke-related art, historic “artifacts” (their word), and dioramas. There’s even a movie theater where you can watch old Coke commercials, no doubt while a stentorian voice in the background drones on about the cultural significance of Coke ads. Other companies have built paeans to themselves stocked with “memorabilia” but Coke is the first one I know of to dedicate an entire building to itself and call it a “museum”. It replaces the old WoCC near Atlanta’s underground, a much smaller place that never had museumistical pretensions.

Not content with slapping their names all over everything in sight in exchange for cash, our corporatocracy is now attaching to itself the same mantle of historic and cultural significance as, say, the Smithsonian or the Huntington, equating its ads with folk art and its Art-Deco lunch-boxes with Egyptian ceremonial jars.

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Sex and Conservatives

A liberal is a person who sees a fourteen-year-old girl performing sex acts onstage and wonders if she’s being paid minimum wage.

– Irving Kristol

No, Irving, a liberal is somebody who sees 18-yr-old girls going topless on the internet and wonders if we ought to raise the age of consent to 21.

But I could make a good solid argument for the truth of this:

 A conservative is a person who sees a fourteen-year-old girl performing sex acts onstage and wonders how he can get a piece of the action.

My Gawd, We’re Stoopid

Avedon Carol links to a Pew Research current events quiz that is mind-blowing. You can take it here (I expect everyone who reads Witness and/or Trenches to get 100%) and be amazed yourself before you read the rest of this.


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VATech: Dying to Protect the Crazies (Updated)


(Cartoon by Jim Borgman)

Scott Horton, Harper’s worthy answer to Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald, quotes some of the European press on the VATech shooting. Unlike the coverage here, it ain’t about immigration or Cho’s anger or the school’s slow response or the heartbreaking stories of the victims’ lives. It’s about one thing: the guns. Excerpts:

Hamburg’s Der Spiegel runs a summary of press reactions across Europe and finds that Charlton Heston and the NRA are repeatedly singled out as responsible for the tragedy. “The shooting at Virginia Tech is the result of America’s woeful lack of serious gun control laws.


Madrid’s El País, puts the blame squarely on the National Rifle Association and reproduces a photograph of Charlton Heston brandishing a rifle. “[C]ontrol measures,“ writes that paper, ”are systematically challenged by an abusive interpretation of the Second Amendment….”


The conservative London Times writes “But why, we ask, do Americans continue to tolerate gun laws and a culture that seems to condemn thousands of innocents to death every year, when presumably, tougher restrictions, such as those in force in European countries, could at least reduce the number?”

Horton, a lawyer, concludes:

Around the world, America is being portrayed as a land of wanton violence, obsessed with firearms—as the locus of a bizarre death cult. The grounds for this are not simply what happened at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School, but the way the American public has reacted to these tragedies.

Or not reacted. Despite the furor after Columbine, absolutely NOTHING was done to control the sale of deadly weapons. The Pub Congress refused to extend the assault weapons ban, and even relatively painless strengthening of gun registration laws were rejected practically without discussion. In fact, gun laws have actually been loosened in the 12 years of Republican rule.

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Wingnut Response to VATech Shootings

It was inevitable, I suppose. Expect a lot more of this for a few days.

That said, how much of this killers rage was indoctrinated at the very campus on which he took out his rage. When professors teach students to hate everything around them they are learning evil.


Just to clarify the killer was in the English program and liberal professors are known for teaching hate.