Thursday, March 31, 2005

Progressive History Books--March

I realized that I haven’t fulfilled my blog promise from February when I posted on progressive history books. Of course, I rarely actually complete promised post. I posted a travel log for my first 2 days of my Mexico trip and then gave that up. Don’t know why either since it actually seemed to be going pretty well and maybe was even interesting to people.

Anyway, I do want to fulfill this promise. So here’s a couple of interesting books for progressives to know. I’m going to focus on the Civil Rights movement for this month. Lots of great stuff to read here and knowledge of this movement is key for progressives to argue against the racist assertions of the right.

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire. These are the seminal books on the Civil Rights movement. Yes, they are very King-centric. On occasion, they lack for the kind of analysis that professional historians can give. However, the writing is great, the story is fascinating, the level of detail is outstanding, and the history is excellent. If you want to know why the Civil Rights movement started after World War II, what it’s intellectual origins were, how King emerged, and the incredible odds that this movement overcame, these are the best books to start. Branch counters the myth from Mississippi Burning that the FBI were the heroes, showing them to be the racist organization that they were. The FBI was the most segregated organization in the federal government in the 1950s. Anyway, while the books are probably more King-centered than I would like, they do show the struggles of those organizing in the Mississippi Delta, the wing of the movement that begun in the Nation of Islam, and southern whites who worked to further the movement. These books are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American history.

But of course the Civil Rights movement didn’t come from nowhere in the 1950s. There was a long organizing tradition that limped along for decades before whites gave enough of a damn to make real change politically possible. In this spirit, I also want to recommend Eric Arnesen’s Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. Arnesen documents the importance that black railroad workers, and especially their union, the Sleeping Car Porters under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, played in laying the foundation for the later movement. The struggles of civil rights workers in the 1920s and 1930s is inspirational. Like today, the 1920s were tough times for social change. And for blacks the 1930s were no better, even as whites organized across the nation. But hanging in there year after year, these workers created the atmosphere that led to the rise of what we call the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1950s.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

The Decline and Fall of the Simpsons’ Empire

One of the most interesting discussions taking place in the blogosphere these days is over the decline in quality of the Simpsons. People are debating when it jumped the shark and why. A couple of thoughts on the matter:

1) Because it’s a cartoon, there’s still hope. It’s not as if there are real character changes that are internalized by the people doing the voices. If it has jumped the shark, it can jump back over with better writers and fresh ideas.

2) I think we ask too much of the show. It’s given us more entertainment than probably any show in the history of television. There are dozens of episodes that are classic. The fact that most of them are 10 years old doesn’t really take away from that fact. Look at Dylan. Just because he insulted the world with Slow Train Coming, Infidels, and Shot of Love, not to mention the trash he did on those Traveling Wilburys albums, doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks. It’s hard to keep things fresh. And that includes for writers of cartoons.

3) All that said, the quality has severely declined to the point that I rarely watch the show anymore. It’s not that it’s not funny at all. It’s that it could be so much funnier. My moment of jumping the shark came during the episode when they did the Odyssey-based sketch. Generally funny stuff. But when Homer has to cross the River Styx, and the band Styx is playing, Homer says, “This truly is Hell!” Wouldn’t Homer really like Styx? I realized then that the show had become more about the writers than the characters. Of course the writers don’t like Styx, because, you know, they suck. But how funny is it to make fun of Styx? It’s an easy joke. It would have been far funnier had Homer sang along to Mr. Roboto or whatever song they were playing. It had started going downhill several years before that, but I realized at that moment that the show was in serious trouble.

Anyone but Hillary in 08--Exhibit A

Here’s yet another piece of evidence why nominating Hillary for president in 2008 is a bad idea for the Democrats. A year from the Texas gubernatorial primary, we have Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the two most likely Republican candidates, battling over who hates Hillary more, with each accusing the other of being friends with her. I can’t wait until we nominate Hillary in 2008 when people’s relationships with her will be the leading issue of the campaign. Somehow I think we don’t want her character and personality and even existence to be the leading issue of the election.

Environmental Writing on Cuba

It's hard to get a reasonably unbiased analysis of how socialism has affected Cuba. Like all other writings about Cuba, the authors' opinions about Castro get in the way. I've recently spent a bit of time reading literature comparing socialist environmental policies to those in the capitalist world, in part because of my own interests and in part because of a course that I hope to teach in the fall. I'm finding that readings on Cuba are as useful for a lecture on the impossibility of objectivity as they are for comparing the environment under socialist and capitalist regimes.

For example, take Sergio Díaz-Briquets and Jorge Pérez-López's 2000 book, Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba. By most accounts, this is the first large-scale analysis of the effects of socialism on Cuba's environment. Unfortunately both authors seem to be refugees, or the descendants of refugees, and they are highly critical of Castro's environmental policies. And that's fine. Castro is a product of high-modernist ideology and his plans follow that line of thinking. His claim that under his regime, not one drop of water would reach the sea is not atypical for social architects of that generation. His programs for intensive sugar production, his attempts to build an industrial core for Cuba, and the environmental problems that these ideas caused are not surprising and they are deserving of criticism. However, the authors go a step to far and say that these environmental problems are the natural result of socialist central planning on the Soviet and Eastern European model. That may be true, but of course the same problems are the result of capitalist development as well. While the environmental dead zones in the Soviet Union are perhaps the worst single environmental disaster in the world today, they are only a level above pollution caused by capitalism. The reason for these differences are likely twofold. First, the lack of civil society makes it very difficult for people to criticize the environmental decisions made by the central government and to pressure governments to enact and enforce environmental legislation. Second, central planning in the Eastern Bloc likely didn't give companies much of a choice on where to build their factories. Thus, the factories were centralized in a few locations without pollution controls.

So it's fine to criticize environmental damage in socialist nations, so long as you also do so in capitalist nations. The model to follow here is James Scott, Seeing Like A State. Scott lumps capitalist and socialist planning together as high-modernist. Both ideologies attempt centralized planning and simplification to make things orderly for the goals of their government and society. And both ideologies have caused immense environmental damage. This is particularly useful when discussing agricultural policies. The authors of the Cuba book criticize socialist agricultural planning without acknowledging that the Soviets took this from the Americans and improved upon it. In their haste to criticize Castro, they undermined their own arguments by not showing just where socialism was a worse system for the environment than capitalism.

Another interesting piece is Bill McKibben's "The Cuba Diet," in the April 2005 issue of Harper's. McKibben comes in for a lot less criticism here than Díaz-Briquets and Pérez-López because he is a lot more fair. McKibben looks at post-1991 Cuba and the rebound of traditional agricultural methods. He argues that this kind of knowledge, almost lost in Cuba after decades of technology-based agriculture, is necessary for when the oil-driven economy dips and we can't necessarily use oil, fertilizer, and other technology associated with the Green Revolution. It's a very interesting article. And while McKibben does criticize Castro to an extent, at the same time that's far from the point and he's rather taken with how the nation, including the government, has adapted to the difficult conditions of the Special Period.

McKibben is a lot less biased than the authors of Conquering Nature. But I think the lesson here is that all writing about Cuba, even the rather less controversial subject of farming and environmental conditions, is deeply wrapped up in Americans' bizarre obsession in the socialist nature of the island. I don't imagine that we will get fair and dispassioned discussions of the Cuban environment or anything else at least until Castro dies, and probably until well after. Since it's unlikely the Los Gusanos are going to walk back into Havana and be welcomed with open arms by the Cuban citizens, they will likely become deeply bitter after the death of Castro and that will likely set back reasonable debate about the country's socialist experiment for at least another 20 years.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Friedman's Gas Tax

Usually Thomas Friedman is kind of a bozo. But I do find his constant harping on a gas tax to raise the price to $4 interesting. It's not as if it's a political possibility. But it would be responsible. And given that I don't exactly live in the world of the politically possible, I think it's something to have a real public discussion about.

Related and perhaps more interesting is the question of when will rising gas prices actually begin to curtail Americans' excess driving and purchasing of gas-guzzling vehicles. Clearly the $2.25 we are now paying in New Mexico isn't making much of a dent. I have heard people talk about wanting to buy a truck that gets a little better mileage--they were talking about 24mpg. Which is an improvement I guess over 15mpg. I have also heard that SUV sales had flattened but that they were replaced by rising sales of large trucks. Considering that there is little reason to believe that the price of oil will go down anytime soon, probably when the price gets so high as to send China's economy into recession, when will real driving changes take place? Will it be at $3 a gallon? Maybe. I imagine who this is really affecting is the working class, which in New Mexico are mostly immigrants. Since working people can't easily live in Santa Fe, they have to commute to their jobs from Espanola and other working-class communities 20 or more miles from the city. High gas is probably affecting them but of course they're not really part of the national discussion.

In any case, if anyone has any bits of evidence on whether high gas prices are changing transportation habits, I'd be interested in hearing it.

Silver Linings

My wife recently pointed out a silver lining to the tsunami in Asia. The earthquake was so strong that it reduced the day by 3 microseconds. What that means is that we have 3 microseconds less of George W. Bush for the remainder of his term. I guess that must add up to something like 3800 microseconds or so less of the Bush administration. I don't know if that adds up to a full second but even that tiny amount of time gives me just a small silver lining in horror of the tsunami.

On the other hand, the silver lining of the Bush administration is that the Yankees have not won the World Series. If you had told me that in the fall of 2000 I would have thought you were crazy. I would take another 4 years of Yankee failures.

When I write my history of the Bush administration, that is how I will be objective--I'll slam everything they did in the harshest language but I will laud the era as one of Yankee failure.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Viva Nuevo Mexico (VIII)

I was watching the local news last night. I should do this more often. I miss out on so many potential stories to put on here.

For example, on Good Friday there is a pilgrimage to Chimayo, a town which is about 30 miles or so north of Santa Fe. People walk there from all over northern New Mexico. It's a pretty interesting thing. Well anyway, one of the news stations was talking to pilgrims and asking them what they were praying for this year at the church in Chimayo. They talk to one young woman who says "I am praying that my father stays healthy. He's at home right now watching my son and I pray that he will be here until I am old enough to get married."

Friday, March 25, 2005

Viva Nuevo Mexico (VII)

Near my house is a liquor store. I pass it to get to the main road out of town. I am heading that way today. The light is red. We are turning left but in the lane to go straight is about 7 cars or so. In maybe the 5th car is a guy who decides that he needs a drink. So instead of just pulling into the parking lot, he gets out of his car, leaves it in line in the road and heads into the liquor store. As he is doing it the light turns green but he is not to be denied his drink and keeps on going. I'm not sure how it ended as I turned left but I thought how crazy this state is as I did so.

Fred Phelps Alert

I thought I'd send out this warning to all of my New Mexico reader. Rev. Fred Phelps and his merry band of homophobic lunatics will be protesting Santa Fe churches on April 17 because these churches don't believe all gays should be sent to Dachau. I'm sure there will be more information on this in the near future from other sources, but I thought I'd send the word along.

I once ran across Phelps in Atlanta. A real classy man, let me tell you.

Why I Hate Fundamentalists, Reason #6732

My uncle died last week. Like the rest of my Mom's side of the family he grew up Lutheran. Like most of them he drifted away. When he was diagnosed with cancer 2 years ago he started going to some fundamentlist church. So the funeral was there.

At the funeral, the preacher had the nerve to say, in front of my Grandmother, my Mom, and her sister, "He was Lutheran and then he found God."

Although I am no longer a Lutheran, or religious in anyway whatsoever, I'd like to give a huge Fuck You to that preacher. Not only is saying something like that absoultely classless but is all too damn typical of in-your-face arrogant fundamentlists. Maybe I'm upset about my uncle but I just flat out cannot tolerate these people. Who the hell do they think they are to go around trying to convert everyone all the time, regardless of the situation.

If I ever say anything nice about Christian fundamentalists on this blog, would someone kindly remind me of this post so I can go back to hating them again? I'd appreciate it.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Best Album Ever?

What constitutes a best album? Obviously this is an unbelievably subjective question that each person will answer differently. Nevertheless, I am going to make a case for Tom Russell's The Man From God Knows Where. What's odd about this is that not only is The Man From God Knows Where not my favorite album, it's not even my favorite Tom Russell album, a title that belongs to his seminal Borderland.

What makes me nominate The Man From God Knows Where is that it is the single most compelling album I've ever heard. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music and I can work with all of them playing--rock, country, bluegrass, folk, creative jazz, atonal compositional material, noise music, etc. But I cannot work when The Man From God Knows Where is playing. I just get sucked into that album and cannot get out. Each song carries you along and sucks you in deeper and deeper.

The Man From God Knows Where is nominally about Tom Russell's immigrant family. He is part Irish-part Norwegian and the songs are mostly about his ancestors. But really it is about the American immigrant experience and the American historical experience that you don't see on the history channel. Russell writes in the liner notes, "We sing here of the triumph of individuals in the face of isolation, rootlessness, disease, and suicide." And in doing so, song after song is either a heart-wrenching tale of immigration and immigrant life in a new country, an amusing song about that same subject, or a piece about his father, a Hollywood gamble eventually convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to several years in prison.

To make this album even more powerful, he brings in different voices to play different parts. Russell sings variations on the haunting theme song, "The Man From God Knows Where" throughout the album, the songs about his father, and various other tracks throughout the album. He also wrote most of the songs. But he brings in Iris Dement to sing on several songs, folk legend Dave Van Ronk to sing "The Outcast" (more on this in a minute), and Irish and Norwegian singers to play the roles of his family members. Irish singer Dolores Keane and Norwegian singers Sondre Bratland and Kari Bremnes make an invaluable contribution to this album.

There are songs about the scary ride over to America and friends being sent back home and dying on the way. Songs about the deep sadness of missing home. Take "The Old Northern Shore" which finishes:

"Praise God for the health of our children
Praise God for his kind loving grace
Praise God for the food on our table
When we die we shall see his kind face
Praise God for this land of great freedom
May there be no more bloodshed and war
Praise God that before I pass from this life
I'll lay eyes on the Old Northern Shore"

There are songs that communicate both the great freedom and wonder of the United States and the great sorrow and tragedy of never seeing your family again. Songs that step forward a generation and discuss the discomfort of immigrants watching their children grow up as American kids and the loss of traditional values (see the hilarious "When Irish Girls Grow Up"). Songs about those kids going to Hollywood, as Russell's father did.

2 other reasons this album is so compelling:

1) Tom Russell's version of David Massengill's song "Rider on an Orphan Train." This is probably the single saddest song in the world. The orphan trains were just what they sound like. Orphaned children from eastern cities, often immigrant children, were packed onto trains and sent west to farm families for whom kids meant extra hands. This happened beginning around 1850 and continuing into the early 20th century. The song is about 2 brothers who were separated and one's search for the other when he's an adult. Unfortunately he never finds him because the records were lost in a flood. Quite literally about every other time I listen to this album, this song brings me to the point of tears. It's an amazing song but one that is so intense that's it's hard to listen to very often.

2) Dave Van Ronk as "The Outcast." These are 2 brillant songs which basically are a big "Fuck You" to the geneology nuts who try to sugarcoat their ancestors and their past in order to somehow justify their lives in the present (or maybe that's just my interpretation since I find the Mormons tracing their ancestry to Adam idiots and the social climbers who try to connect themselves to kings of England or presidents absurd). He reminds us of all the drunks, the homeless, the hustlers, the desperate immigrants, the gays, the retarded, the working-classes, and all of the other underground members of American history who get left out of popular texts, though certainly not academic texts. These songs are hilarious and make a great point.

Anyhow, whether or not these intense, amazing songs make a great album is debatable and subjective. But for me, I cannot think of an album that achieves the same kind of heights as The Man From God Knows Where.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Those Sandinista Terrorists!!

After September 11, the Bush administration decided to crack down on the most nefarious terrorists in the Western Hemisphere. Yes, that's right--old members of the Sandinistas. For instance, just recently the United States denied entry to Sandinista and prominent historian of Latin America Dora Maria Tellez because of her supposed terrorist activities. That nutty left-wing institution Harvard had offered her a teaching position but the US government came to our rescue and saved our children from her terrorist training camp of a classroom. There have been several other Sandinistas denied entry to the US as well, despite the fact that they had visited the US multiple times in recent years.

This is of course absolutely absurd. The Sandinistas as much terrorists as I am. In 1979 they overthrew the extraordinarily oppressive and corrupt Somoza regime with their popular revolutionary movement. While they did not govern in a perfect manner, as if we should have expected them to, they did a lot for the people of Nicaragua. Unfortunately, they were undermined by a true terrorist organization, the US-sponsored Contras. By any reasonable definition of terrorism, the Contras were far more terrorist than the Sandinistas. It was the Contras who raped women. It was the Contras who led attacks on peaceful villagers. It was the Contras who were determined to terrorize the Nicaraguan countryside until the Sandinistas fell from power.

Overall the Contras were a successful terrorist organization because the people of Nicaragua finally realized that the only way they would stop dying was to elect an opposition party which happened I believe in 1989. This Republican funded terrorist organization however did not have great post-Sandinista success as Sandinistas now control most of the state governments in Nicaragua. They would have more control over the national scene if it wasn't for Daniel Ortega, who is more or less a disgusting human being. Most Nicaraguans are turned off by his sexual relationship with a female family member--I believe his daughter. So you can see why he wouldn't win nationally. But in any case isn't just like terrorists to win free and fair elections!!

This case has 2 major lessons for the war on terrorism.

1. The word terrorism has virtually no meaning and is used as a political tool. By using the war on terrorism this way, it makes the word almost devoid of meaning.

2. The Republican party is determined to get back at all the people they think fucked with the US over the last 50 years. Afghanistan was first, and rightly so. Iraq came next and clearly for no real reason at all except that the administration wanted a war against them. Next--Iran and Syria. And where they can, they will get back at those dirty Central American terrorists for actually fighting for the same rights we have, or at least had, in the United States.

This is just disgusting.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Easterbrook and Environmental Alarmists

I'm not sure why I should spend my time refuting the points of a wanker like Gregg Easterbrook. I guess because people might be convinced by them I suppose. Well anyway, Easterbrook has gotten a bee in his bonnet over Americans' hysteria over mercury poisoning. Yeah, that's right. His article today in The New Republic argues that there isn't really any evidence that mercury causes birth defects, that Bush is brave in his policies to cut back on mercury emissions, and that environmentalists talk so much about the problems of the world that no one believes them anymore. He actually claims that if only Congress had passed the Clear Skies Act, Bush's oh so radical proposal to cut air pollution, that we would have even less mercury in the air than we do today. Easterbrook conveniently ignores how every provision of Clear Skies was written either by industry lawyers or with the needs of industry in mind. He ignores how Clear Skies is an Orwellian euphemism that would make our air significantly dirtier. He poo-poos all the evidence showing that mercury is a problem by simply declaring that it is in fact, not a problem. Very convincing.

Moreover, he references the New York Times' resident wanker Nicholas Kristof, on the environmental alarmist deal, in short arguing that if environmentalists don't shut up and focus on the really big issues like global warming, no one will listen to them on anything. Well first, the government doesn't listen to environmentalists on global warming anyway. Second, Clear Skies would make global warming worse so he just contradicted himself. Third, these issues are all related. The same coal-fired power plants (Ah, coal again) that cause global warming also cause mercury poisoning. You would think that such basic arguments would have occurred to Easterbrook. But then I expect too much from our leading DINO magazine.

Mountaintop Removal

The greatest unknown environmental disaster in the United States is the widespread practice in Appalachia of mountaintop removal for coal mining. For those not in the know, it is just what it sounds like. Coal companies used to hire hundreds of workers to mine into the mountain and remove the coal. Today they use around 10 workers to go up to a mountain, blast the top off of it, extract the coal, and dump the former mountaintop into the valleys below. This has become endemic over the past few years because of a) the Bush administration's close relationship with coal companies, and b) when the price of oil rises, coal goes up too so this is a boom time.

I highly recommend Erik Reece's article in the April issue of Harper's, "Death of a Mountain". Over the course of a year he makes repeated visits to Lost Mountain in eastern Kentucky to chronicle the destruction of a mountain to mountaintop removal. It is a sad and disturbing story. Mountaintop removal destroys the forests around the mountains, kills off habitat, poisons watersources below, cracks the foundations of nearby houses, makes land unlivable, and creates untold amounts of pollution. This is far from an uncommon phenomenon as well--tens of thousands of acres in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee have been forever changed by the coal companies.

What do we get for the permanent scarring of land? Fossil fuels. But not only fossil fuels--obsolete fossil fuels. Coal is the dirtiest of fuels to burn. We don't use it like we used to. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, coal caused incredible levels of air pollution in Europe and the United States that killed many people and sickened hundreds of thousands. Not such a problem today here. But it is used for power plants. It is also exported in huge amounts to China, causing insane levels of pollution there.

The coal industry wants to expand its use back into homes and make it our #1 energy source. Remember the Clean Coal TV ads of a few years ago? They claim it is clean because of filters and other technologies that reduce the air pollution of burning coal. What they don't mention, and what the public doesn't care much about, is the production of coal. Like all natural resources, coal comes from somewhere. An obvious statement, but one that most people don't spend a second of their lives thinking about, whether it's coal, wood, or beef. The price of burning coal is the destruction of an entire region of the United States and the impoverishment of our richest and most diverse forests. I'm not a economist or political scientist, so I don't know much about cost-benefit analysis. But in general terms the cost is much greater than the benefit. With the investment that the government and the coal companies make in coal, we could easily replace that energy with wind and solar. For me at least, the benefit of cheaper energy is not worth the hideous price, especially when that benefit is so replaceable.

Don't get me wrong. It's not as if many, many residents of these states don't support the coal companies. People are scared to lose their jobs. Many see little value to the mountains if they can't mine them. And, like residents of many places where extractive industries have come and gone, they hold on to the belief that if they get these environmentalists and the government off their back, all the jobs will come back. Of course this won't happen. Environmental regulations are completely unenforced in Appalachia today and the government is in the pockets of the coal companies. The favorite politician of the coal companies is Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. His wife, Elaine Chao, is Bush's Secretary of Labor. According to Reece, 89% of coal company political donations over the last 4 years have gone to Republicans. And the other 11% have probably gone to Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, the Democratic Senators from West Virginia. But regardless of this, the jobs will never come back because of technology. It takes a mere fraction, maybe 1% or less of the people it used to take to mine coal to do it today. Many residents of Appalachia feel that the coal companies are on their side, much as the loggers of Oregon feel that way about Weyerhaeuser and Georgia Pacific. But of course it's not true. The companies are on the side of profit and they will push for that without regard to the fate of their employees or ex-employees. Those jobs aren't coming back. Ever.

There is another economic argument for mountaintop removal. I once saw a paper for Lincoln County, West Virginia. The main story was about the glories of mountaintop removal and how what West Virginia to revitalize its economy was flat, developable land. Of course this is a pipe dream. Who is going to invest on a polluted former mountaintop in rural West Virginia? No one. In a global economy there are a lot more attractive places to invest than that. But these dreams still exist. A region that has sucked the tit of an extractive economy for over a century finds it extraordinarily difficult to wean itself from it. It's the same in the mines of Montana and the forests of Oregon. The dream of a return to a job-rich extractive economy is a delusion.

Finally, why has this issue gotten so little press coverage? For instance, in 2000 a coal slurry improvement pond broke through an underground mine shaft in Inez, Kentucky. More than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge poured into the headwaters of Coldwater and Wolf Creek. Amazingly, no one died though many people lost their property and countless animals were killed. Coverage from the New York Times--None. Size of the spill compared to the Exxon Valdez--30 times larger. Compare this to the Amazon rainforest. Environmentalist and environmental organizations view the destruction of tropical rainforests as a huge environmental catastrophe. And it is. But these same people and organizations don't give a damn about Appalachia. Why? Prejudice, I believe. The sheer amount of ignorance, prejudice, and condescension toward these areas of America is amazing. I have talked to scores of people who would refuse to live there under any circumstances, even though they've never been there. These are often the same liberals who give money to the poor of other nations. But then again, the poor of West Virginia aren't nearly as romantic as those of Guatemala or Cambodia. Appalachia is seen as a lost, backward region of America who votes Republican and filled with moonshiners and married cousins. Yet this is our most biologically diverse region and the first step toward fighting against the permanent erasure of thousands of its mountains and valleys is accepting the region as an equal part of America and making alliances with the residents of the region to protect them and their lands from the insatiable appetite of the coal companies.

Monday, March 21, 2005

International Women's Day

Just a comment--when was the last time an International Women's Day (March 8) pass with such little note on the left. A couple of bloggers mentioned it. I forgot it otherwise. In the same light, the second anniversary of the war passed with relatively little interest as well. Is it because we are occupied with other important issues such as the watching the Republicans' moral outrage over a the mercykilling of a brain-dead woman? The Michael Jackson case? Whatever else?

Just surprised that these dates passed with little comment. International Women's Day is an important day to reflect on the state of women's rights in this country and the world and it's sad that we more or less ignored it this year.

Johnny Cash, Overrated?

I want to posit an argument that has been on my mind for some time. Is Johnny Cash one of the most overrated musicians of the last 10 years? Let me hedge here a bit. I like Cash a lot. I think his early recordings (before about 1965) are generally quite good. "I Walk The Line", "Big River", "Hey Porter"--all great songs. His first recording for American is a classic, one of the greatest country-folk albums ever produced. His second recording for American is also very solid as are a few songs off the last two albums.

That said, I see the near-mythology that surrounds the Man in Black with discomfort. First of all, the period between 1965 and 1992 is almost all garbage. Just absolute crap. There are a few decent albums and good songs in there. But for the most part it's unlistenable. But hey, that's only a mere 27 years of Cash's career. What is that?

Compare Cash with Ray Charles. Both were outstanding artists who pushed the boundaries of music. If anything though, Charles took a lot more risks than Cash. Here was a R&B artist doing a country album for example. And doing it damned well. Both were crazier than shit on a personal level. Yet when Cash dies he is lauded as a rebel, a man who did it his own way, an outlaw. When Charles dies he is seen as a musician for old people who sang "America the Beautiful." He is seen as great but in a very older, upper-middle class white kind of way.

Why is this? I believe that there are a couple of reasons. For one thing, Rick Rubin. Rubin did a hell of producing job for Cash, helped him pick out good covers (something that Cash by himself was horrible at--he covered Skynard's "They Call Me The Breeze" for Christ's sake), and promoted him as the myth that he is seen today. I don't blame Rubin at all. He took a great artist and made him great, and more importantly, relevant again. God bless him for it. Same with Jack White for what he did for Loretta Lynn. Ray Charles never had that producer. He never had that late-career album that made him relevant again. Maybe that's because he didn't want to go in that direction, I don't know. But without that first American album, Cash is seen a very different light today.

Second, and I hate to say this, is image. The whole Man in Black thing not only led to a myth about Cash but overwhelmed many of aspects of his music, particularly his sappy and Christian sides, which are about as far from rebelling against the system as you can get.

I guess my question is not whether or not Cash is great. The question is, is he greater than Haggard? Waylon? Willie? I don't really think so. Yet even Waylon, who was at least as crazy as Cash, has not been mythologized like Cash.

Maybe the reason that I care about this issue is that I am never comfortable with mythology in any of its forms. This is one of the biggest reasons I went into history. I want to destroy myths. In this case, I want us to judge people like Johnny Cash on the basis of his music and his music alone. No Man in Black crap. No issues of rebellion. Let's just judge him on what he was--a great country singer.

Thinking About World Democracy

A recent quote from Barbara Boxer got me thinking. In response to Bush's inaugural address she said, "He said that our freedom and our democracy depend on the freedom of other countries. I think that America is so strong, it has such a strong Constitution and a great history of freedom, that while we must, of course, be deeply concerned about what happens in other countries, what happens to this country is up to us."

While it's stupid to disagree with Boxer that our fate depends largely upon us, I am really uncomfortable with the foreign policy implications of what she is saying. This is exacerbated by remarks she made about the happenings in Lebanon--"the streets are flooded with protestors today (the pro-Syria demonstrations) and you wonder if maybe a little quiet diplomacy there might have produced better results."

To me these remarks, certainly representative of many Democrats, are essentially an abdication of promoting freedom in other nations. First of all, a little quiet diplomacy wouldn't have done anything to promote democracy in Lebanon. What would our bargaining chips be against Syria to get them out of Lebanon? Bombing them? I mean regardless of what you think about Bush, the events in Lebanon have to be seen as generally positive so long as the nation doesn't erupt into civil war again.

But more generally this essentially isolationist view of the world that dominates the left side of the Democratic party to me undermines what it means to be a Democrat. Really we are the party of freedom. The Republicans have co-opted this to promote American interests abroad and to promote their economic ideology around the world. I refuse to believe that the Republicans are more right on ideas of world democracy and justice than we Democrats are. But I get the feeling that Boxer and others would rather abdicate our foreign policy to a weak and ineffective UN than promote democracy around the world. And I emphasize the words "weak and ineffective" because I wonder if a strong UN, which to me would be ideal, would make them uncomfortable too.

To me this ignores the global realities of the 21st century world. Freedom and justice need to be promoted throughout the world by progressives. What good are progressive policies and ideas ultimately if we don't much care about helping the rest of the world achieve them too? Without a global perspective, such as the ideology of worldwide revolution had in the 20th century, our ideas are bankrupt and meaningless.

If this post seems confusing and maybe even inconsistent, it's because I lately find myself in a difficult position on foreign policy issues. I despise what Bush and the boys have done with US foreign policy, particularly using the rhetoric of democracy overthrowing tyranny to get rid of governments that they don't like in areas of strategic interest for America while not giving a damn about other parts of the world, i.e. Africa. But I am not comfortable at all with progressive Democrats defining themselves as the opposite of Bush, i.e. theoretically committed to working within traditional diplomatic circles to solve problems but in reality unable or unwilling to even think about using US troops to ensure peace, freedom, or even safety from genocidal practices.

I'm really not sure where to stand here.

Veterans Cuts

First, I refuse to comment in any way on the Schivao case. I have nothing new to say about it and am sick as hell of it being the only damn thing on the news. I will only say that it reminds me why the Republican party sickens me.

In other news, Bush's budget is again slashing benefits for veterans, including a $350 million cut in veterans home funding which cuts at least 5000 beds from nursing homes as well as a $250 charge per year for veterans to be enrolled in the VA health care program. Ed Rendell attacked this in the Democrats' weekly radio address but why is this not the biggest non-Social Security issue? You have Republicans talking about war and using the military to promote democracy (so long as a Republican is president) and talking about the sacrifices our soldiers make and how it is our patriotic duty to support them, blah blah blah, but they are slashing both benefits for current soldiers and former soldiers. The Democrats should have made this a major theme in the presidential campaign and it should be a major theme now. The Republicans are very vulnerable here. Every Republican legislator who votes for a budget with these items should be attacked in their home districts and states. This is a winnable issue and yet we rarely hear about it.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Lucas on Episode 3

George Lucas on the upcoming Star Wars movie:

``I describe it as a 'Titanic' in space. It's a real tearjerker, and it will be received in a way that none of us can expect.''


Forward Environmental Thinking

The recent issue of the journal Conservation in Practice had an interesting article on architect William McDonough. McDonough is the type of progressive thinking person that I have championed before on this blog. His building designs revolve around what he calls, "The Next Industrial Revolution," by which he means the transformation of industries from the world's worst polluters into an industrial ecosystem where everything that the building produces is recycled. And not recycled in the traditional sense of your cans and bottles. Rather, everything produced by the factory and every by-product either gets used again by other industries or can be composted. He designs factories with living roofs that turn storm water into plants that eat up carbon dioxide. He has created biodegradable carpets that are both long-lasting and completely recyclable. Buildings purify their own wastewater through settling tanks and vegetation. For a fraction of the price that it would take to build a chemical treatment plant to treat wastewater, his design at Ford's legendary pollution-producing River Rouge Plant included man-made wetlands to filter the water. Such a design has many nice side-benefits as well such as wildlife habitat.

McDonough criticizes the environmental movement for playing the game that industry has traditionally sought--regulation that reduce emissions without eliminating them, accepting compromise in an arena that compromise only leads to slower death, and not thinking outside of the box on how to change the world. He recognizes the need for business to make money, so he designs plans that both eliminate waste and save companies money, thus ensuring that more businesses will follow suit. Does this mean accepting capitalism as a system? Yes, I suppose so. McDonough says little or nothing against capitalism. Rather, he moves beyond old-fashioned critiques and positions to create new solutions for the 21st century world that we live in. Ultimately, it's people like McDonough that we progressive need to emulate rather than Che or Lenin or Nader or whatever 20th century figure individual Progressives model themselves after. It is new ideas and programs that progressives need. McDonough is just example of the type of program we need to turn our attention to.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Lost Snows of Kilimanjaro

Via WorldChanging, check out these pictures of the rapidly disappearing snows of Kilimanjaro. I suppose the biggest reason that we pay close attention to this mountain is because of Hemingway, which incidentally might be the only positive thing he did for the peoples of the developing world. The scene in Memories of Underdevelopment where they tour Hemingway's house in Cuba is priceless. But I digress. Point is, this is exhibit #500,000 of global warming/climate change, in this case possibly exacerbated by deforestation.

Democratic Shame

Today's shameful Democratic Senators:

Daniel Inouye (HI)
Daniel Akaka (HI)
Mary Landrieu (LA)

The reason--voting to open ANWR to oil drilling. Thanks a lot! Amazing that Joe Lieberman wasn't with Bush on this one too.

I suppose to be fair, we should laud the 7 Republican Senators who voted against it:

John McCain (AZ)
Norm Coleman (MN)
Gordon Smith (OR)
Susan Collins (ME)
Mike DeWine (OH)
Lincoln Chaffee (RI)
Olympia Snowe (ME)


As you've probably heard by now, Bush has named Paul Wolfowitz head of the World Bank, a position that the US president traditionally gets to select. However the position must receive European approval. And, um, Wolfowitz isn't exactly the most popular guy in Europe. I'm not sure what the rationale behind such a controversial pick is but if I had to guess I would say that the Republicans see the Europeans much the same as the see the Democratic Party--weak, full of divisions, and easily conquered. Thus, they can bully the pick through. However, there is one pretty nice catch. Bill Clinton broke the tradition of allowing the Europeans to pick the head of the IMF when he shot down the nomination of Caio Koch Weser. Given that many European governments found that more than slightly annoying combined with the hatred of the Bush administration and especially Wolfowitz, one can only hope that the Europeans prove stronger than the Democrats have been in resisting Bush. If not, they are about as worthless as that party.

Brooks Again

Of course much worse than Kristof is David Brooks. Many commentators, including Lawyers Guns Money, Praktike, and others have discussed his laughable column yesterday where he compared Democrats who oppose Social Security evisceration to Yasir Arafat. Yes that's right, Harry Reid is a terrorist. Read the column and the other links for the rest of the details. I do have 2 general comments though.

1. What would happen if Democrats compared Republicans to terrorists? Would that be OK? Would that even be published by the Times? Me thinks it unlikely.

2. One of the more frustrating things for me about watching Republicans plans fail all the time is that they are writing their own history of failure while it happens. They have a whole narrative that basically goes like this--"If only our ideas had been fully implemented, they would have worked perfectly. The only reason they failed was that the Democrats got in the way. If they had only rolled over and died, our country and our world would be a utopia by now. Just vote the Democrats out entirely and watch the millenium come." This goes for Iraq, it goes for the deficit, it goes for Social Security. Not only will Democrats have to deal with this narrative in future elections but academics will have to deal with it when we teach right-wing students.


I can't help but wonder why the Times employs Nicholas Kristof. Even though I guess he's left of center, I can't think of one editorial he's ever written that is more than passably interesting. Today he rehashes the Democrats Are Out Of Touch With America argument by praising Hillary's move to the right. In particular he discusses how Hillary has begun to discuss abortion as a great tragedy. Rather than see this as pandering to a perceived rightward trend in the nation on this issue by Hillary, he praises her move as something the Democrats need to follow, "The Democratic Party commits seppuku in the heartland by coming across as indifferent to people's doubts about abortions or even as pro-abortion." Despite the one poll he gives saying that Americans want to restrict abortion, there is little evidence that this is true. Most people, a) want the option of abortion for themselves and their family, b) don't want complete bans on abortion, and c) are uncomfortable with the lunatic right's attacks on abortion clinics, abortion doctors, and women's right to have an abortion if they need it. People may not like the idea of abortion as a birth control option but they do want it to be an option.

Sorry to hear in this article that he is a fellow native of Oregon. Not our proudest moment. I suppose he's better than Tonya Harding though.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Best Movies of the 90s

In the spirit of movie lists started at Lawyers Guns Money and spreading across the blogosphere, and particularly inspired by Rob over there who made his 90s list, here's mine.

First though, what a great decade for movies. Good foreign films, the "independents" actually made a few good ones, even the studios had some good films. Comparing it to the 80s is amazing. A few months ago a discussion of 80s movies showed how difficult it was to come up with 10 movies worthy of such a list. For the 90s, you could make good arguments for at least 40.

Oddly though, there's not one movie that is completely dominant over the rest. None of the top movies seem like #1 contenders.

Nonetheless, here's my top 10 list with the understanding that this is very fluid and would probably be different tomorrow.

1. Red (Kieslowski, 1994)
2. Lone Star (Sayles, 1995)
3. Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993)
4. To Live (Zhang, 1994)
5. The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1997)
6. Hana-Bi (Kitano, 1997)
7. Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992)
8. The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998)
9. The Usual Suspects (Singer, 1995)
10. Burnt By The Sun (Mikhalkov, 1994)

What a great list of movies. What's even more amazing is the list that didn't make the top 10 but I think are really good movies.

The Sweet Hereafter
Out of Sight
Groundhog Day
A Taste of Cherry
The Best Intentions
Leaving Las Vegas
L.A. Confidential
Cold Comfort Farm
An Autumn Tale
Secrets and Lies
Boogie Nights
Central Station
Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down
Silence of the Lambs
Husbands and Wives
The Celebration
Hoop Dreams
The Straight Story
Deconstructing Harry
Gods and Monsters
Buena Vista Social Club
Three Kings
Miller's Crossing
The Truce

I have no doubt that I am missing some too. I think any of these would be top 10 in the 80s. They are listed in no particular order by the way. And these don't includes the many good movies that others might talk about like Quiz Show or something that really don't belong here. And if you believe that Saving Private Ryan should be considered, we need to have long talk.

Surreal Moment of the Day

Bill O'Reilly's guest this evening? Kinky Friedman, naturally.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Trip to Mexico--Day 2, Tucson to San Carlos, Sonora

It's about an hour from Tucson to Nogales, where we crossed the border. Not too much to say about the drive except that the spring was arriving. Flowering trees were blooming and a few trees even had some young leaves on them. This is at nearly the same time that this began in Seattle. There is something wrong with the climate.

I was very excited to cross the border. There's something thrilling about crossing the border into a new country for me. Even if it's pretty much the same on the other side, such as between Canada and the United States, it gets me going. That said, crossing into Mexico was the most anticlimactic border crossing I've ever done. You simply drive across. No one checks your ID. No one checks your car. You can go into the line to declare goods if you so choose, but no one will stop you and make you. One second we were in the US. The next we crossed a speedbump and there we were--Mexico. Despite the proximity and easy border crossing, at least from the US into Mexico, things are pretty different on the other side. The houses look different, the poverty is significantly higher, and there is a different smell, different sounds, and a different feel. Also the food becomes tastier.

About 2o miles into Mexico is the real immigration stop. It's hear that you get your tourist cards, get your car cleared if you are driving, etc. It was also here that I encountered my first Americans on the trip. The best rule of thumb I have discovered while traveling is that the farther away you can get from other Americans, the better off you are. What a pain in the ass we are. Loud, obnoxious, impatient, boisterous, pushy, and a lot of other negative adjectives. Unfortunately we are more prevalent in Mexico than VD in the hookers of Juarez. And we probably cause more discomfort too. In the line for the tourist cards are these 2 older guys. Almost certainly Republicans. Rich, tanned, and assholes. All they do is bitch about how every time they come to their second homes in Mexico the rules for getting in have changed, and the lines are so long, and the immigration workers don't speak English, blah blah blah. This in a line that was probably 30 minutes long at most. But I'm sure they are happy to force those damned greasy Mexers to wait for hours at the border, have their assholes searched for drugs, or be forced to hike for 50 miles across the desert to get into the US. After all, we have to keep those welfare mothers out.

Once we got away from the stupid Americans and through the immigration procedures, it really felt like we were in Mexico. This was the real thing. A feeling of freedom and excitement washed over me. And these feelings were exacerbated by the fact that it was lunch time. And you know what that means? TACO STAND!!! Man, I love food stands. The food is so tasty. Even as a vegetarian, the carne asada grilling had a mouthwatering smell. There we were sitting in the Mexican sun, munching on delicious tacos and enchiladas, smelling the wonderful grilling meat, drinking a Coke, and being damned glad that someone in the world, health and safety standards don't exist so that we can eat this tasty tasty food. Plus this place served these really big and thick grilled green onions with the meal. This was the only time I was served these in Mexico and I am damned glad to have had the opportunity. I am not usually given to eating straight onions, but I would munch into another of these in a heartbeat.

We continued driving south. The Sonoran Desert continued presenting its beauty to us. Saguaros were everywhere. Soon, other types of cactus appeared as well, including the lovely Organ Pipe Cactus where the stems come out of the bottom and shoot up like a pipe organ. A cactus heaven the Sonoran Desert is. We bypassed the Sonoran capital of Hermosillo and headed south to the Gulf of California, or Sea of Cortez as it is sometimes known. After several hours we reached the beachside town of San Carlos.

San Carlos is a complex place for me. Americans were everywhere. Lots of rich Anglos have built second homes down there on the cheap. A beautiful place for homes I don't doubt. But there is something wrong with being in Mexico and having the billboards be in English. I felt like I wasn't in Mexico at all. San Carlos itself is an old fishing town that has been transformed by tourism over the last decade or two. It is a growing beachside destination. We planned on camping that night on the beach. We found a spot near a bunch of other people. It was OK but it wasn't what we had hoped for. Then this windsurfer guy comes over to us. He tells us that this place kind of sucks because there are too many people and they are too noisy. He tells us about this nearly abandoned beach about 5 miles down the beach past a tiny fishing village and over some pretty rough dirt roads. We are very thankful. The man deserves a beer because it was a wonderful place. It was not exactly abandoned as a van of Mexicans came out to walk around at one point and some guys put a boat in there in the morning but it was good enough.

The beach was perfect. A nice sandy area. A little rocky toward the water. And tidepools right off the beach. An island about 100 feet out or so was covered in Saguaros. Saguaros were scattered around the mountains coming out of the sea. The sun was setting and it was a sight. The stars were millions in number without the light of the town blocking them. The full moon eventually came over the mountains and lit the night for us. I went out to the tidepools with a headlamp and I find an incredible variety of creatures for being about 2 feet from the shore. Baby octopus were in the rocks. 1 came out but you could see the tentacles of the rest. Rays, which I had never seen before, were attracted to the light and came up to the rocks. Small crabs ran around the tidepools. Sea stars with a dozen or more arms were scattered around as were sea urchins and a few anenmoes. Even some fish came around. One was yellow and brown striped and maybe 4 or 5 inches long and a little red fish came up too. I couldn't have imagined that I would see this much so close to the shore. The only tidepools I had been to before were in Oregon and those are great but there's not a tremendous variety on them. So this was an eyeopener. I should also mention that my wife proved to be an amazing beachcomber as we kept finding specimen-quality shells. I always thought that the fancy looking shells people buy in stores were polished to look that way but in fact they just come out of the ocean like that. Carrie found about 3 perfect shells that she could have sold and lots of other cool fragments.

After a few beers, some good talk, and more looking for sea creatures we hit the hay and ended an amazing first day in Mexico.

More on Creative Jazz

In addition to The New Republic article on Ellery Eskelin I talked about a couple of days ago, I just noticed that the January/February issue of the Atlantic Monthly had an excellent piece on the superb pianist and creative musician Matthew Shipp. This leads me to ask the question, why the surge in articles on music that a)no one has heard of and b) can be very inaccessible. I think there are a few reasons for this.

First, the creative jazz scene, or free jazz, or avant-garde jazz, or experimental jazz, or whatever you want to call it has produced a remarkable number of amazing musical thinkers and players over the past 15 years. This scene is on par with that of the Coltrane/Ayler/Sanders/Taylor period of the late 60s for creativity. And because of the wide varieties of music that these new musicians listen to, including alternative rock and electronica as well as Coltrane, Ellington, John Cage, and Olivier Messaien, the sheer variety of sounds produced is spectacular. This quality has caught the attention of the music world.

Second, jazz in its classic sense is dying if not already dead. Damn near the only people who listen to "jazz" these days are middle-aged white people who have no desire to be challenged or have their mind expanded by the music they listen to. Wynton Marsalis is perfect for these people. The manifestation of this is in CDs such as The Romantic Miles Davis. A friend of mine joked about this that in contrast to the 1 CD of the Romantic Miles Davis they should put out about 50 albums worth of the Hostile Miles Davis. The deeply boring Norah Jones is yet another example. Wow, I'm getting sleepy just writing about her. Anyway, there is nothing interesting to say about this kind of music. Young people don't give a damn about this stuff. And there's little reason to.

Finally, as musical genres blend in this post-modern world, the sounds of underground hip-hop, alternative rock, and electronic music are heavily influenced by creative jazz, just as the latter is influenced by the former. Those interested in one kind of music are going to look for the influences and that eventually leads you to Charles Gayle, William Parker, and Matthew Shipp.

Ultimately experimental jazz is not going to make a big commercial splash. Too many people today see music as wallpaper for whatever they are doing to take a listen to a 25 minute improvisational piece that will challenge them. But much as there are underground hip-hop and rock scenes, there is an important, vibrant, and wonderful underground jazz scene that is beginning to get some much-deserved attention.

If anyone out there is interested in what some of this stuff sounds like, drop me a line and I'll burn you a sampler CD of it.

Cato Loves Bill

The Cato Institute recently named Bill Richardson the best Democratic governor and he is tied for 6th overall in the fiscal policy report card. This is an excellent reason why Richardson cannot be the Democratic candidate in 2008. He is worse on taxes, social spending, and other key progressive issues than 16 Republican governors. This includes Jeb Bush. In other words, we would be getting a more progressive politician when it comes to these issues in Jeb Freaking Bush than in Bill Richardson. All you ever hear out of Richardson is tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. All we need to say in 2008 is someone else, someone else, someone else.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Trip to Mexico--Day 1, Santa Fe to Tucson

With great excitement me, my wife, and three friends left for Mexico early in the morning. There's not a great deal to say about the beginning of such a driving trip. I-25 through New Mexico does not hold secrets of great interest. There are certainly more boring drives than I-25 through the northern part of the state but south of Albuquerque is a fairly grim drive. Nonetheless, the thrill of the upcoming 10 days got us through this portion of the trip with flying colors. I imagine the road would be far less tolerable if, say, God hated your soul so much to force you into a regular Socorro-Truth or Consequences commute.

It's funny how a trip can change your outlook on life. I am a very political person as any reader of this blog knows. But as soon as I hit the road, my interest in such subjects abates quickly. It's not as if I become actively disinterested in the rest of the world. But the sights, sounds, and smells that you experience simply overwhelm average worldly concerns. Even when traveling amongst the poorest of the poor, which did not happen in Mexico, I feel a great sympathy for their plight and a need to help them improve their lot, but it's not depressing because one realizes that even among those who do not have great economic fortune, there is a great deal of life and a great deal to learn from them. Even baseball fades from my desire. Driving through Tucson that afternoon I saw some baseball fields and felt a certain longing to go to Spring Training. But it faded real fast.

As I mentioned the drive through southern New Mexico is pretty boring. One odd thing though. We took a shortcut from Hatch to Deming in southern NM. That road was nearly choked with cars with Midwestern license plates. Were they snowbirds returning to Iowa and South Dakota early? Was there a mass migration to Deming? God knows they could not have come to visit that area of New Mexico as there is approximately nothing to see on that highway.

Part of the reason for the relative disinterest in the drive is the monotony of the Chihuahuan Desert, which starts just south of Albuquerque and continues for several hundred miles into Mexico. It's just not a particularly biological diverse place. Even the cactus there is pretty uninteresting. This continues all the way into eastern Arizona. But wow! when you hit the Sonoran Desert you know it. The most striking sign is the beautiful Saguaro cactus. But prickly pear fields dominate the ground in a way that they don't in the Chihuahuan Desert. There seem to be more kinds of grass and other plants as well. It's simply beautiful and unique. The place is alive with interesting plant life. Why there is such a significant difference in the two deserts I do not know. They have fairly similar human histories, at least since whites came to the area. Both have been changed a great deal by intensive cattle grazing. If anything, Arizona's deserts have suffered greater damage from humans because of the enormous population growth in the area. And both the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts in Mexico have also been subjected to cattle. I guess the Sonoran Desert is just one of the Earth's unique ecosystems. It's certainly the most stunning desert I have ever visited. Maybe it is the most beautiful on Earth.

That stunning beauty is preserved nicely in Saguaro National Park, just outside of Tucson. I won't go into the park in great detail--more Saguaro, more of the other beautiful flowers and cactus that dominate southern Arizona. But the park is in some peril due to its proximity to expanding Tucson. On the road we took the park, new and expensive houses dominated the landscape more than the Saguaros. The Saguaros are thick enough that there is no way that several do not get taken out for each trophy home that goes up. I don't know what's more damaging to this unique species, the homes or the rednecks who use them for target practice. Either way, it is not a species on a road to long-term health in the United States. No question that it will remain in large numbers within the park but to create isolated populations is certainly not a positive development.

That evening we went to a Mexican restaurant in Tucson. There were some kids playing around with walkie-talkies just outside of the restaurant. As it happened, we traveled in two trucks and brought some 2-way radios to communicate between the autos. One of our companions brought his radio in and began to mess with the kids a little bit. This greatly amused their parents who told them things that would scare the kids. This was all highly entertaining as the kids were a little freaked out. Then it got a little weird. My friend began talking to them in Spanish some. This completely confused the kids. The oldest, who was probably 7 or 8, came up to him and said (probably a slight paraphrase), "This is America. We speak English here." This in a Mexican restaurant in southern Arizona. As you can imagine that caught us a bit offguard. At that age, you only learn those kind of things from parents. It was a little depressing and sad. But then again, I guess this gave us a little insight into the kind of people who actually vote for Jon Kyl.

The New Republic and Creative Music

Rare is the day that I complement The New Republic for their political coverage. After all, they employ Gregg Easterbrook. But their arts coverage is probably second to none among the major literary and political magazines. Stanley Kauffmann is my favorite living film critic and I have read him faithfully for over 10 years. Now they are the first major magazine in a long time where I have seen an article on the creative music/avant-garde jazz scene. By this I mean articles far far away from the ass-kissing the New York Times does for Wynton Marsalis and others who wish to turn jazz into classical music. Rather, musicians in this scene, or really overlapping but distinct scenes, are taking the lessons of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and others and are creating new and interesting music that virtually no one listens to. These artists are as diverse as William Parker, Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, John Zorn, Charles Gayle, Guy Klucesvek, and Medeski, Martin, and Wood (of course people do listen to them and this is somewhat amazing).

If any of this interests you, read the New Republic's article on the Ellery Eskelin trio. I saw this group play back in 1997 or 1998. They use the somewhat less than classic trio of sax, drums, and accordion/electronics. I don't know that they are my favorite group necessarily but they are quite good and by God, it's great that any of these creative artists receive any kind of national coverage.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Selma Anniversary

Today is the 40 year anniversary of the march over the bridge in Selma that was violently suppressed by Alabama cops and which played no small role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

This occasion has a bit of bittersweet for me though. Obviously the gains made by the Civil Rights movement were titanic and it's unquestionably the greatest social movement in American history. But with the old leaders of the movement passed on or aging and the slow rollback of the real gains of the movement, I wonder what will happen over the next 20 years. Last I heard, the Bush administration did not support the renewal of the Voting Rights Act which expires this year, claiming perversely, though normally for these "people", that it is racist against blacks.

I am reminded of a preacher I once knew who had been a leader in the movement in Macon, Georgia. Macon wasn't a hotbed of the movement but in some ways is more typical of the small local movements that fed the larger movement. I knew him about 6 years ago. He was probably close to 75 at that time. He was concerned about the future of the movement. He told me that if the need to protest began again, he was just too tired and old to lead again. So who will lead when that time is necessary?

Back from Mexico

Back from my Mexico trip and blogging hiatus. I'll be sending out a post each day for the 10 days I was gone. I was going to start today but I want to include a few pictures and they haven't been uploaded yet. Please notice the passive voice which I use because I don't know how to do that so I have to wait until my wife has time to do it for me. I use it to save myself from embarassment that I obviously don't care about.

Anyway, suffice to say for now that Mexico was great. I guess I've never travelled somewhere and not had a good time. And I don't know if Mexico was better than the other places I've been. But that's because they've all been wonderful and Mexico is certainly no exception. Interesting experience driving down there too.

In any case, pictures or no I'll start my Mexico posts tomorrow.