Thursday, June 30, 2005

Book Review--Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home

Interesting--the book's whole title is Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies but Blogger wouldn't let me make a title this long. I guess it's good that we don't use lengthy 18th century style titles today...

This is one of the most interesting books I've read in a long time. In part this interest comes from the fact that I don't really know all that much about the intricacies of the New Left, something that is odd considering my own history and interests. But my knowledge of the Weathermen was limited and I was completely ignorant of the Red Army Faction, a West German radical organization, though I do have very vague memories of western European left-wing terrorist organizations from news stories as a child.

In any case, both groups are pretty frightening. I had no idea about the Maoist self-criticism and bizarre sexual practices of Weatherman nor of the complete moral bankruptcy of the RAF. But although my knowledge of this part of history is less than intricate, the book did remind me of several of my own experiences on the far left and the lessons that Varon thinks these groups have for activists and issues of terrorism today are ones that I think are valuable.

Among the most important points is the way that so many activists in the late 60s and 70s substituted slogans for analysis. Don't we see the same thing in discussing Iraq today? Instead of any kind of historical analysis of the situation that we're in, so many people on the left simply denounce those they disagree with, using the chickenhawk slogan or whatever else is handy. Of course there are many good arguments made against the war when it started, the way the war has been fought, the places it is being fought, and whether we should stay over there at all. But too often these arguments are diluted by extremist language, sloganeering, and cheap rhetoric. The Weatherman did the same thing by comparing the US in Vietnam to the Nazis. American actions in Vietnam were reprehensible, but Richard Nixon was not worse than Adolf Hitler. That looks absurd today, just as some of the anti-war rhetoric made today will look absurd in 2035.

This reminds me of the time I was recruited by the Maoist organization Freedom Road. When I lived in Tennessee I knew several members of this organization. They are good, well-meaning people. But they also don't really promote free and critical thinking. I didn't put two and two together until later, but once I was having lunch with a couple Freedom Roaders and they asked me what I thought about the idea of a Black Belt nation that would be all-black and would necessitate kicking out millions of whites. I said that this was about the stupidest goddamn idea I had ever heard of and listed the many reasons why that would never work. It was also clear that they didn't know that the reason it is called the Black Belt is not because there are lots of black people but because of the soil. But maybe that's a common mistake. Anyway, I later found out that this is a central tenet of Freedom Road and that I was being tested to be a potential member. I still worked with these people after this and enjoyed doing so. Again, they are committed activists who have made life on Earth better because of their work. But the level of self-imposed ignorance for a principle was shocking to my academically-trained mind.

And this brings us to the issue of race. Varon shows how white leftist organizations, and particularly the Weatherman, felt the urgent need to prove themselves worthy of revolutionary movements of people of color, particularly the Black Panthers and the Cuban Revolution. This was the real start of the Che myth. As those movements advocated violent overthrow of the state, so did the white organizations. But they had to go one step further because to not meant that they were not fully rejecting their white privilege. It's a good thing to recognize and reject white privilege. But the problem here, and I have seen this problem to in my days on the left, is that through trying to reject their whiteness, they put movements of color on a pedestal and refuse to criticize or even think critically about them. Once we do that, we both allow ourselves to be taken for suckers and to compromise our own potential for social change.

This book has also further convinced me that the second greatest social movement coming out of post-World War II America is the women's movement. (The first of course being the African-American civil rights movement). Progressive organizations were rife with sexism on a level that is incredible to the modern reader. From the treatment of amazing women like Ella Baker in the civil rights movement to the way women of the New Left were used as sexual partners by both black and white movements and how their real job in the movement was to clean house and get coffee for the men it is absolutely shocking. Even in the Weather Underground, women were basically used by movement leaders as sexual conquests for the revolution. While women faced the same demands for personal revolutionary sacrifice as the men did, too often their sacrifice included use as a sexual object. This treatment played a major role in spawning the women's movement in the 1970s that has transformed progressive politics in America. That was one of the most shocking things about the attacks made upon me by Steve Gilliard and his followers. I thought we were over this hyper-masculine bullshit. I guess we aren't. But we've come a long way.

Finally, I'd like to talk briefly about the left's fetishization of violence. This was obvious among groups like the Weatherman and especially the RAF. But even today, we see this. The fetishization of completely meaningless property destruction and worse forms of violence is especially acute among the anarchist movements that rose out of the WTO protests in Seattle. I came to New Mexico soon after these protests and tried to get involved in a student organization at the University of New Mexico. This was a complete disaster for many reasons. One of the most important reasons was the absurd fetishization of violence which I could not abide. There may be places where violence is a completely acceptable act. The Sandinistas for instance were totally justified in their guerilla war. But to think that graffiti is a revolutionary act in Albuquerque, New Mexico when no one knows what the hell you are talking about is totally absurd. My wife and I spoke out against this and, well, let's say it didn't end well. To this day I loathe anarchists and modern-day "anarchism," which I put in quotation marks because my experience shows that those who claim to be anarchists have at best a very hazy notion of what it is actually is and have probably never even heard of Emma Goldman or Alexander Berkman.

This fetishization of violence relies on the idea that somehow the masses support you. New Left groups in the 60s in Europe and America made this mistake. The Weathermen thought that students and others would rush to their side, which of course didn't happen. When we advocate some kind of revolutionary change in America today we often do the same thing. Talk of "the people" and "the masses" is almost by definition amorphous and symbolic. But neither people nor revolutionary violence is simply symbolic. It's real and has real consequences that need to be understood before we undertake or even advocate for violence. The Black Panthers had some understanding of this because of the routine treatment blacks are given by whites and especially the police. Middle-class white kids didn't have this understanding in 1969 and they don't today. If we are going to make change, we have to have real connections with real people and not just talk a bunch of bullshit about the masses. There are many wonderful progressive groups in America that are doing this very thing but there are also a lot of organizations, especially student organizations that don't. And oddly, like my friends in Tennessee, there are groups and people who manage to do both at the same time.

In any case, read this book. It's a great discussion of leftist violence and its implications for today, especially in the post-9/11 world.

The Christian Right and Women

Just in case anyone needs a reminder of where the evangelicals think women's place is, check out Hanna Rosin's article in the June 27 issue of The New Yorker on Patrick Henry College. You may know of this article from Rosin's interview on The Daily Show about it. What I found frightening about it was not that the Republicans are using this college as a training ground for future activists. Hell, we should be doing that. It's good strategy.

What's scary is that the college admits all of these bright women and educates them to be Republican activists, but then says that as soon as they are done with college they should marry, stop work, and have children. I've said this before, but if you think the anti-abortion movement is about abortion, you're not looking deep enough. These people will do anything to make their 1950s myth a reality.

Martin Peretz

Martin Peretz's reflexive and unthinking defense of Israel takes another pointless turn as he chastises the Episcopalian church for disinvesting in Israel because of their treatment of Palestinians. By doing this, Peretz claims the following:

1. This is why the Episcopalian church has become irrelevant in America.
2. Episcopalian bishops are "useful idiots" for Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations.
3. The bishops "are either ignorant or mendacious."
4. That Israel holds no responsibility for the precarious situation that Palestinian Christians find themselves in. (After all, no doubt that if Israel had never been created at all or if they treated the Palestinians like humans, Islamic extremism would still be just as strong there)
5. That the Episcopalians are "fellow-travelers" for Palestinian terrorists.
6. That these bishops are worse than Christians who allied themselves with fascism or communism because at least those movements were "rooted in one or another version of the Christian ethic."
7. That Palestinians have "unproductive economic habits"
8. That the Anglican church as a whole is opposed to the nation-state, especially the US nation-state.
9. That there are many peoples in the world, maybe "dozens and dozens" who have a more legitimate claim to their own nation than the Palestinians.
10. That the fixation of the Anglican/Episcopalian church on Palestine is really anti-Semitism. Peretz's actual words: "The clerics and the lay leaders on this indefensible crusade are so fixated on Palestine because their obsession, which can be buttressed by various Christian sources and traditions, is really with the Jews. A close look at this morbid passion makes one realize that its roots include an ancient hostility for the House of Israel, an ugly survival of a hoary intolerance into some of the allegedly enlightened precincts of modern Christendom."

Wow! What can I say about this that makes Peretz sound any stupider than he makes himself sound?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Why I Love Silent Movies

I've commented before here that my favorite thing about silent movies is the glimpse into the past that they provide, something that was severely distorted by the enactment of the Production Code in the early 1930s. I started the 1920 movie Something New this morning before work. In this a female writer looking for adventure goes to Mexico where, of course, she gets captured by bandits. The word cards give the Mexican bandit (played by an Irishman) a real name but also just refer to him as "Chile Con Carne."

That is some classic old-time racism right there my friends.

Tierney's Last Stand

John Tierney continues with his half-baked analysis of the history of the American West. Today he tries to understand why American Indians live in such poverty. The reason, of course, is federal bureaucrats.


Here's the real point of Tierney's argument. The expansive federal government has squeezed the economic life out of Native Americans and they are trying to do the same to the rest of us with their regulations, bureaucracy, and anti-growth policies. And maybe you can make this argument if you base your entire understanding of Indian history on a couple of right-wing economists and you don't read ANY of the massive amounts of history, anthropology, sociology, and Native American oral traditions that have been written about this problem.

Instead we can just simplify the problem down to that meddlesome federal government.

Tierney argues that the decline of Indians came at the same time that the federal bureaucracy began to grow, in the mid-19th century. He goes on to say that the rise of two particular bureaucracies, the army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is what destroying Indian economic and political life.

This argument is extremely simplistic. Tierney states that between 1790 and 1840, far more treaties were signed with Indians than battles for land and that this changed after 1840. The one problem with this argument--history. There's actually a pretty simple reason for this change. Before 1840, there was huge areas of the North American continent that whites had no interest in settling. After 1840, we began to want control over the entire continent. It's far easier to sign treaties when you can send the Indians somewhere. When there's nowhere else to send them and the land they have been sent to is wanted by whites, battles were inevitable.

It's also a poorly thought out argument to claim that the BIA is the most important reason that today's Indians have economic problems. The BIA certainly plays a part in it. But Tierney seems to separate the BIA and the will of the American people at the time of its creation. The BIA was just a part the general feeling of the American people that Indians were at best a nuisance to be isolated and at worst savages to be killed like wolves. Today, it reflects the general benign neglect that whites feel toward Indians. They might want to get in touch with their Indian heritage--if all the people who claim to be related to a Cherokee princess actually were, the Cherokees would have nothing but royalty--but they're not going to vote for a tax increase to do what is necessary to revitalize the economy of the Indian reservations.

Moreover, isn't the real reason for the many problems of Indian reservations the nearly complete destruction of Indian cultures that all of American civilization is responsible for? The history of white-Indian relations is replete with attempts to transform Indians, from the introduction of alcohol to far-fetched schemes about Indians taking up white-style farming on their terrible land to Indian schools like Carlisle meant to Americanize the Indians to the attempts of the 1950s to end recognition of Indian tribes entirely. The BIA is merely a tool of this nation and its half-cocked and destructive plans toward Indians.

I'm not apologizing for the BIA here. It has been a terrible and corrupt agency for over 100 years. It played a major role in our most destructive policies toward native peoples. But again, the BIA reflects the general opinion of American society toward Indians. When we criticize the BIA we need to be aware that we are also criticizing ourselves and our history. And rightfully so.

Finally--a message to John Tierney. The field of western history is huge and diverse with many different viewpoints. Please become at least marginally acquainted with it before making overarching statements about the history of the American West and what we should do in the West today.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Carpenters Join Reformist Unions

Via Ezra Klein and Working Life.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) is joining the Change to Win Coalition, the group of unions led by Andy Stern and SEIU to revolutionize the labor movement in America, direct its resources toward organizing and make labor relevant in America again. This is not shocking, but it is good news. The Carpenters left the AFL-CIO in 2001 for much the same reason that the UBC formed. The Carpenters are a large union and generally the most progressive of the old-time craft unions. Having them in the Coalition only brings more credibility to this necessary revolt against the status quo among labor in the United States.

Working Life particularly makes some good points about how the size of the Carpenters makes the Coalition unions a sizeable force in American labor and how 3 of the 6 unions now involved, Carpenters, Teamsters, and Laborers, are from the building trades and how that could scare the heck out the staid old trade unions who might fear that someone will actually come and start organizing blue collar workers in America again.

These Are The Kind Of "Scholars" Passed Off As Experts By John Tierney

When I wrote my post questioning John Tierney's interpretation of western history the other day, something struck me. His most important experts were people at the Property & Environment Research Center thinktank in Montana. As someone who has spent years thinking and slowly writing about environmental and western history, I had never run across this institute. So I took a look online.

Not only does the PERC serve as experts for John Tierney, but they also happen to have right-wing views toward the environment that just happen to coincide with Tierney's. What a coincidence!

Among the tenets for their "market-based environmentalism" are the following:

Private property rights encourage stewardship of resources

Government subsidies often degrade the environment

Market incentives spur individuals to conserve resources and protect environmental quality

The first assertion is highly questionable at best. I'm sure it sounds good to right-wingers to say that private property rights encourage stewardship of resources. Only one problem. It kind of lacks any evidence.

Now yes, you can find private property owners who do take care of their land well. There are many ranchers who don't try to kill every prairie dog and who care about diversity of species and don't want to denude the land of every living thing. And you can find a hell of a lot more who do just the opposite, who want everything but their cows dead and who don't give a damn what kind of damage those cows do to riparian areas.

And then there's forestry. We had market-based forestry for a long time in this country. It's what the collusion between the timber industry and the US Forest Service was for the first 40 years after WWII. It led to rapid deforestation and destruction of all but the very last of our old-growth forests. It led to cuts that were way, way above sustainability because the market could absorb every tree that grew in this nation. Many of these lands were nominally owned by the federal government, even if the Forest Service bent over backwards to encourage rapid cutting. But the worst of the environmental damage was done on private lands where there was no government regulation to enforce even the most basic environmental responsibility.

I could go on about private property and the environment in the American West. Mining, fishing, agriculture. The Dust Bowl was an excellent example of how private property can lead to some real disastrous environmental conditions.

But that doesn't sound good to free market ideologues.

The claim that government subsidies often degrade the environment is just hogwash. Well, actually to be more specific it's true when those subsidies serve to further the interests of private property. But government subsidies to Great Plains farmers to not grow excessive numbers of crops, while an outdated policy, certainly has not caused greater environmental damage. Neither has policies to buy out farmers on the western plains and create the National Grassland system. The federal government is the most powerful tool we have to protect some semblance of the western environment.

In other words, government collaboration with private mining companies after World War II--bad for the environment.
Government subsidies to buy out farmers degrading their land--good for the environment.

Finally, the third point that market incentives spur environmental protection. In theory, this is possible. And of course that's the world that the right-wing economists behind the PERC live in. But it's only possible with a strong central government providing reasons for those incentives to work.

If you get rid of the federal government presence in the American West, you are asking for the widespread destruction of our western lands and resources. The Progressives knew this in 1900, FDR and Henry Wallace knew it in the 1930s, even Richard Nixon had some clue about it in 1970. The federal government has done a lot of damage to western environmentalists through its policies, but not nearly the damage that would have occurred without its strong hand.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The New York Times and Western History

Since both of the New York Times editorials today concern western history, oddly enough, I figure that as a western historian it would make sense for me to discuss them. Moreover, the two people are talking about western history are quite different. There's Patricia Nelson Limerick, historian at the University of Colorado and author of one of the most influential books in the history of western history, The Legacy of Conquest, a book that everyone out there should read. And then there's John Tierney, simplistic conservative columnist for the New York Times.

First let's deal with Tierney. He finds some scholars of western history, many of whom have questionable credentials (what the heck is the PERC think tank in Montana?), who claim that in fact the West was not a violent place and settlers realized that trading made a lot more sense than fighting. Thus, they followed their economic hearts and traded in order to live. That's fair enough. He uses the strawman of the HBO series "Deadwood" which defines these scholars against. One problem--no one has claimed that "Deadwood" is an accurate portrayal of the actual community. And of course, who really caused the violence between Indians and whites--the federal government naturally. Those damned Feds!!! Oh federal government, is there anything you can do right? If only we had no federal government at all, we would trade with each other to our heart's content and utopia would result.

This is total bunk. The military's role in western violence was significant but a reaction. Most violence was started by white settlers who hated Indians and wanted them dead. They would commit atrocities against any Indian they saw. Indians then retaliated. The army then came in to mediate the situation and try to separate the Indians from the whites in order to prevent further violence. This pattern begins very early in American history. The Proclamation of 1763, one of the early spurs to the American revolutionaries, made it illegal for settlers to cross the Appalachian Mountains for new land. The reason for this was that the British didn't want to have to pay for endless wars out there and posting military brigades in order to keep these Indian-hating settlers and the Indians apart from each other. As soon as the Revolution was over, whites poured over the mountains, leading to numerous wars and horrifying massacres.

Of course, the military did have a racist attitudes toward Indians, but there's was generally more assimilationist. In any case, it was far less violent than the average white settler who Tierney claims was not interested in violence. Tierney may be right that whites wanted to trade with each other, but he's wrong in assuming that the very act of trading with each other on the western frontier automatically meant that violence would result.

If Tierney actually wants credibility when he writes articles like this, he should at least consult the leading experts in the subjects he wants to write about. In this case, he needed to talk to Richard Maxwell Brown, Professor Emeritus at the University of Oregon and my mentor as an undergraduate. Brown, especially in his book No Duty to Retreat shows how violence permeated western history and continues to permeate American society today. Lyndon Johnson also named to to a commission to study violence in America during his administration. It's unlikely Brown would agree with Tierney which is probably why he wasn't talked to. But not at least mentioning Dick Brown completely undermines anything Tierney has to say about western violence.

Now Limerick. Limerick's piece is a little more disturbing because I expect more from her. As I said before, she wrote The Legacy of Conquest, one of western history's most seminal works. This was a founding book of the New Western History which emphasized violence, conquest, and conflict as key measures of understanding white history in the American West. She was widely villified by conservatives for this book. Somehow though over the years she started making friends with these conservatives, including the bete noire of American environmentalism, James Watt. Watt, the former Secretary of Interior for Ronald Reagan, wanted to eviscerate environmental regulations, privatize government services in National Parks, and turn the West into a giant mine. In other words, he is the teacher of Gail Norton, who is in fact Watt's protege. Limerick's friendship with Watt has led to some disturbing statements, including her editorial today where she takes Bill Moyers to task for saying in a speech that Watt claimed there was no reason for environmental regulations because "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."

Limerick claims that Watt never actually said that. And this is of course possible. I have a lot of respect for Moyers and I would hope he would check his sources carefully. But even if he didn't actually say it, he said many things like it that do make him an enemy of the environmental movement. And given today's climate, how valuable is it to attack Moyers in defense of Watt? Limerick makes good points about the need to not demonize evangelical Christians when it comes to the environment and the need for people like Moyers and Watt to talk to each other. But while we shouldn't demonize evangelicals for no good reason, if Watt or if other political or evangelical leaders do make such statements, they should be demonized. We need to watch these kind of statements carefully. We also need to make sure that when we are not demonizing evangelicals and conservatives for being anti-environment, that we also are not coddling them either.

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Myth of the Military as a Democratizing Force in America

One of the more interesting things about the Gilliard attacks is how much they have bought into the idea of the military as having traditionally represented a broad cross-section of American society and how that has now changed to where the military is a repository for the poor who can't find better jobs.

The reality is that with the exception of one very prominent period in American history, it has always been very similar to that.

That exception of course is World War II. The myths of World War II have seeped deeply into all aspects of American culture and life. From the idea of the greatest generation to the idea that using the atomic bomb on Japan saved a million American lives, we are deeply influenced today by myths coming out of that titanic conflict. During World War II, the military really did represent nearly every male in American society. This was a time when the rich and the poor served together, when people from Harvard enlisted as privates, and when men from around the country became exposed to men from other parts of the country through military service. This is all true. The myth comes from the idea that this how the military has always been.

Both before World War II and after the end of the draft in the 1970s, the military attracted two kinds of people. It attracted the middle and upper classes into the officer corps. And it attracted people with absolutely no other options into the enlisted class. Now the military is not as class stratified today as it was in 1880. The officer corps does recruit people of ability from all classes, but there's no doubt that the officers are made up mostly of the middle and upper-middle classes. And the enlisted personnel, while they do consist of many people with no better option, also still have a lot of middle-class kids who choose the military because they wanted to. But this latter point is changing. It's these kids who are not signing up because of Iraq. So the military is likely to become more class stratified over the next few years if this trend continues.

Should the military be like this? Well, I don't know. Being a soldier is not necessarily a very good job. It doesn't really pay that well. It can put you in significant danger. On the other hand, you can make a pretty good career out of it and move from the very poor into the lower middle class if you stick it out for 20 years. And there's not a lot of jobs which can do that for you. Even during the most violent and intense war in American history, the Civil War, the wealthy in the North and the South did what they could to get poorer people to fight for them, leading among other things to the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. In any case, I don't see a real good option for a lot of kids other than the military and I suppose that I'm OK with that. Yes, I would rather have a better educational system where kids would have more options. I would rather have a classless society where merit decided everything and money nothing. But you know what, even if we did have such a society, we would still need a military and we would still have to find people to be in that military. And how are you going to do this? The rhetoric behind these discussions is that if we had better education, opportunity, and equality, then people wouldn't have to join the military. But we would still need a military so what's the answer.

The only way to get away from a class-stratified military is to have a draft. I don't generally support a draft but I can see its merits. This is the one solution for a democratic military. But of course, Steve Gilliard and the myriads of negative commentators who talk about the undemocratic military and asking poor kids to die for you would be highly unlikely to agree to this. For then they couldn't hide behind their rhetoric and their accusations of cowardice. They would have to play an active role in this democratic military whether they supported the actions of the military or not.

This is the only way to change the military back to representing all of America.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Going to Denver

Blogging may be limited over the next few days as I am going to Denver to visit friends and to see a Rockies game.

What's interesting is that this is a Kansas City at Colorado game. I was hoping this would be an interleague matchup of the two worse teams in baseball but Kansas City has passed Tampa Bay to get out of the AL cellar. Nonetheless, this game is clearly what the designers of interleague play had in mind. No doubt I will blog about the game but other than that, there might not be too much until Monday.

That could be a good thing after this crazy week.

Bill O'Reilly, Full-Fledged Fascist

Via Majikthise comes this story that Bill O'Reilly has called for the jailing of everyone involved with Air American for being traitors.

If he hadn't done so before, O'Reilly has now officially crossed the line into fascism. When you call for your opponents to be jailed for being traitors, you have crossed the line from proto-fascist into full-fledged fascist.

I've told this story to those of you I know personally, but I'll relate here as well. I know a guy who went to high school with O'Reilly. Said he was nothing but a gigantic bullying ass back then too. Incidentally, in the same high school class with this person I know and O'Reilly was the leather guy from the Village People. I don't think O'Reilly and the leather guy hung out too much. Well, maybe O'Reilly wanted to meet with him afterhours for some special tutoring.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Concert Post

For no good reason in particular, I thought I'd blog on some of the concerts I have seen.

Top 5 best concerts:

1. Hank Williams III, Albuquerque, NM, 2002
Until you see Hank III, you have no idea what live country music can be like and simply how much ass it kicks. This show was so incredibly high-energy and had such a fuck you attitude that it just totally rocked. It really blew my mind. Two interesting things about this though. First, he plays heavy metal in the second part of the show, which for its shock value, I understand kind of sucks from people I know who have much more knowledge than I do about this stuff. To me it was just really loud. The second interesting thing was that I saw him in 2004 and was greatly disappointed. Most of the songs were the same, he still hadn't advanced as a songwriter any farther than talking about how much he likes to drink and smoke weed. Which is fine but limited. But if you haven't seen him before, see him. If only once.

2. William Parker & In Order To Survive, New York City, 1997
I liked free jazz and experimental jazz before I saw this show. But if you haven't seen this music played live, you just can't grasp its meaning. This was absolutely amazing. I believe that I've blogged about this show before for some reason, so I'll keep it short. But the sheer energy that flowed over me was almost religious in nature and the unbelievable talent of the musicians was overwhelming. Basically, this show changed my life.

3. Bill Frisell Quartet, Knoxville, TN, 1998
I had seen Frisell before. But to see him in the tiny Laurel Theatre in Knoxville with what might be his best band--Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Ron Miles on trumpet, and Eyvind Kang on violin, was just great. To my mind, Frisell is the greatest living guitarist. He can play almost any style, yet you know it's him by the third or even the first note that you hear. And isn't that really the challenge for a great guitarist--for someone to know your work in the first few notes. How hard is that given the ubiquity of the guitar in modern music? They seemed to have a great time playing, the setting was perfect, and the music phenomenal. I don't think he plays with this quartet anymore, but if you get the chance to ever see Frisell, go.

4. The Freighthoppers, Knoxville, TN, 2000.
I saw this show just before the Freighthoppers broke up when their fiddle player had to have a heart transplant. They took old-time music and made it kick ass. Great energy, great musicianship. Maybe the most fun I've ever had listening to music.

5. Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Knoxville, TN, 1997.
I was just getting into country music at this time. I had heard of Jimmie Dale and had actually seen him do "Just A Wave" with Bill Frisell on Sessions on West 54th on PBS. I saw this show and was totally hooked into country. Is he the best singer since Roy Orbison? All signs point to yes. The man can sing any song ever written as far as I'm concerned. Only downside to Jimmie Dale is that he's basically stopped writing new material. I saw him open for Guy Clark in 2003 and he just wasn't that good, in part because the material he played all predated even 1997. It was weird to see a show 6 years later and feel that the 97 show would have been fresher in 03.

5 Runner-ups.

1. Doc Watson, Maryville, TN, 2000.
Doc is not only a wonderful guitarist and singer but also a walking history lesson. When he sings songs his mother taught him, that means they have to be at least 100 years old. Plus he has a great sense of humor. He has so much talent, he even did a cover of "Nights In White Satin" that turned that song into something that didn't suck. Certainly the greatest living old-time musician.

2. Alejandro Escovedo, Seattle, WA, 2005.
Saw him at the Tractor Tavern this April. Holy shit. Doesn't play too much anymore because of his health. If he plays near you, go see this great musician, songwriter, and band.

3. Dave Alvin, Albuquerque, NM, 2004.
The greatest entrance ever. The band, led by Chris Gaffney who is a hell of a singer in his own right, comes on and plays a couple of songs. Then Gaffney asks if Dave Alvin is out there anywhere. Dave comes from the back of the bar dressed in leather with the guitar slung over his shoulder and walks through the crowd and onto the stage. Fucking cool. The man is the embodiment of rock and roll. Plus I like him because he is one of the paler rock and roll musicians around. Saw him just a few months later in Santa Fe and it was equally as good, something which I think only confirms the greatness of the first show.

4. Bonnie Prince Billy, Albuquerque, NM 2003
The notoriously inconsistent Will Oldham certainly was on his A game that night. Played with a full band, sang well, played the songs differently than the albums but not so abstractly as to make them unlistenable, something I've heard he does not infrequently. Just a really fun show.

5. Terry Allen, Austin, Texas, 2004
Best show at the Austin City Limits Music Festival last year if you ask me. More known for his sculpture, Terry Allen also has made some weird and great country albums. I didn't know what to expect with this show and what I got was a rockin' ass-kickin' show. Having Lloyd Maines on electric guitar never hurts.

There's probably more shows that I'm forgetting that deserve to be here, including the time I saw Tom Russell in a pizza joint in Los Alamos, but whatever.

2 Really Bad Shows

1. Kelly Hogan and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Albuquerque, NM, 2002
When you do a shot per song, you're not going to last long. I think there was about 5 songs. Between shots and songs, she bitched about the sound and by the last song was putting her sweater on and about to cry as she ran off stage. The opening band, Scott Miller and the Commonwealth actually kicked a good bit of ass and didn't complain about the sound at all. Though after the show they did ask my wife to go party with them for the night.

2. Dr. John, Charlie Musselwhite, and Keb Mo, Knoxville, TN, 1999
Music was OK though I'm not a huge fan of any of them. What sucked was some good ol' fashioned racism. When Keb Mo sang "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," some redneck in the audience started throwing stuff at him and screaming that "no n..... should play Hank Williams." I understand that when the police were searching his pockets after they arrested him, one of the cops got pricked by a syringe. Nice. Anyway, even though the rest of the crowd was very supportive of Keb Mo, it kind of took the energy out of the evening.

A Few Concerts I Wish I Had Gone To

I could have seen Johnny Cash in his next to last concert in Knoxville. It was the next show that he collapsed, announced his medical condition, and stopped touring. Unfortunately, it was $40 and I was poor. I should have just found the money. Of course the same cheapness made me miss out on Waylon twice before he died and I've also not seen Ray Price twice and Hank Thompson once. I'll probably regret these too.

I also was in Nashville when the original "O Brother Where Art Thou" took place. I wish I would have gone to this, not so much because the music was all that great--if you're familiar with that kind of music, it's cool but not necessarily seminal--but because it turned out to be my one chance to see the great John Hartford before cancer got him. I will always be bummed about that.

Five People I'd Like To See Before I Or They Die

1. Hazel Dickens
2. Dolly Parton
3. Buddy Tabor
4. Tom Waits
5. Masada

Feel free to share your own thoughts on live music you've seen in the comments.

The Bill James of the NFL

Check this out. I was wondering when we would see a Bill James type statistical analysis of the NFL. It's about time. If I cared about fantasy football as much as fantasy baseball I'd put out the $50 for this. Although my success in fantasy football is far, far greater than in baseball so maybe the investment would mean I should go to Vegas. Probably not though. Heat fries my brain.

John Tower

Given the horrors of the modern Republican Party, we can easily forget how classy they were in the past. For example, take former Texas Senator John Tower, the first Republican senator from Texas since Reconstruction. He's probably best known today as George H.W. Bush's rejected Secretary of Defense nominee. But let's not forget about his racism. For instance, this quote I've just run across concerning the 1981 Justice Department move of Haitian refugee detainees to Big Spring, Texas:

Max Friedersdorf, White House head of Congressional Relations warned Reagan administration officials of Tower's anger and complaints that "you have tripled the black population of Big Springs, Texas, and not even advised me in advance."


From Thomas R. Maddux, "Ronald Reagan and the Task Force on Immigration, 1981," Pacific Historical Review May 2005, 214-15.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Another Post on Stanley Kauffmann's Age

As I've said before, Stanley Kauffmann, the great film reviewer for The New Republic has lived on this Earth approximately as long as Noah. In his review of Cinderella Man, he writes of how he remembered the 1935 fight between James J. Braddock and Max Baer memoralized in the film and that he thought it would make a good movie at the time.

In fact, I believe Kauffmann was in his early 20s at this time. Wow.

A Message to Lucinda

I was just listening to Lucinda Williams' seminal album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I was reminded when listening to "Joy" of something I had wanted to say for a long time. You will not find your joy in West Memphis. I've been to West Memphis. I don't think there's any joy to be found there unless you win big at the dog track. Now I've never been to Slidell, so I can't say for certain, but I'm not too sure there's a lot of joy to be found there either.

Masculinity, The Military, And The Far Left

One of the most fascinating aspects of the attacks against me was how the far Left uses heavily gendered language to describe their enemies while also using traditional tropes of late twentieth century masculinity to talk about the soldiers.

First, a language definition. Some comments in the various posts at various blogs that have talked about this dustup have questioned my discussion of the foreign policy of "the left." And that's legitimate. For what exactly am I talking about here. And actually that's not all that easy to answer. For what is the Left if not myriad fragmented bunches who can't agree on anything, something easy to see from this discussion. So I guess I am defining the far Left as those that are both farther to the left than I am, which is already pretty damn far left in terms of American or even European politics, and who subscribe to ideas about America and the world that are a direct descendant of the far left of the 1960s such as the Weather Underground. Take issue with this definition if you want. It's the best I can do right now.

Back to the point of this post. Think of the terms used against me. Calling someone a coward has definite historical connotations in the English language. First, when are women describes as cowards? Almost never. Calling someone a coward, particularly when, as in this case, issues of war are involved, assumes that it is a male role to join the war and serve in the war. Now obviously, Gilliard and his supporters are turning this traditional definition of coward on its head somewhat, in part to protect themselves from the same charges. They only assume that one can be a coward if one does not oppose the war or oppose immediate withdrawal, thus tacitly supporting the war. Only if you support the war do you have the manly obligation to go and fight. And if you support the war, it is your duty to support all aspects of the war. You need to go and fight, otherwise your manhood has been compromised, if you indeed ever had any manhood for if you did, you would have already fought.

Gilliard makes this even point bluntly when he says of me, "if you were a man you would join them." Or check this out, and this by a woman, or someone posing as a woman no less, "For myself, I would need to see authenticated photos and notarized affidavits to show me that this keyboard coward even as a cock with or without balls," as well as a "pussy." This takes it a step further and asserts the connections between manhood and genitalia thus making a deeper connection between military service and manhood. Note that here, not only is one's manhood defined by military service but the lack of military service denies you even the most basic biological definition of manhood. Indeed to go even farther this woman actually uses the genitalia of the woman as an ultimate putdown. If I had a "cock with balls" I would be a man and thus worthy of myself, my convictions, and my country. But since my actions are more associated with the female genitalia, I am not worthy of any of these things.

All of this again predicated on the construction that those who oppose being in Iraq in any shape or form are immune to this paradigm due to their principles.

Personally I would have thought the far Left, having preached to the world about the need for gender equality and the perils of the American patriarchal establishment for several decades would avoid such language. Perhaps the inherited inequalities of gendered America are so strong that they even affect the members of the far Left. Or maybe they talk a big game about ending patriarchy in order to avoid having to look inside themselves to see how their own actions reflect this historical patriarchy.

Of course this is probably exacerbated by the overwhelmingly male space of the blogosphere, a space where testosterone runs more amuck than in Lyle Alzado's veins circa 1984.

Related to the use of gendered language and war is how the far Left seems to be construing the US military. Now of course we have a small sample size here. But then again, I'm no scientist, political or otherwise. Rob Farley, in his devastating critiques of Gilliard last night here, here, and here, discusses the role of the military in American society and how the Left needs to see this institution:

Turning military professionalism into glorious personal sacrifice is not a mistake the left needs to make. The left needs to treat the military as a professional instrument capable of achieving some national ends, and not as a glorious romantic endeavor based on patriotism and ideological commitment. This is what Gilliard's argument does, and it couldn't be better designed to hand foreign policy to the right. If we think of our soldiers as committed patriots rather than as professionals (and they are both, it just depends on which element we're emphasizing) then it becomes that much harder for civilians to constructively critique military policy and military operations.

This is an excellent point. The military is a profession. People choose to enter this particular profession. They know when they enter this profession that killing and being killed are options. That many Americans are now not making this choice with the increased knowledge of this decision is probably a good thing. But they are doing their job. This means several things. It means that we need to hold them to standards of professionalism. It means that we have a disturbing profession that is key to our nation's foreign policy. It also means, as Rob says, that there is no need to romanticize military service.

Now one might think that because the far Left is generally opposed to the use of our military, they would actively eschew placing the servicepeople on the same pedestal that the Right does. However, and much to my surprise, you would be wrong. Rather, the far Left also seems to place dying in military action as the ultimate manly exercise, something that a coward like myself, someone not deserving of the name "Man" would never engage in. In fact, I cannot become a full man because I do not put myself in the line of fire for a cause that, well for the millionth time I don't support but also don't advocate an immediate withdrawal.

I wonder how this lionization of manhood and military service came to be on the far Left. Has the nation so internalized the Greatest Generation rhetoric that even those most traditionally opposed to the military and US foreign policy have come to seen the sacrifices made in World War II as the standard to judge ourselves by? By focusing on the deaths of American soldiers, and maybe even fetishizing them and certainly by using them those deaths as a political tool to beat over the heads of those they disagree with, has the far Left come to the same conclusions about the manhood of soldiers and of military service, even if they disagree with it, as the Right has? It's a very interesting question worthy of more study and thought.

General Thoughts About All Of This Craziness

Wow, what a day yesterday was. There's nothing like attacks and false allegations to get the ol' blood pumping.

Thanks to everyone, both people I know and who I don't, for defending me and understanding what I was trying to say, even if they disagreed with it. Thanks to those people who strenuously disagreed but presented their positions with at least a modicum of respect. I appreciate it at great deal. You all made me feel better. It's good to have friends.

For a while I thought about giving up blogging. Why the hell would I put myself through this? Then I thought that such an action would be akin to letting the forces of extremism win. So I put that out of my mind.

I'll blog about this and that throughout the day relating to some of this stuff. I will say now that I've always found the trite saying that the political spectrum is not a line but a circle and that the far right and far left meet was kind of dumb and not very useful. I still think that. But I do find it remarkable that the far left and the far right both use the same kind of attacks and both use the same heavily gendered language to discuss the military. This latter point is deserving of a larger post which will come later today.

I do wish that I had downloaded sitemeter. I wonder how many posts I got yesterday? Oh well. Maybe a few people read this who actually thought that at least some of the ideas were good. Maybe they'll even come back now and again.

It may be depressing to be attacked like this. But hey, it's a beautiful day. I'm reading the works of Yuri Olesha. I'm listening to a Tom Russell album. The sky is blue and clear, even if it's a bit hot. There's wildflowers everywhere. Maybe I'll get lucky today and see a rabbit or maybe even some deer. Life is good.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Is There No Room For Dissent on the Left?

I ask this question because of the brutal, vulgar, and mean-spirited response I received here about my post saying that we should not leave Iraq at the present time. For those of you who don't want to subject yourself to it, here's a list of things I have been called in the main post and the comments:

Main Post:
"Mr. Gutless"
"Mr. Warmonger"

From the lovely comments:
"your Thomas Friedman thingy"--a low blow if there ever was one...
"stupid-ass, delusional, pompous, cowardly"

People said "fuck you" to me and other things that frankly I am not going to print here.


Is there room for dissent? I made a relatively mild case for staying in Iraq for the time being. I never supported the war. But I do think that given the options that are on the table right now, options which are all bad, that we should stay there for the time being. For that dissent from Left orthodoxy, the comments above. Did I deserve this? Does anyone deserve this? Perhaps if I had claimed the inferiority of a certain race I would deserve such comments. Or maybe if I said that mass murder of Iraqis would be a good thing. But did I say something that outside the pale? For my dissent on immediate withdrawal, I am attacked ad hominen.

If I were receiving these attacks from Republicans, I would be proud. Instead I am deeply upset. I'm sitting here shaking as I type. Not even Bob Wills can make me feel better right now. This makes me quite depressed and it even makes me question whether I should continue with this blog, except that to do so would be a capitulation and what these people would want.

So what is the tolerance for dissent on the left? I knew it was bad on the Right. I should have known that it would be just as bad on the Left. But I am absolutely shocked and saddened that I am attacked like this, more because of what it says about independent thinking on the Left than for personal attacks upon myself.

I feel like I should say more here, but I'm too upset to continue.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Our Role in Species Management

I am a bit disturbed by this US Forest Service plan to start shooting barred owls who are pushing spotted owls out of their nesting areas. By all accounts that I have read, the barred owls have migrated to the West Coast from the Midwest without any assistance from humans. So should we intervene in this case to keep spotted owl populations up? It's a tricky question. Humans have destroyed so many of the world's species that if we can save some, even if they are on their way to dying out naturally, maybe we should. Perhaps some of you are aware of the fate faced by the Tasmanian devils, who have developed a genetic mutation that makes it so they can't eat and is spread through biting, which the devils do to each other all the time. This mutation is wiping out the population of these animals very quickly. Australian scientists have quarantined some devils to hope they can rebuild the population. But by all accounts, humans have no fault in causing this to happen.

In both of these cases, humans are intervening to save a species that perhaps is doomed anyway. While humans intervene in so many natural processes, I am wary of this kind of thing. First of all, it's unlikely to be effective. If the barred owls are coming out here anyway, we can postpone the inevitable but as soon as the nation doesn't have the money or will to do this kind of work anymore the barred owls will likely finish off the spotted owls. If these were non-native species brought in by people from a different part of the world I might feel differently. But I have a hard time justifying intervention in yet another natural process. This is not mitigating the damages that human beings have caused around the world. This is playing God for the sake of playing God.

Still, maybe some of you out there could convince me otherwise. It's a tricky issue. Feel free to disagree me here and give me your reasons for doing so.

Opposing the War and Opposing Immediate Withdrawal

In my recent post entitled "The Left and Iraq" I received several negative comments that essentially amount to this: "If you don't support immediately leaving Iraq, you should volunteer yourself because you tacitly support the war." This is an absurd argument. But it is a common argument as well. I want to go over both the major points made in these comments and my reasons for opposing immediate withdrawal.

1. Opposing the war. Obviously this war has been a complete disaster from Day One. There's little reason to go into all the reasons this is so. But everyone reading this blog probably agrees with me here. Bush and the boys and their obsessions with Iraq have gotten us into an unfortunate situation without leaving the Iraqis really any better off. There are many reasons to oppose this war: the lack of a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the Bush/Powell/Blair lies about WMDs in Iraq, the use of unilateral American force (don't forget the Poles), etc. etc. I opposed this war and I still do oppose this war. It was poorly planned with unclear objectives. It was based on lies. There was no realistic plan for the peace. It was driven by ideologues who knew nothing about Iraq. I would even more stringently oppose expanding the war to Syria or Iran. Meanwhile Osama Bin Laden continues to run free, nearly 4 years after 9/11.

2. Opposing immediate withdrawal. What positive would come from immediate withdrawal? Almost certainly, Iraq would plunge into an active and bloody civil war. This may be only somewhat worse than the relatively passive civil war they are already in. But to leave would create a really large power vacuum. Who would fill that vacuum? Islamic extremists of the Zarqawi type? Iran? More terrorist organizations? What about civil rights for women? Do you think those are going to last for one second after we depart? Do you think women will be receiving educations? Women in parliament? Not going to happen. We would create great instability and that is what the Middle East does not need.

Some say that every US soldier who dies over there has been murdered by Bush and those who support the war. And certainly Bush has a lot of American blood on his hands and I hope he pays for someday, somehow. If there is a Hell, they have a special room for the planners of this war. But is American withdrawal from Iraq going to cut down on the loss of lives? It will cut down on the loss of American lives. But I ask those who want immediate withdrawal, are American lives worth more than Iraqi lives? If not, how can you justify an action that will cause the loss of more Iraqi lives even if it saves some American lives?

These arguments make me shake my head at the lack of a coherent foreign policy for progressives. We demand civil rights around the world. We criticize when mass murders, civil wars, and genocide takes place and the US does nothing about it. But if it takes the US military and even violence to ensure that the world is a better, safer, and more just place, we run like hell. If only those Sunnis would listen to reason and not try to kill Shiites and Kurds. If only Islamic extremists would respect the rights of women. Well, that's not going to happen very easily. If you want the rights of women respected and a Taliban like government not coming to power in Iraq, what are you going to do about it? What are we willing to do to see that our core values of human rights and respect for humanity, tolerance, and diversity come to pass.

Answer me, progressives of the world--are you willing to do anything at all that involves the use of the military to ensure that our basic values take hold around the world?

For I am. While this war is a disaster and is immoral, we don't have a choice to go back in time and pressure Iraq to change in a different way. We have two options--we stick it out and make the best of it, trying to help create a system where democracy is a possibility and human rights are relatively respected. Or we leave, create even more instability in the region, let the country devolve into a civil war far bloodier than now, and create an atmosphere for Islamic fundamentalism even greater than what we've done so far. But hey, we'll be able to self-righteously say that it's not our problem anymore. Boy will that do a lot of good.

There is one thing that progressives have to recognize. A coherent foreign policy is absolutely vital for us to have a say in how America and the world works. We can't just wring our hands and criticize what the Republicans do. We have to have a legitimate alternative. John Kerry lost the election for many reasons. One reason, and maybe not an insignificant one, was that the Democratic party had no coherent foreign policy. There was nothing we could say we would do differently that made sense to anyone.

Now you might say, "well I'm not a Democrat. I didn't even really support John Kerry." Some of you might have even been crazy enough to vote for Nader again. I only marginally supported Kerry myself. But what is the left/progressive foreign policy option? Is there anything besides withdrawal? I don't think there is. And while maybe you can convince enough Americans of your position for us to leave Iraq, is non-engagement with the world, except in things like arts exchanges and human rights conferences and of course tourism, really a foreign policy?

Now some would say, and have said to me, that if you don't support immediate withdrawal you should just go over there and fight yourself. If you won't go and fight yourself, than you are a hypocrite. This is what they say to me and I don't even support the damn war!! I want to talk about this a bit. We have a military for a reason. When you sign up for the military, you know it is a possibility that you are going to have to go fight and die. Many people sign up for the educational possibilities and other benefits. But you make a bargain with the government when you take that education that you will have to sacrifice yourself. So the argument that we support our troops by wanting to bring them home is not very satisfying to me. If that is as far as your support of the troops go, what is the point of having a military? You have to be willing to go to war in some circumstances. Now a unilateral invasion of Iraq is not one of those circumstances maybe. But for progressives, is there any situation where the use of military force is acceptable? What is Canada starting killing all the French-speakers? Would we be willing to use our military to stop the deaths of millions?

Maybe I don't support the troops then. Maybe I think that many of them are getting what they asked for. I've heard and read numerous stories since 9/11 about soldiers, from boot camp all the way to combat, talk about how much fun it was going to be to kill towelheads. I just have trouble feeling too terrible about people who took this bargain and then dehumanized the Islamic world to have to pay the cost. I don't want them to die of course. I wish we weren't over there at all. But we are and I don't have any great compunction about asking soldiers to fulfill their part of the bargain they made with the US government. That doesn't mean that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney don't have the blood of all of those troops on their hands.

On the other hand, unlike the Republicans, I am deeply disturbed about how we do not support the troops. Supporting the troops is not about wrapping yourself in the flag. It's about not making them pay for their own uniforms. It's about not making them pay for their own meals after they are injured in battle. It's about making sure that they have proper battle armor when they have to fight. It's about providing adequate VA care for the rest of the soldiers' lives. Republicans don't support any of this. And ultimately, it's the Republicans who don't support the troops when it counts.

What about the first war with Iraq? There were huge protests over that war. But Saddam Hussein had invaded another nation for the purpose of annexing it. He was killing and raping thousands of Kuwait residents. Say what you want about Kuwait, but if those are not circumstances that justify using the military, what are? I cannot think of a more important question for progressives to come to grips with about the world. What is America's place in the world and under what circumstance should we use force to ensure, not the interests of the US necessarily, but the safety and peace of the entire world?

Jeb, Would You Give It A Rest For Christ's Sake

Jeb Bush now wants an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Terry Schiavo's collapse 15 years ago. Because since Michael Schiavo wanted his wife to die with dignity and to go on with his life, he must be a murderer. What kind of immoral young man would see that his wife was never going to get better and not stay by her bedside for the rest of his life? What kind of man realizes that since his wife is a vegetable and he is maybe 30 years old, that he should find another woman to start a new life with? I'll tell you what kind--a murderer who doesn't support the Christian right wing agenda and the political ambitions of one Jeb Bush, that's who.

The Scum of the Earth

Is there a worse group of people on the face of the Earth than human resources people? Maybe Third World dictators or professional torturers. Maybe a few others. But human resources people are really bad. Why are they so bad? Because they claim to be the friend of the worker but they will stab you in the back at the first chance. A case in point: I work in the graduate student program at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I help write reports documenting historic buildings at the Laboratory and hopefully help save some of them from being torn down. Because my work doesn't involve planning how to kill people more effectively, I don't get paid as much. Even though I have as many skills as the chemists and physicists, they are in the "technical" category while I am many others not directly involved in the destruction of the world are classified as "administrative" and get paid less. So yesterday, the Laboratory decides to have a mandatory student meeting and someone asks about this and basically says that this is bullshit. The answer from the HR person--that people like me are less valuable to the Laboratory and that we should be happy that we are getting paid at all to do this work. Lovely.

Another example. I spent the summer of 2000 working for the SEIU local in Nashville. It was a terrible experience for the head of the union apparatus there (not the local head who was pretty good) was a horrible human being. But I won't get into that now. Anyway, one of the places of employment we represented was a traditionally black hospital. They had a drug rehab clinic. They wanted to fire one of the nurses there for being too mean to the patients. For instance, she made them follow the rules and not be able to make extra phone calls. I was in on a meeting where this was discussed and we were saying, "They're drug addicts for Christ's sake. They need tough love. They need to learn to follow rules and have discipline in their lives." And what we came to realize was that the administration and the HR people of the hospital didn't actually want the drug addicts to get better. They kept calling them "clients." They wanted them to leave, get hooked again, and have to come back!

The thing about HR people is that they always seem like such nice people. But if you even begin to talk about forming a union in your office, if you complain about conditions, if you say anything critical of the company, they will cut you down before you can say boo. I hate them far more than corporate executives. You know where they stand. They are up front and honest about it. At least you can respect that. But those who claim to work in your interests and are nothing but poisonous snakes ready to strike at any time are the low of the low. Human resources people deserve nothing but contempt.

A Message to NYU Graduate Students

If NYU continues in their actions to back away from recognizing the graduate student union, graduate students should just walk out. Universities can simply not function without graduate students. If you were to get, say, 75% of graduate students to stop grading, stop conducting research for their advisors, stop everything, I have to believe that you would win. Meanwhile, NYU is offering as compensation for no union to raise the graduate student yearly salary to $21,000. In New York City. Wow, thanks.

Using Hitler For Rhetoric

Wanted to send a kudos out to Jon Stewart for his attack on people using Hitler to demonize their opponents, no matter how trivial the issue. It reminds me of the excellent case Matt from What Is The War made recently about how bad it was for Amnesty International to compare GITMO to the Soviet gulags. It cheapens the experiences of those who actually had to go to the gulags, raises the level of rhetoric in US political discussions to unnecessary extremes, and makes it harder to use that kind of comparison effectively when it is needed. The same goes for comparing everything to what the Nazis did or directly to the Holocaust. This kind of language does not help anyone. When Republicans said that letting Terry Schiavo die was like what the Nazis would do, we rejected that argument out of hand because we knew the comparison was ridiculous. Yet progressives often use the same language, which the average Republican voter also rejects out of hand because they know the comparison is ridiculous.

I keep pushing this point in blog posts and I'm sure that I will again. But we need to be precise in our language. We need to call things what they are. We don't need to demonize our enemies, we need to describe their perfidious actions as precisely as possible. Overstating things and making cheap and overheated comparisons only hurts us.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Curious Statistics on Marijuana

From the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, here's the top 10 and bottom 10 regions of the country for marijuana use:

Boston, 12.16 percent
Boulder, Colo., 10.3 percent (What? Boulder? I never would have guessed)
Southeast Massachusetts, 9.53 percent
Portland, Ore., region, 9.48 (Does the "Portland Region" include Eugene?)
Champlain Valley, Vt., 9.37 percent
San Francisco region, 9.24 percent
Hawaii Island, 9.22 percent
Central Massachusetts, 9 percent
North Central California, 8.93 percent
Washington, R.I., 8.81 percent

Northwest Iowa, 2.28 percent (Lutheran country. Exciting people we are)
Northeast Iowa, 2.53 percent (See above)
North central Texas, 2.59 percent
Central Iowa, 2.63 percent (See above)
Lake region and south central North Dakota, 2.65 percent (See above)
Northern Nebraska, 2.65 percent (See above)
Southeast Oklahoma, 2.77 percent
Eastern central South Dakota, 2.78 percent (See above)
Badlands and west central North Dakota, 2.81 percent (See above)
Central Nebraska, 2.88 percent (See above)

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tierney and Chile (Again)

John Tierney still thinks Chile is a model for the US social security system. But then again, government funded social security is a program that "in practice promotes greed and sloth" and "creates ugly political battles between generations." Never mind that millions of working-class elderly Americans need their social security checks to eat and put a roof over their head. Never mind that the social security privatization is not a battle between generations but a battle with stock brokers and wealthy powerful Republicans on one side and the entire rest of the nation on the other. Never mind any actual facts. Who needs them?

But then there's the economic paradise of Chile, thanks to the benevolent policies of Pinochet and his Friedman and Hayek trained henchmen. Clearly they were the best thing to ever happen to Chile. After all not only did they torture and kill all those socialists and labor unionists but they also created a system where the old in the country still work, whether their privately funded social security accounts actually give them enough money to work or not. After all, if we just eliminate retirement, we can cut the taxes on the upper 1% even more!

Monday, June 13, 2005

The Left and Iraq

David Gelber wonders at TPM Cafe if the Democratic Party is not headed for a 2008 convention that repeats the turmoil of their 1968 convention over the issue of Iraq. He thinks that so many progressives want out of Iraq that they will cause all sorts of hell and that Hillary may be the 2008 version of Hubert Humphrey. Comments to the post are all over the map. My thoughts are that such a move may or may not be a good political move, but it's a terrible moral move. It could well be that in another 3 years, things in Iraq have improved enough that US troops do not need to remain. I think that's unlikely, but even if they are still there, do that many people on the Left care so little about the fate of the people of Iraq that they would want the US to just pull out? Polls suggest that a lot of people think the US should get out of Iraq. Maybe that's just a knee-jerk reaction to our military actions there. I hope it is. Because at this point, we have a serious and long-term obligation to the people of Iraq to reconstruct their nation and help it along in so many ways. To pull out not would be almost as morally questionable as the decision to go in there in the first place.

UPDATE, 6/14/05--A Pew Research Center poll shows that 46% of Americans favor immediate withdrawl. That is very disturbing to me. Obviously much needs to change in our Iraq policy but immediate withdrawl is a dreadful idea and one that I think will lead to civil war in Iraq, something that will only increase the amount of blood on our hands.

Thoughts on Immigration

The United States is entering a unique period in its long and storied history of immigration. Never before have such a large group of people come into this nation speaking one, non-English language. I think the single language issue is important. Many people talk about how current levels of immigration are reminiscent of those around turn of the twentieth century America, even if by percentage of population they are much lower. And it is true that there are similarities. Both periods witnessed millions of immigrants coming to America for available jobs that native-born Americans either did not want or could not fill enough of. Both periods saw an amazing amount of people coming to the US and returning multiple times as they intend/ed to ultimately move back to their home nation. And both periods have witnessed racist propaganda against these immigrants.

But despite these similarities, the language issue makes them very different. And that's because increasingly we are seeing an America split into 2 classes--those who speak English and those who don't. Now obviously it's far more complicated than that. There are huge swaths of America where immigration from Latin America is just really starting to be seen in large numbers. There are poor white and poor black people across America. These are important points. But, and I am hardly the first person to point this out, we increasingly have an economy where English speakers are served and Spanish speakers are providing the services. Even here in New Mexico it's quite remarkable. New Mexico naturally has a higher Latino population than most states. On the other hand, it's split into some weird groups, namely villages where an archaic form of Spanish is still spoken. But even here, where you would expect to hear more Spanish, it's somewhat amazing to walk into a place and literally every person working there is of Latin American descent and most are first and second generation. Sometimes, literally not one person inside your neighborhood Taco Bell or working on construction projects is a native English speaker. This may not be historically remarkable but what is remarkable is that they are all native Spanish speakers.

Early twentieth century immigration was amazingly diverse, at least through the European countries. Today we also have a lot of people coming to the US from Haiti, Asia, and other non-Spanish speaking nations, but they are overwhelmed in many places by Spanish-speaking immigration. This phenomenon could have both positive and negative effects. It was very difficult to create class solidarity in early 20th American labor, even among immigrants, because they came from so many different nations and spoke so many different languages. Employers knew this and employed a diverse workforce to discourage unions. Today, most of the Spanish speaking immigrants are from Mexico and Central America. They all speak Spanish and while there is some history of animosity between some of the Central American nations, for the most part this is not a problem here in the US, and in any case I have not heard of a single case of employers hiring, say, 1/2 Salvadorans and 1/2 Hondurans because the two groups can't get along.

While the potential for class solidarity is there, I am concerned about a Spanish-speaking underclass forming in this nation. While I have no interest in supporting the morons who say that this is an English-speaking nation and that immigrants should learn the language, one advantage of old immigrants was that they often had to learn English in order to communicate with their fellow workers. In this immigration cycle though, Spanish speakers are transforming American culture more than being transformed by it. The increasingly mainstream Spanish media is the best example of this. But does this mean that English speaking whites will see Hispanics more as a permanent underclass like all too many still view blacks or that they will be more accepted into American society as their numbers continue to grow? This I think is one of the more interesting questions concerning American society over the next 20 years or so.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Good Luck to Organizing Unions

I wanted to wish good luck to the new federation of unions committed to organizing. SEIU, the Laborers, HERE/UNITE, SEIU, and the Teamsters have created a coalition to promote organizaiton among private workers in America, something that the mainstream of the AFL-CIO has been reticent to do since World War II. While organizing has improved throughout the federation over the last 10 years, it still woefully lacks enough force and support to stem the tide of the loss of industrial union jobs in the country. At this point only 1 in 13 private workers are union members and it is hard to see how we build a progressive political coalition in this country without a strong labor movement. It is possible that this is a first move for these unions to follow the lead of the Carpenters and leave the AFL-CIO. I would prefer to not see that happen but if it does, may it transform unionism throughout the country.

Saturday, June 11, 2005


You know that your telemarketer is calling from overseas when the person comes on and asks for "Mr. Erik."

Institutions and the Right

All across the nation, we see the Right focusing their attacks on institutions that they see as un-Christian or un-American or too liberal. Axis of Evel Knievel writes on a story about how creationists have forced the Tulsa Zoo to have displays teaching creationism. We see these attacks against colleges, the ACLU, and other institutions that stray from Right wing orthodoxy. In this case, here we have an attack against a scientific institution that undoubtedly has Darwinist leanings, though I'm sure they're not beating the poor oppressed Christian community of Oklahoma over the head with them.

The question I have is what is going to happen with these kind of attacks. Are institutions going to just cave or will there be a point where some brave institutional leaders will stand up and say that this is unacceptable and I will close the place if we are forced to teach creationism/stifle our liberal professors/censor free speech/etc. Looking at examples from past times that witnessed the rise of totalitarian and/or repressive governments, it's hard to see very much confidence in the ability and will of institutions to stand their ground. On the other hand, the United States in the 21st century has a lot longer history of free speech than say Germany in the 1930s or Italy in the 1920s or any number of South American nations at any time. So maybe there is hope that somewhere in the US, some brave museum director or college president will try to hold the line against the Right. Unfortunately though, the Right are a bunch of bullies and it's hard to stand up to bullies. The Right knows this and are pressing their advantage wherever they can.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Oh The Irony

Why can't sportscasters use the word irony correctly? This is an endemic problem across sportscasting. I've been waiting for a really egregious mistake to blog on it and today I got it. I was watching a little bit of the College World Series game between Tennessee and Georgia Tech. The leadoff hitter for Tennessee is known for his speed. The announcer, whose name I did not catch, says this and then goes on to say, "Ironically, in his first college plate appearance, he walked and then stole second base."

Too bad that's the exact opposite of irony since stealing a base would be just what you would expect a speedy baseball player to do. Thus, a stolen base is an expected consequence while something ironic would be an unexpected consequence.

Do we need to have a required class in sports journalism programs on the proper use of irony?

UPDATE, 6/11/05--My wife places all the blame for this on Alanis Morrisette. And if you can blame her for anything, you might as well.

Histories for Progressives--List

I received a request to compile all the books I've listed in my history books for progressives. Here they are.

Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic
Robert Wiebe, The Search for Order
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters
Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire
Eric Arnesen, Brotherhoods of Color
Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions
Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom
George Chauncy, Gay New York
Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire
Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves
Richard White, The Middle Ground
Sara Evans, Personal Politics
Rickie Solinger, Wake Up Little Susie
Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis
William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis
William Leach, Land of Desire
Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors (Technically this was not in a progressive history of the month posting. I reviewed it though in my Lawyers, Guns, and Money guest blogging last weekend and it deserves to be here)


UPDATE, 6/12/05--As the esteemed Rickie Solinger pointed out to me in an e-mail, I misattributed American Slavery, American Freedom to Gordon Wood when it in fact was written by the equally excellent historian of early America, Edmund Morgan. It's corrected above. On a personal note, I'm not sure if I'm more embarrassed that I made such a mistake or amazed that one of the authors I noted above actually read this blog.

In any case, let me just attribute such a stupid mistake to too much dissertation writing and move on.

Progressives and Taxation

Matthew Yglesias questions here whether Americans will ever choose to make up the taxation that Bush has taken away from the government. He has no answers. And the question is, how can progressives make taxation less unappealing for people. I believe that this is one of the most important long-term projects for progressives. I see little hope that we can significantly increase our tax base anytime soon. Maybe if a major depression came on and social services such as roads, maybe the one social service that Americans really do care about, were cut, we would vote to increase taxes some. But short of that, it's unlikely.

But in the long term, the need to convince people of the positive effects of taxation is one place where we can learn from the conservative movement. Conservatives have passed things through over the last 4 years that we, or they, never thought would have been possible 15 or 20 years ago. Repeal of the estate tax, the Patriot Act, the rollback of innumerable environmental regulations, etc. In the 1960s, when liberalism was at its height, conservatives asked themselves whether the nation would ever return to their values. And it has. Through 40 years or organizing, conservatives have overturned much of what progressives find invaluable to a functioning society. At the same time, progressives became more interested in individual rights and identity politics than organizing large segments of the population around issues huge swaths of Americans were concerned about.

Where does that leave us? With a lot of work to do. The only short term solution for more taxation that seems even remotely possible is the idea of a "patriot tax" that I've heard thrown around. But not only would such a tax likely have to be used for things that I would make less than a priority, such as on the military, it resorts to base patriotism and I feel very uncomfortable with such a thing. More realistic to me is to copy the conservative movement and make pro-tax candidates who discuss taxes in terms of services that you and I receive everyday a priority in elections. That starts with the school boards and with county and city offices. I don't see how we will be able to expand the national tax base anytime soon. But by starting at the bottom, I do think that we can make a serious difference in maybe 20 years. That's a hell of a long time. But I think that's the best we can do and that it's important that we do it.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Environment and Urban Planning--A Model?

I was quite pleased to read an article in the recent issue of Conservation in Practice about Michael Klemens, a biologist who specializes in making developments as wildlife-friendly as possible. What is his primary conclusion? That dense human habitation is much better for wildlife than spread out developments. And we're not talking about a suburban development here as the problem. The problem as Klemens sees it is perhaps the opposite of what one would think. It's developments with significant room between homes and roads. The problem is that many species of wildlife need more room than scientists used to think and that the space between homes in a development just cuts their habitat spaces to bits. He goes so far as to argue that conservation is a far greater challenge in suburban Westchester County, NY than in the developing world because Americans don't think conservation applies to them since we have Yellowstone and other designated "wild places." Klemens tries to get developers to redesign projects to allow for large sections of open space with fairly dense housing. Sometimes he's successful, sometimes not.

I have a couple of thoughts on this. First, conservation is as important in the cities as in the "wilderness." Saving land within urban developments means as much to species conservation and the quality of life for both humans and other animals as Yellowstone. Go to a nature preserve within an urban area. The Ijams nature center in Knoxville, TN is a great example. The sheer variety of animals, birds, and plants is spectacular. These places have immense value. If we can't stop development, it should be a priority of the environmental movement to make that development as friendly to the needs of both people and other animals as possible.

But I'll also use this opportunity to go a step further and suggest that dense urban living is the most responsible environmental action we can possibly take. Living near lots of other people allows for better social space, interactions with other people, development of strong community, fighting crime, tolerance for other kinds of people, and many other benefits. Spread out living makes all of these goals difficult. Furthermore, if more people live in dense urban housing, that leaves more space for wildlife outside of the urban core. How much better off would our endangered species be if we just didn't live in suburbs? A whole lot, I would guess. Even with responsible building, roads just destroy species. Studies have shown that even dirt roads that are rarely traversed have negative effects on species, both because they get run over, but also because they tend to migrate near the roads because they are warmer (thus making them even more likely to be hit) and also because the roads become a boundary that splits populations since many animals are reticent to go out into the open space that a road creates.

Americans may be some of the only people in the world who have this hangup against living around other people. I know that the time I spent in Asia really changed my position on this kind of thing. In South Korea, people were packed in at a density that most Americans would balk at, but it also allowed 44million people to live in a country the size of West Virginia and allowed for a significant amount of green space for farming, national parks, and other forms of recreation. Now South Korea has a horrible environmental record, but at least in the sense of their urban planning, they were light years ahead of the United States.

I have literally never talked to anyone in the US who agreed with me on this, but I believe that Asian-influenced urban housing developments are the single most responsible environmental move that we can make as individuals (through choosing to live in them) and as a society (by mandating building them). What do readers think about this?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Isn't it touching to see the media get a chance to report on their all-time very favorite kind of story--an attractive white woman killed by blacks? I'm hardly the first person to mention that all of these missing women cases that get media attention are about attractive young white women, but of course if Elizabeth Smart were from East LA or Compton, no one would have cared at all, including the cops. Anyway, I'll bet there's some fellas in, say, Philadelphia, Mississippi who have an idea about what to do with those Aruban suspects.

And no I have nothing against the South.

Incidentally, I thought all crimes in Aruba were committed by Sidney Ponson. Who knew?

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Hardest 25 Minutes Of Music You'll Listen To

I'm talking about John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, the piece Adams got a commission to write commemorating 9/11. It's not the hardest music by any means. Some people find John Adams and other minimalist composers hard to listen to but I very much do not. Why is this so hard then? Because it brings back the way I felt on 9/11 more than anything else I could ever imagine. The kind of ethereal sounds that dominate Adams' compositions are perfect for this kind of commemoration and he uses his powers to the fullest extent here. I'm not very good at recognizing meanings in older classical music but in this piece the sounds deeply resonate with the way I felt on that day. Under the sounds are people reading from notes that people posted around the city after the attacks with descriptions of loved ones and memorial notes talking about how much the person was loved. In another part are just the names of some of the dead. Now that's hard to listen to. It's great music and I couldn't imagine a better piece of music to commemorate 9/11 but I almost dread listening to it.

Wingnuts Lose One

Just wanted to say that I am glad that the a Washington judge upheld the election of Christine Gregoire over the continued attempts of certified wingnut Dino Rossi and the Republican Party of the state to have the gubernatorial election overturned. Given that the judge was from Chelan County I feel better about any future appeal since it's not like Chelan County is a bastion of liberalism.

Book Review--Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America

Gavin Menzies claims that the Chinese discovered America in their around-the-world voyages between 1421 and 1423. At first, I was very hesitant about such claims. I knew China was a great power and had quite the long record of exploring and trading throughout the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, although I am far from an expert in Chinese history. But I figured that someone would have made these claims earlier if they had much merit to them. As of this point, I am still hesitant. Menzies makes some legitimate points about Chinese influence being around the world. So it is possible that the Chinese explored the world in the early 15th century. But more interesting to me than the claims of this work is the use of evidence and the attitude that amateur historians have toward professional historians.

One major difference between amateur and professional historians is the way that they use evidence. We professional historians are trained to be skeptical of our sources. Too often, we are not in fact. But generally I try to interrogate the source itself before believing its claims. Menzies sort of doesn't do that. Basically, whenever he finds something that maybe might could possibly substantiate a part of his claim, he goes in whole hog and says that it incontrovertibly proves that the Chinese were at Point A. Well, no it doesn't. I can't even think of all the times I thought, "well, maybe you're right but I could think of a whole lot of other things that piece of evidence could be interpreted." For instance, the fact that people around the world have "Chinese DNA." First of all, what is Chinese DNA? Is is a specific thing? Do the Chinese have purer DNA than other peoples? Couldn't the resemblance within the DNA have resulted from the peoples who crossed the Bering Land Bridge 20,000 years ago? Couldn't it come from the fact that the Chinese have lived in the Americas in large numbers since the 19th century due to widespread migration out of parts of China at that time? These seem like basic questions to consider when talking about DNA. He talks about giving in speech in Boston, I think, where he said that people should see if they have Chinese DNA because they probably do. Maybe they do, but again that could come from so many different places. Menzies gives way to much credence to this one point of fact. And he doesn't even consider the opposite--could the Chinese have European or Native American DNA? Not a peep about this.

If such claims were true, wouldn't the effects of the Chinese in the New World be the same as Europeans? They certainly would in disease. That is after all what wiped out most of the Indians from the New World. The most Menzies discusses this is to say that the Chinese and some indigenous peoples in the South American tropics have similar intestinal parasites. Wow. Of course for Menzies this is incontrovertible proof that the Chinese were in Venezuela and Brazil in the 1420s. I would say that a lot better proof would be if there were oral legends about masses of people dying of respiratory failure after these strange people came. Because that's what happened as soon as Europeans came and diseases spread from Europe to Asia fairly rapidly, as with the bubonic plague in the mid 14th century.

I'm sorry but this would have been a much stronger book if he was satisfying suggesting that Chinese exploration in Australia, Antarctica, the North Pole, and the Americas was possible than trying to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. That he could have done and made a pretty interesting case for. But he goes way over the line of acceptable use of evidence here. And it undermines what is otherwise a pretty interesting book.

In a move all too common with amateur historians, Menzies gets very snarky when professional historians question his findings on the type of grounds that I present above. To me, these are very legitimate claims. To Menzies they mean that "professional" historians (he loves putting professional in quotation marks) are feeling threatened by an amateur and that they are wrapped up in promoting the myth of European exploration. For 99% of historians, the second claim is absolutely false and it's about the same number for the first question. What professional historian is threatened by an amateur? Amateur historians constantly talk about this. Where is the threat coming from? I think what's really happening with people like Menzies or David McCullough who I have heard similar things from is that their use of evidence and argument is far from infallible and they don't like this pointed out. I like the idea that people are buying history books and I just hope the ones that sell are well-researched and well-argued. I don't really think there is very much financial jealousy either, as the amateur historians like to claim about the professionals. I do wish that I could make that kind of money on my work, but the jealousy comes from the fact that I don't write well enough to do that. If I could write as well as people like Menzies and Ambrose (though he kind of straddles the amateur/professional divide) and present the kind of work that I do in a popular way, I would be very happy. But I don't begrudge amateur historians for their writing ability.

What I do begrudge amateur historians for is their lack of respect for professional historians. One of the most annoying things about doing history for a living is that everyone thinks they're a historian on the level of you. I wouldn't claim to tell Menzies how to run his nuclear submarine; he's an expert and I respect that. So what right does Menzies or any other non-professional historian have to tell me about history or how I am not doing it correctly? Maybe I am being oversensitive here, but unless you are in a similar profession where everyone thinks they know something about it, I don't think my irritation is easily understandable.

Ultimately though, the thing about a question like whether the Chinese "discovered" America is who cares? What difference does it make? Did they do anything with their discoveries? No. Did it change the course of world history? Not really. I asked my wife this question and she said that it's interesting for the sake of knowledge. But that's not really good enough for me. Maybe I am very American in this way, but I don't have much use for knowledge that doesn't serve the world in some way. I need some practicality. I think the worst kind of history is that which makes no connections to the present day world. I'm not necessarily talking about Menzies here for he does try to make some connections. But academic histories that are all about just knowing about some colonel in the Indian wars for the hell of it is without value to me. And I think that ultimately the question about who discovered America first runs close to lacking value. What matters is not who discovered it but what happened after it was discovered. That's what interesting and meaningful to the modern world.