Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Death List

Inspired by the Dead Pool that I learned from Axis of Evel Knievel, here is my top 10 famous people most likely to die in 2006:

  1. Gerald Ford
  2. John Wooden
  3. Coretta Scott King
  4. Floyd Dominy
  5. Milton Friedman
  6. Augusto Pinochet (please!)
  7. Peter Viereck
  8. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
  9. Clark Terry
  10. Jesse Helms
Feel free to give me your own selections. It'll be fun!

Classic Reagan Quote

Just in case you forgot what a bastard Ronald Reagan was, I'll share this quote with you: ..."if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house he has the right to do so."

Monday, January 09, 2006

Yao Wenyuan...OK, I Really Don't Want This Person To Rest In Peace

Lots of interesting people passing away lately....

After highlighting a couple of really good people who died, we also have the death of the last member of the Gang of Four, Yao Wenyuan. I guess there's no reason to repeat here the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. But Yao does represent the worst of 20th century revolutionary movements, such as his classic quote: "Why can't we shoot a few counterrevolutionary elements? After all, dictatorship is not like embroidering flowers." Classy man.

That said, perhaps this little post, and the post on South Korea I wrote earlier today, can serve as an entryway into a longer post that I will try to write tomorrow about Confucianism, the Cultural Revoultion, and how Mao is remembered in recent publications.

And I Thought Graduate Students in the United States Had It Bad

Check out this article on Confucianism in the South Korean academy. Let me tell you, I would not want to be a graduate student in that society. Having spent a year teaching in the public schools of South Korea, I can say from experience that Confucianism and the things that I value in education have absolutely nothing in common. Students have no precedent for asking why from a teacher and to get them to start asking that question was harder than pulling teeth. There was just no cultural preparation for that question.

Considering how abused graduate students are in the US, I can only cringe when thinking of those in South Korea. I found out while I was there just how anti-Confucian I am. I had a very difficult time dealing with that system. One of the worst parts had to do with drinking. Since in Confucianism it is very difficult to say no to someone with authority over you, older alcoholic bosses forced their workers to go drinking with them, often every evening. This forced men to stay away from their children and created new generations of alcoholics. Some young men did resent this greatly and I knew people who were trying to emigrate in part to get away from the worst parts of this. But for the most part, it was just accepted and well, what could you do? I personally opted out of all of that shit but then again I was seen a weirdo foreigner anyway.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

10 Worst Americans

Toward the end of last month, Rob asked who the 10 worst Americans were. As a historian, that's a fascinating question. So I thought about it for awhile and have come up with my 10 worst. Some of these are really representative of many people who were involved in an evil movement. Anyway, my selections in no particular order of the evilness:

1. William Walker. Attempted to take over Nicaragua for the US slavery empire in the mid 1850s. Did so with the approval of southern politicans. In fact, he did briefly take control of the nation, though he soon failed and was killed in the swamps of eastern Honduras. Represents the worst of the American slavery tradition and American foreign policy. A completely irredemable person.

2. Madison Grant. Friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race in 1916. In this book, Grant feared for the decline of the Anglo-Saxon race in America due to immigration and "race suicide" practiced by Anglo-Saxon women who wanted to limit their pregnancies. Grant's book was a big influence on Hitler and the Nazis and his work was used in the Nurenberg Trials by Nazis to defend their actions. He worked closely with TR and other early conservationists on these issues as well as these men believed that the American West was a repository where Anglo-Saxon men could regain their manhood and virility. Theodore Roosevelt gets a free pass from a lot of people--the road between his beliefs and those of the Nazis is not long and it goes right through his associate Madison Grant.

3. J. Edgar Hoover. It's hard to get more despicable than Hoover. No need to go into his evil in great deal here. I presume most readers know enough. His unwillingness to inform Martin Luther King of assassination plots against him is enough to ensure his place here. But of course there are many more reasons.

4. Phyllis Schlafly. The woman who singlehandedly undermined the Equal Rights Amendment and galvanized the anti-woman plank of the New Right. The damage she has caused is spectacular. Rather unfortunately, she is still alive and working.

5. Robert Barnwell Rhett. Rhett was one of the leading South Carolina fireeaters who pushed the US toward the Civil War. For Rhett and others (and here is a case where Rhett represents several possibilities here), the only acceptable United States was one where slavery was the accepted practice of the nation.

6. James Buchanan. The worst president in US history, Buchanan did nothing to stop the dissolution of the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln. He figured it was Lincoln's problem to deal with. That's what I call leadership!

7. Martin Dies. Dies could represent any one of several dozen virulently racist national legislators during the early 20th century. John Sparkman, Theodore Bilbo, Strom Thurmond, Harry Byrd, or several others could hold this spot. Dies gets it though because not only was he an ugly segregationist, but he also founded HUAC.

8. John Chivington. Again Chivington is representative of how 19th century westerners treated Native Americans. Chivington was the leader of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado in 1864. One of the great progressive myths about the American West is that the US military was to blame for killing Indians and destroying native cultures. This generally wasn't true--by far the bigger problem was local whites in the West happily killing any Indian they found, ignoring treaties and their own government, and forming militias to wipe out peaceful villages. Chivington led the most infamous of these.

9. Robert E. Lee. To me, Lee is worse than Jefferson Davis. Lee had the power to cripple the Confederacy by using his superior military mind to keep the union together. Chose to serve the interests of the slave states and helped lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Nothing that neo-Confederates and conservatives say will erase this fact.

10. George W. Bush. I don't even consider this a political statement. I think we can make a pretty good argument for his placement here. He has made the US significantly less safe through his foreign policy while compromising the nation's long-term economic stability, making the poor much poorer, and eviscerating environmental and labor regulations.

Others I considered:
Franklin Pierce
Oliver North
Tom Watson (George Wallace before Wallace)
Lon Mabon (the head of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-gay group in Oregon during the 1990s. He represents the kind of evil power local people can exert)
David Stephenson (Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK in the 1920s, was convicted of raping and murdering a young woman on a train. Class all the way!)
George Wallace
James K. Polk
Joe McCarthy
Father Charles Coughlin
Bill O'Reilly (the later day Coughlin only perhaps more powerful)
Henry Ford
Roy Cohn

You could make a pretty good case for any of these people. And I'll make one more, perhaps more controversial, suggestion:

John Foster Dulles--Eisenhower's Secretary of State. Supported the CIA overthrow of the Iran and Guatemala governments in the 1950s. The Iran operation led to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 while the Guatemala action led to the civil wars that country endured during the 1980s. He gets a pretty free pass for his work, but few people in American history have caused such catastrophes as Dulles.

How Important Is The Clinton Impeachment to Understanding Recent American History

This question is asked in this CNN article. Since it's been nearly a decade since this happened, it's starting to appear in US history textbooks. But despite the media obsession on the topic, I cannot come up with a plausible argument that this is very important for understanding recent American history nor do I believe that historians in the future will talk about it much. In my recent US survey course, I bring it all up to the present. I believe that it's the duty of historians to do this; some would disagree rather strenuously with me, but that debate is for another post. When I talk about the 1990s, I focus on 2 themes that are both far more important than the Clinton impeachment. One is the Republican Revolution surrounding the 1994 elections. Naturally, the treatment Clinton received relates to this; however, today's Republicans have caused far greater changes to American life than the Clinton impeachment and it is these I talk about. The second major theme is America in the post-Cold War world and to talk about this I focus on NAFTA and free trade issues as well as US cultural imperialism--all of this then leads into 9/11 and more recent events.

Given the immense importance of these two themes, I have a really hard time then discussing the Clinton impeachment in any way except to contrast it with Watergate and say that unlike Clinton, Nixon really did commit many high crimes and misdemenors.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Clinton Jencks and Frank Wilkinson, RIP

Two of the last fighters against the Red Scare passed away recently.

Clinton Jencks was a union organizer for Mine, Mill, one of the unions expelled by the CIO for its communist ties. Jencks was working in southwestern New Mexico when blacklisted Hollywood workers decided to make a movie based on the struggles of these largely Hispanic miners. This movie of course became Salt of the Earth. Almost all of the actors in the movie were non-professionals playing themselves, including Clint Jencks who played the organizer Fred Barnes in the film.

Jencks later fought for the rights of people, such as himself, to exam the evidence used against them when they were accused of being communists. The 1957 Jencks Act was the result of this fight. He then went on to gain a PhD in economics and be a professor at San Diego State University where he fought for worker and civil rights on that campus.

Frank Wilkinson was a Los Angeles housing official who was one of the last 2 people jailed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He worked to start public housing projects in Los Angeles, particularly in Chavez Ravine, a traditional working-class Hispanic community. His advocacy of public housing was viewed as communistic by the ultra-conservative Los Angeles establishment, particularly the Los Angeles Times. The housing project was ended and the land given to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Frank O'Malley to build the new Dodger Stadium at. Wilkinson was called before HUAC to answer about his communist activities in 1955. His refusal landed him in jail and inspired Wilkinson to spend the rest of his life fighting against government spying programs against its own citizens, something much needed today. Much of this story is told in a very interesting way in the new Ry Cooder album Chavez Ravine.

The world will miss Clint Jencks and Frank Wilkinson. May they both rest in peace and may the rest of us not forget the examples they set for us.

Tennessee Jurisprudence

Tennessee has quite a history when it comes to their laws. Of course, we can't forget the anti-evolution laws that led to the Scopes Trial. In the late 1990s, the Tennessee legislature passed the infamous "Roadkill Bill," which allowed people to take home their roadkill to eat, though the real point was to facilitate poaching. Well, Tennessee has struck again with a law requiring that convicted drunk drivers do 24 hours of roadside cleanup while wearing orange vests saying "I am a drunk driver." The point of the law is to shame people into not drunk driving.

I'm not sure about the idea of shaming people. There is something perhaps slightly appealing about a society that uses such methods to curb antisocial behaviors. If it could be proven that such methods did improve society (unlikely) than maybe it would be something to consider under certain, very selective, circumstances.

However, regardless of that, the way this law works is typical of the forward-thinking of citizens of Tennessee. Of course, the law is unfunded. Counties and cities have to pay for it out of their existing funds. If you are running Memphis or Chattanooga, maybe there is a small chance that you could afford this. But if you are the police chief of Carter County in upper east Tennessee or Obion County in northwestern Tennessee, your tiny tax base is already stretched to the max. Now they have to use police officer hours and money to enforce this absurdity, rather than actually catch criminals and stop other drunk drivers. Thus, the law is opposed by the governor of Tennessee, MADD, and the Tennessee Sheriff's Association.

Really this is not surprising. Today's Americans love oppressive laws, so long as they don't have to pay for them. It goes all the way to the president and all the way down to state representatives and the people who vote them in.

My Early Thirties

It's no great insight to say that we bring our life experiences to whatever we happen to read. But nonetheless, it can be quite remarkable how important this is to how we read and comprehend. This quote from Alice Munro's story "Accident" in her book The Moons of Jupiter really strikes home. She's talking about a group of people:

"They were all in their early thirties. An age at which it is sometimes hard to admit that what you are living is your life."

Boy does that hit me right where I live. During a time of significant life changes, plus the fact that I'm in my early 30s, this quote opened my eyes. Yep, I guess this is my life that I am leading. One of some successes, some failures, some indifference, some excitement, some love, some fear. I guess I'll have to live with that life for all the good and the bad.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


I finally watched Syriana yesterday. I was pretty mixed on this movie. I had heard that it was comparable to Traffic, but not as good. I can't disagree with this, though it struck me more as a John Sayles movie than a remake of Traffic. That said, it is a good movie. The acting is quite fine and the story is mostly pretty compelling.

But I did have a couple of pretty big problems with this movie. First, judging it as a movie. While again the acting and the story were pretty strong, there were some definite flaws in the script. The first was the death of Matt Damon's son. How important was that? Could Damon's character not have been inserted into the story in some less ridiculous way? As soon as the light in the pool doesn't turn on, it's obvious what is going to happen? Did the makers of this film believe it necessary to create some family drama within the movie? And if so, why? It didn't ruin the movie by any means. But it did create a digression with limited interest.

More problematic is the final scene where George Clooney tries to rescue the sheik from assassination. This action makes no sense for this character. I believed in this character all the way until the end point. I could see him threatening whoever it took to get his passports and his life back. But to make him the good guy at the end trying to rectify his previous actions is senseless. This is a guy without a moral code except to carry out the work of the US government. Other than the things that happen to him personally, there's no reason to believe he would change his ways at all and there's certainly no reason to think that he would develop a moral consciousness. I simply did not buy this at all. There were a few other things--Tim Blake Nelson's character was basically a caricature of a Texas oil executive and the scenes at the Islamic school seemed a little half-baked. But again, generally this is a solid movie and worthy of my time and money.

Now a word on the political side of the movie. Much like Good Night and Good Luck, I feel the movie is only a marginal political success. It's not that a situation as developed in Syriana couldn't happen. It certainly could. But would we really assassinate a sheik who was really trying to bring reform to that part of the world? Of course we HAVE done this before, specifically in Iran in 1953. But in today's climate with the emphasis on democracy and reform in the Middle East, I have some difficulty believing this would happen. The movie gets away with this by saying that the sheik wouldn't allow the US military to remain in his country, but of course this is absurd on multiple levels. Not having that US military there would mean that this country (United Arab Emirates or Bahrain or whoever exactly this is supposed to represent) would then have to fend for itself militarily which I don't think any of them would want to do. More importantly, I don't think the sheik would be so politically stupid as to proclaim that he wanted the US military out. I find this extremely unlikely. Wouldn't he cut a deal with the US where he could engage in his reform programs while keeping the US military on the ground and the oil more or less flowing in the right direction? Of course, you couldn't create the movie without this political tension but the whole scenario struck me as kind of false.

I would say that Syriana does a good job representing the convoluted politics the US finds itself in regarding oil, the corruptness of the Arabian countries, the situations that young Muslim men find themselves in that lead to them choosing extremist religion and martyrdom (though this part of the movie was somewhat underplayed), the nastiness of oil deals and oil companies, and the questionable regulatory farce that serves to screen Americans from the nastiness of the oil industry while allowing these huge mergers and shenanigans to go ahead. But it doesn't quite reach the point of the greatest political movies like The China Syndrome, Salt of the Earth, A Generation, Man of Marble, or even Traffic. The personal level of Syriana just did not reach the level of these other films and I think that matters a lot. For a political movie to be truly compelling it can't be a position paper. It has to reach the deeper levels of human experience that make the best kind of movies--love, fear, brooding, survival, the daily problems of our lives. I suppose the Matt Damon subplot attempted to do this but it wasn't really that successful as I mentioned above.

One definite thing going in Syriana's favor though was the ending. Whereas the end of Traffic was softpedaled and seemed to present hope that the drug war may be favorably solved with Don Cheadle walking into the house and placing the listening device under the table and Michael Douglas' daughter going through rehab, Syriana went all the way with its conclusion. And I appreciate that. Had the young Muslim characters not attacked the oil facility or the sheik not died, the whole analysis and whole film would have fallen far short of the mark it intended. I still think it did fall short, but at least it remained true to itself throughout.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Derek Bailey, RIP

One sad announcement to ring in the New Year--the death of British guitarist Derek Bailey. Few people know of Bailey. He was a wondefully inventive guitarist who made noises with the instrument that no one else ever has. He worked with a wide variety of people, particularly the group surrounding the New York saxophonist John Zorn. Someone like Bailey asks the question, what is the point of the guitar, or of music generally? Is it to make fairly bland music that lots of people like, particularly becuase they don't have to listen to it very closely? For example, take another aging British guitarist--Eric Clapton. Here is someone who hasn't made a passably decent album in 35 years, yet a lot of people hold in obscenely high regard. Or is the point of the insturment, and of music generally, to push the envelope and to explore new sonic frontiers? If this is how you think of music, check out the works of Derek Bailey. You'll almost certainly have to order them online, but you might find the effort worth it.

More Coal

I cannot even express in words how much I hate coal companies. They may be the scum of the earth. Once on this blog I argued that human resources people were the worst people in the world. I don't back down from that argument. All this shows is that for every group of evil in the world, there's another more evil group that you haven't thought of.

Coal companies have done more to damage one part of America than any industry or group of people have since at least the rise of Jim Crow in the late 19th century. They have murdered thousands of miners, including these 12, due to their practice of blatantly ignoring safety issues. They destroy more mountains every day through mountaintop removal. They have busted unions since the late 19th century. They control local and state politics in West Virginia and Kentucky, and to a somewhat lesser extent in several other states. They even acquire rights to land underneath people's homes and then drill there, undermining the foundations of the homes and leaving their residents with no alternative but to move. This is the defintion of an evil industry.

Of course local elites in these places not only embrace the worst of coal's practices, but want them to expand. For instance, see this story about Pikeville, Kentucky's plans to invite coal companies in to remove mountains so that the town can grow. This quixotic attempt to spur growth in Appalachia is just not going to work for most towns, especially if it is copied by more and more towns. What kind of industry is going to move to these places, particularly when, for as poor as West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are, there is no way they can compete for jobs with the developing world? The best answer is in the linked article, when the town of Inez secured a high security federal prison for their flattened mountains. So I guess at best we can turn Appalachia into a prison. Great long-term strategy.

Anyway, I've talked more about this issue here.
Fun stuff. And I hope the executives of International Coal Company burn in hell.


I can't think of any better way to talk about the West Virginia coal disaster than to quote the great Merle Travis through his classic song, "Dark as a Dungeon."

Come and listen you fellows
So young and do fine
And seek not your fortune
In the dark, dreary mines

It will form as a habit
Seep in your soul
'til the blood in your veins
Runs as black as the coal

There's many a man
That I've known in my day
Who lived just to labor
His whole life away

Like a fiend with his dope
And a drunkard his wine
A man will have lust for
The lure of the mine

It's dark as a dungeon
Damp as the dew
The danger is double
And the pleasures are few

Where the rain never falls
Where the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mine

I hope when I'm gone
And the ages shall roll
My body will blacken
And turn into coal

Then I'll look out the door
Of my heavenly home
And I'll pity the miners
A-diggin' my bones

It's dark as a dungeon
Damp as the dew
The danger is double
And the pleasures are few

Where the rain never falls
Where the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mine

Where the rain never falls
Where the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mine

Monday, January 02, 2006

Santa Fe and Albuquerque

As part of my recovery from my recent personal disasters, I have moved from Santa Fe back to Albuquerque. Thought I'd use this move as a way to compare the two cities and what I like and dislike about them.

In a few ways, I am sad to be moving from Santa Fe. There are not a lot of walking cities in the US these days and I was happy to live in one of them. It's nice to be able to walk almost anywhere you'd actually want to go within 30 minutes or so. It's a quite pleasant place to take a walk; in fact, the city seems to almost beckon you to take walks. So that's really nice. I will also definitely miss the movies. Santa Fe is one of the top movie towns in the nation. For it's size, I can only imagine that such places as Park City are better. Not only does Santa Fe get all the major movies, it has 3 separate art theaters that show a wide variety of things from documentaries to obscure Asian films to Film Noir festivals. Quite wonderful. I wish I would have taken more advantage of it. This in comparison to Albuquerque, which has nothing more than a 1 screen art theater that shows some good stuff but some odd stuff too that I have little interest in--for instance a rather healthy dose of gay cinema which is fine, but I wish it was more diverse. To me, wanting to go to a movie because it features gay protagonists is like going to a movie because it was filmed in Illinois. Could be interesting if that's your thing, but it doesn't really seem like a good reason to go to a movie. Anyway, I'll also miss the weather of Santa Fe. I like it cold. Santa Fe is pretty cold, well not this winter so much, but usually in the winter. Plus, lows in the 50s during the summer is nice.

On the other hand, I am not going to miss the bullshit of Santa Fe. I hate the fake history. I loathe the forced architectural conformity, where everything must be covered in adobe stucco so that it all looks historical--what a crock. I'm not going to miss the pretension of the people, nor the aging tourists, nor the absurd mid-life crisis fashions, nor the turquoise markets, nor the outlandish prices.

And this brings us to Albuquerque. I am mixed on moving back there. The random crime is kind of a bummer, you know. The heat is brutal in June and early July. It's dirty and dusty. It's sprawl central. You can't walk anywhere unless you have a desire to be run-over by the crazy drivers. On the other hand, it's real. Unlike Santa Fe, there's very little bullshit in Albuquerque. It's a working-class town with working-class people and that's what it is. No, there may not be made up festivals like Santa Fe's Zozobra, nor are there very many markets where Indians can come and sell there goods to 65 year old upper East Side New Yorkers, but it's a place where what you see is what you get. And that is going to be quite refreshing after 2 years in Santa Fe Fantasyland.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

I Really Hope This Is A Joke...

...but given that it's Santa Fe, it's probably not. The Santa Fe Reporter, which is the local weekly alternative paper, recently published a piece on bird flu. One Emmet Miller, the director for Kinsmen Vying for Ethical Treatment of Chickens (KVETCH) writes in protest:

"I would like to express my shock and dismay at your choice of cover image for your Nov. 30 issue. This reckless and irresponsible portrayal and perpetuation of stereotype is not only morally reprehensible but frankly inexcusable in this day and age of enlightenment. Chickens have been friends, neighbors, and indeed cornerstones of our community, not to mention our nutritive infrastructure, for as long as we have been on this planet, and will continue to be so far into our collective futures. The reckless representation and implied negativity put forth by your cover imagery not only presents chickens in a gross and dangerously inaccurate light, it diminishes and negates the boundless benevolence these feathered friends have provided over the course of each of our respective lives. Because of the unfortunate paths of a small percentage of these God's creatures [sic] in other parts of the world, and the subsequent illnesses visited upon them, should the entirety of the species be condemned to be feared and hated, indeed to be portrayed as an enemy? I can only hope that your insensitivity will not instigate any similarly reckless and malevolent behavior directed toward any such innocent and generous chickens within our friendly community, and that the deep and respectful relationship that has been cultivated over the years between our worlds continues to thrive."

You know, I am certainly opposed to the ways chickens are raised for food. Those conditions are deplorable. But give me a break. I keep trying to tell myself that this is a joke. But between growing up in Eugene and living in Santa Fe, I know this is not. This reminds of the great political debate of a few years ago somewhere in California, I think it might have been in Hollywood but it could have been Santa Cruz, over whether the keepers of animals could legally be called their "owners." Very important issue here people. I'm glad that with all the oppression in the world, some of us have found really important issues to focus in on, such as the way chickens are portrayed in the media.

Santa Fe Writer's Talks

One of the advantages of Santa Fe is the attempt to make the place a cultural center. A lot of these attempts end up being really lame because they emphasize things that old people are in and Santa Fe is nothing if not an old person's town. However, at the Lensic theater there is a writer's series where they come and talk to an audience. Almost always the people are ones I have not heard of (although I'll always kick myself for not going to see Edward Said about 4 years ago or so). This spring though, the writers are actually quite good and I'd thought I'd let any New Mexico readers know. Here's a few of the highlights:

March 15, A.S. Byatt
April 5, Mario Vargas Llosa
April 26, Howard Zinn
May 10, T.C. Boyle
May 31, Eduardo Galeano

Certainly some good people this year. If only they would get Philip Roth...

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year amigos! I hope that the New Year finds everyone in the blogosphere happy, well, and not nursing a bad hangover. I am spending mine in Denton, Texas which I hope to write about soon. And if you're thinking, well that's a really lame place to spend New Year's, I would say that a) it's a surprisingly cool city and b) I once spent it in Carlsbad, New Mexico which is far far lamer, though Carlsbad Caverns are of course absolutely awesome.

Anyway, here's to a lovely and productive year of blogging for all!