Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Climate Bill Passes the House

As this article talks about, the climate bill just passed the House - the first time either house has passed a bill which would limit greenhouse gas emissions based on the fact that they contribute to global warming. So... yay!!

BUT it still needs to pass the Senate. Also, the bill has been significantly watered down since the original version. The bill would require utilities to secure 15% of their electricity from renewable sources (wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal) by 2020, but this is down from the original amount of 25% by 2025.
The bill includes a cap-and-trade system, but instead of all the credits being auctioned off to the highest bidder, 85% of the credits would be given away at the beginning of the program. Isn't that nice of the government. Oh, and the refineries will even receive money to help them adapt to the new standards.
So the bill's not great, but it's the best thing we have, so it needs to happen. I disagree with Thomas Friedman on a lot of things, but according to his new op-ed piece, we agree on this. There is never going to be a bill that pleases everyone, especially one that pleases both the environmentalists and the refineries. But this bill is an important first step in the right direction. Just simply regulating greenhouse gases is an important statement that the House is making. There's no turning back now. Basically the U.S. government is finally admitting that greenhouse gases are causing climate change / global warming / whatever we are calling it and that the government has a responsibility to reduce the impact of U.S. industries on the climate.
So I will take what I can get. A weak climate bill is better than no climate bill, and hopefully it will lead to bills that actually make a bigger difference.


So today is the June 30 deadline for U.S. involvement in major combat operations to end in Iraq. A remarkable day, made even more so by the fact that the coverage of the event is limited, particularly when compared to Michael Jackson.

Obviously this had to happen. The open glee of Iraqis again demonstrates this, if anyone still needed convincing. I do think that the next months are going to be very interesting. There´s been a rise in violent attacks on civilians. If this continues, what will happen? What will Obama do? Is there anything he can do? Will we continue our withdrawal as planned, regardless of what happens? What will the American political response be to a rise in violence?

I suspect the answer is that little will change for American involvement regardless of Iraqi violence. They don´t want us there, we don´t want to be there. At best, it becomes like Vietnam after 1975, when the predicted bloodbath after the South Vietnamese finally folded didn´t really come true (or at least to the extent that most critics of US withdrawal claimed). At worst, it looks like 2006. Either way though, this incredibly foolish and disastrous war is coming to an end for the Americans and we are beginning to engage in Afghanistan like we should have 7 years ago. At least we might be able to still do some good there.

More Honduras

Events in Honduras are moving fast. It seems fairly clear now that Zelaya is returning to power, perhaps as early as Thursday. As I said yesterday, when Obama, the EU, and Chavez all oppose you, it´s unlikely your coup is going to have long term success. However, even if he does return to the presidency, the problems Honduras faces are not going away.

In the end, the nation´s political establishment has one big problem. Neither Zelaya nor the conservatives have much use for democracy or the Honduran constitution. The conservatives have shown their hand this week, but to be fair, Zelaya precipitated this by working to get around the term limit he faces for his office. Not wanting to leave the presidency and perhaps unable to groom a successor who could win and continue his policies, Zelaya has gone the way of Hugo Chavez and sought to remain in power. While Zelaya is clearly more concerned with the poverty most Hondurans face than his opponents, in the end, his first goal is to remain in power.

This all gets to the fragility of Latin American democracy. While the last 20 years have seen amazing advancements throughout most of the region, many countries could fall into the abyss of instability fairly quickly. While Brazil´s Lula may not be able to continue his policies through his successors, his willingness to step down when his term is up is extremely important. Like George Washington and John Adams establishing important precedents of giving up power peacefully in the United States, Lula is doing considerable good for his country by potentially doing the same. Chavez and Zelaya as of yet are unwilling to take these steps for their respective nations.

Nevertheless, Zelaya´s own issues do not justify the coup. Some commentators have wondered whether the coup is legal. This really doesn´t matter. The larger principle is that Zelaya is the democratically elected president of Honduras. In 2009, a coup against a democratically elected government is not acceptable on the international scene. If Zelaya ignores the constitution and seeks another term, perhaps then some action against him could be justififed. But his government is constitutionally legitimate and any attempt to force him out is unacceptable.

While I am presently writing from San Salvador, I stayed another unexpected night in Honduras yesterday. In both towns I stopped in, people were aware of the situation, but hardly alarmed. I did not see any partisan activities for either side, including protests, graffiti, or random shouts. Some men were drunkenly discussing it in a bar. Most people had their TV on the news. But that´s about it. I know that in major cities it is different, with partisans developing on both sides. However, I do think we need to moderate our analysis of people´s response to the coup. In the end, Honduras is a poor country and has been that way for centuries. Regardless of political party, the government doesn´t do much for the campesino or town dweller hundreds of miles away from the capital. Does the coup really affect their lives? For many, the answer is probably, no.

At least as fascinating as the relative lack of response in the provinces has been the news coverage. It´s clear that most if not all the news channels support the coup. This is hardly surprising since, like in most countries, entrenched elites control the media. The news reports are incredibly defensive about the coup. They constantly claim that they were consitutionally right in getting rid of Zelaya, that he is a menace to the country, and that the world does not understand their actions. It´s clear that they severely miscalculated. Much like the Venezuelan effort to overthrow Chavez in 2002 and the Bolivian whites seeking to destroy Morales in 2008 and earlier this year, the Honduran elite seems to have forgotten that it is not the 1980s anymore and that the only way to change a government that is acceptable in the international community is through democracy. This is a huge problem for the opponents of Chavez and Morales. When you clearly and openly don´t care about poor people, how can you win an election? In Honduras though, it´s less clear that the conservatives can´t win an election.

At least in the pro coup protests I have seen on TV, a large number of banners have evangelical slogans on them. While I have no way to prove this, it suggests that some Hondurans are openly connecting evangelicalism and right wing politics. This gets into the long running debate over whether the rapid rise of evangelicalism in Latin America is also leading to conservative politics. I remain unconvinced by this assertion. I think it´s too simplistic and assumes that people simply swallow U.S. evangelicalism hook line and sinker, rather than making it work for themselves in ways they are comfortable with. There is little question, however, that among the Central American elites, evangelicalism and reactionary politics are closely connected. Rios Montt in Guatemala is the most famous example of this, but it´s really quite common. I have few conclusions to make about this phenomenon in the present Honduran crisis except to note that there are some connections and that is is worth watching.

The esteemed historian Greg Grandin has more, and while I would not begin to argue that I have his expertise, I do think he is a little soft on how Zelaya´s own actions helped lead to political crisis. He does discuss Honduran poverty and the incredibly difficult situation the country finds itself in, but it´s not clear that Zelaya is really committed to changing that situation, recent alliance with Chavez notwithstanding.

Senator Al Franken

That's right.

Reporting the Honduras Coup, or, "How Some on the Left Are Reinforcing Ridiculous Perceptions of Obama"

Suffice to say, the coup in Honduras is a complex issue involving multiple power-struggles that cut to the core of how power is interpreted and assigned within the Honduran political system. Many people are trying to stay at the front of this story (including us), either through journalism or through analysis. However, as is typically the case in events like these, such quick rushes to judgement often look idiotic.

So it goes when one person has labeled this coup "Obama's First Coup d'Etat." Now, this could be interpreted in one of two ways: that it's the first coup that happened while Obama was president, or that it was the first coup he was involved with, directly or indirectly. I was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on the first interpretation, and it seemed that that may have been her viewpoint through the text. However, if it was, her updates leave her open to huge misinterpretation. Throughout the updates (which are frequent), Golinger repeatedly comments on Obama's failure to come out "fast enough" against the coup. I don't exactly know what she expects such a quick rush to judgement from the Obama administration will accomplish, but it's clear that she feels that, by not coming out "unequivocably" against the coup immediately, Obama is betraying some vague desire not to see Zelaya in power.

Fortunately, as Obama said in a recent press conference, the president of the U.S. doesn't work on a "24-hour news schedule." Instead (wonder of wonders), he waits to be informed of exactly what is going on, tries to let events play out some without directly jumping in and making matters worse, and then states his opinion. Indeed, yesterday Obama said that "the coup was not legal and that President Zelaya remains the president of Honduras." I already know what many would say: "It's too netural," "if Obama really weren't behind the coup, why not say it's 'illegal'," "why doesn't he say 'we fully support Zelaya/oppse the coup'," etc. My answer would be because Obama does have to consider broader-picture issues, and nobody knows how this is going to work out; to blindly pick one side or another before it becoming clear exactly how events will play out over the next hours or days can lead to a huge backfire. Just ask the Bush administration when they supported the failed coup of Chavez immediately in 2002.

Why does this matter? Sure, it's clearly in a partisan online publication that favors Venezuela and looks with very skeptical eyes at U.S. policy, but it's just one site. So what?

The problem is, I found this by getting it from friends in South America. This story is making the rounds among young people (and perhaps older people) who consider themselves "leftist" or "intellectuals" in Laitn America. They may not buy into it, but people generally don't foward stuff without comment if they think it's ridiculous. As a result, this image of the U.S. effectively doing in Honduras under Obama what Bush tried in Venezuela reinforces an image of Obama as just another imperialist bastard out of touch with the world.

This irritates me to no end for the same reasons that accusations in Brazil that Obama is "just like Bush" irritate me: because such positions couldn't be further from the truth. Look, I'm not going to pretend that Obama will be perfect, or that I (or the "left" more generally, whomever it may be at that moment) will always like his policies. We haven't already, and we won't. But to imply that he is no different from Bush simply because he's the head of the U.S. is beyond absurd, particularly given his penchant thus far to do things like, you know, be informed of a situation, listen to others' opinions, and welcome differing viewpoints before making decisions. Vague insinuations and charges from the left (within or outside of the U.S.) that this is "Obama's coup" and condemnations that his wording isn't "strong enough" are as absurd as charges from the right in the U.S. that Obama's response to Iran likewise wasn't "strong enough."

In some ways, this isn't Obama's or the bloggers'/journalists'/intellectuals' fault. As the Times points out today, the overthrow of Zelaya is "pitting Mr. Obama against the ghosts of past American foreign policy in Latin America." And there are a lot of ghosts, from the Mexican-American war and the takeover of 1/3 of Mexico's territory at the time, to the Spanish-American war and the turning of Cuba into a virtual American territory, to the involvement in Guatemala in 1954, to Chile in 1973, to Argentina during the Dirty War, to Guatemala and El Salvador, to the Contras in Nicaragua, to Noriega in Panama, to Chavez...and that only scratches the surface of horrible political moves the U.S. has made. This isn't to excuse Golinger's interpretation, but it's not like she doesn't have her reasons historically.

But there are constructive ways to use that past together with the current administration to try to effect change in U.S. policy. Calling the coup in Honduras "Obama's first coup," with the perjorative connotation that brings (reinforced through constant updates chiding Obama for not coming out with a "strong" statement against the coup), in no way helps anything, is in no way in touch with political realities in international politics, and ultimately makes the left look as ridiculous as those on the right who condemned Obama when it came to Iran.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Coup in Honduras

So I happen to be in Honduras when the first Central American coup in 26 years takes place.

Given that yesterday also included a near-highway robbery on the road to Honduras, yesterday was a pretty weird day. Especially since I found out about the coup when the bus driver just happens to mention it as we enter the country.

So I was wondering what would happen. And the answer seems to be not much. At least yet. Now, I am in a town far, far away from the capital and major business centers. But here, no one seems to care. It's the most mellow coup I've ever been involved with. Perhaps because it's the only coup I've ever been involved with.

However, things seem to be heating up a bit today, particularly in the major cities. Widespread condemnation from the international community and rising pressure from labor unions and the poor could plunge Honduras into crisis pretty quickly. With Barack Obama, the EU, and Hugo Chavez all opposing the Honduran military, it's hard to see how the coup can survive. Honduras has been a US client state for decades. Banana companies controlled the country in the early 20th century. It was the home of the Contras when they organized to launch against the Sandinistas. Today, it is a major center of maquiladoras. So there is a long American tradition of exercising power here. Given this history, can the military hold up in the face of real U.S. opposition? Much I think depends on what the U.S. opposition looks like. If Obama backs this up with some economic reprisals, decline in aid, etc., I think the coup falls apart in a heartbeat. If not, it might survive.

I usually oppose US intervention in Latin America. Certainly it has not gone too well in the past, to say the least. But this is a clear case of the Honduran elite class attacking democracy itself. It is not 1983 anymore and this kind of behavior is not acceptable. While Zelaya isn't such a great president, he was democratically elected and is clearly supported by a large percentage of the population. Plus, if the international community allows this coup to stand, the precedent is set that right-wing politicians and militaries can overthrow the new generation of left-leaning governments in Latin America without reprisal. Not allowing this precedent to take place is much more important than Honduras itself.

I am actuallly leaving Honduras for a bit today for El Salvador. But I'll reappear in a different part of the country briefly in a few days. I will be in the urban center of Choluteca then and am very curious as to how this situation has developed by then and how being in a much more important economic center than where I am now affects my sense of people's response to the coup.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Honduras' Manuel Zelaya Ousted in Coup

The military has expelled Honduran president Manuel Zelaya in what is the first post-Cold War military coup in Latin America. There will no dobut be plenty more as I (or others) know more, but some quick thoughts:

-This is a pretty....interesting.....event. Zelaya's opponents have viewed his efforts to amend the constitution to allow a second presidential term as a Chavez-ian powergrab. I just don't buy this. Maybe Zelaya had the goal privately, but given the number of countries in the last 15 years that have increased the presidential terms from one to two (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru, for example), there doesn't seem to be anything that indicates that Venezuela rather than, say, Brazil, is the example of Zelaya's efforts. Thus, pointing to the one case (Venezuela) in Latin America in which an open-ended presidential administration to say that your president is trying to do the same, without pointing to at least four other cases where the president did not set up an open-ended administration, seems like flawed logic, to put it lightly. Again, perhaps this is Zelaya's secret goal, but if it is, it's a major secret, and there's as much evidence that Honduras could end up like the other four, rather than like the one outlier.

-While it's technically the first "successful" coup since the Cold War (there was the effort to overthrow Chavez in 2002), and definitely the first military one, it's definitely too soon to say where this is going, and I'm not even going to try. Once this plays out over the next few days/weeks, then we'll have a better idea where things may go. Some quick (tentative) thoughts include the fact that the new "interim" president will be the president of Honduras's Congress, Roberto Micheletti. But Micheletti is from Zelaya's party, which makes things particularly interesting. If he's remotely like Zelaya in terms of ideology, he could simultaneously have broad support from the working classes and a major "legitimacy" issue from the elements involved in the coup of Zelaya who would have reason to already be suspicious of Micheletti's administration. This is all a long way of saying this is really in flux, and it's almost impossible to figure out where it will go until things settle down (or at least develop further).

-That said, Zelaya's manuevering (including leading civilians to an air force base to take ballots), while perhaps brave, also (initially) strikes me as overextending himself, if not being downright foolish. When the middle class, elites, and military are all against you, it has traditionally been a bad idea to openly take on the military on its own turf with the support of the poor and working classes. This isn't to say that it could never succeed, and certainly, contexts vary, but this has been the problem behind too many coups in Latin America in the 20th century to ignore in this particular case. As above, time will make things clearer, but my first reaction is that this is a case of a president overestimating the power he could draw on these kinds of moves, and he found out too late that the opposition both in society and the military was more than equal to the challenge.

-Finally, I look forward to Erik's discussion of this, as I believe he has arrived in Honduras on the same day the coup has happened.

Biden to resolve the intelligence reorganization dispute

We all remember that the intelligence reorganization that happened in 2005 in order to prevent another 9-11 style attack was criticized by many as merely adding more tiers of bureaucracy without really allowing a proper coordination between the various intelligence agencies.

Ever since the office of the Director of National Intelligence was first created with John Negroponte at his helm, the battle of the sharing of power between the CIA and the DNI has gone on. Among other things, the DNI recently insisted that it should be given exclusive authority to decide on personnel and resources with regard to the U.S.’s intelligence representatives in other countries.

David Ignatius pointed out in The Washington Post that this battle between the two agencies might be a good thing since it would finally settle the question of who does what in the intelligence community, which has been murky since the reorganization. As per him, the power of picking appointees for intelligence in other countries should remain with the CIA, but the DNI must be given the role of briefing the President’s office on daily intelligence (this already happens), and also that this would require that CIA officials report to the DNI.

“Over time, that means the role traditionally played by CIA analysts should flow to the DNI -- so that we have an elite cadre of all-source analysts similar to Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee. Panetta should accept that diminution of CIA turf,” he wrote.

In Foreign Policy magazine, Philip Zelikow, however, made a case for the power of overseas appointments to be granted to the DNI. He stated that the kinds of tasks involved overseas are not always human-intelligence-related, and hence are not the CIA’s specialty:

“First, overseas operations are much more than the human intelligence (HUMINT) collection that CIA manages. In some countries, the main overseas work -- and staffing to support it -- may concern signals intelligence or other technical operations that are managed by the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office, among others.”

Whatever happens, Joe Biden is to make that call. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic reports that since the National Security Council did not seem to have reached a resolution, resolving the prolonged dispute between the two offices now falls to Joe Biden, who is a member of the Council.

Ambinder points out that the consequences of this political squabble will have repercussions since, so far, the DNI has had restricted powers because CIA station chiefs are predominantly responsible for operations abroad, and the agency’s budget is controlled by the Department of Defense. This decision might change that, and hopefully, will result in a more coordinated Intelligence community after years of confusion.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Microlending in Guatemala

As some of you may know, I am in Guatemala at the present, which is why I have been writing very little of late. However, to see someone writing about the place and to promote Southwestern University, where I teach, check out the blog Microlending in Guatemala, written by a recent graduate of the school.

Tastiest Museum Ever

Cork Butter Museum, Cork, Ireland.

I also note with shock and sadness that this is the first time we´ve used butter as a label here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

My Michael Jackson thoughts

I've been reading and passing on MJ eulogies all morning.

But I think Trend captured below what it was like to be a child of the 80s and to grow up with Michael Jackson. My Twitter comment this morning was "I remember a world without the Internet. I don't remember a world without Michael Jackson."

And yet I'm shocked by how gobsmacked I am by this. I expect to be horrifically sad when Madonna dies--I have grown up in the shadow and image of Madonna in a much more obvious way than Michael Jackson. I have grown up a girl who flaunts all her contradictions, who despises sexual hypocrisy and who still, after all these years, loves to dance.

Last night I had coffee and then dinner with a new friend who grew up in England, and I was trying to explain to him what it was like, being American, being born in 1980 and suddenly, unexpectedly hearing that Michael Jackson is gone. I can't.

I can't explain why I didn't own any Michael Jackson music but this morning I hit iTunes for the songs that I love ("Wanna Be Startin' Something" in my headphones as I type) and am genuinely saddened.

John Nichols
wrote a lovely post about Jackson's activism and cultural relevance, and Natalia Antonova wrote like Trend about the impact of Jackson's music. But this piece by Richard Kim goes to a darker place--and made me think.

I've already noted the things that I can say I've drawn from Madonna--it's a clearer image for me. Michael Jackson? Before today I would've said nothing. Yet it's obvious now, as these words spill out of me, that there has been an impact on me, on all of us. It's a complicated one. The face we are left with of Jackson is not a pretty one. It's an intensely problematic one--all the worst aspects of our society reflected back in the face of a celebrity whipping boy.

I write a lot about monsters. Michael Jackson was, in one sense, a monster. He blurred boundaries between black and white, child and adult, masculine and feminine (as Patricia Williams wrote back in 2005), and yesterday, life and death, as the reports from tabloids hit first and many of us didn't want to believe, held out hope that it was just a salacious rumor, until the LA Times confirmed it for us.

People either disavow Michael loudly as a "freak" or choose to remember the music--which is, of course, what I'm doing now, cherrypicking my favorite tunes to play back. But if we really want to remember Michael Jackson, we will look into the dark places that he went, and look at the side of ourselves that wanted to have him as our freak. That didn't want to admit that he was still a lot like us.

And yet. A little while back we did a series of music posts, proclaiming the best rock albums, best country albums, etc. We never did get around to a best pop albums list, largely because I couldn't step away from Madonna and Michael to think of anyone else. This morning, listening to these songs with a new poignancy to every high crack of that voice, I still have to salute the best pop songs any of us have ever heard. The music will live on whether we self-examine or not. And that's perhaps as it should be.

RIP - Michael Jackson

Yesterday, I spent 8 hours driving to see my parents in Ohio. When I got out of the car, I did not expect that the first thing my mother would say would be, "Was Michael Jackson on your list?" I stared at her for a second, and said, "wait - Michael Jackson died? HOW?"

Of course, lots of tributes will come in; some longer, some shorter, most more eloquent than mine. I'll just leave it at the fact that, as someone born at the very beginning of the 80s, Michael Jackson was probably the biggest cultural component of my growing up - moreso than Transformers, than Schwarzenegger movies, than pogo balls and Michael Jordan and Hulk Hogan and anything else from my childhood. Michael Jackson was huge, and great, and the memories have gone from when I was about 3 (I remember the Thriller singles hitting the radio, one by one) to the present.

There was the day, when I was 8 or 9 (and thus, a good 6 years after Thriller), I had spent the night at a friend's house, and his mom was getting ready to take me home and insisted my friend come, but the Thriller video was on. The kid was so angry, he started crying. Over Thriller. Which had been out for 6 years. And I wasn't (and am not) mad - to quote Dave Chapelle, it was "Thriller, man. Thriller."

I remember watching the episode of the Simpsons, just so I could see the debut of the "Black and White" music video. To this day, it is the only Simpsons episode I have seen from start to finish, and I played my Dangerous tape so many times as an 11 year old, it eventually wore out. By the time the allegations broke, I was old enough to be familiar with disillusionment (I was a Cleveland sports fan, after all), but that A) didn't stop the shock and disbelief at the accusations leveled against Michael, and B) stop me from saying, "but the music....".

Last year, when I worked at a Borders books temporarily, it was late on a Friday night, and we were playing the 25th anniversary release of Thriller on the store radio. The security guy called all the staff over to the video camera screen he had on the main floor, and we gathered around, everybody smiling as we saw that, in the children's section, a kid who looked to be 9 or 10 was pulling out all of his dance moves to "Billie Jean." A 9 year old kid. And what was more, he was pulling out Michael Jackson's moves - not the ones from Black and White, or Scream, but the Moonwalk, moves from "Thriller," - old school Michael Jackson. I mean, this kid probably wasn't even born in the 1990s, and he knew old-school Michael Jackson moves. And the moment "Billie Jean" came on, that kid couldn't help himself. And all the Borders staff stood around the camera, in what would have been a voyeuristic and cynical move, if we hadn't all been smiling and wondering at the power of that song, and the joy of that kid, a joy that I think it's safe to say we all kind of shared. It may be cheesy and trite, but that doesn't make it any less true. That made every staff worker's night that night.

And just two weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine and I were sitting in Rio discussing just how amazing Michael Jackson's music was and still is, and how nobody, but nobody, ever danced like that or will ever dance like that again. The next night, I was flipping channels on MTV Brazil (where they still play videos), and caught the "Smooth Criminal" video, which (together with "Billie Jean") was always my favorite. For four minutes, I was just ear-to-ear smiling, not able to believe my luck that, not only had I caught a music video on MTV, but it was "Smooth Criminal." When somebody gets 80s nostalgia and plays all the horrible, popular songs from when I was growing up, I always cringe at every song - every song that isn't a Michael Jackson song.

I'm not quite sure his death has settled in for me yet - I feel like the loss of what is unquestionably one of my favorite parts of my childhood, and the loss of the biggest celebrity in my lifetime bar none, should feel....I don't know, grander. Right now, all I can think is, "What about his kids?" My deepest sympathies of course go out to them, and to all of his family and friends. I just hope that one day, his kids know that people remember him not for the transformation in appearance, or for the weird charges that were never proven, or for holding one of them over a balcony, but for what was most important and best about Michael Jackson, for what he gave to generations to enjoy forever: his music.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

I think I first heard this on facebook from Dave Noon, but I hope that "hiking the Appalachian Trail" becomes a permanent metaphor for cheating on your spouse, at least for politicians.


Hollywood´s attempt to bully the Best Picture category into accepting their crappy product is pretty laughable. Going with 10 Best Picture nominees allows the studios to go around the "problem" of too many foreign members of the Academy. Now, every Ron Howard film can be nominated! And all the big action films too! Maybe Michael Bay can win an Academy Award! I´m sure the next step for the studios will be to buy the award with steak dinners and free showings after their films get nominated.

I hope the increasingly respectable membership of the Academy tell the studios to go to hell and nominate Summer Hours for best picture instead.

He's nothing if not consistent...

That Clarence Thomas holds a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States is something that makes my blood boil. He is without a doubt the worst High Court justice in my lifetime; I don't know enough of the history of the Supreme Court to make any assertion past that, but I have to think he's in the running for top five all-time worst.

Proving this once again, The Honorable "Is-that-a-pubic-hair-on-your-coke" Justice Thomas is the lone dissenting opinion in Safford Unified School District vs. Redding. If you aren't familiar with the background, here's the gist: school officials were tipped off by a student that another student was in possession of some ibuprofen and naproxen (the ibuprofen was a prescription-strength pill, the naproxen over-the-counter). These alleged drugs would have been a violation of the school's drug policy, had they existed. School officials brought the 13 year old girl to the office and searched her bag, her pockets, etc., which yielded no drugs. Then she was taken to the nurses office, where she was told to strip to her underwear. From the majority opinion (the whole can be found here): "Finally, Savana was told to pull her bra out and to the side and shake it, and to pull the elastic on her underpants, thus exposing her breasts and pelvic area to some degree. No pills were found".

The majority clearly identifies that this is an unconstitutional search-- not least in part, in my opinion, that they were operating off of an allegation from another student. The idea that school-age children can bring down invasive strip searches on their peers is idiocy-- the fact that the alleged drugs were never found makes this painfully obvious. That the alleged drugs were normal pain relievers contributed to the unreasonableness of the search. As Justice Souter wrote for the majority, "what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to the students from power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suspect Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable". Especially so, since the "adolescent vulnerability intensifies the patent intrusiveness of the exposure".

Thomas's dissent (also found in the linked document above) is based around the argument that any kind of search is reasonable (given some kind of "reasonable suspicion") if it is conducted only in places were the contraband could be hidden. His logic is that since you could hide pills in your crotch, school officials could look there (there's even a pretty weird part of the dissent where he cites several incidences of people hiding drugs in their underwear... I'll refrain from snark and you let you imagine your own). He contends that school officials, parents, and local governments are all "better suited than judges to determine the appropriate limits on searches". Wait, what? Isn't upholding and interpreting the Fourth Amendment a judicial bailiwick? Where's the logic in school administrators deciding if their actions are reasonable in cases like this? Is it only different because it is a school? Granted, the court has held that there are slightly different rules in schools, but the Constitution doesn't end at the school's door. This seems like a completely ideological decision on his part, and the opinion contains a strange line in its last paragraph-- "By doing so [finding the search unconstitutional], the majority has confirmed that a return to the doctrine of in loco parentis is required to keep the judiciary from essentially seizing control of public schools". Seriously? Are you trying to make Scalia and Alito look reasonable or something?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lyrad's 15 Books in 15

Wow, am I actually blogging again? Ridiculous is the only thing to call my lack of attention to the blog, but I have a hard time concentrating on more than one thing at a time. We'll see if my concentration lapses now or not, but my big project is through (see below) and what better way to get restarted than a quality book meme. Having gone to Old White Male Writer College (St. Johns, that is), my list is unfortunately skewed by such, but this is something I'm trying to rectify, for as much fiction as I find time to read anymore. In any event...

1. Ulysses--James Joyce: Numbers one and two on my list are really 1 and 1a; I'll never choose one over the other. Ulysses is absolutely both the most difficult and the finest piece of work I've ever read. In college, during our third and fourth years, we actually had an elective, called our Preceptorials. Senior year, I spent eight weeks studying this damned book with sixteen others, while we came away with a ton of confusion, never were two months in study better spent. As obnoxious as it can be sometimes, the book is hilarious and the final chapter, those two sentences, punctuated brilliantly by "yes", are the most invigorating I've ever read.

2. In Search of Lost Time--Marcel Proust: It's hard for me not to call this the best I've read, and it's truly a tie. It was the first major work I read out of school and, compared to Joyce's obtuse difficulty, I found Proust downright breezy. I first fell in love by translating sections of Swan's Way in school and finally read the whole thing after I was out. The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain are my favorites of the seven books, but that probably has as much to do with when I read them as anything. It took me two years to finish the set and, no matter how rewarding it was, it convinced me that life is too short to spend such time on a single work. I haven't read anything of its breadth since and I doubt I will again. There are simply too many things to read, but I wouldn't give up my experience with it for the world.

3. The Defense--Vladimir Nabokov: Sure, there are plenty of more ambitious works in Nabakov's catalog, but this one always stood out to me as one of his best pure stories. It doesn't carry the same kind of literary weight as Pale Fire or Lolita, but his ability to turn the plot of a novel into a kind of chess match, along with his sporting descriptions of chess, make The Defense my favorite of his work. Honestly, the next four on this list could be Nabokov books, but I didn't want to double up authors.

4. Outer Dark--Cormac McCarthy: Again, not the popular choice amongst McCarthy fans and, again, maybe not his most spectacular work, but this one influences my work more than any other and is sheer existential brutality. His Appalachian setting is as claustrophobic as anything I've read and it's the only book of his that I can think of with a female protagonist...big stuff from McCarthy. Anyway, the big scene where Rinthy finds her child is one that makes my stomach turn to this day, and it's been years.

5. Story of the Eye--George Bataille: Bataille was a freak and I love him. His considerable body of philosophy doesn't really prepare one for his literature and poetry. Story of the Eye is, simply put, the best work of literate pornography ever written. Nothing tops it; nothing ever will. It smashes taboos with glee and revels in its filth with a beautiful literary flair. A film was actually made of the book, which I have yet to find, but making it took some balls.

6. Jurgen--James Branch Cabell: I'll never get away from obscenities, but Jurgen is a whole different animal. A near perfect farce and an innovator of the fantasy genre, Cabell is a near unknown outside of this work and, while it's all I've read of his, this is a hilarious, intelligent, and dirty book that will never leave my mind.

7. The Trial--Franz Kafka: Fifteen years have passes since I picked up Kafka, and his influence is still great in my life. Before Kafka, I hadn't ever really considered allegory, and his work has taught me a lot in that area and many others. His short stories are really what get me but, for the purposes of a full book, The Trial will certainly suffice.

8. Kiss of the Spider Woman--Manuel Puig: I can say that Proust was the last really difficult book I got into, but it's not really true. I fell in love with the film by Hector Babenco (director of the superior Pixote) long before I read the book, and was blown away by the way Puig layers fantasy upon reality. I liken this to my experience with Nabokov's Pale Fire (good thing I worked another one in), though I found Puig's work much more relevant.

9. In Our Time--Ernest Hemingway: There's been some complaining about Hemingway recently, and Sator Arepo commented correctly when he said that the guy's better in small doses. Look, don't read Hemingway's novels...they're garbage. He betrays himself with his extended language in his long works, but he is a master of the four word sentence. Hemingway taught me to write; taught me to consider how to cut my verbage down. He's the antithesis of the irritating David Foster Wallace-s of the world and intelligent modern writers could learn a lesson from Hemingway's terse language.

10. Paradise Lost--John Milton: Not only are we old and white, but we're Christian, too. Ordinarly, a piece like this would be anathema to me, but the beauty of the language is astounding and the questions he poses confound the most ardent of his fellow believers. I was exposed to this book originally in high school, for what reason I can't say, by Janice Stark, one of two good teachers at that prison. I don't know if she's still alive but, in exposing this book to me, she finally wrested me of my last Christian ties, and I couldn't be more thankful for such a gift.

11. Faust--Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: No matter how hard I try, there is no way I'll ever be able to get past Faustian themes. Every story I write has them and I look for them in everything I read. Between science, poetry, literature, and philosophy, Goethe may be the best writer of the last three centuries, and the depth of Faust has proven near limitless for me.

12. Hard Times--Charles Dickens: I probably have some eyes rolling at this one, but I've always loved Dickens. I know that a lot of his verbage was based on his pay scale, but this is hardly his fault; I'd do the same thing. For whatever reason, however, Hard Times is a short, consise work that represents the best Dickens had to offer. In part a screed against the effects of the Poor Act of 1834, this is his most socially conscious work and, by far, his most readable.

13. Lone Wolf and Cub--Kazuo Koike (writer) and Goseki Kojima (artist): Now, like Sarah, it's comics time. I see this epic piece, some 2500 pages in its American release, as the War and Peace of graphic storytelling, intricate and nuanced in its storytelling but emotional in its characters. On top of it, the last few hundred pages, as an American reader, are near unfathomable to me in the way that enemies come together for a greater good. The Western esthetic has a hard time with such compromises but, ultimately, this is one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.

14. Stray Bullets--David Lapham: This is, by far, the newest entry on the list, and my final honest one, as well. It hasn't been long since I finished what exists of Stray Bullets, but few works have spoken to me as truly as this. He hits the lurid aspects that have always driven me to silent film and the novels of Hammett and Chandler, but the story of Virginia Applejack carries an emotional weight for me that few pieces ever had. Watching her watch her father die of cancer is not the stuff of your average comic. While unfinished (get with it, Lapham; to hell with Young Liars), Stray Bullets has everything I could ever want in a story.

15. Jewel of the Dragon Queen--Daryl Loomis: Sure, it's arrogant to place myself on a list with those above. Don't get me wrong, though, I don't actually equate myself with them on any level. At the same time, as the longest piece I've ever finished and the first I've written with a specific eye toward publication, this will stick with me for a long, long time. It will be a ten issue comic that is currently in storyboarding by the artist, whose skills I have the utmost faith in, and we'll just have to see. Worse comes to worst, it's a self-publishing deal, but plenty of good work gets published this way. All I can say is that I've never worked so hard on something in my life. Killing these characters after the two years I lived with them was one of the hardest, most guilt-ridden things I've ever had to do and is a big reason why I've had such a hard time focusing on the blog, my reviews, or anything else. It's done though, and the ball's in the artists court, so there's only hope ahead. Anyway, sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but the other books are good and, if you haven't read some of them, I certainly recommend them all.

The Guardian of Crowdsourcing

The Guardian continues to amaze with its dedication to participatory journalism and crowdsourcing.

Its latest is a tool to track the expenses of its members of parliament, following the MP expenses scandal. A few days after its main competitor) breaks the string of stories resulting in skyrocketing circulations, the Guardian decides to compete with what it does best.

Certainly not the most mind-boggling experiment in crowdsourcing ever undertaken, but the idea is phenomenal in its simplicity. All the Guardian has really done with this project is rent server space and put up a whole list of public records on its Web site. It has created an easy interface for people to provide the information it needs and left the rest to its audience.

Nieman Lab picks out the best aspects of the project – everything from the simple interface, the progress bar that assesses progress, the contributor ratings, and the mugshots of the smiling MPs (I’m not kidding!) has contributed toward increasing participation. It's all about making it more user-friendly and engaging.

The response has been huge with 20,000 people participating in the effort and 160,000 pages analyzed. While the early stages of the project are more about making deductions and pointing out anything that may be suspicious or erroneous, as my co-blogger at the Online Journalism Blog, Paul Bradshaw points out, the fun part will be the overlays and mashups that emerge from the data, which will be the actual stories.

Of course, it helps to have the sort of involved readership that the Guardian has. Newspapers have tried similar databases before. A couple years ago, the Washington Examiner started WECAN, a huge database of public records with a similar idea, and the Gannett’s Democrat and Chronicle posted a similar list of government documents on its site, both with little or no participation from the audience. It didn’t help that the sites’ editors didn’t follow up or pursue the project to any great magnitude.

However, what really, really helps such projects catch fire is an inflammatory story of epic proportions - that's the sort of thing that stimulates a great deal of interest. Simon Willison, the project’s programmer, reinforces this by stating how important it was to kick this off on Thursday when the story was all over the airwaves, as opposed to Friday as it was initially planned.

In the past, Talking Point Memo has perhaps had the most success in crowdsourcing this sort of story when it released Department of Justice documents following the Bush Administration’s US attorney firings scandal. Skilled blogger though Josh Marshall is, what really piqued reader interest was the huge controversy behind it.

The Guardian has already proved the high level of enthusiasm of its audience with its Katine project where its Web site managed to attract readers who offered to donate not just ideas and information, but also resources such as books and bicycles to Ugandan children, services in the form of medical help from doctors, and infrastructure for the implementation of solar power – all this quite literally originated in the comments threads of the Katine blog.

Most of this initially happened with the weight of the Guardian organization, no doubt, but the paper has to be lauded for its continued interest and effort in the area. It has a surprisingly long history of such exercises, dating back to the early 2000s.

Well before the existence of social media tools, it started an investigative report on bribery charges against a Saudi Arabian arms company with the help of amateurs to help professional journalists through its Web site.

News organizations should really be doing a lot more to seize on such opportunities. The audience won't contribute its valuable time and effort for just about anything, but occasionally a story comes along, which begs to be crowdsourced.

The U.S.....beat Spain? In SOCCER?

It's true.

Others commented on the sheer miracle of the U.S. even getting to the semi-finals of the Confederations cup (to summarize: after losing 3-0 to Brazil and 3-1 to Italy, they were able to go on only after Egypt beat Italy 1-0, and the U.S. beat Egypt 3-0, and Brazil beat Italy 3-0 ). But this victory outdoes even that previous unlikelihood. Spain hadn't lost in thirty-five international matches straight, tying the all-time record. This game was virtually a foregone conclusion in Spain's favor. Sure, they were due for a loss sooner or later, but the way the U.S. had played, it didn't seem like it would be this game.

But the U.S. played ridiculously well, and Spain did not. Sure, we didn't have as many shots, but our defense was lights out, and when we shot the ball, it went in the goal. It's as simple as that.

I don't want to bet against the U.S. in the final (most likely against Brazil, though at this point, who knows?), but the loss of Bradley at midfield for the next game due to a (ridiculous) red-card (though he may have merited yellow, which would have forced him to miss the next game anyways) will really cause problems. Plus, Brazil is just really, really good. But so is Spain, and look how that turned out.

If only the U.S. could play like they did against Egypt and Spain all the time....

Didn't we just do this?

At least John Ensign kept it domestic. AWOL governor Mark Sanford has come out with the story: he was in Argentina with his mistress.

Here's my question: Ensign and Vitter are still in the Senate, this asshat will still be the governor, and someone talented like Eliot Spitzer had to resign?

Tell me how this is fair. And for the record, I don't want the asshat trio of Sanford, Ensign and Vitter to resign. I just want us to stop giving a shit when a bunch of politicians diddle other women (or men in public restrooms). I mean, there's a certain satisfaction from the family values folks getting caught with some other person, but other than that, I just don't care.

Spitzer / Edwards '16!

The Depressing Effects of Eduardo Paes's Efforts to "Clean Up" Rio de Janeiro

I alluded yesterday to the visible changes Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes (of the centrist Partido Movimento Democratico Brasileiro, PMDB) has effected in the first 6 months of his administration, and overall, they are extremely depressing. Back in February, I wrote about Paes cracking down on the informal economy in Rio, going after not just guys who sell cans of beer on the streets during Carnival, but people who sell corn, books, sunglasses, whatever. The article at the time made clear that this crackdown was not just some rhetorical move (though it was that, too), but was actually being implemented.

I had actually forgotten mostly about this since February, but the moment I hit the streets in Botafogo (in the southern part of Rio, where I was staying), it was immediately clear how strong Paes had cracked down. Many of the vendors I was accustomed to seeing in their usual spots just weren't there anymore. Sure, I hadn't been around in 15 months, and it's possible (and probable) that a vendor or two would move on or die or have some other reason to not be there, but this wasn't a case of one or two vendors gone - nearly everybody who sold anything on the streets was gone. Sure, near Guanabara Bay, the guys who sold pirated DVDs, video games, and computer software were gone - that crackdown on piracy had begun before I left Rio and before Paes was elected. But others were totally absent, too - a guy who sold hot dogs in the evenings a block away from my old apartment; the guy who sold books near a collection of restaurants; the woman who sold candy from a small cart; the guy who sold corn near the beach front. Not one of them was in their old haunts at any time of the day. And even those who had persisted had to be super-careful. In front of the building where I was staying on this trip, there was always a guy selling sunglasses and small housewares and a woman who sold home-made goods. One day, upon returning to the apartment, they (and a few other vendors) were suddenly running towards me. I was initially confused, until I realized (as they were looking back over their shoulders) that the police must be coming to crack down, and they were off to hide.

There is so much wrong with this policy, and this last anecdote points to one of the biggest problems - people adapt to laws. In this case, I actually admire the intelligence in these remaining vendors picking their spots to sell: the building they were stationed in front was on a major one-way street that could only be accessed by coming up this (multi-mile) street through traffic, or turning onto it from another (heavily-congested) one-way street. That may not make much sense, but what that position did was give these people a perfect location to set up shop and have plenty of time for a warning from a lookout if the police were coming. And that was exactly what had happened - the lookout, stationed on the intersecting one-way street, saw the cops coming and gave the signal, and the vendors bolted. By the time the police car had navigated traffic and gotten a green light to come around to the place where the vendors had been, they were out of sight.

To be clear, while I'm strongly against this crackdown in general, there is room for maneuvering here. While I think copyright laws really need to be overhauled, the Brazilian government writ large has been making some efforts to crack down on software and film piracy (while also insisting that companies like Microsoft need to make products more affordable in countries with lower incomes), so if Paes is involved in that, fine. I have a harder time cracking down on guys who sell sunglasses or fake rolexes, but not for legal reasons - I figure if they want to sell it, and people are willing to run the risk to buy it, then fine. It's not like citizens are compelled to only purchase from these vendors. The crackdown really gets indefensible on people whose income in no way is infringing upon the formal market, though - somebody making some delicious deserts to sell on the street for a low price? An old guy who has a bunch of old books to sell setting up his wares on a (very broad) sidewalk? There is no threat there at all, and cracking down on these people is only depriving them of a source of income, one that is even more needed as Brazil officially enters into the global recession.

And it's not like Paes is genuinely concerned about the actual economic effects of these vendors. He made it clear in his campaign, and in his rhetoric since, that this isn't about boosting the formal economy or even cracking down on contraband. It's about "cleaning up" the city, and, as I wrote back in February, that means only one thing:

[B]y appealing to the "Marvelous City" he never had, Paes is also appealing to the worst kind of elitism and repression of Rio's poor. Implying that the "Marvelous City" ("Cidade Maravilhosa," Rio's nickname) can only exist when street vendors are removed from the scene is patently, vulgarly, and quite frankly, unrealistically expecting to just wipe the face of poverty from the city of Rio. In effect, it's saying, "The city can only be beautiful when we keep the favelados and the poor in their own neighborhoods" where, let's not forget, they can easily find themselves victims of police occupations and violence.

Rio's facing a lot of problems, and certainly, some of the more major problems (like police corruption and the violence in the favelas) are, as the article points out, not within Paes's jurisdiction. However, concentrating his emphasis on street vendors and others who are involved in the informal economy not out of any huge entrepreneurship or search for the thrill of illegal activities, but for the simple reason that they are trying to make ends meet, is not only revolting, it's unrealistic. These efforts reveal Paes to be one of the most blatant elitists willing to wage obvious class war on his own city that I've ever seen any politician anywhere pull (as well as the micromanager's micromanager). The fact that he has no social program responses to offer alternatives to street vendors beyond "fines and/or jail" just makes it that much worse.

Rio specifically, and many of Brazil's urban centers more generally, has a rich history of launching "cleanup" campaigns that have only further marginalized the poor (and often racially "darker"), from the 1890s after emancipation and the end of the empire, to the 1920s, when the poor were kicked out of the center of the city in anticipation of the Belgian royal family's visit to Rio in 1922 (the first European royalty to set foot in Brazil since the Portuguese Crown arrived in 1808 when it fled the Napoleonic invasion), to the 1960s and the governorship of Carlos Lacerda. By taking this stance on the informal economy, Paes is only adding his own name to this infamous list of injustices.

And I wish it stopped there, but it doesn't. Paes, in his effort to "clean up" the city, is also cracking down on the little bars that dot the landscape, where you could sit down at a nice plastic table on the sidewalk in the evening and have a nice cold beer (in Rio, quality is determined more by coldness than by taste, a flawed system but one that has its logic based on the heat). It was a wonderful way to spend a night chilling out, and it wasn't like these little bars were occupying the sidewalks out of maliciousness - oftentimes, the "bar" itself was no more than 10 feet deep and 5 feet wide, meaning that they had to expand their business onto the sidewalk if they were to actually have any clients, and they only put tables on the sidewalk once neighboring businesses had closed for the day.

However, Paes has declared that these activities also must go as they are an eyesore on the landscape. Now, I actually lived above no fewer than four of these places, and while it got noisy, it was never so terrible that you couldn't sleep - certainly, the crowds below talking were less noisy than the idiots driving by honking their horns, or the delivery trucks that arrived at the grocery store across the street at 4 in the morning. Yes, the sidewalks would get crowded, and I understand why that would bother some, but it was never like you absolutely could not walk on the sidewalks when these places set up shop. In short, it was nowhere near a major inconvenience, and it afforded not only a great way for inexpensive leisure, but gave Rio a particular vibrance.

That vibrance does not fit within Paes's elitist vision, though, and he has cracked down. Upon walking through my old neighborhood, no fewer than 3 old bars had been closed, unable to remain open in the face of a policy that prejudiced the owners' livelihood over the principle of "aesthetics." The obvious conclusion is that this policy has shut down small businesses (which were a part of the formal sector, not random street vendors), leading to more people jobless and having to find work in an economy that isn't the most favorable right now. But that's not the end of the consequences, either. Many of these little bars provided people who weren't necessarily of means (which is a majority of Brazil) to be able to get together with friends over some inexpensive beers and have a good time. In Rio go to a "bar" like those we have in the U.S., you would end up paying double to triple the price of a bottle of beer that you paid on the street - the "bar scene" in Rio is very much a middle-class/hipster (yes, they have them everywhere) thing to do, and most Brazilians are not middle-class (nor hipsters). Thus, Paes's policies haven't just prejudiced the poor and small business owners in their means of earning income; they've also directly attacked their means of leisure.

As should be clear by this point, I'm fairly biased, but I'm still comfortable in saying that Rio was a much more depressing place upon my visit this time. Much of what had given it its cultural flair - cheap books and good food on the street, hanging out with friends and total strangers on the street and having a cold beer - is gone. This isn't to say, "oh, poor Rio - it's culture is now dead and stagnant," for that's far from the case, and no place has its culture bound up only on things like the informal economy. Nonetheless, a not-insignificant part of the city that I knew is gone (and I didn't even make it into the downtown area, where the informal economy was much stronger). Even walking along the beaches and through other neighborhoods, the streets had a ghostly, more subdued quality about them. Sure, the ocean was still beautiful to look at, as were the mountains. While there, I couldn't help but feeling outrage, frustration, and anger that such an elitist vision of Rio had been so (though not totally) successfully implemented. But mostly, I felt sadness: having seen the effects of Paes's policies in only 6 months, I left Rio feeling that the city hadn't become "marvelous;" rather, it had been stripped of part of what had made it so "marvelous" in the first place.

Silvio Berlusconi - Making It Too Easy

I'm not going to pretend that Silvio Berlusconi is anything more than the worst kind of reactionary, macho slimeball. That said, only a person of that caliber of quality could make what should be a normal insistence he's never hired prostitutes be so sexist: ''I've never paid a woman. I never understood where the satisfaction is when you're missing the pleasure of conquest."

Ah, yes - conquest. How men who view women as nothing more than objects to be sexually "conquered" view sex. It's nice to see that, in all of his protestations of innocence in his latest scandal, Berlusconi hasn't lost his ability to be an insufferable, sexist piece of filth of the lowest level.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

15 Books

You get out of internet touch, the blog suddenly has the best meme in the world.

My 15 indispensible books. Only literature. No particular order. Typing on a Guatemalan computer, forgive any spelling errors.

1. Jose Saramago, Baltisar and Blimunda. Most beautiful book ever. Sometimes the Nobel committee gets it wrong, but sometimes they get it very right.

2. Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain. Although the two people I have convinced to read this haven´t liked it nearly as much as I, this is another example of the Nobel Prize turning me on to an amazing author. The best book on personal freedom I have ever read.

3. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing. Everyone loves The Road, and for good reason. But The Crossing is far and away McCarthy´s strongest work in my opinion, and certainly more so than All the Pretty Horses, its predecessor.

4. Alice Munro, Open Secrets. Though it could be any Munro book really, particularly because they are more or less the same. Arguably the most underrated author in the English language.

5. Philip Roth, Sabbath´s Theatre. Roth´s greatest book and somewhat underrated I think given the many other books of his that people love.

6. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon. Not sure why Trend hates Morrison so much and I do think she won the Nobel a bit early in her career, but Song of Solomon is a freaking fantastic piece of work.

7. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera. Though I could just as easily go with One Hundred Years of Solitude.

8. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. Even if the novel goes on a bit long towards the end, I call it the Great American Novel, if in fact such a thing exists.

9. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn. Although this is the other obvious choice for the honor.

10. Don DeLillo, Underworld. The best American novel of the 90s?

11. Mario Vargas Llosa, War at the End of the World. A great book on religious fantaticism, the growth of the state, and power. Really fantastic.

12. Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore. Wow.

13. V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas. Funny and fantastic.

14. John Dos Passos, U.S. A. Trilogy. It all went downhill for Dos Passos after this, but it doesn´t take away from the amazing power of these three books.

15. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms. I don´t care if Holden Caulfield was right and Hemingway is a phony, it´s still a great book. Not a bad film either.

As for Trend´s list of classic novels that suck, can we start the discussion with The Jungle?

Back from Brazil

As my flurry of posts last weekend probably indicated, I'm back from Brazil. Although I'd only been gone for 15 months, I was really surprised at the changes that had happened, in Brazil and abroad.

The change was evident immediately upon arriving at the airport. Thanks to the H1N1 scare ("influenza suina"), all the travelers on the plane (Brazilian and foreign) had to fill out a sheet saying whether they had had a cough and/or fever in the last 10 days in addition to the regular Customs paperwork. And just to be safe, the officials at the gate and at customs who gave us the papers and took them back all wore masks. I suppose precautions are OK, but it still seems a bit extreme of a response to a disease that a couple thousand people have gotten out of more than 6 billion in the world.

Also at the airport, it was very obvious that Rio is pushing very hard to get the 2016 Olympics. Rio's airport has two terminals; one is new, but one was built in the 1970s, and it shows, not so much in deterioration as in design and lighting. However, the (in my opinion, relatively ugly) walls were all covered with materials indicating that the aiprort is undergoing a major overhaul in its appearance, and there were signs all over showing how the aiport will look with the new walls and better lighting. If it looks half as good as the design looked, it will be a marked improvement. And just in case you weren't sure it was for the Olympics, there were signs all over with comments on getting ready for 2016, boasting of Brazil's ability to host, the changes their making to infrastructure, etc.

While we're on the subject of airports, Sao Paulo has demonstrated it may quite possibly have the stupidest airport security policy outside of the U.S. I have now flown into both airports in Sao Paulo from both airports in Rio, and every time you make a connecting flight, you get off the plane and immediately stand in line. For what. To go through security. Again. You of course go through when you're in Rio, and yet when you get in Sao Paulo, you have to do it all over again. I just don't understand this - it's not like Rio says, "meh, security, smecurity" - it's the same metal detector, the same "remove your laptop," the same time waiting in lines. And I just can't figure out the logic for this - it's not like Brazil has had to deal with a rich legacy of (often-deserved) mistrust from the rest of the world, and there isn't exactly a history of terrorist attacks on Brazil via airports. Even in the U.S., which is way too paranoid in terms of security, you don't have to go through security to make a connection. Maybe there's some logic in Sao Paulo, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is.

I will want to deal with the visible effects of Rio's new mayoral administration in another post, but in political news, the PSDB is already gearing up against the PT for the 2010 elections. The commercials I saw weren't actually going after Dilma Rousseff herself, nor after Lula; rather, they were simply critical of the PT in the vaguest of terms, basically trying to frame next year's elections as "PT vs. PSDB." I don't know yet if this is smart or foolish politics; on the one hand, getting people to think just in terms of parties could help the PSDB, but on the other, relying on vague condemnations and showing a lack of any good candidate or policy alternative could backfire. Suffice to say, the content of the commercials themselves was appalling, relying on innuendos, non-controversies, and other baseless vague accusations against the PT. While one can level charges of corruption against all parties in Brazil right now (and for generations back), including the PSDB, the PT is not exactly mired in any scandal - the biggest challenge is facing the centrist-PMDB, whose Jose Sarney (president of Brazil from 1985-1990 and current president of the Senate) is embroiled in an expenses scandal. The PSDB commercial tried to say that the PT was directly involved in that, but most Brazilians (at least, those outside of the middle-class Zona Sul in Rio) are smart enough to understand that Brazil is a parliamentary presidential system, and just because Lula and the PT have to collaborate with the PMDB (and many other parties) in the legislative branch, does not mean that Lula or the PT are giving orders to Sarney.

Finally, in cultural news, O Globo has come out with what is quite possibly the Worst Novela Ever. Called "Caminho das Indias" (Road from Indias - yes, it's pluralized, and no, I don't know why), it has some of the most ridiculous exoticism and historical/cultural innacuracies I've ever seen in any country. The basic plot immediately reveals the ridiculousness - an Indian woman who loved a member of the "untouchable" caste in India is now married to a wealthy businessman, and the "untouchable" has also become a successful businessman, and (of course) the two are competitors not just in the business world, but for the woman's attention as well. There are numerous other ridiculous aspects to the plot that are too convoluted to go into here. However, it should be fairly obvious the ridiculous premise that "love can conquer all," including the caste system. Equally risible is the notion of an "untouchable" becoming a major business leader. While I understand that the caste system is nowhere near as rigid as it once was, it certainly is nowhere near as lax as the Novela makes it out to be. And the good times keep coming. While the main female protagonist passes for an Indian, her character's name is absurd: Maya. Yes, a Brazilian actress playing an Indian named after a Mexican indigenous group. But at least she kind of looks the part, which is more than I can say for either of the two main male characters (the latter of whom played an Italian, with much more success, in his previous novela). And the theme song is the worst mish-mash of an "interpretation" of Indian music and culture ever (keep your eyes open for the Russian-like dancer at about 33 seconds in). I was horrified, but having never been to India, thought I was perhaps overreacting. However, last night I showed the clip to an Indian colleague of mine at work, and she was even more horrified and offended than I was. Well done, O Globo - well done indeed.

Rethinking Populism: Iran

I haven't touched on this subject for a while, but here goes.

I've been seeing a bit of lefty pushback on Twitter against the overwhelming support for the Iranian "Green" movement. People snarking about whether Americans would be supporting the Iranians if it was Ahmadinejad who had had the election stolen from him, saying they "don't know who the good guys are," etc.

First off, by talking about whether we'd support Ahmadinejad, they miss the point. The regime in power is the only one who has the power to steal the election and then enforce the decision. Maybe the party out of power, the loosely-defined "Reformist" group, could steal a city or two, but they would have no power to send the Revolutionary Guard into an area to consolidate their own power. A revolt in the streets is almost necessarily a revolt against the regime in power. Even after the coup in Venezuela, for instance, the popular rising that put Chavez back in power was against the junta that had already taken control.

The result is a populist revolt in the streets, with thousands and even millions of people pouring out to support their candidate, even though by some accounts it is less about Mousavi than it is about getting rid of Ahmadinejad. Robert Dreyfuss at the Nation notes:

The anti-Ahmadinejad coalition is deep and broad. It includes conservative, Old Guard founders of the Islamic Republic, who view Ahmadinejad with disdain and who resent the coming to power of his coterie of Revolutionary Guard commanders; the large and growing majority of Iranian clerics and senior ayatollahs, many of whom have long viewed the Leader, Ayatatollah Ali Khamenei, as an upstart and usurper since he was elevated to his position 20 years ago; nearly the entirety of Iran's business class, especially those involved in high-tech, aviation, oil and gas, and heavy industry, who blame Ahmadinejad for his catastrophic mismanagement of the economy and for the crippling economic sanctions; the entire class of Iranian reformists, from more liberal-minded clerics like former President Khatami to more centrist ex-officials such as former Prime Minister Mousavi, the presidential candidate; a large contingent of Iranian women, energized by the role of Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife, who I met in Tehran, who campaigned vigorously for her husband and for women's rights; and of course, the educated elite of Iran, including students, artists, filmmakers, intellectuals, writers, and musicians.

It is, in other words, not about one particular candidate, but about the promise of change. The word was derided here in the U.S. as empty rhetoric, but it means something. And so trying to lump the people in the streets into one group, or darkly warning that they're not as progressive as we'd like is both wrong and misses the point.

Americans thrill to the sight of Iranians in the streets not because we have deep personal feelings about Ahmadinejad, but because of a simple feeling of solidarity with a people pushing back against their corrupt regime. A simple feeling that if thousands of people are willing to take to the streets to proclaim their rights, we should support them. It's basic populism.

The handwringing over Mousavi not being a Western liberal or even much of a reformer is also beside the point. Mousavi is not so much leading this revolution as he is forced to keep up. The people in the streets are in charge, and with the lack of a central communications structure, there is no mechanism for him to control the crowds. People are communicating with each other, and the fact that huge crowds are coming out every day in spite of the government's best efforts to shut down communications speaks to the level of popular anger and the effectiveness of peer-to-peer networking, to use a new-media-wankish term.

Personally, I'm in love with the rising in Iran because it represents the type of populism I want to see: the people demanding their rights from a repressive government. It doesn't matter if I don't agree with the government they choose: it is not my decision. It is their decision, and though they all don't agree with one another on every point (much like, well, people in this country or any other don't agree on every point with the candidates we elect), they are fighting for the right to make that decision. That's a movement I can support with a clear conscience.

What makes Wimbledon “Wimbledon”

For most people, June is a time of laying in the sun, eating hotdogs at barbecues and hiking outdoors, but for avid tennis fans the latter part of the month involves not much more than waking up to the green lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon, England, and sitting glued to the television for the remainder of the day.

The Championships, Wimbledon, is often hailed as the sport’s biggest stage, and the All England Club where it unfolds, the cathedral of tennis itself. There is so much exclusive to the tournament that makes it stand out in the sporting world. Here’s my attempt to capture it in words.

In the rough-and-tumble struggle of physical will and power, sport is often about finding beauty in little things: the finely orchestrated touchdown pass from a quarterback to his receiver, the wonderful execution of a three-pointer that drops through the rim of the basket, or that magnificent diving save by an artful goaltender.

No exalted powers of observation are needed to find beauty at the All England Club, however, from the very backdrop provided by the lush green lawns with their generous share of fountains and lakes to the magicians on the courts themselves, attired in pristine white as per unwavering Wimbledon traditions. The grass surface ensures that there is little slipping and sliding that would get your shoes dirty (as happens in the clay of Paris two weeks prior), or the thumping of hard courts that sends visible shock waves through the knees.

The slick and fast surface offered by the grass demands a higher level of shot-making skill and mental prowess, as opposed to the more physically demanding and brute nature of tennis on its slower counterparts. Not that power ever hurt anyone on a grass court (except that occasional, unfortunate ball boy!)

But what makes Wimbledon special is the unpredictability of the grass that pervades its grounds. As if to defy the British insistence on proper decorum – all-white ensembles, pin drop silences and genteel salutations - the uneven surface of the blades throws up the ball in fickle bounces, low and fast, demanding nothing short of the absolute best from players in terms of footwork and anticipation. A dense carpet of velvety green in the initial week, play is dominated by shorter points and faster exchanges.

On slower surfaces, game plans are often dictated by the ball, disintegrating as they do to long, painstaking rallies till the lesser player causes an error. On grass, however, the ball isn’t waiting around to be missed, so the better players tend to dictate points, take risks and play aggressive, offensive tennis in order to keep the play short. In other words, they construct the points in their heads and write the stories themselves. In the second week of the tournament, patches of dirt begin to peek through the well-worn grass, slightly slowing down play, and adding spatial unpredictability to the already capricious turf.

Little wonder then, that it has always taken the best players to reign supreme at Wimbledon; the Championships rarely reward one-time wonders that sail through two weeks on account of dream runs and good fortunes. Down under in Melbourne, this can happen as summer fatigue, and injuries and retirements after long hiatuses often see top players bid farewell in unforeseen losses. The French Open, for its part, throws up some unlikely winners on account of a drastically different playing style.

If the carefully-manicured lawns of Wimbledon are untameable, so is Mother Nature. A familiar sight during the Championships is the ominous premonition of impending rain looming over the English skies. As behooves the country-club nature of the sport, players don’t toil through rain and snow. Hell, they can barely focus over a catcall! Heavy tarpaulin sheets are hence summoned at the very hint of a drizzle and the fastidious courts are covered for the duration of bad weather. This year, however, the big story at tennis’s cathedral is the retractable roof over Center Court, which would render this age-old tradition obsolete. Painstaking as it often proves to be, the spectacle will be missed!

As if to add to the capriciousness, there’s Court No. 2, “the graveyard of champions,” which is known to ruthlessly dismiss top dogs in a hurry; it famously eliminated three-time champion Venus Williams to a relative unknown a few years ago, and yesterday, it saw the exit of American James Blake in the first round. Past casualties of the graveyard court include such greats as Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Hingis, and Serena Williams. Many reasons have been given for this seeming mystery, like distractions from the restaurant on the upper deck and the lower bounce of the ball, but the most compelling one yet is that it simply favors the underdog.

Few sporting events display the kind of panache and flair that Wimbledon does. This is the only tournament that would prompt Roger Federer – classy though he is – to show up in a custom-made blazer with initials emblazoned, or a well-tailored waistcoat to suit his sartorial style.

And why wouldn’t he? From the sharply attired club officials – in Ralph Lauren, no less – to members of the royal family in the royal box, Wimbledon is all about class. Then there are the celebrities dotting the stands, who often have no clue what they’re watching except the people watching them, hall of famers with their scrutinizing expressions and ‘pearls’ of wisdom (I’m sorry, if you’re not sitting in the ESPN box, you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about, as opposed to Dick Enberg who does), press conferences with crisp British accents intoning not-so-crisp questions and of course, nothing screams sultry, sweltering, sweaty sport like the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The strawberries and cream and champagne add flair to the fare.

The Championships are steeped in irony. About a decade ago, Tim Henman carried the hopes and dreams of an entire nation on his shoulders to Center Court. However, Henman, the former great British hope to win the tournament, famously lost to Pete Sampras in all three of their meetings at Wimbledon. And you can hardly blame him. The supremacy of the American legend on grass was such that he won 55 out of 56 matches at the All England Club in eight straight years.

Henman is now over the hill in tennis years, but his hill still exists just outside the grandest stage of the tournament. “Henman hill” is what the Brits fondly call the little showcourt area they occupied for years to root for their compatriot and watch him on a big screen outside Center Court.

Now, that pressure has shifted to young Scot Andy Murray, currently the third best player in the world. The last British man to win Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936, so it's hard to admonish the English for their urgency in anointing their next big hope. Murray, though a stellar player in his own right, faces his own Pete Sampras.

Roger Federer has won 41 of his last 42 matches at Wimbledon in six consecutive years. However, last year also saw Federer’s worst and Murray’s best, and the Scot has gotten the better of the Swiss in four of their past five meetings; none of those meetings, however, carried the weight and pressure of the world’s most prestigious tournament.

Even so, the dream of seeing him lift the trophy gathers steam this season and “Murray mound” has quickly been elevated to the status of a mountain, reflecting not only the 22 year old’s ascendancy in the tennis world, but also the injury-ridden absence of Rafael Nadal, Federer’s closest challenger, and incidentally the man who took that one match from him last year.

Yet, if all goes well for Murray, he may well lay hands on the coveted trophy, but still deny the Brits their one big wish. Murray is widely reported to have insisted that he is Scottish, not English, and his dislike of the British soccer team is well known.

Despite recent retractments, when it eventually happens, he may well go down in history as the Scot that won Wimbledon. And the British crowds will be left to look within themselves for their man.

Monday, June 22, 2009

10 Lauded Works/Authors I Hope to Read One Day

To bring the "book-posts" to a nice, neat trilogy, I thought it would be fun (and kill time at work) to also list some of the "great works" that I've never read, but would really, really like to get around to at some point. No doubt I'm forgetting some, and there are some serious gaps (no women authors?), so I'm open to suggestions from others as well. But here, in no particular order, are 10 "classics" I'm really eager to read (but will probably not get around to anytime soon).

1.) Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time - This probably seems like the most pretentious possible pick, but really it's sheer curiosity - for all of the references and praise this work gets (including occasional hilarious pop-culture mentions), I've never met anybody who's actually read it and who can opine on it, and I'm really curious what the fuss is about. So hopefully, sometime in my life (probably post-retirement), I will be able to at least sit down and start Proust.

2.) Anything by Cormac McCarthy - I've heard so much great stuff about him, yet have never read anything; indeed, my only "McCarthy" contact is the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, and the consensus seems to be that's McCarthy's worst book. I'd probably start with Blood Meridian, but the whole border trilogy and the Road all seem equally fascinating.

3.) Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow - Because Pynchon's work seems like it might be something I really enjoy, and I feel like if I'm going to read him, I might as well start with what appears to be his most challenging work.

4.) David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest - Long before his suicide, this book intrigued me simply for its title and its girth everytime I handled it working at a bookstore. The praise heaped upon his writing-style (fiction and non-fiction) has only heightened my curiosity.

5.) Par Lagerkvist, Barabbas - A probing take on religion and the story of Jesus, narrated by a less-than-noble man who was present, written by a Swede? How could this not sound interesting?

6.) William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying - Because I somehow have avoided ever having to read Faulkner in my life, and this one sounds as interesting as any of his works does to me.

7.) William Styron, A Tidewater Morning - The themes, while far from unusual, can still be compelling, and, in an extremely random justification, my family used to vacation in that area every summer, so I'd like to see a literary treatment of the tidewater region of VA/NC.

8.) Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain - Because I'm a dork, and a 700-page novel using a tuberculosis sanatorium as an allegory for early-20th century Europe really seems fascinating to me.

9.) Knut Hamsun, Hunger - Somebody once described Hamsun's work to me as "the literary equivalent of a Munch painting." While I'm not necessarily the biggest fan (or opponent) of German expressionism, the description alone has kept my interest piqued for years.

10.) Jorge Luis Borges, any collection of short stories - I openly admit that my familiarity with (non-Brazilian) Latin American literature is woefully inadequate - I've never read anything other than a few short stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example. And while I know relatively little about the famous authors of South America, Borges's writings seem like as good a place as any to begin.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

10 Lauded Books I Hate

To do the reverse of the lists below, I thought I'd put out 10 books that are generally highly lauded or canonical that I pure straight hated. Literary tastes are of course subjective, and I openly admit that I prefer 20th century literature over any other time period in general, so this list is appropriately skewed in that direction (though the 20th century isn't off the hook). So my 10 most overrated literary works, in rough order:

1) Pride and Prejudice - Words do not describe the contempt I have for this book. There are many movies you watch where you think, "I want those two hours of my life back." This is the only book I feel that way about.

2) The Bluest Eye - Some day, I will read something else by Toni Morrison, simply because I still can't believe my reaction against this book was so violent, and that there must have been something going on in my life at that time that made me hate it so much. But I'm not reading this one again.

3) Wieland: Or, the Transformation - Charles Brockden Brown is considered by many to be the first American novelist. You can make a strong case; what is not up for debate is how horrible the first American novels were.

4) Madame Bovary - She could not have died fast enough. Like Anna Karenina, only without any of the good parts, and an even more ridiculous dramatization of the worst parts. Oh, and spoiler alert - she dies. But not fast enough.

5) The Scarlet Letter - By now, it's probably becoming pretty clear that I'm just not that big a fan of pre-20th century literature. Still, I think this may be one of the most overrated books in all of American literature; useful for letting us get insight into a particular literary style, but god, it's an awful, boring literary style.

6) For Whom the Bell Tolls - The lesson I learned from this book? Hemingway's method and subject-matter is much more effective in short story form than in 400 page novels.

7) The Fountainhead - Only as I grew older did I realize just how horrible the "philosophy" behind Ayn Rand's "books" was. Fortunately, even as a teenager, I could recognize the stupid "plot," ridiculous preaching, stilted writing, and just general awfulness of this book, thus sparing me from also trying to plow through Atlas Shrugs (or anything else by her).

8) Romeo and Juliet - No doubt, this is because of the over-hype this play and story have gotten over the last 400 years. Still, over-exposure makes me hate it even more than Shakespeare's worst plays - at least their novelty makes them interesting.

9) The Good Earth - I may read it again someday, because I suspect it may not be as bad as I felt it was when I read it. Still, few books have left me caring so little about what happens to the protagonists, and unimpressed by either the story or the style. It's not much different from Nectar in a Sieve, but I thought the latter was way more successful at what it did than Buck's work.

10) Lust - OK, so Elfreide Jelinek isn't exactly "lauded," but she did win the Nobel Prize in literature a few years ago. No question, her wordplay is top-notch. Unfortunately, the meme of "sex is a horrible repressive system that denies women any agency, and death is the only escape" simply is not worth being repeated over 250 pages (not to mention that I just don't buy it - but hey, I'm a man, so I guess Jelinek would expect that response from me as another example of my male authoritarianism.).