Sunday, February 28, 2010

Things I'm Tired Of (I) - Emphasizing Survivors as Looters

Dear news media outlets,

While I understand the technicality of the legal term, could you please refrain from portraying victims of natural disasters as criminals by highlighting their "looting?" It was offensive in 2005, when African-Americans were "looting" while white people were "salvaging" in New Orleans, and it's offensive in 2010 when Chileans are "looting." What do you want? That people remain hungry and without water for an indefinite period of time until the infrastructure is developed enough for the Chilean government to give these things out? That would be fine, except that the infrastructure has just been demolished, and aid wouldn't exactly arrive quickly anywhere that just endured an 8.8 earthquake. People need supplies to survive, and the expectation that capitalism cannot be disturbed, even in the event of a massive natural and human disaster, is absolutely absurd. I would hope perhaps you media outlets could focus on more useful narratives than "let's portray the criminality of everyday individuals who are merely trying to survive," but apparently, I'd be wrong. This was a devastating event, and we're still only learning about how horrible it will be. Chile is facing a long road here; it doesn't need you portraying people trying to survive as base criminals. Please focus on other things.



Spreading Mexican Violence

The narcoviolence in Mexico has begun spreading to Oaxaca.

Although most Americans see Mexico as an unvaried entity, in fact the violence has been extremely localized. Large parts of Mexico remain almost totally untouched. Oaxaca is one of those. But in recent days, two bad killings have taken place, including a head dumped on a major tourist beach in Puerto Escondido. The story is in Spanish, but here's a brief mention in the Times.

I wonder if the drug gangs will eventually start targeting tourists, or at least tourist centers like Cancun. There's been a couple of isolated incidents, but nothing major. If so, it could really undermine the Mexican economy and send Mexico on a Colombia-like path. Of course, the drug lords could be invested enough in the legal Mexican economy that they don't want this to happen.

But we have to ask ourselves what if anything the Mexican government will do to halt this violence. Despite President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on the drug lords, little if any headway has been made. The government has done nothing to correct the poverty that makes gangs so attractive to young men, they don't pay the police enough to make bribes undesirable, and the government has no vision except to crack heads.

Of course, the United States could do two things. First, it could make marijuana legal. It wouldn't end the drug wars, but it would undermine their profits significantly. Really, it's hard to see enough of a cocaine market in the U.S. for a non-producing state to devolve into civil war. Second, we could make guns much harder to buy. That'll never happen, because we have a national freak out any time the words "gun control" are mentioned. But over 90% of the guns owned by the cartels come from the U.S.

Baseball Blogging - Using Calendars to Extend Prospects' Time with a Team

Tony at the Indians Prospect Insider has a great post up about managing the time of young players who could play in Triple-A or in the Majors. Basically, the issue revolves completely around the idea of the service time clock:

In baseball, 172 days on the big league roster is considered one year of major league service time. Obviously, a major league season is longer than 172 days, so a player only needs to be on an active 25-man roster (or big league disabled list) for 172 days of what usually is a 180 day or so season. After a player reaches three full seasons of service time they become arbitration eligible (a select few become arbitration eligible before three years, but I won't go into that here). After six full seasons of service time a player then becomes a free agent.

Managing service time is a vital piece of roster management for big league teams and is something that every team does in one way or another. It is a way to control when a player reaches free agency, and in cases of good decision making with how a team rosters a player they can delay free agency as many as one to three years for that player. The player has no control over this as they are at the mercy of their team on how their roster situation is handled (or you can say manipulated), and is also why when these guys do finally reach free agency you will get no complaining from me when they get multi-year deals for millions of dollars.
While Tony uses particular Indians prospects (like Mike Brantley and Luis Valbuena) to explain exactly how that system could work, it's well worth checking out for anybody, because while the particulars of players may vary, the ideas and approaches are general, and very important for small-market teams. Basically, Tony demonstrates how leaving a prospect at the minors for the first 2-3 months of the season can reap enormous benefits for small-market teams, and not just because they get to spend another 2-3 months refining the skill sets that prospects need to work on. It has great benefits for teams that are operating in small windows with prospects becoming stars:
This is why teams should almost never open the season with a high profile rookie on the big league roster. Putting them in Triple-A and waiting three to four weeks before calling them up in late April or early May provides a team an extra year of control. We’ve seen many teams do this in the past, most recently the Tampa Bay Rays with Evan Longoria and the San Francisco Giants with Tim Lincecum. This is why at the minimum, guys who have yet to have their service clock started such as outfielder Jordan Brown, infielder Jason Donald, right-handed pitcher Hector Rondon, and Carlos Santana should open the season in Columbus even if they are deemed “ready”.

This is just good business for any organization as they finagle the service time clocks with guys and push off free agency as long as they can. The pickup of Branyan himself may not have made much sense, but the idea of signing someone in order to push Brantley to Triple-A to give the Indians a whole extra year of control for a core piece of the team the next half decade or so is good roster management. This is something small market teams need to do in order to extend the life of a young players’ career with them before they ultimately reach free agency.
While I find the use of the phrase "to control" to be a bit heavy-handed, I suppose it is also accurate, and worth keeping in mind that while teams may play with their prospects' emotions and incomes, small-market teams also have a financial investment in this, and if prospects really turn out to be that good, the payday will come no matter what. At any rate, the entire post is worth reading (especially if anybody is in a fantasy league that includes minor league players; after all, the Indians have 5 of Baseball America's 65 top prospects in their system this year, putting them only behind the Tampa Bay Rays), and I highly recommend you pop over there.

Historical Image of the Day

World War I propaganda poster

Around Latin America

-The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would force the U.S. intelligence community to open up and share files related to the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983. This is a big move both in revealing what the U.S.'s role in and knowledge of the "Dirty War" entailed, as well as helping hundreds of ongoing human rights cases in Argentina. The bill still has to pass the Senate and get Obama's signature.

-Last week, Lula removed general Maynard Marques de Santa Rosa from his position after the general had continued to criticize the newly-founded Truth Commission designed to investigate and detail human rights abuses during Brazil's 21-year military dictatorship. Santa Rosa is not the first military leader to oppose the Commission, and it's good news that Lula is not bowing down to criticisms from the military on this.

-Manuel Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti both may be out of office, but a strong grassroots movement in Honduras continues to protest against the government, calling for "constitutional reform and accountability for human rights abuses." Meanwhile, President Lobo Sosa replaced one coupist general with another as the head of the armed forces.

-The retrial date of a man accused of killing American nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang has been set.

-As if the earthquake itself had not been devastating enough, a tsunami added to the damage of Haiti's January quake.

-Meanwhile, Chile continues to dig out from its 8.8-magnitude earthquake, the strongest to shake the country since the 1960 Valdivia earthquake, which at 9.5 was the strongest earthquake ever measured. Chile was not alone, yesterday, as a region in northern Argentina also was struck by a 6.1 earthquake.

-New reports suggest that Brazil's middle class continues to grow, but the enormous gap between the richest and poorest Brazilians has not improved.

-It's not terribly surprising, but Hugo Chavez has lashed out against an OAS report that severely rebukes Venezuela for documented human rights violations.

-In other unsurprising news,Carlos Menem continues to make a mockery of the Argentine political system.

-Alberto Fujimori's daughter will be allowed to wed in jail so that he may give away his daughter. This seems unremarkable, but is a powerful demonstration of the contrast between the democratic process in Peru and the authoritarian rule of Fujimori, who would not extend a similar courtesy to then-exiled-ex-president Alan Garcia when Garcia's father died.

-The Brazilian government has pulled a beer ad featuring Paris Hilton rubbing a can of beer all over herself. The governmental office on Women's Rights wanted the ad pulled because beer commercials in Brazil are not allowed to explicitly treat women as sexual objects (a law that would no doubt result in an overwhelming number of American beer commercials being withdrawn).

-A referendum on whether or not gay marriage should be legal could be on the ballots in Costa Rica by the end of the year.

-Former governor of Brasilia Jose Arruda remains in jail while the government proceeds to put together a case against Arruda, who is charged with multiple counts of corruption. This seems mundane, but given that Arruda remains in jail while prosecutors and politicians seriously deal with the charges is a major step in the right direction for a country that has often overlooked (and even encouraged) corruption within state, city, and federal governmental offices.

-Is there such a thing as "socially responsible mining," and is it sustainable? Incidents in El Salvador are suggesting that the answer to those two questions very well may be "no."

-Last week, the Christian Science Monitor filed a report pondering if the coup in Honduras last year could set up a model for a similar power-seizure in neighboring Nicaragua. However, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega insists a coup will not happen.

-Finally, the Catholic Church is suing Columbia Pictures over the unauthorized use of the Christ the Redeemer statue (and its destruction) in the movie 2012. No word if millions of people will be suing Columbia for continuing to allow Roland Emmerich to make movies.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Worst Generation Again

When we elected Obama, I finally thought the nation had moved beyond the nightmare of the 60s. For 40 years, Baby Boomers have fought the battles of the 60s over and over again. They are getting older and I was optimistic that we could put this behind us.

But as several examinations of the Tea Party movement show, the new right-wing activism is dominated by older white men. And now, via Sadly, No, we have this:

POPLAR BLUFF, MO. (AP) – A southeast Missouri man will host a five-day event in June that is set up like Woodstock, but with what he calls an opposite message.

Jerry Murphy owns a 400-acre farm in Butler County just northeast of Poplar Bluff. The Poplar Bluff Daily American Republic says he has linked with a group of ministers from around the country to host the gathering called “Wilderness Outcry” June 14-18.

The gathering will feature gospel music and religious speakers.

Murphy says Woodstock in 1969 marked a retreat from Judeo-Christian values in American culture. He hopes Wilderness Outcry helps turn that around.

Admission will be free, though Murphy may charge for camping to help recover the cost of hosting the event.

Officers with the Poplar Bluff Police Department say they’re worried about not having the resources to staff an event that’s rumored to possibly bring in up to 100,000 people.

Maybe it's just a nutcase, but I don't think so. First, people will come. Second, old white men are still angry that events like Woodstock took place and still see that time as ruining America. Of course, I see the 60s as kind of ruining America too, but for different reasons. The problem wasn't the hippies per se. And it certainly wasn't the music and the drugs and the sex. It was the self-centeredness. And that's at least as big a problem for those who hated the hippies as the hippies themselves.

Most Prominent Politicians From Each State, IV: Georgia

And now we get to the South. Between reelecting their legislators until they die and defending segregation, southern states have played a powerful role in American politics from the beginning of the republic to the present. Georgia is possibly above average compared to the region and certainly two Georgians have played key roles in the last 40 years.

1. Newt Gingrich. One of the 5 most important politicians of the past 20 years and Georgia's most important. The Gingrich-led Republican Revolution revolutionized American politics. Sure, it was for the worse. Many of the terrible problems we face today come from Gingrich and his allies. But that only reinforces his importance.

2. Jimmy Carter. A remarkable figure in so many ways. Carter survived the segregationist era to become the Democratic candidate for president in 1976. His administration wasn't particularly successful (though this had much to do with white backlash and the rise of the New Right, conditions completely out of his control). Along with John Quincy Adams, the most successful and eventful ex-president in American history. Richly deserved his Nobel Peace Prize.

3. Alexander Stephens. Vice-President of the Confederacy. It's hard to imagine Gingrich wouldn't be the most loathsome of the top 3, but in Georgia's case, the competition for most disgusting is very strong.

It's pretty easy to string out a top 10 for Georgia, with some strong candidates left over. Briefly:

4. Tom Watson--the Populist leader started his career as a champion for economic rights and ended it as a race-baiting supporter of the KKK in the U.S. Senate

5. Richard Russell--U.S. Senator from 1933-71, leader of the Senate's segregationist wing.

6. John Lewis--Possibly I'm overstating his role, but given his strong role in Congress for many years and his pioneering role as a post-civil rights movement African-American legislator, plus his amazing career in the movement, and it's clear Lewis deserves this spot.

7. Carl Vinson--the first person to serve more than 50 years in the House of Representatives, Vinson was very important in creating American naval policy in the mid-20th century.  Of course, he was also a staunch segregationist.

8. Andrew Young--another pioneering African-American politician. Young was a congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and the first African-American U.N. Representative.

9. Herman Talmadge--Another long-serving segregationist leader of the mid-20th century. I swear, it seems like Georgia had 5 senators during these years.

10. Sam Nunn--One of the most powerful Democratic leaders of the late 20th century. Played a major role in defense policy and is still influential today in retirement.


Historical Image of the Day

World War I propaganda poster.

Robots: A Tool of Xenophobic Koreans

Koreans are among the most xenophobic people on the globe. Despite the globalization Koreans have remained strongly xenophobic. At first, I thought this had to do with their long occupation by the U.S. military, but it goes far deeper. Koreans are generally obsessed with racial purity, absolutely opposed to immigration from the poorer nations of Asia, and have a history of strong reactions against other non-American white nations coming to Korea in large numbers to work.

In recent years, this xenophobia has manifested itself in a strong reaction against English teachers. Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling has studied this intensely and has provided many examples. Koreans see English teachers as drug-using alcoholics who come only to sleep with Korean women. Miscegenation fears aren't just an American phenomenon. However, the onslaught of globalization has made it imperative for Koreans to learn English. So how to overcome the dilemma of needing the skill and hating the teacher?


During the second decade of the New Millennium, robots are expected to replace a number of English-speaking teachers here, who come from such countries as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.

At a robotics forum, which brought together 150 experts from across the country late last week in Seoul, participants predicted that English-speaking robots would fill the shoes of native speakers in the future.

"By around 2015, robots should be able to help teachers in English classes. By 2018, they should be able to teach on their own while communicating with students," said Kim Shin-hwan, an economist at the Hyundai Research Institute.

Reliance on technology is not going to alleviate the need for living English teachers, but this incident is a window into just how much Koreans resent having non-Koreans living in their country.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Historical Image of the Day

World War I propaganda poster.

Remember, for every cookie you eat, the Kaiser kills another Belgian.

No Third Term for Uribe

Reports are coming out that the Colombian courts will not allow a referendum for Alvaro Uribe to run for a third term, effectively destroying his hopes for a re-re-election, and opening the way for Juan Manuel Santos to run for election. This is a major victory for the democratic process in Colombia. More analysis once more details emerge.

....and to add to the bad news for Uribe, one of his top political allies has been arrested for colluding with paramilitary groups. The fact that more than a few of Uribe's political allies and aides have been connected to paramilitary groups leaves the stench of illegality all over Uribe, and just throws into relief how good it is that he cannot run for a third term.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Extremely Random Question

Does anybody know of any good books/articles on the Japanese student movements in 1968? I'm putting together a class, and would love to include Japan, but am having fits finding anything to use even for lectures, much less for students to read. Suggestions?

I Will Never Understand TV Programmers

I'm really at a loss as to how today's "millennials" are "civic minded." What does this even mean? They vote? Volunteer? Help old ladies across the street? Does this guy even know any "millenials"? Because I've been teaching them for awhile, and "civic minded" would not be one of the first 378 adjectives I would think of for that age group (18-29, apparently).

And as for "pushing out" Generation do you push out a group that jumped ship 11 years ago? Are there really Gen-Xers (I always hated that name) who still watch MTV? If so, who are these people, and more importantly, what is wrong with them?

Historical Image of the Day

Iconic Uncle Sam poster, World War I

Around Latin America - Cuban Dissidents, Cross-Dressing, Scams, and Baseball

-Imprisoned Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo has died after an 80-day hunger strike. Tamayo, who was sentenced in 2003 to 3 years in prison for criticizing the government and whose sentence was later extended to 36 years, went on the strike to protest the conditions of and his treatment in prison.

-Pinochet may have been dead for over three years, but the legacies of his regime continue. This week, thirteen bodies of individuals killed during the Pinochet dictatorship and that had been buried in a abandoned mine were identified. The army under Pinochet executed the men, who included "a farmer and his four sons, day workers, and even a teenager caught smoking a joint."

-A group in Guyana is seeking to make cross-dressing in public legal. Currently, the act remains illegal, thanks to a colonial-era act outlawing it. argues that it is discriminatory against a social minority, and thus is unconstitutional. The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination is representing gay and lesbian groups in the small country, and has filed its affidavit in the courts.

-Costa Rica likes to promote itself as a peaceful environmental paradise in Central America, an image that is central to its success as a tourist spot and an alluring site for ex-pats. However, as Peter reminds us, what's left out of that image is the presence of scammers who use that image to fleece ex-pats and foreigners.

-Finally, as the most wonderful time of the year (baseball season) approaches, The Latin Americanist points us towards this trailer for a documentary on Dominicans who hope to become professional ball-players in the MLB.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Sexiest Presidents, or, James Madison Is Kind of Hot

Nerve magazine ranks the presidents according to their sexiness.

The top 5:
1. Theodore Roosevelt
2. John F. Kennedy
3. Barack Obama
4. Thomas Jefferson
5. Franklin Pierce (which is kind of interesting I guess. It'll certainly be the only time Pierce is ranked in the top 5 of any presidential list). 

The bottom 5:

39. Grover Cleveland
40. Benjamin Harrison
41. Warren Harding (more on this in a second)
42. William Howard Taft
43. Richard Nixon (as if this wasn't totally self-evident)

Not to take this list too seriously, but the history is terrible. For one, Rutherford Hayes did not botch Reconstruction. OK, whatever.

But I do take umbrage at disparaging the sexiness of some of our presidents.

I can't believe I'm actually writing this.

Anyway, Warren Harding was a horrible president, but he was also a massive womanizer. Nerve claims, "He had a face like putty and a dour look only a banker could love. Also, his name was Warren. Unsexy"

The 1920 election marked the first time women could vote throughout the nation. And people openly wondered whether this hot young Warren Harding would win because of his sex appeal. They didn't use those words, but his attractiveness for the supposedly non-intellectual female voters made very serious commentators wonder whether American elections hadn't been permanently cheapened. 

Moreover, Nerve itself should know this, having placed Harding's affairs at #9 in the history of American political sex scandals:

Warren G. Harding (a.k.a. Warren G Unit) is the only president whose affairs led to the extortion of a major political party. To wit: his fifteen-year romance with Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of a friend, who the Republican National Committee reportedly paid on a monthly basis not to erupt, bimbo-style. Once in office, Harding allegedly took up with one Nan Britton, thirty years his junior. According to Britton, Harding introduced her to a small closet in the White House, where they exchanged kisses and made sweet presidential love. Britton claimed to have had an illegitimate child by Harding as well. In 1923, Harding died unexpectedly from ptomaine poisoning. Rumors ran rampant that his wife, Florence, had poisoned him.

Almost as egregious is slamming on James Madison, who comes in at #34 with a single sentence dismissal: 

Sure, he's the father of the Constitution, but he was only five-foot-four. 

 That's like saying, "Sure, Prince can play some mean licks, but he is only five-foot-one." 

No. James Madison totally overcame the short men can't be sexy hurdle. And he did it because he was a freaking genius. The guy could speak like 6 languages, was widely seen as one of the most intelligent men of an era of very intelligent men, and had strong leadership skills. Women don't like this? Also, Exhibit A is Dolley Madison, who was considered pretty hot in her day. 

Sure, Madison might be a tiny little dude, but he was also magnetic to those who knew him, both men and women. 

So I don't mind that we rank presidential sexiness, but let's get our facts straight. James Madison was the Prince of the late 18th century.

And I guess Warren Harding was basically a decent businessman type who sleeps with his secretaries--like a much dumber Don Draper.

Note: While Harding's election was not the American cultural apocalypse many predicted, this post might be.

Historical Image of the Day

World War I propaganda post

Most Prominent Politicians From Each State, III: New Jersey

New Jersey has had a somewhat weak group of national politicians throughout its history with an obvious choice for the top. I suspect a lot of this is getting overshadowed by New York and Pennsylvania. That the Frelinghuysen family has dominated New Jersey politics from its early days, a family that has long aspired to mediocrity in office, has certainly not helped.

1. Woodrow Wilson. A native of Virginia, but his political career was in New Jersey. Certainly one of the most important presidents in  U.S. history, though one I also find pretty loathsome.

2. William Paterson. Key player in the Constitutional Convention, 2nd governor of New Jersey, early Supreme Court justice. Put the hammer down on the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion while a Justice.

3. George McClellan. We usually think of McClellan as a failed general, and indeed he was.  But he was also the Democratic candidate for president in 1864 and later governor of New Jersey from 1878-81. His big post-war political ambition was to be Grover Cleveland's Secretary of State, but he failed to get the position.

Paterson and McClellan are fairly lame 2 and 3 choices for the 3rd oldest state, but the other possibilities are also pretty underwhelming. In chronological order:

Frederick Frelinghuysen--Chester Arthur's Secretary of State, senator, general Republican hack who helped decide the disputed 1876 election.

William Pennington--Governor of New Jersey in the 1830s and 40s, later elected to the House of Representatives where he served as Speaker of the House in 1860 and early 1861. He also once turned down the chance to be governor of Minnesota Territory. Pretty hot stuff, I know.

John Griggs--Governor of the state. William McKinley tapped him to be Attorney General in 1898, where he served until 1901.

Thomas Kean--Like most other long-time New Jersey politicians, solid and remarkably unspectacular. Governor of the state from 1982-90, most known for his service on the 9/11 Commission. That alone separates him from the pack of mediocrity known as New Jersey.

Bill Bradley--Some might put Bradley in the top 3 and maybe he had more of an impact than either Paterson or McClellan. He was senator from 1979-97. Launched a particularly lame campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2000. Mostly I find him to be an annoying blowhard, which is why I couldn't move him to #3. 

Tomorrow: Georgia. Getting to the South should be fun, for it gives me the chance to eviscerate racist politicians. 

"Unity Summit," Indeed

One thing you can say about international relations between Uribe's Colombia and Chavez's Venezuela: they're always interesting.

You know your relations have deteriorated when Raul Castro is asking "How is it possible that we're fighting at a summit intended to unite Latin American and Caribbean countries?," and he has a point. If Latin America is going to create a united organization separate from the U.S. and Canada, this is not a good way to start it.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Today In Depressing Environmental News

The oceans are facing an increasing likelihood in massive extinctions:

Researchers from the University of Bristol, who looked at how levels of acid in the ocean have changed over years, found that the current acidification is more severe than any time in the last 65 million years ago.

According to the report as ocean acidification accelerated it caused mass extinctions at the bottom of the food chain that could threaten whole ecosystems in the future.

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, looked at sediments from around 55 million years ago, when temperature rose by up to 6 degrees Celsius and acidification was occurring at a similar rate as today.

For those of you non-creationists wondering what happened 65 million years ago, that would be the end of the Cretaceous period. So basically the oceans now are the worst they've been since the dinosaurs were wiped out, only this time, it is human pollution instead of a devastating meteor that is the culprit.

We'll wipe ourselves out yet.

Historical Image of the Day

I enjoyed the World War II posters so much, that I think we'll go back in time and spend a week on World War I posters.

Glenn Beck: Waiting for Pinochet

From Two Weeks Notice:

“Progressivism is a cancer in America,” said Beck, “and it’s eating our Constitution — and it was meant to eat our Constitution.”

--Glenn Beck speech in in 2010


"Only by destroying the old order, by rejecting liberal democracy in its Chilean variant, by purging the politicians and 'extirpating the Marxist cancer' could Chile be saved from the brink of disaster and create a new institutionality to guarantee political stability, economic recovery, and growth."

--Augusto Pinochet speech in 1979*

* from Brian Loveman, "Antipolitics in Chile, 1973-94."  In Brian Loveman and Thomas M. Davies, Jr. (eds.).  The Politics of Antipolitics, 3rd Edition (Lanham, MD: SR Books, 1997): 269.

Most Prominent Politicians From Each State, II: Pennsylvania

I believe Pennsylvania should change their state motto to "Official Supporting Cast of 19th Century Politics."

Pennsylvania has always been an important state and so state leaders always got a boost to their national standing. It's a deep list in the Keystone State, but one that skews very early. I narrowed the field to 10 candidates and not a single one began in politics after 1910. I suppose Tom Ridge or Arlen Specter might come close to the top 10, but in recent years, Pennsylvania politicians have played important but not central roles in American political life.

In fact, Pennsylvania's large cast of supporting players means it's hard to choose an obvious #1.

1. Benjamin Franklin. Not obvious? Well, I originally visualized this project as mostly covering the post-1787 period. But Franklin casts such a huge shadow of Pennsylvania politics that even those almost all of his achievements occurred before 1787, there's no question that he is the most important politician in state history. I don't feel I need to recap his important role in creating the United States of America.

2. Albert Gallatin. Here's where the supporting cast players start. Gallatin was a very important man. Essential even. Both Jefferson's and Madison's Secretary of Treasury, Gallatin shaped early American economic policy more than all but one man in history. But that man was Alexander Hamilton who is vastly more important. One can also argue that Gallatin's financial policies were deeply flawed, as were the entire Democratic-Republican Party, and that his follies hurt the nation in the War of 1812. I think that's unfair, as there were real reasons Americans feared the rise of corporate capitalism, but there's no question the Federalists understood far better than the D-Rs how to make a national economy work.

3. Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens was the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee the Civil War. A powerful abolitionist, Stevens wrote much of the financial legislation that helped the Union win the war. The abolitionist in Birth of a Nation is based upon Stevens, which only helps me think more highly of him. Hated by the Reconstruction white South--what higher calling could there be?

We can run out a legitimate top 10 for Pennsylvania. Here they are, briefly.

4. James Buchanan--normally, a state's only president would make the top 3, but when are the worst president in history, you don't get there.

5. Gifford Pinchot--Progressive governor, first head of the United States Forest Service.

6. Robert Morris--Revolutionary leader, provided incalculable financial assistance to the cause.

7. Philander Knox--Taft's Secretary of State, pusher of Dollar Diplomacy, invader of Latin America. Also Attorney General and 2 time Senator.

8. David Wilmot--short career but he sure burned bright. As a Congressman, he introduced the Wilmot Proviso, attempting to ban slavery from territories acquired during the Mexican War. Later came back to Washington as a senator for 2 years during the Civil War.

9. Matthew Quay. Twice senator, but he's on here because he was the 2nd most important political boss of the Gilded Age (behind Mark Hanna, again we see the Pennsylvania guy come in #2).

10. George Dallas. Senator, major diplomat, Polk's Vice-President.

Tomorrow: New Jersey

Shorter Coolidge Administration: Drinkers Deserve to Die

A student sent me this remarkable piece about the federal government poisoning alcohol during Prohibition in a failed attempt to force people to stop drinking it.

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

Although mostly forgotten today, the "chemist's war of Prohibition" remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American law-enforcement history. As one of its most outspoken opponents, Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, liked to say, it was "our national experiment in extermination."
By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.

The results were immediate, starting with that horrific holiday body count in the closing days of 1926. Public health officials responded with shock. "The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol," New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said at a hastily organized press conference. "[Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible."
His department issued warnings to citizens, detailing the dangers in whiskey circulating in the city: "[P]ractically all the liquor that is sold in New York today is toxic," read one 1928 alert. He publicized every death by alcohol poisoning. He assigned his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, to analyze confiscated whiskey for poisons—that long list of toxic materials I cited came in part from studies done by the New York City medical examiner's office.

Norris also condemned the federal program for its disproportionate effect on the country's poorest residents. Wealthy people, he pointed out, could afford the best whiskey available. Most of those sickened and dying were those "who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff."
Truly remarkable. I already knew the Coolidge administration could not care less about the poor, but I had no idea they openly murdered thousands of Americans. Then, as now, conservatives blamed the problem on the poor. If only they didn't drink, they wouldn't ingest government poison!

No Damn You, We're Claiming Fillmore!!!!

Evidently, I missed a seriously hardcore mediocre presidential dust-up last week in upstate New York:

The U.S. Mint this week is releasing the Millard Fillmore presidential dollar coin, with an official launch ceremony on Thursday in Moravia (pop. 4,000), near his birthplace. Some people in Buffalo are miffed.

Fillmore, you see, is buried in Buffalo, where he made his mark as the first chancellor of the University at Buffalo, founding member and first president of the Buffalo Club, and founder of the Buffalo Historical society.

"His legacy is here in Buffalo, not in—what is it?—Moravia," says William Regan, special-events director for the University at Buffalo. He heads up the annual birthday tribute at Fillmore's grave. "Why [the coin ceremony] isn't in Buffalo, I couldn't tell you. It is kind of strange."

Buffalo has decided to have its own coin ceremony at City Hall, complete with the representative from the Mint who has promised to swing by. Not even George Washington got a coin launch complete with a Mint rep in two cities.

But you'd better believe Moravia isn't taking this lying down!

"You ask a kid in Moravia, what was the first thing that Fillmore bought with the money he saved from working when he was young? They'll tell you—a dictionary!" she says.

"We spent quite a lot of time in history class going over the things that Fillmore did," says 57-year-old Lee Conklin, a lifelong Moravian and owner of an auto-parts store there. The late Robert Scarry, a Moravia history teacher, wrote a book detailing the president's life.

Fueled by Mr. Scarry's passion, Moravians have built a replica log cabin near Fillmore's birthplace, hold an annual Fillmore antique-car show, and held annual bathtub races for 20 years. "It was always a kind of joke with the bathtub thing," says Mr. Conklin. The races came to an end in 1999, in part because of safety concerns and the cost of insurance for the event, says Mr. Phillips.

I love the idea of Moravia, New York as the national center for Fillmore Studies. In fact, I should get a job at the nearest college to Moravia and start a Fillmore Studies Program. Can we create a Washington-cutting-down-the-cherry-tree myth with Fillmore saving for the dictionary? Our glorious national past demands we honor this glorious patriarch! And in Sarah Palin's America, we can even claim Fillmore as a Founding Father!

I am kind of sad to see neither Buffalo nor Moravia embracing Fillmore's Know-Nothing period though. Given current levels of national insanity, it'd probably make Fillmore a national star.

Next--A New Hampshire civil war as various towns start launching guerilla attacks against the others who also claim a close connection to Franklin Pierce!!!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"I think this might be my masterpiece"

possible spoilers

These are the last words in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and they're so gloriously cocky spilling from the lips of Brad Pitt as Tarantino's doppelganger, Lt. Aldo Raine: brash, foul-mouthed, scarred and uglied up and from an unsexy part of the USA and constantly smirking, unruffled by anything that happens to or around him, that I think he might be right. Tarantino, that is, speaking through Aldo Raine.

Despite the early trailers that made much of cartoonish violence and Pitt's cartoonish accent, it's certainly Tarantino's most mature movie--despite those easy gags, it's a mile away from the diatribes that revelled in tossing around taboos and dropping n-bombs in his earlier movies.

Pitt, though he gets the last word, isn't even the star of the movie--that would be Melanie Laurent as Shoshana, a Jewish cinema owner who saw her family killed at the orders of Oscar-nominated Christoph Waltz's Col. Hans Landa, after betrayal by the man who hid them. The garish revenge of Raine and the Basterds is nothing compared to her steely resolve, and she gives the movie emotional heft that sneaks up on you and only hits you when you realize how far she's willing to go.

Really at its heart this isn't a movie about revenge--Tarantino already did that, glorifying and personifying revenge in The Bride in Kill Bill--but about movies, about the power and the joy of movies, but mostly the power. The way cinema can destroy, can inspire, can write and rewrite history. It's not enough to kill Nazis--Shoshana must make a movie and splice it into one of Goebbels' propaganda pieces, asserting her self, her freedom through cinema.

Tarantino's greatest strength as a filmmaker has always been that he's a film junkie: he can reference layer upon layer of high and low art. But the strongest references here are to his own movies--a closeup on Shoshana's lips nearly identical to one from Pulp Fiction but with stakes much higher, and a drop-in grindhouse title on top of a German Basterd (who despite his cartoonish intro also lends weight--Til Schweiger is dangerously, broodingly dominant onscreen, emanating as palpable hatred as Shoshana's every time he's onscreen with the Nazis).

Even the Basterds, who start off as Jewish revenge porn (a crew of Jewish soldiers from the USA dropped in behind enemy lines to destroy as many Nazis as possible?), remind you where the film is really going. Eli Roth, nicknamed "The Bear Jew" and lovingly shot (never thought I'd find the man responsible for Hostel sexy) evokes a remark from Raine that watching him beat Nazis to death "is the closest we get to going to the movies."

They strike back through spectacle, if not explicitly through cinema. They don't just kill Nazis; they scalp them (how American-cinematic!) and leave mutilated bodies to be found, and carve swastikas onto the foreheads of those they let live--in a way, a nod toward what he owes to real victims of the Holocaust--a reminder that all this happened and no one should forget, and a picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words gesture both of mercy (and the word "merci" is never translated in the subtitles, a move that I can't help but think was intentional, particularly in the intro scene between Landa and LaPadite) and of continuing revenge. The story of the Basterds is their real strength, making them outsize cinema-villains. Storytelling is power.

The film cartoonizes Hitler, defanging him not just through violence but by making you laugh at him. It humanizes other Nazis, though, while not forgiving them--Daniel Bruhl as the young soldier who crosses over into cinema and stars in his own life story is almost likable in his flirtation with Shoshana and his need to flee the larger-than-life sight of himself on the movie screen, the dramatized version of his real-life exploits.

Bruhl's character isn't the only one that crosses the borders there--Diane Kruger also does as an actress turned double agent: film into politics into film again. The lines of reality and cinema, for Tarantino, are suddenly more porous, while the rest of his work has always been hyperconscious that it is film. Basterds rockets from the improbable--Mike Myers in heavy makeup recruiting a plummy-accented film critic to go behind enemy lines to meet the Basterds--to the poignantly real, but here it's not just celebrating the fun that movies are, it's making a stronger point about them.

Tarantino's political statement here is that cinema is political. Indeed, the movie wouldn't have to be about Nazis at all but for the fact that no other regime in history so successfully embraced and used film to create and tell its own story.

I had sworn off Nazi movies before this one hit, but I am also a sworn Tarantino fan. So I may say instead that I hope this is the Nazi movie to end all Nazi movies. After all, it's so conclusively rewritten history--something perhaps only safe to do with history both as well-known and as disputed as that of Hitler's Germany. Just the fact that he can make this movie leaves you wondering what kind of movies we'd have had the Nazis won. You get the feeling that for Tarantino, one of the most poignant scenes in the film is Shoshana's statement that she has no choice but to play German films.

There are a million tiny perfect moments here--a montage set to David Bowie's "Cat People/Putting Out Fire" with Shoshana putting on her makeup-as-war-paint, a cigarette flying in slow motion through the air to set a pile of film on fire, a request by Landa for a house on Nantucket that I can't help but interpret as a dig at the Bush family's own connections to the Reich, Roth's exuberant outburst after bashing in a Nazi skull complete with Ted Williams references.

I did long for a comeback moment, a la Kill Bill or True Romance, a gesture of personal physical violence from one of the film's female characters. But perhaps the lack of it is an odd gesture for some sort of peace, at least for Shoshana.

Peace. It's not really a theme here, but neither is war. Violence certainly is, but for all the vicarious thrills (and heck, I'm Jewish, I enjoy them as much as anyone) the feeling given is less that violence is good and more that those thrills SHOULD be vicarious. Bashing people's heads in with a baseball bat isn't actually a solution to a problem, and if you want to burn down the theater to take your enemies out, you may well go out with it.

Still, I haven't left a movie theater with a wicked grin like I did tonight in a while, and that's the pleasure Tarantino has always given--lines to quote, laughs to remember later, visuals that stick with you, and stories, always stories.

It's just that here, his story actually says something.

Phil Collins Loves The Alamo

This apparently is true:

Singer Phil Collins said his life now revolves around the Alamo.

Collins is in town, set to appear at local events commemorating the anniversary of the siege and battle of the Alamo. Though he's mulling the idea of recording a tribute cover album of 1960s songs, he said he's making the Alamo “my main thing” as a collector, history buff and possible author.

“Basically, now I've stopped being Phil Collins the singer. This has become what I do,” he said Monday, standing beside a 13-foot-by-15-foot model of the 1836 Alamo compound that will open to the public this week.

Collins, who is British, said he has “hundreds” of cannonballs, documents and other artifacts from the Alamo, possibly the largest private collection anywhere, in the basement of his home in Switzerland. He said he's collaborating with artist Gary Zaboly on a book about his collection.

His most prized item is a receipt signed by Alamo commander William Barret Travis for 32 head of cattle used to feed the Alamo defenders.

His latest involvement in Alamo history is narrating the introduction of a 13-minute “Alamo diorama light and sound show” at the History Shop at 713 E. Houston St., by the Alamo. Invited guests at a preview tonight will also see a battle site excavation covered with a window on the floor of the shop, which is near the Alamo's north wall, where much of the heaviest fighting occurred.

Sadly, this article is from March 2009. Had I known, I totally would have driven to San Antonio to see this grotesque spectacle.

It does fit with my own experiences at the Alamo. Almost every time I've been there, weird things have happened. There's the time I saw the Mexican kids getting their picture taken while flashing gang signs in front of the Alamo while oblivious white people got annoyed that they were hogging the place and were totally unaware of what they were actually doing. Then there's the time that I ran across some bizarro San Antonio civic ceremony where men in red hotel porter jackets inducted these guys into their society; this included a salute to the six flags that have ruled over Texas and where I witnessed people cheering for the Confederate flag.

There's something about the Alamo that brings out the crazy.

I wonder what Phil Collins likes so much about the Alamo? Does he support Treason in Defense of Slavery? Does he hate Mexico? Does he idolize Jim Bowie, the illegal slave trading wife beater?

And seriously, of all American myths that he could get into, the Texas rebellion? Why? Does he have a 2000s version of a 1961 12 year old fascination with coon skin caps and muskets?

Or do things that suck simply gravitate to other things that suck? That's my best guess.

Human Rights Issues around Latin America

Lillie points us to a series of excellent posts/issues. First, there's this great report involving the relatives of "false positives," or innocent civilians whom police or paramilitaries murder and then dress them up as "guerrillas" to build up their body count. Paramilitary violence continues to be one of the biggest threats to human rights and innocent civilians' lives in Colombia, and the story gives a harrowing level of personal detail of the liveso f those who have suffered.

She also does a great job chronicling the life of Domingo Antonio Bussi, one of the leading forces in installing repression and torture in Argentina immediately prior to and during its seven-year dictatorship. Bussi has never been repentant for his acts, and is currently on trial at last this past week, where he defended the use of repression and torture and denied that anybody had been "disappeared" in his region of Tucuman .

Finally, Lillie points us to these poignant images from Chile's recently-opened Museum of Memory, which chronicles the events and abuses of the Pinochet regime. Like Lillie and many others, the images and layout of the Museum strike me as very impressive and well-done, and must be overpowering in communicating their message in person.

Silly Idea of the Day

Planners have designed new, life-size replica of the Nahua capital of Tenochtitlan, complete with an IMAX theater, two Hilton Hotels, and two shopping malls (including one "dedicated to international designer fashions"). Because, as we all know, nothing says Nahua culture and empire like shopping malls and the name "Hilton."

h/t to Peter at the excellent blog Lat/Am Daily.

Bad Days in American History: February 21, 1965

On February 21, 1965, Nation of Islam assassins shot and killed Malcolm X before a rally in New York City.

Malcolm's death was precipitated by his break with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad over Muhammad's sexual peccadillos, corruption, and weird version of Islam. Of course, Malcolm's story is well-known to anyone who's read his autobiography--and really, if you haven't, I don't know what to say except to go buy it and read it right away. Born in 1925 in Omaha, Malcolm's family had to flee the Ku Klux Klan because of his father's civil rights activism. A follower of Marcus Garvey, Earl Little led his family to Lansing where whites probably murdered him in 1931. After falling through the very wide cracks of 1940s America, Malcolm ended up in prison, where the ambitious young man found direction through conversion to the Nation of Islam. He became the group's most passionate and dynamic speaker after his release from prison in 1952.

The Nation of Islam preached African-American self-reliance, separation from whites, and armed resistance if necessary. Malcolm mocked the civil rights movement's integrationist goals. The media loved this and played up his differences from Martin Luther King, which probably helped King gain respectability among moderate whites.

Malcolm left the Nation of Islam in 1963, a decision that cost him his life. The NOI had no tolerance for apostates. Malcolm was hardly the only member they assassinated, a major activity for the organization well into the 1970s. Among the NOI leaders deeply involved in these assassinations was Louis Farrakhan, who later became the group's leader.

Before his assassination, Malcolm visited Mecca and began to understand both that the NOI had a distorted view of Islam and that there were white Muslims who had a similar worldview to his own. Now, modern-day moderates take this as proof that Malcolm was softening. He's become something of a mainstream hero over the past 20 years. Like King, that's come with a dilution of his message. My reading of Malcolm's political evolution is that he was becoming a more class-based warrior rather than strictly race-based. But there's no room in this mythological history for such an analysis. Instead, Malcolm supposedly was moving closer to King's position, culminating in their single, but friendly, meeting. In fact, both  King and Malcolm evolved with the times, both coming to a class-based analysis that might have differed on tactics, but I believe they two men increasingly understood the problems of their people through similar analysis.

We can mourn Malcolm's death for so many reasons. Very few civil rights leaders had the combination of vision, charisma, respect, and discipline to see the movement into a post-segregationist future. King certainly did, though he struggled mightily in the years after 1965. Malcolm probably did too. Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and others most certainly did not have this combination of virtues, yet they became the faces of the movement after Malcolm and King's deaths. Had Malcolm lived, it's likely he could have provided real leadership for the black nationalist movement that arose during and after 1965; perhaps he could have reigned in the movement's excesses while channeling its passions to substantive policy goals. He certainly would have led the anti-Vietnam movement--I can only imagine the powerful voice he would have provided.

Or maybe J. Edgar Hoover would have killed Malcolm during the COINTELPRO era anyway.

I'm most sad about Malcolm's death when I think of the paucity of African-American leadership during the 1980s and 90s. The fact that a charlatan like Farrakhan became a nationally respected leader through the Million Man March suggests how huge the vacuum had become. Of course, much of the problem during those years was how to keep fighting through massive white backlash. And one can certainly argue that millions of African-Americans worked very hard in those decades to slowly break down barriers that eventually led to Barack Obama's election to the presidency. Maybe they were the collective great civil rights leaders of the period. But white abandonment of the city during the 60s and 70s, the crack epidemic, persistent poverty, and institutionalized racism speaks to how badly African-Americans needed leaders during these decades to lead the unfinished civil rights revolution.

Who knows what Malcolm could have provided African-Americans and the poor during the 1970s and 80s. But almost certainly more than Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, or other veterans of the civil rights generation who couldn't seem to find their way during that long dark time.

Most Prominent Politicians From Each State, I: Delaware

I'm starting a new historical series just out of personal curiosity for myself. Who are the most prominent politicians from each state? I've been thinking about this for awhile. So let's look at the states in order of their admittance into the union. I'll briefly list the top 3 and give a list of other possibilities. That means we will start with the 1st state, Delaware.

Delaware has an incredibly pathetic list of politicians. This probably reflects it's meaninglessness as a state. Really, the leader of this list should be whoever thought of milking the entire east coast by charging insane told rates for the 5 miles of I-95 that runs through the state. That's probably the most important thing that's ever happened to Delaware, except maybe for the decision to prostitute itself out to any and all corporations.

Again, here's an underwhelming list.

1. Joe Biden. It's Biden by a landslide. In over 200 years as a state, Biden's really the only national leader to come out of Delaware. No Delaware politician had ever reached a position of such universal respect. Even without become Vice-President, Biden wins.

2. William Roth. Yes, the creator of the Roth IRA is #2. Not to demean Roth, a respectable Republican who served as Senator from 1971 to 2001. Interestingly, Roth is actually a Northwestern by birth. Raised in Helena, Montana, Roth is one of the most prominent graduates of my own alma mater, the University of Oregon. Roth didn't even move to Delaware until he was 33 years old. But he quickly rose in Delaware politics, reaching the House in 1966 and then the Senate.

And now it gets really grim:
3. Thomas Bayard. Bayard was a Senator from 1869 until 1885, when Grover Cleveland named him Secretary of State. Bayard was a pro-Southern nominal Unionist during the Civil War and was arrested for resisting the breakup of a paramilitary group in the state supporting the South. But he did play an important role in convincing Delaware not to secede. He came in 2nd for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1880 (losing to Winfield Scott Hancock) and 1884 (losing to Cleveland). His most prominent act as Secretary of State was negotiating a fisheries treaty with Canada.

And a man who negotiated a late 19th century fisheries treaty is the 3rd most prominent politician from Delaware.

Other competitors:

By any rights, none. But given the fact that Bayard is #3, we might consider Caesar Rodney (Attorney General under Jefferson and the obscure man on the Delaware quarter), John Clayton (Secretary of State under Zachary Taylor), and that's about it.

Though one might give Outerbridge Horsey props for one of the great names in American political history.

Tomorrow: Pennsylvania.

Historical Image of the Day

World War II propaganda poster

Brazil's 2010 Presidential Campaigns Officially Kicking Off with Dilma Rousseff's Nomination

Brazil's presidential election season has officially kicked off, as the Workers' Party (PT) officially nominated Dilma Rousseff for president yesterday. Of course, this is in no way any surprise - the candidates for all of the parties have been unofficially known for months. Still, with the original launch, Brazil is finally gearing up for its presidential campaigns now, with elections coming at the beginning of October.

There are several observations to be made already. First, it's of little surprise that the media, both in Brazil and internationally, is making a strong effort to undermine the Rousseff campaign; indeed, the negative portrayals in the press began as early as early as last April, when O Folha de Sao Paulo wrecklessly and baselessly linked Rousseff to political kidnappings in the late-1960s, when the military dictatorship was entering its most repressive phase.

Although Rousseff's campaign only officially began yesterday, the international media has already been gearing up its anti-Rousseff campaign, though, and much of it has hinged and will hinge on Rousseff, who was one of Lula's top aides, being portrayed as a "puppet" to Lula. This narrative actually began last year in the New York Times, when Alexei Barrionuevo offered absolutely baseless speculation (that his own article contradicted) that Lula would run for a third term, and that Rousseff was just window-dressing. Mercopress has also gotten into the act, suggesting that all of Lula's "prestige" rests on Rousseff. This is absurd for a couple of reasons; first, whether you love or hate Lula's administration, his policies have spoken for themselves in either direction; it's not like their effects will suddenly become retroactively great or terrible if Rousseff were to win. Additionally, by linking Lula's "legacy" to Rousseff, the press is clearly implying yet again that Rousseff is nothing more than Lula redux, and thus, a puppet.

Then, there are more subtle approaches. For example, even though this news agency has a photo of Rousseff on file (in this story), there is no picture of Rousseff just one day later in the story about her nomination. By literally "de-facing" her, they're effectively dis-associating her from the smiling, seemingly-likeable politician she appears to be, and while there is much more to politicians than their looks, if the appearance was completely useless, then politicians and campaign managers wouldn't need to or want to rely on the value of images in their own commercials and ads.

Meanwhile, stories about the possibility of Rousseff being Brazil's first woman president, while available, are not as common. After all, these stories do cast her in a positive light in the international arena, even though Lula is probably correct when he points out that being a woman in Brazil may mean she faces particular political challenges and prejudices that Serra will not. Certainly, Rousseff is not Brazil's first woman candidate, but this does mark the first time that one of the major parties (PSDB, PT, PMDB) has run a woman as its candidate. And speaking of the PMDB, it has thrown its support behind Rousseff, once again not running its own candidate for a variety of reasons (including the fact that, as Brazil's biggest and oldest political party, it also has a rather large "tent" that makes internal agreements difficult sometimes).

Likewise, the major opposition party to the PT, Fernando Henrique Cardoso's PSDB, began trying to undermine Rousseff's chances as early as May last year, too, attempting (again, without much evidence) to connect her to corruption charges that never materialized. Not surprisingly, the PSDB is also trying to paint Rousseff as a "puppet," a story that some media outlets are pleased to repeat simply by giving Cardoso an audience, in an effort to undermine her popularity. I'm not quite sure how this is supposed to work; the PSDB ran a fairly uncharismatic Jose Serra in 2002, an extremely unlikeable Geraldo Alckmin in 2006, and now is back to Serra this year, so obviously, they're trying to paint the PT candidate in a worse light to make up for possible shortcomings. But Lula has consistently been one of the most popular presidents ever in Brazil over his two administrations, so I'm not really sure why linking somebody to a president that has had upwards of 70% approval ratings seems like a good strategy. Certainly, anti-Lula rhetoric appeals to upper-middle class and elite prejudices in places like Rio, but you don't win elections just because the Zona Sul thinks you're right; the 2002 and the 2006 elections proved that, and I don't understand why the PSDB is trying that strategy again (unless it speaks to the complete absence of any new ideas or policies of their own that would appeal to people).

The opposition is also trying to undermine her on more basic policy issues. In her speech, Rousseff pointed to the successes in Brazilian development under the PT; in response, the PSDB suggested that the improvements did not happen because of Lula, but for "other reasons" (nevermind the fact that the PSDB has no problem taking all the credit for the economic boom of the late-1990s, before Cardoso's neo-liberal policies nearly brought the Brazilian economy crashing down again).

This is to say nothing of Rousseff's qualities or abilities. In Brazil, presidential candidates don't really start detailing their programs, agendas, and policies until they've been officially nominated, giving Brazil a 7-month electoral season. Certainly, the PSDB's (still-unofficial) candidate, Jose Serra, has been opining on Brazilian society and government in general, as has Rousseff, but there's a difference between general observations and specific plans. While Rousseff's platform became officially public last night, the PSDB hasn't yet launched its platform (aside from the "Lula is evil/Rousseff's a puppet!" approach). Thus, at this point, it's still not certain what the major differences between the two major candidates (not to mention tertiary candidates like Brazilian Socialist Party candidate Ciro Gomes, the PSOL's Heloisa Helena, and the Green Party's Marina Silva).

One thing is for certain - it will be a very interesting campaign to watch, and not just because Brazil is one of the world's biggest economies and increasingly important actors within the global economy and politics. Among other things, the PT and PSDB are battling for their futures - each party has successfully elected its founder (Fernando Henrique Cardoso for the PSDB, and Lula for the PT), but has not managed to elect somebody beyond its figurehead (although this does mark the first time that the PT is trying to elect somebody who isn't Lula). Because Brazilian parties are so new, they are often tied up to the personage of their founders, and it is not clear that they will be able to move beyond that image without suffering some major losses. (And as for the newness of the parties, the PMDB, Brazil's oldest party, has its roots in a dictatorship-era decree that limited Brazil to two parties, with the MDB being one, back in 1966; even for the first 10 years, political repression basically meant the MDB was useless, leading many to say that the MDB was the party of "yes" and the pro-dictatorship ARENA was the party of "yes sir!"). Additionally, the polls have gotten interesting - while there is still a long way to go, much was made of how far behind Rousseff had been; yet of late, she has jumped up at least 8% or more in various polls since last September. While Serra still has the lead, it's clear that it's far from being consolidated. That's why they hold the elections, after all. Still, there will be plenty more to come from the Brazilian campaign trail as the year goes on.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Around Latin America - Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Honduras, Colombia, and Panama

-A high-ranking official in the Argentine government is saying that the country does not plan to invade the Malvinas/Falklands islands or go to war with England, but that it does want to negotiate with Great Britain over the issue of oil drilling (part of the islands' new economic boom) in the ocean near the islands.

-Bolivia has opened up its military archives from its dictatorship period of 1960-1980. This is a major gain for historians and scholars interested in the Bolivian dictatorship, and scholars of dictatorships in the Americas more generally, as the Bolivian dictatorship has remained relatively understudied. Access to archives should lead to a new boom in research and new insights into one of the "forgotten" dictatorships in South America.

-Justice in Peru's Amazonian basin continues to be lopsided, as two indigenous peoples cleared of the killing of police in 2009 remain behind bars even while police officers involved in the murder of 10 indigenous protesters remain free.

-Speaking of the Amazonian basin, this article does a great job of demonstrating the vulgar and violent abuse of power that politicians and elites use in getting land in northern Brazil, as well as some of the ways that the poor and small-landholders are fighting back against elites' land-grabs. Another article does an interesting job in suggesting the ways in which the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil has been disappointed by Lula's policies, and the uphill battles the MST is facing. Meanwhile, Brazil's agricultural production is looking at a boom year for soybean farming in the wake of beneficial rainfall. Of course, accompanying that rainfall is an increase in the mosquito population, with the result that five states in Brazil already have had dengue outbreaks this year.

-Although most in the world associate Carnaval with partying and scantily-clad women, this article does a great job detailing the complicated and conflicting meanings behind Carnaval for women and homosexuals. The article comments on how the relatively free attitudes towards sexuality, women, and homosexuals during Carnaval highlights the often-repressive social context these groups are forced to endure during the majority of the year, an argument that James Green has demonstrated has a strong historical precedent.

-A report in Pravda is saying that Colombian paramilitaries killed 30,000 people between the early-1980s and 2003. Though I'd like to see more research into the numbers, there's no doubt paramilitary groups are responsible for a large number of the total deaths in Colombia's civil war.

-RNS has a great preview of a few of the members of the Honduran Truth Commission, and what their appointments mean for the process of chronicling the abuses of the coupist government last year. Among other things, RNS suggests that "human rights abuses might actually be on the agenda after all."

-As Venezuela's economy faces the possibility of recession, as well as electrical shortages, Colombia is turning to look for trade partners elsewhere, and has begun exploring the possibility of a free-trade agreement with Panama.

-Finally, I'm not terribly convinced by this article suggesting that slums offer insights into how to better plan cities and help "save the planet." Among other things, it really glosses over the economic and socio-political issues that many slum residents have to deal with, focusing on global slums more as planning models than as the result of very real inequalities and suffering.

Historical Image of the Day

World War II propaganda poster

The Helm--Presently Claming Control of Hell

Al Haig dead.

I literally cannot think of a single good thing to say about Haig. And I don't want to start my day off on a negative note. So I'll only say the world is not weeping this morning.

Also, Haig is the first gone from my 2010 Death List.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Rare Admirable Quality in Ronald Reagan?

I'm going to write words I never thought I'd write or say: it may not be such a terrible to look to Ronald Reagan on a key issue in the United States for the last several years:

Reagan was far to the left of the 2010 Republican Party on issues such as torture. The convention that he signed in 1988 holds that there is no circumstance of any kind that permits torture, which certainly would include the 9/11 aftermath and related anti-terror efforts today.

But it goes even deeper than that. As I noted in an early 2010 blog post: “Reagan would not have approved of drone-fired missile attacks aimed at killing terrorists; as president, he several times rejected anti-terrorism operations for the sole reason that civilians would have been killed by collateral damage. In 1985, he surprised aides such as Pat Buchanan by ruling out a military response to a Beirut hijacking for fear of civilian casualties; Lou Cannon reported then in the Washington Post that Reagan called retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed “itself a terrorist act.” And the idea of trying terrorists in military tribunals as opposed to a civilian court of law? The Reagan administration was completely against that. Paul Bremer (yes, that Paul Bremer) said in 1987, “a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are — criminals — and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law, against them.”

To be clear, I absolutely do not think Reagan was a saint, nor does Will Bunch, who also points out that the "'Reagan Doctrine' in Central America, leaving the fight to anti-Communist thugs and death squads that the then-president called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” is arguably the gravest moral failing of his tenure." I couldn't agree more.

But that doesn't take away from the rather stark stance Reagan took against torture, nor does it detract from the obviously-opposite stance of current torture-apologists who claim to look to Reagan as their guiding light. Again, this is in no way an apology for Reagan, and I think his policies were overwhelmingly terrible and negative on both the U.S. and the world. That said, the fact that he was so strongly anti-torture does matter, and just serves as another reminder of how far the right has gone in the last 30 years, as well as how the vision of Reagan that today's right props up as its paragon does not always reflect the Reagan who was actually president.

An Idea So Crazy I Can't Believe Rick Perry Didn't Think Of It First, Vol, 2

Dave Noon points out South Carolina Republican state legislator Mike Pitts has proposed a bill which reaches new level of lunacy:

South Carolina will no longer recognize U.S. currency as legal tender, if State Rep. Mike Pitts has his way.

Pitts, a fourth-term Republican from Laurens, introduced legislation earlier this month that would ban what he calls “the unconstitutional substitution of Federal Reserve Notes for silver and gold coin” in South Carolina.

If the bill were to become law, South Carolina would no longer accept or use anything other than silver and gold coins as a form of payment for any debt, meaning paper money would be out in the Palmetto State.

Pitts said the intent of the bill is to give South Carolina the ability to “function through gold and silver coinage” and give the state a “base of currency” in the event of a complete implosion of the U.S. economic system.

OK, obviously this is both totally insane and unconstitutional.  But like I pointed out the other day in discussing Utah's proposal to eliminate the mandatory 12th grade, you have to take these proposals seriously. Pitts represents a real strain of anti-government, hard-currency belief within the loony right wing of the Republican Party. By bringing these ideas up, Pitts gains credibility for himself and his ideas. And his last big idea, a gun tax holiday, was enacted, so it's not like in the feces-tossing atmosphere of the South Carolina legislature he's an isolated figure.

Film Preservation Blogathon: A Few Recovered Treats For You

Among the great work accomplished by the National Film Preservation Foundation is to scour the world's film archives, looking for lost treasures of American film. Recently, they discovered a bunch of films previously thought lost in an Australian archive. They have presented a few of them here. Just click on the link to watch this amazing material.

Among the highlights are a YWCA documentary about Japan from 1919, the oldest known footage shot by the U.S. Navy, a typical but neat little 1912 western entitled "The Prospector," a 1922 news reel, and a couple others. This is just the tip of the iceberg of films the NFPF has saved.

Donate to the NFPF here! Save more of America's treasures!!!

Unethical and Immoral Political Hack of the Day

Tim Pawlenty, who saw nothing wrong with declaring people need to "smash the windows" of the government a day after people were killed when an anti-government individual flew a plane into a government building.

Go Texas!

A new University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey asked Texans about their beliefs on religion and evolution. The answers are not encouraging:

51 percent disagree with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
38 percent agree with the statement, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago.”
30 percent agree with the statement, “Humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.” Another 30 percent said they “don’t know” whether the statement is true.
It doesn't look good in pretty pie charts either.

Of course this is hardly just a Texas problem. At least I don't know of any cases like this Missouri high school that banned t-shirts with images of evolution on them.  Of course, given that Texas is trying to rewrite high school text books to push right-wing beliefs and that some Texas school districts are forcing long-haired 5 year old boys into isolation in order to ensure conservative heteronormativity, it's probably just that they haven't had the opportunity to ban the t-shirts.

Nuclear Energy

President Obama's recent announcement $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for building the nation's first nuclear power plants in over 30 years.

This has caused consternation among many environmentalists, who like many progressives are extremely disappointed in the president. Of course, Obama has been a proponent of nuclear energy for many years, so this isn't that surprising.

An anti-nuclear mantra has dominated environmentalism for a very long time. The 1970s and 1980s saw a mass movement develop against nuclear, culminating in the nearly simultaneous release of the film The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island near-meltdown in 1979. Three Mile Island crippled the nuclear industry and the Chernobyl disaster drove the final nail in the coffin.

But some environmentalists have pushed for a renewal of nuclear energy for the last decade. Dave Johnson offers a measured approval of nuclear energy here. Because nuclear energy does not emit any climate changing carbon dioxide, we might consider it clean energy. If fighting climate change is our #1 priority, shouldn't we use all the tools we can?

I'm torn on this. There is no single fuel that will replace fossil fuels. We might need a package of wind, solar, hydrogen, biofuel, and nuclear. Taking one fuel away makes our necessary weaning from coal and petroleum all the more difficult. Nuclear doesn't lead to climate change and that's a good thing. If it's safe, it's really quite clean.

But to choose nuclear means a reliance on technology that I not comfortable with. To no small extent, choosing nuclear means you have to make 2 very large assumptions. First, that technology will solve our problems and second, that government oversight will ensure our safety. The second should be a no-brainer.  But the anti-government fantacism that has overwhelmed the U.S. in the last thirty years makes any assurances of proper regulation quite hard to believe. The Republicans will say support limited regulation and claim the free-market will solve the problem. Safety was a big problem in the 1970s and it would likely be an even bigger problem today. One mistake and you have Chernobyl. I believe in government's ability to manage the oversight, but only an activist and well-funded government can do it. Do we have that today? I don't think so.

Even more problematic is our blind faith in technology. Supporting nuclear means we see an unlimited future in technology. If power went down for a long period of time, the reactor core would melt down and you'd have a Chernobyl Plus event. Eventually, 10 years, 100 years, or 1000 years from now, the United States will be no more. Some disaster will strike, war and famine will occur, and social and political instability will undermine our infrastructure. When that happens, as someday it must, each and every nuclear power plant will release massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. This absolutely WILL happen someday.

The question is when. Supporting nuclear energy means that someday, maybe far, far down the road, we are condemning our descendants to radiation poisoning.

The way around this is to assume that we will create the technology to store spent nuclear fuel in a way that will protect our children from harm. Perhaps that capability exists. But technology has to combine with political will to ensure this happens. Where are spent fuel rods going to go? 2010 is the 65th  year of the nuclear age. And the United States still has no comprehensive solution to spent nuclear fuel. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was supposed to be a solution, but widespread opposition and a lack of government funding have doomed that site and I find it unlikely it will ever fully open. People have criticized its location for its proximity to Las Vegas and its unstable fault lines. That may be true, but where should the contaminated waste go? We have to choose to put it somewhere. To this point, NIMBYism has dominated all discussions of this problem.

In the end, it may be that we need nuclear power as part of our strategy to combat climate change. There are other issues, such as the limited supply of uranium in the world, but perhaps it must play a role. However, there are also enormous problems to overcome if we are really going to return to nuclear power. Right now, I'm not seeing serious discussion about these problems. And that's very worrisome.